Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Sony PlayStation 4, Microsoft Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch
Monstrum takes place on a seemingly abandoned freighter in the middle of the ocean. It quickly becomes apparent that you are not, in fact, alone and so begins a pulse-pounding chase for your life.
At least, in theory. Monstrum has all the core ingredients for a perfect horror experience on the level of Alien: Isolation or Outlast. It has a fun, creepy location that offers unique obstacles in the genre and some truly terrific monster designs, each with their own unique forms of behaviour. Sadly, this is not enough to make Monstrum an essential entry for horror gamers because it misses the mark in some other vital areas.
The controls are the first major stumbling point for Monstrum. Originally a PC release, with an eye toward VR play, it feels like the PlayStation 4 port missed a step in optimising the controls for a DualShock 4. There is a serious lack of precision in the movements, the camera juts sharply from left to right when you try to survey a new room and targeting key objects is a clumsy affair. A lack of clear, fluid movement can be an absolute momentum killer for a game that requires snap decision-making and panic-fuelled actions. Trying to open and hide inside a locker can veer away from frenzied to downright irritating due to the sloppy controls.
Another core failing of Monstrum comes in the form of another thing that every good horror game needs: a sense of structure. Alien: Isolation utilised AI for the alien threat, making appearances and behaviour more random and unpredictable, but the game itself was carefully structured with clear objectives. You need a purpose to anchor yourself in the action, to give you the drive to move forwards.
Monstrum has that same unpredictable AI, adding genuine terror to your monster encounters as you wonder whether the creatures chasing you will think to search hiding places or if they will leave and look somewhere else. The great stumbling point in this game is that everything else is unpredictable, too. Item locations are completely randomised each time, you are untethered from any sense of stability, which means you spend a good chunk of your time running around like a headless chicken, searching for items before you can even think about formulating an escape plan.
Your first attempt will be a fairly good, scary time. The monsters are well designed and they will make you genuinely fear for your safety. Subsequent attempts will become more and more frustrating as you scramble around for a starting point, the search will become less frantic and more boring, the monster encounters will become irritating inconveniences rather than heart-stopping moments of terror.
Monstrum could have been a great horror experience with its engrossing location and aesthetic choices but it misses the mark with a clumsy port and one gimmick too many in the level design, relying on random chance to create a great play-through rather than designing one.