All breed, no fight.
In every alternate reality and hidden world filled with impossible creatures, there’s always a single, universal rule: Catch ’em and make ’em fight each other. Monster Quest‘s fantastical setting is no different. Okay, that’s not entirely true. There’s less of an emphasis on fighting and combat strategies and more of a focus on rounding out the beastiary. The fun here is in the fusion…but there might not be enough of it to go around.
Monster Quest doesn’t have much in the way of a story, save the initial tutorial that consists entirely of instructions from the “Do this! Now do this!” school of design. No explanation is given for my avatar’s Ottershark (yes, “Ottershark”), and no explanation offered for the monster battling. And then, I’m off! Instead of worrying about the why and how, players are soon thrust into a world focused on the haves and have-nots. Namely, concerning cash, cribs and creatures.
As players work their way through the constantly refreshing quest log, they’ll become intimately familiar with those constants. Cash, represented as catch-all coins or rare (read: in-app purchasable) crystals, is primarily earned through battles, though it can be produced by structures. Of course, all the really swanky items and power-ups require crystals that are much more difficult to come by, trip to the wallet notwithstanding. Cribs, or rather buildings (who still says buildings?), help give access to stronger monster types, or provide bonuses to existing monsters when in combat with other players. Creatures are naturally the largest focus, and most important part of the trifecta; they can be acquired one of three ways: via direct purchase from a store, capture on the field, or fusion! The latter smashes two existing beasts together to (hopefully) create a new and more powerful entity.
As I’ve mentioned, the main focus in Monster Quest is on those monsters, fused or otherwise. Each abomination of nature is rendered with a surprising amount of detail, even on my ancient iPhone 3GS, and each one seems to be the result of some downright amazing conceptual work. The Armahillo is probably my current favorite…until I make something even more absurd, that is. Which brings everything back to the crux of this experience: mad science. More than the gathering of monsters, bolstering my forces, or building a miniature city, I’m compulsively drawn to combining creatures. Never quite knowing what I’ll get, even with the enticing previews, is a constant draw; my mind is constantly racing around lost in thought over everything I’ve seen, everything it could be. Schrödinger’s breeding experiment.
Yet, as habit-forming as playing God with a bunch of fictitious animals can be, it definitely won’t entice every player – even the potential monster lovers. This is owed largely to the lack of a compelling (or at least marginally interesting) combat system. Unfortunately for the action-focused crowd, what Monster Quest has can barely even be described as “combat” at all, really. Tapping on a wild critter triggers a brief fight animation, but if it doesn’t get knocked out immediately, it will continue to wander around. This forces players to constantly double-tap their intended target with very little payoff. The game even pre-selects the best monster for the job each time, totally removing any form of challeng or nuance. Pokemon this is most definitely not.
Things are even more disappointing when fighting other players, as the opposing forces square off in what can best be described as an absolute chaotic mess of a fight for all of three or four seconds, before a results screen pops up. No explanation as to why a player won or lost is given. The result is the slow sucking of wind out of the game’s sails; a crawling realization of inevitable sameness.
Ultimately, having my hand held through the only portion of Monster Quest that even had a chance to have been a challenge was both frustrating and a little insulting. Why can’t I configure my own dream team? Why can’t I decide who goes where and in what order? Sure, everything looks hand-curated; sure, I’m eager to see what just happened as a result of my concoction formed of Rustilla and Cindergruff. But that only goes so far, and what holds the promise of trading cards soon emerges as a surrogate for collecting stamps…all about taking stock, about having as its own goal. And for many, that won’t be enough.