"The thing that keeps a person digging is the sense of ownership. Once you've crafted a beautiful maze, it's fun to return because then you'll get to see what monsters have decided to inhabit your dungeon. If you just built a few bland hallways, perhaps there will be some bats and maybe a boar or two. If you spruced things up with a trash heap, you'll find a slimy little guy. The undesirable tenants you attract are a better reward than virtual piles of gold or sparkling digital badges ever could have been."
The job market is so bad these days that it's spread even to the world of video games. So it is that as Master of the Monster Lair begins, players are introduced to a youthful hero named Owen. One day as he's wandering about--miserable and sulky because he can't find work--he stumbles across a shovel hiding in some bushes. The tool is magical. It immediately strikes up a conversation (yes, you read that correctly) and before he knows it, Owen has a job as dungeon digger. He spends his days in the dank little cavern to the east of town. There, assisted by his unlikely cohort and eventually some friends, he'll create a monstrous labyrinth and maybe--just maybe--save the world.
When the proper adventure begins, the dungeon is nothing more than a pathetic hole in the ground. Owen appears on-screen and from there, you can dig in just about any direction you like... as long as the shovel's magic meter hasn't completely drained. Imagine a sheet of graph paper. Each square you clear takes one point out of the day's reserve. Then if you place a room, that's another point. You can keep adding turns and twists, forks in the road and attractive little hearths, feed troughs, fountains and the like until you run out of magic or supplies. Once that happens, you return to town for a warm meal cooked by Owen's friend Kate before retiring for the evening. In the morning, it's time to do it all over again.
The thing that keeps a person digging is the sense of ownership. Once you've crafted a beautiful maze, it's fun to return because then you'll get to see what monsters have decided to inhabit your dungeon. If you just built a few bland hallways, perhaps there will be some bats and maybe a boar or two. If you spruced things up with a trash heap, you'll find a slimy little guy. The undesirable tenants you attract are a better reward than virtual piles of gold or sparkling digital badges ever could have been.
As you venture deeper into your own dungeon, new construction possibilities keep interest from dwindling. On each new floor, you're also working toward the goal of luring a boss monster to your den. This requires meeting certain criteria. For example, a monstrous octopus might be lurking near the village and you want it to head into your labyrinth. To accomplish that, you must place a bunch of water-themed rooms until the floor resembles a sewer more than it does a tunnel. In another case, you need to arrange a bunch of hearths or plush beds to attract fire pigs or wizards to your sprawling trap.
Before long, you'll be working to pack as many adversaries as possible into the space available. There's more to it than just creating rows of rooms, though, since you're also rated according to your creativity... which naturally leads to more success when it comes time to lure the finest of foes to your domain. On top of that, each critter you slay could reward you with a rare piece of armor that you can't find in town, or a key to unlock a treasure chest you previously placed or even a scrap of food.
Though you might not expect it, food plays a significant role in the game. The meals you choose to prepare make permanent improvements to your stats, with you in full control the whole time. If you find yourself facing a foe who slices through your defenses like they don't even exist, all you have to do is scavenge some key ingredients from your dungeon (by defeating the appropriate beasts, of course), then fix some meals and the issue is solved. That kind of control simply doesn't exist in most games and your impression after playing Master of the Monster Lair will be that it should.
Another intriguing twist is that one of your companions grows differently from the others. Early on, you'll add a slime creature to your ranks. He doesn't eat when you head home. Instead, he examines the other critters that you defeat in battle and then can sometimes apply that knowledge if desired. Coming up against a lot of foes that spit fire attacks at your whole party? You can mimic that. Facing an enemy with fantastic defenses? You can mimic that, too. The thing to remember is that sometimes you'll want to grow in the new direction and sometimes you won't. Sometimes, you could even grow weaker! This is just one more way that your party's development is placed squarely in your hands. I rather like it.
With that generally addictive gameplay system in place, the developers could have said “hardcore folks don't need pretty pictures,” patted themselves on the back and called it a day. Instead, they produced some great monster designs and animations. Everything takes place in a first-person perspective. So when you collide with that killer warrior (or carrot), you'll see him ahead of you, shaking with rage... or hunger. When you slash at his face, he'll cringe. When he charges, you'll see movement and then the slash hits you. Though battles are completely turn-based, they somehow feel quite active and convincing.
Unfortunately, that level of detail comes at a cost. Aside from the memorable bosses, you won't actually encounter a huge variety of beasts, even though you'll be playing this for a long, long time. Mostly there's a lot of palette swapping. For example, you might encounter a wardog, then a powerdog and an emperordog afterwards. Sometimes on later floors, there will be a mixture of the three! The main differences between them aside from color are the names of their attacks and items dropped. That's understandable, but still disappointing.
Because you're mostly just doing the same thing throughout much of the game, some will consider Master of the Monster Lair a questionable investment. For the rest of us who love the concept of creating and exploring our own dungeons, it's an incredible value. Reaching the credits sequence took me somewhere around 30 hours as I found myself absorbed by the challenges each successive floor presented. I felt satisfied then and there, but I'd actually only scratched the surface of the total content. After the game 'ends,' there are still numerous new enemy types to defeat (complete with fresh designs), room configurations to build and story elements to enjoy. Not only that, but you can actually send your favorite labyrinth designs to friends so that they can battle through them and bow before your genius.
In the end, Master of the Monster Lair will either be right up your alley and keep you busy for weeks, or you'll find it interesting and pretty but ultimately forgettable. The majority of RPG fans should anticipate the former being the case, but of course there's no way to be completely sure without trying it for yourself. If you like dungeon crawlers even a little bit, or even if you just want something a little different from the norm, I'd recommend doing precisely that. Odds are good that you won't regret it for a second.
Staff review by Jason Venter (October 09, 2008)
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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