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An Instant Classic (Spoilers)

  • oskan038
  • 09/14/2018 09:52 AM
I am an avid fan of RPGs. Everything from the original D&D games from the NES and SNES, to the Elder Scrolls (omitting the vanilla Skyrim), to Final Fantasy (Yes, even XIII). I love stepping into the shoes/boots/heels of a character and traveling with new friends and allies. It doesn't matter if I'm saving the galaxy from ancient alien robots bent on wiping out all organic life every 50,000 years or crushing the peasants under my boot heel as their Overlord. I've been playing RPGs since I was a small child. I've been playing D&D 3.5e (both PnP as well as the Neverwinter Nights video games, and DDO) for over a decade now. I've dabbled in 4e, and loathe 5e. If you want to know why, send me a message, this isn't a D&D rant.

I. Love. RPGs.

RPGs are so easy to get "right". So easy to make them acceptable. All you need is a cookie-cutter plot, a cookie-cutter hero tasked with taking down the cookie-cutter villain. Through in classes, xp, gold, items, and allies, and bam. Acceptable RPG, provided the controls aren't fucked up (I'm lookin at you Too Human [Seriously, who thought that Too Human's control scheme was an ok thing? That guy/gal needs to be drug out in the street, and shot).

However, RPGs are soooo easy to get wrong. Everything from laughable voice acting(RE1), broken physics(Skyrim), to clunky controls(Too Human), or say, reusing the same fucking plotline in every gods damned game since 1985. I'm lookin at you Pokemon. Or delivering 10% of what was promised on release(No Man's Sky).

But, every now and then, there comes comes along a game, usually from a developer no one has ever heard of, or one that hasn't made and RPG before ever, and you get instant classics:

Baldur's Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast.
Chrono Trigger.
Final Fantasy.
Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

Some of these aren't exactly RPGs, sure, but they fit the "Unexpected Instant Classic" criteria.

Baldur's Gate made the highly confusing AD&D 2.0 system understandable.

Fable revitalized the Third-Person Story Driven RPG genre, despite Peter's lies.

Chrono Trigger is the holy grail on JRPGs.

Final Fantasy singlehandedly pulled Square Enix from bankruptcy.

SWJK:JA has the best lightsaber combat of /any/ Star Wars game ever. Don't believe me? Go download it, play it, and then try playing the Luke Skywalker levels in the new Battlefront game. Battlefront 2017's lightsaber combat is 15 years behind Jedi Academy.

KotOR is responsible for the d20 Star Wars PnP system, regardless of how badly broken borderline unplayable it is now. They literally used D&D to build a d20 system for KotOR and KotOR2.

Cuphead brought the side-scrolling, platformer bullet hell genre responsible for Contra back into the mainstream.

This is all well and good, but you're thinking "Ok, but what about Umbral Soul? This is an Umbral Soul review, you fucking idiot, talk about Umbral Soul." And I'm getting to it. I needed to bring up big Triple A titles, as well as indie games to build at least a foundation of what makes a good game, and a good RPG specifically: Plot, Controls, good voice acting when voice acting is used, Characters, and Mechanics. So, how does Umbral Soul pan out when compared to other SNES style JRPGs? Well, lets run down the points here.

Point 1: Plot

Umbral Soul is not your typical RPG. The RPG plot formula can be boiled down to follow as such: You're the hero. Kill the bad guy(s). GO!

Umbral Soul turns that on it's head in a way that's not unfamiliar if you're acquainted with the Overlord series. In Umbral Soul, you play at Pandora, a Dark Mage bent on casting the world into Darkness and forever snuffing out the Light. Pandora is the Harbinger of the God of Darkness, Ragnarok. He's basically Satan, and the antithesis to the Goddess of Light, Lumielle.

Ok, that's all well and good, but why? Why does Pandora want to snuff out everything pure and beautiful and usher in a world of darkness and demons? Why does any of this matter? Why should we care..? Well... See, because of events that happened 200 years before the events of Umbral Soul, Dark Mages are despised. Seen as evil incarnate, and as bad, if not worse than, demons themselves. Because of this, Pandora gets bullied, shunned and ridiculed. She summons a Shadow Dragon hatchling to protect herself against two older boys, and because of that, the town council sets Pandora's house on fire, while Pandora is inside along with her mother(also a Dark Mage), and her father. Her father gets crushed, and her mother gives up on life and burns to death in the inferno. Really fucking dark, and we're not even out of the damn prologue yet. Pandora manages to escape, but the entire town decides to lynch her.

BTW, she's like... 8 at this time. Oh, and her name is Lianna at this point.
(It's also worth noting that not all Dark Mages are evil)

Her only friend in the town, a family friend on the council who denounces their actions gets cut down right in front of her as he tries to protect her. Her little heart breaks, and in a fit or grief induced rage, she rips a portal open to the Abyss and (unintentionally) summons Ragnarok back into the Mortal Realm.

