Happy Wintermas, dear reader. And happy new year, I guess. Are you enjoying yours? I’m writing this in the distant past of mid-December, a period of total spiritual desolation. If all has gone to plan, I am currently waving a goblet over my head like some kind of hipster barbarian, and trying to finish all the dodgy vegan Xmas food I’ve cooked which the rest of my family won’t eat, the savages.
I have now read our so-called RPS 2023 Advent Calendar and found it to be woefully deficient in flirty rebels, lunar deities and stage coaches packed with damned adventurers. Never fear, however, because by happy coincidence I have also now written an end-of-year/start-of-year round-up article about these very things.
If you are both a lover and a (resistance) fighter, Amarantus is the game for you. It’s a robust and handsome visual novel that blends the thrill of organising a revolution with the thrill of promising your best friend you’ll help him get laid, only to sleep with the object of his affections, or possibly with both of them. It’s the story of Arik, an adorable youth with great hair who is leading a small group of adorable young people with great hair on a not-very-calculated mission to depose an emperor.
There’s well-heeled surrogate sister Mireille and her awkward but charming brother Màrius; they’re accompanied by the Major, a mournful hired mercenary with plenty going on behind her poker face. Not far in you meet Raeann, a seething, streetwise ball of sarcasm and bloodlust, and Reckon, a mysterious scarred wanderer with a gift for reading people. Stir them all together and you get: chaotic forest ambushes, many tense chats about the ethics of killing for a good cause, childish squabbling about who gets to accompany who on trips to town, poignant explorations of a deserted cliffside palace, a host of supernatural undertones, and enough side-eye to fill a Twitter feed.
Blending the mechanics of a dating sim with a slowburn storming of the Bastille does wonderful things for Amarantus. This is a story of insurrection that embraces false starts and reversals, with at least two playthroughs required to really get to the bottom of things, and an emphasis on personal intimacy rather than some abstract process of building a following. The character writing is vivid and precise, but the silver bullet here is how painstakingly those characters are ‘animated’, with a range of mannerisms and subtleties of framing and context that make the cast feel vastly more alive than that of any photoreal triple-A game I’ve played.
OK, so I’m still making my way through Moonring but I am already in love with it. I can’t believe it’s free. Created by one of the original Fable developers, it’s a top-down, tile-based town-and-dungeon crawler in the Ultima tradition, which takes place in a midnight world of neon forests, castles and oceans. The setting, Caldera, is in thrall to five moon deities, who bestow Dreams and supernatural gifts. You are a Dreamless, meaning you are free to shape your destiny, ask questions others dare not ask, and in my case, get your face bitten off by wolves or melted by lava creatures in a bunch of generated cave systems.
Moonring has a lot of moving parts, with a full third of the screen given over to a combat log and inventory features. There’s a magic system which is ingeniously hidden away in the mythology, rather than being a set of fireball and healing spells for purchase. Dialogue has a touch of the parser-based adventure format, with you typing in keywords to broach or expand a topic based on the previous response, rather than picking options from a list. For all that, however, the basics of play are straightforward: bump into things to do stuff to them, which often makes them do stuff back. The aesthetic is lush despite the text-heavy interface: Ultima aside, it puts me in mind of certain Spectrum dungeon-crawlers like Wizard’s Lair.
Darkest Dungeon 2
Red Hook’s original Lovecraftian RPG was one of my weekday chillout experiences, for a while, which is an odd thing to say about a game in which your proud Crusader knight can have a heart attack while fighting a giant pig, and subsequently go missing during a cathartic post-dungeon pub crawl. I guess that’s mostly down to session length: Darkest Dungeon’s monster mazes can be polished off over a lunchbreak or even faster if you, say, open the wrong iron maiden early on. It gives you condensed shots of cosmic horror with a familiar rhythm of dire prospects feeding into outright madness, and beautifully notched and fissured Hellboy-esque art to boot.
Darkest Dungeon 2 is more remake than a sequel, I think, and I love it ever-so-slightly less. It retains and sharpens up the first game’s gorgeous combat system – in which abilities are linked heavily to position – by simplifying certain stats and introducing a more readable set of icons for buffs and debuffs, to say nothing of swanky 3D character models. But it does away with the old monster mazes entirely, swapping them for a roguelike structure in which you send just one wagonful of heroes to raid a distant, cursed mountain, picking signposted routes at junctions in accordance with resourcing needs, levelling your crew up at inns along the way, and unlocking abilities and items between runs.
While the roguelike format makes the game’s campaign less attrition-driven, I find Darkest Dungeon 2 less digestible somehow. It takes me longer to reach the next inn than to polish off a dungeon in the original, and I never quite warmed to the act of steering the wagon itself. Still, the refined combat is clever, the papery landscapes are bewitching and above all else, it still has the sepulchral Wayne June as narrator.