The Dragon Quest Monsters series is something of a peculiar beast. Though it shares many stylish elements with its parent series, the Monsters spin-off has very little to do with the actual Dragon Quest franchise. And though it's often billed as a clone of the more-popular Pokemon series, it's got a number of distinctions that set it apart, making it an interesting game with some big problems.

The game starts, like many in the Monsters series, with an enterprising young lad who wants to enter a scouting tournament (scouts, incidentally, are monster trainers). Well, unlike other games, his dreams are immediately dashed when the plane he stows away on crashes onto a monster-filled island, prompting him to investigate the area, find the secrets of the land, and rescue the passengers of the plane. It's a pretty basic story, at best, but that's never really been the strong suit of the series. Don't expect much at all in this department.

Where the Monsters series gets all of its steam is in the, well, in the monsters. The game is all about the monsters you raise, blend, their skills, the battles, and how, in general, you go from using a piddly slime to fight your battles to a three-story behemoth that takes up every slot in your party because it can.

In Monsters, your creatures fight your battles for you. In general, this means letting their AI do the thinking, but the AI isn't very good when pressured, so prepare to order them around yourself. To gain more, the simplest method is to just scout them from the field. This is a bit of a confusing concept to some who start the game, but it basically amounts to finding a monster you want, telling your monsters to 'show off' (which means attacking it without actually damaging it), and, if the monster is impressed enough, having it join you.

The scouting is secondary to the main draw of the series, though: synthesis. By combining two monsters, you make a third, and the two ingredients are lost forever. The synthesis system, allowing you to grow your skills through the ritual of sacrifice, creating tougher monsters and allowing you to plan your way to victory, is also what makes the game a bit of a chore.

Each monster, when synthesised, begins life at level 1, no experience to their name. To actual synthesise a monster, they must be at least level 10 (though you want to get them higher, usually, to benefit from better stats and more skill points), which means grinding them up that far. Later in the game this isn't such an issue, when a single battle can grant you a couple levels or so, but this is still a bit of a dull period. This is a shame, because there are a whole lot of monsters to see, but actually getting around to seeing them all takes forever. Doubly so because the actual synthesis system is, when you get into the actual meat of it, quite deep. Levelling up skills, merging them, getting stronger monsters through special combinations, all of it offers hours and hours of gameplay if you're willing to get into it.

Aside from how you cultivate your monsters, there isn't too much to entice someone new to the game. A really, really thin story and a bare-looking overworld makes the rest of the game kind of ho-hum. The game doesn't look bad, per se, just...empty most of the time. The music and sound effects are alright, but it feels like there's only a few tracks in the entire game, and after a while they tend to get old pretty quickly.

There's some online components, if you're into that sort of thing. Apart from being able to import monsters in from other Dragon Quest games (by way of 'Tag Mode'), there's the online tournaments that allow you to win big prizes, if you're good enough. These aren't easy, mind you, but they are worth it.

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 is, in a nutshell, more of the series, but better. This isn't easy for someone who hasn't played the series before, so let's just say it's decent. It scratches the itch for those kinds of people who enjoy building their teams up from scratch, and though it isn't perfect in its genre, when it does something right, it shines. Bottom line, for a Dragon Quest-styled monster training adventure, it can't be beat.