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Some Bargain Manga Reviews

In addition to playing a lot of games, I read a ton of manga. 2014 was a packed year as far as trying– and committing to– new manga series goes; as of this writing, I’m currently following nearly twenty different series. There have been loads of great new work being produced lately, as well as old classics I’m either finally catching up on, or reading as they are being published in English for the first time. Perhaps I’ll write about some of those works later, but for now, I’ll focus on a specific class of manga: cheap, short series picked up from Right Stuf’s Bargain Bin and epic year-end sales.

Even when picking up manga on the cheap, I tend to do some basic research beforehand; the length of a given series and its general reception are the two most important factors. The latter’s self-explanatory, but as for the former, I try to stick to series that are only a few volumes long at most. Only once have I ever bought a 10+ volume long series at a nice discount without having read any of it, and fortunately, that manga turned out to be excellent: Ouran High School Host Club, picked up in box set form for 50% off (in all fairness, though, I’d previously seen—and loved—the anime). I do have the seven-volume Lament of the Lamb waiting for me in the wings, but if it wasn’t for some decent ratings and the set being roughly 67% off cover price, I wouldn’t have picked it up.

Anyway, let’s get started.

<i>Someday's Dreamers</i> vol. 1. Source image from Right Stuf.

Someday’s Dreamers
by Norie Yamada and Kumichi Yoshizuki
US Publisher: Tokyopop
Total Volumes: 2
Original Cover Price: $19.98 for both
Bought For: $11.98 (reduced to $10.78 with Got Anime) for both

I’ll start with a short series I picked up in May of last year, Someday’s Dreamers. Like most of the books featured in this post, this was localized by Tokyopop, which abruptly shut down its North American publishing operations in 2011. Without going into that too deeply, this move caused quite a stir in the manga blogosphere and led to Tokyopop books being clearanced out of Barnes & Noble. Since Right Stuf’s Bargain Bin includes a lot of items returned to publishers by other stores, that’s probably what accounts for the large amount of Tokyopop stuff it holds. That said, the condition of these Bargain Bin books ranges from “used bookstore” to “practically new”, but either way, it’s hard to tell if I truly got my money’s worth without actually reading them.

Upon rereading Someday’s Dreamers, I confirmed that in this case, I had. This manga, in which magic is a normal thing in contemporary Japan, is about a seventeen year old girl, Yume, who spends a summer in Tokyo for magic-user training and certification. Her everyday adventures, tinged as they are with magic, reveal her to be extremely empathic and wanting to do the right thing, but, at least at first, without much serious thought put into the potential consequences of her actions. Her biggest hurdles come in the form of lessons about life, death, and happiness, and, on top of that, her teacher has issues of his own.

The art style, along with Yume’s personality and the slice-of-life nature of the chapters, are unabashedly moe, in a good way. Yume definitely fits the moe mold: she’s a sweet, kind girl who you want to be happy, and has the small mouth, smaller nose, and gentle-yet-somewhat-sad eyes endemic amongst this subgenre’s characters. Aside from some mild and occassional emphasis on certain body parts in the art and composition, there is nothing creepy here, just a coming-of-age story about a teenager who also happens to know some magic. Like the best works of this type, it’s pleasant and rather nostalgic, and the premise enables some particularly dreamlike scenes.

If there is one thing that’s unusual about these two volumes, it is that they are both rather short, each one clocking in at around 130 pages, when your standard manga is typically 50-70 pages longer than that. I wonder why Tokyopop chose to release these two volumes individually, rather than compiling them into an omnibus; it could be because of the way the story arcs are structured, or a restriction imposed by the original creators, or something else. Regardless, it’s a good purchase for $12 (seven bucks for Vol. 1 and five for Vol. 2) if you’re ever in the mood for this sort of thing.

<i>Aquarium</i>. Source image from Right Stuf.

Aquarium
by Tomoko Taniguchi
US Publisher: Central Park Media
Total Volumes: 1
Original Cover Price: $9.99
Bought For: $2.49

As it happens, CPM is another defunct anime and manga company, albeit one who had been around a bit longer and whose business practices were less controversial. They didn’t publish much printed media, but their manga catalog was as diverse as their anime one. In addition to works such as the notorious hentai Urotsukidoji, series by Kia Asamiya and Youka Nitta, various anime adaptations, and even some manhwa and OEL stuff, they published a handful of one-shots and two volume manga by Tomoko Taniguchi, including the short story collection Aquarium.

There are three stories in the book. In “Aquarium”, a high school student drowns her sorrows by gazing at the fish at a local aquarium; “The Flying Stewardess” is about a young flight attendant trying to fit in at her lively job; and finally, “The Heart is Your Kingdom” concerns a girl who has trouble smiling around the boy she likes.

There isn’t much about these stories that I could find fault with. The pacing is appropriate to each one and the page layouts convey the tales with clarity. It’s also nice that the second story was lighthearted and comedic, serving as a nice break between the drama of “Aquarium” and that of “The Heart is Your Kingdom”. Despite the brief time spent with the characters, they are realistic, and their stories are heartfelt, if a bit melodramatic at times.

