Friday, December 14, 2018

Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom Review

Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is an all-new game in the Wonder Boy sub-series, Monster World. It was developed by Game Atelier and FDG Entertainment in collaboration with the original series creator, Ryuchi Nishizawa. For all intents and purposes, Monster Boy is Monster World V. It is an official Wonder Boy game taking place in Monster World. And no, it's not a remake of anything, and it's not the same game that came out 2 years ago, Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap.

Monster Boy takes place some undisclosed time after Asha and Pepelogoo's adventure in Monster World IV. One of the first characters you meet in the game is a blue Pepelogoo who is looking for a green-haired girl, and blue Pepelogoos are about as rare as shiny Po├ękmon, so you do the math. There are plenty of references to the previous games in this one, but the main story of Monster Boy doesn't have anything to do with the previous games. In Monster Boy, you play as Jin, a boy who, along with everyone else in the kingdom, has been turned into an animal by his drunk uncle, Nabu. Nabu got a hold of a special magic wand and is going on a magical drunken rampage through the kingdom. Jin tries to stop him, but gets turned into a pig in the process.

The story and dialogue in Monster Boy are not the game’s strong points, but they get the job done. All we really need is an excuse to go on an adventure. The main characters’ dialogue doesn't show much personality that sets them apart from each other, and their choice of words seems a bit too modern and real world-like for a fantasy game. Pepelogoo actually says “cool” at one point. Thankfully, there really isn't a lot of dialogue, and we don't need it either. This game is about adventure, not story.

Monster Boy's gameplay combines the main mechanics of Dragon's Trap and Wonder Boy in Monster World. It has transformations similar to Dragon's Trap and equipment-based abilities, like Wonder Boy in Monster World. There's a lot of equipment in this game, too. There are 8 armor sets in all, each including a chest piece, boots, bracelet, shield, and a weapon. Each piece of equipment has different stats and ability bonuses. For example, you can get boots that let you double jump, a shield that deflects physical projectiles, and a fire sword that shoots fireballs when you're at full health, like Link. Like in Zelda, you'll often have to use specific items to reach new areas and solve puzzles. For example, you have to use heavy boots to walk on the ocean floor early in the game. You have to bring up the inventory screen to switch equipment, but there's never an Ocarina of Time Water Temple moment. There is a second or 2 of loading when switching some gear, though, and that can get annoying. At least on the Switch version, which is the one I played.

Monster Boy is a side scrolling action adventure (Metroidvania) very similar to Wonder Boy in Monster World, but it only has 1 big hub town, like Dragon's Trap and Monster World IV. If you're not familiar with the previous games, Monster Boy is also very similar to the original Shantae trilogy, or something like a side scrolling Zelda game. Like Zelda II, but not as evil. Most of the game is spent exploring and solving puzzles in dungeons. There is a lot of platforming and combat, but I think this one is much more about exploration and puzzles than the previous games.

If you played Dragon's Trap and are worried about slippery controls, don't be. You only slide around like you're walking on ice when you actually are walking on ice in this game. Monster Boy controls more like Wario or Shantae than Dragon's Trap. You can also expect this game to be a lot less oldschool than previous games. Monster Boy has fast travel, you can buy unlimited potions, there are frequent save points, and they are very forgiving. You get to keep your gold, puzzle progress, and get your potion back, even if you die before getting to another save point. The game is challenging, but not because of archaic systems.

Your main method of exploring new areas and solving puzzles in Monster Boy is using the special abilities of your animal transformations. Including Hu-Man, there are 6 transformations in the game and you can switch between them whenever you want, unlike in Dragon's Trap. There's no belly dancing required either. You get a new transformation after beating the last boss of the first 5 dungeons after the first one, so you have to play through 2 dungeons with nothing but the Pig form. This did feel like too long to be playing with the Pig, since he’s not very good at fighting. You also don't get to play as a Hu-Man for most of the game, since Jin is turned into Pig-Man after the intro level.

Pig-Man can't use equipment, so he can't get any abilities from gear. Not even a double jump. He can; however, butt stomp, use his pig snout to sniff out hidden hints and treasure chests, and use all magic spells. Magic spells work a lot like sub-weapons in Dragon's Trap or Castlevania and they can be used to attack and solve puzzles.

Snake-Man can't use equipment either, but he can spit venom, cling to moss on walls and ceilings, and since he's a tiny snake, he can squeeze through small passageways. Snake-Man can also swallow and carry some key items around in his stomach, like how a real snake swallows its prey whole.

Frog-Man can use his tongue to swing on rings hanging around the environments, like Indiana Jones. He can also use his tongue to attack and stun enemies, and to grab some key items and carry them around in his mouth. Frog-Man is the first transformation you get that can use equipment, and you'll him for that.

