Currently playing (Yakuza 0 / Atelier Ryza / NieR Replicant)

This isn’t going to become a regular feature. It’s more of a situational thing. I just happen to be stuck in the middle of some very long games right now, and so I thought I’d cover where I currently am in them along with my thoughts so far. All on the PS4, because yes I’m a console peasant with a shit PC that can only run VNs and then just barely.

These also aren’t the only games I’m playing — I have two or three shorter ones lined up that I’ll very likely get through first, but I’ll save those for their own reviews. For now, let’s start with:

Yakuza 0

I really like this game so far. But I’m still only on chapter 5, and here I’m going to talk about why.

First: the bizarre and fun side stories you can find in it. At this point, I’ve helped get a kid his video game back, broken up a cult, and taught a dominatrix how to do her job properly. Serious credit to the writers — Yakuza 0 mixes these weird, ridiculous stories with the main dramatic plot, breaking it up in a way that lightens the mood without spoiling it.

And then there are the side characters you run into around town who don’t necessarily connect to that main plot at all. The lady-crazy Mr. Libido up there is just one of the more out-there characters you can meet around the streets of Tokyo and Osaka. The two main characters Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima have their own particular ways of approaching these people, and they’re both entertaining — there’s a lot of “why the hell am I going along with this…” sort of talk from them, especially from the serious Kiryu, but in the end they are actually helpful guys despite being dangerous (ex) Yakuza types.

Finally, the minigames. I spent a lot of time in the Tokyo and Osaka mahjong parlors losing my money to these assholes. Of course, it’s not such a big deal to lose when you can step outside, get called out by a group of thugs, and then beat a few hundred thousand yen out of them to immediately recoup your losses. It’s still frustrating to get beaten at the mahjong table in the last round when you’re in the lead, though. One day I’ll get a daisangen and then quit playing this shit.

For now, though, I need to make progress in the main plot. I’ve just shifted back to Kiryu’s perspective, and he has plenty of work to do in his new position as an agent for a shady real estate developer while he continues his hunt for clues about the murder he was framed for. I’m sure some beatings will be in order soon enough.

Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout

Continuing my trek into the long ass Atelier series, I’m now in the middle of Atelier Ryza. And I’m really liking it so far. This is the newest iteration of the series, which has gone through a lot of changes over the last 12 years since it moved into its “modern era” (at least as far as I can tell, this is how fans talk about the series) with Atelier Rorona.

Hanging around the farmland near Ryza’s sleepy hometown of Rasenboden. Ryza wants to go out adventuring, but all I want to do is retire and feed the goats. I really am getting old.

Ryza features a completely new lineup of characters in a new universe distinct from all the previous ones and is quite a bit more slice-of-life and relaxed than the Atelier Dusk trilogy I reviewed earlier this year. It does have a plot about saving your hometown from a long-dormant evil lurking around, but it’s all more or less driven by the protagonist Reisalin Stout, or simply Ryza, wanting to get the hell away from her parents’ farm and her island hometown to explore new lands. She brings/drags along her friends, the warrior Lent and the nerdy mage Tao, and along the way she runs into more future friends including an alchemist who reveals the secrets of his craft to her, after which Ryza commits to learning alchemy herself.

But that’s not the only difference from the Dusk series. The old traditional turn-based combat system has also been replaced with one that combines elements of turn-based and real-time battle. As a consequence, battles in Ryza are a lot faster than in previous games, and with a stronger emphasis on identifying and exploiting enemy weaknesses. If you haven’t synthesized the right attack item for a particular boss, you’ll likely get wiped out in under a minute, but you can just as easily tip the scales in your direction by spending time in the atelier.

I don’t even know what this does.

Speaking of synthesis, Ryza would not be a proper Atelier game without a heavy emphasis on crafting items, weapons, and armor with alchemy using ingredients you can find in the field. The new alchemy system is again very different from the previous ones, but it’s pretty intuitive. I’ll go into far greater, and probably very boring, detail when I actually review this game.

And hopefully that review isn’t too far off, because I’m making good progress in Ryza. Not sure how far I am in the story, but my adventurer level is in the high 30s and my alchemist level is in the high 40s, so I’m at least pretty far along with the character development in that sense. That said, I’m currently having my ass beat by a dragon boss so I’ll have to go back to the drawing board until I can figure that fight out.

NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139…

From now on simply NieR Replicant, though that long version number does set this game apart from the original PS3 Replicant. Then again, we never got the original Replicant here in the States — instead we got NieR Gestalt, simply titled NieR (or Nier as it was written on the NA cover — still not sure about the deal with that capital R but I guess Yoko Taro has his reasons for it.)

Look, if Devola asks me this question, the answer is yes.

Anyway, I’m a bit into the second part of Replicant, and it lives up to its strong reputation so far. The soundtrack is amazing of course (I do prefer the original “Gods Bound by Rules”, but the new one is good as well) and the gameplay is fun, with plenty of special moves to learn and weapons to pick up. In terms of the mechanics, it’s not very different from its semi-sequel NieR:Automata, so at least the style didn’t take much getting used to.

One aspect of NieR Replicant I especially like is the character interaction. Automata had some great moments in this sense, especially in the friendly but tense relationship between 2B and 9S, but Replicant does even better. The setup of the story is pretty basic: you’re a young man (canonically named Nier, but you can pick any name for yourself) determined to save your deathly ill little sister Yonah. But Yonah isn’t just “sick little sister” — she has a lot more character to her and is determined to help out Nier despite his insistence that she simply rest and try to feel better.

Kainé giving Weiss a piece of her mind.

The banter between Nier and the powerful magical talking book Grimoire Weiss, who quickly becomes your ally, is also great. This ancient tome is tired of all the bullshit and just wants people to give him the respect he’s owed. He doesn’t get all that much, though, and especially not from Kainé, now one of my favorite supporting game characters.

Finally, that injury I got a while back has finally healed, so I can actually play these action games again without awkwardly not using my left thumb to manipulate the controller. Took long enough. Apparently I don’t heal nearly as quickly as I used to; probably yet another effect of getting older. What a fucking life this is.

I’ll finally kill this stupid thing.

But I’m not quite done with these preview posts yet. Next up in just a few days will be a similar one covering two currently airing anime series I’m watching. They’ll be running for quite a while, all the way through the fall season, so there’s still plenty of time to get on board and get current with them if they appeal to you. Until then.

Initial thoughts on the Activision Blizzard lawsuit, or why strict corporate culture isn’t always a bad thing

A few weeks ago, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed suit against Activision Blizzard. In its complaint (linked here in full) the state agency alleges that the corporation has instilled a culture of sexism affecting its female employees. Many examples of the alleged sexist behaviors are listed, including unequal pay for similar work and explicitly sexual comments and advances towards women in the workplace. The complaint includes specific examples, most of which are revolting on a gut level, even to the point that reader discretion might be advised.

Activision Blizzard’s Santa Monica headquarters, where many of the alleged facts of the case allegedly went down (Source: w:User:Coolcaesar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

None of this is news at the time of writing. When this story broke late last month, it was widely talked about. Sadly, there also wasn’t all that much surprise expressed over it. Activision Blizzard was already widely regarded as a shit company for its lousy business practices and general disregard for its customers, placing it in the same trash league as EA and Ubisoft. But it also seems that the allegations of internal sexism and “frat boy culture” as the California state agency puts it at Activision Blizzard weren’t such a shock either — Ubisoft and other AAA companies have had similar charges leveled against them.

I’m not going to approach this case from a legal perspective, or at least not yet, partly because I don’t know nearly enough about California employment law or the facts of the case to analyze the complaint on that level. California tends to be more protective of the rights of employees (and tenants and consumers for that matter) than other states are, and from that perspective DFEH may be able to come down harder on the company than another state’s counterpart agency would, but anything beyond that would be too much speculation at this point.*

But this time around I’m much more concerned with the allegations and their implications than with the legal aspect of the case. As far as the complaint and its alleged facts go, if even a fraction of them are true, they’re evidence of a degraded culture at Activision and at any other company that encourages or even turns a blind eye to such practices. I know there are some shitty things about the strict sort of generic “corporate culture”, but a decently professional one can discourage such disrespectful behaviors towards fellow employees and subordinates and can punish them when they occur. In theory at least, since these tools are only as effective as the people with the power to use them.

Of course, Activision has asserted that DFEH’s allegations are meritless and that it will prove so in court, and internally it’s showing some defiance towards the agency if this leaked email from the Chief Compliance Officer is any indication (also noting the different tone from the company’s now-former president.) I’m looking forward to seeing what sort of defense the company puts up assuming it actually backs these words up with actions and doesn’t just fold and settle — a common outcome even after this kind of legal smack talk. But a lot of that depends on what evidence the defendant can bring to counter the allegations made against it.

The California Supreme Court standing by to hear appeals, assuming the case gets that far.

While sexism is considered a divisive matter among the various gaming communities, said communities have perhaps never been more united as they now are against Activision. Again, this is partly due to Activision’s established reputation for putting out poor, shoddy games in recent years and for generally treating its customers like ATMs, but great anger has also been inspired by the facts alleged in DFEH’s complaint. This kind of unity among our communities is not all that common to see, either. Online debates and fights are constantly being waged over games and their contents, their depictions of different types of characters and the acts portrayed in them, and especially over those involving sex and sexual appeal.

There’s plenty of room for disagreement over the contents of the games themselves. If you’ve read this site for a while, you know where I stand on that, both in terms of games and other media. I hope there isn’t any real disagreement about this sort of criticism, though, outside of the usual suspects standing on the fringes. The right of the employee to be treated on an equal basis regardless of gender (or race, religion, orientation, etc. etc.) should not be in dispute. There may be certain gray areas where off-color jokes made in the office are concerned, but the best rule to follow is always to err on the side of caution — if you think someone in the group might be put off by what you consider a joke, don’t make it in that group.

