Developer: Vagabond Dog
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform: Steam (PC)
Release Date: May 21, 2014
Rating: None (M suggested)
Have you ever had a low-wage, menial job? Experienced the pressures and quandaries that come from being impoverished? Severed connections with the people you love and come to regret it down the road? Always Sometimes Monsters asks those very same questions and attempts to discuss a wide range of social issues, from sexism and homophobia to corporate greed and morally-ambiguous choices. It brings numerous issues to the forefront but doesn't offer any real answers, either by choice or because no answers exist. At the end of your time with this flawed RPG, you might find there aren't any true explanations as to why we are Always Sometimes Monsters.
The game opens with a rather crafty character selection system. You can choose who you are (including sex, orientation, etc.) by simply walking up to a room full of people at a party. You can also choose who your partner is, regardless of your chosen character. ASM provides remarkably subtle and well-implemented ways of forming your identity without resorting to labels and sliders. No matter who you choose to be, the game fast-forwards a year after you've failed at writing a book and left your partner. One day, a wedding invitation from your old flame shows up. Do you choose to go to the wedding and try to reclaim your lover, or move on with your new life miles away?
ASM is an RPG without the combat or complex mechanics of most of its genre colleagues. The game is more of a vehicle for narrative delivery than it is for personal enjoyment. The graphics are crude and simple (RPG Maker is still kicking). There are no voice-overs, and the soundtrack tends to repeat a bit. This isn't a technical masterpiece by any stretch, but that's not the focus. Vagabond Dog is all about the story, and that's where ASM will find its true fans.
Instead of offering fancy visuals or dynamic gameplay elements, choice is made central to ASM's branching narrative. While it isn't perfectly well-written, there are plenty of genuinely saddening, joyous, hilarious, and heartbreaking moments scattered throughout the game. Some moral choices have less clear consequences, occasionally linking events that make little sense for the purposes of manipulating your emotions. I wasn't pleased with these instances (there's a doctor and a car that screwed me over) but found them few and far between.
Frustratingly, characters seem to come and go at will. My best friend, whom I met within the game's first few minutes, randomly disappeared until I found him in a hospitable hours later. It was a bit of a random moment and didn't endear me to the guy all that much.....because I really didn't know anything about him. The only bits ASM told me were that he was a heroin addict and musician. I would have liked a bit more characterization but it's not as big of a complaint as is the game's tendency to gloss over side characters. You'll meet weird people, some of who I'd love to hear the back-story on, that exist only for minor fetch quests.
On the positive side, ASM's freedom of choice does serve to highlight the morally-grey world we live in. I chose to occasionally steal some cash if I found it lying on a table. I also opted to rig elections and engage in some shady dealings at my ad agency. Every employment I had seemed to offer numerous unethical practices, almost absurdly so. The only ones that skipped on the dark places were the menial tasks, like making burgers and loading supply trucks. Those jobs completely sucked, which is likely ASM's commentary on the employment environment.
When I failed to make money from my jobs, I got kicked out of my apartment, went hungry, and couldn't afford simple things like coffee or a bus ticket. It's actually a fairly nuanced portrayal of being dead broke, especially resonant with me since I'm a college student. While I hope I never encounter the same situations my character went through, ASM makes it readily apparent that poverty is never far away. Perhaps a bit too easy, but that doesn't seem to be the game's point.
In fact, I'm not entirely sure of what ASM's overall message is. I think my stance on the game and its subject matter is that it doesn't particularly relate to my experiences. I don't identify as a guy who's had to bear the brunt of racism, homophobia, sexism, etc. That makes it more of an examination of these issues as an outsider, but without the substantive conclusions I was hoping the game would offer. For those who really dig and empathize with the narrative struggles of the characters, this is likely an unmissable RPG that rewards patience and consideration.
On the other hand, I believe almost anyone can relate to the over-riding theme of finding your own fulfillment. While I do think the job portrayals were a tad overkill, their inclusions still hit home that much of life's routines are nothing but wasteful exercises in futility. We must find our own creative outlets and freedoms of expression in order to truly find happiness. Or so the game seems to say. I suppose ASM is one of those things that you'll have to play in order to decide what it means to you.
Is Always Sometimes Monsters worth the time and effort to endure its idiosyncrasies, flaws, narrative gaps, and menial jobs? If you crave a story that actually remains relevant in our sociopolitical environment, absolutely. If you're looking, however, for an RPG that's just a fun game, you'll likely want to stick to other titles. This is a discussion piece and an attempt to highlight the flaws in our society, though it doesn't always make distinct conclusions. Still, I'd advise you to give it a go and discover your own life-changing revelations.
+ Relatively deep, nuanced story
+ Open to discussion of numerous issues
+ Great character selector
- Not a whole lot to do
- Simplistic presentation
Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10)
Always Sometimes Monsters is a title that begs you to consider all of life's complex social issues, though it's up to you to decide what the narrative means.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using Steam code provided by the publisher.