Monster Monpiece Review
Sony PS Vita
We don’t seem to see many collectable card games on portables, which is a shame as they seem like the perfect companion to a device that can be carried anywhere. Single game blasts on the bus, ad hoc matches with friends and long nights of online multiplayer while kicking back on the sofa all sound great to me. Everyone else must disagree however – the last CCG we covered on a portable was Uncharted: Fight for Fortune back in December 2012 – we’ve not even seen a sniff of a hint of a Magic port in that time! But don’t despair (or, actually, probably best you do), as Compile Heart and Idea Factory have seen fit to bring us Monster Monpiece, a portable CCG with a vertical differentiator that might make you, or part of you at least, stand up and pay attention.
It all begins benignly enough, with a fairly standard talking head cutesy story taking us through the trials and tribulations of May Esperio, a young student studying hard to become some kind of monster girl master. Monster girls? The world has suffered a couple of punishments, the first of which let monsters run amok, the second of which then locked the monsters into the forms of human girls (of course) and then stuck them into cards (yep) that you can use to fight with. May’s friend Elza gets taken over by a mysterious force bent on turning the world upside down and she’s tasked with bonding with her main monster girl Fia (or ‘Fear’ on the card) and saving her friend, the world, and loads of other stuff besides. There’s no English dub, but at least the original Japanese voice track is there to soothe you as you read through all the overly girly story text.
The actual card battles in Monster Monpiece take place on a 3x7 grid, with each player able to play cards into the 3x3 area closest to their base. Each turn generates three mana, which can be used to summon monster girls – and, obviously, the more powerful cards generally cost more mana than the weaker ones. The summoned monster girls will then move forward one square (if they can!) each time their player gets a turn, attacking any opposing monster girl within range after that move. Some cards come with ‘potentials’, permanent abilities such as a counter-attack, whereas others come with ‘skills’, effects that play out once under certain conditions.
The idea of the game is to move monster girls to the end of the grid and attack your opponent’s base until all their life points have gone – and once a monster girl has successfully attacked a base she’ll be removed from play, so you’ll want to keep a steady stream of cards coming onto the battlefield to keep the pressure up. There’s also a secondary win condition where you win if your opponent can’t draw a card when called upon to do so, and vice versa, but this is very much an incidental victory rather than one that’s worthwhile playing for. All of the cards in MonMon are monster girl cards - creatures, if you will, that you summon onto the play field. This means that MonMon doesn’t have the equivalent of instant spells or global enchantments or so forth, instead linking everything to the creature cards in play. The cards are divided into four archetypes, Melee, Ranged, Healer and Buffer, with the names pretty much giving away the roles the monster girls in question will play within the game. As well as the roles each card also has an aura (red, yellow, green, blue) and a race (for example, Dragon, Fairy, Undead and so on).
All of these basic mechanics initially gel together quite well. You draw one card and can play one card per turn, and if you play cards with the same aura over multiple turns you’ll receive an aura bonus – for two in a row you’ll get an additional mana point and if you play three in a row you’ll complete the aura bonus and you’ll receive three mana, and any cards you have in play will have their attack and health boosted by one. You can also ‘fuse’ an additional card of the same archetype and race onto an existing monster girl in play, boosting their attack and health as well as giving them any potentials the new card would have had. Initial deck construction will see you trying to work down to a dual aura deck while also trying to limit yourself to a couple of races and an archetype strategy that suits you – with those in place the early aura bonuses should be enough to see you through the early game no matter the quality of your cards.
Tactically, at first at least, the mechanics seem to add up to a deep gameplay experience. Healers can be run behind rampaging melee cards powered up by additional fusion, lanes can be bossed by a static ranged card with a good range and a supporting damage buffer, and you can even go all out by running a ranged card behind a melee to deal significant damage to opposing monster girls. With the aura buff in mind, very quickly you’ll find yourself fine-tuning the construction of your deck, seeking out copies of particularly useful cards for inclusion or palming through your ever-growing collection to check whether now is the time to rebuild and include or move to a new aura.
