4.5 out of 5. A monster collecting turn-based battler wrapped up in a Metroidvania world. It accomplishes this rather eloquently in the ways that matter the most. even if there are a few small caveats
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How Metroidvania is it? Medium Fit. The game's world is most certainly ''Metroidvania'' but the part you will remember the most from this game is the turn-based combat.
Primary Challenge: RPG Style Battles
Time to beat: ~23 hours
Review Info: Monster Sanctuary was played on Windows PC using the Steam version

More Info

Developer: Moi Rai Games
Publisher: Team17
Sub-genre: JRPG Hybrid
Features: Map System, Skill Trees, Multiple Difficulty modes, 2D Platformer, Auto-Save, Fast Travel/Teleporters, Narrative/Cutscenes Story Telling, Cute, RPG Style Combat, Monster/Creature Training
Difficulty: Medium
Linearity/Openness: High Gating - Guided
Platforms: Windows, Linux, MacOS, Steam
Release Date: 2020/12/08
Available Languages: English, Japanese, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Russian, Simplified Chinese

Store Links
Note: A demo is available on itch.io

    Steam    Humble Bundle    Playstation    Xbox Store    Nintendo eShop    itch.io    

Buy Monster Sanctuary if you like…

  • Monster Collecting Games
  • Strategic Turn-Based combat
  • Player-versus-Player
  • Skill Trees and Party Management
  • Secret Finding

▼ Review continues below ▼

It would be really easy to spend this entire review making comparisons between Monster Sanctuary and a certain popular Nintendo franchise. However, I’ve learned over time that comparisons are only useful in casual conversation when you can easily confirm what the other person has experienced. I think it’s sufficient enough to say that if you have played and enjoyed Pokemon – specifically for the combat – then Monster Sanctuary is instantly worth checking out. It’s also worth mentioning that I have personally been a big fan of Pokemon metagaming, and that’s certainly going to trigger some biases in my own opinion. For everyone else, I’m going to try and describe this game as if it exists in a vacuum in hopes that I can be helpful regardless of your gaming background. One of the first questions I got asked by people that found out I was reviewing this game was whether the Metroidvania aspect was a draw and whether it actually improved things. The answer to both questions is “yes”, but with caveats. Monster Sanctuary is centered around its turn-based combat, and everything else is designed to support and elevate that experience. Even though Monster Sanctuary’s world design is very “metroidvania”, the 20+ hours it will take you to complete this game are going to be filled more with slow-paced strategic combat rather than exploration and secret hunting. While there is still room for improvement in some superficial aspects, I think Monster Sanctuary is a pretty incredible game for those that fall into its niche.

Monster Sanctuary uses menu-based combat; you select your actions from a list of choices – with plenty of time to make your decision – and take turns volleying attacks back and forth with your enemy. After the game’s initial tutorials, most combat is going to be 3v3, and each side commands all three of their monsters at once. This means you will give each of your three monsters a command and they’ll attack, then it will be the enemy’s turn to do the same to you – all three of their attacks will come at you at once. Needless to say there’s a huge advantage to going first, and outside of PvP you are the one who always gets to enjoy that advantage. With the right team you can cripple the other side right off the bat, but unless you actually out-level your opponent, you’re not likely going to remove the entire threat. Monster Sanctuary does a great job scaling up the difficulty as you progress, keeping it a challenging game from start to finish. Using just any group of monsters is going to get you killed pretty easily. The consequences for death are low, however. Every screen auto-saves, and in all cases you’re put just outside of the encounter you lost. Maybe you’ll lose a bit of gold, but ultimately it never sets you back very far. You are also healed completely after every battle, so the focus is squarely on you developing a strategy based on a controlled default circumstance. Most combat can be avoided with deft platforming, but there are bosses that will block your progress if you can’t defeat them. Keeping up with a winning strategy is still extremely important.

Monster Sanctuary is thus a game about building your party and taking those teammates into combat. You find monsters in the game world and every single one of them can be acquired in some way and added to your team. This is usually done by defeating the monster and hoping they drop an egg for you. The chances of acquiring an egg – or any other drop – is based on how well you performed in that combat. How quickly you defeat an enemy, how well your strategy is rated, and how healthy you keep your monsters, contributes to a score out of 5 that increases your rare drop chance. So, just by playing the game normally you’re going to collect quite a few eggs. This also makes every encounter a possible game changer, because not only do the monsters you catch have the potential of being your new favorite party member, they also provide important movement abilities that I’ll talk about later. Each monster comes with its own skill tree unique to its species, so even if you use multiples of the same monster you can build them up toward completely different roles in the party.

