An Indescribable Christmas Carol
Cthulhu has come a long way since gracing the yellowed pages of Weird Tales magazine in 1928. The colossal elder god has become the, uh, tentacled face of author H. P. Lovecraft’s universe-spanning mythos, and is no stranger to video games these days. While most games featuring Cthulhu are dark and gritty horror offerings, the three-person crew at Zeboyd Games (Cosmic Star Heroine) had a more unique vision. Cthulhu Saves Christmas, a standalone prequel to 2011’s Cthulhu Saves the World, makes the eldritch god the star of his very own comedic RPG.
The premise of Cthulhu Saves Christmas is as charming as it is simple. After awakening from his slumber in his house at R’yleh on Christmas Eve, Cthulhu finds a present waiting for him. Because even elder gods want a nice present from Santa Claus, Cthulhu eagerly opens it, only to have his powers drained in an instant. He vows revenge against Santa, but quickly learns that the League of Christmas Evil has kidnapped Santa and is replacing his presents with the exact opposite of what the recipient wants.
Rescue the Non-Euclidean Chimney Dweller
On his journey to begrudgingly save Santa, Cthulhu is joined by three companions. Crystal Claus, Santa’s granddaughter who promises Cthulhu ultimate power if he rescues her grandfather; a young, chicken-obsessed Baba Yaga; and Belsnickel (I see you, fans of The Office!) – a Santa-like figure in a ratty coat who enjoys whipping naughty children a little too much. The interactions between the motley crew are hilarious – especially when the narrator (the unofficial fifth party member) joins in on the fun.
The story breaks the fourth wall frequently, and all characters are aware that they’re within a video game. This type of humor can potentially be grating, but the game’s script is witty and keeps the story moving. While you are rewarded with items and equipment for spending time with your comrades between dungeons, I greatly enjoyed the dialogue and interactions. Like in Dragon Quest, you can even chat with your party while in a dungeon to hear some optional conversations.
Quirky dialogue and self-aware characters make up much of the game’s appeal, but that isn’t to say that Cthulhu Saves Christmas doesn’t have a lot to offer with its gameplay. As with other games developed by Zeboyd, the combat mechanics here are clearly inspired by 16-bit Japanese RPGs. Unlike the “more is better” mentality of those older games, however, an effort is made to reduce some of the more tedious upkeep needed in between battles.
After each battle, your health is completely recovered and your items are restored. The catch is that you can only bring four items into battle, so you’ll want to bring some that complement your characters’ abilities. Similar to items, each character can choose four abilities to bring into battle, but four more are randomly placed in a second ability row at the start of each battle. You’ll have to change out your abilities and items frequently depending on what attributes your equipment benefits. It’s fun to mix and match abilities, but between what you get in town (you can earn items by developing your “R’ylehtionships”) and what you find in dungeons, there might be a little too much equipment/ability-shifting.
Battles themselves keep you on your toes from turn to turn, and you’ll rarely, if ever, find yourself hammering on a simple attack button. Most abilities can only be used once before they need to be recharged, which can be accomplished by defending during a turn. If you don’t strategize efficiently and keep your abilities refreshed, you might end up low on health with no healing abilities or items that can be used during that turn.
Much like in this year’s excellent Pillars of Dust, the streamlined nature of the game makes it a joy to play throughout the 8-10 hour journey. Each dungeon has a set number of encounters before you are free to wander at your own leisure. Even then, you can easily predict and avoid random encounters if you choose, though you might find yourself underleveled if you skip battles too often. And for those of you who can’t grind enough in an RPG, you can even manually start a battle from the party menu.
Graphics and Sound From Beyond
Cthulhu Saves Christmas features beautiful pixel art throughout. The sprites all convey a surprising amount of character and backgrounds have a ridiculous amount of attention to detail. Each of the main characters also has a hand-drawn portrait during dialogue sequences, and artist Bill Stiernberg’s character designs are as charming as ever. Battles are fully animated as well, and wouldn’t look out of place if compared to the graphics in some of the finest 16-bit RPGs.
Music is catchy and upbeat, but not afraid to get into some hard rock territory with the battle themes. If you enjoy the metal-influenced music in games like Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest, you’ll absolutely enjoy what this has to offer. And of course, being a Christmas-themed title, there are plenty of tracks with remixes of popular Christmas songs. Just don’t be too surprised when things jump up a few dozen notches in intensity (and awesomeness).
Heed the Call
Cthulhu Saves Christmas has just about everything one could want from a Christmas-themed RPG… just with a dash of ironic eldritch-themed humor. It’s witty and charming, with plenty of clever references to the holiday season. Combat is well-paced for the most part, though I’d be lying if I said some of the battles in the last dungeon or two didn’t drag on for a bit too long. It also was recently ported to the Nintendo Switch and is perfect for handheld gaming. If you’re in the mood for a well-crafted indie RPG or just a cozy Christmas game, this one is a solid recommendation. Don’t slumber like an Old One and miss out on this one!