When I first heard of Cthulhu saves the world, I thought it was a joke. Surely there couldn’t be a game with the premise of a JRPG featuring the dark lord himself as the main character… Could there? And the only other game that really even involved Cthulhu before this one had been Call of Cthulhu, a generic, if not subpar, shooter, which had the unfortunate disadvantage of taking itself too seriously. Which brings us to the glory that is CStW. Now if you’ve never played a JRPG then you might have to learn the tricks of the trade, but if you were also raised on Final Fantasy 1-whatever-they’re-up-to-now, then the Turn Based combat should be old hat for you in addition to the crawling around on a world map with instanced dungeons that are usually themed. It plays exactly like one of those great old fashioned JRPGs so one of the first things I’m going to say is that if you like JRPGs, then get this game.
Anyway to the meat of the game. As I said before, the game has the feel of a classic party based dungeon crawl system. You have a pool of partymates that you can choose from, each with their own class and abilities. The game engine itself is something that looks similar to RPG Maker VX if you’re familiar with that, in that it’s sprite based 8-bit graphics. The sprites they use are entertaining and beautiful (as beautiful as an 8 bit sprite can be) and give the game a retro ambiance to go with the rather iconoclastic sense of humor that the game has. The only problem I have with the graphics is that when they are implemented on their ginormous maps, the landscapes they make seem like they’re featureless which makes navigation hard. Pair this with the fact that there is no map for navigating the dungeons and it becomes a task to try to find your way through the level. While this will usually lead you to find all the various treasure chests thrown around, it can also be aggravating when loading a save the next day, and you realize that you have no idea where you are.
As for combat, there really isn’t much to say about it except that it truly relies on the genre standard of combat. It has some slight innovations with the combo metre and the use of the insanity ailment (both of which I’ll go into detail later) but it’s your traditional turn based fighting system. The combo metre is simply a little counter that goes up by however many hits you make during the round of combat. As the bar fills certain skills will do more damage (called Combo Finishers, which also reset your combo bar to 0) and certain characters will perform better. It’s a nice touch in that it makes you think about which skills to use as in a one big nuke of an attack or lots of little ones to build up to an even bigger nuke, but that is pretty much it. The insanity is a fun little mechanic taken from the Cthulhu mythos in that in the mere sight of Cthulhu would cause madness. In the game the status aliment is applied by certain skills or items just as poison or stun would be. Insanity will cause the enemy to do more damage, while also receiving more damage in addition to activating some passive abilities. The last innovation is the fact that the game raises the difficulty on you the longer the battle goes on. Monster strength will go up incrementally each round, essentially penalizing longer fights and forcing you to try to finish quickly. My only real complaint with the game is here. I simply didn’t like this style of combat. It has nothing to do with the game itself, but more so a genre issue. Turn based combat from a menu had its day about a decade and a half ago but was eschewed for a much more organic feeling combat and rightly so. I understand that the combat reflects the motif of the graphics, but I just didn’t find it too fun.
Now to the plot and writing. Holy crap this was a funny game. All the jokes were funny (I seriously can’t think of one exception on my whole play through). The plot was clichéd on purpose to mock the whole banality of classic gaming and it didn’t fall flat. Cthulhu must save the world to regain his powers so he can destroy it and so forth. If you love Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos you’ll get a few more references, but the game often has meta humor about the tropes that it shamelessly utilizes while simultaneously mocking them. There is not so much a story as there is a feeling of playing it for the laughs. All the characters as well happen to be humorous and well written making the game feel very light hearted.
I think the reason why this game worked so well is that it never stopped to take itself seriously. Even in the director’s commentary (which can be enabled and viewed by the player by talking to giant silver exclamation marks) there are jokes a plenty that make the games atmosphere complete. Out of the D20 scale, I ended up giving the game a 17 for stellar writing, humor that had me laughing obnoxiously, and a nice examination of the tropes within videogame classics, but ultimately mark down some points because it felt like combat was simply getting in the way of the game. If you like JRPGS, you will love CStW. If you don’t like them, then you still might like it.