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Review: Always Sometimes Monsters (PC)

What will you do for love?

Life is good. You’re an author about to sign a lucrative deal with your publishing friend; you have a partner who loves and cares about you; you live in a nice little apartment in a nice little town.

And then that’s all gone. Your partner leaves you; you get shafted the pay you’re owed; you’re late on rent.

So begins Always Sometimes Monsters, developed by Vagabond Dog. An adventure-RPG with RPG Maker-esque graphics, it’s a cute little game that takes place during thirty of the worst days of the protagonist’s life. Players begin in a party controlling a character named Larry, and the people they talk to become the protagonist and their partner; it’s a cool little mechanic that gives the game some personality versus doing it through a straightforward character introduction screen. Each character is given an actual name in some missable throwaway dialogue, but players are allowed to name them as they see fit.

 

Time passes in the game as events progress. Whether it’s taking a part-time job as a journalist, meeting someone new in an arcade, or confronting your buddy’s drug-dealing ex-girlfriend, the thirty days count down, with each day having several parts before the protagonist needs to sleep. Further complicating things is the inclusion of a stamina meter, refilled by eating food from coffee shops and fast food places. Finding a place to live and balancing what little stamina your protagonist has is one of your primary concerns in Always Sometimes Monsters, and it definitely can be stressful when you have to decide between paying rent, taking a job, or being able to eat. On my very first playthrough, I managed to die just a few days in because I decided to go to bed with my stamina meter depleted; the game warned me against it, but I made a bad decision, and that’s exactly what Vagabond Dog is trying to warn against in this.

Decisions are thrown the player’s way at nearly every turn. While a lot of the game involves minigames–your first job, for instance, involves setting up a stage and then taking coats at a concert–dialogue choices are a constant. They’re a minor frustration due to being skippable, and I know I chose a few things by sheer accident, but they end up helping contribute to the game’s finale. Always Sometimes Monsters tallies up the decisions you make, and when a close family member calls you out on everything you’ve done up to that point, it makes for a pretty powerful scene.

 

While decisions do play a large part in the game’s ending, they’re also a source of frustration. There are multiple endings present, but none of them are particularly hinted at well. That’s, in part, a credit to Vagabond Dog, because life isn’t as easy as just a few decisions here and there… but it’s also an irritation, because it forces players to either play the way they need to to get the best ending, or to play the way they want and possibly suffer the consequences. I ended up following some Steam guides to get the best ending, and without them, I definitely wouldn’t have gotten it. The biggest tedium there was getting the money needed to finish the game; it doesn’t do so much as hint at how much money would be needed to ensure things go smoothly until the moment you need it, and getting said money requires quite a bit of minigame playing in bulk. It almost felt like a way to artificially pad out the game time, and left a huge mark on what was otherwise a primarily fun game.

Although I did enjoy my time with Always Sometimes Monsters, the lack of direction and tedium of the game’s climax weren’t the only things that gave me pause. The music isn’t bad by any means, but there are only a few tracks in the game, and although it’s a short playthrough, the tunes can get a little wearing on the nerves. What bugged me more, however, was the dialogue. It changes depending on which avatar and relationships are picked–I got picked on a few times for being gay, and Vagabond Dog has stated that other races and genders will receive different reactions–but a lot of it is a little too on-the-nose for my tastes. Even forgiving typographical oversights, wandering NPCs will ask the protagonist huge, life-altering questions that seem a little out of place for such an unassuming character; some of the decisions made even with the protagonist’s friends read almost hollow because of the melodrama. Sometimes it really works, and gives the game a nice sense of over-the-top yet true to life, not unlike some sitcoms. Some of the flashback scenes are downright adorable, especially when we get to see how the protagonist meets their love interest, but other times dialogue simply sticks out as awkward and melodramatic. Character interactions are a mixed bag, and on occasion, took me out of the experience.

 

That isn’t to say that Always Sometimes Monsters is a bad experience; far from it. There were definite times where I felt actual stress in having to balance my finances with my jobs with actually eating and doing things to enjoy myself, and bits and pieces–like figurines with shoutouts to other indie games, or the developers creating the game in the game’s coffee shop–made the game an absolute pleasure to play at times. Some of the confrontations between characters, like the homophobia or the clash of business and livelihoods really rang true, and the overarching plot of trying to find closure with the protagonist’s ex made me reflect on my own romantic entanglements throughout the years. Always Sometimes Monsters plays well in the gray area of morality, unlike most other video games. It’s just an experience that’s marred by a limited soundtrack and the occasional bit of melodramatic dialogue.

Good

  • has a way of getting into your head, making you really think about the choices you’re making
  • a relatively realistic take on life through a video game
  • decisions feel like they have weight, and come through in the end
  • diverse possibilities, from queer couples to multiracial casting, despite a lack of explicitly-trans characters

Bad

  • endings aren’t so much as hinted at until they’re nearly upon you
  • choices sometimes don’t result in what I intended upon making them
  • dialogue changes, but from what I saw in my playthroughs, generally only in minor interactions
  • best ending is an exercise in tedium

Play it if: you’re looking for a quirky indie game, you’d like to see an interesting take on the impact of our choices throughout our life, or if you have some spare time. It’s worth a shot.

Always Sometimes Monsters was completed within the course of approximately 7.5 hours. It’s available on Steam for $10USD. A review copy was provided to The Rainbow Hub by developer Vagabond Dog. Screenshots courtesy Vagabond Dog.

It’s also worth noting that while I did not find any trans characters during my time with the game, Vagabond Dog’s Steam page for it does make reference to possible transphobia as a content warning; it’s only fair to mention that I could have missed it.

Image courtesy of Vagabond Dog

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