Cute animal friends! Adorable derring-do! The casual slaughter of helpless innocents!

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Ragnacenty (AKA: “Crusader of Centy” (US), AKA: “Soleil” (EU)) is often referred to as a Zelda clone, a mislabelling that has stood the test of time largely due to a weird logic feedback loop that prevents anyone from actually playing Mega Drive RPGs to check if these oft-parroted assumptions hold any water because “everybody knows” there are no good Mega Drive RPGs worth playing in the first place. The long and short of it is this: Ragnacenty is a Zelda clone in the same way Sonic is a Mario clone; something you could pedantically claim was technically quite similar on paper but clearly very different from each other in practise.

The last time I remember seriously sitting down and playing this all the way through was over two decades ago when Soleil was just another new game on UK shop shelves, with two memories in particular really standing out:

  1. Renting it from Blockbuster and being very insistent with the staff that I immediately borrow that particular cart again so I could keep my save and finish the game before I had to give it back (This memory also serves as uncomfortable proof that I have never been cool)
  2. Reaching a point in the story where I put the controller down, utterly aghast, when I realised What. I’d. Done.

Ragnacenty holds a special place in my heart because it’s the first game I can remember making me feel like a monster.

Yes, this deceptively cute RPG with the fiery lion helper, buoyant dinosaur friend, and Sonic cameo-ing away on a deckchair at the beach is secretly waiting to pull the rug out from under your feet and make you question exactly how heroic the average RPG hero really is.

It all starts off adorably enough at the hero’s fourteenth birthday party : His impossibly sweet friends gathered around the table at home in a standard-issue jolly RPG town that couldn’t possibly support an enormous castle and all the extravagant trappings of royalty yet somehow manages both regardless. From the instant you turn the game on it feels like it’s determined to impress you with a Bag of Holding’s worth of charming flourishes: Trails of footprints in the sand, glittering animated blizzards, dithered cloud shadows overhead and the almost Wile-E-Coyote like expression when your young hero plays with fire are just a few of the endearing visual examples found within. Even the initial plot twist is as sweet as they come: The hero loses the ability to communicate with humans only to find himself with the ability to speak to chatty flowers, pastel-coloured elephants, and his pet dog instead! Who doesn’t love it when an already adorable RPG decides to go the whole hog and has your pleasantly squat lead making forever-friends with penguins and butterflies?

But there’s a darkness lurking at the edges of Raganacenty’s stereotypically chirpy world – not a looming Chrono Trigger-like disaster or a love-to-hate-them villain in a billowing cape but a far more subtle unease – an uncomfortable feeling at the back of your mind that something’s definitely off with your lead’s actions yet you can’t put your finger on it until it’s far too late…

But that’s surely just a mildly interesting little diversion because you’re the good guy! You’re the teenager with the sword and one parent on your way to becoming a hero – you speak to the king! You have a trial to undertake to prove your inherent hero-ness! Everything you do will of course be the right thing – it’s simply impossible for the hero to be bad – and you can always rely on a cheerful 16-bit RPG to make sure anything that looks off-kilter at the time will all pan out just as it should in the end.

This is not true.

Ragnacenty starts gently pulling at the thread of genre expectations very early on – the first major area you visit, Dahlia Valley, is filled with little monsters pouring out of holes in the walls. So far, so normal. But… wait. How many of them actually attack on sight? A few, sure – but not all of them by any stretch of the imagination. This unusual “enemy” trait crops up quite often throughout the course of the game – there are many “monsters” who will hurt the hero if he runs into them or fight back if they’ve been hit, but how many of them actually make an immediate unprovoked beeline for our brave teenage lead? It’s not as many as you’d think.

Being forced to communicate exclusively with animals and monsters soon reveals that life isn’t quite as adventure-simple as players may first assume, the uncomfortable truth being that rather than plunging the world into an eternal night and washing the streets with the blood of their enemies the number one thing most “monsters” want is to not be killed by a random adventurer while minding their own damned business. The lead soon gets a too-close taste of the reverse side to his “heroics” when he’s temporarily turned into a slime and chased by the man hailed by humans as a true warrior: it’s clear the slime family cowering inside a nearby tree trunk don’t share that positive point of view. “Ah!” You might say – “But if he didn’t thin them out then surely the slimes will exponentially multiply and overrun the forest, or they hate humans so much they’ve become a threat, or… or…”

No.

The children want to play outside without being killed, and the mother quite reasonably wants to keep her children safe. The truth is as plain as the facts, leaving both the player as well as every human in the game without a moral leg to stand on – even if the script doesn’t dwell upon this event or make any great effort into compelling you to feel sorry for them.

