I’m still not dead

This is a sort of placeholder post, in case anyone cares to know what’s been going on with me – I’ve been making the final sprint through law school, and today is quite literally the last day of class (hopefully for the rest of my life.)  Naturally, I paid about 20% attention in my classes today.  Once I bust through the exams next month, it’s bar preparation, then the bar exam, then a lifetime of working.  As a lawyer.

Well, my life is what it is, but I’ll be back writing here on a semi-regular basis after exams.  In the meantime, have a nice piece of official art from the amazing Dreamcast JRPG Skies of Arcadia:

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I’d rather be an air pirate than a lawyer, but sadly that career path is not open to me.

I’m spending my downtime watching JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, so my next post might have something to do with that.  It’s a fabulously insane show.  And the ending credits song is Roundabout by Yes, one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands, which is enough to make me want to watch the entire series.

Anyway, reader, see you again soon.

Online book translation review: Seventeen Parts 1 and 2 by Kenzaburo Oe

Seventeen Part 1, the first part of a short two-part novel by Kenzaburo Oe, stirred up so much trouble in his home country of Japan that the publisher was threatened with death by far-right political groups (uyoku dantai) if the second part were brought out.  Thankfully, both Seventeen and Death of a Political Youth, the second part of the tale (renamed and published almost in secret to avoid a violent backlash) have been translated into English and posted on the blog Tokyo Damage Report.  Oe’s work taken as a whole is funny, sad, and horribly depressing all at once and is well worth a read, assuming the reader has a strong stomach.

Before we look at Seventeen, though, we need to travel back to the year 1960. Japan was still in the process of rebuilding after the destruction of World War II and hosted (as it still does) a large US military presence. The constitutional monarchy re-established by the Allies after the war ended allowed various parties, both on the right and the left, to get back into the game of politics and to openly debate the role of Japan in the world. Many of these debates reflected the capitalist/nationalist vs. socialist/communist divide of the Cold War, and naturally, this stirred up a lot of student political activity, both on the left and right.

On October 12, 1960, in the midst of this tension, a 17 year-old nationalist student activist named Otoya Yamaguchi rushed the stage of a televised speech in a lecture hall in Tokyo and ran a traditional samurai sword through the speaker, Socialist Party chairman and Diet representative Inejiro Asanuma, killing him almost instantly.

A photographer captured the assassination as it happened. (Source: Yasushi Nagao - © 1960 United Press International)

This photograph looks staged, but it’s not.  The assassination as it happened.  (Source: Yasushi Nagao – © 1960 United Press International)

Shortly after the assassination and Yamaguchi’s jail cell suicide a few weeks later, the novelist Kenzaburo Oe wrote a novel about the whole incident – told from the perspective of the young assassin.  The first half of Seventeen, released in 1961, tells the story of the protagonist, a high school student who has just turned 17 years old.  The main character and narrator of this tale calls himself “Seventeen”, and his age does contribute a lot to the story.  Seventeen is an awkward, perpetually pissed off kid.  His family is generally is cold and distant and his elder sister loathes him (for good reason – he flips out in Chapter 1 and gives her a severe eye injury during an argument.)  After poking his sister’s eye out, Seventeen exiles himself to a shed in his family’s backyard where he sleeps, broods, and mopes about his problems.)  Seventeen’s school life is miserable, and his only friend is a stray cat that stop by his shed sometimes.

So far, with the possible exception of the eye-poking, this sounds like a pretty typical coming of age story about an awkward teenager.  In most of these kinds of stories, the teenage protagonist comes to some kind of revelation about himself and grows as a person (see Catcher In The Rye for the classic example.)  Our protagonist here also comes to a revelation about himself, but it leads him to a bloody end.  Seventeen is a coming of age tragedy.

