"Truly well-crafted, bite-sized games (especially JRPGs) are rare, and Zeboyd has undoubtedly delivered a winner here."
As a child, one of my favorite parts about Christmas was coming down the stairs first thing in the morning to see an overstuffed stocking full of presents hanging from the mantle. Generally, stocking stuffers aren't "big ticket" items. Stockings are usually packed with little things that elevate the excitement of the morning. You might get some cute toys, a ton of candy, or in my case, a giant orange at the very bottom of the sock.
The bottom line is that I love stocking stuffers, and Zeboyd Games certainly gave JRPG fans a fantastic one this Christmas!
In Cthulhu Saves Christmas, you play as the titular Lovecraftian monstrosity, a tentacle-faced Old One who wishes to destroy the world. Finding a present from Santa Claus on his desk one morning, Cthulhu loses his powers the second he opens it. After meeting up with Santa's granddaughter Crystal, he discovers that the only way he can get his powers back is by saving Santa from the League of Christmas Evil. Gathering a party of JRPG archetypes (with a few Christmas twists), he sets out to beat up Christmas baddies, like the Krampus and Jack Frost, and save the holiday season (and then destroy the world)!
The first thing you need to know is that this isn't a 100-hour JRPG. On normal difficulty, it likely won't take you more than seven to eight hours, beginning to end. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! Remember, it's a stocking stuffer! As someone who regularly plays through massive, time-consuming games, I welcomed having something that I could devour in my free moments this holiday season.
While CSC is technically a prequel to Zeboyd's previous game Cthulhu Saves the World, you don't need to play that installment to enjoy the heck out of this one (although it certainly doesn't hurt). The writing in Cthulhu Saves Christmas is jam-packed with jokes and puns, lampooning both pop culture and JRPG conventions. It's simply a damn funny game, with some insightful metacommentary on video games and the holiday season.
As CSC is an intentional throwback to classic SNES JRPGs in terms of presentation, you might like it if you have "beautiful pixel graphics" on your Christmas wish list. Taking inspiration from Chrono Trigger, CSC is on par with some of the best pixel graphics on the SNES. While the animation isn't quite as smooth or extensive, it's still wonderful to look at if you love pixel art. The music of CSC is solid as well. Original tunes play alongside a variety of Christmas classics remixed with a sinister edge. A dark and foreboding version "Carol of the Bells" is particularly effective at communicating the Christmas spirit while also creating a creepy atmosphere.
CSC was developed in just under a year, so there are a few places where Zeboyd obviously had to scale back their ambitions and utilize some time-saving measures. For example, there is no overworld or traditionally explorable towns. Instead, there is a single town that you can explore through a map. (Using the original Cthulhu sprite from CSTW as the cursor is a nice touch.)
Between each section taking on a member of the League of Christmas Evil, you spend a few days building up your relationships (or R'lyehtionships, as Cthulhu insists on calling them) with your party members and other townsfolk. This story content is delivered through a series of sprite-based tableaus of Cthulhu trying traditional Christmas activities, only to fail in hilarious and insanity-inducing ways. The lack of animation in these sections is conspicuous at first but soon comes to feel more like a Christmas storybook, with each tableau telling a story. For example, there's Cthulhu's day as a Mall Santa, which goes about as well as you would expect. It's a shame there aren't enough days within a single playthrough to see all of the content in town, but I'm hopeful that could change in future updates.
For the turn-based battles, CSC uses a modified version of the Cosmic Star Heroine system, with some of the Cthulhu Saves the World's mechanics thrown in. For example, Cthulhu can still use his abilities to make enemies go insane, slightly boosting their damage output while significantly increasing the damage they receive from the Dark Lord himself. In battle, you have a choice of eight actions ranging from physical attacks and magic to status effect and healing spells. You can only use each one once before taking a turn to rest and reset your abilities. This system was one of the best parts of Cosmic Star Heroine, and it works just as well here. By limiting the number of times you can use an ability before resting, each battle feels much more like a puzzle to be solved with the selection of actions you have left. You can't simply press "fight" every turn, so mindless grinding isn't an option. Not that grinding is a problem anyway as there are a limited number of battles in each area, though you can always trigger more from the main menu.
There is one mechanic that didn't quite work for me, and that is chicken power. One of your party members, a youthful version of folklore villain Baba Yaga, utilizes the power of chickens to boost her effectiveness in battle. Unfortunately, this mechanic isn't well explained in the game or tutorials, and I was often left wondering if I was boosting my attacks or simply wasting turns building up chicken power. I find the idea of using the power of chickens as a battle stat to be endearingly absurd, but I never quite got the hang of it. A clearer tutorial about this mechanic would be beneficial!
Truly well-crafted, bite-sized games (especially JRPGs) are rare, and Zeboyd has undoubtedly delivered a winner here. Though there are a few rough edges, Cthulhu Saves Christmas is a delight from beginning to end for JRPG fans. It's hysterically funny, plays well, and best of all, genuinely works as a sort of Lovecraftian holiday special, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
or How the Grinch Stole Christmas
. In fact, why not make this a holiday tradition? Cthulhu Saves Halloween, anyone?
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.