Eyes on Death’s Gambit

You know Dark Souls, right?  It’s a great game.  Absolutely phenomenal.  Honestly one of the best I’ve played.  We’ve spent some time on it.  Well, let’s imagine you’re a game designer.  And you look at Dark Souls.  And you see how fantastic it is.  And you’re like “Aww, I wish I made that.”  You find your craft at the top of its form and wish you could be there, making something of that level.

Well, Death’s Gambit is what you would get if you just went ahead and made Dark Souls again anyway, and put your stamp on it and called it yours.

Honestly, that describes the game really well.  This is 2d indie action-platformer Dark Souls.  Everything about the game, from its structure, to its set up, to its atmosphere, to its means of storytelling, absolutely everything was incredibly clearly inspired by Dark Souls.  Even the unique things it does were built on a Dark Souls base, rather than truly standing on their own.  For a while, I wasn’t sure what I thought about it.  The game is good.  No doubt about that.  This is a team that was just making Dark Souls in a different form, sure, but also a team that truly understood what makes Dark Souls great, way more than most of the game’s imitators.  But the thought I struggled with was whether or not there was a place for a game like this.  Like, why would I play a Dark Souls imitator if I could just play the original?  

It took a while, but eventually, the unique bits about Death’s Gambit won me over.  Particularly, it was the more compact nature of Death’s Gambit that did it for me.  I love Dark Souls.  It is a hugely dense, long-form game.  The run we did here took me over 70 hours of game time, and there are plenty of those hours I didn’t make any real progress in, just trying and failing and learning and trying again over and over.  Dark Souls is a huge, multi-layered cake.  Death’s Gambit is a cupcake.  And sometimes, you just want a cupcake.  You get the complete experience in around ten hours game time.  Even though the bosses required a similar mechanically complex means of handling, and had the same scale of tension as Dark Souls, they were far more achievable and it doesn’t take quite as much an investment in time to achieve them.  The levels have less back and forth, better placed checkpoints, and it doesn’t take as long to traverse them.  So yeah, here, you get a lot of what you probably love about Dark Souls, but you’re able to do it with less of an investment of time.  And I ended up finding that really valuable.  Snack size Dark Souls is really meaningful as well, especially when you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to do the “Try, Die, Learn, Repeat” for hours on end that Dark Souls requires before you complete any particular challenge.


And I do rather like a lot of the unique things it does here, some of which wouldn’t work out in OG Dark Souls.  In addition to your starting class being a selection of stats and starting equipment, they also come with their own abilities and skill trees.  You can still spec any class however you want and gear them with whatever they have the stats for, but your unique abilities and your skill trees are different for every class, and both give more replayability as well as more impact.  I wouldn’t want that in Dark Souls, the ability to design anything however you want there is really powerful to the game’s structure, but it works a lot better in a quicker game.  So does the way they’ll sometimes interrupt your deaths to give you a bit of story before they revive you.  Your character here is a defined personality with a bit of backstory, which I wouldn’t want in Dark Souls but I feel they were able to make work here.  I also have to give particular props to the way this game handles death.  Normally, in Dark Souls and all the games that copied it thinking this was why Dark Souls was good without understanding the other factors around this, when you die, you lose all your money/experience points unless you can get to where you were and grab those back.  Here, you leave behind one use of your standard recovery item.  Which you can choose to pay out the nose with via money/experience if you can’t get those back yourself, so that option is there, but it’s not by default.  It still keeps death feeling like it has consequence and impact, but it’s not as punitive and time-sinky as losing your combined cash/development resource.  That’s something I’d absolutely like to see more Souls-likes picking up on.  Between that and the better-placed checkpoints, you can bounce back from failure with a lot less frustration, which is fantastic in a game that’s built around you failing a whole lot.  Honestly, the walk back after Death in Dark Souls was always my least favorite part of the game, and it almost absolutely ruined both Demon Souls and Bloodborne for me.  You have a game here that mitigates it very well, while still using the same structure, so… yeah.  Good going.  

Combat maintains the relatively slower pace, high consquence actions, and generally more thoughtful, tactical feel of Dark Souls, although it’s slight faster.  You’ve got a couple of additional factors here, though.  Being a 2D action platformer, of course you have to worry about aerial combat and environmental threats.  Positioning becomes a lot more important, and you’ll need to know the range and arc of your weapons in a variety of different circumstances, both ground-based and in the air.  As in Dark Souls, defense is your primary consideration in most circumstances, so you’ll need to keep an eye out for how you and your enemy will move in all these circumstances as well.  In addition to your bread and butter weapon attacks, you also equip three abilities at a time, most of which will have you do a heavy attack, and will often also leave an ongoing buff, debuff, or other active factor for the next while.  There’s a fair amount of variety to them, and I found myself really relying on them a lot as the game progressed.  In fact, by the time of the endgame, my own success seemed to lie just as much as my designing equipment and abilities in effective combination as it did with my in-the-moment twitch reflexes and decision making.


Presentation in this game is a bit weird.  The art is absolutely gorgeous.  All over.  It looks really fantastic in screenshots.  The animation is horrible.  The game makes heavy use of rotoscoping, even for basic animations, and with the complexity of the sprites, it looks particularly unnatural to see them wholly shifted into angles.  You get stray pixels and mismatched components everywhere.  Which is a shame.  Because the art design is so good, and the pixel art, generally, so fitting, this game could have been a visual treat, but that ends up just making the poor animations stand out.  Music is pretty great, though.  Definitely worth a listen.  

