Some developers bite off more than they can chew, and Monster Sanctuary by Mo Rai Games is one of those cases. Its lead dev, Denis Sinner, has been making games – both amateur and professional – since 2001, and worked on titles such as Might and Magic and Tropico. Having played Monster Sanctuary, this makes perfect sense – he’s clearly a numbers man. And to his credit, he does numbers very well. Unfortunately, everything else about this monster hatching simulator is bafflingly poorly put together.
Story – On par with Pokémon (Not a compliment)
At some point, hundreds of years ago, the Monster Sanctuary was created, which was sealed off from the rest of the land. Somehow, it’s not explained how. Since Alchemy in the “Old World” was outlawed (for some reason), Alchemists found refuge in the Sanctuary. While the Alchemists tried to convince the Monster Keepers (“Trainers”) to wage war against the outside world, the Keepers refused.
Now a new order of Alchemists has formed, and they’re causing trouble. More and more so-called Champion Monsters are appearing. These are especially powerful monsters that… well, they don’t do anything, they just kind of sit there, but the game swears they are a problem!
Enter the Hero, who looks roughly the same as all NPCs and has slightly less personality. I promise you won’t find a single original character here. You’ve met your three rivals before: Book smart coward Will, nice girl Julia, arrogant douche Leonard, nothing to see here, really. The only other characters with any sort of drive are the bad guys. They want to take over the world and… *Falls asleep, snoring loudly*
*Jolts awake* Where was I? Oh yeah, I was done explaining the entire history of that world.
Monster Sanctuary combines poorly developed lore with all the worst clichés, faux pas, and other French words. There are so many plot twists that fall hilariously flat. And I mean it, I legitimately laughed loudly and mockingly at the story’s attempts to surprise me.
I will spoil a few right now; there is enjoyable monster combat to be found here, but the story is not a draw for this title. Okay, so, one of the Alchemists turns out to be Leonard’s older brother. Before this reveal Leonard has never mentioned an older brother before, making the reveal completely meaningless.
One of the characters at the Monster Keeper Stronghold turns out to have been an Alchemist this whole time. Because Alchemists can assume somebody else’s identity perfectly – appearance, voice, mannerisms – somehow, and nobody notices for years. No one has brought up this ability before, and no one brings it up after that. Why are the Alchemists wearing masks if they can take any form they want?
If the Alchemists can turn monsters into Champions, why don’t they do that to their own monsters? Instead of powering up isolated beasts in semi-random locations, why not create a single, insurmountable wall of Champions in a choke point? How are these scientists this stupid?
As much as I enjoy trashing the sub-amateur story-telling, I should move on.
Gameplay – It’s not that original
A major selling point for this title is the “unique” combination of monster breeding and Metroidvania exploration. Using both player upgrades and monster abilities to navigate an increasingly large world will immediately resonate with many players, and it’s easy to give the developers too much credit for this premise.
Monster Sanctuary does not get any bonus points from me, however, since all Pokémon games are already Metroidvanias. All you do in those games is acquiring new items and collecting new pets, occasionally backtracking to explore old areas with new tools. Just replace the bicycle with a Double Jump and HM Surf with the Swim ability. It’s the same thing. I won’t hold this against the game, but I figured I should explain why I’m not praising it for recycling a nearly 25-year-old formula.
The Monster Combat – Endless Possibilities
This is definitely the strongest aspect of Monster Sanctuary. There are a total of 101 monsters to collect. Their designs range from “Oh it’s a rip-off of a cooler monster in a different series” to “Oh, it is a Wolf called Wolf”. But let’s go back to being nice for a minute.
Monsters are much more customizable than the ones in other series. Instead of being able to memorize only four attacks, they each come with several skill trees and more possible abilities than they can learn at max level. There’s a lot of overlap in the unlockables available, but from what I could tell, no two monsters share even a single identical skill tree. Every level-up earns your familiars another skill point which can then be used to gain useful passives, new attacks, or improved versions of existing ones.
They can then be further shaped to your liking with equipment (one weapon, three accessories), which gives flat stat improvements and in some cases passive abilities. Monsters also benefit from the three most recent food items they ate, each one slightly buffing different attributes.
Finally, monsters can be Light- or Dark-shifted. This grants altered stats and a potent passive skill. The exact effects of doing so will depend on the species of monster. Usually, Light-shifted monsters are better at supporting allies, while Dark-shifted ones often worsen the debuffs your opponents are inflicted with.
It’s honestly quite impressive to see this level of customization in a monster collecting title. There are more meaningful choices for you to make with each monster than there are in some traditional RPGs.
Battles are 3v3, with teams taking turns performing one action per beastie in any order. The huge variety in skill sets allows monsters to be spec’d into different roles. Depending on your choices, they can excel at supporting, healing, shielding, harassing, tanking or attacking. There is a functionally infinite number of builds to experiment with, making Monster Sanctuary one of the most fleshed-out monster raising games I have ever played (and I’ve played pretty much all of them).
How you actually acquire and train those monsters is a mixed bag, though. You don’t catch them, but get them from rare egg drops after battles. The more efficiently you beat an encounter, the more likely it is to get one. This means you can theoretically spend forever grinding away at the same fight without getting any results, especially if you’re not over-levelled for a particular area.
Once you have an egg, you can instantly hatch it directly from your inventory. The newborn will always be three levels lower than the highest level monster you own. Combine this with the overabundance of Level Badges, this game’s version of Rare Candy, and you can easily skip the grind and get a fresh monster ready for battle right away. This works great all the way up to level 39, as you need a special, rarer Level 40 Badge to complete their training. These can be obtained by having max level (40) monsters collect a certain amount of experience. I love that using your max level buddies doesn’t waste XP, an excellent bit of design here.
