This past Saturday, we drove down to Santa Clara for this year’s California Extreme, a celebration of classic arcade gaming featuring dozens of video game cabinets, pinball tables, and other amusements brought in by private collectors. There’s an entry fee—we paid $40 a head at the door—but afterward, all of the games are free to play. In addition, CA Extreme features a few panels, evening concerts, and a handful of vendors selling everything from old console games to pinball machine parts.
The range of arcade games, spread across two conference rooms in a hotel adjacent to a convention center, was truly impressive, spanning many decades. There were pinball tables from at least as far back as the late 1950’s up through Stern showing off their newest heavy metal-themed machine, Iron Maiden. Some shooting gallery and other mechanical machines looked even older, and would’ve been right at home in the Musée Mécanique. The newest, and oddest, non-video game at the show was a fully playable Pong-themed coffee table.
On that note, as far as video games went, most eras and genres were represented in one form or another, though the heaviest focus was on 80s titles. Amongst others, there were sections devoted to vector games, Pac-Man and its spinoffs, Japanese rhythm games (including a handful of recent titles), and cocktail cabinets. Throughout the afternoon, with the odd break every so often, we bounced between these rooms and a small console freeplay area upstairs.
This past Saturday, Front Mission Evolved‘s final act wrapped up, and its credits rolled, with the opening menu music on constant loop in the background. I quit to the Dashboard, checked my achievements, and ejected the disk. A languished Forza Motorsport 2 career notwithstanding, I was finished with my Xbox 360 backlog.
Bitprophet was done awhile ago, despite having a few more unfinished games, which he lost interest in after they became too hard. That said, he had no objections when, yesterday, I dug the 360’s box out of storage and pulled the console itself, a mess of cables, and about half of our games for the system out of our entertainment center. Inside the box was, in addition to more cables and an unused headset, the original receipt, dated from March 2008. For a long time before this purchase, we debated which system we would get to complement our Nintendo Wii, a PlayStation 3 or 360, and by that point, time was growing short as Grand Theft Auto IV was due out in less than two months. He eventually decided on a 360, and picked up Assassin’s Creed as his first game for the system. In the meantime, I busied myself with other systems, mainly the PlayStation 2, Nintendo DS, and Wii. The first 360 game I bought for myself, Eternal Sonata, was purchased over a year later, and I didn’t beat anything on the system until Devil May Cry 4 in March 2010. A month after that, my Halo obsession started when I beat the PC version Halo: Combat Evolved. From that point on, I was especially glad that we went with the 360.
We’re now just past the midpoint of 2018, and although I’ve met my personal gaming goal for this year, my Backloggery progress index is in the negative, thanks largely to some Switch pickups (and a gift), and the usual Steam Summer Sale. I’ve been playing a little bit of everything—action and turn-based JRPGs, indie puzzle and adventure games, and a couple of newer entries in long-running franchises—but there’s always too much good stuff out there to catch up on.
My major gaming goals these past couple of months were to beat Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth and play through Tales of Vesperia. Despite a generic setup for the final boss battle (which, on the plus side, had awesome music), the former game was excellent—it’s easily one of the best, if not the best, in the core series. There was none of the overworld stuff that was first introduced in the third game and padded out the fourth (and most boring) entry. Instead, Etrian V is a straight-up dungeon crawl through the massive tree Yggdrasil, much like the first two games. That’s not to say this back-to-basics approach didn’t include any new elements, the best of which is the addition of in-dungeon food gathering and cooking, which gives one more options for healing and lessens the need to warp back to town whenever health and standard support items run low. On top of that, each dungeon strata’s gimmicks are novel, the story is quite good, and the mapmaking and other series hallmarks are as fine-tuned as they’ve ever been, including in the postgame, which is still tough as balls. This dungeon crawler fan highly recommends it.
If you’re a regular reader, then you may recall that I absolutely loved the original NieR. Despite its many problems, most of which were gameplay-related, there was so much care put into the aesthetic sides of things that I came away with a new favorite. Its sequel, NieR:Automata, ably answers the question: what if the gameplay was just as good as the story, world, characters, and music?
As NieR maker cavia is long gone, development duties for Automata were handled by Platinum Games, the beloved studio known for its slick action titles. Some key talent from the ol’ NieR staff were involved as well, most notably director Yoko Taro and composer Keiichi Okabe. This turned out to be a fruitful collaboration, resulting in one of the finest JRPGs released in some time.
I didn’t play it on a console, however, but on a computer. As such, the first thing I did after installing Automata was patch it with FAR. This mod, which is short for “Fix Automata Resolution”, offers a number of graphical tweaks that publisher Square Enix couldn’t be bothered with, and I highly recommend it to anyone who chooses to play the PC version.
