Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights

Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights is a fantasy-themed 2D adventure-platformer with moderate elements of horror and a moderately high level of difficulty. Unlike many modern Metroidvania games, there is nothing retro about the graphics. The backgrounds are gorgeous works of HD digital art filled with stunning details, and the characters and enemies are all beautifully animated. Both the combat and exploration are a lot of fun, and it’s a joy to move through this ruined world.

You play as a young unnamed priestess (referred to by the user interface as Lily) who wakes in the catacombs beneath a cathedral filled with monsters. You’re greeted by an adult knight (initially called “the Umbral Knight” but later revealed to be named Ferin) who accompanies Lily outside, where the landscape is dark and dripping with the water of a poisonous rain. Everything touched by the rain becomes “blighted,” or monstrous and undead. Lily has the ability to purify monsters by removing the blight from their bodies, thereby allowing them to die. Although the game has no quest-givers to explain what’s going on, it’s easy enough to make the assumption that Lily’s job is to find the source of the blight and purify it.   

Lily is a small child who is physically fragile, and she cannot defend herself on her own. Your attacks are therefore performed by the Umbral Knight, who is gradually joined by other spirits. The Umbral Knight performs a basic sword attack, but Lily meets spirits who can perform heavy attacks, ranged attacks, area-of-effect attacks, and so on. You can equip two sets of three spirits at a time and map them onto whatever buttons you wish in order to create different combos and skill sets appropriate to different bosses and exploration challenges. This is much less complicated that it sounds, and the Umbral Knight is strong and versatile enough to carry you through the game.

You can upgrade these spirits using different types of limited resources that you find through exploration. Aside from Lily, everyone in the world of the game is either dead or undead, and there is no “economy” to speak of – only the relics and resources that Lily can scavenge from corpses. Spirits are acquired by defeating boss monsters, many of which are optional and must also be found by exploration. I really love this system of fighting a powered-up version of a regular monster in order to acquire its abilities, especially since the player should already be familiar with these abilities from having faced a number of such creatures in combat.

The optional minibosses are tricky but fun, but the mandatory zone bosses are legitimately challenging. This challenge is mitigated by the game’s leveling system, in which defeating enemies gives Lily experience points that allow her to gain levels. Health and attack upgrades must be acquired elsewhere, but each new level grants Lily ever-so-slightly better defense and a tiny boost to the power of the Umbral Knight. There is always a save point right before a zone boss fight, as well as an enemy-dense screen on the other side of the save point that provides a good opportunity to level up if needed. The only real way to defeat these bosses is to learn their attack patterns while optimizing your own set of attacks, but the zone leading to each boss does a good job of teaching you the skills you need to survive.

You can also find various relics in the world that grant enhanced abilities, such as giving you more healing charges, increasing the amount healed with each charge, increasing your defense, strengthening certain types of attacks, and so on. In addition, you’ll find items that allow you to equip more relics, as well as items that permanently increase your health bar. Some of these items are hidden behind illusory walls, but these “secrets” are never unmarked, and the game teaches you how to read the environment fairly early on. If you pay attention and don’t mind an occasional bit of backtracking – which you’ll need to do anyway to find a path forward through the interconnected zones – you should be able to strengthen Lily just enough to keep going without having to grind for levels.

Ender Lilies is clearly inspired by Dark Souls and Hollow Knight. It’s not easy, but I would say it’s more “challenging” than “punishing.” The combat is a lot of fun, but the true emphasis is on exploration and paying close attention to the environment. Each screen of the game has its own unique design and artwork, meaning that you’ll be inspired to explore just to see what’s around the next corner. In addition, each relic and spirit and upgrade material you find is valuable, as is every zone boss spirit, all of which grant you an additional exploration ability. I found the gameplay loop of Ender Lilies to be extremely satisfying.

Given that everyone in the world of the game is dead, careful exploration also allows you to find bits and pieces of the story in the form of Fallout-style journals and missives that have been left lying around. Like the gameplay, the story is inspired by Dark Souls and Hollow Knight, and the overarching plot is similar – a morally ambiguous king has made a difficult choice involving arcane forces that were poorly understood by hubristic scientist-wizards. Ender Lilies adds a few interesting twists to this formula, especially towards the end, and the abject tragedy of what happened in this kingdom feels earned, narratively speaking.

