A review of VA-11 HALL-A

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VA-11 HALL-A, previewed here in its demo version, is a game that came out late last month for PC and Vita.*  It bills itself as “cyberpunk bartender action”, as you can see in the above screenshot.  Not sure about the “action” bit, but the description is otherwise apt, because you play as Jill, a young bartender working at a small out-of-the-way bar called VA-11 HALL-A (pronounced Valhalla) in a slummy neighborhood of the futuristic dystopia Glitch City.  In this future, humans are enhanced with nanomachines and extremely human-looking robots called Lilim mix with the population.  The city’s population has to deal with constant shortages, and protests are dealt with violently by the authorities.  Jill, however, is only concerned with getting to work, paying rent, and keeping the lights on.  She shares her duties with her boss Dana and her co-worker Gillian (above, left and right respectively), each of whom have shady and mysterious pasts.

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Jill goes to work every night, tends bar, and has conversations with her customers and with Dana and Gillian.  Some customers only drop by once or twice, while others are regulars, but all of them ask for mixed drinks that Jill has to prepare using the setup on the right side of the screen.  Sometimes the customer will ask for a specific drink, but at other times they’ll just ask for something strong or sweet or bitter or girly and let you interpret the order as you see fit.  Fortunately, the player can refer to a drink guide that contains recipes, but a few orders are actually pretty hard to get right the first time around, and serving customers different drinks can change the conversation or get the customers drunker or less drunk depending upon how Karmotrine (basically the future version of alcohol) they consume.  Jill’s performance at work also affects her paycheck and her ability to pay the bills back at home, where she returns after work to rest with her cat Fore and to read the news, blogs, and messageboards on her cell phone.  Or her iPad, or whatever that thing she’s holding is.

In my playthrough, I fucked up and didn't have enough money in my account to pay the electric bill.

During my playthrough, I fucked up and didn’t have enough money in my account to pay the electric bill.

This drink-mixing mechanic makes VA-11 HALL-A feel a little bit like Papers, Please, the big indie hit from 2013 that put the player in the role of a border agent trying to make ends meet in an oppressive Soviet-style state.  VA-11 HALL-A, however, is a lot less of a traditional “game”, at least in the way a lot of people would define it, and a lot more of a visual novel.  The drink-making parts of the game aren’t timed, and the player can reset and start over if he screws up with no penalties.  The real focus of this game is on the relationships between its characters.  A lot of the people hanging out in Valhalla have personal issues that they’re working through, and some of the characters that show up are pretty memorable and interesting.  Characters that comes to mind right away are Sei, a member of the city’s security force who first visits the bar in her full uniform, complete with intimidating helmet, and Dorothy, a cheery android girl who works as a prostitute and has no qualms about it (or about talking about her work in detail.)  One of the most interesting characters in the story, though, is Jill, who as it turns out is running away from something in her past that catches up with her during the game.

Maybe it's better if you don't get the reference here.

A not-so-subtle reference to a certain famous novel.

VA-11 HALL-A is a good game that I’m happy I bought and played, but there are some caveats in this case, because this isn’t a game for everyone.  You might be thinking this game is inspired by Blade Runner, and you’d be right, since it’s in a dystopian cyberpunk setting full of human-like androids.  But VA-11 HALL-A is also soaked in references to anime/manga/Japanese game culture (is “culture” the right word for it?)  If I weren’t an embarrassing weeb nerd myself, I definitely wouldn’t have understood some of the hidden jokes in the game’s many conversations.  Someone who’s approaching this game without that kind of background will be missing out a bit in that regard.

Even moreso, though, VA-11 HALL-A is an adult game.  There’s nothing remotely pornographic or lewd or anything in the game graphically speaking, but a lot of the conversations revolve around fuckin’.  Especially when Dorothy is around.  And Dorothy’s status as what amounts to a sexbot with a personality, combined with her appearance and the reference in her name, may make some players uncomfortable (like this reviewer for PC Gamer, who was clearly creeped out by the whole thing, though to be fair the game does address all this.)  So if that rubs you the wrong way, you might want to give VA-11 HALL-A a miss.

