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Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker (DS) artwork

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker (DS) review

"Just as the upgrade and customization features abolished everything Pokemon has shown us in the past five years, DQM scores another point for monster synthesis. You could literally spend hours testing monster combinations and still have only scratched the surface."

It has been nearly 10 years since the Pokemon craze hit North America. Pikachu, Ash Ketchum, the urge to “catch ‘em all” – these became a part of our everyday lives. The anime was huge, the games were enormous, and the merchandise raked in billions. It was a monster of a property that, while no longer a craze, still earns a top spot in the annual sales charts.

The reason for its continued success – and the fans’ undying loyalty – is not some unhealthy obsession with tiny monsters. That might be the case for some players, but the majority of us love Pokemon for its addictive gameplay.

Countless monster RPGs have tried to mimic Nintendo’s now-classic formula. But it wasn’t until Square-Enix entered the picture that one of them actually worked. Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker, the first DQ game developed for Nintendo DS, is every bit the Pokemon clone you’d expect. Some features are too similar for their own good, but in the typical Square-Enix vein, it’s almost impossible to eject the game from your DS.

Set in a fantastical fantasy world, DQM is a great showpiece for what the dual-screen handheld can do. The large, 3D landscapes are varied, detailed, and may be viewed from multiple angles thanks to a highly responsive, fully adjustable camera system. Cel-shaded character designs (created by famed Dragon Ball Z, Dragon Quest and Chrono Trigger artist Akira Toriyama) go above and beyond the visual techniques that most other monster RPGs have displayed. They look amazing.

During the bland story-driven intro, players learn that their character – an aspiring hero and scout (you don’t catch monsters in this game, you “scout” them) – is given the task of collecting 10 star-shaped crystals called Darkonium. They don’t have anything to do with monster collecting, nor are they imbued with a hidden power that flourishes when acquired. They are merely an item that needs to be obtained in order to complete the game and take on the final battles.

If you’re not excited by that premise, don’t fret – it’s only natural that you’d be unenthused by another game that tells us to collect something. Fortunately, the grim forecast was for nothing. It’s mostly sunny skies from here on out.

DQM’s battles are an improved clone of Nintendo’s beloved series. Unlike Pokemon, where encounters are random, players can see their enemies in each locale, allowing you to fight when feeling aggressive and run away when low on health.

Up to three monsters can be used in combat at one time, and up to six may be carried on your journey. Half of those monsters are substitutes that may be swapped at any time except during battle. This again differs slightly from Pokemon, which does not put any restrictions on swapping your carried monsters (of which there are also six).

With three simultaneous allies and enemies, the game looks more like a traditional Dragon Quest game than a monster RPG. Attack selections, however, stick to the Pocket Monsters pathway. Initially, just two moves are available: attack and defend. That list won’t grow until experience points have been earned. This is where DQM demonstrates its character development prowess over Pokemon. With every level or so, skill and ability points are added to your monsters’ rosters. They can be applied to any upgrade list a monster has – albeit skill- or stat-based – to unlock new attack or support moves. HP, MP, attack, defense, agility and wisdom upgrades are also available. This is a lot more fun than the usual RPG leveling system, which evolves party members automatically. It also allows players to effectively customize their monsters and build the army they desire.

Monsters are captured (or scouted) by using the scout command, which draws upon your party member’s powers for a non-damaging attack. Though I’ve enjoyed the Pokeball system for many years, DQM’s scouting tactics are a nice change. If the spiritual attack is powerful enough and achieves a minimum of 5% damage, the monster may show a rating of “impressed.” He’ll size up your scout and, if deemed worthy, will join your party.

The attacks themselves, which range from elemental and hypnotic to purely physical and chaotic, are on par with those of the standard Dragon Quest titles. Monsters are further strengthened by equipping weapons. Better still, the battles don’t drag on. You get in, pummel the enemy, and get out. There aren’t any unnecessary delays, or any other issues that will keep you from finishing a fight quickly.

For the fastest win possible, DQM offers the Fight command. Based on one of four presets – Show No Mercy (defeat the enemy as quickly as possible, regardless of MP), Mix It Up (fight using support spells and abilities), Focus On Healing (replenish party members’ HP), and Don’t Use Magic (fight without using spells or abilities) – Fight allows you to attack with minimal influence. Once this command has been selected, the game takes over for one turn. Simple? Yes. Recommended? Only when facing a monster you’ve defeated before.

At this point you’re probably wondering if the game has an evolution and/or breeding system. Technically it doesn’t contain either – monsters only grow via the aforementioned upgrades. There is, however, an interesting synthesis tool that enables you to merge two creatures together to form a more powerful beast. Every monster is assigned a plus or minus symbol, and one of each (at level 10 or higher) is needed to start the synthesis process. For every possible combination there are up to three different outcomes, any of which you’ll get a peek at before the task is finished.

Just as the upgrade and customization features abolished everything Pokemon has shown us in the past five years, DQM scores another point for monster synthesis. You could literally spend hours testing monster combinations and still have only scratched the surface.

If there’s anything the game doesn’t do right it’s that it is a blatant rip-off of Pokemon. No amount of replay value in the world can change the fact that we have already played through several Pokemon sequels. In many ways, DQM feels like another.

Gold, the game’s currency, is retrieved by defeating monsters and fellow scouts, who are wandering throughout the game. When your party loses a battle, you’re transported to a scout building (where you can save the game, heal monsters, and purchase new items) and your gold is cut in half. Does any of this sound familiar?

Players can hook up with other DQM owners for a quick skirmish, but it isn’t as fun as the main single-player quest. And while the graphics are beautiful, there are some odd sticky moments where it feels like your character is stuck in cement. You’re just walking along and BAM! – all of a sudden, your character can’t move. It only happens during the exploration phase of the game, and goes away as soon as you adjust the camera. But it’s a nuisance nonetheless.

Luckily, Pokemon is still fun and, for the most part, Square Enix made their unofficial adaptation even better. Monster RPG fanatics won’t be disappointed in what the house that built Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest has created. It’s addictive, memorable, and, for a Pokemon clone, surprisingly creative.

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Freelance review by Louis Bedigian (November 27, 2007)

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