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Video games and other things.

Heavy Metal Thunder

There’s a few styles and genres I tend to shy away from. Heavy metal music certainly fits that category, and so do open-world games. Given those facts, I’m not exactly sure why I picked up Brütal Legend on Steam, besides the circumstance of one of their big sales going on at the time and it being, therefore, quite cheap. Perhaps it was the fun-looking setting and aesthetic, or the famously mis-marketed RTS elements, which sounded kind of interesting to me. Whatever it was, I finally got around to actually playing it this month and found it to be a worthwhile game indeed.

The most impressive thing about Brütal Legend is how seriously and thoroughly it treats its theme. For instance, upon starting the game, the player is treated to a live-action intro movie, where actor/musician Jack Black takes them to a record store and shows them a rare album tucked away in the “Forbidden Metal” section. This LP is titled Brütal Legend and has a “Press Start” sticker on the front; doing so opens up the album’s gatefold cover, with “New Game” to the left and “Continue” on the right. This awesome opening menu continues on with the back cover, inner sleeve, and both sides of the record itself.

A typical landscape in Brütal Legend.As for the actual game, the world is one where, to put it succinctly, metal rules. The landscapes seem ripped straight from album covers, the “Fire Tributes” earned by doing various tasks take the forms of silhouetted hands holding up lighters, and most every human sports varying degrees of spikes, leather, black clothing, and/or big hair. The men are shirtless, the women are busty, and the beasts have chrome-plated fangs. It’s the kind of universe which is only possible with a heavy metal theme—other musical genres, such as country and hip-hop, have similarly strong iconography associated with them, but are too grounded in reality to make a truly fantastical world out of.

The main character, the Jack Black-voiced Eddie Riggs, winds up in this place by circumstance. While doing his job as a roadie for a shitty nu-metal band, tragedy strikes, and the next thing he knows, he’s somewhere much darker. Soon, he’s got an axe (as in, an axe), an axe (as in, a guitar), a little coupe called The Deuce, and a sidekick named Ophelia. He winds up in Bladehenge, where the siblings Lars and Lita are planning a rebellion against their oppressive rulers. Although the writing is often witty and the optional backstory bits are inspired, the main plot is one of the weakest parts of the game. It’s corny at times, in a Hollywood blockbuster sort of way, and certainly not as original or interesting as its setting. (There were also some spoilers in the Steam Trading Cards which, even with certain predictable story elements, was kind of annoying.) Considering the expense—and, therefore, risk—that went into the production of this game, this lack of originality in the plot does not come as much of a surprise, but is still disappointing considering the rest of the game’s uniqueness.

A pre-battle cutscene.Aside from Jack Black, the cast includes a few famous metal musicians; although some are worse voice actors than others, one particularly good performance is Ozzy Osborne as the Guardian of Metal, a robed gent who trades Fire Tributes for upgrades. Ozzy’s character model, like those of at least a couple others, resembles the real thing, and all of them have a rounded, cartoony quality about them which has aged considerably well. Much the same could be said about the various fighting units (which range from headbangers with amazingly huge necks to hot rod war machines), wild animals, and environmental elements. Eschewing the hyper-realism that has long been the fashion in big-budget games has paid off in dividends; for a title which was originally released on consoles in 2009, it still looks really good.

As for how Brütal Legend plays, as I said earlier, this is both an open-world game and an RTS. As the former, it involves a good deal of driving and general action, with escort missions and car racing sidequests, and plenty of opportunities for putting both axes to work. There’s also, naturally, a few types of hidden things scattered throughout the world and the associated rewards for finding and interacting with them in the right way.

The second genre this game fits under, real-time strategy, is what sets it apart. More complex than Pikmin but (thankfully) not as much as something like StarCraft, Brütal Legend‘s system involves a handful of different unit types along with resource collecting (in the form of “fans” siphoned though the use of “merch booths”), base upgrades, and a simple set of commands. This is all on top of having the option to control Eddie “normally”, i.e. as you would when exploring the world, and once you factor in the usefulness of the special guitar solo moves during these battles, things can quickly get hectic. Compared to the rest of the game, these battles can be overwhelming for someone who isn’t used to dense management-style tactics; outside of the heavy metal theme, this is the best case for Brütal Legend being a niche title. For those of us who like—or at the very least don’t mind—this sort of gameplay, these battles are interesting, though sometimes fiddly, challenges.

