The role-playing game has undergone a remarkable evolution over the last decade. Once, the genre was defined by its pseudo-medieval settings and slow-paced action.
But recent RPGs like “Mass Effect” and “Fallout 3” have shifted the storytelling into the future while making fighting more visceral, demanding reflexes as much as strategy.
Publisher: Nintendo/Square Enix
“Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies” ignores all that. It’s a complete throwback to classic sword-and-sorcery RPGs like “Wizardry” and “Ultima.” And it’s delightful.
The essence of “DQ IX” is as old-school as it gets: You round up a posse of diverse characters — say, warrior, mage, thief and priest — and venture into the wilderness. There are castles to explore, dungeons to loot and hundreds of monsters to slay.
The most old-fashioned element is the combat. Each time your party runs into a monster, the screen reverts to a series of menus through which you order each character to attack (physically or with magic), defend, heal or perform one of about a dozen other operations. While such “turn-based combat” has fallen out of fashion, I like the strategic emphasis, and I’m glad developer Level-5 has stuck with it.
The primary quest is suitably epic. Your character is a guardian angel who plummets to the mortal world after a cataclysm disrupts the heavens. Your assignment is to reclaim seven mystical “fyggs” that have fallen into human hands, creating all sorts of havoc. There’s an absorbing variety to these seven missions, ranging from ghost story to detective drama to a nifty Harry Potter parody set at a boarding school called Swinedimples.
That droll sense of humor pervades “DQ IX,” from its quirky characters to its wittily designed monsters, like the cruelcumber, cyclown and shocktopus. The diverse story line keeps the campaign interesting throughout its 40-hour length. And if that isn’t enough for you, the game is packed with dozens of side missions and randomly generated bonus dungeons that can easily double its length.
There are some old RPG habits I wish had been broken. The maps here are frustratingly vague, to the degree where you often have to roam aimlessly until you stumble upon major landmarks. You can’t zoom in on your destination, and you can’t write on a map (a handy trick Nintendo has used in its “Legend of Zelda” DS games). In general, “DQ IX” doesn’t make effective use of the DS technology; you can play the whole game without once whipping out the stylus.
The DS has become known for remakes of beloved RPGs like “Chrono Trigger” and the early “Final Fantasy” games. So far this year, we’ve gotten two first-rate originals. (Atlus’ “Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey” is the other.) If you’re a fan of classic role-playing — or if you want to spend 80-plus hours immersed in an alternate world — “Dragon Quest IX” is well worth the trip.
Rating: Three-and-a-half stars out of four.