When Rune Factory developer Neverland sadly shut up shop in 2013, there was still one project left on the table - a brand new story-driven SRPG named Lord of Magna. It lay unfinished until Marvelous miraculously reassembled part of the original team to finish the game, and we're lucky they did; it's not perfect, but with fun battles, interesting characters and lots of heart, Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven is well worth playing, and a fitting swan song for the beloved studio.

Lord of Magna takes place on sleepy Étoile Isle, where the main character manages the Famille Inn on the outskirts of Lunéville village. Business hasn't exactly been booming at the inn lately - in fact, they've never had a single customer - but our hero hasn't lost hope; he keeps the hotel spotless in anticipation, and lives to fulfil the family motto: "When our cherished guests finally arrive, think of them as nothing less than family".

Eye-watering optimism won't keep the lights on, however, so he's taken up mining the island's mysterious minerals to eke out a living. One day, on a fateful trip to the crystal-filled caves, he digs up more than usual, uncovering both a horde of angry monsters and a powerful, pink-haired, amnesic girl named Charlotte, who quickly saves his life. Things ramp up very quickly from there, kicking off an adventure filled with magic, monsters and many, many maidens.

Lord of Magna's story is a treat; it certainly plays off of tropes, but it's well written and told in an engaging way, and the characters are eminently likeable. There's your best buddy Bart, childhood friend Amelia (constantly crushing on the clueless MC, naturally), and - eventually - Charlotte's six sisters, each with very different personalities and their own individual charms. Together, Charlotte and her sisters form the basis of your battle party, the inn's housekeeping staff - yes, the subtitle is a glorious, triple-layered pun - and the dating-sim-lite component of the adventure; there's a different ending for each sister, depending on who you spend the most time with and grow closest to throughout the game.

Once you've picked a party at the inn, you'll be able to set out on a Story Event or Free Battle to fight the fearsome fiends invading Étoile Isle, taking advantage of Lord of Magna's wonderfully unique combat system. It's turn-based, but with a twist - on each character's turn you can move them freely with the Circle Pad within a certain radius, and then unleash an attack in any direction you choose. The analogue movement feels great, but the real fun begins on the offense.

Monsters in Lord of Magna react like (and sometimes resemble) bowling pins - they go flying when you hit them, toppling and instantly defeating any other baddies they bump into along the way. That means the best way to take out groups of enemies is to 'bowl' your attacks into them, transferring as much kinetic energy as possible and sending mobs of monsters careening into each other - it's silly, fun, and immensely satisfying. Racking up spares and strikes serves a strategic purpose too: if you can bowl over ten or more enemies at once, you'll get to move and attack again on the same turn.

The bowling combat provides a real thrill, and it's much more involved than simply 'Wii Sports with weapons'. Enemies, for instance, approach in groups clustered around 'leaders', who differ from normal grunts in two important ways: they stay put when hit, and they can summon reinforcements at will. Effective attacks involve getting rid of the leaders as soon as possible, while still using the minions they summon for combo bait - a fun cycle that encourages timing and position-based strategy.

There's also a five-way set of elemental type advantages to consider (which can be manipulated with Skill Chips), plenty of buffs and debuffs to work with, and lots of special moves - you'll store up Action Points when not attacking, and can use them to unleash massive attacks and powerful magic. The heroines each start out with a special, and will learn new skills and spells as they level up and become closer to the main character.

The best way to strengthen these bonds is through Heart Events. These side-quest-style date events involve spending some one-on-one time with your favourite heroine(s), and consist of heart-to-heart cutscenes and heated battles in equal measure. They're a bit like Social Links in Persona 3 and 4 - there aren't any crucial dialogue choices, but you'll learn a lot about the backstory and motivations of the sister you're with - and act as fun diversions from the main storyline. They can also unlock new combat abilities outright, so it definitely pays to put yourself out there between battles.

