Monster Lab Review
Monster Lab is one of those games that features a great premise, with plenty of depth and originality, but falls shy of its intended goals by relying on old technology. Of course, we’re not about to condemn a game simply because it utilizes the last-generation PS2 hardware, but in this day and age, it’s difficult to ignore the lacking. The good news applies mostly to the younger, perhaps more casual, gaming crowd that doesn’t mind somewhat slow and turgid pacing and a less-than-involving story. At its core, Monster Lab quite simply allows you to play as a freaky Dr. Frankenstein of sorts; you will create your own monster from scratch and send him out into the world to do battle. You’ll not only build it, but you’ll also maintain it, find new parts to add, and even create new parts from scratch, so this freedom of invention represents the game’s primary appeal. The rest of it feels a little stilted, but if you’re a micromanagement buff at heart, you’ll appreciate the foundation.
The graphics are pretty good, and the visual atmosphere actually reminds us of Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts. There’s a dark, comical tinge to this fantastical and even distorted world where makeshift monsters roam about and cause problems. The characters are lividly drawn with plenty of detail, and it’s always fun to check out the fresh changes to your creation when you enter battle. There’s some nice diversity to the different areas you will visit, although the entire presentation remains shrouded in shadow for the sake of artistic impact. There are better graphical depictions on the PS2, certainly, but if you get hooked on the gameplay, you probably won’t notice any of the trivial shortcomings. And overall, the drawbacks really are trivial, despite a few remaining reservations we had regarding the combat effects (not as bad as the problems that hamper the sound effects, though). Right from the start, when you’re introduced to Dr. Fuseless, you’ll be drawn to what equates to the “visually macabre.” It’s not great, but it fits, and that’s that.
The sound is boosted by some decent, lively voice acting that enhance the overall experience, but falls back a few notches when we consider the relatively unimpressive soundtrack and bland battle effects. In all honesty, the latter was the most confusing aspect of the sound category: one would assume that when two monsters face off in mortal combat, the result would be explosive. It would be an appreciated assault on the eyes and ears, and in fact, it’s neither. We already mentioned the generic and uninspired graphical effects that go along with the combat, but the oddly muted sound effects are even worse. They’re very erratic, and sometimes, you barely even hear the impact of a massive attack. This decreased our enjoyment of the gameplay, despite the efforts of the decent voice actors, which – once again – remind us of the zany characters in Psychonauts. The soundtrack gels with the atmosphere, but it’s not brought into the limelight when it needs to shine; whatever happened to hard-hitting music to go along with the most engaging aspects of a game?
As we partially explained in the introduction, Monster Lab revolves around the concept of building your own monster(s). But we’ll get to that in a second; the base gameplay is pretty straightforward, and fans of turn-based RPGs will quickly adapt to the style. At first, you will be faced with a map that only allows you to follow set paths through the town you’re currently visiting, and as you move from point to point, you will encounter characters and enemies. You will also need to spend some time wandering around completing a few mini-quests in order to both advance the plot and unlock new items for building. When you touch a foe, you will be transported to the battle screen where the two monsters go head-to-head; defeat can only come when the torso of a monster has been destroyed. See, you can target the legs, arms, torso and even the head of your enemy, and this is where the strategic element of combat comes into play. You can either go straight for the torso, or you can eliminate particularly troublesome parts of the attacker. For example, if the monster has a tough left arm that keeps landing damaging uppercuts, you might want to get rid of that thing ASAP.
By checking your available attacks, you can see which part(s) of the enemy will be affected if you strike. If you use a Hammerfall attack, it’ll slam the head and torso; if you execute a Side Kick, you’ll smash the left arm, and if you opt for the powerful Chomp…well, you never know what might happen. You can miss with attacks, and you will also have to keep an eye on your energy. You need a certain amount of energy in your batteries in order to launch an attack, and if you run out, you’ll have to either Dodge or Recharge. The latter completely recharges your batteries to maximum but leaves you wide open to any attack, while Dodge recharges a partial amount and gives you a chance at avoiding the oncoming assault. You’ll also want to watch the enemy’s energy because he has to play by the same rules; if he’s getting low, take the time to Recharge or Dodge because chances are, he will Dodge when you attempt the attack. It’s quite the mind game, and if you’re starting to suffer – let’s say you lose a few limbs and your torso is very red, meaning it’s almost gone – you can flee. But you can’t flee if your legs are gone, so remember that!
After battle, you can give yourself a chance to administer repairs to your battered monster. Here’s where one of the little mini-games occurs, as you have to simply select the damaged part you wish to repair, then rotate the right analog as fast as you can to restore it. This is timed, however, so you’ll want to target the most seriously damaged parts of your monster. In between quests, you can work with Dr. Fuseless to create new items via raw materials you find in the field, attach them to your monster, or invent entirely new monsters in the lab. There are literally millions of possibilities and you could spend a great deal of time experimenting, which is the entire point…duh. New things continue to open up in terms of depth and complexity as time goes on, and before you know it, you’re immersed in an ongoing effort to produce the best monster possible. Your efforts will be rewarded in domination on the battlefield, so even if you find yourself spending a great deal of time in the lab, don’t worry; it should all pay off in the end. The pace of the game may throw you off, though.
There are a few problems in this respect. First of all, battles can really take a long time, and although you always have the strategy element, this can get quite repetitive. Secondly, the story, which involves the evil Baron Mharti and the aptly named Uncanny Valley, just doesn’t seem to materialize very quickly, and there are too many boring side-quests. Thirdly and lastly, the mini-games just seem out of place. Soldering should indeed be a significant part of the building and repair process, but moving the gun around with the analog is just plain bland, and why do these little games have to be timed? Aren’t we supposed to be taking our time? Isn’t this all about creation and invention, which most certainly shouldn’t be rushed? Backbone should’ve put more effort into producing a series of tasks that rely more on intelligence and skill rather than simple dexterity. It just seems to cheapen the whole experience, although we know that fun factor is important, and perhaps the mini-games are indeed entertaining for the target demographic. It’s hard to tell, though.
Oh, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the apparent erratic nature of the combat. Sometimes, it just seemed as if certain attacks didn’t do the same thing twice, which got to be quite irritating. How come our Hammerfall attack smashed the torso hard once, and then it took another five or six attacks to finish it off? So there are more than a few flaws, but again, the concept is very good. A lot of people want to assume the role of Dr. Frankenstein, and there’s a core group of gamers out there who always want to develop a character from the ground up. In Monster Lab, you can create and assemble a whole army of characters in the form of monsters, and those monsters can take whatever form you like. As this is the central theme of the game, we have to give it plenty of credit, because it does work quite well. It’s just that…well, the rest of the adventure doesn’t deliver a cohesive experience; the pacing is weird, the battles can get repetitive and are occasionally hard to understand, and being so restricted on the map goes against the production’s inner spirit of player freedom.
Besides that, it’s not a bad game. Perhaps incomplete, but not bad.
2/16/2009 Ben Dutka