Games are too big nowadays. Between downloads, installs, updates, so much of gaming can feel like virtual admin. Fortunately, there was no such concern when preparing to play Monolith. Weighing in at a frankly ridiculous 16MB, Monolith jettisons fancy HD graphics and modern audio in the pursuit of an unashamedly old-school aesthetic, and combines this with gameplay clearly inspired by the explosion of what are commonly called ‘rogue-lites’. However, with so many games entering this genre, does Monolith stand out from the competition?
The first thing that strikes you with Monolith is the 8-bit aesthetic, complemented by a catchy chiptune soundtrack. This isn’t the artsy pixelated style that has become popular to the point of cliché now, but an even more stripped back, minimalist approach which brings to mind classics of the home computer age. The sparseness of the graphics helps focus attention, which is a welcome decision given the frantic nature of the action at times. Despite the lo-fi appearance, everything remains clear and I cannot recall any deaths that could be blamed on obscured enemies or bullets.
As is common with rogue-lite games, there is very little narrative framing or complex motivation with which to get bogged down. You control a little white spaceship that must navigate vaguely sci-fi looking dungeons comprised of individual screens. Each room contains enemies or power-ups with exits appearing on any or all of the four main compass directions. Each floor of the dungeon contains a mid-boss which must be defeated to unlock the gate to the main end of level boss. Anybody who has played the likes of Binding of Isaac will be familiar with this overall format.
Where Monolith deviates from many of its predecessors, however, is in the mobility and speed of your ship. I went in half expecting a fiddly and punishing control style where each room’s walls would be fatal, but it quickly becomes apparent that the ship can bounce against the walls quite happily, which is essential given the onslaught you face. This feels much more like a bullet hell shooter, and it’s easy enough to nip around the rooms, avoiding fire coming from all directions. This ease of movement is one of Monolith’s best aspects, and makes playing a joy.
Although each run through the game’s procedurally generated dungeons sees you starting afresh with standard weapons, there is a sense of overall progress generated by the in game shop. Bizarrely staffed by a character who is a fusion of a cat and Jabba the Hutt, here you can purchase a range of new powers and one hugely useful weapon. It will take you quite a few dungeon crawls before you can afford these, but not enough for it to feel like a grind. The whole game skilfully balances between having hardcore permadeath and accessibility, making it stand out from some of its peers. This, when combined with the speed of beginning a new descent, ensures that quick sessions easily swallow up hours at a time.
Whilst the majority of enemies in the game are challenging when equipped with the basic gun, their behaviours are quickly learned and you should be able to clear most rooms with little lost health. Occasionally the random generation will mean sudden difficulty spikes, however, so you never feel completely comfortable.
The powered up weapons you can collect do help even the odds, with the sword (which you must buy from the shop) being particularly effective. These power ups are fairly rare, and you can only carry one weapon at a time, often with pretty limited ammunition. The range of weapons is compact, but there are various modifiers such as bounce, split, or homing that help to expand the choice. You’ll often be presented with a choice of two or three different weapons so will be able to pick favourites. If you already have a powered up weapon then selecting a new one will salvage the old, giving you junk (the game’s currency) and health.
Where the game really excels is in the bosses that lie at the end of each level. These are randomly selected, so it is possible to sneak through several floors before meeting whichever one you struggle with the most. This randomisation, combined with the random weapons, ensures that each run feels different. Sometimes you’ll strike it extra lucky and have a perfectly suited weapon to defeat a particular boss, making it an opportunity to show off your skills.
Personally, I found that the Daemon was my nemesis, with almost any setup proving ineffectual once the bullet hell sections began. This boss in particular reminded me of my failure to complete Furi, a game I loved the aesthetic of but could never master. In a more narratively focused game, this obstacle would lead to frustration, but here it usually just leads to glancing at the clock and heading back in for one more go.
Monolith succeeds in being an accessible yet challenging entry to the rogue-lite genre. Whilst fulfilling all the generic expectations, it remains the right side of punishing and always manages to be fun to play. It is more tightly focused than the likes of Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon which makes it the perfect entry-level choice, and as much as I enjoy those games, I now have a score to settle with that Daemon. This time, it’ll be different. I hope.
Version tested: PC