Twelve years ago, Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 was released on Nintendo DS, and it was the last North America would see the sub-series, despite multiple games being released in Japan. That is until now, with the release of Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince, a game that breathes new life into the series’ most vibrant spinoff.
The Dark Prince is a fantastic monster-catcher that takes elements from Pokémon and Shin Megami Tensei, but applies it all to a Dragon Quest framework, oozing with charm. In many ways, it doesn’t feel like a spinoff, but rather the next main Dragon Quest adventure. While it slipped in under the radar, coming at the end of this year, for RPG and monster-catching fans, The Dark Prince is the final must-play game of an incredible year for games.
The Dark Prince follows the story of Psaro, a half-human and half-monster prince who wants to challenge his fate and usurp his father Randolfo, who also happens to be the king of the monsters. While this story can be entirely enjoyed by itself, it serves as both a prequel and a retelling of Dragon Quest IV. For those who have played that game, The Dark Prince absolutely enhances the story of one of the best Dragon Quests out there, particularly in how it fleshes out Psaro, who was a major villain in DQIV. The Dark Prince uses Psaro’s nature as a silent protagonist in interesting ways, often keeping you guessing as to what his true intentions are. Since Psaro is already an established character, it’s fascinating to see how this story rounds out his personality and intentions.
Psaro was inflicted with a curse that prevents him from hurting any monsters, which is the core conceit for why players must catch monsters in this game. There’s a clear structure to The Dark Prince: exploring new areas, catching the new monsters there, and pushing the story forward, piece by piece.
Unlike other Dragon Quest games or Pokémon, there’s not an overworld that links everything together, rather, each area is a contained sandbox. You have a home base called Rosehill, and from there, you can teleport to each area. Completing one zone unlocks the next. This largely works in the game’s favor, as it makes the story pacing feel snappy and consistently provides new monsters and features to explore.
And variety is where The Dark Prince shines, with a multitude of areas that all feel aesthetically and mechanically distinct, from a volcano that rains fiery to a sweet-treats wonderland filled with massive ice cream cones and macaroons. What makes these locations feel even more immersive is a dynamic weather system that simulates different seasons.
As you explore the seasons and weather change at will, which opens up new avenues for exploration, changes the visuals, and spawns completely different monsters. This encourages exploration of each area, and gives you a reason to come back and keep venturing around after you’ve completed the story there.
That variety is then pushed even further when you factor in the 500 plus unique monsters present in the game. Every time the season or weather changed, in any area, you’ll see an entirely new batch of monsters. There are, of course, a wealth of Dragon Quest staples like the Slime, Dracky, and Tentacular, but a surprising amount of brand-new ones pop up, too. The series’ sense of whimsy is alive and well with the new ones, like the brilliantly named Sugar Baddie, a chef demon that wields a whisk and spatula as weapons. I don’t know about you, but I would let Sugar Baddie join my party any day.
There’s a real emphasis on trying out new monsters and building new parties, which is encouraged by the Shin Megami Tensei-esque fusion system that lets you combine two monsters into a new one. The game constantly throws new options and monsters at you, which feeds directly into that sense of always experiencing something new. The capturing system is also built to encourage keeping things quick and snappy, as you can “convince” monsters to join you. Beating the boss of an area or throwing out snacks makes monsters more likely to join, and the strength of each of your monsters also raises chances. With all this in mind, it’s clear to see The Dark Prince isn’t just trying to be Pokémon. It isn’t following the typical formula, and it’s a richer experience in the end.
The Dark Prince is simply a joy to play. It does a phenomenal job of keeping things interesting and varied between the story, visuals, and gameplay. The one caveat is that there are some technical and performance issues, especially in larger more detailed areas. But it’s a shame that the game seems to have flown in so under the radar at the tail-end of the year. It’s a deep RPG that packs in so much personality, and that sense of variety on every step of the journey is so impressive. If you’re looking for a big RPG to tide you over until the start of 2024, don’t sleep on this brilliant monster-catcher.