Monster Crown Review: The Unfortunate Paper Birthday Crown

Monster Crown was developed by Studio Aurum, an independent development team composed of lead developer Jason Walsh and designer/writer Shad Schwarck, along with their music team. According to the game’s Kickstarter, Monster Crown was a project developed in their free time in early 2016, before being Kickstarted in 2018, and finally released in 2020. 

In a world where monsters and humans coexist, Monster Crown places the player in the shoes of a bright 14-year-old, living in the countryside with their parents. After helping their Dad with some errands, and showing promise as a budding monster tamer in the process, the player receives a starter monster from a magazine personality quiz. New friend in tow, the player sets out to befriend more monsters and travel across the continent.

Go godless abomination, I choose you!

From the start, things aren’t as cheery as they seem. The world is still recovering from a major war, and it’s hinted that the mutually beneficial relationships between monsters and their tamers is questionable at best. On top of this, the local mafia has shady dealings in various towns, culminating in their service to a mysterious woman named Beth. Brutal and power-hungry, Beth believes that might is the only right, and gleefully brute forces her away across the story with her allied monster in tow. Later in the story, a young man named David enlists the player’s help in fighting the mafia and putting a stop to Beth’s quest for domination.

Monster Crown is a monster-catching game that borrows its aesthetics heavily from GB/GBC-era Pokemon games in combination with its own unique breeding mechanics. The game heavily advertises itself with the ability to create “true crossbreeds” – offspring monsters that take appearance and stats/movesets from both parents. The crossbreeding mechanics largely take the place of evolving monsters through leveling up or the use of items, and the player is encouraged to experiment with cross breeds because literally every monster in the game can be bred with each other. Monsters can also be bred down multiple generations, and there are extra mechanics like temperature breeding, which let you hatch monster embryos to get a feel for what kind of offspring are created. Personally, I enjoyed breeding a ton of monsters with the sea serpent Myrkrsormr, and creating an army of weird elemental serpentine creatures. The biggest delight was when I recruited a really powerful boss monster in an area, and then I’d run back to the farm to see what weird things would hatch.

This game is rated ‘T’ for ‘Terrible JRPG Villain Dialogue’

Unfortunately, Monster Crown is a game that lives and dies by its crossbreeding mechanics, and really struggles in other elements of its game design. As mentioned in the intro, the game was effectively developed by two individuals (and based on the game’s development blog, Jason Walsh did most of the programming), so there’s a LOT of roughness in terms of design and gameplay that likely would have been cleaned up if this game had a bigger dev team. I do respect what the developers were able to accomplish – this was clearly a very ambitious pet project that was setting out to fulfill a specific vision they wanted in a game. Unfortunately, parts of the game feel like they’re too ambitious for their own good and needed to be scaled back more to make a more coherent final product.

To start, the game chugs a LOT. It’s very noticeable (and annoying) in the game’s menu and it also happens during monster battles quite frequently, where monsters seem to pop in and out of battle, attack animations are delayed, and the scrolling battle status text often gets stuck. The game sometimes skips frames here and there while walking out in the open world, and I had a particularly bad slog while doing a side quest north of the Humanism Kingdom – the game would not stop spawning tons of monsters around the area, which caused a gigantic slowdown. I did play the game both docked and undocked on my Switch and didn’t notice any significant improvements either way, so I’m not sure if the game itself is poorly optimized regardless of console or if it would play better on a different platform. 

The mafia group in this game is ALMOST interesting. Almost.

A lot of the gameplay balance is all over the place. Design-wise, the game is pretty open-world-ish after you get past the first couple of towns. This sounds neat in concept, but half the time, it felt more like I was aimlessly wandering around until I triggered an event flag for the story or hit a new town. On top of that, the game likes to place high-leveled monsters that can’t be easily recruited at the time in certain spots, which feels like the game is punishing players who wander too far. Even open-world games need a certain amount of structure to maintain a certain balance, and Monster Crown doesn’t quite have that. The game is also quite grind-y at times, which I found increasingly frustrating. When crossbreeds are hatched, they usually start at level four and need to be grinded up considerably to stay on par with the rest of your team. While walking across the open world, you can send your monsters out to attack wild monsters or search for randomly spawned tamers to fight, but it’s still fairly tedious, which ultimately led to me dropping the game out of impatience towards the end. 

While I sound pretty harsh on Monster Crown, there are elements of this game that I find delightful, which makes the more jank elements stick out more. The game’s graphic design is excellent – it’s an homage to the GBC era but looks like it’s between the GBC and GBA. The music is also great – the chiptune work is catchy and has some arrangements that sound like homages to Pokemon while also remaining distinctive. Admittedly, I found that most of the monsters in the game were lacking a certain charm that would make them memorable to me, and most of them felt like JRPG enemies. I still have fondness for my previously mentioned serpent army and the weird abstract monsters spawned from my starter.

David and palette-swapped David aka me, the player.

Pros: Delightful pixel art design that is reminiscent of GBC-era games, with the more advanced world design from GBA games. Crossbreeding mechanic is fun for experimenting and creating bizarre creatures for the party. Catchy chiptune music with distinctive arrangements.

Cons: Poorly optimized gameplay with noticeable slowdowns in parts. Open-world design lacks some basic structure and feels non-conducive to exploration. Grind-y as hell to keep pace with the game’s difficulty spikes. Story and characters attempt to explore interesting ideas, but ultimately feel shallow. 

Monster Crown is available on the Switch, PS4, XBone, and Steam. Despite most of my grievances with Monster Crown, I do think it’s a game that could appeal to some people, perhaps if they are willing to be more patient with the game’s problems. At the same time, this game is competing with other monster-catching indies, like TemTem and Coromon, which seem to offer more polish. I don’t regret supporting Monster Crown and I hope Studio Aurum could revisit this game in a sequel with a bigger team and better execution.

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