Find your way off of a monster-infested ship.
PC Release: May 20, 2015
By Ian Coppock
The final sequence of many horror movies is a pulse-pounding race to safety. The protagonist’s friends are dead, all other options are exhausted, and now it’s up to that character to outrun the monster. How fitting that Monstrum, the final game of this month’s horror lineup, channels that movie sequence in the extreme. The player is all alone, any potential allies are long dead, and now it’s up to them to find a way to safety while being pursued by a ruthless creature. Running into the night sounds like a fitting end to the horrors that have been witnessed here this month, so prepare to do precisely that with Monstrum.
Monstrum is a spooky escape adventure whipped up by the adrenaline junkies over at Team Junkfish. The game is a first-person exercise in unpredictability and ruthless survival horror, as players attempt to escape an environment while being pursued by a monster. Monstrum‘s usage of scary monsters and unsettling sounds is nothing new to the indie horror genre, but what is novel about the game is the tenacity with which it burns out players’ adrenaline glands. Even Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast have peaceful interludes. Monstrum does not.
Monstrum takes place on a derelict freighter drifting around the Pacific. The player character, a nameless crewman, wakes up stuffed inside a locker and emerges to find their ship devoid of life. The other crewmen seem to be long gone, and there’s a profound sense of something having gone horribly wrong on board. It’s up to players to navigate the dark corridors of the ship and find a way off of it, but they’re not alone. Monsters are about, and they’re none too keen on sharing the lifeboat.
Rather than being a linear story-driven game like the other titles reviewed here this month, Monstrum is a hardcore survival challenge that changes every time players brave it. The goal of the game is to find a way off of the ship, gather the resources necessary to use it, and avoid getting killed by a monster all the while. There are no checkpoints in Monstrum; if players get killed by a monster while they’re running around the ship, they have to start over from the very beginning, losing all of their resources in the process.
To make the game even more difficult, Monstrum changes the ship’s layout with every single playthrough, reshuffling corridors and decks to make the vessel look different with each escape attempt. Some decks of the ship don’t change all that much, but others become nigh unrecognizable, and items randomly shift alongside the environment. The player’s spawning location changes along with the environment, so trying to form a strategy for quickly gathering resources or getting to an escape route is a pointless way to go in most cases.
The true terror of Monstrum‘s penchant for randomness lies not in the layout of the vessel, but in the monsters themselves. When players start a new round of Monstrum, the game randomly selects one of three creatures to hunt them down and prevent their escape. Each creature uses different methods to track the player and has its own audio and visual cues. One monster sets traps and crawls around in vents, while another stomps around hallways breaking doors (and spines, given the opportunity). The telepathic creature that can suspend fleeing players in the air is particularly… visceral.
Players’ only hope for avoiding these creatures is running and hiding. Monstrum provides no weapons for self-defense, but does let players get creative with distractions and traps. Players can deploy radios and alarm clocks to draw beasties away or trick monsters into stepping over loose floor panels and crashing through to a deck below. The monsters’ AI is pretty ruthless; players can count on almost constantly being pursued through the ship as they try to find a way off of it. Even if the monsters don’t know precisely where the player is, they’ll usually spawn in too close for comfort.
Players have a few other options for dealing with monsters and making the most of the ship’s environment. Fuse boxes allow players to get into locked rooms full of goodies… provided players can find a fuse. Most rooms on the ship have plenty of places to hide, so players who have a monster hot on their heels can usually stuff themselves inside a locker or under a bed if they have no other choice. Players who aren’t being pursued still have to be careful, though; the ship’s security cameras sound a very loud, monster-drawing alarm if they spot the player.
Players still have to find a way off of the ship while dealing with this kerfuffle of bloodthirsty monsters and hypersensitive security cameras. In this regard, at least, players have a few options: maybe that deflated life raft or that dusty helicopter can do the trick? Some escape methods require more tools and equipment than others, but players can bet that it’s all scattered across the ship and takes some serious legwork to find. A single round of Monstrum can last anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours, but the game’s procedural generation guarantees replay value.
