Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Monday 23 January 2012

100 Minutes With . . . Monster Tale

Somewhere at the back of the toy room there’s a box of unwanted games.

Unlike the residents of the Raggy Dolls’ reject bin there’s nothing wrong with these games. They’re fun, capable of bringing great enjoyment to anyone who slots them into the console to which they belong . . . and therein lies the problem: so few gamers did slot them into a console--any console, even an old Vectrex case where they’d do nothing but make a pleasing rattle and catch fire when you plugged it in. They’re great games that would be fondly remembered if only people had given them a chance.

But you didn’t, did you? You bastards.

Monster Tale is the latest in a long line of handheld romps destined to be forgotten in the box at the back of the toy room. Quite why this is is a difficult case to crack It doesn’t have an over-sized Drill Dozer cartridge; it isn’t a spin-off from a niche RPG series a la Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime; it’s not as cutesy as The Legendary Starfy, dismissed as a ‘baby’s game’ and left to bulk out Game Stop shelves filled with Nickelodeon licenses, yet it never made it to Europe and remains relatively unknown.

So let me sell it to you, this game you’ve never heard of, this game you’ve never played. Let me sell it to you in a single sentence:

Monster Tale
is a Metroidvania platform game in which you raise a virtual pet to fight your enemies.

Yeah, I know--that’s the sentence that sold the game to me as well. It’s the dissonance between the two elements that intrigued me--the same thing that sold me Culdcept on the basis it was Monopoly meets Magic: The Gathering. How do those ideas fit together? How can they possibly gel? Why is my brain melting? This will never work.

This is how it works.

You play Ellie, a little girl who finds a bracelet in a forest which transports her to a magical kingdom where kids own monsters and make them fight one other. In a distinct stab at Pokémon, these Kid-Kings are cruel masters, the villains of the piece, and you, being of pure heart and filled with good intentions, have to put an end to their reign.

The Metroidvania aspects play out exactly as is de rigeur with power-ups and dotted about the map allowing you breach previously unreachable rooms. Enemies patrol the walls and floors, and fly about levels spitting fireballs--it’s all very familiar, humdrum even.

What isn’t humdrum is Chomp, your pet monster found hatching from an egg early on in the game. Vowing to return him to his mother you take him with you and soon discover he’s a lot more useful than he first seems. He attacks enemies, pushes platforms and does various other things to help you through the game. The longer you have him helping you, the more actions you have him perform and the more hits he takes, the more tired he becomes; sooner or later you’ll have to return him to his sanctuayt in the bottom screen to rest.

Here’s where things get interesting. Chomp, cute little bugger that he is, is a virtual pet similar to the A-life creatures found in Sonic Team’s games--in NiGHTS: Into Dreams and Sonic Adventure. Every so often a bad guy will drop an item for Chomp to play with, examine or devour. Sometimes these items will be weapons--a football, perhaps, that Chomp can kick about the screen--but they all boost at least one of Chomp’s stats or give him experience points. Raise his stats high enough and Chomp will gain a new ability, either passive feat or an action that can be triggered using the shoulder buttons. Raise them even higher and Chomp will evolve into a new form.

Each of Chomp’s forms has its own unique skill set. Crucially, Chomp can switch forms through a sub menu, meaning you can have a tricked out attack machine or a sleek, defensive speedster on hand as the situation demands. A grid displays progress towards Chomp’s various forms. He might be just the one pocket monster but Gotta Catch ‘Em All is a terribly appropriate catchphrase for Monster Tale.

Chomp is cute, you see: he’s adorable. He’s a swirly-headed idiot who floats about occasionally knocking barriers for six, but he’s full of character. I played the game in front of my sister-in-law’s kids; they soon gathered around in a sticky-sweet cloud, demanding to see Chomp gnaw another cookie to crumbs or drive another remote controlled car into his foes.

Although his skills can for the most part be ignored--bar dispelling the odd barrier, it’s possible to play Monster Tale through without using Chomp in combat--using them successfully is a thrill akin to pulling off a combo in a fighting game. While not especially deep, Monster Tale’s combat system is key to finding rare items and greater sums of money. The more hits you land on an enemy, the more stuff it drops. Get Chomp in on the act with some perfectly timed attacks and you can juggle bad guys long enough to get rich quick.

There’s some really smart stuff going on with regard to the DS’s duel screens as well. Don’t think just because you stashed Chomp on the second screen that he’s safe, in the first boss encounter you’ll have to switch Chomp from screen to screen, avoiding attacks while sending the wee beastie into battle. Seeing the boss’s heads extend across the screen right into what might as well be your inventory is one of gaming’s rare delights: something new. It mightn’t have the impact of, say, Psycho Mantis reading your memory card, but it’s the last thing you’d expect from a cheerful cartoon adventure, especially one so criminally overlooked.

Other monsters have other duel-screened attacked, from planting bullet-shooting seeds on the second screen to pink squid that send tentacles after you while hiding out of range. This oblique thinking to the DS’s two screens never quite fulfils its potential, but there are enough ideas there to keep combat fresh even late into the game.

Which is just as well. In melding RPG elements to a Metroidvania-style game developers Dreamrift have mated two of gaming’s worse crimes: back-tracking and grinding for XP. The off-spring is never as terrible as it might have been in less talented hands, but crossing the map back and forth becomes a slog at times--it feels like items and rooms have been deliberately spread out so you’d have ample opportunity to collect cash and items.

Even with so much footwork, it’s still not enough to ensure you’ll have everything you need when you get to the next location. I’d often find myself running through the same few rooms taking out the same handful of monsters, hoping to raise enough cash to buy a health or weapon upgrade so I could take on the boss that kept thwarting me.

Not that they’re difficult. The bosses are speed bumps on an otherwise smooth road. For some, the gentle difficulty curve will be too gentle; it’s generally an easy game, if not one you could play with your eyes closed.

As a game that’s destined to be forgotten it’s easy to espouse it as a hidden gem, a lost treasure, something that you have to play should you get the opportunity. And you should play it, because it’s fun, it’s fast, it has a smattering of originality--it’s the kind of game you spend too long playing, that you boot up for a quick blast when on the loo only to have someone knocking on the door telling you it’s been half an hour and are you dead or what?

It’s just not a great game. But that’s okay. Not every toy you’ve ever loved has been great. That teddy bear, Mr. Bloon, was he a great toy? His fur was matted! He only had one eye!

A good game, then; a perfectly enjoyable one. It has its flaws but let’s not consign it to the reject bin quite yet, okay?

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