Dragon Quest IX is a game you can really lose yourself in. Starting out by creating and naming your own character, you'll be swept into a fantasy world of knights, dragons, and faeries, with you in the starring role.
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You soon find out your character's a Celestrian - part of a race of guardian angels, who watch over the people of the "Protectorate" below. Needless to say, there's a bit of an unexpected incident at the start of the game, and your newly created Celestrian ends up crashing to the world below, awakening without his wings or halo, but retaining the ability to see and talk to other Celestrians.
From here, it's up to you to explore the vast and far reaching land of Dragon Quest IX, travelling from town to town, talking to the townspeople to see what information you can find, accepting quests, defeating monsters who decide to attack you on your journey across the wilder parts of the land, and doing good deeds for the people you meet as you attempt to harvest Benevolessence - something the citizens of the protectorate happen to give out whenever they're thankful for something - in an attempt to return to the protectorate.
Of course, there's a lot more to it than this, and a whole load of plot twists that follow, but if we told you any more, we'd be spoiling one of the game's best parts, and that's exploring the land, interacting with the various townsfolk, and working things out for yourself. While many of them won't help you on your main quest, they'll always offer interesting pointers, both to the story, and what you should be doing next, and some may even give you a side quest to complete (a task not relevant to the main story), which usually offer great rewards.
Customisation is a key part of Dragon Quest IX, and, not long after starting the game with your custom designed character, you'll be looking to recruit a team of bold and noble adventurers to help you with your cause. Just like the main character, you'll have to create your own team of adventurers, customising their every aspect to your liking, from their hair style and colour, skin tone, and even their face, so you can craft either a noble warrior, or a face only a mother could love.
After deciding on their physical appearances, you'll then have to choose a profession for them, which will affect their skills and abilities in battle. Mages are good with magic, while a Warrior forms the backbone of any squad, able to take a lot of damage, and dish out just as much. You'll be best off picking a variety of professions for your team, as a varied squad works the best, and makes sure you don't all share the same weaknesses.
The combat in Dragon Quest IX is simple and straightforward. Even getting attacked by one of the various, usually cute monsters is fun, as their name usually raises a laugh straight away. Whether it's a Cruelcumber, Sacksquatch, or a Crabid (no prizes for guessing what those monsters look like), the enemies usually manage to make you crack a smile, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're a push over.
Because the battles are turn-based, you're never rushed into making any decisions, instead having plenty of time to choose which power or move you want your party members to use. Different enemies will have different weaknesses, and you'll have to manage your party's abilities to ensure your success. Having a Warrior to do the majority of the fighting, while the Mage stays back and heals people is a fair strategy in our book.
And even if you can't quite beat that one monster, never fear, as persistence pays off in Dragon Quest IX. The more creatures you defeat, the more experience you'll gain, and the more experience you gain, the more you'll level up. Levelling up lets you customise your character even further, as they gain more hit points and magic points, which lets them take more damage in battle, and cast more spells respectively, as well as earning them new special abilities, or extra defensive properties.
Of course, if you still find yourself struggling with the battles in Dragon Quest IX, luckily, help is never far away - so long as you know someone else with a copy of the game, and their own DS. Thanks to the game's co-operative mode, you can invite up to three friends into your game, and take them adventuring with you - which is handy when you've got a boss fight coming up.
With Dragon Quest IX, you can't go far wrong. If you're looking for an investment with an interesting story, that rewards you for your progression, and will last you for months to come, Dragon Quest IX is it.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo DS