Thursday, December 11, 2008

Game of the Year (Eli 7.4 Edition): Monster Lab (Wii)

It's gotten zero publicity, the reviews are only average, it's got zero buzz, and it's one of the best games I've played this year. It's called Monster Lab, and it's a brilliant piece of work from the Vancouver studio of Backbone Entertainment.

It's also Eli 7.4's game of the year, and nothing else is even close.

Here's the basic premise: you are an aspiring mad scientist, and as an apprentice Of the Mad Scientist Alliance, you are given a wide assortment of missions to complete. In the course of these missions, you will both play mini-games and battle other monsters to gain access to new materials and ingredients that can be used in various laboratories to create more powerful parts for your monster.

The world of Monster Lab looks like it came straight from a Tim Burton animated feature, and the levels are both brilliantly colored and extremely atmospheric. The writing is very funny, and the voice acting is very campy-- in a good way. The music is also first-rate, and production values are extremely high in general. It's just bursting with personality.

The game design is also excellent. Most of the game consists of either battling monsters, playing a mini-game to gain ingredients, or playing a mini-game in one of the various labs to create a new part for your monster. That means lots of mini-games (around twenty, I think), and while their quality is uneven, we enjoyed the vast majority.

Monster Labs also has a surprising amount of depth. In the design phase, each of the mini-games have four levels of difficulty, and there are a huge number of ingredients that can be combined to create all kinds of ridiculous appendages.

A monster is made up of the following parts: head, two arms (selected individually), a torso, and legs. Each of those parts has two possible actions, and the actions vary widely--there are dozens of possible actions for arms, for example, and which ones are available depends on which ingredients you used. Each action also uses up a certain amount of power, and if your power drops too low, you'll need to recharge.

Combat is turn-based, and again, it has a surprising amount of depth. There are two ways to win: destroy your opponent's torso, or destroy everything else (head, arms, legs). Since each part has its own health rating, and each of your attacks has a damage rating, there's quite a bit of strategy involved. Plus, and this is another surprise, dodge and block are actually very useful-- even critical in certain battles.

On top of all that, the animations in combat (and in the game in general) are excellent. Combat is extremely entertaining, and there's definitely that addictive quality of fighting one more monster in hope of acquiring an exclusive or rare ingredient.

Our primary monster wasn named "Leopard Alien 7" (Eli named them all), and it featured a death mask for a head, an auger drill for an arm, a king crab claw for the second arm, a Bahamut torso, and locust legs. The three labs are mechanical, biological, and alchemical, so the possible combinations are entirely silly and practically endless.

Another plus: the amount of content. We finished the game Tuesday night, and we put in about 20-25 hours. So this isn't a short game, but there's really no filler content, either. It's all fun.

I'd even recommend this game for an adult, because it's a tremendous amount of fun, although I think a couple of house rules would be needed to make the game more difficult. It's really designed almost perfectly for a kid in the 7-10 age range, though, and I think that's probably the primary audience.

On a scale of 1-10, for a kid, it's a 10.

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