In mass media, post-apocalyptic narratives have intrigued and captured the attention of audiences for years, conveying the essence of technological failures, natural disasters and the human will to survive. The seemingly endless marketability of this scenario has begun to tire me out, but Macabre, a game made with the Official Hamster Republic Role Playing Game Construction Engine, attempts to reinvigorate the end-of-the-world trope by immersing a medieval JRPG universe in a cataclysmic event from the get go. It evokes the 16 and 32-bit era of RPGs and adds a few worthwhile components of its own, but falls flat in its execution and fails to communicate the type of fear a worldwide disaster brings about.
The story starts with a devastating earthquake that ruptures throughout the earth. Fred, the hero, awakens after being washed up on a beach; he then sets out on a journey to return home, which ultimately leads him to discover the cause of the cataclysm. On the surface, the medieval setting dresses this trope in new clothes, but underneath, the paper thin, cliché-ridden plot does little to emphasize any of the dangers that threaten the world. Coincidences, such as last minute saves by your newest party members and deaths of key characters just when you need them, are in abundance. Barely any time is spent reflecting on a character’s death, and because death happens so frequently within the narrative, it loses its emotional impact as you progress. Consequences or effects of the potential end of the world are never explored enough — there’s no consideration of coping mechanisms or survival instincts, and a few letters and short scenes hardly touch upon what should be widespread panic. In an attempt to break away from tradition, the apocalypse seems to serve as background noise rather than what it should be — the focal point.
Your party is barely any better than the story. Apart from Fred, there’s Alan, a man of the wild who bears a thick Scottish-inspired accent; Chip, a snot-like creature who can control time; and Harvey, the lone survivor of a technologically advanced city. The group is dull and generic, bearing stock RPG traits we are all weary of: the best friend, the flirt, and the token old man. In fact, just hours after finishing Macabre, I had forgotten their names! What’s worse is Chip, who comes close to being the most enticing character with a well thought out origin and backstory, ends up being one of the most annoying RPG accomplices I’ve ever had the displeasure of going on an adventure with. Macabre’s anachronistic dialogue jars me too because it reads like a prepubescent schoolboy fantasy with poor attempts at banter. Skirt chasing and playground insults amount to little comedy relief; instead, you’re left feeling embarrassed by the gang’s choice of insults.
I didn’t completely hate Macabre, though, because if you look past its hackneyed plot and irritable cast, there are some great ideas tucked away. Overall, it felt familiar, like returning to an old SNES classic, even though it’s far from such an experience. There are a few sidequests to keep you busy — some even allowing quick travel after you’ve completed them, so you don’t have to backtrack to the quest-giver. You can loot barrels and crates to obtain materials for crafting various items. Crafting is disappointingly simplistic, relying mostly on luck to get additional bonuses. Still, it is a nice addition to the game and adds variation; there are hidden recipes too, so you’re not just producing items you can otherwise buy.
This brings us to battles — Macabre takes a page from Final Fantasy’s book, using a turn-based system featuring a time bar. Each character has unique abilities you will need to utilize to survive, and these abilities level up the more you use them. Normal encounters can easily be dealt with by using these skills, and healing items are so common you’ll never find yourself in a pinch. Boss fights offer more of a challenge, although they won’t make veterans of the genre sweat. My favourite battle mechanic employs a risk and reward system: in each area, you are given a set number of battles, and once you’ve hit that number, you can choose to turn off random encounters or keep fighting to earn double the experience points. It’s a neat touch I feel more RPGs should adopt.
These new mechanics would feel so much better if the environments they were employed in were more varied — many towns and dungeons are mere copy-and-paste jobs. There are only so many caves or towns containing the same color pathways or grass I can walk through before I get bored. The winter town at the game’s conclusion is the most beautiful vista, with sparkling snow and technicolor trees, but it’s nothing other RPGs haven’t done before. The capabilities of the OHRRPGCE engine hold back the graphics and even hinder enemy designs, turning what could’ve been fantastic looking enemies into eyesores. In some fights, enemies were obscured behind the battle menu, and good luck trying to see when your character’s turn is if the background features a blue sky. In flashback scenes, text is barely readable, and I had to strain my eyes more often than not; a text box wouldn’t have been amiss.
It may feel like I’ve been overly critical of Macabre, especially considering it’s made with a free engine; unfortunately, the mediocrity of the game drowns out the infrequent, new and exciting ideas. Battling enemies and crafting new weapons are good features in their own right — they’ve just been practiced and perfected long before in other RPGs. For around $3, it might be worth checking out Macabre for the new touches, but I could think of better things to spend the money on. I hope MOCBJ Software take the positives of this game and move beyond the sloppy writing, tired stories, and perhaps even the disappointing engine.