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Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
Platform: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Level-5
Genre: Traditional RPG
Format: Cartridge
Released: US 07/11/10
Japan 07/11/09



Scorecard
Graphics: 90%
Sound: 75%
Gameplay: 80%
Control: 85%
Story: 70%
Overall: 80%
Reviews Grading Scale
 
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Lightsabers the size of cities...
 
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Why save the world when we can get sloshed?
 
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Your character will never, EVER, look this cool.
 
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Always happy. Even with a sword down its throat.
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Sam Hansen
Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
07/18/10
Sam Hansen

When I first heard that the newest entry in the Dragon Quest series was set to have "Sentinels of the Starry Skies" as its accompanying subtitle, the English major in me was pleased while my less poetic side was left feeling as though he was looking at entirely too many S's. To be fair, the name had some zing to it. Ample alliteration is always awesome, after all. Still, it wasn't until I popped in the cartridge and trucked a good five hours into the game before I realized just how evocative those catchy bits of consonantal repetitions would be, because boy oh boy, is this a game that absolutely loves the English language. From the overabundance of plucky wordplay and silly spoonerisms to the punny quest titles and monster names (seriously, you've got to love gems like Bewarewolf and Meowgician), there's enough here to make the pun-savvy squeal and everyone else vomit from the excessiveness. It's also a pretty good game. But really, who cares about solid game design when you're killing critters like Moosifer, Crabber dabber doo and Hell niño?

There's also Zumeanie. He's a halberd-wielding summer squash, and he wants to kill you.

Despite the aforementioned surplus of witticisms and hilarious, spot-on dialogue, the story behind this ninth installment is infinitely less spectacular than what the brilliant writing might suggest. As the title implies, players are cast into the role of a sentinel of the starry skies (or the much simpler Celestian, if you prefer), an angelic being who keeps watch and helps maintain peace throughout the mortal lands below. In return for your compassionate services, the humans you aid unknowingly repay your kindness with Benevolessence, a substance that is both the concentrated gratitude of a particular individual and the clever compound word of benevolence and essence (and this is only ten minutes into the game). The purpose of this material is to bring about the blossoming of the world tree Yggdrasil, which in turn will allow the Celestian race to fulfill its divine purpose and ascend to a higher plane of salvation. But when the protagonist feeds the aforementioned tree its last needed drop, a mysterious red beam strikes the Celestian kingdom, scattering the newly ripened fruits across the mortal world and sending our hero plummeting down alongside them.

If you didn't already pick up on it, that's a grand total of two different items you'll be asked to collect throughout the course of your journey, making the first half of the game little more than a blatant collectathon as you harvest Benevolessence and locate the lost fruits of Yggdrasil. Clearly these aren't the most enticing motivators in the roleplaying spectrum, though it certainly leads well into the much more satisfying second half of the tale where the actual meat of the plot resides. Until that latter half is reached, you'll be tittering about the globe, meeting characters unique to the towns and locales spattered throughout the high seas. What this amounts to is a narrative separated into succinct bits of story that add little to the overall plot aside from providing players with dramatic interludes leading up to whatever boss fight they've yet to throw at you. Nearly everyone you'll eventually meet is throwaway, save for a select handful of recurring characters like your mentor, the leader of the Celestians, and your scatterbrained faerie sidekick Stella, who uses "flappin" as her adjectival F-word of choice. As mentioned before, the stupendous writing always manages to impress and entertain, giving this straightforward, moderately effective, albeit admittedly cliché offering just enough pizzazz to keep players gunning for the credits.

I guess that goes without saying that the protagonist, too, is forgettable, because here we are once again with another mute hero to putz around with. Or, you know, heroine. A black heroine. Green eyes, grey spiky hair. Super tall. Or not, I guess. It's up to you, really; don't let my clearly superior design sensibilities influence your decisions. Whether we're to blame it on an increased WRPG influence or Square Enix's attempt to appeal to a broader audience, Dragon Quest IX comes fully equipped with a character creation system brand new to the franchise, allowing players to tweak their in-game persona to new extremes like never before. So I guess in that sense the main character isn't forgettable at all because we're with him right from the get-go, plugging in whatever hairstyles and eyes (be they fluttery or infuriated) we damn well please. We don't exactly get a Mass Effect repertoire of dials and slider bars, but the options we do get are varied and funny enough to make this a welcome way to make our characters a little less mute.

That's really only the start to a whole slew of customizable content. Once you've got your looks and appearances on lockdown, assigning classes (or vocations as the game refers to them) becomes the next step up. While the game starts off with only a few basic setups (warriors, priests, thieves; you know how this works), it eventually fleshes out as time progresses, revealing advanced classes with increasingly more effective move sets. If players feel like giving new vocations a try, doing so is as simple as visiting the Alltrades Abbey and swapping the existing one for whatever they fancy. Since vocations basically act as individual characters on their own, changing them will revert you back to level one (bummer). The good news is that you'll retain the levels gained in previously utilized vocations, meaning that you're never really losing progress regardless of how many skill trees you explore. And since certain abilities and stat boosts spill over into all of the character classes, you could very well be sporting some truly frightening characters by the end of the game, depending on how frequent your flip-flopping becomes. Once I learned that my Paladin could have thievery skills, I hopped out of that fleet-footed vocation and never looked back.

