Old school. It’s a phrase thrown around a lot these days when it comes to game design. I often find myself writing it without really thinking about it. In fact I used it in my Count Lucanor review when talking about the save system. After playing Heroes of the Monkey Tavern though, I should probably retract it from 90% of the reviews I’ve put it in. Heroes of the Monkey Tavern is the old-school to end old schools.
First person dungeon crawlers have been around a while, probably before I was even part of this world. They’ve certainly got their cult following too, whether for nostalgic reasons or the pure challenge. I’m not an expert for sure, which makes this a difficult game to review. I can only really review it from a casuals perspective so please bare that in mind.
The story is very simple. A group of heroes spend night after night in the local tavern, the Monkey Tavern. After wiling away all their hard earn hero gold drinking the place dry, it’s time for the heroes to go on a new adventure and seek more beer money. After that slightly comical introduction, the game takes a nose dive out of personality-dom and into the serious nature of its genre. You immediately get to create four characters who you will take on your quest. You can choose your different classes, assign extra ability points as well as choose between some rather questionable looking character portraits.
You’ll probably want a healer of some sort, a hard hitting character and maybe a rogue to help you find the secrets of the tower you’re exploring, because the 8 floors the tower holds, are bursting with traps and more secret switches you can shake a stick at. Now, 8 floors doesn’t sound like a lot but you’ll be surprised at how long each of them will take you. You’ll spend a good half an hour or so searching for the right switch or key or killing all of the enemies.
The controls are something special, that’s for sure. I don’t know if something went seriously awry during the porting but they are masterfully awkward in both movement and combat. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, just to give it that extra feeling of playing something a bit on the archaic side, but I’m sure I could have mapped the controls better myself. Here’s how it works:
To move don’t use the analogue stick! That will use up your potions. First mistake there, rookie! It’s actually the D-pad you’ll need to stick to for moving, but even that’s not as simple as it should be. Up on the D-pad obviously moves forward and your natural inclination would be to believe that the left and right buttons turn you in their respective directions. Wrong! Those actually strafe. If you want to turn the direction you’re facing then you use the shoulder buttons
Now, you can move around and explore at your own pace, so the walking controls can be done without too much consequence but it’s the fighting controls that really are a ball ache at first. You have to command each fighter individually, scrolling between them with the ZR and L buttons then use action buttons for each. Now since each fighter has two hands, they can potentially use two weapons or abilities at a time, with each hand being assigned to the A and B button respectively. So you flicking the shoulder buttons as well as making sure you choose the correct hand to use and you have to do it quickly as battles are in real time. Dwell too long and you’ll quickly get destroyed by the unforgiving enemies.
It’s quite nightmarish to be honest and takes a lot of getting used to, even after the five or so hours of my play through, I still made mistakes. Eventually you do get into a routine of button pressing, although by that time you’ll have finished the game.
Heroes of the Monkey Tavern can be a strangely compelling game though. There’s something satisfying about constantly improving and levelling up your character, getting to grips with battle system and solving the simple enough puzzles. It’s really difficult too. I originally started on normal, but had to restart on easy so I could get used to everything. I can’t even imagine playing it on hard.
Another problem I have is just how, without wanting to be too insulting, amateurish it looks. I already touched on the character portraits, but also the environments, animation and enemies all look a little on the cheap side. It’s like the developer has picked different assets from different places and they don’t always go well together in a cohesive art design.
One thing that I did enjoy though was the music. Now, I know it’s all been licensed and none of it is original music but it’s all well chosen. It gave me feels of the soundtracks from Morrowind and Lord of the Rings, and if I’m comparing it to those high standards, it can’t be bad at all.
Overall, it’s difficult to recommend Heroes of the Monkey Tavern to everyone. You need to be really into dungeon crawlers, dungeons and dragons sort of experience. It’s archaic through and through by design to appeal to old school gamers and that’s the only group of people I can see this gelling with. I mean, I found it oddly compelling and didn’t feel bored playing it, I kind of enjoyed it, but I’m certain not everyone will agree with me.
Game provided by publisher.