Dragon Quest IX is every bit as epic as a Legend Of Zelda game, funnier than anything we've seen on the DS and if it's one of the finest crafted games anywhere, that's because DQ laid the foundations other RPGs now use as standard. Experience points, battle menus and turn-based encounters all gained prominence because of the Dragon Quest series.
This time our hero is a guardian angel who starts out in a small village with only a few basic possessions. You must explore and communicate with the townsfolk while indulging in a bit of light thievery from people's homes to augment your meagre inventory. You recruit a sidekick before heading out into the great wide yonder to see what you can find.
The template is familiar and it works without a hitch, but this is in fact the main bugbear we had with the game. If you're unfortunate enough to never have played a Dragon Quest game before, then lucky you - there's no better place to start than here. When you've been playing them for years, then that familiarity does tend to breed just a tiny bit of contempt. DQIX's strength is also its weakness.
Yet there are plenty of additions which freshen the experience up for series veterans and for newcomers, the perfectly judged learning curve will help.
Beyond the safety of the village lies an enormous world of green pastures, brilliant blue oceans and countless towns, villages, retreats, boltholes and country pads. Towns are buzzing with life while the wider world is peppered with roaming monsters and the potential to increase your hero's vital stats.
The visuals improve upomn those in DQ VI - we've got buildings and characters modelled in polygons and a camera placed to give you a wider view of it all. The effect is a warm, inviting game - as you wander through the land you'll actually see monsters hopping about in real time. Gone are the random battles which often scuppered you in previous games - now you can skip past a monster if your health is running low.
The battles have you taking turns to trade blows after you've selected what you want to do on the touch screen. There are Attack, Ability, Spell, Use Item and Defend options, and these are joined by a new option - a randomly generated special ability which all your characters can call upon - it'll deal a devastating critical strike, or it might allow a character to cast spells without draining his magic points.
No Experience Needed
In the early stages of the game you'll rocket up through the experience levels, improving your band of brawlers greatly in no time at all. Within a couple hours of play you'll be swelling your party's ranks with a visit to the Quester's Rest Inn in the second major town you visit, Stornway. You'll meet the sassy barmaid, Patty, whose role in the game is to allow you to custom create party members to join you on your quest.
Creating your own party is a move which makes you invest more in how they fare in battles. At the very start of the game you create your hero from scratch before kitting out the rest of your party. When you've put all that effort in, the last thing you want to do is see them pummelled. Amusingly, if this does happen, their coffin will follow you around until they can be resurrected in a church - but they'll miss out on experience points in the meantime.
There's a reason that Level-5 has given you a more hands-on approach with your party: social gaming. When you're in range of another DQIX player, you can ask to hop into his or her world, or vice versa. It's not just a case of joining in a series of battles; you actually jump into another person's quest. That means you explore with them and fight with them. Channel Hopper
The overarching story can be enjoyed by yourself or with company. As you travel from town to town, you jump between subplots and each little town has its own melodrama going on. Humour, contagious diseases, long lost love, time-travelling spirit knights - it's all here, delivered with a hearty, knowing wink...
So don't be put off by the menus or the twee visuals - this is one of the grandest adventures you'll ever play, and that it has all been squeezed into the DS is almost worth another plus point down there.
This is an edited version of a review that appears in issue 58 of Official Nintendo Magazine. For more in-depth analysis, screenshots and boxouts buy the magazine here!