Ever since I heard that one of the Crystar developers was working on a new game, I knew it’d be a day 1 import. However, most of the pre-release buzz around this game was that it was supposed to feature a Shin Megami Tensei IF’s writer, but then it turned out they only supervised/gave feedback or something like that, and it made a stink. Seeing how I wasn’t interested in that reason anyway, I forged ahead and bought the game.
My first impression of the game was actually quite bad, and it felt like I’d be in for a rough time. However, as I gave the game a chance, it really pulled me in and made me glad I stuck with it and looked past the older-looking graphics.
I’m writing this review out of the ordinary today because of my bad first impressions. I wanted to shine light on the game in more detail so others can make an informed decision. It’s a very character-heavy drama, deeply exploring the wounds of trauma and how we as humans cope with the pain. I’ve cried a couple times so far. As of this writing, I’m very close to the end, but not quite there yet. Future me, what’s your spoiler-free impression of the ending?
Future Aria: Okay, I was like, 60% into the game and just at the cusp of sadness, holy shit. It destroyed me; just like Crystar, I went through several tissues, cheered as characters got their moments, and yelled at my TV as others screwed up their chances. Someone else has to play this so I can gush to them about things. I imported the Kamitsubaki collaboration album (more on that later) and have been tearing up over the full intro song ; _;
Intro to the Plot
Our game begins as any good JRPG does:
I always joke I’ll take a shot if a protagonist has amnesia, so this didn’t help my first impressions.
Just before this though, the game actually begins in the principal’s office where you get to name your character:
I was trying to spell Goblet, like a tiny goblin and not the cup, but the Japanese version is limited to 5 characters. I’m sure in the English release you can be Goblet, but for now, we’re Goble-kun~
The game heavily follows the concept of the seven deadly sins, where your character has certain levels in Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride. One of the first things the game does is an initial personality test, where your answers determine which sins get points. These levels are used to access certain items and events and can be raised by killing enemies of a certain sin or taking quizzes that are given throughout the game.
As the game went on, it told me I’m prideful as hell with nowhere enough greed to pick up an item I wanted, so that was odd to find out haha.
Back to amnesia land, you wake up surrounded by fog, where you’re found and pulled to safety before it drives you insane. The fog has spread throughout several of the floors, blocking access to many areas. The entire school has apparently been covered by a barrier that no one can leave, as if to contain the maddening fog.
The first floor of the main building is safe, which is where you meet the student council president Nozomi Hinata who joins your party. She wants to be a strong leader, but doubts herself after she failed to maintain order and calm the students after all the chaos started. Outside of battle, the school nurse Kakeru Hasegawa, a laid-back dude who puts in the minimum effort and naps otherwise, and your energetic little sister Chiyo Aikawa support your efforts.
In order to start solving the mystery of what’s going on, you and Hinata venture into the fog of the 2nd floor. Inside, you’re drawn into another world of broken fixtures and skeletons known as Legions.
Before long, you’re surrounded and things look bleak since you’re not exactly the captain of the exorcism club. Before you can be sliced into bits, a bizarre stuffed-animal looking creature emerges from space itself. It talks in creepy, mysterious words with lots of katakana nonsense mixed in to sound bizarre and profound.
However, he chills on the grand act when you threaten to pull his ears off. He informs you that you made a contract with him for powers, and that he’s a demon known as a Monark (oh hey name of the game, we’re done~). There are seven Contractors in the school who gained power from seven Monarks, one for each of the deadly sins. However, any ordinary person can fight in this world if they… *check notes* equips their Ego as a weapon to fight. I think that’s what it was.
Once you figure out how it works, you put on your badass King cloak and kick some skeleton ass in a combat tutorial I’ll explain further on. Afterwards, you’re returned to the real world.
Just outside, you run into a young man who professes himself to be the actual student council president.
You learn that he filled the gap that Nozomi couldn’t and usurped her position as the student council president, gaining the respect and allegiance of the students almost *too* easily. He demands that you be punished for venturing into the 2nd floor, but the principal appears and argues on your behalf, making him have to give up.
