Japan’s most commonly seen take on the popular roguelike RPG subgenre — typically referred to as “Mystery Dungeon” games after the Chunsoft series that cemented the formula — is a little different from how we tackle our dungeon-delving here in the West.
Mystery Dungeon-style games have been developed by a wide variety of companies over the years, and the formula is straightforward and versatile enough that it’s been applied to all manner of franchises ranging from Pokemon to Etrian Odyssey as well as a number of original creations.
Sorcery Saga: Curse of the Great Curry God from Compile Heart and Idea Factory takes Compile’s venerable Madou Monogatari series — that which ultimately begat the much more well known Puyo Puyo puzzle empire — and reimagines it for the Mystery Dungeon age. The result is an accessible and enjoyable game that is a great introduction to this style of RPG.
In Sorcery Saga (as we shall refer to it hereafter), you take on the role of Pupuru, a young girl (and rough analogue to Arle from Madou Monogatari and Puyo Puyo) who is about to graduate from school. In Pupuru’s world, graduation from her particular magic academy is dependent on making it all the way to the top of a tower and retrieving a magic orb — a mirror of the scenario for the first Madou Monogatari game, in which a kindergarten-aged Arle was tasked with retrieving three orbs from a similar tower.
Unfortunately, things don’t quite go according to plan. Pupuru encounters a strange creature which she dubs Kuu owing to that being pretty much the only sound he is capable of making, and almost immediately after discovering the magic orb at the top of the tower is dismayed to find out that Kuu is… very hungry indeed, and not at all picky about what he shoves down his gullet.
Suspended from school for apparently losing such a priceless artifact, Pupuru seeks solace in the local curry house, which is having a bit of a tough time thanks to the recent opening of a large chain restaurant in the town square. She learns of the existence of a Legendary Magic Curry, however, and believes that such a magnificent dish will surely reverse the fortunes of the ailing establishment. Consequently, rather than sitting around moping, she decides to set out on a quest to collect the four legendary ingredients for the curry and prove that she absolutely is perfectly capable of taking care of herself, thank you very much, and she totally doesn’t need a dumb slip of paper from a stupid school to prove she is a badass (but it would be quite nice if she could still get it at some point, if you don’t mind).
The story for Sorcery Saga is, not to put too fine a point on it, utterly ridiculous, but in true Compile Heart tradition, the writers take the concept and absolutely run with it. While the game is light-hearted and comedic in tone throughout, it plays its main narrative straight and is all the more enjoyable for it. It never feels like the game is ashamed of what it is, and it doesn’t feel the need to “break character” and provide knowing winks to the player every so often. Its stablemate Neptunia can get away with that, sure, but it’s not something we need in every light-hearted game, so I appreciate Sorcery Saga handling things this way.
The game’s narrative introduces us to a variety of memorable and entertaining characters, several of whom are immediately recognisable as analogues to their Madou Monogatari/Puyo Puyo equivalents, while others feel more fresh and original. While Pupuru is very much the star, each of the incidental characters have their own entertaining arcs over the course of the narrative as a whole, and it’s a lot of fun to see how they develop, whether it’s the lovestruck demon lord Gigadis (pursued by his adoring wannabe princess Cliora, complete with ojou-sama ohohohohoho in full force), the perpetually misunderstood pervert wizard Zeo, or the charming group of three young wannabe heroes.
Like most Compile Heart games, Sorcery Saga is quite heavily front-loaded with narrative exposition, presented in a visual novel style with animated character sprites. The character art by mota (most well-known for their work on Sega and Imageepoch’s 7th Dragon) is distinctive and stylised, with a pleasing “pencil sketch” feel to a lot of it, and the exaggerated facial expressions add a lot to the comedy already present in the writing. Likewise, the excellent Japanese voice acting throughout complements the script well, with Yui Ogura’s depiction of Pupuru striking a good balance between the childish, squeaky innocence of a little girl (as heard in her portrayal of Rom in the Neptunia series) and a determined young woman keen to prove herself.
A particularly noteworthy aspect of the game’s audio-visual presentation is the fact that it makes heavy use of vocal songs with lyrics. Most of the major characters in the narrative have their own theme song, often with entertaining English lyrics delivered in an endearingly clumsy manner, and the boss fights that conclude each dungeon feature a delightfully earnest song about, well, curry. See what I mean? If you’re going to make a game about curry, you may as well go all-in.
Once into the dungeons, the gameplay is fairly standard for a Mystery Dungeon-type game. You move around a grid-based map in a turn-based fashion, with both Pupuru and enemies moving at the same time. Some enemies are “faster”, which means they get more turns to a single turn for Pupuru, while others are slower, which means they will only move every other turn for our heroine.
Sorcery Saga mixes up the usual formula by featuring a combination of pregenerated and random maps. Each expedition begins with three “forest” areas that are the same each time (save for enemy and item placement) before proceeding into the dungeon proper, which is randomly generated each time you visit. Each dungeon features a unique visual tileset and also feels like it has a different focus in terms of how it is generated — early dungeons have small floors with short passageways, for example, while those in the later game have very long corridors, multiple branching paths and spread out to cover a much wider area.
