What if I told you there was an RPG out there where your choices really mattered? What if there was a game that prompted you with a decision and the end result was more than just a ‘quest completed’ badge and cash reward? What if your choices could affect the lives of NPCs? What if the in-game economy succeeded or failed based on your actions? What if NPCs, playable and unplayable, lived or died based on your whims? What if you could change the world, make it more peaceful, punish the wicked, spare the innocent, or turn your sights on chaos and watch it all burn, just to line your pockets with a little extra profit? What if an RPG made you feel empowered in ways you never thought they could?
Monochrome Order is just such an RPG.
Leaving the melodrama aside, this recent KEMCO-published title strives to achieve what many other RPGs have promised- yet failed- to deliver: a game where the player’s choices matter. Monochrome Order’s ‘Judgement’ system has the player hearing legal, interpersonal, and economic dilemmas of various NPCs and judging them accordingly. The game promises these Judgements both affect the game world and the central storyline. At its best, such a system truly could make an RPG stand out from the pack, becoming a must-buy budget title for any RPG fan. At its worst, this system could represent a hollow promise that offers nothing but minor rewards wrapped around making obvious moral choices, like so many RPGs before it.
I recently took the time to play through this RPG – more than once – to explore just how effective this Judgement system really is, and I’m proud to present my finding both on this core innovation and the rest of the game’s elements in the meat of my review.
The visual and audio design of Monochrome Order does nothing to really stand out. The spritework is passable, with a 16-bit style reminiscent of the golden age of RPGs on the SNES, but does not reach any of the heights the best of that generation has to offer. Character animations are almost non-existent, which tends to undersell the more emotional moments of the story. At the same time, almost every character stands in a sort of lazy, slouched position with one hand on their hip – a bizarre choice if I ever saw one. This design choice certainly gives the game a unique look, but it provides nothing particularly compelling. Monster sprites, meanwhile, are about as wrote as they come.
In terms of audio, the game offers a limited soundtrack that is mostly forgettable, despite all tracks being appropriately placed and never distracting. They do nothing to elevate the story, setting, or atmosphere beyond the expected, a criticism that can be laid on the game’s sound effects, as well: they get the point across, but hardly anything else. If you’ve come looking for the catchy soundtracks found in some other KEMCO RPGs, you’ll unfortunately walk away disappointed here.
In terms of story, meanwhile, the developers have crafted a narrative in order to service the central Judgement mechanic. The player takes on the role of an amnesiac Arbiter, a member of an ancient order of judges that predates the governments spread across the game world. These Arbiters are said to possess a supernatural connection to the Divine, giving them the ability to always make the correct Judgement no matter how difficult the problem presented before them. These Arbiters are deployed across the continent to serve each kingdom’s respective ruling power, taking on Judgement requests through government ministers and directly from everyday citizens. The goal is maintain order and justice and help the kingdom’s prosper.
The opening scenes reveal that the Arbiters have long been under the jurisdiction of an organization called Libra – an international and neutral peacekeeping force – complete with its own army, ruler, scientists, and more. The protagonist of our story in a newly appointed Arbiter, assigned to a minor southern kingdom, and supported by an irreverent attendant with a shady past. The attendant’s divided loyalty between Libra and the Arbiter is one of the driving plot threads throughout the adventure. His loyalties are further tested when the pair encounter a magically gifted young woman who is being pursued by Libra agents. The player’s decision to help or hinder the young woman at various stages throughout the game create one of the central points where the storyline can branch out along different paths.
In terms of storytelling, Monochrome Order once again falls into a more mediocre category. The main storyline is full of familiar plot elements, with the somewhat dreaded ‘predictable’ moral choices laid at the players feet. While the storyline certainly does diverge at points, the ‘correct’ choice is broadcasted each step of the way, due in no small part to cutscenes outside the player’s perspective that show the growing corruption within Libra’s ranks. Ideally, the motivations of antagonistic characters would have been left unsaid, allowing the player to step more definitively into their role as Arbiter, as they do in each of the many side quests. But alas, the developers seemed intent on letting us KNOW just who the evil characters are for the primary storyline – a huge missed opportunity. Exploring some of the darker branches of the paths and ‘bad’ endings requires the player to intentionally make ‘wrong’ choices, rather than choosing between two difficult and equally valid options.
Fortunately, these main story Judgements turn out to be the exception, not the rule. The vast majority of Judgements the player must make, and the corresponding side quests that go along with them, are filled to the brim with moral turmoil and really sells the entire system.