This is not a matter of fun, lighthearted office talk being ruined by “snowflakes” but rather common sense. If someone is truly so uptight that they’d make the office a completely miserable, dull place to work, that person tends to be left out of the group anyway, at least as far as I’ve seen. (And it has to be said that the alleged “jokes” cited by DFEH’s complaint are not even really in a gray area. They’re the kinds of comments and actions that would rightfully get you fired from most other companies on the spot, or at least seriously reprimanded and subjected to rigorous “sensitivity training.”)

I haven’t even addressed the most serious allegations made in the complaint against Activision, which include a suicide following some extremely inappropriate sexual activities considering the context. I won’t dig deeper into these allegations for the reasons I’ve stated above, but I will be following the case to see where it goes from here.

For the time being, though, I will back up calls to boycott this company and its products, because there’s no other real way to make its executives and board of directors feel the pain necessary to encourage them to change. We’re their lifeblood, after all. I get that boycotts are notoriously difficult to put in place, especially for fans of established series, but it’s important to back these sentiments up with action. And if the facts in this case are still too unclear for you to act upon (since they are still alleged, though generally speaking a state agency shouldn’t bring a suit like this without some solid evidence — but the discovery process will uncover everything) I have another totally sufficient reason for everyone to shut out Activision Blizzard, one that’s completely, 100% without doubt: its avowed support for the CCP’s crushing of any semblance of Hong Kong independence, to the point that it retaliated against a Hong Kong Hearthstone player for speaking his mind on the subject in 2019.

Be like me and play a ton of Sega games instead. As far as I know, these guys haven’t (allegedly) done anything wrong. And I still need to get past Chapter 5 in Yakuza 0 too; all these damn minigames and sidequests have been distracting me.

Finally — and this is not legal advice or a specific comment on this case, but again simply common sense — if you run a company that has a legal and an HR department, it might be a good idea to make sure they’re effective and that their advice is actually heeded and put into practice. This might be biased coming from a lawyer, but you pay us for a reason, right? Not just to be window dressing?

 

* For the interested, the relevant parts of California’s anti-discrimination code can be found through following the instructions listed here, and this site provides a summary of the state’s Equal Pay Act. The full texts of both code sections are available on the state legislature’s site.

Summer cleaning game review (?) special #7: Super Radical Solitaire / ART SQOOL

It’s time for still another double feature, because I don’t have enough to say about either of these games for as full a post as I’d like. I did manage to fit them into a theme, however, so you can’t say I’m not trying here at least. This particular post also doesn’t have any proper reviews because I didn’t play enough of the games to actually review them, but said games are also weird enough for me to want to write about them, if only to relieve my annoyance. Maybe you’ll see something you like, or if you’ve played these maybe you can tell me if I’m missing something here.

Super Radical Solitaire

Remember Radical Solitaire? Developer Vector Hat has created a new version of its bizarre Klondike/Breakout hybrid, and it’s even weirder than before.

If you haven’t played the first one, the idea behind it was that you could win any game of Solitaire you started by dragging a useless card to a pile called “GET RAD”. GETTING RAD entailed playing a game of Breakout in which you attempt to hit the card behind the blocks to flip it, changing it to a hopefully useful card before your Breakout game ends. It was a novel concept, at least to me, though the presumably intentionally eye-destroying color palette gave me a headache.

Breakout, but this game calls it something else. It’s Breakout though.

Super Radical Solitaire features the same old Klondike Solitaire game, but now with two new mini-games added: a version of the extremely addictive Japanese gambling game Pachinko, and a Puzzle Bobble/Bust-a-Move clone.

The image saved as a jpg and the colors were muted; it’s actually brighter than this.

There seem to be other, secret mini-games according to the game’s itch.io page, but I didn’t play long enough to find them. Because this game is even more eye-scraping than before, with flashing bright colors (which it does warn you about in the opening screen — the photosensitive should stay far away from this game) and the addition of a screeching robot voice that reads out each new card you play and makes a few other announcements. So now it’s ear-destroying too!

In the plus column, unlike its predecessor, Super Radical Solitaire is free. So credit to these guys for not charging for this game, but I still question what the fuck they’re thinking with these design decisions. I think this game is a meme or something, but I don’t even want to guess. Try it for yourself as long as you’re not prone to seizures from flashing lights. It’s certainly unique — I can’t accuse Vector Hat of making generic-looking games at least.

ART SQOOL

And now for a game that’s very different in style but equally confusing in execution.

And also just as hard on the eyes!

This is ART SQOOL. All in caps, apparently — fair enough. The gameplay in this one consists of walking around this school’s “campus” consisting of floating, mostly disconnected platforms while collecting art supplies, including different colors of paint and tools, and then drawing something that hopefully makes your AI professor happy enough to give you a decent grade. FROSHMIN as your character is called has their damn work cut out for them, because it’s not that easy to get a good grade. Or else I’m way too shit at drawing (this is the real reason, I’m sure.)

I didn’t know what “something wiggly” might involve, so I tried a sandwich, but I didn’t really have the tools or paint for it. Mustard is my favorite condiment. I deserved an F, but the professor was too nice to fail me.

Among the many games in the itch.io bundles (ART SQOOL was featured in both the racial justice and Palestine relief ones, so you have it if you bought either) this one was talked up quite a lot. Developer Julian Glander seems to be a known quantity, because one of the reviews on the itch.io page calls ART SQOOL “characteristically Glander.” It also mentions a lot of references to other artists in the game. If you’re deep into the visual arts then you’ll probably get some of them — if I even came across them, I’m sure I didn’t recognize them myself.

I do appreciate the use of Wingdings though; we had a lot of fun fucking around with this crazy Word font when we were kids. Can anyone translate these signs?

This game also hurt my eyes because the whole damn thing is a pastel nightmare (there’s the theme I mentioned at the top — it’s “eye-destroying” this post.) But some people really seem to like it, and maybe you’d be one of them? Feels a little too “lol random” for me, but then I wouldn’t get the inside art jokes anyway, whatever they are.

ART SQOOL promises five or six hours of gameplay, so there’s probably a lot more here than I found in my approximate 45 minutes of dicking around in it. If you own either last year’s or this year’s bundle, anyway, you own this game, so try it out and either enjoy it or be utterly baffled and annoyed by it like I was. Just like Super Radical Solitaire, this game gets the “unique” stamp, but with the qualification that it’s not my kind of unique.

That’s all for now. Next time in this series, I’ll look at something better suited to my uncultured dumb ass. Until then!

 

Summer cleaning game review special #6: Baba Is You

Yes! Summer is back, the worst of all the seasons, and even worse this year because of the heat wave we’re going through. So I thought I’d drag this post series back out as well. It’s especially relevant since just like last summer, I’ve picked up a new massive batch of over a thousand games from itch.io in a bundle, so now I have — well, a lot. There’s some overlap between the two, so I’m not sure how many are in both together, but certainly more than I can ever play in my life.

In this resurrected post series, I’ll again be covering smaller games that I don’t have as much to say about as I would in a typical review. I can use the break from the massive epics I’m working through anyway. Atelier really took it out of me last spring, and I need to gather my energy again.

So why not start with a game everyone’s already heard of? As usual, I’m late to the party, but for those in the same situation, here’s the puzzle game Baba Is You.

This game was released in 2019, when I first started hearing a lot about it but for whatever reason never bothered checking it out. But I should have, because it’s pretty damn close to the perfect sort of puzzle game: easy to learn but hard to master, and one that either lets you or forces you (depending on your mindset) to use unorthodox solutions. The object of each stage in Baba Is You is to reach the goal, which is initially marked by a flag, and your player character is Baba, the white rabbit-looking creature seen above.

But not always. All that can change, because in many cases the player has the power to alter the rules of a stage by moving the text blocks that create said rules. So Baba is you, except when it isn’t. Maybe something else can be you. Or maybe the flag doesn’t have to be the goal — maybe it can be something else entirely. Is a wall or some other obvious obstacle stopping you from proceeding? Maybe you can get around it — or maybe you can change the rules to break straight through that wall.

Is this the solution to this stage? I guess not.

Baba Is You encourages you to try all kinds of stuff that might seem fruitless or even silly at first — if it doesn’t work or results in failure, hitting the z key lets you rewind your actions step by step. And in some cases, an action that might seem silly or unthinkable can be exactly the solution you were looking for.

This game reminds me of nothing so much as the logic game section of the LSAT, the standardized exam that American and Canadian law schools require all applicants to take. I had to take that bullshit exam three times before I got a score I was halfway satisfied with, and those logic games were the bane of my fucking existence for months.* These games were essentially very complex word problems that operated according to logic rules, most of which you’re required to piece together yourself. Here’ are a few good examples of such games. You can see if you play with some of the rules in these problems how the different elements in it can change. The exam does this in some of the questions under each problem, forcing you to quickly factor in those rule changes to find their solutions.

I think this is where I discovered the connection in my head

While the LSAT is a hateful, miserable exam, however, Baba Is You is a fun puzzle game. Probably because it doesn’t impose a time limit upon you or grade you on a curve, and certainly because being bad at it or taking a while to solve its problems doesn’t subject you to shame among your peers and anxiety about your career prospects (unless your desired future career is as a speedrunner, maybe.) But it operates on similar principles, like understanding what rules can and can’t be changed, how multiple rules fit together to create other rules that aren’t obvious at first, and how changeable rules can be broken up or added to. Not every idea is going to work — most of mine were failures, but that’s part of the fun. Even discovering some of the bizarre ways in which you can fail these stages is interesting.

So this one comes highly recommended. Try out Baba Is You for some good brain exercise, because we can all use it.

 

* Of course, now the Law School Admissions Council is getting rid of that section, only after so many of us had to suffer through it. I support that decision, but couldn’t they have made it sooner, preferably before I took the god damn test? Thanks for nothing, assholes.

