Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince tells an alternate story of Psaro, the antagonist from Dragon Quest 4. But don’t feel like you need to know Dragon Quest to play. Focusing far more on monster-raising and battling gameplay than lore, this Square Enix JRPG is accessible to fans and new players alike.
The Unexpectedly Kind Manslayer
You play as Psaro, the titular Dark Prince, a half-human, half-monster hybrid. Driven out of his village and having lost his mother, he grows to hate humans. On top of that his father, the Master of Monsterkind, curses him to be unable to harm other monsters when he goes to beg him to help his mother. He burns with the desire for revenge and this works as his motivation throughout much of Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince.
Events lead Psaro to become a monster wrangler. If he can’t harm his father and his underlings himself, then he’ll catch and raise monsters to do it for him. It’s JRPG antagonist 101 to get minions to do the work for you after all!
Psaro then adventures throughout various areas, building up his forces and dealing with problems. Aside from the occasional moment where the core story comes back into it, many of the story cutscenes fall into a very standard formula. We visit a new area and find a local monster who needs help, along with an enemy monster who is the ‘big hitter’ causing trouble. We then defeat them and gain respect in that area, taking a step towards unlocking the next area. For an allegedly evil character, Psaro is certainly willing to help a lot of monsters.
I won’t linger overly long on discussing the story—Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince certainly doesn’t. The story is minimal, which is a pity. It has some genuinely interesting story beats, particularly towards the end. It just never has quite enough build-up to hit the emotional notes though. It’s not fleshed out enough to say much either, which probably isn’t helped by its silent protagonist.
To give an example, we’re told that Psaro is set on killing all humans. We only see a brief establishing scene to give him that motivation, and there’s no conflict over the fact that his beloved mother is human. It doesn’t come off as believable. Luckily, the story isn’t really what’s important here.
Exploring the Seasons and Dungeon-Diving
As mentioned, Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince has you go around various locales, often on a quest to help another monster and to unlock the next area. This leads you to go exploring areas, picking up items, battling monsters, and so on. All typical JRPG fare.
It does distinguish itself with a few features, notably the changes of season. Each locale is separated into an outside part and a dungeon, with the outside changing significantly as time passes and the season changes.
It’s not only the appearance that changes, but certain parts will become accessible and others inaccessible, such as a lake freezing in winter allowing you to cross it, while some vines disappear so you can’t climb up to a high area until the season changes again. This helped to keep the outside areas visually interesting and made inaccessible paths worth coming back for, occasionally with items hidden away at the end. Certain monsters will only appear during certain seasons too, creating a reason to explore not just everywhere, but during every season.
Earlier dungeons seem very short and formulaic. Fortunately, by the time you reach midgame, this changes for most of them.
Some of the dungeons are quite long and many include puzzles. Most of them are fun, if not too difficult, but some later ones do require some thought. At first, it’s just things like buttons to spin bridges around or exploring to find the correct combination of ladders to go up and down. I admit, I did find the late-game puzzle for the Upper Echelon of the Circle of Caprice difficult though, which had lots of turning pillars that directed water in certain ways that made different parts accessible and inaccessible. There was plenty of going back and forth.
Monster Ball Go
The true strength of Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince lies in the gameplay loop which is superb for a monster-raising game. On the surface, it’s a standard concept of catching all the monsters to fill up your collection and raising strong ones to defeat enemies, but the components work together almost perfectly, making it far more satisfying than most similar games. It all starts with getting the monsters.
If you’ve played Pokémon, catching monsters will seem familiar on the face of it. You attack the other monster to weaken it for a higher chance of success, then ‘Scout’ it. But a lot more details come into it. All four monsters on your team join in on the damageless scouting ‘attack’, so their strength comes into your chance of success. If they’ve been put to sleep, then they can’t help. Whether you’ve cleared the area and improved your reputation affects the chance of success. If you have a monster of that type already, your chance is reduced. Chances also go down each time you try, with a chance to anger them, stopping all further attempts. This isn’t as simple as just weakening them, maybe putting them under a status effect, and throwing a ball. All these factors work well together to create reasons to plan out captures, return to areas later, and more.
As well as this, monsters will rarely choose to join you voluntarily after battles. You can encourage this by feeding them items. There are also eggs dotted around that hatch into monsters.
This links to synthesizing monsters. A few hours in, the ability to fuse two monsters is unlocked, losing them in favor of a ‘child’. This can be the same type as either one of the ‘parent’ monsters or something new. Many monsters can only be unlocked by synthesis and this is the earliest way to unlock many higher-ranked ones, but it isn’t just useful to fill out your roster, it’s needed to gain power.
