Release Date: May 28, 2014Platform: PC (reviewed), MacDeveloper: Nowhere StudiosPublisher: Nowhere StudiosGenre: Puzzle-platformer
Nowhere Studios has been pretty vocal about comparing Monochroma to a cross between Limbo and Ico, and after playing through the sidescrolling puzzle-platformer myself, it isn’t all that difficult to see why. The shadowy atmosphere of the game borrows the same black and white environments as Limbo, albeit with strategic splashes of red to add to the game’s overall aesthetic. It’s going to be hard for Monochroma to escape its heavy Limbo influence, but as the game progresses there is actually a good deal of unique and breathtaking set pieces that set this one apart from Playdead’s sidescrolling masterpiece.
The Ico portion of Monochroma actually comes from the puzzle-platforming gameplay, in which your character is forced to carry his little brother to safety throughout the entirety of your adventure (and don’t worry, the brother isn’t NEARLY as rip-out-your-hair difficult to manage as Yorda from Ico is). The little brother’s presence will come into play during most of the game’s puzzles, as he’ll often weigh you down and prevent you from reaching certain ladders or ledges that you’ll need to get to in order to progress. The catch is that you’ll only be able to set your brother down underneath one of the sparse spotlights that cover your surroundings.
The story is very simplistic, devoid of any dialogue, and shrouded in mystery at every turn: you play as the elder of two brothers who must find their way home through a dark and sinister world that’s based in our own reality. The areas you’ll traverse might as well be the same ones that are sitting beyond your very window, from a rainy farm, to a bustling urban street, to a quiet harbor. As you play, countless questions will start to formulate in your mind: Where are we going? Why is that red? Why is this huge guy in the striped sweater so intent on chasing us? Mind you, all of these questions embellish the story of Monochroma, and they give a great incentive to press onwards and unravel more of this sublime, yet earthly world.
Although the game is presented as one seamless journey with some pretty nice environmental blending in between the different areas, from a mechanical standpoint, Monochroma is fairly segmented into dozens of puzzle rooms. Each larger room puzzle is separated by a long stretch of platforming or a chase sequence, which gives the game an odd balance between fast and slow moments. But for what it’s worth, most of the puzzles in the game are clever and well thought out, with only the occasional misstep when a solution calls for the utmost precision or speed in executing a maneuver.
And these instances are only turned into missteps because the game’s loose controls cannot account for the sharp precision that certain puzzles call for. Sometimes you’ll need to hang off the edge of a platform as it moves above a rattling train track, or position a crate in steadily rising water to hop back on it at an exceptionally precise moment: both extremely frustrating to execute given your character’s often slow movements and unresponsive jumping. I oddly never had too much of a problem with the controls during the chase sequences, though. There are also a few performance issues to contend with as well. I’ve experienced both slowdown and game crashing, even when switching to the lowest graphical setting.
Luckily Monochroma is certainly a longer journey than Limbo, and so there is much more good to be found here than bad. The puzzles are often used to introduce new and welcome ideas into the mix, the story will give you something to think about, and the bleak visuals and environments begin to take on a life of their own before long, despite the obvious influences. If you’re in the market for a new sidescrolling puzzle-platformer, or have fond memories of Limbo or Ico, then you’ll want to give Monochroma a shot, if only to eliminate any shadows of a doubt.