Most RPG titles fall easily into a Fantasy or Science Fiction setting. One of the many things that makes Monster Mountain special is that it presents a post-modern twist on the fantasy-dystopia that presents a rich and vibrant world that could take place tomorrow . . .
The first game released from up-and-coming UK studio ‘Funky Panda’, Monster Mountain is probably the best first impression that a newcomer to the social-driven RPG market could imagine. It looks and sounds great, is free to download and plays extremely well (almost to the detriment of its freemium aspects). In short, this is a game everybody should download and try out. For the long version of this review however, read on.
Graphically, Monster Mountain is a masterpiece. Hand drawn and animated 2D characters contain many more frames than most titles would use for any single action a character on-screen might do. These characters are also designed to be both modern in sensibilities (the leading male character wears a colourful coat and scarf, brandishing a sword and deck of Tarot cards whilst the leading lady is vampiric but with a sunny disposition, carrying a parasol and followed by her bet cat). Characters visually change when evolved between 1 and 5 stars as well, with new artwork rather than marginally changed images. The world map is a broody, dark environment that makes good use of silhouettes and an opening cinematic uses pencil sketches and text integrated into the scenes themselves to tell the story. Buttons are well positioned for fingers to tap and finger-based input of patterns is easy to recognise and replicate without being an automated process. Every inch of this title’s visual presentation oozes charm and character to an extend that it’s worth downloading just to see the game in motion.
Sound effects are pitched at a middle-level that don’t under-cut the music but aren’t lost in the shuffle. These are original recordings made for this game specifically from what we can tell, and aren’t recognisable from other games in the iStore at this time. They possess weight when attacks are made and menus click and change accordingly, feeling like you’ve pressed a switch rather than tapped a plastic screen. Music falls into two categories, moody and atmospheric or pacy and driven. Moody atmosphere is employed primarily in story sequences or on the games map, whilst stronger synth is used in stages and through battles. The stage tracks sound similar to ‘Golden Axe’ in style if not execution (the iPhone being more capable than the Mega Drive ever was) and though enjoyable, most will probably mute them to avoid drawing too much attention. These are not subtle pieces.
Aside from the graphical style, the games setting and narrative are both fresh and interesting. A world similar to modern day London sees a great mountain grow that casts a shadow over everything, bathing the land in perpetual night and changing its inhabitants. In the role of a young boy who has started to learn the power of magic drawn from tarot cards in order to defend himself, you embark on an adventure to find your mentor, accompanied by a sentient wooden golem and a vampire girl. Additional characters are generated through both the story and the games card system, and whilst these optional collectable characters don’t have a role in the story, each of them has a lengthy description of their past and motivations. Story sequences are regular occurrences and dialogue is well written, adding to the depth of the setting as well as forwarding the games narrative. Small details in stages, such as a VW camper van rotting in the background of a swamp, or a villainous circus master lend a distinct personality to every scenario.
Gameplay could be considered a weakness for this title at first but holds up remarkably well over time. The reason for this being that locations on the expanding world map are essentially represented by a series of plot points and battles, and whilst the game can be easily played in real-time an automated battle function is available from the get-go that can reduce player interaction with the game to practically zero in the early stages. Ignore this (perhaps leave it to grinding later on a Sunday afternoon) and the game shines brighter. Combat sees a party of four characters enter any of the games locations and engage in a turn-based battle which has your party attack the monster you’ve targeted automatically when they reach the end of a shared timeline. It’s a little like ‘Grandia’ in this regard, with attacks slightly slowing enemies on the same timeline, but not cancelling them entirely. To target a monster, draw a line from the desired character to your target of choice. It’s extremely simple and easy to remember. While this is going on a special action for some higher-level characters will be charging in a circle at the bottom of the screen, ready to be triggered by a swift tap and tracing an on-screen shape in a tight time allocation. These range from powerful single or group attacks to healing. Items are collected in battle but not usable in the traditional sense, instead being collected as resources with which to level characters outside of a battle. At certain points characters evolve into better versions of themselves, gaining additional abilities or faster attack rates. Occasionally cards for new heroes or tarot cards are dropped in battle as well, though a player can always spend currency or rarer crystals to draw additional characters from a random pool and coins can be used to purchase any missing levelling items in a pinch as well. Daily rewards are given for logging into the game and can be gambled for larger rewards, whilst temporary or limited daily access locations are present to mix things up off of the main quest line. Battles can be skipped entirely if you’re willing to pay (jumping to rewards immediately) but really, what is the point in playing a game just to skip it? A cash store exists from which crystals can be purchased, with more items on the way but not yet implemented in the current build. The game starts off quite easy and ramps up difficulty in a steady curve but doesn’t require paid content to wall of gameplay, simply grinding will suffice for the items you need to evolve characters. The main trouble is that in perhaps two hours of playing you’ll have seen everything the game has to offer from a gameplay standpoint, with only an energy meter attached to a timer slowing you down. Hopefully this will be remedied when the next patch drops to add new paths and extra content as the framework is already in place for both. PVP also makes an appearance but requires higher level characters as those playing at this time appear to have sunken money into the early game to pull as many characters as possible from the pool.
Overall, Monster Mountain is a great looking game with a brilliant story and setting that justify a look from any self-respecting gamer. With continued support and consideration from the developers to not bolt on too many additional systems (swamping other freemium titles of this kind) this game could easily be a 5-star title. As it stands it’s a hair’s width from perfection.