It’s hard to believe that Pokèmon has been around for 25 years and is still a popular and viable multimedia entity. Ten-year-olds who were enthralled by Pokèmon Red & Blue back in the late 1990s are now in their mid-30s, and many still enjoy playing Pokèmon games, perhaps with their own children. Ever since Pokèmon exploded onto the scene, other companies have tried to craft their own “creature collecting” games to get a piece of that market. The glut of these are derisively referred to as “pokè-clones” even if some are good in their own right.
Even now, in 2021, games like Nexomon, Temtem, Coromon, and more try to compete with Nintendo and Game Freak’s juggernaut. Another challenger in this arena is Monster Crown, the debut title from Studio Aurum. Monster Crown may look like an old-school Pokèmon game from the Game Boy Color days, but with its sinister storyline and occasional use of foul language, it presents itself as an edgier alternative for those who played their first Pokèmon game during childhood and are now teens or adults looking for that same experience, albeit more grown-up.
Crown Island, Monster Crown‘s world, has a kind of untamed, less cultivated vibe, like a place that hasn’t been fully explored yet; it’s almost like the US during the early stages of Western expansion. If you like exploring simply for the sake of exploring, this game will appeal to you. If you’re looking for a compelling story with plot-based motives to do stuff, you won’t really find that here. The story doesn’t offer many incentives to stray far off the beaten path; you need to be intrinsically motivated to explore. Yes, there are some good story beats, but wanderlust and the robust monster breeding system are Monster Crown‘s calling cards. That being said, even if you don’t extensively explore off the beaten path, Monster Crown is not super difficult to complete. To me, Monster Crown is one of those games where the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.
The game’s story goes a little something like this: Crown Island has been enjoying decades of peace since the totalitarian regime of the Philosopher Kings was upended back in the olden days. However, a power-hungry madwoman named Beth seeks the Philosopher Kings’ hidden power to forge her own totalitarian regime. You, on the other hand, are an innocent teenager, oblivious to all this, living peacefully on a farm with your mom and dad. After doing some chores for him (which couples as the game’s first tutorials), your dad decides you’re ready to try your hand at monster taming and can go and see the world. Once you get your starter monster, your dad sends you on a mission to deliver a gift to the regional monarch to initiate good standing with him. After all, it’s never too early to make connections, right? On the way, you run afoul of the infamous Beth and find yourself drawn into a largely feral world filled with nefarious people and situations. Moral ambiguity becomes more apparent as the game progresses, and a key late-game decision can alter the endgame’s trajectory.
The story itself isn’t bad, but it left me wanting more. Several major and minor plot points resolved way too succinctly, which made the event scripting and plot progression feel choppy. Many of these points should have been left to marinate so they could be more fleshed out. I also thought that some of the dialogue read awkwardly. I don’t know if this was a stylistic choice to hearken back to the 8-bit days of yore, but clumsily written dialogue is not a nostalgia trend I want to see return. The main story itself is also pretty short, and those who play Monster Crown just for the story will likely finish in 12-15 hours and may be somewhat dissatisfied by the scant post-game content.
Monster Crown may be a fairly short game, even for thorough explorers, but it feels longer than it actually is because it is rather grindy. There are a multitude of factors that make it grindy, so there is no one panacea to ease the slog. When the “shared experience” toggle is on, all monsters in the party (of up to eight) gain experience, but it’s paltry so leveling them up takes a long time. When it is turned off, and only active participants gain experience, they level quickly. I felt like I was bouncing from one extreme to the other and I struggled to keep my party evenly and adequately leveled.
The highly touted monster breeding system, while incredibly fun and addictive, also exacerbated my grinding issues. The game features 200 base monsters, and combining them into all manner of hybrids and crossbreeds is an absolute hoot. Monsters don’t evolve when they level up and must be crossbred to create newer, stronger monsters. Unfortunately, every time I bred two monsters, the resulting offspring was very low leveled compared to the parents. Ergo, more tedious grinding was required to get back up to speed. Wild monsters outright refuse to join my party if my monsters’ levels are lower than theirs, so recruiting wild monsters with my newly created crossbreeds was difficult. The exceptions to this rule are boss monsters who you can recruit simply by whittling down their HP, provided your Tamer Rank is adequate. Progression throughout the game felt like one step forward and two steps back until I found some exploits to power my way through the latter portions of the game.
