Currently playing (Neon White, my entire Steam backlog)

It’s been a while since I wrote about any games here, but I haven’t been idle on that front. There’s one game I’m nearly done with and will be writing about in a full review at some point this month — I don’t want to be too ambitious with my schedule considering how much work I’m taking on this month, but that much seems feasible. However, I’ve also been playing a new game and returning to some I’ve had on Steam for years (and maybe itch.io too?) Blowing the dust off of those, just because they’re there, and I don’t feel like spending any more money since I wake up in a cold sweat sometimes thinking about my debt. But then that’s a lot of us, sadly. It’s the reason I have the job I have to begin with. I sure as hell don’t do it for fun.

So let’s talk about something actually fun. Neon White was released in June last year on PC and Switch, but since my PC is garbage, I had to wait until the PS4 release in December to play it. I’m not much for action games as you’ll see if you look through the Games index page on this site, but there are two reasons I picked up this one, starting with the recommendation of fellow blogger Frostilyte. Our tastes in games don’t totally overlap, but his analysis is always a great time to read, and his looks at Neon White got me interested in checking it out for myself. And secondly — I won’t even make a show of downplaying this because I’ve already written about VTubers a few times on the site, but there’s a certain laughing dragon girl who played through the game, and her streams are always entertaining, but before watching any of it I don’t want to spoil anything for myself, least of all the solutions to the stages. That’s as good a reason as any, isn’t it?

Speaking of, Neon White isn’t a standard FPS as the guns might suggest. While there is plenty of shooting in the game, it’s far better described as an action platformer with puzzle elements. Each stage in the game up to the point I’ve played takes place in Heaven, where the characters including the protagonist codenamed Neon White have to clear out a demon invasion. The game’s primary mechanic is a card system: each card represents a gun (a pistol, rifle, shotgun, etc.) with a set amount of ammunition, but the card can also be used up and discarded to perform an extra function like a double-jump or a boost.

I’ll get into the system in greater depth when I’m done with the game, but it’s surprisingly intuitive and easy to get hooked on. There’s a strong speedrunning aspect to Neon White, but you don’t have to be a Hardcore Gamer™ to get into it. I’m certainly not. Another nice aspect of this game is that it’s pretty forgiving about jumps, allowing you to do demon-slaying parkour without worrying about pixel-perfect landings. However, the challenge is still there, especially for those who want to earn the top “ace” medal times in each stage for bragging rights (or the really extreme red medal times, of which I’ve only gotten two. Good thing these really are meant just for bragging rights.)

As for the story and the characters, you may have heard from Frostilyte or elsewhere that they are over-the-top ridiculous, and that’s totally true. Neon White does have a plot, but it feels like something a 13 year-old boy might write with plenty of edge and hot girls with guns etc. etc. The protagonist even has amnesia. What more can you ask for? It’s pretty much a bad anime plot. I’m not sure just how self-aware the developers were, but it feels like they just decided to go all out here, which I respect: commit totally to the over-the-top feel or don’t bother at all.

There’s not much more I can say so far — this isn’t a review since I haven’t finished the game, but I will be taking Neon White on in full at some point. Very fun so far, though.

And then there’s my backlog of old games. I have no hope of clearing this out, not unless I find a rich patron to fund me quitting my job and locking myself in my living space and living off of deliveries which I’d love to do if I could. But I can make a dent in the backlog, at least. Looking through my list of games on Steam, I have several visual novels, a few action platformers, and an assortment of stuff that I can’t easily categorize. I remember HuniePop 2 irritating me for some reason, but it is in there and I do want to return to it — it’s been long enough that I don’t remember what it was that annoyed me about that one. Maybe I was just in a lousy mood at the time. I also have Momodora III and IV, which I’ve meant to play forever now.

Momodora III by indie developer rdein, which I played ten minutes of before getting thoroughly beaten by the first boss. Those demons just won’t let up. But I will be back — the challenge to games like this is in getting the patterns down.

I’d like to get through a few of these sometime soon, but the VNs might take precedence. Not sure how I’ll approach my backlog, but I will at least put a few chips in it, if not even a dent. And HoloCure is coming out with an update this or next week, so I’ll be wasting at least a few hours there when that happens.

I hope the brief update was interesting, anyway. This week is going to be hell for me, so I don’t expect to be able to post anything else until this coming weekend. Hope you all have a better week than I do!

Deep reads #7.1: Better living through alchemy (or, why I like Atelier)

When you hear that a game has crafting in it, what do you immediately think of? Perhaps some thrown-together tacked-on gameplay mechanic like “put this piece of wood and this piece of metal together to make an axe” or “make this weed you found on the side of the road into a potion.” Crafting has a bit of a bad reputation as a gimmicky and unnecessary mechanic among gamers, at least here in the US — to the point that when I’ve tried to sell a few friends on the game series that’s the subject of this post, I’ve had to assure them that even though it’s full of crafting, it actually implements it really well. I swear. Just hear me out, please!

