A review of Blend S

Have you ever felt misinterpreted by others around you? We’re all taken in ways we don’t intend sometimes, but does it happen to you constantly?

If so, you might relate to this girl. This is Maika Sakuranomiya, the central character in the 2017 comedy anime series Blend S. In the first episode of the show, Maika is desperately hunting for a job. Even though she has the full support of her family, she wants to earn money for herself so she can fund a study-abroad trip and explore other lands.

Unfortunately, Maika has a serious problem: she has an inadvertently frightening expression at times, especially when she’s startled, stressed, or nervous. She’s actually very polite and genuinely nice, but despite all her intentions, she comes off as ice cold and scares the shit out of the new people she meets, including all her interviewers. And the only kind of job she can get as a student is service-related and customer-facing, which makes her prospects even worse.

This is a good out-of-context screenshot to use in any situation

On her way home from another failed interview, Maika is passing by a café when she wonders whether she can work on her expression, so she uses their window as a mirror to test that out. The staff inside just see a girl making weird faces at them, but when the manager sees her he’s instantly struck by her and asks her to come inside. In a very lucky break, it turns out this place, Café Stile, is a coffee shop with a twist: every waitress plays a different character type. So far they have a tsundere and a little sister, but the manager Dino is looking for a totally new and daring sort of character to add to the team: a sadist. And with her stony expression, Maika is perfect for this new position.

Maika isn’t sure she can pull this “sadist waitress” role off, but since she’s at the end of her rope she gratefully accepts the job offer and gets to work.

It turns out that she’s a natural at it. A true natural, because she acts this way without even trying — in fact, while she’s actually trying to be nice and polite to the café patrons. When Maika realizes she’s accidentally said something offensive to her guests or has given them her usual cold glare, she’s mortified, but the manager tells her not to worry: this is exactly what they’re looking for. And the manager is right, because to her surprise, Maika quickly gets a sort of fanbase of masochistic customers who love being verbally abused by girls (not my thing, but sure, I get it.)

This wouldn’t be much of a premise for a 12-episode series, but Blend S does extend beyond this one idea, getting into situations involving all the characters, including two more new employees with their own roles (a constant innuendo-making “big sister/onee-san” type and a self-absorbed aspiring pop idol) in episodes 4 and 8. It’s the kind of show that wouldn’t be too unfamiliar to American TV audiences, at least once you get past all the anime trappings: a comedy about a bunch of misfits working together and getting into and dealing with awkward social situations.

Plenty of sweatdrops in this one, and for good reason

But then, there are all those anime trappings. Or it would be more accurate maybe to say “otaku trappings”, since this is a series that knows it has a pretty niche audience and aims directly at it. Blend S is an adaptation of a long-running four-panel comic series of the same name, and like a lot of anime adaptations of four-panel comics, it contains a lot of quick jokes and short segments worked into the context of longer episodes. I can imagine how that kind of setup could feel clunky, but each episode of Blend S flows along pretty nicely, mostly taking place at Café Stile but also giving us short looks into some of the characters’ personal and home lives.

The possible trouble some people might face with this show is that it really is deep in that otaku territory. A lot of the jokes in Blend S are either directly about or play off of common manga/anime/Japanese game themes and character types. It’s not exactly referential humor, but it does rely on the viewer generally knowing about and probably being into these hobbies.

Like this old visual novel-looking screen between scenes. I like the 90s look Maika has here.

There are a lot of examples of these kinds of jokes, but one of the most obvious turns up in the third episode, when Maika finds one of Stile’s patrons accidentally left a bag behind at their table. When she looks inside the bag, she’s shocked to find a pornographic doujin book (a type of self-published work that’s often, but not always, rated 18+.) And when the patron returns to get the book back, it’s revealed that she’s not just the owner but the author of the work. A beautiful woman no less, who in the next episode joins the café as that ara ara-type big sister character who dotes on her customers and uses the situations she sees between them and her fellow staff to collect “material” for her constantly published new doujinshi. It’s the kind of joke any watcher might sort of get, but might be puzzled by if they don’t know just how popular some of these independent artists are and the crazy schedules they can hold themselves to. And just how weird some of these 18+ doujin works can get.

Doujinshi are really serious business, not even kidding now

Some of the jokes in Blend S rely on a pretty universal “character mismatch” concept, like the polite Maika acting as an accidental sadist or the young-looking “little sister” character Mafuyu actually being a college student and the most mature and grounded in the group. However, many of the show’s bits lean fairly heavily on otaku subculture stuff, to the extent that I’d put Blend S squarely in that niche category.

And since I’m in the anime/game nerd weirdo class that Blend S is targeting, it’s probably not a big surprise that I liked it. There’s always a risk with series like this that it will all come off as cheap pandering, but I think Blend S manages to avoid that, since the main focus is always on these strange misfit characters with all the otaku reference stuff as secondary. All the dirty jokes are so over the top that they also work pretty well, fitting in with the absurd feel. If I’d ever felt pandered to, I would have quit watching, and the fact that I didn’t speaks in the show’s favor. (Though admittedly I did find the whole Dino being in love with Maika thing a bit weird. Seems kind of inappropriate under the circumstances to say the least. As far as the romantic comedy aspect of the show went, I liked the tsundere sort-of-romance between Akizuki and Kaho better anyway.)

Then there’s Hideri, who provides some of the strangest jokes in the show. That idol scene really is something. More good out-of-context screenshots too.

Even so, if you’re not part of that same audience this series is targeting, a lot of these bits will probably pass you by, and they might not do anything for you at all. All this is a really roundabout way of saying that I liked Blend S but that, unlike the last few anime series I’ve written about, I can’t recommend it unconditionally.

But that’s also not really a judgment against the show, even if it might sound like one. It’s just not for everyone. But then, not everything has to be. Wouldn’t it be boring if that were the case? On the whole, I found Blend S a nice light comedy to pick me up when I was feeling shitty, and that’s always appreciated. Even if it had one of those irritating non-endings, but since the comic is still being published, that’s to be expected.

Listening/reading log #19 (April 2021)

Another month gotten through somehow. And no matter how much else I have to do, I’ll keep going here on the site.

For now, let’s get to the business: more music and more great writing from around the communities here. This time I’m covering another set of two albums that are extremely different in tone and execution, so depending on your taste or just your mood right now hopefully you’ll like at least one of them.

Yeti (Amon Düül II, 1970)

Highlights: Hard to pick one out considering the nature of the music, but Eye Shaking King kind of sums the album up. Cerberus is also catchy

If an album cover ever gave me a first impression that the first minute of listening confirmed as true, the cover on Yeti sure as hell did. This album was recorded by Amon Düül II, a German band that came out of a late 60s Munich artistic and political commune called Amon Düül. The history of this commune and the projects that came out of it is interesting — there was apparently an Amon Düül I as well that operated alongside II as a separate group, but it seems like all the musicians with talent joined II, and they ended up being the ones remembered as more than a footnote.*

And these guys certainly deserve to be remembered. Yeti is a classic German rock album that I just got around to hearing. Quite a rough listen, especially the first time around — it’s a double album that runs for 70 minutes, and the entire second part of it consists of improvisations that wear me down a bit. A lot, even. From what I understand, at least some of the members of Amon Düül II had LSD habits, and you can kind of tell from the music here. But they also clearly had more than enough talent to make some really memorable music, mainly on the first record, which features some great tracks like “Cerberus” and “Eye Shaking King”. I also like the multipart Soap Shop Rock that opens the album.

A lot of the music on Yeti feels apocalyptic, which certainly fits some of the song titles and that Grim Reaper swinging his scythe on the cover. Great stuff if you’re in the mood for it (or if you’re consuming a certain substance maybe, but I don’t advocate that at all. The only psychoactive drug I use is caffeine anyway.)

Midnight Cruisin’ (Kingo Hamada, 1982)

Hightlights: Dakare ni Kita Onna, Midnight Cruisin’, Machi no Dorufin

And now for something on the opposite end of the spectrum, from rough to smooth. Kingo Hamada is one of the big names in city pop, a popular Japanese style from the late 70s/early 80s that I’ve covered here a bit before, and Midnight Cruisin’ seems to be one of his best known albums — or it is now after “Machi no Dorufin” (also listed as “Dolphin in Town”) blew up online recently for some reason.

It is a really catchy song, though, so much like the even bigger newly popular “reborn hit” “Plastic Love” I can see why this song got new life on the internet. But the same is true for the title track, as well as “Dakare ni Kita Onna”, a slower song that really makes me feel like I’m sitting in a Tokyo bar in the early 80s (even if the closest I’ve ever been to doing that is playing Yakuza 0. Close enough, right?)

I’m not such a fan of some of the other slower songs — there’s a little too much sap for me in places. But the good stuff here is really good, and if you have a higher tolerance for sap than I do, you might love all of Midnight Cruisin’. Much like Aja, it’s a good nighttime listening album, only it’s a lot less depressing than that one.

So those are two albums that I only like about half of each, but those combine to make one great album at least. I don’t see any need to ignore the good parts of these albums just because there are parts I don’t like so much, you know? Maybe one day I’ll feature a few albums that only have one song each I like. But for now, the featured articles:

Getting the Read: Fighting Game Literacy (Frostilyte Writes) — I was never able to get into fighting games, and I think this piece identifies exactly why I had such problems with the genre. Frostilyte clearly knows and cares a lot about fighting games — I highly recommend checking this out no matter how you feel about the genre to get some insight on it.

I Can’t Review Vivy Fluorite Eye’s Song (Crow’s World of Anime) — Vivy Fluorite Eye’s Song is a beautiful-looking anime currently airing. While acknowledging that, TCrow here also sets out reasons he can’t review it, and they are reasons I completely understand, having to do largely with its approach to future technology.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Extra Life) — Red Metal reviews Aaron Sorkin’s new historical courtroom drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 as part of his look at the Oscar Best Film nominees. I don’t watch a lot of live-action stuff in general, but this film is one I absolutely want to see. Both as a lawyer and as a citizen (edit: and just as a human for fuck’s sake) the treatment of the defendants in the proceeding pisses me off, but it sounds like Sorkin also brings some much-needed optimism into the story (no surprise considering his other work.) At the very least, we can say we’ve progressed somewhat from 1969.

Azur Lane: Slow Ahead! (Otaku Post) — Johnathan of Otaku Post does what I said I probably wouldn’t do myself and reviews the short fanservice comedy Azur Lane: Slow Ahead! Sounds like it’s just what I expected from what I saw of it — something very comfortable and fun if you’re into the game. Anything with more of that drunk bunny girl destroyer Laffey is worth it to me.

On the Necessity of Character Growth in Anime (I drink and watch anime) — As usual, Irina brings a lot of insight to an issue in anime and other media that gets argued about all the damn time — how much does a character need to grow in a story to be interesting? Her argument might go against the grain a bit, but I find it interesting (and I pretty much agree as well anyway.)

Anime Review #54: Angel’s Egg (Or, WTH IS THIS: The Movie) (The Traditional Catholic Weeb) — From Traditional Catholic Weeb, a review of Mamoru Oshii and Yoshitaka Amano’s famously strange anime film Angel’s Egg, and he brings his own interpretation to it that’s well worth reading.

The Unique & Sad Dynamic Between VTubers & Translators (Anicourses) — VTubers don’t exactly have easy jobs, and for the vast majority outside the giant agencies like Hololive and Nijisanji, it also seems difficult to get a lot of attention. Translators on YouTube can help bring these streamers to an international audience, but Le Fenette here explores the relationships between VTubers and translators and how they can get complicated.

