Eurogamer knows a thing or two about making monsters. For example, we give money to rogue states to fund nuclear proliferation, and murder the fathers of impressionable lion cubs. However, Monster Lab has a more entertaining alternative: turn-based strategy battles, interspersed with agreeable Wiimote mini-games and backed up by Edward Scissorhands graphics, a Count Duckula sense of humour and Creep Show sound effects. Do you like the noise of scrunching cartilage? Squidge this way.
In Monster Lab, you join an alliance of Mad Scientists trying to overthrow a naughty one. Beginning under the direction of Professor Fuseless, you build a monster, go out into the world and do some fighting to collect more monster parts, then upgrade yourself so you can do more battles. Each monster is made out of the bits you'd expect - head, torso, arms, legs - and these grow increasingly outlandish as you get hold of more obscure ingredients. Even in the early stages of the game, monsters pitch up with giant anchors for fists, cannons for arms and grandfather clocks for legs.
It all sounds a bit twee, but like Pokmon there's a satisfying depth to the combat. Each of your custom body parts has certain attacks associated with it, each of which impacts particular areas of the enemy's anatomy. If your arm is a circular saw, for instance, you may be able to target an enemy's arm. Individual body parts take their own damage, too, contributing to the whole, and if you concentrate on one area you can knock it off completely. A missing head is always amusing, but you might prefer to knock off the giant mace that your opponent is smacking you with instead. Or do you aim for the torso? After all, if the torso goes, the fight's over.
You also have to be mindful that each attack uses up a certain amount of battery charge. When you run out of this, you need to use a recharge move, assigned to your torso, which takes up a turn. Add to this a rock/paper/scissors style relationship between the three monster component types - biological, alchemical and mechanical - as well as the occasional missed blow and the ability to dodge, and you already have the basis of a pretty varied fight system. And so it proves. You can also repair yourself post-battle, using Field Repair, which restores your vitality the quicker you can shake the Wiimote within a time limit. Take big damage and you may struggle to recover.
The degree to which all the tactical planning applies will intensify as the game wears on, but even in the opening stages your burgeoning understanding of its intricacies feeds into how you focus your monster research and development. Each fight throws up different ingredients when it's over, and of course you can collect them elsewhere in the world, and then back at your base you can do some mixing. This is to a large extent where the mini-games come in.
The Weld-O-Tron game, for example, is a buzz-bar style affair involving the Wiimote, where you have to trace a line on-screen using the remote pointer. This is quite tricky, with increasingly intricate sequences. Another game, Robo-Evolver, shows you three robots, each standing under a crusher with a thought bubble showing a shape. Two will match the shape you're shown at the bottom of the screen, but the third won't, and you have to quickly select the errant thinker with your nunchuk and then perform a bashing motion with the Wiimote. Probably the best we've seen is a racing mini-game where you hold the Wiimote sideways in the steering wheel style familiar to players of Excite Truck or Mario Kart, and accelerate along a conveyor belt through a sequence of bolts and other obstacles.
The games are simple, but it's still important to work your way through them efficiently, because failure will probably lose you the part you're trying to make and the ingredients from which you chose to construct it. Making mistakes isn't fatal, but will impact the part's effectiveness; the game keeps track of what percentage of a task you completed and applies that value to the part's characteristics. Fortunately, it also warns you before you start the process whether a part is going to be particularly difficult to construct, so you make your own bed as well as your own arms, legs etc. When building monsters or upgrading them, you can also quickly assess how a part acts, its moves and their areas of impact, and whether your bum looks big in it.
There's choice, too, in how you explore the world. Initially on a narrow path, pretty quickly you move into Cobbleshire, where you can take various routes around the place, dodging battles with monsters if you spot them in time. Some will chase you down for a fight; if they run away, it probably means they know they are going to lose, so you might as well give chase in response. Places like Cobbleshire are also home to people offering quests for varying reward. The Transylvanian-sounding Mayor Niedervoten, for example, needs you to take care of some local monsters so people will keep voting for him. He'd do it himself, but presumably he's pinned down by sniper fire.
And it looks very nice, too, with bags of character: accents are thick, dancing is merry, and facial hair is mutton chops. It's quite dark, as befits a game about monsters, but in its own way it's colourful, the character design is unique and coherent, and the use of snazzy light and shadow effects is extensive. The DS version, which we also sampled, loses some of the fancier effects and drops a few resolutions, but still retains a lot of the mother-game's visual charm.
Overall then it's promising. Exactly the sort of thing we like, in fact, and the inclusion of local wireless multiplayer on DS and Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection internet play using the Wii adds a few more notches to our gun of approval. It also has "Mad Science Points", which is a term it's hard not to like, the rewards for which are badges and unlockables. We'll see what those are, and whether Monster Lab lives up to its promise, when the full game lands in our customised hands later this year.