This review is going to contain spoilers for the whole game, up to and including the ending. I don't like doing a review this way, but a number of things critical to my opinion of this game only come late. I'm only going to spoil things I feel like I have to, and I'll clearly mark when they start, if you want to only read up to that point. If you don't want any spoilers at all and want to stop reading here, then I'll give you the briefest possible summary: I don't recommend that you, or anyone, play this game for any reason, ever.
The thing about games with stories is that no matter how your play affects them, someone had to write every bit of it. The choices a game offers-- and their consequences-- say as much about it as the actual gameplay. However, using gameplay to present that story, to create atmosphere, and to immerse you in the scenario is critical to gaming as a narrative medium. Good writing can compensate for lackluster mechanics, while good gameplay can smooth over poor or nonsensical plotlines.
For example, Spec Ops: The Line's mediocre gameplay helped lower the player's guard, lulling them into going with the flow during the early stages of the plot. Better mechanics would have made a better game, certainly; but its creators used what they had to enhance the story's power. Another is Papers, Please-- a monotony simulator. It's the most immersive game I've ever played. It pulls you into a rhythm, and the story, told in short, sharp shocks, is punctuation that draws you deeper. Whenever I play the game, my internal monologue is in a strange Boris Badenov accent for days after.
Always Sometimes Monsters fails on virtually every level it attempts to engage on.
It is made in the wrong engine
Honestly, I don't have a problem with RPGMaker being used for commercial products in principle. But it's a hobbyist engine, and Vagabond Dog makes no interesting use of it. The times when it is used (such as for the abortive hunger system, or poorly-constructed minigames), it's bland enough to not even be worth comment. The style of story could have been better served by something like Ren'py, if they'd been willing to go full visual novel for this; after all, they have a few drawn scenes that are reasonably attractive. Twine would probably have been the ideal medium, however, as Vagabond Dog fancies itself as having a strong writing staff (spoilers: they don't), and the story could have been more effective in text alone.
The visuals are bad. So, so bad
The tile graphics are bland and amateurish, offering essentially no atmosphere (with the notable exception of a single room). It's strange, because at times there is visible effort-- for example, one late-game location is supposed to evoke a dying roadside town, but the repetitive tiles and lack of interesting set pieces make it more forgettable than it should be.
The spritework is downright abysmal. As a general rule, they do not emote; with some isolated exceptions, it's possible to play the entire game and see only a gratuitous aiming-a-gun motion. Instead, when the script calls for a visual reaction, tiny emote bubbles pop up over characters' heads-- like a heart, or a music note, or anime-style sweat drops and vein-pops. This, frankly, has never looked good, and it's never wise to evoke visual stylings that were implemented as a cost-cutting measure in low-budget cartoons.
One would expect, given the above, that character portraits used for dialogue would do some of the heavy visual lifting-- many story-driven games use them to great effect. These don't. While not aesthetically offensive, they're entirely static. When even the most emotional exchanges are done with the same unchanging monotony as ordering a burger at McDonald's, it's hard to take the whole thing seriously.
Apparently there are six credited artists. Six.
The sound design is not good
The music doesn't help the mood. In a vacuum it might be pleasant enough to listen to, but the emotionless (if upbeat) background synth offers nothing to a scene. It also doesn't always loop properly, at times inserting a long, noticeable silence before restarting. Neither does Vagabond Dog seem to know what a music cue is; you'll never hear it used to enhance an emotional scene.
Even the tiniest of sound effects would have been a huge improvement. As it is, their inclusion is exceedingly, ridiculously rare. The intrusive emote bubbles, for example, could have seemed a little less disconnected if they had them. Instead, the times that sound effects are used, they're for things like playing fart noises when you interact with a toilet.
Male or female, straight or gay, black or white?
Vagabond Dog really wants us to be talking about this, so let's. I really believe that if you can't do something right, you shouldn't do it at all. Always Sometimes Monsters does it wrong in ways I never imagined they would. But I'm getting ahead of myself; let's start with the good they've done. The game does capably display, at times, just how people will react differently-- consciously or no-- to, say, a person of colour, or a woman, rather than to the by-default straight white man. The first character I selected was a straight (ASM gives no attention to bisexual people) white woman, and in short order, a male character was making blatant passes at me that I'm sure another male wouldn't have gotten. While the scene swiftly lost any pretense of subtlety, it still wasn't that bad.
Unfortunately, the longer the game drags on, the less likely it is that your starting choice matters. When it does matter, it's mostly just for the sorts of insults other characters direct at you. Ultimately, no matter what identity you selected, you are always the same character in the story. Your dialogue is the same, and the plot is the same. Your black trans lesbian has lived the same life, and reacts to plot events in the exact same way, as your cis white heterosexual man. This is madness.
