Review: A Monster’s Insight

Review: A Monster’s Insight

From arkicade, A Monster’s Insight is the horrors of debate made real via a mesh of traditional visual novel gameplay and word puzzles. As the monster known as “the silver-tongued,” engage three great terrors of the Outerworld in intellectual combat. Your goal? To steal their souls and rule the world.

This game was made for NaNoRenO 2021, and a review was requested through the VN Game Den review request form.

Right off the bat, from the introduction, you know this is a game that is ready to take you on a trip.

It comes in with loose, painterly, amorphously shaped creatures and backgrounds. It all plays very strongly into the eldritch unknowableness of the setting. It sets the mood very well. The other side of that, however, is that the level of visual abstraction ends up being a huge contributor to what ends up becoming a little bit of visual boredom. They mitigate some of this with eye blinks and mouse-attached parallax, but when some scenes are all ostensibly one color, it can feel very flat sometimes.

There’s also a gameplay mechanic in the puzzle-oriented “discussion” sections that utilizes how your conversation partner physically reacts to something to give a clue you can roll into your puzzle strategy. But since the sprites don’t actually change accordingly, you have to rely on this little eye icon to tell you how they’re physically reacting. It feels like a missed opportunity to really integrate the sprite art into the puzzle mechanics.

The writing serves those puzzles much better. It can get a bit pretentious and a little long in the tooth, but considering the nature of the protagonist, it fits. It’s also balanced out by very fun interactions with your parasite friend. With the conceit of using your words to get what you want and accomplish your goals, it—of course—lends itself exceptionally well to word-based puzzling. The keyword system is fun and has text-parser vibes without some of the complications. In your debates with your interlocutors, there’s really great diegetic textual feedback that blends well with the rest of the writing surrounding it. And while I think the word puzzles could be a little better, the developer mostly did a pretty good job of making the writing and the interactivity serve each other well in equal parts.

A lot of thought was also put into the malleability of the puzzles. For one, you have a fair amount of control over how difficult or not difficult the dialogue portions are to play. There’re three broad categories, but they also permit you to make micro-changes to specific settings. Both through playing the game and scanning through the strategy guides, it’s very clear how complex the strategic elements are on the back side. It’s a game that gives that gives you multiple ways to move through it and develop your own methodologies while still encouraging you to try weird things and see what happens.

The gameplay (i.e., the actual, physical methodology through which you solve the puzzles and move through the story) is interesting in concept but really struggles in its execution in a few places. It utilizes several different input methodologies (a text parser, WASD cursor movement, point-and-click to pick up keywords and raise stats) which in and of itself is a matter of personal preference on whether that’s a boon or an issue. Objectively, though, some of it doesn’t function as well as it could. The stat manipulation screen works, but it’s fairly clunky. Rollback is disabled, so if you miss a keyword that you can “press” (i.e., get more information), then you’ve missed your chance completely. While I understand why they stripped out rollback, I still found it frustrating as a player. The WASD cursor-moving segments are where I take the most issue. The “S” key is the default screen capture hotkey in Ren’Py, the engine the game is built in. So when I tried to move the cursor down, it just captured screenshots over and over again, making those segments extremely difficult for me to navigate.

From a player’s perspective, I’m ambivalent to annoyed by having to navigate so many different input methodologies. The overall value it adds feels negligible. As someone with development experience in the engine this game is built in, it feels like complexity for the sake of complexity. For example, to me, there’s no reason the WASD segments couldn’t have been point-and-click or drag-and-drop. It feels inefficient.

What I’m left with, especially after dipping into some of the devlogs, is a developer and a game that’s trying to do something, to their mind, “different.” This is absolutely a worthwhile endeavor, and I think they have some very cool ideas that are worth pursuing. In this particular case, though, it feels like innovation at the expense of other, more functional things. If you’re open, however, to wrestling with a less-than-streamlined physical experience, the narrative one is a wonderful journey, with an exceptional soundtrack, that takes some interesting paths.

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