By Alex Orona, Third Coast Review:
Monster Sanctuary is a new retro RPG that brings the 16-bit nostalgia of the glory days to a modern console generation. It takes bits and bobs of the SNES classics and combines them in a low key comfort food of a game. There is a lot to like in the way Monster Sanctuary is built, and the nostalgia factor provides just enough dopamine to entertain. Unfortunately, memories are most of what it brings to the table.
Each journey in Monster Sanctuary starts with a choice between four starting monsters. Each monster has a different elemental affinity which will play out later in combat. These starter monsters act as your guide, providing helpful tips, noteworthy paths and instructions in case one might lose their path. You can also acquire additional monsters for your battle party via eggs given as combat rewards that can then be assigned to a team of 3 monsters you’ll take into battle.
Enemy monsters are strewn throughout the world at random and once contacted, will initiate a battle of the turn based JRPG variety. The battle system puts its primary focus on debuffs/buffs and stat building to push wins. For example, it can be better to include a monster that can both poison and lower armor so that those heavy hitters can hit with heavy crits. Each turn, your monsters will build a damage percent meter, so the third monster will have its damage boosted to 130% and then reset at the end of the turn. This places an emphasis on turn order, where the goal is trying to focus those heavy hitters in the final turn with debuff monsters placed in front. Another thing to take into account is your monster’s mana pool. Each attack costs mana, which is regenerated at the end of each round, but how much is determined by their mana stat, so a monster could be left out in a lurch without the ability to attack if you don’t pay attention to their stats.
Monster stats can be managed with equippable gear and weapons, or given boosts if fed specific foods, and their skill trees are pretty deep. Some monsters have more possible options than others. The trees increase damage on abilities, add extra beneficial spells to other spells, and generally boost your monsters. These can be as straightforward or convoluted as you want. In one instance I had a point that let me cast a shield but then added additional regenerating health, while in a second tree, if I cast the same shield, I could choose to have it poison an enemy. There are a lot of choices, and Monster Sanctuary’s gameplay can get pretty dense as a result.
These abilities make a fascinating combat system that can seem hard to keep track of but can otherwise be ignored to play the more direct route. The direct route being, stacking a power hitter with crit damage and percentage so they hit like a truck…a lot. It’s a satisfying combat system. The mechanics are set up for you to play how you’d want and it is beneficial to specialize to one or two skill trees instead of spreading points over them all. Adding in food stat increases and armor stats, customizing your monsters is up to you. Armor can also be leveled to provide even bigger boosts.
Your monster companions also provide secondary action when adventuring through the world when selected. These abilities range from lighting torches and moving blocks to floating, opening hidden passages and even grappling to higher areas. These add a slight twist to exploring, even acting as roadblocks when you do not have the proper monster to progress yet. That’s the progression as far as adventuring goes. Unlocking more of the map, leveling up, evolving and finding more monsters. There is a loose narrative with sparse dialogue and rival monster trainers but it’s rare and without a ton of direction.
Monster Sanctuary pulls from some of my favorite games of all time. It plays out in beautiful pixel art world reminiscent of favorites like Castlevania or Final Fantasy, and uses simple 2D platforming that feels smooth and responsive. You traverse multiple biomes in an expansive interconnected map with unlockable shortcuts and fast travel waypoint crystals. There is a lot to explore in this world with a classic monster catching system that features deep JRPG style combat–but it doesn’t do anything to stand out. The combat is deep to expand your monsters’ repertoire, but doesn’t hook enough to want to push past the necessary grinding. Most monsters in the world can be avoided with a double jump, so fights start to feel like a chore at later levels. Also, since each battle starts with every monster at full health (despite having died in a fight previously) it makes the stakes very low.
There are also online battles with six monster teams or NPC trainer challenges to really test your mettle. With 100 monsters currently available, you can catch however many you want (even all of them if you so choose.)
The art is fantastic stylistically but continuously presents more generic style monsters with the occasional standouts. The four starter monsters look mostly similar and don’t get varied until deeper levels. The map is decently sized but each varying environment features only slight variations in color, with the addition of a rocky or grassy patch and some occasional puzzle sections.
Monster Sanctuary represents some of the best RPG nostalgia I’ve experienced in a long time. While it pulls from all of my favorite games of the SNES, it doesn’t do anything to stand out from them. Its combat, art and mechanics are all tried and true systems that work but ultimately feel derivative. Monster Sanctuary lacks identity and loses out as a forgettable reminder of those that came before it. But if the worst thing you can say about this game is “it reminds me of…,” that can’t be that bad right?
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