My feelings with this game are very conflicted. On one hand you can easily see the care and dedication the team have put into it, pouring their heart and soul into Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. As a result we get a beautiful game, with a fantastic art style, moving music and and interesting gameplay mechanics. Unfortunately though, the experience is marred by laborious level design and a lack of information.
Upon starting, you are greeted to an adorably animated intro giving a small taste of the different unique forms that you will gather along your journey with Monster Boy. It effectively sets up the tone and art style of the game. All enemies, NPCs and forms are beautifully hand drawn and animated, making every corner of this game come to life. Every character you meet is incredibly expressive and has a personality of their own as a result; it’s impossible not to acknowledge the care put into this aspect.
The same can easily be said for the music. The talented team includes Michiru Yamane, acclaimed composer of many Castlevania games including Symphony of the Night. Each location has a delightful tune, perfectly encapsulating the feel of the environment. The soundtrack also has its more calming moments. One such location is at an observatory. With a beautiful sunset in the background you are treated to a much slower and relaxing tune than you are used to in this game. Monster Boy’s musical diversity truly shines throughout your adventure to save the world.
You follow Jin on his journey to return the world to its normal state after your uncle gets drunk on some royal nectar and turns everyone into monsters. In order to do this you need to collect five orbs, each of which allow you to transform into a different monster with a different set of abilities. The story is rather bare bones with no real character development to be made, however luckily that isn’t the main draw of Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom.
It is however used well as a way to take you through the many different locales, that the team have beautifully hand crafted over a dozen different zones, each with a wildly different feeling and tone. They all introduce new gameplay aspects as well, highlighting the new monster you gained from your previous outings. Between crystalline caves, lava filled volcanoes, the deep underwater trenches and much more, you’ll spend hours exploring each environment for hidden loot. Often when going through them the first time, you will find areas you can’t reach until you progress in the story, collecting a certain piece of equipment or new form to run around in. As a result, backtracking is the name of the game with Monster Boy; but it never feels tedious. The detailed map helps with this, by clearly showing what areas you have yet to explore making it so you never find yourself lost. I found myself enjoying going to places I’d already explored, trying to find loot that had been tucked away.
While exploring and revisiting the areas you travel to are fun, going through a second time, your first endeavors never seem to be as enjoyable as you progress. Dungeons end up feeling endless in their length, easily overstaying their welcome. This is worsened by the problematic checkpoint system often putting you far back after finally making some progress on a tough platforming section. I frequently found myself more and more frustrated, repeatedly getting stuck with a bad checkpoint causing progress to be slow and arduous. A large majority of checkpoints don’t refill your health, leaving you increasingly weak, and with environmental hazards that do massive amounts of damage to you, it is easy to get stuck quickly.
Monster Boy is split up between three different styles of gameplay: platforming, puzzles and combat. Despite the poor checkpoint system, the platforming is incredibly solid. Controls are nice and responsive, never leaving you to wonder why it is that you were hurt or left to die. In fact, almost every time you die, you can see where your error occurred and how to hopefully fix it. While there are some issues that will see you clip through a floating platform, I never felt cheated by it.
That isn’t to say that it is easy though. These segments last a long time and will test your skill, often forcing you to switch back and forth between different forms in order to traverse the environment. There have been many times where I have been left stuck in a certain section of a dungeon for longer than I’d care to admit, but with the decent mechanics there has always been a way to progress with enough time and effort.
The combat portions of Monster Boy are though, rather basic. You gain equipment through exploration or purchasing from one of the many armories spread throughout the world. There are up to eight different sets of armor and weapons to choose from, each upgradable through gems found in various hidden treasure chests, giving you new abilities. Wearing all pieces of the same equipment type also unlocks a special stat that can drastically change the difficulty of some areas, such as taking less fire damage.
This system is great because you aren’t beholden to any specific piece of equipment and in fact are encouraged to switch on the fly in order to get across environments. The upgrades are also meaningful; rather than incremental stat upgrades, each gives a different ability such as a double jump, walking across lava or being heavy and sinking you to the bottom of the ocean. The game really encourages you to try new pairings and find the one that works for you.
The combat itself is split between the various skills each form has and the different weapons that you collect throughout your journey. These segments are never too hard and hardly feel like a chore. As a result, grinding for some gold to purchase a new piece of equipment never feels old. Boss fights are also fantastic fun, often mixing your new monster form’s abilities along with some light platforming. Each one feels unique and never feels too punishing.
Where the game really slips up in my opinion is in the puzzle segments. While the various puzzles focusing on your different monster abilities are satisfying to pull off, environmental affairs don’t fare so well. Far too often I have sat back, puzzled as to what it was I was supposed to make happen to progress further, either due to poor design or unclear logic, especially later on. In one location, the Haunted Manor, you are tasked with possessing various different items including a large wrecking ball, in order to destroy parts of the environment or unlock doors. While working my way through the level I was lead to believe that the intended solution wouldn’t work because every time I attempted it, the wrecking ball would either fall through a piece of floor that did not have any visible holes, or get caught in the geometry causing the puzzle to reset. Since that idea didn’t work, I wandered aimlessly through the dungeon trying to find another way to open up the environment. But destroying that wall was what I needed to do, in order to unlock an ability that would be necessary for later rooms, leading to added frustration when I wasn’t able to solve those puzzles. The Haunted Manor also includes light reflection puzzles involving mirrors, but the way in which you shine the light feels clumsy and unintuitive by giving you limited control over the light.
Throughout my 16 hours or so with Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, my feelings have been conflicted. The early game has been a treat but as progress is made and dungeons seem to drag on, the enjoyment lessens, especially with the inclusion of puzzles ruined by poor design and lack of clarity. Barring some technical issues causing the odd crash or hard lock, for the most part, the core of the game works well. There is definitely enjoyment to be had however, as all artistic aspects of Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom are beautiful, and the combat and platforming mechanics are solid.