When I saw this game on the list to be reviewed, I wasn't very happy. I was happy for Meatball, of course, getting a game on Steam is a huge accomplishment, triply so for an OHR game. What I didn't like was that I was either going to have to shell out my own money to complete the challenge, or worse, ask the guy to give me a copy and then feel like a jackass if I had to shit all over what's effectively money he'd handed me out of his own pocket. In a way, I got lucky: I was offered a copy before I had to ask. Do I have to shit on it? Yeah, a little. There's good stuff too though and I suppose we'll start with that.
The RPG Battle aspect of the game is very well paced. Having an option between real time mode and turn-based meant a lot to me (I chose turn-based and can't speak to the balancing of RT mode) and I'm sure it means a lot to others too. It's always good to have a choice in how you enjoy a game. Furthermore, the difficulty was right on the sweet spot: Hard enough that it doesn't feel pointless, but easy enough that you don't feel unfairly challenged. I never felt like I was drastically underlevelled or totally unprepared for a fight and in a 9 hour RPG that is a *VERY* good thing.
There are two main ways Macabre accomplishes that: Firstly, things are kept interesting by the variety of viable attacks. At any given time you'll know a few real slobber-knockers for big HP damage, and you'll also have a few poison-type effects that stack and synergize with the poison stuff your teammates know. Do you want to shock and awe the enemy or let 'em bleed out while you try to tank their blows? The choice is yours, and unlike in the later bits of Motrya, you don't need to cast poison to squeeze in enough damage per turn to come out on top. It's a matter of player preference. I was still using some of the earliest attacks against the final boss and having that choice made the battles feel deeper than the "Spam Fire 3! Now Fire 2! Now Fire 1!" thing you see in other games.
Secondly, the random battle system is ingenious. It works the same as any other RPG, you walk around and then get into a fight. Except there are a limited number of enemies on any given map, and a gauge on the upper left corner of the screen tells you how many are left. Beat all of them and you're given a choice: Keep facing random encounters for double EXP or turn them off so you can explore and solve puzzles in peace. Revisit the map and you revisit the choice. This means that any grinding you choose to do is super-streamlined, because the game KNOWS you're grinding and is rewarding you for it. It also makes exploration and puzzle solving easier because you're not stopping every 3 seconds for a random battle. Answering the question every time you go to the map adds an extra annoying second or two, but fortunately there isn't a lot of backtracking. Once you're done with an area, you generally don't come back.
The only thing about battles I dislike is the way you learn new techniques. The only way to learn a new technique is to cast the latest spell you've learned. Randomly, instead of casting the spell you've chosen, you'll learn and cast something new. It's an innovative system and it has some interesting risk/reward ramifications, but it monkeys with your ability to predict what your heroes are going to do. Imagine you're fighting AtmaWeapon and Locke's beat up pretty bad. You try to cast Cure 2 on him.. only you learn a new spell and cast Life on him instead, uselessly. He dies the next turn, and unfortunately you won't actually be able to predictably cast Life till the next battle... and when you cast it, you might learn Regen, or Cure 3. Sometimes it can go your way.. you cast DoubleSlash and learn TRIPLE Slash, but if I were you I'd make sure to give your spells a good shakedown before you try to take on a boss to avoid surprises. I can see how it might be overpowered, but it might've been better to have it cast the new spell after the intended one rather than instead.. it's a great idea, though, just might need more tinkering.
One of the parts I was worried about was the advertised crafting system. These have been really popular in Indie games recently and most of the time they're absolutely awful. Macabre avoids the common pitfalls by keeping it simple. Crafting falls into two categories: Smithing and Cooking. Rather than having a million ingriedients, you have two basic units: Mystery Meat for cooking and Scrap Metal for Smithing. Succesfully cooking or smithing raises your level in that respective craft and the higher your level the more likely you are to be succesful. There's even a chance of making a High Quality variant of an item.. for cooking, this generally means getting two items instead of one. For smithing you'll get a more powerful piece of equipment. The menus for this are pretty nice, with a few weird quibbles: Your level and how much material you have for smithing are on top of the screen but your smithing recipes are on the bottom. Cooking is the opposite. I was cooking and wondering why it wasn't using any items: was looking at the wrong data.
