Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
Note: Please note that we tried to keep the following review as spoiler free as possible in order to experience some of the twists that Monark has for yourselves. This being said, we would also like to warn any potential players of the various themes that Monark covers often with no warning (censure or trigger) to the players which could be hard to sit through such as abusive bullying, suicide, and murder to name the prominent ones in the first twenty or so hours.
Set within the boundaries of an academy with seemingly no way out, you wake up in a misty school hallway. Having no idea as to who you are or why you’re there isn’t exactly a great way to start your semester. Welcome to Shin Mikado Academy.
Developed by previous developers of Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) series, Monark has some real talent behind it and for the most part it works well, almost brilliantly so. Combining an intriguing story with fun tactical combat and a musical composition that just keeps on giving you more as the title moves on, I am still wondering if the issues that I had were with me or with the game design.
Starting off after being saved from a creepy and misty hallway by the former student council president, the school doctor, and your little sister, you’re soon thrust into a position where you make a deal with the devil, so to speak, in order to achieve the power to protect those that just saved you. Known as Vanitas, they grant you power known as Authority under the banner of Vanity in order to fight against those of the seven deadly sins. Being an aberration to the other seven, that makes eight of you within academy grounds and you’ll soon find out if the others are potentially friends, or if they are all foes.
The seven deadly sins: love them, hate them, relate to one of them, have generally been done, so I was a bit worried on how Monark was going to portray them. Pride, Greed, Wrath, Envy, Lust, Gluttony and Sloth, we’ve seen them in movies like Seven, to animes like Fullmetal Alchemist and the Seven Deadly Sins. In this case, and perhaps scoring the first set of high marks, is that each of these “sins” makes up a person’s Ego, and through this Ego, how they see the world around them.
Continuously being asked questions throughout the adventure, either as pop-quizzes or psychology tests, there’s no “wrong” answer, but answering these questions will help to develop both your core Ego as well as your alter egos, which will have various effects on how you can proceed through the academy. Your core Ego to start off with can affect how you go about the first chapter of Monark and those you find to act as your companions. Super high in one stat would lock you into a straight path, while being more varied could allow you an actual choice in the matter, as far as I can tell at least based off of the restart (more on that below). Alter egos by comparison allow you to unlock bonuses throughout the academy, as long as your points are high enough to do so.
Continuing with the scoring of high marks of a grade A student, the visual presentation of Monark blends in that nostalgic PS2 era of JRPGs with elements that would make fans of Stephen King’s The Mist proud. Covering the hallways with a dense mist, there are plenty of things hiding within it just waiting for you to come across, such as the banging in the distance that just makes you want to run the other way. It’s unsettling and I won’t lie, I jumped several times when my protagonist’s cell phone started to ring, signaling that beings from the otherworld were out for my blood.
While very creepy in the beginning, sadly it soon levels off as you find out that “nothing” can actually happen to you within this mist. While exploring these areas, what can happen is that your sanity will begin to drop as your madness increases. If your madness hits 100%, then it’s game over. While seemingly harsh, as you can eventually run out of items while exploring, or just being unable to make it back to safety fast enough, I think using “Game Over” in Monark was just an excuse to jump onto the “You Died” train, as all it nets you is a trip to the infirmary while taking nothing away from you other than the need to run back to where you were.
Now, while “nothing” is in quotations, this will come down to individual choices and how much of a difficulty modifier you want to add while exploring the misty areas. While still atmospherically unsettling, once you walk into a new location your phone could start to ring. If you don’t answer it your madness will just continue to rise until it quite literally drives you insane, causing a game over. What adds to the atmosphere is that the students trapped in this mist will go berserk if they hear these phone calls and if you’re standing too close that’s the end of it for you as the sound is just too much to handle.
So because of all of this, while exploring the mist you’ll need to be careful of where and how you move around if you decide to not pick up the phone. Feeling brave enough to pick up? That is always a choice which leads into the next high scoring element on Monark’s report card. Picking up the phone when it rings in the mist will bring you into battle alongside anyone that you are currently partnered up with as you explore the various areas of the academy for a way out. Just as a side note… try not to pick up the phone in the mist as it basically guarantees a game over as these foes will be far beyond anything you can match for the first half of the adventure!
Monark does not do random encounters, which is something that I truly appreciated. Instead, you’ll have both story based fights that must be won in order to move forwards as well as a list of numbers in your phone to call in order to start an encounter. Calling these numbers, calling numbers found within notes spread around the academy, or simply putting in random numbers, each come with their own difficulties, but generally, each new misty area will give you a new number to call with tougher foes than the previous one. Winning this encounter the first time will prevent your phone from ringing in the mist, allowing you a bit more safety as you’ll only have to worry about your madness increasing naturally. Call the number again? That’s where the fun begins.
