I find myself starting a lot of reviews these days by comparing the game in question to it’s better known source of inspiration. Today will be no exception.
My defense for this is that Monster Crown is presented almost identically to Pokémon in so many ways. It’s blatant. It borrows heavily, which means it’s almost impossible not to compare it at every turn. Even the soundtrack is very similar to the original Pokemon games, adapting to the situation in almost exactly the same way.
This may be a little unfair, but at first glance Monster Crown instantly reminds of one of those bootleg Pokémon games doing the rounds years back, right down to the opening titles. The game is quite obviously inspired by Game Freak’s catch-em all phenomenon, and is very brave to wander down a road so clearly dominated by the franchise.
Most obviously, it’s the graphical style which invites the comparison. The 8-bit, top down fixed camera is an almost like for like copy, but at the same time has a much less attractive colour palette. This choice dilutes the design of the monsters because the game is releasing for home consoles, which these days are most likely being played on a whacking great big telly. The choice to leave them looking blocky and “retro” doesn’t quite work for me.
What is impressive, however, is the amount of monsters which roam the lands of Crown Island. Some are more memorable than others, but it’s clear lots of thought has gone into creating the roster in Monster Crown. There are over 200 to tame, many of which can also be acquired by trading with others on Crown Island.
To summarise briefly, you set out on a quest to stop a power hungry tyrant by taming (no not training) monsters so that they join your cause. In the process you will learn more about Crown Island’s shady past, and meet allies and enemies along the way. For reasons already mentioned, you’ll pick it up pretty quickly.
There’s lots of text to read (as you may imagine) however I found the story to be pretty typical, so much so that it got to the point where I was actively skipping text to push things along, which is never a good sign. The main narrative is clear enough, but despite being able to explore the lands of Crown Island, they are pretty desolate. There is hardly any side questing to be done, and each town is full of residents who can only offer a few throwaway comments, making them utterly redundant.
In terms of gameplay, Monster Crown is very much a slow burner. Many elements of the game aren’t revealed until you’re many hours in, and things start off gradually to say the least. It’s a really risky move, because I can see many deciding the game is not for them before they get to see all of what it has to offer. This is especially true as at first, it looks as if grinding to level up is the only way to progress.
The core gameplay elements focus on battling and making pacts with monsters so they join your team. This is done by weakening them to a point where they are likely to join you. However, this feels very black and white as I never attempted a pact unsuccessfully; the monster always joined. I was expecting just a few to refuse and leg it at least.
You can have a maximum of eight in your squad in total, and choose any of them to follow you about on-screen. Others will be sent to your “monster box” after a pact is made if your team is at capacity. You can also store items in the same way.
All sorts of monsters roam the lands, and you’ll be able to see them doing so. This means you can choose whether to engage with them or not, and you can also see exactly which monster is lurking a stone’s throw away. If you do trigger an encounter, a little book will appear to denote the fact that you haven’t yet made a pact with that type of creature, which is handy. Otherwise, you can pretty much safely leg it from any wild battle, unless you run into a more powerful foe. In this case you will need to forfeit, or get wiped out, and then you’ll be returned to town and your party healed up.
Each monster has certain moves, and will automatically learn more as they gain EXP and level up. However, this won’t be announced in any way, so you’ll need to keep checking back to see what new tricks have been learned. All the basic stats are present here, along with five types. As you may expect, some match-ups have advantages and disadvantages depending on the combination. The difference is the types are all quite abstract, such as “Will” and “Unstable” meaning it’ll take you a while to get your head around what beats what. It’s certainly not as logical as water beats fire, for example.
Battles don’t always have a sense of balance, with certain match-ups proving to be much more, or less effective than you would expect. There are some which feel as if they require you to spam the same move, heal, and repeat until you take down your more powerful and higher level foe.
The monster animations are also really bland when battling. They have no hope in matching the attack descriptions, and as a result fail to build excitement and tension in what should be the most appealing part of the game.
After a while Monster Crown does chuck a spanner in the works however, by introducing monster synergy. In essence, this means creating a powerful combination of monsters to unleash more powerful attacks and special side effects. This sounds tactical, but it’s more a case of swapping between your monsters in battle and seeing what boosts are chucked your way. Beware though, if a monster is taken down it’ll break your synergy streak.
It’s a shame it takes a while for this mechanic to reveal itself, as it ensures the battles are much more interesting and actually feels like an original idea. It’s absolutely key too, because if like me, you prefer to explore rather than crack straight on with the main story, you’ll run into many powerful foes early on that you have no hope of beating, unless you fancy the grind. Only with the synergy tactic can you hope to beat them, and even then it’s no picnic. For me, access to this should be given much earlier because before by this point it feels like your only option is to grind your way to a higher level, take down any monsters in your way, and repeat.
What Monster Crown seems to be lacking are battles against other tamers. There are hardly any. This would help your monsters level up more quickly and provide some more excitement, but these encounters are few and far between. Most towns will have a tamer which you will need to fight to raise your monster’s level cap, but that is about it. The most powerful foes are roaming the wilds waiting to be found, and really are an unknown quantity.
Later on in the game, you are taught how to breed new monsters. This opens up the possibility to acquire new critters by matching two you already have joined forces with. It’s a familiar concept, but adds more possibilities for creating your perfect team. You’ll also have the opportunity to name them.
Partly thanks to the graphical style, the menus in Monster Crown are horrible to navigate. You’ll need access to all sorts of information, but it’s near impossible to keep track of what you have selected when it all blurs into something of an 8-bit mess. Your notebook will also become multi-functional as you play. This is because all sorts will be added to it, such as a map, objectives tracker and even a monster database.
You also need to save from this menu, because – and be warned – there is no autosave. I found this out to my cost as at one point the Xbox keyboard overlay got stuck, and I couldn’t get back to the save screen. By the time I knew what this meant, it was too late. All I will say is I managed to stay calm, despite losing several hours of progress. Not having some sort of autosave system in a game such as this, in 2022, is criminal.
It would have also been a good idea by the development team to give you the option to make notes, or mark points of interest. As you explore, you’ll come across many powerful foes which you will need to avoid, and revisit later. The problem is, you’ll struggle to remember exactly where you ran into them the first time. It’s a shame, because there’s clearly some interesting (if limited) side quest stuff to do, but you may well not bother in the end.
If you make it far enough, you’ll unlock the online mode which allows you to battle and trade with others around the world. There is also more to be done once you beat the main game. However, I’m doubtful that many will get there as Monster Crown really makes you work for it. All ideas should have been laid out from the start; instead this game feels scared to try new things, instead relying mostly on well established ideas.
Despite seeming like an alternate version of Pokemon in many ways, Monster Crown isn’t a total imposter. It is still enjoyable in it’s own right, but apart from a handful of original ideas this is largely because the core gameplay has already been tried and tested.
Monster Crown is available from the Xbox Store