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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (381)

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Star Trek: Bridge Crew 3.5/5
King's Quest: The Compl... 3/5
Strange Brigade 4/5
Metro Exodus 3.5/5
Evoland Legendary Editi... 4.5/5
Evoland 2 4.5/5
Burokku Girls 2/5
Finding Paradise 4.5/5
To the Moon 4/5
Marvel: Ultimate Allian... 2.5/5
Valley 4/5
Satellite Reign 3/5
The Fall of Gods 3.5/5
Even the Ocean 3.5/5
Asterix & Obelix XXL 2:... 3/5
Valkyria Chronicles 4 5/5
Ninja Gaiden ( Shadow W... 1/5
Super Mario Land 2.5/5
The Messenger 3.5/5
Super Mario Land 2: 6 G... 2/5
Super Mario Maker 2 3/5
Pillars of Eternity II:... 4/5
Sundered 3/5
Iconoclasts 3/5
Divinity: Original Sin 2 4.5/5

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Heroes of the Monkey Tavern   PC (Steam) 

Simplicity is Bliss    4/5 stars

“Heroes of the Monkey Tavern” (“HMT”) is the inaugural (and so far only) game by French Indie developer, Monkey Stories Games. Released in 2016 on Steam, before being ported to Switch and PlayStation 4 the following year, this retro-style Dungeon Crawler came to my attention through my membership in the ‘Grid-Based Dungeon Crawlers’ Steam Group, which aims to promote a wonderful RPG subgenre that doesn’t get any respect in this day and age of Open-World Sandbox games masquerading as Role-Playing titles.

As a Dungeon Crawler fan dating back to the SNES port of “Dungeon Master” and the ‘Eye of the Beholder’ trilogy by Westwood Associates, I was quite pleased to see this waning subgenre make something of a comeback in the public eye with the much-spoken-of releases of the two ‘Legend of Grimrock’ games. Ever since, since the fateful year 2012, there have been more Dungeon Crawlers dumped onto Steam than the prior two decades combined. Whether they’re actually good or not is why we still need game criticism.

“HMT” is somewhat mysterious, in that it offers no credit roll at the end (or even from a menu, as some PC games have done in the past), and it’s not a blockbuster “AAA” debacle, so there’s not much tertiary information about it available online. That said, it generally has the look and feel of a pile of canned assets assembled in a canned engine. That isn’t to say that it looks bad by any measure: “HMT” looks quite clean and polished from a purely graphical perspective. However, it does employ an incredibly small number of art assets, from its uniform tileset for dungeon corridors to its tiny bestiary of foes. But what it lacks in diversity, it makes up in competence and atmosphere.

Audiowise, “HMT” is also not incredibly ambitious. Sound effects are mostly well-done and appropriate, though I did take note of the fact that characters getting hit in combat sometimes sound like they’re gulping down snacks instead of grunting in pain. The soundtrack is fairly compact, but like the granddaddy of the genre, “Dungeon Master,” music kicks in at key times, breaking the game’s typical silence to great effect.

Technically, “HMT” is very solid for an Indie project that seems to have been largely assembled by one Frenchman, Cedric Maussion. I never experienced any crashes or glitches. Furthermore, “HMT” goes the extra mile and includes native Xinput support. And this isn’t just remapping typewriter keys and mouseclicks to controller buttons: The game actually includes a built-from-the-ground-up method of interacting with a traditionally mouse-driven subgenre using a controller. I did, ultimately, find the controller setup to be a bit lacking, and since I was playing with a Steam controller, decided to go for a hybrid system, where I kept most of the controller inputs as-is, but moved them to other buttons to free up simultaneous mouse inputs from the right trackpad and triggers. It worked quite well, and the game never gave me any guff about using mixed inputs.

