The problem is that the majority of the spells and abilities you get are useless in the grand scheme of things. Regular enemies are easily dispatched with the basic attack command or if you have a spell caster, whatever your strongest spell is at the time. Buff, debuff and aliment causing abilities are not needed for normal fights and the hit rate on some of the abilities are so low that it doesn’t make sense to use them in place of a regular attack. The times where these abilities are the most useful is of course during boss fights but even then the same rules apply. Aliment causing spells have an even less chance of happening which means you’re just trading blows with the boss for ten minutes.
Dragon Quest 9 marks the first time that a non side story DQ title was developed for a handheld. With that change in platform the designers have added in a few tweaks to the standard Jrpg formula but it feels that the more things change the more they stay the same.
For the uninitiated DQ 9 is the ninth game (duh) in the long running series that has achieved immense popularity in Japan but has not reached the same status in the US. The game mechanics in past DQ titles basically go down the “Jrpg checklist” which I’ll talk about later on. The story unlike past DQ titles is more inconsequential then most Jrpgs. The plot can be summarized with “bad stuff happens, find magical items to make things better again”; the light story does give justification to allow the player to create a custom party using the job system.
A job system allows the player to define party members with different professions that determine their abilities and skills. Personally I love job systems as I enjoy creating my own custom party. In DQ 9 you begin the game with 6 vocations (aka jobs) with more unlock-able later on. The vocations fit the usual RPG trappings with warrior, priest, and mage and so on. What is special however is how the vocations work in DQ9.
Each vocation has its own base stats and five skills that you can pump points into. Four of them are weapon or equipment based with the fifth unique to the respective vocation. Placing points into the equipment skills will give you either bonuses when using the equipment or an ability to use in or outside of combat. While the fifth skill will give you unique abilities and permanent increases to attributes related to the vocation. Each character you create can become any vocation and the character will level up each vocation separate from the other ones. The twist comes from the interplay of abilities between the vocations.
Spell caster vocations will unlock spells as they level up but they are non transferable between vocations. However any abilities either for equipment or the class specific skill will transfer between vocations. The exception for equipment is that the character must equip that piece of gear with the new vocation to use those skills associated with it. What this means is that the player can mix and match abilities with their characters to increase the utility of their party. For example you could give a priest the ability to steal items like the thief or the martial artist the ability to take damage intended for a weaker target like the warrior. The only thing that is stopping you is the time required to level up your characters in each vocation which sadly leads into my problem with DQ9.
Earlier I talked about how DQ9 follows the Jrpg rulebook to a tee and one of those points is unfortunately unsatisfying combat. Thankfully the designers have at least changed things up to allow the player to see monsters on the field instead of the ubiquitous random battle system seen in past Jrpgs. However once you get into a fight you’ll realized that it’s the same thing done before.
With combat being the most used system in DQ9 having the gameplay built around it, the game really suffers from it. Earlier I talked about how you can unlock additional vocations with side quests however these quests are some of the worst designed quests I’ve seen. What you need to do in most of them is to kill a specific enemy with a specific skill under a specific condition. The problem is that some these conditions make no sense towards the profession in question or to general tactics in combat. One requires me to use a martial artist skill to power up a sword skill that is normally used on dragons to kill slimes… what? These quests take the concept of grinding from MMOs to a whole new level as at least with MMOs you don’t have to change your profession to complete the quests.
Granted these quests are completely optional but it ruins in my opinion one of the best features of a job system, being able to create your own party from scratch. When I played the Etrian Odyssey series I have the majority of the classes available from the start, each one being unique. In DQ 9 while the new vocations do add new abilities they don’t seem as unique as the ones featured in the Etrian Odyssey series. I feel the problem comes from how four of the five skills available per vocation are interchangeable and there is only one skill that is unique. With combat as bare bones as it is there is no real reason to not keep a standard RPG party of warrior, healer, mage at all times.
To be fair to DQ 9 the problems I have are not solely stuck in DQ9 but are problems with most mainstream Jrpgs. This is why I prefer the lesser known series like Shin Megami Tensei and Etrian Odyssey as they have greater depth in their combat systems compared to other Jrpgs. There is more to DQ9 then what I’ve mentioned here, such as the alchemy system and randomized dungeons to find but in my mind they can’t fix what is already broken.
Most RPGs with poor combat I can muster through with an interesting story, and those that have poor stories I can at least get into the amazing combat systems but with DQ9 I don’t have either. It doesn’t matter how many additional systems, side quests, online features or randomized dungeons your game has. If the main gameplay system is underutilized and not done well then the rest is just fluff in my eyes.
The main reason I bought DQ9 was because I was in need of another customizable RPG fix before Etrian Odyssey 3 comes out. After playing about 10 hours of DQ9 I decided to go back to EO2 and create a crazy party and attempt to run through the game with them and I can tell you that I do not have one standard mage, warrior or healer among the group.
P.S If there is a way to use any “gamer clout” I’ve earned to get an early copy of Etrian Odyssey 3 that would be sweet.