Review by Iyamtebist
"The pen is mightier than the sword, but the sword certainly makes much better games."
In the past, I have had a love hate relationship with Indie RPGs. It seems like a, majority of the time, they have good intentions, but are incapable of living up to them. Games like Penny Arcade Adventures, Recettear, and Dragon Fantasy all are games that deliver a decent gaming experience but ended up with flaws that prevented them from achieving true greatness. So far the only indie RPG I can say that I thought was a really good game was Cthulhu Saves the World. The one thing that those games do have in common, however, is that they are still at least decent games in their own right. The same cannot be said for the most recent addition to my checklist.The most recent indie RPG I have played was Knights of Pen and Paper, the enhanced edition that was released on Steam specifically, and so far, it is the easily the worst indie RPG I have had the displeasure of playing.
I have heard a few decent things about this game beforehand and it did at least look somewhat promising. There are admittedly some positive aspects to this game, but quite literally every good thing I can think of about this game is marred by a glaring flaw. This ends up resulting with a game that cannot stand on its own two feet and that I found myself constantly changing my mind on as I was playing. Specifically I was shifting between it being bad or simply mediocre. While both terms are as equally damning to the common gamer, they really should not be. Mediocre is by no means a positive term, but when I think mediocre I at least think competent enough that I could see someone else enjoying it. A bad game however, is one where I honestly cannot see someone enjoying unless they decide beforehand that they are going to and will ignore every critical flaw. Knights of Pen and Paper is the latter. There are definitely a lot worse titles out there, but that really does not say that much for this game and it is not something that should be looked past.
Paper Covers Rock
What was really disappointing about this game to me was that, despite it still being inherently flawed, it still showed some amount of promise to it. In order to give an accurate view of why I believe this game has failed at what it has set out to accomplish, I will not to explain exactly what it is that the game promised. I could sum the game's appeal up as an attempt at a parody RPG that attempts to create a simulated Tabletop RPG experience while having a unique and laid back charm to it. The direction I can kind of appreciate seeing as how most games nowadays are so serious. Granted there is certainly no shortage of parody RPGs nowadays but I doubt I will be tired of them any time soon. Also I can see the appeal of a casual RPG meant to be more of a quick time waster instead of a game requiring you to dedicate hundreds of hours in order to get the full experience. Unfortunately this game cannot deliver on any of these promises and it constantly contradicts its own design and direction to the point that you cannot tell what it is trying to be.
Paper Get Crumbled Up By Rock
The common pattern that occurs with this game is that everything it tries to accomplish backfires in some way. This is not just limited to gameplay. Even the game's premise is one that makes it look unappealing if one was to look deeper into it. At first glance, one would think that Knights of Pen and Paper was an attempt to breathe some creativity into the stagnant JRPG genre by parodying the typical RPG and creating a unique setting. The problem is that it advertises itself as inspired by the great titles of the 90s, but the game is a simulated Tabletop RPG campaign. The problem with saying that it is inspired by the titles of the 90s is that the classic titles they are referring to are obviously SNES era JRPGs such as Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy IV and VI, and Secret of Mana, but a simulated Tabletop RPG is nothing like these titles in any way. If anything, it looks more like what one would expect from Western RPGs, but games like Wizardry and Ultima are rarely on people's list of favorite 90s era games so that rules out the possibility of those games being an influence. Otherwise they should have stated that it was inspired by Wizardry or Ultima. This already gives off the impression that the developers either had no clue what they were trying to do with the game, or that that they were just trying to get a quick buck from older gamers.
The game even fails at looking like a truly innovative game as well. The idea behind his game, as well as many other parody RPGs, is that RPGs are ripe for parody what with all the cliches they have and the fact that they are typically the most serious games. Naturally this would mean that an RPG made for the sole purpose of making you laugh would make a game stand out. The problem is that this game is about ten years too late for that concept alone to give it an edge. Funny RPGs have existed ever since the 90s with games like Lunar, Earthbound, and Super Mario RPG. Even more ridiculous is that a majority of JRPGs have some of their own humor as well. Just look at Final Fantasy VII. Early on, there was a segment where Cloud needed to cross dress in order to infiltrate the mansion of a horny playboy who had his friend kidnapped. I do not know about you, but to me, that sounds about as far from serious as you can get. This takes even more precedence today seeing as how a majority of JRPGs seem to be inspired by a lot of shonen anime tropes that have some really immature aspects in terms of humor. If anything, JRPGS nowadays should be criticized for not being serious enough.
