Monster Crown is not a game for beginners.
A long-anticipated release from developer Studio Aurum and publisher Soedesco, Monster Crown wants to feel tough. It wants to feel alienating at times. It wants you to feel like you’ve earned what you have. These sorts of things have been a trend in modern games for some time, but they haven’t really hit a monster-collecting genre dominated by the cute and painless.
It’s perhaps appropriate that it’s entering the market so close to a game on the other end, Crema’s Temtem. That’s a game for the sort of people who love dumping hundreds of hours into Pokémon’s status quo: IV optimization, shiny hunting, cute animations and colorful, friendly locales. Monster Crown is, instead, a game for people who enjoy beating Pokémon in 20 hours or so, setting it down and finding another game. Like Digimon or Dragon Quest Monsters. New mechanics, new monsters, new worlds. The learning curve is the appeal.
In an interview with Siliconera, lead developer Jason Walsh described Monster Crown as “a rough-and-tumble world where you have to fend for yourself.” This tracks with our time with the game, as you’re given some vague early tutorials and then largely set loose. Know how to get new monsters? Know how to access the menus? Cool, see ya!
It is, at times, a breath of fresh air after the oppressive hand-holding of Pokémon. Sometimes, it goes a step or two beyond what was needed, like its typing system that isn’t particularly intuitive. There are only five types, so you can memorize them! But the types, based around personality rather than element, don’t have the obvious “fire burns grass” sort of connections and the colors and icons don’t exactly do a lot to make things easier.
The result is a game you really need to wrangle. Its custom button prompts are disorienting for a while. There’s a whole button dedicated to making a monster sit so you can grab a snack and feed it. Battles are designed to have a built-in momentum, and it feels like, for once, the AI has a better handle on how to fight than you do. On the other hand, losing your items when you faint? It’s a change that leads to less of a hoarder mentality, even with the unfriendliness of the world.
The aesthetics of Monster Crown split the difference between the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance eras. The basic menus and color palettes feel more of the earlier era, but the environments have more detail and attention. As you’d expect, it’s the sort of look that is designed for smaller screens. We played a lot on a larger TV, and in this context its issues are more glaring. The idea that the game’s “widescreen GBC” look came from looking at a PlayStation Vita tracks, and Monster Crown will be a more enticing proposition if it lands on a handheld.
Monster Crown is an ambitious game from a very small team: developer Walsh handles most tasks, with contributions from others in sprite work, music and writing. This is clear in the current Early Access state of the game, beyond simple story limitations. Monsters spawn on parts of the screen you can never reach. Text spacing is justified and awkward to read. Invisible walls appear and disappear at random. Menus pop up sometimes with nothing in them, and speech bubbles persist atop every screen until you restart. A bit of this is acceptable, but it’s clear that there’s a long path until the game shows much polish.
In a way, this is almost nostalgic. Keitai Denjuu Telefang, a Japan-only Game Boy game Walsh has cited as inspiration, was itself a buggy mess at times. And that was before the infamous English hack, Pokémon Jade, the most-played version of the game that broke a lot while only sort of being English. Don’t get us wrong: we’re really looking forward to updates and fixes to make Monster Crown feel better. But it feels weirdly appropriate. That, along with a narrative that goes some less E-for-Everyone places, makes it very different from the polished, smiling safety of Pokémon.
What truly makes Monster Crown addicting is its intricate, instant-gratification breeding system. Choosing any two monsters breeds them into something different, and switching primary and secondary choices makes something entirely separate. New buds have separate sprites, a suite of moves from the parents and more, and they pop out of eggs nice and quick so you can get them trained up to benefit your team.
It’s this customization and feeling of making something your own that gives you a deeper level of attachment to Monster Crown‘s creatures. Sure, I bonded with my starter, Ambigu, just fine. But when I could make their kid? A little pal I affectionately named Clawkward? Clawkward wasn’t out there living a life before I came along. I chose for Clawkward to exist. I love Clawkward. (Ignore their swapped-parents sibling, Stacheley. Awful stats.)
Monster Crown will release through Steam Early Access on July 31, 2020.