Platforms: PC (Reviewed)
What was the last game that made you laugh? What was the last game that made you cry? What was the last game that made you so scared you needed to put it down? For me, the answer to all of those questions is Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass, a new indie RPG coming out of the brilliant mind of singular designer Kasey Ozymy. We live in an age where every other indie hit wants to make a statement, but Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass is brave enough to not lean on these morality plays. It doesn’t want to make a statement.
It just wants you to feel.
This is a story about Jimmy
In Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass, you take control of the titular Jimmy, exploring a world of fantasy and imagination. You’ll encounter talking animals, sentient numbers, animated instruments, and all sorts of whimsical creatures. It’s like a whole world crafted from the dreams of a child, a child who has played many video games, watched many cartoons, and spent many hours with his loving family.
Jimmy is sent out on an errand one day, but strangely starts running into adversaries that rant about how much they hate him. For some reason, it feels as if the world is turning against him, and the bright and whimsical people, places, and things are becoming more dark and sinister. There is a new power tugging at the strings, a power known as The Pulsating Mass, and it wants to destroy Jimmy, and the entire world along with it.
With the help of his mom Helga, his dad Andrew, his uncle Lars, and his older brother Buck, Jimmy sets off on a classic JRPG adventure to save the world.
At least, that’s what it seems like on the surface, but the deeper you dive, the more disturbing things get.
You see, it’s hinted early on (and explicitly stated on the game’s Steam page) that Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass doesn’t take place in a real physical world. Rather, it takes place in the dream world of an 8 year old boy. That’s why things don’t seem to make sense, and the world seems to be made out of sunshine and rainbows.
That’s also why The Pulsating Mass is so terrifying.
You see, The Pulsating mass isn’t just destroying the dream world, it’s corrupting it. It’s turning the sunshine and rainbows into blood and guts. It’s manifesting weird masses of flesh that look as though they could be straight out of Silent Hill. It’s taking everything that gives you comfort, and warping it into something that stabs at the pit in your heart where your most primordial childhood fears live.
And the more terrified you become, the more you start to ask “why is Jimmy dreaming this dream?”
If that was all the game was, then Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass would just be another sprite based horror indie title that some people would love and other people would look at as pretentious shlock. However, there’s one thing about Jimmy and the Pulsating mass that gives it a leg up overall those other sprite based horror games.
Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass isn’t a horror game. It’s not trying to be. It has horror elements, and it’s trying to scare you, but the scare isn’t the attraction. The emotions are the attraction.
You won’t just feel scared in Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass. You’ll feel happiness when Jimmy interacts with his family. You’ll laugh at stupid puns made by off-beat characters. You’ll cry when Jimmy has to let some of his old memories go. You’ll feel everything.
Think Pixar’s Inside Out. It’s as if that film, Silent Hill 2, and Earthbound had a baby, and it’s glorious.
This is a story about video-games
Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass plays as a sort of greatest hits album for JRPGs. On its surface it appears to be emulating the Mother franchise, and it does a very good job at it. The battle system is Earthbound all over, with up-beat battle beats, a psychedelic scrolling background, and a first person Dragon Quest style view of the classic turn-based JRPG action. You even get the Earthbound style banking system, if it wasn’t clear enough where Kasey Ozymy was taking his inspiration.
However, Ozymy has played far more JRPGs than just Earthbound and it shows, both in the innovative systems he has created and in the general quality of life improvements that Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass has over other RPGs.
For example, I said that the banking system from Earthbound returns, but it’s been updated to have a more modern spin. Instead of your money going into your bank account when you defeat an enemy, your money goes into your pocket like any other JRPG. So why should you put it in the bank? Because every time you die, you lose half of the money in your pocket. Money in the bank is not only safe, it gains interest occasionally when you open treasure chests.
This tiny update does so much to make the banking system more enjoyable. First, you have to choose to put your money there. You never have to wander back and forth from ATM to ATM just to visit a store. Second, you actually get a bonus for saving your money. Third, the cash penalty for dying means that there’s actually no such thing as a game over. When you die, you just go back to a safe space with a fully healed party. You can dive right back in to whatever dungeon you died in, if you like, so long as you don’t mind the money hit.
Jimmy also uses the Earthbound system of being able to skip random battles. Whenever you are about to get into an encounter, either a green or red exclamation point will flash over your head. A red point means the enemies are tough and you’ll need to fight them and either win, die, or escape. A green point means the enemies are chump change and you can simply press a button to skip the fight.
This is a story about empathy
I could say a lot about how Jimmy and the Pulsating mass solves the old problem of tedium and grinding in JRPGs, but it does just as much to innovate while still staying true to its JRPG roots, like a remix that was better than the original track.
Jimmy himself has the power of empathy. Every time he defeats a boss character who isn’t controlled by the Pulsating Mass, he gets the ability to transform into It by learning how it feels. These are usually accompanied by cutscenes that are often disturbing. When he learns the ability to turn into a flower, he learns about what it feels like to slowly die after you have been plucked, and when he turns into a vampire, he learns what it feels like to take another’s life to feed your own.
Taking on a character’s form does several things. First, it adjusts his stats by different percentages. Transforming into a bear will increase your attack but decrease your speed, for example.
Second, it changes up his move-list. Transforming into a happy flower will let you heal your party, while transforming into a low-level goon will let you bully and steal from the enemy.
Third, it allows him to slowly alter his own stats. His empathic forms each gain XP separately from himself. When Jimmy levels, all of his stats go up, but when one of his forms levels, he gains an extra stat point somewhere. Leveling a blob increases Jimmy’s defense while leveling a ghost increases his magic. By leveling up all of Jimmy’s forms equally, Jimmy will naturally become one of the most powerful characters in the game.