Storywise, it does have a lot of the opaque storytelling that Dark Souls did so well, giving hints and pieces in item descriptions and bits of dialogue and whatnot, and having a lot of features you come across that are only hinted at, while also having a more clear throughline than Dark Souls had.  You’ve got a defined character, Sorun, a soldier of a nation that’s been locked in a decades’ long war with a nation of lizardfolk that had uncovered the secret to immortality.  The rulers want the secret of immortality themselves, while Sorun’s looking for his mother, who was drafted into this same war when he was a child and never returned.  Sorun, is killed in battle early on, but Death appears before him, and offers him a deal.  Death, understandably, isn’t a fan of immortality being out there, and if Sorun is willing to slay all the immortals of the land, Death will grant him eternal life himself.  However, he warns that immortality has costs of its own.  Sorun agrees, and a contract is signed, although Sorun’s more concerned with his own aims, and uses the quest against the immortals as a means to an end.

The world of Siradon here is also rather interesting as well, and it does some nifty things of its own.  As Death warned, immortality has not been kind to its residents, and although everyone else wants it, as you venture inward you find that it has caused this civilization to tear itself apart.  You’ll run across high magic establishments.  You’ll run across unique takes on standard fantasy settings.  You’ll get hints that things aren’t quite as clear as expected, through some enemies and locations that seem way out of place.  You’ll end up in absolutely freaky locations that seem straight out of the depths of your fears.  And through it all, you’ll get these hints, leading you along to greater places.  The locations are phenomenal, both from a soulsian level design perspective as well as from a lore/backstory one.

Also, I’ve got to give good props to the boss fights here.  The bosses are the best parts of the game, and all of them deliver a great amount of tension.  Some of them used mechanics I hadn’t seen before in a game like this.  And almost all of them hit that fantastic Souls level of skill ceilings, where they seem completely impossible at first, but you try, and fail, and learn and grow as you’re doing so, until you earn the ability to overcome them and feel absolutely phenomenal doing so.  It doesn’t take as long as Dark Souls did, as I previously mentioned, and they’re not as complicated, but they’re still thrilling fights nonetheless.

So yeah, it took me a while to warm up to Death’s Gambit, but I ended up really enjoying my time with it.  This is a game that copies Dark Souls so closely it’s not possible for it to be anything more, but it does feature enough smart changes and care in the design that it does create something different.  I could definitely see myself diving back into it, and its more compact design makes it easier to do so when I’m jonesing for some Souls goodness but not ready to make a huge commitment for it.

Visual Novel Theatre-fault

Yeah, let’s talk about fault!  Wow, it feels weird to force myself not to put the capital in there.  That’s how it’s intended, but that goes against everything

Anyways, fault is a visual novel series characterized strongly by its sense of world building and science-based fantasy.  It’s a kinetic novel, meaning that there’s not a lot of choice to be had, it’s pretty much a one-line story.  It runs on the edge of high fantasy, you see a lot of immensely magic-based societies and the plot revels in introducing these incredible and well-thought-out settings, although I would say the story pulls back from the typical trappings of a high fantasy story by placing most of its story-telling emphasis on the secondary cast.  Your primary cast do have a definite story as well, but it’s told slowly over multiple entries in the series, while it’s the people they meet and involve themselves with that move the plot forward within a given entry.  

And as I said, this is a science-based fantasy.  Not… not in the sense that the developers have a great grasp of science or anything, but the stories approach their magic as if it was a scientific discipline.  Kravting, which is what you call magic if you want it to be magic without calling it magic ends up forming the basis of pretty much all society, and works according to a strict set of rules with various ramifications, requires energy sources, etc.  It’s not the easy magic you see in many other stories, although it still does things that are completely wondrous.  These limitations on magic, the rules by which they abide, form the basis of much of the story and setting.  Conflict if frequently driven by the ill-effects of living in a magical society or the need to acquire resources so they can get the spells they need or spells gone wrong, or things like that.  As I said, this characterizes the story, taking magic through to where it’s not just a fantastic wondrous thing but something that mimics real-world phenomena more in an absolutely fantastical way.  

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Eyes on Blood and Truth

Rail shooters haven’t had a great time since arcades falling out of favor.  The Wii picked up a few good ones, which makes a lot of sense, as I’d guess that controller was tailor-made to mimic light gun games if I didn’t know any better.  But post Wii, what did we get?  We get Blood and Truth.  That’s what.  

Not just Blood and Truth, really.  The rise of VR opened up the genre all over again.  I can’t say whether they’re good or bad, ‘cause, you know, I haven’t played them.  But I can say that VR+Motion Controller+Rooty-Tooty Point and Shooty makes for something that’s just viscerally satisfying.  It feels good.  It feels right.  

Blood and Truth is a Playstation VR exclusive made by the same Sony London Studios that made the Playstation VR Worlds collection of quick little tech-demo games, and specifically, this game is pretty much an updated, expanded version of The London Heist from that collection.  The game has you in the shoes of Johnny Shootbangs (note: not his real name), a UK Special Forces soldier who gets a leave of absence and gets called home after his father, the boss of London’s largest crime family, passes away.  From natural causes.  Kind of unexpected given his occupation.  Anyways, you go home to do the family stuff, and one of your dad’s crime captains kills your friends and kidnaps your family-family so he can take over your crime-family.  So you have to go shoot everyone until things are better.  Just like in real life.

