Monark Review

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Our Score: 8/10

I won’t spoil any of the game’s plot in this review. I will only provide a brief synopsis of the first hour of the game’s story and characters. Any screenshots shown herein will be non-spoiler in nature and will be from the first few hours of gameplay. I’ll explain game elements present later in the game, but I won’t spoil its associated narrative.

To summarize my experience playing through the game, Monark is a very unique turn-based RPG with an enthralling story and an amazing amount detail to its characters.

You play as a protagonist you name, who is a student in a Japanese private school named Shin Mikado Academy. Your character wakes up with amnesia and you need to learn about other students in the school as well as its faculty members.

There’s a strange mist surrounding the school that is also seeping into the school’s buildings, such as its library, the first and second-year buildings, and the school club building used for gym activities. The mist prevents the students from escaping and students who inhale the mist seemingly go mad.

You team up with other students and the faculty to remove the mist and to eventually escape the school. The premise I provided is very simple, but there are a lot of interesting plot twists and the plot is heavily character-focused.

The cutscenes are done in a visual-novel style, with beautifully illustrated character portraits on-screen as they voice their lines. The 3D character models in the background, however, aren’t too detailed. You can choose to play the game with either English or Japanese voice acting. I played through the game with the English voice acting and all of the voiced dialogue was very professionally done.

With older games, sometimes publishers would not voice all of its English dialogue, but in Monark every line of dialogue is guaranteed to be voiced in English with the exception of the generic NPCs you can talk to around the school. This is a huge plus because the narrative of the game relies significantly on its characters. The game contains dozens’ of hours worth of voiced content.

The game’s graphics are not technically impressive; however, the graphics are not where the strengths of Monark lie. The art design is really up there, with characters having interesting models in battles that are very symbolic.

I enjoyed observing the architecture of the school buildings, from libraries to school club buildings, and it certainly felt eerie exploring a school surrounded by mist. This game was developed in Japan, so of course it is respectful to Japanese culture.

Exploring the school felt like going on an exchange trip and you can learn a lot about the Japanese school system from playing the game. For instance, in contrast to four-year secondary school in the West, in Japan secondary school is only three years in length. In this particular private school there is a separate building for each grade.

The game’s presentation looks very similar to that of the The Caligula Effect 2 and it is clear that the game has developers who have worked on both projects. The character designs of Monark were done by Oguchi-san, who did the character artwork on both of the previous The Caligula Effect titles, and the character portraits are very well-made. Most of the major characters have many facial expressions as well depending on the situation.

Although both The Caligula Effect and Monark look similar and although they both take place in school environments, Monark is its own game with its own battle and gameplay systems, and is neither plot-related or gameplay-related to The Caligula Effect. Instead, I’d say Monark stands tall as its own new IP.

Monark is an extremely plot-heavy game, to the point where I’d say it’s better to play this title for the plot and not necessarily its gameplay, which I’ll get more into later. I can tell that you wouldn’t enjoy this game if you can’t handle lengthy visual-novel style cutscenes.

Most of the cutscenes in this game are actually very long, and my controller would turn itself off regularly because it would think I’m not using it (not pressing a button for over half an hour). This wasn’t a bad thing for me at all because I really enjoyed the character interactions and watching them overcome their personal difficulties, but at the same time I can see that it may not be the kind of gameplay for everybody.

Although most JRPGs already have lengthy cutscenes, I’d say that the cutscenes in Monark are even lengthier than those found in most JRPGs. Again, it’s not a bad aspect to the game at all for those who like a strong narrative, but I can see it turning people away from the game.

The plot is very character-focused and there are many scenes where the characters overcome their inner conflict. In later parts of the story, characters will explain their backstory in significant detail and reveal their insecurities, and then as the plot progresses even further they will work on improving themselves. These kinds of internal struggles vary vastly between the different party members you recruit, such as a child prodigy who has difficulty connecting personally with her family and peers, to a man who is seeing his family business struggle with corruption and incompetency.

