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Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (DS) artwork

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (DS) review

"You can't play Dragon Quest IX"

In the original Dragon Warrior, when the Dragon Lord asks Erdrick to join him, the player gets to decide what happens next. Players will get a different outcome depending on that choice, resulting in two different experiences. Despite being a fairly linear game, players had divergent experiences with Dragon Quest long before that penultimate decision. If Dragon Quest was your first RPG and you were seven, you just had a wild ride and spent countless hours trying different things, sometimes failing, but always making progress. If Dragon Warrior was your first game, you were armed with the map and guide that came with the game as part of the push to hook North America on RPGs.

There are so many ways to experience the original Dragon Quest and they are all effectively different games. If youíre coming off Dragon Quest XI, the Dragon Lordís choice is the culmination of a grindy, antiquated adventure that was as simple as it is short. If you played Dragon Warrior from the free Nintendo Power offer, you got a localization that lacked the humor and manga art that made the game unique Japanese. If youíre playing it on a Game Boy Color, you might finish it in an afternoon due to increased speed and rewards. If youíre playing it on iOS--well, sorry about that.

The first Dragon Quest isnít one game--itís many games, depending on who you are, how you played it, and when you played it. Despite how much retro game collectors try, you cannot have the experience of playing a game from your childhood again. Your first experience playing a game is a one-time event. You played a unique, one-of-a-kind game, and you are the only person that will ever get to play it.

This sounds like such an obvious thing to state, but we largely ignore it to review a game. We judge a game on the philosophy behind its design, its art, its music, its story as though every person will experience these the same way. Is it fun? Does it ďhold upĒ? Was multiplayer fun when you could actually get people to play it? We ask objective questions like these and just accept the inherent fallacy in them.

What else are we supposed to do?

Agency in a Linear Game

While the best RPGs are the ones that allow the player to make interesting choices, the Dragon Quest series as a whole feels devoid of choices, at least on the surface. Thereís the occasional big choice, like siding with the Dragon Lord in the first game or selecting your wife in Dragon Quest V, but by and large, Dragon Quest gives the player straight character build and story progression.

While other Dragon Quest games required the player to grow and become the hero of legend that they were destined to become, your avatar in Dragon Quest IX is an angelic being called a celestian, living in the heavens and helping mortals with their problems. Through the course of the opening, you are stripped of that divinity and cast down to the earth. Itís both a reversal of the typical hero growth found in the series and a setup for the narrativeís main themes of hierarchy, dependency, and corruption of relationships.

In the Dragon Quest tradition, the story is not about the destination but the vignettes and people you meet along the way. Shortly after your fall from grace, you are tasked with collecting the seven lost fyggs of the divine world tree, only to find that these fyggs have corrupted mortals that have attempted to utilize their power. These fyggs are often used with good intentions that lead down seven stories that subvert authority hierarchies like teacher-student and parent-child. The similarities to the Judeo-Christian concepts of the forbidden fruit and the nature of sin as corruption of virtue might not be subtle, but the premise is still effective in this world.

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (DS) imageDragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (DS) image

The ďWight KnightĒ (left) and Jona and the whale (right). Thanks, Dad. Looking forward to meeting Jack in the town of Alltrades.

What makes the theme of choice and corruption all the more interesting is that Dragon Quest IXís narrative is, like the rest of the series, seemingly devoid of choice. Around the midpoint of the game when the player has collected the fyggs, a high-ranking celestian requests the player to hand them over. The player is given a choice, hand over the fyggs or donít. If the player chooses to do so, they might get a surprise with what happens next. If the player chooses ďno,Ē they will see there is no choice--the dialogue will loop indefinitely until the player acquesses. There is sudden dread as the game refuses to do what you want and as the player realizes what is about to happen before.

While every player is funneled down the same choice, itís not the same experience for everyone. Itís a choice between surprise or dread. And for those that have played the game before, thereís even a third experience--disappointment when they realize selecting ďnoĒ doesnít do anything different than when they selected ďyesĒ the first time they played.

The choices the player can make in Dragon Quest IX are seemingly small and inconsequential, but they lead to different variations of the same game. Which group of enemies to attack, which equipment to upgrade, which skill to increase--these are all rudimentary and shallow as RPGs go, but small decisions now can make a boss later in the game easier or harder, or confer a skill to kill a random metal babble. Each battle is a little story of its own, and the player gets to write it.

