Friday, January 14, 2011

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Sky

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Sky
Developer: Level 5
Publisher: Square Enix
RPG - Nintendo DS
1 player / Multiplayer WLAN
Dragon Quest IX

Best. Selling. Game. Ever.

I did not intend on playing Dragon Quest IX, but I was convinced otherwise due to its new features. Level 5 took over the helm starting from DQVIII, and introduced some new mechanics that are present here. IX ups the ante with some additional changes, most notably the addition of visible encounters. Since my main issue with V was that it was too similar to IV, I wanted to see if the jump to IX was drastic.

Well... it's not.

The good thing about that is, it feels familiar and excels at the things that Dragon Quest is good at. I personally love the narrative. It takes a Judeo-Christian influenced slant, where you play the role of a Celestrian, which is akin to an angel. In this context, you're specifically a Guardian Angel of a town. So you start the story by doing guardian angel-y type things: You'll overhear conversations of some kind of conflict or problem, and in the typical DQ fashion, you go ahead and try to help people in their distress. It's pretty comical because you also hear banter among the Celestrians, where some of them deride the folly of humans. Anyway, things start out pretty well, as you do good, receive appreciation from humans, and then present that appreciation as an offering to the Creator. But things spiral out of control really quick, as there's an attack on the heavenly realms with hints of betrayal, greed, and vengeance.

The other good thing is that the solid combat remains intact, and is not at all overshadowed by the new mechanics. I understand that VIII introduced this concept, but in IX, your main character has the ability to EGG ON your party members. Doing so costs a turn, but then raises your party member's tension one level, up to a maximum of 4 levels.

Some caveats:

- Benefits of tension at lower levels have little effect
- Doing an action with the "tense" party member makes use of that tension level, and then resets it.
- Raising tension to the max level can fail, costing a turn.

So why would you want to do it? If you successfully ramp up your tension to the max and dish out an attack, it does about 700% of your normal damage. The math still doesn't quite add up because that's 4 turns of your main character using EGG ON, and 4 turns of your other character not doing anything (to prevent tension from resetting). The last ace is that if your other character has the PSYCHE UP skill, then that character can boost their own tension in addition to the main character using EGG ON. So in the best case scenario, you'll have max tension at the end of turn 2, 4 turns altogether, + the 5th to actually attack to do 700% damage. There's a lot of factors involved, but it's definitely another strategic option for boss fights in particular.

The other battle mechanic added is bonus damage. If your party members consecutively attack an opponent, they'll form combos and gain damage bonuses. Let's say that all four members attack an enemy before the enemy has a chance to hit back. Your 1st does 1x damage. Your 2nd does 1.2x. 3rd: 1.5x. 4th: 2x. These damage bonuses also factor into strategy, as sometimes I'll attack with my priest instead of using a needed healing spell, just so that I can continue the combo and do real damage with my warrior. Of course, if your 1st attacks, your 2nd attacks (1.2x), and then the enemy attacks you, your combo is interrupted. Your 3rd member will do normal damage again. Enemies can also combo your party members too. This system adds another layer of depth to consider when you play.

Another interesting thing about this game is how it approaches classes. Your party members can switch to any class they want, but each class has its own level. So if you switch from a level 99 Warrior to a level 1 mage, your stats will plummet. The catch is, although your character stats are entirely tied to the class you currently are, there are some bonuses that carry over. Each class has its own 5 sets of skills that you can upgrade. 4 of these skills are equipment specific, so if you invest your upgrades in sword skills, as long as you use a sword, you will retain those bonuses, making your level 1 sword-wielder far more potent than a regular level 1 character. More importantly, the 5th set of skills for each class contains specialized skills that carry over. For instance, one of the skills acquired through the Sage class allows you to class change at anytime instead of being limited to the one town in the game. Once acquired, you don't have to be a Sage to continue using that skill. Some of these specialized skills also include stat bonuses like +30 Resilience, which will carry over when switching. That's how DQIX handles your character level being equivalent to your class level. As you use different classes and gain their skillsets, your "character" ultimately becomes much better. Spells, on the other hand, are class specific, so you will never be able to cast OOMPH with your Priest.

