I play a lot of anime games, so I’ve had my fair share of edgy plots and settings . This one though? It might actually take the cake.
So a lot of the marketing for this game seems to revolve around the fact that some members of its development team were former staff working on Shin Megami Tensei. I feel like this is a bit misleading because from my research, it’s really just one co-writer, the composer, and a couple others listed as “scenario supervision” – all who worked together on Shin Megami Tensei If… for the Super Famicom back in 1994.
The connection is there, yeah, but it’s more of a marketing ploy and unfortunately one that I fell right into as a Megami Tensei fan. That’s because, although Monark does do some things right, I can’t really say that it excels in any one area.
So the entire thing plays as a very structured turn-based JRPG. You’re thrown into this mysterious school setting with a main character that has amnesia and a “mist” that causes other students to go insane. It is up to you to team up with a small group of students, explore the school, and dispel this mist to save everyone. The general game loop is extremely linear and follows the same pattern all the way through. You get some story dialogue, search a floor of some building within the school for a phone call, answer that phone call to engage in a battle in another realm, another story dialogue to close out that section, and then repeat this process over and over.
That’s the entirety of Monark and honestly, it’s a bit too structured for my tastes. I don’t have anything against linear games, but I also like JRPGs that don’t just recycle the same pattern to completion. In Monark, the most exploration you get is maybe entering a classroom and picking up a healing item before moving to your actual objective. That’s it. Otherwise, you simply need to solve a small puzzle to find the source of the mist for that given floor.
And I say puzzle, but that’s pushing it a bit given that most of the time you just need to memorize a small number or word sequence and enter it elsewhere – like the combination for a safe that you find on a sticky note in another room. Sure, some of the ones later on are a bit more complex and maybe involve a couple more steps, but the vast majority of the “puzzles” feel more like obstacles than something I enjoy doing.
Then there’s the combat. None of it actually takes place in the school setting, instead being set entirely in this “other realm” that you have to either dial into or answer a call to. Upon doing so, you select which units to deploy, where to deploy them, and then go at it in a neat mashup of different combat systems. It’s turn-based, but you have freedom of movement and can shuffle around your units as you please. Positioning is key as there are things like back attacks and assisting other units based on their proximity to a given enemy.
I liked the overall approach here. It’s not as strict as your regular turn-based JRPG, but still stays true to that experience without going full action-based. And there’s a good bit of depth too. You get entire skill trees per unit, the ability to outright defer your turn to any other unit, a full slate of status effects, buffs, and debuffs, and this cool madness and ascension system on top of it. Using skills either drains your HP a certain amount or increases your madness, and when that madness reaches 100%, your unit becomes uncontrollable and does a bunch of damage to whoever is in his/her way.
These mechanics build on each other in cool ways, allowing you to set up combos with a bunch of assists flying everywhere or even situations where it becomes beneficial to let a unit go mad. Ultimately though, this all comes with one major flaw: you hardly ever need or get to use these mechanics. About 90% of fights you can finish simply by using basic attacks and a lot of the time, you have to go out of your way to actually use the more complex mechanics. Boss fights are really the only time I ever got to see units go mad, use ascension, or ever felt the need to inflict status effects and debuffs.
You would think – okay, just up the difficulty. But no, that’s actually another problem entirely. There are two difficulties: normal and casual, with the latter simply reducing damage taken by 30% in exchange for a decreased item drop rate. Both difficulties, however, are subject to the game’s absolutely insane difficulty spikes. All the normal fights? Completely fine. The boss fights? If you did not grind beforehand, be prepared to get one-shot. I thought I was doing completely fine up until the second boss, which one-shot me numerous times until I dropped the difficulty to casual, which simply made it a two-shot instead of a one-shot – I still died regardless.
Monark is a game that purposely keeps you underleveled, and by quite the margin. Because there are no regular “encounters” in this game like other JRPGs, your fights are rather limited – an optional one at the beginning of each area and then the required one at the end. Since you can’t repeat the one at the end (usually a boss), I found myself repeatedly grinding that optional fight at the beginning.
The game loop evolved from what I described earlier to now including a section for grinding before the final fight, as not doing so would just lead to another one-shot. In most JRPGs, you can get by by simply fighting all encounters you run into or even dropping the difficulty if you want to play more leisurely, but Monark throws out both of those options. What you are left with is an incredibly grindy, repetitive, and unfulfilling game loop. And yeah, the fact that skeletons are the only enemies you fight does not help either.
Then there’s the story. For one, I feel it’s important to note that the dialogue and cutscenes take up probably about 50% of the game’s playtime, so it’s pretty beefy in that regard. That unfortunately doesn’t make it good though, and that’s ultimately the impression I got here. Mainly, I couldn’t shake this feeling that the story was trying to be too much and lacked focus. Five hours in, I had no idea what it was trying to tell me. 10 hours in – the same thing. 30 hours? I’m still not exactly sure.
I understand what is going on, but not what the writers are trying to convey with the story. It’s like a mess of ideas all cobbled together that sounds cool on paper, but lack the depth and direction to really work. The entire first act, for example, works like a series of short stories about individual student’s psychological problems and a slight dive into each of their backgrounds. Each gets expanded on later, but I should note that the first act alone is like 15 hours of gameplay so you will be waiting a while for the story to really kick into gear.
The pacing as a whole is a bit slow. A bunch of useless dialogue, slow movement speed, all the padding caused by grinding. If it weren’t for this review, I probably would have dropped it early on. And it’s incredibly tropey too – to the point where it was hard to tell if I was playing a parody, but no, the game is actually taking itself seriously. This is the kind of anime story I would expect to appeal to 13 or 14 year olds, with so much edge I am surprised my controller didn’t cut me. It reminded me a lot of the recent Caligula Effect game, but about 3x edgier.
You got students jumping to their death from the school roof in the background, a demon taking the form of a stuffed animal that only speaks in rhymes, and every single character story has to do with death, depression, suffering, pain, all of that. Don’t get me wrong, depression is literally one of my favorite story genres (if you can call it that), but Monark simply doesn’t cut it – ironic given its edge.
Graphically, I can’t say the game is doing too hot there either. It looks about what I would expect from an early PS4 or late PS3 JRPG. It’s not outright terrible, but not good either – just bland, with repeated textures, blocky environments, and generally empty buildings (although, some may point to the story as an excuse for that). The character designs are at least fine and the music too. In fact, the music might be my second favorite thing under the combat. The vocal tracks that play during boss fights absolutely slap and the regular background music isn’t that bad either, even if it felt like there could be more of it.
The PC port is also fine. Not the best I’ve seen, but serviceable. You get a small set of graphical options to change and the game ran flawlessly at 1440p, 60 fps on my 1070 Ti so I guess I can’t complain much there. I had no issues with the controls on controller and the default keyboard and mouse layout isn’t that bad either. You do not get a cursor on screen though, so the mouse is just used for its buttons. Still playable though, and that’s more than I can say for some other JRPG PC ports.
Monark is a bit of a mess of ideas – some good, some bad, but most leaning a bit towards the latter. You get some nice combat, but coupled with some very grindy progression and lackluster gameplay outside of that combat. You get a story with some nice themes, but little coherence between all of these themes and filled with so many anime tropes that it’s hard to take seriously. Honestly, I would recommend The Caligula Effect over this one. That one at least has a decent sequel worth playing, even if the original game isn’t all that good.
Quote: Monark is a mess of ideas – some good, some bad, but most leaning a bit towards the latter. The combat, for example, is fun enough on its own, but is paired with some very grindy progression.
Monark retails for $60 USD on Steam and is also available on PS4, PS5, and Switch.
I was provided a review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.