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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Nexomon: Extinction Offers an Interesting Story and Some Fun Twists on the Monster Collecting Genre


I’ve still been thinking about the Monster Taming genre a lot as of late. Which makes sense; as I’ve said in the past, it’s a game style that means a lot to me. I loved it growing up, and as someone who’s gotten more and more into the indie game sphere, I’m thrilled with the number of small projects tackling the style. New ideas and directions from new talent is really what helps an idea grow.

I got some of my thoughts about this out in my Pokémon 25th Anniversary piece from late last year, which makes sense. Pokémon’s dominance within the genre is undeniable; it’s far and away both the best-selling and most prolific series in the style, both of which make it most people’s introduction and formative experiences with the genre. This also means that a lot of people have opinions on what Pokémon as a series should be, though, especially compared to what it actually is.

My take on it from last year can more or less be summarized as “The mainline series is trying to be the JRPG version of something like Animal Crossing, and most of their changes have either been to enhance that side of the game, or to make the surprisingly-deep competitive side more accessible for those who want the challenge.” And I also think all of that is good, even if it is not yet perfect or to everybody’s taste. It’s a fun vision on the whole.

Of course, that’s also why the growing number of other Monster Taming games is good; no one vision of the genre can sate everyone, and it’s good to have alternatives. Which is why today I’d like to talk up VEWO Interactive’s Nexomon: Extinction, another new entry into the genre, and a very worthwhile one in my estimation.

It’s one of the more directly Pokémon-inspired games I’ve seen, and never quite escapes being “Pokémon, but…”. But I also don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing; Pokémon at its core is a lot of fun, while also having a ton of variables and decisions that can be adjusted in a number of ways. And I enjoy seeing other people’s potential divergent evolutions of what the series could be, in tweaking these things.



And despite having a fraction of the budget or manpower* of Game Freak, Nexomon: Extinction still provides its own unique voice and polished experience. It’s not going to be for everyone, because again, I don’t know that anything can truly be that, but I do think there’s something here for both people who still enjoy Pokémon and want more new experiences like that, and people who have found the interests drift from the main series but still find themselves missing some aspects of it and wondering what could be.

*Counting the credits, I saw 1 designer/programmer, 1 producer, 6 music credits, and 19 artists and animators.

Unlike with Monster Sanctuary, there really isn’t really a big twist on the base-level Pokémon formula in Nexomon: Extinction. The gameplay still alternates between top-down overworld segments where you explore the game’s world, and turn-based RPG battles where your team of up to six elementally-themed monsters with up to four attacks each takes on either a solo wild Nexomon or opposing trainer teams.


Of course, there are still ways to change up this formula, even beyond the original creatures or the pyramid-shaped/definitely-not-Pokéball monster traps. At the most basic level of the battles, Nexomon completely does away with the special attack and defense of Pokémon, but adds a stamina stat (which can be recharged by resting for a turn). In exchange, though, attacks add complexity; the individual PP cost of a move in Pokémon becomes a stamina cost that pulls from said stamina stat, and individual moves have their own speed and critical hit ratings, in addition to the power and accuracy ratings used in Pokémon.

There are other changes all around; nothing that fundamentally changes the gameflow, but each of which has big implications on how you play it. The type chart has been radically simplified, with only nine types and no dual-typing. Catching Nexomon is a much more active process, with the game walking you through its calculation of of catch rate (and how you can improve it in-battle) and giving you a set of quicktime buttons to press to increase your odds (so yes, the longtime urban legend of pushing a button to help you catch a ‘Mon is now real). Hold items are different, too; rather than one item, Nexomon can hold up to four cores that you can craft, which modify stats in a number of ways (mostly stat buffs or increasing your rewards from each battle). And in battles against opposing trainers, they’ll just switch in their new monster when their old one faints, rather than Pokémon’s default of asking if you would like to also switch (Pokémon technically also has an option to use this method, but you need to change to it in your settings).



That’s most of the big changes that I remember, although I’m sure there are a few other smaller ones. All in all, it’s a mixed bag that mostly leans positive, plus I think there’s generally a lot of value in trying new things like this. The forced switching adds a lot of strategy and difficulty, and the stamina system and new attack stats give the game a distinct feel.

