I’m of the age that I remember the hype over the original Pokemon games for the Gameboy. Kids would go crazy trying to get a copy. It was all that was being talked about at school, and for a short time the geeks ruled the roost (probably not, but you can always dream). I never really bought into it, nor did I understand the desire to “Catch them all……Pokemon”. When I look back, I don’t understand how I didn’t get swept along with the crowd as all the major components are what I enjoy in a gaming experience. Maybe at my young age, I didn’t want to be a sheep.
25 years on, a new game that takes inspiration from this much loved franchise has been released upon the market. Monster Sanctuary from developers Moi Rai Games and publisher Team17 is a side-scrolling 2D RPG inspired monster collecting and turn-based fighting adventure. You control an inexperienced Monster Keeper who must; complete quests, hatch monsters, and battle enemies to become the greatest Monster Keeper in the land.
It all sounds very familiar!
You are probably raising an eyebrow and thinking that you’ve heard this all before. That there are plenty of these games to try, so why would you waste your time on something that may be a cheap knockoff off. I’m guilty of that thought process, as I’ve had a Steam copy of it since EGX 2019. Sadly, it’s been sitting on my hard drive ever since gathering theoretical dust. Roll forward 18 months, and Xbox Gamepass has added it to its expansive library, so I bit the bullet to see what it was all about.
I will not bore you with the lay of the land with previous titles in this genre, but Monster Sanctuary uses these gameplay mechanics to create a sturdy foundation. It then builds on this with some fantastic in-depth concepts. When a game has the tag “Metroidvania” you know that there will be a degree of difficulty, just like when someone says “It’s Dark Souls-esque” you know that you are going to be in for a rough ride. The challenge arises when you must combine different monsters within your team to overcome an array of enemy creatures. Get your plan right, and victory is all but assured, judge the situation badly, and its monster ass whooping time.
Skill trees, super monsters, and more…..
Unlike Pokemon, you can’t just grab your favourite and most powerful companion, and plough your way through the opposition. Strengths and weaknesses have to be considered. Any monster you hatch joins your party. (You don’t catch them all here, no you *cough, cough* you hatch them all!) Each has an elemental strength (wind, water, fire and earth) and they will also have a weakness too. You must pick the 3 strongest candidates and use them to annihilate your opponents.
The RPG elements form the backbone of most of the gaming concepts. Anybody who enjoys 16-bit Role-Playing Games will feel right at home here. There are; Skill trees, items to equip and use during battles, and weapons to wield. The combinations are almost endless, and it takes a bit of luck, planning and the highest possible score per battle to obtain the best gear.
Levelling up of your creatures is done once you’ve obtained enough XP. Each level gifts you a skill point, and these can improve your monster’s abilities. There are plenty to choose from, and the tree grows from a tiny shoot to a mighty oak in no time. The fights are scored from 0 to 5 stars depending on how well you have performed, the higher your score the better loot you will gain. The prizes are chosen on a RNG basis, so it’s a bit hit and miss what you get as a reward.
Is it just about hatching monsters?
This is a collect ’em all game at its heart, so most of the action revolves around fighting and building your ultimate team. Yet, it’s not as simple as exploring and fighting whatever is in your path. You are tasked with obliterating Champion beasts and challenging other Monster Keepers. There really is a lot to keep you going. Alongside these side quests, you will be expected to follow a rather plain and predictable story that does little to enhance the gameplay. This is by far the weakest part of this title! It could have been so much better if the developers had taken a risk, and deviated from a tried and tested formula that has been seen in monster hunting games since the mid 90s.
Is it all predictable?
Mostly, it’s a comfortable retro fuelled game that will keep you happily interested for hours. Yet, it’s not as predictable as you’d think. The Metroidvania style exploration leaves you with several uncertain moments, and puzzles to solve. Your ever-present companion of one of your familiars must help you explore further along the map. They will allow you to; weigh down switches, or jump higher. You can leap on their back and travel faster than you could ever imagine possible. Claws are used to slash through walls and vines, and so much more. The beast that sits at your side is much more than an ornament. Utilising them is key to getting the most out of your time in this game. It was a clever twist from Moi Rai Games and added an unusual element that makes it stand out from its peers.
Retro gaming is all the rage.
The monster hunting genre is all about tapping into that retro inspired market. Its followers want the Pokemon feeling they first had from their childhood. Luckily Monster Sanctuary is as retro as it comes; bright yet basic colours, simple backdrops, uncomplicated sprites and emotive audio. If you closed your eyes and were not told what era the game came from, you’d instantly say the 90s. Its desire to look and play like an old-school game paid off mostly, but its lack of detail and enhanced character models leaves it feeling flat in places. Like the storyline, I wish the developers had pushed these areas to the next level to improve the overall experience with the game.
Ironically, though, the simplicity of the audio makes it work so well. The variety in tempo of the synthesised tunes added to the emotion and helped build suspense during battles. The sound of the monster’s attacks and special effects were unique, ensuring that the fighting portion didn’t feel too repetitive. This is definitely a good thing as the battles make up around 80% of the gameplay.
Metroidvania platform games are usually rage inducing.
It’s a well known fact that the exploration and platforming elements of a Metroidvania inspired game will ensure that you rage quit at least once while playing. Monster Sanctuary doesn’t inspire you to do that. Though the jumping from one ledge to another can be tricky, it’s not too tough, and the UI and controller set up make it easy to play. Several submenus are easily navigated, and everything is well labelled to avoid confusion. Moi Rai Games have done really well in their delivery of a straightforward title that will be played by a range of different skilled gamers.
Pokemon keeps you coming back for more, how about Monster Sanctuary?
It’s a well known fact that Pokemon keeps you coming back for more! Do you get the same feeling from Monster Sanctuary? You definitely do. With so many combinations of approach, and a fun world to explore, you won’t get bored easily. The achievement list is in-depth, but none of them are difficult to unlock, so a 100% completion is on the cards if you get stuck into the storyline. To complete this game, you are looking at around 40 hours, with an extra 10 to get all the achievements. This is great value when you think this is available for free on Gamepass subscription or £15.99 to own outright.
I enjoyed my time playing this, but I can’t say that I’m an avid fan of the genre. Monster Sanctuary does so much more than most of its peers, yet I still wasn’t sold on the concept. If you are a lover of these games, then playing this will be right up your street. But if you’re on the fence, now is the correct time to try it as part of your Gamepass subscription. Do I recommend that you give it a go? Absolutely. Hunting monsters is nothing new, but what this does so well is to build on many well loved mechanics, and enhance them to make for a much more polished and in-depth experience. Can you be the best Monster Keeper in the land? Can you beat everyone else and hatch the best beasts around? Choose your starting monster and begin your journey of discovery.