Eny’s having a bad day. She just wants to get home after an exhausting afternoon spent collecting forest mushrooms with her friend Tig, and wouldn’t you know it but the staff Tig picks up out of curiosity summons monstrous hordes into the world! Luckily that’s not something Eny’s swashbuckling skills and a few magically adept do-gooders can’t handle. Monster RPG 2 specifically caters to the retro crowd and sticks close to RPG gameplay conventions found in the mid 1980s and early 1990s, but a hearty helping of “Nooskewl” spice makes this a highly enjoyable experience as long as you’re not immediately turned off by the retro aesthetic.

By force of habit the first thing I always examine in an RPG is how much its story draws in and motivates the player, and unfortunately that means I’ll have to address Monster RPG 2‘s weaknesses before I address its strengths. The game’s text is clean; its plot well organized with twists and foreshadowing; its characters assigned basic motivation. However, Monster RPG 2 stops there, failing to develop its characters to any appreciable degree or explore their relationships with one another despite the fact that they’ll be spending 15 to 20 hours of gameplay time cooped up together. Eny’s reasons for going from place to place are easily understood but there’s only the barest dialogue beyond what’s needed to establish that, and precious little reflection on what the comings and goings of her party members mean to her on a personal level. The burning village, the oblivious king, the friend-turned-foe and foe-turned-friend…these elements could have added up to some rich cerebral stuff had the plot been treated as if it were anything more than superfluous.

To be sure, it’s possible the simplistic nature of Monster RPG 2‘s scenario results from an intentional decision on the developer’s part in maintaining a retro feel; the earliest Final Fantasies weren’t exactly known for their superb plotwork and characterization after all. What’s so frustrating about Monster RPG 2‘s story is that, in every other category, Nooskewl introduces something that brings the game out of its retro shell and gives it an appealing modern edge. Only when focusing on the game’s skeletal plot did I feel I was really back in 1987 playing the first Final Fantasy.

Monster RPG 2‘s “Tap and Go” control system handles like a dream in Version 1.3. While exploring, the player just taps where he or she wants to go and Eny travels there; the screen can be drug around Eny to expand the player’s view of the environment when she’s stationary. Tap on an object (whether it be a treasure chest, NPC, shopkeeper, or a plant that might yield up some hidden goodies) and Eny interacts with it appropriately. Purchasing and equipping items on menu screens are handled through an intuitive drag-and-drop process, and the player can get more details on items by tapping the item names and holding until a new window pops up with the desired info.

Battle works as you might expect of a well-designed iPhone RPG, with commands and targets selected by being directly tapped on the touchscreen. Monster RPG 2‘s tutorial encourages the player to go through a “slashing” motion across targets to complete offensive commands, but this can get messy when you’re trying to pick one foe out of a tightly packed group; luckily you can also complete battle commands by tapping on a menu if you prefer. Other than a lack of touch sensitivity I experienced on “OK” buttons from time to time, I feel Nooskewl has really mastered the essence of how a traditional RPG should play on the iPhone. It should be noted that the player can switch from “Tap and Go” to a virtual button scheme via the main menu, but I would definitely recommend sticking with the superior “Tap and Go.”

The battle system itself revolves around random encounters and consists of classic RPG fare, with basic attack, defense, item, retreat and magic commands (the latter available only to certain characters). This will be immediately recognizable to fans of the early Final Fantasies with the exception that combat in Monster RPG 2 is streamlined in terms of speed, so no agonizing waits for ATB guages to fill — the player is always commanding a character or receiving the brunt of enemy aggression. Leveling up is fairly unique here, Monster RPG 2 being one of the few RPGs I’ve played that gives the player absolute control over stat growth. Eny & co. don’t appear to experience any kind of base stat growth as they level up, so I found myself having to decide whether I should add “level up points” to paltry HP totals or focus on increasing physical and magic defense as a more efficient means of surviving enemy attacks.

Where Monster RPG 2‘s gameplay really shines is in the various minigames Nooskewl scattered throughout Eny’s quest. These range from a squad-based military battle that requires carefully budgeting troops, to a submarine segment that plays like a high speed vertical scrolling shooter, to a lunar lander minigame, among others. Each task is well integrated into the adventure and uses its own unique control scheme to keep gameplay fresh. These really kept my interest piqued over the long haul, making me want to progress just to see what zany new experience might be lurking around the corner.

Some minor puzzles and an appreciable number of secrets are strewn throughout the game’s environments, rewarding particularly observant adventurers with worthwhile items and bonus level-up points. Nooskewl took the time to develop its own walkthrough accessible at their site under the “wiki” link, and this will come in handy for completionists. Finally, I should add that in Monster RPG 2 the player can save anywhere via the party menu, and if you’re unlucky enough to be wiped out in battle and didn’t save beforehand, you can still auto-continue at the point right before you got into the battle that killed off Eny’s party. How’s that for customer service?

The game’s graphics apear suitably retro at first glance, about on par with the Final Fantasies of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Dungeon and town environments are functional if unembellished, although I did find a lack of transitional tiles around an early castle moat to be visually grating. Thankfully Nooskewl put more work into the in-battle graphics than they did the environment graphics. It was interesting to see how much polish went into the battles over the game’s development cycle: early beta screens are apparently used to illustrate the walkthrough on Nooskewl’s site and do not reflect the final appearance of Eny and her cohorts in battle. Good thing, too, because the switch from plain environment graphics to flashier battle graphics added much-needed variety to the gameplay experience. The one complaint I would raise with regard to Monster RPG 2‘s battle visuals is that the limited number of sprites devoted to each character becomes patently obvious during regular attack animations, where certain transitional sprites are noticeably re-used.

Nooskewl touts a feature that lets you play tracks from your iPod music playlist in-game rather than listening to Monster RPG 2‘s original soundtrack, but ironically I found the game’s score to be of standout quality and easily its most appealing aspect. It tends toward dark, moody synths that lend each environment a compelling atmosphere. Any feeling I did find welling up within me while venturing — an eerie disquiet while wandering through a burnt town, resentment toward a king oblivious to the dangers his subjects are facing, a sense of wonderment at the outlandish glass barrier shielding one town, I could go on — came from the game’s score, which singlehandedly keeps the plot afloat through the sheer power of its melodies. A few tracks grew on me immensely over time, and since I couldn’t find the OST available anywhere I sometimes found myself trekking back to specific locales just to listen to certain tracks again. I would venture to say that the musician could find a fair audience among enthusiasts of synth, ambient, electronica, and classic game music if that hasn’t occurred already.

On the audio downside, it seems that the “select your own track” feature came at the expense of an in-game volume control, and I would have loved a sound test feature that lets players sample the game’s music from the main menu. And Nooskewl, please, please do something about that “Beep beeeeeep!” that accompanies your logo once the game loads. Players want to be welcomed into a game rather than compelled to leap out of their chairs, wondering if an unseen freight train is suddenly and inexplicably bearing down on them.

Verdict

As a game that tries to recapture the nature of very early RPGs, Monster RPG 2 intentionally flirts with mediocrity. While it’s scathed for its audacity in some respects, this one is well worth checking into thanks to solid controls, expertly varied gameplay, and a score comprised of catchy synth tunes. Those in search of an engrossing and thought-provoking tale need not apply, but if you enjoy classic RPG mechanics and don’t mind a light plot, this should be right up your alley.