The King is dead, long live the King: A review of Reigns (PC/iOS/Android)

I’m not usually interested in mobile games.  Angry Birds and Candy Crush can go to hell for all I care (especially the latter, after developer King was put in the media spotlight for its bullshit legal shenanigans directed against far less successful game developers in 2014.  And yes, I’m positive they would not have backed down if so much public pressure hadn’t been put on them.  Their “haha no, we’re not an evil company! We were just kidding!!!” open letter was just a reaction to the public outcry.)

But occasionally there’s a mobile game that really interests me.  One of these is Reigns, a game developed for iOS and Android and most recently released for PC.  Reigns is described everywhere as “Tinder for medieval monarchs”, and that description is sort of true, if kind of misleading.  Because yes, the game does use a “swipe left or right” mechanic, but that mechanic is used almost entirely for choosing between different social, military, religious, and economic policies to maintain the balance in the kingdom that is essential to the monarch’s survival.  (Though there is an extremely Tinder-esque choice buried in the game’s many cards – you’ll probably find it at some point if you play long enough.)

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Reigns is a card game that allows you to build your deck as you unlock new paths.  Each card contains a proposal made by one of dozens of characters – one of your subjects or courtiers, along with a handful of more interesting people – and each proposal requires a yes or no answer (though it’s not always strictly yes or no) that will will either increase or decrease the happiness/size/effectiveness of your population, coffers, religious organization, and/or military.  The level of each of the four factors is measured by the bar above the main screen, where the curiously origami-looking characters appear.

Therein lies the danger.  If your king’s policy choice ends up driving one of the four factors too low or too high, he is is horribly killed and his heir (or whoever is most convenient) takes the throne after him.  Yes, even having too much money will kill you.  Therefore, the standard goal is to live as long as possible by balancing all four factors, which takes a steady hand and some good luck.  Sometimes, the cards you draw will help you perfectly balance the factors – for a while, anyway.  At other times, your king will start out with a miserable set of cards that will drive him to a very early grave.

One of the many ends that your king can meet. This one was achieved by building too strong of a military.

One of the many ends that your king can meet. This one was achieved by building too strong of a military.

It’s hard to talk too much about this game without spoiling parts of it.  Your line of monarchs has a list of achievements to fulfill, and many of these are story-related.  Even though each king is replaced immediately after dying and the game continues from there, the decisions of previous kings can affect future outcomes – the game (and particular characters) will remember the choices of past monarchs.  The process of uncovering the mysteries in Reigns makes it somewhat more than just a simple kingdom-maintenance game.

Reigns is also interesting because it depicts the king not as an all-powerful ruler, but rather as the one who everyone else in the kingdom places their hopes and expectations on – the one who has to try to hold the state together and to defend against invasion, rebellion, hunger, and discontent.  Every game of Reigns is a frantic balancing act, and far from feeling powerful while playing the game, I felt vulnerable and nervous.  Whole strings of monarchs only managed to survive for a few years before being murdered or dying of awful diseases, and even the long-reigning kings eventually met terrible ends.  Many historical kings also met terrible ends – just look at how many of them were murdered or executed.  And those are just the monarchs – plenty of dictators also left this world in a brutal fashion.  It really makes you wonder why anyone would ever want to be a ruler.

Thomas the Musician was a boss, though.

Thomas the Musician was a boss, though.

Reigns is only three dollars on the Steam store.  I don’t know its price in mobile form, but it’s probably the same.  For a few hours of bloody royal choose-your-own-adventure action, Reigns is well worth its price.

Games for broke people: Princess Remedy in a World of Hurt

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My first impression of the free game Princess Remedy in a World of Hurt was that the creators thought of the title first and then came up with the concept to fit around it.  Being “in a world of hurt”, if you’re not familiar with the term, means that you’re either getting physically beaten or you’re just generally in serious trouble.  In Princess Remedy, you play as the title character, a magical nurse princess who literally goes to a “world of hurt” where all the citizens suffer from horrible ailments.  Your task is to defeat their illnesses by shooting manifestations of those illnesses with medicine while they chase you and shoot back at you.  (What all that means is that Princess Remedy is a kind of bullet hell game, although one that looks like an adventure game or an RPG at first.)

