Stunning game experiences need not come from a major studio. We’ve seen one man developers make solid mechanics work in an overall stellar product, or small indie teams from all around the world achieve something great with their work. Monochroma comes to us from Nowhere Studios, invoking the spirit of indie classic Limbo with its deliberately gloomy style.
Set in a dystopian version of the 1950s, with a slight eastern vibe and industry taking over, you take on the role of a small boy whose brother gets injured in an accident. On your way to seek help treating his wounds, the two brothers stumble upon a trade secret from the M company. It starts of promisingly, but the narrative shift isn’t anywhere near as dramatic as it could have been. In fact, the games’ ending sequence is all over the place. Not everything is resolved, with the initial theme getting dwarfed by the “dangers of corporate greed” plot thread. As a result, it feels ultimately disjointed and while this occasionally works, Monochroma‘s story is a bit ham-fisted to work overall.
Comparisons to LIMBO aside, this use of black and white with dashes of red certainly channels the style of Frank Miller’s Sin City, painting this world built on corporate greed with a depressingly monochrome style. Flashes of white to simulate fire and lightning are artistically striking, while the red touches highlight important features such as character locations. The minimalistic soundtrack paints the sombre mood nicely, with the presentation nicely fitting the mood of the game.
Gameplay is relatively straightforward, using simple platforming mechanics and object physics puzzles throughout its six-hour running time. Monochroma uses a similar gameplay style to ICO where you must carry your brother around for the majority of the game. Doing so hinders movement, meaning you must put him down in certain lit spots. Despite having a similar feel to ICO‘s mechanic, this interaction doesn’t have the same level of impact emotionally as the gameplay is far too safe.
In ICO, the protagonist is trying to save a girl called Yorda from her castle prison, but she is the focus of danger from the shadows trying to drag her into their vortex. Monochroma occasionally puts the kid’s brother in peril with puzzles and at one point takes him away entirely, but there’s never a connection being built with the player and the brothers. Similar games such as Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons achieved player empathy through its intuitive gameplay design, but Monochroma opts to play it safe by reducing the second character’s role to being something to put down, pick up, and hinder your progress. It works fine, but there is hardly any soul. Perhaps this is kind of the point with its dreary themes, but there is the potential for something special that is sadly not taken.
That’s not to say that Monochroma isn’t a good game. Puzzles range from easy to fiendish. While a few rely on precise jumping and timing a little too much, there is a sense of accomplishment after solving one of the more elaborate challenges. Towards the end are the more memorable challenges, which can truly test reflexes and patience, though forgiving checkpoints alleviate some of the pain. Hidden secrets are all over the place, but that’s the only real incentive to play again upon completion.
At times, Monochroma shows signs of brilliance with its visual style and logical puzzle design, but it also falls a bit flat when it comes to the more reflex-based challenges and the overall message it’s trying to convey. It tries hard to tug your heartstrings and for a while this works nicely. Sadly its second half just doesn’t resonate as much and the gameplay feels slightly disjointed from the narrative, playing it perhaps too safely. It’s a solid gameplay experience with a minimalist presentation and some element of challenge, but its message and characterisation is confused and convoluted.