Review copy provided by developer
I credit The Binding of Isaac with kicking off the flood of top-down shooter roguelikes, but the many titles that made up that deluge have expanded the genre in fantastic ways. Roguelikes in this space can be fast-paced, slow and strategic, open and expansive, or tightly-plotted. Monolith covers a lot of familiar ground on the gameplay side, but dolls it up in a wonderfully creative presentation that merges retro charm with futurist horror. It’s a unique package in just the right ways that strikes a great balance of challenge and fun, something many of its peers fall just outside of.
The apocalypse has come once again, leaving behind a wasteland of ruined buildings and techno-organic survivors. At the heart of the city lies the Monolith, a towering structure rumored to hold a nebulous ultimate power. The compulsion to unearth this mystery has claimed countless explorers, and your zippy little vessel is the most recent to challenge the ancient and deadly halls. Within the Monolith you’ll face all manner of undead, cybernetic, and mystical foes as you descend further towards your destiny, obtaining new weapons and powers and scrap to fuel your assault.
That’s a familiar setup for a modern roguelikes, and indeed you’ll recognize a lot of the mechanics involved in your adventure. Each floor of the Monolith is a grid of rooms, each of which must be cleared of enemies to proceed to the next. Your controls are either WASD for movement and mouse for aiming or twin-stick on a controller, and you have the usual assortment of lasers and launchers (albeit with random affixes here) to blast foes with until the ammo runs out. Bombs clear enemy shots and break walls to hidden rooms as they do in Gungeon, and health pickups can become additional permanent health if you score 4 while at max health, just like in Downwell. There’s one upgrade per floor that gives your choice of three perks, stores that sell ammo or health or bombs, altars to sacrifice something for something else, and so on.
Roguelikes that combine existing, proven mechanics in their own way are common enough, but it’s the presentation and polish that make Monolith stand out. The retro aesthetic here is absolutely on point, with clean, detailed pixel art animating the mechanical horrors you face. The backdrops for rooms are particularly detailed, giving glimpses of dark rituals and betrayals just from the environments. Similarly, the soundtrack and effects are perfect GameBoy-style beeps and tones that provide a surprisingly upbeat atmosphere to battle cyberskulls and animated vats of biomass to. It’s honestly remarkable how the grim visuals and narrative mix so harmoniously with the bright music and adorable details like your cat buddy at home base and cute ghosts swarming you.
The story also deserves special recognition for telling a fairly deep tale just through environments and gameplay decisions. Your first successful run here will take you from collapsed chambers and rusted pipes to churning mechanisms and consecrated halls, ending at floor five in front of a door sealed with four sigils. Locating them across the game grants you access to the sixth area and final boss, and overcoming that challenge leaves the fate of your plucky ship in question. It also unlocks a second ship that goes through the game in hard mode, and ends with a different final boss and the rest of the story, a revealing series of events that helps you piece together the overall story of the Monolith and its denizens.
There’s a helpful meta-progression system here that lets you add more weapons and items to the drop tables and passives to keep you competitive, based on your scrap collecting per run. You also get some entertaining dialog and interior design in the interludes between runs, which solidify Monolith’s cleverly dissonant tone. All told it’s a tight, polished package that does exactly what you expect along with a little bit more. The controls are excellent, the bullet hell challenges are taxing without being unreasonable, and you always come away from a run knowing there’s more to discover. It’s not quite as expansive as something like Isaac or Gungeon but it’s much more approachable, and in some ways more gratifying, and that makes it a fantastic pick for any roguelike shooter fan.