I still can't believe my writer cohort is a Madoka Magica fan. That certainly came out of left field.
On a serious note, although Grief Syndrome does allow for online co-op play through an unofficial client, we weren't able to play it this way as the office laptop is powered by coal. As such, my writer cohort elected to test it in local multiplayer. I wasn't invited, so he played with his mysterious friend, who I only know as Earth Defence Force Buddy #1. Apparently upon completing the game EDFB#1 said 'Seriously, what was that?' which I'd say is pretty accurate.
Also important, those of you in the audience who haven't watched Puella Magi Madoka Magica yet, but intend to, consider yourself warned- MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD. We've kept spoilers to a minimum (there's no shots of the final boss, and we've omitted how you find the secret boss because that's a big spoiler too) but there's a few vague hints regarding what happens, alright? Sadly, we cannot advise that you watch the show instead of read this article. We have hit quotas to meet.
Observant readers may have noted that this site isn't terrible big on the animes these days.
To the point where they're often used as a mean-spirited punchline.
To redress the balance, let's look at a good game based on a modern-day anime I enjoyed.
Grief Syndrome (which, by the way, is a fantastic name for a video game) is based on the 2011 anime series Puella Magi Madoka Magica (that's a link to the Colony Drop review of the show, written by Dave Cabrera- again, slight spoilers, and don't read the comments the first one spoils the ending you were warned) which takes the standard 'high schooler becomes a magical girl and fights for justice' shtick and coats it in dread. Average schoolgirl Madoka Kaname and her friend Sayaka Miki meet a creepy cat-like thing called Kyubey after stumbling into an encounter with a witch- nothing at all like most normal witches, they're more like Monty Python-esque monstrosities that reside in their own little pocket universes. Older-student-turned-magical-girl Mami Tomoe saves both girls, and Kyubey offers them a deal- make a contract with him and become a Puella Magi (magical girl to you and me) to fight the witches, and he'll grant them a single wish each. However, mysterious transfer student Homura Akemi is determined to make sure the girls don't make a contract with the conniving little so-and-so, and things carry on from there. The atmosphere is a little unsettling from the off, but it's the third episode that really gets its meathooks into you and spells out how dire things will get, with each subsequent episode making the rules of this magical girl hell worse and worse. Is there no hope left for these poor kids? Can they escape from their awful fate?!
(See also: the spin-off manga Oriko Magica, which looks at the original series and says 'Nah, this isn't dark enough.)
While the show is well worth watching, it's a pretty heavy-going affair, and those who'd rather just take in some witch beatdowns are in luck. Released at the 80th Comiket in 2011 and developed by Twilight Frontier (AKA Tasogare Frontier or Tasofro, a doujin group best known for Eternal Fighter Zero and the Touhou fightmans) for Windows PCs, Grief Syndrome is a whistle-stop tour of all the major witch battles from the show (either five or six stages depending on your actions) to the tune of a side-scrolling action game. Fight your way through waves of the witch's cannon fodder, then battle the horrifying witch itself at the end of the stage! Although it's tempting to call it a run-and-gun like Metal Slug, the closest thing I can compare it to is one of my favourites, Charlie Ninja, mostly because the five selectable characters have a fair variety of moves (you have both Light and Strong Attack buttons, and more are available by holding them down/combining them with Up/Down/Left/Right) and like Charlie Ninja, you have a mix of close-range and long-range attacks (your choice of character determines which you'll be best suited to). Half the game is using the appropriate moves for each situation to get the most damage done, and the other half is managing the big number at the bottom of the screen, the Soul Limit. This ticks down slowly but constantly Gauntlet-style, can't be increased beyond levelling-up, and when you're hurt, some of it is used to turn red/damaged portions of the health meter back to green. The thing is, you won't 'die' if your health meter is completely red- at a larger cost to the Soul Limit, you'll be revived and return to the fight instead. However, it goes without saying that once the Soul Limit's empty, you are dead.
