Within five seconds of playing the demo for the new JRPG Monark, I realized that I would have known this game was made by ex-Shin Megami Tensei devs even if I had no clue beforehand. The title feels like a lost tactical RPG installment to the series and that’s not a bad thing at all. That is, unless you’re not a fan of the classic Atlus school setting, a teenage cast of characters, and an annoying obligatory demon mascot.
The premise of Monark isn’t a formula that is lost on veteran Atlus RPG players. Taking control of a nameless main character, I was thrown headfirst into a mysterious academy being plagued by a madness-inducing mist and a dark dimension called the Otherworld. Together with a secret group of staff, students, and a demonic plush bunny, players must travel the school and the Otherworld to find the method behind the madness and hopefully free the school from the curse surrounding it.
Monark begins in a classic Atlus-esque sequence by throwing some interpersonal and philosophical questions out. This is a continuous trend in the game that shapes the main character’s Ego (or their stat build, in non-JRPG terms), their Daemons/Fiend (Basically their Persona/Demon), and the outcome of the game.
As with the Shin Megami Tensei series, players come in contact with various characters who represent different beliefs. In layman’s terms, whoever you agree with philosophically will affect the world in the story. If we’re continuing this trend of being “Shin Megami Tensei but not,” then there may be a true ending as well, but that hasn’t been confirmed just yet.
Where the game differs from the standard Atlus affair is the combat. While Shin Megami Tensei has stepped into tactical JRPGs territory before with the Devil Survivor spin-off series, Monark takes a more original approach to the formula.
That partly comes into play during the exploration sections of the game. At times players are tasked with exploring areas covered with Mist, a mysterious substance that raises the “MAD” meter of the main character. If left unchecked by items that lower the gauge or with visits to the infirmary, it’ll result in an instant game over. This time constraining mechanic isn’t just present in exploratory segments, but in battle as well.
It’s a huge game of risk versus reward at all times and I absolutely love it.
Players are put in control of their party on a field where they are free to roam a set amount of space within a circle. This isn’t a grid-based tactical RPG that Fire Emblem fans are used to. I’d compare it more to a game like Sakura Wars 5: So Long My Love.
This free-roam nature gives a bit of a different flavor to the tactics one will experiment with in Monark, as players are unshackled from a grid and may use every piece of field possible to their advantage. The lack of a grid also fits the game’s chaotic tone.
Characters have standard battle options with attacks and spells, dubbed Arts or Authority. These are abilities used by Pactbearers (those who can summon Daemons) and Daemons. However, each of these options comes at a cost. Special Arts cost characters health upon use and Authorities raise the MAD Gauge which results in a loss of control, defense decrease, and all other stats being buffed. After three turns of Madness, the affected unit will be K.O’d.
There are many other battle mechanics such as Resonance, which entails sharing status ailments with a nearby unit, and Awakening, which buffs all stats after taking a set amount of damage or using a set amount of resolve. My favorite of these mechanics is Enlightenment, a mix of Awakening and Madness caused by Resonance that gives a huge stat buff in all areas and free use of Arts and Authorities for three turns.
Players are tasked with mastering when and where to use these blessings, curses, and everything in between in tandem with traversing the battlefield and its hazards (which can be used against enemies as well) to win. It’s a huge game of risk versus reward at all times and I absolutely love it.
Again, these mechanics play into the overall world that Monark presents the player with — a world that isn’t for the faint of heart, where characters are in constant danger of being taken by a mysterious fate. This demo left me with the early belief that anyone thirsty for more of what Shin Megami Tensei 5 and Persona 5 left us with will most likely find bliss when the full game releases. Of course, we’ll all find out on February 22, when it launches on PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
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