Inside Pulse 12

Review: Monster Racers (Nintendo DS)

Monster Racers
Publisher: UFO Interactive
Developer: Koei
Genre: RPG/Racing
Release Date: 05/11/2010

It is beyond easy to take one look at Monster Racers, decry it as nothing more than a cheap Pokemon clone with a gimmick, and move on. However, a lot of games have done something interesting and occasionally quite good with the Pokemon formula, but weren’t actual Pokemon games themselves. Last year’s Fossil Fighters is a great example. There was a game that could have been nothing but a clone, but it turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable game with a cute story, fun mini-games, and satisfying strategic battle system.

It was, in no small part to that game, that I offered to review Monster Racers when it came in. Sure, I was knee deep in Picross 3D, working on a new game for my “Catching Up” column, a mere day or two away from purchasing Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 3, and trying desperately to find time to play Again. On top of that, I knew I’d only have a couple of weeks to play all of these games before UFC Undisputed 2010 and ModNation Racers ate up all of my time like Pac-Man on a power pill. I was booked, and reviewing a game that I knew little about except that Lucard thought it looked like “Pokemon with racing” should have been in all rights a terrible idea.

I think that should speak volumes about how much fun I had with Fossil Fighters.

So, after all of this exposition, did Monster Racers manage to be worth my time, or did I make a terrible, terrible move?

Story

You can probably guess how this game starts out.

You play as either an unnamed boy or girl who arrives on Star Island with the dream of earning your monster racing license and making a career out of travelling the world, befriending monsters, and racing them to glory. In this world, monsters were discovered a mere ten years ago. Once found on Star Island, they started making themselves known everywhere. Thing is, whenever two monsters meet each other, the feel an uncontrollable urge to race. Naturally, humans started training monsters and racing them against each other. It took almost no time at all for this to become a global phenomenon.

You travel the world, collect monsters, and battle the regional champion. There’s even a ill-intentioned gang called the Astral Force to contend with. However, this game does take a direction that I found almost refreshing. For once the “evil gang of doom” isn’t all that bad. They’re just misunderstood. The plot quickly gets away from any sort of save the world nonsense and actually delivers the promise of playing someone with the sole intention of becoming the best in the world. Even the ill tempered rival turns out to be a good guy once you get to know him. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff in there about creating relationships with the monsters and stuff like that, but for the most part the story is extremely light-hearted.

That’s not to say that it is all that good. The characters aren’t well defined, we have to take the game’s word for it that the main character is a good person, and the big twist at the end seems a bit silly, although not as predictable as I had pegged it. At one point, a main character essentially bullies someone into continuing a life they aren’t happy with because her fans will be disappointed. I found that despicable.

Overall, it’s a light story that gives you an additional reason for all of the training and racing. Getting your butt kicked by the world champion early on spurs you forward and sets the tone for the rest of the game. It isn’t bad.

Graphics

Monster Racers visual style is split into two different sections: the exploration sections and the racing bits.

The exploration sections are par for the course for this type of game. You move along the world, choosing paths and occasionally solving environmental puzzles. There are more than twenty or so locations to explore, and the do a good job of looking different. From the savannas of Africa, the frozen wasteland of Russia, and the sandy beaches of Star Island, each location stands out. It uses a small color palette and simple lines, but the world is bright and cheery, which fits the game perfectly.

The racing sections are a bit different. The game turns into a 2D action platformer. This focuses on the monsters and their animations, and it works out rather well. While the animation isn’t perfectly fluid, it does hold some charm. Just watching the gorilla-like Thompa run on his arms as opposed to his feet makes for an interesting visual effect. On top of that, the backgrounds are fairly well detailed and feature some occasional niceties. For instance, flaming rocks will pour down during the fire themed levels.

What can be called into question is some of the choices made for monster designs. A lot of them are simply an oversized version of a real animal with one or two alterations. For example, one monster is nothing more than a tall Koala with big ears. Oh yeah, and it’s purple. Others are bad attempts at adding an element such as fire to an animal. Howlfire is an ugly beast. When the monsters stray from the animal kingdom, it looks a lot better. Zaal is great example. He’s this crazy black monstrosity that slithers more than he runs. Still, some of them are pretty cool and the worst ones aren’t quite as bad as some of the things I’ve seen in Pokemon. It’s a pretty decent package overall.

