I played Dragon Quest IX for the Nintendo DS this weekend at the Shueisha Jump Festa event in Chiba. Then I felt The Fear and got the hell out of there. Here's what I remember.
Jump Festa is primarily an event for the fans of the various comic series that appear in Weekly Shonen Jump magazine. I knew this. Still, the wait outside the Makuhari Messe convention center made me feel uneasy: there were just way too many people there. The line started in earnest a good five hundred meters away from the entrance, and then snaked 500 meters away from the entrance, paperclipped around, snaked back, and paperclipped again. We went on paperclipping and snaking for about an hour before we were finally let into the building.
Inside the building the proprietors of various animation and software companies had set up maybe two dozen booths to celebrate the games or animated series based on Jump comics. Maybe something like half of these booths had "Bleach". Nintendo ran a booth where all you could do was sit down in a white chair and have a disinterested girl in a vinyl mini-dress teach you how to download DSi games using a DSi. At Konami's booth, they were showing the latest batch of "Yu-Gi-Oh!" collectible trading cards under bulletproof glass. If you wanted to, you could play Castlevania Judgment, which is yet to be released here in Japan. The character designs in Castlevania Judgment are by Takeshi Obata, who drew "Hikaru no Go" and "Deathnote", both Shonen Jump serials, so maybe that game was more relevant than I had thought at the time. It still didn't look like anyone cared.
Way back before we were allowed into the building, the line for attendees split into two — one side for the "exhibition hall" and the other side for the "Original Goods". The line for "Original Goods" was shocking. Maybe six times as many people were huddled up and sweating in the name of "Original Goods" as for the Exhibition Hall. We didn't get a chance to look at the Original Goods. You should have seen what happened when we tried to walk in the back way — through the exhibition hall floor. The teeming exodus of people flowing from the exit of the Goods area was literally unnavigable. It was like one of those Impossible Slippery Hills in a videogame. One look at that flood of people, and the brain couldn't contemplate anything anymore. We gave up without trying. What they were selling, we'll never know, though we can guess that if we'd gone in there, I would have been able to buy an Official Naruto Bandanna, or maybe an Official Luffy From One Piece Cosplay Hat. All over the show floor, people were wearing these god-awful paper visors that gave them cartoon Naruto Hair. We found one on the ground and my friend put it on until well after we left that God-forsaken place; on the train, girls stared at us, too petrified to laugh or even vomit.
I realize this article is meant to be a report on what it was like to finally play Dragon Quest IX, after years of dreaming, since I fell in love with Dragon Quest as a child, what it would be like when there were eight more games in the series, and what kind of game the ninth one, in particular, would be. However, I am giving all of this prelude here to inform you as coldly as possible that, contrary to my wide-eyed amazement, Dragon Quest IX was not the most-crazed cultural event happening on that day. No, the vast majority of the masses were content to stand dead still, and scared, in many of the humid, vacant convention halls, listening in on multiple clashing stage shows in which attractive young male voice actors inexplicably wearing drivings gloves pointed at the masses and recited catchphrases, where sleepwalking electric female mannequins urged the crowd, in impossible voices, to outwardly display their recognition of how fantastic this moment right here is.
When in line to enter the convention, I had presumed that Dragon Quest IX was the main event. The front of the event's homepage had prominently featured a Dragon Quest IX logo. The first ten pages of Jump, every week, are more often than not occupied by full-color advertisements for Square-Enix games. Despite Square-Enix having their own comic magazine (one called "Young Gan-Gan"), Jump' readers love them; the Square-Enix aesthetic is inseparable from the Shonen Jump reader's psyche: this is a stone-cold, ice-hard fact.
ON TO THE ACTUAL DRAGON QUEST IX IMPRESSIONS
So we got to the Square-Enix booth, where they had fifty Dragon Quest IX demo stations, where the demo was multiplayer-only, and they told us we'd have to wait five minutes if we wanted to play. I was prepared to wait at least two hours, and willing to wait a half of one, so imagine my shock. I had been fully content to just go home and say "Well, the wait to play Dragon Quest IX was seven HOURS, so no impressions lol". Instead, I got to actually play the game.
Of course, I liked it. I couldn't not like it. It's great. It's Dragon Quest with an aesthetic tweaked to resemble the cuteness of a barrel full of kittens. My two friends and I sat and formed a party. Our party leader, host, and human tutorial was a vinyl minidress-wearing girl so thin that she had deep blue bruises everywhere bone touched skin. She walked us through with great aspiration toward acting talent. Eventually, the DSi I was using would freeze up, and our host would have to call over some booth staff members to reboot the game. Her friendly facade was out the window after that. She must have been having a bad day. Hell, I was having a bad day in that place, too, and I'd only been in there for ten minutes.
