Like a lot of people I know, I let my Apple Arcade subscription lapse some months ago. While there were a lot of games I enjoyed that I never got around to finishing—Over the Alps, Bleak Sword, Takeshi and Hiroshi—I decided to wait for another avalanche of games like there was at launch. Then this summer hit with a new Amanita Design game, the first half of a new Kazutaka Kodaka (Danganronpa) and Kotaru Uchikoshi (Zero Escape) game, a critically acclaimed Game of Thrones spinoff, and at last, A Monster's Expedition. I decided, fine, I'll resubscribe.
It's the lattermost that I've been spending time with in my evenings lately. A Monster's Expedition, the latest from the developers behind A Good Snowman Is Hard to Build and the deceptively adorable-yet-hard Cosmic Express, is an open-world puzzle game. At the start, it doesn't seem like it's going to be set in an open-world. In a linear fashion, your monster protagonist chops down trees and pushes them around to make log bridges to cross to other islands. At first, it's easy to think this is "all" there is. How it frames each puzzle screen looks similar to A Good Snowman Is Hard to Build, after all.
Yet at the end of the prologue, the monster finds themselves at a little rock, after having pushed two logs together to make a raft in front of it. With me swiping aimlessly in trying to figure out how to progress, the monster pushes against the rock, propelling the raft downward into the sea. The music swells; a late title card appears: A Monster's Expedition (Through Puzzling Exhibitions). The map zooms out, showing a grander sea than I expected, shrouded in a dense fog. Turns out, there's a lot more to A Monster's Expedition than there seems to be just from looking at clips and screenshots. As our Staff Writer Nadia Oxford wrote in her preview, "Travel wheresoever your logs fall, young monster."
I'm completely enamored with it so far. On my phone, it's the ideal sort of puzzle game—there's loads to uncover, and I feel like I've still barely scratched the surface, even with a few hours logged already. Like any good puzzle game, the puzzles have already been stumping me too, but it's encouraged a new sort of behavior within me. Instead of bashing my head against a wall for hours in an attempt to figure it out, or wussing out and looking up a guide online, I've found that A Monster's Expedition has encouraged me to take a different approach: to just come back later.
I'm lazy, so I never do this sort of thing. As Chris Tapsell of Eurogamer wrote in his review, "A good puzzle game is a reminder that you are always the idiot—never the puzzle." It's a universal truth for the genre. When I played another Apple Arcade exclusive, Grindstone, last year, its toughest challenge rooms made me feel like a dang fool. But through trial and error, I eventually persevered. A Monster's Expedition is no exception to this feeling, where the mountain can always be climbed, the challenge overcome. However, it's in A Monster Expedition's approach to this sorta gamified feeling of hope that's not just smoother, but novel for a puzzle game.
It lies in A Monster's Expedition being an open-world game. With that structure, there's always just the option of turning around and figuring out another puzzle on some other island. It's freeing. I feel unshackled from any road block I encounter. With that, I'm never too discouraged, and thanks to the easy fast travel via conspicuously placed mail boxes, it's always quick to travel back to wherever had me stumped. Usually, with new knowledge at my behest as to how the systems work, I can easily figure it out on round two. (Or three, if I'm being honest here.) And when I figure out an especially thought-rattling puzzle, I cry out, "I'm a genius!" to the audience of my partner. (He doesn't care.)
Playing A Monster's Expedition has reminded me of another cutesy indie adventure that caught me off guard with its charm: Yoku's Island Express. Mechanically, these two games couldn't be more different, but the vibe and enjoyment I'm getting from A Monster's Expedition is nearly the same. The writing, in which human curiosities like exercise bikes (or as this history recalls it, "laundry storage rack") and piles of coins are detailed in thorough exhibition displays on islands, has made me chuckle more than once. The art style is simple but charming—I especially like how, when at the edge of an island, you can swipe to make your little monster sit down and chill out for a second.
It's the plain gameplay that's the most engaging of all. Just as how joyful flinging the pinball-like Yoku around the metroidvania map to make new discoveries was, in A Monster's Expedition, I'm unexpectedly propelling my makeshift log rafts to reach new destinations and loving it.
The joy is squarely in the discovery. The discovery of puzzle solutions; of new areas. I'm in the early goings, but I foresee A Monster's Expedition remaining a mainstay in the "winding down" portion of my evenings until I see it through to the end. Its greatest fault is that it super drains my battery, but it's a small price to pay. A Monster's Expedition is available on iOS via Apple Arcade and on PC through Steam and itch.io.