Lion-Man can use equipment and has a jumping downward thrust, similar to Pig-Man’s butt stomp, which can be used break blocks underneath you. He has a Wario-like dashing shoulder bash, which can be used to break blocks, and he can also use the dashing shoulder bash to run over water.

Dragon-Man can use equipment, breathe fire, and fly, like Hawk-Man in Dragon's Trap. He can either shoot fireballs by tapping the A button or breathe fire, like a flamethrower, by holding down the button. Dragon-Man can fly without any limits, but only when you have the Dragon Talisman. Without it, both flying and fire breathing use a stamina meter, which regenerates similarly to the stamina meter in some recent Zelda games.

In Hu-Man form, Jin can use equipment and magic, and he gets a warp dash (blink) when you get the Human Talisman. Jin gets a jumping downwards thrust, like the Lion’s, and an upwards slash unique to him. Like in Dragon’s Trap, you don’t get to use human form for most of the game, but there is plenty of opportunity to use him in the late game. Although, since the Dragon can fly around unhindered near the end, I didn’t use Jin a whole lot if it wasn’t required.

Monster Boy’s dungeons are similar to the ones in Wonder Boy in Monster World and Monster World IV, but much bigger and more about using your abilities for platforming and solving puzzles than they are about combat. They also have you running all over the place a lot more than dungeons in previous games. This isn’t one of those games in which you only use your latest ability to get through the latest dungeon either. You always have to keep all your transformation’s abilities in mind. I really liked the dungeons. Few Metroidvanias get dungeons so right.

My favorite dungeon is the Haunted Manor. It reminds me of Luigi's Mansion and has very Castlevaniaish music from Michiru Yamane. It has lots of environmental puzzles that have you rolling spiked balls around to break big stone blocks, possessing furniture like a ghost, routing electricity around with the help of Pepelogoo, and even doing a very Shantae-like race against an NPC.

Monster Boy has some of the best graphics of any modern day Metroidvania. Jin and all his transformations have a clean and simple, anime style to them, and they’ve all been animated by hand. Their heads are a bit smaller than characters in the old games, but they fit in pretty well with past heroes. Some of the NPCs look like they were drawn in a different style, and don’t look as good as the main characters, but that’s probably because the game went through a few different iterations of character designs and graphical styles. The backgrounds are all beautiful hand-painted scenes with tons of detail and really nice lighting. Every area looks completely different and fits in perfectly with the dungeon connected to it. For example, a moonlit cemetery full of bare trees, wrought iron gates, and gravestones leads to the Haunted Manor, and a lush jungle full of tropical plants and trees, waterfalls, stone snake heads, and Aztec inspired pyramids leads to The Lost Temples.

I have a big problem with the text and UI in this game. It’s just too small. I can’t read the text, look at the map, or see the tiny icons on magic chests from where I normally sit. I went through half the game before I noticed the icons on the magic chests. I’m sure it would look fine if I was sitting 2 feet away from a computer monitor, but I usually play around 12ft away from a TV. I had to either play this in handheld mode or pull up a chair closer to the TV to play this.

I’m usually not impressed by HD rumble in Switch games, because few games do anything special with it, but I really like how it's used in Monster Boy. This game uses HD rumble to make you feel the environment. You can feel the sewage bubbling in the sewers and the earth rumbling inside the volcano. What makes this even cooler is that it’s stereo HD rumble. If something happens on the left side of the screen, you feel it on the left side of the controller. You can feel Lion-Man running from one side of the screen to the other on your controller, for example. It just goes to show you how much thought was put into this game.

Monster Boy’s soundtrack is really something special. It’s definitely one of the best I’ve heard all year. Some of the best Japanese videogame music composers worked on it, including Yuzo Koshiro of Streets of Rage fame, Michiru Yamane, who worked on Castlevania SOTN and Aria of Sorrow, and Motoi sakuraba, who worked on Kid Icarus: Uprising, and many Tales of and Mario Tennis games. It has lots of new versions of classic Wonder Boy songs remixed in rock, ska, soul, and even disco. Fans of the old games are in for a treat. I especially loved Michiru Yamane’s original songs, which sound like they’re straight out of Castlevania.

I’m not saying this game is perfect, but this is one of the best modern day Metroidvanias I’ve played in recent years. It’s a huge 15+ hour game, and it’s fun all the way through. I never felt like I was doing filler content to pad the game out or doing something that wasn’t fun. It was challenging, but not too frustrating, the bosses were original and off-the wall, and the way it references every Wonder Boy game felt right and made sense within this world. I think every fan of Metroidvanias should go out of their way to play this.