Cthulhu Saves Christmas Review

Ba-Fhtagn!

Cthulhu Saves Christmas Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux
Developer/Publisher: Zeboyd Digital Entertainment LLC

Cthulhu Saves The World was a quirky, charming, and mechanically compelling JRPG that represented a new height for Xbox Live Indie Games back in 2010, and was a title that did a lot to help the fledgling two-man team at Zeboyd achieve enough success to make it in the increasingly volatile independent game market.  Over the ensuing years, the developer evolved their craft considerably, bringing the scale and polish of their productions up to a new height with 2017’s Cosmic Star Heroine, and what better way to celebrate this evolution than with a Christmas themed prequel to their breakout title?

Preamble aside, Cthulhu Saves Christmas casts a distinctly humanoid rendition of pop culture’s favorite elder god as a depowered and unwilling hero who begrudgingly sets off on a quest to save Santa Claus, get his powers back, and bring forth global destruction on his own time.  A quest that predictably involves fighting off a number of Christmas themed villains, pairing up with a crew of three Christmas themed allies, and venturing through a series of Christmas themed locales.  

Yes, the title certainly takes the Christmas part of its title quite seriously, but that does not mean that the developers relied simply on a quirky concept to drive attention to this game, as it clearly received the same amount of attention and dedication as Zeboyd’s earlier efforts.  This can first be seen with the story which is supported by a script chock full of puns, self-aware or self-deprecating jabs, general silliness, and references to greater horrors, whether they be physical or existential.

All of which, as to be expected of the developers, is presented in a very clean manner, devoid of any overly dark themes, bad language, or generally anything to prevent the game from being family friendly.  It’s a genuinely funny game that relishes in the absurdity of its concept, explores it rather well throughout a number of optional scenes that place Cthulhu and friends in assorted antics, and still manages to make time to develop its tightly packed cast of each characters, allowing for the four key party members to all feel fully formed by the time the game comes to an end.  

From Cthulhu’s tendency to be easygoing about a lot of things, but always keeping his goals fixated on global conquest, controlling the masses, and amassing power.  To the childishly nefarious Baba Yaga, who despite donning a shroud of greed and selfishness, is ultimately a good person, and is afforded some of the best lines in the entire game.  To the optimistic and determined Crystal Claus, serving as a sort of motherly backbone for the team, often disapproving of her party’s more troublesome habits, while never truly looking down at them.  And Belsnickel… well, he’s kind of just there most of the time to make jokes about how much he likes whipping kids and remind everybody that he is older than dirt.

As for the gameplay of Cthulhu Saves Christmas, it’s largely lifted from Cosmic Star Heroine, an active time RPG where characters can only equip a certain amount of abilities at a given time, which are refreshed and replenished by defending.  One where there is no MP to manage, health replenishes after every battle, and items are single use aids to help with combat, rather than items that exist to rot in the bottom of one’s inventory.  It’s a fun system that adds a layer of strategy and timing to a genre where it is often the most effective to spam enemy weaknesses to obtain victory, placing greater weight on the player’s immediate decisions.

However, rather than copying the system in its entirety, Cthulhu Saves Christmas makes a number of tweaks to the system, placing a greater emphasis on ailments, introducing team-based unite attacks that become more powerful as the battle progresses, and adding a further degree of variety and randomness.  The eight skill slots from Cosmic Star Heroine remain, though the player can only manipulate and switch around four of them, with the other half being reserved for a static defend command and a series of randomly selected skills that refresh whenever the player defends. 

On one hand, this change takes a significant degree of control and foresight away from the player, as they can no longer precisely customize their movepool, and need to make due with what RNG gives them.  On the other hand, it keeps players on their toes, encourages improvisation, and arguably keeps the gameplay more interesting than it would have been otherwise. It’s generally quite hard to design a static JRPG party in a way that doesn’t encourage players to repeat the same effective combat routine for each random encounter.

On that note, Cthulhu Saves Christmas does away with Zeboyd traditions and includes random encounter… or at least a close proximity to them.  As the player progresses through a dungeon, a meter will fill, and once it reaches capacity, the player is sent into a predetermined encounter against an assortment of dungeon specific enemies.  These encounters can be avoided by pressing the confirm button right before they begin, and once the player has engaged in either 15 or 20 of them, they will be able to progress through the dungeon without being forced into another encounter.  It’s a compelling way to parse out bits of combat to the player, or it would be if the process of dispatching a random group of enemies did not take so bloody long.

