Since The Witcher 3 is, by my reckoning, one of the best role-playing games to be produced in years, it’s an extraordinary curse to be an RPG up for review in the same month, perhaps even the same year, as its release. Luckily Always Sometimes Monsters is quite a different sort of role-playing beast – less autochthonous haunter of Transylvanian forests, more creeping terror of the noughties cityscape. Sadly, it’s also a rather misshapen creature: one of RPGMaker’s numerous offspring, it mixes inspiring highs with some frustrating, almost unforgiveable, lows.
Let’s start with the good. You have a lot of choice over who you play in this game: black or white, male or female, straight or gay, you can experience prejudice and bigotry, or take privilege’s easy road through life. Your choice is made almost blind, at the start of the game, and then you have to live with it. It’s a nice way of bringing the player round to the fact that these aren’t choices we make – they are simply facts we have to live with. There’s a good deal of depth to how these things affect your character, too, since you spend most of the game down on your luck, fighting from dollar to dollar for both your survival and your sense of being. The game almost succeeds in making that air of desperation palpable; I should say that I really, really, admire these aspects of the game.
Unfortunately there’s a few things getting in the way of my admiration of Always Sometimes Monsters. I was aware, coming to this review, that its writing has been praised by other reviewers, and so I set my standards rather high. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. The game is insistent – in an almost naive way – on the importance of choice in human life, to the extent that the framing device for the whole adventure has you apprehended by a masked gunman who babbles about choice like a moody teenager writing the liner notes for their self-published album of power ballads. There’s good writing in there too, for sure, but as someone who actually spends time sorting the good from the merely promising in my day-job as a literary editor, I felt a bit let down by the patchiness of it all. To make things worse, I ended up playing as a writer thrown out by their publishers for failing to produce a promised first novel. It’s a situation so entirely unlike my experiences of first-time novelists (nobody signs an unknown, first-time writer in the modern publishing world without seeing a manuscript that’s already 99% complete) that I began to lose faith in the game’s ability to represent modern life at all. It was around this time I stopped trying to act as though I was a struggling writer and simply began doing bad things because I could.
In a game that depends on its ability to immerse you in a realistic, contemporary story this is a pretty big flaw. Things didn’t get any better after the minigames began to appear, all of which I found excruciating: RPG Maker has never really shone at producing enjoyable minigames, and I began to get some rather serious hanging and lagging at about this point. Both my Bluestacks and tablet incarnations of the game often felt rather clumsy, with my attempts to fast-forward through dialogue using the on-screen buttons sometimes resulting in me selecting conversation options before they appeared on screen. However much I wanted to role-play my character, the game gradually eroded my desire to bother. Between characters harping on about the importance of ‘choices’ and ‘decisions’ – rather than saying words actual humans would say – and the incessant distraction of laggy controls and minigames, my initial enthusiasm for the game’s noble aims just petered out.
I soldiered on for a while, but things didn’t get much better. Perhaps part of the problem was the inclusiveness of the story: in trying to accommodate all sorts of backgrounds for your character it ended up sprawling, making them feel just a little too similar. It might have been a stronger game if you had simply been black and gay from the start, experiencing precisely what it means to be black and gay in contemporary American life – good writing, after all, depends on the sharpness of portrayal, and on that unshakeable bond between character and situation. I desperately wanted to say so many more nice things about this game, but I’ll have to settle for saying that it’s just pretty good as an indie game goes. Perhaps if the developers had focused not merely on having good ideas about what to write in the game and had instead actually written those good ideas properly, this would have gone down as one of my favorite Indie RPGs. This game feels like it’s been cursed, its human centre covered in some sort of lycanthropic horror of bad controls and minigames: in spite of its truly humane centre it still feels deformed, ugly, and for me at least, just too hard to love.
Is it Hardcore?
Only on a full moon
If you can find it in your heart to play the Belle to this game’s Beast, you could find something special here. For the majority of Android gamers, however, I’d advise you to think very carefully before you part with your money.