Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom Review

Wonder Boy VII: Monster World V – Monster Boy and the Wizard of Booze Cursed Kingdom

Over the past few years, I’ve been casually making my way through the Wonder Boy/Monster World series with my reviews of the 2017 remake of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, Wonder Boy in Monster World, and Monster World IV. A makeshift trilogy that itself is only half of a greater series, but those three are the only traditional exploration-driven platformers and serve as the primary inspiration for the latest game in this series, which is perplexingly entitled Monster Boy.

Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Developer: Game Atelier
Publisher: FDG Entertainment

Monster Boy follows a regular seaside living human boy by the name of Jin, who is called to adventure after he sees his magically adept uncle flying on a barrel, skunk-tier drunk, and transforming everybody and everything he sees because of that’s what wizards do when they get drunk. A tutorialized chase ensues before Jin is transformed into a pig-man and sees that the human citizens of the gentrified kingdom of Monster World have all been transformed. And because his uncle was responsible for this mess, it is up to Jin to travel the Monster World, find the magical orbs, and restore the humanity of its citizens.

So yes, it’s certainly nothing too outlandish for this narratively light series, and while there is most likely more dialogue and character in this game than any that preceded it, what’s there mostly serves as a framing device for Jin’s journey, doing its job, yet never striking me as particularly humorous or clever. Instead, the focus was put on taking the established base of the Wonder Boy series and refining it into something a bit more modern, while retaining the same spirit and essence of the original entries.

Which is to say the game is an action-driven platformer centered around accumulating new equipment, upgrades, and transformations that allow Jin to access new areas and accumulate myriad collectibles, or a Metroidvania if you prefer. Though the most notable part of that description is the whole transformation angle, changing around the skills, stats, and general movesets of Jin as he gains the ability to transform between a pig-man, snake-man, frog-man, lion-man, dragon-man, and eventually hu-man. All of which possess their own perks and limitations, allowing the game to regularly change things up every few hours by giving the player a new form to play around with, appreciate, and grow comfortable with while shifting between other forms at designated intervals.

It’s a gameplay system that I am quite fond of, allowing for more varied mechanics, challenges, and situations than those you would find within games with a single playable character. But it also comes with its own balance issues. Ideally, you want the player to be switching between forms with regularity, learning the ins and outs of their mechanics, and not switching to them out of a sense of necessity. There are very few games that managed to pull this off, with most treating transformations like this as a contextual skill and method of uncovering secrets, and Monster Boy, unfortunately, teeters towards the majority.

While lion-man is a genuine joy to play as due to the girthy range and appreciated speed of his dash attack and dragon-man can fly and shoot projectiles in a platforming action game, automatically making him an MVP, the rest fall into the more situational use. Pig-man has a terrible attack range, cannot use any equipment, and the only finer points about him are his plump ground-pounding rump and the fact that he can use magic, which is required for a lot of the game’s simple and unobtrusive environmental puzzles.

Snake-man is essentially the morph ball equivalent, having the ability to break certain blocks, crawl up designated walls, squeeze through tight crevices, and shoot arching venom that has some combat applications, but not many. While frog-man is the defacto character for underwater sections that, in traditional Wonder Boy fashion, are only common during the middle section of the game, and can use his tongue to slingshot himself throughout certain areas that are otherwise elusive, and are later easily accessible by switching to dragon-man. Thereby making him a character who feels outclassed by his peers once reaching the end-game.

Now, that’s not to say that these forms are bad, that they aren’t fun to use, or that there are not a number of inventive ways in which these forms are used. There are plenty of instances that exemplify all of these things, with my favorites being when the game necessitates that the player takes advantage of each form’s unique capabilities. Sections that task Jin to crawl through a gap, slingshot across a chasm, and dash through a series of walls before flying forward and shooting away at obstacles are marvelous highlights that represent the game at its mechanical and conceptual peak, and allow the player to feel like a master of the world around them. But not all of the game is quite like that, and while I do consider the bulk of the environments, challenges, and isolated little nuggets of gameplay to be genuinely good if not great, there are more than a morsel of questionable decisions strung sporadically throughout the adventure.

