Halloween Wars

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Note: I have replaced the boss music with the royalty-free song “Evil Returns” by Myuu. Please see the video description for more info.

Halloween Wars is a game which takes a risky and creative approach to turn-based combat by combining it with rock-paper-scissors. The end result is clunky in some spots and doesn’t always work out, but there is enough charm and genuine innovation here that it’s well worth a look.

Before anything else, I want to state that this is a game which is more notable for its concept than for its execution as the gameplay is indeed very rough around the edges in spots. Thus, while I do recommend this game to anyone who wants to see an interesting combat system and/or just how far the RPG Maker engine can be pushed, I also should note that the later parts of the game can feel tedious and frustrating. As such, this article is going to be taking a look at what went wrong just as much as what the game does well.

Let’s start with what this game does right. Perhaps the most impressive element of the game is just how much it modifies the RPG Maker 2003 engine. From the stage select screen to the scrolling stages themselves and the combat system, virtually nothing even hints at Halloween Wars having been made in this rather old engine. The only hints whatsoever of this being an RPG Maker game are the structures of the title screen and the save screen. This is not a condemnation of games which more clearly belong to the engine, but I am undeniably impressed by the degree to which this game illustrates that the engine can be pushed and modified (and newer versions of RPG Maker are far, far more easily modifiable than 2003). In addition, the pixel art is charming and, alongside an impressive amount of animation, adds a lot of personality to the playable characters and the monsters. As to the music, it is all taken from other sources, mostly MediEvil, but it fits well with the locations and every boss has its own, appropriate theme (the most obvious of which is undoubtedly “Thriller”, which plays while fighting a zombie boss resembling Michael Jackson).

The basic structure of the game is also handled well. The general premise is that the protagonists are a team of ghost-fighting kids dressed in Halloween costumes and you must clear out the ghosts haunting four different locations before you can access the portal which opened above the school for the grand finale. You can pick between any of the four characters at the start and are stuck with your choice for the rest of the game, but this is primarily an aesthetic decision as the only differences between the four are their starting stats and which spell is tied to their magic. Once character selection is out of the way, you are free to choose between four alliterative stages and the game can properly begin.

Progressing through a stage is simple. Once you select a stage your character will start automatically walking forward and will either encounter candy or a monster. Candy is encountered more frequently the higher your Luck stat is and it can be used both during and between fights for various effects, such as healing or boosting your defense. Picking up a new piece of candy without using an old one will turn your previous piece into points, which can be cashed in on the stage select screen to upgrade your stats, so there is an incentive to not constantly use any candy you find, though a slowly-depleting stamina bar can only be refilled by eating candy so you also can’t hoard all of it either. Meanwhile, combat is turn-based and entirely centered around rock-paper-scissors. Your normal attack is tied to rock, your magic is tied to scissors, and ‘guard’ is tied to paper, though this last one is basically the same as attacking. As you can only land a hit if you beat your opponent’s choice, the goal of each fight is to learn the opponent’s pattern in order to make each exchange end in either a draw or a victory. You need to win a certain number of fights before the boss will show up, but fights grant experience points as an added layer of progression and you keep both your levels and your candy-based points even if you lose.

The candy is probably the first place where this system starts to fall apart. Most of the different types of candy just aren’t all that great, such as one which boosts fire resistance or another which deals ‘elemental damage’ if it is used in combat. You also can only have one buff going at a time and buffs only last for one fight so you can’t, for example, combine the defense-boosting bubble shield with the x10 experience boost from the lollipop. Using candy within a fight is also almost never worth it, especially later on, as doing so gives the enemy a free attack which will likely take off a significant portion of your health.  The only major issue with candy is the fact that you can’t put it aside; you can’t save a 100% health-restoring chocolate for later because it will be turned into points the moment your character finds another piece of candy. This inability to store a desirable piece of candy makes resistance-boosting candy particularly useless because to have any value at all you would have to either use it before a fight appears and hope the monster is one which uses the proper element or use it mid-fight and almost certainly take damage in the process. The attempt at balancing combat viability against point gain and recharging stamina is interesting, but the execution stumbles rather heavily.

Combat is, unfortunately, the other major stumbling block of Halloween Wars, in large part because there’s just far too much of it. In addition to the bosses, every area has three or four different enemies which you’ll run across. As you can complete the first four stages in any order, the game attempts to balance this out by making stages scale based on how many of them you have already completed. In part this scaling is based around boosting the stats of enemies, which is already an issue on its own as after you complete two out of the four stages the difficulty noticeably spikes to the point that enemies suddenly take far more hits to kill and can kill your character in a mere two or three hits. However, the far worse issue is the fact that the number of enemies you must defeat in order to reach the boss also increases over time, reaching 14 by the end of the game.

