Platform: PC (pre-order includes Steam beta, £8.88)
Developer: Pixel Ferrets
I'm wearing a chicken on my head, swinging a sharpened carrot around like a vegetarian lunatic and feeling fantastic. See, I worked hard for these bizarre items in Secrets Of Grindea, the indie RPG that glorifies "grind" and shows us that it doesn't have to be a dirty word.
The clue's in the name, see. Grindea. Geddit? Now behold my mighty carrot.
I was lucky enough to encounter Pixel Ferrets and their hot Swedish export back when they were enrolled in Gotland University, whereupon their prototype was already polished enough to win universal acclaim from a panel of industry veterans including Jason Vandenberghe, Ernest Adams and... erm, me. Then it won the Student Choice Awards. And then the Swedish Game Awards. Two years on, and Secrets Of Grindea is finally available to pre-order and play as an early access title.
If you're at all interested in classic RPGs like Secret Of Mana, you probably ought to pay attention. Despite the potential for parody, Secrets Of Grindea is deadly serious about providing a rock-solid gameplay experience to enjoy, ensuring that the grinding and humour are built on firm foundations.
'Grinding' -- the acquisition of loot and/or character levels by killing enemies or repeating content -- underpins every aspect of Secrets Of Grindea, right down to the premise. We play as a 'Collector' who sets out on a mission to effectively own everything in existence, which is what everyone aspires to be in the colourful yet loot-obsessed world. It's very much a deconstruction of the classic action-JRPG, from our humble beginnings in the starting town of... Startington... to the playable tutorials disguised as tournaments before we're loosed into the world of Grindea itself.
And what a world. Grindea is absolutely packed with colour and personality, from foregrounds that burst with animated detail to the spirited item descriptions, adorable art, parallax backgrounds and witty tongue-in-cheek writing. Its thematic zones are stuffed with cute yet dangerous protagonists from slimes to scarecrows and killer rabbits; familiar yet fresh, reminiscent of a dozen classic JRPGs yet unmistakeably Grindea. You always know when developers have poured their heart and soul into a game, when they've gone the extra mile to make it look, sound and feel special, and Pixel Ferrets have obviously laboured over tweaking everything just so.
It's a thrill to explore (and a great way of sidestepping the tedium that's so often associated with 'grind,' but it's time we looked closer at the systems. As a classic ARPG, you'll explore the world from an isometric perspective while hacking, slashing, blocking, firing arrows and blasting foes with magic. Anyone who's played a Zelda game will feel right at home, yet it has more in common with Secrets Of Mana (probably its single most obvious inspiration), packing a surprisingly robust selection of unlockable skills.
Swords and boards grant you combat flexibility, lunging into the fray one moment and deflecting strikes the next, whereas two-handed weapons bring the rain. Magic users can call down meteorites, summon adorable snowmen, throw out clouds of insects and choose from various skill lines. As you level up, you'll be able to craft a unique character by carefully spending skill points, providing impressive depth without ever feeling overwhelming or convoluted thanks to the streamlined controls.
However, everything you destroy, every quest you complete and every jar you smash (for there are always jars) yields mountainous cartloads of stuff. You're a collector after all, so it all gets sucked into an enormous magic bag who's a sidekick, comic foil and receptacle rolled into one. This antisocial hessian sack doesn't take a shine to you at first and mocks you at every turn, but you can feel the grudging respect start to form as the game progresses.
Bad attitude aside, your magic bag provides sprawling encylopedias of items, including hats, weapons, trinkets and other stat-enhancing gear alongside junk and crafting materials. It glorifies the mere act of receiving loot, let alone using it, providing plenty of utterly bizarre rewards (not limited to the aforementioned chicken helmet), collectible bestiary cards that permanently buff your character and pithy item descriptions that make you want to actively go out and possess everything you can. With fishing minigames, a crafting system, pets and more features to come, Secrets Of Grindea plans to make collecting loot as useful as it is rewarding.
Grinding is much more fun with friends, of course, so Secrets Of Grindea offers online multiplayer for friends to team up, work together and bring different builds to the table. It's bare-bones IP address-sharing stuff at present, but it works well. Especially in the new Arcade Mode, which creates hectic arenas out of enemies and environments from the campaign, with its own fascinating progression system and permadeath.
Pixel Ferrets deliver frequent updates to the 'frontline' Steam beta, though they've still got their work cut out. While polished, Grindea is crying out for more content, especially in terms of character abilities - many of which haven't been implemented yet including the entire healing subsection. We need more areas, of course, and I wouldn't hate to see armour directly represented on character sprites. As with any alpha-funded or early access title, you should be canny and cagey at this stage, remaining curious yet remembering that nothing is guaranteed.
But what matters is that Pixel Ferrets have laid the foundations for a superior RPG, one that pokes fun at the genre yet celebrates it in all its grindy glory. Secrets Of Grindea seems set to do for action RPGs what Cthulhu Saves The World did for JRPGs - and do it in style.