I’ve had some interest in Disgaea for a while. It’s a Tactics-style Strategy RPG, and I’ve never met one of those I didn’t like. I’ve heard tales of the grind involved in this game, the levels going into the thousands, the massive amount of time required, and well, that’s kind of a turn-off for me. A while back, though, AK did a series of his Deep Read posts on the Disgaea series, and certainly made them sound quite appealing. So, that, coupled with the promise that the grind wasn’t really that bad unless you’re going after the side content, convinced me to give it a try. So I picked up the first Disgaea. And added it to my copious PC game backlog. And there it sat. Because that is the fate of anything added to my backlog. Until, eventually, it gets pulled out, dusted off, and played with joy. And it was Disgaea’s turn for that recently!
I’m about 5 hours into the game now. I approached it with trepidation, but what I found there really wasn’t what I expected. And I found things interesting enough that I felt like sharing my experiences. So, we’re going to have this, half first impressions post, half after action report. Something similar to that first post of my Dark Souls Let’s Play. Except this one, I don’t really plan on turning into a series, but hey, we’ll see.
So, a bit of story to start us off. Our main guy is Laharl, son of King Hardtospelllongname, who ruled over the demon world. While Laharl was taking a two year long nap, his dad died, passing his rule down to him, except he kept sleeping, so his kingdom all split up into arguing warlords fighting for the scraps of it. Eventually, Etna, who super obviously has ulterior motives for it, wakes him up and sets him to go beat up all the other demons and put his rightful kingdom back together. Got it? Ok.
The Epic vs. Apple trial came and went back in May. We won’t have a decision for some time yet, and if you want the legal analysis of it, there’s plenty of better educated (maybe) places you can go elsewhere for it. But, in between all the grown professionals degenerating to high school level drama, a whole bunch of private information was revealed, as is common for these trials. One of those bits was that Epic Games had spent $11 million dollars in its first nine months on the free game giveaways they do every week. Which is a lot of money. As you may have guessed.
PCGamer put out an article around the time that was revealed raising the question of how many of those games have their staff, you know, actually played? And the answers were, univerally, few to none. And had me thinking as well. I’ve been picking up on Epic’s Free Games pretty religiously. I have this thing, where if you offer me a free game, I’m probably going to take it. So right now, I’ve got a library with Epic Games Store of 160-something games. None of which I’ve spent a dime for. How many of those have I actually played? Exactly 10.
Now, to be fair, some of the games in my EGS library are backups of games I own in other formats or storefronts, which I redeemed because consoles might break down or discs scratch, and I don’t quite trust a service like say, Amazon to keep their games launcher active in perpetuity. So those shouldn’t really count. And given how common it is for players, PC players especially, to have massive backlogs, to the point of being a joke these days, many of us have already got a glut of choice, and although we might be interested in the games we’re picking up, if it’s not one we’ve chosen ourselves, it’s not likely to be at the top of the to-play list. And frankly, you get a lot of free games through Epic Games Store. 1-2 a week. If you habitually add them to your library whenever they’re available, as I do, it’d be very difficult to keep on top of all of them unless you were focusing all your play time on the Epic Games Store exclusives.
But, all of that also applies to Amazon’s Twitch Prime/Prime Gaming service. 5 free games a month, at least, if you have an Amazon Prime subscription. I’ve built up a massive library through them without spending a dime. And yet, although I’ve still have more unplayed than not, I’ve played around 20% of my Twitch Prime library, well more than the 6% of the EGS. And that has me wondering, why is that? Epic’s giveaways are generally of higher-profile games, giving out a lot or really notable, if mildly aged, AAA productions and some notable darlings as opposed to the mostly unknown indies you get through Amazon. You’d think I’d be going for the more known quantities. But I don’t. And I know why. Because I’m a genius.
I like starting up new games. Getting into something anew, learning brand new systems, and going through the generally more highly polished opening stages of the game is good times. And it can be extra fun trying out a completely unknown game. So sometimes, I just get in the mood to pull something I’d never heard of from my library and give it a try. Usually kind of a whim of the moment thing. The thing about digital games though, as well as current gen gaming in general, is that it requires a bit of lead time. Games have to download and/or install. How much time specifically depends on the game. Could be mere minutes, or it could be, on my slow rural internet, an all day affair. Epic Games Store is definitely a much more robust launcher than the Twitch Desktop App I use for my Prime Gaming, but one really basic feature that Twitch has and Epic doesn’t is that it’ll let you know how big the darn game is before you start installing it. How much downtime you’ll need in advance. And for my whim-based “I’m gonna wanna try something new in like 15 minutes” tastes in those moments, being able to see what games I can actually get ready in that time is invaluable.
The Epic Games Store launcher has had, in my experience, some reliability problems as well. There was one notable time where the whole thing hardcore crashed on me, and required a reinstall to work again, in the process severing its connection to every single game I installed through it and requiring a lot of manually sorting through program files to get my hard drive space back from those then-inaccessable games. And even without that, the Epic Games Store app takes a long time to load, even when I’ve got a shortcut to the game I want to play. It’s got a lot of other features that Twitch Prime does not, like the super valuable ability to pause a download, but overall, it’s not an easy one to work with.
