"The level design takes advantage of each character’s unique attributes. If you’re in control of Chowder, you can expect fewer enemies, yet battles that are every bit as tough because your adversaries can take a lot of damage and keep right on attacking. Jenny, meanwhile, is constantly swarmed by animated chairs and other menaces that will bite savagely into her life meter if she doesn’t keep moving wide of their assault."
Monster House is an enjoyable game full of dark hallways, strange enemies, simple puzzle solving and frantic action. The graphics are good, the sound is excellent and the play control so tightly tuned you’ll swear you’re playing something from one of the world’s elite game developers. It has only two problems of any significance. The first is that it’s too simple an experience to last competent gamers more than around five hours. The second issue is that the premise flat out sucks.
As the story goes, a 12-year-old boy named D.J. Walters has been watching the house across his street for as long as he’s been alive. He’s seen its owner, a crotchety old man named Mr. Nebbercracker, chase many visitors off his property. When the opportunity to explore the building presents itself, D.J. can’t resist and brings along his friends Chowder and Jenny for reconnaissance. Yet when they step inside the house, they are accosted by police officers who noticed their suspicious activity. Suddenly, the patrol car is swallowed alive and the kids find themselves trapped in a dingy basement with no choice but to explore and unravel the mystery of their lethal surroundings.
See? I told you the premise sucks. However, it does allow for some good gameplay if you’re willing to move past that and look at how the developer took the license and ran with it.
If you’ve played Luigi’s Mansion on the GameCube or the first few hours of Silent Hill 2, you know about what to expect. The game feels like a pleasant cross of the two, but toned down for a younger audience. For the first seven of the game’s nine chapters, you’ll follow a simple routine: explore a segment of the house, battle a few monsters, then explore some more. Certain doors won’t be available to you until you’ve grabbed keys or come back in later chapters--they’re credibly blocked by magical barriers or broken staircases or piles of rubble--so the result is a game that feels almost non-linear but avoids the confusion such a set-up would cause.
Much of the game is spent with only one character under your control. Chowder, Jenny and D.J. all have key attributes that uniquely qualify them for the experiences they’ll have. Each child is armed with a squirt gun. D.J. can fire quick shots that do moderate damage, but he has to refill his meter a lot. Chowder’s projectiles do more damage but come less swiftly and he also has difficulty sustaining a barrage of liquid. Finally, Jenny fires the most rapidly and can do so for the longest period of time, yet her attacks lack the punch of those unleashed by her testosterone-driven friends.
The level design takes advantage of each character’s unique attributes. If you’re in control of Chowder, you can expect fewer enemies, yet battles that are every bit as tough because your adversaries can take a lot of damage and keep right on attacking. Jenny, meanwhile, is constantly swarmed by animated chairs and other menaces that will bite savagely into her life meter if she doesn’t keep moving wide of their assault. She’s up to the task, though, and so are her friends. Each character can strafe like a champ, and you’ll often find that it happens almost automatically. The minute you lock onto an opponent, you’ll move relevant to his location without even having to think about it. And if you find yourself firing shots at an opponent who isn’t your most immediate threat, you can cancel out of the lock mode and choose a new target.
Though the system may take some getting used to, it’s really for the best. As you wander through one room after another, you’ll find yourself constantly needing to defend yourself. The hallways here aren’t barren. In fact, the minute you see a wide open space, you’d better get ready for a fight. Even a lengthy passage might force you to shoot your way through rogue television sets that slither along the ceiling while chairs skitter around beneath them, spider-like. Or maybe you’re in a hallway and there are light stands twisting this way and that, firing bolts toward you. The point isn’t what enemies you’re fighting. The point is that you’re constantly busy.
Fights aren’t your only concern. Around the time the fifth chapter rolls around, you’ll find places where scripted events take place and force you to react swiftly. For example, maybe you’re walking through a root cellar and suddenly, a branch shoots out from the wall to grip you. Everything slows down and you have a few seconds to press the button that will allow your character to weave out of the way. I liked this at first, but there’s a problem: pressing the wrong button is fatal. Several times, I would blast my way through a group of adversaries, then keep running forward while pumping more water into my squirt gun. Suddenly, a scripted event would begin without any warning and I would press the wrong button. Like that, my character was dead.
That wouldn’t be such a problem, except the later stages don’t have many checkpoints. Imagine fighting through enemies for about ten minutes, somehow keeping your health meter fully charged, then losing all of that progress because you pressed the wrong button at just the wrong split-second. It’s a problem you can avoid by standing still when you refill, or by memorizing the level layout, but it still shouldn’t have been there at all.
Which of course brings us to the other problem: the game is simply too short. I’m by no means the king of gamers, yet even I was able to work through the full campaign in around four hours. Sure, I died about ten times (mostly because of the afore-mentioned scripted events), but it felt like the adventure as a whole was too simple and too short-lived. On the other hand, I’m not sure I would want it to last any longer than it did. Though I found myself genuinely appreciative of the Monster House adventure so far as it went, I was also thankful when the credits rolled and I was able to go on with my life.
The developer must have realized this would be true, but they didn’t pad the experience with more halls and less heart. Instead, they chose a rather unique approach I wish other developers would follow: they added in another game. As you wander the hallways of the ramshackle old mansion, you’ll find bags scattered around that contain tokens. Each of these allow you to play a bonus game called Thou Art Dead.
In case you’re curious, Thou Art Dead isn’t particularly good. You are an ax-wielding hero who runs through levels, hacking skeletons and wizards and flying beasts. You can run, jump, slide and collect power-ups that clear the screen or grant you projectiles. Precise jumps will allow you to reach higher areas of each stage, while just barreling through is a good way to get yourself killed and to hear an arcade-style voice tell you that “Thou art dead.” The simple graphics and rather limited design (while pleasing from an artificially retro standpoint) aren’t such that you’ll want to play more than a few quick games at most, yet the developer must be credited for trying.
Still, $40 is a lot to spend on what is just a five-hour game. Maybe you’ll play through it multiple times (you can re-visit old stages to collect tokens and conceptual art) to extend that, but it’s just as likely that you won’t. As such, I can’t recommend a purchase unless you have a younger sibling who still likes cartoons but wants more serious gameplay. Monster House fills that role quite well. Anyone else should stay off Mr. Nebbercracker’s porch.
Staff review by Jason Venter (August 07, 2006)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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