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Critical Reception: Square Enix's Dragon Quest IX

This week's Critical Reception examines online reaction to Square Enix's DS RPG Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, which reviews describe as "a quintessential role-playing experience."
This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Square Enix's Nintendo DS RPG Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, which reviews describe as "a quintessential role-playing experience." Dragon Quest IX currently earns a score of 86 out of 100 at Metacritic.com. 1UP.com's Jeremy Parish gives Dragon Quest IX an A grade. "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," he begins. "In truth, though, the series is pleasantly nuanced and often downright progressive, and never has that been more evident than in Dragon Quest IX." "In all fairness, DQIX would certainly appear to be the opposite of progressive on its surface," Parish admits. "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." Despite the visual downgrade, the game benefits from the switch in hardware. "The move to DS was a strategic trade-off, and a canny one at that," Parish says. "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." "What DQIX brings to the table," Parish notes, "is a new way to experience the traditional RPG, along with a number of addictive systems that give its new ideas purpose and focus." The new multiplayer elements add greater depth, in particular. "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," Parish notes. "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." GameSpot's Bethany Massimilla rates "DQIX at 8.5 out of 10. "While the series holds firmly to its roots, down to the user interface and battle sound effects, Dragon Quest: Sentinels of the Starry Skies introduces some new twists like multiplayer and nonrandom encounters that build on those old formulas," she says. "The result is unlikely to convert those who don't already enjoy these lengthy adventures, but the game is a glowing reminder that this grand old RPG style still holds up after all these years, and fans are going to have a great time." Massimilla finds that the game's deep character customization is particularly compelling. "There's a wealth of different types of armor to equip that goes well beyond the tired territory of chain mail and leather boots," she notes. "Fishnet stockings and high heels, T-shirts and jeans, boxers and briefs are only the beginning of a wardrobe filled with all sorts of madness. "You'll have characters in full-plate armor next to compatriots with equally powerful gear that look like they should be going swimming instead. It keeps equipment gathering interesting in a way that goes beyond increasing your stats and allows you to indulge in some truly horrible and hysterical fashion sense." Battles, on the other hand, are par for the series. "The actual fighting is classic turn-based fare, with you issuing orders to your party and then watching the action unfold," Massimilla explains. "There are some basic AI tactical options that you can set for your three followers that will have them focusing on healing, conserving their magic, attacking at will, and so on, or you can choose to just manage each character individually." "If there's one area of the game that feels unnecessarily archaic, it's the menu system, which still uses a basic six-item menu that has to do a lot of work to access the wealth of options you have available," Massimilla adds. "It's somewhat cumbersome to sift through your bag of items and transfer healing medicine and other goodies to your individual characters by hand so they can be used in battle." "Every town in Sentinels of the Starry Skies has its own little story and its own sense of place in a wide world teeming with crazy monsters, great loot, and plenty of dungeons to explore," Massimilla says "This is a quintessential role-playing experience that balances hardcore monster smashing with a lighthearted spirit. The Dragon Quest series soars onward and upward." GamePro's Heidi Kemps gives Dragon Quest IX 4 out of 5 stars. "Its primary innovation -- portable, four-player co-operative play -- is something made popular recently by another Japanese megahit, the PSP Monster Hunter titles," she explains. "In fact, there's a lot of Monster Hunter influence evident throughout the game. But taking a cue from other proven hits isn't a bad thing -- especially when you can work their concepts into a completely different style of game well, as DQIX does." "What will immediately strike you about DQIX are the visuals," Kemps notes. "It's by far the best-looking DS game on the market, but it also shows the system's age. Character models and backdrops look fantastic, but frame drops and slowdown during heavy action is aggravatingly common. The music is up to the usual high standards of the DQ franchise, as well, with themes both familiar and new cropping up throughout the game." As far as core gameplay is concerned, however, Dragon Quest IX covers familiar territory. "You could make a HD, next-gen Dragon Quest and it would still be as staunchly traditional an RPG as you could get: Turn-based menu-driven battles, 'do X, kill Y, then proceed to location Z' gameplay and story flow, a party of nondescript user-created characters with no real dialogue or story impact, and some simple skill- and class-building trees to create your ideal team," Kemps writes. "And like the classic RPGs of old, the game takes a while to get moving," Kemps warns. "It's pretty dull to just mash slimes for the first few hours, but once you get the ability to form a bigger party, things start to pick up considerably. Unfortunately, waiting for good things to open up is kind of par for the course here, as it takes a considerable amount of game time (15-20 hours) before you're able to fully explore the class system." The multiplayer mode injects new life into this classic formula, however. "What makes DQIX interesting is the much-vaunted multiplayer aspect," Kemps says. "You can invite friends to join your party or join a friend's party (consisting of up to four players) and go out to dungeon-romp and monster-mash as a team. Individual players can engage in exploration and battle as teams or solo, and a handy 'call to arms' feature lets the host instantly summon all the players in the game to their side no matter where in the world they are." "Dragon Quest IX is like a classic car that's been recently restored: There might be some new stuff under the hood and additional bells and whistles, but it's still the same vehicle from years ago," Kemps concludes. "That's not entirely a bad thing. Dragon Quest's appeal lies in its sense of warm, welcoming familiarity. It's refreshingly free of the pretension and overwrought cinematics of much of the current JRPG crop, instead presenting a lighthearted, charming adventure romp akin to what made the original Chrono Trigger such a beloved classic."

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