The story is terrible and so is the writing
Spoilers start here
There are no real choices in ASM, for as didactic as it gets about the subject. Your choices never change the sort of person you are. You'll always be tempted to do incredibly questionable things in the pursuit of ambiguous goals. You're always trying to resurrect a dead relationship with someone who's moved on and shows no agency in the matter of getting back together. Your college roommate always stole your essays, and you always collaborate with them as a writer, for a while. You always need to get ten thousand dollars in the space of an hour or someone will get shot. If you didn't want to ruin someone you care about's wedding, you always end up suicidal and homeless. If you do ruin it, someone you once considered your best friend will end up that way instead.
That's not to say ASM is a meditation on fate, either. It's not predestination that moves your character, but instead a willful forcing of all routes to lead to the same destination, logic and narrative be damned. At times, scenarios are nonsensically escalated to ensure your character's compliance. It's not sufficient for your ex to leave you for your best friend, and for your friend to have badly wronged you. Instead, they have to be dealing with the exact same publisher, the exact same editor, for the exact same contract you had. And your friend must absolutely, positively need your writing or else they will be killed. With its main character conceived as a straight white male, all possible player characters are thrust into that template. Despite the efforts of the character select to make you think so, your character is not a player cipher at all.
It's worth noting that the text is riddled with typos and grammatical errors. This includes missed commas, compound words split incorrectly, and comma splices. In a more competent game, this wouldn't be the biggest deal. As it is, the editing closely mirrors the care with which the script was written.
In the beginning...
The game opens with a framing story of a hitman and his employer walking down an alley. Never before has dialogue between two grown men included the phrase, "I'm the boss, so you don't make a move until I tell you what to do." The subsequent exchange is just as juvenile. This is where solid visual execution might have saved the scene, or maybe some sort of musical cue. Emote bubbles, poor sprites, and static portraits join in an unholy trinity to neuter any force behind the dialogue, making it somehow even worse. The music's droning repetition only makes it more unbearable.
The scene proceeds with the game's most oblique and subtle statement about choice (which is not a compliment in any respect) and the most bizarre misuse of the sentiment of privilege-checking I've ever heard. This may sound petty, but no one-- genuinely, ironically, or even in contempt-- would ever use the phrase like this. It's entirely nonsensical.
Ever classy (or classist), ASM then includes the pair being accosted by a homeless person. Barely-coherent insults fly. As I pray for death, some of the game's few unique sprite poses take center stage-- some drawn guns, and the sole variant character portrait. If at this point, you thought the game might eventually overcome a dodgy start, I wouldn't blame you. But once the game starts in again about choice... well, that's always a warning sign. Vagabond Dog was kind enough to give you a chance to end it all, right then and there.
Choice world, party time
Assuming you haven't already curled into death's sweet embrace, you are moved to a choose-a-character scene. It's nice enough, if it weren't a framing story within a framing story. You're now the host of a party, and you need to choose one of the guests to be the main character-- each one brought a different drink, and you choose by sharing with them. It's novel. It should be noted that among the party guests are the game developers. Openly and nakedly the developers of this specific game. Once you commit, you switch control over and choose your boy/girlfriend. I like this bit a lot, actually-- it's gracefully done. Despite all of the SOs having the same dialogue, it doesn't really diminish one of ASM's few bright spots.
However, once the characters are named, you're introduced to one of the key plot points: you're an unpublished author (no matter who you chose), and you've been collaborating with a friend. You're at this party so the host can offer you a book contract... though there appears to be no manuscript. I'm pretty sure that's not how it works, but taken alone, it would probably be fine. Don't worry, you'll hear more about that later.
Money on my mind
After the opening credits, you discover that you're living alone in an apartment. A job lead is shown to you, and you're given the task of making rent. This is where two of the game's greatest writing flaws becomes painfully apparent: caricature, rather than character, and the need to always centre conflicts on a specific villain. Your landlord slings cliché after cliché at you, before taking away your key. This seems reasonable enough, in that ASM shows you it's willing to make you sleep on the street; but it's also the beginning of a long road of unnecessary escalation.
Vagabond Dog's offices, as it turns out, are right next door to your apartment. This is when you realize that the grating self-insertion wasn't just an easter egg for the opening party-- they're in pretty much every location you visit. In probably their best attempt at humor, you can force a bad ending here and now by stealing the development funds for THIS VERY GAME! I'm not entirely convinced someone didn't.
You're also presented with your first major choice: the opportunity to suggest a friend of yours get back on heroin. As if the choice alone weren't heavy-handed and ridiculous, your friend's ex shows up to deliver one of the most offensively stupid lines of dialogue I have ever read. Paired with this, the revelation that the writers don't understand book contracts or advances (which could and should have been trivially researched) is jarring but secondary.
