I'd originally intended to get this posted for Valentines Day, as the first in what I hope will be a series of reviews of indie games that deal with sex, sexuality and romance in ways that are interesting from both a narrative and a gameplay perspective. I wasn't able to get it written in time, so here it is.
If you just look at a few screenshots, Saint Bomber's Embric of Wulfhammer's Castle looks like a garden variety RPG-Maker release, a fantasy JRPG with a metafictional sense of humor. Nothing could be further from the truth about this almost-entirely relationship-driven game. Even if it were conventional otherwise, the protagonist of the game, the Dutchess Elstwhere, is the most interesting protagonist I've ever encountered in a RPG Maker game, and one of the most compelling I've played in any game.
The other characters are similarly well-developed, and the game turns not on combat (which is all-but absent) but on your interactions with the other characters. This makes Embric of Wulfhammer's Castle more like a “visual novel” (in the Japanese style) than a RPG, but with a vastly greater sense of exploration and control than visual novels allow. Where you go and who you talk to triggers events (often, especially early in the game, event “cascades” that are a little overwhelming), so much of gameplay consists of which of your leads to follow up next in unraveling the mysteries of the Marque of Wulfhammer.
Also, though this game starts with the arrangement of a marriage, it is actually a yuri (“girls love” or lesbian) story, in which half of the mystery has to do with the aforementioned Duchess discovering who she is, after acquiring the freedom to “be” anything. It's difficult to talk about this game without spoiling elements of the plot, so this review continues after the jump, with a few spoilers, but those just from the first 5 or 10 minutes of play.
I mentioned that there is little combat in this game. There is good reason for that – your character, Duchess Elstwhere, is explicitly not one of the adventurers in this story -– she “should” be a NPC, and an NPC “reward” at that (at least at the story's beginning). The adventurers in this game, the “Awesome Fellowship” have overthrown an evil king, Elstwhere's uncle Greyghast, and the Duchess is, at the start of the game, sent off to marry Embric of Wulfhammer, the adventurer's leader, thus literally wedding the old aristocracy to the new heroes of the realm.
That itself is interesting -– fantasy games almost never deal with the reality of political marriage in the medieval setting. But the twist (one of many in this game) comes in, when she arrives, Lord Embric is missing, presumably off adventuring on his own as he apparently has a habit of doing. Dutchess Elstwhere is left to her own devices as she tries to ingratiate herself with Embric's subjects, who fear “Greyghast's heir,” and Embric's adventuring buddies, who look at her with suspicion. Complicating matters further, she soon discovers that there is a mutual attraction between herself and some of Wulfhammer's female denizens, placing her duty and her heart into conflict in a “queer” twist on a classic theme.
The characterization isn't flawless: in a concession to player choice, the Dutchess's sexual orientation occasionally seems “up for grabs,” and early in the game she is often acted-upon rather than active, though this sets the stage for her becoming more in control of her own life later. Despite this, she ranks in my mind as one of the great queer protagonists of new media, along with Megan Rose Gedris's Fiona Thompson and Alexandra Erin's Mackenzie Blaze (nota bene: Erin's webfiction is sex-positive but also sexually explict and contains BDSM content).
There is sex in this game, but it isn't explicit. This isn't an h-game, and while there are titillating moments (depending on what one finds to be titillating), there are more moments that are either sweet or heart-wrenching. Despite not being sexually explicit, it is romance, desire, and, yes, sex that drive both plot and gameplay in Embric of Wulfhammer's Castle, taking the place that combat and conquest have in most games.
The game's event system means that who you talk to and where you go in which order are important. After an initial deluge of events in which every conversation seems to offer an event to follow up on, the game settles into a steady set of decisions as to where to go and/or who to talk to next. The order of events matters somewhat in terms of what becomes possible in the game, and greatly in terms of the player's experience of the game. The argument that how one plays a game shapes its story seems to be something Saint Bomber has taken to heart.
The game also has a bevvy of endings, of which I have seen... all but one (I think). Wisely, the game allows you to keep playing after reaching any particular ending, by having the Dutchess wake up having “dreamt” that ending. This is especially valuable as not all of the endings are happy, and one that I encountered early in play introduces a malign paradigm shift that I honestly found distressing. As gameplay progresses, one can unlock extended and revised versions of some of the previous endings, allowing one to “fix” the narrative.
Elements in many of the endings are not merely incompatible (e.g., you can't have it both ways), but “incompossible,” meaning that they depend on differences in the nature of the game world and backstory -– you might say they take place in parallel worlds. This allows a player to “choose” the ending he or she likes best and call it canon, though anyone who stops short of a complete play-through to the game's final ending will miss the culmination of a hidden plot structure laced throughout the entire game.
The one frustrating element in the game is that, as one approaches the end of the game, the event triggers have mostly been exhausted, and one can spend hours trying to unlock one new bit of conversation. There is a gentle in-game hint system (the Dutchess's diary), but it isn't up to the task. This flaw is accentuated by the way that the game (intentionally) doesn't ever completely unlock the “world.” There are interesting-looking places on the map that you will never get to explore –- this makes the world feel more real, but can leave one trying to figure out how to do the impossible.
Highly unconventional gameplay hiding behind a conventional facade, an occasional lack of polish to the system, and the game's queer themes make it a labor of love. I can't image what a pitch meeting with a publisher would be like for this title –- though I think there might be more of an audience for this sort of game than the conventional wisdom would dictate. As with the continued survival of Paradox Games, the very existence of Embric of Wulfhammer's Castle shows that new media can be successful though diversity and originality, capable of resisting monopolistic capture.
Saint Bomber has just announced that a sequel is in the works, and a version of the game with more original art may be forthcoming.