If there’s one thing I would warn potential readers about, it’s that this is most definitely an early 90s shoujo manga. The art style is old-fashioned by today’s standards, which may be a bit of a turnoff to some people. If you can get past that hurdle, it’s definitely worth the four dollars that it’s now going for at Right Stuf. Aquarium made such an impression on me that I now have a handful of other short works by this mangaka on order. Here’s hoping that they are just as good.

<i>Bus Gamer</i>. Source image from Right Stuf.

Bus Gamer
by Kazuya Minekura
US Publisher: Tokyopop
Total Volumes: 1
Original Cover Price: $9.99
Bought For: $2.99

Three young men are caught up in a dangerous game, one in which we might call “tower defense”. The “towers” are corporate secrets on floppy disks, and they must be either guarded or taken away from a competing team. These three are “Business Gamers”, and they play for huge monetary rewards and the amusement of the rich assholes who are their bosses. However, this game becomes more dangerous with each new round, and increasingly difficult to leave.

This “Pilot Edition” of Bus Gamer is all that exists of this series—a series which clearly seems to have been intended to become something longer and more fleshed out. We learn snippets about our heroes’ lives and personalities from chapter to chapter, but many of the biggest questions, such as why they need the money they get from playing this game, go unanswered.

At many times, Bus Gamer is very much a character study, with high school student Kazuo the most earnest of the three; it is he who wants to know more about his partners, with the other two, Toki and Nobuto, only rarely revealing new aspects of themselves. The camaraderie that slowly, gradually, develops between them is the most intriuguing thing about this manga, and a major reason why I wished it had continued.

Bus Gamer‘s art style is detailed, stylized, and imperfect, and a great match for the solid page and panel compositions. The writing has an urban feel to it, with a localization that, thankfully, doesn’t go overboard with the slang. The mangaka is best known for a longer series, Saiyuki, which I’m considering checking out now, even though the setting doesn’t grab me as much. As for Bus Gamer, this one-shot is, like Aquarium, currently $3.99 in Right Stuf’s Bargain Bin and is worth a look if you can tolerate its incompleteness.

<i>Mad Love Chase</i> vol. 1. Source image from Right Stuf.

Mad Love Chase
by Kazusa Takashima
US Publisher: Tokyopop
Total Volumes: 5
Original Cover Price: $54.95 for all
Bought For: $24.99 for all

Finally, we have come to the bottom of the stack, in more ways than one. I didn’t have the highest expectations for this series, based on its premise, but most people seemed to like it well enough that I figured I should give it a chance. As it turned out, it isn’t bad, but it’s not really good, either. While I wait for the next volumes of truly great romantic comedies My Love Story!! and Nisekoi, please join me in picking apart Mad Love Chase.

Like I said, the premise of this manga didn’t sound like the greatest thing ever, but it did hold some promise. Demon price Kaito runs away from home with his pet cat to avoid his arranged marriage and live freely in our world, disguised as a human. Angered by this, the Demon King sends a team of three agents to find the prince, who can easily be identified by an elaborate tattoo on his back. Hijinks, largely involving the agents trying to remove the prince’s shirt, ensue.

This setup is handled quickly and messily. The earliest chapter is particularly bad, as the setup of the premise feels forcefully rushed, without letting the exposition flow naturally. Things get slightly better later on, though new plot holes arise. For example, somewhere in the middle of the series, a new character and his pet mouse come onto the scene to hunt down the prince, though his motives are never made clear, and, after his story arc is over, he is never seen again and only mentioned in passing once or twice. Another new character, a magician, comes along later on and, although he is actually important to the story, his actions seem too serendipitous to take seriously as plot developments. Then there’s the “love triangle” that permeates the series, and isn’t really a triangle in the traditional sense, if at all. Finally, like the beginning of the manga, the end is rushed and unsatisfying, though it does attempt to tie up all the loose ends for the entire cast.

If there is a high point to this manga, it’s the art, which is very good. Unfortunately, there are many places where it suffers from bad layouts, plus the “gag” art of the characters isn’t all that great. Most of the characters are likable, though the pacing and layouts often work against them. In general, this is a lighthearted, and frequently silly, romp without a whole lot else going for it. Oddly, it isn’t in the Right Stuf Bargain Bin, even though at least a couple of the volumes I got were certainly at that level of condition; it was offered as a bundle during the holiday sales (which is when I picked it up), and again during their recent Valentine’s Day promotion. Even if this series does go on sale again, skip it in favor of an actual good romantic comedy.


This Year’s Holiday Card

One of my regular projects is an annual (usually; I’ve missed at least a couple of years) “Holiday Card”, typically a piece of Christmas/winter fanart for my online friends. I had plans to do one this year, and even had a couple of Persona 4-themed ideas stored away well in advance, but when the fall hit, I got a spark of inspiration for something else, which I started working on in November.

Legend of Cascadia This project, a short J-style RPG called Legend of Cascadia, is not holiday-themed, but is my replacement for this year’s Holiday Card. It is based on one of my favorite Peter Molydeux tweets, one which I briefly considered adapting for the first MolyJam, but lacked the time, experience, and overall foundation to do so. However, over this past month and a half (and especially the last four weeks), after finally getting a solid idea in my head, I put it together. The engine I used is RPG Maker VX Ace, which I’d only dabbled with before, and is both surprisingly robust and frustratingly limited. It was also the perfect tool to put together this sort of thing.

