What would you get if you spliced a Tim Burton film with Final Fantasy? Monster Lab, the upcoming Wii and DS game from Backbone Vancouver, that's what. We trotted along to publisher Eidos' London HQ to find out if this is a match made in heaven, or an experiment gone wrong.
Monster Lab fuses basic turn-based Final Fantasy-style battles with a healthy dose of monster creation in a setting that rekindles memories of Tim Burton's superb animated film The Nightmare Before Christmas. While the game looks like it will only be of interest to younger Wii and DS owners, there's a lot there that will appeal to more hardcore gamers too. The battles require some strategy and planning, and, I'm told, there are 100 million combinations of monsters possible. That's just crazy.
Monster Lab begins, as you'd imagine, with the creation of your first monster in the Frankenstein-esque Lightning Tower of The Castle. Here you're given a few default limbs, heads and torsos to play about with, as well as the opportunity to name your monster. Each monster part comes with specific attributes and attacks, and each attack hits specific areas of your opponent too, targeting arms, heads, legs, torsos, or combinations of the five. You'll need to plan ahead, kitting your monster out in anticipation of the monsters you will face.
Monsters and monster parts come in three kinds - mechanical, biological and alchemical. During our hands-on we only got to see monsters made up of mechanical parts, unfortunately. And we only got to play around in the game's first region, Cobbleshire (there are six), but we got a sense of the game's quirky art style, intriguing feel and surprisingly engaging gameplay.
Out in the game world movement is restricted to moving between points along various paths. Enemy monsters will loiter about, moving from point to point too. If you run into a monster the game will initiate combat, much like Final Fantasy's random battles. But you can avoid monsters with carefully timed movement through multiple paths if you don't fancy fighting.
The combat itself is a very simple, one on one turn-based face-off. Each monster starts with a certain amount of battery power, like magic points in traditional fantasy games. Every attack uses a certain amount of battery power, so you need to choose your attacks wisely. When you run out of power you can recharge, but that uses up a turn and leaves you open to attack.
When you select an attack the areas you're targeting will change colour. The brighter the colour, the more damage the attack will do. This is a pretty helpful feature, and something that should help less hardcore Wii owners understand the combat.
Concentrate attacks on one limb, say an arm, and eventually you'll lob it off in a super-slow motion close-up. This doesn't look amazing, and I'm told is yet to be fully finished (the build I played was around 60 per cent finished), but it should be enough to satisfy younger gamers, at which the game is predominantly targeted.
You can only win by destroying your opponent's torso. So you can take off the head, both arms and legs (the legs will shake like jelly if you destroy them completely) and still have a monster to fight, or fight with. Win and you'll get some items, used back at The Castle to fuse together into better monster parts, which is the name of the game.
This being a game on the Wii and Nintendo DS, mini-games form a core part of the gameplay. You need to play mini-games to fuse together items you've won in combat back at the Mechanical Workshop. The better you perform in the mini-games, the better quality item the experiment will result in.
We had a chance to have a go at a few of the game's experiment mini-games. The first, Weld-o-tron, involves moving the Wii Remote carefully along a winding path that moves from left to right. Keep the beam from touching the edges of the path and the monster part will turn out great. Perform poorly and it may have defects.
Other mini-games we saw included Buried Treasure, where you dig with the Wii Remote and shatter skulls with the Nunchuck to find hidden treasure (new parts to make monster bits with) and Electro Trace, where you aim the Wii Remote and carefully trace a zig zag. These mini-games won't blow anyone away, but you actually give a damn about how well you do in them because they affect the coolness of your monsters. And you shouldn't get bored of them too quickly either - there will be 12 experiment mini-games and 10 quest mini-games in the final game.
After each battle you'll get the chance to field repair parts of your monster that have been damaged or destroyed in battle. This involves spinning the Wii Remote as fast as possible against a strict time limit. Again, there's nothing revolutionary going on here, but at least the mini-games feel in keeping with Monster Lab's game world.
But by far the best thing about Monster Lab is the online multiplayer, where you'll be able to take your monster and battle against other players from around the world. This should give players even more incentive to search out high-level items, fuse together and create powerful monsters. And although this isn't confirmed, the development team is working hard to make trading monster parts online a reality.
We only spent a brief amount of time with the DS version of the game but we could tell that it's almost the exact same game as on the Wii. Here you use the stylus as you would the Wii Remote, for example spinning the wheel in field repair. Selecting attacks in combat with the stylus is easy, and even the cutscenes from the Wii version have been reproduced.
Monster Lab's shaping up nicely. It's a feel-good game, with over-the-top voice acting, a Tim Burton-esque art style and a supernatural soundtrack. As a turn-based role-playing game it's basic for sure, but it has a certain charm that Wii owners, if they give it a chance, should enjoy. Look out for a review closer to release. This is one monster worth experimenting with.