Gamers from the PlayStation era may recall Tecmo's answer to Pokémon, Monster Rancher. Creating a monster to send into gladiatorial combat and doing jobs with the chance of getting special items to use was good fun, so seeing a similar game which takes the same concept but provides a better combat experience and more control over the questing aspect is very welcome; especially when it's as well-executed as Monster Lab is.
The premise is that you are an apprentice to a member of the Mad Science Alliance in Uncanny Valley named Professor Fuseless (rhymes with "useless"): an affable fellow with a Borris Badinoff accent and mechanical arm attached to his back. Your goal initially appears to be to prove your mettle and become a fully-fledged Mad Scientist with the professor showing you the ropes. The main pastime of Mad Scientists seems to be creating monsters from different bits, bringing them to life and sending them out into the world to do various things such as battle lots of other monsters!
Your primary interface is the Great Hall of the Professor's castle (located on an isolated mountain removed from the Valley, naturally enough). From here you can save your progress, build parts for your monsters, assemble and animate your creations, send your monster off on missions and do battle with other Mad Scientists via Wi-Fi connection.
Visually the game has a nice level of detail and a varied, if dark, colour palette in a style reminiscent of Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas. The characters have an appealing cartoony look in 3D with a good polygon count and nice textures. Characters are shown very large on screen when engaged in conversation and are animated with a small library of unique movements. Before sending your monster into the valley, you're presented with a view of the terrain, which is gradually revealed from under a fog. Selecting a revealed area triggers a camera zoom effect so you can see that area in miniature. It's a nice touch and shows good attention to detail on the part of the developer. Cut scenes are few and are used to forward an overarching plot which is gradually revealed: it appears that a rogue former member of the Mad Science Alliance, Baron Mharti, is up to mischief and must be stopped! The cut scene visuals appear the same as the regular game graphics, so there is no jarring discontinuity.
The quality of the audio is good, though the default sound levels are low, so going into the Options menu to turn up the volume should be your first order of business. These are the only options to hand outside of screen brightness. You can control the level of sound in cut scenes (though cut scene volume is always lower than the rest of the game), sound effects and music independently. Voice acting is excellent: the actors are quite enthusiastic and the dialogue is well-written helping to immerse yourself in the game world. The voice actors should be recognisable to any fan of Futurama as Dave Herman and other established voice actors from US animated shows are on the job. The Remote speaker gets used in combat for battle sounds and other atmospheric effects, which is always nice touch when done well. The music is pleasant and Elfman-esque, which complements the look of the game.
The game wastes no time with build up; you're dropped straight into the thick of it: right after clicking "Start New Game" you're confronted with Professor Fuseless filling the screen asking if you've come to be his new apprentice and then the Mayor calls complaining of monsters running amok in the charmingly named village of Cobbleshire. Professor Fuseless gives you control over one of his prize monsters and away you go!
When your monster is in town you're presented with a zoomed-out view of various paths broken up with spots like a game board. Timing the movement of the control stick in different directions as you hit stopping points results in a smooth continuous progression from point to point weaving around various buildings and up and down hills. In addition to your starting point there is another terminus; either one will allow you to return to the castle at any time. Various devices are present which will eventually reveal their purpose as being key to finding parts needed to build your creations.
The introduction of the basic mechanics is gradual -- though not to the point of frustration -- with the Professor giving you an audio overview in steps with text boxes repeating same. Your first lesson is in combat, which is what your monster will do a lot of. Combat is turn-based which may turn some people off, but is nicely implemented using a combination of control stick and pointer as interface. Your monster is composed of five main parts: head, torso, right arm, left arm and legs. Head and arms have two attacks, the legs can attack or flee the combat and the torso is used to recharge your batteries or dodge (this action also recharges a percentage of your battery).
Each part is highlighted by moving the control stick, at which point a box in the lower right corner appears showing the hit points remaining, attacks available, attack strength and energy used per attack. Moving the pointer over each attack option causes the parts of your opponent that will be hit by that attack to be highlighted and pressing A at this point executes the attack. Each part can take a certain amount of damage indicated by a small schematic at the top of the screen for each combatant with colours changing through a spectrum of white, yellow, orange, red and black to indicate degrees of damage from none to destruction. You can view the hit points remaining on parts when initially highlighting them with the control stick before performing further actions.