When I say 'dead', I mean it. You have a team of five magical girls to choose from, and once one kicks the bucket, they're not coming back. Essentially you have five lives to beat the game with, and in two or three-player co-op means, that means you have five lives between you! In no particular order, your girls are Madoka Kaname (best used as a support character to stun enemy groups, she's almost exclusively long-range with her magic arrows), Sayaka Miki (Madoka's opposite, she uses a sword for vertical/horizontal attacks and consumes the least Soul Limit when hurt/revived), Mami Tomoe (a tricky, difficult-to-play combination of close-and-long range using muskets, with some unorthodox attacks), Kyoko Sakura (spelt Kyouko in-game, has some devastating long-reaching spear attacks but can get herself in trouble easily) and Homura Akemi, who comes in both normal (a walking long-range killing machine and my character of choice, packing a machine gun, pipe bombs, and mortar rounds amongst others) and 'Glasses' versions (trades most of her heavy weapons for a golf club attack that can whack her pipe bombs for added distance, but they can hurt you and other players)- if either version dies, Homura's out. As well as different attacks, each girl has different rates of Soul Meter loss (Mami's meter takes a beating when she revives, not so much for Sayaka), different starting Soul Limits, and a special power activated with the fourth button (Madoka hails arrows from the top of the screen, Kyoko creates a barrier of projectiles) that turns a portion of the lifebar blue- if you're hit before it turns green again, the blue portion turns red and has to be healed (which can be a real blow for some). Finally, each girl levels up by killing enemies, and as they level up their strength, defense and max Soul Limit increase. Those are the basics, so pick a girl and go witch stomping!
For the most part, Grief Syndrome does the whole side-scrolling action game thing very well, with enough unique elements to give it an edge. Even before the mechanics, aesthetically the game is a treat, combining the nightmarish elements of the 'pocket universe scenes from the show with Twilight Frontier's own sprite work on the girls (much like their Touhou stuff, it's packed with character). Oddly, the music is not remixed from the show as far as I could tell, but sets the mood well (especially the creepy music that shows up in later stages). To get to the meat, though, it's certainly a different take on the genre- again, similar to Charlie Ninja it's not quite Rolling Thunder and not quite Strider due to the combination of longe-range and short-range attacks. While these attacks aren't evenly distributed between the five characters, regardless of its reach each move has its own properties (Mami's rope can draw enemies closer to her, for example, and Sayaka's up/down sword strikes can be chained), so the game has a lot of variety- you can't play as any of the five girls in the same way, so you have to learn their move sets and unique properties inside-out to survive. This includes advanced techniques like jump-cancelling (removing the space between attacks by jumping inbetween commands) which helps keep the game from being too shallow or simple-minded.
This variety, and the fact that the game makes sure to pile the enemies into each scene, also means that the game's best played in two or three-player mode so you can pick a team with complimenting abilities- my friend and I found that a team of Kyoko (leading the charge) and Homura (heavy long-range back-up) worked pretty well for our runs of the game. Speaking of runs, the game has an odd difficulty system, where you unlock additional 'laps' of the game by beating it, with increased enemy strength. There's an absurd number of them (I've unlocked 600+ laps) which means it's essentially a numbers-going-up affair (with bosses reaching ridiculous levels), and while there is a point where it's almost absurd, the more 'sane' higher laps make you play very carefully, which is a plus (and you'll need to replay it as the ending changes depending on which girls are still alive at the end).
The Soul Limit, and the way the game treats death, is a highlight too, the game's main selling point. This isn't a game where you're free to make plenty of mistakes along the way and still be able to make it to the end- a perfectly good run with one character can be potentially ruined by a momentary slip-up (such moments include the electric TVs in the third stage that can rip through your health bar, and Elsa-Marie's 'special' attack that can lead to instant death). Even if you think you can make it, you might just cark it during the boss fight, so close to victory (the witch fights are another great part of the game- there's a little attack memorisation involved but they're inventive and match the show's style well). This really encourages you to learn the game's mechanics and enemy attack patterns, and learn them well, otherwise your chosen girl won't make it to the end. This is the game's real strength, it's an action game that makes you value each of your five lives- only the skilled and tactical will beat the higher (sane) laps, and it's not entirely unfair as most of the powerful enemy attacks are telegraphed to give you enough time to get out the way. This makes actually beating the game on any lap feel like an achievement, especially if played with a character like Mami who requires a lot of skill to use effectively.