A review of Highway Blossoms: Remastered (PC)

It’s back to the visual novels. And it’s also back to the itch.io bundle, and specifically last year’s racial justice donation bundle, not to be confused with the recently ended Palestine relief one I talked up last post (which I will be getting to in turn, because there are a few interesting games in there as well. Also thanks to itch.io for that bundle again and to everyone for putting up over 900K for a great cause.)

But for now, here’s the 2016 kinetic novel Highway Blossoms, which I just got around to reading after a year of owning it. This is specifically the recently released remastered version, which adds in voice acting and probably a few other features I didn’t notice because I didn’t play the original. I’m not sure if the old version is even around for sale anymore, but it seems this is the definitive version anyway. (And some story spoilers, since this being a kinetic novel, there’s not much to talk about other than characters and story. But that might not be such an issue either way.)

Yeah I played in windowed mode, I admit it

Highway Blossoms tells the story of Amber (above, left), a young woman driving down a highway in the American Southwest in the RV she inherited from her recently deceased grandfather. As our protagonist drives along, she comes across a hitchhiker standing next to her car on the side of the highway, and against her better judgment she stops to help out. Said hitchhiker is Marina (right), another young woman looking for a lift from a stranger. Which is also against all good judgment and common sense, as Amber herself says — but we’ll soon learn that Marina is a bit lacking in the common sense department.

Amber decides to bring Marina along, afraid of what might happen to her if some seedy weirdo comes across her instead. And so their adventure brings, and also their romance, because Highway Blossoms is a yuri (i.e. lesbian) romance VN and this is our couple. That’s not really a spoiler, either: the game bills itself in exactly that way, and its promotional art makes it very obvious that these two will get together, so I don’t feel like dropping that fact here is a big deal when it says all this stuff on the cover basically.

Amber likes black coffee, Marina likes milkshakes. With this odd couple character dynamic plus the yuri tag on the game, you can see it coming from miles away.

There’s another major aspect to Highway Blossoms aside from the yuri romance, and that’s the travel guide one. This game takes place entirely in the American Southwest region, starting in New Mexico, running through Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, and ending in inland California. What starts as a simple lift turns into an extended trip through an entire quarter of the United States when Amber learns that Marina is out on her own searching for a legendary treasure of gold scattered and buried in parts by a 19th century prospector with clues left about their hiding places.

Amber is a naturally skeptical type, and the fact that this prospector’s journal is being sold at gas stations and corner stores all over the place and has sparked a new “gold rush” to find his treasure cements her opinion that it’s all a scam. However, Marina seems dead set on finding these stashes of gold, so Amber unaccountably (even to her, at least at first) agrees to help her.

It also helps that Amber has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Southwest and the ability to decipher vague hints based on its geography despite still only being 19. Not that a 19 year-old can’t be that smart, but I feel like life length/experience should factor in a bit more, especially when so many people are on the hunt.

This gold rush is the excuse for Amber and Marina’s tour through this part of the country, and we get to visit some big natural landmarks along with them, like Shiprock and Arches National Park, places where the prospector hints that his treasure was buried. And of course, a rivalry develops between Amber and Marina on one side and a team of treasure hunters they keep running into on the other, spurring them on to try to find the gold before the other group cleans them out.

The rivalry is really between Amber and this constantly half-naked lady Mariah; anime hair man and Mariah’s little sister who are along for the ride are actually pretty nice. And nice crack on ska there. Why the hate for ska anyway? It’s not that bad.

Finally, between these points, we get a nice dose of what people call “Americana”1 — it’s a term I always found strange, since it only seems to refer to a narrow slice of what life in America is like, but here we’re talking about country/western folk sort of music, 24-hour roadside diners serving heart attack food, and weird man-made tourist attractions like the tallest thermometer in the world. All the stuff you find on Route 66, even though that famous US highway isn’t mentioned at all in Highway Blossoms unless I missed something. But since Amber and Marina are bouncing between different states constantly, it makes sense that they’d have to go off the beaten path a bit more.

I forget exactly what this spot was, but it must be another important natural landmark.

Before going into what I liked and didn’t like about Highway Blossoms, I want to acknowledge something that I very probably got wrong last year when I wrote about visual novels here in the West — they seem to be more popular here than I gave them credit for. I was thinking more about mainstream popularity then, which I feel VNs still don’t really have here, but my perspective was too narrow to see other niches this medium has gotten into, especially with all the otome games out there.

Original English-language visual novels (OELVNs as they’re commonly called) still look like a niche thing to me, but I might still be out of touch in that area — Highway Blossoms is only the third one I’ve played in my life after Doki Doki Literature Club two years ago and Katawa Shoujo (or part of it anyway)2 last year. But it also feels like a first for me in the sense that it’s an entirely American VN with regard to its setting and characters. I also get the impression that the writers at the indie developer Studio Élan are American, or at least that they’ve been around the Southwest and are very familiar with the cultures down there.

There’s still a lot of very obvious influence from Japanese VNs in certain aspects like the character design (which I’m naturally not complaining about — I am still a damn weeb after all, and Amber and Marina and a few of the game’s other characters look pretty fine) but this is otherwise very much an American work, and as an American who’s somewhat into the visual novel medium, that’s nice to see.

In general, Highway Blossoms feels pretty polished, with full voice-acting, original music that mostly fits that Southwest country/western folkish feel, and some pretty nice CGs. Including a few in its 18+ scenes near the end of the story — the base game is all-ages, but there’s an 18+ patch you can download and apply from the Steam page, even if you got Highway Blossoms through itch.io like I did. It only adds maybe ten minutes to this ~5-6 hour game, but to the publisher’s credit, the patch is free.

The only real complaint I have with the game’s presentation is that the otherwise nice-looking character portraits looked a bit crusty in their outlines when set against the backgrounds, but then maybe it was an issue on my end somehow. I don’t know enough about the technical aspects of putting a VN together to say. It’s not a big annoyance for me either way, but just something I noticed.

Now for the writing, which is certainly the most important aspect of this game considering that there’s no gameplay here to speak of. And this is where I have a few more substantive criticisms to make, one of which has to do with the central relationship between Amber and Marina.

If you’ve read or played or watched any similar romances, it’s not much of a surprise: Amber is the serious one, somewhat bitter for her age and carrying around an emotional burden she’s trying to deal with (the recent death of her grandfather, the one who raised her in place of her deadbeat parents and the only person in her life she really cared for) and Marina is the free spirit she comes across by chance, the one who shows her a new way to think about life and who helps her resolve that emotional burden. The road is a bit bumpy; there are a few arguments and one big fight near the end between them, but the two are finally able to come together and realize and express their love for each other. There’s a happy ending as the pair set aside uncertainties over their futures for the moment and embrace their love.

I’m not saying the above is even that unrealistic, but it does feel like a tired sort of story. Maybe I’m just a bitter fuck, but believe it or not, I actually can appreciate a good romance if it gives me something new and fresh to enjoy, and this doesn’t really. For all her impulsiveness and spontaneity, Marina might even be put in that dreaded “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” category that film critics created in the mid-2000s to describe such free spirits. See the 2004 film Garden State for a good example of that character type: the free spirit in this case being Natalie Portman, who pulls depressed guy and writer/director Zach Braff out of a slump with similar results.3

To be fair, though, I think Highway Blossoms avoids falling into that old trope too much, because Marina does have a backstory and a personality beyond “cute girl who loves life and doesn’t let things bother her etc.” She’s not nearly as out to lunch as a few of the other characters I’ve seen stuck into that category either — Marina’s actions seem to make sense to her, at least, without just coming from a place of pure whimsy or whatever the hell nonsense those other movies were trying to pull. The “Marina’s thoughts” feature helps a bit there — throughout the game, we hear Amber’s thoughts, but certain objects the pair collect are catalogued in a separate menu with Marina’s thoughts on them in the attached notes. It’s clear that though she does lack some common sense, Marina doesn’t deserve to be called a simple airhead. Even if she does a couple of profoundly stupid things in the course of the story that Amber ends up having to fix.

I found the romance a bit dull, but at least sort of believable.

The bigger problem is that as a kinetic novel without any player choice or interaction, the story is all Highway Blossoms has beyond its nice art and music, and there’s not much there for me to enjoy. The romance is nice enough, but nothing more, and all the treasure hunt and travel stuff feels like a reason for the romance to take place more than anything. Again, maybe I really am just an embittered type too far beyond that point of life to appreciate the game’s messages. Maybe this game simply wasn’t meant for me — the main characters in it are 19 and 18, both with their whole lives ahead of them, and while I was once like that, I’m now a professional chained to my desk with no real personal goals beyond “get a few hours of total escapism a day to put up with this shit”, all of which is entirely my fault.

So I’ll go for a complete, shameless cop-out and give the typical lawyer’s answer to the question of whether Highway Blossoms is a good visual novel: “it depends.”4 I feel now like I did when I was looking at Blend S, in fact, only instead of the feeling being “this is for me but might not be for you”, it’s “this isn’t for me but might be for you.” If all of the above really appeals to you, or if you’re the type who melts at romance, you might want to check the game out. I liked Highway Blossoms a hell of a lot better than I did Garden State, at least, if that gives you any point of reference. If it doesn’t, I’ll just say that while I didn’t exactly dislike this game, it did fall flat a bit for me.

Okay, not this part, though. There’s something about that “one character has to wear another’s clothes” thing, especially when the two are still just romantic interests. I don’t know. I’m not the only one, right?

Maybe Highway Blossoms does have some value as a Southwest travel guide, though. I’ve never been to that part of the country before, so I can’t say how well it captures the region and its natural beauty, cultures, and all that. But if it does so sufficiently, some of the states it features might consider officially adopting it as a tool to drive tourism — Japanese VNs do this sort of thing often enough, with Our World Is Ended for example set in Asakusa and even talking up particular restaurants.