Additionally, the simplified type chart and new hold item system are both fine; maybe less complex than Pokémon’s system, but I don’t think a smaller-scale game loses all that much from the cuts (and given that I still need to reference Pokémon’s type chart, it might even count as an advantage in some regards). The lack of dual type Nexomon is the only one that feels like a real missed opportunity, for a few reasons (but more on that in a second).

The game design decisions outside of battle are similar, in my opinion: a bunch of new things tried, with a good number of positives and few things that don’t work as well. The two biggest areas to look at here are probably going to be the design of the creatures, and the design of the game’s world. Extinction features nearly 400 monsters (381 currently, with DLC containing more on the way) a vast majority of them new for this game*, and on the whole, they’re… fine.

*At this point, it’s probably worth mentioning that Extinction is the sequel to the original Nexomon, which debuted 3 years earlier as a mobile game and has since been released as a microtransaction-free complete game on most platforms. For any curious people who are getting a little worried now, I will say that it’s not necessary to play the first game to appreciate Extinction, and in fact, I think the sequel is an improvement in just about every way (at the basic level, even with the microtransactions removed, the core of the first game still retains some of the feeling of grind that often pops up in mobile design). Extinction makes sure it’s story stands on its own (everything you need to know from the first game shows up in the opening cutscene), and they even used an almost entirely-new roster of creatures, with only a handful of the original game’s monsters returning (which, again, I think is largely to the second game’s benefit; the designs have improved!).

That said, there are a number of interesting callbacks to the first game in Extinction’s story, and gameplay-wise, it can make for an interesting case study in how a series develops. Plus, it already regularly goes on sale for $5 on Steam. I wouldn’t highly recommend it like I do Nexomon: Extinction, but if you really like the genre, have the time, and don’t mind a little jankiness in your games, you might find it worth checking out the original.



Not every creature design is a winner, but there are more than enough strong designs to fill out a team. And while I don’t necessarily love every Nexomon, their large total does a lot to help populate the world; every screen is given its own little ecosystem, and in general the world feels more fleshed out as a result. Plus, it keeps the fun and challenge of finding and hunting for rare ‘Mons without having to overpopulate the world with one or two mundane creatures that become overbearing (or, in other words: there’s no Nexomon equivalent to Zubat/Tentacool that you run into everywhere, because they have a handful of common creatures* to bear that burden, which makes every part of this process better).

*The game even has a rarity system, which notifies you how common each thing you face is as you face it. It’s a little helpful, although there’s some weirdness here; the biggest issue being that this used to directly correlate to strength in the first game (since it started as a mobile title), but generally doesn’t now, although it can appear that way to new players and unwittingly guide them towards certain monsters. The other weirdness is that you run into weird edge cases, where a creature might be “common” in specific areas but on the whole uncommon because it’s limited to just a few areas, or vice versa. On the whole… maybe explaining the rarities in-game more was the answer?

If there’s a downside, it’s that the creative side of team building is a little flatter than it is in Pokémon. As mentioned, there are no dual types, and most monsters only learn moves from their own type plus a handful of normal-type moves (conversely, normal types usually get one non-normal type they learn a few moves from). So the move progressions for a lot of monsters feel pretty standardized (some regular mix of “strong slow move-weaker fast move-status effect move”), and a lot of the more unusual attacks that change things up a little occupy extremely small niches.

And the ideal team comp is “six uniquely-typed Nexomon, possibly with the other three types represented in your reserves to rotate in”. Having two ‘Mons of one type is pretty excessive; type weaknesses are a big deal, and rare are the trainers that double-dip on one type. Three or more from one type is almost unheard of, and they’ll rarely if ever signal ahead of time that they do so anyway (in fact, the game will sometimes fake you out in this regard, which is mildly irritating in-game but kinda funny in retrospect).



This all has some interesting effects in battle; switching into type advantages is a big part of battle, as is cutting off the opponent’s opportunities to do so (in some extreme cases, you will even occasionally have fights with a few consecutive turns of you and your opponent swapping and trying to get the upper hand). And that means that having a wide variety of options at most times is key, so there’s little incentive to even train two Fire/Plant/Ghost/whatever types, let alone keep both of them on your team at once and double up on strengths and weaknesses.

