Monark Review (Switch)
Release Date: February 22, 2022
File Size: 7.0GB
Publisher: NIS America
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
When dealing with a genre like RPGs, it’s hard to say if the reigning kings and queens will ever be usurped from their thrones. Whether you feel Square Enix did their Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest properties any justice in the 2010’s or if you think Game Freak has reached a period of stagnation with the Pokemon formula, these franchises still occupy an echelon of recognition and popularity that many others do not enjoy. After these titans, you have series like Tales of, Trails, Ys, Monster Hunter, and Shin Megami Tensei that occupy more niche roles, still popular and most certainly high quality, but not reaching the same heights as the true monarchs. Then, there are what many might consider the “AA” department- developers putting out competent, inventive products that maybe miss the mechanical or aesthetic polish of the tier above. Independent developers occupy a strange area, as some can be stronger in quality than AA releases, while many others would be considered lesser. Then, of course, there are KEMCO games, the absolute lowest of the low (kidding, of course…).
So silly hierarchical subdivisions aside, you may or may not be surprised to find that Monark, the game being covered in this review, falls firmly in the AA category. Despite my love/hate relationship with developer FuRyu, there is no denying that their products fall into this group, flip-flopping between moments of brilliance due to the right creatives and banal, gimmick-heavy titles with episodic design and overwrought dialogue. To come out of the gate with a title like “Monark” and the backing of former Shin Megami Tensei creative influences on its development team, it might seem as if FuRyu was swinging for the fences with this new title. Does a closer look at Monark reveal a regal success, or is it yet another pawn to be toppled by more substantial contemporaries?
Monark has the player taking on the role of an amnesiac second-year student at Shin Mikado Academy, a place tied deeply with dimensional-rifts that may or may not be induced by madness-inflicting daemons. In forming a pact with the Monark Vanitas, you become the Pactbearer of Vanity and set out on a quest to beat the other Pactbearers of the Academy- each linked with one of the seven deadly sins- into submission in order to free the students from the barrier of Mist that surrounds the school. In particularly unsafe areas, Mist pervades the halls of the school itself, driving students mad and turning them into hazardous obstacles that you must avoid. The game’s initial cycle is the introduction of a new environment, a new partner character and a parallel narrative that links them to the chapter’s Pactbearer, and a series of cutscenes juxtaposed with dungeon sections, during which the player seeks out the literal/figurative Ideals of the Pactbearer in order to smash them to bits and assert dominance.
These dungeon sections, despite playing out in relatively mundane Academy hallways and classrooms, actually offer up some fairly inventive puzzles and obstacles in order to gate player progress. Because of the game’s modern setting and the manner in which the dimensional rifts bleed over into our own reality, you’ll be working with a fair amount of technology and even sifting through in-game glossaries in order to pick locks, find out computer logins, and sleuth for clues about the many students of the Academy. Madness is depicted in a variety of forms, but the most dangerous of them all are when NPCs begin to actively hunt the player, with direct contact causing your personal Madness meter to spike and, upon hitting 100%, result in a game over. The claustrophobic nature of classroom hallways is used to great effect here, but there’s a healthy variety of building layouts and environmental puzzles in order to keep you guessing as you progress.
Of course, this is only one part of Monark’s gameplay loop, the other being the cellphone-based dimensional jumps you’ll need to enter into in order to destroy Ideals. These are the combat sections of Monark, and they play out as turn-based, free-roaming strategy maps where the goal is more than often to rout the enemy proper. There’s a lot to like about the mechanics utilized here, with two separate categories of special attacks costing HP and Madness respectively, the latter resource causing a three-turn berserker rage when maxed out at 100%. Fortunately, HP can be regained by ending a turn without performing a special attack, and Madness can be reduced via consumables or a risky gambit known as Awakening, a resource that builds as the player deals more damage out to enemies.
If their Awakening gauge should max out, they’ll get a stat boost and gain access to special attacks, but if it is triggered either before or at the same time as their Madness gauge, they will enter a state of Enlightenment, an even stronger form that can pummel enemy units into oblivion. Different party members have their own abilities and spheres of influence, as Monark is not grid-based but does limit units to certain fields of influence, but these can be further extended via the Defer command, which increases Madness of the recipient while granting them the opportunity to move one more time before the enemy phase. Add in destructible environments, environmental hazards, a number of enemy types, and some complex boss battles, and the time spent in these skirmishes- anywhere from 10-30 minutes, depending on your play style or familiarity with the environment- feels well-spent.
Performing expertly within these battles based on a number of in-game qualifiers will boost your score upon victory, which adds a modifier to the amount of Spirit, or experience, the player gains. Because this resource is shared among party members, Monark can run the risk of feeling somewhat grindy due to how hefty of a Spirit investment each playable character has with their higher-ranked skills. This is only further complicated by some skills being gated behind completion of an opposing tree branch. It’s needlessly tedious, but it isn’t helped by the way Monark’s encounters are structured- these battles take time and are linked to cell-phone numbers, so while you can always return to previous skirmishes saved to your contacts, you can punch in random numbers in order to try to generate a skirmish of your own. There are no random encounters in Monark, however, so you’ll need to determine when you deem it necessary to invest time in grinding. The first half of the game introduces skirmishes at a steady rate, but you may find yourself investing more time than you might expect in the second.
