You'd be hard-pressed to find a video game series more influential to the Japanese RPG genre than Dragon Quest. Although the constantly-evolving Final Fantasy titles have generally remained more popular over the years, the former has stayed a favourite among long-time fans for its uncanny ability to retain the old-school console RPG feel of its humble beginnings. Sentinels of the Starry Skies marks the main series' first exclusive release on a portable system, and despite some of its more modern gameplay conveniences, it still manages to feel like a good old-fashioned Dragon Quest experience.
Since prior sequels have remained very similar in design and execution over the years, it comes as no surprise to see the standard formula still intact in this newest instalment. You'll spend the majority of your time travelling around world maps, venturing from town to town and delving into dungeons. Not even the combat system has changed much over the years, sticking to a traditional turn-based style similar to that of past releases.
There are no active-time battle gauges to deal with; rather, the game allows you to carefully pick and choose your commands with as much time as you deem necessary. It's during these many skirmishes that you'll earn experience points to level up your player's attributes and gold to outfit and customise them with improved equipment, something that plays a rather focused role throughout. You'll also gain skill points that can be applied to a variety of your individual character's features, giving you an almost unlimited amount of freedom in how they develop.
But even as traditional as the game tends to remain, the developers have tossed in a few more modern RPG conveniences, and thus given it a fresh feel. Unlike the random enemy encounters of old, Dragon Quest IX makes the bad guys visible and allows you to get in a surprise attack or attempt to avoid them altogether. Some will plant their feet, others will run away from you, and some will aggressively give chase. Those who you've defeated in battle will shortly thereafter re-spawn in front of your very eyes, so you won't be able to stop in one spot for long unless you want to get attacked again. While this can make level grinding much easier, it can get somewhat annoying when you're trying to take a long look at your map screen or plan out your next move while battling a particularly difficult group of monsters.
In addition to the main adventure, the game offers up a variety of side-quests in which you can take part. You'll pick these up in various towns by speaking to people or download them; new mini-adventures are to become available on a continual basis via Wi-Fi. You can even set up "Canvassing Mode", which will allow you to locate other Dragon Quest IX players, not to mention pick up new treasure maps.
Multiplayer action is another aspect that the developers obviously spent a lot of time planning and implementing, and it can be very enjoyable for those who take the time to explore it. Once you reach a particular town not too far into the game, you'll be allowed to ask others within Wi-Fi range to join you in your quest. Of course, there's almost complete freedom when it comes to how each player takes part. Invitees can choose to wander off and do their own thing or to assist the host in battle when called. You can even walk up on a fight already in progress and join. While your play inside another host's game won't advance your own storyline, you're able to keep all of the experience points that you earn as well as any items that you find hidden in blue treasure chests. Not only is it a lot of fun to adventure with other players, it can be very beneficial as well.
You can't help but appreciate the extremely well-crafted play control that Dragon Quest offers. Whether you choose to use the touch screen or the button controls, manoeuvring through the game is simple and intuitive. Even the menu systems in both of the main areas and in battle are laid out perfectly and allow you to focus on the tasks at hand without worrying about clunky controls. There's just one save slot, something that will likely annoy players who like to save and return to previous sections, but this is a minor complaint. Otherwise, the gameplay mechanics stay quite solid throughout.
The DS might not have the graphical horsepower of a home console, but you'd hardly know it from the impressive cel-shaded visuals that the developers have concocted. The scenery comes alive with vibrant colour schemes and the level of detail in your surroundings never ceases to amaze. The sheer variety in the adventure's various areas are equally remarkable, and you'd be hard-pressed to find two locales that look even remotely similar. The characters and enemies are another notable facet of the visuals and are every bit as detailed and colourful as the surrounding backdrops. Each enemy features its own unique animations, really bringing them all to life onscreen and rounding out what is easily one of the more impressive visual presentations available on the system.
The musical stylings of the Dragon Quest releases are almost as representative of the series as the gameplay itself, so it comes as no surprise that the score never strays too far from this norm. The orchestrated tracks carry the mood perfectly, and even with the lack of any type of voiced dialog, the audio package never has any trouble setting the varying tones that the game's storyline brings to life. As well as the myriad new musical pieces to behold, there are still enough classic tunes here to conjure up feelings of nostalgia and familiarity that long-time fans of the series will surely appreciate.
You can't help but marvel at how the developers were somehow able to squeeze a console-sized RPG epic onto the diminutive DS, especially given how mammoth the quest itself is. On top of this impressive feat, they found a way to toss in a wealth of new gameplay features and multiplayer action as well. It's perfectly clear from the moment that you begin - absolutely no corners were cut. If ever there were a title to truly show off just how far portable gaming has come over the years, it's this one. It might have been a long wait, but Dragon Quest IX proves to be everything that followers of the series could have hoped for, not to mention a game that no RPG fan should miss.