For example, the game can be fairly stingy when it comes to health refills, with only certain save points bringing Jin back to full health, health drops never filling more than 1 heart, and only allowing Jin to carry a single potion, as opposed to the generous three as seen in The Dragon’s Trap remake. This would not be a problem if the damage system was more comparable to your Metroids or Igarashi-produced Castelvania games, and if Jin’s defense could be increased to meaningful heights… again, like in The Dragon Trap. But instead, the game retains this low tolerance for player error, albeit with two caveats.

One, death simply sends Jin back to the prior save points, with all puzzles solved, gold acquired, and items found. And two, the player gains the Teleport Rod halfway through the game, which can be used to travel to a health-restoring savepoint at any time, without worrying about lost progress, as the rod creates a temporary warp point. The latter approach admittedly feels like an exploit, but it ultimately benefited my playthrough, so I’m not going to complain.

I will, however, voice criticism over the way secrets are presented. Secrets are only marked when they’re obtained, not when they are found or when the player enters a screen with a collectible, which makes the hidden items in Monster Boy especially vague and difficult to find. This is not helped by how many of the secrets are only obtained through obtuse methods, such as jumping across fully invisible platforms, wearing weighted boots at one conspicuous spot underwater in order to make a door appear, or the ordeal that is opening up the well in the main town area.

It’s a game where I considered a complete map a necessity for my enjoyment, as otherwise, I would have gone bonkers searching for everything, but there is an effort made to temper these frustrations in the form of Rainbow Drops. A special item that can be taken to an area discovered during the latter half of the game in order to learn the locations of unobtained items. I see what the developers were trying to do here, giving the game and its world an air of mystique in order to make the discovery and attainment of secrets feel more rewarding. But to me, they just took away a genre staple that has been widely accepted and appreciated for years upon years.

That being said, I do feel the need to praise Monster Boy on capturing the tone, vibe, and general iconography associated with Wonder Boy/Monster World, clearly coming from a place of reverence for the original hexology, with references scattered about, a small throwback section to an earlier game in the series, and a lot of returning superficial elements from enemies to designs to quirky mechanics. Such as the magic ammo system and short default melee attack that takes a bit to get used to, and somewhat clunky equipment system. It definitely gives this game a slightly older feel, but it also does a lot of little things to make the game feel more convenient than its predecessors between the common save points, instantaneous transformations, an overall expedient pace, and a great presentation.

The movements of Jin and his assorted monster forms are rendered in exceptional detail, with a lot of character being apparent in their run cycles, attack animations, and especially idle stances. The environments consist of these gorgeous painterly backdrops that unobtrusively blend with the platforms and enemies in the foreground, and while most environments are very basic conceptually, they all shimmer with a sense of charisma and character that becomes more obvious as the player progresses through them. Where they gradually grow accustomed to not only the sights but also the soundtrack that channels the underappreciated score of the series, while offering something a bit different, and rendered without relying on the Genesis sound chip.

It’s all high-quality stuff, and a clear indication that the game was a labor of unfettered love from the developers, but there are a few spots where the art does not look as spectacularly, mostly with regards to various NPCs, who have this gleam to them that makes them look like remnants of a massive visual overhaul from 2017, which was part of a series of prolonged visual upgrades that the project overwent during development. I mean, just compare the screenshots seen throughout this review to how the game looked in 2015.

Overall, I’d say that I enjoyed my time with Monster Boy, even though there were a number of things that did not necessarily gel with my sensibilities. The little things combined with a number of sections that simply were not enjoyable, such as the tilting pirate ship dungeon and the… majority of the final dungeon, make this a game that I do not plan on revisiting. However, I would still recommend the game because, in spite of sporadic shortcomings, it’s still a well-crafted and inventive action-platformer that’s nothing shy of excellent when it’s firing on all cylinders, and looks great to boot.

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