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Video games and other things.

And Then…

I’ve been reading Osamu Tezuka manga the past few days; namely, a couple of the titles published by Digital Manga Publishing via one of their ever-present Kickstarters. Under the Air was the first; a seinen short story collection, it’s one of the better Tezuka books I’ve read in awhile. After finishing that, I started Melody of Iron, another anthology, but with a long title story (100+ pages) and few others, instead of many short tales. Though nowhere near the level that Vertical lavished on their Tezuka volumes, the localization and printing quality of these books is pretty good for DMP. However, after three backed Kickstarters, I may be done with buying new series from this company.

For several years now, DMP has had a reputation for turning to crowdfunding whenever it wants to print—or reprint—just about anything. Not only has this been the case for niche titles, which is understandable, but also reprints of their biggest hits. One prime example is the BL drama Finder, which is so popular that new volumes would often hit the New York Times’ manga bestseller lists back when they had them. Perhaps this overreliance on crowdfunding was a reason why Finder‘s Japanese publisher terminated its contract with DMP. Many of their readers haven’t been too happy with them either; their books tend to get delayed and often have unreasonably low print runs, and their lack of communication on classic manga Kickstarters leaves much to be desired (on the other hand, a BL Kickstarter of theirs that I backed—mainly for reprint add-ons—had timely updates and great communication overall, though I don’t know how they’ve been since). On top of all that, they have practically no distribution—it’s hard to get many of their books even through a manga specialist like Right Stuf—and it seems like a fair number of their former employees didn’t like the place, either. Although a handful of Tezuka fans have damn near succumbed to Stockholm syndrome when it comes to DMP, I sort of hope that Tezuka Productions’ deal with them is the next one to be terminated.

Anyway, back to the manga itself: as is customary for most all Tezuka printed in English these days, there is a disclaimer at the start of these anthologies that basically says that the depictions of various races in these works are products of their time, and that they should be seen as such. I would suggest to Tezuka Productions that they start mandating this sort of thing for gender depictions as well. Tezuka’s depictions of women are interesting at best but are more often problematic; Princess Knight and Message to Adolf have been some of the worst offenders for me, personally. The women in Melody of Iron (so far) and Under the Air are a bit more standard for Tezuka: not much more than love interests, wives, and/or relatives.

From Utena's third end credits sequence. Source image from The Utena Gallery (ohtori.nu/gallery).On a whole other end of the gender depiction spectrum, there’s the 1997 shoujo TV anime Revolutionary Girl Utena. This series, about a girl who was inspired to become a prince when she was younger, and the duels she finds herself embroiled in to win the hand of the “Rose Bride”, borrows heavily from both the magical girl genre and “girl prince” stories like The Rose of Versailles and the aforementioned Princess Knight to create something new. I talked bitprophet into watching the first dozen or so episodes with me—the Student Council Arc—and fortunately, he was intrigued enough that we ended up going through the whole show. This was my second full viewing of the series, so I was mostly interested in catching little details I had missed the first time around. Turns out that there were many: Anthy’s smiles, the consistent theme of animals in the humorous “Nanami episodes”, various spoken lines, even more props and objects. It remains a dense, character-driven series that requires a patient soul to fully deconstruct. This is a series where even its greatest weakness—its relentless reliance on reused animation, and indeed, entire scenes—ends up working in its favor. It’s glamorous while adhering to a certain routine, a routine which could be subverted at any moment. It’s the high drama and messiness of adolescence whirling around its simultaneously bland and eccentric title character in a series of duels accented by a primitive CG castle and hard rock choral music with strange lyrics. There’s nothing else quite like it, and I’m glad I watched it again. As for the other versions of the Utena story, a rewatch of the movie is being planned, and I’d already reread both manga series earlier in the year, thanks in part to a gorgeous new box set.

And now, games! After beating Persona 5, I tried Wolfenstein: The New Order, but sadly found that it is not to my tastes, being a methodical shooter more in the vein of Call of Duty than the classic high-octane Wolfie I had been accustomed to. However, I found myself absorbed into Puzzle Quest, enchanted by Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call, and mildly amused by Mountain. I also played a pair of mediocre sequels in the forms of Elebits: The Adventures of Kai and Zero and Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, the latter of which was not nearly as bad as I’d been led to believe. There were also a few short Steam games—Quest of Dungeons and the two LostWinds adventures—which were okay. Then, there is the beautiful mess of Nier.

Yonah and her Dad in Nier.Nier is about a doting dad and his sickly daughter living in the far future of what is heavily implied to be our own world. It also stars a cynical magic talking book, a foul-mouthed huntress wearing the most ridiculous outfit in video games this side of Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness, and a sweet and dangerous boy. It’s considered to be one of the best works to come out of the late cavia inc., a studio that was generally known for average-to-bad games with crazy plots. All the best parts of Nier involve spoilers (or, at the very least, things worth discovering for yourself), and I’ve only played the first ending so far, so I’ll just say that cavia doesn’t disappoint and I’m sure there’s a lot more to come. In addition to its entertaining storytelling, Nier has a striking visual aesthetic that strongly recalls ICO and other Fumito Ueda games, a soundtrack that absolutely deserves its stellar reputation, and some excellent voice acting. However, it also has some janky animations, alternately fun and annoying combat, meh sidequests, forgettable farming, and bad fishing. It is not a great game, but at the same time, it is. Nier is a weird, wonderful exemplar of gaming’s B-tier and I’m looking forward to getting the rest of the endings, even the one which erases your save and prevents you from playing it again (well, at least with that one account…).

