Wot I Think: Cthulhu Saves The World

By John Walker on July 13th, 2011 at 12:00 pm.

Modesty.

No matter what I write about Zeboyd‘s Cthulhu Saves The World, even if I were about to launch into a scathing attack on the RPG, it still wouldn’t be able to combat the price. This game costs $3/£2. Except, actually, for that price you get two games, the other being Breath of Death VII: The Beginning. And both are RPGs. Big, detailed RPGs. Price doesn’t affect quality, but when it’s less than the price of a bottle of water for two full length games, it’s a competitive factor. So, despite the fact it barely matters at that price, here’s Wot I Think of Cthulhu Saves The World.

The core idea is enough to sell it, really. The mighty Cthulhu, after centuries asleep under the sea, rises once more to destroy the Earth. Except he’s instantly zapped by a wizard, who removes all his powers. The only way to get them back, he learns from listening to the game’s narrator, is to become a true hero.

And so it is that you set off on a paradoxical attempt to regain evil powers by being as virtuous as possible. A theme that allows the game to justify those silliest of RPG tropes, where your central character so selflessly takes on the tasks and quests of any passerby. Here the impotent Cthulhu is motivated to do anything that society might perceive as good natured by his ultimate goal of killing everyone in the world.

This comes in the form of a top-down, old-school RPG, reminiscent of Nintendo classics, as you wander pixel lands, visit pixel towns, and conquer pixel caves, all in the search of heroic deeds. And while it’s undoubtedly a spoof, it also remembers to be a coherent, detailed RPG in its own right. The variety of monsters to fight alone is utterly extraordinary. However far through the game I may be, and I’ve been playing for many hours, I’ve encountered literally hundreds of unique enemies, each with particular fighting styles, their own mini-bios, animations, and a special look for when Cthulhu turns them insane.

And combat is pleasingly detailed. While Cthulhu starts off pretty underpowered, you’re immediately joined by Umi, a “maiden” you rescue, who turns out to think your tentacled face is incredibly attractive, swooning as she follows you around. She also comes equipped with some impressive abilities, including the ability to put enemies to sleep during battle. Later your party gets busier, with increasingly odd characters coming along for the ride, meaning that combat becomes even more complex. Each character has a basic attack, then Tech and Magic abilities. These get added to as you level up, with two-way choices given for each character. Do you take a new spell that attacks multiple enemies more weakly, or focuses on one very strongly? Perhaps you’ll choose between increasing your attributes, or upping your maximum hit and magic points? Then of course you need to judiciously apply them depending upon the enemies you’re facing. Because battles get extremely tough, meaning you have to properly think through your attack choreography.

Rather unfortunately, these are all random attacks. Rather than having enemies placed in the world as you explore, instead the encounters spring up from nowhere. While there are obviously legions perfectly okay with such an approach, I’ve never liked it, and here it feels out of sorts. It doesn’t seem impossible that the game could have scattered enemy units around so you’d know you were heading into battle – perhaps even have them move according to your own party movement. Instead each location is limited to a certain number of encounters, which once reached means they stop entirely unless you voluntarily select to fight from the in-game menu. It means that I’ve ended up counting down the battles, itching for them to be over so I can just relax and explore the area for any missed treasure chests or hidden items. When that’s 30 encounters, as in the Ghost Forest, it can start to feel arduous, rather than fun. Which is a shame. I know this is in large part a personal taste thing, but why can’t I safely clear out a particular route or passage? It doesn’t make much sense that retreading the same ground leads to combat, until it suddenly doesn’t.

The other issue with combat is Magic Points. They’re not well balanced, and recovering them is remarkably difficult. Potions heal health, but not magic, and the white pools that let you restore it all completely are extremely rare. Instead you rely on the tiny scraps you recover with each successful battle, which are often fewer points than the cost of letting off just one spell. If it were a case of balancing them as a resource within each fight, it would make sense. But instead you pretty much have no sense of whether you’re eventually going to run out before they can be replenished over an entire dungeon. And without them, you’re pretty much useless in combat. And again, with random encounters it’s not like you can safely retreat back without facing increasingly tough fights. You can teleport back to the last town, but that’s often an extremely long way, and not a fun option.

