Thanks to Degica Games and their efforts to bring a growing catalogue of Japanese indie and arcade classics (Mushihimesama, RPG Maker, Crimzon Clover, Muv-Luv, and many more) to Steam, we have another adorable, tomb-trotting addition to the store. Pharaoh Rebirth+ was published via the indie game distribution mag, Niconico Magazine, and was developed by Krobon Station. With its pixel art style and dynamic weapon/tool upgrading, it sits comfortably among the likes of La Mulana and Cave Story. This archaeological platformer is less expansive than either of the aforementioned, but packs a pixelated arsenal somewhat larger than its graphics and gameplay initially allude.
There is often a disconnect between the themes, the artwork, and the moment-to-moment gameplay that gives it a unique personality. The rabbit-like hero finds himself firing tennis balls out of a machine gun at owls, rodents, or hotel staff, while swinging about by his ears which have magically become chains. And that’s when he’s not fighting actual gods. A suitably silly story involving a Pharaoh’s curse ties the levels together, along with the ensuing chase for items that might save the life of the hero. I was impressed at the opportunities Pharaoh Rebirth+ took to include cultural and historic notes about locations, items, and even occasionally managed to discussed a Japanese perspective on them. The roster of characters swap and change apparent motives as people cross and double-cross each other on the hunt for loot and salvation.
This is a verbose platformer and conversations often stretch to pages worth of text. Although they add up, each interjection or comment is short and skimming through the punchy dialogue is never a drag. Holding down the pause button zips through conversations, and save points are strategically placed immediately after long conversations to avoid having to repeat them should the player fall in a spike trap right after the last word is spoken. The dialogue is often funny and although not all of the jokes land, there are plenty that made me chuckle. I’d happily watch a cartoon about these creatures and their mishaps as they hunt for ancient treasure and with the number of lines each character has within the game, I feel like I already have.
The metroidvania gameplay involves some amount of back-tracking, but the short levels make this relatively painless, and bosses and conversations are disabled during additional level playthroughs. Bosses can be reactivated, but there’s a boss rush mode if you feel like trying your hand again. The three difficulty levels substantially change the flow, and the hardest setting brings the game closer to a Mega Man style of strategic, high-stakes combat. Once your collection of armaments has grown you’ll find yourself weighing up the benefits of AoE, defensive properties, or a more focused firepower as you switch between sub-weapons. There’s a strange set of items that add permanent damage or defence buffs, and they all have cute descriptions in the menu. If you’re after a flowing, natural world, this isn’t it. This is about enemy attack memorisation and platforming prowess.
The details within the frames of character and enemy animation are impressive. The contrast between sprites built from 3D rendered models (particularly the scorpion boss) and the lovely, hand-drawn sprites causes some aesthetic inconsistency, but nothing too drastic. Unfortunately the lovely artwork isn’t given the best opportunity to shine. Aside from the native graphical resolution (640 x 480), most other display options stretch and distort the image. There’s no full-screen option that maintains the correct aspect ratio, which leaves the sprites widened and fuzzy.
The controls are customisable, and the default gamepad set-up is functional, if a little confusing at first. The pause/menu button has been relegated to clicking in the right thumbstick and I couldn’t find a default escape key on the gamepad at all. I played through the entire main story and portions of the bonus levels on the gamepad, and felt it was easily the best control option. Aside from basic graphics options, there’s also the option to play in the original Japanese.
Pharaoh Rebirth+ is available on Steam for less than $10 USD, which feels like a good price point if you’re a fan of indie platformers. The main story will take just shy of 10 hours if you’re intending to collect most of the weapons, upgrades, and secrets. I hope we see many more quality Japanese indie titles brought to Steam in the near future.