To add to that, practically every well known indie RPG out there is a parody of some sort. Breath of Death, Cthulhu Saves the World, Dragon Fantasy, Penny Arcade Adventures, Recettear, and about a thousand other games have attempted the same thing. Now like anything else, I would still be satisfied if this game was still funny, but it does not do anything with its premise. There is no humor to be found in this game other than a few throwaway, unfunny references like saying it's super effective when you attack a monster with the element they are weak to. The closest thing you get to the game trying to be even remotely unique in its story is that it reminds you that you are playing as people playing a tabletop RPG and that this whole thing is not real. It is astounding how many missed opportunities that this game had that it simply glossed over.
For example, when you start the game, in addition to picking your typical RPG character class such as mage, knight, bard, etc, there is also a separate class based on what they are in real life such as nerd, jock, hipster, little brother and other weird roles. It would have been really great to see how each of these archetypes could react to different events in the story and it would give the game a lot of personality that is lacking in a lot of RPGs. Unfortunately, there is very little dialogue in this game and the characters are practically unrecognizable. Yet despite this, the game still does follow what is perhaps the most lifeless and tedious narrative in any game I have ever played.
The main plot of Knight of Pen and Paper is basically that an evil wizard that is trying to collect artifacts to destroy the world, and you have to go kill him. That is literally all the game gives you. The plot is about as bare bones as it gets. It is no better than the excuse plots of NES games that were found only in the Manuel, except here the game constantly reminds you that the plot exists but never gives you a reason to care about what is going on. The characters in this game are literally so flat that they do not even have names and you cannot tell them apart. You literally know nothing about any character in the game including the recurring characters. Things like motivation, backstory, and personality do not exist in Knights of Pen and Paper.
Some might say that this is due to the attempt at preserving the authenticity of a Tabletop RPG, but authenticity as a simulated Tabletop RPG means nothing if the game is not fun. In a real pen and paper role playing game, you at least have the element that you are playing with people you know and that you can decide the outcome. Nothing that Knights of Pen and Paper does comes close to replicating that feeling, but of course that is because it does not even try. If Knights of Pen and Paper was like a real Tabletop RPG then you would at least have at least some way of influencing events instead of them all proceeding in a fixed, linear order. Hell the game has several points in the plot where the dice are rolled in cutscenes as part of the plot advancement, yet the results are always fixed and they really take you out of the experience. If the game was trying to replicate the experience of a Tabletop RPG, then like everything else this game attempted, it failed miserably.
The game makes no other attempts to try and make itself interesting either. The graphics are in a basic pixilated, retro style look that was either intended to appeal to nostalgia or save money; likely both. Everything has the absolute most basic animation that an RPG can have. Your characters never leave the table they are sitting at, every new area is represented only by a single screen, monsters are just still basic images, and the entire game looks like it could have been made in MS Paint. The music is done in a chiptune style which, once again, is obviously trying to capture the retro effect despite the classic 90s RPGs that it is supposedly inspired by not sounding like NES games. The game also has only about five songs in it that you will hear again and again. Out of these songs, only one of them was any good and it was the boss theme, which of course does not play nearly as much as the other songs.
Rock Crushes Pen
Okay so it has been established that, so far, Knights of Pen and Paper has failed at everything it has tried to accomplish, but if the gameplay is fun than maybe the game could at least be passable. The gameplay does have some elements to it where it at least felt like it was trying. For example, the game's battle mechanics are certainly a step up from a lot of turn based RPGs. These battles often require you to keep close attention to what is going on and you cannot expect to plow your way through. However, there is a catch to this. About 90% of the battles you are going to fight in this game are ones where you select which enemies you will fight and how many there are. This essentially means that the battles are only well balanced if you choose them to be. The only incentive to fight more enemies at once is to finish one of the many, kill insert number here of insert enemy here, quests faster. Also another thing to keep in mind is that I eventually stopped doing sidequests because they were no different from the main quest, so I very likely could have been underleveled.
The structure of Knights of Pen and Paper's main narrative is basically made up entirely of the generic MMORPG style fetch and kill quests that most games, nowadays, would get slammed for including even as optional content. There is nothing in this game other than battle after battle against the same enemies in order to complete mundane fetch quests that are indistinguishable from the generic sidequests this game offers. The only difference is the circumstance from which the battle will be initiated. Sometimes you have to fight fixed battles against a random group of generic enemies. Sometimes the game tells you to kill a specific amount of a certain enemy. Sometimes it will say to farm items by killing enough of an enemy. Now I understand that this could sound like a gross oversimplification, but let me just explain something. There are very little dungeons in Knights of Pen and Paper. Hell there was not a single dungeon in the entire main storyline. The only one I found was one that the game never prompted you to go to even in a sidequest, and was literally there for no reason. Of course these dungeons are entirely luck based because what happens, when you enter a room, is determined by dice roll and they are laid out more like a board game, which makes them all exactly the same, but even then it would have been preferable to have these than the endless fetch quests.