The first half of Seventeen plays out almost like a teenage comedy, complete with dick jokes.  However, halfway through the first part, Seventeen discovers meaning in an uyoku, or far-right nationalist, group, where he finds like-minded friends.  At this point, the story takes a serious turn for the political.  Seventeen also finds that his new status as a right-wing activist has earned him a degree of fear, if not of respect, from classmates and teachers who previously just despised him.  As a fervent young nationalist, Seventeen soon finds himself at the front line of a street fight with left-wing students during a series of protests in Tokyo against the renewal of a controversial US-Japan security treaty.  The second part of Seventeen, Death of a Political Youth, is far more serious than the first part and pretty much depicts Seventeen’s descent into insanity, his assassination of an unnamed left-wing politician as he makes a televised speech, and his short stay in prison before he kills himself.  (Note that this isn’t really a spoiler – it’s exactly what happened to the real-life politician Asanuma and his assassin Yamaguchi.)

Of course, there’s no way to know exactly what was in Yamaguchi’s mind when he decided to kill Asanuma.  But we do know that he was motivated by nationalist sentiment, and Oe’s work parodies that movement – much of the second part of the novel involves Seventeen obsessing over and seeing visions of “the Emperor” – not the actual living Emperor (then Hirohito) but some kind of idealized figure, more like God than a mere human.  In fact, reading Seventeen in 2016, especially in the West, reminds me of the kind of religious fanaticism that seems to inspire violent acts – both of the jihadi and of the extremist Christian anti-government variety.*  Seventeen’s fanaticism doesn’t seem very different.

An uyoku van. The writing on the van are political slogans.

An uyoku van.  These vans are driven around by uyoku guys who dress in paramilitary uniforms and shout at people. The writing on the van is right-wing political stuff.

It should be noted that the right wing in Japan also had a literary side to it, and writers like Yukio Mishima did a lot to push the nationalist agenda (he’s a good writer as well and is well worth a read, despite his weird retro views on worshipping the Emperor and all that stuff.  He also tried to overthrow the Japanese government in 1970 with a group of five other guys and committed actual medieval hardcore ritual suicide with a sword when he failed.  Mishima was somewhat nuts.)

Anyway, if all the above stuff sounds interesting to you, here are the links to the translations.  The translator does an interesting job with the writing.  He’s definitely going for the “feeling” of the text more than literal accuracy. I very much doubt that Oe included the phrase “Shake that ass!” in his original work. But I don’t mind. Also, this seems to be the only English translation of Death of a Political Youth around, so if you want to read it and can’t read Japanese, you don’t actually have a choice in the matter.

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*If you don’t live in the United States, you might not know about this strain of fanaticism – I’m not sure how much it really exists outside of the US.  Eric Rudolph (the 1996 Olympics bomber) was one of these bastards.

Retrospective: Ar tonelico: Melody of Elemia

What would happen if humanity were confined to massive towers built upon a decaying planet? What would happen if humanity’s only hope for survival were a total fucking idiot? Also, what would happen if that idiot were surrounded by beautiful girls who have the ability to destroy their enemies with the power of song? These are the questions posed by Ar tonelico: Melody of Elemia, a JRPG released by Gust (makers of the long-running Atelier series) for the PS2 in 2007.

Before I continue, I should note that Ar tonelico contains a whole lot of sexual innuendo. This innuendo is woven into both the game mechanics and the story, but in a way that’s entirely unnecessary, as we’ll soon see. In any case, if these kinds of themes make you uncomfortable, you might want to stop reading.

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Ar tonelico takes place on a tower of the same name. Humans have been forced to flee to three great towers forming the Ar tonelico complex, a structure that offer shelter from the volatile surface of their planet. The towers themselves are large enough to support cities and towns, and essentials like water are freely available.

This game puts us in the role of Lyner, a young knight employed by Shurelia, the administrator of one of the towers of Ar tonelico. Lyner is sent on a journey by Shurelia to discover a cure for a virus outbreak affecting the tower’s Reyvateils – an all-female race of humanoids designed by humans specifically to control the elements with the power of their voices. Lyner is dedicated, brave, and hardworking. Unfortunately for the residents of Ar tonelico, Lyner is also an incredible idiot.  (Example: one of the later scenes in the game involves Lyner running headlong into a dangerous forcefield after every character – including Lyner – sees the forcefield and acknowledges its existence.)

