MONARK is tipped to be the latest standout title published by Nippon Ichi Software. With some tried and tested talent on the development team, will it be the King of the genre or the Ruler of false hope?
All Hail, The King of Kings
MONARK starts you as any modern-day JRPG tends to do – stood in a school hallway with amnesia in the middle of some kind of supernatural event. You’re soon entered into an unwinnable battle before a mysterious lady hints that you are involved in the recent phenomena that have plagued this school.
Surrounded by mist you’re saved by a party involving your sister, the ex-student president, and the school doctor. It’s your usual rag-tag band of misfits for a JRPG. With you heading it up as its amnesiac leader, you should know exactly what you’re getting into.
As it turns out you’re trapped in the school. Mysterious events are happening throughout the campus and it’s tied to this mist; students are wandering in and coming back out insane.
To top matters off the current student president seems to have a god complex and students have formed a cult around him. It’s puzzling that this is happening to a guy who seemed to be a bit of a nobody prior.
After introductions to the cast, you meet the mysterious Vanitas, part rabbit cuddly toy, part force of the underworld, and part rhyming lyricist. He explains that you’re a Pactbarer, someone capable of manipulating people through crystals called Pacts that tie into the mystery of the mist.
The Pactbarers are all themed around the 7 Deadly Sins. Your character naturally isn’t based on one though and is the Pactbarer of Vanity making you an anomaly.
MONARK is chapter-based and almost like a T.V series in its approach; Each chapter follows a smaller narrative based around a Pactbarer, their motive, and a party member that joins you for it.
While there is a much broader narrative, the smaller condensed stories are given a lot of time to shine and allow for plenty of character development – something essential when the story relies on human emotions.
Quite a quirky aspect of your character building is that you’ll often be asked personality questions. I.E what you would do in a certain situation.
Your answer will build how much you lean into a certain sin such as Gluttony or Anger; this plays into a gameplay aspect but it’s also incredibly thought-provoking when you read exactly why you got that result.
As a nice extra, each student you come across has a biography. These are tucked away in a menu and can be accessed at any time, much like in The Caligula Effect. It goes a great distance to make the NPCs feel a little more fleshed out.
The Lord of Darkness
Now I’m a firm believer in not spoiling too much of the story but I will say that there is some tough subject matter to be experienced here.
One section actually brought me to a physical halt, as I witnessed mass suicide without prompt. Coupled with the atmosphere, when MONARK wants to go hard, it goes dark.
It’s no secret that some of the staff that worked on MONARK also worked on early Shin Megami Tensei titles and their influence in the writing just soaks through. The story leans heavily into the occult and also human desires i.e acknowledgment, lust, and so on. It’s a gripping story, but at times quite distressing.
The gameplay in MONARK can be easily split up into two clear sections. One is world exploration and the other one is combat.
Exploration is quite basic for the genre. You’ll wander around the school grounds, controlling the protagonist with a 3rd-person view. You’ll speak to NPCs, collect items and find files to read, it’s basic but it gets the job done.
While the game doesn’t have dungeons, there are areas covered in MIST. If you spend too long in these or get “influenced” by other students a MAD meter rises. Once this hits 100%, you’ll blackout and return to the doctor’s room. This makes time and planning essential.
Another thing that can happen in these areas is you’ll get a “death call”. These rapidly speed up your meter and the only way to deal with them is to beat that section’s “Pact” or accept the call; this results in end-game level enemies stomping you down.
The puzzles in MONARK range from quite obvious to nearly painfully obtuse. One around Chapter 2 had me stumped for a good few hours – we are talking Silent Hill’s piano puzzle level of “What do I do?”.
Knight takes King
The combat in MONARK is done in a Strategy RPG style. This surprised me – I assumed would be a traditional turn-based format. You jump into battle every time you accept a Death Call or you find the mountain of phones which serve as a link to that area’s “Pact” left by the pesky Pactbearer.
You are shown an overview of the map, enemy locations, your starting positions, any stage hazards, and the battle difficulty. You’ll then place your units which usually consist of you, another Pactbearer, and the dolls you control and act as your grunt units, it’s then off to battle.
As mentioned, you are given Dolls whenever you best a Pactbearer. These are essentially your summons for the game and are highly customizable. You’ll be counting on them big time, as this game has that lovely feature than when your Main Character dies, it’s game over!
You have full 360-movement in your turn and it follows the style of you taking your turn, then the enemy takes theirs, so on and so forth. You are clearly shown the area you can move in and also the area your attacks or spells will affect.
Attacks can either be free or cost your HP. Magic attacks and abilities will drain your MAD meter. On top of that, you have a third meter called Resolve which can be built up by your human heroes using a power, then unleashed to make your attacks hit harder, to trigger even more powerful attacks and enemy attacks to hurt you less
There is also somewhat of a baton pass technique in which you can transfer your character’s turn to another character. This causes the target character to get another go but at the expense of a chunk of madness.
Some stages will have hazards such as poison pits, breakable walls, and health pools. Using your abilities to maneuver the field well is key. Along with this, you can tactically pair units together for support attacks, and attack from the rear as much as possible for massive damage.
While the combat isn’t terrible, much like the exploration it just stinks of average, despite various unique terms to remember for basic functions. The effects are kind of dull too. It really doesn’t have any impact when attacking, and despite the ability to speed things up it still feels insanely slow. It just feels overly convoluted for frankly no reason.
The combat is very reminiscent of another title by the Developers called Lost Dimension. This was a similar style of game, but weirdly the combat almost feels like it’s not developed any further since that game was released on the Vita many, many moons ago.
Lord of the Catwalk
Much like the gameplay, MONARK’s presentation manages to excel in some places strongly, yet still falls in others. This creates a real feeling of inconsistency which is a shame as the production value is easily the strongest aspect of the game outside of the writing.
The art is fantastic. It was always a joy when you’d meet a character significant to the plot and you would get their character art on a stylish splash screen. The intro as well is a joy to watch as it combines obscure art with quite upbeat sounding J-Pop.
The art direction is unfortunately held back by the Vita level graphics powering the game. The complete lack of anything other than basic character animation, and the painfully generic character designs for the enemies stand out. Your hero cast looks fine, but there’s nothing really stylish or that matches the stationary art that shines through from time to time.
Another aspect I feel I need to point out was that the in-game cutscenes were painfully compressed; they looked pixelated and horrid and were also out of sync and riddled with screen tearing. If I wasn’t so invested in the story I would have skipped them altogether. This may be fixed by a day 1 patch or be exclusive to the Nintendo Switch – initial investigation hints that it doesn’t occur on the PlayStation version, but we cannot confirm this.
The music in MONARK manages to be an eclectic mix of J-Pop, ambient sound, orchestrated, and even a little bit of rock. The sound effects are spot on and in the MIST sections the ambient sound, mixed with the unsettling visuals creates a lot of tension. Unfortunately as is a theme with this game, it’s marred by some questionable voice acting. While not every character is a stinker, the doctor sounds like a budget Steve Blum and the sister character would have been easier to listen to if her vocals just consisted of nails on a chalkboard!
MONARK is one of those games that had everything in place for it to be something special and unfortunately either a lack of experience or budget absolutely crucifies it. Uninspired gameplay and poor graphics spend their time battling an amazing narrative and well-crafted atmosphere.
You can see where the influences came from and the presentation of the game has some great aspects. But when it comes to the actual video game section of MONARK, you find it’s just middle of the road.
WAIT FOR SALE ON MONARK
Many thanks go to NIS America for a Nintendo Switch review code for this title.
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