A different sort of challenge lies in keeping track of Eddie’s health. Though there is a user interface for things like battle commands and guitar solos, there is no health bar for our hero. Instead, whenever he is near death, the sound of a beating heart is heard and the screen tints slightly redder. While I appreciate this less-is-more approach, there were a few times when I wish I’d had further information about the state Eddie is in.

Finally, I absolutely must mention the music. In addition from a handful of atmospheric instrumental tunes (and the nu-metal band’s song from the opening), Brütal Legend is jam-packed with metal tunes from a wide variety of subgenres. Among others, there’s legends like Black Sabbath, 80s hair bands such as Mötley Crüe, and more modern groups, including Mastodon and (of course) Tenacious D. New songs can be unlocked throughout the course of the game and played via the Deuce’s “radio”, the Mouth of Metal. Switching between songs can be done on the fly with the d-pad, a nostalgically chunky click of a tape deck separating each track.

Like heavy metal music itself, Brütal Legend is not for everyone, but it proved to be very much for me. I have a soft spot for games that are polished yet sufficiently quirky: the types of “b-game” projects that have, more and more, become the province of indie studios as the bigger ones either go out of business or focus more heavily on titles that warrant three A’s, minimum. Sure, offbeat games like Brütal Legend sometimes have questionable design decisions, but the best ones also have a way of shining through with good ideas and execution, and tons of character. That this game had as big of a budget as it did helps give it an especially rare sheen. Sometimes, I wish more people loved these sorts of games, so that more of them could be made.


Revenge of What You Hated About Old Games

Since my last post, I played through two more games to completion. The first one that I finished was Gone Home, which is one of those kinds of games where its best to go in as cold as possible, so I won’t discuss it here other than to say that despite some problems I had getting certain graphics settings (which I know my computer can handle) to run smoothly, it was worth playing. However, I have a lot of opinions about the second game, which I beat yesterday afternoon. Said game is Shantae: Risky’s Revenge – Director’s Cut.

Risky’s Revenge is a Metroidvania platformer, and also a sequel—the original Shantae was a late-in-its-lifecycle Game Boy Color title that is especially prized by collectors. I have never played the latter, and have only been aware of it by reputation and the apparently offbeat, in a good way, title character. A friend gifted me a Steam copy of Risky’s Revenge after seeing it on my wishlist, so I dove into the game expecting a polished platformer with a fun heroine.

Shantae jumps around in the Magical Hall of Boobs.

BOOBS EVERYWHERE.

As it turned out, Risky’s Revenge is polished in the most obvious ways, while remaining dull to a fault in a more subtle, yet pervasive, fashion. The animation shows the most spit and shine, as it’s extremely fluid and lively, though there are other high points as well, such as the fitting music and smooth controls. The colors pop brightly on the screen, helping to make most of the game’s areas reasonably easy to get around in, and the cutscene graphics are clear and sharp. If nothing else, and despite the startling male-gazey fanservice that regularly crops up, this game is a pleasure to look at and listen to.

Some other parts could’ve done with the same amount of care put into them, though. For starters, there’s Shantae herself. This half-genie, half-human guardian is the grouchiest protagonist I’ve ever encountered in a platformer, especially one so visually appealing. While her pixelated sprite defaults to a bouncy, smiling expression, her three cutscene portraits are neutral, skeptical, and outright surly, and her dialogue often reinforces these visuals. With her personality represented as such, I wondered what her friends thought of her, and didn’t think much of her disagreements with the town’s mayor. Her grouchiness wouldn’t have been a problem if there was something deeper behind it, but there didn’t appear to be anything. In short, at least in this game, she’s not a very good main character, and certainly not one that I’m itching to go adventuring with again.

Shantae absolutely hates fetch quests. Just can't stand them!

Our heroine, ladies and gentlemen.