Despite his astounding thickness, Lyner makes progress in his journey with the help of Aurica and Misha, two Reyvateils who are also pursuing their own goals, and with several other JRPG-ish characters (the Tough Guy, the Noble Knight, the Tomboyish Engineer Girl, etc.) who tag along. And this is where the game’s many strange mechanics come into the picture. Ar tonelico features “grathmelding”, which is basically a simplified form of the alchemy mechanic already present in Gust’s Atelier games – the idea here is that the player finds various ingredients around the game world that he can fuse to create new items. More interesting, however, are two gameplay elements introduced by Ar tonelico: Song Magic and Diving.

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The use of Song Magic is going to be your main battle strategy throughout Ar tonelico. At first glance, the game’s battles use the standard turn-based system, with your characters with high defense (Lyner, Jack, Krusche etc.) in front and your squishy magic-user/healer (the Reyvateil) in the back. However, it will soon become apparent that your front-line characters’ true purpose is to soften the enemy up and defend the Reyvateil while she charges her Song Magic in preparation to release it in a massively damaging attack. The game’s battles also incorporate a rhythm element – players who are quicker on the controller will be able to more effectively defend their Reyvateils from enemy attacks.

So how do you get Song Magic? All Reyvateils come with a basic, chargeable “energy ball” sort of attack, but to get elemental forms of attack magic or healing magic, you’ll have to conduct a “dive.”  In the world of Ar tonelico, Diving is entering a Reyvateil’s mind, or soul, or something, and rooting around in it. Essentially, Lyner has the ability to get more forms of magic and more powerful versions of songs by “diving” into Aurica, Misha, or the third Reyvateil whose identity I can’t say about because it’s a bit of a spoiler. Each Reyvateil has something called a Cosmosphere that represents her mind, and poor, thick Lyner is tasked with helping her sort out her inner demons. Lyner’s sheer stupidity makes this difficult, and he’ll sometimes find himself suddenly shut out of the Reyvateil’s Cosmosphere after particular events take place. However, once Lyner helps the Reyvateil come to some kind of inner revelation or understanding about herself, his relationship with the Reyvateil “levels up”, which means that he can unlock new Song Magic and enter deeper recesses of her mind.

Really, though, “diving” is just a placeholder for sex.

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Uh, well…

If you don’t believe me, play the game or look up a relevant Youtube video. Ar tonelico is full of sexual innuendo, and most of it involves the dive mechanic. The game’s “Dive Shops” are basically treated like pay-by-the-hour hotels, and both Lyner and the Reyvateils express concerns about diving that could apply just as easily to sex if you change a few words in the dialogue. Two of the Reyvateils even compete for Lyner’s affections throughout much of the game, and the player’s choice of either Aurica or Misha as a dive partner can change his mid-game route and lead to a different ending.* In fact, the fanservice elements of Ar tonelico are pretty strong – the Reyvateils can also unlock new costumes that change their stats in various ways, and some of these costumes, as you might predict, leave very little to the imagination (for example, one of Aurica’s costumes is called “Lilim.”  Go ahead and look that up on Google, but not if you’re at work unless you were planning to get fired.) Really, Ar tonelico could almost qualify as an “ecchi game” (don’t look this term up at work either, by the way) and it’s kind of amazing that the ESRB let it go with a T rating.**

As it is, Ar tonelico is a colorful and interesting game with some unusual game mechanics and an excellent soundtrack (some of the Song Magic and regular game tracks are written and performed by Akiko Shikata, a singer/musician who’s done music both on her own and for game OSTs for a long time.) However, it’s definitely not the greatest JRPG ever made – in fact, it’s not even the best game in the Ar tonelico series. While the battle system is unique, the battles themselves can get repetitive, and the game doesn’t offer much in the way of challenge. AT also suffers from as a result of its terrible localization. The game was published in North America by NIS America, and I have to say that they really dropped the ball, both with this title and 2009’s Ar tonelico II. Certain sections of dialogue don’t make any sense at all, and many of the game’s item descriptions are totally baffling. The English dub is also absolutely horrific, and the game offers no way to turn the voices off or to replace them with the original Japanese VAs.

