The Endless Empty

Middens, by John Clowder, is considered a quintessential RPG Maker game, throwing players into a collage world that’s almost sandboxy in letting you run around to talk to people and kill whoever for the sake of a talking revolver. It was a game that I loved, even though it lacked any real story. Then it turned out its creator was a bit of a creep.

The Endless Empty, by Erik Sheader, fills the space that Middens used to take in my heart, while filling in its narrative flaws.

Normally, I don’t like to compare games to other games too much, but also, Middens does not deserve nice things and I’d like to point to an alternative for it.

In The Endless Empty, you are a manifestation of identity in the dying thoughts of a song writer that committed suicide. Teaming up with Trigger Finger, the neuron that willed the finger that pulled the trigger, you travel through the surrealistic, fragmented mindscape of your host, gathering a crew of powerful aspects of his mind while Death stalks you in hopes of finding escape – or at least, proper closure.

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Nepenthe

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.

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Handsome Ransom

Today we’re looking at Handsome Ransom, by blankd. You are a 21-year old kobold that is turned into a princess by her Fairy Kobmother to fulfill her dream of attending a royal party. Naming herself Kosette in a cursed reminder of the Bowsette era, she attempts to attend a party, but is quickly seen through as not being actual royalty. In order to become royalty, she decides to conspire with a dragon to kidnap actual princes and princesses to acquire the wealth needed to be considered legitimate!

There’s one big issue with the game that’s glaring from the start and it’s that there’s little to no music. The sound is clearly there, there’s just no music set to anything – either that or RPG Maker MV has tried my patience for the last time (like how it’s erasing text on subsequent playthroughs, for me). It’s just kinda weird that there isn’t even RTP music, considering that the creator has no problem using the RTP graphics alongside their original art (which, by the way, is pretty cute).

Going in though, you’re greeted with some fun writing. After Kosette accidentally kills a man, she becomes a wacky, arrogant cartoon villain – in a good way. She meets up with other kinds of kobolds that will lend their aid, all of them offering amusing dialogue as they negotiate pay; there’s even a few interludes where they get to babble as you storm the castle of the demo’s royal. Said royal, the Rose Prince, also turns out to be a huge likable weirdo, which makes his knight upset. Handsome Ransom‘s writing is generally full of character and charm and was easily the best part of the game.

As you meet up with your teammates for the first time, an overwhelming weight is placed on your shoulders: team customization. There’s a whole bunch of characters to recruit and there’s a whole lot of skills to buy. Your shadow kobold friend could be built up as a poison expert or into a glass cannon that could wipe the floor with anyone you set them against; your chef can easily become a healer, but can also be retooled to be a strong attacker based on the amount of meat they have. There’s plenty to play around with, though the demo, covering a plant based area, encourages you to bring fire and cutting skills. The team building potential actually reminded me a lot of YOMOTSU, which was the winner of the last IGMC, so I went in with high expectations.

Unfortunately, going into the demo proper, I’m going to have to be honest: this does not seem like a game that was playtested.

You enter the Land of Roses and go into the next room. But it’s not the next room, because for some reason the teleporter takes you to the next room over. Enemies approach you. But their conditions are set up wrong and they only fight you when you touch them, not when they touch you, making them chasing you feel pointless. You get into a battle and you get poisoned during the battle. The poison carries on after battle and for some reason healing at save points does not remove it.

And the fights themselves are poorly balanced. The Busy Bees can attack with a move called Dazzling Speed that hits in the hundreds. Multiple times. And you typically encounter them in groups of four. To contrast, they’re paired up with Shine Flowers that have mundane attacks, only good for finishing you off if the bees haven’t already. The final boss of the demo has an attack called Thorn that does 0 damage, while also having a group attack that can hit into the hundreds.

Your attacks are no different. As Argeth, a commenter on Handsome Ransom‘s page says, the bees seem to ignore damage randomly. For me, this was a general problem. I brought out the fire breathing party member against the plant monsters and for some reason, attacks either did high damage or no damage whatsoever. On the plus side (in a bad way), if you have the cook and a bunch of regen spells to stack, you can pretty much heal all damage after every turn, as long as you aren’t just flat-out killed during the enemy turns (…which is entirely possible).

