Monster Sanctuary (Switch) Review
It is rare these days for me to come across a game that I have no prior knowledge of, not a brief mention on a podcast, nor a quick shout-out on Twitter. As a kid of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, this was a common occurrence, often taking the expensive, twice-a-year lucky dip, grabbing something off the shelf based on the box art, your familiarity with the IP, or schoolyard hype (damn you Battletoads). So, it was a surprise when I first fired up Monster Sanctuary, a game that I knew nothing about but was pleasantly surprised by how it delightfully blends many games of my youth, Metroid, Dragon’s Trap and Pokemon. Is it successful in delicately blending the genres of Metroidvania, RPG, and Monster Catching? In a word, yes.
At its heart, Monster Sanctuary is a Monster Catching, turned-based RPG presented as a 2D pixel art platformer with Metroidvania-style world progression. Battles take place primarily as 3v3 turn-based combat, with core RPG mechanics of type charts, buffs, debuffs and a mix of physical and magical attacks. Levelling up each individual monster is included, which in turn can expand their unique skill tree. A good battle mechanic is one key element to making a good RPG, and Monster Sanctuary at times leans too far into type complexity. But it generally balances different strategies and approaches, so you’re able to assemble the team in the style you prefer — be it all-out-attack, heavy defensive, or a balanced approach. An interesting test to the typical Monster Catching games is the introduction of the ability to chain combos together to generate greater attack power per turn. This is a critical component to master, as you’re incentivised to use your most powerful attack last in the combo-chain to have a multiplied impact.
The Monster Catching mechanism is achieved through rare drops after combat, with the probability based on your combat rating. Once you receive an egg you’re able to hatch it from your inventory and add it as a playable monster in your team. The type of monster you receive from the egg drop is limited to the monsters you were battling, all of which are visible prior to battle. This means that if you’re hunting for a particular type of monster, you’ll be able to see it on the overworld and structure your team to have the best chance to receive a monster egg drop. With over 100 total monsters in the game, combined with evolutions and even its own version of a “shiny” monster (without giving too much away), there is plenty of replayability and collecting to do for those so inclined. Some monsters even hide out in remote areas in the Sanctuary.
In a clever riff off the HM moves in Pokemon (for example, using the surf move to travel on water in the overworld), Monster Sanctuary takes this concept and explores it to the fullest extent. Each type of monster is bestowed with a set of abilities; for example, being able to place blocks, or being able to ride on the monster, etc. Many of these abilities are essential to progress further through the world thus creating a virtuous cycle of battling and hatching monsters to add to your team and also extend your traversal abilities. Throughout the story you are also presented with many standard Metroidvania abilities, such as the classic “double jump” early in the game, which can be used in addition to your monster abilities. This greatly extends the sense of freedom of your character and allows for some puzzles to be solved in multiple ways.
The 2D pixel art presentation of Monster Sanctuary is far and away its strongest and most striking feature. Each monster is fully fleshed out and animated with incredible, fluid detail. All the more impressive is that Moi Rai Games, a small indie dev out of Germany, is composed of just two people, Denis Sinner and Anton Sinner. No part of the world and monster design feels rushed or out of place with each other, and you really do feel transported into the Sanctuary and the challenges that confront your Monster Keeper. Complemented by the art design is a 16-bit-style soundtrack and sound effects that perfectly fit the setting of the game. The soundtrack has many memorable tracks and homages to gaming history (I especially appreciated their version of the tritone Zelda chest sound effect).
Monster Sanctuary is a clever entry in the Monster Catcher genre, it naturally combines a deep battle system with Metroidvania elements with the lore of the game to create quite a special 2D pixel art indie title.
+ Deep battle system
+ Over 100 monsters to catch
+ Beautiful 2D pixel art
- Some of the story should have been shifted to the post-game
- Some quality-of-life improvements would be welcome