Despite being a better game with a deeper combat system and a more interesting plot, Ar tonelico II‘s localization is even worse – the voice acting still sucks, some of the dialogue consists of strings of non sequiturs (especially during the IPD infection sequences) and NISA’s localization team somehow managed to leave bits of Japanese text in the game’s North American port.  The NA version of AT2 even features a game-breaking bug.  This utter failure on the part of a highly professional outfit like NIS America is confusing, especially considering the fact that they did a fine job with the ports of Ar tonelico Qoga and Ar nosurge, the third and fourth games in the series made for the PS3. Maybe they just didn’t have the budget for good VAs or for actual Japanese-to-English translators who knew what the hell they were doing back in 2007.

AT2 is a terrible port of a good game.

AT2’s combat offers more variety, but the bad quality of its official unpatched port will make you want to die.

So can I recommend this game? I don’t really know. On one hand, it’s pretty good despite its localization problems and its lack of difficulty. The setting is interesting, the art and music are quite good, and the interactions between the boneheaded Lyner and the Reyvateils are genuinely funny at times and are probably worth watching. On the other hand, the localization really is awful, and the game’s high degree of fanservice may turn some people away. If lots of sexual innuendo with cute anime girls is “your bag”, however, Ar tonelico and its sequels are worth a look.

Another possible issue is the game’s price. Like many JRPGs from the Dreamcast/PSX/PS2 libraries, the prices of both AT and AT2 are stupidly high. The original copies of these games came with soundtrack CDs and artbooks, and these deluxe packages tend to sell for well over $100.  There are certainly copies of .iso files of these games floating around on the internet, but I don’t advocate illegally downloading games.  Not at all.  Especially not with the unofficial translation patch of AT2, which fixes the port’s game-breaking bug and most/all of the dialogue.

* The player also has the option to leave both of them behind and go for the mystery Reyvateil, which I highly recommend doing, since she’s a lot better than Aurica or Misha. Doing so also opens up the game’s third act, which the player can’t access on either Aurica or Misha’s routes.

** You might have read somewhere about a JRPG for the PS3 featuring actual stripping. That game is Ar tonelico Qoga, the third title in the AT series, in which the Reyvateils absorb more power from the planet through their skin by taking off their clothes during battle (NSFW, more or less.) Yes, really. This is how the game explains it. But the ESRB wasn’t impressed – Qoga got slapped with an M rating.

But nobody came: A non-review of Undertale

Nobody is shutting up about Undertale. It’s won accolades as the best game of 2015 from many reviewers, even from the crotchety bastard Yahtzee Croshaw (probably my favorite reviewer, even though he absolutely hates JRPGs, the bastard.)

So I’m not going to give Undertale a traditional review.  As much as I liked this game, there’s really no point to throwing my own inconsequential opinion on top of the pile of millions of other thumbs-up, A+ and five star reviews. Instead, I’m going to tell you when I knew that this game really was different from the standard RPG/dungeon crawler/puzzle game it came off as at first.

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There are some spoilers here about the first chapter of the game and about one character in particular, so if you haven’t played it at all and want to go in totally fresh, there’s your warning. If you’ve started to play but have lost interest after 20 or so minutes for whatever reason, though – maybe this will encourage you to keep playing!

I went into Undertale almost completely raw. All I knew was that several people had told me that I had to play this game, and for once, I took their advice. The only other thing I knew was that there were generally two approaches to the game: either kill your enemies or befriend them.  I wanted to see both endings, and I decided to start with the “kill everything” route.  Thus I began my Undertale journey by blazing a trail of destruction through the ruins, the setting of the game’s first chapter.  I grinded like a good RPG player, killing monsters I encountered and gaining EXP and LV.  I had a “MERCY” option as well, which I supposed I should have used if I wanted to make friends with the monsters facing me.  I didn’t need that option for what I was doing.

Eventually, I cleared the ruins of monsters.  The music changed to a creepy low-pitched rumbling, and strangely, I kept having enemy encounters, but no monsters appeared on the screen.  Just one statement, printed in small text: “But nobody came.”

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The screen you get when you’ve cleared the area of monsters.

Okay, that’s… weird.  But as long as I’m making progress, hey, whatever.

My path of destruction led me to Toriel’s home.  This motherly goat lady had saved my life at the beginning of the game and now offered me a new place to live, a refuge from the dangers of the underground world.  However, I had no interest in living in some little underground house.  I had to get back to my own home.  And I suspected that I’d have to get rid of Toriel to get there.

