Games for broke people: HoloCure

Well here’s a nice surprise from itch.io, though not a surprise that I’m covering it. HoloCure is a Hololive fan game, what else, about a set of VTubers affiliated with the agency.

These multi-talented girls are usually only tasked with entertaining their fans on stream by playing games or singing or whatever, but one day a mysterious evil force makes said fans into drooling zombies who love their favorite VTubers blindly and go mad (is this some subtle commentary?) forming mobs that their favorites have to subdue. It’s a story worthy of the Beatles back when they made movies like A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, or maybe the Spice Girls’ Spice World. When was the last time you thought of that movie, if you’re even old enough to have been alive when it came out?

Gawr Gura fighting enemies in HoloCure.

Which Spice Girl would Gura be, tell me in the comments after you smash like and subscribe and ring that bell

HoloCure is a takeoff of Vampire Survivors from what I hear. I haven’t played that one, so I don’t know how this game stacks up to it, but even if you’re new to this sort of game like I was, the mechanics are simple: just aim your automatic attacks at the enemies running towards you, collect the powerups and other drops they leave, and use them to upgrade existing skills and learn new ones.

Ina (Ninomae Ina'nis) in HoloCure

Ina is somewhere in this mess. The tentacle is her main method of attack, which can be powered up as you defeat enemies/subdue fans. See also the huge miniboss at the bottom right — these guys will show up in fixed intervals to challenge you.

The current version of HoloCure has four sets of characters to play with, coming out to 20: all 11 ladies in the English-language branch (not counting the recently recruited guys in Tempus) and 9 in the Japanese branch — nowhere close to the total, so if like me you were hoping to play as Pekora, you’ll have to wait for a future potential update. But even so, there’s nice variety in the available characters’ styles, with some being slow and tanky and others being quick and agile, and still others I have no idea how to use because I’m terrible at them since their attacks require precision to pull off well.

Nekomata Okayu in HoloCure, fighting walls of Deadbeats

Like Okayu, who chooses to throw rice balls at enemies that annoyingly arc in the air. The onigiri won’t help her against these shield walls of Mori fans.

I hadn’t played this game before the update just yesterday, but from the several hours I’ve played of it now (yes, this is what I’ve been doing since stopping work on Friday evening, no grass-touching for me) I could already tell a couple of things about independent developer Kay Yu, the first being that they’re clearly huge fans of Hololive and its streamers/characters/personalities, with a ton of references in the powerups and descriptions especially that all check out.

Upgrade menu in HoloCure

Like Plug Type Asacoco, which is exactly what it looks like. It’s not just the game being crass, this is a “real” product from a parody morning show created a year or two ago; here it’s just another weapon.

The second is that these creators care about making a quality game. The gameplay is smooth and the sprites look great (both VTuber and fan, and there are many fan/enemy types that correspond with the “fan names” and art depicting them. The music is catchy, and I’m pretty sure the few tracks in the game are based on a few of the girls’ original songs, though I couldn’t tell you which they were. (The opening/menu theme sounds a little like “Hare Hare Yukai” from Haruhi Suzumiya — hopefully a better fan can help me out here.)

All that leads me to a different question — can you enjoy HoloCure if you’re not a fan and know nothing about any of this Hololive or even VTuber bullshit? Obviously, you won’t get as much out of the game if you don’t pick up on or care about the references, and you certainly won’t get the inside jokes that come from well-known stream incidents like the Plug Type Asacoco above or Miko’s Elite Lava Bucket. HoloCure was made by fans, for fans, and also for the VTubers themselves, who have naturally been playing this on stream as well.

Takanashi Kiara in the Hololive offices, HoloCure

Kiara in the newly added Hololive HQ/office setting. This one feels a lot more challenging than the first stage’s open field since you can easily become trapped by enemies in here if you’re not careful.

Even so, I think a non-fan can still enjoy this game. It’s not just running around and killing/dodging enemies; there is a little skill involved at least mixed in with the RNG element of whether you’ll get good weapon and skill upgrades as you level up. I didn’t think I’d have that much fun with the game for its gameplay, but I have, and all the better that you can actually upgrade the characters as you progress by collecting coins and rolling to unlock new characters. In fact, the gacha element might make the game a little easier for non-fans, since they won’t be obsessively rolling to unlock best fox/cat friend Fubuki (who I still don’t have… damn. Soon, though.)

A-chan doesn't care about what you want. HoloCure

Pleading with the talent director A-chan won’t help. She won’t even look up from her screen; she’s just here to work.

So I’d say even if you know don’t or care a damn for Hololive or anything like it, you still might want to check this game out. It’s a free fan work and extremely high quality for that. And hell — I love itch.io, and I think indie gaming is the true future of the medium, but the fact is itch.io is filled with no/low-effort tossed-off crap that you have to dig through before finding the worthwhile games. The gems are there, but they can be hard to dig up, so any time I have one I’m likely to highlight it here.

And I barely even watch Hololive anymore, honestly. I am still waiting for an update that includes Pekora, but even more than that, I’d love to see a NijiCure. Maybe that’s just a dream. I certainly don’t have any of the skills necessary to putting a game like this together, but that’s a benefit to being the biggest: you generally get the most and best fan works (see also Touhou.) Though Nijisanji is huge in Japan too, and they’re catching up here as well, so maybe it’s just a matter of time.

YAGOO statute in HoloCure

Look out YAGOO, Anycolor is coming for Cover! Maybe this is why we keep getting denied that Pomu/Kiara collab, anyway — is HoloEN management afraid of attracting attention to the competition? The nice thing about smaller agencies is that they don’t seem to have such hangups with each other assuming that’s what’s going on here.

A lot of the above is probably gibberish to anyone who’s not deep in the rabbit hole like me, so I’ll shut up right now and just say that I had a good time with HoloCure and that you might too, even if you’re not in that hole. Just try not to get dragged into it yourself.

Why live-action adaptations don’t generally work for me (featuring the newly announced Gravity Rush film)

A few days ago, news came out on Twitter about an upcoming Gravity Rush film to be directed by Anna Mastro. I don’t know anything about Mastro’s work, so despite some nerves surrounding the announcement, I don’t want to just write off this new project even considering how poor game-to-film adaptations tend to be. Part of that may just be wishful thinking, though I’ve also heard Mastro is pretty fine at directing (not that I’d know right now since I have no interest in whatever Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is, but people seem to like her anyway.)

My concern right now (aside from the fact that Sony dismantled Japan Studio and effectively killed the game series this film is based on) is that the Gravity Rush film is going to be live-action. According to the articles I’ve read so far, nobody knows yet whether this is an animated or live-action project, but looking through Mastro’s resume on IMDB doesn’t give me much hope that it will be animated. It could be, but would Sony take on a director who works on live-action projects to helm an animated one? Maybe they would, but it seems like a weird choice if so.

Kat exploring her new home city, from the remastered Gravity Rush made for the PS4

For those who haven’t played the games, the Gravity Rush series opens with the protagonist Kat, a girl with amnesia who has the power to bend gravity around her, allowing her to float and fly through the air. Technically she’s falling up/sideways, but she also has plenty of special moves in the games that are useful in combat. Kat is tasked with using these abilities to protect her new home from a mass of alien-looking creatures that show up to attack it, and she soon becomes famous as the “Gravity Queen” despite her wish to remain low-key. She also has a rival, Raven, with similar powers who shows up in the first game and features more prominently in the second.

