It’s surprising how such a traditional-style RPG can offer a breath of fresh air to a genre of which’s indie scene is currently swamped with meta-derivative works. While these works are often entertaining, it can also be nice to return to a simple adventure reminiscent of the 90s era, and sleepy-raccoon pulls this off admirably with Monsters of Kanji. However, once the nostalgia passes over, there can be little left to retain the player’s interest for long, in spite of the game’s novel concept.
Marty is your average RPG hero, letting the days go by in a comfy little home with his animal friends until things inevitably begin to go amiss. Instead of giving way to a lengthy expository prologue, Monsters of Kanji keeps its introduction short and sweet. The player is allowed to learn about the world as they explore it through the eyes of a youth: one who has had no reason to care in-depth about its history until it hits them in the face. Unfortunately said history is hardly stimulating, though nor is it a major selling point of this adventure.
Kanji, the titular characters which make up much of the Japanese writing system, play a significant, albeit rather shallow, role in gameplay. Signposts are sprinkled all around, each revealing a new character and its translation. The keyword there being ‘translation’, singular. Monsters of Kanji will, at best, give the player one or two of the meanings behind a certain kanji, but in reality, the written language is far more complex. For example, the character 木 can be pronounced ‘ki’ meaning ‘tree’ as the game shows in a signpost fittingly located next to one such tree, however, there are many more instances in which this character can appear with a completely different meaning and pronunciation.
The game is hardly perfect in teaching the player about its namesake, however, it doesn’t claim to serve as a learning tool, but instead a light revision aid. Players with no interest in or understanding of Japanese can happily ignore these signposts; they bear no impact on the game proper. However, for someone already learning Japanese, Monsters of Kanji offers a neat way of confronting certain words, giving the player the chance to recall their prior knowledge, coupled with a unique visual source to relate to it. Additionally, the game offers an ‘Ancient Archive’ where the player can browse all the kanji they have previously discovered, as well as seeing some new characters (which loosely inspire each of the enemy designs). Again, nothing thorough, but enough to keep a veteran to the language satisfied as well as potentially piquing the interest of a newcomer. Despite this, the overall implementation turns the kanji into more of a weak gimmick than a genuine aspect of the game.
The soundtrack accompanying this semi-educational journey is hit-or-miss. Many overworld tracks are far too short given how often you’ll hear them loop. This would be perfectly ignorable were songs more laid back, but many are busy, fast-paced acoustic jingles that often sound out of place and rarely contribute to either immersion or entertainment. At best, Monsters of Kanji offers some neat little grooves, if hardly appropriate for the instances they accompany, but for the most part they are little more than a nuisance that left me turning down the volume frequently.
As previously mentioned, Monsters of Kanji thrives on its old-school nature; it would fit in perfectly with the likes of Shining Force and Grandia if it weren’t for the jarring stylistic clashes between the main characters, enemies and environments. The pixel-based character sprites mesh poorly with the illustrated enemy sprites during battles, and the color scheme of the various areas make the individuals traversing them stick out like a sore thumb. While visibility is good, there is an off-putting contrast present here which makes the graphics feel almost unfinished at points. ‘Cutscenes’ are presented in a comic book style, with frames appearing over the screen depicting an event. While limited in their fluidity, these are nonetheless cute and good at setting the scene for a new character appearance or boss encounter. The UI is simple to read and navigate, while visually stale, as is to be expected of a classically-influenced RPG.
I haven’t given much attention to the core gameplay in this review mainly because, once again, it’s the standard RPG affair. The player ventures through peaceful green plains and daunting underground complexes, finding and buying weapons and items to strengthen themselves with and facing off in turn-based battles against randomly encountered foes. Unique quests are presented sporadically, though most are mandatory anyway, and grinding quickly becomes a necessity. There is nothing particularly outstanding, but simultaneously nothing overly weak either: Monsters of Kanji stands at a sufficient middle ground of RPG mechanics.
There is passion in this game, despite its shortcomings. While the Japanese language-learning features are depicted as more of an addendum than a meaningful aspect of the game, they still give Monsters of Kanji a degree of originality. If other elements converged as well, it would have been much more successful in replicating its past influencers. As it stands, I would only recommend the game to avid fans of either the genre, the language, or both.