Prayer of the Faithless

Prayer of the Faithless is an RPG Maker game I followed way back when it was just a demo on RMN, and I followed its development quite avidly because the developer was very open about their development process and said a lot of interesting things about designing complex mechanics and resource management gameplay. When it released on Steam in 2022 I meant to get it, but I was broke at the time, so it languished in my wishlist. But Farla picked it up for me for Christmas, so now I can finally play it!

I should note the game is a sequel to Soul Sunder, which I meant to review at some point but apparently never did! Oh well. It’s not necessary to understand this game’s plot, but I recommend playing it anyway because it’s good.

The most obvious thing about this game is that it is incredibly, incredibly grimdark. The world is in the middle of a slow-motion apocalypse, but there is no Chosen One around to save it (that got bungled in Soul Sunder), so everyone is resigned to futilely pushing back the encroaching doom until humanity is finally snuffed out.

Now, I say grimdark instead of dark because, well, the existential horror of the setting doesn’t seem to actually weigh on anyone that much. The cadets training to be the last bastion of defense against humanity’s inevitable destruction still make time for petty high school cliques and bullying, and despite their leader being borderline fascist the protagonist is able to get away with petty pranks and constant, flagrant disrespect for authority — until suddenly he can’t and he’s going to get EXECUTED for backtalking the king, but actually don’t worry his friend in high places pulls strings to bail him out because we can’t actually have consequences for the protagonist, it’s not like this is supposed to be a dark story or anything.

…Let’s back up so I can explain the plot. The world is being consumed by a supernatural mist called the Fog that spawns monsters and slowly kills everything it touches. There used to be oracles who could see the future, but after the Fog appeared they all lost their powers — except very recently, an oracle suddenly delivered a prophecy that a revenant would bring ruin to the world. One of the two protagonists, Aeyr Wilder, becomes that revenant after dying to a monster and being resurrected, whereupon everyone decides he’s actually an insane demon wearing Aeyr’s face and has to be killed, despite all evidence to the contrary. You can probably see where this is heading: it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because Aeyr decides that if everyone hates him he’ll become the monster everyone thinks he is. Meanwhile, the second protagonist and Aeyr’s only friend, Mia Alacruz, becomes leader of a band of refugees she must lead to safety after they are cut off from civilization by the Fog.

The writing is characterized by some pretty extreme tonal whiplash. Once the plot gets moving, most of the main characters do treat the situation with the gravity it deserves, but Aeyr and his team never stop acting like quippy, juvenile, and unreasonably optimistic YA characters. It makes it really hard to take Aeyr’s claims he’s oh-so-oppressed seriously when he doesn’t act any different from your average real-life teenage brat. The Big Shocking Reveals are similarly edgelordy, and almost universally revolve around everyone being Stupid Evil or just plain stupid. As an example: The fascist commander discovers that humans become immune to the Fog if implanted with magic artifacts, and moreover that willing subjects have a 100% success rate while unwilling subjects have a 99% failure rate. Instead of telling people this, in which case she should logically have a queue the entire length of the city, she keeps everything a secret and continues torturing unwilling subjects for no reason. Why? Why would anyone do this? This isn’t even necessary evil, this is just plain stupid evil.

The story is overall framed as a conflict between individualism (on Aeyr’s side) and collectivism (on Mia’s side), and though the developer claims there is no “true” or “correct” ending, I see a very clear bias towards Aeyr: Aeyr betrays Mia first, but Mia forgives him and this is brushed off by the narrative; when Mia betrays him later (for a much, much better reason), that’s treated as an unforgivable offense. The story is also incredibly misanthropic: the masses are consistently depicted as selfish, overemotional idiots who never listen to reason and descend into panic and violence at the slightest excuse, and anyone who tries to be any kind of ruler is inevitably corrupted by power and forced to commit crimes against humanity to appease these monsters. (Also, hive minds are bad.) There are a few token attempts to claim Aeyr bears some of the blame for his ostracization by being a childish raging asshole to everyone constantly, but this never goes anywhere, while Aeyr’s accusations that Mia has become a fascist (by, uh, not wanting civilization to collapse) are proven objectively correct by the narrative.

There’s also a disturbing degree of monarchism throughout the whole thing. Both of the two societies we see are ruled by bloodline monarchs and are shown to fall apart as soon as they die because no one can conceive of any other form of governance. One of the monarchs is shown to be evil and the other incompetent, so it’s at least not depicting monarchs as objectively better, but did we really need this? I get that monarchies are a staple of fantasy settings, but if you want to provide social commentary on modern society you need to accurately reflect modern society. Vanessa is already the de facto leader of Asala at the start of the story so nothing would have to change by making her de jure, and making Vergio a democracy would at least lend some credence to the claim they’re a slave to the masses instead of their emperor being the only monarch in all of history who places the peasants’ desires over his own.

Additionally, I feel I should note: The only dark-skinned characters are the magic mutant people with psychedelic hair, and the characters list their dark skin in the same breath as the impossible hair when talking about how they’re Weird and Other. This is a bad trope and fantasy authors really, really ought to know that by now. Dark skin is a normal human trait and should be treated as such.

You may notice I haven’t said much about the Fog, even though that seems like it should be a pretty major part of the plot. Nope! The characters only come up with anything approaching a solution in the endings, but you’re not allowed to make a choice based on that; the ending is determined entirely based on how well you roleplayed each of the two protagonists, rather than whether you are willing to make a sacrifice for the greater good, even though that is the theme the entire story revolves around. (The elephant in the room here is that the Infused plan seems like it would work without requiring any of this drama, but Mia rejects it as evil even though the willing Infused seem perfectly fine.) The big reveal is also that the Fog is created by human nature, which I guess is supposed to be a metaphor for how evil is always with us and it’s up to everyone to rise above it, but feels like a non-sequitor to me when the real climate disaster we are living under is caused by the selfishness of a few people, not humanity as a whole.