So then what’s the problem with a live-action take on these games? Aside from the extremely long track record of abysmal game-to-film projects running for decades now, I’m afraid that the style of Gravity Rush just won’t translate into live action. The game’s setting is an interesting mix of halfway realistic-looking sort of steampunk and fantasy — I’m not sure whether you’d call it science fiction, but either way it has a unique look that I’d much prefer to see in animation.

Casting is also a concern. Gravity Rush has a sort of cult popularity: fans love it, but unfortunately the series doesn’t seem to have found broad appeal, maybe in part because it debuted on the Vita (a system I still swear by, but then I’m a JRPG fan.) Partly for that reason, whatever actresses are signed on to play Kat and Raven in particular are going to have to fit the bill perfectly, both to satisfy old rabid fans (and I include myself as rabid, sure) and to attract new ones. I don’t have anyone in mind just because I pretty rarely watch live-action movies and don’t follow the Hollywood scene at all, so maybe there are actresses who would be perfect fits, but they sure as hell would have their work cut out for them. Again, I think going with animation would just be a better idea in general.

Flying through the air. I only had screenshots from the first game around, but the second one looks amazing and is a lot of fun to play as well. And yeah I used Kat’s catsuit costume about 80% of the time I played the first game, what did you expect?

I’m not saying Gravity Rush absolutely can’t work in live action, because I don’t know that for a fact. Despite being Japanese-made, the games take some influence from American comics, even featuring western comic book-styled dialogue and action cutscenes between each chapter. Marvel’s done an excellent job translating their comic characters and stories into live action over the last decade plus from what I hear and from the few of them I’ve seen myself, so maybe a live-action Gravity Rush would also work, though it doesn’t have quite the same style as those western comics have. We’ve also seen a couple of movies out recently that actually pulled off the game-to-film transition decently, shockingly including Sonic the Hedgehog (and I still haven’t seen the sequel yet — it’s on my list to watch.)

Whether the film turns out to be animated or live-action, I’ll watch it if it comes out. I want to be positive about something for once, holy hell. And maybe, just maybe, this new Gravity Rush project is a sign that we might get a Gravity Rush 3, and hopefully from the same people who did such a bang-up job with the first two? Now I’m feeling like replaying the series from the start. See you tomorrow with a new post.

Games for broke people: Blaugust edition

Sure, why not. There are always more free games on itch.io to check out. Digging through that site for the stuff that’s not trash and has some effort put into it can be fun when you’re in the mood, and while I’m not necessarily in the mood for digging today, I do have a couple I’d like to cover. No particular theme this time, either, aside from being a part of this month-long daily posting marathon.

Gris Commits Insurance Fraud

Forget the theme: I wouldn’t be able to categorize some of the games I’ve found on itch.io anyway. Take this masterpiece for instance, in which a debtor agrees to jump down an infinitely long escalator for the insurance money. The object to this browser game is simple: fling poor Gris, the blue-haired bear girl on the title screen, down the escalator as far as possible. Gris somehow makes more money the farther she flies and has a real bounce to her, so be sure to keep up her momentum by tossing her with the mouse, and do your best to collect her marketable plushies that are floating above the escalator for some reason.

Gris Commits Insurance Fraud reminds me a lot of old Flash ragdoll physics games I used to play 15-20 years ago. Unfortunately ever since Adobe murdered Flash, you can’t play those games anymore without carrying out a troublesome workaround, so it’s up to the creator Amarillo and others like them to keep that tradition alive. I only found this game because Gris is the original character/mascot of Vertigris, an artist I follow who does a lot of semi-NSFW sort of pinup-esque work — highly recommended if you also like cute anime girls in lewd swimsuits (which is also featured on the loading screen, so it’s not exactly safe for work either unless your boss is really cool/cultured enough to also appreciate anime bear girl butt.)

Much like that drunk goose game I featured in the last one of these posts, Gris Commits Insurance Fraud is a nice diversion for a few minutes. Though I have to feel bad for Gris, even if she does seem pretty sturdy, maybe because she’s also a bear? If I could survive a thousand-plus meter flight down an escalator without serious injuries and make money for it, I’d try it out myself. Less painful than going to work.

Pikwip

Now for a vital question: just how uncoordinated am I? The answer is very, and this was answered by Pikwip, a mountain-climbing platformer featuring two controllable characters connected by a tether. The developer suggests playing co-op either locally or online, which seems like the kind of play the game is made for.

Or, if like me you have no one else to play with, you can try to play both characters at the same time using WASD and the arrow keys! I tried this and can confirm I suck at it. I had exactly the same experience with Knuckles’ Chaotix, which used a similar “two characters tied together” function only with the added typical 2D Sonic speed element.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how long Pikwip runs since I wasn’t able to get very far at all in it, but I still wanted to highlight this game since it does seem like it would be pretty fun to take on either with a partner or by yourself if you’re more coordinated than I am. There’s no apparent quit function, which is a pain, but other than that it seems like a pretty nice time.

That’s all I have today. I’d add more games in here, but of the two other ones I have in mind from itch.io at the moment, one cost a few dollars and is actually NSFW, and the other probably deserves its own post, so I don’t feel like mixing them in with these. And the free game front page on the site is no help because it’s at least 90% janky looking horror games that I have no interest in. Why are they all horror games? Do we really need more spooky walking simulators? I do have more games to dig through in the two bundles I bought one and two years ago, though, so maybe I should actually do that at some point.

A review of Dorfromantik (PC)

I was in real need of a relaxing game this weekend and week as I recovered from my being carved up at the doctor. Thankfully I had one on my mind, thanks to fellow blogger and friend of the site Frostilyte who wrote a while back about the strangely named recent indie release Dorfromantik.

Released a few months ago on Steam, Dorfromantik is an environment/landscape-building game in which you’re tasked with placing hexagonal tiles on a grid. Each tile contains one or more environmental types or biomes or whatever you’d call them, including plains/grassland, forest, city/town, water, and what look like corn or wheat fields. Your set of tiles is limited and gets dealt to you like a deck of cards, and the only way to add more tiles to your deck is to gain points by matching up environmental types edge to edge. This is easier said than done, since with six sides to each tile there are a lot of different placement combinations you can choose from (or be stuck with depending) and the game is over once you’ve run out of tiles to place.

The start of a new game. When the edges of the hexagon you’re about to place are shining, that’s a match and the path to racking up more points and eventually getting more tiles to keep expanding your realm.

I’ve seen Dorfromantik called a city-building simulation in a few spots, but that’s a little misleading. This isn’t anything like a SimCity or Cities: Skylines — the towns you put together in this game don’t have population stats, you don’t have to worry about commerce or industry or linking towns with rail or anything like that. There are specialized rail and river tiles in the deck, but these seem to be just more flavor to add to the game, throwing some trains and boats onto your map to travel around a bit.

Compared to your SimCity sort of games, then, Dorfromantik is pretty minimalistic. It’s more of a procedurally generated (if that’s the right term here? No idea but it feels right) environment sim to mess around with. That’s not to say there’s no real game here outside of its pleasant aesthetics — it can be challenging to place tiles as perfectly as possible if you’re going for a large map and a high score, and the element of randomness in your draws adds to that challenge. The devs were considerate enough to include a creative mode that you can either use from scratch or on top of a finished session if you feel like continuing your work on your map, and while that option is great to have, I preferred having that puzzle element to play with just to see how far I could take my world.