And yes: I’m talking about the Atelier series. Considering how many Atelier titles I reviewed last year — between those and the Blue Reflection games, officially noted as the “Year of Gust” on the site — this new deep reads post might not be such a surprise, even if I did keep you all waiting for a long time on it.

At first, I was planning to put this post off until I finished the Mysterious sub-series, since I’m almost halfway through that now-tetralogy at this point. But I felt like writing it now for various reasons, some of which have to do with opinions I’ve read about the Atelier series that I very much disagree with and that I’d like to offer counters to. Also, I think after having played almost eight Atelier games, I have a pretty good feel for what the series is about. Gust keeps releasing the damn things, too, at least once a year, so I don’t think I’ll ever truly be “caught up” anyway.

As the Arland trilogy taught me, time is extremely valuable, even if there aren’t any monster invasions on the way. (Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland DX)

Another important note before I start: this post is not going to take on the entire series from start to finish. As with my Megami Tensei deep reads post series, I’m admitting upfront that I haven’t played most of its many titles. However, I have played a lot of the Atelier games since the major series overhaul that started with Atelier Rorona at the start of the series’ PS3 era. The series as a whole stretches all the way back to the 90s, starting on the PS1 with Atelier Marie: The Alchemist of Salburg in 1997. However, my understanding is that Rorona wasn’t quite a total change to the series but more of a return to the old alchemy-heavy style of the first games, a shift back away from the more standard JRPG gameplay of the PS2 Atelier Iris trilogy.1 So maybe a lot of what I write about these later games will apply at least generally to the earliest ones. I also have the excuse that a lot of those very oldest Atelier titles (Marie through Viorate I think, 1 through 5) were never localized, at least to my knowledge.

Anyway, enough with the apologies and explanations and on to something hopefully more interesting. First, a few questions that some new players might be asking themselves:

What’s all this about alchemy?

The typical Atelier game centers around usually one and occasionally two alchemists. Said alchemist protagonist(s) almost always happen to be girls (the one exception I’ve played being Logy from Escha & Logy — he’s one of the very few exceptions to that rule.) Though they come from different circumstances and sometimes even from entirely different worlds, these girls always have bright futures ahead of them, though that’s sometimes not apparent at the outset. However, all their various quests, goals, and ambitions can be achieved with the help of their families and friends and most uniquely with the help of alchemy, the practice of gathering and mixing all sorts of ingredients — plants, liquids, metals, minerals, and so on — to create the widest range of goods imaginable, from poisons to medicines, from explosives to apple pies.

The first time I ran into this alchemy concept as a game mechanic was in the also Gust-produced Ar tonelico: Melody of Elemia. While the Ar tonelico games aren’t part of the Atelier series (though they arguably do have links to at least a few of the games) and are very different in both storytelling style and gameplay, they have item-crafting functionality in common with Atelier. The crafting system in Ar tonelico is called synthesis, and while it’s pretty simple and not at all essential to get down to actually beat the games, it does add some nice flavor, especially with the inclusion of sometimes strange and silly recipe notes from the characters making the items. Not quite simply “add wood to metal to make metal beating stick”, then, even if it isn’t all that complicated mechanically speaking.

Okay, I don’t have a screenshot of Ar tonelico synthesis, so instead here’s a conversation from Ar tonelico II. I think I have a thing for certain haughty girls who are really sweet on the inside, but that might be a subject for another post.

Alchemy in Atelier is a different matter. Starting with Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland in 2009, the series again placed a serious emphasis on item-crafting not simply as a helpful tool but as a necessary mechanic that’s also central to the plot. There’s no “fuck this crafting nonsense, let me go fight a dragon boss” option in these games for two major reasons: 1) your power in battle is directly tied to what sort of equipment and attack/defense items you’re using, almost all of which you’ll have to craft to get better than a garbage setup, and 2) the game, depending on which game you’re playing, won’t allow you to progress and might even give you a game over if you’re not keeping up with your alchemist duties and balancing those with your more typically JRPG-style map exploration, enemy-killing, and loot-finding ones.

The choice of the term alchemy for this system of crafting is interesting in itself. Before I’d even heard of the Atelier games, I knew alchemy as most of us do: that old scientifically dubious practice of turning base metals into gold. Historically, alchemy was more than just “turn this lump of iron into gold so I can get rich”, but that was naturally a lot of its appeal. Never mind that if any of these guys had ever found that secret iron/lead/whatever-to-gold recipe, the vast increase in the gold supply would have destroyed its value — they weren’t taking economics classes back in the 1300s. It’s certainly possible to turn one element into another by splitting atoms through nuclear fission and fusing atoms to create heavier elements through the far more energy-intensive nuclear fusion (also the process the Sun uses to convert hydrogen to helium.) But naturally, old-fashioned alchemists didn’t have such technology. They were making potions and probably dumping rat’s tails into them or some nonsense.

