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Simple and Haunting (Spoiler Free)

  • kumada
  • 01/21/2017 02:40 PM
Three Ghostly Roses is Wraith: The Oblivion done as a turn-based brawler for the Game Boy Color.

And now that I have your attention, I'd like to talk about what works and what doesn't in that amazing bag of concepts.

Roses is all about the slow reveal, so I'm going to do so without touching on any of the major plot points outside of the basic premise and setting.

Roses begins with you waking up from your death in purgatory, and as far as story starters go, that's a pretty good one. The atmosphere is somber and mysterious, the soundtrack is gloomy and foreboding, and the map is picked out in a dull palette. Taken all at once, the first impression a player has of Roses is one of unease, and the game never quite deviates from that mood.

All is not well in purgatory, and the story develops in a slow roll of setting hints hidden in the dialog of the other spirits that share this new land with you. Some are incredibly morose (there's a woman who's throwing herself endlessly towards a precipice, unable to commit fully to taking her own life, but unable to stop wanting to die, with the implication that she has possibly been doing this for hundreds of years.) Others offer simple mechanical instruction (the game is not difficult to play, and these tips are spelled out with the kind of minimalist precision found in old NES games.)

A lot of areas in Roses are almost completely uninhabited except for the stationary gray-black wisps of enemy sprites, giving the game's dungeons a kind of bareness that only doubles down on the solemnity of the mood.

One of the things that Roses does utterly right comes from this. There are no random battles in Roses, and enemy spawns do not pursue you around the map. Fleeing is easy, and combat is always a decision of where you want to progress. The map doesn't have the open-endedness of a Souls title, but there are secrets and shortcuts and two optional bosses -- and there is virtually no wasted space. When you're exploring a screen for the first time, you never feel like you're just being strung along from point A to point B. The walk-speed is lightning fast, and you zip from content to content with only slight pauses in between.

Unfortunately for the player, even though it is impossible to lodge yourself into an unwinnable state, Roses forewent the ability to save anywhere and some sections felt onerous because of it. Combats do not end with a full-heal, and the only way to win some fights is to start at near-maximum health, so this produces not-infrequent backtracking. The backtracks are quick, and often teleport-assisted, but they broke the flow of moving from combat to combat, and playing the game across multiple sessions made for some frustration and time-wasting with what should have been simple encounters.

The mechanical meat of Roses is its combat, and that combat goes like this. You have a repertoire of brawler moves (high, mid, low), some spells, and some guard-breaks. Looking at the enemy sprite (unless it's a boss and is kind enough to give you dialog cues about its attack pattern) you have to guess where it's vulnerable, guess whether you need to hit it with a guard break, guess whether it's only vulnerable to spells, and then program in a series of attacks to take it down as quickly as possible so that you can move on to the six other sprites that are swarming you.

With a few exceptions, most enemies do not have multiple attacks. They simply damage you at the end of the turn for a set value, as long as they're still on screen. Killing an enemy gives you a small heal (and some bosses have a really interesting game-flow where you're inexpressibly grateful for the adds when they get summoned in, because now you can finally heal) but if you misjudge an enemy's weakpoint or take too long in a fight, then you're trekking back to HQ afterwards for a full heal and a save.

There's a certain nostalgia-appeal to combat, with its retro art style and simple menus, but I think it actually suffered from its minimalism. Once you know how to 'solve' a particular enemy, it is no longer interesting. The game tries to remedy this by changing up the combinations that attack you, but then fights just become an exercise in memory.

I never felt like I had come up with some kind of clever tech to defeat a boss - just that I had guessed exactly what the developer wanted me to do. Compared with other turn-based indie brawlers like Sanctuary, I felt like Roses was a bit of a relic from the past.

I was ultimately glad when it only took three hours to fully clear, as any longer would have outstayed its welcome.

Still, the plot makes up for the weak points in the combat, and vice versa. The story was strong, and only sometimes felt intrusive (typically because it meant another several minute backtrack to save so that I didn't have to watch the same cutscene twice if I scrubbed guessing the attack pattern of a boss.) Roses is not an especially happy tale, and it mingles unremitting bleakness with only the scantest flashes of hope (as might be appropriate in purgatory), but it has a lot of interesting nuance to it, some of which it fully explores.

I think if Roses had come out in the Game Boy Color era, it would have been the kind of cult classic that devs still wistfully reminisce about. As is, it's an engaging game (though not always a fun one), and nevertheless worth the playthrough. Even when the plot or the mechanics might not be your cup of tea, it is a masterful example of how to pare a game down to the barest essentials of design and come out with something that is fresh, polished, and good.


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This was a well written and ultimately fair review! The choice to have save points instead of anywhere was a tough one to make. I don't know, perhaps sometime I could add in save anywhere and have a hard mode where you can't leave a dungeon once you go in and must survive only off killing enemies better.

The gameplay critiques I agree with. I made a mechanic and went with it. If I ever do more work on this game I'd definitely rethink the gameplay. But I do think it's good enough and can be fun ultimately.

Thank you for taking the time to play my game and extra thanks for taking the time to write a review! I'm glad you enjoyed it as much as you did.
I'd definitely be interested in that hard-mode, although there are definitely battles that seem like they're going to knock your HP into the ground no matter what, so I'm not sure how the difficulty and pacing would change. Maybe a small pool of depletable heals would offset that, but then it starts to get away from design minimalism, so idk.

I also think I wrote this review a little harsher than it deserved to be. That plot is heavy, man, and maybe I was a little depressed coming out of it. I tend to scale how nitpicky I'm being with how advanced I think the thing I'm reviewing is. It's a holdover from editing friends' short stories. The better I thought the writing was, the pickier I'd be, because I didn't need to worry about fixing big things when when nothing big was wrong with it, so I could zero in on the smaller stuff.

I was really nitpicky with Roses.

I don't think it's bad at all that you made a mechanic and stuck with it, FWIW. I think you committed to some really cool concepts and helped map out a different way of doing a game. The design ended up being really interesting in a lot of ways, even in places where it forced a backtrack or interrupted the game flow for me.
You were nitpicky and gave me a 4/5 rating... That's still quite nice, haha. I thought you were pretty nice in it myself.

I also thought about that myself. I went ahead and made a plot that was different from the RPG norm. Instantly it would set a higher standard for the player. The better a game developer does on a game, the harsher the player will be on the shortcomings due to the standard set. It's something that one must consider when being ambitious. The small things could also bring a game down and your job as a reviewer is to catch those things too. I'm definitely taking the info to heart and much appreciate it.

If I ever do a hard mode I'd definitely make sure it wasn't frustrating and avoid level design traps where the player is screwed. Actual additional work (other than typo/error fixes) will have to wait some time definitely, but I'm certainly not against it! I certainly wouldn't do anything half assed either haha.
Interesting, I really liked minimalism of the combat formula and that some enemies (prisoners) are too strong, unless you got a specific skill. It probably wouldn't work with a longer game or the game would have to be less combat oriented.

Also, I'm against an option to be able to save everywhere. It was kind of calming to start and end every session the same way. My solution would be an autosave, choice to save before boss battles. They're not really that difficult, but it's a better option than backtrack to the Gatekeeper.

I liked this game a lot, btw.
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