It’s funny, though, because for as rigid as it can feel at times in team-building, the other aspects of Extinction feel that much more open. The game opens by giving you a choice of nine starters, one for each type available, and basically never locks you out of any using any Nexomon (legendary monsters are mostly all post-game, but other than that, even the other eight starters are up for grabs if you search hard enough). And none of this is even getting into the wealth of options you have if you start a custom game file, ranging from adjusting levels and rewards, to randomizing the distribution of Nexomon, to imposing Nuzlocke rules, and even more.

The world loops around into itself a few times, and there are a few blocked areas, but a large chunk of the map is open whenever you feel like going to it, and usually via any route you can manage. Level scaling is done across the entire game world (usually based off of the level of your party, with a few boosts after you complete some bosses), so there are neither areas completely pushing you away with threatening enemies, nor early areas that become too easy once you hit a high enough level. You might not have activated the story quest in a location, but you’re generally more than welcome to stumble there ahead of time and see what it looks like, or what monsters are in the area, or if there are any side quests available. It’s not a full open world game or anything, but especially as far as JRPGs go, it’s very fluid.


I should also mention that, aside from anything else, the game looks gorgeous. Everything is animated in a vibrant and detailed manner, giving it a distinctive visual style and bringing a lot of appeal. Environments are beautiful to look at, with a good variety in designs that add a nice personal touch to the stock video game settings, and with the occasional impressive set piece that will get you to stop and admire things for a minute (and maybe inform you a little more about the game's world). A ton of characters get a variety of portraits to accompany their text boxes, with a good number of fun human designs to boot. You get occasional splash images of big moments during cutscenes, which are always a delight to encounter. And each of the monsters looks great, even the designs I’m less drawn towards. There was a lot of effort that went into all of the visuals, and it does a lot to give Nexomon an identity distinct from Pokémon, even with the obvious inspiration and similarities.

That just about covers the big divergences on gameplay. But the differences in the story might be the area that surprised me the most. Pokémon stories generally top out around “competent but unambitious”, but Nexomon: Extinction aims much higher than that. In fact, I might say that the story is the strongest point of the game, for a variety of reasons; at the very least, its decision to tell a complete, twisting narrative sets it apart from most entries in the genre.

The game takes place a millennium into an ongoing conflict (which people who played the original Nexomon will recognize was kicked off by the defeat of the final boss of the first game; again, it’s not necessary to know this to fully appreciate Extinction’s plot, as all of the relevant details are told via the opening cutscene, but I do enjoy stories where the conflict is the outgrowth of the previous installment’s resolution). Since the overthrow of Omnicron, the original ruler of the Nexomon, a variety of super-powerful monsters called Tyrants have been locked in a series of cataclysmic battles to claim his vacant throne, with humanity caught in the middle.

In response, humanity has launched a number of solutions to fight back; most notably, a guild of Nexomon trainers has arisen to protect human society. And that’s where you get involved: you are a prospective Nexomon trainer, who has finally come of age and is looking to set out on your journey to become a Guild Trainer.

Conceptually, it’s a very easy way to set themselves apart from the big name in the genre, a dystopia story to Pokémon’s usual utopia. But it’s not just that; things might seem hopeless from that description, but upon exploring the world more, you realize that it’s not really a full dystopia. Life still goes on, people cluster in cities and go about their lives, the understaffed Guild tries its best to save the world, other areas sit unaffected thanks to geographic advantages, the people and their governments squabble on how best to handle this never-ending threat. Sure, it contrasts with the utopian world of Pokémon, but on further exploration, the world of Nexomon just feels… maybe like a “real world” take on a Monster Taming game, albeit one going through some tough times that falls a little more on the cynical side of things?