The red flash and "You have created a normal quality item!"/"You have created a high quality item!" also got a little bit annoying, but I can understand why they're there. Steaks, the basic healing unit of the game, only cost 1 mystery meat to make and can be disassembled into a single mystery meat. You have a 20% chance of making two steaks for one mystery meat. What that means is that you can effectively make unlimited healing items.. except the red flashy effect and textbox will serve as a time-tax to dissuade you. I actually hope this isn't ever fixed: If a person cares enough about your game to learn the mechanics and then exploit them, you've done something right. It also guarantees that so long as you have one steak or one mystery meat, you can never have saved yourself in an unwinnable scenario, which is admirable.
(It's also a little obnoxious that you can select all of the menu dividers.. "Health Based" "MP Based", etc. You oughta skip over those when you hit up and down and only let the cursor stop on craftable recipes. Chalk it up to time tax, I guess.)
You can "talk" to damn near any inanimate object in the game and get some gold (Yeah, there's gold. Dunno why you'd want to buy stuff when you can craft *and* have a chance of getting a high quality version instead of a regular one), mystery meat, scrap iron or a variety of other benefits like rare recipes or experience. This "Talk to everything!" approach goes a long way towards making the maps feel interesting. It encourages you to poke around the whole map and see what you can see, it acts like "bread crumbs" to see where you've already been, and if you're lost it gives you an incentive to keep wandering until you find whatever you're looking for as sometimes that can be vague.
The rare recipes are a mixed bag. Default recipes are obtained at fixed points in the story and tend to cost 2 scrap per weapon with a 10-20% chance of being high quality. The rare recipes cost 10 scrap, are about as good as a comparable high quality regular weapon,
and have a chance of having high quality of their own. You can reclaim them, but you'll only get one scrap for the effort so it's a process that takes more thought than food does. Do you try crafting a higher level item that only has a 50% chance of success? Or do you "waste" some metal to make a lower level item or two to grind your level and hedge your bet? It's all part of the fun.
Only downside is that the rare recipes (and in fact all of the junk you pick up) are random, meaning you may or may not find them at different points in the game and thus your sense of difficulty may change. They're not necessary to win, but the few that I had were hugely useful to me in their time. It might be worth save-scumming until you get one. I didn't try it myself, but you can save virtually anywhere (even in dungeons! The only place I remember not being able to save was some random house...) and loading the game DOES change what you get. This is another mechanic that I hope doesn't get fixed. There's some people who really like that kind of thing and get their jollies from saving and loading until they get just what they want.
The graphics are hit-or-miss too. The monsters are generally nice, though a few are really awkward looking. There's a cool black hole kind of effect when you go into a boss battle that more games oughta do. I loved the maptiles, but every now and then the perspective is a little weird on them. Fred's portrait really bugged me, his hair is RIDICULOUS and his outline looks more like a poorly imported bitmap than an outline. Same goes for Chip. In fact the only guy whose portrait I didn't have any problems with was Alan's. I love the way the heroes on the world map are smaller than they are on the regular map and I loved the way the main menu and in game menu looked. The main bad guy looks like a baked potato and it isn't unsettling or intimidating at all. The gigantic shirtless guy in the Steam Screenshots would've turned me off from buying a copy. His nipples are perfect circles.. why does he even have those?
My least favorite part of the game is the story. You play Fred, a Knight from the City of Burg. There's a terrible cataclysm that ends with you waking up in a house with a man named Derf (Fred spelled backwards. I noticed and was very distracted by it. It's never significant to the plot. I was sure it would be.) who has nursed you back to health. He points you in the right direction and off you go. Dungeons! Boss fights! People joining your party! It's all pretty typical RPG stuff and I didn't feel like there was any urgency to this early part of the game. The first guy to join your party is way stronger than you are, which makes Fred feel pathetic. He also talks in this indecipherable "accent" which makes me kind of hate him. About an hour and a half in, a sense of urgency develops and it's easier to figure out why you're doing what you're doing but as the story rolls on it develops some more faults. It's not the worst story I've ever seen, it's actually pretty vanilla JRPG stuff, the execution is just.. off.
