Monster World IV

Monster World IV is an intriguing game. It bills itself as a 2D platformer, except it doesn’t use the genre’s tropes for the same action-y purposes that its contemporaries did. Rather than going for constant engagement, the game shoots for the exact opposite. Somehow, that plan works. Monster World IV holds the potential to be one of the more relaxing experiences in video games, and to be fair, it reaches that potential quite a bit. Unfortunately, simple enemy AI just as often keeps the game from fully realizing said potential. That doesn’t mean the game is bad; just that it can never quite live up to its own ambitions.

Of course, describing a game as humble as this as “having ambitions” might sound a little strange. After the somewhat drawn out introduction, where a strangely sexist town sends our protagonist Asha on her way, we come to the thrust of the game. It’s a side-scrolling platformer where you divide your time between shopping at a hub town and exploring the world’s various fantasy dungeons. The latter part is far more interesting, and where the game’s main activity takes place. These sections see you rigidly swiping at enemies, collecting various treasures, and generally advancing the story with the help of your Pepelogoo (a fat bird-like creature). The game almost feels like the bastard child of Mario and Metroid, although not nearly as engaging as either of them.

Monster World IV (J) [T+Eng1.02_DeJap+Demiforce]007Not that I mean anything bad by that. In fact, that lack of engagement is what makes Monster World IV so good. It only engages you long enough to grab your attention. Once it has, you’re free to let your mind zone out as your body goes through the motions. The result is one of the more calming, mind-clearing experiences I’ve had with a game in a while. A lot of that comes from the level design, which, like any good Metroid clone, hits a balance between linearity and openness. The dungeons are just linear enough that you’re going to end up at your goal in a reasonable amount of time, but simultaneously open enough that you can wander around to your heart’s content. At times, it feels like the game leans too much on linearity, but not so hard as to bring down the whole experience.

And bolstering the game’s mood is its strong animation. I know how weird that sounds in light of how the game looks: like any other video game. The animations here are stiff, with most of your actions only having two or three frames of animation apiece. And the art style is just as game-y, populated with simple, easy to read shapes and an almost-vibrant palette. Yet you’d be surprised at how expressive Asha can be within those obvious limit. She wiggles her butt a little when opening chests, and she strains herself as she holds onto a heavy Pepelogoo. Watching some of these animations is more fun than playing the game. I’d say that they lend the game a lot of personality, but that wouldn’t be doing them justice. Instead, it would be more accurate to say that they put you in the perfect mood to enjoy the game. Minor actions like butt wiggling exist to let the game transcend utility, They put you in just the kind of mood to relax.

Unfortunately, I don’t know how well the underlying mechanics can maintain that mood. Ignoring the sluggish controls and the slowish pace (because they’re easy to adjust to), fighting enemies in the game is just too restrictive. That might sound trivial in an exploration-based game like Monster World IV, but given how prevalent enemy encounters are, it’s anything but. Your only option in many of these encounters is just slashing at enemies, and their AI is usually very simple. Some enemies (bosses included) are so simple that you can effectively beat them by standing in one place and repeatedly hacking away on the attack button.

Monster World IV (J) [T+Eng1.02_DeJap+Demiforce]009So it’s understandable how quickly the once-relaxing experience becomes repetitive. I’m not saying that the game would be better off with more complex combat mechanics. Those would eat up too much time, and, more importantly, clash with that calming tone at the game’s core. Then again, frequent, simplistic enemy encounters disrupt that tone just as well. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if the game would have been better off with either less enemies to fight, or no enemies altogether.

I have to imagine the game would have greatly benefited from a clearer focus. I mean, the ingredients are certainly there. Had the game focused on enemy encounters more, it would have ended up as a serviceable action platformer. A dime a dozen, maybe, but it would still be worth looking into. And had the game leaned more into its exploration, it could have stood out by virtue of how soothing an experience it would be. But instead of choosing either of those options, it does what countless other games have tried: reconciling two noticeably divergent gameplay styles. It takes a lot of skill to manage that sort of task, and sadly, Monster World IV just isn’t up to it. That doesn’t mean the game’s bad or an outright failure or anything like that. After all, I still found enough important things to enjoy about the game. However, I can’t help but feel the game would have been better served picking on gameplay style over another.

 

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