Monochroma is the first title by Istanbul-based Nowhere Studios (thanks Wikipedia!) and despite it’s humble origins, the developers had some fairly lofty goals for the game. On the Steam page, one of the early bug updates says that they (Nowhere) want Monochroma to be considered as one of the best platformers of all time. Meanwhile on their official website they are no less reserved as they describe their game as a “deeply visual, intellectual and emotional experience”. So if it sounds to you like these guys are aiming high, then you would definitely be very right about that. Whether they’ve succeeded is, of course, an entirely different matter.
Now, I want you to stop me if this sounds familiar. The game is really rather excellently designed in, essentially, entirely black and white (so their claim of Monochroma being a “cinematic puzzle platformer” at least meets the “cinematic” part of the promise) and you play as a young child, a boy, in a distopian and dark world where he is forced to grow up quickly to meet the challenges ahead of him. It’s a very gloomy world described by the devs as “industrial-alchemic”, devoid of life, and you to progress you have to carry out a series of physics based puzzles as you advance through the game which grows ever grimmer as the deeper conspiracy behind it is revealed. That is correct, you ARE thinking of Limbo. That is also correct, it does feel a little like they are trying to be the next (or should that be “current) Limbo.
Limbo was, of course, a great success, both critically and commercially so it makes sense that other games would try to emulate it. However, a lot of what Monochroma does seems to hit so close to what Limbo did that really it feels less like they took inspiration from the game and more like they directly copied it. This isn’t entirely fair to the game or the studio, but I have to admit this was my first impression.
There is another similarity that can be drawn from Monochroma though. Very early on in the game, and I mean within the first few minutes, your younger brother injures himself playing with a kite and so it is up to you, the bigger brother, to carry him through the game. You have to occasionally put him down and pick him up in specific places in order to solve certain jumping and physics puzzles. As such a integral component of the gameplay, one cannot help but draw the comparison to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
So, that’s my first and biggest issue with Monochroma, it is trying simply TOO hard to be critically acclaimed. It has all the things which normally make for whatever the video game equivalent of Oscar-bait is. The themes of “growing up”, the elements of protecting and caring for your younger brother, a dark and depressing world, plus it tells it’s story entirely without words or dialogue. In short, it is actually being a little bit pretentious, thinking that by including all of these elements, it is automatically an excellent game and as good as the games it takes after.
It’s not all bad though, the game does succeed in some ways to be, honestly, a very engaging game. First up, despite being a straight up clone of Limbo, the graphics and design of the world is really very nice. Plus I entirely approve of the Sin City-esque flashes of red which stand out magnificently on a background of shades of grey. Also, while I may not really understand what “industrial-alchemic” means, I did like feel and look of the setting. The slightly steam-punky, gritty world has a lived in quality and a run-down element which seems reminiscent of any great city hit by hard times. Also, while it’s definitely true that the look and feel of the game is a little pretentious and completely overdone in the world of video games, it’s also hard to deny that it is a fairly atmospheric game.
Of course, this too is not entirely perfect, I think it would be nice if there was actually more evidence of other people. Considering the size of the city in the backdrops it’s very surprising that you never run into anyone else (except a pursuer who is attempting to keep you from revealing some conspiracy). I realise it might have been difficult to implement meeting NPCs but frankly the whole look of the game was just begging to have silhouettes in distant windows, perhaps overhear conversations through walls. Everything is there for life, even servant style robots, which I also quite liked even if their applications in gameplay were extraordinarily limited, but there is no sign of any people. It’s something simply notable for its absence.
The puzzles in the game are actually rather good too, well designed and well thought out with a good mixture of different styles of physics based messing around. Indeed the variation here is actually quite impressive and always keeps you on your toes, it never gets boring and there is never any sensation of having to do the same thing twice. There’s nothing too strenuous here of course, but a good puzzle game is not necessarily a difficult one.
That said, the gameplay itself is not anywhere close to as well done. The controls actually feel very clunky and cumbersome, with your main character seeming far too slow at responding far too often. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what about it feels out-of-place, but suffice to say it simply feels quite difficult moving and jumping around which can be more than a little frustrating considering that many of the puzzles require no small amount of accuracy of jumping in order to complete them.
The story is something which sort of bypassed me, which might sound unusual coming from me considering my love and fascination with writing in video games, but honestly there doesn’t really seem to be much to it. You are carrying your brother somewhere because he got injured, you stumble across some kind of dark and evil conspiracy and you get chased before you can reveal it (considering the lack of people in the world it’s a wonder who the bad-guys think you are going to reveal the plot to). Beyond that everything else is merely backdrops and a gloomy city at night and in the rain. Things like symbolism and deeper meanings tend to fly right over my head, even if they are particularly heavy handed, but all that talk of “themes of growing up” seem to be completely irrelevant. There is only one theme at play here… “Run and jump and run some more”.
The younger brother aspect of the game is also not particularly effective. I suspect you are supposed to feel compassion and protectiveness for the young child, designed to appear very much like a toddler, especially as you have to carry him on your back for essentially the whole game. In truth, I found myself getting simply irritated with the little bastard. He is apparently injured and thus cannot provide you with any assistance whatsoever, but he doesn’t even try and look after himself. He’s capable of sitting up on his own but refuses to pull levers, refuses to prevent himself from getting dragged along by conveyor belts, hell he even refuses to sit outside of brightly lit areas. Frankly I was often pissed off enough at the little lazy twat that I wanted to just leave him to die somewhere, which I suspect isn’t quite in the spirit of the game.
There are other little bits and pieces that bother me as well. One thing that I picked up on fairly early has me in such a muddled state that I simply have to mention it here, even if it might not be particularly relevant to the game. At the start you and your younger brother are playing in a care-free if slightly irresponsible manner on a beach and the surrounding fields. When your brother gets injured your character obviously decides that he is going to get help and so it would seem to suggest that he is taking the brother home… This has two issues. For one thing, getting home apparently requires traversing an extremely treacherous and one-way route so how they actually got to the beach in the first place is a complete mystery to me. The other thing is that they surely would have passed through the “conspiracy” building on the way TO the beach. Honestly these things aren’t particularly important, what IS important is that the game feels very directionless. You have no clear purpose beyond escape, which the majority of the time isn’t really that vital anyway, and if you are seeking help then there is no obvious destination for you to find any. It’s just gives the game and the characters a purposeless feel.
My final nit-pick with the game is my complete astoundment with how easily the bad-guy thug (and main antagonist) somehow manages to keep finding you, despite the extremely round-about and secret route you take, he somehow always keeps up. Fucking magic man! Combine that with the lack of direction for your character and it also gives the game an utterly pointless aspect. If your character doesn’t know where to go, and the bad guys can always find them, surely that means it’s inevitable that they will be caught and killed…?
I would like to say that despite the semi-poor rating I will give Monochroma and for all its faults and little issues, I did actually find it quite engaging. It might have been a bit of a Limbo clone and it might have taken most of its ideas from elsewhere, but it did a rather sound job of what it set out to do and provided me with a fair measure of entertainment. I genuinely would have played it all the way through were it not for getting stuck due to a glitch of some description (seriously).
I’d like it on record here that I am being completely honest about why I did not finish the game. Usually if I don’t finish a game its because I got bored or simply did not want to do so, but here it was genuinely to do with an obvious bug in the game. Which I CAN prove!
So this should say a lot about the game. It was worth playing through to the end, but NOT worth the time it takes file a bug report and hope for a fix…