Monark, NIS America’s latest RPG, is one we had been looking forward to for quite some time, and we’ve finally been able to play it. Here are our impressions, based on the PS5 version of the game.
Part of the team behind Monark previously worked on acclaimed titles like Shin Megami Tensei, and developer Lancarse has a solid reputation in the RPG genre as well, so it’s no surprise that the anticipation was high for this one. What certainly helps is that the game breaks away from the usual JRPG premises by implementing horror themes, making for a fresh experience in terms of narrative and tone.
What Monark doesn’t break away from is the JRPG tendency to have things take place inside an academic setting, and this particular story is set as the Shin Mikado Academy, which suddenly gets wrapped inside an ominous barrier, in which a supernatural mist spreads across campus. It drives those who touch it insane, and it’s up to you to investigate and maybe even find a solution. The latter comes into focus once you gain the ability to travel to the “otherworld” and learn more about the mist and who’s behind it – the so-called Pactbearers.
These Pactbearers have entered into an alliance the Monarks, demons who align with the famous seven deadly sins. It’s an extremely interesting story, and the enclosed space inside the barrier, combined with the demons and mist, gives Monark an atmosphere that’s tense and full of dread – something rarely seen in JRPGs. The pactbearers are often interesting characters as well, and not just “bosses” you have to defeat in order to get rid of the mist. They’re humans, and very often it’s personal trauma that forced them into their unholy pact with a Monark. Morality is an important gameplay and story mechanic here, and there is quality writing to back it up.
The gameplay that backs up the story isn’t as strong as the narrative itself though, with a few ideas that try to tie into the narrative themes but don’t quite work as well as they should. Taking down a Pactbearer means destroying the “ideals” they stand for, and getting to them means heading through the mist – which means there’s a risk of going mad or being attacked by those who’ve already gone there. When this happens, you’ll enter into combat, which is of the turn-based variety with an emphasis on tactical positioning.
And while there’s a solid system in place for these battles, with things like “arts”, “authorities” and “awakenings” that give you attacks and boosts in battle, Monark doesn’t build on these mechanics much after introducing them. Sure, you also have to keep a look at the madness meter to make sure your characters stay sane, but the biggest problem is the sheer quantity of similar-feeling battles you have enter. With a few places where the difficulty level really spikes, Monark can feel like a serious grind, which is where a solid battle system starts to feel more like a chore. Boss battles are great, but by the time you get to them you’ll feel worn down – Monark’s balance feels a bit off when it comes to combat, and it takes away from the excellent story.
The ironic thing is that we felt that Monark would be long enough without all of that grinding, and that would also have made sure that locations didn’t start to feel repetitive after a while. This isn’t a game that shines through its visuals, so “less is more” would apply well here. It would have emphasized the brilliant story more, which is the main attraction in Monark. We enjoyed it because of that, but it could have been better.