Yasumi Matsuno’s stately love letter to tabletop gaming is part RPG, part fantasy novella: a dark, gripping tale of a trio of adventurers on a quest they shouldn’t have accepted. It also works as an exposé of the JRPG, making explicit the systems that underpin its peers. Those dice, so often rolled invisibly by an artificial hand, are thrust into your own, a transferral of responsibility that feels empowering – partly thanks to the tactile pleasure of circling the 3DS’s analogue nub as if rolling these plastic polyhedra around in your palm. Characters and enemies are static figurines, wobbling around on their rectangular bases when struck in battle.
Matsuno’s words – expertly translated by veteran scribe Alexander O Smith – conjure a bleakly rich atmosphere from the artifice. You might not see the corpses, the decay, the scorched bloodstains so vividly imagined in the prose, but as dungeon master, Matsuno is a born storyteller, his narrative exerting a vice-like squeeze as it approaches its startling denouement. Its uncompromising approach is mirrored in its systems: there’s no gladius fodder here, with every encounter potentially deadly. Combat is rich in tactical nuance, while the range of skills and the ability to meld magic to weaponry offer a rare degree of flexibility in the rigid roles – mage, archer, warrior – assigned to the three heroes.
It’s a masterfully constructed piece of tabletop theatre, whose spell is only broken once, as we were delayed for over an hour by some key loot that took over a dozen attempts to drop. Many won’t make it past this preposterous roadblock, but those who persevere to the bitter end will be heartily glad they did.