Anyway, on with the review. Upon starting the game, the very first sequence is a top-down shmup. Although there were a small number of similar sections in the first NieR, there are a lot more of them in Automata, largely thanks to flight units controlled by our android protagonists. From there, we move on foot to a string of fights mixed in with some light platforming. A crazy battle against a massive boss ensues, and then the game starts proper.
The aforementioned androids are 2B and 9S, models made for fighting and intelligence gathering respectively, who work for an organization called YoRHa. It is 11,945 AD—some 8,500 years after the events of the first game, and nearly 7,000 years after aliens invaded the Earth with robotic “machine lifeforms” serving as their soldiers, sparking the first of over a dozen wars. Operating out of a space station called the Bunker, YoRHa sends its androids to the surface to do battle with the machines on behalf of the remnants of humanity, who reside on the Moon. I wish I could talk more about the story—which is grim yet fantastic—in this review, but, even with a spoiler warning given ahead of time, such discussion would make this post at least twice as long.
The aloof and logic-minded 2B is our primary playable character. Along with two melee weapons she can have equipped at a time, she comes with a small hovering robot, Pod 042, who provides ranged and special attacks. Her AI-controlled sidekick, 9S, is less cold, but quite a bit prejudiced when it comes to machines. Guided by Operator 6O, who provides support and instructions from the Bunker, 2B, 9S, and their Pods spend their time exploring the desolate, ruined world; taking on sidequests; and fighting the machines, who have started to evolve in unusual ways.
Both the flight unit and on-foot combat is smooth and satisfying. 2B can execute a slick dodge that recalls the one in Bayonetta, and the addition of regular ranged attacks thanks to the Pods adds a bit more variety than the first NieR had. 2B can be customized with upgradable chips that enhance offense, defense, speed, and other stats, or even grant convenient little abilities, such as being able to pick up items automatically. Special moves for the Pods can be swapped in and out as well.
Outside of battle, there’s sidequests and fishing, both of which are much improved from NieR‘s iterations, though the latter is a bit more pointless this time. The sidequests have generally better rewards, often including hard-to-find crafting materials, and are not as headache-inducing as certain NieR quests I could name. These quests also frequently serve as mini-stories which help to flesh out the world, and range in tone from funny and uplifting to melancholy and depressing. Meanwhile, the fishing is Animal Crossing-style, using simple button presses to toss out your lure (or Pod, in this case), then reel it in when there’s a bite.
The overall story is as nihilistic as the previous NieR‘s, but thanks in large part to dozens of documents which can be found, it’s also easier to understand without having to run to an external resource. These documents are scattered all over the world, and most of them start to become available after the first ending is reached. On a related note, one thing I liked was that the weapon stories (a tradition in the Drakengard/NieR series) are in-game this time, rather than in a Japanese-only artbook, as was the case with NieR. These stories unlock piece by piece as a weapon is upgraded, and are often dark tales about a previous owner. Some of these tales even tie into the plots of the previous games, which is a welcome touch.
Speaking of which, there are a handful of other callbacks that crop up throughout Automata, including at least one that can be rather shocking to NieR players upon encountering it. A major difference between the two’s stories, however, is in how multiple endings are handled. Unlike in NieR, Automata‘s first major ending leaves out the biggest revelations; for those, one has to complete the next two loops. At first, I wasn’t sure if I liked this new arrangement, but it worked quite well in the end, with far less repetition in subsequent story loops than NieR had. There are even some new and newly fleshed-out gameplay mechanics after Ending A is reached—such as the return of NieR‘s visual novel segments—as well as some cheeky playing around with certain video game standards. Another change is in the number of endings: not only are there five related to the core plot, instead of four, but also twenty-one gag endings which trigger under certain conditions.
Visually, Automata is another step up from the striking but often muddy NieR. The character designs retain some ridiculousness—especially the fetishistic YoRHa androids—but are also just as memorable. In particular, the machine lifeforms strike a very effective balance between cute and menacing, with their beady eyes and mostly expressionless faces. The various areas, which include a ruined city, vast desert, and forest with gigantic trees, are likewise effective, though sometimes a little frustrating to get around; for example, though it seems like some of the empty buildings can be entered in certain spots, invisible walls block the way half the time.
Finally, there’s the music, which is once again one of the best game soundtracks of all time. Okabe is one of those rare video game composers who really knows how to take advantage of that most versatile of instruments: the human voice. The compositions themselves don’t slouch either, as is demonstrated by certain remixes which crop up starting from a specific point in the story.