It helps too that the tone is just a little bit too comedic to make the proceedings too oppressively dour. The game’s writers take basically every opportunity they can to include jokes, a sort of “throw everything at the wall” approach. Some of the jokes might be a little bland (especially if you’re familiar with common jokes about the tropes of Pokémon games), but given the density of them, it’s genuinely not too long until the next one. And some of the humor is pretty funny, especially thanks to a willingness to get silly for the sake of a joke.



And it feels like the quality of the writing extends to the serious stuff, in a good way. The game is pretty constantly throwing narrative twists at you, but never solely for shock value. It makes the entire story feel almost like a mystery plot, where most of the turns are either things that were (in retrospect, rather clearly) foreshadowed, or make you feel like you should have anticipated something was up. There are a lot of good, pulpy double crosses too, which adds an air of uncertainty and tension to things, and pretty much all of these double crosses and realignments are pretty firmly rooted in the characters. None of them feel unearned, they’re mostly just people growing or responding to new information in ways that make sense.

And some of those twists actually overlap with the gameplay in a fun way; I lost track of the number of times where I saw some numbered element that I was just positive was going to become an analogue to gym leaders or badges, only to have the story turn in some interesting new direction that I hadn’t foreseen and keep me on my toes. And that part I mentioned earlier about the importance of building a balanced team? There were multiple times I was also just positive I was going to be marching into a section that demanded mostly one or two types, only to be caught off-guard by the variety of monsters. On the whole, it feels like a textbook example of the storytelling advice of “play your cards, because it forces you to come up with new cards”, and it can even add some challenge to the proceedings.

That’s about as much as I want to say without getting into spoilers, so if that at all sounds interesting, I’d definitely encourage you to give it a try! Just… maybe skip the end of this article, or come back when you’re done, since there are a few spoiler-heavy story discussions I still want to go through. The first section will be general spoilers about the state of the game world, and the second will include big, story-specific information.


–MILD SPOILERS–


There’s something to Nexomon: Extinction’s approach to worldbuilding and conflict that I just really appreciated. And for the most part, none of it is huge stuff. Some of it is just finding out how normal things seem in some areas, even as you learn that the world has undergone a series of disastrous events. There are people going about their daily lives, kids playing games, local festivals, etc. Even towns that are currently undergoing some form of major crisis have some people just sort of gutting it out and doing their normal routine.

And yeah, some of it is just meant as jokes (in that “throw everything at the wall” approach to humor that I mentioned, some of them play up the clash in behavior and environment), but at the same time, having spent the last few years living through hurricanes, wildfires, pandemics… I would be lying if I said there weren’t a few instances like that that also made me chuckle in agreement or recognition.

And those smaller moments have other benefits, too. In some games, it feels like flavor text from interactions with random side characters is just filler, with no-name townspeople giving non-sequiturs or expounding a singular viewpoint the creator wants to emphasize. Extinction’s approach is much more rooted in fleshing out the game world, and it gives the major conflicts of the game an extra depth and verisimilitude.



So you get to join the ranks of the Nexomon Trainer Guild, and learn how beloved they are in their hometown and the nearby areas. You of course get allusions to other groups that don’t like them, but things are generally secure in Parum. And then you venture out and learn that the guild is actually spread pretty thin; why else did you think they let your teenage player character join their ranks? (This is one of those instances where the joke based on genre tropes actually leads to some interesting twists.)

And over the rest of the world, you encounter basically every other conceivable opinion. You see people in the surrounding area who are generally happy with the Guild, people who think they’ve focused too much on the capital and not enough on other areas (maybe), people who seem to think the Guild has endless reserves of trainers they’re hoarding in the capital (they don’t), people who are confident those Guild heroes will always be there to help save them any day (less certain), people who mostly just want to ignore their rules and bureaucracy and do what they want, people who want to bring back the big boss of the first game because that seems like the easiest way to end the Tyrant War… It’s a lot to take in, and it generally made me interested in chatting with various NPCs just to see what else would come up.

You also learn about the Guild’s clashes with other parties. There’s their feud with Lateria, an authoritarian state of mercenaries. And of course, citizens have plenty of thoughts on the latter’s military efficiency, versus the Guild’s more egalitarian and less profit-driven approach. You have multiple areas that have largely managed to remain unaffected, and their variety of thoughts on whether they can keep it up forever, whether they should join with the Guild to help out or just generally avoid being next, if they can or should stay out of conflict entirely, and so on. You also have a variety of cities under the Guild’s authority in various states of crisis at all times, and a few thoughts about how their problems should be prioritized.

