It’s likely that many of you reading this have played Pokémon. The ubiquitous monster-taming series is somewhat of worldwide phenomenon. However, despite its popularity, one aspect of the series’ core gameplay that’s always been a bit lacking is that of its breeding system. No matter what Pokémon you breed, you never get a completely new one; instead, you always end up with the same Pokémon that you bred. Games like the Shin Megami Tensei series do somewhat better with their Demon Fusion systems, but the results are often nonsensical and, as a result of their nonsensical nature, unpredictable.
Developer Jason Walsh, having wanted a game in which the breeding system would create hybrids of the monsters that you attempt to breed, set out to make one himself. The result is Crowns, a monster-taming RPG in which players can create increasingly complex and, oftentimes, increasingly disfigured hybrids out of the monsters they catch, ever refining their traits through further breeding. I recently had a chance to speak with Walsh about the game and take a tour of the current build.
Crowns takes place on an island called Crown Island, which gets its name from its crown-like shape. Some time ago, three sadistic kings that weren’t entirely human, known as the Philosopher Kings, ruled over the island, each residing in a castle that sat at the end of each of the peninsulas that formed the island’s shape. They were somewhat mad, which led the people of Crown Island to overthrow them, inciting a devastating war. This is reflected in-game in several ways, not least of which is the site of a bloody battle where the foliage has permanently been stained red by the blood that was spilled there.
The story follows a young boy whose father notices that he has an inclination for adventuring and monster taming. Hoping to allow his son a chance to adventure, he sends him to deliver a gift of some sort to a nearby kingdom. Along the way, he meets a dangerous boy named David and a girl named Beth, who leads a group of thugs, and becomes embroiled in a plot to resurrect the Philosopher Kings.
Walsh noted that Beth’s story, in particular, is fairly complex. She’s out for power and her chosen monster, one that isn’t seen elsewhere, is said to have strong ties to her backstory. Walsh added that “there’s actually quite a big surprise behind her monster and where it came from.”
In addition to the main story, the game will feature a number of side quests. Some of these may require you to speak to the same people multiple times in order to get the quest and they won’t be tracked in any significant way. Many of these may also have unexpected results; the example that I was given is that you may help a young couple elope only to later find out that they couldn’t survive on their own and ended up dying.
Even from what little I’ve seen of the game, it is evident that quite a lot of care has gone into the development of the world. In addition to what I’ve mentioned above, I was shown a blacksmith’s oven of sorts that resembled a monster that breathes fire. Much of what the world is, its culture and symbolism, comes from the world itself, rather than the real world, which should make the exploration of it a fairly involved and rewarding experience.
Exploration of the world is done in a manner very similar to that of traditional JRPGs. You explore the world from a top-down perspective and can move in four directions. There are dedicated cities, encounter zones, and dungeons, some of which come in the form of caves. One of my favorite features from games like Pokémon Yellow makes an appearance in the form of your monsters following behind you. You will even be able to ride on larger monsters, with some giving you the ability to fly. I’ve been told that the plan is for your entire team of monsters to follow you, but that, at present, only one does. Interestingly, as they follow you, monsters are rendered to scale, meaning that some of those that follow could be quite massive compared to your young character.
Where Crowns really sets itself apart from its predecessors is the manner in which encounters occur. Monsters spawn randomly, but the encounters themselves aren’t random. Each monster that spawns in has one of several attitudes, which give it particular inclinations. They could simply stand still and graze, they could roam around a bit, or they could seek out your character and aim to attack them. Regardless, you can always see them on the map, moving about the world as you do.
As one might expect of a system like this, there is a way to gain initiative in battles. You can target nearby monsters and send the monster that is following behind you to attack them, an action that isn’t dissimilar to striking monsters with your weapon on a dungeon map in more recent JRPGs. By doing so, you will gain initiative in the form of “a boost or a little speed buff.” Walsh explained the reason for this mechanic as follows: “If this is a wild, wild world, where these monsters are attacking you, they could injure or kill you. It doesn’t really make much sense for you to dive head first into a monster battle.”
Battles are turn-based and operate in a fairly standard fashion, offering the option to attack, defend, use an item, or switch monsters, but there are a few twists. There are five types: Brute, Relentless, Unstable, Vicious, and Will. Unstable is strong against Relentless, Relentless is strong against Will, Will is strong against Brute, Brute is strong against Vicious, Vicious is strong against Unstable, and the inverse of each is true for weaknesses. Additionally, each move is either physical or magical, which plays into another system that will be explained later on.
Before each attack, you will be given a chance to dodge the oncoming attack. The way that this will be done is through a very fast quick-time event in which three directional inputs are shown. Successfully inputting each of the three directions as shown will result in a successful dodge.
One of the most unique systems, however, is that of stockpiling. Stockpiling takes the option to switch between monsters and gives it real value by awarding bonuses for switching to monsters of “compatible types.” Walsh explained the system as follows: “If you have a physical monster that fights with their fists […] and you switch to another physical fighter, you’re going to build up [the] stockpile gauge.” The stockpile gauge has six bars in all, of which you gain a single bar per switch. Managing to build up your stockpile gauge will “superpower your attacks, […] give you buffs, […] inflict debuffs, that sort of thing.“ However, if you attack your opponent or get hit by them during the time that you are building up the stockpile gauge, it will drop back down to zero.
Playing into this system is an “evolutionary dead end” of a monster that is known as “Dilla.” Dilla can’t defend itself and is essentially fated to go extinct, but they have value in battle. If you have a Dilla, you can call upon it to defend you from a single attack. Used tactically, this can increase your chances of successfully building up a stockpile.