Tadashi Satomi, the writer of the first two Persona games, is a writer for Monark, as well as the The Caligula Effect series. He did a great job as the writer of this game because there is a significant amount of attention to detail with the main characters. If you played The Caligula Effect and enjoyed the character development in those games, you can expect to see more of it in Monark.

There is a large group who have only played Persona games starting with Persona 3 onwards, so I’ll explain a bit about its older games. The older Persona games focused very heavily on character development, even more-so than the modern Persona games. It would showcase many different kinds of characters in your party overcoming their own personal struggles.

Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was really amazing because the protagonist’s party consisted of adults rather than the regular high-school characters cast, so you had party members from Katsuya Suou, a police detective trying to deal with corruption in the police precinct, to even Baofu, a man who runs a rumor website and wiretaps important buildings. I’m purposely giving just the tip of the iceberg because these characters all have big plot reveals in case you wanted to play those games.

This is very true in Monark. Although the characters start off looking and sounding like generic high-school students, they actually have a lot of detail behind what they initially appear to be. Many of the characters have to put up a face to hide their actual background, and you’ll see that a lot of the protagonist’s party members have went through a lot of their own trauma.

I’m purposely leaving my explanation of the characters and their backgrounds vague because you really need to experience it for yourself. Although the cutscenes in the game are so lengthy, there’s actually a substantial amount of foreshadowing for the later plot of the game.

In terms of the gameplay, between the narrative events you’re free to explore the school campus. As you progress through the storyline of the game, you will unlock more and more buildings to explore and as you can imagine you clear out the mist from infested buildings. There aren’t any sidequests per say, but you can do optional battles at any time which I’ll explain in more detail later. You can also complete in-game achievements for rewards.

Like The Caligula Effect, there are many generic NPCs you can talk to across the campus. I really enjoyed talking to these NPCs. They actually have their dialogue updated with each major plot event, and there is actually a significant amount of detail put into making each character feel like an actual character. If you’re a fan of how NPCs have plenty of dialogue in the Trails/Kiseki series (a series known for having substantial NPC interaction), then you’ll really like the NPCs in Monark.

The NPCs in this game will often have their own cliques and circles of friends. Some characters are also foreign exchange students such as an Indian student and one student who came from the United States who transferred to a Japanese school because he really enjoyed Japanese culture that much. The game has a lot of love put into it and a lot of in-game lore.

When you explore the school, you can find collectibles, from items to notes that explain about the mist and the “Otherworld”, which can be read freely from the game menus. This game likely has the most lore I’ve ever seen in a video game, with full character profiles for the 100+ NPCs and dozens of notes and research regarding the Otherworld.

You start off the game with a very minimal party, but as you progress you’ll recruit more characters. Vanitas is a very interesting major non-playable character who the publishers have localized very well. He’s a talking stuffed bunny who explains about the mist, and he’ll always talk in either rhymes or alliterations. It’s amazing because he has hundreds of voiced lines throughout the game, but the localizers have still managed to keep his wordplay without misconstruing what he’s trying to say.

My big criticism of the game is that the beginning is extremely slow, and I can see it putting off a lot of newcomers of JRPGs. I’ve explained the plot in a simple way, but the game actually has a lot of its own lore and its own jargon. If it was explained more slowly through the course of the game it would’ve been better, but the first few hours are mostly narrative cutscenes and a enormous lore dump. It’s similar in this sense to Tales of the Abyss, which had way too much of its own in-game jargon, to the point you couldn’t understand the plot or ending of that game without understanding the game’s fictional in-universe science.

Too much jargon is unfortunately a big problem in Monark, and although it doesn’t start off too bad it starts to compound further and further, like how in school if you don’t understand one concept early on you start to get lost very quickly when new concepts begin to build on the earlier concept.

In the game, you fight demons and legions in the Otherworld. Your characters get magic powers and very interesting outfits called Imagigear, which are physical manifestations of the character’s soul and a reflection of their ego. The protagonist makes a pact with an Authority, the authority of vanity. You have generic units in addition to the unique characters that join you in the game, called fiends such as the Fiend of Gluttony who joins early on. So far I’ve explained how this game has authorities, pacts, the ego, imagigear, otherworld, etc. You can see how this becomes overwhelming quickly, especially when it’s your first hour into the game.