THAT is why we should care. Because Lianna's mother and father were killed by paranoid, close minded, racist assholes, and her only other friend (that wasn't a monster she summoned to play with) was brutally cut open in front of her when he jumped in front of the blade about to claim her life.

On that day, Lianna died, and Pandora, Harbinger of Darkness was born.

Ok, so, Umbral Soul has a killer plot line, pun intended. It sets up the world in a playable prologue that takes about a half hour to complete, and it makes you feel sympathy for the "hero" of the story right off the bat, even with it's extremely cliched opening. (Video Game Protagonist's Parents Are Dead Cliche) Definite pass here.

Point 2: Controls.

Umbral Soul's controls are nothing to write home about, and actually suffer a bit in my opinion, but that's more a limitation of the RPG Maker VX Ace engine than anything, as far as I know. See, instead of using the WASD keys to move, you use the arrow keys. Spacebar is select, Escape is the pause menu/cancel button. Par for the course.

However, you can play Umbral Soul with a gamepad. And I.... don't recommend this at all. First, the D-Pad does nothing, controlling a SNES-style RPG with and analog stick is horrendous. Y, the bumpers and triggers on, say, and Xbox 360/PC controller like I have do NOTHING.... the only buttons you make use of are X (the confirm/action button.), B (cancel/menu button), Start (menu button) and Back (hotkey to the Quest Journal), and A, which you hold down to run.

Umbral Soul also loses points for not having a System/Options menu. There's no way to turn down the volume, or reconfig the controls. Again, the controls might be a VX Ace engine issue. But Gods help you if you fire up Umbral Soul and 100% volume with or without headphones, because you get blasted with an awesome rock and roll sounding title track loud enough to rupture what used to be your ear drums. Now they're just torn tissue.

So, all in all, controls are.... passable. VX Ace might be to blame for the fucked gamepad setting (Elvenpath has the same fucking issue) but there's no system/option menu. Barely makes the pass here, but, again, it could be the VX Ace engine at fault, so I'm hesitant to hold Umbral Soul, or WheelmanZero responsible for 100% of the flaws here. Except for the lack of an options menu. That's a sin in ANY game, Indie, Amateur, or Triple A Title.

Point 3: Voice Acting

There is no voice acting aside from stock sound effect played at certain times in cut scenes, or during attacks. Pandora cries "Succumb to the Darkness with every "Shadow Bolt" she casts. Damien yells "Dodge this!" with every "Dread Cannon" he fires. Yadda yadda SNES/PS1 JRPG shit. However, none of the characters use the same voice, so Pandora sounds different from Damien, sounds different from Azrielle, sounds different from Markus sounds different from Gryger. Amazing attention to detail here on WheelmanZero's part. Another Pass, although I would have like to have voice acting, it's not a necessity.

Point 3: Characters

Good well written characters can make a good RPG a truly great one. Bad, poorly written characters can make a RPG with great potential, a piss-poor one in execution. And trust me, as a D&D player, DM and a guy who's writing a fucking book, I can tell you, writing a unique character is easy. Writing 2 that play off each other is easy. Writing 5 characters with unique backstories, unique motivations, and unique personalities is fucking HARD. Writing various versions of scenes that play differently based on who is in your party adds another layer to the fuckery. Yet, WheelmanZero executes this perfectly. Or as close to perfectly as an amateur game developer can. And it SHOWS.

While Pandora and Damien both hate the world of Light for killing their parents, Damien's hate comes from a slightly different place.

Where Pandora's parents were burned alive, Damien's mother used her Dark String (basically puppet magic based on how Succubi ensnare men) to save a child from dying. Instead of thanking Damien's mother like a rational human being, when the child thanks her, the child's mother yells at her child not to speak to the evil monster. Despite her giving up her life-force to literally save the kid. (Ungrateful bitch) Damien's mother becomes ill, as she used too much of her life force to save the child, and Damien has to master his magic to ensnare a monster so his mother can bleed it dry and take it's life force so she can live.

In order to sustain her, he needs herbs from the apothecary while he masters his magic. The apothecary refuses to sell to him, and later claims he was ordered not to sell to him by the guards, but in the actual scene, the shopkeep is nasty; saying his mother deserves her fate for being a Dark Mage, despite, you know... literally saving a child's life... (Bastard)

Damien eventually masters his magic and sneaks a monster in for his mother to suck dry. All is well. His mother can live! Well, I think we've established this isn't that kind of game. He's too late, and by only hours. After working for months, scraping by and mastering his magic, toiling night and day to save his mother, she's dead when he arrives home with a cure for her.

He (rightly) blames the shopkeep, as well as the prejudice against Dark Mages for his mother's death, and that night he ambushes and kills the apothecary, who begs, in vain, for his life.

