When talk of a new game from former Shin Megami Tensei developers started up, I was all in. Between the mainline SMT games, the side stories, and Persona titles, anything anyone within that sphere wants to sell me I am ready to buy. Monark‘s more muted color palette and tactical battle system aren’t exactly like my aforementioned comfort games, but I did learn not to judge a game by its trailer.
Monark takes place in a fairly familiar setting. High schoolers find themselves trapped in mysterious circumstances that adults could have prevented if only they actually cared. In this case, Shin Mikado Academy’s campus is filled with an eerie mist that turns anyone inside of it into a shell of who they once were. In order to save these Unsettled, our amnesiac main character accepts a phantom phone call and forms a pact with a supernatural being named Vanitas. The arrangement? Defeat the Pactbearers (one for each of the seven sins) in order to lift the barrier and stop the Otherworld from taking over.
With our small group of eclectic companions and a handful of half truths from members of the school’s administration, the goal of saving the campus weighs heavy on the group for varying reasons. What drove the Pactbearers to bond with their Monarks? Are the Ideals they want to uphold righteous or selfish? Why does the dean have a doppelgänger, and what is their goal?
Each Pactbearer controls one of the campus buildings. Floor by floor, the main character and one companion systematically solve puzzles in search of the connecting point between their world and the Otherworld. But walking through the mist isn’t without its own hazards. Not only does exposure increase your Madness (MAD) gauge, but you run the risk of aggravating Unsettled students. They can attack, should you get too close. There’s also the chance that an incoming Death Call could trigger people in the area to chase after you. Death Calls are avoidable, should you choose to dial the Precipice number Vanitas provides when you enter the area.
Monark utilizes a turn-based tactical system. All of your teammates, whether they are human or fiend, have standard attacks based on their weapon style and more devastating blows which consume HP. Pactbearers and Fiends in your party have access to Authorities; these are special skills that increase your MAD gauge instead of consuming HP. Positioning units just so can trigger chain attacks, which is something that I find true joy in doing. Figuring out the best and most damaging ways to slaughter enemies puts a smile on my face.
One of the more unique abilities Monark has is its resonance system. The main character’s Authorities grant him the power to share status effects, stats, and even the Authorities of anyone he is resonating with. There’s even a version that allows him to resonate with enemies, meaning if you are Awakened and resonating with a Pactbearer or their Monark, you can turn their own special Authority powers against them. So satisfying!
Instead of using an experience system for character growth, Monark rewards successful battles with Spirit. Spirit has two functions. The first is to purchase battle items like health restoratives or cures from Vanitas. The second is to unlock and upgrade skills in your skill trees. All Spirit is pooled for you to allocate as you see fit. Every time you unlock or upgrade a node on the tree, your level will increase as well as any associated stats. Progression along the tree will at times require certain skills to be leveled up to unlock others. Leveling skills also alters them by reducing HP or MAD costs or increasing the area of effect.
Another way to boost stats is locating Alter Ego shards hidden around campus. So long as you meet the Ego requirement, you can pick these shards up. You’ll also reveal redacted information from the target’s profile card. If you can’t pick up a shard, jot down which building/floor/room you spotted it in. This way you won’t be wasting time trying to remember where that shard asking for your Ego of Gluttony to be at least 400 is. Don’t be like me, who 40 hours in was backtracking through every building hoping to stumble across the ones I missed.
If you find yourself under-leveled for Monark battles, you’re going to want to do some grinding. You can re-dial those Precipice numbers if you like or find potential Otherworld connections in notes or lore books. Dungeons offer differing bonuses. Some grant items or equipment for your fiends. But if you are going after Spirit, I’m going to recommend you repeat any Fertile Grounds phone numbers in your contacts list. The higher the difficulty, the more bonus Spirit earned.
You can boost your Ego levels by taking personality tests from a few Shin Mikado students. I’ll be honest, the analysis tied to the answers seems very odd and disjointed. What you think might be an answer that will increase your Gluttony levels will somehow fuel another Ego aspect. It’s kind of a clunky mechanic when you compare it to Persona‘s tarot system, with no real rhyme or reason that makes sense. Instead of putting all of your eggs in the test basket, I recommend calling into Otherworld dungeons in search of fiends that match the sin you want to level up. If you’re grinding for Spirit, why not chase after Ego at the same time?
Monark does suffer from slightly lackluster character designs. The in-game models remind me of poorly detailed Harmonia humming dolls with their off-putting blank faces. You need to look at the dialogue box for emotional context clues. Textures are extremely flat, which is immediately noticeable in the school uniforms. Bookshelves in the library have no depth. But then a Monark shows up with incredible and intricate detailing, and I wonder why so much work went into something you encounter only once while the Protagonist and his companions remain dolls. When you consider the caliber of people who worked on this game, you expect better than end-of-life PS2 graphics.
My other big peeve is the lack of individual building maps. The game gives us a map with the layout of the Shin Mikado Academy campus, sure. But once we’re inside a building, all we get is a mini-map in the top right corner. I could find no way to expand it either. A larger version with room markers and icons to show which Alter Ego shards I hadn’t picked up yet would have been a huge help.
It may not be the next great JRPG, but if you’ve been looking for a tactics style game that provides a decent challenge, I’m going to recommend picking Monark up when your budget allows. It fits right into the niche, and the story’s twists and turns might just surprise you. If you look past the bland character models and focus on their individual stories, there’s something charming and alluring lurking below the drab surface.
Monark will be available on February 22, 2022 for the PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5.