Imagine starting a game with a party of three who humbly scour the countryside in search of sewer rats and ten dingleberries for the old town kook. Then, before reaching the next set of polygons with spotty green overlay, change those party members with three completely different, but slightly stronger, characters. Continue to do this for thirty hours, running into the occasional palette swap and challenging boss battle. Congratulations – you just beat Dragon Quest Monsters Joker 2!.
Sadly, this is only a small exaggeration – but it may be a little unfair. What’s always made the Dragon Quest series a top-notch title is its atmosphere. Essentially, every game is the same – traverse traditional fantasy landscapes thwarting masterfully-crafted baddies, all the while immersed in aural splendor. Sure, some enjoy the task of economizing resources during battle, knowing just what it takes to down each combination of enemies, but others view this as an unnecessary, dated grind. So, what keeps Dragon Quest fans coming back? The aforementioned charm; the series has truly created a world all its own.
DQMJ2 goes astray by stripping the series of what made it great: its soul. DQM’s alter ego, Pokémon, encourages romping from gym to gym with the same core team, substituting stronger Pokémon for their weaker brethren only occasionally. DQMJ2 demands the opposite: synthesize and scrap your team as soon as possible, or die. The game seems oddly schizophrenic; although it encourages naming every single monster that finds its way into your arms, DQMJ2 simultaneously reminds you through rigorous random battles that it’s time to upgrade and say goodbye Splurt McBlueface.
The game detracts from its past in another important way: the classic, puzzle-esque way that players have always conquered their foes has been replaced with stat crunching. Choosing the right spell certainly helps, but a Liquid Slime +4 will always perform better than a Lipsy +3. Everything else is detail. And that’s another thing – the AI is so good and efficient that direct commands are rarely, if ever, needed. Choose the right combat style from a set of four, and midheal will be used on the weakest monster every time. This bittersweet reality may save players headaches, but it takes the fangs out of the sabrecat. Even boss battles don’t require much player interaction other than item selection and the occasional tactic switch. In fact, in tournament battles, using items is disallowed, which means players have even less control over their critters.
Here lies yet another downfall of DQMJ2: fans of the original DQM games will find tournament battles lacking. For those unfamiliar with the series, the formula of these games tends to go as follows: discover a new land -> tournament battle -> lose to a creative set of three teams -> craft a team suited to topple said combination -> maybe grind a little -> beat tournament battle. Repeat. This trajectory fostered a sense of accomplishment with each tournament rank. In fact, I still remember some of the battles from over ten years ago on the Game Boy. DQMJ2 departs from this successful strategy that the series was founded on, and opts for uninspired, synergy-less enemy combatants. My course through the game went thusly: discover new area -> tournament battle -> discover new area -> tournament battle, repeat ad nauseum. I even took down three ranks in a row, which exemplifies the poor game design. Tose, the series’ developers, has lost their edge, and S-E would be wise to pass the torch on to a new entity with novel ideas.
I should stop here, because I’m being unfair again. To deny that I had any fun with this game would be dishonest. Although a great deal of my enjoyment derived from nostalgia and loyalty to the series, objectively speaking, synthesis and crafting the perfect team is intrinsically rewarding. When gallivanting around caves, countrysides, or catacombs, players battle with three monsters, and can substitute in from a choice of three more. “Sideboarding” in certain monsters during random encounters is sometimes required in order to reduce losses, which keeps the game engaging from a challenge standpoint. Add in a multitudinous library of monsters, skills, and traits, and DQMJ2 enjoys a depth Pokémon could only dream of having. Unfortunately, QA and the designers must have fallen asleep during this game’s conception, because it’s impossible to discover what an ability does before you learn it. In fact, after you acquire it, the only way to discover what it does is by pulling up the help dialogue mid-battle. And how do I know if I want to learn it if I don’t even know what it does? Maybe the Champion track isn’t worth fifty more hard-earned skillpoints, and I should invest elsewhere. Meditate sounds like a cool ability, but who knows what it does? I mean, I can guess, but why should I have to? Fortunately, we live in the information age, and the Internet hosts guides aplenty that state what each ability does.
