A review of Atelier Meruru DX (PS4)

Years ago, to take my mind off of my extremely irritating studies, I bought a digital copy of Atelier Rorona Plus for the Vita. This was my very first Atelier game, and though I liked its unique style quite a lot, I never got around to playing any of the other Atelier games. Not until I dropped part of my tax refund this year on Atelier Meruru DX, a deluxe PS4 edition of the original Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland on the PS3.

I really like to think that some mom in a Gamestop bought her princess-obsessed kid this game based on the cover, but then it turns out to be all about a princess dealing with bureaucratic deadlines and resource management.

Meruru is the final game in the Arland trilogy, a sub-series of the much larger long-running JRPG Atelier series made by the Japanese developer Gust. While the Arland trilogy shares the central alchemy mechanic in common with the rest of the Atelier games, it also has its own identity distinct from the others.

But first a catch-up on the characters and plot. The protagonist, Merurulince Rede Arls, is the daughter and only child of Lord Dessier, the King of Arls. Somehow this tiny podunk town, population 1,000, counts as a kingdom and has a king with a giant stone castle, but we can’t question that too much. In any case, all that’s about to change.

Princess Merurulince, or Meruru to her friends, constantly shirks her royal duties to practice alchemy under the direction of her teacher, the master alchemist Totooria Helmold. Meruru doesn’t like being a princess, and she reasons that since their tiny kingdom is going to be merged into the far larger Arland Republic in five years, upholding her royal duties doesn’t matter that much anyway. Even so, her dad understandably isn’t too keen on his daughter studying a trade that requires hunting for ingredients in the wilderness, killing monsters, and working with potent poisons and explosive fuels.

However, Meruru won’t back down, so the king’s butler Rufus proposes a compromise that they both accept: if Meruru can use her alchemy skills to increase the population of Arls to 30,000 within three years, Dessier will allow her to become a full-time alchemist.

The stamp makes it official

So while Dessier sits his royal ass on his throne for three years, he leaves it up to his teenage daughter to actually do all the work to strengthen the kingdom. Some king he is, but there’s nothing to be done about it. Meruru (meaning the player) must find some way to increase the population of Arls to thirty times its original size while also maintaining her popularity among the people, otherwise it’s a game over and a bad end.

Thankfully, Meruru isn’t left alone in her efforts. She first gets help from an unexpected place: the castle itself, represented by Rufus. Though he calls himself a butler, he’s really more of a chief advisor and minister to Dessier, and he takes his job extremely seriously — a single needle can’t drop in Arls without Rufus knowing about it. He’s also serious about the development plan he proposed. When Meruru receives requests from the citizens to develop new patches of wilderness or to clear up monster-infested areas, Rufus creates plans for the princess to carry out that will variously open new areas for exploration, increase her popularity, and bump up the kingdom’s population. As Meruru fulfills these goals she also gains points that can be used to build new facilities, bringing even greater population increases and other various benefits.

And of course, the princess doesn’t have to go off gathering alchemy ingredients and killing monsters all by herself, because she has plenty of friends to help her. These include both new characters native to Arls and returning characters from the two previous Arland games, and some of them can be recruited to join Meruru’s party in battle while she explores the various fields, forests, and mountains of the surrounding country. Each of these characters has a different combat style: some are more defensive and supportive like Meruru’s childhood friend/chief maid Keina, while others are offensive like the warrior Lias. They also have very different attack ranges and skills, so no one character plays quite like another, which adds some nice variety (even if it means that some characters kind of suck in battle when compared to others.)

And then of course there are the other alchemist characters. The Arland series specifically features a chain of masters and apprentices continuing from game to game starting with Atelier Rorona, in which Rorona is the player character and apprentice (which you can read about in my very old, completely inadequate review of that game.) In the second game of the series, Atelier Totori, the main character Totori is apprenticed to Rorona, who has become a renowned master of alchemy, though still exactly as clumsy and ditzy as she’s always been.

Totori joining up to kill some wolves in the mountains

Carrying on that tradition, Meruru is now apprenticed to the master Totori. As such, a lot of Meruru’s time is going to be spent in the atelier crafting items using the ingredients she finds in the field and after battles while under Totori’s supervision. Though the Atelier games are turn-based JRPGs, they’re very different from the typical sort of JRPG, and part of this difference comes from the all-important alchemy mechanic. The alchemists in these games are special because they alone have the ability to craft and use items that do everything from heal allies’ wounds to destroying the shit out of enemies, making them potentially very powerful.

This unique gameplay feature adds quite a lot of variety to the game by letting the player mess around with ingredients that have different qualities and traits. One of the most fun aspects of the Atelier games is experimenting with new mixes to see what works and what doesn’t, and the games generally give the player leeway to try new things out. Because as with the other Atelier games, alchemy in Meruru isn’t a mere crafting system: it’s practically a science in itself. For a while, you’ll see traits passed on through synthesis that you have no idea of, there are so damn many of them. Players who commit themselves to getting alchemy down can make truly amazing items, however, and that’s part of the satisfaction that playing Meruru provided me.

Once the princess learns how to synthesize weapons and armaments, that mom realizes this game wasn’t quite what she expected

You might have noticed that I haven’t elaborated on the plot a whole lot beyond the basic premise, and that’s because there isn’t much of one. Certainly unusual for a JRPG, which tend to be very plot-heavy, but in Meruru there are no world-ending comets or plagues or any magic crystals to take away from an evil overlord. There isn’t exactly any villain in this game at all, at least not in the way we’d normally understand it. Meruru’s big goal is simply to be allowed to practice alchemy, nothing more or less, so that motivation is the central force driving the plot.

This is an element of Atelier Meruru that may put some players off, but I don’t really care about it. In fact, it’s nice to play a JRPG (hell, an RPG at all) for once that doesn’t have a great evil emperor pretending to be the big villain with a greater evil god or god-controlled lieutenant of the emperor behind him as the true villain. If you want that, you can get enough of it out of Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem, and as much as I like it yes, Megami Tensei too. The conflicts faced by the protagonists in the Arland series are much more personal — saving your small business from being closed by a corrupt government minister, finding your missing mother, and in the case of Meruru simply not fitting the mold you were intended for.

Offtopic but I like that thing Totori wears on her head, whatever that’s supposed to be

That’s not to say there is no villain at all in Atelier Meruru. I’m not talking about the boss battles you have to fight, or even about that lazy bastard Lord Dessier. No, the villain in Meruru is far greater than any of those: it’s the calendar, or more broadly time itself. When you’re given the three-year time limit arrangement at the beginning of the game, you might be thinking “Okay, three years. That’s a long time. This will be easy!” And then it’s very easy to start getting sidetracked by going on journeys through the countryside and freely doing alchemy. Of course, you’ll notice that time is ticking down as you proceed — traveling, gathering items and getting into battles in the field, and synthesizing items in the atelier all take parts of days or full days to complete depending on the size of the task in question. But no, three years is plenty of time, right?

Hey, look at this fortress we built all thanks to alchemy. We’re doing fine, Meruru! No need to worry about that stupid time limit.

When I played Rorona years ago, I remember Rorona having deadlines to fulfill certain tasks or else she’d get a bad end, but I don’t remember ever having to worry very much about meeting those deadlines. They seemed easy enough to fulfill while playing the game pretty naturally. So I went into Meruru with the same mindset, and it turned out to be the wrong one. It might be my fault for not realizing that it’s a lot easier to gauge your progress towards a one- or three-month deadline than it is towards a three-year one. Still, I got legitimately pissed off at one point when a certain event occurred that I wasn’t expecting, causing me to have to waste extra months running back and forth from a distant area to acquire an item necessary to a development quest. It’s a good thing I make several saves, because when this event occurred I didn’t even know how absolutely fucked I was until a few months later when I realized I couldn’t synthesize what I needed in time to meet the three-year population deadline. So I did something I normally don’t — I reloaded an old save.

Maybe some people would consider that cheap, but I don’t give a shit. I don’t pour hours into a game like this to get a bad end and get kicked back to the beginning of year one. I’m a busy man with a life outside of these games. Anyway, if the game wanted me to commit to a single straight-through run, it wouldn’t have given me multiple save slots. I highly suggest you use at least a few of them unless you’re the type to fully commit to one run without reloading no matter how badly you might screw up. I have respect for people who commit in that way, but hell if I’m one of them myself. The key in this case, as far as I’m concerned, is that the game gave me no reason to believe that I needed to take a certain action before an arbitrary date. Looking back, Meruru did drop a hint of what I should have done, but it turned out to be the kind of hint that you only see in retrospect. Or maybe I’m just an idiot. I have made a lot of terrible real life decisions, so perhaps that’s more likely.

I don’t know if nectar calms your nerves, but I might need a glass after that bullshit.

Without spoiling anything, my general advice to new players is to trust your instincts: if the game seems to be suggesting that maybe you should check something out and it won’t take you too much time to do so, go and check it out and gather what ingredients you can, because you might need them. If the game is giving you a tool to use, say by bringing a new shopkeeper into town who offers a unique service, you should try using it as soon as possible. You should also be fulfilling requests at the tavern on a regular basis, if possible with high-quality items, to keep Meruru’s popularity up and to make extra money, because you can never have too much of either.

