|Game Name:||Sweet Home|
|Release Date:||Dec, 1989|
Suito Homu – I’ll let you guess what that translates to in English – is a Japanese horror film released alongside this game. The two were apparently co-developed, based on the frequent, detailed similarities (right down to the look of the notorious fresco), the near-identical release date, and that the movie trailer also featured images from, and promoted, the game. This is the sort of cross-pollination of media that would soon become a near-requirement for all films, and Sweet Home may be one of the first to have an official game version. It is also unique in that the game is far, far better than the farcical movie. (An intense, image-based synopsis of the film can be found here.)
If you haven’t heard of the game already, it is also given credit as the first “survival horror” game; a statement which could easily be misleading. This is really an RPG with a horror theme, so please don’t seek out this title expecting an early Resident Evil. Some concepts of hoarding limited items, and debating whether to fight or run, are factors here, though the games ultimately play very differently. The final point of note is that this game was allegedly scheduled for an American release, but never made it outside of Japan because of its “ghastly” content. Assuming the fault wasn’t actually licensing issues, I think Capcom could have gotten away with a States release, but I see the questionable content that would have required some convincing.
Before we begin, I should probably note that this is the first Japanese-language game reviewed for this site, using a fanmade translation from Gaijin Productions. This is a bit of a grey area – I have a common problem that may not make for a fair review, what if the translation is wrong, shouldn’t this be in a “Famicom” section, wah wah wah – but I finally decided that if the game is in English, why limit ourselves? Would you not play it simply because it was translated? Don’t expect an influx of Japan-exclusive games now, but we’ll be sure and let you know when we’re using a translation, and where you can get it, or we won’t review that game. Now back to the show.
Sweet Home presents us with five rough ‘n tumble adventurers looking to crack open the famed Miamya mansion, once belonging to a famous local artist and his reclusive wife. He has allegedly adorned the walls of the house with beautiful frescoes, which, being painted on the walls and all, means few have actually seen them. There’s also the rumor about spirits, spooky noises, trouble with the missus. There’s not a lot of setup, and no introduction screen, but we learn that the previous owners are dead, and the mansion has been abandoned for the last thirty years. Your group of journalists and friends have decided to brave the mansion to document the art within, and probably in doing so make a fat stack of yen.
The resulting game follows familiar RPG standards. You interact with the game entirely through menus, fight in a standard Dragon Warrior type interface of taking turns against the monster du jour, and form teams of up to three people (the remaining two are welcome to form their own party). As one of the characters puts it, there’s legitimate “safety in numbers.” The major differences between this and the usual RPG is that this game is shorter than most and leveling up comes faster, your inventory space is intentionally limited, and if a party member dies then they stay dead. There are no “phoenix down”s or revival spells in the game at all. It’s a big help toward selling the fear for your life that horror thrives on, despite that fact that keeping your five members hale and hearty isn’t really that difficult.
All five characters are taken from those in the film, but quite unlike the film, they are given unique characteristics and “jobs.” Their specialization is achieved through unique items that each character carries automatically, that cannot be dropped, lost, or traded. Akiko, for example, has fewer hit points and deals significantly less damage, but she carries around a medical kit that can heal other characters’ afflicting states. Asuka was the fresco restoration specialist in the film; here she has a vacuum cleaner that does the job just as well, and also removes path-blocking broken glass. Taro and Kazuo are the two male journalist leaders, which apparently means they’re the only ones with the testosterone required to wield heavier weapons like axes. Emi, somehow, has a master key to most of the doors in the mansion, making her particularly valuable.
Should a character die, the game isn’t over. Replacement items can be found in the gameworld that perform the same effects as the character-specific ones, but they take up an inventory slot of another character rather than being “free.” Each character has two inventory slots in addition to their unique item, which isn’t much at all, and encourages you to keep as many people alive as possible. I’m not saying that that bitch with the vacuum cleaner doesn’t matter, though some characters are more important than others, but the two extra inventory slots per character make anyone worth keeping alive. It’s also worth keeping even a weak character in a fighting group. Three people attacking is always better than one or two, and frequently I would have two characters deal serious damage, and the third weak one supply just enough damage to finish the monster off before it could attack at all.
Limiting the party to only three per team actually turns out to be one of the most brilliant parts of the game. I’m reminded somewhat of Friday the 13th, in that a lot of shuffling items between characters will happen, as will a lot of sending your damage dealers out front with your support characters waiting close by, or picking certain characters to sprint out and bring back items. There were also a lot of little sequences that brought the characters together as a “team,” instead of having a couple good characters and some others as baggage. Things like having the two strongest characters team up with one of the weakest, to guide her through the mansion or help her farm XP, or having one character with a rope swing one group across a chasm, swing back, and team up with the second group to bring them across.
