It's almost traditional to start a Dragon Quest review by contrasting the enormous popularity of the series in Japan, where it's a phenomenon on the scale of Star Wars or Harry Potter; with its reception over here, where it's never found the mass appeal of Pokemon or Naruto. Well, it might be time to kiss that reliable opening goodbye, because Dragon Quest IX deserves to make a splash in Europe. Not only is it one of the biggest and best games on the DS, it's a great example of the Japanese RPG at its very best.
Releasing the next chapter of a mega-selling franchise as a handheld exclusive was certainly risky, but the risk has paid off handsomely. With its bright, cartoon-styled 3D graphics and menu driven combat, Dragon Quest turns out to be a natural for the DS, and the game excels in its use of the touchscreen for movement, selecting commands and handling battles. What's more, the pace and structure of the game is perfect for handheld gaming. Dragon Quest IX is a game of enormous scope and depth, yet one which you can pick up and play in a spare moment and still feel like you're getting somewhere. The problem is going to be noticing when you hit your bus/train stop.
After the over-egged bombast of Final Fantasy XIII, the plotline here feels lightweight, but arguably in a good way. This time our hero is a kind of novice guardian angel, sent down from a heavenly overworld to look after the citizens of a tiny mountain village. No sooner have you found your feet, however, than a disaster strikes the world above, leaving you bereft of wings and halo, and stuck on terra firma.
Being a helpful sort you restart your labours anyway, and it soon becomes apparent that your initial task is to harvest goodwill just by wandering around the game world, doing good. As the game develops, this becomes the main theme. While there are major events going on that affect both the celestial realms and the world beneath, your main focus is working your way through a set of smaller storylines - a bit like a sword and sorcery version of the Littlest Hobo.
It sounds strange, but it works. One hour you might spend helping a cursed knight put his soul at ease, the next you might spend helping clear a town of an evil contagion. Dragon Quest IX is often silly, sentimental and slight, but then that's also a big part of its charm. It's a game that makes you feel good, and if your snobbery about fighting what appears to be armed cucumbers or flying pythons gets in the way of that, then more fool you. In fact, everything from the monster design to the plotlines to the translation shows the game revelling in a light-hearted, knowing approach to the mores of fantasy adventure; if you love the genre, you'll find a lot to make you chuckle here.
What's more, this is a superbly accessible RPG. Superficially, the combat is the most traditional, turn-based fare imaginable, but it's fast-paced and enjoyable, and features like auto-strategies for computer-controlled party members definitely help keep things moving if you don't want to select every attack and defensive move yourself. The presentation of the fights is also less dated than in past adventures, with some of the cinematic camera movements and flourishes that Final Fantasy fans take for granted. Other changes also remove some old pains from the Dragon Quest experience. Items that allow you to move instantly from place to place are now freely and cheaply available, and the wandering monsters that have made so many Japanese RPGS a chore have been replaced by monsters you can see coming and, in some cases, avoid. The game's one big fault is that it doesn't always do a brilliant job of explaining all this stuff to newcomers.
Best of all, Dragon Quest IX is rich and rewarding. All RPGs thrive on the cycle of killing monsters/sacking dungeons to level up/buying better gear to kill bigger monsters/sack tougher dungeons, and this one is no exception. In fact, it's horrendously compulsive. The more you play, the more you also find other features you might not expect from a handheld RPG, including crafting (with a handy alchemy pot that turns herbs and monstrous by-products into unique items), side-quests and a detailed, flexible class system. There are hours and hours of gameplay packed in here, with masses to see, do and explore. To be honest, you could buy Dragon Quest right now and not need another game all summer.
The other interesting thing is how Dragon Quest IX handles parties. Instead of introducing characters to the storyline and throwing a party together for you, the game has you recruiting heroes at the local inn. Computer-controlled heroes, meanwhile, can be levelled up, equipped and rested as you wish, allowing you to build a stable of heroes for different needs, or just concentrate on a core trio of supporters.
However, Dragon Quest IX differs from other DS RPGs in that you can also use the inn to open a portal to allow other players into your world, or enter that of another player. In effect, you're getting drop-in, drop-out multiplay, with players in your world free to wander, quest or offer assistance as they see fit (your individual progress is saved beforehand to stop them from messing things up for you). You gain experience while helping other players, and also the chance to show off your high-end armour, weapons and custom items - and who can resist a bit of that?
Sadly, the multiplayer features are only available over a local Wi-Fi connection, which relies on someone else in your immediate locality having a DS, a copy of the game, and the willingness to open a portal into their game or yours. We can imagine this going down well in school playgrounds or amongst groups of DS-owning mates, but you can't help wishing that Square-Enix and Nintendo would set up a proper online service so that we could all log-in and get involved.
Despite this one complaint, Dragon Quest IX shines as one of the richest, deepest and most fun RPGs ever seen on a handheld platform, and there's no question in our mind that it is the essential DS game of the summer. Even solo players will get tens of hours of fun out of it, and those who get the chance to sample the multi-player mode can comfortably double that. The cartoon graphics and lightweight, silly style won't suit everyone, but if Dragon Quest is to have a breakout hit over here, then the ninth instalment is easily up to the task.