Even with all the time pressure, it’s hard to get too mad at Meruru. The game is just too damn positive, cute, and friendly. A lot of this has to do with the game’s style. Every entry in the Arland trilogy features character and background art by the excellent Mel Kishida. The sheer amount of detail in the character portraits and CGs alone make the game worth looking at even for people who aren’t so into turn-based JRPG stuff. I’m not sure if he’s also responsible for the item illustrations, but whether it’s him or someone else, the work on those is even amazing, all the more so because there are hundreds of ingredients and synthesized items in the game.

Playing this game actually made me hungry at times. If only I knew how to bake, damn.

I also have to mention the game’s beautiful soundtrack. I don’t hear Atelier get mentioned too often when it comes to game soundtracks, and to be fair I haven’t mentioned it either, but now I’ll give these composers their dues, because both Rorona and Meruru, and I have to assume probably Totori as well, feature a wide variety of music that’s all suited for fighting in battle, gathering ingredients in the field, running around in town, and working in the atelier. From what I’ve heard of the following Dusk trilogy in the Atelier series, that quality of music continues on as well.

The game also gives the player plenty of time to relax with dialogue cutscenes that come up throughout the game without any prompting. A lot of these involve characters from the previous two games in the Arland series. Though it helps provide context if you’ve played those games, it’s not necessary to understanding what’s going on. I’m in a bit of a weird position since I’ve played the first game in the series but not the second, so while old faces returning from Rorona are familiar to me, those from Totori aren’t. But again, it doesn’t matter that much. In fact, if you start off playing Meruru before the others, you’ll be in the same position as Meruru herself, who’s meeting all these recurring characters aside from Totori for the first time.

Totori having a flashback to her own game.

Of course, all these character interactions wouldn’t be so fun if the characters were all two-dimensional cardboard cutout types, and they aren’t. Some of them are a bit exaggerated in their weird traits, but almost all of them feel more or less like people who you might know in real life (well okay, maybe not Pamela, but I did say almost.) Series with a lot of characters like this tend to give their secondary characters very little detail, usually with only one broad trait and absolutely nothing else, but the Arland games take that extra step to make them feel a little more fleshed out. Maybe because they contain dialogue and slice-of-life style chatter in place of that big serious plot.

This aspect of the series is more obvious with the main characters. The protagonist here is a great example — although Meruru gets along well with her teacher Totori, the two have very different personalities: while Totori is careful and meticulous, Meruru tends to jump into new, potentially dangerous situations without thinking too much about it. And this balance works: Meruru, despite not really wanting to be a princess, accepts her role as a leader for her people and uses alchemy to help them thanks in part to her more level-headed teacher’s guidance. The alchemists central to the games’ plots are all very different kinds of people, but they manage to work together to create amazing machines and objects to help their friends and fellow citizens, and isn’t that what life is all about?

So this might be a pretty obvious conclusion to this review since I’ve been mostly gushing over how good it is, but do I recommend Atelier Meruru? I do, especially if you’re into the kind of obsessive collecting that I am, because unlocking new items to create through alchemy fulfills that weird need I have very well. I don’t know how it measures up to any of the other games aside from Rorona, but it  measures up to that game pretty well even if I still feel like Meruru was quite a bit bullshittier in parts. But again, I’m pretty forgiving of that. Maybe too forgiving. It’s that damn bishoujo style Kishida draws — I would not have accepted this nonsense from a less cute game. There is also plenty of game content left after your three years is up assuming you don’t get a bad end, so that adds some slightly more relaxed time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. And as with the other Arland games you get some benefits from a new game plus, making successive runs quite a bit easier to manage if you decide to go after some of the game’s hardest challenges or see new endings.

As for which version of Meruru you should buy, the only one I’ve played is the DX version on the PS4, which runs well and contains some DLC costumes and recruitable characters who weren’t in the original. There are also DX versions on the Switch and PC, and those are probably fine as well, but not having played them I can’t say whether they might have some technical issues. If you’re the kind of true patrician who owns a Vita, there’s also Meruru Plus, which is probably also fine to play if it’s anything like Rorona Plus, but again, I can’t really say. Just buy whichever one suits you best.

I don’t own Meruru Plus, but here’s a screenshot from my very own Vita copy of Rorona Plus if you want a general comparison. Why do I have so much high-grade perfume? I don’t know, but Pamela seems happy about it.

As a side note, the Atelier games in general still seem to be in a bit of a weird niche area, though the series may be branching out to a new audience now. All of the more modern games have been localized, but the series as a whole seems to have gone largely unnoticed outside of the usual weeb circles up until the most recent game Atelier Ryza, which attracted some new players thanks to Ryza’s, let’s say “generous” character model. But so much the better. I know some people feel that bringing in more fans can “ruin” a series or whatever (just have a look at any Persona-oriented board for some of that) but more fans mean more exposure for the series in question, and that probably isn’t such a bad thing. It also means more people get to appreciate these quality works, and I don’t see how anyone could object to that. 𒀭

Listening/reading log #9 (June 2020)

If you feel like we’re living in a TV drama about an alternate history timeline, I do too. In which case I’d ask why I’m stuck playing the role I am, but that’s probably my fault for making poor life decisions. At least no matter what happens, short of the world actually ending in an apocalypse, we’ll be able to listen to music and read blogs, and that’s what I’ll be covering in this post as usual.

Ege Bamyasi (Can, 1972)

Highlights: Sing Swan Song, Vitamin C, Spoon

Maybe Can is a weird name for a band, and maybe a can of okra makes for a weird album cover, but this is absolutely one of my favorite albums ever. Can was a German band with an amazing rhythm section and a Japanese singer who sang bizarre nonsense lyrics. The effect is really striking on their best albums like Ege Bamyasi. I could have put most of the songs up in the highlights list really; they’re that good, though it’s a bit hard for me to explain why aside from saying… they’re good. I’m a pretty useless reviewer as it turns out.

This is another album that doesn’t feel like it means anything at all (though I could be wrong, maybe it’s really just about okra?) but that doesn’t matter when it’s so memorable and hypnotic. Very good music for studying because of those beats, though Damo Suzuki’s yelling can maybe be distracting sometimes. Tago Mago and Future Days are also great albums by Can to check out.

Touhou Explosive Jazz 7 (Tokyo Active NEETs, 2014)

Highlights: 六十年目の東方裁判, フラワリングナイト 〜紅霧夜華2014

I’ve already written about Tokyo Active NEETs once before, specifically a review of album #6 in this series, but they’re still one of my favorite doujin music groups out there. Active NEETs are a jazz ensemble that plays a lot of music derived from the Touhou Project series of shmups, already known for its excellent BGM.

And they totally do it justice. Just like 6, Touhou Explosive Jazz 7 is energetic, catchy, and full of great takes on songs this time from the game Touhou 9: Phantasmagoria of Flower View. Active NEETs also put up a lot of great videos on Youtube — be sure to check out the links above, the first of which is a live studio recording of one of the pieces from the album, and the second of which is an MMD animation of characters from the game in a band playing the various parts. Makes a little more sense if you’re familiar with the series (for example, the guy dancing around with a sack over his head, and two sort of friend/rival characters Reimu and Marisa cutting each other off during their performance in the animation) but they can still be enjoyed without knowing anything about Touhou, just like the music itself.

Close to the Edge (Yes, 1972)

Hightlights: Close to the Edge, And You And I

And finally, another repeat artist because I guess I’m getting lazy. Close to the Edge was one of those mind-blowing albums for me when I was young, though I discovered it thirty years after it came out, so I can only imagine the effect it had back then. Yes’ music sometimes gets accused of being weird and emotionally detached, and I think this album is part of why some people feel that way — some of it is very strange stuff, and the lyrics on it are seemingly 100% meaningless even though they do feel like they’re supposed to be about something. It also only features three songs, and the first one lasts 18 minutes.

But it’s also almost all just as catchy as good pop music, and with the added bonus of being played by astoundingly great musicians. If something is boring the shit out of me, I’ll stop trying to listen to it, but Close to the Edge holds a lot of energy and excitement. “Close to the Edge” is still one of my favorite songs ever, and the other two have some fine moments as well, though I do think the quality drops off in the closer. Even so, it’s still a great album. I also want to highlight this 8-bit version of the title track made by a guy on Youtube with the name EvangelionUnit06, because it’s also fantastic.

And now, the featured posts:

Let’s Get It On: Why Sex Scenes In Video Games Is One Experience I Can Live Without (simpleek) — Right out of the gate featuring a post about sex of course. Simpleek sets out an argument for why game developers might hold off on putting sex scenes into video games at least until the technology improves.

The Evolution of My Views on the CGDCT Genre & The Dangers of Positivism (I drink and watch anime) — Overly enthusiastic fans can sometimes raise expectations for their favorite works a whole lot, maybe too much. In this post, Irina explores how this has affected her experience with the “cute girls doing cute things” anime genre.

