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Ultimately entertaining, April 16, 2021
A title (and author nickname) as over-the-top as this reads to me like a thrown-down gauntlet: will the actual game live up to the badass silliness being so ostentatiously signaled? I’ll admit to some skepticism after reading the blurb and loading it up – fantasy RPG parodies are a dime a dozen, often going for lazy skewering of the same tropes with jokes that feel like they would have been musty even in the 90s. Thankfully, JUF! charts its own path, committing to a very specific take on the gag and not forgetting to include an actual game under the parody.
The twist here is to treat big-budget RPGs as showbiz. The characters are all digital actors, supported by body-doubles and production assistants. So when the connection goes down right as the final battle ramps up – it appears to be a single-player game, not an MMORPG, so I’m guessing there’s meant to be some kind of DRM? – you control Tommy, the actor playing the protagonist, as he chats with his coworkers and tries to figure out how to get the show back on the road. In the course of these efforts, you get to know your colleagues, who are a nicely-humanized collection of Hollywood stereotypes – the overenthusiastic newbie, the ambitious co-star, the embittered journeyman, the overlooked PA who’s secretly running everything.
The writing strikes a good balance between serving up jokes and creating sympathetic characters, and it’s effective on both fronts. Take Lackey Three, for example – she’s played by Lucie, whose performance is checked-out because she’s studying to break into the digital assistant business. Her interjection of “additional words!” into the opening smack-talk, and the extended sequence where she reveals her uh, rather strong feelings about Clippy (the go-to example of a digital assistant), are both funny bits, but while she’s a bit abrasive because she wants Tommy to stop bothering her so she can study, I ultimately found her sympathetic and relatable, despite the beyond-silly context.
The game side of things is no slouch either. It’s presented as a top-down RPG, and you click to move Tommy around and talk to the other characters (I had no idea Ink could do this!) Each character has the same dialogue tree, where you can ask them about themselves and their plans, their opinions on the other characters – which includes telling them what their colleagues have said about them – and ask them to swap an item. There’s a lot of depth here, and while it can get repetitive since everyone has the same options and getting all the dialogue requires doing two full passes over all eight characters, the writing is strong enough to support the time.
With that said, there are no dialogue options or other choices you make while talking that impact the game (well, except one to trigger the endgame) – it’s the item-swapping where the gameplay resides, and it too has surprising complexity. Tommy starts out carrying the ultimate sword, a less-good sword that looks like a fish (there are a lot of jokes about fishing minigames), and the Crown of Agency that marks him as the protagonist. Each character has a single item apiece, ranging from the metaphysical – a sense of purpose – to the mundane – an overwashed pair of pants – to the truly dangerous – a union organizing pamphlet.
You can work out chains of swaps by figuring out which character might accept as a trade, and what they should ultimately be holding when the curtains open once more. The object a character is holding when the end fight resumes (including what Tommy’s got in his inventory) has a major impact on how things play out – the traditional victory of good over evil can certainly happen, but there’s more than enough room for improvisation, flubbed lines, last-minute betrayals, and more. The combinatorial possibilities here are enormous, and after four playthroughs I feel like I barely scratched the surface – yet each ending went off mostly hitch-less, weaving together the different possibilities into a satisfying whole every time.
JUF! does have a few flaws. The biggest one is that the dialogue scrolls out slowly, and there’s a lot of it, meaning that clicking through it on replays can be annoying – and since repeated replays are needed to get the most out of the game, that’s a shame. There are some quality of life features unlocked as you go, including skipping the intro, but I really wished there was a “skip repeated dialogue” one. I also thought one very-positive ending was a little too easy to get (Spoiler - click to show)(painstakingly juggling everybody’s inventory got me a pretty solid result, but just making a beeline for Jacquie and swapping her the Crown of Agency seems like it’s close to the ideal ending. I support this rejection of damseling, but this is the point I stopped playing because I figured I couldn’t top that). I only noticed one stray typo – Boyle is referred to as Riley in one of his ending slides – but I did play a version that’d been updated a couple times since the Festival opened. But these are very small nits to pick, and I have to say, JUF! has taken its place as my favorite entry in this much-maligned genre.