Aside from Nier, I’m currently playing NotGTAV, a crudely-drawn, humorous, and extremely British variant of Snake. I’m also playing my first Nintendo Switch game, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. One of my greatest regrets in not ever getting a WiiU was missing out on Mario Kart 8, so I was delighted when this Switch port, which includes all the DLC, was first announced. It’s a damn good Mario Kart game, with an unbeatable spread of both new and old levels, including a great Bowser’s Castle, a pair of killer F-Zero-themed courses, and personal favorites such as Music Park and Grumble Volcano. My only real complaint so far is that the new Rainbow Road is somewhat underwhelming. It’s also still a little weird to see non-Mario-themed elements, like the characters Link and Isabelle (and those F-Zero tracks), in a Mario Kart. Otherwise, the little tweaks they’ve made are mostly great, and I’m having a good time. I’ve recently started the 150cc Grand Prix, after clearing 50 and 100cc, and will devote my attention to those courses whenever I’m not diving further into the craziness of Nier.


Thievery Stimulation

There were two unusual things I noticed about Persona 5 during the first hour or so of playing.

The first was that it started a little ways into the future, with a botched heist at a casino. The protagonist, who the player names when the police force him to sign a confession, is told that he was ratted out by one of his teammates and is later interrogated by a hard-nosed prosecutor while under the influence of a truth serum. It is this conversation which becomes the game proper, starting in early April of “20XX”. While betrayal isn’t unheard of in this series, it was a little jarring to be told straight off that one of my future party members isn’t to be trusted, and it led me to spending a bit of time winnowing down my personal list of suspects. Certain other aspects of the story proved to be predictable as well, though for different reasons; it wasn’t until some time after the tale caught up with “the present” of the interrogation that the game’s biggest surprises came to light.

Persona 5's Velvet Room.The second was the Velvet Room, the metaphysical place “between dream and reality” where series protagonists craft new Personas from old ones. In Persona 3, the Velvet Room was a spacious, elegant elevator, constantly climbing upward. In Persona 4, it was the back seat of a stretch limousine, which drove forward on an etherial road. On the other hand, Persona 5‘s Velvet Room is static, a circular prison occupied by overseer Igor and this installment’s blue-clad attendants, the twin wardens Justine and Caroline. Igor doubled-down on the metaphysical metaphors by noting the protagonist’s mental imprisonment, and implying that he could be freed through “rehabilitation”. I found this situation—the Velvet Room’s traditional motion replaced by stasis—to be unusual at first, but it ended up feeling appropriate.

This rehab takes the form of fighting Shadows—manifestations of human personality and cognition—in a parallel world. This time around, it is called the Metaverse, which is filled with “Palaces” and is accessible to a chosen few via a mysterious smartphone app. Most of the Palaces are ruled over by a Shadow whose real-world counterpart has desires distorted enough to negatively affect the people around them, often in abusive ways. The protagonist and his fellow Phantom Thieves change not just their outfits while in the Metaverse (a nice touch that, for one, avoids the awkwardness of characters wearing winter school uniforms during summer vacation while exploring dungeons, as in the previous two games). They also change things for the better by stealing special Treasures—symbolic items representing hearts—from these Palaces, which collapse as a result and permanently alter their owners’ perceptions in the real world.

There’s much more to the rules and such governing the Metaverse, but those are the basics. The plot is dense, especially early on when the protagonist and schoolmate Ryuji meet Morgana, an amnesiac who is nevertheless intimately familiar with the Metaverse, for the first time. Morgana is this installment’s requisite Pinocchio figure; like Aigis and Teddie before him, he has a somewhat mysterious past and a deep-seated yearning for humanity. However, even though he’s a fun and interesting character, he is also the most unlikeable of the three. Perhaps because he takes the form of a cat, Morgana is a conceited, and sometimes childish, jerk at times.

A typical battle. Note the snazzy menu.The rest of the Phantom Thieves crew is made up of a bunch of outcasts, which includes the protagonist. All formerly conformist misfits who don’t quite fit in because of who they are, and victims of selfish, powerful adults, the Phantom Thieves earn their Personas by embracing rebellion, which fit this theme through their appearances as inspired by fictional outlaws (Arsene [based on Arsene Lupin], Zorro) and larger-than-life historical figures (Captain Kidd, Johanna [based on Pope Joan]). The implementation of this theme, as well as the inconsistent seven deadly sins one which is prevalent throughout the game, is kind of goofy, but I mostly got used to it. Like its predecessor, Persona 5 has a lot to say about the role of the media in society and how the seemingly innocuous, everyday views of the general public can further shape which direction it takes. However, it is a much darker tale, with highly-motivated villains and several instances of Very Bad Things, some potentially triggering, happening to the main cast and/or their associates. There’s also the usual range of MegaTen demons for the protagonist, who bears the “wild card”, to collect and use. This time around, Shin Megami Tensei’s oft-dreaded demon conversation system is how one obtains new Personas. I had mixed feelings about this design choice going in, but certain abilities that can be obtained throughout the game ended up making this process a bit less painful than it has generally been in the past.

