But Dragon Quest IX had quickly gained the reputation of being the Nintendo DS RPG, so I wasn’t going to miss out on this event. I plugged away at the game for hours, over 30 in total, but then I stopped. I turned it off one day last August and that was it. I tried getting back into the game a few times, but each time I died quickly or was completely lost on where to go next.
It’s almost a little disappointing to me that I don’t really have a good immediate reason on why I quit, but maybe I can tease something out of myself with a little mind dumping.
For the uninitiated, Dragon Quest IX is an old school Japanese role-playing game reborn in 2010. No, it’s is (surprisingly) not a remake of some Dragon Quest game long past, but it comes from a series that almost prides itself on not evolving. Final Fantasy has come a long way over the last 20 years, but having played the humble Dragon Warrior games on the NES (what the series was known outside of Japan for the first few titles) when I was younger, it’s not hard to tell they’re distant gaming brothers.
Probably the most static element across the series is the turn based battle system. You enter a battle and are given as much time as needed to carry out your orders, which basically just boil down to either regular or special attacks. I liked this as a kid, it was simple and well under my control; I even enjoy it now in games like Radiant Historia, but that game’s developers took a long look at what has worked over the last few decades and what bores gamers now, and made the right decisions on how to implement a turn based battle system. Dragon Quest IX feels... old, slow, and boring.
While I wasn’t a huge fan of the actual battle system, I did enjoy the class gameplay driving it. Every character in your party is mold-able to just how you want them. You can have a priest and three thieves if you wanted, or four gladiators, the game leaves everything up to you. And you’re deeply encouraged to try out new combinations as characters can master classes for different characters. This is the reason why people can spend over one hundred hours on a game like Dragon Quest IX.
Speaking of mold-able characters, the party members have absolutely no backstory to them. They really are entirely up to you. You create every character in your party yourself in a quick character creator, assign them a class, equip them with some weapons and armor and that’s that. Are they an orphan? A princess? A supposed-to-be dead knight? Who knows, it is all in your mind. This has advantages and disadvantages, the advantage being you can create as many characters as you like and totally customize your party however you want. The disadvantages far outweigh this, in my opinion.
One of the reasons I enjoy Japanese RPGs are the characters. Usually the actual events of a JRPG are either so cliched or so bizarre that you can’t help but look for some kind of anchor, and that is typically our heroes. They may be wacky or brooding, but they tend to have a certain charm to them which keeps us interested, not to mention some investment in the main plot. The problem with the blank slated characters in Dragon Quest IX is that you don’t have that anchor to latch on to. When the story drags because of a missing princess, there’s no internal incentive to save her except, well, that’s what you do in this kind of game.
So why stick with a game that doesn’t give you a reason to stick around? Maybe I found my issue with Dragon Quest IX after all. I know some gamers totally eat this stuff up, Paul at Grinding Down played the heck out of the game, even Paul Eastwood from the First Hour beat it, and he never beats games. But even with gorgeous graphics (loved seeing the items I bought physically appear on my characters), no random battles (except on sea), and 30 hours worth of time invested, I’m still drawn to a Japanese RPG’s characters. I’m a left-brain logical kind of guy and find it difficult and bothersome to fill in the blanks of my hero’s past.
I’m glad I played what I did play of Dragon Quest IX, however, it was a good experience and I don’t regret most of it. When I started playing it I went at the game hard, but the first time I drifted away from Dragon Quest IX, that was it, I couldn’t find a good reason to go back.