Despite perhaps being the most well-known Dragon Quest spin-off series, the Monsters games have been noticeably absent since the divisive release of Joker 3 in 2016. Since then, we’ve seen Square try their hand at new gameplay frameworks within this legendary franchise to varying degrees of success. While Builders has had rampant success on critical and commercial fronts, other projects have struggled to make the same impact despite offering something entirely unique.
With this in mind, it’s high time that Monsters makes a comeback while fans wait for the highly anticipated twelfth mainline entry. Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince is an incredibly safe entry entry into this spin-off series that’s regularly at war with itself. While it might be worth the time of most die-hard Dragon Quest fans, it’s hard to wholeheartedly recommend The Dark Prince to newcomers with no skin in the game.
The Dark Prince follows follows the half-human, half-monster prince Psaro in his journey to find revenge against his father; Randolfo the Tyrant. A cocky display of arrogance from Psaro early in the story results in his father cursing him, rendering him unable to cause harm to any monster before exiling him from the realm of demons. Still hellbent on the idea of retribution, Psaro learns to become a monster master in the hopes they’ll do his bidding for him, lifting the curse, and eventually usurping his father.
It’s a narrative setup that squarely plants our protagonist between the blurred lines of good and evil right from the get-go. The human and monster sides of Psaro are constantly at war with one another, and it’s through helping the denizens of The Dark Prince’s world that he learns to become better. It’s a largely interesting story with some neat ties into the mainline series and his role in Dragon Quest IV, and it does take some genuinely interesting turns along the way, but is held back by a few baffling design choices.
While silent protagonists are commonplace in Dragon Quest, Psaro’s mute nature in The Dark Prince stands out given the context of events that he finds himself in. Furthermore, it’s jarring to watch Psaro silently mouth his responses to fellow party members when they’ve got some stellar voicework. It makes it difficult to connect with Psaro and the struggle he faces through The Dark Prince’s roughly 20 hour runtime. This is usually alleviated in past games through party members, but The Dark Prince lacks a supporting cast interesting enough to carry the weight.
In terms of wrangling monsters, this is where The Dark Prince unequivocally succeeds the most. This game is utterly packed with iconic Dragon Quest beasties to scout, Synthesize, and tailor to your hearts content. Once its core systems are introduced, it’s so easy to get lost in the process of constantly adding to your arsenal, building up skillsets, and finding synergistic accessory combinations to get the most out of your party.
Each monster has a distinct set of talent trees to invest in and follow as they level up and gain Talent Points. Each one specializes in different aspects of battle or bolsters stat spreads and HP/MP values. Not only does this mean that there’s a healthy amount of flexibility in the way you build out your monsters as they level up, but it also feeds directly into The Dark Prince’s big new system –- Synthesis.
For all intents and purposes, Synthesis functions as a fusion mechanic within Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince. Monsters at level 10 or above can be fused into more powerful monsters that can inherit talent trees from parent monsters while cultivating their own. It makes mixing and matching monsters for different fusion results with unique talent tree combinations a process that’s always worth engaging with. Shortcomings of one monster can be nullified by the talent tree of another through fusion. It’s consistently engaging and is built to reward curiosity and frequent experimentation.
It’s a shame then that it isn’t often you get to flex the muscles of party compositions you put together, because The Dark Prince’s difficulty is all over the place. Where standard encounters can be breezed through without a second thought, boss battles require much more consideration in regards to tactics and approach, and will often wipe your party out if you’re underprepared. It makes for jarring spikes if you become too lax in the process of engaging in so many overworld conflicts and makes the whole experience feel uneven.
Most of what you’ll be doing in The Dark Prince revolves around combat as Psaro seeks to increase his notoriety among human and demon kind alike. You’ll explore the different circles of Nadiria as you compete in monster tournaments and help out locals with their issues. While each circle offers a distinct visual motif and new monsters to collect, the main objectives of each boil down to the same process of talking to an NPC, going to a small dungeon, and fighting a boss. It doesn’t take long for the loop to become repetitious as you move through each circle.
Completing objectives in these areas opens up further reason to explore them, as completing them often results in increased scouting chances for monsters of that circle. Seasons also play a big part in exploration in The Dark Prince, where each map is affected by different weather as they move through each of the four seasons. While winter might freeze over bodies of water, summer and spring will sprout plants that help you to traverse over impassable gaps. Exploring new pathways as they open up throughout the seasons leads to worthwhile rewards, meaning time spent scouting monsters for your collection always feels well-spent in terms of overall progression.
The Dark Prince’s Switch exclusivity has also proved to hold the experience back from being the best it can be. Much like last year’s Dragon Quest Treasures, Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince is plagued with performance issues and inconsistent framerates across its entire runtime without the visual fidelity to make up for it. The aforementioned variety in level motifs keeps things looking visually fresh and the game is by no means ugly, but its confusing to see the experience hitch and chug as often as it does.
I really wanted to enjoy Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince more than I did, but the best word to describe the whole experience is uneven. For every element the game nails, there’s another that it completely fumbles, and these issues come up far too frequently to go unnoticed. The Dark Prince is far from terrible, but when held to the standards of recent Dragon Quest entries, it’s hard not to feel like it falls a bit short.
Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince is a middling entry into a once legendary spin-off series. For every element or system the game nails, there's a confusing design decision that holds them back. While The Dark Prince is far from terrible, it doesn't reach the heights of recent entries into this storied franchise.
Engaging narrative premise that takes some genuinely interesting turns
Densely packed with monsters to scout and power-up
Synthesis is a brilliant new addition that encourages experimentation
The seasons system is a neat idea that adds depth to exploration
Psaro being a silent protagonist really hurts the narrative
Wildly inconsistent difficulty curve that can lead to frustrating roadblocks
The general gameplay loop quickly falls into repetition
Incredibly poor performance without the visuals to justify it