It has been said that roguelikes and roguelites are the new arcade experiences, offering short gameplay loops that encourage repeated attempts and eventual mastery. This is one type of arcade game, but Monsters and Monocles recalls another that has been less prominent in recent years. This steampunk top-down shooter draws from Gauntlet and Konami beat 'em ups, bringing multiplayer mayhem into the mix and relying more on mechanics than progression. This mix could be a great counterbalance to the Isaacs of the world, but the Early Access version going up today has a bit of work to do before it reaches those heights.
Monsters and Monocles features two things that I love unconditionally in games. It has highly detailed pixel art and a strict adherence to its arcade aesthetic. I've seen screenshots of the game floating around Twitter for a long while and seeing the game in motion doesn't disappoint in the slightest. Enemies bob up and down joyfully, the player select screen is straight out of The Simpsons, and attack and death explosions are lovingly crafted frame by frame. The four player characters are actually a bit less detailed than most of the foes they'll face, which is a change from the norm, but that doesn't impede this game's style in the least.
That style is what I love about Monsters and Monocles, and what gives me hope for the game's future. However, grabbing the controller and playing the game can be deflating after taking in all the flair. After picking a location to travel to, you are dropped into a maze of rooms and given an objective. This usually tells you to kill a certain number of monsters, kill a handful of elite monsters, or to just survive on your way to the exit. Along the way, you'll collect coins, new guns, and various stat boosts, although I never found anything that drastically altered the gameplay.
For all the focus on the fantastical, the game has a few features that unfortunately bend more towards realism. I was drawn to bigger guns like the spreadshot and stake launcher due to their stopping power, but none of the weapons I picked up were truly out of the ordinary. There weren't any lasers or unique steampunk gadgetry, and I couldn't even find a flamethrower despite what the screenshots led me to believe. As I used bigger guns, I noticed that my character didn't feel particularly weighty, and I was constantly bounced around by enemy attacks and my own gun's kickback.
The game also considers the many pots and crates dotting the levels to be solid objects, meaning you have to pay attention to what you're running into in addition to where you're shooting. Compare this system to Enter the Gungeon, where there were just as many crates lying around, but you could just run through them, leaving the player to focus on the shooting they came for. In this game, it's entirely possible to get bounced into a wall and then wedged between decorations and a wall of bullets. Considering that many sections devolve into light bullet hell, this lack of precise control can be frustrating.
Even if you're using a handgun that doesn't throw you across the room as you fire a shot, mowing down enemies can sometimes be tedious. Monsters tend to stay put in the room they start in unless you kite them out towards you. So, if you have the right weapon, you can generally hang near a room's entrance and keep firing until all the enemies are defeated. That's fine for weaker opponents, but some of the bigger adversaries are real bullet sponges, and the biggest ones tend to spawn smaller versions of themselves as they take damage. Watching a parade of enemies spawn into a hail of bullets while you're standing still really kills any momentum a run had built.
Of course, most of these issues are mitigated by playing with friends via the robust co-op system, and that is probably the way to go if you're planning on playing in the near future. Running around with my roommate made the hordes die a bit faster, and it was only with a partner that I was able to conquer the end bosses for each of the three stages currently available. After you accomplish that, levels immediately restart with harder challenges and better rewards, but none of that felt like a draw to keep going.
There are plenty of little things holding the current version of Monsters and Monocles back from its goals. The perk system is obscured and filled with nothing but boring stat upgrades. The weapon selection isn't varied enough, leading to players finding a favorite gun and sticking with it throughout. Playing the game in single player seems unbalanced at best and a slog at worst. The graphics and style are the draw at the moment, and I hope that the folks at Retro Dreamer can use Early Access to tweak the gameplay and up the variety enough to make for an arcade classic come final release.
Monsters and Monocles was previewed on PC via Steam Early Access with a code provided by the developer.