Developer/Publisher: Nippon Ichi Software
Reviewed On: PlayStation 4
Also Available For: Nintendo Switch
The Basics: The Cruel King and The Great Hero is a fairly simple turn-based JRPG about a young human girl, Yuu, who was raised by her late father’s reformed arch enemy The Dragon/Demon King. The story follows Yuu’s quest to become a Great Hero like her father before her by helping out a varied and colorful cast of monsters with surprisingly mundane problems and making friends along the way. It is, in short, charming as all get out.
The most immediately obvious thing about Cruel King is its art style, a heavily stylized look that evokes fairytales and childhood storybooks. What’s less immediately obvious just from looking at screenshots and other promotional materials is how much of the game that aesthetic runs through; for instance, the game only has one voice actor, who serves as the narrator during certain scenes and switches into different voices for different characters the way a parent reading their child to sleep might. It’s a very charming creative choice that works exceptionally well even if, like me, you don’t speak Japanese and thus aren’t the best at picking up subtler vocal details in said language. Tons of other little details add to the effect even further, from characters having fun verbal tics to the fact that most of the names of monster species are just slightly misspelled animals, such as sheap or lizzerd.
The game is a visual and narrative treat, and while the gameplay isn’t quite as strong its not exactly a weak point, just kind of average. Battles employ a refreshingly simple, classic turn-based system with two exceptions. One: party members have very low SP/MP/whatever limits (Yuu only had 9 by the end of the game) but MP regenerates every turn, which is an interesting way of encouraging liberal use of skills. Two: hitting enemies in their weakness stuns them and allows Yuu to show mercy, sparing their lives and releasing them back into the world. It’s a cool system (albeit not the most original by this point) that ties in well with the overall themes of the game, but is undercut by the fact that it has no real impact on the story and a negligible one on the gameplay. I think releasing monsters makes them more likely to drop items at the cost of lower experience gain, but I’m not certain of that. Either way, higher drop rates aren’t super useful because the game is very easy, especially if you take the time to do all the side-quests which will have you running back and forth through the same areas a lot. On that note, the level design is a bit simplistic – exploration is done in a series of connected 2.5D environments that get a little repetitive in the late game due to the distances being travelled and how often Yuu and her companions have to run through the same ones to fetch such-and-such item.
I will say to Cruel King’s credit that the monotony of the side-quests is broken up by how much they all actually feel like they mean something. Nearly every single one is part of a longer chain of side quests, and some of those chains open up others later on because of connections the quest-givers have to other characters in the monster village. In fact, while I can’t say this for an absolute certainty I’m pretty sure that the final side-quest it all culminates in can’t even be taken unless the player has done every other side-quest first. The ultimate effect of this continuity and cohesion is that the characters and the world they inhabit actually feels a lot like a world – or at the very least, a small part of one. There’s something very compelling and heartwarming to me in seeing a JRPG hero whose concerns and deeds exist in a very localized scale, especially since the narrative concludes that these little things done to help others make one just as much a hero as saving the world does.
And of course, what would a JRPG be without a lovely score? It wouldn’t be great. Fortunately, The Cruel King and The Great Hero doesn’t have that problem, because the soundtrack is in fact quite lovely! It serves as one more ingredient in the recipe for a wonderful classic-yet-lighthearted-fairytale atmosphere alongside the stylized art and the cast.
The Cruel King and The Great Hero is an absolute delight, even if it’s not quite perfect. The length and repetitiveness of certain parts later on can feel a bit dull, but believe me when I say it is absolutely worth seeing through to the end. Without giving anything away, the ending of both the main and secondary story are as cathartic as they are heartwarming – which is to say extremely, and really, what more can you want from an RPG?
The Cruel King and the Great Hero is a wonderful original fairy tale story let down slightly by gameplay that is nothing particularly special, but taken as a whole it is nevertheless worth seeing through.