My best map to date

That said, I think the main appeal of Dorfromantik is its relaxation potential. Putting together my own county from a bird’s-eye view felt almost therapeutic, and the nice ambient background music and sounds add to that effect. It’s also interesting to watch how, based on the hexagon-matching rules, large towns, fields, and forests will form almost naturally. Though I do have a weird obsession with creating small islands for my residents to live on, which isn’t always the optimal choice, but damn it I think it looks good. I don’t know how those people are going to get to work and school — I guess they must have boats. But thankfully I don’t have to think about transportation in Dorfromantik, so I can get away with putting a single house on a 2×2 island.

The citizens of my county are tired of my shit, sticking them on islands in an isolated lake, but they can’t do anything about it! Or maybe these are the perfect homes for recluses.

While playing Dorfromantik, I sometimes had to decide between an optimal tile placement and one that I thought looked good. More often than not I went with looks over function, because apparently I’m a shallow asshole. But I think my towns look good, and I’m not getting on the top point leaderboard anyway. If you have those ambitions, though, go for them! I read on the Steam page that somebody supposedly raked up 1.6 million in one game, a lot more impressive than my high score of just under 12K.

But does that optimized map have this island town, rated best place to live 2022? Probably not!

So if you’re looking for a nice, chilled out sort of game that feels like making your own snowglobe town and landscape, Dorfromantik is made for you. I recommend it for some stress relief/distraction, at least, since it helped me out in that area.

Abstraction in game combat: turn-based systems and why I don’t have a problem with them (probably)

I haven’t been putting the usual care into these post titles, probably because I’m just doing my best to get them out the door this month. This daily schedule shit is exhausting, even when you’re sticking with shorter posts. But I ran track in high school, and while I wasn’t the top athlete (I kind of sucked honestly) I never gave up in a race, so I won’t this time, especially when the only competitor is my own laziness.

Recently I thought back to a one-time conversation I had with some guy years ago. Video games somehow came up, and what we were playing at the time, and of course I had a JRPG going and brought that up. Then the inevitable question: does it have turn-based combat? Well of course it did, and that guy said he couldn’t play it in that case.

This issue comes up on gaming Twitter every so often, most recently when Square-Enix announced news about the upcoming Final Fantasy XVI keeping the action-based combat of XV, along with a reason provided by producer Naoki Yoshida: essentially that they’re looking for a younger audience who aren’t used to turn-based combat or don’t find it exciting.

What could be more exciting than fighting demon dogs in a post-apocalyptic mall, even if it’s turn-based?

I don’t know whether younger gamers as a whole are averse to the turn-based style. I’ll even defer to Square-Enix on that point, since they presumably have a far greater ability and budget for demographic studies than I do (though against my nothing and $0 that’s not saying much.) Given how popular the turn-based RPG Persona 5 is among young people, I’d still say Square’s way of thinking is narrow here but maybe there are other factors behind the decision they just don’t want to get into.

But I can understand why some people prefer real-time combat in their RPGs. For that guy I talked to years ago, the problem with turn-based systems was their high level of abstraction — he just couldn’t get into a game that interpreted a fight as the two sides standing in lines opposite each other and taking turns whacking each other with weapons and spells.

That’s a fair reason to dislike turn-based combat, but I don’t feel the same way about it at all, and I think the main reason is that I played it enough as a kid that it ended up feeling natural to me. At least it felt natural enough that I never minded seeing it in the context of an RPG. Sure, turn-based combat of this kind is very abstract, but if you can get past that, I think this system offers plenty of upsides to make up for that potential weirdness, the main one being the added complexity it makes possible with various types of attacks/buffs/debuffs and how they operate with ally and enemy strengths and weaknesses.

There’s a reason I bring up Megami Tensei when people bring up the point about turn-based RPG combat being crusty, old, and boring: the games in that series mostly use that format and manage to make it dynamic and interesting by turning the combat into a sort of puzzle. Brute force leveling isn’t an effective option when the game requires you to keep and use a varied set of skills on your party because the alternative is getting your ass handed to you not just by a boss, but a random encounter. And that’s not the only way to spice up turn-based combat — you can also incorporate rhythm elements if you want to actually test your players’ reaction and timing skills.

Or mix combat up with complex item and weapon-crafting and inventory systems, putting emphasis on planning and teamwork to succeed in what otherwise might be a standard turn-based combat format? Okay, maybe I won’t go that far, that’s only for the truly insane like me.

Not that I have anything against action games or action-based combat in RPGs, but it just annoys me when I see what really seem like lame excuses from Square-Enix or any other developer for taking one path vs. another. Square made Final Fantasy a household name by setting new trends, not by following them, and it sure as hell doesn’t sound like they’re interested in innovating anymore. But maybe I’m wrong and FF16 will be amazing. You tell me whenever it comes out.

That’s all for today. I think I covered a lot of old ground here, but there’s no way I’ll be able to keep a daily posting schedule this month without doing that. Until tomorrow, and hopefully with something new.

A review of HuniePop (PC)

Yeah, finally. After years of looking at this game every so often on Steam and thinking “well, maybe” the whole series went on sale this summer and I finally went for it. For the few who haven’t heard of it, HuniePop is a dating- and boning-themed puzzle game. Released in 2015, it made the rounds online and especially in let’s plays on YouTube (remember when they were called that? I do, and yeah I’m old.) I guess this popularity was partly because of how straightforward the game was in its intentions, no beating around the bush. So to speak.

But there are games that inspire plenty of memeing but aren’t actually any fun to experience, sometimes not even in that so bad it’s good way. Where does HuniePop fall, and was it worth the two dollars I paid for it on sale? I’ll keep the suspense up for once and not give that away, but maybe you already know the answer.

Are these good lines at the bar, what do you think

HuniePop opens with the player character drinking at the local bar when you’re approached by a mysterious lady in a red dress who seems to be gauging your ability to hit on women. When you prove to be a tongue-tied weirdo, this lady, Kyu, tells you you’re a perfect subject for her efforts. The next scene takes place the following morning at your apartment, where Kyu shows up again and reveals her true form as a pink-haired love fairy whose job it is to help poor guys and ladies like you (you can be either by the way — see the settings) improve their dating/seduction skills.

Even though it’s Monday morning and you’d normally have to get to work or attend school or something, in this world you’re apparently not hurting for money at all and don’t have anything else to do all day but try to pick up girls. Kyu knows this and demands that you start working all day every day on your skills, taking you on a sort of practice date that evening at a nice outdoor lounge to show you how it’s done.

How it’s done

Here you’re introduced to one of the two main game modes. Dating in HuniePop involves solving a match-three puzzle grid. Your moves aren’t timed, but your number of moves is limited, and you can only move one token at a time and only in a straight line horizontally or vertically. Matching up hearts, bells, and teardrops gives you various benefits like extra turns and point multipliers, and matching broken hearts knocks your score down dramatically and so should be avoided as much as possible. A successful date requires you to reach the point threshold within the move limit.

Once you pass the impossible-to-fail tutorial date, Kyu tells you to get out there and start finding girls, giving you a nudge by taking you to the local university campus where you run into the student Tiffany and her professor Aiko.

