Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

100 Minutes With . . . Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies

Dragon Quest is a legend, not a game. It’s said that the release of every new title in the series stops Tokyo in its tracks. People of all ages, from all walks of life schedule time off school and work just to play the damned thing. As a video game franchise, it’s as big as they come, yet for many years it was virtually unknown outside its home country. While the Western world was wowed by Final Fantasy’s cinematics, back East, Japan suckled at the Dragon Quest teat. This was the series that separated fan boy from otaku. This was the JRPG at its purist.

It took Dragon Quest VIII to introduce the West to the franchise’s allure (and no, it wasn’t the first Dragon Quest game released outside Japan; just bear with me, okay?) because Dragon Quest VIII was the first game in the series to have a lush, 3D world and a localisation that wasn’t just acceptable, it was enjoyable. It had been translated into English so well it made every Japanese game ever given a PAL EU release sound like it was channelling Dick van Dyke. Dragon Quest VIII had proper cockneys and Scots and Welshies and everything in between, and while it wasn’t perfect, chances are you were too busy grinning to notice its imperfections. It was a bright, joyous affair, the perfect counterpoint to the steampunk Star Wars antics of Final Fantasy XII which was released soon after. Back to back, the two signified a golden age for the JRPG. If this was what we could expect from the Squaresoft/Enix merge then the gaming world was a better place for it.

Dragon Quest IX is its follow-up, somehow bigger and better despite being crammed onto a DS card and promoted by Jedward. That Jedward--the mutated offspring of the Judderman and the Twins from The Matrix Reloaded; a pair of twinned popstrels discovered by Simon Cowell in a Morlock cavern beneath the X-Factor studio and through unthinking malice unleashed upon the nation--should advertise a video game--and a JRPG at that--speaks volumes. Until this point Nintendo had pop stars and celebrities schilling for family friendly games--Wii Sports, Nintendogs, Mario Kart--and educational software that taught pensioners how to draw or play Sudoku. JRPGs aren’t about waving Wii-wands; they’re not made for the Redknap family. Dragon Quest otaku had every right to be up in arms about Jedward--a couple of toilet brushes with learning difficulties--advertising this most prized jewel in the JRPG crown.

Except, as Jedward are to people who don’t like music or human intelligence, Dragon Quest IX is a game for people who don’t really like video games. It’s therefore perfectly suited to being advertised by stars who have problems telling left from right. “Heresy!” I hear you cry--but please, for the second time this article, bear with me.

As with any genre that’s been around for so long, JRPGs have long since rested on their laurels and adhered to a set code of conduct. Turn-based and menu-driven, there’s little separating Dragon Quest from its brethren. If aliens were to descend from the heavens demanding to be shown an example of our Earthling Japanese Role Playing Games, this would be the game we’d show them. Given that Jedward--like Lady Gaga was slit across her mid-riff and revealed to be a couple of imps standing one atop the other’s shoulders--are as close as the human race has to otherworldly beings, this is the game we gave to them, and to all their followers who, in complete contradiction to common sense, have made them an unlikely success.

I’m not saying Dragon Quest doesn’t require skill to play, or that there aren’t tactical depths concealed behind its charming exterior. But in the first hundred minutes--and for several hours thereafter--you won’t be plumbing them: you’ll be pressing the same button over and over again. For the first hundred minutes it takes as much thought to play Dragon Quest IX as it does to shriek “Cringe!” from beneath a hairstyle resembling a startled, anaemic bull-rush. In fact the most demanding thing you’ll do during this time is pick out a hairstyle from all the choices given.

Clocking in at playtime measured in weeks, Dragon Quest plays the long game. At times it deceives, presenting open fields to roam across only small corners of which hold anything of interest. It’s as padded as a supermodel playing Friar Tuck. Battles encountered after twenty hours of play require only marginally more attention than those encountered at the start--that’s twenty hours of repeatedly pressing the same button. Attack, choose your enemy, repeat--it’s like the back of a shampoo bottle stuck in a feedback loop. Your cohorts, should you take them with you (unlike the colourful cast of Dragon Quest XIII your party consists of randomly generated bots who can escort you or be abandoned as required) are either controlled individually or left to follow behavioural rules which have them fight aggressively or conservatively depending on your needs. They’re perfectly capable of looking after themselves, which leaves you at a loss for anything to do other than hit the attack button again and again and again. It’s like being a shepherd with a pack of particularly intelligent sheepdogs: you could whistle, but all you really need do is close the gate once they’re done.

