Monochroma review for Xbox One, PC

Platform: Xbox One
Also On: PC
Publisher: Nowhere Studios
Developer: Nowhere Studios
Medium: Digital
Players: 1
Online: No

In a way, I kind of feel sorry for Monochroma. If it had come out a couple of years ago, it probably would’ve garnered some attention for its stylish visuals, sparse score, and challenging puzzles. Instead, coming as it does now, it’s doomed to be written off as a Limbo clone.

Admittedly, this is because it is a Limbo clone, when you get right down to it. The visuals, while a little more colorful than Limbo’s black and white palette, still owe a pretty clear debt to Playdead’s smash hit. Likewise, while the game may have added twist of an extra character you need to lug around, there’s a pretty straight line going from the 2010 game’s puzzle-platforming to the gameplay here, right down to the abundance of opportunities to die in all kinds of fantastically morbid ways.

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So Monochroma isn’t going to win points or awards for originality. But so what? I’ve always thought that originality is highly overrated. What matters is whether developers can do something interesting with what they’re drawing inspiration from, and on that front, Nowhere Studios do a pretty decent job.

Take the graphics, for instance. Yes, Monochroma borrows pretty heavily from Limbo (or Badland, or Nihilumbra, or any other of the other sparsely-colored games of the last few years). But that doesn’t mean it’s any less effective in creating a visually-striking world. Splashes of red can trigger all kinds of different emotions, while the use of light and shadow give everything an eerie, unsettling vibe. Whatever Monochroma may lack in terms of originality, it more than makes up for by being hauntingly pretty.

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Likewise, the gameplay will seem awfully familiar to anyone who played Limbo at any point on any platform since its release in 2010, but Monochroma still does a good job of providing players with a puzzle-platformer that doesn’t skimp on either side of that genre name. It’s a game that challenges you to think everything through, giving just enough hints that nothing ever seems impossible, while at the same time throwing in enough twists that it won’t seem like a total walk in the park. The latter is particularly important since, like Limbo, this is a game that wants to kill you in all kinds of ways, whether it’s by drowning or fire or falling from a great height (among other things).

It’s important to note that for all the areas in which Monochroma borrows from other games (er, game), there’s one facet in which it excels entirely on its own: its music. True, it didn’t come up with the concept of a sparse score on its own, but that doesn’t make its minimalistic use of sound any less effective. There’s a skill to using musical cues at just the right time, and Monochroma has that timing down pat.

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Of course, for most people it’ll be easy to overlook that one thing Monochroma does well on its own in favour of focusing on all the ways the game benefits from reflected glory. And while I can’t say that this viewpoint is without merit — after all, even I’d concede that this game owes its very existence to Limbo — I will say that ignoring the game entirely because of that would be pretty foolish, too. Ignore Monochroma’s provenance and forget about its place in a broader context, and just focus on what’s here — and on that count, it delivers.

Grade: B