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Review #058: Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom (Nintendo Switch)

Reviewer: John B.

Developer: Game Atelier Publisher: FDG Entertainment Category: Action, Adventure, Platformer, RPG Release Date: 12.4.18

Download Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom here.

Purchase Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom (physically) here.

Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom had an interesting path to life. It was originally developed by Game Atelier as a sequel to Flying Hamster before being picked up by FDG Entertainment. FDG turned it into a spiritual successor to the well-loved Wonder Boy series in association with WB’s creator Ryuichi Nishizawa. Then it was originally subtitled Wizard of Booze, but, uh, someone pointed out what that means in English to the French developers, so we ended up with Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. Despite all the behind the scenes changes, however, Game Atelier and FDG turned out a game that is the next best thing to perfect. Enough with the intro, let’s get started.

This Boy, This Monster

On a quiet day in Pirate’s Cove, Jin (the titular Monster Boy) is just trying to relax and get some fishing in. The last thing he needs is, say, a crazy drunk uncle with a magic wand flying around on a barrel turning people into monsters. But the world doesn’t always give us what we want, so that’s exactly what happens. After chasing Nabu to a lighthouse, Jin is turned into a pig man with an eyepatch (awesome) and makes his way to a nearby village, where the citizens are understandably upset at Nabu. Jin tells the village that Uncle Nabu must be under an evil spell. I suppose this could be true, if you consider Johnny Walker a wizard. The village leader lets Jin know that legends say there are some magic orbs nearby that might help, so Jin sets off after them to find his uncle and undo the damage Nabu has done.

The story is fairly basic; but then, the game isn’t really about the narrative. It’s about action and exploration and turning into awesome monsters. Still, the story is rock-solid for what it is, and the writing is exceptionally sharp and clever. I don’t know if I actually laughed out loud at any point, but I found myself smiling or chuckling on numerous occasions when encountering one of the world’s many colorful characters. Monster Boy’s story doesn’t reinvent any narrative tropes, but it’s a fun and funny journey that is a pleasure to take with its charming cast.

Metroidvania? More Like Monster Boyvania

Or I guess you could go with Metroidster Boy, if Samus is your waifu. The point I was trying to make is that Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a perfect example of the metroidvania genre. It’s an excellent blend of platforming action and sidescrolling exploration. The main mechanic for both of these gameplay aspects is Jin’s ability to change into different monster forms. Every dungeon he explores ends with the discovery of a new orb (yeah, like every fantasy game ever, the vague legend is 100% true), and each new orb gives Jin a new monster form. You start out with the aforementioned pig pirate, who can use magic, but is too fat to use any weapons or armor. Eventually, Jin gains the ability to turn into a snake, a frog man, a lion man, and a dragon man. Oh, and he can turn back into his human form, too, I guess, but that’s pretty boring. Each form has its strengths and weaknesses, and exploring the full map requires you to figure out which form’s abilities are needed to get past which obstacles.

Form of… a Dragon! Shape of… Not a Dumb Water Thing!

Each transformation has at least one ability that can be used to bypass terrain obstacles; the snake can fit into tight spaces, the frog’s tongue can be used to swing from certain points, and the lion’s charge ability can smash boulders. Along the way, Jin finds talismans which open up new abilities for each of his forms. For example, the lion’s charge can be upgraded to be able to thrust upward, instead of just side-to-side or downward. It was always exciting to unlock a new ability and think to myself “wait, I can use this to get to that door from two dungeons ago!” Each form has a unique play style, so switching between forms keeps the gameplay fresh almost all the time. Early on, when you’re just the pig, things can get a little stale because he’s the least interesting form from an action standpoint, but once you’ve unlocked a form or two the gameplay always has a pleasant variety.

First You Gotta Do the Truffle Shuffle

While in human or pig form, Jin can use magic spells. These spells are unlocked by finding and eating special magic truffles. You can get a truffle to grant you the ability to cast fireballs, summon lightning, create whirlwinds, throw boomerangs, and set bombs. Two of those don’t seem like they’d need special magic power, but whatever. Eating additional truffles increases the number of uses for the corresponding spell. The first truffle for each ability is always somewhere obvious to unlock it and get you past the first obstacle you need to use it for, but subsequent truffles are more well-hidden. Like a lot of the secret items in the game, many of the truffles require you to backtrack to previous dungeons after you’ve unlocked a new transformation or ability.

It’s Dangerous To Go Alone. Take This!

In addition to each form’s abilities, Jin can equip a variety of weapons and armor. Some forms can’t use any equipment, however, so be careful with relying on one item too much. Except any boots that give you a double-jump; I don’t think anything in this game made me happier than finally getting a double-jump ability. Anyway, you can find all kinds of swords, a wand, different armors, shields, boots, and bracelets that each affect Jin’s attack, defense, and movement speed. Some items even grant special abilities, such as the aforementioned double-jump boots or a sword with a fire element that can light things on fire. Most weapons can also be upgraded if you have the right kind of gem to unlock the equipment’s next level. Upgrades range from increasing the attack power of weapons to granting new environmental abilities.

For Those Who Prefer the Journey to the Destination

Traversing the map is about what you’d expect; it’s a 2D sidescrolling platformer, you go the edge of the screen and move to the next one. Sometimes you need to jump from platform to platform, sometimes you need to swim, and sometimes you need to unlock a door to get past. The platforming and pathfinding puzzles are well-constructed and often challenging, both from a dexterity and mental standpoint. Sometimes you’ll have to light lanterns in a certain order to unlock a door using clues found in the area to determine proper sequence (although trial and error can work too, I guess). There are a few portals that can be used to instantly move from one area to another, but they are few and far between. Eventually you get a staff that allows you to travel to one of these portals instantly, but you still have to backtrack a little if you want to be anywhere but exactly where the travel point is.

Tomb Raiding vs Smart Shopping

Scattered around the map are a ton of treasure chests hidden behind a variety of puzzles. Some chests are just out there in the open; walk up to them and grab what’s inside. Some have special locks that won’t open unless you use the right ability on them, and some only open after solving a puzzle. Chests contain money, new equipment, ability-unlocking talismans, hearts to expand your health bar, or gems to upgrade your equipment. If waiting for chests to give you something good is too much of a hassle, there are stores scattered around the world that will sell you new equipment, refill your health, use your upgrades gems, or replenish your magic skills for the right price. I don’t know why anyone would open a health potion store in an abandoned, “lost”, ancient temple, but I was often glad they did.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Turn Into Them

Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a downright beautifully designed game. The graphics are sharp and colorful, creating the impression that I was actually playing a cartoon. There were times when it was hard to tell the background from the foreground, especially in the cloud and lava levels, but that’s a minor problem, really. Character models combine unique, fun designs with smooth animations to create a very slick set of visuals. And the music! The music is fantastic. It’s hard to pick a favorite from this many amazing songs, but the dramatic rock riffs that play during the boss fights are a definite candidate. Top it off with an amazing anime-style intro featuring a perfect Saturday morning cartoon theme song, and the audio-visual elements of the game could not be more impressive.

Monster Boy, Fighting For a Future Made of Love and Joy

Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a game I wholeheartedly recommend. The level design is challenging and fun, the puzzles are clever but solvable, and the different play styles of each of Jin’s forms mean the gameplay never gets stale. The visuals and music are wonderfully colorful and lively, creating an inviting atmosphere that will keep players engaged and invested for hours on end. I never played any of the Wonder Boy games, but if they’re all made with this much care, I can definitely see why it’s become a classic series.

Final Score: 10/10

Download Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom here.

Purchase Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom (physically) here.

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*Review Code Provided by FDG Entertainment

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