Speaking of those abilities, I got them and others by nurturing relationships with Confidants, Persona 5‘s version of Social Links. Each Confidant has a distinct set of abilities that can be obtained, along with the usual Persona Fusion stat bonuses and unlocks, depending on who they are. For example, spending time with a politician named Yoshida leads to special conversational abilities which make negotiating with Shadows easier and/or more profitable. Even some social stats, like Kindness and Proficiency, can be improved through certain interactions, which is a welcome addition. There’s a more unusual and diverse range of Confidants in this installment, including shopkeepers and even residents of the Velvet Room. However, there is also a certain Confidant whose story can’t be advanced until after a certain point in the main tale—and the game doesn’t warn you about this. Aside from this problematic design flaw, plus a certain basic sameness between many Confidants that becomes apparent as the game wears on, the overall relationship system is as polished as it has ever been in a Persona game.

The other core component of Persona 5 is, of course, the dungeon-crawling and Shadow-battling. The Palaces where the Phantom Thieves do their work are wonderfully designed—easily amongst the best levels Atlus has ever made, in any of their RPGs. While there are some repetitive elements—particularly in the randomly-generated “Palace of the Public” Mementos—there are also many unique spaces, both large and small, and a wide range of thematic differences between each dungeon. The battling is the same reliable system from Persona 4, complete with All-Out Attacks, but there are a few new tweaks, among my favorites being Bless and Curse spells that don’t instantly kill and are almost always guaranteed to work. Different this time around is an overwhelming number of types of items, particularly for healing HP, and many of which will go unused.

That leads me to the main menu, which any player will undoubtedly spend a lot of time in. Like much of the rest of the game’s trimmings, the menus are in stark black, white, and red, with manga-esque character art and typography inspired by cut-and-paste ransom notes. They are gorgeous to look at, with slick little animations between the main menu and its subsections, and neatly organized, too. There’s also a separate (and just as stylized) menu for text messages, which the protagonist receives on an daily basis and are helpful for both plot-related reasons and for keeping up with Confidants; a robust fast-travel system; and the ability to save just about anywhere while out and about in everyday life.

As for the previously-mentioned amount of items, a large part of that is thanks to a crafting system to make tools such as lockpicks, as well as another one to duplicate cards which can be used to teach skills to Personas. There’s also treasure items which can be sold for cash, key items such as Palace maps, books, gifts, and as mentioned before, a lot of HP healers. Many of the HP, SP, and status effect curatives can be bought at a variety of shops, including a supermarket, a pharmacy, a discount store, a convenience store, a train station kiosk, and several vending machines, and some are only available for a limited time.

Shibuya's Central Street.If this sounds overwhelming, it is (and you will want to ignore the vast majority of those items), but it is also reflective of its setting: Tokyo, including the real-life districts of Aoyama-Ichome, Shibuya, and many others which become available later on. Persona 5 is overwhelming in both its shopping choices and activities for beefing up social stats, but this is because Tokyo is overwhelming. Notably, some of the shops present in the game are parodies of real-life chains such as Don Quijote, 7-Eleven, and Tsutaya, while the odd bits of actual product placement by the likes of HMV and Calbee blend into the setting fairly well. In these aspects, Persona 5 has captured the consumerist chaos of the Tokyo metro area perfectly, and feels even truer to life than it would have otherwise.

All this is presented with crisp and colorful graphics which straddle the lines between painterly, typical of a modern-day “anime” game, and the MegaTen series’ traditional flat style. As mentioned before, the dungeons have been handled with care, and the same is true of the named characters, Shadows, and Personas. Some character models, like the sparkly and snowy Jack Frost, even have an extra bit of textural oomph to them. Design-wise it’s excellent, with the notable exception of Ann; given that her story arc focused on sexual harassment, and her dislike of being put into perverse situations in general, her skin-tight and boob-windowed Phantom Thief outfit is in questionable taste. A few scenes appeared to push my PS3 to its limit, which resulted in some audio hiccups. While I’m on that topic, the voice acting was average—not amazing, but generally not bad, either. This is especially true of the handful of traditionally animated cutscenes, where the dub cast clearly tries to match lip flaps as closely as possible. As for the localized script, it has a handful of corny and awkwardly-written moments, but is otherwise very good.

Finally, I must mention the wonderful, wonderful music. Fellow fans of composer Shoji Meguro will recognize his signature style all over the soundtrack, especially his love of electric organ and sometimes distracting English-language vocals. However, the soundtrack is particularly lovely in that it captures some of the essence of Shibuya-kei, the diverse musical movement which originated in the real-life version of one of Persona 5‘s most important locations. I already own the soundtrack and it’s currently living with my other game music, but perhaps I should place it next to my Pizzicato 5 and Fantastic Plastic Machine albums instead.

The long wait for this game’s release has been worth it. Despite its flaws—including others I’ve not mentioned here, such as Atlus’ continued use of gross gay stereotypes; more to do with less time, thanks to frequent story events; and a certain rushed-feeling story arc and new character introduction—Persona 5 makes for an outstanding addition to any JRPG fan’s library. It has a darker story than its predecessors, a fascinating and well-realized cast of characters, and the most stylish visual and aural trappings you’ll see and hear in any game this year. If you somehow haven’t played this yet, it is not to be missed.

