Friday, October 25, 2013

Genkai Totsuki Monster Monpiece - Review (Vita)

There's only a slim assortment of import-genres that I'd say are typically impossible for those without knowing Japanese, which are RPG's, Visual Novels, and Card games. Each of these genres tend to focus on script-based interaction, and when you don't know the language that it is written in you're typically left scrambling around in the dark.
Fortunately, Monster Monpiece (Monmon), a Vita-exclusive card game from Compile Heart, comes through with a decisively simple gameplay structure that not only welcomes those who haven't any knowledge of Japanese, but also offers a highly streamlined menu and evolution system that allows import-gamers full capability of experiencing everything the game has to offer. While I'll reference more on this in the "Language Barrier" segment at the bottom of this review, I still want to point this out; Monmon is one of the most basic card games I have ever played, but it is in no way or shape "lesser" because of it. Rather, what Monmon lacks in complexity of rules and card-types it makes up for with it's aggression-focused gameplay. No matter that the board itself is without variable, Monmon is strictly a Heads-On battle that consistently envelops the player match after match, and delivers one of the most satisfying Vita titles to date, budget-title though it may be.
Most important to any card-game is the type of cards available. For Monmon this boils down to a simple three; Offensive, Buffers, and Healers. Buffers and healers are active only by being positioned directly behind another card (they will either boost the attack power, or heal the forward card every turn so long as they've MP), while offensive cards are mostly static beyond their individual stats of HP and Attack power (ATK). Several cards have various additional abilities also, such as Haste (allows them to move the turn they are played), Counter-Attack, and Drain (allows card to absorb partial HP/MP from card being attacked). Some cards are also endowed with one-time skills that are activated when the card is placed on the 7x3 playing-field. Usually, skills will bestow additional HP, MP, or Attack bonuses on cards in the same row (horizontally and/or vertically) as the card being placed. Both skills and abilities can be easily checked in-match, before playing any cards.
As for how the game plays out, it's quite simple. Every turn, either your's or your opponents, you cards will move forward one spot. If an enemy is in the way then the card will attack, removing from the opponents HP equivalent to your card's ATK (note: once played, your card cannot move into a grid above or below; they can only move straight). Navigate one of your card's all the way to the opponents end and you'll attack their fortress, knocking away 1 of their player HP. Knock out all of their HP and the battle is yours.
As for ways to boost cards beyond healers/buffers is to absorb the same card-breed into another (Dragon, Beast, Nature, Undead, etc), which then additions the HP, MP and ATK of the absorbed card into the other. There aren't many breeds though amongst the three card-types, and so ideally one will build their deck with as few breeds as possible, allowing for maximum potential of absorption when in those tricky spots.
Mana is a large portion of what creates strategy in Monmon. Each turn grants 3 mana points, which are then used to play cards. Each card has its own mana cost, and while the more basic cards sit between 2 and 3 mana, the more powerful cards can cost much more to play. Ways to build up mana are few: there is the option to simply "pass" a turn without playing anything, but there is also the possibility that, by playing a card, you may play it on one of the grid-tiles that randomly bestows additional mana benefits. These random tile-benefits will affect most matches in significant ways, as after the early stages of Monmon mana will become the defining feature of whether a match is won or lost. Unfortunately though, the random tile-benefits rarely grant more than a single additional mana: to heavily boosts one's mana stock-pile, and to be able to play more powerful cards, the player will need an assortment of cards that have skills that instantly addition 3 mana when the card is played and/or defeated, and it is here that Monmon reveals a downright bad design-structure.
Right in the beginning of the game you'll receive much stronger cards that have a 5 and 6 mana cost. You'll be tempted to use them, but truly there is no way you can justify doing so. As Monmon is a strictly offensive card-game, choosing to pass anymore than 3 turns in a match to build up mana is essentially signing your own death-warrant. You need to keep playing cards and butting heads with your opponent, as otherwise you will quickly be over-run. As mentioned above, random tile-benefits are, outside of being totally random, also not much of a benefit to your stockpile. Rather, the cards with mana-boosting abilities once played/lost are genuinely the only way to build up a more significant pool of mana, and it's here that the game utterly fails. While the computer will have cards with these abilities early in the game, you won't have access to them until the very end of the lengthy single-player campaign. Furthermore, you can't purchase these cards from the in-game shop, as they are only available in random winnings from matches against the computer. You are wholly restricted to playing with the utmost lowest of mana-cost cards until after you have beaten the single-player game as it is borderline impossible to play with higher-cost cards without having an assortment of mana-boost ability cards in your deck, and it's a total shame. While the game is still fun in its aggressive style of gameplay, this is also a cardgame, one that boasts highly unique cards and breeds and consistently tempts you with them--- but you cannot play them until the several hour campaign is at its conclusion.

