Megami Tensei #2: The solitary soul

Yes, it’s more of this weird stuff. Sorry. The following post contains major story and ending spoilers for Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne.

Humans are social animals. We all need connections with our fellow humans. We all need love from other people. That’s just common knowledge, isn’t it?

I’ve always been an introvert. Huge surprise, I know – you couldn’t have guessed that the guy who’s into weird JRPGs likes to keep to himself. I’m thankful for the fact that I can at least function in society and pretend to be a more or less normal person, but at my core, I’m still the same reclusive kid I always was. I used to dream about going to some distant island and just staying there alone forever. I still have those dreams sometimes.

As much as I hate to admit it, even I need to socialize. One of the reasons I write on this site is to connect with readers, after all, and that’s a kind of indirect socializing. And yes, I do have friends, and I’m maybe not quite as miserable as I let on sometimes. But does the mind really need those social connections to keep sane and healthy? That’s one of the questions raised by Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. You might already know that Nocturne is one of my favorite games, but one of the reasons I love it so much is all the philosophizing its characters get up to.

First we have to set the table. The game starts about a half-hour before the world ends. Specifically, about a half-hour into Nocturne, the protagonist’s hometown of Tokyo is mostly wrecked and turned inside-out so that its ruins are now on the inside of a sphere, like an inverted Earth, with a sun-like representation of the Japanese fire god Kagutsuchi floating in the center of the sphere.*

Nocturne starts like a survival horror game, then turns into something completely different.

Our silent blank slate protagonist, your typical high school student, just happens to have been in a hospital with two of his schoolmates, Chiaki and Isamu, on a visit to their teacher Yuko Takao at the time – the same hospital where this apocalypse was triggered by a cult leader in the basement through some kind of arcane occult magic. Since the hospital itself was spared from the disaster (the cult leader wanted to survive, after all, so he presumably created a magical barrier around it) you, your friends, the teacher, the cult leader and a stray journalist you met earlier that day who somehow found his way into the hospital all survive. However, almost every other human has been killed, inverted ruined Tokyo world has been filled with demons (of course it has – it’s an SMT game) and the protagonist is himself turned into a demon by a mysterious boy and his elderly nanny who force an infernal parasite into his brain through his nose.

Aw, shit… how much did I drink last night?

Got that? It’s all a little bizarre, but the gist of it is that the world as we know it has ended. But not permanently. Just before his demonic transformation, the protagonist receives a telepathic message from Kagutsuchi in which he’s commanded to “find a Reason” and create a new world. These Reasons are basic philosophies, principles for how the world should best operate. If a human can find one of these Reasons and collect enough magatsuhi (some kind of weird glowing red energy that exists in all living things in the Vortex World, as this inside-out sphere world is called) he can gain enough power to summon a god to carry him to Kagutsuchi, who will then let said human create his ideal world. So while the Vortex World is chaotic and filled with violence, it’s really meant to be a brief transition from the end to our world to the beginning of the next one.

Yeah, the apocalypse isn’t fun.

There’s a problem, though. After receiving Kagutsuchi’s command, you might expect that your quest here is to find your own Reason, summon your own god and create your own world. In a different game, that would be the case. But in Nocturne it’s not, because only a human can conceive of a Reason, and the protagonist is no longer fully human. He still has a human mind and what looks more or less like a human body, but in exchange for gaining the superior physical and magical power of a demon, he has traded away part of his humanity, or at least enough of it that he no longer gets to enter Kagutsuchi’s “Create Your Ideal World” contest (only humans qualify; it’s in the fine print.) However, the Demifiend, as the protagonist is now known, can lend his power to one of the remaining humans if they conceive of a Reason he likes and can fight for the supremacy of that Reason over the others.

In the course of the game, three Reasons are conceived, and two more are attempted but fail for different reasons. The first of these Reasons is conceived by Hikawa, the dillweed cult leader who started this whole mess. It’s called Shijima, the world of stillness, one in which all souls melt into a perfectly consistent soup of energy and nothing changes for the rest of eternity (at least I think that’s the idea – his explanation is obscure, or maybe I’m just too stupid to get it.)

Hikawa explains his Reason, but it still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

The other two Reasons are conceived by your two surviving still-human classmates, Chiaki and Isamu. Chiaki champions Yosuga, the world of strength, which seems to be something close to the Chaos “might makes right” alignment in the other SMT games with the exception that the powerful can’t be challenged and overthrown in Chiaki’s version. While both Hikawa and Chiaki actively seek demon minions to help them gather magatsuhi to call down their gods, Isamu retreats into the Amala Network, a series of tunnels “under” the Vortex World that act as a sort of extra-dimensional subway system for the Demifiend and those few others who know how to use it. It’s in this Network that Isamu realizes his own Reason of Musubi, a world of solitude in which every soul can create his or her own reality separate from every other reality. Strangely enough, Isamu starts to gather demon followers as well, though they don’t have quite the same team spirit as the Yosuga and Shijima demons have for obvious reasons.

Yeah, keep telling yourself that.

The first time I played Nocturne, I wasn’t following a guide, so I didn’t realize that rejecting all three Reasons was a viable option. I thought I had to make a choice out of the three. All three of the Reason-conceiving characters try to some degree to convince Demifiend that he should support them, and there are a few dialogue and decision points starting around late mid-game that present the player with the option of supporting or rejecting each. Naturally, you can’t support more than one reason, so the game uses a point system to determine which Reason you end up backing, sort of like the Golden Saucer date system in Final Fantasy VII except the fate of the world lies in the balance.

Out of the three Reasons, I rejected Shijima out of hand. Hikawa is an asshole who never shows any sympathy for the protagonist or his friends, who in fact uses and deceives your teacher to collect magatsuhi for the purpose of creation. On top of that, his ideal world sounded like a hellish nightmare to me. Shijima seems similar to some of the less orthodox Western ideas about Heaven or to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, in which the idea of the self and all its desires are lost. I know that’s supposed to be a good thing, but I guess I’m not enlightened at all, because I’d rather keep my self intact, as much as I hate it sometimes. So there was no way I was going with Shijima. The “strong oppressing the weak forever” world of Yosuga also sounded pretty lousy. Chiaki is the game’s only female human character aside from Takao, so some players might have thought about making her Demifiend’s qt waifu, but alas, near the end of the story she’s absorbed into a weird-looking god named Baal Avatar and completely loses all semblance of humanity, so that’s not happening. Nocturne isn’t a Persona game, and there’s no Christmas date with your girlfriend in the Vortex World.

This is really as close as you get.