Sound

Like the graphics, the audio is light-hearted, with some tunes that fit the action to a tee. Generally speaking, there is a tune for each location, in addition to a different song for each race type. Races against wild monsters are met with a much more relaxed tone than those against trained monsters. It serves as quick reminder that you need to be on top of your game in those races.

Like most games of its ilk, Monster Racers also features sound clips that represent the battle cry, so to speak, of each monster. I liked these, as they do a good job of sounding like the animals the monsters are based off of without sounding quite as tinny and dated as the nonsense of Pokemon.

The sound effects are another nice touch. Grabbing speed pick up or activating a turbo boost provide a satisfying sound that goes along well with the visuals. There are a lot of nice little touches that punctuate the experience and add to the game.

It’s not a perfect setup, but it fits the game well, which is all one should really ask for in a game.

Control and Gameplay

With a name like “Monster Racers” you might assume this game involves bizarre creatures riding around in Karts. Thankfully, MR doesn’t take this route. Instead, monsters take part in foot races over varied terrain.

Getting into a race is simple enough. Travelling in a location, you’ll come across star emblazoned orbs that represent a wild monster. By touching it, you initiate a race. You can choose one of three monsters on your team to race up to three monsters. In a race, you hold the direction you want your monster to travel, (races are always left to right), jump over obstacles, pick up helpful items, and try to finish first in order to gain experience. Experience increases your monster’s level, which in turn increase the monster’s stats such as speed, thrust, power, and spirit.

There are three types of races. First, there are wild races, in which you face wild monsters. In these races, you can attempt to befriend a monster by tapping the appropriate button. Your monster will have to be of the same or greater level than the monster you befriend. You shoot out stars that must hit the monster in order to fill up a meter. Once the meter is full, the monster is yours. However, using this move causes your monster to slow down, meaning a miss can put you way back. When you’re trying to befriend a single monster out of three, things can get a bit hairy. Also, you don’t need to cross the finish line to win in all cases. If you get far enough ahead, the wild monster will admit defeat and drop out.

The second race type is a challenge race. Whilst moving around the world, you’ll encounter other racers who want to test your skills. In these races, you can look at the opponent’s stats and skills before the race. These races are tougher because the monsters are well trained and grant more experience as a result. The only way to win is to cross the finish line first.

Lastly, there are tournament races. These are broken into three different sections that all must be cleared in order to win the tournament. First, you have to run a solo lap and beat the qualifying time. Next, you race against three other people and have to land in one of the top two spots. If you make it that far, you face another set of three racers and need to finish first in order to get the cup. These are the toughest sections of the game, bar none.

Each monster has a special turbo move they can utilize to cover great distance and damage opponents. This meter fills up slowly over time depending on the monster’s spirit ranking, but can be raised by collecting special items on the field. Knowing when to use these moves is crucial, and finding a monster with the right move for your style can be incredibly beneficial. There are a few basis types of turbo moves. Some monsters merely charge forward, some teleport, and others launch ranged attacks.

Beyond that, there are other tactics to consider. By charging into another monster from behind of jumping on them from above, you can cause damage. The monster that takes damage is slowed considerably depending on how much damage is done. Heavier monsters do more damage, but tend to have less speed, whilst smaller monsters are usually faster but can’t dole out the damage with much effect. Obstacles on the field also cause damage, so choosing the correct path and timing jumps is essential.

Every monster has a set of skills they learn independently from their levels. Skills are earned through loyalty which is in turn earned by using the monster in races. Each monster can have up to ten skills. These include basic stat increases to giving the monster advantages in different types of terrain. Loyalty can also be earned by giving the monster orbs you find in your journey. These have the bonus effect of allowing you to customize the color of your monster.

The different types of terrain play a huge factor in races. For instance, when a monster races in snow, said snow builds up in front of them and slows them down. The only way to get rid of this pile is to jump or switch direction. Monsters with an advantage in snow can move much more quickly in these sections. Also, most courses have bits where you can drop down from one ledge to another by pressing the down button. Not only is this useful for dodging obstacles, but allows you to drop down on enemies and cause damage. There are five main types of terrain. They include fire, snow, grass, sand, and water. Other types, such as dirt or rock don’t impede movement at all. Most monsters eventually gain at least one advantage. Obviously, keeping a well balanced team is essential to victory.

