For years, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies sat in a pile of impulse game purchases with very good reviews. I’d ignored the franchise since the original Dragon Warrior on the NES, shards of which were embedded in my head. The Brecconary music. The Cursed Belt. Gold Slimes. How many steps to true love?
I created a character in 2010, played through the prologue, got distracted and dropped the game into the pile. When I started it up years later, I was welcomed back with a very helpful, clever and well-written “The story so far…” paragraph. Why don’t all games do this?
The plot is just weird enough to be interesting and cutscenes are employed in all the right places. You assume the role of a Celestrian (basically an angel) serving the Almighty; you have been assigned to a Protectorate—a human town, far below. Something goes horribly wrong, resulting in the loss of your wings and halo, and you get stranded on Earth. Your only ally is a mean fairy who probably sautéed and ate Tingle for breakfast. You’ll spend a lot of time in churches, begging the Almighty to save your game (“Confession”) or remove curses.
It was easy to get into Sentinels, a game that made me want to enroll in some classes just so I could skip school to play it like Japanese kids do. This is the rollicking, enjoyable portable old-school RPG that Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light [a sluggish, boring, confusing mess with occasional moments of brilliance] tried to be, but most of the reviews of Sentinels focus on the multiplayer angle. I’m unable to try it since I don’t have any friends who are cool enough to pick this bad boy up, but the single player experience is worth it if you’re in the mood for something story-driven that manages to feel both traditional and modern. The experimental aspects of it don’t feel tacked on; when a solo player uncovers something intended for multiple players, it’s explained away seamlessly.
Combat is turn-based and includes special abilities that recharge over time. Level grinding, while present, is kept to a minimum. Boss battles are a big deal, and the psychologically traumatized boss mobs (most have a long story behind them) will wipe the floor with you. Many features mimic an MMO: all twelve character classes can be specialized via skill points. There are no random encounters. A full quest system is integrated into the main story. Achievements are awarded for [occasionally ridiculous] milestones. The world changes as your story progresses, which feels like phasing. The day and night cycle gives you two takes on every location you visit.
The other members of your party (once you’ve completed the prologue) don’t have personalities; they can be custom-created. I barely noticed their silence, thanks to the ridiculous amount of flavor and humor baked into the rest of the game. You will hit your head on cave ceilings if you try to use a teleportation wing indoors. You will be told to stand on the correct side of a sign to read it. Item descriptions are a snarky, alliterative riot and absolutely nothing was overlooked in terms of detail. The dungeons are exciting and just the right length. The sheer diversity of available armor and weapons is a nice touch, although it might make you feel silly on occasion; at one point my poor hero was wearing a school blazer with chainmail gauntlets and a pair of French-cut underpants.
The game is 40+ hours long and the world is huge. Space was obviously a problem for series composer Koichi Sugiyama and sadly the music is a weak point—there is just far too little of it. While the towns vary in terms of dialect and atmosphere, the music doesn’t. The game also has a strange tendency to go silent right when it shouldn’t—as a train takes off for the heavens or a building collapses. It also has a nasty case of RPG Battle Music Disease—every non-boss battle uses the same music, and it gets old fast. On the other hand, I could listen to the Observatory music 86 times in a row:
If you have a week to spare and feel like trying something funny and comfortable but not easy, Dragon Quest IX might hit the spot.