Top 7 Characters That Fans Are Reluctant to Call Blatant Ripoffs (Iridium Eye Reviews) — In the comments of my review of Perfect Blue, Ospreyshire brought up Darren Aronofsky’s borrowing without acknowledgement of elements from that movie in his own Black Swan, along with some other examples of such “borrowing”, which are all explored in this post on the subject. I knew about the Kimba the White Lion/Lion King connection, but some of these I had no idea about.

A Grinding Pain (Lost to the Aether) — Aether brings up a subject that many gamers know all too well, especially those of us into JRPGs: the grind. And hell, I agree with him, even if I like JRPGs in general too. I don’t have time for that shit. It’s also more interesting to feel like you’ve beaten an enemy through good strategy rather than raw strength through killing common enemies and that kind of busy work leveling. But if I keep going I’ll be writing my own post about it, so be sure to check Aether’s out.

Nepiki Gaming 2.0 is here! Update + Roadmap (Nepiki Gaming) — Nepiki has established a new self-hosted site, so be sure to update your bookmarks/browsers. And congratulations are in order! Self-hosting is something I don’t have the courage to even bother thinking about, because I’m sure I’d make a mess of it. Certainly worth it if you have any technical knowledge though (or maybe I’m just making excuses for myself yet again. I don’t know.)

And finally, I don’t know if I’ve done this yet, so just in case: a general plug for Pete Davison and his colleagues over on Rice Digital. If you want more posts about the new Nagatoro anime and VTubers, check it out. Also paying respect to Saya no Uta, which is always good (but also kind of NSFW unless your bosses are really cool, and most aren’t. Incidentally, happy May Day.)

That’s it for last month. What a shit, just like every other month. At least the weather isn’t so bad right now, though. And I’m now almost effectively vaccinated against the coronavirus, so soon I’ll be able to go outside and do all those things I love doing outside, like… uh.

Well, at least I’m vaccinated. And this month, I’ll be getting around to at least one more game (finishing out Atelier Shallie soon, just powering through it) and another anime series or two, as well as one of my standard “AK complains” pieces about a game-related controversy I discovered recently that I think has some interesting implications for all of us, even if it seems like it might not at first glance. And though they may not be coming this month, I’ve gotten ideas for a few more deep reads posts that I’ll be working on soon (those things take forever to write, but I think they’re worth the trouble, even if Google’s algorithm thinks they’re too long and rambling. Well fuck you, Google; I’ll ramble as much as I want.)

I also might be shitposting on Twitter about NieR Replicant, which is an entirely new experience for me. I’ve already died a few times in unexpected ways, but I’ve played Automata so I know at least a little of what to expect from Yoko Taro and his gang anyway. Until next post, all the best.

 

* As another footnote, the Amon Düül commune also produced future members of the insurrectionist West German communist organization Red Army Faction, but this group and the band otherwise had nothing to do with each other as far as I understand. It’s interesting how the same movement can influence a bunch of peaceful guys who just want to make music and a bunch of other not-so-peaceful guys who want to overthrow governments.

A review of Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky (PS4)

I’m really plowing through Atelier now. Only one month after writing about Atelier Ayesha, I didn’t think I’d be done with the next game in the series so soon. But Escha & Logy is just that kind of game — the kind that pulls you in and refuses to let you go. Or at least that’s what it was for me.

Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky is the middle game in the Dusk trilogy of the much larger Atelier series. While it continues along in the same world and features some returning characters, it’s a more or less self-contained story like almost every Atelier game seems to be, so you don’t have to start from Ayesha to understand what’s going on here. All you’ll miss out on are some references to Ayesha and her situation that aren’t critical to the central plot of Escha & Logy. So don’t worry about starting from the middle if that’s what you plan on doing, though if you’re buying the Dusk trilogy as a package as it’s commonly sold, I’d still recommend starting from the beginning with Ayesha (though of course it is possible to buy any of these games separately as well if you don’t want to take that plunge, and Escha & Logy stands well enough on its own in that regard.)

Also, just a note that as before, this is a review of the DX edition released on the PS4. I can’t comment very much on any of the other versions since I haven’t played them.

Note that there are two names in this game’s title and a plural Alchemists in there: this time around, we have two protagonists instead of one. Our story begins in a small government office in the frontier town of Colseit, where two young alchemists have just been hired to join the Research and Development department. Escha Malier is a girl native to the town who grew up practicing traditional alchemy (the “stir a bunch of stuff in a giant cauldron” type we’re familiar with from past games) and she’s joined by a new arrival from Central City, Logix Ficsario aka Logy, who uses more modern, specialized forms of alchemy and is totally unfamiliar with Escha’s practices.

But they’ll have to work together. Marion Quinn, their direct superior (and the first of several familiar faces if you’ve played Ayesha) has the duty of restoring both the reputation and the budget of Colseit’s branch R&D office by showing its value to Central City, and Escha and Logy’s alchemy and exploration skills will be vital to these efforts.

Bureaucracy, budgeting, and resource management: now this is a god damn game

Escha and Logy couldn’t be more different in some respects. Aside from their different methods of alchemy, from day one it’s obvious that they have divergent personalities and outlooks on life in general. Escha approaches her work with a lot of excitement and with a sense of wonder. By contrast, while Logy is certainly serious about his work, he also comes off as a lot more grounded, trying to pull Escha back when he thinks her ideas are a bit out there.

This gap between Escha and Logy becomes more obvious when talk comes up about the Unexplored Ruins, a massive ruin built by a lost past civilization that somehow floats in the air. Nobody knows how it’s floating or how or why it was built, but Escha’s cousin, the airship engineer Awin, dreams about exploring it and tells Escha and Logy that he’d like to build an airship capable of somehow making it through the dangerous debris surrounding the ruin. Escha encourages Awin and says she’d love to explore the ruins too, but Logy is skeptical about the whole thing. While he’s naturally interested in whatever mysteries the ruin has to offer, if it’s basically impossible to make it there, what’s the point of thinking about it in the first place?

This hot and cold sort of odd couple dynamic between Escha and Logy works really well. It’s not played up to a ridiculous point where their differences are exaggerated — as before, our protagonists and their friends feel like pretty believable and sometimes relatable sorts of characters — but their differences are still stark enough to make their relationship more interesting. And probably partly because of that, when the game gets around to a little bit of drama between the two later on, it feels believable as well.

Escha and Logy’s differences complement each other nicely in the story, but these are also worked into the gameplay, especially when you’re working in the atelier. When you start Escha & Logy, you have the choice of playing as either protagonist, but the choice doesn’t matter all that much aside from getting some story details particular to one or the other in each playthrough. You’ll be working together for the entire game anyway; there are certain things that only Escha knows how to do, and certain other things that only Logy can do, so they have to rely on each other. Since Escha is versed in traditional alchemy, she performs all the item synthesis, while Logy uses his modern techniques to create new weapons and disassemble relics found in the field and dungeon areas to break them down to their component ingredients. And since they’re both alchemists, they can both use items in battle, which is a massive benefit once your alchemy level starts rising.

Who would have thought making an apple tart could be so complicated? I can’t bake at all, so for all I know, this is what it’s like in real life too.

Escha and Logy don’t have the freedom to do whatever they like, because there’s still more time management in this game. However, unlike Ayesha, which sticks you with a single goal and a three-year time limit to achieve it, Escha & Logy is broken down into several four-month terms. At the beginning of each term, you have a staff meeting with Marion, who reviews your work in the previous term and gives you your new assignments. These are broken into a 5 by 5 bingo card-looking grid, with one mandatory assignment to complete in the center and optional secondary assignments surrounding it.

Failing to complete the mandatory assignment results in a game over, so that’s where your efforts should always be directed first, but it’s always worth trying to fill out the entire grid for the alchemy and combat bonuses they give you (and also to get praised by Marion, which is a plus in itself. Or maybe I just like hearing more of her ara ara onee-san style voice. Am I showing my hand too much here?)

Since they’re government employees, Escha and Logy also have to receive approval for their expenses from the government based in Central City, and to do that, they have to go through resident bureaucrat Solle Grumman. This guy might seem like a real jerk at first, but he’s actually on your side — more or less, anyway. In addition to Marion’s assignments, Solle offers item synthesis and monster-killing requests for you to fulfill that he’ll pay you for in sweets that you can give to the resident homunculus (the small furry animal-looking guys) who use their magic to replicate items. This is an incredibly useful function that you’ll want to use to save time and energy, especially later on in the game when you’ll be trying to create items and gear with special and rare properties.

The upside to being government employees is that you’ll get a monthly stipend, the size of which depends on how much productive activity you’ve engaged in that month fulfilling Solle’s requests, fighting monsters out in the field, or creating items in the atelier. This was a nice break from my playthrough of Ayesha, where Ayesha had a nearly empty purse most of the time. Despite all the griping about how arrogant and shitty the central government is to its branch offices, they don’t skimp on those stipends.

I know this screenshot makes Escha & Logy look like some kind of anime Bureaucracy Simulator game, but bureaucracy has its benefits too.

And as always, you’ll have outside help from friends both old and new while running around in the field and dungeon areas. Escha & Logy again features a map with a lot of areas to discover and explore, monsters to fight, and ingredients to gather, and the pair is joined in the field by returning characters like Linca, Wilbell, and Nio (the very same Nio you were tasked with rescuing in Atelier Ayesha) and new characters like Awin, badass fighter/historian Threia, and child merchant Katla, whose irresponsible as hell parents left her all alone to manage their store while they’re out traveling the world. But she does try to rip you off a whole lot, so it’s hard to feel too bad for her.

Katla is a damn brat, but despite how she looks and acts, she’s an asset in a fight.

Each game I’ve played in the Atelier series so far has managed to create its own special character and feel distinct from the others. Escha & Logy, despite having a similar look to Ayesha with the same character designer and artists and taking place in the same world, plays very differently. While Ayesha was focused more on exploration, Escha & Logy puts a big emphasis on item and gear synthesis and creation. Its base alchemy system is taken partly from Ayesha, but it feels a little more intuitive. Which is good, because you’ll probably be doing a hell of a lot of alchemy to fulfill requests and especially to maximize the value of your time out in the field.

Organizing Escha and Logy’s gear before going out to the field. Items this time around are automatically replenished when you return to base. However, you have limited space to carry them, and other party members aside from the protagonists can’t carry anything, so resource management is once again a must.

The old turn-based combat system has also been improved, with a new three-member front line and three-member reserve setup in which your back line characters can offer supporting attacks and swap into the front line if needed. This new system is a lot more engaging than the more basic combat featured in Ayesha, so people who get bored with more standard forms of turn-based combat might find something to like here. Having two alchemists in the party also comes with great benefits: Escha and Logy can learn new joint techniques later on in the game that really help when trying to take down massively powerful bosses. Working out how to use Double Draw effectively is necessary to deal with the most challenging fights.

This dragon looks difficult, but it’s nowhere near the most frustrating fight in the game. Also see Escha here, perfectly suited for combat in a wedding dress bonus costume. I don’t even remember why I put this on her, but it looks pretty funny seeing her and Logy fight in wedding gear.

Speaking of wedding gear, there’s the Escha-Logy relationship, which as far as I know is unique in the series. This isn’t the only game that features a choice of protagonist,1 but it is the only one I know of that seriously suggests a romance between them, or between any characters who aren’t already together for that matter. It’s still a very light element of the game and not central to the plot at all, so light in fact that it wasn’t even featured in the PS3 original. But from Escha & Logy Plus on the Vita on to the DX editions, the player has had the choice in some conversations between two dialogue options, one friendly and the other romantic, each choice helpfully indicated by a smile and a heart. So it’s up to the player: if you want to imagine Escha and Logy as just good friends, you can keep things strictly platonic, but if you want something more between them, you can go the romance route, and you’ll get some extra bits of dialogue that show they have feelings for each other and that other characters recognize they might be getting especially close.

