Gimme a "platformer!" Gimme a "virtual pet!" WTS!?
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Comparisons with Dreamrift's previous effort, Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure, are imminent: though much, much easier, Monster Tale - directed by Peter Ong and released in 2011 on Nintendo DS - is a platformer on the top screen of the system with a different kind of action - in this case, pet raising - on the bottom. Like Henry Hatsworth, there's more to pay attention to than in a more straightforward game and it can get very frenetic when it needs to be. The inclusion of Chomp, a monster who grows stronger and acquires new abilities and Forms as the game goes on, is much like a much more fleshed out, central version of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night's familiars system; too, its breaking up of levels into different maps with a connecting hub and guiding of the player through the journey with goal spots on the maps is very kin to Metroid Fusion, which deviated from Super Metroid's subtlety to much controversy. Similarities considered, Monster Tale is a unique, engrossing game with a lot to delve into for those interested in the investment.
The "Monster Tale" is light-hearted, without even an adult character around to make things too realistic: 5 young children from the human world have found their way into Monster World, each escaping his or her dissatisfaction at being a kid and ruling the Monster Kingdoms with little iron fists. Meade, Deanu, Zoe, and Ethan each rule one such Kingdom, with Priscilla residing as Queen supreme. One day in the human world, a young girl named Ellie is woken up from her sleep by a loud noise. Following the noise, she makes her way to the forest, where she finds a glowing band sitting on the ground. She is transported to Monster World and, band on her wrist, begins exploring and collecting abilities. When she finds a large egg and it hatches before her, a little red monster which she names "Chomp" comes forth and the two set out to find his mother. Soon she finds out that Prince Chomp's mother used to be the queen of Monster World before she was dethroned by some kids. Ellie's agenda then turns to freeing the Monster Kingdoms and returning Chomp to his mother. The plot sets up the cute game fittingly and doesn't lose itself into the darker aspects of dictatorship, which would kill the intended whimsy.
The player only controls Ellie, a la Henry Hatsworth, in full; her jumping has a decidedly floaty feel to it and takes a little getting used to. Still, floaty controls are preferable for this game's purposes to clunky, stiff controls, and the eventually collected ability to slide against and jump off of walls helps a lot with going up vertical corridors and large rooms. 'B' is used to make her jump and, later, to launch off of and eventually climb walls a la Mega Man X; 'Down' plus 'B' to perform a roll on the ground which helps Ellie get into narrow crawl spaces; 'Left' plus 'Left' or 'Right' plus 'Right' quickly has Ellie do a brief dash in either direction; 'Y' serves to have her beat at foes with her Satchel; 'Up' plus 'Y' to execute an uppercut, causing the savior of Monster World to jump into the air; 'Y' plus 'Down' while in midair to crash down on anything below; and 'A' to use the Band to fire blasts at enemies (this sapping her Super Meter, which is then restored by using melee attacks). She'll also gain various button combos that enhance these abilities later on: a Melee String upgrade expanding her Satchel attack to a five-part sequence of attacks, for one; and Band Blaster upgrades that increase the distance, rapidity, and effectiveness of her shots and allowing her to fire while in mid-air. There are 16 abilities to attain in all, and half of these are Band Blaster-based - though useful additions to the game's combat, they seem to have been included mostly to solve arbitrary obstacles in the latter half of the game. Ellie begins her journey with 4 hearts - which may be temporarily reduced in halves or all at once based on how severe a given blow is - and by purchasing 3 extras and finding 3 on her journey, she can end up with 10. She can also increase the damage she does against enemies, her blaster efficiency, the restoration rate for recharging her Super Meter, and the frequency at which enemies drop treasure.
Chomp, unlike Ellie, can be present both in the top screen as a familiar-helper who follows her around and fights alongside her, or in the bottom screen - the Pet Sanctuary - where he'll mostly recover and eat food, taking care of a few obstacles in either top or bottom here and there. He can be transferred from screen-to-screen with the 'X' button, or by tapping the bottom screen with the stylus while Chomp is in the top screen. While topside, the prince of Monster World's Pet Meter will drain, and while he attacks and takes damage it will drain even faster. Chomp must be sent down low in order to quickly recover his Pet Meter. When Ellie obtains an item other than money from defeated enemies, it will fall to the Pet Sanctuary - 18 such items can be contained in the Sanctuary at once, along with the odd enemy and obstacle. While in said lower portion of the DS system, Chomp will use up the items, gaining experience and increasing his stats. He'll also send them up above to help Ellie with enemies - a soccer ball, for instance, will fly to the top screen and bounce against the ends of the screen, damaging hostile monsters in its wake, while a camera will flash and stun enemies for just enough time to give Ellie the advantage. Between Ellie, Chomp, and the action on both screens, there's quite a bit to keep track of, and things can get exciting at times.
