This is the ninety-first entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
Mini-RPG in 64×64
That’s right, folks. It’s time to get miniscule.
Thou Shalt Be Brave was made for the #LOWREZJAM 2016, a 17-day game jam event that challenged creators to make games using a resolution of 64×64 pixels. Sure, we’re all used to our HD displays with 2,073,600 pixels, or maybe (like me) you upgraded to a 1440p display so you can use 3,686,400 pixels to display your games. Or maybe you’ve gone all the way for a 4k display, for its whopping 8,294,400 pixels. And don’t even get me started on ultrawide displays. All those pixels are great, but what if you had to make a game using only 4,096 pixels?
What’s immediately impressive about Thou Shalt Be Brave is how good it looks, given these strict constraints. It runs in a small window, as you might expect, but the pixel art is excellent throughout, including a full-on animated introductory cutscene to set things up. The muted colors often go for the incredibly overused blue/orange contrast, but the blue tones are tinted with enough grey to feel different from modern game palettes. The blues and greys are fitting for the spooky forest setting too. You see, Thou Shalt Be Brave is a simple and traditional turn-based role-playing game, in which players must lead a lone hero into the forest to battle monsters and try to end the threat of the Evil Wizard. Each of the four possible hero classes gets a little portrait in the corner (yes, just one small section of the already tiny 64×64 screen), and it’s even animated, showing their breathing and even some wounds if a battle isn’t going well. Hits in battle are accompanied by a bit of screen shake. The hero can visit the village inn to recover after these fights, but must always return to the forest for a series of random encounters that make up their quest. Moving between locations has a wonderful pixel screen wipe effect, and sometimes the forest hides magical potions that glow among the tangled roots, or magical scrolls that flutter in the wind blowing through the branches.
In short, it’s gorgeous, especially in motion. If there’s a weakness to the art, it’s in the text, which is hard to read as letters blend into each other. I’m not sure how to make more legible text with so few pixels, however, so I was happy to forgive Thou Shalt Be Brave this shortcoming. The rest of the interface is surprisingly easy to use, although there’s a lot going on. Fortunately, the equivalent of a game manual is written out on the itch.io page, and I’d encourage any interested players to read that before firing it up. Every hero has five statistics: strength, constitution, dexterity, intelligence and luck. These are shown as bars below the portrait, and raising them all is the main goal during play. At first, combat encounters are simple, with players choosing between basic melee or magical attacks, and guzzling a healing potion if they take too much damage. But winning battles earns experience points, and with enough of them players can increase a stat of their choice. Raise strength and intelligence high enough and more powerful physical and magical attacks become available. With high constitution, heroes can enter a defensive stance to give them an extra chance to avoid damage for a few turns. There’s even a healing spell for high intelligence heroes, although by that point they probably have plenty of healing potions on hand. Money earned from battles can be spent at the inn to rest and heal, or to buy potions.
Those are a lot of gameplay systems for something made in just 17 days. So it’s little surprise that they’re not very fleshed out. Early on, there are only a few enemies that appear, mostly ratmen or undead, and they take a lot of hits to go down. The variety gets better later, and more powerful attacks help make battles more interesting, but my knight quickly outclassed anything he encountered, at which point the game became kind of a grind as I slowly tried to get my stats up. I rarely felt that the defensive stance was worth using, even at maximum constitution, and since my knight started out with a bonus to strength and constitution I didn’t really engage with magical attacks at all. By the time I’d raised my intelligence to high levels, my physical attacks were just as good if not better than my magical attacks, and had the added advantage of not pulling from a limited reserve of mana (which does regenerate some between battles, but still). Non-combat encounters seemed cool at first but there are only two types, and I’d seen all they had to offer long before the end. Endgame balance is weird too: I went from dominating every fight to suddenly facing ogres who could easily kill my hero. With no way to save the game, my knight’s death meant I’d have needed to start all over, and I didn’t really see the point. The other hero classes look cool but only differ in their starting stats, so gaining some experience will quickly erase their differences.
A quick look through the itch.io comments for Thou Shalt Be Brave reveal that Anil Demir is well aware of these issues, most of which stem from the limited development time during the jam. In the comments, I learned that it would have been very hard to win even if I hadn’t run into that nasty ogre, because the Evil Wizard himself is a nearly unbeatable foe. With more time, Anil would have rebalanced this, perhaps sped up or added variety to the mid game, and added more monsters and encounters. It seems there were plans at one time for an updated version for Android, but those look to be on hold. That’s a shame, because Thou Shalt Be Brave feels like it could be the core of something pretty cool. Really, though, the reason to check this one out is to see what it does within its 64×64 resolution limit. It manages to look so cool — and sound cool too, with a nice chiptune music score and squelchy sound effects — despite only having a few thousand pixels to work with. If you are into pixel art at all, it’s worth checking out for that alone. You won’t want to stick it out for the entire adventure, but you’ll have fun for a while, and you’ll certainly appreciate the art. If you missed it in the bundle, Thou Shalt Be Brave is available for a minimum price of $1.
That’s 91 down, and only 1650 to go!