17th Nov2017

‘Heroes of the Monkey Tavern’ Review (Nintendo Switch)

by Rupert Harvey


What will gradually dawn on you about Heroes of the Monkey Tavern is what it doesn’t contain. No item wear; no exterior environments (in fact, very little variation in environments at all); no ammo counters; no gameplay variation; and no real story to speak of. It opens with a static painting of the titular tavern. Your silhouetted heroes are approached by a stranger, who speaks of a dungeon with untold treasures. Off you go, into the darkness.

Once down there, you will work your way up through a series of levels – seven floors and a boss level, all told – fighting a generic selection of fantasy enemies: orcs, skeletons, mummies, goblins etc. Your party is yours to choose, and once again the options are fantasy staples: warrior, ranger, priest, blah. Torchlight flickers on brownstone walls; competent, moody music summons hints of Howard Shore’s Two Towers score; secret walls slide aside at the flick of a hidden switch; and unfair traps and rudimentary puzzles confound your progress.

If it all sounds terribly derivative, that’s because it is. And yet Heroes of the Monkey Tavern is a booby-trapped treasure chest of fun. Its simplicity is refreshingly accessible and its lack of narrative or mechanical ambition – whilst critically limiting in terms of lasting resonance or replayability – is strangely comforting. Ignoring the seriously disappointing ending, there’s a reasonable wealth of retro fun to be had.

The gameplay itself is based on the classic, first-person, grid-based system first popularised by the likes of Dungeon Master in the 1980s, and developed in the Eye of the Beholder series in the 1990s. You control a party of four characters, each with different skills and weapon and armour abilities, and move them all at once from square to square, using the d-pad. The bumpers turn your party 90 degrees. Bump into an enemy and you attack by cycling through your avatars via the shoulder buttons, using weapons and spells mapped to the A and B buttons.

The controls work pretty well for a style of game custom-built for home computers. Once or twice I found myself accidentally quaffing a potion (pushing the left stick up or down necks the nearest bottle), but generally the unchangeable button-mapping is sensibly laid out. One issue I did find consistently nagging is the character UI. The difference between a weapon being ready or not is visualised by a slight dimming of the thumbnail. So, in handheld mode particularly, it’s sometimes difficult to see when a weapon is ready for use.

The overall presentation is fine and unfussy, and the loading times are snappy. Also, the ability to save the game any time is welcome, encouraging experimentation and exploration. Actually, quicksaving is recommended, because some of the traps see devastating flames leap from the walls without reasonable warning.

There are some lovely little touches, like the way that when you navigate with the map open, newly discovered sections are filled in with a little scribbling sound; or how your arrows stick out of enemies like a pin cushion. And I appreciate the way that each level – for all its aesthetic sameyness – is distinguished by a unique conceit. For example, one floor is a maddening labyrinth, and the only enemy you can hear is the roar of a minotaur as it tracks you through the maze. Another level seems to be occupied only by piles of bones – that is, until you reach a certain point, and the dead rise up…

At a reasonable budget price – we’re looking at maybe a quid-fifty per hour of gameplay – Heroes of the Monkey Tavern is a (fairly brainless) no-brainer for fans of the dungeon crawler. And for newcomers to the genre, it’s an accessible entry point before tumbling into the relative depths of something like Legend of Grimrock. There’s also a demo on the eShop – so, what are you waiting for?

Heroes of the Monkey Tavern is out now on Nintendo Switch.


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