What I love about the story is that every textual object you find has a distinct narrative voice. It goes without saying that the presentation of information is not linear, and it’s always a fun surprise to find something written by a blighted monster you encountered much earlier in the game. Some of these characters are much more important than others, but the gradual accumulation of their stories leads the player to the dawning realization that, despite the horror of the situation, the kingdom was filled with flawed but deeply human people who were doing the best they could.

It’s easy to dismiss Ender Lilies as “2D anime Dark Souls for casuals” at a glance, but I ended up being genuinely moved by the story and characters. The horror themes are expressed with creativity and style, and Ender Lilies is nothing if not atmospheric. In terms of gameplay, I think Ender Lilies may be a perfect Metroidvania, and the game features various ease-of-life concessions that help make it more accessible without diminishing the thrill or challenge of the gameplay.

And finally, I appreciate how the spirits Lily has purified hang out with you at save points. There’s nothing I love more than the image of a cute girl sitting amongst weathered ruins surrounded by grotesque monsters as rain falls in the background. That’s the good stuff right there.  

At the End of Everything: A Night in the Woods Fanzine

I’m excited to have a story in At the End of Everything, a fanzine celebrating Night in the Woods. My piece is a series of connected vignettes about the subtle uncanniness of daily (and nightly) life in Possum Springs, and the atmosphere is pure Rust Belt Gothic heavily based on my own experiences in rural West Pennsylvania. Preorders for the zine are open until November 30. In the meantime, please feel free to check out the free wallpapers available on the zine’s Carrd site. 

🍂 https://nitwzine.bigcartel.com/
🍂 https://nightinthewoodszine.carrd.co/

League of Enthusiastic Losers

League of Enthusiastic Losers is a chill and beautiful visual novel set in Moscow in the 1990s. You play as Vitya, a handyman, who is often accompanied by his friend and roommate Volodya, a copywriter who’s working on a novel. It’s not clear whether the two men are in a romantic relationship; but regardless, they’re close friends who love and support one another. Unfortunately, while all of their friends from high school are off being successful and moving up in the world during the boom economy, the two of them can barely pay rent.

As the player, your task is to follow Vitya and Volodya as they try to figure out how to pay their landlord a portion of the rent they owe. Both men are extremely sweet and gentle, and they keep getting sidetracked as they do things like adopting a stray dog and helping their landlord’s son fix his toy airplane. Their grand plan is to dig up a “buried treasure” in the local public park that ends up consisting of several small tokens of Soviet life. Thankfully there are no antagonists in this game, and everything turns out okay. The men’s landlord is just as much of a sweetheart as they are, and their friends are happy to help support them.

The player can control Vitya and Volodya’s movement through linear 2D spaces, make a few dialog choices, and enjoy a few simple flash games like “glue the wings on the toy airplane” and “use the metal detector in the park.” There’s no stress and no point of failure, just two soft but handsome men and their adorable dog navigating a beautiful city depicted in a colorful painterly art style.

There are two things I love about the character Volodya in particular. First, he walks with a pronounced limp. It’s never explained, and no one ever comments on it, but people slow down their own pace when they walk with him. I don’t think Volodya has a “disability,” necessarily, but the game does a good job of depicting that sort of human difference.

Second, everyone around Volodya understands and accepts the fact that it takes time to write a novel, and that it probably won’t be picked up by a publisher right away. In fact, the first press he submits the manuscript to rejects it. When I compare this to the writer plot in the game Coffee Talk, in which Freya takes five days to write a novel that’s immediately accepted by a publisher with no agent necessary, I appreciate this game’s honesty about the fact that no one is immaculately conceived as a literary genius.

Everything about League of Enthusiastic Losers is honest, and the honest truth about life is that sometimes everything really is going to be okay. More than anything, League of Enthusiastic Losers is a game about being in your late twenties and gradually finding your place in the world. None of the characters is “good” or “bad,” but all of them are human, and it’s a joy to follow them through their everyday lives.

League of Enthusiastic Losers takes about half an hour to play, and you can pet the dog anytime you want.

Momodora: Reverie Under The Moonlight

Momodora: Reverie Under The Moonlight is a 2D fantasy Metroidvania with adorable 16-bit pixel graphics and an emphasis on cute magical girls. It has an Easy Mode that’s genuinely chill, and it took me about seven hours to get 100% completion. Momodora features a lot of nods to the Dark Souls games in general and Bloodborne in particular, but I think a more accurate comparison (at least on Easy Mode) is the mellow Nintendo DS adventure-platformer Super Princess Peach.

