Every story has a beginning. When four heroes fritter away their accumulated wealth at the infamous Monkey Tavern, they resort to selling their battle-hardened equipment to let their celebrations continue. But, when they have nothing left to sell, their luck changes when a mysterious stranger directs them to a tall tower that is said to hold tremendous treasures. Their thirst for adventure once again roused, your time with Heroes of the Monkey Tavern begins.
After a childhood spent playing Hired Guns on an Amiga 600 and Dungeons & Dragons: Warriors of the Eternal Sun on Mega Drive, then, some years later, games like Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth on Nintendo 3DS, I was really excited to brave this first-person dungeon crawler on Nintendo Switch.
It’s a shame, then, that Heroes of the Monkey Tavern is such a soulless experience. Before setting out on your adventure, players must first choose their party of four heroes. This is a process that sees you select which faces will stare back at you for the game’s entirety from mundane character portraits, assign points to strengthen their attributes, and choose which classes you want them to be – with eight to choose between, whether that be the Barbarian that will become berserk and inflict more damage when their health is low, the Priest that can heal the party, or the Rogue that can help to uncover secret passages.
Once your choices have been made, your party is plonked inside the perilous tower. It’s at this point that I soon realised that Heroes of the Monkey Tavern could have really done with an opening tutorial, at least to break down the control scheme. With the game having originally released on PC, it’s the transition to the Joy-Con (or Nintendo Switch Pro Controller) input that hasn’t been particularly smooth.
With the grid-based movement that the genre has become known for, the directional buttons are used to move your party forwards, backwards, or to strafe left and right. The L and R Buttons are used to turn your party, the X Button lets you access your inventory, and you can interact with your surrounding environment with the Y Button. Then, when in combat, you will rely on the ZL and ZR Buttons to switch between the characters in your party, using the B Button and A Button to perform main and off-hand attacks. The Right Stick is used to more freely look around, while the Left Stick is, somewhat cumbersomely, used to gulp life and mana potions.
If you have been able to comprehend from that how the control scheme works in practice, it’s hopefully left you with the impression that Heroes of the Monkey Tavern is an awkward game that has intricacies that take longer to learn than most. Its problems don’t end there, however.
With labyrinthine corridors to become lost in, the realisation that everything unendingly looks the same soon becomes an annoyance. The map, which plots out where you have warily wandered, will certainly help point you to unexplored areas – discovering weapons, armour, and potions that lie hidden at the end of inconspicuous routes. But the bricks and mortar that Heroes of the Monkey Tavern has been built with proving to be uninspired – with assets that are recycled on repeat occasion detracting from any immersion.
Even the real-time fights are a similar frustration, clunky encounters that exemplify how this experience falls short. Whenever treading toe-to-toe with an enemy – whether that confrontation comes through exploration or accidentally setting off a trap – you switch between each character to attack, waiting for a cooldown period to then repeat the process until your enemy is slain. Weapons that you discover can strengthen your attacks, and your characters level over time to unlock new skills and see their attributes heighten. But even then, it’s hard to feel wholly engaged with it all.
This passion project has evidently been created with a modest budget, but Heroes of the Monkey Tavern is unremarkable in execution. It is the painting by numbers approach that leaves an overriding impression that the developer was arbitrarily ticking boxes as to what is expected in a first-person dungeon crawler, rather than making their own mark on modernising the genre. Instead, we’re left to brave a distinctly average experience that doesn’t hide many riches.