I tend to not get on well with Falcom’s ‘pure strategy’ games – I can certainly appreciate the depth and quality to be found in Vantage Master and Lord Monarch but as far as playing them goes I’m like a bear learning ballet – technically speaking I’ve got everything I need right here, but it’s just not happening.
This is why I’m eternally grateful for this partnership with Sega (although this was actually developed by OmiyaSoft of Culdcept fame) that produced amongst other things this more accessible version of Falcom’s rather unfriendly real-time strategy series – a new take on the series blessed with a plot, characters, and people actually explaining things to you.
The main event here is an all-new and exclusive eight-chapter story mode, but if the thought of sending off Prince Alfred, Spanky the Fairy, and Princess Rubia to forcefully bring peace to King Monarch’s (yes, really) kingdom and the neighbouring lands doesn’t appeal then you’ll be pleased to learn a story-free campaign is also available, gathering together all the maps from the original computer releases from Lord Monarch and Advanced Lord Monarch under one visually revamped roof.
But what is Lord Monarch anyway? I’ve been trying to come up with a good comparison and the best I can do is ‘A bit like Populous… but not really’ – which isn’t all that helpful, but it’s the best I’ve got. The most important basics are that you need to increase your own population of soldiers either by building on unoccupied land before anyone else reaches it, or by razing your opponent’s territory (and there can be up to three per map) to the ground then moving in before they have the time to rebuild. You don’t get to directly alter the landscape like you do in Bullfrog’s classic, but you can build barricades to keep enemies at bay and construct bridges across otherwise impassable rivers and ravines, allowing you to ‘sneak in’ to your opponent’s lands at a weak point or perhaps reach a cash-filled treasure chest before anyone else does. Both of these activities, and indeed pretty much any other direct order you can give a unit, are a heavy drain on your ruler’s war chest and must be mitigated by temporarily raising taxes – an act that quickly replenishes your funds at the cost of reducing the amount of units produced each day. So the game’s all about balancing unit creation, special actions, and taxes while trying not to get your king’s head bashed in by everyone else on the map.
If it sounds overwhelming that’s because at first blush it definitely is – and this is why they went to the trouble of creating story mode. Giving everyone names and voices, even if these can literally boil down to ‘A BOSS: I’m gonna beat you!’, goes a long way to making the goal much clearer – as do the brief slices of pre-battle banter between characters that deliberately talk about unique encounters on the map or give general pointers on how to come out victorious. There are a lot of one-off graphics and wonderfully expressive character portraits used in these scenes too; another little bit of polish that goes a very long way to making this rather obtuse strategy series more approachable – so much so that both the later Yanoman-developed PlayStation title Lord Monarch: Shin Gaia Oukokuki and Falcom’s own sequel Monarch Monarch went down a similar visual route.
There is a problem with Lord Monarch’s beautiful sprite work though, and that is there’s just no room for it when you’re trying to win. There are three possible map-viewing sprite sizes in the game, and about a third of the way through the story mode using the L-size sprites for anything more than a quick gawp at some fantastic pixel art is suicide, meaning players are forced to spend most of their time switching between the more practical M and S-sized views (it only takes a quick dab of the B button to bring up the view size menu) to keep control of the battle – a practical if unappealing solution when you consider just how great the game looks when you see it fully zoomed in.
But while the Mega Drive’s screen resolution may not be quite up to the task of bringing a strategy game to 90’s consoles its controller surprisingly is. Thanks to some thoughtful button mapping (the six button pad is supported too) and an extremely easy to read UI that contains everything you need to see at a glance you always feel in control of the action. Even when you need to do something quickly you’re never at a disadvantage as the action always pauses whenever you move the cursor, completely sidestepping those awkward chase-the-unit-around-the-map moments that can occur in games of this type. If you really find yourself unable to get to grips with the standard controller, or would simply like to get some use out of an under-appreciated peripheral, the official Sega mouse is also fully compatible with the game.
Lord Monarch is one of those games that takes more time and effort to love than most people would – and perhaps should – put into it. But it’s also a game that gives back exactly as much as you’re prepared to put in, and players that get used to its quirky rules and have the patience to flip through the unusually helpful and thorough manual will find that underneath it all lies one of the most intelligent and entertaining strategy titles on the Mega Drive.
If you’d like to play the game for yourself the cheapest and easiest option at the time of writing is to pay 720 points for a digital copy via Japan’s Wii Virtual Console service.
If you’d like to read a rough-n-ready translation of the demo’s ‘how to’ text I made one (quite a while ago now!) and put it up here - http://shinjuforest.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/a-quick-lord-monarch-how-to-guide.html