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The look of the game is interesting.  I guess it’s trying to evoke memories of 8-bit games on the NES and Master System, though the graphics look simplistic even for that period.  That aside, Princess Remedy is pretty fun.  The shooting sections scale up from stupidly simple to fairly difficult, but the game offers health, regeneration and shot power-ups to help the player.  Eventually, though, you’ll have to rely totally upon your dodging and aiming skills to win.  One unusual point about this game is that Princess Remedy can’t seem to control her shot – she’ll simply continue firing her medicine capsules or sparkly bullet things (not sure what those are supposed to represent) in whatever direction she’s facing, which can cause otherwise dormant enemies to fire back at her.

Princess Remedy is worth a play.  It only takes about an hour to beat, but it’s a solid option if you’re looking for a reasonably good free game.

Games for broke people (8/6/2016)

The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us.

– Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

The above statement is as true now as it was when Melville wrote it over 160 years ago.  Paying for things is terrible, and it’s especially terrible when you don’t have a steady job or a consistent source of income.  So while I look for a job and wait the three months it takes the state bar to grade exams, I’ll also be looking at some free and free-to-play games on Steam.  I can’t expect anything amazing from a free title – what I’m looking for is not necessarily a full meal, but more of an hors d’oeuvre.  And since you don’t pay to eat hors d’oeuvres, that analogy really works, doesn’t it?

Today, we’ll look at two puzzle-platformers featuring blocky protagonists.  But these two games are totally different in every other way.

Mandagon

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The things I know about Tibetan Buddhism can be counted on no hands, because I don’t know anything about it.  So I may be missing a lot of meaning in Mandagon, a very short game whose developers claim is inspired by Tibetan theology.  However, I don’t think you have to be an expert in that field to appreciate this game.  Mandagon tells the story of a sacrifice, and the player has to explore what seems to be a large temple sitting on a mountaintop to make that sacrifice.  The one puzzle in the game is extremely easy to figure out – it hardly even counts as a puzzle, and the whole experience only lasts about half an hour, or an hour at the very longest.  But the point of Mandagon seems to be in the exploration itself rather than in finding the goal.  The art is good, and some of the visual touches are very nice (the flags and chimes that flutter in the wind, for example.)  Together with the background music (really more like ambient sound) the atmosphere created is both ominous and strangely relaxing.  The mention of theology in the game’s description put me on my guard, but Mandagon isn’t preachy or heavy-handed either, so don’t let that scare you away.  It’s well worth a play.

You Have 10 Seconds

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The simply and honestly titled You Have 10 Seconds could not be less like Mandagon.  Where the focus in Mandagon was on exploration and relaxation, the focus in 10 Seconds is get to the goal NOW.  YOU DON’T HAVE ANY TIME TO SIT AROUND AND LOOK AT SHIT.  GET MOVING!

10 Seconds requires the player to take his nameless block of a protagonist to the goal on every map within ten seconds.  If he fails to do this (if time runs out or the player runs into a hazard) one life is lost.  While extra lives can be gotten in some levels, the combination of time pressure and obstacle-dodging makes 10 Seconds a fair challenge.  It’s very simply animated, and the music can get annoying, but the game is basically effective at what it tries to do.  For a total cost of $0.00 and at a tiny 33 MB, it’s worth at least downloading if you have any interest in games of this sort.

A review of VA-11 HALL-A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It makes sense in context, I promise

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

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

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

Valhalla I am coming

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

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

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

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

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

I’m still not dead

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

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

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

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

Anyway, reader, see you again soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seventeen

Death of a Political Youth

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