The Epic Games Store overall has been an experience that Epic is obviously putting their big fat Fortnite profits towards bringing people to and getting initial customers from, but not so much into making an easy or pleasant thing to use. I’ll keep going for it as long as it continues to give me free games, such as it is, but I imagine usage rates are probably still going to be low until the storefront gets a bit easier to use. Until then, the Twitch Desktop App may be a bit clunky and featureless, and obviously not especially meant as a game delivery service, but it gets me what I need in a more convenient manner. And my games used seems to reflect that.
Let’s establish some facts here. As you’ve known if you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, I am an incredible specimen of a man. My muscles are like mountains. My features are proof that man was made in God’s own image. My bearing is so manly that some women have claimed to have gotten pregnant just by staring into my eyes. I am a bastion of healthy masculinity. A paragon of the male form. This is not up for debate.
So, I’ve been playing Idol Magical Girl Chiru Chiru Michiru. Discord will, unless you turn the option off, show others what game you’re playing at the time. My Discord buddies have been trying to sass me for being so manly and also playing Idol Magical Girl Chiru Chiru Michiru. But it doesn’t work. Because Idol Magical Girl Chiru Chiru Michiru is the shit. I am unsassable on this account.
I don’t get that whole part of people’s assumptions anyways. Enjoying something that doesn’t match the box they mentally put you in somehow lowers your quality or something? I don’t got time for that. Good works are good works.
Anyways, we’re here to talk Idol Magical Girl Chiru Chiru Michiru. Eventually I’m going to find some way to shorten that title in writing here, but I haven’t figured it out yet. It’s a spinoff of the Grisaia series, which I had no idea about while playing/reading through it, but it does retroactively make some things that happened make a bit more sense. Although I’ve got like no idea of what Grisaia’s all about, so maybe that’s me injecting too much good will. Anyways, Chiru Chiru Michiru (got it!) is a visual novel about one of those Sailor Moon-esque magical girls fighting against some evil that has invaded her world. Except everyone’s a blithering idiot. And it’s awesome.
Although right off the bat, that does lead to some ‘your mileage may vary’ stuff. This is a comedy visual novel, one from Japan, and humor is already really subjective and gets even more so when you’re dealing across cultures. Different cultures find different things funny, so this may not necessarily connect with you. And it’s very heavily surrealist comedy at that, which not everyone vibes with. But I do. And this hit right on the dot for me. I loved this visual novel. It left me laughing at a bunch of points. In, like, a really manly and attractive way of course. Because that’s how I do everything. See the first paragraph.
So, the story opens with our heroine, Matsushima Michiru, an aspiring pop idol that’s not really all that successful at it. The only venue she plays at is a bar owned and operated by Asako, a weapons- and military ops-obsessed friend of hers. She’s also constantly accompanied by Sachi, a young woman who always wears a maid outfit and loves sharks. After a somewhat disappointing performance, Michiru goes for a walk when a talking cat riding a star falls from the sky and lands on her, killing her instantly.
Well, the cat uses a magic wand to beat her soul back into her body, so it’s all good. And then it says it’s looking for someone to go be a magical girl, and Michiru wishes it luck. And then time passes eventually they get back together again under circumstances and Michiru agrees to be a magical girl and hunt down the Seven’s Chaos invading from the World of Magic in order to save both worlds and also have her wish granted. Except she’s embarrassingly bad at it and can’t focus on anything for more than a few seconds and have almost no magical power to speak of. And it’s hilarious.
The Visual Novel is surprisingly solid, presentation-wise. It’s framed like it’s actually an anime, and you get full animated OPs and credit sequences with every episode, in addition to an anime transformation sequence, complete with barbie doll nudity, as is traditional for magical girl shows. The art is really good, with a wide variety of backgrounds and the character portraits are pretty dynamic, with some action on them to represent the action going on in the narrative. It’s also fully voiced. In Japanese, of course, but I thought it was a really nice touch.
The writing is competent enough. The plot is super simple, and you’ll likely figure out most of where it’s going within the first hour or so of the first game. It’s mostly there as a framework for the humor. There’s a bit of awkward phrasing or odd concept transitions, likely things that weren’t or couldn’t be translated elegantly from Japanese, and if you’re looking for a big great story that makes perfect sense, you’re likely to be disappointed here. There’s also a few bits in there that seem to come out of nowhere and not really go anywhere, although now that I know that this is a spinoff of the Grisaia series, it seems a lot of those were in fact references to that. So maybe play/read that first and come here. Or just don’t sweat it that much. Although I’m finding now that the dumb little crapkid from Chiru Chiru Michiru is the main protagonist of Grisaia? Maybe I don’t want to check that out after all. I hate crapkids. But yeah, the overall plot is base and predictable, but that’s not really what I’d recommend coming here for. It’s really all about the humor.
