Picture this; you’re casing a bank with three other partners in crime, each bringing their own skillset to the table. You pick the lock of a door, allowing the Lookout to observe the layout and memorize the guard patterns. The Cleaner sneaks in, throws a rag of chloroform over every roving pair of suspicious eyes, and the rest of the group enters. While The Pickpocket is sending his pet monkey to collect the coins on the side, you grab what everyone came for and start walking to the ladder leading to the exit.
You pause, recalling a safe your comrades passed as they were exploring the floor. It was left untouched for a good reason; three laser tripwires, two roving guards, and one canine with an unfortunate temperament stalk that hall. Going after it would be an unnecessary, suicidal risk that would put the whole operation in jeopardy. Why would you toss the riches you’ve already collected aside and run for a measly six coins?
You don’t care. Despite the protests of your level-headed party, you rush to the safe, forcing them to tag along. Before long, you’re hurriedly limping to the getaway car, carrying a few nasty bites and bullets along with your stolen treasure. Everyone grumbles about your selfish decision (imagine that, coming from thieves!), but deep down you know they loved every second almost as much as you. In the moment that everything went wrong, as you narrowly escaped death, a wave of triumph washed over your body. You took what was theirs… no, you took what was YOURS, what had been yours all along, and lived to tell the tale. This is your treasure, your museum, your country.
Welcome to Monaco.
The plotting and thievery happening behind the scenes of this wealthy city-state weave your typical tale of deception, greed and betrayal. There are a few surprises later in the campaign that turn everything on its head, but for the most part, it’s treated like a basic tool for player motivation. At its worst, it’s a quick reminder that the heist movies Pocketwatch Games took inspiration from never had the best plots. Thankfully, the game itself more than picks up the slack left by a few narrative rough edges.
The goals are almost always simple; break in, grab the accomplice or objective, and creep your way (or make a beeline) to the exit. While exploring the joint, your line of sight erodes the black fog, replacing it with blueprints that show layouts, treasure and security measures, but hides any patrolling entity that escapes your view.
Numerous gold coins are spread across each floor. While they aren’t necessary for finishing the level, collecting them all will unlock more challenging capers and prevent penalties to your overall completion speed, the principle metric used to judge your performance with the world’s on leaderboards. They also dare the player to take more chances, grabbing coins from under a civilian’s feet or inside a heavily-guarded vault.
Most stealth games are about perfecting a route, deftly moving through the shadows, mastering precision button presses, and restarting when you slip up. Monaco is all about taking the clinical, unforgiving nature of the stealth genre and throwing it out the window. The controls are simple enough for a novice to learn and even master, as most actions in the world are relegated to rubbing up against a door, power outlet or guard. The challenge comes from timing; performing an action can take anywhere from two to fifteen seconds, depending on what you’re doing, leaving you open to a range of threats.
You’ll certainly be detected during your short stint as a career criminal, but Pocketwatch has taken stealth’s worst nightmare and turned it into a breathtaking run for your life. The soft, lounge lizard piano in the background turns into a mad flurry of notes, klaxons blaze, and the room fills with guards as you scurry to the exit or a nearby bush. While maintaining a sense of urgency and danger, Monaco gives you leeway to make mistakes and learn from them while having a grand time.
Playing solo is a feasible option, but playing with a group of friends on the couch or over the Internet is where Monaco truly shines. With each additional player, the game transforms from a silent experience into a true heist film. The unique playing style of each thief plays well with any combination of classes. There isn’t a “wrong” or “right” mixture, so simply pick the character you’re interested in (or isn’t spoken for) and you’ll soon discover several unique strategies to clean the place out.
Depending on your partners, co-operative experiences either play out smoothly like Ocean’s Eleven or imbibe the chaotic anarchy of Reservoir Dogs. I’ve played with teams from both persuasions, and whatever the case, it was always memorable. There’s something satisfying yet frustrating when you throw the guts back into a fallen comrade after the guards have walked away, only to have him save your hide minutes later after accidentally triggering a door locked by a handprint scanner.
Monaco isn’t a slouch in its presentation, either. Austin Wintory knows his way around a piano, and lays down a beautiful score that recalls the silent era in movies, where the only soundtrack was from a ragtime band in the theater. The top-down perspective combines pixelated characters with clean environments and UI to craft a distinctive, timeless look that informs the player as often as it entertains.
This year might be filled with great indie games of all shapes and sizes, but don’t let Monaco slip under your radar. Our last Cleaner had an unfortunate “accident” with an exploding car, and we’re short one member. I’ll let you tag along and you’ll get a fair share of the stash, but never forget that Monaco is mine.
Monaco is available now for PC and coming soon for XBLA. Reviewed on PC.
DISCLAIMER: A review code for the Steam version of Monaco was provided by Pocketwatch Games.