Ever since PAX West, I’ve kept myself busy with everything ranging from personal projects to, of course, video games. I started off September by reaching both endings of Alphadia Genesis, a mediocre indie JRPG, and completing the *Mute route of Hate Plus, the sometimes frustrating sequel to the excellent Analogue: A Hate Story. Instead of going on at length about them here, please refer to my reviews of Alphadia Genesis and Hate Plus on Steam for additional thoughts.
A game which I ultimately chose not to write a Steam review for, because my feelings on it are that mixed, is the action platformer Apotheon. One of the top tags on its Steam store page is “Metroidvania”, which is a wildly inaccurate descriptor. As you all probably know, the defining feature of Metroidvanias is areas that can’t be accessed without the right tools, which must be obtained in a certain order. Apotheon does have skills to collect, but most are enhancements at best, and the only real obstacle blocking off areas is the plot. In other words, this game is more Shovel Knight than Axiom Verge.
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.
I beat Frog Fractions 2 this afternoon (or is that Frog Fractions 3?), a game that’s much longer, more incoherent, and harder than its predecessor. It’s also the first game I’ve Kickstarted which has since come out, which is funny since it’s the only one whose release was obfuscated on purpose, rather than openly falling into some form of Development Hell. There is one part I must spoil, since it involves hardware: at some point, there’s a section which, out of the blue, requires a microphone or similar audio input. However, this section is optional, but the game doesn’t tell you that it is. I don’t use a microphone when PC gaming, and anyway, my offbeat setup makes hooking one up uniquely frustrating. Also, there were no alternative control schemes offered within the game for this part. To me, this particular section wasn’t very well thought out, but Frog Fractions 2 is, in many ways, not a friendly or approachable game. Though it is never unfair (aside from the microphone thing), it does demand a decent amount of imagination and cleverness from its players.
Finding it within Glittermitten Grove is easy enough—I just used the same basic approach as one does with Frog Fractions—but once I got there, what confronted me was a place which got more and more difficult to deal with the further I dove in. Without giving away too much, Frog Fractions 2 is full of funny and weird moments, but in other aspects, it’s a different beast.
On another end of the humor spectrum, I went through all three of the playable Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice DLC episodes. The first, a full-length case titled “Turnabout Time Traveler”, was not nearly as good as its equivalent from the previous game. Instead of an orca at a musically-inclined aquarium, the client is a bride who claims to have relived her wedding reception thanks to a time machine. Oh, and of course, there’s been a murder, and she’s the main suspect. A few of the arguments made in court are sloppy and poorly worded in a way that typically happens in the worst Ace Attorney cases. On the other hand, a major highlight of this episode is the return of Larry Butz, a regular from the first Ace Attorney trilogy who has a tendency for getting into trouble. Phoenix, Maya, and Edgeworth are all present as well; just add Gumshoe and this would’ve been a full-on nostalgic reunion. However, perhaps it is for the best that Gummy didn’t appear, as I would’ve preferred a better case to accompany all the fanservice.
The other two DLCs, brief alternate universe stories called “Phoenix Wright: Asinine Attorney” and “Apollo Justice: Asinine Attorney”, are much fluffier trifles. Phoenix’s tale centers around Pearl and her visit to Kuhra’in, and on the flip-side, Apollo’s features that kingdom’s Princess Rayfa visiting the United States. They are both very short and lighthearted, with Apollo’s episode being both slightly longer and generally better. Both also come with pixel-art 3DS themes, adding some more value to what would otherwise be a pair of overpriced tales.
Before playing through all of that, however, I beat a couple of much longer games. First was Picross 3D Round 2, which is sort of misleading since, after the credits rolled, many more new puzzles unlocked. Round 2 is just as good as the original Picross 3D, which is to say that it’s one of the best picture puzzle video games one could ask for. The puzzles are plentiful and brilliantly conceived, and although there’s an additional level of complexity now, with specially shaped pieces, the game does a great job of easing you into things, as expected from this series.
The other game was Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below, a crossover between Dragon Quest, a JRPG series with a solid reputation, and Dynasty Warriors, which is looked upon… a bit less fondly. Although the basic flavor of the latter is definitely present—in the forms of simple combat controls and massive swarms of enemies—this is also very much a Dragon Quest game in terms of aesthetics, polish, and, on the more negative side, some old-school JRPG menu clunkiness. Still, it was great fun carving through dozens of slimes and the like alongside Alena, Yangus, and other beloved characters from mainline Dragon Quest games, and it’s not like I mind a bit of mostly simple hacky-slashy fun every now and again.
I also replayed the first Frog Fractions (it’s always a good time on Bug Mars) and continued on with Pokemon Sun, which, if anything, recalls the tedium of Pokemon Platinum. However, I hope that unlike with Platinum, I don’t end up taking nine months to beat it. Right now, I would guess that if I’m not at the halfway mark, then I’m very close to it. Also, this isn’t exactly a video game, but a few days ago, I dug out my old Tamagochi and started messing around with it, an experience I may or may not write more about later. The most amazing thing about it so far is that the batteries, which I believe are the original ones from the late 1990s, still work.
