I picked up Dragon Quest IX while I was recently in Tokyo. I bought the game for two main reasons. One, because it’s a new Dragon Quest. And I love me some Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior on the NES in the States).
This is the same reason I will buy every new Bon Jovi album, the same reason why new books (on old topics) are printed every day, the same reason why new games are released, the same reason why Google ranks pages higher if they have new, fresh content. The same reason why you buy the latest gadget. Because humans like new stuff, or the perception of new stuff. And humans really like new stuff from the same brand/author/artist they are already familiar with. It feels like home, it feels like a new conversation or story with an old friend you have built up a rapport with. Ah…
Anyway, I love RPGs, even if they are the old cliche turn based battle with dragons (the same reason why Square-Enix keeps remaking their older titles with the latest hardware… okay, enough). If there is a new twist to the story of gameplay, all the better. Dragon Quest IX has all of the above. Hot damn.
The second reason I bought it is because it is fantastic for studying Japanese. I’ll touch on that too.
The game starts as your traditional RPG with character creation. This is a bit of a step backwards as far as the Dragon Quest series, as they were recently heading in the Final Fantasy direction (this is where you are just given characters with abilities based on the story character itself). However, it is extremely satisfying and reminded me of the original character selection in Dragon Quest I-III on the original Nintendo/Famicom.
Once you start the game, the story unfolds in a really weird fashion. Your character is an Angel. You start out in what seems to be Heaven. But only Heaven for all the other Angels. You’ve recently graduated to being a Guardian Angel for a certain village. Your first Quest/Tutorial begins with you heading down to Earth and visit your Village to help someone in trouble. You do so and collect their thank you prayers. This thank you prayer, you take back to the Heavens. At first, I was reminded of the old Super Nintendo game Actraiser. But this is where the story gets weird. 🙂
When you arrive back in the Heavens, you realize that all of the Angels are stuck in their little Angel village. They have no contact with God anymore. Their duty is to collect as many prayers from people on the Earth as possible and take those prayers to the Tree of Life (possibly translated as a Mana Tree or similar in the English version, we’ll have wait and see). The more prayers you give to the tree, the more fruit it will bear. Once the tree bears enough fruit, the Heaven Train (Soul Train, whatever, it’s wacky) will arrive and allow the Angels to travel to real heaven again and have contact with God.
Honestly, my Japanese is only at an advanced intermediate level, so I could be a bit off on my translation/summary, but I think I’m pretty close.
With all that weirdness going on, you go down on your first solo mission to collect some more prayers. You do so and then head back to Angel Heaven. You give your collected prayers to the tree, it finally bears fruit. The Soul Train comes to Angel Heaven and then… –BAM!! Earthquakes and lighting and all sorts of hell breaks loose! The Soul Train’s tracks get destroyed, the train falls, Angel Heaven gets rocked and your character gets knocked down to the Earth, losing his wings and waking up as a human. The story is just beginning.
From what I have played from there on (about 25-30 hours), your goal is to try and collect prayers even as a human, finding the wrecked Soul Train and restoring it, and getting back to Heaven. Then figuring out what the hell happened, then fixing that.
The story is super unique and I’m still really enjoying it.
The graphics on the DS are simply amazing. If you played Dragon Quest VIII on the PS2, you’ll feel right at home. In some ways, the visuals are actually better than the PS2 game. Stylistically, it’s very bright and cartoony, using lots of cell shading techniques and brilliant textures which fit the mood of the game very well.
Aside from the opening movie (which I’ve skipped every time) and sparse in-game movies (5-10 seconds long), all of the cutscenes and stories are done with the game engine and the animation and camera direction is brilliant.
Gameplay is actually quite linear, following the story (which is good), but also has non-linear gameplay with side-quests which will pop up in every town which you may have to back-track to another location or wait until later in the game before you can complete them. This is pretty much a standard in RPGs for many reasons. If an RPG is too open ended (think Fable), you can’t have a very long, convincing story, and players who do follow the story will beat the game in 1-2 hours (Fable) instead of spending all their time on Sandbox play. Which, honestly, is what the Grand Theft Auto series does well, but that ain’t an RPG (err… not in the strictest sense).