Usually these games don’t touch on romance very much at all aside from some extremely coy “these two girls might be into each other” yuri stuff (probably more prominent in the Arland series — see Rorona and Cordelia, Totori and Mimi, and Meruru and Keina.) It’s more explicit here, though, and I don’t mind that.2 And really, Escha and Logy seem like they’d make a good couple anyway. Opposites attracting and all that stuff. I know that’s a bit of a cliché, but these two have great chemistry, and they’re the sorts of opposites who could actually complement each other well, so the option doesn’t feel forced at all.

All that said, I still wonder what drew me in specifically about Atelier Escha & Logy so quickly. I’ve basically enjoyed every game in the series I’ve played so far, but none of the others captured me in the way this one did. The entertaining dynamic between the two main characters is definitely part of it — it was pretty fun seeing how Escha and Logy reacted to new situations and played off of each other.

The CGs featured in a lot of these situations were also a draw; the art in Escha & Logy is just as good as ever. And yeah, Escha’s tail is explained in the game. I was wondering about it too.

I think it has to do with the structure of the game as well. I found that breaking the action into smaller four-month pieces rather than having one massive three-year task to complete made the game more approachable than Ayesha and Meruru. I don’t know if this was Gust’s intention, but it felt like a throwback to Atelier Rorona, which featured similar three-month goals to complete. The time pressure in Rorona still felt greater, too, at least from what I remember. Escha & Logy certainly wants to keep you on track, but it gives you all the resources you need to complete everything well within its time constraints. In just about every term, I was able to finish all my tasks so early that I had plenty of free time to develop my alchemy skills and explore as I wished.

I also like the way the story of the game is rooted in its setting. The World of Dusk we first explored in Atelier Ayesha was clearly in serious decline, with vegetation dying off and land drying up in parts, but things didn’t look quite so bad in Ayesha’s part of the world, and the game didn’t focus on that aspect so much anyway. Escha & Logy, by contrast, is directly concerned with the declining environment and its effects on human life — many of Escha and Logy’s tasks have to do with exploring the causes of these changes, examining drying water sources and using alchemy to try to improve harvest yields. Colseit is a kind of oasis in this part of the world with its apple orchards, but it’s not immune from the effects of these catastrophic changes either. And as in Ayesha, it’s implied that the misuse of alchemy by the fallen past civilization caused many of these problems.3

The team exploring a volcano/lava flow. Nio’s sister Ayesha is an important part of this “responsible use of alchemy” theme. Given how much she’s brought up on the side here, maybe we’ll meet her again in the next game. I’d like to see what’s happening with her too.

There’s also the usual praise I have to give to the art and music. As far as the character design goes, I think Hidari fully measures up to Mel Kishida at this point. And I really like the jazz and prog flavor in the soundtrack. The connection isn’t a big surprise, because I’m pretty sure someone at Gust is a big fan of Yes — there are battle tracks in this game titled “Close to the Edge Part 2” and “Don’t Kill the Dragon”, and I can absolutely see the prog influence in a few tracks (like The Tiger of Dorothea, sounds ELP-ish? Maybe with a mix of fusion with that guitar. I like it.) Also, the opening theme Milk-Colored Pass is excellent.

Since I’ve been nothing but positive about Atelier Escha & Logy up until now, I may as well drop a few potential negatives about the game, starting with its increased emphasis on learning and using alchemy to create better items. The space restrictions you have to deal with throughout aren’t too unreasonable, but they do require you to do some work to fit as much power as you can into Escha and Logy’s setups. And near the end of the game, you’re thrown into a very long one-year-plus final term with a special assignment in which you’re encouraged to do some extremely precise alchemy to get very particular high-level attributes on items and gear so you can take on difficult bosses (and to carry over to the second playthrough if you’re going for the true ending, which you can’t even get on the first since it requires you to complete both Escha and Logy’s stories anyway.)

Which means you have to run through all these field and dungeon areas twice if you want that true ending, but the second time around it will be a lot quicker as long as you have your new game plus overpowered weapons, armor, and accessories equipped.

None of this is actually a negative point for me, since I liked this aspect of it, but it may be for some players who prefer the exploration and combat aspects of JRPGs like these. And it might not even be true for you depending on how you play the game. This is just how I felt the game pushed me to play, given the challenges it threw at me and the tools I had to deal with them. Like the others, it doesn’t absolutely force you to play in any particular way, but if you don’t use those tools it provides effectively, you might have a harder time.

Another possible issue is the game’s tendency to throw you into boss fights without much warning. This happens a few times in Escha & Logy, and I can see it being a pain for some players who might prefer a hint as to what’s coming so they can be properly prepared. On the other hand, the game might be using this as a way to hammer home the old Boy Scouts’ motto “always be prepared.” I was never a Boy Scout, so I was caught off guard when this happened and just managed to scrape by. On the plus side, I appreciated the challenge the game provided in these fights — though I was thrown into them, I could also deal with them by using proper tactics in battle and by having a mix of powerful attack and healing items.

Protip: Make Knowledge Books

Finally, there’s the problem with certain item and effect names and descriptions in this game. I’d say the above two points aren’t flaws at all but rather purposeful design aspects of Escha & Logy that some players might not enjoy. However, this one is undoubtedly a flaw, and not an insignificant one. For one example, item effects in Atelier Ayesha followed the very familiar “S -> M -> L” small, medium and large naming convention also followed by t-shirt manufacturers and fast food places, but Escha & Logy inexplicably flips this order, with L denoting the weakest and S the strongest effect. So now instead of small to medium to large, the scale now presumably runs from light to moderate to strong or something like it.

If that had been the convention the trilogy and the series as a whole had been following until now, it would have been fine, but it wasn’t, and changing it like this is bizarre and confusing. And hell if it doesn’t go right back to the old small, medium, and large system in the following game Atelier Shallie, meaning you have to unlearn this dumb shit and mentally readjust anyway if you’re playing straight through the whole Dusk trilogy as I am.

One entry in the game’s large library. This one makes it sound like Escha and Logy can access the Midnight Hour, but unfortunately the Time Watch doesn’t actually work that way.

This issue extends to some of the expanded descriptions in the library. Take the attribute Fixed Healing+ for an example. I had to look up what the flying fuck the game meant by Healing item is fairly enhanced by a set amount. The weaker the base power, the higher the effect. It vaguely makes sense, but what does it mean in real terms? That this effect is proportionally less powerful the more powerful the item is? I guess, but I’m still not sure how that works out in comparison with other healing-related attributes I could be using in synthesis instead. And if it’s a “set amount”, why does the second sentence imply that the amount can change based on the power of the item? Then it’s not actually a set amount, is it?

This might all be a stupid nitpick. However, Atelier games contain reams of information about monsters, weapons, accessories, and items and their associated effects in battle, and while some of this info is clearly just there for flavor and background, a lot of it’s actually useful to know when you’re synthesizing items. And when there are so many items, ingredients, and attributes available to play with when doing alchemy, clarity and consistency of language are necessary. I’m not sure how much of the weirdness in the descriptions in Escha & Logy came from the original Japanese release and how much was a result of a poor localization job, either. The S/M/L thing might have been an issue with the original, but the item descriptions feel like more of a bad translation issue. But I can’t say any of this for sure since I haven’t played the JP version of the game.

Whoever was responsible for this maybe should have taken a cue from the game and held a staff meeting to hammer it out, because it seems like an extremely avoidable problem. (Also I love Linca’s expression on the right. She’d rather be out killing dragons than dealing with paperwork. Sorry, Linca.)

Despite that pretty large annoyance, I’d say Escha & Logy is the best Atelier game I’ve played so far. If nothing else, it’s a credit to just how much this game drew me in that despite these issues, I finished Escha & Logy within one month of finishing Ayesha, and also given how much work I’ve had to do at the same time that wasn’t playing JRPGs. (If I could make a career out of that… but I’m not a cute anime girl with a streaming setup on YouTube or Twitch, so I have no chance.)

And now it’s on to the final game in the Dusk trilogy, Atelier Shallie. I’m already a few chapters into Shallie at the time of writing, so it shouldn’t be too long until I’m through with that as well. But before moving on, I should note that Escha & Logy got a 12-episode anime adaptation that I haven’t seen, as far as I know the only Atelier game to have this distinction. From what I hear, it’s not that great and I’m not missing anything by skipping it. My anime backlog is already way too long to add a show telling a story I already know, and then probably not as well as the source material did. If you saw it, though, feel free to let me know your thoughts about it in the comments. 𒀭

***

1 Atelier Shallie also has two protagonists, and I think Atelier Lydie & Suelle probably does as well based on the title alone. I went with Escha on my first run, but you have to play through the game as both Escha and Logy to get the true ending anyway, and thankfully the new game plus bonuses make that second run a lot easier.

2 I honestly wouldn’t mind slightly more explicit yuri stuff in these games either — not explicit in the 18+ sense of course, but more something like what Escha & Logy gives us. Then again, maybe all the hinting without actually coming out and saying it is what yuri fans really want. I can’t say for sure.

3 Even the names of the protagonists fit into this theme: Escha, with the ch pronounced as a hard “k” sound, Logy with a soft “g”, and the & pronounced to in Japanese, all jammed together, make the word eschatology, or the study of the end of the world. Wordplay based on an English word that only works if you use Japanese to get there, that’s pretty damn impressive.

The Episode 1 anime dice roll (rolls 8 – 10)

Another post so soon?! Impossible, I know. But this helps me out, since it gives me some motivation to actually start these anime series if I know I’m planning to write about them. So really, this post is as much about me pushing myself as it is about giving you the reader my first impressions.

Setting my selfish reasoning aside, let’s get on with it, starting with:

Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Gou

That title can be translated 15 different ways, so I’m sticking to the Japanese one here by default, but it’s basically Higurashi New from what I can tell. The original visual novel series it’s based on takes place in the village of Hinamizawa, where the transfer student Keiichi Maebara has just moved. At first glance, this kid seems to have it pretty good — outgoing and surrounded by his new friends, all living a quiet life in the countryside. However, the village contains some dark secrets that Keiichi has just stumbled upon, and one of those new friends of his is acting pretty damn weird, and hey, is that a machete (edit: billhook, sorry, it’s a billhook) in her hand, and is she right behind him?

This is pretty much the first episode of Higurashi Gou. I watched the original 2006 anime adaptation shortly after it finished airing and I remember liking it a lot, but I’ve also forgotten enough about the story in the last 12/13 years that this feels like a new experience again. And Higurashi Gou apparently takes the story in a different direction from the original works, so it’s not just a straightforward remake, which I’m happy about as well.

This first episode was really well done, with some good misdirection (almost all of it is cute slice of life-style messing around with Keiichi and the girls, just as in the 2006 anime adaptation) and nice-looking character models by Akio Watanabe, the character designer for the Monogatari anime, still another draw for me. I figured I’d like this anyway — writer Ryukishi07 tells a good story, and I’ve heard Higurashi Gou more than lives up to the original Higurashi series, so I’ll certainly keep watching.

Blue Reflection Ray

I’ve written about both the game Blue Reflection and its soundtrack, so probably no surprise that I’m writing about this as well. The currently airing Blue Reflection Ray is a new story that takes place in the same world as the game, but at a different school with new magical girls. Ruki Hanari, a transfer student (yeah, again) has extreme social anxiety that makes it hard for her to connect with her classmates. Fortunately for her, she makes at least one new friend at Tsukinomiya High School: the outgoing Hiori Hirahara. But of course, Hiori is a Reflector (i.e. a magical girl) and Ruki comes across a ring by chance that connects with Hiori’s, and we know where that’s going.

