The latest high-profile attempt at capturing the spirit of Pokémon on the mobile market arrived to quite a lot of fanfare and was heavily advertised through social media, boosting it into the top charts on iOS. Does that qualify the title as a contender to the throne however?
The third attempt at cornering the market on monster-catching, Neo Monsters from NTT Resonant and ZigZaGame may have dropped the ‘island’ from its title, but follows directly in the footsteps of ‘Dragon Island Blue’ and ‘Hunter Island’, its older siblings and may as well be considered a sequel to these stalwarts of the mobile stores. There are some definite improvements over those games, but also a lot of content that hit the cutting room floor that leaves this title feeling less like a full JRPG and more of a Social RPG in its execution.
Graphically this title uses 2D illustrated artwork in a light Manga style similar to that of Shōjo in its design. Though much of the game is static imagery, in particular the characters and monsters you can catch, small animated details do appear. Figures are manipulated to give the idea that they are breathing as they bob up and down, gates open and ships pan off-screen, it all adds a series of small touches that aid the visual presentation of the game which maintains a high quality throughout. Chipset locations are still present in a nod to the Gameboy style of Pokémon, however these have been clearly hand-drawn and rendered for use in this manner, bringing a great deal of detail and charm. Character models for the player animate smoothly when exploring and whilst environments repeat regularly they are pleasant to look at. The overall monster and world designs are somewhat dull on the whole, sticking to a low-grade fantasy environment that gives the game a ‘Dragon Quest: Joker’ feel at times but lacking the imaginative creature designs that title can boast. Layout of menus and buttons is well thought out however and the game plays very well using one finger without obstructing your view.
Musically the game is channelling a quality of music that’s comparable to 90s PC Midi-files, showing a fair amount of variation and energy in the composition of its tracks but running on the short side and looping frequently. Sound effects fair a little better, with a likable ‘ching’ when confirming a choice or pressing a button on-screen and sensible sounds for events as they occur in cutscenes. Some of these can feel a little SNES-era and lack in imagination, which coupled with an uninspired soundtrack make for forgettable sound design overall.
The title does manage to produce a fair amount of narrative, focusing on the start of your career as a monster tamer and following your through the early days of your trials before charting your progress into becoming a powerful character on the world stage. A direct relation to a famous (sometimes infamous) trainer who is equally respected and reviled, you inherit his monster ranch and struggle to get out from under his shadow to build a name for yourself. The campaign racks up an easy 48 hours and even details backstory through time-travel inspired sequences, but never generates much momentum, leading to some areas of the game feeling like a slog. The writing is solid for the most part however, and dialogue appears natural when read aloud.
Gameplay is a mixture of traditional JRPG exploration elements and visual-novel style conversations with a heavy dose of Social RPG thrown in for good measure. This makes the experience something of a surreal one at times as exploring towns and dwellings is done through a menu system that feels a little dry (why have houses on the map if the people in them have nothing to say?) and exploring the islands that the game presents to you is done via a touch-scheme where you guide your avatar through a series of taps on-screen. Movement range is limited for reasons not made entirely clear, and displayed in a manner similar to that of a Tactical RPG, with selecting a destination and running to it immediately generating a new sphere of movement to select from. Combat pulls a random selection of monsters from the location you’re exploring and drops them into a turn-based battle that runs in a very straight forward manner. Speed of monsters decides turn order and each monster can learn a series of moves, of which you choose one a turn to activate and hope that it pays off in the long run. It’s quite uninspired in this style and the parties can be huge, ranging up to 16 members in the later game, making for long battles. All of the usual social features are in place, random pulls using premium currency to get rare monsters, friend codes and online-only content. Training monsters is an interesting system, but given to random results that doesn’t always build your force in ways you’d have chosen. Combat earns training points, with each point representing one turn on a board game-like mini-game that resembles a journey from left to right made up of circular squares. You draw a random hand of cards to play, of which you can choose one per point and move along the dots, drawing new cards as you go. Each card represents a different stat boost and experience gain toward levelling (which only happens here, not in the field) and cards are ranked in rarity with gold being the colour you want to get/use the most frequently. It’s fiddly and not as involving as it should be, with that and other small design decisions (such as only being able to edit your party from the hub) leading to a lack-lustre experience. The game can be played both on and offline, with the main campaign and most of the game’s systems being available at any time, however bonus dungeons, daily bonuses and social features (kept separately) will be turned to off.
It should be stated outright that you’re not going to be able to beat this game without dropping some premium currency on high-level rare monsters. Those you find in the wild are not going to make it through the games difficulty spikes no matter how hard you’ve been training them and that projects a pay wall that many won’t bother to climb over. The side effect of this is that collecting monsters feels useless as a result and that damages the game in the long run. That the game is pay to play and then asks this of you is somewhat unforgivable given that a freemium title does the same thing and didn’t demand the price of entry. Server issues also render elements of the game unplayable, though this has largely been remedied at the time of writing, and across long stretches the game simply doesn’t hold up very well. Purchase ‘Micromon’ or ‘Zenforms’ for the same price and enjoy yourself more.