Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 Review

Anyone who has read this site for more than 3 months or so knows how I feel about Pokemon RPGs. Each time a new one comes out, my wife and I clear our calendars and dive in. She refuses to put the game down until she's beaten the Elite Four; I won't stop until my PC is filled with one each of every species of Pokemon (yup, I have one each of every species my PC right now - all 646). But being the voracious players we are, our goals are usually accomplished in a month or two, and the year-long (or maybe more) wait for the next game is agonizing. If you are anything like my wife and I (you don't need to be quite as intense), I've got the game to help ease the agonizing torture of waiting: Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2.

Aside from Nintendo's Pokemon, DQM: J2 (yeah... its too long to keep typing over and over) is the premiere monster hunting title on the DS. It is set up largely the same as the Pokemon games: Find monster, hurt monster, capture monster, use monster against new monster, eventually fight others with monsters to see who has better monsters. It is impossible to fault DQM: J2 for taking on some of what makes Pokemon games so good; there is a reason they sell bazillions of copies. If you are a seasoned PokeManic, you'll see similarities at every turn, but honestly, most players won't be able to pick out the minutia. None of this matters, of course, as what DQM: J2 does with Pokemon's monster hunting base is nothing short of brilliant.

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 screenshot 1

Much like the Pokemon games, you won't find much in the way of story in DQM: J2; but unlike the Pokemon titles, a decent attempt at a slightly more fleshed out tale is included and more than welcome in this spin-off/sequel. You control a generic hero who stows away on an airship bound for the game's main island, where monsters are captured, trained and made to do battle. The airship soon crashes, leaving everyone aboard scattered around an unexplored jungle. The gameplay still clings to the monster hunting/training/battling mechanics, but the plane crash is the perfect catalyst to set it all off. Reassembling the scattered crew is only the first of many scenarios you'll find yourself in, and each one twists the game in a new and compelling way.

The only drive provided to the player in Pokemon games (and almost all other monster hunting/raising/battling games) is, "Hey you! Grind, get better, train more Pokemon, take on Gym Leaders and become Pokechampion!" And despite Pokemon being one of my favorite series, I have to say this: This same, weak sauce story has be nearly identical in every Pokemon RPG from the very beginning, some 15 years ago. It is refreshing to see someone challenge Nintendo's juggernaut series by building a game that includes most everything missing from even the newest Pokemon titles. I think a small list is called for, yes? Here are a few things DQM: J2 includes that Pokemon games refuse to:

*You can re-name your monsters as many times as you like.
*All monsters can be seen on the 3D battle screen. No more random encounters and crossed fingers!
*Monsters are able to equip weapons. This tiny tweak adds a whole new layer to the game and the genre as a whole.
*Instead of gaining set abilities at set levels, monsters are given skill points for the player to spend on whatever they please - attacks, stat boosts, etc.
*Monsters can be combined with other monsters to form powerful new hybrids (yes, you can breed in Pokemon, but monster synthesis works more like combining weapons or items. No eggs, no wait time, just new monsters from old).

All five additions should be compelling reasons for anyone who enjoys Pokemon to give this one a try, even if it is just to see a game that does things the way you keep wishing the next Pokemon game will.

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 screenshot 2

I mentioned the enemies are indeed visible on the 3D plane you'll be wandering around. They look pretty nice in full 3D, as do the environments and characters. To be able to see everything - main character, monsters, items, all of it, in beautiful 3D (don't get to excited; this isn't 3DS 3D, this is Mario 64 3D) is a real treat. Aside from some clipping issues and jagged edges, DQM: J2 looks great and really puts the now-retired DS system through the paces. The sound and music are well done and appropriate as well, though a few sound effects tweak the ear as though they were pulled from the Atari chiptune grindcore library. You'll get the joke when you hear it.

Author's Note: As with all Dragon Quest games, the art is done by Akira Toriyama, the creator of my favorite anime/manga of all time, Dragon Ball Z. Of course I'm going to give high marks to anything that Son Goku's father touches, but trust me, you don't have to be Toriyama fan #1 to see the beauty in this game's presentation.

The game controls pretty well, though at this point, I couldn't imagine playing it on anything other than the 3DS, with it's fan-freaking-tastic analog pad/nubbin/whatever. DQM: J2 is a full 3D, semi-free roam title that is forced to compensate for the imperfections caused by the regular DS' four-way d-pad. On the the d-pad, the game is playable, even enjoyable. On the 3DS analog nub? It controls like a dream, and the camera behaves exactly as you'd like it to about 85 percent of the time, a HUGE percentage when held up against other recent, uncontrollable camera games (I won't name any names). For when the camera doesn't follow your telepathic orders, the shoulder buttons usually allow you to manually swing your view around to the correct angle. With a smarter-than-normal hands-off camera and the ability to easily correct it's mistakes... Ah, heaven. Add to that an easily controllable 3D character and Dragon Quest's signature simple-to-understand battle menus and you have a game that is just begging to be played, played more and finally played through the night more than once or twice a week. And I haven't even talked about the online component yet!

Since local multiplayer was impossible at the time of this review (no one has the game in the U.S. yet), I am only going to talk about Wi-Fi features exclusively. The game boasts stat exchanges with other players, online monster trading (which is much more streamlined than the Pokemon version of the process and even one-on-one battles. There is plenty to do online in DQM: J2, and I can't wait to see how the online community explodes when the game finally hits retail stores in September.

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 screenshot 3

DQM: J2 isn't without its annoyances, though. If you aren't a fan of the grind (NOT MTV's defunct dance show), this one will drive you nuts. Nearly the entire game is spent collecting and strengthening monsters in battle. You battle, you grow, you battle again. That pretty much sums it up. In fairness, SquareEnix did their best to keep the game as interesting as possible when you aren't fighting monsters, but it is all just standard RPG story stuff. Unless you have a strong motive (you need to finish the game, you need to collect all the monsters, etc.) or a deep love of Dragon Quest, you will probably quit this one long before you finish it.

Other tiny issues include a frequent lack of story direction, some confusing menus and one of the weakest RPG opening chapters I've ever seen, but no one thing is big enough to dent this game's impressive quality. The graphics, the style, especially Toriyama's work, the gameplay and the barely quantifiable amount of stuff to accomplish come together to make Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 one of the last, best Nintendo DS games and the second greatest monster hunting RPG on the system.

Final Rating: 89%.

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