Monstrum, video game, box art, title, monster

Review: Monstrum

Kim’s review of randomly-generated horror game Monstrum includes an apology to the developer, plenty of screams, and a debate on whether to get her mum to play the title.

Title overview   |   Initial impressions   |   Plot   |   Gameplay   |
Visuals and audio   |   Replay and innovation   |
Screenshots and videos   |   Final thoughts   |   Review round-up

Title overview
Name: Monstrum
Developer: Team Junkfish
Publisher: Team Junkfish
Release date: May 2015
PEGI rating: Not listed
Platforms: Mac, PC, Oculus Rift
Genre: Horror
More information: Official website

Initial impressions

Team Junkfish came together in 2011 at Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland, their name deriving from their first big prototype: a giant, flying, mechanical whale. In an interview with IGN, Director and Audio Designer Jaime Cross said that the pitch for their latest project was basically what would happen if you mixed The Binding of Isaac with Amnesia: The Dark Descent: “We ran with that concept for a roguelike horror game, something that would be replayable over and over and where you’d never get the same jump-scare twice or anything like that. That was the main emphasis we were working on – to make a really replayable horror game.”

We first came across Monstrum at Rezzed 2014 with its stand surrounded by many attendees who were drawn to its horror premise. At EGX 2014 we had the opportunity to watch another attendee go up against the title but unfortunately it didn’t last long; as soon as the creepy audio cues began, he pulled off the headphones claiming he couldn’t continue. It was a pretty similar situation for both Ben and Phil when they received a challenge from Team Junkfish to take on the game this summer and only managed to last a couple of hours between them. The lads then challenged me to fight my fear of the horror genre and play Monstrum for myself during Halloween, and it’s from this experience that I finally write this review.

So before I go any further, we think we owe Jaime and the rest of the team an apology. Sorry it’s taken us so long to review your game, guys: we were just too damn scared to play it for any length of time.

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The rusted rooms and hallways in various states of decay, and splashes of blood on the walls imply that something terrible has occurred.

Players find themselves aboard the Hisa Maru, a large freight vessel stranded in the middle of the ocean. You have no recollection of where you are or what’s happened; but the rusted rooms and hallways in various states of decay, and splashes of blood on the walls imply that something terrible has occurred. As you make your way around the boat trying to piece the story together it becomes clear that you aren’t necessarily alone. Can you use your wits and whatever tools you can find to escape – or is your terrifying pursuer hunting you down and waiting just around the next corner?

There are no cutscenes to either introduce or move the plot forward and players are dropped straight into the action. You’re able to piece it together through notes scattered around the environment, left by fellow crew-members who have since disappeared. Rather than record these in a menu screen they’re logged into a book containing your objectives and this gives the sense that your character sees the scraps of paper as a lifeline in their amnesiac state. The only negative is that you always seem to be looking down when accessing the tome; and it gives the strange impression of a person holding a book upright while staring at the floor.

The changelog for the version I played (1.3) advises that new story elements, audio logs and extra notes have been added to the game along with a few Halloween surprises (including pumpkin heads for your pursuers). But despite these additions the plot was still a little lacking for me. Not the premise itself – who would have thought that being aboard a freight vessel could be so scary – but the history, such as how the ship came to be in its current state. Perhaps this is explained through notes that I haven’t yet found but additional background detail would inject even more colour into Monstrum’s world – a deadly, claustrophobic, pitch black.

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As corridors and their contents are randomly-generated each time a new game is started, your success is governed by several factors.

Escape is your solitary goal here and there are several ways in which you can achieve it. Do you make a run for the life-raft, try to fix up the helicopter tethered to the main desk, or head deep into the bowels of the ship and flee in the submarine? The escape route you opt for can depend largely on which items you come across first; for example, stumble across the battery, headlight and welding kit, and you’ll want to head for the submersible. But it’s not that easy: as Monstrum’s corridors and their contents are randomly-generated each time a new game is started, your success is governed by several factors as well as finding the correct objects.

