Monsters come in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny dinos that ate half the cast of Jurassic Park 2 to the giant behemoths currently wandering the plains of Xenoblade Chronicles.
In Dragon Quest, however, they've pretty much remained consistent across the years, often towering over your indomitable band of heroes but always being careful to remain on one screen - or two, when you include the handheld games.
Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 has creatures that wouldn't fit if you duct-taped several DSes together. One of these massive things appears in each of the game's environments, lording it over their puny brethren and causing them to flee in abject terror when they emerge on the scene. If you're smart you'll dive after them, skulking into a nearby cave and maybe nabbing some secret treasure while you're down there. That is, unless you want your sextet of monster pets to line the inside of a giant bird's stomach.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. This is the sequel to the Pokémon-style Dragon Quest spin-off in which a canny adventurer fights and collects monsters, before forcing them to battle on his behalf. The previous game was set on a series of tropical islands accessible by, er, jet ski, but this robust follow-up explores decidedly more uncharted territory. Joker 2 takes place on a very Lost-like mysterious island, home to a number of rare species, and jazz moles.
YEP, JAZZ MOLES
It will surprise no one to learn that the hero of the game is a mute, spiky-haired youngster with dreams of being the greatest Monster Scout in the land. To realise this ambition he stows away on a blimp bound for the grand tournament - which promptly crashes, as blimps are wont to do.
In contrast to the lengthy opening sections of Dragon Quest IX, Joker 2 wastes no time in showing you the ropes. Rory B Bellows, the blimp's marvellously monikered engineer, imparts the very basics of battle and monster-napping, but this a game that assumes you've played a turn-based RPG before. If you haven't, you'll doubtless pick it up in no time, but it's refreshing to not be led by the hand for once.
Mechanically, Joker 2 is largely similar to DQIX, and almost identical to its 2008 predecessor. As you head into the unknown to search for survivors, you'll encounter roaming enemies on the sizeable maps. These creatures can be defeated for experience or recruited to your party and eventually combined into more powerful forms. The process of raising a monster army is as addictive here as it is in any of the 300 other pet-collection games already out on DS, but Joker 2 polishes these well-worn elements to a dazzling sheen.
Capturing a new monster is as simple as ordering your current party to 'scout' it. If they're successful it will then tag alongside you, or retreat to the pen for later use. Once you meet the half-blind jazzy moles living under the desert - imagine Howard Moon's mate Lester Corncrake from The Mighty Boosh - you can have them enter the Arena, earning fancy stuff if they win battles there.
If you're coming to Joker 2 from Dragon Quest IX, you might be in for a slight shock - the story is downplayed considerably, and there are only a handful of NPCs throughout the world. But that world is examined in greater detail, with a larger number of interactions - shimmying across ledges, sliding down tree trunks - and different weather effects to spice up return trips. Revisiting a completed area, you might find it snowing or raining, which bestows a healing effect during battle. (You may need it - as in real life, inclement weather tends to bring out the crazies.)
Absent too are the more oldfashioned/annoying parts of the Dragon Quest experience, such as having to visit churches to save your game, remove status effects, or revive characters. In Joker 2 you can save anywhere you like, and restore your party to full health by warping back to the blimp HQ, or by touching one of the infrequently scattered heal stones. Shops, meanwhile, have been replaced by an all-in-one vending machine, whose stock depends on how many machine parts you've managed to find.
All of which makes this a remarkably smooth and considerate RPG, if at times a lonely one. As much as we wished Dragon Quest IX's Stella would shut her flapping beak for five minutes, the game's NPCs and dialogue were some of its many strengths. With fewer people and no town sections in Joker 2, it can sometimes be exhausting hopping from one massive field area to another, particularly when the game forces you to grind2 in order to progress. However, as with Pokémon, grinding is kind of the point.
If you have the stomach to train 'Mon you'll almost certainly have the stamina for Joker 2, which is slicker and more progressive in many ways. It's not quite on a par with a main entry in the DQ series, but this is one of the best spin-offs we've played yet.
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Lacks the scale or drama of your average Dragon Quest, but does offer compulsive monster raising. Also, the 'Mon are prettier and a little friendlier.
- Stunning 3D work
- Turn-based battling is rock-solid
- Not as innovative as DQIX