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Actually That Good.

I first played Umbral Soul a few months back, but I held off on reviewing it at the time for a couple of reasons. First, because it already seemed sufficiently spoken for at the time. And second, I couldn't help but feel a bit envious, since it came out around the same time as a game I was involved with, and it was hard not to see it as competition, of a very steep level.

But it's hard to just say nothing about a game like Umbral Soul. This is a game which instantly catapulted itself to a position among my list of favorite RPGMaker games which I haven't added to in years. Even at first glance, it appeared interesting and worth checking out, but the game is almost entirely an uphill ride. By the time I was a ways in, at a time when I had little else on my plate to occupy me, I found myself deliberately stalling, putting off playing it, because once I finished, there would be no more Umbral Soul, and then I might not know what to do with myself. Considering the level of enthusiasm this game inspired in me, I'd be doing it an injustice not to encourage other people to give it a try.


Story:
Umbral Soul is, obviously, a reversal of a conventional RPG narrative. Instead of fighting to stop the return of an evil god who was sealed away by a group of heroes in the past, and then defeating him when he's inevitably revived despite your efforts, Umbral Soul places you in the shoes of the apostle of said dark god, fighting to restore her master to power. The beginning of the game plays all the conventions arrow-straight, in the opposite of the usual direction. But while it might be worth checking out such a game just for the novelty value, Umbral Soul's story runs much deeper than this. It carries more charm, and much more pathos, than the more conventional stories it's based on. Umbral Soul pulls the heartstrings from both ends, and I found myself in turns rejoicing at my party's successes, gloating along with them at their triumphs over their adversaries, and fearing their eventual victory, hoping for their own sakes and for the sake of everyone else in the setting that they would somehow be defeated, or convinced to stop, or simply fail. The author expertly juxtaposes the emotional force of the motives which have set the protagonists on their paths, and the strength and conviction those experiences have brought them, with weaknesses imposed by living in ways that inevitably lead to the characters’ own unhappiness. The story maintains a sense of tension until the very end regarding how things will ultimately turn out, or could possibly turn out with such great narrative forces in conflict.

Characters:
Umbral Soul is fundamentally a character-driven story. The protagonists are all ultimately servants of Ragnarok, the God of Darkness, fighting to secure his return and usher in an age of terror upon the world of mortals. This is, naturally, not something that people ordinarily want to do, and the game extensively explores where each character is coming from, the hows and whys which led them to a place where it makes sense for them to pledge themselves to a god of evil. One of the most rewarding features of the game ties into the protagonist's status as a summoner, who can call people and creatures she's bonded to her service into battle. Exploring the game's optional content frequently nets you summonable party members with their own stories to explore, and often comes with additional scenes of backstory which further reveal how the characters and the world itself have reached their present state. Even the monstrous beings the protagonist can bind to her service all bring far more to the story than simple combat assets.

Gameplay:
Umbral Soul shows a few weaknesses in the department of game balance. The most significant of these is that the main character's ability to instantly teleport to the protagonists' stronghold and back as soon as it becomes available immediately removes any element of attrition from all dungeons after that point which aren't inside the demon realm. But even with this taken into consideration, the game is really exceptionally calibrated. The climactic battles almost always felt climactic, not just in terms of the story content, but in terms of the effort they demanded, and defeating major bosses consistently felt like an accomplishment. The huge diversity of party setups and abilities available for battle was always rewarding to explore. And after so many games where I've felt guilty having my party of heroic adventurers defeat some mighty enemy via the power of outnumbering it and having a hoard of items to wear it down with, it felt immensely satisfying to face off against a party of heroic adventurers and crush those item-using bastards with the raw power of darkness.

Aesthetics:

I believe that none of the resources in this game except possibly the attack animations and some of the sound effects were made specifically for this game. Which is frankly rather astonishing given that almost everything fits together as if it were made to go in this game. Aside from one edited portrait which doesn't quite fit with the others (but doesn't feature in the game very long,) everything forms a cohesive set, which with script for displaying your own party members when they're selected in combat, even manages at times to be visually stunning. The soundtrack as well is remarkably well-used, and always serves to improve the emotional weight of the scenes.

