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Video games and other things.

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’ve 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 already destroyed much of the Moon. 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 situation. 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 himself stand out more. Sakamoto is funny 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 right in the first chapter. 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 at 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 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 over a decade. 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 Tsukimi and her otaku compatriots live at 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 an 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.


2016 Gaming Selections

Here’s my top ten games played in 2016, presented in the order in which I played and/or beat them. Following each title is the developer/author, the platform I played the game on, the release year on said platform, and a little bit about why it has made this list. As with last year’s Selections, these games aren’t ranked, except for my personal Game of the Year and its runner-ups (the entries this time are a little less wordy, however). I have also added some Honorable Mentions at the beginning, since I played a lot of good stuff this year and didn’t want to overlook certain titles. Anyway, let’s get to it…

Honorable Mentions
Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure – for its appealing main character, and being the type of “b-game” that lingers in my mind long after finishing.
Firewatch – for its incredible sense of place, and realistic characters.
Bravely Default – for its masterful battle and character customization systems, and outstanding art direction.
Pokemon Blue Version – for being a deeper-than-expected foundation, and Professor Oak’s nephew, the antagonist I loved to hate more than any other this year.
Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice – for returning the series to form, and bringing the “Justice Trilogy” to a satisfying conclusion.

There’s also a few great games which I played this year but didn’t beat or play enough of to consider for this list: Spelunky, Project CARS, and Picross 3D Round 2.

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Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition (PS4 version shown)Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition
Blizzard Entertainment | Xbox 360 | 2014
Playing a Diablo-style action RPG on a console, with my co-op partner sitting right next to me, is a wonderful experience I wish I could have more often. What’s most remarkable is that it happened with an actual Diablo game. The story is typical Metzen Cheese™, but told within suitably epic trappings and with a satisfying loop of fight and loot. For a console version of a very PC-centric game, the controls are remarkably good as well: somewhat complex, but thought out well enough that they soon become second nature. I do wish there was more variety in the loot available in the Resurrection of Evil expansion, and there’s only so much Metzen Cheese™ one can take at a time, but if you’re looking for a solid couch co-op game, this is one which I highly recommend.

Kero BlasterKero Blaster / Pink Hour / Pink Heaven
Studio Pixel | Windows | 2015
Pixel’s follow-up to his masterpiece Cave Story is a run-and-gun shooter with a slightly more whimsical tone. In this outing, a frog gets teleported out onto the field to complete cleanup missions for his employer, but in the meantime, a problem manifests itself in the boss’ office. Despite the switching up of genres, the action should be familiar to anyone who has played Cave Story, and even improves on it in some small, but welcome, ways. Kero Blaster is, flat-out, a joy to play, and its two free tie-in games, Pink Hour and Pink Heaven, are worth checking out as well.

NiGHTS into Dreams...NiGHTS into Dreams… / Christmas NiGHTS
Sonic Team | Windows | 1995-96 (Windows port: 2012)
NiGHTS is the strangest game I played all year. It’s a mascot platformer with not much use for platforms; instead, the title character flies and floats around dense dreamscapes. I found the game disorienting at first, but once I got the hang of things, it was like nothing else. It is also not as difficult as certain similar games of that era, so despite one or two frustrating bits, I was able to beat it. One of the bonus features in the PC version of NiGHTS is Christmas NiGHTS. More than just a reskin of NiGHTS‘ opening areas, it is a charming demo with a standalone story and plenty of holiday spirit.

UndertaleUndertale
tobyfox | Windows | 2015
I don’t know what’s left to say about Undertale at this point. The characters are marvelous and true to life, and the plot slots them into archetypal JRPG roles in interesting ways (this is particularly true of Alphys). There is humor galore, from meme-ready running gags, to more traditionally funny scenes, to a certain unexpected and hilarious parody. There is also tons of heart, in several ways. Its fandom is crazy about this game and after one playthrough, and then another, it became easy for me to see why.

Doom (1993)Doom
id Software | Windows | 1993-95 (via Doom 3: BFG Edition, 2012)
Playing Doom—and beating all of its episodes for the first time—ended up being more than just a nostalgia trip. Despite the lack of modern niceties such as aim assist, weapon customization, and jumping, it plays just as well, and is as enjoyable and engrossing, as back in ’93. The only real low point is Episode IV, first introduced in The Ultimate Doom and included here, but even that would be a solid set of maps in most any other FPS. Doom is, and always will be, just that good.