The only scripted character accompanying you on your quest is Stella, a fairy cut from the same cloth as Ocarina of Time’s Navi, who berates you for anything improper, like, say, independent thought. Dialogue options (in the shape of questions with yes/no answers) are only included for show. Tell a villager that no, you don’t want to help him, and Stella chews you out; try to leave a town when you still have business there and she becomes downright irate. You’re tethered to the story with an industrial elastic belt: attempt to deviate from it and you’ll be pinged right back on track with Stella’s reprimands ringing in your ears.

By JRPG standards there’s a lot to see and do in Dragon Quest IX. The Battle Log contains pages of monsters, clothes, achievements and items to collect--it’s a set collecting game as much as it’s an RPG. The alchemy system unlocked several hours in scratches an obsessive compulsive urge--you’ll want to recreate weapons you already have in your inventory just to remove the question mark next to their list entry. But it’s the largest fish in a very small pond. Next door, Skyrim rules the western RPG ocean, defining openness as yelling a goat off a cliff, grabbing mayflies from the sunset sky and eating them in your pants, killing an entire village--quest-givers and all--just because one of them has an face you don’t particulartly care for. Dragon Quest’s openness extends to palette-swap enemies and a half-dozen sets of collectable animal-ear hair bands. It is a trompe l’oeil of open gameplay.

And I want to hate it for giving the illusion of openness, and for its battles throughout which my involvement boils down to choosing the same attack options regardless of my foes--for being, in short, the kind of game which deserves to be sold to Jedward fans.

But I can’t.

I can’t tell you exactly why I like Dragon Quest IX so much. I can’t tell you how enjoyable it is to visit my wife’s game world and run around like a superhero, eviscerating monsters she has trouble with in a single stroke. I don’t know why it’s fun collecting party tricks--MMORPG emotes--then binding four of them to a single button to make it look as if my character’s breakdancing. Why do I fight monsters for experience point despite there being no experience bar to catalogue them and despite having to return to a church to discover how close I am to advancing to the next level? Why do I put up with this constrictive, archaic system when other, wider games are more appealing and much closer to my heart?

It beats the hell out of me.

What I can say is that much of Dragon Quest IX’s charm lies in detail uncharacteristic of the genre. The nameless, identikit NPCs all say different things depending on the time of day or how far you’ve advanced through the story. Equipment is depicted in-engine, meaning whatever weapon or item of clothing your characters are equipped with can be seen at a glance--you can tell the difference between worn cat ears and bunny ears even on the DS’s titchy screen. Monsters respond in a variety ways when in battle, sometimes choosing not to attack at all but to become enthralled with a certain member of your group or sit around dumbly, playing with daisies underfoot. This varied behaviour only adds to the charm of a menagerie that is already uniformly charming, as does seeing all parties involved in a fight scurry about between attacks, lining them up and interacting with one another, removing the abstract nature that usually accompanies turn-based combat. Every attack’s cause and effect are clearly on display and help give each battle a unique feel.

And let’s not ignore that this is a visually sumptuous game, arriving late enough in the DS’s life to take full advantage of the hardware. Playing a game so majestic on a humble handheld--the same console that played home to Cooking Mama, no less--is a thrill unto itself. When it was announced there was some fan consternation as to whether the DS could do justice to a mainline Dragon Quest title being as it was a step down in power from the Playstation 2 on which the previous game had been released. The DS acquits itself so admirably in this task that Dragon Quest IX genuinely feels more impressive than its predecessor rather than simply feeling impressive because you can play it on the toilet: it’s a sequel that feels like a sequel, rather than a game emasculated to fit onto a handheld.

Like World of Warcraft--which it resembles at times--Dragon Quest IX is a game of unlikely but undeniable charm. Large parts of it are spent performing repetitive tasks for little reward; it’s a time waster, but like fishing off a pier or pottering in the garden it somehow manages to be more than the sum of its parts.

It’s gentle, feel-good gaming, and do you know what? If it meant that more people played it, enjoyed it and smiled about it, I don’t mind that Jedward advertised it. In pop culture terms that’s as high as praise comes.

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