Special Stage: Back in May, Anime News Network posted an interesting feature article titled “The Real Japan Behind Persona 5” which discusses the likely inspirations behind certain story events. Note that it contains spoilers for the whole game, and especially the first and fifth major story arcs.


Souvenirs of Alola

Persona 5 has been great so far. The music and user interfaces are cool in a way that’s rare for other games. It also plays well, despite the inclusion of a Demon Negotiation system, aka the MegaTen series’ most tedious idea. As for the story, it has the expected combo of strong characterization and shock value, this time around with themes of obedience versus defiance. I’m currently more than thirty-six hours in, but given how much time I spent with the previous two games, there’s still a lot more to come.

Aside from that, I finally beat Pokemon Sun, though this victory was bittersweet. My team wasn’t quite in the shape I wanted it to be—my Decidueye and Solgaleo were a few levels above the others—but, not wanting to throw a match during my first attempt at the endgame battles, I continued on and became the Champion.

Cosmog from Pokemon Sun/Moon.Though Pokemon Sun was great for the most part, there were a few lackluster elements. The story, themed around local traditions and wildlife conservation, started off slowly and with several dialogue-heavy cutscenes. However, by the time things picked up, this tale had become one of the best in the entire series. On a related note, Sun certainly has one of the better casts of characters in the world of Pokemon, with the goofy and energetic Professor Kukui and Team Skull’s underdog leader Guzma being two highlights. However, the most important cast member is Lillie, a somewhat timid girl who is neither a fellow Trainer nor someone particularly interested in Pokemon research, like most of the companions in the previous games. She journeys with a Pokemon called Cosmog, nicknamed “Nebby”, in the hopes of getting it home, and their journey frequently crosses paths with yours. By the time the story reaches its crescendo, however, both Lillie and Cosmog have taken on much larger roles; Pokemon Sun ends up being just as much about them as it is about the player.

Much else about the game is praise-worthy. The Hawaii-inspired Alola region is a nice change-of-pace after the staid Kalos from the previous gen, and the hip-hop misfits of Team Skull eventually became my favorite antagonistic group in the series. On the gameplay side, many of the traditional Pokemon trappings got an overhaul in Sun and Moon, and I feel that at least two of them could be worth holding on to for future installments. The first are the move-enhancing Z-Crystals, which replace the Badges won at certain points in the games, though certain types can also be obtained through other means. The second is the Ride Pokemon system, which replaces HMs, those moves that can be used out and about in the world to get to new areas. The Z-Crystals feel less like mere markers and more like useful prizes than the Badges ever did; plus it’s fun to see the Ride Pokemon in action, and freeing not to have to rely so much on specific Pokemon types to use HM moves.

As I implied before, Pokemon Sun isn’t perfect. Certain story-required battles are too repetitive, most of the Island Challenges are shorter and lack the puzzle-oriented fun of the old-style Gyms, and the endgame is bare-bones, even though this can be excused by certain quirks of the storytelling. It’s also a technically-demanding game, with some of the more intense moments slowing things down on my “old” 3DS XL. Still, I found it to be better than Pokemon X in a handful of ways, and maybe even one of the best games in the main series.

Besides Pokemon Sun, I beat a handful of other games since the beginning of March. The first of these was “Episode P4” in the Story mode of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, which I soon followed up with “Episode P3”. These two stories conclude the tale from the first Persona 4 Arena, but are a bit more underwhelming as well. Aside from the weird addition of Rise, the new playable characters featured in this mode are all fine, but both stories are hampered not only by sub-par plotting, but also a tough-for-toughness’-sake (but thankfully skippable) final battle. Sadly, this is the sort of direct sequel that might be better served by seeking out a Let’s Play.

Next was Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, the one game I claimed for free during Ubisoft’s 30th Anniversary celebration. I play open-world games very rarely and had no experience in the Far Cry series before, but found this to be all right. Taking over bases and hunting down collectibles feels a bit like busywork, the world lacks distinctive landmarks, and the graphics are a bit too dark in their most aesthetically-pleasing form. However, the missions are generally fun and story is funny and inspired—it’s an ’80s homage done right, capturing the feel of the era while only rarely breaking out specific pop-culture references. As a standalone bit of fluff, it got the job done. I’m glad I played it, though I’m also fine with taking another long break from open-world games after this.

My third game beaten in March was Quantum Conundrum, a first-person environmental puzzler and one of the hardest such games I’ve ever played. Many of the puzzles, which involve moving between two or more dimensions to alter attributes like mass or gravity, feature some strict time constraints, involve several steps one right after the other, leave the player subject to the whims of the game’s physics engine, and/or are difficult, if not impossible, to solve on the first try. Despite the game’s polish in other areas, the puzzles aren’t as well crafted as in Creative Director Kim Swift’s most famous previous work, Portal. I really wish I could’ve liked this one more. After beating the main game and the dastardly DLC “The Desmond Debacle”, I managed to get a third of the way done with the even tougher second DLC, “IKE-aramba!”, before setting it down in favor of something else.