Bejeweled 3Bejeweled 3
PopCap Games | Windows | 2010
A modern classic of match-three puzzling, with a sufficient amount of strategic depth and wealth of variant modes to keep things interesting, from the frantic (Ice Storm) to the relaxing (Poker). The epic music and voice-over were unintentionally funny to me at first, but after spending many hours switching gems around, I can’t imagine the game without it. Bejeweled 3 ended up hooking me so much that it became one of a small number of PC games which I felt compelled to get all the achievements in.

Catlateral DamageCatlateral Damage
Chris Chung/Fire Hose Games | Windows | 2015
If you ever need something cathartic—no pun intended—to play for a few minutes or longer, I heartily recommend Catlateral Damage. It’s a first-person cat simulator where the goal is to knock everything onto the floor. The main campaign is short, but there is a decent amount of stuff to do and see, including some nifty themed maps, unlockable cat photos and playable cats, cat toys that grant stat boosts, and special limited-time events, like low gravity and chasing laser pointer dots. Playing a misbehaving cat is, as it turns out, an enjoyable way to pass some spare time.

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Pokemon GOThird Place
Pokemon GO
Niantic/The Pokemon Company | iOS | 2016
Looking at this strictly in terms of mechanics, and especially when it’s compared to its primary source of inspiration, Pokemon GO may be the worst game on this list. However, for me, it has also been one of the most engaging of the past year. There is something intriguing about going out into the real world to catch Pokemon and use them to fight at gyms. The team system encourages local rivalries, and periodic updates and special events have generally made the game better since it first launched. I currently have most of the Pokedex filled, plus a pretty beefy team of gym-fighting regulars, so I’ve lapsed a bit in my playing, but for much of the summer and fall, Pokemon GO proved to be a great way to get me out of the house for some simple exercise for an hour or three. If more second-generation Pokemon get added, I’d probably continue to do the same in 2017, since I’d love to see Skarmory, Marill, and other favorites in my ‘dex.

DOOM (2016)Second Place
DOOM
id Software | Windows | 2016
It feels odd to place this above the original Doom, which is one of the greatest and most important games ever made. However, in terms of how much I was captivated by each game I played this year, I feel that this new one deserves its place. It is, more than anything else, bone-crunching, and also metal, and at times quite witty. As a character, the Doom Marine is stellar, a silent first-person protagonist who brims with personality through mere eyelines and hand movements. The world he inhabits is sprawling, with some (mostly) cleverly hidden secrets, and incorporates the best ideas from all the previous numbered entries in the series and then some. The gameplay, and gunplay, is exhilarating, with one of my favorite parts being an ammunition and health drop system which, amongst other things, means one no longer has to hoard BFG ammo. It is everything I have loved about Doom made modern, and might be the finest single-player FPS campaign of all time.

Her StoryFirst Place: Game of the Year
Her Story
Sam Barlow | Windows | 2015
My Game of the Year was decided early on. Rarely have I come across a game narrative that’s so pulpy, with so many what the fuck moments as in Her Story. It is very, very difficult to talk about why this is without giving anything away, especially that one word I felt compelled to search for after watching a certain amount of video, that one word which means so much to the plot.

First, let’s back up a little. In Her Story, you are an unknown and unseen person who is sifting through interview clips stored on a long-neglected police database. You start with the word “MURDER”. The interviewee is the wife of the victim. To progress, searching for additional clips through keywords, piecing events together along the way, is key. However, even after seeing the clip needed to trigger the option to end the game, it’s hard not to keep going, and yet, some hard answers remain just out of reach. I’ve seen every single snippet of video in Her Story and am still not entirely sure of what has happened. This is a game tailor-made for people who enjoy theorizing over vague endings, and love mysteries in general.

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you may have noticed that I’m a stickler for good storytelling in games. Some of the games on this list, particularly Undertale and DOOM, have very good stories, but nothing like this. Her Story is a must-play achievement in narrative games, one that excels in both concept and execution.


No Playable “Holiday Card” This Year

I didn’t want to do this—I had an idea, a new-to-me engine to mess with, and had even started work on the thing—but the completion and release of year’s “Holiday Card” game project is being postponed to next winter. The reason for this is due to over a month of near-constant insomnia beginning in late September, making me too tired to continue playing certain games, never mind making one.