I had high hopes for Handsome Ransom. It had the set-up to be really engaging and I dig the original art and fun writing, but it is perhaps the most poorly balanced game I’ve ever personally played. I know that it’s supposed to be a prototype, but this is supposed to be a prototype representative of a bigger experience and I’m sorry to say that it leaves a poor impression. I can personally see myself playing this as a visual novel because as I said, I dig the art and writing, but as an RPG in this state, I wouldn’t rank it highly.

Junkdogs

Junkdogs is a Cowboy Bebop inspired IGMC 2018 entry by sudobeats where you are part of a team of space scavengers that gets on the wrong side of the law. Wanting to get the bounty off their heads, Joe scavenges through an abandoned ship but ends up getting the gang on the wrong side of the wrong side of the law.

While I’m not too into the story, I’m into the game’s atmosphere. Even with a criminal organization chasing after you, there’s this laid-back mood to it all that that gives off this tone that this is just another day of being a space outlaw. This is largely enforced by the game’s original soundtrack, which is a mix of jazz and chill beats to study to that I really got into. The soundtrack, for me, is what makes the game. It made the game’s writing more engaging than it really was with the mood it brings and sets the tone of the game quite nicely. While I personally think the battle theme could be more energetic, the soundtrack is overall a defining part of Junkdogs.

The game is split up into a big adventure segment and a battle segment. The adventure game part has Joe checking around the abandoned spaceship. On top of the usual adventure game puzzle stuff found in adventure RPG Maker games, you can also smash crates to get items for the upcoming battles and hunt down CDs to play the game’s soundtrack, which also includes music that doesn’t play in the game proper for a nice bonus, giving incentive to poke around a bit more.

After you accidentally piss off the local crime syndicate, you’re thrown into the seat of your scouting ship and head into battle. The battle system is your standard turn-based RPG stuff, but framed around spaceship battles. Skills defy the standard in that they’re limited use, with only the combat ones being replenishable. To be honest, the battles didn’t feel engaging to me, but this is likely a result of having only one playable character, which typically closes off variety in what you can do. Like, maybe one of the other characters could have flown in to back Joe up in the second phase of the fighting and have the Arc Cannon as a unique aspect of their ship instead of Joe just suddenly remembering he has it. Personally, I feel that while the game was generally good at presentation, it falters with the battles. It doesn’t fully capture the “cool space battles” image it tries to go for, with its plain scrolling background and mostly simple animations.

On the note of presentation, Junkdogs uses assets from the POP collection of RPG Maker assets for most of the game. The packs are actually geared more toward horror games and are almost always used for that purpose, but I think Junkdogs succeeds in putting them toward a different direction, which I admire.

Junkdogs is an alright game, though it’s one that knows what direction it’s going. While the battles could have been better, I think the demo acts as a good showcase of what a full version of the game would be like and the effort put into the soundtrack indicates a strong direction, to me. It’s definitely an entry that carries itself with confidence.

On RPG Maker Preservation

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Video game preservation has been a hot topic, with the takedown of emulation sites such as Emuparadise, but the conversation goes beyond emulation. Digital only games are particularly vulnerable to being lost forever for a variety of reasons. Music licensing issues led to games like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Alan Wake being removed from stores.  Sometimes, games are simply lost, with servers going down and download links disappearing and RPG Maker games happen to suffer from the latter.

Early RPG Maker culture was centered on forums, users sharing games with each other through temporary download sites. More centralized hubs were set up for these downloads, like rpgmaker.net, but many of the early games were never set up on that site, just floating around out there – if they haven’t been lost entirely.

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Ara Fell

I’ve had this game on my backlog for a while now from some hedonistic RPG Maker spending spree. I got Helen’s Mysterious Castle from that and thought it was cool but found the ending to be really unsatisfying and I also got Artifact Adventure, which, I’ll be blunt, holds the dishonor of being one of the few games on here I just didn’t like. I didn’t spend any time on Ara Fell for months, perhaps due to my disappointments.

