I’ve been thinking about pacing a lot recently. Specifically, whose responsibility is it? Films are easy as they’re linear experiences with no paths to take. The responsibility clearly lies with the filmmaker. That Korean drama that drags out its episodes? Probably the network. But what about games? Is it the responsibility of the studio, or the player? 

I guess I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. 

It was The Cruel King and the Great Hero, by Nippon Ichi Software, that set my mind on this path. It’s Sayaka Oda’s follow up to The Liar Princess and The Blind Prince and it’s a beautiful looking thing, being an RPG drawn and presented in picture book form, narrated like a bedtime story. 

You play as Yuu, a young girl brought up by a dragon. Every night she nestles into him, as he tells her tales of her father – a great hero who defeated the Daemon King. Yuu dreams of being a hero like her father, and so she starts adventuring with a wooden sword and pot on her head, facing foes and helping locals.

The whole thing is incredibly endearing and cute. As you traverse the wonderfully illustrated world, you see the Dragon King hanging out in the background, constantly looking over Yuu as she battles monsters. When she activates her special flame attack special ability, you see her father in the background lighting her sword for her. These backgrounds are all hand-drawn and painted in watercolour, and they look great.

But the charm in this game is overwhelming. You have typical RPG side quests, but here they’re called Acts of Kindness, and the characters you help, who range from some hilarious diva-like bees to a bratty sheep are well-drawn. Just traversing the world is enjoyable and seeing what kind of characters you were meeting next reminded us of Paper Mario (in all the best ways.) The localisation team deserves a huge pat on the back. 

It’s a good job these areas look nice, though, as you’ll be seeing them a lot. The main quest takes you on all manner of branching paths and random battles, meaning you spend a long time traversing the world and the Acts of Kindness can require a lot of backtracking.

Massive credit is also due to creator Nipponichi software and creator Sayaka Oda. There aren’t enough games that appeal to all age ranges and show a young girl as the heroine without sexualisation or overt violence. I played this whilst isolating after having COVID, and it was an absolute breath of fresh air. Its gentleness and whimsy suddenly seemed vital.

But let’s go back to that pacing thing. While the game is charming, it isn’t without faults. But I don’t know if that’s the fault of the game or me. 

I’ll explain. 

The bulk of the content is within the Acts of Kindness. It’s how you get to know characters, and completing these quests allows you to level up, discover new abilities and unlock artwork and illustrations. However, after you complete every story mission loads of extra quests open. I ended up doing most of them before moving on to the next mission, which ended up quite detrimental to the pacing. I was going back and forth on fetch quests, getting interrupted by random battles and generally souring myself on the experience. The individual Acts of Kindness are fine, but doing so many in a row, they became tedious. But whose fault is that? The game, or mine?

I don’t have a good answer for that. 

I have a few other issues. Often a friend comes on your journey, and these change depending on which area you go into. However, I never felt that these friends gave enough options to make battling a fun experience, especially as you can only take one at a time. Later, you do get the chance to choose who you take with you, but swapping between friends is tedious, requiring you to visit a specific location. Battles were either over too soon, or a slog. Attack, attack and occasionally heal. I never found interesting tactical combinations. The battle system here is competent, but it’s not satisfying. I never felt like I was chaining attacks or combining powers and abilities to make a strategy more than the sum of its parts, as per the best of RPGs. 

But putting all that aside, this grabbed me in ways that games often don’t. I’m a gamer that dips in and out, and yet I ended up spending sixteen hours here over just four days, even going back to fill the world with more kindness. Incidentally, and as a word of warning, make sure you do everything before heading into the final battle – there’s no way to mop up quests after.

If you’re looking for something cosy, this is the game for you. It’s warm, occasionally touching, and sweet without being sickly. It won’t challenge you, but it might make your day a little brighter. Hopefully, it will inspire younger gamers to be a little bit heroic, too. 

The Cruel King and The Great Hero, from NIS America, is out now on PS4 and Switch.

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