About three years ago, Studio Aurum pitched Monster Crown on Kickstarter, a monster-battling RPG which wasn’t shy about taking inspiration from a certain popular Game Freak franchise. After making over nine times as much money as the initial goal, the title then shifted to Early Access on PC, where it was regularly iterated on and updated in tandem with community feedback. Now it’s 1.0 release has finally come to fruition and it’s naturally made its way over to the Switch. Monster Crown offers up an enjoyable, though flawed throwback to simpler monster-battling days, but it ultimately proves to be a worthwhile experience.

Monster Crown is set in the wild world of Crown Island where humans and monsters don’t so much live together in harmony as they do in begrudging acceptance. For example, here you don’t catch any monsters you bring to your team, but instead form a ‘pact’ that’s essentially a contract for the tamer to provide for the monster’s needs in exchange for its powers. You play as a young, up and coming Monster Tamer from a humble farm, but quickly get swept up in a plot that puts the fate of Crown Island in your hands as you repeatedly interact with an anti-hero character focused on installing a group of tyrants. It’s not an especially inspired story—the monster battling gameplay is clearly the main draw here—but it’s just interesting enough that it feels worthwhile in the end.

Gameplay follows a rather familiar format, wherein you obtain and train a team of up to eight different monsters and pit them against both wild and tamed foes in simple turn-based battles. Catching monsters is as simple as offering them a pact, which they then read mid-battle and then either accept or reject based on factors like level and health. Each monster can be one of five different types, each of which is resistant to one type and does extra damage to another, so it’s critical you build your team not just with traditional roles (DPS, Tank, etc.) in mind, but also with enough diversity that you can realistically take on a similarly leveled monster of any type.

Things are mixed up a bit with the usage of the Synergy mechanic, too, which allows you to build a special meter by either swapping monsters or defending for a turn. There are four stages to the Synergy meter, with each consecutive one stacking on new stat bumps and benefits that enable you to really let ‘er rip when you finally act, though the trade-off is obviously that every turn spent building the meter is one where you aren’t attacking.

It must be said that combat feels rather unbalanced in many places, which can be both a positive or a negative depending on the player. Simply put, it feels like this is a combat system that’s easily exploited or ‘broken’, which can make for some ridiculous wins that feel almost unearned. For example, we came across one early boss that was level 18, and we opted to open the fight with a level 5 monster we caught in the starting area. We ordered said monster to inflict a poison-like attack on the boss, which promptly took off about 80% of its health over the next couple turns, making it an easy kill for the rest of our still under-leveled team. By all rights, we should not have won that battle so easily, yet it seems moments like this are almost common if you know what you’re doing. This lack of balance can add a fun element to combat, but it’s difficult to discern whether this is by design or poor balancing.

A fun offshoot of this matter with balancing is the breeding and fusion system, which offers quite a bit of leeway to create a specialized team to your liking. There are about 200 ‘base’ monsters you can forge a pact with, but each of these can be changed into other monsters via special items or through breeding them to get entirely new ones. Going through several generations and seeing what kinds of crazy mutants you can make has some amusing ethical questions, but adds a lot of replayability to the 25-or-so hours it takes to see Monster Crown through. Evidently, there are over a thousand different monsters once you take these factors into account, so there’s no shortage of team comps you can try out here.

If the single player aspect isn’t enough, there’s also the expected suite of multiplayer functionality to contend with, which primarily exists to give you more leeway to battle or trade with other players. The lack of local multiplayer is a disappointing omission, but there are some cool ideas explored online, such as how you can use “NET Eggs” to utilize the genes of another player’s monsters as one of the ‘parents’ in breeding, which basically gives you a random result. Whether the multiplayer remains active will be a key hurdle for Monster Crown to overcome, however. It’s not clear whether cross play with other versions is available, and we can easily see this being a game with a lively online scene early on before Switch players move on.

From a presentation perspective, Monster Crown certainly nails its GBC aesthetic quite well. The simple sprite work gives it an authentic retro feel and the soundtrack often sounds eerily similar to longtime classic Pokémon tracks. One area that’s a little lacking, however, is the monster design. With 200 base monsters, there are certainly a few decent designs to behold, but many of them look more like the kind of thing you’d see in a cheap ROM hack. Things aren’t helped by the lack of distinct cries for each monster and the nearly non-existent battle animations, which can make the uninspired designs seem that much flatter. Granted, there are sacrifices that had to be made to maintain the Game Boy style, but it feels like more could’ve been done in these aspects to breathe more life into the overall world.

Unfortunately, we ran into some noticeable performance problems, too, which frankly feel unacceptable given this style of game. Running through the overworld at high speed is prone to hit you with rather frequent frame rate hitches as Monster Crown tries loading in the oncoming assets, and we encountered at least one scenario where a glitched menu selection caused the game to lock, forcing us to close it and lose about 30 minutes of progress. Such issues aren’t game-breaking and very well could be resolved in patches, but just be aware that the launch version feels like it could’ve used a little more polish.

Conclusion

Monster Crown is a decent game that falls short of greatness in a few areas. Legitimately cool ideas with breeding and an overall solid combat system are let down by lackluster monster designs and performance issues. Then there’s the elephant in the room, which is that Monster Crown ultimately feels like a jankier and less addictive version of the oldest Pokémon games. We’d still give this one a recommendation, as the bones of the experience are good enough that its worth a punt for big Pokémon fans pining for the 8-bit days, but you might want to wait for a sale with this one.