Sunday, April 28, 2013

Embric of Wulfhammer's Castle

Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle is a good RPG.

That’s a hard sentence for me to type; at least, it’s hard to type when I know I’m doing so as a matter of public record. I’d much rather I could say that Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle is mindless crap. Nothing more than a load of base, degrading fanservice. Man would I like to be able to say that. Things would be much simpler. But what can ya do.

Alright, so, let’s just get this out in the open. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle--and I imagine that’s probably most/all of you, as it’s not, to my understanding, all that widely-known--it’s an RPG created using RPG Maker 2003, available for free download via that mysterious device known as “Teh Internetz.” I’m a bit leery of counting a legally unofficial and unrecognized work as an official entry in my list of completed RPGs, but EoWC is a sizable, self-contained, complete product, so I reckon it more or less qualifies as being “real” enough for my standards--after all, I count Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden as a “real” RPG for my list of conquests, and that one, if anything, is even less legally stable. So Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle is a free, downloadable Independant RPG. And it is...well, frankly, it’s pretty heavy on the lesbian fanservice porn. If that’s not just outright the basis of the game, it’s at least a very major part of it.

If you have any familiarity with these rants, then my reticence to acknowledge EoWC in a positive light probably comes as no surprise to you. I hate bath scenes, I get extremely angry about inexplicably skimpy outfits and the over-sexualization of female characters, and I even take issue with the fact that homosexual characters and relationships in RPGs are so much more often gay women than men (since I suspect this makes it more about the titillation of the assumed male-dominant audience than about any intent of equal representation). Well, don’t misunderstand me here--the explicit content of Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle by and large does still annoy me. It’s usually excessive and unnecessary, and the weakest parts of the game (such as the Scheherazade and Hurraine arcs, along with the stupid Duchess-can’t-keep-her-dress-intact-for-5-minutes-straight running joke) are invariably the ones that rely almost entirely on the fanservice and sexual content. Even in cases where I actually feel like it’s not unwarranted, it’s still more explicit than it needs to be.

But if I may shock myself for a moment, I’d actually like to defend it to a small extent, at least by comparison to sexualized fanservice found in other games. Needless and overbearing as the sexual nature of this game is at times, I have to give Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle enough credit to point out that it’s not pretending to be something greater. What I mean is, you take a game like, say, Mass Effect 3, and you’re taking a product which makes the claim in its method and matter of being dignified, having value as art. Mass Effect 3 is clearly a story that the audience is meant to take seriously, is clearly something we are meant to believe its creators took seriously, and as such it wants to be seen as having some intellectual weight. This is the case for most RPGs--their creators want their product, their story, their intellectual creation, to be taken seriously, and we players expect to do so unless given reason early on to do otherwise. So when Mass Effect 3 changes the appearance of the character Ashley to suddenly look 300% more like an underwear model and has EDI sporting a camel toe so prominent it looks like an arcane portal to the otherrealms, not to mention also tosses us the big-titted, easily-bedded Diana Allers, who dresses and looks like a reject from Jersey Shore, it stands out as a break from the character of the game, an oily film of sleaze coating what’s supposed to be something better.

This sort of thing is, of course, by no means restricted to ME3; that’s just an example. But there’s the classic bath scene idiocy of anime-styled RPGs, if we want to look at RPGs from the other side of the Pacific. When a band of heroes start acting like hormonal lower primates at a hot spring in an RPG that until that point has held itself with some basic composure, it stands out as a lowering of its characters to a state they normally are too dignified to stoop to. And don’t even get me started on the fucktarded swimsuit competition in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. And so on; I imagine you’re getting my meaning.

Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle really makes no such pretenses. At the start of the game it spells out to you pretty clearly what content the game’s gonna have in it. Additionally, its main character, the Duchess Catherine...I wouldn’t exactly call her promiscuous, per say, but she’s not reserved by nature, and it’s clear early on that she’s pretty open, both emotionally AND physically. And maybe this isn’t entirely fair of me, but it somehow feels different to have fanservice in a game that’s 100% free and has no aims of making money whatsoever. I guess it makes it seem less disingenuous to know that the needlessly sexual content isn’t some crass, insulting marketing scheme to sell to the lowest common denominator--it’s there because it’s meant to be, not because some chortling, greedy scumbag assumes the worst of his audience in order to encourage better sales. Does that actually make it a little better, or is it all in my head? Can’t say for sure, but my head’s the one coming up with all these words that keep appearing on the screen, so I gotta go with it. Lastly, while you can’t turn off the tiny little naked sprites and the sometimes explicit dialogue, the game DOES provide you with an item which will prevent the explicit cutscene art from being shown, so if adult visuals genuinely bother you, the game’s at least taking a step to be accommodating.