And humor is always subjective. Here, it’s downright absurd. Like, there is one character, Michiru’s hypercompetent magical girl rival, whom you could say is the straight man, but even she is so straight it becomes absurd. Like, to the point of using the limitless magical powers at her disposal, which can literally do anything she chooses, to simply summon mundane guns to blow her enemies away. Personally, I love a well done absurd humor. And this is definitely well done. And you know, when it decides to pull back the humor, to finally inject a sense of danger and action to it too? Those are well done as well.
So yeah. If you happen to have a sense of humor like mine, I’d highly suggest checking out Idol Magical Girl Chiru Chiru Michiru. But maybe check out Grisaia first, so things make sense. Except not, because I didn’t know that was a thing until literally like an hour ago, and therefore can’t recommend it. But either way, don’t sass me. I am unsassable on this account.
Koromaru is a dog. With human-level intelligence that can summon a persona. It’s barely explained. In fact, for that matter, it contradicts other information given about personae, in that the whole reason Aigis is shaped like a human and not a tank or something is that it’s necessary for her to see herself as human in order to be able to manifest a persona, but here’s this dog with a persona so whatever.
Anyways, Koromaru is basically Hachiko. He used to live with a monk that would take him on nightly walks. One day, the monk got killed by shadows, and Koromaru continued their nightly walks alone, and spent a lot of time hanging around the shrine the monk used to take care of. Then one day, the team detects some shadows roaming outside Tartarus attacking the shrine. Akihiko heads there, only to find the shadows already dead and Koromaru injured. Putting 2 and 2 together because he’s not the dumb meathead the later games think he is, Akihiko realizes this dog must have a persona. So he takes him back to the team, they get him medical care, and then Koromaru joins up with S.E.E.S.
Every Persona from this point forward has an animal-like character. Persona 4 and 5 makes sure its a character that can talk, however. Koromaru can’t, which poses some problems. To be fair, they do a decent job of communicating Koromaru’s personality through his actions, such as it is, and Aigis can understand his thoughts and sometimes interprets them for others. From that, you learn that Koromaru is very loyal and protective of those he considers family, and admires bravery. He also likes certain TV shows demonstrating brave people, and has a near human-level comprehension of the world. But they only take it so far. Koromaru gets left out of a lot, not having much input in dialogue heavy scenes, not usually being with the party when they’re away from the dorm, and not really having much in the way of impact on the plot. Which is a shame. We only get a shallow view of Koromaru, and there was a lot more room for developing him. As a result, he’s the most forgettable member of the cast, to the point he either doesn’t get included or gets bound together with another character for most of the spinoffs.
He does have one big moment, however. In the midst of the party’s darkest moment, when Shuji Ikutsuki betrayed them and was in the midst of crucifying them, he didn’t bother crucifying the dog. It was Koromaru who tore the device he was using to control Aigis away from him, enabling her to break free from her programming and save the party. So, if it weren’t for Koromaru, the party wouldn’t have survived to save the day and make millions of dollars in game sales. That counts for something, at least.
In combat, Koromaru’s speedy. The most speedy. He’s the fastest, most accurate, and most evasive character in your party, and tops most shadows in all those areas, too. On the flip side, he’s really not durable. Shadows will have a harder time hitting them than anyone else, but when they do, he’ll go down fast. Other than that, not especially much to write home about. He uses knives to fight, and is accurate but not so damaging with them. He does pretty decently with magic, and has an arsenal of fire and instant-kill darkness spells behind him. Given the only other character with dedicated fire spells is Junpei, who is realllllly not great at magic, he’s the one to go with if your MC’s personas are focused on other things. He’s also a very direct character. Doesn’t have a lot of tricks to him, pretty much just basic attacks and direct damage or instant-kill spells. His persona is Cerberus, which both fits his doggy nature, and I’m also pretty sure is a reference to Pascal, your dog that you turned into Cerberus in SMT 1. He does not get an ultimate persona. That requires personality development, and when you barely show up in the plot, well…
Nobody likes Ken.
What? No. No, we’re not doing that. No Ken. I’m not going there. You can’t make me.
Ok, so Ken is this little prat that nobody actually wants around because he ruins everything he touches. And that’s about all there is to say about Ken. Let’s move on.
Seriously. There are things mankind is not meant to know. The existence of Ken Amada is one of those things. Trust me.
I don’t like grinding. Controversial statement there, I know. Not exactly a whole lot of outlets out there being all like “This game has tons of beautiful grinding therefore 11/10!”. Once upon a time, I actually rather enjoyed grinding. Because I was a weird kid. But particularly on handheld games, there was just something satisfying about having the GBA in my hands and the TV on and being able to pummel goons mindlessly as background noise while watching all my numbers go satisfying up. I ground my way to a full 150 in my Pokedex way back in the day which is a hugely time consuming feat and don’t let anyone tell you different. Of course, that was back in an era in which I had few games but copious amounts of free time. Now, the situation has reversed. And so too has my opinion on grinding.
