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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (477)

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Pikmin 4 4/5
No Man's Sky 4/5
Dragon Quest Monsters: ... 4/5
Assassin's Creed IV: Bl... 2.5/5
Tiny Tina's Wonderlands 3.5/5
Ratchet & Clank: Rift A... 4.5/5
Super Mario Bros. Wonder 4.5/5
The Alliance Alive 2/5
Catmaze 4.5/5
Turnip Boy Commits Tax ... 4.5/5
Seasons After Fall 3/5
Rayon Riddles - Rise of... 0.5/5
World to the West 4/5
MechWarrior 5: Mercenar... 4/5
Streets of Kamurocho 2.5/5
Aeon of Sands - The Tra... 2.5/5
Greak: Memories of Azur 3.5/5
Yaga 2.5/5
Riverbond 3/5
Bug Fables: The Everlas... 4.5/5
Front Mission 1st Remake 1.5/5
Middle-earth: Shadow of... 3.5/5
Bladed Fury 3.5/5
Ruzar - The Life Stone 3.5/5
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin 3.5/5

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Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince   Nintendo Switch 

Intentionally Butchered    4/5 stars

“Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince” (“The Dark Prince”) is, in Japan at least, the third mainline, numbered entry in the ‘Dragon Quest Monsters’ spinoff of ‘Pokemon’-esque monster taming RPGs. Apparently the mostly-unlocalized entries in the series, like “Caravan Heart” and the trio of ‘Joker’ DS/3DS titles don’t count – and for good reason.

After being a fan of this spinoff series since the original “Dragon Quest Monsters: Terry’s Wonderland” dropped on the Game Boy Color back in Y2K, I have been highly disappointed by the more recent entries, both mechanically and by the platforms on which Square-Enix chose to release them. After playing – and not enjoying the first ‘Joker’ entry in 2006 and playing, not enjoying, and reviewing a fanslation of the Japan-exclusive “Caravan Heart” in 2018, I was convinced that this one particular ‘Dragon Quest’ spinoff was no longer worth playing.

The fact, then that “The Dark Prince” promised to be a more straight-laced return-to-form for the series softened my position against spending any more time and money on the series. Due to the fact that I’ve been going through a rather long personal drought of “AAA” games by established studios, especially for my dust-collecting Switch, I figured I’d splurge and take a chance on the limited print run physical edition of this game. Unfortunately, I discovered too late that “The Dark Prince,” while mechanically sound and true to its promises of a return-to-form, is also a thoroughly modern Square-Enix game that suffers from all of the pitfalls of modern gaming.

“The Dark Prince” is a fairly typical modern 3D game, in that it is built on a series of canned game engines and APIs (including both Unity and Havoc) and recycles a significant amount of character models from extant modern ‘Dragon Quest’ games. There are a handful of new, or at least new-to-me, monsters designed by the late manga-ka Akira Toriyama, as well as 3D versions of numerous characters from “Dragon Quest 4: Chapters of the Chosen,” which may actually be recycled and upscaled from the DS remake/port of that game. Unfortunately, the Unity Engine and the Nintendo Switch are NOT up to the task of rendering a beautiful, 3D, cell-shaded vision of the ‘Dragon Quest’ universe. The game experiences near constant frame-rate drops and stutters, excessive visual pop-in for distant objects, low-frame rate animations for distant monsters, excessive motion blur (which can’t be disabled), and gives an overall impression of barely being able to run on the Switch hardware. Yeah, it looks ‘nice,’ but most of the weight is borne by the art style rather than the actual artistic execution.

Audio is pretty good, straddling the line between MIDI and fully orchestral with decent quality synthesized music. Every tune in the game, however, is a remix of an existing piece from Sugiyama’s library of ‘Dragon Quest’ compositions. Specifically, nearly the entire soundtrack from “Dragon Quest 4: Chapters of the Chosen” lives again as part of “The Dark Prince,” with only a couple of previous ‘Dragon Quest Monsters’ tunes making an appearance. The game is fully voice-acted, sans expensive celebrity cameos. The main character is, unfortunately, mute, in spite of the fact that he does have some voice lines upon recruiting new monsters. In general, though, the audio is the best part of the game’s presentation, in spite (or perhaps because) of being almost entirely recycled.