That said, this first episode is a bit confusing, because it throws a lot at the viewer without explaining very much of it. I had some idea of what was going on because of the concepts it shares with the game, but even then I was kind of lost. I’m thinking episode 2 will contain a lot of these explanations, made to Ruki before she decides to become a Reflector herself. The show also has a weirdly 90s look, at least to me. Maybe that’s just a nice way of saying it looks kind of rough, but then some of the scenes look nice, so I don’t know. It might just be me, but I don’t mind too much.

The story and characters are a lot more important than the look, anyway, and I’ll be sticking with Blue Reflection Ray to see where it goes for now — 24 episodes are planned, so it has plenty of room to develop in interesting ways. There’s also a strong yuri vibe between Ruki and Hiori, so if you’re a yuri fan, this might be worth checking out.

Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro

Of course I wasn’t going to miss out on the Nagatoro anime considering how much I’ve enjoyed the manga up until now. I was a bit worried about whether it would measure up, since this is the first time I’ve watched an anime adaptation of a manga I’m currently reading as it airs (I’m not much of a manga reader, anyway.)

But after watching the first episode of the anime, all those worries were swept away, because they really nailed it. I wrote a general plot/character summary in my post about the manga linked above, but basically Nagatoro is a sporty, popular girl who bullies the hell out of her nerdy artist senior at school (merely called Senpai; he never gets a real name) but of course she actually likes him, and again we have a good idea of where this is going. The anime is extremely faithful to the manga so far and really translates Nagatoro and Senpai’s interactions well. Great opening theme and animation, too, though the flashing colors might give you a headache if you watch it a few times over.

Not much more to say about Nagatoro, except that it’s very promising and I’ll be watching it every week. Even if I already know what’s going to happen, since it doesn’t seem like it will stray too far from the original story.

That’s all for this round. I promise I’m going to make an effort to actually continue a few of the other series I’ve written about in these posts — in fact, I’ve watched all of Blend S, and a full review will be coming soon. Probably early next month, though, because first there’s more Atelier to get to. That series has taken over my life recently and it’s not letting me go just yet. I’ve started a draft about Escha & Logy and it just keeps growing, so if you like my rambling-style posts, you can look forward to that one.

A review of Perfect Blue

I think Perfect Blue is a first here on the site. I’ve never had a look at an anime film before; they’ve all been series so far. But I’d always heard about how great a director Satoshi Kon was, and how impactful his movies were, and his 1997 debut film Perfect Blue makes a lot of must-watch anime film lists, so it seemed like a natural first choice.

And I’m happy I took the leap here after so many years, because after seeing it I’d say Perfect Blue deserves its classic status. I won’t give away the ending here, but I will be getting into the general plot and character points — I recommend going in raw as usual for stuff I like, but it’s understandable if you don’t want to. Anyway, the very strange screenshot above is probably the most famous image from the film, so it’s not like the extremely dark turn it takes is a big secret. It’s the way the story gets there that’s interesting. (Also, the film is very 18+ and deals with violent and sexual situations, so take the usual precautions if you care to.)

Mima Kirigoe is part of an idol vocal trio with the interesting name CHAM! (a reference to Wham!? But they don’t look or sound anything like Wham!, so maybe not.) At the opening of the film, we get to see these three putting on a performance in a small but crowded city park-looking venue. While their success is still pretty modest, CHAM! and Mima in particular have dedicated fans to cheer them on. Which makes it all the sadder when Mima announces at the end of the concert that this will be her last performance with the group, because she’s decided to leave behind singing and pursue a new career as an actress.

Only it’s not clear how much of that is her decision. Mima is employed and managed by a talent agency, which is in the process of reshaping her from pop idol to actress out of a fear that the pop idol concept is on the way out and that her talents would be wasted in that role. This is happening with Mima’s seemingly reluctant consent and against the advice of one of her agents, Rumi, who had her own shot at the pop idol role years before but didn’t quite make it.

But Mima says she’ll give it her best effort in any case. After getting cast in a small role on a TV drama, she starts to shift into her actress role, but with some pretty obvious difficulties. Some of these take place on the set, with Mima struggling a bit in her new acting work, but many more arise when people around her start getting assaulted and even killed in mysterious ways. This naturally takes a toll on Mima, who also fears that she may be the target of a deranged fan unhappy with her move from singing to acting.

Her fears are understandable. On top of some of the public controversy surrounding her career shift, she also has evidence in the fan site “Mima’s Room”, where an anonymous blogger (back before “blogger” was really much of a thing as far as I know) writes a public diary in her own voice. At first, Mima is amused by this site — slightly weird, maybe, but still harmless, just the work of a dedicated fan. However, as Mima tries to settle into her actress role, the site author writes more personal details about her life, the kind that only she should know about. And though Mima doesn’t realize it at first, throughout the film we see she does in fact have at least one probable stalker, a man who works as a security guard at her idol events and obsesses over her.

The prospect of having an obsessive and possibly murderous stalker, together with the stress of her new job and the continuing assaults and murders of people involved in her professional life, put Mima in a state of near-perpetual fear and even seem to cause her to go through long stretches of memory loss. Will she be able to get through this ordeal with her life and livelihood intact?

I’m not going to spoil that here, because you should really see Perfect Blue for yourself. This is one of those movies with an ending that’s best not revealed beforehand, which I guess is usually the case (though I do think a good story should always be enjoyable even if you already know the ending, but still better to go in without knowing it.) This is the only Satoshi Kon film I’ve seen so far, but even though it’s his first, I can see why he had such a great reputation. It’s not easy to tell any kind of story well, but I think it can be even more difficult to pull off the psychological thriller in a way that doesn’t descend into dumb schlocky nonsense. You need compelling and well-developed characters and an interesting plot, and Perfect Blue has both; it kept me hooked from the first few minutes to the end.

Part of this for me had to do with how sympathetic the protagonist is combined with how much crap she’s put through. Aside from the obvious stalker issue and the possibly related assaults and murders taking place around her, Mima is made to do some things to cement her position as an actress in the public eye that she assents to but clearly isn’t happy about, both having sexual elements to them. The first is a scene written into the drama she’s acting in in which she’s portrayed as a stripper who is raped by club patrons, leading to her character’s psychological breakdown in the drama, and to her own brief breakdown when she returns to her apartment after the filming. Shortly following this scene, Mima is scheduled for a magazine photoshoot that starts fairly tame but takes a racy turn, with the photographer getting her to strip completely.

These sexual aspects of Mima’s new role play a large part in her shift from singer to actress. As a pop idol, Mima had a “pure” image that seems to be typical for performers of that kind. While the idolized singers and performers promoted by agencies can gain a lot of popularity, they’re also expected to be clean in their daily lives and in some cases even to be chaste, with discoveries of secret boyfriends for example leading to public shamings and “graduations”/firings from idol groups. The idol phenomenon is a massive part of pop culture, starting in the 60s and spreading from Japan to Korea and beyond, and while it seems to have declined a bit from its heights, it’s still big business. And that virginal image still seems to be an aspect of it — certainly an unrealistic standard in most cases, but one that idols are still held to as far as I’ve heard.

This is the pure image that Mima ends up losing in the course of her work and promotion as an actress, one that she can never get back. As a result, her former pop idol life is closed off to her forever, a fact that she expresses serious regrets about throughout most of the film. While her former colleagues continue on as a duo and gain more popularity than before, Mima’s regrets don’t seem to be attached to any professional jealousy, but really to her second thoughts about her own path in life. What we do for a living does a lot to define us, and being an idol was clearly a big part of Mima’s self-image, and probably even moreso considering how much dedication that profession demands.

At the same time, Perfect Blue doesn’t just paint the entire entertainment industry as a black-and-white villain full of lustful bastards who only want to take advantage of Mima. Those people do absolutely and unfortunately exist in the real world, and more than a few of them — the “Me Too” movement is only a few years old, but the idea of the casting couch has been around for decades, and for a reason. Mima isn’t put through anything like that, however: she’s a capable adult, the ordeals she has to get through are entirely legal, and they’re arguably all a part of the art (though the motive of the screenwriter in putting in the rape scene specifically might be questioned, and what being in a nude photoshoot has to do with one’s acting ability I can’t say.) The fact that one of the actors in that scene whispers an apology to her between takes also makes a lot of sense; for any kind of decent guy, it probably wouldn’t be that easy to take part in such a scene either, even though it’s all staged.

None of that takes away from her feelings about doing these things, of course, especially since it seems she wouldn’t have done them if she’d really had the choice. There’s no question that they contribute to the breakdown of her old self-image, which is replaced with a new one she doesn’t recognize or even necessarily like. And that brings me to the most central point about Perfect Blue: the persona of the idol/actress as separate from the person herself. Throughout most of the film, we’re seeing things from Mima’s perspective as she deals with the hard transition from singing to acting and with the horrors taking place around her. She’s a professional and does her best to take on these challenges, with a stoic sort of “I just have to get through this” attitude. But that public face is pretty different from her private one, which we see in her thoughts and when she’s alone or to some extent with her agents.

Most of us have to put on a sort of persona when we leave our homes, since we can’t totally be ourselves in a professional setting or while out in public, but this difference is naturally a lot more dramatic when you’re constantly in the public eye as a popular singer or actress is. Of course, people have recognized this difference for a long time, especially since actors and other performers have been nationally and internationally famous, so Perfect Blue is very far from the first work to make a comment on the issue. But it addresses that issue in an interesting way. Throughout the film, other people treat Mima the pop idol and Mima the actress like images that belong to them. Though she’s nominally in control, Mima doesn’t seem to have much actual power over her image, leaving it to her agency to change it as they see fit. The fans also play a part in this, with some wanting Mima to maintain that pure pop idol image.

Both of these public faces seem a lot bigger and more important to most of these people than Mima herself does. The problem for Mima is that she’s the one playing one role and then the other — even though her personal and professional lives are separate in some way, she’s still the one who has to put up with all the shit that comes along with these professional expectations and with the more obsessive and dangerous aspects of being in the business. In that sense, the public image and the private person can’t actually be separated, and that’s what puts Mima in danger.

Though I’m not familiar with idol fan circles, I am a bit with the VTuber ones. This is a very new phenomenon I wrote about a while back, a few months after it really hit the West. Though I still see a lot of positives in the whole thing, I can also recognize the potential of weirder, more obsessive elements to come out of fanbases. One of the interesting differences between VTubers and “real-life” idols is that VTubers use a literal avatar to interact with their audiences, creating a much more obvious layer between the public image and the person behind it. I don’t think it’s all that different in terms of the concept, though, and some people do end up “idolizing” these figures somewhat, even knowing that the avatars are just animated models rigged up to follow the user’s movements. And the negatives are there as well: a few of these figures have been sadly targeted in doxxing and harassment campaigns.

In the end, I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong with being a fan of these entertainers. That’s kind of the point, after all. Hell, I’m a fan of a few VTubers myself, so I can’t talk shit about that. If they’re good at their jobs and are promoted well enough, it’s only natural that they’ll get a lot of fans, and there’s plenty of good that can come out of that. But that’s true only as long as the difference between the public avatar and the private person behind it is recognized and respected — whether that avatar is a figurative one in the form of a real-life pop idol figure or a literal one in the form of a VTuber model. Otherwise, you can end up with a situation like the kind presented in Perfect Blue, which is not something you’d ever want.

That said, you would certainly want to watch this movie, because it’s good. It does the bizarre psychological drama right, and you can probably draw some comparisons with the works of guys like David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch — stuff that’s weird but to a purpose, not just for the hell of it (or for that matter Darren Aronofsky, whose film Black Swan is supposed to have taken a lot of inspiration from Perfect Blue.) That “weird not just for the sake of weird” style just happens to be my thing too, so given this promising start, I’ll be looking out for more of Kon’s work in the future.

