Posted on May 29, 2014, Mitchell Saltzman Monochroma Review – What’s Black, White and Red All Over?
It’s hard to take a look at Nowhere Studios’ Monochroma and not think of 2010’s indie darling, Limbo. The two games share many artistic and mechanical similarities — they both are puzzle platformers, both utilize a black and white aesthetic with a dreary and lonely atmosphere, and both have a young protagonist who often gets killed by a variety of deadly and violent traps.
But while Limbo felt fresh and polished when it came out four years ago, Monochroma feels all too familiar and janky in comparison. It certainly has some bright spots with a few clever puzzles, some tense chase sequences, and a nice feeling of brotherhood between the two main characters, but poor controls, tedious platforming, and an ineffectively minimalist narrative keep Monochroma from coming out of the shadows.
Platform: PC (reviewed)
Developer: Nowhere Studios
Publisher: Nowhere Studios
Release Date: May 28, 2014
Monochroma puts players in control of the elder of two brothers. At the start of the game, they’re happy in their quiet village, just playing around, flying kites, climbing ropes, and running through fields. Then the little brother crashes through the roof of a warehouse, and with the way back home blocked off, the two must trudge deep into the ghettos and big city where a single mysterious corporation has seemingly taken control of society.
Eventually, the two brothers find themselves pursued by a burly man in a striped shirt who seems obsessed with their capture. He chases them into a factory, where they start to learn of the dark secrets this shady corporation keeps hidden behind its locked doors.
Monochroma’s story is delivered in a minimalist style similar to that of games like Limbo, Journey, and more recently, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. There is no dialogue, no secret notes to be found, no text written on the walls, nothing. Everything is conveyed through the actions of the characters and the stories that the environments tell.
While this method of story telling has been used effectively in the aforementioned games due to how simple their stories are in nature, it doesn’t work so well in Monochroma. There’s just too much to answer for without having words to help tell the story. How did the corporation rise to power? Why is the guy in the striped shirt chasing you and your brother? What’s the deal with the robots? While some of these questions are answered, those answers just leads to new questions forming, and eventually the realization sets in that some will never be resolved satisfactorily because it’s simply outside of the scope of the minimalist storytelling design. And at that point, I just stopped caring about what was going on.
The main mechanic at play in Monochroma’s puzzles is fairly simple. You have to literally carry your little brother through the game. While carrying your brother, you are much heavier and therefore cannot jump as high or as far. The caveat is that your brother can only be set down in spots that are illuminated with a small spotlight.
This leads to some interesting puzzles and also some tense moments where you must put your brother down in a spot that is obviously dangerous, trigger a switch, and then race to pick him up before he’s crushed, maimed, or straight-up murdered by whatever it is you just triggered.
Those types of puzzles, along with some great chase sequences, are easily the high points of Monochroma’s gameplay. They are tense, creative, and satisfying when you’re able to swoop in and save your brother just in the nick of time. But these moments are too few and far between, and the majority of puzzles in Monochroma just aren’t that exciting.
The worst of them are also poorly checkpointed and consist of nothing more than just busywork. One in particular has the player moving an agonizingly slow barrel to the right side of the screen so room’s exit aligns with a platform particular. The platform is too high to reach for both brothers at once, but fortunately, there’s a spotlight inside the barrel and a crate high above that can be pushed down to help the brother up. Immediately, the puzzle is solved. But now you must put the brother down in the spotlight, climb a ladder, wait for the red mist of death to subside, get the crate, drop the crate, push the crate over to the brother, pick him up, jump on the crate, jump to the platform, climb the ladder and avoid the red mist of death AGAIN, and then finally move on.
Heaven forbid you actually accidentally touch the red mist of death or try to jump down after pushing the crate off, because if you die, you have to start all the way back at the beginning and start pushing the barrel again.
It’s just a lot of busywork and absolutely no payoff. And while this is just one example, it’s not the only puzzle where Monochroma feels like it’s wasting your time by making you jump through a bunch of hoops in order to solve a relatively easy puzzle.
Controls are also a bit of a sore spot, especially when it comes to some of the precision platforming that you’re required to do. The control issue is not a game breaker, but it does lead to a few cheap deaths, which are then compounded by the poorly checkpointed and often-tedious puzzles.
At least from an audio/visual standpoint, Monochroma is fantastic. It may not have the same wow factor that Limbo had back in 2010, but the art direction is still very strong and effectively conveys the somber and lonely feel of the game. The music, while used sparsely for the most part, always kicks in at just the right moment. Whether it be during a tense chase sequence, or when you finally make it to the big city and get to see an expansive shopping mall with no one around, the music is always on point and sets just the right mood for the moment.
All in all, Monochroma is a flawed but beautiful game that has a few shining moments, but for the most part struggles with the two most important aspects of a puzzle platformer: the puzzles and the platforming.
- Aesthetically pleasing gray scale art style that effectively uses splashes of red to add a little bit of life to a lonely and dreary world
- A few great puzzles and chase sequences that really ramp up the tension
- Music is rare, but when it is used, it sets the mood perfectly
- Minimalist story is poorly told, leaving too many unanswerable questions due to the decision of not having any dialogue whatsoever
- Finicky controls lead to several deaths that don’t feel like the player’s fault
- Many poorly checkpointed puzzles force players to redo tedious and time-wasting busywork
- Majority of puzzles are not very well designed and can be figured out almost immediately
Final Score: 50/100
Monochroma was reviewed using a review copy provided by Nowhere Studios. GameFront employs a 100-point scale when reviewing games to be as accurate about the experience as possible. Read the full rundown of what our review scores mean.
Mitchell Saltzman is a video producer at GameFront. You can read more of his work here and watch his many videos on the GameFront YouTube Channel and the GameFront Walkthroughs YouTube Channel. You can also follow him and GameFront on Twitter: @GameFrontMitch and @GameFrontCom.