I didn’t actually say that.  FBI, please don’t add me to a list.

Anyways!  Big thing with Blood and Truth.  Think of action movies.  Imagine you’re the lead character.  This is that.  I would say this is inspired just as much by movies as it is by video games.  Except that’s almost certainly wrong, and I am never wrong except when I’m doing it deliberately for art, so I don’t say that.  But still, very inspired by movies.

So yeah, it’s a rail shooter.  Remember the arcades.  Like Time Crisis or House of the Dead or Virtua Cop or something.  You’ve got a gun that you can point and shoot.  Or you can do two guns.  If you’ve got the motion controllers, you’ve got two of them, and you’ve probably got two arms, so you can dual-wield like crazy if you want.  I want.  Makes me feel like a badass.  Like I mentioned before, the gunplay in this game feels fantastic.  Even better than those arcades.  Something about the nature of VR and the specific feedback this game gives really makes it work.  Normally, with rail shooters, the game controls the rate of your progression, but here, you do.  To move forward, you have to point at a suitable location and press a button.  So slightly more interactive than your typical rail shooter.  I really have to complement the game on its handling of accuracy.  Real-life aiming is freakin’ hard, but this game has it going to where it feels rather satisfactory.  There’s enough give that you point and shoot, it feels like you get some real action to it.  I’ve had mixed results shooting in meat-space, but here, I’m able to aim well enough to get some real progress, while still feeling like it’ll miss when I truly deserve it.  Even dual-wielding, which is near impossible in real life, is rather achievable here.  This game feels really good in gameplay as a result.  I don’t know that I can overstate it enough.  This game feels absolutely fantastic.  It’s visceral and hits a really great level of game-feel, like you’re getting enough feedback through sound and visuals that that it seems more than just like you’re some incredibly sexy nerd with a doofy headseat and weird controllers in your hands.  

As I mentioned before, this game feels like an action movie.  Which means a couple of things, different from your typical video game.  First is that there’s actually long periods of time in which you’re not shooting things.  Some games, that would be a bad thing.  Not here.  Honestly, they make incredibly good use of your non-combat time.  The dialog in this game is really good.  Sometimes you’re just spending time getting to know your siblings, or arguing with the CIA guy who’s interrogating you, or flipping off people you hate, and it works really, really well.  The characters, although they largely take up pretty typical archetypes on paper, actually feel rather unique and charming in execution.  The story, much like the characters, wouldn’t be much to write home about in summary, but honestly, in execution, it feels pretty solid.  In terms of writing, things really shine in the details of the piece.  I mean, we’re talking about larger-than-life professional criminals and killers whom we barely get any time with, relatively, but things feel surprisingly human in that.  It’s the little pieces, your brother’s sense of humor, your rival’s love for his brother and for art amidst his pettiness in his campaign against you, the mystery amongst your handlers and that weird woman working for the enemy, they take this story from a simple one-paragraph summary to something that you can build a connection with.  Second, the game is big in setpieces.  Every level has at least a couple of big, visual capital-M Moments.  Giant explosions or gunning down some sort of heavy enemy equipment or basejumping (which is an incredible experience when you’re using VR to treat a visual-motion disorder, btw) or making a daring escape by leaping on top of moving things that aren’t meant to be leapt on top of.  This extends even to the non-combat scenes, which some absolutely fantastic look-what-we-can-do-in-VR interactables that are seriously impressive and stand as examples of what other genres should be doing in VR, even when there’s absolutely nothing that you want to point a gun at.  

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Snap Judgements: Quarantine Edition

Hey!  As it turns out, with this whole quarantine thing going on, all those people endlessly hounding me looking for romance actually back off for a bit, which means I’ve actually got some time for my hobbies for the time being.  Now, I’m a man with many irons in the fire, so that doesn’t mean I can devote everything I have to games just yet, but I have been able to get in a bit more time than usual.  And I’ve got some thoughts.  As I do about everything.  And as all my thoughts are, they are absolutely genius.  So I thought I’d share.  My gift to you.  So here’s another installment of Snap Judgements. Many games! Short reviews! Three paragraph max! Let’s go!

Monster Boy in the Cursed Kingdom

I have to thank Red Metal for this one.  He gave a great review of this game himself, one of his very rare 9/10s, then got it into my hands.  And you know what?  Turns out Red Metal knows what he’s talking about.

So this is an officially licensed and assisted indie-produced sequel to the Wonder Boy franchise.  Fan-made products can be a real mixed proposition.  Enjoying a game, even enjoying a game deeply, doesn’t give you a great insight into how to build one, and the flavor of any creative work requires such a sensitive balance that is not always apparent to its consumer.  So yeah, when you have the fans creating the new media in an established franchise, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it ends up incredibly misguided.  And this game, and I say this as someone with barely any history with the Wonder Boy series, is good.  Even outside the Wonder Boy history, this stands alone as an absolutely fantastic game.  At its core, it’s a very tightly designed Metroidvania built around a character transformation mechanic, where you get a number of different forms with a number of different combat and traversing abilities.  It’s a little hard to describe what makes the game work exactly, it’s just really well-designed.  You get to use abilities in a lot of really creative ways, but ways that they have great visual cues to indicate to you.  Presentation is excellent, with beautiful visuals and music, and gameplay is generally tight.  A lot of it works like a more responsive classic Castlevania, you’re up against a bunch of enemies with rather defined movement and attack patterns while your most reliable attack has a very specific range and spread that you need to manage constantly, although you do have resources and tools to extend of change that range. The world is also generally a joy to navigate, and again, it has some really creative puzzles before you.

