I narrowly manage to escape the attention of a guard by ducking into a room around the corner. While listening to his footsteps, waiting for him to pass, I realize there is a uniform in the room where I’m hiding. I don the disguise, and make my way back to the breaker room I ran by early while being pursued. I cut the power, and saunter into the secondary Bank vault, walking by disabled laser beams and begin cracking the safe. The instant the safe breaks open and all the coins spill out, the power comes back on. Several tracking lasers identify me, and the three guards that rush in quickly see through my disguise. In a panic, I drop a couple of smoke bombs and rush my way out. Bee-lining my way through a gauntlet of guards, dropping more smoke bombs along the way, I manage to make it back to the getaway van and escape, richer, albeit a little banged-up.
Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine, a stealth-action heist game, truly shines when dynamic moments such as the one I experienced above recreate the tension and tumult of a heist gone wrong. Winner of both the “Excellence in Design” and the “Seamus McNally Grand Prize” award at the 2010 IGF awards after only 15 weeks of development, I have long been anticipating what lead developer Andy Schatz and the team at Pocketwatch Games would eventually release. While the title stumbles in places, primarily in its level-gating towards the end of the game and at times its effectiveness in handling full four-player coop teams, the game is a gem that shines as brightly as the objects of its thieves’ desires.
Each level takes place across usually two to four floors of a location which must be infiltrated, and eventually exfiltrated once the target items have been pilfered. The game is two-dimensional, with a top-down camera, and maps appear as greyscale architectural plans—the kind you would see splayed out and poured over by a crew of criminals in an abandoned hanger outside of town, with buildings, doors, power junctions, and other items of note marked. Each player’s field-of-view colorizes the visible area, and reveals guards, gems, and other items of note. This design approach works well to create a sense of feeling behind enemy lines, in the dark, while also highlighting the slightly-retro and colorful art design.
Playable as a lone wolf, or in a crew of up to four rouges in (mostly) cooperative multiplayer, both locally and online, players are tasked with retrieving shiny objects and other valuables across over 30 levels. At the onset of each mission, players choose one of four playable characters (a number which increases to eight as new characters are unlocked over the course of the game), each with their own special ability. The Locksmith can crack through doors and safes faster than his compatriots, while the Lookout can see enemy positions and movements across the entire map, and so on. Each character lends themselves to a different play style, and it’s fun to try out different tactics with them. In addition, one of the joys of cooperative multiplayer is fulfilling the fantasy of ‘assembling a crack team’, picking thieves with complementary abilities that benefit the team as a whole.
I played through the majority of the game as a lone operator, which I found to be an excellent exercise in stealth and strategy. That being said, this game differs from other stealth titles in the fact that you do not play a ninja or master assassin. The cast of characters in Monaco are simple criminals, and you will get caught by the guards and police of each level many times throughout the game. In this aspect, Monaco excels in not falling into the standard ‘save and reload game’ pattern that players of stealth games fall into when they fail to perfectly play as an unseen ghost. Some of the most exhilarating moments in the game came from narrowly escaping patrols and reacting to mistakes on the fly. The game gives you a wide array of tools to prevent and handle these kerfuffles, ranging from sleep-dart equipped crossbows, to smoke bombs, C4, shotguns, and others. Approaching situations with different items equipped definitely changed my strategy within a given level, and was fun to experiment with.
However, that being said, when playing with a full complement, the game can devolve into a mad house. It can be difficult to effectively coordinate such a large team, and guards triggered by one player can quickly become a problem for teammates, an effect which often cascades. The sheer madness of four people, usually going about their own plan, made it difficult to get anything done in an efficient manner in my experience. While at times this hectic gameplay can feel like arcadey fun, I often found it frustrating and enjoyed the game much more on my own. Despite this, several times I paired up with only one other player and had a blast flawlessly executing unrehearsed plans and supporting each other’s endeavors, coordinating in a way I did not find possible with more than two people. In light of my successes with one other player, while it might take lots of practice and communication, a good group of four players potentially has the opportunity to pull off Ocean’s 11 scale heists.
The game’s narrative takes place for the first half of the game from the Locksmith’s perspective, detailing the events that led up to each theft in between missions. For an independent game that’s is not too focused on storytelling, the game does a surprisingly well job characterizing itself, even if the plot is a fairly archetypical crime story. It also does a good job in capturing the charm of its source material, drawing inspiration from films like The Italian Job, Reservoir Dogs, and others. Adding to the texture of the experience is an excellent soundtrack produced by the Grammy-nominated Journey composer Austin Wintory, which is currently available on bandcamp to sample. While consisting of primarily a single-piano, the soundtrack adds a levity and playfulness which enhanced the experience for me.
Once you begin to make progress through the Locksmith’s story, you begin to unlock the second half of the game, a parallel but different telling of the proceedings from the view of the Pickpocket, another playable character. In this fashion Monaco introduces the trope of the unreliable narrator, which is another nod to the heist films. Each of the Pickpocket’s missions are foils to those visited in the Locksmith’s campaign, similar in theme and setting, but the set-up and actual mission layout changes. These are not simply re-skinned missions, but completely revamped levels that offer a fresh take on their counterparts in the original story, while unveiling another layer of narrative revealing the ‘true’ account of events.
Herein however lies my second notable gripe with the game. In order to unlock each successive mission in the Pickpocket’s second parallel campaign, players are required to ‘clean out’ two previously played mission. Cleaning out a mission entails picking up all of the gems scattered throughout a level. While I usually enjoyed revisiting levels with the added challenge of picking up all of the collectibles, the gating of the Pickpocket’s missions became frustrating for me towards the last quarter of the game. It became increasingly difficult to clean out the later missions on my own, and even with a partner or two it became a bit of a slough. I wouldn’t have minded this in another game, and would have left the cleaning out of the later missions to the completionists, but gating the ‘true ending’ behind this mechanic was disappointing to me. While this was hardly an experience breaking problem for me, I felt as if the progression through the later levels could have been more elegantly handled.
On the balance though Monaco is truly a delightful game to play, one that scratches my personal itch for stealth games. The agency afforded to the player, combined with a myriad of approaches made possible by different character and items choices, defined the experience for me as one of my favorite indie games released this year. A playful heist simulator, the game is an innovative breath of fresh air in the stealth-action genre. While my cooperative experience was variable, as tends to be the case with these modes in games, your mileage will vary based upon your partner(s) in crime. Despite the 15+ hours I spent with the game, I look forward to revisiting it with other players now that it has been released into the wild, and really, that’s some of the highest praise I can offer a game.