Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a game that I paid little to no attention during its initial release. Partially due to its back-then console exclusivity, partially because the game’s whimsical art direction made me think that I would not enjoy it, either mechanically or conceptually. While its story is nothing to write home about, the game’s feature on the latest SGDQ made me reconsider my interest in Monster Boy. The marvelous speedrun by tinahacks made me eager to play it. Thankfully, PC release was just around the corner. So, here I am after one week of playing the game to tell you what I think about it and whether you should play it yourself (yes, you absolutely should).
History of Monsterboy and Some Nastymen – narrative
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a game from a series with a confusing history. Way back in 1986, Wonder Boy was released, and for the next several installments, English releases followed that naming convention. In 1994, it was suddenly changed to Monster World IV. In 2017, a remake of Wonder Boy III was released under the name Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Tarp and in 2018, we’ve got Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. Why am I telling you all of this?
Because I want to pad the review with more words to improve its rating in SEO algorithms. In case you want to find more games in the same niche and, let me tell you right now, Cursed Kingdom gripped me so hard that I am planning a playthrough of The Dragon’s Tarp in the nearby future.
Let’s get the story out of the way first, because it’s nothing of particular interest, used more to move you from one set-piece to another. Our protagonist, Jin, finds his Uncle Nabu using magic to turn everyone into human like animals. On a quest to stop him, Jin himself gets turned into a pig. Soon thereafter a court magician Mysticat tells Jin that to reverse the curse, he needs to find five animal orbs spread throughout the kingdom. Thus, the majority of the game will be spent tracking down those orbs in pursuit of a happy ending.
Taking the high road – gameplay
The curse in question is responsible for the game’s main mechanic, which is used for platforming, fighting bosses, and puzzle-solving – transforming into different animals. Each form has both benefits and drawbacks. The initial form – the Pig – can sniff out hidden paths and treasures but it is kinda heavy, so it can’t wear Jin’s weaponry. Snake is nimble and agile, able to stick to different surfaces, but not suitable for fighting. Frog can use its tongue as a grappling hook or to throw bombs back at the attackers. Most importantly, it gets to wear Jin’s equipment. Lion is a bruiser kind of guy, and in this form, Jin can break huge boulders or use a rapid thrust to leap high into the sky. Lastly, there is Dragon, a sort of an endgame form, as it allows Jin to fly, changing the game from a platformer to something more of a side-scrolling shooter.
Every single form is a joy to play and to look at thanks to the beautiful art which reminds me of Saturday morning cartoons. The popping colors, smooth animations, the sheer character which the world emanates with its every frame is something that I would like to see in more games. Every time you get a new animal form, the game gives you some breathing space, some time to get accustomed to its unique characteristics. When your arsenal is fully stacked with forms and game throws everything it has to offer at you – that’s when I fell in love with the game completely and unequivocally. Late game platforming sections expect you to switch from one form to another on the fly, to get to the end and believe me when I say that you will probably fail a lot at the beginning.
It may seem stressful, but the game does not cheapen out on checkpoints, so you should not feel overwhelmed at any point. I would have preferred the game to throw more challenges in my way a little bit earlier in the game. First few hours with the Cursed Kingdom do feel a bit sluggish, but I cannot hold it against the game as objective criticism. All I’m saying is that if you are yearning the challenge, don’t be dissuaded by the game’s seemingly innocent introductory hours.
A secret to be told, a gold chest to be bold – exploration, collectibles, all that jazz
I have mentioned that as Frog, Jin can use his equipment. And there is plenty of that. Mind you, armor and weapons in this game are not just stat sticks – everything has a meaningful impact on the game’s dynamics. Consider heavy boots which make you really slow but with an added perk of walking underwater, revealing previously inaccessible areas. An ice sword does not just slow enemies but freezes magma as well, again, opening more areas for exploration. You see, while the Cursed Kingdom is a platformer, for the most part, it is also a Metroidvania-esque RPG. You do not have to go right all of the time and if you fall, usually you will not see a do-over screen but rather a new area.
The game encourages you to explore and return to the older areas (now opened up for exploration thanks to your new forms and equipment) to get more loot and upgrades for Jin’s existing arsenal. I’ll be frank, I am not the biggest fan of the genre, but I gave it an honest try, simply because of how beautiful everything looks and sounds in the Cursed Kingdom. I don’t think I have discovered every hidden secret, so I guess it is a nice incentive to return to the game for a second serving of fun.
So, Cursed Kingdom is a platformer, quasi-RPG, and a game which rewards exploration and creative utilization of its game mechanics. It is also a game with popping visuals, and meticulous attention to the details. If you like the sound of any of those, I don’t think I can recommend it more than I have already done. This was my first foray into the series, so I cannot really say anything about its nostalgic qualities or Easter eggs and callbacks prepared specifically for the long-time fans of the franchise. On its own, without any ties to any other games, it is one hell of a platformer, a definitive highlight of the year.
Game key kindly provided by FDG Entertainment.