Forget AWOL, here’s AWOI – Absent Without Intent, the art of accidental fleeing. In a game that’s rammed with Japanese text, it’s a mis-prod of the run-away button that irritates most. Story, job classes, skills, spells and item conditions – you can muddle through without them, but showing a boss your back to stab is suicidal.
And yet we write this review with 21 hours, 43 minutes and 17 seconds on our save file clock, a tiny slice of an estimated 200-hour runtime, but a testament to Dragon Quest IX’s playability. Series creator Yuji Horii’s core ideas slot together like Lego, clicking and holding in a way anyone can appreciate. All those unknown factors shrouded in Japan-o-babble are like themed Lego pieces: attractive ornaments that add flavor but would be nothing without the base.
You attack or defend. You strike with weapons, magic or skills. Magic and skills may be instant physical strikes or geared towards long-term strategy – mentally whittling down foes or hyping up allies. Curing ailments uses up a battle phase, cueing more strategy as you mull over the likelihood of making it through with a man down. It sounds like a totally generic system… and it is – Horii kind of invented the genre, after all. What he still understands that so many don’t is the balance of peril and power.
Despite offering us a huge, relatively free-roaming game world, Horii maintains immaculate pacing. Regions are patrolled by the right variety of beasts with stats that anticipate your party’s credentials at the time of your first meeting. The two to three hours it takes to scout out each area – furthering the story, entering dungeons and so on – is timed just so to ensure you go from put-upon to all-powerful. There’s no better antidote to shamefully losing to a butterfly with a dog’s face than returning later to pluck its wings.
The clarity of the local economy helps in a similar way. As in previous Dragon Quests, new towns act as bookmarks. Each successive stop brings shinier armor and weapons, but never anything so overpowered as to throw the surrounding region out of whack. Lo and behold, in the time it takes to get to know the local fauna, you’ll amass a kitty capable of buying everything on offer. And so, without anything as crude as a mission objective, you take the initiative to venture to the next town. You play into Horii’s hands without even realizing it.