So what does that all add up to? Well, I’m still not thrilled about the amount of sexual material in Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, and I still see it as almost entirely unnecessary to have it to the extent the game does, but...it’s really not as bad as it could be, all things considered, and it doesn’t really feel particularly degrading, either. It’s not so hard to look past it all to recognize EoWC’s good qualities. And really, even if it was, I’d be a hypocrite twice over if I didn’t do so anyway--I’ve always advocated judging an RPG for its storytelling content rather than its bare surface qualities, its window-dressings per say, after all, and in all honesty, I’ve written a few explicit fanfics in my time that I think, if I may say so myself, are nonetheless fairly decent stories.

So, that said, and said in probably way more paragraphs than were really necessary, what are Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle’s good qualities? Well, the first one I encountered is that it’s really quite amusing. Right from the get-go, Duchess Catherine’s comments and dialogue as she examines various objects in the background and interacts with other characters are very funny. Sometimes they’re funny on their own, often they’re funny commentary about RPGs in general (both video games and the tabletop variety). If you’re familiar with Dungeons and Dragons and video game RPGs in general, you’re probably going to find several moments of this game quite amusing. While EoWC has no small number of serious, touching, and dark moments to it, the pervading feel of the game is a lighthearted one, and the fact that it got a chuckle out of me so quickly was a lot of what drew my interest at first, gave me the inclination not to just dismiss it outright.*

Of course, the amusement factor is just the icing on the cake, the preliminary fun factor to butter you up and get your attention. More important than that is the quality of the game’s protagonist. Catherine at first seems very simplistic, very damsel-in-distress-esque, very...princess-y, but as you progress through the game, you can begin to recognize some strong depth to her, along with some subtle but solid character development. Her exceptionally dark, tormented back history, her craftiness and more than adept skill at political maneuvering and diplomacy, her enthusiasm and wish to form a positive connection with all those around her, the interesting ambiguity about whether she is, in the end, a good or evil character, her insecurities about her future and related subconscious resentment against princesses, her fleeing from the title of being Greyghast’s heir and whether or not there might be some truth to it...there’s a lot of angles to Catherine’s character, a lot of fronts that she grows as a person on, and nigh all of them are pretty interesting. The only criticism that I might have about it is that a lot of this character development is understated, left somewhat to the audience to contemplate and recognize...but I don’t really make that complaint, because I feel that this is one of those rare times in an RPG where this light touch is done skillfully and adequately. This isn’t the common case of a writer mistaking insufficient explanation and exploration as subtle writing; Catherine’s multifaceted character and her development actually ARE subtle.

The rest of the cast is not as interesting to me, I must say. To be sure, the characters by and large are adequate. But while several of them have at least a little something of interest to their characters, such as Louni and Carmina, no one in the game is as deep or well-written a character as Catherine by far. That said, though...well, they don’t really need to be. Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle is pretty much completely a personal story, not a wide-reaching one. Catherine’s not the main character caught up in a story, as is typically the case with RPGs. Rather, this is a story about her; she’s the central figure of all its events, and it’s told entirely from her perspective. This is a story which in its entirety revolves around her, not the events she happens to become involved in, a fact that is even more emphasized and logical once one has seen the True Ending and knows the truth of the game’s events. To that end, the worth of the cast is not necessarily so much dependant on the characters’ worth in their own right, but rather their worth as contributors and foils to Catherine’s character through their interactions and relationships with her.

When viewed in that light, the cast is pretty solidly good. Through the Duchess’s conversations, adventures, and often courtships with Alice, Louni, Carmina, Grettel, the Good Dwarf, and most of the other characters both major and minor, we get an understanding of Catherine’s character, and come to know the world she lives in and her relationship to its workings. Even characters who have little to no significance and/or interesting qualities can be worthwhile at times for the perspectives they give us of Catherine, such as with Rain--despite her being onscreen for only about 5 minutes, Rain’s history with Catherine and the way the two of them discuss it is well-done and feels very emotionally realistic. Another example is found with Scheherazade--her story arc is kind of meandering and ultimately kind of negative, but even it has a little redeeming value for the decent scene it has wherein Catherine talks to Alice about the pain of being dumped for the first time, and Alice reveals that Catherine’s innocent polyamory** can be similarly hurtful to the ones who love her. It’s a nice scene.***

