A short cutscene. An unwinnable fight. You die. An unseen woman taunts you. That's how Monark starts. Sure, right after that there's an introductory cut scene straight out of a mid aughts paranormal drama anime that servers to introduce you to your eventual cast of NPC and party members, but this abrupt and slightly wanting cut scene sets a lot of the tone for my experience with Monark's narrative.
After the admittedly well animated intro, you take a personality test that assesses you based on the seven deadly sins, which are your "social" stats in this game. I got highest on gluttony, though I couldn't tell you for the life of me how my answers got me those results. After this you get an explanation for most of the things you saw in the animated intro: The school is covered by an unbreakable barrier, the school buildings are filling up with mist and this mist is driving people mad, and you've been missing for a week, the same length of time as the barrier and the mist. This is not suspicious at all, he said sarcastically. You also meet the school doctor, the former student council president -your first party member- and your little sister who you don't remember it turns out you also have amnesia.
The game goes out of its way to note that you do not share a surname with your sister and it does this even if you DO share a surname. I know this because I went back and checked (As an aside, this game has a fast forward button. I applaud it for that). Anyways, after you get filled in on all this nonsense and you're escaping the crazy mist you get teleported into the best part of the game: the otherworld. This is both the most visually interesting part of the game, and where all its combat takes place. I wish we spent more time here. In any case, here your amnesiac and voiceless self makes a deal with a demon Vanitas (not the one from Kingdom Hearts, but they do have an oddly similar aesthetic and they're both referencing the same thing) in order to get the power to protect people, or put another way, do combat, which is easily the best part of the game.
In addition to the social stats you have, you also have traditional battle stats- strength, agility, defense etc. and those get used in the game's combat, which feels like a mix between Final Fantasy Tactics in that each attack has a specific effect with a percentage of hitting and different effects based on facing, and Fire Emblem or Advance wars in that one team moves, then the next, then back to the first team. I could probably just play battles in this system for hours if you let me. Which is a shame because there's so few options for combat in Monark, but more on that later. There's actually a surprising amount of complexity in the battle system here, with multiple attack types and options, attacks that cost HP to use (and Nirav has already belabored the point of how much Monark is cribbing on later Persona 3 and beyond so I won't do so further) and two incidental stats called Madness and Awakening. Madness can be used to cast spells but spells bad news if you let it hit 100%, while awakening does nothing, but gives you bonuses for hitting 100%. If you can get both to 100% in the same turn, you achieve enlightenment and become a powerhouse, but I haven't needed or been able to attain that state yet, in or out of game.
After battle, you get graded, get a smattering of spirit based on how well you did- spirit is the game's XP, used to buy skills and thus levels and stat increases- and get a bonus to your stats. I do not know how the game decides which of the seven sins to give XP to, or how much. It could be random and I suspect it is, given I have done several battles almost identically twice just so I could test the name thing I mentioned above.
Now, for all of my gushing, the combat system is not entirely flawless. For one, all your enemy units, outside of boss enemies are skeletons. They might have different weapons, might have some flourishes, but they are all the same identical white skeleton monster. Second is that there's basically no random battles. At all. Yes, I know the common complaint is too many random battles, but that's the thing. There are none. You get a fixed number of fights, maybe one or two, per floor of a dungeon, then your only option is random dialing fights (because your phone is how you access the demonic otherworld where combat takes place, just go with it) and hope you don't fight level 90 skull crushers. Spoilers: It's like always level 90 skull crushers. This means you have very limited XP to spend on you, your human party members, and your skeleton party members- one for each sin I've beaten thus far. One oddity is that only your skeletons can equip traditional equipment. That and the fact that they are guaranteed to remain in your party means it's probably best to focus on their growth, instead of the various party members who will leave you once their part of the plot is over.
Having talked enough about battle, I guess it means it's time to talk about my least favorite part of the game- the dungeons. Bog standard schools do not make good dungeons, no matter how much fog you put in them. No, adding random students to scare you, or the fog to drive you mad does not help, because there's no stakes. Even if you go mad and get ambushed you just blink back to the infirmary with no penalty, especially since you can literally just fast travel back to the last floor of the dungeon you were on. Even when the demons start calling and your madness goes up quicker it's not enough, it just means you have to move a little quicker and make more frequent trips to the infirmary, intentional or automatic, and the insta-kill of being caught by a mad student isn't scary, it's just an irritant as you try and solve the school's puzzle. Honestly, what they should have done was make getting caught by a mad student drive you into a random battle, and make the madness gain persist between fights. That would go a long way to making the madness reducing items feel a lot more impactful. I don't think I've used them once in my entire playthrough thus far. Adding some random combats, some sense of threat, and maybe adding some level of unreality to the fog bound floors instead of just using the literal same exact layout as the fog free floors would have made the dungeon delving fun. Heck, you could even make them randomized mazes while you're at it. Might as well go whole hog if we're stealing ideas from other games.
Narrative wise, there's not much to talk about. All the elements, a school beset by a horrible problem, cut off from the outside world, people going mad, abusing power, a hero needing to stop it can all make for an excellent story, but Monark felt like it was playing safe with everything here. So far my favorite character is the deadpan bookworm who admits they just want to be left alone and volunteers to help you so you'll help stop something that's gotten in the way of their book time. Everything else, including the prologue plot where a student council president uses mind- well, technically body- control to take control of the literal student body because of his feelings of responsibility for failing to stop someone who ran into traffic just feels by the book and way too safe. Destroying a series of MacGuffins with a cutscene playing after each one? Yep, super safe and well worn. A part member going "I guess we weren't so different" about the villain you just beat? Again, standard. Even the protagonist is an effective mute mostly because it feels like that's how it's done in these games, not because it adds anything.
There's a focus on the seven deadly sins and psychology. You can take personality quizzes to improve on your deadly sins, which you need to do in order to interact with the crystals you can find around the school which only unlock upon gaining enough Sin XP, but again the answers you give and the sin they improve just feel divorced from each other, like somebody though both were cool but hadn't quite figured out how to make it all fit together. On the whole, that's how I'd judge Monark. Full of cool ideas that don't quite link together, and playing it safe. Perhaps too safe to really stand out. And it's a shame.
If you're really hard up for a new tactics game to scratch the itch, Monark might be for you, but otherwise, I have to say while it's not objectively bad, it just fails to stand out.
Tim played on a PS5 with a code provided by the developers.