With a name like Monochrome, Inc. you know there’s got to be some kind of evil corporate shenanigans going on inside, right?
Not that it matters to you. You’ve been hired to do a job; infiltrate the corporation headquarters and uncover their dirty secrets. This is what you’re good at, and this his how you get paid. What is the truth behind Monochrome, Inc.?
*This review is spoiler free. Any specific details I mention are revealed within the introductory paragraphs when you start the game
How It Plays
Like The Dungeon, Monochrome, Inc. is part of the new Adventure Games series which, while sharing some similarities with escape rooms, are more akin to the classic point-and-click adventure genre of PC games. You’ll explore rooms, interact with objects and characters, combine items or use them to bypass obstacles. You’re given an ultimate goal at the start of the game, but it is broken into 3 chapters with specific objectives required to complete those chapters. Each of those takes 60-90 minutes.
Paired with the cards that represent rooms and items, the Adventure booklet is the core of the game. Each time you explore a new room, you’ll read the corresponding entry from the booklet. Objects and features within those rooms have 3-digit numbers; you’ll use your actions to interact with those by, again, reading the corresponding entry in the book. Items have 2-digit numbers; combine two (put the numbers adjacent) to get a 4-digit number, which has a corresponding entry in the book. And sometimes, combine an item with a room feature, creating a 5 digit number, which, you guessed it, has a corresponding entry in the booklet.
Each player controls one character; on their turn, they can exchange items with players in their location, then move, then perform an action (interact with a location, combine items, or combine an item with a location).
Monochrome, Inc. also features an alarm system; trigger certain actions and you’ll raise the alarm. Raise the alarm too much and Bad Stuff happens, which can affect the overall outcome of the story.
Beyond that, you simply alternate turns, exploring and interacting and uncovering the story until you reach the end.
An exercise in grave danger
The Adventure Games series introduces a new system that, while still escape-room-esque, opens up new opportunities for puzzles and storytelling. Overall the system is pretty solid and I can highly recommend diving in, but I do have a few caveats.
What Monochrome, Inc. really highlights for me is how important the writing and attention to detail is to make this sort of game shine.
Don’t get me wrong; I did enjoy my experience with the game. I had fun exploring the rooms, the “a-ha!” moments of finally figuring out how to put the pieces together to advance the plot were solid and rewarding, and hints were rarely needed (and helpful without being overbearing when we did need help).
On the other hand, there were a few story elements that were less than fulfilling and a few puzzle elements that were pretty disappointing.
Again, I’m avoiding any specific spoilers here, so I’ll do my best to make sense while talking in generalities. The problem with an “uncovering dirty secrets” plot is that those dirty secrets often become obvious to the players before they become obvious to the characters. “What does this mean?” a character might exclaim, while the player who is familiar with genre tropes has already grasped that Obvious Plot Twist is obvious. I’m pretty sure just by looking at the cover art of this game, everyone’s going to assume that Monochrome, Inc. is not a transparent, positive organization making rainbows and butterflies for the enjoyment of children, all completely above board.
And honestly, I’m not even complaining about the predictability of the plot. It’s still a board game, not a novel, and I’m okay with tropes and clichés because it’s a framework for the gameplay. But telling you to be surprised when you are definitely not just highlights the lack of surprise and disconnects you from the story, and adds a level of tedium – a sense of let’s just get through this, rather than excitement about what will come next.
Look, I enjoyed the game, let me re-emphasize. But the writing got more in the way than it should have, and future entries need to take care to bump up the quality of writing for this series to succeed.
Beyond writing though, what stood out to me as odd within this story was a lack of any sort of timer. From a strictly mechanical perspective, I appreciate not being rushed, or missing out on something because I ran out of turns. I enjoyed being able to explore and consider different possibilities, try different tactics, and combine different items all without worrying if I was wasting too much time. In that sense, the lack of timer allowed me to enjoy the puzzly elements, and there were some interesting things that happened through this broad exploration. The game also rewards you for thoroughness.