On a similar note, the game’s writing leaves much to be desired. The story begins when Shantae goes to see her uncle, who is showing off an artifact which the pirate Risky Boots comes along and steals. This artifact has a dangerous secret, which, as it turns out, Shantae would’ve been better off knowing about in the first place, but her uncle refuses to tell her what it is, even after it’s been stolen and she has decided to do something about it. The dialogue is straightforward, though the flow is somewhat off; it feels as if the script was localized from Japanese with cartridge limits taken into account, particularly given how sparingly certain types of punctuation, such as commas, are used. The pacing of the dialogue is most maddening when it comes to progressing through the game. There was one hint given to me by a certain character which led me on a wild goose chase since I hadn’t yet unlocked the ability I needed to follow said advice. Once I had figured this out, an obscure alternate usage of a certain ability—one which had not been needed before and would not be required again—stymied me for a bit longer. Communication missteps like these are a major pet peeve of mine; they often leave me feeling as sour as Shantae herself.

Sequin Land, the world in which this tale takes place, is just the right size for the game’s scope, though it can be a pain to get around in. The map is crude and difficult to parse at first, and some of the most useful bits of information—such as the locations of previously encountered, unopened treasure chests—are missing altogether. Yes, I realize this was originally a downloadable DSi game, but even by those standards, the map could’ve been much more useful than it was. Getting around this world is done by activating warp statues, which are separate from, and often in different locations than, save points. The main hub is a seaside town (which, inconveniently, does not have a warp point of its own) filled with NPCs; a few of them tell you bits of gameplay info, while the others are there for local flavor and nothing else. The platforming itself is fine, though old fashioned in certain respects; the common technique where one can “fall through” platforms can barely ever be used here. On a similar note, the utilization of items is similarly simplistic; although this is not a problem when it comes to most items, having to de-equip one of the game’s optional-but-useful weapons in the menu, equip one of two different types of potion, go back to the game to use the potion, return to the menu to de-equip it, and re-equip the weapon just to heal up and get right back into battle is more than a little clunky.

I have no problem with games that are true to their roots, and Risky’s Revenge, with its spritework and Game Boy-esque aspect ratio is certainly one such title. However, video games have come a long way over the decades, and the lessons learned by dozens of studios over those years need to be taken into account, not ignored. There are ways to do “fake retrogames” right, such as the cannily-designed likes of Cthulhu Saves the World and Mighty Gunvolt, and then there are those games which choose, however consciously, to keep the warts of the past intact. Shantae: Risky’s Revenge is one such example of the latter, an exercise in selective memory that could’ve really done with a bit more self-awareness and empathy towards the expectations of the present.


Wrapping Up Various Things

Just got back from Portland yesterday. It was an exhausting trip, filled with plenty of walking and foodie’s food. I had wanted to write this post either right before or during the trip, but a lack of sleep got in the way. However, I managed to catch up, somewhat, last night, so here I am.

To start off with, at the beginning of this month, I beat Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abbadon, an action RPG which has one of the longest titles of any game I’ve ever played. In terms of both gameplay and plot, it was better than the first Raidou game, which I beat earlier in the year. New features—such as the ability to summon two demons at once; better accessibility to the Gouma-den, where new demons can be fused; and a negotiation system which, despite its usual tediousness, is the best I’ve seen in all of MegaTen—were quite welcome, though some repetitive elements stood out as the game’s greatest flaws. By that, I don’t mean the reuse of much of the previous game’s assets, which I didn’t mind at all. Rather, what bothered me was the overdone recapping, and even more, the obviousness with how the story’s branches were handled. Every so often, roughly once a chapter, a character would ask a rhetorical, philosophical question that basically asked Raidou to choose between revolution and the status quo. The answers to these ham-fisted questions don’t matter until the very end of the game, and even then, there is one final barrage of inquiries right before the branching path is settled upon. Despite these nitpicks, Raidou 2 was a decent game, though hardly the best MegaTen I’ve played.

A few days afterward, I finally finished reading a manga series which I had first sampled over fifteen years ago: Barefoot Gen. My first experience with Gen came with a copy of Volume 2, picked up cheaply at a certain bookstore in Philadelphia. Some years later, I picked up a used copy of Volume 3, but I didn’t buy any more of the series until last year, when I picked up the first and fourth volumes. Around then was when I learned that my older volumes were heavily abridged, and that the current edition, published by Last Gasp, is complete and uncut. Therefore, I repurchased volumes 2 and 3, and, later on, the last six books as well.

