In today's post-Pokémon Go world, it can be easy for longtime fans of the series who have been catching 'em all since Gen 1 to feel left behind. With each new installment and remake feeling just that little bit easier every time, it's clear Game Freak is aiming for a new generation of Pokémon fans.
The stage is set for a game like Monster Crown. Advertising itself as a game inspired by the first two generations of Pokémon, this indie title should, in theory, have an audience ready and waiting. As a member of this audience, I can firmly say that playing through Early Access has already filled the gap that was usually taken up by replaying those classic RPG titles.
Even in this initial state, Monster Crown captures the feeling of the early 2000s, glued to a Game Boy Advance SP and losing to your rival for the 15th time that day -- in the best way possible. While in need of some polish, and a careful balancing act as to not feel like fan game, Monster Crown so far shows that nostalgia trips can be done right.
Gotta Tame 'em All
Monster Crown is best described as a new spin on a classic monster RPG, rather than a complete copy. You play as a fourteen-year-old "Tamer", leaving your family farm to set off on an adventure to build up a team of monsters.
Monster Crown clearly understands that it can't be too derivative of other RPGs, as to harm its chances of forging its own identity. While in the early hours I had feared this would amount to little more than a fan game, it quickly became apparent that these familiar game mechanics and world designs were being used as the foundations, so it can build its own identity on top.
This is best seen in the star attraction: the titular monsters. These monsters are (save a few glaring designs) very unique. What do I mean by this? Well, the monsters are like Pokémon -- if Pokémon were bastards.
Let me elaborate. In the lore, monsters have a lot more autonomy than the 'mons we're used to. They're not mindless beasts to be captured - rather they roam the world, living, disrupting, and attacking as they please, and will only join your team if they are convinced to do so using a "pact." Sure, pacts act essentially the same as Pokéballs (they work better if the enemies HP is low, and if you are a higher level) but the fact that they have to accept to a partnership, or will simply scoff at the offer, gives you a different sort of relationship with them. Hell, in the first part of the game, it's mentioned that your Dad had "tricked" a powerful monster into helping him out on the farm, and later on, there's a species which will ambush you if you dare stray from the given path. Despite having dozens of new monster designs to get used to, I quickly fell in love with them -- they ooze personality.
The attack types only add to this. Rather than the fire, grass, and water, we're used to we get types such as brute, vicious -- and my personal favorite -- unstable. This is brilliant theming, which lends itself well to the expressive monster designs, making it hard not to have a favorite.
In lesser hands, this could be very try-hard. And while sometimes this tone can be inconsistent from time to time (more on that later) for the most part it builds up to a coherent and interesting world, that I genuinely look forward to exploring.
In many ways, it's like the developer has done their research by diving into fan forums, and adding the features long-time Pokémon fans have missed. There's a personality quiz at the start to determine your monster. Your monster can follow you around the overworld. You can have eight in a party, rather than six. All these little things really give off the impression that the developer is very aware of what players want, and I look forward to seeing how this approach influences the rest of the game's development.
The Journey Begins
One issue I encountered is that the early game can feel a tad monotonous. Most of the tutorial is condensed into the first couple of hours, which while a slog to get through, does mean you can mostly leave the training wheels behind once you're done with the first few areas. But even that, you will occasionally find yourself being dragged back to have something else explained.
But pacing issues aside, you eventually get left to your own devices, and that's where the fun begins; roaming the routes, battling trainers and wild monsters in a pixel art wild area.
Perhaps the best thing working in the game's favor is that it's hard. Real hard. At least if you're fresh off the back of Sword of Shield. Sure, Monster Crown looks like a Game Boy game, but it knows you're not a kid anymore. The enemy AI doesn't hold back and gets the most out of the synergy mechanic -- a gauge that fills up when you swap monsters mid-battle and charges up an extremely powerful attack.
Not only that, but the game isn't afraid to throw a difficulty curve your way. I can see some players getting frustrated as they wander into an area they shouldn't, only to be bombarded by a monster 30 levels higher than them, but this is a much better alternative to gating off content (some are blocked off, but this seemed more due to early access, rather than hand-holding). Monster Crown trusts you to make stupid mistakes and ignore the good advice it gives you.
Your quest involves traveling across the different Kingdoms -- named after values such as Charity, and Humanism -- and visiting its Kings. However, your journey is interrupted by the anime-esque villain Beth who, uh... tortures you, only for you to be saved by the friendly David. It's a bit of a tonal shift compared to the cutesy aesthetic, and given the description of the story being "dark" and "cruel", it's an issue that may be hard to avoid in the future. At the very least, however, the characters we're introduced to are interesting enough to propel your forward, so hopefully, the story will flow more smoothly going forward.
While the overarching story had the initial tonal bump, Monster Crown's charm is found in its side NPCs. Whereas Pokémon's NPCs are generally used to dish out gameplay advice to the player, here they breathe life into the towns you come across. In the first settlement, an elderly man reminisces about his life, and workers dispute with a local fat cat. As you leave town, you can stumble across a farmer who tells you about a tragedy that hit his family years ago. The more of this in the final version, the better. The world of Monster Crown feels very lived in through these interactions.
This isn't all to say that the more adult approach doesn't work. In fact, it's quite impressive how being called a "little shit" by the obligatory enemy organization didn't feel jarring. Sure, a Game Boy Game for grown-ups won't be easy to write, but some interactions in the game prove it can be done. It's just about making these darker aspects warranted for the scenes they're in.
Far from being a cynical nostalgia trip, Monster Crown's Game Boy inspirations are used as a starting point to forge its own path. Its story, characters, and atmosphere set it apart from its muses, and with the full-game said to have a story that can be altered by player choices, this is highly recommended to any childhood RPG fan that wants a game that has grown up alongside you.
Outside of some teething issues with an un-exciting early-game, and very occasionally jarring tone, Monster Crown is finding its own feet well and walks the fine line between being a Pokémon love letter, and a charm-filled RPG on its own merits. This will no doubt be a difficult balancing act, but right now, there's little reason to believe that it will fall.
TechRaptor previewed Monster Crown on PC using a copy provided by the publisher. The game is set to release in the next 6 to 12 months.