As the free-to-play market grows, it’s no surprise that titles like Monster Paradise from Aeria Games are popping up in the App Store. Cloaked in a Pokémon-esque world of monster capture and evolution, the game manages to take the Pavlovian click/reward style of Zynga’s Mafia Wars (yes, I’m ashamed to admit it, but I played Mafia Wars for a while) and cloak it with enough additional mechanics to make it palatable.

At the outset of the game, you’ll be asked to create an in-game name, choose a gender and pick an element (fire, wind or water). This determines the monsters (of which there are 500) will be conferred combat bonuses. This will also shape your fusion and collection decisions.

For those that have managed to avoid Zynga’s original beast or the hundreds of clones it spawned, the gameplay is simple. In Monster Paradise, players are presented with a number of thematic quests. Instead of the boring bar featured in Mafia Wars, in each adventure, you and your monsters will walk down a path. This is displayed in 3D and appropriate for the setting of the story (a cave, village, mountain range, etc). Each step down the path requires a commitment of stamina.

In return, players are awarded experience and gold. With each new level, stamina is refreshed and points are awarded to increase your maximum in that area, attack or defense (more on that later). With each step, you’ll have the chance to find gold, meet new players and provide a “shout out” (awarding three summoning points used to get a free monster) or battle wild creatures.

Battles typically result in the capture of one of the opponent monsters. While the Pokemon analogy works in some places, Monster Paradise doesn’t provide the same strategic gameplay that Nintendo’s franchise offers. Collected beasts, complete with entertaining names like Porcublaze and Centuriosaur and Irene (no, I am not joking), can be used in “fusion” (along with an investment of gold) to power up other monsters. This is a bit reminiscent of the system found in Persona, without the careful consideration of inherited powers that series offers.

At the end of each quest line, there is a boss battle. These are played out as tit-for-tat attacks with minimal player input. Whittle the enemy’s life down before they knock out your monsters and you win. The strategic part comes in choosing the monsters to walk with you and through fusion decisions.

The hook is that early levels can be moved through very quickly, providing a false sense of security. Later on, each activity will require more stamina. This precious resource refreshes on a timer, and as you progress in the game, you’ll have to wait longer and longer to be able to move forward. What ends up happening is that those who were playing for free without intention of paying give up. The time lapse between play sessions grows by design before petering out entirely. That’s not where the money is made, though. Those that become invested can purchase items to instantly replenish stamina.

In addition to the single player adventure, Monster Paradise offers social and competitive multiplayer options. You can form guilds with other players to collectively fight. You can start your own at any time or ask the game to auto-apply to one on your behalf. Each collective receives an egg that will hatch after you fuse it to level 10. Every member of the guild can participate, so loading up your house with the maximum of 20 players will definitely yield results faster.

You can also use your MP to attack other players to steal from them pieces of Dragon Tablets. Each region of the single player game has a different set of six tablet pieces. Collect all of them and you’ll unlock a unique rare monster. This isn’t the only way  to get hard to come by combatants, though. Each day, you get a free “normal summon.” These have the chance to produce a rare creature, though. Additionally, you can purchase Premium Tickets that will always spawn a more powerful beast. Finally, there are Dark Monsters that randomly emerge and will award you with special tickets you can use for summoning.

On the flip side, there are few things more disheartening than logging in to continue your game to find that one of your own tablet segments has been pilfered. Of course, you can purchase items to replenish your MP and continue the fight (or theft, depending on how you look at it). There is strategy to the combat, as each monster has an MP cost. By adding more to your PvP party, each attack will cost more. Thankfully, the game optimizes your party for the remaining MP if your preferred squad costs too much.

While the single player aspects of the game have a nice, mandatory tutorial, the PvP combat guidance is almost entirely absent. I was able to figure it out on my own simply by exploring the menus, but it’s a failure of design that there isn’t a prompt at some point for players to explore those functions. There are occasional text blurbs as you’re questing, but the gameplay doesn’t encourage players to linger between clicks long enough to realize what’s being said. Something more in-depth and guided would have helped.

One of the things you should know about Monster Paradise is that you won’t be able to play it without a connection to the internet. The app is merely a portal to an intricate structure of webpages that handle the quests, monster collection, guild management and everything else the game has to offer. When I first started playing, before the title was widely available in the app store, everything ran smoothly. It was pretty clear when the doors were thrown wide, as pages started timing out and performance bogged down significantly. This isn’t uncommon, and I expect it will even out a bit in the coming days. Still, it does highlight one of the drawbacks of this type of design. Additionally, though it looks serviceable on an iPad, it doesn’t run natively in the larger resolutions.

The audio is largely light hearted, but the boss battles are appropriately intense.  The fanfare reserved for leveling up with a giant checkmark backdrop continued to make me smile, since I knew I would be able to continue playing for a little while longer. That’s the tricky part of the click/reward formula. You may hate the simplicity. You might despise the trite mechanics. You’ll still probably play, even if not for a terribly long time. There’s a reason why Zynga’s empire has grown. Thankfully, Aeria Games has added enough user customization options in the form of the guild system, fusion and PvP to create collections that actually impact the game that the model works. It also helps that there are achievements in place that serve the valuable function of reducing stamina regeneration time.

If you’re looking for something easy to play, even if only for a little while, Monster Paradise is worth checking out. It’s free, the rewards flow often enough that it’s possible to play for a reasonable amount of time without feeling like you need to purchase in-game goods and there is a sense of ownership as you cultivate your own stable of beasts. Is it deep, strategic gameplay that will consume your life for years and years to come? Probably not, but it’s something new and there is no reason not to give it a try.

 

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Adds enough to the click/reward model to be interesting
+ Attractive graphics and catchy sound
+ Social aspects will give reasons for friends to play together
- If you don’t like click/reward gameplay, this won’t change your mind
- The app is a portal to a series of web pages, meaning you can’t use when disconnected
- Some elements not adequately explained

 

7 and 7.5 represent free to play games that overall manage to be worth playing, at least for a little while. If you don’t like the style, though, this title won’t change your mind.

Monster Paradise was developed by Pokelabo and published by Aeria Games in the United States. It was released on June 21, 2012 and is free on the App Store.