Bundles! Don't you love them? I bought a Humble RPG Maker Bundle last year and got some RPG Maker games! One of them has been sitting untouched in my Steam library for months, until I got bored enough last week to finally try it out. And now that it's done, and I have a weekly blog quota to fill, I figured I'd review it.
All images were taken from the developer's website.
There isn't a whole lot of information out there about RosePortal Games. The most I can find about the group themselves is that they are small and like to make games with RPG Maker. They have apparently made several games in the past. Sweet Lily Dreams was the first to hit Steam last year, followed by its prequel, Whisper of a Rose. The humble little company seems to have some big dreams, which is a very heavy theme within its games, but that doesn't necessarily mean those games are a dream come true.
The problem with RPG Maker games is since it's so user friendly, anybody can make a game by plugging some assets into a menu, typing a few text boxes, and calling it a day. A lot of people don't bother to do anything creative with the game the engine at all. As a result, most RPG Maker games end of playing virtually the same.
The folks at RosePortal clearly weren't satisfied with this approach. Despite using RPG Maker, they crafted the game into their own. The vast majority of the mechanics are customized. RosePortal has implemented a crafting system, a sidequest system, a whole slew of minigames, an interior-decorating thing, they've customized most of the menus, and while I can't tell how it works under the hood, even the combat is at least aesthetically different from other games of this type.
The visuals are also very well done. I've played around with RPG Maker and if Sweet Lily Dreams uses any of the default assets, I haven't noticed. The sprite work is great. The environments are exquisite, with plenty of little touches to make everything a joy to look at. The hand-drawn stuff is mostly spot on. I can't imagine how long it must have taken such a small team to put together all that art so well.
Rounding out the presentation is the music. Tunes range from acceptable to memorable. Every single one is the work of somebody who knows what they're doing. While not all of them are memorable, none of them are offensive. I would love to add a couple of the songs to my music library, I'm honestly surprised that they haven't offered the soundtrack for sale or download to fans.
This game is obviously not something that somebody crapped out in RPG maker for a quick buck. There is a lot of tender loving care put into making this game. RosePortal wanted to make it their own, and for that I applaud them.
The story is about a seven-year-old girl named Lily and a team of dream defenders called Illuminati. Far from a conspiracy theory, this Illuminati is a group of magical warriors who travel between dreams to fight the monsters that turn them into nightmares. With a father who is never around and a mother that she can't quite connect with, Lily combats her lonely home life by reading. In a dream one night, Lily crosses paths with two bumbling Illuminati of the less-than-competent variety: a big hearted dog named Faith, and a cynical Tim Burton-esque "cat" named Curly. The encounter causes a sort of glitch in Lily's dream, which fully integrates her into the dream world. Since the two find her newfound magic powers useful in combat, and since Lily has nothing better to do anyway, she joins the duo on their quest to move up the ranks of the Illuminati and making sleeping a safer place for all.
Let me say one thing right off the bat: the game is a little confused about its target audience. The visuals, audio, premise, and marketing all make it seem very child friendly. Without spoiling too much, it's not. Very, very not. As one user on the game's Steam forum pointed out, anyone who thinks this game is for kids clearly hasn't played it all the way through.
Most of the game has you visiting different dreams based on different works of fiction. The heroes have to go through these levels in a fashion similar to Kingdom Hearts while the story unfolds. I like the plot, and it's fun to visit different places from literature, but the actual progression of the story arc has a few shortcomings. For one, all of the worlds are based on horror stories. The marketing, opening cutscenes, and word of mouth all led me to believe that there would be fairy tales and fantasy adventure, or otherwise a good mix of locales.
Instead, every one of the levels comes from horror fiction or folklore. There's nothing wrong with that, per se; I loved exploring the town of Sleepy Hollow and the mansion of Dr. Jekyll. It just feels like a missed opportunity. They could have let us join Captain Ahab's hunt for Moby Dick or raid Ilium alongside Achilles. Instead, we get six spooky forests and a couple spooky castles. Some even have both of these. Sweet Lily Dreams does do a very respectable job with the lore it chooses to represent - I was always excited to see what the next dream would be and was always happy with how it played out - I just think a little more variety would have spiced things up.