While the dodging and stockpiling systems are in place and use of them will increase your chances at victory, it will be possible to play the game without using them. Walsh explained that the team is “hoping to open a lot of options for a lot of different playstyles, […] but you will have to spend some time grinding if you’re not interested in using the strategies that are in the game.”
Combat is also one of the primary ways in which you obtain new monsters. In Crowns, you tame wild monsters by making contracts with them. It is explained early on in the game that you have to prove to the monster that they should join you, that you will be able to help them grow strong. These have fairly simple requirements: your active monster should be at least the same level as the monster you’re trying to form a contract with, you should rough them up a bit before attempting to form the contract, and you should have a contract item on you. There will be several tiers of contract, some of which will offer higher rates of success than others. Walsh also noted that there will be a specific type of monster known as a “demonic monster” that will require a “Demonic Contract,” which is written in blood, to be tamed.
Once you’ve tamed several monsters, you can begin breeding them. The breeding system is where the game really shines, offering a uniquely rewarding system of breeding different monsters to create completely new ones. The game employs a system of genetics that are passed down to the child monster, which becomes a hybrid of its parents. The game even allows you to choose which parent will be primary and which will be secondary, which will influence the outcome of your attempts at breeding.
One of the more interesting aspects of breeding is that the offspring will be able to learn all of the moves that both parents would have been able to learn. There’s no cap on the number of moves a monster can learn, so successful attempts at breeding can lead to some rather large movesets. The one caveat is that, if, for example, both parents were to learn a move at level 50, the child will only be able to learn the move that the primary parent would have learned at that level. This encourages careful attempts at breeding as players attempt to discover which parents will cancel out each other’s moves.
Also of interest is the fact that you can breed any monster, even if they themselves were the result of breeding. While they will hit a point where they stop evolving visually, their stats and movesets will continue to morph with each attempt at breeding. The idea is that, due to the game’s genetics system, after several generations, your monster will be a completely unique variant that only you have.
After breeding two monsters, the resulting child will need to be raised before it is ready for battles. You will be given two options for raising it: you can take an egg with you, which will take a while to hatch, or you can take an embryo with you, which will become fully grown fairly quickly. The caveat is that, in order to raise an embryo, it has to earn experience in battle by being the active monster at some point during each battle. While it will still earn experience if you quickly switch it away, if it takes even a single hit, it will die permanently.
What will likely be of the most interest to many, however, is the visual evolution of monsters that you breed. As Laz is a sort of mascot for the game and has many of its visual evolutions designed and in the game at this point in time, I mostly tried breeding different monsters with it. Walsh explains its backstory as follows, which helps explain the results a bit: “Laz is actually just a small grazing animal that was infected by a fungus and got killed. That fungus is like a magical fungus, so it reanimates the body and walks around in it. It’s kind of rotting a bit. It doesn’t look like it’s going to hurt you too much, but it actually does have some dark abilities, especially as it levels up.”
During the tour of the game, I was given a choice of what to breed Laz with and I chose an armless T-Rex-like monster called Teedon. The result was the terrifying creature that you can see in the image above. As Walsh put it: “That’s kind of a Relentless spin on Laz. It’s like the mushrooms and the infectious virus have become relentless. It’s thriving in its environment and it’s growing maybe beyond even what it should.” After expressing how disconcerted I was by the creature, he followed up by stating: “Yeah, you know, the blame for this is totally on you. This thing doesn’t look like it has a very good quality of life.” This sentiment was an interesting one, as it lends to the idea that, in their quest for power, players are inherently creating new monsters that perhaps shouldn’t exist and that they perhaps should feel some regret when breeding results in a creature as horrific as the so-called “Lazdon.”
However, the Relentless variant is but one possible variant. Walsh explained each of the variants as follows: “The Vicious variant of a monster is going to be very sadistic; it loves to cause pain. The Brute type variant is going to be a heavy hitter. It’s got big fists. It’s going to take something down. The Will type is going to be very strong. It’s going to be able to take a hit. […] And then you’ve got the Relentless [variant], […] which is going to be very good at surviving in its environment. It’s got a lot of endurance. It can outlast the other monsters, almost like some sort of lightweight boxer. And the Unstable type, of course, is something as it begins to fall apart.”
Once you’ve bred a team of monsters, you have the option of taking those that didn’t make it onto your team to the Auction House, where you will be able to sell or trade them. You will even have the option of buying “very rare, prized” monsters.
The auction house will have an offline component, but it was noted that an online component is planned. Additionally, players will be able to take part in online battles, giving them a chance to test their teams against those of other players.
The game will also be highly moddable. Players will be able to mod in their own monsters, complete with their own looks and stats, and the game will automatically handle the breeding process. However, as visual changes are hand-made, each individual visual change would have to be created and modded into the game. It should also be noted that modding your game will keep you from being able to access the game’s online component.
In terms of development, Walsh estimated that the game will take another ten to twelve months to complete. He stated that, at present, only around 10% of the story has been programmed into the game and that only 70 of around planned 200 monsters have been completed. Only a PC release has been confirmed as of yet, but Walsh has stated that he is going to look into releasing the game on other platforms, noting that he is specifically interested in porting it to Nintendo Switch and PlayStation Vita.
Crowns is a promising project. It is a true passion project that was born out of Walsh’s desire to play a monster taming RPG in which breeding monsters resulted in the creation of new monsters, but it’s also a bit more than that. Walsh has made a number of changes to the typical JRPG formula in order to create a more engaging experience and I, for one, am very interested in seeing how it turns out.