Monster Sanctuary can quite safely take its seat next to Pokémon Crystal, Dragon Warriors Monsters II, Enchanted Arms, and Shin Megami Tensei IV as one of the most accomplished and enjoyable ‘monster collecting’ games available for purchase today. Coming out at the tail-end of 2020 to little fanfare from the wider gamer market, the game seems to be steadily building steam and gaining popularity – putting developer Moi Rai Games on the map. As a self-described veteran of the franchise I picked this one up without any hesitation.
Instantly, the game will charm you off your feet by the gorgeous pixel art-style and beautiful soundtrack, the latter of which is so consistent throughout that it’s absolutely worth slotting into you gaming playlist. Here’s the link to listen on Spotify. After a small introduction, the game prompts you to choose your spectral familiar, or starter. You have a choice of a toad, a wolf, an eagle and a lion, and they act as your voice throughout the game – this is another one of those classic Mute Hero Games.
The narrative of Monster Sanctuary is the weakest part of the game. The characters you meet often don’t have very deep development, the plot is rather clichéd and the story beats serve only as prompts to go unlock a new area using the skills of newly acquired monsters, metroidvania-style. And it’s the gameplay itself that will grab you and keep you hooked onto this wonderful gem.
Battles are simple 3 vs 3 affairs, with a backup of three extras in case you need to sub a monster in. Each monster has a detailed, unique skill tree of its own that you will pour points into as you level them up; this gains them new skills, upgrades to old skills, stat boosts and useful passives. If you’re a fan of theorycrafting, perfecting builds, and making gimmicks work, this is the game for you. As you can see from the video above, there are a lot of elements to the battle screen, and don’t worry – they are introduced gradually as you unlock access to more complex monsters and more complex skills. Needless to say, you can build teams around inflicting statuses to make enemies miss every attack, or buffing your monsters to make them unkillable, or even make enemies take so much damage over time that you can press defend and let the great killer of all things finish them off.
It is this customisability that makes Monster Sanctuary special, along with a certain other design choice that wowed me:
Each of these monsters is viable until the end of the game, with the right building, equipment and strategy. In fact, Catzerkers (such as Tiny there) are often lauded in the community as one of the most useful monsters in the whole game; they have the ability to rack up Critical Hit Chance, make enemies bleed their HP over time and buff the party quite well too! And most shocking of all, Catzerkers are found in the very first area of the game! It’s like dragging a Slime with you throughout the entirety of a Dragon Warriors Monsters game – except viable!
Every monster is balanced around a 40-level roadmap of growth and the game is all the better for it – you can quite easily keep your favourites permanently in your party, or even build a whole team around them. You could even have a team entirely made of your favourite. Acquiring monsters is just a matter of getting a good score when fighting against that monster in the wild and getting one of its eggs. Do you want a party of six Blobs? Of course you do! It won’t be that amazing, but it’ll be able to do… something.
That’s not even the end of the customisability of your lil’ critters – each monster has a Light-form and a Dark-form, and shifting to these forms is an ability unlocked around halfway into the game. The items you need to Shift a monster into one of these forms are rare, but the boons are often very worth it.
And this is nothing to speak of how satisfying the battle system actually is. Normal battles are quick and often require just enough thinking to never be boring. The monster bosses (or Champions, as the game terms them) and the enemy Keeper battles (harder skirmishes with teams of 6 enemy monsters) are where the game’s design philosophy shines through though, requiring well built teams and a knowledge of the game’s battle system. It’s a very satisfying feeling, taking down the harder enemies.
Add to the wonderful battle system and monster building system the fact that each monster has its own field skill that lets you access new areas or reach hidden treasure, and you have a fully-fledged metroidvania-catch-em-all-rpg on your hands. The lands of Monster Sanctuary are diverse, from lava caverns to sunny beaches to icy peaks to the inevitable sewer level, the world feels like it’s put into little sections for you to explore at your leisure. And it truly is at your leisure to – apart from some notable exceptions, the levels of your foes scales with how many areas you’ve been to! So if you go to the Sun Temple before the beach, you won’t be hampered by overpowered foes. It’s a really great design choice in a game full of amazing design choices.
Let’s talk about the main draw of any monster game: the monsters! There is no one main theme or rhyme or reason as to the monster designs in this game. You have classics such as the Blob and some generic birds, there’s a yeti and a robot – of course. But then we get some more interesting forays into the imagination, with adorable mini Lovecraftian entities, floating Koi carp and tanuki roaming the world. The game has 101 monsters to collect in all, and 18 of them were designed by members of the game’s community during development, which is pretty cool, right?
All in all, the meat of the game – monsters and battling – is extremely well thought out, and the game is still receiving balancing updates. Not only that, but there’s a full roadmap of planned and desired updates to the game, including alternate difficulty modes and a New Game +, so there’s still so much to be experienced. If I haven’t at least piqued your interest in this game by now, I am wondering why. It’s a good game. The only issues it has (only the lackluster story and some balancing issues) pale in comparison to how fun this game is to play, how addicting it is, and how satisfying it is.
This is a game to strongly consider putting on your shopping list, and Moi Rai Games has shown themselves to be a team to watch. There’s so much to this game I haven’t even touched upon, such as monster evolution, the infinity arena, a burgeoning PvP scene, equipment crafting, and so much more about the battle system! This game is a perfectly sized, measured experience that you simply will not, and can not regret.
Verdict: Get it, get it now. If you like any games involving monster collecting, deep character build potential, fantastic 2D presentation or fast-paced turn-based fighting, this will be an enjoyable one for you.