That something else ended up being Imperium Romanum: Gold Edition, another freebie from a publisher celebrating an anniversary. This one came courtesy of Kalypso, who sent codes out to their mailing list subscribers when they turned ten years old last summer. Our gift was a Roman-themed city builder by Haemimont Games, who later went on to make the modern Tropico titles. Imperium Romanum is a bit more dated than those, with somewhat clunky interfaces and just a smidge too little information about my settlements and their people. On top of that, some of the campaign scenarios were rather difficult, especially when fighting barbarians or other Romans(!) was involved. It’s not a bad city builder by any means, but there are several better ones out there.

And that’s it! I will probably start something new to break up things with Persona 5, though I’m not sure what yet. I’m a little behind on my Mario RPGs, but I’m also starting to get a match-three itch, so the next game could be either Mario & Luigi: Dream Team or Puzzle & Dragons Z. At any rate, I have to whittle down the JRPGs in my backlog.


Braincrumbs: Super Legend of Indies

We got back from a long, relaxing weekend jaunt yesterday, and although I didn’t touch any games other than a few Picross 3D Round 2 puzzles (which I really shouldn’t have done; I was dead tired), my husband did get back into The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, including a frustrating boss battle near the end of the evening’s session.

He has a love-hate relationship with the main Zelda series, much as I do with the main Mario one. It wasn’t all that long ago that I gave up on Super Mario Galaxy 2 (and, by extension, my husband as well, since he was in the “co-star” role), thanks to a badly-implemented 3D camera and a “helper” feature that felt more like cheating or the game taking pity on me than anything else. Perhaps more crucially, Galaxy 2 started feeling more like an obligation than something fun. Experiences like that are why I largely stick to the kart racers and RPGs when it comes to anything involving Mario. As for Zelda, well, it may be a long time before Breath of the Wild or any other new-to-us 3D entry in that series comes into this household. I will likely continue on with the rare 2D Zelda, but certain archaic quirks of the 3D ones continues to baffle both my husband as a player and myself as a spectator. The lag we’ve probably suffered with and the frequently convoluted and/or uncomfortable controls have also not helped these Wii games’ cases.

Anyway, on to this post’s mini-reviews. I recently played through three short indie PC games, none of which is quite like the other. The first is a pop-culture-laden pixel-art RPG, the second is a 3D moe action-platformer, and the third is an arty 2D puzzle-platformer.

Reference Materials:
Knights of Pen and Paper +1 Edition (2013, Behold Studios)

Knights of Pen and Paper +1 EditionThis is one of a few games I received last year by trading Steam keys, and was not one that I’d ever had on any wishlist. Still, after looking up some info, Knights of Pen and Paper +1 Edition sounded interesting enough, so I completed the trade and added it to my library. In the end, it proved itself to be not a bad little game at all.

The premise is fairly simple: a pen and paper role-playing game is played out amidst the fantasy backdrops described by the dungeon master, complete with JRPG-style turn-based battling. Like far too many indie games with pixel graphics, there’s a ton of pop-culture references, but they’re easier to tolerate given that the story begins with a group of regular people in the “real” world. On top of that, while several references range from predictable (Doctor Who‘s Tardis) to insufferable (Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘s Knights of Ni), some are unexpected and even enjoyable; for example, though I disliked Chrono Cross, I appreciated KoPP‘s take on one of its most annoying elements.

The story itself is your standard JRPG fare with an appropriate twist or two, though told with a sometimes clunky English localization (Behold Studios is based in Brazil). The game also doesn’t explain some of its mechanics very well, if at all. On the plus side, the battle system is solid, with some nice variety between classes, and the difficulty curve is decent, though I did find myself having to grind a bit in one of the earlier sections. Aside from the inspired setting, it’s not a particularly remarkable game, but it is fun.

Speedy Angel:
Angel Express (2008, EasyGameStation [via English ver., 2016])

Angel ExpressSpeaking of clunky localizations, Angel Express, also known as Tokkyu Tenshi, suffers a bit in its own way. During cutscenes with the player-named protagonist and her spirit partner El, there are often lines which seem like they should be said by the other character. This makes for some very odd dialogue at times, though most of the cutscenes are incidental and the core story is simple enough to follow. It’s worth noting that Angel Express is the first English-translated game by Japanese doujinsoft circle EasyGameStation not to have been localized by Carpe Fulgur, and, unfortunately, publisher Rockin’ Android just doesn’t do as good of a job.

As for the game itself, Angel Express is a platformer with a racing theme attached: individual stages are obstacle courses which are run through thrice at a time, and usually with a time limit attached or other characters to out-score. In addition to the repetition of the stages themselves, to reach the end of the story means going through most of them multiple times—and happening upon certain cutscenes multiple times as well. The stages are generally well designed and fun to play, so I didn’t mind too much, but it was still somewhat disappointing that there wasn’t more variety. Oh, and Angel Express is extremely difficult on “Normal”, so much so that I couldn’t beat the second part of the first stage on that setting. I ended up restarting and playing through the whole rest of the game on Easy, which is no slouch either.

There are a few additional features and modes, including a level designer, time trials, and multiplayer, though I didn’t touch any of that. I did check out “Totten News”, an in-game newsletter for delivery girls that includes gameplay tips as well as fictional features one might find in a real-life periodical, like recipes and horoscopes. Unfortunately, the last issue of Totten News suffers from a bug which makes it unreadable, so I’ll likely never find out how its serialized story, about two sisters in an alternate world, ends.

