Thank you Sekai Project, Inc. for sending us a review code!
Undead Darlings ~no cure for love~ advertises itself as a visual novel experience with combat elements of a role-playing game. To those familiar with the visual novel and RPG genres, this will seem like an odd combination. While not all visual novel games are this way, many rely on a “press X to continue” pattern of reading text blocks from different characters in the game until the player can make a choice; once a choice is made from the given options, the game continues and in-game relationships or circumstances have changed. There are sometimes minigames within visual novel games (jobs, date games, collection quests, accessorizing, etc.) but for the most part they emphasize a more relaxed gaming experience.
RPGs cover a wide swath of games with different presentations and mechanics but Undead Darlings draws from a specific category: the party-based dungeon crawler. There is a vast amount to be said about what constitutes a party-based dungeon crawler, but that is exactly my point. They are often complicated and heavily involved. A dungeon crawler playthrough commonly involves 4 or more party members with different talents relating to several ability scores, turn-based strategic combat, strength and weakness tracking for different enemies based on magic elements and/or weapons, inventory management, strategic save states, and more. I’ve summarized all of this to say that Undead Darlings tries to mix the light visual novel and deep RPG into one brightly colored game cake filled with the cute and the crude. There are many moments of fun to be had trying to romance a certain girl or beat up an egg monster with bulbous thighs, but due to the constant flip-flop between exhaustive dungeon crawling and unclear relationship development during the visual novel sections, this game cake’s flavors struggle to complement each other and make a tasty experience.
The game’s first two hours contain its biggest gameplay surprises. The game opens with the player’s character, Reggie Happenstahnce, awakening from a dream to see his close friend, Pearl. They are young adults, as are most of the characters met in the game, but you wouldn’t be able to discern that from game advertisements or the title screen; all the young women look like teenagers and are referred to as “girls” in-game. As Pearl and Reggie talk, it comes to light that Pearl has been taking care of Reggie in his home ever since his dad drugged him into a long slumber before the beginning of a zombie apocalypse. The world has descended into chaos, Reggie and Pearl’s dads have both disappeared, and it turns out that Pearl is actually a half-zombie. As Reggie processes all of this, he soon finds information that his dad is somewhere working on a cure for the zombie virus. Reggie’s dad has left instructions to find him, and the adventure begins. After Pearl and Reggie meet Buck, a gun-toting macho man with a southern drawl and a fondness for designer denim, they all head to the nearby police station to meet Pearl’s sister, Jordan. Here they will find something secret stashed away in Pearl’s dad’s office which will guide them in their search to find Reggie’s dad.
This first 30 minutes or so of the game plays like a visual novel. The player learns backstory on Pearl, Reggie, Buck, and Jordan, as well as making a few choices that can gain Reggie affinity points with the girls. These affinity points affect Reggie’s ability to have more complex, private conversations with different girls throughout the game (you meet 6 in total) and affect the girls’ willingness to defend him in battle. The game’s writing style is made clear in these early conversations; Reggie has the humor of a perverted high-school boy and wastes no time making some sort of sexual pun or joke any chance he can get. Reggie also breaks the 4th wall a few times and makes metanarrative comments. Some of Reggie’s jokes will get laughs and his “this is just like in a movie” schtick isn’t overused but his personality can get tiring. The easygoing conversation quickly ends once it’s time to explore the first area: the police station. The game has been slowly easing the player toward the cliff edge of the dungeon crawler and now takes the opportunity to aggressively push kick the player over the edge and down into RPG levels of complexity that mirror game series like Dragon Age and Final Fantasy.
In an instant, the game greets the player with several menu screens offering exploration options, tutorials, and inventory/team management inside Buck’s truck. Anybody under the impression beforehand that this game would be light in RPG elements will be faced with a potentially overwhelming combat system that relies on prior knowledge of RPG battling styles. Luckily for me, I had previous experience with the Final Fantasy series, so I was able to understand the turn-based battle patterns quickly enough. Still, for those who dislike the complexity, this might be where they set down the controller.
Depending on how long a player wants to sit through Buck’s 10 sarcastic tutorials, they’ll begin exploration somewhere around an hour into the game. Every explorable area/dungeon is laid out on a square grid. The player moves from square to square in a dungeon by using the directional buttons or the left analog stick. Discovered squares will turn pink and eventually create the outlines of the map as the player explores. The maps seem to grow larger and more maze-like as the game progresses, which appropriately increases the challenge but can be needlessly repetitive. The dungeons are mostly bland representations of some kind of building with little in them to interact with. The most annoying feature of these environments is encountered in the high school dungeon: holes. If you fall in a hole, you drop back down to a lower level of the school. Unless you get smart and do some preemptive saves, you’ll have to rework your way through the school numerous times. Sometimes it is necessary to fall into a hole to discover a new area of a dungeon, but I grew tired of this mechanic rather fast.