Barefoot Gen vol. 1, unabridged editionA semi-autobiographical tale inspired by mangaka Keiji Nakazawa’s childhood, Barefoot Gen tells the story of Gen Nakaoka, an elementary school-aged boy who survives the atomic bombing of his hometown, Hiroshima. By the end of the first volume, the bomb has dropped, and the story truly begins. Subsequent volumes find Gen making new friends, being discriminated against, and raging at not just the Americans who dropped the bomb and occupied Japan, but the Japanese Emperor and politicians who were so eager to wage war in the first place. It is, as noted in the always excellent ANN column House of 1000 Manga (spoilers in link), an angry manga, and sometimes, especially toward the end, Gen’s anger gets to be a little too much. The last few volumes are rather tedious at times, even as it explores the Japanese side of things during the Korean War; as a sign of the plot wearing thin, the final tragedy that befalls Gen and his group is one which, startlingly, doesn’t have much of a direct tie to the atomic bomb. Gen is also a violent manga; atomic bomb aside, it hews to the shonen manga tropes of its time, with lots of hitting and fighting, often between adults and children. Despite its pacifist message, seeing Gen so eager to physically fight people who dismiss his anti-war views is more than a bit disarming. Also, without giving anything away, in one of the later volumes Gen does something in the name of his personal philosophy that is so lacking of empathy and maturity it’s astounding. It’s an important manga, probably the best I’ve ever read about Japan during that era, but it’s also rather dated, and at least one of the included forewards was undesirably diversionary from the manga’s basic premise. It might’ve helped if the manga was broken up into chapters, as they were originally serialized, but instead, the manga flows together as one long story, broken up only by its separation into ten books. I recommend the first few volumes, but if you don’t want to stick with it after that, I really couldn’t blame you.

After Gen was wrapped up, and between new volumes of Nisekoi (aka the harem manga for people who normally dislike harem manga) and the always charming and hunger-inducing What Did You Eat Yesterday?, more games were played! I started, and am still playing, a Japanese copy of Picross DS, which I picked up on the cheap during Play-Asia’s annual Spring Sale. There’s nothing much to say about it besides that yeah, it’s Picross, though the zoomed-in 15×15 puzzles took me a little getting used to, not to mention the menus in a language that I can’t understand very much of. Right now, I’m currently stuck on a couple of flower-themed puzzles in Normal mode, though I’m sure I’ll push through them soon enough.

I also cranked through a few short games on Steam. First up was Escape Goat, a room-based puzzle game a la Adventures of Lolo and Toki Tori. It’s a solid entry in this genre, structured to encourage experimentation, and with precise controls and well-designed, if sometimes frustrating, puzzles. If you like this sort of game, as I do, you’ll like Escape Goat—enough said.

This is harder than it looks. From Octodad: Dadliest Catch.Second was Octodad: Dadliest Catch, whose controls were the opposite: intentionally difficult to master. This game, about an octopus trying to live as a normal suburban father in a nuclear family, revels in the ridiculous. Everyday tasks, such as mowing the lawn or picking out the perfect apple at the supermarket, are much harder when your arms and legs are tentacles and you want to blend in with actual humans. The story takes some interesting turns, and although I felt somewhat partially robbed of my final victory due to where a certain object landed, I found Octodad to be a neat little game overall. The pair of included bonus episodes were worth playing through as well.

The third short game I played through before leaving for Portland was the shortest and least interactive of the bunch: a wordless visual novel called A Bird Story. Produced by the developer of To the Moon, this is a similarly sentimental journey. In it, a young boy, who goes through the motions at school and is interested in flight, rescues a bird. It’s kind of cloying at times, and because of that, whether or not you’d like this would depend on your natural tolerance for such things. Thankfully, the length is just right, and most everything about it is simple and straightforward.

Now that I’m back, and catching up on my sleep, I think I’ll continue going through some other short games in my backlog, which I may or may not write about here. I also picked up Legend of Dungeon again recently, which has improved since the last time I played it, thanks to some patches. It’s now not as unfair as before, though it still lacks some of the refinement and balance of better roguelikes. Goat Simulator is also in my “Now Playing” list, though I’m not sure when I’ll go back to it.