I came to Momodora not knowing what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s absolutely delightful. The game is relatively simple, but that’s okay, because it’s very good at what it does.

You play as Kaho, a cute girl wearing a white mage hood over a black miniskirt dress and thigh-high stockings. I get the feeling that her theme is supposed to be “sexy Shintō shrine maiden,” and she uses a giant red maple leaf as a sword. She also has a bow with unlimited arrows whose attack can be charged, an adorable dodge roll, and the ability to double-jump right out of the box. Her animations are lovely, and she’s a lot of fun.

Kaho is a silent protagonist, but what you pick up from other characters is that she’s come from abroad to talk to the Queen of Karst about a curse that has spread from the castle city into her small village. You begin the game on the border of a beautiful and vibrant 16-bit pixel forest before entering Karst, which is what the gothic Victorian city of Yharnam (from Bloodborne) would look like if it were rendered in Chrono Trigger style graphics. Whatever curse is threatening Kaho’s village has subsumed Karst in full force, and Kaho has to fight all manner of cute imps, cute witches, cute sorceresses, and cute devils, all of whom have colorful and interesting anime designs.  

Before you can go into Karst Castle proper, you need to find four seals that unlock its gate. This quest sends you into a maze of interconnected areas that include a flooded graveyard, an overgrown garden, a giant crematorium, and the rafters of a ruined cathedral. All of these areas are beautifully rendered and a joy to explore, and along the way Kaho meets a handful of cute NPCs and picks up a limited arsenal of items whose flavor text provides a hint of worldbuilding in classic Dark Souls fashion. Kaho gains a few more abilities – one in particular is a true blessing and a miracle on this earth, but I won’t spoil it – but Momodora sticks to its core gameplay and never gets too complicated.

In addition, you can find and collect 17 health upgrades, as well as 20 silver bugs to trade to a garden rabbit for prizes. About half of these collectables require minor exploration and backtracking, and the other half are hidden in ridiculous ways that I don’t think most players would be able to find without a walkthrough. Thankfully, if you’re playing on Easy Mode, it’s totally fine not to worry about the collectables you don’t find naturally.

You also pick up currency from defeated enemies that you can use to buy relics (which are essentially magic spells) from various merchants, but none of these items are necessary. Since Kaho doesn’t otherwise gain levels or become more powerful, I can imagine that some of the boss fights might be challenging and require a bit of an extra advantage, but this isn’t an issue in Easy Mode, in which Kaho begins the game with two powerful relics that will carry the player through the entire game.

In conclusion, Momodora is a chill and beautiful Metroidvania style action-exploration game that’s like Bloodborne for people who want to enjoy the gothic story and atmosphere without having to spend dozens of hours slamming their head against a wall to git gud. Also, since almost every character and enemy is a super cute magical girl or sexy adult witch-demon, I guess you could say that Momodora is like Bloodborne for lesbians.

I mean, Bloodborne itself is very much “Bloodborne for lesbians,” but you get what I’m saying.

The Museum of Hyrule

I was recently thinking about what a modern version of Hyrule would look like, and I was imagining how fun it would be for Link to encounter the Master Sword during a class trip to a museum. When I started sketching, however, what I ended up drawing is a reincarnation of Ganon seeing his crown from Ocarina of Time. The moment I wanted to capture is the calm immediately before a terrible storm.

Also, as someone who loves art and history, I tend to dislike museums, but that’s another story entirely.

The Potentate of Jarburg

About halfway through Elden Ring, I realized that the player’s character is the villain of the story.

At some point before the story begins, a manifest symbol of divine order called the “Elden Ring” was shattered by nefarious means, and the rulers of the land fought over its shards. Whether because of the battles or because of the nature of the shattering itself, everything is now in ruins.

As an outcast “Tarnished” warrior who has returned to the magical Lands Between, your job is to retrieve the shards of the Elden Ring from the fallen rulers and thereby restore the Golden Order of the once-great civilization. At least, that’s what you’re led to believe.

If you pay attention, you’ll notice that the society enabled by the Golden Order wasn’t so great. The ruling class built its civilization by subjugating other cultures in fantastically horrific ways. This isn’t subtext, exactly, but neither is it surtext – it’s simply the story told by the environment of the game.

You may think that perhaps, if you repair the Elden Ring and become the new Elden Lord, you’ll do better. You’ll burn the ruined vestiges of the old order and create a more just and fair society. The game defies this hope at every turn, however. For every kindness you attempt, you cause only more suffering.     

