Indie Wonderland: Epistory — Typing Chronicles

A few hours in

So regarding that previous question: Yes on the first, no on the latter.

Introducing: Sparks!

Also, regarding my whole ‘being on board with Epistory‘ bit: This is how far I eventually ended up getting.

That’s, er, the end credits, in case this joke isn’t landing. I completed the game.

In a turn of events that’s much rarer than I wish it would be, I had high expectations for Epistory at the end of the last page and it turns out those actually paid off! I’m very impressed by this lil’ typing game: It combines a gorgeous aesthetic with a cool innovative gameplay loop and, surprisingly, a serious degree of interesting mechanical challenge. I played it through to the end before the week was up, and… I want to say that I could have gone for a little more of it, but honestly, I do think it was starting to run out of steam near the end credits. Which is good, because it means Epistory didn’t overstay its welcome! But all the same, I don’t know if I’d be opposed to some bits or bobs of challenge DLC…

Thinking about Epistory reminded me of the famous ‘prestige’ quote, which is originally by Christopher Priest but which you’re more likely to know from the Christian Bale/Hugh Jackman movie of the same name. A good magic trick has three parts to it: The pledge, wherein the magician establishes a baseline, the turn, wherein expectations are twisted and interest is raised, and the prestige, where the ostensibly supernatural is displayed. Epistory reminds me of this, for… reasons that might not make great sense to anyone who isn’t me. But I started on this analogy anyway, so I hope for all of your sakes that I get something good out of it.

Epistory‘s pledge is the strong promise it opens with. From the word go this game looks very interesting and super gorgeous. Particularly the aesthetic was a major draw for me, going in. The world is just so… nice. Cool, and colourful. It does incredibly things with its overarching theme of artistic expression. All kinds of art are incorporated: Epistory obviously opens on writing, and writing/storytelling remains a theme throughout the game. But the world itself is a lovely expression of papercraft, with paper trees and rocks and mountains and structures that are occasionally breathtaking. Everything that isn’t written or folded in Epistory is painted in a lovely watercolour style, most noticeably the optional collectible pictures. And even oral storytelling is represented in the narrators. The main narrator in particular deserves credit: She delivers all lines in a consistent tone and cadence, without the narration turning boring, predictable, or monotonous.

Look at this game. Just… *look* at it. It’s like a celebration of everything that the physical arts can achieve.

Of these, the world design initially deserves the most credit. Epistory‘s game world isn’t all that large, which makes it even more fascinating how much visual variety has been papercrafted into existence. The initial grassy plains where the meteor strikes and the nearby deciduous forest, the rocky beaches of the Drowned Halls, the sickly green swamps under the desolate mountains, the empty steppes that once housed the City of Creation, the crystal mines, the Lost Desert and its obscuring sandstorms…

What I’m trying to get across is that a *lot* of world-building love has gone into this game.

And just to drive this point home one final time: The effects this game achieves within its own arts-and-crafts style are nothing short of astonishing.

It’s hard to understate how exciting it is, initially, to run around in this beautiful world. There’s a palpable sense of curious uncertainty, particularly when at the start the rules haven’t been explained yet and you’re not even sure what the game expects of you. Nothing of this vein can last, of course, but that you’re to some degree allowed to explore the mechanics is rare. Just hitting Spacebar and typing words at whatever pops up is interesting. Though it’s hard to say how much I enjoy this just because it’s a departure from existing norms. The problem with reviewing games like these from a position of decades of play experience is that it’s hard to judge if Epistory would be as accessible to newer players as it was to me. There’s certainly one or two things that could have been explained better. For instance, one thing I sort of had to discover for myself is that almost the entire game is text-driven. That’s up to and including the main menu. Only the specific settings and audio sliders are exempt, but otherwise?

In fact, some things can *only* be enacted by typing. For instance, the only way to zoom the map in and out is by typing ‘+’ and ‘-‘ — your mouse will do nothing here.

Then again, I did eventually discover this without prompting. I don’t want to give Epistory too much credit for guiding new players, but I don’t want to give it too little credit, either.

Once you’re on board with this gorgeous world of papercraft and storytelling and typing words at things to make them happen, Epistory‘s turn is that it uses your engagement to start telling an interesting story. Or rather stories, plural, and layered. Overtly, the story that’s being told describes the adventures of your character, the fox-riding wizard woman, as she carts around the world discovering secrets and dealing with calamities. Fox-Riding Woman Chases A Comet, Fox-Riding Woman Charts A Path Through Magical Woods, Fox-Riding Woman Calms A Raging Tornado. Some get a little esoteric, like Fox-Riding Woman Relieves A Mountain Of Its Sadness. But don’t tell me that doesn’t sound super interesting.

This screenshot is probably the most ‘everything I love about Epistory’ screenshot I could make.

