Review – Monark
From the first trailer, something was truly captivating about Monark. Perhaps it was the close resemblance to another FuRyu production – The Caligula Effect. When I last covered that one, there was an avalanche of praise heaved towards the excellent soundtrack. The music was utterly fantastic, so in my head, that must apply here, too. Well, thanks to the many teases from NIS America, it seems that an ear orgasm was in my future. There’s also an English dub, thrilling my uncultured ass. What little I’ve heard up to this point has been decent, but, as we all know, trailers are just the Hor D’oeuvres before the deliciousness found in the main course. Upon booting up the game, one of the initial screens asks me to choose a difficulty. There’s a lack of variety to the choices, begging the question, is this a sign of things to come?
Before beginning, the game prompts me to name the Protagonist to manifest a personal connection. So going forward, that’s how I’m going to be referring to him. With formalities out of the way – allow me to introduce Lucius Locke. Since he’s a main character, he suffers from the gravest of illnesses ravaging the JRPG sphere – Amnesia. Not only is he afflicted by that, but like so many before him, he’s mute, too. That’s a cliche that’s been successful on countless occasions in the past, but sadly, this isn’t one. The justification for that is every NPC has an incessant need to address him. Unlike the others, he also has dialogue choices. Although, some only possess one possible reply. It makes it seem like, perhaps, he was meant to have a voice. For some discernible reason, though, it was opted against, negatively affecting the narrative.
I believe JRPGs should hunger to envelop players in a bubble of immersion. Unfortunately, due to allies consistently talking to Lucius, there’s several awkward silences. As they’d inquire for his feedback on events, he’d give them blank stares and miming lip motions. Afterwards, the discussion just carries on normally, begging me to wonder, once again, where his voice went. The way it’s structured now comes across as choppy. When compared to the people I’d recruit throughout the journey, Lucius lacks any shred of personality – he’s as bland as it gets. Don’t get me wrong, the majority of folks won’t give a damn about this, but for any straight-up literary dork, it’s enough to pull you out of the world. To help further solidify my stance, emotional scenes starring him had no impact. I could never empathize with his strife.
Monark’s plot is a fascinating one and it has no qualms with exploring the dark sides of literature. There’s several scenarios that aren’t off-limits, including bullying, murder, and more. Since cognition is a big point, personal anguish is aplenty. All the subliminal threads that went into fleshing out the mystery left me giddy. Each villain was a journey to eradicate their trauma, and a metaphor for defeating that inner anguish. Most importantly, the revelations made contextual sense and felt linked. One thing I did miss, however, is the banter. Well, during the main storyline, anyway. I’m baffled that a handful of charming interactions and personality showcases are hidden in an isolated area. I sat there in-between quests, intently listening to the back and forth, periodically grinning at the sassiness.
My favourite exchanges were any that included Kokoro. She’s a laid back girl with a sharp tongue. I was chuckling at her antics and her insistence of dressing a certain male in her clothing. That matter-of-fact cadence was tickling my funny bone. Vanitas was another to impress me, thanks to his speech pattern. It’s the distinctiveness of continually speaking in constant rhyme that helped elevate him into something memorable. His ability to capture my imagination makes sure I’m thinking about Monark long after moving on. Finally, Chiyo Aiwawa is the perfect encapsulation of a middle schooler – sweet, naive, and innocent. Her exchanges with the others were always silly. Her childlike curiosities made her the catalyst of the random banter that happens in the hub. She’s the only one that I managed to grow attached to.
Monark offers a unique perspective on JRPGs, striving to modify our perception of the genre. Dungeons are an afterthought, with the adventure taking place solely within Shin Mikado Academy. Exploration is limited, never roaming into the depths of dreary caves. Instead, puzzles are the central mechanic used to push the game forward – the execution of which is hot and cold. At times, they’re rather clever, having me scavenge for well-described clues to reach the solution. Even then, though, they were quite concise and eventually solvable. It encouraged me to think outside the box while, at the same time, being critical. The sense of accomplishment that came over me as I figured out the answers was a refreshing one, despite the slightly bumpy road to get there.
