"Dragon Quest games are all the same." You've probably heard that old chestnut before. Heck, maybe you've even uttered it yourself. It's an easy mistake to make. At a cursory glance, Dragon Quest games do seem remarkably similar from one to the next: Turn-based RPGs with laconic heroes, familiar spells, recurring enemies, and a general lack of flash and drama. In truth, though, the series is pleasantly nuanced and often downright progressive, and never has that been more evident than in Dragon Quest IX.
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In all fairness, DQIX would certainly appear to be the opposite of progressive on its surface: It is, after all, a DS sequel to a gorgeous PlayStation 2 game. Sure, its visuals are about as attractive as 3D can look on the DS, but those graphics are nowhere near as beautiful as Dragon Quest VIII's were. Yet the move to DS was a strategic trade-off, and a canny one at that; DQIX sacrifices visual splendor in favor of more subtle technological benefits. In unchaining the series from the television, its creators freed themselves to design the open-ended, player-driven experience the series has always aspired to be.
In some ways, DQIX is a throwback to Dragon Quest III for NES: The main story is fairly simplistic, and the player's traditionally mute hero (or heroine) is joined by a trio of generic, roll-em-yourself allies rather than a band of named characters with backstories and personalities. The task of defining the game's personality is left to the inhabitants of the world (whose tales are occasionally moving but never inspired) and the hero's faerie companion Stella (whose bluster is offset by an amusing penchant for muddled clichés, malapropisms, and spoonerisms). This, too, seems like a step backward next to the powerful narrative of Dragon Quest V and the memorable cast of DQVIII, but it also serves the game's larger aim of creating a free-form toy box of an RPG capable of keeping fans involved for endless hours.
Naturally, DQIX has a core quest, and that should account for a good 40 hours of play time if you rush through. What makes the game so great is that you don't have to rush things. It's a pleasant contrast to the other big RPGs to have come along so far this year; unlike, say, Final Fantasy XIII, you never feel like there's a hand pressed against your back to hurry you along the long corridor that leads to the end of the game. You can certainly take the straightforward approach to DQIX and wander from one plot point to the next, flinging yourself at bosses until you manage to bully your way through each encounter by brute force. On the other hand, you could also dabble in the game's mechanics, explore alchemical item crafting as an alternative to grinding for cash, and exploit the class and skill systems to strengthen your team and diversify your combat capabilities. The more time you invest in DQIX, the more you get from it.
Even so, you can't possibly see everything the game has to offer simply by clearing the main story. Much like recent Pokémon titles, DQIX is arguably focused more on post-story play than on the main adventure. Many of the side quests can't actually be completed until you've demolished the final boss, and the game tracks all sorts of statistics to satisfy the completionist. And then there's the multiplayer.
DQIX encourages you to link up with friends and adventure together. Furthermore, it's theoretically possible to extend the quest indefinitely by swapping data with other players and exchanging randomly-generated bonus dungeons. The game's Tag Mode, in which you trade character info and potentially acquire maps to secret dungeons from passing strangers, gave the game incredibly long legs in Japan. That may or may not work out quite so well in the west, but one assumes that events like Comic-Con and PAX will be hotbeds of data exchange. It's also possible to procure maps through solo play and through weekly updates from Nintendo, but the thrill of potentially stumbling into secret treasure troves as a gift from another fan brings a new and enthralling social dynamic to the role-playing genre.
All of these elements are built on a familiar foundation, which is where the inevitable accusations of stagnation will come from. But in the course of exploring DQIX, only the most closed-minded could fail to see that the game uses the franchise's traditions and conventions as mere underpinnings. Yes, you can use a Miracle Sword to kill a Dracky and siphon its life away, just like in any other Dragon Quest game you care to name. Yes, wiping the grin off the face of one of those maddeningly evasive Metal Slimes will load your team down with experience points. Yes, the story has you wandering around the world doing kindly deeds for seemingly unworthy people who inevitably turn a new leaf after witnessing your Good Samaritan routine. Yet these are simply the trappings of the series, the traditions fans have come to expect; they're no different than a Metal Gear torture sequence or a vehicular escape sequence at the end of a Halo game. They contextualize the game, but they don't define it.
No, what DQIX brings to the table -- and to the genre -- is a new way to experience the traditional RPG, along with a number of addictive systems that give its new ideas purpose and focus. Both alchemy and class skills have a powerful "just a little more" appeal, and they somehow manage to stagger their rewards in such a way that you're always just a few minutes from unlocking the next item or ability. The cooperative play has the same function as in any multiplayer RPG, allowing you to help a less-experienced friend, or possibly bootstrap your own hero by teaming up with a seasoned vet. In short, DQIX manages to bring the addictive appeal of MMOs into what is predominantly a solo game, yet it never sacrifices the innate quality the series is known for.
There's certainly room for improvement, no question about it. DQIX would be even better with real online play, a stronger story, or a world with the same sense of scope and grandeur as DQVIII's. But these are more nitpicks than genuine flaws. DQIX is a subtly sophisticated game, and while it doesn't quite revolutionize RPGs it definitely pushes them forward. Maybe Dragon Quest's popularity in the west will never match its success overseas, but at least those who give this chapter a chance can enjoy one of the deepest, most engrossing portable RPGs ever.