Admittedly, this does lead to one of the game's problems, an odd variant of Gradius Syndrome- playing as one character through every stage should get you at the right level to battle through the final stage, but if you die there you're left with a team of Level 1 magical girls who don't stand a chance. All you can really do here is go back to a previous stage (preferably Stage 4 for additional experience) to get back to the level you were at (one stage should be enough). Not ideal for playing with friends, obviously- in fact the first time this happened to me and my co-op buddy, we decided to go rogue, but our Level 1 Sayaka and Mami team just wasn't enough for the final stage- and the level-up system could probably be done away with without much fuss, so that's at least one knock against the game. At least you don't have to grind normally...
Speaking of quirks, there's quite a few other things here and there wrong that knock a star off the final score. For a start, the enemy roster is pretty limited in each area- while the first stage has three different types, this is limited to two for most other stages and, on Stage 2, just one (albeit with 'big' versions of standard enemies too) so, especially when played alone, the levels can drag a little. It doesn't help that, unlike Strider or Charlie Ninja, there's not much in the way of level design- most of the areas are flat and there's no real obstacles/traps beyond enemies. This is an unfortunate side-effect of the rigid faithfulness to the show (with the exception of the dragon tentacles in Stage 4, if it wasn't in the show it's not here, I checked) but it just about gets away with it by keeping each enemy encounter large, and the bosses are better off in this regard as they have plenty of different attacks. There's also some slight issues with collision detection, as enemies don't hurt you if you touch them normally but since their attacks are mostly physical, it can be hard to tell when touching will hurt you- this is especially dangerous on higher laps where one hit can kill you early on. Again, this isn't as bad in the boss encounters, as it should be obvious when they can hurt you, but fighting in crowds can be a bit frustrating when you keep getting hit and it's too difficult to tell why...
Finally, multiplayer is the best way to play but has one thing that can stall the fun- when a player dies they can't drop in with their next chosen magical girl, and they'll have to wait until the next stage or all players are dead (only when there's not enough girls left alive for multiplayer can they play as an immortal, defenceless Kyubey instead until Game Over). A bit like the original Contra except you can't even steal lives. These are flaws that do start greate on you and affect your enjoyment of the game, which is a shame- the flaky 'enemy can hurt you' system in particular is frustrating, but unlike Tomoyo Fighter Perfect the game's positives outweigh the negatives enough for four stars.
Other than these problems which ultimately hurt the game, there's a lot to like about Grief Syndrome, whether you're a fan of the show or not. Sure, fans will appreciate the dedication to the series on display here (you could make a website doing a visual game/show comparison, some of them are subtle) and generally it displays some very good use of the source material, but fan or not, it's hard to say Grief Syndrome isn't an inventive little side-scroller. Five varied characters to choose from (and curse profusely over when you lose your
waifu favourite), plenty of grotesque monsters to destroy (even if they're mostly the same grotesque monsters several times), combat mechanics that make you consider your moves carefully and a real hook in the form of the Soul Limit that, backed up by the combat, makes you play far differently than you would've done without it. That's the main thing, really- while the execution of some parts isn't perfect, Grief Syndrome has enough ideas it does pull off well to make it a very worthwhile and tough side-scroller that'll actually make you work to get to the end in one piece.
For showing that side scrollers ain't dead until the fans say so, Grief Syndrome is awarded...
In a sentence, Grief Syndrome is...
Not perfect, but a game that makes you take care of your extra lives.
If you'd like to learn more about Grief Syndrome, specifically you'd like a strategy guide with in-depth move analysis and the like...
The Puella Magi wiki has you covered, you maniac. Spoilers abound for the series, though, so be careful!
Thanks again to our co-op buddy, Zac, for
suffering bro-opping (or is it sis-opping?) Grief Syndrome with us.
[Huh, charming, I was told it was Earth Defence Force Buddy #1. I'm not even on a first name basis with this guy.
Sorry, it's just you're not in our EDF club, man. It's pretty exclusive, and only for those who possess burning courage.
[... So, OK, fess up. Did you cry at the end of Puella Magi Madoka Magica?]
Uh, n-no, of course not...
In truth, I got something in my eye- repeatedly- during Episode 10. You'll know what I mean..
Next time, to tie it all together, a Madoka Magica/Earth Defence Force game. Oh, you think I'm joking, don't you~