That was alchemy in our world: a bullshit science in the vein of astrology, or at least until physicists started shooting atoms at each other in the early 20th century. However, the line between alchemy on one hand and actual chemistry and medicine on the other was often blurred — alchemists could also act as legitimate medicine-makers considering their knowledge of plants with real healing properties and the like.

And there’s the possible connection to alchemy in the world of Atelier. Medicine is always one of the very first items you’re tasked with making, and it’s naturally in high demand and extremely useful in combat. The difference in Atelier is that even aside from the realistic medical benefits of herbs and so on, alchemy as a whole is entirely real and can be done with nothing more than a big pot and a stirring stick — as long as you have the learning and skill to master the recipes.

Speaking of recipes, in Atelier, baking is also an essential and extremely important aspect of the art of alchemy. I don’t think any “real” alchemists ever tried turning lead into a Mont Blanc. (Atelier Meruru DX)

No small feat in itself. Alchemists in Atelier are valued for their knowledge and skill (if not always for their wisdom — that one depends on the alchemist.) Training is intensive, and the few people with the aptitude for it spend lifetimes honing their crafts. While the techniques used in alchemy differ a little between each sub-series within the wider series, it seems to be the case that some kind of inherent skill is required before someone can even hope to start training. What that inherent quality is I can’t say, since the games I’ve played don’t really say themselves, but that’s not important: all you have to know is that your protagonist(s) have that skill along with the necessary motivation to practice and learn.

What’s an atelier (and how is it pronounced?)

The pronunciation thing is a real debate, no joke (Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky DX)

Another common thread that links all these games together is the player’s workshop, or atelier. These terms are pretty interchangeable, and though I haven’t seen it used, laboratory would also fit well. I’m not sure why the creators of the series landed on the term “atelier” specifically, but I like it — it adds to that old European feel a lot of the series has, with its Renaissance/early modern European-looking cities and towns and its characters with largely French and German-sounding family names.

Atelier is a French-to-English loanword, and here a French-to-Japanese one. In its original and English definitions, an atelier is specifically an artist’s workshop, referring to both the fine arts and more practical crafts like dress-making and architecture, something more like a studio than a lab. A search for “atelier” on Google, aside from references to the game series, brings up both art and fashion-related spots around my city. So unless アトリエ/atorie has a different meaning in Japanese, the use of “atelier” as an alchemy workshop is a little unusual here.

Then again, maybe it isn’t. Alchemy in the Atelier series seems to be just as much an art as a science, with alchemists adding their own personal touches to their work. And since you can craft armor, pendants and other jewelry with defensive attributes, and even dresses that fall into the armor category, I guess “atelier” really does fit. (Just don’t ask how such things are produced by mixing a boiling solution in a cauldron: that question was never meant to be answered.)

As for the proper pronunciation of Atelier: excuse me for being all proper, but it should be pronounced in English in the French way in my opinion. I’m not British, but I’m going with Cambridge in this case, and the other authorities agree. The Japanese title atorie might also be a clue — while Japanese can’t quite get the l sound down with the syllable リ (somewhere between li and ri) that エ at the end points to the original French pronunciation. But for fuck’s sake — even if you’re going to pronounce that r at the end out of habit or because saying a French word feels too fancypants for you, at least don’t call it an atleer.2

Ayesha Altugle in her atelier. No safety gear required, even though it really looks like she should be using some. (Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk DX)

Your atelier can take various forms: most often it’s a dedicated workshop, but your alchemist girl might resort to dragging a cauldron into a corner of her family’s house or her room if she doesn’t have that option. You might even be doing alchemy out on the road in a makeshift tent workshop. But no matter what form it takes, when you’re in that atelier, you’ll have access to all the resources you’ve collected and been given in order to brew new potions and craft new items and armor.

The atelier isn’t just a workshop, however. Most of the Atelier games I’ve played turn the your workshop into a meeting place and sometimes a regular hangout spot depending on where it is. And in the cases they don’t, the practical effect is the same, because the alchemists always become pillars of their respective communities if they aren’t already. The powers of alchemy can be used for good or evil — you can synthesize some massively destructive items in your atelier, after all. But while disreputable alchemists aren’t entirely unheard of in the series, your protagonists are always the good sort. They differ in personality, sometimes wildly, but they all have a strong desire to help their friends and to be a positive force in the world as a whole.

Which brings me to the final question I’d like to address, and in an extremely long-winded way:

What’s the appeal?

I’ve gone on a lot about ateliers and alchemy and how to pronounce French loanwords, but here’s the key question. What’s the point of all this item synthesis and why should I care? And why are most of these alchemists wearing such frilly fucking dresses? Don’t those ribbons get in the way of the cauldron-stirring?

And what about Sophie’s massive sleeves? (Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book DX)

I can’t address the practicality of those frills and ribbons, but I can describe what I find to be the appeal of Atelier. I can only speak for myself, though I expect a lot of other fans will agree on these strengths of the series.

