I was wary going into this game because it described itself as something “inspired by Earthbound.” A lot of indie RPGs that claim to follow in the vein of Earthbound tend to fall flat. For this blog, I played an RPG Maker game called Tantibus and Citizens of Earth, both of which disappointed me in different ways. And of course, there was the discourse over YIIK (or, the YIIKscoruse), a game that had a huge asshole protagonist walking around in a world full of bad game design decisions. However, this game, Nepenthe, looked unusual, so I decided to give it a chance.
Nepenthe is an RPG Maker MV game made by a fellow that goes by Yitz. I don’t quite remember how I found this game. It might have been something that was in my Steam explore queue. I bought the game in a bundle called the Surreal RPG Collection, which also contains the game The Endless Empty, which I’m excited to also try out.
In Nepenthe, you play as a hero tasked to save the world from the apocalyptic threat of Nepenthe. Well, not quite. You actually play as a mailman that was supposed to deliver the letter to warn someone of the threat, but after a shipwreck, you lose all your memory and you just sorta fall into the role.
What defines Nepenthe is the art style, scribbled together with watercolor pencils. Nepenthe looks like a game drawn by children, but that’s not an insult! I like art made by kids because they don’t give a shit about the rules of art, they just do whatever they want. It feels like the creator let their younger self take the helm, letting them draw out their ideal game. It’s a game that I feel would be at place with the Glorious Trainwrecks ethos.
My actual problem with the game’s visual style is how the maps are constructed. The maps in the game are just too big. Every house feels obligated to be large just to fit the game’s resolution and every outdoors place is too dang huge. I actually feel that the game’s art style would shine better if everything was brought closer together so that players won’t look at all the empty space and dismiss the whole thing as bad.
What is the story to Nepenthe? Well. I honestly don’t think there’s a proper main story. There’s the overarching goal of meeting Hado Ream to confirm the end of the world, but every step there feels disconnected. You live in a world where humans and monsters co-exist and monsters are looked down on – but it’s just sort of brought up and nothing is done with that. You free a town from a werewolf and you end up getting the choice of killing a pig for a pick-axe or going to look for an orb for a shopkeeper – these are also mutually exclusive choices that decides what ending you’ll get. Picking the latter choice actually makes the plot more interesting to me because you’re treated to recurring scenes of the world slowly decaying that feels real ominous, while taking the good path is just nonsense. Nepenthe feels like one of those Earthbound inspired games that focuses on the weirdness of Earthbound and forgets that it even has themes.
…So I was surprised when I didn’t care all that much? The thing is, combined with the visuals, the game feels like its own thing that doesn’t have to meet Earthbound‘s ideals. Everything, from the world, the jokey dialogue and the art, comes across as a kid’s dream game. It’s like when you think about writing a story and imagine the collection of cool and funny set pieces throughout the plot, but you’re too young and inexperienced to pull it off, so you don’t bother to think about what connects those set pieces. It’s all weirdly charming, to the point that if the game actually had consistent themes, I may actually like it less.
If there’s a definite good takeaway from Earthbound though, it’s the writing. Aside from a bad joke at the beginning that had me roll my fucking eyes, I had a fun time going through the game. A large contributor to this is the flavor text on a lot of objects. The game puts tacky jokes on a lot of stuff, which I always appreciate, and I like seeing whatever nonsense NPCs have to throw at me.
Aside from being inspired by Earthbound, the game is also inspired by Undertale. So, there’s a minor trend of indie RPGs being compared to Undertale, but here, it’s actually appropriate – because I’m pretty sure it uses an Undertale battle system plug-in.
Attacking has you timing button presses, with the number of button presses you do increasing with each level. If you forget to stock up on items from the one (1) shop in the game that you have limited time to shop from, relaxing is a free heal.
Now for the Undertale part. Enemy attacks has you moving your avatar around in a box, dodging bullets generated by the enemy. If somebody looked at this game without knowledge of it beforehand, they’d probably call it a shallow version of Undertale‘s battle system – and they’re kinda right. While there were some battles where it properly ties battles to the thing you’re fighting (like the ones pictured), there were plenty of instances where the bullet patterns feel uninspired. Like, here’s the werewolf, who just has oscillating claw attacks and random teeth falling from the top that could easily be substituted with anything else. Some bullet patterns are shared across enemies, just with a different sprite. I feel that the lack of creativity with bullet patterns may be because of RPG Maker restrictions keeping the creator from going nuts with it.
Now, the good thing though is that battles aren’t repetitive. You’ll be happy to find that there are no random encounters, just a handful of pre-set encounters with a few optional ones. While you’ll find similar patterns across enemies, the small amount of battles and the dialogue put into fights has them feel unique. My favorite battle was easily against a guard that decides to bring his own unique battle theme and uses most of his dialogue to ramble about the song that’s playing.
Speaking of music, I feel solidarity with the Nepenthe‘s creator, because I too love to just chuck a bunch of public domain music into my games. In this house, we appreciate Komiku/Monplaisir Loyalty Freak Music. While I find the mix of songs used to be inconsistent, it honestly just adds to the youthful chaos that Nepenthe had going on for me. Like at this point, give every enemy a unique battle theme, Monplaisir’s got a lot of potential battle themes. Go all in.
Nepenthe is a joke-filled fever dream that leans far enough into that role that it’s legitimately charming. The gameplay part of the game is shallow to me, but there isn’t too much of it to be an active detriment. Even if it lacks proper narrative, it’s a short, goofy time that I ended up enjoying.