The big problem is that there is no real way to effectively differentiate from the most basic playstyles. Even in the end game hardly any cards have dependable mana acceleration abilities, and the same can be said of skills that deplete your opponent’s mana pool and stall them from saving for their next big monster. There’s nothing that lets you get card advantage in the game, and even if it did the fact that you can only play one card a turn means that weeny decks suffer massively from the mid-game on once the AI starts getting access to larger cards that can take your fused-aura buffed little ones down easily, and for not much more mana than you’ve spent. You can’t influence the card draw, nothing lets you mess with your opponent’s library, and there is no way to affect your or your opponent’s life values away from the monster attacks. The ‘big monster’ strategy that comes to light early on is so successful that it’s the only real strategy available for you, with the tactical choices you get in deck construction driven more by ‘big and cheap’ than ‘gives interesting options’. Skills that come into effect when the card enters play will soon become the bane of your playtime, with the vast majority of them costing you valuable mana while delivering a useless or unrequired effect.
It’s not that every CCG needs to have the hallmarks of Magic: The Gathering to be considered successful, it’s just that the lack of play options available in MonMon limits the potential for intelligent play and exciting deck construction. Picture this, for example: a static ranged monster girl who, while in play, causes the opposing player to discard one of their cards per turn randomly – or maybe even a monster girl who causes them to take the top two cards from their library each turn and discard them. Suddenly you’ve changed the dynamic of play, either causing consternation to those trying to save mana to cast an expensive card or shortened the number of turns they have in which to force a win. Indeed, if you played the discard card on the first turn of a game instead of your opponent having a maximum of thirty-five turns in which to win the game you’ve just given them twelve; maybe that would have been too powerful with the slower gameplay of MonMon in mind, but the example suffices to demonstrate the kind of tactical options that should be available in any CCG rather than accepting one that gives you one gamestyle dressed up with mainly useless side skills.
Keeping up with the theme, deck construction itself can also be painful; decks are constructed of between thirty to forty cards, and can contain no more than three of the same card. However, a Lizardman +1 counts as a different card from a Lizardman, so if you do manage to find a card that’s a perfect match for your needs you can easily include more than three of them over all the variants (although they will, of course, all be slightly different). Annoyingly you can’t use the same card in more than one deck – for instance, if you managed to accrue three Sea Serpents +2 that you wanted to form the backbone of a deck you wouldn’t be able to assign them to two different decks at once. Instead, if you fancy switching decks, you’ll have the fun of entering your old deck, removing them, and then adding them again to the newer deck. This is a massive oversight, and (earlier on at least) really limits the chances that you’ll bother running with multiple decks. There is also an option to attach up to three items to your deck; these are single-use get-out-of-jail free style cards that can help you out of a tight spot. You’ll find some on your travels, buy some in the item shop, but in the main you’ll ignore them as they are entirely unrequired to get through the game.
Even more disappointing however is the AI. As soon as you get through the first couple of chapters of the story and have moved onto a dual aura deck (usually yellow-something due to the presence of strong early yellow cards) you will essentially be playing the same game, over and over again. Over time you’ll upgrade individual elements with newer cards or powered-up versions of the same cards, but basic tactics don’t change. Get your support element set up, get your high health front line set up, try to have two sets of two cards moving up at the same time and it’s very rare that the AI won’t be overrun. It takes until the very endgame (and indeed, post-game) for the AI to progress to the point where it surprises you with the odd counter placement to take out one of your larger monster girls, or even manages to link two complimentary cards together to try to get a run on. There’s a little over a hundred games to grind through to this point, a hundred games with no intelligence, no tactic other than big monsters. I can count on one hand the number of times my base was attacked unintentionally throughout the single player campaign, and throughout that time it wasn’t until the end that the AI actually started to bother with fusing cards onto one another. The AI also has to resort to blatant cheating, and especially later on you’ll be assailed with multiple mana acceleration Fairies or rarer Slimes that reduce your mana the first few turns of every single game. Yawn.
Even so, before too long you’ll start to find that the cards you’ve been busy acquiring no longer cut the mustard, especially when the AI starts to lay down stronger cards that cost the same or even less mana. It’s around now that you’ll want to start upgrading your own deck, and here’s where the First Crush ♥ Rub mechanics come in. Nearly every card you own can be upgraded twice, rewarding you with statistical changes, new potentials or additional skill effects (such as damaging a red aura card when entering play). Sounds great huh? Well, let’s go through how you actually power up the cards. First of all you accrue a certain amount of ‘Rub P’ points, gained from every off and online battle you take place in. With those you can enter the card gym within your HQ and select the First Crush ♥ Rub option – still with us? Select the card you want to upgrade, pay the points, and then get ready to drop your jaw at the ridiculousness that follows because you’re about to try to bring an anime lady to climax.
