Imagine, if you will, the nerve-wracking survivor mode of Alien: Isolation; the thrilling, tense, finales of L4D and the creature variety of Evolve, all spinning in some sort of sci-fi amalgamator. Are you done simultaneously vomiting and crying? Because I can wait. All done? The reason I put you through that is because Monstrum for Early Access strives for this Frankenstein’s monster-game concept, and it succeeds. Quibbles aside, this is a great start for first-person horror rogue-lites in 2015.
Horror is hard, and I say this knowing full well the porn parody implications of such a statement. Developers are churning horror titles out at record speed in light of certain mainstream and indie successes. As such, the quality has plummeted faster than Hans Gruber at the end of Die Hard. Enter Monstrum, a new IP with a refreshing concept: monsters are chasing you… on a frickin’ boat.
It’s a trivial yet critical alteration to the formula. We’ve been chased on star ships, space stations, strange planets, in forests and spooky houses, but very seldom on boats. And I would argue that boats are chock-a-block with atmosphere, much more than what we give them credit for. Labyrinthine and cramped in design, their bowels groan and creak without warning, as if they are alive. The doors are heavy, the lights flicker and dim, pipes shoot hot steam… and those are in the best of conditions. You, however; you’re alone in the middle of the ocean, save for one unwanted stowaway.
You’ll wake up in a randomly generated boat; suffering from video game amnesia. You venture forth with a cryptic note and flashlight in trembling hands. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be initially confused, stumbling down corridors, popping in rooms, and grabbing every glowing thing in sight. Some items are mission critical, such as a fuse, duct tape, or a bolt cutter. Some items, however, are purely to distract and slow down would-be monster murderers. As you discover plot-sensitive items, your amnesiac self will jot down tools necessary to escape your watery tomb. That’s usually when you let out a big sigh of relief, turn around, and spot a nameless Eldritch horror. For me, it was love at first sight. I gazed into its translucent face, it (presumably) looked back, screeched, and gave chase. I tripped on a gnarly bit of floorboard and didn’t get up in time to escape my gruesome death. Then you’re greeted with a hilariously lame death still, and the option to play again.
Each time you play, you’ll encounter a different layout, a different escape route, and one of two monsters. What’s more, the monster appears to explore the ship slowly and systematically, which means you can play half of a game and just not see it, or you can step out, take five steps, and be face-to-face with it. I appreciate this, especially after being seemingly attached at the hip with a xenomorph in 2014. This design didn’t feel artificial, and I appreciated that; the monster can and will be anywhere.
Furthermore, there is no “instant hidey hole” escape button when you’re near a locker. You have to manually open that sucker, walk in, and shut the door, usually while being chased. As you’d imagine, that can be a bit stressful, which again, I appreciate in a horror game. Each monster has a different tactic for tracking and chasing you as well, which I won’t spoil. I won’t rob you of any potential scares.
Arguably the most important aspect of a good horror game is its soundtrack, and Monstrum doesn’t disappoint. Every locker door you throw wide open, every cabinet you yank at in desperation, every hesitant step you take (and don’t take), fill the empty isolation with unwelcome din.
I’m excited for Monstrum’s potential. I want to see more monsters, like a creepy mermaid creature, an ape monster; maybe even a run-of-the-mill human with a chip on his shoulder and nothing left to lose (developers: Lovecraft and Poe are your friends. Dead friends, but friends!). I want to see more ships, too, be they cruise ships with multiple beasties, yacht, pirate ships, or party/orgy boats. I’d love to see some kind of one vs. one multiplayer, though that may be asking for the moon. This game is brimming with potential, and what it already brings to the table is very, very fun – even if some of the animations are a little wonky, and the after-death stills just downright goofy.
It’s also a surprisingly challenging game. Getting caught means certain death, and in the cramped and narrow corridors of a ship, it can be difficult to escape a hulking or skittering monster. It can feel cheap and unfair sometimes, but then maybe I was playing too fast, too furious. Furthermore, after beating the limited number of scenarios a few times, that challenge and fear may diminish, and all the procedural generation in the world won’t stop the drab interiors of a tanker from getting monotonous. But the core gameplay, tone, and theme of Monstrum is great, and I anticipate good things to come.
So come aboard, hesitant passengers. The on-board safety demonstration will be temporarily delayed on account of unspeakable horror.