Heart Events are also worth pursuing as your best shot at a bit of side scenery, since you won't be able to do much exploring on your own on Étoile Isle. The world map is strictly menu based, and aside from the inn there aren't any real hubs, towns or fields to run around in. Of course, that's a relatively standard arrangement for SRPGs - Fire Emblem: Awakening and the Devil Survivor series both alternate between cutscenes and battlefields with nothing in-between - but here, it feels like something's missing. It might be because the town and surrounding areas look so inviting in cutscenes, or because the explorable inn whetted our appetite for open areas, but either way we found ourselves suffering from a palpable sense of wanderlust.

That itchy-feet feeling shows up in another aspect of Maiden Heaven too, unfortunately: the cutscenes. The frequent story scenes play out in-engine, with cute chibi character models walking around and displaying emotion icons, and large, semi-animated character portraits popping in from time to time to exchange dialogue in the foreground. The issue is that the scenes switch back and forth between these two modes - with non-trivial transition time - rather than using them simultaneously, and they can feel seriously sluggish as a result. Lively conversations end up turning into flowchart-style sequences of 'move, emote, speak, repeat', and can get downright silly when several characters are talking in turn.

There's also a huge number of cutscenes in general, and while they're definitely enjoyable (and skippable, if you so choose), the balance feels skewed, with battles sometimes seeming relatively few and far between. On the other hand, that does help keep combat feeling a little fresher; as much as we love the battle system, individual skirmishes can feel very samey thanks to frequently reused maps, a tiny pool of enemy types - we were hours into the game before we fought anything besides moles or bears - and mostly similar mission objectives.

These are real issues, to be sure, but they're easier to overlook simply because Lord of Magna is so disarmingly charming. It's absolutely gorgeous, for one thing, bathed in a soft, pastel storybook look that reminds us of a much cheerier Bravely Default. The chubby, chibi character models are animated in a stop-motion style that adds to the arts-and-crafts aesthetic, and the 3D effect completes the diorama feel. Best of all, there's an arresting attention to detail that runs through the entire visual experience; rooms are littered with individualized bric-a-brac, sunlight softly swirls through open windows, and leaves, lilacs, and laundry all sway gently in the breeze.

That care carries right on into the writing, too. XSEED has some of the best localizers in the business, and it shows - not only in the excellent main dialogue and story script, but in item and environment descriptions as well. Inventory entries range from thoughtfully detailed (Potion: "Restores a teeny-tiny bit of HP. Tastes gross.") to endearingly cheeky (Rock: "1. Pick up rock. 2. Throw at enemy. 3. Laugh."), and investigating around the inn leads to some fantastic inner monologues (Looking at an outside bench: "One of my secret joys is to sit here and enjoy a nice day. Bart says I'm old."). Personality shines through in every line, and the localization gives the game a distinctive character, drawing on a mix of French and German linguistic influences that makes Étoile Isle feel a bit like an alternate-reality Alsace.

The soundtrack, composed by Rune Factory's Tomoko Morita, is equally memorable, with catchy melodies and hummable tunes throughout. The main inn theme is a bouncy, lighthearted highlight, and the battle track is refreshingly original, using driving percussion, synth strings, and an ethereal chorus in place of rock guitars. The voice work (all in English) is also excellent, though it suffers a bit in the implementation; very few lines are actually fully voiced, and most simply carry contextual soundbytes ala Fire Emblem: Awakening. That's fine, of course, but 'contextual' may be overly generous here - we came across odd pairings often, and the same short clips repeat very frequently, especially in battle. Overall, however, it's a strong presentation, and there are even some audio easter eggs: press 'A' too quickly on the title screen for one of our favourites.

Conclusion

True to its innkeeper's oath, Lord of Magna treats you like family. This is a kind, warmhearted game that welcomes you with fun characters, unique combat, and a wonderfully inviting watercolour world. It's not without issues - pacing problems and a pervading sense of repetitiveness in particular - but hey, it's easy to forgive family. If you're an RPG fan looking for a quietly charming tale to tuck into, you'll have a great time in Maiden Heaven.