Something to think about, at least. Though I don’t know how Utah would feel about using a lesbian-themed visual novel to promote itself. Maybe about as good as they would using a lesbian-themed visual novel to teach their schoolchildren Esperanto. There really are a lot of great potential uses to VNs, aren’t there? 𒀭

 

1 Of course, there’s also apple pie and baseball, as seen in this photo I found under “Americana” taken by someone at the USDA Agricultural Research Department. Those are somewhat more widespread in the US, but I’d say still partly outdated as a representation of what America is considering how far baseball has fallen against other sports like basketball, football, and NASCAR (and even soccer, which has been steadily rising in popularity here recently.)

Apple pie is still good, though. I’m more of a cake guy myself but I can appreciate it.

2 I have a load of very old notes on Katawa Shoujo and I still might write something about it here. The trouble is I don’t know if I should write about it if I’ve only gotten through two of its five routes, but then again it is a proper 30+ hour visual novel with branching decision paths and bad ends and all that. Maybe I’ll just finish the damn thing finally, since I’ve thoroughly liked what I’ve played of it so far (there’s your preliminary review of it at least.) In any case, there are more visual novel reviews to come as I plow through what I still have in my massive backlog.

3 I don’t remember their characters’ names, but these two were quite big back at the time: Braff was one of the main guys in the TV comedy Scrubs, and Portman was in quite a few other movies throughout the 90s/2000s, including the first run of bad Star Wars films. The only movies I saw Portman in that I actually liked were Heat and The Professional, the latter of which admittedly had some very weird vibes that may have been explained recently by what’s come out about director Luc Besson. I don’t know how well it holds up, but Jean Reno and Gary Oldman are both always good. But then there are those weird vibes again, so I don’t know. Maybe it’s worth a re-watch?

4 I don’t mean to say here that it always depends — I absolutely don’t subscribe to the view that the quality of all art is a subjective matter. I just feel this is one of those cases where the problem might be partly with where I am more than with the work itself.

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster (PS4): First impressions

In what may be the least surprising development in the history of this site, I decided to write a first impressions post about Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster (which I’ll be referring to as Nocturne HD from now on because that’s too damn long to type.) Nocturne has long been one of my favorite games, and I speculated not one year ago that it was a natural choice for a PC port following the success of Persona 4 Golden on Steam. And look: now we have it on Steam in remastered form, along with Switch and PS4 versions.

So far, I’ve played about ten hours of Nocturne HD, up to what I’d consider near the end of the early game (if you’ve played the original: beating you-know-who, getting into the Labyrinth of Amala, and reaching Ikebukuro) and I think I have a pretty good idea of the remaster at this point. I can only address the PS4 version, since that’s the one I’ve got, but hopefully this rundown should give you a feel for the game and whether you might want to consider getting it. And if this post doesn’t achieve that, at least it will have succeeded in entertaining me for a while.

First of all, what’s Nocturne about? If you haven’t played this game yet, you’re in for a good time. You play as a silent protagonist high school student who meets his asshole friends at a hospital to visit your teacher Yuko Takao. However, it turns out that Yuko is part of a scheme headed by a cult leader to remake the world according to his own ideals by carrying out an arcane ritual that quite literally turns Tokyo inside out, forming it into an inverted spherical world (now called the Vortex World) and killing everyone outside of the hospital.

I’m still not sure what happened to everything outside of Tokyo, but since we’re cut off from the rest of the world at this point, it hardly matters anyway. Just before it all ends, Yuko says that she’s on your side despite everything and asks you to survive and find her in this new world.

This ruined Tokyo is filled with demons, many of whom are ready to cut you to shreds. Luckily (?) just after the world goes through this rebirth, a mysterious boy and an old woman shove a parasitic worm into your body that turns you into a demon yourself, giving you the power both to fight and to talk with other demons. As the “Demi-fiend”, you still have your human intellect and your old personality, at least for now, but it’s up to you to figure out what the hell is going on and what part you’re going to play in the struggles for dominance you come across.

There’s a lot more to the story, but I’ll leave that for later. If you really want to get spoiled on more of that, I wrote a bit about Nocturne and its plot here, where I probably misunderstood a few aspects of the lore behind the game. But this post is meant to address what I’ve come across in the HD remaster so far, so that’s what I’ll do.

Yeah, thanks Pixie.

Maybe this is a predictable or underwhelming statement to make, but here it is anyway: playing Nocturne HD feels a lot like playing Nocturne. Which is exactly how it should feel, so that’s not an insult at all. The game certainly looks nicer, though I have heard people complain that the textures are still low-quality, which yeah, some of them are. I don’t care myself, and I’m not sure about the technical aspects of remasters like this, so I won’t comment on that. Nocturne still looks like Nocturne, anyway, and that’s enough for me. I’ve always liked that cel-shaded style.

Fusing a Jack Frost — each demon, including Demi-fiend, has eight slots available to equip with physical, magic, and supportive skills.

This is probably a standard thing when it comes to remasters, but your experience with Nocturne HD is certainly going to be different based on whether you’ve played the original. See above for one important example. Being able to choose the skills you inherit when fusing demons might not seem like a big deal, but in the original Nocturne, you didn’t have this option — the game chose your inherited skills for you. Fortunately, you weren’t stuck with what it gave you; leaving the demon fusion screen and re-selecting your second fused demon acted as a re-roll, giving you a new set of inherited skills.

The drawback to this setup was that you sometimes had to go through this re-rolling process dozens, potentially even hundreds, of times to get the exact arrangement of skills you wanted on a demon. This was made all the more frustrating by the fact that some skills were more likely to be selected by the game than others — a skill that didn’t fit with a demon’s general affinity was hard to get on said demon, like say Hama (a light-based instant death spell) on a Lilim, so if you wanted an especially weird setup of skills like I sometimes did, you might have to put yourself through this hell for 15 or 20 minutes. But no longer! This is a massive quality of life improvement as they say, though one you’ll only truly feel if you’ve already suffered through that old re-rolling ritual.

A Chakra Drop? Do you know how valuable those MP restoratives are? You’re not worth that and you know it.

Some aspects of Nocturne will always be frustrating, though, and just as they should be. The demon negotiation system is just as annoying and seemingly arbitrary as ever. I actually like that it’s made this way, since it fits with the theme of the new chaotic Tokyo and the demonic cultures that have taken it over. But that doesn’t mean I still don’t want to throw my fucking controller when Angel takes 800 macca and a Chakra Drop from me when I try to recruit her into my party, only to call me a “bore” and then leave.

Or when a demon asks me a question with a seemingly completely random “correct” answer. I don’t know if people far smarter or more obsessive than me have mapped all this out; I’m just going by my own gameplay experience — and the negotiation mechanic in Nocturne HD doesn’t seem to be any different so far from the original. Of course, I still enjoy it, despite or even because of this frustrating randomness. Maybe I just like being punished.

Also just as before, some demons won’t join you through negotiation, like the elements you can only find in this one extremely irritating dungeon. Even having Pixie talk to this Erthys instead makes no difference in this case. Some demons have specialized talk skills that give them bonuses in certain situations or with certain demons, but these skills all take up valuable space that can be used for better skills, while Demi-fiend’s talk ability is built in and doesn’t occupy one of his eight skill slots. Though you can get some pretty funny conversations between certain demons depending on their relationships in folklore and myth. Try it out if you have a slot free!

Battles are also just as nerve-wracking as ever. I haven’t yet seen that game over screen, but I’ve gotten extremely close, and I’m sure I will eventually (it is a really nice one, so I’m almost tempted to let Demi-fiend get killed on purpose right after a save just so I can see how it translated into HD.) If you’re new to the game, you might be surprised by how quickly a battle can turn against you if you’re not prepared for it with effective skills or if you’re weak to the enemies’ skills — even a normal random encounter can kill you, though this is thankfully pretty rare as long as you keep a healer and a good mix of demons in your party to swap out as needed.

Another difficult aspect of the gameplay in Nocturne that hasn’t changed with the HD release is the extremely high encounter rate. Or rather, it can feel extremely high because of how variable it is. The colored diamond at the lower right of the screen while you run around dungeon areas (and even most town areas, because yes, you get attacked there too) turns to orange and then red indicating the likelihood of the next encounter coming up. But there have been times when I’ve gone quite a long way without hitting another battle and times when I’ve literally gone a few steps before the next one. And those “I just walked a few steps and then what the hell???” moments are the ones you remember.

Paired with the long dungeons and the constant threat of being one-shot by a demon who hits Demi-fiend with a lucky insta-death spell, this can be annoying. Especially so since, if Demi-fiend dies, it’s a game over, even if the rest of your party is still alive. I guess his demon friends consider their contract broken once he’s dead, even if they happen to have revival skills. Thanks a lot, assholes. But even then, they’re still better friends to Demi-fiend than his old human ones.

Fortunately, there is a partial way to deal with the constant battles: if you talk to a demon of the same kind as one in your party (even in your inactive stock) in most cases they’ll acknowledge that and leave battle.

All this considered, it’s a good thing that the suspend save feature was added to Nocturne HD. It’s not quite a quick-save, but it does let you make a temporary save and quit the game in case you have to do something else (or in case a lightning storm has suddenly rolled in and might fry your PS4 because your fucking power strip is a worthless piece of trash.) This is something I’m grateful for. I only plan to use it for these kinds of emergencies, since I never found the spacing between save points in Nocturne too unreasonable, but then I do remember getting killed and losing an hour of progress before just like all of us have.

The overworld map in Vortex World Tokyo. Don’t cross this bridge early on if you value your life or unless you’re a big risk-taker.

There are a couple of major criticisms of Nocturne HD I’ve seen going around that I don’t want to dismiss. One is the fact that it’s capped at 30 fps. This pissed off a lot of people. I don’t care myself about the game being capped at 30 fps; it looks fine to me, but I’m not going to try to tell other players what aspects of their games they are and aren’t allowed to care about like some certain tiresome professional reviewers and journalists do. So if you really hate that 30 fps cap, you might not want to get Nocturne HD. Or maybe wait in hopes that the cap will be removed, like I’ve seen some speculation about. Again, I don’t know the mechanics behind any of this.

