Are you familiar with the saying “it’s not about the destination but the journey”? Of course you are; you’re not an idio—you’re an erudite-lookin’ fellow and it is a rather trite cliché at this point, bordering on a platitude. It is, actually, a bastardization/generalization of a (possible) Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “life is a journey, not a destination.” But if you’ll follow me one step further into the land of reappopriation, I’d like to throw one more up on the wall and see how it sticks.
Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine is not about the destination but the journey.
Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine is the latest out of Pocketwatch Games, Andy Schatz’s development studio. If either of those names sound familiar to you, it’s because either you’ve been keeping up with any amount of video game coverage in the past few years (Monaco has been in development for over three years, winning the Seumas McNally Grand Prize and the Excellence In Design award at the 2010 Independent Games Festival) or you’ve played one of this other Wildlife Tycoon sim games.
Monaco is a grand departure from both Venture Africa and Venture Arctic, though, as it’s top-down, four-player co-op stealth game about stealing stuff. Well, I guess it’s as much about actually heisting things as Moby-Dick is actually about a whale (hint: it’s not). Instead, Monaco is a grand experiment in multiplayer, cooperative chaos. Through two to four players connected either online or in person, they’ll guide eight characters through various mini escapades as they hide, run, and loot together.
Granted, you don’t need to play with other people; Monaco works fine on it’s on as a single-player game, but it thrives on having people around you to share in your nonsense. By yourself, it’s still an incredibly charming and hectic little game, but the insanity takes exponential leaps similar to how adding just one extra player to New Super Mario Bros. Wii amplified the anarchy to the nth degree. Nothing is gated off to having a party with you or to particular characters, though you will find some bits much more annoying or tiresome. Just know that you’re missing out on half of what makes Monaco fun if you dive in solo.
That is, to say, teamwork, or rather the attempt and failure at it. Starting out with the four initial characters, their interplay makes sense: the Cleaner can knock out non-alerted enemies, the Locksmith can open locks super-duper fast, the Pickpocket can hide in bushes really quickly and send a monkey named Hector to surreptitiously pick up coins, and the Lookout is incredibly quick and mobile but can see all NPCs when sneaking. Each person on a four-man team can assume a role and get things done without much oversight or coordination. Just know that if you die, that character is done for the remainder of the job.
Once you introduce the other four characters, though, and you’ve got some interesting things going on because then interactions actually happen. The Redhead can, in addition to seducing guards, revive fallen comrades in a snap while the Hacker and the Gentleman can synchronize disguised movements and hacked security systems to crack open a safe. The Mole is an interesting wildcard as his ability to crazy useful (digs through walls) but also causes a lot of noise, so his actions must be carefully considered. All jumbled up, you eventually begin to decipher the special use cases of each character and how they can align, enabling optimal setups for each particular mission.
And make no mistake: Monaco is all about those careful considerations gone awry. I have no doubt that some players will have a knack of creeping through the entire game without alerting a single guard or camera, but most people will leap before they look and end up in a Benny Hill-like chase. And that’s okay! Monaco has a modern take on stealth in that it is very forgiving. Well, allow me to rephrase: it’s forgiving in that it doesn’t punish you for making a mistake, not that guards are totally inept (though they do seem to have extremely poor vision and hearing) or that you can sneak through an entire level without trying. If you get caught, it’s no problem because you can just as easily complete your mission while on the run.
In fact, “on the run” is how you should spend most of the game because 1) it’s more fun that way, and 2) it makes you complete levels faster, which is the only metric the game has for your completion status. Missed coins merely add seconds to your finish time and affect your leaderboard rankings. There is a certain pride and joy to be taken with completing a job as intended, but the serendipity of when things go wrong just can’t be beat.
Perhaps the only two things that can compete with that sensation of OHGODOHGODOHGODKEEPRUNNINNNNGGGGGG are the art style and the soundtrack. Composed by Grammy-nominated Journey songsmith Austin Wintory, the piano-laden, pop-ragtime beats of Monaco really keep the atmosphere going. From when you’re sneaking around to when you are blitzing your way to the getaway with an irresponsible and reckless abandon, the score is pretty much perfect and always keeps your heart rate similarly thumping along.
And if the music keeps the mood going, the visuals are what set it. All you can really see of the world is a darkened, monochrome version of it where you seem to only get a visual, grayscale representation of some blueprints. This, thematically, makes sense as you are professional thieves, but it also opens the game up to its unique line-of-sight lighting system. It’s being borrowed now by many other indie games, but at the time, Monaco was maybe one of two or three others that utilized this mechanic: only things you can make direct eye contact with are illuminated. This means that as you pass by a row of pillars, colors seem to explode out of your character and highlight doors and bushes and guards.
It’s a bit disorienting and confusing at first (and, in some cases, consistently as objects are sometimes difficult to discern from the background), but it’s utterly enchanting and taxes your spatial memory in ways it rarely is otherwise. It can induce sections of trial and error where you poke and prod at the level design (which is, for the most part, fantastic) until it becomes seared into your mind for facilitated navigation and pilfering, an invocation that can get tiring in the later, more challenging levels, but it is a skill so rarely utilized in most other games.
This welcome addition of cognitive load works hand-in-hand with a simplified control structure. All you really have are directional controls, an item button, and a sneak button. To activate doors and computers and whatnot, you simply press against it and fill up a meter. To reload a weapon, you just collect more coins, which is a bit off-putting at first. And for all the zany runarounds you’ll engage in, the game actually moves at a rather slow pace. It simply feels quick. It comes across as the video game equivalent of the tone set by The Italian Job or Ocean’s Eleven; they’re slick, cool rides down a thievery-infused mountain.
That breezy, smooth slope, however, hits some bumps towards the end when the difficulty makes the game a chore. It becomes tedious as you have to go back through the same stages on the second tier but with the added goal of getting every collectible. It’s simple on the smaller, earlier missions, but as the number of things you have to snag get unwieldy, you’ll feel like throwing your controller against a wall after sneaking around for half an hour only to realize you’ve missed a single coin somewhere along the way.
Of course, that is a minority portion of the whole game. It’s a problem that permeates the entire product to varying degrees, but they are merely bumps on an otherwise sharp, deft ride. It’s a design philosophy that mirrors the game itself; you are given a beginning and an end but everything in between is up to you, and you may cause a lot of bumps yourself. The difference, though, is that those of your own creation are fun and those inextricably tied to the game are not. But after an otherwise fantastically designed journey, it’s hard to find fault with either it or the destination.
+ Looks and sounds great and totally unique with an abundance of charm
+ The characters and their bits of slowly meted out story are fun
+ A streamlined control scheme enhances the cognitive load as more pleasurable than taxing
+ Provides a great argument for couch co-op games
– The latter portions of the game become difficult in an aggravating way and kind of makes you want to yell
Final Score: 8 out of 10