You wake up amnesiac on a tiny island. Your goal: Find The Ebony Labyrinth. The world map is only 20x20 tiles with 6 landmarks. How long could it take?
Very long - maybe 15-30 hours - says Nepheshel, a free, indie JRPG released in 2002 and translated in 2022. Nepheshel's world is like an iceberg, where the majority of it is underground, labyrinthine. Get it here:
(Mild spoilers in the review)
(If you're just looking for a guide, check this one out. . There's also some maps here. )
The experience of playing Nepheshel is closest to Demon's Souls or Dark Souls. You must push from checkpoint to checkpoint without dying, finding treasure and eking out progress exploring the interconnected dungeons. People say this game is most like the King's Field series but I've never played to know if that's true. That being said, Nepheshel isn't a particularly Hard game most of the time - all the enemies appear in dungeons with different movement, so you can run around them much of the time. Outside of a few battles, you're rarely risking more than 3-5 minutes of exploration in Nepheshel unless you've gotten yourself loss or pushed into too difficult territory.
-The World-
My favorite thing about Nepheshel is the way its world unravels. The world is one big connected dungeon. Here's an example: You exit the town and can either enter the Temple, Underground Waterway, or King's Crypt. OR, you can enter this warp-portal world and warp into the King's Crypt. You'll soon run into impossible jellyfish or wolves in the Waterway or Temple, leaving you to explore the Crypt. But! If you dodge enemies well enough, you could find treasure in the Waterway or Temple.
As you explore the Crypt, you'll find it leads to an Underground Passage, connecting to the basement of the Temple. Get strong enough to explore the Temple and you'll find a new party member and a locked door to a late-game area! And so on. For better or worse, you never get a "first time in the great swamp" of Dark Souls moment in Nepheshel - the town is always a fast-travel warp away. But there are some unique senses of distance as you, say, push disturbingly further and further underneath the King's Castle. (Dark Souls 2's Ridiculously Deep Castle reminds me of this, funny enough)
Overall it always feels like you're winning your progress through the game kinda like Dark Souls. I like that a lot, and it's probably Nepheshel's coolest feeling, even if it can start to wear out by the end. (I had to put the game down for about a week or two before going back into its 2nd half). I would love to see this gameplay texture applied in other contexts.
Each area in the game usually has 1-2 enemy types which come in three colors - easy, hard, and Very Hard. By finding the right mob to fight you can level quickly. Encounters do get pretty stale once you settle on a strategy, and while you can run around enemies you also find yourself running into them a lot of times. What can be annoying is that a lot of late game enemies might be hard to fight without switching your party setup, so you end up only really fighting regular enemies if you're grinding or farming for item drops.
The battle strategy is pretty simple - you get 3 party members over the game and for most of the game can only fight with one of them. (An item later lets you fight with all 3.) What's fun is that while characters have their weaknesses and fixed spells/skills, you're free to equip anything on them, which can drastically change how you use them. Around the end of the game I have maybe 20-30 different weapons and armors that I need to mix and match to take on the tricky bosses. The battle system is typical RPG Maker 2000, it's just turn based. While nothing novel really happens in the battles, it's interesting to be stuck fighting in a team of 1 or 2 for much of the game. Near the end of the game you fight bosses in teams of 4 and the strategy gets a little more demanding, but it kind of comes down to prepping for the status debuffs and exploiting weaknesses.
Your equipment in the start comes from grinding for gold and buying, but maybe about 1/3 through it shifts to being mostly from dungeon treasure, a fun approach. There are hidden walls with lots of treasure, so watch out! Weapons have slash, jab or bludgeon types, which do damage to enemies differently. It ends up being kind of annoying to deal with in at times, although there are some cool aspects to it (like blunt weapons tend to be 2-handed, which means Deeva can't dual-wield, BUT, with a blunt weapon she gets access to powerful debuff skills).
Some dungeons are more puzzly than others. Each is a unique and memorable maze, even though some go on for too long or are actually too complex to even map by hand some times! It was unique to navigate the dungeons, weaving between enemies, trying to remember where I was. Each new dungeon feels newly tense as you try to figure out which enemies will steamroll your party and which you can experiment with. There are a few really bad dungeons, but you'll get to enjoy those yourself. Ha ha ha...! Just be ready for some Huge Mazes.
The writing is not particularly good. The girls on the cover really just come off as early 2000s moe fantasy fairies. Which is adorable but not a selling point IMO. There's some lore/backstory but not many other characters. The most common - and by the end, kinda funny - is all the other adventurers at the pub whose partners you find dead in dungeons, moaning their last words, before becoming a silent corpse.
Overall it's a cool approach to a JRPG world. It's spooky how much the feeling of playing it reminds me of what would be Dark Souls and Demon's Souls, even if they're different genres. I wonder what games Nepheshel influenced... I'll be thinking about it for a while!
Spoilers: World Connections
If you're like me and like seeing high-level maps of a game to decide whether to play, you're in luck!
I consider the game to take place in roughly 3 acts.
Act 1: The Island / Getting the party
King's Crypt -> Passage -> Sea Caves OR
Passage -> Temple.
Then, Sea Caves -> Waterway -> West Side of Island.
West Side of Island -> Mines, or King's Castle
Act 2: Finding the King's Key
King's Castle is a huge dungeon. The lower section leads to a Dungeon, which leads to The Byway, another cave where you'll eventually find the Priest's Key (connected to the Mines). The Priest's Key let's you go back to the Temple to find the True King's Crypt! There, you'll find the King's Key.
The King's Key lets you get to The Underworld by doing deep into the Byway and walking down a pit.
Act 3: Underworld / Ebony Labyrinth
The Underworld is a long (but easy to navigate) dungeon with a lot of optional bosses and great equipment. Killing the boss at the end lets you jump into a jar to reach the Ebony Labyrinth.
The EL is a 6-stratum dungeon with different gimmicks and tough enemies on each floor. Plenty of checkpoints but there are some challenging stretches. I haven't made it to the end yet but the final boss is at the bottom!

Reviewed on Nov 11, 2022