How is it you learn about a person? The ways are countless. Insight into their thought process. The clothes they wear or how they style their hair. A profile splash in between chapters. Then, of course, there’s the adage “actions speak louder than words,” which they do. And in the game Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight, the actions of Kaho are deafening.
Endgame spoilers ahead.
The story of Momodora 4 is as simple as they come. A curse is spreading from the Kingdom of Karst, and it’s up to Kaho to put an end to it. Typical Hero’s Journey, or Heroine’s Journey, in this case, but as you play, the game scratches a little deeper into its setting. You encounter numerous NPCs as you travel, some of whom have storylines which progress independently of your own, though they’re never anything but tragic. However, the one character you don’t explore? Kaho herself.
You catch the barest gist of her. She’s a priestess hailing from the village of Lun. She’s also the single most badass character in any video game for the simple fact that she fights with a leaf. Most video game protagonists need swords or guns to get the job done. Kaho demolishes her adversaries with nothing but a leaf. Master Chief can come back when he annihilates the Covenant with his toenail clippings.
Based on Kaho’s ability to navigate such hostile terrain, we can surmise fragments about her, such as her bravery and years spent training in combat. Beyond those, though, we play through the game knowing as little about her as we might characters like Samus, Link, or the aforementioned Spartan. But then a talking cat tells you this:
With how dangerous Karst City has become, that danger exemplified by the game’s difficulty, one can surmise that Kaho was sent in but not expected to come out. That was my interpretation. Then you face the final boss, the queen, who had become the epicenter for the curse fingering over the land, and after defeating her, this cutscene plays:
I had misinterpreted that feline’s words entirely. Maybe it was obvious what he was implying based on his wording. Maybe it was obvious by the whole tone of the game. Maybe I had assumed that Kaho would survive because the protagonist survives in every other game, just about. Whatever the answer, her sacrifice had blindsided me, and I watched, agape, as the girl I had been playing as for the last four hours willingly laid down her life to bring peace back to the land. This is where we learn so much about her.
What does it say about a person who sacrifices themselves for something? How do you describe what that sacrifice means? It’s a common tale in war stories. Soldier A sacrificed themselves for their country. It’s a noble act, setting aside empty politics, and one of the most selfless behaviors a person can do. Kaho gave up her life, her very essence, to save the land. She might’ve hated the queen. She could’ve held great disdain for political figures of all strokes yet siphoned the curse plaguing the queen, restoring her humanity. The queen might’ve been a ruthless autocrat who deserved no salvation, but to let her suffer was to let thousands of innocents suffer. Kaho might’ve had a fiancé. She might’ve dreamed of someday opening her own inn or building a cottage in mountains she explored as a kid, and those dreams became nothing more than nothing. Whoever Kaho was or who she hoped to be, in the end, it didn’t matter. She gave up her life for people who didn’t know her name and whose names she would never know.
The above is speculation, naturally, and this is the first of two shortcomings of Momodora 4‘s storytelling, that her martyrdom could’ve been that much more impactful had the narrative taken time to explore her character beyond the basics. It didn’t need to add that much extra to the base title, neither. A textbox above Kaho’s head sharing her thoughts on how certain items she finds reminds her of a board game she used to play or a friend she promised to meet back up with is sufficient. Some information on Kaho so that we know the girl shattering her body apart is a living, breathing person.
The second shortcoming is that we don’t know much at all about Karst. We see its locations and meet some of its denizens, but those tidbits aside, it’s not more than the map for a medieval Metroidvania. You won’t find a bow with its string snapped and hear a Bastion-style narration on the unit it belonged to and the goddess they worshiped. Imagine entering the prison cells and finding a helmet from which you learn of the many political prisoners the kingdom took to consolidate its power. That alone can pause the player and make them reconsider if they’re doing right by saving the queen.
Kaho’s sacrifice recontextualizes the player’s actions, as you’re no longer a heroine journeying to save the day, but a young girl living out the final hours of her life, but it also blindsides the player and therefore can come off as little more than shock value. Aside from the big titty boss, it’s the most memorable moment in the game, and it could’ve been that much more memorable had the game taken a few moments to familiarize us with Kaho, give us a sense of who she is and what life with her is like. In the end, proximity is how greatly loss assails you. When you read about a death in the news, it’s a tragedy. But when that death was someone close to you, it’s devastating.