There’s a certain frivolity psychologically and perhaps unfairly attributed to mobile games. The App Store and the Play Store are riddled with games that survive purely on their inconsequential mirth, the same haphazard quality that would make them a hard sell on traditional handhelds and consoles. They’re the sort of thing you would expect to find at Kongregate or Newgrounds, but the ability to just pick up the game and go at it with whatever frenetic intensity you desire is what makes those games succeed.
That, for the most part, is where That Monsters Game excels. SoftwareProdigy‘s game fits squarely within the overflowing and overly successful segment of casual match-three games and does so rather well. In it, you have one minute to match at least three similarly colored monsters by dragging your finger either vertically, horizontally, or diagonally. Doing so will remove them from the board and more will come tumbling in from the top. For every 100 monsters you clear out, you go up a level, which really just means that more colors come in and thus become harder to match.
The twists to the simplified drag-your-finger mechanic are what make this work. First off, I found the minute time limit to be close to perfect. If you pull off certain qualifying moves like going up a level or hitting a massive chain, you earn a bit more time. Having the time limit come just up against where you are hitting your stride makes for a nice curve of anxiety, one that builds from “oh, I’ve got this” to “must go faster must go faster.”
There are also two systemic implements that coerce you into a more frantic pace. The faster you trace the monsters, the more points you get. And if you go really fast, you get Blast Mode, where each match you make also blasts away adjacent monsters, so getting your hand zipping around the screen really is the only way to play. It makes what is otherwise an incidental impetus to speed up against a ticking clock to an impossible-to-ignore need for speed. And when you start tracing, monsters of a different color kind of fade out, artificially enabling a feeling as if you were in “the zone.” It’s helpful while being totally manufactured and boy does it make you feel slick.
While you go zipping around, there are also four special moves you can do. If you loop around a single monster, you will make that little guy explosive, so if you tap him or include him in a chain, he’ll explode and take neighboring dudes with him. If you match together 20 or more monsters, then a swirling warp thing appears. Include that in a chain and it’ll also destroy every other monsters of that same color. Trying to keep in mind ways to easily and quickly facilitate drops to allow loops and horizontal or vertical chains adds a wrinkle to the single speed track you would otherwise mindlessly operate on. It’s cool.
There are, however, things called Boosts that enable you to more easily call on these powers. They work a bit like Call of Duty loadouts to where before each game, you can pick up to three Boosts. However, each one costs coins, currency that you’ll pick up in-game as you clear out monsters. And each one is an immediate-use action that aligns with the special moves (save for the one that simply gives you an extra 15 seconds right from the get-go). So instead of having to match an entire row or column or make a loop, you can simply trace straight up or across or double tap any monster and you get the same effect. It’s really good for getting out of a jam.
There are three different modes you can play. The first is called Blitz and is rather straightforward; you just go for a high score. The Challenger mode forces you to try to accomplish a goal while you play like get 10 chains of 10+ monsters. Then there’s the Strategy mode which does away with the time limit but forces a move limit in that certain monsters will show up with little throbbing crosshairs around them. After five moves, they will explode if you don’t get rid of them, and if three of them blow up on you, the game ends. It’s a neat mode and there were actually times I felt like the game was enabling moments of genius when I could see the consequences I desired unfold after three moves. But it also does away with the thing I love most about the game, which is its amazing drive to just go as fast as possible.
So far, That Monsters game sounds pretty good. The problem is that it’s under a microtransactions model. The app itself is free, but each play expends one heart (of which you can store up to three). And every 15 minutes, you earn back one of those hearts. Given that on a really good run, a game will come up against two or so minutes, that leaves a lot of downtime. It was enough to where after I played away my three hearts, I didn’t really ever feel like picking the game up again if I wasn’t reviewing it. It was downright maddening. Still riding the high of finding my monster-tracing groove and the game itself tells you “you know what? That’s enough for now.”
That is unless you want to pay money. You can either buy hearts individually or by the bundle (same goes for coins and gems for boosts and extended game time à la Temple Run 2) or get unlimited play for $8.99. That is nine dollars for a match-three game. Oh, and a Game Center achievement. There is simply no way I could recommend this game as a purchase for $8.99 because that is ludicrous. I understand this predicament of microtransactions and being free-to-play isn’t wholly unique to That Monsters Game (Bejeweled Blitz, a crowning achievement in mobile match-three gaming, has a package that costs $19.99 after all), this alone almost soured the entire game for me.
And it’s not the business model that bothers me (I mean, it does in principle, but that’s for another time). It’s that without spending money, you can only play this game once every 15 minutes. And I like this game. Or at least I want to like it, but stopping every minute and waiting 14 more is enough to totally kill my desire to play or even think about this game. Sure there are little bugs here and there like how the power description for the Monster Warp Boost has a “labkit.boost.monsterWarp” object identifier hanging around from Unity and the lock icons don’t go away from the Challenger and Strategy mode buttons until you completely restart the app and the Boost selection process is confusing simply because things will randomly gray out, but those are small potatoes.
(Actually, the Boost selection is also problematic for other reasons. For example, the costs of adding and removing Boosts causes your coin count to slowly tick up or down, never giving you an accurate total in a timely fashion.)
Those are minor quibbles never broke the core experience for me. The music is reasonably not annoying and the sounds the monsters and alarms make are rather charming, just as is Professor Marty and the non sequiturs some disembodied announcer will throw out there, like yelling FATALITY and other such classic kill-related gaming catchphrases. But it’s not compelling enough for me to pay money for or wait around 15 minutes at a time to play again. That Monsters Game holds within it an alluring frivolity, but its monetization crushes it and hides it. You see peeks of it and random glimmers of hope shining through the overbearing weight, but it’s never enough to matter.
UPDATE: a day-one patch fixed some of the bugs, including the Boost selection process.
+ Wrinkles to the simple match-three formula make for fast and loose gameplay
+ The Strategy mode actually requires strategy and is a nice change of pace
– Without paying money, you end up playing the game for one single minute every 15 minutes
Final Score: 6 out of 10
Game Review: That Monsters Game
Release: July 18, 2013
Developer: Software Prodigy
Available Platforms: iOS
MSRP: Free (with in-app purchases)