Which is not to say there’s not some faults in it.  It does have some issues.  Checkpoints aren’t always convenient, and the game has a big problem with not giving enough health recovery out.  The economy gets to be a bit of a problem in the end game, and you don’t get enough money naturally to get everything you might need or want.  And the ability progression is a little lopsided, to the point that once you get your late game forms and equipment, you don’t have a reason to use the unique features of your earlier ones unless the game forces you to.  But really, it is an absolutely marvelous game, even for someone who’s not a Wonder Boy fan by any means.

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Too Many Games

Here’s something of an absolute nonproblem. I’m starting to think I have just too many video games. Sometimes, I look at the size of my library, and the expectation that I’m going to actually play all these things, and I don’t know how I’m ever going to get near to do that.

I’ve been collecting games all my life. So at the point when, years ago, I started this quest I’ve mentioned several times here, to beat every game I own, or come as close to it as I can, the task was already staggering. But still feasible. After I started that, however, I got myself a gaming-capable pc. And that changes things. It is ridiculously easy to build up a massive digital library on PC with little to no investment. It started with the Steam sales, letting me build up a pretty big library for cheap. Then I got into Humble Bundle, which get’s you buying curated collections of games for really cheap, oftentimes getting the one game I wanted on there along with a bunch of others for less than the usual price for that single game. And it pitches in some to charity too, while you’re at it! Can’t complain with that. Oh, and they give away free games every once in a while if you subscribe to their newsletter. All well and good. But then one day, Amazon started giving away five games a month if you link your Twitch account with an Amazon Prime account, plus extras. Daedalic Entertainment and SNK both seem to be dropping big chunks of their back catalog on there basically whenever they feel like, on top of the usual Amazon collection. Then Epic Games came around, offering 1-3 free games every week. And now it’s starting to get overwhelming.

At this moment, I own 410 games on Steam, of which I’ve only bought 108 directly, and the rest came from Humble Bundles, Humble’s free giveaways, or the occasional gift or offer. I have 182 games on Twitch, all given through that Amazon Prime connection. I have 90 on Epic Games, all of which I got through their weekly giveaways. I’ve got a more modest 40 on GOG, many I bought myself, in addition to the freebies they offer, free games on purchase threshhold, copies they make of games in your Steam account, and one gift. On Uplay, I’ve got 24, from one Humble Bundle, some free ones they gave away, and copies of games I got through other clients that require a Uplay log in. On EA Origin, I’ve got 16, all Humble Bundle gains or games they once offered for free. There’s a decent amount of overlap in those numbers, but still, a massive amount of games in my digital PC library. Which isn’t even considering my sizable console games collection. Although, as an odd point, at this point I’m pretty sure I own more games digitally for PC than I do games for my console, in spite of the fact that I’m generally a console player. And between Twitch Prime and Epic Games, I’m adding double digits numbers of games to my library each month without dropping a dime (well, outside of my Amazon Prime subscription, which I’d be maintaining even without the Twitch deals.) I don’t even play through double digits worth of games each month.

I feel like what it means to own a game has shifted. During my developmental years, new games were somewhat of a rarity, while time to play was more ample, so my peers and I absolutely consumed games, beating them over and over again, exhausting their content, overcoming every challenge. As I came older, I was able to afford more games, but had less time to spend on them, and games themselves were designed more as full experiences in isolation rather than things that could sustain the kind of repetitive depth-plunging play of my youth, so I had more breadth of experience in games but less time spent with most individual games. Now, driving by the likes of the backlog producing deep and wide sales, the bundling, the free giveaways, etc., I feel like a lot of the games marketplace, especially Humble Bundle, Twitch Prime, and Epic Games, or itch.io’s recent 1,000 games deal are creating a games culture where you have libraries of games. You’re not intended to, and for many partaking of it, it’s not even possible to, play absolutely everything in there. But digital keys don’t take up any space, they don’t need upkeep, and as long as your machine can run it, they don’t degrade, so you have it in your collection, and who knows, maybe one day it’ll come up in conversation and get you interested or you’ll play something else by the makers and want to come back or you’ll just find a really weird itch that needs something particular to scratch. And there’s something to be said to that, too, having the virtual library where you may not check every book but they’re all there if you need it. I recently had the classic FPS Strife come up in a conversation I was following, describing how groundbreaking it was at the time. I would never buy the game myself. It’s too old, probably blown past by industry standards, etc. But, given that context, I’m kind of curious to check it out. And wouldn’t you know it, it’s right there in my Twitch library.