At first I thought it might’ve been the regular Autumn changes in the weather that was causing my sleeplessness, but I have a chronic illness in which insomnia is a side effect. I thought I could tough it out until my next specialist’s appointment, but by the beginning of this month, I hadn’t made much progress with this year’s game, nor gotten enough rest. I’ve seen said doctor since then, verified what the problem is, and have started to recover a little bit, but there’s no way I’d be able to finish the game in time. Therefore, the third Brainscraps Holiday Card—if all goes well—will come out in December 2017, instead of next month (and if you’ve somehow missed the first two, they live in the “Projects” category). I have a couple of end-of-year posts in the works, so you can look forward to those, at least. In the meantime, wish me luck with the sleep thing and I hope everyone has a good holiday season.


Heaven, Hell, and Everything in Between

As far as beating games goes, this has been shaping up to be a somewhat productive summer. I’ve beaten seven games and two DLCs/expansions since my previous post, including a few titles I obtained during Steam’s annual Summer Sale. Right now, my biggest pickup from that sale, the much-lauded 2016 version of Doom, is sitting on one of my hard drives, having been freshly downloaded from Steam’s servers this past Tuesday.

Doom 2016 is one of my very rare triple-A indulgences, and a graphical beast; even on the lowest settings, the demo looked fantastic. There’s tons of options to tweak, as one would expect of a game from a storied PC developer like id Software, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the game itself will run on my (admittedly) offbeat PC gaming hardware of choice, a 2013 Mac Pro running Boot Camp. My little taste of it back in June was quite delicious, with a red-drenched palette and hints of the sort of over-the-top badassery one expects from the Doom franchise.

A typical sight in <i>Doom 3</i>.Before I could start Doom 2016, and after beating Doom II back in early May, I finished my tour of the older id-crafted parts of the franchise with Doom 3 and its companion pieces, “Resurrection of Evil” and the BFG Edition-exclusive “Lost Mission”. Doom 3 did well when it came to the look and feel of the weapons and enemies, but atmospherically, it was, for the most part, not Doom. The story took itself a bit more seriously than it had in Doom and Doom II—even the difficulty setting names were straight-laced—and on top of that, the shadowy environments and heavy emphasis on sound effects lent the game more of a horror feel, rather than the goofy action movie style I was used to (given this situation, the famed flashlight controversy is especially interesting). It was sort of like a scarier, less puzzley, and less wry Half-Life set in the Doomiverse. That’s not to say there weren’t any funny or adrenaline-pumping moments—there most certainly were—but Doom 3 stands out a little as an odd duck. It was a fun game, though, especially the last third or so, which includes the requisite trip to Hell. The two bonus campaigns retread some familiar ground, story-wise, but are also fairly decent, especially “Resurrection of Evil”; “Lost Mission” felt a little slapdash in comparison.

Before I wrapped up Doom 3, I defeated the final boss in a very different sort of game: The Guided Fate Paradox, a roguelike developed by Nippon Ichi for the PS3. It was a shrewd choice to be Nippon Ichi’s 20th anniversary title, not just because of its genre, but also its setting: Celestia, the angelic counterpart to the Netherworld where so many of the company’s games take place. In this particular entry in Nippon Ichi’s multidimensional canon, the player character is Renya, a high school student who wins the title of “God” in a shopping arcade lottery. Despite the wacky setup, much of the rest of the story, in which Renya fulfills prayers and wishes hand-picked by his team of angels, is played fairly straight, with very few forays into outright comedy. Some potential is there—an innuendous angel, a chuunibyou angel, a mission that involves helping zombies—but it never gets as comedic as many of the studio’s other works.

As for the story that is there, it’s a heaping pile of jargon-laden anime bullshit with a few entertaining bits here and there. Much of the game’s plot seems to exist solely to justify the mechanics of fighting, picking up items, leveling up, dying, and then doing most all of it over again from scratch. Other such games are happy enough hand-waving away the peculiarities of the roguelike format when it comes to storytelling, but The Guided Fate Paradox isn’t. In a way, I’m glad they took this approach, since it fits very well with Nippon Ichi’s house style, but there were times when it all felt a touch too complicated or serious for them. Despite all that, the dungeon crawling parts were mostly outstanding, with some neat chapter-specific gimmicks, snappy movement and attack speeds, loads of customization options (including some basic stats which can be improved permanently), and, save for a grindy endgame, a fair difficulty curve. If you like this sort of game at least as much as I do and can stomach or ignore the less-than-great story bits, The Guided Fate Paradox is worth a try.

