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?

Top Five Japanese Games Set in Fantasy America

5. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a portal fantasy in which a young boy named Oliver travels to another world from his home in Motorville, a small town based on a suburb of Detroit that’s filled with classic 1950s Americana. The game’s characters and environments were designed by Studio Ghibli, so Motorville’s cars, houses, and grassy lawns surrounded by white-picket fences are infused with color and charm. Every character in the fantasy world of Ni No Kuni has a counterpart in “our” world, so Oliver is frequently tasked to returning to Motorville to help people by solving puzzles and fighting enemies. Through these transitions between Motorville and Ni No Kuni, Wrath of the White Witch suggests how a child’s imagination might create an entire sprawling fantasy world within a small American suburb.

4. Final Fantasy XV

According to its developers, Final Fantasy XV was partially inspired by a road trip down California’s famous Route 1 coastal highway. Not only can you take the wheel of a stylish convertible to enjoy the scenery of the American West, but you can also stop off at various diners to take in the Formica counters and shiny chrome jukeboxes while picking up recipes for burgers and fries slathered in ketchup. While the game’s landscapes reflect the beautiful natural environments of California, its inhabited areas reflect the state’s cultural diversity, and Eos is home to cities inspired by locations as far-ranging as Shinjuku and Havana.  

3. Pokémon Black and Pokémon White

Each of the mainline pairs of games in the Pokémon series is set in a region analogous to a location in the real world. Pokémon Black and Pokémon White take place in the Unova region, which is loosely modeled on New York. The center of Unova, the thriving Castelia City, is much larger than any city previously seen in the series. Castelia City is filled with skyscrapers and boasts a bustling harbor, as well as a festive boardwalk entertainment district in the nearby satellite city of Nimbasa. During their journey, the player can also get a taste of American-inspired desert highways and city-sized airports. In addition, the Unova Region marks a major landmark for the Pokémon series – this was the first pair of games in which characters could have darker skintones and Afro-textured hair.

2. Silent Hill 2

The setting of the iconic survival horror game Silent Hill 2 is Silent Hill, Maine. As a mid-sized resort town that sprang up around the scenic Toluca Lake, Silent Hill is lovingly modeled on small-town New England, with picturesque pine forests framing a charming central business district. Thick mist rises from the surface of the lake as the heat of the day cools in the evening, creating evocative vistas of telephone poles emerging from a sea of fog.

If you linger too long in Silent Hill, however, you may start to notice that the town isn’t doing too well – many of the stores in the strip malls are closed, the hospital and other public buildings are slouching into genteel decay, and odd graffiti has been scrawled on the tarps and fences surrounding abandoned construction sites. There is, of course, also an underground cult whose activities have linked the town to a hellish nightmare realm. As the game’s tagline reads, “Every town has its secrets,” and Silent Hill’s secrets are pure Stephen King.

1. Earthbound

One of the reasons why the quirky 16-bit RPG Earthbound has managed to secure such a strong hold on the imaginations of generations of gamers is the vibrancy of its setting in Eagleland. Your hero Ness, a boy destined to save the world with psychic powers and a baseball bat, grew up in a modest wood-frame house on the outskirts of the small town of Onett. Onett has a burger joint, an old-fashioned arcade, and a handsome public library, as well as wide streets and sidewalks large enough for Ness to navigate on his trusty bike.

Once he sets out from this pitch-perfect Steven Spielberg movie set, Ness travels around Eagleland to visit an outdoor market filled with hippies, an indoor mall filled with bored teenage employees, a seedy nightclub hosting the Blues Brothers, and a compact version of New York City that becomes a neon-lit wonderland after dark. Ness’s adventure even takes him to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the famous “Pink Palace” of Waikiki. Far from being a whirlwind tour of the United States, Earthbound offers players countless incentives to spend time in each town seeing the sights, talking to the locals, and discovering the stranger aspects of American life as seen through Japanese eyes.  

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

I’ve been saving Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch for a rainy day since it came out on the Nintendo Switch in September 2019, and my “rainy day” turned out to be my first winter back in Philadelphia, which has hit me with far more snow than I expected. Wrath of the White Witch is magical and delightful, and it’s the perfect game for cozy days indoors.

Wrath of the White Witch is a seventy-hour JRPG that’s intended for kids around the same age as the game’s protagonist, who is around ten years old. It was developed in collaboration with Studio Ghibli by Level-5, which makes the Professor Layton and Yo-kai Watch games.

As indicated by the game’s title, it takes place in two closely connected worlds, a high fantasy world of wizards and castles and talking animals and a world loosely based on our own. You play as Oliver, a boy who travels between a suburb of 1950s Detroit and the fantasy world with the intent of finding a way to save his mother, who has recently passed away from an illness. The idea is that Oliver’s mother’s “soulmate” in the fantasy world has gone missing; and, if he can find and rescue her, then this might have an effect on his mother’s fate in his own world.

The game’s combat system is much more complicated to describe than it is to actually play. You have three characters who can move freely across the battlefield while executing commands. You control one, and the others are controlled by AI. The AI is unfortunately not that smart, but almost none of the battles are actually that hard. The classic JRPG strategy of “just be five levels over where you probably need to be” works perfectly every time, and there’s also an Easy Mode that you can switch on and off whenever you like.

Each of your three characters can equip three familiars, which you can catch in the wild and train like pokémon. You’ll use your familiars to fight, but there isn’t any pressing need to balance your team or do research into the strengths or weaknesses of individual creatures. There’s also no pressure to catch new familiars, or even any way to check your progress if “catching them all” is your goal. The familiars are cute and fun to play with, and there’s no drawback to just using the ones you like. You can also feed them adorable status-boosting snacks if you want to.

