For a game that was once poised to be the most radical diversion from the norm in the illustrious 24-year history of the Dragon Quest franchise, Sentinels Of The Starry Skies seems to have gotten a little bit shy somewhere along the way.
After its announcement as the first ever numbered entry in the series to debut on a handheld came the revelation that it would shake things up further still with real-time battles and four-player co-op, not unlike another handheld title that was doing rather well for itself at the time.
You know, the one with all the monsters to hunt that we’re bored of citing?
But whether through fear of the legions of angry fans that kicked up a stink at this news, or through the insightful realisation that not every Japanese game needed to stalk Capcom’s success story quite so closely, Square Enix went back to the drawing board only to produce a very familiar-looking brainstorm.
Which, in turn, has led to this, perhaps the most retro-minded and stubbornly archaic JRPG we’ve played in years – but proof that this sub-genre is still relevant in modern gaming.
On first inspection, this could quite easily be just another DS port of a NES game. Battles themselves are the very definition of old-school, heroes and enemies lining up and taking turns to belt one another in pursuit of experience, attacking order governed partly by speed and partly by the whim of the game’s binary mind.
Overworld stuff makes the odd modern concession, such as having enemies visible and therefore able to be encountered or avoided at will, though the basic plod is much like any old Square Enix RPG – work from town to village, helping locals in well-disguised selfish acts that further your own ends far more than theirs, then pop into their houses and steal their life savings and underwear.
Even the art style feels cosy and familiar, almost like the rose tint of nostalgia makes you think those early 8-bit and 16-bit classics looked – even though the main party is player-created, the air of Dragonball still hangs thick around Dragon Quest.
But as we’ve hinted at already, beneath the timeworn hood lies a shiny new engine that is brimming with modern, forward-thinking features.
The player party is the first of these, allowing you to not only create your main hero or heroine but also you companions. Even with the relatively meagre creation options allow for a fair amount of diversity, increased exponentially once you start dressing them up in ridiculous outfits and costume pieces that you’ll find scattered across the land.
In a bold move, the first few hours are played solo and in the game’s jack-of-all-trades Minstrel class – you’ve got offensive abilities and some minor healing power, though the unfocussed character lacks a raison d’être once you reach Stornway and can create a bunch of allies as well.
Six classes are available from the off, with a further six opening up later in the game, along with the ability to switch vocations at will. Old jobs retain their experience, should you wish to return to them at a later date, meaning that with a little (read: a hell of a lot of) old-school grinding, you’re able to pool abilities and upgrades from across the board to create a set of super-soldiers.
Oddly (and quite annoyingly), spells are exempt from this cross-class freedom, so you’re always going to need a dedicated healer on hand – refining a single magic user down to both offensive and defensive roles simply isn’t viable.
And with this freedom to create the party you want comes a number of knock-on concessions. Only your main character appears in cut-scenes and conversation pieces, meaning that the game immediately lacks the kind of banter and camaraderie that is usually commonplace in the genre.
Level 5’s ingenious solution is to shift the focus of the story entirely; while there is an underlying narrative that concerns your hero, Dragon Quest IX is more a collection of short stories about a world rather than the tale of a set of mostly unlikeable characters.
Each new location brings with it its own curious yarn, a separate capsule story to enjoy on its own merits rather than for the sole purpose of furthering the main storyline. If Final Fantasy XIII’s action emphasis was an argument for not having towns in JRPGs, Dragon Quest IX’s quaint and diverse life pits are the polar opposite, a way of showing the gaming world that a new town can be far more than just a place to heal up, save your game and buy a better sword and a new hat.
Even between settlements there’s a noticeable change in pace, flow and structure too, meaning that when you arrive in a new location for the first time, you never really know what you’re about to get embroiled in.
This feeling of wonder and mystery really explodes around the game’s halfway point where, similar to FFXIII’s Gran Pulse reveal, relative linearity gives way to a free and open world that you can trek around and explore at your leisure.
The ship is your ticket to once inaccessible lands, and the freeform nature of the adventure beyond the point at which you get it is refreshing to say the least. It’s vindication for the team’s choice of platform that such things are still possible – with the insane production costs that would be necessary to create a world of this magnitude on an HD console, the move to the less technically demanding DS platform proves a shrewd one in keeping the classic JRPG spirit of exploration alive.