Anyway, hope you all enjoy this bit of silliness from me. Before I go, you may have noticed that Cascadia lives under a new menu section called “Projects”. I can’t promise that I’ll make more games in the future, but this is where any similar such works will live from now on. Thanks, have a good holiday season and here’s hoping we all have a great 2015!


Freeman Following

It’s been about three months since my last post, and much has happened in the meantime: something about gates on the Twitterverse and elsewhere, another fun trip to PAX Prime, and seeing a handful of highly anticipated games come out. I’ve played quite a few games to completion since then as well, including the outstanding DS dungeon crawler Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, underdog (underhog?) platformer Sonic Unleashed, and the last two unplayed Guild games I had sitting on my 3DS, Attack of the Friday Monsters! and Crimson Shroud. All were good-to-excellent, but none of them cross the masterpiece threshold save for one game and its official expansions: Half-Life 2.

Yes, as with so many others, I’m really late to the party on this one. This November marks the tenth anniversary of Half-Life 2‘s release. Back in 2004, it won a staggering number of Game of the Year honors, well more than other notable releases of the time, including Katamari Damacy and World of WarCraft. Since then, it and its episodic expansions, Episode One and Episode Two, have left gamers wanting more, cracking numerologic jokes about Half-Life 3 and being frustrated over the long-delayed Episode Three. Now, I know for sure that all of the above is justifiable.

One of the many scenes of destruction and decay in <i>Half-Life 2</i>.Firstly, there’s the superficial stuff: for a ten year old game, Half-Life 2 looks and sounds incredibly good. I said much the same thing about the original Half-Life, and it’s just as true for the sequel. It’s almost criminal that a game this old can feel this contemporary, and even with my blazingly fast desktop computer, the loading screens can still take a little while. Sure, some of the environment models look blocky, but they’re the only really strong indicator of the game’s true age. A great deal of credit for Half-Life 2‘s time-tested aesthetic goes out to Valve’s texture artists and sound designers, who rank alongside the likes of Blizzard’s as some of the best in the business.

Speaking of textures, they maintain the aesthetic that Valve had previously established for the series’ world. Although the action has shifted from the American Southwest to somewhere in Eastern Europe, the well-worn industrial trappings are still there. Rust lines the edges of barrels, wooden pallets and concrete foundations are weather-beaten, and paint quietly peels from neglected living room walls. The characters, too, have a certain worn quality about them as well, in ways both obvious and subtle.

Dr. Eli Vance and Dr. Judith Mossman.The rust-filled setting this time is City 17, an old-world urban center with a giant, unearthly tower plunked down in the middle. It is on a train headed to this place where player character Gordon Freeman is deposited by the “G-Man”, a suit with unknown motives and an unusual bearing. The opening credit sequence on board the train is but one of many callbacks to the original Half-Life, and others soon follow, including a pair of scientists from that older game, who now bear actual names, as well as Barney Calhoun, the security guard from the Blue Shift expansion pack. In the meantime, we are also informed about the Combine, the extradimensional invaders who conquered the Earth while Gordon was gone; get our first glimpse of Dr. Breen, the Black Mesa administrator turned leader of the oppressed city, who appears on giant viewscreens around town; and are formally introduced to Alyx Vance, the mechanically-inclined daughter of Eli, one of the aforementioned scientists.

Alyx is regularly touted as one of the best female game characters to date, which says a bit about how backward the representation of women in games is. Her engineering and combat skills aside, she is pretty normal: level-headed, compassionate, a little bit sarcastic. Whenever she is teamed up with Gordon, which happens infrequently in Half-Life 2 and more often in the Episodes, she doesn’t neatly fit the typical female sidekick role of guide or some other inflexible stereotype. Instead, she’s a genuine partner, who helps Gordon past obstacles just as often as he does for her. Together, they’re a well-balanced team, and much the same can be said of others who accompany Gordon throughout his adventures, from the nameless human and Vortigaunt rebels to Barney and the suitably monikered robot Dog.

Still, it seems Valve couldn’t resist shoving some sort of subtle romantic overture in there, as Eli and others occasionally inquire about Alyx and Gordon’s prospects together. At least Alyx, for her part, never brings such matters up to Gordon herself, leaving the whole situation vague. Similar romantic undercurrents are present in scenes featuring the game’s other major female character, a scientist named Judith Mossman who is more than she appears. Still, despite these minor instances of pandering, both Alyx and Judith have been interesting steps forward for female characterization in first-person shooters.

It's hard to pick out a good example of HL2-style humor without spoilers, but here's one that fits.Speaking of which, the storytelling is handled in the same natural way as it was in the original Half-Life, with exposition and such presented to you by non-player characters and background details in-game, without ever interrupting the flow of the action for a static cutscene (and, thankfully, subtitles and closed-captioning are options this time). However, with a fair number of actual named characters this time comes a greater emphasis on plot and characterization. This is by no means a bad thing, of course, and lends Half-Life 2 and its follow-up episodes a depth that was lacking from their predecessors. One aspect of the storytelling which is a bit more faithful, style-wise, to Half-Life is the general tone; this is still an unpredictable world dealing with the consequences of scientific curiosity, but one with its little bits of dark humor well intact. For better or worse, this is also an unfinished story, with Episode Two closing with a dramatic cliffhanger and many, many questions left unanswered.

