Midautumn: Mopping Up The Spirit World
Midautumn is a game with a lot of spirit(s)
Let's start with a brief cultural note for the Westerners in the audience: The Mid-Autumn Festival is a traditional Chinese harvest festival observed in the middle of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, though it can more broadly refer to similar festivals observed at the same time throughout the Sinosphere. Traditions vary by place, but the observance of the full moon is always central. While it isn't as widely known as the Spring Festival (a.k.a. Chinese New Year), the Mid-Autumn Festival can be very close in importance.
That leads us to Midautumn, an action roguelike rooted in the cultural heritage of East and Southeast Asia. Built around a somewhat unusual combat system, Midautumn has a few tricks up its sleeve for those with the patience to figure everything out.
Seeking a bit of downtime in her busy life, Robin Lam makes a temporary re-location to the small California town of Nando Quay, her family's home. She has a deal with her grandmother: Do some work for the town and she can stay rent-free for as long as she wants. But that "work" turns out to be a lot more intense than expected: Nando Quay holds a passageway into the spirit realm, and Robin is expected to delve into that realm and fix whatever problems need fixing.
What happens in the spirit realm closely parallels what's going on in Nando Quay. Strange people keep showing up that know entirely too much, locals keep disappearing or falling to mysterious afflictions, and the two-hundred-year-old journal on Robin's desk sometimes expands on its own. These changes are at least enough to prove that this is, in fact, reality - otherwise, the fact that Robin dies every night and awakens back in her bed might suggest that it was all a dream.
That last part is important, as the story of Midautumn assumes that you will die a lot. Much like in certain roguelike games such as Shiren the Wanderer or Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, accomplishing things in the dungeon will advance the story and unlock new content but only after the player dies and returns to the hub. In this case, that story mingles fantasy elements with real-world issues that might resonate with people of the Asian diaspora.
Incidentally, you will die a lot regardless of your intent. It's not that Midautumn is a hard game, but it deviates a lot from the standard action roguelike formula.
When she's in the spirit world, Robin carries an artifact called the Lunar Staff. It can't be used to attack on its own, but it can absorb "Lunar Blood" that is fired by enemies or occasionally found floating free in some areas. This Lunar Blood can then be fired to kill enemies, but there's a catch: it's very hazardous to use. Storing too much Lunar Blood, holding it for too long, or being injured while storing it will cause it to "rot," which can then result in Robin taking damage when attacking or trying to store more. Lunar Rot can be more dangerous than enemies and obstacles, so managing Lunar Blood is absolutely key.
This isn't the most intuitive mechanic, especially if you were expecting a typical twin-stick or action RPG variant. It will probably take you quite a few runs through the spirit world before you really have a handle on how Lunar Blood works, and even then it's easy to forget yourself and just try to run-and-gun your way through the game.
The character growth system is intertwined into the narrative such that the player unlocks new upgrades by advancing through the story and meeting new characters. There are both long-term upgrades that last across multiple runs as well as more typical roguelike power-ups that die along with you. As with Lone Ruin, a game I looked at earlier this year, there is no dungeon map, and thus your ability to plan a route is very limited.
The growth system is secondary to the core gameplay, though. The enjoyment you get from Midautumn is going to depend primarily on how much you can adapt to the unorthodox mechanics. For those who can get a handle on it, there's a lot to see here, with plenty of little secrets and plot subtleties to uncover.
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