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.

Project G-Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)

Alternative Title: The one that was made on drugs, probably

Ask Godzilla fans what they think about Godzilla vs. Hedorah and you’ll get reactions ranging from “eh, it’s OK” to “OMG this is the worst!”  One thing they’ll all agree on though, is that this film is balls to the wall, pants on head, writers with cocaine and a dartboard WEIRD.  This movie runs like a fever dream.  Full of things that you never expected, never thought you’d see, and after you saw them, you’ll wonder why the hell they showed it to you in the first place.  

So this one follows up on Son of Godzilla, being a low budget, quick turnaround, child-oriented take on Godzilla, which is frankly where the series is going for the next while, so buckle in.  Had a new director, Yoshimitsu Banno for this one.  He got fired from the series after this.  Longtime series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka absolutely hated this film.  But Banno did come back to help out with the 2014 American Godzilla.  So… that I guess.  Anyways, this wasn’t a film that was set up to succeed, and then had some really weird and questionable decisions upon release, was reviewed horribly upon release, and had significant ramifications for that.

But, at the same time, there are some interesting things it does.  It’s limited budget was used with purpose, Hedorah is legitimately threatening, and it has some neat parallels to some of the better Godzilla films, so it has some layers to it.

Also, Banno started this film with an ENVIRONMENTAL message in mind, inspired by seeing heavy pollution in the rivers and smog in cities.  So there is an absolutely heavy ENVIRONMENTAL moral to this story.  That being that the ENVIRONMENT IS GOOD and POLLUTION IS BAD.  It will hit you over and over again with all the grace of a jackhammer.  So, keep that in mind as you’re reading this.  To be fair, this was made at a point where ENVIRONMENTAL conditions in Japan were absolutely horrible, and it got better in the years following this film, so maybe it was super called for and Godzilla vs. Hedorah is exactly what Japan needed to make a comeback.  But in any case, there are few morals that will be slammed into your brain harder than this.  It will crash and splatter everywhere.  Kind of messy, in all.  If there’s ever a point while you’re reading this that you’re thinking something other than how absolutely terrible it is that there’s POLLUTION in the ENVIRONMENT, you need to adjust your expectations and start over again.  It doesn’t matter that nothing else in the film makes sense.  ENVIRONMENT!!!

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Project G-All Monsters Attack (1969)

Alternative Title: The bad one.  The really bad one.

So if you talk to anyone who knows Godzilla films, they’ll generally have their opinions.  They’ll have their unadulterated favorites.  They’ll have their guilty pleasures.  They’ll have their personal bombs.  Those lists won’t always line up.  There’s a lot of room for opinion variation on Godzilla.  And that’s really a beautiful thing.  Everyone gets their own journeys through these films, unique to them.  Except for All Monsters Attack.  Everyone, absolutely every single Godzilla fan, hates this film.  And not in a love to hate kind of way.  Not in a ‘it’s a pain, but watch it once to get it out of the way’ kind of way.  Everyone straight up just recommends you skip this one.  I told people I was writing up all the Godzilla films.  Everyone who knows Godzilla assumed I was just going to skip this one.  

So that’s how you know you’re in for a good time, right?

So lets rewind a bit.  Destroy All Monsters was the Godzilla team blowing everything they had on it.  All the monsters, all together.  The biggest, baddest conflicts they could come up with, serving as a massive denouement to their kaiju saga.  The story was resolved, and they gave Godzilla the sweetest send-off they could, before Toho kicked in its plan for shelving the movies for a while and launching the Godzilla Multinational Cartoon Universe.  Interest in Godzilla movies were waning, and it was drawing less and less money over time, so that decision makes sense.  Give the series new life in a different format.  But, said cartoon didn’t come out.  The companies Toho was going to be co-producing it with didn’t end up going through.  Meanwhile, longtime Godzilla producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was looking at the competition, particularly the Gamera series of films, who were making bank by producing incredibly cheap kaiju films and marketing them directly to children.  And he was like, you know what, we can do that too.

So he called up a screenwriter, and asked him to slap something together on the back of a napkin.  Then he called up Ishiro Honda, longtime Godzilla director, and told him to start digging through people’s couches, because whatever change he found there was going to be this movie’s budget.

