There have been a few times in my game reviewing career where I’ve picked up a game and it’s had more than simple subtle overtones of another title. EA’s Lord of the Rings: The Third Age took more than one page out of Final Fantasy X’s style book and Digital Devil Saga and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne’s shared battle system made them seem very similar. However, never before have I picked up a game and thought that I had played the exact game before. That is, until Master of the Monster Lair, published by Atlus USA on the Nintendo DS. If any of you have played Dungeon Maker, another Global A-developed title, you know exactly what to expect out of Master of the Monster Lair — just turn based and focused more towards kids. This isn’t too far out of the ordinary, as the game is known as Dungeon Maker: Mahou no Shovel to Chiisana Yuusha in Japan, but the similarities go far beyond what would be expected for games in the same series.
The premise of Master of the Monster Lair is simple, but absurd. You, the lovable young scamp of a main character named Owen, have found a magical shovel that allows you to dig a dungeon, which monsters will inhabit. Then you slay the monsters with your party of a friendly young girl and a mimic named Gloop, and the entire town is happy! The premise itself isn’t particularly interesting, nor is the way that the story is presented. Much like Dungeon Maker, the story is played out through short conversations with NPCs when you arrive back in town – mostly for them to give you some sort of fetch quest to kill some type of monster or gather a certain item while you’re mowing down monsters in your dungeon. The story was obviously not the number one priority on Global A’s checklist, although there’s nothing wrong with Atlus’ translation of the content – it’s just that there’s not enough of it.
The game functions in two cycles, time in the dungeon and time spent in the town. When in town, players are able to acquire magic, new rooms for placement, equipment, and talk to NPCs. The town interface is fairly standard, though it is where level-ups occur. Rather than having a standard experience-based level-up system, Master of the Monster Lair gives players attributes based on the food they make after exploring their dungeon. This food, made with monster parts found in the dungeon, gives simple attribute boosts, and players can simply enter and leave their dungeon if they wish to boost their power – though with the ease of play in Master of the Monster Lair, this is hardly necessary. The third character, Gloop, is able to copy body parts from enemies, providing him with more power, granting him new abilities, and determining what gear he can equip. This level-up system is certainly interesting, but it’s not particularly complicated.
Once players enter the dungeon, they are able to place rooms, purchased in town, and create their own dungeon. Players can place or remove as many rooms in a single day as the magic shovel has MP, which is painfully low early on. As such, a dungeon will grow painfully slow early on, due to both the fact that the shovel has little MP and that money, which purchases the rooms, is a bit scarce. Another problem with the construction of dungeons is that players need to move to the particular area they wish to place the room, and then navigate menus to actually do so. With the dual screens of the Nintendo DS, why would Global A keep the archaic room placement of Dungeon Maker, rather than provide some sort of touchscreen controls for dungeon placement? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
The actual design of the dungeon makes a difference on how loot drops, making it so when three rooms face each other, spawning three monsters, these monsters will drop more loot. Rather than keeping Dungeon Maker’s simple “make the dungeon full of twists and turns” ultimatum, Master of the Monster Lair’s change gives players far less leeway in how their dungeon is set up. The reason for this has to do with the fact that Master of the Monster Lair has a turn-based battle system, so opponents are encountered at the conjunction of non-hallway rooms, as opposed to randomly. Still, it makes it so that just about any created dungeon will have lots of dead ends, which doesn’t make for particularly entertaining dungeon design.
This could be overlooked if Master of the Monster Lair’s battle system was anything but the extremely generic one it has. There’s hit points, magic points, attributes, and the “Attack, Magic, Defend, Flee” options anyone who’s ever played a turn-based RPG has encountered. It’s excruciatingly slow, as well, as lots of abilities will trigger multiple messages to trudge through, on top of the fact that it’s very easy. Monsters get more difficult as players trudge deeper and deeper in their dungeon, but there’s not a great deal of variation in creature type.
Graphically, Master of the Monster lair is anything but impressive. Textures and environments are incredibly boring, and anyone playing the game hopefully has a love for the color brown, as just about every bit of dungeon is colored like the first Quake. Monster designs are fairly generic, and boss design is not much better. The town could be taken out of any sixteen-bit RPG and doesn’t lend itself to be particularly impressive. It’s not that the graphics are broken in any sort of technical fashion, they simply have a complete dearth of artistic value.
Master of the Monster Lair has the concepts to make it a worthwhile title. Each of the individual parts work in theory, and mesh incredibly well – it’s obvious that Global A put significant thought into how dungeon play should complement what’s done in town. It’s the fact that these individual parts aren’t of particularly high quality and have very annoying features that makes Master of the Monster Lair a sub par title. Nothing in the game is completely broken, but on the opposite side of the coin, none of it is original or shines as an excellent feature. For gamers who don’t own a PSP or are in the younger echelon of RPG fans and want to get their creative juices flowing, Master of the Monster Lair might be a title to look at. Those who own a PSP, however, should skip over Master of the Monster Lair and try to find a copy of Dungeon Maker – it’s almost the exact same game without the kiddy overtones and a superior battle system.