Whether it’s full blown cooking mini games in the Cooking Mama series or a way to heal and boost your stats in Tears of the Kingdom, you cannot escape the art of cooking in video games. Especially because so many games have crafting mechanics nowadays, putting together different dishes with different effects is something I do more in games than I do in real life. Monster Menu: The Scavenger’s Cookbook takes this one step further, and frames an entire tactics RPG around food.
At the start of the game your custom character wakes up in the ruins of some sort of forgotten civilisation, with no memory of how they got there. As you can imagine they would rather be back home, and get to work trying to find their way out of this labyrinth of monsters. Before long they meet up with a selection of other lost custom characters, and you’ll have a party of four trying to escape this place. There’s not a whole lot more to it, so get ready to wander through some ruins and fight some bats, birds, and demons.
The combat in Monster Menu will feel more than a little familiar if you’ve ever played a tactics game before. When it’s a character’s turn they can move a set amount of squares towards an enemy, and then attack with their weapon or one of their skills. All the usual tactics rules apply, spears can hit enemies two squares away, bows can be fired from afar but are a little less damaging, and if you can’t get close enough to a baddie then you can just defend for a turn instead. I guess if it isn’t broke there’s no reason to fix it, but don’t come into this game expecting anything revolutionary.
As well as being able to use their equipped weapon, each character also has a selection of abilities they can use in a fight. The chef has the incredibly important ability to heal, the mage has a variety of elemental attacks to use, and the warrior type classes have weapon skills to unleash. By using these skills enough you’ll slowly level up your skill in these specialisations, and unlock even better and more powerful abilities. Again nothing revolutionary, but a tried and tested system that is satisfying enough.
The real thing that sets Monster Menu apart from other games though is everything food related. You see food doesn’t just heal you in this game, it provides semi-permanent stat boosts and more importantly is needed to keep your calorie and thirst meters topped up. Every action you take in this game will slightly drain these important meters which are crucial for survival, and certain special abilities (like healing) will use up a hefty chunk of them.
You’ll need to loot every shiny patch of grass and defeated enemy for ingredients if you want to survive for more than a couple of days, then between floors you can do some cooking. Everything you cook has four things it can affect: HP, calories, hydration and happiness. A salad is great for a character who is more thirsty than hungry, whereas a big ole kebab is packed with calories and will make anyone smile. In a pinch though you can also make much sadder meals, like a bowl of hay and rocks that’ll boost your calories a little but make you miserable and actually lower your stats. Sometimes though this is the only way to survive, especially when all of your other ingredients have started to rot in your rucksack.
Eventually the hunger, thirst and scary monsters will overwhelm the party, and they’ll collapse and wake up at the beginning of the game. That’s right, Monster Menu is sort of a Roguelike, but not a whole lot actually resets when you die. Any equipment you find stays equipped to your characters, any abilities your character has learned can still be used, and any recipes or crafting instructions you find also stick around. The only thing that resets are your character’s levels, but in every other way they’ll be stronger.
The Roguelike element that doesn’t really feel very present in Monster Menu though is the randomness. I guess the chests, enemies, and layout of each floor you explore is random, but they all feel so similar that it never really feels like you’re exploring a whole new world. The real focus here is surviving combat and keeping all your meters topped up, but environments that are worth a second glance would certainly have been welcome.
I have one other gripe with Monster Menu, which is just plain annoying. As you explore the different floors of the dungeon your team of colourful characters will blurt out one liners about what’s going on. Anytime a chest, enemy or gathering spot gets near the party they’ll remark “there’s something near”, and this repeats constantly. It’s utterly infuriating, and meant I played most of the game with the volume turned entirely off.
Monster Menu: The Scavenger’s Cookbook blends tactics and calories to create a very thoughtful RPG. Having to manage your meters is difficult, but very satisfying when you pull it off. It has a couple of issues like repetitive voice lines and slightly bland environments, but that core tactics gameplay is still a hell of a lot of fun.
Tactics gameplay is as fun as ever
Managing your meters is satisfying
The food theme is wonderful
Some annoying repetitive voice lines
Environments aren't particularly fun to explore
The tactics combat leans a little on the basic side
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