Monster Sanctuary, a game developed by Moi Rai Games and published by Team17, provides a unique combination of two different genres. Being part monster tamer or “mongame” (Pokémon-like) and part Metroidvania, Monster Sanctuary combines these two things two create an interesting identity of its own. It may be a bit different than other games in the genre, but features some unique characteristics that help it stand out.

At the beginning of Monster Sanctuary, you choose one of four monsters known as “Spectral Familiars” to join you on your journey to become a master Monster Keeper. According to the in-game lore, whichever monster you choose has been a guardian for your bloodline for ages. It’s interesting that your starter has more significance besides just being “the one you picked,” and although I do not yet know if this has any further importance in the story since I’m still playing through it), your familiar does talk to you from time to time, another unique feature of Monster Sanctuary.

Battles in Monster Sanctuary are three on three, and you choose three monsters out of the six you have on you to battle, so you can mix and match to find the appropriate combination of monsters for each encounter. In these turn-based battles, each monster takes turns either attacking the opposing team and providing support for their own, however, monster attacks all cost mana, so it’s important to keep an eye on that, particularly in the very beginning when you’re still learning how all the mechanics work. The battles can be slow-moving, but you can increase the battle speed up to double, which really helps a lot.

There are also keeper duels where keepers use their full six monster team, but still battling with only three monsters at once. The turn order in a keeper duel is determined by chance and the keeper who goes first may only use two of their three chosen monsters on that turn as a drawback while the keeper who goes second can use all three of their chosen monsters, after which the battle continues normally. If a monster gets knocked out, they’ll be able to switch in for another, and once a keeper has managed to knock out all six monsters of the opposing team they win.

After each battle, you get a rating, which can get you better items depending on how well you performed. Execution is mainly based on how well you utilize the combo system, in which your attack damage is boosted when your team attacks the opposing team one after the other. The first two monsters increase the rating if you get a high combo count, while the third monster in your lineup increases the rating depending on how much damage it deals relative to the enemy’s health. Buffs/Debuffs counts not only how many stat alterations you applied but also grants additional points depending on how often enemies gained status afflictions like poison, burn, and congeal, and gives additional points for weakness exploitation. In the beginning, you likely aren’t going to get ratings above three stars, but as you progress, figure out type advantages, and have your monsters learn new skills, you’ll start to get higher battle ratings more often (just don’t expect to get five-star ratings all the time).

In Monster Sanctuary, rather than using a device to capture monsters, you have a chance to get the egg of one of the monsters you battled depending on how well you performed. As such, some monsters are much easier to obtain than others, while for some it will take a while until you even manage to get one egg. The good news is, once you do get an egg then you can hatch it immediately after the battle by selecting it in your inventory.

Once monsters hatch, they’ll have a number of skill points you can use in their skill trees so they can learn and improve attacks, and they also gain one skill point each time they level up. Monsters each have several different skill trees, so having more than one of the same monster can be beneficial for experimenting with different strategies. Monsters can learn any skill on their skill tree as long as they have a skill point and are at the appropriate level, and unlocking skills from one skill tree doesn’t lock the others, so you can have your monsters learn all the skills you want. Skills trees are not only comprised of different attacks, but different support abilities, passive abilities, and stat boosts as well.

A few monsters do evolve, but only when exposed to specific items known as catalysts while in one specific area. After playing things like Pokémon and Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth, it feels a little odd to have so few evolutions, but it does help make those evolved monsters much more valuable allies. Another interesting feature is that these evolutions aren’t a direct upgrade but more like an alternate form of the base monster. Additionally, there’s also a shift mechanic that is unlocked after finishing the story, where monsters can shift into light and dark forms.

Each monster can also be equipped with up to three items to help boost stats they may be lacking in or give them extra bonuses such as boosted mana regeneration. These items can also be upgraded with materials you find or gain from winning battles Additionally, Monsters can be fed food to grant additional bonuses and monsters will remember the last three meals given, so you don’t have to be feeding them constantly. While equipping armor and weapons is fine, I think adding food on top of that makes stat management a little too cumbersome. Those who like micromanagement may find the aspect to be enjoyable, but as for me I’d prefer just being able to equip armor and weapons, or for food to have a different kind of benefit besides stat boosts.

Monsters also have special abilities that help their keepers traverse the environment including gliding, swimming, breaking obstacles, making rocks to use as small platforms/button holders, different elemental attacks, and more. You have some basic abilities to help with platforming as well, such as jump and double jump. While these abilities are helpful most of the time, sometimes it can be unclear what ability you need and you may not have a monster with that ability and not know where to find one. Luckily, the map can help you see areas you haven’t been to but those areas are often blocked off due to the aforementioned problem. While there is a specific order you can go in for each area, it’s always good to check what new parts of the map you have access to after getting a new ability yourself or after getting a monster with a new ability. You never know what useful items or new monsters you might find in the unexplored corners of the map.

Some grinding does seem to be required between areas, as I got wrecked several times when moving from one area to the next without leveling up my monsters a bit more than planned. At one point, I was even stuck in an area known as the stronghold dungeon with seemingly no way out and repeatedly fought monsters that would defeat me and take my money. Luckily as long as you have a crystal shard on you, you can teleport back to the Keeper Stronghold. I almost got stuck a second time but I found out that part of the puzzle I needed to solve was actually in a separate room. Kind of strange if you ask me, I don’t think players will always pick up on that and a number of others have been stuck in the same exact place according to some forums I had been reading. That grinding I mentioned can be difficult because monsters don’t respawn as often as you would think, but if you’ve unlocked the ability to purchase monster bells then you can use them so monsters in the area will immediately respawn.

In a way, the graphical style reminds me of the original Pokémon games, with how the monster designs are more detailed in the monster journal, while being smaller and less detailed sprites in the actual overworld. It definitely helps add some extra charm to the more generic-looking surrounding world, and helps give the monsters a bit more character. The music felt rather mundane, and while it’s not bad, I felt there was nothing else all that notable about it. It’s a shame because the games and genres it has been influenced by seems to have such memorable and noteworthy music, but to be honest series like Castlevania and Pokémon are tough competition when it comes to video game soundtracks.

Monster Sanctuary may not be the perfect mixture of two beloved genres, but it does what it can to at least come close. I recommend at least trying it if you have any interest at all in mongames or metroidvanias. 
Monster Sanctuary is available on PC, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Game Pass.

Code was provided by the publisher

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Erroll Maas
Erroll is a writer with an enthusiastic love of Japanese monsters and the games which feature them, from Pokemon to Power Rangers to Pacific Rim and everything in between. You can learn more about this and plenty of other games and nerdy things by following @errollm

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