Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker

The Green Bays, a chain of mysterious islands, are home to the famous Monster Scout Challenge, held once every few years. Here, Warden Trump, the leader of CELL, sends his son to infiltrate the tournament, during which he receives the opportunity to scout and breed many monsters across the archipelago. Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker continues the Dragon Quest franchise’s monster-capturing subseries and provides a decent gameplay experience unfortunately burdened by a few interaction and story flaws.

Endless monsters wander around the Green Bays, visible on the many fields of exploration, with the protagonist able to walk up to them to encounter them. Sometimes, if the monster hasn’t noticed the hero, the player will get a surprise attack, although the enemy can take the player by surprise, as well. Battles normally occur with the player’s party of up to three active monsters squaring off against an enemy party of up to three foes.

In combat, the player can select four different A.I. options for the hero’s monsters or manually input commands for them. Before the player executes the party’s commands, moreover, the hero can use an item on his party. Player and enemy monsters take their turns apparently depending upon agility, although turn order can vary as usual. Nonetheless, given the relatively low scale of combat, battles usually don’t drag on forever.

For winning a battle, all monsters in the hero’s party gain experience, with his three “substitute” monsters (which the player can swap out anytime outside of battle) gaining some, as well, and all monsters in storage gaining a little, too, alongside a bit of money. Upon leveling, a monster might gain some skill points the player can invest into up to three skill sets for new battle abilities after a certain number of points in each.

The process of recruiting new monsters is different than in previous Dragon Quest Monsters games, with the player able to use the Scout command before a round on an enemy. When using this command, the hero’s monsters “attack” the selected enemy in a show of force, with a percentage gauge increasing after each show of force indicating the likelihood of recruiting the monster. The player can use attack-increasing skills to increase a monster’s show of force, sometimes necessary for recruiting high-rank enemies. If the player fails to recruit a monster, all enemies might “take offense,” disabling the Scout command for the battle’s remainder.

After scouting a new monster, the player names it and can take it along or send it to storage. All monsters also come in three different types: plus types, minus types, and neutral types, each playing part in monster synthesis, which the player can only perform with monsters whose levels are ten or greater. The player must fuse a plus type monster with a minus type monster, or can fuse a neutral type monster with either a plus or minus type monster, to form a new monster whose levels start at one, with up to three skill sets inherited from the fused monsters.

The battle system, with its endless diversity of skills and monsters, is easily one of the game’s high points, although level-grinding to build up synthesized monsters may turn off some players. Still, there are certain skills, such as those that can decrease enemy stats, heal every monster in the party, and so forth, which can literally spell the difference between victory and defeat late in the game. All in all, combat, while not without its flaws, can certainly prove addictive.

Interaction, unfortunately, is one of Joker’s low points. One of the biggest flaws, for instance, is that the player has to have a monster in the hero’s active party in order to manage its equipment (fortunately just a single weapon) and spend its skill points, even those part of the “substitute” list, which can account for a lot of menu-trekking before synthesizing monsters if the player doesn’t want their skill points to go to waste. Traveling the Green Bays can also be fairly tedious if the player wishes to revisit previous locations to scout certain monsters, since the hero’s “Zoom” ability just transports him to the last scoutpost visited and doesn’t allow him to travel to specific areas. Still, the quicksave feature is a welcome addition, although there really isn’t much excuse for the overall user-unfriendliness of the interface.

Joker in sense retains the turn-based battle and monster-capturing formulae of its predecessors, albeit with some new features such as the method of recruiting monsters and a revamped version of Dragon Quest VIII’s skill system to help it feel fresh.

Typically, monster-capturing games don’t have a whole lot of story, and Joker, lamentably, is no exception, what with a deficit of character development, little sense of mystery and excitement, sluggish pacing, and the like. There are maybe one or two good twists, although the plot is hardly a draw to the game.

Composer Koichi Sugiyama, as with every previous Dragon Quest, provides the soundtrack, largely consisting of remixed versions of tracks from previous Dragon Quest Monsters games and a few original pieces. Unfortunately, Sugiyama seems to be losing his magic touch with Joker’s soundtrack, given the generally derivative and repetitive nature of the music, as well as some presentation issues such as the lack of music at night (nighttime versions of tracks certainly would have helped). Joker also brings back the comical battle sounds from past titles in the franchise that somewhat clash with the more realistic sounds also present in combat. In the end, Joker’s aural offering is below the norm typically offered by the series.

The visuals, however, are another high point of the game alongside the gameplay, with 3-D cel-shading really exemplifying Akira Toriyama’s character and monster designs in and out of battle. Granted, the environments do have a pixelated look on close-up, although the graphics help the game far more than hurt.

Finally, playing time can vary considerably depending upon the player’s luck with certain skills and monsters throughout the game, as well as some post-game quests, all of which can make the game range somewhere from twenty-five to seventy-five hours.

Overall, Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker doesn’t set the RPG world on fire nor does it blemish it. It has many things going for it such as its gameplay and visuals, although it also has many things going against it such as its user-unfriendly interface and unengaging plot. The game will likely satisfy long-time fans of the Dragon Quest franchise and monster capturing games in general, although other gamers likely aren’t missing a whole lot.

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