You come at the Nidoking, you best not miss.
Editor's note: The developer has informed us that a patch is being prepared for around launch day that may alleviate some of the concerns expressed in the video.
While there are some games that have elements of Pokémon, you don't see too many entire experiences try to emulate what the Game Freak cash cow has been doing for more than two decades. Monster Crown is an incredibly ambitious video game. It's been in early access since July 2020, and with the 1.0 release on Steam and Switch scheduled for October 12, I've had a chance to put this more mature monster-catching RPG through its paces. Many of those paces have been filled with frustration and a lack of polish that borders on laughable. Pokémon may not be flashy, but it works, it's sharp and the presentation is top notch. Opposite this, you have Monster Crown, which is rough, in a word. Flying too close to the sun can do that to you.
At the beginning of the story, you choose your character's look and gender before being introduced to some of the basics, which will be familiar to Pokémon fans. At home on your parents' farm, you learn that the world is filled with monsters to be tamed by forming pacts with them. Monsters have their own desires to meet and lives to lead, but there are individuals known as Monster Tamers who have the ability to enter into the aforementioned pacts and work side-by-side with different monsters. Stop me if you've heard this before. After your father teaches you the basics of pact-forming and combat, as well as the five monster types, you're given your first major objective: take a shiny treasure to the ruler of the Humanism Kingdom to the north. Adding monsters to your team and leveling them up is definitely part of your journey, but there's always a specific destination or task assigned to you as well.
Even though the monster designs themselves are largely fine, few manage to stand out. You are offered an initial choice of five, with one of them recommended based on a brief personality test. I went against the test and chose Darwhol, a whale-like creature. One positive is that there is no limit to how many times you can use each of your moves, but one of the monsters I captured started with two moves and didn’t learn another one even after going from level 5 to 29. With shared party experience being toggled on by default, I found my party leveling up very slowly, so it may be worth switching it off to strengthen one or two monsters first before trying to equally raise your entire party. Similar to the mainline Pokémon games, you have monsters join you by weakening them in battle and then using a “Pact” item on them. Extra monsters are sent to a box that you can access in any town. So many of the trappings and settings are familiar, with even a seedy casino to gamble in and a power plant to explore, but then Monster Crown swings and misses at very basic video game and RPG fundamentals. The fact that interesting smaller elements, like how your decisions impact the story, a card-collecting mini-game, and special forms of each monster, go largely unnoticed is a testament to how problematic Monster Crown is at present.
Where the cracks in Monster Crown begin to show are in the minute-to-minute gameplay. At nearly all times, the screen stutters slightly as you move. Given the top-down 2D perspective, this issue is very noticeable, but it's minor in comparison to the issues that follow. The balance in terms of combat, monster strength, and typing is way off. Monsters above your level can be taken out with a single regular attack. Enemy monsters many levels weaker than you can one-hit KO the members of your squad with regularity. You're also as likely to run into a random monster walking about the overworld who can wipe your whole team as you are a monster that's a total pushover. You never know whether a battle with another Tamer will be your last, since most of them are quite formidable and bring with them four or even six capable monsters that could easily handle your roster of up to eight. Did I mention that you lose all of the items in your backpack when you die or surrender? I even lost what I believe to be this game’s equivalent of the Master Ball by having to fight a second boss right after earning the “Ultimate Pact.” The game’s also frozen on this screen; I had to reset the game to advance. Professor Oak, I don’t feel so good...
Now, I can live with characters glitching through walls and both enemy and allied monsters living with 0 HP and still being able to attack. However, I draw the line at game-breaking bugs, and unfortunately I hit a doozy at about the six or seven-hour mark. On a mission to retrieve secret powers from three of the cities across the continent, I was in pursuit of the final one when at the end of a dungeon I encountered a never-ending, looping boss fight. There’s no way to exit the dungeon, defeating the boss is essentially impossible, and even when I have defeated it, eventually the fight starts over again. Hilariously, pressing the + Button in this situation, which would normally bring up the main menu, would actually just activate the boss encounter once more. Since the game provides only a single-save file, I’ll lose all progress if I choose to restart from the beginning. As it turns out, I was apparently able to use the Ultimate Pact on this boss to capture it, but it required that I attempt the pact-forming action multiple times. I don’t think I was necessarily supposed to do this, but I was glad to be able to get out of a jam and continue through to the end of the game.
My prevailing feeling after rolling credits is that I could never really tell if an issue I encountered during gameplay was the result of a bug/glitch or an intentional design choice. Outside of perhaps MissingNo from Red and Blue, I’ve never gone through a Pokémon game and conflated programming errors with game design. I mentioned earlier a lack of polish in Monster Crown, and I do think that’s its fatal flaw. Different NPCs often have the exact same dialogue; I found one building where all four people in it said the same thing verbatim. There is a lot to see and do here, even if the somewhat rushed story can be completed in under 10 hours. It’s hard to feel compelled to dive back in for the post-game, however, given how likely it is that something can go wrong or fail to deliver.
I also mentioned how ambitious Monster Crown is, and I’ll give credit where it’s due. Online battling and trading, an intricate breeding system, and monster variants do add longevity for those who really get into the game. Items that grant new moves to your monsters, boost their stats, or perhaps create entirely new monsters are all up for the finding; just don’t die before using them or storing them in an item box in town. From reading about the game online and its journey through early access, I can already see a flock of dedicated fans who are delving into the nitty gritty details and even helping with bug fixing. The fact remains, though, that being listed on the Switch eShop connotes that a game is finished and playable, and I’m not sure either qualifier would hold up in a court of law.
With over 200 monsters to collect, many of whom can be traded for with various NPCs scattered about the map, a helpful in-town quick travel system, and some interesting story beats, I have no doubt that Monster Crown could become a brilliant and shining example of how to make a Pokémon-like. Regrettably, it’s really nowhere near ready for prime time. Steam users are certainly more accustomed to early access, and I’m sure they enjoy being part of the process of fixing and helping to improve a game that they have high hopes for. The console audience can be more discerning, though, and it’s hard to ask Switch owners to pay money for a video game in this state. One day, it might actually be worthy of some royal headgear, but as of now, Monster Crown is much more pauper than prince.