By Josh Speer / December 14th, 2018
|Title||Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom|
|Release Date||December 4th, 2018|
|Genre||Metroidvania, Adventure Game|
|Platform||PC, PS4, Switch, XBox One|
|Age Rating||E for Everyone – Fantasy Violence, Use of Alcohol|
Though I had never played the original Wonder Boy series, I was excited to try out the latest successor, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. I had gotten that itch for classics with a fresh coat of paint with the recent release of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap on the Switch. Both games were inspired by the classic Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, and both featured polished new graphics and updated interfaces. Unfortunately for the new Wonder Boy, while it was an attractive package, it was held down by an adherence to archaic controls and hardcore difficulty. It’s no exaggeration that I found myself unable to beat the first boss of the game and gave up in frustration. But after seeing some coverage of Monster Boy at PAX East, I had a hopeful feeling this one might fare better. After all, unlike Wonder Boy, which was a straight up action platformer, Monster Boy was more akin to a Metroidvania. Given my love for that genre, I was willing to give this second successor a try. The question is, were the shapeshifting adventures here worth raving about? Or should I stop getting nostalgic about series I never played back in the day?
One of the things that instantly caught my attention about Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom was the plot. Jin is just minding his business fishing when a crazed drunkard riding a “nectar” barrel goes on a rampage transforming everyone in sight into creatures. (Fun fact, apparently the original subtitle for the game was set to be And the Wizard of Booze. Sometimes censorship even makes me sad.) Best of all is that he’s none other than Jin’s Uncle, Nabu. While it’s not clear where he found a magic wand nor why he’s going berserk, it’s apparent someone needs to stop him. So off Jin goes, on a quest to discover what’s happening and put an end to it, with only mild narrative points offered by a small supporting cast, including his transformed younger brother, Zeke.
While the game is mostly linear, you will be left to your own devices when you get stuck. The general flow is, get introduced to a new area, find your way through it, beat a boss, get a new ability or item, rinse and repeat. It’s not always that simple, and it’s worth noting that some areas are quite difficult to get through, but the basic momentum is fine. After beating the first boss, Jin is transformed by his loony uncle into a pig, depriving him of the ability to equip armor or weapons, due to being overweight and having hooves instead of hands. Though you’ll eventually get the ability to turn back into a human, you should get used to spending 80% of the game in the form of an animal. I was fine with that, since each animal form has unique skills, useful for both puzzle solving and combat.
I’ll give a quick rundown of what they can all do. The pig, despite his shortcomings, has a powerful butt stomp that can stun enemies, as well as the skill to sniff out hidden clues and eat truffles, which increases your number of attack items and magic spells. The snake is the weakest, but is able to scoot through narrow passages, break rocks with a dash, spit venom and cling to moss covered surfaces. The frog revolves all around his tongue, which can not only devour smaller enemies, it can also eat up and spit out items such as enemy projectiles and bouncy blocks. He also is the only creature able to swim without worrying about his oxygen supply. Then there’s the beastly lion which can dash through walls and over dangerous surfaces, and eventually able to do an air dash upwards. Up last is the dragon, which when fully powered, can fly forever and breathe an unlimited supply of fire. They all have their uses, though it is worth noting that the final 3 forms I mentioned can also equip upgradeable armor and weapons, some with fantastic special effects like walking on clouds, while only the pig and human form are capable of using attack items and magic spells.
As for how it all controls, it plays pretty intuitively. Quick note that some controls do vary by transformation, but in general they work like this: Y is attack, B is jump, with X and A as skills. For example, as a snake, X spits poison and A dashes forward. L / R brings up your magic / attack items, ZL / ZR buttons bring up the transformation wheel, + brings up your inventory to equip things and – brings up the world map. One quick note is that initially you can just press L / R or ZL / ZR to quickly shift between your items or transformations, Mega Man style, but once you get more than 3 of either, it instead turns into a wheel and requires you use the joystick to select what you want. That was a bit disappointing for me, but not a serious complaint. It just slowed down my game flow a bit.
