In the video game hobby, there is a constant, uncomfortable feeling of anxiety caused by the fear of missing out. Simply too many great games are available to play and there is no way to play them all. While many quality titles receive the recognition they deserve, a good portion of titles make interesting attempts but fall just a bit short and may not receive attention. In a world where a handful of games on review aggregates get all the traction, a truckload of games under the 80% threshold that provide interesting experiences rarely get noticed. Don’t Give Up: A Cynical Tale just happens to be one these titles, an interesting if underdeveloped urban RPG experience that deserves a little extra attention.
Don’t Give Up: A Cynical Tale, previously released for PC and now available on the Nintendo Switch, is anything but cynical. It is a heartfelt, self-reflexive examination on persevering through periods of anxiety, depression, and self-loathing. The plot revolves around the main protagonist, Tris, an aspiring hipster game-designer still trying to piece together a life after a traumatic relationship breakup (and mental breakdown). In addition to Tris, another playable character is Subris, a personified piece of Tris’ unconscious state, in a dual-narrative metaphorical examination of Tris’ mental battles. While the attempt is noble, the execution of the second narrative is a bit forced and clumsy. Both story-lines come together well-enough in the final act, but the subconscious sections are unwelcome breaks from Tris and his story.
Tris’ story can be dark, but it is also full of humor and charm. The game does not shy away from showing what “rock bottom” might look like for some, but it balances out the darkness with entertaining characters and scenarios. One scene may be reflecting on a failed suicide attempt, and then shortly later a fight breaks out over a pizza. The juxtaposition might seem jarring, but the colorful and charming world Tris inhabits makes it work. The game hits the Earthbound vibe of an unsettling level of unease and darkness hidden underneath a colorful appearance. Tris’ city is full of life and the character art, both pixel art and pop-out portraits, are charming and full of personality. The upbeat soundtrack adds to the game world’s appeal. Tris’ world is alive and silly, and its goofy charm is often cited by Tris as a reason he still persists despite how difficult things are. As Tris says, “it’s better than being in jail!”
The story of Don’t Give Up is heartfelt and genuine, and the world is lovingly crafted with charming locations and great characters. However, it does attempt to infuse RPG mechanics into its narrative, and here the game falters a bit. While there are no progression mechanics or loot acquisition loops, it does implement a battle system. The battle system is limited to narrative beats and several optional player decisions; there are no random encounters. In the end, this was a wise decision because the battle system is underdeveloped compared to the rest of the game.
At first glance, the battle system shows promise. Combat is divided into turns; at first, the enemy attempts to attack Tris or Subris with a countdown meter, and the player must parry attacks or dodge using a directional grid. During this stage, you can counter or make soft hits to the enemy to quicken the depletion of the meter. Once the enemy’s meter is empty and you make contact with another soft hit or successful parry, the turn switches to the player, who can then go fully offensive for a brief period of time. Once the turn is done, you go back to being defensive. As you connect hits in both defense and attack turns, you fill up a meter for a special attack, which often effectively breaks the combat by being overwhelmingly powerful.
The battle system offers an interesting framework, but the game doesn’t really do anything interesting with it. The most interesting battle is surprisingly early in the game, and the final battles of the game are narrative set pieces and your combat skills don’t really matter at all. The special attacks fill up too quickly and end battles too easily. Many battles also have an additional mode before the combat begins where Tris can attempt to use “smack talk” to gain advantages in combat. However, I didn’t notice any mechanical differences whether I “won” the smack talk or lost; if they were present, they weren’t enough for me to notice any change in difficulty.
Combat is also problematic because of programming bugs. In several combat encounters, I dodged an attack but somehow took damage, hit an opponent but did nothing, and took several hits without taking any damage at all. The bugs persist outside of combat; I had to restart the game on several occasions because Tris or Subris’ sprite was “stuck” on an art asset and could not move. I didn’t encounter anything game breaking, but these issues were noticeable and an inconvenience.
Despite the underdeveloped combat and bugs, I still enjoyed 5-6 hours with Don’t Give Up: A Cynical Tale. For all its faults, the game is still full of charm, hope, and a narrative worth telling. I finished Don’t Give Up similar to how I’ve personally persevered through my own bouts of depression: even though some things could have gone better, in the end I feel more positive and hopeful than when I started.
And I think that’s the story the game really wants to tell.
- Heartfelt, self-reflexive story of mental adversity
- Characters are well-constructed and charming
- Great soundtrack and character art
- Battle system is underused and underdeveloped
- Several bugs and glitches
- The second, metaphorical narrative is not as interesting as the main story