In 2018, Metroidvanias are dangerously close to overstaying their welcome. Fans clamored for games like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night in the years that Nintendo and Konami neglected to release new entries for their series. But, now, with a host of indie developers rising to the occasion, the market is glutted with good-to-great action-adventure games like Dandara, Iconoclasts, Dead Cells, Chasm, Guacamelee 2, and The Messenger—games that emphasize satisfying exploration and progression through interlocking worlds.
In the current moment, standing out is incredibly difficult. It’s a feat that Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom accomplishes. But, like the genre as a whole, the exuberant puzzle-platformer from FDG Entertainment and The Game Atelier overstays its welcome.
Gettin’ Piggy With It
It makes a hell of a first impression, though. A spiritual successor (sequel?) to the Wonder Boy (Monster World? Adventure Island?) series of platformers, Monster Boy has a complicated lineage. But, thankfully, the story this time around is self-contained. Jin, a blue-haired boy living on a tropical island, awakens one morning to find his sorcerer Uncle Nabu flying around the island on a magical spree, transforming all of its inhabitants into animals.
After getting hit with a burst of Nabu’s magic himself, Jin—now in the form of an anthropomorphic pig—sets out to restore his uncle’s sanity and the islanders’ humanity. And, as he progresses through his journey, Jin cycles through a variety of animal transformations. Each fursona functions like the unlockable tools and abilities in a typical Metroidvania. A crimson snake acts like Samus’ morph ball, allowing the player to slither through small spaces. The grappling hook has been replaced by a frog’s tongue. And, the dash can only be accomplished in lion form. It’s a smart innovation that makes uncovering new abilities feel exciting and significant.
The experience is significantly enhanced by a gorgeous aesthetic. The eyes of Max Fleischer fans popped out of their heads like cartoon wolves’ when Studio MDHR served up Cuphead last year. With Monster Boy, otakus have received a similar gift.
An introductory cinematic gives Monster Boy his own beautifully animated anime theme song highlighting the five transformations Jin eventually unlocks. In engine, Monster Boy still looks great, but, given the pulled-back camera perspective, I doubt anyone will mistake the game for Crunchyroll.
Monster Boy’s character models are fantastic, especially in their idle animations. Set the controller down for a minute and watch as the lion lets out a ferocious roar; as the pig takes a drag on a cigarette. Backgrounds have a painterly quality, and boss fights are lovingly (and frighteningly) detailed, almost distractingly gorgeous.
Monster Boy‘s art hits its stride in the game’s hub town, the Village of Lupia. You’ll frequently return here for story beats, and each time you do you’ll be greeted with ridiculously, over-the-top joyful music. The animal townsfolk smile as they go about their daily routines. This bustling little town is Monster Boy’s exuberant, beating heart; it radiates with a happy energy that pulsed through my veins as I ventured out into the rest of the game’s more hostile regions. Frequently, when I warped back to Lupia to stock up on items, I would try to draw my time there out for as long as possible. It’s a wonderful place, the crowning achievement in Monster Boy’s aesthetic triumph.
Satisfying Structure, Unsatisfying Final Hours
While most games are too long, Monster Boy maintains an excellent pace for its first 10 hours or so. That’s about how long it takes to unlock each animal. You explore an area, fight a boss, acquire an orb which facilitates your next transformation. This works extremely well, allowing for the player to gain an in-depth knowledge of each creature’s moveset before moving on. It also means that the game becomes richer and increasingly multi-faceted as it charges onward. Solving puzzles early is simple; you only have a few moves. But, as the game moves forward, you gain a satisfying bag of tricks. You’ll frequently transform from the lion, to the frog, to the snake, to the pig (or something like that) to solve a puzzle.
And these puzzles are clever (for the most part) utilizing each animal’s abilities well. Though, on more than one occasion, I ran into puzzles that didn’t follow any kind of discernible logic. In fact, following the clues that the developers laid out didn’t work. Instead, I made progress only when I brute forced them, trying every possible solution until something clicked. When I analyzed the solution that eventually worked, and I couldn’t find any rhyme or reason to it.
However, Monster Boy’s biggest problem is its uneven structure. While those first 10 hours are a whirlwind of progression and exploration, the game opens up and slows down in its final third. While I would expect a level or two to explore how all five powers work together, Monster Boy keeps going, serving up multiple, massive, pace-killing stages.
Slow Your Slither
The snake character often swallows objects to solve puzzles. For example, you may see a gear on the ground and need to ingest it and slither it over to its proper place. But, after you swallow the gear, the snake moves more slowly. His shape is altered; a gear twice the height of his body now juts from his midsection.
That’s what Monster Boy’s final hours feel like. They’re a clunky conclusion clogging up an otherwise slimy sleek progression. Usually in Metroidvanias, your progress stops because you’re missing something you need. In Monster Boy, progress slows because The Game Atelier and FDG Entertainment have given you far too much.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on a standard PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please see our Review Policy.