Seven questions that apparently need answering

One of my favorite things about having a blog (now that I’m actually writing on it again, I mean) is that you can occasionally see what kinds of search terms bring people to your articles and posts.  Some of these terms are pretty mundane and expected.  My post on Shin Megami Tensei IV’s alignment system has gotten a lot of views from people search google for ways to get on the various paths to achieve certain endings (by the way, sorry that I don’t actually tell you how to get on each path in that post – I’m a really useful writer like that.) The terms there are pretty standard – “smt iv chaos route”, for example.

However, some search terms I find are just puzzling. Some of them are quite understandable in meaning and purpose, but I have no clue why Google decided one of my posts could answer their search query because they sure as hell weren’t anything I ever talked about. Others are truly bizarre. Since I can’t imagine these people got the answers they were looking for at my blog, I thought I’d take a selection of these search terms out of my stats page and address them one by one.

1) how early in a.m. can i get fried chicken at piggly wiggly

I have no idea. A better question would be why the hell you’re getting fried chicken at Piggly Wiggly when it is injected with something that they refuse to specify on the box. Also, if you have a Piggly Wiggly nearby, I’m willing to bet you also live near a Publix, and Publix fried chicken is about a thousand times better. Go to Publix instead.

2) why ummayyad consider as irreligious

This might have been directed to my now dead post about Damascus, where the Umayyad Mosque still stands (hopefully, at least.) Damascus was also the center of the somewhat short-lived Umayyad dynasty, which ruled most of the 7th-8th century Islamic empire following the death of the last of the “Four Good Caliphs”, Ali. The Umayyads were the first to establish a traditional father => son dynasty over the empire – initially, caliphs had been chosen by election and thus were pretty smart and capable guys (hence the “Good Caliphs” tag they are honored with.) The Umayyad caliphs, as tradition goes, were a bunch of no-good dirty bastards who enjoyed wine and women and all that sort of thing. That’s probably why they were overthrown in the 8th century by the Abbasid dynasty, though a branch of the Umayyads did escape to Spain to rule al-Andalus for a few centuries. But that’s your answer.

3) can you have more than one of the same demon in your party smt 4

Not sure whether I did address this, but the answer is no, you can’t.

4) anime that religious people really hate

This is an interesting one. I’m not really sure of a good answer, though. Maybe Neon Genesis Evangelion, that one’s pretty blasphemous. I’m more interested in why this guy is looking for anime that religious people really hate. Is he trying to upset a religious person? Maybe he’s religious and is looking for a reason to stop watching anime.

5) young lucifer over a camel and everything burning

Okay, this isn’t a question. I suspect he was directed to my blog because of all the Shin Megami Tensei posts I’ve written, but I wonder what exactly this guy was looking for – maybe some kind of fantasy painting? I’m no Roger Dean, so you’d better check out his website instead. I’m not into fantasy art, really, but Dean’s stuff is much less “dragons and huge-breasted bikini armor women” and much more “otherworldly landscapes.”

6) the bad about abu dhabi

I did write about Abu Dhabi, back when this was also a travel blog, but I never addressed any of its bad sides. So here are two reasons not to travel there:

– It’s harder to buy booze. If you’re a tourist you’re naturally going to be drinking at hotel bars and such, which is totally fine since UAE law allows that. Unless you have a letter from your employer, though, as I understand it, you can’t buy any from the special shops they have. And if you have a Muslim-sounding name, it’s totally impossible even with such a letter. Still, you can get a friend to buy beer for you instead.

– It can be a bit boring. Abu Dhabi isn’t nearly as flashy as Dubai. On the other hand, it is building up, and the rulers of AD are doing their best to bring more attractions to the city, even if some of those attractions are gaudy and fakey-seeming. Maybe they think westerners like that sort of thing. Maybe they’re right.

7) i hate pickled foods

This is also not a question. In fact, unlike the lucifer guy above, I have no idea what this searcher was seeking out. People with similar opinions, I guess? In that case he’s out of luck, because I love pickled foods. Better visit a different blog, guy.

So that’s all, I guess. I’d like to think I’m providing a sort of public service here, but let’s be honest, this was totally worthless. But at least it was entertaining for me, and that’s all that counts.

A review of Freedom Planet (PC)

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The love of indie game designers for retro-stylings is pretty understandable – it means way less in production values, and playing on the players’ love for the games of their childhoods is always a good bet. Still, most of these games have seemed to focus on the 8-bit era of the Famicom/NES/Master System. Which is just fine, but the video games of my childhood are more in the 16-bit SNES/Genesis category. So I’m pretty happy about Freedom Planet, an early 90s-style action platformer released in 2014.