***SPOILERS FOLLOW!! BEWARE!!***
***SPOILERS FOLLOW!! BEWARE!!***
***SPOILERS FOLLOW!! BEWARE!!***
The gameplay systems, saving anywhere, crafting food and weapons anywhere, finding raw material everywhere, and being able to disable random encounters, combine to make an RPG where you virtually never have to go back to town. For better or worse, Meatballsub takes full advantage of this: towns in Macabre have a very short shelf-life. I can think of maybe.. two.. that don't get blown up, sucked into the earth or otherwise rendered impossible to visit again. Burning down a guy's village is a pretty standard RPG trope, but Macabre takes it to the absolute limit. At the conclusion of one quest you return to the village only to find it, surprise, being burnt down. A father's dying words are to go visit this other guy's house and when you get there.. surprise! It's been burnt down! This isn't even the worst case of rapid-fire tragedy the game has to offer. The pacing is terrible in this regard, and the characters are so stoic and supportive of each other that none of it carries an emotional impact.
After spending the first 3 hours of the game trying to get back to her, our hero Fred is finally reunited with his wife. Fifteen seconds later, her savior and caretaker Clive gets jealous, calls her a whore and violently stabs her to death. What's Fred's reaction to this? Anguish? Rage? Horror? I'll quote the game itself..
"Fred: Clive, what is wrong with you?!
Are you insane?! You just killed her, you fool!!"
It's like he's more worried about Clive, who we haven't even met till just now, than he is his wife! This should be the emotional high-point of the game and instead it's nothing! They do have a one-on-one fight, but it isn't even Fred's idea. One of the other party members just says "Naw, let's let him handle this one himself". Those exclamation points don't automatically make it dramatic, you know.
Now, immediately after, Fred does fall unconcious for 4 days. But that's just a number in a textbox! There's not any real weight to what's happened. When he wakes up, he gives a speech that's basically "I totally blame the bad guy for this and we should just keep onto the next town". Then he basically walks you through what you should do next. A boss battle later and we have the emotional climax to the loss of his wife: Another hero literally tells him to quit being a vagina. When he hasn't even been emoting at all, really.
It's a comment that's typical of the weird tone the game takes around here. Up till recently, the most PG-13 thing in the game is one guy who likes to "chase skirt". Now we've had a lying whore wife, Fred acting like a vagina, and soon we're going to go from a prison where "Children are beaten, women are raped and men worked to death" and a woman despairs of how often the guards are "Having their way with her" to a town where a single mother says people have suggested she prostitute herself to the mayor, who retires to his room with a different woman every evening.
I don't consider myself a feminist or sensitive or anything like that, and lord knows I've done some weird stuff in my own games, but this is such a weird attitude to take and it comes so suddenly that I really feel it bears mentioning. There's a flippant, almost jokeyness to the comments. A man in Rape Prison tells you not to talk to him because he just "cropdusted" the area. I have a million problems with that but I'll keep it to 4.
A) We literally JUST had a character death and you're doing fart jokes?
B) It's a sword and magic game.. what does this guy know about cropdusters?
C) It's the same area where a woman is getting raped a lot.. are fart jokes and rape really on the same level of NPC Banter?
and D) We're about to have ANOTHER major character death and a semi-pointless one at that! Why are we doing fart jokes?!
The comments don't add anything to the game, except serve as a cheap attempt to increase the drama. You've got two main characters dying in the course of like 15 minutes.. you shouldn't need drive-by rape talk to get people invested. It isn't just rape either, in a cutscene right afterwards, a child is nearly beaten to death and every blow is punctuated by the screen flashing white and Slash.ogg. I don't have anything against brutality, especially if it serves the narrative, but it's presented so plainly and matter-of-factly that it's impossible to have an emotional response to it.
It's not that the content is inappropriate and it's not that Macabre is a happy game until these scenes. It's that we go so quickly from fairly typical RPG village burning to intensely brutal and personal violence. It's such a sudden shift of tone that it honestly felt like a new writer had taken over. And the worst part is that the characters don't even really react to it, it's not the final straw that strengthens their resolve or anything, again they're just so stoic and non-reacting to what goes on that it's impossible to draw any emotion from these sections of the story that should be the most emotional.