Speaking of the way the cast interacts with Catherine, that brings us to my next point as to why this RPG is good: the romances. Admittedly, Catherine’s explorations of love with the people around her are not always great. Gwearst gets way too little quality time with the Duchess for the love on either side to seem convincing, and some of the others are just not particularly interesting. But there are also some really great romantic moments in this game. Catherine’s connection with Alice winds up being pretty touching, even though a lot of it is sort of unsaid, and the similarly subtle love she shares with Louni has some very nice moments, and is even, at times, kind of intriguing. The Nereid seems silly and pointless at first, but I actually found myself very moved later at the strength of the devotion and affection she and Catherine hold for each other, one which cries out across and pulls them together from opposite ends of time and even dimensions.

And Carmina...the love story of Catherine and Carmina’s got it all. They share their histories and personalities with one another, they share a touching chemistry, they’re each willing to give absolutely everything up for the other (Catherine’s willing to make herself the enemy of the most powerful adventuring group in the world for Carmina and to use every resource she has to protect her, and/or go with her to the lands of the Dark Elves (the Drow, essentially, which any Dungeons and Dragons player knows is not a pleasant prospect for a human), Carmina’s willing to restrain her natural inclinations of evil for Catherine’s sake and give up on returning to her home in order to be with Catherine, etc), there’s a very touching aspect of Catherine’s taking a leap of faith in trusting her love to Carmina, and generally I’d just have to say that everything about Carmina’s and Catherine’s romance is emotional, moving, authentic, and natural. This is honestly the best love story I’ve seen for quite a while, actually and easily beating out most of the romances of other, “real” games I’ve seen in the past few years, including those of The Last Story’s, most of those of Mass Effect 3’s, and those of Sakura Wars 5, a game designed specifically around love interests. Seriously, I may very well find myself at the end of this year changing my Greatest Romances List to include this one.

And as a final note about the cast, what about the villains in this game? Well...Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle is very, very unconventional, because the three major villains of the game, whose actions actually have the most impact on either the game’s heroine or the world around them, are virtually non-entities. Vecnatrix the lich lord is the world’s major villain, but he only actually shows up in the game a couple times, and then only for a moment or two--not to mention that it’s called into question at one point just how truly dangerous he actually is. The main villain of the game is unknown until you meet them at the very, very end, and while their hand is in all things until that point, they also, at the same time, have not really manipulated much of anything. And then there’s Bad King Greyghast the Terrible, who, at the opening of the game, has been dead for many years. Aside from these three, the most you see for villains are incidental vehicles for plot/character development.

Yet unconventional does not mean bad, at least not in this case. As I said, this RPG is a personal story, not a far-reaching one, and as far as I’m concerned it needs no more villainous presence than it has. Vecnatrix serves an adequate purpose simply by existing in the capacity that he does. The final villain is not just your standard last-minute superboss thrown in for no reason, like Final Fantasy 9’s Necron or every single goddamn numbered Suikoden’s last boss--this one is properly tied to the secretive and layered plot, and more interaction with the events of the game before the final confrontation would have jeopardized the integrity of that plot. That said, I feel like Greyghast really pulls his weight the most as a villain, even though it’s all after the fact. The legacy of torment he inflicted upon his family, Duchess Catherine in particular, is shown very effectively through flashback, nightmare, and unhappy remembrance at various times in the game. Greyghast’s evil is shown only very subtly, only through small windows and through the scars it left upon Catherine, but you know something, that’s enough to make him one of the darkest, sickest evildoers I’ve seen in RPGs, and the dark legacy he leaves in the scars upon Catherine's psyche has more of a hand in her personal journey postmortem than the other, still living villains have.****