That left Musubi. Isamu is kind of a dick throughout the first half of the game and ends up blaming Demifiend for not saving him from being captured by a gang of demons that were squeezing magatsuhi from every living thing they could find, something that wasn’t Demifiend’s fault at all. But once he finds his Reason, he forgives Demifiend for that, since he seems to have found his own truth – that people live essentially separate lives and can never truly empathize with each other. Hence Isamu’s ideal world, which takes a lot of credit from the idea of solipsism, that you can never be sure of any fact other than that you exist. Isamu doesn’t elaborate on this idea a whole lot when you meet him in the Amala Network near the endgame, but he seems to suggest that in his new world, everyone would be able to create their own worlds in their own minds, essentially talking to themselves for the rest of eternity, or at least until the next death and rebirth of this universe.

When you transcend the plane of normal humanity, you lose your shirt but keep your hat.  Those are the rules.

This might sound just as hellish to you as Hikawa’s world of stillness or Chiaki’s world of strength, but I find something interesting in it. The mind needs socialization, but if it creates its own society, its own world, its own universe – maybe that fulfills its need perfectly. The real world may already be headed in that direction with improvements in AI and the creation of virtual worlds that are starting to not look and feel like shit when you enter them. Be honest with yourself – given the choice, would you deal with the outer world full of people you can never fully empathize with or trust, or with your own inner world? Most people would honestly say the former, and I understand why. But I also understand where Isamu is coming from, and I was 100% in “fuck the whole world” mode the first time I played Nocturne. I chose to support Isamu, and we built our own world(s) at the end of the game when I beat the hell out of Kagutsuchi for him (turns out Kagutsuchi doesn’t let you create your own world unless you can beat him in a two-stage boss fight. That must have also been in the fine print.)

On my second playthrough, I found out that I could reject every Reason and get a different, better ending, so I did that instead. Still, even after all this time, Isamu’s world of solitude holds some appeal for me. Throughout my life, I’ve been told what to do and how to do it. I’m sure you’ve been told the same. Even now, I don’t feel like I live for myself at all, but only out of duty to others. I’d like nothing better to escape, though that’s impossible. Is it selfish of me to think that way? Probably. Should I care whether that makes me selfish? Every day I live, I care less and less. Weirdly enough, then, Isamu is the character in Nocturne I empathize with the most.  Aside from Yuko Takao, that is.  She’s got it the worst.  Elaborating on her story would take an even longer post than this one, so I’ll set it aside.

It’s sad, though.

What are your thoughts? What kind of world would you create if you were given the option? Do you think it’s even right to impose your own ideals on the entire world the way the characters in Nocturne do? Do you wish I would shut up about this nonsense and review my backlog of games instead? I will, I promise. 𒀭

 

* What happened to the rest of Earth outside of Tokyo after the Conception is never addressed, but our characters have enough of their own problems to be concerned with that. Maybe Tokyo just blinked out of existence and left a void behind, or maybe every city and every little bumfuck town in the world experienced its own Conception based on their city and county limits.

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Megami Tensei #1: You’re not the hero of this story

Sometimes I won’t write anything for a week or two, and then in a few hours a few thousand words will spill out of my brain. This was one of those days, and the result is the start of a series on prominent themes in the Megami Tensei series of games and how I think they relate to life in general. I know, it’s a huge surprise that I’m writing about Megami Tensei. I only bring the god damn series up every other post I make. Anyway, I hope this mind dump makes sense to at least one person. It contains a few very general spoilers for Persona 5 and a lot of very specific story and ending spoilers for the original Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey.

It’s almost a cliche to say that we all like to think of ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. I recently had to attend a few events at my state bar association, where you occasionally get to hear some puffed-up language about the nobility of the profession of law. Law is a serious and complex profession, no matter what field you’re working in, and we are subject to real ethical standards (a fact that’s shocking to a lot of non-lawyers.) Perhaps as a result of this, there’s a tendency, especially among law students who don’t know any better, to equate being a lawyer with something like being a knight. We do take an oath upon being sworn in, and some aspects of discovery and trial could be compared to the dance of a duel between two champions. Otherwise, the reality of the practice is quite a bit dirtier and more mundane than that. (At least practicing law doesn’t usually result in someone getting axed in the skull.  But I’m still never returning to the endless hell that is the world of litigation.)

This kind of romanticism affects many more areas of life, public and private, professional and personal. And, of course, we see it in video and PC games. Many of us, myself included, play games to escape from reality, so it’s only natural that we want to play the role of the hero. There’s a reason Joker from Persona 5 is such a popular character that he made it into Smash, and it’s not because of his amazing dialogue. His being a silent protagonist helps, in fact, because the silence makes it easier to pour own your personality into that empty vessel, a point that a lot of people who complain about the Persona games’ silent protagonists seem to either miss or ignore.

And who wouldn’t want to play one of the heroes in Persona 5? Joker and his Persona are references to the fictional suave gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, and his Phantom Thieves as a whole are a callback to probably fictional romantic bandits like Robin Hood and his merry men of Sherwood Forest, only in a modern urban setting. Yes, Akira in the real world got a raw deal as a wrongfully convicted felon undergoing probation, but Joker in the world of shadows is a dashing hero. That’s not to mention the fact that even in the real world, Akira can romance almost all of the women around him.* Persona 5 does try to address serious social problems like official abuse of power, but in the end I see it more as an escapist fantasy than a commentary on reality. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. God knows I need my escapist fantasy.

Yeah, this is 100% fantasy…

You can’t live in the escapist fantasy forever, though. Eventually, reality will catch up with you. There’s another game in the Megami Tensei series that emphasizes this point, and it’s the infamously difficult dungeon-crawler RPG Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey.**

In most of the endings of mainline Shin Megami Tensei games, the silent protagonist is not really the hero of his own story. He typically ends up assisting the head of one of the extremist factions build its own paradise based either upon the principles of the Law alignment or the Chaos alignment. The word paradise should really be in quotes, however. A Law ending usually leads to the direct domination of human society by God, complete with a nice “cleansing” to get rid of the unworthy, which is most of us, while a Chaos ending usually leads to the destruction of human society by a horde of demons and the violent murder of the weak, which once again happens to be most of us. The same is true of Strange Journey, in which you play another silent protagonist the fans have dubbed “Space Marine”, a member of an international strike/research force sent into a growing mass of dark energy covering most of Antarctica. Turns out said mass is swarming with demons (what a surprise!) which has gotten so bad that Mastema, a mysterious black-winged angel, is also there fighting the demons under the direction of God himself (or so he claims, anyway.)

Never trust an angel in an SMT game.