Technically, “The Dark Prince” is simply unforgivably flawed and intentionally butchered. In addition to the enormous amount of visual hitches, glitches, and hiccups mentioned above, the game is generally unstable and loves to crash. (Mercifully, there is an auto-save option that means crashes rarely result in significant losses.) This isn’t a half-assed PC game built in Unity by a handful of green Indie developers/students: It’s a full-priced “AAA” release from one of the biggest publishers in Japan! There is no excuse for such shoddy performance. Indeed, the performance was so poor that the visuals made me feel nauseous while playing in docked mode. Thus I was forced to commit the ultimate blasphemy and spend a significant portion of my time with the game playing in handheld mode, since the tiny screen made the motion blur and stuttering less jarring.

Even worse, beyond the game’s overall poor build quality, I take great offense with the fact that the robust post-game I was expecting from a true numbered sequel in the ‘Dragon Quest Monsters’ series has been gutted from the game and repackaged as a $10 DLC called “The Mole Hole.” Worse still, according to the Nintendo eShop, “The Mole Hole” is only a 3MB download… meaning that the content is ALREADY ON THE CARTRIDGE! Yes, Square-Enix has butchered the game’s long-term, post-game playability in the name of making an extra $10 (on a game that already retails for $70) selling an on-disc DLC. Are they even aware of what year it is? They must be, and they also must have assumed that we’ve all forgotten about the scumminess of on-disc DLC thanks to Twitter/X and TikTok lowering the globe’s collective IQ below room temperature.

The final technical insult comes in the form of some necessary post-launch patches that correct major gameplay balance issues: Specifically, these updates make recruiting monsters much easier and completely rebalance the RNG tables used to determine what monster hatches out of any given egg found while exploring. Nearly all of the high-end Boss-Tier monsters necessary to enjoy end-game bonus bosses and (*gag*) PvP have a genealogy that starts with a monster that can only be found in a random egg, and without the rebalanced RNG tables, getting these results from eggs is about as likely as getting a 5-star pull from any given gachapon-based mobile game… which is another widely-recognized-and-disparaged concept that Square-Enix must have thought we’d all forgotten about.

Like many recent ‘Dragon Quest’ spinoff titles as of late, “The Dark Prince” rehashes the tale told by one of the original NES entries in the series, only looking at the situation from the perspective of the villain. Where “Dragon Quest Builders” examined a world where the Dragon Lord won and corrupted the hero, and “Dragon Quest Builders 2” examined a world where the monstrous Malroth was given a chance at redemption, “The Dark Prince” shows us the backstory of the mysterious Psaro (localized as ‘Saro’ in the original NES version of “Dragon Warrior 4”).

Long-time ‘Dragon Quest’ fans know of Psaro’s ignominious fate, transforming into a horrific monster and being cut-down by the Zenithian hero and his entourage of The Chosen (including by main man, Taloon). However, with “The Dark Prince,” we finally learn Psaro’s sorrowful background.

The bastard son of Randolfo the Tyrant – King of Monsters and ruler of an underworld known as Nadiria – and a human woman, Psaro grows up struggling to fit in within either human society or monsterdom. After his mother suffers an untimely death, an orphaned child Psaro travels the long dark roads of Nadiria to confront his demonic father. Of course, he’s not up to the task of defeating the most powerful fiend in Nadiria, and to add insult to injury, Randolfo curses Psaro with the inability to ever raise a hostile hand against any creature with monster blood.

Spirited away by a couple of good-hearted monsters, Psaro spends the rest of his childhood and teenage years living in a remote dwarven village, desperately researching any method to remove his father’s curse upon him. Unfortunately for Psaro, he isn’t the only son of the Tyrant, and one day a group of monster scouts working for his older (and far more monstrous) brother, Dolph, find his hideout in the dwarven village and force change in Psaro’s life in the name of self-defense. Specifically, the Dwarven Elder introduces Psaro to the wonderful world of Monster Wrangling, via which our cursed anti-hero can use his charisma and force of will to command a team of monsters, who will commit physical violence against other monsters in his stead – conveniently circumventing his father’s curse.