I can comment a bit more on the other criticism I’ve seen of the game, which has more to do with Atlus than with the game itself. Last year, I expressed the hope that we’d get the Chronicle Edition of Nocturne ported. This was the limited Japan-only release that had Raidou Kuzunoha, the Taisho-era demon summoner who starred in two of his own MegaTen games on the PS2. Amazingly, that’s exactly what we got. So I was very happy about that, but I wasn’t so happy to see that the original NA version of Nocturne featuring Dante from the Devil May Cry series was locked behind a paid DLC. Maybe that was necessary to cover the expense of adding in this new mode. I have no idea.

But again, I can’t tell anyone that they’d be wrong for being upset about it, especially since that Dante version is the one American players grew up with. Atlus has also gotten into the habit of adding a lot of paid DLC to its games lately, though I guess if people buy it, they’ll just keep adding it.

Is he right? That’s up to you to decide.

None of that is nearly enough to sour me on Nocturne HD, however. I’ve been having a great time reliving this classic, and I fully intend to go all the way with the true ending this run through. In the meantime, I’ll see you again probably not before next weekend — work has been insane as usual, so the regular end-of-month post may be a few days late. More time to listen to some suitable music to talk about, anyway. Until then!

A review of Sagebrush (PC)

I’m generally not a fan of environmental narrative games. These are also known as “walking simulators”, a term that’s meant as a bit of an insult, though one that’s stuck for good reason. Considering how I’ve felt about those I’ve already played, I wouldn’t normally have gone for a game like Sagebrush. However, it was included in that 1,000+ game itch.io bundle from last year that I’ve still barely made a dent in, and lately I’ve felt like giving a chance to something I typically wouldn’t. Open my mind to new possibilities and all that, which is something I usually don’t have an easy time doing.

Well, I’ll just say it straight out — Sagebrush didn’t change how I feel about this genre. Released in 2018 for PC and later ported to the Xbox, Switch, and PS4, this game received quite a lot of praise from reviewers and players, but I found it frustrating, all the more so because the story it tries to tell seems like it would be an interesting one if it were told as it happened. But as is so often the case with these kinds of games, we only get to see the aftermath of that story. Sagebrush does try to justify that with its ending twist, but it still doesn’t work so well for me, partly because the twist itself didn’t work for me either.

Note: I will be spoiling the hell out of this one, so if you don’t want to proceed further, here’s my bottom line: I didn’t like Sagebrush, but its story and characters have potential, and if you like these sorts of environmental narratives I can see how you’d enjoy it. But I didn’t. Now on to the horrifying details, because this isn’t a pleasant story in the slightest.

Good time to turn back if you’re not up to it, and I wouldn’t blame you.

In Sagebrush, you play as an initially unidentified protagonist visiting an old abandoned cult compound, the scene of a mass suicide. The player isn’t let in on why we’re here at first or even about who we are, but we at least know our objective is to explore this abandoned compound and put together what exactly happened here — or rather how it happened, since the game tells us the conclusion of this story at its beginning.

The player is therefore required to piece this story together by working back from the end and seeing how it happened. Sagebrush leaves a lot of clues around for the player to do just this, with plenty of notes, pamphlets, and journals to read along with more physical and visual forms of evidence, all having to do with the head of the cult, a preacher referred to as Father James Israel, and his followers.

Hey, this Father James guy sounds great! I’m sure he had nothing to do with the tragedy we learned about right after the title screen.

The compound is divided into several distinct areas, most of which are initially locked off and have to be accessed with keys and sometimes with other tools you’ll come across during your explorations. This allows the story to build gradually, showing more and more of the true horror behind this Perfect Heaven cult. What first seems to be a strange but perhaps harmless group of ascetics (starting with a few notes in the community hall, including a meal schedule with “fasting” listed two out of seven days) turns out to include a “cleansing” practice involving self-harm and self-mutilation as penance for sin and an “alternative cleansing” method in private with this Father James, which just happens to only involve certain young women in the cult. The inclusion of a schoolhouse and references to children at the compound makes the situation all the more horrific.

The rectory, where Father James lives and commits some of his more despicable deeds.

No one who’s looked into the history of cults will be surprised by any of this. Developer Nathaniel Berens took inspiration from real-world cults, some of the more likely examples being the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas that ended in a deadly standoff with federal authorities, the California-based Heaven’s Gate that ended in mass suicide, and the FLDS polygamist Mormon sect that still hasn’t ended despite its leader being imprisoned for sex crimes. However, the marks of a cult, and especially of this sort of millennial religious cult — fanaticism, militancy, and unquestioning devotion to a leader who claims he has special powers or speaks with God — can be found throughout history. The earliest example I know much about is the 16th century Anabaptist commune that briefly took over the German city of Münster (even if the link wasn’t intentional, Father James surely has some Jan van Leiden in him, especially with his more sexually oriented “revelations”) but there are certainly even older examples.

All this could make for a compelling story, and I had the feeling from reading all the correspondence and journals in the game that the cult featured in Sagebrush might have been a great subject for a game. However, the usual problems of these environmental narrative games show up yet again here. We only see the remains of the story, its characters and conflicts, through the written and physical evidence left sitting around the ranch. These do fill out the story and suggest what some of the characters are like and how they related to each other and especially to the false prophet James, who is about as big of a shithead as you might imagine and maybe even bigger, considering what you find in his journal near the end of the game.

Do not trust a man who hangs multiple portraits of himself in his own house, especially when he puts them right next to religious imagery

But again, I would have liked to see this all play out in real time. That’s always one of the problems I have with these games. Clearly there are people who enjoy this sort of forensic style of gameplay, but I’m not one of them. I have seen Sagebrush described as having a puzzle element along with the exploration one, but the puzzles in this game are the most basic “go to location x and find item y to open door z” sort of stuff you could ever imagine, to the point that I don’t even think you can call them puzzles at all. It’s not all just finding keys to unlock doors to find new keys, but it’s close enough that there’s no real challenge involved.

So all that’s left is the story, which is again told well after it’s happened. And the way it’s told feels a bit cheap. Initially, the player has no idea who the protagonist is or why they’re exploring this cult compound. Near the end of the game, however, it’s revealed that the protagonist is Lilian, one of the former cult members and the only survivor of the mass suicide by fire that puts an end to the cult. After coming to her senses and escaping the flames into a bunker built by Father James to ride out a police/military standoff, Lilian returned to her family and to society. But it’s implied her time at the compound was so traumatic that she’s repressed many or all of these memories, which return to her in the course of her explorations.

I still only vaguely remember who this Athanasius guy was or why he was important from a classics class I took years ago at college. Maybe the reference is relevant to the story? I have no idea.

I know nothing about psychology, so I can’t say anything about how realistic or unrealistic any of that is. However, hiding Lilian’s identity from the player up until that point feels pretty damn cheap. She hasn’t forgotten who she is, after all, and by the end of the game it’s revealed that she came back to the compound specifically to come to terms with what happened there and with her role in it. You’d think we would at least get some kind of internal monologue when we find Lilian’s living space in the trailer park set up to house the cult members, but we don’t. We only clearly enter Lilian’s mind near the very end of the game, when we get a cryptic message about “facing your past” just before entering the chapel, the final area of the game.

The only other clue before this point that the protagonist is Lilian is the old-fashioned tape deck that keeps showing up in various places. These act as save points, but they also play recorded monologues that turn out to mostly be Lilian’s recollections. My read on it is that these tape decks don’t actually exist at the compound but are just representations of Lilian’s thoughts — or it would be if there weren’t also a tape deck in the middle of the game that plays a monologue by Father James. Maybe this is supposed to be Lilian recalling what James told her, since it does take place at the site of one of his creepy as hell sex pervert “alternative cleansings” that it’s implied she took part in. But this also kind of breaks the rule the game set about the tape decks being Lilian’s thoughts alone, assuming it set that rule at all and I didn’t just imagine it in an effort to make sense of it.*

A few of these descriptions might also contain hints, but I might have missed some.

In any case, none of that changes the fact that the game does pull a surprise reveal about the protagonist being Lilian, despite this separation between the player and protagonist not really working. That kind of separation can actually work — I’d give examples but it would naturally spoil those games’ endings somewhat, so I won’t. Some ambiguity like this in a story can be extremely effective if it’s done right. However, I think it’s very difficult to pull off well, and in the case of Sagebrush it simply feels like the game is hiding the ball. Again, maybe it’s just me being dumb or not picking up on something extra-obvious (and if so please let me know what you saw that I didn’t) but I don’t appreciate this approach.

I wish I could be more generous to this game, because I like the basic story it sets up, and I think Mr. Berens treated his extremely sensitive subject with a lot of respect, but as far as I’m concerned it really is just another walking simulator in the end. If you’re into this sort of game, you might like it. Sagebrush has some atmosphere to it and it does deal with some heavy issues, and I can see a cult survivor or someone close to one connecting with and getting something out of the game.

I leave all the theological questions to others, but you don’t need to know much about that to recognize fanaticism when you see it. Stay alert.

But I don’t know. Aside from the narrative issues I brought up, I just like to have more game in my game than I got here. Maybe that makes me a hypocrite, since I’ve highly praised stuff like Yume Nikki that’s also essentially a lot of walking around and exploration, but surreal dreamscape games like that are so interesting and weird that I’m willing to give them a break. Sagebrush gets no such break. At least it only takes a couple of hours to get through, so not too much of a time commitment if you plan to try it out.

So no, my return to this itch.io bundle didn’t start so hot, but I will be going back to it for a few more interesting-looking games. Among those I have lined up to play are a visual novel about two girls driving around a desert, a weird-looking meta RPGMaker-style game recommended by Frostilyte, and a few others I might pick out if they’re lucky (or not lucky?) But hopefully it is all good stuff that I can use to break up the bigger games I have going right now. Until next time.

