Zeboyd Games are best known for Cthulhu Saves The World, a parody of old-school Japanese-style RPGs. The game was very well received by the gaming press, and made headlines when the PC release made them more money in one week than they’d made in over a year and a half on X-box Live Indie Games. Readers of this blog may have noticed that I prefer to play PC games, and a major reason for that is the openness of the platform that allows indie developers like Zeboyd to be successful. Readers of this blog may also have noticed that I enjoy the occasional old-school Japanese-style RPG, such as Master of the Wind. So, naturally, I picked up a copy of Cthulhu Saves The World.

Then, I discovered that the PC release also includes Zeboyd’s earlier title, Breath Of Death VII: The Beginning. Being rather picky about playing things in the right order, I decided to try it first.

Breath Of Death VII is a clear homage to the 8-bit era of Japanese RPGs. Specifically, an homage to the Dragon Warrior series (which I have only just learned was known as Dragon Quest in Japan). Anyone who’s played the early Dragon Warrior games will immediately recognize the graphical style of the outdoor areas and towns, and even the menus and battle screens. Sadly (or fortunately?) it doesn’t include the ubiquitous thees and thous of the first Dragon Warrior, but it does add a good bit of silliness and gentle mocking of the genre. First is the premise: human civilization is wiped out after a massive war, leaving the undead to rebuild society from the ruins. The controllable heroes, as well as everyone they meet, are all some form of undead, usually skeletons, ghosts, or zombies. It’s also a great excuse for a twist on the traditional “go explore some ancient ruins” quest, as in this case the ancient ruins are actually the bombed-out shells of modern human cities. There is, naturally, some funny dialogue to accompany the player on his or her adventure (I especially liked the “chat” option on the game menu that simply produces some amusing banter between party members), but this is usually more silly than laugh-out-loud funny. For me, the premise remained the best part.

Mechanically, Breath Of Death VII is not unlike the Dragon Warrior games it takes inspiration from. There’s a large outdoor map to explore and various dungeons and towns to enter, including “secret” caves found off the beaten path, with hidden treasure as rewards for one’s spelunking. While the random, turn-based battles look quite like those of old, they’re actually where most of the new ideas are found. Unlike traditional combat in these games, characters in Breath Of Death VII are fully healed after each fight, so long-term health management is not an issue. Instead, it’s all about managing MP, which I assume stands for “magic points” even though it is used for both Tech and Magic abilities. MP will regenerate by a small amount after each battle, depending on how quickly the battle was won. The fact that enemies gain strength each round is further incentive to finish battles quickly and decisively. Of course, one usually ends up using more MP than one can regenerate, leading to long-term strategic thinking about how to ration one’s more powerful battle abilities. Breath Of Death VII also features a combo system, where scoring hits against enemies will build up a combo meter that determines the power of special “combo boost” abilities. Special attacks can often grant multiple hits, helping to build up the combo meter faster. Given the incentive to end fights quickly, however, I found that I rarely used combo boost abilities except during boss encounters, when they are admittedly quite useful in taking big chunks out of the boss’ health. As characters gain levels, the player is presented a choice of two options, which can be anything from stat boosts to different types of special powers. For example, a character might have the option of a healing ability that affects the whole party or a healing ability that affects only one character but can revive said character from a knocked-out state. This provides some interesting choices and helps keep the battles engaging.

Unfortunately, there’s not much else to the game. Most of the action takes place in dungeon areas, and these are all simply mazes of corridors with the occasional treasure chest to find. Early on, these dungeon areas can be fun, but later in the game they get much larger and more repetitive. Worse, there’s only a limited selection of enemies in each area, so I found I was always defaulting to the same combination of moves in each battle. This took a lot of the enjoyment out of the combat strategy. Fortunately, there’s only a limited number of battles in each area (although the player has the option of initiating one whenever he or she pleases) so in very large dungeons I eventually defeated everyone and was able to finish exploring in peace.

I hesitate to recommend Breath Of Death VII, as even with its relatively short playtime I found it became stale before the end. But, those who like the strategy aspects of classic turn-based RPG combat may enjoy the battle system. Also, by all accounts Cthulhu Saves The World is a much stronger offering, and Breath Of Death VII had enough good ideas that I’m definitely looking forward to stepping into Cthulhu’s shoes (actually, from the game art it appears he doesn’t wear shoes, but you know what I mean). Look for a write-up on that sometime in the future, although knowing me I’ll probably tackle a number of other games in my backlog first. If you can’t wait, by all means grab a copy for yourself — it’s available on Steam and Gamersgate for only $2.99, and that includes a free copy of Breath Of Death VII. Those who prefer playing on console can find both games on Xbox Live as well. Zeboyd also developed the latest entry in the Penny Arcade spin-off game series, so fans of Penny Arcade will want to check that out too.