What happens when a developer takes a historically inaccessible genre that’s laden with offensive pitfalls, excruciating barriers to entry and a level of challenge befit of only the most hardcore gamer, and in turns it into a welcoming romp for players of all skill levels and interests? Sorcery Saga: Curse of the Great Curry God happens, that’s what. Much like the name it bears, this is a JRPG that is rich with flavor and good till the very last bite. Let’s take a look at why.
If there’s anyone out there wanting to pick up Sorcery Saga for a stiffeningly somber tale wrought with dramatic crescendos, existential ponderings and moral teachings, then they should quickly put Compile Hearts’ latest title down and step far, far away from it. Sorcery Saga is about as serious as an solo actor pantomiming the ending of Terminator 2. What does that mean? It’s simple: Curse of the Great Curry God is all about wacky, over-the-top happenings about a young girl who must traverse the innards of local labyrinths in order to bring honor to both her name and the restaurant she is desperately trying to save.
On paper, and in the most rudimentary sense, Curry God‘s narrative goes something like this: after acing her final exam by complete chance, our leading lady Pupuru earns the privilege to fight her way through her school’s “Magic Tower” and claim the magic orb hidden within as a sign of her accomplishments. However, instead of finding said orb, she runs into a strange creature who speaks only in “kuu’s.” Not being able to understand a word the thing says, Pupuru aptly dubs her newfound pal…wait for it…”Kuu.” After a series of mishaps, though, our heroine gets suspended from school, and barred from attending her graduation ceremony. With too much time on her hands now, she gets wrapped up in a clash between her friend’s curry restaurant and the monopolizing curry chain-franchise that enters town. With a little bit of working her noodle, Pupuru comes up with a plan to save her coveted Smile Curry diner. To help her cause, a mysterious gal named Puni shows up with the ability to read the curry auras of those chosen by the “Great Curry God.” Thus, with pals in tow, Pupuru sets off to save her friend’s café by searching for the ultimate ingredients to make the “Legendary Magic Curry” — a curry said to be absolutely unrivaled.
If that sounds totally absurd, that’s because it is. To my knowledge, no other game has ever tasked its players with saving, not the world, but a curry-serving, mom-and-pop dive. (And people get down on the JRPG genre for being too formulaic; ha, nay-sayers! Welcome to a new kind of Japanese storytelling epic.) In truth, while the story is nothing short of pure zaniness, the characters are what steal the show. Thanks to Aksys’ best localization work, Sorcery Saga is a genuinely funny game, with plenty of laugh out loud moments and character exchanges that will keep folks coming back for just one more hilariously awkward interaction. The dialogue is truly a high point for the game as it possesses personality, wit and concision. The script at large is so lovingly penned that’s it’s an act of futility to try and not smile while reading the hare-brained text.
But let’s get down to brass tacks: this is a roguelike. Alright, before you close out of this review and resign yourself to the notion that because it’s a part of a genre notoriously known for being impossibly hard, life-dominatingly arduous in scope and generally the very epitome of inaccessible, let me tell you all about how wrong that idea is in this case. Yes, from a design standpoint, this is a by-the-by traditional roguelike. “What does that mean?!” a reader asks, pulling on his hair and slamming his hands on his keyboard out of frustration for not knowing what this sub-sect of the RPG genre actually is. Well, in a basic way, it’s a game that has players delving giant, randomly generated dungeons and engaging in turn-based combat to earn loot in order to make their character a certified, grade-A bad ass. And trouncing monsters by way of flexing those muscles of bad-assery is a common occurrence in Curse of the Great Curry God. To say it plainly, this is an experience that finds it stride and feels the most comfortable when doing what it does best: labyrinth-crawling and turn-based battling.
To that end, the game doesn’t break from its genre mold: players will start off in town — there’s just one, and it’s only navigated via menus — enter a dungeon, kill stuff, level up, fight a boss, go back to town to watch a story segment unfold, buy items, rinse, repeat. I say all that with a degree of adoration, though, as Sorcery Saga never pretends to be something it’s not, or do something it can’t. Like any good game of its kind, the kicker here is that when Pupuru enters a dungeon, she always (repeat, always) starts at level 1. There’s no carrying over progress from dungeon to dungeon, so only items and gear will be taken with players to wherever they go — but even those things will stick with players only if they utilize one of the specially placed exit points, a particular item or best the boss entirely. Thus, each time players enter a new location, it’s like starting over again. that sounds grueling, but it’s where the excitement lies: there’s something addicting about having to start one’s progress over in each instance, knowing that all of the hard work will culminate, not in being able to build upon the level reached in said area, but knowing that the attained level will be the only way that boss gets toppled. Of course, being the one that gets stomped ultimately means being sent packing back to town with only the weapon and shield equipped at the time of defeat. And that’s the punishing part of the roguelike.
