There are certain gameplay elements that you might not expect to mesh together, but end up making a surprising amount of sense when you think about it. Both Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night and Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow are Metroidvanias where you collect abilities from monsters to make progress and improve your moveset. Pokemon games have Hidden Machine moves that allow you to reach previously inaccessible areas. Monster Sanctuary, from Moi Rai Games, builds on that by making your character a Monster Keeper who not only gets artifacts that augment their abilities, but uses monsters to explore.
Monster Sanctuary is set in a world where Monster Keepers, people who raise monsters, have established their own little area of the world for themselves. And it works, normally! Except instead of being the newest member of the ranks and focusing on learning, stronger than usual Champion monsters are appearing at an increased frequency and unsettling alchemists are showing up. This means you aren’t only learning and rising up the ranks, but figuring out how to restore balance to the surrounding regions.
While the story is present, it isn’t the real motivating factor in Monster Sanctuary. Discovering new monsters and accessing more of the sprawling, Dracula’s Castle-style map are the elements that are designed to drive people forward. And the game is good at it! The monster designs are fantastic. The map is big and full of secrets and reasons to double back. There are fast-travel points in places that make sense, and areas do have switches that let you create shortcuts after making a sufficient amount of progress in a location.
The monsters themselves are great too, as Monster Sanctuary works to make them more relevant for longer periods of time than other monster-catching games. Instead of games like Pokemon or Dragon Quest Monsters, each monster has attacks from multiple elements available. Their attacks can prioritize magical or physical abilities. Every one of them has multiple skill trees. They earn skill points upon leveling up, letting you decide their builds and even choose if you put more points into areas like health, defense, physical attacks, or passive abilities. And when you get an egg with a new monster as a reward from a battle, it hatches at an average level on par with your existing team, so you don’t have to worry about catching characters up.
There are also so many reasons to explore every corner of the map. Treasure chests are everywhere. They can hold new equipment for monsters, materials to improve equipment, items to help in fights, or food to help augment their stats ahead of battles. You might happen upon keys to unlock new areas of regions and advance the story. You could also find new explore ability upgrades for your own avatar, like the Double Jump Boots, that let you reach new spaces. Sometimes, there are even monsters only found at certain spots, like the Manticorb.
While Monster Sanctuary is novel, there are times when it can feel unapproachable. The game uses a team-based, turn-based battle system. Every fight involves you and your opponent having three monsters in the field. You choose attacks, exploiting weaknesses to win. (Before each match, you can see what elements opponents are weak and strong against and might use, as well as what your current party can use and is weak/strong against.) Building up a combo chain by using moves and monsters in an efficient order increases your star rank after a fight.
But to learn about the combo system, you actively have to seek out and speak to everyone in the Monster Keepers’ stronghold to learn its nuances. Even then, it’s the sort of system where a lot of learning comes from doing, and it might take a while to build up the knowledge, experience, and repertoire of monsters that will let you reach those higher scores that will increase the odds of certain monster eggs dropping.
All of this is complicated by the fact that Monster Sanctuary gets very challenging very fast. By the time you’re done with the tutorial area and in the Blue Caves, you might realize the enemy groups are getting a little intimidating. Then, once you hit the Stronghold Dungeon and Ancient Woods and start seeing evolved forms of initial monsters, battles can quickly go from being over and done in a minute or two to lasting at least five minutes at a time. Which can make surviving a priority until you catch up, rather than reaching a high ranking. And, since monsters aren’t respawning immediately after you defeat them, grinding for levels isn’t easy.
Which means it can be possible, perhaps even easy, to miss a monster you’d need to activate a certain trigger or reach a certain area. The Stronghold Dungeon’s Crackle Knight is a good example. This is the earliest monster with the Lightning Bolt explore ability that can activate that sort of elemental switch or light a torch. And you will see those orbs in both Blue Caves and Stronghold Dungeon, two of the earliest areas.
Monster Sanctuary is a game that feels satisfying and rewarding. When you earn more skill points, get a new monster, or find a new Explore Ability, it opens up more of a sufficiently large world to explore. But this is also a challenging game that requires you to experiment with teams, learn how to build combos, and invest a lot of time battling wild monsters to make sure you have the special abilities, evolutionary items, and experience you need to survive.
Monster Sanctuary is available for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. It is also on Xbox Game Pass.