Another huge part of the gameplay is creating hybrids. Early on, you find a crazed professor who is willing to create hybrid monsters that take traits from two different monsters. You don’t have to lose the monsters in order to make a hybrid, but the monster you get in return will be of one of those two species. More to the point, it will have a mix of skills from its two parents. For example, I had a monster who was good in the sand cross with another that was good in the water. The result I got was a monster with slightly lower stats, but could run well in both sand and water. That kind of thing was incredibly useful, as I could fill up two problem areas with a single monster. You can breed as much as you want, but you’ll never know quite what you’ll get, so expect a few rejects along the way.

Overall, the game is pretty fun. The races control well and the courses are chock full of obstacles and monsters so as to give the player a good sense of accomplishment when a close race comes out in his/her favor. There are eighty different monsters to collect, but with exotic variants and hybrids, that number is a bit misleading. You can probably end up with three or more versions of each monster if you really wanted to.

One big concern is that each map location generally has only two different courses; one for wild races and one for challenge races. Some areas that change in climate as you go along fix this, but for the most part, long stretches through one location can get old fairly fast. At least you can avoid most races if you want, as it is fairly simple to dodge the wonder orbs that contain the monsters.

Basically, the game may take a cue from Pokemon, but it goes in another direction and pulls off a rather decent racing game using action platformer mechanics. It might not appease all, but it avoided the traps that usually befall a cross breed like this. If you’re the kind of person who though Pokemon was wasted on turn based combat, you might want to look into this game.

Replayability

Playing through to the end credits took me about eighteen hours, though a good hour and a half of that was spent levelling up so I could win the final races. During that time, I visited all seven regions and well over a couple dozen locations. Still, beating the game is hardly the end.

There are four different tournaments in each region. You always have the regional open and grand prix that you must complete in order to move the story forward, but there are two other cups to participate in as well. One is a tourney where only regional monsters are allowed, and the other generally puts a special prerequisite in place, giving you a chance to use a wide variety of monsters.

On top of that, beating the game offers you the chance to befriend seven different legendary monsters that you can’t get until after you’ve beaten the game. You have to track down some special items in order to summon these monsters, but having the complete set is a temptation that some will not be able to resist.

There are some multiplayer options as well. You can play with up to four people via wireless play, but there is sadly no Nintendo Wi-Fi support. You can also trade monsters. Thanks to the hybrid mechanic, you can get multiple copies of your starter so you don’t have to give anything too important up. In Pokemon, having a complete set on one cartridge usually meant playing two different games on two different systems and constantly starting the game over to get and trade one of each starter. If you had a friend willing to do this with you, you’d need to double the amount of time spent in order to give them copies as well. Also, Monster Racers allows multiple player files, a feature sorely lacking in Pokemon games.

Therefore, if you spend time filling out your roster, racing against other players, and the like, you can get upwards of thirty hours at least out of the game. It isn’t as much as similar games, but it is still plenty of play for the dollars spent.

Balance

For the most part, if you balance your use of monsters properly, the game is pretty good at giving you an appropriate challenge. The only time it gets particularly hard is when you bring a small fry to a high level race. Also, if your playing on unfriendly terrain against a monster who’s good on it, it would probably be a good idea to use a qualified monster of your own.

One problem I had was right before the final race in the story. I was going against three other monsters, each at level fifty. My monster was over level sixty and had up to double digits higher stats in every category. However, I found it unreasonably hard to keep up, let alone finish first. It took several tries and needless amounts of time training, but I finally got the win. The crazy thing is that the annoying monsters in question were ones I had already beaten not that long before. It’s like they took some steroids or something.

Overall, the game is fairly well balanced. There are times that feel a bit too easy and other times that feel a bit hard, but you can still get a sense of satisfaction from a well fought victory. That alone speaks well for the game.

Originality

You might be expecting me to decry this game as nothing but a rip off of Pokemon with a gimmick. While it is true that a lot of the setup comes from that series, the racing truly makes the game feel different, even when some of the monsters look as if they were Pokemon rejects.

For one, grinding for levels is much different when you’re actively engaged instead of mindlessly using the same attacks over and over again. If you don’t look where you’re going in a race, you can fall down a pit, run smack into a rock wall, or get overrun by an angry mammoth. You have to keep your attention on the game or feel the consequences.

