A review of Blue Reflection (PS4)

Here’s a post that’s been a long time coming. From the very back of my backlog, or at least the backlog I’m actively keeping track of, comes Blue Reflection, a JRPG developed by Gust and released in 2017. Gust is principally known for the extremely long-running Atelier series (see Rorona and Meruru and a bunch of others) but Blue Reflection was something very different — instead of the fantasy Renaissance European cities and towns we’re used to from that series, we get a modern Japanese high school setting, and instead of an alchemist for our protagonist, we get a magical girl. This game was created under the supervision of Mel Kishida, the character designer and artist who also worked on Gust’s Atelier Arland games, and apparently he really wanted to make a magical girl game.

And that’s just what Blue Reflection is. If you’re looking for a game that fulfills the requirements “turn-based JRPG” and “has magical girls” this is probably the title that will come up first. You likely won’t be disappointed with the result either, at least as long as you’re in that very specific demographic. Blue Reflection does feel like it has niche appeal, which might partly explain the mixed reviews and generally cold reception it seems to have gotten here in the US outside of the hardcore Gust fan circle; I don’t even see it brought up much among JRPG fans in general. Which is really too bad — it does have flaws, but I found Blue Reflection a unique and interesting game. At the very least, you can’t say it’s like any other game out there (barring some possible Japan-only games I’ve never gotten to play before.)

I’ll get into all that in depth below, however. And all without getting into plot/character spoilers beyond the basic story setup, so don’t worry about those this time around.

Japanese high school is no joke

This is our protagonist, Hinako Shirai. Before starting high school, Hinako had a promising future as a ballerina, but a leg injury has forced her to put those dreams on hold. Blue Reflection begins during her first year at the prestigious Hoshinomiya High School, a small all-girls school divided into special classes for those pursuing careers in the arts and sports and regular classes for everyone else. Now stuck in the regular class thanks to her injury, Hinako is understandably depressed about her situation.

Then she meets an unusual pair in her class, the twins Yuzuki and Raimu Shijou, or simply Yuzu and Lime. These two quickly befriend Hinako, and after hearing her story they decide to offer her a special gift: the power of the Reflector. Reflectors have the ability to enter the Common, a weird metaphysical mindscape full of demons that represent and are empowered by human emotions. When these emotions get out of control, the demons start to act up, and Hoshinomiya just happens to be on some kind of emotional fault line that’s causing its students to become especially distraught and wild. As a Reflector, Hinako will have the responsibility along with Yuzu and Lime to fight and subdue these demons, and by doing so they can help resolve their classmates’ emotional distress.

Hinako, Yuzu, and Lime in the only nice-looking section of the Common; the rest are pretty fucked up

And yeah, Reflectors are magical girls, complete with those transformation sequences you’ll know if you’ve watched any magical girl show ever made. Blue Reflection also features massive, monstrous bosses to battle in the form of the Sephira, who are trying to use all this emotional chaos to take over the world. So just like a proper magical girl, Hinako is now basically going to be tasked with saving humanity along with her new friends, assuming of course that she accepts the twins’ offer.

Hinako does accept, partly because Yuzu and Lime tell her by defeating the Sephira she’ll be able to gain a wish. For Hinako, this wish is obvious — in her current state, there’s no guarantee that she’ll ever be able to dance again, so she reasons that this is a sure way to heal her leg and get back on stage.

Hinako at home reflecting on her situation (get it?! …yeah, sorry.)

The game proceeds along this path, with Hinako spending her days at school studying, making new friends, and fighting shadow monsters using her magical girl powers. The story is broken into chapters, each of which starts out with some major event usually leading to a big boss fight, and then to a block the game calls “Free Time” in which you’re free to run around school talking to fellow students, solving their issues by fighting demons in the Common alongside Yuzu and Lime. Most of these chapters are also broken up by side character stories resulting in a new classmate for Hinako and co. to befriend.

This social element is only part of the game, however. Blue Reflection is still a turn-based JRPG and features plenty of fighting, mostly in the dreamlike world of the Common. Thankfully, this isn’t the plainest turn-based combat system around: Blue Reflection relies heavily on timing and using skills to slow down and knock back enemies. Hinako, Yuzu, and Lime also draw power from a common pool of “Ether” that they can charge up while fighting. Collecting enough Ether unlocks the massively powerful Overdrive ability, which allows the use of multiple skills in a single turn at reduced MP use rates.

The frilly dress is cool and all, but I wish I didn’t have to fight these weird deer monsters

Luckily for Hinako, the power of friendship isn’t just a metaphor for the happiness and fulfillment she gains from the confidants she makes throughout the game. It is that, sure, but it also adds to the magical girl trio’s actual strength in battle by manifesting as “Fragments” formed from said emotions that give various bonuses when equipped to skills. To that end, and also because it’s a good way to break up all the fighting, the player will spend most of the time they’re not fighting with their schoolmates, having lunch, playing sports, and going out to various spots in town to raise Hinako’s affection points.

Some of her friends are pretty damn weird, but they mean well. And despite the implications of the term “affection points”, no, there’s no dating in this game. Sorry if you’re a yuri fan; you’ll have to look elsewhere for that.

Now I might guess what some readers are thinking — isn’t this familiar? Isn’t there another series of games that are turn-based JRPG dungeon crawler/social sim hybrids and that use the protagonist’s links with their friends to support them in battle? Yeah, this game drew a lot of comparisons to the Persona series when it was released from what I remember. That it came out only months after the big hit Persona 5, which was still very much talked about at the time, probably contributed to those comparisons.

The Persona comparisons might have also led to some disappointment, because aside from their superficial similarities, Blue Reflection doesn’t feel at all like a Persona game. To its credit, it also doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be a pale imitation of Persona but rather to do its own thing entirely. Unlike Persona, which builds fairly realistic worlds full of people both in and outside the school setting to interact with, Blue Reflection concerns itself exclusively with Hinako and her classmates, ignoring almost everything else around them. Hoshinomiya High School is all filled out with students hanging around in classrooms, club rooms, the library, sports field, and courtyards, but the only points outside of school featured are the various hangout spots Hinako can visit with her friends and Hinako’s own room, where she prepares for her next day of school and goes to sleep. Though it’s implied that they are around, we never see any adults — not even a single teacher is seen at school, where almost every scene takes place after classes are out.

Hinako helping one of her generic non-story classmates through her existential crisis on the school roof. As you can see, there’s this whole town down there, but you never get to interact with anyone in it.

Moreover, unlike the calendars that the modern Persona games strictly follow, Blue Reflection doesn’t keep track of how many days you spend in free time hanging out with friends, going home, and returning to school. Unless it’s a lunch or school activity event, every one of these sends Hinako home when they’re finished, but the game doesn’t seem to mind if you spend a month or two during a chapter of free time (though I don’t think I ever got that far myself, just projecting based on what I did with Hinako’s schedule.) Eventually you’ll run out of events to watch in a given period anyway and will probably want to move on at that point by reporting your progress to Yuzu and Lime, but this quality gives Blue Reflection almost a strange Groundhog Day sort of feel even if that’s not what’s actually going on.

Another field in the Common, with enemies stalking around in the background.

However, it seems to me like that’s what the creators were going for. This might be a stretch, since I have no idea what their intentions actually were, but Blue Reflection has a dreamlike feel to me — everything from the weirdly sparse real world outside of the school to the surreal areas of the Common you have to visit to fight demons adds to that feel. Whether or not that was how they intended players to feel, Blue Reflection is clearly not trying to be a sort of budget Persona or anything like that. It’s too different in tone for me to get that impression.

The art and music in the game both contribute to that dreamlike feel as well. Mel Kishida seems to have had a huge influence on Blue Reflection as the supervisor, and a lot of the game feels like a showcase for his character and monster designs and his settings, which contrast strongly with each other in a way that I think works. The soundtrack by Hayato Asano, full of relaxing piano-based pieces and driving battle themes, is also excellent and enhances this feel. Even if you have no interest in this sort of game, I recommend at least checking out the OST.

If Yuzu and Lime’s constant social life management wears you out, at least you have nice music to listen to while you try to meet their demands before the story can progress.

I did bring up flaws at the top of this post, though, because Blue Reflection has some pretty glaring ones. The biggest issue I had with the game was its pacing, especially with a couple of seemingly major story beats that came up near the end and then resolved themselves so quickly they may as well not have happened. It’s strange to say, given how lenient the game is about letting Hinako take time out to hang around with her friends in between giant otherworldly monster attacks, but the story seemed very compressed by the end for this reason. These left me with a few gaps in characters’ judgments and reasonings, specifically in Hinako’s, that I think weren’t explained very well.

The game is also pretty damn easy. HP and MP are replenished after each encounter, so there’s no reason not to go all out in every fight you get into in the Common. After unlocking more advanced offensive skills, I was able to clean up most fights in the game with one massive all-enemy attack from Yuzu. And once you master the use of knockback skills, Ether collection, and Overdrive in battle, even end-game bosses become complete jokes. Hinako’s magical sword is the most powerful weapon in the world apparently. If she got to use it in the real world or while not fighting Sephira, she could probably take over the world herself (not that she’d really want to, though there is one character she’d definitely have to hide it from. If you’ve played Blue Reflection, you might know who I’m talking about.)

Hinako about to destroy another giant horrific world-eating monster

Finally, it generally feels like there was some untapped potential to expand the story and explore some of its characters and themes more deeply. Maybe there were budget or timeline issues in the game’s development. The translation is a bit sloppy with some typos left in the script, but that’s a localization problem, and Blue Reflection came out in North America six months after its Japanese release, so that doesn’t seem like it would indicate anything about the game being rushed out. So maybe there were no development issues and this game turned out exactly as the creators intended, though in that case I wish they’d added a bit more to the story and character interactions.

Even with these flaws, however, I liked Blue Reflection. The dreamlike, unreal nature of the whole experience was a positive in my mind. I thought it suited the story the game was telling, and it also set it apart from the other modern real-world setting JRPGs I’ve played. I haven’t seen much magical girl stuff really, so I don’t know if the story of Blue Reflection would be played out to someone who’s deep into that genre, but I also liked that the story dealt with themes of friendship that weren’t trite but actually dealt with loss of identity and sacrifice in a way that more or less worked.

Hey, I can read some of this finally. Not all, though. Thanks for reminding me I need to get back to my kanji studies, blackboard.

I get the feeling this is a highly personal sort of work. If you can’t get enveloped in the world and the atmosphere the game creates, or you’re just not into the style or look of it, you might just be bored and frustrated by it. I can understand why many players would feel that way about it, but I’m happy that I finally got around to playing Blue Reflection. There have been rumors of a sequel around for a few years now, and I hope if that happens that we get something even better, more polished and fully fleshed out.

The Second Annual EIBFY Game Awards!

Yeah, I said I’d do it again, didn’t it? Screw those “official” Game Awards. I’ve got something better: a collection of my own awards based on total nonsense categories and accompanied by no physical trophies and no prestige whatsoever. Who wouldn’t want that instead?

As before, I’ll be considering games I played this year, not games that were released this year, because that would be a very small pool of games. And I don’t keep up with the times anyway, so it wouldn’t be right for me to even try something like that. Enough talk now; let’s start the show.

***

Best free game (that also comes with a harem)

Winner: Helltaker

I’m pretty cheap usually, unless I’m out eating with friends and don’t want to look like a stingy asshole. What with COVID, that hasn’t happened since last March, though, so I’ve been holding onto my money — but it’s still nice to find a good game that doesn’t cost anything to play. Helltaker is just that: a pretty simple block-moving puzzle game that wouldn’t be all that remarkable but for its cast of cute demon girls plus one angel who somehow managed to wander into Hell. All these ladies join up with the protagonist, who’s breaking into the underworld specifically for the purpose of building a harem of supernaturally powerful women all of whom can easily kill him if they really want to. That’s an interesting choice, and I have to respect it.

Sure it’s depicted as a set of cute triplets in Helltaker, but remember, Cerberus is still the guard of the gate of Hades. Not one to be trifled with.

Helltaker itself is fairly short and simple, but I think there’s a lot of potential in these kinds of characters with something like a visual novel if creator Łukasz Piskorz were inclined to make one. I also love the game’s unique art style. Here’s hoping we see more!