Visual Novel Theatre: Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan (Lost to the Aether) — Aether continues his look into visual novels with a review of a VN about a dopey weeb visiting Japan for the first time, where he’s unexpectedly hosted by two cute sisters, and it sounds like embarrassing situations also occur as a result. Who would have guessed such a thing would happen in a visual novel?

System Mastery is my Jam (Frostilyte Writes) — A game with mechanics that are harder to master can lead to a more fulfilling experience. Frostilyte explores this idea by contrasting indie games Dicey Dungeons and One Step from Eden.

12 Random Japan School Life Tidbits (Umai Yomu Anime Blog) — Yomu, who’s currently teaching at a school in Japan, gives some real examples of Japanese school life and how it’s both similar to and different from what we’ve seen in anime and games.

MOTHER Gallery at Shibuya PARCO (Resurface to Reality) — Those who are into the Mother series should read browsercrasher’s post about a Mother-related gallery exhibit in Japan. When things open up again, we should push for video game-related public exhibits here in the States.

Mega Man 5 (Extra Life) — I never got around to playing Mega Man 5, but Red Metal’s review of the game got me interested in it. It’s always amazed me how they were able to take the series all the way to six entries on the NES anyway.

The Vita’s Not Dead Yet! Three Reasons Why You Should Still Own A PS Vita In 2020! (Down the Otaku Rabbit Hole!) — From loplopbunny, a post about why the Vita is still a system worth owning even after the recent Persona 4 Golden release on Steam. I got a lot of use out of my Vita, so I don’t agree with the many people I’ve heard say it “didn’t have any games.” For a complete argument, check out loplopbunny’s post.

Ghost in the Shell SAC_2045 – Part 1: Welp…. (Mechanical Anime Reviews) — It was rough to see the SAC_2045 series on Netflix. I really like the character designer (I’ve even written about one of his artbooks here, really a great artist) and the original Stand Alone Complex was excellent. But read Scott’s review to find out where and how this new series went.

That’s it for June. I have a lot lined up this month, including more of those short “summer cleaning” reviews, an extra-long game review, and another massive commentary/analysis/series of complaints, so I hope you look forward to those. Until then.

Summer cleaning game review special #2: WitchWay

Starting this series off with a negative review doesn’t seem right. So let’s fix that today, because I only have good things to say about today’s subject. WitchWay is another one of the games I found in that massive itch.io bundle I bought last month, and it’s definitely one of the more interesting ones in there. The premise is very simple: you play as a nameless witch girl, or maybe a student at a magic academy (she is wearing a school uniform-looking outfit after all) who falls down an extremely deep well. Somehow she manages not to break her neck or any bones and still has a lot of energy, so your goal is to reach the surface again. That’s all the plot you get, or at least all I’ve discovered so far. Because this isn’t any normal well: it’s full of chambers, doors, platforms covered in spiky plants that will kill you if you touch them, and lasers that will also kill you if you touch them. Just what the hell kind of well is this exactly?

The central map. That’s a damn complicated well

Luckily our protagonist soon finds her wand, and with that she’s able to remotely control movable blocks that she can use to press switches that open doors and remove obstacles in her way. WitchWay is divided into separate chambers containing progressively more difficult puzzles to solve to reach the exit and make it over to the bucket on a line that acts as an elevator to higher levels and eventually to the surface again. Some of these puzzles force you to get creative in your control of these blocks — after the first few chambers, simply moving them around won’t cut it. The game gives you all the tools you need, however, and it relies on you to use those to find your way out.

All this spiky shit will kill you, but you can ride certain blocks around to avoid traps and carry you to higher platforms

It’s not too difficult to get out of the well — you can even skip a lot of chambers and breeze your way out of there. You can also go the completionist route and find every secret the well has to offer. There are a few artifacts to collect as well as eight rabbits also trapped in the well that you can rescue by collecting them in your hat. All of these are naturally trapped behind walls of spiky plants and lasers that need to be blocked, avoided, or redirected, so a 100% run of this game will naturally take quite a bit longer than a straight play through, probably a few hours in total.

You probably won’t be able to bear leaving these poor rabbits trapped in this well anyway

I enjoyed my time with WitchWay. The puzzles were pretty rewarding to figure out, and there’s a lot of polish on the game — a good-looking pixel graphic style that reminds me of early 90s 16-bit platformers and nice background music. It only sells for a few dollars on itch.io as well, which I think is a good value for what you get here. If you need a plot in every game you play, you might be disappointed, but I don’t think this sort of game really needs one. Though the developers probably could have easily added one. But if you really want one, you can make it up yourself. Maybe you’re a Harry Potter fan and this is a background character from the series having her own adventure. Or maybe you’re a Touhou fan and any blonde witch girl character makes you think of Marisa Kirisame, and she’s been dropped into this well by a bored Yukari and needs to find her way back to Gensokyo. It would certainly explain how she can fall hundreds of feet onto a stone floor and not be hurt at all.

Enough of my nonsense. I’ll be following the creators, the four listed here — I look forward to seeing what they might come up with next.

Summer cleaning game review special #1: Qora

The worst season of the year is finally here, which is nice, because it means we can now look forward to fall in a few months. To commemorate this summer, I’ve decided to start a special series of posts. I have a few short games that have been in my Steam backlog for years now, and a few others that I very recently bought for barely anything in a huge bundle on itch.io, and a couple of others still on a hard drive that I don’t know the source of.

I wanted to get through these while I had the time (i.e. while most of my country continues taking work-from-home quarantine measures) but I also thought I’d rope these reviews off into a special series to excuse how short some of them will be. If I end up having enough to say about one of these games that it will take more than a few minutes to read, I’ll set it aside for the full review treatment. And if you like my usual long-winded style, don’t worry, because I’ll be posting the usual overlong pieces this summer as well. Those full reviews and deep reads are still on their way.

On to the first game down: Qora.

This was released way back in 2014, and I’m positive that it was one of those games I bought during a big Steam sale. I know I’m not the only one who buys games just because they’re cut in price 80 or 90% and then forgets about them in his Steam library for years on end, and that was the fate of the copy of Qora I bought. Despite how it looks, this isn’t some kind of platformer or minimalistic RPG. It’s instead an extremely linear exploration game without much of any gameplay. In other words a walking simulator, only in 2D instead of the 3D environments such games are usually set in (see Gone Home, Dear Esther.)

So it’s maybe not a big surprise that I didn’t like Qora. The whole experience lasts maybe an hour or two and consists of the protagonist, a nameless, featureless, characterless figure made of several pixels, going on a mystic walking quest to discover the ancient secrets of the land he or she just moved into after receiving a message from one of the local gods along with the ability to see the dead souls of the former inhabitants of the land.

That might make the game sound interesting to you, but the concept doesn’t translate into much of anything in practice. Qora has some nice backgrounds and settings that feel atmospheric and probably would have gone very well with a game featuring an interesting main character doing something that they had an actual motivation to do, but that isn’t the case here. Your only job is to get your pixel figure all the way to the right across dozens of screens by using the tools you get from talking to all your new neighbors in town. Including a set of incense sticks to burn at each shrine you come across, otherwise you’ll probably get a bad ending because you pissed off the gods, but I can’t be bothered to find out.

There are a few amusing parts, like the ancient monstrosities you run into during your journey that are totally harmless and even friendly and gladly get out of your way so you can continue. But by the end of the game, when the big secret was revealed, I was just tired of it and didn’t give a shit. There’s also a lot of that sort of wacky humor at the very end that I don’t care for. Call me a hypocrite if you want — I like Wes Anderson movies, but that kind of “quirky” stuff has to be done just right, and this didn’t work at all for me. Also, after an hour plus of moving along at a slow walk to reveal a secret I didn’t care about and had no investment in, my patience was already worn pretty thin.

So I don’t recommend Qora, and certainly not at its sticker price of ten dollars. It reminded me a lot of a game I played years ago also featuring some interesting backgrounds and atmosphere and not much else called Mandagon. I had much nicer things to say about that game, but it was also free and only took half an hour to get through, so even if it was nothing much, that wasn’t such a big deal (and it also had some sort of Buddhist theme, so if you’re a Buddhist maybe you’ll get a lot more out of it than I did?) I recommend you play Mandagon instead of Qora if you’re looking for this kind of experience, because then you won’t have to complain too much if you thought it was boring.

Other Megami Tensei games I’d like to see released for PC

This is a first: the second post in a row I’m making in response to a current event in the world of gaming. I promise this isn’t turning into a news site. However, the sudden release of Persona 4 Golden on Steam was a shock to almost everyone who cared about it, including me. I don’t have much to say about it, though, except it’s an excellent game that you should buy if you haven’t played it yet, but also that it comes with Denuvo built in which is a real pain in the ass not to mention a show of poor faith. I won’t be buying it yet, but that’s because I have a Vita in good working condition and several savefiles on my P4G card that I can go back to at any time and I absolutely need to finish Persona 5 Royal first. It makes sense that P4G is the first Megaten game to get a non-Japanese PC release, since just about nobody over here bought a Vita aside from me and maybe a dozen other people. And hell, the game is good enough that the Denuvo thing probably won’t matter to you.