I’m gladder than ever that I played NieR, as it gave me a good excuse to play NieR:Automata, a fantastic game in its own right. Most of the janky charm of the original is gone (most; as noted, there’s still an annoyance or two), but in the end, it’s for the better, and the story being told is as strange and complex as ever. If you’re sick of the same old thing in JRPGs, NieR:Automata is definitely worth playing.
You might have noticed that I didn’t put together a “Manga Selections” roundup for this past year, like I did for 2016. This is mainly because so much of what was on that list would only be repeated. However, I’m considering doing one for 2018, as since then, I’ve finished—or am close to finishing—a handful of series.
That said, I’ve been itching to try some new stuff. This continues to be a great time for English-translated manga, with many new titles coming out on a regular basis. I recently tried a bunch, all of which made their English-language debut in 2017 or 2018, and have reviewed some of them below.
These reviews account for only about half of the new books I’ve read so far this year. Two of the others—the one-shot orange -future- and the first volume of the ongoing Battle Angel Alita: Mars Chronicle—are continuations of previous series, and excellent ones at that. Another pair, the first volumes of Hatsune Miku: Future Delivery and Neon Genesis Evangelion: Legend of the Piko Piko Middle School Students, are middling media tie-ins. What remains in these reviews are the original titles, which have nothing carried over from previous manga series or franchises. Any one of them should be accessible for those looking for something new.
The Promised Neverland, vol. 1
Kaiu Shirai (story) and Posuka Demisu (art), Viz Media (Shonen Jump label)
Although it’s the newest critical darling from Weekly Shounen Jump, this series didn’t quite click with me. The premise, laid out in the first chapter, is solid: a group of kids at a lively, yet unsettlingly weird, orphanage accidentally discover the horrible truth about what happens to them when they leave for new homes. This truth is frightening and fantastical, and lends itself to many questions. However, the rest of the volume consists of plodding suspense and small, sometimes bland, revelations about the orphans’ circumstances.
The orphanage itself is mostly dull and it doesn’t help that the plot suggests that any true excitement lies beyond its borders, a world which we barely get a glimpse of. The three main characters, who strongly resemble the heroines of Magic Knight Rayearth in their personalities, make plans and toss off theories at a regular pace; however, there’s little that foils or contradicts them so far, which lessens the tension. Aside from the fact that this is a non-romantic Jump series with a female lead, the most interesting character is the orphans’ caretaker, whose side of the story is teased every now and again, making it clear that she knows much more than she’s letting on.
The Promised Neverland has clearly set itself up to be a slow-burn cat-and-mouse tale of mystery and escape, but neither the setting nor the cast are engaging enough to want me to get the next volume right away. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this series is that Posuka Demizu’s talents seem wasted here. I picked up her artbook, Pone, last summer, and her strongest works in that are detailed fantasy worlds filled with objects. She’s not as good with characters, but this is a very character-driven series. In a more suitable artist’s hands, perhaps I might’ve wound up liking this first volume more than I did.
If you want to check out The Promised Neverland for yourself, the first three chapters are currently available for free on Viz’s website.
Spirit Circle, vol. 1
Satoshi Mizukami, Seven Seas
In a completely different turn of events from The Promised Neverland, I liked the first volume of Spirit Circle much more than I expected. The mangaka’s previous series, Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer, was enjoyable enough, but going by this first volume alone, Spirit Circle is shaping up to be even better.
Middle-schooler Fuuta can see ghosts, a power which annoys him more than anything else. He is fascinated by the pretty new girl in school, Ishigami, who has a spirit companion named East. As it turns out, Ishigami has carried a serious grudge against Fuuta through several previous lives, which the latter begins to become aware of.
I haven’t read many stories about reincarnation, and, after reading some other reviews of this volume, was afraid that this one might be too complicated to follow, but my fears proved unfounded. This tale is expertly told, with the transitions between past and present handled smoothly. Also, the characters are extremely relatable and believable, which makes getting into the story that much easier. There’s not much more I want to say about this, in part because I don’t want to accidentally give something away, save for the fact that I can’t wait until the next volume.
Plum Crazy! Tales of a Tiger-Striped Cat, vol. 1
Natsumi Hoshino, Seven Seas
And now we’re back to a series that I wanted to enjoy more than I actually did. Plum Crazy! is a slice of life cat manga that is currently up to an astounding seventeen volumes in Japan. However, even with the cat-centric premise, it turns out that I am still rather picky when it comes to the slice of life genre.
In this series, a cat named Plum lives with an ordinary high school student and his airheaded dance teacher mother. One day, Plum finds and rescues a tiny kitten, whom the family later names Snowball. However, this kitten does not get along with Plum much at all. In fact, Snowball has a habit of biting Plum to relieve stress.