 

* It’s also possible that the whole thing occurs not in real life but in Lilian’s mind, and the entire game is just her sorting through and coping with her own memories. A real-life cult compound and site of a mass suicide like this wouldn’t just have all that evidence left lying around by authorities, after all. Or maybe I’m overthinking it? See, I really don’t mind some narrative weirdness, but the rules set have to be consistent, otherwise it’s just frustrating.

A review of Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea (PS4)

This is a road I didn’t plan on taking over the last few months, but sometimes things just happen without your planning for it. And so I’m here reviewing my third Atelier game in a row, the DX PS4 edition of Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea, and the final game in the Atelier Dusk trilogy. While Shallie bears some resemblance to the first two entries Atelier Ayesha and Atelier Escha & Logy, it also represents a major shift in the series through its removal of a standard gameplay element established by those games and by the previous Arland trilogy. My feelings about this game are also a little mixed, though still favorable on balance — I haven’t played a bad or even middling Atelier game yet, but I think the situation with Shallie is a little more complicated than with any of the others I’ve played so far.

Starting a few years after the end of Escha & Logy, Shallie moves us to still another part of the world, this time one that’s pretty well and truly fucked. The vast Dusk Sea is a massive desert with a few settlements clinging to its edges around the few remaining sources of clean water. The people of Lugion, one of these villages, are anxious about their now dangerously low supply of water. And so Shallistera, also known as Shallie, an alchemist in training and the daughter and planned successor of the chief of Lugion, sets out with two trusted men of the village on a ship (yeah, the ships in this world can sail on sand; I don’t think it’s explained really but no big deal) to the one place that might have a solution to their problem: the oasis city of Stellard.

Shallie might technically be a princess, but much like Meruru she doesn’t have an ego about it.

And Stellard is where we meet our other protagonist: Shallotte Elminus, also coincidentally an alchemist in training nicknamed Shallie. Shallotte is a native of Stellard, doing her best to help her mother manage things by synthesizing goods and taking any jobs she can at the city’s Cooperative Union. These jobs mainly consist of picking trash up off of the streets so far, since she doesn’t yet have the recognition she wants from the Union or its president Raoul, but Shallotte is still ambitious and wants to make a name for herself as an adventuring alchemist. Or something like that.

Your endless optimism is killing me, Shallie, please stop.

Of course, fate brings these two girls together soon enough. On her way to Stellard, Shallistera’s ship is chased by a massive dragon, and while sailing full speed to escape it loses control and rams into Stellard’s harbor, causing serious damage. Thankfully, the local authorities and populace don’t really blame Shallistera and her party for this since they know about the dragons lurking around the sea, but it’s still an awkward introduction to Stellard considering they’ve come seeking aid.

So in order to gain the trust of the city, Shallistera agrees to help with their problems. It turns out that despite its reputation as a city of water, even Stellard is drying up, and threats like the dragon lurking around the Dusk Sea in their area aren’t helping matters. And in the course of her work using alchemy to help Stellard, Shallistera meets fellow young alchemist Shallotte. The pair quickly bond over the unlikely coincidence of their shared nickname and profession and agree to join forces to bring water back to the land and help everyone, both in Stellard and back in Lugion.

It’s here that the story really gets going. In this final game of the Dusk trilogy, your object is quite literally to try to save the world, since without any water sources everyone will obviously die sooner or later. All our characters are aware of the urgency of the situation, and while there still seems to be plenty of water flowing in Stellard at the moment (enough that there’s a “Water Festival” event with all the girls in swimsuits late in the game supposedly meant to honor the Lord of Water or something, which hell, you won’t hear me complaining about that even so) things are absolutely dire at this point, even more so than in Escha & Logy, which dealt directly with the world’s declining environment.

Despite that urgency, Atelier Shallie is the first game out of the modern set of Atelier titles, starting with the original Rorona in 2009, that eliminates the series’ time management element. It’s no longer necessary to keep track of any calendars or clocks while in the field or the atelier — you can now do whatever the hell you want without worrying about running out of time and getting a bad end. While I got more or less used to the time management in these games, especially in its more lenient form in Escha & Logy, it was nice to be free from the calendar for once.

As far as I’m aware, Shallie also marked the end of time management in Atelier as a whole, aside from one deadline in the later PS4 entry Atelier Firis that I hear is so easy to meet it’s barely worth mentioning. I don’t know how long-time series fans feel about all this, but though I can appreciate some things about it as I wrote in my Ayesha review, I ultimately don’t mind seeing this aspect of the games go. Even if Shallie has a plot that would have made a time limit very easy to justify.

I wonder if there are any parallels we can draw between this world and our own? No, probably not.

Unlike the other games in the trilogy, then, Shallie is broken not into months and years but chapters, ten in total. After choosing which Shallie you want to play as, the first chapter begins, starting with some plot advancement through character events and dialogue during which you’ll be given tasks to complete. Once the Shallie you’ve chosen as your protagonist (I’ll mostly refer to them as Stera and Lotte from now on, a convention that the game itself starts following around the story’s halfway mark) has completed the major story-related tasks she’s been given, the chapter moves into a sort of free mode in which she’s able to practice her alchemy and explore the world gathering ingredients and beating up monsters for money and experience. You have the option of moving on to the next chapter once you’ve fulfilled enough “life tasks”, which you can check on the menu screen, but you can also stick around in free time after meeting those requirements if you don’t feel like progressing right away.

And you might not want to move on immediately, because the Cooperative Union offers a lot of lucrative jobs in the form of combat and synthesis requests. This time you get real money instead of just candy for your troubles, which is useful since you’re not getting a government stipend this time around. Stera and Lotte also don’t have to submit reports to the bureaucrat Solle (who is still around; he’s moved to Stellard to help with the Dusk problem and has set up shop in the Union, but he’s a little more mellowed out now, which is nice. He even joins your active party this time.)

As usual, your party grows pretty quickly. In addition to the two Shallies, who can both use items in battle, you’re joined by new characters like the treasure hunter Jurie and her dour alchemist younger sister Miruca, Stera’s protector Kortes, and the katana-wielding homunculus Homura, along with returning characters like Escha and Wilbell. A few of these characters also offer their services in ingredient gathering and item creation. Solle delivers reports about the changing environment around Stellard that can affect enemy and ingredient density in certain field areas. And then there’s Miruca, who fills the role of the modern-style alchemist that Logy took last game — she’s the one you’ll be going to for your advanced weapons and armor. (Logy does show up eventually if you’re playing Plus or one of the DX versions to help Escha out a chapter or two after she arrives in Stellard, but he doesn’t have a workshop this time around. Thankfully, he’s a great asset in battle, so he does have more to do than filling out Solle’s endless paperwork. Lucky for him.)

That old-style alchemy Miruca made reference to above comes in yet another form in Atelier Shallie. This time, ingredients have from 0 to 4 slots that can be filled with attributes that hopefully improve the resulting item. While it’s still partly based on the Ayesha alchemy system, it’s much easier to use, easier even than the elemental point system in Escha & Logy, and I have no complaints at all about that. And since Stera and Lotte are both traditional alchemists, they use the same synthesis styles, so no complications there either.

A lot of things about Shallie seem streamlined for the player’s convenience: the removal of the time limit and calendar, the new alchemy mechanics, and even the combat system, which takes the Escha & Logy three member front line/three member back line and removes the positioning element, putting everyone in your party in a single line in front of the enemy. The only gameplay element that’s been complicated a bit is the search equipment setup, which now takes the form of a big grid that you have to fit your items into like a bunch of Tetris blocks. Why does the Globe attack item take the shape of a [ ? No idea, but you have to deal with that shit or else use an item attribute that reduces the space it takes up, which I did a lot.

On top of all that, Shallie looks pretty nice. This game was originally released on the PS3 in 2014, near the very end of that console’s life, and I imagine it gave that PS3 a real workout with some of the elaborate special attack animations in battle. I understand the original Shallie suffered from slowdown problems for that very reason. These issues are apparently even worse in Shallie Plus on the Vita — out of all the Plus versions, I’ve heard that Shallie is the closest to being unplayable only because the Vita couldn’t handle it, at least in the way it was ported over. I don’t know the first thing about the technical aspects of these issues, but I do know that the DX edition on the PS4 doesn’t have any such problems.

Making weapons at Miruca’s workshop.

As expected, the art and music are excellent as usual for the series. Hidari’s characters and CGs look great (I’m especially a fan of Miruca — I like those dour indoor types in general, and her “gothic lolita blacksmith” look is certainly unique, though how the hell she keeps that hair so curled all the time is a mystery.) And the settings this time are especially nice. Stellard really looks like it would be an appealing place to live, with a relaxed port city kind of vibe that makes me wish I were there hanging around in an outside bar in the warm breezy air.* Though maybe it would be more appealing if it were surrounded by an ocean of water than of sand, but then, even some of the wastes in and around the Dusk Sea you explore to fight enemies and gather ingredients look nice in their way.

Considering all the polish on it and the streamlining and quality of life improvements made to the gameplay, you might think Shallie DX would be a good place to start for an Atelier beginner, even despite the fact that it’s at the end of a trilogy. After all, the Atelier games I’ve played so far are usually pretty self-contained stories even when they’re parts of larger narratives, and in a very general sense, Shallie is the same way.

However, I’d advise strongly against playing Shallie if you haven’t at least played Escha & Logy first because of just how much it focuses on characters from the first two games in the trilogy and their stories in the course of its narrative. Stera and Lotte have their own stories, of course, and these largely involve new characters like Jurie, Miruca, and Kortes. However, the returning characters take up a lot of screen time, and while much of that time is spent talking with and working alongside Stera and Lotte, a lot of it also involves references to past events in Ayesha and especially in Escha & Logy that entirely new players would have no idea about.

