Valve’s Steam service has helped bring about quite the surge in independent game development. While I love that these so called “indie” games are getting more and more attention through the various download services, I sometimes lament that there aren’t more quirky little RPGs out there to satiate my hunger for a fun little story and stat leveling. Luckily for me, Steam has proven to be a catch all for anything indie and along with Recettear last year and Chantelise later this month, Steam now offers Zeboyd’s previously Xbox Live Indie Games exclusive Cthulhu Saves the World. It’s a fun mash up of Lovecraftian lore with Earthbound-like humor and style that has really helped brighten up these dull summer gaming months.
Right from the beginning, you know you’re in for a weird time when Cthulhu learns how to release his sealed powers by listening in on the narrator. Enemies come with funny little descriptions beneath their names and searching cupboards and bookshelves in town never actually got me any items but each one came with a unique and often hilarious little comment or description of what I had found. Surprisingly, these little quips kept me going even though I knew I was never going to be rewarded with anything tangible for my troubles. Really the only fault I can find with the story is that it kind of pansies out of the hilarity at the end and goes for a more typical JRPG ending, but that was just a brief moment of overly serious in an otherwise incredibly enjoyable affair. There also wasn’t a lot of character development and some later characters seemed thrown in just to bulk up the numbers and contribute little to nothing towards the story, but I can’t really fault the developers for that when the game ended up being so much shorter than most classic RPGs.
So the story’s a laugh and a half. However, any RPG fan knows that the bulk of their time won’t be spent reading the story, but battling the world’s plethora of different enemies. Luckily, Cthulhu Saves the World’s battle system has a number of tricks and unique twists up its sleeve to keep things interesting. Battles go in turns with the player choosing the actions all four of his characters will go through before the turn commences. After that, individual enemies and allies go through their turns based on the order of their Speed statistic. Special attacks and magic can be done using MP which is replenished a small amount after each victory and completely filled at inns and save points (the PC version of the game lets you save at any time, but you’ll only refill your MP at save points). This is the kind of system that has been in games like Dragon Quest since before I could form full sentences (about 13 if you were wondering), but this isn’t where the battle system ends.
Every enemy can be driven insane by certain special attacks and this increases the damage they take but also increases the damage they dish out. Landing hits on the enemy builds up a combo counter on the right hand corner of the screen which can be used for massive combo finisher attacks that if done at the right take can take out large chunks of an enemy’s health. Boss fights often came down to scraping by by the skin of my teeth using a combo finisher which took out a quarter of the boss’s health at once. Enemies also naturally increase their damage by 10% every turn to an apparent maximum of 200%. Put all this together and you have a system that makes for some truly nerve wracking and invigorating boss fights. You have to balance your need to build a combo up with the need to hurry before the boss starts doing too much damage, and turn him insane just before you smack him with some huge special attacks. Also, certain magic attacks (particularly large heals) reset your combo counter so that’s one more thing to think about. Overall it’s a fantastic system for boss fights but doesn’t really keep the regular every day enemy from being repetitive since they don’t usually last long enough for these systems to matter.
One flaw that stuck with me throughout my playthrough was the lackluster dungeon design. Each dungeon is a mostly linear affair that has you winding and weaving over and under on a large square area. It was surprisingly easy to lose my bearings in these labyrinths, not because there were a large number of alternate paths to choose from, but because it was sometimes difficult to remember which way I was heading after finishing up a random fight. Normally I would whine (yes, whine) about a lack of a map but with all the crisscrossing that the dungeons’ paths usually did I don’t think it would have helped anyway. There were a few dungeons that employed little tricks like one-way passages and emptying/filling canals with water that were more enjoyable but a large percentage of the dungeons were just a maze of right angle turns with little to use as landmarks. I can understand that this was probably the easiest way to design the dungeons and give them good length without breaking the bank, but understanding it doesn’t make it any more enjoyable.
Visually, the game is unique with its interesting enemy design and humorous portrayal of the usually monstrous Cthulhu, but it wasn’t all that appealing. 8-bit stylings are great for giving you a sense of nostalgia, but I’m sure the game’s budget could have been kept low even if they spruced it up a bit more. The hand drawn style of the still pictures looked somewhat amateur and again I know that this should be expected for a smaller team of developers, but just because you expect it to happen doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Many who play these games won’t give a flying ferret fart about these complaints, but I think they still deserve mention. Not surprisingly, Cthulhu Saves the World has no voice acting to speak of, but the music made up for it well with a retro feel that had me humming along quite a few times.
Zeboyd recently stated that they have seen great sales success with the release of their games on Steam, and with value like this I can see why. For a mere three bucks you can get Cthulhu Saves the World with a campaign that took me 6.5 hours to beat along with their other game: Breath of Death VII which is a bit less polished and shorter but still keeps a great sense of humor, and from the time I’ve spent with it, I really liked how they play on the classic silent protagonist. Cthulhu Saves the World also comes with several bonus modes, multiple difficulty levels, director’s commentary and a completely separate campaign called Cthulhu’s Angels. This second campaign uses the same areas as the first but has a completely different story and uses the cast of characters in a different way with an all-female cast of allies. If you’re an RPG fan and haven’t already played this game some other way you’d be crazy to not pick it up now.
Cthulhu Saves the World reminded me of playing Earthbound as a kid, and I don’t say that lightly. The unusual RPG setting, crazy enemies, and palpable sense of humor made me curse Nintendo once again for not putting my favorite RPG of all time on Virtual Console. I really loved the battle system’s sense of urgency for bosses even though it couldn’t quite transfer that over to every fight. RPG fans should definitely do me a favor and pick this game up so that hopefully Zeboyd can continue with their unique approach to the genre. I really look forward to their next release, and it’ll be a day one purchase even if I have to actually pay into the double digits.