How Metroidvania is it? High Fit. Being a mini, the game is slightly linear based on size alone, but it's all gated by the typical Metroidvania tropes
Time to beat: ~2 hours
Review Info: The Steam review code for SJ-19 Learns to Love was provided by the Developer
Buy SJ-19 Learns To Love! if you like…
- Cute Games
- Slightly Deeper than Normal Stories
- Short Experiences
- Tricky but not difficult combat
▼ Review continues below ▼
I try to avoid making comparisons when I do reviews because I don’t think it’s particularly fair to do so. Every once in a while a game comes out where my own personal history with gaming is going to impose some bias however, and I think that’s important to mention that – especially if that bias might also apply to you. In the case of SJ-19 Learns to Love, it’s also so similar to the dev’s previous Metroidvania, Spooky Ghosts Dot Com, that it’s almost impossible for me to not make comparisons as if this was a sequel. So let’s get that out of the way first. Compared to Spooky Ghosts Dot Com, SJ-19 Learns to Love is less colorful and is more focused on its story. Whereas Spooky Ghosts was just a sort of cute premise supporting some solid Mini Metroidvania gameplay, SJ-19 is like a ludonarrative experience, even though its gameplay is basically exactly the same. How that narrative holds up is where I could make comparisons to a bunch of other games. Initially after beating this game those comparisons left me slightly disappointed, which almost brought down the score I was ultimately going to give. I’m trying very hard to not judge SJ-19 Learns to Love for what it’s not though, and focusing instead on what it is, which is another great mini-metroidvania that happens to have a cute story with some depth to it.
The game starts out with a good 5 to 10 second emphasis on that story, where you’re just watching your SJ-19 robot be born. You walk out into a hallway where expectations for what kind of person you should be are set by the accolades of the other SJ robots that came before you. You’re then given a gun and one mission – to go murder some scientists your robot overlord apparently doesn’t like. The first boss you’ll likely face immediately teases some kind of morality system, but attempting to force a different outcome on a second playthrough proves that no choices actually exist within the game. This is a bit harsh since basically none of the enemies you face seem like things you’d actually want to kill if you were actually in control of the decisions you are allowed to make. Of course on my first playthrough when I was under the illusion that I had a choice, after those first few kills I decided I was going to go full genocide anyway, and racked up a few achievements that made me feel even worse about what I was doing.
Questioning the flagrant violence we so often engage in while playing video games isn’t anything new, especially in the indie sphere. The idea that you’re playing a robot who is programmed to kill, and that you have no choice but to carry out that programming is also not a particularly new idea. But SJ-19 Learns to Love does do a few unique things with its premise. The game’s opening for instance is caked with layers of relatable subject matter. How many of us have had to face a conflict between what we were brought up with and the realities we were eventually faced with? It’s hard not to think about how much better this game could have been if player choice was taken into account and multiple outcomes were created. In fact that could have added some replayability to what is currently just another straight forward Mini Metroidvania just like Spooky Ghosts Dot Com was. However, the way the game makes you play through the emotional conflict SJ-19 has to face, even if it’s a bit abstract, still invites what could be some great discussion. The bite-sized nature of the game also makes it great to share around with your friends without expecting too much time out of them. This makes it the perfect kind of “book club” type of game as far as the narrative is concerned – if you have the kind of friends who like to over analyze things anyway. Unlike Spooky Ghosts – perhaps even ironically- SJ-19 Learns to Love left me haunted with thoughts about what it could all mean, and whether I should be disappointed with it. At the very least this makes it a much more memorable game.