And that’s how this magic was born.  A film where its questionable whether or not all the previous Godzilla movies actually happened and Godzilla et al are real in this universe, or they’re just movies in this world too.  A film where children dealing with typical kid stuff is the primary conflict.  A film where, although Eiji Tsuburaya is credited with the special effects out of respect, his health was too poor for him to work so all special effects had to be handled by his protege and by Honda on a shoestring budget, with rather poor results.  A film that makes extensive reuse of the footage from the previous handful of films rather than shooting anything new.  A film that centers on Minilla.

It’s not for nothing that this film is so hated.

Ehhhhhhhh, let’s do this.

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Project G-Destroy All Monsters (1968)

Alternative Title: The grand finale that wasn’t really the grand finale. OR The one that did the Avengers thing before it was cool.

So, it’s 1967 or whenever this film was being made.  The Godzilla movies were once a big deal, but ticket sales had been sunsetting, and it wasn’t the solid moneymaker it once was.  Toho decided that maybe it was time for a change.  Let’s give the Godzilla film series one big finale, then let’s move it from movies to a cartoon show.  The kids love the cartoons, right?  Except it’ll be anime.  Because we’re Japanese.  That’s what we’ll do!  So they got all the people most responsible for making the Godzilla franchise what it was together, told them to give it a big send off.

Then all these guys, director Ishiro Honda, special effects producer Eiji Tsuburaya (supervising, his protege actually handled the work here, but still), composer Akira Ifukube, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, they were all sitting together, thinking, “You know?  This will be the last Godzilla film.  And even if, by some crazy, insane miracle that nobody can even dream of, something so infinitisemally possible it’s not even worth talking about, it’s not, it’ll still be the last time we’re all working together.  We need to send if off in some great way.  But how do we take this big, dumb series, and give it a finale that will make a proper impact?”

They found an answer.  And that answer is to make it biggest and the dumbest.  And not just of Godzilla.  This is the Avengers of Godzilla films.  The culmination of the kaijuverse.  Godzilla already absorbed monsters from other films, but this one is the king of it.  We don’t just get Godzilla and his rogue’s gallery here. This film is importing Kaiju from a whole bunch of movies in Toho’s shared universe. This is the crisis crossover, the end of this entire universe of stories.

And obviously, it worked.  It wasn’t the highest reviewed at the time, but it resonated really well with the general audience, and brought in enough dough that Tojo shelved their plans to shelve the series, and had them doing a whole bunch of follow up films.  Moreover, time has been far kinder to the film, and it ranks in the list of top Godzilla movies today.  

It’s also a pretty significant turning point for the film.  As previously stated, this is the last time a lot of the key creative minds in the Godzilla franchise all worked on one of its movies together.  This is also, thanks to the big time jump, the final chronological story of the Showa era.  So the handful of movies coming after this all took place beforehand.  Meaning this is the one that gets to have the final say on what this segment of the Godzilla canon is to be.  

So, what’s the Aether take on it?  How does it hold up?  Aether loves big dumb things, but is this the right kind of big and the right kind of dumb?

Let’s explore.

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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.

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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Visual Novel Theatre: Ame no Marginal – Rain Marginal

Yeah, it’s been a while since we’ve done one of these.  Let’s change that!

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Ame no Marginal, or Rain Marginal depending on how much of a Japanophile you want to be, is a visual novel by Tomo Kataoka, a VN author who got really famous for his work on Narcissu, which we have covered here before, some years ago.  Those of you who’ve checked that out will find a lot familiar here.  It’s made in the same engine, the storytelling style is much the same, and it’s still a big exercise in minimalist storytelling.  However, Rain Marginal, although marketed pretty heavily on that Narcissu collection and even containing a bonus chapter for Narcissu after you finish the story here, really stands on its own.  Its got its own concept, its own characters, and brings to bear a rather distinct set of themes from all the rest.

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The crux of Ame no Marginal deals with a separate, almost entirely featureless world where it’s always raining and time seems to stand still.  People within that world don’t age, heal injuries almost immediately, and never get hungry or thirsty.  Sounds cool, but as I said, almost entirely featureless.  There’s only one place in the world where you can get some covering from the rain, there’s a river that sometimes brings in the random broken down object, and there’s a place where you can get glimpses into the real world if you’re willing to walk a century or so to get there.  Aside from that, it’s all just flat stone.  And worst of all, most of the time, for years and years on end, there’s only one person inside of it.  Very occasionally, someone else will wander in, but the world will only allow there to be two people within it for up to three days at a time.

