Monsters and Bones Review

The supposed interest that extraterrestrials have in Earth cattle has to be one of the more macabre mysteries in Ufology. Here to provide an explanation that’s just as good as any is RatSquare, who suppose that cattle are taken to an alien world where they’re fed to local carnivores — which are, in turn, fed to even bigger predators. It’s a tale of Monsters & Bones (Out Now, $0.99) and you definitely have to give it credit for one thing: as a mashup of Lunar Lander, maze navigation, and a really merciless take on zookeeping, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before!

Cast as an alien with a tractor beam and a license to play God, the player seeks out all the animals in M&B’s mazes and moves them around so they can devour each other in proper order. Cows may champ on grass indefinitely, but carnivorous species have hunger bars that essentially serve as level timers; let any animal starve and it’s Game Over. The alien pilot isn’t impervious either, as his UFO can immediately be smashed by any number of traps that line the floors, walls, and ceilings. His UFO will also crash if the player leaves it in free-fall for too long. The player moves the UFO left and right with tilt controls. A right-hand virtual button gives the UFO thrust in the Lunar Lander sense, while a left-hand button activates the UFO’s tractor beam or deposits the animal currently held captive.

What I love most about M&B’s formula is how much flexibility the player has in finding solutions. Predators can be brought to prey, or prey to predators, and any number of sorting strategies might work in levels that house lots of animals. Interesting switch puzzles require the player to use an animal as a weight to keep a path temporarily open, and a few more environmental puzzles await the player with progress. Sadly, the game certainly takes its good old time stirring these in. M&B has no qualms serving up new traps, however, and it’s frustrating just how devious these can be! Sometimes the booby traps are just ingeniously camouflaged, and sometimes the player simply has no clue that they exist thanks to limited field of vision. All told, there’s simply no way you’ll survive your first, second, or third time through most of M&B’s mazes; memorizing trap locations over time is the path to victory. I can’t deny that I found a certain joy in learning subtle warning signs and using a properly cautious approach to raise my chances of success, and this is where the fun lies over the long haul.

I found M&B’s tilt control satisfactory, but the virtual buttons for thrust and activating the tractor beam definitely need touch area expansion in updates. The touch area for each virtual button is just as small as their visual size would imply — hardly a good thing when the player needs every advantage he or she can get in these trap-filled mazes. M&B’s physics are also something of an acquired taste. Lunar Lander veterans may be taken aback by the strong “pop-up” applied to the UFO every time the thrust button is pressed, and the UFO’s great size relative to the game environments means you’ll have to keep a close eye on the level map layout so you don’t suddenly crash while descending a vertical corridor.

Improvements could also be made to the animal feeding mechanics. A particular species of predator can have a slightly varied palate: a low-tier alien creature might accept only a brown or white cow, for example, and this phenomenon passes up the food chain. A little dialogue bubble is supposed to appear above a predator to let the player know what its preference is exactly, but this indication can take a few seconds to appear — more than the player has in tightly timed levels. Food preferences are thus added to the list of things the player has to memorize before success is within reach. It would be great if the player could somehow scan for preferences instead of having to wait for the indicator to show up; I could see the preference bubble popping up when the UFO’s tractor beam auto-locks on a predator, for example.

M&B’s presentation is a tad fuzzy on the Retina display, but its traps and environments are impressively drawn and animated otherwise. It also boasts a wonderfully elaborate intro cartoon! The game has a limited soundtrack, and note that M&B is unfriendly to external music, but the few tracks on offer are pretty groovy and don’t wear out their welcome too quickly. M&B is no slouch in the content department, as 40 levels are currently on offer and an extra 20 appear to be on the way.

iFanzine Verdict: Monsters & Bones is undoubtedly one of the most unique action puzzle games in the $0.99 price tier. Cutting into its appeal at release are virtual buttons that are much too small, the achingly slow rate at which new gameplay elements are stirred in, and the degree to which memorization must compensate for the player’s lack of immediate information.

View it as you would building a model ship: all the ways you can suddenly fail can make the experience more tedious than fun sometimes, and yet you can take real pride in mustering the concentration and attention to detail necessary for success.