For me, role-playing games are about fascinating personalities and epic narratives. Remove these elements and you just have an action game with enhanced character customization options.
Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, a new RPG for the Nintendo DS that comes to our shores after enjoying massive success in Japan, delivers a good story-we're provided a sweeping tale about a fallen Celestrian (i.e. angel) who must explore a vast world and help countless mortals as he works to regain his stripped wings and halo-but one bereft of any interesting playable characters.
Here's the problem: Aside from our main hero, none of our party members have a back story. We recruit and create them from scratch at an inn and can dismiss and replace them at any point. They have no motives and they never talk. They're just silent, disposable muscle.
Why would Square Enix, the largest and most respected RPG maker in Japan, make such a drastic change in design to one of its most beloved franchises?
To facilitate multiplayer, of course.
While it is entirely possible to play through Dragon Quest IX without ever joining or being joined by another player, the game was designed from the ground up so that four players could hook up over a local area network. Your hero can enter other players' worlds and others can enter yours. Plus, an innovative "Tag" mode allows players in close proximity to share their characters automatically even when they aren't playing and their consoles are snapped shut.
This is neat tech, to be sure, and it's all fine and dandy. But it comes at the expense of the solo campaign. The reason we don't have any interesting party members with their own compelling stories and side quests is so that characters created by other players can be added to our party without affecting the flow of the story. After all, no one would choose to add some stranger's bespoke mage to their party if it meant dropping a character with integral narrative purpose.
What really bugs me is that I'm not convinced that western players are as engaged or enthralled by this sort of multiplayer play as their eastern counterparts. Cramped populations, cultural differences in the way gaming is perceived, and the near ubiquity of Nintendo's handheld among many segments of the population have helped close proximity multiplayer gaming thrive in Japan.
My experience suggests that it's not nearly as popular here.
I've been playing Dragon Quest IX for 10 days post-release in crowded public urban spaces (airports, malls, restaurants, transit) and I've yet to encounter another player canvassing for guests or have any other characters migrate to my DS while in Tag mode.
What does this mean? The story is taking a beating to make room for a feature that few players will even use.
The shame of it all is that I'm quite enjoying virtually every other aspect of the game.
The writing is terrific. It's filled with broad jokes and clever turns of phrase (example: "The Curious Crevice quest has been transgressed with finesse!"). Reading text is one of the highlights of the game.
And the enormous world is filled with loads of locations and secrets just waiting to be discovered. This is a massive game the same size as previous entries in the series, despite its diminutive platform. Expect to spend dozens of hours looking for treasure, finding equipment recipes and the necessary ingredients to make them, and completing scores of side missions for random non-player characters.
Battles are fun, too. Extremely speedy, the traditional turn-based action is enjoyable without getting in the way of exploration. We can set general tactics to our party members to let them fend for themselves and pick our battles by choosing whether to bump into monsters we find roaming the wild. The fighting is perhaps a bit too easy in field battles, but that just makes for easy leveling. The boss battles are usually more challenging.
And there's just enough loot collection for it to be exciting and not feel like a burden. I found that I would dive into the character management screens once every half hour or so to see if I had collected any fun new weapons or pieces of armour. There are more than 1000 equip-able items in the game, and each one changes the appearance of your characters.
Most importantly, it's just plain playable. The learning curve will be virtually non-existent for fans of the genre, and its swift pacing may well keep some players glued to the screen for hours at a time (assuming they have the time). It's a classic, accessible, expertly crafted Japanese role-playing experience.
However, without a party full of compelling characters the game lacks heart. Imagine playing through Final Fantasy VII with a crew of random mutes rather than Tifa, Barret, and Cid, or exploring the world of Dragon Age: Origins with a group of generic, speechless dwarves, elves, and mages rather than Morrigan, Leliana, and Oghren. It just wouldn't be the same.
I'm more than 20 hours into the story, and the action and exploration is engaging enough to ensure that I'll play through to the game's end. But will it prove as memorable as, say, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, which had such well-developed and fascinating personalities as a princess turned into a horse, a one-time bandit trying to overcome prejudice and walk the straight and narrow, and a beautiful sorceress seeking revenge for her slain brother?
I have my doubts.
I'm all for multiplayer RPGs, but when they start messing with the single-player experience I have to protest.
Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
Platform: Nintendo DS
Developer: Square Enix
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