Need to know
What is it? A Shakespearean RPG starring magical girls.
Expect to pay $10
Release date November 10, 2022
Developer Zeboyd Digital Entertainment LLC
Publisher Zeboyd Digital Entertainment LLC
Reviewed on i7-10750H, RTX 3070, 16GB RAM
Link Official site (opens in new tab)
Romeo—yes, that Romeo—is caught in the thorny tendrils of a giant nightmare plant monster and only the Stratford-Upon-Avon High Drama Society, a small group of schoolgirls from another dimension who love putting on Shakespeare plays and also have secret magical powers, can save him.
How did we get to this point, and will the beginnings of this JRPG-styled problem be properly explained later? The answers to those questions are “It doesn’t matter” and “Not really”. This Way Madness Lies, the latest RPG from the creators of Cosmic Star Heroine and Cthulhu Saves the World, has no interest in getting bogged down by backstories or lengthy explanations—all it wants is for anyone playing to have a lot of fun as quickly and as often as possible.
This enjoyment-above-all attitude begins on the difficulty select screen. The default setting is Easy, described non-judgmentally as “For those who love story”. The game makes it very clear that the challenge can be adjusted at any time to suit my mood and without penalty. Not only does this feel incredibly welcoming but it also instantly vaporises many of the usual issues RPG players face at one point or another: If crushing everything that crosses my path feels bland and boring, then why not up the challenge and make things more interesting? If I’m short on patience and just want to grab a distant chest with the minimal amount of fuss, why wouldn’t I turn the difficulty down for a minute or two? For the purposes of this review I spent most of my time on Moderate and the description felt accurate enough—the game put up enough of a fight to keep me on my toes, but so long as I paid attention and used the party’s skills well I was probably going to win.
Those skills are used in a battle system that uses traditional turn-based JRPG scuffles as a basic foundation and then adds its own unique twists on top. There’s a strong focus on careful management of limited (but infinitely replenishable) resources as well as setting up complementary techniques and powerful status effects for maximum damage. Each party member has an ever-expanding pool of unique abilities for me to assign to one of seven battle slots, and as everything’s explained using concise descriptions and clear menus it’s easy to make informed decisions and create strategic synergy. These features give the combat tactical depth and texture without making it feel like I was doing maths homework decorated with monsters, and I enjoyed having to think my way through each fight rather than blindly mash a (nonexistent) Attack All button.
The visual inspiration for these battles comes from the mid-fight cutscenes used in Sega’s classic Shining Force series of tactical RPGs. Not only is this a great style that more games should definitely pilfer, but it’s also something of a relief to see a modern pixel art game use something other than the already very well mined Nintendo/Squaresoft classics as a reference. Outside of these scenes—and I mean this as a compliment—the game doesn’t feel slavishly retro or nostalgic, it’s ‘just’ a good looking RPG created with a particular sort of style in mind.
It’s a style that helps the game in an unexpected way: As a 2D game whose most demanding special effects are a beautifully animated swishy stage curtain and some transparent spells in battle there’s simply nothing in here that could tax any vaguely modern machine, and that means This Way Madness Lies is a nice stable game that’ll run well and look good on pretty much anything with next to no effort and only minimal settings to fret over before diving in.
Of course even in a pixelled game starring magical girls nothing’s quite as old-fashioned as the Shakespearean theme running through the game. The overarching storyline as well as a steady stream of minor details clearly demonstrate a real appreciation of the original texts that go far beyond quick skim-reads of someone else’s online notes—and there’s a healthy dose of unvarnished honesty in the way they’re handled too. Some of Shakespeare’s work just isn’t the bard at his best, and some aspects of certain stories should frankly stay in the 17th Century. This Way Madness Lies knows this and its bard-loving cast don’t waste a second pretending otherwise; regularly calling out specific examples of harmful attitudes, misogynistic plotlines, or bad plot twists in lesser works for what they are.
To help understand ye olde dyaloggue that peppers the text, ‘translations’ into Zeboyd-English can be easily accessed at any time, although the rewritten lines are pretty hit and miss. There’s nothing wrong with trying to bring The Bard up to date, and plenty of the things said in his plays are funny by design, but it was frustrating when I needed a second opinion on a particularly bard-y phrase only to discover the game had decided to go into full ironic-comedy mode instead of actually making an honest attempt to modernise the tone and meaning of the original text.
It’s a rare misfire that only stands out so much because most of the time the game’s humour does hit its mark, and the warm and likeable cast did make me laugh out loud in more than a few places. I was happy to spend time with them even when they were doing less adventurous things, and the brisk episodic nature of their adventure made it easy to promise myself “just one more thing” for hours at a time, especially as the game allows its players to save as often as they like.
It may have only taken me around eight leisurely hours to reach the ending, but I honestly enjoyed them all. Zeboyd just knows in its bones how to make an interesting RPG, even when it’s busy throwing so many supposedly untouchable genre standards out the window and inventing something new and very different to replace them.