Non-linearity and player choice are two of the main concepts that help define what a RPG will be. Depending on how freely you're able to progress, you can have anything from the rigidly-linear-to-the-point-of-absurdity Final Fantasy XIII to the go-wherever-you-want, do-whatever-you-want-but-you-may-die Elder Scrolls games from Bethesda. RPGs also present the player with innumerable choices beyond progressing the plot. Can you make or customize your characters, or are they pre-defined? Can you tinker with their stats/abilities/spells, or are these things going to progress in the exact same way every time, as with Final Fantasy IV? Can you return to previous locations in case you missed something, or do you have to wait until later in the game to go back?
The Dragon Quest series went from something I enjoyed to something I loved after I finished Dragon Quest IX. What strikes me the most about it, and some of the rest of the series, is its strongly Western derived non-linearity and wealth of player choice. Comparing the latest Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest entries has always been a study in contrasts in the Japanese RPG genre, but at no time in their respective histories has the difference been as stark as this year. Where FXIII was criticized for its dogmatic linearity, excising of genre traditions such as towns, and flashy-but-shallow gameplay systems, DQIX was praised for almost precisely the opposite reasons. In those regards, DQIX is indeed closer to Western style RPGs.
While its multiplayer aspects, as well as downloadable items and quests, are DQIX's most fresh and modern aspects, I found its overall classicist design to be its best asset. As with most old school Western style RPGs (as well as Dragon Quest III), you make and design both your main character and your party. I have a terrible habit of starting and never getting more than 20 hours into the original Icewind Dale because making up characters and deciding the party's composition is too much fun. DQIX goes several steps further by allowing you to change Jobs, as well as displaying every piece of equipment on your characters. The latter is something I wish all RPGs did, since you get bored of the same looking characters over the course of 40 or so hours. Anyway, the gameplay and whimsical charm of the DQIX's stories-within-the-main-story may be more classic Dragon Quest than Baldur's Gate, but there are several points in the game where you're either not immediately told where you need to go next or you're allowed to wander around to your heart's content. This is very reminiscent of Western RPGs; the original Fallout spring to mind, since you often had to explore a bit to figure out the next logical step. It's also analogous BioWare's modern games, which eventually get to a point where you have several branching locations to choose from to progress the plot, all of them tying back into the main plot thread at their conclusion.
Final Fantasy XIII may amount to a failed experiment or an attempt to revolutionize the jRPG genre in the way some of its forebearers had. That's for history to decide. On paper Dragon Quest IX may seem to be playing it safe, but like most of its forebearers, it sticks to the best traditions while simultaneously moving things forward a couple steps. In fact, much of its design is so smart and streamlined that the things that are behind the curve stand out more as a result. Had the multiplayer worked over the Internet instead of only local wireless, I think DQIX could've become the sensation here that it was in Japan. The 'Heal All' command makes a welcome return, but there are some nagging interface problems: menus/commands don't require a consistent amount of button presses, leading to mistakes; having to do some things one at a time when you should be able to do them all at once, like dropping off or calling up party members at the Stornway Inn; the traditional but probably unnecessary save system of having to go to a church; and so on. Still, these are only nagging issues at best, and I'll gladly put up with them if it means not throwing the baby out with the bathwater as FFXIII did with much of its design.
What I ended up loving most about DQIX is the way it encourages you to tinker and play around with its gameplay systems. Again, it's all about maximizing the amount of player choice. Its implementation of the Job system is among the most satisfying ever, even going so far as to let you farm skill points by leveling in one Job you don't plan on using and carrying the points back to one of your “main” Jobs. More choice still: you can evenly level the entire party in the same classes or you can play the game with only two or three characters or you can play through the game with friends in multiplayer. What's more, the game's Alchemy system can either be completely ignored or exploited to its limits during any point in the game. If you take the time out of the main quest to chase down obscure ingredients, you can produce items and equipment that are more powerful or at least cooler looking than what you can get in shops. The same applies to the 100+ side quests in DQIX: do them as they come up, do them all in one fell swoop toward the end of the game (or in the meaty post-game), or ignore them entirely. All of this, again, is in stark contrast to FFXIII; its character building system is obscurantist, trying to fool you into thinking you have more choice and customization than you really do. As for its Alchemy-style system, you're basically forced to do it to upgrade equipment. I can't speak to its side quests, since I didn't get that far in the game, but reportedly they don't open up until 30+ hours in.
While some entries in the series are more traditionally Japanese than others, Dragon Quest IX continually struck me as one of the best games at bridging the gap between the Western and Japanese approaches to RPG design. The original Dragon Quest, and other jRPGs of its era, were clearly patterned after Wizardry and other old school Western RPGs. Thus by the series sticking to its roots, it has wrapped back around to feel fresh and satisfyingly modern. Final Fantasy XII became one of my favorites of the last generation because it, too, took many cues from Western RPGs, albeit in a more purposefully modern form. It has an openness and depth of player choice that is more akin to a MMORPG or BioWare game than the other games in the series (not to mention much less of the bile inducing jRPG plucky teen heroes and pseudo-philosophical psychobabble plots). FFXIII superficially looks and plays like FFXII, but in their details and design, they are as different as, well, DQIX and FFXIII. The Dragon Quest series may never be as popular in the States as Final Fantasy is, but DQIX is definite proof that the supposedly staid and conservative jRPG genre has much life in it, thanks to the important Western influences of openness and choice.