Dragon Quest is one of the biggest juggernauts of the JRPG genre, and so it's not surprising that it has a ton of spin-offs. There are Dragon Quest action games, strategy games, puzzle games, board games and roguelikes. With a stable of creatures as large as Dragon Quest, it's not shocking that there's an entire legion of spin-off titles based on monster training. Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker was a solid inclusion into the genre, converting the Dragon Quest 8 gameplay into an extremely good monster trainer game. While Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 isn't quite on the same level, it offers more than enough to entice fans to pick it up as soon as possible.
In Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2, you play as a young man who's eager to become a monster scout, the Dragon Quest version of a monster trainer. Without any monsters of your own, you sneak aboard an airship to attend a monster-battling competition. Before you can get far, though, you're caught and forced to serve on the airship. It isn't long before the airship suffers catastrophic engine trouble and crashes on a mysterious island. The other passengers and crew go missing, and it's up to your character to find them. The island is populated by deadly monsters of all shapes and sizes, so the only way you'll survive is to become a true monster scout.
The plot is mostly an excuse for your monster scout to explore the island and fight giant monsters. The combat in Joker 2 is as by-the-numbers as you can get. You have a team of three monsters that will battle teams of three other monsters until one falls. Some monsters take up multiple slots on your team, limiting you to two or even one monster instead. You can also switch your frontline monsters for one of your substitutes, effectively giving you a team of six with up to three monsters out at a time. For the most part, the combat is by the book. If you've played a recent Dragon Quest title, there aren't going to be a lot of surprises here.
Dragon Quest Joker 2 has an interesting method of capturing monsters. Unlike Pokémon, where you use a Poké ball to capture monsters, you use trained monsters to intimidate the other monsters into joining your team. This is done by what is effectively a round of combat. Each of your three (or fewer) monsters takes a turn "attacking" the monster of your choice. The attacks don't do damage but fill up a monster's scouting meter by a certain percentage. The more the meter fills up, the greater the chances of the monster joining you. It's an interesting system in that you can game it effectively by using certain monsters or techniques. My method was to keep a backup crew of monsters with the Psyche ability, which lets you boost the damage of an attack by a ridiculous degree by spending multiple turns charging. However, the Psyche bonus also includes a Convince attempt. If you set up things properly, you'll be able to convince even difficult monsters with surprising ease.
The real fun in Joker 2 comes from leveling and breeding your monsters. By default, each monster has unique, innate attributes that can influence how well it fights. The Swarm Trooper, for example, is a collection of bugs; it doesn't hit very hard but can hit many times in a row. Each monster gains skill points, which can be assigned to a few different skills to unlock new attacks or passive abilities. Even if you raise two different Slimes, you may discover that they function very differently because one leveled Defense and the other unlocked new attacks.
However, that is only half the game. Once a monster reaches level 10, it can be fused with another monster, and the result includes attributes from both parents. It may be a new species, but it can learn skills or abilities it normally couldn't. Thus, creating a strong monster isn't as simple as just scouting them. You have to spend a fair amount of time breeding your favorite monsters together to create something truly unstoppable. It's an incredibly addictive system and is a boatload more fun than Pokémon's far more simplistic monster breeding system. You can spend hours creating new, powerful monsters and figuring out the best way to transfer skills and abilities to create the ultimate monster. Frankly, this alone is worth the cost of the game. The amount of time one can spend with the monster breeding system is ridiculous. You can take your trained monsters online to compete against other players or in weekly tournaments, so there's a reason to build them up to be as strong as possible.
Of course, this level of complexity comes at a cost. The game absolutely encourages grinding for levels. You have to grind to level up your monsters, grind more for skill points, and fuse together the monsters to get a new low-level monster that you proceed to grind up so you can fuse it with other monsters. It goes on and on. To Joker 2's credit, there are a lot of easy grinding spots. It's simple to find Metal Slimes, the infamous Dragon Quest monster that gives more experience than any other. Even with the help of high-level Metal Slimes, you'll still spend a lot of time repeatedly fighting the same monsters. This is made relatively painless by the game design, but if you're the sort of person who always likes to move forward, this could grow frustrating very quickly.
The only real problem with Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 is that it combines both the best and worst aspects of Pokémon and Dragon Quest. The charming monsters and in-depth leveling systems are offset by the fact that everything comes at a slow and sedate pace. This is less of a problem in Dragon Quest games, where the focus is as much on exploring the world as in fighting monsters, but in Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2, where the combat is the entire point of the game, it begins to wear on you. While it's incredibly satisfying to breed the perfect monster, the time you have to spend doing so may be off-putting, especially because so many monsters lack the distinctiveness of Pokémon. Dragon Quest has some memorable monsters, but many began as the by-the-book RPG enemies you pound on your way to something more interesting. Dragon Quest fans will find a lot more to like here, as there are plenty of cameos from familiar enemies.
For a Nintendo DS game, Joker 2 looks quite good. It's not really a visual improvement over the original Joker, but it remains impressive for an offering from the aging Nintendo DS. One of the biggest disappointments in Joker 2 is that the world is extremely bland. In comparison to Final Fantasy titles, Dragon Quest games have been more about the towns you visit instead of the people in your party. However, there are few places to explore in Joker 2 that are not monster-filled forests or fields, so the island feels dull. The Doubtback, for example, is only memorable because of the giant flying lynx monster that attacks you, not for the location itself. The few characters you meet are cheerful but nowhere near as charming or memorable as those found in the original Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker.
The game's localization is top-notch and frequently amusing or funny. Most of the comedy comes from groan-inducing puns, but that's half the charm of a Dragon Quest game. The soundtrack is quite good, but the absence of voice acting is noticeable. It isn't enough to detract from the game, but there are times when it would have been an improvement.
In the end, Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 feels very similar to the original game, mostly setting itself apart with new monsters and a small handful of new mechanics. This isn't a bad thing, though. The gameplay is fun, easy to pick up and has a surprising amount of depth. It's a slower-paced and old-school sort of game, but it captures a lot of the fun of Dragon Quest. The most exceptional element is the amazingly addictive monster breeding system, which far surpasses those seen in Pokémon and other monster trainer games, and it can eat up hours of your time. Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 isn't exceptional, but it's an extremely well-made game. If you're a fan of Dragon Quest or monster training titles, you'll find a lot to like here.
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