Monark is a new IP that’s had me intrigued for a while now. As soon as I read that the game was being created “by former Shin Megami Tensei developers” my JRPG fanboy weeaboo senses went off the charts! Was it going to lean towards the more mainstream Persona audience? Or the hardcore SMT faithful? Or be something else entirely? Well as it turns out, Monark comes across as a blend of both styles, topped off with some distinct original flavour.
One of the biggest switch-ups is the combat itself, with Monark consciously leaning towards the Fire Emblem style of fighting than anything else. Minus series staples like the weapon triangle and class changing. Although, Monark’s strategic format is still highly addictive to play. It’s been called the ‘Free Movement Battle System’ by the devs, which actually sums it up quite well. Instead of locking units onto fixed grids, Monark lets party members move freely within a circular space, instantly expanding the variety of viable tactics. As I often say, more options are almost always a good thing. This is why I’m also a big fan of the Defer mechanic.
In most turn-based strategy games, a character usually receives only one action and movement per round. Whereas with Monark, the Defer ability lets a character who’s already acted take an additional turn. This can be repeated multiple times too. As long as the relevant party members are in range of each other, Defer essentially allows the player to use the same unit five times in a row. But, hold on. Wouldn’t this break the game into literal pieces, I hear you ask? Yes. Yes, it would. But of course, whenever something’s too good to be true, there’s always a catch.
Each squadmate has this meter named the MAD gauge, which fills up after using Defer or when certain abilities are used. If it ends up reaching 100%, that unit will become Maddened (hence the name) boosting their stats but becoming uncontrollable and primed to self-destruct after three turns. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably trigger it at the worst possible time. However, there are ways to counteract this potential issue. The main protagonist has this ability called Resonance which, as the name implies, allows him to resonate with other units who are Maddened. So if his Awake gauge is full – another limit break themed condition where you’ve essentially controlled the Madness – two (or multiple) units can share their stat buffs and reach an even higher state called Enlightened, which grants even more increased number goodness. Couldn’t ask for a more fitting name, huh?
The Pros & Cons of Monark’s Combat
There’s just so much intricacy in these systems alone, which makes strategising in Monark heaps of fun to play. At the same time, you’ll find that the battles have a smooth flow to them that doesn’t require tinkering around in menus too frequently. Something I very much appreciate. That being said, you will need to grind battles in between boss encounters, and the enemy AI does make some outlandishly stupid decisions here and there. But it’s nothing too major overall.
Like other JRPGs out there, Monark does have a grading system for battles. However, sometimes the suggested turn number for S Ranks are a little ridiculous. It more often than not recommends that you complete the battle in three turns for the highest possible grade. But let’s be honest, I can’t even move halfway around the map in three turns, so what is it expecting of me? A miracle? I have no idea. Regardless, when it comes to the enemy design, there’s a distinct lack of variety. It’s pretty much just ‘insert skeleton variant here’… Then boss. That is all.
I honestly admire how streamlined the RPG side of things is though. Every main character’s equipment is unchangeable, besides the Fiend allies that players unlock along the way. Meaning, you only really have to focus on upgrading skills outside of combat and curative items, full stop. It’s surprisingly refreshing not having to manage so many individual elements. So big marks all round in that area.
Unveiling Monark’s Horror-Themed Gameplay
The horror atmosphere of Monark is pretty on point too. It opts for that creepy, poltergeist kind of ambience, and there are some unsettling moments that might give you a bit of a fright. As throughout the game, the player has to explore Shin Mikado Academy while it’s being flooded with this mysterious mist that’s turning everyone into mindless zombos. Hence the MAD gauge I mentioned before.
This also plays into the exploration element, since there aren’t any battles you encounter when moving. Instead, the MAD gauge will steadily begin to increase while zombified students eventually start creeping towards the protag. If they corner you and scream into your face like an angry Karen, then the main character will faint and be sent straight back to the infirmary. There is a way to stop the students from attacking you. Albeit, if I’m being completely honest, this is one aspect that loses its steam very very quickly. Even though you can fast-travel right back to where you were shortly after passing out, it still gets annoying over time. Trust me.
