After a five-year development cycle and going through numerous changes, the eagerly anticipated Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is finally here. I should probably admit from the get-go that I have very little experience with the Wonder Boy series that inspired it, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been incredibly hyped for the game’s release – in fact, it’s been the Nintendo Switch title that I’ve been anticipating the most this month (move over, Smash Bros).
After putting a ton of hours in, vanquishing a lot of foes, and spending a heck of a lot of time as a pig, I can finally say that the wait was worth it. Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom isn’t only one of the best 2D adventures released this year, but also sets the bar high for any other releases in the genre that follow it.
The game’s story tells of a boy named Jin who has to save the world and all of its people after they get turned into animals by his Uncle Nabu. Talk about family drama, right? This leads him on an adventure across the world, though it’s one that takes some interesting turns when you find out that there may be more to your Uncle’s actions than was originally let on. It’s your typical run-of-the-mill quest to save the world, but it’s one that’s charming and does enough to give a bit of context to the journey ahead of you.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom plays like a Metroidvania-style adventure, meaning you’ll be working your way across a massive world, unlocking new abilities, and vanquishing any foes that come your way. As you progress and improve your skillset, you’ll unlock ways to access areas of the map you couldn’t reach before until eventually you reach your ultimate goal and complete the game – simple.
One thing that the game prides itself on is its old-school style, but it has this modern twist infused within the experience that ensures that there’s a feeling of freshness to go along with all of the nostalgia. Don’t get me wrong, the ideas on show are the kind you would have seen in plenty of 2D adventures in the past, but they’re so well done here and manage to feel new thanks to the way they’re presented to the player. Besides, transforming into an assortment of monsters to achieve your goals will never get old, right?
So the game is called ‘Monster Boy’ for a reason, and that’s because Jin can transform into an assortment of different monsters that each have their own special abilities. You won’t be able to transform into them all immediately though, but rather unlock them as you progress through the game.
The first you unlock is the Pig form, which probably doesn’t sound like the most useful of transformations. Well, what if I told you it was a magic-wielding Pig that could also find hidden items in the environment?! Or that it could ground-pound foes?! Of course, as you go through the game you’ll unlock the likes of the Frog that can swing across levels using its tongue, the Dragon that can fly his way across long distances, and even a Snake that can use it’s nimble and flexible body to get through even the tightest of gaps. There are six transformations to uncover in total throughout the game and they all offer unique abilities that offer almost endless possibilities, whether it’s to defeat the many enemies you encounter on your quest or just to make your way through some of the world’s hidden passageways.
Those who really venture off the beaten path will eventually find all new abilities and upgrades for the transformations too, so you’re always improving your skillset. I loved finding new ways to traverse the map or simply beat up a foe, whilst some treasure chests actually require specific abilities to open too (this is where the Pig will come in handy again). One of the things I appreciated the most though was how easy it was to flick between each transformation. Some puzzle in the game require the use of multiple transformation’s skillsets and in quick succession too – thankfully, switching between them all is quick and easy, with the game never holding you back when it comes to progressing through the game. If you don’t solve a puzzle in time it’s always your fault, and that’s something I can appreciate in a title that demands such precision. Whether you solve a transformation-based puzzle the first time or have to make multiple attempts before you succeed though, they’re always so much fun to conquer.
Outside of the transformations, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom’s levels just so happen to be a lot of fun to get through too. They blend together a good mixture of combat, puzzle solving and platforming, and you’ll never find yourself simply traversing through dull hallways with nothing to do. Everything about the game feels intricately designed to serve some purpose and ensure that the player is always challenged, whether it’s a section of tricky platforms that demand pinpoint precision to get through, a mob of monsters that require the use of both your wit and skill to defeat, or a puzzle that’ll keep you scratching your head for a few moments before you get that eureka moment. There’s just a satisfaction to be found in working through every layer of the game’s design and it comes together perfectly.
Best of all, the world is packed full of things to see and do. Besides the countless collectibles that are littered across the environment to find, there are also a ton of hidden areas and plenty of new equipment to unlock in order to strengthen Jin up. There’s even incentive to re-tread old ground as your abilities continue to grow, with all new locations that you couldn’t reach earlier in the game becoming accessible. Sure, this is the nature of the beast in Metroidvania-style games and it’s nothing new, but there’s something about Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom’s world and the way that it hides away its secrets that makes it all the more alluring to explore. You can probably expect to spend a long time doing it too, with my playthrough lasting around twenty-hours without discovering everything that the game has to offer.
You should be warned that you won’t necessarily have an easy time during those hours though. It’s a bit of a cliché to say it, but games were genuinely tougher back in the 8-bit era – the fact that Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom just so happens to adopt an old-school approach means that you can expect that level of difficulty here too. There were plenty of instances early on in the game where I’d struggle to defeat some enemies or I’d miss a few jumps when heading through platforming sections, and whilst you do unlock new abilities your enemies become progressively stronger too. Whilst tough though, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom never feels frustrating. The controls are fluid and solid and enemies never feel like they have some unfair tricks up their sleeves – your failures will be down to you and you alone. It just makes finally progressing through some difficult section all the more satisfying though, so even the tricky difficulty manages to feel rewarding as opposed to annoying in the game.
If you’ve taken a look at any of the screenshots in this review, you’ll see that Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a pretty beautiful game. Pictures alone aren’t enough to show how stunning of a game it really is though, and it’s up there as one of the best looking 2D games I’ve ever played. It’s hand-drawn, vibrant with colour, and each environment and character you encounter is full of imagination – honestly, it’s just so wondrous in design. Best of all, it looks amazing on both the Switch’s handheld and TV modes, with everything moving at a consistent 60fps that ensures the game’s silky smooth presentation never stutters throughout. It’s just bloody brilliant.
Old-school style 2D platformers might be hot right now in gaming anyway, but Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom has set the bar incredibly high for any titles that follow it. This is just an expertly crafted adventure that feels brilliant to play, looks fantastic, and that just remains charming throughout. My expectations were high before I played the game, but even I didn’t expect to get as much joy as I did from the twenty-plus hours I spent with it.
Honestly, all I can say is give Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom a purchase – you’re not going to regret it.
Developer: Game Atelier
Publisher: FDG Entertainment
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC