Escaping from your nearest fairytale to release on the PS4 and Switch is The Cruel King and the Great Hero, a side-scrolling RPG with hand-drawn picturesque visuals and a charming narration that reads to you like a bedtime story.
Judging this book by its cover, you’d expect to find this title in the bestseller section, with a story confident enough in itself to overtly hint at its end from the very beginning and with its cinematic feature visuals. That is until the game’s RPG elements overcrowd the shelves with filler gameplay, taking away from the world-building and potentially enjoyable action.
You join the story of a young girl named Yuu, who dreams of becoming a hero just like her late father. Her guardian, the Dragon King, wanting desperately to do whatever he can for the girl, decides to train her to defeat the Demon King, humanity’s mortal enemy and who wreaked chaos upon the land originally until Yuu’s father put an end to it.
The pair’s strong bond is put to the test in a both heartwarming and sad story with tension that builds right up to the moment of its reveals. Both an emotive fairytale soundtrack (think Undertale) and the storybook chapters that progress over a period of days give the game a great platform to work from – or at least, it should.
There is so much potential here for a bustling world of fascinating characters and interactivity with its brilliantly expressive hand-drawn designs, but the main areas are barren horizontal NPC ‘hubs’ where everyone is spread out all over the place. The few interesting characters that do exist are given changing conversation based on the point in the story – as well as being included in the side quests – but they can’t justify the distance it takes to travel between them. It would have been far better to include some verticality and density in the town’s features, where you could perhaps visit multiple characters in one area, but it’s design choice they stick with throughout.
You could argue that the developers have gone for a ‘simple is best’ approach here, but it barely feels like it’s scratching the surface in some cases. For example, with the beautiful backgrounds and calm fairytale audio tracks, you’d expect that exploring this title would be fun, but the vast majority of the game is just random encounter ‘dungeons’ disguised as routes from each of the main ‘areas’ and it is in these sections that the game coughs and sputters to an unceremonious stop.
While easy on the eyes, the highly repetitive backgrounds and empty dungeons mean you are often just holding the analog stick in one direction without variation, like a very slow endless runner waiting for the next inevitable random encounter. Furthermore, due to a complete lack of quest indicators, you’ll have no idea of your current location or where you are headed forcing you to constantly check the game’s highly unintuitive map after every battle, which I would always regret as everything would be an eye-rollingly long distance away.
Between this and the high random encounter rate for the easy turn-based battles, I caught myself dozing off in front of the TV more than a few times. Simply put, developer Nippon Ichi Software found the boring RPG archetype and implemented it, as the overextended running time exposes its lack of depth and makes the game a slog to play.
The RPG battle system and mechanics don’t add a great deal more to the mix either – at least for adults familiar with the genre – as items lack basic details, customization of equipment is as generic as it comes, and fights can often be brute-forced, with only one battle that you really need to prepare for – the very last one. This essentially means the game’s grind is not in trying to level up your characters to defeat challenging enemies but is just making it from A to B without giving up in boredom.
If you don’t mind the grind, however, the story and animation are worth it, assuming of course that you also like innocent bedtime stories that your parents would read to you when you were younger.
Some of my favorite moments are small details in the animation, like Yuu thinking that she is setting her sword alight when she raises her sword in the air during a battle, but it’s actually the nearby dragon, breathing fire on it before she strikes. When the dragon isn’t nearby, however, a question mark pops up above Yuu’s head as the flames fail to appear. Even the idle animation of enemies is detailed enough to sit and enjoy – it’s just a shame this level of detail was absent elsewhere.
Finally, while the narration is excellently read in Japanese, the English subtitles sometimes mistranslate certain nuances in important sections of the story, which won’t cause any confusion, per se, but are unnecessary mistakes.
The Cruel King and the Great Hero‘s storybook narrative and great designs are a classic that arguably never should have left the page. With too many shallow gameplay and world elements, it’s hard to feel invested in anything but the main story cutscenes, but that said, as the game is aimed at a far younger age group, if you are in the market for an RPG for kids, you could do far worse.