Not that mere nostalgia is enough for a game to be good (see Retro City Rampage, which seems to try to survive on its nostalgic appeal alone and fails.) A game, even a pretty basic platformer like this one, has to have fun gameplay and some aspects that set it apart from other, similar games. Luckily, Freedom Planet has both.

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First things first: Freedom Planet obviously looks like a Sonic game. The level art and the sprites and character designs are really reminiscent of Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Moreover, the characters play a bit like Sonic, Tails and Knuckles as far as speed and special moves go. Hell, the game even has half-pipes and loops that look like they were taken straight out of an old Sonic game. And the main character (Lilac, above) kind of looks like a redesigned and recolored Sonic character.

So big deal, you might be thinking: Freedom Planet is a fangame starring a modified Sonic sprite. However, it’s really more than that. Freedom Planet also takes influence from other 16-bit series like Gunstar Heroes, Rocket Knight Adventures, and Mega Man X. The player can make use of lots of different moves unique to each of the game’s three characters to take down enemies and bosses. The mix the developer used here ensures that this game feels not like a Sonic pastiche, but like its own game, which is important as hell (at the very least, it lets him claim a way broader copyright on his work without getting mixed up with SEGA’s lawyers.)

But this isn’t an article on copyrightability in video games, so let’s move on. Freedom Planet tells the story of Lilac, a dragon (yeah, she’s a dragon, somehow), her tomboyish cat friend Carol, and their new annoyingly hyperactive dog friend Milla as they help a mysterious stranger defeat an evil alien overlord who has instituted a coup in their country by killing the king and mind-controlling his son, the prince. It’s a lot more grim than a game from the time would have been (just imagine Dr. Robotnik doing something like this. You can’t, can you?) However, the game still manages to maintain a light and fun atmosphere. It’s colorful and fast, the level designs are varied and interesting, and Lilac, Carol, and Milla play quite differently, requiring a different approach to the same levels for each character. Despite the Sonic-looking-ness of Freedom Planet, the sprite and level art are all great, and it’s obvious that a lot of work went into putting the game together. There’s even full voice-acting. And the voices aren’t even bad! Try to beat that.

Freedom Planet's trio chilling out between stages.

Freedom Planet’s trio chilling out between stages.

I’m gushing over the game at this point, so let me tune it down just slightly: along with the old-school stylings of the art and the gameplay, Freedom Planet also features plenty of old-school cheap difficulty, and some of the levels are long and drag a bit. However, even the pacing and difficulty aren’t really an issue, because Freedom Planet gives Lilac and friends unlimited continues and mid-level checkpoints to start from. Moreover, unlike an old Sonic game, which capped the player’s time in each level at 10 minutes, Freedom Planet imposes no time limit at all, letting you explore and find new ways to get through a level. Finally, the game tries hard to mix things up with new level mechanics in each part of each stage. Some level sections require the player to solve a puzzle to open a door further back in the level. Others feature Indiana Jones huge boulder escape parts. It’s easy for these sorts of games to get dull after a while, but Freedom Planet succeeds for the most part in keeping gameplay fresh throughout.

Oh yeah, the story is also kind of stupid, but I don’t remember a platformer on the SNES or Genesis that had a story worth caring about, so who cares? Nevertheless, there is plenty of story in Freedom Planet, complete with long cutscenes (long for this sort of game, anyway) but if you don’t care to watch them, the game lets you cut them out by choosing “Classic Mode”, which takes you from stage to stage without interruption.

The game features lots of powerups and shields that go more or less unexplained at first.  Also notice the nice graphics (again.)

The game features lots of powerups and shields that go more or less unexplained at first. Also notice the nice graphics (again.)

So: the verdict on Freedom Planet. It’s sometimes frustrating, but basically a really good game. I could even say it’s great, though that might be too much praise. In any case, I basically enjoyed Freedom Planet, even though some parts of it are way too god damn hard (specifically some extra-long parts of later stages and boss fights.) If all of the above sounds good to you, you might consider buying the game on Steam: I’d say this game is worth the $15 price tag.