A Tale of Two Kitties:
I and Me (2016, Wish Fang)

I and MeIncidentally, the last game in this Braincrumbs installment was also apparently made by a non-native English speaker, but has the best localization of the three, though one or two sections of text don’t linger on the screen long enough to read at a normal pace. The story being told here, though, is not as cheery as the previous two games’ are.

In I and Me, the player controls two identical black cats simultaneously, guiding them past hazards and lining them up perfectly so that they fit into a pair of picture frames somewhere else on the screen. It’s a lot like Toki Tori and similar character-based puzzle games, though controlling two characters like this requires a whole other set of skills, mainly a keen spatial awareness. It’s a challenging game, but fair, and the dozens of stages are cleverly designed.

As for the game’s tone, which I hinted at before, it is perhaps best described as melancholy. The story, such as it is, explores what it’s like to have “another self” in relation to being alone; the graphics make heavy use of black; and the music, much of it in the form of classical arrangements, complement the other moody elements very well. A handful of I and Me‘s Steam reviews describe it as “relaxing”, but it rarely fits that definition. Instead, it requires a bit of tolerance for a less colorful setting, as well as a certain degree of patience given the difficulty of a fair number of its puzzles.

Speaking of which, by the time I had gotten through about ninety percent of the levels, I and Me had finally gotten so hard that I skipped one of them. The next level happened to contain the credits. I still wonder if that specific level was the credits all along, or if some other sort of design was at work.

Some quick site business: It took a year, but I finally got rid of the “comments” links that were at the bottoms of posts on the main page.


Advanced Fractions

I beat Frog Fractions 2 this afternoon (or is that Frog Fractions 3?), a game that’s much longer, more incoherent, and harder than its predecessor. It’s also the first game I’ve Kickstarted which has since come out, which is funny since it’s the only one whose release was obfuscated on purpose, rather than openly falling into some form of Development Hell. There is one part I must spoil, since it involves hardware: at some point, there’s a section which, out of the blue, requires a microphone or similar audio input. However, this section is optional, but the game doesn’t tell you that it is. I don’t use a microphone when PC gaming, and anyway, my offbeat setup makes hooking one up uniquely frustrating. Also, there were no alternative control schemes offered within the game for this part. To me, this particular section wasn’t very well thought out, but Frog Fractions 2 is, in many ways, not a friendly or approachable game. Though it is never unfair (aside from the microphone thing), it does demand a decent amount of imagination and cleverness from its players.

Finding it within Glittermitten Grove is easy enough—I just used the same basic approach as one does with Frog Fractions—but once I got there, what confronted me was a place which got more and more difficult to deal with the further I dove in. Without giving away too much, Frog Fractions 2 is full of funny and weird moments, but in other aspects, it’s a different beast.

"When something smells, it's usually the Butz."On another end of the humor spectrum, I went through all three of the playable Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice DLC episodes. The first, a full-length case titled “Turnabout Time Traveler”, was not nearly as good as its equivalent from the previous game. Instead of an orca at a musically-inclined aquarium, the client is a bride who claims to have relived her wedding reception thanks to a time machine. Oh, and of course, there’s been a murder, and she’s the main suspect. A few of the arguments made in court are sloppy and poorly worded in a way that typically happens in the worst Ace Attorney cases. On the other hand, a major highlight of this episode is the return of Larry Butz, a regular from the first Ace Attorney trilogy who has a tendency for getting into trouble. Phoenix, Maya, and Edgeworth are all present as well; just add Gumshoe and this would’ve been a full-on nostalgic reunion. However, perhaps it is for the best that Gummy didn’t appear, as I would’ve preferred a better case to accompany all the fanservice.

The other two DLCs, brief alternate universe stories called “Phoenix Wright: Asinine Attorney” and “Apollo Justice: Asinine Attorney”, are much fluffier trifles. Phoenix’s tale centers around Pearl and her visit to Kuhra’in, and on the flip-side, Apollo’s features that kingdom’s Princess Rayfa visiting the United States. They are both very short and lighthearted, with Apollo’s episode being both slightly longer and generally better. Both also come with pixel-art 3DS themes, adding some more value to what would otherwise be a pair of overpriced tales.

Before playing through all of that, however, I beat a couple of much longer games. First was Picross 3D Round 2, which is sort of misleading since, after the credits rolled, many more new puzzles unlocked. Round 2 is just as good as the original Picross 3D, which is to say that it’s one of the best picture puzzle video games one could ask for. The puzzles are plentiful and brilliantly conceived, and although there’s an additional level of complexity now, with specially shaped pieces, the game does a great job of easing you into things, as expected from this series.

The other game was Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below, a crossover between Dragon Quest, a JRPG series with a solid reputation, and Dynasty Warriors, which is looked upon… a bit less fondly. Although the basic flavor of the latter is definitely present—in the forms of simple combat controls and massive swarms of enemies—this is also very much a Dragon Quest game in terms of aesthetics, polish, and, on the more negative side, some old-school JRPG menu clunkiness. Still, it was great fun carving through dozens of slimes and the like alongside Alena, Yangus, and other beloved characters from mainline Dragon Quest games, and it’s not like I mind a bit of mostly simple hacky-slashy fun every now and again.

