There’s something fun about spiritual successors to older games. They don’t always hit the mark, sure, but you can tell when developers are clearly passionate about their craft. In that sense, Monark is no different. Brought to us by Kazunari Suzuki - best known for working on Atlus’ flagship Shin Megami Tensei franchise – with his new studio Lancarse, it’s immediately clear this isn’t your standard JRPG.
Incorporating horror elements, some very pronounced visuals, and interesting combat mechanics, Monark is undoubtedly one of the more unique JRPGs in recent times. Personally, having gone through The Legend of Heroes: Trails, Shin Megami Tensei, Persona, and more, I appreciated this palate cleanser. There's plenty that genre fans will find to enjoy here. Unfortunately, though, Lancarse’s debut falls short.
Set within Shin Mikado Academy, Monark sees this everyday high school suddenly surrounded by a mysterious barrier, letting no one through. Playing an amnesiac main character, we find ourselves making a deal with an otherworldly being called Vanitas to become a Pactbearer, giving us power called Authority. All while a strange mist fills the school air, turning anyone who spends enough time within it mad. It’s not a particularly original setup and unlike similar games, Monark doesn’t sufficiently compensate with suitable character development, so I was never truly invested.
Now, our goal is to take down other Pactbearers, each representing one of the seven deadly sins - lust, wrath, pride, and so on - to lift this barrier. Unfortunately, they’ve each holed up in one of the Academy’s campus buildings, and defeating them requires destroying three crystals, all housing said Pactbearer’s dark secrets. Progressing through these involves puzzle solving, often gaining information through speaking to other students.
In turn, that opens doorways to the Otherworld, and this is where the real fun begins. Using a turn-based combat system, there are no random encounters here and Monark provides a combat team of humans and fiends alike. Beyond your standard attacks, players can utilise stronger moves that reduce your HP, turning battles into a risk vs reward situation. We’ve got a good range of abilities and, going back to before, Pactbearers and Fiends can each use Authorities for special skills. However, this only deepens your madness.
Call The Authorities
Hitting 100% madness causes you to collapse, waking up in the academy’s infirmary, so it’s not a crutch you can fall back on. You’ve got to be strategic and build upon that, placing your teammates close together activates chain attacks, creating multiple hits on the same turn. Arguably, combat is Monark’s strongest element and while this can prove challenging, there’s significant depth.
Pulling off significant damage is satisfying and once completed, players are awarded Spirit rather than EXP, letting you upgrade/unlock skills and purchase battle items. Sadly, this core gameplay loop soon falls into repetition, thanks to unvaried level design. Monark quickly becomes pretty tedious too, as Spirit never provides enough to ensure characters are adequately levelled. It forces you to grind, which wouldn’t be so bad if progression wasn’t heavily reliant on this.
Proceedings feel dragged out, ruining Monark’s pacing and this is especially true in later stages. It’s not even a case where you need to be strategic to win each fight, though that naturally helps. Enemy levels just aren’t balanced between fights, making this story a much bigger slog than it needs to be. Stats can be improved during school life too, as players can take psychological tests to unlock fiends for your party, each based on one of the deadly sins. Sadly, it doesn’t fix this problem.
Verdict - 3/5
Monark is a nice debut effort from Lancarse but I wish they’d spent more time balancing it. It’s got interesting ideas and a great combat system but is bogged down by repetitive level design, narrative cliches, and grindy gameplay.
If you’re seeking a JRPG with a more horrifying aesthetic, you’ll have fun if you can look past those flaws. Shin Megami Tensei fans will probably enjoy what’s offered but otherwise, I can only truly recommend this to the JRPG faithful.
Reviewed on PS5. A code was provided by the publisher.