Monday, 20 February 2012

Review: Dragon Quest Monsters Joker 2

This review was written for The Yorker and can be found here.

While Pokémon has the genre neatly cornered, it's not the only "Collect & Battle" experience out there. The ability to create and arrange your own specialised team for whuppin' ass is addictive to both kids (who have an affinity for harbouring obsessions) and adults (who have an affinity for acting like children).

Running quietly in the shadow of Pokémon is the Dragon Quest Monster series; a spin-off (somewhat obviously) of the Dragon Quest series, where the monsters that were once your sworn enemies can now be brought around to your side. What set the games apart from Pikachu and pals was the increased difficulty and how no matter what monster took your fancy, you could turn it into your ideal killing-machine. No arguments over which critter is better, just how cleverly you've raised them.

DQM Joker 2 is the 5th Dragon Quest Monsters title (and the 4th to see release in the UK), not that having played the other games is necessary to have you understand everything in this one. Its story is nothing special, it hits all the right notes; you are a preteen with ridiculously elaborate hair, and a burning passion for making wildlife of the world fight under your command. You stow away on an air ship in pursuit of this goal, but the ship is caught in a sudden roil, flinging the passengers and crew off into the wilderness, leaving you to pick up a lone monster in the hold, and set out to rescue everyone via sheer force.

Battles are usually 3 vs 3, with some exceptions that I'll come to in a moment. What was a gimmick in Pokémon Black and White has been the norm in this series, and has battles feel more like a classic RPG. Things are switched up by your team being A.I. controlled - most of your battles will be spent looking through the filter of what might happen when you choose the 'Fight' command, which causes you to think things through a lot more carefully.

What will take up most of your time is the Synthesis mechanic. The growth of a monster is limited, but by fusing two of your entourage together, you'll get a new monster with skills from both 'parents'. It can be hard to essentially get rid of your MVP, but coming out with something meaner and tougher (and at Level 1 so you have to raise them all over again) is very satisfying. The game won't needle you into doing this, but the process is so oddly compelling, you'll find yourself hanging back in previously-completed areas getting your Hell Hornet to level 18 so you can get that next set of skill points. It's the Skinner Box theory in beautiful motion.

Aesthetically, DQMJ2 is competent, but not stunning. For a game released at the end of the DS' lifespan, it's not using the system to its full potential. It uses the exact same graphical engine as Dragon Quest XI, released a few years back, which wasn't the most graphically stunning game either. It's consistent, but it feels lazy. That said, it's far more technically accomplished than the DS Pokémon titles, and it's satisfying to see your monsters actually run up and slap their target. The quality of the graphical style is dependent on how much you like Dragonball Z, a praise and a gripe of every Dragon Quest title to date.

What it does do well is environments and scale. Each area of the game, while rather implausible (savannah and frozen wastelands so close to each other? Sure.) feel wild and unwelcoming to puny humans. Being able to climb up to the higher areas and view the entire area is satisfying and lonely. Weather changes will bring out new monsters that like the climate, and every area has its own Giant Monster. These foes count as 3 participants in battle, and although they can be encountered from very early on, they're not to be tackled by newbies. The pursuit of getting strong enough to take one down after it has spent so long chasing you across the map is one of the best experiences the game has to offer. And when you work out how to obtain your own giant monsters, it gets even better.

Dragon Quest Monsters Joker 2 isn't going to grab the hearts of the nation - it has graphics of 2008 and gameplay sensibilities of 1998, but it'll sate the thirsts of those who are in between Pokémon experiences, and those who are still waiting for a widely-available RPG that they can put into their 3DS.

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