Afterwards, you meet up in an empty classroom, where the stuffed animal demon Vanitas appears. The principal Sora, knowing what he is, realizes you guys are in the know now and explains what she knows about the situation. Essentially, the fog is created whenever a Contractor uses their powers. In order to free the school of the fog, each Contractor must be defeated by breaking their Id, which will destroy their powers as well as pretty much wipe their brains clean, arguably a bad thing. Once all the Contractors have been defeated, including the Contractors who join your party, then the barrier will fall and the school can be freed.
You’re told you’re a Contractor as well, with Vanitas being your Monark, but you’re an exception as main characters usually are. No one knows what your Authority (sin) is, and Vanitas isn’t about to tell you.
At this point, you explore the main building, searching for the Contractor spreading fog there (gee I wonder who it is~).
The combat system is where this game truly shines in my opinion. It’s a pretty detailed strategy game with several fighting options.
Combat follows a turn-based system, where your entire team goes followed by the entire enemy team. You can move around anywhere in the blue circle above, determined by your movement stat. Characters can activate in any order.
Positioning is key when deciding where to move. If you attack an enemy while in range of their own weapon, they will get a free counter hit against you, which you definitely want to avoid when possible. However, if an ally is also in range of an enemy, they’ll get a free assist attack, which is roughly 50% of their usual damage. Once you get a party of 6, those assists really rack up and are an important part of winning battles. However, if you group up too hard, you’ll be weak to area of effect attacks the enemies can use.
Counters and assists aren’t triggered by some spells or area of effect attacks, so there’s a trade-off of using a spell or triggering several assist attacks.
Back attacks are also very important since they do not trigger counter attacks and have a higher chance of landing. Beating a poor skeleton’s back while surrounded by 5 allies who all get assist attacks really brings foes down quickly.
Skill costs come in two flavors: HP or MAD. HP is pretty self explanatory; spend x HP to activate a skill, usually physical. Magical-oriented spells add to your MAD percentage on the lower right.
Another very important option is Reorder, where any character can literally gift their turn to another player whose already gone. This works really well for helping one character travel across the map quickly, or having your strongest character get another key attack off on the enemy’s back. The drawback is that when a player receives a Reorder, their MAD increases. The more times they’ve been reordered in this fight, the faster their MAD grows.
Max out your MAD gauge and your character enters a Berserk state, denoted by the red haze effect above, where they act irrationally like a charmed status effect, except with increased stats to really hurt the party. After 3 turns, the Berserk effect ends and they faint. So generally you don’t want to go Berserk.
Opposite of Berserk is the AWAKE gauge. This one increases when you receive attacks or if you use the Focus skill to raise it by 25%. Once at 100%, you’ll automatically enter an Awakened state, where your stats are buffed for 3 turns. Your MAD stat is set to NULL for this time too, meaning all spells are free. Not only that, but if you’ve unlocked a special move, you’ll be able to unleash it for high damage, ending the Awakened state immediately. You’ll have to balance when to enter an Awakened state and when to use a special skill to help turn the tide in battle.
All allies and enemies can enter a Berserk state. Only human allies and enemies can enter an Awakened state normally.
With me so far? Now I get to clarify that normally part with a pretty unique skill your main character has that can both be absolutely amazing or kill your entire party instantly if you’re dumb like me.
The main character has an ability that lets him “connect” to another player, sharing all status buffs and ailments. This allows you to buff one character’s attack, defense, agility, etc, then share those effects with another player. That way, you can easily spread buffs around efficiently. Later in the game, you’ll unlock “area connect,” which allows you to connect with everyone in the area for even greater nonsense!
Even better, characters that are connected also share all their magic spells. Connect to your healer, then suddenly everyone can heal!
You can also connect with enemies too and share their buffs as well as steal their spells. Though of course, you’re letting them access yours too.
In the above screenshot, you can see that Bitch’s Awakened state has been shared with Date (you’ll meet him later~). You may have guessed, you can share Berserk as well, which will instantly make everyone go insane. Don’t do that, that was really dumb of me. But this allows you to share the Awakened status with skeleton party members who can’t normally Awaken on their own.
