Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom has been through its fair share of transformations.
Developer Game Atelier first ran a Kickstarter for a new game in its Flying Hamster series back in 2014 before attracting the attention of publisher FDG Entertainment. With publisher support, Atelier sought to fulfil its vision of a spiritual successor to the long-dormant Wonder Boy franchise, which itself hadn’t seen a new title since the mid-’90s.
Along with support from Wonder Boy alum Ryuichi Nishizawa, the game finally found its identity and Cursed Kingdom was born.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom Review
Full disclosure, I’ve never played any of the Wonder Boy games. I was approximately three years old when the last one came out and never had the chance to build a reverence for the series.
Regardless, the passion on show from Atelier is utterly charming and it shows in the final product, which by all accounts is a loving homage to what came before it.
Nostalgia and warm feelings aside though, Cursed Kingdom is still its own beast and while the art and tone are disarmingly lovely, the game hiding underneath is caught somewhere between brilliance and banality.
Our plucky young hero with the Dragonball Z hair, Jin, is thrown into a family drama of catastrophic proportions when his uncle uses black magic to transform the citizens of the land into animals. When Jin confronts his uncle, the fallout from the battle leaves him trapped in a pig’s body.
Jin, now on a quest to collect sacred orbs from the corners of the land, is hoping to undo the curse upon him and his friends. It’s not the most original set up, much more reminiscent of a Zelda title than anything else, but it serves as a fantastic launch pad for some genuinely amusing and interesting moments.
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The idyllic locations of Monster World all play host to a colourful variety of folks who have been touched by the magic curse in some way or another. The Villiage of Lupia, a central hub of sorts, is bristling with life and villagers to interact with.
Off in all corners of the map are locations that feel all at once cliched and charming. The usual suspects are all here (the grimy sewers, the mysterious woods, the ethereal city in the clouds) and while I was rarely surprised by the places Jin’s adventure took me to, I was consistently impressed with the level of detail painted into every frame.
There are exceptions to this littered throughout (an extended sequence involving pirates on a beach is particularly generic) but these are easily forgotten on the whole.
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One of the strongest elements of Cursed Kingdom is the hand-drawn animations and care put into almost every character and level. All of Jin’s transformations, as well as most of the NPCs, are drawn with such charisma that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching a high-quality cartoon.
Something as simple as a wide-eyed look at an enemy or belch after eating a power-up would have me smiling from ear to ear. The strongest compliment I can give almost anything in life is to compare it to The Simpsons and the sheer amount of character conveyed through the animations in this game rivals that of the coveted yellow family.
As Jin nears his goal of collecting all of the aforementioned magical orbs, he is gifted by each the ability to transform into a variety of different beastly forms. Each transformation gives Jin a host of different abilities.
These abilities must be used to navigate and conquer the labyrinth style stages found in each corner of Monster World. All up, Jin will have access to five different creature forms; pig, snake, frog, lion, and dragon.
Each transformation has their own unique strengths and weaknesses which feel organic, for the most part.
Jin’s initial pig body is slow and hefty but has the ability to use powerful magic spells for attacks and puzzle solving. The snake is fast and can climb certain walls, the frog can swim indefinitely underwater and use his tongue as a grappling hook etc.
All of these forms feel good, a testament to the tight controls underneath them all, but there are certain frustrations inherent in this switching mechanic.
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Certain concessions make sense. The pig and snake are respectively the wrong sizes to wear your armour/weapons for instance, but no other form can access the magic spells learned by the pig because…reasons?
The game mitigates this problem somewhat but only after some minor tweaking in the settings. Switching between forms is assigned to the right trigger, bringing up a radial menu and requiring a second press to select an option.
This is a dated input method compared to most radial’s which only require you to highlight the option you’d like and release the trigger. This can be changed in the settings thankfully, but even still, later stages especially require such frequent switching that the mechanic shifts from being fun to frustrating.
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This is a shame because when Cursed Kingdom utilises its core mechanic in smart ways it becomes one of the most compelling titles of 2018. Boss fights, in particular, are the best implementation of ideas the game has to offer.
Each one was memorable, creative and a load of fun. Often large, always spectacular, these fights force players to cleverly implement all they’ve learned about their animal forms to survive multi-stage fights that provide a healthy challenge.
The elephant in the Room
Where all of this charm, and potential, starts to waver is in the face of an overabundance of simplistic combat mechanics and uneven level design.
Cursed Kingdom offers players several ways to customise the way Jin battles through the world. Armour sets, shields and weapons can be found in the world or purchased from stores, and can each be upgraded with gems and gold leading to dozens of options for the player.
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Health upgrades, spell slot increases and even a basic currency system are all present.
The issue is that all of this customisation, save for a couple of environment affecting upgrades, feel relatively negligible. For every poison resistant tunic or double jump boots, I found there were countless minor changes to damage output or reduction that make no impactful difference on combat.
The only major game changer is the health upgrades which feel absolutely necessary given how damage is dealt out liberally by even the smallest obstacle.
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The upgrades that did have a lasting benefit, however, were crucial to my enjoyment of the game’s many platforming challenges. It’s not that Cursed Kingdom features bad level design, often exhibiting quite the opposite, but there were more than a few moments in which the fun completely evaporates from the experience.
Tight controls mean that you always feel in command of Jin but the precision required during certain segments, paired with frequent form swapping, results in overtly frustrating times.
Human, After All
The thing is, despite all of these issues, I still find myself wanting to recommend this game because it is just so relentlessly charming.
There are legitimate issues present in some of the core design but as a first console outing for Atelier, Cursed Kingdom sets the stage for some fantastic things to come. For every frustration I had with the game, it provided me with something to appreciate and applaud.
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No voice acting and some average sound design? Don’t worry, the script is laugh-out-loud funny. Some poor level design? Sorry about that, here’s one of the most creative boss fights in a game this year.
If Atelier learns the right lessons from Cursed Kingdom there is potential for the developers to take a rightful place at the table of gold tier platformers – even RPG’s, given enough time and vision.
For now, though, Cursed Kingdom is a fun, occasionally frustrating, romp through a world I hope we get to revisit one day.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom was reviewed on Switch using a digital code provided by the publisher.
Game Title: Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom
Beautiful hand-drawn art - 9/10
Creative core mechanic - 8/10
Solid soundtrack - 7/10
Uneven level design - 6/10
Shallow customisation - 5/10