They say that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Some artists imitate something because they love the original, but some just want to replicate its success. The same goes for games. If a developer releases a game that resembles another, it might be because they love the title that inspired them and wants to give their own take on the genre. Something similar happened with the monster collection genre. After Shin Megami Tensei birthed it and Pokémon popularized it, we got an extraordinary amount of games where the players can recruit an army of monsters. If a developer wanted to join this group, they’d need to set their game apart from the other so titled “Pokéclones”. Enter Monster Sanctuary: a fun fusion between the RPG and the Metroidvania genres.
Welcome to the titular Monster Sanctuary, a haven where both Monsters and humans can live in peace. Because wild monsters are still hostile, so-called Monster Keepers train monsters to fight alongside them. You play as an heir of one of the sacred families of Monster Keepers. You start your Keeper journey with your Spectral Familiar, a monster tied to your family bloodline (comparable to your starter Pokémon). However, all is not well in the Monster Sanctuary. A new group called the Alchemists shows up to cause mayhem. It’s up to you and the other Keepers to stop them before they can fulfill their evil ambitions.
The story isn’t anything to write home about. It realizes its purpose, but it hasn’t been very engaging aside from the final area. Your allies follow basic character development, and the few plot twists are quite predictable. So keep your expectations low, and you’ll be able to enjoy the gameplay to its fullest.
The game will have you exploring different areas of the Sanctuary in the style of a Metroidvania and engaging in turn-based combat. The transition from exploring to fighting is seamless. Touch any monster in the overworld and a battle begins. You’ll have to build up your team by hatching, catching, and training monsters from across the land.
Battles in this game are turn based. Fights take place with three monsters from each side participating at once. As the protagonist, you will be able to switch between three additional monsters at any time. Each monster has a variety of moves to pick between, either attacks or buffs. Attacks can either be physical or magical, and be aligned to one of the four elements: earth, water, wind, and fire. Every Monster has resistance to one element and is vulnerable to another. Abusing their weaknesses is key to winning fights. Later on, you’ll find monsters who are weak to all physical attacks, for instance. Some monsters even resist magical attacks, but are weak to fire, making them weak only against physical fire attacks. The amount of possibilities is endless, and helps to increase the late-game challenge.
Skill Trees & Rewards
Monsters gain a skill point each time they level up. These skill points can be used to unlock new skills through the skill tree. Every monster has a massive skill tree to upgrade and the variation in skills is truly outstanding: they range from new moves, upgraded moves, and a large variation of conditional effects. A monster may have attacks that can afflict the Burn debuff (which deals damage over time). The same monster might unlock a skill later on that gives your entire team a shield when an enemy takes damage from said debuff. That is but one synergy you can abuse. The possibilities are endless, which only expands when your monsters are higher leveled. The only limit is your creativity, and your pool of monsters. The way you fight is up to you. Do you build a team based on making your team as tanky as possible, or do you go for builds that can deal a massive amount of damage over time?
The game incentivizes you to give it your all in every battle, including regular encounters. The better you perform, the higher the chance of obtaining a rare item. This can come from a wide variety of items or, most notably, monster eggs. Simply go to your menu, press a button, and you have a new monster!
Every Keeper has a Keeper rank. Increasing this rank awards you new modes to play in the Keepers’ Tower and new items at shops. It can be increased by defeating Champions, powerful monsters with a lot of health that can attack multiple times per turn. These look like the most difficult opponents in the game, but if you’re knowledgeable about RPGs, they’re not that hard to beat. This might lead players to think this game is easy as a whole, an illusion that lasts until you start participating in more Keeper Duels.
Bosses: Keeper Duels
The battles against Keepers are by far the most challenging opponents you’ll fight during the story. Each Keeper uses three monsters at a time. If a monster is knocked out, the Keeper sends out one of their reserve monsters. If all monsters are knocked out, that Keeper loses the fight. These battles can be quite ferocious because all the skills you can abuse with your monsters can be turned against you. Your opponents make themselves incredibly tanky with an extraordinary amount of buffs and giving your monsters a lot of debuffs. They are very much capable of knocking out your DPS monster in one hit if its weakness is exploited.
In order to beat this, you always have the option of switching up your team, grinding, or just repeatedly throwing yourself at the battle. The fights are very much beatable, you just need to persist. As a result, beating them is incredibly satisfying, but fighting them might feel unfair. If you’re up to a challenge, these Duels will surely satiate your needs.
Do you need to grind to beat that one Alchemist? Then you better go to the options and increase the animation speed. At base speed, battles are incredibly slow. This might make backtracking annoying too, as you’ll need to do a few slow attacks to take out a low level enemy blocking your path. They can be dodged entirely, but you’ll need to be quick on your feet to evade them.
Exploration, puzzles and rewards
Journeying around the Sanctuary is incredibly fluent. Not only are the battle transitions seamless, but the areas are well-connected and are varied in visuals. The core of the puzzles in the overworld are the abilities of your monsters. You can select one monster out of your entire arsenal to follow you around. By pressing the Y button, you use the ability of that monster. From moving boulders, to levitation, activating orbs, they are as varied as their skill trees. You’ll need to use this to traverse the area or to reach certain treasure chests. At any point, you can switch what monster follows you to combine powers.
By using your problem-solving skills, you’ll be able to get a lot of items to aid you in battle. These items include weapons and equipment for your monsters. They give stat boosts, but can sometimes provide unique effects. Additionally, some treasure chests contain costumes for you to wear.
Presentation: Art and Music
The developers went for a classic 16-bit art style for this game. This means the visuals aren’t unique, but it does work quite well. The backgrounds aren’t distinctive either but the monsters are. From ovens to plants to dragons, any new enemy you encounter can be a delight.
Luckily, the music shines as bright as the sun in the Sun Palace. The OST is incredibly memorable and will most likely stay stuck in your head. It has this SNES vibe that feels nostalgic whether you grew up in that era of gaming or not. From the background tracks while exploring, to the energizing tunes during battles: the soundtrack is a welcome surprise!
The genre-fusion in Monster Sanctuary might seem like a gimmick, but luckily, it’s so much more. The game truly sets itself apart from the other games in its genre thanks to the fluent combination of fighting and exploring. It’s a cozy experience that is a must-play for any RPG fan, but you need to be ready for a challenge. You have an unlimited amount of ways to beat your enemies with tons of options, but so do your foes. Be prepared for some tough fights and the occasional grinding.
Monster Sanctuary gets an 8/10.