The Cruel King and the Great Hero
So Begins An Epic Tale Of A Child And Her Dragon
Since the 90s, Nippon Ichi Software has been a champion of creative JRPGs with its own unique flair. Looking at a glimpse of their expansive catalog in NIS Classics Vol 1, NIS has released one of their recent adventures, The Cruel King and the Great Hero. The same staff who worked on Cruel King had previously worked on 2018's The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince. Outside of the similar title names, other similarities include its art style and light-hearted storytelling. Both are separate adventures, however, much like two different storybooks of the same series.
I've been throwing the word 'storybook' a lot and it's not just because of the Storybook Edition. The developers knew the type of aesthetic they were going for, even with its packaging. In the limited edition version of The Cruel King and the Great Hero, a digital soundtrack, a physical art book, and a plush doll featuring the main character are included. The artbook alone is one of the most impressive pieces of physical media I've felt. The hard-covered artbook is textured and made to feel like a young children's book. Flipping through the pages of concept art and developer's notes was also a nice touch. While NIS America knocked it out of the park with its initial presentation, how does the actual game fare?
Good Hero, m.A.A.d King
The art presentation from the packaging doesn't let up once the game begins, in fact, it serves as nothing less than a prelude. Immediately, the soft piano music and the game's trademark artstyle comes front and center. Cutscenes are read in the style of a mother reading their child a bedtime story thanks to the female narrator's voice. While I'm not fluent in Japanese, it's cute to hear the inflection changes depending on who is speaking. The sound effects are also giving otomonopea sounds, which further amplifies this.
The story thus far centers around a young girl named Yuu whose deceased father was known as a famous hero. A dragon king has vowed to protect Yuu while she trains herself to be as great of a hero as her father was. Along her journey she befriends various monsters due to her innate ability to help others in need. With very little of the story covered, several hypothesis have started to unfold. These include the dragon king himself who slayed the hero and is now raising his daughter to one day slay him in turn. There's nothing exactly to base this hypothesis on rather than "genre savvyness," but the plot takes itself light-heartedly enough.
There Are Games "For Kids..."
The Cruel King and the Great Hero's gameplay is a simple 2D side-scrolling RPG with hand-drawn sprites much like Bug Fables. It would be preferred if the gameplay was as engaging, with the latter featuring an interactive battle mechanic during its fights. Cruel King offers a barebones RPG experience as there are attacks, guards, skills, items, and the chance to run. It's reminiscent of classic Final Fantasy titles that favored simplicity over "bells and whistles."
Without saying it's a "family friendly game," several words are carefully chosen to exhibit this. Any mentions of "death" are painstakingly ommited, referring to defeated foes as "fainted" and the defeat of the main character as "falling unconsciousness." What players will perceive as "health" is known as "stamina" and it's made clear that you're not "dueling to the death." While running out of stamina equates to a "Game Over," the player never feels as if they are responsible for the "death" of Yuu. Explainations are fruitful, with the player never having to guess what each stat does.
...Then There Are Games Kids Will Enjoy
This is an example on how to make a title "family-friendly," without making the target audience feel inadequate in the process. Past the first several tutorial fights, the player is left to their own devices to get from Point A to B. It's like riding a bike downhill, there will be bumps and bruises. Enemies will hit hard, the odds will be against Yuu, and item management will be important to survive fights. Speaking from the perspective of a kid or someone new to video games, however, this is the perfect way to ease that crowd in.
The term "casual gamer" is often synonymous with other derogatory terms. A carefree experience should be taken with the same amount of care as other "hardcore" titles. Cruel King uses its art design, a lovable cute protagonist, a doting father figure, and a mix of friendly and hostile enemies. There's a distinct difference between friendly monsters and hostile monsters. It's even mentioned that the humans are what monsters are afraid of most. The game does a fine job at world building while not relying on exposition to carry it.
When Your Protective Father Happens To Be A Dragon King
Another way the game uses its sense of world building to tell a story is the Dragon King himself. He's very protective of Yuu yet wants her to grow as well. As such, he never lets her stray too far off. As Yuu travels through areas, the Dragon King looms in the background under his watchful eye. When Yuu wins a fight, the Dragon King shows his excitement. At some point, Yuu gains access to her skills including 'channeling' a flaming sword. Of course, as she waves her sword in the air, the Dragon King blows fire on the sword discreetly, granting her 'power'.
It's little attention to details such as these that gives this title a lot more life aside from its simple story and gameplay. As Yuu grows confident and stronger, areas which she will approach with caution will cause her to sprint jovially. This relates to her strength in correlation to the level of the enemies. The stronger she is, the faster she'll run, therefore avoiding enemy fights more often. So far, the gameplay and story integration is one of The Cruel King and the Great Hero's strong point. This, alongside its accessibility, makes this title one of the better family friendly titles in a long time. Maybe another publisher should take note on how to make family friendly titles...?
The Cruel King and the Great Hero is available on the PS4 and Switch.