The act of doing repetitive activities over and over past the point of enjoyment with minimal new content introduced in order to incrementally make your numbers bigger or gain desired resources. Looking back, I realize I’ve done it a lot over the years. The aforementioned full Pokedex. Getting the Sword of Kings in Earthbound. Building myself up to be able to take on the post game superdungeon in later versions of Final Fantasy VI. Running back and forth in the sewers to level my party up until they have the skills I wanted to take down Matador in SMT: Nocturne. Going through huge long ordeals to get the materials needed to craft better equipment in Dragon Quest VIII, which ultimately killed my interest and led me to quit the game just before it allegedly ‘gets good’. Spending over an hour dodging lightning bolts in Final Fantasy X. And I can go on. Actually, it’s amazing how many distinct memories I have of grinding in games. Like, all my gaming experiences, and that’s what I devote mental real estate to? Weird. Anyways, Red Metal had a game review a while back, I don’t remember which one but will probably update this with the link if he’s kind enough to remind me in the comments, where he talks about grinding as resonating with the Japanese cultural values of seeing results from hard work, and something that’s been frequent in JRPGs because of it. And that makes a lot of sense to me. At one point, I shared in it. A lot of those memories above I look back on fondly. But it’s not anything I want much to do with now.
And my recent experiences show this is a practice that’s far from dying out. Two games I’m currently playing, one from last year, one from a decade ago, both hit a point where grinding was necessary, for very similar reasons and for very similar results.
So, RPGs, right? Some have more room for strategy and skill and alternate approaches than others, but at some level with all of them, you’ve got a set of numbers and you’re mashing it up against another set of numbers until you get the result you want. But usually you’ve got plots going up alongside them too. And when you’ve got gameplay and you’ve got plot, you want them to kind of sort of go along with each other. Plot climaxes should follow or be followed by gameplay climaxes, generally. So when you’ve got a game about numbers, that means big important characters should have big important numbers. Now, your numbers are the most important, of course. But they might not be the biggest. So you have to grind to make them bigger.
I’ve talked about Yakuza: Like a Dragon in this space before. For the most part, my opinion is unchanged on it; I love most of it, but dislike the combat. But I’ve also spent 55 hours in the game to this point, so you can take that for what you will. Anyways, the game is divided into chapters. I’m currently midway through Chapter 12, which so far, seems like the biggest chapter as far as the plot goes. The game spends all of its early and mid acts setting up a complex and somewhat nonsensical set of dominoes, some of which it inherits from previous games from idly, and Chapter 12 is where it feels like it starts giving you all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to get the full picture and put together your gameplan for moving into the endzone. I mix my metaphors like a boss. Anyways, it’s a big momentous chapter. And it starts by saying “HEY WE NEED 3 MILLION YEN FOR REASONS AND ALL THE CRIME LORDS ARE BROKE HOW ABOUT YOU GO GRIND FOR IT?” Well, I didn’t grind for it. Because as I said, I hate grinding. Instead, I just spent 20 minutes running my bomber businesses, and got that 3 mil much easier. So then, after that, it takes you some place. And you’re like, “Oh man, I wasn’t expecting the game to go here, this is awesome!” And then it’s like “OH HEY HOW ABOUT I TAKE THIS OPPORTUNITY TO INTRODUCE YOU TO THE PERFECT PLACE TO GRIND.” And you’re like, “No, thank you, grinding totally sucks.” And then your party members start encouraging you to GRIND but you ignore them because you’ve had no problem with any story encounter up to this point. So you get back into the plot, which is really moving, and you’re heading to resolve a plot point that’s been hanging over things literally all game, so you move through the dungeon to do that, but then you run into some guys I don’t want to name because of spoilers but you’re like “Oh these guys are here? Things just got like 10 times more awesome now. And I get to fight them? That’s sweet!” But then you realize those awesome guys who absolutely should be a challenging fight are ten levels above where you’re expected to be by this point and have some absolute bullhonky numbers that you can’t do anything about so they wipe the floor with you. Like, not even trying. If you follow the game path as intended, even doing almost all the side content available to you up to that point, you’ve got no chance of beating them without grinding. Your numbers just aren’t high enough to match theirs. And Yakuza: Like a Dragon isn’t a game where strategy and prep work make a huge impact on the momentum of combat. So you can’t smart your way out of it. No, you have to take all that story momentum and all those awesome feelings at seeing those two badasses, for whom you’d be honestly disappointed if the boss fight was easy, and put them on hold while you go back and grind.
And a blast from a decade earlier, at about the same time I hit that point in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, I also hit something similar in Devil Survivor. Day 3, for which anyone who’s played the game instantly know what I’m talking about, but there’s a boss there that’s already been well established as one hard beefcake, who has shown up in gameplay before and left you no choice but to flee for your lives before him, and who is already prophecized to straight up murder your party at exactly that time. This fight has to be tough. And it delivers. The general monsters around you are a step above the ones you have been facing up to this point and could potentially overwhelm you on their own, but the boss himself goes well beyond that. Offensively powerful, can hit every member of your group on the map, and invincible to absolutely everything except for a single attack your protagonist has just for this battle. Now, Devil Survivor is an SMT game, which usually has a heavy emphasis on the mental work over just raw numbers, so there’s still plenty of room to strategize your way past challenges without having to do a huge amount of grinding, but the only attack you have that can damage him? It’s a physical attack, which means if you sacrificed physical might to make your protag an arcane powerhouse like I did, you still need to back off for a while to go hammer out a few levels you can put in your strength to do some decent damage. Once again, at a big climactic plot point, but I had to run it back to go spend time doing something of minimal value only to go at it again feeling much more irritated.
