Though it looks like an old ASCII roguelike, Monsterland is really a frantic third-person shooter which uses its unusual aesthetic choice in some clever ways. With plenty of weapons, several interesting environmental interactions, and a solid campaign, Monsterland has quite a lot to offer despite its extraordinary low price.
The game begins with the protagonist, Dr. Green (appropriately represented by a green ‘P’), being released from a prison cell via a computer by someone with the login name of ‘hayden’ after having served only a little over ten years out of 25 for murder. Who these characters actually are isn’t made known to the player at first, but it soon becomes clear that something has gone horribly wrong when you find a gun and have to fight off monsters represented by red M’s. The first of Monsterland‘s six levels consists of your escape from this futuristic, monster-infested prison and it is by far the shortest level in the game as it mostly serves as an introduction to many of the basic mechanics, though it still has enough action and actual danger to place it a step above an outright tutorial. The game is generous with its weaponry, handing you four of its nine weapons within this first level, and it quickly teaches you what health and ammo pickups look like, but the most important lesson of all is to pay attention to colors.
Color is a direct gameplay element in Monsterland as well as an aesthetic one. The most obvious example is the monsters themselves as, unlike in most games with an ASCII aesthetic, every monster is represented as an ‘M’ with coloration being the factor used to differentiate them. Red M’s are fast, weak, and tend to come in swarms designed to surround you while green M’s are much slower and usually come in smaller groups, but they can soak up more damage and once the various gun-wielding M’s are introduced it becomes more important than ever to memorize the traits of each color. Color isn’t just important for monsters though. There are many doors in the game and most of them require a key card of the corresponding color in order to be opened. Even walls take advantage of color with dark yellow R’s standing out from the normal grey ones to indicate breakable walls which often hide valuable secrets (and sometimes monsters). Color is still used well in a more standard aesthetic sense with plenty of blue W’s for water and green T’s for trees alongside more clever and dynamic usages, such as red, sideways P’s for dead bodies and red O’s which rapidly swap between uppercase and lowercase for flickering fire effects; the world is not only easy to parse visually without paying close attention to each letter, it’s visually appealing with enough dynamic elements to prevent it from looking stagnant.
Tying in with color is camouflage, which plays a remarkably large role this time around. Floor and wall tiles are painted red with blood whenever you’re shooting monsters which, on top of being an interesting visual effect, makes the red monsters blend in and can cover up breakable walls. Green monsters are particularly dangerous whenever there’s a forest of green T’s as their ability to blend in with the trees allows them to get close to you without you noticing them despite their slow speed. There isn’t any enemy which matches the dark blue color of water, but health pickups match it and there are at least a few of these useful items cleverly placed next to bodies of water, making them easy to miss if you’re not being observant enough. However, camouflage becomes a particularly devious gameplay element once mimics are introduced. Mimics are fully capable of perfectly disguising themselves as just about anything, including walls, ammo, and (of course) health pickups and you won’t know something is a mimic unless you either shoot it or get close enough for it to reveal its true form and attack. Of all the enemies in the game, mimics are my personal favorite and they found ways to catch me off guard even after I started shooting every health and ammo pickup I came across.
Lighting is yet another important element which I didn’t initially expect to encounter in Monsterland To begin with, the projectiles from most guns are represented by lighting up tiles rather than by physical objects. This lighting effect is useful for figuring out your own range capabilities when you get a new gun, but it’s even more useful when it comes to figuring out where an enemy is shooting from and identifying what type of enemy it is based on the number of tiles being lit up even if you can’t see the enemy itself. Some rooms are much darker than others, increasing the danger posed by swarms of melee enemies, and in these situations the light from fast weapons like the chaingun can be even more useful than the damage from the bullets themselves. Dr. Green’s field of vision is also always taken into account as you can’t see what’s on the other side of a door while it’s closed, even if you’ve previously opened it (doors reseal a few seconds after opening them if nothing is standing in their way). The serious danger posed by not knowing the positions of possible enemies on the other side of a door is taken into account by the game though because there is a brief pause between when a door activates and when it fully opens, allowing you to take cover or at least get some distance before facing whatever is on the other side. This is a game which can move very quickly once a fight starts, but having a bit of caution before plunging into the unknown can often make the difference between life and death.
