Joyous 2-D sprites and backgrounds; huge monster-raising time sink (that's good); great execution of hybrid genres
So much backtracking, it's slightly sigh-worthy; no map unless you press Start
The thing about Monster Tale isn’t that it’s about a girl who shoots and smacks monsters in order to escape the planet she’s on, because that sounds a little too familiar to some other series for comfort. In fact, it’s actually quite unfair to think about Monster Tale in terms of other games– unless we’re comparing Monster Tale to not one, not two, but a whole plethora of other games. That’s how insane Monster Tale is, and platform gamers are all the better for it.
Did I say platform gamers? I meant RPG gamers. Wait, no, side-scrolling adventure gamers. Side-scrolling adventure gamers who also enjoy platforming and leveling up and discovering power-ups.
Check out a screenshot of Monster Tale and what you’ll see is a platforming game, albeit one more along the lines of Castlevania and Metroid than Super Mario Bros. And when you start to play Monster Tale, that’s exactly what it seems like. Playing as a girl named Ellie, you run across an alternate dimension where monsters roam and Kid Kings rule over them, jumping around and hoping you don’t touch anything too dangerous. But then Ellie finds the first of many Metroid-inspired power-up statues, all of which add to Ellie’s arsenal in some way. Initially, it’ll be a strangely Mega Man-esque Band that shoots piddling energy bullets, which will be enough to destroy most beginning enemies; later, the statues bestow Ellie a super-energized satchel that gives her the ability to become a combo-rific old-lady-with-purse cliché sixty years early, or more practical abilities like wall-jumping or rolling. In fact, even if Ellie didn’t have a monster, she’d be a veritable wave of Armageddon, though it does get a little bit difficult to remember which button combination does what. It gets to the point where it’s vaguely disturbing to see a little girl shooting explosions out of her fingertips– but then again, the monsters she shoots usually have it coming.
If this sounds a little too much like Metroid, just hang on.
Left: Infant Chomp’s up for some light reading. Right: Teenager Chomp’s ready to impale some monsters.
Coupled with Ellie is a monster named Chomp, whose true identity in the storyline is something of a secret– for, it turns out, good reason. Ellie discovers Chomp early on in the game, and he immediately starts following her. Initially, Chomp’s usefulness is highly limited. He’ll float around Ellie as she attacks monsters, sometimes feeling adventurous enough to deliver a super-weak punch of his own. But for some reason, monsters in Ellie’s world drop things ranging from cookies to catapults, and when Ellie gives Chomp enough of these things, he’ll level up, getting increases in stats like Stamina, Speed, Defense, or Intellect. This, of course, is nice to see, even if you don’t always see these stats in action initially (Ellie usually destroys enemies before Chomp does much damage)– but what players will really look for when leveling Chomp is new abilities.
While a Chomp floating by himself is a somewhat useless partner, a Chomp equipped with the ability to impale enemies with Vertical Spike or throw a Castlevania-esque Holy Water projectile with Ghoul’s Cascade is a monster worth feeding his weight in chocolate chip cookies. If it isn’t clear by now, the incentives for leveling Chomp are great– and since you can gain experience points either by having Chomp defeat enemies with skills or by feeding him endless snacks, leveling is a somewhat constant affair that usually reaps reward after reward. Moreover, you can certainly speed it up if you really dedicate yourself to leveling; the gains Chomp gets almost always outweigh the monotony of impaling enemy after enemy.
In fact, DreamRift does such a great job with monster-raising that it often seems like you’re playing two games at once. While Ellie fights off the Kid Kings with her super-powered satchel, she never levels up, nor does she ever change– at least, not the way Chomp does. As you can see in the masthead, Chomp eventually turns into a giant, hulking beast of a creature– but he doesn’t always have to be that way. In fact, though Chomp can definitely evolve, and in fact gains “mandatory” evolutions by sheer virtue of moving through the game. Chomp is also equipped with a whole evolutionary tree of optional evolutions, and can thankfully switch back and forth between them. That is, while players can totally ignore the monster-raising aspect of the game and focus on the platforming action instead (though that ignores the very title of the game), players who take the time to unlock evolutions will be sucked into a realm of Poképroportions.