A similar lack of emotional handholding occurs in heaven of all places (the US version insists on referring to the location as the “Place of Peace” even with all the angelic spirits of the deceased floating around, in much the same way certain old RPG taverns only ever serve “juice”). Here the hero can speak to his dead dad, which in any other RPG would be an obvious point to play an emotional tune during a touching reunion – sad little comments on how much he’s grown in his father’s absence, the inevitable painful farewell as he’s forced to leave, a message to deliver to his beloved wife. Nothing like that happens here at all (beyond “I knew you were coming” and “Do your best!”), with the cold distance of this non-event instead serving as a good reminder of Ragnacenty’s hands-off storytelling style, the contrast between what’s being shown:

An appealingly cute hero standing knee-deep in bouncy animated flowers underneath clear blue skies

Jarring with the reality of the situation:

Neither the hero nor any other human in the game has a problem with killing monsters sentient beings just because they’re different.

After a stern telling off from God and being forcibly cast out of heaven the only sensible place left for a brave RPG youth to go is back in time: Under normal circumstances this would be the part where the hero gets a laundry list of previous injustices to work through, a chance to realise the terrible crimes committed by humanity through past generations and turn things around for everyone’s benefit – but not here. Instead of putting right what once went wrong our little lead instead bears witness to past atrocities or ends up directly committing them himself – all the while being feted as a hero for his increasingly obviously unheroic actions. Of all the past events the hero “corrects” one of the most obviously not-OK has got to be the time you take him on a destructive tour of a valley-sized mother monster’s innards, culminating in an all-out assault on her defenseless heart. Why? Because you’re the hero and they’re a monster. The game casually points out afterwards that no more monsters will be born there, ever, and when you return to the present the area is indeed empty and lifeless – sorry, “saved”.

By this point you’re roughly a million miles down the rabbit hole and the game – still visually as cheerful as ever – is no longer pulling any punches. Clearly harmless monsters get slaughtered in a church, for one thing. With most games that try to pull this sort of poking at RPG stereotypes you’ll encounter a funny villager who’ll say something like “Oh those inconsiderate adventurers! Look how they stroll right on in and smash all my pots!” and everyone will have a little chuckle at the self-awareness of the scene then carry on regardless. Ragnacenty says “What if that ‘monster’ you murdered was my child and they didn’t long for anything more than the right to exist in this world?” and you laugh at the absurdity of a game presenting you with such an unusual proposition only for the scenario to follow that up with “No, really.”

Unfortunately the game frequently stumbles on the execution of its central theme, with far too much – especially for an era not famed for its subtlety and unusual takes on genre norms – riding on the player being open and observant enough to notice its unexpected twist unprompted and then going on to reach conclusions that don’t fit the usual RPG mould for this sort of adventure all by themselves. And while the beautifully executed pixel art (the turning animation in particular is still hypnotically smooth) makes for a fascinating contradiction to the dark themes bubbling under the surface it would still have been helpful if your silent avatar ever expressed any sort of remorse or hesitation for their actions – or indeed expressed anything (beyond “Ouch!”) at all.

The tale also wraps up with an odd moral conclusion – the ultimate end of game “fix” to this self-made tragedy is to ensure monsters never enter the human world at all, not that people just maybe shouldn’t be in such a rush to kill everything they don’t understand. For all of the lead’s misaligned efforts in the past and present as well as the willful ignorance shown by many key characters in the game humans are “let off” by God, monsters, and each other and the cheerful peace in the ending – a perfectly blissful version of the day before the game started (so long as you’re human, that is) – has nothing to do with learning greater empathy for others or overcoming unfounded historic prejudices. You could perhaps argue that this ending’s just another part of Ragnacenty’s world-weary narrative – that humanity as a whole ultimately learned nothing and only found “peace” because there was nothing left for them to fight – but if that is the case then it really needed something of a greater push to hit that mark.

The impact of the unexpected twist in the tale is unquestionably lessened in an era with Yoko Taro on the loose and the industry in general opting for more mature and uncommon routes through their experiences but that doesn’t mean Ragnacenty isn’t still a relatively brave and forward-thinking title that deserves to be considered – for better or worse – as something far beyond a mere “Zelda clone”.

2 thoughts on “Cute animal friends! Adorable derring-do! The casual slaughter of helpless innocents!

  1. This sounds absolutely fascinating! I knew nothing about this game, but this has made me thoroughly intrigued to check it out at some point. I love this kind of “no, but actually” twist, and it’s cool to see creators were experimenting with it as early as the 16-bit era.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh excellent, I do love it when I can get people excited about something different! As I said the execution’s not quite there, but I honestly think it’s close enough to be worth the effort of experiencing first-hand 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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