Recently, I’ve been feeling that some of my writing has edged too far into cynicism. While I stand by everything I write, I think that my pieces on games like Valis, Rockman & Forte, and Holy Diver iterate the same points without really adding anything to the conversation. Call it bad luck, call it a personal problem, or call it something else. I just want it to change.
So imagine my dismay as I played through Holy Umbrella: Dondera no Mubou. By no means is this a bad game. In fact, I’d recommend that you play it. Still, I can’t help but feel how much better the game would have been with a slight change of focus. Its platforming sections are fantastic, as their clever implementation of the character switching system allows the game to find a satisfying middle ground between engaging the player and letting them relax. My problems with the game would be few if these sections comprised the majority of its focus. Yet they don’t. The game splits its focus between them and the flat town sections, falling well short of its potential.
I realize this sounds a little odd, given how notable this split is in itself. Holy Umbrella is a sort of hybrid between RPGs and platformers, made in a time when such combinations were a little less common. The former manifests in a levelling system and especially the game’s town. Here, you buy equipment, talk to NPCs, and advance the plot like you would in any other RPG. None of it’s noteworthy on its own, and I’ll talk about it in more detail later on. For now, the game’s platforming elements entice me more, given how mechanically meaty they are. You search for upgrades and power ups like in Metroid. You switch between characters on the fly, like Little Samson or Ufouria. You use your umbrella to create orbs that behave like they came out of a shmup. It’s as though every facet of the game invites your interaction.
Everything, that is, except for the levels. They’re comparatively relaxed. Your character can saunter through each stage, tackling monsters and obstacles at whatever pace you see fit. The world offers very little to challenge or pressure you. At first, this would appear to put the platforming at odds with itself: one side demanding your full attention, the other letting said attention wander. However, I see the situation less as tension and more as unity. Looking at the levels, they would be incomplete without the mechanics there to complicate the experience. Without all these systems, the curtain would be pulled away, the player would see the levels for the rote instructions that they are, and a void would form that the game would no longer be equipped to fill.
The game’s systems are there to fill that void and lend the game a therapeutic tone. OK, “therapeutic” might be exaggerating, but it’s the closest word for capturing my experiences playing the game. The rote instructions didn’t feel like rote instructions, but like a relaxing process I could unwind to. I could let my mind wander as I filled in a pre-determined pattern. Sure, I felt clever for going along with that pattern, but given the lack of pressure in these levels, I don’t think that cleverness is what Holy Umbrella is going for. I don’t even think the therapeutic tone is what the game’s going for, either, but damn if I won’t congratulate it for it otherwise. What’s more, I don’t think the game could achieve this kind of therapy without such involved systems. Less involved ones couldn’t get the job done for reasons I’ve already explained, and elements like the art or the narrative can’t achieve it, either, since the therapy exists at the level of play. I also couldn’t help but appreciate how integrated all these elements were. The gameplay lends each character a distinct identity in play, and, at least until the end of the game, the stages make strong use of those characters’ talents.
Perhaps an example will suffice. And what better example than the game’s many bosses? After all, most of them fit the rote pattern motif I described earlier, the final boss especially. (Unfortunately, because the final boss enters the fray well after the game has forgotten about character switching, the fight becomes a boring and robotic mess.) Throw multiple characters into the mix, and you start to see what makes the game work. The fights become more involved now; you’re regularly switching between characters at the perfect moment to beat your enemy. Yet battles are too repetitive and easily predicted to derive an action aesthetic from. So somewhere between cycling through characters and filling in a pattern, the game’s able to find meaningful engagement. This is what I like about Holy Umbrella: it thoroughly understands its strengths and it’s eager to implement them.
However, this is also what I don’t like about the town sections. Where the action segments offer a multitude of interesting ways to act on the world, the towns are, mechanically speaking, barren and utilitarian. You talk to this guy, buy from that person, advance the story along, etc. This in itself is not a problem. It only becomes a problem when we look at how the game is paced. Considering how sparse the towns are, they should ideally serve a complementary function to the platforming parts. That action needs to be broken up so it doesn’t overwhelm the player. And to do that, the player shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time navigating these areas.
Yet that’s not what happens. In practice, both the platforming and the towns take up roughly equal space in the game. The result is a tension that arises from the two sections aiming for different aesthetics. Not a unity, mind you, where the two work in tandem; a tension. An uncomfortable blend between the well defined action segments, and the thin nothingness of the towns. It shouldn’t have to be this way. I know that the game needs a break from the more involved gameplay, but it could achieve that through other means. The towns could focus on a different aesthetic, letting one part of the brain rest while exercising another. Or towns could occupy less of the player’s time.
Or, failing that, the towns could establish what the world is like. I don’t know that Holy Umbrella needs a strong atmosphere, but it’s worth entertaining the notion. Unfortunately, I see the story as precluding any such notions. By no means is the story bad. Judged on its own terms, it does well for itself. The story borrows the “ordinary kid lands in a magical world and has to settle a great conflict” premise from Valis and Magical Taruruuto-Kun, but eschews their approaches in favor of something more comical. And it works. The Holy Umbrella journey is a mildly entertaining one, with humorous gags scattered here and there. Yet when placed in the specific context we’re discussing, the story comes apart at the seams. Because it exists largely to ferry the player between challenges, and to keep them occupied between said challenges, it’s not conducive to strong world building. And besides that, it doesn’t immediately fit with a lot of what I’ve described of the game. So we’re right back where we started.
All of this leaves me torn on what to make of the game. I want to congratulate it for what it does with character swapping. It takes a mechanic you’d expect to grip your attention, and instead uses it to craft a strangely serene experience. On top of that, that serenity only exists because the game is gripping your attention in the first place. Yet if I’m going to commend the game for what it gets right, I have to acknowledge what it gets wrong: the various structures that pull the game in opposite directions. It’s almost like Holy Umbrella doesn’t understand what makes it good. While its faults aren’t enough to bring the game down, they are just enough to hold it back from what it could really be.