It’s a functional (if vague) adventure story that neatly mechanically ties into your character’s progression and abilities. In four of the, let’s call them ‘dungeons’, Fox-Riding Woman is confronted with challenges and enemies that she can’t overcome with her current set of magics. Obviously, then, a new magic hides in the heart of the dungeon: For instance, fire to burn away brambles, or lightning to power up electrical devices. But, and this is a crucial bit of game design: These challenges will always be things that you’ve already seen in the overworld. Remember how the red brambles blocked and guided my way to the meteor impact site? They were a mystery, present in the greater overworld, long before I was even in the right place to solve them. But after I did get that fire magic, you can bet I ran around looking for all the fire-blocked passages I could. It’s a light implementation of Metroidvania mechanics, but all the same one of the purer implementations of that school of ideas I’ve seen in a while — but more on that in a bit.

The overt Epistory story, then, is about Fox-Riding Woman who explores the land, faces great challenges, and becomes more and more powerful and capable. But there’s a not-so-hidden layer of story as well, that’s… I want to say it’s ‘metaphorical’, but the reality is more that the overt story is the metaphorical one, veiling the ‘real’ story of the ‘real’ character underneath. Everything that happens in Epistory is a fantasy thing that happens, but also serves as metaphor for the life phases and important events of one particular woman. Remember the strange second narrator that I noticed early on in my play? That’s her, I’m pretty sure. While the primary narrator talks about monsters and meteors and abandoned cities and rushing zephyrs carrying poisonous lies, the secondary narrator occasionally interjects with much more mundane observations. Things like “I don’t think I can do this”, or “everyone in this city is so busy”, or “who will tell my story when I’m gone, and what even is the story they would tell?”

She writes on water sometimes, which is impressive.

The reason this works is that Epistory‘s typing mechanics slowly, gradually draw you into deeper engagement with the world. It’s easy to dismiss the whole system as a gimmick early on: You just type words at things to make them happen. But you don’t ‘just’ type ‘words’: Everything you type has a meaningful connection to the world. Anytime you type flowers into existence, what you type are actual flower names. Anytime you break rocks for valuable ores, you’re typing words related to rock, or wealth, or mining. Anytime you use fire to clear a path, expect words like INFERNAL or SUPERHEAT or BURNING. Same goes for other elements, like BOREAL, or JOLT, or TEHUANTEPECER. They’re all small things, but every meaningful word you type deepens the sense of connection, the idea that the word you type is at least as meaningful as the typing itself.

I particularly adore the places where Epistory has a little fun with this. Most chests you open by typing luxury words, but some chests are safes, which means you’re suddenly typing numbers. Or they’re locked by a long string of alternating characters, leading you to hammer (say) D and F in quick succession for a hot minute. Some passages are blocked by large wall scrolls that ask for a consecutive string of characters, like QWERTYUIOP. And my favorite part is when you have to activate machinery by repeatedly typing sequences of four joined characters, like ZXNM. Every string of four equals one click of the gear you’re turning. I don’t know why I like this so much, it’s just so… visceral, almost. Again, it sets up a deep sense of connection between what you type and what is happening on-screen.

(I’ve been told that exercises like these are also part of standard typing classes. I wouldn’t know about this, but it both explains the inclusion of these weird phrases and makes it a little funnier. So let’s roll with that explanation.)

Pictured: A lot of the above.

So then you reach the final part of, say, the Drowned Halls, an old institute of higher learning that’s been devastated by a tsunami. Throughout the dungeon, FRW has had to content with water hazards, and over and over she expressed fears about ‘drowning’ and being ‘unable to keep up’. When you finally find the last insect nest and prepare for the last wave of enemies, you might expect the enemies to carry words that reflect that theme, or maybe more general worlds like FOE and DIE and HURT. But interestingly, that’s not what happens. At least in my playthrough, I don’t remember a lot of that; I do remember a lot of flying insects with words like TUITION, and BURSAR, and COURSE, and WORKLOAD.

It’s almost like these enemies, and the threat of drowning under expected weight, *might* represent something else. Something that a lot of normal, non-fox-riding people go through during their adolescence.

I can’t promise that this kind of storytelling works for everyone. But the principal reason it even has the power to work as it does is because Epistory consistently connects your writing and your actions in the metaphorical world with its own storytelling in the real world. Likewise, I won’t say that its metaphors are necessarily particularly deep, or thought-provoking, or that the deeper story itself is a work of literary genius. But as a synthesis of game-based modes of storytelling, and as a proof-of-concept of how aesthetic, meaning, and gameplay can be combined to greater effect than just a sum-of-parts, it’s really admirable.

And then Epistory flips the prestige by also strictly mechanically being a very cool game.

Surprise, suckers! This is actually really tense and a surprising amount of fun!

It would have been so easy for this combat to be boring, or at least nothing more than acceptably functional. If it was just typing words at enemies, it would probably have been that. But over the course of Epistory play, you unlock four different magic styles, each with different battlefield effects. For instance, fire magic burns an enemy, causing the word right behind the word you just typed to slowly destroy itself. Very useful for enemies that only have two words, or enemies with longer words, saving you some lengthy typing. But spark magic can leap from target to target, eradicating up to five words with a single typing… if the enemies are all close enough together, and if the initial target had at least two words left. Meaning that, when faced with a group of two-word enemies, what do you do? Use fire to light them all up one at a time? Use lightning to zap the whole bunch, knowing that you then have to type five more words to kill them instantly? Maybe you can try to catch four enemies in the first lightning blast, so that the fifth enemy has two words left, then target that one for another blast that takes out the early four immediately. Or maybe you’ll want to use one of the other two kinds of magic, which I’m trying very hard not to spoil here! I’ve probably already done so!