Who both have very interesting outfits. Attendance at some of my freshman lectures would have been higher than 20% of the class if the professor had looked like Aiko and worn short shorts every day, though I guess the guys wouldn’t have been paying much attention to the lecture itself.

Professor Hotpants leaves and you strike up a conversation with Tiffany after getting some advice from your love fairy tutor, who’s helpfully using magic to make herself invisible to everyone but you so Tiffany doesn’t think you’re hanging out with your cosplayer girlfriend. At this point we get into the other game mode in HuniePop, the conversation. When you meet a new lady, you can talk with her to earn “Hunie” (counted in the pink in the upper right of the screen) with far more earned if you give her answers she likes based on her personality. She won’t feel like talking if she’s hungry, but you can buy her something to eat or drink from the shop to prolong your conversation together with other gifts that can increase the Hunie you gain from talking to her.

During your conversation, you’ll gather information about each woman that you can put in your HunieBee computer or app or whatever it’s supposed to be. And once you’re ready, you can ask her out on a date and shift over to the match-three puzzle mode to hopefully push your relationship to the next level. No need to settle down with one girl either, because each girl you meet leads you to a new dating prospect (see your “Girl Finder” in the menu to find those girls around town.)

Talking to Aiko after meeting Tiffany. She’s talking about eating an orange I just bought her, don’t worry. Though talking about biting in any other context would just be scary now that I think about it.

That’s how HuniePop rolls along until nearly the very end: go out and meet new ladies with a variety of personalities, likes, and dislikes, get to know them through conversation, give them gifts and receive gifts in return, and take them out for dates, then jump over to the puzzle mode and earn “Munie” that you can use to spend on gifts and food to encourage more conversation and relationship-building. The gift-giving factors into the game’s puzzle mode: gifts can be equipped and used to gain effects as long as you match enough Sentiment points represented by the teardrop-shaped tokens on the board. The point requirement for passing a date rises after every successful date you pull off, but you can also spend your Hunie to increase the amount of affection you generate through matches, so it all evens out.

See, it’s easy. Just like real dating!

And in real dating you don’t even get a heart meter to tell you how close you are to getting intimate, I mean what the hell is that

These ladies are also in the habit of answering your questions about them and then quizzing you on those answers, so be sure to either have a good memory or have the HuniePop wiki open while playing so you can get more Hunie. Though there’s also no real penalty for missing answers or for losing at the match-three date puzzles for that matter — all a miss means is that you’ll have to take another shot later on. The true penalty is having to run through a bunch of the same conversations again, really, and especially when some of the questions are “how much do I weigh” and “how big my titties are” since you’re a fucking weirdo who asks those questions but somehow doesn’t get slapped for it. Maybe that’s a sign of just how secretly charismatic the player character is.

But then it’s immediately obvious that HuniePop is fucking ridiculous, and also that it knows that and doesn’t take itself seriously in the slightest. The player character is an initially no-charisma dingus to the extent that Kyu takes you on as a special challenge, and by the end you’re a god of both romance and sex, able to successfully juggle nearly a dozen girlfriends. Reality is out the window in this game. But at least Kyu acknowledges some of that with her limited fourth-wall-breaking powers.

And yeah, you do get to date Kyu too, because this isn’t the kind of game that gives you a sex fairy character and then doesn’t let you also bone her. HuniePop knows what its players are looking for.

And for once it’s a game review on the short side, because I don’t have much more to say about HuniePop. The puzzles are a good time and managed to get me hooked enough to play through the entire game, the voice acting is nice, and the portraits and CGs of the girls you get throughout are also nice (though it should be said nothing in the game is extra-explicit — there’s nudity but the sex is implied by still another match-three puzzle, though a far easier kind than normal.) All that said, it’s important to note what HuniePop isn’t, and what it’s not really trying to be: an actual dating sim. There’s not all that much depth to the characters in this game and none at all to the story, if this even qualifies as a story.

Then again, the game doesn’t care about any of that and doesn’t try to be more than it is. And as for a recommendation — this feels very much one of those “you already know whether you’ll like it” cases. I basically liked it, though I also did feel like a pretty major piece of shit for going out with each one of these women and telling them completely different things about myself, my likes and dislikes and personal history, to get them each to like me, then literally fucking around behind all their backs. This isn’t what people generally mean by “playing the field.” Especially not when you end up with a Jessie and Tiffany situation. You’ll see if you play it.

Yeah, you don’t have continue, I know what you mean by “actress.”

So while it didn’t change my life or anything so dramatic, I was happy to finally get to play HuniePop considering how much it made the rounds several years ago. And hey, it was pretty fun while I had it going, and at least fun enough for me to want to play its sequel, which I also own now, so possibly look forward to that review at some point.

Next time I’ll return with still more anime, though. Until then — don’t be a two-timer, and especially not a nine- or ten-timer. Leave that behavior for the sexy puzzle games.

Games for broke people: Drunk edition

So I’ve been sober for nearly three years now thanks to my drinking so much in the past that my liver nearly exploded. It probably should have, really, but maybe God took pity on me or something. In any case, I didn’t cross that point of no return, and I’m now “enjoying” sobriety while my liver continues to repair itself.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t drink in games as a safe alternative. Today I’m continuing my long-running but extremely infrequent look into the free catalog of games on itch.io to find something actually worth playing among all the trash on the platform. Time to get virtually wasted!

Drunk As I Like: Gensokyo Chugging Contest

Starting with a Touhou fangame. Yeah, of course I wouldn’t pass on this one, especially not when it features one of my favorite characters, the constantly drunken oni girl Suika Ibuki. Suika is a fan favorite for good reason: she’s cute, ultra-powerful, and constantly carries a bottle of liquor that never empties no matter how much she drinks. Unlike me, she also has a supernaturally strong liver apparently. Truly Suika is living the dream.

But can she outdrink everyone else in Gensokyo? Drunk As I Like: Gensokyo Chugging Contest challenges the player to control Suika and a few of her youkai friends as they hold a beer-chugging competition at the local tavern. Apparently there are some extra rules to this contest that I’ve never seen before: instead of drinking normally, the players have to pour the beer into their mouths while tipping their mugs over their faces, and when their mugs are empty they have to fill them on their own to exactly the correct amount without under- or over-filling them. These rules up the difficulty considerably — working the tap can be tricky, and while you can manually control the angle of your beer’s flow with the left and right keys to make sure it enters your character’s mouth, a lot of it will still end up on the tavern floor and presumably soaking her clothes. On the plus side, the same rules apply to your AI opponent, and she tends to be pretty dumb, especially Aya who as you can see in the above screenshot is simply drunkenly holding her glass in the air.

For once, after a long stretch, I can highly recommend an itch.io game again. Gensokyo Chugging Contest was a very fun diversion for ten minutes or so. You don’t even have to know anything about Touhou to enjoy it, though it probably helps on some level. I like the cute art as well, and no surprise: this is the same artist who worked on that cappuccino girl game I wrote about years ago in my coffee version of this post. Try it out!

Drunk Drunk Goose

And finishing with another even shorter game, a simple puzzle with just one stage. Drunk Drunk Goose features a nameless protagonist goose who’s been drinking with his friends behind the Cinnabon as the title screen tells us. Your task is to get home by using the space bar, the only button the game recognizes, to shift between left-to-right to up-to-down movement.