As for what I’ll start next, I’m really not sure right now. With Persona 5‘s release date coming up, I’ve been eyeing the two Persona spinoffs I have left in my backlog, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax and Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. There’s also my dwindling pile of Xbox 360 games, Tales of Vesperia arguably being the longest amongst them. However, for the time being, I might be best off plugging away at Pokemon Sun, since I’ve been neglecting it lately. We’ll see how it goes.
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)
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])
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 tastes of Doom and its predecessor Wolfenstein 3D back around ’93 and/or ’94, 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])
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)
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.
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For several years, I posted “roundups” of all of the games I played in a given year. After the 2011 edition, I lapsed on this and have not written one since. Having to remember every game I played in a 20xx and write up a little something about it got to be tedious, and didn’t play well with my inherent laziness.
All that is why, when I decided to revive this feature, it was with new restrictions. This time, I will be covering only ten games: those which left the strongest impressions on me within a given year, regardless of release date. This restriction also enables me to write a bit more about each game.
So, without further ado, here’s my ten for 2015, presented in the order in which I played them. Following each title is the developer/author, the platform I played the game on, the release year on said platform, and my obligatory summary. They are not ranked, except for my personal Game of the Year and its runner-ups, which were relatively easy choices, at least for this installment.
Mighty Gunvolt Inti Creates | 3DS | 2014
Although I am not a big fan of anything that resembles Mega Man, this game charmed the pants off of me. Few “retro” style games that truly want to be “retro” ever come close to the faithfulness to the era that Mighty Gunvolt achieves: here, it really does feel like you’re playing an NES game. The art and music are lovingly crafted, as is the localization from the original Japanese, which sprinkles bits of “Engrish” throughout. The biggest aspect which feels “modern” is the difficulty, which isn’t as punishing as its predecessors, but that’s all for the better.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch Young Horses | Windows | 2014
And on the opposite end of the spectrum is Octodad, which forces the player to unlearn everything they know about controlling video game characters. The player character is a giant octopus masquerading as a human surburban father, and controlling him—through a scheme where arms and legs are affiliated with analog sticks and shoulder buttons—is as difficult as you might expect, given the circumstances. Not drawing suspicion to yourself in your everyday life is the goal of the game, a lighthearted sitcom of a tale which comes complete with a catchy theme song (but no laugh track, thankfully). Although a certain part came off as slightly unfulfilling, there’s nothing else that would cause me not to recommend this.
Gone Home The Fullbright Company | Windows | 2013
This is one of those games I put off playing for awhile due to the neverending hype and discussion surrounding it, but I finally did so this year. What it ended up being was an exploration through a massive old house that was alternately nostalgic, goofy, and suspenseful, a miniature 1990s teenage soap opera told in first-person in-between references to Bratmobile and The X-Files. That this tightly crafted, intimate little story generated as much controversy as it did is bewildering. Gone Home is—somehow, bizarrely, sadly—groundbreaking for the video game medium in its everyday mundanity and small human dramas, but it’s also good, and hopefully this sort of thing will become more commonplace in the future.
PixelJunk Eden Q-Games | Windows | 2012
I play few platformers anymore, not so much for lack of interest (Kirby burnout notwithstanding), as that there haven’t been any really good ones in awhile. I came to PixelJunk Eden not knowing much about it, but finding within it just the refreshing sort of platformer I needed. The visual style is minimalist overall, but can get pleasantly noisy sometimes in a structured Sonic Youth sort of way, and it’s accompanied by some cool electronic music and suitable sound effects. The physics are floaty but believable; the diminutive player character moves around like it’s in water. Although the paths weren’t always clear and, thus, it became way too easy to get lost in certain late-game levels, I had a really good time with PixelJunk Eden.
You Must Build a Boat EightyEightGames | Windows | 2015
This game, the follow-up to 10000000, almost didn’t make this list. It’s on here because I returned to the game again, months after first beating it, to go after more crew members and achievements. That’s when I fell back into its rhythms. With more tile types and general complexity than 10000000, my original feeling was that You Must Build a Boat was too overwhelming, and somewhat inelegant. Somehow, this doesn’t matter any longer. Its density and mechanics have their own kind of beauty and rhythm, and it has proven itself to be just as well-balanced and addictive. That, plus the new rooms and crew members that get added over the course of the game gives it more character than 10000000 ever had. That’s not to say that YMBAB is better than 10000000, but it is most definitely a worthy successor.
Roundabout No Goblin | Windows | 2014
This game is unlike anything else out there. It’s got a groovy 1970s setting complete with funk music, rounded chunky fonts, trippy drug references, and suitably toned live-action FMVs. The story centers around Georgio Manos (pictured), a silent protagonist and up-and-coming revolving limousine driver. With the support of her comrades, she ferries people all over town and deals with various bits of drama. Oh yes, and as her title implies, her limo does indeed revolve around and around while she drives, which is where the challenge comes in. It’s all very silly, a little bit difficult, rather fun (and funny), and over all too quickly.
Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector Hit-Point | iPhone | 2014
My husband and I waffled on trying this out for ages, and a patch from earlier this year which added an English-language option basically gave us little excuse. So, one day over the US Thanksgiving weekend, we each downloaded Neko Atsume from Apple’s App Store. What a great decision that was. A few times a day, after setting out food and toys, we check to see which stupidly cute, beady-eyed cats have visited us. Another aspect which has won us over: it’s free to play, with microtransactions available, but we’ve never once felt the pressure to buy any extra gold fish (the top-level in-game currency). We just take our time and enjoy these adorable digital felines at our leisure.
Third Place Hatsune Miku: Project mirai DX SEGA | 3DS | 2015
I’m afraid I might be biased when it comes to this choice: I’m a fan of Vocaloids, and Miku in particular, plus I also have a soft spot for both Nendoroid figures and tactile rhythm games. Project mirai DX features a robust selection of songs featuring music software developer Crypton’s beloved stable of Vocaloids: classics, fan favorites, and lesser-known tracks spanning a nice range of styles and BPMs, from many of the best producers in the scene. There are even a few songs with additional vocals supplied by special guest GUMI (aka Megpoid), a Vocaloid published by Internet Co. Ltd. All of the characters are represented in their chibi Nendoroid forms, thanks to a collaboration with Good Smile Company, and have a certain lively appeal to them that the blander, regularly-proportioned Project DIVA models lack.
The touchscreen-based gameplay mode is a joy to play (the button-based one isn’t too shabby either, though not as much fun), and there are several diversions—a room to decorate, character outfits, reversi and Puyo Puyo minigames, a music player, etc.—that are entertaining ways to take a break from the main rhythm section every so often. Despite the rare misstep (such as a certain pair of popular but overly repetitive songs), it’s a must-have for 3DS-owning Vocaloid fans, and probably the best rhythm game on the system overall.
Second Place Analogue: A Hate Story Love Conquers All Games | Windows | 2012
Stories with a strong sociological bent are still relatively hard to find in games. While my 2015 manga slate was filled with brilliantly humane works like Vinland Saga, My Love Story!!, and Assassination Classroom, there hasn’t been much like those on my gaming one. Analogue: A Hate Story is one of the rare exceptions. Like (the absolutely amazing, seriously it’s a masterpiece) Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, Analogue is a feminist examination of a specific period in Asian history. In this case, it’s an extremely repressive Korean society recreated on a long-lost starship, whose story is told through the logs maintained by, and the commentary of, a pair of AIs named *Hyun-ae and *Mute.
What follows from there is a dense, intertwined tale of family, hierarchy, social expectation, doomed romance, dashed expectations, and horrific violence, with the occasional bits of humor, which helps lighten the mood from time to time and rounds out the characters. It’s a gripping tale, one as fine as in any good comic or prose story I read this year, and I’m looking forward to playing its sequel, Hate Plus, in the year ahead. In fact, Analogue was all set to be my personal Game of the Year, but then something else came out…
First Place: Game of the Year The Beginner’s Guide Everything Unlimited Ltd. | Windows | 2015
I really don’t know where to start with this one without giving away what happens during a certain scene, a scene that matters so much when it comes to how this story is ultimately interpreted. When that scene happened, I understood much more, but only to a point. By the time the game ends, there’s at least two apparent large plot holes and some uncomfortable unanswered questions, which aren’t helped by the fact that the entire thing has been narrated by Davey Wreden, the creator of The Beginner’s Guide, seemingly playing himself. There’s also that cryptic dedication…
I’m going to dig further into this now, and although I won’t reference anything too specifically, there might be some parts that could be considered spoilers, so turn around if you need to.
What The Beginner’s Guide is ultimately about (or at least it seems so to me) is audiences, the great bugbear of creators everywhere, and how uncontrollable they are. It left much the same impression on me as The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, which dealt with a similar theme on multiple levels. In that film, which is based on true events, an inventor does amazing, innovative work but finds that his lofty ideals don’t line up with reality. Such is the situation in The Beginner’s Guide, where Davey takes us through a tour of the works of “Coda”, a friend who has dabbled in game development before suddenly stopping. Who Coda is and what their works really mean is beside the point. It is Davey and his presentation of Coda’s games which really matters here.
The result is a fascinating, but somewhat worrying, journey through all sorts of unfinished first-person games. There are a lot of dialogues that go nowhere, enclosed spaces, and strange surprises. Davey is not wrong to have interpretations of these creations. The wrongness that is present becomes evident later on, and, in the end, I don’t blame Coda for their actions, though perhaps they were somewhat naive in how they handled their games. It’s an interesting and ultimately heart-wrenching story about creation, interpretation, modification, and everything in between. I wonder if anyone who isn’t a creative type of some sort would get it. I wonder, like many others, if this is based on something which really happened. I do not wonder if this sort of thing continues to happen in the real world, because I know it does. It sucks, but it still happens. It happens to a lot of us, and though it might take awhile, things will be okay again.
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.