At least until recently! I was listening to a podcast hosted by one of my friends’, the Sockscast, and they briefly talked about Ara Fell, which finally ignited my interest in digging into this game to see if I had the same thoughts they had. So, without further ado:

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Ara Fell is by Stegosoft Games, released in 2016, one of those indie RPGs trying to evoke old 16-bit JRPGs in a sincere fashion, rather than one of those indie RPGs by condescending western devs believing that they can “fix” a genre based on their limited experiences. Ara Fell actually has a long history to it, originally made years ago as an overly ambitious project, to briefly being revived in RPG Maker XP and eventually getting picked back up and reworked for a formal commercial release after RPG Maker 2003’s official localization.

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Facets

Alyssa lived her life under the oppression of a magic wielding evil empire and watched as they took everything from her. And so, she rose up against the empire, fighting in memory of those she lost, their hearts united as one against the empire of the Guardianship! Alas, Alyssa has been captured by Guardianship goons and they’re trying to wipe her mind – but as soon as they let down, she’ll harness the power of friendship and defeat them! Truly, she is an ideal JRPG heroine!

It’s a shame that you’re playing as the villains in this story.

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Facets is a game made in RPG Maker 2003 by John Thyer, where you are the JRPG villain. You may ask me, “Dari, aren’t you friends with John?” Well, I am, but he playtested my game Fishing Minigame 2 and gave honest criticism, so I thought it’d be fair to do the same.

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Untitled Dating Sim (First Three Dates)

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Pride Month is still going on and I will not let work get in my way! I continue my coverage with Untitled Dating Sim (First Three Dates) by Nilson Carrol (or just “nilson” on itch.io). The game recommends playing this with somebody else, presumably to make choices together, but I have no one to hang out with. So anyway.

You are first confronted with a series of choices. While what you identify as is a cosmetic decision, the other choices build up to who you end up dating (though I don’t understand how the system works). Your three choices of dates are… Nilson, Nilson and Nilson. You date different versions of the game’s creator that mostly acts the same and they instead offer different situations to engage in. The artist Nilson shows off his office and takes you for a walk through an artsy park, the barista Nilson takes you out for drinks and the playful Nilson… dates you at a supermarket.

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The reason why these Nilsons are essentially the same is that the goal isn’t to date a dating sim archetype that you’re into, but to use the dates as a form of reflection. One of the main aims of the dating sim is to sorta act as a tool of self-reflection and it accomplishes this through the game’s choices. There are no branching paths to the game, there’s no secret date night to be found if you pick a certain combination of choices. Nilson generally acts the same no matter what or is written to work around your decisions. The choices you make are the choices you feel. You can express affection toward this weird geeky caricature or act cold. You can express your love for JRPGs and type out your favorite one. You can give your takes on pizza and Nilson will nod along. You are ultimately the only judge of your decisions (unless you’re playing with someone else) and they say more about you than the story.

Whether you find a connection or not is also dependent on you. After a date, you could choose to bail or go on another date. Maybe you didn’t like the first night and wanted to give it another shot, to see if you connect to this version of Nilson. Personally, the playful Nilson kinda reflects my actual relationship in some ways and honestly, I appreciate anyone that loves a good JRPG.

As one can clearly see, the visuals are photographs of Nilson and the environments themselves. I love it because it sorta recontextualizes standard visual novel stuff into a real world setting. Nilson does static poses like a visual novel character and it looks silly, yet endearing. Using photos of real locations also gives this sense of place, like, “hey, I can go out on a date with this person here.” This presentation feels personal, which again ties into the dating sim being a personal experience.

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Going through the dates lasts you an hour. In that hour, I confirmed stuff about myself like that I fucking love JRPGs and anime and that I hate cold days. It’s a simple game, but an interesting approach toward dating sims that acts as a self-portrait for the creator and yourself. It is normally $1.21, but I bought it for a price of $0.68 as part of itch’s summer sale, which is a sale I suggest checking out as an alternative to Steam’s monopoly as Valve continues its spiral into libertarianism.

Artifact Adventure

My New Year’s resolution was to clear through my backlog of games, and I’ve been making good on that so far. Helen’s Mysterious Castle, Space Moth DX and Monolith were part of that list and I consider them cleared. And so, I continue moving on through that backlog with Artifact Adventure.

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Artifact Adventure is an RPG Maker game made by Bluffman, published by your friends at Playism. A nefarious Swamp King is threatening the world and so the king calls on a bunch of heroes to deal with him! …And that’s pretty much the main plot.

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