It’s all pretty well thought-out, and very believable. The conflicts feel a lot more real than a lot of other works that try to introduce moral complexity into their stories, and there isn’t some obvious right answer to it all. It’s just a bunch of people trying to determine the best way through an unbelievably tough scenario that affects everyone, with no clear answers and a shortage of resources, and considering how a conflict of that sort would play out across a wide spread of viewpoints.


–MAJOR SPOILERS–


And then, there’s the major characters driving the story, and how your character works with them. That core ethos, of wanting to draw up a complex series of choices, extends well beyond the general worldbuilding to basically every major character involved in the plot, with a significant chunk of them getting a sympathetic counter-portrayal, if not a full-on shot at redemption. Some of them are a little quicker, but Extinction also uses its narrative to get this across pretty easily.



You have your pretty standard set-up at the opening of the game, with the guild as the obvious good guys bringing you onboard to aid in their fight against the Renegade trainers and their Tyrants. You get to experience this, complete with the sense of overwhelming odds that come from the guild being stretched thin, the power of the Renegades, and the general contentious relations between potential allies who could aid the Guild but don’t.

And then, the game presents the standard twist: there’s an all-powerful MacGuffin that might put an end to things, if you activate it properly. Pretty normal stuff for a video game. Except you’re supposed to keep this secret from the guild, because it turns out, this super item is actually an egg that will hatch into some sort of Super Tyrant, which will be able to defeat the other baddies and end the fighting. And of course, in your quest to do this unnoticed, you learn a bunch about how many of the Renegade trainers started out similarly, and how the Guild has done some shady things of their own to end things in the past.

I don’t want to completely spoil everything here (those twists will take you well into the game, but again, it always has more up its sleeve), but it felt like a constant reminder of the big themes. “This all is complicated, and everyone thinks they have the right ideas, but there are no easy answers.” Extinction’s plot was kickstarted by the power-vacuum left in the first game, and every antagonist since thought they were doing the thing that would end problems without considering every angle. But it’s never as easy as “Just fix everything”.

Of course, this type of thing can be extremely hard to pull off in a video game. After all, “Beat the Big Bad and Save the World” is… kind of the most common video game plot. And all of that made me a little anxious to see how Nexomon: Extinction would conclude. After all, “fixing the world is harder than just beating the boss” is a good theme for a game, right up until you actually need to make a conclusion for your game, at which point it can easily become a choice between offering players catharsis for their triumph, or rendering their success moot by reiterating that central point. There were hundreds of different moments during the game when I foresaw some conflicting mess sitting at the conclusion, and I was almost worried to see if there was some wild way out that I just wasn’t seeing.

And the answer is… they sort of have their cake and eat it, too, but in a way that at least didn’t undermine the story. It sort of builds up to a big, climactic final boss fight like you’d expect in a JRPG, but goes with a more cinematic-type confrontation once you’ve beaten the actual challenging portion of the fight. Your character gets to demonstrate their growth and lessons from their journey to end that section, and then the game gives an epilogue that basically declares that fight was only the start of the long-process of fixing everything. Which…is fair, I suppose. It’s still a commitment to those major themes; and on further reflection, I don’t know that they need to lay out the exact multi-step solutions the heroes take, so long as they emphasize that there was no “one easy trick” to it all.

And there’s a few post-game things to do too, most of which are tying up loose ends or directly tied into the cinematic end of the final fight, so you at least get the gameplay agreeing with that sentiment. Really, I’m not sure that there was a more direct way to conclude this story that isn’t just delivering a completely new game in a totally different format (which isn’t really something I’d want to sit through after a full JRPG experience anyway). So in the end, yeah, I think Nexomon: Extinction sticks the landing in the most satisfying way possible, and given the complex ideas they were going for, that is good enough for me. That’s not really something I was expecting out of a Pokémon-like game, and it makes me all the more pleased that it exists.

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