The constantly expanding universe of videogaming has brought an avalanche of titles filled with gunfire, clashing swords, explosions, powered armor, and dragons. In spite of this, Belgian studio Larian, famous for their well respected Divinity series, have put their expertise into Monkey Tales, a series of five educational games of varying difficulty that serves as a 21st century solution to making the generally unappetizing subject matter of mathematics more palatable to the young.
The game comes packaged with all five games in the series on Steam for $15. Each game is set in a different environment and is tailored to suit children of varying ages. Naturally, I went for the toughest one, titled “The Valley of the Jackal,” which featured 6th grade mathematics.
This campaign is set in a sort of Indiana Jones-themed ancient Egypt setting. You pick your adventurer, a boy or girl, and set off on some vaguely explained quest that involved rescuing monkeys and locking them up in your monkey sanctuary.
Each of the several thirty or so levels takes place in a relatively small puzzle room in which you can navigate a number of puzzles to access bananas that you collect in order to feed your captive monkeys. To progress to the next level, you must activate a booth located at the exit of the current level which is guarded by a monkey, which will activate a math-based minigame. Should you succeed, said monkey will be added to your sanctuary, which you can inspect at any point in the game.
Progressing throughout the levels, of course, is required to beat the game, but collecting bananas is optional. Your captive monkeys will be extremely displeased that the’re not getting anything to eat, but it isn’t clear what gameplay effect this has. In every level, you can always just make a beeline to the exit, play the minigame, and progress without ever solving any of the puzzles in the room. However, you’d be doing yourself a great disservice by not engaging in them.
The puzzle-based gameplay is easily the best thing about Monkey Tales, good enough that in this respect alone it stands as a legitimate puzzle solving game alongside titles such as Limbo and Braid. You must move crates, activate switches and avoid traps and roaming enemies in order to collect all the bananas in the room. In the initial levels, the puzzles are fairly straightforward, but the difficulty gradually ramps up, and by the halfway point some of the puzzles can prove to be surprisingly difficult, even for adult players.
One particular puzzle I was forced to skip out of sheer difficulty involved teleporting between parts of the room and pushing crates aside to gain access to bananas, all while having to dodge bolts of lasers that ricocheted unpredictably off surfaces. Monkey Tales is pretty brutal in this aspect, as a mistake will result in an instantaneous death, forcing players to start the level all over again. Accidentally pushing a vital crate into a corner where it cannot be moved any further means that one would have to restart the level all over again as well, as the player character inexplicably cannot pull crates.
It should be noted that, despite being geared towards children, there are some fairly gruesome deaths involved should players falter. These include the player’s body being reduced to ash, except for his or her eyeballs, being melted into a puddle of goo, being stabbed to death, and being consumed by snakes.
Visually, the puzzle gaming section looks good. The graphics are cartoonish, with vibrant colors and solid animation. By hitting control, players get a complete view of the entire map, allowing them to carefully study their surroundings and figure out a solution. My only quibble is that some levels contain patches of quicksand, which, when stepped on, result in instant death. One can make out the difference in the terrain by looking for a swirling quality in the sand, but this visual cue is so faint that the first five or six times I died from it, I didn’t realize what was going on until I took a hard look at the ground.
At any rate, the puzzles are surprisingly fun and challenging, and gamers of any age, let alone children, will get a serious workout of their cognitive functions. Given the difficulty of some of them, it’s understandable that this aspect of the game is optional.
Unfortunately, the not-so optional element of Monkey Tales, the minigames, is not quite up to par. Upon activating the booth at the end of each level, the game switches to one of several minigames, all of which involve competing with the AI to solve math problems. One of them resembling Space Invaders has you controlling a laser cannon that can move left or right. You must solve a math problem presented to you at the bottom of the screen, and then shoot at one of several numbers dangling above your cannon before your AI competitor does. At first, these are as simple as “What is 4+3?” However, like the puzzle element, the difficulty ramps up considerably, and you will find yourself having to figure out what 2.3 divided by 4 is and other abstract calculations.
This is all well and good, but the problem is that these minigames don’t resemble the main, puzzle solving component of Monkey Tales at all. They feel like any number of free flash-based games one would find for free on the internet cobbled together and then encased inside a much larger, more impressive game. Where the puzzle element disguises a test of cognitive abilities with ancient Egypt motifs, machete wielding skeletons and lasers, the minigames don’t do much disguising at all to make math more interesting. There may be lasers and spaceships and other fantastic elements involved in them as well, but compared to the puzzle element, which integrates these elements into the gameplay and the story, these serve more as window dressing for solving very direct math problems.
One moment, you are journeying to an ancient temple, collecting bananas for your pet monkeys while avoiding various hazards like skeleton guards and mummies, and the next moment, you are playing a flash game that has no aesthetic resemblance to the puzzle-based gameplay, figuring out math problems. Why not do away with the minigames entirely and instead have the math solving take place within the puzzle gameplay, where the good graphics and gameplay reside?
The control scheme, which can’t be remapped, is also bizarre. Instead of using WASD to move around, you use the arrow keys to do that, while pressing the space bar to activate things and the mouse to select hud elements. This basically requires one to shift both hands back and forth between the keyboard and mouse, and given today’s PC gaming standards, this is downright unacceptable.
In spite of this, Monkey Tales is still a good choice for parents who want to provide their children with a more engaging alternative to textbooks and assignment sheets. The minigames, which form the crux of the educational component, aren’t a whole lot of fun and could have been integrated with the game much better, but the puzzle solving gameplay is solid and well constructed. This means that even if players don’t necessarily enjoy the minigames, they would be willing to progress through them anyway in order to engage further in the more entertaining puzzle solving, which, as you have figured out by now, is best not skipped despite being optional. Judging a game that is meant to educate children is not quite the same as judging a game that is meant to entertain young adults, and for that Monkey Tales must be looked at with different expectations. This is a game that gets its objective done very competently; it could have been done more creatively, but it gets it done nevertheless.
Engaging puzzle gameplay
Surprising difficulty that gradually increases
Vibrant, colorful graphics