As we all know, asymmetry makes all game designs better. Which is one of the reasons chess isn’t very good. The only asymmetry they had invented back when they made chess was which side goes first. Weak. If I made chess, only white would get bishops and only black would get rooks. The white queen would be able to take two turns in a row once per game. The black queen could resurrect the king once. Also, I would include more than one map with the game.

If the developers at Pocketwatch had invented chess, I would strive to be a Bobby Fisher.

But after the jump, they didn’t make chess. They made Monaco.

Monaco is a top down version of Thief, but with eight very different thieves. Asymmetry, thy name is Monaco. Each thief is uniquely overpowered or uniquely underpowered, depending on which level you’re playing, who you’re playing with, what sort of approach you’re taking, how you’re feeling that day, and whether you’re trying to get the smoke bomb to do anything worthwhile. Let me know how it goes with the smokebomb. Today, I’m pretty sure The Gentleman is overpowered. Yesterday, it was The Redhead. My friends all suck at Monaco, so in my games, The Redhead was overpowered for how quickly she could resurrect them when they invariably and frequently died. Dead again, buddy? No biggie. The Redhead’s healing power makes death trivial.

Which reminds me that one of the great things about Monaco is the frequency of awesome ‘hey, I didn’t know X!’ moments. For instance, guards and bystanders can also resurrect their friends. These guys don’t respawn. They just play by the same rules as you. Monaco could have taken the usual way out. Instead, it did something sensible. You thought you could just shotgun your way to a high score, didn’t you? Ha! Monaco is smarter than you!

Monaco is partly a level based game — see if you can beat all the levels, including unlockable bonus remix levels! — but it’s ultimately and at its best a score chase. Your score is the time it takes you to accomplish the objective, which almost always involves getting back to where you parked the car. However, the levels are strewn with treasures and every treasure you don’t pick up adds a time penalty. It’s the perfect balance between speed and thoroughness, with online leaderboards to make it matter. What could you have done to shave a few seconds off your time? More speed? More thoroughness? A different character? Friends who are better at the game? And since the coins are randomly distributed, don’t get any bright ideas about calculating an optimal path. Remember that Monaco is smarter than you.

The almost unbearably charming levels feel like living places with unpredictable and intelligent activity that doesn’t always go the way you expect. Chaos is always a possibility. Who knew cats were such excellent guard dogs? Who knew the phone was going to ring at that moment and a guard would come running to answer it? Who knew the cook was going to walk in at that moment?

As befits any heist in France, things often get screwball and you’re running around like Keystone Kops, perfectly accompanied by Monaco’s playful piano score, trying to make the best of a plan gone pear shaped. No, don’t lead the guards over here! Oh, look, I’m dead and you have to sneak past those guys to save me, but now The Mole has attracted attention by tunneling directly onto the dance floor, so why don’t you run over here real quick. Good lord, you just stepped through a security door. Wait, go back and resurrect The Gentleman first. Perhaps there’s no honor among thieves, but there’s plenty of hilarity. At this point, Monaco is no longer about a high score. It’s about refusing to admit you’ve been beat by emergent chaos. And isn’t that what crime is all about? Chaos subverting order and winning? Don’t forget to clean out the cash registers.

I can’t impress upon you enough that Monaco is for you. You might not have the affection for its blocky pixelated graphics. In my imagination, this is how Adventure on the Atari 2600 looked. You might not be into stealth games. I’m pretty sure I’m over them. You might not even get what the big deal is about Thiefs and Splinter Cells and even Dishonored. But I promise you there is not a man, woman, or child who won’t be delighted — yes, delighted! — with the gleeful interplay of Monaco’s many variables.

This is the second time in a month that I’ve been completely bowled over by an indie project that I’d never even heard of, created by people whose games I’ve never played. I can think of no better indicators that no matter how bad SimCity turned out, no matter how disappointing the gameplay in Bioshock Infinite, no matter how familiar any Call of Duty, no matter whether the next Xbox is always online, it’s a perfect time to be into videogames.

5 stars