I also may start the last unplayed PS2 game I have left in my backlog (if you don’t count Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, which I’ve put up for sale): Sakura Wars: So Long My Love. I may start that this week, depending on how I feel; we’ll see. At any rate, it’ll definitely get played sometime soon.


Captain Olimar’s Excellent Adventure

Quick note: this is my entry for this year’s Review a Great Game Day, a writing jam organized by retro gaming site 1 More Castle. Enjoy!

Out of all the games Shigeru Miyamoto has created, Pikmin is far and away my favorite. I’ve put countless hours into Shiggy’s creations over the decades, from Donkey Kong to Wii Fit, but none has captivated me quite so much as his intimate tale of a diminutive spaceman and the even tinier creatures who aid him during a crisis. It is visually and aurally charming, not to mention a brilliantly designed example of how to do real-time strategy on a console, but it’s also much, much more.
Captain Olimar and the pikmin.

Pikmin is something which is, even now, extremely rare amongst big-budget titles: a narrative game about a normal grown adult. The main character, Captain Olimar, is on an alien planet not because he’s been sent there to fight a war, nor is he chasing adventure or purpose. He’s there by accident. He’s a run-of-the-mill businessman, in the middle of traveling, who crash-lands in unfamiliar territory and spends the rest of the game calmly trying to repair his ride and get home to his worried wife and kid. There are no princesses or kingdoms to save; the only thing which needs rescuing is himself. Despite the fantastical universe he resides in, he’s as familiar as most any commuter you may see on the train in the morning. In this way, Pikmin is about the trials and mundanities of adulthood as much as many other games are examinations of adolescence. It’s shockingly refreshing, and Olimar has since become one of those rare game characters with whom I can truly identify.

Actually, I have to take something back—part of that “fantastical universe” of Olimar’s is almost as ordinary as he himself is, but in a different way. While the planet Olimar lands on is new and interesting to him, its identity soon becomes apparent to the player. As evidenced by the litter that Olimar encounters during his crisis, this strange new world is our own. Sure, the flowers are giant numbered pellets surrounded by petals, the creatures include two-legged speckled bugs and bird-beaked burrowing snakes, and the Pikmin themselves are plant/animal hybrids that could exist nowhere else but a Nintendo game, but there’s no mistaking it. Olimar is on Earth, and he is the size of an insect upon it.

The presence of the Pikmin and other weird living things, combined with the familiarity of Olimar’s situation and the random man-made flotsam, is perhaps meant to make us think about the nature we too often take for granted and our relationship to it. Study real-life plants and animals closely, and you’ll notice a wondrous, vibrant world, perhaps one similar to that which Olimar sees. Even at the current rate of extinction, new species are still being discovered; with that in mind, the birds and bugs of Pikmin don’t seem all that farfetched. The primary-colored Pikmin are clearly inspired by ants, insects which famously work together in groups and come in a wide variety of types. Scenes of them flocking around any given object are entertaining in the same way as watching ants carry a piece of food that’s much larger than they are.

Some pikmin attack a froglike creature.This mix of the unusual and the ordinary naturally extends to the gameplay. As I said earlier, Pikmin is a real-time strategy game. The RTS genre is traditionally relegated to the PC, due to the need for precise controls, such as with a mouse, to organize and command units. Pikmin takes the RTS concept and simplifies things, with just three types of units (red, yellow, and blue Pikmin) and a total limit of one hundred individuals that can be controlled in the field at any time. The defense stats of these units is indicated, Super Mario Bros.-style, by physical appearance, and the best of these can be most easily cultivated by letting them “grow” in the ground for a longer period of time. In any other situation, this would not be a problem, but Olimar has only thirty days to find the same number of parts for his spaceship before his life-support system dies. Thus, time is Olimar’s largest, most ominous opponent, moreso than the massive creatures that attempt to eat the pikmin along the way. Success in this game is determined by your command of the Pikmin, and how well they can fight off threats and navigate territory both while searching for and carrying back Olimar’s precious parts. Pikmin can be challenging at times, filled with all manner of clever obstacles and terrain, but it is also quite manageable, with a perfectly-tuned learning curve. It helps that the Wii’s “New Play Control!” port is a dream to play with its remote and nunchuck setup (unfortunately, there is no GameCube controller support in this release, so I could not compare the original control scheme to the new one).

