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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.


Revenge of What You Hated About Old Games

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

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

Shantae jumps around in the Magical Hall of Boobs.

BOOBS EVERYWHERE.

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

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

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

Our heroine, ladies and gentlemen.

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

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

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


The Hills and Valleys of Gallia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Some Bargain Manga Reviews

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

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

Anyway, let’s get started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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