Sailing, Sailing

HIGH The moment when I first realized the rafts were really rafts.

LOW Reaching an island with no clear exit.

WTF This seems like a pretty inaccessible museum.

The “monster” in A Monster’s Expedition (Through Puzzling Exhibitions) is a wiggly-limbed little gumdrop of a thing, hardly terrifying in appearance. Wearing a backpack and trotting along, he’s come to visit a museum of artifacts left behind by humans, each of them displayed on a little island. Though small, he’s apparently strong enough to knock trees down and instantly turn them into logs that he doesn’t quite have the muscle to pick up. He must therefore roll, flip, or shove them into the right place to make bridges or rafts so that he can visit every corner of the exhibition.

The archipelago these artifacts are displayed on is quite vast, and actual exhibits are thinly spread across its islets. These are charming, as they largely consist of familiar objects that the monsters don’t quite understand, or bizarre items hinting at a decadent and extremely silly future. However, most islands just have trees to play with, and quite a lot of them have only a single tree to push over to immediately create a bridge. A more careful arrangement could have avoided these pointless bits of negative space.

When the bona fide puzzles do appear, they are primarily exercises in proper routing. Bridges have polarity, so any log used to create one must enter the water pointed in the right direction. Small logs can be flipped on their end, allowing changes in orientation, but large logs can only be pushed or rolled, and so must lay properly from the moment they’re knocked over. Any log that is rolled will continue until it falls completely in the water or hits an obstacle. Rafts have no polarity (they can be entered and exited from all sides) but will only move across the water if the monster has something to shove.

There are a few additional wrinkles, but these rules form the core of Monster’s Expedition, and the sheer size of the archipelago is a testament to their versatility. Despite this, the small scale of the individual islands keeps the number of possible moves limited, and so also limits the difficulty. Many puzzles are a bit devious, but almost none of it feels unfair or insurmountable. The ease of undoing a step or resetting an island encourages experimentation.

This also has an interesting outcome in that Monster’s Expedition doesn’t explicitly lay out any of its rules. There are no explanations for how trees turn into logs, how bridges and rafts work, and so on. All of this is either taught through tightly-constrained puzzles, or left for the player to work out through delightful experimentation. Monster’s Expedition does a masterful job of teaching you how to play it.

In general, the next island to reach is only one or two spaces away, so it’s reasonably easy to identify where the logs should be put. On some occasions, however, I reached islands where it just wasn’t clear where I was supposed to go. Using the fast-travel system will show some hints about what islands need to be solved to reveal more of the map, but in some spots additional signposting might have been helpful, especially since the map borders on being too large.

I also felt that Monster’s Expedition had an awkward transition late in the game to puzzles that required action on multiple islands. For the vast majority of playtime, every island is an atom that contains everything needed to solve it. This creates an expectation that I found difficult to break out of when puzzles started to bridge two or three islands, or when it involved sailing back and forth between islands that aren’t visible from one another. This was the only point where I felt there was a gap in the otherwise-smooth progression in logic.

That this minor hiccup in construction was so noticeable is a testament to the skillful crescendo throughout the rest of A Monster’s Expedition. It strikes a strong balance between difficulty and accessibility, and effortlessly introduces almost every one of its rules without relying on text or obvious tutorials. The quirky humor of the exhibits is charming, but the joy of A Monster’s Expedition lies in the exploration of its mechanics.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Draknek & Friends and published by Draknek. It is currently available on iOS and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on a home-built Windows X PC equipped with an AMD Ryzen 2700X processor, an ASRock X470 motherboard, 32 GB RAM, and a single GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card (driver version 456.71). Approximately 16 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: As of press time this game has not been rated by the ESRB. I can’t think of anything in it that would offend, and kids will appreciate at least some of the humor. I would rate it E.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game has no dialogue or sound cues of any kind. It should be totally accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls. Both keyboard + mouse and controller can be used. Just about everything is done with just the directional controls, though “Undo” (on B/Z) and “Reset” (on Y/R) also see plenty of use.

Sparky Clarkson
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