Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 Review
On the surface, Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 seems like little more than an accessory to the modern Dragon Quest RPG. Think the typical magic and monster adventure, only with no quaint towns to visit and no fallen warriors to avenge. Dragon Quest Monsters instead puts the monsters at the forefront, letting the story trickle in at a leisurely pace and relying on combat and breeding to entertain the player. (Here, monster breeding goes by the fancy name of "synthesis.") At its core, though, Joker 2 is an addictive monster rumble, filled with enough exploration, quirkiness, and colossal battles to stand on its own.
Time-wise, the game is a perfect pick for those who don't want a 50 or even 100+ hour investment. The main quest clocks in at 25-30 hours, and there's plenty monster synthesizing and battling to do after you're crowned champion scout. Different weather conditions and the ongoing cycle of day and night bring some variety to the island locales you can choose from, and each territory is home to gigantic bosses—fodder for seasoned, not rookie, players. For those who'd rather increase their ranks, monsters (over 300 in total, according to the game box) change with the weather and time of day.
Joker 2 offers the player a lot of convenience. Any area can easily be accessed from the base (your crashed airship), and the game lets you save anytime you like (except on certain key screens). Monsters are stored in three sections: your active fighters, leading the battle; your substitutes, ready at a moment's notice; and your bevy of other recruits in the airship's monster pen. Only six can fill your party at once, but no matter where your monsters reside, they'll gain a share of the experience.
The menu system is one of the finest, combining elegance, simplicity, and clean organization. Like the game and its cel-shaded, smoothly animated characters, it's colorful and pleasing to look at. The short list of music, on the other hand, gets boring fast. Until all the parts come together in unison—the ability to synthesize and the power of a dozen or so monsters at your command—Joker 2 is slow-going and dreadfully minimal. It takes several hours for the classic Dragon Quest formula to kick in, and then the game is pure Jailcat Crack.
If the monsters are the main appeal of the game, then the exploration is the heart. Wandering around large, open maps in 3D while avoiding or confronting fully realized enemies is the stuff of wonder. Speaking of Jailcats, the ones tumbling around the snowy cliffs of Iceolation are adorably silly, and a certain kind of Slime (no telling!) bounces on the scene at one critical point later in the game. Joker 2 might not burst with these memorable moments, but the sprinkling of them makes progressing through the game that much more enjoyable. You never know when Slimes, Jailcats, or another iconic monster will reward your efforts with a little humor.
The only setback to uninterrupted gameplay is the occasional spots where the game ups the difficulty of its next challenge and forces you to level-grind for extra experience. Because of the layout of the game, new areas are unlocked after you successfully beat a boss or complete a task. A little grinding on the side sounds fine on paper until you realize that, with no undiscovered terrain to turn to, you'll be fighting the same monsters for a good while—and they'll give you less sufficient experience as you get stronger. Depending on how you play the game, this could be a deal-breaker. You're supposed to synthesize new monsters and routinely switch out your top contenders so that you boost stats and magic, but keep the levels low. Unfortunately, this makes beefing up newly created monsters easy, but makes training veteran favorites rough. It takes a lot of time to max out some of the skill sets that your monsters acquire, and as the levels go up, the wealth of skill points depletes.
Aside from level-grinding, the most frustrating part of Joker 2 is the special battles in the Arena. Players are required to win these rounds to open up new areas—but without the use of items, substitutes, or individual orders. That means depending on the tactical AI alone. You can alter the attack patterns of your monsters, choosing that they focus more on attacking or healing, and so on, but these tactics in execution are punishing to watch. The AI simply does not make the best decision possible, and because of its shortcomings, you'll lose a battle that could have easily been won with your own strategy. Leaving your success up to chance in this way gives unintended meaning to game's title, itself a reference to the wildcard, underdog protagonist.
Thankfully, the Arena battles only constitute a small percentage of play time, so combined with the patches of extended level-grinding, you're looking at roughly 10 hours of those 25-30 spent training your monsters overtime. The charm of the game amends for this laborious exercise, but Dragon Quest or not, it's not the best approach given the short length.