This is the one hundred seventy-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 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.

Our one hundred seventy-first random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality is engaging us in witty repartee. It’s Last Word, by Merlandese, and its tagline in the bundle reads:

Sophisticated RPG mystery where methods of discourse hold secret power

That’s right, readers. It’s time to… converse.

Last Word is, as its title suggests, a game about getting the last word. For you see, in the island nation of St. Lauden, getting the last word in a debate grants actual power, allowing the victor to impress their will upon their adversary (to an extent). In the highly stratified society of this place, the members of the noble Houses practice this art as a means to maintaining their social dominance. Which puts protagonist Whitty Gawship at something of a disadvantage, when she finds herself a guest at the manor of Professor Chet Chatters, mingling with other guests who are far above her station. Good thing she’s a quick learner.

The “RPG” in the tagline is clearly intended to mean a Japanese-style role-playing game. It has the familiar three-quarter top-down perspective, pixel art reminiscent of the 16-bit era of such games (although it also has large portraits for each character, in the style of visual novels), and the familiar tile-based movement as players explore the manor, search for clues, and talk to others. Except that those conversations can optionally lead to discourse, a verbal battle with its very own turn-based combat system.

In discourse, the goal is to move a peg all the way to the opponent’s side of a board shown at the bottom of the screen. To do this, players must select different types of remarks. Disruptive statements don’t move the peg much, but they do build up one’s Power meter. Submissive phrases convert Power into Tact (a separate meter), and Aggressive retorts spend Tact to move that peg a large distance. One’s opponent, naturally, is trying to do the same, making discourse a tug of war with careful resource management winning the day. Some details make this more engaging: each type of remark has three sub-types with different strengths, which act in a sort of rock-paper-scissors fashion to damage the opponent’s composure (essentially their defense), letting those Aggressive quips really hurt. Add in a bunch of special abilities that trigger under certain conditions, and discourse becomes an interesting contest of wits that continues to evolve as Whitty gains experience and levels up.

Unfortunately, levels are very important. Higher level wordsmiths can absolutely trounce low level aspirants, due to a huge starting advantage in position on the board, so Whitty will need to level up her skills to compete. And since there are only a handful of other guests, Whitty will have to engage in discourse with them over and over if she wants to improve. I did not relish this grinding, and managed to eke by for quite a while at low level, but that just made it more of a hassle to catch up later when I realized I needed to. It also meant that I went without the special skills that made discourse more interesting, only getting them late in the story. And I must specifically complain about a skill that simply nets more experience from discourse; this feels like Merlandese admitting that the grind in Last Word is boring by giving players an option to speed it up.

But the intention is clearly for players to try out discourse more often in the early chapters, which would have gone more smoothly for me overall. I didn’t realize at first that practicing discourse with Seymour Saymore — the other inexperienced debater at the party — actually levels him up too, which is related to some optional side stories. The story in general was a big motivator for me, as it’s well written and engaging. Part of why I didn’t want to grind for levels was my impatience to see where the story would go next. There aren’t many rooms of the manor to explore, but meticulous players will start collecting “key topics” which can open up certain locked conversations. Whitty can “equip” different key topics and then gossip with the guests about them, often revealing new information that increases the level of the key topic. I enjoyed searching for information and unlocking new clues through conversation as I tried to discover why Professor Chatters had trapped all of the guests here. It’s an intriguing mystery, and I loved the icons that appeared to show which topics I’d already discussed with whom, helping me determine who to seek out next. My main complaint about this part of the game is that Whitty cannot switch key topics while in a conversation menu with someone. She has to back out, switch, then talk to them again… oh wait, they’ve wandered off. An extra step of busywork.

I also (erroneously) thought that I’d missed some important information at some point, blocking me out of certain conversation topics and preventing me from collecting some optional clues that would have fleshed out the story. That frustrated me quite a bit, until I realized that I actually had the clue I needed, I just hadn’t figured out what it meant. Fortunately, there’s a new game plus option after finishing the story (which should only take players a few play sessions to complete) that makes it easy for players to go back through the game and find anything they missed. It still took a little while to do this, but since I was able to keep all of Whitty’s special skills, she could progress through discourse much faster, and there were options to skip certain story scenes that always play out the same way. That eased the pain of going through everything again, and I was able to find the game’s true ending, which was satisfying. I was disappointed to find that Whitty started out at level 1 again, but it did make sense in terms of the story.

And I should reiterate how much I enjoyed that story. Going through the game again actually increased my appreciation for the narrative, and how it’s doled out in tidbits hidden behind different locked topics. St. Lauden is a fictional country, but it appears to exist in our world, as characters mention other real-world places like Britain. The critique of upper-class elitism that runs through Last Word felt like it was targeting Britain specifically, in fact, although similar cultural patterns existed across Europe. The target is definitely Europe, however, with an entirely white cast, which was a bit disappointing for a bundle about racial justice. But the critique of unjust power dynamics is in keeping with the spirit of the bundle, I think. As I played I learned about the class divide in St. Lauden, about its overeager military exploits, and some dirty secrets about the various guests that spoke to systemic problems in the small nation. The upper class characters in this story are not meant to be sympathetic.

Piecing together this story through careful sleuthing was a joy, and I especially liked that uncovering non-essential information awarded additional points that Whitty could spend on new discourse skills. She’ll still need to gain levels in order to equip those skills, however, which is a shame because they make discourse much more interesting. When landing on certain pegs on the board yields bonuses, and certain statements and tones let Whitty recover composure or generate extra Power or Tact, discourse is a more enjoyable endeavor. Opponents can have these skills too, so new adversaries require new strategies to defeat. For some reason I was unable to scroll when viewing an adversary’s skill set, making it harder to determine exactly what I was up against, but they’re mostly the same skills that Whitty can learn, so it didn’t take long to figure it out. Playing the new game plus, which let Whitty start with all of the skills, gave me a new appreciation for the discourse system. If access to these skills came earlier in the regular game, I would have enjoyed myself more.

But I still enjoyed myself plenty. I’m pretty sure that Last Word is made using RPG Maker, but it evades the RPG Maker stereotype for cheap and poorly made games by boasting high production values. It has beautiful original art (although the decision to display characters as color-coded silhouettes during exploration is an odd one), the custom scripted discourse system, an original score by Merlandese themselves, and great writing. I also spied some famous indie developer names in the credits. It turns out that Merlandese (AKA Lannie Neely III) also works at Freebird Games, developers of To The Moon and other narrative driven games. Freebird co-founder Kan Gao lends his voice to the cast, as does Laura Shigihara, famous for her musical contributions to Plants Vs. Zombies and To The Moon, and more recently as the creator of the games Rakuen and Mr. Saitou. There isn’t full voice acting in Last Word, mind, more like vocal sound effects: chortles, scoffs, gasps, throat clearings, and the like. Yet these are so wonderfully expressive that, combined with the character portraits, I felt I knew who all these party guests were immediately. Excellent work.

So, while I’ve complained a bit above, I still quite like Last Word. It has a few frustrating bits, but it’s well written and funny, and the mystery is a joy to uncover. If you fancy a bit of discourse at a fancy party, definitely give Last Word a look. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $7.99.

That’s 171 down, and only 1570 to go!