I like weird games a lot, so I was drawn to Don’t Give Up: A Cynical Tale immediately. I mean, the title alone stands out as being a little quirky, but then the fact that you go on a dimension-hopping adventure as an indie game developer who is in the middle of a mental breakdown is the cherry on top. It’s weird, weird, weird, but in a good way.
Does the zaniness of the adventure make for a good gameplay experience though? Well, whilst the tale being told certainly kept me intrigued throughout, Don’t Give Up: A Cynical Tale did lack the depth found in other RPGs. In fact, I’d find it difficult to really use the term ‘RPG’ when describing the game, with it feeling more like a narrative-driven journey with a bit of battling thrown in for good measure more than anything else.
Don’t Give Up: A Cynical Tale puts players in the role of Tris, a down-on-his-luck game developer who finds himself facing problem after problem in his life. It takes him down a dark road where his inner demons encourage him to contemplate suicide, but thankfully he finds the will to carry on and try to find the light in his life. What better way to do that than with pizza, right?
The game certainly isn’t afraid to embrace the darker side of human emotions, but it does a bit of a balancing act by also imbuing plenty of humour into the mix too. This is especially evident in Tris’ interactions with the folk around him, with plenty of unique characters to meet that can be responded to in a variety of ways depending on your mood. It adds to the charm of the experience and really fleshes out the world that Tris lives in.
There’ll also be moments in the game where you play as Subris, a metaphorical representation of Tris’ subconscious that faces off against his demons. These sections add an interesting little twist to the problems that Tris is facing in life, though I personally didn’t find them as interesting as the real-world sections. It’s a preference thing really and it all ties up together nicely in the end, so they’re still easy to appreciate.
You’ll lead Tris on his adventure by travelling between different areas and interacting with the folk you meet. The world itself is pretty snazzy and eye-catching in design thanks to its old-school stylings, whilst the chirpy chip-tune soundtrack that plays alongside it is fitting of its whimsical vibe. I just couldn’t help but to wish that it offered a little bit more to do at times, with little in the way of interactivity or discovery… there’s just a lot of walking. In fairness, it does have plenty of NPCs to meet that bring it to life, but gameplay itself is mostly limited simply getting to your objective and completing a few battles along the way.
Battling takes a unique approach in Don’t Give Up: A Cynical Tale, with the player positioning themselves on a grid made up of four squares. Each of these squares represents a direction on the controller (up, down, left, and right), with the player having to switch between them in order to avoid incoming attacks from the enemy during the initial phase. They’re also able to dish out some attacks of their own whilst waiting for the enemy’s power meter to decrease, though this depends on whether or not their position on the grid lines up with that of the opponent.
Once the opponent’s power meter is depleted, the player can go all-out and unleash a barrage of attacks whilst it refills. When it does? It’s back to playing on the defensive. It’s a simple system that sees most battles consisting of a back-and-forth of defence and offence, with the increasing difficulty as you progress ensuring that it remains challenging. It’s simple, but satisfyingly addictive in design.
Sometimes, battles won’t kickstart straight away. Instead, the player will face off against their opponent in ‘Smak Talk’ – a battle of wits that sees you dish out insults with your rival. Manage to outsmart your enemy? They’ll get distracted and have their feelings hurt at the same time, which does… something. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t fully tell what the benefits of outwitting your opponent were, but I still had fun with the comical little showdowns so I’m not complaining. And hey, it reminded me a lot of the ‘Insult Sword Fighting’ from Monkey Island… that can only be a good thing.
Whilst I enjoyed the battling of the game, it was a little disappointing that most other facets of the gameplay lacked any real depth. You shouldn’t expect to level up or change your gear during your playthrough, whilst there are no items to find or random encounters to face off against either. Everything in the game is very linear in design, with the player simply led through the journey to watch the story unfold and then partaking in battles at specific moments.
It’s a shame in a way because from the outside, Don’t Give Up: A Cynical Tale looks like it’d offer a quirky RPG experience in the vein of Undertale. Instead, it focuses on telling its story more than anything else, with moments of interactivity left as a bit of a rare little extra along the way. The battle system is guilty of feeling like more of a mini-game than anything else too, with nothing changing about it outside of the difficulty from start to end.
You know what, though? It’s fine. I enjoyed seeing Don’t Give Up: A Cynical Tale’s story play out, with the well-written characters and comical undertones keeping me entertained until the very end. There’s a deeper message there that’ll be relatable for a lot of gamers too, with the struggles that Tris goes through really highlighting some of the lows that a lot of people can face in life (and, of course, the joy of overcoming those). It’s all presented in an effective way, with the game’s darker moments evened out with the more comical sequences. Plus, the sarcasm is VERY real throughout with Tris – it might be the lowest form of wit, but it’s something that I appreciated with every cutting dig that he made.
Don’t Give Up: A Cynical Tale offers an engaging narrative that balances humour and emotional gut-punches, though the gameplay could be a little lacking. It’s not that anything is bad… there’s just not a whole lot to experience outside of the mini-game style battling.
Does it offer enough to keep player entertained? I’d say so, especially with the intrigue of the narrative and the quality of the writing, which was top notch throughout. I’d just recommend you keep your expectations in check if you were hoping for a deep and involving RPG, with Don’t Give Up: A Cynical Tale feeling like an adventure where you’ll spend most of your time in the passenger seat.
Developer: Taco Pizza Cats
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC
Click here to visit the official website.