This is gonna be hard.

This is gonna be hard.

I ran down the stairs into the basement, which turned out to be a tunnel into the rest of the underground world, where I’d be able to hopefully find a way back to the surface.  Sure enough, Toriel blocked my way out of the ruins and refused to move.  As much as I liked this lady, she was in my fuckin’ way, and so she’d have to go down.  I’m King Badass of Big Shit Mountain and nobody is going to stand in my way and survive.  Not even my new sort-of adoptive mother.

She went down in one hit.  I’d expected her to put up a fight, but no.  Apparently she didn’t really think I’d attack her.

I felt really bad about what I’d done right after the fight ended.  My feelings were confirmed in the next room after the gate exiting the ruins, where I ran into “Flowey the Flower”, as he calls himself.

Let's not and say we did

Let’s not and say we did

This asshole flower tried to kill me in the first scene of the game, and Toriel saved my life.  How could I have killed her?  Even if she had been standing in my way, she’d only had my best interests in mind by trying to keep me in the ruins, away from the dangers of the rest of the underground.

Well, shit.

I quit my “kill everything” strategy.   In fact, I started at the beginning with a new file.  I didn’t really have the stomach to kill everyone I came across, especially not Toriel.  I hadn’t anticipated that I’d actually give a shit about the characters in this little puzzle dungeon RPG thing, but sure enough, I did.  And thankfully, on my new save, I was able to spare everyone and progress.  Even Toriel let me leave the ruins after several bouts of bullet-dodging showed her that I was ready to find a way to the surface, back to human civilization.

I was making friends with everyone, and it all seemed to be going great.  Until I met this flower again.

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He knew.  He knew I’d killed Toriel in my aborted first playthrough.  I could save over my old file, but I couldn’t erase what I had done.  The game remembered, and it wouldn’t let me forget.

This is just the first in a series of “what the fuck” moments that Undertale has to offer the player.  And these moments are what set it apart from the standard RPG/dungeon crawler/puzzle game.  As much as I enjoy hating popular things because it’s cool to do that, the hype surrounding Undertale is entirely justified.  If you haven’t played the game and you ignored my warning near the top of this page, here’s my full review of Undertale: play it.  It’s only ten dollars to buy (available both on Steam and on creator Toby Fox’s website.)  That’s a bargain for what you’ll get in return.  The soundtrack is really good too.

Okay, that’s all I’m going to write about Undertale.  The game seems to be starting to get a massive fandom now, and it’s honestly getting a little weird.  If I had waited three more months to get this game, in fact, I might have been put off of it forever by its inevitable legions of creepy obsessive fans.  I’m not talking about people who just like the game, I’m talking about people who roleplay the game’s characters on message boards and write fanfiction.  I think some of them might be furries, too.  Not that any of that is the fault of Toby Fox, but still – play the game before the weirdos spoil it for you!

Spooky RPG Maker game review: Blank Dream

Before I start this review, a warning: this game deals strongly with the theme of suicide.  Please leave this page now if you don’t feel comfortable reading about this subject.

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Of the several RPG Maker games I played or watched during my marathon RPG Maker spooky game session a week ago, Blank Dream was both the best and the most emotionally moving.  If I’m being totally, completely honest, I got all verklempt when I got to the true ending of this game.  I was a little bit choked up, which is a thing for me, a person who has not gotten emotional at either an artistic work (minus possibly one) or a personal circumstance for over a decade.  It may be that I’m an emotionally stunted man – I almost definitely am – but it may also be that Blank Dream is just that good.

Blank Dream tells the story of Mishiro Usui, a high school girl who faces bullying and abuse at school and extreme pressure from her family at home.  These stresses drive Mishiro to kill herself by drowning in a lake.  When she wakes up in a strange shadowy world, however, Mishiro has no memory of who she is.  By looking into mirrors scattered around this limbo she’s found herself in, Mishiro slowly recovers her memories and realizes the wish that led her to commit suicide – her desire not only to die, but to erase herself entirely from existence.

