And now for the less good stuff. RPG Maker sadly put up a very poor showing this year.
Inside: Crown Champion, Sojourner, TAURONOS, Forever Home.
Crown Champion: Legends of the Arena
A management sim where you make slaves fight in gladiator arenas for money and fame.
I found this boring, honestly. The gameplay is extremely repetitive and a total crapshoot — you don’t get to control your fighters, so while you can give them all the equipment and skills you want, they can still miss all their hits, get critted a bunch, or just act like total idiots, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It also seemed very unbalanced — as always, offense is the best defense, so I found that Bears and Blades wiped the floor with everyone else. The Bears’ rage attack also seemed to always do more damage than the Blades’ defense piercing attack, even against tanks, which seems like a pretty big mistake. The progression mechanics are also an incredibly unstable equilibrium — your fighters give you more money the more fights they win in a row but can be knocked out of commission for a long time if they lose a fight, so the beginning is incredibly touch-and-go and you basically have to tread water until you get lucky enough for a string of victories. But once you’ve gotten all the upgrades and can finally rely on tournaments to give you a stable income, there’s no longer anything worth spending money on. There really should have been options to spend more money to accelerate training or something.
Flavor-wise, it even manages to make slavery boring — you’re never really called out on being a terrible person or allowed to meaningfully change your ways. You can ~show you care~ by chatting with your slaves about their lives, and if you smile and nod enough they’ll agree to keep working for a salary after they buy their freedom because you’re so great. You get a few token dialogue options where you can say that slavery and aristocracy are bad, but it never actually changes anything, no matter whether you say it to the abolitionists or the monarchists. In the background there’s some political intrigue plot where the current king is trying to stabilize the kingdom after a recent civil war, but for some reason the only sympathetic characters are the insurrectionists who want to start a brand-new war because the current king is just an ascended commoner because the actual royals all dicked each other over until they all died and somehow this is an argument for continuing the monarchy? I get the impression you’re supposed to see the monarchists as unreliable narrators you’re free to disagree with, but the only guy on the king’s side is just such a dick (among other things, he has white hair yet plans to marry a twelve-year-old “when she comes of age”) that I can’t see that as anything but the “evil” option. It’s weird.
A very, very meta RPG. Everyone is aware they are in a video game, and the player is explicitly asked why they’re playing the game and making the choices they are at several points. I initially expected this to be irritatingly pretentious or pointlessly trite as meta stories so often are, but I actually thought it struck a good balance I genuinely appreciated. Though framed comedically, there is a serious undercurrent to it that I thought gave the game real poignancy. There is a strong emphasis on the importance of sensitivity, nuance, and small acts of kindness; this is a game where you can tip helpful NPCs for giving you exposition, and you will actually get to see what they did with the money and how it changed their life. I never felt like it was giving me the option to be nice to faceless NPCs just to mock me or the concept itself, as often seems to be the case in similar parodic RPGs. Though the tone is overall absurdist, there is a genuineness to everything I found really touching.
Unfortunately, this is also an RPG that should have been a visual novel.
The game’s description promises that it “features everything that you loved from the 8-bit RPGs of your childhood and leaves behind everything you didn’t”. Unsurprisingly, it can’t live up to this boast; it is just another RPG Maker RPG, with all the flaws standard for the genre, including the many hated features from those 8-bit RPGs I’m really baffled the program hasn’t shucked yet. Damage calculation appears to use an incredibly poorly-balanced subtractive defense formula that creates wildly different damage values for even tiny differences in defensive stats — my fighters would often take literally no damage from attacks that cut my casters’ health in half. To really double down on this, magic defense is almost impossible to come by if you’re not a caster because only casters can equip magical armor, so fighters are sitting ducks against spells and there’s little you can do about it. Because oh yes of course enemy targeting is totally random, better hope enemies land that hit on the person who will take single-digit damage from it and not the person you’ll have to revive next turn. (To rub salt in the wound, the tank class has an ability that’s supposed to draw attacks, but it appears to only work some of the time, because ???) Oh, but good luck if someone does go down, because that infuriating thing from 8-bit RPGs where you have to input commands for the whole turn without knowing what the enemies will do? Oh, you better bet that’s a feature! Enjoy telling your paladin to raise your cleric only to have them get murdered themselves before their turn comes up. And I haven’t even mentioned the random miss and crit rates! Why are those still a thing? Seriously? Why, in 2018, have we not collectively risen up and scrubbed that terrible Dungeons and Dragons artifact from our systems? Who is this appealing to?