Anyway, enough about the finer trappings: this is a first-person shooter, and I haven’t talked about the shooting bits yet. The enemies are challenging and diverse enough while being rarely annoying and never out of place. In a similar vein, the weapons and ancillary controls (running, flashlight, etc.) are all reasonably satisfying for their respective purposes, with the shotgun and Antlion pheropods being two particular highlights. There’s also the famed Gravity Gun, the second tool-style weapon received in the game; the first is, of course, Gordon’s iconic crowbar. The Gravity Gun is the most dependable and versatile out of all the weapons, and is deceptively simple in operation: the left mouse button brings objects (up to a certain size) closer, while the right one pushes them away. Aside from its combat uses, the Gravity Gun is essential for solving many of the puzzles which quietly present themselves throughout Gordon’s adventures.

One area in which the controls falter a bit is in the driving sections, which are overly long in Half-Life 2 and thankfully few in the Episodes. Keeping consistent with the series’ level of immersion, these driving sections are in first-person view and have similar controls to those for walking around. This approach, while seeming sensible, leaves something to be desired, as it can be somewhat difficult to use mouselook (which doesn’t affect driving direction) and WASD controls (which does) simultaneously. Acceleration and braking are also somewhat tied in with the directional controls, which seems a little odd at first, but at least works better than turning does.

Half-Life was already an incredible game for its day, and one which has stood the test of time. For Half-Life 2 and its Episodes (especially the brutal and harrowing Episode Two) to surpass it is no mean feat. Even the bite-sized nugget of an expansion, the excised-level-turned-playable-tech-demo Lost Coast, is an outstanding little production that does its franchise proud. With better driving controls and less of a reliance on romance as a minor plot crutch, this whole package would’ve been perfect; however, what masterpiece is truly without flaw? Half-Life 2 expands on Half-Life‘s promise that subtlety and intense action needn’t be strangers, reminds us that silent protagonists are worthy avatars, and, in an extraordinary world, revels in little details and moments of normalcy.


A Pile of Braincrumbs Before I Go

Leaving on a trip tomorrow, and it’s going to be one of those rare times where I unplug for awhile. That said, I made sure that whatever I started playing in the past few weeks were things that I could beat before leaving. In the end, I played through four games and read a Let’s Play of Dare to Dream, an early effort by one Clifford Blezinski (thankfully, he’s improved since then).

That aside, here’s what I thought of those four games I played:

Time Limit Within 7 Days – Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked

Even though my main gaming goal for the year is to beat as much of my MegaTen backlog as possible, I haven’t made much progress with that. After Persona 4, I didn’t play another SMT-related game until this one, which is a 3DS port-with-extras of the original Devil Survivor on DS. It’s also a strategy RPG, which is unusual for this franchise, but as I love the genre, I wasn’t going to complain.

During battles, the top screen features a ton of useful info.It was the SRPG elements, and the battle system in general, which proved to be the most fun part of the game. Characters move around on a grid and can attack and use special actions, but the twist here is that each of your party members can have a team of up to two demons tagging along with them, and initiating battle leads to a first-person turn-based affair that’s more typical of MegaTen. This mixing of traditional and strategy JRPG gameplay works really well, and is further augmented by robust customization options and demon recruitment and creation systems.

Despite this, the game is grindy on the normal difficulty, which wouldn’t be as bad if there were more than one or two “free battle” areas to level up in at a time. As for the story, it’s pretty good, though hardly original—much like The World Ends with You, the game takes place in Tokyo over a period of seven days, which is the time limit the main characters’ have in order to sort things out (it’s worth noting here that among Overclocked‘s new features are some unlockable “eighth day” scenarios, though I didn’t get one with the ending I chose). In other aspects, the plot is your standard boilerplate MegaTen, with a silent protagonist, characters with varied personal agendas, and multiple endings. Most of the time, it’s well-paced for a portable game, though the density of plot threads means that it can be easy to forget your place at times, which can lead to unintended (by you) consenquences.

The game is fully voiced (though the results are hit or miss), the music and graphics are decent… for the most part (I want to know what the hell is up with that strap on Haru’s dress), and the localized script is up to Atlus USA’s usual high standards. Strangely, there isn’t much use of 3D aside from the opening movie and demon fusing animations, but other than that, it looks great on my XL. As a MegaTen game, it’s a reasonably solid entry overall.

A Little Story in a Cave – Ikachan

That familiar Pixel aesthetic comes across clearly in <i>Ikachan</i>.By the time I beat Devil Survivor Overclocked, there wasn’t enough time to start something similarly lengthy, so everything I’ve played since then has been much shorter. First up was Ikachan, a 3DS port of a pre-Cave Story PC game by Studio Pixel. It takes place in an underwater cavern, and the main character is a squid. As in Cave Story, there are snaking passages, cute little regular enemies, deadly red spikes to avoid, strange beings to talk to (barnacle/anemone people, in this case), useful items to collect, and an atmosphere that ably blends the unusual with the mundane.

