Metroid Meets Pokémon
HIGH The theme song in the Treehouse Grotto.
LOW The late-game money fetch quest that sticks out as padded play time.
WTF Why is the giant rabbit named Lobster?
Metroidvania. Castleoid. These terms are used to describe a certain breed of platformer popularized by Metroid and Castlevania. Oftentimes they're used in a derogatory sense when the game in question is reliant on ancient ideas like backtracking, save points, and pure ability-based progression. However, sometimes a little throwback just works. After all, every creative work ever made has built on the ones that came before it, and DreamRift's Monster Tale is no exception. What sets it apart from being a mere clone is the addition of a very unique Pokémon-like pet sim. Sound strange? I thought so too, at first.
Monster Tale follows a young girl named Ellie who is suddenly swept into a world of monsters, and soon befriends an seemingly abandoned hatchling that she names Chomp. Together they must free the world's monsters from their human overlords in order to find a way for Ellie to get back home.
The player controls Ellie while Chomp tags along behind her. As Ellie progresses through the game, she gains many abilities that allow her to access new areas-hence the term "ability-based progression." Ellie eventually picks up all manner of standard video game powers, including melee combos, flying melee combos, ranged shots, charged ranged shots, rapid fire shots, etc. In other words, it's a system most gamers will be intimately familiar with. Now if that was all that the player was given to work with, we would indeed have another knockoff on our hands. A decent knockoff, but a knockoff nonetheless.
I'm glad to say that Monster Tale is far from a knockoff.
The gameplay relationship between Ellie and Chomp distinguishes it from just another Metroid mockup, creating a remarkable fusion of platforming and monster training sim mechanics. Chomp faithfully follows Ellie, sometimes clearing enemies for her or taking down obstacles. Ellie can let Chomp attack on his own or issue direct commands to use his powers. As Chomp levels up by either fighting or eating food, he learns new powers and eventually entirely new forms of his own. Chomp's powers range from quick projectile attacks, to powerful melee hits, to pure defensive abilities, so outfitting him with an eye towards strategy is critical.
However, Chomp is not invincible. He can only stay in battle for so long before he has to retreat, and using his powers depletes his health even further. When his health gets low he has to head back to the pet sanctuary, which takes up the DS's bottom screen. Any items/food Ellie collects for Chomp are also deposited here, and he must be sent down in order to use them. The DS's unique capabilities are put to great use here, as the intricacy of swapping out Chomp's powers as needed and choosing when to send him up or down is the most important thing that elevates Monster Tale above its platforming brethren.
Despite her own powers Ellie can be quite vulnerable without Chomp, so figuring out the right time to send Chomp down to the sanctuary is a constant tactical challenge. This really comes into play during some of the harder battles, as watching for an opening to allow Chomp a reprieve is as important as keeping Ellie out of harm's way. Combine this with all of Chomp's different powers and their various usefulness and we've got a nice little game within our game. Or...maybe a game alongside the game? Either way, it's there and it's good.
In a way, Monster Tale is similar to Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale, in that two vastly different gameplay mechanics have been merged successfully into one experience. Such a finely done fusion is a rare treat. And like Reccetear, all of this is wrapped up in a very aesthetically pleasing package. The monster worlds are lush, vibrant, and varied enough to be memorable. The soundtrack is also fantastic, coming off as a mix of Metroid-style tunes mixed with some Mega Man attitude. However, while the game world looks and sounds great, it doesn't have as much depth to it as I'd like. Ellie is a perfectly charming protagonist, but more personal development between her and Chomp would have been nice.
There are also times where Monster Tale's throwback habits poke through. The backtracking in particular can be a problem, as there were several instances when I felt like I was backtracking simply for the sake of doing so, especially when the only thing I was being sent to do was pick up some new power that was only useful for opening doors or unlocking an otherwise blocked area. Enemies respawned whenever I exited and re-entered a room, so this got very tedious in some places.
However, the worst moment was when I was asked to gather a set amount of money to access a boss chamber. The needed amount was about three times what I had on me, so I had to go on a pretty lengthy grindfest to get the money. This came off as a blatant attempt to pad play time and a glaringly bad design decision. Thankfully, this is done only once and it isn't long enough to damage the game as a whole.
Monster Tale introduces a deep, satisfying facet of gameplay into one of the most tried and true formulas in gaming history. There are parts where it feels like it's a slave to the ancient ways of backtracking and suspiciously-placed save points, but none of the sore spots are pronounced enough to cause any serious problems. In fact, Monster Tale served as a very strong reminder of why I started loving games in the first place.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the DS. Approximately 9 hours of play was devoted to completing the single-player mode once. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains mild cartoon violence. Nothing to worry about here. No gore to speak of, and the message is a positive one about being unselfish. A great game for the young ones.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: There are very few instances of spoken lines, and none of them are relevant to gameplay. Everything else in conveyed through text.