Stories of Bethem is nothing short of a love letter to classic action role playing games of the past. Think the original Legend of Zelda game, and it’s many pretenders – PS1 classic Alundra for example, or the overlooked and underrated Golden Axe Warrior on the Sega Master System. Thanks to it’s pure 8-bit, top down presentation, it even invokes the unique atmosphere of the first and second generation Pokemon games.
The game tells the story of Khoma, a young man from the Kingdom of Bethem, whose father has been cursed by a character known as the Blue Witch when he was investigating a place introduced as Indigo Forest. Khoma sets out on a quest which will lead him to the Red Witch, the only person able to break the spell. By and large, that’s the plot in a nutshell, but this being a role playing game you can be assured there’s plenty more to it than simply waltzing up to her and asking her for the cure. In fact, it turns out there’s quite a lot under the surface of this charmingly realised adventure.
The bright and colourful pixel art looks absolutely beautiful and if, like me, you remember when games looked that way because of technical limitations, you’ll really appreciate just how spot on the 8-bit visuals are. The gameplay design follows suit, with your character being able to move in eight directions across the map, viewed from a bird’s eye perspective. Exploration is a key component of the game, and you’ll find yourself following hidden paths, uncovering secrets and exploring a plethora of dungeons as you use your two-button magical spells to take out the creatures of Bethem and it’s surrounding areas. The developers have created a world full of character, and that stretches to the NPCs you’ll meet along the way, even though that’s usually imparted because of the laughingly badly written dialogue. Don’t let that put you off though, because – clichéd RPG plot aside – that’s not the main draw of the game.
Stories of Bethem is about exploring, engaging in spell-based combat, and solving satisfying puzzles. The over world is split into several areas which have their own aesthetic and soundtrack. You’ll go from grassy plains to dusty deserts, and the music, with it’s strings and synths, is lovingly composed for each region. Unusually for a game of this type, you don’t have any melee attack at all. Everything is handled through spell casting using the face buttons, so the unique enemies you’ll find in each area of the world require mashing a spell button to kill. This uses your mana resource, but potions and sources are found aplenty throughout the world, and it regenerates gradually on it’s own, so it requires little managing. Not having any melee gear also precludes you from owning a shield, meaning the best course of action during combat is to back up as you cast spells. It feels bizarre at first, as Zelda fans are used to swinging a blade through enemies, bushes and crates. Here, those bushes and crates are taken out with your magic, but after a while you get used to the mechanic.
Whilst you do get pointers as you follow your quest, don’t expect much hand holding. You’re largely on your own as you traverse the regions of the Kingdom, and that extends to exploring dungeons found in the world. These underground labyrinths, most of which you are required to progress through as part of the plot, are the highlight of the experience for me. The puzzles found within, although formed of the usual box pushing and switch hitting variety, are great fun, and rewarding without being overly taxing. The dungeons usually end in a boss fight of some sort, and it’s here where the lack of any defensive moves force careful gameplay, as you circle around and slowly whittle down it’s health.
Stories of Bethem is a throwback to the Legend of Zelda games of the past. Great music and fantastic 8-bit graphics abound, and for fans of the genre it’s a real treat to see a game of this type arrive on Xbox. Playing through the game, solving all of it’s puzzles and finding all of it’s secrets will take you 20-30 hours or so, and for the vast majority of this time you’ll be really enjoying the world the developer has crafted. On the other hand, if old-school ARPGs aren’t your thing, you’ll find nothing new here to sway your mind.
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