Video games – and platformers in particular – are usually characterized by their vivid colour palettes, but there's something deliciously dark and brooding about black-and-white backdrops. Following in the footsteps of Limbo are two new puzzle-platformers that largely forsake the use of colour. Monochroma and The Bridge are very different games, but both provide rich atmospheres, and compelling, cross-genre gameplay. But be forewarned: though their settings may be black-and-white, their stories are anything but.
Looking at it, it’s easy to (incorrectly) classify Monochroma as a derivative Limbo clone – after all, it features a dark atmosphere, a purposely limited color palette, and is a methodical 2D side-scrolling jaunt through a foreboding, unwelcoming, somehow askew world that’s as intriguing as it is off-putting. But this would be short-changing the game, as Monochroma does several things that make it more akin to other recent games, combining disparate elements to create a competent game in its own right, though falling short of becoming the same sort of instant classic as its older puzzle-platforming cousin.
Looking beyond the graphics, the first game that came to mind when playing Monochroma was Starbreeze’s 2013 game (and our 2013 Adventure Game of the Year) Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. In a similar vein, Monochroma is a game about two nameless brothers (one older and physically stronger, the other more fearful and less resistant) who must make their way through a stark, industrial landscape, surviving traps and overcoming puzzling obstacles along the way. However, this is where the comparison ends, as Monochroma only gives you control over the older of the two siblings; early in the game, the younger brother takes a spill and evidently hurts his leg, making him unable to walk on his own. Or stand. Or even crawl, apparently. It is up to Older Brother to carry Younger Brother on his back whilst making their way home… or wherever it is they’re going. (I was never quite clear on this point.)
Essentially, the first half of the game is one big escort quest. Older Brother is required to carry Younger Brother almost nonstop, which restricts how high and far he is able to jump. To solve the game’s environmental puzzles, Older Brother usually has to find a well-lit spot to place Younger Brother down, as he appears to be afraid of dimness and shadows, and will refuse to relinquish hold unless in direct light. This improves Older Brother’s mobility to run, climb, and clamber his way around the area, seeking to remove an obstacle or open up the way for the two to move forward. Usually, Younger Brother becomes endangered at some point during a puzzle, requiring you to think of ways to solve the puzzle and keep Younger Brother safe. For example, pulling a lever may open a door to proceed to the next area, but will also set in motion the conveyor belt Younger Brother has been placed on, slowly sliding him toward giant interlocking gears to be crushed to death.
Interestingly, I most enjoyed the sections during the second act of the game when it ditches this escorting mechanic in favor of a more straightforward, solo puzzle-platformer approach. Triggered by the brothers becoming separated, this section stood out by offering a clearer purpose for progression – Older Brother cast as rescuer rather than babysitter. It also established a bit of a bond between the two siblings, beyond the shepherd/human baggage relationship they shared up until that point. Equally as important, from a gameplay perspective, it puts the spotlight on overcoming the actual obstacles rather than tediously scooping up, moving, and depositing finicky Younger Brother over and over again.
The puzzles themselves are all integrated into the fictional world Monochroma inhabits; my immersion was never broken due to out-of-context logic puzzles. The difficulty of figuring out how to proceed is generally fair, though I admit I did have to consult an online walkthrough in one instance in which I simply couldn’t see the forest for the trees. All the solutions are “right there”, without any tricky pixel hunting or inventory management required, though they are as industrial as the world they’re set in, and sometimes require figuring out how a piece of machinery works, which levers perform what action, etc.
Speaking of seeing, Monochroma’s visuals are one of its strong points. Highly stylized, the game limits its use of color, depicting the world and its characters entirely in grayscale, the only exception being the color red, which stands in stark contrast to the drab surroundings. The visual pop of a blood-red scarf fluttering in a colorless scene cannot be overstated. The developers have carefully picked and chosen where to insert these color flourishes, and they’re often used as a motif in association with the game’s antagonists: a mysterious man who is after the brothers, and a nefarious corporation, identified to players only by an imposing letter ‘M’.
