Throughout my nearly two-decade RPG-playing career, the aesthetic magnetism of Akira Toriyama’s distinctive artistic style is something that I have to come to realize I cannot escape. From the eminent Chrono Trigger to the underrated Blue Dragon, Toriyama’s character designs have maintained a certain appeal to me since first attempting to read a copy of my friend’s Dragon Ball manga, in Japanese no less, near the start of kindergarten-level academia. In terms of Toriyama’s visual input, the Dragon Quest series has been the most prolific of his video-game endeavors, and through its many permutations has maintained a firm position within middle to upper role-playing game tiers in terms of comprehensive quality from a developmental perspective. The Dragon Quest Monsters sub-series rests just above par within that comparison scale, delivering generally enjoyable, but not all that creative, RPG experiences.
Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker, from 2007, was the first in its respective canon to change things up on both the visual and gameplay fronts, implementing 3D models and eliminating random battles via a run-into-your-enemy overworld system, but the core battle mechanics remained essentially unaltered from not only previous Monsters installments, but late-era Dragon Quest outings as well (i.e. marginally lax storytelling, grind-until-you-can-progress incentives with some non-threatening puzzles thrown in at various intervals). Now, with the release and subsequent please-buy-me $80 price drop of the Nintendo 3DS, the DS is seemingly nearing the conclusion of its extremely lucrative lifecycle. Admittedly, I still indulge in Pokemon White from time to time for Wi-Fi battles and pity trades, but other than that my DS spends most of its days beneath a thin layer of dust. Just when I thought I was steps away from bequeathing the device to a neighborhood gradeschooler as his first foray into the wonderment of controlled pixelated entertainment, a new Toriyama-brand title was announced and I was forced to postpone my intended act of amiable kindness.
At first glance, Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 seems like a carbon copy of the first Joker game, albeit with slightly more polished graphics and a smoother frame rate. In the simplest of terms, Joker 2 is a cross between Monster Hunter and the aforementioned Pokemon games, with the player’s character staying out of battles entirely, collecting a multitude of beasts from the Dragon Quest universe, then training, modifying, and pitting them against even more, progressively difficult to defeat and recruit monsters in an effort to build a team strong enough to reach the finalization of a less-than-enticing story mode.
Like all Dragon Quest games, a solid five-to-eight hours of dedicated gameplay is required in order for deeper strategic trajectories to present themselves. The battle screens fall into the “good enough, but nothing special” category, exhibiting easy navigation and predominantly one-button selection options to commence each cycle of combat. The main draw here is the game’s winningly complex monster-synthesis system, which allows the player to combine ostensibly weaker scouted creatures and raise them through widely random evolutionary structures, ultimately resulting in screen-filling colossi capable of massive damage. (Compare this to Pokemon, where a monster’s evolutionary path is predetermined, save stopping the evolution or using a corresponding form-change stone of some sort.) This process is especially addictive; I found myself pushing past the tediousness of the streamlined storytelling, dungeon-crawling, and endless leveling in order to dig deeper into what Joker 2’s remarkably intricate synthesis system has to offer. Beware, though: Once monsters are successfully amalgamated, their level is reduced to 1, and you cannot synthesis again until the fresh specimen reaches level 10—so, basically, say goodbye to the bulk of your free time if tackling this game head-on is something that’s in your future. Sadly, on the whole, this thoughtful synthesis system is one of the very few redeeming factors in an otherwise average entry into the Dragon Quest catalogue.
To put it bluntly, Joker 2’s storytelling is horizontal at best. Your character is aboard an airship, on his way to a monster-scouting competition when, of course, something goes awry and the vessel crash-lands on a dangerous island inhabited by an assortment of nasty critters. This is a game aimed primarily at the younger generation, so, miraculously, none of the other passengers meet their untimely deaths in the accident, but are now scattered about the landscape and are in dire need of rescuing by, who else but a spikey-haired teenaged boy? (Countless fetch quests and grind-fests ensue.) In what can be viewed as either a positive or a negative, depending on how NPC-populated you like your RPGs, Joker 2 has no hub villages stocked with folks selling items, prompting side quests, requesting trades, or simply providing small talk; anyone you encounter is likely directly related to the airship crash, which limits the scope of the game’s environment and is pretty damn disappointing since Dragon Quest is known for the expansiveness of its world.
Also particularly vexing is the act of actually capturing monsters, dubbed scouting. In a creative move that can only be described as foolish, Joker 2, plausibly in an effort to assert itself as far away from the Pokemon formula as possible, players cannot weaken their wild encounters before initiating scouting actions in order to have a better chance of recruiting them. Scouting is typically enacted from the fight’s outset, and depending on how high the opposing monster’s percentage meter grows with each hit inside a round of combat, its capture becomes more or less likely. This, in line with the majority of enrichment aspects in Joker 2, requires you to continue level-grinding until your team is substantial enough to deal the necessary seesaw-tipping HP depletion to secure an offensive capture right off the bat. Sometimes, though, luck materializes on the player’s side in these scouting situations. There were a few chance occasions when I took a risk in trying to mellow and take in a gigantic, obviously advanced monster and was able to subdue it with a less than 20% read on the probability meter. Although these surges of serendipity do well to mirror similarly rewarding aspects in the Pokemon games, these moments of genuine surprise are few and far between. Thankfully, as your party members gain elevated abilities and are able to be equipped with stat-boosting articles (weapons, magic), the flow of scouting becomes significantly less aggravating.
In the vein of 2010’s profitable Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, Joker 2 presents an intermittently engaging multiplayer mode that allows the player to connect with other Joker 2 monster scouters via game IDs; a “tagging” feature allows for copies of friends’ monsters to be used, and adding contemporary Dragon Quest games (including Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation, released earlier this year) to your tag inventory creates the option to nab select beasts from those titles as well. Of course, Wi-Fi battles are included, although I doubt their longevity and popularity will reach that of the Pokemon franchise.
As the DS breathes its final breaths, it’s refreshing to see yet another visually well-crafted Dragon Quest title arrive on the system. Unfortunately, with only its sharp graphics, positively enslaving synthesis system, and uncommonly motivational multiplayer add-ons as boasting points, Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 amounts to not much more than a surface-waxed placeholder for the next great metamorphosis in Gotta Catch ’Em All gaming.