Review: Monstrum

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Being chased in a game gets me worse than anything else. I can deal with spooky ambiance and deadly monsters, and as much as I hate jumpscares they’re at least over in an instant. But the sensation of being hunted, being pursued, quickens my pulse like nothing else. Quite a few games play on that fear, and Monstrum might be one of the most effective, as long as you can look past its limitations.

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Monstrum drops you, the unnamed protagonist, onto a derelict cargo ship and challenges you to escape. There are three ways off this deathtrap, but each requires a spread of items that must be collected from around the ship. The layout of the ship is randomized every time you play, as are the item locations and your own starting position, so don’t expect to memorize any of the key locations. Every attempt is going to take significant snooping around, from the engine room all the way up to the observation deck.

You’re being hunted during this endeavor, of course, by one of three creatures. Each is unique in how it detects you, how it searches for you, and how it catches you. There’s no teleporting here, either… these things know how to hunt, and will even lay traps for you. Fortunately every room has features like cabinets and beds that you can use to hide, and there are items to find that can distract the monster with noise or scare it off with fire. If you play your cards right you can give them the slip for a time but they are very aggressive in seeking you out. Also, fair warning, once you gather the items for an escape you have to distract the monster for a short time while your vehicle gasses up, otherwise they can smash it and cut off that option permanently.

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Speaking of permanence, you get one shot at every game of Monstrum. Yes, this is a horror roguelike; every time you play the ship is randomized, and when you die you get to start all over. It’s not a bad setup, because the different monsters keep things fresh and a single round should last you 20-30 minutes unless you keep getting your escapes cut off. That permadeath element helps heighten the tension as well, especially as you close in on completing an escape. Despite the variations in monsters and layout, though, you’re still going to be on a derelict ship every time. And that means a lot of samey corridors and stairways and supply cabinets. You might be taking different turns to get to the next room, but it’s all going to look very familiar very fast. It might also be an unpleasant experience, too, because the field of vision is unusually small. Coupled with the tight corridors, I started getting motion sick not 20 minutes in.

While I’m skeptical of how long Monstrum can maintain its appeal, I can’t deny how effective it is while it has you. Being stalked by the monsters is a terrifying experience, aided by some sharp, gritty graphics and awfully effective sound cues. The ship feels utterly isolated and unwelcoming, and only becomes moreso when the creature catches wind of you. It works like a pocket roguelike Alien: Isolation, pitting you against a lethal stalker with just enough differences to get you to give it one more try. I mean, I had to tap out after just a few attempts because I was getting rattled so bad, and that has to count for something.

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