Of course, as they say, not all puzzles are built to be equal. I recognize that there’s a disdain for hand-holding as it cheapens potential challenges. FuRyu and Lancarse do as well, making sure that Monark remains a tough-as-nails brain-teaser. The problem is, in doing that, some become a detriment, tarnishing the experience. There were puzzles so cryptic in nature that I was about to outright quit due to unadulterated tedium. Regardless, it’s dreadfully easy to misinterpret clues. An example is a woman that’s forgotten her children’s names. When prompted to guess, my instinct is inputting two possibilities at once. After all, she inquires, verbatim, what are the names of her children. The wording is ambiguous, leaving ample space to misconstrue information. Regrettably, that cryptic nonsense carries into future conundrums.
Puzzles have a crazy range of being agonizingly easy to hair-rippingly hard. Then there’s some that are so simple that their resolution is accidentally found. One time, as I was about to dive into critical thought, my controller began vibrating, signalling that the goal is nearby. Upon feeling that, the hints I accumulated to that point became redundant – I’d merely followed the shake.
On the other hand, some require very specific trivia knowledge or even the usage of a search engine on my phone. I acknowledge the want to blur the lines in a meta manner, but the implementation is an utter slog. Hell, one puzzle was so badly telegraphed, I had to message NIS America for help. Look, I appreciate the challenge, but when it’s this damn enigmatic, I’m not feeling enthused to figure it out. Video games shouldn’t be arduous, but, at times, Monark is exactly that.
It’s disheartening to know that the puzzle cog of this machine has a couple of chinks because the combat is the opposite. Battles are contested under turn-based rules, although not in the traditional sense you’d expect. Characters can traverse freely within a boundary as opposed to standing in a row. In that same vein, techniques work similarly; only their boundaries indicate target area. It’s pretty standard, to be sure, but it blossoms soon after, thanks to a nifty ranking system. It single-handedly transforms this run-of-the-mill romp into an amusing affair. To earn an S-rank is to maximize rewards, and to do so, a couple of tactics are considered. For starters, critical hits contribute positively, while death is negative. The real bread and butter, though, are maneuvers unique to Monark.
Assists, Resonations, and Deferrals are all things that go on to add a solid layer of strategy. The effects are as follows:
- Assists – As the name suggests, these allow an ally to strike down an enemy too. It isn’t a specialized technique and is, instead, a generalized melee attack from each respective individual. The catch is that they have to also be within range. In other words, those using swords must be standing next to the enemy to help, while those armed with guns can be further.
- Deferrals – The quintessential tactic of the bunch. Essentially, it allows characters to transfer their turn. This is most useful if one’s damage output is minuscule compared to another. Alternatively, if they are outside attack range but someone is within theirs, switching optimizes the damage inflicted, thus speeding up combat.
- Resonations – Lucius can take on status buffs, debuffs, and whatever ailment an ally is afflicted by. He can also take on Madness or Awakening without building either up. It’s important to note that he’s the only one that can use the skill known as “Resonance.”
That Madness mechanic is attractive on paper, but in practice, it flounders. You see, typically, skills are tied directly to magical points that are expended before usage. Well, Monark takes a different approach and demands the sacrifice of health or sanity. The latter condition is responsible for facilitating one’s Madness and, by proxy, gets dangerous. As 100% is attained, characters are thrust into a berserk-like state and start blindly massacring everything.
Since ability costs are initially an arm and a leg, reaching that breaking point isn’t challenging to do. If that isn’t enough, after three go arounds, the insane explode, dying instantly. In a title that ties game overs to the protagonist’s demise, this feels counterintuitive. Hell, there were several times I’d inadvertently spark Lucius’ mania as I lost myself in the heat of battle, effectively turning him into a time bomb.
On the flip side, that Awakening mechanic is unlike its counterpart, in that physical attacks are conducive to bolstering it. Getting it to max allows a super ability used. Honestly, there’s nothing conceptually wrong with it. The part that’s bothersome is triggering both simultaneously for Enlightenment. The sheer amount of RNG involved is mind-numbing. To complicate matters, if Awakened, becoming insane is impossible. So, to be Enlightened, a character must first lose all grip of reality.
Because of that, it’s a coin toss as to whether it works out or not. Despite my best efforts, I watched helplessly as things turned sour and Lucius was murdered. As is, it’s too reliant on chance and it discourages folks away. Hell, I even forewent trying to utilize it. The issue of doing so is a few abilities are tied to being Enlightened, meaning I would miss out on some as a consequence.
