REVIEW: Cthulhu Saves Christmas

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Title Cthulhu Saves Christmas
Developer Zeboyd Digital Entertainment LLC
Publisher Zeboyd Digital Entertainment LLC
Release Date December 23rd, 2019
Genre RPG
Platform PC (Steam and GOG)
Age Rating N/A
Official Website

One of the very first games I reviewed on Operation Rainfall was Cthulhu Saves the World. I don’t remember how I discovered the game, but I quickly became a fan of the madness of Zeboyd Games. The mixture of classic RPG mechanics, absurd humor and distinct challenge made for a fun brew, and though the first game wasn’t perfect, it did serve as a framework for many other fantastic games, including both On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 and 4 and Cosmic Star Heroine. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think we were gonna get another game set in the Cthulhu universe, and when I discovered Cthulhu Saves Christmas, I got very excited. The question is, was this formula worth a second try? Or should Cthulhu have stayed home with his insane cultists?

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If you’ve played the original game that Cthulhu Saves Christmas was based on, you’ll pretty much know what you’re getting into. If you’re unfamiliar, I’d check out my review of that game by clicking here. It does a great job of showing you generally what to expect, though there are a good number of differences between the two. However, one feature they share is the main premise. In this adventure, Cthulhu is quickly stripped of his eldritch powers by opening a Christmas present. Figuring that Santa is behind it, the angry deity sets out to slay Santa, get his powers back and destroy the world. In that order. He discovers that Santa isn’t actually the culprit, but instead it’s something called the League of Christmas Evil. They have kidnapped old Saint Nick, and by using anti-presents that provide the opposite of what you want, are going to reshape the holiday in their dark image. I won’t spoil most of them, but their ranks include the likes of Jack Frost and a deranged posse called the Yule Lads. Essentially, the League of Christmas Evil is a Xmas adjacent group of miscreants, and I’ll admit several took me by surprise. And as you might have guessed, they serve as the boss fights in the game.

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You might be wondering how Cthulhu Saves Christmas actually plays. Though it’s still styled as a retro RPG, the systems are a mixture of the original game and Cosmic Star Heroine. Each character learns new skills as they level up, and you can equip three active abilities at a time. Most abilities need to be recharged to use again, which is done by selecting your character’s defensive skill. Besides that, each character also has three slots for what are called Insanity abilities. These are totally random, and are mostly drawn from your pool of unequipped skills from your entire team. You’ll also sometimes find really powerful Insanity abilities tied to specific characters, but good luck relying on those to show up. In general, it’s a good idea to put a lot of thought into your main skills, and hope for the best with your random ones. Like any good RPG, skills range from physical to magical attacks, healing, AOE powers, status ailments and more. There’s a flow to each battle, and you won’t want to dilly dally too much since after each attack, every enemy (including bosses) gets slightly more powerful, and some get new skills when they’re the sole survivor.

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But wait, there’s more. Each turn, your characters have a meter that fills up. When it’s full, you’re in Hyper Mode, which means your skills will deal more damage and have improved effects. For example, Cthulhu has a self-healing skill that, when Hyper, grants him the Unstoppable buff, which means he won’t die immediately if his health is reduced to zero. This is a very important mechanic, since you won’t get an actual Revive skill til very, very late in the game. The downside to Unstoppable is that if you end your turn with negative health, you’ll die afterwards, and be useless the rest of that battle. So it’s a good idea to quickly heal any character in negative digits. The upside to being in the negative is that you’ll be in Desperation mode, and your attacks really pack a wallop in that state. Finally, like the first game, here you have Unite attacks shared between characters. You’ll eventually have a team of four, and each character has a Unite attack with every other character. These are quite powerful, such as summoning tentacles with Cthulhu and Crystal or healing everybody with Crystal and Belsnickel. Just remember, even Unite skills are better when Hyper. I forgot early on and suffered through many battles as a result. As you can tell, there’s a lot of complexity in Cthulhu Saves Christmas, and for the most part I very much enjoyed it.

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I only have a few small complaints about the combat system in Cthulhu Saves Christmas. Firstly, I hate relying on random factors, and the Insanity abilities were as likely to help me as hinder me, especially in harrowing battles. This was very much the case in the challenging boss fights, which can be unrelenting, at least on the difficulty I chose (Insane, or this game’s version of Normal). My other complaints only came up when I refreshed my memory about Cthulhu Saves the World. That game had branching skills you could choose to learn, whereas there is nothing like that here. I love having complete control over my RPG experience, and I just wish there was a bit more variety to how I helped my characters grow. And speaking of characters, the first game had several you could swap in and out of your team. Sadly Cthulhu Saves Christmas only has one team of four. Though to be fair, each character serves as a distinct class of sorts, such as berserker, healer, etc. Other than those issues, I really enjoyed the combat in the game. Which is good, considering that’s about half of what the experience offers. The other half is the game’s laugh-out-loud funny writing.