Monster roles are the core of Monster Sanctuary’s strategy. Having a monster that can take damage for teammates, one that can heal damage, and one that can dish out damage is the most basic strategy. By taking into account things like poison or other debuffs you can deviate from the norm a bit, but the point is that you want three monsters that complement each other. Every monster has a weakness to some element (or physical vs magic damage), but Monster Sanctuary isn’t a strict rock-paper-scissors game. It’s useful to target enemy weaknesses, but doing so won’t guarantee you’ll kill them in less than three shots. Other monsters in the enemy party may put up shields or use redirect abilities to prevent you from directly exploiting those weaknesses, and your strongest fighters might not even have the right element-aligned attacks anyway. Another fun factor to consider is every action you take in combat increases a combo percent in the top right of the screen. The higher the combo percent, the higher the damage multiplier is for any additional action your party takes. So, the order in which you command your monsters is also important. Generally you want your buff or debuff monsters to go first since those abilities aren’t affected by the damage multiplier, and then you end your turn with a big heavy attack from your strongest attacker. There are tons of subtle elements like that that give Monster Sanctuary an incredible amount of depth, and thus party composition is more important than anything else.

Besides picking the right monsters, you also have to build them right. I mentioned that each monster has a skill tree, but they also each have four equipment slots to manage as well. Most of the equipment gives straight stat advantages, but some gear might also include unique modifiers catering to specific situations. So, beyond getting your team to complement each other, you also have to find and equip gear that complements every individual build. This is a micromanagement dream or nightmare depending on whether you’re the type who likes planning things on spreadsheets, or if the idea of that makes you want to put a fork in your eye. I personally fall into the former category, and Monster Sanctuary gave me plenty to think about even when I wasn’t playing the game.

One of my favorite aspects about how Monster Sanctuary is set up is that it strips out almost all of the more grindy aspects that these RPG systems usually include. Nothing is random about your monster’s stats. Two monsters with the same attack rating at the same level will have the exact same base attack power – there are no “individual values” that adjust these stats up or down based solely on RNG. Staying on the subject of stats, most monster skill trees include the option to raise those stat ratings, and equipment will certainly make a difference there, but the point is that it’s all based on strategy rather than luck. Beyond that, a great feature of Monster Sanctuary’s egg system is that any hatched egg is level scaled based on your highest level monster. It’s never equal to that monster’s level, but it cuts out so much of the grind to add a specific monster to your team nevertheless. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help your already-hatched monsters, but you can always go catch a new egg unless you’re emotionally attached to the original you created. You do, however, get items that just add levels to your monsters when you use them, saving a bit of time if you want to start from the bottom. Even when your monsters hit max level they still gain experience – each level they gain beyond their max gives you one of these level-giving items. To build your ultimate party there’s still some grind involved, especially if you want to craft some specific rare equipment, but so much of the fat found in other games has been neatly trimmed. Many of the items you need to create that ultimate party aren’t found from “grinding” anyway, but rather from Monster Sanctuary’s exploration.

The areas in Monster Sanctuary have pretty traditional Metroidvania design. The progression is somewhat modular in the sense that each area can sort of be taken as its own thing, which I think is a result of this game having progressed through early access as it did. However, taking the game as a whole there are still a ton of choices on where you can go next. Getting lost is most certainly a feature, even if specific choke points will have players doing the same “dungeons” at roughly the same amount of play time. Adding to this choice autonomy are a host of really interesting side-paths that lead to important treasures. These treasures can give straight equipment upgrades, rare items (like the aforementioned level up items), or they can even lead to rare encounters you can catch monsters from. As a side distraction, the game’s exploration provides a more action-oriented change of pace over the constant turn-based battles you will be doing. Thanks to every monster including some kind of exploration ability, exploration is an aspect of Monster Sanctuary that complements the experience overall.

Immediately hatching every egg you come across might not actually be the best idea thanks to the aforementioned level scaling rule, but you do need to hatch eggs for reasons other than combat. Outside of battle there’s a button dedicated to using your currently displayed monster’s special ability. These abilities can range from doing a tackle slam to knock down fake walls, to changing you into a ball so you can roll through tight spaces. A lot of these abilities merely act as keys to get you into optional areas. The most common example of this are elemental orbs that require your monster to spit the corresponding element at them to unlock – and they usually just hide a treasure behind the door that they open. Being able to swim through water or fly just a little higher is completely necessary for progression. In some cases the game automatically gives you the monster you need, but in other cases you have to seek them out and catch them yourself. You have a monster encyclopedia that updates any time you encounter something new, and it shows you what their exploration abilities are. So, if you see an obstacle you can’t get past, you can flip through that database and figure out what you need to hatch or seek out and catch. These pervasive exploration abilities add an extra layer of depth to catching and building your team. You will have an army of other monsters on the sidelines waiting to be used for their specific purposes. For instance, even though I never used the spider monster in combat, I had a special affinity for his ability to let me swing around like Spider Man when the occasion arose. At worst Monster Sanctuary’s exploration aspects are just a fun novelty to spice up the game’s pacing, but for me it is very much a defining feature of the PvE experience.