Long routine encounters can do a lot to break up the journey that most RPGs are built around, giving the player significant breaks that can both distract them from the story, and lock players into long stretches of misdirection as they forget where they visited and where they haven’t.  This isn’t really a problem in games with a map system, or blocky dungeon layouts.  However Cthulhu Saves Christmas very much does not abide by a grid based structure, creating these sprawling masses of meticulously laid out visual assets that I frequently got lost when trying to explore, which is surprising considering how small these maps actually are..

In going through this rigmarole, I also found myself growing tired of the encounters that made up most of the game once they started exceeding 5 minutes in length.  It got to the point where I began switching the game to the lower difficulty setting to make encounters last half as long. Not because the combat was bad or unenjoyable, but because there was so much of it, and I was not in the mood to fight random monsters for 2 hours before finishing off what the developers cited as being a 4-5 hour-long game.  A move that I find to be preposterous considering how it took me nearly 10 hours to finish my playthrough. 

Now, you might think that is just because I went out of my way, got everything, and did a 100%?  Well, that is not the case, as it’s impossible to do a 100% run of Cthulhu Saves Christmas, due in no small part to R’lyehtionships.  R’lyehtionships are a loosely veiled parody of the Social Link and Confidant systems seen in the Persona series that has Cthulhu visit numerous locales in a Christmas themed city during the gaps between dungeon crawls and story progression.  These are great fun, offering the player a plethora of comedic situations where Cthulhu tries to be a normal person, winds up acting like the creepy weirdo he is, and somehow manages to come in possession with a new piece of equipment or reusable item.  Like a manga that turns all enemies instance, or an egg laid by a living chicken hut.

However, you only have a set amount of time to indulge in these antics, about four during the break between each dungeon, and that is in no way gives the player enough time to see everything this game has to offer.  There’s no New Game Plus to partake in after beating the game, so I guess that players who want to see everything just need to give the game two full playthroughs… or wait until somebody puts up a compilation of these scenes on Youtube.  I know that this might seem like a petty thing to fixate on, but I’m the sort of person who meticulously planned their schedule to get every single Social Link in one playthrough of Persona 4 Golden, and replayed through 10 hours of endgame content when I screwed up.  So of course I’m going to be a big baby when any game featuring a similar system tells me that I can’t do everything in one playthrough.

Continuing to air these numerous grievances, I’m also not a fan of how rigidly linear the game is, only ever allowing the player to move around in dungeons, lacking any uniform overworld that exists beyond a menu.  It makes the game feel constrictive and limited due to its traditional JRPG roots, and feels more like a budgetary restrictions imposed by the developers, not unlike how they handled most of the cutscenes in the game.  Instead of having character bop about, emote, and animate in general, the dialogue scenes that happen both in the story and during the R’lyehtionships scenes resemble a sprite comic more than anything, lacking any clear transition as they move between position A and position B.  Which just feels bizarre after the production values were raised so high with Cosmic Star Heroine.

This visual concession thankfully did not affect the environments or backdrops, which remain these meticulously detailed arrangements of pixelated assets that bear with them a rich level of detail and characterization.  Yet they are distinctly not the setting for combat encounters, which have been relegated to an abstract battle arena made using the same assets. An arena that curiously opts to place the cast of playable characters at the bottom of the screen a la Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, rather than on the right side like your classic Final Fantasies, or Zeboyd’s earlier Rain Slick titles.  This, again, is an incredibly minor note to fixate on, but there is something jarring and dissonating about seeing the characters’ backs in an RPG like this, as if the game is trying to de-emphasize their role and identity by only showing their back sprites as they attack, take damage, and fend off against front facing enemies as they go through their idle animation loops. 

The UI of combat also features some questionable decisions.  There is no icon or on-screen indication that a character is under the effects of a buff, or how long the buff will last.  The in-battle menu for items and unite abilities feature a number of empty slots that are never expanded. And the game generally does a bad job of associating attack elements and ailments with icons, telling the player what element or ailment they’ll use via a name in the attack description, while showing what elements and ailments an enemy is weak to through an icon.  During the beginning of the game, there is a screen that clearly associates these descriptions with the icons, but said information cannot be found in the tutorials accessible through the menu. It’s a bizarre overnight that, while not a big deal, goes a long way to make the game feel unpolished and, in a small way, worse than it should have been.

To conclude this cacophony of thoughts, I will say that Cthulhu Saves Christmas does a lot right, and was a largely joyous holiday themed romp from start to finish.  However, it is also rife with these minor petulant problems that persistently piled up throughout my playthrough.  Issues that are dismissable grievances when presented in isolation, but when put together, they leave me wondering if there was some difficulties associated with this game’s development, such as a Christmas deadline, or possibly just a lapse in creative judgement from the developers.  Still, Zeboyd is still a developer whom I hold a great deal of respect for, so I’m left hoping that their next endeavor is a bit more polished and refined than what they delivered her.

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