No, that’s not what I’m talking about today. Since the door to Megaten PC ports is cracked now, let’s push it wide open. There are several other of these games I would love to see released on PC, so if anyone from Atlus is reading this, here’s my wishlist in order of what I want to see. Please note these aren’t based on what I think Atlus would be most likely to release but only on my preferences, so as usual I’m indulging in wishful thinking. On to the list:

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne

No surprise here, right? Nocturne is my favorite Megaten game and near the top of my favorite games list, whatever that would be. Yet it’s only ever been released for the PS2. It doesn’t seem like a PC port of Nocturne would be hard at all to make considering it’s now 17 years old. It would also make for a fine introduction to the mainline SMT series for new fans who have only played Persona 5 Royal and Persona 4 Golden so far.

Look, it even has dating, just like Persona. Well, sort of.

If I’m being greedy, I’d ask for the JP-only Chronicle Edition that replaces Dante with Raidou Kuzunoha, but people love their Dante from the Devil May Cry series so I know that won’t happen. Leave it to the modders to insert him later.

Persona 3 FES

This one is a lot more realistic than getting either Nocturne on PC or the complete Persona 5-style Persona 3 overhaul people keep clamoring for. A P3 port is the logical next step for Atlus to take after P4G: it’s a game that a lot of new fans haven’t experienced yet, but it’s still close enough to the newer Persona games in style that those fans won’t be put off.

I do think it’s more likely that we’d get the PSP-only Persona 3 Portable instead if only because of how popular its unique female protagonist option is. I’d still prefer FESPortable is sort of a “demake” anyway and lacks some of the features of FES, and most PCs would be able to handle FES in any case. However, the Answer section of FES is a character-destroying pile of shit, so maybe Portable would be better. But then again, you don’t really have to play the Answer if you get FES anyway, so maybe that doesn’t matter. I guess I’m torn over this one.

Persona 2

Both parts. Persona 2 has had a very weird history of western releases — we first only got Eternal Punishment, the second part of the two-part series, for PSX, then we got a port of the first part, Innocent Sin, on PSP but not Eternal Punishment on that system. It would be great to have a package including both games on PC, because the stories are supposed to be excellent in contrast with some quite honestly shitty gameplay and fusion mechanics. Maybe I’d actually get back to playing Innocent Sin again and suffering through that for the sake of the story. Once I beat Royal I’ll have 12 years to wait until Persona 6 comes out anyway.

Seriously though why would you give us each half of the duology on a different system and the second one years before the first, what the hell? I think they’re sadists.

Shin Megami Tensei I and II

I believe these are far less likely to be ported than Nocturne even, and for pretty obvious reasons: they’re a lot older and don’t contain any quality of life features, and II has never even received an official localization. And the localization of I was only for iOS for some fucking reason. But I’d still like to see these translated and ported, preferably in their slightly newer and more updated PSX remake forms. More complete overhauls would also be appreciated, but we’re already so deep in the unlikely zone at this point that I know that’s way too much to hope for. I’d rather hear news about Shin Megami Tensei V than about remakes of and II anyway.

***

There are plenty of other games that would be great to see released as ports on Steam like Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2, the PS2 Devil Summoner games, and SMT if…. However, the games I think we’re by far most likely to see are one of the two later versions of Persona 3 and any of the Persona spinoffs games they can cram onto Steam like the 3/4/5 dancing games and the Arena fighting games. Persona is the cash cow, after all. Or maybe we’ll really luck out and only get ports of obscure games that even most “serious” Megami Tensei fans don’t care about like Demikids and Last Bible. Only time will tell, but I’ll remain hopeful that we get something more on PC at least, because there are quite a few games in the series only playable on old consoles now that could use new life.

Enough of my complaints. Next time it will be back to business as usual. I already have some reviews and commentaries planned for the next few months — planning ahead, something I almost never do here. All this extra time staying at home has really paid off. But if Atlus surprises us with a Steam port of Nocturne, I’ll probably also be running an extremely detailed, tedious beat-by-beat playthrough of that game here. So maybe you should hope that doesn’t happen.

Does fun belong in “serious” video games?

I don’t know if I’ve seen an upcoming release as controversial as The Last of Us Part II in a while. It’s received almost entirely excellent reviews from the professional game press, who are declaring it a triumph of storytelling and a deep, affecting experience. Meanwhile, consumer opinion seems to be split — people are somehow already bitterly arguing about the game’s quality even though the damn thing isn’t out for another week. Granted, we have the first game to compare it to, but it still seems hasty to call the sequel a piece of shit on that basis, or even to call it a masterpiece based merely on the word of a bunch of professional reviewers.

I won’t be playing TLOU2. Not because I hate Naughty Dog or anything; I don’t care about them one way or the other, and I don’t really have it out for any game developer at all for that matter. Based on what I’ve seen, the game just doesn’t interest me. However, there is a question raised by all the back and forth fighting over TLOU2 that I do find interesting, and one that I was already thinking about before this controversy blew up — should a good game be fun to play? The reviews of this game I’ve read pretty consistently describe a miserable experience fighting through and hiding from both undead and living human threats and requiring the player to make potentially morally uncomfortable decisions. Yet those reviews also declare TLOU2 a triumph, with one guy comparing it to Schindler’s List and causing yet another uproar for it.

It goes on in this fashion

Setting aside Mr. Cannata’s weirdly narrow definition of “everything” being John Wick when it comes to games (I’m currently playing a game about a princess who makes items with alchemy, beats up dragons, and eats pie with her friends and it’s not much like John Wick1) I find his view interesting. The game wasn’t “fun” at all, but it was still an amazing experience. This isn’t a new take on video games, either. See this 2015 piece from Vice titled “The Value of Video Games That Aren’t ‘Fun'” that expresses a very similar view. The idea seems to be that a work of art that puts the player through hell as Cannata writes of TLOU2 can be inspiring and profound, and that such a game’s lack of fun elements can even work in its favor in that sense.

I don’t want to completely dismiss this idea. If video games are an artistic medium, and I think they are, then they can certainly affect the player emotionally and challenge their views of the world just as some of the great novels, plays, films, and music out there have done. To pull an example straight out of that Vice article, 1984 was a very depressing novel to read, but I thought it also totally achieved its goals in getting the reader to really care about a few people living in this unbelievably oppressive society. If a novel like that weren’t kind of hard to read, it would defeat the purpose. The same goes for Schindler’s List for that matter — a film about trying to save people during the Holocaust can’t really be called “fun” either, but it is profound, emotionally affecting, and very worth watching. So then why can’t a game also be depressing and hard to play, therefore making it way more profound and effective in challenging the player’s views of the world?

I see a few problems with the views expressed by these critics and writers. One is that they seem to be ignoring interactivity, an element of video games that isn’t shared by older media. When you sit down to watch a movie or read a book, you don’t expect to take an active part in it; you’re just taking in a story. With a game, however, unless it’s a visual novel or something similar [edit: and one without much player input either, like a kinetic novel] there’s an expectation that you’re going to get to interact and have some gameplay elements. So if you’re making a game an absolute misery to get through, you’re not just asking for the audience to passively sit and watch or read — you’re asking them to take an active part in struggling through a difficult mess for the payoff. That’s quite a bit more to ask.

A game can’t put a player in a rough situation and also be fun, it’s never been done before

Even that can make for a good game when done right, however. The Silent Hill games gave you pretty much normal-strength humans to control while fighting through and often hiding from vicious monsters. Plowing through enemies would be a lot easier and maybe more fun in some sense, but that’s not the sort of experience those games were meant to deliver. And despite all that, the Silent Hill series is widely beloved (up through Silent Hill 3 at least.) Even though they didn’t quite empower their player characters, putting them in extremely dangerous situations with scant protection and pretty average fighting ability, they also let you work out alternative ways to get through those situations when brute force was not going to work so well. A challenge like that can be fun in itself, and I’d argue the good Silent Hill games achieved that balance.

However, there’s another problem stacked on top of the first. If a game is going to put the player through any kind of hell at all, it has to deliver a payoff at the end that’s worth the effort spent to get there. Otherwise, it’s probably going to leave a rightly frustrated and annoyed player. If a game has something truly profound to say about humanity or life that’s worth the effort it takes to make it through its challenges, then it certainly could be worth playing, just as I think a book like 1984 is worth reading or a film like Schindler’s List is worth watching. If the payoff ends up being some trite message that most every person on Earth over the age of five already knows, however, then by contrast it won’t be worth playing unless the gameplay’s fun on some level. At that point, I’m far better off instead playing a game that’s fun and has no message at all.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t responsible for whatever this is.

Finally, there’s the problem of player agency. If a game’s going to take me to task for making the player character do something it perceives as wrong, it had damn well better give me options. Even though it doesn’t tie into its plot, I remember the old Thief games doing a good job of this: on higher difficulties the games usually forbade you from killing enemies in favor of knocking them out with your blackjack or with sleeping gas devices, the idea being that the protagonist Garrett is a professional thief, not a murderer. This was more difficult but always possible to achieve, and it made a no-kill run of a mission very satisfying to pull off on the harder levels. I think this element of player choice leading to a rewarding feeling was also a big part of why the indie RPG Undertale did so well.