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If you haven’t played a game by Zeboyd before, then let me tell you, the writing is always amazing in their games. Very few RPGs I play make me chuckle, let alone belly laugh, and Cthulhu Saves Christmas often did both. One reason for that is the eclectic mix of characters. Take your team for example. Cthulhu is surly and insecure about his stripped-down abilities. He always wants to be feared, and instead gets mostly ignored. Then there’s Crystal Claus, the sweet and saccharine niece of Santa who wants to do good, but is constantly thwarted by the mischievousness of the elder god. There’s a burly mountain man named Belsnickel, who seems pretty normal at first, other than the twisted joy he derives from whipping little children. And then there’s my new favorite, Baba Yaga-chan. Yes, that Baba Yaga, just young and full of optimism. She’s crazy, cute, sinister and much more besides. How can you not love a character who introduces herself by trying to suffocate an elder god with a pillow?

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Besides the wonderful cast of characters, there’s also tons of fourth wall breaking silliness everywhere in the game. It turns what could be a basic RPG plot into a delight, full of skeletal reindeer, time travel, alternate dimensions, alien cats and much more. Put simply, you’ll want to read every word that flashes across the screen, since it’s all so cleverly conceived. Hell, even the way the game uses the narrator is amazing. Honestly after playing all the games in the Zeboyd roster, I really want them to do localization for other series, because I know they would do an amazing job of it. That said, I did find the ending to Cthulhu Saves Christmas a bit of a letdown, especially since the rest of the adventure was so inventive. But that in no way diminishes the rest of the experience.

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Though I do enjoy all the Zeboyd games, they have one unfortunate trait in common: their linearity. Cthulhu Saves Christmas is completely linear, just going from dungeon to dungeon, with some great writing in-between. There’s no optional dungeons or hidden bosses. The only things that mix up the experience, and which are new to this series, are relationship forging sections. Your home base is Christmas Town, which is set in a perpetual state of Christmas Eve due to Santa’s kidnapping. While you’re there, the game encourages you to explore and spend time with your “friends”. Doing so boosts your R’lyehtionship with each teammate. No, you didn’t read that wrong; the pun is intentional. I was pleasantly surprised this game took a page from series like Persona, letting you deepen your bonds with the team. Doing so rewards you not only with more hilarious dialogue, but with equipment and items. I should say, the items used in battle are all single use, but recharge after combat. As for equipment, you only get it in Christmas Town or in chests found in dungeons. It’ll behoove you to explore each dungeon fully as a result, since you might otherwise miss a chest with the equipment you want. I tended to prefer equipment that let me start battles Unstoppable or which turned single-use skills into reusable ones. Much like the first game, there’s a set amount of encounters in each dungeon, and once you’ve fought them all, you can explore freely. Though if you want to grind more, you can fight random battles from the main menu as well.

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Though the devs suggested Cthulhu Saves Christmas can be beaten in 4-5 hours, I didn’t roll credits til about 16 hours in. Perhaps that means I’m not as good at the RPG genre as I’d like, or maybe it’s because I played on the middle difficulty. Either way, I got plenty of bang for my buck, and found the challenge was pretty satisfying. Sometimes basic enemy encounters could utterly destroy me, forcing me to restart repeatedly to get past them. And some of the bosses in the game are really challenging. Hell, the second boss repeatedly wiped the floor with me until I got smart and used better strategy to claim victory. That said, I’m still a little disappointed there was nothing optional to do in the game other than exploring different sections of Christmas Town in your free time between dungeons. Hell, I managed to get all the Steam achievements just by beating the game, which is a bit disappointing. What’s here is great, but whenever I enjoy a game this much, I always want any excuse to spend more time with it. Sadly, once you beat the game, there’s not really a reason to play through it again, since you’ll have seen pretty much everything.

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Visually, I really enjoyed the style of Cthulhu Saves Christmas. It’s a lot like what’s available in Cthulhu Saves the World, just with more fine tuned retro art. Characters have a lot of personality just from their portraits, and the variety of enemy designs is pretty good (though there are several that get reused). The only thing I missed visually are the comic cutscenes from the original. Musically the game is fine, though most of the songs aren’t that memorable. The main exception is a twisted version of “Carol of the Bells” I really enjoyed listening to. There’s no voice acting here, but I also found it wasn’t necessary.

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Honestly, for only $9.99 you get a great experience with Cthulhu Saves Christmas. It’s a very solid RPG with lots of laughs and good mechanics. Though I do miss some features from the first game, it overall does a good job of streamlining things for the better. More than anything, I just wanted reasons to keep playing in this universe. Any sort of unlockables, optional dungeons or hidden bosses would have been very welcome. Though my time with the game wasn’t exactly short, I kept finding myself wishing this was a 30-40 hour game. And while the ending was a bit of a disappointment, I still find myself hoping we get another entry to make this a trilogy. All in all, I’m happy with the latest from Zeboyd Games, and hope we don’t have to wait very long for Cthulhu’s next adventure.

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Review Score

Review Copy Provided by Publisher

About Josh Speer

Josh is a passionate gamer, finding time to clock in around 30-40 hours of gaming a week. He discovered Operation Rainfall while avidly following the localization of the Big 3 Wii RPGs. He enjoys SHMUPS, Platformers, RPGs, Roguelikes and the occasional Fighter. He’s also an unashamedly giant Mega Man fan, having played the series since he was eight. As Head Editor and Review Manager, he spends far too much time editing reviews and random articles. In his limited spare time he devours indies whole and anticipates the release of quirky, unpredictable and innovative games.