The folks that brought you Henry Hatsworth and the Puzzling Adventure return with a charming take on Metroidvania in Monster Tale for the Nintendo DS. Monster-raising is combined with exploration and platforming in the quest to build a better monster and save the day. This game has two save slots, always a plus.
Girl-next-door Ellie and legendary monster Chomp travel together to free the Monster World from five spoiled kids who have subjugated the monsters and set themselves up as rulers. This game plays similarly to Metroid Fusion, in which you have a map, a goal, and rooms full of creatures between you and said goal. As you complete each of the goals, the map pops up, and a beacon of light heads to the next section it wants you to reach. You don't have to go to the designated area immediately, but these rooms usually contain power-ups that help Ellie advance to the next section.
Chomp starts out in his basic form, and by giving him various items (such as meat, fruits and veggies, toys, exercise equipment) he evolves into different forms. You can see the available forms in the menu, so you have an idea on what to shoot for.
When the game starts out, Chomp is non-elemental, and so are the enemies. A simplified Pokemon-like weakness/resistance system comes into play later: Fire is strong against Earth, Earth is strong against Water, and Water is strong against Fire. Unlike Pokemon, though, provided enough forms are there, Chomp can change these on the fly without being penalized. Abilities Chomp learns can be carried over to other forms once they are mastered. The downside to this, though, is that it's impossible to tell when these moves are mastered -- it just happens. Forms are maxed out at level 30, and if you don't play your cards right, it is possible to be locked out of certain evolution options. Having this happen is REALLY bad later on in the game, which is heavily dependent on having multiple advanced forms unlocked and ready. The combinations of enemies become more diverse at this point -- one can go from a room full of water creatures to the next full of fire creatures, putting the Earth-type forms at a disadvantage and prompting a change. The game does a decent enough job preparing you for that, but I had to watch the evolution menus like a hawk to make sure I had what I needed.
Once you get most of what you need to complete an area, Ellie and Chomp face off against each of the five Kid Kings -- Meade, Deanu, Zoe, Ethan, and Priscilla. Unlike in most games, most of these bosses were sympathetic: Meade loves music, but was driven mad by making the monsters dance to his tune -- or else; Deanu is a surfer dude-in-training with command over water; Zoe longs for friends, but seriously goes about it the wrong way; Ethan wants to be recognized for his intellect, but he forces maniacal sidekick Nathan to build deadly machines. As for the "evil overlord" character, Priscilla, though -- I've got no sympathy for her at all. She's an evil brat, making Sailor Moon's own psychotic offspring, Chibiusa, look like Mother Teresa. I'd like to say that each of the boss challenges increases in difficulty, but I actually found the third boss Zoe to be the hardest of them all on account of the giant bouncing rabbit of doom.
The Kid Kings can be overthrown with the right combination of melee and distance attacks for Ellie, and elemental forms and attacks for Chomp, but determining what you need isn't easy. If you don't have everything you need to level the playing field, then prepare to get your butt handed to you on the finest silver. I found myself using the Healing move... A LOT. But variety is the spice of life, and surely better strategies exist than heal-spamming. Or is that spam-healing? Half the fun is finding out what works.
While it can be a little unbalanced and frustrating at times, Monster Tale is a fun, heartwarming romp through the world of monsters, singing its happy little tune in the key of Metroid. Samus would be proud of her little sister.