Moody visuals aren't enough to save Monochroma from falling into shadow
On the surface Monochroma should be everything I love about independent video game design. Bleak visuals, a disturbing dystopian background, obfuscated storytelling and an emotional and physical link to the two characters on-screen. Yet for all Monochroma achieves with its effective art style, it’s let down by imprecise controls and a lack of empathy for its protagonists.
Early on your younger brother falls from a barn roof and so begins your journey with him, carrying your sibling through the levels and puzzles, sometimes putting him down to reach higher platforms or perform tasks to clear the way for both of you.
Black and grey playground silhouettes for that obvious creepy touch
It’s a slight change from the usual passage through a puzzle/platformer level that requires switches thrown, pushing boxes and dangerous threats kept away not only from you but from your immobile and helpless brother. There’s a good variety of puzzles here and the dynamic between the environment and what you're manipulating has never felt so tangible. Flaming oil barrels will need putting out with the rain storm that rages overhead and water pools will need traversing carefully with wooden pallets.
Yet those puzzles struggle to convey that sentiment particularly well thanks to the controls and awkward physics and visuals. Sometimes the screen is so dark you can’t make out where the rain is falling, the physics of balancing on water is too buggy to feel genuine and every failure felt more like Monochroma’s rather than mine.
In the first few hours these problems are rare and fleeting with the game carried on the weight of new discovery and the connection between yourself and your brother. After that initial honeymoon though, the game mechanic loses its charm and starts to buckle under the technical weight of its problems. Imprecise controls, bugs and glitches begin to destroy the relationship between yourself and what is supposed to be your precious sibling.
There’s also a lack of depth to the narrative as Monochroma raises more questions than it can ever answer. The same could be said of Limbo, the glaringly obvious inspiration behind this game, but Playdead’s puzzle platformer has a deeper sense of the ethereal than Monochroma can sadly muster.
Monochroma looks stunning, I just wish it played as well as it's visuals
The puzzles too, fall short as the game progresses. Not in their design as such but with the execution required of the player. Once you figure out a solution, either through observation or trial and error, the path to executing it is fraught with frustration with the sticky controls, or just the length of time needed to traverse one section of the screen to the other.
These criticisms feel harsh and unforgiving when placed next to Monochroma’s affecting art-style. It’s lazy to compare it to Limbo, which I’m aware I’ve already done, but Monochroma’s use of colour is deeply moving. It’s not an exclusively stark and bleak visual style because of the black and white contrast, it’s the smaller touches of red that make it so real and troubling. Whether it’s the red scarf that flutters as you run, the paint of decaying tractors or the brief violent hues that come in death; these glimpses of a colourful world serve to remind you that you’re in a much more desperate and dark place.
This is the side of Monochroma that I enjoyed the most as I’m a sucker for bleakness and despair in video games as it’s the skill in letting your artistry tell the story of your world rather than explicitly laying it out there that interests me the most.
But these elements need to come together to make a coherent whole and sadly, this is where Monochroma falls apart. Too many times being frustrated at the controls or pacing of the game - essential for forging that link between player and game - meant all that effective artistry and design had less impact that it should. Feeling sympathy for the character you carry around started strong but those frustrations meant that connection failed before the end of the game. Once I found those crucial elements falling away I was left with a game that just couldn’t engage me anymore and one that I wanted to forget.
The use of red is effective and, at times, disturbing
There’s also a lack of reason behind your character doing what he’s doing. Essentially strolling into the city to battle the menacing corporation that hovers over every screen and whose facilities you infiltrate. I like a "less is more" approach to storytelling but even here I’m struggling to make sense of the reasons for my actions.
The potential was there for something truly special along the lines of Limbo or even perhaps ICO with your immobile brother, but there ended up not being enough reasons to care for the game or the characters within it. Nowhere Studios have an artistic eye that spoke in a unique and moving way to me at first but the technical problems voided that emotional connection and Monochroma ended up being a slog rather than a joy.
Top Game Moment: Removing my hands from the keyboard and just drinking in the visuals.