I also replayed the first Frog Fractions (it’s always a good time on Bug Mars) and continued on with Pokemon Sun, which, if anything, recalls the tedium of Pokemon Platinum. However, I hope that unlike with Platinum, I don’t end up taking nine months to beat it. Right now, I would guess that if I’m not at the halfway mark, then I’m very close to it. Also, this isn’t exactly a video game, but a few days ago, I dug out my old Tamagochi and started messing around with it, an experience I may or may not write more about later. The most amazing thing about it so far is that the batteries, which I believe are the original ones from the late 1990s, still work.

As for what I’ll start next, I’m really not sure right now. With Persona 5‘s release date coming up, I’ve been eyeing the two Persona spinoffs I have left in my backlog, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax and Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. There’s also my dwindling pile of Xbox 360 games, Tales of Vesperia arguably being the longest amongst them. However, for the time being, I might be best off plugging away at Pokemon Sun, since I’ve been neglecting it lately. We’ll see how it goes.


2016 Manga Selections

Since I reviewed a selection of games from the previous year, I figured, why not do manga as well? Unlike with the games list, there are few true “old” titles here: most officially debuted or had ongoing volumes printed in English in 2016. Sorry that this post is going up so late, but I’ve had other things distract me in the meantime. Still, better late than never!

As with the Games Selection, a bit of explanation is needed for the setup. The series are presented in alphabetical order, with no rankings whatsoever. After each manga’s title is the mangaka (if there is more than one, they are in order of writer/creator and artist), then the North American publisher, the first year of Japanese serialization, and the number of volumes I’d read up until the end of 2016 (followed, in parentheses, by the total number of Japanese volumes). Series printed in omnibus editions are denoted with an asterisk (*), but the numbers reflect the original volumes as they were first printed in Japan. Finally, all of the cover images used here came from Right Stuf or the publisher’s website.

Honorable Mentions
Jaco the Galactic Patrolman – for its humor, whimsy, and inspired Dragon Ball connections.
Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer* – for its low-key, almost slice-of-life approach to modern fantasy heroics.
My Hero Academia – for its fantastic blend of Japanese shounen and American superhero (with a small touch of indie) styles of comic art.
Queen Emeraldas* – for its dreamlike treatment of the “space opera” genre.
Wandering Island – for its detailed, sort of Ghibli-esque telling of its simple adventure plot.

Assassination ClassroomAssassination Classroom
Yusei Matsui | Viz Media (Shonen Jump label) | 2012 | 12 (out of 21)
The kids in Kunugigaoka Junior High’s Class 3-E don’t have a lot going for them. The other students bully and ridicule them, making them outcasts in their own hyper-competitive school. However, they have a chance to turn their fortunes around thanks to a secret government project in which they will receive a huge cash prize if they assassinate their teacher Koro-sensei, a grinning octopus-like creature who has destroyed much of the Moon and threatens to do the same to Earth. Koro-sensei, by the way, is a shining example to his profession, and through his lessons and various other adventures—the best of which often involve one-upping the horrible student body and administration that treats Class 3-E as outcasts—the kids come to love him. This complicated love/target relationship is at the heart of Assassination Classroom, and along with the gags, action, great ensemble of characters, and crisp, clean artwork, it makes this title one of the best that’s come out of Shonen Jump in recent years.

EmmaEmma
Kaoru Mori | Yen Press | 2002 | 4 (out of 10)*
A tale of forbidden romance between a maid and a wealthy merchant’s son in Victorian England, Emma is rife with period detail, quiet moments, and breathtaking drama. I had originally read the first volume, then localized by CMX, several years ago, but only came back to it recently, and after the twists and turns which led to a crescendo in the fourth volume, I’m eager to keep reading until the end. The setting and characters appear to be the results of some painstaking research, yet there is also a Japanese flavor in the leisurely pacing which is a hallmark of manga. Some of the finely detailed art can be shaky at times when it comes to the basics, but otherwise, this is a very good slice-of-life drama.

Haven't You Heard? I'm SakamotoHaven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto
Nami Sano | Seven Seas | 2011 | 4 (out of 4)
The other school comedy on this list also stars an admirable oddball. However, this time, instead of a teacher, it is a student. Sakamoto-kun is cool beyond cool; a tall, suave wunderkind of mysterious origin who always seems to have the right approach to any problem. In this way, he makes the best of bad situations, gently guides his classmates in positive directions, and earns the admiration, or at least the grudging respect, of everyone he encounters. The art is strangely gritty for a shoujo manga, but also lends it a realistic quality which helps make Sakamoto‘s world more believable, and Sakamoto-kun himself stand out more. Sakamoto is humorous and inspiring, and at four volumes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome and ends brilliantly, tying off the final loose ends left.