I wouldn't say that this error ruins Monmon though. Again, this game is a ton of fun, and while the single-player unfortunately limits itself with this absurd design-structure, afterwards, when playing online and battling players for their cards and Evolution Keys (more on this below), you'll quickly forget that dull hump in the single-player. Not to mention that Monmon as a whole is thoughtfully put together. While all of the cards are extremely well-drawn and inspiring to gaze over, the game-world itself is equally exciting. The characters are all fully-voiced and thoughtfully animated, the overworld you travel on is streamlined and charming, and the shop, gallery, and card-building tools are accessible and swift to use. Everything inside of Monmon is built with the intention not to be spectacular or glamorous, but functional. Monmon wants you to keep playing, and doesn't attempt to rope you in with unnecessary or excessive designs and tools. It's as videogame as it gets, and because of so is highly refreshing.
Specifically though, I still need to mention the evolution system in Monmon, which is much more famous than the card game itself. In Monmon, your cards can be evolved twice into a higher form (although it isn't always reasonable to do this, as higher-forms usually install a higher mana-cost as well), and the way you evolve your cards is by--- well, masturbating your Vita and then "evolving" your cards into lesser-clothed forms.

It's a rather ridiculous set-up, but quite a lot of fun if your into ecchi content. No less, what concerned me most with this is whether or not my wrist was going to end up hurting as there are dozens of independent cards in Monmon, each with their own two-tiers of evolution. Fortunately though, I can say this isn't the case. While in the beginning of the game you may be giving your Vita a rather bountiful assortment of tug-jobs, once your deck is established you really needn't go playing handyman until you come across an assortment of new cards you want to evolve and check out. Furthermore, evolving cards has a cost-system independent of the game's monetary system (used exclusively for buying card packs and items), and while it is lenient with how much you receive after each battle it is not enough for someone to go evolving every card they own right away (not that you'd want to do that: again, evolutions aren't always for the best).
Mentioned above were "Evolution Keys." These are rather self-explanatory; some of the more rare and powerful cards cannot be evolved unless you own the necessary colored-keys to unlock the evolution. These keys are randomly earned throughout the single-player, but primarily they are earned by battling other players online. By playing certain matches you can choose to gamble your keys: win the match and you'll earn the key your opponent gambled. Lose though, and your key is lost. While losing all your keys would forbid you from gambling for them online, you can earn more by playing random-matches against the computer in single-player. But exactly how long it will be until you earn another key varies.
It's unfortunate that Monmon cripples it's self in the one-player, and while this currently does not matter so much as there is still a rather active online-community, once that ends it's going to be challenging to recommend Monmon to those without a local player to battle with. The one-player is still satisfying on it's own though, becoming a chore only in its last quarter, and even though Monmon is a card-game it is still enjoyable even if you are only playing against the computer. Because the gameplay is action-focused it feels almost like you're playing an action-rpg rather than a card-game, creating a new dimension where card-games genuinely can be exciting even when played on your own. Tie that in with an enthralling art-direction, ease of operation, and plethora of unlockable cards, Monmon stands tall as one of the Vita's most unique and engaging titles, offering players plenty of content to keep both themselves, and the community, active for a long time.

Because Monmon is a card-game it would be reasonable to assume this is impossible to play, but this isn't the case. As the review goes over, Monmon is an extremely simple card-game, and getting into the flow of building decks and playing matches requires only the smallest bit of patience. When first played the single-player menus will look extensive, but give them each a minute of exploration and you'll see that they are streamlined and very simple to remember.
Where the LB might be aggressive is in the abilities and skills of cards, the in-game items, and navigating the online menus. Card abilities/skills can be overcome with just paying attention to what the card does when it is played, though, and should only be a transitory uncertainty for those unfamiliar with any Japanese. Items, on the other hand, are a bit more complex; while some of them will have obvious effects like restoring the player's health or boosting a character's attack, others not so much. Items definitely can be overcome with trial-and-error, but I wouldn't even worry about them as items aren't allowed online, and aren't necessary for the single-player either. Online menus also follow the trial-and-error route, although the range of matches, between player, ranked, gambling and tournaments can be rather intimidating. Still, sticking with it should allow most players to overcome it.
I would 100% recommend this game to someone who doesn't know Japanese, so long as they've some patience for figuring out menus.

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