It might seem easy enough to navigate through this mall maze at first, but there are two complications. Firstly, there’s a timer and it’s game over when you hit zero seconds (though it’s not clear what happens to the goose at zero seconds. Arrested for public drunkenness maybe? Reminds me of my days in my old college town, though thankfully I never suffered that indignity — I was a clever drunk.) And secondly, the god damn goose being as drunk as it is refuses to walk in a straight line, swerving and hitting walls and objects that send it waddling back in the opposite direction, so some precision and timing is necessary. It took me a few tries to make it home, and then with just a few seconds to spare.

I might sound frustrated with this game, but I enjoyed the few minutes I spent with it. Drunk Drunk Goose is a quick and minimalistic one, no music or other frills included. Though it might be nice to see a few more stages of increasing difficulty, there’s nothing wrong with a very compact game like this, especially when you can just play it in your browser, no installation required. And when you’re digging through the mostly garbage/unfinished-looking projects in itch.io’s catalog, finding a small gem like this one is refreshing.

And this is where I’m stopping. I normally try to cover three games in these sorts of posts, but I was really scraping the bottom of the barrel with that last one regarding the second entry, which I mainly decided to write about because of how unbearably snotty it came off. There’s also the issue that a lot of games on this platform are either meme-tastic tossed-off bullshit or extremely serious and sentimental to the point that I’d rather not touch them (not that the latter is always bad — that can be done well, but I already had my shitty travails with booze and don’t need to be reminded of them, so it’s more of a personal matter.) The best drinking-related game I’ve played by far is still VA-11 Hall-A anyway, though I’m still waiting for that damn sequel to come out.

Well, at least I managed to keep a consistent theme this time, which isn’t always the case with these posts. Yeah, that’s how far the bar has been lowered as far as my expectations for myself go. Next time I’ll write a post that requires more effort (probably.) See you then, and in the meantime remember to get pissed responsibly.

Initial thoughts on Outer Wilds (about 15-20 hours in)

Look at that screen. That’s more or less the opening screen of Outer Wilds, an extremely acclaimed and talked up game, including among some people whose opinions I trust very well. I bought it a few weeks ago and went in knowing nearly nothing about it, since it seemed like one of those kinds of games, the kind you’d rather go into blind.

Usually I write a post like this once I’ve finished a game, but Outer Wilds is a complicated case for me. Not in a bad way — the game has an extremely thoughtful design, with a unique concept that works for me so far. But I don’t know whether I’ll get around to finishing it anytime soon. Yet I still do have some thoughts about it, just not thoughts I can put into the context of a proper review — since I haven’t finished the game yet and might never do so. I’m not a professional game journalist after all; they’re the only ones who can review games they’ve barely played (sorry for the jab, but I couldn’t resist it.)

Or maybe there’s no real difference between reviewing a game and “giving thoughts” about it. I just want to be straightforward about what this post is. It might turn out to be a sort of “part 1” to an actual review I write once I complete Outer Wilds if that happens, but that is an if. So fair warning. I’ll also be spoiling what I know so far (though if you’ve played the game to an ending, please don’t spoil that for me in the comments, but feel free to comment otherwise. I gain energy from reading new comments much like vampires gain energy from drinking fresh blood. Well, maybe that’s not the best analogy.)

The first guy you meet in the game and the moment I realized I wasn’t a human either

Outer Wilds is a sort of space exploration game, though not the traditional sort at all. It takes place in a star system that’s home to one actually habitable planet (though more on that later, because we’ll stretch the definition of “habitable” soon) and a bunch of other planets that are both interesting and complete fucking nightmares to navigate, though some more than others. You play nameless protagonist, a newly minted astronaut from Timber Hearth, a planet home to a peaceful-looking vertically-built town inside a crater and full of other blue four-eyed beings. These guys are extremely interested in exploring their star system and have built a series of spacecraft with both take-off and landing ability — think a more versatile version of the Apollo lunar lander.

The natives of Timber Hearth aren’t merely interested in poking around randomly either — one of their greatest goals is to discover new information about the Nomai, an ancient race of aliens who left their mark across the system in the form of ruins, writings, and other artifacts.

An ancient statue of the Nomai. This isn’t ominous at all, I’m sure nothing weird will happen

Your mission is simple enough: when you’re prepared, get in the spacecraft at the top of the launch pad in the center of town, lift off, and start exploring. While up at the observatory/museum to get your launch code from the scientist Feldspar, however, everything gets a lot more complicated when an ancient Nomai statue recovered from a ruin turns towards you, opens its eyes, and sends you into a sort of trance or trip for several seconds. It’s not quite clear what this is all about at first, and your colleagues are just shocked that the statue has moved and opened its eyes seemingly of its own will (though they unfortunately missed the part where you were given a mystical experience by hypnosis or whatever that incident might have been.)

Now following my own playthrough — after I had my head back on straight, I returned to the launch pad, got into the rickety as hell looking spacecraft I’d been provided, and took off. Liftoff was easy enough, and in just several seconds I was in space, with plenty of locations in my star system to visit.

All shrouded in shadow, Giant’s Deep also not looking at all ominous

I chose this nearby planet. Seemed promising enough. I was still getting the hang of space flight, but I was more or less able to get into orbit around this Giant’s Deep planet and try landing.

HELP

This was a mistake. So I thought at first, anyway, as my lander fell through the planet’s thick cloud layer and into its violent tornadoes that sent it flying again, then plunging into the ocean beneath. Scared out of my wits by this surprise, I immediately got the holy fuck off of this planet, blindly firing the thrusters that were somehow still working to send me back into space.

Shortly afterwards I found a planet or a moon or something that wasn’t on my chart and apparently had no name. Without any other goals at the moment, I approached it.

Is it just me, or is the Sun looking a little redder and fatter than it was before? No, just my imagination.

After moving into landing mode and switching cameras, I saw nothing under my spacecraft. Switching views again, the moon had completely disappeared.

Thoroughly confused at this point, I flew around a bit longer, then headed back towards my home planet. I’d completely neglected its moon, called the Attlerock. Probably would have been the place to start my journey but somehow I missed it. So I landed there, discovering a base occupied by one of my fellow four-eyed blue guy astronauts. After a friendly conversation and a little info-gathering, I wandered around the planet in my space suit, keeping a watch on my oxygen level.

Getting a nice view of my home planet from its moon. This was where I started wondering what the fuck was going on with the Sun. It couldn’t be…

I didn’t get screenshots of what happened next, but if you’ve played the game even for half an hour you’ve seen and heard it yourself: after a short musical cue plays, the Sun collapses in on itself and explodes in a blue-white supernova, vaporizing all planets, moons, and life around it in the process.

Fortunately, this wasn’t game over. In fact, this first death seems to be where Outer Wilds actually begins. Following this surprise disaster, you’re resurrected, sent right back to your initial spot by the fire on Timber Hearth just before launch. Moreover, the player character remembers everything that’s happened, up to and including dying in a supernova.

Soon enough it’s revealed that this is a Groundhog Day-esque time loop, perhaps triggered by that Nomai statue that sent you on the trip: you have 22 minutes to explore before the Sun collapses again and explodes, inevitably killing you and everyone else, at which point you’re again sent back to the starting point. Strangely enough, you seem to be the only one so far who realizes this is going on — you’ll later find characters who also keep their memories from past loops, but nobody on Timber Hearth knows what the hell you’re talking about when you try to warn them of the situation.