Most of these mainline SMT games also have characters who represent the Chaos alignment and the belief in absolute liberty, following the lead of Lucifer, and a character who represents the Law alignment and submits body and soul to whatever avatar God happens to be using at the moment (often, but not always, the Old Testament YHVH, complete with his jealousy and smiting and weird mood swings.) And behold, two of your fellow crew members, Jimenez and Zelenin, take these roles and undergo a demonic and an angelic transformation respectively (equally monstrous transformations in the context of the Megaten universe, because both end up completely losing their humanity as a result.) Out of the three available ending paths, two involve joining your considerable power with Jimenez or Zelenin and bringing about either a new Earth ruled over by massive demonic worms that have apparently devoured most of humanity or a new Earth in which part of humanity has technically survived, but in a brainwashed state in which all people everywhere are constantly singing in praise of the Lord forever while standing on top of giant gray windowless buildings.

Yeah, I don’t… I don’t know about this.

Watching these endings probably won’t make you feel like much of a hero for helping to bring them about.*** They might even make you angry. This is what I was fighting for? you might think to yourself. Generally speaking, the closest you can get to a “heroic” ending in a mainline SMT game is by taking the Neutral path, which rejects both God and Lucifer in favor of humanity’s control over its own destiny. Perhaps for this reason, both getting onto and completing the Neutral path is usually ridiculously difficult. Maybe that’s the price you have to pay for opposing the wills of gods and renegade angels.

It’s not too hard to find analogues to God and Lucifer in humanity itself, either. Replace all of Earth with a single country, God with an oppressive tyrant ruling over it and Lucifer with a violent revolutionary leader trying to oust him and you’ve got the basic plot of an SMT game, and one that occurs in the real world all the time. The only real difference between the two scenarios is that while the victorious revolutionary leader often transforms into the new oppressive tyrant, the Lucifer of Megami Tensei has no desire to rule over humanity because that would run against his belief in absolute freedom. But even in the Chaos ending, the soil is ripe for the growth of a new absolute ruler who can win power through strength and charisma, creating a constant cycle of lawful tyrants and chaotic revolutionaries that overthrow them. Even the Neutral ending always feels more like a temporary fix than a permanent one – the powers representing the extreme alignments might go away for a while, but they never truly die. God and Lucifer always return in some form to submit humanity to more suffering. Not exactly the fun “hero slays the dragon and saves the princess” kind of story, and certainly not satisfying if you’re looking for a happy ending.

You’d think if Lucifer took the trouble to genderbend that he’d also try to come up with a less lazy fake name than this.

Maybe that’s just the point – there are ups and downs in life, but there is no ultimate happy ending. There may not even be an ending at all. The Abrahamic tradition, the one I’m most familiar with by far, views time in a straight line starting with with creation and the Garden of Eden and ending with the apocalypse and Judgment Day. But in other traditions, time is viewed not as a line but as a circle. It’s not evident in Strange Journey, but other mainline SMT games adopt this cyclical view of time. It’s not that heroes can’t be born in that cycle – heroes simply can’t break the cycle. Balance between Law and Chaos is never achieved permanently, and the resultant suffering continues forever because of it.

My own country is going through a political upheaval right now. Our head of state and government is contained in one person, and that person is definitely incompetent and possibly traitorous. We Americans like to think we’ve somehow earned stability and prosperity, and even that God himself guarantees said stability and prosperity. When I was growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, “God bless America” was a mandatory line in every politician’s speech, whether Democrat or Republican, almost as if by repeating this line over and over we could keep God’s blessings forever.

You don’t hear that line so much anymore. My own millennial generation is less traditionally religious than past generations, but there might be more to it than changing demographics. I think there’s a sense now that we could lose everything we have, and perhaps that God, if he even exists, doesn’t care. Perhaps he doesn’t even care if all humanity burns itself out because of our inability to handle the technology we’re developing. If that’s our ultimate fate, there isn’t a hero who can permanently prevent it. That’s the message I take from Strange Journey. It’s a depressing message, but an honest one.

Or maybe I’m just a depressive pessimist.  Yeah, that’s probably it. 𒀭

 

* I guess this point isn’t applicable to gay men or straight women. I’m not sure how well lesbian players can put themselves in Akira’s place either, him being a man and all. People have suggested bringing the female MC option back to a Persona game after P3P’s FeMC, or the possibility of at least one homosexual relationship (which did exist in implied form in Persona 2: Innocent Sin, but nobody seems to remember that game exists.) However, that’s a subject for a different post (and for countless, endless forum/imageboard/Twitter fights.)

** I technically haven’t finished this game, but I’ve gotten all the way to the absolute final Neutral route boss.  Yes, I’m pretty lousy.  I swear to God (or YHVH or whoever) I’ll complete it one day, just out of spite.  I made it all the way through Horologium, for fuck’s sake.

*** Depending upon your religious upbringing and how well it stuck, the Law ending in Strange Journey might seem like a good one to you. I don’t think Atlus intended for it to seem like a good ending but rather to be a mirror image of the Chaos ending. But if you think you’d enjoy singing hymns on top of a giant building for all eternity, more power to you. Just don’t make me join in. Well, I’d certainly be one of the unclean humans who gets banished to the outer darkness anyway, so I guess it’s a moot point.

Retrospective: Yume Nikki

Several years ago, at some point during the complete mental haze of my life that was my early 20s, I played Yume Nikki. I’ve made a few references to it on this site, and I’ve reviewed at least one game that was directly inspired by it, but I haven’t really taken a good look at the game itself until now. Yume Nikki (trans. Dream Diary) had humble origins.  It was first released as a free RPG Maker game in 2004 on 2channel, but after a fan put out an English patch the game spread around the internet by way of video game and anime imageboards and textboards (the much-maligned 4chan played a big part in this process, as did one particular event from the game that produced a meme popular around the boards.) As a result, Yume Nikki ended up a cult classic among some of the obsessive weirdo subcultures of the internet, so much so that it acted as an influence on several other popular games in the horror, exploration, and RPG genres, including the critically acclaimed Undertale.

Madotsuki’s bedroom in the real world.

I get the feeling that Kikiyama, the creator of Yume Nikki, didn’t set out to do any of this when he (or she?  Nobody knows) put the game together, because it is a very simple game at its core. After a brief three-screen tutorial, the player starts the game controlling Madotsuki, the above-pictured pigtailed girl, in what seems to be her bedroom.  There’s no prompt at this point – no text box, no inner monologue, no mother or older sibling character banging on the door telling Madotsuki to wake up and get ready for school.  The sliding door at the bottom of the screen leads to a balcony, and Madotsuki shakes her head when you try to guide her through the door at the top to explore the rest of the apartment she presumably lives in.  Madotsuki’s TV turns on, but the cable is out.  There are only really three things for Madotsuki to do in her room: play the one game she owns on her game console (a playable game-within-a-game called Nasu that’s pretty damn boring and repetitive), write in her diary that functions as a save file, and go to bed.