There are 30 Forms for Chomp, 10 in each of 3 categories: Adolescent, Teenager, and Adult. One is started out with the adolescent Foundling form, which levels up as it gets fed and helps Ellie defeat enemies. In the Evo screen in the game menu - opened, oddly enough, with the 'Select' button where as the map screen is opened with 'Start' - one can view the trees for each age of development: starting with the Foundling, two locked forms are depicted beside it which are unlocked with experience and the right food, reading material, exercise routine, and the like. That is, the earlier locked Forms for each category will easily become available as their parent Form gains experience and stat upgrades, but then the last few evolutions will require a specific diet for Chomp (the player can select previously-available Forms at any time later in the game). What's more than a little odd and somewhat annoying is that if a parent form levels up to 30 without being given the proper nurturing, any Forms branching off from it are inaccessible without starting the game over entirely. No change in diet or routine at the max level of 30 will correct this. This should only be a major factor for big completionists, as it's not more than the last handful of Forms in each tree that can be locked permanently, and besides this the second and third tree sections are locked early on in the completion of their preceding sections. Unlocking new and different incarnations of Ellie's companion is still satisfying; though, the only ultimate reward to it all is that the player has every Form upon completion - which may or may not deter one's motivation and disappoint those that find out when they've already gone the distance.
Chomp's forms come in different shapes and sizes, getting bigger with each stage and having different features as one progresses through the tree. Each one has an elemental affinity of Fire, Water, and Earth; between Chomp and his enemies, which also have said affinities, Fire attacks are strong against Earth, Earth against Water, and Water against Fire. The pet prince also has a range of stats; from an initial number depending upon the form to a max number of 999, there is: STA, or Stamina, which makes his Pet Meter sap at a slower or faster rate; ATK, or Attack, which gives him his offensive power; DEF, or Defense, which decides how much damage he takes from enemies; SPD, or Speed, which allows him to move more or less quickly on either screen; and INT, which decides the amount of experience gained and rate at which little/medium/big Chomp eats/uses/completes an item in the Pet Sanctuary. There are many different kinds of items, from foods like cookies and squash, to exercise items that include dumbbells and bicycles, as well as toys like toy cars and video games, reading material such as books and scrolls, artistic things including paint brushes and cameras, and such oddities as soap and meteorites. Each of these gives different Forms their allotted experience toward leveling up, along with a free small stat boost for the trouble.
One monster among all those Ellie and Chomp contend with through the game, Jinx, will offer help - for a price. At Jinx's shop, one can purchase Pet Sanctuary items and certain mentioned upgrades to Ellie's own stats. Being able to simply buy items for Chomp rather than attain them from the right enemy is quite convenient. There are 6 maps to be explored in all: the Olympus-like Ancient Ruins which connects all the rest to one another; kid king Meade's own world, Meadeland; kid king Deanu's world, Deanuford; ruling brat Zoe's, Zoetopia; trouble-making young'un Ethan's realm, Ethanica; and, finally, Primhedge Palace, master queen Priscilla's centralized place of ruling which, in addition to the Ancient Ruins, also connects to remote parts of the lower 4 kid rulers' kingdoms. Filling out the maps is easy as there's not much in the way of possible divergences from the intended path when going to a given part of the game's goal, except into one or two rooms placed to the side or perhaps into previously-unlocked areas. Albeit non-linear by the time all the maps are completed, the adventure over the course of the game is quite linear as far as open world sidescrollers go. There's also a lot of backtracking between these kingdoms, but this only gives the player many opportunities to fight enemies and earn money and treasure for Chomp.
Graphically, this is a colorful and cartoony-looking game, with lots of bright hues and cutesy super-deformed anime art. Ellie has a very confident yet innocent expressiveness to her sprite, with Sonic the Hedgehog-cobalt hair and the lovable determinedness to go along with. Each of Chomp's Forms and each of his Skills has its animations in full. There are a few minor enemies that are re-colored versions of weaker ones and the pillar of energy that surrounds Ellie while saving is noticeably Flash-like, but for the most part the visuals more than meet the need even if they're not stunningly gorgeous.
Ian Stocker, best known for his work with indie developer MagicalTimeBean, provides a nice, whimsical score. Of the standouts: 'The Tale Begins (Monster Tale Main Theme)' is a sweet and mellow lullaby; 'This New World (Ancient Ruins)' uses the same tune but with much more energy, starting the player out with a little motivation for the journey ahead; 'Meet Meade (Meade's Theme)' is a sassier rendition of some notes from that last one; 'Scratch Pit Showdown' is an intense fight song; 'Aquarium Surf Battle' is a surfing theme with a sense of imminence appropriate for the accompanying boss battle; and 'Primhedge Palace' captures both Priscilla's titular prissiness and her grandiose malevolence.
The controls may be floaty and the Form locking frustrating, but these don't hold back the fun of guiding Ellie through the 6 maps and acquiring and powering up Chomp's different Forms. There's a lot of backtracking involved and a lot of encouraged improving of both Ellie's and Chomp's stats, and thus this title is likely more for Metroidvaniacs and RPG fans than for those preferring a straight-forward approach. Though a one-of-a-kind game, its free-roaming exploration, role-playing elements, and pet simulation make it sufficient enough for nurturing different cravings for different personalities.
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