Besides the exploration there are also a lot of puzzles to work through, and I think of all of Monster Sanctuary’s features, this will be the biggest sticking point for some players. Most of Monster Sanctuary’s puzzles are switch-based, usually involving some level of trial and error to figure out what order the switches need to be flipped. I generally don’t like purely trial and error challenges, but in my humble opinion Monster Sanctuary’s switches do a good job of following a logical pattern, and as someone who has played many similar games, they never became frustrating. On the contrary, some of them are actually quite good, but they are that game-within-a-game that not everyone is going to appreciate. Doing monster battles and exploring the game map are two complementary activities thanks to the over world exploration abilities the monsters provide. The puzzles are uniquely separated from everything else, very rarely affected by Monster Sanctuary’s other aspects. When you’re gated by a difficult puzzle, it might not be a bad game, but it might not be the game you want to play. I’m going to argue that the game variety of choices on where you can progress does let you take a break from a puzzle that’s stumping you to come back later, but there are a few that you will have to face eventually. I personally liked the puzzles overall, but I acknowledge that with this aspect especially I’m going to be on one side of a divided opinion.

The only disappointing thing for me about Monster Sanctuary’s single player content was its overall narrative. It just doesn’t go anywhere you wouldn’t expect, and any twists it does have weren’t developed enough to have any real impact. Every character falls into a tired cliche, with your “rival” character almost comically clinging to the edicts of that trope. There are four starting monsters you can choose from, and each of the other three you don’t choose has a character associated with it, but only one of them is given enough time to become really sympathetic. Considering you’ll be facing off with a character’s monsters more than the characters themselves, their personalities really needed to be a lot stronger to compensate. What results is a cast that is mostly forgettable, and a shallow plot that is quickly resolved just by you being awesome. Monster Sanctuary’s gameplay and exploration are of course good enough that none of the story truly matters, but the deficiency does mark that difference that would otherwise elevate this game to being a standard setter for what it represents.

One thing that adds a great amount of value to Monster Sanctuary beyond its core content is its Player-versus-Player potential. I mentioned that it’s easy to become obsessed with building that “perfect party”, but until Moi Rai Games releases its Hard Mode patch, the PvE content is going to be a little too easy to break to be truly satisfying. Enter PvP, where you can go online and discover just how insufficient your party actually is. I mentioned that there was a huge advantage to going first in combat earlier, but the trainer battle format mitigates that advantage slightly by letting you command only two of your monsters on that first turn. The person who goes second gets to use all three creatures as normal – which is still two less than what the starting player got to do, but it does prevent some of the more explosive strategies messing up the rest of the duel. Putting my team to the ultimate test was exhilarating. Every defeat poked major holes in my strategic approach, and I used the game’s friendly low-grind system to replace entire team members to go back and try again. A few victories later and one disconnect because I was winning at the time, and my appetite was whet for more. There is of course a current meta that divides the monsters into the most used and least used of the bunch, but there is also so much uncharted territory that I think there’s plenty of room for individual expression. I had to wait a bit to get into random fights online, but if you don’t like waiting you can schedule battles with other people using Monster Sanctuary’s official discord, or of course by just playing with your friends. For me this is the ultimate post-game challenge, and as someone who thrives on this kind of PvP content, I’m pretty satisfied with it stopping there. But for those who appreciate the PvE content more, the post game may become just as deep once the New Game Plus and Hard Mode patch arrives.

Strict Metroidvania fans are of course not going to find a pure Castlevania or Metroid experience with Monster Sanctuary, but that’s never what it was meant to be. For this game the Metroidvania aspects are a delicious icing on top of a deep turn-based combat cake. Monster Sanctuary’s most avid fans are going to be those who like rearranging pieces on a battlefield in search of that undefeatable strategy. Less bloodthirsty fans will still like the more relaxed pacing of collecting monsters and exploring the game’s deep over world. Strategic planning and execution is still going to be challenged more than some of Monster Sanctuary’s competitors, but in my humble opinion that’s part of what makes Monster Sanctuary great. It has a few flavors that not everyone is going to like with its approach to switch puzzles, and the story is somewhat bland, but otherwise it’s hard to imagine a better outcome for what Monster Sanctuary set out to accomplish.


Final Score

4.5/5

Scoring system overview


Metroidvania Breakdown

Combat
– 4.5

In the PvE content some endgame strategies start to become fairly dominant, but there's so much depth and opportunity to utilize all of it thanks to PvP being available

Platforming
– 3.5

The game tests your platforming skills occasionally but usually it's more to test if you have specific Monsters to help you accomplish them and less about actually being a challenge

Exploration
– 4.5

Monster Sanctuary's world is filled with secrets - mostly helpful items and equipment but occasionally hidden monsters for you to discover

Puzzle
– 4

The switch puzzles are likely going to be hit or miss depending on the player, but for the puzzle enthusiast there is some fun to be had in this category

Story
– 3

Nothing unexpected happens. The characters are slightly above the average their cliches would normally require, but ultimately it's just framework to let the player get in some monster battles

Graphics
– 4

The pixel art looks great, but maybe doesn't stand out as much as it possibly could against its competitors.

Music
– 4.5

The music is beautiful and relaxing, though the main combat theme may get stuck in your head out of pure repetition

Replayability
– 4.5

Post review of this game there will be a New Game plus mode and extra difficulty modes, but even without those there is more than one path by which you can progress through the game, four starting Monsters to choose from, and a host of different strategies to try. However the game also makes it really easy to experience all of those things on one playthrough.


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