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Monstro: Battle Tactics Review

Monstro: Battle Tactics

Monstro: Battle Tactics is an unusual game to say the least. Developed by retrocade.net, it states on their website it is a “fully deterministic logic game which plays like a tactical RPG but without RP, character growth or randomness”. I think that description hits the nail on the head of how difficult its genre is to describe.

In many respects, Monstro: Battle Tactics plays like a sophisticated board game. In others, it plays like a classic turn-based strategy game. Mixed in with this is a distinctive element of puzzle-solving, and given many of retrocade.net’s previous titles are puzzle focused, it is hardly surprising that they have brought this dimension to the game with effective results. This triumvirate is at times engrossing, but ultimately the downfall of what might have been a genre-breaking game.

The key difference between Monstro and so many other games is they have almost entirely removed any element of chance. Damage is not randomised: your units have a set amount of damage they can deal with each attack. Their attacks do not miss or critical hit. Like chess, it is all about your movements and remembering the core mechanics of the game, as these mechanics often prove the key to victory. Even ridiculously outnumbered units can win matches by exploiting one of the key laws of the game. One such law is that friendly units can pass through each other (they cannot occupy the same square however), but enemy units cannot pass through each other. This seems incidental at first, but its application is game-changing, especially if you can corner a powerful enemy unit by trapping it behind two high defence units of your own. Another key rule is that ranged attacks can go over walls and obstacles, making Archers and other ranged units very powerful.

Monstro: Battle Tactics

This is where the puzzle element comes into the game. Some of the battles seem impossible at first, but after thinking about it carefully, there is almost always a way that the battlefield can be manipulated to your advantage. Each new “mission” offers a different challenge and each set-up feels varied and fresh enough to maintain player interest. Sometimes you are gifted with an army of units, and sometimes very few or even one. Possibly the most exciting mission for me was a single human archer pitched against four Shrooms, all of which are able to kill the archer with a single blow. In addition, the parameters for winning or losing alter with each mission. At the start of a mission, a screen gives you narrative flavour-text (often containing a few hints as to how best to go about the puzzle) along with the victory and defeat conditions. The most common set of conditions is “Win: Destroy all enemy units. Lose: Lose all units”, but there is a huge variety, including the ominous “Survive 10 turns”. One of the first examples of this mission type is a scenario in which four human soldiers must survive against eight manticores, all of which are invulnerable to the pitiful soldiers’ attacks…

Manticores? Shrooms? We now come onto the narrative and world of the game, an area in which it falls down slightly. Monstro: Battle Tactics is set in the mythical world of Ludus, a world in which monsters (such as giant taking mushroom-men called Shrooms) and humans live peacefully together, until the random astronomical catastrophe of the Skygod’s appearance. Every few thousand years or so these gods manifest and force humans and monsters to combat each other in sick trials and battles for their amusement. There is a distinctly tongue-in-cheek, meta-aspect to this narrative device: the Skygods are really the players themselves, controlling the units and moving them around the board, exactly like the proverbial pawn.

Monstro: Battle Tactics

Whilst this premise is entertaining, it never really goes anywhere. There are no real characters to follow, and when characters are mentioned, no effort is made to insert them into the game. All units are generic: Soldier, Grunt, Calvary, Minotaur, Gargoyle. Whilst this in itself is not too troubling (it is a strategy game after all), it is worsened by the fact that the missions do not really contain any kind of overarching narrative. They are a series of cruel trials imposed by the Skygods and therefore random and without purpose. Though I found the puzzles fascinating, and some of the mission text is witty and amusing, one cannot help but a feel a sense of pointlessness to it all. Why do I even want to complete the Human campaign? What am I striving towards? The violence is self-professed as pointless, and the excessively satirical nature of the mission flavour-text only makes the game seem borderline cynical. I don’t mind cynical magical worlds (hell, they can sometimes be the best) but not when there is truly nothing to root for or to keep me playing. I accept games are arguably not all about narrative, but one only has to look at the recent phenomenon Undertale to see how important narrative can be in creating a successful videogame experience. Retrocade.net could learn from the sincerity of Undertale’s narrative: yes, it is humorous and satirical. Yes, it is meta and often self-referential, but it is never arch or flippant.

But it isn’t just the story. There isn’t enough of a sense of achievement from the gameplay. Because the missions are random, one never feels like they are progressing towards something. To be fair, retrocede.net are going to combat this slightly by introducing playing cards and achievements to unlock in the future, but even then I don’t feel there is enough reward in the game. Solving the puzzles is a great feeling, for a moment, but then one is always instantly presented with another. And another. Sometimes it can feel like an endless series of brain-training games rather than a true videogame experience.  This feeling is furthered by the fact that most of the missions/puzzles have only one real solution. I enjoy the challenge of trying to find these solutions, but many players will feel it is too restrictive. When you say the phrase “strategy game”, you expect to be able to play according to your strategic style, whether that is headlong aggressive, defensive, or anything inbetween.

Monstro: Battle Tactics

There is much which is positive to be said about this game. The “retro” pixelated art-style is gorgeous and, much like an elegantly crafted board game set, should be admired and “ahhed” at. The mechanics work very well and careful attention has been given to the problems and their solutions. I would even go as far to say that this might even create a whole new genre of gaming. As it stands, I think many players will be put off by the absence of any kind of progression-feeling. It is not a game one can play for too long or lose oneself in for hours (despite the art). It is a dip-in, dip-out game. I can imagine it would be great fun to play with a few beers at parties (everyone taking it in turns to screw up more colossally than the last person), but then, it is hampered by the fact it is a PC-based video game.

Perhaps that, ultimately, is why Monstro: Battle Tactics is not quite a success. It is unsure of whether it is a board game or a videogame. Maybe, it is the beginning of a new genre of gaming. Maybe, it is simply a brave experiment, one that should be noted and given credit, but ultimately not imitated.

Monstro: Battle Tactics is available on PC.
Joseph Sale is a novelist, creator of dark twines and a gamer. He loves RPGs, open worlds and survival horrors (the latter of which he used to play in an old shed in his back garden - because apparently Resident Evil wasn't atmospheric enough). He looks out for games with a strong narrative; he's a great believer the very best games long outlive their console, and those are the classics he holds on to.