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On the surface, Monark looks like any number of other Japanese role-playing games that star high schoolers like Persona, Trails of Cold Steel, or some Shin Megami Tensei titles. But Monark differentiates itself from that crowd by leaning into horror, with a slick gothy vibe throughout — it's a bit like Persona 3 going through a rough patch, overdoing the eyeliner and listening to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness on repeat.

The game is set at the Shin Mikado academy in Japan – a reasonably normal school that’s thrown into turmoil when it’s suddenly surrounded by a pearlescent barrier that won’t allow anything in or out of the area. The school starts filling with a strange mist and any student or faculty unlucky enough to spend too much time in the fog is driven mad. It’s quite literally insane in the membrane.

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You’re quickly introduced to the unsettlingly chipper dean of the academy and a floating, stuffed toy bunny rabbit that speaks in rhyme and knows all about the Otherworld – a place inhabited by violent fiends, and where you’ll need to go if you’re to rid Shin Mikado of the blight that has taken over. Oh, and your main character has amnesia. Mm-hmm.

Despite the cliché beginnings, once the narrative settles into a groove it becomes Monark’s driving force – an often grim and mature tale with an impressively high body count and hardly any stereotypical anime hijinks. There’s no trip to the beach or embarrassing faux pas with the girls at the hot springs. It’s a tale that gets surprisingly dark at times and one which becomes increasingly ruthless.

Your job here is to rid the school of the mist, and to do that you and the friends you meet along the way will need to take down the Pactbearers. Each Pactbearer is an exemplar of one of the seven deadly sins – greed, lust, gluttony, etc. – and each has their own sinister agenda or horrible backstory.

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In order to take down a Pactbearer you need to destroy three crystals that house their darkest desires or most shocking secrets, and those crystals are located deep in mist-filled areas that you’ll need to quickly traverse before you lose your mind. Any mist-addled students you meet in there could be harmless, muttering to themselves or reliving some kind of trauma, or they could turn on you and chase you through the fog.

Talking to other students outside of the mist will unlock a profile that explains a little about their backstory, but these aren’t simply for lore or world-building purposes – there are actually puzzles that use some of the information contained within these profiles that you’ll need to read in order to solve.

When it works, the puzzle solving makes you feel like you're Sherlock, hunting down clues, pulling bits of seemingly irrelevant information from your memory banks after now realising that they're crucial to your investigation. But more often than not the puzzles are so easy as to be pointless busy work, or obtuse and frustrating, holding up progress while you fumble around wondering where to go.

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Solving a puzzle will usually open the way to a portal to the Otherworld, and it’s there that you’ll battle. There are no random encounters here – you’ll do battle at set times throughout the story, and also unlock replayable fights that you can access at any time if you need to grind — more on that later.

The turn based combat is unforgiving and the enemies hit hard. It's easy to get swarmed by baddies, and this is one of those games where if the main character snuffs it, it's game over without a chance to revive him with spells or items. And so, if your opponents are crafty, they can obliterate the protagonist before you have a chance to respond.

But the A.I. isn’t crafty. In fact, at times it's moronic. Enemies are fantastic at beating you to death when it's just you and them in a tight space, but anything more complicated than that and their weaknesses can be easily exploited. For example, if there are environmental traps on the map, you can trick foes into following you into harm’s way like some kind of Japanese high school Pied Piper.

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The biggest problem with Monark — and it's an all caps BIG problem — is the catastrophic levelling up system which completely destroys the pacing of the game, particularly in the second half. You only fight three times en route to each Pactbearer, and each fight yields Spirit — a currency that you use to buy items or level up your characters. But there's never enough to level everyone up, and so you'll quickly become underleveled without substantial grinding.

In the second half of the game, for story reasons, you'll be in a situation where you need to replay the same chapter four times from different perspectives, which is a perfect opportunity to gain Spirit and even out your party. Only instead of allowing you to do that, the game treats each replay like progress, bumping the enemy levels up significantly for each subsequent replay.

The only solution to being wildly underleveled is to grind, relentlessly, for hours. This is a thirty or forty hour JRPG stretched well beyond its elastic limit to a staggering 80+ hours in order to reach the endgame. And it's all spent in the same samey environments, fighting the same skeleton-y monsters.

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Towards the end of the game the battles can be clocking in at an hour a piece for a paltry amount of Spirit. The real kicker comes when you spend an hour on a battle, get down to the last enemy, then it blasts out an instant kill move on your main character and the battle ends immediately. An hour down the drain. It's soul destroying.

And every fight is accompanied by the same boring, grimy, music which wears out its welcome quickly. The only anomaly on the musical front is the ludicrous, saccharine J-pop numbers that kick off during boss battles. It's a bit like Girls Aloud doing the soundtrack to Saw- fun, and it got our feet tapping, but perhaps a little out of place.


There's an interesting story here and the horror-JRPG vibe is much appreciated, but whatever enjoyment they could bring you is utterly annihilated by the outrageous, egregious amount of grinding you'll need to do to see the game through. Monark is gaming reduced to a thick, treacly sludge to wade through, no cutscene or story beat or reward ever feeling like it was worth the struggle. Just play Shin Megami Tensei while listening to Nine Inch Nails and you'll have a better time.