<i>Evoland II</i>'s obligatory stealth section, complete with obligatory <i>Metal Gear Solid</i> reference.Other than that, I beat Pokemon Blue Version, ending my journeys through both Kanto and Pokemon’s origins. I also played Evoland II, which is both bigger and not as good in certain ways as its predecessor: though the plotting is amazingly thorough and most of the gameplay bits are solid, there’s too many superfluous references to other games and too much rambling dialogue (see this post I made in CAG’s current RPG Thread for more detailed impressions). As for some more of those aforementioned Summer Sale games, Witch and Hero was a nice and chaotic little J-indie nugget, Bejeweled 3 was (and continues to be) so very good, and DLC Quest was pleasantly goofy, if a little ugly to look at, and didn’t wear out its welcome.

As for stuff I’m still playing, besides trying to get the last two (very tough) achievements in Bejeweled 3, there’s Project CARS, Fantasy Life, and Pokemon GO. As I only typically buy one sim racer per generation, the PC version of Project CARS had a lot riding on it, but I’m enjoying its career mode thus far. It’s quite deep, but also very approachable thanks to its bevy of difficulty modifiers, which is great for filthy casual racing fans like myself. Fantasy Life is much like most any other game wholly conceived and developed by Level-5: beautiful, dense with variety, and with a story and world that’s pleasantly vanilla. Sometimes this latter point works against them, as it did for me with Professor Layton and the Curious Village, but the results here are a bit more mixed; I’m not quite sure what to make of it yet. Lastly, there’s Pokemon GO. As Pokemon games go, it’s one of the shallowest ever made, but the real world trappings are a neat novelty, and, at the very least, it’s getting me out and walking a bit more.

Soon, Doom 2016 will join that list. I’ve already been to Hell and back again with Doomguy a handful of times this year, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t looking forward to one more trip.


Our Little Luxendarc

Bravely Default has taken me a long time to get through. Not only is it the longest RPG I have ever played on the 3DS—I did the vast majority of the sidequests and ended up clocking just over 140 hours—but I took more than a few breaks from it as I played, some of which lasted a week or longer. However, this past Thursday, I finally beat the last boss and saw the credits roll. It was one a hell of a journey, to say the least, with some intriguing twists on old formulae and a problematic ending. Here’s how it all went.

The setting is Luxendarc, a world like one might find in many other JRPGs, and Final Fantasies in particular (it’s worth noting here that Square Enix is the publisher, and much of the team previously worked on Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light and the DS remakes of FFIII and FFIV). There are four elemental crystals whose health is maintained by priestesses called Vestals. When the village of Norende is instantly destroyed one day, the sole survivor, a shepherd named Tiz, teams up with Agnès, the Vestal of Wind, and her cryst-fairy companion Airy in order to set things right and possibly bring his town back. Their team soon expands by two more members: Ringabel, an amnesiac with a mysterious journal that seems to tell of future events, and Edea, who sees injustice in the actions of her father, the anti-Crystalist leader of the Duchy of Eternia. With Airy and “D’s Journal” as their guides, the ordinary boy, devout priestess, mysterious stranger, and rebellious princess traverse the world, awakening the crystals and fighting Eternia’s forces along the way.

Tiz, as a Pirate.These forces are the primary source of “asterisks”, items which bestow new jobs to the party. Yes, in addition to the four crystals, another trait Bravely Default has inherited from the Final Fantasy series is the Job System. As it turns out, this game’s take on it is one of the best and most well-balanced ever conceived. Including the basic Freelancer, there are 24 jobs total, and although some are less useful than others, not a single one feels truly superfluous. Part of this is helped along by the fact that, in addition to the option of having a secondary set of unlocked job-specific skills equipped on a character (much like in FFV), there are many passive abilities that can be slotted in. These include basic attack and defense buffs, weapon affinities, status effect immunities, and automated actions like counterattacking. This dense variety of customization options can accommodate just about any sort of play style one can imagine.

The battle system itself has a fair amount of flexibility. Bravely Default is a traditional turn-based affair, one in which all the party members’ commands for a single turn are dictated at once, then played out, Dragon Quest-style. Everything about the battles is quick and snappy—even summoning sequences are reasonably short—and later on, regular lower-level enemies can be dispatched instantly with a certain passive skill. As for the bosses, they are a decent enough challenge on normal difficulty and require a bit more strategizing than the random enemies, especially later on. At the heart of all this is the “Brave” and “Default” system. The former adds turns for any given character, and the latter stores them up. This system is useful both for stacking standard attacks and spells, as well as job-specific abilities which require multiple turns. On top of all this, there are special limit break-style attacks which are dependent on various factors, plus two additional options I completely ignored: summoned “friend” abilities and the time-freezing “Bravely Second”. If anything, this game proves that there is still room to innovate in the turn-based JRPG space, and does so with aplomb.

