Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Backbone Entertainment
Release Date: November 4, 2008
Go on, admit it. Every time you've seen a monster movie, you've thought to yourself, "Wow, I could totally make a better monster than that." Frankenstein is too slow, zombies are too stupid, and vampires have too many vulnerabilities. You could totally make a monster that would teach a thing or two to those "classics." Well, Monster Lab has come to the Nintendo DS to give you the opportunity to show your stuff and let the inner mad scientist come out and play. Of course, the key question here is, does Monster Lab put more of an emphasis on the "mad" or "scientist" part of the description? Is this a frenetic, disjointed amalgam of randomness, or is this a strategy game that engages the mind? The answer, unhelpfully enough, is, "Yes."
In Monster Lab, you take on the role of an assistant to mad scientist Doctor Fuseless, a squat, bald little man who has grafted an enormous metallic prosthesis onto his left arm. Predictably, he's more interested in mechanical endeavors than anything else, and it's he who teaches you about the three different "elements" in the game (alchemical, biological and mechanical) and how they interact, along with how to create your own monster parts so that you can eventually create your very own mechanical abomination and do battle with the evil Baron Mharti. He also introduces you to the backstory, a largely unnecessary bit of fluff in which the Baron splits apart a group of scientists, who you must later reunite. The plot is more than a little predictable and shallower than a kiddie pool that's recently been drained, but that's perfectly all right; the appeal in a game like this is much less in its story and much more in its gameplay.
Speaking of gameplay, Monster Lab has a very unusual mixture of play styles. Battles largely consist of turn-based combat wherein you face off against your opponent's monsters, expending the charges your monster possesses to perform various attacks. Different monster parts provide access to different attacks, which in turn target different portions of a monster's body; each monster has legs, two arms, a torso and a head. There are only two paths to victory in combat: One involves destroying the opposing monster's head and arms and legs, and one involves just destroying its torso.
Anyone with even a vague comprehension of strategy will quickly realize that it's more beneficial in the long run to find, and stick with, attacks that do significant amounts of damage to an enemy's torso, rendering the other avenue to victory almost an afterthought if you simply can't do any significant damage to your enemy's torso for one reason or another. While it is true that losing legs means a monster can't run away and disabling a monster's arms and head deny it access to the attacks specific to those parts, eliminating the monster altogether with powerful torso attacks is almost always the right strategic move, especially since you get the opportunity to repair your monster after each and every battle.
The other significant portion of Monster Lab's gameplay consists of mini-games, and it has enough of a collection to provide quite the variety. As previously stated, each monster has a head, a torso, two arms and a pair of legs, and each of the three elements has a different mini-game to create a part for your monster to use. Combine this with the various mini-games found on the area maps that can be completed to find additional components, and there's no shortage of stylus action for the aspiring DS junkie to sate his or her appetite. The components that can be found, whether through combat or the mini-games, are integral to the game; different combinations result in different monster parts, which will have varying strengths and weaknesses.
While this can result in a bit of a fetch quest mentality in that you go to various areas with no purpose in mind except to gather important pieces, there is an undeniable satisfaction in using those bits to generate a superior part for your monster to wield in combat. The real issue is that the two kinds of gameplay simply don't mix well; while the mini-games are well done and combat is interesting enough to warrant attention, the former detracts from the intensity of the latter, and the latter almost feels like an afterthought after all of the attention put into the former.
One of Monster Lab's great strengths lies in its audio-visual presentation. It's rare that you hear truly good voice acting on the DS, but Fuseless really sounds like a mad doctor, and the different sound effects are distinct enough and have enough personality to really give the impression of being in a scientist's laboratory. Even the little musical snippets do a lot to add mood to the game; this title has been described as "Pokémon meets Tim Burton," and I'm inclined to agree based on the strong presentation.
That high level of quality isn't limited to the audio aspect, either. Each character in the title is strongly represented, with surprisingly good graphics that really draw out the theme of the game. The first town carries with it a very Halloween feel, and whether you're exploring a graveyard or swamp (or even just the castle in which your base of operations is located), each one is so over-the-top that it has its own undeniable feel. Even the little touches are appreciated; the short FMV sequences that occur whenever a significant plot point occurs, the visual differences in your monster in battle depending on what parts you use, and even the attack animations are well-made and show that a lot of care was put into making it a delight for eyes and ears alike.
Overall, Monster Lab for the NDS is a decent little game that's worth the price of admission. It's clearly been given some real polish and shine, and the effort put into the various modes of gameplay is significant, even though they don't mesh together terribly well. If you can handle the dissonance between the two, you'll be able to find a solid little strategy game with a morbid sense of humor, and buyer's remorse should never strike. This one's even suited for the younger set, particularly ideal for those between eight and 13. It's not perfect, but making your own monster has never been done this well.
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