However, a game that essentially forces the player to do something it deems bad only to chew them out for it afterward causes a disconnect between game and player. A game can’t simply make the protagonist do whatever it wants in the same way and with the same consequences as a novel, film, or other non-interactive work can. If I’m being put on rails and shoved down a track, you can’t make me feel bad for whatever happens as a result.2

Again, I don’t have any particular feelings about The Last of Us or Naughty Dog; I can’t and don’t plan on making any judgment of the game, and it’s no skin off my back if it ends up doing well or poorly. And after all, the market has room for all kinds of games. Some of those kinds I don’t especially care for, but why should that bother me? The same is true of every artistic medium on Earth. I just find some of the views expressed by professional reviewers who are praising it to be not very well-considered. By suggesting that this game is both profound and emotionally affecting and “not fun” and really emphasizing that “not fun” aspect, there seems to be an implication that a fun game can’t also be profound and emotionally affecting in the same way, and that doesn’t make a god damn bit of sense to me. 𒀭

1 It’s Atelier Meruru DX for the PS4, and now I’ve totally ruined the surprise when I post my review of it soon.

2 I recently bought a massive bundle of over a thousand games on itch.io. The deal is still on for a couple of days so check it out; the $5 minimum goes to the NAACP and a bunch of bail funds, which I think are pretty damn good causes. Anyway, one of the games included is 2064: Read Only Memories, a game that’s been sharply criticized for doing just this sort of obnoxious “railroad the player and then try to make them feel bad” thing. I might just have to see that for myself since I own it now. I did find the demo pretty irritating, but I shouldn’t judge it based on that alone.

However, the bundle also contains Dreaming Sarah and OneShot last I checked, and I know for a fact that those are both well worth playing.

A review of Ame no Marginal (PC)

It’s another visual novel review, this time of Ame no Marginal (also titled Rain Marginalame means “rain” anyway, so it’s basically the same title, but since it officially goes by its halfway-translated version I’ll keep using that one even if it’s awkward.) This work came out in 2015 and was developed by Stage-nana, the same people responsible for the famously melancholic VN Narcissu. Like Narcissu, Ame no Marginal seems to be pretty well regarded, but my feelings about it are complicated.

First, I may as well get this part out of the way: this review is going to spoil the whole plot along with the ending. Ame no Marginal is another kinetic novel like Planetarian, so aside from the art and music, there’s nothing to talk about other than the story. But unlike with Planetarian, I can’t give it an unqualified recommendation. Then again, I also can’t not recommend Ame no Marginal, because there are things I liked about it, and it’s entirely possible that the aspects of it that bothered me won’t bother you. It’s also possible that I missed some important plot points somehow that would have cleared up the issues I had with the work if only I’d seen them.

But I doubt that too. I wish I could find a way to express those doubts without giving away too much, but all I can say without doing so is that although the game’s premise and characters were interesting, its ending was abrupt and unsatisfying and didn’t make a lot of sense. To explain why I feel that way, I naturally have to get into the story, so let’s do that now.

Ame no Marginal begins in a rainy world consisting only of a flat landscape of paved ground and a large body of water nearby. It also has exactly one resident: a young girl, who we see peering through a magical portal watching a man in the game’s initial scene. This world seems to be separated from ours, and it also seems that the girl looking through the portal can’t reach our world, as she wonders out loud about whether the man remembers her at all.

The story then switches perspective back to our world, to the nameless male protagonist and other main character of the game. We can guess that this is likely the guy the girl was watching in the opening scene. It’s Monday and he’s on his way to a job he hates, living a life he finds pointless. This is confirmed when instead of going directly to his office, he takes the elevator in his building to the seventh floor, the top one, walks out to the roof, climbs over the fence around it and hangs over the edge.

Our protagonist isn’t intent on suicide: he doesn’t jump from the roof, but climbs back over the fence and returns inside. As he puts it, while he doesn’t want to die, he also doesn’t want to continue living. This climbing over the fence is merely a reminder that he can end it at any time, which he claims brings him some comfort and lets him make it through the rest of the week.

The next day, the protagonist returns to work and gets on the elevator again. This time, however, he notices a button for the eighth floor that wasn’t there before. But didn’t this building only have seven floors yesterday? Protag can’t resist pressing that 8 to see what’s going on. When the elevator doors open, he steps out into the rainy world we saw in the game’s first scene.

Protag is naturally shocked to see this seemingly endless landscape of paved floor below and a gray, rainy sky above, all on top of the building he works in. But as he’s exploring, he runs into a young girl, who welcomes him to her world.

This seems to be the same girl we saw in that first scene, but something’s off. Her personality is a bit immature as you’d expect from a kid her age; even though she’s all on her own in this world, we learn she’s only ten. In the intro, though, the same girl seemed to be quite serious, and even her voice was more mature-sounding. In any case, protag hasn’t seen what we have, and while he’s surprised to see another person and even more surprised to see a mere kid living here alone, he accepts it and starts asking her about this mysterious world.

The girl, who calls herself Rin (another female VN main character named Rin; there are really a lot of them) claims that this is a world where time stands still. The rain never stops, so she takes shelter under a pavilion that seems to be the only structure in this place. There’s also a body of water nearby, a sort of river that flows up and downstream, but the river also apparently has no opposite bank, or at least not one that Rin could find. Rin explains that she sometimes find items from the “real world” floating downstream, so she does her best to salvage useful things, even clothes to wear. No worries about running out of food, though — because time stands still for her, she says she’s never suffered hunger or even thirst in this place.

Protag is naturally very confused by what the hell he’s walked into. One thought comes naturally to him: he’s died without realizing it and this is the afterlife. Rin doesn’t think that’s the case, however. She even tells him that two people normally can’t exist in this world and that he’ll be “sent back” after three days, something that’s happened to visitors other than him — even if he were to refuse to leave, it would happen automatically. She also tells him he can leave by entering the elevator again, but she seems happy when he says he’ll stay for a while, presumably excited to have company after being alone in this world for so long.

After this initial meeting, Rin and protag to go sleep under the pavilion and the scene ends, sending the player back to the scene selection screen where a new entry titled “Rin” has been unlocked. This one takes us far back into the past, seemingly into Rin’s past in the real world, where she and her older sister were Shinto priestesses in a secluded shrine in the mountains. The sisters have no other family and were adopted by this shrine to carry a burden — to shoulder a “debt” to the gods as they put it. The older sister is forced to live an austere life, eating only once a day, bathing in cold water every morning, and following a vow of silence, one so strict that her younger sister has never heard her voice.

Rin is naturally upset by watching her sister endure this lifestyle, even though she willingly carries it out in order to perform what she sees as her duties to the shrine and its gods. When her sister’s health starts to decline as a result, Rin becomes angry with the shrine and even with its gods. And she falls into despair when the head priest of the shrine tells her that her sister will soon die and that she’ll have to carry the same burden of constant silence and self-deprivation afterwards, one that must last without stopping for 333 years, three months, and three days, always with a substitute available to take over when the priestess carrying the burden dies.

Her older sister’s life ends not from illness, but rather from a more violent kind of sacrifice. The head priest says that they can’t risk her breaking her vow of silence while she slowly dies, so he and his guards kill her while her younger sister’s mouth is gagged to ensure the proper transfer of the burden. It’s here we learn that the older sister’s name is Rin — the younger one who we meet in the rainy world is never properly named, but has adopted her sister’s name perhaps to carry on her memory.

This new Rin decides that she now doesn’t believe in these supposed gods who let her sister die without helping her. Even so, Rin also resolves to live her sister’s old life and continue paying the debt if only to not let her sacrifice go to waste. However, one night a guard rushes into her room and tells her to flee because the shrine is being attacked and all its priests and staff slaughtered by armed men. Rin runs away into the mountains, still maintaining her silence despite the fact that the shrine is being destroyed along with the head priest she hated. A mere girl like her doesn’t last very long in the cold mountains, and after going without food for three days, she lies down and decides it would be better to die, not wanting to risk a return into town or to what might have been left of the shrine.

After this backstory section ends, we’re thrown back to the scene selection screen, where two new scenes have been unlocked. The middle part of Ame no Marginal proceeds down two story paths, each part of which has to be completed before continuing to read so that the player alternates between them. One path returns the perspective to our modern-day protagonist as he tries to figure out exactly where he is and why both he and Rin are there. When night falls in this world, a completely different side of Rin, or perhaps a different entity altogether, appears. In contrast with her childish daytime self, this Rin seems distant, bitter, and a lot more mature than you’d expect from her apparent age. Despite her cold attitude towards the protag in these nighttime sections, she does answer his questions about the rainy world more clearly than she does during the day, though there still seems to be a lot she doesn’t understand about it.