In more prosaic terms, almost every sidequest in Elden Ring ends badly.

The kind and modest Sorcerer Thops, who has developed a brilliant form of defensive magic, asks you to spare a key to the Academy of Raya Lucaria if you happen to find one. Should you do so, he is unprepared to face the dangers of the battleground the school has become, and he is slaughtered at his desk.

The gentle and noble Irina has fled from the besieged Castle Morne, and she asks you to deliver a letter to her father, beseeching him to join her instead of perishing in a hopeless battle. When you find Irina’s father, you learn that the castle was overtaken by the slaves he abused. Irina is slaughtered in your absence. This drives her father mad, and you are forced to kill him.

Meanwhile, Preceptor Seluvis, a member of the only group of good guys you encounter in Elden Ring, asks you to deliver a healing potion to one of your former companions. What this potion does is to turn her into a mindless “puppet.” This is an act of revenge against the woman’s adoptive father, with whom Seluvis has a feud that he never bothers to explain. It’s strongly implied that Seluvis uses his puppets as sex dolls, but this unsavory magic is necessary is help another female character. In order to save her from endless torture, you must agree to collude with Seluvis.

The only pure and wholesome place in Elden Ring is Jarburg, an isolated village filled with flowers and animate Living Jars. Living Jars are magical war machines that were abandoned because they happen to be extraordinarily bad at fighting. Should you visit Jarburg, you will be greeted by Jar Bairn, a young Living Jar who asks if you will become the Potentate of Jarburg. Jar Bairn will happily chat with you, and he has more lines than almost anyone else in the game. Aside from enjoying a few rounds of idle conversation, there’s nothing to do in Jarburg. There are no battles or treasures or quests, just Living Jars lazing about in the grass and tending to the flowers.

So the player will leave Jarburg – if they ever bother to find the village at all – and probably never return.

Instead, you’ll continue through the game, murdering and pillaging and destroying everything you encounter. Elden Ring doesn’t give you much of a choice. If you don’t kill something, it’s only because it succeeded in killing you first. You have to survive by any means necessary, even if that means leaving a trail of blood in your wake. In order to become the new Elden Lord, you must be utterly ruthless.

Along the way, you’ll bear witness to the atrocities committed by the former rulers of the Lands Between. You’ll gradually understand why this violence was necessary, and you’ll begin to realize that your own choices are limited. There is no happy end to this story, not for you or for anyone else.

So why finish the game, then? The former rulers are no longer in any position to subjugate anyone, and the formerly enslaved peoples are now free. Castles will crumble, and ancient cities will be forgotten, but the dead will finally be allowed to rest. Why not simply lay down your sword and allow the Lands Between to heal?

I am very bad at Elden Ring, which is an extremely difficult and punishing game. To make matters worse, no one in the game offers you real or meaningful guidance. On top of that, all of the guides available online are fragmentary, disconnected, and clearly written in haste. The artist Frankiesbugs is a veteran of the Soulsborne games, and she’s been patiently helping me find my way forward as we slowly navigate the Lands Between. Mostly we’ve been making silly jokes about the game’s shitty wizards and their appalling sense of fashion, but we wanted to try to create something a bit more serious that reflects the deeper themes of Elden Ring.

This collaborative comic is a tribute to a masterpiece of the medium that forces you to ask difficult questions with no easy answers. I have to admit that I may not ever finish Elden Ring, but maybe that’s okay. It wouldn’t be so bad to be the Potentate of Jarburg.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

You can follow Frankiesbugs on Twitter (here), on Tumblr (here), and on Instagram (here). If you like this comic, you can leave Frankiesbugs a tip on Ko-fi (here) and browse her creepy-cute Plague Doctor merch on Redbubble (here). If you’re interested in stylish gothic horror with a heart, please check out Frankiesbugs’s ongoing comic Necrobirth, which you can read on Tapas (here), on Webtoon (here), or on Tumblr (here).  

The Cruel King and the Great Hero

The Cruel King and the Great Hero was developed and published by Nippon Ichi Software, and it’s the spiritual successor to the studio’s 2018 title The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince. Just as The Liar Princess is a simplistic puzzle-platformer set apart by its distinctive manga art style, The Cruel King is a JRPG that’s so traditional it would probably be considered retro were it not so visually gorgeous and beautifully animated.  