***

Best nightlife

Winner: Yakuza 0

A while back, I decided to settle down in my personal habits and my life in general, quitting all that boozing and street fighting I was doing. You know how it is — fast living catches up with you. But I still feel nostalgic for those days sometimes, so I’m happy that I have a chance to relive them by playing Yakuza 0. This is a game I’ve barely scratched the surface of as of this writing, but I did start it in 2020, so I say it counts. Especially for the purposes of this category, since no other game in my list comes close to recreating anything like Tokyo’s Kamurocho or Osaka’s Sotenbori, commercial and red light districts that are based on real-life neighborhoods in those cities. This is my first Yakuza game, and also the first that allows me to get in a fight instigated by hooligans who don’t know any better, beat money out of them, and spend that money on a meal to replenish any health I lost.

Pretty sure this guy is advertising okonomiyaki. I could go for that right now.

Honorable mention goes to Persona 5 Royal, which I also haven’t finished somehow, but that has already provided a pretty nice experience of life in Tokyo, recreating several of the city’s districts. However, the nightlife just isn’t the same. You play as a high school student in that game instead of an adult, so there’s a limit to what the game lets you do. No drunken street-fighting in that one. But it still provides a nice tour of a few prominent wards of Tokyo.

For the purposes of any other possible awards I dream up, though, I’ll reserve final judgment of Persona 5 Royal for next year’s ceremony. I’m not even to the game’s third semester yet. Lazy, I know.

***

Best-looking food

Winner: Atelier Meruru DX

One of the big draws of the Atelier series is the level of detail the games get into about the various items your alchemist protagonist can craft. This isn’t just any old crafting system, either: it’s a central gameplay mechanic, and one that I always find fun to master.

Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland is no different from the other games in the series in that regard. Also like the other Atelier games, and particularly in the Arland sub-series, Meruru has a ton of beautifully illustrated food items to craft. These do have practical uses in restoring health and mana to your characters in battle, but the characters also talk a lot about both crafting and eating food in the game’s many dialogue breaks and cutscenes. Just as in real life, being good at cooking and baking are great ways to make friends, and the same goes for making food magically through alchemy. Serious credit goes to artist Mel Kishida, who I believe was responsible for this artwork along with the game’s character designs and backgrounds.

Mont Blanc is the best dessert right alongside cannoli. The Italians and French know their sweets. If I lived in either of those countries I’d definitely be in lousy shape right now.

This year’s 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim comes in a close second in this category and therefore gets an honorable mention for also containing a lot of talk about food and nicely illustrated food items that made me hungry while playing. However, 13 Sentinels didn’t feature any Mont Blancs. Crêpes are good too, but Meruru wins for having the better dessert.

***

Best physics

Winner: Wolf Girl With You

I didn’t play a Senran Kagura game this year, so this 2016 h-game gets the coveted Best Physics award instead. I don’t know how much Wolf Girl With You really counts as a game, though. It’s more a series of 3D animations strung together with some short sets of dialogue. But really, that’s close enough in my opinion. It’s just a game about having some private time with your cute werewolf girlfriend, so I don’t think it needed more than that anyway.

Hey, this one also has food in it. And so does Yakuza 0. If I end up gaining weight again anytime soon I’ll have to blame it on all these games.

In any case, creator Seismic deserves all the credit for the physics displayed by his 3D model of Liru from the anime Magical Pokaan. I was already a fan of this wolf girl, but the bounce added a lot to the experience. Though Magical Pokaan itself featured some of that too from what I remember. That outfit Liru’s wearing is her regular one from the show, after all, so you can’t blame the creator of this game for that bikini/shorts look if you don’t like it. (No complaints here, however.)

***

Least amount of time played before eyestrain

Winner: Radical Solitaire

Seriously Vector Hat, change your fucking color scheme. The colors above do change, but they still clash and glare in my eyes in horrible ways. I still like this one, though. Radical Solitaire is an interesting game I found in a huge itch.io bundle last summer that combines Klondike Solitaire (also known as Patience, I think in the UK?) with Breakout. Check it out if you can bear all the neon and the weirdly contrasting dark layout in the main game sections.

***

Best educational game

Winner: The Expression: Amrilato

Every year, I’ll probably give out an award that only one game I played even comes close to qualifying for, and this time it’s best educational game. Arguably the only educational game I played this year was The Expression: Amrilato, a visual novel that centers on a yuri romance plot but also teaches the player the basics of Esperanto. If that sounds like a strange mix, then yeah, it is, but I found it worked pretty well, with the game managing to weave its lesson sections in naturally with the plot as you learn the Esperanto-inspired in-game language Juliamo along with the protagonist Rin. The girl-girl romance stuff is also nice if you’re into yuri — I’m not a dedicated fan of it, but I also have no problem with it and find it a nice break from the usual thing sometimes. (Back in the day we called it “shoujo-ai” over here. Is that different from yuri? I don’t even know. Feel free to educate me in the comments if you do.)

***

Jury Prize

Winner: 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

I wanted to continue the tradition of not giving a game of the year award that I started last year. However, I found a loophole that still lets me sort of give one without actually giving one: the Jury Prize. The Cannes Film Festival gives these to movies that “embody the spirit of inquiry” according to Wikipedia. I’m not totally sure what that’s supposed to mean, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

So I decided steal the idea of this award from the Cannes people. I convened a jury consisting of myself, held a closed door session by myself in my walk-in closet, and came out with the winner: 13 Sentinels. If any game I played this year embodies the spirit of inquiry or whatever, it’s this one. I posted a review gushing over it a few weeks ago, but here’s the short version: 13 Sentinels is an RTS tower defense/adventure game hybrid with a weird science fiction story and a lot of interesting character developments and plot twists. It was different and it worked, and that’s my favorite kind of game (or favorite kind of artistic work in general really.)

The beautiful art almost goes without saying for a Vanillaware game, but there’s a lot more to 13 Sentinels as well.

I don’t want to spoil anything else here, so I’ll just say this game deserves a lot more recognition than it’s gotten, which I’ve heard is largely the fault of Atlus not marketing the game very well here in the West. Considering their other bungles, that’s entirely believable.

***

Best girl

Winner: Esty Erhard (Atelier Arland series)

Okay, so best “girl” might not be appropriate. Best woman, maybe? Though I know a lot of people will disagree, I feel like the “girl/boy” cutoff is somewhere around one’s early 20s, maybe at 25. And we first meet Esty Erhard at 26 in Atelier Rorona, while working in her role as a knight for the Kingdom of Arland. Esty is a hardworking and capable bureaucrat who helps the protagonist Rorona out in her efforts to keep her alchemy atelier open against the efforts of the government’s chief minister to close it. Even though Esty is part of the government, she and her grim-looking subordinate Sterkenburg Cranach give as much support as they can to Rorona, joining her in the field to beat the shit out of monsters while she collects vital ingredients.

Esty is one of my favorite characters in the Atelier Arland series; she has an admirable no-nonsense attitude but also has a sense of humor. The main reason she gets this award, however, is because she’s one of those characters who’s maligned pretty unfairly. Not by fans, at least as far as I know, but more in-game. Esty is chronically unlucky in love throughout the series. When she returns with Sterk 14 years later in Atelier Meruru, she’s still unmarried despite her efforts to find a match, and she has to deal with some ribbing (mainly from her younger sister Filly) over it. She even became the butt of a rather inelegant joke by the localizers at NIS America who decided to change her last name to “Dee” (yeah really.)

Meruru seen here caught in a tense conversation between sisters.

I haven’t played the newly released fourth Arland game Atelier Lulua, so I don’t know if Esty’s been granted the happy ending she was looking for, but she deserves it. I don’t see why she shouldn’t have it. Maybe the guys in the world of the Arland games are all afraid of a woman who can beat them up. Well, I’m here to say that much like the guy in Helltaker, I have no such fear. I’m all about Esty, and that’s ultimately why she’s getting this award.

***

Congratulations to all the winners! To close this ceremony out, just like last time, I was going to detail some of my plans for the coming year, but I really don’t have much to say about it after my last post aside from “expect more of the same.” Maybe that’s not so exciting, but I hope you’ve liked the posts I’ve put up since reviving the site two years ago, in which case that should be good news.

Either way, I don’t want to post a list of games or anime series I plan to write about here, because I always seem cursed never to actually finish them if I do. So I’ll maintain an air of mystery here. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll probably be able to guess some of what’s coming up anyway.

A review of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim (PS4)

Where to start with this game? It’s hard to say, because there’s a lot to talk about here. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was announced all the way back at the Tokyo Game Show in 2015, but it came out late in 2019 in Japan and late in 2020, only a few months ago, in North America. While it wasn’t released to a lot of fanfare over here, anticipation seems to have been very high among fans of developer Vanillaware, known for their unique art style and great attention to detail with earlier titles like Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown.

The big question in these cases is whether the game was worth the long wait. I can’t claim I was one of those fans waiting for five years on the edge of my seat. But after playing through it, I can say that if I had waited that long or even longer, I think 13 Sentinels would have been more than worth it to me. It’s not going to appeal to everyone (just like most of the games I write about here, that’s nothing new) but I liked its mix of gameplay styles and especially its characters and story.

Of course, I’ll be getting into all that in more depth here. Before that, there’s one more thing I have to bring up: this is going to be a no-spoilers review. I’m still putting a disclaimer up even in this case, though, because 13 Sentinels is one of those games that it’s best to go into completely blind if possible. If you trust me enough to just take my word on faith (which I don’t expect at all) then here it is: I greatly enjoyed 13 Sentinels and highly recommend it. But not everyone is going to agree with that assessment, and in any case you probably need more than just me saying “hey it’s great the end”, so I’ll get into why I liked this game so much below without dropping any major plot points or character details, because you should discover those for yourself.

I also promise I won’t make any “get in the robot Shinji” references. They don’t exactly fit here anyway.

On the surface, 13 Sentinels is a game about high school students who have to fight city-destroying mechanical kaiju-style monsters by piloting giant mechs called Sentinels. A lot of the gameplay and plot revolve around these battles and the enormous strain they put on their young pilots, both physically and mentally. As with a lot of other “teenagers in giant robots fight to save the world” stories, though, there’s more going on under that surface.

From the very beginning, 13 Sentinels is split between three different gameplay modes: Remembrance, Destruction, and Analysis. Remembrance is the one you’ll likely be in most of the time. It’s the one that looks like the typical Vanillaware game, only there’s no combat in this mode — it’s sort of in the style of an older adventure game, consisting almost entirely of exploration and character interaction. This is where we really get to know our characters and where almost all of the plot unfolds.

One of the 13 protagonists, Juro Kurabe, at school. The colored bars in the upper right indicate topics or actions that your protagonist has yet to consider or carry out in a scene, some of which are prerequisites to moving their story along.

Each of the 13 protagonists in the game has their own story to play through in the Remembrance mode. In the beginning, the game only gives you a couple of characters to start with, but as you advance their stories, the game unlocks other characters that you can switch between as you see fit. At that point, the initially hidden connections between these characters reveal themselves. These connections are not at all obvious at first in some cases, especially considering the fact that our protagonists are scattered throughout time, with a few from the past of wartime Japan and a few from the far future.

For some reason, everyone ends up meeting in the Japan of 1985, where both the battles against the kaiju and the bulk of the story occur. Figuring out how and why they’ve all converged on this point in time and this place is part of the mystery the game presents. Remembrance involves a lot of tracking down and talking to or otherwise interacting with other characters in the course of this story, but we also get directly into the heads of our player characters. The Thought Cloud is an integral part of this exploration section of 13 Sentinels — it lets the player scroll through the protagonist’s various thoughts, which are updated as they make new discoveries.

Ass-kicking delinquent girl Yuki Takamiya takes a break on the roof in the middle of her various thoughts, one of which is “maybe I should drink this juice box.” Getting your vitamins is important.

But you can’t just make progress through exploration and talking to people: you have to actually fight those big kaiju battles by directing your 13 protagonists in their mechs. This is where the Destruction mode comes in. Destruction is a real-time tower defense game, starkly different from the adventure game style of Remembrance both in its looks and style. Taking place during what the game calls the final battle against the invading kaiju, a horde of giant mechanical monsters, Destruction requires the player to direct a strike team of up to six characters in the defense of a giant terminal that itself acts as a defensive mechanism against the kaiju. Defeating all the kaiju on the map typically leads to victory, though a couple of the game’s 31 maps (not counting the first seven tutorials) require the player to destroy a specific powerful target.

The heat of battle. These screens can get a bit confusing with all the enemies, missiles, and lasers shooting off and flying around, but it’s not hard to get the rhythm of combat down.

