There’s a plethora of indie platformers out there right now. In such a crowded genre, it’s hard for games to stand out. In order to do so, they need something special; a unique concept, striking visuals, an original mechanic. When I first saw the greyscale, dystopian landscape in Monochroma, then, I was intrigued; the story of one boy and his brother making their way through the empty, slightly haunting city prison seemed like a fascinating concept.
In visuals, many have pointed out that the colour scheme of Monochroma instantly encourages comparison with the classic Limbo, and this is not where the similarities end. Like Limbo, Monochroma’s story contains no words; instead, it is discovery through visuals, through the journey itself. Sadly, however, the life and vitality required by such a narrative style is strangely lacking, and Monochroma’s interesting concept doesn’t always deliver when it comes to gameplay.
The game starts in an abandoned rural area, in which the protagonist and his small brother explore the landscape together. The initial experience is compelling; the music is extremely atmospheric, and the art direction - in which the greyscale landscape is littered with specs of blood red - is part Limbo, part Schindler's list, and completely stunning.
After your brother falls through the roof of one of the outlying industrial buildings and injures himself, however, the main mechanic of the game is introduced. Whilst the controls in Monochroma are pretty basic run, jump, climb, swing commands, the central mechanic revolves around the fact that the protagonist must carry his injured brother on his back, place him in safe areas, and solve puzzles in order to be able to access new areas. When your brother is on your back, your jump height and climbing ability is limited, so deciding when and when not to carry him is one of the central themes of the puzzles.
The bond between brothers, however, is often more irritating than compelling, as the smaller of the boys seems to lack any sense of preservation. When, on one occasion, I accidentally sent a coal truck careering into him, he didn’t flinch; apparently accepting his fate unmovingly and in a way that made it rather hard to connect emotionally in what was presumably designed to be a story-oriented and emotive game.
One of the things that really pulled on the heart strings in Limbo was the atmosphere, and the graphic ever-presence of death. When I died in Limbo, the often gruesome, helpless death animations made me keen not to repeat my mistakes, as my poor character was decapitated by a bear trap or struggling to breathe as he drowned. In contrast, death in Monochroma was as oddly flat as the game’s atmosphere. My character died more like a rag doll than a human, and even when my mistakes resulted in the death of my little brother, it was neither frightening nor compelling.
A lot of what made Limbo so compelling and enjoyable is left wanting in Monochroma. If you create a game with such an obvious spiritual forbear, nailing the gameplay is a must, lest you be accused of merely creating a worse version of the game that came before. Like an unfortunately large number of indie platformers I’ve played in my time, Monochroma is greatly let down by laggy and inaccurate controls. Making timing an essential component of puzzle is fine, but when shoddy controls and unreliable collision detection is thrown in, this moves from satisfying to infuriating. On more than one occasion it took me several occasions to leap a gap because my character would respond later than expected, whilst on others I would be killed by something that, as far as I could tell, I hadn't actually touched.
Monochroma is an interesting concept of a game that I really wanted to like. But whilst the haunting start and varied, complex puzzles are sufficient to keep you interested for a short while, inadequate controls and uneven quality of gameplay means this enjoyment is liable to regularly descend into frustration.
The world of Monochroma starts of promising a dystopian exploration in a silent and haunting world, but the lack of broader narrative or any kind of empathy leaves the world as devoid of life as the dystopia in which it is set. It’s a world in which to dip your toes, and maybe even enjoy a short while, but it never really sticks.