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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 Quixote, 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.


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.


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.


So Long, My PS2

Sony’s PlayStation 2 is one of my favorite dedicated gaming platforms of all time. There’s a wealth of amazing games for that system, including ICO, Kingdom Hearts, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, Katamari Damacy, and several others which I am glad to have experienced. Over the years, I’ve gone through two consoles. My first, a “Phat” bundled with Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec, developed disk read issues; instead of attempting a repair, I sold it on eBay. The second, a Slim, eventually saw problems with the disk drive’s hinged lid, which I fixed by setting a hardcover copy of The Simarillion on top of it whenever I wanted to play a game. Oh, and the controller’s left analog stick sometimes becomes stuck in a certain direction, but not enough so that it’s unusable. Plus the switch from a old-style TV to an HDTV some years ago introduced noticeable lag into a handful of games, but that’s not the PS2’s fault. We have a third PS2, our second Slim, brand-new and packed away in storage, just in case we should need it.

However, the first Slim might be joining its sibling soon, as I recently beat the last PS2 game I had planned to play. This game, appropriately enough, was also one of the last major North American releases for the PS2: Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love.

So Long, My Love is the fifth main entry in Sega and Red Entertainment’s Sakura Wars franchise, and the only one ever to have been officially localized in English, albeit by NIS America (however, a fair number of the anime spinoffs have seen release here since the late 90s). Why this series has stayed in Japan for so long is not a surprise once one starts up the game, as it has a very heavy visual novel/dating sim component. When this game was released in the US in 2010, English-localized dating sims were extremely niche, and typically the province of adult PC game publishers. Though the situation has improved since then, they still occupy a small and specialized corner of the overall Western game market.

A typical ground battle in <i>Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love</i>. Source image from GameSpot (gamespot.com).

The battle system is simple, yet enjoyable.

The other 20-30% of the game is, of all things, a strategy RPG, and not a bad one, either. Not including the endgame, battles take place roughly twice per chapter, typically with one being ground-based, and the other focused on aerial combat. The battle system plays like a simpler version of the one in Valkyria Chronicles, which is not a surprise considering that many Sakura Wars staffers went on to work on the later series. Nearly all actions, including moving, healing, defending, joint attacks, and special moves, cost a set amount of action points (and sometimes SP as well), and the lack of a grid means that units can move freely around the maps. There is a bit more to it, but in general, if you enjoyed the gameplay in Valkyria Chronicles, there’s much to like in So Long, My Love‘s battle system.

To get to those battles, however, requires going through lots and lots of text. The main story takes place in an alternate-universe version of the 1920s, where steam engines have become so advanced that they’re used to power airships and mobile suits. The player character is Shinjiro Taiga, a fresh-faced young officer who is shipped from Japan to the US to join the New York Combat Revue, a troupe of Broadway performers who moonlight as peace-keeping pilots of mechs called STARs. This wacky intersection of professions is justified in that not only does the Revue have to keep the peace, they are also charged with spreading happiness throughout the city with their performances, in order to ward off negative energy.

The full explorable "world map". Source image from GameSpot (gamespot.com).

Bizarro New York has a “Bay-area” instead of a “Financial District”.

Despite the thought put into the Combat Revue’s role and other such plot concepts, the world-building is by far the weakest part of the game. Forget about the sometimes odd musicals the Revue puts on; more importantly, the New York City represented here is not so much the real thing as a dreamlike idea, and contains a number of inaccuracies. A library building that resembles the main branch in Midtown is in the Village. Wall Street is north of Chinatown. Fifth Avenue is on West 59th Street, and so on. There’s also the lack of steampunky elements—besides the NY Combat Revue’s equipment and facilities, there’s not much other fancy gear save for a few pipe-heavy cars and the occasional public fixture—and the odd anachronism such as the graffiti in Harlem. The most jarring flaws of all surface late in the game: it’s December, and the city’s bushes and trees are mostly still leafy and green. You wouldn’t know it was a Northeastern winter at all if it weren’t for some mentions of Christmas and the light snowfall that occurs during one battle.