While the combat mostly flows well, I did notice a frustrating tendency for foes to try and dogpile me. Also frustrating was when I was climbing vertically and a flying enemy would zero in on me before I even saw it, which happened multiple times with the damned mosquitoes. Other than those, I mostly enjoyed fighting things, just so long as I didn’t let myself get overwhelmed. More challenging are the various boss fights, which pretty much fall into two camps – boss fights you can muscle through and boss fights that you puzzle through. The latter were in large part my favorites, though there’s a couple late game that were really frustrating. Special mention goes to the mechanical ruins possessed by bats and a fight against the mighty Big Venom. Thankfully, if you have a really hard time with any of them, there’s a feature where little dragon bro Zeke will start appearing dropping extra hearts mid fight to help you out. Or if you prefer, you can always buy elixirs to revive yourself from death from the item stores.
Besides all the fighting, there’s also a lot of exploring to do in Monster Boy. While I wouldn’t say the game world is huge, it’s definitely bigger than I was expecting. I spent a grand total of 16 hours beating the game, though some of that time came from getting lost. To be fair, this was a problem that I mostly ran into in the last third of the game, while the first two thirds were pretty delightful and fast paced. Part of the challenge or fun, depending how you look at it, are all the puzzles. Put simply, there’s a shit ton of puzzles in the game, ranging from simple ones to real head scratchers. There’s still a couple I have no idea how to beat, including one nasty one in the Volcano area. If anything, I’d call the puzzles a mixed bag, but the majority are inoffensive, other than the one time a puzzle glitched out on me in the Forest area, forcing me to restart. Just be prepared to scream a little when you get to the Haunted Mansion, as that has the most difficult trials of the entire game.
Visually Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a treat. It’s colorful, cartoony and utterly bursting with personality. Small touches like the snake’s forehead creased in pain while carrying a giant gear in his stomach or the look of utter shock on the frog’s face when damaged just add to the fabric of this world. The animated CG sequences are also fantastic, and made me wish there was a full blown animated series. The game world is a place of lighthearted humor and good fun, despite all the supernatural occurrences plaguing the kingdom. While I wouldn’t say any of the creatures in the game are mind blowingly creative, other than maybe Ketz, they all do a good job of being distinct and having unique attack patterns. On the topic of sound design, while there was nothing that I found offensive (except maybe the Muzak in the elevator sequence), there also wasn’t anything that wowed me. I was hoping for a dynamic ear worm, but the best I found was the soothing tunes of the HUB town. That said, the sound effects do their job well and drew me into the adventure.
For the most part I really enjoyed Monster Boy, but I do feel obligated to mention one segment that bothered me. Earlier I alluded to the last part of the game being more difficult. It’s full of super challenging, obscure puzzles, fetch quests and irritating boss fights. But for me, the cardinal sin of the last part of the game takes place in the final dungeon. I won’t reveal the nature of the dungeon, but even without that I can mention the biggest complaint. You reach a point in the final dungeon where you come across jet black cubes in your path. You have to destroy them to get to the final boss, but there’s one catch. In order to be able to destroy them, you need an optional Legendary Weapon that you can only find by thoroughly searching other parts of the world map. To be fair, the developers hint at this with a giant map that has Legendary fragments displayed on them in the last dungeon. While it’s true you can warp out of the dungeon, my issue is that I feel you should always find the keys to defeating a dungeon in said dungeon. Maybe I had this instilled into me by years of games like Zelda, but I was really upset with this design. Worse still, the game gives you no hint that you’ll need this item to progress before you enter the final dungeon, so some players may be grinding their gears for a while until a FAQ or guide is published. I frankly got lucky that I was able to figure this out without needing to ask for help from the developers.
Despite some problems I found with the game, I did enjoy Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. Though it’s not a deep or particularly compelling story, it’s still a fun nod to games of the past with some new bells and whistles. There’s a lot of replay value if you want to 100% the game, including solving all the puzzles, finding all the items and upgrading all the equipment. The charm mostly shines through, and I’m still happy to see games like this on modern consoles. It’s also worth noting this was far more enjoyable than Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, as far as successors go. For $39.99 you’ll get a meaty adventure with lots of platforming, boss slaying and drunken wizardry. So long as you can look past the rough last part of the game and some frustrating dungeons, you’ll get along with Jin and company just fine.
Review Copy Provided by Publisher
classicFDG EntertainmentGame AtelierMonster Boy and the Cursed KingdomoprainfallReviewRyuichi NishizawaSwitchWonder boy