So, I’m not going to say there’s no value to mandatory grinding in a game. I absolutely hated Dark Souls stupid checkpoint placements, but I do remember feeling early on in the game that there was an odd benefit there in needing to practice with the jobbers and slowly build up resources over the course of replaying familiar sections of the game again and again every time you lost. But I am going to say I hate grinding, and if it has to happen, it needs to be well placed. Both these examples landed their difficult spikes, and thus the necessity of grinding, right when their story momentum was reaching a height, and the necessity to take a break from the plot in order to get what I needed to move through it robbed the big moments of a lot of their impact and emotional gravitas. It was horrible for plot pacing, in short. And both of these have big story moves following those spiked battles, but it lost a bit of narrative continuity because I needed to stop and grind. I don’t have a good solution to that. Both of those fights needed to be hard, and needed to be harder than anything else you’ve faced. But I do know that grinding is not the solution there. Both of those imposed grinding at absolutely the worst place, and the stories suffered for it.
You get those strange feelings sometimes. Those urges. Those unusual desires which can only be fulfilled in one way. You don’t need to speak them, I know. Deep inside you, you have a passion, a craving, a drive, screaming at you for relief. In polite society, you ignore it, pretend its not there, but its never far from your thoughts. It’s more than a want, you need it to feel whole. You find yourself saying in private moments, in hushed tones “I wish Aether would explain his thoughts on a bunch of video games in relatively short form.” And it makes you feel dirty. But it doesn’t need to. Those desires, they’re perfectly healthy. You don’t need to be ashamed of them. Besides, I’m here to satisfy. So go ahead. Get yourself ready, and relax. I’ll take the lead from here.
Batman: The Telltale Series
So there was that #LoveYourBacklog event we did a while back. Answered a bunch of questions, talked about my giant but slowly shrinking backlog. One of those questions was leading up to the #MaybeInMarch deal, where you take the game that’s been on your backlog for the longest time, Hitman Absolution in my case, and play through that in March. I didn’t do that. You might notice this about me, but I don’t play by your rules. In fact, I don’t play by your rules so hard, that I instead played through the game that’s been on my back for the least time, instead. So take that.
In that post, I expressed that I had grown tired of Telltale’s usual “Everything is suddenly awful because we said so but really it’s your fault” style of storytelling, but held out hope that, given that they’re working with a property in Batman that’s generally more optimistic than their usual licenses, they’d be avoiding their usual habits with this. And in large part, they did! It trends towards the darker end of Batman stories, overall, and there’s times where things just go clumsily sour and there’s nothing you can do about it, but in the greater context where it’s not trying to beat you over the head with how awful everything is all the time, I had a much better time with it than I had with many of Telltale’s other narrative adventure fare. It’s definitely not perfect, it still has a lot of the omnipresent Telltale Games writing flaws, false choices, and a sloppiness that grows the further the story progresses, but it also has a pretty strong beginning and does some unique things with the Batman property, and I did end up enjoying it much more than I though I would.
One thing I did absolutely love about this game was how it changed the standard Batman status quo. Batman is one of those properties that, whatever your medium of choice, everyone knows, and knows fairly well. You know Batman’s story. You know his character traits. You know his major antagonists. Comics, film, tv, video games, books, beyond, Batman has been in them all. It’s hard to make Batman stories in new mediums feel fresh. Whereas Marvel’s Spider-Man (the PS4 game) surmounted this problem by highlighting a really solid villain from the relatively more recent comics that hadn’t been around long enough to gain such a hold in the public’s consciousness for most of the game in Mr. Negative, Telltale’s Batman gets over it by taking their most famous antagonists and changing them up entirely. Batman and his usual circle of support are all the same, but the typical famous villains for him are completely different. Two-Face arises in a situation rather different than what we usually find him in and as a result you don’t really know where things are going with him until they get there. Penguin has a lot of traits in common with usual depictions of him yet is still completely unrecognizable. Other famous villains show up in roles pretty far askance of what you’d usually find. And the central villain of the piece is both a brand new character and is not at the same time. I loved seeing how they shook up the traditional Batman characters, and that really got me much more interested in it throughout.
And for the record, I’m partway through Season 2 of Batman Telltale now, and although it still does some nice things with continuing shaking up the villains and supporting characters, but, although it was clear they planned for a season two initially, it’s just not as strong as the first. Season 1 ends conclusively, minimal problematic sequel hooks and all, so it’s not diminishing the quality of the first, but it’s still a bit of a disappointment after how much I enjoyed the initial. Maybe it’ll bring it back by the end, though.
Hey, Supergiant Games has been getting a lot of attention with their latest release. Apparently, Hades is a good game. So I thought today, we’d take a look at… something completely different.
A while back, we took a look at Supergiant Games’ first published effort, Bastion. I like the game, a lot. And I wrote a lot about it, once! Today, we’re going to follow up on that, by taking a look at their follow up, Transistor.