My Love Story!!
Kazune Kawahara/Aruko | Viz Media (Shojo Beat label) | 2011 | 10 (out of 13)
Shoujo romances tend to be well-known for their drama and endless questions of will-they-or-won’t-they. There is drama aplenty in My Love Story!!, but where it differs is that the hulking Takeo Goda and petite Rinko Yamato become a couple by the middle of the first volume. What follows, then, is a cute and hilarious tale of their relationship, and all the little milestones they take along the way. Another, perhaps more remarkable, thing which separates My Love Story!! from most other shoujo is that the main point-of-view character is male. Goda is a somewhat clueless but extremely likable hero, and the scenes with his best friend Makoto Sunakawa are frequently enjoyable glimpses of an honest and true male friendship. Given the rough year that we will all undoubtedly face ahead, I highly recommend this series as a joyful escape. I will be sad to see it end—the final volume should come out in English later this year—but will be rooting for Goda and Yamato the entire time.

One-Punch ManOne-Punch Man
ONE/Yusuke Murata | Viz Media (Shonen Jump label) | 2012 | 9 (out of 12+)
In a generic city, an aspiring hero and all-around normal guy named Saitama does a simple but intense training regimen and ends up losing all his hair, but gaining so much strength that he can defeat any enemy with a single punch. He eventually gets noticed by a few others—most notably the straight-laced cyborg Genos and villainous ninja Speed-o’-Sound Sonic—and soon winds up in the world of professional superheroes. Originally based on ONE’s webcomic, this funny, action-packed tale of an unlikely hero who makes up for his apathy for the formalities of pro-level herodom with heart and dignity is well worth checking out. The art is astonishingly good, too.

OrangeOrange
Ichigo Takano | Seven Seas | 2012 | 5 (out of 5)*
A school drama with a science fiction twist, Orange is a tale in which its introverted protagonist, Naho Takamiya, receives a letter from her future self, who tasks her with preventing a small-scale tragedy. The constantly lingering question of whether or not Naho can pull this off, saving her classmate Kakeru Naruse by following her future self’s detailed instructions, kept me on the edge of my seat. There’s a romance angle as well, and all of this is ferried to the end by a wonderful supporting cast. I must note that although this is an excellent drama, one of the early spoilers carries a trigger warning with it; read this review if you want to find out more.

Otherworld BarbaraOtherworld Barbara
Moto Hagio | Fantagraphics | 2002 | 2 (out of 4)*
This is a difficult one. It begins with a peculiar island where a young girl frolics with her friends, people can fly, and the residents are insulated from an ongoing war. Then it shifts to a “dream pilot” named Tokio Watarai, who takes on a curious request involving a girl who has slept continuously for years on end. Also, Watarai has an estranged son, Kiriya Kitakata, who has problems and concerns of his own. There is cannibalism, psychic phenomena, a Martian connection, and the constant recurrence of the term “Barbara”, usually as the name of an island which may or may not actually exist. Tying all this surrealism together is the most appropriate art style possible: collage-like, loose-bordered shoujo. Otherworld Barbara is most definitely an acquired taste, but if if happens to be yours, it is a fascinating one.

Princess JellyfishPrincess Jellyfish
Akiko Higashimura | Kodansha Comics | 2008 | 6 (out of 16+)*
If you like to laugh, loudly and often, this is one manga you don’t want to miss. In the first volume, our heroine, the jellyfish otaku and NEET Tsukimi Kurashita, has a chance encounter with someone from the direct opposite end of the social spectrum: Kuranosuke Koibuchi, a rich, stylish, attractive, crossdressing guy. Somehow, they become friends, and when Kuranosuke learns that the charming old building where Tsukimi and her otaku compatriots live is in danger of redevelopment, it triggers a whole big mess of adventures as he attempts to save it. Every single damn member of the cast is funny, and a few take us down some particularly hilarious turns as the story goes on. Kuranosuke sometimes acts a little too pushy in a believable but unlikeable way, especially early on, but otherwise, this is a fantastic series which I can’t get enough of.

Vinland SagaVinland Saga
Makoto Yukimura | Kodansha Comics | 2005 | 14 (out of 18+)*
An ongoing masterpiece by the creator of Planetes, this is one of the most violent manga I’ve ever read, and also one of the most pacifist. Thorfinn is a young Icelandic boy who, thanks to some tragic events, gets swept up into Askeladd’s band of bloodthirsty Vikings. Over the course of many volumes, we not only see plenty of limbs lopped off, but also Thorfinn growing and changing through his interactions with his fellow warmongers, a captured prince, and others. In the second major story arc, which completed in volume 14, Thorfinn’s situation has changed drastically, and over time, he does as well. Vinland Saga is currently the best seinen manga you can buy in English, which is no small feat.

Yotsuba&!Yotsuba&!
Kiyohiko Azuma | Yen Press | 2003 | 13 (out of 13+)
The adorable slice-of-life comedy Yotsuba&! isn’t undated as frequently as it used to be, so new volumes, when they happen, become even more of a treat. This series, about the adventures of an eccentric little girl and her family and friends, is charming up the wazoo, very funny, and sometimes even carries an air of nostalgia, depending on whether or not you had similar experiences when you were a kid. It’s lovely just to look at with its panels bursting with detail—and not just in the backgrounds, but the objects and animals as well. The humorous scenes are frequent, and they’re paced and executed with expert precision. Yen Press’ localization has also improved over the years, though it’s still nowhere near as good as when the now-defunct ADV Manga published the series. Yotsuba&! is a rarity in manga: a high-quality series which can be enjoyed by just about anyone, no matter how old they are.