The last time DreamRift developed a game, it was as part of EA Games, and the game was Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure. A platforming and puzzle mash-up, the charming game became a cult hit. After branching off through that success story, the development team has come back with another game mash-up of two genres that seem unlikely to go together. That game is Monster Tale, which also mixes those two unlikely genres to create a great gaming experience.
The plot is simple enough since the game is being marketed as a children's title. One night, a little girl named Ellie wakes up from her sleep because of a crash in the forest. She's naturally curious, so she goes into the forest and finds a glowing bracelet on the ground. Upon putting it on, she's whisked away to a world inhabited by monsters, where a strange-looking egg hatches in front of her. She names the monster Chomp and tries to locate his mother, but she runs into another monster that explains everything to her. Some human children came into the world some time ago, and with some trickery, took over the monster world and enslaved them in each kingdom. Being a righteous person, you take it upon yourself to dethrone the so-called Kid Kings and try to find a way back to your world.
Monster Tale is split into two different genres through which you simultaneously play. The platforming sections, where you take control of Ellie, feel like any of the classic side-scrolling Metroid titles. Like the Metroid heroine, Ellie starts out with only the ability to shoot short-range blasts from her bracelet, but at special orb stations along the way, she learns the ability to melee attack, roll, wall climb, and modify her blaster shots. She also doesn't go through an adventure separated by levels. Instead, she traverses one large level separated by distinct environments; both natural and unnatural obstacles block her path toward each new area and boss fight. Some areas are accessible once certain maneuvers are obtained while others require some help to overcome. That's where the second gameplay mechanic comes in.
The second genre the game covers is that of raising monsters. Like any game in this genre, having Chomp fight off enemies gives him the experience he needs to level up. However, various items that Ellie picks up during her adventures can also lead to Chomp's stat building. Scrolls, for example, increase his intelligence while weights increase his strength. Aside from stat and level increases, feeding Chomp different items also opens up his ability to evolve into different forms and sub-forms, each with different specialties. You may start out as an average hatchling, but you can soon have access to a teenage version that specializes in fire or an adult version that focuses on the earth element. All in all, you'll have access to 30 different forms of Chomp, and they're swappable at any time.
For the most part, Chomp automatically attacks enemies with melee attacks, but like Ellie, he'll eventually learn newer attacks that can be equipped and activated by using the shoulder buttons. Some of the items he encounters through Ellie also enable him to attack enemies from a distance, such as catapults, flying discs that also double as a temporary shield for Ellie, remote-controlled cars and soccer balls. He can also be used to activate switches that are difficult for Ellie to reach, and he can interact with any creature or switch that wanders over to the lower screen. Unlike his human companion, though, Chomp constantly gets tired when in action and can be sent to his monster cave, which is located on the lower screen, to refill his stamina meter.
As strong as each mechanic is separately, it's the combination of the two that gives Monster Tale its unique character despite having so many gameplay references to older titles. Both genres are played simultaneously, but there isn't much juggling to be done. The monster raising is automatic since items alone are enough to turn Chomp into something formidable. Any active action needed to level up Chomp is done deliberately, as Ellie is more than capable of holding her own. Her blaster is powerful enough, but since it has a power limit and needs to be recharged, you'll often use her melee moves, which can combo up into juggles much like you'll find in games like God of War or Devil May Cry — albeit in side-scrolling form instead of 3-D. With Ellie's arsenal of acrobatics and combo moves, you'll only call on Chomp for specific situations and boss fights, relegating him to a sidekick with powerful moves. It's a good combat system for Ellie, and throwing Chomp's abilities into the mix only improves the fighting since you'll spend less time micromanaging his health and more time managing more important abilities.
Despite the heaps of praise, there are a few things about Monster Tale that might not go over well with some players. There is a good amount of backtracking in this game, and although other games are also guilty of this, it's a little more apparent here. You'll pass through the same distinct areas several times even if you're going straight for the story conclusion instead of looking for secrets and full map coverage. Another sticking point comes from the difficulty level. For more experienced gamers, the difficulty level is fine, as it is neither too easy nor too difficult. However, the game is being marketed as a kids' title and, as such, those initially attracted to the game may need some help to overcome the more difficult segments. It isn't much of a negative, but if someone is used to easier fare, don't be surprised if s/he gets stuck on sections more often than usual. Finally, for those who hate grinding, keep in mind that each of Chomp's forms, after it's unlocked, starts at level 1. Leveling each form over and over again becomes an unavoidable task if you want every form to be as strong as possible before the final battle.
The graphics prove that sprites are still a viable way to impress gamers. Environments are colorful, with just the right amount of tint used to paint a very pretty picture in every environment and with every character you see. While it may initially look like a throwback to the 16-bit art era, the amount of detail and color barely eclipses those past games. The animation, though, is clearly indicative of a more powerful system, as it's fluid at all times on both the bottom and top screens for each character and monster. The special effects, such as the saving column of light, also look great thanks to the use of sprites as opposed to polygon light effects. With no slowdown or flicker present, it is one of the better looking games on the system and a strong argument for continuing sprite-based games in a mostly polygon world.
Like the rest of the game, the sound reinforces the feeling of a classic action platformer. The title screen has the only melancholy tune in the game, and the rest of it is filled with either whimsical or pulse-pounding beats, depending on the environment you're traversing at the time. Boss fights have the appropriate music that spells out impending doom, and all of this is done in the classic MIDI format. The voices are minimal and mostly relegated to small sound bites from the human characters, but they're good as long as you remember that you're hearing kids speak and not adults. The effects are also good in spite of the tiny system speakers, with every hit coming in nicely with just the right pitch. On the whole, you'll certainly want the speaker volume turned up for this game.
As an original game for a portable system that's on its way out, Monster Tale is quite a send-off. From a technical perspective, it calls upon a classic but refined sound and graphics system. The gameplay borrows the good parts from a variety of other successful franchises and meshes them together well enough to make the experience feel unique. Best of all, Chomp's different forms and the overall length of the adventure certainly give you your money's worth from the game. Unless your game library must be free of anything resembling a kids' title, you must have Monster Tale in your DS collection.
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