Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Backbone Entertainment
Release Date: November 4, 2008
There are certain games that become the gold standard against which all other games are compared. With all of the Wii titles, the golden standard, surprisingly, has always been Wii Sports. For a free game included with the console, it served as the best example of how the controllers should function within a game. With Monster Lab, however, I think I've found a new benchmark.
A lot of people will probably dismiss Monster Lab because of the box cover, which features with a mishmash of Frankenstein's monster-style creatures and the overtly "gross" aspects of the graphics, but they'd be doing themselves a disservice by not giving it a try. Monster Lab is one part story game, one part fighting, one part collecting, and one part mini-game … carry the two … divide … um, well, let's just say that the game is amazingly fun.
The premise is a simple one that puts you in the role of the newest apprentice of the Mad Science Alliance, with the goal of creating the most powerful monster to defeat the evil Baron Mharti. You have to master alchemical, biological and mechanical sciences to achieve this goal, but we'll talk more about that later.
The graphics are cartoonish and fun, and the voice talent absolutely shines. It's a tongue-in-cheek running gag on all the old monster movies and overused archetypes, but it's done with utter professionalism. The voices don't feel phoned in or trite. I actually looked forward to each cut scene as the story progressed, which is in itself a feat, considering the average cut scenes in many of today's games.
The gameplay does a great job of explaining the ins and outs of what you're required to do via voice, cut scenes and in-game explanations, and everything is blended together seamlessly and within the monster theme of the game, so the entire experience feels completely immersive. There's nothing I hate worse than a game that offers its explanation and button menu pop-ups on a sterile and bland screen. You can tell that the folks at Backbone Entertainment put in the extra effort to really make the game a fun experience throughout.
Now, on to the monsters! Initially, you'll be given a handful of parts and instructions on how to build your own modular monster. Parts include the arms, head, legs and torso. Each part has its own armor, damage, energy and health requirements. The system is simple on the surface but allows for a huge range of options and playing styles. For example, you can create a monster that offers little battle damage but has a huge amount of armor for a defensive creature. Conversely, you can build a walking, talking (or grunting), fighting machine with massive damage capabilities and energy requirements but can be taken down with a few choice strikes. Of course, there are many possible variations in between. You can spend so much time playing with the parts makers and monster creator that you might miss the meat of Monster Lab.
Once you've built your creation (you can actually build many different monsters with different stats and abilities), you are sent on missions in the world. Some missions require you to collect certain artifacts or dispatch a number of rival monsters that are on the loose. You don't have an open sandbox-style environment, but it looks like a Chutes and Ladders-style board. Each space is linked to another to restrict your movement to specific paths, but they eventually lead to your points of interest. Along the way, you're sure to bump into roving monsters that launch into what I call the "Final Fantasy" mode.
Anyone who has played the Final Fantasy series knows what I mean. There you are, walking around and minding your own business, and then wham, the screen dissolves into the battle screen. Monster Lab does much the same, where the game turns into a turn-based battle of monsters. You can choose to attack, defend or dodge. Within the attack option, you can choose which body part you want to attack with, and then which part on the other monster you want to hit. You can use a bite attack to nip at the opponent's arms, or you can kick his head. Each success or failure is complemented with appropriate action on-screen. There is no frantic button-mashing or twitching, just a turn-based statistical game with some great animations thrown in. Losing the battle will leave you damaged with your proverbial monster tail between your legs, whereas winning will reward you with salvaged parts from the monster you've defeated, which let you augment your monster or make a whole new creation. Picture a combination of Frankenstein's monster and Pikachu.
The first area you're introduced to is all about mechanical parts, then biological and finally, alchemical. Each area gives you a diverse set of parts, from steam boiler torsos to pumpkin heads to goblin legs. Each has its plusses and minuses, and each individual player's game style will drastically influence his creations. I really can't stress how fun and varied it is to create your own monster, and none of it would have been possible without the Monster Lab mini-games.
The mini-games allow you to combine parts found and won in battle through some hilariously creative games. Each section — alchemical, biological and mechanical — has its own mini-games, which are further broken down into body parts. For example, let's look at the biological torso part creator. As with any biological monster part, you'd imagine that you'll have to stitch the parts together, and that's exactly what the mini-game has you doing. With your Wii controller, you rotate the stick to line up the angle of a stapler, and with the Nunchuk, you'll hammer the staple into the proper location. The screen scrolls along and follows a preset path, but it's up to you to rotate and staple properly. It's an absolutely gruesome and utterly perfect approach for using the Wii controllers. Likewise, each mini-game finds new and creative ways to use the controllers, methods that you've likely never thought up before, from stapling to welding, mixing and racing. It's absolutely the way games and developers should take advantage of the motion control capabilities of the Wii, and it's done absolutely flawlessly in Monster Lab.
The mini-games, at the risk of sounding like a Daft Punk song, get harder and faster in later levels, though not necessarily stronger or better. They become downright stubborn and difficult! On the one hand, it's a pain because you may have stumbled upon some great rare monster parts but then completely flubbed the mini-game recipe. The game is not a cakewalk and serves some outright difficult challenges. Depending on your play style, this could be a good thing or a bad thing.
Finishing the story mode doesn't mean the game is over, either. Eidos was nice enough to include an online multiplayer option, where you can pit your monsters against your friends. It's definitely a nice addition to test out whose monster is really the best, although most turn-based fights tend to go fairly quickly. There isn't a lot of depth available, so a few fights here or there are fun, but after a while, I don't know how often the multiplayer feature will get used.
Anyone who reads my reviews knows that I somehow manage to gloss over the audio or music in a game. (What can I say? I'm a visual person.) Monster Lab managed to make me take notice, though. The background music for each "world" fits; each area has a theme, and the music fits, whether it's in a nestled little town or a dingy swamp. The voice work is just top-notch, so the excellent voice work and fun story will certainly keep your attention.
In closing, Monster Lab is definitely a Wii game that should really appeal to a lot of different gamer archetypes. It has a linear story, turn-based fights, collecting and creating, and heaps of mini-games that will challenge and amuse. It's not perfect, though. For me, some of the fights were completely static and unbalanced, as I found what I considered to be a perfect collection of monster parts that would end most fights in two hits. The difficulty of the mini-games in later stages becomes frustratingly hard. Despite these few minor setbacks, the game shines and is now my new golden standard for comparing other Wii titles and their creative use of the controllers. Finally, something has trumped Wii Sports Bowling.
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