Players with a quick memory will have the upper hand. While the items and their locations change for each playthrough, the boat’s basic geography stays the same. You’ll always come across the bridge, security room and cargo hold for example, and they each have their own ‘look’ – it’s just that the hallways and rooms contained within them are never the same twice. This has a really disorientating effect and causes the player to feel claustrophobic; you’re never quite sure whether you’re heading in the right direction or going around in circles. It really ramps up the tense atmosphere but unfortunately could cause some to become disenchanted, as there’s no indicator of progress or success.

As well as finding the objects needed to repair your escape method, you’ll come across other items such as egg timers and fire-extinguishers. The former can be used as a lure or to distract your pursuer while the latter can potentially stun them to enable you to get away. Light sources such as glowsticks can be used to guide you on your way but may attract unwanted attention, as will the noise made when you accidentally drop a smashable (which I did several times!). Keep an eye out for the backpack to increase your inventory space as it’s limited – and consider not picking up items for escape routes you’re not heading for in order to free up some valuable slots.

A number of traps are randomly placed throughout the ship so be careful where you step.

It’s not just your pursuer who’s after you: a number of traps are randomly placed throughout Monstrum’s ship so you’d better be careful where you step. Stand in a camera’s line of sight for too long and an alarm will trigger, alerting what’s onboard to your presence, although this can be prevented with the inventive use of duct tape. Corroded sections of the floor are unsafe and will cause you to trip if you run over them but they can be used strategically in a chase if you time your jumps correctly. Probably the most hazardous element is the steam pipes: get blasted by a spray of steam and you could find yourself being burnt to an untimely death.

As if broken getaway methods, ever-changing corridors and dangerous traps weren’t enough, something big and scary will be hunting you down while you try and make your escape. These are randomly-generated also and during each playthrough you’ll find yourself up against one of three monsters. Each have their own distinct style and characteristics, and the most frightening for me was the Hunter: a skeletal being who’s able to follow you through the vents of the ship and emerge from egg-sacks on the walls. His horrible clicking sound will forever haunt my nightmares…

It’s best to make a run for it and head for refuge in a locker or cupboard if the monster catches sight of you. Monstrum’s environment is its advantage during these chase scenes: similar-looking hallways as well as your own panic create an uncomfortably-disorientating feeling as you make a mad dash. Unfortunately, there’s little you can do to prepare for each encounter due to the random nature of the title. You do have the option of locking doors behind you, which I did but then spent ten minutes cowardly worrying if my pursuer was waiting right outside for me. Success is usually more due to outrunning the monster than outsmarting them and this comes across as a bit of a missed opportunity.

If the Steam Achievements are anything to be believed, it doesn’t appear that a lot of people have managed to beat Monstrum so far.

As mentioned above, this title is roguelike in nature and that means permadeath. You’ll find yourself dying a lot within your first couple of hours and if the Steam achievements for Monstrum are anything to be believed, it doesn’t appear that a lot of people have managed to beat it so far. It’s hard, and it should be hard considering the premise; but this could potentially put some players off as there’s very little sense of progression or mastery in line with the number of hours you put in. The only things that carry across from one playthrough to the next after death are the notes you’ve found and in all other aspects, you’ll have to start your progress towards escape again from the beginning.

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Visuals and audio

The boat itself is one of Monstrum’s high points and Team Junkfish have done an excellent job of putting so much character into the environment. The rust slowly devouring the metal; the flickering lights hiding god-knows-what in the darkness and shadows; the ransacked crew quarters that appear to have been abandoned in a hurry. All these factors combine to give the impression that the vessel has witnessed a thousand gruesome deaths in its corridors and will be alive at sea long after its remaining inhabitants.

The way the ship creaks and groans adds to the atmosphere, as you’re never quite sure whether the sounds are coming from the environment or from a monster lurking just around the next corner. The noise of your pursuers stalking nearby really makes you feel as if your character is being hunted and there were a few times I hid in lockers a little longer than necessary, as I was convinced I’d heard them outside. Listen out for the clicking of the Hunter – it was one sound that managed to make my hair stand on end each time.

