William Matheson (nova_one) wrote,
William Matheson

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First Thoughts: Dragon Quest IX

I'm playing Dragon Quest IX now, and playing it about as much as I can get away with.

There are a lot of things I like about this game and it's going to keep me playing for what seems like years. It's set up a huge ecosystem for itself - a bit like Final Fantasy VIII in that sense, but this one just depends on getting together with friends instead of buying and using dubious accessories and looking like a six-year-old playing with his Tamagotchi at the transit terminal.

But as huge as the game is, it has an overall air of randomness that doesn't jive with me. If the environments were less pleasing, I'd compare it to a gigantic empty room. Most of the items planted are random, for instance. The plus side is that there's still stuff to pick up from the field after hundreds of hours of play. The down side is that there are seemingly few critical treasures. Exploring becomes a little bit banal whereas in the Final Fantasy games I've played, exploration sometimes leads to very special discoveries. The plot in the game isn't terribly urgent, either.

One anachronism that's particularly galling - you can't determine your own battle order. You plug in everybody's actions and the order is determined by agility points. It's kind of like playing Final Fantasy with Final Fantasy XIII graphics. I'm not familiar with the DQ series as a whole (though I'm viewing LPs of Dragon Warrior and Dragon Warrior II and I sense the continuity), and this omission either concedes to tradition or to multiplayer necessities. One positive - if you assign your characters a "tactic" they get quite a bit more responsive and will act differently than they would have at first as conditions change if their agility statistic makes them come up a little later in a turn. I can live with this battle system, but it's no Final Fantasy VII. And targeting "groups" of identical enemies? Sometimes they're in groups and sometimes they're not, even though visually the encounters seem identical. It's frustrating, but one good thing about group targeting is that if an identical enemy joins a group mid-turn you will target that enemy with any group attack that happens to be coming after.

I also think the game is a bit artificially lengthened. I don't mind the long and dangerous boss battles - those are kind of refreshing, if anything. But in everyday battles it takes FOREVER to learn abilities - there should have been some kind of ability points system where you get points from every battle (how much depending on the enemy) instead of only getting "skill points" at some level-ups. You get to allocate your own skill point deployment, but it takes a ridiculous amount of time to get anywhere inside one of several subcategories of a single vocation. I don't know if you can make an omnitalented omnivocational character in this game - if you can, I imagine it would take several centuries.

Equipping your characters is an expensive proposition, but it's a ton of fun. You get to see the aesthetic effects of equipment as you put it on - imagine that, a game where your equipment is actually visible in the field and in battle! - so it kind of becomes a fun dress-up game. And let's face it gentlemen, how many opportunities do we get to indulge in this kind of thing without shame? You can also make gold-farming easier by checking the game's built-in monster list and seeing which ones drop the greatest amounts of gold. Useful, that - saves a trip to GameFAQs. But that also prevents you from getting off the couch, which you will probably have to remind yourself to do if you are playing this game. You'll probably be stuffing your DS into your back pocket and checking in on your grinding periodically while you hang up the laundry. By "you" I mean me and by "[probably will] be" I mean I already did this the other day.

It's a good thing the in-game sources of information are rich, because the game has a vast amount of little things to do. There's a plot, but it serves largely to open up new areas and things to do. Y'know, you save the world again. It has about the same depth as Legend of Legaia, but less urgency. There's one well-written non-player character whose unintentional malapropisms make me laugh. There are also a lot of beautiful, emotional scenes. Your hero is kind of like The Littlest Hobo - popping in to help and then moving on. It often works really well.

But other than that, especially when there's only one real player character, there's only so much they can do. I mean, you can't even see yourself in the pre-rendered scenes, since you designed your character yourself. (So much for a dual-cartridge animated epic!) So the game is forced to rely on its own graphics for the vast, vast majority of scenes. Fortunately, it squeezes everything it can out of the DS. Good thing, because the game is done in vector graphics - no PlayStation Final Fantasy pre-rendered field screens here! (And I kind of lament that, even though vectors are so much more flexible. I guess cartridge games still don't have quite enough storage.)

The characters are a mixture of game-rendering and sprites - your party members are always game-rendered, though, and all characters are rendered during cutscenes. Anyway, when you see the sprites, it's kind of like playing Xenogears all over again, except the camera is fixed. It's fixed well, though - you never have to worry about it.

But there are some oddities. In one town there's an elevator. You get on and expect to see the floor move up inside the enclosure, or something along those lines. Instead the outside wall columns move up with you, too, and they look different on different floors. I can't believe that got past the testers - it looks ridiculous. Doesn't anybody at Enix know how to animate a lift? You need more than a sound effect and moving the camera closer to the scene.

In this same town is the portal to the multiplayer aspect of the game, unfortunately it's all local multiplayer. I was vastly disappointed by this - I'd bought the game expecting to be exchanging friend codes and teaming up with folks I know on a semi-regular basis. I suppose it means I have an excuse to go to their houses if they'll have me. The game does use Wi-Fi Connection, though - after a certain point in the plot you'll be able to shop for new items and download new quests. I really like that kind of expandability. Given how insanely popular Dragon Quest is in Japan, they might be adding things for a good while yet. (But a 40/40? Really, Famitsu? Could be a difference of culture and taste, I guess.)

A lot is made of the fact that there is only one save slot for this game. I agree that's egregious. It's like going back to Final Fantasy Legend. But there are virtually no missable things in the game - you wouldn't need to go back to the prior saves if you could make them. (Here's the one significant missable thing I know of: When you get the Ultimate Key and wind up back at the Observatory, open those locked chests that were there at the start of the game. I haven't gotten this far yet.) Unfortunately, you probably won't be playing this game more than once unless you buy a second copy. There is no, absolutely no way you are erasing a (near) perfect file. You'd trade your major organs first.

Things in the towns change slightly depending on the "time of day" and inns offer you the ability to stay until nightfall or through to the following morning. It's interesting and well implemented. The save mechanism I am not quite so fond of, including its association with revealed religion, but one feature of Dragon Quest series is that getting killed means going back to the place of the save and being liberated of half your current funds. Fortunately for the power gamers, there is a bank for long-term savings.

To sum up:

+   Pretty good NPCs
+   Pleasing graphics
-   No player-characters with dialouge (though I can handle there being a silent protagonist, there aren't playable people who talk to go with him or her)
--  One save slot
--  Antiquated battle system
--- No Wi-Fi Connection multiplayer

More thoughts after I finish, which should be before the two Chinas reunite, but maybe after the two Koreas do.

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