So far so good. But there's a definite downside to these systems. The benefits of Tension doesn't work unless you have characters that can PSYCHE UP themselves. Otherwise the cost/benefit analysis isn't favorable. But the only way you can get PSYCHE UP is if you upgrade the skillset in the Martial Artist class. That means to make use of this subsystem, you are forced to grind all your characters as a Martial Artist for a time. Since I didn't, that tension system was mostly useless to me. It's not a game-breaker for sure, as you don't have to use Tension to get through the game. But it would be nice if they built it better into the game by just allowing all characters to PSYCHE UP without having to grind for it. It's not a heavy investment to get, thankfully, but you do have to go out of your way to gain access to something that should have been part of the game from the beginning.

Then there's some complaints I have about this game that bugged me about DQV too. As much as I enjoyed the scenario and story in this game, it is entirely main character focused. That means your other party members are throwaway. In fact, your other party members are just hired/created hands and have no identity of their own. They are never referenced when talking to townsfolk, or moving along the plot. They exist merely to give you a party to fight with. Then there's the ability to rotate the screen for towns and dungeons. The DS DQIV remake had view rotation too, but made use of it by having items hidden from the default view. DQIX, on the other hand, is just like the DQV remake where its only use seems to be to make up for the occasionally inadequate camera angle. Disappointing.

But what's most disappointing is how Level 5 tainted things. There's some changes that can have pretty big repercussions. In general, Level 5 made things easier. For one thing, exploration is less interesting, because dungeons are all mapped out for you upon entering. That kinda takes away from the experience. Another thing I'm not sure how I feel about is that when party members die during battle, they still receive experience points. I think I kinda like(?) having to revive party members in other RPGs before the battle's end for them to get their fair share. It's almost like a risk vs reward type of thing. Then there's the visible encounters in this game. They're really handled poorly, because it lacks most of the advantages that visible encounters are supposed to give. In DQIX, enemies will appear on the screen at random, sometimes materializing on top of you. They can spot you, and rush towards you (or away from you if you're overpowered), which is nice. But it's really stupid because they can rush you, causing a battle. But the battle can say "The enemy doesn't notice your presence." What? YOU'RE THE ONE WHO ATTACKED ME! So there's inconsistencies like that, which bug me. But aside from those continuity issues, it's not all that different from random INVISIBLE encounters.

Then there's the technical deficiencies. When you have a party of four, the game can not keep up with it. The framerate stutter can be maddening, especially in towns. What's worse is that battles are now sluggish as well. Gone is the brisk pace of your standard battle, since all of the attacks and spells have to have their own animations in glorious 3D. In a game like this one, where the game structure encourages building up your character through class skills and grinding, these added seconds to every battle become a huge deal.

Finally, I forget if these are specific to DQIX or was always a part of DQ, but two things really bothered me here.

1. The archaic UI has got to go. When you're on the overworld, for instance, and cast ZING on your dead party member. Half the time, it fails. Fair enough. But to recast it, you have to select Cast Magic, scroll down to your caster again, then scroll down to the cast-ee again in order to do it. WHY CAN'T THE STUPID GAME REMEMBER. This might seem like a minor point, but when your ZING fails 8 times in a row, it's tear-your-hair-out frustrating.

2. Something more major is the order of turns in battle. Because of the way combos work in this game, where you get bonuses for successive actions, the order in which your characters take battle actions matters a whole lot. I would have thought that it's determined by a character's Agility statistic, and for the most part it is. Maybe 60% of the time, your party has a predictable order. But the other 40% seems like it's completely random. Your "slow" guy suddenly performs their attack 2nd. Your "fast" guy goes 3rd. This all happens with no rhyme or reason. I don't understand how a turn-based game can work when things like this are completely out of your control.

Dragon Quest IX just has too many flaws. None of them are game-breaking. But when there's an irritation here, and an annoyance there, it does hamper an otherwise enjoyable experience. It's a shame because there's a lot of meat here: hundreds of sub-quests, items to alchemize, secret dungeons to explore, and quite a bit of post-game content. Flaws aside, DQIX is ultimately not a different enough game for me to continue playing the series. Even 4 entries after the last DQ I played, it's too similar that I'd only recommend that a person play one in their lifetime. Just as long as it's not the first one (ugh). I still intend on finishing up the Zenithia trilogy with DQVI, but I cannot wait to retire from this series altogether.