STAFF REVIEW of Monochroma (Xbox One)

Saturday, July 9, 2016.
by Allya Venema

Monochroma Box art Let me preface this review by saying that I’m not a big fan of side-scrolling platformers. My generation grew up on them, but when the advent of games that allowed traveling in three dimensions came about I latched on to that concept and never looked back. Now that my own prejudices are out of the way, I will say this: Monochroma is a game with heart. It acknowledges what it is at its roots and remains engaging in spite of this.

There is very little preamble; no backstory, no introduction to your protagonist...but even so, once I began it in earnest I was hooked. It could have been the monochromatic color palette, the carefully crafted world laid before me, the strangely fitting soundtrack, or all three, but the point being is that this game works. You don’t need to know your protagonist’s name or his character’s history. He’s just there being a big brother and doing what big brothers do, or rather ought to do, taking care of his younger sibling.

What’s starts off as a jaunt through the countryside with a red kite in tow turns into horror as seen from a child’s eyes. Your brother becomes injured and you must find a way to get him through the rest of the game's levels by solving a myriad of puzzles, all the while being pursued by an ominous and ever-present man. When you successfully evade this stranger you’re never quite sure where or when he’ll re-emerge to begin his relentless pursuit anew. This sense of paranoia and urgency is successful in propelling you through the later stages of the game. You never pause to think why he’s chasing you at all. He just is...and that’s enough to make you want to run. No further explanation necessary. Your have to protect your brother your brother.

At no point in the game did I ever look at 'my brother' as my 'companion cube' a la Portal; even though at firs, it may seem like an easy comparison to make. If you don’t progress with him you don’t progress at all. Carrying him on your back limits your mobility and the ability to jump as high as can when you are unencumbered, but even in a game with a limited amount of expression as this, its makers were still able to imbue some sense of character and life into this silent little creature. When you attempt to put baby brother down in a dark area he will fervently shake his head and cling to your back for dear life. Small touches like this ring true and I was able to feel something for this NPC beyond just looking at him as the proverbial weight around my neck.

As you and your brother progress through the stages, things get weirder. At some point on your initial play-through you will think to yourself, “is this the same game?” It starts off in the countryside, you are chased through a lumberyard, you traipse through a closed mall, traverse across an industrial factory...and then stumble upon your pursuer’s lair, which to say the least, is not the home of your run-of-the-mill kidnapper. It begs the question, how much of this game is ‘real’ and how much of it is the world as seen through a traumatized child’s limited ability to process external stimuli? It has officially gotten weird in a “this is not happening” sort of way. The stakes feel suitably raised and your mission to escort your brother becomes that much more paramount.

One thing I found most distracting from my experience were the load times in between stages. The game is very linear; the following stages begin almost exactly where the previous stages end, but I assume one of the limitations of this game was that it had to be created as individual levels. It would’ve been wonderful to be able to play through this experience uninterrupted as it really would play as one cohesive story of descent from reality to what a child’s mind might perceive as horror or madness.

My second problem with the game is in regards to the jumping and platforming mechanics. I lost track of the number of times I miscalculated a jump, or somehow missed what should have been a simple ledge grab. I found myself thinking back to the original Assassins Creed, when the game mechanics hadn’t quite gotten to the level they needed to be to avoid a lot of hair-pulling and yelling at one’s console. For Monochroma this became very frustrating in later stages where the puzzle difficulty ramps up a few degrees and a mistake equals death and the inevitable checkpoint restart. That being said, I will say that the checkpoint system is very forgiving, in that they come often so there is little need to repeat platforming or evade hazards you’ve already successfully circumnavigated.

Now a bit of a spoiler here. My final gripe with the game is that during the last 30 minutes of playing a bait-and-switch occurs. The antagonist you have been evading through the whole game is replaced by another foe. This story choice didn’t feel earned. After living in ‘fear’ of the man following you all game, your desire to defeat him and no one else is strong, so to have another character pop up seemingly out of nowhere in the last act of the game feels a bit odd. The ending is also somewhat abrupt and your brother sort of disappears from the narrative, so the conclusion feels a bit underwhelming. There’s never any satisfying reunification between you and the NPC you’ve worked so hard to get from start to finish. In short, a ‘boss’ is defeated and the credits roll.

Aside from the few stumbles however, Monochroma has a solid narrative and is engaging. This is despite its simplicity and lack of any true characterization outside of how the characters are animated or the mood provided by the game’s excellent soundtrack, a collection of jazz-inspired tracks and ambient electronica imbued with stabs of metal guitars when the action or pursuit ramps up. It’s also the perfect length. A seasoned gamer can get through it in two hours, making it a nice break from more serious gaming fare.

Would I play Monochroma again? Most likely, but not right away. Am I happy I played it? Most definitely yes. Monochroma successfully does what few two-dimensional platformers can do in today’s marketplace, it tells an interesting and moody story that sucks you in. In short, it’s a beautifully rendered, wonderful bit of escapism.

1. Tighter controls and a more forgiving ledge grab system would be beneficial.

2. Secrets that actually add something to the game when you find them.

3. Perhaps a hint system for difficult puzzles to flash an indicator over which button one should press next. That last puzzle with the soul-sucking eye at the end was a nuisance as was the final octopus-man fight.

Overall: 8.0 / 10
Gameplay: 6.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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