Ever since Braid twisted the damsel-in-distress trope almost six years ago, puzzle platformers have been churned out by more small-scale studios than I can count. We've seen Limbo, Closure, Vessel, The Swapper, Stealth Inc, Fez, Lost in Shadows, Thomas Was Alone, and Dokuro. The list goes on and on and on. And if that list of recently released games doesn't seem long enough, I played two more upcoming entries last week. Metrico is an inventive delight as I showcased in my video preview, and Monochroma kept me riveted during the hour I spent exploring its enticing world. What's fascinating to me is how developers keep shaking up familiar themes to deliver something I have never seen before.
My colleagues glimpsed Monochroma before I did and relayed that it was similar to Limbo. And, in a way, this is a good comparison. By utilizing a black-and-white aesthetic, it echoes the lonely and dreary journey of Limbo, and because you also embody a young boy in it, it reexamines the feeling of being a weak person in a hostile land. Even the way you move through the industrial environments mirrors what Limbo first achieved. You run in a clumsy, deliberate manner that's atypical within the power fantasies that dominate the gaming landscape. Plus, you can only jump, push boxes, and flip switches as you try to wind your way through the dangerous world without being captured by opposing forces or caught within a deadly trap. Sounds exactly like Limbo, right? Well, not quite.
In Monochroma, not only must you protect your own health, but you're in charge of your brother's survival as well. And he's not like the younger part of the team in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, either, who walks past dying giants and explores a castle high up in the clouds without making a mess in his pants. Your sibling in Monochroma is completely helpless, which makes the adventure a giant escort mission. Don't worry, though. You won't be frustrated like you were in the notorious Goldeneye 007 mission when you were forced to protect Natalya from the Russian soldiers. And there aren't shadow monsters to fend off like we saw in Ico, either. Escorting in Monochroma is closer to traveling alongside Ellie in The Last of Us, only you have to put just a little more thought into the living baggage you carry with you.
What's fascinating to me is how developers keep shaking up familiar themes to deliver something I have never seen before.
Your brother cannot walk and is terribly frightened of the dark. So you venture forth with him on your back, and you set him down in the safe glow of streetlights when he becomes too heavy. Once he's out of the way, you can jump much higher than you could before, which lets you leap unhindered from boxes or clamber up unreachable paths while your flesh and blood waits for you to return. This system doesn't add much to the puzzle-solving foundation. You need only keep your eyes peeled for the lone light source within an area and remember to return when you've cleared a path. What carrying your brother does do is strengthen the bond between these two characters. Because he was in my charge, I automatically felt like a protector, and that added responsibility gave more weight to my cause.
Narrative is the area where Monochroma establishes its most obvious separation from Limbo. Whereas Limbo had a setting though no story to speak of, Monochroma does have a tale to tell, albeit one without dialogue. It's a game that takes a look at the pervasive consumerism that has infected our culture. What happens when a corporation gains too much power? Yes, it's ironic that another thing that you have to buy is examining our obsession with material goods, but it still adds another layer of interest to your plight. And that's the beauty of this diverse genre. Although so many puzzle platformers are 2D adventures in which modest movesets are explored through various puzzling traps, the manner in which these objectives are experienced is remarkably different.
Monochroma has a different appeal than Limbo. It fosters a serious relationship and has something to say about the world at large. Instead of venturing through an abstract nightmare, you inhabit reality, and that not only ties in to the narrative themes but differentiates the action as well. Physics determine your every action, and because objects and people act as they would in our everyday life, it furthers the argument that this is a real situation you must respect. When I climbed upon a box held up by a rope, I was shocked when the box plunged through a wooden plank into the icy water below. I had expected its behavior to be more forgiving, so when the box instead exhibited real gravity, I was too slow to react. Monochroma substitutes the fantasy that's so dominant in this space with a grounded, relatable reality.
Monochroma offers a delicious twists to what we've seen before through its marriage of narrative and mechanics, which raises it above the mere clone that it could be labeled as. It builds on Limbo in such interesting ways that the comparison left my mind soon after I manned the keyboard. It proves that games provide much more than their basic mechanics reveal, and that interesting stories can unfold without even a word being uttered. I look forward to seeing what other unique aspects Monochroma has in store when it comes out in the next month or so.