When initial media came out for the ninth installment of Square-Enix's Dragon Quest series, fans reacted with outrage that it seemed to be going in a different direction from its predecessors, what with real-time gameplay instead of turn-based gameplay. Consequentially, the developers wussed out and decided to make it a traditional RPG like its predecessors. That aside, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies provides an experience on par with the rest of the series.
When starting a new game, the player has plenty of freedom when creating their main character, including the ability to select gender, skin tone, hairstyle, and so forth. Upon reaching the town of Stornway early on in the game, the player can customize a party including three allies of different classes (the main character's default class is Minstrel). On the overworld and in dungeons, enemies are visible, sometimes running away if the party's levels are high enough, although encounters during sailing remain random.
As with prior Dragon Quest installments, the game transitions to a separate screen for combat, with the player able to input commands for all their characters and let them and the enemy fight each other in a round. Like in previous Dragon Quests, turn order tends to be random, regardless of everyone's agility, sometimes resulting in situations where, for instance, healing magic can go to waste when enemies beat the player to healing a character low on HP. As characters attack, moreover, hits against the same enemy will deal more damage than usual with each consecutive strike. Winning a battle nets all characters money, experience, and occasional level-ups.
Upon leveling up, moreover, a character may gain skill points that the player can invest into five different skill sets that vary by class for the occasional acquisition of active or passive skills; an improvement over the eighth installment's skill system is the ability to see how many points are necessary to acquire a skill from a set. Some different classes share skill sets, whose points remain the same regardless of a character's class. Characters become able to change classes when the player reaches Alltrades Abbey, although changing classes will reset a character to level one while keeping the levels of their prior classes intact. Luckily, the main game is beatable without changing classes.
All in all, the battle system, in spite of its faults, works decently, with a general quick pace to combat, although as with before, the randomized nature of turn order is annoying, as is the need to start over as level one when switching classes, which will likely cause players to stick with their characters' default classes. Moreover, the escape option doesn't always work regardless of the player's levels, and there are plenty enemies that will still chase the player in spite of their power. Ultimately, combat does have its flaws, but helps the game more than hurts.
As with prior Dragon Quest games, control could have been better, what with the clunky menu system and the endless dialogue when shopping for new equipment and items. The game also sometimes does a poor job telling the player how to advance the main storyline, although conveniences present in prior installments return, such as warp magic (among towns only, unfortunately not dungeons), and dungeon-exiting magic. Ultimately, control is adequate, but still leaves plenty of room for improvement.
The story is decent for a Dragon Quest game, with the protagonist having some background, although the player's party members don't receive any sort of development. Granted, the plot starts off somewhat slow, but picks up towards the end, with some decent twists and a reasonable conclusion. Overall, the plot isn't superb, but certainly has its share of redeeming aspects.
Koichi Sugiyama once again composes the soundtrack, with plenty of old tracks from prior installments and new tracks as well. Granted, some of the music can be repetitive, but the sound still serves the game well.
Dragon Quest IX's visuals combine two-dimensional and three-dimensional aspects, with 3-D environments and cel-shaded character models for the player's party and many NPCs, although 2-D sprites represent many NPCs, as well. Furthermore, in a rarity, different equipment affects the appearance of the player's characters. Granted, there are some minor faults such as the occasional pixelated appearance of some of the character sprites, although the graphics still shine.
Finally, the main game will last players somewhere from forty to sixty hours, although post-game content can take significantly longer. In conclusion, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies is an enjoyable RPG, even if it retains some of the franchise's archaic traditions in and out of battle, although it does have positive aspects on which most can agree, such as the soundtrack and graphics. Its similarity to previous installments, then, makes it easy to decide whether or not it's worth a purchase; if you like Dragon Quest games, buy Dragon Quest IX, but if not, don't bother.
+Fans will know what to expect.
+Solid soundtrack and graphics.
+Plenty of post-game content.
-Retains franchise's archaic traditions.
-Sometimes poor direction on how to advance.
The Bottom Line:
If you like Dragon Quest, play this game; otherwise, don't bother.
Platform: Nintendo DS
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 8/10
Playing Time: 40+ Hours