Review – Monark

A promising game that just kept disappointing

Overview

Developer Lancarse, FuRyu
Publisher FuRyu, Nippon Ichi Software, NIS America
Genre JRPG
Platforms Switch (reviewed), Steam, PS4, PS5
Release Date February 22, 2022

The best praise I can give Monark is that it would have been a really good game on the 3DS. That is to say, it would have been a good game ten years ago, to a younger demographic, on a platform that was more restrictive technologically. By 2022 standards, however, NIS America’s Monark is largely unimpressive and at times needlessly frustrating. Certain aspects of the game have great potential, but it fails to deliver as a package, due to being low-effort, formulaic, and rather trope-heavy. Monark’s few saving graces are not enough to earn it a recommendation.

Sumire wonders what people see in a husbando
Much like Sumire, I wonder what people see in Monark

Content Guide

In all honesty, I question why Monark wasn’t rated M.

Spiritual Content: Monark’s entire plot revolves around the “spiritual” and its effects on the real world. People form pacts with daemons, and the areas you fight in are somewhere in the spiritual realm. The seven deadly sins are featured prominently in Monark. One of your companions makes some derogatory remarks about prayer being for those who are too weak to help themselves. Monark asks many, many questions about justice in a cruel world and why life is unfair to people, but it never has any good answers, sending a message that the “spiritual” causes problems instead of solving them.

Violent Content: Monark is a violent game, more so outside of combat than in. You hear pained moaning everywhere you go. People’s heads explode in a bloody cloud, jump off of a roof in front of you, and get their cartoony hearts ripped out while alive. There are pools of blood just lying around. People burst into flames and get electrocuted. The combat itself is not very graphic; the worst that happens is a bleed effect causing a character to spurt cartoony, low-res blood at the end of their turn.

Drug/Alcohol Content: None to speak of, which was a pleasant surprise.

Language: Cursing is used throughout the game, including d***, h***, s***, b****

Sexual Content: Monark is set in a high school, so there’s lots of second-hand relationship drama that you come across in the course of the game. Unfortunately, some of it is rather sexual in nature. People mention their first time and having their virginity taken. Sloppy seconds are mentioned at one point. You find out that one student has an incestuous love for her sister (which is not reciprocated). There’s no visual sexual content, but there’s plenty of suggested sex going on.

Misc. Negative Themes: In all honesty, I question why Monark wasn’t rated M. This game has a lot of heavy, mature themes in it that some may find inappropriate for teenagers to be grappling with. The game is dark, and at moments very disturbing, with the few light moments that poke through not really doing enough to dispel the gloom.

Waifu looks on as doctor catches his breath in a spooky hallway.

Story Overview

You wake up in a dark, mist-shrouded hallway, with no memories of who or where you are. You hear both eerily unhinged laughter and pained moaning coming from far away. Three people stand over you: a rumpled, unkempt middle-aged man, a high school girl who will obviously become waifu bait at some point, and a younger middle school girl. In the middle of trying to figure out where you are and what’s happening, you get a phone call on your cell phone. This freaks your unknown companions out, because no one has had cell phone service in weeks; there’s been no communication, in our out. Curious, you answer the call, and suddenly you’re…somewhere else. Somewhere with a blood-red sky and spooky scary skeletons sending shivers down your spine.

Protagonist and waifu look up at a blood-red sky while a spooky skeleton looks on.

Aaaaaaaand surprise, you’re the chosen one and you must save the world! Okay, you’re just saving a large private academy and all the waifus and husbandos therein, but the point stands.

The mist which is enveloping Shin Mikado Academy and driving students to insanity is being caused by humans forming pacts with powerful otherworldly daemons called Monarks in order to gain power to change their lives. These human Pact-bearers—one for each of the seven deadly sins—warp reality around themselves, bringing the mist and slowly driving people around them mad. In order to save the school and dispel the mist, you must defeat all the Pact-bearers. No princess to rescue here, but did I mention there are waifus?

School dean wonders at a Monark being in the academy

The catch is, you have to save the school without going mad yourself. That’s right; the mist that is currently driving the students of Shin Mikado Academy insane also affects you. Stay out in the mist too long, and your game is over.

Combat

Monark's field of combat

Monark’s combat is one area where the game truly shines

Combat in Monark is squad-based tactical gameplay that happens on a field in which your characters can freely move around. Each team takes alternating turns, with each character in each team being able to make one of five possible moves within the turn: Arts, which are attacks that cost health; Authority, which are attacks that increase the character’s Madness; Wait, which will pass the turn and heal the character for a set amount; Item, which (shocker) lets the character use an item on themselves or an ally; and Defer, which will pass the turn to another character, giving an extra turn at the cost of increasing the receiving character’s Madness. At the end of each battle, your performance is scored from D to S, and you get rewards based on both your rank and what enemies you defeated during the battle.

Monark's combat ranking system
I did it, Mom!

Monark departs from the mainstream by not having a mana resource. Instead, you’re managing three different resources: Health, Madness, and Resolve. I don’t think I need to explain what managing health is; if your main character loses all his health, the game is over. Madness and Resolve are resources that both you and your opponents can use to gain an advantage in combat, but at a cost.

Combat in Monark can be complicated, and it can be frustrating. However, Monark’s combat is one area where the game truly shines, because getting it right is extremely satisfying. Getting high ranks in battles is not easy, and is something which could easily keep the right kind of player engaged for dozens of hours. The best comparison I have is Platinum Games titles like Bayonetta, Nier: Automata, or Astral Chain: you can beat most battles without being fancy at all, but to get high ranks you really need a deep understanding of how to best utilize all your characters and their resources.