A lot of your success in battle comes from preparation. Each of the protagonist’s Sentinels can be upgraded using “Meta-chips” you earn both from advancing the story in Remembrance mode and fighting battles in Destruction mode. Around the middle of the game you’ll be able to unlock some extremely powerful weapons to use against the kaiju, both short- and long-range, allowing you to play defensively by turtling around the terminal and using long-range attacks or offensively by taking the fight directly to the kaiju and punching them in the face. There are four types of Sentinel to choose from as well, each types with its own strengths and weaknesses, so you can mix things up depending upon your preferred play style with a combination of defensive and offensive tactics.

Natsuno’s Missile Rain is stupidly powerful, and I relied on it a lot. Thanks Natsuno, and also Tomi and Keitaro who have the same ability — you saved the team more than a few times. Also god damn, those Sentry Guns.

Finally, there’s the third mode, Analysis, which isn’t so much a gameplay mode as it is a giant cache of information that grows as you progress through the game. Analysis includes a library of previously played scenes that you can return to watch as many times as you like as well as a set of “mystery files” that are unlocked and added to as the game progresses. These files contains information on just about everything in the game, from the characters and their backgrounds, stories, and relationships down to various foods and drinks your characters consume during their adventures. It might seem weird to have entries for such trivial information, but in this game, sometimes the most seemingly trivial bits of information can be important in strange ways down the line.

I’m not kidding; there’s even an entry for strawberry crêpes. Though I have to give credit: the artist made all this food look amazing. I got hungry playing 13 Sentinels a few times for foods I can’t even obtain where I live. Thanks a lot for that, Vanillaware.

It might seem a bit strange at first to put so much information about the game’s major plot points and characters into a library like this. But it doesn’t feel at all like a lazy shortcut to make telling the story easier. On the contrary, I think this Analysis mode is necessary, because the story and its characters’ relationships get so complicated that it’s sometimes helpful to go back and check on a few already established points. Naturally I can’t give any examples without spoiling things (I even went to the trouble of redacting the above image in five seconds in Paint; a lot of work, I know.) It’s enough to say that this mode is very useful in a game like this in which each character’s story has its own flowchart practically.

That takes me back to the story itself. I think the greatest strength of 13 Sentinels by far is in its writing, in the plot and its massive tangled web of characters and relationships. The story is ambitious, but unlike some other works that try this sort of thing and get lost in technobabble and confusion and end up a mess, 13 Sentinels keeps it all together. Part of this might have to do with the organization of the information you receive in Analysis mode and in the character timelines that let you track your progress and jump around from point to point to a limited extent.

For example, should you get crêpes or ice cream after school? This really is one of those branching path decision points.

However, I think more of it has to do with the strength of the game’s characters. Each of the protagonists along with several important side characters are given enough screen time to establish their personalities and motivations. Through their story paths in Remembrance mode, we come to understand how and why they end up in these giant mechs fighting kaiju. These aren’t a bunch of cardboard cutouts either. Each character feels pretty well fleshed out and realistic, allowing the game to build believable rivalries, friendships, and romances. And there are romance subplots in 13 Sentinels, and even though I’m about as unromantic as it’s possible for a human to be, they worked for me — they’re not just shoehorned in for the hell of it but actually play their parts in the larger plot.

That’s love, man, who knows

Then there’s the other half of 13 Sentinels, speaking in terms of gameplay at least: the RTS tower defense section. This one seems a bit controversial. I’ve barely played any tower defense games before, so I really have nothing to compare the tower defense element in 13 Sentinels to, but I found it to be pretty fun for what it was. It was definitely the lesser of the two sections for me, though. Combat in this game, with the exception of maybe two or three boss battles, presented no challenge at all — once you figure out how to play defensively and get the skills to beat the shit out of kaiju without them getting anywhere near you, you’ll be all right for the most part. The second-to-last fight did give me some trouble, but I still beat it on my first try, and I’m not even very good at this sort of thing.

I’m not sure if this game will satisfy hardcore RTS/tower defense fans because I’m not one of them, but playing on hard mode is a good idea if you’re looking for more of a challenge. It’s probably also important to note that, as you can see in the battle screenshots I posted, the combat takes place in top-down view, as if the player is controlling everything from a command center. If you were hoping for the combat sections to be all drawn and animated in that Vanillaware style like they were in Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown, you won’t get that in this game. But I didn’t mind too much — the real draw of 13 Sentinels for me was in the story and its interesting character relationships and conflicts.

I wish I lived in Shu’s apartment, what a view. This is my ideal living space.

There’s plenty of style in this game as well. The art is very impressive, much of it handpainted and animated in the typical Vanillaware fashion. That’s one of the reasons I used so many screenshots here, probably more than I normally would in a review like this: the beautiful art adds a lot to an already great experience. The soundtrack is also excellent, from mood-setting pieces in the Remembrance sections to tense battle themes in Destruction mode. And as an added bonus for western players, the NA release features both Japanese and English dubs, so you can choose whichever one you like. Kids these days really have it easy — I remember when we didn’t have that option.

I have more I can say about 13 Sentinels, but not without getting into spoilers, so I’ll leave it there. It’s obvious by this point that I really liked this game and that I’d highly recommend it, especially if you’re a fan of other weird sci-fi material like the Zero Escape series and Steins;Gate. I’ll only add the caveat that it might not be much of a tower defense game if that’s really what you’re looking for. But again, since I’m no expert in the tower defense genre, I can’t say much about that. Again, it’s really all about the story for me in this case, and I was happy with what I got out of 13 Sentinels in that respect. Now I just have to track down some yakisoba pan to see if it’s really as good as the game claims it is, and it will get a perfect 10 out of 10.

Miscellaneous game reviews from that huge itch.io bundle (pt. 1 of ?)

Remember that summer cleaning series I ran months ago? I still have a ton of games from the huge itch.io bundle I downloaded back then. There are well over a thousand games in that bundle, including a few long titles that I’m currently stalled out in — partly because of my own laziness, and partly because playing one of them is like listening to someone scrape their nails on a damn chalkboard.

Anyway, here are a few games I had planned to write about, but that I felt I didn’t have quite enough to say about to give their own dedicated posts. I meant to write about them sooner, but you know how it is with the aforementioned laziness and all. So let’s finally fix that:

Sonar Smash

If you’ve ever thought to yourself: I want to play a shmup about a dolphin killing its fellow sea life, then there’s a game made just for you. Sonar Smash stars a cute dolphin who has the ability to shoot sonar bullets (?) at its enemies. Using this ability, you’ll need to fight your way through waves of enemies who show up to harass you from the top of the screen classic shmup style. It’s easy to mess up and take hits, but luckily there are also shops you run into between waves that offer upgrades and health refills.

And that’s the whole game — you’re just getting as far as you can using your dodging and aiming skills. There’s not much more to Sonar Smash in terms of gameplay. It has some style on top of that, though, with nice retro-looking graphics and a surprisingly good BGM, sort of an electrofunk thing that I really like. The game is probably worth checking out for the music alone, honestly. The sea life killing is fun too, though.

Cityglitch

Cityglitch is a straightforward sort of puzzle game set on a series of 95 5×5 boards. On each of these boards, your goal is to use your main character, an unnamed being that I think looks like a levitating red-haired girl, to activate every red symbol. Your character can move all the way across the board if not blocked by an object, but only in a straight or diagonal line. There’s no time or move limit to complete a board, but there are enemies who move according to set rules that can either block the red symbols or run into your character and remove her from the board, requiring you to start over. The game doesn’t give too much background about why you’re doing this aside from its main page on itch.io, which states “touch runes to illuminate them / light them all to complete the ritual / release the glitch” but for a game like this I don’t guess you need more explanation than that.

You might wonder how much someone can do with a game board as small as five by five squares, but Cityglitch gets quite creative with the setup. The different enemy types and maze layouts can require the player to use some fancy tricks to maneuver the obstacles and clear the board. If an enemy moves across one of the activated symbols, it will also deactivate it, so you have to factor that in when making your own moves.

The green snot-looking things are stationary, the blue dots appear when you move your mouse around to see your range of movement, and the blue guy in the lower left corner is an asshole trying to stop you from completing your task.

And yeah, I liked this game too. I was surprised how quickly it hooked me, in fact — it’s impressive how much developer mindfungus was able to do with these small puzzles. I also like the blocky style of the graphics. For some reason they remind me of those old games people used to program for those TI-83 graphing calculators we used to have in high school, except those were all in black and white. Did anyone else waste time in class with those games? I can’t be the only one who played Caterpillar during trigonometry lessons. Maybe that’s why I never got onto the STEM path…

I should also mention the ambient synth background music, which fits the mood of the game very well. Again, a little style like this can go a long way towards making a simple game a lot more memorable — see also Helltaker, even though in terms of their looks they are very different (and Helltaker is more interesting, but then it also featured a cute demon girl harem, and how do you really compete with that?)

Siberia

I didn’t grow up in the age of those old-fashioned text adventures, but I think that’s the kind of game Siberia is taking after. The scenario it presents is pretty rough: you’re in a plane flying over Siberia that has engine trouble and is about to crash, so you have to parachute out and try to find help without dying.

As you play, the game presents you with branching decision points that you have to resolve before moving on Choose Your Own Adventure style, and as you might imagine, a lot of these decisions will end up getting you killed.

Siberia really has no mercy — there are a lot of ways to die in this game. Fortunately, if you make the wrong decision, it will either kill you instantly or after only a few more screens. This is a very small game, and each playthrough takes five minutes at most. None of the statistics at the bottom of the screen seem to matter that much, because from what I found while playing, I never actually reached 0 in any of them; I’d either be rescued or dead well before that point.

These guys were definitely going for that old 80s aesthetic here. Playing Siberia on a visible old CRT monitor felt a bit weird, but I liked the simple ASCII art the game used for illustrations. Again, this stuff is a bit before my time, but I do remember making and sharing crude text drawings online as a kid in the 90s. Those really were better times, at least for me.

So maybe the nostalgia angle really did work for me here. Siberia is very short — I didn’t get more than 30 minutes out of it, far less than most typical text adventures have to offer. However, it only costs one British pound, which I think is something like $1.25. Not such a bad price for what this is, though the monotonous background music might also drive you crazy. Considering all that, I can’t give it a definite recommendation, but it’s something to check out if you’re into this sort of throwback game.

And that’s it for the moment. Will I return to this bundle to review more of its games long after the bundle was on sale? Maybe. That ? in the title of this post might be a 1, or it might be a larger number than that. I might also get around to reviewing a few of the longer, more involved games in the bundle if I ever finish them. Even the nails-on-a-chalkboard bullshit one, though I might not have terribly nice things to say about it. If I do, I’ll do my best to be fair as always, though.

US copyright law needs to be reformed (feat. Liru)

Standard disclaimer: This post deals with both a hentai game and copyright law. If you’re under 18/don’t want to read about a hentai game, don’t read this, or at least don’t complain if you don’t like it. Also, absolutely nothing in this post constitutes legal advice. If you want legal advice, consult your own lawyer, because I’m sure as fuck not giving that out for free or letting anyone claim they relied on the stupid speculative shit I’m writing here. You probably already knew all this, but as usual I still have to write it. Now for the good stuff.

Here’s a game I’ve had sitting around for a while now. Starting this game up again raised a few unexpected questions in my mind. For example: what would happen to an American developer if he tried to sell a game featuring the protagonist boning a licensed character from an American property? If he didn’t have the license to use that character in his game, how quickly would the copyright holder’s attorneys jump on him? And should he even have to worry about that sort of thing?

If you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, this is Ookami Shoujo to Issho, or Wolf Girl With You. It’s a doujin game that took h-game creator Seismic so long to make it turned into a joke, people online referring to the planned release for years as Wolf Girl Never Ever With You. But as you can see, it came out, because I played it. And it’s just what it looks like: a sort of slice-of-life thing where you return home every night and experience some domestic bliss with Liru, your happy and energetic werewolf girlfriend. Both Liru and the anime series she originally came from, Renkin 3-kyuu Magical? Pokaan, seem to be pretty much forgotten now, but I remember her being a big deal in the mid-2000s. That’s her normal outfit from the show in the title screen above, so you can probably see one reason why she was so popular, but she also had that animal-eared girl appeal. So it’s no surprise that I had this game lying around.

