"Unfortunately, I can't rate the game very highly based on our scale, but I do get the feeling that we have not even begun to see the best of what Awkward Pegasus has to offer."
It seems like it would be such a glamorous task writing video game reviews. Free games before everybody else gets them, industry parties, studio trips — and maybe that is what it is like at some places.
But RPGFan is a volunteer site. We play these games because we love this genre, just like you. We demand that our reviewers play games to completion before writing a review. Sometimes this means we get our reviews out a lot later than other places, but we believe the tradeoff is worth it so that we have time to examine as many aspects of a game as possible.
And sometimes this means we end up playing games that can become a chore to get through. That's when the gig gets a little bit tougher. I never relish writing a bad review. Yes, sometimes jokes about how bad a game is are fun and easy, but there are real people behind those games that did real work, and there is a thin line between trying to do your job as a reviewer and simply tearing down somebody else's creation.
After, by Awkward Pegasus, was a particularly tough game for me. We review a lot of games built on RPGMaker here at RPGFan in an effort to be as thorough as possible, and the quality between these small studio (sometimes just one person) games can vary wildly. You see a lot of the same canned gameplay over and over, as well as a lot of the same recycled graphics. I try to review RPGMaker games by comparing them to their peers among RPGMaker games, but at the same time, our review scoring system demands that we consider what's there against the genre at large.
With all of that out of the way; After is a game that I would not play again. But it is also a game that makes me very excited to see what Awkward Pegasus does next.
After takes some of the familiar systems we see in lots and lots of RPGs and adds on a few twists to them all. There is a job system where you can spend job points earned in battle to acquire powers. You will need to upgrade gear, but you only earn money by advancing the story as you complete assignments. You will need to level up, but you only gain levels by solving puzzles that are disguised as side quests. There is a relationship system with your party members that unlocks additional conversation, with choices at certain points in the game that will affect this dialogue.
At first, I very much appreciated the fact that just grinding away at enemies would not provide me a path to completing the game. But after a few hours, the limits of this particular approach became clear. There is a reason grinding is a system that has been around so long — in a pinch, it works. At one point, even on the easy setting of the game, I was having trouble progressing through certain sections because I had simply skipped too many puzzles, leaving me underleveled, and had run out of money for critical supplies because you can only earn money by advancing the plot. I ended up starting over with this knowledge and made it through more easily the second time, but you see the design flaw here. I hate the idea of criticizing a small operation for trying something new, but sometimes new things don't always work.
Puzzles are a big part of After. You'll need to finish lots of puzzles not just to level up your party, but also to advance in the various dungeons and locales. Some of these are cleverly designed with the limited tools available in RPGMaker, and I often felt that After would have been better served by abandoning random encounters and combat entirely and focusing solely on puzzles combined with story. There are sections in the game where the random encounters interfere dramatically with trying to solve a puzzle, and while I suppose it could be argued this is "old school," it's mostly just frustrating.
The story, which is by far the strongest aspect of After, is still hit or miss. The protagonist finds himself in a strange town and is unsure how he arrived there, and he meets others in the same situation. Before long he and the other new arrivals are forming a squad that does investigations and missions on behalf of the town, and in the course of these missions learns more about what is actually going on. After puts a very good twist on the "amnesia" style RPG, and at the macro level, the story really works for me. But on the micro level, there are certain NPCs and lines of dialogue that just don't work. There is a character named Jinx that has some of the most unfortunate lines of dialogue in any RPG I've played in some time, including a joke about copulating on a bathroom floor. But at the same time, the main characters that we follow for much of the story have an easy banter about them that feels very natural and is wonderfully written. When it is working, I felt the story did more to propel the game forward than any piece of gameplay, which I realize is a common theme in RPGMaker games but worth mentioning nonetheless.
Character portraits and graphics in the game all seemed pretty familiar, again a common theme with RPGMaker.
So, who should play this game? One of the things that makes this game so hard to recommend for anybody but the RPGMaker enthusiast is the price point. At $14.99 this game is competing with much bigger studios and higher quality games. I don't even necessarily blame the developer for pricing the game this way — it is clearly a labor of real love — but it is just impossible from a reviewer perspective for me to recommend this ahead of other games at the $15 price point.
But I also think that Awkward Pegasus has a unique storytelling voice that will only get better with future projects. Yes, not all of the story worked for me, but the parts that did work truly soared. But overall this absolutely feels like a first effort. Unfortunately, I can't rate the game very highly based on our scale, but I do get the feeling that we have not even begun to see the best of what Awkward Pegasus has to offer. I, for one, look forward to playing whatever comes next.