What’s even worse are the puzzles it throws at you. Far out, the solutions to some of these are such a pain. You’ll just be sitting there going “You can’t be serious! You CAN NOT be serious!” exactly like John McEnroe when you finally figure it out. There was this one computer login puzzle that I got stuck on for so long, I literally had to message the guys at NIS for the answer. I’ve never done this before, and it felt like an absolute slap in the face when I found out what it was. That being the case, most of the remaining puzzles are quite fun to solve. It’s just too bad that a rotten few spoil the whole pack.
Getting To The Point
It is surprising that Monark was made by the SMT devs though. Since they tend to focus on soul-crushing “Wow! I really do suck at video games!” kind of difficulty, with the story usually taking a back seat. Whereas in Monark, the story is the main focus. 5 minute, fully-voiced cutscenes and all. The acting quality for the main cast is quite good too, with some excellent character dynamics between the core five teammates. I should mention that players can also choose between the Japanese and English audio tracks as well. However, the narrative takes a little too long to get going for my tastes. Doesn’t help that the game sends you off with only one human party member at a time. So in some scenarios, you won’t be interacting with the sidelined main characters for hours. An odd direction choice, to be sure.
For a large segment of the story, the feeling I got from Monark was similar to those rare moments when a friend approaches you and says that their cousin or pet died or something, but you’d never met them before or had minimal interaction. You can definitely empathise with the person, but you won’t have anywhere near as strong of an emotional response. In Monark’s case, the big story beats often happen to other students who aren’t a part of the main cast, so it becomes quite tough to relate on a personal level. This issue does get a lot better towards the latter half of the story, as it delves into some genuinely mature themes. And I’d say they’re arguably handled even better than the Persona series. But by then, it’s almost too little, too late.
On a related note, there’s no romance options, no smacking baseballs outside of school, no dialling Kawakami to fix up your… dirty laundry. None of that social link stuff like in Persona. Only a pure, linear story where the school is the single explorable location. There’s nothing wrong with leaving them out in particular, but just don’t rush into Monark expecting those kinds of extracurricular activities.
Finding Solace in Monark’s Dreadful Graphics
Also, don’t expect the graphics to be great either, because they are far from perfect. Especially on the Nintendo Switch. Monark looks like it came from the PS2 era and that is NOT a compliment. The music on the other hand, is fairly decent. None of the background tracks will stay in your head like Specialist or Tokyo Daylight from Persona 4 and 5, but they do get the job done. However, the boss themes are where the music slaps, hard.
The developers collaborated with a diverse vocal-oriented label called Kamitsubaki Studio for these one-time-only tracks, and they really pump you up for those intense fights. They honestly work incredibly well. If you’re a fan of J-Pop, EDM or hip-hop, then you’re bound to find something to groove along with.
If you’re looking for an entertaining turn-based strategy game and a linear, school-based story similar to the first two Persona titles, then go forth. For everyone else, it’s going to depend on whether you can stomach a bunch of frustrating puzzles, terrible graphics, annoying exploration mechanics and a story that takes its sweet sweet time to get going. If you can get past these aspects however, Monark does eventually reward the time investment. It’s just a shame the experience isn’t as refined as it could be.
By Anthony Culinas – Reviewed on Nintendo Switch
Monark combines compelling, turn-based strategy combat alongside various Japanese style horror elements for a unique gameplay mix. While the story does take some time to ramp up, and a few of the exploration features can be a royal pain, Monark still provides enough quality content to keep the player intrigued.
This game was reviewed using a download code provided by NIS America. The Beta Network uses affiliate partnerships, however, this does not influence reviews or any other content published. The Beta Network may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links that are on the website.