Monday, 26 September 2011

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 - DS review

An edited version of this review can be found at BeefJack

The human collecting instinct does not recognise borders. We will catch them all, even if it means jumping to another franchise to do so. Dragon Quest is that franchise as Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 comes in for BeefJack scrutiny.

The Dragon Quest canon is very dear to the hearts of Japanese gamers, its legacy spans twenty-five years with thirty-five official DQ titles released on ten consoles. A Dragon Quest game in Japan is preceded by months of hype during which pre-order sales will out-strip the worth of the remainder of the game charts. In the days leading up to release, videogame retailers will hire extra staff in anticipation of the imminent, monumental sales uplift. Those staff members will step over the sleeping bags and sidle around the tents set up on the pavement by Dragon Quest otaku, eager to be first on their block to play the latest instalment.

Here in the West however, and more specifically Europe, the story is a little different. Of the thirty-five or so Dragon Quest titles that currently exist, only eleven have nudged their prow onto our beaches, only to be beaten and down-trodden by consumers used to more familiar franchises like Square Enix's other big-hitter, Final FantasyDragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 is on fairly safe ground then as it asks something of us gamers that we should be quite accustomed to by now: the acquisition and subsequent fighting of monsters.

The notion of DQM:J2 is very similar to that of it's prequel in that the main jist of the game is to collect as many free roaming monsters as possible, strengthen them up and use them to defeat larger monsters in order for the plot to progress. It's a blessing then that the main conceit is as compulsive as it is, as it distracts from the many other elements of the game that would have been very difficult to overlook otherwise.

Scouting for monsters

Controlling the protagonist is a headache. Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 is crying out for analogue control. You will frequently find yourself, particularly when trying to outrun a persistent monster, accidentally turning back on yourself because the combination of d-pad character control and L/R shoulder button camera control is the least user friendly interface I've encountered in some time. The 3D environments too, though rife with plenty of monster prey to hunt, are repetitive and bland with a frequntly foggy draw distance. The plot is a very lightweight affair: you play a young, sullen, palm-tree haired stowaway aboard a steampunk airship-type vessel thing that crash-lands. The Albatross' destination would have been a monster scout tournament had it not prematurely ploughed a furrow in the ground of a seemingly deserted island, scattering its passengers far and wide, and you have to find them all. The unnamed island is riddled with monsters but, this being Dragon Quest Monsters, the islands' inhabitants pose more a challenge than a problem. How many of the little (and some not-so-little) critters can you spot, scout, battle and synthesise?

The angry looking stow-away you control is a wannabe monster scout. Much like the Pokemon gym leaders and trainers you are possibly more familiar with, a monster scout's ambition is to find, record, scout and train an unbeatable team of monsters to do battle in tournaments. The main goal, of course, is to defeat similar monster scouts in organised competition in a bid to be World Champion. Scouting in Dragon Quest Monsters is a much more humane affair than, for example, pummelling your target monster into submission then forcing it into a tiny red and white ball. No, here in the world of Dragon Quest, monsters must be suitably impressed enough to to actually choose to join your team. It's a commendable concept and different enough from the process in Dragon Quest Monsters' main rival but this method does present its own set of frustrations.

While roaming the really quite barren and dull environments of DQM:J2, various monsters of all shapes and sizes are visible - no random battles here - ambling around and generally going about the pointless business of looking menacing or deliriously happy. They can be approached from behind for a sneak attack, but more often than not they will sense your proximity and come bounding towards you like a puppy. Cue swishy screen and let battle commence. The pleasingly turn-based battles feel comfortable. Data and status changes are easy to follow throughout the fights, you and your monstrous team are able to plan tactics and even map out the whole fight in advance if you wish, leaving you free to sit back and watch the energy bars decrease, only jumping in when you need to dish out a medicine herb or swap a fallen monster for a more capable back-up. Winning fights is straightforward, following a predictable curve of difficulty that mirrors the strength of your team. Scoutingon the other hand... pain in the back-side.

Monster Hunter Try and Try again

At any time during a battle you have the opportunity to recruit your opponent. Selecting this option will prompt your team to display a show of strength and talent. Using this method, which hovers somewhere between arousing awe and downright intimidation, gives results that are mixed enough to be considered random. It's almost always 50/50 if your quarry will be impressed enough to give up its life of free-roaming menace or whether it will take offence at your colourful display and do a runner, not before knocking one of your team unconscious. That this method of recruitment seems so random is Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2's biggest and most jarring flaw. Otherwise the battles, while attempting to simply level grind your current team to power up your roster, are played out very effectively. Magic effects dash about the top screen as the camera pans dramatically from beast to beast and the feeling of winning a particularly drawn-out battle and watching the experience points tot up is as euphoric as anything GameFreak can offer. Once press-ganged, your team of monsters can sit in your virtual pocket waiting for the next opportunity to fight, or they can use the 'monster pen' facility deep in the bowels of the airship Albatross. This mini zoo can only hold one hundred monsters, however, and the game features over 300 to hunt and recruit.

Once you have levelled up a few of your monsters above level 10 you are presented with the opportunity to 'synthesise'. Synthesis is the almost literal smooshing of 2 monsters to create a franken-beast that shares the most powerful traits of each. These hybrids can sometimes occupy two or three of your available battle slots, meaning your previous team of three is then reduced to one. The real kick in the teeth comes when you realise that once you decide to synthesise two of your favourite monsters, two you have spent hours deploying on the battlefield, the resulting hybrid's experience level drops right down to 1. It can be frustrating and often I found myself opting out of synthesis unless I was especially curious about the visual results. But more often than not, my synthesised creatures ended up back in the pen, and remained there.

The side-quests fetching and carrying for some of the islands' more vocally capable inhabitants make good use of the relatively small map, by requiring a lot of back-tracking and and treading over old ground. Although the areas of the map are well segregated into themes (grassland, jungle, desert etc.), they aren't massive, and the only real variety in the game comes from the wonderful and characterful array of the titular monsters. Take them out on the road for Wi-fi tournaments with friends to experience Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 in it's purest form without any RPG trappings. From tiny blue Slimes to top and bottom screen filling behemoths, this is where the Dragon Quest legacy is at it's most visible and enjoyable, and every grating moment of this flawed gem is eclipsed by the drive to see just what else is out there.

The main conceit of the game, the recruitment of monsters, feels broken and random. Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2's redeeming feature is not something that lies in the game but what lies within the player; collecting and levelling up monsters is compulsive and once you get past the dreary environments and the barren NPC roster, you will be sucked in by the charm of the monsters and the irresistible urge to seek out every beast the island has to offer.

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2, from Tose and Nintendo, will be released on 7 October 2011 for DS.

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