Anyone fancy a game of cards?
DEVELOPER: COMPILE HEARTS, IDEA FACTORY
PUBLISHER: IDEA FACTORY INTERNATIONAL
RELEASE DATE: 14 MAR 2017
GENRE: STRATEGIC CARD BATTLER
I’ve had experience playing card-based battle games so when I saw Monster Monpiece being released on Steam by Compile Hearts and Idea Factory, I figured I should check it out. That dynamic duo releases all sorts of games spanning many different genres all of which have a healthy dose of visual novel mixed in. They are probably best known for their Neptunia series that features lovable anthropomorphized game consoles as the heroines. At its core, Monster Monpiece is a collectible card game similar to that of Magic the Gathering, Hearthstone or Spellweaver. The basic idea is that you play cards and attempt to defeat the enemy by working your way through their defenses and striking at their headquarters. Hit their headquarters enough times and you win. Rather than just playing cards on the table like you would in a physical game, your cards turn into 3D characters on the screen that slowly move towards the enemy headquarters. It sounds like a simple enough concept and it really is, but there are many factors in play at any given time.
First off, let’s talk about the game basics. There are two basic forms of currency in the game. Mana and Money. Money is your typical currency found in most games that let you buy various things in-game. Mana, on the other hand, is the power needed to transform a playing card in your hand into a monster on the field. Mana is also used by some cards in order to use their special abilities. Speaking of cards, there are four different colour cards and four different classes of cards and eight different card species. There are over a hundred cards to choose from so you certainly will find something to suit your tastes. Here is the thing though; each card can be evolved multiple times to change its abilities or stats, so really there are countless possibilities available when it comes to designing your perfect deck. There are a few ways to earn more cards in this game. You can sometimes win booster packs from battles and they are also scattered around on the world map so you may encounter them during your exploration. Another way is to just buy them. Since the in-game currency is decently plentiful, this will likely be the second easiest way to go about acquiring more cards. As you progress through the game, better card packs become available for you to purchase. The contents of these packs are random, and for you save scummers out there, the game auto-saves when you open them so reverting to your last save won’t let you try again. It’s just like real trading cards, you never know what is inside until you rip open the pack. The final way to go about getting these cards is through in-app purchase with real money. From the purchased packs I tried, they seem to contain a chance at more powerful versions of the cards currently available for purchase with in-game money. There may be additional cards exclusive to these packs as well but alas I didn’t get any. I was able to beat the game without relying on the purchased cards, however they do help, especially when the AI is playing the higher tiered variants of the cards you have.
Once you have acquired enough cards you can start customizing your deck. You can put up to three of any given identical card into your deck and you must always have between 30-40 cards in your deck. There are many different strategies you can play here. By default you will have an effectively random assortment of the four colours and four classes making up your deck. This can work, however you are far better off tailoring your deck for reasons that are about to become obvious. Playing the matching game is a strategy that will help give you an edge even in the toughest of battles. Matching the same colour three times in a row will lead to every card you have in play getting a bonus to its attack and health and also grant you an additional three mana. This effect stacks so the longer the card is alive, the stronger it gets. Simply matching the colour twice will give you a boost to your mana. This means that I have been favouring mostly monotone decks in order to get as many free boosts as I can. To help keep your cards alive there are two things you can do. You can have a healer card stand behind them healing them, or you can add another of the same species of cards on top of them to fuse their abilities and stats. That means the strategy of using a mostly homogeneous group of card species can work very well too. You might not get as many colour matching bonuses but you will get a lot more fused cards.
The typical match sides you versus an opponent. The rules are displayed at the start of the match and unless there is an EX Bonus in effect, the matches are pretty much even. The EX Bonus gives you the option to handicap yourself in order to earn more money and Rub P from the match. EX Bonus can add all sorts of effects against you such as giving your enemy more mana to start with or letting them regen mana faster or even damaging your own headquarters so you can’t survive as many hits. When an EX Bonus is available, it gives you a choice between accepting it or rejecting and how hard do you want it to be. Typically I choose the biggest payout by taking the hard option every time. There are three lanes to play your cards on and each lane has three spaces you can start the character from. Typically, assuming the card has no special ability; the card’s monster will attack the nearest in-range enemy in that lane if it is able to, but will not advance to the next square until the next round. You can only play one card per round, so you will have to plan ahead exactly what it is you are trying to do. Each turn the card monster survives, assuming nothing stops it, it will advance one square. If it reaches the enemy headquarters it will then attack it and do one point of damage before being removed from play. Typically a headquarters can handle up to two or three hits before being destroyed. To prevent a card monster from reaching the headquarters you need to place another card monster in its way. This will prevent it from advancing past that square until either it dies or the monster blocking it does. If you recall from earlier, the longer the card monster survives, the more likely it will get boosted, so it is never a good idea to leave an enemy card monster alive for too long while at the same time, you should consider assisting your longer living card monsters by buffing or healing them in order to prolong their survival.
