Many Western players are aware that Dragon Quest is the 800-pound reptilian overlord of Japan's game industry, but might not be aware that the series has spawned numerous spin-offs. Among them are the Dragon Quest Monsters games, which takes the Dragon Quest series' roster of crazy, cartoony beasties and puts them at your beck and call. Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 is the latest in the series to be brought to Western shores, and it offers what the DQ franchise is best known for--whimsical fantasy settings and characters, fun dialogue, and traditional turn-based role-playing game combat--while putting its own distinct twist on the familiar formula.
You assume the role of the game's nameless protagonist, a young ruffian and would-be monster scout (a person with the ability to subdue and command monsters) who stows away on a flying vessel headed toward a major monster-scout tournament. As fate would have it, the ship encounters a patch of turbulence and crash-lands on an uncharted island seemingly devoid of human life. It's up to you to develop your monster-scouting skills to command the beasts that rule this island and find the ship's missing passengers. But there's more to this strange island than meets the eye, and you soon discover secret tomes and treasures of legendary monster scouts of yore. Perhaps you were sent to this place for a reason. It's not a particularly interesting or original story, but Joker 2's saga still manages to charm thanks to superb localization. Dialogue is consistently amusing, laden with silly puns and odd little speech tics that make the various characters and critters you meet during your quest a memorable bunch. The visual element of the game is also strong, with surprisingly detailed environments and amusing character and enemy animations that help bring the island and its denizens to life.
Dragon Quest is known for its staunch adherence to traditional RPG elements, and while Joker 2 maintains the old-school feel of its forefathers, it also takes the formula in some different directions. Instead of progressing on an overworld map from hub town to dungeon to point of interest, you move from one monster-riddled area to another via a simplified map menu, with new places to explore opening as you complete various story goals. You won't find much in the way of towns, either. Instead, the wrecked ship acts as a hub, with functions like a vending machine, an automated bank, and a monster holding pen becoming available as the game progresses and more shipwrecked non-player characters are rescued.
Combat in Joker 2, as in its sibling games, is old-fashioned. Commands are given to your party through text menu selections, and your crew and the enemy take turns bashing each other until someone emerges victorious. The big difference this time is that instead of a crew of armored warriors, you're commanding a monster squad that you have personally recruited and trained. Your party consists of up to six monsters at a time: three in combat, three in reserve (though bigger beasties require multiple spaces in your roster). You can switch your monsters in and out of combat at any time, even replacing fallen fauna with a full-health unit from your reserve crew if need be. Each monster breed has numerous distinct characteristics, and as they gain levels from fighting, you earn skill points that you can use to give them new attack skills and stat boosts from a species-specific selection. You also have the ability to attempt to scout almost any foe you encounter, which involves having your on-field team show its strength by attacking a monster as a group (but not dealing any damage). If you hit hard enough, you might get a new teammate, but if you fail, you could lose a turn--or worse, make your foe even more aggressive.
Capturing and building your monster posse is a lot of fun, but what makes things even more interesting is the monster synthesis feature, which opens a few hours into the game. You can fuse two monsters of a high-enough level into a brand-new beast, complete with otherwise unobtainable skills inherited from its "parents." Not only do these fused monsters have access to a wider skillset, but they also gain levels more quickly and have better stat sets than creatures captured on the field. While synthesis itself is great fun, the preparation and aftermath are considerably less exciting. You often need to build up one or both of the monsters for your desired fusion to a certain level--and possibly well beyond that if you want their offspring to come into the world with a huge pool of skill points off the bat. Fused monsters also start at a very low level, requiring you to fight and grind for experience points to make them as strong as the rest of your crew. Since combat can be a bit slow, this can become a source of some irritation. At least you have the option to let the monsters in your party use their own AI instead of giving them direct commands, but even so, you still have to watch combat animations and dialogue play out every single turn. Making things worse is that several nuances to combat and fusion aren't explained well in-game--you need to consult your easy-to-overlook Scout Guide to figure out that maybe you need to run away from that giant flying lynx that can kill you instantly instead of trying to fight it.
It may not be an all-time classic like some of the other Dragon Quest installments, but Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 is still a solid entry in one of the most storied RPG franchises around. It's challenging, endearing, not overly complicated, and plenty of fun, and and a good bet for RPG fans looking for a new beast to tame.