Based on what items Chomp interacts with, Chomp will evolve into various forms, each with its own skillset; if players level Chomp enough in each form, he will master these skills, enabling their usage in alternate evolutionary forms as well. Considering that some enemies can only be beaten by certain types of skills, it’s often worth the while to level– and besides, it’s always funny to see a hulking adult Chomp use a still-useful skill he learned as an infant. (I used the aforementioned Vertical Spike, one of the first moves Chomp learns, more often than I care to admit.)
For some reason, Chomp’s the only cute-ish monster in the bunch.
Of course, considering how many evolutionary forms there are, it’s very easy to spend a few hours in an enemy-infested chamber, trying to master all the skills and unlock all the evolutions in just one tree. Often, players will feel the sudden rush of victory after unlocking what seems to be the final skill or evolution in one particular branch, only to check the genealogy again and realize that they’ve inadvertently revealed three more evolutions they’ll have to unlock– at which point they’ll either decide to finally get on with the storyline (with their likely overpowered Chomp) or spend another hour or two killing hapless creatures. Inevitably, though, spending so much time taking care of Chomp makes him surprisingly endearing, making the inevitable times when he runs out of hit points sad, sad guilt trips.
What’s really interesting is that all of this evolution-unlocking and monster-smashing is set in a game that otherwise seems a lot like Metroid. Players go through worlds that, while admittedly much nicer than Norfair or Crateria, still require constant backtracking to fully explore. Sometimes, this backtracking gets a little ridiculous, as players will be directed to go into the depths of one world, just to find a power-up that’s required to explore a single room two worlds away. And without teleportation chambers, sometimes it feels like you’re going through Dracula’s Castle in Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, except on foot. This probably contributed to my focus on monster-training, because after trekking through what seemed like the whole of Ellie’s world, only to have to return to the beginning, I felt too fatigued to do anything other than slay enemies in the same room over and over again. Having to manually access the map instead of having it on the bottom screen didn’t help– though thankfully it did show me exactly where I needed to go, even if it were literally worlds away (and even if it were totally nonsensical). Without the map, though, I would have gotten lost pretty easily– especially in the earlier worlds, where certain rooms look exactly the same as other ones.
A Kid King and his fully evolved monster. It’s got nothing on even Baby Chomp.
The process of backtracking, though, is at least visually pleasing. Ellie and Chomp are tastefully rendered and the worlds are, for the most part, nothing like the fantasy-inspired worlds that typical platformers like to send their heroes. It’s especially wonderful to just watch the animations as Ellie leaves a path of destruction in her wake with her Band and satchel, or glance at the background of a mosh pit-inspired world during a boss fight to see random silhouettes rooting you on. And while some evolutions are slightly off-kilter or somewhat too derivative of each other, others are surprisingly aesthetically pleasing, even if they’re sometimes grotesque. The music, on the other hand, is a little generic, though because Ellie and Chomp are voice-acted, you’ll mostly be hearing grunts and giggles instead of lilting melodies anyway (which actually isn’t as annoying as it sounds).
The Nintendo DS may be on its last legs as the 3DS rolls out to usurp its throne, but considering the backwards-compatibility of the latter system, gamers have no excuse not to pick up Monster Tale. (And besides, it’s not like the 3DS launch titles are especially breathtaking.) Despite some minor platforming quibbles, DreamRift’s crafted a wonderful number that defies any generic description, and platformer/role-playing/adventure enthusiasts (hah) should definitely check it out.
Nintendojo was provided a copy of this game for review by a third party, though that does not affect our recommendation. For every review, Nintendojo uses a standard criteria.