The other day I spent a good deal of time trawling through my Steam discovery queue, something I haven’t done in a while, when something interesting popped up. I was immediately drawn to the game, and my curiosity was heightened after finding out this game had been created by a lone developer. Hitting him up on twitter, he kindly agreed to furnish me with a free Steam key for the game, in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. Here’s Nepenthe.
Developed and self-published by one-man-outfit Yitz, Nepenthe is a hand-drawn 2-D four-directional top-down RPG made using ‘RPG Maker’ software. When I stumbled across the game it stuck in my mind as a potential review candidate for two main reasons: firstly, the hand-drawn art-style looked totally different to anything I’d ever played before, which intrigued me. Secondly…the name. Nepenthe. Where have I heard that name before? A little research uncovers some connections with ancient Greece: it is first mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, when Helen of Troy casts a drug (referred to as ‘nepenthos’) into her wine to ‘quiet all pain and strife, and bring forgetfulness of every ill’. Translated from Greek it means literally ‘anti-sorrow’. Nepenthe is also mentioned in The Outsider, a work from my favourite author H.P. Lovecraft: ‘But in the cosmos there is balm as well as bitterness, and that balm is nepenthe’. This immediately lit a fire under me, and I became anxious to see how the game was going to incorporate these themes of forgetfulness, pain-relief and ‘anti-sorrow’. Muffin, have you met my good friend Butter?
The game opens. Immediately I’m greeted with beautiful tones from an acoustic guitar that I can feel instantly soothe and calm like a cooling salve, and I can tell that Yitz has done the same research I’ve done. You can play the game in two different modes: Adventure or Story. The only real difference is the combat; Story has zilch, instead offering a narrative-only gameplay experience. I might have gone for it, but the memory of failing at the last hard difficulty I attempted, and the associated shame, prompted me to hit ‘Adventure’.
The art, oh wow. Let me try and break down my thoughts when the gameplay first starts. Remember that one student in your class at school that could really sketch scenery and characters well, and made your stick-figures look like crap? Well that’s the impression I get when I see the art-style. To call it childish would be unfair, but there’s something innocent and refreshing about seeing a landscape lovingly hand-crafted with nothing but colouring pencils. I don’t think I’ve seen any other game pull it off quite so well. And the characters…so simply drawn but so possessed of an endearing friendliness, you just can’t help but smile.
There is charm packed into every nook and cranny. As I explore this wonderful landscape with my arrow keys (though you can also point and click) I start to interact with my surroundings. The game’s ‘self-aware’ style of humour when observing interactables is wickedly funny in places, and your perseverance in exploring every detail of the environment does not go unrewarded. Yitz, clearly, is a connoisseur of RPGs and knows how to squeeze humour from basic gameplay elements.
Onto combat. In Adventure mode there are plenty of cute but ultimately unfriendly monsters that are just begging for a good beatdown. The fighting mechanic follows the same general principle as featured in Undertale; master the timing puzzle to deal maximum damage to your opponent. Then when your opponent attacks, move the on-screen cursor within the movement box to avoid the various methods of murderology. It’s a tried and true system, and works well within the context of the game. Worth noting is the fact that there is also a ‘Mercy’ option so that you don’t have to kill the creatures you encounter, so don’t feel obligated to leave a cuddly blood-spattered mess in your wake!
One thing that does irk me slightly however: like any top-down RPG there are the boundaries where you transition from one region of the map to the region adjacent. Sometimes when you walk parallel to those boundaries the game will transition you to the next region anyway, without you having actually entered the region. Meh, it’s a small thing. A seasoned eye will also catch a couple of spelling errors, but if these are my biggest gripes we’re not doing too bad at all!
When the game starts our character is given a letter and told to see it safely delivered. We then follow the path and journey south, where the ocean and a quaint little sailboat await. Could the seaward journey be an allusion to the aforementioned Homer’s Odyssey? Maybe. But soon a storm whirls, lightning strikes our poor defenseless craft, and all fades to black. Waking up in unfamiliar surroundings we’re greeted by a charming little purple blob-dude who asks us who we are and how we got here, but we can only remember our name. So, the forgetfulness is now in play. The ‘nepenthe’ references are accumulating thick and fast.
Your main objective is to deliver this note to the Magistrate of this strange land of humans and monsters. It soon transpires that this note is a dire warning: ‘Nepenthe’ is rising, and you need the Magistrate’s help to make sure that him/her/it does not see the light of day. On your way you will encounter a plethora of colourful characters, each with their own funny tales and eccentricities. Find the Magistrate and keep the evil in check, though it may not be as simple as it seems.
Your actions will result in one of three separate endings. Spoiler alert, I royally fluffed up my first playthrough. Twasn’t pretty. Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed the plot. It may be a little insubstantial for some players but the game’s strength lies in its humour and art-style. Although the game itself isn’t particularly long, playable within around two to three hours, with the alternate endings it has reasonable replay value.
Charm oozes out of Nepenthe‘s every pore. A brilliantly put-together game, with vibrant hand-made characters and quirky, self-aware wit. Though the narrative falls firmly under the category of ‘short story’ rather than ‘novel’, some games are not meant to take hours to complete. Sometimes you just want a quick scotch egg, not a whole sandwich. Or a crafty half at the pub, not a whole pint. Given the choice of a pint or this game to spend £3.99 on, and the game gets my money every time. Nepenthe is a shot of pure bliss, a soothing balm, a potent drug in your wine as you traverse the ancient Mediterranean sea. And like the fictional drug itself, Nepenthe does exactly what it says on the tin.
Letter grade: A
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