The Dragon Quest series has been around forever, it seems. Released even before Final Fantasy, the series has practically defined the jRPG genre, though change has not come readily to the games. But Dragon Quest IX, the latest game in the series (and the first to be developed for the Nintendo DS) is changing things up in more ways than one. That said, don't be worried about it changing things too much.
There are still slimes.
The first change is immediate: as soon as you begin the game, you are given the ability to customize your character's appearance, changing your hair, face, body type, and so forth. This really gets into the game's whole customization aspect, which is key, because besides how you design the characters you gain, there's no personality to the people in your party, wordless puppets who just follow you around.
Yes, unlike previous Dragon Quest titles, the people that adventure with your wordless character are just as wordless, and just as unimportant to the plot of the game. Once you reach a certain point in the game, you are simply given the option to recruit them, choosing an appearance as well as a job to have them kill some monsters with you as you follow the somewhat barebones plot of you, a fallen angel, trying to gather some shining fruit to save a celestial tree. It's not much, but it relies more on the mini-plots that you find in each city and area you visit, each one tied to a golden fruit that you must collect. It's not a very impressive storyline, and it certainly won't keep you tied to your DS for hours at a time, but the robust class system might.
The game relies on a class system (known as vocations), which determine what skills you learn, what equipment you can put on, and what (if any) spells you can use. Levelling up earns you skill points, which you can put into a quartet of ability types, which earns you more abilities most tied to specific weapon types as well as attribute bonuses and so forth. Though your character begins the game as a minstrel (a general type of fill-all-roles character), and your party members only begin with six different classes to select from, as you play the game and complete the quests provided, you unlock more. There's a lot of customization available here, and with all the options provided, it's really up to you how to play the game, which is a pleasant thing to see.
Later in the game, you're given the ability to switch your classes at will, and though you keep any levels and distributed skillpoints (and abilities or bonuses to stats from them), you lose the ability to cast any spells from your previous vocation. This also reduces you to level 1, with everything that entails. That means that switching classes means reducing your power by a lot, and though you get more experience from stronger enemies, the game has a weird system of 'capping' experience gain based on your level. This means that higher-level party members will tend to gain more experience, which somewhat flies in the face of standard RPG experience-gain logic. It also means feeling like the person who has changed class is a little weaker than the rest, though he may have improved weapon skills from previous vocations.
There are also sidequests scattered around the world that are of pretty big importance in the game. By talking to people and completing an objective anything from collecting a single object to defeating enemies in a very specific manner or activating certain abilities a number of times you'll earn rewards such as money, items, or even new classes to change into. It adds a lot more meat to the game, since otherwise the game would be a pretty straightforward affair.
Still, despite many changes, the game seems determined to keep old gameplay elements, some that are starting to get increasingly archaic. The menu system, for example, seems determined to fit in all the new information is can while still retaining the old six-option selection screen, forcing you to delve into sub-sub-menus if you want to get some information about important aspects of the game such as your quest list or to use some unassigned skill points. Still, some things are definitely improved, such as the new equipment menu which not only provides an up-close look of what your character looks like in their duds, but also an easy-to-read comparison of stats, making it easy to switch between characters and rapidly find the best equipment for them to wear.
A really interesting addition to the formula is that of multiplayer and wifi-enabled content on the DS. First, by connecting to the internet and certain areas, you're able to access a special shop that gives you some great deals on possibly hard to find items (and changes selection every day), as well as treasure maps that lead you to, what else, some hard-earned loot.
But the real meat comes from the ability to connect with your friends in a way that makes me genuinely surprised that it hasn't been done before. Basically, after you (and up to two others) join the world of a friend who lets you in, you (and only you, leaving your party behind) are able to run around their world at your leisure. You can get into battles, and if any friends are nearby they'll immediately join in with you. If they aren't nearby, they're free to jump in at any time, too, for a share of the experience and loot. Though visitors can't accept quests or advance plot, they can follow along with the person whose world they're visiting, possibly lending a much needed hand or simply being there for the heck of it. It's a lot of fun to play with others, and any experience or treasure you earn while in a friend's world is brought back with you when you return.
What it really comes down to is if you're in the mood for some classic Dragon Quest gameplay, because though the game struggles to add a lot of different aspects to the gameplay such as switching classes and sidequests, the most important parts of the game, such as combat, still have that distinctive classic flair. If that's your thing, this game is top aces for you then, since all the new additions add a lot to the formula. If you really don't like the whole turn-based combat scene, well then this game isn't going to change your mind anytime soon. But Dragon Quest IX, despite some fairly archaic design choices, still manages to present an experience that's fun to play, proving that it's still one of the classics of the genre.