The story, however, is much simpler, and so is the game itself. There is only one area—the gigantic cave where the tale takes place—and very few boss battles. For Cave Story fans, Ikachan is notable for being the game that Ironhead, a large fish with an, er, iron head, came from. Ikachan is also easier; none of the enemies are as taxing as, say, Monster X in Cave Story. It’s cute, very short, and worth a look if you have a spare hour or two. The original PC game is freeware (note: some spoilers in link), though the 3DS version adds some new features, including a subtle layered 3D effect.

Blame Canada – Deadlight

I don’t normally play zombie games, but I do play platformers, and picked up Deadlight in a Steam sale awhile back. Unfortunately, my old Mac Pro couldn’t handle it, and so it was one of those games I shuttled off into my “Save for new compy” folder. As I now have said new compy, I’ve started digging into that folder. Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing was the acid test, and not long after playing through that, I found myself moving on to games like this one.

It ain't Canada, but it'll do.Deadlight takes place in early July 1986, in Seattle, in which it seems like pretty much the whole world has been overrun by zombies—sorry, “Shadows”—and what few humans are left in this one particular city try their best to survive. The main character is a scruffy middle-aged Canadian man (we know for sure he is Canadian because the game likes to remind us of this every so often, mostly through his diary entries and some comments on the items he finds during his travels) who is searching for his wife and daughter. He gets separated from his friends early on and is forced to make his way to a designated safe point on his own. This he does by running, jumping, climbing, walking, etc. all over the Seattle metro area in a linear fashion, occasionally solving puzzles and finding hidden areas. On a superficial level, at least, it’s pretty similar to Mark of the Ninja, but with much less stealth and a lot more zombies Shadows.

The game is thick with zombie genre cliches and sports at least a couple of frustrating sections in the third act, plus pausing is sometimes buggy, but otherwise it is generally well made (as unbelievable as some of it seems at times) and appropriately gritty and moody. It’s the sort of game that isn’t going to change the world, but does provide some fairly decent entertainment for a little while.

A Hungrier, Toothier Kirby – The Maw

I beat Deadlight quicker than I thought I would, and still needed something to play! To satiate this hunger, I turned to The Maw, which is, like Deadlight, a PC port of an XBLA game. This time, however, you play a small blue alien who befriends a small purple alien shortly before the ship on which you are both imprisoned crash-lands. The blue alien finds a handy laser lasso gauntlet thing, and accompanies the purple alien, a walking eyeball and mouth called Maw, on a journey to do… something. Though there are parts where they have to outwit their former captors, it’s never made very clear what the protagonists’ specific goal is.

This transformation power, which only appears once, is my favorite.The Maw is a neat little piece of platforming goodness—the kind of lower-budgeted, but still polished, work you’d commonly see released on disk form throughout the PS2 era. The lasso gauntlet is the main character’s means of interacting with Maw and the various creatures and objects within the world they’ve crashed onto. Maw itself grows as it eats and, much like a certain famous pink puffball, can gain different appearances and abilities if it consumes certain creatures; for example, a large horned beetle enables Maw to do a ramming move, which can destroy boulders and surpass certain obstacles. There are only a handful of these moves, but the small number of them makes sense given the game’s brief length.

Unlike many other, older platformers, the challenge is dialed down a bit. There are no lives, and respawning takes you back pretty much to exactly the same spot you were at when you died (for example, structures that you had destroyed before will remain destroyed). This being the case, it makes me wonder why it’s been made possible to die to begin with. Although it lessens some frustration, it’s still a very odd design choice.

The version of The Maw that I played included all of the DLC levels, which were omitted scenes interspersed throughout the campaign. While this is a nifty use of DLC, for the most part, they stuck out like a sore thumb in that they tended to be longer and more intricate than the “regular” stages.

Aside from some camera issues when Maw gets to be on the big side, a soundtrack that’s sometimes too repetitive, and the aforementioned issues regarding the difficulty and DLC, there’s really nothing bad I can say about this game. It’s just long enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome, it controls well, it’s stable, and it’s enjoyable. For a lot of games, I couldn’t ask for much more than that.


Less Explaining, More Engaging

For the past week, I’ve been alternately too tired or too busy to play games. Right now I’m both, since my new desktop machine is due to arrive tomorrow and I still haven’t finished backing up the old one. I’m really looking forward to setting everything up once it gets here, but it’ll also be a little while before I settle into a normal routine again. Oh, and I still have some sleep to catch up on.

After beating Steins;Gate and a trip to see family, I settled back down in front of Steam and started up Frozen Synapse. However, it was more difficult than I had expected, plus the campaign’s story is a jargon-filled stew that, at its very core, isn’t novel enough to justify its complexity. Therefore, I put it aside and booted up Half-Life.

