Helen's Mysterious Castle - Review  

Helen's Excellent Adventure
by Sam Marchello

Less than 20 Hours
+ Addictive gameplay
+ Solid localization
+ Thoughtful exploration and puzzles
- Not always easy to locate where to go next
- Lots of palette swapping
- Repetitive
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Japanese indie RPGs aren't exactly new to Western audiences, they are something that is slowly becoming more available to English-speaking audiences. While Playism isn't exactly a household name yet in the English RPG market, its releases Rime Berta and now Helen's Mysterious Castle have shown RPG fans that there's more to life than Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Helen's Mysterious Castle, though corny in name, has a surprising amount of content for its incredibly low two-dollar price point.

   Meet Helen, an amnesiac heroine who has no idea who she is or where she comes from. However, every person she encounters keeps calling her "the goddess." Furthermore, Helen is trapped in a floating mysterious castle with her 'brother' Ardis, and is dying to find out the truth about her captivity and this castle. The story itself is fairly straightforward, even a touch predictable, yet the simplicity of Helen's journey and her desire to explore the castle is in the game's atmosphere. Helen doesn't speak so a lot of the narrative is told through secondary characters or objects discovered while exploring. It's an interesting way to tell the story, but it is easy to miss bits and pieces if the player isn't checking every nook and cranny. Playism has done a solid job on the game's localization, as the writing fits the game's overall atmosphere well, even if the game's humor is a touch on the corny side.

   What isn't corny is the game's design. Although the game is built with RPG School 2000, there's something refreshing about its design. It's clear the developer, Satsu, was very thoughtful about the game's overall design, and it shows in how puzzles and exploration are handled. For starters, there are a lot of hidden passageways throughout the game that require the player to feel the path out. There are also a few puzzles that require some extra thinking, meant to challenge the player, yet it's not always obvious. The game also doesn't always give the next plot objective with ease, making it tricky to know where one needs to go next. It is, however, easy to get sidetracked from time to time, because the game has so many hidden items and goodies for Helen to obtain. There's no hand holding in Helen's Mysterious Castle, and while the lack of guidance might be frustrating for some, figuring out a lot of the game is its own reward.

! (Oh no, battle! As a silent heroine this is how I express myself.) ! (Oh no, battle! As a silent heroine this is how I express myself.)

   Another satisfying aspect of Helen's Mysterious Castle comes from the combat system. Battles are one-on-one, with Helen being able to carry up to eight pieces of equipment at one time in her arsenal. Equipment is upgraded through experience points, so instead of Helen leveling up, it's the equipment that gains the statistical boost. Each piece of equipment has ten ranks, which are reached by spending battle-granted experience. Since there are so many items throughout the game for Helen to equip, players will be juggling between what they want to keep in their inventory and what they want to drop. However, dropping an item doesn't mean it's permanently gone, as it can be retrieved in the game's treasury. Players are encouraged to mix and match the items in inventory because every enemy reacts differently to certain items.

   In terms of combat, Helen's Mysterious Castle has three areas where a player must pay attention. First is the effect of the equipment, which determines the amount of damage dealt. Next is defense, which is how much the weapon or spell will help in terms of Helen taking damage from enemies. Finally, there's the wait command, which tells the player how long it will take Helen and the enemy to perform their attacks. This system is very straightforward and easy to use, but it also makes battles incredibly strategic in the sense that players will have to do the math in order to figure out how many attacks they can deal based on an enemy's wait time. For example, if an enemy's wait is twenty-five seconds, and Helen uses a move that takes fifteen, she will still have ten more wait points to work with, meaning if she has a piece of equipment that requires ten wait points, she can set off another attack before the enemy gets its turn. Similarily, if Helen has her shield up while the enemy is attacking, the damage she takes will be reduced significantly. It's not always easy to predict the enemy's next move, so players need to be on their guard in case the enemy chooses a move that could potentially throw the battle in its favor. This one-on-one battle system cannot be played aggressively, and encourages Helen to have to think on her feet to negate as much damage as possible. This makes for a fun, fast, yet very strategic combat system.

? (Question marks are the best response. Means I don't have to talk! I just have to look puzzled!) ? (Question marks are the best response. Means I don't have to talk! I just have to look puzzled!)

   Death in battle also isn't the end, as Helen is transported back to her house or the closest inn. There's no penalty for dying, but Helen will have to retrace her steps if no shortcuts are available. This makes for a lot of repetition in going back through dungeons and also having to refight a lot of enemies. Thankfully, mini-bosses and bosses stay dead, and each dungeon is surprisingly short and easy to navigate. The game can easily be completed in seven hours, and for those who love the dungeon crawling aspects of the game, the English release offers a bonus dungeon with harder enemies for fans to explore.

   In terms of graphics, Helen's Mysterious Castle looks like any other 16-bit RPG out there. However, there's actually a great attention to detail in the game in how objects, items and dungeons are arranged, making for very thoughtful game design. The sprites are well detailed and crisp, and the inclusion of Phantasy Star IV-esque cutscenes are a nice bonus — the downside being of course that there isn't enough of them. There is, however, the issue of palette swapping, which is always common in any RPGMaker title, particularly in the the enemies one faces. The soundtrack in Helen's Mysterious Castle is wonderfully catchy and has quite a bit of variety. A lot of the music is easy on the ears and quite hummable.

   Helen's Mysterious Castle is a perplexing game, but it never outstays its welcome. A lot of the game's challenge comes from players having to rethink their strategies to ensure success, and sometimes that takes a few tries. Helen's Mysterious Castle is easy to recommend for those who love a challenge and are willing to work hard for their rewards, and with such a low price of admission, it's worth checking out.

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