So Liru is your live-in girlfriend, and you get scenes with her, and they mostly either involve having dinner or sex. There are several scenes you can unlock depending on what you say to her when you have dialogue options available. It’s all very sweet and happy stuff, and you could even say it warms the heart a bit — sort of like Nekopara, only while Nekopara in its 18+ form was maybe 80% slice-of-life banter and 20% sex, this one flips that ratio around, featuring barely any story to speak of but a whole lot of fucking. Also, that model of Liru is animated and 3D, and there’s serious bounce there as you’d expect, and her lines are even voiced (though in Japanese only.) What more can you ask for, really.

I won’t put up any sex scenes here because I try not to just post porn on this site, but you can find them in five seconds with a Google search if you feel like it.

I guess Wolf Girl With You was so popular even among western fans that we got an official English version (note: link is NSFW for obvious reasons) which is otherwise not very common when it comes to doujin works like this. It’s honestly pretty easy to get the gist of what’s going on with minimal knowledge of Japanese, though. You might not really need any Japanese at all; it’s not a very complicated game.

Returning to the question of copyright I raised at the top, it’s pretty funny how a game like this can do so well for its creator in Japan — this is apparently the best-selling game ever released on the Japanese ero/h-game vendor DLSite. Here in the States, assuming the developer didn’t already have a license to use the character, I think there’s no way one or more threatening cease and desist letters wouldn’t have gone out from the corporate IP owner followed by a complaint in court if the C&D letter(s) were ignored. I’m not going to assume anything at all about what Seismic is doing, because for all I know his game is a licensed work. But there certainly are a whole lot of doujin artists who don’t have such licenses and are still able to sell their work.1

I much prefer this more relaxed attitude towards intellectual property and fanworks, and not just because I like hentai games about licensed wolf girl characters (as much as I like Liru, Holo is still best wolf.) Copyright law can and should protect the author’s right to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but there’s a limit to how far that protection should extend, and here in the States thanks largely to the efforts of certain massive media empires, that protection is extended much too far.

Original character do not steal

Codified at 17 U.S.C. §§ 101 – 810, US copyright law is designed to protect “writings”, a term that’s now broadly interpreted to include many forms of expression. As you might imagine, this extends to character creation. If you played Persona 5 (and chances are good if you’re reading my Megami Tensei-obsessed blog) you might remember a classroom question about Maurice Leblanc, the French author of stories featuring the protagonist’s Persona, gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, and also Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was understandably pissed off about Leblanc using Holmes and sued him over it. Leblanc lost, but in a response that puts modern-day trolls to shame, he simply moved one letter around, renaming the character “Herlock Sholmes”, and was able to continue selling his stories.

The saga of Sherlock Holmes-related copyright battles extended all the way to a US Supreme Court case in 2014, but the most relevant part of it comes out of that initial Doyle-Leblanc fight. Specific characters are protected by copyright, but broad character types are not. It’s pretty obvious why this is: if an author were able to copyright a certain style of character or story, everything would be protected by copyright and no one would be allowed to sell works without paying whoever holds that particular right, effectively stifling the creation of new fiction.

This brings us back to the case of Liru and the fangame she stars in. The Liru featured in Wolf Girl With You seems fundamentally the same character as the one in Magical Pokaan, right down to her personality quirks and the unusual outfit she wears. Yet it doesn’t seem like the maker has had any problem selling his work. The same is true of thousands of doujin artists who produce and sell fan comics twice a year at Tokyo’s massive Comiket conventions.

Under US law, these would very likely fall into the category of derivative works, which make use of copyrightable aspects of existing works (in this case, characters and sometimes elements of the world they live in) to create something otherwise new and original. The authors of such derivative works can claim copyright protection, but only for those original elements they add — the characters and other elements they borrow are not themselves copyrightable by the derivative work author according to 17 U.S.C. § 103(b).

However, although games like Wolf Girl With You and many of the other doujin games, comics, and fanworks in the market would almost certainly be considered derivative works, US law also requires that the author of the derivative work be licensed by the original copyright holder, not just to sell it, but even to produce it in the first place. To me, this is where the trouble starts, specifically with the length of time that copyright protection in the US extends. Because for works created and “fixed in a tangible expression of medium”2 on or after January 1, 1978, that protection extends for the author’s entire life plus 70 years, or in the case of multiple authors 70 years past the death of the last surviving author. And in the case of works made for hire, which would usually include works produced by a corporation, that protection lasts for either 95 years from the date of first publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.

There’s a complicated mess of other rules applying to works made before 1978, to sound recordings, and to works created under certain uncommon circumstances, but this is probably enough to illustrate just how long copyright protection lasts in the United States: for stupidly long periods of time. These periods have also been extended by Congress, thanks largely to political pressure applied by major copyright holders (Disney is usually the one “credited” in their efforts to protect Mickey Mouse from falling into the public domain, but they’re not the only ones responsible.)

This photo result I came across under the search term “old mouse” is the closest thing to a public domain image of Mickey I could find. Also, though they’ve produced some great films, fuck Disney now for both this and various other reasons.

I certainly support the artist’s right to protect their work. Hell, I should — I hold the rights to everything I’ve written on this site, and I’d be pissed if someone copypasted one of my posts somewhere without asking me, providing a link, and giving proper credit. However, that protection should have a more realistic limit. Compare the time periods listed above to those in patent law, which protects the exclusive rights over new inventions and processes for either 14 or 20 years from the date of filing for an application with the US Patent and Trademark Office. In these cases, the benefits enjoyed by the patent holder are protected, but not for a ridiculously long period of time. There’s good reason to protect patent for a shorter period than copyright (for example, to allow pharmaceutical companies to start making generic versions of brand-name drugs, hopefully at lower prices) but the century-plus copyright protections we now have are still extremely excessive.

Moreover, these periods have been continually extended by Congress, most recently in 1998, and there’s no reason to believe these extensions won’t continue into the distant future. It’s worth asking whether the interests of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original artists in exclusively profiting off of their works outweigh the interests of the public in having works available to freely republish and enjoy without permission in the public domain.

Thankfully, copyright holders generally seem to tolerate unauthorized uses of their characters in the US and broadly online, at least when they’re not sold for profit, as with fanfiction. And sometimes even when they are — anyone who’s ever visited the artists’ alley in an anime, fantasy, or sci-fi con has seen hundreds of artistic depictions of popular copyrighted characters being sold without an army of lawyers descending upon the operation. Of course, it’s not like the copyright holders don’t realize what’s going on. Presumably most of them tolerate that much because cracking down would give them bad press, and perhaps they even see the use of their characters as a sign of their popularity and as an overall positive.

I spent four days of hell at the Baltimore Convention Center once, but I’d still do it again. I miss anime cons.

Even so, the copyright holders still hold the right to descend upon any artists who make unlicensed, unauthorized use of their characters. That right generally isn’t in question, even if an artist can successfully argue that fair use protects them in a particular case (which is a harder defense to sustain in these circumstances than many people realize.)3 The problem lies in the law itself, which has been repeatedly adjusted to ensure that most works made and published in the 20th century don’t fall into the public domain. As I see it, in this case as in many others, the individual right should be balanced against the social good — here, the rights of artists and their descendants to enjoy the fruits of those labors against the public interest in keeping old art alive and accessible. Which is certainly something I think government has a duty to regulate, instead of simply bending over for big copyright holders as they’ve always done. Not that I have any particular hope of that happening. It’s all about who has the deepest pockets, after all.

Which brings me back to Liru once again. As far as I know, she first showed up with the rest of the cast of Magical Pokaan when the original anime series aired in 2006, so the matter of public domain isn’t that relevant to her or to many other characters now used in fanmade works. However, the idea of the public domain and the benefits it provides to everyone does apply in this case, at least in a general sense. Even if there’s no question that the copyright holder has the right to prevent the creation of derivative works based on their character without permission, it can be to their benefit to have a permissive attitude towards the use of their characters by fans.

Of course, not every IP owner might be comfortable with letting people sell porn games starring their characters or even offer them to the public for free. That’s understandable, especially if they’re trying to maintain a family-friendly all-ages atmosphere (see Nintendo’s recent DMCA takedown of an NSFW Newgrounds game starring Princess Peach.) However, there’s something to be said for letting things go at a certain point. Speaking again of Persona 5, a few years ago Atlus received massive backlash for trying to strictly police streams of that game, even though they were arguably within their rights to do so. Perhaps as a result of this backlash, they seem to have eased up on such policies.

While that had to do with streaming and not the creation of fanart, I think a very similar principle is at work here.4 It’s really in everyone’s interests to allow plenty of leeway for fans to show their appreciation for the works they enjoy, which may involve the creation, display, and even to some extent the sale of fanworks whether licensed or unlicensed. There’s certainly a line to be crossed somewhere in this area — for example, if someone’s trying to pass off bootleg “official” merchandise — but I generally feel that if there’s no possibility of confusion over whether a work is official or fanmade, a more permissive attitude should prevail, and I hope that’s the new standard we’re approaching in the West.

Anyway, thanks for joining me for this serious legal analysis post. If you’re a staff member at Harvard Law looking for a new professor, send me a DM and we’ll talk.

As always, I’d like to know what you, the reader, think about this issue if you have an opinion. There’s clearly an ethical/moral element to this matter aside from the legal one, and I recognize that some creators might have reasons for wanting to maintain control over how their characters are used by fans. I’d also like to hear from fan artists if any are around, since a lot of my assumptions about how these laws are actually enforced here come from my secondhand perspective as a fan and buyer. And of course, I’m also interested in hearing from other fans like me. As usual, I don’t really have the answers — I only end up asking more questions. 𒀭

1 Here’s where I admit that I know nothing about Japanese law, so I can’t really comment on any potential issues that could arise in Japan over copyright matters. This is only going off of a possibly mistaken assumption that the fundamentals of copyright law in Japan aren’t that different from those in the United States. If they aren’t, then clearly at least the approach to enforcement there is very different.

2 This “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” requirement has its own whole complicated factors test that I won’t get into, since all the works we’re dealing with here are undoubtedly fixed in this way. However, in some cases, this requirement can place certain performances outside the scope of federal copyright law.

3 But note that if an IP owner sits on the right to enforce their copyright for a long time, they may end up effectively losing it — the doctrine of equitable estoppel lets the alleged infringer argue that since the IP owner knew and was clearly not bothered about the unlicensed use of their IP, they shouldn’t be allowed to suddenly change their minds about it. There’s a fundamental matter of fairness involved here; the idea is that other users may reasonably rely on the IP owner’s inaction as a sign that they’re taking a permissive attitude.

Like other forms of equitable defense, it’s absolutely not a sure thing, though. As always, every case has its own quirks and has to be taken on its own.

4 However, by contrast streaming is still in a gray area. I might get into the fair use doctrine and transformative art as they relate to streaming in a later post.

Deep reads #5.2: That was cheap

Here’s a fun Hardcore History-style disclaimer: This is part two in a multi-part feature on the Megami Tensei game series. If you haven’t read part one, here’s a link — I recommend reading that first before proceeding to get the proper context if you need it. But if you just want to dive in here, that’s totally up to you.

You can also read this disclaimer in Dan Carlin’s voice if you want. But if I had his voice, I’d probably be podcasting instead of writing a blog. Anyway, on with the show.

“Cheap” is a term that gets thrown around a lot when players die in games in ways they feel to be unfair. I don’t know if it’s possible to pin down exactly what a cheap death is, or where specifically a death goes from “okay, that was my fault” to “fuck this cheating piece of shit game” along with a possible thrown/broken controller.

Maybe the best way to define cheap in this case is to use that famous definition of pornography given by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.”1 The best example I can give of just such an “I know it when I see it” instance is this.

I like the detail on his sarcophagus, though. Kazuma Kaneko pays a lot of attention to detail in his designs.

That’s a compilation made by YouTube user Jim Reaper of parts of the boss battle against Mot, an Egyptian god of death, in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. This fight occurs at a point fairly late in the game when the part-human part-demon protagonist Demifiend is running through the Vortex World, a small sort of bubble universe containing the ruins of Tokyo. After fighting through the somehow perfectly preserved Diet Building, Demifiend is forced to face this sarcophogus-encased asshole to proceed.

Mot normally shouldn’t be a big problem at this point in the game if you’ve built up a team of demon allies with diverse strengths and abilities. However, he has a trump card that he’ll decide to pull if you’re unlucky: Beast Eye. This is the weaker of two special abilities that gives the user extra half-turns denoted by the flashing icon in the upper right.