The understated soundtrack is standard-quality Nintendo fare, but as for the graphics, they are Pikmin‘s most prominent weakness, as, despite their novel designs, they haven’t aged as gracefully as the rest of the game. Pikmin was originally released in 2001 and it shows, thanks to now-dated texturing and lighting, and simplistic character models. However, please don’t let this put you off on playing this masterpiece. It is one of the greatest and most unique video games of its kind, and also one of the best Nintendo has ever made. It is a surprisingly deceptive game, in a good way: approachable and wholesome enough for kids, but with a story and protagonist which are more relatable to adults. It speaks to its audience about nature and its relationship with humanity, without passing judgment on anyone or anything, leaving the player to reach their own conclusions about the world and its inhabitants. Most importantly, it is mature, in the truest sense of the word, than most other games which claim that adjective for themselves.


The Hills and Valleys of Gallia

It’s always frustrating to see a game get so much right, only to fall flat on its face in a few significant ways, but such was my experience with Valkyria Chronicles. This game had been on my radar for a long time, and I picked it up a few months after its arrival on Steam. In most ways, it lived up to the hype, and I greatly enjoyed it, but its flaws are difficult to ignore.

A typical battle scene.I’ll start with the good stuff since, like I said, this game does do a lot of things right. This is a strategy RPG unlike most others, one which ditches the isometric gridded maps for full 3D environments as in other modern console JRPGs. The gameplay is a mix of the real-time (shifting lines of sight and enemy fire while a unit moves) and the turn-based (everything else), with variables ranging from weapon capabilities to characters’ personalities affecting every action in the field. Keeping things simple, the character classes are limited to five (six if you include tanks), with the strengths and weaknesses of each clearly defined.

The most welcome aspect of the battle system is the way experience is handled. One of the issues I almost always run up against in SRPGs is leveling up individual units; in these sorts of games, only those who deal the killing blows to enemies gain experience points. Valkyria Chronicles solves this problem by not doling out EXP until the end of a battle, after which it goes into a wallet of sorts that can be spent on leveling up entire classes and/or learning new orders, special buffs which can be used on one or more units during a fight. On the downside however, at least for me, the amounts of both EXP and money received at the end of battle are partially determined by a rigid grading system, where higher grades are given the faster a map is cleared, similar to modern Sonic games. Despite this, I found that the shared experience pool, along with the equipment upgrade system and party management options, nicely streamlines the most fiddly bits of a customization-heavy genre.

The maps themselves are diverse in size, layout, terrain, and so on, and although the missions tend to rely too much on “occupy the enemy’s main base” as a goal, there is enough variation amongst the rest that this doesn’t become too dull. There is a learning curve for many of the missions, particularly if you’re like me and don’t want to lose any units (permadeath being very much A Thing for non-officer Valkyria Chronicles militiapeople), but the game is generally not very difficult.

Aesthetically, there’s as much pleasure here as within the gameplay. The cel-shaded graphics have a earthy and sketchy watercolor look about them, and, despite the occasional bit of outlandishness in the character design, everything is animated with subtlety and grace. Fan favorite game composer Hitoshi Sakimoto is responsible for the soundtrack, which is slightly gentler and happier than some of his most famous SRPG works. Excellent voice acting and sound effects complete the package. All of this is presented within a nearly flawless PC port; I did encounter one very bad clipping error, along with one or two much less severe issues, but the vast majority of the game ran smoothly.

The main book menu, while on the Headquarters tab.Tying all this together is a user interface that is, for the most part, a dream to work with. The main menu takes the form of a book, with story events and battles broken up into individual sections within their respective chapters. Every cutscene not tied to a battle can be replayed at the player’s leisure after they’re first viewed, making catching up on the story between play sessions a refreshingly trivial affair. Outside of the story, customization and other features are largely handled through a “Headquarters” tab, and similar appendices are available for optional skirmish battles, glossaries, and so on. Just about the only thing I don’t like about the main menu is that there’s no “Load” option; to jump to a different save file, one has to quit back to the opening screen and do it through there.

