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Monday, June 7, 2021

Monster Sanctuary Review: Mazes and Monsters and Min-Maxing, Oh My...

A little while ago, I began breaking down some of the video games from my 2020 Wrap-Up, offering a fuller appraisal of Phoenotopia: Awakening. Today, we’re hitting a second game from that year-end review, as I go more in depth on Moi Rai Games’ Monster Sanctuary.

For those who didn’t read the blurb for it in the Wrap-Up, the basic pitch for Monster Sanctuary is that it combines two fairly distinct game genres, something that I’ve written about here a few times. In this case, the two genres are Metroidvanias (another thing I’ve covered a lot) and Monster Taming* games (something that I haven’t covered, but which is exactly what it sounds like: think things like Pokémon, that involve collecting and/or training monsters).

*I’ve usually heard this term used, but it’s probably also worth noting that Steam uses the tag “Creature Collector” for this genre. I’m sure there are multiple other terms that people use as well, but these are the main ones that I’ll be sticking with.

This is a really novel combination, from what I can tell, which is actually kind of weird. Those two elements have always seemed like natural matches, in my mind. Growing up playing the 2D Pokémon games, they struck me in a lot of ways like the 2D Zelda games, just with HMs like Cut and Surf replacing Link’s equipment. And those 2D Zelda games and their genre-mates, at their best, seemed a lot like Metroidvanias that you controlled on a different axis. Think about it; they’d plop you down in an overworld with arbitrary obstacles, which you could overcome as you explored and found new gear and found secret branches to new areas… Pokémon quit never went that far, using its obstacles as plain roadblocks along a linear path. But they could have, if they wanted to, as could any aspiring game developer.

And Moi Roi was happy to be that aspiring developer. They took that formula and applied it to a 2D platformer, letting you navigate their world from a side view in traditional Metroidvania style, rather than from overhead. You get to have any one of your monster companions follow you, and they all get an ability to use outside of battle, many of which allow you to access locked areas hiding treasure or even new chunks of the map. It’s a nice combination of the normal gating system used in Metroidvanias with the HM system seen in earlier Pokémon games (although it’s never as irritating as HMs were, at their worst). It’s a system that feels obvious in retrospect, and Mon Roi executes it well here!

Having your creatures following you turns into another win as well, as the monsters of the game are a strong point. Having an interesting bestiary in a Monster Taming game is important, but not every game succeeds this well at it. You want visually interesting creatures, and a reasonable total of them, and variety across their designs. But I think it’s also fun when developers bring a distinctive style to their monsters, and some sort of unifying themes to them (even basic ones).

Monster Sanctuary does well by every one of these. There are 101 creatures to choose from here, across 90 different evolution families. And part way through the game, you unlock two new variations that can be applied to any one of those monsters, each one carrying with it a different set of stat increases and decreases (as well as some minor visual chances). That adds up to a lot of different options for your party (and this is only scratching the surface, but more on that in a bit), as well as a lot of possible enemies to encounter.

There are a lot of fun designs here, too. I’m not much of a visual artist or appraiser, but there’s a nice mix of cute, cool, and bizarre creatures, and I think most people could find a set of favorites (I certainly did, at least!). The sprites for each are clear on the overworld, and your in-game journal contains a pixel art portrait that shows them in much greater detail. The designs lean into a more fantastic feel to add to the setting, pulling inspiration from mythological creatures and magical tropes that dovetail nicely with the setting the rest of the game is building.

And that world is fine. Maybe not the most standout element, but it’s certainly not an unpleasant place to explore. There are distinct areas that tend to fall into your normal set of fantasy settings; your forest area, your icy mountain, your volcanic sector, your ancient ruins, and so on. Overall, it’s a pretty standard magic world, with its own lore about how the titular Sanctuary (a large area, comprising the entirety of the game world) has been separated from the rest of the world following some sort of disaster that left it overrun with catastrophes and monsters. Now, generations later, humans in this chunk of the world live with the much tamer versions of those creatures that you can train, although there are signs of some groups who wish to upset this balance. Story-wise, it’s all… fine. Functional, if unremarkable.