The hub world.

Almost all the action in Yume Nikki takes place in Madotsuki’s dreams, because it’s only in her dreams that Madotsuki is willing to open her bedroom door, which now leads to a chamber containing 12 more doors.  Each of these doors leads to a separate dream world ready for Madotsuki to explore, worlds that contain passages to still more worlds that loop in on each other in bizarre ways.  While none of these dreamscapes are really terrifying (well, almost none, anyway) most of them aren’t exactly inviting either.  Madotsuki’s dream worlds all exist in her head, but they don’t seem to exist for her own amusement.  Just like dreams in our world, Madotsuki’s dreams are filled with vague shapes, strange characters, and a whole lot of seemingly meaningless symbols and structures.  None of these things can hurt Madotsuki – she’s only dreaming, after all – and if she gets stuck in an unpleasant situation or a dead end during her explorations, she can wake herself up by pinching her cheek (i.e. by pressing 9.)

The vending machine is out of order.

The closest thing Yume Nikki has to an objective is the collection of “effects”, items that Madotsuki can acquire in her dream worlds that let her transform in various ways.  Some of these effects let Madotsuki mess with the inhabitants of her dream worlds: for example, getting the Traffic Light effect and turning into a red light freezes them in their tracks, while using the Cat effect pulls them towards her (because, I don’t know, people like cats?)  Others allow Madotsuki to travel more quickly (the Bicycle effect, which is a must to get early on, because walking through all the worlds of Yume Nikki takes a really god damn long time.)  Some effects don’t have much of an actual effect aside from changing Madotsuki’s appearance.

I like the posters.

Yume Nikki doesn’t feature an apparent plot or any dialogue beyond a few bits of garbled text in one of the dream worlds that doesn’t make sense.  The few human and humanoid characters to be found other than Madotsuki live in her dreams, so it’s impossible to say whether they’re based on people she knows in the real world or whether they’re just pure creations of her mind.  These figures often don’t acknowledge Madotsuki’s presence, and even when they do, their interactions with her don’t make sense.

So how did such a weird game with a silent protagonist and blank slate for a story gain such popularity?  And more importantly, why should you play it?

Why is it snowing in my house?

Yume Nikki is all about exploration.  It doesn’t make any demands of the player.  It doesn’t feature any real puzzles or objectives other than the collection of effects, and even that’s presented by the game in a sort of offhand way.  While I can’t really call Yume Nikki relaxing – there’s a little too much bizarre and unsettling imagery in it for that – it’s definitely not taxing in the way some later RPG Maker horror games can be (see Witch’s HouseBlank Dream, and Ib.)  I think it’s the fact that Yume Nikki is such a blank slate that made it popular.  The player can read pretty much whatever he wants into Madotsuki and her surroundings.  Most descriptions of the game say Madotsuki is a hikkikomori – a sort of shut-in with extreme social anxiety – but the game never actually tells the player why she won’t leave her bedroom.  Maybe there’s been a massive war or a supervirus outbreak and that’s why she’s holed up in her apartment.

There are a ton of other fan theories out there about Madotsuki, her dream world, and the characters in it, some of them pretty damn dark.  The beauty of it is that there aren’t really any right or wrong answers.  People can argue over competing theories when it comes to most other games, but Yume Nikki?  Who knows what any of it means, or whether any of it means anything at all.  But that seems to be the whole point.*

What the hell is happening

If you’re going to take one recommendation from me, make it this one: play Yume Nikki.  It’s now on Steam, true to its origins still free to play, and you can also download and play the old version (it’s pretty much the same) if you have the right version of Game Maker installed.  If you’ve played Undertale, or Dreaming Sarah, or any of the RPG Maker games I mentioned above, you owe it to yourself to experience the game that did so much to inspire those.  Not just for “historical” purposes, either, because Yume Nikki is a legitimately fascinating game to play.

*****

* Here I should note there are light novel and manga adaptations of Yume Nikki that I haven’t read.  Maybe they provide explanations about Madotsuki and her world that the game doesn’t.  Taking the game in itself, though, there aren’t any answers to these questions that I’m aware of.

Soundtrack reviews: Flame ~Homura~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Crimson and Waterway ~Mio~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Blue

Some time ago I was digging around an old external drive when I discovered two albums that I’d gotten (yeah, let’s leave it at that) years ago titled Flame ~Homura~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Crimson and Waterway ~Mio~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Blue.  These two albums, released in 2007 along with the PS2 JRPG Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica, were originally sold together in a boxset which probably costs well over $100 today if you can even find one.  ATII is a good game with one of the worst official localizations in history – read more about it here, along with a link to a completely redone fan translation of the game.  The game’s soundtracks, though, are exceptional.

Notice I said “soundtracks”.  Each AT game has a primary soundtrack and several extra soundtracks.  The primary soundtrack to ATII is very good, but if that’s all you have, you’re missing out on some of the best tracks in the game.  Each of these Hymmnos Concert albums are linked to a particular character in the game – in this case, Flame to Luca and Waterway to Cloche, both featured on their respective covers.  To explain what the hell all this is about and why some of these songs have bizarre titles like “EXEC_with.METHOD_METAFALICA/.”, we have to take a look into the universe of Ar tonelico.  Luca and Cloche are Reyvateils, female humanoid beings who can control the elements by singing.  These songs are sort of like programs, with lyrics specifically created to cause certain effects, hence some of the songs’ weird titles.  Most of the residents of the world of AT are humans living on three massive towers alongside these Reyvateils, who often experience discrimination and worse because of their abilities.  Not without reason, because while their song magic can be used to heal, it can also be used to destroy, and a few of the most powerful Reyvateils can sing songs that are massively destructive under the right circumstances.

Pictured: potential weapons of mass destruction

The backstory and lore of this series is insanely deep, so deep that some of these songs are sung in Hymmnos, a constructed language* made specifically for the AT series.  Most of the songs on these albums are sung in-game by Cloche, Luca, or another Reyvateil, and some of them, far from being mere background music for battles, are important to the plot.  (See above: the costumes they wear also affect their song’s powers, which is where a lot of the AT series’ fanservicey reputation comes from.  Also, you get to pair up with one of these ladies on their own routes through Croix, the game’s protagonist, so you can see at least part of the appeal of Ar tonelico II aside from its music.)

The games are worth diving into, but if you don’t have the time or inclination to play a series of JRPGs with weird rhythm-based battle mechanics, you can still appreciate the music.  Almost every song on Flame and Waterway are centered around the vocals of one of four singers: Akiko Shikata, Haruka Shimotsuki, Yuuko Ishibashi, and Noriko Mitose.  Each one of these singers apparently had a serious career before the AT games were a thing, and according to the AT wiki, a lot of the songs in these games were created specifically with these four in mind.  Each one has her own distinct style, but they’re all amazingly talented singers, to the extent that I can’t say I prefer one over the others.