I mentioned earlier about evolution of cards and also Rub P so now it is time to talk about a more… unique shall we say… element of this game. This game was originally designed for the Playstation Vita, which as you may or may not know had a multi-touch system that let you interact with games by rubbing your fingers against the device. This game incorporated this feature by way of the First Crush ❤ Rub system in game. The Rub system uses the Rub P you earn in battle in order to evolve your cards. To evolve your cards you have to find the “sweet spots” on the cards and perform one of the four possible actions on that spot in order to fill up the card seal’s gauge. Performing any action on a “sweet spot” will slowly fill the gauge, however, performing the correct action will increase it much faster. You can also trigger a special fifth “Extreme Rub” action which basically has you indiscriminately rubbing the card for massive gains in seal’s gauge. The basic cards are all pretty easy to level up, once you start getting the enhanced tier cards (+1, +2, etc.) the sweet spots don’t last as long, meaning you have to find even more of them in order to satisfy the card’s seal. Some of the enhanced cards will also need a key to unlock future evolutions, but many do not. You can easily tell which cards have been rubbed and which ones haven’t because the image changes to indicate the current evolution of the card. Here is the rub about the Rub System, if you pardon the pun, evolutions of the cards might not always be better, or at least might not appear to be better. Evolutions can do many things. It can increase the Attack and/or Hit Points of the card, it can reduce the Mana costs to play the card or it can add positive abilities or skills to the card. The opposite can also occur where the stats of the cards suffer; the Mana costs increase or it gains handicapping abilities. These extra skills and abilities are things you really need to pay attention to when playing. Some of them will help you greatly others can hurt you quite badly. You don’t have a choice if you want to cast the spell or not, if you have enough Mana, the spell will auto-cast, your Mana will be spent, and you could lose your entire team without the Mana or the turns needed to rebuild fast enough to avoid losing your Headquarters. For example, one card evolved an ability that damages it each turn it is in play, eventually it will die even if it never faced combat itself. Another negative skill that reared its ugly head after I evolved a nice card I had been using was Blood March. Blood March kills pretty much your entire team when you play the card assuming you had sufficient extra Mana for the card to use its skill. You read that right, you play it and it kills you, not the enemy! I had a fantastic defense going for me, with many boosted cards when I played my newly max rubbed Jack Frost +1 and unfortunately learned of that Blood March ability. I have to say though, when I was about to lose a match due to the enemy having an overwhelming number of cards in play, when it played the Jack Frost +1 and Blood Marched them to death, it made me happy to know I was about to pull though after all.
As mentioned earlier, the game is a Strategic Card-Battler/Visual Novel hybrid. The story is delivered whenever you encounter an exclamation point on the map. The dialogue revolves around May (the protagonist) and her party talking about what is currently happening and their feelings with each of the characters offering moral support to whichever one is feeling uneasy. There are no dialogue choices to make like you would in a traditional Visual Novel, but it has the same look and feel as that of a Visual Novel. There is an assortment of characters in the game, but the primary ones are Karen, who is the adviser, May who is the Card Master and the game’s protagonist, and Fia who is May’s main Monster Girl. Monster Girls are the Card Monsters I have talked about so far. I don’t think I have encountered a single male character in this entire game. Even when the game talks about the monsters (which are actually friendly when not Lost) they are always called Monster Girls. I’m not sure if Monster Boys exist, and at this point, I am too afraid to ask. Needless to say, this game is loaded with fan service.
When I mentioned previously about the image on the card changing to show the card’s current evolution, I was referring to the outfit the Monster Girl on the card was wearing. I must say the girls on these cards are lovely to look at and the stronger they get, the lovelier they are to look at. In typical MMORPG (or video games in general) fashion, when it comes to female armor, the less it covers, the stronger the armor is. Some of these girls have very strong armor indeed. It almost makes me weak in the knees looking at some of that really big strong armor. Cough, cough, ahem… getting back to the story and characters though, it is broken into multiple chapters, each chapter involves you following the branching path to the map’s destination and getting into fights on the way. Typically the main story is given at the start and end of each chapter, with supplementary story given from time to time. Between the start and the end of the chapter you are free to explore the map collecting all the cards and other treasures as well as getting into fights in order to gain more money, Rub P and potentially items or cards. You can also at any time, return to your Headquarters to access the store, unwrap any card packs you found, rub some seal love into the cards you have or build yourself a new deck.
