Monster Lab from developer Backbone Entertainment is a charming, polished and entertaining kids' game, not to mention proof that software skewed for younger players needn't also be carelessly farted out. I fear that this unique mash-up, described previously as Pokemon meets Tim Burton, will ultimately fail to attract an audience because it is not only a difficult project to categorize, but also one without substantial promotion. You're still reading, though, so consider yourself informed. This quirky title thrusts you into the role of a budding mad scientist who continually collects a wacky, robust list of ingredients so that he may build the perfect monster -- creatures robotic, biological and alchemical in nature that can, once assembled, be sent out into the wild to do battle. That's it in a nutshell, yet there are many bells and whistles which enhance the experience, whether we're talking about the colorful (if over-baked) presentation, the surprisingly deep creation system, an interesting battle mechanic or the online component. There are a billion bad kids' games coming to Wii this holiday so if you're a parent in search of a good one, here it is.
You're joining the Mad Science Alliance, an organization dedicated to the pursuit of politically incorrect scientific experiments, to say the least. The problem is that the Alliance is only a shell of its former self, as its experienced founders, all mad scientists in their own right, have had a falling out with one kooky leader, who has fled the premises. With unexplained monsters running amuck in the nearby Uncanny Valley, it is up to you to build your own creatures and rid the area of the threat. All of this is explained very thoroughly shortly after you begin the game through a variety of well-made cinemas. The starring characters are all a little goofy. Take Professor Fuseless, the master of all things mechanical, for example -- he wobbles around, peering through robotic eyes and is aided by a giant third arm; he's colorful, without doubt. All of the major characters in the game, whether scientist or the Mayor of Cobbleshire, are voiced by truly hammy actors whose cartoony delivers will surely suit young players but may wear on adults. Thankfully, you can skip dialog with the tap of a button.
The slick attention to detail extends beyond voice acting, though, and into the make-up of Mad Science Castle itself, a location that is the hub for the monster lab and all of its interesting contraptions that, together, enable you to construct your own Frankensteinian beings. The developer has created a virtual castle that you can easily explore in an on-rails fashion, jumping from the workshop to the lighting room and to the command center, or going from mechanical experimentations to biological and alchemical. The artistic style, sporting lots of color and angular characters who animate fluidly, is complemented by uncommonly high technical prowess for a title that skews younger. Not only is the look of everything pleasing, but characters glow with bloom, reflection, lighting effects, advanced particles and more.
There are four components to the game: creation, battle, exploration and puzzles / mini-games, most of them deeper than you might suspect. As Monster Lab begins, you're given a junk monster and can customize him with a few different parts, changing in / out his head, torso, left and right arms and legs. Right off, there are only a handful of individual items to work with, but as you venture out into the world, explore, do battle, and complete a series of puzzles and mini-games, you will obtain new "ingredients" that can be returned to the lab and fashioned into altogether new parts. Admittedly, you won't be able to really get down into the nitty-gritty, customizing individual appendages, like hands, fingers, elbows, etc. And you won't be able to add extra parts, like tails, or shoulder-mounted weapons, etc., which is disappointing.
Nevertheless, there's considerable depth to the system. Using some 80 different ingredients, you can manufacture upward of 150 unique parts with varying power levels. That is, 36 different heads, 30 different torsos, 60 arms, 30 sets of legs and four different degrees of power, a total of 600-plus possibilities. These possibilities range between the different monster types and you can mix and match for varying results. You might, for instance, place a mechanical head, a biological arm and an alchemical set of legs. On top of everything else, there are 12 "enhancements" and four "defects" that can be applied to certain customizations, adding further flexibility.
The selection in place is really quite fat and although I don't particularly like the experimentation system, I can appreciate the balance between the monster types. You won't ever really know which ingredients mesh well with each other until you perform experiments. As a result, you will find yourself performing needless experiments that could've been altogether avoided if specific match-ups were simply assigned a point value -- i.e., this ingredient combined with this ingredient will create an arm that does X much damage to opponents. You'll never see that value beforehand. Only after the weapon is created -- a process in and of itself -- will that information become unlocked. On the other hand, knowing that mechanical weapons react one way to biological weapons, and biological weapons react differently to alchemical weapons, and so on, well, it's not difficult to see that there's real strategy in developing your monsters.
There's a whole lot to it and Backbone has even made games out of the manufacturing process. Whether you are building new arms, legs, heads or torsos, you will partake in a series of mini-games to complete the tasks and the power of your appendages directly reflect how well you performed in said games. There are welding minis in which you must successfully melt lines together on a scrolling screen. There are racing games in which you must keep up a certain speed. There's even a game in which you must hammer nails into a spinning metal ball. These minis work particularly well on Wii because they take advantage of Nintendo's controller so that you will be pointing at the screen when welding or gesturing downward in hammering motion when pounding nails.
When your monsters are ready to go -- you can separately build up to 10 creatures -- you can take them to the world and forward the storyline. The lands you explore range entirely in style from classic horror settings to extraterrestrial areas and everything in between and I personally feel that these locations generally represent the low point of the title. Not only do they lack the visual finesse of the creation and battle modes, but they take place on-rails Mario Party-style so that when you move your character in one direction, he auto-walks to the next point. Exploring these locales is a necessity to drive the storyline and to partake in other minis that house useful ingredients.
And then, of course, there's the battle mode -- probably not at all what you think. For one, it's turn-based, believe it or not. And on top of that, it's fun, which is surprising given the former truth. When you an encounter enemies during exploration, you will be warped into the battle arena where two monsters will face-off. Depending on the monster you've built and the appendages you've designed, you will have a variety of different attacks at your disposal -- kicks and punches, yes, but also head butts, smashes, howls, laser beams, gunfire, gnaws, and much more. As in any turn-based game, strategy plays a key role. Smart players will immediately identify the strengths of their opponents and target those first. If you encounter a giant, mechanical beast with a huge hammer arm, obviously you'll want to pursue that, and so on. The deeper you advance into the game, the more ingredients become available and in turn you can create more diverse monsters -- you'll need them to keep going.
The battle mode is highly cinematic and thoroughly satisfying as you successfully target and begin knocking body parts off your opponents with bone-crunching power. The strategic element is undeniable, too, but the component is far from perfect. For one, you will need to invest a lot of time into the game to see the diverse selection of enemies that awaits you. The first 30 or so monsters you fight all look the same and more or less fight the same. Meanwhile, since most of the parts you gain initially are mechanical in nature, they also look and act the same. Bearing all of that in mind, there's noticeable repetition in the early stages, which is unfortunate since clearly Backbone did design a lot of different creatures and weapon variations to see and use. The other gripe relates to damage taken on the battlefield. Regardless of how well you play, you're always almost always going to take damage during a bout and you can therefore execute in-field repairs to your monsters, mandatory if you hope to survive multiple fights. The problem is that you find yourself making repairs after every fight, there's a load screen to wait for and the repair process itself, while initially novel, grows tiresome after you've gone through it 40 times.
Monster Lab also features a multiplayer mode in which you can log in to Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection and challenge a friend to a fight. Again, turn-based battles, now with even more strategy since you're going toe-to-toe with a thinking human being and not pre-programmed artificial intelligence. You can't play randomly against people you don't know, though, which is a real shortcoming, especially since I doubt you'll find another friend who actually owns Monster Lab. I mean, when publisher Eidos Interactive can't be bothered to post a single reference to the game on its website, I can't help but question how much support it'll be throwing behind it on a retail level.
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