It’s these antagonists that provide the impetus to move forward, as the ‘Younger Brother is hurt’ idea is never greatly capitalized on. Fairly early on, the brothers become the target of a brutish man, who looks like a cross between Puppet Master and Freddy Krueger, as they unwittingly stumble into his lair in an abandoned warehouse, becoming witnesses to a disturbing secret. Having now seen too much to be left alive, they find themselves mercilessly hunted by him for much of the remainder of the game. At times, it becomes a heart-stopping struggle to solve puzzles on the fly with such pursuit hot on your tail, though these sections occur only at prescribed moments. Most other puzzles are free of time constraints, with the exception of those that involve other “countdown mechanisms”, such as a rising water level.
Monochroma’s story is told entirely without words, and it is left to the player to piece together what is happening based on visual cues you encounter. I really liked this approach to storytelling, as my imagination often attached incredibly twisted meanings to what I was seeing on-screen, and I’m not entirely convinced that some of it might not have been what the developers intended. In the end, the game doesn’t hold players’ hands when it comes to narrative, and leaves a few things open to interpretation.
The interplay between the beautiful yet colorless visuals and story that goes from mundane to fantastical works really well. Equally as important is the game’s sound, which is to say the tag team combination of a good soundtrack interspersed with long periods of otherwise silent atmospheric noise. It’s not that there is too little music – rather, the developers have made sure that actual songs play when they’re of most use to the overall experience. The soundtrack includes emotional pieces that highlight the overwhelming feeling of desolation in this rainy, industrial place devoid of any noticeable human life, as well as frantic selections to really amp up the thrilling moments. In between, expect to hear the likes of a gush of torrential rain, and the creaking echoes of a dark hall cast in shadow.
Despite top marks in the presentation department, a few quibbles hold Monochroma back from greatness. Most importantly, the jumping controls seem too unresponsive; more than a few times I found myself plunging into a sea of burning oil or a wood chipper because my on-screen self decided to tumble off an edge even though I had pressed the space bar to make him jump. It seems that Older Brother still runs another half step or so before actually jumping, leading to some tricky timing frustrations.
While this is something that I could usually get used to with a bit of time, Monochroma simply isn’t long enough for anything to get ingrained in my memory – most players will probably be able to run through it in anywhere from two to three hours. It’s not that the game world is small; in fact, it seems adequately large. But running from one puzzle section to another means you’ll be passing a large chunk of the intriguing world by without so much as a second glance – and it’s a world I, at times, desperately wanted the freedom to explore a bit more in-depth. Added to that is the relatively low difficulty of puzzles, which can usually be solved quite quickly visually, then take a few attempts (due to the sticky jumping controls) to achieve. Veteran gamers used to the labyrinthine logic traditional adventures are known for might actually find themselves stumped once or twice, attempting to make a puzzle much more complicated than it is actually meant to be.
Since its launch, the developers have added full controller support, though the game can be played well on any keyboard, with arrows for moving and jumping, space bar for setting down and picking up Younger Brother, and the Alt key to perform actions such as pulling levers and pushing crates. They’ve also addressed early concerns that the graphics were too dark to see vital objects and even the characters and backgrounds; with its adjusted brightness settings, the game finally does look fantastic, though certain animations, such as climbing ladders, look very spasmodic.
Monochroma cinematic trailer
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Monochroma is a dark story set in a bleak world, and I love the fact that it hinted at even darker things just beneath the surface. Whereas it isn’t the hardest game you’ll find, it does present an intriguing setting, and expertly makes it come alive with great sound design. Though it has many positives, it ultimately fails to fully cash in on the emotional bond between the two brothers, casting one purely as baggage I had to lug around from place to place, while never quite sure where I was even going, other than “further to the right”. As a result, it didn’t stick with me for very long after it was over… and this is the kind of game I would really enjoy sticking around for a while.