Barney sees that Gordon is on his way to work in <i>Half-Life: Blue Shift</i>.Protagonist Gordon Freeman is, like S;G‘s Okabe, a physicist involved with fantastical research, but that’s where their similarities end. Gordon is a professional as opposed to a mere student, talks way less (as in, not at all), and, I imagine, plays lots of Quake when he’s not working. The nature of his research at Black Mesa is barely explained and, after something goes wrong with the day’s experiment and the game begins in earnest, you’re only ever given as much information as you need. The narrative flows naturally in this way and, aside from the loading screens and occasional bug, so does the game itself. Half-Life is wonderfully designed (aside from the aforementioned bugs, plus the lack of a subtitle option) and doesn’t feel as old as it is; I was afraid that the graphics would be blockier and jaggier than they actually were. It’s obvious as to why it’s held in such high esteem.

Not long after wrapping up Gordon’s adventures (for now), I dug into two expansion packs, Blue Shift and Opposing Force, which has you play as Black Mesa security guard Barney Calhoun and US Marine Corporal Adrian Shepard, respectively. Even though it was made later, I played Blue Shift first; it was short and had a limited selection of weapons, but expanded on Half-Life‘s dry and dark humor, making for a light but yummy snack of a game. Opposing Force was meatier and the most difficult of the three that I played; it had some interesting new weapons and enemies, and both added to the original game’s story and echoed it in certain ways, or at least more than Blue Shift did. By the time I had wrapped it up, I was ready to take another lengthy break from first-person shooters. I’ve been meaning to start a JRPG of some sort (either a MegaTen game or Rune Factory 4), but have run into the whole tired/busy problem.

One of the many riveting Gunpla battles in <i>Gundam Build Fighters</i>.Instead of games, I’ve been spending my leisure time reading and, along with bitprophet, finally finishing up Gundam Build Fighters, the most recent anime in one of Japan’s biggest cash cow franchises. The premise of this show is even more commercialized than usual: instead of a story of war, politics, and giant mecha, here we have a lively tale of kids battling with Gundam plastic models (Gunpla) on special playfields where they’re brought to life. This type of story is not new to anime—it most reminded me of CLAMP’s Angelic Layer, which features battles between user-customized dolls instead of robots—but it’s new(ish) to Gundam, and was pulled off rather well. Once again, the scientific stuff—in this case, the technology behind the “Gunpla Battle” game—is barely touched upon; for most of the series, pretty much all we know is that the mysterious “Plavsky particles” make it possible. Rather, the important parts of the series are the characters, Gundam models, and the international tournament in which they all come together.

The core story involves Sei Iori, a boy who loves Gunpla and is a talented builder of them, but isn’t very good when it comes to the fighting aspect. One fateful day, he meets Reiji, a strange kid who, as it turns out, is very talented at Gunpla battling. The two of them team up with the goal of making it to the Gunpla Battle World Tournament. It’s worth noting that there was an earlier OAV series with a similar Gunpla-based focus, but Gundam Build Fighters is a wholly new story.

All of the characters, as cliched as they can act at times, are fun or at least interesting, and they’re lovingly drawn, with some of the best gag expressions I’ve ever seen in an anime series. The Gunpla battles themselves have a stunning level of care put into them, and are generally a treat to watch. As for the story, it’s predictable (and is basically one big commercial for real-life Gunpla), but this is one series where the journey is just as important—or perhaps moreso—than the destination. Some previous experience with the Gundam franchise is recommended, as not only are there tons of little bits of series fanservice, but it is also nothing like the other, more serious shows. Still, it’s a quality production and a lot of fun, and I hope it doesn’t ultimately get overlooked in favor of whatever shows are super-hot at the moment. If you’re in the US or Canada and want to check it out, the entire series is legally available on YouTube, fully subtitled in English.


The Choices of Steins;Gate

Special note: Due to the story-heavy nature of Steins;Gate, there are a lot of spoilers, both major and minor, contained within this review. Since conspiracies are an important theme in this game, I’ve “redacted” said spoilers. To see this text, hover your mouse cursor over the black bars.

Usually, when I preorder a game, it’s for one of two reasons: I want to play it right away (the StarCraft IIs of the world) or I don’t necessarily want to play it right away, but still want to support it (the Bravely Defaults of the world). Rarely have I preordered a single game to support an entire genre, but that was what I did when it came to JAST USA’s localization of the Windows port of Steins;Gate (it was originally an Xbox 360 exclusive in Japan): I did it in the hope that we might see more English-translated, non-hentai PC visual novels in the future. Steins;Gate is hardly the first such product, but it’s one of the most important ones we’ve seen in some time, or at least since Ever17 and/or Higurashi: When They Cry. It’s also the second and most successful of Nitroplus and 5pb.’s “Science Adventure” standalone VNs (released after Chaos;Head and before Robotics;Notes), and the first to be officially localized in English. So, in the end, does Steins;Gate live up to the hype?

A rare fourth-wall gag in <i>Steins;Gate</i>.

As Okabe peers in at something, Daru ponders existential matters.

