Monaco: What's Yours is Mine Review
Bring some proper villains
There’s a timelessness to thievery, one befitting the second oldest profession around. The exploits of clever bandits have always captured the imagination; all that’s needed is a little cosmetic work to keep their stories relevant across eras. The Rat Pack Ocean’s 11 becomes Clooney’s 11. Kelly’s Heroes gives way to Three Kings. The Italian Job morphs into an extended Mini Cooper commercial. That’s what makes Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine, long-awaited 2010 IGF winner, such an intriguing work. It takes the assembled tropes of the last century’s fictional heist stories, and successfully grafts them to an aesthetic that’s decidedly retro. The characters, scenarios, and drama are all on display - they’ve just been put through a few arcade filters.
Dane Cook once posited (correctly I think), that every guy wants to be part of a heist. It is an alluring fantasy, after all, and I’m sure it even bridges the gender divide. There’s the flirtation with evil, the tension of the risks, and the inherent coolness of getting what you want through wit and guile. Monaco has all of that, and it has it in spades. Cook also said that every guy wants a monkey. There's a guy with a monkey in Monaco. The monkey steals things, too.
That particular fellow is The Pickpocket, one of the eight playable characters in Monaco’s rogues gallery, and its second unreliable narrator. The first is The Locksmith, who provides a recollection of crimes to an investigator, post capture. Their conversations, which preface each of a series of increasingly ambitious heists, tell a simple story of success and betrayal. Fastidious completion of these missions however begins to unlock a new path, wherein The Pickpocket lays out a different version of the events. The two campaigns must be played to completion in order to determine the fate of these Usual Suspects, and combine to weave a complex, clever tale of thievery.
Clever, but a bit poorly conveyed. There’s no exposition within Monaco’s played missions; it’s relayed by detached boxes of text, and it’s limited to the introduction to each level. There isn’t much to help the narrative crystalize in one’s mind, so it’s easy to lose the beat of the plot after a particularly long level or two. You might, on occasion, forget what you’re after and why. Sometimes it feels like stealing for the sake of stealing. Sometimes it is.
It would be a tall order for Monaco’s pixelated visuals to transmit all the information necessary for stealth gameplay, let alone channel the glitz and intrigue of a Hollywood heist. Remarkably, it nails the former. And though it largely achieves the latter as well, sometimes Monaco’s video game shorthand comes up just a little...well, short. Sometimes it’s an issue with the limitations of an indie game. An early mission to hijack a prisoner transport, for example, disappointingly turns out to take place after the convoy has crashed. You’re only tasked with picking through the wreckage (while avoiding the roaming guards) and walking up to the waiting prisoner. And no amount of sprite editing was ever going to capture the grandeur of the Hotel de Paris or the Casino de Monte Carlo.
Sometimes it’s an issue with abstraction. Monaco’s perspective is overhead, looking upon the environment as an architectural blueprint. It gives a maze-like feel, which, while apt for a sneaking game, comes with some very “game-y” effects. The objects that you covet, be they jewels or documents, are always rendered as giant, stereotypical trophies, which does a fair bit to damage their mystique. Cash in Monaco is translated into simple yellow diamond shapes which, when collected, refill ammunition for items and help unlock Pickpocket missions. Touch a stack of bills, and it bursts into an array of diamond shapes to grab. It's a little less Heat, and a little more Pac Man - ten million dollars in little dots and cherries.
Characters in Monaco have a weird sort of "E.T." look to them, with necks that crane and stretch with exaggerated independence. It seems odd at first, but you’ll come to appreciate how it effectively illustrates the characters’ paranoia and curiosity. They’re charming, quirky little creatures, though I must admit to a certain fondness for the neon mites of the game’s prototype (thankfully, the spirit of those figures is retained in the character profile shots). Should you take the violent approach, “killed” enemies become angular skeletons that can be pushed around. But don’t fret: Monaco’s levels are self-perpetuating ecosystems. Even that skeleton can be revived by an obnoxiously helpful civilian. There’s no Hotline Miami effect, here. Visible footsteps and color coded punctuation marks above the heads of foes, now seemingly genre staples, round out the behavior infographics.
The remainder of Monaco’s stealth system can be gleaned through simple, but effective audiovisual cues. The top down perspective grants its usual benefit of clairvoyance, tempered somewhat by your character’s field of vision. Rays of illumination radiate out from your character in a semicircle to their front, showing what they’re capable of seeing before them. It feels surprisingly realistic, and provides the tangential benefit of being really cool looking. The restrictions on your sight create a suitably tense dynamic where you sometimes need to break line of sight in order to hide or focus on a lock to be picked. Picking locks, hacking computers, and other such skullduggery is achieved simply by pressing against the object in question. You’re vulnerable in the process, and it takes time (indicated by little stopwatch), so you’re going to come to the edge of your seat during a few close shaves.