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The story itself has two plotlines going through it.  The first follows the typical featureless Japanese male visual novel protagonist, whose name is probably Jenner Rick or something like that.  Rick lives a pretty typical salaryman life, and he finds it utterly banal.  This brings him to depression, and we see some suicidal ideation coming from him on a regular basis.  One day, as he’s heading to his office, the elevator that normally takes him there has an extra button, another floor above the top.  He presses it, and finds himself in this rainy world, where he meets Rin, a bubbly and optimistic child who seems to have been living there for quite some time.  This line will follow along with him over the three days that he has there.

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The second line tells the story of Rin herself, some hundreds of years before she meets Rick.  And she didn’t live a happy life.  Brought up in feudal Japan as a slave to some religious institution that forces extreme restrictions on its girls as part of some measure of contrition to their god, she watches her sister, who always happily took part in this faith, get killed by these restrictions, and has them forced on her in her sister’s place.  Then bandits attack her shrine, she is set adrift, and she finds herself ending up in this rainy world, together with a seemingly carefree woman who exhibits strange powers.  Rin’s story kind of follows the same path as Rick’s at first, going largely over the interactions between the two characters there and Rin’s adjustment to the rain world, before it starts to take a different direction entirely.

One thing that I find really interesting about the two, two-and-a-half, however many perspectives you want to call it on this world is that they look at it in very different ways.  Rick actually seems to find a lot of comfort there.  He doesn’t say it outright, he acknowledges that this world would suck to be stuck in, but he does seem to find the whole experience very reflective.  With him, it appears that the world on the outside that he finds himself in shows him what the world he’s feeling on the inside is like.  Rin, on the other hand, seems to find the world to be an embodiment of her sin, although she doesn’t really understand that sin in the first place.  Her upbringing, trapped in that abusive religious institution and the horrors she saw there, left her with a very distinct mental structure for how things work, yet she doesn’t really understand any of the parts of it.  And she’s also there for a long, long time, which shows us quite a bit of how sort of thinking can progress.

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The story gets a lot of mileage out of those two perspectives as well, sometimes in some really thoughtful ways.  For example, in Rick’s chapters, we see two different versions of Rin, the bubbly, optimistic one we see in the daytime, and the fatalistic, rude one at night.  When we get behind’s Rin’s head, we find that neither of them really accurately depict Rin’s actual personality.  The daytime one seems to be a persona she puts on with the rare opportunity to spend time with someone else, and she might not even be aware the nighttime Rin is coming out of her.  And that’s just the lead to this.  Rain Marginal has some spots of really surprising depth, and I think I’ve gotten a lot more out of the story thinking about it afterwards than I did when I was actually in the midst of playing it.

It takes a certain type of patience to enjoy Ame no Marginal, however.  Even for being as short as it is, around two hours without the Narcissu bonus chapter, it’s a really slow moving story.  Which I suppose is par for the course here.  We’re talking about a work of fiction with only three characters of which only two can interact at a time in a world where the whole point is that there’s nothing going on and almost nothing ever changes.  There’s not a whole lot happening, and there’s a whole lot of introspection.  If you’re into thoughtful works, where you really have to slow down and focus on the little things, this could be your bag, but if not, I don’t see you getting much out of it.

And unfortunately, while it does have a lot of thoughtful moments, I think this visual novel’s biggest failing is that those moments don’t really come together into a cohesive whole.  Tomo Kataoka has been a big proponent of the theory that it’s really up to you to determine what you get out of a work, what it means, what the themes are, what it has to teach you, all that jazz.  And it worked really well with Narcissu.  Here, though, it just doesn’t feel like there’s all that much substance.  There’s a lot of flashes of good work in there, but overall, it feels like a lot of not really connected ideas were just thrown together and called a day.  I’ve seen some posts out there trying to hash out what Ame no Marginal means to no real effect, but rather than because it’s just really subject to interpretation, I think it’s because there’s just no real intention behind the stuff here.  We see a few things as to what the world might represent, but beyond that anything else really means anything.  The story leaves a lot of questions with absolutely no hints of any answers whatsoever.  Why Rin has those two personalities, what the river is and why it seems to have portals to or from the real world at either end, the woman with mysterious powers that Rin encounters and why her experiences in the world are so very different from hers, so much and more gets absolutely no exploration and no sense there’s any greater thought behind it.  And it doesn’t help that the finale just drops happy endings on everybody out of nowhere with no sense of actually resolving anything.  I’m willing to give a lot of things the benefit of the doubt, but here, well, if the job of an author is to turn an answer into a question, this work seems like a lot of its questions never had answers in the first place.

