We defend the graveyard gates with a full arsenal in our Monster Mayhem review

The thing about castle defense games is that they are frantic by necessity. There is zero depth to tossing enemies into the sky with your finger so that they splat on the ground. Most developers up the intensity by piling on more and more invaders so that the game becomes a test of your dexterity. Monster Mayhem piles on mechanics instead—giving you a full arsenal of weapons, giving you a full bestiary of creatures to take on, and giving your finger a much-needed rest. The shocking thing is that it totally works. Why can’t all castle defense games be this diverse?

Monsters are coming out in the graveyard, and they are knocking on your gate. That’s all you need to know about the plot. The rest of the Monster Mayhem story is filled in by the luscious art. In stills, the cartoony creatures look a bit overdone and silly. In motion, they burst with personality—like when a zombie’s head bursts into raw brain matter, or a Chinese ghost bursts into flames. As usual for games about the undead, there’s a clear Plants vs. Zombies touch here. Monsters tiptoe from right to left, to the tune of a graveyard jingle. They drop gold coins that you tap for income. But the influence is just that: a starting point. Monster Mayhem feels secure in its identity.

Monster Mayhem

You interact with its creatures by using weapons like a knife, shotgun, and grenade. The knife is the obligatory nod to barebones castle defense. You swipe the screen with you finger to deal damage. But it’s the guns that you want. Firing a pistol or machine gun, tossing a grenade, and discharging a burst of electricity are a matter of tapping or holding your finger on an enemy. A ghostly image of a gun floats where your finger meets the screen, making reference perhaps to first-person shooters.

Yes, Monster Mayhem is really a shooting gallery dressed up as a game about defense. But because you’re still touching the monsters, the game feels as hands-on as predecessors like Knights Onrush and ZombieSmash. It’s really satisfying to tap a team of goblin sappers to make them go boom, or see a giant cyclops jiggle in place as your finger pumps him full of bullets.

Each monster comes with a list of stats (speed, power, strength, etc.) and weapon vulnerabilities. Progressing through the five stages and unlocking new monsters feels like collecting baseball cards. Each one has a distinct way of moving, attacking, and dying. For instance, Rabid Ron rushes across the screen while Kappa Boy hangs back and tosses explosives. Saucerrr-er? teleports all over the screen with a poof of smoke. Dan Goldquiff is an obvious tribute to the little halflings from Golden Axe that would scurry around the screen, begging to be punched for gold. He does the same thing here, ending many of the levels with a friendly touch.

Different monsters also require different approaches, and this is the meat of gameplay. You can’t shoot evil sunflowers, or you’ll end up doing damage to your own base. These spring up in dense patterns that make it hard for you to hit the other monsters creeping around them. Venomous spiders will drop from the sky and start stealing your gold, and you’ll only be able to kill them with the knife. Do you focus on finishing off the mummies limping toward your gate, or switch gears to save your hard-earned money?

Monster Mayhem

While the game’s five stages don’t exactly differ in their sights—they range from a dark blue-green graveyard to an orange graveyard at dusk to a dark purple graveyard—they provide ample variety by mixing and matching creature types to create different, and naturally frantic, finger puzzles. Monsters come in enumerated waves, and it’s nice to see exactly how much progress you’re making in a given level. Finally, the five bosses in the game have their own environments, and are a treat to see in action. You’ll need to learn their patterns or take them down in stages.

Some of the game’s variety falls flat. Weapons like the flamethrower and electric charge aren’t differentiated enough to justify taking over the faithful pistol and machine gun. And on normal difficulty the game hardly presents a challenge, assuming you’re good with your index fingers. An Endless mode and “Madness” difficulty extend the lifespan, but I wish the creators had put more of a challenging arc on the main game.

That’s the paradox here. Monster Mayhem has all the tools to make a deep, almost hardcore game—varied and interesting mechanics, diverse bosses, a sense of progression—but its roots are in casual ground. And if you care about defending that ground, this is about as involving a diversion as you can find.