So, we have two cats—one cute but dour, and one cute but bratty—and a small cast of mildly amusing humans. Their misadventures include one where Plum follows the son to school, and another where Snowball starts chewing on wool clothing. These stories are okay, but don’t have that special spark that is required for the best slice of life manga. On top of that, I have mixed feelings about how Plum and Snowball sometimes test the boundaries of “real” cat behavior, mainly in their interactions with their human companions. Overall, this first volume was an enjoyable read, but I don’t see any compelling reason to continue.
My Brother’s Husband, vol. 1 (omnibus ed.)
Gengoroh Tagame, Pantheon
The most recent first volume I read turned out to be the best of the bunch. My Brother’s Husband is an intimate, heart-wrenching snapshot of LGBT life in Japan, and is masterfully crafted to boot. The story starts when a single father, Yaichi, receives an unusual houseguest: a Canadian named Mike whom he’s meeting for the first time. Mike is the widow of Yaichi’s twin brother, Ryoji, who had recently died back in Canada. He stays with Yaichi and his young daughter Kana, getting to know both them and the town that Ryoji had left behind.
Yaichi clearly has mixed feelings about Mike, and the late Ryoji, and wrestles with them throughout the volume. He does his best to be a good host, but has trouble fully accepting Mike, and, as a result, starts to reexamine his relationship to his twin. Kana, on the other hand, does not share her dad’s ingrained prejudices, and loves that she has a Canadian uncle (in part because “Canada” sounds a little like “Kana”). As the story goes on, other characters start to appear, some more accepting of Mike than others. Meanwhile, Mike’s visit doubles as a mourning process for him, and through certain sad scenes, the reader gets a real sense of how much Ryoji meant to him.
Tagame has been creating manga for decades, and it shows. The artwork is crisp and expressive, and the panels flow together smoothly, with a deliberate pacing that’s appropriate for this sort of real-life drama. Pantheon’s presentation—a Chip Kidd-designed hardcover with dust jacket—is suitably outstanding. This first book collects volumes one and two of the Japanese edition, and the second and final omnibus is due out in September of this year. It may be worth it to wait until then to pick up both volumes, but at the same time, this is exactly the sort of high-quality, groundbreaking manga that should be supported. Either way, My Brother’s Husband is well worth reading.
Despite a nasty cold early in the month, January was fairly productive, gaming-wise. I started and beat seven games, both short and long, and started an eighth. That unfinished game is Etrian Odyssey V, the latest in Atlus’ cartographical dungeon-crawling series, which I had put off starting for a few months in order to focus on Holiday Card work. As of this writing, I’m close to the end of the first Stratum, and the difficulty is starting to feel more punishing. This is not to say that EOV is easier than past entries; I think I just had a good handle on what to expect from this series when I first stepped into this latest Yggdrasil Labyrinth.
One thing I’m really enjoying about EOV (besides the food-gathering and cooking, fantastic features which help cut down on trips back to town) is its back-to-basics approach. The previous two games in the main series introduced overworlds to explore between Strata, and in EOIV‘s case, I suspect that it was one reason why I was ultimately so bored with that game. EOV does away with such areas. Here, you’re in the labyrinth from the get-go, just like in the very first two games. While it’s a little odd to see this regression, it’s also quite refreshing. Hopefully, the game will continue to hold my attention as I ascend to new heights.
The first game I beat way at the beginning of January also involved dungeons. Fidel Dungeon Rescue, which is about a very good dog who sets out to save his kidnapped master, has its feet in both the turn-based dungeon crawler and environmental puzzler realms. Each room is a puzzle that can be solved in more ways that one, but the most optimal solutions have the greatest rewards, the best being the XP which helps Fidel level up, increasing his overall health. The game’s most prominent feature—and, at times, greatest obstacle—is the title character’s leash. Fidel’s leash drags behind him, leaving a trail of places you’ve been before, and can be quickly retracted to rewind time and try out a different set of steps. However, the catch is that no square can be touched more than once, which can lead to the leash feeling like a barrier if its placement gets in your way. It’s a simple but well-implemented system that, along with the generous time constraints and dungeon layouts, lends the game its challenge. Fidel took me a fair number of attempts to get through, and once I did, whole new sets of challenges appeared. I completed two of these before moving on.
Around the same time I started Fidel, I took up another, though very different, puzzle game: Alphabear: Hardcover Edition. This version is a “pay once” PC port of the mobile title Alphabear. To play, one has to arrange randomly-generated letter tiles into words, which are then assigned points based on each letter’s countdown timer as well as other factors, like which bears you equipped before starting that stage. Creating words eliminates the tiles used, which causes the bears around them to grow, leading to more points. Score enough points to gain new bears, level up existing ones, and/or unlock the next stage. The entire scoring system is… rather complicated.