I should disclose that I might be biased here because, as a kid, I really enjoyed the old Sonic and Mega Man series and some of the other games Freedom Planet cribs from, and I still do, so I naturally took to this game’s approach. I also appreciate the fact that, unlike a lot of modern 2D action/puzzle platform games, Freedom Planet doesn’t seem to take itself all that seriously or have pretensions to being meaningful all-capitals ART. For the most part, it really feels like a game that could have been released in the early 90s on the SNES or the Genesis. There’s a place for serious art in video games, and even in platformers, but sometimes you just want a good time, and Freedom Planet delivers that.

Anime for people who hate anime: Welcome to the NHK!

nhk_01

I’ve consumed plenty of books, games, and shows that I’ve enjoyed. But only a few have really hit a nerve with me. Welcome to the NHK!, a novel-turned-anime series aired several years ago, is one of those few.

NHK is not, as I first thought, about a young journalist starting a new job at Japan’s biggest national news network. It is instead the story of a hikkikomori – roughly speaking a jobless, asocial shut-in. Tatsuhiro Satou is 22 years old and a college dropout. We soon learn the reason he left school. A powerful scene depicts Satou walking to college from his home, all the while imagining the thoughts of people he passes on the street: “Disgusting”, “what a loser”. Of course, these thoughts are purely in Satou’s head, but the anxiety they produce drive him to shut himself into his tiny apartment until he’s kicked out of school for non-attendance.

NHK satou

The first episode of NHK gives us a depressing look into Satou’s daily life. He sits inside all day, sometimes watching TV, eating and drinking, but mostly sleeping (16 hours a day, as Satou himself narrates.) He receives no visits from friends and effectively has no life outside his apartment. He ventures outside only to buy food and other necessities and to visit a nearby park at night, when no one else is around. Without a job, Satou relies on his parents for support, but conversations with his mother suggest that source of support is about to run dry. Satou knows very well that his life is going nowhere, but he feels powerless to stop his downhill slide. On the contrary, in the course of his isolation, Satou has started to imagine a nationwide conspiracy keeping him in his miserable state, blaming his problems on the Japan Hikkikomori Society (or NHK in Japanese. Hence the title of the series.)

One day, someone comes to his door. This surprise visitor is a sort of door-to-door religious missionary lady. Satou isn’t interested and tells her to go away (while simultaneously freaking out a bit at having to talk to another human being.) However, as she leaves, Satou notices the young woman helping her.

nhk_ni_youkoso-2118

Satou tries to put her out of his mind, but the very same young woman ends up dropping by later on to drop a message into his door’s mailbox asking him to meet with her at his regular park haunt that night. Satou has no idea what this girl might want with a shut-in loser like him, but he finally decides to go to the park after fighting with himself over it. As it turns out, this girl, Misaki, has a plan to “cure” Satou of his hikkikomori-ness and get him out into the world.

Satou reacts to this surprise pronouncement from this girl he barely knows in the same way most people would: “Who the hell is this person?” Regardless, Satou agrees to Misaki’s “program” and even signs a written contract to that effect.

Misaki and Satou.  The bizarre relationship between these characters drives the story of NHK.

Misaki and Satou. The bizarre relationship between these characters drives the story of NHK.

As the series proceeds, we watch Satou’s character change in serious and sometimes unpredictable ways. Satou’s progress isn’t always forward, either: he meets with some serious setbacks as well, with funny but also depressing results. He’s introduced to MMOs and spends hundreds of hours addicted to a game that is Final Fantasy XI but that the show can’t call that for legal reasons. He’s unwittingly drawn into a suicide pact and into a pyramid scheme, both by different former female classmates. He wastes a week of his life downloading hentai to the point that his hard drive is full. A lot of this action is moved along by Kaoru Yamazaki, Satou’s next-door college freshman neighbor and other former classmate, who fits the nerd stereotype perfectly (more specifically the otaku anime-loving nerd one.)

NHK manages to both be genuinely funny and emotionally affecting. Satou, Misaki, Yamazaki, and the other few secondary characters that show up are interesting and three-dimensional, and this helps the viewer care about them. Despite the wacky situations the characters sometimes find themselves in, nothing in the show really comes across as unnatural or forced. One of the best scenes in the show depicts Satou spying on Yamazaki’s meeting with one of his female classmates in the hall at their college. He’d formerly claimed to Satou that this classmate was his girlfriend, but after tailing Yamazaki to school, Satou discovers that Yamazaki was bending the truth: she’s no more than a casual acquaintance. Yamazaki continues to insist she’s his girlfriend, though not in a creepy or obsessive way – the viewer gets the impression that Yamazaki has a thing for this girl but simply can’t admit to himself that she’s not interested in his nerdy self. It’s funny and pathetic, and it’s also a feeling that I’m willing to bet you can relate to.

