Monster Lab Reader Review
One of my favourite games on the original Playstation was Monster Rancher and its sequel. Creating a monster to send into gladiatorial combat and doing jobs with the chance of getting special items to use on it was really enjoyable, so seeing a similar game which takes the same concept, but provides a better combat experience and more control over the questing aspect is very welcome; especially when it's as well-executed as Monster Lab is.
The premise is that you are an apprentice to a member of the Mad Science Alliance in Uncanny Valley named Professor Fuseless (rhymes with "useless"): an affable fellow with a Boris Badinoff accent and mechanical arm attached to his back. Your goal initially appears to be to prove your mettle and become a fully-fledged Mad Scientist and the Professor is going to show you the ropes and give you the opportunity. And what do Mad Scientists do in Uncanny Valley? Well, one of their activities is creating monsters from different bits, bringing them to life and sending them out into the world to do various things; this is the focus of the game.
Your primary interface is the Great Hall of the Professor's castle (located on an isolated mountain removed from the Valley, naturally enough). From here you can save your progress, build parts for your monsters, assemble and animate your creations, send your monster off on missions and do battle with other Mad Scientists via WiFi connection.
Visually the game has a nice level of detail and varied, if dark, colour palette in a style reminiscent of Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas. The characters have an appealing cartoony look in 3D with a good polygon count and nice textures. When in conversation the characters are very large on screen and animated. Before sending your monster into various parts of the valley you get to see an overview of it, which is gradually revealed from under a fog; selecting a section of it zooms in and you can see that section in miniature, which is a nice touch and shows a good attention to detail on the part of the developer.
Cutscenes are few and are used to forward the overarching plot which is slowly revealed: it appears that a rogue former member of the Mad Science Alliance, The Baron, is up to mischief and must be stopped! The cutscene visuals appear the same a the regular game graphics, so there is no jarring discontinuity.
The audio is fairly good, though the default sound levels are are all low, so going into the Options menu to turn up the sound should be your first order of business. These are the only options to hand outside of screen brightness. You can control the level of sound in cutscenes (though cutscene volume is always lower than the rest of the game), sound effects and music independently. Voice acting is excellent: the actors are quite enthusiastic and the dialogue is well-written helping to immerse yourself in the game world. The Wiimote speaker gets used in combat for battle sounds and other atmospheric effects, which is something I always enjoy when done well as it is here. The music is nice and rather Elfmanesque, which complements the look well.
The game wastes no time with build up; you're dropped straight into the thick of it: right after clicking "Start New Game" you're confronted with Professor Fuseless filling the screen asking if you've come to be his new apprentice and then the Mayor calls complaining of monsters running amok in the charmingly named village of Cobbleshire. Professor Fuseless gives you control over one of his prize monsters and away you go!
What follows gives you a taste of what is to come. The introduction of the basic mechanics is gradual, though not to the point of frustration, with the Professor giving you an audio overview in steps with text boxes repeating same.
When your monster is in town you have a pulled out view. The direction stick moves your monster from one point to another, often with different branching paths to take. Pressing in different directions as you hit these stopping points results in a smooth continuous progression from point to point weaving around various buildings; up and down hills. In addition to your starting point there is another terminus; either one will allow you to return to the castle at any time. Various devices are present which will eventually reveal their purpose as being key to finding parts needed to build your creations.
Your first lesson is in combat, which is what your monster will do a lot of. Combat is turn-based, which may turn some people off, but is nicely implemented using a combination of control stick and pointer as interface. Your monster is composed of five main parts: head, torso, right arm, left arm and legs. Head and arms have two attacks, the legs can attack or flee the combat and the torso is used to recharge your batteries or dodge (which also recharges 30% of your battery). Each part is highlighted moving the control stick, then a box in the lower right corner appears showing the options available and attack strength and energy used; highlighting your choice by moving the pointer over it causes the parts of your opponent that will be hit by this attack to be highlighted. Press A whilst hovering over your choice and the attack is carried out. Each part can take a certain amount of damage indicated by a small schematic at the top of the screen for each combatant with colour going from white to yellow to orange to red and finally black to indicate degrees of damage and then that the part is destroyed. Destroying the torso destroys the monster; alternatively you can take out all the extremeties. Destroying head arms or legs eliminates the offending extremity (bar the legs, though they can neither attack nor flee if destroyed), but even if suffering "only a flesh wound" it is possible to achive victory over your opponent.
