In roguelike dungeon-crawlers, we often need to worry about characters’ energy or stamina, with calorie consumption eventually eating away at their health and ending a run prematurely. Monster Menu: The Scavenger’s Cookbook takes a closer look at what warriors in a labyrinth might do to survive when starvation is on the line. When you’re trapped and attempting to get out, you need to make do with the resources in front of you. That means your absolutely adorable characters end up either noshing on a corpse that just fell in battle or used their parts to make some horrifying, yet shockingly nutritious food.
In Monster Menu, every adventure starts out with a single character. Your avatar, who you can completely customize, headed into the Sealed Lands dungeon. However, it proved more dangerous and intimidating than it seemed, and now you’re stuck. After resorting to eating the corpse of a days-old monster to stave off starvation, you wind up in a camp. You can then add between one and three custom allies to your group to increase or decrease the difficulty and attempt to escape.Screenshot by Siliconera
In many ways, you can feel Monster Menu’s “mystery dungeon” roots. Floors are randomized. Depending on the difficulty you choose, you’ll have different modifiers adjusting the difficulties. You start from scratch, but some meals improve base stats. Actually facing the Sealed Lands with a party helps with survival. Things like exploring and fighting wear away at characters’ Calories and Hydration meters, which you need to refill with foods and drinks. Unlike similar roguelikes, there’s no “they only move when you move” element, which means needing to be more alert around enemies. However, while you do return to level one and drop ingredients when you die, you will still keep the equipment you found and recipes you learned.
However, there’s a much greater focus on food and keeping those basic need bars up, which really makes Monster Menu feel different from its contemporaries. Fighting monsters and gathering items in the dungeon will net you ingredients. These can be cooked to make shockingly realistic and sometimes disgusting dishes with various monster parts. Eating them increases stats and teaches skills a character, though I’ve found it best to wait and do so when the increases would be permanent. It’s also surprisingly complex, as the quality and freshness of the materials you collect, the cooking skills of the character acting as the chef, and the preparation methods all alter the outcome in various ways. This means the variety of recipes can feel a lot larger than it is and offer more options when building up your party.
There’s also the whole “just eat the enemy you beat” element, which involves “devouring” the foe you just killed, scales, tentacles, fur, and all.
Speaking of battles, Monster Menu is unique in that you aren’t just taking part in more active fights like in, say, ZHP: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman. Upon touching an opponent, it and all enemies in the immediate vicinity all become your foes in a turn-based, tactical battle. Your attacks have various ranges, there’s a turn order to follow, you can select various skills, and there are follow-up chain attacks if party members are in range when you land a hit. There’s also some degree of “numbers go up” in effect, provided you’ve eat meals, feasted on fallen foes, and have certain equipment, but it’s never as egregious as it is in Disgaea games. It all tends to work well, but also depending on what you find and eat or who shows up, it might not always feel as balanced. (But then, randomization can make that an issue.)
However, there are some ways in which the nature of Monster Menu works against it. For example, part of the appeal of a roguelike dungeon-crawler is that it still ends up being relatively fast-paced. This means that even though you may sit for hours playing through run after run as you push further into the depths, it doesn’t really feel tedious. Because every battle becomes a turn-based tactical affair, it draws things out a bit, As a result, I felt like the pacing could be a bit off, because early on some of the “weaker” enemy fights might take a lot of time and leave me wanting to take breaks between each dive.Image via NIS America
I’d also love to see a Monster Menu sequel that changes how the Devour function works. In a fight, you can immediately feast on your fallen enemy. This can restore your health and temporarily let you “steal” their skill to use against their allies still around you. Except given the nature of the dungeon and elements, it would have been great if this effect held on for at least an entire floor or a bit longer. I’d loved to have seen how it could have complemented builds based on foods.
There are certain NIS America games that sometimes end up a bit forgotten compared to other titles, like Cladun or The Guided Fate Paradox, and I really hope Monster Menu: The Scavenger’s Cookbook isn’t one of them. There are some elements that feel like they aren’t quite there yet, like pacing or effect application, but what’s here feels really different and innovative. I enjoyed my time with it way more than I expected to, and I would really love to see what could be done in a sequel.
Monster Menu: The Scavenger’s Cookbook will come to the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5 in North America on May 23, 2023, Europe on May 26, 2023, and Australia on June 2, 2023. A demo is available.
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