1) The art and aesthetic

Getting all fancy with “aesthetic” here, but there’s a good reason for it. Gust games are generally known for their excellent art design: between the Atelier, Blue Reflection, and EXA_PICO series, I doubt there’s a single title that doesn’t have at least pretty impressive art.

Atelier in particular stands out for its art and character designs, and all the more so because of the several artists who have worked on the series, bringing their own unique visions to it. In my Atelier reviews, I’ve noted the breakdown of the wider series into subseries, often into trilogies (that may later expand into tetralogies or more: see Atelier Lulua and Atelier Sophie 2) and each of these subseries to date has featured a different art director. Playing these games in roughly sort of chronological order as I’ve been from Rorona on, I’ve prepared to be at least a little let down by the new artistic direction in the following subseries, but that hasn’t happened yet with the very partial exception of the Atelier Ryza series as far as I’ve played it. At worst, the art and general style might just not appeal to me quite as much, but I still end up pretty much liking it and feeling the new style suits the new general direction of the game.

Toridamono’s work is my least favorite out of the four Atelier subseries I’ve played, and he’s still a damn good artist whose work I like a lot, which should speak well for the rest of the series’ art. (Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout)

Among the three other art directors of the series I’ve played — Mel Kishida in the Arland series, and also responsible for the art of the Blue Reflection games, Hidari in the Dusk series, and Yuugen and Noco in the Mysterious series — I can’t even rank them against each other. If Toridamono’s just a notch below them according to my own tastes, the rest are on the same extremely high rung. If you’re imagining one of those tier rankings that have become so popular among streamers and VTubers these days, based on its art alone, Ryza is in the A rank and the rest are up in S.

But what is it about the art in these games that I find so striking? Part of it might be that old European feel most of the games have. Dusk is a little lighter on that feel, though there are still hints of it in especially in Atelier Ayesha, but generally the makers really seem to love the look of those 16th/17th century west European cities and towns. I might be completely off here, but as an American, I think we tend to have a love for that look too, maybe because it feels a bit exotic and also because we don’t have anything similar in our own country aside from the architecture that’s designed specifically to mimic those styles.

I believe this is part of the cover of the original Atelier Rorona for the PS3, the one you absolutely shouldn’t play because the Vita and DX PS4 remasters/remakes look far better. But damn if Mel Kishida’s art isn’t amazing anyway.

More important are the character designs, which are usually memorable and excellent. I’m no visual artist and I’ve never created a character design because I can’t draw worth a shit, but I know what I think is memorable and looks good and what doesn’t, and I haven’t played an Atelier game yet that failed to impress in that way. I’ll just say I own that Artworks of Arland artbook for a reason. I’d own artbooks of Hidari and Yuugen/Noco’s work too, but those don’t seem to exist or else I haven’t found them. I’ve posted examples of their work throughout, especially of Hidari’s, so here’s another CG I love from the Mysterious series:

Just ignore Sophie’s weird gold beret outfit. That one’s not her fault, anyway; it was a gift from another character with some pretty damn dubious tastes. But note the bottle hanging at her side — a nice touch that many of the alchemists’ outfits include considering how often they have to gather materials and work out in the field. (Atelier Sophie DX)

I haven’t seen another game series with such a strong emphasis on costume design, either. It’s most obvious in Atelier Sophie, which contains an entire side plot about Sophie wearing her grandmother’s old alchemist outfit from way back when she was out in the field to gain her courage or something (not the one above; it looks a lot better in my opinion) but this focus runs throughout the series. Of course, unusual costumes in JRPGs are naturally nothing new (see Final Fantasy) but that aspect of Atelier is also notable. Whether it’s a positive is up to you — I feel Ryza drops it a bit in favor of a somewhat more practical-looking “adventurer” look if that’s more to your taste — but I find it adds some great spice to the series.3

If only to see our characters running around in the field and into battle in this getup. Not exactly made for combat, though at least the knight in the front line is dressed for the occasion. (Atelier Sophie DX)

2) The slice-of-life relaxation

Plenty of JRPGs provide breaks to their players in the form of easygoing character interaction, but again, no series I’ve found places such an emphasis on that as Atelier. While you’ll certainly face plenty of challenges in the series, up to and including difficult bosses to fight and the occasional world-ending crisis, most of my experience with Atelier has been pretty relaxed. There are certain story beats I’d grown up to expect after playing other JRPG series as a kid: someone in your party will betray you at a key moment, your home base or town that seems safe will get attacked at some point and you’ll have to flee, your protagonist will probably end up romantically tied to another character, most likely the female lead. And of course, some godlike entity is almost certainly controlling the supposed ultimate bad guy from behind the scenes and you’ll have to beat it up to prevent all life from being destroyed. Some series put their own unique spins on these JRPG tropes (Megami Tensei for example), but they’re tropes for a reason.