Transistor is a pretty obvious spiritual successor to Bastion, working off of the same DNA while really doing its own thing. In Transistor, you play as a woman without a voice using a sword that is also her lover in a world that’s cyberpunk as all hell and maybe is inside a computer or is a virtual reality thing or something to fight beasties that are probably computer programs gone wrong. Uhh… it gets a little weird when you phrase it all out like that. Let’s start over.
In Transistor, you find yourself in the city of Cloudbank, a city where absolutely everything, down to the weather is democratically determined, and as a result, has a bit of a problem with constant meaningless change and mediocrity. Whatever’s the lowest common denominator catches on the most, and never sticks around to make an impact. Nearly everyone is registered and set towards two determined goals, and individuals rise and fall all the time with barely anyone caring. You play as Red, a popular singer and maybe something of an activist who’s become ‘the voice of the people’. The local illuminati, the Camerata, who want to break Cloudbank out of that democratic quagmire it’s in, attack you, trying to stab you with the titular Transistor. Your romantic partner, a mysterious man who’s somehow entered Cloudbank without anything about him being registered, takes the hit for you, and his soul is absorbed into the Transistor. And then the Camerata take your voice somehow. You escape, get your hands on the Transistor, through which your boyfriend is still able to speak with you, and then you get attacked by computerized beasties as a result of something called the Process running amok. So, there’s the background of the game. In much more accurate and describing wordy-things this time around.
It’s never especially clear what exactly Cloudbank’s nature is, what’s outside of the city, etc. The game’s short on details in general. We’ll get into that later. Anyways, programming themes abound, which does lead to the impression that it’s all software. Most of the potential interaction points are highlighted using what looks like code, all your moves are code terms, your enemies and so much about the setting are computer terminology, Red, at least, seems rather adept with programming language, etc. It overall gives the piece a somewhat surreal tone. Visually and auditorily, the world hear is very somber. Colors are high contrast, but very muted, and the music, although nearly as good as we heard in Bastion last, are much less solely listenable, serving more to set the mood in combination with the story and the game, rather than standing on their own as great listens. Between that, the game feels a lot more lonely and oppressive than even Bastion’s post-apocalyptic romp with less characters than this game did. The music, they do some really interesting play with that I have to commend them for. Red, your character, is a singer, and you can unlock some of her songs. Moreover, even though she lost her voice, she can still hum, and will do so along with the background track at the press of a button. So you get your lead pretty heavily involved in the game’s soundtrack, hearing her voice where you can’t hear her otherwise. It makes for a really interesting tour through the game’s soundtrack.
Starting here, every Persona game is going to have a member of the party that doesn’t become a playable character themselves, but rather frees up your mission control member to focus on combat. In this game, that’s Fuuka. When you get Fuuka, you really get Mitsuru. Fuuka just takes Mitsuru’s place as the voice in your ear.
Anyways, Fuuka is demure, shy, and physically very small. She apparently spends a fair amount of time in the hospital, and that’s where Akihiko and Mitsuru first come to realize her potential to use a persona. However, she doesn’t seem to be especially sickly. She’s also revealed as missing a lot of school, although not due to illness. Her parents are relatively average folk among a family of high achievers, and out of jealousy of their more successful siblings, put a lot of pressure on her to succeed and raise their social standing. At school, she’s rather horribly bullied by the local ganguro girls, culminating in them locking her inside the school gym and leaving her there. Anyways, the game doesn’t make it clear, but I imagine that all her time out sick is really time trying to escape from the stress she’s facing at both school and home. If that’s the only place she has that’s safe for her, I can see why she’d be finding herself there with frequency.
At this point, it’s been almost a year since we entered quarantine. And it’s had its ups, times when I’ve been able to live up to my magnificent self, and its had its downs, times when I’ve been reminded that we’re still living in a dystopian future. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a long tunnel, and we’re still a ways from the end. So you know what? Let’s take that time to play some games. Here’s what I’ve been working through lately.
So, here’s one of those games I never really knew existed, but when one of the various give-you-games services landed it into my library, it really stood out. Chroma Squad is a Tactics-style strategy RPG in which you’re playing out battles for a Power Rangers-esque Super Sentai show. It lets you customize a lot about your show, from team and character names to the colors of your rangers and everything in between, which gives me incredible freedom to amuse myself with the powers of my own mind in ways absolutely nobody else will find funny, probably. From Kickass Blaster Studios, in the prime after school viewing block, hang on to your hats, boys and girls, it’s time for the totally child-appropriate show, Tooty Fruity Kill Squad! When evil is afoot, these five heroes, with a shout of “It’s Murder Time!”, will activate their Moon Prism Magic and transform into Killer Red (because every sentai group has a red leader), Killer Black, Killer Gray, Killer White (because it amused me to have a chunk of the usually colorful sentai squads be completely monochrome), and Killer Purple (because nobody ever has a purple ranger)! They’ll fight their way through hordes of goons, and then, when things get too hot to handle, unleash their team-based special move, the Eat Shit! And when their might alone isn’t enough, they’ll pilot their giant robot, the Killborg 10,000, to victory!