Essentially, Beast Eye and the even stronger Dragon Eye let you get more turns for free, something like wishing for more wishes from a genie. Only bosses can use this move; for obvious reasons neither Demifiend nor any of his allies gets to use either of them (including boss demons that become recruitable or fuseable after they’re defeated.)2 This would be cheap enough, but Mot alone among all his boss colleagues can use Beast Eye multiple times in one turn. It doesn’t happen in every fight, but when Mot remembers he has that ability, he can effectively deny the player his turn, using a combination of Beast Eye, buffs, and powerful Almighty magic attacks that can’t be nullified to kill Demifiend and company even if they’re fully healed and buffed.

Granted it does lead to the game’s beautiful game over sequence that I never get tired of seeing, but still, annoying.

So maybe it’s not easy to pin down exactly what constitutes “cheap” in a boss battle, but that sure as hell is cheap. I’m not sure if it was even put in intentionally or was an accident; there’s no particular reason Mot alone among all the bosses should have this frustrating ability, which is why I think it might not have been intentional.

But this is not the only big “FUCK YOU” moment in a Megami Tensei game. I had a much more personally frustrating experience with the Beelzebub fight near the end of my Neutral route run of Shin Megami Tensei IV. This feared chief lieutenant to Lucifer is very strong, as he should be given his position as an endgame boss, and the battle is naturally difficult to clear. However, when the fight starts there’s a good chance, possibly 50/50, that on top of all that Beelzebub will get the first turn, which he will use to absolutely fucking destroy your party. If he hasn’t completely wiped you out and sent you off to Charon before you get a turn, your party will almost certainly be too injured and weak to effectively answer Beelzebub’s first strike, and you’ll probably end up dying on your second or third turn.

After beating slapped around by this giant fly for a dozen rounds, I just started automatically quitting and reloading when he got the first shot assuming I wasn’t totally dead at that point. Because to me, this fight jumped over “challenging” and landed in that cheap territory, at least when it gave Beelzebub the first turn. I wouldn’t call it a controller-throwing moment, since SMT IV was on the 3DS and like hell I was about to break that precious thing by flinging it into a wall. But the fight was frustrating and felt fundamentally unfair. A coin toss mechanic works fine if the two parties are relatively balanced in strength, but that wasn’t the case here.

More Kaneko, depicting the Lord of the Flies in his ultimate form. I said it seven years ago in my review of the game and I’ll say it again now: Beelzebub is an asshole.

There are a few other instances I can think of in the series that might count as cheap, like the Sleeping Table fight in Persona 3. However, almost none of the other difficulties I’ve faced in an SMT, Persona, or other game in the MegaTen series has really pissed me off to such an extent as this fight against Beelzebub. I have heard some of these games called difficult to the point of being entirely cheap, though, and that’s what I want to address here. I can’t blame anyone for feeling that way about any of the mainline games in particular — they do like to beat up on the player, Strange Journey probably being the worst in that regard.3

But I don’t mind that. That’s partly because these games usually give you all the tools you need to meet their challenges. When I talked about cheap SMT bosses above, the name “Matador” might have sprung to mind — this powerful fiend dressed up like a Spanish bullfighter shows up early in Nocturne and will usually wipe out new players because of how steep a jump in difficulty his fight represents. However, there’s a big difference between the way Matador fights and the ways Mot and Beelzebub fight in the examples I gave above. In the latter cases, the player can easily get battered to death no matter how prepared they are through the enemy’s use of unique advantages that are extremely difficult to survive, much less to counter.

Matador, however, can easily be countered as long as the player has the right party and skill setup. He seems to be the game’s way of telling the player “Hey, we’re not going to let you breeze through this just by staying properly leveled. You have to use your head.” You could argue that a boss battle designed to beat the player the first time around is a bit cheap in itself, but as long as you’re hitting save points promptly, you’ll lose very little progress, and it’s an easy matter to fall back and come up with a new strategy. And almost every other difficult battle in the series I’ve played so far fits this model: it presents an obstacle that seems insurmountable until you come up with the winning strategy (though having some luck still helps.)

And don’t forget the buffs. No joke, Megami Tensei really is the one JRPG series I’ve played in which buffs and debuffs are not only useful but essential to winning.

That’s not the only aspect of Megami Tensei that sometimes feels unfair, however. There’s another mechanic present in a lot of these games that might make you tear your hair out: demon negotiation.

Negotiating with fellow humans is hard enough. But when you’re a human (or a former human-turned-demi-human as in Nocturne) dealing with devils, angels, spirits, and even deities, it’s time to leave behind logic entirely. Players new to the series who picked up Persona 5 got a taste of that pure insanity in its own negotiation system, but the mechanic in that game is fair and easygoing compared to its counterparts in the mainline games.

In the other games, the demons you’re talking to aren’t typically knocked down or pleading for their lives, so maybe that’s the reason for their relative docility in P5. And in case you’re wondering, yeah, I did let her live.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a summary: in many Megami Tensei games (ex. the SMT series, the Devil Summoner series, and of course Persona 5) you have the option of fighting against your enemies or talking to them.4 Once you initiate the conversation, several things can happen depending upon the game you’re playing. Most often, the demon you choose to talk to will acknowledge that you’re asking them to join your party and will start to haggle with you, asking you to give them specific items or amounts of money or to let them drain some of your HP or mana. After a few requests that you can either take or leave, the demon may then ask you a multiple-choice question. This question is often a philosophical one, something like “Don’t you think the strong should protect the weak?” or “Is beauty only skin-deep?”, the sort of question depending upon the demon you’re talking to. And if the demon likes your answer, it will probably join your party.

But note all those qualifiers I wrote above: often, may, probably. None of these are sure outcomes. Again, it depends on which game you’re playing, but the demon you’re talking to may be able to reject your advances outright, or take the items and money you’ve given it and run, or decide it doesn’t like how you answered its question and leave or even get angry and attack you, or decline to join your party but give you an item instead (sometimes the very same item you gave it!) Sometimes the question it asks has a bizarre “correct” answer, or one that doesn’t seem to line up with the alignment of the demon asking it. Sometimes the “question” isn’t even a question but an exclamation or a command that you have to do your best to interpret. And depending upon the type of demon, you might not even be able to enter negotiations, either because it’s a mindless beast that can’t communicate with you or because it’s an evil god or demigod who’s too arrogant to even consider giving you the time of day.

And if you talk to a demon under certain circumstances, like a full moon phase in a mainline game, good luck getting anything meaningful out of it, because the full moon apparently gets demons high. Though that’s also a great time to trigger events that won’t normally happen at any other time, like having one of those haughty but extremely powerful Tyrant demons join your party (though I wonder if they end up regretting their decision when they come down after the full moon phase ends. Too bad, because it’s too late once you’ve got them!)

Okay Demifiend, I agreed to join your party but does that mean we have to take these weird group photos? Also please stop twisting my nose. (Source: still more Kaneko official art. This post is really doubling as a Kaneko art appreciation piece, isn’t it.)

At this point, you might be wondering whether it’s worth negotiating with these jerks at all if there’s always a good chance that it will go wrong. To be sure, it’s extremely annoying to have a demon run off with your items without you being able to stop them or to constantly get turned down by one specific demon you’re trying to pick up because you keep failing its stupid tests. But negotiation is still a must. It’s necessary to getting through these games’ challenges efficiently, since it provides useful fodder for fusion to get new demons with more than their typically meager default set of skills.

More importantly, negotiation in these games is fun, largely because of how insane it can get. Negotiation is a gamble that provides the player with a lot of possible outcomes, some of which may only turn up after dozens or hundreds of rounds of talks with various enemies. This makes the mechanic a lot more interesting to use for me, even if the results can be occasionally frustrating — especially when you’re trying to recruit one particular demon you need for a fusion (or just because they look cool or are a hot lady demon or guy demon depending upon your preference; those are legitimate reasons too.) If the gambling aspect of negotiation weren’t there, I could imagine it becoming a bit repetitive and boring, but I’ve never had that feeling about it in one of these games.

Moreover, the crazy, unpredictable nature of negotiation in SMT and the other spinoffs that feature it fits in nicely with the chaotic environments that most of these games take place in. Imagine trying to talk to a powerful mythical beast or spirit, much less trying to convince them to join your team and follow your orders. You’d be lucky if they merely ignored you and didn’t decide to eat or possess you or something similar. Since your protagonist in these games typically has either the natural ability or the pure strength to bring these beings over to his side, it’s reasonable that he at least has to deal with this human-demon cultural divide, and in a few cases with a sort of language gap.

Uh, shit. Okay, maybe “human” is the right answer because it’s the odd one out, but maybe this demon will agree and eat me if I say that. What to do.

To me, this is why these crazy, often unpredictable negotiations fit in so well with the general feel of the Megami Tensei games, and especially with the mainline apocalyptic SMT ones. When you’re thrown into the deep end like that, it makes sense that you’d have to deal with this kind of madness. The games usually do give you a bit of help with a free demon, typically a Pixie who takes some pity on your squishy human self, joins your party for free, and explains the basics of negotiation to you. But beyond that, generally speaking you’re on your own, which is just the way it should be.

And I think that’s true for the entire Megami Tensei experience as a whole. These games vary in tone a lot, from pretty hopeful and even light and fluffy with a few of the spinoff of spinoff games (really the Persona ones) to grim and “why even go on living” with stuff like Strange Journey. Those are both aspects of the series that I plan to cover in later parts of this run of posts, but I think the mercilessness of the combat and dungeon-crawling and the chaotic nature of the negotiation throughout a lot of the series suits it well in both cases. I couldn’t imagine MegaTen in general without it, anyway. It just wouldn’t be the same. Even the fights that feel cheap still fit that kind of setting in my opinion, though I could still do without Beelzebub starting first and destroying my party while I watch helplessly.

I could go on with even more such banging my head against the wall but also fun instances from these games, but I hope I’ve made my point well enough by now. Next time, I plan to move from gameplay mechanics over to story elements, diving right into the characters, story, and lore, so prepare yourself for that. Once again, I hope you’ll join me on that journey. 𒀭

 

1 Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964), in case you thought I wouldn’t bother to cite the case properly. You can find the quote on page 197 if you don’t believe me. There are also very obvious questions raised here about how much experience Justice Stewart had seeing pornography considering his comment, but these questions lie outside the scope of this post series.

2 And possibly some very strong normal enemies as well, but I don’t remember if that’s the case. In general if I write something incorrect in these posts, which is very very likely, please feel free to leave a comment correcting me.

3 Just to be clear, I’m not talking about ultra-frustrating final bosses like Mem Aleph in Strange Journey, or optional extra bosses like Demifiend in Digital Devil Saga. Some people might see those as kind of cheap, especially Demifiend who can summon a wide variety of demon allies just like he can when the player’s controlling him in Nocturne. However, these are the kinds of bosses you fight either specifically for a challenge or at a point in the game where you’re expected to throw everything you have left at it, so if there is any cheapness there, it feels more appropriate to me.

4 If “talking to enemies instead of fighting” makes you think of Undertale, that’s no coincidence: from what I understand, Megami Tensei is where its creator got the idea from, though he took his own conversation mechanic in a very different direction. There’s no pacifist run possible in any MegaTen game that I’ve ever played, anyway.

Retrospective: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

I think it’s time for another look into the past, the distant past. The past of 2002, when violence in video games was still something some people actually cared about rather than a scapegoat for politicians who wanted to avoid talking about real societal problems. Well, it was that then too, but the scapegoat tactic seems to have worked a lot better back when the Grand Theft Auto series made the transition from 2D to 3D.

Years ago, I wrote a post about my time with the older GTA games from the 90s. I’ll still stand by GTA and GTA2 as being pretty fun at the time, but the series benefited massively from this leap into 3D. The 2001 title Grand Theft Auto III was an impressive game, giving the player an entire city with depth to run around and cause chaos in, but it’s still the followup Vice City that I’ll always remember best.

Oh yeah, also spoilers, but I don’t know if anyone cares in this case.

Yeah, this really brought back some memories. Still absolutely no idea what was going on here though

I recently got a separate digital copy of Vice City on Steam because my old CD copy may as well be on the Moon for all I know, I lost track of it so long ago. And playing it again was a really nostalgic experience. This was at least partly because of the time and place I first played Vice City, taking some stress out on the poor residents of the city while studying for exams and writing those damn IB papers. If you were or are an IB student too, you’ll understand why playing this game was almost necessary for me at the time.

