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Pokémon meets Castlevania in this charming, turn-based monster collector

I named my fish Koi McKoiface. He is my son

Image: moi rai games/Team17 via Polygon
Nicole Clark (she/her) is a culture editor at Polygon, and a critic covering internet culture, video games, books, and TV, with work in the NY Times, Vice, and Catapult.

Monster Sanctuary opens with the classic choice any Pokémon lover will recognize: picking your elemental starter, or Spectral Familiar, as they’re called in Monster Sanctuary. I deliberated for some time, as it’s an important decision — I was choosing what would likely be the crown jewel of my team in the long haul. I went with the Spectral Toad, a water and earth specialist whose adorable hopping accompanied me throughout the rest of the game.

I first picked up Monster Sanctuary in 2020 while trying to fill the Metroidvania-shaped hole in my heart. But I accidentally found a perfect Pokémon game — one that takes the classic series’ base elements while modifying the formula enough to feel like a satisfying stand-alone game. Monster Sanctuary became an obsession that lasted a good 40 hours, driving me to genuinely want to collect each and every creature.

A female character in a blue outfit is standing next to a large blue toad named “Toady” Image: moi rai games/Team17 via Polygon

In Monster Sanctuary, these monsters are fun to deploy in turn-based combat; they’re also a means of traversal, helping you navigate Metroid-style map chock full of secrets. Best of all, it’s on Xbox Game Pass — along with its Forgotten World DLC — so if you’re a subscriber, and a fan of Pokémon or Metroidvanias, you have no excuse not to try it.

I start the game as a lowly Monster Keeper, from a family lineage of other talented Keepers. It’s my job to protect this world, bursting as it is with wonderful little monsters, from the evil plotting of The Alchemists. This vague premise was enough to spur me forward, intent on revealing the world’s secrets.

In Monster Sanctuary, monster collecting is woven into the fabric of the game. Creatures are incredibly cute, and range from real-life animals like lions and eagles to steampunk-like creations, as well as the classic blob (a personal favorite of mine). The more monsters you have, the more prepared you’ll be to face down the game’s varied enemies. You can collect as many as you want, but your fighting party is typically three (and in specific cases, six) monsters for any given battle. Each has elemental strengths and weaknesses that carry over into attacks, healing spells, and buffs — buffs become especially important as enemies grow more difficult.

A versus screen showing two groups of six enemies facing off against each other. One of the groups is a variety of creatures, while the other group is comprised solely of different types of blobs. Image: moi rai games/Team17 via Polygon

While combat starts out on a repetitious note, it ends up requiring a fair bit of strategy thanks to each monster’s perk tree, making it a great choice for anyone who grew up with Pokémon but wants a different take on monster progression and evolution. Monsters accrue experience points that can be spent on perks tied to specific elements. This makes it worthwhile to collect more than one of any monster type — you might develop one into a poison spore specialist, and another into a healer. Winning battles is as much about team composition as team development. Some of my favorite battles were fought with multiple of the same type of monster — just with different elemental proclivities or perk tree choices.

But maybe you’re a lover and not a fighter? This game’s dense 2D map is delightfully varied, with biome-specific regions that house certain types of monsters and gated areas motivating me to catch someone specific for my party. Each monster has a unique “explore ability,” and setting them as a primary opens new move sets — like unlocking double jump or dash in a classic Metroidvania. A Koi lets you swim freely underwater, while a Draconov aids players in jumping farther and falling more slowly. In Pokémon games, I like being able to admire my favorite creatures — but in Monster Sanctuary it really felt as if we worked together and formed a bond outside of battles.

I’ve never felt the desire to actually “catch ’em all.” Monster Sanctuary changed that. Round it out with the fact that I was able to give my monsters ridiculous names like “Meowderer,” “Koi McKoiface,” “Gay Blob” (he’s rainbow patterned!), and “Benjamin,” and I became an absolute sucker for growing my party and taking on challenges at every turn. The game is an absolute delight. Just be careful — it might ruin other monster-taming games for you.

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