Imagine a game that combines Pokémon-style monster collecting, the deeply satisfying exploration of a Metroidvania, turn-based combat, fulfilling loot and a wholesome upgrade and progression system.
Sounds bloody fantastic, doesn’t it? Well, it gets better. It’s not a game that only exists in your imagination. It’s real. It’s coming. It’s called Monster Sanctuary, and after spending a few hours playing a preview build of the game, I believe it’s a title worth getting excited about.
Developed by Moi Rai Games and being published by Team17, Monster Sanctuary is, initially, pretty easy to overlook. Its logo and key art don’t do much to inspire the imagination – a boring serif font with a WordArt style gradient fill. I can see why you’d go to the game’s Steam page and simply click away. The game’s art style itself is rather lovely, however, in the same way that many 2D pixel art games are these days. It’s not particularly unique; it feels familiar in a safe sort of way – that is, until you start playing it and realise just how different Monster Sanctuary is from anything you’ve played before.
The game puts you in the shoes of a novice Monster Keeper, just starting out on his journey. At his side is his faithful monster that represents his family’s lineage – you can choose between a fiery or spectral wolf, an eagle, or… a toad? You’ll be eased in gently, starting out in a training area of sorts, fighting (and collecting) low-level monsters to get the hang of things.
There’s quite a lot to get your head around in Monster Sanctuary, but everything – even in such an early stage of the game’s development – feels purposeful, well-integrated and polished. Each time you fight against a group of enemies, you’ll be given a rating from one to five. The higher that rating, the more chance you’ll have of getting an egg – which you can hatch into a monster. You can have up to three active party members at one time – all monsters you’ve collected – and three inactive. Each party member has their own weapon and equipment slots, and levelling up will give you stat points to spend.
Different types of monsters have different skills, and therefore have unique skill trees in which to spend those stat points. You can choose to level up skills, unlock new skills, or unlock passive buffs such as more health, or greater base damage. For what appears to be a simple 2D adventure game on the surface, Monster Sanctuary is pretty deep.
Combat is a large focus of the game, with frequent turn-based battles every time you encounter an enemy. They’re fast-paced and engaging, though, with your party able to use a range of interesting skills, attacks and items. The rating you receive will depend on how well you perform. Getting a high rating means utilising skills that are best placed to expose enemies’ weaknesses, making the most of combo multipliers – oh yes, there are those, too! – and dealing the most damage you can while taking as little as possible yourself. It’s not just a simple case of clicking attack, attack, attack and waiting for the battle to be over. Monster Sanctuary‘s turn-based battles challenge you to get better by tasking you with employing logic and strategy to every move you make. And, with the chance to capture your own monster at the end of it, the reward is well worth the extra effort.
Away from combat though, simply exploring Monster Sanctuary‘s world is a joy. Like any good Metroidvania, you’ll find yourself in a massive, interconnected map. You’ll come across pathways and avenues that you can’t pass yet until you’ve gained new skills. It begs to be explored, for every nook and cranny to be poked around in. Each type of monster in your possession has its own unique skill that can be used out of combat. Some flying types can help you reach new heights by levitating you off the ground. Others can charge through walls and break through vines. You’ll need to utilise the full range of these skills to get the most out of Monster Sanctuary‘s world. And exploration is dutifully rewarded by giving you plenty of treasure chests filled with lovely, lovely loot.
Ah, loot. A boon of any video game, and Monster Sanctuary has a tonne of it. You’ll frequently find new weapons and accessories that improve your monster party’s stats in various ways. Having the strongest party you can is extremely dependent on having good equipment, and equipping the most suitable combinations to each party member. It means you’ll constantly be in menus, comparing swords to axes, and bracelets to bandanas, but it scratches a stat-driven itch that not many games of this type come close to.
Better yet, you can also upgrade weapons and accessories you find by visiting a blacksmith. You’ll gather up crafting materials as you play – sometimes in chests, sometimes as rewards after battling a foe – which can be used to improve the stats on any piece of equipment you find. It means those low-level but excellent items you find in the early game don’t necessarily have to be deemed useless after a couple of hours of play.
The amount of player customisation in Monster Sanctuary is quite frankly staggering considering the type of game it is. Not only do you have full control over the monsters that make up your party, their skills and stats depend on how you spent stat points, and how powerful (and defensive) they are is directly influenced by the items you choose to equip to them. As such, it never feels like anything in Monster Sanctuary is unobtainable. Fighting a losing battle? Explore some more, level up and find better equipment. Can’t access a certain area? You’ll need to recruit a new kind of monster who has the necessary skill. It’s a game that really lets you make your mark on it – and in return, it makes a mark on you.
The bad news, though, is Monster Sanctuary is still a way off full release. An early access version is slated for later this year, with a full release expected on PC sometime in 2020. From my short time with the preview build, though, I’m confident in saying Monster Sanctuary is going to be worth the wait. If you like the idea of a Pokémon-inspired Metroidvania, get this on your radar now. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, there’s a free demo you can try yourself on Steam.