If don't you know what Yamazaki is talking about in this screenshot, that's a good thing.

If don’t you know what Yamazaki is talking about in this screenshot, that’s a good thing.

Despite a lot of its otaku trappings (trips to Akihabara to buy figures, a running plotline about Satou and Yamazaki creating a dating sim, Yamazaki’s pining after “2D girls”, etc.) NHK can also appeal to people living outside that weird circle of nerds (of which I’m sort of a part myself.) The reason NHK spoke to me was its theme of social anxiety and the devastating effects it has on people’s lives. I was never quite as bad as Satou – I never physically shut myself into my room or my apartment – but I did mentally and emotionally shut myself in, shoving away potential friends. Those feelings of despair and worthlessness that drive Satou at the beginning of NHK to sit inside every day and dog him throughout the show are all too real for countless people around the world. I’m not even sure they totally go away. Even now, as a more or less normal person (at least as far as public appearances are concerned) those poisonous thoughts nag at me occasionally. It’s hard to describe if you’ve never been in such a situation – as if you just missed out on some vital information on how to live life that everyone else in the world seems to have been born with. It’s a lonely, painful experience, and NHK addresses it in a meaningful way.

So that’s Welcome to the NHK! It’s a genuinely good series that I believe has appeal for viewers both in and outside of the “typical” anime-watching crowd. I should also note that NHK is based on a novel by Tatsuhiko Takimoto, a writer who I think must have experienced some of Satou’s travails, the story tells them in such a realistic way. I haven’t read the novel or the following manga series, but I understand they’re quite different from the anime in terms of where their stories lead.

Up at 3 am scrolling through hentai image sites: welcome to the NHK

Up at 3 am scrolling through hentai image sites: welcome to the NHK

What a way to start the new year. To everyone, but especially to those wrestling with social anxiety, insecurity, a lack of purpose, and all those inner demons that drive you to seek solitude, I wish you a happy one. Remember that, for better or worse, the future is unpredictable. Life is never worth giving up on, even though it might seem like there’s no light at all at the end of the tunnel – hell, I still feel that way sometimes. Satou might be a fictional character, but his story is a real one, and his final “recovery”, even though it’s not quite complete, is a part of that story too.

Retrospective: Riven

Well-known top dog adventure game designer Cyan is working on a new game, Obduction (no, it’s not just “Abduction” with a creative spelling, as I first thought: obduction is a real thing.) Obduction looks really good so far, and I plan to get it as soon as it’s released. So what better time to talk about Riven, one of Cyan’s biggest and best games?

In 1993, no game looked as good as Myst. It was displayed in what today seems like a tiny resolution, but the graphics were clear and incredibly detailed. Moreover, their environments somehow looked real – the various worlds of Myst were obviously computer-generated, but at the same time they felt like real places, unlike other 90s efforts to create detailed 3d worlds, which often came off as bizarre or unreal. This was all the more impressive considering the fantastic nature of some of the game’s worlds. Finally, Myst wasn’t just a bunch of pretty pictures: it told a story, and quite a deep one, although the real depth of the story wouldn’t be revealed for a few years.

The same can be said for Myst‘s 1997 sequel, Riven, only that game looked even better. Sure, both were composed entirely of still shots with some Quicktime movies imposed on top to create animations, but this all worked for the sorts of games that Myst and Riven were: point-and-click adventures with a heavy emphasis on exploration and puzzle-solving.

A scene from Riven.

A scene from Riven.

Myst was an undeniable hit. The fact that a puzzle game did so well shouldn’t be such a surprise, either, when you consider that it was released at a time when a lot of people had just bought their first PCs with CD-ROM drives. Myst was also designed (perhaps purposely designed) to appeal to parents who might have been wary of buying violent PC games like Doom for their kids. (As it turned out, though, the story of Myst and its following games had plenty of implied violence in them!)