And in a nutshell, that’s Ame no Marginal.  It’s quick, and if you’re in the right frame of mind, it can be enjoyable and make you think.  It doesn’t really stand up to deep scrutiny, however, and given the potential of the author and his way of writing, that’s a real shame.

Project G: Invasion of the Astro-Monster (1965)

Better Title: The one where Godzilla dances

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By this point in the franchise history, Godzilla was getting to be pretty big in America.  His movies were pulled from Japan theater, edited badly, then dubbed badly, and the American audiences were like ‘yessssssssssss’.  So one American production company decided that maybe they should try and get in on the ground floor of all that.  So they rolled up to Toho, started getting involved in some monster movies, then when it came time for another showing of Big G to pop up, they were like “Yo, here’s a giant bag of cash.”  And the rest was history.

With United Productions of America bankrolling half the cost of this film, they were wanting to make sure it’d do well with their target audience, so this is a bit more Americanized than most of the other Godzilla films are.  Godzilla usually has a rather slow build, with a lot of mystery and people just kind of chilling before it’s finally revealed that all the weird stuff happening is really because of the monster whose name is in the title and also Godzilla is there too and they’re going to fight!  Instead, here, the action starts right away.  There’s a decent amount of human action and romance, there, and there’s even a western lead character for the first time in the series.  And, probably a bunch of other subtle changes, too.  I’m not really a film guy.  I can’t really say much about the cultural differences in media there.  Maybe Red Metal can, he’s the movie dude.

In any case, this is Godzilla with an extra dose of AMERICA! In there.  Let’s see how that goes.

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Eyes on Binary Domain

So the Yakuza guys made a cyberpunk game, huh?

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Which immediately strikes me as kind of an unfair statement to lead in with.  Yes, this is made by the Ryu ga Gotoku team, the group behind one of my favorite video game series, Yakuza.  Yes, that fact is what made me pay attention to the game in the first place, and it one of the features that most makes it stand out in a market, but honestly, that doesn’t have a whole lot of bearing on the end product.  Some teams, studios, designers, etc stick to a really distinctive design.  Hideo Kojima makes a game, you know it’s going to be full of giant cinematic cutscenes, swap between the bizarre and the realistic freely, and you will be lectured on Kojima’s moral stands through the characters.  If Bioware makes a game (well, pre-MMO Bioware, who knows where their design sense is now) it’s going to have expansive dialogue choices and convoluted plots.  Platinum Studios makes a game, its action will be extreme and fast and tense, and its plot and visual design will be waaaaaay over the top.  You know these things.

Some developers and studios, however, don’t stick to just one thing.  They’ve got some variety to them.  You wouldn’t think Ryu ga Gotoku studios would, given that they have one franchise that they keep churning out on a regular basis, but as Binary Domain shows, they really do.  This game has very little in common with the Yakuza series that the studio is based around.  It’s a completely different genre.  It’s distinctly made for an international audience whereas Yakuza is extremely Japanese.  It’s in an entirely different setting, requiring a very different visual design, and is structured completely differently.  Its takes a completely different path of play.  It does carry through the overall ethos of character design, with people that include just the right amount of visual flaws to look super realistic, and the very appropriately placed product placement, but that’s really all I can pick up on that’s carried over from the Yakuza series.

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You Best Took it Serious When You Heard the Tone. The Persona 3 Retrospective Part 3: Presentation

Part 1-Intro

Part 2-Gameplay

Part 4-Setting

Part 5-Plot and Themes

Persona 1 Retrospective

Persona 2 IS Retrospective

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As previously mentioned (several times), the Shin Megami Tensei franchise as a whole saw a big shift that would change the direction it took forevermore with the release of Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne.  Nocturne was really the first of the modern Megaten games, changing nearly every aspect of game design.  That game brought a whole new level of design, tone, creative direction, and immersion to the series that the rest of the games would follow.  So too does Persona 3.  A lot of them are gameplay focused, covered in the previous section.  There’s a couple that impact the way that the game presents itself.

