Version tested: DS
A young woman who works tirelessly to honour her father's memory by making the inn she inherited a success. A knight caught in purgatory under a witch's spell that, down the generations, has cruelly kept him from his one true love, her memory now limited to a likeness in a distant descendent. A village brought to its knees by sickness, its mayor wheezing desperate cries for help.
The stories found within the latest Dragon Quest are as straightforward as they are affecting. While Final Fantasy has swung between overcooked Tolkien epic and sci-fi fantasy over its 20 years, Dragon Quest has never aspired to more than the fairytale yarn. Placed somewhere between Grimm and Disney in terms of narrative light and shade, its creator Yuji Horii is a masterful storyteller, and his ostensibly simple fables pack more sincerity and weight than games with 20 times their ambition.
Dragon Quest IX - a game in which you guide an angel who has lost its wings to bring redemption and help to lost, broken humans, in the hope that their gratitude may sprout him new ones - is his best work yet. A perfect storm of creative input, it pairs Horii with the warm touch of Professor Layton developer Level-5, the inspired translation work of Square Enix's best localization team, and the DS hardware itself. The result is a JRPG less concerned with gimmickry than articulating, in perfect balance, the things which always made the genre irresistible for those with eyes to see.
While it's progressive for a Dragon Quest title in dispensing with random battles and emphasising MMO-style multiplayer, placed within the broader contemporary videogame landscape, Dragon Quest IX's building blocks are humble and familiar. There is little novelty here.
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The main story is entirely linear, with numbered, World of Warcraft-style side-quests that are ticked off as they're completed. Your party, composed of characters you design and name yourself, can be assigned one of a handful of classes each, and their development trees are limited to weapon specialisations upgraded with a clutch of skill points at level up. Battles are fast and straightforward and the new emphasis on customisation and questing with friends over Wi-Fi, while new to the series, is covered in Monster Hunter's fingerprints.
But it's in the execution and balance of these components that the game inspires wonder. Character development is pitched in perfect balance with your reach into the world and sweetened by a drip-feed of meaningful rewards and new features as the hours roll by.
The game finds its backbone in Horii's deft pacing of the story. Your wider mission is always clear: help people, earn their praise (which finds substance in "benevolessence") and, wings crossed, you'll make it back to heaven. This conceit breaks the game into a series of short-term goals wrapped up in narrative vignettes.
You make it to a new town, find out what the social problem is, and set about fixing it. Once done, you'll have a raft of new friends, a gauge full of benevolessence and an instruction for which hill to head over in search of the next story.
The set-up keeps the cast of NPCs transient and fresh. Set within these wider missions, you'll also encounter men and women, both living and dead, who ask for help with micro-tasks, unaware that there's an angel in their midst. In particular, there's keen satisfaction to be found in aiding those souls caught in purgatory, unable to move on because of some unfinished business on earth. Solving their riddles in order to bring spiritual release is consistently rewarding, with echoes of Chrono Trigger as you work to fix the world, one life at a time.
Like modern Japan, with its schizophrenic mixture of Shinto shrines and Christian wedding ceremonies, Dragon Quest IX is a melting pot of theological influences. One moment you're freeing souls from Catholic purgatory, the next watching over a village like a Buddhist guardian. You save your game in churches and, if any of your party are killed in battle, you'll need to drag them to the nearest priest (they tag along behind you in miniature coffins) in order to be resurrected. One devout NPC finds herself uninspired to pray and so calls upon you to perform some air punches and pirouettes to raise her faith.