Do you remember 2012’s Dragon Island Blue (our review), or even 2013’s Hunter Island (our review), both of which were designed by ZigZaGame (as well as published by NTT Resonant)? Well — after taking a whole year off — I’m happy to say that ZigZaGame has stepped up to bat once more, and the extra development time they’ve put towards Neo Monsters (out now, $0.99) can certainly be seen in absolute spades. That said — should you have been expecting more of the same, just better honed — you might want to brace yourself, as Neo Monsters could rightly be called a whole other creative ballpark.
Welcome to the empire of Verosia, a united-realm formed from the various island states after the First Ones — giant and terrible titans — awoke long ago and laid waste to what had been a golden age of prosperity and knowledge. The descendants of the Hero whom stopped the First Ones’ horrible onslaught — by gathering up powerful monsters from each island — have ruled over Verosia ever since, although a great tragedy recently befell them. The nation’s young prince — with aid of his now widowed mother — has been leading the nation ever since his father and older sister were killed ten years earlier, a heinous crime that shook the nation to its very core (in part because of whom was deemed as guilty).
Your uncle — Hector Finnegan — was the greatest monster trainer the Verosian empire had ever seen, and people from the various islands would flock to Othlon — the capital — in order to which his Monster League matches. He was the superstar sensation of his age, and — as a result — it was no wonder that Hector Finnegan eventually wound up being invited to the imperial palace to meet the royal family. Unfortunately this would be the day the king and princess were brutally murdered, leaving poor Hector — despite his many protests to the contrary — as the court’s primary suspect by utter default.
But that was then, and you’ve now just received a letter from Randolph Bernstein — a former merchant claiming to have been a friend of your uncle — asking you to come over to Othlon. When you arrive Randolph asks you to both take over your uncle’s ranch, where he personally trained his prize-winning team of monsters, as well as to sign yourself up with the capital’s Monster League. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem by itself, but it seems that certain people — whom still burn with anger regarding the king’s death — aren’t exactly happy to see Hector’s successor trying to climb the league’s ranks.
The flack some of the other trainers are giving you is admittedly one thing, but matters take a turn for both the worse — and the downright weird — when you bump into a bard claiming to have just seen a younger Hector Finnegan. As much as you might want to believe otherwise — given how ludicrous his claims are — it turns out he wasn’t wrong, and the man quickly shows you to a rift in time where people can travel back to the past itself. While it might have been cool to meet your uncle back when he was still alive, you quickly discover that a hooded cult is trying to kill him — back when he and Randolph were first meeting — with the claims that they’re really just trying to protect their future.
You’re about to do a whole lot of bouncing back and forth through time if you want to both protect the past — discover who actually murdered the emperor — and save the entirety of Verosia, all while still graduating as the Monster-League’s new top-star.
Some of our long time readers might have noticed that I just spent a whole lot more time covering the plot of Neo Monsters than I did for the game’s two spiritual predecessors combined. That would probably be because Neo Monsters — while certainly still containing RPG style battles — is arguably far more Visual Novel than Pokémon clone, and this is a problem that may well anger some long-time fans. Whereas the previous games gave you endless fights — mixed with a mere spattering of plot — here the prose is non-stop, which is why it’s a very good thing it’s rather well-written this time around.
Now — to be sure — the game still has the series’ time-line based battle system, where every chosen action has connected to it a specified amount of penalty time (which represents how long before that monster can go again). There furthermore still exists the reserve army system, wherein knocked out monsters are promptly replaced with a reserve unit — fully charged, and raring to go — upon being obliterated by your opponent. ZiZaGame’s third effort even still features the same Rock-Paper-Scissors arrangement of elements as before, along with many familiar monsters returning as well (yet this time around displayed in glorious full-animation, rather than merely shown as static images).
This increase in production values is also carried over to the new walk-around system, wherein — rather than awkwardly warping about one room at a time — you can now freely move about dungeons however you see fit. This particular enhancement won’t actually see much use — however — since large chunks of the game now exist within a highly-linear Visual Novel format, rather than focusing upon the exploration of random dungeons. Seeing as how these less-common walk-about sections are predominantly where you try to track down and capture rare monsters, this is one particular change where it’s highly-likely those searching for a straight-up Pokémon-clone won’t exactly be thrilled.
That said, something long time fans will probably be happy to hear is that Capture Cards — which are basically Neo Monster’s equivalent to Pokéballs — are now absolutely endless in supply. This is counter-balanced by monsters becoming utterly impervious to all future capture attempts, leaving you no other recourse than to smash their face in, should your first card ever fail. As a result, you’ll find yourself attempting to beat wild monsters as close to death as possible — especially when they’re rare finds — before tossing out your capture card (seeing as how injured monsters have a higher chance of being captured).
The process for leveling your monsters is now quite different as well, and no longer is predominantly centered around mindlessly wandering about while hoping to incur as many fights as possible. Rather than earning EXP from your fallen foes, you’ll slowly rack up training points that can be spent once you successfully get back to base (which is an easy thing to do when you always have a “Return Home” button while exploring). Furthermore, everyone on your current team will profit whenever you finally do spend these training points (which is a nice improvement over the previous methodology, which would often see your reserve forces virtually never gaining any EXP whatsoever).
The first thing you’ll need to do when training is decide how many points you wish to spend; although there’s no upper spending cap, you’ll be banned from further exploration whenever you have more points than your current league-tier allows (more on this later). Once the training game is commenced you’ll be asked select from one of five randomly offered stat-boosting cards — either representing Attack, Defense, Health, or Agility — once for each training point you’ve chosen to spend. Selecting a card will simultaneously empower the selected stat for all of your present monsters (assuming they’re still trainable), as well as moving your hero the listed number of squares across the board.
