Publisher: SouthPeak Interactive
Developer: Orbital Media, Inc.
Release Date: October 24, 2006
Sometimes, games simply defy description. Sometimes they're innovators, creating genres in and of themselves, starting entire movements based on their unique gameplay. Other times, a genre is so solidly established that by the time a game comes around that fits all the conventions, it's seen as a copy or, at worst, a rip-off. At best, it's a piece of work all its own, but it still cannot be judged without being compared to its peers.
What am I getting at, you might ask?
Juka and the Monophonic Menace tries very hard, so very, very hard not to be a game that will get placed in comparison next to The Legend of Zelda, or the more obscure, yet more fitting, Secret of Evermore.
Don't be fooled by that cover art, either. The titular character looks quite effeminate there, but playing the game shows you that Juka is very much the typical adolescent boy on a quest to save the world. Yes, he looks almost female and wears goofy clothes including, but not limited to, a very elfish hat, but no, this is not Zelda. Juka is an alchemist, and much of the game is spent collecting elemental ingredients to make potions, but they aren't spells, so this can't be Secret of Evermore either, right? You see where this is going.
Juka and the Monophonic Menace tells the tale, naturally, of Juka, a young alchemist in training. Juka lives in Obla, a land recovering from wars between good Alchemists and evil Dark Alchemists; it is a land where technology has sprung up based on sound manipulation. The Dark Alchemists of the world have been annihilated, though one still lurks in the shadows: Menace, a beefy fellow who builds machines (Menace Machines, in a true pinnacle of creative naming) with inherent sound shielding. Were it to get through, said shielding would block good alchemy (potion usage, mainly) and put quite a damper on the state of affairs as a whole.
For reasons not immediately touched on, though, Juka is special. See, Juka has a nifty little item called the Sound Staff, an over-flashy stick that has the power to absorb the sound waves of these machines and use them as weapons against them. Thus, it falls upon his shoulders to save the day, in typical reluctant-hero fashion. Along the way, he'll gather gem-like Elements for local Ruinstones – talking rocks not entirely dissimilar to the talking door in Alice in Wonderland – who will reward him with vital potion recipes. He's not alone, however; guiding him every step of the way is his good friend and mentor, a frog-like being named Bufo. It's here that another game comparison will be drawn to an entirely different game, namely Mega Man X5. Those who have played it know where I'm headed with this:
Bufo will not shut up. At almost every point where there's dialogue, the frog butts in through his wireless-radio deal, giving sage advice and otherwise clogging up the game with pages of unskippable, pointless text. If you talk to a Ruinstone, Bufo's right there next to you, making comments about how weird this one is. Every time you meet a new type of Menace Machine, Bufo's there, telling you specifics. After a while, it gets a bit annoying, particularly since there's no way of speeding up or skipping the text screens.
That's not all that's slow in Juka, either. Juka himself seems to have taken lessons in saving the world from a sloth, judging by the snail's pace at which he moves. Dodging projectiles is at times a worthless gesture, and moving from point A to point B seems to be a lesson in futility as he ambles along. For a game as oriented on exploration as Juka is, the lack of a "run" button or feature seriously hurts it.
Luckily, the gameplay more than makes up for it, as this is where Juka's originality really shines. Combat is the exact opposite, as you dispatch enemies in a surprisingly non-violent fashion. For organic beings such as human footsoldiers or oddly Seussian-looking thieves, you lob potions aplenty. The sleep potion is the most effective way of dispatching such things, and it's the first potion you learn to mix in the game. Other potions will blind or confuse enemies, but the net effect is essentially protecting your hide.
Instead of beating on the mechanically shielded Menace Machines as action/adventure logic would dictate, Juke forms one of two shields around his body. The Dark Sound Shield absorbs the polygonal sound bits that the machines shoot out, converting them into much-needed defensive shield energy, whereas the Light Sound Shield absorbs the sound bits and shoots them back as devastating attacks. It's not quite that simple, however; in order to disable a machine, you have to collect the right colors and shapes of sound in the right order, or else you can't unleash your own attack.
As complicated as all of this sounds, it's quite effortless in its implementation. The A button and B button activate the light and dark shields, respectively, whereas the L button switches targets and the R button either lobs potions or sound attacks, depending on the circumstances. In normal exploration mode, the A button has the contextual use of grabbing onto ledges, activating switches, shaking trees, and so on.
Yes, I just said, "shaking trees." See, in order to collect the ingredients for your potions, you have to gather them by shaking trees and flowers, swimming around in water, and so forth. It may seem a bit slow at first, but later on, you get various instruments that, aside from their plot usage, allow you to convert one point of shield energy into roughly 10 of a specific ingredient. Each potion has a specific recipe, but since you'll be making use of most of them fairly frequently, you'll memorize the ingredients with little problem.
Thankfully, the graphics and sound in Juka ease the pain of the few gameplay flaws. The game is beautiful in its simplicity and doesn't need complex models or even intricately detailed sprites. The sprite work is crisp, vivid, and it's easy to tell one thing from another in pretty much every circumstance. In addition, this is one of those few select GBA titles that would even work on the original, unlit handheld with little to no problem in visibility.
The sound is a bit mixed, however; the sound effects are spot-on and appropriate, even if Juka sounds a little too much like Link for his own good, but the music seems just a touch off. The soundtrack is leaps and bounds above the forgettable fare that most games of this type have, though, even if the tunes are a bit unusual.
Take four parts Secret of Evermore, two parts Legend of Zelda, and one part Mega Man X5 (most notably in the "constant tutorial" mechanic), mix together for a few minutes in your backpack, and you've got Juka and the Monophonic Menace. This title is truly an example of the flaws making the masterpiece. If you can endure the sometimes-plodding pace, touchy hit detection and constant annoyances by your "mentor," Juka is an endearing game worthy of a place in any action-adventure gamer's handheld library.