There are different icons a player can encounter while exploring a dungeon. The most important are the treasure chests, colored pink and purple and surrounded in hearts. Walking into these chests gives the player an item of some sort, whether it be a consumable or a weapon, and also gives each party member some health and magic points. These chests come back after you’ve left one section of a map for another, so remembering where they are can make dungeon runs longer and more productive. Other icons are all variations of a cupcake. A green cupcake icon represents a standard battle of average difficulty that should be similar to any random encounter a player might face. Purple cupcakes represent more difficult encounters and often block map progress. Pink cupcakes are the final bosses of each dungeon. The cupcake system is mostly effective but I did encounter some green cupcake battles that clearly should have been purple and vice versa. The last type of icon is an exclamation point. If you have the correct party members upon first discovery (this is rare), walking into the exclamation point will trigger a scene during which Reggie can gain some affinity points with certain girls included in the scene. These exclamation points fully refresh the party, but only if the scene is triggered.
As the player explores they will either come upon random encounters or run into a cupcake and a fight will ensue. For each battle, up to three girls can be in the party. Each girl has ability strengths and weaknesses (attack, magic power, ranged weapon power, and evasiveness to name a few) and each have health points and magic points represented by a heart next to their portrait. Each girl’s stat array can be affected by weapons and accessories but they do seem to specialize in one or two areas. The battle screen gives you a menu for choosing what the girls will do and shows your enemies. Turn order is depicted in the top right and in the top left is a weakness-triggered damage multiplier. When fighting new enemies their health won’t be visible and you won’t know any of their weaknesses or resistances. Once an enemy has been defeated for the first time, you’ll be able to automatically see that enemy’s health bar and other attributes in every battle.
I enjoyed the game’s combat for the first three dungeons but after that it started to become monotonous. The best strategy seemed to be hitting enemy weaknesses over and over to build up the weakness multiplier and then engage that multiplier by pressing square before an attack to add up to 5X the damage. Enemy variation slows down as the game progresses but most of them are gleefully weird and fun to fight. I wish there had been some side quests to curb the banality of the inevitable grinding for experience points but there weren’t. Between battles there is a lot of backtracking to the “safe area” (the entrance of the dungeon) so that you can switch out party members or simply refresh the current party without using items. Even though it feels like a huge time waste, you’ll want to do this often because dying penalizes you severely. Upon death you can either reload a previous manual save (no autosaving here) or retry the fight you just died in at the cost of… all of your inventory. This is a pretty ridiculous penalty so save often.
When not engaged in combat, your goal is to interact with the girls during scenes and the visual novel breaks to gain their affinity. Each girl conforms to a certain surface stereotype, whether it be a busty blonde ditz or a nerdy Japanese introvert. They do have more to them than meets the eye but to find that out you’ll have to get their affinity scores up high. I only managed to unlock one private scene for Pearl, but it was worth the effort. The game’s overall narrative takes a back seat to the individual moments; observing how the girls interact with each other and how they learn to accept one another’s differences is one of the game’s real successes. Reggie becomes a bit more tolerable towards the end of game too, which is good because there were a few times I wondered why the girls wanted to protect him at all.
Because the game is primarily made up of conversations between college-aged characters, it is filled with adult humor and other moral concerns. Language runs the gamut from standard cursing like a**, s**t, and d**n, to more vague expressions like “making whoopie” or referring to male genitalia as “dongles”. Sexual jokes and innuendo are a constant from Reggie and Buck, and there is frequent “that’s what she said” humor among the girls. There are some heavier topics that are joked about concerning drink spiking, pornography, and rape. Many of the enemies fought in the game are designed to be crude or subtly sexual. One enemy carries a sign reading “Rump & Dump” and another has a shirt reading “STD Depot”. One boss near the end of the game is a weird perversion of the Adam figure in The Creation of Adam painting by Michelangelo, and the boss looks suspiciously like he’s masturbating with a detonator.
However, there is little to no blood in battles and when enemies die they simply turn into a pink scribble and disappear. Some of the enemies have exposed bones but they are all drawn in a crude, cartoonish fashion. As for the girls, they are all cute half-zombies and each of them has only one bandaged area or light bloody spot on them to represent their zombie nature. The blonde, Cici, shows some cleavage and Emily is a wannabe psychic but her proclivities are more childish than occult.
There are a few other aspects to the game I didn’t mention, like combo skills and scrap management, but if you love the RPG depth you’ll figure these out easily. If you don’t want more things to think about you can pick an easier difficulty level to breeze through the dungeon delving, but you'll still have to explore them and random encounters aren't able to be turned off until after you've beaten the game. The game is a polished, 60+ hour journey despite its uneven nature. A gamer partial to harem anime tropes as well as the intricacies of dungeon crawling will get a lot out of this game. For others, the game’s constant shifts in momentum will cause them to move on to something else long before the credits roll. Play Undead Darlings ~no cure for love~ for 5-7 hours and then decide how you feel because it won’t be getting any better or worse.