By the time 2019 was about halfway done, I wasn’t feeling too hot on the games I’d been playing. There’d been one or two standouts, but even more mediocrity and disappointment. Fortunately, things picked up again in the months to come, and once again, I found myself shuffling a few titles around to come up with this list.
Of the disappointments, I found myself underwhelmed by two much-loved sequels: Bayonetta 2 and SteamWorld Dig 2. Both were well-made and answered important mysteries presented by their predecessors, but neither of them had that special something to truly make them stand out from what came before.
As usual, every game here is one I’ve beaten during the past year, regardless of release date. For each game in the top ten, the title, developer/author, platform(s) I played it on, and the release date for said platform in my region has been included, along with the usual blurb about why I found this game so memorable.
For those who might’ve missed it, P.S. Triple Classic wrapped up a little over a week ago, with a fanart farewell post. You can now read the entire official English-language run of P.S. Triple online, along with commentary and some articles related to this comic. I’m still considering my options for the abandonware iOS apps, but I will try and make them available somehow, probably in the near future.
As for what else has been going on, I’ve been hard at work on the next 10th anniversary project, which will hopefully launch soon. I’ve also been playing a bunch of games, so let’s dive into those.
Another year has ended, and with it, another pile of games beaten. My Backloggery breakdown for the previous year once again wound up in the negative, but what else is new? I can’t speak for whether this has been a great year for gaming, as the vast majority of what I played were pre-2018 releases, though I did enjoy myself.
If you’ve read one of my past year in review posts, you know the drill: every game here is one that I’ve beaten or completed in 2018, regardless of release date. This time, in addition to my top ten and five honorable mentions, I’d like to give special shoutouts to two games.
We had skipped PAX West (formerly PAX Prime) last year, and missed it terribly, so deciding how to spend our 2018 Labor Day weekend was a no-brainer. As usual, the whole process of obtaining the tickets was a white-knuckle affair—most especially and unexpectedly a few days before the show, when one of our PAX friends’ passes got lost in the mail. Fortunately, he was able to get things sorted out, and after a week of preparations on our end (including taking care of our own little emergency involving a pet sitting cancellation), we all met up in Seattle. This even included one of our group who had decided to skip PAX, but wanted to be in town nonetheless. PAX was here!
The following four days were packed with panels, games, and some delicious food, including some from longtime favorites Juicy Cafe and MOD Pizza. Downtown Seattle’s Rock Bottom Grill, our regular post-show spot, had since closed, but the Gordon Biersch in a nearby mall was a decent substitute; it was also the location of the first post-PAX Cheap Ass Gamer meetup that I organized seven years ago.
So, I’m playing a Nippon Ichi strategy RPG again, albeit for the first time in years. The last time was back in 2012, when I played through Soul Nomad, which was very different from their previous releases, though still enjoyable. This time around, it’s something a bit more “traditional”: Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice, a PS3 game in which the Netherworld consists of a gigantic school, the Evil Academy. The main character, Mao, is a top honor student—as in, he never goes to class and typically spends his days lazing about—who aspires to defeat his father, the Overlord. Mao and the other members of the cast have the usual eccentricities, and overall, the tone tries its best to channel the smile-inducing spirit of its most successful predecessor, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. So far, I feel it’s falling somewhat short. I like some of the characters, particularly the waylaid hero Almaz, but Mao is only a few steps short of being annoying; also, the story, while not bad, isn’t particularly remarkable, and relies a touch too heavily on fourth-wall breaking for some of its humor.
Normally, knowing how I review games with prominent stories and characters, this might pose a problem. For me, a poorly-plotted story can discolor what is otherwise a wonderful experience, and appealing characters are typically equally important in such games. This is a Nippon Ichi SRPG, however, so what will ultimately make or break the game is its gameplay: the turn-based, grid-based, multiple-character-managing battles executed in a style that this studio is famous for. Usually, they get this right, though there have been some missteps as well. Phantom Brave, which features one of the best stories amongst all of Nippon Ichi’s games, had a terrible system which ditched the space-by-space grid-based movement and attacks for a more freeform style, but that was hard to use effectively (nevertheless, I liked the rest of the game so much that I want to give it a second chance sometime, and, seeing as how I don’t own the original PS2 version anymore, picked up the Wii port awhile ago). Makai Kingdom, which, on the other hand, had a story and cast which I hated, had a more refined version of Phantom Brave‘s system, but it was only barely less fiddly. It’s worth noting that Nippon Ichi has gone back to, and stuck with, grids ever since. Besides grids, Disgaea 3 has the other trappings typically expected given its lineage, including a special field-based battle gimmick (in Disgaea games, this means the color-coded Geo panels and symbols/blocks), lots of character types to choose from, tons of equipment and other useful items, and a ridiculously high level limit of 9999.
These systems are deep, and potentially overwhelming. The in-game information is presented very clearly within well-organized menus, with the most important bits made suitably prominent, and even so, it can be a lot to take in at once. It’s no surprise that Disgaea games are, usually derisively, compared to spreadsheets (and also that some players make spreadsheets to get the most out of a playthrough), but this is only part of the journey. Micromanagement leads to some pretty fun rewards in battle: giant explosions and magical effects from special attacks, useful bonuses that rack up depending on how many chained and combo attacks are pulled off, and the numbers that appear whenever most any action that doesn’t involve movement between panels is executed. Seeing these numbers climb higher, particularly after a carefully arranged Geo panel and block sequence is set into motion, is a major part of where the fun lies. Disgaea 3 and its ilk are not so much about spreadsheets and the statistics they contain, but making satisfyingly big numbers out of them. It is strangely capitalistic in this way, although more overt signs of capitalism—stores and the like—are presented in typical fashion otherwise.
It is the sort of game which I have been away from for far too long, but also, like so many other information-rich types, one which I should only indulge in occasionally, lest I start regularly seeing numbers in my sleep. Aside from the expected refinements made to the base formula (for better or worse), it’s the same sort of cozy, crazy Nippon Ichi SRPG I’ve always preferred. I’m only just starting the fourth chapter now, which means I should be about a quarter of the way through, by Disgaea standards, so there’s still a lot of room for the story to improve. I hope it does, but I wouldn’t begrudge the story too much if it never rises above its current mediocrity. Just keep the controls straightforward, the information tidy, and the effects and numbers captivatingly bombastic, and I’ll keep on happily playing until the credits roll.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.