The Internet also offers wireless and wi-fi combat, which may entice those who sought a true challenge in the latest Pokémon games. Few things dust off a forgotten game like taking a “perfect” team for a stroll only to have it absolutely crushed under the azure, squishy bottom of a team of slimes. This gives the game lasting appeal for those who’ve conquered the single player, although that is a feat in and of itself. Not only do changing weather and the onset of night offer new monsters to hunt in each landscape, but roaming bosses and a challenging aftermath to the game’s story breathe fresh hellfire into DQMJ2. Those looking for value per dollar will find that DQMJ2 offers a great deal of bang for their buck.
The question is, do RPG fans care to drop more than 30 hours into DQMJ2? Unfortunately, I have to report that the story can be summed up entirely in one sentence: after sneaking aboard an airship to participate in a monster tournament, the hero finds the ship mysteriously crash-landed onto an island, where he must participate in a series of tournament battles to save the crew. A few details peek in throughout the game, but that’s essentially it. Unlike most previous Dragon Quest titles, DQMJ2 hosts no towns and few NPCs to interact with; yet another missing staple of the series. Although the DQ franchise has never been loved for its story in a traditional sense, the atmosphere of a world under threat of a looming evil has repeatedly motivated players to gallantry. Square Enix has always opted for a mostly anonymous protagonist thrust into a world of real people; DQMJ2 has done much the same, except there are no people – period.
The Dragon Quest series is often recognized for Akira Toriyama’s monsters, but Square Enix has also made sure to reuse certain townspeople from game to game. Unfortunately, without a populated world of Toriyama creations, DQMJ2’s visuals are severely lacking. In accordance with the “uncanny valley” effect, the Dragon Quest series has endured terrible graphics in many of its latest games, with the exclusion of DQVIII. In this way, the art design was sort of a balancing mechanism. The environment may look like the rear end of a lump wizard, but at least the monsters are well-animated and stay true to their creator’s intent. Sadly, DQMJ2 lacks this compromise, so players are forced to walk through pointy caverns and locales lacking detail without the offsetting factor of good-looking enemies.
One might hope to claim that although the game is hard on the eyes, at least it sounds good. However, were one to do so, one would be wrong. DQMJ2 uses just a few tracks, and these tracks grow tiresome quickly. The game definitely sounds like Dragon Quest, but Sugiyama didn’t produce anything remotely close to his usual standards. On the other hand, the spells, monsters, and attacks all sound as they should, so at least Square Enix found something worth carrying over.
Finally, one last complaint regarding the camera. Since the mid-90s, developers have obliterated potentially awesome games with poor camera mechanics. After 15+ years, DQMJ2 would seem to indicate that they have learned little. On the field, players can avoid almost all battles with some fancy footwork, since enemy encounters are handled through monsters who are visible on the landscape. Unfortunately, the inability to zoom the camera or change the y-axis allows players to be ambushed, resulting in unwanted combat. Although the alternative of completely random battles is perfectly acceptable in many other games, this doesn’t excuse the fact that better camera controls mean a more fun experience. Additionally, combat can be confusing. When a monster strikes a foe, the camera zooms in such that only that monster can be seen, and maybe the arm of a neighboring enemy. This means that if three spiked hairs are in combat, and one of them gets hit, discovering which took damage is difficult unless you watch the bottom screen for a shaking portrait, and even if you do, the shaking is so slight and subtle that it’s easy to miss. Plus, the shaking happens at the same time as damage is dealt, so players either have to watch the top screen to see damage amounts or the bottom screen to see who was hit. This doesn’t necessarily hamper gameplay, since the AI controls everything competently, but the experience and excitement of combat is certainly curtailed.
Despite Dragon Quest Monster Joker 2’s disregard for what has always made the Dragon Quest series great, I still enjoyed the experience. Admittedly, part of this is because of nostalgia and a love of the familiarity that DQMJ2 brings. However, synthesis and robust customization keep the game engaging and deep. Diehard DQ loyalists and tacticians will enjoy what this game has to offer, but those who want an experience – a game with heart and a story to tell – should spend their hard-earned medals elsewhere.