But enough of my complaining yet again. What’s Vice City about? If you haven’t played it, there’s not much to know about the plot and characters: it’s a basic gangster story. The protagonist Tommy Vercetti, a mob guy from Liberty City (aka New York, and also the setting of GTA III) took the fall for his boss, Sonny Forelli, and after serving several years in prison he’s back out. But Forelli doesn’t want him around Liberty City, so he sends him down to Vice City (aka Miami) to start some business for the family there. Vercetti goes to Vice City but loses the money he was given to pay for a drug deal after it’s ambushed by armed men, and Forelli is unfortunately not the forgiving type. So it’s on Vercetti to find out who fucked up the deal and get Forelli’s money back.

Forelli being pissed off about his missing money. I’ve never even seen one of these giant blocky 80s cell phones in real life

Of course, that’s not quite how things go: instead of getting the money back for Forelli, Vercetti ends up getting it back and keeping it for himself, because by the time he’s gotten to that point he’s built up his own criminal empire in Vice City, and honestly fuck that guy anyway. In the course of building that empire up, Vercetti makes friends with a bunch of colorful characters, including the neurotic, coked-up lawyer Ken Rosenberg, best friend forever Lance Vance, and the hotheaded local mob boss Ricardo Diaz.

Some of these and other characters you meet will give you missions to complete in exchange for money and plot progression. Said missions might involve intimidating people, following people, transporting people, transporting illicit items, chasing people down in a stolen car, or just plain killing people with any number of weapons you can buy or find lying around town. Your friends will also occasionally join up to help you cause trouble (though how useful they really are in a gunfight is questionable, because more often than not you’ll end up having to babysit their dumb asses and make sure they’re not shot full of holes.) Naturally, you always have to stay vigilant, both for rival gang members and for the police, who don’t like it very much when they see you committing theft and murder right in front of them.

There’s also this weird mission. I still don’t know what the French government has to do with this game

I could get more into the storyline, but that’s the gist of it: run missions, build up your reputation with your contacts and make more contacts who give you more missions, use your money to buy properties and eventually businesses that make you more money, run missions for those businesses to improve your status, and kill that asshole Sonny Forelli when he eventually comes hunting for you. Before that, however, you kill Ricardo Diaz when you discover that he’s turned on you and Lance. And in a great example of “possession is 9/10ths of the law” when you do that you somehow take ownership of his massive mansion and arsenal. You probably don’t need a lawyer to tell you that doesn’t work in real life. Maybe Ken Rosenberg pulled some trickery at the Vice City probate court offscreen. It doesn’t really matter, though: the important thing is that you’re on top of Vice City’s criminal underworld at the end.

Don’t forget to take time out of that busy schedule to find the best ramps in the city to do motorcycle jumps from

One obvious question about Vice City, since it’s now 18 years old, is how well it holds up. Vice City is obviously not as big or nice-looking as GTA V, but there’s enough to do both with the story and side missions that you can still spend hours on it. The game starts off with only half of the city accessible, the rest closed off due to an incoming hurricane until you pass an early mission (Phnom Penh ’86, the one where you ride the helicopter and shoot guys while hanging out of the side.) But even in the early stage of Vice City there’s plenty to mess around with: the usual taxi, police vigilante, and medical transport missions, an irritating pizza delivery mission you have to do while driving a shitty moped, and hits to carry out on people who probably don’t deserve what you end up giving them.

This guy wasn’t a contract, he just tried to steal my car. Well, my car that I stole from someone else. But still.

The story missions themselves are mostly fun as well, though of course the developers had to include a few bullshit gimmicky ones that might make you tear your hair out while trying to complete them. Like the one where you have to dodge the Haitian car dropping coffins with bombs in them. Or the street race with a bastard that I swear is using cheats, or maybe I’m just bad at the races.

But that’s where my favorite aspect of Grand Theft Auto comes in. Like other games in the series, Vice City is fine with you setting the story missions aside for a while to take side missions to make more money, or to try sticking up a few stores to see how much money you can get away with without being arrested. If you’re feeling especially pissy when you load Vice City, you can naturally also just go on a rampage in the streets, beating people up for the money they drop and getting an increasing wanted rating represented by the six stars in the top right of the screen. One of the most fun parts of any GTA is testing your skill at evading a progressively more intense police chase, one that becomes especially hard when the SWAT trucks start showing up at four stars. The cheat codes are also great fun to create even more chaos: if you’re playing the PC version, I recommend combining FIGHTFIGHTFIGHT and OURGODGIVENRIGHTTOBEARARMS. And maybe NOBODYLIKESME as well if you feel like trying to fight off all those armed pedestrians yourself.

Cheat codes won’t help this guy much; he dies in every playthrough of the game

There is clearly a lot of work and attention to detail in Vice City. A lot of that attention goes into making the city feel like a real lived-in place instead of a bunch of streets and building-looking objects that you can run into with your car. You have to deal with other drivers and pedestrians, who will always get in your way when you’re trying to run your missions. You’ll probably find yourself driving on the sidewalk and running over a few people more than you’d like. Well, it’s their fault for being obstacles to avoid when I’m driving my taxi missions or fleeing from police, isn’t it? One funny effect of having so many people wandering and driving around is that you’ll hear a lot of the same voice clips coming from nameless pedestrian #3845, but for me that adds to the charm of it. Like in Skyrim and all those guards who got shot in the knee or however that went.

The voice acting for the game’s central characters is also excellent, provided by serious and big-name actors including Ray Liotta, Luis Guzman, Burt Reynolds, and Dennis Hopper. The voices really fit, especially well considering that a lot of these guys acted in mob/crime dramas before this, most notably Liotta in Goodfellas. Speaking of mob dramas, there are also plenty of references to Scarface, along with a big reference to the lesser-known Al Pacino gangster movie Carlito’s Way: the entire character of Ken Rosenberg is pulled directly out of that movie based on Sean Penn’s performance as Pacino’s mob attorney. And Guzman was in Carlito’s Way too. Hell, if you like mob movies at all, you need to play Vice City if you haven’t already.

Sean Penn doesn’t do the voice, it’s William Fichtner, but it is that character

Even the radio is entertaining to listen to — every station features fake ads and satirical talk shows of the kind that were introduced in GTA III. I remember the big new 80s soundtrack featured in the radio stations getting a lot of praise as well. I’m not such a big fan of it, even though there are some really good songs there (for example, “Billie Jean” is the first song you hear on the radio when you get into the first available car in the game.) The 80s isn’t my favorite decade ever for music, though maybe it was a great nostalgic trip for people who grew up then. Maybe it’s a Stranger Things sort of thing where I don’t give a shit about the 80s references and themes so much. I wasn’t even in nursery school when that decade ended, so what do I care? Then again, I don’t care about 90s throwbacks that much either, and I did grow up in that decade, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

I don’t think you could steal a police car and get paid for running petty criminals over in the 80s either. This game is lying to me

So I’d say based on my time with Vice City recently that it totally holds up. San Andreas, IV, and V built the series up quite a lot, but Vice City still stands as an excellent game on its own. It’s pretty cheap, too, so if you don’t mind how old it looks I think it’s worth checking out. I don’t think I would have gotten passing scores on my IB exams without being able to vent here in alternate universe Miami so much, so I’ll be grateful to the game forever for that at least.

Deep reads #5.1: Why I like Megami Tensei

This was bound to happen at some point. I’ve written a lot about the long-running Megami Tensei JRPG series on this site, certainly more than I have about any other game series — maybe even more than every other series put together. I don’t care to go back and measure that out, but it seems likely.

But why? What’s so special to me about Megami Tensei that I can’t shut up about it? I’ve written reviews of a few games in the series and about various aspects of it here and there, including these two commentary posts from last year. With this new set of posts, I want to dive into that question and examine what makes this series unique and what I think it may have to offer new fans just getting into Persona through the Persona 4 Golden PC port, for example, or wondering about news of the Nocturne HD remaster and the upcoming Shin Megami Tensei V.

As with the Disgaea series I wrote way back in January through April, this one will run as long as it needs to, and like that one, it’s partly meant to win over converts. But don’t worry! It’s fun in the world of MegaTen. At the very least, it might put you into the right mindset to deal with the coming demon apocalypse that will begin in 2033 when a portal opens over your city and Loki and Set fly out.

Speaking of Loki and Set, first things first:

A very brief history of the series and an explanation of just what the hell Megami Tensei is exactly

Megami Tensei (女神転生, literally “Goddess Reincarnation” though it’s never gotten an officially Anglicized title like that as far as I know) started out as a trilogy of novels by author Aya Nishitani. These have to do with a bullied high school student named Akemi Nakajima who summons the Norse trickster god Loki through a computer program he wrote to beat those bullies up, but the kid goes a bit power-mad, and Loki ends up using him to escape the computer and enter the real world somehow. Then Nakajima becomes an actual hero, trying to stop Loki with the help of his classmate Yumiko Shirasagi, who also happens to be the reincarnation of the Japanese creation goddess Izanami (which is where the title Megami Tensei comes from.)1

Following the success of the first novel in the series, two games were made titled Megami Tensei and released in 1987. The first to come out was a Gauntlet-looking top-down action game made by developer Telenet that has absolutely no connection with what came afterward. The second was a turn-based JRPG developed by Atlus for the Famicom and was the starting point for the now three decade-long series we’re talking about here. Though this game was based on Nishitani’s first novel, as soon as the sequel Megami Tensei II the series moved away from the source material and started doing its own thing.

But where does that Shin come from? And how do Persona, Devil Summoner, and all the other spinoffs relate to it?

And what makes this cover kind of misleading?

In 1992, Shin Megami Tensei was released for the Super Famicom. Like a lot of other game series that jumped over from the Famicom, this Shin was added as a prefix to set it part from older titles — the character 真 has a few meanings but here it’s used as something like “true”, like “hey, this is the real thing.” Like its predecessors, Shin Megami Tensei was a turn-based JRPG about fighting a demon invasion while recruiting demons into your party through a unique negotiation system. It also spawned a sequel, establishing what we now call the “mainline” SMT series, running through those first two Super Famicom games, SMT III: NocturneSMT IVSMT IV Apocalypse, and the upcoming SMT V.1

However, in the mid-90s Atlus started producing a load of new games in the Megami Tensei universe, using a lot of the same mythological figures and creatures that were featured as demons in the older Megami Tensei/Shin Megami Tensei games. Series like Devil Summoner, Megami Ibunroku Persona (the first Persona game, yes) and later on Digital Devil Saga and the strategy RPG Devil Survivor. These games either had sequels or started entirely new spinoff series, the most successful of which was Persona, which has gotten far more press than even the original series that spawned it.

It’s also important to untangle some of the title-related weirdness that’s gone on when these games have received NA/EU releases. Fans of Final Fantasy will be very familiar with these problems, getting a “Final Fantasy III” that’s actually Final Fantasy VI and so on. The issues with some of the 90s/00s titles in Megami Tensei are weird in a different way. In their attempts to sell this series to the West, Atlus messed around with its titles a bit, releasing Persona 3 and 4Devil Survivor 1 and 2, and the Digital Devil Saga and Raidou Kuzunoha games with the Shin Megami Tensei prefix when none of them were actually SMT games. Megami Tensei, yes, but throw out the Shin because it doesn’t belong there.

It doesn’t have a , but Persona games aren’t a bad place to learn a few other kanji. Thanks for the help, Ryuji! From Persona 5 (2016).

Thankfully, they seem to have quit doing this, but it’s still a bit of a mess for westerners who want to look up information on the Japanese versions of some of the 90s and 00s games. Basically, if the original title doesn’t contain that 真, it’s not SMT. That naturally has nothing to do with its quality or anything; it’s just a problem with classification. But hell, classification is important. How are we supposed to find anything without it?

I’ll stop boring you with classification talk now, though, and answer the question I posed in the beginning: what do I find so great about this series? Let’s get on to it:

1) Use of mythological, historical, and religious figures from around the world

Many game series that rely on myth and legend for their characters and worldbuilding use beings from one culture or part of the world. Or they go the route of Elder Scrolls and D&D-based worlds and use Tolkien’s old lore. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, and I’ve really enjoyed games that stick to those standards.