The level of detail is just remarkable. Not just the enemies, but the way that every bookshelf in every building has a gag written for it. Looking through people’s drawers in their houses always offers a joke. Banter between the characters is often very funny, and Cthulhu’s internal conflict over his goody/baddy confusion is lovely. Arguments between in-game characters and the narrator may not be an original idea, but it’s one likely unfamiliar to anyone who wasn’t playing games in the 1980s, and it’s done very well here. And I’m a sucker for meta gags, so seeing Cthulhu complain, “I can save any time? What is this, a first person shooter?” makes me smile. Then there’s the dialogue when you go to save:

“Warning – do not remove the hard drive or memory unit while saving, loading, or viewing save files!”

Good work.

I wish the dungeons were a bit more frequently broken up by towns. It can feel too large a gap between, meaning things feel more sparse than they deserve to. But then that’s true to the era it apes as well. Having previously been released on XBLIG, the game plays splendidly with either keyboard (and it’s properly reworked for this) or 360 controller, which was my preferred choice.

For essentially £1 this is just an utterly extraordinary amount of entertaining game. It’s funny, silly, but at the same time a proper, fleshed out 16-bit RPG. And I haven’t even started Breath of Death VII: The Beginning yet.

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74 Comments »

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  1. sinister agent says:

    The core idea is enough to sell it, really. The mighty Cthulhu, after centuries asleep under the sea, rises once more to destroy the Earth. Except he’s instantly zapped by a wizard, who removes all his powers. The only way to get them back, he learns from listening to the game’s narrator, is to become a true hero.

    It seems so obvious now that someone’s done it. That’s a bloody brilliant idea.

    • Stromko says:

      Got to love their ‘success story’ in that article– a Minecraft clone (FortressCraft) that sold 16,000 copies on its first day. FortressCraft isn’t nearly as slavish a clone as TotalMiner, either. I suspect that Minecraft will have a pretty disappointing launch if it ever does come to the console, now.

  2. Teddy Leach says:

    Well, I was going to buy it anyway. There’s no reason not to at that price, plus the dev put extra features into the PC version.

  3. Archonsod says:

    Nice concept, but it looks far too much like a JRPG.

    • Buckermann says:

      I’m not sure that I understand your reason for saying that.
      It’s a bit like complaining about apples, because, well they are too much like apples.

    • sinister agent says:

      …which makes perfect sense if you don’t like apples.

    • Teddy Leach says:

      Coming soon: NEW ORANGE FLAVOURED APPLES.

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      Rinox says:

      Mind:blown

    • Wulf says:

      It… it is a JRPG. Yes. So, it looks like one. And JRPGs are a nice concept. But JRPGs should not look like JRPGs. So… uh… um… ultimately… Archonsod wants to play a JRPG that has the graphical aesthetics of Ultima VII. I think? I don’t know. ._.

    • Raiyan 1.0 says:

      Ummm… I don’t see any huge eyed annoying schoolgirl anywhere, so I don’t see the problem.

    • sinister agent says:

      JRPGs aren’t the concept Archonsod was referring to, I’d wager (and I would argue that they’re not a concept at all, rather, a set of stock tropes and mechanics, but oh look, another bracket). The concept is the ultimate-evil-as-hero thing, most likely. Archonsod, I apologise for putting words in your mouth if I’m wrong, of course.

      I really don’t see why this is apparently troubling people.

    • TsunamiWombat says:

      Apples come in Grape flavor, so why not orange?
      http://www.theimpulsivebuy.com/images/grapple.jpg

    • mbourgon says:

      Ditto. So very much the target audience, but I don’t care for JRPGs. Wish it were an RPG that wasn’t a JRPG.

    • Waltorious says:

      For a JRPG that does not look like a JRPG, please see Anachronox. It’s old, but excellent.

    • Archonsod says:

      lol

      It’s not the aesthetics, it’s the mechanics – the random battles, boring old pick a menu choice combat etc. Or in other words, cool idea for a game, shame about the gameplay.

  4. Cinnamon says:

    Is this game contemporary? I’m waiting for the official 2K Games announcement before playing.

  5. Marijn says:

    Great news that it’s coming out on PC! The Indie Games service for the 360 STILL isn’t available in my country (or, indeed, in most European countries). I hope many other indie developers will follow suit (and hopefully abandon XBLIG altogether, in favour of Steam).

    @Cinnamon: That’s fantastic. My hat is off to you.