The demo began with a party of four members standing in the middle of a field. The host walked us through item equipping. Press the X button to open the menu, and then choose "equip", and you're treated to a full-body view of your character. The host told us to put on whatever items we wanted. The communal pot of items was pretty deep. My character — a magic-user — was wearing a silly crown and a chubby green poncho, and wielding a dainty little magic staff. I found a purple bandanna and some "Traveler's Clothes". I equipped a wooden staff, making my guy look kind of like the hero from Dragon Quest V. This was a triumph. My friend removed all of his character's clothes, just to see what would happen, and the host's voice twitched distinctly for a few seconds when she told him that he would need to wear something into battle.
When we were all equipped, the host then insisted that we press and hold the B button. Doing so brought up a cross-shaped list of canned chat messages. The host insisted that we all press up, for the "Guts Pose". Every play character on the screen jumped into the air with a raised fist. The other three options, which I went on to try despite the host telling me I had to follow her — and that she was the white dot on the radar — were "Hello", "Goodbye", and "Bow".
Five seconds south of our starting position, our party leader ran into a monster. It was a cat wizard. She said "Oh no. I have gotten into a battle. Please, warrior, monk, and magic-user, come assist me." On our battle map, the host's character clashed in pseudo-real-time with a cat wizard. When I got within a certain distance, the screen flashed white, and shifted immediately to the tried-and-true Dragon Quest battle menu screen. I had joined the battle.
I was curious for the longest time how the menu-based battles would work out with multiplayer. When the game was first announced, it was to be an action-RPG; then the fans expressed the slightest amount of distrust, and rather than do something to communicate the reason the game was action-based, Square-Enix yanked the action out of the game and shoehorned the menus back in.
It was clear, when the return of the menus was announced, that players currently engaged in battle would be represented on the field map as clashing with a monster, and that other players could enter the battle if they approached. Though I wondered how fair that was. Couldn't the player in a battle just be like, "Hey dudes I'm about to die over here" and then just . . . not input commands for a couple of minutes while his friends worked their way over there?
With the help of one of my friends, I was able to start a battle and wait on the command-entry screen for a minute while he flew to my assistance. After he joined the battle, I chose my attack command. Apparently, my friend wasn't allowed to enter a command for the first round. Aha. I guess that's how they deal with it.
Another way they deal with the potential problem of the battle system is by having, uhh, lots of enemies crawling around the field screen. On the way to help my friend with a monster, I ran into another monster. Now we were both fighting separate one-on-one battles.
All at once, I understood why the host insisted we stick together: if we were together, and a monster came into contact with just one of us, we all joined the fight.
Still, what's the point of the game being multiplayer if you're going to have to stick together? It didn't make for an amazingly fun demo. The game isn't going to have an online function — just local multiplayer (which is more than fine by me) — so you'll be able to constantly keep your party members abreast of what you're doing or planning by simply talking to them. It seems like the final game will be jam-packed with puzzling little moments where your party members will have to split up: maybe the demo at Jump Festa would have been a bit more interesting with one such segment.
I guess, if you only have one character of your own, and your friends all have different character classes, playing with different friends will be something like the videogame equivalent of the real-life equivalent of switching your party members in Dragon Quest. That's kind of a headache to think about.
How many people are going to choose to be a magic user or a healer? I mean, those guys can't even score a single point of damage when attacking with a weapon.
At least the game looks good — the battles are presented like in Dragon Quest VIII, and the field is a Zelda / Dragon Quest VIII kind of thing, with rocks and hills and rivers and what-have-you — and sounds good —Koichi Sugiyama is indeed still alive — and plays . . . familiarly. The one town — with a castle — that we made it to at the end of our short romp through the field was pretty, and inviting, in that Dragon Quest kind of way. Forming a party with friends was as easy as walking into the inn and talking to the innkeeper. The weapon shops sell weapons, the armor shops sell armor, and the townspeople still say the same cute little world-creating single sentences.
Though I'm not sold on the depth and perfection of the multiplayer mode — though I'm still certain I'd enjoy it more if there were action involved — I'm hilariously sold on buying this game on minute one on Saturday, March 28th, 2009. Everyone I know will buy it. We'll probably have a lot of fun! It could turn out to be the Pokemon of co-op!
Upon finishing the demo, we were thanked for our time, reminded not to photograph anything in the booth, especially the girls dressed up as the various character classes, and were then handed a complimentary set of Square-Enix Christmas cards, which we gratefully took out of the booth and immediately photographed.
All of the Christmas cards consist of official art for Square-Enix games, with the words "Merry Christmas" stamped on them somewhere. Classy. The Chrono Trigger one, however, says "Happy New Year". Hey, that's clever.
The only postcard in the set that doesn't say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy New Year" was the Dragon Quest IX one, which merely says "Welcome to Our World". Isn't it priceless? I hope the image on this postcard turns out to be the official box art. The image — depicting various characters in an inviting inn — would be the perfect counterpoint to the Dragon Quest VIII box art, with its terrifyingly gorgeous rolling hills. Dragon Quest VIII was about adventure; IX is about community. And those apples on that plate on that table. Those apples sell the game right there. Man, I'm not a member of the "Somewhat Sexually Attracted to Food as Depicted in Manga or Cartoons" community on Mixi (Japan's premier social network) for nothing.