Despite its cute, whimsical aesthetic and inventive gameplay, Alphabear‘s challenges can spike in difficulty without warning, and some are just about impossible if you don’t have the right rare bears in your arsenal. This was my situation with Chapter 4-2, so I went back to some older stages to level up the bears I had; I also unlocked at least one new one. After I got through that stage, which took quite a long time, there were one or two other tough spots, but none nearly as bad. The difficulty balance and/or the rare/legendary bear drop rates clearly need some refinement, but apparently, the game’s progression was tweaked today, so perhaps this complaint is moot now. It’s also free to play this weekend on Steam, so you might want to give it a go.
Anyway, because of those headaches, Alphabear was actually the third game I beat this year, since 4-2 led me to setting it down for awhile. The second was Danmaku Unlimited 2, which is another mobile port, as it turns out. If the title didn’t already give it away, this game is a vertically-oriented bullet hell shooter. Thankfully, the difficulty balance is perfect. As a casual shmup fan, I liked it so much that I reviewed it on Steam. It’s a lot of fun and very well made; there’s not much else I could’ve asked for.
A few days before starting Danmaku Unlimited 2, I picked up my 3DS and, with some reservations, started Kirby Triple Deluxe, which would later become my fourth game beaten in 2018. I say “with some reservations” since I didn’t like the last Kirby I played and was sure that I had become burnt out on the series. Roughly two years later, I was relieved to discover that Kirby, especially the standard Kirby formula of enemy-chomping and ability-obtaining that returns in Triple Deluxe, is still something I can enjoy. In addition to being a straight-up solid Kirby game, this entry also features some nice callbacks to previous titles in the series. The endgame is also surprisingly lengthy and tough. Like with Danmaku Unlimited 2, there isn’t much else to say about Kirby Triple Deluxe except that it’s very, very good if you’re into this sort of thing.
Another platformer was next up: Thomas Was Alone, which I received in a CAG Steam key trade. It’s a straightforward, puzzley game where rectangles and squares of varying abilities have to be delivered to specific points, much like Fidel, I and Me, and many other games. Controlling these objects is a little fussy, but the puzzles are generally well designed, albeit varying wildly in difficulty at times. What’s different this time around is the narration. Each of the quadrilaterals is given a name, personality, and motivation, making what would otherwise be a well-designed but bog-standard game into one bristling with life. Some are full of themselves, some start out with a bit less confidence than they find later on, and some, like Thomas, are mainly just happy to have companions. This is one of those Indie Games That Everyone’s Played that I ignored for a long time, and it seems that that was a mistake. Fortunately, it’s now a mistake that’s been rectified.
Finally, in wrapping up the month, I began my delve into Tale of Tales’ oeuvre via a Steam bundle I picked up during the last Summer Sale. Using the studio’s MobyGames page as a guideline for the release order, I started off with the oldest title in the collection. This was The Graveyard, an extremely short interactive black comedy. At least, that was how I read it, given what happens after the player guides the one controllable character, an old woman, to sit on a bench. To spoil what happens next: a jaunty song about death plays and then, at some random point, the old woman dies. The player can get up from the bench and leave the graveyard before the latter happens, but both of the times I tried to wait to do so after the song ended, she died.
After that, I moved on to The Path. Inspired by the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood”, The Path has the player controlling one of six red-themed sisters, all with different ages and personalites, on a walk to their grandmother’s house. Stay on the path, and the game will decide you are a complete failure, and you’ll have to start over again. Leaving the path—and in doing so getting lost and discovering new things, including the Wolf—is how to succeed at the game. Each girl can go on their journey in any order you wish, and they each have a different, horrible experience at Grandmother’s House after encountering their own personal Wolves. It’s an ambitious art game thick with metaphor, but is clearly ahead of its time in how it incorporates gaming conventions. Rather than ignoring things like scores and stats, which a modern game of this sort might do, The Path includes them, and even relies on them to a certain extent. I’m not sure that this was an entirely appropriate choice except as a pisstake at more mainstream games’ expense. Other than that, I found The Path to be an interesting experience.
And that’s it for January! Next up, besides more Etrian Odyssey V, are the rest of that Tale of Tales bundle and who knows what else. I’ve started February in a healthier spot than I did January—both literally and figuratively—but I also need to whittle down the number of JRPGs in my backlog. Right now, I have no idea if February will end with as many games beaten. As usual, we shall see.