When a filmmaker needs to demonstrate that characters are good friends and have a long history together, they might decide to use a montage. They’d put a number of shots in sequence, showing the characters together in unrelated circumstances. Aquaplus’ new JRPG Monochrome Mobius: Rights and Wrongs Forgotten is what you’d get if you decided to let every shot of that montage play out in full with the accompanying context. In other words, it’s a whole new, different movie unto itself.
It’s not quite a “prequel,” in the sense that its events lead directly up to those of Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception (and its sequel, Mask of Truth). Rather, it’s the start of a new story starring Oshtor, a major supporting character from Mask of Deception. In Monochrome Mobius, we see him before he began his career as Yamato’s Imperial General of the Right. Young Oshtor, who believes his father long dead, encounters Shunya, a peppy young girl who claims to have been raised by that very father and just escaped enigmatic pursuers. Together they go on a quest to find out why Oshtor’s father abandoned his family and what he was doing in Shunya’s home, the mysterious land of Arva Shulan.
Along the way, they meet several other big names from Utawarerumono, including Mikazuchi, Oshtor’s future best friend and future Imperial General of the Left, and Munechika, a future Pillar General of Yamato. In fact, with a few exceptions, many of the major characters from the Utawarerumono Mask duology play roles as their younger selves in Monochrome Mobius. This deep, if indirect, connection to the larger franchise works in the game’s favor. That’s because the core story, when taken solely in isolation, isn’t especially novel. It hits its beats, but if you’re familiar with fantasy anime or have a few JRPGs under your belt, you’ll see most of it coming.
Taken as a part of Utawarerumono as a whole, however, Monochrome Mobius shines brilliantly. It’s a substantial expansion of the game’s unique sense of atmosphere and its already considerable backstory. Its distinct terminology, inspired by the aesthetic and culture of Japan’s indigenous peoples (such as the Ainu) might come across as hard-to-read gibberish to someone unfamiliar with the setting. To someone who knows (or at least has built up a tolerance to it over the course of the previous games) will instead feel a flash of warm nostalgia.
As a fan of the franchise, it was a joy just to browse the game’s glossary and read term and item descriptions. It was also great to see the game’s world expand beyond the nations of Yamato and Tuskur that we’re already familiar with. Seeing the origin points of certain quirks for these characters I had grown familiar with over the course of the Mask duology felt like getting to know them even better. I never knew I wanted to know where Oshtor and Mikazuchi got their disguised personas from, or to see who inspired their first naked drinking party, but I do now.
I just don’t know if that sense of deepening connection be as there for a person using Monochrome Mobius as their first brush with Utawarerumono. If you’ve the time, I would highly recommend playing the other games first, or at least trying out their anime adaptations.
If the game sticks close to home when it comes to its narrative and world-building, it goes much farther afield when it comes to its mechanics. The other Utawarerumono games were visual novels with a tactics-game layer to facilitate battles. Monochrome Mobius is a traditional JRPG. You’ll pilot the party of Oshtor, Munechika, Mikazuchi, and Shunya across open fields, moving from place to place in pursuit of the next side quest or cutscene. Along the way you’ll fight a ton of roaming monsters, buy new equipment (or improve what you’ve got), level up, learn skills, find treasures, navigate dungeons, and fight bosses. It ticks off every box in that big checklist of “Things JRPGs should have”.
One character even makes a couple of jokes that all but mention Dragon Quest and The Legend of Zelda by name, signaling that “Yes, we’re doing this thing because we’re in a JRPG.”
Don’t get me wrong, they’re good jokes! They’re especially clever because the context of Utawarerumono means that the jokes aren’t even “meta” and don’t break the Fourth Wall!
But at the same time, the sense that Aquaplus is simply ticking off a list of “JRPG design conventions,” rather than really asking if something fits or makes the game better, pervades Monochrome Mobius.
The environments of Yamato are massive, and take a long time to traverse. But bar a few locations, they’re completely unmemorable, a long procession of rolling hills and deep forests covered in so much foliage that it’s difficult to see roaming enemies without staring at the mini-map. Rather than large vistas or carefully designed sightlines and scenery, Monochrome Mobius‘ world is so visually indistinct that it needs regularly spaced signposts to tell you where you’re going.
It tries to reward exploration by hiding treasure chests and resource-gathering points in out-out-the-way reaches, but that sense of exploration conflicts with the scarcity of save points and the fact that the game only auto-saves on loading a new area. Additionally, when in the field there’s no good way of knowing if an enemy is strong or not (like a level indicator). The only way to find out if you’re in a dangerous place is to fight an enemy and see if it kills you. During this review, my game crashed while I tried to load into a safe town, wiping out nearly two hours of exploration progress and several side quests I completed in the same area. I felt like quitting right then and there.
Even the battle system doesn’t feel fully thought-out, just implemented as if to tick a box on the list. Monochrome Mobius combat isn’t technically turn-based, but is set around the concept of “Action Rings” that characters and enemies “race” around to get to their turn. Attacking enemies (or taking hits) knocks the target back, or even resets their progress if they’ve been “Staggered”. Players can speed up their turn frequency by “Ascending” into one of the inner Action Rings, too. You can also apply buffs and avoid debuffs by moving around the rings. Even certain spells don’t cast their effects on a target, but on a specific portion of the action ring, meaning that characters gain its effects only when their icon is passing through that portion.
In theory, the system allows for an interesting combination of timing management and positional management. Players can manipulate the order of actions by targeting the right enemies and using the right abilities. For example, you could try to knock a boss “back” with a certain skill to ensure he takes his turn after your characters have had a chance to heal or buff up.
In practice, though, this kind of forward thinking is rarely necessary outside of boss fights, at least on Normal difficulty. Even in boss fights, your level and equipment matter much more than how cleverly you can manipulate the Action Rings. It saves far more time to just spam area attacks and clean up the rest rather than do the careful targeting prioritization the game encourages. In all honesty, better this way. The system doesn’t give you all the information you’d really need to make use of the combat mechanics as designed. You can’t tell how far back an enemy will be “pushed” by your attacks, and icons move too quickly for you to make use of your sense of timing.
There’s not even a way to tell if an enemy is dying until they’re almost dead. As a result, any even fight in Monochrome Mobius is just a slugging match, where you try to do as much damage as possible and kill an enemy before they take their turn. This lack of forethought in the user experience discourages experimentation and instead privileges tedious grinding and safe strategies, so you don’t get wiped out and lose progress if you encounter something above your level range.
Luckily, the issues I have with Monochrome Mobius aren’t fundamental. Players who enjoy grinding can make the battle work for them, and other issues are the sort that can potentially be addressed with patches, or even in the sequel that’s rather shamelessly teased in the epilogue.
Fans of Utawarerumono should still consider giving the game a shot, as the strength of its story and characterization makes the trip worthwhile. Everyone else, though, would be better served by playing the previous games first before they take the plunge.
Monochrome Mobius: Rights and Wrongs Forgotten is available on PC globally. In Japan the game is available on PC, PS4, and PS5.