As I said, sometimes it’s overwhelming. I’ve still got this quest, beat all the games I own. And this is making that quest impossible. I’m also actively avoiding bundles now, even when it has games I want in it. I really don’t want to be making my Steam library run away any more than it already has. I just have too damn many games. But that’s really a problem with me, and my perceptions, and how I’m approaching it. It’s not a problem with all these agencies wanting to throw games at me for free, and all these developers happy to get into my library and take whatever financial benefit they do from the Humble Bundle/Twitch Prime/Epic Games giveaways. It is kind of ridiculous of me to be complaining that I have just too many games that I got for free or alongside games I was wanting to buy anyways that I got to pay an even lower price than usual for.

It does mean I’m going to have to rethink my quest though. Not cancel it, because I’ve been enjoying how it structures things for me. But it needs to adapt to the new realities of the online personal library the industry’s using, at least in part, now. So far, my thoughts are to keep it as normal for all my console games, as those are all things I’ve invested in. Same thing with any PC game I’ve actually paid directly for, or the games that were the reasons I bought a given bundle. Those are all getting beaten. I have my challenge to myself. The hundreds of other PC digital games…. well, at least my Steam list, I’d like to at least give everything a try. Maybe not a full beat, but either play it until I tire of it or at least give it a sample. I’d like to do that with the UPlay list and EA Origin as well, as those are finite. Those aren’t getting added to. I’m already most of the way there on my GOG.com library, outside of the games there that are duplicates of those in my Steam library, so… good show I guess. As for the ever expanding Twitch Prime and Epic Games, I’d really like to do the same thing I’m doing with Steam, at least sampling of giving a run to everything on there, but I don’t know if it’d be possible to keep up, the rate they add games. I’ll probably just do what probably everyone else is, and play if I’m interested, leave it if not, and not sweat the growing size of the lists there, as it’s really a personal library I can check things out from whenever, and not a backlog. And although I have this drive to beat everything I have, likely driven by the way things were in my past, it doesn’t really fit the environment we’re in now. And I need to grow comfortable with that.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an hour before my next commitment, and I got Cultist Simulator from Twitch Prime a while back, and that game is absolutely baller. I need to get some of that on.

Right Here, Shadow 10 o’clock Direction Seize the Moment, Destroy the Nation! The Persona 3 Retrospective Part 5-Plot and Themes

Part 1-Intro

Part 2-Gameplay

Part 3-Presentation

Part 4-Setting

Persona 1 Retrospective

Persona 2 IS Retrospective

Yeah, so, as it turns out, a combination of my limited schedule and my desire for variety in what I write leads me to not move through these long-form projects quite so quickly.  But you know what?  Time is on my side.  As long as we keep moving forward, we’ll get to the end eventually.  One of the perks of being functionally immortal.  So let’s get to the next step of our Persona 3 retrospective.  Today, talking about the plot.

PLOT

Persona 1 had a pretty barebones plot.  Persona 2 gave it a lot more focus, but still had it second to the gameplay.  In Persona 3, the plot eclipses the rest of the game.  At the time, this was really rare, the gameplay is structured around what’s going on in the plot, rather than vice versa.  The pace of the plot progression controls the way the gameplay develops.  And you can tell that the story is where more importance is placed.

So it had better be a darn good one.  

Also, be mindful, I am dropping some spoiler bombs here.  Some absolute spoiler nukes.  If you haven’t played the game yet, and you still want to don’t read the rest.  

So, normally, I wait until the end of this to talk about themes.  Give you a sense of what the plot is, in itself, before we jump into talking about the hidden meanings in there.  And we’re going to do that.  But let’s lead off, as well, because there’s one theme that’s absolutely pervasive to this game, and I feel you absolutely need to know that going in to get a second-hand handle on this plot.  

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Visual Novel Theatre: Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan

Here’s an odd one.  It’s a Japanese Visual Novel… with westerners as the target audience.  And it’s one that aims to be mostly practical, kind of a virtual tour guide of Japan.  Minimal fantasy here, all just storytelling that will teach you thing.  Edutainment.  From a company that typically makes H-games, no less.  And this is minimally H-y.  Only mild amounts of H here.  And pretty tame H too.  

In any case, I kind of wonder about the conversation that led to this being made.  Something like:

A: “So, I hear there are actually some people who like visual novels in all those heathen Western companies.  They’ve got money, maybe we should make something for them.”

B: “Really? I though visual novels were just a unique Japanese thing that other countries don’t really have the cultural factors and industry inertia to appreciate en masse.  Those Western visual novel fans must all be giant nerds.”

A: “Well, I don’t know about that. There is that Aether guy.  He seems incredibly cool.”

B: “Yeah, of course.  But aside from him.”

A: “Oh yeah.  GIANT nerds.”

B: “That gives me an idea.  If they like visual novels, they must like other aspects of Japanese culture.  Maybe they all want to visit.  So let’s make a visual novel about visiting Japan! And we’ll have the main character be the biggest nerd of all!”

A: “Genius!”

And that’s how Go! Go! Nippon! was born.

Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~ takes you on a virtual tour of the country, with one of the two Misaki sisters as your tour guide-cum-love interest.  You will be introduced to several Japanese landmarks, learn big FACTS about Japanese culture, and see through the eyes of the biggest damn dweeb you could ever possibly imagine.

Yeah.  That’s this visual novel.  I can’t tell whether developer Overdrive is playing a trick on you, or this is what they think the average westerner interested in visiting Japan is like, of if they didn’t realize just how much of a dweebosaurus their viewpoint character is, but this guy.  This guy.  Such a monumental geek.  It’s absolutely cringeworthy at times.  This nerd is you.  You can name him after yourself.  Which is just going to make the subsequent scenes more funny.  For me.  Probably extra cringe for you.  I don’t recommend naming this guy after yourself, is what I’m saying.

