Monark wants you to look at yourself. It wants to know the shape of your ego, the parts of you that provide motivation. And then it wants you to dress up like a Chess piece and fight Skeletons. While Monark bites off more than it can chew philosophically, it has enough identity and weirdness to make a case for itself. Not a strong case, but a case.
Monark is a new JRPG published by NISA that generated a lot of buzz for having Shin Megami Tensei alumni on the team. And that’s certainly true, but if you’re looking for something like a Persona, that’s not here. To be more accurate, Monark was made by a team comprising folks from the older Shin Megami Tensei series, Lancrase and the director of 2018’s Crystar. So really you’re looking at a whole bunch of DNA from places like El Shaddai and Lost Dimension.
That’s a lot of weird juice blended together, and you can tell right away Monark is something unusual. Everything about it feels off, but in ways that feel deliberate more than tripped over. Monark isn’t really interested in the usual JRPG conventions, seeming to use them as a means to an end to tell its story. And that story is… well, it’s hard to say. Monark puts most of its eggs in one basket, and the basket kinda has some holes in it.
Stories dealing with the supernatural or speculative, generally, hit better with established rules. Not storytelling rules, but an internal logic that helps the audience digest all the unreal stuff floating around it. Monark just dumps its scenario on you with some of the most vague Mystery Box tomfoolery I’ve encountered in a videogame. Then it hits you with its more gameplay-adjacent lore, which does have internal logic. So basically, it’s clear what’s happening in the present, but the premise gets so cute with the mystery vibe the “how we got here” part is not. The game is set inside a school, and the world outside of it may as well not exist. That’s sort of the point since the school is covered by an evil barrier, but I don’t think that does enough heavy lifting for the school’s non-demon mist existence.
Anyway, the gist of the on the ground stuff is that your school is enveloped in a sinister mist that warps the minds of anyone breathing it in too long. You and your anime Scooby Gang discover the mist is being fueled by Ideals, or crystal-like manifestations of a Pactbearer. And those are people who, like you, found themselves some demon powers. You know, it be that way. So typically, clearing the mist means confronting someone’s worldview and attacking it until they submit. Healthy!
All the while you’re doing things like taking personality tests, which alter your Ego. Your ego is a sort of tree, branches leading to the Seven Deadly Sins. This is separate from your stats like attack and defense, which are also present. And developing your Ego in certain directions will lead to different kinds of Fiends, which are manakin-like entities who fight with you, and are customizable to an extent.
Whenever you take a personality test or make some kind of Ego-adjacent choice, the game summarizes what your choice means for you. So I guess the conceit is if you answer everything honestly, you get insight into your true Ego, both for the protagonist and you as the player. This part is what Monark cares about the most, but it’s also the part that assumes you think Horoscopes are cool. There’s a lot of Freud and Jung happening here, but I don’t find it effective.
What I did find effective was Crystar. These games share directors, Fuyuki Hayashi, who also is part of both writing teams. It’s pretty clear with all the real life pondering and despair being a catalyst for JRPG mechanics. But Crystar was more focused on issues like depression, which is painted all over every aspect of the game. It’s heavy-handed but graceful, getting its intent across clearly and effectively. Monark, on the other hand, struggles much more to communicate what its interest in Ego is. Window dressing is important, but Monark sort of mixed all its paints into a bucket and slung that at the windows. Crystar carefully painted each one with only one color, but stayed in all the lines.
Monark’s struggle with its themes glares at players the most during combat. It’s almost as if a different game tripped and crashed in. Fights are on a strategy board that give you active movement and range circles for everything, similar to something like Phantom Brave. Enemies are always some form of Metaphor Skeleton save for bosses, and you take turns trying to hit each other in the back while managing meters.
If you’re reckless or mess up a lot you gain MAD, or if you take your time and work with your party members you gain AWAKE. Filling MAD up turns you into a ticking time bomb with three turns of glass cannoning before it kills you, while filling AWAKE gives you a few turns of buffed stats. If you get both to 100% together, you hit a state of “enlightenment” and get the Best Buff. At the end of the fight you’re graded on various points, then get a universal currency you trade for items, skills and whatever else comes up.
Obviously there’s an intent here with all of this, beyond a weirdly complex risk/reward structure. Your human party members all get combat appearances based on Chess pieces, and instead of magic you have stuff like “Authority.” Attacks deplete HP or raise MAD, meaning every aggressive action has a penalty. But again it’s all so scatterbrained and convoluted it’s hard to digest beyond “ah yes, this is philosophy.”
Also, combat is annoying. It just is. Instead of random battles or direct enemy encounters, you have to call each battle up on your phone while in the mist. Monark loves its stat checks too, which results in having to sit there and play the same battles over and over again to level up. Progress is cool because developing the skill tree also gives you level ups and stat bumps. That’s the only silver lining though, since the strategy action doesn’t go out of its way to wow you.
So that’s Monark, a game that really doesn’t do much for me. But at the same time it’s a fascinating game that wants to do things a little differently. You won’t play another JRPG operating like Monark anytime soon. Monark doesn’t hit the mark but it shows us there are folks in the industry taking these swings, even in historied spaces like JRPGs. And there’s a demo, so I sincerely reccommend giving that a whirl and seeing what you think.
- Pushes against many genre conventions
- Demon rabbit puppet voiced by Shigeru Chiba
- Lots of cool skeletons
- Narrative framing trips over itself and other elements like plot and gameplay
- Frustrating, boring grinding