It’s good that the story sticks out as much as it does because the gameplay is otherwise just more of the same. You have a short-ranged blaster that requires you to think about positioning as you carefully watch enemy telegraphs and avoid their attacks. Each boss changes up their pattern after you knock out about half their HP which makes them a bit harder to deal with. This design can often create a situation where the boss’ first phase starts to get boring as the second phase just keeps killing you, but for the most part the game avoids that trap. Most of the time the patterns are just minor upgrades to what you’re facing throughout the whole battle, which makes dodging feel a bit more natural rather than catching you completely off guard and making it a frustrating climb back to that point. One boss does have an attack in the second phase that is really difficult to deal with, but that only increased my determination to kill the boss as quickly as possible before it was too late. The bosses are well-designed for the systems in place and are satisfying to take down, and they get even more fun later on when you find things like the dodge move. So when I say that SJ-19 Learns to Love is “more of the same”, I’m definitely not citing that as a criticism – Spooky Ghosts Dot Com was also great.
There is also a slight bit of added depth to the combat that goes beyond just getting good at patterns thanks to the binary upgrade system. While you’re exploring you’ll find vending machines sent by your robot overlord that give you a choice between two different options for each one you find. The first choice you’re given is whether you want your bullets to pierce enemies or to be given a 30% range increase. The range is useful for sniping bosses outside of their threat range, but there are also a ton of cases where swarms of enemies come at you all at once – making the crowd control also appealing. You can switch these upgrades out at any time by going back to any vending machine, so if one particular strategy isn’t working out for you you can try something different. I personally didn’t find the bosses so hard that I ever needed to do this, but I did also take one of each upgrade as I went along – so they do make a difference.
Exploring the game’s world is fairly straight forward. You have four or five distinct zones that effectively act as levels and you gain powers that let you backtrack into earlier areas to access a new zone. I seem to remember Spooky Ghosts Dot Com having a bit less linearity, or at the very least I remember using the fast travel a little bit more often. SJ-19 Learns To Love’s narrative focus might have worked to restrict a bit of the freedom this game otherwise might have provided. That isn’t to say that there aren’t good optional rewards available. There are gauntlet rooms that reward you with a health upgrade, which are recommended for facing the final boss, and you can find some journal entries that add some character to the people you’re killing. There aren’t really any hidden rooms or tricky surprises – as long as you open your map and make sure there aren’t any entrances without rooms attached to them you’ll 100% this game pretty quickly. This is very much the premise of a Mini Metroidvania in the first place however, so with that expectation none of this should be a surprise.
If you’ve played Spooky Ghosts Dot Com and liked the gameplay, you’ll also like the gameplay in SJ-19 Learns to Love. It’s a perfect example of a bite-sized Mini Metroidvania, where the bosses all have depth and the exploration provides just enough content to quench any thirst you might have for a Metroidvania experience. For the amount of content provided the $7 price point might be just a little high especially since Spooky Ghosts launched at $5 and can be gotten for much cheaper nowadays, but SJ-19 Learns to Love does provide a nice narrative as a potential upgrade. Whether or not you anything out of that narrative depends on what you bring into it, so your mileage may vary. As for me, I’m finding myself more entranced by the game the more time I have to think about it, so in the long run SJ-19 may be the superior game. At its worst it’s a cute Mini-Metroidvania with some great bosses, and that alone deserves a hearty recommendation.
Combat is simple, but the dash move adds that slight bit of complexity that pushes this into the satisfying sort of challenge, even if the difficulty isn't high
Platforming isn't really tested in this game, and when it is the moments are short lived
This game lacks a ''staple collectable'' so the main exploration focus is simply getting to the game's ending. Checking out every dead-end will give you 100% with little effort
There's one boss that requires you to figure out how to kill them, but just shooting all the things solves that ''puzzle'' pretty quickly
SJ-19 Learns to Love is incredibly cute, but it teases a depth of choice that you might find in other indie games - but isn't here. There is a potential ton of depth to interpreting the story however.
The graphics do their job just fine, although the slightly yellow pallet is maybe an acquired taste
The music ranges from mostly forgettable to a bit too repetitive, but overall it does the job fine
There aren't a ton of ways to add variation to multiple playthroughs aside from the self-imposed challenges you can apply to any game
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