Translating Nomai writing. Their ruins are scattered throughout the system and are one of the best sources of information for your investigation

So there’s your goal: investigate your entire star system, all its planets and moons and various other bits that aren’t on your chart, to piece together what’s going on. Every planet, including Timber Hearth itself, holds a lot of points of interest, many of them Nomai ruins that are filled with old messages like the above. These usually take the form of conversations between the Nomai, who were scientifically advanced far beyond the current intelligent civilization in the system and were using their advancement to search through system after system for something called “the Eye of the Universe.” The Nomai’s messing around with black holes, teleportation, and time fuckery also turns out to have something to do with the amazingly rapid death and explosion of the Sun — no doubt, since the process we see over 22 minutes usually takes billions of years.

This knowledge might result in total panic if most anyone else knew what was going on. Thankfully, they don’t, so it’s mainly up to you to fix this problem. And since you effectively have infinite lives, at least for the purposes of this one time loop that’s been created, you have all the time in the universe to try to fix it or at least to understand it.

Good thing, because it lets me do stupid shit like this without fear. Landing “on” a black hole would normally be a horrible idea, but in this game it’s just another 22-minute loop

Outer Wilds was released in 2019 by developer Mobius Digital. I’d never heard of these guys, but whatever else you might say about their game, it’s damn impressive. I went in without knowing anything about this game beyond the fact that it presented the player with some kind of mystery, but though I haven’t finished it by getting an ending, it’s already given me more than enough to make my time with it worth it.

Some time back, I played an environmental narrative (aka “walking simulator”) game called Sagebrush that I didn’t care much for. I’ve wondered whether any game in that category would ever satisfy me at all — I won’t go through all the issues I have with the genre, which I’ve been through already, but I think if any game could be called an environmental narrative that works, it’s Outer Wilds. Its story is told mainly through its environment, but unlike others I’ve played (for example Sagebrush above, and also The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide which I don’t care for either despite some interesting ideas they present) this one is thoughtfully put together, made for players who want to have a good time exploring and puzzling out how to get from one new discovery to the next. It also gets rid of the linearity of the above games* — the player is pretty much encouraged from the beginning to just take off and do whatever. It’s not even necessary to leave Timber Hearth to start exploring: your home planet has plenty of its own mysteries to discover that tie into the others.

Like how the fuck did I get stuck in this tree

Most of the action takes place away from Timber Hearth, however. It’s easy to see why this planet is the only one now inhabited by a civilization: each of the others has some kind of bizarre/terrifying aspect that makes it inhospitable. Like the planetary pair Ash and Ember Twin locked in a tight orbit far too close to the Sun for comfort and covered in sand that’s flowing from one to the other, or Giant’s Deep with its terrible storms and strange floating islands that are lifted all the way above its atmosphere into space and back again by giant tornadoes. Or Brittle Hollow, which is literally being torn apart from inside by a black hole. Or Dark Bramble — the less said about that one the better.

This is fine, everything is fine

Adding to this effect, your ship as you can see above isn’t the sturdiest in the universe. A more maneuverable version of the lunar lander is great for landing and taking off, but it still isn’t the ideal spacecraft to fly around in tight spaces, much less to brave these kinds of absolute terrors. But complain about it to that engineer sitting next to you at the campfire each time you die and wake up again — as he tells you, this ship is the one you’ve got, and you’d better learn to pilot it as well as possible.

This less forgiving aspect of Outer Wilds is why I’m stalled out on it for now. I do respect that about the game — its more difficult tasks give it a nice level of challenge, and of course you have infinite shots to get them right. But it does get frustrating the fifth time you misjudge a distance on Brittle Hollow and end up falling through that goddamn black hole yet again, being spit out on the other side of the system so far from your parked ship you have no hope of getting back to it before the next loop. Or falling into a sand pit and having your suit punctured by a fucking cactus and choking to death. Or meeting whatever fate might await you in Dark Bramble, and the list of possible ways to horribly die goes on.

The nice thing about the constant failure and death is that once you figure out how to reach a difficult area, it becomes a lot easier to get there in the future barring stupid mistakes — which you will still make. It’s also possible to learn a “meditation technique” from one character to send you straight to the next cycle, no waiting around if you’re stuck in an impossible position.

This frustration can become taxing after a while, and after running frantically through a series of tunnels trying to avoid being crushed by rising sands and failing for the sixth or seventh time I put the game on pause. Not permanently, I think — I will try to reach the ending at least, because I do want to figure out just what the fuck those Nomai were up to and how I might be able to prevent the Sun from exploding and killing everyone (or not prevent it? No guarantees that this story will have a happy ending, are there? I haven’t been spoiled on that yet either.)

But to its credit, even in the most seemingly hopeless situations, there’s enough to discover in the game that you can be quite literally flung into a new discovery as happened to me a few times. More often you might be flung into a rock and killed, but there’s your chance to start a new exploration if you have the time and patience to spare. And there’s where the thoughtful construction of Outer Wilds comes in again: every point I’ve found so far takes well less than 22 minutes to reach assuming you learn how to clear the obstacles in your path, enough time to get there and explore for a while before going through another reset. Your ship’s computer is also helpfully not affected by these resets, keeping the records of everything you’ve found along with notes that you can study before planning out your next trip off of Timber Hearth, and time also pauses while on the computer so you don’t have to worry about impending death while you prepare. Though you can turn that feature off if you really want. I don’t know why you would, but maybe you’re all about that extra challenge or realism.

Taking notes is important for a lawyer, but even more so for an astronaut: negligence on our part is bad, but at least it doesn’t usually get us killed

Anyway, that’s my general impression of the game so far. I like it, and I’ll likely return to it at some point because it’s compelling enough to get me back; I just need a break for now. Though before going in, it’s important to note what it isn’t: Outer Wilds is not anything close to a realistic space flight/exploration sim, so if you’re looking for that, you’ll be disappointed by it. Scales in the game are pretty weird, with planets and a star that are extremely small in comparison with the inhabitants of Timber Hearth and the few various other beings hanging around the system. But then Outer Wilds obviously wasn’t trying to be a realistic space sim, and despite its miniature-scale star system, each planet and moon I’ve found has a lot to explore on their surfaces and sometimes underneath.

Outer Wilds also isn’t a traditional horror game obviously, but it is still one of the more terrifying games I’ve played. How reasonable that fear is might be hard for me to gauge, since I actually have a fear of looming massive astronomical bodies for some reason — even though I’m also very much into space and astronomy. I guess it’s a phobia, since I have no reason to be afraid of suddenly seeing Jupiter through my window one day. This game tested that fear, and it was interesting enough to get me to set it aside, so that’s a point in its favor too (though the fear has gotten easier to manage over time — I still can’t plunge into the ocean in Google Maps without freaking out and have a hard time with photorealistic full maps of Earth, though I’m fine with traditional maps and even have a few hanging where I live and work. Does anyone else know what I’m talking about, or is it really just me?)

I’ve also never been so immediately grateful for trees, which replenish your suit’s oxygen tank, like this one in a Nomai ruin inside Brittle Hollow aka the black hole planet. Also, these ancient people chose to live above a fucking black hole. Don’t think I could manage that.