But one of the reasons I find Megami Tensei so interesting is that it doesn’t limit itself to any one set of traditions. Certain games will have specific focuses, but as a whole the series branches out into the tradition of just about every culture it can find. Many of the demons in the series (and note: “demon” is a neutral term here referring to any supernatural or mythological being regardless of their alignment) are taken from pretty well-known and common sources, including the active Abrahamic, Hindu, and Buddhist religious traditions and the ancient Greco-Roman, Norse, and Egyptian ones, and sometimes with a special emphasis on Japanese myth. But there are also beings taken from traditions like the Buryat (best bird Moh Shuvuu), Ainu (Koropokkur), and Hawaiian (Pele). The addition of a few other “fallen” gods who were toppled by now-dominant religions like Christianity and Islam make for some interesting character relationships that play out in some of these games.

Alilat, an ancient Arabian goddess whose idol was smashed in Mecca, is back to take it out on your party. Well, not exactly, but I like to think she’s carrying around that grudge. From Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (2009).

The demon designs add a lot to this variety. Most of them were done by artist and series co-creator Kazuma Kaneko, who has an extremely distinctive style. Some of Kaneko’s designs are straightforward, while others get extremely creative, taking some liberties with the demons in question. But even when that’s the case, the designs still usually make sense. The two alternate designs for the common series Angel are good examples of both his approaches: the one that’s used in SMT I and II looks like the typical depiction of an angel from western tradition, while the design used in Nocturne and the Persona games is… well, not typical at all. Yet even that provocative “bondage angel” design has some connection to what an angel is supposed to be in our set of traditions here. It’s not just provocative for its own sake.2

And of course there’s the classic case of Mara, the villainous god of desire/temptation in Buddhist tradition, but also known among MegaTen fans as “dick chariot” for reasons that will be obvious if you look it up. I’ll do you a favor by not posting it here, but you’ll have seen it in some form or another if you’ve played a MegaTen game, and maybe even if you haven’t. That damn dick chariot just won’t stop showing up — he’s a fan favorite, after all.

2) The relationship between the supernatural and human

This connects to the first reason above. It’s also a theme that I plan to write about in a more in-depth way later on. But here, I can at least say that the Megami Tensei series does a lot more with its various gods, angels, demons, spirits, monsters, and mythical heroes than dumping them into a game and making the player fight them. Most of the games involve the human characters having to deal with the supernatural leaking over into the world of humans. This was the basis of the very first Megami Tensei novel and its game adaptations, and though the series has branched out greatly since then, that basic premise is still there.

The relationship between humans and gods and/or godlike supernatural beings isn’t a new theme for the JRPG genre. It’s been present in the genre pretty much since the beginning. The original Megami Tensei has its roots in that beginning, but other major JRPG series like Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem, and Ys also established it as a common theme. Megami Tensei carries that theme even further by having its human and demon characters not only fight but also bond and work together towards common goals. The demon negotiation system is part of that, one of its most unique elements and still one of my favorite mechanics in any game series. Cooperation between humans and demons also plays heavily into the plots of these games, however: particular demons join up with or try to influence human leaders to take actions depending upon their alignments, and the most powerful of them pull the strings from behind the scenes.

Or, you know, they become your demon waifu like Pixie here. From Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (2003).

In the SMT games and some of their spinoffs, this places the player character in an awkward position where fellow human party members will fall into one of the ideologies that make up these alignments. By the end, the player is usually forced into one of these alignments depending upon his dialogue and action choices at fixed points throughout the game. And it’s very much to the credit of the series that it never presents one of these paths as “the right one.” Megami Tensei doesn’t set values of “good” or “evil” on your decisions, going instead with a law-neutral-chaos scale and leaving the players to make up their own minds about the morality of their choices.3

By doing this, the series avoids falling into the trap of trying to force a morality-based karma system that may come off as overly simplistic. Such a system might work for some games, but it wouldn’t really work for MegaTen. While some gods, spirits, and demons certainly identify with being on the good or evil side of things, many of the others have little or no regard for these paltry human concepts of morality. Even the MegaTen version of big bad Lucifer, the Devil himself, doesn’t seem to consider himself evil but rather more a force of chaos, pushing a world of might-makes-right-based total freedom. Whether his goal is good or evil is up to you to decide.

3) A variety of gameplay styles

Megami Tensei is best known for being a turn-based JRPG series, and to be fair a lot of its games use that combat style, including the mainline SMT and Persona titles. If turn-based combat isn’t your thing, though, the series still has plenty to offer, like grid-based tactics battle systems (Devil Survivor) and real-time action (Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha.) So even if you’re completely allergic to the old JRPG “stand and wait for the enemy to hit you, then hit him back” standard, you don’t have to write MegaTen off completely.

And even the turn-based games themselves vary greatly both in gameplay mechanics and in atmosphere and narrative style. There have been a lot of complaints in the last decade about how “stale” the JRPG genre has gotten, partly because of its wearing down of old plot and character tropes and partly because of its use of the old turn-based combat system that hasn’t changed much since the 80s. That’s a take I generally don’t agree with anyway, but I do think MegaTen has been able to avoid being subject to these complaints both by defining its own unique narrative styles and by keeping combat fresh from game to game. Combat in SMT and the other series spinoffs has a different rhythm, relying on the player’s use of buffs and debuffs, exploitation of enemy weaknesses, and effective defense of their own weaknesses.

The Press Turn system in Nocturne is a good example of this: by hitting enemies’ weaknesses, the player only spends half a turn instead of a full one that can be used for a strategic advantage, but hitting enemies with attacks that they void, repel, or absorb costs the player extra turns or even cancels the player’s attack round altogether. The same rules apply to the enemy’s attacks, requiring the player to use both a strategic offense and defense to win. This creates a situation where the battle will tip for or against the player depending upon their party composition and how smartly they’re playing. As a result, brute-forcing your way through an SMT game is simply not an option.

Trumpeter toots as he pleases, no matter how overleveled you are.

And then, of course, there’s Persona. This MegaTen spinoff series has blown up everywhere, comparatively moreso in the West where Megami Tensei didn’t have much of a presence up until Persona 3 got some notice from players here. The Persona games use a modified form of the turn-based SMT battle system, but it’s their inclusion of the social sim aspect that really sets them apart from the rest. It wasn’t a new concept when Persona 3 came out — the Sakura Wars series had been doing it for a while by then — but it was a new concept to me when I picked the game up on its NA release in 2007, and despite a few pacing issues it really worked for me. But I’ll get more into that in a later post.

It’s also worth mentioning that none of these different spinoffs feel like cash-ins based on fads, as though Atlus was throwing out something slapped together for fans to buy up because it had MegaTen branding.4 All these various game styles are at the very least playable even if you’re not a particular fan of them (I’m awful at the Raidou games’ real-time action combat to the point that it’s just frustrating for me to play, but that’s more my problem than the games’.)

4) The music

Yeah, of course the music in this series needs its own section. Every Megami Tensei game I’ve played or even just seen played by someone else has had amazing music, without exception. This is largely thanks to longtime series composer Shoji Meguro (responsible for much of the music in the first three SMT titles, the Persona, Digital Devil Saga, and Devil Summoner games among others.) These soundtracks have very different feels that suit the mood set by each game: Nocturne and DDS combine hard rock with softer ambient-sounding tracks, the Raidou Kuzunoha games use some older jazz styles that suit their 1930s setting, and the modern Persona games have more modern-sounding soundtracks with emphases on rap/hip-hop (Persona 3), pop/rock (4), and jazz/funk (5). And though they don’t get as much attention, Persona 1 and the 2 duology have excellent music as well — I’ve had the battle music in Persona 5 Royal set to A Lone Prayer for a while and I’m not getting tired of it yet. The common point here is that these soundtracks are all excellent, full of memorable, moving, and powerful themes.

While Meguro is the most prominent music guy involved in Megami Tensei, credit also has to be given to Ryota Kozuka, composer for SMT4 and a great one in his own right, and Kenichi Tsuchiya, who provided the massively impressive church organ music for Nocturne and a number of other pieces throughout the 2000s. And of course, the performers get serious credit as well: rapper Lotus Juice played a big part in defining the sound of Persona 3, just as the singer Lyn did for Persona 5 — if Mass Destruction and Last Surprise were stuck in your head when you played these games, they were partly responsible for that.

I actually do like “Mass Destruction” but god damn did it get old after hearing it 500+ times in battle. From Persona 3 (2006).

I could make a list of my favorite Megami Tensei tracks, like say Normal Battle ~Town~, Hunting – Betrayal, Memories of You, Tokyo… but that would probably be an entire post (or series of posts?) in itself.

And as for the other reasons why I like this series — I’ll be getting into those in far greater depth starting with my next entry. I don’t plan to focus each of these entries on individual games or sub-series, but rather on concepts and approaches the series as a whole takes. This will still require going into depth about specific games’ plots, characters, gameplay mechanics, and themes, but I will be trying to avoid specific end-game spoilers. I don’t have any of the other posts even close to done yet, but this is a promise I’ll try to keep.

Hell, I don’t even really know how long this set of posts will be yet. Let’s just say that it will be as long as it needs to be. No need to worry about the details yet. I feel like I’m stepping into a minefield here anyway — may as well just charge ahead and hope for the best. 𒀭

 

1 But is SMT: Strange Journey a mainline SMT game? On one hand, it’s thematically in line with the other mainline games; on the other, it doesn’t take place in Tokyo and doesn’t have a numbered title. I’d say it falls into the same category as SMT if… — It’s SMT, but not a mainline game strictly speaking.

Again, though, I don’t know how much it really matters. You could just as easily argue the opposite based on the similarities SJ shares with the numbered games and where Atlus implies or some fans believe it lives in the series’ bizarre, complicated five-dimensional multiverse timeline. I’m not getting into any of that, though. I don’t have enough pushpins and yarn for it.

2 At least I don’t think it is. Maybe Kaneko was having a joke on us. He seems like he has that kind of sense of humor. Just look at Mara.

Also, I’m not forgetting Shigenori Soejima here — he’s one of my favorite artists, but I’ll get into his work when I dive into Persona specifically later on.

3 Nocturne’s Reasons are an exception, but aside from Shijima, Yosuga, and Musubi being a bit different from the usual Law/Chaos/Neutral paths, they operate the same way in the sense that the game doesn’t place a moral value upon them. I still think Hikawa is an asshole, though.

4 With the arguable exception of the Persona 3 and 5 dancing games. Technically they were fine, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get some enjoyment out of them, but the way they were released did come off like a cash grab, which is something I won’t even say about any of the other many Persona spinoffs. Still, they didn’t feel slapped together or anything.

Also with the possible exception of the gacha game SMT Liberation Dx2, but I can’t say because I haven’t played it. I’m naturally suspicious of the “free-to-play” gacha game model, but I’ve also heard that the game has had a lot of work and care put into it, so I don’t want to judge it unfairly. (Besides, even though I say I’m suspicious of gacha games, I’ve played both Puzzle & Dragons and Azur Lane, so who the fuck am I to talk.)

Retrospective: Sonic Adventure 2

Were the Sonic Adventure games good? Throw that question out to the crowds of Twitter users and watch people fight over it, because it’s a contentious one. But that wasn’t always the case. This series had a famously rough transition from 2D to 3D, but I think a lot of the poor reputation of modern Sonic stems from the total disaster that was Sonic ’06 and from some of Sega’s less bad but still pretty bad blunders such as the endless slog of the nighttime sections of Sonic Unleashed and the entirety of Shadow the Hedgehog.

The Adventure games, on the other hand, went over pretty well at the time. The first two real Sonic games in 3D were far from perfect, with plenty of camera problems and glitches, but I remember liking them when I first played them on the Dreamcast, and I don’t think anyone really outright hated them or declared the series dead after playing them. A lot of fans agreed, and I do too, that they weren’t nearly as good as the original 2D games on the Genesis, but they weren’t considered a disgrace to the series or anything like that. Even when the Dreamcast died, these two games were at least well-regarded enough to live on as Gamecube ports with new features added. Yet now they do get quite a lot of hate, especially the first one, which I’ve even heard called one of the worst games ever made.

I’m not going to address here whether Sonic Adventure deserves that harsh assessment, though I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. But I only own the Steam port of Sonic Adventure 2, so that’s the one I can write about without having to dig through hazy twenty year-old memories. I finally got around to playing this version of SA2, and I don’t feel that differently about it now than I did back when I played the Dreamcast original upon release in 2001: generally pretty all right but with some boneheaded gameplay decisions and clunky elements that make it a chore to get through sometimes.

