The Cruel King and the Great Hero Review
The Cruel King and the Great Hero is a very fun 2D JRPG full of colorful storybook-style artwork and an interesting cast of nuanced characters. Our review of this title will have no spoilers, and we’ll only summarize the first ten minutes or so of the game’s plot herein. I’ll talk about gameplay mechanics introduced later in the game, but I won’t spoil anything regarding the plot.
The premise of the game is that a young girl, Yuu, is being raised by the Dragon King. The Dragon King leads a group of monsters, but he and his monster servants are very friendly to Yuu, the only human in their village. Yuu’s parents passed away, but the Dragon King was friends with Yuu’s father. He would always tell Yuu bedtime stories of how Yuu’s father was a hero who defeated the Demon King. This inspires Yuu to become a hero as well, and she begins training and does acts of kindness for both monsters and humans to build up a reputation.
The artwork is all in 2D, but the landscape designs and character designs are top-notch. The characters all have a wide variety of emotions and have great animations. All of the NPCs as well as your party members have multiple frames drawn in their animations so that they look like they’re breathing instead of being just static images.
The battle animations are also done well, with characters and enemies showing different animations for different kinds of attacks. My favorite battle animations are for the chest mimic enemy type, which really convey how desperate the mimic is to chomp Yuu. Although the game is only in 2D, there certainly is a lot of attention to detail with the artwork and animations.
The entire game is stylized to be like a storybook. The menus and the sides of the screen during cutscenes have pages of a book, and often a “page flip” transition is used when moving to different scenes. I’m not talking about an old 1990’s video using a cheap page flip transition stock effect, in this game the artists actually made the page flip transition look seamless when moving to new scenes.
The game has voice acting in Japanese with English subtitles. The major story cutscenes are read like a storybook, with a single narrator reading the lines with illustrations in the background. The illustrations are made to look like a storybook as well with its character shading in many of its scenes.
The narrator during the cutscenes, who reads all of the characters’ voices is just one voice actress. It may sound odd to hear this because there are many characters which you’d think would have a wide variety of voices, from aggressive beasts to dragons to Yuu, who is a small child. But, it genuinely works well because it’s like a parent reading their child a book.
The single voice actor does all of the voices and she carefully changes her voices to reflect when a different character is talking. She doesn’t try to overly imitate what the character sounds like, but she changes her inflection to show different characters talking back-and-forth and it’s handled very well. This isn’t like watching a poorly-made show with one voice actor talking to themselves! All of the main cutscenes in the game are voiced. There is no voice acting for the optional NPC dialogue in sidequests.
The voice actress/seiyuu is Reina Kondo. Even though I don’t speak Japanese natively, I really liked her voice acting and it really added a lot of charm to the game. In the Japanese language, there is a lot more onomatopoeia used in their words and I really enjoyed listening to her making sound effects. A storybook is somewhat like a theater play, and I do think some of the scenes are exaggerated, but it’s whimsical in a good way. I would always get a good laugh from the voice acting when the characters were in shock during the comedy scenes of the game.
Although the game’s premise and artwork look light-hearted, the game does have many depressing plot events too. Though it looks like a game for younger audiences, I strongly believe that older people would enjoy the game a lot. The main cast of characters have a lot of depth to them.
The plot of the game starts of simple, but has many twists along the way. The themes in this title involve overcoming adversity and being optimistic in the face of evil. Though it may be a loose resemblance, elements of this game’s plot reminds me of Jane and the Dragon books I enjoyed reading in my youth, which had a woman named Jane in medieval times wanting to become the first female knight and she had a dragon as her mentor.
Even though I’m older now, I really enjoyed this game’s plot. This game’s story is better than many Triple-A game titles on the market and is brimming with uniqueness. Though the plot has a simple premise, I like that it’s tightly written and is not bloated at all.
The gameplay plays like a typical JRPG, though it plays more on the simpler side. The battles are turn-based and you control actions for your characters to take, which can include attacking normally, using skills, defending, using items, or running from the battle. Defeating enemies grants experience and money, called shells, in this game.
When your characters level up, their stats are automatically allocated. These include stamina (health) as well as the usual mainstay kinds of stats in JRPGs such as attack, defense, speed, etc.
Another stat called energy is spent to use skills and automatically regenerates each turn in battle. As your characters level they learn more skills, and each skill is unique for each character. Skills may have a certain range when used, so based on the spatial arrangement of the enemies you may want to use certain skills to hit more enemies at once.
