Dragon Quest has so much history that any new game has high expectations. Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince delivers on many of the traditions I’ve come to expect from the series: a rousing opening song, charismatic slime, and the emotional storytelling I’ve already associated with the franchise. But this game goes beyond those well-trodden areas, offering a clever and elegant yet simplistic approach to combat and dungeon design that makes for a solid spin-off experience.
In The Dark Prince, you play as Psaro, a half-human, half-monster boy who becomes a powerful monster brawler due to a curse that makes it impossible to fight them with his bare hands. Capturing monsters and controlling them during turn-based battles is a hassle. As I progressed along the boy’s journey, I found stronger creatures to add to my list. The game also has an online mode that lets you battle other players, which is a great way to test out different group combinations. In my case, it took so long to find compatibility that my time was spent adventuring alone.
Synthesizing new monsters by fusing two parent creatures is a great way to get a good team, and this system puts all your effort into boosting weaker monsters. Whenever you create a new monster, it’s possible to keep some of the skill points you spent on the creature you’re fusing. Through this system, I created some very powerful monsters, surpassing the normal versions of them found in the wild. This system pushes you towards excessive grinding. Whenever you fuse a new creature, it enters level 1, regardless of its parent’s level. In the final sections of the game, fusing a new monster at the wrong moment means spending a lot of time before getting back on track and trying to defeat the boss.
With the vast number of monster combinations you can create in The Dark Prince, I was surprised at how streamlined the combat was. The game allows you to set strategies that define whether party members will focus on attacking enemies or healing other party members. At the same time, it is possible to order specific actions for each monster. However, outside of boss fights, it rarely felt necessary to get too strategically involved in battles. I usually went into automatic mode and let the AI do the thinking as the system watered down each encounter.
As the boy works on his craft, we learn about Psaro’s past and his friends, Rose and Toylen’s journey, to become strong enough to challenge his father. It’s classic, more familiar, premise, but even in the absence of more predictable surprises or plot twists, Dark Prince captivated me, a cozy adventure with old-fashioned fairy tale charm.
The game presents the same slow intro that other Dragon Quest games have, making it slog through the first few hours. But, I slowly got stuck into the story. In the beginning, I was only progressing to unlock new monsters, but I realized how excited I was about finding new creatures. Unfortunately, very few situations even give a glimpse of what he’s thinking, and it never gave me a chance to better understand the reasoning behind his actions. In this aspect, the game’s respect for its roots precludes the ability to develop an inquisitive character with no choice but to nod or say yes or no.
While perfectly capable as a standalone title, The Dark Prince is directly connected to Dragon Quest IV. It gives us a chance to learn more about Psaro, a crucial figure in the old title, and to see some events related to the previous game from a different perspective.
Psaro’s journey takes us through the realms of Nadiria, a magical dimension with different regions known as zones. Each circle splits into three levels, with a final dungeon. Sadly, this structure makes for a repetitive and predictable pattern; After completing the first four zones, I knew what to expect from each new area. These areas suffer from significant drops in performance, as the framerate suffers considerably. While I could easily ignore these minor performance issues, the repetitive layout of zones became increasingly tedious whenever I went into long play sessions.
Dungeons, on the other hand, are the most surprising aspect of each circle. They all share a similar structure: multiple floors, a traversal gimmick, and a teleport before the boss room. Although they are repetitive like circles, the puzzles within each dungeon make them fun and varied. The developers found a solid balance between difficulty and enjoyment while designing them. Dark Prince veers more towards a traditional dungeon design, with treadmills where you need to advance or activate ladders and holes in the floor to get to the top of a building. While most of the dungeons are forgettable, they provide a refreshing intellectual experience without leaning on any design extravagance.
By strictly following Dragon Quest conventions, we end up with flat, cartoonish characters living in a repetitive, cyclical world. But The Dark Prince plays to its strengths in delivering a solid RPG experience with a narrative spiced up by a long list of charismatic creatures and entertaining dungeons.