Gotta scout 'em all?
There’s a reason Pokémon games are so popular: once you’ve taken the plunge, there’s little excuse not to keep swimming. The investment of time and effort by the player is repeatedly psychologically justified as the game reinforces the player’s addiction with gradually increasing complexity. In short, it’s the perfect snare for the perfectionist.
In case you aren’t familiar with the Dragon Quest Monsters series, it leverages very much the same technique (in fact, the subseries, which—including Japanese-only entries—is already five titles large, has many times been labeled a “Pokémon clone”). Unlike in the mainline Dragon Quest series, players no longer level up heroes to battle monsters; instead, it’s trainers controlling monsters battling other monsters (and, sometimes, their trainers). In other words, at its core, it’s Pokémon!
As the latest installment in the popular spin-off series, Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 dares not to buck the trend. However, there are some fundamental differences between Joker and its Game Freak counterpart.
Here’s how it works: at the start of the game, you’ll find a relatively short introductory sequence which involves our hero stowing away on an airship to try and make his way to a legendary worldwide monster-battling competition. This part’s frankly quite boring, but it eventually ends, (crash) landing you in the heart of a Jungle environment, which—incidentally—happens to be filled with capturable monsters.
These monsters can be battled normally, and as you might expect, victories yield the usual EXP, which contributes to the levels of whatever monsters participated in the victory. Alternatively, it’s also possible to capture the monster using the “Scout” technique—and the capture success percentage (which is conveniently displayed) rises visibly as each of your current monsters participates in the attempt. Monsters with lower health are more susceptible to being captured. Sound familiar?
Left: Isn't there a warp in the lower-right of the second room?
Right: Our hero follows up on this attack with "Pop", for a full trifecta of rice-driven pain.
Unlike in Pokémon, however, skills aren’t gained automatically once certain levels are reached. Instead, each monster has two different skill sets which can be developed using skill points earned alongside EXP. These skill sets, which generally include seven or more cumulative skills (whether passive or battle-oriented), are unique to certain monsters (usually only a few different monsters share the same skill set). This is a nifty approach to player-oriented monster customization which closely parallels the skills system in Dragon Quest XIII, though it’s considerably broader in its design.
Also unlike Pokémon, you can actually equip your monsters with weapons as well. This provides an additional layer of complexity which also factors into a greater degree of customization of your party. There isn’t a heck of a lot of depth to the equipment system, but it’s still a welcomed perk. Monster swapping during battles is also a little bit different: rather than being limited to six total monsters at once, you can actually carry twelve—though only six can be swapped in and out of battles at any given time. This thankfully mitigates the routine annoyances of having to regularly return to a Pokécenter to unload some creatures. Oh yeah—and you’re also granted a “Zoom” spell (for instant travel) at the very beginning of the adventure, and it can even be used in caves and dungeons.
There are even giant beasts which can only be subdued and captured after many long hours of level-gaining and team-building. These legendary creatures are terribly dangerous and impossible to miss throughout your adventures, making the prospects of their capture even more exciting and elusive.
In the final, and perhaps most pronounced, departure from the traditional Pokémon formula, random battles have been completely removed from the equation. Instead, creatures pop in and out and roam around the game world, often pursuing our hero (when spotted) and, in most cases, able to be avoided if so desired. This is, in my opinion, a huge improvement over what I view as an antiquated game design mechanic.
Left: These dudes were a pain in DQVIII!
Right: I'll take the one on the right.
In short, DQM: J2 is a streamlined revision to the Pokémon blueprint. It’s an odd role for a Dragon Quest game to assume considering the historically traditional nature of the franchise’s design, but it makes sense. Really, the biggest problems with the game center on its pacing. The beginning of the adventure really drags, and the story is hardly captivating. Likewise, the characters, while certainly augmented with Akira Toriyama’s unmistakable art style, are disappointingly shallow. That’s not to say that Pokémon’s storytelling is any more competent, but its pacing is consistently better. Thus, in DQM: J2, the biggest challenge of all is persevering long enough for the fever to develop.
Once you’re in, it’s much easier to keep moving forward, though you have to be okay with plenty of grinding as well. Quite a lot of it, in fact; this is one area where the game chooses not to diverge from the path of Pokémon and traditional jRPGs. Only those monsters which participate in the battle gain EXP, and that means it’s important to swap out frequently. And while there’s a pretty awesome “monster synthesis” system (which you might compare to Pokémon’s breeding, except it’s more versatile, instantaneous, somewhat randomized, and drops your EXP back to 0), you can’t take advantage of it until each creature is at least level 10. Couple that with the fact that you’re limited to a random (and very small) number of capture attempts per battle—an irritating choice which not even Pokémon ever considered trying—and you’ve got a fair bit of artificial depth in your path.
Offering some additional solace during the early hours is Koichi Sugiyama’s well-composed soundtrack, although it still doesn’t compare to the quality of the parent series’ pieces (especially DQVIII’s, which was live orchestra in-game). The title theme alone is excessively polished, and would greatly benefit from an orchestral translation. The biggest disappointment here is that there simply isn’t enough music to adequately span the full duration of the adventure—and so much of it quickly grows old.
Finally, of course, there’s the multiplayer. Apart from the usual head-to-head wireless battles, we’re also treated once again to a Tag Mode feature, where “tagging” other Joker 2 owners earns you the chance of catching your own version of some of their monsters—and tagging other Dragon Quest DS games grants you additional creatures unique to those games, as well! The online community’s already buzzing over which monsters they’ll be taking to their battles, and Nintendo’s even planning on throwing a worldwide tournament for those who really think they’ve got what it takes.