Another thing that bugged me about the story, and it's going to play back into the weird violence stuff later, is that there's lots of scenes where you're forced to act a certain way. The world map puts arrows on the towns you can interact with which is great, but the very first place you walk to gets you a textbox from Fred. "I don't have any reason to go there yet". Then why is there an arrow there? I understand that maybe Meatball wanted to show that it's a place you *could* go, so that later on you know to go back there, but there's better ways to do it. Put an arrow on it when it's relevant, hell, put a color coded arrow on it so you know that it's new. Having the player-character say "No, I don't want to do that" challenges the very notion of the player having control. If there's a reason not to go somewhere, make somebody else be the reason. No matter how ridiculous it is, two cowboys playing cards, a man practicing his opera at the entrance to a cave, whatever, it's better than the hero just saying "Nah, that's wrong", because when the hero says that, I'm no longer playing an RPG, I'm playing a guessing game.
There's another time when you try to use a bed and a disembodied voice says "I don't think Derf'll mind if you sleep in his bed". It's not Fred talking to himself, which he does. So who is it? How does he know? There's another bit where you can try to go into a broken house but "You're too scared to go into such a dangerous looking place"... WHAT?! We're on a heroic quest to save the world and this guy is afraid of a condemned building? It's a weird double-standard. I'm all for interacting with things, but having "Naw, you don't wanna go in there" type moments make the world feel smaller and worse, not bigger and better.
At any rate, I think the extensive hand-holding is partially to alleviate having to deal with potential consequences, possibly due to a lack of knowing how to write some of this stuff. You don't want to have to deal with two sets of town dialogue, one pre-quest, one post-quest, so you blow up the town. You don't know how to deal with people reuniting with the loved ones they were searching for, so you blow 'em up. You don't know how to make the bad guys seem bad enough, so you say they're rapists. I'm being a little unfair because there's lots of reasons to do this stuff and blowing up the towns does make the game better. I hate it when you can loiter and backtrack to towns after doing your business in 'em, and you're never sure if something is going to happen there later, like if you're going to miss something or what. By blowing up the towns you guarantee that the player and the narrative are always moving forward... though at an obvious cost.
For all the shit I've talked, I really don't hate Macabre. The ending was decent, if a bit rushed. The dungeons are great, especially the last couple. I finished in about 9 hours and I wasn't paying much attention to the sidequests or achievements, which were very well thought out. Being able to teleport back to the quest giver after a sidequest is a great compromise to the "quest compass" thing that so many modern RPGs do. It was just annoying because by the time I had learned of all the quests in an area, I was also almost to the next dungeon, from which there was no return. I like that it warns you on every point of no return, but it is a little wack to blow up so many towns.
I can't overstate how much I like crafting healing items and equipment without going to town. It's such a good system that I'm not even sure why there's gold and why towns have shops. I remember RMZ's most recent Mr. Triangle game did something like this, only it was all Banana Bucks or something and you only got them from winning battles. Having the crafting material littered all over the map makes it so much better. It makes the maps being big okay, because you aren't walking through a boring empty thing you're going from this thing that might have something to that thing, to that other one, over to this and it makes it a bunch of short trips rather than one big one. I can't overstate how GREAT it is that the game plays at 30 FPS. Holy shit walking around feels so much better at that speed and being able to disable the random encounters when you don't need them and getting double EXP when you're grinding is great. That kind of stuff is cutting edge and I'd love to see what Meatballsub can do with it in the future.
Would I recommend it? I don't think Macabre is a perfect game, but it is a good one. If the story had better pacing, it could maybe even be a great one. Where it's a product that's for sale it's even harder to say. It feels cheap of me to say that I don't think 3 bucks is worth 9 hours of gameplay. 33 cents an hour is pretty reasonable. I guess I would recommend it to people who like RPGs but aren't super into grinding, people who like RPGs but aren't super into story, people who want to see what a "Professional" OHR Game looks like, people who want to get their own games on Steam and maybe even people who like RPGs but want to try something a little new and a little risky. People who are super into grinding probably won't like it.. some people didn't like Chrono Trigger for christ's sakes.. and if you're easily offended or squeamish you probably won't like it. It's not perfect but it's good, and it's not perfect but it's making money. You can't argue with that. Get more OHR Games on Steam! Price me out of this damned contest!