The horror-RPG you never heard about
[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.]
There are some games that live up to the hype, but then there are a few that far exceed it. Sweet Home turned out to be one of those games for me. I played it for this feature series last year out of curiosity, not expecting to take to it as strongly as I did. It’s now a game I list as my favorite for the original Nintendo -- or Famicom, rather, since it was a Japan exclusive, after all.
Sweet Home is said to be the birth of survival horror, but it’s much more than that. It’s a one-of-a-kind gem that splices various genres to create a game unlike any other, or so I thought. But then readers reached out to me here and on Twitter with game recommendations. One that kept coming up was Laplace’s Demon. From a distance, it looks like a spiritual successor to Sweet Home.
I knew I had to cover the game for the series, so here I am, hoping I strike RPG-horror gold again.
Zombies, vampires, werewolves. No thanks. For me, haunted houses have always been my horror trope of choice. From The House on Haunted Hill to Resident Evil, there is something so special about the false sense of security that comes from exploring a haunted estate. Evil lurks around the corner, but there is a feeling of comfort that exists until you do.
A haunted house, unique character classes, and incredible atmosphere. These are the things that made Sweet Home such a memorable horror adventure. Laplace also takes place in a mansion, albeit one with a portal to an even larger castle. The game has a decidedly quirky combat system, and it evokes unsettling horror elements rarely seen on consoles at the time. Though Laplace resembles Sweet Home, it doesn’t come close to approaching the genius of Capcom’s classic. Despite this unflattering comparison, there are some things I enjoyed about this more familiar approach to role-playing.
Sweet Home was a narrative tour de force of its era, packing its story with twists, subtle background information, and memorable characters. Laplace is focused more on leveling and exploration. It plays Dragon Quest to Sweet Home’s Final Fantasy. Laplace starts with a brief introduction to the game’s story which involves the murders of two boys and a missing girl in a Boston mansion. You then pick your character, assemble a team, and grind through the mansion. Laplace resembles Phantasy Star and Diablo, in that you are making constant trips back to town in order to restock items, talk to locals, and level your characters. The original PC release even presented the mansion through a first-person view.
Given the context and 1920s Boston setting of LaPlace, the game provides inspired alternatives to genre staples that wouldn't generally make sense outside a fantasy setting. For example, a gun-toting detective takes the place of a warrior and a psychic plays the role of a mage. Things get more interesting with the Sweet Home-inspired journalist who takes photos of enemies. These photos can be sold at the inn at town for money -- you know, because journalists make more money than any other profession. It’s a strange concept, but having to sacrifice dealing extra damage for more money is a pretty neat mechanic. You’ll rarely come across money in the mansion, so taking photos becomes important as you progress.
The Scientist is another novel class that fills the role of a tank, while offering a lot of customization options. Since he uses a “machine” instead of sword or gun, the player can modify it with parts. Different combinations of parts offer different abilities, but you’ll only be able to have two abilities equipped at a time. This makes him the most flexible character in the game, since he can deal out the most damage or protect the team during a boss encounter. The last class, the Dilettante, is mostly useless. He’s a jack of all trades but master of none. I left him out of my party, unless the medical bills for my defeated members were too high to pay. You can always swap characters out by visiting the inn.
Once you have your team assembled, it’s time to embark into the mansion. Getting your bearings can be a real pain at first, since there is no map provided. Even worse, you need to pay $200 (a lot in this game) for a compass that will display your position once you acquire a map. The mansion isn’t as intelligently laid out as Sweet Home’s, nor is it as well designed. Each floor is laid out with the same, dull textures that bring to mind RPG Maker.
Exploring the mansion, area-by-area is where Laplace most closely resembles Sweet Home and the horror games that would follow. At the start, you are locked out of most of the mansion, but you’ll start to acquire keys, holy objects, and other items that will let you explore the three floors of the estate. You’ll need to check every bookshelf, drawer, and corpse, though, which can be a pain. Occasionally, you’ll come across a body from a previous search-and-rescue team. These become very anticipated moments, since you’ll be rewarded with a lot of experience and money in town.
Sweet Home scraped by on its role-playing elements. Maybe I was just really good or got lucky, but I always had the sense that the game could become a nightmare if I didn’t handle my party correctly. Laplace not only leans much more heavily on its role-playing mechanics, it also gets rid of the puzzle/adventure elements that made Sweet Home so unique. Laplace has some pretty great ideas, such as character-specific abilities unlocked through taking damage (à la Final Fantasy VII's limit breaks).
However, the game is horribly balanced. Some enemies are tough as nails, yet give hardly any experience. The opposite is true as well, which encourages players to ignore combat and grind specific types of enemies. You get more XP from moving forward in the story. It's not very fun.
By the time I got to the castle and was up against tougher enemies. I gave up on Laplace. I felt I had seen everything the game had to offer. It's a neat horror-themed dungeon crawler but it's not the Sweet Home successor I wanted. Funny enough, Laplace received two much more obscure sequels, Demon Sword of Paracelsus and Masque of the Black Death. If nothing else, Laplace brought back some positive memories of Sweet Home and pushed me closer to checking out Koudelka.
What other RPG-horror games can you list?
Do you love haunted house stories? If so, why?
Why in the hell haven't you played Sweet Home yet?!?