REVIEW: Monster Sanctuary

This is a very well made game with so much potential for players to create their own monster teams. However, with so many possibilities, it can be overwhelming to design a team capable of dealing with late-game challenges.

Released: Steam
Type: Single-Player
Genres: Metroidvania, RPG
Developer: Moi Rai Games
Publisher: Team17 Digital Ltd
Release date: 8 Dec, 2020

First Impressions

When looking at the description of Monster Sanctuary (MS), which blends monster collecting with Metroidvania gameplay, I was really interested by the idea. I’m rather fond of platforming and secret-hunting, and the addition of recruiting a team of monsters to fight on my behalf would be a novel inclusion. Instead of raising my own stats, the RPG focus would switch to my team of whatever monsters I wanted to use. With it having received more than 1,500 enthusiastic reviews while in Early Access, it seems to be a Kickstarter project that has succeeded, as it was released as a full game December of 2020.

We’ve known each other for less than 5 minutes and you’ve already deduced the whole of my being.

Gameplay

Unsurprisingly, MS emphasizes the collection and training of monsters, with 101 available in the current build. While traveling through different biomes and fighting wild monsters, you’ll select 3 monsters from your team of 6 to face off against them, so you may as well exploit their elemental weaknesses. This in part depends on what skills and abilities you choose for your monsters as they level up, as each has at least 3 branches to choose between. Something I appreciate is that most fights blend different monsters and elemental strengths and weaknesses together, so your own team will do best if it’s made up of diverse attributes. Especially with the different biomes changing up the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents.

Being scratched by a cat is already bad enough, but now they have swords too? No wonder Egyptians revered them.

Not only do you rely on your monsters for battling, they’re used while adventuring. It took me longer than I’d want to admit to figure out that you can switch out the monster traveling with you, instead of only having to keep your chosen spectral monster out. This is essential, because each monster has an ability that will help you get through different obstacles. Some examples include lighting up dark areas, gliding over spikes, swimming, etc. With their aid you’ll be able to access locations otherwise prohibited to you, finding several chests, though the ones of greatest importance have an emerald hue to them. The monsters are the show of MS, as otherwise the protagonist can only double jump and endure cold water, abilities you unlock later on.

Go spelunking they said, it’ll be fun they said.

Perhaps it’s because I never played a classic Pokemon game, but after playing for several hours, I found that the monster battles got repetitive, especially near the end when trying to get my team maxed out. I think the issue is that Metroidvanias are typically built on constant movement and action, with the combat being real-time. However, in MS the fights have to be loaded in, and switch to a turn-based system you’d find in traditional RPGs. This breaks up the exploration and platforming, making me switch back and forth between the two routinely. It could be seen as giving more gameplay to the travel needed in monster battling games, but for me it worked the other way around.

It’s time to d-d-d-d-duel!

Controls

The controls for MS work quite well, though I wasn’t always sure whether I was falling just short of a tight jump or whether I needed a monster ability I didn’t have access to yet. When using my controller, movement is done with either the ‘L joystick’ or the ‘D-pad.’ Press ‘A’ to jump and to select attacks while in battle, whereas ‘B’ backs out of menus. Any of the shoulder buttons will show all the monsters you have, and what their adventure abilities are, so you can choose a companion to help you out, with ‘X’ activating those abilities. To bring up the game’s various menus, click either ‘Start,’ or the ‘Y button.’ ‘Select’ is a short-cut for the map.

Battles can get just a little bit complicated.

Story

In the world of MS, there was a dispute centuries ago between the current inhabitants of the Sanctuary and what’s called the Old World. Those who now live in Sanctuary wanted to remove themselves from what was going on so they could live their own way. As the name implies, Sanctuary is a safe haven for humans and monsters to live in peace, and even with wild monsters roaming around who could attack, there doesn’t seem to be much concern of that happening. Based on how things go with the goblins, the wild monsters have a working understanding with the keepers. The adventure is limited to the lands within Sanctuary, so what’s going on currently in the Old World is unknown, with most of this information stemming from the library. This slightly makes the scope of your trek seem a bit smaller, yet with several rooms to traverse, I think the area is large enough.

I thought Toad hosted Mario Party.

Before too long, you come across Team Rocket… er, the Alchemists, who enjoyed a great deal of respect and wealth under the old system. They’ve lurked in the shadows of Sanctuary all this time, concocting a plan to restore themselves to a position of power. There’s nothing that ground-breaking here, but it’s sprinkled around the game evenly enough that you won’t go hours without further story progression. Plus, even though there’s not a lot of dialogue, what you see of the NPCs displays personality and basic reason. They aren’t bumbling buffoons who have to rely on a silent protagonist to figure everything out. For example, when the alchemists steal an important monster, the NPC is dazed, but responds by diving into research so he can be of use and figure out how that’s possible. As basic as that is, seeing the people of this world act intelligently and coherently is more the exception than the rule. Even those who you have a healthy rivalry with aren’t flat jerks. They treat you as a newbie, but acknowledge your abilities as you develop.

You maniac! You BLUE it up!

Graphics

All of the visuals in MS are comprised of pixelated graphics, and they’re quite effective. The backgrounds appear to have depth, showing environments that extend miles in the distance. Various light sources like torches and flames illuminate surrounding areas, whereas shadows and darkness will cover further areas. With several monsters included, you’ll recognize the general idea behind several of them, such as dragons, smiling blobs, mimics, and goblins. However, the designs don’t feel lazy or thoughtless, as the monsters vary in size and the demeanor displayed, with some looking unsettling or strange, such as the ornithopter.

Many people find it easier to add light to the right side of a mountain setting, so you’re just going to drag the highlights across the edge. Maybe in your world though, the light comes from the left. It’s your painting, so do whatever you like.

