A Very Long Rope to the Top of the Sky is a pretty standard jRPG that starts strong, meanders for a while, then ends with a whimper. It contains some interesting ideas, but it can’t fit them together into a coherent whole. Much like The Reconstruction, it’s less than the sum of its parts.
The beginning of the story is very well-done and atmospheric. Two girls, sisters, are standing over a blasted ravine. We learn their father has just died, and they don’t know what to do. Mint, the younger sister, is marvelling over a single dandelion that managed to sprout through the dry soil. Ivy, the older sister, whines that according to their mother’s botany book it’s just a weed, so she shouldn’t get so excited. One pointless and unnecessary intro dungeon later…
Ivy: You need to be more careful! I shouldn’t have ever let you talk me into even going into that cave!
Ivy: How could you be so selfish?! I don’t know what I would do without you!
Mint: Quit using me as an excuse!
Mint: You’re always like this! “Mint, what about your health?! Mint, don’t tire yourself out!” I’m sick of it! Do you think I don’t know that I’m going to die?! Every day I know that I’m one step closer to dying, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t enjoy the life I have left.
Mint: It’s bad enough having to live on the side of this stupid cliff, but having you and Dad worrying about me 24-7 makes me feel like I’m in a prison within a prison.
Ivy: We never wanted to hold you back, Mint. We just didn’t want to see you hurt.
Mint: …I know that. Having you and Dad with me was the only thing that made living here bearable… But now Dad’s gone. …We can’t stay here any longer, you know.
Ivy: Where can we go?
Ivy: You’re in no condition to–
Mint: I told you to stop using me as an excuse!
Ivy: But, Dad forbid us to climb the rope…
Ivy eventually relents because otherwise we wouldn’t have a plot, but still: apparently Ivy is an abusive, suicidal monster who would rather they both starve starve than take a risk and actually accomplish something. This will set the tone for the rest of the story: Mint is curious, insightful, optimistic, proactive, and overall the best character, while Ivy is a dull, shallow, pathetic caricature who robs the world of all light and joy. Unfortunately, Ivy is our true protagonist.
Also yes, Mint is an Ill Girl™. Because. Unsurprisingly, she dies a really stupid and anticlimactic death because of it. Somewhat surprisingly, this happens a quarter of the way through the story and not at the end as I expected, leaving us with nobody but Grizzled Angsty White Lady for protagonist duties. Most of my interest in the story died with Mint, because she single-handedly carries the entire plot. She has to, since the rest of the cast (with one exception) are massive disappointments at being protagonists. After she dies, the remaining characters are leaves in a river with little to no character depth, meaning the pacing slows to a crawl and I just cannot bring myself to care about their struggles.
That said, before she dies, I actually do think the story is pretty good. There’s an overarching plot thread of the girls trying to find their mother, who is still alive but imprisoned, but along the way they get into all sorts of adventures, investigate mysteries, help people in need, and are just generally good, proactive protagonists. Even the bits that seem unimportant are actually setting up important details for later. Despite the seemingly aimless plot structure, I actually thought the plotting was very tight and everything flowed really well. Also, you get to save a husband in distress, which was some nice egalitarianism. There is one really stupid decision one character makes towards the end that grates a little, but it leads to an awesome finale, so I don’t mind too much.
But afterwards it’s just… very disappointing. The plot becomes the standard “villain does a thing, heroes scramble to react”, which feels like slap in the face after the first arc was so good at having proactive heroes. The few times the protagonists try to take matters into their own hands, they always fail utterly – particularly the very last plot event, where it feels like they just give up after deciding their goal is too hard to accomplish. (More on that later.) Also, plot and character revelations are parceled out way too thinly. It felt like there was even less plot than the Mint arc in total, just spread out over twice the length.
