Review: Monster Tale

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Ever heard of DreamRift? Probably not. After all, the studio has only produced one game so far — the recently released Nintendo DS title Monster Tale. But everyone better take notice of this up and coming dev team moving forward. The studio’s co-founders were the creative force behind EA’s innovative DS gem Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure, and Monster Tale, while not pulled off as successful as Mr. Hatsworth’s adventure, definitely shows that DreamRift has the development chops to push creative game design forward in the future.

Monster Tale, the story of a young girl named Ellie who must fight to free the monster world from its teenybopper captors led by a snotty Princess Peach look-alike with a ‘Mean Girls’ attitude, is a throwback to 2D platformers of old, bearing many similarities to the 8-, 16- and 32-bit era incarnations of Metroid and Castlevania. There is a twist too, of course, but I’ll get to that later.

Like Samus and Simon Belmont before her, Ellie battles monsters and explores a series of interconnected 2D levels that fill in on the maze-like map as she goes. She can jump, she can melee attack, and she can fire energy projectiles from the magical band strapped around her wrist, and by collecting upgrades her skills expand over the course of the game to include the abilities to slide and jump off of walls, roll under low-hanging obstacles, perform an evasive quck-dash, and fire charged projectiles. As new abilities are gained, previously off-limits areas of the map become accessible.

Monster Tale’s action is surprisingly fast and rhythmic, feeling a little bit more like a side-scrolling beat-’em-up than the average ‘Metroidvania’ game. Ellie has a variety of melee attacks and combos at her disposal, including a ground pound and an uppercut that launches enemies into position for juggle combos, and by chaining together successive attacks a multiplier tally builds in the corner of the screen. The higher you get the multiplier, the greater the prize left behind by your defeated foe.

The twist on this familiar action-platform formula is the hybrid integration of a surprisingly in-depth pet raising sim. At the beginning of the game, Ellie befriends a baby monster named Chomp, and throughout the rest of the game he automatically fights by her side and evolves to take on different forms and abilities.

While playing, the main platform exploration takes place on the top screen, with the bottom screen reserved as Chomp’s pet sanctuary (the bottom screen is also your map and menu access when paused). Chomp, like Ellie, takes damage in combat, so to keep him out of harm’s way you can tap the screen (or the X button) to send him to his sanctuary, where he regenerates health, eats snacks, and uses training items and special weapon pick-ups you’ve looted from fallen monsters.

Chomp earns experience, levels up, and advances in common stats (stamina, attack, defense, speed and intelligence) like a party member in a role-playing game, and with each new level comes new abilities and traits to take into battle. Depending on the items you feed and train him with, he also grows into different forms which you can change between anytime you please from an evolutionary skill tree menu. Each of the 30 forms has unique likes, base stats, level progressions, traits, abilities and elemental affinities/weaknesses, so there is a lot of fun experimentation to be had in raising Chomp to be the monster you want him to be.

But experimenting is really all you get to do, because, unfortunately, the gameplay is extremely lacking in challenge, and the pet raising component never quite gels into an integral part of the game. The game shows flashes of brilliance at moments when you have to hit switches or battle bosses that extend across both screens, requiring you to let Chomp do his thing on the bottom screen while you continue playing as Ellie on the top screen. But these moments are all too rare, and ultimately Chomp seems like he’s just wastefully floating along at your side more often than not.

Another grievance I have is with the obscene amount of backtracking. I know backtracking is a staple of games from the ‘Metroidvania’ tree, but Monster Tale takes things a little too far, even for my old-school tastes. Instead of backtracking to freely explore the maps and uncover optional secret areas, the backtracking comes across as forced game padding – it took me just under seven hours to complete the game, and I swear a third of that time, close to half even, was spent trekking through the same levels and compulsively fighting the same handful of monster types over and over again. There are numerous times when you go forward to the next map zone only to reach a locked door or obstacle requiring a specific skill to circumvent, and of course the skill you need to proceed is in a room near the same area you just came from. So you are constantly going back and forth between familiar locations with nothing new to see or do, and before long the gameplay loses steam.

Monster Tale is, overall, a unique gaming concoction of retro and modern ideas, with strong niche appeal for players who find more value and enjoyment from a system’s unknown, innovation-first gems than its hyped franchise blockbusters. The game controls splendidly and captures the look, feel and personality of a classic Nintendo mascot game, and the sprite-based graphics are expressive, fluidly animated, and bursting with bright, clean colors. The developers certainly used every crayon in the box on this game!

However, the game as a whole doesn’t quite deliver on its creative hybrid concept in terms of execution, and as such will likely leave you wishing there was more depth, challenge and longevity to back up its inventive ambitions. That said, I applaud DreamRift’s efforts and I can’t wait to see what crazy new game idea they cook up next — and some day I hope to see a sequel (maybe for the 3DS!) refine what this game started.

Until then, this is still a game that deserves your attention, and you should find a way to play it.

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Pros:
+ Throwback 2D action-platforming
+ Surprisingly in-depth pet raising system
+ Colorful graphics and personality

Cons:
– Lacks challenge
– Constant backtracking pads the game too much
– Pet raising component doesn’t reach full potential

Game Info:
Platform: DS
Publisher: Majesco
Developer: DreamRift
Release Date: 3/15/2011
Genre: Platformer/Pet Sim
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!