You’ll barely find any of the above in Atelier. Hardly any betrayal, much less of the dramatic “top 10 anime betrayal” kind complete with the speech trying to justify the traitor’s backstabbing. Very little romance, outside of some yuri-flavored teasing that never ends up going anywhere (by far most common in the Arland subseries) and an option to get Escha and Logy into an implied romantic relationship in their game that’s otherwise not at all central to the story.

I don’t blame Logy for dating his coworker, hard to resist a girl who can put away cake like this. And yes, Escha is as she looks: another cute cinnamon roll-esque character. I think I have a thing for them too as long as they’re not overdone. (Atelier Escha & Logy DX)

And while Atelier does feature crises, these aren’t always the world-ending kind. The crisis in question is usually a lot more personal than you’d expect: for a few examples, the protagonist trying to track down her missing adventurer mother (Atelier Totori), working to convince her father to let her become an alchemist (Atelier Meruru), or making a trek across the world to sit for an alchemist certification exam (Atelier Firis). A couple of other games do feature potentially world-ending threats, most especially the Dusk subseries (Ayesha, Escha & Logy, and Shallie), which centers around an ongoing catastrophic environmental decay (what an idea — I just can’t imagine that happening in real life, can you?)

But even the Dusk trilogy contains plenty of relaxation and slice-of-life messing around. This is such a staple of Atelier that it would be impossible to imagine the series without it. While exploration and combat are certainly important elements to every Atelier game I’ve played so far, they aren’t the central elements — they take place alongside a lot of necessary work in the atelier.

The combat is fine if you’re all right with turn-based systems, and it does feature some big changes from game to game, most notably in the Ryza series that shifts to a more action-based battle mechanic. I just don’t find the combat a particular strength of Atelier, though a few games do interesting things with it. (Atelier Ayesha DX, with admittedly one of the less interesting battle systems.)

And while your alchemist protagonist is brewing her potions and baking her pies in that cauldron, she’ll receive visits from friends and the few townspeople who are important enough side characters to get character portraits. Building relationships with your party members is a must, but even the shopkeepers in most Atelier titles have roles to play beyond the typical “Hi ___, look at the new wares I have for sale” fare — they’re very often interesting characters in their own rights, and some of them might even join your party.

That’s no mistake: typically the protagonist herself is a shopkeeper, at least of a sort. As the local alchemist, and sometimes the only one in town, part of your task as the player is to fulfill the requests of customers, some of whom are shopkeepers themselves who might go on to sell your wares at a higher price. Everyone benefits from the arrangement: you gather the materials and either sell them or more often use them to synthesize a product that only you can create, and the shopkeeper provides a wider market for the salve, cake, dress, or whatever else it is you’ve made. It’s a small-scale economy at work — not a very complicated one, but then it doesn’t need to be. There’s plenty of complication for you to deal with elsewhere, as we’ll soon see.

Pamela’s shop is the most popular among the town’s men — they all hang out there so much that their wives start complaining about it. Maybe you can see why? That’s right: it’s all the amazing perfume she sells that Rorona synthesized for her. (Atelier Rorona Plus)

All these relationships your protagonist(s) build with their families, friends, and townspeople — even with the odd ghost they might meet during their explorations — these all contribute to the generally relaxed feel of the series as a whole. Because of my near-oppressive work schedule (though a typical one for my profession, sadly) I’ve had to drop every other JRPG for the foreseeable future. Even my beloved Megami Tensei has fallen by the wayside. But Atelier is somehow still keeping me in its grip, and I think its strong relaxed slice-of-life aspect is part of the reason why it’s managed to draw me back in.

3) The alchemy

Alchemy. (Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream)

There’s a good reason I decided to make this edition of my deep reads a series instead of a single post: this fucking alchemy system deserves its own post. Let me correct that: systems, because there’s well more than one. The fact that I’ve spent so many hours crafting items in Atelier where I’ve groaned at two minutes of crafting a sword in some other game and asked why I had to bother — that still escapes me, but I’d like to figure out just why the hell that’s the case, and I’d like to get to it in the next post in this set.

I’m prepared to be totally wrong about at least half of what I end up writing about alchemy in these games, because there are actual experts out there and I’m not one of them. But I’ve gotten used to being wrong about things, so it’s no problem for me. Until next time!

 

1 I really don’t know how I missed out on Atelier Iris back in the day considering I was pretty big into JRPGs at the time. Their exclusion from this post series feels like a serious gap, but it’s not one I can do anything about. The same goes for the Mana Khemia games, which despite their titles are canonically part of the Atelier series.

2 And here’s part of why I think barely any fans lament the loss of the English dubs for these games following Atelier Firis. Though the fact that most of us are probably weebs who default to the Japanese voiceovers also has something to do with it. And no, I don’t blame the VAs at all: I blame the localizers who should have been in charge of giving them proper direction, or maybe Gust if they didn’t allocate a sufficient localization budget to bother with that. I hope those VAs are finding plenty of work elsewhere, anyway. I think Crunchyroll is dubbing a lot of anime these days.