Now, this may seem really good on paper and for good reason! You give one character 4 evade buffs, share it with the whole party, then laugh as the enemy can’t hit any of you. Until an enemy casts a charm spell, hitting one person, which then spreads to the entire party resulting in absolute chaos and everyone dead on the floor. I’ve really messed up “area connection” more times than I’d like to admit, but it’s really fun to gamble with! On the bright side, if you leave one person out of the connection, then can use a healing item to cure one person of an ailment, which will cure everyone. Always have a designated survivor!
Now, you probably aren’t wondering this, but what happens if you connect a Berserk character with an Awakened character? This is actually explained early on, but from how confusing this combat system was to understand in Japanese, I didn’t get it until like halfway through the game. Combining these statuses creates a special “Berserk Awakened” effect, which is essentially being a Berserker who maintains their sanity.
You can tell you’re Berserk Awakened when everyone connected is just straight on fire.
This combo gives you a massive stat boost and essentially makes you a walking tank. There are also some particularly devastating special attacks than can only be accessed in this mode, making it worth forcing a character to go insane on purpose if you can awaken someone else as well.
That’s about what happens, it’s nice. But risky.
I think that’s most of the combat’s features. Sometimes there are traps in the arena, such as iron maidens that spew out charm spells or cannons that hurt you if you stand in their way. The game will helpfully show you a circle on the ground if you’re about to end your turn inside the trap’s effect, so you have to deliberately accept the consequences of attacking from that point.
Before each battle starts, you’ll be able to see a map of the area along with any traps present. In this boss battle, there’s charm, burn, poison, and healing towers present. This Contractor’s power messes with space, which adds teleporters to the mix.
As a reward in battle, you’ll earn SPIRIT, which can be used to level up your character on their skill tree. Every time you get a new skill, your character goes up by 1 level instead of by experience points. SPIRIT is also the shop currency, so everything revolves around it.
As the game goes on, you’ll get a few friendly skeletons to join your cause. Each skeleton has their own skill tree as well with set skills in it, so they follow a specific role. As you can probably see, you’re allowed to name them anything.
- Healer. Also all-around badass.
- Ikuze! (Ancient Roman reference to Burke who always shouts this when he runs into battle with an axe)
- Axe user and intense powerhouse/tank.
- Literally the MVP of the entire game.
- Midori Archer (Fate Extra/CCC reference to Robin Hood)
- Long distance starter of assist attacks, kind of slow
- A-nantoka-kun (Uh, good ol’ what’s his name…?) (Sleepy Princess reference)
- A 4th skeleton I really didn’t feel like raising. He shouts something about slaughter a lot and gives other people his turn.
Skeletons (they’re called Legion, but ehh) are also the only ones who can equip different armor pieces, which are dropped from other skeletons when killed in battle. This not only offers stat boosts, but they also sometimes have special skills attached.
Each chapter generally follows a similar flow. The first step is to explore a floor of the current school building, looking for the hidden entrance to the other world. Interestingly enough, the floors aren’t generally deadly; there’s no random encounters, and the main obstacle is actual puzzles.
The puzzles can range from convincing a student driven insane by the fog to unblock a door, finding the combo to a safe, or even summoning the PlayStation keyboard and entering the solution by hand (don’t worry, you won’t have to type in Japanese like I did x _x). I really enjoyed these puzzles and it helped vary up the gameplay between battles. Sometimes trying to piece together clues to solve the puzzle was harder than the battles themselves, though then again I was playing in Japanese, so you’ll probably have an easier time there.
Each Contractor has 3 fragments of Id, resulting in 3 floors to clear. Every time an Id fragment is broken, you view a glimpse of the Contractor’s inner emotions, and why they craved the powers given to them by their Monark.
The end of the 3rd floor triggers their final attempt to stop you in a climactic boss fight. Now, normally I’m a huge fan of boss music tracks, but Monark went the extra mile here: every boss has a unique vocal theme as part of a collaboration with KAMITSUBAKI STUDIO and their talents. Now I hadn’t heard of them till now, but I got caught way off guard by this first boss theme which knocked me on my ass:
I still listen to this track constantly, definitely one of my favorites from the game. I really really hope they subtitle the lyrics or have some way to read them later, since they often match the themes of the Contractor really well.