So, your guy loves anime and all that Japan pop-culture stuff.  So much that he learned Japanese to a level that he’s fully fluent and hangs out on forums with Japanese citizens, and yet he somehow avoided picking up anything more than a very shallow cultural knowledge about the country.  Which is understandable from a storytelling perspective, given that he has to not know these things so that the Misaki sisters can tell him and, therefore, us, about them, and it wouldn’t be all that notable in a normal story, but combined with this dude’s personality it makes him seem an extra-large dweebenheimer.  So yeah, he met the Misaki sisters on that forum, and they agreed to host him for a week-long visit to Japan, so he saved up his money and flew out there.  But the sisters, Makoto and Akira, have gender-neutral names, and dude spent however many years convinced that they were actually the Misaki brothers, only finding out the truth when he showed up at the airport and started wondering why women were paying any attention to him whatsoever.  Also their parents aren’t home.  The implications are not lost on him.  But this isn’t an H-game, so nothing comes of it.  

So the visual novel runs along two lines.  Most of the time, it spends being remarkably practical, talking about the ins and outs of navigating Japan or introducing major landmarks or cultural features around Tokyo or Kyoto and giving the stories and whatnot around them.  The first three days of your trip, you’ll choose what location in Tokyo to visit, which will determine which of the sisters you’ll spend time with.  Whichever sister you’ve spent more time with by the time you hit the fourth day and the tale gets more linear will, inexplicably, fall for you.  So it’s not just educational.  It’s a love story, too.  

So, you get one side of facts.  One side of characterization.  The facts can be pretty interesting.  They range from taking you through the sort of things you probably already know if you’ve spent a decent amount of time with Japanese-set works (Japan has robot toilets! Hachiko has a story! Japanese houses are made with Tatami mats!) to things that I, at least, didn’t know (How to navigate paying for and entering subways! A whole bunch of cultural landmarks and the history behind them! Japanese bathrooms don’t have locks so don’t try the door without knocking if your sharing the home!).  I’ve never been to Japan, so I can’t say how useful it’d be, but it strikes me as having a bunch of bits that are helpful, but not nearly enough that you can rely on what you learn here alone.  Then again, it’ll be more entertaining than other guides, by virtue of, you know, having anime girls to go along with it.  Plot and characterization are rather shallow.  I won’t say it’s bad, but it’s not deep.  Makoto’s a traditional high-performing princess type.  Akira’s a tsundere.  I hate tsunderes.  Guess which one the game decided to hook me up with?  Your character wets himself regularly.  They do play with it a bit, in that although Makoto is more of what’s considered traditionally “feminine” in character, it’s Akira that has the more “feminine” hobbies.  Honestly, though, there’s not a lot of mileage to get out of that, especially as such distinctions have less and less weight culturally.  Beyond that, the plot just plays it safe.  Nothing with a lot of nuance, nothing that you haven’t seen before, nothing that takes any risks except for the fact that your lead character is such a huge dweebzilla.  I entertained myself quite a bit by screenshotting all the times the lead acted like a total loser (I got 99 pictures!) but I don’t think it’d be all that fun without it.  Like I said, it’s not a bad story, but it’s not good either.  It’s just kind of there.  It’s plain vanilla cake, no frosting.  From a box.  Overall, your enjoyment of this is going to rest on how much you enjoy all the tourism-related learning, more so than the story.  

Visuals are good for the most part.  The characters are decently designed, although I think Akira’s look is probably better in meatspace than it is in anime.  The backgrounds are absolutely excellent.  Very highly detailed, seems like they really capture the atmosphere they’re trying to project, and I’m assuming they’re really good representations of the real life fixtures they’re trying to transmit here.  At the least, they match up really well with photographs I’ve seen of these landmarks, so I’ve been giving them a lot of faith for their accuracy.  The CGs, big old splashes of character activity, are pretty good as well, the few times they come up.  Art is definitely the high point of this visual novel.  Which, I mean, normally they’re an erogame studio, so they’d better be good at their art, but they use it to really good effect here in this game that’s pretty light on the ero.

I lot of the other parts are just fine.  Sound is ok.  Music is forgettable, but not distracting, and matches the mood they’re going for well, generally.  Writing style is mostly fine.  Doesn’t get in the way, but also doesn’t really add to the work.  Plot is inoffensive, maybe trending to the bad.  It’s light on content, character driven, and one of those characters is a tsundere so…. Character conflict occurs late in the story, and at least on Akira’s route, was one of those deals that could have easily been solved if they just agreed to talk like two people who weren’t emotionally crippled for five minutes. But overall, the plot, such as it is, is fine, just running in some very well-worn ruts.  Nothing you haven’t seen before. It’s all safe. Riskless. And in doing so, it doesn’t reach itself toward anything.