So the game’s fun and funny, the protagonist is really good, the rest of the cast is adequate, the villains’re good enough, and there’re some very good romantic parts. Sounds spiffy so far. So how’s Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle for plot? Turns out it’s quite good, at least by my reckoning. Like many other aspects of the game, it’s pretty unconventional. The setting has a lot more thought and background put into it than seems needed--there’s a lot of background to Aresland that has barely any relevance to the actual game events and characters, yet knowing that the game’s maker has put unnecessary thought into his setting pleases me, because that’s the sign of someone who genuinely cares about the story he’s telling and has enough plans for it to give it depth. A lot of the game is kind of non-linear, in that you can determine a lot of what order you do things in, and whether you do some things at all. The nonlinearity is fairly easy to pull off, since there doesn’t seem to actually BE much of a story for most of the game--you basically are just watching Catherine go about her daily task of building relationships with those around her as she waits for Embric to return. That said, the game does gain some direction after a time, with a certain number of these nonlinear events coming to a head in an attack by 1000 Anti-Paladins, after which, if you’re clever enough and have been thorough in your playing, you can set yourself on the track to the True Ending. Getting to that point (and past the false trail the game throws at you) allows you to see and understand the true nature of the game’s events (though it’s a little hard to suss out at first). It winds up being a small story, really, but emotionally powerful and layered enough that it packs a hell of a punch.

THIS PARAGRAPH IS SPOILERS. GO STRAIGHT TO NEXT PARAGRAPH. DO NOT PASS GO. DO NOT COLLECT $200. I have to also note here that this is probably the only time where I’ve really liked an “It was all a dream” ending. I’ve seen some before that were okay and appropriate, but we all know that this kind of ending is infamous for being lame and cheesy.***** But when you add the fact that Catherine’s gift of prophecy makes that dream a set of events yet to come, examples of what could be, you get a case where anything and everything can be as real as she wants it to be, where she can use her foresight to manipulate events later (such as with Gizmod) to (presumably) create a better kingdom, and still arrive at Wulfhammer’s Castle to experience the joys and meet the people she’ll love during the events that she has (and we have) seen during the game’s span. In other words, you get every positive of the all-a-dream scenario does, and none of the downsides (after all, you can’t feel that the time in the dream was wasted or get upset over the fact that it all wasn’t real, because it prepared Catherine for what was to come and let her know that her life would have some happiness (an important thing given her state as her uncle’s captive) and it all WILL be real in as much capacity as she wills it). And I like the fact that she must struggle to return to reality, and keep her wonderful memories of things to come. I also like that there ARE some subtle hints to the nature of the game being a dream and Catherine’s foresight in the game, small enough that they don’t tip you off as anything unusual at the time but connected enough that they suddenly make sense in whole new ways once you know the truth. Good stuff.

So yeah. That’s Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle. It really, honestly is a very good RPG. Maybe not for anyone who’s not comfortable with explicit adult content (or anyone who, for unfathomable reasons, really enjoys RPG battle systems--there’s fewer than 10 battles in the whole game; it’s almost entirely story-driven), but if you can stick with it long enough to give it an honest chance, you may find yourself really into it. Saint Bomber (the guy who created the game) said in an email conversation with me that he “set out to write a naughty story with some heart, and ended up writing a hearty story with some naughtiness,” and that’s exactly what this is--and I love a hearty story. And hey, it’s free. I’ve paid to play many, many worse RPGs than this one, and chances are good that you have, too. So if you’re interested, why not give it a shot?

You can download it at
http://wulfhammer.org/ if you’re interested (get the Deluxe edition). UPDATE: The official site seems to be down for good. You can now find it at: http://www.freeindiegam.es/2012/12/embric-of-wulfhammers-castle-saint-bomber/ . You may also want to check out the closest thing this game has to a guide, found at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1x3_9cWCMpCgdyiIiVNx4iIvOCfJMbKgfYOIz4zmSZVw/edit?hl=en&pli=1#heading=h.oot0j9xbixac if you’re interested--I actually do advocate using this guide (although it’s a bit confusing to follow), because you can easily miss quite a few endings and other things if you don’t know what you’re doing (including how to get the True Ending).

Goodness, I’ve been having a wonderful time with Indie RPGs. Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden, Bastion, Geneforge 1, and Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch have all been enjoyable. Maybe these hipsters are on to something...













* It also got MAJOR brownie points for the fact that one of the peasants at the castle, who all initially just parrot one-line NPC catchphrases, says “Times are tough.” As a general rule, game developers, if you want to get on my good side, a humorous reference to the old, discontinued, but pretty awesome webcomic RPG World is very effective. The only thing that could possibly beat it out is a reference to the equally old, completed, and even more awesome Adventurers! webcomic.

** It’s a strange concept but I really think that it’s a fairly accurate way to describe the way the Duchess romantically connects with multiple people.

*** Sadly, what Catherine takes from this conversation is “have sex with all your love interests at the same time to avoid jealousy.” But aside from that, it’s a good scene.

