Monark Review – Monark, developed by Lancarse and published by NIS America, is a new JRPG that puts the player in the shoes of an unnamed school student. You set out to free a school that’s trapped in a massive dome, with mist encroaching into buildings and putting the students in danger. It features a lot of interesting ideas, characters, and narrative, but it’s let down by its gameplay, puzzles, and can just be a slog to play through.
Let’s start with the good. Monark has some fantastic writing and some really interesting plot points that will make you want to see what comes next. You start the game by taking a psychological test which helps decide your starting stats and companion. These tests appear throughout the game and, depending on your responses, can increase your stats in various ways. I really loved these because they gave you a glimpse inside your own psychology. How effective or realistic these answers are is up for debate, but they were fun to do. The story itself is full of twists and turns, and one of my favorite parts of it is how morally ambiguous it is. I found myself understanding the struggle with various parts of your ego that these antagonists portray. Not one of them is just evil for the sake of it; they all have their own trauma that is being amplified. Not EVERY antagonist hits well, as some go into some entirely unnecessary subject matter, but overall, I really enjoyed the character writing.
The music is also fantastic. J-POP comes in hard during boss encounters and each boss has a unique theme that absolutely rips. They were a ton of fun to listen to. The general academy music is catchy and doesn’t get annoying throughout the game’s runtime.
Combat makes you MAD
The combat in this title is also solid, if not repetitive. It’s a turn-based strategy game, as you move units around a field and try to clear the other side. Unfortunately, Monark falls to the tired cliche of “main protag down, game over” and doesn’t offer much in terms of reviving until much later in the game. Figuring out the proper arrangement and order of attacks, especially when follow-ups by nearby allies can stack quickly, was always fun. Grinding is also a must in this game, as you’ll get absolutely destroyed without it. It’s at least easy to do and going from battle to battle is just a simple menu option away, as you have to dial into these encounters from your phone. No random battles to worry about in Monark.
Monark has some interesting ideas when it comes to combat too, though they don’t all seem overly important. When traversing around areas, you’ll have a MAD gauge that will build up over time, specifically in areas covered with mist. Hit 100% MAD, and you’ll be sent back to the infirmary. This gauge carries over into combat as well, as certain abilities will add to your MAD gauge. There’s also an AWAKE gauge as a counterpoint. Increase this to 100% in combat, and you’ll go into a special state that lets you use a special attack. Hitting AWAKE will bring your MAD gauge back to zero, while hitting MAD will leave your character completely uncontrollable. There’s a special enlightened state where both MAD and AWAKE hit 100% at the same time, but it’s incredibly difficult and takes a lot of management, and isn’t really worth it.
You’ll have different Daemon companions based on the 7 deadly sins as well. You’ll be able to equip them with vessels, or gear, to increase their base stats. This system can be hit or miss as well, as I was left without a ranged character for quite some time and you cannot change their loadout. I would have loved to customize their abilities and reroll stats across the board, but sadly, this isn’t the case.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
This repetition that comes along with the grinding in Monark is sadly just a symptom of a much larger issue. The game has really dated game design, and is unapologetically old school, but not in a good way. After the likes of Persona 5 and Tales of Arise that strive to push JRPGs in a new and exciting direction, Monark plants itself firmly in the past and doesn’t let go. It does the whole cutscene, back to player-controlled for a 5 foot run forward, into another cutscene, rinse and repeat. The overall flow of the game is repetitive as well, as you’ll go to a new area, battle the enemies in the mist, solve some puzzles, get taken back to the main building, make your way back to where you JUST WERE to then continue onto another floor, running through the entire area you were just in.
There is no live map either, as the one static map of the *entire school ground* is all you have. I would have loved a floor map for each area, as getting lost is not difficult. I kept the game firmly locked in fast forward mode, as the general movement is just so slow. Another point of frustration was its overworld camera, as it firmly locks into a really uncomfortable position and there is no way to change it. Each time you get a new character, they’re given to you at level one and it’s up to you to grind them back up.
This brings me to another part of the game that I really didn’t enjoy – Monark’s experience system. After every battle, you get a certain amount of points that you can use to upgrade characters. The issue here is that these points are shared across all characters and item creation, meaning there’s a balancing act of what items you need, who needs to be upgraded and trying to keep everyone on a level playing field. Trying to keep your main character overleveled will get you slapped down pretty quickly, as enemies will gang up on you without hesitation. You really need a properly leveled-up your squad for the encounters, especially as even older grind levels will scale alongside you. While this type of system does offer you more freedom in how you upgrade and customize your characters, it gets frustrating grinding multiple fights in a row just to level ONE character a few levels. I found myself generally just buying the cheapest upgrades just to get the stat bonuses from a level up, rather than focusing on the abilities I actually wanted or needed, especially because they get expensive QUICK.
Graphically, Monark is not very pretty. Its character artwork is gorgeous, but the models themselves and the game overall looks like it belongs back on the PS2 or PS3. The overworld is ugly and lacks character, and a lot of the environments you’ll explore just feel too samey. The atmosphere in the game is fantastic, as you can really feel the weight of the mist and the way it messes with students. There’s an early game section where, with mist heavy, there’s a student who won’t stop hitting his head against the wall, while you can hear others crying. It’s unsettling and works well, but just not pleasant to look at. These graphical issues extend into Monark’s performance. Playing on PS5, I had absolutely no issues with performance, but I’m so sick of load screens with every single door or area change. From what I’ve heard about the Switch and PS4 versions, there seem to be heavy issues with performance and frames per second. I haven’t seen them yet firsthand, but be aware of issues on other platforms.
Aside from all this, the game’s puzzles can be absolutely infuriating and completely without direction. Usually, the solutions would be in the same room or nearby, and it would take some detective work to figure things out. Need a combination for a safe? You’ll have to speak to students, listen for clues, use your library and student information to find the correct student, and understand what they made their code. When these puzzles click, they leave you feeling really clever. When they don’t, they’ll leave you meandering around for hours trying to pick up ANY sort of indication on what to do or where to go. Later puzzles will throw out rules established earlier on, for example, that solutions are generally nearby, and have you running around the entire campus trying to figure anything out. There’s no hint system, no way to progress, no way to figure things out without a guide. I had to contact PR multiple times toward late game as I was hopelessly lost for hours.
After about 25 hours with Monark, I think I’m done for now. The story has taken really interesting turns, has hints of different endings and possible paths towards the finale, but I’m again stuck with no possible solution in sight. It sucks because I genuinely want to see where this story goes and how things play out. I’ll come back when guides are more readily available, but for now, I’m ready to put Monark down. It’s really hard for me to recommend this game to anyone but die-hard JRPG fans that are looking for a new IP and world to live in. It’s unfortunate, because Monark has some really great ideas and interesting story beats, with gorgeous character artwork, but gets stuck in the past. Monark comes out February 22nd, 2022, on PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, and Windows. It was reviewed on PS5.
*code provided for review by NIS America*