Which kind of puts this game in a weird place.  What purpose is this serving?  As a guide for travel to Japan, it’s not content-dense enough to be super useful.  As an entertainment medium, it doesn’t even try to dazzle.  Now, there is definitely something to the fact that you will learn more from something that entertains you, and maybe it holds value there, but otherwise, this has the Red Mage problem.  Doesn’t educate you as well as other things you could get just as easily.  Doesn’t entertain you as well as other things you could get just as easily. Maybe if you’re really curious about Japanese tourism and just starting to dip your toes into it, this could be worthwhile to you.  But otherwise, I’ve completed it once, and I don’t have any urge to do so again.

Visual Novel Theatre- Analog: A Hate Story

Ok, here’s the deal.  Working from home has led to me playing a lot more visual novels.  Taking my lunches in my War Room makes that a bit more convenient.  So we may be seeing some more of these posts in the future.  Recently, I played/read through Analog: A Hate Story by Christine Love, and wanted to give myself a blast from the past, given that two of her earlier works were two of my first posts in this blog that has a hell of a lot of tenure in the old blogosphere.  But, time’s at a premium.  So I’m going to challenge myself here.  Set myself a time limit.  Write this, quick and dirty, in the time I have available before my next engagement. So, this is going to be rough.  No editing.  Little polish.  Minimal talking about how sexy I am.  Which is very.  Just so you know.


I’m getting sidetracked.

Analog: A Hate Story is, as the name implies, a successor to Christine Love’s first work, Digital: A Love Story, and you could maybe call a sequel because for all I know they take place in the same continuities.  You’re some sort of future space scavenger.  Which basically just means that you go into space and hack dead people’s email accounts.  Somebody hires you to go do that to the Mugunghwa, an old Korean space ship that’s just shown up on the parts of space that people bother looking at again after like a thousand years.   So you go there and start up the ship and it turns out you’re the first person to do anything with the ship in like 600 years, and everyone’s dead, and even before everyone died things went to hell.  So you talk to the AI and snoop through people’s e-mails, which are strangely full of logs that are actually useful and descriptive and more like diary entries and there’s not a penis enlargement spam thing to be seen.  I don’t know why they keep sending those to me.  My penis is glorious enough already.

I’m getting sidetracked.

Gameplay-wise, the ship itself, you control through a text parser.  When you activate the AI, you’ll get a more flexible interface to be reading all the stuff.  The AIs are very advanced, incredibly human-like, and have their own motivations, actions, and what not.  Unless you know the right codes, you can only see whatever e-mails the AI are willing to show you.  The AI’s ability to directly accept speech has been broken, so your interactions with them are limited to answering binary questions they present to you and showing them whatever emails/log entries you want them to comment on.  And, that’s how you progress through it.  Read the stuff, slowly piece the story together, try and get enough of a dialogue going with the AIs to get to the real good plot-twisty material.  

The plot itself largely centers around sexism.  And before we get the idiots from both sides that seem to make up the loudest voices whenever sexism comes up in games, this is a specific type of sexism, that doesn’t really apply to modern day life.  No matter how much said idiots talking about the game online seem to try to make it do so.  In the ship, it looks like most everyone all died at one specific year.  300 years or so before that, something happened to the ship that set their culture, collective knowledge, and overall intelligences back to a Joseon-era Korea style community.  So this is about sexism in Joseon-era Korea.  With artificial intelligence.  And e-mail.  And spaceships.  It’s a weird sort of anachronism that honestly seems a little forced, although the VN doesn’t say why they got culture-shocked back to the bad times so maybe it makes more sense once the sequel picks it up.  In any case, when that happened, AI memory got wiped and reprogrammed, everyone turned into idiots, and things got bad.  Like, we see it from the women’s point of view most often, and they definitely got the short end of the stick, but backwards societies are no good for anybody, and, realistically, nobody’s really living up to their potential there.  Birthrates have been falling to an incredible degree, men and women’s roles are sharply divided and both are recognized solely for their political positioning rather than their merit, few know how to actually work the technology they depend on to survive and they have even less knowledge of medicine, old age sets in when people are in their 20s to 30s, etc.

C’mon Aether, gotta pick up the pace here.

Witcher 2 and Tough Love Training

I’ve gotten pretty good at video games, in general.  I won’t say I’m the best.  It’s not hard to find someone better than me at any given challenge.  Now am I necessarily good at all games.  You could probably beat be at a racing or fighting game.  Or a rhythm game.  Or one of those sportsers.  Or… you know what?  We’ll just stop there.  In general, overall, I’m pretty good.  And I’m starting to get an appreciation for those games and challenges that have made me better.  We’ve talked about a few of them here.  Ninja Gaiden honed my instincts and reflexes.  The Dark Souls run taught me to make full use of my resources.  Well, I want to honor another such experience I’ve had lately.  I played Witcher 2.  And it, too, has made me better at video games.

Witcher 2 is perhaps not as hard as Ninja Gaiden or Dark Souls was, but it was just as much of a tough love teacher for me.  The important thing about that game lie in just how its combat system works.  In contrast to the OG Witcher game, where almost all the gameplay that mattered was tied up in your preparation and planning, Witcher 2 is a lot more active.  It has a structure you might recognize from other games.  You’ve got a light and a strong attack.  You can dodge roll or block.  You can fire off a spell or chuck knives or bombs, if you’re needing ranged attacks.  If you break it down like that, it sounds a lot like your typical action game.