The protagonist has 7 types of stats called the ego (the 7 sins or desires). Your actions in the game can increase (never decrease) these stats, and if these stats are high enough you can collect bonuses around the school. But these stats aren’t actually your combat stats, those are different kinds of stats like the usual Attack and Defense, which all party characters have.

Both optional NPCs and Vanitas will give you psychology tests over the course of the game, and completing them will give different bonuses to your ego stats. I enjoyed how real life Freudian psychology is intertwined into the plot of the game. For example, one character gives you, the protagonist, a test asking where you’d sit on a table. Would you sit next to a person, or on one side of the table that has nobody sitting there, or at the end of the table where the “head of the table” usually resides? What you choose determines which ego stat increases.

It’s really meant for fun, and your ego stats aren’t the same as your combat stats so answering the questions and also reading the answers was very interesting and didn’t add stress to the game. There are also plenty of opportunities to max these ego stats out and they never get reduced.

But at the same time, it’s all reading-based and not a voiced cutscene, so I can see it putting people off too. Vanitas even gives the protagonist several “Choose Your Own Adventure” kinds of personality test, one of which has your protagonist saves a princess in an over 30 page text adventure minigame. It has really good writing and is chock-full of illustrations, and when you complete them for the first time you can look at all of the answers and the mentality behind them in the lore menus.

The plot is very slow in the beginning and the plotline between Nozomi and Kurama is boring compared to the plotlines seen later in the game because it involves politics in the student council. There’s also barely any character interaction early on because you haven’t recruited anybody else yet either. My recommendation would be to try to get through it because the game’s narrative improves significantly later on.

I haven’t explained the combat in detail yet, but it plays more like a “strategy RPG”, such as Disgaea or Fire Emblem. This may be confusing because I’ve seen so many comparisons between Monark and SMT/Persona, and I think that is only true for the narrative element of the game, not the gameplay or combat elements in the game. The gameplay in this game is really unique and is not like SMT or Persona at all.

There are some similarities to this game and SMT: If, one of the Japan-exclusive SMT titles, but the only similarity is that both games involve students trapped in a private school in Japan. SMT: If is still extremely different to this game because in SMT: If you’re taken to the expanse, where you explore very strange worlds (including going inside of Horko/Orcus’s intestines) and fight demons. On the other hand, Monark only involves you exploring buildings on the school campus.

Without spoiling anything, the plots of Monark and SMT: If are extremely different, though one subplot in Monark can be a little similar to how the antagonist of SMT: If behaves, but that’s really about it. Even so, Monark has a very interesting plot that doesn’t copy other IPs at all.

This game doesn’t have random encounters. Instead, there are only fixed battles, which occur when you find a ringing cellphone in a misty area, which leads to you defeating an “Ideal”. Defeating three Ideals clears the mist and advances the story. You can also repeat old battles by calling old phone numbers. You can also find random phone numbers through exploration. Sometimes you’ll get random calls that result in extremely high-leveled enemies facing you. Although it’s fun to answer unknown callers in real-life, it’s not something you want to do in this game unless you’re well-prepared!

Although these random phone calls contain encounters that are too difficult, you can always do them later in the game. Thankfully, the game keeps track of all phone numbers, so there’s no need to write them down. It’s a great idea because you choose how often you want to grind and you don’t need to stress out about random encounters. Eventually your level will become outclassed and you need to get equipment from battles (you can’t buy equipment, only items), so it’s good to practice and do battles every once in a while. In battles you will always get a rank, and if you perform better or faster in battles, you will get more bonuses. As a result, it can be worth it to repeat battles when you’re stronger to collect more bonuses from achieving a higher rank.

You choose which units to select during battles. Early on you’re locked to using one unique human character and the human protagonist, and the rest of the team are generic fiend units such as “the Fiend of Gluttony”. Unique human characters have no equipment, but generic units can have equipment and can become very powerful.

