Dystopia may seem like an overused theme in video games, but a player’s in-game experiences often make the difference.
As such, it’s difficult to describe a game that, like thatgamecompany’s Journey, is meant to be experienced rather than read or written about.
Nowhere Studio’s puzzle platformer, Monochroma, is one such game. Monochroma takes the dystopian theme and mixes in an emotional brotherly love-driven story , excellent gameplay, and rich visuals. My only two concerns were the disappointing end and the trial-and-error nature of many of the puzzles.
Monochroma focuses on the brotherly love of the main character for his younger brother, both of whom go unnamed, but characters that nonetheless gripped me from the start. The game begins at the outskirts of a New York-like city, where it is implied the brothers live. The main character goes to join and watch over his younger brother play with a kite, and this is when the trouble begins. The kite flies away with the wind and catches on the roof of a local farm building, out of the reach of the little brother. Unexpectedly (and surprising me into yelling naughty swears), the little brother breaks and falls through the roof, injuring his leg/foot. This is the beginning of the struggle that the main character will go through to help and save his little brother.
While searching for help for his little brother, the main character unknowingly stumbles upon a factory full of children frozen and trapped in cryogenic-like cylindrical tubes. Making matters worse after this gruesome discovery, a muscle-bound thug sees the brothers when he enters the factory and tries to capture them. The brothers must not only escape the thug in this area, but must also avoid capture by him in multiple other areas, all while the player learns an even darker secret as they progress through the game.
Because of its minimalistic style, story plays an extremely important role as the vehicle of meaning in Monochroma. The game completely lacks any narration and/or voice-over work (although sounds and grunts are, of course, heavily used). Much of the context of the story is implicitly conveyed by the environment and background animations, especially that the in-game New York-like city is a major consumerist society, one that has become infatuated with robots sold by an unnamed company with a giant M trademark. The history and actions of the unnamed company are slowly revealed via initially-cute animated loading screens that gradually become darker, as well as via animated posters and billboards plastered throughout the game.
Both of these means of implicit storytelling show the consumerism of the city society through families and children that purchase and play with the company’s robot products. An ominous (and worryingly-possible) series of billboards show a family whose robot seems to go Terminator on them and even shows their terrorized faces. Monochroma’s website and blog directly state that the game is meant to reflect real-world societies’ love for consumerism as well as tyranny, dystopianism, and technological singularitarianism (keep this in mind near the end of the game).
Monochroma’s simple control scheme (usually) makes gameplay simple, fun, and intuitive. Although I did not change it myself, the default controls for movement were mapped to the arrow keys, while actions were designated to the “control” button and the space bar. The first time you ever have to perform an action, the controls for it are displayed at the lower right of the screen. From jumping to pushing and pulling stuff to swinging on and climbing up/down/across structures and ropes/cords to picking up your little brother (among many other possibilities), you won’t want for more actions that need to be combined to solve puzzles. Only being able to put down your little brother in areas bathed in conveniently-located spotlights because he’s afraid of the dark (who wasn’t when they were little too?) was a cute but challenging element of the game. Another aspect I loved was the brief, and in my opinion underrepresented, friendly-robot sections, where you can you climb on and control one of the “M” robots, used as an elevator/ladder to reach high places. With these controls, most, and I emphasize most, of the game didn’t require excessive repetition, but the parts that did made me want to rip my hair out.
Although I highly enjoyed the physics-based puzzles that are littered throughout the game, such as having to swing on a chain with a crane hook at the end in order to smash and get through a window to the next area, many parts nonetheless had me almost crying in frustration. There was a particularly difficult puzzle where the area you’re in starts flooding with water when you pull a switch, and you have to pull and position a box at just the right place in order to successfully ascend the 4 platforms of the area and up to the window at the top to exit. Playing a major part in many puzzles is the inability of either of the brothers to swim, making death traps out of inconveniently-located water pools. Another major complaint I had, as I mentioned earlier, was the trial-and-error nature of many of the puzzles and quicktime events during my playthrough.
Being a puzzle-platformer, I expected Monochroma to have many timing-focused puzzles, and I wasn’t disappointed, but in a bad way. I’m uncertain whether it was my bad reflexes or the design of the game, but I found that I would have to repeat and correct many of the mistakes I made on several of the puzzles to the point of rage-quitting, particularly on the water-filling area puzzle I mentioned. This repetition shouldn’t normally be too much of a bother since the game has a helpful respawn and save system where the reload point is usually not too far from where you died. This case, however, is different because one of the posts of the Monochroma development blog explicitly said the developers strived to make the puzzles of the game not turn into a series of trial-and-error frustrations. As such, replayability in my opinion would make my head explode, but perhaps you, our dear readers, might play differently and breeze through the puzzles I stumbled on. Quicktime events in the game were hit-and-miss for me, although I did miraculously manage to anticipate and react in time to avoid death for some.
Without divulging too much, the boss battle and “end” required much repetition in my case and were quite frankly disappointing. The conclusion of the game itself left me feeling unfulfilled, unresolved, unfinished, and left-hanging. After all of the emotional and story-fueled buildup throughout much of the last quarter of the game (including what seems to be a climactic resolution that turns into a problem that then has far-too-convenient of a resolution to believe), the boss battle and ending just didn’t measure up in my opinion, and what was worse was the horrible timing puzzle you must figure out to defeat the final boss.
These downsides to Monochroma didn’t take away from the visuals/graphics, which are just plain beautiful. Being the means of conveying meaning and story, the visuals were an essential part of the game, and they did their job well. Monochroma’s dark and moody tone is almost-constantly present throughout the areas of the game via the overcast weather and storms plaguing the land, as well as through the aforementioned increasingly-dark and broody billboards/posters/loading screens. The background animations served as more than just pretty sights, instead playing an active role in leading the story forward and showing a clear objective, and sometimes serving as the warning sign for how long you have to get to cover in time. However, water effects didn’t really wow me.
Sound wasn’t too bad either. The quicktime chase scene and various other puzzle-specific background music enhanced the dark atmosphere and mood of Monochroma. The main bad guy that chases you throughout the game gets his own chase music, which starts playing seconds before he pops out of some shadowy area and/or door to initiate the chase. Victory and escape are appropriately-rewarded sound-wise with “happy” music, although its playing near the end of the game turns out to be a false celebration moments later.
In conclusion, despite some gameplay and story issues, Monochroma is a gorgeously-unique and challenging puzzle-platformer that you shouldn’t miss for such a great price.
Let us know what you think about Monochroma in the comments below!
A Steam review code was provided by the developer for this review.