Narrative and Aesthetics
Because of the Shin Megami Tensei veterans on the team, one might expect that Monark toys with complex moral conundrums in a similar way. While it is safe to say that the game does explore the sins of its respective Pactbearers with a degree of nuance, this is still very much a JRPG script and scenario, meaning the dialogue will often err on the side of the absurd and verbose. The closest equivalent to Monark’s writing that came to mind was a previous FuRyu work, The Caligula Effect, which never avoids the opportunity to shove as much character dialogue into a cutscene as possible.
While some of this helps establish the motives and facets of the larger cast of primary and secondary characters in the game early on, some of the discussions with Pactbearers can wear on a player’s patience, especially when the conclusion of these sequences will always result in a battle. While the idea of breaking down a character’s ideals in order to expose the folly of their sin is a neat concept, it is done well-enough in the moody interludes that exist upon shattering them. Verbally abusing the opposing character wears out its welcome by the second time it occurs, which doesn’t bode well for the remainder of the experience.
You may have heard at some point that some of the writing could be considered derogatory towards certain demographics, and as a cisgendered male, I won’t disparage this notion. Localization comes with a minefield of considerations to be made and a whole cavalcade of camps to piss off- purists believing that direct translation and little-to-no censorship should occur, as well as open-minded and inclusive individuals looking for stronger and more progressive representation in Japanese products, as well as some shades of gray existing in between and likely a few other flavors hitherto unforeseen. There is no satisfying every group, but NISA’s decision to include a negative portrayal of a trans-coded character in a negative light is disappointing and even immersion-breaking or experience-ruining for some. Jokes that seek to deride the identity of others are always in poor taste, and it is a matter that should be swiftly addressed for the sake of improving the quality of the product, though this one change won’t completely fix the game’s superfluous writing.
Monark’s monochromatic motif is given brief respite in the form of a few similarly subdued splashes of color, but the chessboard aesthetics are a major factor here. The most stark divergence from this is in the game’s Madness-coded elements, a volatile scarlet that flashes across character models when imbued with the element, but safe enough play will find players avoiding these instances fairly often. In any case, the deep chestnut hallways of Shin Mikado Academy hardly wow the eyes despite their faithful recreation of high school architecture, and the dimensional rifts, while often peppered with bizarre background elements and floating bits and pieces of wallpaper, aren’t hugely visually stimulating either. Despite all of this, the game’s animations are crisp and competent, with the most stunning instances being awakened skill attacks that feature lengthier cutscenes. Still, its visuals take a marked hit in handheld mode and manage to appear simply serviceable when docked.
Monark’s soundtrack is highlighted best as the game descends more deeply into madness, with Pactbearer battles boasting some vibrant and memorable tracks from virtual stars. Some of its exploration tracks are engaging enough to forget their repetitive nature and to distract you from the fact that you’re really only navigating a relatively mundane setting, but for the most part, the audio mixing when in Mist-coated areas is pretty subdued. The majority of that game’s voice acting is actually pretty good, with a few insufferable instances existing here and there- it’s unfortunate that one of the worst happens to be the protagonist’s Monark Vanitas, who has a sneery, cringe-inducing tone that is made worse by the character’s tendency to speak in eye-rolling rhyme.
Impressions and Conclusion
Monark is a lengthy JRPG experience, no doubt bolstered by the nature of its strategy combat and stringent experience systems. While the game encourages the reallocation of Spirit points when necessary, a completionist looking to have as many viable combat options on the table as they can will find themselves needing to invest a great deal of time into character growth. Even if you don’t want this, the experience curve is still a generally and disappointingly steep investment, to the point that it makes me surprised that there isn’t some sort of EXP-sink DLC offered for the game right out of the bat.
This might seem like a harsh comment to make, but a desire to want to get through the game faster implies one of the following options: a poorly telegraphed structure at some point, gameplay that isn’t always as compelling as it hopes to be, or a sense of tedium as time progresses. I can say that I felt at least two of these were the case during my playthrough, which is a bit of a shame, considering Monark’s combat and environmental exploration feel great when they’re doled out in the right proportions.
The idea of a group of plucky teenagers standing up to potentially eldritch-evils and using the power of their convictions to save the day is not an unfamiliar theme in JRPGs- in fact, it’s happened more than a few times in FuRyu’s own library. And maybe it’s the frequency of these sorts of tales that makes the formula feel a bit tired even when given a new coat of paint and some neat combat mechanics, but let’s not be too harsh- after all, if this were the case, we would have already called attention to it in games like The Caligula Effect and its sequel. Except… oops, we already did, which means we need to evaluate Monark on what legs it can still stand on aside from that, which is: a structurally unique encounter system and some questionable scenario-writing. That doesn’t make it look too good.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my own bias, and I mean, when I was a teenager, hearing stories about a bunch of kids my age teaming up to put the hurt on some daemons in service of a greater goal was exactly the sort of thing I’d want to get into. And if this is your first foray into FuRyu’s library and you’re blissfully unaware of the mental slog that exists in some of their other, thematically-adjacent works, then Monark might check off all the boxes you’re looking to fill with a JRPG purchase. It’s not going to be able to stand toe to toe with the kings, nor will it even reach the highs of the games that it shares some DNA with, but Monark is a long-form narrative that, while not completely free of speed bumps, presents the sort of fantastic and niche adventure many might want to pick up. Just remember, this game could inflict madness in more than one way, and it pays to know what you’re in for before taking the plunge.