Review: To The Capital
Review copy provided by developer via Curator Connect
Failure states in games have an entire philosophy to them, owing to how disruptive they can be to enjoyment. On the one hand, no one wants to be stuck playing a doomed character, but on the other it can be fun to watch something you’ve built be toppled. To The Capital is an interesting study in failure states because of how frequent and how obvious they are. As an RPG-roguelike it’s surprisingly deterministic for either genre, and that determinism can doom you half a dozen battles or more before the end comes. If it weren’t such an otherwise-solid offering that might doom it as well, but its quirks make it a different sort of challenge instead of a bad one.
You are a royal messenger, dispatched from the southern border of the kingdom to warn the king that his council is compromised by traitors. Unfortunately for you, the council knows of your mission and has put out word that you are not to reach the capital alive. With only a few days before the coup is set to start, you must race to the palace to warn the king before it’s too late. But rushing too fast will see you at the point of some very threatening swords, so arming yourself and growing stronger is the only way to ensure your safe arrival.
This balance between speed and growth is at the heart of To The Capital. As you get closer to your destination the monsters grow in strength, from rats and bears to skeletons and orcs to hellhounds and worse. You can’t just sprint to the goal without slamming into enemies out of your league, but grinding out gold and experience too long won’t leave you enough time to make it. The key is finding the right pace between towns and purchasing upgrades, as well as when to make the time investment in exploring the dungeons dotted around the map. It’s not actually that tight of a deadline either, but until you learn just how long the game is you’ll probably find yourself rushing to your death more often than not.
Your deaths will almost always be self-inflicted, in fact, because of how the random battles are designed. In fine RPG tradition To The Capital has random battles where you take turns attacking or using items against a number of foes. There are no skills or magic in this one, and no items besides healing options, so your only attack is your, well, attack. It does a set amount of damage too, with the only variance being occasional misses and double-damage critical hits. The same goes for your foes, which means there are virtually no surprises in store when you fight. If you do 7 damage and your foe has 16 HP, it will take you three turns to kill them with very few exceptions.
It’s an even more rigid structure than that, actually. The random battles aren’t even fully random, as they occur at exactly the same frequency depending on the terrain. Every seven steps on the road, you battle. Every five steps on grass, you battle. And in caves, there are a set number of battles that trigger every few steps that end with a boss. You can defeat the boss to get a unique item and the run of the cave (which always has at least three chests to plunder), but those encounters happen no matter where you are in the cave. So if you go spelunking unprepared, you may find yourself unable to escape. While the roguelike aspect does little in the randomized map, it does end your run when you perish which makes facing pre-determined battles a death sentence if you’re out of potions.
These peculiar design choices make To The Capital more of a math problem than an RPG or roguelike. If you know where you’re going, you know exactly how many battles there are along the way. You also know exactly how many turns most of those encounters will take to complete, and how much damage the enemies do every turn. So once you have the best gear you can afford at your level, the question is how many potions you need to survive to the next town. Get that one question wrong and you die and start all over. With damage and defenses and encounter cadence set in stone, the only variables are enemy composition and misses/criticals. There’s absolutely zero room for improvisation or even strategy beyond the “correct” order to kill enemies in battle.
Does that make To The Capital a bad game? Absolutely not, just one that you need to understand the nature of before diving into. The RPG trappings are limited to battle menus, leveling up, and buying items in town. The roguelike aspect randomizes map and cave layouts, as well as items found in chests and as rewards, but nothing so dramatic that it changes the course of individual runs. You’re always going to follow the same path to the same goal, using the same battle and gearing strategies, except when you get lucky finding items. For someone wanting a more free-form or deep game this will be hell, but for someone wanting a game they can “solve” it’s an excellent candidate.
I was able to look past the repetitive battles and strategy simply because I wanted to beat it, to prove that I solved the puzzle. The clean pixel art and quality sound design make the game more inviting, though there are errors in the translated text like your unequipped gear being found under “Weapons” in your menu. I wouldn’t spend dozens of hours on To The Capital but I am compelled to beat it, and the challenge is entertaining enough to make up for its shortcomings. Fans of RPGs or roguelikes might want to give this one a miss, ironically enough, but puzzle types will get something out of it.