Of course, the Shallies have no idea about any of this either, and very often in cutscenes they’re listening in on their seniors’ conversations, taking a more passive role in that sense. That’s not unusual, since around the middle of the game they’re surrounded by more accomplished alchemists who they look up to, most notably the protagonists of the first two games in the trilogy. However, it might put the player in a weird position if they have no idea about the importance of the seed Escha brought over from Colseit, for instance, or about the unusual relationship between Keithgriff and Ayesha — and they wouldn’t if they haven’t played through the rest of Dusk.

The reunion scenes between Escha and Logy also mean a lot more if you’ve played their game and know about the stuff they went through together, and especially if they were into each other in your own playthrough like they were in mine. There’s some of that energy here in Shallie too.

For that reason, I think that if you start with Atelier Shallie you might feel a bit lost in its story. This is even more the case because Shallie provides a true conclusion to the Dusk series and to its larger “dying world” narrative. Even Atelier Meruru, which relied heavily on returning characters in the Arland trilogy, didn’t feel like an ending to the story in the same way, since Arland was quite a bit lighter in tone and took a more slice-of-life approach than Dusk (which might be why it’s the one that got a fourth installment in Atelier Lulua much later on — it’s probably easier to add another sequel to a series like that.)

Of course, if you want to start near the end of that story, you’re free to do so, and you can probably get a lot out of Shallie on its own. I just think it’s more satisfying if you play through it understanding what the hell Escha, Logy, Solle, Wilbell, Ayesha, and the rest of the returning characters are talking about when they get into past events in conversation, which happens quite a lot. And unlike in Escha & Logy, some of these past events have immediate importance to the plot. I’d say you can even get away with playing Escha & Logy first, though Ayesha is a good game too, so why not just start at the beginning?

Katla, originally from Escha & Logy, trying to convince the Shallies to join her morally questionable water-hoarding scheme.

None of this is a fault against Atelier Shallie, really. It was clearly designed to be the finale to this story about a world on the brink of death, and I think it pulls that off well enough. However, the relationship between Stera and Lotte did seem weirdly loose and rushed in places. Shortly after they meet, for example, Stera is already thinking about her approach to the drought situation in terms of what Lotte would do, treating her more like a very old friend than someone she’d just met a few days or a week ago. The same is true for Lotte in a few parts of her story. The two clearly contrast in some ways — Stera being more methodical and careful and Lotte being freer and more impulsive — and while the dynamic between Escha and Logy in their own game worked really well partly for that reason, in Shallie that relationship feels a little flatter.

To be fair, the game never really depicts the two as joined at the hip, though they clearly see each other as friends. They do have a major argument partway through their stories that gets resolved fairly quickly, but other than that, their relationship doesn’t change all that much other than their dropping the use of “Shallie” to refer to each other and picking up the nicknames Stera and Lotte instead, seemingly in a mutual acknowledgement that they’re very different kinds of people. I liked that one subtle change in their relationship, but in general, where they end up doesn’t seem very different from where they started out.

I have to say this is a really cute CG and scene, though it feels unusually intimate for these two considering what comes before and after it.

The removal of the time limit also changes the pace of the story in some weird ways. Though I’m not exactly lamenting the passing of that old Atelier time management tradition here, the way Shallie deals with pacing is a little awkward. Once you’re done with your main story tasks and enter the second “free time” half of a chapter, you have to fulfill a certain number of tasks Stera or Lotte have on their list before proceeding. This is really easy to do; you can pretty much synthesize and fight monsters and fulfill requests for money freely and you’ll naturally hit that target after a while.

However, if you’re taking too long messing around, your protagonist’s “happiness meter” will fall. This didn’t seem like a big deal at first, but then I noticed Shallie (Stera in my case in the first playthrough) started literally slowing down — her walking and running speed slowed dramatically. This is how the game encourages you to stay on track without the old time limit. Once you’ve hit your life task goal and are ready to move on to the next chapter, the game prompts you to do so, but it doesn’t force you — you can stick around in your current chapter if you feel like it, but in some cases you’ll be stuck on this slow mode until you move on.

This is a novel way to try to keep players on track without the calendar and time limit mechanic, but it also feels kind of artificial and frustrating. It also happens sometimes even if you’re doing your best to stay on track, especially around the middle of the game when there’s a lot to get done, though by the end of the game at least your happiness meter stays at maximum so you can finish up whatever you were planning to do before moving on to the final fight.

Like killing this giant thing. It just showed up out of nowhere, actually scared me for a second. Powerful enemies like this will start spawning in previously cleared areas after a while.

But Shallie still has plenty of positive points about it. The choice of protagonist this time around matters a little more than last time, since unlike Escha and Logy who basically are joined at the hip (even in this version of Shallie) Stera and Lotte largely take their own paths, especially in the early chapters of the game. Even after their stories converge around chapters 4 and 5, the two practice alchemy in different settings, Stera on her ship and Lotte in her mother’s house. And generally speaking, they know they have their own paths to follow, though their friendship is always maintained as a central aspect of the game. For that reason, I’d say you get a bit more out of a second playthrough of Shallie in terms of variety than in Escha & Logy.

The game also does sum up some of the returning characters’ stories nicely, especially Ayesha, Odelia, and Keithgriff’s that started all the way back in Atelier Ayesha. The same is even true for a couple of non-returning characters, one of whom is even tied in to a major plot point that explains some of the side events in Escha & Logy. So if you have played the trilogy straight through, Shallie provides some satisfying wrap-ups in that sense.

And though there are some things I didn’t love about the game’s execution, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the game as a whole, because I did. Atelier Shallie is well-made and adds some more colorful and interesting characters to the Dusk story. The alchemy is still satisfying, especially if you’re an obsessive like me. And I really did like Stera and Lotte as the protagonists, setting aside the aspects of their relationship that felt weirdly out of place or rushed.

But to fully appreciate this game, I think again that you need to play Shallie after you’ve gotten through at least some and preferably all of the rest of the Dusk trilogy. This might seem like a stupidly obvious statement, since Shallie is the last game in the series, but since Atelier games are so often touted for working well as standalone games, I think this needs to be mentioned. It would be a shame to play a game like this without being able to fully appreciate it, anyway.

Lotte is still a bit much to take sometimes though. That doesn’t change.

And that’s it for Atelier Shallie and for the Dusk series as a whole. I bought the Dusk Trilogy DX package last year, and I’m happy that I’ve finally played through the whole thing. It’s a unique, interesting, and enjoyable trilogy of games, and as a whole it’s well worth playing through as long as you’re not allergic to turn-based JRPGs or bored shitless by gathering ingredients and crafting items. If you are, you’d better just avoid Atelier entirely, at least up to the Ryza games, which have adopted a kind of hybrid turn-based/action system of combat.

Speaking of that, the first Atelier Ryza is the next Atelier game I’m playing. Yes, I’m skipping over the Mysterious series for the moment, though I do intend to get the recently released DX package at some point. However, I think I need a break from Atelier for a while now. I have a few other games to get around to.

But rest assured: I’m not even close to done with this series yet, and at the rate Gust puts these games out (about one a year) I may never be done with it. And that’s fine with me. You can’t have too much of a good thing, at least not in this case. 𒀭

 

* Is it pretty obvious that I need a fucking vacation? I guess it is now.

500 follower special!/Sunshine Blogger Award Part 5

After several years of just sitting around, this site has somehow accumulated 500 followers. I want to thank everyone who’s following, even the fake bot accounts that run sites about cryptocurrency.

So I’m doing two things to mark this occasion. The first is the new set of randomized header images/banners I’ve set up. They’re all from screenshots I’ve already used on the site because as you know I’m lazy, along with the one I’ve used all this time because I felt bad about dropping it. If you can guess what series all five of these are from, you’ll get some credit from me that you can’t redeem for anything valuable at all. Sorry about that.

And the second is the rest of this post, because I was nominated by Honest Gamer for the Sunshine Blogger Award a while back, and he provided nine questions for every nominee to answer. Once again, sunshine is absolutely not a word anyone would ever use to describe me or my personality or outlook on life except sarcastically, but I am still grateful. Thanks! On to the questions:

1. If you could have a new entry from your favourite video game franchise, but in a new genre, what would it be?

A Shin Megami Tensei-themed eroge/dating sim. I know it will never happen, but a man can dream. If you could have a shot with Lilim or Titania (or Cu Chulainn depending on your preference/angle, sure) wouldn’t you take it? The games even already have a negotiation mechanic in place that bears some resemblance to dating in how extremely frustrating it is, so half the work is done. Look, I’d even accept an all-ages game. Though knowing how Atlus is now, they’d include 18+ sections as double-priced DLC.

Don’t put it past them these days.

2. What video game crossover would you love to see happen?

None of the series I like the best would fit together well enough for me to want them to have a crossover, so none, really. Honestly, seeing Sonic and Mario in the same games was a big enough deal for someone who still vaguely remembers the old Nintendo vs. Sega console wars of the early 90s. Everything after that massive crossover pales in comparison.

3. What platform did you start gaming on?

The very first video game I remember playing is Super Mario Bros., so I guess it would be the NES, though I didn’t own it and I think I was barely four or around that age so I don’t know if you can even count that. A more certain answer is the PC, since that’s most of what I played as a kid — a lot of my console playing was done at friends’ houses back then. Afterwards I bought a few old systems along with a Dreamcast that I got a lot of use out of, then a PS2, but PC games are still what I remember best from my early childhood.

4. There is often talk about difficulty vs accessibility in video games. Do you think that developers should have to include difficulty settings in their games?

I don’t think they should have to, but I do appreciate it when developers include difficulty settings. Having some consideration for your player is a good thing, and there’s no shame in playing a game on easy or even in casual/story mode if that’s how you choose to enjoy the experience. The only caveat there is that I think if you’re a reviewer, and especially a professional one, you should be able to at least beat a game on normal mode or the closest equivalent to give readers an account of the standard experience the game provides.