Listening/reading log #18 (March 2021)

Sorry for the short break between posts and for not being very active in general lately. I’ve had a mountain of work to get through since the beginning of the year, and it’s only growing larger. But I finally have a weekend to myself (as much as I ever get any time “to myself” anyway. Being an adult really is shit, isn’t it? Or maybe I should blame myself instead for making poor life choices…)

I promise I’ll stop complaining now. I don’t have much reason to feel bad, anyway — April is the start of the overcast/rainy season here, which is my favorite kind of weather when it happens in this 60/70 degree, slightly humid climate. I think there are also particular kinds of music that go well with this weather. The following three albums fall into that category for me, though I don’t know if I can really explain why they make good “rain music.” After that, I’ll cover more excellent writing from around the communities last month as usual.

Bitches Brew (Miles Davis, 1970)

Highlights: It’s hard to break down because it’s so damn long but Bitches Brew gives you a good idea of what’s going on here

I’ve written about a lot of progressive rock here, but everyone knows that’s for weirdo shut-in nerds like me and is not cool in the slightest. No, Bitches Brew is the kind of album you bring up if you want to seem deep and cool, especially if you’re in college.

Until the late 60s, jazz and rock didn’t have much of anything to do with each other, but top musicians including Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea got together to combine the two into what we now call fusion. They weren’t the first to do this, but their work together did a lot to define the new genre, starting with In a Silent Way in 1969. Bitches Brew seems to be the big one, though, both in terms of its scope and size, a double album with a 90+ minute runtime. These are mainly spacy jazz/rock tracks like the opening Pharaoh’s Dance and the title track that make up the entire first record, along with a little more funky-sounding music like the shorter Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.

It’s all pretty hypnotic stuff, excellent to space out or study or work to, but there’s also a lot going on if you want to pay closer attention to the music. Even if you don’t like traditional jazz, you should check this out, because it’s not much like Miles Davis’ earlier work. (Also, if you want to be a real college hipster, be sure to album-name-drop his following A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Really impress that girl in your philosophy class. But more importantly, it’s good as well, so be sure to listen to it too.)

Future Days (Can, 1973)

Highlights: Future Days, Moonshake

I’ve covered the classic German band Can once before, back when I wrote about Ege Bamyasi. That’s a great album too, but as far as “stuck inside/rainy day” music goes, I prefer their later album Future Days. These guys had an amazing rhythm section that makes the music feel almost trance-like, and Damo Suzuki’s strange half-understandable singing adds to that feeling.

Future Days is another album that used to be perfect for my study sessions and is now perfect for my work sessions. Still more hypnotic tracks like you’ll find on Ege Bamyasi and the equally great Tago Mago, but Future Days feels more chilled out than those two albums. The title track is an excellent opener, and the ending 20-minute Bel Air puts me in a nice mood. “Moonshake” provides a nice short break (kind of sounds a bit like “I’m So Green” from Ege Bamyasi, which I like too, so that’s a good thing.)

I don’t really have much more to say about this album, other than it’s another one you should hear if you haven’t already. It almost sounds like ambient music, which I don’t think would take off for a while until Brian Eno really got around to defining that genre. I also wonder if they were going for a kind of aquatic theme here with the music and the trident-looking symbol on the album cover, though from the lyrics that are on this album there’s no way you’d ever be able to tell.

Blue Reflection Official Soundtrack (Various, 2017)

Highlights: Way too many to choose from, but see below

Even though I wrote about Bitches Brew above, as you probably know already, I am a weirdo shut-in nerd who plays way too many JRPGs. A few months ago, I finally got through Blue Reflection, a somewhat unfairly overlooked/maligned game here in the States at least. Not that the mixed reviews are that surprising — it had its problems, but a turn-based JRPG about magical girls isn’t exactly the kind of game most professional critics here love to talk up in the first place.

I didn’t see anyone talking shit about its music, though, because the soundtrack is undoubtedly excellent. There are the expected driving battle themes like TIGAR Kurt, but a lot of the album focuses on calmer piano/synth-based pieces like A Small Distance and Vesicular Membrane Transporter. I’ll still talk up Blue Reflection myself (and I’ll absolutely be getting the announced sequel Second Light when it comes out here) but if this game isn’t your thing, its music is still worth hearing especially if you need something relaxing to get you through the day or the night.

Now to the featured articles:

Eyes on Transistor (Lost to the Aether) — Aether takes an in-depth and thorough look at Transistor, the game that developer Supergiant Games released following their hit Bastion, and it seems this one is a bit of a mixed bag.

FromSoftware Games Ranked (Honest Gamer) — FromSoftware has developed some of the most interesting games of the last decade or so, and I have to acknowledge that even if I am absolute, total shit at every one I’ve ever tried. Stephen at Honest Gamer gives his own ranking of their games along with his thoughts on each.

Source Code (Extra Life) — I’m pretty damn tired of modern speculative sci-fi now, even if I did try to write some at one point — if you’re curious where that writing is now, it went straight into the trash, which is exactly where it belongs. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done well. Does Duncan Jones’ speculative science fiction film Source Code get it right? Read Red Metal’s comprehensive review to get his opinion on it.

I Actually Enjoy Among Us (Frostilyte Writes) — Frostilyte takes on the subject of the popular party game Among Us and why he actually enjoys it, addressing how and why it works for him. This is a trend I’ve completely missed out on, but it certainly looks like a great time.

Film in 500: Promare Review (WCRobinson) — New in WCRobinson’s concise Film in 500 review series, a look at one I’ve been meaning to see at some point, Trigger’s Promare.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles In Time (Gaming Omnivore) — The Ninja Turtles were a staple of my early childhood, and while game adaptations of comics and films usually weren’t that great at the time, Turtles in Time was actually a pretty fine beat-em-up. Learn more about it from Gaming Omnivore.

Call of the Night: Volume 1 – Sexy Vampire Nights (Mechanical Anime Reviews) — I’ve been thinking about trying out a few manga series lately. I’ll probably pass on Call of the Night based on Scott’s look at it, but it might be just your thing. “Has a hot vampire girl” is a pretty decent draw for a series in any case, even if it doesn’t have much else.

A Twist “Outrage” Marketing in Anime? (I drink and watch anime) — Irina gives her usual interesting perspective on an issue that keeps coming up in the online anime circles, at least here in the West — what place does moral outrage have in marketing anime? There’s no question that a few series have been attacked, and sometimes unfairly, by some very uptight people, but overreactions to such outrages have also occurred, creating an irritating and stupid self-sustaining loop of people screaming at each other on Twitter. And sometimes that mutual outrage gets a series more attention than it might otherwise have gotten (or maybe deserved.) No matter whether you take a side on this issue, Irina’s post on the subject is worth reading.

Amazing Anime Power Often Comes with A High Cost (100 Word Anime) — And from Karandi, a post on the theme of power in anime and the toll it takes on those who use it. If the cost of power is so high, I think I’d rather be powerless.

That’s all for last month. Shorter post this time, and very late, but I hope to correct that next month. And I do have a few posts planned out including two reviews of anime, one very dark and heavy and the other extra-light and fluffy, so hopefully everyone will find something they like. Other than that, I’m currently rolling through the Dusk trilogy of the Atelier series — Gust has really taken over all my game time so far this year. Until next time, all the best.

A review of Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk (PS4)

It took a while, but I’m happy to say that my gap between Atelier games this time wasn’t nearly as long as my last one — six years between Rorona and Meruru, and only eight months between Meruru and Ayesha, the next game in the line chronologically (though yeah, I know Totori is still missing in that list, and I do intend to take care of that at some point. But I did finish this one, so let me bask in that for now at least. Finishing an Atelier game always feels like a big accomplishment.)

Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk originally came out on the PS3 in 2012, but like the Arland games that preceded it, it got an upgraded Plus release on the Vita and the DX version that I played on the PS4, along with ports on the Switch and PC. With this game, however, we’re leaving behind the colorful world of Arland and traveling to a somewhat bleaker one. Atelier Ayesha and the following two titles Atelier Escha & Logy and Atelier Shallie compose the Dusk trilogy, which takes place in a completely different world from that of the Arland games, one that’s falling apart: the World of Dusk, appropriately named for the time of the day just before night falls. From the very beginning of Ayesha, we learn that plant life has been dying off and sources of nutrition are becoming scarcer in this world, forcing humanity to conserve its resources to survive.

But the story of the game is a lot more personal than that might suggest. We’re not out to save the world, but rather one person. The protagonist, Ayesha Altugle, is an apothecary who makes and sells medicine, but for years she’s also been mourning her younger sister, Nio, who disappeared one day while gathering herbs in a nearby ruin. At the beginning of the game, Ayesha visits the grave built for Nio in the same ruins and sees a brief ghostly vision of her sister above the headstone.

She’s not sure what to make of this vision at first and thinks it might be a hallucination brought on by grief. However, a mysterious man named Keithgriff who happens to be examining the ruins at the same time tells her that her sister isn’t dead and can be returned to their world, but only if Ayesha studies the secrets of alchemy. Before leaving, he also tells her that she probably only has three years to save Nio before she’s lost forever (yes, that old time limit from the Arland series is back again.)

Of course, we already know Ayesha is at least a beginner alchemist. She’s the protagonist of an Atelier game, after all. In fact, Ayesha uses alchemy to make medicine using methods her grandfather taught her, but she doesn’t realize that she’s using alchemy and isn’t even familiar with the term at first. While alchemy is well-known in the world of Arland, in the Dusk series, it seems to be a nearly lost art remembered only by scholars and professionals who have had to piece it together from old reference books and the scraps of past knowledge.

Ayesha is now convinced that Nio is still alive somewhere, so lacking any other lead, she decides to place her trust in Keithgriff’s promises and sets out on a journey to start learning about alchemy and to meet a few old friends and a lot of new ones, all of whom can help her in various ways.

Pictured center, my combat MVP Linca, and right, best girl Marion, out on government business.

There’s not much more to the central story than that. Ayesha has three years to save her sister, and aside from taking on some odd jobs to make money and following character-specific side stories, that’s what you’ll spend this three years working towards. Making it to that goal doesn’t automatically end the game, however: you’ll still have your three years to play with no matter what, time that can be used to prepare for a much easier second run with the benefits that a new game plus provides (rolling over your equipped weapons/armor/accessories, equipped “adventure” items that help you save time while traveling around the map and collecting ingredients among other things, specialized alchemy bonuses, items registered in shops, and money.)

As in previous Atelier games I’ve played, this takes a bit of the sting off of a bad end, since it more or less guarantees you’ll get it right the second time assuming you’ve properly prepared by equipping all the necessary items and selling off all your other items and ingredients before that second cycle begins. While they’re all helpful, that money carryover is especially nice, since I was perpetually short of Cole my first playthrough. All those alchemy books are expensive, but you’re required to buy them to learn new recipes and make more effective items.

Ayesha, just finding out she’s graduated from medicine-maker to weapons manufacturer.

This is only the third Atelier game I’ve played, and the first outside of the Arland series, so it partly felt like revisiting an old series but partly like playing a new one. There are plenty of similarities between Ayesha and the Arland titles I’ve played other than the imposition of a time limit. As before, the alchemy system is a central part of the gameplay. Learning how to efficiently gather ingredients in the field and create healing, support, and attack items with useful attributes is vital to doing well, both in combat and in fulfilling the requests of the townspeople and travelers you’ll come across in the course of Ayesha’s journey. The game also uses a traditional JRPG-style turn-based combat system with the twist once again that the alchemist character Ayesha is the only one who can use items, giving her an extremely important support role in battle.

