Review: Cthulhu Saves the World

There aren’t enough games made about Cthulhu. Point of fact. Ancient, eldritch alien evils of insanity are, frankly, a lot better than grandstanding idiots, various varieties of demons, and the lord Jesus Christ. This is empirical fact.

And hell, Cthulhu Saves the World shows that those eldritch evils make fine Japanese Role Playing Game protagonists, too. Heck, I’d take the shirtless, tentacled majesty of Cthulhu over Tidus any day. This is another positive development in the history of Western civilization.

There are two audiences for Cthulhu Saves the World, the newest game from Zeboyd Games, creators of Breath of Death VII: Cthulhu maniacs and old school JRPG fans. The game succeeds in short, brilliant bursts for the first crowd, and in a long, sustained burn for the latter.

I am in both groups, so you may take me saying this is a great game and the best role playing game of 2010 with a slight grain of salt. But it really was. Sure, I’m going to pick a nit in this review (and, frankly, it’s pretty large), but that does not detract from the overall experience, which is phenomenal and falls among the best games I played last year.

There are two markets for this game, and I’ll address the first one, Cthulhu lovers, first. Yes, this game is brilliant. The only real difficulty you might have is wading through the JRPG bits to get to the absolutely hysterical writing, but you should. Because this is one of the very few legitimately funny games ever made, and it’s been made about Cthulhu! In terms of quality, the writing is leagues better than Breath of Death VII, which in itself was pretty funny. The difference, though, is degree of difficulty: BoD7 made fun of JRPGs for most of its humor, which is like throwing snowballs at a blind man. Cthulhu Saves the World makes a legitimately hilarious experience out of an extremely ludicrous premise, and manages to stay funny almost throughout the running time.

It’s not even all humor. The characters are well designed, and look and sound fantastic. They’re exactly the kind of people you imagine would join Cthulhu on a quest to save the world, and up until the very final addition they continually one up each other (the last guy is kind of a let down, but…the character before him is, personality wise, my favorite party member. Too bad he is the most useless character). The production values are very solid, and look like what we imagine, nowadays, 8 bit games had to look like. They had to look and sound this good, right? Don’t worry, they never did.

RPG fans have even less to worry about than their Cthulhu mad counterparts. Zeboyd seems to know the humble JRPG better than most Japanese developers. The branching level up system returns from BoD7 and is even more detailed, with nearly every level offering a compelling choice, and a lot of varying build options. This is basically how leveling systems should work. The battles are random, but limited, so that if you’re taking forever in a dungeon, they’ll stop eventually. It’s a nice touch, and much appreciated over longer dungeons. My favorite feature, however, is the gradual strengthening of enemies during battle. It’s a cool mechanic, emulating the momentum of battle shifting to the enemy as things wind on. I’d have appreciated certain moves manipulating this, therefore longer battles (to better emphasize status ailments, which were supposedly a focus of the developer but are, on the whole, generally useless), but I appreciate this. It’s a great feature. It’s only a negative in the sense that it completely minimizes the role of healer and, therefore, makes my favorite character completely useless.

Okay, we’ve made clear that I love this game, right? Yes? Good. Because I have a nit to pick. That nit is the level design. And it’s a pretty big one. The problem here is not conceptual: having a town full of zombies as a dungeon is genius. No, the problem is the design, which focuses on the old RPG trope of a collection of 2 pronged paths, where one is a dead end with treasure doesn’t work in a game where there’s so little treasure (doesn’t even work in general). Further, the dungeons eventually become so overcomplex and bloated that I got halfway through each of them and was out of encounters, because I had to check each and every branch. And sure, the game introduces some neat concepts for dungeons, eventually, like raising and lowering water levels and switches, but these are old school, one note ideas, and they aren’t used to much complexity. This is compounded with the fact that all the dungeons were just big walls blocking progress; none of them featured any sort of plot, so it felt like slogging through (admittedly, really fun) random encounters until I got to the end, where a little plot would happen, and then we’d be back in another dungeon.

This is made worse by the fact that the beginning of the game has the most uninspired dungeon, a very simple branching network of caves. Really, not the best way to sell people on the game. My hope is that the sequel (Lolcats: The RPG or Super Space Trek, the RPG! Or something actually funny) focuses on level design like this game focused on writing and how Breath of Death VII focused on combining accessibility with depth.

That nit aside, though, this game is utterly fantastic. It is everything you want from a modern day retro RPG, and it does so for a three dollar package, which is fantastic value for a 6-8 hour game with scads of bonus modes. A full price game would have to be 120 hours long to get the same value, and no game ever is. So, really, this is, on a purely product basis, a fantastic buy. On an artistic level, too, it’s fucking magical, and you owe it to yourself to give it a try.