An explosive foray through a steampunk Victorian era setting featuring werewolves, spider-thieves and laser-launching scorpions.
Monsters & Monocles first caught my attention when it hit Steam Greenlight just over two years ago. A brightly coloured, steampunk twist on the Victorian era. At times it appeared a twin-stick shooter in wide levels, and others a bullet hell of screaming plasma and multiplying minions, ultimately, after those long 24 months of twists and turns it’s become an interesting mix of both.
The Victorian era was one of great British ambition, reform, and is oft a point of cultural pride; for some it’s the peak of the Empire, the purchasing of the Suez Canal, and the vote given to the common man; for others it’s the forays into Egypt, Dickensien London, and the industrial revolution. Monsters & Monocles, from Retro Dreamer, definitely falls into the latter, although with a steampunk splash of robots, monocled dogs, and lasers – lots of lasers.
I’ve put a little under 4 hours into the current, pre-early access, build of the game. It’s given me ample time to bumble through the three worlds currently included in the game; Mansion, Tomb, and City. The planned full version will include a further three settings including sewers, forest and… one I couldn’t find out what it was, maybe caverns. Each of the current settings feel completely unique, using completely different tiles for the maps (from dusty dunes to symmetrical slate-tiles) and featuring fodder baddies who only appear on their set levels.
Much like select older, classic games (looking at you Ducktales & Megaman) you can take the levels in whichever order you wish with your character’s upgrades and weapons persisting as you clear the levels until (once all clear) you can loop them for a harder challenge.
In a further similarity to those aforementioned titles, the enemies are appropriately tongue in cheek; a giant chimney sweeper serves as the boss for the city levels, and a militarised crab for the tomb levels. This carries down to the bog-standard enemies as well, and while there’s certainly moves shared across the stages -exploding into miniature versions of themselves, vomiting out versions of themselves, disappearing to reform behind a player- the design and animation of the characters ensure it’s hard to confuse them, and easy to learn their weaknesses.
The game was built from the ground up to support online four-play co-operative, with that functionality laid at the very foundations. This is something that truly deserves to be praised, as often internet connections, or simply geographic locations, have hindered or restricted remaining in -or entering- the same lobby as friends with smaller games. Retro Dreamer have managed this with minimal impact on the core experience by removing difficulty settings and *not* altering the enemy quantities or challenge as the player count fluctuates. Indeed, it seems weird to be listing that like a feature, when a few years back Gearbox’s Borderlands was praised for their fluctuating difficulty based on players present, but the only real boost a single player will see vs playing in a team is that player combo bars are unique to them, meaning that the more of you there are the lower your damage multiplier.
Monsters & Monocles, as an result of this, is geared to play easier for a team but for longer sessions, until you have looped the worlds a few times. The lives stored are pooled however, and new ones are ridiculously hard to come-by, so it doesn’t take much for a session to pull a quick 180 in an unfortunate tussle with a boss.
Level generation is extremely well programmed, with a mission generated during level creation, and the code clearly geared to not leave pockets of unreachable level. The missions range from simply exiting the level through finding a keygun to unlock a door, to killing X of a certain mid-boss type or enemies. It’s enough to mix up the levels and keep them fresh before you reach the boss battle; and distribution of enemies and keys often see you exploring the vast extent of each of those floors which gives you ample chance to happen upon the cash (for shops between floors), weapons, and pick-ups.
The pick-ups come in several forms: certain items will up your damage overall, others will improve your currently equipped weapons, while finally come relics, upgradable items that persist through your plays. You can have up to three relics equipped at once, and they vary from boosting -or adding elemental qualities- to specific weapons through to altering knock-back or increasing speed.
Increasing speed is indeed one worth mentioning, my time was mostly spent playing through in single-player. Rather than the trailer’s a manic, rushed, four-player laser and crumpet-fest, I instead found myself carefully kiting enemies, circling, and dipping into room to spy enemies first. It felt… well, it felt slow. If the game had an option to run at an accelerated speed (as in, everything amped up X1.5) then I would have jumped on that in a snap. It also doesn’t help that several of the weapons -Grenade Launcher, Crumpet Cannon- are both slow to fire due to their high damage potential, and also come with a hefty ‘cool-down’ time if you get a bit overenthusiastic with them (ammo is limitless in the game, which keeps the game well paced).
The weapons and various enemies are really the stars of the game; the previously mentioned Crumpet Cannon is a wonderful idea, and the Tea Gun is excellent as well, they are accompanied by machineguns and blunderbusses for a total of 10 (currently, more due) weapons. They’ve each got their own fire rate, and damage, each very much having a certain style to them that would probably add to an interesting mix in multiplayer, with some favouring flamethrowers while others hurl grenades from the back. It would be nice to see a few melee weapons (cane sword, etc) and a bigger variety of weapons, which is handy because the developer’s entire plan for Early Access is on massively improving the selection of content in all areas of the game – great news.
Monsters & Monocles is already a fantastic four player twin-stick shooter, I’m looking forward to watching it develop in the coming months building up to full launch. For those interested, you can find the game in Steam Early Access as on the 16th of August – link below.