"Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass is a quirky, hilarious, emotional experience that simply shouldn't be missed."
People don't give children enough credit. As the adult world swirls around them, children are often marginalized and told that they simply aren't "old enough" to understand the concerns of grown-ups. Kids are told not to worry about family disputes, money, and other problems. When it comes to death, they are given even less credit. But, Kasey Ozymy, the developer of Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass, understands that children 'get' much more than we give them credit for, while also acknowledging the creativity and wonder children have. With that understanding, he has created one of the most brilliant indie RPGs ever made.
Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass was created over four years using RPG Maker. Astoundingly, given the scope and depth of this game, it was developed entirely by Kasey Ozymy alone. Ozymy developed every part of the game, including the story, the unique sprite work, the music, and every gameplay mechanic. Ozymy acknowledges he took inspiration from a variety of sources in developing the game, most notably EarthBound, but also a number of other games, such as Lufia 2 and the Breath of Fire series. However, unlike some RPG Maker titles, this game transcends its predecessors and manages to do something entirely its own.
The game opens inside 8-year-old Jimmy's dream world. While the game never specifically tells us we are in his dream, it becomes immediately clear: we're plopped directly into Jimmy's house, which is in the clouds, surrounded by rainbow bridges and his loving family. Jimmy is asked to go run an errand for his mom, and, in typical RPG fashion, things get more complicated from there. Along the journey, you're surrounded by imaginative environments, talking frogs, attacking vending machines, and any number of things lodged in the imagination of a boy who's played too many video games (is there such a thing?). Early in the journey, we learn that an evil entity known as the Pulsating Mass is out to destroy Jimmy and his world. The Pulsating Mass influences everyone in Jimmy's world and turns those people against him. Nightmares that tell Jimmy he's not good enough, that he can never win, haunt him along the journey. Clearly, Jimmy has to stop the Pulsating Mass, but it's not that simple. None of it really makes sense early on, making the story beats equally confusing and terrifying as we dive deeper into Jimmy's subconscious and find out what's really motivating the Pulsating Mass.
Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass works so well because of its greatest strength: its focus on empathy. Every character in Jimmy's family has their foibles; they're all imperfect, but Ozymy makes us love them all the more because of their flaws. His uncle can't get his life together, but he plays video games with Jimmy. His brother lashes out in violence at every aggravation, but he wants to help Jimmy get stronger. Jimmy clearly understands his family's flaws and their strengths; they love Jimmy, and Jimmy loves them. That's what matters. It would be easy to veer into the maudlin here, but Ozymy is too clever and skilled a storyteller for that. We get bits and pieces of the characters, moments that underline their psychology, and we are left to our own devices to draw conclusions about what it means. Ozymy respects our intelligence, and the narrative is all the more powerful for it.
The game's focus on empathy goes beyond understanding Jimmy's family and friends; Ozymy even turns it into a gameplay mechanic. Every time Jimmy fights a boss who isn't controlled by the Pulsating Mass, he gains the ability to transform into that adversary and use his/her abilities. When he's gaining the ability, Jimmy spends a brief moment understanding what it is like to be that enemy. These tiny moments of empathy are surprisingly effective and moving, and go a long way toward developing the game's broader themes.
These transformations are also important because you get to use unique abilities in battle. You are also able to equip passive bonuses received from those transformations as you level them up. As Ozymy himself noted, these transformations are a callback to games with job systems, like Final Fantasy V. They add a fun degree of customization, and it's cool to find different combinations of passives and skills which allow you to annihilate any enemy. Transformations are also useful out in the field: you can shake every NPC in the game as a "goon," turn into a blob to get through tight spaces, etc. Exploration and experimentation with these forms is vital for finding hidden items and dungeons.
If you've played EarthBound or any similar turn-based RPG, you'll feel right at home with the battle system. Battles take place from a first-person point of view, and the backgrounds are even a little psychedelic. Similarly, enemy designs are clever and humorous, with enemies such as a "Yesman" in an office building who attacks every time another enemy attacks you. This is not a simple, "mash a button over and over again to win" system, though. There are a number of status effects, and learning to master these effects will be key to every battle. Boss battles in particular require a ton of strategy and thought to make sure all your abilities synergize to take them down. No enemies, even normal ones, are simple to beat. You need to use your abilities throughout; this, along with a limited inventory of healing items, make resource management key. I party wiped more than a few times, and hit some major difficulty spikes with a few of the bosses, but it's always fair. I just had to keep experimenting, and I could always take the boss down without much grinding. The battles are random, but if you're at a high enough level, the game will allow you to skip the fights, which is a nice touch.
One way to help with the difficulty is to engage in the enormous amount of side content. This game clocks in at roughly 35-45 hours, and you can easily spend about 10-15 of those on side quests. Most of these sidequests involve a short storyline with a secret 'nightmare' dungeon, and a boss at the end. The key to finding these quests is constant exploration. It's refreshing to see an indie game that is so interested in providing not only a brilliantly told story, but a deep world that is worthy of exploration. Not to mention, the sidequests are worth it. Not only do they provide excellent new gear, but the nightmare dungeons are terrifying. They always focus on some element of Jimmy's past, usually an unusual or difficult experience, ranging anywhere from a cat killing a mouse, to dealing with his grandmother's declining health. These moments are a highlight of the game, truly terrifying, and should not be missed.
Musically, this game is outstanding. The tone of the game shifts between quirky, frightening, and devastating, and every moment feels appropriately scored. I found myself humming the overworld theme well after every playthrough. In particular, the music, along with the general sound design, in the nightmare dungeons are effective. Not only is the score creepy and eerie, but as you approach the boss, the dungeon is increasingly filled with ambient noise, building tension for whatever terror awaits. Ozymy handles the lighter moments of the story equally effectively, and shows that, like many 8 bit and 16 bit games that inspired this game, you don't need an orchestral score to compose an emotional soundtrack.
Needless to say, I adored Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass. Was it perfect? No. Controller support is still lacking. The graphics are serviceable, but nothing special. None of that matters. Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass moved me in a way that a game hasn't in many years. It's as though Ozymy reached into my childhood and created a game that appeals to me on every level. Its beautifully written characters, surprisingly robust combat system, and satisfying exploration make it worth the price of admission. Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass is a quirky, hilarious, emotional experience that simply shouldn't be missed.
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.