Back in 1999, Enix saw the success of Nintendo’s Pokémon franchise and decided it needed to get on the “gotta catch ’em all” bandwagon. And honestly, this wasn’t such a bad idea for the company, as its Dragon Quest franchise had already spawned 6 titles, each one featuring a bevy of monsters from which they could pull. And although neither the first nor second games got all that much attention, they were still cute little titles that captured the same feeling of catching and training monsters that the Big N’s signature series had.
Fast forward to 2007, in which Enix, now Square Enix, decides to bring out a new installment in their monster catching series. Entitled Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker (for reasons of punsmanship), this latest title in the series introduces some new features, such as head-to-head battles via wi-fi and online tournament modes. But is this game going to rival Big N’s Big P? Read on to find out.
Let’s get this part over with, as it’s not very important. You play a silent protagonist who is ordered by his father, the head of a group known as CELL, to infiltrate the Monster Scout Championship in the Green Bays islands. Being a juvenile delinquent with obvious anger issues, you relish the chance to go have creatures slaughter each other for fun and profit, and so you agree. You’re given a choice of monsters to start out with, and then you go on a quest to be the very best, like no one ever was.
Along the way you meet a white dog known as the Incarnus. The Incarnus (whom you get to name) is on a mission to stop a catastrophe, and once he realizes that he is not powerful enough to complete it on his own, joins the hero in a quid pro quo arrangement; you help me complete my mission, I’ll help you win the Monster Scout Championship. And so the journey to win the championship and save the world begins in earnest. And that’s pretty much the story. There really isn’t anything more substantial than that, and while there is one big plot twist, even Stevie Wonder could see it coming. Honestly, though, the story really felt like an outline to lead the player to different places where he could scout monsters, so I can’t complain awfully much.
Despite the poor quality storyline, I shouldn’t leave this section of my critique without mentioning the one highlight: above average dialogue that is excellently translated. For some reason, ever since Dragon Quest VIII, the series has had top-notch localization, with particular emphasis put on clever (and sometimes downright awful) puns and oddly grammatically proper accented speech. There is a good bit of humor in the game, and while it’s not side splitting, the game knows what it is, and holds no pretentions otherwise. Still, with not much there to begin with, there’s not a whole lot to work with. Of course, if you’re playing a monster-catching game for the storyline, you’re obviously barking up the wrong tree.
Here’s the real meat of any game in the genre, and there’s very little deviation from the expected. You go around fighting monsters with your team. During battle you can either assign them tactics (which actually work most of the time), give them individual orders, use items, scout (more in a bit) or flee. When you win you gain money, which you can use to buy weapons, and experience, which go towards leveling up your monsters. Every so often, your monsters gain skill points at a level up, which you can distribute to teach them new spells and abilities. If you meet a monster you want to be on your team, you have to scout it. Scouting is a combat option that sends your current monster crew to do a show of force against the monster you want to scout. Instead of doing damage, these shows of force increase the percentage chance that the monster being scouted will join you. The more damage your monsters can do in combat, the higher the gauge fills up after a show of force. Finally, after monsters reach level ten, you can combine them via synthesis – so long as the are of opposing charges (genders, if you will) — to create new monsters that you might not be able to acquire simply by scouting.
None of these features are particularly new, and although there are over 200 monsters in the game, it takes a lot of work to get them all, as most will be found only via synthesis, which is a tedious process requiring loads of scouting and grinding. Of course, the payoff doesn’t really occur in game (you can beat the last boss easily with B-Rank monsters, let alone A, S, or X ranked ones) or even in the new game + option. The real reward for your time and effort is achieved during online play with other gamers who have also spent way too much time and effort getting superior monsters by careful synthesis and ridiculous amounts of level grinding. This is where Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker truly achieves its potential, and if I particularly cared for online or tournament play, I’m sure I’d have given the game a higher score. Honestly, however, I don’t, and while I can understand the merits of having a system (which, by the way, is in some way monitored by Square Enix to punish cheating) I wouldn’t really use it. Still, if that’s your bag, you’ll probably enjoy it.
I must admit that I am hard pressed to evaluate the graphics on most DS games, as I’m not quite sure what level I am to expect of them. How far above the N64 is the DS suppose to be, graphically? How short of the GameCube? Well what I can say is that Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker is definitely somewhere firmly in between the two consoles, graphically. While the character models are well-designed and cell shaded, reminiscent of Dragon Quest VIII, the background textures harken back to early N64 textures and don’t look that good. Still, I can’t say that I was disappointed with the graphics, and I do so love the monster designs series artist Akira “Kamehameha” Toriyama has created. How could you hate that smiling little slime? Overall, the graphics are good but won’t astound.
Meh. This is the utterance that accurately sums up Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker’s sound and music. Koichi Sugiyama, best known for his epic symphonic compositions, must have been busy working on something else at the same time he was producing the score for this game, as the compositions are pretty mediocre. They all bear the hallmark of Sugiyama’s style, but they are placeholders; they fit their scenes and nothing more. Sound effects are the same way, despite being the classics from previous Dragon Quest games. Don’t expect to want to run out and buy the soundtrack.
Super pet peeve time, folks. The controls of Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker are annoying, particularly while navigating the overworld map. In a fully 3D world, you should have more than 8 directions of motion. An analog stick would have been the best, or analog control of SOME sort. However DQM:J does NOT deliver in this regard. While I eventually resorted to walking straight and just using L and R to shift the camera, I should not have had to, and shame on the design team for this flaw. It was a constant irritant, like an itch you just can’t scratch, and it actually detracted from what would otherwise have been a tolerable process of repetition when level-grinding.
I think the best way to sum up my experiences with Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker is as follows: I can’t believe I put that much time into the game. While DQM: J was by no means an outstanding game, there is something about the monster-catching formula that draws you in and keeps you playing, and it is to that which I attribute the game’s staying power in my hands. If you’re a fan of the genre and appreciate the ability to challenge others in battles, you’ll do well with Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker. Otherwise, you’ll just find a mediocre game with silly dialogue.