However, there are more than enough differences between the two sub-series I’ve found so far to make Ayesha feel like a fresh experience. While alchemy is again a critical part of the game, the system you’ll have to learn is very different, involving synthesis restrictions and bonuses and special abilities that weren’t present in the Arland games. Having to learn this new system of alchemy was a little jarring coming off of Meruru, but it was intuitive enough not to be annoying to figure out, and pretty soon I was used to it. It does feel more complex than the alchemy system in Arland, so new players might be slightly intimidated by all the point values and effects and all the other numbers that go into even the simplest synthesis, but the game also has tutorials to watch if you need anything clarified.

I promise this all makes sense once you have it down.

Another big difference in Ayesha and the Dusk trilogy as a whole is the artistic direction. Artist and character designer Hidari’s style has a very different feel from Mel Kishida’s, but I still like it a lot. The game’s world and characters as a whole feel less colorful than they did in Arland, but that fits in well with the dying world of Dusk, and it all still manages to look beautiful in its own right (though I do miss the visual novel-style character portraits during dialogue that we got throughout Arland, but those seem to be gone forever at this point. Maybe I’m just being behind the times here.)

And the characters are still colorful enough in the figurative sense, at least. Ayesha’s old and new friends alike are an interesting set of people of all kinds — miners, merchants, shopkeepers, shepherds, and government officials among others, all with their own quirks and their parts to play in the story. As in Rorona and Meruru, these supporting characters aren’t one-note types but feel sufficiently fleshed out, and there are plenty of entertaining side stories to play through while you take on the central tasks of improving your combat and alchemy skills and taking the necessary steps to find and rescue Nio.

All business in town goes through Marietta, and don’t forget it

It’s also worth noting one major positive I found in Ayesha that I felt to be an improvement in that “quality of life” area. When Keithgriff told Ayesha on day one that she’d have three years to save Nio, I knew exactly what that meant — you have three years to get this done, no exceptions. Meruru also had a strict three-year time limit to achieve its central goal, though with a two-year extension and a new target if you managed to achieve it in that period.

Princess Meruru’s goal of “show Dad I can help the kingdom through alchemy so he’ll let me do what I want with my life” was not quite as urgent or serious as Ayesha’s goal of “save my sister from the shadow realm”, but thankfully, Ayesha offsets this by being more forgiving. As before, traveling across the map between towns and field/dungeon areas eats up days, as does gathering ingredients in field areas and using these ingredients to synthesize new items at the workshop. But unlike Meruru, who had to return to Totori’s atelier to do all her alchemy, Ayesha gets to set up several ateliers all over the land, making it easier to manage her time. Battles in Ayesha also feel like they take a lot less time off of the clock than they did before, though I’d have to go back to play Meruru again to say that for sure.

A very early-game battle including Ayesha’s old friend Regina and her new friend Wilbell. Your party is capped at three members, your main character plus two extras as in earlier games. Remember to have Ayesha use those items in combat, because they make her life and yours a lot easier.

Really, as long as you don’t spend months running around in circles or synthesizing items you don’t need, it’s not too hard to reach your goal before time runs out. I had about eight months left on the calendar when I was finished, and my run was not an optimal first pass at the game by any means. I still don’t know if I’d say that Ayesha is necessarily the place to start for an Atelier newcomer who might not be comfortable with the time limit, since it can be a source of stress — I haven’t played any of them yet, but I understand that the later Mysterious trilogy and the Ryza games drop that element altogether. But Ayesha does feel more forgiving about time management than past games,* so I wouldn’t warn new players off of it either.

I used to be a bit bothered by the forced time management aspect of these games myself, but thinking about it now in a more positive light, that time limit can help keep you on track, focused on the central goal of the game. There’s no running around and carrying out lighthearted sidequests while the horrible impending apocalypse is indefinitely put on hold, as happens in so many non-linear RPGs. These PS3-era Atelier games are a bit more linear for that reason, but they don’t exactly shove you down a single track either; you still get to choose exactly how to achieve your goals. Hell, if you don’t mind getting a bad end and restarting with an easier second run, that’s an option too. Admittedly not an ideal one, but with how many endings they feature, these games are made to be played multiple times anyway, another aspect that sets them apart from most other JRPGs.

Ayesha out in the field near the end of Year 1. The calendar always starts on April 1 for some reason, so it will flip to Year 2 once March is done.

In any case, I was thankful for the relative leniency of Ayesha, even if that three-year time limit was never really explained very well (why three years exactly? It made sense in Meruru, but here it seems arbitrary. Maybe Keithgriff knows the reason and he’s just not telling us, which would be completely in character.) Though I still had to manage my time, I didn’t feel like I was on quite as short of a leash as I did when I was playing Meruru. I also didn’t feel the need to reload an old save this time thanks to some bullshit moving dungeon that contained an ingredient I didn’t realize I absolutely needed until it had already moved, causing me to lose a few in-game months that I couldn’t do without. While I generally don’t mind the time limits in the Atelier series so far, that absolutely pissed me off. Unlike Meruru, Ayesha didn’t fuck around with me in that manner, which I consider a plus.

On the other hand, I enjoyed the world of Arland a bit more, though part of that might have been seeing old characters I knew and liked from Rorona show up again. I wouldn’t say I have any real nostalgia for 2014, when I played my first Atelier game (it was also when I finished my first year at law school, which was an ordeal that I don’t have totally positive memories of) but it did add something to the experience. There also wasn’t nearly as much talk about making pie in Ayesha as there was in those older games, or any at all from what I remember. I’m more of a cake guy, but I like pie as well, and the inability to synthesize it in this game was a bit of a drawback.

These chicken pastry things are the closest you can get, and though they do look good, I don’t think they count as pies in the traditional sense.

Bullshit aside, Ayesha really did have a very different feel from the Arland games, but I enjoyed it more than enough to move on to the next game in the Dusk series. I own the entire Dusk trilogy in its deluxe package form on the PS4, and I plan to make it through the whole thing this year. That’s my hope, at least. I’ve heard especially good things about the following game Atelier Escha & Logy, which I’ve already started as of this writing, so I look forward to seeing how it measures up and how it carries on the wider story of the World of Dusk.

I’m also looking forward to hearing more of the series’ music. I’m already loving the jazz lounge class of Escha & Logy, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. Ayesha has an excellent soundtrack, anyway, which seems to be standard for the series. One of the songs, according to the composer’s notes in the game’s library, even features 17 Haruka Shimotsukis. If you know that name, you’ll instantly know the song I’m talking about when you hear it. 𒀭

 

*I’ve heard Totori is even more demanding with regard to the time limit, but again, I haven’t played it yet so I can’t say. Maybe once I get Japanese down well enough, I’ll try to play the original JP release. That could be an interesting measure of my skills, or possibly a slap in the face when I realize I still can’t read kanji beyond a second-grade level.

Deep reads #5.4: Gods and devils

This is the last in my deep reads post series about Megami Tensei, though it’s certainly not the last time I’ll ever write about the series. I can absolutely guarantee that. This one deals a lot with religion in the context of the games, so if you don’t care to read about that, then you probably shouldn’t read it. Otherwise, have a good time! Maybe. That’s for you to judge, not me.

***

I was raised to fear God. Depending on your perspective, this might sound like a strange thing to teach a child. Quite a scary one as well, and in some sense it was. But in the Islamic tradition, it’s completely normal and even natural. The existence of an omnipotent creator of the universe and judge of humanity is taken for granted, as is the fact that this creator and judge is good, forgiving, and just. And in the various places I’ve lived for most of my life, the term “God-fearing man/woman” was a synonym for a good person, which tells you a lot about the values of the cultures I grew up in.

I’m not writing this post to debate the existence of God, gods, angels, demons, spirits, or the supernatural in general with anyone. You may certainly disagree, but to me, that seems like a pretty useless debate to have. If these exist, then they exist; if they don’t, they don’t — there’s nothing any of us can do about that either way. I won’t criticize anyone for their religious belief or lack thereof, either; life is such a miserable shitshow as far as I’m concerned that any way you can find to get through it is fine as long as you’re not hurting or intruding on the rights of other people in the process.1

However, the ways in which people think about religion and the supernatural are really interesting to me. Though Islam is one of the largest religions in the world, there were very few Muslims where I grew up, and there were none at all at my school who I knew of aside from me. This probably gave me a different perspective than my friends from Christian families had about religion in general; since I knew my family’s beliefs were very different from theirs in some ways, I had to accept that most of the people around us didn’t believe in the same way we did.

And maybe that perspective helped me get into Megami Tensei. Because out of every game series that I’ve ever played, MegaTen would probably be considered by strict adherents of any of the Abrahamic religions to be the most sacrilegious.2 Certainly it could come off that way at first glance, without even giving it a second look — just check out the cover of Persona 3 FES, the expanded version of the very first game in the series I bought and the first real breakout the series had here in the US:

Yeah, that is a pentagram in the background, behind the silhouette of Aigis. I think it’s meant to be a magic circle, which would make sense considering its origins. It seems to be a modified version of the older symbol used on the covers of Shin Megami Tensei I and II, which feature a six-pointed star and a more elaborate design in general with what I think is Loki’s face in the middle as a reference to his summoning by Nakajima in the original novel. However, over here, when people see a pentagram, the usual assumption is that it’s associated with some kind of devil business. The fact that the pentagram design specifically was used only in the West had to be deliberate on the part of Atlus — it’s also on the NA cover of Nocturne, maybe put on to add some extra edge (which honestly wasn’t necessary in my opinion, but if it attracted some edgy kid gamers I guess so much the better for their sales.)

In a way, it might have been a good thing that Megami Tensei had a very low profile in the West before P3. By the mid-2000s, the controversies connected to supposed Satanic references in popular media had died down, but in the late 90s they were still going strong. This may have been a result of the larger “Satanic Panic” of the late 80s and 90s generally, during which you couldn’t turn a corner without finding a den of devil-worshipers carrying out a sacrifice — or at least that was what people were saying at the time. I was either not alive or way too young for most of that period to notice that kind of talk or to care about it even if I had, but I do remember the continuing scare in the late 90s that most prominently involved Harry Potter and Pokemon.

The supposed Pokemon links were just silly, probably a result of some parents confused by all these weirdly popular creatures and thinking there must be something sinister about them. At least Harry Potter actually dealt with witchcraft, though the hero of that series and his friends were decidedly good wizards and witches fighting against evil ones, so even that doesn’t fit the bill of a Satan-inspired work. No — if the upset parent groups had really wanted something to be scared by, they should have raised the alarm over Megami Tensei, a series of games that actually featured Lucifer and that even let you join his cause and fight against God himself if you so desired.

(And here’s where I start getting into the actual theology, so please correct me if I get something wrong. Though I have an interest in it, I’m a total amateur in this area.)

“Louis Cyphre” as depicted in Shin Megami Tensei by Kazuma Kaneko. He never bothered trying too hard with his pseudonyms, at least not in the early days.

And Lucifer himself would have been the source of a lot of this controversy. While he doesn’t seem to figure into Judaism very much or at all, in Christian tradition, Lucifer was originally one of the prominent angels in the service of God. But this prominence made him prideful, and he eventually led a failed rebellion against God, who tossed him and the rebel angels who joined him into Hell. Lucifer is sometimes depicted as a sort of king of Hell, ruling over vast legions of demons, including many of his fellow fallen angels featured in old European grimoires like The Lesser Key of Solomon and The Infernal Dictionary. Lucifer is also generally equated with Satan and is often simply referred to as “the Devil”, the one who tempts humans to sin so he can drag them down to Hell when they die.