Aside from the elements I’ve already mentioned, combat is actually fairly standard, though nonetheless solid, for a top-down third-person shooter. Controls consist of using WASD to move, the arrow keys to shoot, and one through nine to swap between weapons. Pressing two arrow keys at once lets you shoot diagonally, though the game never tells you this and I had no idea such a thing was possible until near the very end of my time with Monsterland. The game is generally good at creating an autosave before each major encounter in its levels, though you are still free to make manual saves at any time and there is only one autosave slot which will almost certainly get immediately overwritten if you decide to go back to an earlier level. Combat itself is fast and brutal with your health rapidly ticking down whenever an enemy is next to you or depleting in large chunks if you get shot. Likewise, most enemies die quickly and you can turn the tide by picking up some armor or by shooting exploding barrels represented by green squares. In an interesting twist, combat becomes significantly more difficult when you’re low on health because the entire world will periodically blur into nothing but colored slashes, an effect which is particularly effective at actually impairing your ability to fight well thanks to the simplistic ASCII aesthetic. Sound becomes important when you’re up against enemies wielding shotguns and chainguns because you can hear them reloading their weapons as an audio cue for when it’s safe to charge in and shoot them. The resealing doors themselves actually end up adding some more depth to the combat as you can take advantage of them to escape from enemies and scout for any pickups you passed up or to separate enemies into smaller groups as monsters cannot open doors on their own. A bit more nuance is also added in once enemies with rocket launchers come into play because you can hold E to duck under rockets, an essential skill to learn since even one rocket is usually enough to kill you. Some of the later levels also allow you to drive a tank, which has its own massive pool of health and an incredibly strong cannon with infinite ammo, but it can’t destroy environmental obstacles on its own and its large 3×3 size means you sometimes need to expose yourself in order to clear a path.
I’m not going to discuss all nine weapons, but there are a few which I definitely want to take a look at. The default ‘scrap gun’ is a particularly interesting weapon because it’s more useful as a tool than as a way of killing enemies. With an average rate of fire and extremely low damage, the scrap gun’s only virtue when it comes to combat is its infinite ammo, but outside of direct combat it can create bridges across water and the various walls, barrels, and trees which you can destroy either can only be taken down with the scrap gun or require more effort to take down with the other guns. No zombie game would be complete without a shotgun and this time around you actually have two such weapons. The range shotgun can, as the name implies, shoot far across the screen, but it can only hit one enemy at a time. On the other hand, the power shotgun has less range, eats up two bullets per shot, and has a much longer reload time, but it packs a very strong punch and it can hit multiple enemies in a row. Of the two, I ended up almost exclusively using the power shotgun because it’s great for taking out stronger enemies at close range and it can obliterate swarms of red and green monsters in narrow corridors while the range shotgun’s only serious advantage is its longer range and I think several of the other long-range weapons outclass it.
The rocket launcher is another interesting weapon because it’s one of very few which has a physical representation for its bullets and it can deal some serious splash damage to its surroundings whenever it explodes against an enemy or a wall, making it valuable for its ability to damage enemies without necessarily being directly lined up with them. The final main weapon of the game is the chaingun I mentioned earlier and it combines a rapid rate of fire with extremely long range, making it ideal for taking out enemies whenever you want to keep your distance and it can even push enemies back a bit to keep them at bay, though this can work against you if you’re up against enemies with rocket launchers because it’s usually better to be able to see exactly where they are since otherwise they might sneak away and attack you from somewhere unexpected. The remaining weapons you come across are all pretty strong, but the ones I mentioned above are the ones which you spend the most time with throughout the game.
There are a few last bits of polish and some rough edges worth mentioning. On the positive side, the six levels are varied nicely both in length and in design and even though the path through each level is usually fairly linear there is a good mix of open arenas and narrow spaces. The basic plot mixes together a science fiction setting with a generic zombie story involving a secret organization and drugs which turn people into monsters, but it comes complete with voice acting and it doesn’t take itself too seriously as there is a fair share of humor along the way. As for negatives, there are a few balance issues. Ammo is, for the most part, way too common to the point where I never felt remotely in danger of running out of ammo for any one of my weapons other than once or twice near the end and at that point I had enough alternate weapons to choose from that it didn’t matter. Enemy rockets are also simply too strong, dealing far more damage than virtually any other attack. You might have the ability to duck under rockets, but rockets also move fast enough that you rarely have time to dodge them if you’re in the middle of a fight against dozens of enemies; getting blindsided by a rocket fired by an enemy you can’t even see in the middle of a fight is simply not fun. The difficulty settings themselves also don’t feel different enough. There are two difficulties to choose from and I admittedly only tried the first level on the higher of the two, but I didn’t notice any differences in the map nor in the enemy placement and if there were any differences in the amount of ammo I gained or the amount of damage I dealt or took they were likewise not significant enough for me to notice.
Monsterland may have a few spots where it could use some work, but none of them are severe issues and with its ridiculously low price of $0.99 they are incredibly easy to forgive. Meanwhile, even if you don’t take the price into account at the end of the day this is still a very solid third-person shooter which actively takes full advantage of its aesthetic choice in interesting and effective ways and both the campaign as a whole and the individual moments are entertaining. Monsterland is a great third-person shooter with some neat ideas which work well both conceptually and in execution and its low price only serves to make it an even easier recommendation than it already would have been.