MONSTER LAB is set in the eerie world of Uncanny Valley where the evil Baron Mharti rules with a cruel hand. The player takes on the role of an apprentice scientist who must perform a vast array of intricate experiments to create their very own monster from over 100 million possible monster part variations on offer.
Having teased us with sheer bucket-loads of charm when it first debuted at Leipzig's Game Convention in 2007, TVG's recent hands-off preview of Backbone Entertainment and Eidos' Monster Lab has shown that the title has lost none of its appeal during the intervening winter months. Described in a soundbite at Leipzig as 'Pokemon meets Tim Burton', something that remains largely - though not entirely - true nine months on, Monster Lab's quirky Make-a-Monster mechanic, coupled with a selection of mini-games and turn-based RPG combat, is very much shaping up as the videogame equivalent of Frankenstein's iconic creature.
Due for release before the end of the year on both of Nintendo's formats, TVG delved further into the monster-building goings-on at the Mad Science Alliance...
It's ALIVE!!! (Mwhahahahahahaha...)
Set in the rather amusingly named 'Uncanny Valley', Monster Lab sees players become the latest apprentice of the Mad Science Alliance, in a bid to overthrow the wicked rule of Baron Mharti - himself a former member of the crazy creature creating group. Split into six regions, though we only paid a visit to one (the rather quaint sounding 'Cobbleshire'), the Uncanny Valley is a hot bed for the sorts of characters and towns that would very much look at home in a Tim Burton...but we got that impression last summer.
The three remaining disparate members of the Mad Science Alliance, Professor Fuseless, Dr. Heleena Von Sonderbar, and Senor De La Sombra, mentor players in the three main fields of monster creation: Mechanical, Biological, and Alchemical respectively. Following a 'Rock, Paper, Scissors' mechanic that already hints at a greater level of depth than perhaps is expected from Monster Lab, players mix and match over 150 different body parts in a bid to create a creature capable of defeating Mharti and his own army of monstrosities.
So it's with a 'Blue Peter' creation (here's one Eidos made earlier) that the preview into the Uncanny Valley began, and a meeting with Cobbleshire's electoral-minded Mayor Neidervoten. It seems that the Mayor, who cares more about his loss of votes rather than his constituents, has been stopped from returning to his town thanks to the accidental release of one of Professor Fuseless' own monsters. Cue the first battle of the monsters...
Forming a gentle introduction to the combat in Monster Lab, the tutorial bout against Fuseless' runaway creation continues to hint at some of the depth and challenge that later monster encounters feature. Each monster is made up of five distinct parts, a head, torso, legs, left arm, and right arm, with every limb capable of two skills to use in attack, defence, or in the case of the torso, recharge a monster's battery - the creature's equivalent of Magic Points or Mana in fantasy RPGs.
Focused on turn-based combat much in the same way as countless J-RPGs have done en masse over the years, the aim of a bout is simple: knock the torso of the opponent off its legs. Using the Wii-remote to select an attacking limb, this brings up a colour-coded guide to the attack's potential effect on an enemy's body, the mechanical/biological/alchemical amalgamation then hits, kicks, or even gnaws at the targeted areas. Every limb has a health bar from green (healthy) through to black (it's been removed/destroyed), so it's straightforward enough to see how the fight is progressing.
Exploring the paths of the Uncanny Valley and the monster combat are just two of a triple-bill of gameplay elements set to make up Monster Lab however. The third is, somewhat inevitably for a Wii/DS game...a selection of mini-games...
Mini-Games With A Point???
We wouldn't blame anybody from rolling their eyes at the thought of yet another batch of mini-games on Wii. Let's face it, the platform is a hotbed of mini-game mana that appeals to its casual gaming audience, but has the rest of us weeping over the current strategy carved by Nintendo and a vast majority of third-party outfits. The thing is, the mini-games integrated into Monster Lab are actually integral to the gameplay, and not tacked onto the side to either pad out the experience or water it down. Over twenty are set to feature in the final release, split virtually down the middle into Quest-based or Experiment-based mini-games.
The Weld-o-Tron is one of the earliest examples of a Monster Lab mini-game, first shown off at Leipzig, and was again revisited this time around. A key way of creating new parts from the mix of primary and secondary ingredients gathered in the gameworld and from defeated foes, the Weld-o-Tron is only limited by the 'Madness' rating of the end product, with lower ranked apprentices unable to cope with the extra demands of the limb. The mini-game itself is a variation of the 'Wire Loop' games that test the hand-eye co-ordination of millions of first-year high school kids around the world, with the player guiding the welding iron along a fast-moving joint as accurately as possible. Greater accuracy means a more effective limb with stronger stats, so there's always the pressure to weld well.
Post-match, players will have the option to repair any limbs damaged during the bout, with the time-based Field Repair mini-game. Clicking on the damaged limb before spinning the nunchuk to boost the repairs, the rush to make the monster strong again ahead of the inevitable next bout isn't obligatory - though you try taking on one of Mharti's creations without a head on your shoulders...
Backbone is also working to ensure that the portable Monster Lab isn't any less of an experience. Like the Wii edition, the Nintendo DS version will make strong use from the platform's innovative inputs, with both the stylus and microphone used throughout. An overheating Weld-o-Tron for instance will see players blow down the mic to 'cool' the welding iron, whilst the stylus is used to trace the line of the welding join. The Field Repair also makes use of the stylus, spinning the repair wheel as fast as possible before the time runs out. Many of the key cut-scenes are also being (somehow) squeezed onto the miniscule DS cart - they really are adamant that it won't suffer in the transition to 'gaming on the move'.
First hinted at Leipzig, Monster Lab's online presence remains intact, with ingredient swaps and monster bouts planned over Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection for both Wii and Nintendo DS editions. One glaringly obvious nick of gameplay is missing however, as Eidos confirmed that there'll be no connectivity functionality between the Nintendo DS and Wii versions - how cool would it be to create and evolve your own monster on the Nintendo DS and transfer it onto a mate's Wii to battle against their very own creation???
There's little denying that Monster Lab's quirky charm, and mix of turn-based RPG with constructive mini-game, is shaping up to be one of the more appealing third-party titles to hit Wii and DS in the next few months - especially with the promise of online combat and monster part swapping.