Also in contrast to her daytime self, this Rin demands that the protag hurry back to the elevator and leave. He refuses to do so, at least for now, reasoning that he’ll be automatically sent back in three days anyway. And in any case, he decides that he might prefer the boredom of the rainy world to his own life in the real one, even if he can’t stay for good. This version of Rin keeps trying to convince him to leave when they talk again the next time, but she also seems to accept that he’s not going to leave of his own free will that easily.

The other story track follows the same girl after what she first supposes is her death in the mountains. As the reader might have guessed, instead of dying, she wakes up in the rainy world and meets its sole inhabitant: a woman who simply calls herself “Lady.” Lady welcomes this girl into her world and gives her essentially the same tutorial that our modern-day protagonist got from Rin: this world only allows for one resident and will kick visitors out after three days. However, Lady is quite mysterious. Despite claiming she doesn’t know why this world exists or who created it, she has the ability to control the flow of water around her.

The girl, who I’ll just keep calling Rin, is amazed by all of this, but there’s a more pressing matter: upon entering this world, she broke her vow of silence by yelling curses at the gods for what they did to her sister. She relates her whole story to Lady, who seems sympathetic but tells her it’s still probably for the best if she leaves this world through a hole in the ground that acted as her portal in. Rin, like nameless protag, is hesitant to go back right away and reasons she’ll be sent back automatically in three days, and she’ll almost certainly die when she gets back in any case. By the end of her stay, however, Lady admits that she’s lied: the one who’s sent back after three days is the one who’s been here longest, and Lady also admits that she’s used force in the past to remove previous visitors so she could remain in solitude for her own reasons.

Lady is seemingly done with her stay, though, because on the appointed third day, she takes Rin to the hole in the ground only to jump in herself, but not before telling Rin that she can still complete the 333-year vow of silence burden in this world if she feels like it, and that it probably will be meaningful somehow. After this talk and a promise that she’ll return one day, Lady drops through the hole and leaves Rin alone in the rainy world.

We then follow Rin as she searches for and finds both exit and entrance portals to the real world in the endless river near the pavilion, and as she discovers to her despair that she can’t use them to leave. By this point, Rin has lived in this world without any visitors or company for several hundred years. Along the way, she’s also managed to complete that 333-year vow of silence, but seemingly without any result. Rin reasons that because she still resents the gods for what they’ve done to her sister, they will continue to keep her in solitude. As a bit of a bonus, Rin does end up developing the same water manipulation powers as Lady, but there’s not much point to having them if there’s nothing to actually do with them, so they don’t bring Rin any happiness.

The two stories now rejoin, with nighttime version Rin finally telling protagonist that he needs to get the hell back to the elevator on the third night or else he’ll be trapped in this world. He reluctantly gets on and returns to his old life, seemingly forgetting about the rainy world and Rin and looping us back into the prologue. However, who happens to show up at this point but Lady! She tells Rin that she’s the one who purposely selected and sent protagonist to the rainy world for Rin to meet, and also that she should jump into the elevator and chase after him for some reason. Turns out the real world is a bit boring to Lady, who wants several hundred more years of solitude to practice her water magic skills. So Rin finally leaves, and we get to the game’s epilogue.

Wait, what?

And somehow, Rin’s now a student riding the same train as protagonist. They end up accidentally running into each other and meeting again, with a strong hint that Rin remembers who protag is and even that protag has some memory of Rin. Then they walk off on the same street to school and work together and the game ends.

So I just recounted the entire plot of this VN, something I didn’t intend on doing when I set out to write this post. However, it’s hard to talk about Ame no Marginal otherwise because the whole thing’s so weird, and not entirely in a good way.

But let’s start with the good stuff. I liked the premise of an isolated place like the rainy world that may or may not be meant as a sort of divinely mandated time-out. This worked as a hook to get me interested in the game. The story of Rin and her sister is also very tragic, but not so tragic that it’s unbelievable: some people have greatly suffered in the name of maintaining tradition in the real world, and the priests of the temple are depicted as committing these cruelties because they genuinely believe they must, not simply because they’re evil (though you could certainly argue that pushing this debt owed to the gods onto young orphaned girls who have no choice in the matter is a real asshole thing to do.)

The head priest acts like enough of a shithead in this scene alone that I don’t feel bad for him getting killed later on.

I also felt a strong connection with the male lead at the very beginning of the game, even if he’s one of those typically faceless VN protagonists. His section of the prologue, especially when he says to himself that he doesn’t want to die, but also doesn’t want to live — this is an expression of depression that made a lot of sense to me. Even if those two feelings sound contradictory, they really aren’t. And the game does try to tie the protagonist’s disappointment with his life into the plot when he talks to nighttime Rin about the possibility of staying in the rainy world and leaving the real one behind for good. No amount of insisting “but life is a gift” or “you have so much to live for, you should treasure every moment” helps in a state like that, and that’s something Ame no Marginal seems to get.

Even when the protagonist comes to believe that the real world is worth living in because it’s dynamic, unlike the static life of the rainy world, that’s not necessarily a resolution of the feelings expressed at the beginning of the VN. I see it as more of a coping mechanism for getting through life, and that’s a lot more realistic than having the story simply resolve his depressive feelings if that’s what they’re meant to be. So while Ame no Marginal doesn’t fully address the protag’s situation, I feel it does at least acknowledge it.

Going to work with a sense of dread and bitterness, that’s something I can relate to. Not anymore thankfully but good God is it miserable.

This makes it all the more disappointing that so many questions are left hanging. One of the more obvious ones is the nature of the rainy world itself. Neither the protagonist nor Rin learn why it exists, whether it was created by some gods to punish human souls or it simply exists for no reason at all. Even Lady, the self-professed queen of the rainy world, seems to have no idea about its origins. This is one question that I don’t think the story needed to answer, and I even prefer this ambiguity.

However, there are other mysteries that should have been better addressed, like the nature of the difference between the cheerful, childlike daytime Rin and the mature, serious nighttime Rin. She’s clearly putting on some kind of act for the protagonist during the day, but to what end? Maybe it’s to disarm him and make him feel comfortable, but then why bring out “nighttime Rin” at all? This double personality issue is never explained in the VN, and it’s one that really should have been because it has a direct bearing on the characters and plot. It’s also quite hard to believe that several hundred years of isolation didn’t drive Rin completely insane. She’s clearly angry, bored, and distressed for a long time even before protag arrives, but she’s still somehow in full control of her mind even after centuries of walking through a seemingly endless body of water. Sure, she doesn’t have to eat or drink and never ages, but the mental and emotional toll of such a life would have to be extreme.

Maybe all the isolation is supposed to be where Rin’s dual personality comes from? But it still doesn’t really explain that.

There’s also the matter of the ending. It’s as if writer Tomo Kataoka couldn’t think of a good way to get these characters out of the jam they were stuck in, Rin still in the rainy world and protagonist sent back to the life he hates living, so a happy ending is pulled out of nowhere. Lady somehow finds a way back into the rainy world, presumably by taking the same elevator protagonist did (in fact, she shows up very briefly in the elevator near the start of the story, leaving it when protag is getting on, so at least that much is set up.) It’s very convenient that she doesn’t mind going back into isolation for a while, and it’s even more convenient that Rin was somehow able to get set up as a student when protagonist meets her at the end, presumably with a family and friends and everything. How the hell is that supposed to work? Or maybe she’s living under a bridge and pretending to go to school.

There’s a sort of answer to this in the developer notes: Kataoka says that Ame no Marginal is actually a prequel to the light novel series Mizu no Marginal (or Water Marginal, which sounds a lot like Water Margin but probably has nothing to do with it.) Since the VN is a prequel, presumably Rin and maybe the protagonist are characters in it, so there had to be an ending that connected the two. So maybe this bizarre ending is explained in Mizu no Marginal, but I don’t care. I shouldn’t be required to read a sequel to understand what happened at the end of the preceding work: the work should stand on its own in that sense. Kataoka’s notes imply that the ending was thrown together out of necessity, so maybe there’s no other explanation to be had anyway.

And what are Rin and protagonist even going to do now, hang out? She’s a water-bending former Shinto priestess who’s either ten or several hundred years old depending on whether you count her time in the rainy world, and he’s an office worker in his 20s or something. What the hell are they going to talk about? It’s all a bit weird. Maybe the light novels answer this question?

I still wonder exactly what idea Ame no Marginal was trying to express. It seems like it was trying to express something, but the message is obscure if it’s there. Is it a message not to give up on life if you’re in despair? That’s nice and positive, but I don’t think the story bears it out that well, not if the solution it proposes is being transported to an otherworldly plane of isolated existence and meeting a new friend who teaches you the value of life in the real world. And especially not when it pulls a happy ending out of its ass. It’s certainly not an issue with the novel’s length, either: when I compare it to the other short VNs I’ve read like Planetarian and Saya no Uta that have coherent, satisfying endings, the lack of such an ending in Ame no Marginal feels all the weirder.

