What happens when monster catching meets Metroidvania gameplay? You might think this sounds like some sort of hardcore Pokémon, and in a sense you'd be right, as you start with one monster in Moi Rai Games and Team17's upcoming title, but there's more depth here than meets the eye, as we found when we got our hands on the game.
Monster Sanctuary starts with a short intro where you learn that you will follow in your ancestors' footsteps to become a monster keeper. A monster keeper is exactly what it sounds like: you keep monsters, train them, and use them to battle other monsters. Before you embark on your adventure, you may choose one of four spectral familiars representing earth, fire, air, and water (we chose a fire lion). Not only do these four familiars each have their own unique strengths and stats, but they can also talk. Throughout your adventure they will have advice for you, and they can even help you navigate your way in this side-view pixel world.
In Monster Sanctuary you don't throw balls at monsters to capture them. Instead, monsters you defeat may drop an egg, and you hatch the egg by clicking on it, at which point you can add the hatchling to your team.
You are not only training and fighting monsters though, as you're also tasked with unravelling a mystery that threatens the peace between humans and monsters. You are sent on quests (find location X, talk to person Y) that will lead you through the lands of Monster Sanctuary, and of we go on our journey.
The world of Monster Sanctuary is inspired by Metroidvania titles, as there's a large interconnected world map you can explore, though access to parts of the world is limited by obstacles that can only be passed if you own monsters that have the ability to cut or break through said obstacles.
As a side-scroller platform game, you will be jumping back and forth a lot. The first few maps you explore don't offer a whole lot of variety, as each one looks similar to the previous one, meaning it can be a bit confusing and at times even tedious to find what you're looking for to progress the storyline. When you fall off a platform it doesn't mean you plummet to imminent death, but admittedly it can get annoying when certain platforms are hard to reach and need a long climb only to miss it again. Patience is a virtue!
Control-wise, Monster Sanctuary is straight-forward: left and right key to move, space to jump, and ESC to open the menu. The menu allows you to see the talent trees of your monsters, and when they level up you can use skill points to improve their existing abilities or unlock a new one. Your monsters can also hold items (although sometimes you might wonder how) that improve their stats. The skill tree is a nice addition and allows you to get invested in your monsters and build a strong team, however, newly hatched monsters already have unlocked skills, so you don't get to start with a blank slate. Every move costs mana, but when you run out of mana your monsters can resort to plain old fisticuffs, so you won't easily get stuck without any moves.
Battles are triggered when you touch any of the monsters on your path, but if you don't want to get involved in any action, you can dodge the monster by jumping over it. Combat is turn-based and can be against up to three enemies at the same time, but Monster Sanctuary distinguishes itself by focusing on team synergy and combos during battle, meaning you may need some strategy to get through fights unscathed. Obtaining new monsters provides additional strategic options in combat, and another unique feature is the 'rating' after every fight; depending on how efficient your combos and teamwork were and how quickly you defeat your enemies, you will be rated anywhere between 1 to 5 stars. This also affects which items will drop after a fight, meaning the more stars you get the more chance you have for rare drops.
That said, we feel these combat ranks could be tweaked a bit, as it isn't easy to hit 5 stars, and it's hard to acquire new team members and equipment since anything lower than 5 stars has a low drop rate. This does add challenge to the game, along with the fact that monsters around you will level up too as you do, preventing you from becoming overpowered.
All in all, this game is pleasant to play, mixing platform elements with those of the classic turn-based RPG, featuring easy controls yet challenging gameplay. The skill tree let's you individualise your monster and the food/equipment you provide your monsters further enhances this. The combo system and combat ratings give Monster Sanctuary a more unique feel than other monster-collecting games, and whilst there is a storyline, it's a good game to pick up and (re)play whenever you feel like battling some monsters.