Thursday, December 17, 2020

Monster Sanctuary (NSW, PS4, XB1, PC) Review

After our review of Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, SPC continues this month of review with an interesting hybrid, an unlikely fusion of genres that ultimately works wonderfully with the Team17-published and Moi Rai Games-developed Monster Sanctuary. Here is the SPC review.

Pokemon meets Metroid in one engaging mashup

Like pineapple on pizza (I know, what a timely example that folks aren't completely over debating by now), there are certain combinations of items and things that shouldn't go together and work. Just like cuisine, there are certain combinations of genres that seem like they shouldn't work at first. A Pokemon capturing and battling game with a Metroidvania interconnected world and platforming doesn't come across as something that should work. However, like the combo of cereal and milk, peanut butter and chocolate, or perhaps pineapple and pizza, Moi Rai Games' Monster Sanctuary actually does work--for the most part.

Encounters in the game begin when you walk into a group of monsters.
From there, it's battling time!

Monster Sanctuary begins with you selecting your character and your accompanying first monster to join your cause. I selected a fiery red lion who I attempted to be clever and name "Firion". After this, you're thrust into the 2D platforming Metroidvania world of the game, where you run into enemy groups to initiate battles, search high and low for treasures to obtain items to equip to your monsters, and follow along with a story that deals with alchemists attempting to make the Monster Sanctuary a less than ideal place. 

The platforming is simple and basic, but it gets the job done. Areas have ample opportunities to show off your platforming prowess, but there's really little in the level design that truly wows, despite areas connecting in a logical fashion. This is because most rooms are simply put together as an assortment of platforms large and small with nothing really to distinguish them too well from one another. There aren't any set pieces to speak of, or notable landmarks either, though there are occasional enjoyable puzzles to be found. The different areas offer visual variety, at least, to make up for the game lacking a fair deal of platforming variety. Though starting off with rather creatively unremarkable areas like your token caves, forests, and tundra--as you progress, the areas become more imaginative, such as moving through a sunny underground biodome or entering a mechanical marvel of a clock tower. 

Puzzles such as this one break up the platforming and battling, and are generally fun to solve.

Getting around the world of Monster Sanctuary is made easy by ample fast travel points, as well as with the monsters you capture that help you explore more parts of the world. Most monsters have at least one ability that allows you to make new progress in the world, or at the very least enter into areas you otherwise wouldn't be able. Some monsters can activate specific elemental switches, while others can temporarily use their wings to carry you a short distance, or slash vines and breakable walls to reveal secrets. Most of the time these abilities help lead you to optional discoveries, but occasionally you'll need certain abilities to make story progress. Thus, monsters serve a secondary purpose outside of battle as essentially keys to open locked areas. That is in addition to the actual, literal keys you come across in your journey.

Use this bird monster's ability to score some extra distance via its wings.

You come across treasures around the world of Monster Sanctuary as well, and these have all sorts of goodies and delights to discover. From weapons and accessories that can be equipped to your monsters to make them stronger, to materials that can be used to upgrade said equipment, it's a great idea to seek out as many chests that are sprinkled throughout the Monster Sanctuary to give yourself an edge in battle.

That treasure chest's contents are as good as mine!

Speaking of, battles in Monster Sanctuary are usually 3v3 encounters, where teams of monsters duke it out to see which team comes out on top. These aren't your quick encounters, either, as battles can last quite awhile. For example, many of my battles lasted upwards of at least six turns, and that's tackling and defeating three monsters, most of which use buffs and debuffs to prolong things. This combined with the fact that in order to have any semblance of a fighting chance to make progress against forced encounters, you'll need to do a substantial amount of grinding for experience, and you have an occasionally tiring and taxing adventure. While there is an option to speed up battle animations by double, this doesn't necessarily make these encounters short experiences.

When you're in one of Monster Sanctuary's battles, you're in it for the long haul
with how lengthy these encounters can usually be!

Furthermore, enemies seem to always be at or higher than your level when you enter new areas. This of course only heightens the need for tedious grinding, and it makes it so you never feel that powerful despite seeing your monsters' levels increase. This also creates issues with balance and the aforementioned lengthy and slow pace of battles. Multiple times I'd get frustrated that despite all of my hard work at leveling my monsters, thinking I'd be sufficiently leveled for the next areas, as soon as I entered, I'd see enemies at higher levels, who would easily decimate my team. Moments like this really killed my motivation to continue playing the game at times.

As battles are slowly plodded through and (hopefully) won, monsters in your party earn experience that eventually levels them up, not just making them stronger, but also rewarding them skill points that can be used on various skill trees. These allow your monsters to learn new moves, increased powers and uses for said new moves, abilities, stat increases, buffs, debuffs, and much more. 

Much like its inspiration from Pokemon, you can have monsters join your team. However, this is done differently than in Game Freak's creation. Depending on how quickly you complete a battle and how well you perform, a tally of points is earned at the end of each encounter. Up to five stars can be earned, and the more stars you get, the better the likelihood is that you'll receive a monster egg (in addition to dropped items, including ones of higher rarities), which can be hatched immediately from the item menu. Monsters can also be evolved by giving them special items at a unique location in the game, and if you really want an extended adventure in the Monster Sanctuary, you can attempt to capture and collect all 101 monsters within. This can make the 20+ hour adventure a 30+ hour one! Either way, you're going to have a lengthy and content-filled time with the game regardless.

You'll sometimes do battle against other monster tamers in 6v6 encounters.

Monster Sanctuary has beautiful 2D sprite work, and gorgeous environments for your eyes to engage and look at. While I'd like to say that the game runs flawlessly, this isn't entirely the case. I noticed some occasional hitches with regards to the frame-rate when jumping and running around the sanctuary. That said, it seldom, if ever messed up jumps for me, but even still, it's disappointing to see frame-rate problems in this game. More positively, the music is insanely catchy and well done. I couldn't help but hum as I played along, and everything from the field music to the battle themes used are fantastic accompaniment to the adventure.

While the battles aren't balanced to the best of their abilities and the occasional performance problem, Monster Sanctuary is overall a successful mashup of two genre titans: the monster-capturing-and-battling genre and the Metroidvania. Fights can become long in the tooth and be repetitive, but I'd be lying if I didn't say they weren't ultimately engaging. The other parts of Monster Sanctuary are so excellently executed that I'm amazed this genre mashup wasn't realized and done a long time ago. That said, I'm glad it finally has, and with a highly capable developer--as evident by this game's quality--to boot. Monster Sanctuary gets a solid recommendation from me.

[SPC Says: B]

A Nintendo Switch code was received by SPC from the publisher for the purpose of writing this review.

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