Little details like that may make some people frustrated, and it does require extra time to be taken to look after each character, but it helped me look at these characters as a group of five individuals banding together and requiring the support of the others to survive. Your party isn’t just three characters who disappear into your ass, and only come out again for dialogue sequences. This partnership is certainly key to the theme, and rather rare for a game.
The horror theme is played up pretty well. The movie was mostly about living shadows (probably an excuse to skimp on the effects budget), but here you get a lot of typical monster foes like rabid dogs, zombies, and skeletons. Anything scary comes from the plot, which you learn through notes, warnings written in blood, a couple of quasi-interactive cutscenes, and the frescoes themselves. I have heard this called the scariest game ever made, I’ve actually heard a lot of games called the “scariest game ever made,” but it is not. It doesn’t have a froo-froo plot, and the things that went down inside the mansion are rather twisted, but this isn’t a shriek-a-minute story. It’s also not overly gory. Only one scene in particular could rival Bionic Commando’s graphic ending, but BC would probably win that fight. Sweet Home is, fortunately, much better than the movie, and it works quite well as a horror RPG. The reliance on your teammates really helps, as does the semi-legitimate fear of death. The game does become harder as more people die, but the abundance of health tonics, and their ability to bring everyone in the party (so three people per tonic) up to full health, seriously offset the difficulty. You can also save your game in-cart at any time, virtually ensuring that one of your characters will only die if you get particularly careless.
All actions you can perform in the game stem from use of the A button to call up a menu. Here, you can switch characters, sort your inventory, form a team, examine items, and save your game. Most of these commands have more than one feature, dependent upon where you use them; for example, “team” will request another character to join your team if you’re facing them, will leave your current team if you’re facing no one, or pull a character out of a hole if they fell in and are calling for help. Look is the most useful, and should be used when in doubt. Talk is the least useful, triggering unchanging banter between your team, or speaking to spirits when “look” won’t do. The B button activates a party menu showing the health of all your characters, or more detailed information about them, including their inventory, if you select a specific character.
Fighting is very simple, and as with most RPGs, mostly dependent on random chance. Though a few enemies can be seen (and avoided) in the gameworld, most are invisible random encounters. Your main option is to attack, which doles out random damage based on your level and equipped weapon. New weapons can be found within the world and swapped out with the item in your current weapon slot, though their descriptions are rather vague. Looking at a weapon will only tell you its type – Rune, Silver, Cut, etc – and it’s mostly trial and error to see what weapons work best against what foes, or in the hands of a specific character.
Items can be used in battle, but again, its mostly a guess as to which, if any, will have an effect. Pray points act as the game’s magic, and a sliding bar (like a football game kick meter) determines how many points are used for an attack. Some characters have more points than others, but all have the same generic “pray” attack that cannot be upgraded, and no new spells can be learned. It’s primarily a way for weak characters to provide a strong attack if they’re caught in a pinch. The other use for pray points is to open up areas in the environment, or interact with an object when nothing else seems to work.
You can run, though all characters must successfully escape on their own, so one character may simply be leaving another to bear the brunt of an attack. Finally, you can call another character to join the battle, which is a very helpful move if a weaker or solo character gets trapped by a monster. You’ll switch back to the overhead view and have a couple seconds to run the character you’ve called over to the fight and make a temporary team.
The game is primarily music, with a few generic effects for lightning and attacks. The music is pretty fantastic, though looped repeatedly. The fighting and fresco themes are overused, but you do get a couple different flavors of exploration music, based on where you are in the house. They suit and set the theme of the game very well, but are ultimately not required. Toward the end of the game, when the same music started to get a little tiresome, I turned on Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! in the background and had just as splendid a time.
Sweet Home is a damn good RPG, with a lot of horror tweaks that I really dug. Party and item management may not be your thing. Frequent, forced random encounters may really not be your thing. If you can get over those common RPG complaints, you’ll find an interesting story supporting a fairly unique game experience. I can’t think of another game that works as well as this one, while having multiple, specialized characters supporting each other as they do here (not just in a giant party like most RPGs). The translation work is superb, at least in terms of clarity, grammar, and telling a complete story. The Japanese one could have been about talking ponies for all I know, but what is presented in the English translation all makes sense. The translation has also been around long enough to gain some great support with walkthroughs and manuals, if you need them. Certainly worth checking out for a great adventure and a fantastic team-based RPG.
Fantastic RPG with well-executed team elements. Worthwhile story.
Maybe a little too hard to lose a party member for a horror story.