  6. Ian says:

    For £2 I’m willing to give it a bash, even if the stuff that irked John sounds like exactly the sort of stuff that’ll irk me.

  7. Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

    Better combat, non random enemie fights poppng up, and I would be sold. I hate those as well.

    • Wilson says:

      Yeah, I think think many RPGs should come with an option to basically turn off battles, or at least turn them down to a super-easy level. I really enjoyed The Spirit Engine 2, so I recommended it to my brother. He also really enjoyed it, but couldn’t get his head around the battles, so he gave up, despite loving the world it was set in. This sounds like it might be a similar thing for me, but at that price it’s a risk worth taking in my book.

    • sassy says:

      this game has 4 levels of difficulty so that shouldn’t be much an issue.

  8. wonderclutch says:

    Can’t find it on Steam. When is this coming out? Can’t seem to find the info anywhere.

  9. Mike says:

    “The other issue with combat is Magic Points. They’re not well balanced, and recovering them is remarkably difficult. Potions heal health, but not magic, and the white pools that let you restore it all completely are extremely rare. ”

    I’ve been reading a lot of Let’s Plays recently, and it turns out that this varies a lot between RPGs. I had no idea. Some of them basically treat it as an infinite resource that just gets managed within battles, others make it so rare it’s a luxury item. I think it’s a tone thing rather than a balance thing.

    This always sounded like a fun romp. You mentioned there’s a lot of humour, how funny is it? Ben and Dan funny?

  10. mod the world says:

    You pay $3 for a bottle of water?

  11. Kdansky says:

    Mana Points are such a bad concept, it’s a wonder it survived this long. Guild Wars (your mana recovers in a few seconds from empty to max) and Bloodline Champions (“healable” health, no mana at all) have good implementation of a resource mechanic for mana/health. Everything else just does not. Either you run out (and you die), or you don’t (and then winning is decided by other mechanics). Which isn’t exactly an interesting mechanic, if you look at it that way.

    • Gnoupi says:

      This could be extended to health point as well.
      The most famous MMORPG forces you to gobble so many potions and gallons of water that it’s a wonder the hero is not rolling around like a katamari.
      The most famous ARPG games are also in the same idea, drink, drink, drink potions to keep yourself afloat.

      In the end it’s just bothering. Guild Wars is a great example of how to do it right. You just recover as soon as you are not fighting anymore. No need to stop to snack a sandwich after each fight.

      The next update for Terraria is also in the same idea, better management for health. currently you can just gobble potion after potion, almost. Next update will introduce longer time to be allowed to drink another potion, and regenerating health system.

    • Kdansky says:

      I am actually not bothered by potion-gobbling in Terraria or MUDs. If it becomes totally excessive (and you can easily access potions which are very cheap), it’s just a minigame of getting your potion CD in at the right time. But generally, I’d agree. On the other hand, WoW potions are stupid too. You get to drink exactly one per fight. Which means you always want to drink one, and plan your strategy around that. That’s also weird.

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      drewski says:

      Careful, fellas. It’s thinking like this that caused first person shooters to all suddenly feature regenerating health, and look where *that* got us.

    • Berzee says:

      Potions are not contemporary.

    • Kdansky says:

      Regenerating Health isn’t bad per se: Portal does it well.

      There are just too many games where the designer didn’t understand the implications, such as Duke Nukem Forever, where the protagonist becomes a pillar-hugging coward. If one of the prime game mechanics is “management of health and ammo”, and you take one (regenerating health) or the other (Deus Ex 2) or both (DNF) away, you end up with a shallow game.

    • Vagrant says:

      Mmm Regenerating health in FPS games. Best evolution to the genre!
      I can’t be certain, but it seems like I’ve played a RPG once that regenerated your mp (and maybe hp?) after a battle, making each battle a strategy, instead of a whole dungeon of resource management.

    • sinister agent says:

      One of the worst and most jarring things about RPGs in general is the use of health potions (or equivalent), in my opinion. Winning a fight because you magically healed yourself faster that the other person is just rubbish and boring, never mind how realistic it is.

      I think it’s true that mana and the like need to be examined, too. Regenerating health is avery much overdone in shooters, but it’s not inherently bad, and I’d say it could even work much better in RPGs, as in those you tend to be unable to hide in a corner because whatever’s fighting you will follow rather than sit behind cover waiting for you to heal up.