Islamic tradition contains a similar story about the rebellion against God, only Lucifer is named Iblis and is considered by many Muslims to have been not an angel but rather a powerful djinn, a supernatural being with free will and the source of the genie legend that we know over here. But the gist of the story is the same — Iblis refuses to accept God’s command (in this case, by vocally disapproving of his plan to create humanity) and gets cast out of Heaven and thrown into Hell, but with special permission to tempt humans to sin once again. And in both traditions, it’s implied that he’s the serpent who causes the fall of man by convincing Eve to eat a fruit from the tree of knowledge, who then got Adam to eat the same fruit, and then we were all royally boned and had to till the soil and all that nonsense for thousands of years.

As with just about every element of our religious traditions, there are a lot of disagreements over much of the above between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and between members of sects and schools within those religions, and even of sects within some of those sects — for example, over whether Lucifer and Satan are the same or are distinct beings,3 over his or their origins, over whether he even exists, over whether or how an apocalypse will go down and how he might be involved in it, etc. etc. What really interests me in this case, however, is the relationship Lucifer, or the Devil, or whatever you want to call him has with God and with humanity, how those play out in the universe of MegaTen, and what that might mean for religious believers who might not be comfortable with its interpretations.

Mastema, an angel loyal to God, as depicted in SMT: Strange Journey offering support to you and your friends. But is he really trustworthy?

The biggest difference between these traditional interpretations and the ones found in MegaTen as I see it is based in the Law vs. Chaos system used so often in the series. In tradition, God is absolutely good and Lucifer/Satan is absolutely evil.

There are very old, famous interpretations of Lucifer than are more nuanced that that. The best-known of these is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which depicts him as a tragic figure. The Devil is also featured briefly in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, not laughing maniacally over his kingdom but rather trapped in a mass of ice in the center of Hell, uncontrollably weeping over his fate and being frozen in by his own tears.

However, in both these works, Lucifer is still considered to be evil, or at best extremely misguided. By contrast, in the Megami Tensei universe, Lucifer is not at the evil end of a good-evil scale but rather at the chaotic end of a law-chaos scale, with God or an avatar of God at the law end. One of the results of this difference is that the games don’t put any particular moral weight on your choice between the two, leaving you to make that call for yourself. I’ve written a bit about the hero’s unusual role in these games before — you’re generally required in Shin Megami Tensei games especially to decide between joining God or one of his avatars and his allied forces and supporting a regime of total order, in which peace reigns but at the cost of freedom, or joining Lucifer and his forces and going full chaos with all the freedom but also the destruction and misery that leads to. If you’re lucky enough to manage it, you can also reject both and fight for humanity independent of these two supernatural powers on the Neutral path, though thanks to the games’ strict requirements it’s usually a pain in the ass to achieve this route.

And then you have to fight this asshole. No, I haven’t forgotten about you.

There are many more gods and demons from around the world thrown into the MegaTen mix, and some games center more on eastern traditions (the Digital Devil Saga duology, for example, which is based largely in Hinduism and Buddhism.) But the idea of “killing God” that Megami Tensei is known for is still in those games to some extent. It still feels a little sacrilegious to me somehow, even if these gods aren’t the ones I was brought up to believe in.

This idea of killing God isn’t unique to Megami Tensei, of course: it’s a staple of the JRPG genre itself. If there’s an organized religion in a JRPG, it’s almost certainly dysfunctional and corrupt at best and an insane, evil cult at worst. Gods, if they exist in the game universe, are also generally best mistrusted, since they’re often planning to either end the world or use and sacrifice the heroes for their own ends, and they generally don’t give a shit about humanity or any other sentient life even if they’re not actively trying to destroy it. There are exceptions, but this seems to be the standard, at least in older JRPGs.

So the writers at Atlus didn’t exactly invent this idea. However, they are the only ones I know of to actually put the God of the Abrahamic religions in their games and let you quite literally punch him in the face, mostly notably in the form of YHVH, the Tetragrammaton or four letters of the name of God of the Old Testament. When this guy shows up, he demands absolute obedience or else. Fitting for the one who represents the Law path, but it leaves a bad impression on me, especially when the end result of taking that path involves a lot of people dying as it inevitably does.

This really hit me when I first played Nocturne. That game, unlike most of the others in the main line of Shin Megami Tensei games, doesn’t work on a Law-Chaos scale but rather gives you a choice of three different Reasons, essentially the life philosophies of three characters who are trying to make a reborn world out of the ruins of Tokyo, one that operates according to their own ideals. All three result in pretty shit worlds as far as I can tell, though Musubi is still my favorite (even if my ideas about what Musubi means for its inhabitants might not be correct; I might have to revisit that someday.) Different classes of demons support different Reasons, and strangely enough, the faction of angels decides to support Yosuga, the “might makes right” Reason that has some resemblance to the Chaos concept in terms of its violence against the weak, only with a supreme leader standing at the top who can’t be knocked over by a new challenger.

This was strange to me because I’d always understood that one of the tasks of God’s angels was to protect the weak against the strong, but here they were doing just the opposite. So when I made it to the near-endgame fight against the archangels — including Gabriel, who plays a major role in the tradition I was brought up in4 — I didn’t have any problem knocking the shit out of all of them, since they were clearly twisted depictions of those figures that I couldn’t recognize.

Seraph as depicted by Kazuma Kaneko

Even so, I partly understand this sort of interpretation of God and his angels. The Old Testament God was famously testy, putting his people through all kinds of trials, inflicting plagues and infestations on them and even drowning them in a massive flood. And while God later said he wouldn’t do that again, the prophesies of apocalypse found in the Bible and Quran both have that same sort of feeling to them, to me at least.

And even setting the Old Testament aside, a lot of our shared religious tradition comes off as a lot more terrifying to me than some of us are taught. The idea of a final judgment of all souls is scary enough in itself, but some of the angels as described in the Bible come off as very strange and alien — Kaneko’s depiction of the seraph, left, a high-ranking class of angel, is a lot closer to those descriptions than the guy or lady with wings we generally think of. Hell, even most of Kaneko’s lower-level “guy with wings” angel designs look pretty fierce and unapproachable.

Of course, the point is that if you’re a righteous person and a true believer, you have nothing to worry about despite how scary it all seems. The mercy and forgiveness of God are constantly emphasized as well. All this nice stuff fits perfectly well with the terrifying aspects of religion, because it truly can inspire terror if you believe in it — the kind that hopefully sets you on the moral path. I guess that’s the idea, anyway.

Whether any of that is true or not, I never had the feeling playing these games that I was doing anything particularly against the religion I was brought up in. For one thing, it’s all fiction, so no matter how many angels or even versions of God I beat up in these games with insta-kill dark attacks or Freikugels, I don’t think it matters. But even if it does matter, the ideals expressed by the Law path, to me anyway, never lined up very well with my own concept of God. I admit that concept might not be an orthodox one, either in Islam or any of the other related religions. But I do think it’s totally possible for even a strong religious believer to enjoy these games on that basis, even if they don’t want to follow the Law path. Megami Tensei contains some interesting angles on the ideas of religious faith and how it can affect humanity that are worth exploring, no matter what your feelings about faith in the real world are.

But I won’t be addressing those here. Not yet, anyway, because I’m done with Megami Tensei for now. There’s a lot more that can be said about these games, and I’m sure it’s all been said already. Of course, if I feel like returning to this series, I won’t let that stop me from saying it over again.

Until that time, I’m saying goodbye to MegaTen for a while. At least until SMT V comes out, whenever that might be. If there’s one thing being a fan of this series has taught me, it’s how to wait. 𒀭

1 This view itself could be considered a sacrilegious one, since true believers (at least in my tradition and the related ones in the Abrahamic line) are meant to feel and express gratitude for life, which I’m not properly doing.

That’s the reason I also want to reject a lot of what I see as the more useless social norms. It’s not just because of my leftover bits of edginess from when I was a kid (though I’m sure those are still buried around somewhere, probably in the lines I wrote above now that I look at them again) but mainly because I believe life is generally enough of a burden to bear that people should not be required to conform with such norms on top of that, especially when they’re handed down from generation to generation for no reason other than “this is how we’ve always done it.” Again, as long as nobody’s being hurt or having their rights infringed upon, I say you should be free to cope with life as you like.

Of course, that issue becomes more complicated when the reason is “because this is how God told us to do it.” I think that’s an interesting issue, but it’s not something I feel like getting into here, and anyway it’s way outside the scope of this post and site in general (and also outside the scope of my own abilities to address in a meaningful way, which is another reason for me to avoid the subject.)

2 And maybe of eastern religions as well, though I don’t know enough about them to say for sure.

3 In these games, Lucifer and Satan are portrayed as different beings, and even as directly opposed to each other. The MegaTen depiction of Satan is as scary as you might expect, but he is a loyal servant of God carrying out the role of accuser of humanity on his behalf.

4 The MegaTen version of Gabriel is interesting, partly because the games depict the archangel as female, but more because they generally show her as actually feeling some sympathy for humans that isn’t shared by either her colleagues or her boss (though this doesn’t come up in Nocturne from what I remember.) Even if she still does follow God’s orders no matter what, at least she feels bad about it sometimes.

The Episode 1 anime dice roll (rolls 4 – 7)

Today I keep on rolling rolling rolling through my lists of anime that I haven’t watched yet to find something promising. This time I ended up with a mix of complete despair and hope for humanity, leaving me pretty balanced out in my usual moderately depressive state. I wouldn’t have it any other way. So let’s get started with:

Girls’ Last Tour

Starting with a nice and dark one, an adaptation of a manga series about two young girls who are orphaned (I think at least that’s implied) by a massive world war and are forced to search the ruins of civilization for food and other resources to survive. Chito drives their small commandeered military vehicle, while Yuuri rides in the back and takes gunning duties (though who exactly these girls might have to shoot is still a mystery.)

The dynamic between these two is interesting; they’ve clearly been together for a while and know each other well, and it’s implied that they were friends back during the war that tore humanity apart. They also have a nice contrast going, with Chito being the levelheaded, calm one and Yuuri the impulsive weirdo. The one aspect of Girls’ Last Tour that I might have to get used to is the artstyle — Chito and Yuuri are designed in this super-deformed cutesy Hidamari Sketch-looking style like you’d expect out of a light slice-of-life show like that, but everything around them is realistic-looking and drab. That contrast definitely feels intentional, but I don’t know if it works for me that well.

I’ll still probably keep watching this at some point, though. I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, so when I’m in the mood for something soul-crushing again I’ll pick it back up.

Penguindrum

Also known as Mawaru Penguindrum, but on Hi-Dive/VRV it’s just listed as Penguindrum so I guess that’s what it’s titled over here. This is one I remember being talked about a long time ago but that I never got around to watching. Two brothers Shoma and Kanba live alone with their terminally ill younger sister Himari. One day they all go to an aquarium at Himari’s request, and while there she collapses and is declared dead by emergency services.

The brothers are devastated, but they get a real shock when Himari is revived seemingly by a miracle. Somehow, the penguin hat she was wearing at the time that she bought at the gift shop contains the spirit of a penguin princess girl (this is my best guess of what she is at least) who briefly possess Himari’s body and speaks through her, telling her brothers that they have to find the Penguindrum, whatever the fuck that is. Said penguin princess is also keeping Himari alive for the time being, though she either can’t or won’t maintain her power for very long, so the clock is ticking for her. The boys have no idea where to find this Penguindrum thing, but thankfully they and their sister have help in their search in the form of three seemingly intelligent penguins, each assigned to assist one of them.

I don’t know if any of that made sense to you. It barely did to me and I just watched the thing. But as I’ve said before, I like weird stuff like this, and Penguindrum promises a lot in its first episode that I hope it can keep up. This isn’t produced by Studio SHAFT, but I get a SHAFT-y vibe from the general weirdness of the show so far, especially the trippy sequence where the brothers are first confronted by the princess, and for me that’s a good thing. I just hope the show doesn’t get bogged down in a lot of extremely heavy drama, because my tolerance for that kind of stuff isn’t that high (though it depends on how interesting it is too.) Penguindrum is looking good so far, though.

