The fact that some staff members who were involved in the development of Monark had worked on the original Shin Megami Tensei was part of Monark’s cover letter. While this helped get the game on many players’ radars, it also instantly drew comparisons between the two and some dismissals as a shameless imitation. Monark, however, has a peculiar way of executing some ideas that sets it apart from its obvious source of inspiration. The battle system is notable, and the art is mostly solid, but its positives are countered by a repetitive and slow second half.
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.
Monark‘s setting is one of its biggest strengths. While an RPG set in a school might not be novel, the mist and Pactbearers—who can use their Authorities to change the real world—make for a creepy, horror-tinged world to explore. Breaking the Pactbearers means going into the mist to find points where your cell phone can connect to their Ideals in the Otherworld, all the while avoiding maddened students and watching your own sanity drip away, tick by tick.
The turn-based battle system is one of Monark’s strongest features. Players have human and non-human allies, each with a vast set of abilities. There is no grid, but movement decisions are important as each character has limited movement distance, while characters within range can assist attacks and back attacks deal more damage, with the same applying to enemies. Positioning units in range to assist and attack, but with the precaution of not leaving them open for an ambush, is an interesting take on the strategy element.
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.
Monark has a fantastic universe, with art and music to match. Some of its story beats are solid too, and even when a couple missed, others were suitably dark and dreary. Its cast even has some fun moments and emotional hits, though I preferred a few over others. And its combat is a really fascinating, engaging system that feels like spinning plates in a good way.