Many of us are so many years removed from high school that we forget those once-important details: hanging out with friends, attending drama classes, taking tests, transforming into heroes, and fighting monsters.
That last bit may not have been a universal experience, but it's what the girls of the Stratford-Upon-Avon High Drama Society have to deal with daily. When they're not being quizzed on the plays of the Bard or hopping into other dimensions, these girls are just trying to live a normal life and make it to their next drama club practice.
Crafted by the small but impressive team at Zeboyd Games, This Way Madness Lies follows in the wake of Cosmic Star Heroine as an even more succinct RPG that you can complete in a long weekend. Punchy, funny, and saccharinely entertaining, the game balances genres and time periods to deliver an indie experience you're unlikely to find elsewhere. It doesn't bog the player down in endless exposition or deliver unnecessary details for its bizarro world. Instead, it provides a top-notch RPG experience that will tickle any player who grew up watching Sailor Moon and digesting Hamlet in English class.
Similarly to Cosmic Star Heroine, This Way Madness Lies builds on Zeboyd's previous combat system, with a perspective that recalls lost classics like Golden Sun. Combat is straightforward and strategic, with powerful abilities that can only be used once per turn until they're refreshed by guarding. This creates a highly strategic setup, where the correct actions must be chosen against a Hyper mode that increases the strength of a hit or replenishes a heal, and Unite abilities that team up magical girls for brutal combos. Plus, the Stratford-Upon-Avon High Drama Society ladies level up during their Shakespearean exploits together, making customization highly manageable.
Much of the game plays out like a traditional RPG, with the grind and tedium removed in lieu of something that truly presents itself as an unfolding play. While a number of dungeons must be traversed in the game's short run time, some events are handled with singular boss fights before the plot moves along. There are plenty of intermissions, but even on the higher difficulties the pace never feels overwhelming. In fact, this "bite-sized" RPG approach is perfect for the nature, design, and price of the game—it's the sort of experience I would suggest to someone without a second thought. There are also more than enough breaks from the combat during the short run time, where the magical girls will ask for help answering Shakespearean trivia or explaining away the more aged aspects of The Bard's revered plays.
When the girls of the Stratford-Upon-Avon High Drama Society aren't rescuing Romeo or quoting Hamlet, they're busy navigating their own lives. Parallel dimensions and evil plots pop in seemingly at random, limned by gorgeous animations and hilarious dialogue. Retro-style pixel art always fits these sorts of RPGs like a glove, but This Way Madness Lies should also be celebrated for its beautiful soundtrack and witty humor. The game even features the option to translate Shakespearean dialogue into modern English, and creator Robert Boyd made a nod on Twitter to the support of his wife and daughters for helping him polish the unique gaming experience.
As Imogen and her cronies put a stop to the troublesome Nightmare, I found that the game never overstays its welcome or lasts so long as to lose its unique charm. I enjoyed much of the game even more than Cosmic Star Heroine, and its bite-sized approach to high school life might feel less daunting to those gamers that are put off by Persona's bloated stature. It feels like an unearthed SNES classic in all the right ways, and best of all it runs great on the Steam Deck.
This Way Madness Lies is currently available on Steam.
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