Monstrum is an interesting exercise in horror gaming, because it is going to appeal to one group of horror fans a great deal, and completely turn off the rest. I suspect there is little middle ground to be had here, and though my personal preferences do not tend to play to Monstrum's strong suits, it does several things very well and deserves recognition for doing so.
Horror games tend to fall into one of two camps. Both rely on the element of surprise to deliver the goods - usually in the form of jump scares. How they build up to this payoff is where the divide usually comes into play. On one side of the fence, you have narrative heavy experiences that try to build the tension through carefully crafted stories, dramatic voice acting and scripted cutscenes to help tell a story. The sense of dread is usually more imagined than real. Certainly the occasional death helps to solidify that fear, but these types of horror games are more akin to movies that rely on carefully framed and scripted moments to deliver their scares with the optimal impact.
Then you have horror games built around unpredictability. These types of games usually trade in carefully framed moments for randomly generated levels. These horror titles never really let the player develop a sense of safety, because the rules change each and every time. They are usually less artfully constructed and generally have thinner stories, but instead instill their own brand of terror through knowing that your next experience will be different from the last, the element of surprise on the monsters' side by default.
Monstrum falls squarely into that second camp, touting procedurally generated areas, death without checkpoints and three unique monsters to deal with. Three might not sound like much, but they are actually crafted to be quite different from one another. One type might be looking to surprise you while another wants to take you head-on, stalking you - their prey - in different ways. See, Monstrum is not trying to tell a deep or involving tale. This is not a Fatal Frame type of horror game, but one that is served up in bite-sized sessions. You are not going to win every time. You are not looking to unravel an ancient mystery. No, you find yourself on a ship with no one friendly about. Each ship is built with each new gameplay session, and you get one of the three monster archtypes to try and foil your escape.
I think of this approach as more of a game and less of a story. It's the ultimate game of cat and mouse, because you cannot fight these creatures off - you have to hope to avoid them. Duck under a desk or squeeze yourself in a locker if you think you see or hear something coming. The helpless protagonist is hardly new, dating back to old point-and-click adventure games and cult classics like Clocktower 3. Not having an effective way to fight back can be frustrating for some, but I enjoy it. Games like Alien Isolation had a bigger budget to work with but delivered the same kind of killer game of cat and mouse that is on display here on Monstrum. Some of the monster behaviors are more effective than others, and there are times when I find myself wondering if my same trick didn't work twice because they were onto me, or if because the AI really isn't as consistent as advertised. That inconsistent behavior can be a little frustrating at times, but it lends itself to the game's overriding theme of unpredictability.
You can find notes as you explore that help to deliver some backstory for Monstrum, but none of that content is particularly engaging. Admittedly, my favorite types of horror games are the ones that have scripted scares and an engaging narrative. Titles like Fatal Frame and Dead Space resonate better with me because you are taking part in a story with characters you develop an emotional attachment to. That raises the stakes higher and makes the experience more memorable in my opinion than the relatively blank slate your character in a game like this is. Survival is one of our most basic instincts as a race, and that serves as fine motivation for your actions in Monstrum, it just does not make for a particularly interesting motivation.
The objectives around the game are relatively simple, but the procedural nature of the game keeps them more interesting than the game's story. You need to figure out how to escape the ship you are on, and to do that you need to find different tools to help you pull that off, like releasing the chains keeping a helicopter bound to the ship. These objects are strewn about at random, making each and every game an Easter Egg hunt for survival. This forces you to spend a lot of time looking through each and every part of the different rooms you encounter, all the while trying not to get killed by the creatures looking for you. Should they get their grubby little... whatevers on you, the game is over and you start over with a new scenario.
Monstrum is aided nicely by a solid overall audio and video presentation. The game has been out for some time, and I never played it upon release, but I wanted to give it a go with virtual reality. It looks good on a flat monitor, sure - but with the Oculus on? It was pretty damned unnerving. There are cramped spaces like in Dreadhalls, but more variety in the walls and textures as well as some areas of the game that are more spacious such as the deck of the ship. This helped immensely with the game's comfort level, though I did encounter just a bit of eye strain in some of the instances where I had to run away from a monster, because everything is happening so fast. Still, the visual and audio punch here is pretty great. The audio is equally immersive. On my first playthrough I was lingering around my would-be escape chopper and heard a steady thumping sound - heavy footfall. I had no idea what they were, but obviously given the scenario, they were pretty nerve-wracking. And of course about two minutes later I made a turn, walked right into the source of said heavy footfalls and I got to experience the game's permadeath as I was loading up a new game in a new environment.
While Monstrum's chosen path for delivering scares is not my personal preference, I have to give credit where credit is due. Monstrum's enemy AI and controls are not as polished as the similarly themed Alien Isolation, but the way it generates new zones each time and picks from one of three monster types does a great job of keeping the player on their toes. If you like action and jump scares, Monstrum will most certainly be for you. If you need more narrative buildup and want cutscenes scripted scares more akin to a horror movie, Monstrum will probably leave you wanting. I enjoy both styles, if not equally, and found Monstrum to be a generally fun if very intense time.
PC - Oculus Rift
Provided by Publisher
Article by Nick