    • mwoody says:

      Yeah, guys, we whined about health points back in the day, and now they regen after a few seconds and, well, suck. Shhhhh about mana.

      Or just look forward to Diablo 3, where some characters (Wizard) have fast-regen mana (actually “arcane power”) pools for pewpew, while others have slow-burn traditional mana pools (Witch Doctor).

    • Chris D says:

      The thing about health potions and hit points is not that they’re intrinsically bad…

      The Dark Lord’s mace crashes into our hero’s armour. He goes down, strength is fading, enraly done for. But what’s this? A small bottle, a gift from his dying mother “To bring you strength in the darkest hour”. The Dark Lord thinks he’s won, he’s gloating, distracted. Our hero drinks swiftly, feels his strength returning once again. With renewed vigour he swings his sword for one last critical strike…

      … It’s that the nature of gamers being what it is we’ve kind of industrialised the process…

      “Hey! Buddy! We’re off to collect Dire Wolf teeth in the dark forest, you want to join us? Just punch them in the face and they come right out.”
      “Dire Wolves? Isn’t that dangerous.?
      “Nah. We got enough potions of healing with us. I mean sure they’ll rip your arm off every half hour or so but one swig and that sucker grows back good as new. I mean if you’re scared of a little major haemorraging you could always get yourself some fancy armour but you got to think of the margins. Good blacksmiths are expensive these days, it works out cheaper just to regrow internal organs when you need them.”

      While the system is a bit rough I’m not sure what you replace it with that would work better. Instadeath isn’t a whole lot of fun, nor is running around with a crippled character.

      Probably the best solution is to write around it. Maybe you have a personal force field that will protect you for as long as the batteries last, or a spirit animal that will deflect blows until it becomes too tired.

    • Tacroy says:

      I would play that game.

      Actually, I would play the game where you’re a Dire Wolf, and the economics work out such that punching out your own teeth and selling them nets enough of a profit that you can chug a healing potion, grow your teeth back, and keep on making money.

    • Cosmonaut Zero says:

      When the combat is easy, managing your MP throughout a dungeon becomes the challenge. It means that the game rewards you for judiciously spending your resources, and it means that it feels more special when you need to bust out the big guns. If you have infinite bombs can can nuke every sewer rat you fight, it’s boring.

      Also: there ARE JRPGs with regenerating mana. Final Fantasy 13 for instance. It literally treated each encounter as its own strategic engagement and left you at 100% after every fight. It… kinda works. Battles are definitely each very good, but the dungeons have to texture because of it. There’s never that tension when you’re starting to run low and begin to wonder whether you overspent or underprepared or if you’re almost there and they’re just trying to make you squirm.

      I think that, like regenerating health, it’s an interesting system and it’s good to experiment with. Done right, both regenerating and non-regenerating MP can be interesting in their own ways. But saying that “it’s a wonder [magic points] survived this long” belongs in a 2K boardroom, where they’re happy to throw out ideas without understanding them just because they’re old.

    • FunkyBadger3 says:

      Winning a fight because you magically healed yourself faster that the other person is just rubbish and boring, never mind how realistic it is.

      Loving this comment.

    • Josh W says:

      One of the nice things that happens when you can see enemies, is that shifting amounts of health/ammo/mana make you treat them with more or less caution. It changes your emotional stance through the game, from when you’re sitting high and mighty on full health and mana, to where you’re nearly dead, looking for enemies that drop the right stuff, skirting the edges and generally making yourself scarce.

      Persistent health gives the game a dramatic arc, so long as it is tied to choice.

  12. Reddin says:

    Hmm. Random battles are usually enough to put me off, but I might give it a shot.

  13. Po0py says:

    So it’s a Dragon Quest clone. On PC.

    Sold.

    • Creeping Death says:

      See, when you word it like that…

      Sold.

      Not that I’m short on Dragon Quest ish games. Most notably having to finish DQ 9 and start DQ 6 but… £2!

    • Dominic White says:

      Yeah, it’s basically a pair of tongue-in-cheek, NES-style Dragon Quest clones for £1, give or take. Don’t forget Breath of Death is included. The PC version of CSTW also has a second story.

      No pretension here. It’s just Dragon Quest + Silly + Super-cheap.

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    Wisq says:

    I wonder how much it would unbalance things to pull out my trusty memory hacker and give myself unlimited magic points. Or find some way to auto replenish them between battles.