This is a real line in the game, not making it up

It makes sense in context, I promise

But if VA-11 HALL-A is about anything, it’s about the nature of love and friendship.  That might make this game sound cheesy or cliché, but it really handles the subject well and does so in an interesting setting and with interesting characters.  So even though VA-11 HALL-A felt like it ended way too quickly (one playthrough only took about 10 hours, which is standard length for some genres but short for a VN) I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys VNs or who thinks all the stuff I described above might be interesting.  The soundtrack is also really good and goes a long way towards creating the game’s cyberpunkish but also strangely cozy atmosphere.  And considering the fact that the developer, Sukeban Games, consists of two guys living in Venezuela, one of the most politically unstable countries in the world at the moment, VA-11 HALL-A is actually pretty goddamn impressive.  Let’s hope they make it through the crisis and go on to top their achievements with an even better game.

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*I was going to start this review with a lot of bitching about how at least I have this game to play while waiting for Zero Time Dilemma, which I was supposed to have last fucking week but someone fucked up and Amazon promised they’d ship the game in an email but they haven’t done anything for the past five days.  But then I thought that sounded too bitter/angry.  Then I wrote about it in this footnote instead.

†This review is kind of interesting to me because it’s a take on the game from a totally different perspective from mine – aside from the whole sex issue, the reviewer just seems to not like visual novels considering her comments about how the game is “boring”, and VA-11 HALL-A is basically a visual novel.

Valhalla I am coming

That famous line from Led Zeppelin’s famous “Immigrant Song” (their best-known, but not only, song they wrote about Vikings) is what I thought when I saw the title of the soon to be released VA-11 Hall-A, a visual novel by the studio Sukeban Games.  Valhalla, which is what I’m calling the game from now on because I don’t feel like copy-pasting VA-11 Hall-A more than once, is a VN set in a cyberpunk dystopian future city where there are nanomachines and probably robots and cyborgs that was certainly inspired by Blade Runner.  In this world, you play as Jill, a bartender working at a hole in the wall sort of place officially called VA-11 and unofficially called Valhalla who has to mix drinks and deal with the characters who come in out of the cold for booze and a conversation.  The gameplay, aside from being mostly or almost entirely a VN, includes a drink-mixing mechanic that’s vaguely reminiscent of a way less complicated form of the border agent work in Papers Please – you have the choice of mixing drinks properly for your customers or of giving them bullshit drinks, and your choice in this matter seems to affect the dialogue.

Your only customer in the demo, which gives you a brief taste of the full game.

Your only customer in the demo, which gives you a brief taste of the full game.

Valhalla is being released on June 21, but I played the admittedly very short demo that gave me at least a taste of the sort of gameplay I should expect.  And I’m honestly intrigued.  Not only do I like good visual novels, but this particular VN involves the consumption of alcohol, which I also like.  Moreover, Sukeban is an unabashedly weeaboo studio (no, it’s not Japanese, but Venezuelan, strangely enough) so that’s another natural connection for me to make.  The weeaboo thing can cut both ways – I’m hoping the final product will not be too self-indulgent or memetastic.  But the brief demo suggested that this probably won’t be the case.  Unlike some other western VN projects that crop up and get public attention, Valhalla – at least so far – doesn’t feel like a cheap knock-together of mediocre art and writing.  And the Venezuelan team that put together this demo/game seems to have an excellent grasp on English – either they’re fluent speakers or they hired native English-speakers to edit their work.

In any case, I’m interested in this game.  I need something to play while I study for the bar exam and wait for Zero Time Dilemma to come out.  Expect (well, maybe expect) a review of the full version of Valhalla in the near future.

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.

Seventeen

Death of a Political Youth

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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.

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.