When I say that The Cruel King is “traditional,” what I mean is that there are a lot of random encounters. The battles are turn-based and controlled solely through text menus. There’s a bit of strategy involved, but not much. Your character walks slowly, and there’s a not-insignificant amount of backtracking. If you suspect that you’ll find this frustrating, then The Cruel King probably isn’t for you.

If you’re looking for a more relaxed gameplay experience, however, The Cruel King is a delightful way to spend about 20 to 25 hours. Personally speaking, it took a few play sessions for me to readjust my expectations of how quickly the battles should progress, but I became hooked on the gameplay once I got used to the pace.

You play as Yuu, a young human girl who has been adopted by The Cruel Dragon King as his daughter. Every night before bed, the Dragon King tells the girl about her “real” father, a great hero who defeated an evil demon king. The girl wants to become a hero like her father, so the Dragon King decides to make her dream come true by coming up with little quests for her to undertake. These quests are in service to the various monsters who live in the Dragon King’s territory, and the girl becomes involved in a series of adorable sidequests.

Most of these sidequests are optional. Because the game isn’t difficult, the sidequest rewards aren’t strictly necessary. Rather, the real reward is the friendship you find along the way. In less cliché terms, the reward for playing the game is being able to experience more of the game.

The environment is not quite 2D and not quite isometric, and it reminds me a lot of the style of the Paper Mario games. There are no puzzles and no platforming, but your character gradually gains abilities that allow her to bypass environmental obstacles and thereby gain access to more of the map. Like most of the sidequests, exploration isn’t strictly necessary. Still, if you want to poke around a bit, the map screen is annotated in a way that’s easy to understand and keep track of, and there will never be any need to consult an online walkthrough. The player has access to a quest log that visually signposts the objectives for each quest, and you can instantly return to the central village hub whenever you wish.

Your adventuring party only has two characters at a time, Yuu and another character specific to each chapter of the game. This can occasionally cause difficulties when a group of enemies is designed to take advantage of an earlier companion’s special abilities, but most players will never experience anything beyond mild inconvenience. Your characters’ skill points are limited but naturally renew after each turn of battle, and it’s fun to play around with different skills and strategies without having to worry about conserving resources.  

The chill and low-stress gameplay allows the player to appreciate the most notable feature of The Cruel King, which is its gorgeous artwork. Playing the game feels like walking through the pages of a storybook, albeit one that’s beautifully animated. All of the characters and environments are hand-drawn, and each screen is filled with unique details. The illustrated bestiary that you can gradually complete as you find and defeat enemies is a treasure.

I’ve gotten used to ambient background noise in contemporary video games, so it was a treat to realize that each area of The Cruel King has its own theme music. I thought this music was nothing special at first, but over time I found that I enjoyed the fantasy flavor it adds to each section of the game. None of the character lines are voiced, but the actress who narrates the storybook-style cutscenes in Japanese gives a lovely performance (although you can silence her voice and fast-forward through these scenes if you like).

The translation is of uneven quality, but this didn’t bother me. Most of the dialog is cute and quirky but still feels natural, and many of the characters have distinctive ways of speaking that are fun without being annoying. The translation for the third-person narrative cutscenes tends to be a bit shaky, both in terms of style and grammar. I don’t think the errors were intentional (especially since the original Japanese text is relatively polished), but I still appreciate them, as the amateurish writing style made the storybook sections feel more intimate. It reminded me of Super Nintendo JRPGs, whose imperfect translations were a significant part of their charm.

Without spoiling anything, I think it’s fair to say that The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince was a horror game that got especially dark toward the end. The Cruel King and the Great Hero doesn’t have any nasty tricks up its sleeves, but the story ends up being much more interesting and nuanced than you might expect. If nothing else, you get to be friends with all sorts of monsters, and who doesn’t want a kind and supportive Dragon King for a dad?

A Legend of Shadows, Part Three

This is the third and final section of a speculative comic about gods and mortals in Legend of Zelda lore and mythology. The first part is (here), and the second part is (here). This is a continuation of the ideas I expressed in a short collaboration comic called Hylia’s Chosen Knight.

The goddess Hylia is more than a little scary, and it’s interesting to think of Ganondorf as being the hero of another story. I’m fascinated by the theme of “the failed or corrupted hero,” and I think it would be interesting if Ganondorf went on a quest that paralleled Link’s journey. Maybe young Ganondorf saw Hylia as the villain, but the power he needed to stand against Hyrule ended up overwhelming him. To me, that’s much more compelling than the idea of power only being “good” when it’s wielded by the “chosen” person.