The whole story ended up feeling very post-hoc to me. Its argument appears to be, “Taking it as a given that people are terrible, asking people to make sacrifices for the greater good is wrong.” Except, uh, no, I do not take that as a given, nor should I. People are not inherently unreasonable and do not inherently desire fascism, nor does every single person in a society fall to mob mentality when it strikes. There were German citizens who fought and died opposing the Nazis. Donald Trump did not get a majority of the vote — nor did Hitler, I feel I should point out since everyone loves to trot out that he was democratically elected. Humanity is not a monolith; “society” or “the collective” is always made up of individuals who make their own individual decisions, and it is not fair to lump everyone in with an evil vocal minority.

From the developer’s blog posts, I know that they struggle heavily with depression, and that no doubt influenced all of this, so I don’t want to be too hard on them, but… well, this is a really bad message. This is perhaps an intractable issue with these kinds of stories: The author makes a world that supports their worldview, but that doesn’t mean that world is an accurate simulation of the real one — and perhaps it can’t ever be, since accurately simulating a world as complex as ours is quite the tall order.

It’s a shame, because I feel there is a lot of value here. On paper, I think the story is a very good one — the struggle between collectivism vs. individualism is an important question, as are questions of what to do in the face of existential risks and how to balance ideals and reality. The story is very genuine, and I found parts of the Judged and Tired endings genuinely touching. But it just crumbled in execution, largely I suspect due to the creator’s overwhelming bias towards individualism; the story was supposed to weigh it against collectivism, but it could never do that fairly. Maybe that is an intractable problem with the way we tell stories, which present an inherent divide between The Main Characters Who Matter and the The Background Characters Who Don’t? It’s hard to care about the collective when they are a (literally, in this case) faceless mass that speaks in one (whiny) voice.

So let’s talk about gameplay, because believe it or not, that was actually the primary reason I wanted to check this out. Soul Sunder was a genuinely tense experience where resource management really mattered, and I was interested to see how the developer would expand on those ideas for a larger game.

Unfortunately, they… didn’t, really. I was hoping for a challenge, but honestly the game is shockingly easy. Resource management quickly becomes a non-issue because the game just hands you piles and piles of items constantly, to the point I frequently had to leave stuff on the ground because I had more than I could carry. This is made worse by the fact that in many chapters you can retreat from dungeons to rest at inns (which are free, even!) indefinitely, unlike in Soul Sunder where you were locked into a dungeon once you started and got only one rest. Healing is still limited to items, but that’s hardly a concern when you’re given so much free stuff. And this isn’t even getting into attack items, which trivialize basically everything, even boss fights — and the game hands them out like party favors too. And for Aeyr’s chapters the difficulty just evaporates entirely because he has a healing spell, and the game’s equivalent of MP refreshes every battle so you basically never have to worry about attrition again. There is somewhat of a throttle on it in that he has to use a charge-up ability first, but he can act multiple times so you can still heal every round.

Economy is also a joke — each encounter usually drops enough money to buy a healing item, so even if you are burning them literally every battle and somehow burn through all the freebies the game throws at you, it’s pretty easy to accumulate more. And unlike in Soul Sunder there are also no money sinks — I expected merchants to sell equipment at some point, but nope, only ever consumable items. I had thousands of marks by the end of the game.

The major mechanic the battle system revolves around is that your MP is also your defense: when you’re attacked, damage is reduced by a percentage equal to your remaining MP. You regenerate a little MP each round, but even regular attacks consume it, so you have to be careful. This forces you to be cautious about going into an all-out offensive, since if you burn through all your MP you’ll be left a sitting duck against the enemy’s counterattack. Unfortunately, the game is so easy I only rarely had to concern myself with this, and you can in fact win most encounters in a single round by going all-out. I think by the end I also ended up overleveled, because my characters were just absurdly powerful.

Additionally, the game uses the “free action” system seen in several RPG Maker games, where your actions per turn are decoupled from your characters. I generally don’t like this system for the reasons I explained in my Flawed Crystals devnotes: it often leads to you favoring more broadly useful characters over more situational ones. Prayer of the Faithless is better at avoiding this problem than Attack the Light, but it is very much still there — I almost never used Trill outside of her buff skills, and I found myself using Amalie less and less as the game progressed. I do think the MP-as-defense system helps a lot to balance this, as spreading out your MP use will leave your characters more protected overall than having a single character act 3 times, which will usually leave them defenseless.

It’s also very relevant thematically to a story about individualism vs. collectivism, since it allows a one-man party theoretically even footing with a full one. It’s probably unintentional that the game shows the same bias towards individualism in its mechanics as it does in its story, but I do find it darkly amusing. I think it would have been much more fitting if the free action system was restricted to Aeyr while Mia used a more traditional “one action per character” system to reinforce her themes. (Honestly, I find it questionable that Aeyr amasses a party at all given his edgy loner philosophy, but maybe the point is supposed to be that he’s a hypocrite.)

So overall, this was a swing and a miss for me, and honestly I think it’s a downgrade from Soul Sunder. At least it had the courage to say something real, which puts it head and shoulders above most cookie-cutter crap the media machine extrudes, but what it says is a largely jumbled and deeply hateful mess I just can’t agree with.

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