Monaco is a game that has the potential to set groups of gamers on an enthusiastic chattering rampage. On paper, it’s chaotic, charming, quirky, and has that indie-niche charm that’s almost fashionable now. It’s 2013’s Hotline Miami. It’s edgy, competent, and stylish. It has a sense of humour, and an overt sense of cool. You even get the impression the developers are pretty awesome guys, too. These are the hallmarks of popular indie games now, but Monaco is also a somewhat flawed game. A lot of the time, it’s a convoluted mess that feels as though it’s breaking its own rules. Go for gold, however, and Monaco is rewarding… but it never reaches tactical or strategic heaven.
Monaco is a stealth action game with the emphasis being on chaos. I know, that didn’t make a whole lot of sense – but between stealth and action, there’s a layer of chaos that might not reveal itself fairly in the games official description. You see, Monaco has a tendency to go tits-up, and when it does, getting four players to behave themselves on an already tarnished level play-through is a chore. It’s incredibly easy to mess up, since four people and countless ways to do so sort of makes that necessarily problematic. That’s not the games fault technically, but it does mean that Monaco is a relatively hard-core game that requires every party member to dedicate some serious time into learning everything about the game.
Featuring a large array of maps, Monaco nods in some ways to Reservoir Dogs with its colour coded player roles. My favourite, The Cleaner, is the only character who can knock out enemies. The only way I can do that, though, is by walking up to them from behind, or from the side. In Monaco, enemies can be alerted to your presence in any number of ways, and enemies can’t be downed conventionally when they are – only with weapons. Other roles include The Lookout, who can spot and automatically mark enemy locations on the map, The Locksmith, The Mole, The Gentleman, and The Hacker. There are 8 playable roles in total, with four players able to pick from any one of them at once.
Story aside, the game is about locating the varying objectives on the map, floor by floor, and escaping. Initially, the quirky text-based story focuses on busting out the protagonists in order to get to the major heists, but essentially the game takes you from level to level, floor to floor, doing the same thing with minor differences. This is one of the problems with Monaco. Hotline Miami sure had a lot of levels, but they were varied and challenging in different ways. In Monaco, whilst there are slightly different obstacles and ever-so slightly varied locations, every level feels very samey, and even if the objective is contextually different, it’s still just about getting from A-B-C without being spotted.
Getting from A-B-Z-Narnia-Dunwall is a matter of hiding in bushes, cutting power, using EMP’s, hitting people with spanners; stealth guns, shotguns, fists; dodging tripwires, dodging crossbows, luring guards, using disguises. There’s a huge amount of variety, but the problem is it’s all thrown at you at once, on every level. It’s true that most levels with introduce something new, but it’s possible that Monaco has too many variables all at once on every level. There’s no subtlety here, and whilst I’d like to say that it’s cool how you can complete every level 100 different ways or more, it just feels very messy, but it’s very hard to explain why.
Monaco isn’t a very buggy game, but it has its quirks. For example, playing as the cleaner, I should be able to take people out by running up behind them, or from the side, but sometimes this just doesn’t work, and I’m spotted. There’s a certain amount of time before they’re alerted to a “!” from “?” even in line of sight, but occasionally it doesn’t seem to apply. It’s finicky, and this has the potential to ruin play-through’s occasionally. Secondly, as you see in the above image, when you’re climbing out of vents you can see a large portion of the map for a split second. Not long enough for it to be of any use, and it’s just a brief flash, which makes me think it’s a bug rather than something of strategic intent.
Another problem we faced was not knowing what’s see-through, or low enough for enemies to see over. Many times we ran past, or near, or tried to hide behind something that the enemies could see over, or through. For instance, they can apparently see over the top of ambulances on one mission, even if you’re hiding behind them. They’ve made a valiant effort to make it intuitive, but sometimes it just isn’t clear enough. In a game like this, with such stringent difficulty, variable ways to lose incrementally increase the change to fail. Because of that, those variables need to be very tight and intuitive. Right now, they’re not so much intuitive as punishing.
Unfortunately for fans of tactical espionage, there’s no real “planning phase” to speak of. This is about adapting to whatever situation arises, and thinking on your toes. It’s quite hard to keep an eye on your character, and there’s a whole lot information on screen at once. This, with the fact that each trap is quite finicky, and a few little quirks here and there, ensure that doing things perfectly is no easy endeavor. Because of that, there’s an element of old school map memory that needs to be employed. Every member of your party needs to be dedicated to his or her role, and a hell of a lot of patience is required.
The odd thing is, Monaco feels like a very fast game. The parody-piano music, quirky French chit-chat, and vivid color reminiscent of 1930’s buffoonery is at odds with the necessary pacing to succeed. That’s really why I feel like Monaco, in some places, is harmed by style over substance. It’s cooler than it needs to be; with all the depth of a graphically boring Paradox Interactive strategy game, you wouldn’t expect the addition of polish and charm to hamper it – but it really does. Monaco is quite a convoluted and flawed experience, perhaps from too much effort to be cool and quirky – but hey, it is what it is. It’s not broken, and it’s rewarding with patience; just don’t expect a smooth ride, regardless of your stealth action ego.
I am certain of one thing, though: it’s not simply good enough to criticize Monaco for being difficult. It’s more complex than that – as is everything in What’s Yours is Mine.