You unlock new companion members to your party as you progress the story. Shells can be spent at a vendor to buy items (healing items, buffing/debuffing items, and ailment curing items) and new equipment. Each character can equip a weapon, armor piece, and two accessories. The weapons and armor are unique to each character. Strangely, I never encountered a character with a healing spell, so I had to save my money to purchase healing potions needed for long treks in the dungeons.
You explore by having Yuu travel through maps, which are corridors connected to other corridors. The backgrounds illustrations are very well made, and the world is made up of several different biomes. These corridors have branching paths and some paths may be unlocked with story or sidequest progression.
Yuu is able to collect treasure chests on the floor, but some areas may require a companion with a unique ability to traverse, such as requiring a character to fly across gaps, to dig treasure, or to hit treasure chests stuck in a hard-to-reach location. The game encourages you to actively revisit early areas when you get partners with new abilities.
The enemies are random encounters while walking in these corridors. The twist is in this game Yuu will only be able to walk slowly until she is exceeds a certain level threshold for the area. On other words, when she is leveled higher than the area’s enemies, only then can she run through the map quickly. If you travel slower while walking due to being lower-leveled, you’ll get more random encounters.
The encounter rate is high in certain areas and unfortunately the game can get somewhat grindy at times. You can use items to repel enemies away for a certain amount of steps, but they only work if the enemies aren’t stronger than you so you’ll still have to grind. There also aren’t too many complex tactics you can use in this game. It will turn into a “numbers game” and you’ll need to level up your characters eventually or you will get one-shotted by enemies.
One interesting aspect of the game is the enemy weakness system. Each type of enemy has its own weakness, and by using Yuu’s Survey skill she can read the thoughts of the enemy. It doesn’t outright tell you what its weakness is, but you can probably infer it from their thoughts. For instance, an enemy might think something such as, “I don’t like fire, it scares me!” meaning you can use a fire attack on it to make it weakened for a certain number of turns.
You can choose either to release the weakened enemies or just defeat them in their weakened state. Releasing weakened enemies is beneficial when possible because it raises their item drop rate. Some enemies have really strange weaknesses and it’s really interesting how much detail the developers put into it. You can use items either on your own party or on the enemy party, and there are actually enemy types that get weakened when given a gift. The game also has a bestiary called the Monsterdex in the menu to see all enemy types, their stats, their lore, and their weaknesses easily (once you’ve encountered them).
The early-game can actually be a bit challenging because you only have one party member. Thankfully the game will auto-save you on each map screen and you can even create a manual save at any time. When all of your characters’ stamina drops to 0, you get a game over and you’ll need to reload your last save file. It’s very handy to save before opening treasure chests in case the chest is actually a chest mimic!
Early on in the game Yuu will go to the Monster Village, which is the hub town of this game. You can interact with many NPCs. In this game, most of the NPCs are monsters instead of humans, which was a nice detail you don’t see in many games nowadays.
There are a large variety of monsters as well because there are many different species all cohabiting, and sometimes they get along well and other times not so much. The game always shows the Sheep and Wolf tribes butting heads with each other. The town reminded me of the setting in That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime, the third season of Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, and even Disgaea in the sense that it’s about monsters getting along with each other.
The sidequests’ plotlines were handled extremely well in this game. In this game, the sidequests are called “Acts of Kindness”. The quests can admittedly be a tad repetitive and generally involve Yuu helping an NPC out by collecting items or defeating enemies on a certain map. You’ll obtain rewards such as new items, unique equipment, money, as well as points to use to unlock extra illustrations.
But, the great part of the sidequests are the characterization it adds as well as the detail to the game’s lore. There’s a significant amount of dialogue and story tucked away in the game’s sidequests. For example, I was really emotionally invested in Harry and Nathan’s questline, and it had an ending I wasn’t expecting at all. The Magic Book questline and Luchelle and Corvo’s quests are also very amazing and impactful, and you see themes of trauma being addressed.
This game really knows how to pull on your heartstrings. A lot of these sidequests involved helping different tribes resolve their issues. Many of the sidequests are intertwined with each other, meaning as you complete various sidequests you’ll unlock more of them which build on from where the old sidequests left off and the sidequests do actively reference each other.