Which brings me to Riven. I was 11 years old when this game was released. Like a lot of kids, I’d played through Myst, and while my 7 year-old self wasn’t all that great at putting the pieces together as far as the game’s puzzles went, I somehow managed to get to the good ending without much help thanks to trial and error and frequent saves. Riven was a different story, however. Sometime between 1993 and whenever they started working on Myst‘s sequel, developer Cyan apparently decided that Myst‘s puzzles were just too damn easy. So they ratcheted up the difficulty. Really, really ratcheted it up. Riven quite literally drops you into an alien world with very little information as to how you’re supposed to achieve your goal. Thankfully, there is a clear goal to Riven from the very beginning, which wasn’t the case in Myst, but getting there requires you to tie together three or four different sets of puzzle clues scattered across the game world. There are number puzzles, color puzzles, sound puzzles and shape puzzles. There are clues laying around that seem totally irrelevant to your object until you have the context to put them into. There’s even a puzzle that requires you to learn a new system of counting (hint: it’s not base-10. Have fun figuring that out.)

Riven, aka Puzzle Island(s)

Riven, aka Puzzle Island(s)

All of the above considered, it’s no wonder that the series’ popularity fell off after Riven came out. Myst was fairly easy as far as its puzzles went, but Riven was unforgiving. While Myst could pretty much be solved through a lot of trial-and-error screwing around, Riven required the player to draw lots of inferences from journals, symbols, and even from the islands’ environments and use them in ways that don’t seem that obvious, even in hindsight. It’s like going from doing your local paper’s word jumble straight to the New York Times Sunday crossword. Four more games came out after Riven, including an MMO sort of thing, but from Riven on, this was a fans-only deal. At least, that’s what I assume, because although according to Cyan themselves it was very successful, I don’t remember Riven being nearly as much of a thing as Myst. Damn near everyone played Myst, even your grandma who still didn’t know what the weird clicky rolly thing connected to the computer was. Riven‘s appeal, it seems, was far narrower.

It’s really kind of a shame, because Riven is actually a very good game – it’s just hard as hell. The premise of the Myst series and the lore behind it are interesting and original: an ancient civilization’s art of linking to other worlds by writing books describing them and the death and destruction that eventually result, both for a lot of those linked worlds and for the civilization itself. Some of the characters of the Myst story are able to practice “the Art”, as they call it, by linking to these worlds and even writing changes into said worlds, with varying results. Riven tells a vital part of this story.

Myst lore simplified: people write magic books and fuck up life for a lot of other people.

Myst lore simplified: people write magic books and fuck up life for a lot of other people.

The main object of the game is to entrap a certain character inside a prison book – a normal linking book with part of its connection destroyed, so that the person linking through is trapped between worlds in some kind of void world (note: this isn’t a spoiler; you’re told the plan at the very beginning of the game.) This prison can only hold one person at a time. As the anonymous/silent protagonist, you’ll have to figure out how to trap this dude and bring a happy close to the story. Not that the game gives you any help getting there. Riven was made in the 90s, a period when video and PC games didn’t bother to give the player hints beyond “go to X and kill Y”, and the same is true here: you’ll get vague hints for how to get to the bad man, but trapping him is something you’ll have to figure out on own, using your brain skills. As a result, managing to get the good ending on your own is pretty rewarding (although, to be honest, the game really shoves you towards the good ending – all the other endings require either serious oversights on the part of the player or the simple desire to see all the endings possible, which can be fun in itself.) In the tradition of Myst, there aren’t any bullshit Sierra-style deaths in Riven: every bad ending occurs because you explicitly fucked up.

It may be nostalgia talking once again, but I think both of these games are still well worth a play. They’re atmospheric, interesting, and have aged a lot better than other early CD-ROM adventure games. Apparently a lot of other people think so too, because both are available on mobile platforms. Makes sense, when you think about it: the formats of Myst and Riven are perfect for a tablet or smartphone. (Also, Riven is on sale for three dollars on Steam until January 2nd, which is a great deal.) I also like the basic idea of the Myst/Riven universe and the overarching story that connects all of these games. We can only hope that the coming Obduction, currently predicted for release late next year, will be as great as Cyan’s first games.

Riven also featured decent to good acting, which is basically Oscar-level as far as old CD adventure games go.

Riven also featured decent to good acting, which is basically Oscar-level as far as old CD adventure games go.

One more point: back in the day (yeah, all the way back in the late 90s, that legendary age) industry people talked about the Myst phenomenon having “killed” the adventure game genre, I guess by bringing too many plebs unused to traditional adventure game mechanics and standards into it. For a response to this, see this article from the great, now dead, game website Old Man Murray, which sums up the whole debate. No disrespect to Sierra or adventure game queen Roberta Williams, but some of their games’ puzzles really were absolute arbitrary bullshit. Which is something you can’t say for Cyan’s work: as hard as some of Riven‘s puzzles are, their solutions basically make sense.

