Monster Sanctuary is an ambitious game placed in the already popular monster tamer genre mostly dominated by the Pokemon game series. Developed by Moi Rai Games and published by Team 17, this game applies its own unique twist to the genre. The player will begin their journey as a Monster Keeper and begin to catch various monsters across the Sanctuary to protect it from the recent infestation of Champion Monsters.
Featuring a total of 101 unique monsters to tame, a never-before-seen battle system, and a heavy emphasis on exploration, any fan of Monster Tamers or Metroidvanias should give this game a try. The game is an absolute steal for just $20 and can easily offer hundreds of hours of playtime for those willing to experiment and learn about the systems of the game, and with the 1.2 update having recently come out, it is the perfect time for new Monster Keepers to jump right in.
Unlike the Pokemon games, which I found to have a rather weak story, Monster Sanctuary actually offers a surprisingly decent one that will most likely surprise many fans of the genre. You take on the role of a Monster Keeper with a special bloodline that allows them to control one of the four Spectral Familiars in the game, which also serve as the equivalent of a player’s starter. The role of any Monster Keeper is to keep the Sanctuary itself, and the monsters within, safe. The player will work with the Keepers of the other three Spectral Familiar bloodlines to solve the mystery of why various Champion Monsters keep appearing throughout the Sanctuary and learn of a mysterious order of Alchemists that have ulterior motives for the Sanctuary as a whole.
There is even a decent plot twist involved that I personally did not see coming. It’s nothing too great and used familiar tropes from Pokemon, but did so in new and unique ways. What is great is the Monster Journal, which gives a little lore tidbit about every monster caught in the game. For people that like those kinds of things, it is well worth the read.
Monster Sanctuary has a massive map to explore featuring tons of equipment that can aid your monsters in battle, food to give to Monsters for stat gains, secret areas, boss battles, puzzles, other Monster Keepers, and the feature added in the recent 1.2 update – collectible costumes that you can wear instead of the base outfit. All of these can be found while exploring and will actually require certain monsters to unlock. Every monster has an exploration ability tied to it which makes expanding your collection of monsters feel ever more satisfying as more and more of the world opens up to you with every new ability. Only the most adventurous of explorers will be able to find every room in the game.
The fighting in Monster Sanctuary is, by far, the deepest part of the game and the mechanic you will be interacting with the most. Combat in Monster Sanctuary will always be 3 vs. 3 battles, with the only exceptions to this being the very beginning, when the player does not have three monsters at their disposal, and boss battles. While this may seem intimidating at first to some players, the game starts off pretty easy and gradually increases the difficulty as you progress. In order to get a full team of 6, the player must catch more monsters. This game allows you to catch monsters by hatching them from eggs. After every battle, the player will receive a rating of one to five stars, and the higher the star rating, the more likely the player is to receive an egg.
To pair up with the 3v3 system, comes the Combo system. Every action taken by a monster, whether this be healing, shielding, buffing, or attacking, will raise the Combo Percent, and the higher that is, the more damage the next move will deal in that turn. This encourages players to form a balanced team of more than just damage-dealing monsters as only one heavy damage dealer might be needed on a team of three with enough combo built up.
Each of the 101 monsters in the game has its own unique skill trees allowing players to customize their monsters to their own liking. The entire skill tree cannot be filled out even at max level, but the game encourages experimentation with the skill trees via Skill Resetters (more on this in the next section). In addition to the skill trees, there are various equipment you can put on your monsters and upgrade throughout the game, as well as the ability to feed your monsters various food items to boost their stats. One can spend hours building various teams and messing around with skills.
Unlike Pokemon, where having a varied team of types and abilities lets you cover more options, Monster Sanctuary instead leans more on synergy with other monsters. It is far more powerful to have a team focused on just the poison debuff than it is to have monsters that cover every debuff in the game.
Just like other Monster Tamer games, monsters can evolve but it works far differently in this game than any other. Evolutions are not always necessarily more powerful, and some team compositions might even favor the unevolved version of a monster. Evolution is instead a way to change a monster’s stats and move list. To evolve a monster, you must first reach the area with a large tree in the Forest. You can offer up certain items that will make certain monsters evolve, and these items can be found from exploring and sometimes from battling evolved forms of monsters.
At one point in the game, the player will unlock the ability to “shift” their monsters into a light or dark form. This will slightly change a monster’s stats and give them a unique passive ability depending on the shift that was chosen, which further adds to the customizability of each monster in the game. Shifting a monster also changes the color scheme of that monster, thus giving it an entirely different feel than it had before.
Keeper Battles are the true test of game knowledge as it requires players to beat another team of six monsters in a battle similar to trainer battles from Pokemon, but far harder. In the most recent 1.2 update, there are over 10 new Legendary Keepers for the player to challenge hidden in the Magma Chamber.