A lot of these songs are standouts as well.  Almost every one is a spot-on hit.  METHOD_IMPLANTA/. is beautiful and a great introduction to Akiko Shikata’s style.  I’m a great fan of Yuuko Ishibashi’s songs Reisha’s Lullaby and Eternally Connected as well.  Eternally Connected features some of the most stunning singing on these albums – it sounds like it belongs in an opera rather than a PS2 game.

My favorite, though, is Noriko Mitose’s EXEC_SPHILIA/. Once, I wrote about how much I hate the lazy key change as a method of trying to artificially create emotion in a bad or mediocre song.  EXEC_SPHILIA/., despite being mostly sung in a constructed language that pretty much no one is going to understand, packs more emotion without using this cheap trick than a thousand sappy modern R&B and singer-songwriter ballads that do.  It’s fantastic.  I like all of Mitose’s other work on Flame as well; her stuff has a harder edge that appeals to me.

While I can’t say the same for the AT games themselves, their music is diverse enough in tone that there’s enough here to appeal to pretty much everyone, ranging from cute (Hartes ciel, melenas walasye) to operatic (Eternally Connected, The Heart Speaks) to apocalyptic (EXEC_DESPEDIA/.).  If you’re a fan of vocal/choral music at all, you need to check these two albums out.  And it goes without saying that these are must-haves for Ar tonelico fans.  Since I have no complaints about either Flame or Waterway, they both get perfect ratings of 7.

* I don’t really know if Hymmnos is complete enough to count as a constructed language, but I’ve read threads with people arguing about the grammar of the language, so I figure it must be close enough.  It even has its own script!  That’s dedication.

Answering and posing 11 questions for the Sunshine Blogger Award

Nobody who knows me in real life, or who even reads this site for more than a few minutes, could possibly use the word “sunshine” to describe me, except sarcastically.  Even so, I have to thank Red Metal of Extra Life for nominating me for the Sunshine Blogger Award.  As part of this nomination, Red Metal put eleven questions to me and the other nominees, which I’ve done my best to answer below.  If any of my answers seem like cop-outs, rest assured that that is completely intentional.

1) In which cases would you deem the manga superior to the anime on which it’s based?

Mahjong Legend Akagi is still near the top of the list of my favorite anime series, but the manga is better if only for the fact that it’s continuing to tell the story of Akagi’s mahjong deathmatch (a literal deathmatch) with the insane billionaire Washizu, while the anime had to cut the story off partway through… because the damn manga wasn’t done yet.  More generally, I’d say any work that goes through what TV Tropes calls “adaptation decay” falls in this category.  I’m not a big manga reader, though.  I can definitely say that anime series based on video games usually are not as good as their source material.

2) Which game do you feel has the best soundtrack?

There are a lot of great game soundtracks out there, so it’s hard for me to pin down one that’s the best. I’ll cheat here and say NieR:Gestalt/Replicant and NieR:Automata together. The two soundtracks do have some thematic links, just like their respective games, so I think it works to lump them together. Everything about these soundtracks is amazing.  In different parts they’re delicate and emotional, sweeping and operatic, powerful, crushing… well, I can’t really do it justice with words, so you should just listen to the music.  You can find most or all of their contents on Youtube, though they’re both well worth a buy.

As a pair of very close runners-up, I’ll put up the Persona and Ar tonelico series.

3) If you could revive a dead video games series, which one would you choose?

No need to even think about this one – Skies of Arcadia. Since there was only one Skies of Arcadia game (I’m not counting the Gamecube remaster) it’s not exactly a series, but I’d love to see a sequel, even though the chances of that happening now are lower than the chances of my winning the Powerball.

Well, a man can dream, anyway.

4) What game/film/album/book did you have a particularly difficult time adding to your collection?

I really had to dig around for a physical copy of a single album by Tokyo Active NEETs.  They’re a doujin music group based in Tokyo (obvious I guess) and their stuff typically has to be imported, if it’s even available for sale online.

Same goes for any limited-release physical copy of an album I want.  I was very happy to get the CD release of Moe Shop’s Moe Moe EP, even though I had to import it from Japan.  The damn thing sold out in a few hours.  It’s probably stupid that I’m into collecting physical copies of albums, games, and books, but there’s always the chance that a Carrington Event could happen and melt worldwide electrical grids and damage equipment, and there go your precious mp3 files.

5) Do you prefer to see a film at home or in the theaters?

When my depression is tamped down enough to get me out of the house on a weekend, I’ve always enjoyed going to the theater. Even if the movie turns out to be lousy, it can still be a good time if I’m with friends, especially if it’s a “funny bad” kind of movie. When I’m at home, I prefer to play games.

6) In what cases did you find yourself siding with critics over fans about a work’s quality?

This is a hard one. I guess I like some of the 80s pop stuff created by formerly ultra-artsy prog-rock bands like Yes and Genesis that’s praised by critics but shunned by a lot of hardcore fans (Yes a lot more, honestly – 90125 is a legit good album.)  This answer is one of my cop-outs, though, because I like most of their 70s prog work a lot more than their 80s work, and Genesis was total crap from Invisible Touch until they broke up.  Just listen to a Phil Collins solo album and you’ll get the idea.  (Better still, don’t.)

7) In what cases did you find yourself siding with fans over critics about a work’s quality?

The Sonic Adventure games. I haven’t reviewed either of them here, though I did take a look at a related soundtrack a while back in which I called them a mixed bag. I still feel that way, but on balance I do have a lot of fun playing them, especially Sonic Adventure 2. No, they’re not perfect games by any means; yes, they do have absolutely stupid plots that make no sense (especially SA2.) But they don’t deserve the evisceration they get from critics today.

More generally, I side with Sonic fans about the series’ quality for the first ten years of its run, and I’ll fight tooth and nail with critics who claim that Sonic has “never been good.” Sure, there have been plenty of mediocre to poor Sonic games, but that’s no reason to paint them all with the same brush. The Genesis games are still absolute classics.

8) What is the most difficult game you’ve completed?

In terms of cheapness factor, probably Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, though there may be a few old RPGs I played that I’m forgetting about. Nocturne features a lot of old-school difficulty in the sense that it almost never holds your hand or tells you what’s coming next. SMT: Strange Journey is even more difficult, despite the fact that it lets you save almost anywhere – but I’m ashamed to say I have not beaten it yet.  YHVH damn you, Mem Aleph.