This visual novel takes place in modern-day Akihabara, the Tokyo neighborhood famous for its electronics and anime/game otaku stores. The narrator and POV character is one Rintaro Okabe, a college student who spends a good deal of time as his alter ego, Hououin Kyoma, a self-described mad scientist on the run from “the Organization”. This is all in his head, of course. Along with his classmate Itaru, aka Daru, and childhood friend Mayuri, aka Mayushii, he spends his summer vacation running the Future Gadget Laboratory, basically an apartment hangout above the Braun Tube Workshop, a store specializing in old CRT television sets. The “gadgets” they make in the “lab” are, for the most part, laughable failures, but then something bizarre happens one afternoon. This mysterious event leads to the lab’s fourth member, a prodigy and real scientist named Kurisu, joining the team, as well as further investigation into the latest gadget, the PhoneWave (name subject to change), which was originally intended as a remotely controlled microwave but may in fact be some sort of time machine.

As this is a traditional VN, there is very little interactivity. Apart from the True End, the routes to the endings are fairly straightforward, and other, smaller, in-game decisions lead to extras and achievements. All of the player’s actions are not carried out through the expected dialogue trees, but are determined by what is done with Okabe’s cell phone, which can be whipped out at almost any time and interacted with. Aside from replying to emails and (sometimes, rarely) talking on the phone, the player can change the wallpaper and ringtones, and, amusingly, access the Future Gadget Lab’s website, which opens in your computer’s default browser. Of all of the phone’s functions, emailing is the most cumbersome. You can answer emails by clicking on select phrases within them, but you’re locked into your choice and can’t go back to see how Okabe would reply to the others; in addition, these replying options seem to disappear after a set amount of time has passed.

What’s more irritating about the phone menu is that I discovered it purely by accident. The phone menu opens when moving your mouse cursor all the way to the right, or by pressing the “P” key. Neither of these moves is mentioned in the pause menu, which I also just happened upon and contains information on what all the other controls are. Note that at the time, I was playing the download version of the game, which does not come with a manual or even a readme file (the Limited Edition comes with a printed manual; not sure about the standard physical version, which hasn’t come out yet). As the phone menu is the main gameplay mechanic, this is a major oversight; a rudimentary control/hotkey guide accessible through the game’s start screen, or even just as a separate text file, would’ve greatly improved my initial experience. ETA (05/06): I’ve since noticed that that there is a PDF manual for the download version, though it has to be downloaded separately from the rest of the game’s files.

The Tips menu.

The Tips menu contains all sorts of useful info, like the definition of “kitteh”.

Aside from the phone menu, there’s a handy “backlog” feature, which is a record of the preceding narration and dialogue. Unfortunately, character names aren’t listed alongside their dialogue (you can hear their lines again, though) and saved files start with blank backlogs after loading them up, but despite these issues, I relied on this feature quite a bit. Other menus include “Tips”, an exhaustive glossary of technical, otaku, and other terms that gets filled out as one plays the game, standard pages for overall progress and achievements, and CG still and movie galleries that are unlocked upon reaching an ending for the first time. There are also two types of save files, quick saves and regular saves, and a total of 160 save slots between them; given that this game is roughly 40-50 hours long if you go for just one ending, having all these slots is more a necessity than a luxury.

The character graphics are designed by huke, the popular illustrator who created Black Rock ★ Shooter, and are unmistakably his creations: white circles in the irises, sharp chins, tiny mouths, and lots of dappled texture patterns. This art isn’t perfect; sometimes, the anatomy looks a little wonky, especially in a few scenes featuring Tennouji, aka Mister Braun, the muscular manager of the CRT shop. There is also a technical glitch in at least one spot when a character is zoomed in on, where the mouth animations don’t quite line up with the still face. The backgrounds fare better, capturing both the real-life and imaginary settings quite well, and include a few arresting and memorable images. The localized text is well-written—respectful of its source while being accessible to English speakers—and contains only a handful of grammatical errors. It’s worth noting that this localization uses a mix of real names (for example, the otaku stores Animate, Toranoana, and Mandarake) and fictionalized ones (Starbecks, Dr. P, etc.). I’m not sure if this is equally true for the Japanese original, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it is. As for the music, it’s the type of bordering-on-generic stuff typical of an above-average anime; appropriate but not particularly distinctive, in other words.

Faris NyanNyan, looking upset.

Uh-huh, Okabe, whatever you say…

And speaking of which, both the story and the characters are anime as hell. Okabe starts off as the most unusual character in the ensemble, but later follows a path of personal growth, much like heroes in other Japanese media. Mayuri is a childlike airhead and cosplay seamstress who is mostly endearing, occasionally irritating, and sometimes shrewdly observant. “Super Hacka” Daru accurately describes himself as a “gentleman pervert”—he gets along respectfully with “3D girls”, but loves the 2D ones in eroge and can find moe in anything, including the Large Hadron Collider. Kurisu is level-headed most of the time, logical almost to a fault, and a closet Internet Person. Then there’s male shrine maiden Luka, catgirl waitress Faris, cell phone addict Moeka, and Braun Tube Workshop part-timer Suzuha, rounding out what would be a harem in nearly any other game. The harem/dating sim elements are made much more obvious in the second half of the game, where large chunks of backstory about most of the female characters is revealed, and deciding what “route” to take to what ending essentially boils down to what girl to choose. There are some other characters, but aside from the ones named above and the previously mentioned Mister Braun, they play only minor roles.

