Not long ago the four heroes were rich, but unfortunately they are alcoholics and after a few days drinking in the Monkey Tavern they are broke. This should be the point at which they crawl home and sober up, but then a man mentions a place with lots of treasure. Before he’s properly explained the terrible dangers, the group has run off to the ominous looking tower in search of a fresh supply of beer tokens. So begins Heroes of the Monkey Tavern, a first person dungeon crawler with real time battles, much like the Atari ST classic Dungeon Master, complete with 90 degree turns and movement along an (unseen) grid.
The first thing to do in the game is assemble your group of heroes. From an aesthetic point of view there are twenty one character portraits, while gameplay-wise there are eight different classes to pick from, some being weapon specialists and others being able to perform useful magic spells; it’s a good idea to have a mix of abilities in your party. Priests are useful healers whilst barbarians provide brute strength and even enter a “berserk” mode when low on health to deal extra damage. Further customisation is available with a number of points to spend on strength, health and magic as well as dexterity; the higher it is the more likely you are to hit enemies and also dodge their attacks.
To get the treasure, you need to battle your way through eight floors of snakes, spiders, goblins, re-animated skeletons and various other nasties. There’s some tough battles on the other floors, but even the first one has its tricky moments as you start without weapons (they were sold for booze, naturally!), leading to tense moments as you try to find something to fight with and avoid the embarrassment of 'death-by-snake'.
The game uses a lot of buttons, but the control system works well once you’ve got used to it. Up and down on the directional cluster (D-pad on the Pro Controller) to move forwards and backwards, with left and right used for strafing and Y is your action button. The shoulder buttons are used for turns, while the right stick is used to look around. Your party moves as one, but the Z buttons cycle through the members. As you can have a weapon in one hand and a shield or spell on your other (there are also two-handed weapons) there’s a button for each, while the left stick is used when you need a health or magic restoring potion.
Visually there are some good enemy designs and a lot of stone corridors for you to look at. There’s design variance between floors, but it does get a bit basic and samey-looking. In a way though, this adds to the experience as you as you try to find your way through the maze-like layout; one floor actually is a maze. There are some good touches too, such as cobwebs with spiders and rooms which add variety with some basic furniture - typically a skeleton or two collapsed nearby.
The audio in the game features a variety of sounds for attacks, but it’s when there are no enemies around that it works really well, becoming quite creepy. Footsteps from an unseen enemy startle you, a strange noise turns out to be just a flickering flame and that distant growl is terrifying. At least you hope it’s distant. A couple of the floor designs also help here. Every corner turned that leads to no enemies at first is a relief, but then it becomes a worry as you wonder just where they are lurking and when they’ll make their appearance. The musical score in the game also works well with a range of adventurous, mysterious and intense tracks featured. If you find a track you like, you can visit the music player option and have it play whenever you want.
Heroes of Monkey Tavern is fun as you work your way through the floors, searching for keys to open doors and collecting useful items and weapons to help you in battles. Items can offer boosts to attributes and you’ll be visiting your inventory often, switching things around to make your team as formidable as possible. Some items and weapons you’ll stumble across during a regular walk through the level (or they’ll be dropped by an enemy) but others are hidden, requiring you to push a block to reveal a room, or are revealed after a puzzle such as flicking switches in a certain order.
The game can get difficult at times. You can save whenever you like other than during battle, but this is no help if you are under-equipped for the fights. Searching for items makes things easier but while seeking out weapons, armour and potions you have to look out for traps such as fire and spikes that can seriously mess up your plans for success. Health and magic recharge over time and going to sleep (again anytime other than battle) will refill them completely. Fountains are worth looking out for as they do the same while also reviving fallen comrades.
Even when sufficiently equipped, you need to keep focused during battle as you cycle through your heroes, making the current one attack but keeping an eye on the health of others to see if they need a health and/or magic top-up. Careful positioning will help when multiple enemies appear (fighting one at a time helps) but sometimes things go horribly wrong and it’s time to employ 'Operation: Leg it'. Fleeing battle causes damage to your group, but sometimes it’s your best hope of survival.
Battles can be tough, but are exciting and thanks to your party levelling up as they go and the various items scattered around, you have what’s needed to succeed. If you do seem to be under-equipped, you can revisit previous floor to see if you’ve missed out on anything useful.
The challenge in the game is well-judged, generally getting tougher as you progress. Playing floors typically leads to initial mistakes, before you figure out where things are; helpfully a map can be called up at anytime that fills in as you play. The maze level has a different feel to the others, but is a game highlight for reasons we’d rather not spoil. The final floor is actually fairly easy as by this point you’ve gained lots of powerful weapons and spells and have a good stock of potions.
As enjoyable as the game is, with only eight levels it can be cleared quickly and it’s unfortunate that it ends so soon. There's still fun in playing through it again, perhaps trying it with a new team and there are three difficulty settings if you’d like a different challenge.
Heroes of Monkey Tavern will certainly scratch your dungeon-crawling itch, especially if you're a fan of the seminal Dungeon Master, the game's biggest inspiration. The levels are unspectacular looking, though with the setting there's not much else that could be done and in some ways it helps with the atmosphere. The sound effects certainly help immerse you in the adventure and there's some decent music, too. Battles against a good variety of different creatures are entertaining affairs and thanks to the different classes, adjustable attributes and a variety of weapons there's plenty of options for those conflicts. The big downside to the game is its brevity, but it's fun to try again with a different assembled team. Heroes of the Monkey Tavern offers only a short adventure, but it's still a good one.