Do you have an opinion on capital punishment? How about euthanasia? Arranged marriages? Scientific ethics? If you don’t, then you better start thinking about them, because Monochrome Order is throwing you into the deep end of the philosophical pool. Time after time, you’ll be faced with almost impossible choices. Characters with conflicting motivations, opposing interests, or possession of only ‘half the story’ will continually reach out to the Arbiter for Judgement, leaving the player to wade through the mud to make the best choices possible. This Judgement system provides a constant drip of challenges focused not on core RPG gameplay, but on the player’s own sense of morality, deductive reasoning, and philosophical worldview. The choices you make will affect the lives of dozens of NPCs across the game, and will directly affect the game world itself.
The game presents three core attributes about the world you can raise or lower by your choices: Fame (how your character is perceived by the world), Peace, and Economy. Having high Fame is required to obtain some party members, and some NPCs will not even talk to you if your Fame is too low. The Peace level affects how often you get attacked by bandits on the overworld, encounters that – at least in my playthroughs – were more of nuisance than genuine threat. Finally, the Economy level affects the price of items in shops. High economy means lower prices. Low economy, the opposite. Key to this system, however, is that the game DOES NOT tell you what the consequences of each Judgement will be ahead of time.
And the three core attributes are just the tip of the iceberg. Many Judgements also come with secondary effects that will influence how you interact with the world around you. As previously stated, some Judgements may result in a new character joining your party, while others may drive those characters away for good. Other Judgements might result in new items being available at shops or entirely new shops opening in town entirely. One particular Judgement I made ended up getting an entire town’s worth of shops closed, permanently, for the entire rest of the game. Whatever unique items or equipment I may have acquired from them were lost forever.
These real world consequences have weight, too. The in-game economy is surprisingly restrictive. Weapons, armor, and other items, even with a good economy score, do not come cheap. You therefore have a strong incentive to keep the economy of the world running smoothly. Many critical abilities or character archetypes for party members (such as healers) are locked behind this system as well. Want to NOT spend all your money on healing items? Then you better make sure you keep this healer NPC happy, in case he might want to join your party. Ah, but what if their particular quest requires you to make a Judgement you might think is wrong? What unintended consequences will you face for choosing the selfish path? You have no way of knowing.
I cannot understate just how compelling this Judgement system is. It makes the entire game worth playing, and is by far one of the best side quest systems I have ever seen in an RPG.
Party Building and Combat
With a mediocre presentation and somewhat trite story, you may be tempted to think the Judgement system is the ONLY good part about this game. Thankfully, the remainder of the core RPG mechanics are quite solid.
As you slowly build up your roster of characters, you will find that each party member comes with three unique abilities that remain with them the entire game. Each character has a static amount of SP throughout the game, meaning these three abilities will also cost you the same amount of resources as your stats increase, with their effects scaling along the way. To add some level of customization, you will acquire and equip ability enhancement items that will alter the spells (which may increase the power of the ability), lower the SP cost, add energy, increase the critical hit rate, etc. Equipment upgrades are handled through an in-game blacksmith who charges flat rates to upgrade weapons from level 1 to level 50. Thankfully, each party member you add will average out their character level and weapon level based on your existing characters, so you don’t need to worry about an excessive grind each time someone new comes along.
Meanwhile, each monster and character in the game has an elemental affinity, with a standard strength / weakness mechanic common to RPGs. You’ll want to swap party members in and out as the game progresses to attune their elements in order to surmount each locale’s batch of monsters. How well you are able to do this is, of course, tied to how many party members you are able to recruit through the Judgement system. Fail to acquire any water element party members? Then enjoy the extra challenge the fire-oriented locations provide.
All these characters engage in a turn-based combat system that should be familiar to most RPG fans. The system comes with a few interesting wrinkles to set it apart from the standard fare, but don’t expect anything revolutionary. A few quality of life features help smooth out the experience, including a turn-order tracker that shows not only party and enemy turns, but will also preview how certain attacks may affect that order when you are selecting them. This trait comes up most often when going outside the standard set of attacks and abilities, in a sort of ‘alternate action’ list that includes charging up your next attack, restoring SP, or defending, adding a bit of ebb and flow to combat and giving you resource management tools to keep your party moving forward.
Another twist the combat system employs comes from the status effects. While most RPGs use static affects like sleep, paralysis, silence, etc., Monochrome Order opts for a two-stage system that makes status harder to dismiss. For example, the status effect ‘stuper’ is sort of an unreliable sleep, making your character miss some turns and not others. Inflict that same character with stuper again, and they will go into full sleep, unable to attack at all until awakening. For most status effects, you have to remove each level individually – requiring two turns rather than one. This unique addition keeps up the resource management element present throughout the game, as healing characters are, as stated, few and far between, while healing items cost a hefty chunk of gold to keep in stock.
Putting all these disparate elements together, Monochrome Order manages to emerge a solid, if predictable RPG experience, with a core conceit that blows many other titles out of the water. While players looking for a broad, sweeping story or complex combat system may be disappointed, those who can appreciate what game does offer – engaging side stories, an immersive game world, and choices that have real consequences, will find something truly special.