The good news here, however, is that Sorcery Saga is about the least assaulting game of its kind. I died only a handful of times, and each one was by my own hand, not because enemies were exorbitantly difficult. Of course, this isn’t to say the game lacks challenge — it has plenty of that. But a tactically sound mind will be able to make it past the game’s most dastardly beasts without too much strife. This is perhaps one of the most off-putting features of the entire genre: most of the games within it are simply outrageously difficult. This is fine for the hardcore, but not for a developer or publisher who wants to make money by reaching a broad audience. Developer Compile Hearts clearly understand that, as the gameplay here is meant to be actually enjoyable, not nightmarish and masochistic. But again, the challenge is so managable because the tools for success are readily given to those who seek them out. For instance, as a student who studies magic, Pupuru has the capacity to wield supernatural powers, which does wonders in slaying fiends that plague each labyrinth. Throughout the delving experience, players will find tomes which can be interacted with. By reading these scriptures, they grant folks special abilities that translate to spells to ultimately use against baddies. Defensive and offensive skills are ripe for the pickings, and finding a way to strategically use one at just the right time will be the deciding factor between life and death.
At its core, though, this is still a roguelike and acts like one. So, when players maneuver Pupuru through a dungeon, other enemies will be making moves as well. Each time a player performs an action, so too does an assailant. Cautious planning, then, is of the utmost importance. Thankfully, to make up for taking a beating at the hands of a tough foe, players regain health as they walk. Therefore, not only does checking every inch of a dungeon’s floor result in the potential of capping off one’s HP, but it also equates to finding rare loot and a chance to eat curry if our heroine has the ingredients needed to cook some up. Eating said curry provides health, other regenerative effects and even gives experience bonuses, so it’s highly encouraged this sort of thing is sought out. When everything comes together, though, Sorcery Saga is a game that runs like a well-oiled machine.
Moreover, it’s all very easy to get into and understand. Even the crafting system is streamlined so that item synthesis is quick, painless, and all around intuitive. That seems to be the name of the game here: keep mechanics simple so that the bulk of the experience is exploration and combat, but not so dumbed down to where the systems in place have lost their meaning. Because of the developer’s seeming focus on pure fun, the game has that “just one more floor” feeling to it when traversing a dungeon’s layers. On that front, the gameplay borders on addicting, in the best of ways of course. The only complaint in the gameplay department concerns Kuu, Pupuru’s sidekick. His AI is inconsistent, as sometimes he’ll lay the smack down at all the right times, and other moments be completely non-responsive to the battlefield dynamics, resulting in a lack of aid. We couldn’t quite nail down a pattern to his combat behavior, but did feel the impact of his occasional incompetence, particularly so during the more trying encounters when a helping hand was badly needed.
That aside, it’s not just the story and gameplay that are rock-solid, the presentation values are lovely to boot. Graphics are vibrant, making particular use of bright hues to play off the whimsical tone of the narrative, and character models look competent and adorable in a chibi kind of way. Sure, they’re not at the level of Gravity Rush, but when put side-by-side with the other recently released JRPG, Ys: Memories of Celceta, the game looks like Miss Universe. But despite the attractive aesthetic, the amount of stuff that can sometimes take place on-screen results in the game struggling to keep pace with the action. It’s mostly intermittent, and not a deal-breaker, but it is certainly noticeable at times and seems to take the biggest hit during certain boss battles where there’s just a lot happening.
Nevertheless, the soundtrack is fantastic, making up for where the visuals leave something to be desired. It’s lighthearted, catchy, upbeat — capable of delivering themes to accompany the cheery tone expertly. The soundtrack isn’t just a one-trick pony, however; it has the depth to intensify a combat situation with the pounding of a drum or the wailing of a guitar riff, making moments feel more meaningful and the victory conditions all the more dire. Purists will undoubtedly perform a dance of wolves at the inclusion of the Japanese-only voice-overs, while the more casual fans will possibly long for some English dubs.
It’s hard to find anything of real importance wrong with Sorcery Saga: Curse of the Great Curry God, other than the fact that is a rather short adventure and isn’t as robust as others of its kind. That being said, this is without a doubt one of the most traditional roguelikes to come out in a while. As a result, it’s also the single most accessible one to hit the market in years. That might disappoint elitists, but for everyone else, it should be viewed as a glowing endorsement. If you’ve steered clear of the genre because of how soul-crushingly difficult they’re made out to be, but have nonetheless had an interest in playing one, then look no further — Sorcery Saga is where you need to be. The Vita’s RPG library is gathering steam this year and Compile Heart’s latest is yet another wonderful installment in that collection.
Platform: PS Vita