Metroidvania is a special genre of gaming. It’s both linear and not, it’s devoted to progression and secrets, and it’s been around since the venerable NES days. I mean, it’s very namesake comes from two of its most obvious influences: Metroid and Castlevania. Over the years, Metroidvania has seen some peaks and valleys and straight-up dry spells, never finding a wide audience, but there’s been a rebirth of sorts on handheld consoles like the Nintendo DS. Mostly more Castlevania titles, but there’s also been the occasional surprise debut, and that’s where we find Monster Tale from DreamRift, the makers of Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure.
In Monster Tale, you play as Ellie, a young girl who stumbles upon a magical armband, unhatched egg, and hidden world inhabited by monsters. She quickly discovers that she’s not the only human to venture into this world as it is ruled by snotty, personality-heavy kids, the worst being Priscilla. They have enslaved many of the monsters and turned them into their evil pets. The egg Ellie found earlier hatches, and the monster quickly bonds with our blue-haired protagonist, fighting off enemies, eating snacks, and evolving into more powerful forms. She names it Chomp, and he/she/it will be vital to her survival as she searches for a way back home.
Monster Tale is a mix of platforming, combat, and pet raising. You’ll travel through five themed worlds—a wicked treehouse and demon express train, for example—until you can’t travel forward any more; most likely, Ellie will need to learn a new ability like charge shot or obtain a key to open a locked gate. Unfortunately though, DreamRift is a wee bit masochistic and decided to make back-tracking a high priority here. Very high priority. Now, with Metroidvania games, back-tracking is the point; you get a new ability, and now you can get past X from that earlier level. However, the back-tracking in Monster Tale feels unnecessary, and often the item/power needed is on the far opposite side of the map. There’s no fast-travel system so Ellie and Chomp have to trudge all the way back; I was constantly checking the map so as to not get lost. It feels like something implemented to transform a four-hour game into an eight-hour game.
Good thing the combat is fun, especially thanks to Chomp. He/she/it is an adorable monster that helps attack enemies on both screens of the Nintendo DS. Chomp can’t spend too much time up top as it drains its health, but the bottom screen acts as a sanctuary, healing it and housing many special items for it to interact with. There’s some great animation work when it comes to Chomp chompin’ down on some cold pizza. As Chomp defeats enemies and eats entire bowls of rice, it gains XP and levels up, opening up new forms. I had him evolve into the Juggernaut by the end of the game and kept him there, but there’s plenty of other forms for people to tinker with if they’re curious. I only wish that Chomp was a little more proactive when on the top screen; it seemed like it wouldn’t attack an enemy unless Ellie personally chauffeured it over.
Story-wise, Monster Tale doesn’t ask too much of your attention. There’s small bits of dialogue between Ellie and another kid before a boss fight, but other than that—it’s purely background fluff. I likened it previously to a Saturday morning cartoon plotline, and I’ll still stand by that. I do think that DreamRift missed out on a great opportunity though; all along, Ellie is trying to get Chomp back to its mother, but this plot point fizzles out. It’s safe to assume the two are reunited, but it would’ve been nice to see some monsterly reunion on-screen.
The production values in Monster Tale can’t be ignored. The 2D sprites are colorfully crisp, and the animation work is top-notch. The quality kicks it into even higher gear during the boss fights, my favorite being against the deranged bunny rabbit. Background details such as monsters hiding behind paintings really help with the immersion. To be honest, I did not notice much of the music; I eventually turned all sound off as I got tired of hearing Ellie make a noise every time I hit the jump button. Every. Single. Time. Thank goodness the game’s gorgeous to look at for extended periods of time.
Monster Tale came out shortly before the Nintendo 3DS launched, a period being labeled as “the end of the Nintendo DS era,” but not by me. It might be late to the party, but it’s a pristine example of why gamers should stick around a little longer. Sure, the back-tracking gets tiresome, but the combat and pet raising is irrefutably addicting. It’s definitely one of the more unique Metroidvania titles in some time, and if you’re a fan at all of fun, friendly platformers, this is one helluva tale.
A copy of Monster Tale was provided to me by Majesco Entertainment for review. My completion total was 78.6% after just under eight hours. I’m pretty sure I found every room, but did not spend a ton of time evolving Chomp into different forms. I basically stuck with the Juggernaut form and grinded him to level 30 before the final boss fight. The hardest part of the game involved a moving platform and floor lined with deadly spikes.