Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dragon Quest IX At Goodwill?!

There is a certain sort of game that one expects to find when trolling Goodwill. That's not to say that I never expect to find good games there, but it usually more offbeat or older stuff. A good example of the sort of stuff I've bought from Good Will is the PC version of NBA Hangtime, which is a fun game, but it is pretty old and I wasn't even aware there was a PC version. I never expect to see newer games, with the exception of abject failures like Tony Hawk Shred, so I was quite surprised to see two basically new copies of last year's Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies. It may not have been the highest selling game, but it did pretty well for a Dragon Quest game in the US.

I have a strange history with the Dragon Quest series, in that I mostly don't have one. I like JRPGs, but I don't play a whole lot of them, so I guess it is sort of understandable how I never really made time for it. Theoretically I should have loved the series at some point, but I guess the timing was never right. During the JRPG's heyday of the Playstation era the series was in a pretty big rut, so it makes sense that it never pulled me in when I was most susceptible to that sort of thing.

This was also the time when emulation was picking up steam, and I remember specifically firing up Nesticle to see what the deal was with this whole Dragon Warrior thing. Sadly, playing the first game in the series in the late nineties is an awful way to be introduced to series because it is very unrefined. Call me ignorant, but I just can't play a game that requires a menu to do everything. I don't really want to incite war, but the original Final Fantasy's innovation of a single button that contextually opens chests or talks to people makes games that don't do this unplayable.

So, I didn't get into it then, and when the apparently amazing Dragon Quest VIII came out on the PS2 years later, I was thoroughly burned out on the genre. It's kind of funny that I never got into the series during my Dragon Ball Z period when I was younger. I mean, if I actually liked Akira Toriyama's art back then I probably would have ate this shit up like I did Chrono Trigger. I guess the stars never aligned right for Dragon Quest and I, so now that I am enjoying Dragon Quest IX as an adult I guess I have to begrudgingly accept his ctrl+C ctrl+V humanoid designs.

Dragon Quest IX begins interestingly, with some nice title screen music and then a character creation screen. Actually, the music throughout the game is all really good, which probably isn't a surprise to fans of the series, but I wasn't really prepared to like it as much as I do. Anyway, the character creation isn't particularly deep, but with the ten or so options in each category it is possible to create pretty much any Akira Toriyama character. In fact, if Dragon Quest X uses a similar system but in higher resolution I think Akira Toriyama could finally retire and publishers could just pose the character models and pretend he is still alive for years to come. I like character creation, so this really endeared me to the game right away.

The story hasn't really gripped me, but the idea of being a lost angel or whatever is kind of neat, and the stories in the different cities haven't been amazing, but pleasant enough. Speaking of pleasant, the localization and script are really nice. Characters speak in different ways and there is a lot of quirky personality to be found, and it is nice to play a game that isn't super serious and angsty all the damn time. It can be extremely punny and sometimes weird, but I can't hate a game exclaims that “The quest has been transgressed with finesse!” It's cute.

At first the mechanics of the game are solid but not particularly complicated. It is the usual JRPG stuff of walking around, talking to townspeople and killing monsters in a turn-based combat. Leveling up grants stat increases and the occasional spell or ability. Eventually the player is also awarded skill points which can be allocated to various skills, such as sword skill or shield skill, based on character's class. As more points are put into a skill the player unlocks things like special attacks or permanent attack increases with that weapon type. This is nice because it encourages specialization within a party.

Changing classes initially seems like a bad idea becomes a character's level is tied to a class, but there are advantages, such as skills and skill points carrying over, as well as the ability to use weapons that a class may not have access to. Though the game initially only allows players to use the main character, and there are no story characters that permanently joins the party, the player can recruit premade generic characters or create their own, which also encourages making a party of specialized characters. This is another feature that I really like because I like making generic characters, because it gives me a greater feeling of control over the party. Speaking of control, the other characters can be controlled directly in combat, or set to various AI routines, which is nice.

The reason for the use of generics is the most surprising part about the game. This mostly traditional JRPG is not meant to be played alone. Players can join the games of others and fight in their party, or up to three others can join the player's game. There are also special quests maps that can only be can only be obtained through an anonymous data exchange similar to the 3DS's Street Pass function. Since all of this is done over Wi-Fi and not over the internet, really favors large population centers where large amount of people are more likely to find each other. This is one of the reasons the game was a lot more successful in Japan, where there is a lot more opportunity for this type of anonymous play. The other reason it did so well in Japan is simply that it is a Dragon Quest game, and they love that shit over there.

There are a lot of little things about Dragon Quest IX that I like. Stuff like the fact that all equipment is reflected on the character model instead of having just one character model and maybe showing a different weapon. Battles could just be completely played out in first-person, like most of the other games in the series, but the third-person action during battles make things more interesting to watch. The world maps are vast and there are a lot of directions that aren't initially necessary to explore. I like that random encounters are mostly gone, with visible enemies on screen, allowing the player to approach combat and grind on his or her own terms. At just over ten hours in, I've enjoyed it a lot more than most JRPGs that I've played in the past few years, and I am shocked that I found it at a Goodwill a little over a year after its release.

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