You can level up both your characters and the generic units through spending points in a skill tree, which you obtain from battles or from collectibles, and this will unlock new moves for your characters. That’s why I call this a strategy RPG, because you move character units in a certain radius on a map and your skills will have certain range as well. All your character units will have a turn, then all the enemy units will have a turn, and the process repeats.

You actually don’t have experience to level up in this game, you level up naturally by buying the skills in a skill tree with points, which is also a nice idea I don’t see often in other games. This means you can choose how to allocate your points between character, rather than have it split evenly like a traditional experience system in a JRPG.

The game is pretty hard early on because you need to get used to its mechanics. Each strategy RPG has its own quirks: Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy: Tactics, and Disgaea for example all have their own mechanics, and Monark is no exception. Enemies will counter attack unless you strike them from behind, so if you’re normally striking enemies you can get defeated early on from their counterattacks.

The game adds a lot of different gameplay twists the more you play and it does get complex, but the gameplay really grows on you as you unlock more options to break the game. You have moves that consume a percentage of the character’s HP, but it’s often worth it because these moves may deal a lot of damage.

Your characters have a “madness” and an “awakening” bar. Using certain Authority skills causes madness to go up, which you don’t want because when they go mad they will indiscriminately attack both enemies and allies.

There are skills and items that can reduce other characters’ madness as well, so say I have a healer who has to keep healing but his madness is going up, I can use a skill to essentially trade the madness to another character so that the healer can keep healing.

Awakening on the other hand is another fun mechanic. The awakening bar increases from getting attacked or by using skills that increase it, and becoming awakened unlocks really great abilities to use.

Resonance is a mechanic to link characters together, which may include sharing their buffs and debuffs as well so it’s very situational. The gameplay is complex as you can see, but it’s really fun and one-of-a-kind. Although I was put off by it initially, as you get more into it, it becomes addicting.

The battle stages become more complex as well, having statues in the battle areas that may inflict status ailments such as Poison, Bleed, Seal, Confuse, Disable, etc, as well as teleporters that warp you across the map. It was always best to come prepared with items to heal these because ailments are very deadly.

All it takes is a confused party member to strike your protagonist and immediately end the game. In this game, if the protagonist dies there is an immediate game over. There’s no permanent penalty for other characters dying though, so if you survive with only the protagonist for instance it’s perfectly fine because the doctor in the infirmary will heal you free of charge.

Another criticism I have is that for most of the game, you can only use the protagonist and one human character as your only human characters, even though you recruit several other human characters. As well, when you recruit a human character as part of the game’s narrative, you are separated from the rest of the cast during that plot line with the exception of getting two extra cutscenes for returning to the student club room and going to the infirmary. There’s not an easy way around this though because the game lets you choose which order to recruit the human characters in. The game scales enemies stats up as you progress through the game, meaning it doesn’t matter which order you choose to go through the game in.

The plot really gets going though when you recruit all the characters, then they all interact which each other normally in the story, but when you’re recruiting human characters it definitely feels discrete and formulaic for a while. It is disappointing that you can only use all the human characters in the same battle for the final battles and the postgame only.

Playing through the game, I can see this was done was because of how the plot involves characters overcoming their struggles with their own friends before they become friends with you and the rest of your cast. The generic units aren’t bad in battle and their appearance can be customized with equipment and other menu options, plus they have a lot of good skills you can acquire. Still, I can’t help but notice how amazing the bosses’ units looked. I sure wish I could’ve recruited them, but I suppose from a narrative standpoint it wouldn’t make sense.

There’s also a madness mechanic that occurs outside of battles. If you take too long in the mist, your character will eventually become mad, it’s represented by a bar that increases to 100%. There’s no penalty though, your character will be teleported to the infirmary, but you can warp back to the entrance of the building again. Any madness accumulated outside of battles will remain for your next battle, so if you have 99% madness before a boss fight it would be prudent to return to the infirmary to get it removed and then return to the boss fight.