Persona 2: Innocent Sin – first impressions

After being turned inside out by my fall exams, I need something to take my mind off the impending doom of bad grades and extreme depression that will follow. The answer seems to be Persona 2: Innocent Sin, which I’ve been playing since my mindbendingly hard Corporations exam ended early today. (If you’re a law student as well, maybe we can agree on this: fuck Corporations.)

Like most of the people I know who are into JRPGs, I played Persona 3/4 and enjoyed them both, so I thought I would try out Persona 2, which I’d heard good things about. P2 is split into two separate games, Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment. And since Innocent Sin is apparently the first in the series, it seemed like the natural choice. Both P2 games were originally released on the Playstation, and Innocent Sin was later ported to the PSP, which is the version I’ve got.

This is the old original cover art for Innocent Sin, but I think it's a lot cooler looking than the kind of generic PSP cover.  Somewhat unsettling in that Kazuma Kaneko style.

This is the old original cover art for Innocent Sin, but I think it’s a lot cooler looking than the kind of generic PSP cover. Somewhat unsettling in that Kazuma Kaneko style.

Several things about Persona 2 will be familiar right off the bat to those of you who’ve gotten through your 60+ hour playthroughs of P3 and P4. The first is the high school setting. The idea of the Persona series is that it’s Shin Megami Tensei at high school, starring several students who have awoken to their innate power of Persona to fight demons. The same is true here. P2 is also, like P3/4, a lot more character-driven than main line SMT games.

There seems to be both a lot more and a lot less in P2 than in the later titles. There are several armor and weapon shops, a secret casino where you can play video poker and slots to win weapons and items, and a load of extra dialogue with your party members in each of these places (these don’t really add much except flavor, but it’s a nice addition anyway.) There’s a hunger mechanic that lets you give your party members temporary stat bonuses when they eat at one of the several restaurants in town. There’s also an interesting rumor system in the game whereby you can exchange rumors with certain characters and pay a detective agency in town (Kuzunoha Detective Agency, a nice reference for fans of the Devil Summoner SMT spinoff series) to spread those rumors that benefit your party. The “all rumors are true” theme that also crops up in Persona 4 a bit with the Midnight Channel is present in Innocent Sin and seems to be really prominent, both in the game mechanics and in the plot.

There are some elements of Persona 2 that will be familiar to P3/4 fans, like Igor's Velvet Room.  No fusion, though.

There are some elements of Persona 2 that will be familiar to P3/4 fans, like Igor’s Velvet Room. No fusion, though.

What’s not here is the Social Link system, which was created for Persona 3. P2 does set you up with a silent protagonist and a core party of characters that have good chemistry, like in P3 and P4, though. Fusion is also not present: new personas are gotten through a weird card-collecting system that I haven’t figured out yet. One nice thing about the Velvet Room, though, that P3/4 for whatever reason decided to lose, was a rotating soundtrack. As nice as “Aria for the Soul” is, I sure got sick of hearing it during my fusion ordeals in P3 and P4, but P2 mixes it up with a couple of other pieces, including Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1″. Which I’m extremely grateful for. Why P3 and P4 dropped everything else in favor of the Velvet Room’s main theme I can’t understand. It’s not like they could have had copyright problems with such old pieces; they’ve got to be in the public domain by now.

Enough of that. Pretty much everything else is good so far. About 6/7 hours in, the plot is engaging, and the art and music are really good, sort of how I’d imagine a Persona game on the Playstation would be. The only complaint about Persona 2 I might raise at this point is that combat is pretty slow – one of the early bosses I fought was quite easy to beat because he was barely doing any damage to my party, but he seemed to take forever to whittle down to 0 HP.

A proper review is forthcoming (whenever I finish the game, anyway) but so far I think most fans of the ultra-popular PS2 Persona games would enjoy Persona 2, despite ts pretty stark differences in gameplay mechanics from later Persona titles. Not to mention its relative graphic limitations. It was released in the 90s, after all, so you’ll have to give it a break on that count.

Persona 2 also has a kind of bizarre sense of humor like its successors.  That definitely helps.

Persona 2 also has a kind of bizarre sense of humor like its successors. That definitely helps.

Retrospective: Civilization II (or, why democracy is a pain in the ass)

On the brink of my fall exams, all my thoughts have to do with copyright and corporate law. This makes me pine for the days of my youth, when I would spend long days playing Civilization II, the second title in Sid Meier’s long-running turn-based world power strategy game. There are few things less painful than watching a horde of 22nd century Mongols hit every major city on your home continent with nuclear weapons, and this thought gives me some small solace as far as my exams are concerned.

