Monark Review - Screenshot 1 of 7
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Not even a year ago, FuRyu revealed a curious new game called Monark that was heavily marketed as being the lovechild of several ex-Atlus staff who were instrumental in the early days of the Shin Megami Tensei and Persona series. Monark has certainly managed to deliver on that promise, as this is a title that retains the dark vibe and somewhat philosophical focus of those older titles, while bringing in some interesting new ideas that help it to stand on its own. It's definitely rough around the edges, but we think this is still worth giving a fair look.

Monark cuts right to the chase in getting its story going, skipping any semblance of exposition or setup in favor of just tossing you in and letting you figure things out as you go. You’re placed in the role of an amnesiac high school student who wakes up in Shin Mikado Academy, an institution that seems to be struggling with a paranormal problem. Nobody can leave and most parts of the school have been overrun by a mysterious mist, which slowly causes madness if anyone spends too long breathing it in. The few survivors have barricaded themselves into the few remaining safe places, while the ever-encroaching mist threatens to waft in from all sides.

Monark Review - Screenshot 2 of 7
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

It doesn’t take too long for you to learn about the mist’s sinister origins, which stems from a metaphysical plane of reality called the Otherworld, where daemons roam free. The highest ranking of these daemons are the seven Monarks, each of which corresponds to one of the seven deadly sins, and the Monarks are what have caused the whole incident to take place. Each of them has created a pact with a human who aligns with their values, granting their hosts all kinds of spooky powers, and it’s up to you to travel to the Otherworld to destroy the source of these Pactbearers’ powers and send those Monarks packing. You’re empowered to do this by a mysterious eighth Monark called Vanitas, a creepy stuffed rabbit who claims to represent Vanity and evidently has an agenda that aligns with human interests.

It's a rather interesting setup to begin with, and it’s helped greatly by the expansive cast of characters you meet as you go on your ghostbusting adventure through the school. Each building of the school has been taken over by a different Pactbearer and you usually are assisted in taking them down by meeting another student ally somewhere along the way. Having just one ally with you for these portions helps give each character plenty of time to develop, and there are shades here of the SMT style of characterization where everyone has a given philosophy they tightly cling to. The conversations can sometimes get a little stilted and preachy as someone lays out how they think life should be lived, but the storytelling generally remains interesting and varied enough to keep you hooked as the hours roll by.

Monark Review - Screenshot 3 of 7
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

When you’re in a building that hasn’t been cleared out yet, you’ll be forced to trawl through the dark mists in a gameplay style that feels one-part survival horror and one-part puzzle game. The students who couldn’t make it out in time are now “Unsettled”, and you often have to find ways to navigate around them or somehow communicate with them to get through a door or up some stairs. Perhaps you need to say the right thing to get them to move, or you need to piece together a series of notes scattered around to learn a locker combination. All along, your Madness gauge is continuously creeping up one percent at a time, and it’s game over if it maxes out.

These exploration portions of Monark can be thrilling to experience, especially given that you never know what may be waiting around the corner for you, though it feels like these sections get a little repetitive with time. There’s not much variety to be found in exploring yet another collection of hallways and classrooms that are nigh indistinguishable from those that you just cleared on the last floor. Plus, you can only navigate around a pile of desks and chairs blocking the hall so many times until you start to wish for a little more variety. Things are made a little better by the presence of new collectables and lore entries in each new area giving you reason to scour every corner, but we would’ve liked to see more daring level design on display here.

Monark Review - Screenshot 4 of 7
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

When you’re ready to go to the Otherworld, you use your phone to make or answer a call that whisks you and your party away, and it’s here that you do battle. You usually have your main character, a buddy, and a growing collection of robot-like assistants to round out your fighting force. Battles take the shape of a turn-based strategy game, but with an interesting free movement system that lets you move and attack wherever you’d like within a limited circle around the character. Actions are divided into Arts and Authorities, with both classes having important drawbacks to their usage. Casting an Art will almost always cost you a certain amount of health, while casting an Authority will usually cause a double-digit addition to your Madness gauge. Resource management is thus extremely important, as there are precious few actions you can take that won’t have some kind of blowback.

This negative result of your actions might sound discouraging, but it leads to a very interesting risk/reward system that keeps battles spicy. See, having a high Madness gauge isn’t as bad as you might think; many of your Authorities grow more powerful the higher it goes, which incentivizes you to keep it as high as you can without pushing it over. And even if a character goes Mad—buffing their stats while sending them on a rampage through friend and foe—there’s a way to leverage this Mad state by linking with a powered up ally to send the Mad unit into an ‘Enlightened’ state where their stats get a huge bonus and they can cast all Arts and Authorities at no cost. There’s a lot of room for building strategies around risky gameplay, then, and you’re often encouraged to see how close you can get your team to the edge without losing complete control.