The only real issue I’m anticipating having with Outer Wilds is its ending. As I’ve said, I have no idea what it could involve at this point — it’s entirely possible that I’ll even hate it, though I doubt with all the accolades this game has gotten since its release that its ending sucks (though even then it very well could, I guess, considering some of the stories with dogshit awful ruinous endings people have praised because they thought they were deep or thoughtful when they weren’t.) But I have seen Outer Wilds mentioned alongside existentialist ideas, and also “optimistic nihilism”, an approach that I have serious problems with.

I certainly wouldn’t end up hating the game for having that sort of ending, though. After all, I liked NieR:Automata, and it had that sort of ending, one I thought was a lot more depressing than others apparently did. I recognize that the fact I hate life and need some meaning more than what we can find in the material world to get any value out of it is a personal problem, so I can’t take that bitterness out on Yoko Taro, nor on the people who made this game if that’s the angle they’re taking here.

I have more practical problems anyway, like where am I right now and how the hell am I going to get back to my ship that’s 12.1 kilometers away

I’ll save the mad raving over how I think optimistic nihilism is nonsense for another post, anyway. Maybe the next post I write about this game, if that happens and assuming it fits. For now, that’s all on Outer Wilds. I hope I can return to it and get far enough to write a proper review, in which case as stated at the top this non-review post will turn into a sort of part 1 to that part 2. It’s a sloppy way of operating, but it’s the best I can do right now.

The next game I plan to write about thankfully works on a far less intellectual and far more physical level than this one, if you get me. I have to get to this game, finally, after I’ve left it sitting on my to-play list for so long, but it will be a nice break from all these stupid deep thoughts. Until then!

 

* Arguably Stanley Parable isn’t linear, but it also kind of is — but then I guess that’s the point of the game itself. I’m not fucking reviewing Stanley Parable here though, no way am I bothering with that. More than enough people have argued about it and continue to do so with that new update that just came out. I’m sitting that one out.

Games for broke people: Digital analog edition

It’s been a few years since I wrote once of these short free game review posts after digging around on itch.io, but it’s never too late to dig an old concept up again, and there are always broke people around looking for games to play (assuming they don’t want to turn pirate.)

I’ve also been watching some videos on YouTube in the “analog horror” category. This is a fairly new genre that from what I can tell is based on taking early 90s aesthetics and putting them into a psychological horror context. Kind of like a creepy version of vaporwave, I guess. It’s a strange concept, but some of it works pretty well. I’ve already talked up the series Gemini Home Entertainment, which I thought made great use of the old home video format to put together an interesting horror story. On the other hand, I also watched the wildly popular analog horror series Mandela Catalogue and wasn’t impressed with it, despite how much it’s talked up online — it even got a few eye rolls out of me, which is death when it comes to horror unless you’re going for a comedic effect, and it definitely wasn’t.

So maybe this is just a hit-and-miss genre for me. Or maybe I just need to play some games in the same genre instead? So I picked one free analog horror game, and then another game on itch.io after searching for “analog” when I couldn’t find any other analog horror stuff that didn’t look like a takeoff of Gemini or Mandela or Local 58. I also searched for “analogue” to include the non-American works as well, since the rest of the world thinks we spell that word incorrectly. But that didn’t yield anything too interesting aside from a free pdf tribute to Laika, the dog who died after being launched into space on Sputnik 2. I thought I was fucking depressed, but some of these people on itch.io, man.

Finally, just to get a third game in, I typed “aaa”, hit enter, and played the first game that didn’t look like complete tossed-off garbage from the thumbnail and description. Maybe there was a reason I retired this post format.

No Players Online

Starting with one that apparently just about every big horror jumpscare spooky game let’s player YouTuber already covered two years ago, the ones who used to dramatically scream at every shadow they saw until people finally got tired of that irritating shit.

No Players Online simulates an early 90s-looking capture the flag FPS, a beta multiplayer game with up to 16 players able to join each server, presumably in teams of up to 8 each. However, checking the server list reveals a column of 0/16s. Mysteriously, some of these servers are still online. Joining one of these drops you into an empty FPS map, a brutalist-style concrete structure with a couple of courtyards and trees and a central chasm that I tried to jump into but couldn’t.

I always wondered what other possible function the weird structures in these old FPSes could serve aside from being deathmatch arenas.

You have a gun that shoots a random number of bullets before you have to reload, but that’s not a problem since you’re the only player in the game. What follows is the easiest capture the flag game in history — at least until the creepy stuff starts happening, which doesn’t take long. No Players Online doesn’t let on about how you’re supposed to deal with said creepy stuff, but getting close to your goal of getting 3 out of 3 points does reveal a bit of what’s going on, and you’ll have a choice at that point between completing and not completing your mission. If you choose not to complete it, you can always quit and try another server.

There doesn’t seem to be much of an ending to the game at first, but after a little digging, I found that there is some kind of ARG thing going on with it featuring encoded messages and clues outside the game, and naturally people have already used those to solve its mysteries. Apparently it can’t be fully solved independently any longer, but that’s just how it is with these kinds of projects that rely on other media — sometimes you end up hitting a wall with a broken link or a disconnected phone number.

There’s a good chance this guy is a fan of the Caretaker too

I found the empty server pretty creepy, at least the first time I played through a “match” in it, so good on the developer for getting that atmosphere down. However, it also leans a little too much on the kind of “spooky distorted face man oh no” bullshit that made me dislike Mandela. There’s also just not that much game in this game, at least in the traditional sense. No Players Online is not exactly what I was looking for, but at least it’s an original concept, and there is more here than it might seem like at first glance, so it might still be worth a look for players who are into such projects.

TASCAR

One of the nice things about hunting for games on itch.io is that some of them are playable on your browser, no messing around with installation. These tend to be smaller/shorter games of course, but it’s possible to have fun with even a five minute-long game, so why discriminate in that sense?

While searching for “analog”, I found TASCAR, one of these browser games that promises a top-quality racing experience in the form of a text adventure. It’s not a horror game, though — at least not in the traditional sense.

Yeah, it’s one of these.

I believe TASCAR was created by someone who hates both stock car racing and text adventures, because this game seems to be purposely nearly unplayable. I was curious about how the hell someone managed to depict a car race in text form, but the point of it rather seems to be purely to piss the player off.

Oh yeah, you might be saying “hey, there’s a help option, try that out!” So I started a new game and decided to ask for directions for once.

thanks asshole

Eventually I managed to enter the fucking race and drive after the game refused to understand the commands drive, proceed, and step on the gas pedal, but this was the ultimate result:

what fun

I was wondering how aggressively hateful towards its players a game would have to be for me to still dump on it even when it’s free, and I think I’ve found a good example in TASCAR. I guess it’s just meant as a joke, but if so, it’s the Takeshi’s Challenge kind of joke where you basically end up kicked in the balls if you bother with it. If you’re a real masochist, then, you might enjoy this more than I did.

aaaaAAAAA

There’s a title that accurately describes how I felt after playing the above game. Despite its strange name, aaaaAAAAA is actually playable. It’s also frustrating and obtuse, though this time I can blame myself in part for just not being very good at such games.

aaaaAAAAA is a platformer that requires the player to jump on falling blocks to get as high up as possible. There are two gimmicks to it that complicate matters: the controls change every minute, and the player has to constantly hold down the a key at the same time to replenish their HP.