Psaro must start at the ground up, making his way through the established circuit of Monster Wrangling battle tournaments as he searches for chunks of magical stone that will increase his ability to teleport his magical tower (which was just kind of “there” in the dwarven town of Rosehill) to deeper and deeper layers of Nadiria, where he will undermine his father’s order and even make a few non-monstrous friends, including a pink-haired elven love interest named Rose.

In general, “The Dark Prince” is pretty light on narrative and world building. I think people who haven’t played “Dragon Quest 4: Chapters of the Chosen” on the DS (or even the original localization of “Dragon Warrior 4” on the NES, which is the limit of my direct experience with this narrative) will get significantly less out of the game from a story perspective than those who have. However, at its core, “The Dark Prince” is really just a monster catching/breeding/battling game that only needs enough plot to push the action from one location to the next, and it definitely has that.

Of course, this threadbare plot which leans heavily on prior knowledge of the 4th mainline ‘Dragon Quest’ game is stretched beyond its ability to prop up any kind of quality narrative by the fact that ‘Dragon Quest Monsters’ games are very, very grindy. I managed to sink just over 80 hours into the game before I ran into the sudden dead-end drop-off with the ‘plz bai DLC kthxbai’ sign, while there’s really only about 20 hours’ worth of plot, at most.

True to the pre-launch hype, “The Dark Prince” is indeed a no-frills, no-nonsense true sequel to the first two “Dragon Quest Monsters” games that graced the Game Boy color at the turn of the millennium. That is to say, you’ve got your main character who is a non-combatant, but who can recruit (nearly) any monsters they encounter to form an elite fighting team.

In “The Dark Prince,” the player commands a team of up to 4 monsters simultaneously, with a bench consisting of 4 additional monsters that can be swapped into or out of combat at will. Monsters not in the player’s active team or bench are sent to the Monster Depot, which increases in capacity at various points in the plot (but I never came close to bumping into the limit for inactive monsters.

Combat is a 100% turn-based affair that cleaves appropriately to ‘Dragon Quest’ tradition, with an overall close resemblance to the excellent mechanical systems in the highly-refined and polished “Dragon Quest 11.” The player’s team of monsters can have ‘tactics’ set form them (Go All-Out, Weaken the Enemy, Support Allies, Focus on Healing, or Save MP) and allowed to auto-battle by default, or the player can issue individual commands to each monster on the team each turn. During tournament battles, however, only tactics and auto-battling are allowed, which adds an extra layer of complexity to ensuring that monsters behave appropriately (though it should be noted that the friendly monster AI us unusually competent).

It’s possible for the player’s team to be limited to fewer than 4 monsters, as there are Large monsters that can be recruited or bred, which take up 2 slots on the roster, but in exchange always perform two actions per turn and have appreciably higher stats than Small monsters. Beyond what each active monster can to, the player can also use an item each turn without sacrificing a monster’s action to do so.

Furthermore, instead of simply relying on bribing monsters with consumable food items and hoping they’ll want to join the party after being defeated, “The Dark Prince” features the much-needed ability to make a “Show of Force” to preemptively ‘Scout’ any enemy monster. Scouting attempts compare the party’s attack stats with the enemy’s defense stats, with each party member contributing points to a percentile meter. Hitting 100% automatically Scouts a given monster, while coming in at under 100% relies on RNG, but is a much more reliable and less-tedious way of recruiting monsters than the way the series has done it in the past. Having an extant copy of any given monster species in the Monster Depot does decrease Scouting chances, though, and having multiple specimens of the same species can even reduce guaranteed recruitment opportunities to a coin flip (or worse).

Of course, recruiting monsters in primarily a means to an end, as monsters become significantly more powerful and capable through the game’s complex and convoluted breeding system, which was changed to ‘Synthesis’ in the ‘Joker’ series, but now seems to be a weird middle ground where it’s referred to as ‘Breeding’ and ‘Synthesis’ interchangeably. Fortunately, monsters, like blue-haired Gen-Z’s, don’t have genders, so it’s possible to breed any monster with any other monster without having to worry about finding ones with the ‘right bits.’