Overall:
If it's not clear by this point, I liked this game. I haven't handed out a five star rating in any of my reviews previously, but I think if I didn't award one to Umbral Soul, I'd have to resign myself to never giving them out, ever. It doesn't achieve technical perfection, but the level of enjoyment and emotional impact I got out of it is not something a game could necessarily achieve by merely faultless design. So I'll count myself in with Umbral Soul's fifth five star review, because I have to say, it's actually that good.


Posts

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You'll have to excuse me, I'm a little out of breath from squealing with joy for the last 2 minutes and thirty seconds. I mean really, if you told me people would enjoy the game this much while I was developing it, I would've slapped you with a wet tuna. Then I would have apologized and slapped you again. From what I've played, Chronicles of Tsufanubra is a highly polished and enjoyable game, so getting a review like this from one of its devs is a huge honor. I mean really, I'm flipping out here.

I'm working on a joint project with Berryrmn at the moment, and once that's done, I intend to release an upgraded version of this game with far more content and several more fixes. After that, it's on to the sequel! It's a hilariously ridiculous amount of work, but the fact that people are being so entertained spurs me on. Thanks Desertopa, and thank you to everyone who has commented so far. You guys are awesome.
It felt a bit too shameless to bring it up in the body of the review, but Umbral Soul was probably my biggest source of inspiration to get off my ass and start my current game project. I've been sitting on the ideas for it for a long time, but I've spent most of my time since joining RMN looking for teams to work with because I felt I was missing some of the skills necessary to make a good, complete game by myself. Umbral Soul was the game which convinced me that the publicly available resources are good enough to make a game from which I could be proud of as a solo project.

Everyone always says to start small for your first projects, but my practice was always limited before by the fact that I just really prefer more expansive and ambitious narratives, and it's hard to stick with a project you don't enjoy. But now, I'm having so much fun with what I'm doing, I'm losing sleep over it. So I feel like I owe a huge debt of gratitude to you for this game.
InfectionFiles
the world ends in whatever my makerscore currently is
4640
How are you not dead by this point, Wheelman? Five 5 star reviews?!

InfectionFiles- Don't hurt me, I'm a bleeder! Seriously, I keep waiting for some kind of soul-crushing public backlash to destroy my hopes and dreams at a moment's notice, but people keep surprising me.

Desertopa- Dude, Guardian Frontier is your game?! That's a hilarious coincidence, I just finished the demo about a day ago. I was curious as to whether or not the girl you start off as was going to be the main character, or if it would end up being that swag-tastic paladin. Trust me, I know how hard it is to get up and running on a project, so I'm glad this project was able to inspire you a little. I've got about 7 different ideas for games in the future, so it can be hard to concentrate on just one sometimes.

I couldn't agree more with what you said about enjoying working on your game. By all accounts, this game should never have been finished. It was too ambitious a project for a single person to complete alone, especially being the first real game I had ever attempted to make. But I plugged away at it day after day because I enjoyed what I was doing, and when you enjoy your work, it doesn't feel like work at all. Good luck man, I've already subscribed to your project and look forward to seeing how it evolves over time.
InfectionFiles
the world ends in whatever my makerscore currently is
4640
I would have suffocated by this point haha

But yeah, I think you deserve it. :) Haven't played your game yet but it's on my computer and whenever I can get to it, I will.
Thanks man, I still gotta give you some feedback on that snazzy Sonic game of yours.
Would you just look at all those five star reviews?! How could I possibly not want to download this game now?! I'm actually writing this comment as the game downloads, which is taking... longer than usual for some reason? A day where my internet decided not to be wonky would be a day I'd have to buy some lottery tickets or something. =\
Awesome! Feeling 45% excited, 55% terrified, but I hope you enjoy it. There's only about half a billion assets in there, so that might have something to do with the download time. Hopefully it'll run on your computer silky smooth when you actually start playing.
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