But even aside from the poor decision to use RPG Maker’s default battle system, this game just seems very poorly and haphazardly designed. You have access to limited monster-repel spells and items at the start of the game… yet as early as the third dungeon, you get the ability to turn off random encounters freely. So… why are the limited versions there at all? (Incidentally, developers: if players want to turn off a core gameplay feature, that’s a sign it shouldn’t be there in the first place.) You get the ability to change classes a la Dragon Quest III, but despite advising you to wait until you get all the skills for a class first (since they transfer), the game gives you no way of knowing when you’ve gotten the final skill for a class. Some classes also have passive abilities, but they are not listed in the character screens and are only mentioned by NPCs in the starting area. I was also honestly quite surprised to learn class shifting was possible, because so many of the classes are obviously fusions between others — why exactly should I bother with the slow-leveling Sorcerer if I can produce the same effect by multiclassing a Warlock into a Healer? Relatedly, as I’ve come to expect from RPG Maker games, magic is crap — elemental spells need to hit an elemental weakness to be even marginally better than a physical attack from a fighter of the same level. (Until you get the ultimate endgame spells, which are ludicrously powerful and boss fights are virtually impossible without them. There’s just no middle ground in this game.) To make matters worse, the super caster class doesn’t even seem to get every element naturally — are you supposed to multiclass into Warlock for those, or…?
So, ultimately, this looked like a nice idea marred by very amateurish design. I… am not sure if I can say it’s worth money, frankly. Which is unfortunate, because the story really is quite nice, but the gameplay is just that unenjoyable. I think I would have liked it a lot better if it was one of those visual novel RPGs where the battles are only a formality.
(Trigger warning if you play it yourself: the PC’s father misgenders them frequently. I don’t see any reason to believe it’s malicious, but be aware if that’s something that upsets you.)
A game where you play as Theseus as he navigates the Labyrinth to defeat the Minotaur. I found it to be really dull, frustrating, and poorly designed. You are essentially on a time limit in every level, as the Minotaur becomes progressively faster over time until it’s impossible to outrun. Despite this, areas are open-ended and you’re meant to explore every nook and cranny to find secrets and upgrades. This wouldn’t be too frustrating under normal circumstances — I initially thought the idea was that casual players could just rush to the exit while completionists would slowly map out the area, taking the deaths as they came until they found the optimal route.
…Except the game also uses a lives system, and if you run out you have to restart the entire game from the beginning. So you really cannot afford to explore, because there is no safe way to do so and lives are a precious resource. Compounding this is that the areas are not intuitive at all; there are hazards that trigger with no warning, including obstacles that block your route back. So if you didn’t bother to explore absolutely everything before going down that unmarked one-way corridor, sucks to be you! It basically all just comes down to luck of the draw; you have to pick a path at random and hope you don’t charge down a blind alley. Even more frustratingly, the game tells you what powerups are in a level, but only after you complete it, and you cannot return to previous levels. It all seems designed on roguelike principles, except the point of roguelikes is that every run is different so it doesn’t feel like you’re just bashing your head against the same wall until you memorize the perfect way forward.
Also, the dialogue and voice actor are ridiculously melodramatic. The atmosphere would have been a thousand times stronger with a silent protagonist.
This is basically a shonen anime. The protagonist is immature but this gets spun as a virtue because emotions trump logic; he has a distant but super awesome important dad while his mom gets fridged so quickly she doesn’t even get a name; he has a comically abusive adoptive sister who’s also his love interest (and a tsundere) because shonen never seems to understand how squicky that is; the stakes are so absurdly over-the-top the whole thing loses any sense of scale; the hero always puts the needs of the few over the needs of the many and the plot always contrives to make this turn out to be the correct choice; everyone is Snarky™ and serious scenes are constantly undercut by banter; women exist to be love interests and/or tragically fridged.
Probably my favorite example of the latter is in the Grizzled Old Dude’s backstory: When he leaves to join The Resistance, his wife begs him to stay. He storms out, immediately regrets it, and goes back to find out she killed herself in the five minutes that took, because she just couldn’t bear to live without him. For five minutes.
But even more unforgivable than that is that good god this game is slow. I was twenty hours in before I had the slightest clue where the plot was really going, and finally dropped it three hours later when, unsurprisingly, that turned out to be nowhere good. Judging from the Steam forums, this was the right decision, as it’s full of long lists of questions about the ending and the developer admitting everything was a poorly-justified handwave.
(And people say Last Scenario is too slow. Good grief. Even A Very Long Rope wasn’t this much of a slog.)
One detail I feel the need to comment on is that everyone mocks the hero for being unable to use fire magic because almost everyone can, but it’s explicitly stated that your magic element is innate so they’re basically mocking him for a congenital disability. No one ever calls them on this and the hero is portrayed as silly for getting so bent out of shape over it. (Not that he really has any right to complain, because his actual element is the rarest most specialest one because he’s a shonen protagonist so of course it is.)
The one thing I will say in the game’s favor is that it had fantastic presentation. The sprites are incredibly expressive and have unique animations for nearly every action taken in cutscenes; this was not a game that cut any corners in that respect. The gameplay was also decent if a bit generic (although it does make the questionable decision to place save points in the middle of dungeons instead of just before the boss). If none of the things I mentioned sound like downsides to you, it’s probably worth checking out. (Fortunately, it is quite cheap.)
Also, Asera is an insufferable prick and I hate him so much. I cannot fathom why the heroes put up with him.