Dragon Quest IX Was Not Localized

Gaming demographics shifted a lot during the 2000s in both Japan and North America, thanks in large part to the Wii and DS appealing to people that would not typically use a video game console. That wasnít the only cosmic shift though. The Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 added support for HD TVs while the Wii did not. It wasnít the PS3 or Xbox that dominated Japan though--it was the PSP and the DS.

In America, we drive cars all over the place, we live in houses with yards and fences, and public transit is utilized only in a half-dozen very big cities or by the working poor. We played our games on increasingly bigger TVs, and for some reason we were always playing in the basement. We were actually buying HD TVs. Japanese people, in contrast play on the floor, with the console next to them (this is the reason the Famicom has short controller wires and why the Gamecube has a handle), they live in densely populated areas on top of each other, they share more spaces with each other, and they ride trains everywhere. Both mobile communication and mobile games were adopted earlier out of necessity by the Japanese in a way we in the West simply didnít experience.

So in 2006 when Dragon Quest IX was announced as exclusive to the Nintendo DS, the decision was made from a very Japanese perspective. The Playstation 3 did not have the install base while the PSP and DS had grown exponentially thanks in large part to Japanís heavy commuter culture. And if the DS was a Japanese playerís primary system of choice, it made perfect sense for this to be a main entry in the series--not a spin off. With a DS in so many pockets, this was a situation ripe for new gameplay ideas that werenít possible when the system was tethered to a TV.

Trading items to strangers when your DS was sleeping, collecting maps, joining strangers on adventures, and gathering around hot spots to connect to online services regularly (and meet the real life people hanging around those hot spots) were all part of the Dragon Quest IX experience that was enabled by being a DS game and by playing it in Japan.

In the West, we donít ride public transit outside big metro areas nor do we pass strangers with a DS in their pocket. We donít gather in a train station and meet other Dragon Quest enthusiasts to run through a grotto. We play our DS at home, on our sofa, alone. Dragon Quest IX might be in English, but it was not localized for our lifestyle.

The Dragon Quest You Canít Play

A common mis-conception is that in May 2014 when Nintendoís WiFi service was discontinued, so too was access to Dragon Quest IXís DLC. This is not true; Dragon Quest IX never had downloadable content--the content is already on the cartridge and merely unlocked by connecting to the defunct online service.

The content that the player unlocked by going online was not the point--in fact, the rewards for connecting (bonus items and quests) were largely superfluous and indistinguishable from regular in-game content. The goal was to get players to physically congregate. In 2010, when home WiFi was not common, features that required routine (but quick) connections encouraged players to find public places with free WiFi to use. In Japan, these places were easy to find, and often had other Dragon Quest enthusiasts hanging out. It was designed to be a physical player-finding service.

The decision to keep multiplayer local may have been deliberate or it may have been limited by technology, but whatever the case finding other humans to play with is the only multiplayer option available. If you stopped at the local Japanese cafe on your way home from school or work a few times a week, youíd probably run into familiar faces anyway. Players were incentivized to check in regularly with online services in a few ways. Characters from previous Dragon Quest games were slowly revealed like new Smash Bros fighters, appearing at your game and giving you free items. A special in-game store had an ever changing selection of items available for purchase, and new quests were popping up in the world all the time. These features were centralized to an in-game inn that built-up over the course of the game, the place you returned to when you wanted to change characters, use the alchemy pot, or connect to other players. The inn was the digital equivalent of the cold train station you were sitting at, welcoming you to everchanging adventures with the people nearby.

Some multiplayer features were even available when the DS was in standby mode. From the Questerís Rest inn, players can activate ďtag modeĒ where the DS will automatically connect to other DS within about 30-50 feet. This will exchange items and treasure maps between the systems and create a clone of the player that will hang out in the other personís inn. If this sounds familiar thatís because it directly inspired the 3DSís StreetPass functionality.

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (DS) imageDragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (DS) image

The game encourages players to frequently return to the Questerís Rest inn by centralizing many important features there. It just so happens this is also were you utilize multiplayer features. Hmm...

Tag mode was arguably Dragon Quest IXís most popular multiplayer feature in Japan. Grottos--procedurally generated dungeons that required a treasure map to access--were a highly traded commodity. With about eight million possible layouts, maps like ďMasayuki's MapĒ (which only contained Metal King Slimes on the 15th floor) were as famous as they were exhaustively traded.

