I’ve been on A Monster’s Expedition for a couple of hours now and I’m stuck. I’ve gotten stuck many times, of course, because that’s the nature of puzzle games – but not that tight. This is a killer: I ended up on an island that looks a lot simpler than most of the others I’ve been through, but I’m stuck in some kind of micro-one-way system that is impossible – I’m, ‘I’m telling you, impossible – get through. You have to first push a tree down in a certain direction ̵
So I set off and teleport around the wonderful, not-so-small map of A Monster’s Expedition to solve every last half-puzzle that I left unsolved. One of theseI say maybe out loud, maybe not It must be. One of them has to get me on a raft, upstairs, in the back, to that other island instead of the mailbox I was stuck in. I’ve tried for hours and there just can’t be any other way. Impossible. Impassable. I’ve spent too long and I’m not so foolish as to miss anything here.
Reader, I am not going to tell you the solution, but I will tell you this: When in doubt, you are always that stupid.
That’s the joy of A Monster’s Expedition! A good puzzle game is a reminder that you are always the idiot – never the puzzle – and A Monster’s Expedition is a very good puzzle game. It’s the latest from Draknek, a small indie team with a history of great puzzlers in Sokobond. A good snowman is difficult to build and Cosmic Express, and according to the developer’s own words, it is a little longer than any of the previous ones, but the spirit is the same. This time around you are a little monster with a nice backpack that arrives on an island and essentially has to knock down small trees and roll into small bridges to get to and explore new islands. Each island is its own puzzle, but on each island you cross there is a small exhibition where you can divide things up: various items from the long-gone human world with an accompanying description from the curator who never quite gets it .
From these humble wooden stumps, Draknek builds a civilization of brain teasers. The puzzles are really pretty closely based on Sokoban, a kind of Japanese block puzzle. You might notice the format of Pokémon of all things: it’s the same idea as the Seafoam Islands ice and stone puzzles and the like. In A Monster’s Expedition it is these trees instead of small stone cubes. Initially, they’re small ones that can roll after being pushed – but roll neatly off the side of the island if they’re not blocked – or turn end-to-end if you hit them from the right. This soon expands a bit, to longer trees that cannot be turned around, but can obviously bridge larger gaps between the islands, and also to a somewhat thought-expanding raft system.
In a way, it is. The brilliance of A Monster’s Expedition is the way you can play it by doing quite a bit of thinking without ever really thinking about it. So go and hop from one curiosity to the next. But Behind The brilliance is a stroke of genius. What A Monster’s Expedition puts aside is a button: the Undo button. In the entire game you only have three things to press: the direction entry of your left analog (no jumping or dedicated “Push Down Tree” button, you just have to go inside), an undo button and a button to reset the island, you are on. The inclusion of the last two and their implementation – the speed, the simplicity, and the ability to make a lot less of undoing multi-step actions than Adobe or Microsoft – is magical. Suddenly all weight and pressure is gone and you can poke, nudge and experiment. What if this works? What if I go this route What if I don’t. It’s almost always no, but it doesn’t matter.
There are other things that I love. The world is settled on a number of islands, but each is divided into small continents with their own climate. So trees have different colored tips – autumn browns, tropical greens, deeper greens, wintry frosts, blossom pink – and leaving one or two standing if you get stuck somewhere and decide to take a different path becomes a kind of personal shortcut. Gotta go back to pink. There are the little elaborations of how the systems work – it is, in fact, gently systemic – as you unfold the world a little more in front of you. Two trees next to each other won’t knock each other over if you poke one. But if you poke a tree and it doesn’t fall, after you’ve already used this trick to fry where you’ve been and where you haven’t, the leaves will fall off that you think you know all about. But then you probably happen to learn that if you bump a tree into one next to it, the leaves have leaves already fallen off, this second tree falls and so you find another key for the lock of another island.
It goes on and on. You accidentally learn a simple raft, and the world billows through the mist. Then you purposely learn a different type of raft with large trees because in theory you know it should work. You can fill a different kind of void with a weird three-part raft-and-log-bit thing. You learn to build corners – I haven’t been that keen on making a corner out of blocks since I was five – and you roll logs over logs larger and smaller and bump them off logs with other logs and send logs on rafts to where they probably shouldn’t be and reset and do something else. Everything with an adorable demeanor and plonk and charm.
And that’s really the finishing touch. Charm is so easily exaggerated or underestimated, but for charm to work it has to be in a certain way already present in the material. A monster expedition has it in spades (a spade is a giant spoon, the exhibition tells me by the way). It’s in the way you can stop and dangle your feet in the water, to the sound of a swelling but still soothing little groove – I’d take a million “Can you stop and dangle your feet?” for everyone from “Can you pet the dog?”, for what’s worth it – and the little coffee or popcorn stands that you very occasionally find on your way.
What’s more, it’s in the mechanics of it all, the game itself. There’s no tension, no forced direction, just curiosity and momentum and a reward that sometimes feels like a welcome hug. Come in and out wherever you want. A free exhibit, on a slow Wednesday that you started your work without a message or a sniffing guide. It’s in the pace when we get into the essentials: the way it billows from a bigger, longer, more complex little forest that eventually breaks up into what feels like sliding downhill, a blast, followed by a giveaway or two, usually. A deep breath and a little joke just to blow yourself up again.
Which is very nice frankly, because every good puzzle is about: You’re an idiot – until you’re reminded, with a coffee or an exhale or a game that feels like a hug, that you are not.