Basically, Knights of Pen and Paper is the type of game that most people would get tired of after about 1 hour, and the fact that I felt more worn out after the ten hours spent on this than I have after forty plus hour games is unacceptable. However, there are some even worse design decisions that this game sabotages itself with in case you might have still been able to enjoy it. Now one thing to point out is that there are two versions of the game that are available for download on Steam. You have the normal version for $10.00 and the Digital Deluxe Edition for $15.00. So what is it that the digital deluxe edition features that makes it worth an extra $5.00? The answer to that is stuff that should have already been in the game to begin with; namely extra in game money, an exclusive area to grind for experience more efficiently, an exclusive playable character, and exclusive items. What is even worse than the fact that they restricted this content from the regular version of the game is that some of these things are actually needed to improve the overall experience. The extra 800 gold that you start out with was particularly helpful seeing as how money takes such a ridiculously long time to farm in this game.
You do not need to worry about money, however, as the game has micro transactions in the form of paying for in game money with real money. Now including micro transactions does not necessarily indicate greed in and of itself, but it does if the game is based around trying to get the player to use them. Sadly, there are several instances that the game seems to want you to pay up. Just about every task in the game requires in game money to perform. Travel to a different location on the map? There is a price. Revive your characters after they have been killed? There is a price. Create a new player character? There is a price. However, none of this is as blatant an attempt at parting you with your money, both in game and in real life, as the equipment upgrading.
In order to upgrade a character's equipment, you need to take it to a blacksmith who charges obscene amounts of money. However, what makes it especially unforgivable is that there is a set percentage that this equipment would work, and every time you try to upgrade, you are risking wasting your money. To put this in perspective, you start the game out with 800 gold if you bought the Digital Deluxe Edition. You start out with about two or three characters and they can each have their armor upgraded for 150 gold. The base percentage for the upgrade to succeed is 35%, and the only way to increase the rate is to level up the blacksmith. The way you level up the blacksmith is by having him successfully upgrade a piece of equipment, but trying to do so will only make you lose more money. It was because of this that I ended up ignoring upgrading equipment for a majority of the game and did not bother to really invest in it until after I beat the main campaign.
When I did, I had about 4000 gold. I had five characters that each had two pieces of equipment that both cost 300 gold. I ended up blowing all my in game money on the gold to upgrade them, and then I proceeded to get my ass kicked by a group of powerful enemies and I did not have enough to revive my party. The solutions I had at this point were to either find a way to farm money against tough enemies with only two characters, or use the micro transactions in order to get money instantly. Instead of picking either option, I rage quit and decided that I had enough of this game for one lifetime.
The Verdict (Never Choose Paper)
I wanted to like Knights of Pen and Paper. When I first started playing it, I thought I might have been at least able to recommend it as a casual title to play just to kill time or as a mindless fun type of game. However, that proved to not be the case. I have played close to 100 different, distinct RPGs in my lifetime and have beaten around 70 of them. While I certainly did not like all of them, there are very few that I would say I thought were bad games. Knights of Pen and Paper is one of those rare cases where I would say that I think this game is legitimately bad. It is certainly playable and it works well, but there really is nothing that would make one want to play it. This game fails at everything it tries to accomplish. It fails at being a tribute to 90s JRPGs. It fails at being a unique or funny parody of the genre. It fails at providing an authentic tabletop RPG experience. I might have been able to at least say the game was endearingly bad if it was not so obvious that it tried to take advantage of its micro transactions, but it fails at that to.
It is not impossible to enjoy Knights of Pen and Paper, but you will only enjoy this if you think there is no such thing as a bad RPG and you decide that you are willing to put up with everything this game throws at you. It is ultimately a weak experience that has likely been outdone by several free browser titles and fan games. For its current price on Steam, there is no way I can recommend this title. I may have been able to recommend it if it is free just for the sake of getting about an hour's enjoyment out of it then moving on to something else, but I am really grasping at straws to find possible ways to recommend this game, and if it were a good game, I would not have to.
Note: I have been informed that there are certain ways to get in game money easier than as I have stated in the review and that using in micro transactions to get a hold of in game money is not necessary. While I can still blame this on lack of accessibility and confusing design, I still figure I should mention that it is possible to get around these things if one knows how and that it should be mentioned in case such a thing would effect anyone's decision in purchasing this game. I have also been informed that the micro-transactions have been patched out of the game as of February 2014.
Reviewer's Score: 4/10 | Originally Posted: 01/14/14, Updated 06/20/14
Game Release: Knights of Pen & Paper (+1 Edition) (US, 06/18/13)
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