But amazing dialogue

But you’re reading this to get specifics, so let’s get to them. SA2 opens with a nice cinematic-looking shot of Sonic being transported as a prisoner on a military helicopter for a crime he obviously didn’t commit, because he’s a good guy. So he jumps out of the helicopter and onto the streets of San Francisco using a broken-off piece of it as a skateboard (Sonic doesn’t take fall damage, so he’s fine.) It turns out that he’s a victim of mistaken identity, because the grandfather of Dr. Robotnik, now officially known in the West as Eggman, developed another anthropomorphic hedgehog as an experiment on an orbital base to be the ultimate lifeform.

When Eggman discovers this being called Shadow, he unleashes him to cause some chaos. And of course, since Shadow and Sonic are shaped in a vaguely similar way, everyone thinks it’s Sonic wreaking havoc instead. While Sonic runs from the military police, his friends Tails and Knuckles join up to help out, pairing off against Eggman, Shadow, and another new character named Rouge, an anthropomorphic bat lady and a government spy. But she’s also a treasure hunter who’s after the Master Emerald, which for some fucking reason isn’t on the Floating Island anymore.

Remember when Knuckles was the guardian of the Floating Island and sworn to keep this shiny rock on it, otherwise said island would fall into the ocean like in Sonic 3 & Knuckles and Sonic Adventure 1? Well Knuckles doesn’t, because he never even brings that up. And this is the third time he’s lost the damn thing anyway. What are you doing, Knuckles?

And since Knuckles shatters the emerald on purpose to get it out of Eggman’s hands, he has to search for the missing pieces again while also helping out Sonic. Amy Rose is also around, though she sadly doesn’t get much to do this game other than pine after Sonic and get captured by the bad guys as usual. Other things that happen in the course of the game: Sonic and Tails meet the President of the United States, and Eggman blows up half of the Moon with a giant space laser.

More stuff happens in Sonic Adventure 2, but this is enough to see that the plot is pretty damn stupid. In places, it doesn’t even make sense. The mistaken identity part is already silly enough since Sonic and Shadow clearly look different even from far away, so why does everyone mistake Shadow for Sonic? I guess it’s because the game needs someone for you to fight/run away from in these stages. And it can’t just be Eggman now, because he’s also a playable character along with Shadow and Rouge in the second “Dark” storyline that runs parallel to the “Hero” one up until the final part of the game, when both teams have to work together to defeat a greater, more insane evil than even Eggman himself.

But does anyone care that much about the plot of a Sonic game? Some people do, and five years later the series tried a sort of serious RPGish plot with Sonic ’06, but that didn’t work at all and went over horribly. So maybe it’s better if the games don’t worry so much about plot. You can easily ignore the dumb plot, because the gameplay is the main thing.

Sonic Adventure 2 also trips up a bit there, however. The first Sonic Adventure, released in 1998/99, tried out a lot of different gameplay modes, a couple of which were famously clunky (namely Big the Cat’s fishing game that’s widely hated; people also complained about Amy’s sluggish platforming style, though I didn’t mind it as much.) Sonic was still the center of attention, however; his game was by far the longest out of the six, with many more stages to play through. SA2 cut down on the number of gameplay modes to just three: traditional fast platforming action with Sonic and Shadow, an exploration-based hunting mode with Knuckles and Rouge, and a third-person mech shooter with Tails and Eggman, each mode sharing equal game time. So when you’re playing SA2, you’re only running around classic Sonic-style for one third of the time.

This is obviously a problem if you don’t like the other two-thirds of the game. You can’t even just play through Sonic and Shadow’s stages and ignore the others like you could in SA1, because instead of individual character routes, the story is told through two separate Hero and Dark routes that alternate stages between Sonic/Tails/Knuckles and Shadow/Eggman/Rouge. So you just have to suffer through those parts if you’re not interested in them.

Do you know the Pumpkin Hill song by heart? I fucking do

I don’t hate all the non-Sonic/Shadow parts of this game. The Knuckles and Rouge hunting levels get a lot of shit, but I don’t find them that bad. The scavenger hunt element of those stages work pretty well, and the three emerald shards or whatever other three objects you’re hunting for are placed in randomized locations that you need to find by using a sort of hot/cold radar system, so each run through of a stage plays a bit differently. The horrible camera controls can make it hard to dig around in tight areas as you’ll often have to do, but the camera in this game is always a pain in the ass anyway.

No, the sections of SA2 I really don’t care for are the mech stages. It was a fun novelty to play as the villain Eggman, and it makes sense that he’d be using a mech to get around, but Tails is now also stuck in a mech throughout the game, which means the player misses out on his unique flying ability that made playing as him in Sonic 3 & Knuckles so fun. I know Tails is supposed to be an engineer, so it’s not crazy that he’d be driving a mech around, but that still seemed pretty dumb to me. You can fly, so why not use that skill?

The greater problem here, though, is that these stages are just too slow and dull. I don’t see anything special about them. Though I do know people who really like them, so this seems like one of those “your mileage may vary” issues.

excitement

But the Sonic and Shadow stages are pretty fun. They’re still not as fun as the stages in the original Genesis games, partly because they’re far more linear. But I think the main appeal of these stages in the early 3D Sonic games is seeing how quickly you can make it to the goal. This game even implements a time/score-based ranking system from E to A (no F, I guess because if you reach the goal, you haven’t technically failed no matter how long it took you to get there) along with four extra challenges in each stage and bonuses for completing them successfully. If you’re a completionist, you can get a lot of replay value out of Sonic Adventure 2.

Some of that replay value is also provided by the Chao Garden, where you can raise some weird onion-headed blue creatures with any of the six playable characters, feed them animals to make them strong, run them in races, etc. I’m not into this kind of virtual pet stuff, but if you are, it’s worth checking out.

This is pretty much how you raise Chao as far as I know

The team that ported SA2 to Steam seems to have done a pretty decent job, because it mostly plays fine.* I do get some slowdown in a few parts of stages (mainly Sonic and Shadow’s visually busy jungle stages) but I’m not sure how much of that is me having a piece of shit PC that I can only run visual novels on. For the most part, this game plays how I remember it playing in 2001. All the good and bad elements of the game are still there: the camera is still garbage and the mech stages are still boring, but the Sonic/Shadow stages and some of the Knuckles/Rouge ones are still fun to play.

The soundtrack hasn’t been touched either, which is again both a good and a bad thing. I really like some of the music in SA2, especially Rouge’s smooth jazz lounge stuff and Shadow’s extra over the top angsty-sounding themes like “Supporting Me”. The Knuckles raps are still really bad, but then again they’re so bad that they’ve become jokes, especially the Pumpkin Hill theme — and in any case, it’s hard to imagine those Knuckles levels with any other BGM. If you’re a fan of Crush 40 and Jun Senoue’s guitar-playing then you’ll also really like Sonic’s character and stage themes. I’m not a big fan of the style, but “City Escape” is still catchy. Just try to get it out of your head when you’ve heard it once.

Hey Knuckles, when you’re done flailing around like a dumbass, let’s have a proper fight.

In the end, I still have mixed feelings about Sonic Adventure 2. It’s mostly fun to play, and even the mech sections aren’t horrible to get through aside from a couple of extremely overly long stages late in the game. On the other hand, I think it also represents a shift away from the old Sonic style that I grew up with as a kid and that I liked so much. The first Adventure also added new characters and a dumb plot, but it felt more in line with those older games somehow. With SA2, we’ve now got much more “adult” characters with the extra-edgy Shadow, who looks like he was designed to appeal to depressive loner kids (i.e. me) and Rouge, who looks like she was designed to appeal to furries on DeviantArt (i.e. not me, but I guess I get what they were going for if in fact they were going for that.) And the President is a character in the Sonic universe now for some reason. Sonic Heroes is where the series really lost me, and Sonic ’06 is where it gave me a giant middle finger, but in some ways SA2 feels like the beginning of that shift into unfamiliar territory.

But does it really matter that much? Sonic the Hedgehog as a whole has had plenty of ups and downs, and even though I’ve been mostly out of the loop with the Sonic series for the last two decades, I’ll probably always have a soft spot for it. I certainly will for Sonic Adventure 2, which in my view counts as one of those ups. At the very least, this game is certainly not the disaster some critics paint it as. I guess that’s not the most enthusiastic endorsement I could give the game, but I’d say it’s still worth trying out, even with its problems. 𒀭

 

* This isn’t the case for the ports of Sonic Adventure, however. The Gamecube port Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut was supposed to be an upgrade, but it actually downgraded some of the graphics and added new glitches that weren’t present in the Dreamcast original. The PC version is even worse in this regard, taking the Gamecube version and compounding these problems, and unfortunately the SA offered on Steam is based on that one, making it a port of a shitty port of another shitty port. Thankfully, fans have created patches to fix many of these issues, doing far more for the game than Sega ever bothered to. For a comprehensive rundown of the port issue, see a video overview here (made by Cybershell, an excellent YouTube video maker who recently reappeared for the second time after years of hibernation) or go straight to the source to get all the details.

As far as SA2 goes, I also played it on both the Dreamcast and the Gamecube, and I don’t remember so many differences between the two versions aside from a few bits of added content like multiplayer battle mode, but I could be wrong about that. It’s been a long time, after all. I should also mention that the extra Gamecube content is offered on Steam as DLC. I didn’t buy it, but it’s only a few dollars as of this writing.

Summer cleaning game review special #5 and final: Princess Remedy in a Heap of Trouble

Now here’s a throwback, one that feels right for the last post in this series. It’s not a throwback to my childhood or anything, but just to 2016 when I looked at the free short RPG-looking shmup Princess Remedy in a World of Hurt. I liked that game enough that I bought the very cheap sequel, Princess Remedy in a Heap of Trouble, and then not unusually for me forgot about it for four years. But it’s been sitting in my Steam library all that time, and I’ve finally returned to play it. And hey, it’s a good game too, especially if you’re looking for a simple shoot-em-up to take up an hour or so.

The story is that Remedy, the nurse/princess* character from the last game, has been called back from her vacation to deal with another health crisis. Once again, her cures involve talking to sick people and fighting monsters that represent whatever’s wrong with them. These illnesses can be either physical or mental/emotional, so Remedy also works as a sort of therapist.

Your first patient

Also as before, during battle Remedy keeps firing her medicine shot automatically until all her enemies are dead, but she also has to dodge the enemies and their shots in order to survive. However, this time around she can get help from the people she cures by going on a “date” with them. It’s not a traditional date, though: her partner simply follows her around and gives her an extra active or passive ability in battle. Characters can also be freely dumped for new dates, which you might do just to see what they say when you ask them out. Princess Remedy is a heartbreaker.

But her dating around is justified, because she needs to defeat some serious bosses to proceed through the land. Several of them wait for the princess blocking off new areas until she gets the number of powerups in battle sufficient to face it.

Some of the bosses also look like fever dream JRPG monsters

Despite how they look, these Princess Remedy games are only a few years old as of this writing. I think they’re meant to resemble old Atari or Commodore 64 games, or maybe a game from one of those British systems like the ZX Spectrum that I’d never heard of until recently. These were well before my time, so I can’t say I have any nostalgia for the look of these games. But I like them anyway, which hopefully says something for their quality. They’re quite simple but fun, especially if you’re into free-movement shmup action.

They also have a bizarre sense of humor that I like. All the way back in part one of this series when I reviewed Qora, I mentioned I didn’t care for the “so random” humor being dumped on me in the game’s last ten minutes. Part of that was probably because I felt the game was boring to play, but part of it was also that it all seemed like an inside joke that I was never meant to understand in the first place. By contrast, the conversations you have with other characters in Princess Remedy are just kind of absurd. I don’t know if they really count as humor, but I find it a lot funnier than the self-conscious “look at how wacky we are” stuff in Qora. I don’t know, maybe there’s really no difference between the two and there’s something wrong with my brain.

Maybe the problem is that you should be in the ocean instead of on the dock

This is probably more than I needed to write about this game. I liked it. That’s simple enough. And like most of the other short games I’ve reviewed in this series, it’s only a few dollars to buy, so not too much of an ask.

Anyway, I hope this break from the usual was interesting. I still have a couple of other games that I’m currently playing through from that 1000+ game itch.io bundle. Not all completely good stuff either, but you’ll see when we get there — if it’s interesting enough, I’ll write about it whether I like it or not. Until then.

* And maybe a doctor too, but it’s not clear whether she has her medical degree. She’s not called Dr. Remedy after all. Then again, Mario isn’t a doctor but he calls himself one in Dr. Mario. I don’t think standard medical ethics rules apply in these games.