When in battle, monsters have idle animations as they wait to attack. Those attacks look alright, as they’ll show enough movement to suggest they’re launching a spell, but even melee attacks don’t lead to them moving across the screen to slash at the opponent. They always remain on their side of the environment, which doesn’t look right or that engaging. More frames of animation and expressive battles could add more spectacle and entertainment to the numerous fights you’ll engage in.

Someone dropped commercial grade dye into the water! It’s stained all of the temple walls once the water drained out. You know, it actually looks pretty nice.

Sound Design

For each of the different areas you’ll venture through, a background song will play, which shifts to battle or boss music when you get into a fight. All of the music sounds good, but each area only has a single song playing, which means you’ll hear each of them for long periods of time. A bit more variety would be helpful, especially with the backtracking required to fully explore each area. I’ve gotten used to the battle sound effects by now, but some of them seem a bit random or out of place. For instance, the slide whistle like sound effect for wind attacks. However, most of them are just fine. An annoying sound effect I’ve noticed is when you’re talking with people, as it makes a noise each time you advance their text. It’s minor, but it’s still irritating.

That doesn’t sound like a kind, light-hearted laugh. You’re evil, aren’t you?!

Pros

  • There’s so many options available for customizing monsters and teams: weapons and accessories, food items, skill trees with buffs and attacks, light and dark variants, team combos and synergy, etc.
  • Although the introduction to the game world is somewhat limited, with the well-written NPCs and story, I find it believable and interesting.
  • Everything in the game loads and transitions quickly, whether you’re moving to a new room, bringing up a menu, or getting into a battle.

Cons

  • Even though the large number of monsters theoretically encourages experimentation to find a team that’s exciting and fun for you to play with, or having a wide range to switch in and out for various situations, MS isn’t set up in a way that lets players experiment easily. After you select your skills for a monster, if you want to respec them, you have to use an item instead of being able to do so freely. Also, getting a new monster to max level, without starting from scratch, requires you to hatch an egg at level 37, use a level badge to raise it to 39, and grind 200,000 XP.
  • Enemy monsters gain all of the active and passive skills available to them as yours do. This by itself isn’t a negative, but it’s a facet of what makes the game so difficult. Using a balanced team is ideal for most of the game. However, high level monsters tend to be specialized, and are best countered by teams set up to be their foil. A 6 member team able to take down any other monsters is very difficult to build.
  • Many NPCs only have one thing to say to you, so after you’ve spoken to them, there’s no reason to check again. So ironically, the filler NPCs feel less lifelike than normal, while the important ones are more with it.
  • I hated having to fight so many battles to get my team leveled up. The grind is so tedious.

Tips

  • When compiling your team, you’ll likely want to include 2 healing monsters and 1-2 status buffers. Some fights can be blitzed with pure type advantage, but I found myself rounding off with a healer more often than not. Also, I found attacks that target multiple monsters more useful earlier on. Later, when they get so much HP and defense, you can’t really afford to chip down all of them, as opposed to destroying one at a time. However, effects like poison and burn, which wears enemies down, are incredibly useful.
  • Once you get a team of 6 monsters, it’s tempting to keep hatching eggs to see what the monsters’ skills look like. However, once I had a balanced team, I held off on doing this for a long time because of how leveling works. After all, only the 6 monsters on your team gain experience. You’ll have to hatch some monsters to advance past certain obstacles and will likely have to rebalance your team at some point, but check the monster journal so you know which monsters have what exploration skills.
  • I’d suggest increasing the battle speed to 2X. You pick all of your attacks and moves without any time constraints, it only makes the attack animations faster.

Final Thoughts

I went into MS with high hopes, and that in turn creates loftier expectations. My main issue is how tiring all the monster battles become. I can’t deny that the game has been well made though, even if it slowly wore me down. For me it meant that I had to break up my gameplay sessions every so often, which is made all the easier with the ability to save and quit at any point without losing progress. Although I was sometimes tempted to skip battles, when in areas where the enemies are close to your level, it’s prudent to fight them for the XP. I also didn’t check my equipment every time I obtained a new bauble, but looking through the gear of my team every so often is also a good idea, to ensure it’s disseminated wisely.

I got the cerulean star of approval. It’s an honor of such magnitude that the game normally only displays 5 slots for stars.

It takes a long time to get a team of monsters maxed out, especially because having a well-rounded team is a double-edged sword. Like any seasoned gamer who hoards items instead of using them, I built up a smorgasbord of monster eggs. With my team maxed out at level 40, I can use items to raise them to level 39 without grinding for XP. At level 39 they’re only missing 1 more skill and their ultimate move, so it’s not that much of a difference. Although I was initially excited by the prospect of tinkering around with dozens of monsters with all of their skills unlocked, this is where I hit the wall because all of the options and combinations become overwhelming. I was spending several minutes looking through all the possible skill trees and combinations, trying to work out what the best choices would be, and not really knowing if I was choosing wisely or not. Plus, trying to take down the hardest fights reliably requires very specific approaches, which I haven’t worked out.

Alright children, it’s time to learn about conservation. Can you say conservation?

Due to many features of MS being done very well, and the enthusiasm shown by other players, I think others might not get as weary of the battles as I did. Also, the game was fully released only recently, so there currently aren’t up to date guides and strategies outlined for the late game obstacles and challenges. As more knowledge becomes available and more broadly understood, it’ll make the game more approachable to people who don’t want to figure out the ideal combinations themselves. I don’t have the time, energy, or patience to experiment as much as MS would allow for, or even what it demands, so MS is a game I’ll come back to at a later date. From what I experienced, those who are fond of Pokemon, but want a more involved system and versatility will be right at home here, so they’d be the ones I recommend this game to specifically.

This isn’t quite the direction I thought this was going, but I can work with this.
Written by
Fruit N Doggie
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