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In a black and white world where the sun seldom shines, the streets are all but abandoned and a mega-corporation controls all, you must shoulder the burden of an injured brother in order to carry him to safety. This is the world of Monochroma, a side-scrolling platforming puzzle game from Nowhere Studios that aims to make the player think (in more ways than one) while clawing their way from the slums to the highest peaks of society.
I loved just about every aspect of Monochroma. From its drab atmosphere and beautiful settings to its silent characters, moody soundtrack and a story that is told through visuals alone, everything about this black and white game (with a few splashes of red) screams “indie darling.” It’s unfortunate, then, that frequently abysmal controls manage to consistently tarnish an otherwise wonderful experience.
As the older of two brothers, the game begins simply enough: You’re spending some time in a playground while your brother flies a kite. When your younger sibling falls and injures his leg, however, it’s your job to carry him to safety. That is, of course, easier said than done.
Nowhere Studios openly compare Monochroma to a cross between Ico and Limbo. It’s easy to see why, too. Outside of the similarities in appearance to Limbo, Monochroma follows a similar formula of leading the player through environmental puzzles that require a bit of thinking and a heck of a lot of jumping, pushing, pulling and button pressing to get through. The mechanics are simple enough, but the puzzles are cleverly designed and frequently left me with a sense of accomplishment after managing to tinker out a solution.
These puzzles are broken up by bits of platforming and the occasional chase sequence as the boys attempt to outrun a striped-shirt-wearing henchman who believes they saw too much in their early travels. This pursuit carries the youngsters far away from the humble farmlands where they began their journey, through lumberyards, across rivers, slums, shopping districts and more. The setting is frequently changing and, along the way, carefully placed visual clues and events tell a tale of classism and oppression.
Similar to the young woman in Ico, your brother serves as more of a burden than a companion. He’s unable to move on his own or help you solve puzzles in any way. The little guy is even afraid of the dark, refusing to be set down anywhere there isn’t ample lighting. This frequently enhances the puzzles rather than simply giving you something to lug around all of the time, as the placement of your brother will often determine how and in what order various stages of a particular conundrum must be carried out.
The purpose here, obviously, it to create a sense of responsibility for the younger brother, as his safety is entirely in your hands. Perhaps it’s a fault of the otherwise suitable silent storytelling, but I never really felt much affection for the kid. I like how he was utilized to craft some puzzles and occasionally felt a twinge of fear when he appeared to be (and often actually was) in harm’s way, but usually he was just a lifeless bag of bones who kept me from running too fast or jumping too high when he was clinging to my back.
Also similar to Limbo are the frequent and often shocking death scenes. There’s not much gore to speak of, but seeing a pair of siblings trip and tumble into a churning wood chipper can be quite shocking. Deaths wouldn’t be too much of a hindrance if load times weren’t a little lengthy, but what really drives the nail in Monochroma’s coffin are the horrific controls. I can accept the occasional death and, yes, even the occasional lengthy load screen when I know that the fault of botching a puzzle or bit of platforming lies in my own hands. In the case of Monochroma, however, I frequently found myself physically shaking with frustration as the youngsters failed a seemingly simple leap for the dozenth time.
In a platforming game, controls are what make or break the process. The jumping, running and maneuvering needs to be reliable and the rules of the game world need to be similarly concrete. For the first hour of Monochroma, everything seemed rather dandy. I was just learning the controls and puzzles were a little more forgiving, so the glaring faults in said controls had not yet presented themselves.
Eventually, I found myself standing in front of a truck or box, repeatedly mashing on the jump button and holding the up arrow, wondering why the character refused to hoist himself up onto a platform that was well within his reach. I’d walk away, come back and try it again, fail, and repeat until he finally got it right.
That was annoying, but still manageable. Further into the game, I found myself battling the controls to get the character to simply let go of a rope he had been swinging on. Or, worse still, not jumping at all while I mashed on the button over and over again. These types of control goofs became even more infuriating as death became a more common risk. I would miss a jump multiple times over and watch as my characters plummeted to their death, only to wait for yet another loading screen and another chance to finally land the simple maneuver correctly.
A little past the midway point, there was a puzzle involving a sliding box and a silo slowly filling with water. I can’t even guess how many times I died in that silo; the box clumsily bobbing around and my characters falling into the deadly water over and over again. If I moved on the box, I died. If I stood in the center of the box, it still tipped over and I died. It was nearly enough to make me walk away from the game entirely and, had I not been working on a review, I would have gladly called it quits. The gameplay isn’t entirely broken, but it’s not too far off of the mark.
Despite the fact that I really enjoyed every other aspect of the game, the maddening controls are more than enough to overshadow the bright points of Monochroma, now available through Steam. Were Nowhere Studios to address this one issue, I would be able to sing the game’s praises and wholeheartedly recommend fans of the genre rush off and give it a try. But I’m not here to tell you how I feel about a game I wish I was playing. It’s a shame that Monochroma is absolutely a game worth experiencing, if only having that experience wasn’t an overwhelming exercise in frustration.
Developer: Nowhere Studios
Publisher: Nowhere Studios
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