3 This raises an interesting question about the target audience for such games. There are male characters in the Atelier games too — lean pretty boys, muscular tough guys, and a few in between or miscellaneous types, and often with their own interesting designs. But the focus seems to be far more on the ladies, and combined with the very flowery aesthetic I wonder if Atelier has a larger female player base than other RPG series might.

Then again, there’s such a strong emphasis on the ladies that I also suspect the series might be aimed specifically at guys. As I noted at the start of my Disgaea deep reads series way back, Marl Kingdom seems to have had a similar issue with being considering “for girls” when it was localized, possibly with an eye to capture more of a female player base. But I also think the market has changed a lot since then. Then again, I’m no marketing expert or video game historian, so I’ll leave those questions to them.

A review of Conway’s Game of Life

Okay, it’s not actually a “review” this time. But then Conway’s Game of Life isn’t quite a “game” in the regular sense.

A virtual machine running Windows 95, showing programs including LifeGenesis

The subject of today’s post, sort of. And yes, that is Anime Pin-Up Beauties ’99 lower in the menu. When you see a gem like that on the Internet Archive you have to get it, you know.

Strangely enough I’ve already written about this thing on the site without realizing it. Three years plus ago, I reviewed the entire Windows Entertainment Pack, a set of early 90s games and programs contained on four different releases. One of these was a game titled LifeGenesis, which I tried out again after reinstalling my virtual machine with Windows 95:

Windows 95, running LifeGenesis

WHAT the fuck is going on

When I played LifeGenesis, I didn’t really understand what I was looking at and assumed it was a broken two-player Go or Reversi spinoff of some kind. Granted, it was represented as a two-player game that I thought would be set up as player vs. computer like most of the other such games in these packs, but that doesn’t change the fact that I just didn’t get what was going on and didn’t read the game’s documentation, which actually explains what it is: a very limited Windows-based version of Conway’s Game of Life, a sort of program (or cellular automaton as he called it) created by mathematician John Conway in 1970. I’d explain the rules, but better to let the man himself do that:

The gist is that on a potentially infinite grid, you can place “live” cells as you would pieces on a board, and their status changes based on their position and their neighbors. Since the game continues tracking these changes from step to step, you’ll end up with a morphing pattern that might either die out completely, get frozen in a certain position, or bloom out into a progressively larger pattern.

Throwing down random clumps of blocks like I did the first time I played LifeGenesis can be pretty amusing for a few minutes, but the most interesting patterns to me are the symmetrical kind, easily produced by a symmetrical starting pattern of live cells. While some of these patterns die out or freeze in place after several rounds, others have surprising properties. Take a row of 10 live cells, which you might not expect anything interesting from: you’ll end up with a changing pattern going through several cycles that repeat infinitely:

Part of the repeating pattern

There’s a lot more you can do with the Game of Life, but LifeGenesis, as interesting as it must have been to people who knew about this in the early 90s, is unfortunately restricted with a finite game board. This board is meant to be used in matches against other human opponents I guess, even if there is a difficulty option featured (though the computer opponent still seems to be absent, so I have no idea what you’d do with this game’s difficulty setting.)

Today, there’s a far easier and better way to play Conway’s Game of Life than running LifeGenesis on a virtual machine: you can instead visit this site and run patterns on an effectively infinite grid, meaning you can get far more interesting and complex results than you would otherwise on that restricted game board.

Messing around with the Game of Life

Again, I went straight for the symmetrical patterns, trying out various starting positions. Most of these didn’t produce very interesting results, but a few turned out some beautiful patterns like the one above, just the 59th round (iteration? I want to use that word but I don’t know if it’s correct here) out from a pretty simple cross-shaped starting pattern. Some of these results look strangely human-created even, like these pixel art ghosts from earlier in the very same pattern progression:

A symmetrical starting pattern will always result in symmetrical results as you’d expect, but the true chaos begins when you go asymmetrical. Again, most of the patterns I placed down fizzled out pretty quickly or resulted in a few fixed live cell patterns (the 2×2 square, for example) or infinitely alternating or “spinning” ones (the 3×3 line.) A few were far more interesting, producing increasingly growing explosions of live cells that create fixed patterns and destroy them again as they keep growing and reacting to their surroundings.

Here’s a pattern that I thought was about to settle down — almost everything on the screen above is a static pattern that resulted from a pretty small and simple starting position (though one I don’t remember, honestly.) Everything except this bit:

That five-cell pattern is known as a “Glider” because unlike nearly every other pattern, it endlessly glides across the grid while maintaining its form, going through a few repeating cycles. This particular glider is headed “northwest”, or towards the upper left corner of the grid, about to run into the static six-cell pattern above it. The result:

Another explosion that “invaded” those static patterns down below and kept the game going. This is one of the interesting things about the Game of Life. From what I can gather, its outcomes can all be mapped out since it follows just a few strict rules, but for a human watching these changes play out, it all really feels chaotic, in a few situations like the above like anything might happen..