Sagiitta and Subaru ponder Shinjiro's words. Source image from GameSpot (gamespot.com).

The sharply-dressed Sagiitta and Subaru.

The characters have quite a bit more thought put into them. Besides Shinjiro, there are five other STAR pilots who are already a part of or later join the team. Main girl Gemini is a cheery Texan with big dreams who shares an apartment with her horse Larry. Sagiitta is a proud and intelligent lawyer (yes, she actively maintains a third profession) and, surprisingly, one of the best African-American characters in all of video games. Fellow Japanese expat Subaru is an aloof genius type who is identified as female, but whose actual gender is a mystery. Energetic little Rikaritta (aka Rika) is a performer and bounty hunter who loves to eat. Finally, there’s the girl whose ending I went for: Diana, a kind and sickly young woman who studies medicine and loves birds and nature. Rounding out the cast are the non-performing staff of the Revue, plus a handful of lesser characters, including a boutique owner, a jazz musician, a grocer, and a couple of mobsters. Most of these characters are well fleshed-out, with the STAR pilots/girlfriend candidates getting the bulk of the development. Each of these girls has a distinct story arc, with some of them better written than others, and developing close relationships with them affects your party’s strength in battle. The romance that results is chaste to the point of being practically platonic—a good thing when you consider that the youngest of the bunch, Rika, is only eleven years old. In general, although the basic story is fairly simple and rarely original, the highly likable characters and their tales nicely make up for it.

One of the more complex actions required while interacting with characters. Source image from GameSpot (gamespot.com).

Get these moves right for a happy Rika.

Unlike with other visual novels, the choices you are given while interacting with these characters are usually timed, and some tasks, such as an early one where you help Gemini clean the Littlelip Theater, involve successfully pulling off series of analog stick movements. When you’re free to move around, you can explore the city both to further the main story and get to know various characters better, and also play around with a combination radio/camera called the Cameratron, which seems to be mainly there for an ongoing picture-taking sidequest. There’s also a log feature, standard in many VNs, which is useful for going back and checking bits of previously read text, as well as a quick save option for non-battle sections. Still images of the heroines can be collected, though there is no standard CG gallery, unfortunately. Overall, the visual novel end of So Long, My Love is solid where it counts most, though there’s a bit too much of it compared to the battles.

The script itself is a little repetitive at times, but generally all right, and the localization is servicable. Aside from some poorly-drawn fingers, the character art is pleasant to look at. I’ve already complained about how New York City is represented, but as far as basic quality goes, the background art is average, as is the sometimes-earwormy music. Cutscenes are lovely cel-animated affairs that are sometimes decently blended in with the gameplay sections. The voice acting—a fair amount of the game is voiced—is, however, not as good as the rest. What made me buy the PS2 version of this game in the first place was Gemini’s cringe-inducing English voice in this trailer. The PS2 version comes with both Japanese and English VO options, as opposed to just the latter for the Wii, but in the end, it might not have made that big of a difference. Even with my limited knowledge of the language, I could tell that the Japanese voices were frequently light on charm (with the exceptions of a few characters, mainly Ratchet) and heavy on melodrama. Also, given the US-based setting, there’s a not insignificant amount of Engrish sprinkled throughout. Finally, the oddest thing about the game’s audio is that Shinjiro is not voiced at all outside of the rare animated cutscene.

Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is quirky as hell, much more so than the last such game I wrote about. It also might be a fitting swan song for the PS2, home to so many unique, colorful games for all types of audiences. So Long, My Love is an odd intersection of high profile and low budget, the traditional and the innovative, East and West. It’s unlike anything that had been localized before and is most definitely not for everyone, but the fact that it was released here at all is one of those things that was great about the PS2 era. Thanks for all the good times, PS2, and I hope to visit your games again in the future.


Heavy Metal Thunder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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