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This Way Madness Lies

This Way Madness Lies

Written by Elliot Hilderbrand on 8/10/2023 for SWI  
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I never thought I would find myself playing a JRPG set in the world of Shakespeare’s plays. I never thought I would play a JRPG that would pay homage to Sailor Moon. And I certainly never thought I would play a JRPG set in the world of Shakespeare’s plays that pays homage to Sailor Moon at the same time. But here I am. Life is strange sometimes. Regardless of it's strangeness, This Way Madness Lies is excellent. The writing, turn-based combat, pixel art, all of it works.

The writing for This Way Madness Lies is not only great for an indie game, but just in general. While the story of Stratford-upon-Avon High Drama Society’s members might not be Shakespeare himself, it leaves a lasting impression. The writing is quick and sharp, leaving me chuckling after most interactions. When in one of Shakespeare’s plays, there are typically two ways to read the text, a “Shakespearean” version or a “modern translation”. At first, I was a bit annoyed I needed to switch back and forth after each chat bubble, but that quickly faded. The modern translations left me laughing more often than not. I quickly began to look forward to talking with NPCs.

This Way Madness Lies has a more traditional feel than the setup may suggest. Top-down dungeon exploration, usually in the world of one of Shakespeare’s plays, followed by a boss fight, and then some story elements before repeating itself in a new area. Biomes are different from one to the next, but also feel and look like traditional JRPG styles, a snow level, a desert level, forest level, you get the idea.

The humor in This Way Madness Lies is great, and it works on several fronts. The leader of the Stratford-upon-Avon High Drama Society knows what’s going on, that she’s in a game, being played by you. The fourth wall breaks are frequent and usually funny. The callbacks and homages are also great.  When the drama society changes into their RPG outfits, it resembles that of Sailor Moon, in how they transform and look. Some of the worlds you visit are also hilarious, Romeo (yes, that Romeo) is being held prisoner by evil plants, and once you rescue him, Juliet isn’t so sure she wants a man like that. There are also fairies that carry guns, which isn’t often found in a Shakespeare play, but is a welcome addition. 

I love turn-based combat, always have, always will. I will, on occasion, struggle to stay focused when it is not my turn. That was not a problem with This Way Madness Lies. Combat is fast-paced, with many options and plenty of ways to change up the lineup of characters to create enough different combos to keep me interested the whole time. You can only take four characters with you on an adventure at once but have six to choose from. You can have them team up for attacks, each one is different depending on which two you pair up for an attack. On the higher difficulty, the fights had more heft, taking longer, giving you more chances to use these team-ups. I was a bit surprised by how much I liked the combat; it’s old-school roots are easy to see, but the modern refinements made it stand out. 

Why does everything work so well? I think it’s a combination of everything, but the most significant factor might have been the runtime. This Way Madness Lies can be completed in under 10 hours, making it a perfect weekend, or, if you’re bold enough, a one-sitting game. I have no doubt the developer Zeboyd Digital Entertainment LLC would continue the polish and shine with a longer title, but everything is the right amount to keep me invested. The back-and-forth reading of the Shakespearean and modern reading makes for more reading than typical, and if I was playing a 20-hour game, I might have been bored after so long, but I wasn’t. A lot of the sequences that repeat can even be skipped if you choose. The developers even have in-game commentary if you choose to skip scenes, meaning you miss out on a joke or two if you don’t skip them at some point. 

As much as I enjoyed most elements of This Way Madness Lies, there was one that felt lacking, exploration. The maps of the Shakespearean plays never feel huge, or even big. There are multiple paths to explore, but they all come back around to each other; you can easily explore the entire biome map without much effort. There also doesn’t feel like much to gain from exploring, just go in and get the job done and then come out. There are a lot of dead ends while exploring, and a lot of looping back to where you just found yourself. None of the areas feel massive, but they’re also are not trying to hint that there is more than meets the eye. Each explorable place feels like it belongs in a SNES title, the nostalgia hits hard because it feels so much like something I would play when I was younger. 

This Way Madness Lies has a lot of story to share. I love a good plot, and this one isn’t terrible, but it can feel like a lot, especially when the runtime of the game is only ten hours. In between visiting the works of Shakespeare, there are Intermissions, to help drive some of the plot. None of them are very long, they get to the point in a timely manner, but they didn’t do much for me in terms of enjoyment. I think calling them filler is a bit too far, but it was close. 

This Way Madness Lies wears a lot of hats, and looks great in just about all of them. I never thought Shakespeare in video game form would work as well as it does here. The humor takes center stage, with fourth-wall-breaking like a comedic swordfight. Sharp, witty, and had me laughing out loud on many occasions. Combat is so surprisingly addictive, something I don’t always think when it comes to old-school JRPGs. I thought everyone had a chance to take center stage. The pacing is faster than a quick-witted retort, for once, I wish a JRPG took a little longer to complete. This Way Madness Lies is a new-school game with a lot of old-school charm.

In an unexpected twist, I find myself immersed in a JRPG set in Shakespeare's realm, complete with nods to all kinds of other pop culture mainstays, like Sailor Moon. The writing is so good it's like a Shakespearean comedy; the twist of adding modern translation is just hilarious at times. Having to switch between the two styles of dialogue is like deciding between quill and keyboard - annoying at first, but it grows on you. The game's structure is more repetitive than I would like at times; exploration leaves a little bit to be desired too. Still, it's reminiscent of classic JRPG styles, making you feel like you're back in your nostalgic gaming heyday. Recommended for any RPG fan.

Rating: 9 Excellent

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I'm pulled towards anything that isn't driving or sports related; having said that, I love a good kart racer. I Can't get enough RPGs, and indies are always worth a look to me. The only other subject I pay any attention to is the NFL (go Colts!).

While writing about games is my favorite hobby, talking is a close second. That's why I podcast with my wife Tessa (it's called Tessa and Elliot Argue).

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