More like Dragon Quest Monsters: Grinder...
Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker is the latest game in the Monsters series from Square Enix. It takes the Dragon Quest universe and adds a monster collecting twist. On paper that may sound like a recipe for success, but it comes up short in quite a few areas.
The battle system of Joker is closer to standard RPG's than it is to other monster collecting games like Pokemon. You have a group of three monsters that fight. Prior to every turn you can either directly command them, or allow one of five different AI styles to control them for you. The AI is a welcome option, as it drastically cuts down the number of required button presses when fighting lower level monsters. Sadly though, most options involve the monsters burning through most of their magic points, so using this feature makes it difficult to save magic for the boss battles. Besides that, the battle system is extremely classic and turn based. It will most likely feel quite dated to many players, so only huge fans of the style will be able to enjoy it to the end. I got quite sick of it after only a few hours.
Monsters themselves level up in a similar fashion to the characters of the PS2 game Dragon Quest VIII. They receive experience points at the end of every battle; after a certain amount of points, they gain a level. New levels bring statistical increases in all of the standard RPG categories. Some levels will also reward the monster with skill points, which can be applied to two or three special categories. These skill categories are where the true dynamics of the monsters comes in. While some are just statistical bonuses, others yield new abilities that are key to survival, such as healing techniques.
So the real question is, how do you get monsters with these essential abilities in your party? There are two ways. Firstly, you can capture them in battles through a scout command. When scouting a monster, each member of your team will attempt to intimidate the foe. A percentage meter displays your probability of success. After each attempted intimidation, that meter will rise. The amount it rises depends on your monsters relative strength when compared to the target. Damaging the monster first doesn't appear to have any obvious effect on the scouting, but occasionally a critical hit will trigger that will cause the meter to rise significantly higher. After all three monsters have had their chance, you will know what your odds are. Then there is a slight teasing pause and the game tells you whether or not the monster will join your team. This is a clever system, as it can be used unlimitedly across battles, but only a certain (random) number of times in any given battle. An attempted scouting only sacrifices one round of the battle, so players are encouraged to grow their teams as fast as possible.
The other way of obtaining new monsters and abilities is through Monster Synthesis. This is a strange mash-up of the breeding and evolution features in the Pokemon games. Firstly, you need two monsters; one positive and one negative (apparently the developers didn't want to give the monsters a sex). Those monsters can then be used to synthesize a new and different monster. As could be inferred from the word synthesize, the original monsters are gone entirely. The player can then select up to three skill categories to apply to the new monster. These are chosen from a list that combines all of the original monsters' categories with new categories available through the synthesis process. While this system gets some credit for being clever, it is actually incredibly frustrating in practice. The new monster goes all the way back to level 1. Therefore, you will be forced to sacrifice much stronger monsters in hopes that the result will eventually be a more powerful addition to your team. To help you determine whether or not the synthesis will be worthwhile, each monster in the game is given a letter rank (e.g. you'll at least know that your two F rank monsters are making an E rank monster). Still, re-leveling monsters is a major pain in the neck.
Difficulty in role playing games is arguably the most important part of the overall game design. In an easy RPG, just playing through the main story causes your characters to level up fast enough to be one step ahead of their enemies at all times. If Joker used that approach, the main story would probably be around 7-10 hours of gameplay. An RPG of that length would be frowned on by most fans of the genre, so the game is lengthened by forcing the player to grind (battle for the sole purpose of leveling up). Unfortunately, Joker goes way too far, extending the main story to around 35 hours. The amount of grinding required to progress through the game is astronomical. Sadly, there are no clever side quests (besides the relatively bland monster hunting) to fill this gap. You will find yourself killing the same monsters for hours on end before finally being strong enoug to push the story forward. What makes this grinding even more frustrating is that even a high level monster with a low rank cannot compete against some of the end bosses. Therefore, monster synthesis is required and, since this resets the level to one, forces you to travel back to low level areas in order to power up your team again. Overall, this monotony reminded me of my tragic days playing Final Fantasy XI, the MMO known for being a huge time sink.
Although Joker supports Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, its online aspects are very limited. Just like the random matches in Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, your team is uploaded to a server, and your game downloads a team for you to fight. After that, you are back to playing the computer. It even announces that you are disconnected from Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection right before the battle. While it's interesting to battle against some of the top teams, it will usually play out as an exercise in showing you how much more other people play the game than you do. Every time I played this mode I battled against huge monsters I had never seen before that killed my entire team in a single round.
Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker is more frustrating than fun. Production values are high, but the game just isn't that entertaining. Extreme fans of the Dragon Quest series will probably enjoy being able to build a team from the over two-hundred monsters available, but there just aren't enough rewards for the average gamer.