Speaking very generally and without spoilers, completing sidequests will affect the ending of the game, so you should try to do all of them if possible. I don’t think you’ll get as much satisfaction as I did when I played through this game if you didn’t complete the sidequests. This is how developers should make sidequests in a game! You’ll actually miss out on an entire half of the game if you don’t do the sidequests. Thankfully, the sidequests are all marked on your map in the menus when someone in need to help appears, so you don’t necessarily need to talk to every single NPC in fear of missing them.
One of my criticisms of the game is its fast travel system. You’ll get an item called Magic Crumbs early on, which allows you to warp to the Monster Village at any time. After some of the main story missions, you’ll also get the ability to warp between certain magical pools, most of which are located close to the cities of NPCs.
But, one inconvenience is that you can’t fast travel directly. You either need to walk to a pool to fast travel, or use the crumbs to get to the hub city and use the hub’s pool (the latter of which you’ll be doing very frequently). The fast travel system has a flaw similar to the bonfire system in the original Dark Souls.
You’re pretty much fast traveling to the hub, and then fast traveling where you want to go, when the intermediate step shouldn’t have been involved at all. It’s a minor nitpick, but since most of the sidequests involve returning to the NPCs after retrieving their item from the dungeon, you’ll actually be doing this intermediate step frequently and it will likely total an hour or two from each minute you waste in your playthrough.
Although the enemies and bosses have amazing animations, I do feel that the game could’ve had more unique bosses and enemy types. A lot of the enemies in this game are palette swaps, but the artists did genuinely try to make the same enemy types look different by changing the artwork a bit. For instance, one region would have fire lizards, and another would have ice lizards. They’re not just re-colors because the ice lizard would have a breathing frost effect, whereas the fire lizard would have magma dripping from it.
I’m being a bit nitpicky, but I also believe the gameplay would’ve been better if you could use more party members at once. You’re always forced to use Yuu in your party and you’re allowed to have one other companion as well with her. Over the course of the story you will have different companions in your party, but it’ll always only be one character in addition to Yuu.
Near the ending of the game you’ll be able to switch between who you want in your party by re-visiting the first area of the game. But one question I kept posing to myself was, “Why can’t we use all party members at once?” After you complete all of the characters’ story arc, you can choose whoever you want to use. In other words, the story won’t force you who you have to use at endgame, with the exception of a couple of sidequests that require the character in your party as well as getting the ultimate equipment in the game.
The way the game plays, you really only need to use one of these other characters in the endgame. Otherwise, it’s not worth it because your un-used party members don’t get experience in the background. If you want to use all the characters, you’re essentially splitting your experience between party members you’re not using and they’ll all be lower-leveled as a result, and having two level 40 characters would be better than having four level 30 characters.
Not all of the characters are necessarily equal as well, with some having better skills than others. On the bright side, however, the game is on the easier side once you’re farther into the game and have learned how to exploit its systems. Some of the best equipment in the game is given out from the sidequests, not from the shops, so you will have a harder time if you’re only trying to complete the main story.
Completing all of the story and all of the sidestories in the game took me 35 hours. If you choose to only do the main story and if you skip through dialogue, your playthrough may be shorter than this.
If you enjoy other 2D JRPGs such as Child of Light or I Am Setsuna, you’ll definitely enjoy The Cruel King and the Great Hero. Underneath a simple game that looks like a storybook is a lot of emotion and attention to detail. The game can get repetitive at times and the plot is slow to get through, but when the plot gets going it really gets going and the game will tug at your heartstrings during some of its story events.
The characters have extremely interesting side-stories, some of which I’d argue have better writing than the main story of the game. At the same time, the quests involving the side-stories are repetitive at times and involve revisiting the same areas to gather items or defeat enemies.
This is a one-of-a-kind game and there is an amazing story and lore to the world. The drawn illustrations and the game’s art direction are also really unique. I definitely recommend you to pick up this title if you enjoy indie titles and are willing to overlook the game’s few flaws.
The Cruel King and the Great Hero
- Terrific artstyle, looking like a hand-drawn pop-up picture book.
- Great character designs, from humans to monsters, and the hub area has plenty of unique sidequests.
- The Japanese voice acting is very emotional and impactful during the story scenes.
- A very emotional story.
- Addicting and easy to understand turn-based combat system. The game is never extremely challenging.
- The pacing can be slow at parts, especially the beginning.
- The game is on the shorter side.
- If you want to complete the side quests, there is a lot of back-tracking. There is a teleporter, but it is awkwardly placed and often you have to back-track to areas that don’t have a teleporter.
– Brandon Harris
Reviewed on Playstation 5