You may be familiar with Zeboyd Games – a small American studio comprised of Robert Boyd and Bill Stiernberg – through the indie RPGs that it produced for the Xbox Arcade platform in the early 2010s; Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves The World both parodied and lovingly recreated Nintendo Entertainment System aesthetics and mechanics in equal measure. A popular Kickstarter campaign then made their third major release, the Chrono Trigger-inspired Cosmic Star Heroine, an even bigger splash when it launched across PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and Nintendo Switch consoles in 2017-2018.
Whether you’ve played these titles in their entirety or just glanced at the dialogue snippets on display at digital storefronts, you’ll have noticed a consistently funny authorial voice that defines the otherwise unrelated adventures. Boyd’s work is known for rising above the meme-heavy humor of other comedy games in favor of writing that shows deep affection for its subject matter even when engaging in self-aware gags. I’m happy to report that this whimsical tone remains intact for Zeboyd’s newest release, This Way Madness Lies, even as its mechanics feel more experimental than the studio’s previous works.
This Way Madness Lies offers a genuinely inspired mixture of disparate source material. Players are introduced to its heroines – a team of students at Stratford-Upon-Avon High School who can transform into magical girls a la Sailor Moon – during a breezy introductory sequence set in Romeo and Juliet’s Verona that lays out the central conflict: the worlds of Shakespeare’s plays are being threatened by monster attacks that can only be halted through the intervention of the Stratford-Upon-Avon High Drama Society. The story then slows down just a bit, revealing the girls’ real-world experiences in class and on stage at their school, before speeding its protagonists along to another fantastical Shakespearean setting.
The surprising combination of subject matter makes This Way Madness Lies’ density of writing downright audacious. Scenes manage to include well-observed jokes about the magical girl manga genre, 16th Century theater tropes (including an optional in-game translator tool for archaic dialogue), and even life-sim games like Persona in only a handful of lines. The only time when bits fall flat are when they simply reference other work – sometimes the studio’s own – without working that into a larger joke. It’s hard to fault these, though, when they’re over in a moment and you’re on to some other wacky scene. It’s likewise tough to criticize the relative anonymity of the player characters when they serve the plot more as a collective of friends than as emotionally complex individuals.
Comedy-oriented games often offer relatively pared back mechanics, but that’s not the case in This Way Madness Lies. Though its battle scenes utilize a behind-the-back perspective similar to Shining Force, turn-based combat actually plays out in a manner that I’ve never encountered before despite being a JRPG fan for the better part of three decades. There are no standard attack commands; each character instead makes use of either a solo move or a united move that sees them combine powers with one of (up to) three teammates. These moves – which include physical attacks, elemental attacks, status ailment inflictions, buffs, and heals – generally only have one use before they must be recharged by having a character spend a turn guarding. United moves offer an added layer of depth, as they charge up over the course of battle and are best-deployed as late as possible for maximum effect. All characters are revived or healed at the end of combat and the entire team levels up simultaneously in a bit of thematic consonance with their status as a squad, placing the focus of battle squarely on in-the-moment tactical decisions rather than trying to conserve health or stamina over multiple encounters.
With regard to its presentation, Zeboyd has returned to the sprites and distant overhead exploration perspective of Cosmic Star Heroine. The character proportions and dark color palette call to mind Phantasy Star IV and perhaps even Windows PC games of the mid-90s, however, setting it apart from other retro throwbacks that look to the chunky designs of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System as their primary visual touchstone. The Joshua Queen-composed soundtrack is as lush with synthesized orchestral flourishes and propulsive beats as its direct predecessor, but features more vocal tracks that recall the magical girl milieu; you’ll be humming them long after the game’s breezy 5-10 hour playtime is over.
This Way Madness Lies is an easy recommendation for fans of 90s JRPGs and comedy games, consistently joking about its subject matter while never losing its warmth for those inspirations. Innovative combat and a unique audio-visual style likewise help it stand out from a crowded field of sprite-based and chiptune-backed contemporaries. As one final note, I’d like to praise the game’s performance on Steam Deck – it’s not “Verified” at the time of writing, but it plays like it was built from the ground up for the platform. Until it comes to Switch (fingers crossed!), Steam Deck is the perfect way to play this delightful adventure.
- This Way Madness Lies is available on PC for $9.99 USD via Steam
- It was played by the author on Steam Deck using a key provided by Zeboyd Games