It's sometimes difficult to remember that the Nintendo DS isn't just home to the biggest franchises on the market. Many of the better Nintendo DS titles aren't even from Nintendo but are created by smaller developers who are more willing to try unusual ideas. Perhaps the most iconic example of this is 5th Cell, the developers of Scribblenauts and Drawn to Life. Another great example was Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure, an unusual combination platformer and puzzle game that took full advantage of the DS and was a ton of fun. After finishing that title, the lead designer and programmer Peter Ong and Ryan Pijai formed their own independent studio, Dreamrift. Their first game, Monster Tale, looks to be more straightforward than Henry Hatsworth but no less enjoyable. Following in the style of one of Nintendo's classic franchises, Monster Tale adds some interesting new features to the mix.
In Monster Tale, you play as Ellie, a young girl who wakes up in a strange land. She can't remember how she got there or what is going on, but she has a mysterious magical bracelet on her arm. Not long into her adventure, she discovers that the world is filled with monsters that have amazing powers. Ellie gets her own pet monster, an adorable creature that she nicknames Chomp. Other humans have also been brought to the strange land, each with a monster sidekick. The preview build didn't go very deep into the story, but it looks to be a lighthearted adventure game. It manages to be cute and charming without going too far.
The easiest game to which we can compare Monster Tale is actually Metroid. Ellie is like a tiny adorable version of Metroid protagonist Samus Aran. She may not have a suit of power armor, but she makes up for that with similar-but-different abilities. The magical bracelet functions identically to Samus' starting gun from the original Metroid. It's slow, weak and can only move halfway across the screen, but you'll quickly find upgrades that convert her into quite the powerhouse. Unlike Samus, Ellie doesn't get missiles and bombs, but the weapons function slightly differently. When you get your first bracelet upgrade, you're given a super meter. Any shot you fire from your improved gun drains this meter, and once it runs out, you're back to the regular blaster.
As you progress, you'll find better weapons that take up more of the meter and, in turn, do more damage. To compensate for this, you need to use Ellie's melee attacks. Every time Ellie hits a foe with her satchel, she regenerates some blaster energy. You initially have single-hit combos, but you gradually gain the ability to perform multi-hit attacks and even channel your melee attack into a powerful shotgun-like energy blast. Performing longer combos will also regenerate more energy. While new abilities and new weapons must be obtained by finding them, you can purchase upgrades from a friendly merchant for a price. These upgrades increase the power of your attacks, reduce the super meter necessary to use them, or improve your health bar.
Not all of Ellie's power-ups are based around fighting. As the game progresses, you'll also find abilities that allow access to new areas. Ellie gets a rolling move that lets her slide into small areas, a wall-jump that can be used to scale vertical surfaces, and magical protection that lets her enter gas-filled rooms. There's even some neat sequence-breaking that you can do with these abilities. The roll move, for example, can become an extra-long jump that lets you reach areas that you normally couldn't. I used this to find a treasure that would have been out of reach until later in the game. The preview build was too incomplete to tell how much sequence-breaking is allowed, but there are certainly some hidden maneuvers available. The level design is more on the level of Metroid Fusion as opposed to the older games, although it mercifully lacks a computer companion who tells you what to do.
Where Ellie differs greatly from Samus is her adorable little pal, Chomp, who is her constant companion. While Ellie has to do the platforming and exploration, Chomp is the heavy hitter of the team. Initially, he only has the ability to hurl himself at enemies, but he becomes more powerful as he earns experience by attacking enemies. As long as he gets in one hit on a foe before Ellie defeats it, he'll gain experience and eventually level up.
Leveling up allows Chomp to evolve into a new form with special attributes. The new forms gain attacks and traits as he levels up, and he gradually get more powerful. You begin with a child evolution tree, but you'll eventually unlock teenager and adult forms for Chomp. Once you unlock a trait, you can equip it on Chomp for a passive stat boost, which can range from a minor buff to a major boost. The Trait can only be equipped on the evolutionary form that learned it. If you level up that form enough with the trait equipped, you'll "master" it, gaining the ability to equip it on any form. You can switch evolved forms at any time once you've unlocked them, and it is sometimes worthwhile to revert to older forms to unlock powers that you may have missed.
Like traits, attacks are tied to the evolutionary form that learns them. Until you master an attack, only that form can use it. Some attacks allow you to send Chomp to attack your enemies, but others cause Chomp to defend Ellie or replenish her HP. You can unlock a variety of special powers and use them to customize Chomp's attack abilities to your liking, but they come at a cost. Using a special attack drains Chomp's health, and once his health is drained, he'll be knocked out and forced to the sidelines for a while until he recovers. You have to balance his health and ability usage if you want to access Chomp when you need him. Depending on your play style, you can gear him up to do all the fighting for you or just support Ellie. Some of his attacks can hit enemies that Ellie can't, so they're useful for getting through areas without taking too much damage.
Beyond beating up enemies, there is another way to level up Chomp. As you explore the world of Monster Tale, you'll find items, ranging from foodstuff to toys to locked treasure chests. When you find an item, it is sent to the bottom screen, which represents Chomp's monster sanctuary. At any time, you can send him from the top screen to the bottom screen with the touch of a button. While on the bottom screen, you lose access to any and all of his abilities, but while he is there, Chomp will gradually regain lost hit points. At the same time, Chomp begins to automatically use one of the items in the sanctuary. Any item that he uses will give him experience points and, depending on the item, possibly another benefit. Some items give Chomp a permanent boost to his stats, and others cause him to unleash a special attack on the top screen. It's a trade-off, since having Chomp use items pays off in the long run but leaves Ellie somewhat vulnerable without him.
You also have to be cautious of enemies who try to take advantage of this. Certain foes infiltrate your sanctuary and use it against you. During our playthrough, we encountered a nasty monster that shot seeds into the sanctuary. The seeds blossomed into seed-spitting miniplants that attacked us from the bottom screen. Another hid in the sanctuary and tried to grab Ellie, holding her in place with vines until Chomp could rescue her. The only way to stop these monsters is to send Chomp down to fight them, leaving Ellie at risk until he beat the bad guys into submission. Powerful boss characters also exploit the bottom screen. The first boss is a two-headed dragon that moves his vulnerable head between the top and bottom screens. You have to send Chomp to attack him in the bottom screen, while dodging the attacks from the second head in the top screen. Fortunately, Chomp is invincible on the bottom screen, so the only risk is how much time it takes to kill the enemy.
The visual style is charming. The 2-D characters are well animated and have a lot of style and flair. The real star of the show, of course, is Chomp. While Ellie is busy blasting things on the top screen, Chomp's antics on the bottom screen are increasingly adorable. He may put on a pair of reading glasses to study a book or gnaw eagerly on a food item. As he evolves, he gradually changes how he looks, gaining wings, giant beefy arms, horns, tails and other pieces that allow players to semi-customize his appearance. There seems to be some variety in the levels, which have a large number of different sections, each with their own visual style.
Monster Tale is a surprisingly charming game. It wears its Metroid inspiration on its sleeve but isn't the lesser for it. It's not the second coming of Super Metroid, but it scratches an itch that few recent games have bothered to try. The Metroid style gameplay is simple and fun, and assuming it can provide solid level design throughout the game, Monster Tale should be fun for even the most picky of players. Monster Tale is due out in March and will retail for $29.99.
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