The combat system is fairly deep, but it took me about five hours of gameplay to start moving beyond a basic sort of “attack by hitting the enemy with your stick” mentality. Wrath of the White Witch originally came out on the PlayStation 3 console in 2011; and, true to that era, it tries to explain everything to you with copious amounts of text. Oliver is accompanied by a companion named Drippy, who’s a little like Fi in Skyward Sword in that he will repeatedly interrupt gameplay to explain mechanics you could easily have figured out for yourself. Thankfully, he eventually backs off, which makes it much easier to experiment and thereby figure out the ins and outs of battle strategies.

There are a few other aspects of Wrath of the White Witch that show the game’s age. To give an example, it reminds me somewhat of Final Fantasy XII in that it forces the player to sit through more than two hours of exposition and pointless tutorial missions before the game actually begins in earnest. I won’t lie – this is horribly tedious, and you just kind of have to sit there and be patient.

Bits and pieces of the game’s story are a little tone-deaf as well, especially given its secondary setting in the United States at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

There is one African-American character in Wrath of the White Witch. His name is Rusty, and he beats his wife. Like, right in front of you. His back is turned to the camera when he does it, but what’s happening is obvious. This is one of the only real instances of the game portraying a negative emotion stronger than mild anger or gentle sadness, and it’s… I mean, this is a poor word choice, but it’s striking.

One of Oliver’s traveling companions in the fantasy world is Esther, a girl from a vaguely Orientalist desert city modeled on Silk Road culture. Her counterpart in Oliver’s world is his best friend’s neighbor, a girl named Myrtle. Oliver has seen Myrtle out of her window, but he’s never spoken to her because she’s ostensibly too sick to leave the house.

It turns out that the Myrtle was sick but has gotten better, and that she doesn’t leave her room because she’s scared of her father. Rusty, a car mechanic, has had to work overtime to pay for her hospital bills, and he’s been taking his frustration out on his wife, which terrifies Myrtle. Since Oliver is a wizard, he can use magic to heal Rusty’s heart, help Myrtle overcome her anxiety, and thus inspire Esther to embrace the courage she needs to go on her own journey.

This is very much a ten-year-old’s wish-fulfillment fantasy, and it makes sense in its own way, but…

Both Myrtle and Esther have straight blond hair, bright blue eyes, and peach-tinted pale skin. It’s weird to call anyone speaking Japanese “white,” but almost everyone in the game is a generic light-skinned anime person. This means that the abusive husband’s racial identity really stands out.

He gets better, of course. After Rusty’s heart is healed, he apologizes to his wife and hugs his daughter, and everything is okay. He helps you out with a sidequest later on in the game in a way that demonstrates his high competence as a mechanic. But still, for there to be only one Black person in Detroit… And for the one Black character in the game to be violent like that… And for both his wife and daughter to be coded as white… I just feel like there’s a lot of racial history at play here that isn’t given sufficient depth for its inclusion in the game to be worthwhile.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s more to American culture than hot dogs and hamburgers and saying hello to your neighbors from across their white-picket fences as you stroll down Main Street. If you’re setting a game in the United States, you should have more than one Black character, and you need to be aware of the historical violence and deep cultural wounds created by stereotypes about Black male violence against white women.

I suppose you could counter this with, “But Wrath of the White Witch is a Japanese game for children that flattens and parodies all of the people and cultures it incorporates into its fantasy world,” and that’s fair. At the same time, I’m happy that Japanese game developers have since figured out that it’s okay to have more than one Black or dark-skinned character in any given game, and that it won’t break anyone’s sense of immersion to have NPCs walking around with a variety of skintones.

(Just as an aside, I want to emphasize that I’m not cherry-picking an example here. There are a few other examples of problematic portrayals of racial and ethnic difference in Wrath of the White Witch, as well as many other examples that could be drawn from JRPGs in general. This is a serious and complicated topic, but addressing it isn’t really the point of this blog post. If you’re interested in pursuing this further, the essay collection The State of Play is a great place to get started.)

So there are elements of Wrath of the White Witch that betray the game’s age, both in terms of gameplay and in terms of its reflection of the then-current state of transnational conversations concerning representation. Still, most of the game is an absolute treasure.

The cel-shaded graphics are amazing and have not aged a day. The animation is spectacular. In particular, the way that the mantle of Oliver’s cape moves is a technological marvel. You really do feel as though you’re walking around in a Studio Ghibli movie, and it’s incredible. The world map is gorgeous, and the towns are intricately detailed and full of life. You can tell that Level-5 and Studio Ghibli put a lot of love and attention into designing the world, and it’s an enormous amount of fun to explore and take on sidequests.

The translation is brilliant, and the voice acting is lovely. The level of detail put into the sound design is pure Studio Ghibli. The score by Joe Hisaishi is everything you’d hope it would be.

I’m not saying that every game needs to have an active fandom, but I wonder why this game is relatively uncelebrated in my circles of social media. There were precious few JRPGs on the PlayStation 3, which was odd after the immense popularity of JRPGs on the PlayStation 2, so you’d think a high-quality game like Wrath of the White Witch would have stood out. Then again, I myself never managed to get into it back when it first came out despite having started it a few times. My guess is that Wrath of the White Witch’s innocent charm and nostalgic JRPG elements help it work well as a pokémon-style portable game on the small screen of the Nintendo Switch.

I know that a sequel, Revenant Kingdom, was released for PlayStation 4 in 2018, but I was too obsessed with Breath of the Wild at the time to pay much attention to it. Revenant Kingdom is partially set in contemporary New York, and I get the sense that it’s intended for an adult audience. I think it might be worth checking out once I finish up the last few postgame sidequests of Wrath of the White Witch just to see how the world of the story (and the worldview of its creators) has changed in the past ten years.