Furthermore, I found the final resolution to be a little… distasteful. The villain turns out to be an urchin who was abandoned by his parents at birth. You meet him during the Mint arc and he seems perfectly fine, but after a 30 year timeskip he inexplicably turns into a lovechild of Stalin and Nietzsche. He claims he’s always been a sociopath who hates humanity, and now he’s willing to make the world burn for a chance at happiness – but he’s just so intrinsically broken that even that chance doesn’t do anything for him, so he decides to give up and commit suicide. Only this is an RPG, so his suicide method is to throw himself at the protagonists in an epic final boss battle where he transforms into a giant monster, as mandated by jRPG law. The one truly proactive thing the protagonists do in the entire story is to try and save him, and during the pre-battle cutscene they’re practically in tears, but once the battle starts they have no qualms about reducing him to a fine paste. To make matters worse, one of the bonus New Game+ endings reveals that there was a deus ex machina capable of saving him the whole time, but the party didn’t use it because then we wouldn’t have a
painfully contrived deep and tragic ending I guess. The whole thing is incredibly bizarre, and feels like the exact thing that UnderTale was criticizing. Depressed orphans are the real evil, and video games mean you have to kill everyone without having any say in the matter. The heroes are leaves in a river to the last.
(Also, his dialogue is impossible to take seriously. He seriously says “I can feel my heart beating for the first time in an eternity… Why does my body still cling to life? Can’t it see the pointlessness of it all?” then “I have no name. I am nothing,” followed by transforming into “The Nameless”. It’s just so ridiculously over-the-top, it’s practically a parody of nihilist villain speeches.)
I actually do have to wonder if the developer has problems with depression. A lot of characters seem incredibly resigned, apathetic, and suicidal. There’s a section around halfway through where two secondary characters kill themselves for absolutely no reason, and a lot of characters seem to have no regard for their own safety in general. For instance, the aforementioned suicidal secondary characters basically throw themselves at some cops to help out the heroes, and their plan is to purposefully let the soldiers beat them to a bloody pulp. It’s also implied that Mint knows the stress of the final dungeon will kill her, but she doesn’t tell Ivy and goes along anyway for some reason. And Ivy is incredibly depressed after Mint’s death and has to be dragged through basically the entire rest of the plot because she’s so miserable and apathetic, yet this is portrayed as heroic. It’s weird.
About the only thing the story does well is commentary on classism. This blog has had a lot of creepy instances of poor people and revolts being inexplicably evil, but that’s not the case here. Classism comes up a lot in the story – one city in particular seems like a commentary on laissez-faire politics – and there is eventually a Communist revolt. It does turn out poorly, but only because the leader is actually a sociopath who is only using the movement to further his own selfish ends. The actual poor people in the cities he liberates are portrayed very positively. One scene I found particularly striking was in a book store: the owner assumes the rabble are going to trample and burn her books and is freaking out, but if you talk to the people, you’ll find they regard the books with extreme respect and even awe, because of course an education is something they’ve always wanted but could never have. The moral seems more “don’t let your movement get co-opted by totalitarianism” rather than “We have to kill the poor before they kill us!!!” Unfortunately, this element gets pretty sidelined in favor of personal drama later on, though it is implied the characters intend to make a more progressive society after the dust settles.
But here we get into this blog’s specialty: The worldbuilding is a train wreck. The developer has explicitly said in some comments that he didn’t really put any thought into it and only wanted to focus on his characters and a few clever ideas, and boy does it show. The basic premise of the world is that there are two groups of people, one of which are normal and one of which are normal but have (useless) wings. By absurd coincidence both of these groups have a religion that is basically identical to Christianity, down to referring to the winged people as “angels”. Somehow the word has the exact same connotation as it does in our world, even though the angels nuked the surface world and condemned humans to a life of hardship. Given that our modern interpretation of “angels” is already radically different than the original Biblical depictions, I would think that interpretation would change pretty quickly in a world where they actually exist and also nuked us. I suspect that this concept started as “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if angels were evil?” and the author never stopped to realize how that wouldn’t make sense even if this was Earth and not a completely unrelated fantasy world. (The angels also hate wingless humans because their religion says they’re evil, which I feel is unnecessary. History has shown that people are more than willing to perpetuate racism and genocide even without religion’s influence.)