It rather helps that there’s a pretty simple but mechanically solid gameplay system behind it too. It’s a really basic tactics system in all, it’s grid-based and you’ve got your basic movements and attacks, a few weapons and abilities that depend on your characters classes and equipment, and an option to assist that’s really one of the things that adds a surprisingly large amount of depth to the gameplay. By assisting, your heroes will set themselves up for others to leap off of, adding a lot of range to their movement, and will also attack in unison with other rangers targeting enemies in mutual melee range, more than doubling their attack damage. If you pull off having all five members attack one enemy at once, they’ll do the team special move, the Eat Shit! in my case but you can call it something lamer if you’d like to in your game. But that’s supposed to be a finishing move, and if you use it as anything but a coup de grace, the anticlimax will make for a worse episode and you’ll lose fan power for that. Which is a thing. You need to have built up a certain amount of fan power to be able to transform from your lame everyday forms to your Killer selves, or whatever your team is named, in the first place, and beyond that, it plays a part in your overall studio management. That component feels a lot like a management sim, where you’re laying out and dealing with the resources for your own studio, but everything you do has a direct, in-combat effect, so it’s not really that in practice, more like just a really elaborate means of equipping your team in an RPG.
I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the character of the game, it does a lot of wink-wink nudge-nudge humor that seems likes it’s just trying too hard, and a lot of the enemy design is a little lackluster. You’ll be tired of fighting the same jobbers over and over again, but the bosses are frequent and varied, which works really well to keep things fresh. And the visuals, in spite of me deliberately toning down over half of my team, are very vibrant and coloful, and the music is pretty nice. Captures the old 90’s vibe really well in a primitive almost-chiptune set. Overall, I enjoyed my time with the game quite a bit. It moves quickly, and although it can be a little cringy or basic in parts, it’s a simple, fun time in all.
From a very vibrant game to one that’s carefully not. Aztez uses the old Madworld color palette of black, white, red, and nothing else. It’s a hard game to describe. Particularly given that I don’t especially understand it myself. It’s half board game, half smackdown? Something like that. So, in a given game, you’re playing in ancient Mexico, trying to do… something. I thought you were trying to take over cities and force out rival tribes, but then I won the game without doing that. Anyways, you start with board game parts, managing your towns and resources and what not. One of your resources are your warriors, and you get to do one major thing per warrior per turn. So more warriors equals more turns. The bulk of the things in this are combat challenges, where you get to the smackdown gameplay. I don’t know why, but that part of the game reminds me a lot of Viewtiful Joe’s post-game challenge levels. It has a similar feel to combat, and a lot of it is based on keeping track of enemies and making appropriate reactions to their telegraphed attack, much like Viewtiful Joe. Except you can absorb your opponent’s blood and use that to summon your god to smack them around. As you do.
Anyways, in my game, I spent most of my time campaigning against my rival tribes, pushing them back and stealing their territory, aiming to eradicate them as is usually the win condition in those types of strategy games. I almost got to that point, but then the Spanish arrived, with their armor and their guns and their better equipment than me, and they started completely crushing my guys. With clever use of items, I managed to push them back to the borders of the map, then devoted all my remaining warriors to taking them down so I could smash my rivals in peace. They killed all but the last of my warriors, but that last one brought down the guy with the biggest feather in his helmet, and that apparently meant that I won the game, even though my rivals now were in a perfect position to retake my land after I spent all I had in fighting the Spanish. So, I guess there’s a moral to the story. And that moral is that the true path to victory runs through beating up the Spanish.
Alright, boys, girls, ladies, and gentlemen, I think we need to set some ground rules here. Normally, I wouldn’t say I entirely adhere to the traditional review format, but with my “Eyes on” pieces, I like to take things as objectively as I can when looking at an inherently subjective medium. But try as I might, I can’t really do that today. Not with this piece. I absolutely love Bastion. And I love it for reasons that are a bit hard to articulate, and definitely aren’t universal. It connects with me in a particular way. A way others share, absolutely, so it’s not perfectly unique to me, but it’s a way that not everyone is going to connect with. But maybe some of you reading this would! So, in order to bring some light to it, I’m going to talk about Bastion today. But keep in mind, this is going to be less a review, and more me just gushing about one of my favorite games.
The game begins with your hero, the Kid, waking up after the Calamity, an apocalyptic event that blew his home city to pieces and turned most of the people therein into statues of ash. In third-person isometric action gameplay style, the Kid then makes his way to the titular Bastion, which was supposed to be the safe haven gathering spot for the city in the event of disaster, accompanied only by the ongoing narration of Rucks. Upon reaching the Bastion, the Kid learns that it has a function that can maybe do something about all of this, but it’s incomplete, so he needs to venture off to the various parts of the territory that had been sent sky high to regain the pieces it needs to work.