And yet, for as unremarkable as the world is from a lore standpoint, as a set of video game levels, the design is substantially more interesting. There’s an openness to the world that most games don’t reach, not even other Metroidvanias. Yeah, there’s the normal backtracking to find paths to progress, secret areas that you can reach with new abilities, and so on. But Monster Sanctuary actually gives you multiple areas and branches of the story to explore at any one point, something that a lot of games in the genre don’t fully commit to.

And difficulty is controlled thanks to scaling levels, which don’t lock in the range of enemy strength you’ll find in an area until you finally reach it, so there’s not really a “wrong” path through the game. It brings a lot of variety to your playthroughs. And I’m not a speedrunner, but I feel like the abundance of options (in both monsters to use and directions to go) would make it a fun viewing experience in that category, with the abundance of strategies that might work.

This abundance of choices also carries over to monsters’ abilities. Every creature has skill trees that you can improve upon leveling up, giving you access to new spells or improvements to your existing spells and stats. This is something of a mixed blessing, in practice. It plays into the huge number of choices that are present in the rest of the game, and it makes your party feel more custom-built. If there are strategies that you favor, you can focus on improving spells and stats to maximize them. In theory, it’s a great idea.

In practice, it’s maybe a little more complicated than that. Because the skill tree that you’re upgrading has deep branches for every ability, for every monster… There are a lot of choices to be made. And of course, to prevent any one branch from becoming too dominant, a lot of the options get minimal buffs to keep more choices viable, which can make it mentally difficult to compare them all.

How much exactly does a +1 to this stat compare to a 10% boost to this spell? I don’t really know off hand, and I’m not sure I’ll immediately recognize the difference from normal playing. Or would it be better to take a 2% increase in your probability to land critical hits, or an ability to stack a second status condition that will be 50% as effective as the first, or maybe a flat 2% buff to every active monster, or a totally new spell promising new effects, or… You have maybe a dozen options like this to compare, for every monster’s skill tree, and with every level up. That’s a lot of small choices stacked on top of each other, and it’s very easy to get lost in the number of small statistical tweaks. And this isn’t even getting into the amount of information the game is trying to convey, which leads to some bits getting lost or just not coming across in the shuffle; I had to work out on my own that certain options were flat stat boosts for your monster, while others were just improvements for individual skills (or at least, that’s what I’m pretty sure they are now…*).

*This was another, more minor issue, and maybe just a me thing, but there were a lot of things that I just sort of… had to work out on my own, it felt like? And like, on the one hand, giving someone every detail all at once can overwhelm them… but also, I feel like some of it needs to come up at some point, in a game that’s this devoted to data and decisions? Like, builds are important, and you want your players to know exactly what they’re picking. But I’m also not sure if I was looking in the wrong spot, or forgot the info because it was introduced and didn’t sink in, or something else.

This abundance of choices might not be a huge problem by itself. But it does stack on top of a couple of other issues in some unfortunate ways. First, the game is very difficult. And this definitely isn’t just a “me issue” either; it comes up repeatedly in discussions about the game, and the dev team has even mentioned that part of their intent was to make a challenging game. Recently, they even added a casual mode (among other things) in a patch, due to the number of times the difficulty came up in discussions post-release.*

*A majority of my playtime came prior to this patch, so I’m more familiar with the normal difficulty. But in my more limited experience, casual mode manages to preserve a lot of the original challenge, and is still by no means a cakewalk.

A big component of that difficulty is the battles. In this aspect, Monster Sanctuary takes more from its Creature Collector heritage: running into one of the monsters on screen triggers a round of turn-based combat with the enemy team. It breaks up the traditional flow of exploring that comes with most Metroidvanias, but that’s not a bad decision, by itself. The game had to make a choice here as to how it would function, and this is a fine one that is well rooted in the genres it’s drawing from for inspiration.

And in contrast with the normal conventions of Monster Tamers, you automatically completely heal between battles. No more running back and forth to a PokéCenter, or stocking up on items to use between battle, or worrying about being taken out by the death by a thousand cuts that an endless stream of monsters can present. It’s another strong choice that makes things more pleasant. But it does mean that, since you are guaranteed to be going into each battle at full strength, the game doesn’t need to hold back in what it’s challenging you with. That does bring up another thing that’s going to be very hit or miss with potential players, though.

