Look – I love Pokémon. I write about Pikachu and friends way too much here on The Escapist and other outlets. But it’s a series that has spent too long at the top without any real competition, and given the technical state of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, it shows.
We need an alternative to Pokémon to keep it honest, and I hoped Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Price would be that rival. I even wrote a major feature about it over at Nintendo Life a few months back. However, after playing the demo, it’s clear that it follows in the footsteps of the recent Pokémon games: shoddy performance and a lack of new ideas.
The Dark Prince demo presents an expedited look at the Dragon Quest Monsters formula: explore small maps, battle iconic Dragon Quest monsters, strong-arm them to join your team, and then enter gladiatorial arenas to duke it out with other monster trainers that grow increasingly strong.
The problem is, much like Scarlet and Violet, every facet of the game – aside from the monster designs and music – feels underbaked: after a little too much dialogue, the awkwardly designed Dark Prince you control sets off to learn how to become a monster trainer with the help of an old man and a little fluff ball named Fizzy. The Dark Prince’s family drama with his evil dad and inability to harm monsters comes in throw-away lines that I sincerely hope are only to provide context to the demo and aren’t actually how things play out in the full release.
When you do finally get into the monster battling action, what you’d expect from the series is here: you don’t directly control the monsters on your team – I began with one of my favorite Dragon Quest creatures, Cruelcumber – as they will attack and use skills as they see fit; however, you can manipulate their AI in the tactics menu. I don’t have a problem with the combat as, given how short the demo was, I couldn’t judge the depth of it, but way back in the day, I enjoyed the Dragon Quest Monsters games well enough.
But what’s up with creature battlers and shoddy performance lately? The framerate for such a visually unimpressive game chugs; loading into battles takes a few seconds too long; character animations seem incredibly stiff and awkward; player movement feels floaty, as if the Dark Prince hovers a centimeter above the environment on an invisible layer of Slime; and the environments are incredibly bland.
It’s shocking, given how great the port of the stellar Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Illusive Age played on the Nintendo Switch. Sure, pop-in was a problem, but comparing the two Dragon Quest games makes the latest release look like it was made for the GameCube rather than the tail end of Switch’s lifespan. An almost unimaginable step back, despite the fact that the two games were developed by different teams.
The little tidbits of narrative the demo introduces help little in enticing me to actually pick up the game when it releases on December 1st. The Dark Prince, after attending a monster arena match, comes to the quite sudden rescue of an Elf that cries tears made of rubies – humans were literally beating her to get at her tears. What may be an effect of early plot beats being rushed to fit into the demo, the Elf and The Dark Prince quickly team up to cure his inability to harm monsters. But why would he want to? They’re his friends. It’s like Ash Ketchum lusting after beating Pikachu. With no motivation for his quest and stiff, awkward cutscenes that lack any emotiveness, there’s little reason to ignore any technical shortcomings.
The demo wraps up with the option to continue exploring a few uninspired environments that shift through the four seasons, revealing different monsters and paths to find. I could also continue on with the arena battles, which would’ve required a bit of grinding to prepare for, yet I have no interest in the story, and other than the distant promise of some fun monsters to mix and match into a lethal party, the demo failed to entice me to grab the game – let alone continue playing the demo. Furthermore, it failed to convince me that Dragon Quest Monsters might help right the sinking creature battler ship; at this point, I’m more excited for the second part of Scarlet and Violet’s second DLC pack, The Indigo Disk, even if The Teal Mask left a bad, matcha-flavored taste in my mouth.