The first big change you'll notice is in the makeup of your party. Your character has a set role in the world -- as an angelic "celestrian" who has fallen to Earth as the result of a mysterious attack -- but you can alter this character's appearance and name. Everyone else in your party is either a randomly-generated nobody recruited at an inn, a friend joining you in multiplayer, or a "guest" character acquired via passive communication with someone else's DS.
The lack of "deep" avatar characters allows the townspeople and even the antagonists to shine as the "real" characters. You travel from town to town, solving the unique, personal problems of each township, kingdom or village individually, sort of like an A-Team with a flying train instead of an awesome van. In one town, you'll face a forlorn, ghostly knight pining for the princess; in another, you'll follow inept kidnappers into their lair to rescue an heiress who would have given them all the money they wanted anyway. There's basically one dungeon per "quest," and you always know exactly why you're in there. The smaller scale of the storyline is an antidote to the overblown epics we're usually handed in role-playing games. It also allows for a more light-hearted feel, which fits well with the Akira Toriyama artwork -- and the clever, pun-filled localization.
The story is rarely my main issue with JRPGs. I tend to get lost in the intricacies of the battle and experience systems, either becoming too bored to keep grinding levels, too overwhelmed by complex strategy, or too anxious about the optimal character progression. None of those issues bothered me here. Dragon Quest IX uses a traditional turn-based battle system, with all the annoying bits smoothed out. Animations are speedy, all but the main character can be set to AI (with orders like "Focus on healing" or "Don't use MP" that really work), and leveling happens at a regular, quick pace, accompanied by rather simple skill trees. Random, unavoidable battles have even been taken out in favor of enemies roaming the world map, triggering battle scenes upon contact. Weak enemies will even run away from you rather than waste your time.
For the first time in the series' history, Dragon Quest IX includes both online content and multiplayer. The game is extended beyond what's on the cartridge with downloadable quests and an online shop for rare items, but the real standout feature is the local multiplayer. At any time, up to three other players can join your game, replacing one of your party members with their own avatar. In addition, you can set the DS to "canvass for guests" and then close the system, at which point any other Dragon Quest IX-playing DS in wireless range sends a character into your inn. This is used not only for guest characters, but as a delivery method for rare treasure maps that unlock additional quests.
This content is both the most exciting and most disappointing aspect of DQIX. The "tag mode" content really needs a densely-populated area, full of like-minded gamers. This is wonderful for Japan, where public transportation is prevalent and Dragon Quest fandom is universal, but most of the US meets neither of these conditions. For the majority of players to have the opportunity to experience multiplayer, Dragon Quest IX essentially has to become a Pokemon-like phenomenon. Frustratingly, I am forced to look at this extremely interesting functionality as wasted potential. If only this had been adapted to work online.
Honestly, though, I can't muster up much outrage. Even without any hope of using the multiplayer, Dragon Quest IX is so upbeat, goofy, and, well, pleasant that I can only smile. It's the kind of game you can play as a vacation from other games. Now buy it so I can get some new treasure maps.
This review is based on the DS retail version of Dragon Quest IX provided by Square Enix. The reviewer played the game for 20 hours but not to completion.