And it plays a lot like a typical action game, which is what made it such an effective teacher for me.  Every single instinct I had told me that I could just wade into a fight like I would in many other games and trust in my reflexes and spur of the moment decisions to see me through.  So I would do that.  And I would die, so many times, to random gangs of jobbers.  Because while the Witcher 2 feels like an action game, it’s not.  It’s an RPG.  That has its roots in the first Witcher, where anticipating situations, crafting solutions, and making the right choices of your preparations before you ever wandered into the fight were the big keys to making it anywhere.  If you’re playing Witcher 2 at any higher level than easy, your enemies are as strong or stronger than you and can bring you down in just a couple of hits, and the controls, although they’re a lot more free that in many other RPGs, still aren’t fluid enough to let you weave into and out of enemies like you could in something like Bayonetta.  If you want success in this game, you need to unlearn a lot of the lessons that action games have taught you, and actually think about and strategize your fights.

That’s a hard lesson to learn.  “I’m playing stupid” became a common refrain of mine when I found myself falling to a challenge that seemed completely feasible to me, needing to remind myself that I couldn’t just hack and slash through whatever like I could with most games.  Success required preparations.  Walking into a fight without using alchemy to buff myself and my weapons, without a good set of traps and bombs at hand, and without an idea of what I wanted to do with my spells would quickly lead to my demise.  And the game didn’t make the planning process easy, either.  The whole system was built around managing downsides.  Blocking and spells used up the same meter, and using that meter reduced your damage, so if I was needing to play defensively or use some of the powerful magic effects, I needed to be prepared to be a bit less sword-happy.  Yet, trying to keep my sword damage at max made my Geralt inflexible and rather vulnerable, and particularly poor at dealing with crowds.  The most powerful buffs came with equally powerful debuffs.  I could significantly increase my damage at the cost of significantly reducing my health.  I could speed up greatly how fast I regenerated the blocking and magic juice, but I’d get hit hard by status effects if I did so.  Preparing for a battle wasn’t so much a matter of picking which numbers I wanted to go up as it was a matter of trying to determine a significantly varying strategy for a potentially unknown situation and sticking with it until it worked.

And I had to do that again, and again and again.  Fall into old habits, realize I’m playing stupid, then stop turning my brain off and relying on pure twitch gameskills and actually think about it.  Use my reflexes, yes, but don’t rely on them wholly.  The Witcher 2 had me practice this again and again until I finally started to get used to the idea that I actually had to use my conscious mind in a fight, not just the instinctual one.  And since I finished that game and moved on to other ones, that practice has stuck with me.  The “I’m playing stupid” and actually strategizing on top of my raw skills has been coming again.  And I’ve been seeing faster successes because of it.  

So yeah, at this point in my gaming career, it’s starting to get a bit rare to see the game that can have the sudden and long-term impact on my skill like this.  Witcher 2 has made me a better player.  And that’s something to celebrate.  

Eyes on Judgement

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If you know anything about me, you know this world is a far better and sexier place with me around.  But that’s not super relevant to this post.  You might also know that I’m a big Yakuza fan.  Like, the series, not the organized crime bastards.  I love the games.  The extreme manly drama, the pitting of the romanticized noble criminal ideal against the wicked pragmatic crimelords that exist in the same sphere, the excellent and fast-paced action, the city district we’ve gotten to know so well that it’s almost a character in itself, the placing of dark story beats right alongside impossible to take serious goofiness, it fills a very warm place in my cold, dark heart.

However, the series is in a place of big transition right now.  Yakuza 6 broke the mold in a lot of ways.  The biggest, after 20 some years in meat-time and with us watching through Kiryu’s eyes over an in-universe time period from the late 80s up until the end of the new 10s, and the developers decided it was time to close the book on him.  They closed the book in a way that they can and almost certainly will open it up again, but for the time being, the developers are serious that whatever Kiryu’s future involvement, he’s not going to be the center of the story anymore.  Which, honestly, has been a long time coming.  With the series kind of trying to hold onto at least something of a realistic sense in its conflicts, they’ve long had troubles with managing Kiryu’s in-universe power level.  Yakuza 1 started with him being feared, and saw him, with some complicating factors on his side, just rampage through the strongest yakuza family in his area.  Yakuza 2 had him as an absolute legend, and saw him as the muscle of a small group that conquered like four crime families.  Yakuza 3 had to have an absolutely ridiculous plot bringing in the CIA just to up the stakes enough to where his power standings at this point was.  Yakuzas 4 and 5 had to sidestep the issues by having Kiryu as the member of a team of player characters with the least direct involvement in the plot just to keep things feeling threatening, and even then 5 still had Kiryu end a gang war single-handedly take on every single member of another crime family. At the same time.  And win.  At the end of the first act.  So yeah, his power level was a big in-story issue, and there was only so long they could stave it off with prequels and side games.  So it makes sense that they’d see him retire from his main character role at the end of 6.

But we still need our Yakuza fix.  And sure, there’s Yakuza 7 coming out, but what if that’s not good enough for you?  What if you want a completely new perspective of the Yakuza series?  What if you were really curious about what a Yakuza game would be like as seen through the lens of Phoenix Wright?

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Judgement is a Yakuza game through and through.  And it manages to be something different at the same time.  The gameplay is familiar.  The setting, which has been so integral to the series, is familiar.  The spirit behind the game is familiar.  But now, we’re looking at it through a new lens, and in a game that’s willing to break the traditional franchise rules.  Let’s jump into that.

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