December 1, 2023
Square Enix, Tose
It’s been 25 years since the first title in the Dragon Quest Monsters series hit the shelves. Taking the core gameplay of Dragon Quest and mixing it up with a monster-collecting twist, at least one of these titles has made its home on every generation of a Nintendo handheld console since the original Game Boy. Naturally, comparisons with other creature collectors such as Pokémon and the more recent Yokai Watch series can be made, but Dragon Quest Monsters has always felt more like part of its parent series than any other.
It’s neither through gameplay nor aesthetic that Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince shares DNA with last year’s Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. Like its predecessors, it plays closer to a traditional Dragon Quest title and features the vibrant designs of Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama. Instead, what these titles share is a lack of polish that detracts from an otherwise solid, cosy RPG experience.
Taking place shortly before the events of Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen, The Dark Prince tells the origin story of Psaro the Manslayer, IV’s tragic final villain. Born half-human and half-monster, you play as Psaro and follow his ascent to the throne of monster kingdom Nadiria. His father and the current ruler of monster-kind, Randolpho the Tyrant, has cursed Psaro with the inability to harm another monster directly, and so instead he must enlist the help of monster pals to do battle in his stead. The story serves to facilitate an adventure through the Circles of Nadiria and contains a heap of callbacks and nods to the main Dragon Quest series.
It’s a pretty neat premise to be playing as more of an anti-hero, and the game goes into some darker themes without leaning too heavily into edgy territory. However, Psaro being written as a silent protagonist takes much of the emotional bite out of what could otherwise be some powerful storytelling, particularly as other main characters are voiced. There’s also some ick pretty early on with companion Rose that’s jarringly cartoonish, and a fair bit of content that doesn’t really make sense without the context of other Dragon Quest titles. You get the feeling that much of the storytelling is shaped by series tradition, one that’s now beginning to feel dated rather than classic.
That boy is a Monster (m-m-m-monster)
The opening hours of The Dark Prince don’t do much to alleviate the dated feeling. Your goal in the early game is to assemble a team of creatures and take on a few monster-battling tournaments. In its first open area, the Plains of Terrestria, you can find monsters scattered about to fight and recruit. Right away, you’ll see issues with the game’s performance. The scenery and monster models pop in with a disappointingly low draw distance, and even monsters a few metres away will often move like a stop-motion animation. The landscape also feels pretty bland and uninteresting, exacerbated by the amount of time you need to spend grinding here to get through the first compulsory tournaments.
While regular combat allows you to select each monster’s action individually, the “Monster Megabrawl” tournament instead lets monsters choose their own moves based on their personality and some Tactics you can assign to them. It’s a bizarre decision to frontload the game with this gameplay mode – the available monsters aren’t very powerful, and the only way I could get through was to stack spread damage abilities like Sizz on my party and grind for a couple of hours until my team stopped dying in one hit. It made the first few hours of Dragon Quest Monsters a chore to get through, and is not at all indicative of how you’ll spend the rest of your time in-game.
Thankfully, once the adventure opens up into the many Circles of Nadiria, there are more varied environments, more exciting monsters to discover, and more enjoyable challenges. It’s here where the seasons mechanic, a new feature to the Dragon Quest Monsters series, begins to shine. As time passes, seasons will cycle through, which changes the available monsters and aesthetics in each area. The environmental alterations are delightful, and even open up new sections of the map to explore – autumn in the food-themed Circle of Indulgence brings with it giant pumpkins that serve as platforms, while the industrial Circle of Fortitude has oil spills that freeze over during winter.
While there’s nothing exceptionally interesting to discover in each map until you begin to find monster eggs around the world, the variety in visuals helps keep each area fresh while you explore. Unfortunately, this can also add to the game’s performance woes. Certain seasons can bring about weather conditions that cause the framerate to tank completely. While it’s cute to see lollipops falling from the sky or the Circle of Temper’s flaming rainstorms, it cuts into the joy of exploring when the game begins to chug. Exploration is further hampered by clumsy, awkward character movement and some rough-and-ready invisible walls across each map.
It was a graveyard smash
When it comes to the titular monsters themselves, The Dark Prince serves up a fantastic and massive roster of gorgeously weird creatures that range from the cutesy to the utterly grotesque. You’ve got the classic Dragon Quest slime varieties, horrifying puppet-dolls, sentient cobs of corn, and literal dragon gods to find. Each design is dripping with personality. You befriend them either by feeding them meat or beating the ever-living daylights out of them through the Scout command. Discovering the many varieties of monster is an absolute pleasure, deepened by a complex and satisfying fusion mechanic.
Each monster is ranked according to its potential strength, with higher-ranked monsters getting more powerful skill trees and passive abilities. To access the higher ranks, you need to discover monsters with good fusion potential and smoosh them together to create something new. This new monster can then be fused again later on, and so on, until you’re wielding a team of absolute titans. Discovering new fusion combinations makes recruiting monsters an enticing prospect, and I was quick to rush back to base to look up potential new fusion partners each time I befriended a new monster pal. There’s also a robust search interface that lets you look up fusion recipes for specific monsters you’ve discovered, making team assembly that much smoother.
When you can get into an area where the performance problems ease up, the bones of a classic, cosy Dragon Quest experience start to appear. While most of the interior dungeons are pretty linear and formulaic in structure, they tend to suffer from fewer framerate issues and most are vibrantly themed with the iconic playfulness the series is renowned for. You’ll be delving through a sand-filled labyrinth, climbing a tower made of desserts, and infiltrating a temple at the mouth of a dried lava river. As you venture through, you’re engaging in classic turn-based battles against Nadiria’s charming cast of enemies. There are few surprises in combat and dungeoneering for anyone who’s played a Dragon Quest title before, but this familiarity tends to feel comforting rather than tired.
Simultaneously a fun romp across the Circles of Nadiria and a frustrating, occasionally tedious slog, Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince is honestly a mixed bag. A “cosy” RPG like this should present a fun world to explore and an addictive progression system: while these are both present, it’s impossible not to be let down by the game’s disappointing performance issues and pretty half-hearted storytelling. It’s also difficult to recommend an experience that takes four hours or so to actually be any fun. For RPG fans with a strong connection to the Dragon Quest series, I’d say it’s worth toughing it out to reach that satisfying monster collection and comfy gameplay loop – for anyone else looking for a cosy RPG on the Switch, I’d suggest first checking out the similarly cosy masterpiece that is Dragon Quest XI.
- Wonderfully weird variety of monsters to collect, train, and fuse
- Varied environments that take advantage of a creative weather system
- Cosy and nostalgic Dragon Quest RPG gameplay
- Disappointingly poor performance, which hampers the joy of exploration
- Lacklustre storytelling that feels dated rather than classic
- Opening hours are a slog to get through
Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince’s significant performance issues unfortunately sap a lot of the joy out of the game’s core loop of exploration and grinding, detracting from an otherwise solid monster-collecting experience. However, if you’re able to overlook its painful opening hours and sloppy storytelling, there’s a decent, comforting game lurking under the surface. Hardcore Dragon Quest lovers will find hours of grindy RPG goodness to enjoy and a colourful, varied world to get lost in – though certainly one far less polished than fans of the series would usually expect.