Another Great Pocket RPG Makes Its Way To DS.
Read almost any other review of Joker, and you're likely to come across comparisons to the Pokemon series. Well, that is perhaps not completely unfounded, but Dragon Quest Monsters has a monster-collecting approach all its own. I'm no video-game historian, but it's my understanding that Enix had actually been toying with the whole monster-collecting thing (in Dragon Quest IV) well before the advent of Pokemon. However, their first true Monsters game did arrive after Pokemon made its way onto the RPG scene. Which really came first? Who cares? Both franchises have their points of interest and both offer great fun, but we're here to talk about Joker.
Yes, your monsters will do the fighting for you. However, the character you play as – a young kid recently sprung from prison in order to take on the task of infiltrating a monster-battling competition – can also participate in battles in the form of using items on his monsters. The monster battles, though, are played out in pretty much the same way as any traditional turn-based RPG.
You will need to scout monsters throughout the game in order to have them join your quest, and you can either have them participate as part of your three-monster battle party, act as a substitute for downed monsters, or send them off to storage. As your monsters grow in strength, you can begin to breed them, yielding new, more powerful creatures. This aspect plays a much larger role in the gameplay than breeding does in most Pokemon games.
With just over 200 monsters to encounter in Joker, it's no surprise that much of the gameplay will entail a sort of treasure-hunting approach. The strength of monsters, as well as bosses, ramps up pretty fast, so you'll also be forced to do a fair amount of level-grinding. But the battles are fun and, best of all, the enemy monsters are shown on the field. So, if you don't want to fight, you can simply run past monster indicators. This seems to be a cue taken from the Tales series of RPGs, and it's a welcome change to endless random encounters.
Another, very fine addition to Joker is its interface. Since you'll be doing quite a bit of monster collecting, you'll also want to keep track of what each creature has to offer. The game allows you to view each of their stats, spells, experience, etc. You can also play a small role in molding each monster because with each few times your monster levels up, it is awarded skill points that you can then divvy up in a couple of different ways. Since you'll be breeding some of these monsters, this aforementioned aspect offers quite a bit of variation in what you can create.
Joker does a wonderful job of offering a tight pocket RPG for the most popular system in gaming history, but it also does an even better job with its overall production. For starters, the game looks great. Almost everything in the game is cel-shaded, and the character models are certainly the most attractive I've ever seen in a DS game. Some of the backgrounds are a tad blocky when seen up close, but such is the performance of the DS thanks to the lack of texture filtering on the system. There are a ton of monsters in Joker, and each is given the utmost attention to detail. It's the same, awesome artwork (albeit scaled down for the DS) we've seen in the critically acclaimed Dragon Quest VIII. The frame-rate is smooth, and everything animates nicely. The developers have taken a similar approach (and this seems to be the standard for Square-Enix) to Final Fantasy III DS in how the creatures and characters interact with each other, and it's truly a huge treat to see on the little handheld. During battles, you will see random views of attacks from both your monsters and the enemies, and it lends a very cinematic feel to the battles. Also, when you're on the field and encounter a monster, the screen will blur and slowly segue into the battle; that too is a very nice touch.
The game's aural aspects are also quite pleasing, made up of a wonderful selection of themes and comical sound effects – fans of the franchise should recognize almost all of it. The sound is actually one of the most quirky aspects of any Dragon Quest game, and it lends a lot to giving the games their signature personality. Personally, I absolutely love the sound in Joker, but it's likely not going to please everyone. The end of battles is oddly anticlimactic because there are only a couple of sounds you'll hear and none of the victory music you may be accustomed to in most other RPGs. But that too only adds to what makes Joker the silly goose of a game it aims to be.
All-in-all, Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker is a sweet ride of an RPG and should give most players a decent run, though the story isn't terribly long. However, there is some WiFi interactivity in the form of battling player-based AI teams, downloadable from the Nintendo WiFi Connection hub. There are also local multi-card battles. But as with Pokemon – and this is perhaps the aspect that most warrants the comparison – most of your playtime will likely be consumed by your collection ventures. I've been reading numbers from other players as high as 200+ hours of gameplay. That's quite a bit of bang for your buck.
That said, Joker is more of an old-school-type RPG and, though I think non-fans of the genre might still find some appeal in its production values, it's a game that will likely satisfy hardcore-RPG / Dragon Quest fans most. My opinions and scores are based on that fact.
Thanks for reading, and happy gaming!
Presentation / 9
Stellar presentation of the visuals; a wonderful interface; and a solid story for pocket-RPG fans.
Graphics / 9.5
Certainly a game that earns its place among the "best-looking" games on the DS. Awesome character models, vast (for the DS) environments, and extremely tasteful presentation of creature / character interactions.
Sound / 9
Dragon Quest veterans get tons of fan service via the game's aural presentation, and Joker is chock-full of familiar themes from past games in the franchise. Sound effects are quirky just the way you like them.
Gameplay / 8.5
A very tight turn-based RPG. Wonderful monster-molding capabilities and collecting aspects. Joker's also a nice challenge. But it's an old-school RPG, and that means there will definitely be some grinding.
Lasting Appeal / 9.5
The story itself is quite beefy for an RPG on the DS, but you also get the WiFi and local multi-card interactivity. The collecting / breeding aspects, however, will likely extend this game beyond countable hours.
Overall / 9