And this latter portion of the game really sets you up for what is to come after the credits have rolled, the point at which Dragon Quest IX sheds its traditional JRPG skin somewhat and becomes a dungeon-crawling loot bonanza.
Another major alteration sees random encounters reduced to purely an annoyance at sea – when trekking about an area on foot, enemies show up on the world map to give you an idea of what you can expect to fight, should you elect to throw down.
They react intelligently to your presence as well, rushing you down at the first sign of weakness or fleeing all the way out of existence if your party is too imposing. Unlike so many similar systems, how you approach an enemy to initiate the battle doesn’t matter, as things like surprise attacks seem to be governed by their own set of stats, invisible or just vague and never properly explained.
Also amusing is the fact that many opponents can be distracted or even stunned stiff by your characters’ appearances – it seems like each must have a specific item or look that has a chance to captivate them, the resulting immobility often making a potentially tough encounter that much simpler.
Combat is full of similar quirks that make each fight unique, though even the way you choose to play can change how fights go down. While the game defaults to a setup where you control all four party members directly, each bar the hero can instead be placed under AI control and governed by a number of basic rules you can choose between.
You can use this to automate a ‘boring’ job like that of your main healer, cut grinding time by having your buddies act faster on their own accord or even pretend you’re playing a less flashy version of Square Enix’s other big RPG this year, controlling only the lead and hoping everyone else does their bit.
Used in this way, it’s obviously nowhere near as versatile or slick as the Paradigm system, though with a bit of practice and menu learning, it can be used surprisingly effectively on the fly – switching in a manual healer or thief can make all the difference, overcoming issues that grated in FFXIII with this less accessible, more flexible system.
All these comparisons to Square Enix’s other major RPG franchise lead to a single conclusion. Dragon Quest, whether through choice or otherwise, has become the antithesis of Final Fantasy.
Where once the two stood side by side – then rivals, as almost identical JRPG adventures – there are now two very different schools of thought behind them – while the FF team attempts to reinvent the genre in the wake of a boom in the popularity of Western RPGs (almost to the point of leaving RPGdom behind altogether), the DQ team embraces its heritage, choosing instead to innovate on far more subtle levels and keeping its presence on consoles where content is not dictated or hamstrung by potential financial or time investments.
And elsewhere in the genre, we’re seeing a lot of other retro-inspired RPG clones coming out through indie channels, with things like Retro Game Challenge’s Guadia Quest and 360 Indie Game Breath Of Death serving up old-fashioned JRPG goodness with a knowing wink to the culture surrounding the genre.
But the point these titles miss is that Square Enix has been making that exact game for years, and it’s never been more apparent than with the amusing localisation of its latest adventure. Nods to popular culture are bookended by more dodgy pun names than we know what to do with, while there’s a quirky humour to much of the dialogue and lore. A pseudo-Welsh fishing village culminates in a boss fight with a Lleviathan; a hellish prison compound is guarded by the friendliest, most polite guards we’ve ever met; the game frequently employs bizarre text-based accents that can be as hard to read as you assume they would be to aurally interpret.
We’re not sure whether we’re applauding the developer or the localisation team more in this; we’d assume it’s the latter, but either way credit is certainly due all round. As long as you can deal with the puns, obviously. It can be pretty hard going at times…
Dragon Quest IX, above all else, is a fascinating merger of age-old design and modern sensibilities. Fans of the genre that grew up with the NES and SNES games of its ilk will feel instantly at home, while fresh features like the freedom to flit between vocations or play dress-up bring the simplicity of turn-based RPG action to a whole new audience; one that may not perhaps appreciate its majesty in a field they join late, but a new audience all the same.
The novel and diverse story vignettes will sucker you in, but it’ll be the lure of better gear, deeper dungeons and more powerful warriors that keeps you playing well into next year.
And while the JRPG genre – nay, the Japanese development scene in general – scurries around trying to make itself more relevant or rides the coattails of greatness, Square Enix demonstrates exactly how it got into its respected position – the firm keeps a cool head, returns to a tattered blueprint and approaches it from a fresh direction to create one of the most adept, alluring and downright addictive RPG experiences in recent memory.