Review: Monark (Nintendo Switch)

19 mins read

Monark is one of the most different and interesting things that I’ve played in quite some time. You’re going to see others make comparisons to the likes of Persona, because it takes place in a school and it’s a JRPG with turn-based battles, but that’s an unfair and laboured comparison that completely overlooks what appears to be a complete disregard for JRPG conventions… and perhaps the genre itself. I’m not sure the creative team behind Monark really wanted to make a JRPG in the first place, and the result is something fascinating, unique, and artful.

I’m not entirely sure the combat was planned for Monark at all. It’s there, but it also feels like it was dropped in deep into development, and only after someone high up realised that without it they were selling something that was going to be as appealing to the gaming audience as a video recording of the recital of Freud would be to the cinema audience. What I mean by this is that the combat is almost completely separate and modular to the rest of the game. There are no random battles, or even enemies on the map, as you might expect from a JRPG. Instead, there are times when your avatar’s mobile phone will ring. If you prompt them to accept the call, then they’re whisked away to a battle in a very different dimension that doesn’t even remotely resemble the “real world.” If you don’t answer the call, the people that roam the mist-enshrouded halls will go berserk and chase you… but even if they catch you, they don’t attack, and you don’t fight them. If they catch you, you simply get knocked out. So, for the most part, assuming you can avoid your pursuers, then there’s no pressing urgency to whisk yourself over to a battle scene that looks like it came from a completely different game.

Of course, you will need to level up, because eventually, you are going to have to fight a boss battle to progress the narrative. Here, too, the boss battles happen in an entirely different realm, and involves reaching the end of a dungeon area, finding a modem-like phone, and then dialling it using your own phone. If you’re not levelled enough that battle is going to be overwhelming, but again, it’s entirely up to you when you do this, and it takes place in an entirely distinct space from the rest of the game. I found my preferred approach was to simply ignore all combat as I explored an area, solved its puzzles and followed along with the narrative. Then, just before the boss, I spend a short while (never too long) fighting enemy after enemy by dialling into this otherworld. Once you start the combat, you can continually replay battles until you’ve had enough, meaning that you never need to return to the “real world” until you’re done grinding. All of this might sound like an abstract difference to the standard JRPG, but you do really feel it in action. Monark’s combat is so partitioned off from everything else in the game that it feels dropped in, whereas with most JRPGs developers work hard to try to make the enemies and combat system a consistent and integrated part of the rest of the experience.

I should clarify at this point that Monark doesn’t have a bad combat system by any means. In fact, though it may well be the most conventional part of this deeply strange game, it’s still quite interesting. Each battle takes place on a small tactical stage, where you square off against opponents in a turn-based manner. In addition to the standard range of attacks and special abilities, there’s also a number of additional capabilities that you have access to, such as the ability to give another character another turn, and those have a cost that will add to that character’s MAD percentage bar. If that gets all the way to 100 per cent (remembering that wandering around in the mist also accumulates MAD points), then the character goes berserk and it’s back to the infirmary with them. So you’ll need to make careful use of those abilities, while also understanding that you’ll need them and exploiting them is core to Monark’s tactics.

Because you’ve got complete control over when you fight, you can choose to string these battles together, one after another, and accumulate a lot of experience points quickly. Each individual battle gives you a letter grade, which corresponds to how quickly and effectively you’ve dispatched opponents, and it’s worth trying to get the higher grades as it means more experience. That being said, there’s also no downside to doing poorly, as your team is healed up immediately on the commencement of the next battle. It has been designed, deliberately, to be an endless gauntlet, until you want it to end, and then you’re given the freedom to move back to the world and narrative of Monark. There’s an elegant efficiency to it, and the agency it afforded me, in allowing me to take complete control over how I played the game, was admirable. I was only going to be bored of the combat system if I actively allowed myself to get to that point. With all this said I do think that some will be put off by just how modular the combat of Monark is, and how distinct and inconsistent it is in being so separate to everything else, but nonetheless I do think that everyone should give this thing a go because no other game has ever behaved quite like this, and it’s fascinating from a technical and structural point of view.

So far I’ve just talked about the combat, and as fascinating as it is, that’s the lesser half of the game. Monark’s real strength comes from a deeply abstracted, cerebral and challenging narrative. It taps into philosophy, psychology and theology in equal measures, and gives you plenty of layers and nuance to dig into in each. On the theology side, all the various bosses are designed to be personifications of the seven deadly sins, and so too are the allies, with each having a different skill tree that is a JRPG abstraction of the skills that you might associate with those particular sins. Your avatar actually represents a combination of all the sins, and as you fight battles, complete side stories, and hit various milestones, your actions will cause the avatar’s relevant sins to increase in power. I must admit that I never fully grasped why some battles would result in my lust rating increasing, while others would cause wrath to spike instead. I assume it had something to do with the actions I took during a battle, but I think we all knew that if I fully understood how to game this system my lust rating would be off the charts and everything else would be pretty muted. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the way that the game shifted away from standard “strength, intelligence, dexterity” type statistics and instead presented you as an evolving representation of the ID, and there was no pressing need to master statistical manipulation in Monark to progress comfortably.

