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One of Nowhere Studios’ better achievements in their latest puzzle platformer is the look and tone of an unforgiving, desolate corporate maligned landscape. Before you even make your first move, there is already a powerful sense of darkness and foreboding, yet tinged with undeniable hope. That says a lot about the first impression, and indeed, as a lilting guitar urges you to move, it grips right away. In a game with no words, much is communicated with these striking visuals, all of which are in rich black and white with bits of crimson red splattered amid the environments. It’s a world with few people as well, and as the game starts, this is only one of many questions that rise in the six or so hours it will take to reach the end of this sometimes frustrating, often cumbersome game that feels slightly unfinished.
Unfinished is the right word. Let me explain. For instance, I played this on an Xbox One. The main menu, upon booting up the game, says “press any key”. If you know what an Xbox is, you know there are no keys. It’s a minor oversight, but a reminder that I’m about to play a PC port. There are other, more pressing issues that leave this feeling not quite ready to play though. Often times, characters leap and cling to edges but are sometimes just a bit off the mark. Arbitrary rules seem in place for how far one can fall or what things can be interacted with. Music suddenly stops playing for long stretches and then suddenly comes back. Loading screens kick in at peculiar moments, and there is an overall lack of polish to the mechanics that make learning and mastering the game a sometimes taxing experience. These were issues that plagued the PC version and have not been addressed for the console release.
That said, it feels ambitious, like it has big things to say. It pokes us with a curiosity stick and creates a disturbing setting that begs to be explored, though that is impossible beyond the 2D movement. That’s really a compliment to the design and art style, one that immediately conjures images of the superior Limbo (and also a failed shooter called The Saboteur that I kinda of enjoyed). The comparisons end there though. While it has an alluring look, much like this year’s Unravel, it suffers from poor controls and arbitrary rules.
The story begins in a gray farming landscape, as a boy watches a younger brother fly a kite. The kite lands on a nearby barn roof and the two go to fetch it, only to fall through. The young brother injures his leg and so the older must carry him along. The young boy is frightened by the darkness and will only be set down in light. To navigate the many structures, fields, barns and more, the big brother must pull switches, pull boxes, make jumps, turn on lights, and outrun obstacles.
This conceit is meant to garner an emotional investment between the siblings, but as the younger boy never recovers, he instead becomes a nuisance. With no growth in their relationship, he is merely a plot device designed to add difficulty to the puzzles. That wasn’t such a problem at the start, and indeed, made sense. But as it never changes, it feels forced and betrays a promise that seemed obvious, that eventually the two would work together to solve more complicated puzzles. Sadly, that doesn’t happen.
The larger issue is a big one. Monochroma just isn’t fun. It claims it is not a trial and error game, but of course it is, and while the great platformers make redoing levels the reason for playing, I found myself happy most levels were over and I could simply move on. I’ll admit, I am by no means a huge fan of the genre, but when I do play, I enjoy the brain teasers. It’s what made games like the original Tomb Raider series on PC so engaging. And there are a few solid puzzles here, though most don’t rely on physics so much as timed movement. So fine, getting over that, the most disappointing aspect was I had no investment in the characters. So small on the screen, and with no real attachment to a strong narrative, I didn’t care much what happened to them. Neither does the game, it seems. You actually earn Xbox Achievements for finding creative ways to die. When characters do die, they simply fall over and since dropping a mine cart on your little brother’s head is a thing that can be done, you don’t much care when it happens because there is no reaction from the older brother. It just restarts. It lacks any emotional humph, which is fine except that is what it intends at its start.
I honestly had trouble staying motivated to finish Monochroma. Once the gorgeous graphics and occasional clever puzzles faded from interest, I simply wanted to see how it ended. Your experience may vary of course, depending on your love of the genre, but there are better out there. The price is fair and for die-hards, it might be worth checking out, but the inconsistent mechanics, lack of player investment, and zero re-playability will keep others way.
Developer: Nowhere Studios
Mode: Single-player video game
Genre: Puzzle, Platformer
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, Linux, Mac OS