So, I put 6 hours into Dragon Quest 9 in its release week, and began to write this article. The week after, I brought myself up to about 13 hours, and still only had written down the title of ‘early impressions’. Here we are
almost a week almost a month later and I’ve not finished writing the article at about 30 hours in. To sum it up, DQ9 is a fantastic game, but is definitely a sign of the times for gaming.
As many people who will read this already know, I am a Dragon Quest fanatic. I have always loved the fantastic stories, tongue and cheek humour, Toriyama character designs, heavy grinding and awesome difficulty level. DQ7 on the original Playstation may have been the pinnacle of the series for me, with its 100 hours of gameplay without going for any of the lunatic challenges and proper difficulty level. DQ8 was a fantastic game, 3D graphics and 3rd person perspective included, despite a very mixed localization from new owners SquareEnix (pluses: re-orchestrated score; minuses: new sound effects, voices (disable-able thankfully), some new animation, removing of christian symbolism and tweaking of gameplay balance), the only real let down of the game was the rather lax difficulty. My rule of thumb is that any game where I can beat the final boss on the first try without any grinding first, is anti-climatic and too easy. What concerns me the most is the number of forum posts I’ve read between 2005 and now claiming DQ8 was a very difficult game. Sigh, this younger generation of gamers… The DS remakes of DQ4, 5 (and surely the upcoming remake of 6) have all been easy-ied up as well to Nintendo-ize them. Thankfully they too are such fantastic games that this doesn’t really matter. (I cannot wait for the DQ6 remake, as it was really a fantastic game too)
In comes Dragon Quest 9. Back is the top down view, back are the classic sound effects. The looks are along the lines of the DS remakes, but where player characters and certain important non player characters are 3D. The hybrid of 3D and 2D characters works well 90% of the time, occasionally a tight camera shot with some 2D NPCs moving around a corner will look a bit out of place but it doesn’t really detract. It looks like a Dragon Quest game, sounds like a Dragon Quest game, in general, I approve.
The story is certainly enjoyable, and the pacing keeps you interested for the long haul.
The story in DQ9 is pretty good, I won’t comment on specifics to prevent spoilers. It’s typical Dragon Quest fare with one throw back: there are no story-based player characters. Like the earliest games in the series, you must hire (create) friends to fight with you. I sorta miss having conflict between story characters and the resulting dialog, but the game doesn’t really feel like its lacking since the hero has a non-playable companion, Stella (Sandy in .jp), who provides plenty of dialog. 30 hours in, I’m pleased with the pacing and general writing found (as well as the translation).
Next comes game play. It’s a very fun game, but definitely has been
modernized westernized (i.e. made easy). Grinding is way off from previous games, in fact aside from being out at sea, there are no random encounters. Yes, it amuses me that Dragon Quest has borrowed the system seen in Dragon Quest parody series Mother for encounters: enemies will see you on the map, rush toward you if they pose a threat, run away if they are trivial. As such the encounter rate is much too low 90% of the time. Not that this is a bad thing, but to counter this, you get a ton of experience and money, both of which are slightly flawed in DQ9.
First off let’s talk about money. In Dragon Quest games you are historically dead broke travellers through all but the last stretch of the game. This works well as it keeps you struggling. The economy in DQ9 is so trivial you will never really be strapped for cash. Problem 1) you get way too much money constantly. Problem 2) you never need to spend that money reviving your party after you are wiped out. Yep, gone are the times of dragging around 3 coffins because you cannot afford to bring them back, if you are wiped out the entire party starts at full health (sans the usual 50% of your cash). However if you use a bank this penalty is negated so dieing is not a huge pain like it was in previous games. I find this overflow of money is most seen in healing items. I have never (in 30 hours) found myself in a dungeon, deep in, worried about running out of HP or MP, as even MP items (usually very hard to come by in DQ games) are pretty affordable (500 gold / 30 MP). This sort of resource management and having to keep your HP/MP up while adventuring was a big part of the Dragon Quest experience and is totally non existent in DQ9. You will be so rich you will never ever be starved for the latest equipment and supplies. No challenge sadly, and I miss this.
Nothing says ready for a fight like a big steel beam and blue jeans.
Next is experience. Dragon Quest 9 has a very cool job system where by you gain skills under different vocations. It has been done in many DQ games before, and it definitely works here. As a result of the far lower encounter rates, you level up pretty quickly (especially early on). Since you start at level 1 whenever you change a job (or recruit a new party member), the game tries to balance experience away from the lower level people, which is fair. This means you can’t just go jump into a boss fight and dump a ton of experience into someone at level 1 and bring them up to level 20 in one go. Where it gets strange is how it handles experience for dead characters. Oddly they still get some experience (half) when dead at the end of battle, which means yes, you can drag around low level corpses and eventually level them up. This is both stupid and negatively impacts the difficult of the game. Weirder still? People are often still hit by the experience penalty after being brought back to life before the battle ends. Not 100% sure how the experience formula works, but this behaviour is just strange, and punishes weaker magic user characters who are repeatedly wiped out in boss fights. However the experience is so plentiful you won’t ever be hurting with under leveled characters anyway.
Now the game isn’t modern Final Fantasy levels of easiness, bosses certainly (though sadly not anymore for me) have some difficulty. I find myself never hurting for HP/MP like you should in a Dragon Quest game, and I’m never wiped out by random encounters. I imagine both of these things can be difficult frustrations for younger gamers, but they were a big part of the enjoyment of the meat-and-potatoes of the series for me, i.e. DQ4-7.
The big sell in the North American marketing was the character customization. While they sell it as new levels of character customization, it really translates to: whatever you equip your characters with, you see on your characters in combat and while walking around in the field. This is very well done and certainly a welcome addition to gaming in general. Sadly, and maybe the only time I wished the game wasn’t on the DS, the characters are pretty small and the coolness of most pieces of equipment was totally lost on me. I sorta stopped caring like 10 hours in what they looked like and just ran around with whatever the best equipment was at the time.
Lastly I’ll touch on the side quests. Since Square wanted to make this game easily enjoyable for multiplayer, there are tons of non-linear side quests to do. Even if you have no intention of ever playing multiplayer (like me) these provide lots of added enjoyment, quirky little story bits, and plenty of challenge along the way. There is also the addition of treasure maps, which provide locations to grottos which are essentially side-quest dungeons. These dungeons can provide real challenge, something thats sadly missing from the main story. Never the less an awesome addition to the game.
Stella (Sandy in .jp) actually grew on me as the story went on
I could ramble on for ages, but I’d rather get back to playing the game this morning. I’m hoping I’m only about half way through, we shall see. I’d like to summarize by saying Dragon Quest 9 is an excellent game, not the crowning achievement of the series, though it could have been had the difficulty been a bit higher, which would have easily been achieved had the game starved the players of money, and as a result HP/MP while adventuring or in dungeons. The fact that you can buy the MP potions fairly early in the game and fairly cheaply is a real shame. I originally missed having a party of story characters, but the game doesn’t feel lacking. It’s an awesome game, and the DS means you can whip it out and play on a 30 minute subway ride as well as on the couch at home.
UPDATE: Another complaint I have which goes to the general easiness and lack of having to manage your resources is dungeon length. Dungeons are very short, even 30 hours in. Having to back track because you died on a boss is trivial, and you will never run out of HP/MP curatives in the first place.