Friday, July 19, 2024

Midautumn’s Rich Narrative Prompts Musings on Community

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Act 1 of Midautumn is a exquisite introduction to an accessible and entertaining roguelike about fighting evil spirits, meeting your ancestors, and saving your hometown from a developer hellbent on gentrification that is set in and against the backdrop of Asian diaspora culture. I backed the Kickstarter in 2021 and received early access to review the game before it’s accessible to everyone May 9th and am really loving it so far!

Midautumn starts with a voiceover from Robin, who has just graduated college but with no internship experience and zero clue what they want to do in their life. It’s a good thing Grandma has a place for them, in return for some rent and banishing unruly spirits of course!

As the newest guardian of the Lunar Stone and Nambo Quay, Robin must enter the Spirit World and work their way through five biomes. Each biome includes different types of spirits, each with their own boss and characters, that Robin interacts with to learn more about the Spirit World and the world above.

In Midautumn, you absorb the lunar powers of your enemies to attack. Throughout this process, you are offered gifts by ancestral spirits who are seeking your favor. The first two that you meet are sibling spirits Tsechoi and Wenye who are constantly trying to one-up one another and when accepting gifts from them, you learn more about their history and life before becoming spirits.

Siblings Wenye and Tsechoi from Midautumn
Wenye and Tsechoi, always causing issues for one another!

The full game will eventually have five spirits providing you gifts, including the siblings’ mother Xiaoying, Vivian who comes from a dystopian, cyberpunk future, and Qamar, a spirithunter. So far as I’ve played, you’ll spend the majority of your time in the Earthen Ruins, Wooded Refuge, and the Lotus Sea. (If you use the debug menu, you can take a look at the final two biomes too!) However only the first three have actual bosses.

When Robin dies (or if the player exits using the debug menu), they end up again in their grandmother’s home or a few other locations, depending on how far the player gets in the narrative. Above world, Robin interacts with different characters, each time further progressing the story before heading back down to the Spirit World and repeating this process. You can go to the Lunar Stone and focus to remember what you’ve learned so far, which is really helpful considering the back and forth. The codex tracks what you learn throughout the game, and reading the entries unlocks other abilities.

gif of different characters and dialogue rotating in midautumn

Nambo Quay is filled with so many unique people; some are there to help while others will get in your way. Nadim, for example, is a Bangladeshi alchemist staying with you and your grandma and learning more about the Lunar Stone. His brother Omar constantly berates him for choosing to stay in Nambo Quay instead of Dhaka or anywhere else, really. You also meet Gina, a nurse at the hospital a few hours away with the dream to own and run a bakery. This brings us to the main above world plot.

A developer from China, Eddie Zhang is trying his hardest to buy Grandma’s home and build all the usual nonsense developers are known for like more coffee shops and new apartments and the like. He even offers to co-sign Gina’s loan, but definitely can’t be trusted.

Back in the Spirit World, there’s also Jing, who is an ancient shopkeeper spirit with major debt that hopefully Robin can help to pay off as they collect gold paper as a reward in each chamber providing another objective. Throughout the dungeon runs, you can also pick up Sycee, Red Ginseng, Tears of Chang’e, the gift boxes from the spirits, and old money which can be spent at the shopping center, at the cafe, or to pay rent to Grandma.

Robin surrounded by lunar blood and attacking spirits.

However, Midautumn is only as difficult as you want it to be. The devs created the game to be accessible to complete newbies and dungeon-crawler enthusiasts, with difficulty settings for how much health both the monsters and Robin have and how much damage they can do to one another. So, if you want to play it with zero difficulty you absolutely can! Personally, I’m not super great at beating stuff up in video games as much as I wish I was, so I definitely adjusted the difficulty, and that actually made the battles enjoyable for me instead of stressful.

A debug menu provides even more customizable play with options to unlock gifts from all the spirits, move to the next chapter, biome, or boss, or to refresh the hub (above world). The latter option means that you can progress through a lot of narrative without having to even enter the Spirit World, though I would not suggest this unless you’re having issues saving. Part of the joy in Midautumn is gaining more story as you move back and forth between the worlds.

While Midautumn is a roguelike, it’s propelled by its realistic story in a fantastical setting. The focus is really on Eddie’s attempts to gentrify Nambo Quay (and maybe get up to some other trouble?). Founded during the California Gold Rush there is a lot of history within its borders.

Nambo Quay zoomed out
Nambo Quay! The beach area, the mall, the entry to the Spirit World, and Grandma’s home and the Lunar stone are all visible.

Every time Robin emerges from the Spirit World and talks to a town resident or Gina and Grandma, there’s another piece of information about what troubles the residents including those who do want to listen to Eddie because they hope for a better life for themselves and their families. Clearly this is a community that supports one another, but like so many real life communities, need a helping hand not from someone out to exploit them.

Grandma is also a delight. Alas she’s also very familiar to many of us with responsibilities and expectations put upon us by our parents and elders. The conversations about failure and trying to find a goal for the future are so realistic and reminiscent of what I and my own friends have gone through. Robin finished college sure, but they’re aimless, not anywhere near law school, or anything else that might seem more “meaningful.” Which isn’t to say that Robin and Grandma don’t love one another! There’s plenty of moments where they try to understand one another and their independent responsibilities and dreams.

Obviously Robin’s calling at the moment is to be the guardian, and throughout the game they have conversations with Gina and Grandma about what’s next, so I’m hopeful that by the end of the narrative, Robin will feel more sure of themselves and have made some choices about their future.

Though Act 1 doesn’t reveal all the secrets hiding in Nambo Quay and the game, there’s enough established that it’s incredibly clear the team put all their love into creating Midautumn. The success of the story is its realism and the dev team (made up of members of the Asian diaspora) have created a game that reflects what life actually looks like for so many of us. Anyone who plays this game, and especially those in the Asian diaspora, will recognize themselves in the stories being told.

Combining Hades-style dungeon crawling with the atmosphere of Butterfly Soup and a Space for the Unbound, incredible pixel art, and a truly catchy soundtrack, Midautumn is ultimately about how a community can come together to support one another and the external pressures working against them. If Act 2 and 3 are anything like the first one, we are in for an emotional yet exciting time.

You can grab the game tomorrow on Steam and for $24.99! You can also try the demo (as part of LudoNarraCon).

Images and early access courtesy of the Midautumn team

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