Destroying the torso destroys the monster; alternatively you can take out all the extremities. Destroying head or arms causes the visual elimination of the offending extremity; destroyed legs are still visible, though they can neither attack nor flee. Even if suffering "only a flesh wound" it is possible to achieve victory over your opponent. After defeating your opponent and striking a victory pose you're shown the ingredients gained from the battle and then given the option to continue or conduct a field repair. The latter involves using the control stick to highlight the part needing repair and moving the Remote in a circular motion to carry out the repair. You have only 15 seconds to conduct repairs, so if you've taken a real beating you'd best get on with it!
Building monsters is the name of the game and building monsters in Monster Lab, as in life, requires components. Your monster is made of the parts mentioned above and each of those parts is made of two components: a "main ingredient" and a "secondary ingredient." The ingredients appear to have a hierarchy with more and less common primary and secondary ingredients producing more or less powerful parts. The main ingredient is the primary determiner of what kind of part you end up with; the secondary ingredient will influence how powerful the part is, e.g., a Mark I Arm Cannon versus Mark II, III or IV; and may introduce an Enhancement or Defect. You won't know the results until you combine them in an experiment.
Experiments are conducted in the lab using a minigame mechanic to complete. There's a different minigame for building each component of each type. There are three types of ingredients: mechanical, biological and alchemical. Initially you only have access to the workshop for building mechanical monster parts, but two other lab areas get unlocked later to allow you to build biological and alchemical parts with additional members of the Mad Science Alliance joining Dr. Fuseless in his battle with Baron Mharti and adding to your tutelage. The minigames roughly fit the theme of what you're trying to make: the Weld-a-Tron builds mechanical arms, the Robo-Evolver builds mechanical heads and so on. The games use a variety of motions, from pointer and B button for welding, to control stick and Wii Remote jerking to smash robots or Remote tilting to navigate a sawblade in the game used to build robo-legs. How well you do in these minigames influences the quality of the part, meaning the amount of damage it can take and dish out and how much energy it uses.
Once you've completed a part the recipe is stored should you wish to build it again; you also pick up recipes in the course of battling other monsters, so it's good to have a look at what you've learned before experimenting. You can load up a recipe and change one of the ingredients to try something different. It's a good feature which saves you repeating combinations over time if you forget what they create. After you get a good collection of parts you can then assemble them, assign your monster a name and apply a jolt of electricity to bring your creation to life in the best man-playing-god literary tradition. You can have a stable of several monsters and freely swap out parts throughout the course of the game as you gain more powerful ingredients for building ever more powerful parts.
You accumulate ingredients in various ways: via defeating other monsters, completing missions or after earning badges for achieving various milestones. Another method is using the devices seen in the village to play minigames which will win you parts for success. These run the gamut of tracing on-screen patterns with pointer and A button, putting together puzzle pieces or digging for treasure with a wave of the Remote and jerking the Nunchuk to smash skulls impeding your progress. There are around a dozen of these minigames which are dotted throughout the various areas in the Uncanny Valley.
Whilst there are missions to undertake, you are never forced to do anything. You can take the time to experiment and upgrade your monster before a mission; during your mission you can wander about to dispatch random wandering monsters and attempt to avoid the odd angry mob or search for parts.
The addition of the ability to put your monsters into battle against opponents online is a great bonus given the Wii's traditionally weak online offering. Like many Wii games friend codes are used and there is no other means of arranging an online match. You get to choose a screen name that will be viewed by others, so the name you choose at the start isn't necessarily your online handle. Your friend code is displayed at the top of the screen above a list of friends indicating their name and online status and it can be sorted by clicking on either column.
There are none of the usual shortcuts for on-screen menus. This isn't a big problem, but ordinarily it's nice to use the stick or D-pad to flip through screens of instructions or use B and A to back up and progress rather than using the pointer and clicking on-screen buttons. It would also be nice to be able to turn off the text of the characters' speech or turn off instructions before various minigames, though they can be bypassed with an on-screen button click. The biggest weakness is the lack of any local multi-player option, however this feature -- like the absence of random online bouts, appears to have been the victim of budgetary constraints according to staffers close to the project.
Despite a few minor shortcomings Monster Lab is a great 3rd party effort for the Wii which has solid controls that make great use of the Remote and will appeal to a broad age range. Kudos to Eidos and Backbone Entertainment for this excellent offering on the Wii, which will hopefully inspire other developers to turn out quality titles.