Now, I’m bringing all of this up because Monster Sanctuary expects you to have multiple teams of six ready to go. Enemy levels in story critical battles will scale with yours, meaning you can’t just use your six favorites for everything, as you’ll have to take type advantages into account. This is perfectly fine all the way up to the very end of the game. The difficulty curve was on a smooth, satisfying upwards trajectory until it did its best impression of a bus leaving Rock Bottom.
Three out of the final four battles are ridiculously hard and require highly specialized teams to overcome. There’s a stacking buff called Age some monsters can build up – for every stack, damage output is increased by 3% and damage received is reduced by 3%. Combine this with a passive regeneration skill, and you have monsters that simply cannot be defeated by a team not specialized for these exact targets, even when exploiting elemental weaknesses. There are a few of those enemies for you to bash your head against. If your favorite playstyle involves anything that isn’t high-damage Wind attacks you better get some new monsters. Will they be any good once you’ve levelled them up? No idea! But have fun wasting tons of time and resources on a bunch of monsters, most of which will turn out to be completely worthless!
Of course, you don’t get any of the potions used in lost battles back. And to make things worse, the game auto-saves whenever you enter a new room, so don’t fall into that trap! Make sure you quit out of the game without saving as soon as you’re defeated, or you’ll be out of expensive and/or irreplaceable healing items after a few attempts.
I spent roughly 20 hours getting to this point, and another 15 on what was probably supposed to be the final hour of the game. Don’t get me wrong, this degree of challenge would be perfect for post-game content, Dragon-Quest-god-slayer-style, but it’s poison for the pacing of the plot. This level of grinding and trial and error at the very end of the awful story completely kills all momentum and left me frustrated, bored, and generally unfulfilled.
There is a ranked online VS mode, but I waited for minutes several times over the course of five days and never managed to get into a match. I don’t think there’s a way to battle a specific person, which is a feature that should definitely be added.
The Exploration – A poor man’s Metroid
The navigational elements are entirely half-baked. There are exactly two character upgrades, a double jump, and warm underwear. The former is obviously used everywhere; the latter allows you to traverse two cold bodies of water, both contained in one early game area. So one standard, and one throwaway joke – not impressive at all.
The fact you even need to protect yourself from cold water is baffling – everyone can breathe and even talk underwater without any explanation given, but the temperature is the problem? I’ve complained enough about the terrible world-building, so let’s move on.
The focus is, however, on monster abilities. Every creature has one of the many available. Some can break fake walls, some create a small rock to weigh down switches, and way too many activate one of the elements of orbs to open doors. The most notable Explore Abilities are: Flying to extend your jumps, swimming to, well, swim, and grapple to pull yourself toward the elusive hooks, of which there are, what, five?
Monster Sanctuary doesn’t want to force players to backtrack, which results in a mostly linear experience where you find exactly what you need where you need it. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I was so put off by the screeching halt the progression came to at the end because of the snappy pace the game proceeded at previously. The problem here is the lack of incentive to go back and explore older areas with new monsters – it’s almost as if they didn’t want you to. You can’t even place markers on your map to remind yourself of doors you weren’t able to open previously, which forces you to triple check every dead-end whenever you don’t remember which identical-looking hallway had which obstacle in it.
Ultimately, the best way to go about revisiting previous zones is to play up until the end, collecting as many monsters with different skills as possible, and then giving everything another once-over. Don’t worry, you won’t find much of use. There are a few optional bosses and borderline worthless unique pieces of equipment.
The worst offenders are the invisible platforms, which you’ll ironically see everywhere during your playthrough. Only a few late-game monsters can reveal these. Before I fully grasped how poorly balanced the rewards for exploration were, I was excited to go back and discover some new secrets – only to find mid-tier consumables or some gold. Yes, my prize for noticing and remembering a detail for over 20 hours was a couple of random encounters worth of currency.
This failure to understand appropriate rewards is reflected in the rewards for the single-digit number of side quests as well, where finding and battling a character in multiple locations will award you with a single Shift Stone – a consumable you are likely to have dozens of at that point.
Graphics & Audio – Forgettable at best
The music ranges from solid to down-right embarrassing. At best the songs are enjoyably upbeat, at worst, they use the “Choir Ohs” to hilariously poor effect.
I don’t think I have ever experienced such a rift between the strongest and weakest tunes in a single game.
The visuals are another aspect I have huge problems with. The pixel art is actually quite charming, but it’s about what isn’t there. The world you are exploring is almost entirely devoid of set dressing. The Keeper Stronghold, a nexus you’ll return to over and over again, features next to no aesthetic flair. Identical hallways, populated by the same few NPC sprites. Look at this guy, and tell me what he’s all about:
If you guessed “Person in charge of the Monster Army”, congratulations! You cheated! What about “man next to a shelf” communicates any of his function to the player? This dude is symbolic of Monster Sanctuary’s complete lack of interest in environmental storytelling. In the early game, you explore a goblin stronghold. The only giveaway that anyone ever lived there is one room with tables in it. That’s it, no totems, banners, beds, campfires, nothing.
This extends to the rest of the game. There’s a clocktower-like area that features huge cogs in the background. These do not connect to anything of note. You don’t interact with them either, as any platforms are at the gears’ center and don’t rotate, let alone move. Very little thought and effort went into the world you explore. This prevents any place you visit from leaving more than a superficial impression.
Monster Sanctuary was reviewed on Nintendo Switch. A review copy was provided by Press Engine.