This game comes with an unusual caveat/recommendation: If you haven’t already played/fallen in love with/obsessed over one of my all-time favorite DS titles (see my blog regarding Henry Hatsworth and the Puzzling Adventure), then there is almost no reason to bother with Monster Tale. Really. Seems like an odd way to start my review, but allow me to explain.
MT, for those who weren’t aware of this modest little game (and almost nobody was—lifetime sales are estimated at less than 40k worldwide) is the direct spiritual sequel to Henry Hatsworth, and even includes some members of the same development team. MT even includes a late-game dialog tree that makes oblique reference to HH—a neat Easter-egg wink to the loyal players. But no amount of copy-cat gameplay and stylistic similarities allow MT to surpass HH…Henry is just that damn good.
However, IF you’ve already played Henry Hatsworth and are, like me, yearning for a sequel that will probably never happen (again, see my email exchange with HH Director Kyle Gray), Monster Tale is at least a reasonable surrogate of similar quality and composition.
Like Hatsworth, Monster Tale is a direct descendant of the Metroidvania action-platforming universe. You’ll move about in a gradually-expanding worldmap, acquiring powerups for the lead character (a human girl, Ellie) while simultaneously powering up your sidekick monster, Chomp. One of the game’s strongest attributes is the addictive combination of attacks at your disposal. Ellie’s primary offense (again, exactly like Hatsworth) is a melee strike capable of juggling monsters into item-dropping multi-hit combos. She’s also equipped with a blaster for long range hits, but using her melee attack is so much fun, I tend to forget about using her gun in all but the most challenging situations.
Assisting Ellie is Chomp, her hovering, omnipresent monster buddy. Chomp is like an action-game version of a Pokemon sidekick. Your monster will gather experience, level up, and evolve into new forms over time. Chomp’s evolutionary direction is up to you; your submenu includes branching trees that allow the player to direct Chomp’s development and ultimate forms. However, I never found the game to be difficult enough to spend much time pondering Chomp’s potential evolutions; the most important thing seemed to be remembering to equip my monster with the right style of attacks and statistic-altering badges before heading into battle.
The presence of two onscreen protagonists makes for a fundamentally entertaining formula akin to the dual-hero structure of the DS Castlevania series. Ellie possesses weaker attacks and lower defense stats, while Chomp has a variety of bombastic offensive moves and sustains less damage than his human friend. Frantic button manipulation is the name of the game; a skilled player can wipe out a full screen of enemies in mere seconds by using Chomp and Ellie in a chaotic two-pronged assault. Since Chomp has to recharge every few seconds (by returning to monster-limbo on the bottom DS screen), primary strategy lies in timing the use of your monster pet. If Chomp’s life meter drops to zero, he’ll be knocked out for a nail-biting half minute, leaving Ellie exposed and alone on the battlefield. It’s an innovative formula that can get a little repetitious by the end of the game, but works well overall.
Monster Tale isn’t very long; my playcount reads 8 hours, 16 minutes for a finished game (though I only achieved a 73% complete). Nor is the game as difficult as Hatsworth; whereas the final levels of HH were classic affairs of white-knuckled boss fights, I only started losing lives in the final few levels of Monster Tale, and beat the final boss on my third (relatively lazy) attempt. The graphic style is acceptable (if a bit childlike/cutesy) . . . but again. . . not as polished or detailed as a certain other similar game (I may have mentioned it a few times by now). The soundtrack is similarly passable—inoffensive, even decent at moments (the punchy bass in the nightclub level is some of the loudest in any DS title) but doesn’t even hold a candle to the mesmerizing symphonic genius of Hatsworth (I say this as a guy who has the HH soundtrack on his iPod). Finally—and in some ways, most glaringly—the humor and wit of HH is entirely absent from MT. This isn’t entirely surprising, given that I’d put HH on the comic level of classic Lucasarts comedy, but it’s a regrettable omission, considering the many other similarities between the two games.
IGN rated Monster Tale an 8.5 (while Henry Hatsworth got a 9.0 Editor’s Choice rating) so it’s obviously not a bad game, and please don’t misinterpret my underlying message. To wit, Monster Tale is a good platformer with neat innovations and moments of true greatness. But the problem with making a spiritual successor to a truly legendary game is that the descendant will always reside in the shadow of its forebearer (think Goldeneye 007/ Perfect Dark). Still, given that you can pick up a new copy of Monster Tale on Ebay for around $13, I’d definitely say this game is worth your time.
But only if you’ve already played the sh*t out of Hatsworth. ;’]
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