Running through a city
Anyone who has ever attended a busy, bustling show like E3 knows how hard it is to make out certain sounds. Even when you're behind closed doors, there are still lots of people around making noise. And you're always surrounded by plenty of other games, so you sometimes have to strain to discern a specific title. Nevertheless, when I walked past the booth containing Square Enix's Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker, one sound poked its way through all the static and chatter and laughter and music, as if it wanted me to hear it: the oh-so-familiar tones of the classic Dragon Quest Overture. Ah, Sugiyama, you old dog, you do know how to reel a guy in.
I couldn't resist that siren's call. So into the game I went, waking my hero up in a dank little prison cell. Apparently the little rascal was caught while trying to escape from his father, the Warden, in order to enter a monster scouting competition. The guards soon come to unlock ze cell while chatting in a comical Hogan's Heroes-styled German accent, and they escort the boy up to see pops. The crafty guy's got a plan, you see. If his son wants to get away that badly, the Warden will let him. The Warden will even allow the boy to enter the contest... but there's a catch: he'll do so while working for his father, spying for the old man, and in general helping out with his probably dastardly plans. A guard then lets the boy take one of three weak monsters to get started out, and then off you go in search of adventure and victory and whatnot. It was a limited demo, granted, but I'm pretty jazzed that it certainly seems like Square Enix is retaining the same sense of fun and style that's marked the writing for recent Dragon Quest releases (like VIII and Rocket Slime). Hopefully the story will do that writing justice.
One of the first things that I noticed is just how good the visuals were, both artistically and technically. On the artistic side, most of the character and monster designs, and a lot of the environmental designs, seem like they came straight out of Dragon Quest VIII, and they made the conversion more or less intact. Technically, the graphics are some of the best 3D visuals on the DS. Character and monster models sometimes look a bit choppy because of lower polygon counts, but the environments look fantastic -- wide open, colorful, well designed. Playing the DQMJ demo, I couldn't help but think that this is what DQVII might have looked like if they put it on the N64.
These expansive, wide open areas really helped show off one of the coolest new additions to Dragon Quest: the elimination of random encounters. DQMJ takes the bounty monster setup from VIII, where special monsters could be encountered on the overworld, and implements it for all encounters. Not only is this a progressive addition in helping to eliminate some of the frustration that often accompanies unbalanced random encounter systems, but it's also pretty beneficial in that your goal is to capture monsters -- with them being visible on the world map, you know exactly what you're going to fight and whether it's worth engaging or avoiding. The only real downside to the open 3D environments is that with the over-the-shoulder view, camera control and movement can sometimes be a bit clunky using just shoulder buttons and a dpad instead of analog sticks.
Combat was fast and fun. Battles played out in a traditional turn-based manner, with the hero customizing teams of up to three monsters. With each monster having the ability to attack or use their own unique skills and spells, and with the hero able to use items, it all feels just like the fighting in normal Dragon Quest games. The hero can also use his scout badge to try to recruit enemies he wants. When he does this, his monsters all do flashy for-show attacks to try to impress the monster into your ranks. Of course, a lot of the fun in games like these is the depth of monster breeding, how many monsters, and how much customization is available. I didn't really get the opportunity to dig too deeply into that.
It might be tempting to dismiss Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker as just a Dragon Quest-themed Pokemon clone, but this would definitely be a grave error. Even in the brief demo, the game did plenty to differentiate itself from the Pikachu-fest and it certainly got me (as a complete non-fan of Pokemon) eager for more. And, if nothing else, one must admire Square Enix's complete and utter chutzpah, which they illustrated in the form of a cocky tagline attached to the trailers regaling the audience, a true "Sega does what Nintendon't" slam for our new era: "Losers catch 'em all; winners catch the best."