Narrative and storytelling is the one weakness of “HMT.” The fact that Mr. Maussion is French clearly shows through with the English as a Second Language quality of the localization. It blows my mind that, in spite of the long history between England and France that French people still struggle with the English language, but it is what it is, and I can only imagine how stiff and awkward the text is in other localizations. That said, the English localization is still good enough that the puzzle clues in the game are comprehensible, which is really all that matters when one realizes that the game has no actual story.

Yup! NO story, at all. Instead, there is an abysmal excuse narrative introduction sequence to kick things off. A rich group of adventurers arrives at the titular Monkey Tavern and spends all their gold getting drunk. They then pawn their equipment for more gold when their coffers run dry. When that gold is gone, someone gives them a tip about a tower filled with treasure that they can tackle in order to get more gold to spend on booze. Yikes. Even as a pre-teen RPG neophyte coming up with custom scenarios for the HeroQuest board game, I never came up with anything that lame.

Beyond that there is no further story. There are no interactions between party members. Characters have no personalities and there are no lore dumps anywhere in the game’s dungeon. All told, the entire experience can be completed in roughly 6 hours for a first-time playthrough, which is a bit short, but it doesn’t include any of the ‘padding’ typical of modern RPGs. Dedicated Achievement hunters will get double the playtime out of “HMT,” though, as party composition directly affects which Achievements will be available in a given playthrough.

“HMT” is a very by-the-book Dungeon Crawler. However, it streamlines-away a number of archaic mechanics and adds quality of life features, even as it dumbs-down character building into a non-entity.

Upon starting a new game, the player is directed to create four characters for the party. These can be chosen from a wide array of classes, including Fighter, Barbarian, Paladin, Cleric, Elementalist (Wizard), Monk, Thief, and Archer. There is no flexibility in these classes, however, as they simply follow a straight-forward progression as they level-up, gaining pre-set stat bumps and skills at certain levels. With the short length of the game, most characters won’t even make it to level 10 before completing the dungeon. Moreover, class is the only decision the player can make about characters that ultimately matters. There are no race or gender stats, and the piddly 3 ability points the player can manually assign to each character upon creation really aren’t enough to have any meaningful impact.

With the bad out of the way, the rest of “HMT” is incredibly solid and enjoyable. Modern genre updates include the removal of the hunger/thirst meter(s), spells that are simply prepared by equipping them to a caster’s hand (which operate on a cooldown just like weapon attacks), and an auto-map. “HMT” also features an excellent dungeon layout in which the structure of each of the dungeon’s 8 floors makes sense, secrets are located in sane places, and every puzzle can be deciphered from in-game hints without having to resort to external materials or cursing, ‘Guide, Dang It!’ The only real negative I can mention about the dungeon design is that the art asset used for corridor walls makes secret buttons incredibly difficult to see (at least, without a Thief in the party), however, mashing the Xinput ‘use’ button in front of every suspicious wall automatically pushes these buttons, even if the player never actually lays eyes on them.

Even combat has been meticulously balanced in order to sweep away some of the Dungeon Crawler genre’s baggage. While most Action/RPG Dungeon Crawlers require the player’s character/party to do ‘The Dance’ – that is, sidestepping and turning quickly around an enemy, shooting off attacks when they’re off cooldown and never giving the enemy the opportunity to hit back (essentially an RPG-style abstraction of FPS circle-strafing) – “HMT” doesn’t allow ‘The Dance,’ as moving away from an adjacent enemy causes the party to take ‘fleeing’ damage (essentially, an Attack of Opportunity, using tabletop parlance). Instead, the party is expected to stand their ground and go toe-to-toe with enemies. Every battle is the party vs. one enemy, however, enemies all swing at all four party members with each attack, so things aren’t ‘2EZ.’

“Heroes of the Monkey Tavern” is a short, sweet, and streamlined Dungeon Crawling experience that does a superb job of highlighting the subgenre’s best traits. Only the atrocious non-story driving the game holds it back in terms of excellence.

Presentation: 4/5
Story: 1/5
Gameplay: 4.5/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5



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