I owned the PC original, not the Playstation port.  But this was the best cover image I could find, and they basically look the same anyway.

I owned the PC original, not the Playstation port. But this was the best cover image I could find, and they basically look the same anyway.

Everyone is all about Civilization V right now (and the upcoming Civilization VI.) V is a great edition to the series, but Civ II will always be my favorite title if only for nostalgia reasons. Unlike the hours I spent at my friend’s house playing Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and fighting over who had to play as Tails, my time with Civ II was not wasted, because the game taught me many valuable lessons. The first lesson I learned was that if you’re the king of an ancient city, you’d better build city walls, otherwise barbarians will plunder and capture it.

The more interesting lessons came later in the game, when you are able to unlock new forms of government through technologies. The world of Civilization II has six forms of government, four of which had various benefits (despotism and monarchy are lousy choices that you have to use early-game and should ditch as soon as possible: they cause your cities to have low production and lots of corruption.) The remaining four forms are the republic, democracy, fundamentalism, and communism.

Being a good American, I thought I’d go for democracy. After all, I love freedom, and nothing says freedom like the power to make a basically meaningless choice between two equally crap candidates from two god-awful political parties. So that’s what I tried out. As it happens, Civ II democracy does have a lot of benefits: you can allocate 100% of your tax revenue to science, which you can’t do with any other form of government, and your citizens’ output is extremely high, meaning more money in the state’s coffers. So why wouldn’t you choose democracy as your form of government?

Because it makes it damn near impossible to wage war. Each of your citizens in a city (represented per every 10,000, then 30,000, then 60,000 people in each city and up accordingly) will become discontent the number of military units you ship away from their home cities, so large-scale deployments are more or less out of the question. And even if they weren’t, the legislature is all too ready to stand in the way of your hawkish initiatives, the bastards.

Well, maybe they're right, because this is usually what your Civ II war will end up looking like: decimated populations, military units disrupting production in enemy cities, and tons of pollution from nuclear weapon use.

Well, maybe they’re right, because this is usually what your Civ II war will end up looking like: decimated populations, military units disrupting production in enemy cities, and tons of pollution from nuclear weapon use.

This was the most interesting aspect of Civ II to me. You can certainly play as a democracy and win the game by dumping 100% of your revenue into science. I never really bothered with this method, though, because to me it was a lot more fun to adopt a communist government instead: you still got pretty good production and high scientific research out of your cities, but without any discontented citizens (if they complain, send them off to Gulag!) or that pesky Senate to get in your way (if any of your Politburo colleagues presents a challenge to you, have him killed and make it look like an assassination, or hold a series of show trials followed by executions.) So you can churn out infantry and armored units and wage war to your heart’s content, or at least as far as your budget allows. You could do more or less the same with a fundamentalist government, though your scientific research took a serious hit.

This is a pretty good way to deal with those damned Mongols who always seem to want to conquer the whole world.

This is a pretty good way to deal with those damned Mongols who always seem to want to conquer the whole world.

To be clear, Civ II doesn’t require you to conquer the world to win the game. An easier, albeit more time-sensitive, victory method is to develop a space program through research dollars and reach Alpha Centauri before any other power. Fulfilling the space race condition does require you to build defenses against nuclear attacks, but you can pretty much put a stop to all aggression against your state short of sneak attacks by beating every other world power to the Great Wall and United Nations wonders, which force your enemies to offer peace terms in negotiations. If you’re going this route, you’re pretty much required to adopt democracy for its massive research and production benefits.

From talking to friends who also played Civ II, though, the communist/fundamentalist brute force method seems like the most common one. Why? The same state practices that I hate in real life and that could and almost have led the real world to disaster and the near-extinction of humanity I happily pursue in my game of Civ, and apparently lots of other normal, non-atrocity-committing people do the same. Is that just because Civ is only a game, or does that mean I’d pursue the same policies if I were a world leader myself?

The Civilization series puts god-like power in your hands as the ruler of a people and eventually of a world power. I think it’s only natural to want to see what it’s like to utterly wreck the planet for humanity and conquer everything by razing and occupying cities and stabbing your friends and allies in the back. But I also think Sid Meier and co. tapped into something dark in the human soul with these games, the part that might find some actual enjoyment in this sort of destruction and misery. After all, guys like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao existed, and many horrible tyrants before them, and they were all humans just like you and me, not devils out of a fairy tale. And such people still exist today in the form of brutal dictators and murderous terrorists. Who knows what any one of us might do when given absolute power?

