Clever Design in Cthulu Saves the World

This is a fun little Xbox/PC/soon iOS game in the old Dragon Warrior style.  It’s cheap ($1-3, depending on platform), well made, and doesn’t overstay its welcome.  The developer is also making the upcoming Penny Arcade sequel, which looks great!  There are some other reviews of the game out there, so I want to focus on some particular game mechanics that I liked.

Improving the Loop

The dungeon-crawling gameplay loop of Dragon Warrior-style games is:

  • Reach a new dungeon and begin to explore it
  • Get in a random battle
  • Complete the battle
  • Heal up
  • (Repeat until you either return to town to recover or complete the dungeon)

Around this is the larger loop of RPG progression:

  • Fight a bunch of monsters
  • Level up or find new weapons and armor
  • Equip or enable an upgrade
  • Change your strategy to take into account the new powers (or new monsters)
  • (Repeat)

Cthulu Saves the World looks to keep the gameplay similar to older games, so improvements to the game must come from improvements to these gameplay loops.

Dungeon Crawling

While in a dungeon, your main resource is health and mana.  Health drops fast and is refilled by mana and potions.  Mana is a longer-term resource: once you run out of mana, it’s about time to head back to town.

Cthulu tweaks a key piece of this loop.  After each fight, the party is completely healed and a small amount of mana is restored.  It saves trips to the menu after every battle.  You spend more time fighting and exploring.  The change goes deeper than that, though.

Monsters in Cthulu are fiercer than normal, strong enough to take out party members faster than you’d expect.  Each round, monsters get 10% stronger.  So round 2 is 110% and round 10 is 190%.  Long battles get tense as monsters bash your party as fast as you can heal up.  You need to play smart because battles can’t go on and on.

In other RPGs, individual battles need to be easier to avoid depleting the party too quickly.  The average battle is somewhat easy, even dull.  If you are strong enough, strategy is unnecessary.  Cthulu subverts this lull by making individual battles more interesting and challenging.

Like the healing change, this helps the whole loop be more fun.

Leveling Up

There are many modern ways to make level progression fun.  Diablo 3, Mass Effect, and Witcher 2 all have great ideas.  They aren’t very retro, though.  They’re quite menu heavy and complicated, which is a poor fit for the 16-bit aesthetic.  Cthulu has a simpler approach.

When a character levels up, the player is presented with a choice between two options.  These options might be purely stat based:

  • Option A: +40 Strength
  • Option B: +30 Max HP, +20 Max MP

You might chose between two abilities:

  • Option A: Fireball (Deal 61 damage to one group)
  • Option B: Lightning Bolt (Deal 105 damage to one enemy)

You can shape your characters.  Take a lot of Strength to make your basic attack stronger.  Improve durability and survive longer in dungeons.  Chose to improve your single target spells, or your slowing spells, or your spells that spread damage across the whole enemy group.  Each character can be specialized for a particular role or you can spread abilities across multiple characters.

Sometimes you have a choice between improving several secondary stats or one especially desirable stat.  The game designer has supplied several many of these temping choices.  Here is an example of my favorite sort of choice:

  • Option A: +30 Magic
  • Option B: Lightning Bolt 3 (Increase damage dealt by lightning bolt by 80%)

This is great.  You chose between making all of your spells by a small amount or one specific spell by a TON.  You don’t need 20 strong spells; each character only needs maybe 5 to 10.  So you craft your characters to have the specific spells you want.  You’ll have to let some of the specific upgrades pass so you can take the basic upgrades you’ll need to keep up.

The system is simple (a quick choice every 10 battles) but gives satisfying customization (many different possible builds).  It feels like a feature that could be in an old RPG, but it’s a bit more clever than what you’d see in those games.

Summary

Cthulu makes small tweaks to the Dragon Warrior formula but uses them well:

  • Characters heal between fights, reducing tedium and allowing for tougher fights
  • Monsters get steadily stronger each round, requiring smart play
  • Level ups use a simple system of choices to create good customization

As I mentioned in the introduction, Cthulu Saves the World is a good value and isn’t too long.  I recommend it!