Oh yeah, and you've still got three other characters to make. See, your entire party is hinged on the preferences you've got. It's entirely up to you whether a foursome of Martial Artists or a well-balanced squad of offense and defense is more suitable for the job at hand, and while I wouldn't exactly recommend the former, it all comes down to how you want to play. A diverse set of classes also promises individualized equipment selections, which directly change the appearance of your characters. Of course, with this being a Dragon Quest game, prices for new items are astronomical from the first village onward, meaning your characters look like cross dressers, little girls who just fumbled through mommy's closet, and day-one-eliminated Project Runway contestants at all times. My priest went from wearing a feathered Indian headband and Snuggie to looking like a member of the Village People, which was more than hilarious enough to warrant the thirty dollar price of admission.

With this in mind, the devs and Square Enix must have been like, "Hey, hey Toriyama? You know what would be really funny? If we put multiplayer into the game so that our players could make fun of each other for how stupid their outfits look!"

That was exactly their rationale. Don't pretend like it wasn't.

The less accepted reason for the implementation of multiplayer is that they thought it would be really fun, which it totally, totally is. Up to four players can connect through a wireless local connection and form their own monster slaying posse to wreak havoc with. One person provides the host world, other players join up, and the fun commences. What you all decide to do is completely up to you, as each player is free to control their own character and roam around at will. You are never limited by what the host is actually doing, making this a much more sandbox style experience than I initially thought it would be. The truly spectacular feature here, however, is the ability to team up with your friends' characters and fight alongside them. What could have been a lackluster feature turned out to be the area where Dragon Quest IX is at its absolute best, because not only are you fighting together, but you're progressing the story together. The host world never stops moving once you hop into the wireless gameplay, meaning your potentially stronger buddies can help you explore dungeons, collect items, and most importantly, beat bosses. Are you underleveled? Don't even worry about it; your buddy is ten levels higher than you and said he'll kill it in one hit.

What's even better is that everything you collect in host worlds as a guest (items, levels, abilities, etc) will stick with you even when you disconnect and head back to your own. If getting your friends out of a pinch isn't incentive enough, returning with fresh loot and bulks of experience should help tickle your reluctance. Truth be told, multiplayer is an absolute blast, and was certainly the standout addition that they peppered into the Dragon Quest formula.

In addition to the wireless offerings, Square Enix also set up some downloadable services, as well, allowing players to download additional quests and barter in the online shop, updated daily with new items and pricing. Sweet.

Outside of all those newfangled features, you can expect to play a traditional Dragon Quest game with its traditional Dragon Quest bells and whistles. Turn-based battles, skill point allocation, overworld exploration, coffins following your around when your characters die off, etc, etc. You've got your burly-armed NPCs with the wholly anachronistic luchador masks and an endgame village with a dragon somewhere in close proximity. You'll save at churches and smile at the level up jingle. You'll crack your DS open with the nearest sharp-cornered piece of furniture when the Liquid metal slimes scurry away from you with one hit point to spare.

In fact, this ninth installment will be eerily familiar to fans of 2005's Dragon Quest VIII, right down to the visual and aural presentations. The graphics here are three dimensions at their very handheld best, with grand set pieces, spectacular vistas and charming monster designs. Colorful, lively, always vibrant - this is a fantastic looking game, DS or otherwise. The music does its part as well, and while the score isn't exactly memorable or expansive (you'll hear the same two town themes over and over and over and over and over again), it blends well with the visuals and plants tranquility, peppy optimism, and insurmountable dread decently. The only problem is that there simply isn't enough of it. When you've got an exotic desert town twinkling out a song more appropriate for a quaint riverside village, there's a slight breach in verisimilitude. It's just as distracting as having a priest dressed like the Village People doing battle with giant, irate vegetables, except its stupid and inappropriate rather than funny.

It's certainly not my place to say that Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies is a word-for-word successor to what we already saw five years ago on the PS2, but in many ways, that's essentially what we got. If this review comes off as sparse in regard to the nuts and bolts of the gameplay, it's because you already know what you're getting here, and what you're getting is a bite-sized installment to one of the most classic and cherished franchises the RPG community has had the pleasure of playing. It's also got whackadoodle additions like surprisingly fun multiplayer and character customization that probably have no place in the formula, but it's tweaks like these that are sure to garner the most excitement from casual and established players alike. Penny pinchers will be astounded at the sheer amount of raw content that comes mashed into this tiny little cartridge, with sidequests and post-game content that can easily double the main, 40 hour storyline. Traditionally entertaining, progressive and forward-thinking, and always punny in the most excessive ways possible, Dragon Quest IX is a flappin' huge adventure with content and wit to spare.



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