Updated: Mar 30, 2021
*I recently did an interview with the composers of the Monster Sanctuary Soundtrack, Steven Melin and Peter Jones. You can watch the YouTube video on Steven's page right here: https://youtu.be/eiQ8xzBxzyo
The way I have been discovering new games for the past several months has simply been to check what has been recently added to Xbox Gamepass. If it looks interesting, I give it a download. That's how I started playing Monster Sanctuary. The description read "Monster taming meets Metroidvania," and I became instantly intrigued. It ended up surpassing all of my expectations. I haven't played a game I enjoyed this much in a long time. I was completely encapsulated, pouring tens of hours into it. Longer games are not usually for me. I get bored, they get tedious. The longer I play, the more the veil pulls back and I see the inner workings of the game mechanics instead of getting to enjoy it. I adore this game.
There are a ton of little elements that, together, make Monster Sanctuary a very fun, genre-combining journey. The combat score meter, the combat itself, the buffs, debuffs, strengths and weaknesses of battles, monster farming and team building, champion monster fighting, trainer dueling, exploration, monster abilities, and more. There is so much to this game, and every piece is enjoyable. I have not seen a game so expertly balanced maybe ever before.
The game starts with you naming your character, a very simple customization option, and then you pick your starting monster. This monster ties into the story, which is the weakest part of the game. You get one of four Spectral Familiars that are tied to your family's bloodline. Once you choose, you go out and start fighting more monsters. You get a team of 3 monsters, and you go up against other teams of 3 monsters in battles. You will see the monsters on the map, and if you touch them, it begins a battle. From there you do a 3v3 your-team-then-their-team back and forth menu battling. Each monster has a random chance to drop an egg, and that egg can instantly hatch that monster. There is no catching or taming mechanic, so you get to go full throttle into combat and just wreck the enemy and then sometimes get a monster as a reward. This is an awesome system because you always get to fully use your monster's abilites, and the drop rate of eggs is high enough that you won't have to needlessly grind for a monster you want. Later on, you will get items that respawn monsters, so you won't have to travel all over the place looking for the one monster you want. This concept of adding things to the game to facilitate players' enjoyment is, thankfully, all over Monster Sanctuary.
You have your main team of 3 monsters that do the heavy lifting, but you have a secondary team of 3 that gain experience from every fight. You need this secondary team of 3 because sometimes you will have to duel other monster trainers. Throughout the story, you will encounter these 6v6 trainer battles either from friendly duels among your friends or against enemy teams. The battles are the same, except when a monster is defeated, you add a new one to the lineup. The added diversity of these battles, as well as the difficulty and longevity of the battles, really makes you explore many different monster lineups. Being a fan of Pokemon, I usually bull rush my opponents with one or two of my strongest monsters, but I was simply unable to do that for this game. If I didn't exploit the enemies' weaknesses with a diverse team, they would exploit mine.
Monsters can level up to level 40, and each one has a diverse and abundant skill tree. There are 4 to 5 skill trees per monster, with each tree gaining access to a new tier of skills every 10 levels up to 40. At 40 you can pick an ultimate ability out of 3 skills. The ultimate ability can be changed at any time when not in battle and doesn't take up a skill point. It is quite complicated, but allows for an insane amount of customization and synergy between monsters.
Beyond the mainline damage skills, like a lightning strike or a tackle, they have diverse and interesting passives, as well as a bevy of buffs, debuffs, and stacks to understand and utilize. The status effects number 18 in total across all of those categories. It is an extremely in-depth and fun skill tree. Every ability feels useful, every tactic feels viable. Finding monsters with abilities that work across all three (or six) of your team member's skills is fun and engaging. I would find myself poring over the skill trees, trying to find an interesting team to build. In the beginning I would simply use the most powerful abilities. Then I found a monster, the Catzerker (which is a Cat with boots and a sword) with critical hit chance and damage upgrades, as well as skills that had increased critical hit chance, and applied bleed stacks to the enemy when I hit a critical. I then built my team around maxing out those critical chances and supporting that monster. It worked for a long time, until I fought a team that had high physical defense and a shielding skill. After that, I had to edit my team to attack in a more diverse way. The way the game introduces new monsters with new abilities, but then immediately lets you use those monsters, is wonderful.
You have your party of 6, but there is no limit to the amount of monsters you can carry. I have had 30 monsters on me at a time, and when I faced a tough battle or an enemy with a specific weakness, I would quickly build out the skill tree of a monster I had outside that group of 6 monsters. Every new egg you hatch gives you a monster only a few levels under your own, so you can either use the egg you hatched earlier, or you can simply travel back to that monster and fight it again, and get a higher level one. This is one of the best ideas in the game. The tedious measure of leveling up my unused monsters is pointless and boring. Being able to pick any monster that I've caught at-will, allows me to have loads more fun, and also allows the developers to balance the game according to having a huge array of monsters in your arsenal.
In addition to the skill trees and monster combinations, there is an equipment system and a light and dark monster shift. The equipment allows you to put a weapon and 3 accessories on each monster. Again, the weapons and accessories are diverse and incredible, allowing you to increase all of your monster's stats, or to add special traits, such as increased healing, increased buffs, increased critical hit chance and damage, and much more. As for the shifting, around halfway through the game, a story element makes all new encountered monsters have a chance to be dark or light shifted. Each one adds to the monster's base stats, as well as adding a different passive depending on if they are light or dark switched.