Outside Japan, tag mode is that feature you never use. While some retrospectives of Dragon Quest IX mention the joys of tag mode when living in NYC or attending gaming conferences, thatís not an accurate representation of the average playerís experience. Just looking through GameFAQs forum posts from 2010 and 2011, it took a lot of work to find other players, usually requiring organized meetups on college campuses or a local Game Stop. The population density of North America compared to Japan simply makes a feature like tag mode untenable.

In 2021, playing in North America, your experience with tag mode is going to be one of technical puzzles. You can, for example, download a save file that contains a desirable treasure map (like Masayukiís Map). If you have a second DS or 3DS with a homebrew card or custom firmware, you can load the save and then share it via tag mode with the system you are actually using. By doing this though, the playerís goal has changed from connecting with other players to metagame data collection. Maybe still fun, but an altogether different game.

Single Multiplayer

It wasnít just wireless usage that was informed by the shifted focus to multiplayer. There were important changes to the core way Dragon Quest IX plays that had a profound impact in the single player experience. Things as fundamental as how encounters were initiated or what it means to pause the game needed to be re-designed. How little sense would it make that one player might enter a random encounter just walking around while the other does not, or if time froze when someone opened a menu.

Some of these are big changes. For example, the game needed a method for balancing out experience gains in multiplayer so that low-level characters playing with high-level characters would not break any semblance of balance. The solution to this is to scale experience gains based on the difference in levels between characters, awarding less experience to lower-level characters while travelling with high-level characters. If (for example) a level 19 character is traveling with a level 1 character, they would receive 950 and 50 experience respectively for the same encounter.

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (DS) imageDragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (DS) image

Random encounters are replaced with wandering monsters, a change needed to make multiplayer work.

In the context of single player, this is the opposite of what players are accustomed to. In Dragon Quest III or Monsters, mixing low- and high-level characters is a great way to shoot a level 1 character up a dozen levels quickly. This is not the case in Dragon Quest IX, which improves the balance of multiplayer at the cost of more grinding for the solo player when switching classes.

Another implementation that might not be expected in single player is how class changing works. Characters have an experience level in individual classes and can change classes at any time, but only mastered skills are transferable between classes (e.g. put 100 skill points into swords as a warrior and you can now equip swords and use swords as a mage). Spells do not carry over between classes so even high-level characters will need to form a niche role in the overall party. This is another decision that benefits multiplayer by forcing players to assume more dedicated roles at the cost of mixing and matching class abilities like similar single RPGs.

Even things as superfluous and optional as quests and alchemy are designed with mobile multiplayer first. The number of recipes and ingredients for alchemy is mind boggling and with low steal and drop rates players are effectively forced to trade ingredients with other players to avoid going insane. The quest system utilizes a similar quantity-first design to encourage players to seek out others for assistance, even allowing some quests to be repeated.

If you have a friend, quantity over quality is arguably good. Exposition and story for quests isnít fun to sit through for two people--the game part of Dragon Quest is the fighting, and having lots (and lots) of fetch quests or quests to defeat specific enemies a specific way is how to get two people playing quickly with minimal fuss.

For the lone Dragon Quest IX player, this is a chore. That quest to craft some item that requires five of some rock that is a 2% drop from a specific enemy that only appears at night and only rewards me with a common item that can be purchased for a few hundred gold at a shop hurts my soul in a way it would not if my goal was to just play with a friend. Alchemy, quests, and even grottos are just thinly veiled excuses to join multiplayer, and in that context you donít need (and might not even want) a drawn out explanation or story for why youíre doing what youíre doing. These are effective tools to encourage a Japanese commuter to stop over at that cafe and pull out their DS for 10 minutes.

In 2021, playing alone, the quests and alchemy will crush you. One infamous quest requires the player to kill a couple of metal slimes (a rare monster already) after casting Wizard Ward (a mage ability that takes two turns to set up properly) and then use said weak mage to kill the slime before it runs away. The whole thing takes at least three turns. If youíve played Dragon Quest, you know already that metal slimes donít usually stick around that long. The goal is so absurd and arbitrary.

