Along with Monster Hunter and Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest is one of the biggest franchises in Japan. The games date back to 1986, when the first title made its debut on Nintendo’s NES system. However, the series has only become truly international over the course of the last few years.
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King arrived on PS2 in 2006, while Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen (2008) and Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride (2009) were remade for the DS, helping to introduce European audiences to the series for the first time.
While some elements in this ninth instalment are still firmly rooted in the dark days of ancient role playing games, developer Level 5 have streamlined the experience making it easily the most accessible game in the long-running series.
You take on the role of a fallen angel, whose wings have been clipped by a dark and mysterious power. Regaining consciousness on terra firma, your character finds his halo and wings gone, and sets out on a mission to help others in the hope his angelic aura will return.
While the central tale throws up traditional dungeon crawls and end of level bosses, the player is generally free to explore and take on dozens of sidequests. And you’ll want to explore every inch of the land, as not only does exploration throw up delightful surprises, but the quality of the whimsical script is rather special.
There’s a strong emphasis on character design, and the localisation team have done a sterling job in bringing each of the main figures’ personalities to the fore. The range of regional dialects shines through, and Scottish players will take great delight in reading through some of the Tartan-tinged dialogue.
The game caters for four-player co-op, but unfortunately it is only for local play, not a full online experience. However, solo players need not worry, as three other computer controlled comrades can be recruited - each one adding strength and tactical nous to the battles.
Standard classes such as warrior, mage and priest are available from the start, but later in the game, these can be swapped, mixed and changed to give you band of adventurers a unique flavour.
Each story along the course of the main quest is beautifully presented, every one throwing up new and unique situations. Reuniting a knight with his true love, curing a small village from a deadly plague, and encouraging a fishing community back into work are just some of the tasks woven into the game.
There’s a fair amount of sadness peppered throughout, too, which belies the sugar-coated presentation. The monsters who inhabit the world are a colourful bunch, and their vivid and expressive style is a far cry from Final Fantasy’s poe-faced adversaries. Creatures might have kid friendly names such as Badger Mager, Mummy Boy, Knocktopus and Ragin’ Contagion but they’re no pushovers.
Mixing up party attacks is key, but it’s this area which is a a bit disappointing. While the game does away with random encounters, there is no way of knowing which party member will strike next. This leads to unavoidable deaths, which is incredibly frustrating as it’s a problem which could have been easily rectified. Still, with a bit of forward planning and approaching boss encounters cautiously, success is well within reach.
One of the game’s trump cards lies in the way every weapon and piece of armour is visually represented on your character. This gives the game a Diablo/World of Warcraft feel and with hundreds of items in the game, and an online store, everyone will be able to create their own unique look.
Another great addition is the inclusion of the crafting system. Gathering ingredients on your travels is worthwhile as they can be combined with other objects to make new weapons, armour and items. This part alone will occupy you for hours and it’s another nod to online games such as World of Warcraft.
Dragon Quest IX is a truly wonderful game, and the best role playing game I’ve played in years. It oozes charm, looks and sounds fantastic, and has been perfectly tailored to suit Nintendo’s hand-held system. One of the most magical experiences on the DS and a contender for game of the year.