A couple of the selections struck me as a little odd. Most of the dreams are based on classic works or folkore, but every once in a while you'll run into something from modern fiction. I was a little surprised when the party crossed paths with the clown from It and John Kramer from the Saw movies. I don't mean thinly veiled expies; they're actually called by name. One of the worlds comes a comic book. This in a video game that is being sold to the public. If Sweet Lily Dreams was more widely known, I have to wonder if RosePortal might not be facing some copyright problems.
There's something a little awkward about the way the story plays out. RosePortal clearly had a lot of ideas that they tried to implement, but something holds them back. There are moments in the story where something big and emotional is happening on screen, that for all the effort put into it, lacks any kind of potency. I blame the pacing, and the order of events. At the end of one of the early levels, one of the characters has a flashback that is supposed to be a big tragic reveal of his troubled past. The problem is that by this point in the story, said characters has had about two lines of dialogue. We barely know him, and thus his angst is lost on the player.
The whole game is peppered with instances like this. Plot points that lose their impact due to the game's structure and pacing. The villains suffer from this the worst. There are two main antagonists: The Wrtier, some guy who travels between dream worlds to create nightmares just for funzies or something, and The Asureans, an ancient society that something something I don't even care enough to finish describing them. Both of these are practically non-entities. In their few token appearances, my reaction was never "oh snap, bad guys!", rather "oh yeah, they exist."
Part of the villain problem is that their backstories aren't explained in a very cohesive manner. For all the worlds in Sweet Lily Dreams, the one that it fleshes out the least is its own. The Asureans' grudge has something to do with the Illuminati homeworld. Whenever they show up, they ramble on and talk about legends and history without every making the player care. Meanwhile, in the "real" world, there's a company that makes some kind of dream control device. This ties in with the backstory of many of the characters, including both Lily and the Writer, but we scarcely get into the meat of it. It's just talked about in passing while the player scarcely gets any glimpse of what it actually is. There's also some magic apparition lady who shows up a couple times to offer advice to the heroes. We're led to believe that she will have a big role down the line, but unless I missed something, she's never even mentioned after her second appearance.
These come from the game's prequel, Whisper of a Rose. The developer has outright stated in the Steam forums that there are things you probably won't understand without playing Rose first. I think that's a little unfair. Considering how tied-in the plot is, I feel like it would solve a lot of Lily's story problems if they showed us more.
This makes the climax of the game kind of bittersweet. Most of the plot threads come together nicely at the scene of the final battle. It leads up to an exciting conclusion that makes me wish we had been able to enjoy the build-up of these story arcs. Granted, the epilogue doesn't really do it much service with its lack of concrete details and Big Lipped Alligator Moment cliffhanger, but the tail of end of the game was definitely one of the highlights.
If you'll humor me one more nitpick about the story, the characterization is all over the place. Some of the characters have a lot of personality, others are dull as bricks. Curly the cat is the standout character, and Faith is pretty well written too. Lily's personality fluctuates a lot. She's supposed to be a seven-year-old who is smart for her age because she reads a lot. Sometimes that's an accurate description, though sometimes it seems more like an excuse to have her be a lot more intelligent than she should be. Lily mentions reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a long time ago, which makes me wonder if anyone on the development team has actually read it themselves. What's worse, though, is when she acts too young. Whenever the plot demands that she show her age, she regresses to that fake babytalk personality that all writers who don't spend a lot of time around kids use.
For example, there's a point when the group is going up against a mummy. Lily refers to it as a "bandage monster." There is no reason why any seven-year-old wouldn't know what a mummy is, especially one as supposedly smart as Lily. The icing on the cake is that at the beginning of that level, she does call it a mummy, then promptly starts referring to it in baby talk. I facepalmed pretty hard at that one.