The last note in this section is the boss battles, or Champion Monsters. These massive beasts have an increased HP pool, can act two or even three times per turn, and most can only be caught by 5-starring the battles to drop their egg or evolution item. No worries if the player can not 5-star the Champion Monsters the first time around as these powerful monsters can be challenged again in an area in the game called the Monster Tower.
Comparing this game to its more popular counterpart, Pokemon, Monster Sanctuary offers both more depth and a far more satisfying difficulty curve than Pokemon Sword and Shield. The game can, and will, absolutely demolish players that do not understand its systems by late game. The game, however, provides plenty of opportunities to learn. If a player seeks to reset a skill tree for a particular monster, they can buy skill resetters very early on. If there is a monster that the player ignored early on, but wishes to use now that they have more knowledge of the game, re-hatching that monster from an egg will cause it to re-hatch at only one or two levels under your current level.
Gone are the days where you have to spend hours grinding up one monster to catch it up with the rest of your team. The best part of this game is that even the monsters one would think are weak, such as the blob, can be used in end game teams with the right team composition. All of these items and systems exist to encourage players to experiment with the mechanics of the game and learn what works best for them.
There were many many points where I had to rework my team to better fit a theme or certain synergy I was going for and this will be the case for many other players over the course of their journey. Talking to your Spectral Familiar via the pause menu can also provide in-game tips on every mechanic I have already mentioned. In the worst-case scenario, if the player is still stuck, they can turn the difficulty down to Casual mode. Or join the Monster Sanctuary Discord, which will always have someone willing to help organize a strategy and team for you.
The pixelated art style is both pleasing to look at and consistent in quality. All of the monsters and zones look fantastic and the attacking animations really help bring some of these monsters to life, with one of my favorites being the magma blob’s little hopping as it engulfs enemies in lava. All of the zones look fantastic and all of the hidden walls and secret areas are clearly indicated in some way, shape, or form.
The newly-added costumes are also fantastic. They all look incredible and offer some real incentives to explore the world. My only complaint is that I wish there were more but not much can be done about that. The attacks all look as they should and are satisfying to land; especially when the yellow crit numbers appear.
The soundtrack is composed by Dennis Sinner and is a very strong showing of Indie music. It’s not like Hades where every song that plays is a banger, but every song fits its respective area and the tone perfectly for whenever it plays. Whether it’s the intense action-packed Keeper Battle track or the mysterious and mystical Sun Palace theme, the soundtrack never felt awkward to listen to. In particular, I feel like the Magma Chamber and Sun Palace both had amazing themes that shall stick with me for a long time. There are bound to be a few gems in the soundtrack that will stick with the player. Just like the rest of the game, the soundtrack oozes with passion.
There were zero issues with the controls on the Switch version. Everything felt smooth and responsive, even during the heavy platforming segments. Exploring a world with monsters at my side never felt more natural. With more Quality of Life features included in this update, such as organizing your monsters, choosing a team and navigating menus has never felt easier since launch. Players should find little to no issues with the controls on the Switch version besides a few hard platforming segments.
Added in Update 1.1 comes a New Game + feature, which lets you enter the game with all your caught monsters, all of which begin at Level 1 and auto-level with your main party up until the level they were in the file you copied. As well as this, you get to keep all your equipment (which also resets to where they have no upgrades), and a newly added Master Difficulty. This will allow Monster Keepers to test out new teams infinitely if they choose to do so. Combined with the new Master difficulty and PvP features, Monster Keepers that enjoyed the game will have plenty of team ideas to test and players to battle. If a player is looking for something more competitive than base PvP, the Monster Sanctuary Discord hosts its own tournaments.
The sheer amount of team-building customization options alone can keep a player engaged for hours and hours, even after beating the game. No matter how many times I thought I had seen the extent of what Monster Sanctuary had to offer, the game opened new doors with new mechanics, items, or monsters, that completely changed my understanding of it.
With an overall great presentation, tight controls, an expansive exploration system that rewards the player for catching monsters, a deep customization system that can let even the same kind of monster feel vastly different from each other depending on the player’s choices, and a combat system that truly tests the player’s abilities, this game deserves as much praise as it can get.
Besides all the triple-A standards such as the number of monsters and graphics that cannot rival Pokemon, I truly believe that there is a very special hidden gem here that is more than capable of rivaling any other game in the genre. I have not fallen in love with a monster tamer like this since I first discovered games in the genre, and even as I write, I am itching to mess around with more team compositions and see what I can create. Monster Sanctuary receives an astounding 9/10 and should, at the least, be checked out by all fans of the monster tamer genre.