Azrielle is the King of the Demons, second in Demonkind to Ragnarok himself. He's actually a noble leader dealing with the constant struggle of living in the abyss and keeping his subjects safe. He does what he has to to keep his subjects safe. He wants to take over the human realm so that his subjects can live in peace, without Cerberusses, Nine-Tailed Foxes, and dragons hunting them down.
However, this weight on his shoulders is almost too much for Azrielle, and it causes him to suffer from "Martyr Syndrome" which is a common occurrence in video games and movies. He believes only he can save his people, and he doesn' have time, nor the patience to put up with anyone's shit. He treats his servants like shit, including Grelda, the maid who's in love with him.

Markus is a scholar, simply seeking knowledge. He's highly refined and this comes through in his speech. He simply seeks to understand Dark Magic and Dark Mages. His father was driven out by his mother and grandfather for the same thing: Seeking knowledge; refusing to remain blind and ignorant. Pandora used this, as well as the death of his mother (which she caused) to corrupt him from a simple scholar into and eager, if somewhat hesitant, disciple of Ragnarok.

Gryger is a warrior. There's not much nuance to him. He's brash, and disrespectful. He loves fighting, and believes the strong should rule, while the weak serve, or die. Not much to say about him, he's really the only generic, nearly lack-luster character in the entire game. However, how his dialogue is written makes up for this. He's funny. He hits on Pandora, and calls Ragnarok a "candle flame" among other disrespectful names. While his paradigm is generic, his personality makes up for it.

Taking this all into consideration, Umbral Soul definitely passes for characters. From Ragnarok to Gryger, each (main) character is unique, fleshed out, and feels like their own person. Definite pass here.

Point 5: Mechanics

Mechanics can make or break an RPG just as easily as bad characters, or an overly-generic, rehash of a rehash of a rehashed plot. Pandora is a spellcaster, as well as Damian and Markus. So there's not much variety in game play right? 3/5 characters are Mage Class after all. Only Azrielle and Gryger, as far as main characters go, have any significant Melee prowess. Gryger being all Melee, and Azrielle being a Melee/Spellcaster hybrid.

However, just as everything else, Umbral Soul shines here with it's Dark Light.

While Pandora, Markus, and Damien are all Dark Mages, their skill sets vary greatly. Pandora can summon monsters, heal, boost allies' ATK and MAT, cast mana regen, and launch bolts of Darkness at her foes. She's essentially an Evil Cleric/Druid hybrid.

Damien, using his Dark String Magic can hinder foes, turn them against each other, or even control an ally to allow them to attack twice in one round. This is great for setting up combos with Markus, Gryger, or Lanith, or sapping the enemies' ATK, MAT, and MDEF with Azrielle.

Markus is a typical Mage. Using the elements (specifically Lightning and Wind) to blast his enemies apart. He also has abilities that lower foes' Lightning resistance. This is especially potent if Chimera/Abomination is summoned, and even more so when paired with Damien's Dark Strings magic.

Azrielle, being a demon, can blast enemies with Fire or Darkness, sap their ATK, MAT, and MDEF as well as boost his own ATK and MAT, and completely restore his mana for a small cost of health.

Gryger is a Melee only character. Ever play D&D? Know what a Barbarian is? That's Gryger. He wades into battle with a giant maul, goes into a homicidal Berserk(er rage), and beats everything to a bloody pulp. He also has the ability to increase his DEF and MDEF as well as lower the enemies' DEF.

Mechanically speaking, Umbral Soul gets yet another pass. 5/5 passes.

My Final Thoughts.

Umbral Soul is a masterpiece. Is there as much content as Chrono Trigger or KotOR? No. And the game actually feels too short to me. But, it's the quality of that content, rather than the quantity that makes Umbral Soul an instant classic. I fully believe that Umbral Soul holds it's own with big Triple A titles like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 1-5.

Is it a bit short for what it's trying to sell? Yeah.

Is it a bane on my fucking sanity how many "their"s and spelled "thier"? (All of them) Hell yes.

But do these minor details overshadow what is a carefully crafted love letter to the old school SNES JRPGs?

Absolutely fucking not. Umbral Soul is, all things considered, a masterpiece of a game, and I personally can't wait for it's sequel: Luminous Souls.

5/5 Stars.

If you like JRPGs, play this game.

If you like being the villain and crushing the world under your heel, play this game.

If you prefer to be the hero, then die like the rest of the selfish, ignorant blind "Heroes" that get slaughtered in the course of Pandora's journey.


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Good job man, this was finally the review that killed me. My poor heart couldn't take any more joy. I know this wasn't your intention, so I won't hold it against you. In fact, I'd like to leave you my entire collection of vintage He-Man vhs tapes.

I've said this on all of the other reviews, and I'm going to keep saying it as long as it keeps being true; I am overjoyed that you enjoyed the game to this extent. The world is so full of doom, gloom and negativity that being able to bring a little fun into people's lives with something you made is a wonderful feeling. Thank you not only for the review, but for that amazing wiki you made. I'm going to screenshot every last page of that puppy!

P.S. I'll try looking into that options menu you mentioned.
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