Combat in Monark plays out in 3D environments by using a your turn / their turn approach. On your turn, you can move any of your participating members from your actual human members over to the fiends of Legion assigned to you under both your Ego and alter Egos around the map as long as it’s within their allocated movement radius. From there, most characters will have two types of attacks which both have to be thought through, as one set can only be used while sacrificing hit points, and the other by increasing your madness. Reaching zero hit points will cause your characters to die, reaching zero hit points with your protagonist will cause a game over in good old fashioned SMT goodness.
Reaching critical mass in madness, unlike while exploring the academy, will cause your characters to go berserk and attack anything that is close to them with no regards of being friend or foe. Depending on where they are placed this could work out to your advantage, but oftentimes keeping your hit points high and your madness low would be a suggested approach. Thankfully even if your protagonist goes mad in battle, this will not result in a game over, but you’ll want to get them help as soon as possible once the battle is over.
Adding an element to both the madness and the strategy of battle is the ability to defer a character’s actions. By deferring an action, a unit can still move but it can allow another to take up a second, third, or fourth turn at the price of their madness increasing. This lets characters with area of effect abilities to hit three or four enemies as much as possible in a small time frame to thin out the herd or allow a healer to ensure that your own units will survive the incoming onslaught. More strategically though, it allows your units to leapfrog forwards especially on larger stages that can take several turns to simply make it to your end goal, accumulating spirit and coming out victorious.
On top of not doing random encounters, leveling up is also very different from your usual affair, allowing you to easily keep your entire party up to the challenges ahead, even if you aren’t actually using them. Accumulating spirit from your defeated foes, you’ll be learning new abilities and stat boosters which, once learnt, act as a level up. Each node, whether the first time or on an upgrade, levels up each character. While very “expensive” in the beginning, where the idea of 50 spirit on a node seems outlandish, it doesn’t take long before you start to drop anywhere from 1000 to 5000 spirit per node per character and think to yourself, huh, even 150 isn’t very much for this new party member, is it?
What I also rather enjoyed with this approach is that it didn’t change depending on whether it was a human party member befriended or frenemied on campus, or a member of Legion that has been assigned to you based off of your Ego. Instead, the principle is the same for everyone and human or legion alike, they all leveled in the same way with the only real difference being that you could rename and customize the appearance of your legion members, as well as equip them with head, chest and leg pieces to both raise their stats and change their looks, as well as provide skills attached to the equipment. This change of pace allows for a bit of freedom as the hours move forward, as you don’t need to mix grinding for experience alongside exploration of the academy and trying to figure out how to move forward.
This is the part that I had several issues with: figuring out how to move forward on the academy grounds. I often felt that the guidance to figure out the next move in how to get a door open, or how to get information to help sway someone into opening a door, is insanely ridiculous. Some, while looking back I can say to myself that I obviously fell for the red herring hook, line and sinker, but in other cases, how the hell did I even think of putting those together? First red herring actually cost me around four hours. Two hours to explore high and low in every single available space, and two hours because I restarted just in case there was a glitch or I missed something that wasn’t flagged properly.
Spending this amount of time, aside from the time spent making phone calls for combat and keeping up to level in order to move the story along, and spending time with the story itself that often has long cutscenes and huge amounts of dialogue, took me out of it. If it had been one puzzle that would be fine, but we are talking about multiple of these that just break the flow and as much as I loved the rest, this is where I feel like my romance kind of died as there are no hints at times in how to figure out some of these puzzles, especially when you have to type in your answer.
Otherwise, while it’s ok to fail at one subject and excel at the others, there is one more element that needs its own showcasing, and that is the musical composition of Monark. It was brilliant. Each “stage” of the experience had music designed for it from academy exploration to combat and boss fights. The academy music once the mist lifts is remixed a bit here and there so that each building sounds different. Combat, depending on which of the sins you’re going up against, is completely different and each boss fight has its own unique vocalized track. Combined with the combat and the story it was enough to make me keep going even if I ran into another puzzle that I was sure that I was going to groan at not figuring out, or feeling dumb over how long it took for me to solve it.
Because I had the chance to restart because I thought I missed something, I did get to see a few extra features such as the above varying paths through the adventure depending on your starting Ego. Another big point is that each PSN trophy earned allows for you to further customize your Legion fiends with more hair styles, voices, and colors. The reason for the re-mention is that PSN trophies are only earned once so a new file, while perhaps not re-unlocking the trophy itself, if you can hit the parameters in question, you’ll re-unlock the customizations.
Overall, Monark scores above average on its report card. Non-traditional JRPG elements combined with a fun tactical based combat system and plenty of different musical tracks to groove to, it was hard to put down even when I couldn’t figure out what I was actually supposed to be doing. Maybe this was just me and the types of puzzles, or maybe it was a bit too vague, but it was often almost enough to make me quit and have to retake my semester all over again.Score: 7 / 10