Review: Dragon Quest IX

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while now. Not because I have many strong feelings about Dragon Quest, IX in particular, but because it’s a game that is so flabbergastingly difficult to discuss.

It’s the Level 5 problem: how the fuck do you review a game that is entirely, patently unfun, but that I played for thirty five hours and couldn’t wait to go back to. Sure, I gave up at that point, but let’s not get ahead of the plot.

You want me to sum it up in a rating, though, so you don’t have to read philosophical rambling? Fine. Dragon Quest IX is an MMO that is played by yourself.

I was considering talking about the plot, but the plot doesn’t matter here. It’s kind of exciting, sure, and I love a yarn about divine forces, but really the game boils down to collecting seven crystals to rebuild the stairway to heaven. Sure, the specifics might be wrong, there, but that’s basically the story. This is a generic RPG pre-1995 story, make no mistake. It’s painted with a deep coat of charm, but it’s without a lot of substance. You can’t spoil Dragon Quest IX, because there’s nothing to spoil. There’s no narrative, beyond going to town A, solving problem F, and getting reward Z, which usually involves unlocking the bridge to the next town.

The real story, I found, in DQIX is making your own character, and people. Of course, this isn’t even a feature. The designers envisioned you playing the game with three friends, connected locally. Of course, without a wifi alternative, there’s no chance us dirty Americans find a hundred hours to spend with four friends in a room, so we have the option of creating three companion characters, who you can bring along and play dress up with.

This is a major missed opportunity. I love creating my own characters; it scratches an itch made by old school PC rpgs like A Bard’s Tale and Wizardry and Exile, where you created your entire adventuring party. You can dress them up, and this is absolutely the best feature in the game: even I, probably the biggest min/maxer you will ever meet, gave people sub par equipment so they looked different. There are far too many customization options, and this lets you really develop and define your unimportant additional party members.

And yes, you will never, ever see your generics outside of battle. While DQIX gives you the option to make and characterize your party members, it then excludes these characters from any other interaction. While everything else in the game is painted with charm, these generics are given very little, and never appear in cutscenes. Frankly, I missed them. Maybe it was the fact that my main character was stuck in the absolute worst class (Minstrel, which might as well be called Useless) while my party members were in classes that could do actual, significant damage, but I liked them so much more than my main character. And I definitely liked them so much more than the annoying fairy that took their place in dialogue. Game developers, a memo: we do not like fairies. No one identifies with them. Everyone wants to strangle them. Please stop.

Gameplay wise, Dragon Quest IX is a very standard RPG, with a few twists. The class system is overall neat but hamstrung by rules designed to make the game last longer. Your classes are not achieved simultaneously, so if you level to 50 as a wizard and switch to priest, you become a level one priest with absolutely no wizard skills. Well, you get the static stat plusses achieved by investing your level up skill points in wizard, but they have designed these to be diametrically opposed and utterly useless upon switching classes. It falls prey to the thing all games with more advanced leveling systems does: in an effort to be balanced, it makes everything kind of useless except the one, completely broken build.

That build, by the way, is martial artist, who specializes in raising his or her tension. Tension is actually a brilliant mechanic that was used in DQVIII: you spend a turn on it, and your attack power for one attack raises. Raise it once and you do double damage. Twice, and you do 4 times the normal. Thrice, and you do an absurd amount. Four, and you go super saiyan. Literally. Akira Toriyama did the art, so I’m not exaggerating. Other classes, like the warrior, rely on the minstrel to raise their tension. Martial artists do it naturally, hit harder than a warrior of comparable level, have a limit brea*cough*Coup de Grace that raises their tension, and basically just tear through enemies. Additionally, warrior classes actually synergize, because they are dependent on the same stats, allowing you to min max them effectively. Making everyone else seem useless. In a game so much about min-maxing and consuming time, these clumsy balance attempts really frustrate.

In terms of the game itself, the main quest plays out like a standard, if awfully time consuming, JRPG from 1994. Dragon Quest has never really evolved for the past half dozen games or so, and the fans don’t want it to evolve. Personally, I would have been interested to see the action based approach DQIX originally featured but, hell, if I can see enemies on the overworld and the fights have some movement in them, I’m perfectly content. Those are good “innovation”.

What are bad innovation are the sidequests, designed by Satan himself. You see, DQIX wants you to play this game like an MMO: it’s your job. So, a lot of the quests you get are Kill 10 squirrels or Collect 4 wing of bat. These are boring, and barely reward you, but you’ll do them because they’re there, and you might get som

ething absolutely vital from it. You might think, well, these just have shit rewards because you’re low level. No, no. Because the ones with the good rewards (say, unlocking one of the pretty awesome extra classes) require you to do fuckall stupid things that take four hours of intense frustration, like kill two metal slimes with your wizard while they have a random, meaningless buff cast on themselves.

Really, Dragon Quest IX is a game of frustration. It’s designed to make you bored, and frustrated. There is a very good correlation between people who loved Final Fantasy XI or who would have loved Final Fantasy XI if they could exclusively solo and people who love this game. Dragon Quest IX is balanced like an MMO, designed to take as much of your time as possible. The problem is that MMO design choices stem from a monthly fee; DQIX’s stem from a sado-masochistic hatred of humanity.