Sated's "Sunken Spire" Review

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This is a review for Sunken Spire. It's a JRPG that was the featured game over at RMN in August.

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Sunken Spire is a light-hearted RPG where you start out as a pair of royal investigators traipsing around an abandoned laboratory. They're attempting to find out what the laboratories were being used for before their inhabitants seemingly high-tailed it, but they don't come across a great deal of answers. What they do come across is a slime, as in the common enemy trope, which seems to have been important to the research being performed. They decide to take the slime with them, ostensibly because they want to make sure it isn't dangerous, but it quickly becomes more like a pet. Their actions also somehow cause the titular spire to appear, seemingly out of nowhere, close to a nearby town. The two investigators, along with their "pet" slime, head to the spire to try to find out what its link to the laboratory is; as well as to attempt the rescue of the townspeople whose curiosity got the better of them!


I'll take one pet slime too, please!

From a storyline point-of-view, the two characters that you start with are essentially the only playable characters that matter. One of these characters is Elsa, who is a bratty, rash, violence-loving general who seems incredibly averse to anything that remotely sounds like a reference to her femininity (or lack thereof). The other character is Alma, who is the exact opposite; a serious, logic-loving engineer who has no problem mocking the mannerisms of her partner. These two characters generally stick very well to the archetypes they're trying to represent and, in keeping with the light-hearted nature of the game, the interactions between them are lively and vivacious.

I suppose you could say that their "pet" slime, the third playable character that you encounter, is also relevant from a dialogue point-of-view, but they embrace an ultra-naive archetype that means they don't really have anything important to say and are mostly there to make comedic interjections. I thought that these scenes usually came at the correct times and, outside of a couple of moments, that they never became too silly or too slapstick. Overall, both the characters and their dialogue fits the tone that the developers were clearly aiming for.

Even the non-playable characters are written in a humorous manner, especially the two main antagonists. Much like the two main protagonists, most of the antagonist's humour stems from the fact that they possess diametrically opposed personalities. It would be easy to believe that their scenes dilute the similar ones between the protagonists, but that isn't the case. Although these sequences are similar in nature, the devil is in the detail and the developers have done a good job of making sure they differentiate the two sets of sequences from one another just enough that they don't end up treading on each other's toes.


No, really. I'll take one pet slime too, please!

Unfortunately, although the characters are portrayed in an entertaining manner and the dialogue between them is usually amusing, the storyline simply doesn't match up. There was little about the story that really jumped out at me as being significant or unique, because the storyline basically amounts to "thing there, go get!". Although there's nothing really wrong with that in a videogame, and there are certainly plenty of good games that do the very same thing, I think that the depth gifted to the characters caused me to expect a little bit more from this title as far as story development goes.

Nor did the setting interest me all that much, and this is despite the fact that the game definitely tries to get you to invest in both the locales and the lore of the world. To be fair to the developers, I've read that this game is set in the same universe as a bunch of other games (the so-called "Arum Universe"), but I've never played any of those games. This means that there's a chance my lack of investment in the setting is because there are things going on or references being made that are too subtle for someone playing in this universe for the first time. There's obviously no way for me to know whether this is the case, but I'm self-aware enough to know that this is a possible reason why I wasn't really feeling the storyline and the setting.


"person there, go get!"

What I was feeling is the way that the characters aren't just differentiated from one another through their mannerisms; they're also differentiated from one another through their core gameplay mechanics. Each of the three protagonists has a completely different skill system to the others, which applies to both the methods they use to learn new skills and the way those skills are paid for once you get into a battle. This is great because it adds a lot of variety to the game, even if each of the skill systems are fairly simple when taken alone.

For example, the "research" system that Alma uses is a fairly standard skill system on the face of it; you choose a type of research that you want to her to work on and EXP will be added to that research every time you win a battle. The great thing is that research can do lots of things, from allowing Alma to create equippable items that teach her new skills, to building an autonomous ally that can help you during fights. On the other hand, the "runes" system that Elsa uses allows her to collect four different types of rune based on the skills that she uses in battle. These runes are then used to buy new skills and to craft new items. Notably, this is the only way to obtain Elsa's best defensive equipment, something that the game surprisingly makes you aware of at the very start of the game. One of the more interesting things about this system from a gameplay point of view is that it almost forces you into using skills that you maybe didn't want to use so that you can gather runes faster than you otherwise would do. This means that the game gives you something to aim for other than getting through each random encounter as quickly as possible.

Because the skill systems are so well put together, it's a shame that that the normal battles are incredibly trivial. There are plenty of interesting systems in place that mean the game would have so much depth to it if the enemies were more threatening than they currently are, but this game is ultimately a cakewalk from a combat perspective. There's absolutely no challenge whatsoever to any of the random encounters you'll encounter throughout the titular spire, and even boss enemies will rarely do anything other than scratch your armour. This is made even worse by the predictability of some of the enemies that you'll encounter; there's normally an argument to be made that enemies being somewhat predictable is good because it allows you to make informed, strategic choices, but this argument doesn't work when the enemies you encounter don't pose any threat to you!