On day 2, you are introduced to the other half of the game's premise: your ex is getting married. The game becomes nakedly about winning back your "true love"-- ostensibly the ex you broke up with a year ago. Note that in a game which congratulates itself on choice, you have no choice in this. No matter who you chose, your character can't be over them. You can't choose to go to this wedding to support a friend you still care about. No, this is a game about a shocking wedding reversal. And if you decide to play as if you aren't that into your ex... well, don't forget that framing story. You know, the first one.
You're presented with thirty days you can use to get to the wedding, and a few jobs to help fund you on your rom-com-inspired quest. One of them is emblematic of the way ASM handles choice. You can be asked to interview a man for a newspaper who is clearly suicidal. If, through well-meaning ignorance or cold apathy, you pick the wrong dialogue choices, he will kill himself... with you still on the phone. While this could have been a poignant moment in the right hands, we're still talking about ASM. When you talk to your editor, you'll find yourself reading a long-winded speech about choice which is as transparently a WELL YOU DONE BLEW IT message as it is dreadful writing on its own.
Working for a living
Once you finish up with the jobs that have story and/or dialogue, you'll end up stuck at a temp agency to fund your road trip. You can choose to work at a tofu factory or a slaughterhouse. In terms of gameplay, these jobs are identical, and attempt to emulate dead-end jobs by being criminally boring. The process by which you fulfill orders of tofu or meat is to navigate a single branching menu over and over again. Before Papers, Please showed the world how profoundly absorbing a well-designed monotony could be, this might have been a meaningful statement about bad jobs. Instead, it's just a bad job.
Giving credit where it's due, the slaughterhouse room is the one room in ASM that I'd ascribe atmosphere to, at least briefly: blood is smeared all over the place (inexplicably, in retrospect) and the effect is rather chilling. However, it's more fleeting than it should be, because as usual, ASM overplays its hand. While the tofu factory makes it clear that you can leave whenever you want, the slaughterhouse sinisterly informs you that you're locked in until all of the work has been done (given that this is the only way to get all of the money out of a job, there's no compelling reason to leave anyway). In addition, a sad little pig looks directly at the camera as you load it into the machine. It's a short trip from disquieting to downright ridiculous.
Doctor, Doctor, give me the news
Assuming you didn't get your friend to go back on heroin (I'll be honest, I never did the other way), that friend's ex will be in the hospital from an overdose. She's uninsured, and the game places the responsibility for the lousy healthcare system entirely on the doctor. The decision on how well she is treated is so entirely his that the only way to ensure her treatment is to blackmail him or vandalize his car. Thankfully, Vagabond Dog was considerate enough to make the doctor a thorough just-world-fallacy caricature, so you won't have to feel bad about being short-sighted and awful. Again, in a game about choice, you have no other options to help her.
If you choose not to choose, when you move on with the game, you receive a text message informing you of her death. Late in the game, your own ex's parent will characterize this as willfully abandoning a friend in their moment of need. If you choose to attempt to justify your action (which potentially would lock you out of the 'best' ending), your character's response is not to suggest that blackmail is wrong, or about the nature of the system, but to claim apathy, and state you damned them based on their own decisions.
In addition to the grotesquery of the bad end, this scene has two really important failings.
The first is that it squanders a great opportunity to make good on the choices you made in the beginning. It could have addressed class discrimination, and how it forces people into positions where they will be stigmatized no matter what they do. It could have peeked into the racism that often accompanies the uninsured and limits the quality of their care. It even could have noted that there are doctors, nurses or staff who mean well, but are as hamstrung by a broken system as you are. Instead, there's you and your friend, the good guys (yaaay!), the evil doctor who could help but won't (booo!), and you have to make a morally questionable choice to harm the doctor or not in order to save your friend's life (choooooooice).
The second is that it reveals some of Vagabond Dog's own unconscious privilege. They're quite Canadian (the second chapter of the game is littered with Rob Ford jokes that will be dated in a year), and as a result are oblivious to the struggles faced by people who don't have access to socialized healthcare. This could have been fixed with research, but because they have done no such thing, it's easy for them to conjure up a moustache-twirling doctor to lay all of the blame on. For a game that prides itself on inclusion and understanding, this seems particularly sad.
Breakin' the law
In the second town, you arrive to find a job waiting for you. You're needed to move boxes of book jackets-- not the books, just the jackets-- onto a truck to be shipped back to China and pulped. It's strongly implied that these are for your own book. You know, the one you didn't have a manuscript for, but the publishers apparently did title, design a cover for, write a synopsis of, and had both printed and mass produced. Like anybody would.