Controls are very forgiving for a top-down game. Despite the “gridded” look, there’s a little play to the relationship between “tiles”, so you never feel like you’re in trouble because you accidentally pressed a little too much to the right or left. (It’s not stringent). The Cleaner, for example, can knock enemies out from a variety of weird angles, and the game even allows you to take guards out from the front if you catch them relatively unawares. And while it’s a benevolent addition, that old standby ability to throw enemies off your tail by exiting the floor hampers immersion a bit.
If there's a true misstep to be found with Monaco, it might be the soundtrack. Austin Wintory's ragtime piano accompaniments are meant to evoke silent movies, but they’re out of step with the glossy neon stylings of the rest of the game. The tracks are appropriately frenetic, and they react well to on-screen happenings, but they still seem to better suit a story where mustachioed villains tie damsels to train tracks. Why no jazz? Someone desperately needs to take the bass for a walk through Monaco’s pixelated corridors.
The rest of the audio design plays an appropriately large role in sneaking around Monaco. Most sound effects in the game are true to life, which helps to alleviate the abstraction of the visuals. Footsteps and voices, for example, crescendo and decrescendo with proximity, helping to pinpoint unseen enemies. The language of Monaco is French, which, for non-speakers, mitigates some of the sense of redundancy in guard dialogue ("Huh? What's that box?"). If you've taken a lesson or two, though, you'll notice the usual oddities: after pumping me half full of bullets and watching me limp into an air duct, one guard remarked, confused, "Ce n’est pas rien." There's also a little bit of clipping to the audio effects. But for the most part, Monaco’s various noises place you in the scene. The occasional noisy cat or ringing phone can even throw a wrench into the best laid stealth plans.
It’s easy, and fun, for missions to devolve into chaos in such sudden and unpredictable ways, but Monaco’s best experiences come when you pull off a coordinated heist with the efficiency of a movie’s crew. When a plan comes together, it can give the impression that you and your allies are empowered with a sixth sense. We ascribe this sort of mysticism to sleight of hand. We ask no questions when the hero empties the pockets of their mark without ever extending an arm. We probably weren't looking at the arm, anyway - we were looking at their winking, bedtime eyes. It's illusion. Low magic.
Games and magic are well acquainted, as it happens, allowing Monaco’s heist tropes to make easy translation to played experience. And so your assembled crew of degenerates becomes a party, and their specialties its various classes. Mage and Necromancer aren't so functionally different from Hacker and Locksmith, after all, unless you want to split hairs about raising the dead. In a quaint touch, each crook bears a personality much in line with their profession. The shovel toting Mole speaks in a primal 3rd person. The Lookout is perpetually paranoid, and the Hacker converses in a clipped, unspaced lowercase.
Each fills a distinct role, their abilities clever calques from heist fiction. The Gentleman has a flair for disguise, for example, and The Redhead can charm enemies. The levels are crafted in such fashion that each has ample opportunity to utilize their unique talents. They're not designed with equality in mind - I find The Pickpocket and his gold-seeking, trap-evading monkey to be top tier. But the imbalance is perfectly acceptable in a cooperative game like Monaco, where a larger team can make use of the more niche talents, or success with the relatively blue collar skills of the Locksmith can demonstrate mastery.
That mastery might take some time though, especially if you’re playing solo. Monaco ramps up to agonizing difficulty in its later stages, and a single player, bereft of the ability to revive, faces an uphill battle against the security. With a dearth of multiplayer partners available pre-release, I was only able to pass the last stages through some gerrymandering and the occasional suicide run. It’s considerably easier with more players, provided that they’re all on the same page, of course. True to heist fiction, one rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel.
One hapless ally of mine had a tendency to trigger every alarm in sight, then make a beeline straight at me to compromise my cover as well. But a little experience with Monaco’s straightforward systems hones the skills, and after a little time you and your crew should be able to pull off grand schemes like a well-oiled machine. It can come off sublimely cinematic, and often in unexpected ways. Growing frustrated with the slow, tentative pace of one ally during an early level I was well-versed in, I deigned to liven him up by executing the civilian that he had been hiding from with a shotgun. Alarms blared, guards swarmed, and I scampered around as he stared in shock. Only after the fact did I come to appreciate that I was “that guy” in the heist movie. You know, the latecomer that nobody’s sure if they can trust?
Soderburgh’s talkative Ocean’s 11 remake ended with an iconic "silent movie" shot to Debussy’s Clair de Lune. It’s a fitting reversal then, that Monaco, which is largely absent of voices, ends with a vocal tune. In a different medium, with the parts rearranged, the heist still scratches the same itch. The classic elements are all there, and though they're pixelated, flipped, filtered, and translated, they're as fun as they've ever been.