I first wrote about Master of the Wind some time ago. That was mostly from memory. Master of the Wind was released episodically, and I played through the first five story arcs a few years ago. I played the sixth upon release, but there was a long wait for the seventh and final arc, so when it arrived I decided to start over from the beginning. Now I have finished a fresh, full playthrough of the entire thing, so I can offer my final thoughts on the game.
As I mentioned before, Master of the Wind is a free game made with RPGMaker, a game-making tool designed for the creation of Japanese-style RPGs (JRPGs) in the vein of those from the 8-bit and 16-bit console era. Master of the Wind does not defy many conventions of these games, with its pre-set cast of characters, turn-based battle system and completely linear story. But it sets itself apart through its excellent writing and characterization.
It’s good. It’s very good. I don’t think I emphasized this enough in my earlier post. Master of the Wind is not only the best RPGMaker game I’ve ever played, it’s also good enough to hold its own against many of the AAA offerings out there. With all seven story arcs put together, it’s quite a long game too, boasting far more content than you would expect from a free offering. And with so many such projects starting strong only to be abandoned later, it’s great to see that Master of the Wind is not only complete, but that the level of quality never drops throughout. The development team clearly put a lot of love and a lot of perseverance into this game.
I claimed before that the main draw for me is the game’s writing, and this is true, but replaying reminded me how good the level design is as well. Artbane, the programmer and level designer on the three-man development team, has cited the Zelda series as an inspiration, and it shows. The various “dungeon” locations in the game are far more than corridors full of monsters and treasure chests as they are in so many other JRPGs. Instead they each have a distinct theme and unique puzzles, often incorporating various mini-games to break up the action. This means that each location feels fresh, and never repetitive or boring. Even the randomized battles, which could have gotten old fast, are spiced up by the fact that monsters drop ingredients used to craft new armor for the team. Later on these components become available for purchase, in case a player grew tired of hunting for them. Unfortunately, most of the crafting happens later in the game, so fights in the early stages are a bit less interesting.
In fact, most things about the game improve after the first two story arcs. Not that these are bad by any means, but they do not betray just how good the game gets. Fortunately, the first two arcs are only a few hours long each, with much meatier installments to follow. If you try the game and aren’t particularly impressed with the beginning, I strongly encourage you to stick it out until arc III at least. That’s when things really start to take off.
Now let’s talk about that writing. Exploring towns, solving puzzles, fighting monsters, and crafting new equipment is fun, but the best feature of Master of the Wind is the story it tells. I wrote before about Shroud and Stoic, the masked crime-fighters who are the main protagonists. Shroud fights with a spear and wind magic, whereas Stoic opts for two swords. Stoic also happens to be a skeleton — an unusual choice for a major protagonist in a role-playing game, and the first hint that Master of the Wind does not tell a typical fantasy tale. And indeed, Shroud and Stoic’s first true foe is not the vampire they face at the start, or the bandits they subdue afterward. Nor is it some evil entity threatening the world. No, their first true opponent is Equipment King, a chain of stores that sell weapons and armor at ridiculously low prices and use a variety of illegal, strong-arm tactics to dominate the market. When a branch opens up in Port Arianna and its owners try to scare the populace into buying their products, Shroud and Stoic decide to put a stop to it. Not to mention the fact that the new store is forcing local, small businesses to close their doors, including the armor shop where Shroud and Stoic work, by day, as their alter egos Cade and Bones.
If that sounds like a rather politically charged premise for a fantasy role-playing game, that’s because it is. The game’s creators make their political beliefs obvious, and players who don’t share those beliefs may not enjoy Master of the Wind that much. But for the most part, I felt these themes were handled quite elegantly. While there are several characters in the game who like to preach a bit, the game itself rarely comes across as preachy. A key to this is that it avoids simplifying matters into good versus evil. The villains all have understandable motivations, even if one might not agree with them, and the heroes have their fair share of failings. They make mistakes; they grow as a result of their experiences. And so do the villains. The characters are all distinct, and all believable, in a way that is very rare in games. Master of the Wind is not so much a statement of the authors’ beliefs as it is an argument for them, well-reasoned and presented artfully. Where some players might get annoyed is in the small details — incidental conversations with random townsfolk reveal a few jibes and some overt mocking of some of the reasoning (or lack thereof) that those with opposing viewpoints occasionally voice. While these are intended for comic effect, those on the opposite end of the political spectrum might take offense.
It’s important to note, however, that the story goes far beyond an examination of ethics in business. Shroud and Stoic (and some new allies) soon find themselves facing something far more sinister than Equipment King, and as their quest grows in scope so do the themes of the game. Religion, race, prejudice, bigotry, and their roles throughout the long history of the world of Solest are all discussed, as well as an examination of what motivates people’s beliefs and actions, and what it really means to be a hero. And on top of all that, it’s simply a great story, something that can be all too rare in games. It’s entertaining, moving, funny, full of interesting characters, and even has a few genuinely surprising twists. The later arcs get more story-heavy, with a lot of long cutscenes and fewer playable sections. I didn’t mind; by then I was quite invested in the characters and what was happening in Solest. Having said that, the seventh and final arc is excellent not only for the final act of the narrative but also for the gameplay, which is a fitting culmination to all that came before. The ending could have easily been an almost non-interactive affair, but it is instead told through one of the best playable sections in the whole game.
There are a few weaker areas. First, there’s the graphics. Stock RPGMaker tiles and sprites are common, especially for the environments. There is a lot of original art, however, mostly for the main characters and enemies on the battle screens, and those look fantastic. Major characters have original portraits during conversations, but some minor characters use stock portraits which can be a little jarring, as the art style is quite different. This is really a minor complaint, though, especially for a free project — such games often have no original art at all. And for the most part, the stock art serves its purpose; with the exception of character portraits the graphics fit together nicely. The (massive) soundtrack is mostly borrowed from films or other games, which might bother some players, but I found the choice of music to be excellent. A few of the vocal tracks were not to my taste, but those were rare and overall I quite liked the soundtrack. I also found the occasional bug, including one that seemed to have one of the arrow keys permanently pressed. A simple reboot fixed it, and it only happened a few times.
These things betray a lack of polish compared to AAA titles, but in all other respects Master of the Wind can stand proudly next to such games. I hardly minded a few mismatched portraits or the occasional piece of music that I recognized from another game, because I was engrossed in the adventure and I genuinely cared about the characters. That’s not something I can say about many games. If you don’t mind playing through a linear story, you’d be hard pressed to find a better one than Master of the Wind, and I highly recommend it to anyone with even the remotest interest in the genre. Best of all, it’s completely free, so there’s nothing stopping you from trying it out. You can download the game here. Note that while the music is included in the download, you might have to manually copy the music folder into the game’s “audio” folder after unzipping. Also, I’m not sure if the game tells you anywhere, but the C and X keys can be used for selecting and canceling things, rather than Enter and Escape, if you prefer.
I hope you enjoy your stay in Solest as much as I did.