Even so, like I said before, I can’t quite not recommend Ame no Marginal. The art is nice, and the soundtrack suits the atmosphere of the game very well. There’s a lot to like in the premise. The story is even pretty emotionally affecting in a few places. While its nonsense ending is definitely a problem, there is a lot of craft in this VN, and it seems like it was created simply to tell a story that the writer wanted to tell rather than one calculated to sell as many units as possible.

A gray, depressing game about characters who are giving up on life doesn’t sound calculated to be a big seller to me, at least.

In any case, I think whether you’d find the game worth your time probably has to do with how much or little this kind of ending affects your experience — if you’re the type who enjoys the journey more than the destination, maybe — and with how well you connect with these characters. I don’t regret playing Ame no Marginal despite my issues with it, but your time with it may be very different if you choose to play it.

Then again, I just spoiled the entire plot for you if you haven’t played it yet. So who did I write this review for? I have no idea. Maybe I wrote it for myself. Maybe I need a few hundred years in the rainy world to sort myself out. 𒀭

Listening/reading log #8 (May 2020)

I don’t have anything funny to open with this time (assuming I ever did anyway.) You don’t need me to tell you; if you live in the US just open a window and you’ll hear it. Between the righteous fury of the people, the imminent threat of military forces occupying the streets, and the coronavirus that hasn’t gone away, we’re living a fucking apocalypse over here.

All the more reason for you to put on relaxing music to get away from a while, even if only for an hour. So let’s do that: in contrast to the instability, lack of leadership from the top, and total political incompetence going on right now in my country, I’m focusing this month on music to wind down to.

Getz/Gilberto (Stan Getz & João Gilberto, 1964)

Highlights: The Girl from Ipanema, Doralice, O Grande Amor

In my very first listening/reading log post back in October, the first album I highlighted was Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Wave. If you liked that, you’ll probably like Getz/Gilberto as well, because it’s a similar style of nice relaxing bossa nova and it also features Jobim as you can read on the cover. The main players here are naturally the guys the album’s named after, however: American saxophonist Stan Getz and Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto. These guys were already both quite famous when this album came out, and for good reason, because they’re good at what they do.

“The Girl from Ipanema” is one of those songs you’ve definitely heard even if you don’t recognize the name — it’s been covered probably hundreds of times by now. It also features Gilberto’s wife Astrud on vocals, alternating his own lines in Portuguese with hers in English. There are plenty of nice lesser-known tracks on Getz/Gilberto as well, especially the short, catchy “Doralice” and somber-sounding “O Grande Amor”. This is the kind of music that sets a certain mood, and it’s very good at doing that. As with Wave, put it on when you get a drink and sit out in the warm summer night (well, maybe not right at the moment depending on your location, but you know what I mean.)

Dummy (Portishead, 1994)

Highlights: Sour Times, It Could Be Sweet

I don’t know about listing Dummy as being in the “relaxing” category. It’s very chilled out but also very downbeat — like Getz/Gilberto it does well at setting a tone, but this time the tone is depression. Singer Beth Gibbons sounds like she’s really emotionally beaten down in some of these songs with her subdued tone — I don’t know if she actually was, but it sounds real enough if it’s an act.

But Portishead is the kind of music that I sometimes put on to relax, which may say more about me than about the music. Really, this is music to listen to after you have a bad break-up and you’re sitting in an old-fashioned cafe at 1 in the morning drinking coffee and wondering why the hell you stuck with it for so long, what were you thinking all that time letting her just do that to you.

Sorry, this got a little personal. Maybe I just found this album at a weird time in my life and now I associate it with that. Anyway, forget about my personal issues and look up Dummy, it’s good.

Neon Impasse (City Girl, 2018)

Highlights: Ji-eun’s Sunset, Neon Impasse

If you liked that lo-fi hip hop girl YouTube channel I linked a few weeks ago, you should also check out City Girl. All her (his? their? I guess I can’t just assume from the name but whatever) albums seem to be listed on YouTube as well. I’ve recently been listening to some of it while working, and it puts me in a very nice place while I’m digging through stacks of horribly tedious documents. It’s chilled out electronic with jazz and that lo-fi stuff mixed in. A couple of tracks don’t quite do it for me, but I think the above-linked ones give a good impression of how most of the album sounds.

And now, featured posts made by my fellow writers. Ten of them, which is a lot, but chances are you have the time to read all of them now:

Blogging in Quarantine Times — Irina addresses the ways in which the global quarantine has been affecting her experience writing online. I can relate to a lot of what she brings up in this post, and I’m sure many other blog writers and hobbyists like us can as well.

On Making “Good” Content — Why do we write blogs about the media we like? Lethargic Ramblings gives his own opinion on the value of simply writing what you feel like without worrying about whether it seems any good to other people. I firmly believe that if you write about your own interests with feeling, it will naturally attract at least a few readers who pick up on your passion, and I think Leth’s post illustrates that view very well.

Miru Tights: A Down-to-Earth Ecchi Devoid of Discomfort — I really appreciate people who take on the more erotic and/or pornographic sorts of works without any reservations, and so I liked Inskime’s review of Miru Tights, an ecchi anime with a focus on girls’ tights, socks, and legs in general. Inskime gives some excellent insight on why this is a series worth watching even for those who don’t share its very specific interest in girls’ legs and legwear. Not something I would have ever imagined, but Inskime is quite persuasive, so give it a read if you’re interested.

Evercade: The Case for Curated Retro Gaming — As the title suggests, Pete Davison in this post makes a case in favor of curated retro gaming by looking at the Evercade, a new cartridge-based handheld designed to run collections of old Atari games [edit: and NES, SNES, and Genesis/Megadrive games as of this writing — thanks to Pete for the correction.] It’s quite a convincing case as well, considering the questionable legality of ROMs and emulators and the sheer abundance of garbage games that clog up those massive catalogues, drowning out some of the real gems that may have been forgotten if they weren’t given new life by being put into these kinds of compilations.

『GRATEFUL IN ALL THINGS』art gallery by Osamu Sato & Deconstructing LSD — Browsercrasher recounts a visit to an exhibition of art by Osamu Sato, the chief mind behind the weird PS1 classic LSD Dream Simulator. It looks as bizarre and fascinating as you’d expect if you’ve played or seen footage of that game.

Artbook Review – FF DOT: The Pixel Art of Final Fantasy — In this post, Krystallina takes a look at FF DOT, a collection of Final Fantasy sprite art. We need more artbook reviews, so I’m always happy to see new ones. In fact, I have a few new ones I might write about myself now.

Visual Novel Theatre- Analog: A Hate Story — We also need more visual novel reviews. I’ll keep doing my part, but here’s Aether with an insightful review of Christine Love’s VN Analog: A Hate Story.

Super Mario Bros. (all versions) — Here’s a concept I like: a side-by-side review of three versions of one game, in this case the classic Super Mario Bros. by Neppy. Maybe I’ll do one of these comparing the original Sonic the Hedgehog to its horribly botched port on the GBA. Well, never mind, I just gave away the ending. I’m still pissed off about Sonic Genesis though, even today.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 — Continuing the Mario review theme, be sure to check out Red Metal’s review of New Super Mario Bros. 2 and of many of the other games in the series.

Character Analysis: Misaki Nakahara — And finally, from the Overage Otaku, an in-depth analysis of Misaki Nakahara from the anime version of Welcome to the NHK! Misaki is not what she seems at first, and this post does a fine job at examining what makes her interesting.

That’s all for this month. Let’s hope some good things happen in June, though the odds don’t seem to be great for that. Until next time, my best wishes to all of you, no matter where you are on Earth. Or why stop there, even if you’re in space right now and somehow reading this.

Games for broke people: Helltaker

So I was planning on taking the rest of the month off from the site as I wrote last post. But then the artists I follow on Twitter started filling up my timeline with cute demon girl fanart, and then I couldn’t rest until I found out exactly what that was all about.

And if she’s a cute demon bureaucratic functionary then even better.

That’s how I found Helltaker, a short free puzzle game that tells the story of a guy who wakes up one day and decides he’s going to break into Hell itself to create a harem of demon girls. Forget Dante’s journey through the afterlife: this is the noblest quest someone could possibly have. To do this, our brave protagonist has to solve several block-pushing maze puzzles of increasing difficulty. Each puzzle requires the player to make it to the goal, represented by a demon lady hanging out behind a giant padlock for some reason, within a specified number of steps. Kicking blocks and kicking demon guards to death also count as taking steps, and the addition of spike traps that take extra steps away from you makes things more complicated. Luckily for Helltaker guy, he can regenerate an infinite number of times, so much like Chip from Chip’s Challenge, nothing will stop him from getting the girl(s) no matter how frustrating the maze he’s running might be.

The beginning of level 3. In this case the demon triplets at the top are your goal (mythology fan points if you can guess what they’re a reference to) and the number on the left keeps track of your steps so you know if you’ll hit your limit before reaching them.

Some of these mazes stumped me for a while, particularly numbers 7 and 9 near the end. Fortunately for the impatient, the game lets you skip puzzles if you’re truly stuck, but if you do that you might miss out on finding secrets in certain levels that are required to get the game’s good ending. Anyway, what’s the fun in half-assing a game like this? Every puzzle is solvable, you just have to exercise your brain to discover the solutions.

