A Knight’s Tale
Judging someone based upon a first impression can often be a mistake, because we are so much more than what we appear to be. Absinthia is an indie RPG that looks and feels like a classic 16-bit era JRPG yet boasts a progressive story centered upon representation of marginalized themes and characters. A solid narrative is propelled by a likeable cast, a stable combat system, and charming presentation that comes together nicely in a short game that does not overstay its welcome. Absinthia is a joyful dedication to the JRPGs of the Super Nintendo era that may not reinvent the genre but goes down easily.
Absinthia takes place in the Ambrose Isles, the same world as the developer’s previous titles, Knight Bewitched and Celestial Hearts. There are references to characters and events that occur during those games set at various points in the world’s larger timeline. This world is home to a wide variety of locales including a pirate port, a desert kingdom, and an isle of beasts. Katti Town is one of its safer havens, however, and the story opens just after it successfully fended off an attack from a horde of minions led by the shadowy and enigmatic Lilith, intent on terrorizing the village. This success was in no small part due to a wandering knight, Freya, who takes three villagers — warrior Sera, mage Thomas, and rogue Jake — under her wing to fight off Lilith and her forces.
While still recovering from Lillith’s first attack, the group is surprised by a second one, this time resulting in tragedy. As a result, Sera and her friends are led on a quest to rid the world of Lillith for good. But there are things about both Freya and Lillith they do not know. As they journey across the Ambrose Isles on their quest, the true natures of heroes and villains alike are revealed to our young heroes. There are great characters everywhere in this game who just happen to be LGBTQ+, including in the main cast. Sera is strong-headed yet optimistic; while Jake and Thomas’ personality quirks balance their relationship out in a believable way. Themes of loss, fidelity, and family are plumbed within the narrative and handled effectively and appropriately, complemented by the strong characterization.
The game’s turn-based combat features a MP-regeneration system, providing some relief between turns. Four characters are involved in battle, with players making all selections prior to each turn and then sitting back to watch the carnage unfold. There are difficulty options as well as choices for combat speed and attack animations, allowing a bit of freedom in how fast battles are executed. It is admittedly a bit basic, but there are options to spice things up in the form of partner attacks. The end result is a no-frills, if unexciting combat system.
While enemies are visible on the map, there are either too many of them in any given dungeon or within the encounters themselves. As a result, traveling through dungeons can become a bit of a hassle, especially since players will have to rely on restorative items, healing magic, or MP-restoring items too frequently. Thankfully, health and magic are restored at each level gain — but progressing still feels like a race against the MP gauge and depleting inventory, especially considering how lengthy many dungeons are. The dungeons themselves are enjoyable as they are well-designed and feature branching pathways or puzzles to solve; it’s just that the frequency of battles punctuates them with a rhythm that soon begins to grate.
The world of Absinthia drips with charm. Character portraits are well drawn, the sprite graphics are lovely, with a world map and tilesets that are wholly evocative of classic Super Nintendo JRPGs, without a hint of HD-2D anywhere in sight. These graphical flourishes convey a sense of love in bringing the Ambrose Isles to life. It’s delightful to come to a new area and see classic JRPG world map tropes come to life in a fashion that feels not so much dated as embracing nostalgia.
There are small, loving touches: a dutifully chugging ship darting across the world map, or a treasure chest cheerfully bouncing up to pop open. The joy Team Bewitched has for the genre is undeniable and engaging. This game knows what a classic JRPG looks and sounds like, but it also knows what it feels and plays like. Outside of presentation, this is demonstrated through puzzles to solve in dungeons, and twenty secret locations to be found within the game which reward players with weapons or rare items.
Likewise, the soundtrack to this game is impeccable and well-matched to the graphical aesthetic. It’s varied, jazzy, and earnest in a just-happy-to-be-here way that is infectious. The battle theme is a standout track, and the overworld music is another inspired take on a genre staple. There are lots of loving nods to classic JRPGs of the era that feel like organic homage opposed to a cheap facsimile.
It’s refreshing to see the narrative framing and approach to the game’s LGBTQ+ themes, doubly so in the context of a JRPG. Freya’s identity issues are treated with grace and the relationships between characters are treated as commonplace. This is typically a genre that has ample controversy regarding the handling of these themes; to see these characters treated as realized humans first and foremost is encouraging. Some of the dialogue is a bit stilted, with a few too many wisecracks or one-liners appearing across the board between characters. Similarly, some cultural references or idioms may be appreciated by one player but break immersion for another. However, the script is generally well written, and the characterization is strong, yet another pleasant surprise from this indie title.
As a result, the world, the characters, and the narrative of Absinthia are believable and engaging. This trip to the Ambrose Isles is short and certainly sweet. Thanks to the humanity of Sera, Freya, and their friends, players are reminded that family is who and what we make of it. Judging others by first impression or glance may be easy to do, but who we are inside is what truly counts. Absinthia reminds players of this to great effect.
Disclosure: This review is based on a free copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Beautiful 16-bit era aesthetic
Thoughtful LGBTQ+ representation and themes
Encounter rate can be a chore
Some dialogue can break immersion