[Preview] Dome-King Cabbage

“My first memory is of a toy… at least, I think it is.” Those are among the first words uttered in Dome-King Cabbage, a surreal visual novel that has a wholly unique sense of style unlike anything else in the genre. Created by solo developer Joe Buchholz (also known as Cobysoft Joe), Dome-King Cabbage feels like the type of strange, psychedelic project that could only come from the indie scene, and has quickly become one of my most anticipated indies.

So what exactly is this trippy little game? Buchholz describes Dome-King Cabbage as a visual novel that’s “set in the world of a monster-collecting RPG,” as a sort of “game-within-a-game.” It initially caught my attention years ago thanks to its one-of-a-kind art direction that, up until very recently, I was utterly convinced was some extremely impressive stop-motion work. The way the wooden toys look, the way they move, the little environmental effects – they all looked so real, yet also so far beyond what a single person would be able to do on their own. I was surprised to learn, while chatting with Buchholz at this December’s Day of the Devs event in Los Angeles, that the entire game is actually indeed computer-rendered – just made to look extremely real.

“I actually love it when people say that, because that’s obviously the look I’m going for. It’s all in Blender, pre-rendered,” he said. “I also use a lot of pre-made assets too, just because if I didn’t, it would take a million years to finish this.”

It makes sense when you consider the sheer scale of the environments being depicted, in what is one of the most dynamic visual novels I’ve ever seen, one that demands to be watched more than it does read. The camera sweeps and careens through dream-like worlds that explode with particles, like a supernova bursting at its seams. Many of the scenes in the game’s opening movie feel like they wouldn’t be out of place in Interstellar if that movie took place in the world’s biggest, most expensive toyset. And yes, if you plan on playing this one on a Switch OLED, expect the visuals to really pop more than usual.

Buchholz told me that despite the somewhat frenetic first impressions that Dome-King Cabbage delivers, the general direction of the story is actually very simple. “It follows Mush, a cloud person who’s nervously making their way to a job interview to become a Dome-King. And in this demo here, you’ll see the game-within-a-game called Dome-King Cabbage, which is an RPG in the game world.”

That did very little to clear things up, if I’m being honest, but I got the sense that the narrative Buchholz is crafting is meant to be a bit of a mystery. “My first memory isn’t of a toy, but it’s of a dream,” the game opines in the opening moments of its prologue. “This is before I even learned how to speak, but I’m pretty sure that the recollection is still there. I’m watching it pass by me. Am I dying?” The opaque verbage alludes to a game that will explore themes of nostalgia, of what it’s like to recall some of our early core memories as they inevitably get hazier with the passage of time. At least, that was my initial interpretation from what I played – Buchholz seemed keen to see how players will interpret the themes of the game at an individual level. Even the designs of the toys in Dome-King Cabbage were intentionally crafted to be a little generic, to help them simultaneously feel more universal and easier to connect with, he said.

“One of my main goals is to have the game be emotionally impactful, so whatever emotion I want you to feel, I hope that you feel it when you’re at that specific part,” he said.

The game’s incredible soundtrack certainly made me feel like I was floating through some type of memory-fueled fever dream. It’s tough to describe – a bit of jazz, a bit of synth, and plenty of lo-fi vaporwave. Some of the music is lyrical; the main track underscoring the game’s opening animation is a great introduction to the vibe of Dome-King Cabbage, with lyrics asking the player to help “keep me company,” almost as if one of the toys in the game is reaching out for help. It’s flows well with whatever trippy scene might be playing out on-screen, for example, like when our wooden protagonist is floating through a pastel void of MC Escher-esque structures.

Dome-King Cabbage was originally born out of an indie game jam years ago, and the version that was being shown at Day of the Devs was a vastly different than the original concept, Buchholz said.

“I made a 2D version where I illustrated everything by hand digitally, and I had a major burnout during that time because I was teaching English in Japan and working on the game after school,” he shared. “So I burnt out, and that game died and had a rebirth as this new 3D version. I fell in love with 3D while making the old version and just kind of went from there.”

And while Dome-King Cabbage is first-and-foremost a visual novel, expect it to dabble in other genres too. For example, a small chunk of the fictional RPG in the universe of the game is actually playable, and Buchholz says that that’s just the start. “It plays a lot with different mediums. For instance, there’s a section with a comic book that you read, and there’s also point-and-click adventure elements as well. So, it’s not 100% just reading. There’s choices and things like that.”

It’s immensely impressive to see in motion considering it being the work of one person, although Buchholz notes that Dome-King Cabbage has what he describes as the “fingerprints” of his partner, who developed an indie game called Melon Journey a few years ago. “That’s my partner’s game, so I included that as an Easter egg [in Dome-King Cabbage]. She directed it, and I love her. She’s a huge influence on me,” he said.

Ultimately, whatever Dome-King Cabbage ends up being in its final form, I’m confident that it will be one of those rare singular experiences that highlights the type of storytelling that’s only possible through this medium. There’s no word on a final release date for the game, but we’ll keep you updated on the status of the Switch version once we learn more.

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