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?

Secret of Mana

Secret of Mana is a charming action-adventure game about grinding for unnecessary upgrades. It’s not for everyone, but I adore it.

The game plays a bit like Kingdom Hearts in that you run around a two-dimensional isometric map and hit adorable enemies with a sword (or your choice of seven other weapons). There’s a satisfying cronch when your weapon connects, and the enemy death animations are super cute. For example, mammal-type enemies will explode in a poof of bones that make rattling sounds as they drop to the ground in a neat little pile. The magic animations are also lovely, and they become more elaborate as each spell grows more powerful.

The game’s story is about protecting seeds and saving a tree, and it’s filled with gorgeous Instagram-style ~nature~ that has its over-saturated anime filter slider pulled all the way to the top end. The tree leaves rustle gently, the grass sways in the wind, the sun sparkles on the surface of water, the frost glistens with a rainbow-hued shine, and so on. Your job as the player is to walk around these beautiful fantasy-themed environments killing critters for the points you need to max out the levels of your weapons and magic.

The way this works is that each of the eight weapons has eight magical orbs, which you earn by defeating bosses, and each orb unlocks an additional level for that weapon. Once a new level is unlocked, you can earn points by defeating enemies in order to achieve the special attack for that weapon, all of which are laughably impractical and none of which you will ever use. There’s no real reason to level up your weapon attacks; but, if you want to, it becomes more difficult with each progressive level. To get to Level 2, each enemy kill nets you 8 points (out of a necessary 100). To get to Level 3, each enemy kills nets you 7 points (out of a necessary 100). And so on. Ditto for each of the eight magic element sets.

Each of your characters has to level up all of the weapons and magic elements separately, so you’re in for some grinding. But only if you want! Again, it’s not necessary, but I find it relaxing.

The PlayStation 4 remake changes almost nothing about the original Super Nintendo game, and the updated graphics and music are wonderful. For a good six months after the release, there was some sort of bug that caused the game to crash if you went for too long without saving, but the developers have patched and fixed whatever was causing the problem.

The PS4 remake of Secret of Mana takes about ten to fifteen hours to finish if you don’t grind and a little less than thirty hours if you do, and either way it’s good wholesome content for when you need to turn off your brain and chill out for a bit.