Wow, huh? As you enter First Crush ♥ Rub mode you’ll turn your Vita’s screen vertical and have the artwork of the monster girl in question displayed in front of you. Then the clock starts ticking, and you have sixty seconds to rub, poke, prod and pinch your way across her body to try to find her sensitive spots; succeed and you’ll elicit joyful (in some cases positively orgasmic) moaning as well as a flurry of stars and hearts. A meter on the right hand side of the screen, topped by what can only be called a penis-seal, increases as you find these sensitive spots, with the upgrade awarded if you manage to fill the meter in time. Certain spots can trigger Extreme Rub mode, which both pauses time and causes the whole of the monster girl to become sensitive – here, however, you have to ‘rub’ the Vita on both the front and rear touchscreens at the same time. Forgive the crudeness, but by this point you’ve probably made the penis-seal stand up in excitement, poked a monster girl in the boobs and bum and then had to wank the Vita off. And if all goes well? The monster girl will drop some clothes (because that, obviously, is what stops all women from reaching their full potential) and appear as a new card.
Bearing in mind the cultural differences between Japan and the West it’s unlikely that the developer’s intent behind this upgrade mode was truly misogynistic, but regardless of that it very clearly promotes the sexual objectification of girls and women in a very overt way. The first time First Crush ♥ Rub comes up Monster Monpiece may try to sell it to you as a girly trust exercise, but girly trust exercises don’t usually consist of repeatedly poking someone in the crotch while an array of hearts fly around and orgasmic sounds ring out. It’s shockingly embarrassing, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be caught playing it in public. As if all this wasn’t sounding criminal enough, First Crush ♥ Rub breaks fairly often, leaving you with a frozen screen showing the monster girl grinning away at you with cheerful music blasting away in the background. The only way forward here is to close MonMon and reboot it, teeth firmly gritted at having to perform all the rubs since your last save once again.
Regarding the disappearing clothes on the card art, certain images have actually been removed from the European and North American releases in an act of self-censorship. The powered up versions of the cards in question remain in the game, albeit using artwork from the earlier form of the card. In the main these pieces of artwork were centred around the monster girls who looked the youngest, or had the most booty-in-your-faceness of any of the cards, and there’s no functional difference with the powers the upgrades cards receive, so ultimately there’s no real loss to see here. The censorship does seem more than a little random in places, with certain images that have been left in raising eyebrows all round, but at least none of the actual gameplay mechanics have been messed with.
But, you know, the main focus of CCGs has to be in a robust multiplayer, right? Right? Well, Monster Monpiece does have a multiplayer, but it really provides more of the same. The rule of the day is once more big monsters, and throwing in some of the rarer online series monster girls you can pick up you can fuse some scarily large monster girls very early on in the proceedings. Most decks, again, come in the yellow-something melee focused flavour, although we did find the odd brave player tinkering with a Beast/Bird ranged effort. There’s still very little finesse, very little innovation, and the promulgation of huge monsters means that even if you do find some synergy between a particular pair of cards it’s likely that unless they are huge monsters (or good against huge monsters) they’ll be vaguely ineffectual online. There is an online only card series available with some tasty rare monster girls, and whether you are winning or losing you can slowly grind your way towards a booster pack of these. Depending on how you find the difficulty curve from story chapter 5 onwards you might want to grind a few of these out, but there’s nothing here to keep you coming back once you’ve finished the post-game.
In many ways Monster Monpiece is a game that shouldn’t have even been made, let alone ported over here. Everything from the most ridiculous fan service ever through to the repeating in-battle chibi characters screams niche, and it’s not a good niche either. It’s a Danganronpa’s Hifumi niche, the kind of niche that you can imagine only the worst otaku, locked in their darkened room, would have actually stood up and said ‘Yeah, that strikes me as a great idea!’. We don’t even get to consider whether we would have been able to ignore all of this if the underlying game had been worthy of attention; shallow repetition and simplistic tactics, backed up by mandatory rubbing, make this a CCG to skip.