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Ghostcake: the Bakening

  • kumada
  • 08/14/2015 12:48 AM
Intro - Life Imitates Art -

I'd meant to be one of the late testers on this project. Unfortunately, due to circumstances, I ended up in an emergency room instead.

These two things are unrelated, but I think it's important to note that I'm in kind of a weird headspace while I'm reviewing this: way better than I was a week ago, but not completely out of the woods yet. As such, it's very possible that some of the themes are hitting me extra hard. Moreover, I am a human. And, as a human, I am biased. Especially towards things I like.

Which includes this game.

5 is not usually a rational score to give in this community, but I have no qualms about assigning it here. Free Spirits won me over right from its (somewhat literal) shotgun start. It establishes character, tone, and even mechanics within a minute of opening the executable, and it doesn't hesitate to embellish on those as it progresses. Its color palette is a neat trick, its characters are written with enthusiasm, and its episodic format packages the whole thing in a neat, digestible format.

Ambiance - Sugar and Spice -

There's so much to like here that it's hard not to simply format this section as a list.

Think about Free Spirits this way. You come home after a long day of not getting much done and Free Spirits is there for you. It gives you a hug and listens to you rant and then it tells you that you've been doing this for several years. That you're dead. That it loves you, but you really have to move on. And that it has a blueberry pie baking in the oven, it'll be ready to come out any minute now, made using your favorite recipe.

Free Spirits isn't so much mood whiplash as it is the sweet half of bittersweet. It's about learning to care and also letting go, and every element of its setting and themes help to anchor these core concepts to the plot.

Set in the 1920's, Free Spirits isn't just about being peppered with cute, old-timey slang. It's about a world that's transient, that's giving way to change. The characters bring this through in meaningful ways, not just mentioning historical notes like temperance or women's rights but making them a core part of their personalities. To illustrate a point with a minor spoiler, there's an old woman ghost that you meet that's haunting a garden. She chatters about a lot of things, mostly just wanting someone to talk to, and you have an opportunity to bring up women's lib. Instead of spouting some stock answer about how she's surprised by how the future turned out, or how she's glad that youngsters have all these new rights, she shows both sides of the coin: happiness that one of the things she spent her life fighting for was vindicated, and bitterness that the next generation can't possibly appreciate it as much as she would have.

The art style in Free Spirits taps into this same delicate balance between warmth and sobriety. Sprites and environment pieces are done mostly in black-and-white (or drab hues, as is the case with the menus) but there are swatches of color that show through. Almost everyone has an accent piece, a bit of brightness that's been made a physical part of them. One of your player characters has her vest. The other has a sunflower. And in every case, this echoes something about their personality. It's not ham-handed. Virtually nothing in Spirits is. It's just a brush of paint adding some liveliness to the story.

Think Sin City, but in this particular metropolis Elijah Wood eats delicious Dampfknudel and not people.

Music is probably the only place in which Free Spirits falls a bit short, and that's only because it fails to reach the same heights as every other part of its design. The soundtrack is nice and homey without ever losing that critical 1920's vibe, and there are some nice tricks in which the soundtrack is provided by the scene, being provided by pianist characters who react to the conversations around them, or whose performances grow more muted as you move a few screens away.

Content - Words in Herds -

I'll be perfectly honest. 90% of Free Spirits is just sitting and reading. This isn't a bad thing, but it will scare off players of a certain temperament. Fortunately, the writing is really good. It keeps to the tone and makes the characters all feel distinct and relocatable, but it's almost a shame that it's the body of so much of the game because the 10% that is ghost busting is exceptionally good.

Gameplay takes two major forms. There's detective work, which mostly involves interacting with anything that stands out against the grayscale environment, and then there's spiritual combat, which is a puzzle consisting of dialog choices and item usage.

Each ghost is its own boss battle and must be talked at considerably before it accepts its impermanence and leaves. Ghosts can have moods, each of which influences its receptivity to certain lines and its aggression towards the player characters. Ghosts output damage or disabilities at the end of each round, and getting stuck too long in conversation with one wears at your characters' HP. The key to victory is less of a specific combat formula and more of a kind of existential dialog whack-a-mole, in which you have to navigate what seem to be genuine dialog trees, with different approaches depending on which character you have speaking, until your spirit admits the unresolved issue that's keeping it clinging to this side of the pale.

Despite not playing optimally, I found myself rarely getting stuck. Your two characters have a good cop/bad cop sort of dynamic to them, and you can occasionally wave a gun around for variety. The ability to induce moods and the limited number of action points per round do allow for some strategy, where you might need to calm a ghost down so that it stops stun-locking you, but overall the mechanics on Free Spirits are simple. This isn't a math game, it's a words game, and the mechanics are just a way of underscoring the themes.

Final Thoughts - In Memoriam -

This is simultaneously one of the easiest and one of the hardest games I can think of to sum up. It's both a warm-hearted jazzy conversational spook-em-up and something that made my throat close down a bit at the end. It has a final boss made of some of the heaviest emotional unpacking I have ever seen in a game, and it has minor twists and flourishes throughout the story that kept me rethinking my understanding of the characters and setting.

Free Spirits is not afraid to not explain things, but it also provides you with more than enough to chew over during its three solid acts. It juggles emotions with a deftness I had not been prepared for, and it left me feeling bittersweet.

But more on the sweet side, less on the bitter.


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This is probably the most flattering thing I have ever read in my life??? Like... WOW. What an amazing review. I'm so glad you were touched by the game the way you were! At least on my end, making someone Feel stuff makes all the work worth it to me.

So thanks a whole bunch! I'm honoured by your words, and I'm so, so glad you enjoyed the game. ;w;
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
I'm probably going to need to play this game now, aren't i?
It's a wonderful execution of concept, Solitayre, and only an hour or two long. You're not losing too much invested time if you decide it's not your thing.

And thank you Emmy and Penta for making this.

edit: Also, I'd never heard of dampfnudel before, so I looked up a recipe and found they are basically Eastern European baozi. I plan on making a ton of them.
Thanks for writing this review kumada, it rocketed this game to the top of my IGMC playlist and I'm glad I got to play it sooner. Very enjoyable!
First review in years. Gave a five-stars. Comments are all full of positivity and praise?

What has happened to this site? :D
Huff huff kumada you continue to flatter us. ;___; <3
And I hope the dampfnudel goes well! I've been meaning to make some myself, since hoo boy does it ever sound tasty. <__<;

Soli, if you do play, let us know what you think! I-I'd be real excited to hear your thoughts.

dinkledberry, I'm really glad you enjoyed the game! Thank you so much for playing. <3
You wrote such a nice review and I still don't know what to say! It's a lovely feeling to see someone who got invested and cares about these stinkin' fake people and the stuff they do even a little bit.

I hope you're doing even better now! The emergency room is never a fun visit.

This game has a lot of personally meaningful stuff in it for me, so yup, it sure feels good when other people have any sort of personal investment.
I basically tip-toed around talking about any of the gender stuff that the game discusses while I was writing my review, and I still haven't decided whether that was the right thing to do. It was fantastic gender stuff, but it felt personal too, and I wasn't sure if that meant I ought to shine a spotlight on it.
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