In Monster Crown, people refer to you as a Tamer. Instead of capturing monsters as in Pokèmon, you offer them pacts to follow you. Using pacts isn’t any different from using Pokèballs, but forming pacts with monsters feels more consensual than straight-up capturing them. The game also features a form of level capping through your Tamer Rank, so you can’t, for example, tame a level 35 monster when you’re just starting out. To get past this, each town has a chieftain whom you must defeat in battle to increase your Tamer Rank and allow your monsters’ level cap to rise. Be warned that the chieftains play for keeps, and losing a fight with one means they take one of your monsters. Conversely, if you win, they give you one of theirs. You can easily tell who the chieftains are because their main monster flanks them. Setting the game to easy difficulty prevents you from losing monsters in these battles and makes other concessions for those who may want an easier ride.
Monsters themselves are categorized into personality types rather than elemental types, and your chosen starter will fall into the Brute, Relentless, Unstable, Malicious, or Will type. Each type has strengths and weaknesses relative to other types, so you always want the right monsters and movepools in each battle. It’s pretty standard fare, but the unorthodox typing is not as intuitive as traditionally used elemental typing in other monster collecting games. You can choose any of the five starters you want, but a fun little personality quiz recommends which starter may be best for you.
One thing to note is that as you progress through Monster Crown, you may encounter wild versions of the starter monsters out in the field. My starter was Ambigu (an Unstable type slime monster), so imagine my surprise seeing lots of wild Ambigu on the field not even a third of the way through the game. I am not sure how I feel about this. While this allowed me to interact with all the monsters and try out other starters, it also made my starter feel less unique, which is something I liked about the Pokèmon series’ starters. Field encounters are visible rather than random, which makes the world feel truly inhabited by monsters. Crown Island is their world, and we humans simply live in it.
Character creation is limited but still fun. You can choose from a variety of hairstyles and overall color schemes, all of which are available regardless of what pronouns you choose. Although I’m a straight cis male, I almost always choose a female character in interactive media. However, I decided to go with “they” pronouns because I’ve never played a game using a non-binary protagonist before, and I’m always up for something different from my usual perspective. In my playthrough, most NPCs referred to my character using the correct pronouns, and the one who didn’t was likely because of a typo or error.
Moving onto Monster Crown‘s technical aspects, I was not the biggest fan of the controls and interface. The gamepad controls were adequate, but having to enter names with my keyboard was awkward since there was no letter selection grid. I also found toggling and executing some field actions, like riding certain monsters, rather cumbersome. The menus were not the most intuitive or ergonomic either. Whose bright idea was it to put pale text atop a yellow background and make the highlight selector yellow in the settings menus? Some of the menus have questionable omissions as well. For example, the notebook keeps track of your main quest objectives but not your sidequests. And why is there no easy way to delete unwanted save files or save in different slots if I want to?
The retro 8-bit graphics are what I would call “cute with an edge.” They pay homage to the Game Boy Color Pokèmon games’ visuals but speak to the harsher and less civilized world mainly due to the muted color palette. The monsters themselves have a variety of designs, and players will find favorites, but none of them are very memorable. Monster Crown‘s best graphics belong to the few cutscene stills for particularly poignant scenes.
Cute with an edge describes the music too. Location themes strike a nice balance between jaunty and atmospheric. Battle themes are appropriately intense and I liked all of the different ones. There is the wild monster battle theme, the boss theme, the tamer battle theme, and one when you battle a thug or gangster. I would seek out battles with other tamers just to hear that battle theme and even idle during boss battles to keep listening to that music. I would have liked there to be a distinct chieftain battle theme instead of it being the usual field theme, though. Chieftain battles are high stakes and deserve music reflecting that intensity.
Monster Crown, though flawed, offers its own take on Pokèmon-style monster collection games. I liked its darker themes and several of its ideas, including having dialogue options when encountering other tamers before engaging them in battle. I should also mention that Monster Crown has online components for trading and battling. Monster Crown has potential, and I did enjoy the time I spent with it, but I was not enthralled by its overly-grindy gameplay and general lack of refinement. I hope Studio Aurum learns from Monster Crown‘s experience and creates better games in the future.