The dream worlds are pretty well done. Each has its own self-contained story that are usually at least competent. They look nice as well, despite a lack of variety in their settings. The designers put a lot of scenery into each one, with flowers and bushes and grasses frosted all over the ground. It adds a lot of visual flair to environments. The only problem is that it's hard to tell what is part of the the tileset and what is a solid object. There are tons of the latter, meaning that walking through what appears to be an open field is more like navigating a maze of invisible walls. I wouldn't want the developers to get rid of all the nice scenery, just make it so we can walk overtop of it.
Every world has some kind of puzzle gimmick. This was a very pleasant surprise. It turns the game into something a little more than just walking around and fighting enemies. They're often simple in concept and creative in execution. Part of the fun of visiting each new world was seeing what cool new thing the developer came up with this time. It's one more little thing that shows how much RosePortal cared about this project.
They do tend to push these puzzles to the limit. Whether or not this is a flaw depends on how much you like being forced to think. I wasn't expecting the difficulty of the gimmicks, and while they were fun, many of them started to get old pretty quickly. There's a maze where the floor falls through with no indication of where you can stand, and a dungeon where you have to flip switches to open and close certain doors. The one that takes the cake, though, is the frog swamp. You get an item that lets you summon frogs to help you across a swamp. There are a bunch of different ways to go, but only one correct one, and you only get the exact number of items to make a perfect run through the swamp. It requires a lot of patience and a lot of trial and error.
In fact, some of the dungeons stop just short of requiring a map and trigonometry. It got a little overbearing for me more than once. They still get an A for effort, though. Players who enjoy a nice challenging puzzle will feel right at home here.
Most of the game balances out thus far. For everything Sweet Lily Dreams has going for it, there is some minor scuff that tarnishes the enjoyment. For each factor that makes me shake my head, it isn't enough to brign the game down. If we ended the review here, it would be pretty much a fifty/fifty split on pros and cons. Then we get to the combat.
Sweet Lily Dreams uses turn-based RPG combat. It's as straightforward as it gets, and unless you have no idea what an RPG is, I don't need to lay out the details. The game tries to spice things up in a couple ways but most of them are flat at best, irritating at worst. A major part of the fighting is the element system. Most enemies and attacks have one of four elemental types, giving them strengths and weaknesses to the player characters' elemental spells. Basically, a substantially dumbed-down version of Pokemon.
Pokemon this ain't. The combat is severely imbalanced, and much of that can be traced back to this very type system. For starters, the characters don't learn elemental spells. Their basic attacks never do much damage to begin with and actually seem to get weaker as the game goes along. The special attacks that they learn by leveling are either physical attacks with the same problem, or are buffs that don't actually seem to do what they're supposed to. Elemental spells have to be crafted and taught. While there's no shortage of supplies to craft spells, there certainly isn't enough to equip all of your characters with every element. It doesn't matter what kind of monster you're fighting, almost every battle in the game is going to leave you with at least one disadvantaged character.
The one hit the hardest is Lily. Even her basic attack has a type, determined by an item you can swap out. You have a choice of one of these items at the beginning of the game, and the rest have to be bought. If you make a bad choice (DO NOT START WITH THUNDER) then Lily is completely useless for the first couple hours of the game. Getting the other elements doesn't help much: they can't be swapped on the fly. You have to go to a specific spot in the hub world to change them. If you pick the fire item and the next level has mostly water enemies, I hope you figure that out before you're too far to turn around. The monsters aren't exactly red lizards with fire tails. It's scarcely possible to tell what type an enemy is the first time you encounter it. You have to just throw everything you have and see what works.