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The above description makes Blank Dream sound like a bleak and lonely game, and in some ways it is.  The mirrors that the player has to find are located in parts of limbo with names like the Realm of Spirits, the Realm of Blood, and the Realm of Death, and in typical RPG Maker horror game fashion, each of these realms contains puzzles that the player must solve and enemies that must be avoided.   However, Mishiro also is joined in her search by two other dead characters: Ryotaro, a professional-looking guy in a suit, and Yuzu, another high school-aged girl who claims to have been stuck in limbo for several years.  These characters also have mirrors that the player can find, and their stories are intertwined with Mishiro’s.

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As described above, Blank Dream involves many heavy themes.  Certain characters contemplate and talk about stress, depression, and suicide.  It’s easy to imagine how a game creator could screw this up badly, because Blank Dream also contains the kinds of jumpscares and chase sequences involving spirits and monsters that could cheapen the experience (a problem that the otherwise good RPG Maker horror game Misao suffers from.) However, Blank Dream doesn’t suffer from these kinds of abrupt tonal shifts.

The game features plenty of deadly traps, blood-thirsty ghosts, and chases down darkened hallways, but they all work in the context of the larger story because they represent challenges that Mishiro must face to make it to her mirrors and to recover her memories. Many of these traps, like the one above, require creative thinking on the part of the player to solve. A lack of creativity in problem-solving usually leads to death. (How can Mishiro die in limbo if she’s already dead? There really is a reason for this – play the game and find out!)

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There are five different endings to this game, but it’s not all that difficult to achieve the true ending if you’re paying attention. I mentioned that I got misty at the true ending. Just to be clear, I’m not the sort of person who goes for tearjerkers at all – movies, novels, and games that go straight for the tear ducts do absolutely nothing for me, and they usually just piss me off (see John Green’s critically acclaimed but absolute bullshit Young Adult novel The Fault In Our Stars for a good example of this kind of work.) Blank Dream doesn’t feel manipulative at all, though, maybe because the characters are written so well. This game doesn’t feel like it was made just to pull at the heartstrings; it tells a compelling story that feels real. And that’s the key, I think. (Though as John Green proved with his own novel, you can just be straight up manipulative in your story-telling and still sell millions of copies and get a movie made based on it that gets an 80% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Seriously, fuck you, John Green. I like your Youtube history series, though.)

Unfortunately, I can’t really say anything else about the game without giving away spoilers – Blank Dream is that kind of game. So all I can do is recommend it. If you’re looking for a really well-made RPG Maker game that has good puzzles and a great story, and if you don’t mind playing a game that deals with suicide and other heavy themes, Blank Dream is made for you. Blank Dream was produced by a company called Teriyaki Tomato (yes, really) and an English version of the game can be downloaded here.

Spooky RPG Maker game review: Bevel’s Painting

Over the break, I had the chance to play and watch a series of freeware RPG Maker (and Wolf RPG Editor) games with horror themes with a few friends.  (Before I go on, I should note that we weren’t recording ourselves uncontrollably shrieking at the games, like a handful of Pewdiepie imitators hoping to make it big with Youtube ad revenue.  Also, Pewdiepie’s routine is not funny and gets extremely irritating after about three seconds.  Sorry for the digression, but after writing off and on about video and PC games for over two years I finally had to say it.)

Despite technically all being “horror games”, the games we played in our weekend RPG Maker marathon varied pretty widely in theme and approach.  And while it wasn’t the best among the games, Bevel’s Painting was certainly one of the most interesting.

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Made in 2015 as an entry in an independent game contest by one Maninu, Bevel’s Painting tells the story of Bevel, a young white-haired girl who enjoys painting.  There’s not much in the way of dialogue in this game, and Bevel is a silent protagonist, so a lot of the story is implied, if that makes any sense.  Here, we know Bevel is a budding artist because she starts the game in an art classroom in front of an easel with a painting on it, and also because she wears something that looks like a beret.  Other than that, the game initially gives you no direction or narration, and Bevel’s classmates standing around in little cliques in the hallway outside the classroom won’t talk to her, so the only place to go is naturally inside the painting on the easel.

