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