Review: Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (Nintendo DS)

In this review, we protect our flock in the Nintendo DS game Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies. We find out how well this RPG game plays.

This game was released in 2010 and is the ninth game in the main series.

Our knowledge is quite extensive in this series. We first played Dragon Warrior for the NES. That game ended up being pretty mediocre. After that, we tried Dragon Warrior II. That game wound up being a flop for us. After that, we tried Dragon Warrior III. That game ended up being barely passable. From there, we tried Dragon Warrior IV. That game wound up being fairly mediocre.

Moving on, we tried Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride. That game did end up being fairly decent. After that, we tried Dragon Quest VI: Realm of Revelation. That game wound up just barely scraping by with a passable grade. From there, we tried Dragon Warrior VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past. That game ended up bombing for us. Finally, we tried Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King. That game ended up being a pretty solid game all around.

So, with all this knowledge behind us, we push through to this game.

The story of this game is that you are an otherworldly guardian protecting the village of Angel Falls. You are training under the guidance of another Celestrian. The villagers can’t see you, but give thanks for the ways you are helping them out. This concept is not too dissimilar from Realm of Revelation where you are invisible to other characters. Your goal is to collect benevolence for whenever humans give thanks to you for your deeds.

With this benevolence, you take this to the Yggdrasil which is growing on top of the observatory. According to prophecy, enough benevolence will allow it to bloom. The day eventually arrives, but tragedy strikes when the observatory is attacked by an unknown force.

Eventually, you wake up with halo and wings gone. Additionally, humans can see you. After your recovery, you set out on a quest to discover what happened and how to save the world from tragedy.

If you’ve played other games in this series, a lot is the same from the previous games. Battle is turned based. You collect experience points to level up for each victory. Gold is also earned through battle and collecting items. This gold is used to buy equipment and items.

There are three stores: item shops to buy general usable items. The armour shop is used to buy items you can equip to protect yourself in battle. Weapon shops sell weapons that will help with your offensive capabilities.

Sometimes, while levelling up, you are able to distribute skill points to help improve various aspects of your characters capabilities. Sometimes it’s increasing your weapons skills. Other times, you are improving your defensive capabilities. Other skills miscellaneous skills specific to your vocation is also available.

At some point, you’ll be able to organize a party. This certainly hearkens back to some of the games on the NES where you were able to just build your party. This concept is brought back in this game. You can call upon a character with specific vocations. Whether it is building whole new characters from scratch or using characters from a prebuilt list, you are given a lot of options at the very beginning.

While the previous game does not have vocations, this game brings this concept back. At some point, you are given the opportunity to switch vocations. This can help you improve your characters capabilities in certain skills or maybe even help you farm skill points. Whatever the reason, you’ll be able to explore all aspects of different vocations.

What is somewhat new is that half of the vocations are locked away under certain quests. Complete those quests and gain access to more specialized vocations. Just be warned that when you switch vocations, your level will be pulled all the way back to 1. Your levels will be saved in other vocations, but starting out can be tough. You’ll also get some experience points penalties at the beginning. This seems to prevent characters from levelling quickly in tougher battles.

A somewhat newer concept is the immense number of side quests players are offered. These side quests are by and large optional, but can yield great rewards in the process. In all, there are well over 100 side-quests for you to undertake.

A new feature in this game is the treasure maps. At some point, you’ll be able to obtain a treasure map. It will populate a location randomly on the world map. Activate the map and go to the location on the map. If you get a “!” above your head, you can reveal a grotto location. Enter the grotto and you might be able to get some great treasure (or, at the very least, score some much needed experience and gold in the process). Some of these dungeons are known for their difficulty, though, so it may be wise to wait a bit once you get your first map. One of the prizes for clearing a map is another map to a tougher dungeon.

One way this game improves on things is that equipment and item management has been improved. Now, equipped items are shown separately from regular items. This, of course, beats having a mere 4 or 5 slots for items like previous games. This improvement alone does help this franchise catch up to some of the innovations found on SNES RPG games in my view. While this seems like a backhanded compliment, this franchise is well known for being slow to embrace improvements made by other games out there.

