Princess Remedy in a World of Hurt

I’ve said before that I use my Steam wishlist less as a wishlist and more as an “I’ll have to remember to give that another look when it has more reviews” list. But there’s one way even Steam itself implicitly acknowledges that they’re not really wishlists: it lets you add free-to-play games to them. Although even that’s a kind of wish: “I wish I had time to play this”. I’ve accumulated a sizeable stack of such recorded intentions there over the years, and we’ve been in weirdly vague national quarantine so long now that over the weekend I decided it was finally time to give some of them a try.

Of those I tried, the one that pleased me most was Princess Remedy in a World of Hurt, a one-sitting retro action-JRPG from 2014. Well, not exactly J, really — it’s clearly in the same genre as Final Fantasy, but the developer is Swedish. In fact, the developer is Ludosity, the quirky and prolific indie studio responsible for such games as Ittle Dew, Bob Came in Pieces, and Card City Nights. If you haven’t heard of Card City Nights: It’s a little bit like if you spun off the collectible card game from Final Fantasy 8 into its own game, except that instead of being themed after FF8 characters, it’s themed after the Ludosity back catalog. And that’s where I first heard of Princess Remedy.

The high concept here is that instead of killing, you’re healing. Princess Remedy is a trained medical professional, and the encounters that earn you loot are with sick or injured people who need your help. And a lot of the people you’re healing are monsters. That’s part of the joke: you go into a cave and walk up to a skeleton or a giant spider or whatever, and instead of attacking you, it tells you about its problems and you help it. In a way, it anticipated Undertale.

Now, I’ve mused before about the idea of an RPG that puts more detail into healing than hurting. That’s how it is in real life, after all. Medicine is far more complicated than combat. And yet, combat-based RPGs pretend the reverse, giving you all sorts of options for special moves in fights while reducing all healing to just saying magic words and/or administering a nostrum. So I think there’s some unused potential in the idea of a game that takes healing seriously.

Princess Remedy is not such a game. It is a very silly game, and its healing sequences are just combat with minimal window dressing: you shoot bullets that look like bandages, pills, or syringes, while attacked by the enemies that are, I suppose, representations of the ailments you’re curing. So the healing theme is skin-deep, but as skin-deep themes go, it’s still a fairly significant one! You get to do all this shooting and still, in the end, feel like you helped absolutely everyone and hurt no one. And anyway, a more convincing depiction of healing would probably work against the feel of the thing. If an injury has a realistic remedy, that means it was a real injury, and someone was really hurt. This game is too lighthearted to ever acknowledge that real hurt even exists. Quite a few of the complaints you cure are explicitly imaginary.

The end boss is very much an imitation of Final Fantasy end bosses, and in particular the final fight from Final Fantasy 6: rising up a sort of pillar of illuminated-manuscript grotesquery made flesh, towards a mock-angelic peak. Except the graphical style of the whole game is a generation or two more primitive than even Final Fantasy 1. It’s more C64-ish, made mainly of monochrome sprites in different colors on a black background. There should be a word for this kind of mixed retro. Maybe “mixed retro” will do.

Said last fight is against the myriad ailments of a very sick prince, who you’re told in advance is Princess Remedy’s age (wink, wink). And yet, afterward, when the inhabitants of Hurtland declare you queen in gratitude, you don’t have to marry him if you don’t want to. You can instead marry literally anyone in the game, regardless of gender or species, and just load into the final save and pick someone else if you change your mind. I personally married the prince’s servant on my first try, basically just because he was the closest person who wasn’t the prince, but I think the best choice is to get back together with Remedy’s ex-girlfriend from medical school, who spends the game hiding in a secret area, suffering from a broken heart, which you can cure like any other ailment. Although I can also respect any Ittle Dew fans who choose Ittle, who makes a cameo here. Sure, Ittle is entirely too young to marry, but that’s where the underlying “not taking any of this at all seriously” attitude kicks in. The effect of your choice is utterly minimal, changing just a sprite and a couple of lines in the outro cutscene, but feels important nonetheless.

I understand there’s a non-free sequel. I’ll have to give that a look.