However, even if you figure out how to reach the goal in time, you’re not done — you still need to convince the demon girl at the end of the puzzle to join your harem and also not to kill you on the spot. Because you’re just a ripped guy in a leisure suit, and while you can kick the regular demon guards in each level to pieces, you’re no match for the girls. If you screw up the negotiation, you’ll get horribly killed and will have to run the maze again.

The right answer is sometimes not the obvious one

There are also a lot of little additions to the game that add some more flavor — as you can see in the game’s main layout, pressing L gets you “life advice.” This gives you a short dialogue with one or more of your newly won over demon wives, who are just as likely to give you tips about how to complete the level you’re on as they are to complain about how long you’re taking or to start arguing with each other. Or to end up getting you killed somehow.

So the main gameplay mechanic of Helltaker is really very simple — it’s a variation on the kind of sliding block puzzle that has existed for over a hundred years. That provides the substance of the game, but there’s a lot of style as well, and that’s what sets Helltaker apart from so much other free and extremely cheap generic-looking stuff. Someone could easily recreate the puzzles that compose each level of Helltaker using white, gray, and black blocks and dots to represent the characters and obstacles, and it would mechanically be the same game. But the distinctive character art and cute dialogues give it that much-needed style. And that’s the reason I discovered it in the first place, after all, so who can say that isn’t important?

Seven great video game tracks (part 4)

Happy Memorial Day to my fellow Americans, and a good Monday to the rest of the world if you can bear it. Not that it feels that different from any other day. I don’t guess there are going to be as many barbecues as there usually are on this holiday. To commemorate it, I’m making a post that has nothing to do with Memorial Day: the fourth part of my favorite game music series, to demonstrate again that game music is not just “real” music but is also varied and diverse in style and all that. Not that I probably have to convince you of that if you’re already reading this. Anyway, on to the good stuff. As always, the order the entries are presented in doesn’t matter.

1) Kohei Tanaka — Old Town (Gravity Rush, 2012)

I’ve already written a bit about Gravity Rush — not so much about the substance of it but rather how I’d still probably want to date Kat if she were real, even at the risk of accidentally being flung into a wall thanks to her out-of-control gravity-shifting powers. So let me address some more substantive, less stupid material: the game’s music. You may not be familiar with the name Kohei Tanaka, but it’s likely you’ve seen or played something he’s written a score for if you’re into anime at all. He also wrote the soundtrack to Gravity Rush. It feels like a movie score, and I mean that in a good way. Almost feels like something out of a Ghibli movie. If you like Joe Hisaishi’s work, you should check this out.

The old European feel of the initially accessible part of town is enhanced by this Manneken Pis reference

I picked “Old Town” because it was the first track in the game that I heard a lot and got a strong impression of; it’s the music that plays in the first section of the city as you’re flinging Kat around in the air getting used to the controls. I’ll always associate it with Kat falling hundreds of yards out of the sky flat onto her face or tumbling into the void around the floating city. No, I’m not very good at this game.

2) Tatsuyuki YoshimatsuIn a Lonely Cave (Hakoniwa Explorer Plus, 2018)

Some of my favorite game tracks are the unexpected ones. Hakoniwa Explorer Plus is a retro-style action RPG that includes a lot of dirty jokes and lewd monster girls and stuff like that. It’s not an adults-only game, but there’s a lot of suggestive stuff in here along with all the hack and slash fighting slimes and bee-girls and lamias and similar beings. Since that really sells itself, the makers didn’t have to include a nice soundtrack, but they did anyway.

“In a Lonely Cave” plays when you enter a cave-themed dungeon area as the title suggests, and it made me want to stand in a corner and listen while enemies quickly beat down my HP. It’s very relaxing, especially the piano/acoustic guitar combo later in the track. Maybe this is too relaxing for a combat theme, actually, but I don’t care; I still like it.

3) The Humble Brothers — Terrain (SimCity 4, 2003)

Although I didn’t play it nearly as much as SimCity 2000, I was still somewhat into the series back in high school and bought SimCity 4 on release, and it was absolutely worth getting. In the spirit of the older SimCity games, it also had a good soundtrack. “Terrain” is an interesting one: it’s one of the tracks that plays during the map creation part of the game, but it sounds more like the backing music to a film scene of people walking through the mountains or jungle or some other wilderness, and not because they want to. Very ominous.

The song does suddenly cheer up halfway through, shifting into a major key. I don’t like that part quite as much, but I guess a SimCity game should provide some optimism to make the player feel like his future city will be a success, so I get that. I’d never heard of the Humble Brothers before writing this post, even though I’ve known this song of theirs for 17 years now, but they did a nice job. Maybe they’re too humble to make their identities known.

4) Jerry Martin — Buying Lumber (The Sims, 2000)

Another Sim game. I’m not the biggest fan of The Sims, and I didn’t touch its sequels aside from a very short time with The Sims 3 on someone else’s computer, but I can’t deny how amazingly popular and successful the series was. To their credit, Maxis poured a lot of work into it before they and EA together ended up crapping absolutely everything up, and said work included getting composer Jerry Martin to write music for the first game. This is a solo piano piece that is way, way more contemplative than you’d expect from the title “Buying Lumber.” This track plays when you’re in build mode while the game is paused, so the title makes sense in that way. Still, the few times I’ve been to Home Depot, I haven’t felt this melancholic while walking through the lumber aisles.

This is a depressing-looking house, but I wouldn’t call it melancholic exactly. This guy just needs to clean it up and buy better furniture.

5) ??? — Data Select (Sonic the Hedgehog 3, 1994)

Okay, enough of the profound contemplative music — next is the jaunty Data Select song from Sonic 3. This track doesn’t seem to have an official title; it’s just the song that plays when you’re on the screen to start a new game or load a saved one. I’m also not sure who exactly wrote it, because Sonic 3 famously had a large team of composers working on the music. These included guitarist Jun Senoue, whose work would be a lot more prominent in later 3D Sonic stuff, and keyboardist/frequent Michael Jackson collaborator Brad Buxer. Buxer’s involvement has led many fans to speculate that Jackson himself worked on some of the Sonic 3 tracks and had his name removed later because he wasn’t satisfied with the sound quality on the Genesis.

Too bad if that’s true, because the quality is pretty damn good. It’s impressive to hear how much these guys do with the limited resources of the 16-bit console. This is one of those tracks that a lot of people don’t hear all the way through — it is a data select screen theme after all; you’re not usually lingering on it too long — but it does go on longer than you’d expect. I like the light atmosphere it creates going into the game. If you like it too, be sure to also check out the Tee Lopes cover of the song. This guy was featured in the last entry in this post series; his fan works were good enough that he got hired by SEGA to write music for Sonic Mania, and that game had a great soundtrack too.

6) Shoji Meguro — The Days When My Mother Was There (and another version) (Persona 5, 2016)

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m playing through Persona 5 Royal. I’m liking it a lot so far. Admittedly I’m not as in love with the new Royal-exclusive music as I’d hoped, but it’s still good. It’s hard for that to compete with the amazing soundtrack that already existed in the base game anyway, with songs like “The Days When My Mother Was There”. A lot of people highlight the dramatic vocal tracks like “Life Will Change” and “Rivers in the Desert” and those are indeed great, but I prefer these more relaxed pieces. “The Days When My Mother Was There” sounds like it should be more melancholic from the title than it actually sounds, but there’s some plot stuff going on that provides context if you’re hearing it while playing the game.

Each of the Palace themes in Persona 5 also has an alternate version, and I like this one almost as much as the main theme. I’m a big fan of the electric piano sound it has — I think that contributes to the 60s/70s fusion/funk/soul/etc. sound Persona 5 has in general.

7) Nobuo Uematsu — One-Winged Angel (Final Fantasy VII Remake, 2020)

So I guess I have to eat my words about how I thought the FF7 remake wouldn’t be that good. At least I should prepare to do so, because I’ve been surprised by what I’ve seen so far. Not by the music, though, because I didn’t expect Square-Enix to mess up the excellent soundtrack of the original, and it seems like they haven’t. If you haven’t heard it yet, check out the new version of the classic “One-Winged Angel” with the full orchestra/choir treatment it deserves. Though for nostalgic reasons, I still like the original more. I don’t know, maybe that’s stupid.

Not everything about the original was better.

So that’s it for the latest entry in my favorite game music series. Four entries over six years — I really am lazy. Please look forward to the next entry in 2023. In the meantime, I’m still playing through Royal and a few other games, so I hope to get a couple of reviews/analyses up next month. There’s also a reason I featured a couple of tracks from the Sim series. That’s a not-so-subtle hint at the subject of the next deep reads post. Let’s see if I have anything new or interesting to say about that franchise. You can be the judge when it comes out.

For now, I’ll be taking the rest of the month off to work. I wish I could take off from work to write and play games instead, but as long as I stay on the projects I’m working on (which I absolutely need, so I hope I do) that’s not an option. That’s the life of a contractor: free, but also not all that stable. Well, what can you do. Until next time.