After a draining day's reportage upon the thoroughly alien doings of vast corporate publishers, I like nothing better than to flee, blabbing and weeping, into the arms of a micro-RPG. Scumhead's Franzen - released a few days ago on Steam and Itch - has a couple of big draws, straight off the bat. Firstly and least importantly, it's free, which it really shouldn't be. Secondly and more significantly, it's one of those rare RPG miniatures that is both richly imagined and snappy, with a busy and befuddling world in which you have immediate clear motivations that escalate rapidly and breed Dire Implications. It also looks like a 16-bit Pathologic, so consider me firmly on board.
In Franzen you play odd couple Franz and Lefsa Dellia. Franz is a sort of metally lizardperson, while Lefsa is a cheery, nimble soul who lives in a tuba, carried by Franzen (I have had to write this line quite carefully to avoid any euphemisms). Both are amateur "technomancers" investigating something called the Scream, a boiling sooty tear in reality that has filled the once-resplendent realm of Branzen with demons.
The game begins with the Dellia airship being overrun by swooping gasbag creatures, and swiftly moves to a rusty, crowded steampunk city of different races and castes, where you're immediately prompted to hunt down a murderer. Further down the road - not that much further, this is reportedly about four or five hours in length - there's the opportunity to "rise to power as you navigate a web of bureaucracy and corruption" while recruiting "charming party members", reading up on Branzen's far from spotless history, and exploring the "true meaning of Empathy".
It's all glued together by a familiar but diverting active-time-style battle system, with status effects, front and back rows, potions, etcetera - all the trimmings expected of a self-respecting SNES throwback. Clashes are sparse, however - in the course of an hour with the game over lunch, I've spent far more time picking the brains of Franzen's townsfolk, who manage to get to the point pretty quickly while still being colourful characters.
If you dig this, you might want to check out Scumhead's other creations on Itch.io, which range from id Tech Metroidvanias to Zeldary shmups. I'll have to recommend Franzen to our James. It was only a couple of weeks ago that he was ruminating about the joys of extremely short games.