Needs to Go Back in the Oven
HIGH Dying on a boss near the end of the game, causing me to actually wake up and focus.
LOW Encountering a defect in the evolution system that blocked my progress and caused me to give up on it.
WTF Seriously, if you max out the xp on a form, you can no longer unlock any forms that branch from it? What sense does that make?!
Monster Tale's big hook is that it is a mash-up of adventure platforming and pet-raising simulation—in other words, it's Metroid meets Pokémon (as Richard fittingly noted in his review). Genre blends are a funny breed. I imagine their inception usually begins with a thought like "Wouldn't it be cool if we mixed X with Y?", and the variables are filled by a Mad Libs style brainstorm or by drawing randomly out of a hat. It sounds like a fun way of creating new ideas. Wouldn't it be cool if we mixed pinball with real-time strategy (Odama), or how about arcade action with role-playing elements (The Legend of Zelda)? The hybrid offspring could be a bastard mutt or a completely fresh pedigree. Which one depends not only on how well each individual component is executed, but on how those components interact with each other to create new gameplay. While it may seem easy to generate novel concepts by using this approach, it is also a risk because the developer has to follow through on multiple gameplay mechanics and make them work together. Unfortunately, this task proved to be too much for DreamRift.
The game begins when a young girl named Ellie finds a magic wristband that teleports her to a mysterious land of monsters. On arrival she stumbles upon an egg that hatches into a cute and cuddly monster whom she names "Chomp." Soon she discovers that the land has been taken over by the Kid Kings, a group of children who rule over various regions by enslaving the monsters. It's up to Ellie and her new pal Chomp to free the monsters and find a way for her to return home.
The player controls Ellie on the DS's top screen, where the main action takes place. On the bottom screen is Chomp's home base: the Pet Sanctuary. At any time Ellie can summon Chomp up to the top screen to help out in combat or occasionally remove obstacles. Ellie can let Chomp wander and fight enemies freely, or command him to perform various special moves. Chomp has a stamina bar that depletes when he uses a special ability or when he takes damage. Ellie can send Chomp back to the Pet Sanctuary to recover stamina, eat food, and use items. This seamless pet help is a genuinely intriguing and innovative idea. However, great ideas need equally great execution, and DreamRift fell short on this effort.
For starters, the game's evolution system is poorly fleshed out. As Chomp battles and eats food, he earns experience points and can evolve into different forms, each with its own unique skill. Disappointingly, I found most of these abilities to be pointless or redundant in combat. For example, there are at least three forms that allow Chomp to shoot a spread of projectiles, each with slight variations such as bouncing off walls or homing on enemies. While these differences sound legitimate, in practice the forms are all more or less equally effective. For the most part I used the same two abilities throughout the entire game because almost nothing I obtained afterward seemed as useful. It would have been much better if—like the wave beam and ice beam in the original Metroid—each power-up significantly changed how the player approached combat and traversal. Instead of this smaller number of interesting choices, however, Monster Tale offers a smorgasbord of superfluous ones.
Ellie herself gets a regular dose of upgrades, but the only real purpose the vast majority of them serve is to give access to new areas. For example, I never found good cause to use the "Super Wave" ability, which lets Ellie fire a continuous stream of shots—much less the "Air Super Wave," which lets her do the Super Wave while in the air. It doesn't help that there are doors secured by very contrived locking mechanisms that can only be opened by a specific ability. I got the clear impression that her upgrades were designed more for unlocking these doors than for actual combat.
This obvious gating highlighted the fact that the game's level design is far too linear. Fans of Metroid may recall that the player could defeat the two main bosses in any order before completing the game. There were also countless side paths and loops, almost every one of which gave some sort of useful reward. These design characteristics provided a lot of replay value and motivation to explore. In contrast, there is never any opportunity in Monster Tale to deviate from the current goal. The game requires the player to defeat all of the Kid Kings and acquire the power-ups in one and only one order. There is not much motivation to seek alternate routes, either, as there are very few side paths and the hidden rewards are sparse. These issues are exacerbated by the large amount of backtracking that is required.
While I managed to avoid the lengthy money grind that Richard experienced, I did encounter a headache of my own. Each form in Chomp's evolutionary tree has its own experience level. Unlocking new forms, though, involves performing certain actions while using one he's already unlocked. These actions fill a separate bar that tracks progress toward unlocking the new form. Near the end of the game I discovered that leveling one of Chomp's forms to the max level stopped him from making progress toward unlocking any forms that branched from it. This meant that my evolutionary progress from that form was completely blocked! I still can't decide if this was a bug or not because I can't imagine it being intended behavior, but I'm baffled as to how it got through testing. Regardless, the incident was the final straw that made me abandon the evolution system altogether.
Despite all of the problems I had with Monster Tale, it is a well-presented game that might have been much more successful if it wasn't so incredibly easy. As it stands, the game is a straightforward, bland affair with a lot of meaningless complexities that aren't justified by the challenges presented. The original idea of combining adventure platforming with a pet-raising simulation had tons of promise. It is too bad that DreamRift never capitalized on that potential.
—by Joseph Boyd
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the DS. Approximately 11 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time).