I didn't heal once in this boss battle, so this represents all of the damage that one of the bosses did to me throughout the whole of their lifespan. Pitiable.

Another annoying thing about the battles is that there isn't any real indication as to the current status of the enemies. As far as I could tell, there was no way of knowing what status-effects were currently applied to any of the enemies that I fought. I didn't even see a single "miss" come up when I used a status-effect, which meant that I had no way of knowing whether or not my skills were even working. The existence of enemies that use "Reflect" makes this especially annoying because how the fuck is the player supposed to know when an enemy is capable of having spells cast at them again if you don't let the player see that enemy's status-effects? Finally, it's really jarring not to see damage indicators when enemies are poisoned; it makes poisoning enemies very unsatisfying if I don't know how much damage the poison is doing and whether or not it's still in effect. All of these things are pretty big oversights in my opinion, and they would be a massive problem if the enemies were even remotely challenging.

Speaking of status-effects, one thing that's nice about the enemies is that they're certainly not afraid to use them! The way that status-effects stack is also interesting because healing items are normally capable of healing several "stacks" of a given status-effect at once. This means that you might not always be getting the most out of your healing items if you use them immediately, which adds a little bit of extra thought to how you should approach healing your characters. Another interesting thing is the way that being stunned grants a few turns of stun resistance, which is a novel solution to the problem of stun-locks being easily one of the most annoying (or overpowered!) things that can be present in an RPG. So not everything about the battle system is bad, but this does come with the proviso that the enemies being pathetic overrules everything that the battle system does well.


I really can't stress just how incorrect this line of dialogue is.

The out-of-battle gameplay is varied well, consisting of a decent mix of both puzzles and exploration. On the exploration side of things, most of the maps are laid out in an intricate manner that makes them non-trivial to traverse, with full examination of each area being encouraged by there being plenty of treasure to find and lots of townspeople to rescue. On the puzzle side of things, there are definitely some straight-up puzzles that need to be solved before you can progress through certain areas of the spire and, although none of them are particularly difficult, they're usually entertaining. My favourite was a puzzle involving a band of skeletons, who want you to work out how their song should be played based on riddle-like clues. There are also a lot of puzzle-esque gimmicks, such damage tiles that move around or turn on-and-off so that your full attention is required if you're going to dodge them, and ice-sliding puzzles that need to be solved if you're going to get to the other side of a given room. These factors mean that you're usually required to pay attention whilst wandering around the maps, and that you're not just walking from battle-to-battle as you explore the spire.

I must admit that it did occasionally feel like the developer ran out of ideas and this led to some areas falling below the standard that the others had set, but this didn't happen all that often. An honourable mention goes to the forest sections that appear before you reach the spire itself, because they struck me as being very well made. A dishonourable mention goes to the option to turn off dashing because why would I ever need to do that!?


Everyone likes ice-sliding puzzles, right?

Concerning exploration, I liked the way that "hint arrows" were used to make hidden treasure and useful objects apparent to the player. The game will display an arrow over anything that can be interacted with in the environment but, instead of having useful items shown up at all times, the arrows only show up once you get close to the object in question. This isn't exactly a unique system but, because of how the maps in this game are laid out, this system's use ensures that people explore the maps thoroughly in order to find those arrows.


Imagine having to search all those bookcases one-by-one to find the hidden switch!

I didn't really notice anything particularly special about the music, so I guess the most I can say is that it wasn't annoying? What I will say about the aesthetics is that this is an incredibly charming game from a graphical point-of-view. The character sprites are really well-drawn, and I also really liked the character portraits. Most of the mapping is spot-on as far as the aesthetics go, and even the weaker maps are only average at worst.

The only thing that I would criticise about the graphics are the in-battle character sprites. They come across as very strange, but not because they're badly made in-and-of themselves. The reason they come across as strange is because the in-battle backgrounds are made using the same tilesets as the area maps, which makes the difference between the in-battle and out-of-battle character sprites very stark. I would've preferred if the battle backgrounds were made in a style more befitting of the in-battle character sprites, or if the out-of-battle character sprites were also used in-battle, because the way it is at the moment is quite jarring and comes across as incredibly sloppy.


Out-of-battle those trees are twice as high as my characters, but in battle they're the same height?

This game has a lot of good things going for it. Exploration is well-worked, the graphics are cute, the characters are entertaining and the skill-systems are interesting. Unfortunately, although I can overlook the storyline being somewhat shallow, I can't overlook how mind-numbingly boring the battles are. They really do make this game a right chore to slog through! 5/10.
My amateur game-development blog is over at this address: http://sorelosersgaming.blogspot.com
Information on my personal game development projects can be found here!
A list of games that I've reviewed can be found here!

My Twitter is here: @Sated86

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Looks interesting. :o