Dragon Quest IX is like Anna Karenina for Japanese people
I once had a theory that RPGs work on the same principle as 19th century mega-novels. With something like Anna Karenina or Moby Dick you keep reading for two reasons: you like the process of wading in the incredibly detailed prose and you want to see the next plot development. The actual plots of those books are pretty simple if you boil them down (“woman has affair”; “man hates whale”), but the fun is to have to spend 1,000 pages getting to the end. This is why it was funny when Woody Allen said, “I took a speed reading course and read ‘War and Peace’ in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” As you read, the next plot point is always just out of reach around the next chapter, and so you want to keep moving ahead just a little bit so you can make that tiny next bit of progress.
For an RPG, the dual motivations are battles and plot, and functionally the same principles apply as in a mega-novel. You can play one of these games for 20, 40, or even 100 hours depending on how deep into it you get, and all along the way, the primary motivation is going to be desire to see what happens next but the fun part is getting there through a series of battles.
In his blog, Jeremy Parish reflects on the difference between Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy:
DQIX is refreshing in its directness. It skips all of that angst and contrived mystery by kicking off the entire quest with tour through a day in the hero’s life. You see the accident that robs him of his powers and his unfortunate fall from the Observatory, and there’s no hand-wringing about it. The story picks up shortly thereafter and you simply get about the business of trying to return to the heavens, which you accomplish by doing nice things for people and generally making the world a better place. It’s earnest, and it’s pleasantly free of pretense. The story has its twists, but the straightforward presentation of the tale gives real purpose to the hero’s actions — a reason to do good deeds — and makes the ultimate resolution to the story (which involves the hero’s nature) much more potent.
Without having played a Final Fantasy game, I think that sounds about right. I’m twenty-something hours into Dragon Quest IX (my first DraQue), which means I’m maybe at the halfway point? I know I’ve collected four magical MacGuffins out of maybe seven or so. The story is broken up into different vignettes as you wander from town to town.
From what I can tell, the basic of the plot has someone die in almost every town you visit, and then you have to find a way to settle the affairs of their soul so they can go to heaven. For example, in one town a girl was weak and sickly her whole life. Then her parents died. She knew she was on the edge of dying too when she got a magical fruit and wished for her only friend—a doll that looked just like her—to be real. She then dies and the doll takes her place in the town. But the doll doesn’t understand what she’s supposed to do as a real person and can’t relate to anyone, and her life is pretty miserable, so in the end you have to help her return to being just a doll. It’s pretty sad but very well presented.
For its part, the battle system of DQIX is very basic (just like EarthBound, heh [but unlike Mother 3]), but it serves its purpose. The battles are really quick and addictive. (I suspect the quickness is in part a function of the basicness of the menus and whatnot.) In the early stages you gain levels very quickly, so it’s easy to gauge your own progress. You feel like you’re stronger after only a small number of battles. Plus, there’s no real penalty for death, you just have to go back to the last save point, but everything you did remains done and you keep your experience points. All that you lose is half of your petty cash on hand. Because you can engage in the battles without using your full concentration, it’s fun to just grind up some loot and levels while you listen to a podcast or something else. Then when the podcast is over and your linguistic processing centers become free, you can go to the part of the game where the story advances and get your next hit of plot, which will have you jonesing to play again later.
The graphics of the game are, uh, unique. Tycho of Penny-Arcade writes:
It makes me feel bad that I want it to look better sometimes, but I do; it makes me feel like I have a prickly heart and that I’m not truly capable of love. Key NPCs are surprisingly great - easy on the eye, legitimately evocative. The menagerie is also a treat, with beasts that visibly delight in their own evil nature. But your characters, being lathed out of chunks in the hero factory, don’t always rise to the level. This is the third piece of Nintendo DS hardware I’ve purchased, and I’ve had as much fun on this system as I’ve had on any other, but when I see my character’s clubby, pointy non-hands in this game I purse my lips. Those inhuman stumps may be my only complaint. The 3DS really can’t come soon enough.
I would say that the look grows on you. I think it was Nick Rumas at Phantom Leap who said that we were fortunate with the DS to get a system that has its own style of doing 3D that’s different from any other system. You can tell that Phantom Hourglass is a DS game and not from any other system because of the way the 3D is, and the same applies to Dragon Quest IX. At the same time though and in a way that’s different from other games on the system, DQIX has a style that is strongly suggestive of the NES. Between its very simple menus and the repetition of character “sprites” (models) from town to town, the game feels like a throwback to an early time, but in a good way. Perhaps the earlier time it is throwing back to is 19th century Russia?