If you're someone who's just "gotta catch 'em all," then Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker will be right up your alley. Though you shouldn't dismiss it as a Pokémon knockoff: This Nintendo DS turn-based role-paying game has a personality all its own. We had a chance to sit down with it this week and are pleased to see how well it's shaping up.
As the game begins, you are sitting in a decrepit dungeon cell when a hooded, German-accented jailer comes for you with news: The warden wants to see you. As it turns out, he wants to recruit you into a group known as CELL as a cadet. He gives you a ring that allows you to befriend monsters and schedules you to fight in the Monster Scout Challenge. After this brief introduction, you take control over your character, moving around using the D pad. The top screen depicts your exploration, while the bottom screen features a minimap, your quest objective, and detailed character info.
As it turns out, your prison is on a six-island archipelago jam-packed with monsters, and for some reason, CELL needs recruits to capture them for some type of research. After speaking with various characters (one of whom announces that the warden is your father!), we got to pick a starting monster and head to the Challenge arena on Domus Isle. The choices included a long-tailed, bat-winged creature called a dracky and a mischievous mole armed with a spear. For sheer absurdity, however, we chose a platypunk, which looks like what you would get if a platypus and a domestic cat mated then gave their offspring a Mohawk. Once we arrived at Domus Isle, though, we found the main square closed, and a demure young lady gave us instructions to go to Infant Isle to take the scout's pledge. We headed out on a speeder, and once there, checked out a shop. Here, we could heal up for free, buy items, buy equipment for our monsters (we're not sure how the platypunk wields a sword, but we equipped it anyway), and chat with roaming non-player characters.
It didn't take us long to meet our first wild monster: the prototypical blue slime. After all, it wouldn't be a Dragon Quest game without a slime as your first enemy. Going into battle, we were faced with several options: fight, give orders, tactics, scout, and flee (we had no items yet, so that option was grayed out). We decided to scout because the point wasn't to defeat the gloopy glob--it was to recruit it. The slime, impressed with our team's talent, joined the party. Once you recruit a monster, you can do several things: Add it to your active team, replace another monster with it, send it to storage for later use, or release it back into the wild. We added the slime to our team and continued our quest.
Now that we had several monsters on our team, we tried a real battle. When you get close enough to a roaming baddy, you enter a fairly standard turn-based encounter. The action plays out on the top screen, while you give orders and command on the touch screen using the stylus. Monster commands are given in the "give orders" menu, where you choose the monster you want to attack with and then the enemy you want it to attack. Conversely, you can use the tactics menu, choose options like "show no mercy," "focus on healing," or "don't use magic," and let them do battle according to those generic artificial intelligence behaviors.
Eventually, we leveled our slime up enough to allocate its earned skill points. We had five skill points in all to spend, so we allocated two of them to "slimer," which opened up a new spell to out slime: a flame attack called frizz. We spent two on attack boost, leaving one skill point unused, in the hope that it would be useful the next time we leveled up. A few moments later, we got to see frizz in action. The platypunk (the only other enemy we had yet to see apart from the slimes) we fought had no chance, exploding in a ball of fire. Finally, we made it to the top of the hill, where we entered a cave and encountered two new enemies: a dracky and a winged spirit called a shadow. It didn't take long for us to add the dracky to our party--and just in time. Another dracky and a lizard with a distinct resemblance to Mick Jagger called Lips jumped out from nowhere. Lips wasn't terribly impressed with our recruitment attempt though, so we destroyed it.
We then had more skill points to spend, which we used this time for our platypunk. We spent points in the naturalist category and in defense boost, learning a stun attack called heart breaker in the process. At last, we made it to the end of our journey, where a fair blue-haired maiden named Solitaire was doing battle. She was annoyed that we distracted her enemy and walked off in a huff. But it was all good: The pledge stone was in front of us, and we took the oath in question, just in time to find out we needed to head back to Domus Isle.
If you are a fan of Dragon Quest VIII's cel-shaded style, you will enjoy Joker's colorful look. The game is quite lovely, with detailed, vibrant character designs and some other impressive touches. For example, even at the summit of the mountain, we could look down to the beach and see the blue slimes bouncing around beneath. We also love the quirky soundtrack, particularly the battle music, which is a pleasantly peculiar tune indeed.
If you're into RPGs, particularly the Pokémon-brand ones, you'll want to keep an eye on Square Enix's newest Dragon Quest game. Fortunately, the wait shouldn't be too excruciating: Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker is due to be released on November 6.