Also, the game puts force a sense of camaraderie I never got from Pokemon. I guess it comes from having a good natured race as compared to pitting your monsters in glorified cock fights. The monsters don’t end up hurt, and losses merely lessen a monster’s will to run as oppose to knocking it unconscious. Even the toughest opponent shows your character respect. I like that. It’s also refreshingly original to have a game like this where you don’t have to deal with a cockamamie “save the world” plot.

Addictiveness

When I first started playing this game, I was almost sure that I would have problems playing it for long stretches of time. Instead, I’d play it for hours at a time, often clearing whole sections in one sitting. I put roughly fifteen hours of my playtime of this game in about three days. During those days, I was busying writing another review as well as playing another game for my column. Clearly, I was addicted.

That’s the thing about collect-a-thon games. There’s always that need to explore, to see what the next areas will bring. What kinds of monsters are there in North America? What happens when I breed this monster with that monster? How useful will this skill be in practice? You get the idea. It just sucks you in and refuses to let go.

I even thought I wouldn’t play this game anymore after I beat it, but I found myself playing for another hour within maybe a few hours of finishing the game. That surprised me.

Appeal Factor

No doubt a lot of people will take one look at this game and brush it off. It seems like a silly idea really. Still, those that give it a try will probably end up liking it,which is a decent sign of the game’s appeal factor.

The biggest thing going against this game is that it came out so soon after Pokemon Heart Gold/Soul Silver. It has a high chance of being seen as nothing more than a knock off, not to mention that a lot of people are still playing those games due to their high replayability.

This is a perfect game for kids. It has the a bright atmosphere that carries over well and lasts long enough to preoccupy the kids for hours on end. Mature gamers looking for a engaging experience will also find it suitable.

Once you get past early preconceptions, Monster Racers isn’t a very tough sell.

Miscellaneous

The game doesn’t really come with any extras, but there are a few notable things about it that are worth mentioning.

Again, the ability to have multiple save files is something I really want to see in games like Pokemon, but it seems it isn’t meant to be. I like that this game breaks that trend. This way, if a player wants to try out a different starter, they don’t have to erase one file to keep the other.

One annoying trend in the game is the names of the monsters. While many are merely plays on the animal the monster is based off of, others are truly uninspired. I’m talking mostly about the names that are merely “element x plus animal x = monster name.” For example, there is Pyrefox, Magmare, Whirlwolf, Wolfreeze, etc. These are groan worthy and show a lack of imagination on the developer’s part. It makes the unique names stand out that much more.

One last thing I’d like to mention is a nifty bonus in the game. When you chose your gender at the beginning of the game, the avatar representing the other gender becomes an alternate dimensional version of you that visits your world from time to time and bestows gifts upon you if you visit him/her on days they are in town. That’s just cool

The Scores

Story: Above Average
Graphics: Enjoyable
Sound: Good
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Good
Balance: Enjoyable
Originality: Decent
Addictiveness: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Enjoyable
Final Score: Enjoyable Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

This is two years in a row that I’ve been surprised by a game that looked to be nothing more than a Pokemon clone. Monster Racers effectively takes the basic concept of Pokemon, throws in a competent racing mechanic, and puts it all together in a rather agreeable package. Is it going to sway Pokemaniac’s away from their favorite franchise? Probably not. What it will do, however, is over a few dozen hours of entertainment to those willing to give it a try. I didn’t think I’d be saying this, but Monster Racers is pretty darn good.

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  • evan

    Im sorry but what you said about having multiple files is wrong. You see I tried and what happend to me was a little bit diffrent than getting two files instead of getting two files what I got was an erased file and that was just so upseting because I had managed to wrok hard enough to level up my monsters to such high levels while collecting each monster and then some of the exotic monsters to I am not judging what you said and mabye I didn’t follow you on what you said and I might be wrong and I can tell you exactly what I did if you want and tel me where I went wrong and if so thank you but if not then I just you to know that I wasn’t very happy about what happened. But if you were wrong then I will forgive you so much as if you can’t provide me any prof explaining other wise needless to say. I posted this comment for those of you like me who might want to know if you could have two files on this game for all that I know the answer is a resounding no and furthermore to those who do not read this warning and try will most likely be upset by the outcome of doing so head my warning and thanks for reading hope this cleared some confussion if you were wondering.

  • Hadn’t played this game for a while, so I had to try it out. You’re right. There’s only one save file. I don’t know what I thought I saw before, but I’m sincerely sorry that my mistake cost you a save file. I know what that’s like and it sucks.