Do you dream of being able to fly? Of living in the land of chocolate? Or being a famous movie star? According to The Secret Monster Society, there’s a world deep inside our own that’s full of creatures who supply us with our dreams. It’s a fun-sounding concept, one which is rife with potential, though the first episode from Deceptive Games, Monsters, Fires and Forbidden Forests, doesn’t particularly make the most of it. There’s a colourful cast of characters that’ll bring a smile, but the plot fails to engage and the puzzles are poorly integrated, resulting in an opening that stumbles out of the blocks.
This point-and-click adventure takes us inside the land of monsters, which actually isn’t so dissimilar to ours – just with a whole lot more grime. Players take control of Blithe Dalrich, a wide-eyed, red-furred, chirpy little creature who makes for a charming protagonist. We meet him as he’s dozing away in bed, suddenly woken by huge beams of light that are falling from the sky. Having no idea what just happened, Blithe decides to head to school to ask his friend Aphonic if she knows what’s going on. Of course, traveling to school means being sucked in by the toilet.
It turns out that Aphonic doesn’t believe any of it, which means that Blithe has to put on his detective hat and figure out the mystery solo. The problem here is that you’re not given proper guidance on what that actually means. As you walk around you’ll encounter things that obviously need to be solved, but without any apparent relevance to the story. A two-headed lady is distraught after losing her ring, for example, but only after returning it do you realise she was blocking a path you need to go down. Or you’ll try to pick something up in the headmaster’s office, but he’ll stop you, so then it becomes an issue of working out how to vacate him to collect this object even though it currently has no significance.
Not only is it never particularly clear why you’re doing something, but sometimes how to do it is equally baffling. For instance, there’s a vent you need to unscrew, but Blithe lacks the proper tools. He says that he saw a screwdriver on the shelf – confusion number one, because as the player you can’t see that for yourself. Compounding matters, you'll need to get a character to move out the way, and at first they refuse for no discernible reason. Eventually they’ll concede, providing you select a dialogue choice that’s only available if you’ve gone down a particular conversational route with someone else first. As far as I could tell, it made no logical sense that the solution would be derived that way. Flaws like these exist throughout all the puzzles, and they don’t feel properly integrated into the plot. And that’s not even mentioning the maze that comes later on, which I’m pretty sure you can only escape through trial and error.
The majority of your time will be spent roaming around the school and surrounding streets. Everything looks like it’d give you some sort of illness just by touching it. There’s miscellaneous sludge strewn across the floor, tentacles rise from the bed and the walls are falling apart. But this is how the monsters like it, amusingly demonstrated by the presence of anti-soap in Blithe’s bathroom. The anthropomorphised lights, clocks and toilets make for neat flourishes too. However, I didn’t find the environments exciting to explore – it still looks like Earth, visual quirks aside, and considering this is meant to be a place that monsters inhabit with the aim of shaping our dreams, the design would benefit from pushing the boundaries more.
That said, the character models are fun, colourful and varied. There’s the principal with his purple horns and three eyes, Brandoon the stereotypical slouchy stoner type with a beanie, and Aphonic with a bow on her bobbly green head. You don’t engage with these people a whole lot, simply due to the bite-size nature of this episode, but there’s no faulting the creativity. They look like they’ve come straight from a cartoon. The background art is slightly more detailed in texture, though still relatively simple, but it’s all clear and large, which makes for some reasonably crisp visuals. There’s an opening cutscene which has some very dynamic and expressive animation, but in-game the characters disappointingly loop through limited animation cycles.
One of the standout qualities of The Secret Monster Society is the voice acting. My favourite was Blithe, who sounds scrappy with a mixture of innocence and mischief. One of his fellow students, Sappy, is chirpy and enthusiastic, which nicely complements her wide-eyed eagerness. And the principal comes across as a slightly gruff, respectable but worn-out man. Again, like the art, the voices sound like they’ve been pulled from a Saturday morning television show. And yet despite the occasional whimsical element, I wouldn’t say this is a particularly comedic game. Some of the lines might raise a smile, but otherwise it’s played fairly straight throughout.
The music is mostly lighthearted and jaunty, bopping along with a quick pace. Though there are a lot of different tracks, they do have a tendency to start sounding the same and it can be annoying when they constantly loop within the same room. Nevertheless, it suits the on-screen action well, and provides a cheerful accompaniment to the gameplay. I especially appreciated the change of tone in the forest, with the ethereal chimes effectively contributing to the mysterious surroundings.
The interface is simple and easy to come to grips with. You left-click wherever you want Blithe to move or on the exit indicator to progress to a different scene. Holding down on a hotspot will give you context-sensitive options, like being able to look at, pick up or talk to the object or person in question. Moving the cursor to the top of the screen brings up the inventory, where you can combine items or use them on something within the environment. If you’re familiar with adventure games, then the interface will be second nature to you, and it does the job exactly as needed.
Clocking in at around 90 minutes, this debut episode definitely feels slight. Not only in length, but also in terms of story, which doesn’t particularly go anywhere. It ends with a bit of a whimper too, though with suggestions that the series might be heading in a more interesting direction. While it has some fun characters supported by great voice work, that’s really not enough to overcome the lack of engaging plot or logical puzzles so far. It’s far from a monstrosity and there’s clearly potential here, but The Secret Monster Society will need to step it up a few notches in the next episode and dream a little bigger.