MonsterBag – Review

Title   MonsterBag
Developer  IguanaBee
Publisher  Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform  PlayStation Vita
Genre  Puzzle
Release Date  April 7th, 2015

For those of us who own a PS Vita and haven’t yet relegated it to a bottom drawer somewhere, it’s always interesting to browse through the indie releases on the PlayStation Store and, every now and again, enjoy whatever our PlayStation Plus account has to offer.  This month was no exception as IguanaBee’s cutesy puzzler MonsterBag was added to the Instant Game Collection.  It is one of those games where, much like Doki Doki Universe, its sparse and stylised graphics are the immediate pull and everything else becomes secondary because, as a graphic artist, it’s easier to play a beautiful game with little or no substance than it is one with deeper gameplay but with an art style that jars.

Initially, the premise of MonsterBag wasn’t exactly very exciting, as it came accompanied with a somewhat bland description where you played the part of V, a monster backpack, who was inadvertently left behind by a little girl, called Nia, as she went off to school.  You were tasked with catching up with her to make sure she was safe.  That’s pretty much all she wrote.  Except that’s not all there is to it, as MonsterBag carries with it some pretty sinister undertones as well as some dark metaphorical imagery which unfolds as you progress through each of the stages. Given the rather inoffensive and uninspiring synopsis on the PlayStation Store, all of these darker twists caught me entirely by surprise.

In terms of actual gameplay, you’d be forgiven for thinking that MonsterBag was going to be nothing more than a very pedestrian walk in the park, as the premise is simply that you jump from one person’s back to another’s until you eventually reach little Nia. The reality, however, is very different from this as each scenario is a series of individual puzzles held together with a unique stealth mechanic.  As you leap between the various on-screen characters, you’ll come across a hurdle which can’t be overcome without appeasing that specific person, and their unique requirements are only ever explained to you in the form of a scratched-out diagram within a thought bubble.  For example, one person may want to play music before you can move beyond them, and so you’ll have to think of a way to make that happen.

This is done by surveying the area to assess which of the other bystanders can possibly help you in your quest, but most of the goals are achieved by combining the consequence of one action with another until, ultimately, nobody stands in your way and you can jump into Nia’s arms once again.  An example would be the second level, which takes place on a bus.  A quick jump between people shows that one chap can’t stand the loud guitar music being played by the guy to his left and so, with this being our only hint at this point, the sensible option would be to explore that opportunity first.  It eventually transpires that silencing him is done by moving to a person closer to the bus doors, and opening the doors, which causes the lollipop of a young girl next to you to spin in the wind and frighten the man next to her who, in turn, drops his bag of apples.

Once the apples have dropped, you can pick one up and select which of the other characters you’re wish to throw it at.  After a little trial and error, we choose the little emo girl with the headphones on, bopping away to her own beat, and the apple knocks the headphones clean off her head.  Annoyed, and rightly so, she looks to the guy next to her and assumes that his flailing guitar playing is responsible for her losing her headphones, so she grabs the guitar from him and smashes it up in a rage.  This makes him unhappy, but the guy to his left now no longer has to listen to his crap guitar playing. Completion of this level also requires more apples, a newspaper, and a traffic accident.  All of which you must orchestrate yourself.

In a beautiful move by IguanaBee, you have to work all of this out on your own.  There are no tutorial levels, no options to turn on hints, and no on-screen prompts to give you even the slightest idea of how each level should be approached.  In the first screen there is a simple scrawled image of a D-pad with the left and right buttons alternately highlighting, so you know how to move V through each scene, and you’ll later see scrawled arrows next to objects to let you know that a valve must be turned, and a switch must be flicked, both of which require the touch screen.  Beyond that, you’re on your own with only your instinct to guide you as you jump from person to person.

This is made tougher by the fact that anyone with coloured eyes – as opposed to the default black – will kill you if they see you, so you must time your movements carefully.  This is used to great effect later on in the game where a series of switches must be pulled in order to alternate groups of creatures so that they’re not all facing the same way at the same time, allowing you to move between them.  To get to this point, you must calculate cause and effect much like you would in a pattern-matching puzzle from an IQ test where each switch will affect more than just the one creature you want to distract, requiring in a combination of switches to achieve the desired result.

It makes for some pretty hectic gameplay in later levels when you’re up against the clock, can’t be seen by anyone, yet have to manipulate those around you so that they change direction to allow your passing between them.  In case you haven’t quite guessed, MonsterBag goes from being cutesy and simple to sinister and taxing in a very short space of time, but it’s all the better for it.

There is also a great deal of chance at play, such as in a later level where there are no real visual clues as to which of the characters should have a chicken thrown at them and so, unless you’re lucky enough to randomly select the correct one immediately, you’ll go through four or five options before any real consequence occurs.  Ordinarily this wouldn’t be too much of an issue, but when you’re having to jump between characters while remaining undetected and avoiding swells of fire from the ground, getting back to that chicken generator (and I genuinely have no idea what was generating the chicken, but it looked like an American post box) won’t always be the simplest of tasks.

But this contradiction between simple art style and complex lateral thinking is what makes MonsterBag the great game that it is.  The further you progress, the more it screws with you, and the final battle harks back to those early 1980s’ games where lightning-fast reactions and forward thinking are the only way to get through it, and any mistakes will throw you back to the start. By the time you reach this point, however, the story has taken so many twists and turns that you’ll undoubtedly forget that you’re playing the part of a backpack who was left behind by a little girl when she went off to school.  Without any clear narrative, the story is open to interpretation by those who play it, and I doubt that many will come to the same conclusion as I did.

By the time you reach the end, it’s entirely possible that you’ll have played a number of levels through several times before hitting on the best method to complete them, but it never quite becomes a grind.  The colourful-yet-stark imagery coupled with a decent soundtrack work well together and help to make the entire experience enjoyable, and some of the outcomes on each stage may actually raise a smile.  It may only be a few hours long – depending on how many times you need to repeat levels – but it’s one of the most rewarding puzzle games I’ve played in a while, and with it being part of April’s Instant Game Collection there’s absolutely no reason not to give it a chance.  Nia needs you.

  • Beautiful, yet simplistic, art style
  • Puzzles involve lateral thinking
  • Interesting story, left open to interpretation
  • Absolutely no spoon-feeding whatsoever
  • Difficult enough to work, without being frustrating
  • Solid soundtrack, albeit forgettable
  • A little too short
  • Very little in the way of replay value

MonsterBag is one of those games that will remain unnoticed by the majority of gamers, and it's unlikely that you'll come across someone else who has played it. If you're lucky enough to have had it catch your eye, and you enjoy thinking outside of the box, then you're in for a treat. With a bizarre and surreal storyline behind it, the cutesy art style, a number of logic-defying puzzles, and a twisted sense of humour, MonsterBag offers a great deal of enjoyment for a few hours, and it's currently free if you're a PlayStation Plus subscriber. MonsterBag is, in a nutshell, lateral thinking and precision timing at its best.

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