I don’t often avoid buying games when they catch my eye at a store. But I had heard so much bad and so little good about Baroque that I avoided it for the better part of the year, despite wandering over and reading the back every other time I went to the local Gamestop (not too often). Eventually I caved in and picked it up.
Very rarely has a game so short managed to occupy my mind for so long. Baroque presents a set of mysteries large and small; a world that is at the same time both cohesive and shocking. I have seen the first pair of Silent Hill games, which are the closest analogue I know of. Both have strange things happen, but neither bothers with being either coherent or sensical (as I recall, it was either “oh, that’s just Silent Hill and weird things happen there” or “oh, it’s just some ancient demon god resurrecting” depending on your ending). In the end, Baroque manages to top them because it has a coherent explanation for each weird thing that happens. But it doesn’t explain things piece by piece except in small parts; the larger picture has to be derived from the events, down to exactly what a baroque is. The differences between the Malkuth order and the Koriel group are lost in the fact that only rarely is either discussed; you interact with some members of each, but it takes a while to figure out what the goal of each is. Presumably the less explored areas of the plot are explained in the manga.
But at the same time, Baroque is a short-ish Roguelike. Played on Easy, it’s quite beatable within 15 hours and is not nearly as punishing as the usual; to hear reviews, Normal is crushing while Hard is… well, probably a lot like Rogue or Nethack. Play on Easy and you’ll be rewarded with an easy (though occasionally frantic) game attached to an interesting plot. Play on the other difficulties and I’ve no doubt you’ll find an interesting plot in between running for dear life through a dungeon that wants to kill you.
And yet, despite its depth, there is very little detail to Baroque at all! The town only contains 6 NPCs; each has only a few significant lines. Perhaps another half-dozen dwell in the Nerve Tower; most have still fewer lines. Special events account for the majority of plot development, but even they would be numbered in paragraphs rather than pages. Sting was able to create a moderately intense plot in Riviera: The Promised Land despite very little dialogue; they reproduced this in Baroque, and made the setting much more interesting to boot. (incidentally, it might be vice-versa, since Baroque was originally made in ’99).
The feel of the game is claustrophobic, oppressive, panicky. It is at once both lonely like the Metroid games and as frantic as a shooter My heart rate must’ve gone up by about 10 while playing the game; even Resident Evil and Silent Hill have places of respite. Baroque has no such safe havens outside the main town; you can be just as easily poisoned from behind while you’re talking to an NPC in the Nerve Tower as anyplace else. As a real-time action Roguelike, I would expect nothing less.
Baroque has an official website here; despite being in Japanese it is quite navigable without any knowledge of the language. The link points to the character section, which is probably the most interesting; each has some nifty artwork, a blurb about the character, and a movie with one of their lines.
Another resource would be the scanlated first manga, which is all over the place; one example here. The second and third volumes have not been translated, probably since they’re so damnably rare or the original translation group lost interest.
I’ve bought the first two manga volumes online; each cost about as much as the game ($20); I wasn’t disappointed by the first, as it maintains the feel of the game. I can’t argue with Alice travelling with the protagonist, since it’s hard to have an interesting story with only one person.