Once you reach a certain point in the middle game, every battle is an intense confrontation demanding a level of strategy, even the basic encounters, and they can easily go a dozen turns or more. This winds up breaking the flow of the Metroidvania sections a lot more than you’d initially think. And that automatic scaling I mentioned earlier usually sets enemy levels to be a few higher than yours, so grinding to level up is not really a viable solution.* That also means that you won’t really get to a point where you’re a few levels higher than the generic rabble, and can just stomp them to get back to exploring. Good for keeping up the challenge, but it does mean that you take a very long time to get to the point where just backtracking or exploring an area becomes quick, rather than an string of long fights.

*Tying back to an earlier gripe, though: this is another thing that isn’t actually explained in game. I only found this out when I looked it up online, since I was not sure if the high enemy levels in a new area were an attempt to ward off players.

It also becomes almost required (at least in my experience) for half or more of your team to have healing spells, and for basically all of them to be able to either stack stat buffs on yourself or status effects on your enemies (if not both). You will have rounds, sometimes even in those random encounters, where everyone on your team is casting those buffs, or other rounds where you're just using healing spells and counting on your status effects doing chip damage on the enemy while maybe waiting for them to run out of magic for a turn so they can’t use their best attacks or heals.

This also isn't a flaw, by the way. This very much feels like what Moi Rai Games was going for in their design. However, this is an approach that is very much not going to be everyone's cup of tea, and I imagine most of you already have an idea if this is for you or not. But given that battles are a large part of the game, it will very much change how much you get out of it, so it's worth keeping in mind.

By itself, this is… frustrating, but not a deal-breaker. Extreme challenge isn’t necessarily my thing in games, but I know it’s a big appeal for some. And I appreciate it when games can make themselves more accessible, like with Monster Sanctuary’s recent casual mode patch (which, again, I think does a very good job of preserving the original designers’ intent), but I also understand that not everything can be ready on day one for a smaller game. If I do have any gripes here, it’s more in how that difficulty interacts with some of the other design decisions in the game.

If you’re the type of person that learns by doing and wanting to test the different options in a game, Monster Sanctuary is not the most forgiving at experimentation. Your ability to escape from battle is limited by an item, so if you want to see what levels the enemies in an area are, or have no idea whether your team is equipped to handle some new types of monster, or just realize early on that your plan isn’t as stable as you though, you also need to have that item ready, likely a stash of it. If you suddenly change your philosophy on skill trees, or realize that one of your monsters is better suited to a different role, or just start to learn more about them that you didn’t originally get, it takes an item to change those, and so you need one for every monster you want to respec. And if you catch a new monster that you want to test, you either need to allocate skill points blindly and be ready with more of that item, or take it into a few fights at a big disadvantage to learn how it works and how you might want to use it.

Even battle strategies are subject to this, to some extent. There were a few tough fights where I went in with a strategy and failed, but I walked away not knowing whether the failure was because I was too weak to be taking the fight yet, because I had executed my actually-viable plan poorly, or just because I had blindly misread the intended strategy for the match. And of course, if the problem winds up being a misread of the strategy, you might find yourself back in the problem of needing to train and respec new monsters. And since the boss battles are such a step up, even from the normal mid-level encounters, you get the added problem of not really having a good way of testing this new strategy, other than throwing yourself into a new round of fights, which is essentially just the start of the cycle again if the new plan also doesn’t seem to work… It can quickly feel way too overwhelming.

For all of my gripes about it, I don’t think Monster Sanctuary is a bad game. There are a lot of things I liked about it, and even with running into the high difficulty later in the game, I still got a decent playtime out of it. And it’s certainly not bad for a debut game; I will be watching to see what Moi Rai Games does next. But it was also difficult for me to just power through those things that bugged me, and I don’t know if I’ll be going back to finish it. If those things don’t sound like that much of an issue for how you enjoy games, or if something more strategy-intense sounds up your alley, though, by all means give it a look!

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