"Just like Pinocchio, the puppet who wants to be a real boy, Darkblood Chronicles is an RPGMaker game that wants to be a "real" game."
It is no secret that I have played a ton of indie games. Some were made using software like Ren'Py or RPG Maker, whereas others were made using the developer's own proprietary engines. Some were a pleasure to play, some made me want to bash my head against the wall, and others were completely forgettable despite not being bad games per se. One of my favorites remains Blossomsoft's Eternal Eden, because it was a smooth and enjoyable playing experience whose design choices I continue to extol to this day. I also appreciate that Blossomsoft is a developer that wants to push itself further than the RPG Maker cottage industry that developers like Aldorlea have developed a strong niche in. Blossomsoft desires to create their own proprietary engines and develop their games from scratch rather than from the "boxed cake mix" that RPG Maker is perceived to be. They may not be as prolific as other developers, but that's because they want to create the best representative product possible and not be just another "me too" developer.
So why all this talk about Blossomsoft? Well, just like Tool's Maynard James Keenan did his A Perfect Circle side project, Blossomsoft's pixel animation artist Dorian Tokici has a little side project of his own: a macabre RPG called Darkblood Chronicles, under his Omaj label, that is heavily influenced by games like Shadow Hearts, Persona, and Clock Tower. Yes, this game was developed using RPG Maker, but it is very clear through the game's production values that the software itself seemed to limit Tokici's grand vision. Darkblood Chronicles is analogous to the protagonist of a famous Carlo Collodi novel. Just like Pinocchio, the puppet who wants to be a real boy, Darkblood Chronicles is an RPG Maker game that wants to be a "real" game.
From what I understand, implementing customized sprites, tilesets, and the like in RPG Maker VX ACE is far more difficult than it was in XP or VX. This is perhaps why many VX ACE games utilize a lot of the stock resources. Despite that, Darkblood Chronicles has fully customized sprites and tilesets. The environments are nicely drawn, especially the interiors of buildings and the outdoor post-apocalyptic wastelands. The insides of caves are not as detailed but still look fine. The only issue I have with the graphics is that some locations are too dark and murky unless I adjust the brightness on the fly. The game does not just look good "for an RPG Maker game" — it looks good, period.
The graphical highlight of the game is easily the sprites. They are large, animate smoothly and expressively, and have appealing designs. I rather like the look of the protagonists' sprites (particularly the main heroine), and enemy sprites often have clever designs. Some major bosses encountered late in the game have especially creative designs. The character portraits within the menus have an anime inspired look but, to me, don't look as cool as the sprites do. For example, the protagonist's menu portrait shows smooth, light purple hair and a fairly innocent expression, whereas her purple/black-haired sprite has a more hardened expression and an edgier haircut.
The RPG Maker trappings are kept as minimal as possible, but are still present here and there. Treasure chests, switches, and a few other minor sundry items use stock or default icons; the outlines of cliff faces and the boundaries of walls have that characteristic RPG Maker shape; the menu interface is stock; and the unchangeable battle engine is RPG Maker's no-frills turn-based system.
Complementing the visuals is a very good soundtrack filled with darkly atmospheric, yet tasteful, music. This is the kind of music I want to hear in a macabre RPG with a gothic flair. The music is often gloomy, dreary, and depressing, as befits a decrepit wasteland that's rapidly decaying due to suffering and apathy. The instrumentation sounds like high quality 32-bit MIDI, which works well with the crisp 2D visuals.
Like the 16-bit brethren Darkblood Chronicles takes inspiration from, the game is no cakewalk. Even the earliest encounters require thought and strategy, and at no point can you just put your brain on auto-pilot and cruise through. Bosses and even regular enemies have more HP than expected and some really powerful attacks. Thankfully, enemy encounters can be seen beforehand and do not respawn, so all encounters count. It's also good to defeat all enemies in a hostile area, because doing so opens up treasure rooms with useful stuff. The game is delightfully challenging and emphasizes that sense of feeling that you are a puny human in a monstrous world who can
die, not an all-powerful wunderkind hero.
One issue I have has less to do with the game and more to do with the limitations imposed by the RPG Maker software. The protagonist can equip accessories similar to Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne's Magatama called "Warrior Souls" that boost stats and can cast spells as they level up. That's fine, but there were times when I was leveling up moves on one Warrior Soul and got into a difficult encounter that required a fully leveled Warrior Soul's moves to overcome. Spells don't become part of your permanent repertoire unless you visit the enchantress's hut, so the only way to cast some spells is to have the Warrior Soul equipped. That's when I wished I could swap out a Warrior Soul mid-battle and still get partial experience for it, similar to how character swaps work in Wild Arms 2 or Pokémon. I wonder if Dorian wanted to incorporate this or other more complex mechanics into the battle engine like Shin Megami Tensei's Press Turns or Shadow Hearts' Judgment Ring, but could not due to RPG Maker's limitations.
Gamers more interested in playing for the story will probably wish there was an easy mode option. There were times I wished I could switch to "wimp mode" on the fly so I could power through the encounters and/or a merciless boss in order to continue on with the story. I also wished early on that teleporters between zones existed so I didn't have to backtrack for miles just to get to necessary facilities that are deeply embedded within dungeons. I recall having the same complaint with PoPoLoCrois.
The story stars Samantha (Sam for short), an outcast student who enjoys horror movies and is never without her sketchbook. She's probably picked on by the trendy popular girls who think she's weird because she'd probably rather listen to The Cure than Justin Bieber. Sam's pretty cool in my book, since she reminds me of some of my friends, but her companions sometimes wind up being more interesting. One example is Ethan, a popular bad boy at her school who's a closet bookworm with a keen interest in occult literature. Sam thinks he keeps his bookishness a secret to maintain his "cool" image, but there is a lot more to Ethan than he's willing to let on.
The tale starts with Sam nearly oversleeping due to a wretched nightmare. Bleary eyed, she has to quickly get ready for school before she misses the bus. She barely gets on the bus, but something is amiss. The bus is completely empty! Sam thinks nothing of it until she gets to school, which is also empty except for Ethan. Sam and Ethan are not alone, though, as demons have invaded the school and apparently Sam can magically use her sketchbook to summon spirits. It seems that anything she draws on special paper can materialize. With no time to question why this is happening or what the hell is going on, Sam and Ethan eventually track a student named Sin to the school's basement where she opens up a strange portal to another world. Not sensing any other choice, Sam and Ethan jump head first down the proverbial rabbit hole.
But who is Sin? How was she able to open a portal? How is she connected to both of these worlds? What about Ethan? Does he ever get over his complex? And why is a reluctant girl like Sam the focal point of this whole mess? All these questions and more await in this darkly twisted adventure that lasts 20-25 hours.
The text itself reads fine, if a little stiffly at times. There are also some stray spelling and grammar errors here and there, but nothing too offensive. I would have liked some of the cursing to be uncensored, though. For example, when Ethan gets his ass kicked by a demigod, he calls the guy a masochistic a-hole. It would have been much stronger had Ethan just said "asshole," since he doesn't seem like the kind of guy who'd censor himself to anyone.
Darkblood Chronicles is a good RPG, but it's a bit of an acquired taste. As with Legend of Dragoon, you have to be "on" all the time and can't just shut your brain off and cruise through battles. Some gamers will be okay with this, but some may not. But I liked Legend of Dragoon and I like this. I highly recommend that potential players try out the demo to see if this game is right for them. If it tickles your fancy, you will be treated to a dark delight.