A Place Further Than the Universe

Another penguin-related anime, though none have showed up yet (aside from one stuffed penguin toy at the beginning, which was a nice touch.) I’ve only ever heard good things about this series, so it’s one that’s been on my to-watch list for a while. A Place Further Than the Universe is centered on high school student Mari, who wants to make the most of her youth but is afraid of the consequences of taking any risk at all to the point that she feels she hasn’t done anything worthwhile. That changes when she runs into Shirase, an older classmate who’s determined to go to Antarctica to find her missing explorer/author mother. Mari, sick of being afraid of taking risks, agrees to go with her.

Everything about this series is promising: the characters seem pretty compelling, and I like the course of the story so far. There’s a lot of that youthful wonder about the world that ends up being completely destroyed and replaced with bitter resignation after you become an adult (or maybe that’s just my experience?) It’s nice to see, anyway. The production is also very high-quality, as expected of Madhouse — it looks beautiful so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the show depicts Antarctica and to seeing how the story plays out in general.

Saki

Somehow I didn’t watch any of this show for over a decade after it aired, not until just last week. It’s one of the only mahjong-centered anime series I know about, the other one being Akagi, which is one of my favorites of all time (and I think that silly-looking one about former Prime Minister Koizumi playing mahjong against other world leaders might have been animated too?)

But I’m happy that I finally got around to remembering this show exists and picking it up, because it seems like a good time. And much like Akagi, it seems like mahjong itself isn’t the main point of the show, but just a template to tell a larger story about the characters playing the game. Saki is a new first-year high schooler who gets dragged into a mahjong club by her friend, despite insisting that she hates the game. When she plays a game with the club, however, she manages to maintain a score of +/-0 throughout, which is incredibly unlikely. Both the club president and top mahjong ace Nodoka realize that it’s no coincidence; from how she plays, Saki clearly has demonic skills, though for some reason she’s not using them to try to win. They try to get her to return to the club, but Saki seems reluctant. Will she give in and join, and will we discover why she hates the game so much despite being so good at it?

Of course the answer to both questions is going to be yes, since this series goes on for 25 episodes + 13 episodes of what looks like a sequel series, and Saki is the title character of both. And I’ll be continuing it for a while at least. Saki doesn’t seem that different from the typical sports anime so far, and I don’t normally go for those shows, but it might just be my stupid bias at work, because I like playing riichi mahjong (even if I am total shit at it, unlike Saki.) However, the mahjong itself might act as a barrier to entry for some watchers, because it’s a complicated game and the show doesn’t even bother explaining the basics, jumping right into the values of different yaku and han and fu and all that shit. Even Akagi did better in that regard. I was also surprised by just how many fanservice shots were in this episode — plenty of low-angle shots + skirts so short I’d question the school principal’s motives in approving them. This is one of those cases where I completely get the complaints about fanservice that I brought up a while ago.

Even so, I’ll keep watching Saki. It feels like the kind of show I can watch to unwind, even if it does look like it might have some more heavy drama later on regarding Saki’s family situation.

And now I have enough series to watch that I probably don’t need to do more of these for a while. However, I still have anime in the backlog that I intend to get to at some point, including a lot of “how the fuck haven’t you watched this” ones like Konosuba and some I know I want to watch like the new Higurashi series. Teasing Master Takagi-san is the first newly-finished one this year I’ve gotten around to writing about (and it’s very worth watching if you haven’t read that post) but I’ve got some others lined up as well that I’m partly or all the way through by now. I just haven’t been able to write anything coherent about them yet.

More game-related posts are also on their way, so don’t worry about that — I haven’t gone through a total format change here like radio stations used to do back when people listened to AM/FM radio (do you remember those days, or am I just getting old? The 90s seem so far away now.) I also plan to get done with that Megami Tensei post series soon, though maybe using a very liberal definition of the word “soon”. See you all in a while.

A review of Teasing Master Takagi-san

Since I’ve had a look at the anime adaptation of Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out! and the original Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro manga, it’s only right that I should give some attention to the last member of the triumvirate of (mostly) good-natured bullying/teasing. Like those, Teasing Master Takagi-san (original title Karakai Jouzu no Takagi-san) is a still-running manga series; the anime adaptation currently has two seasons released in 2016 and 2019. This series features yet another boy and girl pair with a somewhat similar relationship to those in Uzaki and Nagatoro — the girl makes fun of the boy, the boy gets flustered in response and tries to get back at her, and that’s the source of the comedy.

However, Takagi-san is pretty different from those series aside from that common theme, which I think has to do with the somewhat different dynamic between the two leads and the setting they’re in. And of course, I’ll get into all that right now.

Takagi and Nishikata, the leads of the series

The first segment of the show’s first episode, “Eraser”, lays out everything we need to know about these two middle school students and their combative, complicated relationship. Nishikata, the boy, is our protagonist — we know this because we can hear his inner monologue, and also because he sits in the protagonist seat, all the way in the back of the class by the window. Sitting next to him is the girl, Takagi. Nishikata is busy not studying but rather trying to rig up a springy snake toy made of paper in a box meant specifically to scare Takagi. But before he can pull his plan off, Takagi asks for his help opening her pencil case, which she claims is jammed shut. When he takes the case and easily opens it, Takagi’s own springy paper toy jumps out and scares Nishikata, and Takagi breaks down laughing at his extreme reaction.

How most of Nishikata’s attempts at getting revenge on Takagi end up

After Nishikata collapses in defeat, Takagi changes the subject, asking to use his eraser. When he hands it over, Takagi mentions a rumor she heard that if you write your crush’s name on your eraser hidden under the paper holder part of it and said crush uses the eraser up, they’ll fall in love with you. Nishikata dismisses it as a silly superstition, but when Takagi takes his eraser and slides it up to see under that part and pretends to read a name, he starts sweating, wondering whether he wrote a name and forgot about it — even worse, could it have been her name?

Of course, Takagi is bluffing; there’s nothing written there, but she got another reaction out of Nishikata, which was enough for her to get another win over him. She then leaves class to go to the bathroom, and Nishikata takes the chance to take Takagi’s eraser and steal a look at what she might have written under it. When he pushes her eraser up and sees the kana ろ (ro), not the first letter in his name, he feels disappointed, though he’s not sure exactly why. Working up his nerve, he then reads the rest, which translates to “look into the hallway”. And looking to his right, he sees Takagi, peeking around the corner and laughing her ass off at him once again before composing herself and coming back in to get her eraser back and declare still another victory over him.

If only he’d read the other side.

Right away, we get the gist of their relationship. Takagi teases Nishikata endlessly, and while Nishikata tries to get back at her, his attempts fall short because Takagi has already thought a few steps ahead of him. He never gives up, however — his determination to get even with Takagi is a constant throughout the series.

There are two other important points to this first segment, one obvious and the other only hinted at. The obvious one is that Nishikata has a massive crush on Takagi but that he doesn’t realize it yet. As the show continues, Nishikata inches closer to realizing his feelings for her, but it is a slow process. The less obvious point here is that Takagi might have the same feelings for Nishikata — in the early stages this is still only hinted at with bits like the end of the “Eraser” segment, but more of these suggestions show up later on.

Takagi has the upper hand here too, though, because assuming from the beginning that they’re genuine, she understands her feelings for Nishikata better than he does his feelings for her. Moreover, she seems to know that Nishikata is crushing on her, since she uses this fact throughout the series both to tease him and to get closer to him. Every time one of them comes up with a game, it’s probably no coincidence that when Nishikata inevitably loses, the penalty Takagi chooses involves him spending more time with her. Naturally, Nishikata brushes this off as just more of her teasing when he finally notices what’s going on, but we get more hints down the line that Takagi might be serious about what she’s doing behind all the pranks.

There’s lots of looking away and blushing, but it’s almost always Nishikata doing it.

While this developing potential romance (as much as you can call it that in middle school at least) is a big part of the story of Takagi-san, the battle of wits between Nishikata and Takagi is pretty entertaining in itself even apart from that. Takagi clearly has an advantage over Nishikata in the wits department, but instead of using those assets to go after him aggressively, she usually allows him to work himself up into a frenzy, letting him second-guess himself and fall into the traps she’s set for him. Her goal also pretty clearly isn’t to humiliate or demoralize him, even if she does like to see him get embarrassed — she never teases Nishikata in front of other people, but only when they’re either alone or out of earshot of everyone else, and on the few occasions he ends up getting himself hurt she shows genuine concern for his health (though she still somehow finds ways to tease him while caring for him.)

I think Takagi’s relative kindness towards Nishikata contributes to how wholesome this anime is in general. Maybe it’s only natural, since all the characters in the show are still just in middle school, but if you’re the type who doesn’t go for some of the dirty jokes featured in high school or university-based comedies (Nagatoro and Uzaki-chan respectively for example) you might prefer Takagi-san. Nishikata, Takagi, and their friends are all just figuring things out, after all, and all the talk about love and relationships in the show reflects that while still feeling natural (in other words, while the show is “clean” in that sense, it also doesn’t feel like it’s avoiding or papering over anything out of embarrassment.) It’s all very sweet, and though I admittedly like that dirty stuff I mentioned, Takagi-san was a nice change of pace for me.

Holding Takagi’s hand is one of the big hurdles Nishikata has to overcome if that gives you an idea

The only semi-annoyances I kept running into in Takagi-san were the segments featuring three other girls at their school named Yukari, Mina, and Sanae. I think these three show up in every episode and almost always get at least one short segment to themselves, and it’s typically a comedy bit that’s just kind of okay at best. Some of their bits feel like ones that might have been scrapped from Azumanga Daioh or another school slice-of-life like that. They’re not awful and are short enough to tolerate, and I guess these segments are meant to break up all the Takagi/Nishikata stuff. Then again, the reason I watched this show was to see all that Takagi/Nishikata stuff, so I never felt like it needed breaking up anyway.

To be fair, though, this trio and a few of Nishikata’s male friends do comment on their relationship sometimes, usually speculating that they’re dating much to Nishikata’s embarrassment when he finds out (and therefore to Takagi’s amusement) so they’re not totally disconnected from the main story. And that plays into another aspect of their relationship that I really liked: the fact that they’re happy to move at their own pace without feeling pressured by anyone else. Takagi is the one usually setting that pace for both of them, but Nishikata does grow and mature a bit to match her, and he may even end up surprising her a couple of times.

Find those parts for yourself, though; I won’t spoil them here.

I’ll just say right out, since I’ve heard a lot of disagreements on this point and the comparisons are only natural: I liked this series a lot more than I did Uzaki-chan, and I’d put it about on the same level as Nagatoro in terms of the enjoyment I’ve gotten from it. All three series are pretty different, each with their own quirks and particular character relationships, so I’m not accusing one of ripping off the others or anything like that. In fact, I’d say they’re all worth checking out if you’re into this sort of comedy at all. And I didn’t even dislike Uzaki-chan; I just much prefer Takagi-san because I like the characters more and find their back-and-forths a lot more entertaining.

But as usual, your mileage may vary. Maybe you think that even under all the teasing and power struggles between Takagi and Nishikata, this stuff sounds too sweet for you, and I can understand that — but then, you might also take into consideration that I’m unromantic/unsentimental as hell and even I really liked it. So I’d still suggest giving at least the first episode a chance even if you think you might not be into it. Teasing Master Takagi-san is another big recommendation from me, again without any reservations.

Even if it is admittedly annoying to watch since the first season is only aired on Crunchyroll and the second only on Netflix. I don’t know who the fuck is responsible for these kinds of stupid licensing decisions, but I really hate them.