It’s been a long road to release for Undead Darlings ~no cure for love~. The project first sought funding via Kickstarter back in 2015 and initially failed to meet its modest goal, but the ex-NIS America staff of developer Mr. Tired Media were convinced that there was an audience for this game and remained determined to see it happen. Five years later, we finally have the finished version in our hands — and it’s clear what a labour of love this has been.
Undead Darlings casts you in the role of one Reginald Happenstahnce, who wakes up one morning to discover a few things somewhat amiss. His childhood friend and neighbour Pearl has come to wake him up as she always does, but she’s looking rather paler than she used to, has bloody bandages all over her arms and smells a bit, well, dead. Oh, and there’s a zombie apocalypse happening that may or may not have been the fault of Reggie’s scientist father. Time to investigate!
The majority of Undead Darlings sees you exploring labyrinthine structures that are filled with loot, monsters and clues to progress the overall story. As you progress, Pearl and Reggie are joined by five other half-zombie girls, and up to three of them can delve into the dungeons at any one time. Forming the right party becomes increasingly important the further into the game you go; not only do each of the girls have their own lineup of special abilities and equipable items, but different lineups can also trigger visual novel-style sub-events around the dungeons. Each of these gives you an opportunity to learn a bit more about the characters’ backgrounds and develop Reggie’s relationships with them.
Combat unfolds in a turn-based fashion, with a strong emphasis on exploiting enemy weaknesses. Interestingly, hitting a weakness doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll deal more damage; rather, it adds to a multiplier that accumulates in the corner of the screen. At the start of a new turn, you can choose to apply this multiplier to the action any one of the three girls takes, be it a physical attack, a special ability, the use of an item or even the damage they can soak up while defending. You need to watch out, though; landing an attack that does not exploit a weakness resets the multiplier, potentially wasting the impressive combo you worked so hard on.
Early in the game, combat in Undead Darlings is pretty tough, even on the lower difficulty levels. Enemies hit hard and your party members don’t do much damage, so you very much need to make use of the multiplier mechanic. There’s also a combo system where certain skills, when unleashed next to one another in the turn order, will trigger a more powerful attack from two of the girls simultaneously. Once you discover these joint attacks — which usually involve both a physical and magical component — you can set up “macros” to manipulate the turn order and trigger these at will.
All in all, there’s a decent amount of strategy going on in the battle system — this certainly isn’t a game you can get through by simply mashing the Attack option and hoping for the best. Completionists will, however, be pleased to note that random encounters can be turned off after you’ve beaten the game once, meaning you’ll only run into enemies at predefined locations in the dungeons when replaying to get a different ending.
The survival horror aspect ties in with combat. Unlike in most RPGs, you don’t have bottomless pockets in Undead Darlings. In fact, at the start of the game, you can only hold ten items, plus the equipment the girls are wearing. And just to add to the stress factor, weapons have a durability value and are lost forever when broken. This isn’t as much of a pain as it sounds, however; all of the girls are reasonably capable fighters or mages without a weapon in their hands, and new weapons are pretty easy to come by, since “treasure” markers respawn on each new visit to the same area or floor. Armour, thankfully, never breaks — but each piece of armour affects several stats, so you’ll want to think carefully about who gets what according to their role in the party.
There’s a lot to think about, and this additional layer of long-term strategy definitely adds something unique to Undead Darlings when compared to other dungeon crawlers. And that’s not the only way it stands out compared to its peers, either; the way the dungeons are presented is excellent, featuring fully modelled, three-dimensional environments with a variety of obstacles rather than the plain, box-shaped rooms more typical for the genre. You still explore them in a grid-based fashion, but the level of detail on display is much greater than many other games of this type — there are some cheeky, amusing references hidden around the place for the observant to appreciate, too.
The writing throughout the game is consistently witty, thankfully without drenching everything in layers of cynical irony. Many of the characters make comfortably familiar first impressions by providing amusing twists on anime-style tropes, but as you get to know each of the girls better, it becomes clear that some real thought and love has been poured into each and every one of them. These girls have all been through something pretty heavy prior to your meeting them, and it always feels like a significant, touching moment any time you get even a hint of them opening up to you. Some genuinely challenging themes are tackled sensitively throughout, and each girl proves herself to be far more than the trope she might initially appear to embody.
One area that some may find a little jarring is the English-only voice acting. The game does such a good job of capturing the look, feel and overall tone of a modern Japanese game that the overt “American-ness” of the voiceover work can, at times, feel a bit like it clashes with other aspects of the presentation, particularly the character designs. If you’re a “dubs over subs” sort of person, you’ll likely get along with it just fine, but if ever there was a Western game crying out for a Japanese audio option, it’s this one. In the meantime, though, you can choose to mute the story scene voiceovers without sacrificing music, sound effects or battle voices if you so desire.
All things considered, Undead Darlings has been well worth the long wait. It’s mechanically solid, extraordinarily compelling from a narrative and characterisation perspective, and it does a lot of genuinely interesting things with a genre that can sometimes feel a little tired.
Part dungeon-crawling RPG, part survival horror, part dating sim and part visual novel, Undead Darlings ~no cure for love~ successfully blends its disparate elements into a thoroughly compelling whole. While a couple of mechanical elements here and there are a little awkward — most notably inventory and equipment management — this is a satisfying, challenging game that will keep you hooked until the credits roll.