Even when you do get the proper magic attacks, their usefulness doesn't last long. All but the most powerful attacks get out-progressed pretty quickly. You can craft the right spells to empower your characters for one level, and by the time you get to the next, the enemies are strong enough that even a type advantage doesn't give you much offense. Which leads me to another complaint: on normal difficulty, enemies just plain take too long to kill. Every fight is a commitment. It can take upwards of four turns for your entire party to kill a single basic monster.
This all adds up to combat being a dull slog. You never feel like you are making any progress. In a good game, a new attack should feel like a reward. A spell is supposed to empower players, to give us satisfaction of a new way to dispatch foes. Sweet Lily Dreams feels like a constant struggle just to keep up. It's not that enemies are particularly difficult if you pay attention and know what you're doing, it's just an endurance contest. Learning new attacks in this game is a necessity, like keeping your gas tank filled so you don't get stranded on the side of the road.
Healing is just as bad. You know how most games have Inns at every town? Sweet Lily Dreams has a genie in the hub world. And that's it. There are no other ultimate healing options anywhere in the game. Once you enter a dream world, you're basically on your own as far as health goes. The only way to heal is with these green balls that you can collect, which the game actively discourages you from getting with the promise of a reward down the line. Healing spells suck for the same reason as attack spells.
That leaves you almost entirely reliant on items. You have to stock up as much as you can on HP and MP potions before entering a new world. If your supply runs out while you're too deep in the level to go home, then you're out of luck. Just like everything else in the game, items get ouleveled. By the last couple worlds, they don't even heal enough damage to counter a single enemy attack. The strategy becomes "heal as much as you can on the overworld, hope for the best in battle." At least by that point you can pretty easily afford to top off your supply, but what good does it do to buy 99 potions if it takes 20 to get a character back to full health?
Trying to avoid battle is a waste of time. Enemies are represented on the overworld so you can theoretically avoid them. Theoretically. In practice, the only way to actually dodge an enemy sprite is if you're lucky enough to trap it behind one of those invisible walls I talked about above. Once the fight commences, don't bother trying to escape. I don't know what factors into it. It seemed completely random whether or not it actually worked, with a success rate of about 1/6. You can't attack the same turn you try to run, so even selecting the option is akin to handing your enemy a free turn. On the off chance that you do manage to make it out of battle, it resets the enemy sprite to its original position on the map. If that's anywhere close to you, it's just going to beeline for your party and restart the battle all over again.
Combat is not fun. The only way to lessen the irritation is to play on the easy difficulty. The Steam forum is packed with users to admit to starting on normal and hard before switching to easy part way through. Easy mode doesn't fix all the balance problems, it just makes your attacks do a little more damage. The issues persist no matter how you play. At least on easy, battles go by faster and you don't have to put up with the crap for as long.
That's kind of a cheap way to make your game playable. It's kind of unfortunate, really. The developers put a lot of time and effort into making the game. It isn't all great, but there's still a lot to admire. It's kind of tragic that the combat drags down their work so much.
Sweet Lily Dreams is not a great game. I don't even think it's a good game. Despite the best efforts from the developer, it is schizophrenic in quality and combat just plain sucks. That's not to say it's a lost cause. What it does do, is showcase a lot of talent from RosePortal. There is clearly a lot of potential in them. With a little practice to iron out their flaws, they could eventually be among the best RPG devs on the indie scene. Heck, this is the only game of theirs that I've played and they've made a lot more since then. As far as I know, their more recent work could be flawless.
There is enough good in the game to keep me from hating it. At the same time, there's way too much bad for me to unconditionally recommend it to even hardcore RPG fans. The people who I think would get the most enjoyment out of these would be those who like difficult Zelda-style puzzles in their dungeons. Other RPG fans might not hate it, but if you decide to give it a shot, don't get your hopes up going in. And play on easy mode.
Even if you do decide it's worth purchasing, wait for a sale. The going price on Steam is fifteen bucks. It's not that the developers don't deserve to get paid for their work - they've definitely put in the effort. I just think that's pretty steep for any RPG maker game, let alone one with as many flaws as this one has.
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