Monark Review - Screenshot 5 of 7
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

At the end of every combat encounter, you’re then given a grade based on your performance, taking into account things like how many turns it took to rout the enemy and how much damage your party took. On your first pass at a battle, it’s unlikely you’ll get the coveted S tier, but you can always come back later once you’ve powered up more to give it another shot. In this way, Monark proves to have a nice amount of replayability, as the high requirements for the top ranks incentivize you to think through your strategy and test out different team builds until you find the one that works for you.

After you receive your rank for a fight, you’ll be given a set amount of spirit points to then spend on your team’s skill trees as you see fit. Each unit has a unique tree and each node on the tree represents a new passive or active skill to add to their repertoire. Whenever you buy one, the unit will level up once and gain some stat boosts, while there’s a semi-linear way in which you’re supposed to go through each tree. Some skills will require you to buy a few prerequisite skills before you can unlock them, while others will have a prohibitively expensive cost that forces you to come back to it later. If you ever second guess yourself or want to build a character differently, you’re always free to do so, but you’ll only be refunded 80% of the spirit points you invested in that tree.

Monark Review - Screenshot 6 of 7
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

We rather liked this system for progressing our units, as it gives you a little bit of control over how your units grow without necessarily restricting their stats. If you’d rather double down on pouring all your points into a few skills that you frequently use, you’re free to do so and your character will still level up every time. If you’d rather spread them thin and give that unit a ton of options in combat, that’s fine, too. It’s not a very complex system to get to grips with and the option of always being able to start over with minimal losses means that you can’t necessarily make any ‘wrong’ choices.

One thing that we feel does bear mentioning about the combat, however, is that there’s a disappointing lack of enemy variety on display. Though your foes will result to increasingly dirty and effective tactics as the battles roll by, it can be a little disappointing when you’re fighting yet another palette-swapped skeleton for the thousandth time. Especially given the rich potential established with the whole seven deadly sins theme, it feels like this is a notable area where the developers dropped the ball.

Really, this is an argument that could more broadly be raised against the non-combat portions of the game, too. Monark does a great job of making the most of what it has, but this is a title that very consistently feels quite limited in scope, mostly due to things like the samey enemies, endless classrooms, and simplistic graphics. We enjoyed our time with Monark, and would still suggest you pick it up, but just be aware that this is a game that perpetually feels like it’s stuck in first gear. You keep waiting for it to open up or reveal some grander designs, only for it to just kind of end feeling like it didn’t fully develop all its ideas.

Monark Review - Screenshot 7 of 7
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Some of those ideas are pretty cool, too, like the focus on player personality throughout the narrative. At the very start, you take a brief psych eval that determines your starting ‘sin stats’ and these are then expanded as you continue through the chapters. Sometimes you’ll talk to a character and they’ll ask you a series of questions or present you with a bunch of pictures to choose from, and your results will influence which stats get boosted up. This then has the gameplay benefit of allowing you to unlock various crystals scattered around the school once you get your sins to certain thresholds, boosting your combat stats even further. This focus on player personality doesn’t massively effect the general flow of the gameplay, but it does at least guarantee that every playthrough will be distinct in some key ways.

As mentioned, from a graphical perspective, Monark isn’t exactly anything to write home about. The repetitious environments and basic character models don’t exactly wow, though we did like many of the character and Monark designs, especially the painterly character portraits drawn by So-bin. The problem here seems to be that there’s just not enough style on display; the visual style seems to be more defined by its limitations than the creative means it gets around them.

Luckily, the sound design fares much better. The voice cast all around delivers a strong and slightly hammy performance that proves to be quite endearing, especially in the little touches like how Vanitas speaks only in alliteration and rhyme. Meanwhile, the soundtrack contains an eclectic mixture of smooth jazz and rock to make for a surprisingly low-key and relaxing collection of music. Of course, when you’re in the more horror-focused portions of the game, things shift into a creepier mix of high strings and ambient noise, but we rather enjoyed most of the tracks on offer here.

Conclusion

Monark proves itself to be an interesting, low-budget take on an SRPG, combining its Persona influences with original ideas to make for a compelling experience. Risky, rewarding combat, a creepy atmosphere, and an interesting story make this one easy to recommend, but things like the low-quality graphics, repetitive environments, and nonexistent enemy variety keep it from ever approaching greatness. We’d recommend Monark to any SRPG enthusiasts (especially those that are sick of fighting on a grid) or fans of the old-school SMT and Persona games. It may not have nailed its execution, but Monark is an experience that we think is still worth your time.