Do you have a sibling that keeps stealing your thunder? Are your irritating relatives always comparing you to your successful brother or asking, “why can’t you be more like your sister?” Well then, you must know how Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker feels. Since the debut of the franchise in 1998, DQM has always been “that other monster collecting game”, forever overshadowed by its more popular older brother, Pokémon. Nobody ever seems to notice its more interesting visual style or sophisticated game mechanics. Everyone just wants to compare its monsters to their beloved Pikachus and Charmanders. Can’t anyone ever look at it without comparing it to its ball-throwing, super-effective, gotta-catch-‘em-all nemesis?
[image1]Well, no, actually. At least I can’t.
With the release of the first North American title in years, DQM: Joker has taken a few steps towards independence away from its famous cousin, though the comparisons are still impossible to ignore. Much like its fraternal rival, the game follows the traditional Pokémon-esque framework of pitting monster trainers against each other as part of a giant monster-battling competition to see who can assemble the most bad-ass collection of furry slaves.
I suppose it could be considered a unique twist that you are secretly following the direct orders of your father, who happens to be the local prison warden, but that doesn’t really affect the gameplay much. Regardless of what your daddy wants you to do, you get to spend your time riding your jet ski from island to island in your quest to create your perfect team from among the over two hundred monsters available in the game. And of course to do that, you need to fight them.
The battles themselves are nothing new in the world of strategic RPGs. Your monsters face off against the enemy’s monsters, and you take turns beating each other up. DQM does, however, take a very different philosophical approach to getting monsters to join your team. Whereas Pokémon takes the rather ruthless stance of making you beat each creature to within an inch of its life and then trap it in a tiny, windowless ball, only releasing it to make it fight for you, DQM treats its critters with a little more respect.
[image2]If you find a beastie you want, you have to scout it. This process, as it turns out, is not all that different from dating in junior high school. Remember how you sent a couple of your best friends to talk to Susie Jenkins and convince her that you were awesome and that she should go out with you? Well, scouting in DQM follows the same general principle. You send out your strongest team members to show off their buff physiques and mad skillz in an attempt to woo those little heal-slimes to your side. If they like what they see, they’ll ditch their boring friends and come hang out with you. If, on the other hand, they think you’re all hat and no cattle, they’ll politely decline your invitation. And then you can beat the crap out of them. Just like in junior h… er, nevermind.
Luring more monsters to your side is critical, because you need a constant source of fresh meat to feed the needs of your monster army. To create the most powerful fighting force you can muster, you’ll need to employ the services of the neighborhood monster synthesizer, which can take two of your little minions and squish them together to form a new critter with increased strength and the powers of both its parents. Through generations of careful breeding, you can select the traits you want for each monster, carefully honing each one for a specific role. Charles Darwin would be proud! It’s an interesting take which allows you to create a creature with just about any skill set you can imagine by combining the right set of ancestors.
However, it also means that you’ll have to be prepared for a lot of level grinding. Each monster must reach level ten before they can be fused with another, and then your newly minted underling will only start out at level one. If you plan to do a lot of character fusing, you’ll have to fight the same battles over and over again to get them ready for the synthesizer.
Another place where DQM has a leg up on the Pokémon franchise is the graphics. Unlike the small, top-view look that the Jigglypuff-lovers out there seem to favor, DQM’s cartoonish visuals are bright and engaging, the characters lively and distinct. There aren’t a lot of graphical fireworks in the battles, but the monsters themselves are well-defined and well-drawn, enough so that looking at fights doesn’t become monotonous. The 3-D approach to the game world means that you can see monsters from a distance, and avoid or approach them as you see fit. The sound design, however, lags behind the visuals. The music is repetitive and grating, and the sound effects are more reminiscent of the Atari 2600 then any current platform.
[image3]I was also a little disappointed that the game didn’t take more advantage of the DS capabilities. For one thing, it barely utilizes the stylus and touch-screen, forcing you to work through the game the old-fashioned way by pushing buttons. There isn’t much in the way of multiplayer action, either. You can battle a friend through your local wireless network, but internet play is limited, in that you can only fight against team rosters that have been uploaded by other players. There is no live online play. Of course, there are some items and monsters that you can only get that way, so you’ve got to do it.
But it sure would be nice to whip the snot out of your brother in Topeka in real time. Wouldn’t it?