There’s also a lot of random junk that just doesn’t fit. One minor character turns out to be a ghost who cheated death and is now being chased by the grim reaper, and another turns out to be a demon from another dimension. In addition, nobody mentions or acknowledges the existence of magic powers (it’s an RPG, so obviously everyone has them)… except suddenly towards the end, we learn that, centuries ago, there were these special angel people who had black wings and magic superpowers and this changed the course of an ancient war and just, what? Why are these things here? What do they add to the narrative? This feels a bit like OFF, where the developer had lots of neat but incompatible ideas, and just threw them all together instead of considering if they actually fit. This is why you have to murder your darlings, people.
This mentality extends to the gameplay, too – about halfway through you open up all the sidequests, all of them, and have to take on at least a few before you have any hope of making it through the next story dungeon. Unlike the sidequest-esque plots of the Mint arc, these quest are incredibly dull and add nothing to the plot, and thus serve only to completely murder the pacing. (Weirdly, they actually do turn out to have very interesting stories behind them very, very late in the game, and I’m baffled why this was all back-loaded instead of partially contained in the initial quests.) There is also a long-term sidequest where you build up a town by recruiting people, Digimon World style. I love that kind of thing in theory, but it just doesn’t fit here – it’s too tonally dissonant with the tense atmosphere of the plot, and, again, kills the pacing when you can spend hours combing the world for recruits in the middle of an important mission. Very few of the recruits feel like they have any personality, also.
Even on a character level, Ivy and Mint don’t act like isolated kids at all. They act like ordinary kids from our world who are visiting a fantasy world. They frequently use terms and knowledge that they should have no way of knowing, like how cities are run or the word “vegetarian”. For a game that sells itself on the premise of having isolated protagonists in a bleak world, this feels like a betrayal. Sometimes other characters will get in on knowing terms they shouldn’t, too – one scene that threw me in particular involves the group discussing Halloween, complete with the tradition of tacky costumes and candy corn! Just, what??? Is this a medieval fantasy world or is this modern America? Make up your mind, game!
The gameplay is also really, really awful. Areas are way too large and full of way too many random encounters, and the gameplay is dull, generic RPG fare. But even beyond just being extraneous, it starts to actively detract from the story. Why is there a cave full of perfectly edible animals under Ivy’s home? Why do they dismiss it as having no food? Why is Mint the healer and Ivy the fighter when Ivy claims to be the supportive one? Why is there magic that’s never acknowledged? Why are there random monsters everywhere? And of course, everything has to end in violence – there are quite a few bosses where I didn’t understand why they attacked me at all, and the scene often continues as if the battle didn’t even happen. (Oliver, I’m looking at you.) The story would have been far stronger as a visual novel; the RPG elements serve only to hinder it. The gamepage also boasts “challenging boss fights”, to which I can only laugh. As with most RPGs, the strategies needed to beat them are almost always incredibly simple, and the difficulty comes from the fact that what attacks they use and who they target are completely random. Maybe the boss will waste all its turns spamming a status effect you’re immune to, maybe it’ll use a status effect you can’t protect against (status resistance is really hard to come by in this game), maybe it’ll spam its one-hit-kill attacks faster than you can possibly revive people, maybe those one-hit-kill attacks will fail (again, randomly!) and you’ll live to stress out for another round. How exciting! You do get a better variety of equipment as the game goes on, but strategy is still relegated to setup rather than tactics, and even then there’s plenty of stuff you can’t do anything about (like a spammable 9999 damage attack that always hits and can’t be mitigated except through a glitch).
I know the developer didn’t make this (it’s part of the standard RPG Maker graphics pack) and so isn’t wholly responsible for its awfulness, but he still should have had the good taste not to include softcore porn in his PG-13 adventure story. (And yes, these enemies have a seduction spell because of course they do.)
Overall, the game tries to do too many things at once, and collapses under its own weight. Taken individually, these all can be neat ideas, but there’s no attempt to cohesively integrate them or give them the focus they deserve, and the main plot isn’t good enough to compensate for it. It’s also really not worth slogging through the awful gameplay for. Here’s a Let’s Play if you just want to skim for the good bits.
Music’s nice, though.