Speaking of the ID, I’m not well enough versed in psychology to know how cleverly this game distils down a discussion around Freudian psychology, but it very clearly does borrow heavily from Freudian psychology. There are some deep, lengthy discussions in here about concepts like the Ego (I’m not going to even try to make a ham-fisted attempt at analysis of that here), and you’re frequently stopped on your quest by people that ask you personality questions and, depending on your response, the game subsequently gives you an analysis of how it reflects on your personality. I’ve never felt quite so… probed… in a game as I have this one, and while at first I found the questions faintly ridiculous (being asked if I enjoy naughty movies is not something I would have expected outside of a Dead or Alive fan game), I quickly found myself not only looking forward to these things but actually mulling over my answers. It wasn’t to try and manipulate them, either, even though the responses will result in one of your character’s “sin statistics” getting a boost. No, I was thinking hard about which of the responses most approximates how I would personally respond to the same question.

As I write this review and think about this system further, I think the reason that I took this so seriously is precisely that these answers are so closely linked to the development of my character and therefore, in Monark, the protagonist becomes a greater manifestation of me – the real me – than any other game I can remember playing. In one question I was given a scenario in which I find a dog annoying, and then asked just what it is about the situation that led me to find the animal frustrating. I responded that I found the dog annoying because of its bark (oh I am so going to cop it for admitting that in writing), and that resulted in… I think my pride stat taking a jump (whatever stat it was, it wasn’t a good look on me and the game’s on your side, dog fans!). That stat boost meant, in turn, that the character that I was taking into combat was very much a consequence of my own personality. Not the way I play, but who I am. Most JRPGs allow you to manipulate your characters according to your aesthetic and gameplay preferences. This one makes the character that you’re in control of a manifestation of something much deeper, and while I do think the psychology of Monark is probably a little simple (again I’m a layperson here and a psychologist may well correct me), this is absolutely fascinating to me.

And then there’s the philosophy, which is really an extension of both the psychology and theology. There’s a close correlation between the moral discussion within Monark, the way the sins work, and how you’re meant to respond to them. For example, the boss character that is a manifestation of wrath is going around the school painting it red with the blood of students, largely because he was bullied by the entire class. It’s horrible, of course, but with the way it’s written, you are driven to feel some level of sympathy for the villain. It’s the same pattern for all the other sins too. What has led to them becoming each personification of a sin… a manifestation of an evil? It’s usually some kind of societal ill that has befallen them, and the line between victim and villain is often as foggy as the mists that blanket the school. Then, as the revelations are made clear, you defeat the villains, and the fog clears. Like with the treatment of psychology within Monark, this thinking and narrative design is perhaps a little simple (certainly there are more complex philosophical video games out there, like The Caligula Effect), but it’s still layered enough, thought-provoking and consistently interesting.

I also like the motif of the fog being both symbolic of the pervading social and cultural ills, and a very existential threat to the characters. I draw a very close parallel between the way the fog works in this game and its function in the Stephen King classic (and subsequent film and television series). Here it doesn’t hold tentacled monsters, but instead, the exposure drives people to a mind of madness; their inability to cut through and see the reality of what is around them as it slowly drains their sense of self from them.

If I was to criticise anything about Monark, it’s that the whole experience should be a lot more unsettling than it is, and I know this is going to sound strange, given that I just described a boss that goes around slaughtering school students (and it is worth mentioning that the game deals with material that can be triggering purely in concept). However, Monark is so deeply in its own head that it’s lacking a certain visceral quality that would have helped to drive through what are, often, transgressive themes. It’s not that the game lacks for aesthetics, nor for writing quality – the presentational quality of the game is exceptional overall – but for something that very consciously wants to take players to a dark place, the game seems hesitant to tip over and risk offending anyone with anything too explicit or overt. To put that another way, I think some people are going to come into this expecting a quirky anime game (especially when they hear about the psychology questions and comparisons to Persona). They will be looking for humour, and bounce, and then be surprised that the game’s pitching a far more somber and dark story than that. But then it also won’t put them on edge or make them truly uncomfortable. To these people, Monark will probably come across as dry.

Monark is a smart game. It knows it, and it wants you to know it too. Some may well find that it’s even pretentious. But it’s also in so many ways a boundary-pushing and innovative experience, and one that I imagine will be unique for a very long time to come. Putting aside the disappointment that comes from realising that it could have attacked with its themes more, I don’t think there is any other way that the creative team could have delivered on a more coherent and compelling vision and, really, it is experiences like Monark that keep me interested in this medium. Don’t let this one pass you by, folks.

 (This game is also available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC)   

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