Of course, far smarter people than me have done far more interesting things with the Game of Life than I could have imagined without finding them on YouTube:

I’m not a huge fan of that overused dramatic backing track, but man these are impressive. This “game” has been around for over fifty years now, so it’s no wonder people with more mathematical minds have been coming up with such incredibly elaborate and massive patterns.

That brings me to the last point about Conway’s Game of Life and maybe the most interesting: the fact that Mr. Conway himself didn’t seem to think much of it. To Conway, the Game of Life was sort of a trifle, something to play with, that he sent to a friend to write about in a Scientific American column. After it exploded in popularity, he knew he’d be remembered by most people for this trifle, which wasn’t all that impressive to him and was greatly overshadowed by his other work as a mathematician.

Yet he also came to terms with that, and for good reason: looking through conversations about his game, I’ve found a lot of people citing it as the reason they got interested in programming. I can understand why, even if I’m a humanities major and not at all into math beyond some of the interesting concepts I’ve stumbled upon along with the other non-mathematician masses like the Mandelbrot Set. Part of the appeal of both of these concepts to me, and I think to a lot of people, is how they show complexity, and even infinite complexity, can be revealed by something so seemingly simple as John Conway’s game with just a couple of rules or Benoit Mandelbrot’s equation.

Or maybe I just like the nice patterns. I don’t think I have anything at all to add to the talk about the Game of Life, not coming from my professional background that has nothing to do with math beyond estimating potential damages and worrying about project budgets in dollar amounts.

Anyway, this is just something I’ve been messing around with lately. I hope my recent less regular posts have been interesting — I’ll be getting back to the more standard kind soon, unless I come up with more to ramble about. Until then!

A review of Coffee Talk

Last post I wrote about my probably unhealthy coffee-drinking habits, so I may as well have a look at a game all about coffee, coffee-adjacent drinks, and the people they bring together in a small independent coffee shop in alternate fantasy universe Seattle. Coffee Talk, released on Steam in 2020, is a visual novel with a drink-mixing minigame attached in which you play a barista and coffee shop owner, serving a diverse mix of the city’s residents — humans, elves, succubi, fairies, werewolves and so on.

Latte art? I’m a coffee guy, not a damn artist. But maybe all baristas are expected to also be artists in Seattle? I’ve never been there.

As the sort-of blank slate player character, your job is to talk to patrons, both regulars and newcomers, and fill their drink orders. You’ll have an increasing stock of ingredients to choose from as the game continues, allowing you to mix dozens of different drinks for your customers.

Pictured: constant regular patron Freya, a woman after my own heart — not a long-lived heart with all the triple espressos I drink though.

Drink-making is an important part of Coffee Talk and provides the only traditional “game” element with a little extra challenge — while some of the orders your patrons make will be straightforward, others will make vague orders or just ask for whatever. You’re free to serve whatever drink you think best, but the drinks you serve at certain points will affect the course of the story. To add to the challenge, you’ll start with a blank drink reference list that fills out as you make each drink, meaning you can’t easily refer to it for clues if you haven’t made a particular order yet (or just look it up online, of course.)

Don’t give this guy milk unless you just want to be a jerk

The visual novel part of Coffee Talk is its central element, however — you’ll be spending almost all your time in this game making and listening to conversation over coffee (and tea, hot chocolate, etc.) Coffee Talk features a cast of about ten or a dozen recurring patrons, each with their own stories and challenges that they might bring up while sitting at your counter. While it might seem like a linear story at first, this game does have different endings to achieve, based not on dialogue options (the traditional branching-path VN style) but on whether you serve the right drinks to your customers and friends at the critical moments. It should be pretty obvious when these moments arise, even if the drink you have to serve at that time isn’t.

Things get heavy on occasion. I wonder how often real-life baristas see such scenes. I’ve never worked behind a counter myself, though I did unfortunately suffer through a “scene” at a sort of small bar/restaurant once that was considerably worse than this one.

Anyone who’s read this site for very long might know one of my favorite indie games is VA-11 Hall-A. If you’ve played VA-11 Hall-A yourself or have seen a playthrough of it, all of the above should sound very familiar to you, because Coffee Talk clearly took serious influence from that game — the drink-mixing, the strong social/visual novel elements, and the way the drinks you serve at certain points affects the story. One of the main reasons I picked up Coffee Talk, in fact, was because it reminded me so much of that old favorite. Also because I was getting tired of the endless “where the fuck is it” Atlus-style wait for the long-announced sequel N1RV Ann-A (still “coming soon”, haaah.)

However, it would be a mistake to think of Coffee Talk as simply a copy of VA-11 Hall-A. It’s similar in its structure and mechanics, but it has a different flavor and stands well on its own. The most obvious difference is the setting: where VA-11 Hall-A was set in a dive bar built mostly to serve alcohol, in Coffee Talk you’re running a coffee shop. That’s not a small difference, either, since for better or worse you can’t get anyone drunk and running their mouths in this game like you can in VA-11 Hall-A. That doesn’t mean your drinks don’t have significant effects on your patrons, both energizing and calming — they just won’t be getting boozed up.

