Monday, May 19, 2014

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker Review

Not really sure how much point there is to going into any level of detail on this game. I picked it up from the $10 bin at Bic Camera, as it's the last RPG they have used for the Gameboy DS, and I wanted to have something to play for a few hours. I've never really cared for the Dragon Quest games, so I wasn't holding out much hope for this one, especially since it looked like an attempt to tag along on the Pokemon fad. But, I bought it, and I played it; I might as well say something about it.

(Combat screen, with enemy.)

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker (Grade: C) came out from Square Enix in 2006 in Japan. The character designs, like with the other DQ games, are by Akira Toriyama, of Dragon Ball fame. It is a "gotta catch them all" game, like Pokemon, but with more of a Dragon Ball battle stage setting. The human character artwork is pretty good, although most of the monsters are just goofy, as in the rest of the DQ series. The background layout is also good, but there are slips, where monsters suddenly appear or disappear because they're the wrong distance to you, or a wing or arm will pop through a supposedly solid wall. The main complaint that I have is with the game play. One reason I don't like DQ is that it's so hard to level up the party enough to face the endgame bosses. There's a huge amount of churn required just to go up one level. If you're lucky, you can get a metal or liquid metal slime, which pay out 1,000 or 10,000 exp. respectively, but when you need 50,000 exp. per level, even that's not enough. With Joker, you get the "Metal Menagerie", a room with metal, liquid metal and King metal slimes. But, there's a pre-fight you need to complete each time first, which has to be done in less than 5 minutes, and then you only get 2.5 minutes in the slime room. At the best of times, you can average only 40,000 exp. each time this way (if you have one super-powered monster, you can get 150,000 to 280,00 exp in one trip, but that's still only good enough to get you up to level 50-55). Having to do this 10 or 20 times to level the party up whenever you synthesize one of your main combat monsters gets EXTREMELY boring.

(One of the ever-changing configurations of my party.)

This brings me to my next point. When you beat the game, you're supposed to have access to two NPCs that give you new monsters as a reward for capturing 100 different kinds of monsters, or unlocking 100 different skills. This never happened. Somehow, the game never unlocked these guys. Additionally, one other NPC was supposed to sell 10,000 gp tickets that let you get to the Metal Menagerie without having to do the pre-fight, and this character won't unlock, either. There aren't many walkthroughs for Joker on the net, and those that are don't mention any preconditions about getting the special monsters or metal tickets. Annoying but not insurmountable.

(Conversing with NPCs, plus mini-map to the right. Joker is in the center of the left image.)

The story: You play Joker, a kid that wants to enter the big monster hunting tournament. Your father, the Warden, had you locked up for 10 days for trying to go around his back. The Warden is also a member of a secret monster growing research lab. When you're released from prison, you find a very rare monster, and from here your adventure as a monster scout begins. Your main rival in the tournament is Solitaire (in the Japanese version, she's named "Aroma"). She wants the monster you found, and isn't happy that it picks you over her. As you capture more monsters, you can choose to breed them together to upgrade them, or turn them into different creatures. The stronger they get, the more battles they win. When your monster partner reaches a high enough level, the head of the monster scouting organization steals it and turns it into a demon as part of his plan to open a gate to the demon universe. Turns out that your partner is actually an evil creation that has been dormant for 300 years. One of its first deeds is to destroy the research lab, killing your father along the way. Your quest is to defeat the monster and thwart the scout association president.

(Main world map screen, in a sand bowl.)

When you finish the main storyline, you get the option of continuing to collect more monsters, enter a couple other tournaments, face off against Solitaire, and ultimately beat Estark, the strongest boss in the game. If you're a completist, this is not a game for you. At least 3 of the monsters can only be obtained if you play against your friends in wifi mode, and you need those two NPCs I mentioned above to get them to give you a few more. And you don't need to get all of them to defeat Estark, you just have to have a 3-monster party that is moderately strong. Which was also kind of annoying - I got my party up to level 33, on average, and made sure that they had all the skills they needed. I didn't have a lot of healing potions, but I wanted to test Estark to find out how badly overpowered I was. I started the fight, with each of my characters at about 500 HP. After a few minutes, one party member was dead (the healer), I was out of healing potions, and the other two were under 200 HP each. I gave them the order to fight full-out, just straight brawling. The two had dropped to 40 HP each, when finally, Estark fell over. It took 8,000 hits. When I got it in my party, Estark only had a max HP of 300 and was physically weaker than any of the rest of the group. Sigh. The only use for Estark is to synthesize it with your main companion monster, and at that point, you're already the strongest thing in the game.

(Solitaire in her office, waiting to challenge you in the arena.)

To upgrade a monster, you synthesize it. This means that you take two monsters of the opposite "sex", and combine them into a new creature. The "child" starts out at level 1, with a quarter of the HP of the parents, and half the skill points. You can choose up to three skill sets (healer, red magic, green magic, HP boosters, MP boosters, etc.) to keep from the parents. The result of synthesizing is that when you decide that a monster is taking too long to go to the next level, you start over and get something that will become stronger and more useful in less time, and you can keep doing this indefinitely. But, you keep having to level the "child" up from 1 each time, and it has to be at least level 11 to synthesize it again. And that's where all the churning comes from. It's just battle after battle to keep bringing the new monsters up in rank again and again and again. When you beat Estark, all that remains is scouting whatever monsters you're still missing, or fight Solitaire again. For me, that means that the game's really got no long-term replay value.

(Solitaire, looking for revenge in the arena.)

Overall, DQM:J is fine if you like the DQ franchise. If you don't, then it's not that great a game to play. The music, character designs and playing fields are good (the map consists of 7 islands that you travel between on a jet ski) but the game play itself is weak and repetitive. One thing I do like is that there are a number of NPCs you can talk to in the towns, and compete against if you find them in the field. It makes the game feel a bit more like a multi-player RPG.

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