Each time you combine two monsters, the ‘child’ will take power from the ‘parents’. While it starts at level 1, it will be more powerful, and carry over certain aspects.
For instance, if you raise two monsters to level 20 and combine them, they’ll each give the child half of their talent points which are used to upgrade skills. The child will gain many on top of that while being raised in level, so end up with far more than either parent.
On top of that, any talent that the ‘parent’ had can be chosen to be transferred, along with the option to choose ones specific to the child’s type of monster if different. Some talents can combine and become more powerful by having the parent maxing them out before being transferred and/or by having parents with certain talents mix. This leads to a huge amount of customization for each monster synthesis with some potentially unusual combinations, like an undead skeleton monster with healing talents.
In many other monster games, it can sometimes feel like raising certain monsters is a waste of time since they get replaced. In Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince, nothing is wasted. Any monster that you’ve raised can be synthesized into something new and your hard work won’t be lost.
Battling in Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince is turn-based. You can control up to four monsters, with another four in the back that can be switched in whenever.
It’s possible to manually order each of your four monsters on which attack to use and on whom, but I imagine most will use auto-battle. Auto tends to attack any enemy rather than being intelligent and focusing on one, and it has odd moments such as choosing a buff when one more hit would finish things, but it’s smart enough to heal when needed and takes weaknesses into account to some extent. I found that it could easily handle any battle, except for boss ones which required a hands-on approach.
Tactics can be set, which are basic overall goals such as ‘focus on healing’. They can be further refined in the menu down to ‘use Slime Squisher attack less frequently’ if needed, but I never found it too useful.
I was originally of two minds on the use of auto-battle, but eventually, I came to appreciate it. It shifts the focus away from the battle itself, and instead more onto building a team that can stand on its own. This made developing better monsters with the right talents and distribution of points even more important. Plus, there is some grinding to raise the monsters for their next synthesis, and I was glad to not have to do it manually.
I found battles fairly easy, except for end-game and post-game bosses. Post-game is extremely challenging. Even just getting some good monsters to the max level isn’t enough. Building the right team, with the right skills, high enough stats beyond level, and the correct synergy is needed here, whereas before that it’s possible to push through without going to extremes.
Catching, raising, synthesizing, and battling all work together as a great gameplay loop. All these little details mentioned above make it an enjoyable experience.
I found myself catching monsters, trying different monster syntheses, various combinations of talents, different teams, and so on. It was a lot of fun to experience and see what worked, particularly without worrying about wasting effort.
There is a downside: much of this isn’t explained in-game, either well or sometimes at all. More positively, it leads to more of a sense of discovery, but I can certainly see some players not noticing just how much the game has to offer in this regard. Even beyond synthesis-related techniques, there are many little hints and tips to discover, such as finding rare metal slime variants that reward you with vastly more experience points than bosses, or getting accessories from tournaments to increase experience points gained.
Art and Sound
Whilst Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince is a Nintendo Switch exclusive, this sadly doesn’t mean it performs well on it. Despite fairly low-resolution textures at points, the draw distance isn’t great, pop-in is noticeable, and frame drops aren’t uncommon in certain areas. The handheld mode felt a little blurry at times too. It isn’t as bad as some titles such as Pokémon Scarlet/Violet, and it didn’t sour my experience too much, but it is disappointing for an exclusive.
Despite the issues, the art direction is great and there are some beautifully designed environments. The models look great too and have that distinctive Akira Toriyama look, which plenty will recognize from Dragon Ball. Many of the monsters have a rather silly and charming appearance.
As you may expect if you’re familiar with Dragon Quest, the music and sound is great too. The series as a whole has a very strong identity. From the opening theme to the sound of text appearing, it’s very recognizable.
English and Japanese voices are included. The English does seem to vary at points from the Japanese and some characters tend to throw in some very British vocabulary. Both versions are performed well enough and they do appropriately use British voice actors for the dub, rather than Americans imitating it, which can be an issue with some games.
Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince does the monster catching, raising, and battling loop better than any similar game I’ve played. It has some good dungeon puzzles on top of that. The story isn’t amazing and the performance isn’t great either, but if you enjoy monster-catching JRPGs, it’s certainly worth picking up.
DRAGON QUEST MONSTERS: THE DARK PRINCE IS RECOMMENDED
Thanks to Square-Enix for providing a Nintendo Switch review code for Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince.
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A gamer since the days of Amstrad and DOS and someone who has dabbled in a variety of professions. He enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has been focusing on visual novels and virtual reality in recent years. Head Editor of NookGaming. Follow him and the website on @NookSite.