Monstrum doesn’t make it clear whether any of your actions in terms of sound cause changes in monster-behaviour.

Usually in stealth games, you have to decide between speed or noise: do you move quickly but risk alerting your pursuer, or stay low and slow but chance them catching up with you? Unfortunately Monstrum doesn’t make it clear whether any of your actions in terms of sound cause changes in monster-behaviour. The Monstrum Wiki states that they’re lured by noises and distractions which is why the egg-timer as an item doesn’t seem out of place. But your footsteps are rather loud whether you’re walking or running, and I never got the sense that that this had any effect on my success (or lack of).

I admit that I haven’t completed the game myself – my playthroughs have resulted in my demise at the hands of a monster – but YouTube videos show that the conclusion’s visual style is completely different from the rest of the gameplay. A set of black-and-white stills are presented to the player and these change depending on your escape route. At first I was confused at this style decision as it seemed quite jarring, but then I got it: players who manage to get away from the ship don’t care what it looks like because they’re just so relieved they made it! It’s more about the atmosphere and the feelings evoked by the title rather than a visual reward onscreen. And in times of fear and heightened adrenaline, it’s often said that we see what’s happening as snapshots so I guess it’s rather fitting.

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Replay and innovation

Replayability is another of Monstrum’s strong points. Random-generation means that each playthrough is different and you never know what you’re going to come up against in terms of layout, items, traps and monsters. As mentioned several times above though, this may not be to the liking of some players. Those who like a sense of progression or notification of tasks correctly completed are likely to become discouraged by the game’s random nature: at times you can’t help feeling as if a lot of your success is down to pure luck rather than skill.

You never know when – or what – monster is going to appear, and this makes for a few genuinely frightening moments.

Play a horror game and you’ll probably find yourself poking around one more abandoned asylum or running through yet another dark forest, plagued by a number of lazy jump-scares. But playing Team Junkfish’s project, it’s hard to believe that more releases in the genre aren’t set aboard a ship out at sea. It makes for a claustrophobic setting as you’re completely isolated and escape isn’t as easy as simply leaving the area. Add to this the fact that you never know when – or what – monster is going to appear, and there are a few genuinely frightening moments. Those screams you hear in our gameplay videos below are real.

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Screenshots and videos

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Final thoughts

As with all of our critiques, we wrap up by discussing whether each game is worthy of a place within future 1001 lists. Monstrum may have received Steam reviews which are over 93% positive but does it deserve a place in our hall of fame? Yes, if mainly for the first hour you spend with it. During this time the vessel’s location is still mysterious, the randomised layout of corridors are unsettling and the monsters are still scary. You may be quite nonchalant during your first playthrough, but after that I guarantee you’ll be peaking round corners, hiding in lockers, and making a run for it whenever you hear those wet footsteps approaching.

I’ve not completed it just yet and may still be suffering from frayed nerves after my Halloween playthrough.

It does have some minor negatives and the random nature of the title could result in frustration for some players. But for those who are up for a challenge and don’t mind continuing from scratch after permadeath, here’s a title which is sure to keep you going for a while. I’ve not completed it just yet and may still be suffering from frayed nerves after my Halloween playthrough, but I’ll have another attempt at beating the Hisa Maru’s corridors in the very near future. Make no mistake: this game is hard.

My mum works in shipping, so where Monstrum takes place aboard a freight vessel I’m kind of debating whether to get her to play it with me. I’m just not entirely sure she’d ever forgive me afterwards.

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Review round-up
Reviewed: PC
Source: We received a review code from the developer
Positive: A highly-replayable game with a creepy environment
Negative: Random-generation means players rely more on luck than skill
Score: 42 out of 60
Grade: Worth a look
Monstrum, video game, review, graph, Worth a look

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