On the other hand, from a story perspective the lack of a time limit undercut any sort of tension. A character never had to choose to risk raising the alarm due to their weakness, because they could just wait another turn for the other character to come on over. There was never pressure to make a tough decision, or a sense of risk/reward in continuing to explore, because there was nothing breathing down our throats. Yet the story tried to convey a sense of urgency. It just didn’t land.
It became particularly pronounced whenever we became stuck on a puzzle and had all the time in the world to retrace our steps to find something we missed. Again, this is all related to story and how easy (or not) it is to get immersed.
As far as the gameplay goes, I have mostly positive feelings. There are a few nitpicks – a section of the game confused us into believing the booklet had a misprint, but it was really just that we had missed a small detail that showed up down the line. This is due to the fact that most plausible combinations of rooms and items have an entry in the booklet, even if the entry boils down to “nothing happened.” So when there was no entry for a combination, but an entry for a similar combination (1 digit difference that had no apparent way to modify that digit of the combination) that described the elements in question interacting, it was awkward. A misprint in the booklet would be a huge no-no. Later it all became clear how it worked, but not before causing a lot of confusion and once again pulling us out of the story.
(Worth noting – it can be really easy to accidentally glance at another entry and spy keywords thus revealing spoilers. Do your best. [Might be worth noting that there is now an app for the game with narration, which should help with this concern.])
At least in Monochrome, Inc. I would recommend taking notes. If anything, just jotting down what combinations you’ve tried that didn’t result in those cards ending up back in the box can help if you get stuck somewhere and need to retrace your steps for something you missed. A lot of information is housed on the cards you’ve gained, but not the locations you’ve explored. There were moments when I wished we’d been a little more meticulous in our notes to help us along later, but never were we permanently stuck. Hints are always available.
There was one moment in this game that I absolutely hated. In PC adventure games, when you interact with things you can often determine the method of interaction. Do you look? Touch? Move into? Talk to? In Adventure Games, unless you’re using at item with a location, you can only “interact” without knowing exactly what will happen.
In most cases, this gave you a description of what you could see, with some potential clues to how you might interact, or even the option to proceed further or back away. Imagine our surprise when interacting for the first time with a relatively innocuous item suddenly triggered a dire response with no player choice. No spoilers – imagine, as an example, you were on a submarine, and you spotted a porthole looking out into the ocean. You might interact with the portal thinking you were looking through it to see what you could see, but instead the game forces you to smash open the portal letting the ocean water pour in. Sure, it creates a tense, dramatic moment and an immediate problem to solve, but it goes outside the established rules of how the interactions work and feels very unfair. It’s a trap, but unlike previous traps in the game you were given no chance to respond, and your characters behave in a way that makes no sense.
That moment really killed our enthusiasm, whereas up to that point we were having a blast despite some of the other limitations I mentioned above. From then on, we had to worry that any moment we might interact with something that could explode in our faces, but not in a good way. We wanted story-based tension, not “this game might cheat us again.”
Let’s talk about all the good stuff this system has to offer. The number combination system ensures that no combinations can possibly overlap (something we occassionally ran into in, say, the Unlock series where we thought we got a number and it led to a card… that didn’t make any sense, because it was the wrong number and card). Most of the “puzzles” had multiple solutions. Items can be used up, and it’s entirely possible you could use something that would make a later task easier. No dead ends, though. Some items can be used multiple times with different purposes, some combinations are useless game-play wise but add fun little bits. Even after we finished the game, we looked up different outcomes we never encountered to see what was possible, and there were a tons of combinations we never even considered trying. There was a whole “sidequest” we never uncovered.
Perhaps even better, there were multiple branching final outcomes based on how well you completed all your tasks and some choices you had to make, on a much more nuanced level than I expected. I can’t say much more for fear of giving too much away, but for all the points of “this feels like an obvious twist” during the game, the ending was pretty satisfying for what the game is.
So, the ultimate conclusion is, despite the few issues, if you like puzzly story-based games, or are looking for more escape-room-esque tabletop experiences, or loved classic point-and-click adventure games, I highly recommend checking this series out.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Kosmos for proving a review copy of Adventure Games: Monochrome, Inc.