Every video-game genre began when one game ventured into new territory. Donkey Kong set the stage for platformers, for example, and SimCity popularized simulation titles. But for RPGs, fewer have been as influential as Dragon Quest. Final Fantasy might get credit more often, but it's an honor that should be shared. If Final Fantasy is the Meriwether Lewis of RPGs, then Dragon Quest is the William Clark—and when the original Dragon Quest was released for the NES in 1986, it paved the way for the RPG we recognize today.
That year, Enix launched the first in a series that would eventually sell over 53 million units worldwide. There have been nine main titles since, as well as spinoffs, over 50 volumes of manga, and a TV show. Japanese convenience stores are festooned with Dragon Quest posters and adverts when a new release approaches, and there's a Dragon Quest-themed bar in Tokyo. The franchise has also set several Guinness World Records, such as "Fastest Selling Game in Japan" and "First Video Game to Inspire a Ballet."
While it's struggled to reach such an intimidating level of popularity outside of Japan, Dragon Quest games have traditionally received critics' approval, and have been acknowledged as role-playing trailblazers. Gameplay has helped introduce, among other things: customizable characters, random battles, overhead perspectives on a world map, and vanquishing monsters to accrue experience points. Along with Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest has, arguably, constructed the modern console RPG.
The latest edition, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, debuted on Nintendo DS last week, and July 2009 in Japan. Predictably, the game met massive acclaim in that country. It warrants kudos elsewhere as well.
Players begin Sentinels of the Starry Skies by creating a main character from scratch. Gender, eye, hair and skin colors, body type, and haircut are all yours for the tweaking. This character, who's a silent protagonist (another hallmark of earlier Japanese RPGs), is a member of a guardian angel clan called Celestrians. They live in an Observatory in the sky, and when they assist their mortal protectorates on Earth, the angels acquire a magical substance called "Benevolessence." This force nourishes Yggdrasil, a magical tree that grants Celestrians power. But one day, an unknown beam of light attacks the Observatory, effectively flinging your character down to Earth—without halo and wings. As you suddenly find yourself in the very land you've been assigned to protect (without your powers), you must find a way back to the Observatory, all while getting to the bottom of the mysterious assault.
Sentinels of the Starry Skies gets points for a creative premise, as well as for departing from its predecessors in a few ways. It's the first Dragon Quest game to ditch random battles, and they've included a "coup de grâce" ability, a sort of super attack in the ilk of Final Fantasy limit breaks. But it also utilizes the traditional, turn-based battle system it helped to mainstream in the role-playing universe. While it doesn't feel dated, it is rather uninventive. Like other RPG and strategy games, your characters (whom you also create from scratch) assume different vocations (there are at least six) that have different abilities. For example, priests specialize in healing magic; warriors are heavy, lance-hurling physical hitters.
However, a historic difference between Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy has been character interaction and development. The trend continues in the ninth installment. Your party members have no dialogue or personalities, and simply disappear during important scenes. While you're able to control everything else about your characters, don't expect them to be fleshed out beyond skills and appearances.
The graphics take full advantage of the DS, with cute, crisp inhabitants and settings designed by Akira Toriyama, the same artist behind Chrono Trigger and Dragon Ball. It's easy and intuitive to navigate this world using either the d-pad or the stylus.
The jejune soundtrack isn't bad, but could be better. Final Fantasy (and any other games' music Nobuo Uematsu's composed) has shown us what music can do for an RPG. It can enliven, enrich, and humanize. Sentinels of the Starry Skies simply provides appropriate, acceptable background noise. Additionally, there's no voice acting, but that shouldn't be a problem if you're into the old-school, text-heavy, "talk to everyone" mentality. And thanks to the amazing localization, talking to people is a delight. In this way, Sentinels of the Starry Skies is a polished product that tends to detail, even if the soundtrack isn't exceptional.
One of the game's biggest draws is its replay value. Side quests abound, and the alchemy system, which allows you to combine items to create rarer, more potent ones, will keep you busy. Party members can be outfitted in hundreds of unique equipment, granting you the choice between fashion and function. Not to mention the difficulty and length—expect to cross the finish line at around 40 hours, and that's assuming you're a seasoned player.
And with its multilayered multiplayer mode, Sentinels of the Starry Skies has truly revolutionized the Dragon Quest series. One player can choose to "host" friends on his or her game card, allowing friends to roam the host's version of the game; a parallel universe of sorts. Friends can act independently of the host player, and can still explore, battle and gain experience points, gold and treasures.
Additionally, you can attract other players' characters to a hotel that acts as a sort of hub in one-player mode (it's where you can change party members, alchemize, initialize multiplayer and so forth). You can simply leave the game on, close your DS, and go about your day. If you walk past somebody who's also carrying Sentinels of the Starry Skies and is doing the same thing, both of your characters will appear in each other's hotels. From there, the new guest can share hidden treasure maps with you, as yours delivers a piece of dialogue you've prepared beforehand. These maps launch optional side quests in randomly designed dungeons that you can, in turn, share with your friends.
So, looking at the whole package, what can you expect from this Dragon Quest adventure? It's a decidedly classic formula that's been enhanced with multiplayer and social gaming elements, a refined presentation on a solid handheld and offers massive replay opportunity. Whether you've grown up on the franchise, or wondered why the Japanese have made it one of the most popular in video-game history, this member of the RPG founding family comes highly recommended.