When exploring misty buildings, or dungeons, it’s divided into three sections called Ideals, which are the fixed battles you need to win. The dungeons in this game aren’t long or complex at all. They’ll often have interesting puzzles to solve to break up the gameplay, such as figuring out a locker combination from getting a collectible clue or figuring out someone’s username or password. Some are tricky, but they didn’t take me more than, say, 10 minutes to solve each puzzle. Once in a while I’d get stumped, but when I took a break and approached the puzzle with a fresh mind I was usually able to solve it quickly.

In the worst case, the game does have a “casual” mode if you’d rather have an easier time with the gameplay. The difficulty can also be changed at anytime.

The soundtrack of this game is top-notch and really carries this game forward. As you explore the school infested with a mist that drives students crazy, the soundtrack sounds very eerie, with plenty of cacophony.

One last caveat I’ll add is that the second act (the second half) of the game is really phenomenal. The game is structured that in the first act you recruit all the characters in the party, and in the second half you go through different character routes. Although you see some of the characters’ backstories in the first half, you explore each character in astonishing detail in the second half.

To get to the actual ending, you need to complete all four character routes in the second half which involves going through all of their backstories, and some of them are really good. The intermission between the two halves of the game is full of plot twists that shocked me and even made me feel emotional. It’s just that it takes a while for the plot to get good.

I don’t see many games that structure their game like this, but I liked it a lot. It’s similar to Tales of Legendia, which had a regular first half, but had character routes in its second half before its true ending.

Although I really enjoyed learning about the characters in detail in their routes, the game does recycle a lot of content in its second half, so you’ll have explored each area twice when completing all of the character routes because of shared content. There are also some recycled cutscenes in the character routes, but most of the dialogue is unique.

The game does begin to really fizzle out in the endgame sadly, with the dungeons turning into simple hallways and rooms. Whereas before at least you had floors of rooms in the buildings to explore now it was just turning into simple hallways.

The game design is modern and you don’t need to worry about the dialogue options. In old games, you may get locked out of entire storylines for choosing a wrong option or for not building a character’s affection enough. In Monark, however, you can immediately retry wrong dialogue options at no penalty, so you’ll never be locked out of character routes or the true ending. There’s no affection system in the game as well, so you don’t need to worry about making characters angry with your dialogue choices.

After completing all the character routes in Monark you’ll get to the ending of the game, which has enemies and bosses in the level 70’s. After that, there’s a postgame where you can get more endings as well, but the postgame is challenging and involves you facing level 99 enemies, so you need to have the best equipment and setups to tackle it. I was getting burnt out by the time I hit post-game, and it did involve grinding for drops which I didn’t need to do earlier.

In total, I spent 60 hours getting to one of the post-game endings. The time you spend on the game will vary significantly depending on if you stop to gather collectible items and lore, and if you talk to the generic NPCs. It can also depend on how long you spend in battles, and whether or not you’re grinding a lot for levels and items. It can also vary if you wait for the characters’ voice acting or if you’re skipping through the dialogue. Either way though, it’s a lengthy title, even if there’s a speed-up option for the battles.

All in all, Monark is a really unique game that isn’t afraid of taking risks. It’s not a big budget game by any means, but there is a lot of attention to detail in its writing and the characters and their conflicts are presented astoundingly.

My only problem with the game is that it takes a while for the plot to get going, and there is so much dry lore at the beginning of the game. The character routes, although they have recycled content, really show a completely different light to the characters. The lore also makes more sense as you progress through the game. The combat is fun as you create more character builds and develop strategies to take advantage of the game systems, but I can understand it being overwhelming in the beginning because it has so many of its own unique mechanics.

I played through the Persona 1 and the Persona 2 duology when I was younger, and it had similar faults to Monark: repetitive gameplay, but there was a phenomenal narrative and characters tucked away if you were looking for it. If you’re willing to go through it and are patient, give this game a shot because the plot really does get good and I was amazed with all of the foreshadowing there was in the beginning. If you don’t care about graphics too much and can enjoy a game for its narrative, give Monark a shot.

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