My one gripe with the combat is that, as you get further into the game, fights can be a coin-flip depending on enemies landing multiple lucky crits on the MC. It’s a quibble in comparison to how good combat is overall, and I know some people like that style of combat, so I can’t fault NIS America for the design.

There are zero random encounters in Monark, which I find a plus, but which also presented a weird problem I found after an hour or two: I had no idea how to grind for levels. The mechanism for grinding is extremely unintuitive at first, and I felt pretty dumb after figuring it out.

Oh, and in my experience with Monark, grinding is mandatory. I got hard stat-checked by enemies multiple times and had to grind my way up to them.

Monark makes a swipe at my combat prowess

Puzzles

Let’s have a chat about puzzles. Monark has a lot of puzzles, most of which I would call art. It’s been said that the point of art is to elicit a response, whether positive or negative; to most artists, a piece of art which causes no reaction at all is a failure. In this regard, NIS America succeeded in making art, because I absolutely hate the puzzles in Monark. The story’s progress is gated at every single step by puzzles, of which I found eighty percent simply frustrating. At one point, I spent almost an hour searching and scrounging all the way through a building that I had already been through, to find one single piece of text that I had to figure out contained a clue to discover someone’s password. This kind of thing happened multiple times. When a game has wasted hours of my playtime slamming my head against a puzzle, I find myself very unlikely to recommend it.

Monark's personality tests
Monark's personality tests
Pretty accurate, to be honest.

Story

Monark’s story is, to be frank, frustratingly uninteresting. It’s straightforward, linear, and there haven’t been any substantial surprises yet. I see potential, though, and I keep playing, waiting for the game to subvert my expectations and blow me away, but it keeps not happening, and I keep getting more disillusioned with the game’s writers. The story stands in direct contrast to the lore of the game, discoverable via readable entries that you find scattered throughout the academy grounds. The lore itself is fascinating, and I keep waiting in vain for that level of writing to surface in the story.

Monark lore

Monark’s writers get no points for the game’s characters, either. They’re all tropes. To paraphrase a sentiment from a Reddit user who had played the demo, “If you’re not sure which trope a character fits into, don’t worry; eventually they’ll tell you.” It’s truly that shallow. If you’re a fan of tropey anime characters, you’ll like Monark. However, it’s still lazy writing, and it’s still points against the game.

The design of Monark makes me wonder if the game wasn’t rushed through development

Setting and Atmosphere

The setting and atmosphere of Monark were another highlight for me. At first, I was hesitant about the game being set entirely on the grounds of a school. “Who would want to play Persona 5 if it were only set in the school?” However, it grew on me. The school grounds are large enough to not feel small or cramped, and parts of buildings stay closed off until certain points in the game, giving you a reason to go back and explore. What sells the setting for me is the atmosphere NIS America has created inside the buildings. I’m not someone who enjoys playing horror games, but the disturbing, atmospheric horror-lite of the mist and the people going mad kept me on edge and wondering what would be around the next corner.

Monark creepy rooftop

Visual Design and Graphics

I played Monark on the Switch, so I was not expecting much in terms of impressive, flashy graphics. Suffice it to say, I got what I expected. The game looks okay, but in certain scenes it’s rough, and lags quite a bit in certain areas. The game still played quite well, so I didn’t mind too much, but if you’re the kind of gamer who wants the best graphics and framerates, avoid the Switch version.

Monark squad talking in creepy hallway
This level of graphics is what you can expect on the Switch

I can forgive Monark’s graphics, given the platform. What I cannot forgive is the game’s visual design, which appears low quality and possibly unfinished.

The portrait design of the characters is good, but the in-game models are not nearly as impressive. The enemy design is even worse: it’s “Oops, all skeletons!” Unless you are fighting other Pactbearers in a particular fight, the only enemies you have are skeletons. There’s a skeleton with a sword, a skeleton with a halberd, a skeleton with a lance, and a skeleton with a crossbow. That’s it.

The environments you play in are depressingly uninspired, consisting of plain-looking hallways (which all look the same), cookie-cutter classrooms, the roads outside between the buildings (which somehow manage to be even MORE plain than the school hallways), and the arenas you battle in, which have the most visual variety but somehow still end up looking the same after a dozen fights.

Monark boring classroom
You see this same classroom dozens of times

The visual design of Monark makes me wonder if the game wasn’t rushed through development, because the designers made a solid canvas for the game but failed to fill it in and make it appealing. Whether or not the game was unfinished, Monark’s visual design leaves much to be desired when compared to similar games that have released in recent years (looking at you, Persona 5, you sexy beast).

Monark boring street
These areas, weirdly enough, lagged the most for me. The areas with the least visual clutter.

Closing Thoughts

I cannot recommend Monark unless you like a very specific kind of game. If you like a dark, gloomy game that abounds in anime tropes and has lots of puzzles, then you might very well enjoy Monark. However, I could not enjoy the game because it felt like NIS America didn’t try very hard to capture my attention in any way outside of combat. The story was uninteresting, the visual design was uninspired, and progress being gated by puzzles and mandatory grinding was simultaneously infuriating and insulting. In fact, while writing this review, I reached a point in the game where I was fed up with Monark’s shenanigans and went back to playing Mario + Rabbids. I’m sure Monark has an audience that will love it, but I am not that person.

The Bottom Line

 

While certain aspects of Monark have great potential, the formulaic design, trope-heavy story, and frustrating puzzles render the product as a whole feeling unimpressive.

 

6.5

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Jamie Rice

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