Japanese publisher Furyu has long been working together with NIS America, releasing a number of JRPGs that deal with complex psychological subjects of reality and identity. Not all have reached the Western shores. Those that did, however, presented some interesting design choices. Among those are 2019’s The Caligula Effect and 2017’s Lost Dimension. For 2022, we have Monark, developed by Shinjuku studio Lancarse. It features real time dungeon exploration, turn-based combat – and a smorgasbord of characters that’ve gone off their rockets.
SCHOOL MAKES YOU CRAZY
The player assumes the role of the silent protagonist, whose name, but not the appearance, we can select. A simple psychological test then determines our capital sin (apparently, Gluttony comes up a lot). That sin will serve as an allegiance of sorts. It, along with our ideals and stats, will affect the various automatons we control, called fiends. After this, we finally find out what our main task is. A strange mist is slowly poisoning the halls of our school, the Shin Mikado Academy, making the students go crazy. We are to solve this problem. If this reminds you of Shin Megami Tensei and the Persona series, well, you’re on the right track. Kazunari Suzuki, the designer behind those series, is on the development team. Still, Monark does play quite differently from both titles.
Exploring the dungeons is a pretty limited activity in Monark. Most levels will feature just a few classrooms and some simple puzzles. The puzzles usually involve reading all the notes lying around; Then, either giving the correct answer to some guy who doesn’t want to let us progress; Or finding the code to open a locker. As we explore the mist-infested halls, our “MAD” meter will slowly go up. Once it reaches 100% we are back to the infirmary. As if running short on time isn’t bad enough, sometimes a “death call” will reach our cellphone. Once this happens, it’s game over – just like that. However, we can prevent it by fighting in certain battles, and, indeed, combat is the main dish in this game. For the most part, it does work quite well.
ARM YOUR VESSELS
All fights take place in the Otherworld: A Daemon-infested alternate universe. There, people with strong ideals might become Pactbearers – just like our main protagonist, with the capital sin. At the start of each fight, we get to decide who, from our team, will participate, and their position on the map. Then, we take turns controlling each party member, moving them to either attack some nearby enemy, or use magic. Moving around the map is crucial, since back attacks are extremely powerful. Another important mechanic is resolve, that can raise our awakened meter once per turn. Once that reaches 100% our character will awake to a stronger state – quite handy during difficult fights.
And make no mistake, Monark does not kid around with how difficult its fights are. Even levelling up seems to work in a way as to make the battles even harder. The player uses spirit points, a bit like classic XP, to unlock abilities and level up characters. Those are usually given after fights, based on how well our team performed. So, if one continues making poor showings in combat, they’ll end up on a downward spiral of slow levelling – that could lead to a lot of trouble during boss fights. The design tends to reward players who rush through fights, rather than taking their time planning ahead; Or perhaps those who retry each fight a thousand times.
All that would be fine, however, if there were additional fights, so that one could make up for bad marks. But that’s not the case; The number of fights is limited: Once a floor is clear from the mist, the only way to fight is by going to the next level. Granted, the developers did try to make this easier by letting players dismantle items for spirit points. This means that even if you always get “D” for combat, you can still gain some levels. Sadly, that doesn’t always work – especially if you’re trying to save points to unlock more powerful abilities.
HOW DID I GET HERE?
Our protagonist is a young student affected by amnesia – a very cliché plot device that, regrettably, isn’t used here in any innovative way. The main task is to defeat the seven Pactbearers and free the academy from the Mist, which is actually of their making. When a pact is formed between a human and a Daemon, three crystals (Ideals) appear in the Otherworld: crack the crystal, and you’ll break that pact. It’s a bit complicated, but everything is explained quite thoroughly in the game; Especially helpful for understanding the plot is our main Daemon friend, called Vanitas – who looks like some disquieting Persona plushy, and loves speaking with both rhyme and alliteration.
Graphically, the game looks like other modern JRPGs – beautiful character portraits, and mostly average everything else. The academy halls are quite bare; While exploring the park outside almost gives you Silent Hill vibes, with how empty it feels. Even the otherworld doesn’t look that distinct. Although, customizing our fiends with different faces and hairstyles is quite interesting. The soundtrack too is average, content to stay in the background while the player explores the school. It gets quite more intense during fights, though. Especially during boss encounters, where it even transforms into real songs with lyrics (no karaoke, unfortunately).
Overall, Monark does its bit at trying to do something different from most other JRPGs. It actually succeeds at that task, at least partially. Perhaps it even tries too hard with its story and gameplay mechanics, without offering enough incentive to see the story through to its end. Repetition soon sets in: Roaming the same halls, solving simple puzzles, and then being plunged into difficult fights. Still, with relatively interesting mechanics and a serviceable plot, Monark will indeed satisfy the fans of the genre.
Monark is available now on PC, PS4/5 and Switch. A code was provided by NIS America for this review.