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One of the biggest changes Nocturne made was moving the series away from the old-school CRPG-inspired model into something more akin to the typical turn-based JRPG.  But Persona was always a series that was more JRPG-esque than the typical Megaten.  So what does Nocturne bring there?  Well, it turns the Persona series into a more modern JRPG.  Starting with the POV.  Your Point of View is something you probably don’t think very much of in games, but it can have a big impact on the how feel of the game.  In this case, the POV, lowered a bit closer to your character than past Persona games, serves to put you more into the action.  There’s more of a sense of energy as you’re navigating the dungeon, with the walls zipping by you and the shadows right in your face.  Battle will place you right behind your lead, feeling the enemy’s presence as they tower over your character.  School will… feel… schoolier because of… you there…. okay it’s getting away from me at that point.  Point is, even compared to other games of its genre, Persona 3 will play with your point of view, particularly in the battle section, to make you really feel what’s going on.  The camera’s zipping and zooming and makes sure you’ve got that scale of your guys against the bad guys, and it’s both rather effective and mostly unnoticed, just like you want good camera work to be.

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Art design is another really big update to the game, here.  Nocturne saw art director Kazuma Kaneko make big designs to all the series’ demons, creating a very distinct style and specific appearances that would be used until this very day.  Persona 3, as with nearly everything else, makes use of those same demon designs for your personae.  However, this game saw the rise of Shigenori Soejima into the head art role, as Kaneko was wanting to stretch his protege’s skills.  Soejima was already character designer for Persona 2, and the characters in this game follow along those lines, creating a distinctive slim, lengthened character design for the series that would become rather distinct.  With Soejima charged with designing everything else, it would create something that stands apart from the rest of Shin Megami Tensei.  The shadows take particular note, becoming tarot-inspired bastardizations of rather common real world items and creatures.  Beyond that, though, Tatsumi Port Island, where your characters spend most of their day to day lives, appropriately looks a lot brighter, cleaner, and more active than the typical post apocalyptic Megaten game or even the typical fantasy settings of the time, while the various settings of Tartarus manage to successfully convey the odd otherworldiness of the collective unconscious it resides in.  The dark hour scenes look particularly striking, effectively taking the otherwise normal and pleasant looking places and using largely coloration to instill them with a sense of wrongness.  The art design of the game is really on point, and manages to carry the anime-style off well while introducing enough twists on there to make it unique.

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And that art style is important, because you see a lot of it in the story delivery.  A lot of it is dealt in a somewhat visual novel-esque fashion, lending more to the comparison than just the social linking part of the game.  See, stuff goes deeper than you expected.  Even for the internet.  Even for the Persona-fan part of the internet.  Which is a much angrier place than even normal games internet, for whatever reason.  A lot of the plot things are all text boxes and character portraits, in front of the 3D rendering of whatever’s actually going on.  It’s not a very visually active means of telling a story, to be sure, and it takes some patience to enjoy.  I’m a fan of visual novels, so I had no problem of it, but it’s not for everyone.  It does lead to a bit of an odd dichotomy, where when things are physically happening, it’ll be rendered with your in-game characters and their animations, but then they’ll freeze and you have those 2D drawings and text boxes for all the speaking parts.  Animations in the non-gameplay scenes are understated and kind of stiff, and would be more fitting with PS1 types of 3d animations than they are with the PS2.  The story is really text heavy, though, and the strength of the writing is really what saves it.  The music and the quality of voice acting also go a long way towards injecting a sense of energy into what are otherwise static and still scenes.  You do get the occasional anime cutscene injected in there.  They’re few and far between, as, you know, budgets used to be a thing that games tended to stick to before the HD era, but when they are, they tend to be pretty striking.  The visual animation of those are really on point.  Sound balancing leaves a lot to be desired, but they also tend to portray a lot of the most visually well-designed moment.

This is also where the series established another constant of giving each game a theme color.  In this case, a light blue (unless you’re playing the FemC in the PSP version, in which case you get pink) covers every gameplay element there, from your HUD to your menus to your battle selection, both adding a cool and eerie component to your visuals as well as complementing the melancholy and trauma you’re often facing.  Every bit of the daytime scenes are designed around this, as this blue is almost omnipresent, and your locations and characters are all either designed full of cool colors that complement this, or given the direct contrasts in a poppy red or orange to make them sharply stand out.  This switches in the dark hour, though, in which a sickly green replaces the blue and invades everything, with a muted green filter being placed over the visuals while contrasting dark red bloodstains appears over everything.  It’s stunning how constant this palette is over the 80 hour game without being overwhelming, and I really have to say, Persona 3 uses its coloration better than most any other game or piece of work I’ve seen, giving much more thoughtfullness to it than the “Orange and blue and call it a day” that would pervade the later years.  The idea of having a theme color was so strong that the persona series would retroactively add it to rereleases of the previous games, giving the original Persona a deep steely gray theme and the Persona 2 duology a dark, muted red.

