Name: Monster Lab
Platform: Wii, PS2, DS (Reviewed on Wii)
While it’s far from the barren wasteland of quality some would try to say it is, the Wii’s library is particularly short on role-playing games. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise; Nintendo’s consoles have had issues pleasing RPG enthusiasts since Square’s betrayal during the N64 era. Aside from a few games involving a paperified Mario and a handful of DS titles, their hardware has been a virtual vacuum for the genre, which is why it’s even more surprising that Backbone Entertainment’s Monster Lab received as little promotion as it did. Being shoved out the door kicking and screaming during one of the biggest holiday seasons the industry has seen, Monster Lab isn’t what anyone would call a blockbuster title. Sitting on the shelf, there is little to separate it from the wall of shovelware that surrounds it, especially considering how little hype surrounded its release. However, after playing the game, it’s obvious that there’s is something special to be found in Monster Lab, and while it doesn’t hit on all cylinders it should still stand out as a unique and entertaining experience without equal on the Wii.
Plotwise there’s little to differentiate Monster Lab and any number of Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network series. The player takes control of an initiate in the Mad Science Alliance and apprentice to Professor Fuseless, who acts as a tutor and guide through the twisted and oftentimes humorous horror-themed areas. Characters are interesting, for what they are, and are voiced – a pleasant treat for a seemingly unknown Wii title. Character models and backgrounds are well modeled with a nice style, but the entire game looks, for lack of a better word, stretched. Everything is blurry, and I can’t help but shake the feeling that Monster Lab for the Wii is Monster Lab for the DS blown up to fit on televisions. It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened on the system, but it certainly feels like the sloppiest.
At times, it feels like Monster Lab is a grab bag of genres. The two main facets to the game, Monster Creation and Combat, are buffered with minigames that feel ripped from Rayman Raving Rabbids and a map and exploration system that feel like an elaborate and high-tech game of Sorry!. Just about everything aside from combat in the game is achieved with a Wiimote-waggling minigames, all of which have unique and acceptable controls. Smashing bolts with sharp swings and spinning the controller around to repair body parts are both exactly as gimmicky as they sound, but it’s really par for the course on the Wii, and the different minigames all get the job done without falling victim to loose or unresponsive controls.
With a name like Monster Lab, it should come as no surprise that creating monsters is an integral part of the game. During quests, different ingredients are found and rewarded which can be used in minigames to craft new body parts. The creation of arms, heads, torsos, and legs all come with their own games, and there are hundreds of possible crafting combinations. Each part requires two ingredients which combine to create a unique body part. There’s no way to know what type of creation a spool of thread and lead pipe might create without experimentation, so much of the time with Monster Lab will likely be spent working through different minigames and trying to create powerful body parts. It can become repetitive, especially if you’re a perfectionist trying to craft the quintessential shambling horror. By assembling and battling monsters, you’re ready to complete different quests, from the mundane to the extraordinary, battling everything from a whole bunch of enemy monsters to anthropomorphic spider houses.
Players dreading a standard Wii remote-swinging affair for battles will be pleasantly surprised by the combat, which is more similar to Pokémon’s than anything else’s, and sets two monsters in a battle to rip each other limb for limb. Each attached body part has two unique attacks that do set amounts of damage to specific body parts, and the battle is over when the torso (or everything around it) is destroyed. The different monster parts are given characteristics stemming from the three branches of science: biological, alchemical, and mechanical. Not unlike Pokémon’s creature types, each area bests another in typical rock-paper-scissors fashion, adding another layer onto the already complicated and rewarding monster creation system.
Aside from strangely blurry visuals, the only other area where the game is disappointing is in menu navigation and battles, both of which unnecessarily rely on pointing at the screen. Choosing a body part to attack with is done with the nunchuk’s analog stick, and each has two possible attacks with large numbers next to them. Logic and experience would indicate pressing the large 1 and 2 buttons on the remote would execute these attacks, but for whatever reason, Backbone Entertainment decided to instead force players to point at the screen to select the attack, adding an unnecessary annoyance to combat. It isn’t a game breaker and is by no means an issue unique to Monster Lab, but it’s something that’s consistently frustrating, and should have been addressed during development.
There’s online multiplayer if you happen to have a friend with the game, but since there aren’t random battles online, the mode feels like more of an afterthought than a true feature. Monster Lab isn’t an extremely deep RPG, it doesn’t have too interesting of a story, the minigames aren’t incredibly engaging, and the art style isn’t unique enough to carry the game. That said, every aspect of the title is entirely adequate, and while there’s little to really speak too highly of, there’s barely anything worth complaining about. In that, it stands above most Wii games, and would be a fantastic RPG for anyone looking for more of a casual experience, but it's definitely a game worth renting first to be sure. It might be a jack of all trades and master of none, but that’s better than sucking.