The graphics in the game vary depending on if you are on the world map, in battle or in a dialogue sequence. In the dialogue sequences the characters are all very detailed and unique looking. They are 2D characters that have visible expressions as well as displayed as symbols by their heads from time to time. The dialogue is displayed neatly and cleanly under the character window. The backgrounds have enough variety to be interesting but do not detract from the characters. The same holds true when it comes to the world map. There is enough detail to make each map look fairly unique with the mountains and rivers but not enough detail to overwhelm you. May is reduced from highly detailed 2D art to a detailed sprite that moves around on the map. The map shows points you can move to and sometimes tells you what you will encounter if you progress there. Moving through doors often will unlock additional paths for you to take. Typically these paths offer rewards but sometimes they offer an alternative route to the destination. Either way you should fully explore each map before visiting the destination. The cards themselves are all highly detailed, rivaling those of their printed counterparts from any of the premium card games. The battles are more 2.5D. You are looking at the field from an angle that lets you see your entire playfield. The monster girls all have their default looks based on their class and species. Some special characters have their own special look. A great example of this is the pudding loving, eggplant hating, “protagonist of protagonists”, Neptune who shows up as a card in this game. She has her own unique look and if you rub her, she will transform into Goddess Purple Heart which has separate stats from Neptune, just like in her own series. Rubbing Goddess Purple Heart will return her back to Neptune. While the playing field itself is pretty much the same layout regardless of which chapter you are in with your end being blue, the enemy is red and there is a neutral area in the middle, there are different themes used to make the playing field look different as you travel.
The sound in this game is something I feel we really need to discuss as well. Usually I will say if the sound is suitable or not or if it fits the game. Perhaps I comment on the quality and clarity of the voice acting, but this time I have totally new material! The voice acting in this game is well done and I am sure what they are saying is coming across loud and clear, however, I am unfortunately unable to understand Japanese. Luckily the game provides English translations for you in the dialogue box at the bottom. A friend of mine who has grown up with Anime and playing games with Japanese voices despite his being fluent in French and passable in English himself, has come to know what some things mean. A few times he has suggested the characters are saying things other than what the English dialogue is displaying that they are saying. I’m not entirely certain he is correct in that suggestion or that anything is lost in the translation, but there are a few times the characters begin talking in what seems like third person. This makes me wonder what details I might possibly be missing by not being able to understand anything at all of what they are saying. This doesn’t really detract from the game, but admittedly, I seldom play with dialogue tracks other than English simply because I like being able to watch the scene unfold rather than focusing on the subtitles.
The music is something else. The music in the main menu of the Headquarters is almost hypnotically charming. I am guilty of leaving that screen idle while having my dinner just so I can listen to the music. The sound track in general is quite pleasurable and really enhances your ability to enjoy the game. The battle with the final boss even has its own track which really accentuates the battle well. The sound effects work well, and in the case of the Rub sound effects, if anyone is walking by you as you are playing they might get funny ideas as to what you are up to in there.
The controls in the game are the only place I really have much of a complaint to make. If you are using a gamepad, all is well, but if you are using the keyboard and mouse (and arguably, the mouse is far easier to rub with in my opinion) the game still displays the gamepad input buttons rather than the keyboard ones. There might be an option in there somewhere to switch it, but I couldn’t find it. Mind you I played about 25% of The Last Remnant before learning how to change the buttons being displayed, so it could have just been me. When using the gamepad I could easily exit the game without issue…when using the keyboard and mouse I typically just used Alt-F4 because I couldn’t find the keyboard version of the gamepad button being displayed. If you ignore the input issues I experienced, the controls in this game are plenty refined for the kind of game it is. Most of the time you will just be pointing at and clicking on things, so it works perfectly well.
So should you get Monster Monpiece? If you enjoy card-battlers, you should enjoy Monster Monpiece. There are plenty of battles to be fought and the AI is usually strong enough to put up a really good challenge for you. Sadly, unlike its Vita counterpart, it doesn’t appear to have multiplayer. Perhaps down the road that might be a feature to be added, but for now it is just you versus the AI. Once you get quite far into the game and you have developed a killer deck, the game does start to feel a little repetitive once there are no new game-changing elements added in. For example, my monotone deck pretty much ends any battle practically before they start. I also learned to stagger my units when placing them so when they reach the enemy HQ, at least one of them will make it through, possibly two, which makes the round shorter. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, just it would be nice if there was a way to shake things up a bit in the late game other than just making and trying new decks. If you enjoy the story delivery style of Visual Novels, you probably will like Monster Monpiece. The battle system isn’t so complex that it will spoil the Visual Novel for you, while at the same time it will offer a fun little diversion away from your typical choose your adventure style Visual Novel story. Overall, Monster Monpiece is a fairly unique and interesting Card-Battler that makes you feel a little dirty for enjoying playing it.
(click on the image to see the rating explanation)