The cartoon antics of a magical girl anime don’t come to mind as the most compatible thing with the classical drama of William Shakespeare. Yet, Zeboyd Games’ This Way Madness Lies makes a compelling case for the fusion.
Like the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, the game wastes no time in getting players up and running. The Stratford-Upon-Avon High Drama Society has a side job: Becoming the magical “Ingenues” capable of crossing over into other dimensions. Those other dimensions? The worlds of Shakespeare’s plays themselves! Right at the beginning of the game, you’re thrust into one such play-world, and must rescue Romeo after he’s kidnapped by gross Chaos monsters.
Why do the theater kids have this power? What is causing the chaos beasts to run riot in fictional worlds turned real? Where is this all going?
In a broad sense, the answers to those questions don’t matter. One of the ways in which This Way Madness Lies is inspired by old-school magical girl anime is that it doesn’t have a huge amount of plot. Up until almost the end of the game, what would be key questions to answer take a back seat to the crises of the moment. When the Ingenues aren’t fighting monsters or rescuing Shakespearean characters, they’re putting on plays and hanging out. This game is far too busy having fun to resolve as a genuinely coherent narrative.
The good news is that’s absolutely fine. This Way Madness Lies takes its magical girl inspirations to heart. The story flows episodically, like a cartoon series made for younger viewers that might not keep up with complex plotting. Between adventures, players will be able to chat with the group, to learn more about their lives or just hear a funny quip about the current situation.
While there’s no denying that the main narrative is pretty insubstantial, it’s never unenjoyable. The writing is on-point and frequently quite funny. Its use of Shakespeare’s plays clearly comes from a place of genuine appreciation for the subject. During class and when putting on their plays, the club engages honestly with the work, acknowledging frankly the Bard’s lesser works and regularly calling out points of criticism, like harmful attitudes or even the occasional spot of bad plotting.
Zeboyd also pulls in a clever feature: A Shakespearean-to-Modern “translator.” The characters in the Shakespeare worlds speak “ye olde English,” as in the original work, and at any time you can press a button to bring up a “translation” of the line into “Zeboyd English.” At times these bits help to make a line more comprehensible to someone who can barely remember their English Lit classes. At other times they do stumble, as they’re written for laughs, but sometimes stray into the kind of ironic snark that clashes with the earnest tone of the rest of the game. It is a pretty rare flat point in a game that otherwise doesn’t miss.
The battles are also a high point, with a combat system reminiscent of Zeboyd’s Cosmic Star Heroine. You have a party of four characters, and each has a large suite of skills you can use without worrying about things like MP cost. Instead, using a skill typically locks it out until you spend a turn “recharging.” Add to that a “hype” system that causes each character to enter “hyper mode” every few turns and “Unite Skills” that are more effective after a certain number of turns pass, and you’ve got a cleverly designed system that rewards thinking a few moves ahead and sidesteps the “point management” that can burden some JRPGs.
At higher difficulty levels, timing your skill use and taking advantage of both elemental weaknesses and status effects becomes critical. You can adjust difficulty at any time too, which is good for when some boss battles towards the end start to feel a bit too long.
This all happens among excellent, retro-inspired pixels. The battle screens in particular take after the Shining Force series and display characters in a detailed, “semi-3D” framing that shows off the quality of the character art. I almost wish Zeboyd had gone on to make the rest of the game look like the battle segments, as the field exploration and cutscene sprites seem more “common” in comparison.
Finally, This Way Madness Lies does something quite apropos for a game meant to be light and funny: It doesn’t wear out its welcome. Like a good standup routine or a well-considered script, the whole game feels tight, with a full run taking eight to twelve hours. That timing largely depends on your choice of difficulty and how much you decide to grind, which you can do by launching battles straight from the menu.
What this This Way Madness Lies lacks in terms of narrative depth, it more than makes up for in refreshing combat and clever characterization. It’s a breath of fresh air that also serves as a heartfelt sendup to both classic JRPGs and classic literature.
This Way Madness Lies is available on PC via Steam.