If Castlevania, Metroid, and that Tamagotchi hidden in your closet (dead because you never fed it even though you promised Mom you’d never let it out of your sight ) had a child, they’d probably name it Monster Tale…and marvel at the fact that two video games and a virtual pet could conceive new life. It’s a colorful, playful tale that incorporates elements of adventure, fantasy, puzzles, and even pet-raising that hearkens back to the days of the aforementioned classics. It doesn’t innovate or re-invent the genre, but it’s adorable, addictive fun that can be enjoyed by gamers of all ages.
Cherubic little Ellie is transported to a strange world full of spoiled little children who have found that they can bend the inhabiting creatures to their every selfish whim, using them as slaves. Ruling over the monster world isn’t enough. These bratty ne’er-do-wells intend on taking over the real world, as well. Armed with a mysterious bracelet and a powerful little critter she names Chomp, Ellie takes on the world of fantastical beings and their malevolent owners before they try to commandeer the world we know, as well. Throughout five kingdoms that serve as separate themed worlds, Ellie and Chomp bust through obstacles, fell difficult foes, and leveling up.
In terms of gameplay, the top screen is basically a Metroidvania nod – you’ll defeat enemies, pick up items that can be tossed to the bottom screen where lovable Chomp roams, and backtrack back and forth through each different area to open new passageways forward. As Chomp nibbles on treats, thumbs through mystical tomes, and even kicks a soccer ball up your way to take care of any nasties in your immediate vicinity, your little monster will level up and earn new abilities when you happen upon them. As Chomp gets stronger, so does Ellie. She can of course burst through walls and roll into hard-to-reach places, but only a combination of the two’s abilities will see you through to the journey’s completion. Chomp can change between three different elemental forms: fire, ice, and earth, and if one form doesn’t suit you, worry not! You can always try another path later. It’s nowhere near as permanent as an Eeveelution.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, there is quite a bit of backtracking to be done here. If you’re looking simply to explore new areas, unlock new areas and rooms, and continue moving forward only, you’re going to be disappointed, especially considering some of the game’s poor map design. When you complete one objective, the next one is automatically marked on the map, say, finding an artifact or reaching an area that advances the plot. However, it can be difficult to find your way even after the objective has clearly been noted, which essentially translates to far more monster encounters than necessary as you fumble through all the past areas you’ve visited.
Minor gripes aside, there is quite a bit of challenge to be found here with legitimate gameplay. Even though Chomp can guard you from the top and bottom screens, you must keep an eye on his stamina, as all the while he is flying around on the top screen it will drain. It can be quite taxing to stay on top of things in the heat of some more difficult battles, especially boss encounters, but adds an unexpected element of strategy that I appreciated. Rather than consistently relying on Chomp to see you through every single rough patch, you need to use Ellie as well, balancing the two characters out quite a bit.
Colorful, cartoony visuals, and some catchy little earworms complete the trifecta of charm, making Monster Tale one of the best DS adventures I’ve had the pleasure to embark on this year. Don’t let its childish exterior fool you; It’s deeper than you might be led to believe, more fun than the phrase “pet simulator” lets on, and packs a heck of a lot of nostalgia inside its irresistably cute core. Fans of classic series such as Castlevania and Metroid will find much to love here, even if that does mean indulging in some backtracking. Regardless, you’ll want to spend more time with Chomp and Ellie than the journey allows, so let’s hope for a sequel and more fantastic handheld adventures that eschew gimmicks and opt for fun, traditional gameplay.