Monster Tale Review (DS)
Watching as a console lives out its last days makes me feel like a vulture. I know the faithful little thing's about to bite the big one, but all I can think about is, “What's in it for me?” And so here I sit, perched atop a comfy chair in a warm room as the Nintendo DS chokes out its last breaths.
But why do I do it? Why do I take such grim pleasure in watching Nintendo's dual-screened ugly duckling go out with a whimper? Well, here's the dirty little secret about the end of a console’s life cycle: this is when the best, most inventive games come out. Everyone else is moving on to 3DS-only games, and that's too bad for them. They're missing out on gems like Monster Tale, an action-RPG virtual pet simulator (yes, you read that correctly) that's far deeper than it has any right to be.
Now, I know what you're thinking: That game? Seriously? The one with anime art so generic that it actually appears invisible to the naked eye on the shelf at GameStop? Yep. Seriously. The cover art may be lacking, and worse, the story glares disinterestedly at originality and then cracks open a dusty copy of “Intrepid World-Saving Youth Clichés Monthly.” But underneath that snooze-worthy wrapper is something truly special.
In a nutshell, Monster Tale takes the wide-open platforming action of games like Castlevania and Metroid and puts it in a blender with... a virtual pet. It's, er, a lot less gruesome than it sounds. The end result, then, is a highly successful genre fusion—both parts of Monster Tale's lineage are essential to making it tick, and it's a hell of a good time for that exact reason.
For a game with such colorful, kid-friendly looks, Monster Tale is shockingly diabolical in its design. The game's every mechanic is designed to hook players, and hook me it did. I was given control of Ellie, a little girl, then quickly stumbled across an egg containing a “Red Levitation Beast” which Ellie immediately named “Chomp." At this point, the game began in earnest.
See, Chomp, and the pet simulation game he represents, is not just some throw-away attempt to add yet another buzzword to Monster Tale's box. He follows Ellie on the top screen, occasionally singling out an enemy and floating behind it—kind of like a ghost, except with more punching. Here’s the wrinkle: at the press of a button, Chomp will immediately jump down to the bottom screen, which creates a sequestered area in which he can recharge and interact with items collected during top screen adventures.
These items—which range from cookies to toy cars to cameras—upgrade Chomp's stats and frequently spell doom for enemies on the top screen. For instance, the soccer ball bounces off of foes uncontrollably, giving children (and videogame enemies) the world over an actual reason to flinch during gym class.
And that's just the beginning. Sometimes, puzzles and special fights require Chomp to leap back and forth between the top and bottom screens almost constantly. These sections had my brain splitting in two faster than I could say “The World Ends With You.” This is a good thing.
In addition, Chomp both grows and evolves as he gains experience, resulting in all sorts of equippable traits and abilities. Evolutions—which power up Chomp's abilities in certain specialized areas and completely change his look—also tie in with Monster Tale's elemental system. On its own, it's a fairly basic “water beats fire, fire beats earth, earth beats water” pyramid, but tons of unlockable traits make it almost infinitely tweakable.
And that's not even to speak of Ellie, who's also upgradeable and customizable through shop purchases and special stations in the game world. Unlike Chomp, Ellie’s powers—which include melee combos, wall jumps, and things of the like—are unlocked in a more linear fashion and dictate which areas can be accessed, a la Metroid. (It is also worth noting that Ellie’s bracelet is basically Mega Man's megabuster, which is a feature I'd like to see included in more jewelry.)
It all meshes brilliantly to create a fun, compulsive experience. Many games operate on the “just five more minutes” principle, but Monster Tale often lavished me with a comparable amount of glittering prizes in as many seconds. Regardless of what I was up to, some exciting new thing was always placed ever-so-tantalizingly within my reach. New areas, new evolutions, new levels, new powers. It's far from a revolutionary method of drawing players in, but Monster Tale's pitch-perfect pacing of those rewards really sets it apart. I get the sense that Ellie knew exactly what she was doing when she named her newfound pet Chomp. The little jerk devoured countless hours of my life.
Really, Monster Tale only suffers from a few truly irksome flaws, none of which spoil the fun for too long. For one, levels, though often easy on the eyes, aren't terribly inventive and mostly consist off ho-hum platform hopping and long, uninspired hallways populated with baddies. And you’ll have to get used to those levels, because Monster Tale's also pretty big on backtracking. In fact, the game's basic formula can be boiled down to “go here, get new power, retrace footsteps across most of the map, repeat.”
But in some ways I consider that as a blessing—if Monster Tale hadn't occasionally thrown some tedium my way, I may have never stopped playing. (OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a little.) The Nintendo DS may have one screen in the grave, but with Monster Tale, it's going out on a high note.
Monster Tale was developed by DreamRift and published by Majesco. It is available for Nintendo DS and is compatible with the 3DS.
Nathan Grayson is a freelance games writer currently based out of Dallas, Texas. His work has appeared in Maximum PC, PC Gamer, GamesRadar, The Escapist, and VG247, and he can be found on Twitter @Vahn16. He's strong against fire, but weak against earth and misuses of the word “penultimate.”
Watch the trailer for Monster Tale: