This has been an interesting year for RPGs. Between the tentpole releases and welcome surprises is the relentless but dependable world of the indie RPG. And none shine brighter than the microscale, intelligent, and surprisingly dark Small Saga.
Full of heart and grit, Small Saga has been an ambition years in the making. Anyone who has seen the in-progress GIFs or images from the game over the last few years has been enamored with its scale, not to mention the gorgeous pixel art that shines in its colorful presentation. That aesthetic and appearance is what makes Small Saga immediately attractive. It's difficult not to be swept away by the game's scope, though its inventiveness against its scale hearkens back to the days of media that constantly played with the alien feel of microcosm; it evokes Don Bluth's The Secret of Nimh, not to mention Brian Jacques' Redwall saga.
While Small Saga is a role-playing game, it invents its fantasy against a penchant for realism, with cats taking on the role of dragons and mole mages wielding lighters instead of casting spells from wands. The hero himself carries a weapon of impossible size—a coy nod to the hero Guts from Kentaro Miura's Berserk—though the mighty blade is only a Swiss Army Knife, terrible and unwieldy for a mouse. The scope of Small Saga never once loses its charm, with warrior rodents brandishing scalpels and cocktail picks, while others perform jaunty morale-boosting tunes on instruments carved from broken pencils.
Developed by Darya Noghani after a successful Kickstarter campaign and recently released on Steam to lavish reviews, Small Saga is a triumph. With music by Kofi Young and Evelyn Lark, Small Saga is a project befitting its name, a love letter to the indie community that spent over half a decade in development.
All The World's a Stage
Set below the streets of London, Small Saga showcases a disparate kingdom forged from rats, moles, mice, voles, squirrels, and various other rodents. Rodentia operates under one cardinal rule that protects their way of life: never attack a god. But when the protagonist Verm endures pain and suffering at the hands of the Yellow God, he sets out on a quest that will change him and Rodentia forever.
Small Saga feels like the RPGs of yesteryear but differentiates itself from the indie scene by how well it adheres to the true definition of the acronym. While the game is fairly straightforward, it is robust with character, and its players are heartily defined by personality and charm. From the start, Small Saga is able to pull in the player with a mixture of self-assured writing and ingenious pacing, never once overstaying its welcome or tripping over some of the more worn conventions of the genre. It also streamlines many aspects of the RPG, mitigating the need for grinding and leveling while relegating battles to their more meaningful moments. Yes, you do fight the occasional spider and underling, but Small Saga's boss battles feel beat-for-beat like the bread and butter of the game.
The combat is simple but effective, turn-based and menu-driven with a few skills granted to each of the rotating characters. Where the battles shine are their set pieces, and combat is not without its unique identifiers. Characters verbally react to who they are facing, skills employ a certain sense of strategy, and pixel art never once stops being jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Even when combat tends to stray toward the easier side, this doesn't come as a disappointment when the stakes (and music!) remain so pressing and strong.
Even the Smallest
For an RPG, Small Saga is on the short side. But for those looking for a wonderful adventure that has all the trappings of a role-playing game but can be thoroughly enjoyed in a weekend, Small Saga remains appealing. It's difficult to not be impressed with the writing quality here, or the effective characterizations, or how the rodents of one kingdom are thoroughly influenced by the placement of the gods (one kingdom speaks with a particular verbal inflection because they found a cell phone years ago, and their monarch sits atop a throne smoking from a vape the size of a walking stick). The story revolves around the gods and how the rodent world must continually change and adapt in order to survive, and Verm's quest dictates that the key to survival is bringing down the Yellow God for good.
The story is not only strong, but is layered with moments that hearken to past and present conflict. At its core, Small Saga is about class and race, and the average citizen of Rodentia must figure out how to live their life while in the eternal shadow of their monarchy and its many individual kingdoms. We are granted looks into the human (god) world and the horrors it wreaks upon the vermin, and Small Saga's most horrifying moments are expertly woven into stark implications. Again it calls back to classics such as The Secret of Nimh, but Small Saga is efficient in paving its own way and creating a cast of characters with stakes that continue to rise.
Verm, Siobhan, Bruce, Gwen, and the dozens of other characters are all readily defined by their individual goals and strengths; it's difficult not to fall in love with much of the cast and wonder when you might see other characters again. While Small Saga is a fairly short experience (and the climax is rather abrupt), this only strengthens the narrative. There is no time wasted on fetch quests or lore bibles (though there is plenty extra for those who wish to explore), which is what truly entrenches the game in this feeling of yesteryear—without these modern trappings it is able to put the story at the forefront, and the entire experience is rewarded for it.
Small Saga is replete with strong political messaging, and the rodents regularly remark on class struggles, fascism, and societal differences. While the Kingdom of Rodentia is made up of many different regions, each demesne is ruled by its own race of creature, and these races work together (or don't) in order to add function to their world. We are shown the disparate struggles between aggression and pacifism, identity and expectation, nobility and peasants, and subjugator versus subjugated all within the scope and scale of Lego-brick houses and tea candle braziers. Like Poppy, The Tale of Despereaux, and Mouse Guard, the struggle of medieval rodents in a world that abhors them continues to be a truly effective piece of storytelling.
As the credits roll, it's difficult not to reflect back on the pint-sized journey and how perfect the union of Breath of Fire and Redwall truly is. While most players will be yearning for more after the short journey, that's only a sign of the game's indelible qualities. Small Saga is an RPG in the truest sense, a triumph of indie design, a small adventure worth taking.
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