Over the span of a few hours, I managed to lose my apartment, survive sleeping in an alleyway, ground up pigs for pocket money to avoid starving, used blackmail to provide free health care for a friend, fished for crab, convinced two misogynists that my ad campaign was awesome, and broke into City Hall to stuff the ballot boxes.
In Vagabond Dog's modern-day RPG, Always Sometimes Monsters, the "monsters" are other people — including your playable character — who make the necessary choices to survive and see another day. There are no "battles," only decisions that have to be made. It shares a love of choose-your-own-adventure novels that are celebrated in titles such as BioWare's Mass Effect and fellow indie title, Unbound Creations' Postmortem. Always Sometimes Monsters is a lot like an interactive movie with an inventory and minigames.
There's also a content warning for the game on Steam covering topics such as "racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, mental health, sexual assault, child abuse, animal abuse, drug abuse, and suicide." The game's use of frank language isn't shy about pushing players out of their comfort zones. Topping off the visuals are the synthetic sounds and retro beats supplied by Laser Destroyer Team to celebrate every bright morning alive or confront the trash standing in your way.
Things kick off with a woman chasing a man into an alley. Whoever or whatever he is, he's bad news, and he's going to go through with whatever she had paid him to do. Hitman? Boyfriend with a taste for violence? That's part of the question this adventure starts with, and it's only the beginning of the concerns that the player will take on.
A mysterious vagabond steps in front of the man in the alley, and recognition dawns. The vagabond is wielding a familiar gun and says he'll shoot the woman if the man doesn't do anything. The player is in control of Mr. Tough Guy and must choose to shoot the homeless person, walk away, or listen to the story. Like Devolver's other published game, Hotline Miami, this title isn't shy about violence.
After that, I was dropped into the shoes of another person in another location, another time, and at a party where a number of characters serve as a way to allow the player to choose his or her role — before fast-forwarding to a future where they live alone, penniless, and with only 30 days to change their life before it's too late. From that point on, they're on borrowed time.
It's not "real time" in the sense that every action moves the clock. Things like going to a job or participating in events that drive individual stories within the game push the clock through morning, noon, and into night until the next day, so in most cases, deciding what to do is more important than how quickly you need to do it. You also need to keep up your strength by buying food that can range from bacon donuts to hot pizza pockets.
Always Sometimes Monsters tweaks what it takes from the real world, molds it and bakes it into a consequence-paved labyrinth. It then filters it through a melting pot of abhorrent, depressing, sometimes hateful, and occasionally pleasant personalities while limiting the player from going postal on everyone they meet as they decide how to deal with the lives they encounter. Will you struggle to stay on the straight and narrow? How far on thin ice will you go to succeed? Is it possible to avoid becoming a monster? It was a fascinating journey as I bounced from one situation to the other. The toxicity of some of the characters provides a real impetus to find the answers to these questions. The game also gives you the freedom to do things, like simply walking away.
One of the first challenges is finding enough money to pay rent or, barring that, to keep yourself from starving to death. Things start off horribly, with the worst landlord in the world lurking on the first floor. Fortunately, there are a lot of places where you can buy food and get a job. You also have friends who might need your help, and you can't do everything in this game, so whether or not you choose to be a friend, spend time with someone else and volunteer your time to help them out. Work into the evening instead, and that can send the story into very different directions for some characters — with potentially lethal results.
Minigames make up the bulk of the jobs that you find in the game, whether it's putting together an ad campaign, pulping livestock into cubes, or planting seeds. Some are also pretty repetitive — perhaps another reflection on reality — but necessary if you want to get paid, much like the jobs in Fable II and III had also pushed players. They're not the only source of money in the game, and I ended the preview early (dying is another way) by stealing some that I shouldn't have! There are even arcade minigames where you can spend that hard-earned cash for fun.
The preview code only had so much. For instance, it wasn't possible to remap controls (it felt made specifically for a controller rather than a mouse and keyboard), set specific resolutions, change text speed, or a number of other customizations found elsewhere. There's also the game's use of language. I had no problem with potty mouths, but other players might. There isn't a language filter for the game, but that's probably a conscious choice given the title's focus.
With that said, the eight hours spent with Always Sometimes Monsters only took me through the preview, which seemed to end at the halfway point when I tried leaving the city of Beaton. Not everything had been implemented yet (one option literally told me that the minigame associated with it wasn't available), but what was there dangled a promising story-shaping carrot without the usual RPG combat filler. Always Sometimes Monsters has a lot of questions to ask, choices to make, and people to befriend, betray, or reunite. Whether those decisions end up creating a monster is something each player will have to find out for themselves.
More articles about Always Sometimes Monsters