A lot of good – and awful – ideas have come from mixing two things not previously combined. “Friday the 13th in space”, for example, or “System Shock 2 except underwater”. And even when those concoctions don’t work out, sometimes you have to give them credit for having the idea and going forward with it. This brings us to Jerseyware’s JRPG-Lovecraft hybrid, The Dark Stone from Mebara.
Yes, you read that right. American-based indie studio Jerseyware Gaming is bringing you The Dark Stone from Mebara, a unique blending of old-school Final Fantasy gameplay – or, perhaps more to the point, considering the themes of cosmic horror and time-spanning madness, Chrono Trigger – with the well-regarded ‘weird fiction’ works of HP Lovecraft, Robert W. Chambers, and their ilk.
When presented with this idea, you might regard it as either an internet prank, an idea whose time has come, and/or a remake of some lost Japanese 16-bit title, considering Innsmouth no Yakata has already indicated that Japanese developers were totally willing to make Lovecraft games. But no matter how much your brain tries to rebel against the unknowable horror contained within, The Dark Stone from Mebara exists; it’s real, and it tries hard, despite its flaws.
Placing you in control of a number of detectives from ‘Little Berlin’, Massachusetts (between Lovecraft and Stephen King, the American Northeast is apparently the scariest place in the world), The Dark Stone from Mebara asks you to unravel the mystery of a dead man’s seemingly-insane final words to get closure for his widow, bringing you into contact with any number of otherwordly terrors and the cults who love them.
This is probably the highest compliment I could pay the game and I will do so gladly: The Dark Stone from Mebara does capture the atmosphere of its source material well. The monsters you encounter are drawn appropriately hideously and are given some Lovecraft touches (resemblance to giant insects, mostly), the art style reflects a gloomy small Northeastern town in the early 1900s very well, and even though there’s no real “horror” to speak of in the game, you’re still left with an appropriate and effective sense of dread.
The moment-to-moment gameplay, however, falters slightly without being completely ineffective. Perhaps owing much to the theory that many early JRPGs were just point-and-click adventures with stats and combat, The Dark Stone from Mebara relies on a lot of puzzles to advance the story and give the player something to do other than fight evil. While the puzzles themselves tend to be less than taxing, the game has a way of working against you; objectives are either vaguely stated or badly indicated on the map (you’ll spend a lot of time in the early game searching through the same two or three bookshelves), and there tends to be a lot of walking back and forth. Not game-breakers, of course, but maybe something that could have used a little tweaking.
This does bring us to the matter of the combat; an aspect you could rightly say is the biggest hinging point of many an RPG, Japanese or otherwise. Sadly, it has its flaws. Battles unfold in a classic Squaresoft Active Time Battle system, with your standard filling meters and characters alternating moves depending on how fast the bar fills up. I hadn’t played a game with an ATB system in forever and I forgot how much I missed it.
Or at least, I did at first. Perhaps I was just doing something wrong, but the combat was entirely too difficult. I got wiped out several times by the first boss in the game and quickly found that the only way to win was to basically make your entire party – except Detective Monroe (the only one who thought to bring a goddamn gun) – block every attack the entire time and hope Monroe lives. Sure, it’d kind of a lame boss strategy, but it worked – until I found myself doing the same thing against standard enemy encounters. The combat is severely unbalanced overall, unless there’s something else I needed to be doing, and if there was, it wasn’t conveyed to me very well.
The combat really brings it down, honestly. As much as I liked the game’s tone and atmosphere, and as tolerant as I was with the puzzles, the fact that I spent my time dreading every single encounter really sucked a lot out of it for me. If you don’t mind dealing with spotty puzzles and infuriating combat to get through an admittedly-decent (if not somewhat boilerplate) story, then The Dark Stone from Mebara should scratch your R’yleh.
Otherwise, if you want to see detectives dealing with horrible (possibly occult) happenings, then spend your money on a Big Hug Mug and watch True Detective instead. It’ll still be depressing, but in a different way.