The beauty of the battle system lies in the fact that the monsters are identical to your own. Enemy teams will use buffs, debuffs, and stacks on you, just as you do on them. They don't take it easy. They heal, they shield, and you're going to have to have a good team if you want to win. The battles aren't excessively hard, but if you encounter a team that can poison and burn your team, and you have no healing abilities, they will smoke you out. The level of challenge feels appropriate and fun, while respecting the players enough to use the game's systems well. I have never seen this in a game before and it is an incredible addition. It didn't feel dumbed-down or softened. We were on an even playing field, and sometimes a hard battle would have me winning by the skin of my teeth and reassessing the build of my team. Not only does the monster diversity allow for an incredible selection of party members, the same monster team could be different from someone else's due to the combination of the skill distribution, skill synergies, consumables, and equipment. It feels more real than any RPG I've ever played because the enemy characters buff themselves, put a ton of debuffs on your party, and they heal frequently. Their passives are working as well, and can turn the tide unless you are keeping track.
There are a plethora of buffs and debuffs that either counter each other directly or simply balance out with other movesets. There is a buff that makes you dodge attacks more frequently, and if the enemy uses it, you can find a monster that has a weaker attack that never misses. There are debuffs that stack on themselves to compound damage, but there are monster abilities that allow you to remove debuffs. There are passives that allow you to increase stacks of buffs or debuffs. It is a truly comprehensive work and it is a miracle that is balanced so well considering the magnitude of the options.
You have streamlined metroidvania style exploration. You really only get one personal exploration ability in double jump, which you get fairly early into the game. From there you use the different monster abilities to access hidden treasures and reach new areas. Since you can hold any number of monsters, you can keep the plethora of abilities on hand at all times. There are elemental totems that need activation, fake walls that can be broken, vines that can be burned or cut, blocks and buttons that need to be depressed with monster abilities, levitation on winged monsters, swimming, night vision, and some more on top of that. Being able to instantly switch between all these monsters with a button press makes exploration quick, fun, and easily accessible. I was constantly discovering new areas because I kept monsters on me that could unlock a secret chest, or a few new sections of map.
There are a million ways this game streamlines the main concepts. There are level badges you obtain to instantly level up a monster to within 2 levels of your highest monster. At the ends of battles, all status effects and damage is healed. In that way, each battle is a self-contained fight and you can immediately move on the next one without the jading process of between-battle healing and status cleansing. There are the crystals on the actual map which act as teleporters between locations, and there are crystals as items that teleport you back to the trainer stronghold. There are items that shift your monster to dark or light, and different ones to reverse the switch entirely or change to the opposite shift. If you lose a random encounter, you simply appear back on the map and you can run away, or you can try again instantly. If you lose a trainer duel, it sends you back to the nearest crystal after a loss, which is usually only a few rooms away. There is a forfeit option in some trainer duels and special fights, which again, puts you right back outside the fight. It removes the unnecessary travel between locations. There is a menu option to speed up battle animations. You can purchase upgrade materials right outside the smith. This refinement of the game was tantamount to my enjoyment, and something that every single other game I have ever played could learn from. There is no point to excessive penalties to games. Needless travel and delays between the actual fun parts only serve to add time to the overall investment. They put fun elements there, and they let you access them often and with great haste.
The music is amazing. I enjoyed a specific areas music so much I was running around platforming for no reason just to hear it. The soundtrack is on Spotify, and I had it on the day after I beat the game, reliving some of the great moments and areas. It is seemingly simple, with the essence of the pixel era of games, but had some really moving parts, but even better, was not so dull and droning that I got sick of it. You will hear some of this music a lot as you go through certain areas, and the songs were all so divergent from one another that I never tired of them. I routinely found myself humming along as I played. I am a huge fan of music in games and this was one more area that Monster Sanctuary balanced extremely well.
Even at the end, as some of the luster of collecting and battling monsters began to fade, I was craving more. It got tiring, eventually, to have to slog through tough battles for entire sections, but then I'd find a new secret area or unlock another new exploration ability and suddenly the music grips me once more and I'm scouring every corner of the new section of map. I'd find a monster ability that let me skip random encounters, or I found a new monster combination that made me want to fight again, and refreshed my endurance.
As an aside: this is literally the only game I've been able to play on the Xbox cloud gaming service. The cloud gaming is virtually pointless, but I spent a few nights at a hotel last week, and this game was able to run. It had tons of screen tearing, weird slow down, and fading images, but it is a graphically simple and turn based game, so I was able to make a lot of progress.
It was the first game in a long time that had that "one more level" feeling. I'd often check the time and realize it was 2 or 3 in the morning. The waterfall of "one mores" sent me forward in time at super speed, yet back to my teenage years when I would endlessly grind games. One more monster to catch, one more secret, one more room to explore on the map, one more boss to beat. It all felt so good to accomplish, thanks to the streamlined gaming and modern design choices. I was having so much fun with the game, I did everything there is to do. I beat every boss, I captured every monster, I found every room on the map. I still wanted to play after this, but I also had a really wonderful feeling of complete accomplishment. There was no grind. It was fun to play from start to finish, and when I did finish, I felt whole and happy with the game.
There is more I didn't touch on here. The art, the scenery, standard monster weaknesses and strengths. There are consumables that add to your stats, and you can use materials you find throughout the game to level up your gear. The combat scores that reward you with better items the quicker and more efficiently you complete a fight. The online PvP. The story is passable, and while not overwhelming in its concepts or themes, was not intruding in its execution. Go experience them for yourself, it is a truly wondrous experience. There are systems and ideas in place all over this game that make it fun, make you want to try out different techniques, and provide reinforcement for the core game ideas themselves. If you like metroidvanias, monster collectors, RPGs, or generally just like video games, you will like Monster Sanctuary. I found it nearly flawless, and I have nothing but good things to say about the game. It's on Gamepass right now so check it out.