This is what the kids call “a mood” I guess

I’m not the most coordinated person on the planet. There’s a reason I mostly play JRPGs and avoid a lot of action games and platformers that require extreme timing and precision. That said, aaaaAAAAA seems like a nice free game to check out if you like to challenge yourself.

The spiked bricks falling on your character’s head and the constant screaming also make this game feel a lot like living life, which if that was the point was very well executed in my opinion! Congratulations to the developer Mewore for really getting that feeling down well if that was their intention. And even if it wasn’t, I still can’t help but think of the game as a metaphor for life. The fact that I suck at it makes that metaphor all the more accurate.

On that sunny note, as usual, that’s it for this round of free itch.io games. Next time I try out this feature, I’ll probably drop the themed aspect of it, because it clearly isn’t working out for me anymore.

First impressions: Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream

Before my next month-end post (which itself is going to be slightly different from the usual; I hope you look forward to that exciting surprise) I wanted to have a first look at the latest game I’ve jumped into after finishing Blue Reflection: Second Light. Yes, it’s yet another fucking Gust game — and another Atelier game! I should make a version of that old meme “friendship ended with guy 1, guy 2 is my new best friend” only guy 1 is Atlus and guy 2 is Gust, the way things are going. Well, my friendship’s not ended with Atlus — I’ll return to them at some point.

For now, let’s focus on the newly released Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream, the direct sequel to the first Atelier Sophie released back in 2015. Conveniently, Sophie 1 is the latest Atelier game I’ve completed — I’ve since started the next game in the original Mysterious trilogy, Atelier Firis, but have stalled out on it because of what I think was some Atelier fatigue. Playing five of those games nearly back to back in one year will do that to you. And luckily enough, I don’t have to feel bad about putting off Firis in favor of Sophie 2, since Sophie 2 is between Sophie 1 and Firis chronologically. There’s my excuse, anyway.

You can insert a joke here if you feel like it

Sophie 2 starts with the skilled alchemist Sophie Neuenmuller and her mentor, the human soul trapped in a book-turned-doll Plachta (it’s a long story; go play the first game or read my post on it to learn more) outside their home of Kirchen Bell, traveling the countryside. But their travels in their world are cut short: when they approach a massive strange-looking tree, a goddess creates a magical portal that sucks them into another dimension.

When Sophie wakes up, she’s found and taken in by two merchants, Alette and Pirka, who bring her to their shop in a nearby city. They explain to Sophie that this is a dream dimension, where the goddess Elvira brings those who have dreams she finds interesting. Her world of Erde Wiege is made for such people to try to achieve those dreams. Nobody living here ages, and people can enter it from across a wide range of time periods, so time isn’t much of a concern here. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your view of it, residency in Erde Wiege is also temporary: people are returned to their own world either once their dreams have been achieved or once they’ve given up, asking Elvira’s leave to return to their normal lives. People are apparently also usually given a choice to enter this world — not at all the case for Sophie and Plachta.

Sophie and her new friends in the city of Roytale, the center of this new world. People still might look normal, but the main characters’ costumes are still extremely distinctive as usual

At this point, however, Sophie is most concerned with Plachta, who’s been missing since both she and Sophie were pulled into this world. She’s told that there is an alchemist with an atelier on the edge of town named Plachta, and Sophie figures this must be her, though she also wonders how Plachta set up shop so quickly. However, this Plachta turns out to be different from the one Sophie is seeking out. Moreover, she doesn’t know Sophie at all, even demanding proof upon their first meeting that this stranger really is a fellow alchemist as she claims.

Right to left: Sophie, Alette, and new Plachta hanging out

Despite this awkward first meeting, Sophie and this new Plachta end up fast friends, bonding over their shared profession. They also quickly realize that this Plachta probably is the one Sophie’s seeking out, only from much further back in the timeline than the Plachta of Sophie 1 who was trapped in a book. They still plan to look for the Plachta we’re familiar with, however, and in the course of their planning Sophie learns that even her grandmother, Ramizel Erlenmeyer, is in this world as a young alchemist. Sophie then resolves to meet her past grandmother as well, because of course it can’t possibly fuck the timeline and cause problems in the future if she does that.

There’s a lot of time and space fuckery in this game so far even in its first several hours that I haven’t seen in almost any of the others, easy to justify when your game happens in a dream dimension

Sorry if that was all too confusing. I promise it makes more sense when you actually play the game, since it spends more than three paragraphs to explain the situation. I haven’t reached Ramizel yet, but I’m only about five hours in, and I know she’s a playable character since she’s on the box (and looking pretty damn hot, honestly — didn’t think I’d be saying that about Sophie’s grandma, but I also didn’t expect to see her in a dimensional warp time travel game like this.)

Ramizel down on the lower left. Good thing this isn’t a possible Fry from Futurama situation, talk about fucking the timeline.

As far as the game mechanics go, Sophie 2 isn’t anything too surprising. Its combat is the traditional turn-based type (sorry to the fans of the hybrid style in Ryza, though I think both have their advantages.) It also carries some challenge; I just got past a few dickhead eagles who nearly wiped out my party until I realized I should probably be using my bombs and healing items in combat. As usual, combat in Atelier absolutely requires you to master alchemy as well; you can’t just cheese these games by leveling up and brute forcing your way through.

Also as expected, the game’s alchemy system is based on the “fitting materials in the cauldron” one found in Sophie 1 with some new features. It’s extremely easy to use, even more so than the system in the first game, which required you to fuck around with lousy 4×4 grid cauldrons at first that you couldn’t do much with.

Sophie practicing her craft. This might look a bit intimidating, but it’s very easy to get down.

On that note, I also like the fact that Sophie 2 doesn’t knock Sophie’s adventurer and alchemy levels down to 1 for no apparent reason other than forcing the player to trudge through relearning new recipes. It instead acknowledges Sophie’s expertise and puts her at a fairly high level, though with a far higher level cap than the first game had and with many more recipes to learn as a result. You naturally can’t just make mega-powerful items right away, since that would have made Sophie too overpowered, but this game seems to have achieved a good balance between those points.

Sophie and Plachta are both able to synthesize items. And man, Yuugen and NOCO are good artists; I like their work about as much as Hidari’s and Mel Kishida’s now. They beat even Kishida at creating strange costumes for their characters to wear, which is a plus for me.

The one new aspect of Sophie 2 that stands out to me right now is its exploration aspect. Unlike Sophie 1, which had a pretty straightforward approach to its dungeon and field settings, this sequel uses a weather-changing mechanic controlled by the player to turn rain on and off, thus raising and lowering water levels and opening or closing off certain areas (in a way that’s not exactly realistic, but again, this is a dream world so realism is out the window — something the characters themselves comment on.) I like this function so far and look forward to seeing what it can add to the game aside from letting Gust show off its characters drenched in rain, which I’m sure had nothing to do with this decision.

Well, it probably didn’t. I wouldn’t know.

That’s all I’ve got on Atelier Sophie 2 just several hours in. I’m enjoying it a lot so far, and I hope I continue to enjoy it throughout. Based on my history with Atelier, I’m not too worried about that — the people who work on these games know their stuff if the last seven Atelier games I’ve played are any indication. Unfortunately, I don’t see Sophie 2 making a whole lot of waves out there like Ryza and its sequel did, but we all know at least in part why Ryza did so well here. There’s no denying that appeal. Until next time!