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And Then…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Souvenirs of Alola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2016 Gaming Selections

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

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

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

———

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———

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

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

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

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

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


Heaven, Hell, and Everything in Between

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Freeman Following

It’s been about three months since my last post, and much has happened in the meantime: something about gates on the Twitterverse and elsewhere, another fun trip to PAX Prime, and seeing a handful of highly anticipated games come out. I’ve played quite a few games to completion since then as well, including the outstanding DS dungeon crawler Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, underdog (underhog?) platformer Sonic Unleashed, and the last two unplayed Guild games I had sitting on my 3DS, Attack of the Friday Monsters! and Crimson Shroud. All were good-to-excellent, but none of them cross the masterpiece threshold save for one game and its official expansions: Half-Life 2.

Yes, as with so many others, I’m really late to the party on this one. This November marks the tenth anniversary of Half-Life 2‘s release. Back in 2004, it won a staggering number of Game of the Year honors, well more than other notable releases of the time, including Katamari Damacy and World of WarCraft. Since then, it and its episodic expansions, Episode One and Episode Two, have left gamers wanting more, cracking numerologic jokes about Half-Life 3 and being frustrated over the long-delayed Episode Three. Now, I know for sure that all of the above is justifiable.

One of the many scenes of destruction and decay in <i>Half-Life 2</i>.Firstly, there’s the superficial stuff: for a ten year old game, Half-Life 2 looks and sounds incredibly good. I said much the same thing about the original Half-Life, and it’s just as true for the sequel. It’s almost criminal that a game this old can feel this contemporary, and even with my blazingly fast desktop computer, the loading screens can still take a little while. Sure, some of the environment models look blocky, but they’re the only really strong indicator of the game’s true age. A great deal of credit for Half-Life 2‘s time-tested aesthetic goes out to Valve’s texture artists and sound designers, who rank alongside the likes of Blizzard’s as some of the best in the business.

Speaking of textures, they maintain the aesthetic that Valve had previously established for the series’ world. Although the action has shifted from the American Southwest to somewhere in Eastern Europe, the well-worn industrial trappings are still there. Rust lines the edges of barrels, wooden pallets and concrete foundations are weather-beaten, and paint quietly peels from neglected living room walls. The characters, too, have a certain worn quality about them as well, in ways both obvious and subtle.

Dr. Eli Vance and Dr. Judith Mossman.The rust-filled setting this time is City 17, an old-world urban center with a giant, unearthly tower plunked down in the middle. It is on a train headed to this place where player character Gordon Freeman is deposited by the “G-Man”, a suit with unknown motives and an unusual bearing. The opening credit sequence on board the train is but one of many callbacks to the original Half-Life, and others soon follow, including a pair of scientists from that older game, who now bear actual names, as well as Barney Calhoun, the security guard from the Blue Shift expansion pack. In the meantime, we are also informed about the Combine, the extradimensional invaders who conquered the Earth while Gordon was gone; get our first glimpse of Dr. Breen, the Black Mesa administrator turned leader of the oppressed city, who appears on giant viewscreens around town; and are formally introduced to Alyx Vance, the mechanically-inclined daughter of Eli, one of the aforementioned scientists.

Alyx is regularly touted as one of the best female game characters to date, which says a bit about how backward the representation of women in games is. Her engineering and combat skills aside, she is pretty normal: level-headed, compassionate, a little bit sarcastic. Whenever she is teamed up with Gordon, which happens infrequently in Half-Life 2 and more often in the Episodes, she doesn’t neatly fit the typical female sidekick role of guide or some other inflexible stereotype. Instead, she’s a genuine partner, who helps Gordon past obstacles just as often as he does for her. Together, they’re a well-balanced team, and much the same can be said of others who accompany Gordon throughout his adventures, from the nameless human and Vortigaunt rebels to Barney and the suitably monikered robot Dog.

Still, it seems Valve couldn’t resist shoving some sort of subtle romantic overture in there, as Eli and others occasionally inquire about Alyx and Gordon’s prospects together. At least Alyx, for her part, never brings such matters up to Gordon herself, leaving the whole situation vague. Similar romantic undercurrents are present in scenes featuring the game’s other major female character, a scientist named Judith Mossman who is more than she appears. Still, despite these minor instances of pandering, both Alyx and Judith have been interesting steps forward for female characterization in first-person shooters.

It's hard to pick out a good example of HL2-style humor without spoilers, but here's one that fits.Speaking of which, the storytelling is handled in the same natural way as it was in the original Half-Life, with exposition and such presented to you by non-player characters and background details in-game, without ever interrupting the flow of the action for a static cutscene (and, thankfully, subtitles and closed-captioning are options this time). However, with a fair number of actual named characters this time comes a greater emphasis on plot and characterization. This is by no means a bad thing, of course, and lends Half-Life 2 and its follow-up episodes a depth that was lacking from their predecessors. One aspect of the storytelling which is a bit more faithful, style-wise, to Half-Life is the general tone; this is still an unpredictable world dealing with the consequences of scientific curiosity, but one with its little bits of dark humor well intact. For better or worse, this is also an unfinished story, with Episode Two closing with a dramatic cliffhanger and many, many questions left unanswered.

Anyway, enough about the finer trappings: this is a first-person shooter, and I haven’t talked about the shooting bits yet. The enemies are challenging and diverse enough while being rarely annoying and never out of place. In a similar vein, the weapons and ancillary controls (running, flashlight, etc.) are all reasonably satisfying for their respective purposes, with the shotgun and Antlion pheropods being two particular highlights. There’s also the famed Gravity Gun, the second tool-style weapon received in the game; the first is, of course, Gordon’s iconic crowbar. The Gravity Gun is the most dependable and versatile out of all the weapons, and is deceptively simple in operation: the left mouse button brings objects (up to a certain size) closer, while the right one pushes them away. Aside from its combat uses, the Gravity Gun is essential for solving many of the puzzles which quietly present themselves throughout Gordon’s adventures.

One area in which the controls falter a bit is in the driving sections, which are overly long in Half-Life 2 and thankfully few in the Episodes. Keeping consistent with the series’ level of immersion, these driving sections are in first-person view and have similar controls to those for walking around. This approach, while seeming sensible, leaves something to be desired, as it can be somewhat difficult to use mouselook (which doesn’t affect driving direction) and WASD controls (which does) simultaneously. Acceleration and braking are also somewhat tied in with the directional controls, which seems a little odd at first, but at least works better than turning does.

Half-Life was already an incredible game for its day, and one which has stood the test of time. For Half-Life 2 and its Episodes (especially the brutal and harrowing Episode Two) to surpass it is no mean feat. Even the bite-sized nugget of an expansion, the excised-level-turned-playable-tech-demo Lost Coast, is an outstanding little production that does its franchise proud. With better driving controls and less of a reliance on romance as a minor plot crutch, this whole package would’ve been perfect; however, what masterpiece is truly without flaw? Half-Life 2 expands on Half-Life‘s promise that subtlety and intense action needn’t be strangers, reminds us that silent protagonists are worthy avatars, and, in an extraordinary world, revels in little details and moments of normalcy.