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Dragon Quest IX
Platform: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Level 5
Genre: Traditional RPG
Format: Cartridge
Release: US07/11/10



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I'm surrounded by a language I can't read!
 
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Go Driller Pillar!
 
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Oh, we are ready to kick some butt.
 
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5 damage looks like it hurts a lot more than it does.
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Sam Hansen
Hands-On Preview
06/17/10
Sam Hansen

If there's one thing Iím taking from my short hands-on time with Square-Enix's latest, it's that it desperately wants to cater to your customization itch. While Dragon Quest has never been a series dripping with options for character deviation and the like, the ninth installment is a whole different story, giving players a good deal of freedom as to how their own specific games will feel, look, and play out. Itís an exciting edition to the classic feel we've all come to expect from this pridefully old-school franchise.

The game's beginning sticks you with a blank human canvas to customize to your liking, with hairstyles, eye shapes and expressions, body size, and colors all available for tweaking. We're not talking Oblivion or Mass Effect here, but the pre-determined variety we do get is different and styled enough to accommodate player needs. Of course, that's really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to appearances. Once you find yourself a nice set of chainmail, equipping it will directly affect the look of your in-game persona, with everything from helmets to high heels subject to change depending on what you've got in your inventory.

Classes can also be selected to the player's liking, with an initial six (knights, minstrels, etc.) available at the start. As with prior Dragon Quest games, level ups result in the distribution of skill points which can be plugged into various areas to flesh out your skill sets. It's also reassuring to know that the decisions you make never seem to be set in stone, as classes can be swapped out if a particular loadout doesnít suit your fancy. Levels are independent as well, meaning your spiky haired hero with the bugged-out anime eyes can bounce back and forth between his level 35 Martial Artist and crummy, underpowered Thief if alternate approaches for battle are necessary.

So you've got your perfect character, and hey, that's cool and all, but you're still far from done. You'll need to do it another three times to fill out your party of four if you ever want to stand a chance in battle. If you're not feeling the character creation system, though, a group of friends can fill in the blanks via local wireless connectivity and help you through whatever jam you find yourself in. What's cool is that players aren't restricted to the movements of the host player, and it's not just a battle-only experience for whatever friends decide to help you out. Everyone can run around and battle individually within the same world, giving everyone the option of completely ignoring the host if trolling suits their fancy. If said host is in a bind, however, the Call to Arms feature will suck everyone up into the same party, allowing for synchronized, cooperative efforts for boss fights. The story progresses so long as the host is taking part in the battles, so even if you're underleveled, you can't have your buddies do all the work for you.

The actual work isn't anything you haven't already experienced if Dragon Quest is already in your wheelhouse. Turn-based combat, speed-dependant turn order, critical hits surrounded by spiky speech bubbles - you know the deal. While I'm unsure of the game default, players can take direct control of their entire party or leave it up to the AI. Is the computer AI up to snuff? Is it ever? It's nice to have the option to hand over the reins elsewhere, but I'm confident that experienced players will prefer driving the entire team themselves.

The tension system seen in Dragon Quest VIII seems to make a reappearance as well, though in a slightly altered format. While it no longer seems to be an option from the command menu, the Minstrel class has the ability to pump up their fellow teammates, with analogous effects to what was seen in the series' prior installment.

And if you'll pardon the lack of a cohesive transition: No more random battles.

Tubular.

You know, I was skeptical at first, but underneath all these unfamiliar customization options and the strange decision to implement multiplayer, this is still a Dragon Quest game through and through. The battle system remains unchanged, VIII's graphical presentation and musical numbers make a triumphant return, and the slimes are as wrongfully optimistic as ever. Mark your calendars; you'll be smiling just as brightly come July 11.



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