If there is only one thing to take from this review, it is if you play Monark expecting it to be Persona, you will not get what you expected. Monark feels like a PSX era RPG in most regards, and at a glance the comparisons to the famous series are obvious. It’s a grim RPG set in a school with a heavy focus on using cognition to face off against thoughts given demonic form. That is more or less where the comparisons stop though.
Monark is a story heavy, linear game with partial voice acting where you play a clean slate hero with no memory as he walks around the campus trying to solve the mystery of a strange fog that has caused most of the students to go mad or worse. Battles are scripted rather than random, with the option to choose certain battles to redo and grind, and most closely resemble a turn based strategy game like Arc the Lad Twilight of Spirits. Combat is divided into an ally and enemy phase, and battles contain environmental hazards that apply debuffs or healing as well as breakable barricades. Some attacks can be countered, attacking from behind has benefits, you can assist an attack if an ally is within their weapon’s range, and there are a wide range of buffs, ailments as well as abilities that do bonus damage to foes with ailments and a mechanic that can cause you to go berserk if you use too much of your madness gauge which fills mostly from travel or as a resource for some of your skills.
Combat is easy to pick up and as you are rewarded bonus spirit for finishing battles quickly while utilizing strategic systems; it pushes you into being as efficient and aggressive as you can manage while still succeeding. Spirit behaves like souls in a Dark Souls game, allowing you to unlock new skills in each character’s unique skill tree or purchase items… and this is likely going to be the biggest point of contrition for players. Spirit gain is slow, especially if you aren’t scoring high grades, and you have several characters to spend it on, which makes the game feel more and more grueling the further you go. With set battles instead of random ones, it is not the most exciting affair to redo these, and overall field layout and enemies boiling down to skeletons on a platform floating in some weird dream realm has combat made this part feel a bit tedious at times.
The exploration phase consists of going around, talking to NPCs while looking for triggers, and seeking out archive items which fill out story and character backgrounds which in turn are used to unlock further parts of the story. This is not a game where you can gloss over the lore, as puzzles often involve finding passwords or numeric codes to progress. This is one of those things that will strongly appeal to those who like a game where you need to pay attention, and halt those who prefer a game where you can simply go to the next indicator and carry on. Each puzzle has one solution, and you will not be deviating from the path- you do not so much explore dungeons, it’s more that you find the path you need to take, and there’s nothing like social links to build up relationships or side content to fill your downtime between battles so the game feels extremely linear in almost every way.
Monark is a good game, it has a clear direction that they stick to and succeed with. However, that retro RPG feel of grinding and the heavy focus on investigating information to figure out what you need to do is going to bounce off modern gamers. This is definitely something I can’t recommend to most unless the things the genre abandoned years ago are what you miss most; for those who enjoy the parts that will frustrate others, this is a hard game to pass up.