Monochroma, a puzzle platformer developed by Nowhere Studios, is one of those games that comes out of, well, nowhere and thoroughly entertains you exactly because it’s so unexpected.
Although you’ll have a good enough time figuring out the puzzles, clambering over things, and avoiding the mean men who chase you, what’s really grabbing about the game is what’s beyond the mechanics.
The game’s story starts off innocently enough. You play as the big bro to a little bro. Your little bro wants to go kite-flying, and you tag along behind him in order to keep a watch. Soon, the weather deteriorates, you lose the kite, and your little brother injures himself. Unable to walk, he needs you to carry him. Things quickly escalate from there, in wonderfully macabre ways. I won’t elaborate, except to say that it’s a modern, Dickensian tale.
Of the platforming and puzzling in the game, the puzzling is the stronger element.
Most of the puzzles are logical things, and involve getting your little bro through areas with a combination of weights, contraptions, and timing. Players can pick up and put down the little bro (but only in lit areas; he refuses to be left anywhere else), jump, hang off and climb ledges, push and pull objects around, and activate and deactivate controls. There are a handful of times when the puzzle aspect strays outside of its logical constraints, and I can’t say those instances are for the better. The platforming should pick up the slack where the puzzler doesn’t muster, however.
It should, but it doesn’t. The platforming controls are both simple, and disappointing. It’s not the simplicity that bothers. Many of the best games stick to a core mechanic or few, and focus on executing them flawlessly. If your experience hinges on a handful of gameplay elements, you need to make sure those elements work perfectly.
The controls in Monochroma aren’t as precise or responsive as one would hope with a platformer. Sometimes you’ll mean to hang off a platform but fall to your death instead, or want to jump at a lever but just not be able to move as accurately as you’d like. That’s a problem, especially later in the game, when timing becomes important.
This crude sluggishness extends to the animations, too. The protagonist takes forever to activate switches, climb obstacles and ladders, and otherwise make his way about the world. Does it make sense? Yes. Does it make for good gameplay? No.
Nothing is more annoying than the animation of putting down and picking up your little brother, however. You spend a lot of time doing just that throughout the game. I thought this was a characterization of the brothers’ relationship, a sign of tenderness, but how could it be? The characters are just as laconic in everything and as everything else in this world. If not speeding it up, the developers could have at least made the animation more interesting by introducing variations.
Aesthetically, the game is a mix of excellent and merely functional. Nowhere Studios do have a keen understanding of environmental storytelling and pacing, using the changes in your surroundings to fill in the narrative backdrop, and to make sure that your trek never feels monotonous. Environments are littered with great little punctuation points of visual interest, which simultaneously serve other functions: motif, theme, atmosphere, world-building …
This mastery and understanding of the broader game is, unfortunately, lacking at the immediate level, in the moment-to-moment of the overarching thrust. Character and environment models are unappealingly bare, and often downright ugly. This could maybe have been forgiven had the two characters with which you’ll share all your time, the brothers, not been victims of this bungling, too, but they’re impish, plastic little things with whom one doesn’t really want to spend time. The game isn’t technically taxing, so I’m baffled as to why it was allowed to be published with some of the assets and models it has.
The color palette, besides fostering a dire atmosphere and acting as a recurring motif, does an admirable job of hiding just how shoddy the modeling and texture work in this game are. I like the palette, too, but unfortunately the stark contrast does sometimes hurt the eyes. They would have done well to introduce more nuance and shading. When they do, the game looks beautiful.
Design is difficult, and anyone who says otherwise should be pointed at Monochroma. The developers absolutely knew what they wanted to do, but failed to execute it in the minutiae. The occasional better design is evidence of a higher level of skill and care, which one gets the impression is due to their being created later in development. Nowhere Studios, then, should have been willing to spend an extra week or month to return to the beginning; the improved presentation would have made a stark difference to the game’s reception.
I’ve been very critical of Monochroma. That’s not to say that it’s unplayable or unworthy. On the contrary, the game is well worth your time.
The deft storytelling tells a taut tale of brotherly devotion, which the world-building prevents from becoming too twee or sappy. The game is so good in those respects that it’s able to imbue the experience with momentum and excitement even where the controls and design fail it; unfortunately, a good narrative can only distract from so much else that’s wrong with the game. The flaws of Monochroma are such that they’re a significant distraction from what Nowhere Studios is trying to accomplish.
I’m so critical because I’m so disappointed at what’s missing. On the one hand, the game effortlessly transports you through a fantastical world and takes you on a genuinely enthralling journey; on the other, the little moments drag the trajectory down.
Die-hard platforming fans will feel disappointed, and puzzlers may not feel the game is quite satisfying enough. The overall experience, however, is good enough, just. If you’re the curious sort who loves a good yarn, you should give Monochroma a go; but if you find pleasure primarily in the mechanics and control of gaming, you’re better off with something else.
Monochroma was reviewed using a retail copy provided by Nowhere Studios. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.