I do have to mention the two screens of the DS. One constantly being used as a map, the other for gameplay. While this is not new, it is still awesome and perfectly tailored to RPG games. Perhaps this was Nintendo’s design of the DS all along 😉
Menus, on the other hand, are verbose and overly complicated. Typical of most Japanese RPGs. This is great to expand your Japanese vocabulary (although most of the menus and items are in カタカナ from English), going through 5 screens to use a healing herb is silly.
Battles are turn-based and have the standard leveling and magic system found in every Dragon Quest game since Dragon Quest 1. Aside from the flashy new graphics and animations, I wouldn’t be surprised if the underlying battle engine is still the same one they used 20 years ago. Not that I’m complaining 🙂
Speaking of characters, your main character is the only one which is relevant to the story. The other 3 people in your party you have to recruit. This hearkens back to older D&D type games, such as Neverwinter Nights. This is cool as you get to assemble your party how you wish (Mage, Healer, Fighter, etc), but kinda weak on the story side. Especially when you travel back to Heaven with your Angel character and your party, uh… disappears (they can’t go to heaven, right?). Because they are not part of the main story, you also miss a lot of the dialog which would happen between your party during key events.
They solved this by adding a fairy character that travels with you (who turns out to be the pilot of the Soul Train, but I don’t want to ruin too much). Who comes out and makes very stereotypical girlish アタシさ… comments on key events (since your main character doesn’t speak… I hate games that do that. This may be why Duncan in Arvale speaks so damn much). This actually works pretty well, if at some times annoying.
The music is… damn amazing. It’s Koichi Sugiyama (椙山 浩一). The same composer for all of the Dragon Quest games, and with good reason. He’s brilliant. He is possibly the most skilled composer for video game soundtracks of all time. Yes, even better than Nobuo Uematsu (Uematsu is a much better song writer though, there is a huge difference). Listening to his music you will hear his style immediately (he makes use of a lot of weird time and key signatures, chordal changes, dissonance, and atonal stuff, but makes it all work effectively and seamlessly). The town music, battle music, overworld music all fit with the game and sometimes make you want to revisit an area simply to listen to the music. It’s that well written.
The game also has some multi-player head-to-head thing which is reportedly awesome. I can’t verify that since I have no one to play with in Phoenix 😉 In Japan however….
I mentioned Japanese learning, because I’m an addict. I’m always looking for new ways to enjoy learning Japanese more and playing games is a great one. However, most games either have too much 漢字 (with no ふりがな）or too little 漢字 using all ひらがな which makes it difficult to read. This game has a excellent balance of the two and has ふりがな over every single 漢字 in the game. And a step above Zelda: Phantom Houglass (also highly recommended), you don’t have to tap on every single 漢字 to get the reading, it’s just there. So it feels more like you’re reading a good 漫画 Manga. 🙂
As mentioned above, you’ll get loads of new vocabulary simply by checking the menus and items, and of course, while talking to characters. Battles will also give you instant repetition of many terms (and you can adjust the text speed from the menu). RPGs were simply made for language learning, I’m sure of it.
The other reason this is awesome for Japanese learning is your going to find a lot of different dialects and slang in Japanese. You know when an RPG is in English and you start talking to a farmer who speaks funny ‘It gits a wee bit hard tillin’ this ole farm o’ mine.’ or a young punk ‘The hell youse lookin’ at you ugly freak!’ You may wonder how the English version ever came about. In Japanese you actually know what every character is like from their first two sentences, really. Based on if their politeness level and how they use お前、俺、僕、わし、アタシ、拙者、等々. It’s actually really amazing how much extra dialogue and stuff needs to be put in the English translation simply to get the same idea. If you aren’t familiar with 大阪／関西弁 (Osaka/Kansai dialect) before you play Dragon Quest IX, you will be after playing it 🙂
All that being said. Awesome game. Awesome RPG. Awesome Japanese learning tool.
If you don’t care about Japanese, you can still wait for the translated version which will still be an awesome RPG. Last I checked it’s coming out… uh, TBA 2010. So, ‘soon’. 😉
Even if you’re a beginniner in Japanese (just finished かな or in the middle of Heisig), you’ll be able to get so much out of this game, I highly recommend picking it up and playing it as soon as you can.
Thanks for reading!
Oh, and I stole a bunch of the screenshots from this site here (interesting site, btw, so go there if you want more).
LA and Back Again, The Short Tale of a Japanese Visa