I’ve played nearly every genre of game over the years, and I’ve been able to draw enjoyment from most of them. But one particular type – shoot ‘em ups – has constantly vexed me, from my childhood attempts at trying out Galaga in arcades to more recent titles like Ikaruga and Sine Mora. Despite my best efforts, “shmups,” as they’re often known, have never clicked with me. Monolith is the game that changed all that.
The first release from multinational Team D-13, Monolith is a free-roaming room-based shoot 'em up with roguelike elements. You control a ship that repeatedly makes its way through boxy environments, taking on enemies that chase and shoot, avoiding deadly traps, and collecting scrap to temporarily upgrade your ship’s abilities and weapons. As you make your way through dark and crumbling caverns, you’ll encounter ghosts, wizards, and all manner of charmingly apocalyptic beasts. The game’s thin story is padded out with cryptic messages about a lost civilization, but it doesn’t bother to dwell on something that ultimately matters little to the core gameplay loop.
When you start each run, your ship is equipped with a basic machine gun and can take ten hits. With careful planning, this is enough to make it quite far, but inevitably you’re likely to run into a situation you can’t quite handle. Each time you die, you start over again mostly from scratch. As you complete multiple runs, you’ll earn currency that you can use to adorn your little safe room with posters, furniture, and companions who will deliver little quips and helpful hints. These interactions can be surprisingly cheerful and funny, lightening the mood just long enough to psych yourself up for the next of many runs.
It's no secret that roguelikes have been done to death in recent years, but Team D-13 has made wise choices about which elements to keep from the ever-growing genre and which to discard. Each floor you traverse has a healthy balance of randomness and predictability that keeps you on your toes but never causes you to lose hope. Each room you enter has a chance to be a regular enemy encounter, a miniboss, an upgrade chamber, a shop, or a handful of other varieties. Rooms like shops and armories make you face hard choices about how to equip yourself as you delve deeper, but the game's uniform structure generally gives you the chance to put off an opportunity for later when you really need it. You're never going to blindly run into the floor's boss room unprepared. And over time, you’ll also unlock a few additional tools to help you along the way. There’s no sprawling tech tree akin to Rogue Legacy and its ilk, but that structure serves Monolith well. The upgrades are nice, but not at all necessary, so there’s no grind.
What the game eschews in structural difficulty, it makes up for in demanding moment-to-moment action. Monolith maintains all the twitch gameplay of classic shmup titles, requiring quick reflexes and intense focus at times. Enemy variety isn't massive, but the handful of beasts and robots you encounter all have different subtypes that modify behavior, leading to very different strategies room to room. Mercifully, enemy shape and color often telegraphs what to expect, so getting blasted always feels fair and avoidable with enough skill. Only in boss fights does the game truly reach the depths of bullet hell. Even then, you don’t need to be an expert to proceed. It’s conceivable that shmup savants could even beat the game on their first try, but thankfully a hard mode was added in a post-release update that offers dastardly challenges for pros.
Enhancing the vital visual cues about enemies and projectiles is a crisp and clean aesthetic prevalent throughout the game. Using low-res graphics and a limited color palette that both straddle the line between 8- and 16-bit, the game's style hearkens back to the classic vertical and horizontal shooters that inspired it while still feeling fresh. Constraining each room to a surprisingly tiny box gives the game an undeniable retro look, inspiring memories of phosphorous 4:3 CRTs. Capping off this package is an excellent chiptune score and a bevvy of satisfying sound effects. There’s a huge variety of music here ranging from upbeat and poppy tracks while you’re hanging out at your home base to driving hard rock-esque rhythms in boss fights. And the sound effects both contribute to the game’s atmosphere and convey a sense of awareness to what’s going on around you. Everything feels cohesive, and it all lends itself to the same oppressive and demanding atmosphere that the rest of the game delivers on.
In a year packed to the brim with sprawling AAA blockbusters, the nearly claustrophobic hybrid that is Monolith still manages to leave a mark. It’s not revolutionary, but it deftly merges two genres that have largely been left separate. Most of all, it takes a lean but rock-solid framework and bolts just enough onto it to meet its goals. It accomplishes every one of them with ease, and it never attempts to do something it can’t excel at. It’s an example that more games should strive for.