The Breeding/Synthesis process is unbelievably complex, but still closely resembles the original mechanic from the Game Boy Color era. The two parent monsters have their stats added together, then divided (by 4 instead of by 2 as it was previously). In addition, monsters no longer simply have a litany of skills that they learn based on their ancestry, but can have up to three Talent trees passed down from their parents, with half of the Talent points assigned passed onto offspring who inherit a Talent, along with half of unassigned Talent points. Talent trees usually contain 8-10 discreet skills, with better versions of the same skill or spell overwriting weaker versions as a monster learns them. Unlocking Talents is completely directed by the player, as monsters gain Talent points upon leveling-up, giving the opportunity to put them into a given Talent tree, split them up, or simply reserve them as unassigned in order to use them in a subsequent descendant with a different tree. Since each parent monster can have 3 Talent trees, the player is forced to pick-and-choose, preventing any monster from having ALL the skills. Furthermore, there are numerous non-skill Talent trees which focus on things like passive stat-boosts, protection from status ailments, auto-regen for health or magic points, and cutting the costs of spells/skills in half. Even more complex, there are numerous ‘hidden’ or ‘hybrid’ Talent trees that only become available if the parent monsters have specific maxed-out Talent trees, adding an almost excessive level of depth to an already abyssally-deep breeding system.

Fortunately, there is one major new feature in “The Dark Prince” that was notably absent from the Game Boy Color games, solely due to technical restrictions. That feature is a reverse search engine for monster breeding combinations that allows the player to quickly and easily see any and every breeding combination and outcome among their current stable of monsters. Back when I played the first two ‘Dragon Quest Monsters’ games in college, I had to print out a MASSIVE ream of paper with all the breeding combinations to use as a reference. That is no longer necessary thanks to the reverse lookup tool…

… But it’s sadly not perfect. As in the older games in the series, there are a handful of monster breeding combinations that rely on the grandparents’ species instead of just the parents’ species. These are, of course, all end-game Boss-Tier combinations, but I was really hoping that those in particular would be more transparent and in-game discoverable rather than the nightmarishly complex breeding chains they used to be. Unfortunately, even my memories of these complex breeding chains from back in the day have been rendered useless by the fact that Square-Enix decided to change some of them to be even more complex. Of course, we’ve had several new ‘Dragon Quest’ games with several new bosses in the meantime, so I suppose it’s to be expected, but many of the new combinations are far too complicated and make little sense… plus, as mentioned way up at the top of this review, most of these super-complex genealogies start with a monster that can’t be bred or Scouted, but can only hatch from a found egg… which is incredibly poor design and single-handedly drops the Gameplay score from Perfect to Almost-Perfect.

Lastly, I was overjoyed when I discovered that monsters on the player’s bench earn *most* of the experience points that the main team does. My single most grievous complaint about ‘Dragon Quest Monsters’ as a whole is how much grinding it takes to level newly-bred monsters either to become part of the active team or to reach ‘maturity’ at level 10+ and be ready to breed another generation. The fact that benched monsters gain levels passively is great… but the fact that monsters who are sitting in the Monster Depot doing nothing ALSO get almost-full experience points, meaning that the player can spend much more time Scouting monsters and hunting for eggs while still ensuring that their breeding stock will have plenty of levels and the associated stats and Talent points to pass along to the next generation.

“Dragon Quest Monsters 3: The Dark Prince” is an excellent return-to-form for a spin-off series that has been languishing in obscurity and burdened by poor mechanical design for two decades. The monster battling and breeding mechanics are the best they’ve ever been, while the somewhat-threadbare narrative is still awash with nostalgia for those of us who still have a soft-spot for “Dragon Quest/Warrior 4.”

Unfortunately, Square-Enix and Nintendo aren’t up to the task of managing such an excellent game. Thus the final product had its epilogue chopped-off and re-sold to us as a $10 on-disc DLC, while the Switch hardware itself can barely run it at an acceptable level of performance and stability. If there was ever a Square-Enix game that needed a Complete Edition re-release on a competent platform, like Steam, it’s this one.

Presentation: 2/5
Story: 3/5
Gameplay: 4.5/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5



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