In case there's any doubt, however, no, these guys are not my role models.

In case there’s any doubt, however, no, these guys are not my role models.

Sorry, this one was depressing. It must be because of the exams on my mind – I can’t get into a good mood right now. I’ll start writing again after I’m done with them, and hopefully about some lighter topics.

Retrospective: Saya no Uta

It’s Election Day here in the United States. I went to the polls today, in fact, though I didn’t really much like either of the choices I was given. It’s hard to get excited about electoral races in a two-party system.

Why do I bring this up? Because today I’m also taking a look at a game that I’m surprised wasn’t banned by law in the US, because it definitely walks some sort of line – definitely the sort of game that any good “family values” interest group would try to have dumped into the gutters if it had enough notoriety.

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Some games are damn near impossible to review, and Saya no Uta (eng: Saya’s Song) is one of them. This 2003 visual novel was released by Nitroplus, a prolific developer also responsible for big names like Steins;gate and Phantom of Inferno. Nitroplus’ work tends to be pretty dark, and Saya is no exception.

Saya no Uta tells the story of Fuminori, a medical student who is involved in a car accident and is badly injured. To save him, his doctors undertake an experimental procedure. Fuminori survives, but at great cost: the entire world and everyone in it now appear completely grotesque and horrific in his eyes. All of his friends and associates look like monsters made of rotten meat (and stink as well.) Of course, the world hasn’t changed at all – only Fuminori’s perception of it. This fact doesn’t really help, though, even as Fuminori tries to continue living his normal life.

Fuminori, wearing the expression of a man who has just finished his exams after two weeks of binge studying and isn't convinced that he didn't fail all of them.  I know that look because I've had it.

Fuminori, wearing the expression of a man who has just finished his exams after two weeks of binge studying and isn’t convinced that he didn’t fail all of them. I know that look because I’ve had it.

Only one thing sustains him: the existence of a girl, Saya, the only person around who looks to Fuminori like a normal human being. Saya is a mysterious girl who approaches him shortly after his accident, seemingly without anyplace to call home, and Fuminori subsequently clings to Saya as the last thing in his life that seems at all pure or good. However, Saya isn’t merely a girl without a home – she’s something much more, and her relationship with Fuminori ends up driving him to extremes that he could never have imagined.

Saying anything else about the plot would spoil the game. All I’ll say is that it is one of the best VNs I’ve played as far as writing and emotional impact go. (For you anime fans, Saya no Uta was written by Gen Urobuchi, also responsible for writing the popular series Puella Magi Madoka Magica.) It’s short, too; just around five hours or so, and there are only a few endings, so Saya isn’t a massive time investment like other VNs tend to be.

She looks like a typical cutesy anime girl, but Saya isn't what she seems.

She looks like a typical cutesy anime girl, but Saya isn’t what she seems.

Warning: Saya no Uta is a hentai game. That’s to say that there are sex scenes in it. More alarmingly, Saya’s appearance and mannerisms (she comes off something like a young teenager, although the anime style adds some ambiguity to that) may seriously turn some people off. However, none of this bothered me too much, firstly because Saya doesn’t exactly have an age, at least as we understand it, and secondly because Saya no Uta is the only h-game I’ve played in which the sex scenes actually added to the game’s story instead of simply being some beat-off material shoved between normal scenes to sell more copies (I’m looking at you, Fate Stay/Night, but you’re not the only suspect.) In any case, the sex scenes in this game aren’t really made for that sort of thing, and I didn’t feel especially dirty for reading them. I did feel creeped out, but that’s exactly the feeling the makers were aiming for, after all. Together with the rough (in a good way) art style and the haunting soundtrack, Nitroplus succeeds at creating a strong atmosphere with Saya that you might feel drawn into.

So I feel like a creep now, writing about what’s technically a porn game (though I would argue it absolutely isn’t one in spirit, even if it does sit in the h-game category.) But hey, that’s why my blog is anonymous. God bless anonymity, right?

Anyway, Saya no Uta is up for sale through JAST here (of course, you can also buy the original in Japanese if you understand it.) JAST localizes a lot of Japanese VNs, and they apparently haven’t censored Saya at all, which is nice – censoring the game would pretty much kill the whole point of it. It’s supposed to be a little shocking, after all. But please don’t play it if you’re under 18 or you have a weak stomach. There, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.