The combat system simply is not built to sustain the one-two punch of needing to kill more enemies per stage and enemies taking longer to kill. Each enemy in the game has a pattern generally consisting of three or four parts and you’ll want a paper and a pen (or a Notepad document) handy to write down their behavior patterns. This part is fine on its own and is definitely the strongest part of the combat system as it is a surprisingly fun and unique type of combat based around trying to figure out if the enemy’s attack pattern consists of three or four moves (or some other number entirely), which symbols they have a chance of throwing out at which points, and if they ever consistently choose one of the three options at a certain point. For example, the Frankenchan enemy always  opens with paper and then does two rounds of either rock or paper and a fourth round of scissors and from that point loops to three rounds of rock or paper and a fourth round of scissors; you are guaranteed to never take damage if you choose scissors on the first round and then use rock every fourth rock (as it is guaranteed that he will choose scissors) and otherwise use paper (as this will guarantee a tie or a win on your part).

Any excitement gained from figuring out the exact pattern of an enemy like Frankenchan is gradually lost to tedium later on as the reality of just how many Frankenchans you’ll need to fight sets in. Once you have an opponent’s pattern figured out, you are guaranteed to win the fight without taking a single hit. In fact, the enemies later on hit so hard that you either need to either figure out their patterns or have an absolutely absurd amount of luck to make it to the boss. Despite this, the reality is that the latter half of the game forces players to go through ten or more fights just to reach a boss in stages which each have three or four enemies. The boost to enemy defenses also means that you’ll be going through the pattern multiple times per enemy; a single late-game Frankenchan alone will have you go through the cycle of paper-paper-paper-rock three or four or even more times depending on just how many times the Frankenchan decides on rock when you choose paper. Bosses make things worse still as they hit just as hard as the normal enemies and you are likely going to die to them at least once before figuring out their patterns, which in turn forces you to go through the entire stage once again before you get a second chance at fighting a boss. Things get even more tedious with the introduction of enemies with a debuff for their magical attack (scissors). This debuff can either decrease the amount of experience you receive for defeating them or it can significantly reduce your attack power for the rest of the fight depending on the enemy. Caramel candy, in addition to being a 25% HP restore, can remove status ailments, but using it for such a thing is pointless as the enemy will then get to either hit you for a large chunk of damage or choose to use their debuff once more. As these debuffs don’t actually deal any damage, any such fight can be won even if you don’t know the pattern simply by endlessly choosing paper as it will always beat rock and losing to scissors won’t result in damage.

The final stage of the game is also the perfect example of just how much this system falls apart when it forces you to fight multiple copies of the same handful of enemies. There are four enemies here, but they are each taken from one of the four previous stages, so if you already figured out their pattern and have it written down from the first time around you are guaranteed to make it through the entire stage without taking damage. You also need to fight 14 of these enemies in total, which means even with the most even distribution possible you must fight two of them three times and two of them four times and nearly all of them have so much health that you will need to go through their complete attack cycles at least once every time. Keep in mind that this is also on a per-run basis and players must go into the boss fight completely blind, so chances are high that most players who get this far will need to go through this 14-enemy gauntlet at least twice. To top everything off, three of the four enemies chosen for this grand finale have the exact same attack cycle of choosing either paper or rock three times before choosing scissors and repeating (there is probably some variance on just how likely they are to choose paper or rock, but if you want to avoid damage you’ll need to endlessly repeat the paper-paper-paper-rock pattern). Sure, the newest version of the game has added on an Easy Mode which greatly increases how many points players gain from candy and simplifies enemy attack patterns to make them easier to learn, but this is merely a reduction in tedium rather than a true solution. Less durable enemies, the removal of the increase in the number of fights required to reach stage bosses, and a checkpoint at the start of each boss fight would have gone a very long way towards ensuring that stages couldn’t likely be completed on luck alone while preventing tedium from setting in.

Halloween Wars ultimately serves as a great lesson on multiple levels more than as a form of entertainment. It simultaneously displays how flexible game engines can be, shows off an interesting twist on turn-based combat which isn’t an issue on its own, and is a harsh lesson on just how important execution is and just how easily the best of ideas can go awry.

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