All of these characters are key participants in a conspiracy-heavy story inspired by the real-life tale of John Titor, an alleged time traveler from 2036 who appeared on an internet messageboard back in 2000. The main villain is SERN, a fictionalized version of CERN, the famed nuclear research organization. In Steins;Gate, it turns out that SERN has been researching time travel, and it’s this research which leads them to take over the world in 2034. Still, despite his anxieties over SERN’s methods and secrecy, not to mention his own worries about affecting the past, Okabe cavalierly encourages his friends to fulfill their personal wishes using the PhoneWave (name subject to change) after his first successful controlled experiment, which involved winning lottery numbers and was one in which he seemingly becomes the only person to have remembered what the world was like before the past was altered. This carefree approach to the Lab’s time travel experiments, in which brief emails, called “D-Mails”, are sent to the past, contrasted sharply with the scenes that had come before, and seemed to me to be somewhat out of character for Okabe.

After all is said and done, it’s revealed that Moeka is an agent of SERN’s who, during a raid of the lab, kills Mayuri. Conveniently enough, this happens shortly after the completion of the PhoneWave (name subject to change)’s successor, the Time Leap Machine, which can send a person’s memories (and, as it quickly becomes obvious, their consciousness) up to two days into the past. Okabe uses the Time Leap Machine to try and prevent Mayuri’s death, only to find himself failing every single time. Eventually, he learns that in order to escape the “worldline” on which Mayuri dies, he must re-obtain the IBN 5100 computer that he had borrowed several days ago—which had disappeared from the lab during the fulfillment of one of his friends’ wishes—and use it to hack into SERN and delete the first D-Mail from an encrypted database. Naturally, this means undoing all of the effects of the successful D-Mails that his friends had sent.

A still shot, or "CG", featuring Okabe and Kurisu.

The game’s CGs are often composed from dramatic angles.

In addition to narration, much of the VN’s actual text consists of dialogue laden with technical explanations and quantum physics discussions, broken up with lighthearted chit-chat and geeky, and sometimes racy, bits of humor. There is also plenty of drama, especially when it comes to the “wishes” that were fulfilled by the D-Mails and Okabe’s having to decide whether or not to retract them. Some of the game’s text drags on at times, but other sections move along at a good clip; one part that I found myself surprised to be engaged by was a card game tournament, where the rules and moves were described in great detail. The characters themselves are mixes of standard anime/manga archetypes, but when more is learned about them, they become somewhat more nuanced.

There are some small inconsistencies here and there, but, unfortunately, the culmination of the story contains the most gigantic plot hole in the entire game. It turns out that, for some weird reason, deleting that initial D-Mail from SERN’s database would return the world to the past in the Prologue, in which Kurisu died. From a practical standpoint, this makes no sense whatsoever, not least of which because SERN’s D-Mail is a copy of the original sent from Okabe to Daru, and, more importantly, in order to delete it, no time travel is involved. On the date on which Okabe has to decide whether or not to delete the D-Mail, it has existed on that database for about two weeks; it seems like the idea that deleting it would mean that “it never existed” is being taken far too literally here. That said, in a way, it’s rather cheap and dishearteningly silly to have to decide between the very lives of either Mayuri or Kurisu (and having the future be either a nuclear wasteland or a SERN-ruled dystopia, respectively, though these concerns aren’t nearly as important to Okabe) when the mechanism for doing so makes no logical sense whatsoever. For the record, when it came to this point, I chose to save Mayuri and kill Kurisu… and yes, according to the game, the past was changed and Kurisu went back to being dead. There’s also the matter of the second successful D-Mail, the lottery one, which wasn’t only not cancelled, but was largely forgotten about altogether.

These end-game events led me back to a thought I had during the prologue: is Rintaro Okabe a reliable narrator? Sure, the Hououin Kyoma alter-ego is pretty much dead by this point, but after embarking on the Mayuri route, and not long before the SERN database deletion was carried out, Kurisu left Akihabara to fly back to the United States. That said, it lessens the impact of her dying, or “dying”: either way, Okabe’s memories would be pretty much all he had left of her.

As of this writing, I’ve only seen Mayuri’s ending and not any of the others, though I might go back and at least check out Suzuha’s, since she ended up being my favorite character. The fan book which came with the Limited Edition contains, among other things, plenty of spoilers for all of the endings, including hints for actions that need to be taken to reach them. It makes for interesting reading if you, like me, have played all the way through and have reached one ending, but don’t have a terribly strong need to see any of the others. However, if you have the LE and don’t want anything spoiled, don’t so much as flip through it until you’ve seen all the content you want to see.

Steins;Gate is flawed, and I’m still not completely sure if its high points make up for the troublesome final act, but thanks to its endearing characters, solid production values, and the occasional surprise (which was always welcome, since thanks to some heavy-handed foreshadowing, some major revelations were ones I had correctly guessed about well ahead of time), most of my experience was good. It’s not about to usurp Last Window or the second Ace Attorney from the lofty positions they hold in my own personal visual novel rankings, and it is nowhere near as good as Ghost Trick, my favorite adventure game of any kind, but Steins;Gate has its merits. In the end, my main hope for this game hasn’t changed: that as a high-profile ambassador for PC visual novels in English, it does well enough to ensure more and better such titles to be localized in the future.