As a big fan of the Shin Megami Tensei series, I was very excited to hear about the upcoming release of Monark as a combination of their previous works (Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey and The Caligula Effect) would be like match made in JRPG heaven. What it actually results in, however, is the blandest possible mix of the two, with a decent battle system overshadowed by an incredibly slow and awfully structured story populated by under-developed characters.
Waking up mute and with amnesia (but, of course) you find yourself trapped within Shin Mikado academy due to a mysterious and corrupting mist created by supernatural power-wielding individuals known as Pactbearers. These powerful antagonists, representing the 7 deadly sins, have formed contracts with demons (known as Monarks) to further their own goals.
Rather than scheming to win the lottery, these nefarious inidividuals aim to take the lives of the students, so with the friends you make along the way, you must alleviate the campus of its life-threatening headache and take each Pactbearer on, one by one, while destroying their ideals in otherworldly battles.
It’s a decent concept with plenty of potential, but the script then proceeds to commit a series of storytelling faux pas that, arguably, the game never really recovers from – even with a stronger final flourish.
There’s a lot of importance placed in the grand concept of self (or ‘ego’), and with your powers (known as ‘authority’) you aim to destroy physical representations of their ideology (‘ideals’). It’s an interesting injection of philosophy to the standard battle rabble between good and evil – if the characters took anything away from it that is, as it actually only gives a platform to long stretches of inconsequential NPC-led story which then the game – and characters immediately forget.
In fact, such is the perfect storm of script issues during this period, that the first 30+ hours of the game could have been cut in half and not have adversely affected the narrative. Without boring you with an exhaustive list, the worst offender is the poorest use of a muted main character I’ve ever seen. It not only forces the bland partner characters to shoulder and repeat entire conversations, but in interactions between the voice-acted characters and our mime, the player has to select conversation choices which are often just one inane line over and over again, cutting up any natural speed in which any normal conversation is had.
It’s ironic for a story that values its ending so highly, but it doesn’t actually leave any time for the heroes to foster any meaningful relationships. The morbid situation also isn’t given any downtime, so that when the awkwardly-assembled team attempts slice-of-life dialogue with an upbeat Persona-esque soundtrack in the background it gives them an unintended level of apathy towards the events. As you’ve been given so few reasons to care about the world and its inhabitants up to that point, it barely even registers as an issue.
Interestingly, Monark is actually developer Lancarse’s first foray into a 3D adventure title with openly explorable maps and unfortunately, it shows.
While the visuals are sharp in clarity, the map design and the exploration of it are a chore that few would look forward to. The school’s buildings are filled with identical halls and restricted classrooms, making your minimap essential as you lose your sense of direction as soon as you exit a room.
While poor level design isn’t the be-all and end-all for a video game, something that does affect your moment-to-moment enjoyment of a game are awkward controls. Characters that jerk into a full run at the inching forward of the analogue stick does the game no favours, and it pairs up badly with the repetitive and narrow maps. I had to resort to using the D-pad to move forward and the right analogue stick to move left and right if I didn’t want my character to just flick around the screen.
In a sense, you can’t help but respect when developers attempt to differentiate their games from the genre, but there are changes to the established formula here that make you shake your head – like discarding the standard JRPG dungeon system and replacing it with a puzzle and a single battle on each academy building floor.
I was excited to see that – similar to The Caligula Effect – each building are filled with NPC students with names and detail-filling profiles, but whereas The Caligula Effect uses them as side missions, Monark integrates them into its main story, forcing you to run classroom to classroom to solve their slightly insane teenage dramas.
It’s a highly tedious addition that makes a large part of the game overly formulaic and predictable and it loses any and all tension that progressing through a floor of enemies in a dungeon would create. What makes this even stranger is that it takes the spotlight off what should have been the star of the show – the turn-based battle system.
This system is the pick of what Monark has to offer due to the games’ two ever-changing meters – ‘Mad’ and ‘Awake’ – which affect your moves depending on their percentage, creating an constantly adjusting and compounding feedback loop, and when combined with a defer ability, allows for some very satisfying gameplay.
‘Mad’ is a rating that increases when you use magic abilities (or ‘Authority’) and getting it to 100% boosts your power greatly, but you also lose yourself in a rage and explode after 3 turns – not great unless you are near the end of the battle and are close to victory, in which case it’s perfect. If ‘mad’ is the dark version of powering up, then ‘Awake’ is the light version and gives you access to your special abilities when you max out the meter.
Brilliantly, you can have multiple characters in both states at the same time, and combining them through an ability sharing feature allows you to become ‘Enlightened’ – which is like going Super Saiyan. It’s a fun risk/reward system that really facilitates a lot of creativity that seems lacking elsewhere in the game and makes you wonder why the game makes the battle system a side note to the narrative.
There’s also a stark difference in quality when comparing the battle system to the exploration sections as the animation and controls feel completely different – almost as if the battle system was copied from an entirely different game altogether. Even the soundtrack for the battles are great, rounding off unexpectedly fun interjections between the banality of the story, which – at times – make it feel like the ride is worth it.
Monark might still become Lancarse’s golden goose in the long run, but based on the sheer number of issues and the quality of both the developer’s and publisher’s previous titles, it’s hard not to consider this quasi-dark school-based romp anything but a big disappointment – even for low-budget JRPG fans who are accustomed to a certain amount of drawn out jank.