切なく 愛おしく 消え去るように
“If I reach my hand out to you,
all I see is grief and pain as you fade away.
Would it be easier if I just closed my eyes,
and pretend that I took the right path?”
I’m not confident I did a great job translating the main chorus there, especially since the lyrics are more poem than prose, but hearing those lines while in a fight with this Contractor really brought the emotions to the battle. If they don’t sub the songs when they play or in the menu where you can relisten to them after, look up the lyrics online later!
The Contractors themselves vary from sympathetic, “I don’t want to fight this person,” kind of stories to “okay just no, we’re killing this guy” ones, so some are hit and miss. I’d be curious to see which ones people found relatable and which ones they didn’t!
One gripe I have with the game is how you can only have one other human in your party at a time. After the first chapter, the student council president Nozomi leaves your party and you’re told to investigate around the other buildings in the school. In each area, you find one of the three other party members:
Kokoro Surugadai: Genius 200 IQ student whose only goal in life is to read, sleep, and eat yakisoba pan while neither hurting or being hurt by anyone.
Ryotaro Date: Delinquent whose goal in life is to leave his mark. Gets lost going to the bathroom.
Shinya Yuda: An orphan adopted by the principal and her husband. Strong sense of justice and desperate to prove his worth. Hates being called cute.
During these chapters, you’re only allowed to use the corresponding party member alongside your skeleton pals. This gives you a chance to learn about them both as a person and as a fighter.
After these chapters, I expected to be able to form a full party, so I ignored my skeletons, but you’re still limited to only one human member. It makes sense as to why as the plot goes on, so I can kind of forgive it, but it bummed me out a lot when I got to that part. So just giving you a warning now, don’t neglect your skeletons!
Future Aria chiming in: every character gets their moment in the sun. Everyone gets used equally, so you’ll use everyone, just not at the same time outside free battles. It’s an interesting choice, but it works well in the game to help explore every character.
Date was my party member of choice. I really wanted to use Kokoro since I like her a lot, but Date’s also badass and incredibly useful in battle. His long range gun attack is very good at triggering assist attacks from far away, whereas Kokoro is big into area of effect attacks and status ailments. I feel kind of bad for the other two, their combat potential for me was giving Ikuze! another turn, whoops… I’m sure they have more potential than that though!
There’s so much more I want to talk about, but I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone! Let’s just say, the plot is not afraid to go places.
Every time you start a new chapter, the level requirement jumps up. You can use your phone when near Vanitas to enter free battles and level up. There’s one very important fight I used from around level 35 to 80 since it’s really fast and nets between 5k and 8k SPIRIT depending on your rank.
I’m not sure what the English name will be, but in Japanese it’s 豊穣の狩庭LEVEL IV, aka Hunting Garden Level 4. You’ll find the phone number to access it in a document, but you can enter it anytime as ##*-#*#-*00 .
It’s a very small arena filled with enemies between level 33 and 39. Obviously my characters here eclipse the level requirement, but it’s still very useful to gain 8k SPIRIT in 2-3 minutes. For me, Ikuze! is my strongest attacker, so I send him up the left side, while Bitch Goble uses Reorder to pass his turn to Ikuze for more chaos. The other two split off to handle the two below the charm trap. After, they can hang up the right side and pass more turns to Ikuze! if need be. Positions change a little between rounds, so it’ll vary a bit, but that general strategy will let you win in 3 turns once you’re strong enough. The 4 hit axe skill Ikuze! gets is key!
One warning though! The enemy may cast a spell that reflects damage received once to the nearest person, friend or foe. If you use your strongest attack without thinking as a level 80 death machine, you’ll end up exploding yourself. Pay attention to that! Apart from that, I used this whenever I needed a few levels, or if I needed to level up a random party member.
If you have any questions at all about the game, feel free to hit me up on Twitter or Discord! I’d be happy to answer any questions or chat about the game if you’ve played it!