Genre: Monster Training RPG
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: November 6, 2007
Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker was so popular in Japan that demand for it briefly outstripped Nintendo’s ability to manufacture the cartridges. Part of this is probably the infatuation with all things Dragon Quest that American gamers don’t quite share, but Joker is also an exceptionally good game. It features 3D graphics that are far more impressive than what most DS titles dare, a deep and satisfying array of monsters to catch and synthesize, and a world that can be quite entertaining to explore. It’s not a title that’s without its weaknesses, and for some players those weak points may be deal breakers. For fans of Dragon Quest VIII or just monster training titles in general, Joker is a worthy purchase.
If you own a DS, or have ever owned a portable Nintendo system ever, you’ve probably played games like Joker before. The easy comparison is to the DS Pokemon titles, Diamond and Pearl. Joker is considerably more streamlined, offering nothing like the labyrinthine breeding and customization systems that have slowly crept into dominance in newer Pokemon titles. Joker is more comparable to the original Game Boy Pokemon outings, Red and Blue, with a straight emphasis on winning battles. As far as that goes, Joker’s combat system is relatively well-balanced and intuitive. There are few monsters that are outright game-breakers (in proportion to how difficult they are to obtain), and combat strategy isn’t dominated by any sort of complicated elemental system.
Instead, the monsters in Joker all behave in exactly the way their Dragon Quest counterparts do, generally learning the same types of abilities. The only real difference is that here you can level a lowly Slime up into a potent caster, or find that enemies easily dispatched in the wild like Drackies or Winkies can become powerhouses if leveled-up long enough. Any monster over level 10 can be fused with other monsters in hopes of creating something more powerful, although most combinations yield lowly Lips until you’ve progressed a considerably way into the game. For most of your journey, you’ll be capturing monsters to add to your collection, and picking your favorites to level up as your main combat team. You will find some monsters are much better than others, but there are few critters in the game that are outright unusable. In this sense, Joker is a more well-balanced monster trainer than just about any Pokemon title.
The interface is very simple and completely menu-driven. You can keep three monsters in your active party, and three monsters as “substitutes” you can switch between battles. When battle begins, you can opt to give each monster an order each turn, or to simply have them fight according to one of a variety of AI patterns you can assign them. Battles are otherwise classic turn-based affairs that work exactly like traditional Dragon Quest battles. Generally the AI does a good job of handling mundane encounters, while for bosses and more elite monsters giving commands is better. What’s cool about Joker is how you encounter monsters: every creature is depicted in full 3D, roaming about the map. You simply run toward a monster and touch it to initiate a battle. Stronger monsters may pursue you as you explore areas, while weaker monsters may run away from you.
Some monsters only roam particular areas at particular times of day, and all of the game’s areas have different selections of monsters to catch depending on whether it’s daytime or nighttime. Time slowly passes as you run around in-game, although frustratingly, there’s no in-game clock that lets you keep track of how much day or night you have left if you’re hunting for a particular creature. There’s also no way of telling exactly how powerful an enemy is going to be before you encounter it, but escaping from disastrous battles is relatively easy. It’s actually a bit fun knowing that, even if most of the monsters on an island are already caught and conquered, there’s a super-powerful rare monster spawning there that you just can’t beat yet. You can also find NPCs on islands that hand you various quests, which also add to the fun when the storyline’s goals get somewhat vague (as they are for most of the game).
The overall shape of the game is absolutely nothing surprising if you’ve played a monster trainer before. You run around catching monsters and fetch-questing for items for a bit, then you into a tournament-oriented phase that offers some resolution to the game’s plot. The open-ended sense of exploration means that there are very few areas that can properly be considered “dungeons”, although this is a fairly pleasant change of pace. It’s a pretty typical 40-60 hour journey, with some online competition to help draw out the experience. Every aspect of the game is handled well and perfectly enjoyable, you just won’t find anything new at all here.
The graphics are worth commenting on, though. Although secret ninja developers TOSE don’t quite capture the full quality of Level-5’s work on Dragon Quest VIII in the 3D work, the game’s visuals are still a very impressive use of 3D on the DS. The main experience Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker offers that you don’t really get out of other monster trainers is the feeling of exploring a living world, thanks to the detailed areas and the 3D monsters that freely roam the map. Once you capture a monster, you’ll find they have a wide and lively range of animations to use in battle. Combat is kept short thanks to use of Tactics, so you never really have time to get tired of watching them.
A few of your main character’s animations are a little rough, especially the ladder-climbing animation, but this doesn’t really disrupt the fun of just watching the game in motion. Players beware, though, Joker’s full 3D graphics drain the DS’s battery a lot more quickly than most other games (even Mario 64 DS). I’m not exactly sure why, though maybe the attempt to give everything lots of texture (as opposed to Mario 64’s relative simplicity) is key to the battery drain. You can still get a good 10 hours out of your DS while playing Joker, just don’t forget to recharge your batteries more regularly than you might when playing, say, Puzzle Quest.
Aside from the general “lack” of newness one might feel about Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker, there’s only one real major problem with the game. It’s a very slow-paced title, in much the same way Dragon Quest VIII was. This is a game that wants you to take your time while you play and linger in all of the carefully-crafted island areas. As a result, this game feels far less like a thrilling adventure than it does a bucolic stroll through the countryside. It can be extremely hard to get through the game’s first ten hours or so, simply because the pace is so glacial. I personally had a problem with putting in two or three hours, and suddenly feeling overwhelmingly sleepy. It didn’t matter if I was actually well-rested at the time or not, or whether or not I was enjoying my current in-game task, I simply couldn’t do it very long before feeling very tired.
This is a far cry from the wild bursts of adrenaline a more fast-paced RPG title like Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings might inspire, and is probably due to Joker’s complete lack of any significant action component to the game. Once you acquire your first piece of darkonium the game’s pace picks up significantly, and if you can get that far you’ll probably enjoy the rest of your journey. If you’re a gamer who knows you have a short attention span, though, you may want to give Joker a pass… or make someone else playing for the first ten hours or so.
Joker is, overall, a difficult game to evaluate. It has obvious depth, it’s easy to play, and once you get involved with it it’s very enjoyable. Technically it makes excellent use of the DS’s ability to produce 3D graphics, it’s enjoyably localized, and the music is a perfectly acceptable collection of tunes lifted from the Dragon Quest VIII soundtrack. This is ordinarily a game that demands a high score and enthusiastic review, but there’s just something missing from Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker. Maybe it’s the too-slow pace, too-thin plot, or the simple lack of any real innovation in the gameplay. Maybe it’s just that it’s a game that gets off a slow start, when most titles work hard to grab you quickly and then save any slow or repetitious gameplay for later on in the experience. Whatever’s missing, it seems to be holding Joker back from being the excellent experience it very easily could be, and keeps this otherwise-excellent title from meriting a higher score. This is a game that people are going to really enjoy if they can get into it, but Joker does a player no favors when it comes to helping you get into the game.
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