Helen’s Mysterious Castle

Helen

Helen's Mysterious Castle
PC
Developed by Satsu
Released in 2014

When I first saw Helen’s Mysterious Castle appear in the Steam Store, my mind immediately made the connection to the old NES game Milon’s Secret Castle. I laughed then and bought the game anyway, but while this game can’t compare to the obtuse design found in Milon’s adventure, the two do share in common that they both shun sensible design principals in favor of a more gimmicky approach.

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You play as the titular Helen, a cutesy, but seemingly mute and illiterate character living with her brother. At first there doesn’t seem to be much to the story, as the only dialogue greeting you when leaving the house is your brother asking you not to go explore the ruins. With nothing else to do in the game, you of course go to the ruins and begin exploring. Eventually you’ll meet other characters and plots begin to form, hinting that Helen may be more than meets the eye, but storytelling remains kind of neglected and low-key. It can get a chuckle at times, just don’t expect too much from it.

Story score: 6/10

Defensive broadswoarding

What Helen’s game lacks in storytelling it makes up for in gameplay ideas. The game is essentially a turn-based RPG in which you explore the multi-floored ruins with Helen in search of bosses to fight and loot to acquire. Enemies wander these halls as well and will pick a fight if you collide with them. Fights play out differently than you’d expect, almost like a card game where opponents simultaneously make their play.

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You have an assortment of weapons with an effect (damage) stat, a defensive stat, and a wait stat, but enemies too have abilities with these statistics. At the start of combat you choose a weapon to attack with and the enemy chooses theirs. Let’s say the enemy wants to slap you and his slap has a wait of 10, while you want to shoot with your bow that has a wait of 5. The timers start to run and you’ll shoot first, after which the enemy still has 5 wait left before his move triggers. You could fire the bow another time before he gets to strike, prepare for the hit with a shield that has a high defense and wait, or attack with another weapon, meaning the enemy may counter-attack before you make your second move. What you can also do is look at the effect of the upcoming enemy attack and choose a weapon that has a higher defensive value than that attack, meaning that, like with a good-enough shield, the enemy will do zero damage while you still get to make an attack.

The combat is essentially a battle of math, if that doesn’t sound too nerdy. You keep an eye on what the enemy will do and when the attack launches and figure out a way to do the most damage while receiving as little as possible or none at all in return. You can only heal at a select few points in the game, so whilst exploring between these points you can’t really afford to take too many hits. Besides finding the way forward, you’ll also have to keep an eye out for new equipment with different statistics and health upgrades.

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Another fun, gimmicky feature is that experience doesn’t help Helen as a person. Instead it’s an upgrade currency for every weapon and spell you find, improving their statistics or reducing their wait. This can make the game feel a bit grind-y early on, as you’ll find a lot of your starting equipment and may feel tempted to try and get them all to level 9 before progressing, which takes more and more experience after each level up. Don’t worry about it too much and know that you’ll get plenty of experience later on, it’s a bit of a waste to pour it all into weapons that are going to be replaced soon anyway. You only have eight slots for equipment after all, with the rest being stored in a separate room after you drop it.

While these mechanics are fun, they do kind of outstay their welcome and it feels like the game is using them to excuse the more mediocre design of its puzzles and progression. For much of the early game it’s entirely linear, but then you suddenly come to a stop when you enter a room and every door is closed. With Helen being mute, you also don’t get much of a hint. What you are then supposed to do is backtrack two areas and chat up some of the NPC’s that previously had nothing important to say. From that point onward the puzzles just get really weird and a cursory search on Google revealed that other players were left similarly confused by them. With no English walkthroughs available, I definitely found myself having to try everything and anything to progress sometimes, with one puzzle with a mistranslated hint even requiring you to do things outside of the game window.

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The gameplay has some fancy ideas that are fun to play around with for an hour, but the game just keeps going after that for a good while extra. It wears on your patience and goodwill a fair bit, but the game is not too long, so if you put on some anime or something in a window besides it, it isn’t too bad to play through.

Gameplay score: 6.5/10

RPG Maker, is that you old friend?

Presentation-wise the game also leaves a fair bit to be desired. While I enjoy the character design and the combat is more animated than the typical RPG Maker default, particularly the environmental design and music were a bit lackluster. The few music pieces the game used began to wear on me really soon, so I muted the game most of the time. Even boss fights tend to use the same, generic battle music, which felt really underwhelming.

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Most of the areas you visit are simplistic caves, though variety does come in towards the end of the game, and that just didn’t feel much fun to explore. Even the starting area where your adventure begins is just a square with one house, one character, and a few pots. A village later down the line is at least skillfully designed, but almost too much so for how little you actually need to do there.

Presentation score: 3/10

Verdict

I bought Helen’s Mysterious Castle because I was intrigued by its weird take on traditional RPG mechanics and I feel that in that regard I got my money’s worth. It’s not a fantastic game by any means, but worth experiencing if you enjoy games with a more gimmicky nature.

52/100

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