Those two unused battle options I mentioned above are reliant on DS hardware-specific features: friend lists and sleep mode. A third uses StreetPass to repopulate and speed the rebuilding of Norende in an ongoing minigame. Although this town-building mode adds both regular and exclusive items to special stores run by the wandering adventurers who serve as save points, this is another feature which can be safely ignored without greatly affecting the meat of the game.

Outside of battles, the task of getting around from place to place is fairly painless. There are at least two areas which have a lot of ground to cover between save points, plus there’s no quick and easy way to fully heal at said points (for example, the “tent” item present in many Final Fantasies), but otherwise, things are manageable. The dungeon layouts are simple enough to navigate, thanks in large part to automapping, as are the towns and other story-specific areas.

Agnès, as a Spiritmaster.Speaking of the game’s non-dungeon locations, they are absolutely gorgeous, with a hand-crafted look reminiscent of illustrations from fantasy books; the intricately detailed towns of Caldisla and Ancheim are two notable highlights. The overall color scheme of the game is suitably modest, even in colorful places like Florem. This palette helps bright flashy effects, when they appear during certain events, really pop. Likewise, the character art, music, sound effects, and voice acting only stand out in the sense that they’re high quality, and blend in nicely with the overall feel of the game. The localization is generally outstanding, although I do believe that the (understandable) changes made to the “Bravo Bikini” outfit could’ve been better handled, mainly by tailoring certain bits of dialogue to make it sound less scandalous than it ended up being.

Then there’s the deceptively minor features which enhance the whole experience. Chief amongst these is the Event Viewer, which allows the player to rewatch most any previously viewed scene. Neatly organized and easy to use, I relied heavily on the Event Viewer to get up to speed after most all of my longer breaks between play sessions. Another handy feature is Airy’s appearance on the bottom screen in the main and save menus, reminding you of where you are in the story and hinting at what mandatory event you should be doing next. There’s several other such niceties, including a handful of language options and an autosave feature that can be toggled at one’s leisure.

You may have noticed that so far, I have avoided discussing the finer details of the story. Unfortunately, I can’t properly do so without spoiling the first truly major plot twist, as well as events toward the end. The spoiler-free version is that Bravely Default‘s story takes a turn which is highly unusual for a JRPG, and one that has done it no favors in the eyes of many players. The ending also adds a couple of new plot details that, while cute, are unnecessary and/or contradict what has come before it. In short, Bravely Default is much like Valkyria Chronicles in its marriage of a damn near perfect aesthetic and play experience with a flawed story.

For the spoilery version, read on. MAJOR SPOILERS for the entirety of Bravely Default follow… Read the rest of this entry »


Braincrumbs: April’s Weekend Indies

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been trying to devote my weekends to playing through at least one indie game. I’ve stuck with that through April, though two of the games I played this month are, while made by small teams, technically not indie: the first is the most famous title from a storied Western developer, and the other, though lesser-known, is by one of Japan’s most celebrated makers of all-ages visual novels. Also, I didn’t actually start the former game during the weekend, but I digress. Without any further ado, here are those games for the month of April 2016, indie or not, weekend or not.

Filled with Determination – April 2-3:
Undertale (2015, tobyfox)

An early scene from <i>Undertale<i>.

Undertale starts off twee, but becomes more substantial later on.

So it seems that there’s some meat behind the hype after all. Beyond the memes and fanart-friendly skeletons lies a deconstruction of RPGs, specifically Japanese-style console RPGs, and the various tropes that inhabit them. The central conceit is an encounter system that allows, and encourages, the player not to attack their foe, but instead to communicate with them before showing mercy. This affects the directions that the story can go in, and certain future interactions with the subterranean world in which the game takes place.

The tone throughout much of Undertale is contemporary and humorous, with some nods to otaku subculture in particular, plus a few (and thankfully, only a few) fourth-wall breaking moments and overt references to other games. Undertale‘s most obvious antecedent is Earthbound, another story centered around a child on an unexpected journey, but fortunately, it has none of its spiritual predecessor’s blatant patronization nor its interface and inventory flaws. Cave Story seems to be another inspiration, in part due to the underground setting and relatable characters, as well as the MegaTen series, via its comparatively simple conversation system. However, it’s impossible to truly say “it’s like (blah) crossed with (blah)” in regards to Undertale; as a complete package, there’s nothing else quite like it. I highly recommend this odd yet rewarding indie morsel, and also that new players go in knowing as little about it as possible.

