Artifact Adventure Gaiden
Title Artifact Adventure Gaiden
Developer bluffman
Release Date January 9 2018
Genre Action RPG
Platform PC
Age Rating N/A
Official Website

Retro game tributes are a dime a dozen these days. Whenever you turned your head, the past decade has seen an indelible rise in nostalgic throwback games that reach for the 8 and 16-bit generations. Artifact Adventure Gaiden fits the mold by patterning itself on classic RPGs and styling its looks and sound on the original Game Boy. With these limitations on technology imposed, it still feels good, right?

Artifact Adventure Gaiden is, in actuality, a side-story to an NES predecessor, the 2015 Artifact Adventure, itself also inspired by RPG games of old. The story is laid bare from the start: a king wants you, a no-name RPG hero, to save the land from a future apocalypse by exploring the realm, helping the townspeople, and fighting a heap of monsters. When you’re ready, return to where it started and trigger a time jump into the future to further the story. I won’t spoil anything, but the decisions you make in the “past” change the flow of the future. It’s like a time-splitting dash of Sonic CD with a pinch of Chrono Trigger.

Artifact Adventure Gaiden

You start with the choice of which non-playable traveler to team up with, and which one you make changes the flow of the quest wildly. If you pick the adventurer, you’ll have access to every town and city for fast travel action, useful for completing certain side quests. If you choose the aristocrat, you’ll have a ton of money with which to access powerful weapons and armor early. And then there’s knight who grants you bonuses in battle, including regenerative health.

The map you travel is vast, and in classic RPG tradition, scattered towns, keeps, and castles await. It’s where you’ll find the usual suite of inns and shops to rest up and buy essentials, and where you’ll run into non-playable characters who often need help with their problems.  Like in the olden days of RPGs, you’ll actually need to talk to people to find these side-quests necessary to advance the quest, earn resources, and sometimes make choices that affect the future.

Artifact Adventure Gaiden

There’s a lot of these quests, but sometimes what you’re supposed to do is not very clear, so it’ll lead to you running around in circles. To wit: one person wanted me to explore a cave to the northeast to find his lost treasure. I found at least one cave slightly to the northeast, scoured it in totality, returned to his village, and still didn’t have it. Speaking to this, there are certain hallways visible in said caves across the game but I never found the way to access them and their treasure chests. I asked myself several times, is this the catacomb where his item was? Probably, but the query stumped me. At least it’s good then that the dialogue has a bit of wit to it.

The story is almost an afterthought, however, as most of your time will be fighting monsters of every breed. Across the overworld and inside caves and dungeons are the whirlpools, where the majority of enemy encounters take place. Combat takes inspiration from old school RPGs, less turn-based Dragon Quest and more Dragon Slayer and Hydlide. As with those two, you ram into enemies to deal damage which translates into random values based on equipment, but also able to jump around and activate special attacks.

Artifact Adventure Gaiden

It sounds simple, but combat remains frustrating in the early outings (depending on which quest line you took) as you’re stuck with only your bare fists. The enemies only get trickier to deal with as you level up. Their levels tend to scale appropriately as you grow, but you’ll doubtless get brick-walled by overly powerful beings often. And whirlpool encounters tend to come in waves, so depending on your build, you may have a death wish upon dying over and over in endless failure, which you will. It’s all part of the grind.

Things get better as you level up, have access to more equipment, and unlock the titular artifact abilities, fabulous secret power-ups used in combat. These include poisonous acid, volcanic fireballs, and the ability to throw bombs and daggers. If nothing else, they are fun to experiment with and it’ll be up to you to decide which abilities work best together. There’s enough diversity of artifacts to play with, and some are very useful in dealing with hordes. Once you’re built up, combat morphs from an ordeal to becoming the stand-out feature of Artifact Adventure Gaiden. It’s fast and frenzied, full of learning curves, and unpredictable.

Artifact Adventure Gaiden

Presentation remains quality throughout. If the team’s goal was to nail the look of classic Game Boy RPGs of old, mission accomplished. Sprites remain faithful to the pixel limitations of the handheld, and so do the limited animations. Enemy designs take inspiration from classic RPG tropes, what with onion monsters and wolves and giant flying skulls. Weird as they are, the quirky enemy sprites are a highlight of the visual presentation. The music can be a little shrill at times, though not entirely like old Game Boy music. I’d personally like to see some enterprising developers try and port the whole game on an actual Game Boy, as what we have on PC is a close match.

As this is a PC game, my biggest air of grievance is the controls. As far as I can tell, I personally couldn’t get either the DualShock 4 or Xbox 360 pads to work, which proved inconvenient for my tastes. It was a keyboard only experience for me, which is compounded by the game’s lack of control tutorial. It took me forever to learn where specific inputs were mapped (the menu is tied to ‘shift’ and the space bar equates to the ‘A’ button, by the way). It’s a frustrating and confusing error for a game that shouldn’t be hard to control.

Artifact Adventure Gaiden

Artifact Adventure Gaiden is grind-heavy, a touch repetitive, and can be vague and confusing, but it strangely soothing to play. It’s a sprawling adventure filled with discoveries to make, places to explore, and a nifty combat system that’s open to experimentation. Whatever quest line you choose, there’s lots of replay value from the game’s $10 price point if you wish to get mileage out of the thin storyline. It’s not my favorite take on the retro-RPG, but I mostly enjoyed it in my 20 hours of play. More than its shortcomings, it’s attractively authentic and captures the feel of a bygone time in gaming, as though it came from the actual Game Boy.

Review Score

Review code provided by developer

Alex Irish
When he's not writing about games, Alex Irish is an illustrator and animation expert. His favorite gaming franchise is Pokémon, full-stop, but his favorite game of all time is Resident Evil 4. He attended the first-ever IGN House Party and is a five-time attendee of the Ottowa International Animation Festival.