Somehow alcohol was not involved with creating this situation

The broader settings of the games are also very different, with Coffee Talk set in a real-world American city known for being a unique sort of place (in a similar way to Portland and Austin, so maybe not actually “unique” but you get the idea — it’s an artsy city.) Both games deal with some pretty serious social issues through their conversations, though again somewhat different ones — you can really tell the fictional Glitch City of VA-11 Hall-A has the sorts of issues thought up more by guys from a place like Venezuela as its developers were, with the talk of government corruption and currency hyperinflation.

I can relate more personally to the complaints about insane drug prices and instability of freelancer life in Coffee Talk, though having lived in an “open corruption/government actually giving no fucks” sort of country before I understand those complaints as well, even if I’ve always had the extreme and undeserved luxury of an American passport.

Either way, I won’t accuse anyone of complaining about “first world problems” if their issues are serious and not just “I got the wrong drink order” or something that inconsequential. I always thought that criticism was bullshit when used as a blanket statement. Family problems, for example, exist everywhere — you can’t get away from them.

Both games took on their more serious subjects without coming off as preachy to me or laying it on too thick as well, which I always appreciate. I don’t like having my nice relaxing coffee or booze game interrupted by a sermon or a TED Talk jammed in out of nowhere, but when the points are made naturally in the course of an interesting story I’m all for it. That’s proper storytelling. Even if you can probably guess the politics of the people who made Coffee Talk (but then it may also help that I’m on board with them myself — and even then most of the serious talk here is more about personal/social matters than really political ones.)

A vampire has a serious conversation with a succubus about relationships while a fairy does her best to sit between them and not feel awkward, life in 2020 if COVID hadn’t happened. It’s important to note that Coffee Talk was released in January of 2020. Maybe the sequel can be set entirely on Teams or Discord; imagine how fucking miserable that would be.

That said, I ended up connecting with VA-11 Hall-A a little more than with Coffee Talk. Both are skillfully and thoughtfully put together, with some interesting characters and side stories, and I’d recommend either one almost completely, only with the exception that VA-11 Hall-A does get a lot more graphically into sex talk for those who aren’t as comfortable with such subjects or just don’t want to get into them in a “comfy game” like this one. There’s no Dorothy here to spice things up in that direction.

I didn’t mind that talk, however. I also preferred the setting and general feel of VA-11 Hall-A to Coffee Talk, though that’s a totally subjective matter. If I had the choice myself, I’d go to the cyberpunk dive bar tended by an embittered lady like Jill than this nighttime-only coffee shop in Seattle, though I’d be happy with either. I feel the same about the soundtrack — the music in Coffee Talk can be flipped through and played like in VA-11 Hall-A, and this soundtrack perfectly fits the setting: lo-fi beats to caffeinate to, with a lot of electric piano, always a plus for me. Again, I just slightly prefer the soundtrack to VA-11 Hall-A, but switch the soundtracks and each would totally clash with the other game’s atmosphere.

I’ve never had coffee with a churro in it, but I have to try a Spanish Sahara now. Coffee Talk introduced me to a lot of new coffee and tea drinks I’d like to try out when I get the time and freedom to do that.

Finally, I preferred Jill as the player character and protagonist of VA-11 Hall-A over the blank slate (though not silent) protagonist of Coffee Talk. This is still another totally subjective preference, since I can’t say one is better than the other or would be more effective for this sort of game. If I couldn’t have related so much to Jill’s troubles, I probably wouldn’t even be saying this, and I honestly wish I couldn’t relate to her on that level. There is more to the player character of Coffee Talk than “our friendly barista” however, which is what I thought I was for a while — I won’t spoil anything more here, though.

That’s another hint that you should check out Coffee Talk for yourself. I found it very relaxing, a nice break from my usual bullshit schedule. One playthrough only takes a few hours, so it’s not a massive time investment either like some VNs can be, though if you want to get multiple endings you’ll have to play through a few more times and make those very particular drinks at the right times to change the course of the plot.

It’s a good thing the quality of your latte art has no effect on the story. No amount of moe moe kyun can fix this.

Finally, if you do decide to go for Coffee Talk, which again I do recommend, I also recommend you check it out on itch.io instead of Steam, because fuck Valve for their still extremely inconsistent (and if you really want to be uncharitable to them, and I don’t feel like being charitable, potentially xenophobic) attitude towards Japanese VNs. Though I still have a massive backlog of games on the platform to get through if I ever can, so I can’t say I’ll be “boycotting” them or anything. I’ve bought most of my VNs there, in fact — I’ll just be doing my best to untangle myself from Steam from now on, at least until there are serious changes at Valve.

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. (Edit 10/22/22: It happened! The barrier’s been broken. Took them long enough.)

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.