One of the most striking things about Bastion is how much it leverages its unique character. This most notably presents itself in the aforementioned ongoing narration. Rucks is, for the most part, the only character in the game to get any lines and personality, but he’s showing it to you constantly. As long as you’re continually moving forward and you’re outside of fights, he’s usually commenting on whatever’s going on. Your actions, the surrounding area, the backstory of the city and the calamity, the motivations of the enemies you’re facing, everything. All of your interactions with the world and people around you that go beyond hitting them with a hammer are relayed to you by the narrator rather than you seeing them directly, which in most instances would be absolutely frustrating to get through, but Rucks has such flavor to him that the game makes it work. The voice-acting, direction, and writing of the narrator is so beautifully on point, and it adds so much life to the game.
It helps that Rucks has a lot of good material to work with. The setting is a very interesting and unique one. It strikes me as being the type of place you’d see more often if the standard fantasy tropes were influenced by early American culture more so than Western European. The city of Caelondia was founded by pioneers from outside the area, and grew into a major economic and technological center in the world. They originally bought land from the natives to it, then ended up having a lot of friction with them. The city grew large, but it still had a lot of wild, untamed areas, of which many people were set to explore and master. Judging by Rucks, the people of Caelondia have a southwestern twang to their voice, and you see railways, revolvers and muskets, and other standard from the Wild Western genres. The major god of the parts is stylized as a ranch-style bull. One of the locations is called a Melting Pot, another is a straight up bayou, you take barges down big rivers, etc. If you mixed the classic western with fantasy, you might get what you see here. That, and the interesting applications and hints of a guild structure, the variety of items and descriptions you find, and the way Rucks adds so much character to even the simplest of things ends up making the game world so interesting.
The story’s really solid as well. It’s a lesson in minimalist storytelling, you only have four real characters, and everything is filtered through the viewpoint of a single one of them, but it ends up having a real impact in its execution. You get hope, guilt, betrayal, redemption, sacrifice, salvation, all flowing into each other really well. In optional challenges, you can explore everyone’s backstory as well, which proves itself to be really well thought-out and rounds them out as characters while also tying them into their role in the current plot really well. It makes them all, and their actions, seem very relatable, whatever they end up doing. Without spoilers, the endgame in particular makes me want to chef kiss at how it plays out. It really uses the imagination well, leaving just enough gaps for you to fill things in and bring things more to life in your head, without underexplaining anything or avoiding conclusions. It also has some capital letter THEMES, and it hits those beautifully. It really doesn’t feel like the freshman effort it is by Supergiant Games; the game moves its pieces around that central theme so adeptly I’d swear the team was all old hands at this. It really works best because it’s a somewhat short game, and has so few moving parts, as I feel like if they made it more complex than it was it’d all start to fall apart. As is, the basic elements of the plot may be things you’d see in many other places, but the way it’s handled here really sets this game apart in terms of storytelling.
Beyond that, the music of this game is absolutely stellar. This game has one of my absolute favorite soundtracks, and it’s probably the one I’ve returned to most often over the last decade. The southwestern instrumentation lends a lot of the songs a classic western feel overtop the modern and industrial foundation while all maintaining a pulse-pounding energetic feel. They evoke emotions and a sense of action very well, and truly add a lot to the piece. The songs with vocal tracks also provide a bit of a glimpse into the characters behind them, and really gain a lot of emotional grounding in context as well. So yes. Music. Marvellous. Dig it.
And I’ve been talking about the presentation a lot. You’re probably wondering about the gameplay. And you know, it’s good. Not quite as overwhelmingly stellar as the narration and music, but it’s still very solid. Walking around and bashing things feels very good, and you’ve got a great degree of control over your character. The Kid is pretty slow in ground speed, but that seems deliberate, and puts a greater emphasis on using your other tools for defense than just walking around attacks. There’s a really big variety of enemies for how long of a game this is, so you’re constantly changing up and adjusting your combat operations. You get a huge amount of options in setting up your character’s loadout, making the Kid incredibly versatile. It seems like every other level you get a new weapon, all of which play completely differently from each other, and you can mix and match upgrades to significantly alter their functionality. You’ve also got a number of buffs you can apply between levels that, again, significantly change the way you play, and, if you’re so inclined, a number of debuffs you can apply to yourself as well. If you’re interested in a combat systems that gives you a lot of control and is constantly introducing new things, Bastion scratches that itch well. Navigation is a bit of another story, however. Between the Kid’s slow movement and the fact that the world is remaking itself around you, it’s not too much fun to be walking around the parts in between when you’re crushing baddies, and it can be pretty confusing to get to where you’re going. Unless you’re willing to spend a lot of time slowly hugging the walls, expect to leave a lot of goodies behind. You can buy them later, but that takes resources you can probably put to better uses. It’s a lot better experience when you have the opportunity to just flow from one fight to the next.
The visuals of the piece are kind of ok. They’re colorful, and characters, creatures, and sprites are very distinct, making things really pleasant to look at and really easy to navigate in the midst of really complicated sequences. I do kind of get tired of nearly everything being made of tiles, but that’s kind of a necessity with the way they set things up here. Artistic design is a little mixed, most of the characters and some of the monsters do look really nice, others are kind of bland or visually confusing. It hits right when it matters most, at the very least.
But yeah. Less of a review. More of me raving about a thing I really like. But I REALLY like it. And now you know. So there.