You're told at the start that it should be possible to do the whole job at once. A large counter shows how many boxes you've moved. It stops counting at 99. You never run out of boxes. Or time. This isn't an existential statement about drudgework; this is the game lying to you. You can skip out early, but if you do, you'll miss the one scene in ASM that someone put actual time and love into.
You should probably skip out of the job early.
If you choose to complete the job (10 is sufficient), you leave the work site with your boss. You're then treated to one of the game's passingly few unique sprite animations: a guy on a roof dropping trow. Followed by a lovingly animated scene of a dude taking a shit on a car from high above. Once. Twice. And then puke. No, not you.
You then can choose to either hose the car down, or inexplicably hose your boss down. If you help him out, you are asked to rig the town's mayoral election. This will allow you to leave town. For some reason. If you left the job early, you will instead rig the election for someone in favor of the workers (who are curiously anti-union. Vagabond Dog's understanding of labour relations seems wholly informed by the 1940s and the American right wing). However, it actually is possible to say no to committing breaking-and-entering and electoral fraud... by walking right up to the place you're breaking into, with your potential accomplice, and then deciding against it. The game will proceed as if you committed fraud anyway, even giving you hush money for it, but it doesn't count against you for the 'best' ending.
If you do decide fraud is the best solution, you do it by way of hacking the voting machines. This is accomplished by playing a terrible RPGMaker clone of Frogger. It's too bad we didn't have these awesome hacking skills when that girl was in the hospital and we could have forged some insurance documents. Or any other time.
Too fast for love
In the final town, you're faced with a three-part fetch quest to proceed: get parts for a car, so you can race it and then take it to the wedding. You're crashing at a friend's place at this point, and his girlfriend has a better idea: cut your opponent's brakes. Predictably, ASM goes out of its way, through her, to let you know that the other driver is a very bad person, so it can be perfectly justifiable to set in motion events which would maim or kill him in the name of expedience.
Remember how this is a game about choice? Until you complete the race, you are confronted every morning with her asking if you want to go with her to cut those damned brakes today. This exchange is mandatory. You have no ability to tell her no, never, that's horrible. You have no option to tell her boyfriend (something that could have been an interesting choice with no right or wrong answer), whose car it is you will be racing. Instead, every day, you will hear your character say how tempting the idea is, before your "yes"/"maybe later" prompt pops up.
My big, fat Canadian wedding
Maybe the worst individual aspect of ASM is how very self-congratulatory it is. The payoff of the absolutely vile framing sequence-- wherein if you do not choose to pursue your ex (or fail in the task somehow), despite never being given a compelling reason to do so, your character will end up both homeless and suicidal-- is an asinine title drop. There is also a payoff for the constant self-insertion of the main developers. Why, whichever character marries your ex (be it you, or your best friend) writes a novel about the month of their life we just played through. And it's a massive best-seller! And the self-insert developers want to buy the video game rights! For a million dollars!!
What a waste
If it seems like I'm a bit up in arms about this game, let me stand up on a soapbox briefly. Always Sometimes Monsters has potential-- a game that really explores the different experiences different kinds of people have could be really good. And the field of video games sorely needs to learn how to include everyone comfortably who wants to play-- I've spent most of my life knowing that video games just aren't made with people like me in mind. But even though ASM lets you choose from an array of race, gender and sexuality preferences, it only explores those choices insofar as how other people react to you. Specifically, how they abuse you. There's way more "this is what I get for taking fashion advice from a god damned (sic) dyke" / "my wife is darker than you" than there is little old ladies awkwardly calling your non-heterosexual lover a "roommate". There's essentially none of the subtle condescension, over-helpfulness, or outright harassment you get for being a woman. The most you'll get of that is a few token "even if you are a woman" lines here or there... which, I can assure you, is not the most representative of ways to go about it. Race issues are handled with about the same glossed-over failure to understand how these problems actually manifest day to day, or impact the people affected by them. ASM falls into the trap of thinking that mentioning an issue is somehow a discussion of it, but it discusses nothing.
But the game itself buys into the idea that it's doing something praiseworthy by letting you pick these ultimately inconsequential options, while slapping the same cis, hetero white man words in your character's mouth at all times. You can tell this by reading the ad copy on the store page, or in the developers' self-congratulatory open letter to GLAAD, in which they talk about how hard it is to be so very inclusive. If they'd spent half of the time they used tailoring the game's insults on tailoring different characters' stories, they might have done something really notable. The dialogue would still be juvenile, and there'd still be far too much vile toilet humor, but at least there'd be something good.
But if this is the level of quality of writing, storytelling, game design, and graphics they intend to demand praise for, Vagabond Dog should be put to sleep.