Monstrum‘s procedural environments and random selection of killing machines makes it one of the most visceral, pulse-pouding escape adventures in years. Hardcore survival horror enthusiasts who love the idea of crying in lockers or being two steps ahead of a 500-pound killing machine will want to play the game over and over again. As previously mentioned, the fact that Monstrum‘s environments and monsters change with every playthrough means that the game packs a lot of replay value, even if one round doesn’t take all that long. Despite the rounds’ shortness, Monstrum is quite difficult, hitting that sweet spot between too hard to beat quickly and simple enough to enjoy over and over.
Though Monstrum‘s adrenaline-fueled gameplay is a solid package, some of the game’s other design elements are less tightly focused. The game’s visuals start out strong with sharp textures and a diverse palette of lighting. That latter one is especially important for establishing atmosphere, as even the most brightly lit areas of the ship are illuminated with sour white light to reinforce the gloomy feel. On the other end of the spectrum, players are also expected to navigate dark engine rooms and shipping containers that have just enough light to get around and not a single lumen more.
Less excellent than Monstrum‘s ship design is its character animations, which are painfully amateurish. Whether it’s walking, crawling or running, the player character’s limb and body movements are laughably unnatural. What’s more, the character has a penchant for holding items awkwardly in front of themselves, sometimes taking up the entire screen while doing so. The character holds up a fuse like it’s a lantern and hugs larger items like gasoline containers right to their face. Players can’t deselect items without dropping them, so holding them up like this is really the only option. It’s not easy to spot a monster when the character’s burying their nose in a submarine battery.
Monstrum could also do with a few more PSAs on how to play intelligently. The game provides a few basic control pointers but fails to point out a few things that can radically change the course of the game, like how to break through broken doors or stop security cameras from spotting the player. None of these are deal-breakers, but they do cross that fine line between leaving the player to figure things out on their own and flat-out refusing to drop any sort of hint (for the record, players can bust a locked door by throwing a sound-making device through it, prompting the monster to smash it open).
Monstrum never claims to be a story-driven game, but that doesn’t stop what exposition the game does provide from being chock-full of spelling and grammar errors. Players can find notes and recordings throughout the ship hinting at its fate and why monsters are running around, but they’re full of bizarre abbreviations and careless alternations between American and British spelling (in addition to the usual rogue’s gallery of unnecessary commas, random capitalization, abrupt line breaks, and written-out ha has). Players notice those errors more than developers realize and there’s little to be lost by taking thirty seconds to look them up on Google.
All of that said, Monstrum‘s background story does a good job of setting a spooky stage for the gameplay. The notes look like something out of John Carpenter’s The Thing, with various crewmen discussing strange goings-on aboard the ship that culminate in the disaster the player wakes up to. Who the player is isn’t really divulged, but again, Monstrum prefers to focus on the visceral action instead of story. Because Monstrum‘s visceral action is so addictive, that’s just fine.
The final piece of Monstrum‘s horror motif is its sound design. The game’s soundtrack is a fairly conventional mix of low electronic sounds that elevate to terrifying heights when a monster spots the player. The game’s other sounds are an inoffensive mix of footsteps on metal and rustling through lockers and bags in search of supplies. The monsters themselves sound absolutely terrifying, with a mix of hisses and roars that sound right at home in a Ridley Scott or John Carpenter film.
The only problem with all of these sounds is that they have a nasty tendency to be unbalanced. Monstrum cheats a little bit by making its monsters’ roars and growls about five times louder than the rest of the game. It gives players a good little jump, but it feels like a cheap shot. The other audio element of the game that’s way too loud is the tape recordings found throughout the ship, which assault the ears with a huge roar of static and whose words are usually incomprehensible anyway. Monstrum‘s options menu has a lot of toggles, but subtitles aren’t one of them.
Even though Monstrum suffers from almost every amateur design flaw in the book, it remains one of the scariest horror games ever made. Neither its awkwardly spelled notes nor its flat-falling character animations prevent the title’s escape gameplay from providing pure terror. The game’s procedural generation gives it an element of unpredictability that most conventional horror games lack, and its permadeath adds another level of terror to some already terrifying monsters. Monstrum is interested only in burning players’ hearts out with pure adrenaline, so anybody looking for that type of experience should pick the game up immediately. It’s fun, it’s varied, and oh so scary.
You can buy Monstrum here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.