"A good game marred by Nintendo cutting off Wi-Fi support to the DS."
Although I really enjoyed playing Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, it's hard not to look at it as a step back from the eighth game in the series. Moving from the PS2 to the handheld DS was a regression on a technological level, and the new emphasis on post-game content left the main campaign feeling more like a prelude to something else than an epic quest in its own right.
This shouldn't deter fans of the series. I've put a good 70 hours into this game, and I enjoyed the vast majority of that time. Dragon Quest games tend to run on a simple formula. If you like one, you'll probably like most, if not all, of the main entries in the series. This one is no exception. Slimes are found all over the world, much of the plot progression takes place through self-contained vignettes where you'll help one person or another overcome some sort of adversity, and it takes a lot of work before you even have a clue as to exactly who or what will be your ultimate adversary. Battles are turn-based and tend to be pretty simple. For the most part, you can repeatedly tap the action button to attack, attack and attack some more. Most of the actual challenge comes from bosses -- in particular, those met late in the game which attack twice per round, possess powerful magical skills and are easily capable of negating any buff and debuff spells you've seen fit to cast.
The game also retained a few aspects from certain individual titles in the series. The job class returns, allowing you to freely change from a fighter to a mage to a thief whenever you desire after reaching a certain point. Much like in the third game, only your hero truly is an actual "character". The three remaining active party members are essentially blank ciphers recruited at an early-game inn. You'll pick their class and gender, design their appearance and, voila, you're no longer fighting alone! The eighth game's alchemy pot also returns, allowing you to craft items and weapons out of materials and spare junk. Also like in the eighth game, characters receive a few ability points as they gain levels, and those can be placed into various weapon and attribute categories in order to impart more skill or new abilities as time progresses.
As one might also expect from a Dragon Quest title, the plot does a good job of remaining in the background and is reasonably unobtrusive as a result. You are a young Celestrian (aka: angel) learning the ropes so that you can become the guardian deity of a small village. Your job is to perform good deeds in order to harvest the positive vibes of the grateful populace, in accord with your race's purpose. However, crazy stuff starts happening and you'll find yourself solving major problems for people all over the world before confronting an evil empire thought to have been destroyed long ago. Then there is a shocking revelation regarding who is behind their return.
I have no problems with any of this. I've loved this series since playing Dragon Warrior on the NES a couple of decades ago, and this installment does a great job of reminding me why I've remained loyal to it. Like I said, the people at Enix (whether by themselves or as part of Square Enix) has a formula that works and, as long as they adhere to it faithfully, seemingly can't do wrong. In fact, I'd say that any qualm I have with this title comes as a result of the designers trying new things. These additions tend to be double-edged swords, bringing both positives and negatives to the mix.
For example, there are no random encounters in this game. Instead, enemies are seen on the screen and have to be collided with to instigate combat. On the surface, that's great. If you're looking to find a particular monster for a side quest, it is easier to find. If you're simply trying to grind a few levels, you won't have to run around aimlessly waiting for the computer to place you in battles. However, there's a small annoyance that goes along with this: if you access a menu to cast some healing spells while on the world map or in a dungeon, the monsters will continue moving about. This can easily lead to a situation where you fight a tough battle, go to heal some characters and exit the menu screen only to immediately find yourself drawn into another fight. I can understand the whole "life doesn't stop just so you can cast spells or use items" mentality in a more action-oriented game, but here?
Speaking of side quests, their presence also is a mixed bag. I love that they add content to the game. Accomplishing them gives you various awards, including the ability to access several additional character classes. However, when so many them revolve around either figuring out how to create a specific item through alchemy or killing a particular monster in a certain way, they grow tedious.
Putting an increased emphasis on post-game content also was an interesting choice, as it seems like gamers are expected to maintain their interest in Dragon Quest IX for an obscenely long time in order to truly master it. During the course of the main game, there's a good chance you'll encounter a Grotto dungeon (or at least obtain a map to one). These things can appear at certain points on the world map, are randomly generated and contain a tough boss at the end. When you get to the post-game, you'll find out that clearing these places is one of your main goals. However, to get to the really advanced Grottos that host monsters and bosses tougher than anything you'll find during the main quest, you'll have to put in a lot of work. When you get a map, either through a quest or by completing a Grotto, its size and difficulty is determined by factors including your highest job level and how many overall job classes you've mastered (by reaching level 99 and resetting to the first level of a new discipline). When I beat the final boss, my guys were around level 46, so I don't want to ponder how much time it could potentially take to master one job, let alone multiple ones.
None of these things are real problems, though. They're minor annoyances, perhaps, but nothing that really bothered me. On the other hand, Nintendo's 2014 decision to end its wi-fi connection service for the DS is another story. In the game, about 60 side-quests, as well as several special Grottos housing legacy bosses from previous games in the series, were labeled by the game as "DLC" that was meant to be accessed through the wi-fi servers. Some of those quests were pretty substantial, as well, providing definitive conclusions to many subplots encountered throughout the game. And so, we have a game designed to give players a huge amount of post-game content, except a large amount of said content is now either unavailable or at least very inconvenient for me to obtain (since I live in a rural area where the odds of me tagging a person who has accessed all of this is slim).
This situation just annoys the hell out of me. All the stuff is on the cart, but designated to be inaccessible unless I use a service which no longer exists. When I beat a game, I typically am in a celebratory mood, but with Dragon Quest IX, I watched my character return to the main world in order to start his future questing, only to know that I'd be spending next-to-no time actually bothering because I'd be stuck with a never-ending series of random dungeons while most of the interesting quests eternally dangle just out of reach. This is a good game and a quality installment in its series, but the way it all ended just left a bad taste in my mouth. Guess I should have either bought a DS when it came out or at least obtained my 3DS sooner, eh?
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (March 15, 2015)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
If you enjoyed this Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!