**** Side Note Because Not Everyone Cares About Ponies: I’m actually reminded a bit with Greyghast of King Sombra from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Though I wouldn’t say Sombra is a particularly great villain, I would argue that he was perhaps the very nastiest of the ones we’ve seen as of the end of Season 3, for the same reason that I find Greyghast so effective: the subtle way the villainy he enacted is shown. We don’t really see much of what Sombra did as tyrant of the Crystal Empire, nor do we see much of note in his actual presence in the show, but the way the crystal ponies act is a huge indicator of just how horrible he truly was--they’re dulled, introverted, joyless, and even just remembering how things were before they were liberated from him is a frightening prospect. Same deal with Greyghast--it’s the torment in Catherine’s recollections that give us a picture of just how bad he really was. It’s a more subtle way of telling the audience how evil a villain was, but if you’re smart enough to really pick up on it, consider it, then it speaks volumes.

***** Which made it all the more amusing that a HUGE amount of Mass Effect 3 players sincerely believed that Mass Effect 3’s ending was secretly going to be revealed to be an “all a dream” scenario--and that they would have preferred that to the ending Bioware actually did create. What does it say about writers when the most absurd cop-out of all time is actually preferable to the ending they created?

4 comments:

  1. First off, major kudos for the option to turn off explicit content. Such a feature cannot possibly be unwelcome, even if such content is rare in games. Second, now that you've posted about it, I can look this thing up.

    One thing that confuses me for lack of a better word is the mix of great and not so great qualities I see so often, particularly when the weaker elements aren't down to the creator's skillset, like an amateur story or comic with an undercurrent of genuine depth to it. I refer to works to seemingly approach thoughtful exploration and stop so short. Or, in this case of sexualized humor and characters, less can really be more. I think explicit content immediately cheapens things by way of catering to base impulse, ultimately losing in that contest by the unfathomable amount of straight up porn. That, and waving away poignant development with anime gag humor like that moment of great writing never happened, lest the writer need to commit to that quality, god forbid. That shit is a fucking cancer upon fiction. But that's me.

    But in the end, the game likely deserves some slack for not pretending to be something it isn't, and my being a pretentious ass compels me to be stuffy. I may look into this game, even if mainly because I have a very slight familiarity with RPGMaker 2000/2003/XP, and love the ever-increasing opportunies and resources for indie development, even if the RPGMaker community is tragically unfruitful from my last glimpse of it. Any completed work deserves accolades on those grounds alone.

    And hey, if it genuinely amuses me, I may ride it out and see where it takes me.

    *Subtle villainy can be amazing. Part of what made me hate certain characters in Final Fantasy Tactics so much is that they just did what they did, with little talk or fuss, or things they did were merely implied. Far more compelling than seeing dastardly villains do dastardly things for the sake of being dastardly. I fear I'm getting interested in this game.


    Regarding ME: The dream/storytime theory sounds so damned eloquent given the branching nature of Shepard's behavior in the games, and how you can alter the events of the story with choices, especially seeing as I'm never told which choice is correct.

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    1. Jesus Christ Playing Poker with Peter Parker, do I ever agree with you on the fucking anime gags that dissipate meaningful, good scenes and make it so they seem like they never existed. So sick of that crap.

      Anyway, I do hope you'll enjoy it if you do check it out. Mostly, though, I hope you'll find it at least somewhat decent, enough that I can get some confirmation that I am not crazy and it DOES have some worth.

      And yeah, the ME3 theory regarding the "It's all a dream" possibility is far, far more eloquent than what Bioware actually created.

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  2. I need technical help with this game. I've been playing fine on Windows 10 for something like 15 hours of gameplay. I would shut my laptop without exiting the game, and didn't encounter any problems. The last time I did so, the Duchess wouldn't change any outfits. I'd click on a new outfit (say, the cocktail dress), it would register as worn in the menu, but she didn't appear to be wearing it. Other characters don't react to the outfit, either, which is a huge problem if I want to wear Black Armor or seduce Louni with the Outlaw Bustier. I reset my computer and re-downloaded the game, but all my old save files were kept (how I don't know) and the problem is still there. My game is un-playable.

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    1. Sorry to say that I don't really know how to help you on this. I'm definitely not tech-savvy on such things. The best I could say is that some games, and this may be one of them, will put save files into a specific folder on your computer which is located elsewhere from where the game itself is. Check your Documents folder for anything that might be related, or perhaps check a folder where you have the RPG Maker program generally stored. I don't know if that will help, but it's all I can really think could be causing this.

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