Always Sometimes Monsters Review: Always interesting, sometimes annoying
The indie game movement has brought about a surge of interesting, real-world experiences to the medium. Games like Gone Home and Papers, Please explore the human condition without good vs. evil, super powers, or identifiable heroes. Always Sometimes Monsters is cut from the same cloth, and it attempts to explore the choices we make in life when our backs are against the wall. These aren’t the black-and-white, Paragon/Renegade choices we see in most stories, but the decisions between selfishness and selflessness we experience in day-to-day life.
If you’ve ever been down on your luck, worked a crummy job, missed your rent, took advantage of a friend, or compromised yourself for some extra money, you may find yourself walking some familiar territory here. Always Sometimes Monsters is at its best when it explores everyday life at its worst. Issues like homelessness, voter fraud, corruption, and drugs are all fair game. Your character’s cross-country journey is ultimately a quest for love, but they experience a little of everything terrible along the way.
It’s the parallels to real-life that make the decisions so profound, not to mention the noticeable branching paths on display. At one point I took on a freelancing job as a reporter and was nearly bribed to write a fluff piece. I could have taken the bribe, but I chose to dig deeper and find the real heart of the story. In another instance I had a chance to help a friend get clean and sacrifice their creativity, or leave them to their vices and focus on my own issues. I tried helping them but I didn’t catch a minor detail that kept them from kicking their habit. It wasn’t until much later in the game that I realized the mistake I’d made.
Large portions of Always Sometimes Monsters shine as explorations of day-to-day American life, but it devolves into silliness more often than I preferred. For all the familiar ground it walks, it’s equally capable of going off the rails with sequences where you blackmail a wealthy man with a fetish for teddy bears, or take on a dog in a boxing match. One chapter late in the game has the player taking on a series of ridiculous quests to fix a car and win a race, just to gain a path out of the town. The game never struck me as strictly-serious, but as the plot became less realistic and more video-gamey, I found myself losing interest and yearning for the more mundane circumstances of the early game.
Another issue is the way the game will try to force the more “monstrous” choice on you. There are several instances where your only choice is to compromise yourself or perform some menial task for far too long. Some of the worst examples had me carrying boxes from one end of the room to another a few dozen times, grinding away at a Blackjack table or a lottery machine, or failing again and again in an infuriating boxing mini-game. I found myself wanting to make the right choice, but frustrated that I had to endure some unpleasant gameplay as a result. And maybe that’s the point, that it shouldn’t be fun, but I wish developer Vagabond Dog had figured out a different way to make the “good” choice a difficult one.
Beyond that, there’s a general lack of polish that’s hard to ignore, even with a small indie game like this. I have no problem with the game’s RPG Maker-esque presentation, but there are some bare minimum luxuries that I think even the lowest-budget games should manage. One example: I had to play the entire game in a small window in the middle of my monitor, with no way to fully expand the graphics to the edges of the screen. It wasn’t unplayable like this, but the small screen left me wishing for a portable version of the game on Vita or 3DS (in fact if Vagabond Dog wanted to do that I’d be all over it). Another example: the game is brimming with spelling and grammatical errors, even going as far as having the wrong characters speaking during key scenes. A patch has already addressed some of these issues, but in a game that drifts into visual novel territory in terms of word-count, readability is a key component.
Some odd story choices and hard-to-ignore issues leave me wishing for an Always Sometimes Monsters director’s cut. The game is long enough -- clocking in at around ten hours -- that trimming some of the fat doesn’t seem like a bad idea. It’s a game brimming with potential, and I’d still recommend it if you don’t mind some rough edges for the sake of fresh storytelling. It may be a pain sometimes, but my urge to see it through a second time despite that speaks volumes.
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