Andrew in Steamland:
Momodora the Explorer
By Andrew Erickson
Indie metroidvanias are about as plentiful as stench at a Smash Bros tournament, so what exactly is so special about Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight that I had to write an article about it? It isn’t like I’m a big fan of Momodora, considering this is the first game in the series I’ve played and it wasn’t until I did some research that I found out this is a prequel to the other three games in the series. It was just a Christmas impulse buy that I didn’t get around to playing until I noticed it sitting in my Steam library four months later and installed out of boredom.
I’ll admit to being a sucker for the genre, though. On top of genre-defining masterpieces like the 2D Metroid games and Koji Igarashi’s tenure with Castlevania, I’ve also sunk far too much time into Cave Story, Hollow Knight, Ori and the Blind Forest, Rex Rocket, Bunny Must Die, and Axiom Verge. The metroidvania format is an inherently compelling one, with map squares to be filled out, items that enhance the player character’s movement and attacks, plenty of secrets to sniff out, and backtracking to pad out the game and make the player feel accomplished for remembering the significance of that one shaft they couldn’t access five hours ago because they didn’t yet have the ability to turn into a cat. The light dusting of RPG progression on top mitigates frustration on the part of players who refuse to get good, giving them the option to grind into godhood and remove all challenge from the game. But there are also optional challenges and cleverly hidden content for dedicated players, plus alternate gameplay modes to test mastery of the game’s mechanics.
“That’s all very nice, but that doesn’t tell me why I should play this game specifically,” you might say. Perhaps you’re thinking that I’m so impatient for Bloodstained that I’ll play anything to put off the cravings another month or two. But that would be a rude dismissal of what Momodora brings to the table. Here is a tale of adventure exquisitely dressed up in all the trappings of gothic horror. The player must defeat the cursed queen of a dark and hostile land, lest the evil emanating from her castle engulf the world. From the haunted cathedral to the moonlit showdown with a vampire OK so it’s just Castlevania, but it’s a very good Castlevania clone. Is that what you wanted?
How, then, does this game set itself apart? What recommends it over replaying the games that inspired it? As it turns out, the great defining differences consist of what you can’t do in Momodora. You can’t equip different weapons or armor pieces. From beginning to end, you have a leaf that functions as your melee weapon, and a bow for ranged attacks. There are also three equipment slots for active items and two for passive items. That’s the full extent of character customization. In theory, it makes for a more balanced game than, say, Symphony of the Night, where a single random drop can trivialize the entire game by handing the player the mystical Sword of +1 We Didn’t Test This Shit. I think that’s the idea. In practice, all the really broken weapons are locked behind defeating bosses without taking any damage, meaning the only people who will obtain the boss items are the ones good enough that they don’t need them. On the plus side, one of the bosses is a witch the player must defeat by smacking her tits.
My experience with Momodora involved beating it in two days, then replaying it to collect the boss items I missed, then a third time in hard mode, in which taking any damage results in instant death. It’s obvious that something about the game grabbed me and won’t let go, since I wasn’t even planning to write about it. There are at least a dozen games readers want me to go over (and I’ll get to them, trust me), but here I am writing about some Kickstarter game cribbed from the doodles in IGA’s notebook margins. And that’s the crux of the matter: do I like this game because it’s that good, or because it reminds me of other games I love? Does the difference matter, as long as I’m having fun? I don’t know – I’m just asking questions. But here’s what I do know: I’m now interested in trying the other games in the series.
At the end of the day, this is an entry in an established series within an established genre. The well-crafted sprite art, exploration-based platforming, dismal atmosphere, and fluid combat are reason enough to play it. I wanted to fault it for being short, but after replaying it twice, that’s less of an issue. In fact, on repeat playthroughs I appreciated how much freedom I had to tackle different parts of the map in whatever order I wanted and to skip large parts of the game. Someone who just wants to beat the game can get through it in an hour, while someone who wants to explore every nook and cranny will be rewarded with items and characters that serve no apparent purpose but to flesh out the world. At one point near the end of the game I found a dead end with a music box and stood there for a minute trying to think that its use might be. The secret is that there is none; the developers simply put it in because they could. And I think that’s neat.
It isn’t enough to make a game with colored map squares and breakable walls. There’s a certain atmosphere many of the best metroidvanias have, a sense of isolation that makes exploration more satisfying. Cave Story takes place on a war-torn flying island, Castlevania games are almost invariably set within Dracula’s castle, and Momodora opens in a verdant grove before moving to a city blighted by a curse that transforms people into mindless monsters. With few exceptions, those who survive only want to run or hide. The scene is set with muted color palettes that strategically use red to make important scenery and characters pop, as well as a lovely soundtrack filled with understated piano melodies. I was having a blast sifting through the game world, soaking in the atmosphere. Then it ended. As always when I review a good game, I feel like there wasn’t quite enough. My first playthrough only took only 5 hours, even though I filled in 100% of the map. There was never a place where I got stuck, even when facing the true final boss. Once I had the air dash upgrade, the game pretty well solved itself. I think that’s a shame, since there are glimmers of a much better, more challenging game visible here and there.
My favorite moment, both while playing and as I look back on the game, is the fight against Pardoner Fennel. I’m a sucker for boss fights that serve as a foil to the player character; in a game filled with undead monsters, here is a human enemy who matches the player in mobility, melee, and ranged combat. On losing most of her health, she curses the player, preventing the use of active items. I don’t know why no other bosses do this, since it significantly alters the dynamic of the fight by depriving the player of all healing items. Every other boss is susceptible to my combo of the item that sacrifices HP for a 100% damage boost and the one that boosts attack power 100% at low health. In a way, it’s refreshing to fight an enemy who kicks the crutches out from under me and forces me to play seriously. Fennel is a good fight and has the best music in the game. Naturally, she was one of the first bosses I fought, leaving me waiting for the other shoe to drop right until I defeated the cursed queen’s true final form and the credits rolled.
I know how the debate goes: if you think the game’s too easy, why not cripple yourself? Nobody said you have to use all those items and power-ups the game hands you! Then I’m supposed to fire off a reply like, “if something is detrimental to gameplay, it shouldn’t be part of the game in the first place. Why is the burden on the player to do the developer’s work and balance the game?” That whole song and dance is as boring as it is reductionist. I can’t fault the game for giving me options; I just would have appreciated some more wrinkles to the boss fights. Most of them feel like they’re missing a phase, or just some kind of trick to tie it all together. Therein lies the verdict: however much I criticize it, this isn’t a bad game at all – just a small one.
Is this the price I have to pay? Out of all the games in this oversaturated genre, I find a beautiful little gem and wring all the content out of it in under 10 hours. Now what am I supposed to do? Play Rex Rocket? I can’t stand that piece of shit. If anything, Momodora has made the wait for Bloodstained even more unbearable. Looks like I’ll have to sift through the mountain of anime games people have sent me. And the worst part is that the next Momodora game was canceled because fans didn’t like that it was different. Thanks for breaking my heart, Bombservice.
Maybe I’ll go with something lighthearted next time. A nice, relaxing RPG that numbs my senses and makes me forget. No more horror castles or curses. That way, Bloodstained will stand out more when it finally comes out. Yeah, that sounds pleasant. Plus, there was that one thing I told Max I was going to play.