In battle, the UI is just as handy, if not moreso. Things like number of remaining action points, unit locations, and so on are clearly marked, and although there are no takebacks after a unit has been chosen in the field, saving and loading files can be done at any time between actions.

However, despite all the polish that has gone into how the game plays, the story has a handful of issues. Blending the real-life inspiration of World War II with touches of JRPG-style fantasy, Valkyria Chronicles is set in the Europan country of Gallia, a neutral party caught between the western Federation and eastern Empire. The story, presented in the form of a book titled “On the Gallian Front”, revolves around Militia Lieutenant Welkin Gunther and his comrades in Squad 7. Naturally, Welkin just happens to be the son of a famous war hero, and has come to Gallia’s capital from a small town with two young women in tow: reserved younger sister Isara and energetic baker’s apprentice Alicia.

The FMVs and in-game graphics are pretty much identical.If this one-guy-two-girls setup is reminiscent of Skies of Arcadia, that’s probably not an accident, as Valkyria Chronicles shares some key staff members, and even contains a few nice homages to the older RPG. However, the comparisons don’t stop there, as several of Arcadia‘s most conspicuous plot elements make themselves incredibly clear early on. Because Arcadia was lighter in tone and, to a certain extent, unabashedly cartoony—with brightly-colored graphics, a setting that could only exist in fantasy, and themes of adventure and discovery—it could largely get away with its by-the-numbers story. On the other hand, the more grounded Valkyria, with its more modest plot centered around a small country doing its best to defend itself, doesn’t have that luxury. As a result, and despite some surprises and high points, Valkyria‘s story is more obviously predictable than even your average JRPG (particularly if you pay attention to certain details in the opening movie) and its few missteps stand out all the more.

The primary example I can give of the latter involves a major spoiler, so I won’t describe it in great detail, but I do want to discuss it, so I’ll try my best not to give too much away. It starts with a well-executed story sequence, and quite moving as well, so much so that it was the third instance of a game making me cry. However, even while this event was playing out, one character’s reaction to it confused me. More worryingly, when a certain aspect of this event is repeated later on, it felt like a cheapening of what had come before; on top of that, there was a ton of foreshadowing leading up to Event #2, so it’s not like that storytelling mechanic was all on the shoulders of Event #1. To the writers’ credit, Event #1 did have lasting relevance right on through to the end of the game, so it wasn’t a superfluous scene. However, the execution of both events was… poorly considered. This was, I might add, the point where I started to grow somewhat tired of the game.

Non-FMV cutscenes are handled like this.The characters, like the story, don’t shy away from cliches, and despite most of them being pleasant, or, at the very least, interesting to watch, there’s only as much depth added to them as needed for the plot. This is especially true of the non-story-required militia members, each one of whom can be neatly filed away according to archetype. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of recruits to choose from when forming your squad, and it’s easy enough to ignore the most annoying-seeming characters in favor of those who are more appealing. On a positive note, it’s hard to ignore the fact that these grunts are a step up from the bland, personality-lacking units of the SRPGs of the past.

Choosing your squad, however, is not an option in the “Enter the Edy Detachment!” DLC, where you are stuck with six specific militia members, including and led by the shrill Edy, in a brief side-story where they get separated from the rest of Squad 7. This mission is unusually difficult if you don’t learn how to second-guess the AI, and doesn’t really add anything to the main story. Much better is the Selvaria-focused “Behind Her Blue Flame”, which shows a somewhat different side of this enemy general and includes some nice little tie-ins to the main game.

There are two other DLCs, an unlockable “Expert Mode” for the main game’s optional battles and a set of Edy Detachment-themed skirmishes, but I didn’t touch either of them. All four come with the Steam release, no extra purchases necessary, which is a nice bonus. Even without these essentially-free DLCs, Valkyria Chronicles‘ PC port is solid package that’s worth picking up, but if you’re a newcomer, be warned that the story is neither as good nor as innovative as the rest of the game.


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.