Developer: Vagabond Dog
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Price: $9.99 USD
You can’t afford to pay your rent.
You need to get $500 by the end of the day in order to have a place to sleep that isn’t on the streets. If only that check from your publisher would get here, but unfortunately your writing career has taken a turn for the worse.
Your lover left you a year ago.
And you still haven’t gotten over it. The situation is only worsened by the fact that you get a letter in the mail from them inviting you to their wedding happening in a month on the opposite end of the country. This, however, sets you off on a mission to make it cross-country, but for what purpose? That much is up to the player’s discretion.
These are only some of the first issues presented in the role-playing game Always Sometimes Monsters, and there are countless more to come.
Always Sometimes Monsters begins with you playing a man named Larry, a literary agent who is about to take a gamble on an aspiring young writer, the main character you play. There are many people at Larry’s party and whomever you choose to toast with becomes the game’s central character. Afterwards, you play the character you choose and go out onto the patio to select your lover. This is an extremely clever way of defining your character without using sliders or stat changes. The playable characters include men and women of various races, and the lovers have a similar variety, allowing you to establish whatever relationship tickles your fancy. In total, there are more than 144 combinations of players and lovers.
Along with starting from the beginning of the story, the game simultaneously cuts to the end. There is another scene which depicts a hitman deciding to leave his boss and old life behind, only to be stopped at gunpoint by a homeless person who goes on to spill out their life story to these two men. It is strange to know exactly where you will end up, and though it is an interesting plot structure it does leave some issues with the overall narrative of the game.
Shortly thereafter your character awakens in a derelict apartment in Dubstown, and this is where the majority of the narrative begins to unfold with the issues previously described. In my instance, I was playing an Asian female in a relationship with a caucasian woman. The game immediately showcases how it reacts to your character development when the landlord called my character “little China girl” before kicking her out on the street to get the money for rent. By making the world react differently to relationships – wether it be comments on race, an elderly woman attempting to talk around to subject of my character’s sexuality by speaking in vague terms, or a foreman saying “I still expect a hard day’s work from you, even if you are a woman!“ – Vagabond Dog has created a world that reacts to your character creation in many intricate ways, and that is just the tip of the iceberg.
The plot requires the character to make many choices, some more subtle and others blatant and bold. For example, do you help your drug-addicted friend out by blackmailing a doctor or destroying his car? Or, if neither option suits you, just leave them for dead and abide by the doctor’s philosophy of “not every life is equal”? You could go work at a night club checking coats (and have the option to search them and steal any money found) or instead keep a promise to an elderly neighbor and help her tidy up. The choice is yours in all of these situations, and if you want to try everything it will take more than just a single play-through.
You’re faced with these choices frequently, and often both options come so naturally that it is disturbing that situations can so easily turn sour after making a decision that you would in real life. The writing remains consistently superb throughout, with dialogue flowing more naturally than in most any other game. And therein lies the heart of Always Sometimes Monsters – an apparent philosophy that regardless of how hard we try to be good, we will always end up hurting someone else.
The narrative is not totally without flaw, however. Pieces of backstory are told through flashbacks that occur at various points throughout the game. This is a good method of developing the tale, but is not utilized to a substantial degree. Why is the character Sam your best friend? Because the game told you so. Is there a reason that your lover is so important to you? Not that the game tells, you only saw the beginning and end of the relationship, excluding the introduction which briefly takes place somewhere between the two. It is clear that the narrative tries to be open-ended intentionally so that the player may reflect their own life experiences upon the character, however some more exposition via flashbacks would have given some welcome context for the rest of the game.
Along with this, the aforementioned issues that arise from revealing part of the ending at the beginning of the game is the fact that it leaves so little wiggle room for Vagabond Dog to end the story. Regardless of decisions made, someone is going to end up in that alley pouring their heart out to a hot-headed hitman. This is rather unfortunate because it means that even a ‘good’ ending will terminate horrible wrong for at least one of the characters involved (I have yet to play through the game a second time, though it seems more than likely that, without spoiling anything, the homeless character’s identity changes depending on choices made throughout the game).
Always Sometimes Monsters also unfortunately suffers from poor pacing, which can lead to some slow periods. These mainly occur near the end of the first half of the game, and afterwards it does a solid job of ramping up towards the conclusion. However, there are bound to be times where your character feels like an accessory to the town rather than the center of it, as the story generally tries to make you believe. Luckily, there is almost always something to do, wether it be talking to someone new, getting a new high score in one of the arcade mini-games, or finding a job via the temp agency.
If the choices and philosophy make up the game, then the soul is the visuals in which the story is presented. The game is made using RPG Maker, which is not renowned for being a showstopper in the graphics department (and was chosen due to a low budget, at the developer’s own admission). The game is presented in a 16-bit form and the restrictions of the engine do not even allow the game to run at full screen on my 1080p monitor, though if it did I am sure it would look unnecessarily blurry. However, the art style of the game is great. The sprites of each character are well designed and the hand-drawn portraits that appear when a character is talking are gorgeous. I don’t know that the narrative would have really worked if the game was in any different art style, since the 16-bit format leaves just enough up to the player’s imagination. Along with this, towns are pretty to look at and vary in appearance throughout the game and are perfectly sized so as they feel substantial yet their layouts are easily memorized. Despite the restrictions mentioned, Vagabond Dog makes a game that is an aesthetic joy.
The game’s audio design is generally brilliant. Sound effects fit well with the visual aesthetic and blend in nicely with the gameplay, which is all that can really be asked of a game. Along with this, the soundtrack by Laser Destroyer Team is one of my favorite ever released, with the song “Pet Rock Meets the Moon” being a forerunner for my favorite song in a video game. There is not exactly much more to say beyond the fact that audio flows cohesively and appropriately with every other part of the game, and sets the tone very well.
Gameplay is about what you should grow to expect from an RPG Maker game. Use the arrow keys to move, and the spacebar (or other keys such as enter) to perform an action or proceed within a conversation. It is a functional system, though certainly not the best. It is, however, a conceit that comes with using the RPG Maker engine, and is one that I, as a player, am more than willing to take. Always Sometimes Monsters also has various mini-games which arrive in various contexts. Every job taken in the temp agency comes with its own dull mini-game, such as one that requires the repetitive pushing of buttons in order to turn pigs into various pork products. These are designed to be intentionally boring since the player is supposed to have the same hesitancy to take them in the game as they would in real life, and due to this it is excusable. Other mini games include a Frogger-like hacking game and a rock-paper-scissors-like boxing game, which are both welcome changes of pace. The gameplay is certainly functional and nothing more. However, Always Sometimes Monsters is mainly about the narrative, so this is generally excusable.
Though its philosophy may not click with all, I had a great time playing Always Sometimes Monsters, though I would never call it a fun game. This is a game that is about depression and finding yourself at your worst place in life. This is a game about attempting to crawl from the trenches with the help of some while stepping on others. This is a game about life, love, and loss, and I only wish more games could cover such topics with as much grace as this one does.
Bottom Line: Always Sometimes Monsters is a superb experience that manages to rise above the majority of its issues. The decision of whether or not to buy it can be answered with a simple question: Do you like narrative-focused games with minimalistic gameplay in the 16-bit style of games such as To The Moon? If so, this is the game for you.
Also Note: The album Always Sometimes Monsters XP is currently available for free on Laser Destroyer Team’s Bandcamp page, but to get all the songs in the game you will have to buy the EP and LP which are available for $3 each on Bandcamp, or simply purchase the Soundtrack Version of the game on Steam.
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