Review: King of the Cul-De-Sac

King of the Cul-De-Sac from Matthew Vimislik is a fun, fast-paced interactive graphic novel about the paper thin reality of childhood and, in a round-about way, coming into one’s own. When Karah’s brother goes away to college, she finds out her assumed heir apparency is going to be a little harder to defend than she thought. Thank goodness her fists can do the talking! Travel the neighborhood. Fight evil. Claim your ultimate prize: the crown of the King of the Cul-De-Sac.

The game released in full on September 24th and was previously in open beta. A review was requested via the VNGame Den Review Request form, but we did not receive a reviewer’s copy of the game.

Filled With Art

Like the phrase “interactive graphic novel” implies, King of the Cul-De-Sac is chock full of colorful art and characters. It eschews the traditional sprite/background structure in favor of a series of fully rendered scenelets packed with tension and excitement. And the visual adventure is huge. From a haunted house that leads to the pits of the underworld, to a forest filled with spirits, to even more vast and wonderful places, every new scene is detailed with love and care. One truly and really feels like they’re moving through a comic or animation, with their choices actually having immediate and visible consequences through turns in the scene.

It’s polished, universally endearing, and features a highly diverse cast of kids that look like kids. It’s a game that’s not afraid to have it’s own unique style.

High Energy, Frenetic Adventure

Right from the get-go, this game is moving along, setting the pace for a high-speed, high-stakes thrill ride through suburbia. Everything moves. The dialogue bubbles move. The scene transitions are animated. Once one task is done, it’s right on to the next. No time to wait! Gotta get that CROWN. There are mini-games and turn-based RPG boss battles and puzzles and point-and-click segments to find the key you need. You’re always on your toes, ready to launch into the next shiny thing. It mimics that sense of childlike single-mindedness and ease of distraction. Everything is big and loud and either the best or worst thing in existence.

When it does slow down, then, lingering a little over those slow, retrospective thoughts and memories, the scene sticks with you a little longer. There’s a gentleness to them that balances nicely with the quicker parts of the game and shows you a bit of who Karah really is as a person under her bluster.

Gets a Little Lost in Itself

The overall story is fun and fairly simple, making the individual chapter arcs carry the weight of building out the internal world a little bit and indulging us in a less-than-stable reality. Every so often, however, the quickness of the pace works against it. There’s not always enough time to breathe and work through the narrative that just got thrown at you full force. This is most apparent in areas where it seems like multiple paths are converging into each other again or your choice made some other large-scale story deviation. The “path” of the story through its branches and turns doesn’t always rejoin or carry on cleanly. You can feel when the story didn’t take you some place it thinks it did, and it jars you into worrying you missed something. The instances are fairly far between, but the moments I came across were during major story points, making them seem a little more stark.

A Lot of Game Packaged into a Little Box

It’s 30-45 minutes for one more streamlined playthrough to get to one ending, and that’s barely a quarter of what the game has to offer in total. It’s exciting for the replayability and exploration but a little daunting considering the game’s interfacing. There’s no save feature and no skip, both things fairly common to the visual novel gameplay experience. Knowing the engine the developer used, these functionalities were purposefully stripped, and I sort of understand it from an aesthetic and immersive perspective. However, even though a playthrough is short and can very easily work in one sitting, what if I still have to stop while I’m in the middle of reading? I lose the ability to pick up where I left off, something even a physical graphic novel offers me. So while I’m left with a lot of excitement to come back and play through more of the game and make different choices, it’s tempered by the knowledge that I have to wait until I know I have the time to sit down and play through the story again in one shot. So while it’s a minor nuisance, it is a factor in how I choose to play and explore the story.

UPDATE: The developer reached out to us, and informed us there is an auto-save feature. So while there’re no visual indicators this is happening, if you exit to main menu or quit, the game does save where you left off. The next time the game loads, a continue button is presented.

King of the Cul-De-Sac is a genuinely fun and endearing look through the eyes of a kid with a singular goal. It bends reality in that uniquely childlike way to take you on a whirlwind adventure totally unlike your standard visual novel.

Download the final release on itch.io, Steam, the Google Play Store, and on Amazon Kindle.