While I’ve never been enough of a JRPG nerd that I learned to read Japanese just to be a purist (although I did play all the fan translations of the “missing” installments of the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series long before the official versions came out in the US), one of the reasons I even got a Nintendo DS was just so I could play DQ IX. My expectations were maybe a bit too high, since I really enjoyed VIII for staying true to the series’ conservative nature (as opposed to Final Fantasy which left behind the medieval fantasy roots it once shared with its sister franchise over a decade ago) while offering a story that expanded far beyond the “Big Bad terrorizes the world, so go kill him” stock plot the series is known for.
I assumed that IX would go in the same direction, since it also featured a fairly unique premise fit for a JRPG epic. Your silent avatar this time is an angel (well, “Celestial”) assigned to watch over a backwater village. The Celestials don’t protect humanity out of the goodness of their hearts, however; people’s gratitude and faith actually produces a type of energy the Celestials use to feed the World Tree, which they believe will one day fully blossom and somehow allow them to return to their long-missing Creator (now there’s a theological concept for you; your guardian angels feed off your faith like mosquitoes!). However, a mysterious catastrophe devastates the Celestials’ home, causing the magic “fyggs” from the World Tree – and your avatar – to fall to the Earth.
It’s a good premise, but it’s little more than that. Unlike VIII, which broke from series tradition by having a villain you actually encounter many times before the final battle, you don’t get to see the antagonist until about 3/4 through. Also, while not only VIII but arguably all the installments since way back with IV had fairly large “casts,” with IX it’s just you and a sassy black fairy (oh, Japan!) who comments during the cut-scenes. You do have a party, but they’re just a group of personality-less mooks you gather yourself and who vanish completely during cut-scenes. It’s like the party is just your avatar’s imaginary friends.
It’s probably unfair for me to criticize this game for treating its own plot like an afterthought, because it seems like it’s a feature, not a bug. The appeal of the game is actually from its customizing features and bonuses, which includes the ability to determine the characteristics of your avatar and party members right down to their height and skin color and from bonus quests and dungeons, more of which can be downloaded. The game itself also pushes its online features, which let you interact and explore dungeons with other players. You can, of course, get through at least the game’s entire plotline without ever going through its MMORPG aspects, but I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that pushed its online features like a Mormon missionary.
At a time when JRPGs, at least in the United States, are being criticized for being too linear and for being just movies with less genuine interactivity than a “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” novel, it’s more than understandable why they went this route with DQ IX. And it’s fine, except, well…most of the quests are boring.
Most of the quests just boil down to “Get x and y items” or “Keep fighting battles with certain types of monsters until z happens.” Now maybe this is a cultural thing, coming out of the same impulse that makes the Japanese love collecting exotic Kit-Kat flavors. But when I played Final Fantasy XII, which had the same bonus quest concept, I wasn’t actually dreading going on the quests. Admittedly some of them were also basically treasure hunts, but even then most involved fighting strong enemies you wouldn’t otherwise encounter or at least made you go to areas of the world map the story wouldn’t send you to, not just visiting the same spots where items respawn or fighting the same monsters hoping that the odds would give you what you need. Bonus quests in JRPGs should give you a fun way to level grind or give you something to do if you want to take a break from the main plot; otherwise it’s like getting homework in the middle of your video game. Hell, I had more fun declining Latin nouns than playing some of DQ IX‘s bonus quests.
I don’t mean to give too bad an oppression of this game. It’s still a fun JRPG, with a beautifully depicted animated world from Akira Toriyama and with a good challenge level that will remind the hardcore of the 8-bit era. Of course, it partially achieves this difficulty by making it harder to develop your characters’ special abilities than it was in VII and VIII, but at least there’s still more strategy to character development than just “Level up!” Also Anglophiles should be happy that, like the last installment, the game comes across as British as a Doctor Who/Who’s Being Served? crossover. My main complaint is that the game didn’t achieve a happier medium between its emphasis on gameplay and bonuses, and its storytelling. Hopefully that balance will be there once X inevitably rolls around.