A Surprisingly Fresh Take on the JRPG Genre
By now, you probably know that I love NIS America. Not everything they publish is a gem, but they make it possible to play many of the more obscure games from Japan (and now that they publish Falcom games like Ys and The Legend of Heroes, of course I’m going to be thrilled). So for every mediocre outing, I know there’s a guaranteed good time coming in the near future – and that doesn’t count all the terrific games they’ve launched along the way. Still, when it comes to games like Monark, I’ll always approach them with a hesitancy, not knowing whether they’ll be great, awful, or somewhere in between.
In Monark, you play as the protagonist, a character of your choice who makes a pact with a daemon but also has amnesia after being discovered in the mist strewn halls of Shin Mikado Academy. The school has a storied history of the occult, and the family that runs the school has done so for generations – allegedly keeping entities known as Pactbearers from tearing apart reality. You, of course, are a special kind of Pactbearer – and your mission as the Vice President of the True Student Council is to break the pacts of the other Pactbearers in order to clear the corrupting mist (regular students slowly become deranged and fall into madness after prolonged exposure) and return school life back to normal.
To do so, the protagonist and friendly Pactbearers must shatter the Ideals (essentially crystalized wills) of each Pactbearer that are spread throughout their respective domains. The further you progress with each Pactbearer, the more their sanity seems to unravel. Each character comes with a pretty thorough story, and you almost sympathize with some of them. The draw back to the extensive characterization – if you want to call it a drawback – is that there aren’t too many actual battles. In order to enter combat, you need to call the Otherworld and duke it out with your Monarks in tow. While exploring a particular floor of whatever building you’re currently traipsing through, you may experience a Death Call. This may enrage nearby corrupted students and make life miserable. You can eliminate the call by answer it or calling a floor specific number your Daemon registers for you. Outside of this battle (and, I suppose, if you choose to continuously call numbers, you’ll have as many battles as you please), the only other required fights per area is the Ideal battle – meaning you may only fight two battles per floor of each area you explore.
The battles are pretty cool, though. They similar, I suppose, in style to games like Lost Dimension, where you control character-by-character on a map to move them within a set area and perform various actions to combat enemies. On the forefront, it seems extremely basic, but it feels deeply strategic based on the power of the enemies and the formation of combos that you can string together. I am impressed with the challenge of each stage because games like these are typically a breeze. Plus, at the end of each battle, you are given personality points that shape your character in different ways based on how you approached each battle. This means that you could have a vastly different protagonist from mine, which is always a treat for replayability.
Visually, Monark ranks alongside its NIS America contemporaries. The graphics aren’t particularly stunning, but they are good enough not to serve as a distraction. In fact, I somewhat enjoyed the retro (PS2-PS3 feel to the character models). For a turn based strategy RPG, visuals have never been overly important, and the anime aesthetic suits it well. I will say that I found the sound direction in this game to be well constructed. Voice acting was a positive, and the soundtrack was very enjoyable, complimenting the atmosphere of the game in a positive manner. Soundtracks are often a problem for me in anime style games, as they’re typically over-the-top and kill any vibe the game is trying to establish.
While the market is certainly flooded at this point in the year with a ton of excellent new releases, Monark definitely fulfills a niche spot in my heart. There are not too many turn based RPGs flooding the market, so when a pretty good one launches, I am always game to play. You will find yourself with plenty of gametime, interesting character building, an intriguing world, and some enjoyable combat should you take the $59.99 plunge. Unique experiences like this are not too common in our modern world of gaming, so this one is worth jumping on (and will probably be a valuable collector’s item down the line).