If Iím playing with friends, I donít really care why Iím doing it because we are writing the story together. But for single player? Yeah, Iím going to need the game to give me some story if it wants my time.

The Dragon Quest You Could Never Play

A demonstration shown to the gaming press in 2006 is rumored to have shown Dragon Quest IX as an action RPG. I wasnít able to find extant footage of this version of the game nor could I find a good source on whether it was really planned to be an action game or if some people in the gaming media misinterpreted early details in Famitsu. Were you to see Dragon Quest IXís combat without appropriate context, it could be mistaken as an action game.

Dragon Quest IX is unique in how fluid its combat looks compared to its predecessors. The camera pans and twists around the battle arena while the playerís party and enemies run around each other. You may see one party member running up behind an enemy while another is attacking. This is all cosmetic and does not actually impact combat outcomes, but it gives battles a unique feel that isnít found elsewhere in the series.

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (DS) imageDragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (DS) image

Combat looks dynamic and action-packed. Games journalists may have mistook ďactionĒ to mean something different in early previews.

Combat in Dragon Quest IX isnít action-based as earlier English-speaking previews seem to imply, but it is in real time in a sense. When entering combat, the site of the battle is displayed on the minimap for other people to see when playing multiplayer. Other players are allowed to continue moving around the field while you are in combat, joining the foray mid-battle or running off and doing their own thing (including getting into a different battle).

This is where Dragon Quest IX really excels. It has possibly the best combat mechanics of any game in the series to this point. Fights are still straightforward battles of attribution, but with a well balanced class system, you can approach that attrition many different ways. For example, you can reclass a mage as a sage, skewing the typically balanced sage class more towards attack spells. Or turn a gladiator into a mage and utilize tension to blow enemies apart. The possibilities are as fun as they are balanced, not favoring any particular strategies or builds.

When you reach the post game and start changing character classes, itís tight balance and slow drip of rewards become even more apparent. Characters end up having a niche based on their current class, but stat bonuses and abilities from other classes let you use classes in new ways. You can never really master a class either. After reaching level 99, a character can ďrevocateĒ back to level 1, retaining all their skill points. Successive recovations increase the quality and difficulty of grotto dungeon maps that can be found, providing practically unlimited combat challenges. Players can even opt to give super legacy bosses from previous games the experience points after beating them, letting bosses level up to become harder.

If you like Dragon Quest combat, this is arguably the best to date. It offers a wonderful balance of simplicity, balance, variety, and difficulty. It is the apex of vocation-based combat systems in the series, and it does so with an elegance and approachability that similar systems in other games lack.

The New Dragon Quest You Canít Play Either

In the second half of the 2000s, the DSís primary rival, the Sony PSP, was essentially being carried by a single series--Monster Hunter. Though initially on the PS2, Monster Hunter exploded in popularity on PSP thanks in large part to its multiplayer. While you might see a single PSP being used as a portal music player in North America, in Japan Monster Hunter was selling multiple millions of copies within weeks of each release. If you were playing Dragon Quest IX on a train, you might have been playing next to someone with a PSP (or you might have a PSP in your bag).

Dragon Quest IX wasnít a bold, tea table flipping statement that stood in the face of the tradition the series has carried for decades. It was part of a larger culture and technology shift in Japan. This is how the Japanese played games by the end of the decade--not on HD TVs on a sectional sofa in the basement but on mobile devices outside the home. Itís a stark contrast to gaming in North America during the same period.

So to return to the original question--what do we do with a game like Dragon Quest, where the experience can be so different based on when you played it and where you lived--the answer is unfortunately nothing. This isnít a problem specific to Dragon Quest--itís endemic to games in general. When I approach a game now, I come to it with all the knowledge and experience of every other game Iíve played. My experience with Dragon Quest IX was my own. Youíll create something new if you try it too, with all the knowledge and experience you'll bring to it.

With the right person and game, that experience can be positively magical. Dragon Quest IX exists in a really interesting time in gaming history because of its lineage. Released almost 25 years after the original, the people that grew up with Dragon Quest or Dragon Warrior were now around 30-35 years old and busy turning into their parents. Their children arenít gathering around WiFi at a train station with strangers, they are playing at home with a giddy parent all too excited to go slime hunting with the next generation. Maybe the localization of Dragon Quest IX is just fine after all.

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Featured community review by dagoss (November 22, 2021)

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