So art style is good.  I’m glad for that.  Because the graphics aren’t going to knock your socks off.  Unless you’re not wearing socks.  They might shift them in your drawer a little bit.  They’re perfectly functional.  They carry the strong art design smoothly, they make the visuals very understandable, and they’re never in the way.  But they don’t go super far, either.  This is not a graphically impressive game.  It’s not bad at graphics.  They’re just there.  They’re OK.

What’s made the Persona series very distinct is that it takes place in modern times, in a familiar Japanese city.  The visuals do carry it over well, here.  The environments in Tatsumi Port Island are very detailed.  Well, the school’s a little bland, which is a shame, because you’ll be spending a lot of time there, but maybe Japanese schools are bland in the first place.  I don’t know.  I’ve never been to one in meatspace.  Out on the town is full of details.  Train stations are busy and packed places, the mall is full of distinct stores, your dorm is very personal, the place looks to be very lived-in.

And, of course, there’s the music to talk about.  So let’s talk about the music.  Music in games can be a weird thing.  It’s not going to make you have a good time if the game is at its core not great.  And a great game with bad music can still be great.  Music isn’t going to make or break your game.  And yet, it can make or break your overall experience.  Music is emotion.  It’s drive.  It’s energy.  One of the big challenges with any artistic medium is making the viewer feel a part of it.  Making them feel what’s going on on screen, or on stage, or whatever.  The right music has the power to connect with that more directly than most anything else.  It will make the emotional roller coaster reach greater highs and lower drops.  It will hit you with the adrenaline of those cool action scenes.  It will help you care about those characters, even if they’re facing things you never have and never will need to deal with in life.  Music will not deliver something that’s not already there, but it will make what is hit you like a brick.

And the music in Persona 3 is top notch.  In yet another series-setting trend, the Persona 3 soundtrack is so decidedly modern, in keeping with its modern setting.  Other RPGs work their orchestral soundtracks, give you beautifully composed multilayered songs, make their string instruments weep for you.  Nah, Persona 3 gives you Lotus Juice rapping his way through half the game.  It’s hip hoppy, it’s modern, and it really adds a lot to the sense and tone of the game.  It’s not all vocal tracks, of course, there’s plenty of the more orchestral stuff in there too, and they are really rather strong.  But it’s the Jpop and hip hop tracks that really seem to add the most atmosphere and distinctness to the game.  The music is fantastic, and I’ve been known to have the soundtrack on repeat as I’m going throughout my day.  Some of the songs are truly touching.  Memories of You still brings me big sexy manly tears whenever I hear it in context, and the fact that later releases insist on remixing and changing it is one of the few things that makes me nerdrage.

That said, there are a few problems with their implementation.  The orchestral songs are mostly solid, but it seems they didn’t have as much experience with handling the vocals.  Some hit really well.  Some are just oddly placed.  Biggest example is the one that’s playing when you’re hanging out in your dorm.  It’s a relaxing place.  You chat with your party, watch some tv, maybe work on some homework, there’s no danger, no rush, no pressure there.  You’d expect a similarly chill and low pressure take.  Instead, you get a song with a driving, sharp beat and harsh deep rapping.  Likewise, there’s Mass Destruction, also known as BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY, the battle theme and therefore the song BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY you’re going to be hearing most often in that game BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY.  And frankly, it can do without the BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY intro.  It’s jarring, and frankly gets annoying with its frequency, given how much it pops up.  With game music, you want something that can stay in the background of your mind, generally, and vocals grab your attention much more than instrumentals do (which is why the game’s vocals are in English, to give the Japanese players this benefit, but that’s not going to help us on this side of the language barrier).  If lead-in to the song had been instrumental, I feel it would have been a smoother transition and jumping into a fight wouldn’t have felt so harsh, but as is, you will get tired of hearing that BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY long before it’s done with you.

But those are really just nitpicks.  Overall, the soundtrack is really fantastic.  It’s well composed, breaks a lot of new grounds, combines orchestral composition with rap with jazz instrumentation, and adds an immeasurable amount to the game’s proceedings.  It hits hard in what’s usually just the right ways.