There is something refreshing about a game that manages to take inspiration from other well-known titles and surpass them. When it both registers with your familiarity and your id, such an experience can feel transcendent. I wanted Monochroma to fulfill this desire so hard, but it only succeeds at reminding me of other games I enjoyed more.
In an oddly-placed cornfield, you and your unnamed little brother are playing with a kite, chasing it from left to right through the 2.5D environment until it gets stuck on the roof of a large barn. When you two try to retrieve it, the little one falls through the roof and injures his leg for the remainder of the narrative. It is now up to you to carry him somewhere—I’d say you’re taking him home, but nothing about your path even remotely suggests there’s a home waiting anywhere on the far right of this universe.
Much like Limbo, the world of Monochroma is dotted with grayed-out puzzle-platforming and some deadly traps. Though unlike its apparent forebear, the puzzles never reach impressive levels of genius, and the traps never feel particularly insidious. One of the great joys of Limbo, funny as it may be, is wandering each scene wondering why the world is so apt to murder this little boy. Monochroma’s world may have its dangers, but the sense of urgency and danger never hits a fever pitch.
Some scenes are interesting, a bland descriptor in this case, and others require running back and forth to a trying degree. The older brother’s platforming is limited when he carries his sibling, mostly restricting the height of his jump. So a few areas require the little one to be set down, but only in beams of light, a strange choice in reasonably well-lit places. This leads to some amusing scenes where accomplishing too much without moving him leads to him being crushed by a mine car or sliding down a sewer drain, but it’s not particularly challenging to avoid these deaths altogether.
The platforming itself is par for the course with running, jumping, ledge grabs, and the ability to move objects, such as crates and barrels. The animations, however, are sometimes wonky—the older brother navigates rope bridges like an orangutan—and there are moments when the older brother’s jump height, whether with or without his brother in tow, seems arbitrary. That is, what worked in one area may not in another, and vice versa.
On top of avoiding pitfalls and deadly machines, the brothers occasionally must escape a pursuant kidnapper. The only task is running away and figuring out the best way to navigate the scenery quickly, devolving any intelligent-solving into pure timing exercises. These scenarios occasionally feel crafty, such as one where you must traverse some moving vehicle lifts but doesn’t add significant value to the gameplay experience. Also, getting caught leads to some more underdeveloped animations and collisions.
Visually, Monochroma is often a treat. While textures up close are fairly bland, the overall design of the environment and characters is creative and eye-catching. The vista is most successful when the camera zooms out, revealing the various intricacies of each area, or when the contrast is turned up, exacerbating the lights and darks painting the objects. Complex cityscapes and factories full of moving machinery await you, and they can be delightful.
Oddly, various elements are colored in shades of stark red, which is pleasing, but the coloring lacks meaning. There is no significance whatsoever to objects colored in red; they are not highlighted for use or interactivity, nor are they indicative of the antagonistic elements of the game. Hell, the game’s title even fails when shades of yellow and brown enter the mix. (The roots of “monochrome” translate to “one color.”)
I don’t know how to explain how our story flourishes or wraps up. While the whole kidnapping yarn has moderate potential, its origins end up being perplexing and silly. Though I appreciate the game’s attempt to mimic Limbo’s experiments in futility, the effect offers little pause for reflection or philosophy due to the absurdity of the final chapter. Greater themes, such as consumerism and surveillance, are hinted throughout the narrative and some loading screens, but the intended message is mired in ambivalence.
At most, I consider Monochroma serviceable, sometimes more than such. Its soundtrack definitely supersedes the other content even if it is not employed too often. Amidst all the other plateaued features the game has to offer, it’s not enough to maintain sufficient buzz or convince jaded gamers not to wait for a seasonal sale.