After your combat you're shown the ingredients gained from the battle and then given the option to continue or conduct a field repair. The latter involves using the control stick to highlight the part needing repair and moving the wiimote in a circular motion to carry out the repair. You have only 15 seconds to conduct repairs in, so if you've taken a real beating you'd best get on with it1
Building monsters is the name of the game and building anything in Monster Lab, as in life, requires components. Your monster is made of the parts mentioned above; each of those parts is made of two components: a "main ingredient" and a "secondary ingredient." There are over 100 ingredients and they are often the primary determiner in what kind of part you end up with; some ingredients can only be used to make certain kind of monster parts and some monster parts can only be created with certain combinations of ingredients. In many cases the secondary ingredient only influences the efficiency of a part or introduces a defect. You won't know until you combine them in an experiment.
Experiments are carried out in the lab and use a minigame mechanic to conduct. There's a different minigame for building each component of each type. There are three types of ingredients, you see: mechanical, biological and alchemical. Initially you only have access to the workshop for building mechanical monster parts, but two other lab areas get unlocked later to allow you to build biological and alchemical parts. Minigames roughly fit the theme of what you're trying to make: the Weld-a-Tron builds mechanical arms, the Robo-Evolver builds mechanical heads. The games use a variety of motions, from pointer and B button for welding, to stick and wiimote jerking to smash robots or tilting and accelerating to navigate a sawblade in the game used to build legs. How well you do in these minigames influences the quality of the part, meaning the amount of damage it can take, inflict and how much energy it uses.
Once you've completed a part the recipe is stored should you wish to build it again; you also pick up recipes in the course of battling other monsters, so it's good to have a look at what you've learned before experimenting. You can load up a recipe and change one of the bits to try something different. It's a good feature which saves you repeating combinations over time if you forget what they create.
Finding these bits comes about in various ways: via defeating other monsters, completing missions or badges earned for achieving various milestones. Another method is using the devices seen in the village to play minigames which will win you parts for success. These run the gamut of tracing on-screen patterns with pointer and A button or uputting together puzzle pieces or digging for treasure with a wave of the Wiimote and a jerk of the nunchuck to smash skulls impeding your progress. There are dozens of these to encounter and in my early state of play I've only seen a handful.
Best of all is that, whilst there are missions to undertake (and at least initially they are linear and progress the overarching plot), you are never forced to do anything. You can take the time to experiment and upgrade your monster before a mission; during your mission you can wander about to dispatch random wandering monsters or attempt to avoid the odd angry mob or search for parts.
It seems obvious here, but the addition of the ability to put your monsters into battle against opponents online is a great bonus given the Wii's weak online offering. Like many Wii games friend codes are used. You get to choose a screen name that will be viewed by others, so the name you choose at the start isn't necessarily your online handle. Your friend code is displayed at the top of the screen above a list of friends indicating their name and status and can be sorted by either column. Yes, it appears you'll be able to tell if others in your list have also launched the WiFi mode -- it's not a lounge, but it's a good feature.
THINGS I'D LIKE TO HAVE SEEN
There are none of the usual shortcuts for on-screen menus and such. It's not a big deal, but I prefer to use the stick or d-pad to flip through screens of instructions or use B and A to back up and progress rather than clicking on-screen buttons.
It would also be nice to be able to turn off the text of the characters' speech or turn off instructions before various minigames, though they can be bypassed with an on-screen button click.
The biggest weakness is the lack of any local multiplayer option and random match-ups as an alternative to use of friend codes for online matches would also be nice.
Despite the minor shortcomings highlighted above Monster Lab is a great 3rd party effort for the console which shows solid controls that make great use of the Wiimote in a game that has appeal for a broad age range. Kudos to Eidos and Backone Entertainment for this excellent offering on the Wii, which should inspire other developers to turn out quality titles for this platform.