The great bulk of Bevel’s Painting takes place inside the “world” of Bevel’s painting.  Bevel has to navigate through various puzzles and traps to progress through her world.  While her art world starts out bright and happy (in a sequence that occurs shortly after entering the painting, Bevel is magically decked out in a princess outfit by animals and gets applauded by a crowd of colorful bees, worms, and alien-looking creatures) it doesn’t stay that way for long.  This is a horror game, after all, so it’s no surprise when the initial cheeriness of the game fades away into darkness and terror.  You can also expect to be chased by enemies a few times – and yes, you can die in the painting world if you’re caught or if you fall into a trap.  And like most games of its type, Bevel offers a number of endings – which ending you get depends upon several choices you’ll have to make when deciding how to solve the game’s puzzles.  The game also features a language gimmick: most of its text is in “Bevelese”, which is English with its letters replaced with gibberish symbols (the game helpfully offers a guide in the download file to help the player decode the language.)  The Bevelese thing does come as a surprise at first and can be a little annoying, but we quickly got used to it while playing, and the concept of a made-up language within Bevel’s art world makes sense in the game.

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Out of all the games I played/watched throughout our marathon horror RPG Maker game sessions, Bevel gives you the least information by far.  The game drops clues about where to go and what to do, but you have to use your mind to make the connections and solve the puzzles necessary to moving forward.  It also gives very little away about the story behind Bevel’s explorations – at least at first.  Bevel is (debatably) the only “real” character in the game, not counting the various creatures and beings you’ll run into during your playthrough.  The game doesn’t provide much in the way of dialogue and provides no narration whatsoever.  However, the game does provide serious hints later on about some of the issues Bevel might be trying to work through.  Without spoiling too much, I can say that the game goes into seriously dark territory near the end – although it never explicitly states anything about its protagonist, her experiences, or her feelings, they can be guessed at by the end of the game depending upon the ending route you’re locked into.  Bevel’s Painting goes far more for ambiguous creepiness and unease than it does for cheap scares, and that’s something I appreciate.

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All in all, Bevel’s Painting is well worth playing.  The game clearly owes a lot to Ib and Yume Nikki, two popular RPG Maker games that involve exploring mirror-universe painting-worlds and bizarre dreamscapes respectively.  Unlike those games, Bevel is very short – a full playthrough can take less than an hour depending upon your puzzle-solving and being-chased-by-a-monster skills.  Despite its short length and its ambiguous endings, though, there’s enough here to make the player feel that he’s achieved something by the end, at least if he manages to get one of the non-bad endings.  It’s not a terribly big or ambitious game, but Bevel is good enough to get a strong recommendation.  It doesn’t feature a lot of spooky ghosts or JUMPSCARES, but if you’re looking for a bizarre little exploration game with horror elements, Bevel’s Painting is for you.  Maninu’s game was translated into English (except for the Bevelese parts) by vgperson and the English version can be downloaded here.

Seven great video game tracks (part 2)

I love music and I love video games (well, some of it/them, anyway.) So how can I limit myself to writing only one post about video game music? Here’s another one.

1) Final Fantasy VII – Reunion

This is one of the most haunting tracks that ever came out of a mid-90s RPG.  If you’ve played Final Fantasy VII, you’ll know what event this track pairs with.  If you haven’t, it’s where the main character realizes that his whole life has been a lie.  Oh yeah, spoilers.

Honestly, the spoiler won't make any sense until you've played the game most of the way to the big revelation. Also, FF7 was released in 1997, so the spoilers statute of limitations has passed.

Honestly, the spoiler won’t make any sense until you’ve played the game most of the way to the big revelation. Also, FF7 was released in 1997, so the spoilers statute of limitations has passed.

Anyway, Nobuo Uematsu is a genius when it comes to video game music.  This is one of the most understated, quiet pieces in an FF game, but it’s effective as hell.

2) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 – Chemical Plant Zone

Sometimes you just want to play a game where you’re a blue hedgehog rolling around fucking everything up.  And not one of the god-awful fuck 3D Sonic games like Sonic 06.  I mean the real thing.  The old Genesis games had proper background music, and Chemical Plant Zone from Sonic 2 has one of the best tracks in the history of the franchise.  It’s a techno early 90s Sega Genesis track and that’s all you need to know.

