I’ve always loved monsters. I would draw them all the time during class when I was young, starting when I was 6 or 7 years-old, and I’d continue to spend my more tedious classes. I doubt I retained a single lesson taught to me by frustrated math teachers, partly because my mind has never been too fond of numbers and the endless number of ways they can go together, but also because I was always far too busy trying to get the eyes just right, or the teeth.
I’ve held a deep appreciation for the sorts of creatures that lurk in horror movies, scary video games and nightmares. I remember spending hours trying to figure out xenomorph anatomy so I could transcribe it to a page after I watched Alien. I was never successful, but I was also barely 7 years-old.
Drawing a xenomorph isn’t easy. I doubt that even 26 year-old me could do it.
All this is but a long-winded way of saying I can appreciate a well-designed monster. This fascination for nightmare creatures is what initially drew me to Monstrum, an indie survival horror game developed by Team Junkfish.
Because I’ve been able to play this game a couple times now, I’ve had the unique opportunity to see it evolve over a span of about five months. It’s changed a lot since I first played it last June, and it’ll continue to improve while on Steam. Such is the nature of Early Access games.
Monstrum is another scavenger hunt game. It’s like a blending of Slender and Outlast, as you’re tasked with exploring a seemingly empty cargo ship in search of the tools required to fix a damaged life raft. This raft is the only means of escape for this survivor, and that means the game is going to throw everything it’s got to keep that goal from being achieved.
Starting with monsters.
I won’t soon forget my first run-in with old Jack-o-Lantern Face. It was memorable even if it hadn’t been immortalized on YouTube. Unfortunately, like so many other modern indie horror games, combat is never an option.
There’s no choosing between fight or flight, it’s always flight. Then hide. Then pray the creature that’s hunting you didn’t catch you running into the room you only just now realized contains only one hiding spot and it’s the one you’re in.
These monsters can rip the doors off lockers, by the way.
The cargo ship is a maze, and that makes finding the items you need to escape incredibly difficult. Scouring every room that peppers the labyrinthine series of corridors that make up this gargantuan ship would take time even if you knew your way around it. Relying on memory is about as viable an option as trying to put up a fight, since the environments are procedurally generated.
The randomized levels add to the game’s replay value, as well as keep players with exceptional memories from getting too familiar with the ship’s layout. It’s just one example of how the roguelike genre has influenced Monstrum — the others being permadeath, no option to patch up injuries and a somewhat unforgiving difficulty.
The few resources you do have are there to help you find the things you need to escape. Glowsticks and a flashlight make lighting up any hidden items easy, though I’d recommend putting them away when you’re hiding from one of the game’s monsters. I learned the consequences of not doing that the hard way.
There’s an overwhelming silence that makes this game more unnerving than it would be if there were NPCs to interact with. Your character’s only real interaction with others is via notes that have been strewn about the environment, each offering bits of information that can be gleaned and combined to form an idea of what happened to everyone before this place became a ghost ship.
Team Junkfish did a fantastic job in making the ship itself feel like a character. It rocks and moans as it endures the incredibly slow death that befalls ships that get lost at sea. It’ll die long after its few remaining inhabitants do, and not until after its witnessed you die a thousand brutal deaths.
Death has always played a pivotal role in both survival horror games and roguelikes, and Monstrum is no exception.
I didn’t mind dying because it was almost always preceeded by an intense chase scene in which I’d run screaming from one of the game’s three monsters. Each creature is entirely unlike the next, but I’ll refrain from explaining how so as not to ruin any revelations you might have.
I’ve played a number of unfinished games during the six years I’ve spent covering this industry, including a handful on Steam’s Early Access program. Some, like Darkwood and The Forest were far from finished, but far enough along to make any jank I might encounter easy to forgive. Others, like Frozen State and Nether, had potential, but they would’ve benefitted from a few extra months of polish before hitting Steam.
Monstrum falls firmly into the former category. It has some graphical issues, the controls could use some refinement and the AI pathing can lead to some confusing encounters, but it’s more polished than most.
The Final Word: Even in its unfinished state, Monstrum is more polished than most Early Access games are when they first hit Steam. It’s also highly replayable, thanks to its procedurally generated environments, and scary enough that you shouldn’t be surprised when it begins to seep into your nightmares.
Monstrum is available now on Steam at the temporarily discounted price of $14.93 (17% off). The sale ends on Feb 5, when it will return to its $17.99 price tag.