It’s amazing to think how far the gaming industry has come in the last thirty years. I doubt any of us thought that games would be argued as a valid art form during the days of Contra, or that we would see a rise in “garage games” made my single individuals with little more than a passion for the medium. I’ve been admittedly closed minded towards these smaller games since there are so many that it’s often difficult to identify the quality titles. Lucky for us, Zeboyd Games recently released their two Xbox Live Arcade games on Steam, allowing a wider audience to explore the bizarre and laugh-out-loud worlds for less than a Quarter Pounder (with cheese).
Breath of Death VII: The Beginning and Cthulhu Saves the World seem to have jumped out of the 80’s, complete with acid-washed jeans and Madonna arm stalking. These are old school 8-bit RPGs, complete with ancient graphics/soundtracks and a focus on dungeon crawling instead of dialogue trees. The two titles feature loads of references and subtle “winks” at the classic games of our youth. You’ll see the manga-style cutscenes from Phantasy Star IV in CSTW, and you’ll gather crystals to defeat the ultimate evil found in BoD. But this postmodern approach to storytelling wouldn’t be anything without a decent narrative and characters. Breath of Death takes place after humanity wiped itself off the planet (war, as the game points out, never changes). It’s up to a group of undead friends to travel the land and learn more about the apocalypse. Cthulhu Saves the World is all about HP Lovecraft’s god of insanity and his journey to reclaim his powers and bring destruction to the world.
The two games may share similar storytelling techniques, but they go about things in a very different way. BoD feels more like a parody-filled episode of Family Guy or The Simpsons. The references and nods to other titles come across as fairly shallow at times, though the actual story and ultimate resolution are both clever and well intentioned. CSTW is all about more casual references to Lovecraft stories with a stronger narrative tying everything together. Cthulhu earns hero points to recover his powers, and gaining an Ultharian Cat as a freakin’ party member adds a great deal of incentive for fans of the horror legend’s work to give the game a try. The characters in both games are very strong. Dem, the skeleton protagonist of BoD, can’t talk because he doesn’t have any lips, so his inner monologue is free to break the fourth wall and voice discontent. Watching Cthulhu initially avoid the advances of traditional anime girl Umi always brought a smile to my face, even if I was hoping that he would drive her insane and then eat her.
While the story and dialogue drip with present day irony and referential humor, the gameplay is straight up classic turn-based JRPG goodness. You wander the countryside traveling from town to town raiding dungeons, fighting random battles, and leveling up your skills to progress further. But the developers aren’t blind to modern conventions, and they’ve added several key features to augment the fairly traditional battle system. All of your hit points are healed at the end of battle, and the game has been balanced with this in mind. Enemies hit hard (and also feature hysterical descriptions), and using your abilities too liberally costs you a great deal of MP and makes further progression in dungeons almost impossible. Winning a battle is all that matters, even if you only have one party member standing at the end of the ordeal. You regenerate some MP at the end of each battle based on how quickly you vanquish your foes. You can also see how much damage each attack is capable of, allowing you to properly plan out your attacks. It all makes for a high risk/reward system that rarely frustrates, though some of the dungeons in BoD go a bit too long before you reach a save point.
Character progression allows for some unique choices. You’re always given two options after each level up, and they allow you to customize your party. New abilities allow you to target enemies for status ailments, or allow you to hit multiple targets. Some abilities let you take advantage of a combo meter that increases with each attack. It’s important to finish off your enemies quickly: not only are you rewarded as previously mentioned, but your adversaries increase in strength after each round. This can create a really hectic feeling as some bosses will invariably kill you in one hit after a few rounds. Luckily, potions and healing spells are fairly abundant, and the games rarely punish you for one or two bad combat decisions.
The modernization of these retro style games extends to the equipment and save systems. You can easily compare weapons and armor at a store with your currently equipped gear (something that some big name titles STILL forget to add). Weapons in particular give dramatic boosts to stats, helping make you feel strong during even some of the toughest fights. Saving is also easy thanks to the ability to save anywhere from the in-game menu. Granted, you won’t recover in the way that you would at an Inn or designated save point, but it allows for more risk taking and contributes an overall friendly atmosphere to each game.
It’s important to note that there is a noticeable increase in quality in Zeboyd’s latest game. Cthulhu Saves the World features better graphics, dialogue, and even subtle improvements to the already strong battle system in BoD. Playing off the title character’s more nefarious quality, players are rewarded for driving enemies insane with increased damage output. The dungeon layout is much more elaborate in CSTW as well. The addition of bridges (see guys, someone read the commentary and liked this addition) helps to make the environments feel large and imposing.
I only have a few gripes with these titles. The dungeons are constructed from distinct tile sets. As a result, the maze-like structure and branching pathways can lead to a great deal of confusion and wandering. Considering the design of the battle system, you have a recipe for death by a thousand cuts. There are also random difficulty spikes that can lead to an early grave. CSTW attempts to mitigate this problem with the addition of a limited retry option, but sometimes your party is just completely outmatched by the opposition. The lack of attack graphics in BoD can lead to confusion during a battle if you haven’t been paying attention. And since there’s little to do in these games but fight, boredom can set in quickly. But these are all things that help to create that retro atmosphere that makes these titles so endearing and memorable.
Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World are wonderful titles for just about any gamer out there today. Older enthusiasts will smile and laugh at the various references to classic titles, while newcomers can use the battle system as a history lesson to ages past without losing out on modern conventions. But really, I shouldn’t have to sell these games to you. Even a morbid curiosity should be enough to justify the $3 purchase on Steam. Think about it this way; were you thinking about grabbing an overpriced coffee today on your way to work or school? How about you spend those twelve quarters on two satisfying RPGs instead! You’ll get about four to five hours of great gameplay and funny storytelling, and I personally think that’s more than worth the price of admission.