9) Which game series have you been following for the longest amount of time?

The two series I still follow religiously are Megami Tensei (starting with Persona 3 in 2006) and Disgaea (starting with Disgaea: Hour of Darkness all the way back in 2003.) In a broader sense, I’ve been following the Mario and Sonic series for longer than either of those, but I’m not an ultra-dedicated fan of either, not even of Sonic, despite all the praise I was heaping on the Genesis games up in answer #7.  I still follow Megami Tensei for the variety of gameplay and stories the series offers, from the crushing existentialist terror of Strange Journey to the schlocky fanservice of Persona 4: Dancing All Night and the Arena games, and Disgaea for the characters and the insane level of post-game content available in every game in the series.

Etna is one of my favorite characters in any game, period. Not very trustworthy, though.

10) In what ways do you feel video game critics to be ahead of their film-loving counterparts?

If we’re talking professional video game critics/journalists, I certainly have my problems with them, but I do think they tend to be more in tune with the tastes of the consumer.  A lot of it comes down to the distinction between high and popular art that I consider totally artificial.  There’s good art and bad art (of course, these definitions are subjective) but how do you draw a clear line between “high” and “low” art?  Good art is good art, no matter what other labels you care to hang on it.  PC and video games are still a young medium, a medium that’s looked down upon by many critics of other media.  So I think a lot of video game critics don’t make that same high/low distinction with games that critics of film, music, theater, etc. make.

As the medium continues to “mature”, though, I think that will change.  We’ve already been seeing this with pieces by game critics calling certain kinds of games “unacceptable” and “immature”.  If maturity means that PC and video games generally become more mainstream, corporate, and safe, I think I prefer immaturity.  But nobody asks me what I prefer when it comes to video games or anything else in the world.

11) How does hype factor into how you ultimately feel about a work?

I’d like to say it doesn’t, but that wouldn’t be true. When a game turns out to be less than expected in quality, I’m more disappointed according to the level of hype the game was receiving beforehand. Mighty No. 9 is a good example. I did not give a single flying fuck about all the drama surrounding the community manager genderbending the main character in fanart or whatever that controversy was about, but I ended up disliking the game anyway because it wasn’t that great in terms of level design and control, and I think the game probably received more hate than it deserved just because expectations were so high at the outset. As I get older, I grow more cynical, though, so I don’t buy into hype quite like I used to.

*****

I held up my end of the bargain.  Now here are my questions.  Almost everything I write about on this site is on games and music, but I tried to keep my questions open to fans of all kinds of media.

1) What’s your favorite or most-used medium for entertainment?

2) What character in a work of fiction would you inhabit and why?  (Assuming you’re experiencing the entire storyline of the game/novel/film/whatever as this character.)

3) What work would you wipe all memories of from your brain if you could so that you could experience it all over again?

4) What’s the most annoying trend occurring in your favorite medium today?

5) What’s the most promising trend occurring in your favorite medium today?

6) How much or how little romance do you like in your games/films/novels/etc.?

7) If you had to be the ruler of one country in any work of fiction, which one would you pick?

8) Do you think virtual reality will improve anytime in the near future to the extent that it’s actually worth using?  Or are we already at that point?

9) I’ve heard people say that the novel is a dying form of art and that changes in attention span length and the constant multitasking our generation is involved in will make them obsolete.  If you have an opinion on that matter, do you agree or disagree?

10) Are you optimistic about the future of the human race?

11) Cake or pie?  (There’s only one right answer.)

And here are the 11 (edit: 12.  I can’t count.) people/sites I’m tagging.  Yeah, for once I’m following the rules of the game.  If you’ve already been tagged, or doing this kind of thing just isn’t your style, feel free to ignore my questions.  Of course, anyone else is also free to take part if they feel like it.

Retro Freak Reviews

Otaku Orbit

Strange Girl Gaming

Games Revisited

Otaku Alcove

Home Button

Blimps Go 180

Hi-Fi Adventures

The Bibliophagist

NekoJonez

Wordynerdbird

Shoot the Rookie

A review of Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight

Yes, I caved in and bought the Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight package for the PS4.  Yes, I am ashamed of myself for buying this grossly overpriced cash-in.  Yes, I hate myself completely and utterly, and you can’t possibly put me down in any way I haven’t already done to myself.

Aigis is in it, so I had to buy it. That’s my flimsy excuse.

Now that the self-hatred part of the review is out of the way, how are these games? They’re… all right.  Fine.  Kind of disappointing, to be honest, and not for the reasons you might expect.  The Persona series has one of the best sets of soundtracks of any game series ever, thanks to composer Shoji Meguro and the many performers who play the music.  So I didn’t expect to be disappointed by the tracklists to these games.  Persona 4: Dancing All Night, released back in 2015 for the Vita, was no slouch in the tracklist department and featured a lot of good remixes.  The remixes in P3D and P5D, by contrast, are mostly pretty lackluster.  It’s not good when I end up greatly preferring the original track to the remix – if that’s the case, it would be better just to use the original track instead, and that’s what Atlus ends up doing with a lot of the featured dances.  Another problem is the length of each tracklist – only around 25 or so in each game, not counting DLC songs, and some of them don’t even feature the characters dancing but rather animated cutscenes from the games.  Considering the price tag of each game, this is really not acceptable.

Dancing was invented so Atlus could milk Persona games

Some fans have also been disappointed by the fact that, unlike P4:DAN, the P3 and P5 dancing games have no story mode option.  These games instead have very thin story sections that consist of Velvet Room attendants Elizabeth (in P3D) and Justine and Caroline (in P5D) transporting all of SEES/the Phantom Thieves to special dance studio Velvet Rooms in their dreams while they all sleep to have a dance-off against each other.  The two teams never actually meet, which is another disappointment – since they’re all dreaming, and the Velvet Room attendants assure them they won’t remember any of their dreams (isn’t that convenient) it wouldn’t have affected the games’ stories at all.  Hell, you guys already had the P3 and P4 teams meet in Persona Q, and they’ll all be thrown together again in Persona Q 2, so why weren’t these two games combined into one with separate modes for each team like Q was?

The closest thing we get to story mode is a social/confidant link system with eight conversations with each team member, including Elizabeth and Justine/Caroline.  These conversations are full of references to their respective games, so parts of them aren’t going to make a whole lot of sense to newcomers to the series, but at least we get something to do other than play the rhythm game section constantly.  Although the conversations do have to be unlocked by getting achievements, so you’ll have to work for them.

