There’s nothing quite like an injury to turn a pleasant day at the beach into a serious problem. Monochroma starts with a lovely bit of kite flying for two brothers at the beach, but pretty soon the kite has escaped, the younger brother tries to retrieve it but falls through a roof instead, spraining his ankle, and that leaves the older brother as the one to clean up the mess. Hiking his pain-in-the-butt relative on his shoulders he sets off to get some help, but the best you can hope for in the bleak and dreary world of Monochroma is escape.
The black and white and red landscape of Monochroma is an oppressive place, industrial and more fit for production than living. As the brothers work their way across the landscape, the older almost always carrying the younger, it becomes obvious that their country is not a good place to grow up in. Factories are everywhere, the cities are filled with tenements, and while there’s some lovely architecture here and there it’s not really for working-class kids like these. If they can get wherever they’re going their lives will be to work in the factories, building the robots that seem to be the country’s chief product. Still, getting to safety beats the alternative, so there’s a good amount of puzzle platforming to be done on the way to wherever they’re going.
Monochroma‘s puzzle platforming is classic 2D fare, with controls not quite so stiff as something like the original Prince of Persia but still fairly specific. A jump will always be a specific distance, a bit longer or higher when not carrying the brother but without the ability to tweak the range mid-air. All the puzzles in the game are keyed to this, though, so after a few minutes of getting used to things it becomes another tool in the gaming toolbox. It doesn’t take long for semi-complicated puzzles involving switches and moving platforms to show up, and when the end result is a falling box that’s going to squish your brother if you don’t run back and grab him it’s good to have a feel for the speed of movement. The timing tends to be geared towards efficiency rather than perfection, and once you’ve figured out a course of action all the pieces flow together like clockwork. Failure never sets you back farther than the start of the latest challenge, so figuring out how a series of machines work together becomes a lot more fun when you know that experimentation will be forgiven by a quick restart.
As the kids travel on through Monochroma‘s four levels, the challenges get progressively bigger but never over-complicated. It may take several attempts to see how all the bits fit together, but once you’ve got a feel for a puzzle it’s never excessively harsh putting the pieces in place. In one puzzle, for example, you need to flip a switch between two giant gears above a treadmill, and of course your brother is in danger of getting squished. Each of the gears has a broken tooth, so you need to flip the switch to get the gears moving, run up, over, and down again to grab your brother off the now-moving treadmill, figure out which part of the treadmill to dump him on to move safely under the broken gear tooth, and then climb up, over, and around to do it again for the second gear. Up, over, and around one last time to get him on the other side, before the treadmill dumps him into the pit, and done. The kid is utterly helpless, but you still can’t help worrying a bit when he’s gone.
The bond between the kids would be a bit stronger, though, if there was a bit more narrative supporting it. A scene at the end of level 3 does a bit of work portraying the younger brother as more than a sack of potatoes to be carted through the levels, but a few short moments here and there would have gone a long way towards reinforcing it. The narrative itself is wordless and cut-scene-less, and that’s a tough style to get right. You never really know what the kids are running towards, whether it’s home or just anywhere they can get to, and the grey nation they live in could use a bit of fleshing out as well. There’s more story than is being shown, and while that can be a good storytelling technique in this case it’s just a little too little. If they don’t have a home why were they at the beach flying a kite? If they do have a home why aren’t they running there? What’s up with their home country? The story needs just a bit more fleshing out, and I’ve got to say I’m not a big fan of its ending, either.
On top of that Monochroma is fairly buggy. E-mails to the developer got a few fixed, and they’ve been listening to feedback from other people, so it seems likely that they’ll get squashed over the coming weeks. Whether this impacts any decision you might make is down to personal choice, but I had no problem beating the game even with the several non-game-breaking glitches I ran across.
What Monochroma gets right, however, is tone and gameplay. The puzzle platforming is fun to solve once you get the feel for character movement, there’s a lot of variety in puzzle design, and some very clever level layout ties everything together. The black and white and red color palette creates a world that feels oppressive to its very bones, even when the happy ads of Monochroma’s loading screens pitch the joys of owning the robots manufactured in its endless factories. The colorless world may have drained the life from everything in it, but its endless challenges can’t leech the determination of a boy intent on keeping his brother safe.