Several gazillion random encounters at a time
Cthulhu Saves the World is a turn-based RPG clearly in love with the old school. It tells a tale of public domain monster of insanity, Cthulhu, arising from his underwater lair only to be stripped of his evil powers. To regain them, Cthulhu learns he must embark upon a quest to become a hero. Along the way, he is joined by several other characters who fill out the standard mage, fighter, and cleric classes and they travel the land committing noble-ish deeds such as preventing an alien invasion, curing a plague-ridden town, and helping some zombies regain their free will.
Gameplay will be familiar to anyone acquainted with NES and/or SNES RPGs: you wander around dungeons being forced into random fisticuffs until you reach a boss. Kill said boss, return to world map, visit village for supplies, and then off to the next dungeon to murder more things.
Cthulhu does do some interesting things to streamline its design. HP (health points, not Lovecraft) become solely an in-battle worry as characters are completely healed following each battle’s end. Magic is the bigger concern. Since you regenerate more MP (magic points) based on how quickly you vanquish foes, the options to max out your MP are infrequent.
Aside from health-restoring potions you can find in treasure chests, items are non-existent, making shops purely for weapons and armor. Battle strategy is geared around a combo system that tallies consecutive hits and is reset by specific attacks, as well as spells that turn enemies insane. The latter is a poorly explained mechanic. I played almost the entire game, and progressed fine, without understanding it, but, basically, monsters turned insane take more damage, but also inflict more damage the longer the battle continues.
Accessibility is increased for us non-hardcore RPG players thanks to a save any time (except during battle) feature and the option to teleport instantly to previously visited towns. Character management is simple too: customization is never more complex than choosing who you want in your party and what weapons and armor you want them to have.
Another feature that, at face value, seems forward thinking is the random encounter counter. Each area has its own number of random encounters, and, once this counter reaches zero, you’re free to roam undisturbed. In concept, this means you’ll level up as much as you need to progress without needless filler battles. However, I still fought numerous battles wherein I just hammered “attack” until everything died. Also, the level design tends toward circuitousness with many dead-ends, making it feel like you’re being suckered into more fights just because you keep going the wrong way. It places the game in a strange limbo. It’s partially designed to appeal to more casual players, yet it’s sometimes adamant about sticking to an irritating, archaic design.
Control mimics a Nintendo controller with a persistent D-pad and A and B button overlay. This works perfectly in battle, but the D-pad behaves less reliably (especially if you have the “run” option toggled) when traversing maps. Graphically, Cthulhu is unsurprisingly retro with simplistic environmental graphics, comic-book-frame cutscenes, and static enemy avatars (though every monster has an alternate, insane design, which is a nice touch). The nostalgic in me finds the style somewhat charming, but my more rational, critical self finds the graphics ultimately basic and even occasionally drab. Furthermore, it can be unclear whether environmental objects are foreground or background and, since areas are crafted with several repeated tiles, they look the same throughout, resulting in more getting lost. The music is midi-based epic (as epic as midi gets), adventure-sounding stuff—serviceable, but largely forgettable. Sound effects are basic, tinny bangs, slashes, and zaps.
For a game priced at $1.99, Cthulhu has a staggering amount of content. The main quest (playable on four difficulties) is already substantial, but there are also three other modes that heavily alter aspects of the fighting system, plus the Cthulhu’s Angels mode, which follows a completely different storyline.
Of course, this assumes you’re fascinated with the game’s battles and amused enough by the original storyline to want to work through an alternative one. However, considering the inventive concept of playing as a bad guy trying to become good just to be bad again, the game doesn’t really care about its plot. Quests are thrown at you with little fanfare and there are numerous fourth-wall breaking acknowledgments of their ridiculousness as the game ticks off geek-fodder checkboxes (ninjas, aliens, zombies, etc.). Since the story feels inconsequential, the battles become the main attraction and, though I found boss fights consistently tense and fun, I was tired of maze-like dungeons and random encounters before the game was even halfway through.
For every step toward progressiveness Cthulhu takes, it takes another back toward adhering to the old school, culminating in an RPG with some interesting design choices, but hardly anything genre shattering. Everything about it—from gameplay to graphics to sound—is steeped in nostalgia. This is appealing to an extent, but I only allow for so much tickling of my retro bone. If getting acquainted with an RPG’s fight mechanics is all you require, Cthulhu has a solid enough system in place and an insane amount of ways to play around with it. But if you’re looking for something more from your gaming experience, once you get past the quirkiness and nostalgia factors, you’ll find Cthulhu Saves the World to be pretty hollow.