Bob Came in Pieces

My spaceship fell apart and it's RAINING.Bob Came in Pieces is a charming indie physics puzzler, 2D but with 3D decorations, short enough to play to its conclusion in a single lazy Saturday. The basic idea is that you control a crash-landed alien spacecraft with Lunar Lander-like controls, and you have to find and reattach the bits that fell off in the crash so you can use them to solve various mechanical puzzles. When I first heard about this, my first thought was that it must work something like Knytt, each piece you recover representing a power-up that gives you a different special ability. But in fact it’s simpler and more complex than that. The majority of the pieces you collect are purely structural, like legos or tinkertoys: various shapes of socketed strut that let you reattach your rocket engines in different ways. Or sometimes not even that: sometimes all you really need is a poking-stick to give a tap to something past a narrow gap.

And once the tap is delivered, you go back to the building-place and reshape your ship into something sensible, because off-balance structures make you list or even spin in midair. This is where the physics comes in. You can have rockets pointed in any of the eight cardinal directions, and control them independently or in any combination you please — the game lets you assign keys to specific rockets arbitrarily — but how much of their force propels you and how much makes you spin depends on how you place them. Aside from rockets, there are two other sorts of similarly-controlled device: a puller and a pusher, both of which produce beams of directional force. The puller attracts moveable objects to your ship, but also, in accordance with Newton’s Third Law, attracts your ship to them, which can be hard to control until you’ve found enough rockets to counterbalance it. The pusher does the same in reverse, creating a repulsion between objects and your ship. But wait — isn’t that exactly how rockets work? What distinguishes the pusher from a rocket? Well, the pusher only pushes objects that are flagged as moveable. (You can tell them by their green shine.) If you’re not near one, it produces no effect. Rockets always affect the motion of your ship and nothing else. (At least, nothing else directly. Your ship can push stuff.) So this isn’t quite real-world physics we’re dealing with here, but we still have force and weight and momentum both linear and angular.

Bob the BuilderYou spend a substantial fraction of the game in the ship-building interface, a rather well-put-together UI. It provides the option to save configurations to disk to reload them later, but I was up to level 11 (out of 14) before I took advantage of that. Before that point, most of my redesigns were single-use, designed around a specific puzzle — and besides, I kept getting more useful pieces. But towards the end, additional stuff seemed superfluous, and I spent most of my time with two basic designs. There was the Tiny, a minimal ship for small spaces, and there was the Lifter, which had a wide row of symmetrically-arranged pullers and rockets on its underside. It’s actually a bit of a letdown when you’ve collected so many pieces that you can easily make whatever configuration you want. In the earlier stages, you have to come up with ingenious linkages to use the parts you have, and then hope that the result is balanced enough.

The puzzles are all about getting access to places. The levels are all essentially systems of tunnels, even if they don’t look like it — in some places there are rows of trees, with their canopies acting as a ceiling. Some of the later levels provide some genuine wide-open spaces, and by that point, you have some high-powered rockets and can go zooming and swooping around like the UFO you are, with a satisfying sense of heart-plunge when you shut off the rockets and go into freefall. (Not that there’s any real danger; there’s no death in this game. Even in the one level that throws fireballs at you, all they do is smack into you and send you backward.) But the puzzles are on the periphery of such large spaces, in tunnels, so that’s where I spent most of my time. The build-it-yourself approach gives the player a great deal of leeway in the details of how the puzzles are solved, but unlike, say, World of Goo, the overall solutions are generally designed rather than emergent. You might, for example, have a platform suspended from a chain with a counterweight, and the counterweight is blocking a passage, so you have to put something heavy onto the platform before you can get past. Occasionally there are alternate routes, sometimes involving hidden passages, which may be the key to passing the time trials (something I have no intention of even attempting). And occasionally it’s even possible to bypass the intended solutions by doing something fiddly and inefficient, but that’s hardly satisfying.

I do like this game overall, but I can’t help but wonder what a different design sensibility could have done with the concept — maybe something that would make me create more than two reusable ship designs. I suppose this means it’s a good candidate for mission packs, fan levels, and/or sequels.