I'm not sure how I feel about Master of the Monster Lair. On one hand it's cute and charming and plays great in short bursts. But on the flip side it's not a very meaty adventure like say Etrian Odyssey, which demands your utmost attention and map-making skills to succeed. MotML (seriously, Atlus, you guys love long titles) is a great first experience for anyone looking to try out an RPG. It lets you play at your own pace which I found to be quite enjoyable considering I run a rather hectic schedule. It also allows you to play things your own way, you create the dungeons, you decide where the monsters go, and you grow in areas where you think you are lacking. This free-form approach to gaming seems like a successful plan, in the case of Master of Monster Lair, it just needs a little more fleshing out.
MotML stars a very unassertive young man named Owen, who's job is determined for him one day when he finds a talking shovel. Once the mayor gets word of this new discovery he sees it fit to assign the task of being a dungeon digger on to poor unsuspecting Owen. With the talking shovel in hand the player must set out to build a suitable habitat for monsters, whether this is just for the tourist attraction aspect or just plain reckless endangerment by the mayor will be up to the player to discover. Story bits are quite few and far between, however the game is very keen on reminding you of the task at hand. And it is even more generous at giving out hints on how to accomplish the task at hand.
A typical span of gameplay in MotML plays out like this. Once you are able to start digging, you spend your day (in game time) in the dungeon, clearing spaces to lay out rooms. These rooms serve to house the monsters you're out to hunt. Monsters have a tendency to occupy specific rooms so if you're looking to bring one type of monster to your dungeon it would help to be aware of the rooms that you are purchasing. Once you've laid down your rooms for the floor, you leave for the night, go home and eat a meal to increase your stats (World Ends With You deja-vu coming through), save your game and then venture back in to the dungeon the next day to see what kind of monsters you've attracted. And if you want the items they are carrying then you (and your eventual party) better be ready for a fight. The items you find in the dungeon are typically things you can use, and occasionally you'll come across items that the villagers in town want, and you can trade the item for a new skill or food recipe.
Layout of a dungeon is completely up to you, with a few modest rules in place, like not putting a room right next to the stairs of a level. Or if you're feeling gutsy you can place three rooms around one piece of land allowing multiple monsters to attack at once which increases the odds of receiving an item post battle. After you've attracted enough residents to a level the boss will appear and you will be able to fight them. Boss fights tend to be a bit rough if you try to tackle them right away, so it's worth staying in a few days to boost up your attack skills. Overall this is where a lot of the fun of the game manifests, as I really enjoyed plotting out my dungeon. And if you're really sadistic, you can share your messed up maps with your friends.
Visually this game manages to have decent looking monsters and that is about it. The art style is of course heavily inspired by anime, as all the characters look like they were shipped over from the land of the rising sun, and all of them look decidedly underage, save for the mayor and the old man running magic shop (sounds like something wrong going on there). But the monsters, they look really good for a DS title. The dungeon however, is terribly boring with a whole lot of nothing impressive going on there.
Master of the Monster Lair is a decent DS RPG. The problem is that the RPG genre is getting really crowded, and seeing as how it is currently dominated by a SNES era game that everyone has been waiting for it's going to be tough for a game like Master of the Monster Lair to succeed. I want to like it, it's great for pick up and play sessions, and while I am getting my game in short doses I am getting the same taste each time, which just makes the length of the game that much tougher to bear. Quite honestly, my biggest disappointment is that the shovel on the box art had me thinking I was going to play a spiritual successor to Heiankyo Alien from the old Game Boy. But hey, at least this isn't Lunar: Dragon Song, ugh.
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