This is where the training mini-game becomes a bit tricky, as the square you land on after selecting a card determines both the type of card — as well as the training quality — that will replace the one you just used. Ideally you’ll want to try and land on a space guaranteed to give you more of the same stat-type that you just leveled up, as leveling up the same stat multiple times in a row increases the effectiveness of each card used. Naturally you’ll want to be mindful of what each monster’s maximum potential standing within a stat is as well, so that you don’t accidentally waste their training-chances while attempting to teach them a stat they can no longer improve.
Some monsters will even evolve into greater forms once a specific percentage of their remaining stat potential has been conquered (this new evolved form will still have the same stat-levels as before, yet they’ll be far more powerful with the exact same results). Some of the rarest monster can even eventually undergo a special Ultra-Evolution, but this can only be achieved after all of their stat-potential — across all four fields — has first been maxed out. Making it even harder to prepare for an Ultra-Evolution is the fact that — as previously mentioned — each monster has a personal limit on how many times they can be trained, although this may be subverted via Youth Fruits (which add training points).
Eventually — when you finally feel as though your team is ready — you’ll want to actually try your hand at graduating up within the Monster League, which means it’ll be high-time you threw down against all of the other trainers within your current tier. Once these fights are done (with the NPC-Vs-NPC matches occurring off screen), the top two trainers — which hopefully includes yourself — will graduate to the Monster League’s next tier. Graduating will enable you to hold more training points before you’re forced to spend them, allow you to place more monsters on your team, allow you to travel to new islands in search of monsters, and even increase your team’s overall permissible build cost.
That’s right, you’re not simply allowed to shore-up all of your available monster slots with the meanest — most extensively evolved — monsters that you personally own anymore (at least, not unless you’ve gone to great efforts to increase your Hero Level). Instead you’ll have to decide whether it’s important for you to have more monsters lining your team’s ranks, or if you want to rely instead on just a select few evolved-up heavy hitters. Admittedly this does lead to an annoying dilemma where training sessions — wherein multiple monsters are all evolve at once — generally end with you being ordered to rebuild your team afterwards, since you’re generally now way over your build-cost limit.
While the game play described thus far would seem to match the Pokémon experience that ZigZaGame’s returning fans were likely seeking, this is — as I previously mentioned — not the bulk of what you’ll be doing when playing through Neo Monsters. That’s because if you truly want to accrue training points efficiently — as well as increase your Hero Level whatsoever — you’ll be spending far more time in the Rift, than wandering about. Which also means it’s finally time for me to begin discussing Neo Monster’s monetization scheme, which — currently speaking — predominantly applies to your time spent with that aforementioned younger Hector Finnegan.
Your mission to keep those aforementioned hooded figures from killing Hector will be divided into a plethora of episodic chapters, with each generally opening with a Visual Novel segment — next followed by a boss fight — and afterwards even more story content. Even though you’ll spend far more time here reading than you will fighting against malicious people — unless, of course, you’re deliberately skipping all of the plot — you’ll still earn training points here far faster than you ever will mindlessly wandering about. You’ll additionally earn experience for your Hero Level by doing these, which will both give your extra build-points — allowing you to more easily staff your team with powerful beefy monsters — as well as increasing the number of Tickets you can hold at once.
Tickets — which regenerate at the rate of one every ten minutes – are needed each time you begin a new-story section, as well as whenever you wish to hunt for Silver — which is now largely only required to pay for Ultra-Evolutions — as well as valuable Youth Fruits. These tickets might additionally be needed for PVP matches — much like they were in Hunter Island — but I can’t currently comment on that, seeing as how Neo Monster’s promised PVP mode isn’t available yet. Either way — although these tickets regenerate — you can additionally recharge your stock instantly by spending a single Gem (which can be bought, earned for logging in, or received for finishing league-tiers and rift-chapters).
That said — unless you wish to IAP acquire a stack of Gems — you’ll be far more likely to save these for valuable Golden Eggs, than you will be to use them as a means of recovering your tickets. These Golden Eggs are your primary means of obtaining the most valuable monsters in this game, and they only cost five gems each (and while your tickets are ultimately transitory, the monsters you’ll receive are always permanent gains). However — although one could easily earn many Golden Eggs without paying — the fact that they’re your primary method of gaining epic-monsters will likely irk many (particularly the completionist crowd, whom Pokémon-esque games generally attract).
However — far more so than the tickets and Golden Eggs — the biggest turn off for many will be the fact that Neo Monsters is trying to serve two masters, rather than merely choosing a single path. Many whom just desire a visual novel won’t want to slog through the monster training aspects, whereas those whom just want a monster training game certainly won’t enjoy dealing with the oft-found long bouts of text. Although I personally found Neo Monsters to be rather enjoyable, this unique mixture of disparate elements is quite likely to alienate those desiring a far purer experience in either given direction.
While certainly an intriguing blend of Pokémon-esque battle mechanics, mixed with Visual Novel style story-telling, Neo Monster’s odd mixture of elements will likely irk anyone whom hoped for a purer experience in either direction. Still, the game is extremely solidly built — and the story quite intriguing — such that those willing to deal with this unique amalgamation-beast will likely be quite happy with the journey they embark upon. That said, it would perhaps have been a far better journey without a Pay-or-Wait ticket-gated mechanic applied to the bulk of Neo Monsters’ primary plotline (even if the IAP-structure is admittedly rather benign).