That’s very “meta”, Futaba, thank you

Well shit.  All I’ve done is complain about these games so far, and I don’t want to give the impression that I hate them.  So what about the positives?  The music is pretty damn good on balance – the original soundtracks to both games are great, after all, and even some mediocre remixes can’t ruin good tracks.  The new Persona 3 character models look great.  And the dancing itself is really well done.  Like in P4:DAN, each character dances in a way that’s very much an expression of their personality – Mitsuru’s dancing is elegant, Yusuke has a weird, artsy style, Akihiko and Makoto use a lot of fighting moves, Aigis is extremely precise, and Fuuka is kind of awkward but clearly trying her best.  The character pairings during dances are also pretty fun; it’s especially cute how Futaba tries to imitate the style of the main dancer when she joins in.  My favorite is Haru, though – I don’t remember if she ever dropped the fact that she’d formerly been a ballerina anywhere in Persona 5, but here she busts out some great-looking ballet moves.  Pirouettes.  Swan Lake?  I don’t know ballet that well, sorry.  I’m not cultured enough; I only specialize in stupid weeb games like these.

Ballet combined with aikido moves makes for a good combination.

I guess the biggest question is whether these games are worth buying at their unforgivably high sticker prices for people who haven’t played or aren’t especially fond of Persona 3 or Persona 5.  The answer is absolutely not.  I don’t usually mess around with bold text, and this is both bold and italicized, so you know I’m serious.  Not that P3D or P5D are really bad games.  To the average consumer, they’ll probably come off as serviceable rhythm games.  And if you see them on sale somewhere, I’d say at least one of them is worth buying for the non-initiate (probably not both, because they’re effectively the same game with different casts of characters and different tracks to dance to, which is partly why I’m reviewing them jointly.)  At a sticker price of 60 dollars each, however, they are stupidly overpriced.  The PS4 bundle, which includes both games and a digital copy of Persona 4: Dancing All Night for 100 dollars, is a better deal, and I might even say it’s worth getting if just to have P4:DAN on the PS4, which isn’t available separately, at least at the moment.  But that deal is hardly worth it for the non-hardcore fan.

If you’re a massive fan of the core games, you’ll obviously get more value out of these.  A lot of the content in P3D and P5D is basically dessert for people who finished P3 and P5.  We also get the expected fanservice with a lot of unlockable costumes, including the usual bathing suits and butler suits for the guys and maid outfits, swimsuits and fantasy bikini armor for the girls.  So if you’re into that kind of stuff, have fun.  There’s also plenty of paid costume DLC too, so have your fucking credit card or Paypal account ready if you really want it that badly.

Just pile on the fanservice boys, the more the better

Anyway, ratings.  I can only give each of these games a 4 on my scale – just passing.  The dancing is fun and all, and it’s nice to see our beloved P3 and P5 casts together again, but there were too many disappointments here with their respective tracklists to give these games anything higher, and I’m pissed off at Atlus for effectively using these games as a DLC delivery service.  As far as rhythm games go, the Vocaloid title Project DIVA Future Tone is far better, both in terms of value and variety of music, and it’s the one to buy if you don’t care about injecting Persona fanservice directly into your bloodstream. Bump that score up a point if you can get either or both of these games for a bargain, because they are basically good, but I’m still pissed off about the whole thing.

Maybe dessert truly is the best way to describe these games: buying and playing them are like gorging on cake.  Nice at first, and incredibly sweet, but in the end you feel sick and regret what you’ve done.

On the other hand, maybe it’s worth it to hear Akihiko’s underwear tips.

With that, I’m done spending money on games for a while.  I’m trying to keep my head above water and save some money to put a down payment on a house after the next housing bubble pops, so until Shin Megami Tensei V or Disgaea 6 forces me to finally buy a Switch, you can look forward to a bunch of reviews from my massive backlog, along with my planned soundtrack reviews, “games for broke people” reviews, the occasional post about law, and the constant depression and bitching and moaning I deliver.  In other words, nothing’s really going to change.

Saya no Uta revisited: A Valentine’s Day review

Happy Valentine’s Day, all you lovebirds.  To commemorate this wonderful day, I decided to replay a game I covered several years ago – the most romantic game I’ve ever played.  As far as contemporary love stories go, you can throw Twilight in the trash, toss Fifty Shades in the woodchipper, dump all those grocery store romance novels in the landfill, and dissolve all those Hollywood romcoms in a vat of acid, because we have Saya no Uta.

Saya no Uta (translated as The Song of Saya by JAST, publisher of the official localization) is the creation of developer Nitroplus and writer Gen Urobuchi.  If you’ve watched Madoka Magica, you might have a vague idea of what to expect from this visual novel.  My original review of this game was spoiler-free, so if you want to check out Saya no Uta unspoiled, you can find it here.  This new review of Saya is an analysis rather than a glossing-over like the first, and it contains major spoilers about the plot and the endings, so stop reading after the below image if you want to avoid those.  Finally, the usual disclaimer that anyone has to tack on when talking about Saya: this game contains sexually explicit content and some extremely disturbing imagery and scenarios, so if your imagination is especially active or you’re just not interested in that sort of thing, you might want to stop reading and also avoid the game altogether.

Scroll past Saya for major spoilers

My new playthrough of Saya no Uta several years after my first was very different.  Not in terms of its content – Saya is a short VN, about five hours for a 100% run, and only features two branching option paths and three endings.  It was rather different in terms of the response the game got out of me.  If you’ve read this far, you’ve likely already played Saya and know what it’s all about, but for those who haven’t and just don’t care about being spoiled on it, here’s a brief summary: our main character, medical student Fuminori Sakisaka, is nearly killed in an accident that claims the lives of both his parents and leaves him with a seemingly incurable condition that causes him to see all people, animals, and things in the world as mounds of horrible, stinking meat and flesh-beasts.

Fuminori is driven to the brink of suicide by his condition, but he unexpectedly finds hope when a girl appears at his hospital bedside.  This girl, named Saya, claims to be secretly living in the hospital while looking for her missing father, a university professor.  Fuminori clings to Saya, the only other being in the world who looks like a human to him, and promises to find her father if she agrees to live with him in his now-empty house in Tokyo upon his discharge from the hospital.  Saya agrees, and they begin their life together while Fuminori does his best to return to his normal routine, struggling to hide his mental disorder from his friends and fellow med school students Kouji, Oumi, and Yoh, his doctor Ryouko Tanbo, and the rest of the world out of fear that he’ll be permanently institutionalized if they learn the truth.  Meanwhile, Fuminori and Saya go beyond mere roommates and develop a romantic relationship (and a sexual one – this is most of the reason why Saya is an h-game.)

Since my last playthrough of Saya, I’ve tried out a little fiction writing, and despite being a total hack I do have some opinions about what makes for good and bad storytelling.  One of the hallmarks of bad writing, in my opinion, is going for shock value with no purpose or goal beyond offending the sensibilities of the reader.

