For many, video games are an escape. An escape from work, from school, or whatever it is that adds stress to one’s day. It isn’t just the escapism, however, but the unique experiences that games can offer as well: the medium has an amazing ability to deliver powerful moments that can live within one’s mind long after setting the controller down. Yet some people look at games and think, “Man, I wish this felt more like work”. I do not understand those people. If you do, or you are in fact one of them, then you’ll probably love Monster Sanctuary.
Created by Moi Rai Games, this charming little indie title seeks to combine the gameplay of a monster hatching, taming, battling game with a metroidvania. It is now your turn to embark on a quest to save the Monster Sanctuary. You will be doing so as the latest in a long line of Monster Keepers. After selecting the spectral familiar that best suits you, your mission is to investigate an unknown menace that is threatening the harmony between humans and monsters. Doing so won’t be possible unless you meet, battle, and raise plenty of monsters along the way.
Once you actually start up the game, you’ll immediately notice the lovingly-crafted visuals. Seemingly inspired by the 16-bit era, Monster Sanctuary fittingly looks and feels like a classic from the early nineties. It dodges the hole that I feel plenty of modern games with a retro look fall into, however, and that is the colors don’t make your eyes burn. Rather, they blend together nicely. The world has plenty of detail, the animations convey character nicely while remaining energetic, and humans have great outfits that make it easy to distinguish pixelated characters from one another. The biggest let-down for the visuals, however, is that the majority of the monster designs feel pretty underwhelming. There is a fire lion, some slimes, several plain birds, and they just feel too boring. There isn’t much monster to these monsters. There are a few more exciting creatures like my beloved Ninki I named Horatio, but they make up a tiny portion of the critters you’ll find.
In addition to its retro aesthetics, Monster Sanctuary aims for a retro gameplay loop. In addition to your beginning, spectral companion, you’ll be able to explore the world with a host of monsters that you obtain from besting other monsters in battle. Each encounter has a chance to drop an egg which you can hatch immediately in your inventory. You then take your newborn pet and thrust it into battles where it must fend for its life – perhaps the monster in this sanctuary is you…? These fights happen within a turn-based combat system where up to three monsters can fight at a time. While battling, you command your monsters how, when, and where to attack while managing their health and mana as well. If you must switch a fighting monster out for a fresh one, you can do so with ease. It’s almost as if these monsters reside within your pockets; Pocket Monsters, perhaps.
“That sounds alright”, I hear you say, “but where are the numbers? The work? The grind?”. I’m glad you asked, person who doesn’t know how to relax. Once you’ve got a selection of monsters, it’s time to explore the world for items. These can be won in battles, found in chests, or purchased from shops. Items can be equippable armor, rings, and medallions, that offer a wide-range of buffs to specific stats, but those are separate from the large amount of equipable weapons that also offer a wide-range of buffs to specific stats. Oh, and those, of course, are different from the large, expanding skill-trees that each individual monster has that can be upgraded via skill points that you earn by leveling monsters up. Said skill-trees allow monsters to power up or learn new moves while also, yes, offering a wide-range of buffs to specific stats. Lest I forget, you can also feed your monsters a variety of different foods that will last for a limited time in order to give them a wide-range of buffs to specific stats.
It’s a lot. Granted, the game introduces these min-maxing activities gradually, and in an easy to understand way, but it isn’t particularly innovative. One could have just as much fun using spreadsheets, a calculator, and a little bit of imagination.
The part of Monster Sanctuary that I found the most compelling was the metroidvania-style exploration. Venturing through the world requires jumping, mapping out the terrain, and unlocking new abilities that, in turn, unlock new areas. One of the best parts of the game is that you can use the monsters you collect to traverse the world. Fire creatures burn down vines, birds can carry you over small gaps, and others will bust down walls. It was great fun to see an obstacle and search the world for a monster that could help me get through.
Unfortunately, that fun exploration side gets old quite rapidly as I found a monster for each environmental roadblock rather quickly. Where Monster Sanctuary gets really stale is the story: it’s simple, unexciting, and predictable. In most games with grindy, turn-based combat, I like to feel like the story is at least going somewhere interesting, but that isn’t the case here. There isn’t much personality to the story, and that extends to the game as a whole.
Despite its cute visuals and some great moments of exploring the game’s world, Monster Sanctuary on Xbox feels relatively hollow. There is plenty of content to keep the most dedicated of min-maxing enthusiasts busy, especially if one ventures into online battles against others, but the game owes too much of its identity to the past. If it leaned more into the unique metroidvania ideas, had a more interesting story, and felt less like homework, Monster Sanctuary would have been something truly special.