As in most games of this type, combat is a simple case of pressing the “attack” button to strike in front of Pupuru with the weapon she has equipped, though exploration will eventually reward her with some books that she can use to learn skills. Rather than making use of magic points as in some other Mystery Dungeon-style games, in Sorcery Saga you equip yourself with a “deck” of spells and skills from those you have learned before you can set out, and each individual skill has a set number of times you can use it in a single expedition. This means you may find yourself having to be quite sparing with skill usage, but it also allows for a great deal of flexibility in terms of how you fight and explore.
There are no character classes in Sorcery Saga and Pupuru resets to level 1 at the start of every new expedition. Instead, persistent progression is entirely through the two items of equipment she uses: a weapon and a shield. Weapons increase her physical and/or magic attack powers (with swords favouring the former and staves the latter, as you might expect) while shields increase her physical and magical resistance. The latter of these is, confusingly, referred to as “Intelligence” — a stat more commonly associated with magic attack power, though anyone who played Omega Quintet will know Compile Heart sometimes likes to do strange things with stat names.
Rather than constantly looting or purchasing new equipment as you progress, Sorcery Saga’s persistent progression primarily comes through an item upgrading system that you unlock early in the game. The most basic form of this involves combining one item with another that has a numerical modifier on it (either positive or negative); the item used as “fodder” then adds its modifier to the item you are trying to upgrade. The higher the modifier, the more expensive this process becomes — though it is sometimes possible to do this for free during a dungeon dive; more on that in a moment.
The other aspect to the upgrade system comes in the form of “seals”, which are passive skills attached to weapons and shields. There are a whole host of these, ranging from flat increases to base stats and HP to powerful special abilities such as extended reach, resistance to status effects or infusions of elements. Initially, an item of equipment can only hold one seal, but the more you use it, the more it levels up, with each new level unlocking a new seal slot to a maximum of five. Stick with the same weapon and shield for the whole game and you can have a total of ten passive skills attached to you through canny upgrading — though at any point you can start crafting a new weapon or shield if you so desire.
In true roguelike tradition, a lot of items you find in the dungeons are initially unidentified — though it’s not until the final story dungeon that potions and scrolls have to be identified as well as weapons and shields. You can figure out what something is just by using it, but in doing so you take the risk of it being an item with a negative effect, or, worse, of it being cursed and becoming unequippable until you find a suitable way to deal with the situation.
There are also a lot of seemingly useless items lying around, and these can be used for a couple of purposes: cooking curry, which provides temporary stat buffs and an increase to gained experience, or simply feeding to Kuu, who has been tagging along with Pupuru ever since their initial misadventure. Feeding Kuu restores his hunger bar — you can’t move on to the next floor if Kuu has passed out — as well as allowing him to level up. And every three levels, Kuu gains a new ability. In an apparent nod to his somewhat Pokemon-esque nature, however, Kuu can only have four abilities “equipped” at once, and must forget an old one when he learns a new one if he’s already “full”. Unlike Pokemon, however, you can’t forget a newly learned skill, so you may find yourself having to say goodbye to an ability that has proven very useful up until that point!
Kuu has a wide range of abilities, including simple buffs to his own attack and defense as well as more useful, practical skills such as the aforementioned “upgrade for free” option, a place to leave several items that you will bring back to town with you even if you get defeated — Mystery Dungeon-likes replace the usual roguelike permadeath with dropping all your non-equipped items and money on death — or immunity from traps in treasure chests, the most nasty of which can permanently drain levels from your equipment, forcing you to upgrade it again to get it back to where it was.
Sorcery Saga is not a particularly difficult game. The bosses at the end of each dungeon (including the final story boss) are especially pathetic, generally going down in just three or four hits if you’ve been diligently upgrading your equipment. But, like most Compile Heart titles, the enjoyment in this game is not so much from overcoming difficult challenges, but from how much you can overpower your character by taking full advantage of the mechanics on offer. And while initially appearing to be rather simple, Sorcery Saga has a pleasing amount of depth to its gameplay that allows you to experiment with building Pupuru in a variety of different ways using equipment and skill loadouts. The game also offers a 256-floor postgame dungeon once you’ve cleared the main story, so you can just look at the rest of the game as a warm-up for that if you so desire, because that certainly starts to offer a bit more of a challenge the further you go.
Couple the enjoyable gameplay, progression and exploration with the charming story (including some unlockable “non-sequitur” skits based on key items you randomly find in the dungeons) and you have a game that is pure Compile Heart through and through: colourful, friendly and welcoming — but with plenty of longevity and depth for those who care to put in that bit of extra effort.
I had a great time with Sorcery Saga: Curse of the Great Curry God, and if you enjoy a good bit of Mystery Dungeon crawling, I think you will too. And hey — if you want to watch me play through the game, I got you covered over on YouTube!
More about Sorcery Saga: Curse of the Great Curry God
Thanks to Ross at Ghostlight for the review copy of the game.
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