    Will definitely check it out in any case. I’m glad to finally see a justification for why — good OR evil — the protagonist always feels compelled to probe everyone for things to do instead of minding their own business.

    Of course, it still doesn’t explain why everyone feels compelled to actually tell you their problems rather than telling you to piss off …

    • TsunamiWombat says:

      If Cthulu came to me demanding to know if I had wrongs that needed writing, i’d bloody well tell him before he drove me insane.

  15. RyuRanX says:

    Japanese RPGs are not my thing, but I enjoy playing it once in a while. It’s indie, it’s cheap and it reminds me of the early Dragon Quest games. Why wouldn’t I buy it?

    By the way, I recommend everyone to keep an eye out for Dungeons of Dredmor, a roguelike RPG which will be released on Steam next-friday, July 15th.

    • johnpeat says:

      Dredmor came out today (13th) – alongside Cthulu and Breath of Death – it’s positively expensive at over THREE quid tho, but I’m loaded so I bought it…

      It’s a roguealike with more humour than a large bag of humour and I’m loving it thusfar – now I need more booze to power my spells so scuse me…

  16. Veracity says:

    Arguments between in-game characters and the narrator may not be an original idea, but it’s one likely unfamiliar to anyone who wasn’t playing games in the 1980s

    You should play some Nippon Ichi games. Well, possibly you shouldn’t, since they’re not particularly good and their fourth wall abuse can get mightily grating, but they are full of this sort of thing. That said, in the only actual argument with a narrator I currently recall from one of those, the narrator’s also a playable character, which makes it marginally less absurd.

    Thanks for pointing out the launch. I’ve been waiting for this to turn up. Even if the humour misses for me, I’ll probably enjoy the fights, based on reviews of that other whirring box’s version.

  17. Tacroy says:

    Haha it’s on Steam now, I love the last quote in the reviews section:

    “Honestly? This is too good to be stuck in the 360 indie game store”
    Gamesradar

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    tikey says:

    Ok mr Walker, you win this year best pun ever award. Take it, you deserve it.

  19. ZIGS says:

    Bought it for the sole reason it’s actually cheaper in the EU store than in the US one. Ok, it also looks pretty good

  20. Gvaz says:

    Lol parody games of a JRPG.

    I think I’m gonna get Dungeons of Dreadmore instead.

  21. Janek says:

    Getting something of a Barkley Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden vibe. I approve. £2 is definitely worth a punt.

  22. geldonyetich says:

    Alright, I’m buying, I’m buying already, you terrible Internet. Take my $3 American for your incredible deals I’d be crazy to pass up on. Take it and choke on it.

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    Colonel J says:

    Just bought it on Steam. So that’s my post-Steam-sale buying moratorium busted. Within two days. Curse you Cthulhu.

    And 10% off on Steam. That’s 20p I’ve just saved. TWENTY PENCE.

  24. Vinraith says:

    Well, it’s on Gamersgate, and at that price I can get it for free with Blue Coins from earlier purchases, so sold!

  25. Trelow says:

    Wait. Didn’t everyone bitch in the other direction about Dragon Age 2?

    *reply to the potion discussion above. I’m a dipshit and can’t hit the right button.

  26. JHarris says:

    Get this you guys:

    Random battles are not the end of the world.

    Magic points are not necessarily a terrible system.

    It all depends on the service which the design expects them to perform. Random battles are annoying when they happen too frequently. Cthulhu Saves The World actually has fairly infrequent battles, and they do run out eventually.

    Magic points exist in the game to prevent every fight from being a self-contained thing. They provide continuity between battles, which is important, because you always get all your hit points back after each fight.

    Lately I’ve been kind of nostalgic for the _real_ old days of RPGs: frequent random battles, monsters who can clean your clock without much effort, expensive revival charges if not outright permadeath, strong resource management, etc. At least those things were actual games, as opposed to hack fantasy visual novels written by people who’ve seen too much anime.

  27. fuggles says:

    Right – finished this twice, albeit far too late for anyone to read this post. Two things you need to know; 1) It’s fantastic 2) The random battles are limited in number in each area so there comes a point where you are left alone, unless you don’t want to be. Frankly if you want to beat some optional bits then you need to grind it out, but it’s quick to level with no cap so you will win in the end.