The way this game handles vocations is definitely odd. It almost penalizes players for taking on multiple vocations. For instance, if you learned a heal spell through the priest, if you chance your vocation, you’ll more than likely “forget” that spell and almost start from scratch. To our knowledge, not a lot of skills you learn in one vocation transfers over to the other. The equipment skills seem to be an exception to the rule where if you dump 100 skill points into it, you’ll get the “omnivocational” skill. This allows players to transfer that skill over to the other vocations. While some form of penalty is probably expected, the penalties seem to be exceptionally severe when players make switches like that.

A positive this game has is that this game has a lot of optional content. That can greatly increase the life expectancy of the game. Just trying to complete all the optional quests alone generally means this roughly 40-50 hour game easily soars into the 100 hour range. Throw in those treasure maps and you seemingly have a game that can last hundreds of hours. Of course, this all depends on how invested you are in the game in the first place. This can either mean a great game becomes the best game ever or an average game with a lot of content that can be skipped. It truly depends on how captivated you are with this game.

For me, a negative with this game is the difficulty curve. For a large portion of the game, it was almost too easy. It is actually possible to skip a whole dungeon by accident and all you’d notice is that the difficulty jumped a bit, but the game is still manageable. This can lead to a false sense of security because towards the last few stages in the game, the difficulty spikes by quite a bit. When I found myself farming Liquid Metal Slimes, I actually thought that the last bit of the game would end up having a pushover difficulty and that I was almost cheating. Then, I encountered the Lieutenant boss fight where I was basically instantly killed at level 40. So, the difficulty swung back the other way and was basically like the early games that killed all the enjoyment.

A spillover problem with this game is, of course, navigation. This ends up being a somewhat minor problem throughout, but it still is a problem. You can very easily end up skipping a dungeon by accident. This is through, say, thinking that a locked door means you’ll be back later or walking past a dirt road by accident. Another one is when you start sailing with your ship and end up going the wrong direction. The game isn’t that good at telling you where you need to go next. It seemingly assumes you know all that when you probably don’t on your first run. While it can be pretty straight forward to get back on track, it’s still a problem.

Generally speaking, this franchise is known for just resting on its laurels and pushing the same thing over and over again is a sure-fire method of success. This game is no exception. While there are small improvements overall, it winds up being an all too familiar formula with improvements that should have happened about 3 or 4 systems ago. The difficulty curve is once again problematic for this game. When you are 9 games in, you’d think this is something developers would finally get right. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Navigation has issues on top of it all. So, this ends up being a pretty average play.

Graphically speaking, this game is a letdown. In the previous game, there was a move away from 2D graphics to 3D graphics. This change was a badly needed one. When this series moved back to the handheld, it’s almost as if the developers were overjoyed that they could break out the same 2D sprites they’ve used for so many other games in the past. Unfortunately, technology has changed greatly since the Game Boy Advance days. Seeing NPCs and scenery still stick with 2D sprites makes this game dated. While I can appreciate how customizeable characters are, this game still winds up being pretty dated in the end. This game would struggle to compete against launch titles for the system, but this game was released at the end of the DS lifespan. So, average and outdated in my view.

Audio isn’t that much better. I honestly struggle to think of one memorable song. The soundtrack works to keep the game from being monotonous, but nothing more then that. Meanwhile, the sound effects are quite basic. Some are even hold overs from the NES days. To make matters worse, there’s seemingly no voice acting or samples – something the system is more than capable of supporting. So, it flops here.

Overall, this game winds up being a pretty disappointing play. With how much things improved from the previous game, I had high hopes for this game. Unfortunately, a lot of what is found here is a step backwards for the series. A problematic difficulty curve and navigational issues are two problems that plagues this game. While there are improvements in this game, these improvements are only the most minor of ones because developers seemingly felt that they had to make them. With average graphics and dull audio, this game winds up being rather forgettable.

Furthest point in game: Characters at level 40. Died fighting the lieutenant at Gittingham Palace.

General gameplay: 17/25
Replay value: 6/10
Graphics: 6/10
Audio: 2/5

Overall rating: 62%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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