Hell is a Place on Deimos – April 11-14:
Doom (1993, id Software [via Doom 3: BFG Edition, 2012])

The end credits from the first episode of <i>Doom</i>.

Many modern indies don’t have teams this small!

Doom requires little introduction. Before the term “first-person shooter” became the norm, it ushered in the era of “Doom clones”, and has been made to run on anything and everything, including within itself. I got my first taste of Doom and its predecessor Wolfenstein 3D back in the summer of ’93, and it has held a special place in my heart ever since. However, I had never actually beaten the original Doom. Wanting to rectify this, and too tired at the time to play anything with a deep plot, I installed the “BFG Edition” of Doom 3 and fired up that oldie. It holds up, and then some.

Doom‘s sprawling, labyrinthine levels are, save for one or two badly-implemented sections, still some of the best ever made; the enemies have a good range of toughness and attack types; and the weapons all feel right. Also, despite Doom‘s dated controls—for example, horizontal-only mouselook and no jumping—they never feel limiting thanks to some smart design. The fourth episode, which was made sometime after the completion of the main three, is more unbalanced than the others, but the blemishes that it adds to the whole are minor. By the way, the story, which involves a space marine and a portal to Hell, is as silly a bit of fluff as ever.

Ephemeral Stars – April 17-18:
planetarian ~the reverie of a little planet~ (2004, Key [via English ver., 2014])

In this scene from <I>planetarian</i>, Yumemi describes a bug in her software.

Yumemi’s excuse for her chattiness boils down to buggy software.

For all of the talk about “walking simulators”, an older genre which is often more limiting when it comes to player interaction is visual novels. An even more restrictive form is the kinetic novel, which is like a VN but completely linear, with no decisions to be made and a single ending. This term originates from the developer Key, which is, appropriately, the maker of planetarian, my introduction to this sub-genre.

planetarian takes place is a post-apocalyptic world upon which pours an endless, poisonous rain. The nameless protagonist, a manly tsundere scavenger, comes across a well-preserved planetarium, maintained by an android named Hoshino Yumemi. She is a waifu-candidate type of moe character: unfailingly positive, eager to please, and with quirks intended to cross the line from annoying to charming. Key is famous for their sentimental stories, and in that respect, planetarian does not disappoint; the middle chapters in particular are a highlight. However, I found the melodrama to be mawkish at times, and the repetition of certain story beats didn’t seem to work as well as they would in a serialized format. Despite these issues, a handful of typos and some peculiar grammatical choices, and the rare bit of thesaurus porn (for example, “demesne”, which was used metaphorically), the story and localization were all right, but nothing truly special. On the whole, planetarian has some charms, but is most definitely not for everyone. At least I can say that I’ve experienced a Key visual novel now.

A Spirited Journey – April 23-24:
Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) (2014, Upper One Games/E-Line Media)

A lonely, icy landscape in <i>Never Alone</i>.

So far, Never Alone is one of the best-looking games I’ve played all year.

My final weekend game for this month was also the shortest. Never Alone, along with its DLC “Foxtales”, is a fairly straightforward platformer based on Native Alaskan folklore. The player characters are an Iñupiat girl and an arctic fox. A single player can easily control both of them, though there is a co-op mode as well.

The stories themselves, about an endless blizzard and a journey across water, are imaginative in a way that isn’t unexpected for traditional tales, and are more than suitable for a video game. Much of the puzzle-platforming is dependent on cued changes in the environment. While this works well enough in some sections, it feels slightly less so elsewhere, and some instances of clipping and slightly jerky animation don’t help. The checkpointing is fairly good, though, so there’s few frustrations to be had. I also must make note of the unlockable “Cultural Insight” videos, mini-documentaries about the Iñupiat people that are relevant to the game; as they provide a great deal of context about the game, they are worth checking out. It’s a well thought-out little game, despite its few flaws.

So, that about covers this month. I also played plenty of Diablo III and Bravely Default this month, and am currently nearing the ends of both of those; I’ve also recently started a replay of Doom II. As for what May will bring, I may cut back on the Weekend Indies for awhile and concentrate more on the longer games I have backlogged. We’ll see how it goes.