03 September 2010

RPG Week — Dragon Quest IX

Although Final Fantasy has pretty much reigned supreme in America when it comes to RPGs, Dragon Quest has always been a tough competitor in Japan. However, for some reason, it never quite hit it as big in the USA. That is, until Dragon Quest IX.

Okay, so maybe it's not quite a household name, but in the gaming community, it's garnered quite a bit of notoriety. And for good reason. It's a lot of fun, and a bit addicting to boot.

Plus, it mixes old school gameplay and new mechanics in a strange and surprising way.

Normally, I place a lot of value in characters. I love good characters in video games, and a game's cast can make or break a game. Sadly, Dragon Quest IX is not all about the characters. Or maybe I should clarify. It's about customizing characters yourself, not getting to know characters with distinct personalities.

Your party is composed entirely of characters you make yourself (or ones randomly generated by the game, if you choose the lazier route). Even if your other party members are just the ones the game generates, you still have to make your own character. Most of the customization focuses on physical appearance, although you do get to inject some personality into your online persona.

That said, the NPCs do have their own personalities, but you usually just get to know them for the duration of their story arc. Some of the characters are pretty interesting. However, as they usually only stick around for a "chapter" of the game (i.e. a village and dungeon) or serve a very specific role (like workers at the Quester's Rest, which is essentially your base of operations), you don't really connect with them the same way you would with party members in many RPGs.

The plot unfolds in that classic RPG "treasure hunt" style play, which makes the game feel very episodic. Essentially, you play as a Celestrian (angel) who has lost their wings and needs to try to find their way back to the Observatorium (heaven) and collect the lost Fyggs (holy fruit). So basically, you spend most of the game following leads, which take you to the next village that is in turmoil, and the subsequent dungeon and boss that must be defeated in order to right the wrongs.

The episodic nature makes it pretty addictive, and it's pretty fun trying to figure out what will happen next. Each "chapter" has its own little themes and characters. The writing is pretty good, if a bit thick and wordy at times. But that's pretty much the Dragon Quest style, and it adds character rather than detract from it. It is interesting seeing how different regions of the world will have their own unique accents and dialects.

The combat system is pretty much as old school as you can get. There's nothing too surprising here. Perhaps the one unusual part is that different classes each have their own special move called a Coup de Grace. A Coup de Grace is activated seemingly randomly (though supposedly there is some rhyme and reason to it). They are free moves (no MP or anything), though they must be used soon after being activated, and they tend to be pretty strong.

The game does use a class system which certainly adds a lot of complexity. Complexity is the word when it comes to DQIX, as the equipment and alchemy systems are also fairly involved with lots of options. Sometimes, it's a little overwhelming, especially when it comes to alchemy. Also, when buying new equipment, it doesn't deal with the stats quite how I'd like it to. Thankfully, it shows you all the equipment's stats, and it also shows you whether it is stronger or weaker than what your character has equipped, but only in the equipment's main statistic.

For example, if a piece of armour adds to your Defense and Magic Might, it will only compare how it compares to the Defense of your currently equipped armour. But it won't show you the difference in Magic Might. This can be frustrating when you are buying for characters who rely heavily on other stats for the strength of their class, like a Thief or a Healer. So you have to go and look at the other piece of equipment to figure out whether it's worth it or not. Maybe it sounds like I'm nitpicking, but the game has a lot of equipment to choose from, so if you want to play smart, it adds more work than it should when you're shopping.

I haven't gotten to do all of the online options, but I did do a little and it adds a bit of depth and interest. I can certainly see how the game carries a lot of playability even after you finish the main story. 

The graphics are pretty solid and they really showcase Akira Toriyama's art style. The music is pretty good as well.

I appreciate Dragon Quest's sense of playfulness. For example, enemy names are pretty amusing. For example, an early enemy (which looks like an anthropomorphic pickle with a spear) is called a Cruelcumber, and a later palette swap of it is the Zumeanie. There's some playfulness in the equipment as well, with items like Bunny Ears and Blue Jeans mixed in along with Full Plate, Longsword, and other RPG staples.

Despite the fact that a lot of this seems critical, I actually like Dragon Quest IX a lot. It has that old school charm that I loved in Final Fantasy III (not FFVI, but the Japanese FFIII). Yeah, it's not all about characters and story and other things I often enjoy, but it plays so nicely, dammit. It's fun. It's old school at its best.

I suppose what I'm getting at is that, even though the really old school style of RPGs (like, NES era) isn't my ideal kind of RPG (I loved the PlayStation era, myself), it still has its own worth. It's got its charm and its appeal, and they're definitely worth a play. And DQIX really has this old school RPG thing down. It's steam-lined for maximum enjoyment, and it's worth checking out for any RPG fan.

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