3) Yume Nikki – Dense Woods A

Modern horror movies are garbage.  At least, the ones that are made and air in my country are garbage.  People go to the theater to say “oh no a thing moved in the corner of the screen” for 120 minutes.  But what can you expect from the same people who think Mamma Mia is worth giving money to a person to see.

At some point, anyway, you have to admit that our horror movies are garbage and to turn to video games, which keep the horror genre alive.  And among these games, old-school looking RPG Maker games such as Ib and The Witch’s House are surprisingly effective.   The great-granddaddy of these games is Yume Nikki, a freeware piece made by a mysterious man known only as KIKIYAMA.  Yume Nikki translates as “Dream Diary” and is about Madotsuki, a young girl who refuses to leave her 150th story apartment bedroom/balcony and lives her life through her dreams.  Her dreams happen to be mostly disturbing as fuck, and it’s your job as the player to guide Madotsuki through her dreams and to collect all the “effects” that let her use various powers.

Your dream always starts on the balcony. The sky is dark and the landscape is desolate. Play this game with the lights off at midnight.

Your dream always starts on the balcony. The sky is dark and the landscape is desolate. Play this game with the lights off at midnight.

Yume Nikki excels in creating a mood, and its background music adds to this effect.  The tracks are simple but incredibly haunting, and they’re extremely effective in the game itself.  Do yourself a favor and go play Yume Nikki if you haven’t already.  With the lights off at midnight.

(Ib and The Witch’s House both have really good BGMs too, and they’re far more horror in aim and theme than Yume Nikki, which is more of a surreal dream game.  So if you’re looking to actually piss yourself, go for those instead.)

4) Outrun – the whole BGM

outrun

All of it.  This is a pure nostalgia pick, because like many other people in their late 20s Outrun is one of the first racing video games I ever remember playing, in my case as a small child who could barely manipulate the Genesis controller in an effective fashion.  But that 16-bit music certainly got stuck in my brain, even if I couldn’t get past the damn checkpoints most of the time.  There are certainly better soundtracks out there – this one is really more “background music” than a soundtrack – but it’s a very dynamic set of songs that doesn’t wear on me with successive listens.

5) Digital Devil Saga 2 – Hunting – Betrayal

The two Digital Devil Saga games are worthy additions to the Shin Megami Tensei family of games.  They’re much more traditional JRPGs than the mainline SMT games and other spinoffs – DDS doesn’t feature demon recruitment at all – but they’re well-crafted and tell an interesting story.  They also feature the always fantastic work of Shoji Meguro, who fully deserves a place in the video game soundtrack pantheon along with Uematsu.  And “Hunting – Betrayal” is one of his best battle themes, maybe his best ever.  The pure tension in this piece is astounding.  Listen to it with the dial turned to 10.

6) Umineko no Naku Koro ni – Dead Angle

Umineko-no-Naku-Koro-ni-7

I’ve already taken a look at Umineko, but it’s worth bringing up again that this visual novel series has an amazing soundtrack, and “Dead Angle” is one of the best tracks in the game.  For the unfamiliar, Umineko is a very long visual novel mystery series about a family that is almost entirely murdered on a private island.  The game mixes up mystery with supernatural elements, and one of the central themes of Umineko is deals with the existence of magic and the line between reality and fantasy.  The game is honestly kind of a mess, but it’s a fascinating mess and, in the end, a satisfying story.  And the music is fantastic.

7) Final Fantasy VIII – Force Your Way

Speaking of Uematsu – again – this is my favorite Final Fantasy battle theme.  I didn’t love Final Fantasy VIII.  It was a good game, but it also had lots of problems, and the soap opera-level love story was fairly balls in my opinion.  However, the gameplay is still classic FF at this point, and the soundtrack is excellent.

I don’t normally read Youtube comments, because they tend to be so stupid that you can’t understand how the commenter managed to remember to breathe for long enough to write the comment and send it, but some user on the site aptly observed that “Force Your Way” sounds like the composer wrote eight different intros to a battle theme and shoved them all together.  And it works.  Even if the story of FF8 kinda doesn’t.

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