I appreciate that even this description of a combat system based around typing can sound dull. The static description doesn’t really do it justice. Particularly in the later levels, and particularly in the higher-level optional nests (which you can clear for inspiration points and bragging rights), things can get really tense, really fast. Enemies spawn in waves from all over the map, sometimes far away, sometimes very close. Some enemies are slow, but pack half a dozen words, while other enemies are fast, but only have one or two words to clear. Every so often a wave of tiny single-letter zippers might appear, intermingled with regular-word waves to keep you on your toes. Certain enemies are only susceptible to certain kinds of magic, keeping you on your toes. And since switching magic in Epistory is done the same way as doing anything else in Epistory — by typing it — difficult combats can lead to these exhilaration where you rapidly switch magic types and hammer out enemy words in quick succession. FIRE, SUGGESTION, EPIPHANY, SPARK, FAT, FEE, JAM, FIRE, OCCULT, GILL, ICE, RESURRECTION. It’s been a while since my mechanical keyboard’s had to endure this much rapid-fire typing. And when the waves reach their apex and the really high-level monsters show up…

Hope your typing fingers are up for the challenge, hotshot.

And this, well… *This* is the equivalent of the game flipping you the bird.

Apart from its main campaign Epistory includes a wave-based survival Arena mode, and here’s a thing I never would have expected to type going into this review: It makes sense for Epistory to have this mode. The story is good, and the world is beautiful, and the exploration is fun, so the bulk of the game’s fun experience is in playing through all of that. But it’s entirely possible that after doing all that, you’re still hankering for some monster-destroying typing action. It’s actually fun to do!

In short bursts, though. I usually play mouse-and-keyboard games with my left hand on the keyboard and my right hand on the mouse, and let me tell you: Epistory has not been kind for my right hand. Like most life-long PC users I’ve always been at risk of Repetitive Strain Injury-type complications, and after three days of intensive Epistory play… Let’s just say I had to take it real easy in the office the day after. Hell, I’m still feeling the effects right now. That’s Epistory‘s final impact on my life: Even after playing it, and liking it, and evaluating it, and officially reviewing it, it still manages to be in my thoughts — and in the poor overworked nerve fiber in my right shoulder.

Final thoughts

There were things that irked me while playing Epistory. For instance, the upgrade system is… It’s fun, in the sense that you have something to work towards, but it also feels a little extraneous. Almost everything you unlock either feels imperceptible, like the speed upgrade on fire, or ridiculously necessary to the point of being mandatory, like the teleportation upgrade. It’s too easy to get ‘all’ upgrade points, too, leading to this strange situation where you might be sitting on upgrade points you literally can’t spend yet, because you haven’t unlocked the actual upgrade yet. You usually open your map with Tab, but as long as you have unspent upgrade points, the game defaults to the upgrade screen. You can imagine how much fun that was for a few hours.

And the map! It’s pretty, but it’s not super useful. I to this actual day still don’t understand exactly how to read it. I don’t think it rotates? Your character rotates, which means the world rotates around it, but the map doesn’t. You also can’t actually move it around, or do anything except zoom in or out, so I guess I hope you have a good memory for locations.

But in the grand scheme of things, it’s probably telling that I only raise these issues in the very last paragraphs of the review. I had a great time with Epistory. It’s gorgeous, innovative, and interesting. Not even ‘for a typing game’, just in general. It’s short and simple, but all the same expansive and complex, condensing a lot of cool ideas and systems into a package that manages to run out of content right around the time it starts running out of fun. Though your mileage may vary on that one. For me, the more I played Epistory, the more I had to confront the fact that I’m apparently not a very good typist: I can string thoughts together pretty alright, but typing more than three words in sequence absolutely flawlessly just isn’t my thing. Did you know I still touch-type most of the time? I tried the whole ‘home row’ technique for a while, but this terrible basic method of typing is too ingrained in the muscle memory of my fingers to ever gain any serious traction, I’m afraid. If you’re a better typist, Epistory might be even more fun… Or it might be too easy, if you can just belt out word after word without breaking stride. Though in that case, maybe try your hand at ruling the leaderboard schools? I don’t know if there are many games where ‘high word-per-minute ratio’ is the actual skill that actually gets you fame and recognition, but Epistory definitely delivers.

Epistory runs fifteen euro-equivalents on Steam. For the quality and the engagement and the obvious craftsmanship and love put into it, that’s more than a fair price.

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Jarenth never knew how many micro-spelling errors he makes over the course of writing a single Indie Wonderland. They’re like… You can express them per minute, if you want. Poke fun at him over this on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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