Finally, leveling up his empathic forms gives Jimmy the ability to customize his basic form. Level up a form enough, and you’ll unlock its abilities for customization. Jimmy’s basic form has several skill slots which you can fill with abilities from any form you like. This allows you to build a customizable super character to lead your party. He also has “star slots.” When a skill is equipped in these slots, it can be used regardless of what form Jimmy takes.
This whole system of shifting and customizing forms is deep and engaging. It feels like a job system out of Final Fantasy, Bravely Default, or Octopath Traveler, mixed with a heavy dose of Persona for good measure. Figuring out how to make Jimmy an unstoppable powerhouse is half the fun of the game.
This is a story about friends
Jimmy isn’t the only party member with tricks up his sleeve. Each of his allies has “personality,” which grants them special abilities. Jimmy’s brother Buck, for example, is a physical attacker, and his personality gives him a percentage chance to attack twice in a round. His mother is a healer and her personality simply makes her immune to status effects. His dad is the closest thing to a dedicated mage the game has to offer, and his personality causes him to naturally restore MP each turn.
Each of these personalities serves to empower your party in some way, but also serves to reduce the tedium of the JRPG formula. A mage who has a hard time running out of MP? A tank whose HP naturally regens and who can heal himself to full at any time? A healer who cannot be disabled? All of these archetypes are things that you would normally seek to create in JRPGs through the use of skills and abilities, but Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass just hands them to you.
This allows you to spend extra time focusing on actually customizing your party using books. Each party member can equip two books, and doing so gives them immediate access to a new ability. You can use these to either further min-max your character, say by giving your mages high powered attack spells, or to grant yourself some flexibility, such as giving your tank healing spells. Jimmy can’t use books, however. Not only is there a recurring plot-point that Jimmy cannot read (because he is in a dream) but his customization all comes through the use of his many empathic forms.
This is a story about exploration
It’s important to address how Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass deals with exploration. It’s definitely not an open world game. The plot has a set track that you follow, just like any JRPG. The difference is, you can often deviate from that path.
There’s always something lurking out in the corners of maps waiting for you to explore. Sometimes you’ll be brought to entirely new dungeons. Sometimes you’ll discover new elements of the plot. Sometimes you’ll discover terrifying new enemies.
However, most of the time you’ll find terror.
If you wander off the main path, things start to change. This is where you start running into warped and twisted abominations from the depths of Jimmy’s mind. This is where you’ll run into drowned corpses, dreaming specters, and shadows lurking within darker shadows. The psychedelic backgrounds change into horrific landscapes. The music changes from upbeat candy-midi to ambient whispers and groans.
The enemies change too, becoming tougher and scarier, though rarely tough enough to outright kill you. You can always choose to stick around and push through these battles, gaining a ton of XP and money in the process. This is a great way to power-level your characters, but it requires a great deal of emotional fortitude.
This is a story about breaking down
As much as I want to call this one of the best indie games of the year, there are flaws. Kasey Ozymy is a first time game designer, and it shows. The game itself is stable enough. I ran into a few situations where I could move during a cutscene when I shouldn’t have been able to, or when certain quest triggers didn’t fire until I progressed the game past a certain point, but for the most part, this was as stable, if not more so than AAA games.
So what are the flaws?
Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass was made in RPG Maker, and that means that there are some limitations to be aware of. For example, the resolution is painfully small. You can get around this by setting the game to fullscreen mode, but that stretches the graphics in unpleasant ways. You also can’t easily get into fullscreen mode as there is no built in options menu. You actually have to go out of your way to edit launch options, close the game, and restart the game in order to make this work.
In addition, controllers just do not work with Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass, even though it’s advertised that they should. The built in Steam API doesn’t work. Xinput controllers don’t work. Nothing works, no matter how hard you fiddle with control options in the launch menu.
On top of all of this, the game can’t be resized. It’s stuck at its resolution in windowed mode no matter what you do. This makes it very impractical to play Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass with other programs open.
Anyone who has played indie games made with RPG Maker before might recognize these issues, but that’s not really an excuse. Lisa was made with RPG Maker, as was To the Moon and OneShot , and they didn’t have this problem.
You’re going to have to jump through some hoops to the play Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass. You’ll need Joy2Key to get a controller working. You’ll need a third party window resizing program to make it playable with minimal annoyance and maximum graphical fidelity. You’ll need to futz and finagle even before you press start, but as long as you are willing to put in the effort, you’ll find a uniquely rewarding experience.
This is a story…
It’s worth jumping through those hoops, because Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass is something special. It’s one of those rare indie games that changes the way we think not only about games, but about ourselves, our lives, our family, and our mortality. It’s an exploration not just of Jimmy’s psyche, but the human psyche, all wrapped up in a familiar JRPG style blanket.
There are going to be some people out there who are turned off by its cartoony art-style, the turn-based gameplay, and its broken and non-existent graphical options, but I feel sorry for these people, because they will never get to experience what I have. They will never get to cower in fear, laugh until they cry, and cry until they have to put the game down. They will never play a game that made me call my mom, get hugs from my friends, and pet my dog just for comfort. They will never take a ride on the emotional roller coaster that is Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass.
And that’s something to be lamented, because this is a game that deserves to be played by everyone. Yes, everyone. From the casual mobile gamer to the speedruner, the e-sports enthusiast to the retro fan, old JRPG fans and people who wouldn’t know Earthbound if you hit them in the head with its $400 mint condition box, everyone! Because when people say games can be art, this is what they are talking about.