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.
Despite the religious inconsistency in the world, the underlying message, like the fairytales it apes, is coherent and unflinching: be kind, be generous, hope for thanks but don't bank on it, and do unto others as you would have them do to you. In the absence of one singular, focal point character of evil in the world, the demons that need exorcising here - disease, poverty and low self-esteem - give the game's message unusual profundity, especially in comparison to the villains and villainesses found in Final Fantasy.
Despite Square Enix's insistence that Dragon Quest IX has been designed with the foreigner in mind, this is an unmistakably Japanese creation whose wider features are relevant to that country alone. It's possible to set your console to Canvass mode, whereby you close the DS and place it in your bag while it sends out a beacon signal to those around you.
Should it find another DS in the same mode, then that person's character is added to a giant room in an inn, where you can check their character's name, level and experience and receive rare items and maps for your trouble. This innovation makes sense when sat in a carriage on Tokyo's Yamanote loop line, where you'll likely pick up 25 new characters each commute. But in a quiet, leafy village in Suffolk? Not so much.
In Japan, the release of a new Dragon Quest game is akin to a new Harry Potter novel: a cultural event that transcends both the genre and medium's fans. As such, the game's multiplayer mode, whereby you can open your game world for anyone to join and quest with you (with the incentive of increased experience gains for their trouble) is tailored to the Japanese playground, where every child is forgoing their bento box for an hour's questing and showing off their rare clothing to classmates. But again, it's more effort elsewhere.
Happily, that effort is well worth it, as Level-5 has integrated one of the finest and most seamless multiplayer modes in any handheld title, one that slips from single- to multiplayer with an ease and lack of fuss that puts many of its PC and console rivals to shame.
There are internal negatives. The fact that you never quite know in which order your party will attack an enemy makes strategy in the more demanding battles difficult and scuppers the feature whereby successive attacks increase a damage multiplier bonus until the chain is broken. Likewise, the slowdown that often hits the game when exploring with a full party in tow sometimes tips over the threshold of acceptability.
But these are minor niggles in a creation that enjoys a delightful, broad-sweep vision peppered with exquisite detail. Not only the bravest and best of its series, but also a multiplayer adventure game that betters anything yet seen on the DS, Dragon Quest IX takes its place at the pinnacle of orthodox JRPG gaming.
There's a childlike simplicity in its approach to story and systems that may put off older players who prefer complication and convolution. But Dragon Quest IX cleanses the palate with its straightforwardness, allowing the workmanship to shine, and its clutch of nested fairytales to inspire.
9 / 10
Dragon Quest IX is released on 11th July in North America and on 23rd July in Europe.