Armaments in Monark are an anomaly because every character you recruit can’t wear any. Instead, as the game plays out, fiends that correlate with a deadly sin join. These are important because usually, only one human is with you at a time. These lifeless beings act as fill-ins for the other open slots.They are also free to be customized, with facial shape, hairstyle, voice, and more to choose. No equipment is purchased, only ever being dropped by enemies. As such, expect to accrue a wealth of options. Because no merchants mean no selling, extras can be melted down to earn points that contribute to The Spirit System. I love this mechanic; not only does it level characters, but it also teaches new techniques. It’s essentially a skill tree. My only gripe is that the cost gets astronomical, so it’s a good thing grinding is enjoyable.
Monark sports a relatively conservative graphical fidelity, resembling visuals on par with the PS3. Models are decently done with great detail, but, at times, with evident anti-aliasing. I do suggest an OLED screen to get the full effect of vibrant colours, as, without it, everything looks both drab and muddy. Environments are generic by JRPGs standards but, what’s here, is still serviceable. Most NPCs appear in inconspicuous places, like they were haphazardly put into random positions. Animations are good, though, with those that occur during special attacks exceptionally well-done. Although, in general, a few come off as stiff. Cutscenes are sporadic, but when they occur, there are tiny intervals of stuttering that, while not nausea-inducing, is obvious. I did notice slight frame drops while walking around, but never a hindrance.
The question I’m sure has been titillating the tips of tongues is if my uncultured self was pleased with the English dub. It’s a bit of column A and a bit of column B. It’s crystal clear that the voice actors had a direction, but that seems to have come with a caveat – subdue performances. That’s by no means a commentary on quality. It’s just pointing out that there are specific lines that could have used better inflection. I’d like to note that, in the first few hours, Nozomi Hinata also sounded rigid. It was like she was still trying to find her stride because it did improve. All in all, the dub’s serviceable, with Chiyo Aikawa, again, being MVP of the whole damn show. Massive shoutout to the others as they, too, had a few moments of brilliance.
For anyone wondering, I was on the money when it comes to the score, especially with boss themes – the mixture of vocals and hard-hitting beats made for an exhilarating battle. There’s a vast buffet of genres on show from hip hop, that 90’s pop, and the soft docile musings of piano strings. The foot-tapping went awry, and I was enjoying every minute. It’s devastating that they only sound off during one fight and never again. I would rather them get a spotlight because, as is, the general battle music is painfully plain. The big reason is most tracks are noticeably compressed, suffocating the bass. However, those specific to boss fights have a smidge more oomph. I can ascertain a smattering of inspirations extending Final Fantasy to the 16-bit era is evident. The boss themes, though.
Monark is an ambitious JRPG with innovation at the forefront. It aims to revolutionize the tried and true formula by replacing dungeons with puzzles. In doing that, however, it limits the appeal by targeting a niche audience within an already niche style. Still, there’s excitement here, and I felt a rush of dopamine shoot through my body each time I finished a puzzle. I have to question some decisions, though, like the lopsided structure of dialogue placement. The most important one, though, is how there are a handful of puzzles that require some real-world sleuthing to solve. I applaud the outside-the-box thinking, but for a video game, that isn’t an attractive feature. Of course, to address the elephant in the room, there are a few parallels to Persona since cognition plays a role. Apart from that, Monark is its own game, and one that’s best bought at a discount.
Nothing about the visuals look horrible. The score is more reflective of how uninspired the environments are. Character portraits are great but the blurry state of the actual models isn’t.
There was a huge risk taken when it comes to gameplay. Eliminating dungeons and replacing it with puzzles is a gutsy move. For the most part, it works, but there’s some that are way too cryptic.
WHY ARE THOSE TRACKS WITH VOCALS ONLY FOR BOSSES!?
I loved combat and working on the skill tree. The story is intriguing and I wanted to push on. The fun tanked when puzzles were ambiguous. I wanted to quit and was tempted to move on. Once I figured it out, though, the fun picks up.
Final Verdict: 7.5
Monark is available now on PS4, PC and Switch.
Reviewed on Switch.
A copy of Monark was provided by the publisher.