"Overall, Cthulhu Saves the World is Breath of Death VII, but longer and better."
Among the many Xbox Indie Games out there, Zeboyd Game's Breath of Death VII is easily the most memorable and substantial of the bunch. It was the hip, retro RPG that garnered a lot of media attention on major gaming sites; it was also my first exposure to the Xbox Indie scene. It was certainly a good game, and the low price point was very attractive, but there were a couple things that bugged me. The dialogue was great, but there was too little of it, and it lacked the charm that other retro-styled games typically have. The developer's next game, Cthulhu Saves the World, was originally slated for a summer release, but got delayed numerous times until it finally went on sale right before New Year's Eve. Gone is the $1 price appeal, but there's no need for it. The dev already proved their worth with Breath of Death, and Cthulhu Saves the World is superior in virtually every way.
The title reveals the game's premise, but why would Cthulhu do such a thing? Well, one day, he woke up from his slumber in the sunken city of R'lyeh, having an itch to take down humanity for his own pleasure. However, his plans were thwarted when a mysterious figure suddenly sealed away Cthulhu's powers and turned him into a weakling. Afterwards, he finds that the only way to break his curse is to become the savior of the world, a fate most ironic for the evil cosmic entity. And so Cthulhu reluctantly embarks on a journey to become the world's savior... just so he can end the world himself.
Like Breath of Death, Cthulhu Saves the World makes use of many pop culture references. Obviously, there are those referencing the works of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, which comprise most of the references. Cthulhu himself is Lovecraft's most iconic character. All the towns are named after Lovecraft's fictional settings such as Dunwitch (also spelled "Dunwich") and Kingsport. Even his birthplace of Providence (RI) is used as a town in the game. Other characters in the Cthulhu mythos, such as Nyarlathotep, make an appearance as bosses who all stand in the "hero's" way. Personally, the references here had less of an effect on me than those found in Breath of Death because I'm not a follower of Lovecraft's work. Still, I give credit to the writer for using such references to add more depth to the game, and RPG enthusiasts who are also fans of Lovecraft's work are bound to appreciate this addition.
The game's humor is done in a straightforward fashion, which rides heavily on Cthulhu's unfortunate situation. Usually, Cthulhu's evil presence never gets taken seriously by his fellow party members, or any NPCs who all seem to think of him as some random forest critter. Occasionally, the narrator breaks the fourth wall by interacting with Cthulhu, who originally told him how to break the curse. Sometimes, gaming clichés are mocked, such as when the party comments on a river getting blocked after clearing a dungeon, which conveniently leads them to the next objective. When a game gives you colorful party members such as a Cthulhu fangirl, a sentient sword, and a space kitty, you know that the humor is bound to be offbeat and loaded with fun.
As good as the dialogue and references are, it saddens me how little of each there is, which was a problem present in Breath of Death as well. After the prologue, plot points rarely occur, and when they do, they tend to be brief. There is a party chat option available, but just like in BoD, it's grossly under-utilized. The character dialogue doesn't change from zone to zone, or event to event, or at a rate that most RPG veterans would find acceptable. Even character introductions feel rushed from time to time. Understandable in cases where a character will be killed within minutes of his introduction, but what's the deal with characters that join your party and rarely speak again? Perhaps it was intentionally done to make players appreciate the given dialogue further, but no matter how you look at it, there's still too little substance.
The graphics still use the retro style, but the developers did a much better execution of it, since they allowed themselves an upgrade from strict 8-bit to a more 16-bit approach. Character and enemy sprites have improved, and I love the little extra touch of sprites changing when Cthulhu uses his powers of insanity. It's also nice to have actual backgrounds during battles instead of staring at black all the time. Dungeon layouts are much better as well, and much more varied in design, with some having their own little mechanics to trick the unsuspecting player. There are also a few outdoor areas in dungeons now, which include some cool scenic backgrounds. They're all little additions, but together they add much more appeal to the look and feel of the game. Last but not least, I love how they used Phantasy Star IV's comic book-style presentation, where individual panels pop up to illustrate events during cutscenes. I don't know why other classic RPGs never take that kind of slick approach.
The audio also receives a tremendous leap in improvement. The music sounds a lot more adventurous, and it's strongly reminiscent of the melody-driven style of classic JRPG music. There are also a lot of atmospheric tunes in the mix, but they sound better, more fitting to their respective environments. The battle themes are quite lively as well, and Cthulhu offers three separate battle themes, as opposed to BoD's one. By no means was Breath of Death's music a complete failure, but the atmospheric songs were downright dull, and having one ... boring ... battle theme ... being played every time killed off most of the appeal.
If you have played Breath of Death before, then you'll already know Cthulhu's gameplay. If you haven't, here is a quick gist of the mechanics. Battles play out in standard turn-based fashion. There is a combo meter to build up attack chains, which resets if you use a skill whose power is based on the combo meter. Enemies automatically get stronger per turn, encouraging players to fight more aggressively. After each battle, you get full HP and limited MP recovery. If a character levels up, you choose between either a new skill or stat enhancements. There are a limited number of random encounters per area, which never resets, but an option is available to force random encounters. It works well, and really has no need for an overhaul.
There are a few small improvements made to the game's system. You can now collect 1-Ups, which act as continues if you die during battle. You are also able to save anywhere now, though the old save points remain available to recover your MP. There are also seven party members total instead of four to add a greater variety of play styles, but you can only have four per battle. Equipment is much more varied too, particularly with weapons. There are many weapons to be found in dungeons, which contain unique passive abilities such as ignore defense, elemental boosts, lethal against certain enemy types and so forth. It's all standard concepts, but it adds a nice amount of strategy to the mix.
Outside combat, there is nothing else to do outside the town->dungeon->town formula aside from the occasional side dungeon for hunting down better equipment. At first, I thought there would be side quests available. When I stopped by the first town, I found an NPC who asked Cthulhu to find his missing puppy. Just the potential of requesting Cthulhu to do such altruistic tasks would lead to loads of fun. Unfortunately, there were no more side quests offered after finding the missing puppy. I was saddened by this wasted potential – tormenting Cthulhu further as the "reluctant hero." There were still several more dungeons and party members to enjoy compared to Breath of Death, but I honestly expected a bit more content packed into this release.
After beating the game, three bonus modes are unlocked. Score mode makes its return from BoD – you go through the game again and rack up points for beating bosses with low-level characters. There is also an overkill mode, which immediately levels you up right after the first battle, and lets you play through the game and revisit scenes without the hassle of regular encounters. The most interesting mode is Highlander, where your EXP gain is much higher, but you can only play as one character at a time the whole way. That is a surprisingly original concept, and a very unique form of challenge. "There can be only one!"
Overall, Cthulhu Saves the World is
Breath of Death VII, but longer and better. It's a shame that the scarce dialogue issue wasn't fixed, and it was not as big a leap forward in terms of content as I had hoped, but this is no major gripe for me. The dialogue is still sharp, the aesthetics have improved, and most important of all, it's a fun game to play.