Saya contains a lot of shocking content.  The most immediately obvious is Fuminori’s relationship with Saya, who is apparently not much more than a kid (of course, she’s really not a kid, or even a human, but we don’t know that until the game starts to drop hints about Saya’s true nature halfway through the story.)  In the course of trying to protect his life with Saya, Fuminori also commits kidnapping, murder, and cannibalism.

Even more horrific are some of the acts that Saya commits, however.  Her true form, or her form as the rest of the world aside from Fuminori sees it, is a monstrous mass of flesh and guts, just the sort of creature that Fuminori sees all other humans as.  When Saya first meets Fuminori in his hospital room, she shows up intending merely to scare him – just the sort of innocent prank a kid might try to play on someone, and she’s surprised when Fuminori sees her as a human being instead of the eldritch abomination she really is.  Throughout the game, as Saya and Fuminori grow more emotionally attached to each other, Saya starts to commit far more atrocious acts.

While Fuminori tries to protect Saya from the outside world, Saya also does her best to protect Fuminori.  Collectively, the pair end up killing one of Fuminori’s former friends and attempting to kill another when they try to investigate his new life.  The third ends up suffering a fate even worse than death at Saya’s hands.  Saya, after conducting a few experiments on the neighbors, discovers that she can rewire human brains to see the world as Fuminori does and even convert humans into creatures like her that Fuminori sees as human, molding and mutating them to compensate for his mental disorder.  The results of these experiments are completely horrific and lead to what I and probably most other people would consider the most disturbing scenes in the game.

Even though all of this content is shocking, though, none of it is gratuitous.  While playing Saya, I never had the sense that Urobuchi was writing a scene merely to turn my stomach.  Every one of the terrible acts Fuminori and Saya commit make sense to them, and every one serves the purpose of plot or character development or both. However, while we can understand why Fuminori and Saya do what they do, we can’t forgive them.  At key points in the story, Saya no Uta shifts the player’s perspective away from Fuminori to his friends and his doctor.

When the game puts us in the minds of Tanbo, Kouji, Yoh, Oumi, and humans other than Fuminori, we see the world as it truly is, and we see Fuminori as the rest of the world sees him – a man who avoids his former friends and snaps at them when they try to approach him, who lives in a house with overgrown grass and weeds in the front yard, whose house stinks to high heaven with the smell of rotten meat, and who happily lives and mates with a flesh-monster that hunts and kills other humans.  Fuminori is the protagonist of Saya no Uta, but there’s no doubt that both he and Saya are the villains of this story.  They pose an extreme threat to everyone living around them, especially Saya, whose abilities to mutate human minds and bodies are constantly growing.  Which is why, when Kouji decides to try to kill Fuminori (either with or without Tanbo’s help – one of the two branching paths in the game) I can completely get behind his decision, even if I feel some sympathy for Fuminori.

This is how you know Saya wasn’t written by an American.

Which is why it’s so strange that the objectively best ending of the game is so god damn depressing.  In one of the three available routes, Dr. Tanbo and Kouji, Fuminori’s former best friend and lover of Oumi, one of Saya’s victims, confront Fuminori and Saya.  Tanbo manages to inflict a fatal wound upon Saya by splashing her with liquid nitrogen, and Fuminori, in a rage, kills Tanbo with an axe and then turns the axe on himself in despair after seeing that Saya is dying.  Kouji survives the ordeal but goes insane, and it’s implied that he later commits suicide.  I know this doesn’t sound like a traditional good ending, but aside from these four, Oumi, Yoh, and a few other of Saya’s human victims, the world is saved from disaster.  (The ending that most people consider the “true ending” involves Saya dying after sprouting a set of wing-like protrusions that multiply into countless seeds that spread throughout the world, turning humans into Saya-like creatures, which was what drove her instinct to consume Fuminori’s, uh, essence – something Saya herself doesn’t seem to realize until this moment.)  Still, it doesn’t feel good watching these events play out, because we’re watching characters we’ve been with the whole game meet their ends.

None of them are completely unsympathetic, either – not even the villains.  Fuminori has completely discarded his humanity by the game’s third act, effectively becoming a predatory creature like Saya who lives on raw animal (and human) flesh, but it’s clear that his mental condition drove him to that point, even if he did eventually make the conscious decision to arrive there.  Even Saya remains pure in some sense, because everything she does is meant to please and help Fuminori.  As we learn near the end of the game, Saya seems not to have even made a conscious decision to come to our planet (or our universe – it’s not clear whether she’s a standard alien or an extra-dimensional being, though I’m leaning towards the latter.)

And that’s why Saya no Uta is a great romance.  The acts that Fuminori and Saya commit in the course of the story are unforgivable and unjustifiable, but none of them are gratuitous in the context of the story, because they’re motivated by the pair’s unnatural love for each other, and Urobuchi writes their love in a way that we can believe and understand.

As bad as the “every character dies” ending is, this one is far worse.

Damn, I did not intend to write that much about Saya no Uta.  But I couldn’t really help it.  This game made me feel things, and that’s not very common considering how cynical and emotionally locked up I am.  Since I’ve heaped a lot of praise on the writing in Saya, it would be unfair not to mention the game’s beautiful art (even though a lot of it’s meant to be ugly) and its atmospheric soundtrack.  Saya is still one of my favorite visual novels, though I absolutely would not recommend it to some, or even most, considering its mix of Lovecraftian horror and sexual content.  Even though it contains a lot of explicit content, however, I don’t consider Saya to really be an h-game.  Yes, it has sex scenes, but even those scenes move the game’s plot and character development – and they’re clearly not meant for that purpose.  At least, it’s hard to imagine the sort of person who would be aroused by anything in Saya.  I’m sure such a person exists in the world, and I hope I never meet them.

I wonder how the American remake of Oldboy is too, I should check it out

One more note about Saya: in 2010, IDW released a three-volume comic book adaptation of the game titled Song of Saya.  It apparently put the story through the bowdlerization machine.  Saya now looks like a woman in her 20s, which is understandable considering the trouble IDW might have gotten into if they’d tried to depict Saya as she is in the original work.  But I’ve heard that the writers made a lot of other changes that were not even remotely necessary and that it just sucks in general.  I have a weird fascination with shitty media and bad adaptations, though, so if I ever come across these Song of Saya comics in a bin somewhere for a few dollars I’ll probably check them out just for the hell of it and let you know what I think.  I haven’t read this thing, so maybe I’m being unfair.

Anyway, happy Valentine’s Day once again, if you’re still in the mood for romance after reading all that.  I’ll be sitting at home working.  Love is nice, but money is better.  I guess I really am a cynic at heart.