Picture not related at all, no. But that old reference aside, I should try Cuphead one day.

5. Which legendary video game franchise do you think has the better music, The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy?

They’re both great, though neither is my favorite, so choosing one over the other isn’t as easy as it might be. I’d give the edge to Final Fantasy and Nobuo Uematsu, but that’s not putting down the music of Zelda at all; the guy is just that much of a damn genius. I’d put the music of FF just below that of Megami Tensei and the NieR games, but that’s still amazingly good.

6. What popular video game, movie or book series could you not get into?

There are a whole lot I couldn’t get into. Pokemon is something you’d think I’d love, and while I can appreciate the quality and body of work there I was just never into the series for whatever reason. Same for Harry Potter, though I did see some of the films later on and thought they were pretty good. Never was really “into it” in that sense, though.

7. Serious question now….dogs or cats?

I’ve never had either, but if I had to have one, probably a cat. As long as the cat is okay with me, because I’ve known from being around friends’ cats that they can be very particular about individual people. On the other hand, maybe a dog would be better for me, since I tend to stay inside 100% of the time when I don’t absolutely have to be outside, and I know that’s not the best way to live or whatever. Personal preference is still cats though, for their generally relaxed nature (though I know there are exceptions.)

8. What three indie games do you recommend and why?

There are many more than three I’d like to recommend, but I’ll narrow it down here to:

VA-11 Hall-A — The title is annoying to type, but otherwise everything about it is amazing. This is essentially a visual novel with a drink-mixing mini-game attached — you play as a sarcastic, dour bartender named Jill who has to serve all kinds of strange patrons in your boss’ bar in a futuristic cyberpunk dystopia. VA-11 Hall-A features an excellent soundtrack, great art, and interesting and fun characters.

Even now, I still want to have a drink with Dorothy, she is god damn crazy and I love her

It also mixes comedy and drama in a way that actually works, without the heavy and light parts weirdly clashing with each other, which isn’t an easy trick. I wholeheartedly recommend this game (and I fucking wish we’d hear something about the sequel N1RV Ann-A, which has been “coming soon” for well over a year now. But I’ll still wait patiently.)

OneShot — This is one of those games that really showed what independent game developers could do back when it was released. OneShot is an RPGMaker-style game in which you control a character who’s aware of the player’s existence. Yeah, it’s one of those weird meta types of games, but OneShot did it really well, using what otherwise might feel like a gimmick to tell a unique story. If you liked Undertale, you should really try OneShot as well if you haven’t already. (I also recommend Undertale, though most everyone’s played it already by this point, or else they’ve been sufficiently weirded out by the fanbase to be put off of it. The fanbase can admittedly be very weird, but it’s a great game with a fantastic soundtrack and you’re missing out if you don’t give it a look at least.)

The Touhou Project series — Sure, why not. The whole thing. Touhou is a very long-running shoot-em-up series with roots all the way back on the PC-98 in 1996, but most players go as far back as its first PC title Touhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil. Since that game, there have been many more official games in the series put out, along with about fifty million fan projects, including a ton of albums a few of which I’ve written about here. Magical shrine maidens and witches shoot lasers at youkai girls to excellent background music, all created by indie developer ZUN. It’s great stuff, check it out.

His art is a little janky, but you get used to it.

9. What do video games mean to you?

Video games are a unique form of art that I’ve always enjoyed. They’re also an escape from a reality I don’t enjoy all that much. I wish I could say otherwise, but that’s just how it is. I don’t get to live my life on my own terms (most of us don’t, really, so that’s nothing special) but at least I can escape into another world for a while through a game. The same is true of great novels and films and so on, but games provide that interactivity and sometimes that extra immersion that make them different and perhaps better for escapist purposes.

Of course, games can also have a lot of value as art aside from whether I think they can be used to escape reality for a while. But I think if a game is good enough, no matter how serious or light in tone it is, it can provide that sort of escape I’m talking about (and “light” games can still have a lot of value as art, but that’s getting into a completely different subject.)

I’m certainly not special in appreciating games this way either. It’s pretty obvious that a lot of people value games at least partly as an escape from the drudgery of everyday life. Whether that’s a healthy approach to life is a different matter, but it’s undoubtedly healthier than, say, escaping everyday life by drinking yourself senseless or doing similarly indulgent things and more productive than just banging your head against a wall, especially over things you can’t change. I don’t know if everyone reading will relate to this, but if you don’t, so much the better for you.

Anyway, sorry for getting dark here at the end, but I actually see all of the above as a positive. I think the last year in quarantine has changed my outlook on life somewhat, and weirdly enough for the better. If you can even believe that from reading what I just wrote, but this kind of fatalism is a better place than I was at a few years ago. If I think of it that way, I really do have a sunny outlook, at least relative to where I was before!

Of course, writing here is also a method of escape for me, so I want to thank everyone who reads this site again for following me here and for sometimes putting up with my personal nonsense when I get into it.

I don’t want to get that melancholic here again, at least not until the next depressing game or anime I write about.

As for nominations and questions, at first I wasn’t going to bother, but I actually did come up with some questions, so it would be a waste not to ask them. Here they are:

1) Are you buying or have you bought one of the new next-gen consoles, and if so, which? What factors played into your decision?

2) Related to that, how much importance do you place on the specs of a new console?

3) Are there any emerging technologies you’re especially excited to see develop? If so, what are they?

4) Is there an upcoming game, film, anime, or other work you’re especially looking forward to?

5) Is there a genre (of game, novel, film, whatever) you liked as a kid but now dislike? Alternatively, is there a genre you disliked as a kid that you now like or at least appreciate more?

6) We’ve probably all read, watched, or played through at least one story with a disappointing ending. Do you feel a poorly written ending hurts its entire work or series, and if so how much? Can you still enjoy or appreciate the work even if you feel the ending was lousy? (I think I’ve already written about this a bit, and I have a feeling I can guess what a couple of you will say to it, but still a question I’d like to throw out there because I think it’s an interesting one.)

7) Are there any good new blogs or sites you’ve found recently? I’m always looking for new reading material.

8) Are you planning to return to the theater/cinema soon, or once you feel safe going (assuming you liked going in the first place?) Is there anything about the typical moviegoing experience you’d change? (I’m only familiar with the typical American experience, but I’m always interested in hearing about how it is in other countries. Do you have that fake liquid popcorn butter, or is that just us over here being extremely unhealthy as usual?)

9) Finally, a vital question, and one that I think might have been asked before, but if it’s not, I’ll ask now: what’s your opinion of pineapple on pizza?

And the nominees. Sorry as usual if you’ve been tagged already:

Nepiki Gaming

Extra Life

Lost to the Aether

Frostilyte Writes (also pretty sure I need to answer one of yours from ages ago, sorry about that)

Later Levels

And also as before, anyone else who wants to join in is welcome. In the meantime, my best regards to everyone, and thanks once again.

A review of Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky (PS4)

I’m really plowing through Atelier now. Only one month after writing about Atelier Ayesha, I didn’t think I’d be done with the next game in the series so soon. But Escha & Logy is just that kind of game — the kind that pulls you in and refuses to let you go. Or at least that’s what it was for me.

Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky is the middle game in the Dusk trilogy of the much larger Atelier series. While it continues along in the same world and features some returning characters, it’s a more or less self-contained story like almost every Atelier game seems to be, so you don’t have to start from Ayesha to understand what’s going on here. All you’ll miss out on are some references to Ayesha and her situation that aren’t critical to the central plot of Escha & Logy. So don’t worry about starting from the middle if that’s what you plan on doing, though if you’re buying the Dusk trilogy as a package as it’s commonly sold, I’d still recommend starting from the beginning with Ayesha (though of course it is possible to buy any of these games separately as well if you don’t want to take that plunge, and Escha & Logy stands well enough on its own in that regard.)

Also, just a note that as before, this is a review of the DX edition released on the PS4. I can’t comment very much on any of the other versions since I haven’t played them.

Note that there are two names in this game’s title and a plural Alchemists in there: this time around, we have two protagonists instead of one. Our story begins in a small government office in the frontier town of Colseit, where two young alchemists have just been hired to join the Research and Development department. Escha Malier is a girl native to the town who grew up practicing traditional alchemy (the “stir a bunch of stuff in a giant cauldron” type we’re familiar with from past games) and she’s joined by a new arrival from Central City, Logix Ficsario aka Logy, who uses more modern, specialized forms of alchemy and is totally unfamiliar with Escha’s practices.

But they’ll have to work together. Marion Quinn, their direct superior (and the first of several familiar faces if you’ve played Ayesha) has the duty of restoring both the reputation and the budget of Colseit’s branch R&D office by showing its value to Central City, and Escha and Logy’s alchemy and exploration skills will be vital to these efforts.

Bureaucracy, budgeting, and resource management: now this is a god damn game

Escha and Logy couldn’t be more different in some respects. Aside from their different methods of alchemy, from day one it’s obvious that they have divergent personalities and outlooks on life in general. Escha approaches her work with a lot of excitement and with a sense of wonder. By contrast, while Logy is certainly serious about his work, he also comes off as a lot more grounded, trying to pull Escha back when he thinks her ideas are a bit out there.

This gap between Escha and Logy becomes more obvious when talk comes up about the Unexplored Ruins, a massive ruin built by a lost past civilization that somehow floats in the air. Nobody knows how it’s floating or how or why it was built, but Escha’s cousin, the airship engineer Awin, dreams about exploring it and tells Escha and Logy that he’d like to build an airship capable of somehow making it through the dangerous debris surrounding the ruin. Escha encourages Awin and says she’d love to explore the ruins too, but Logy is skeptical about the whole thing. While he’s naturally interested in whatever mysteries the ruin has to offer, if it’s basically impossible to make it there, what’s the point of thinking about it in the first place?

This hot and cold sort of odd couple dynamic between Escha and Logy works really well. It’s not played up to a ridiculous point where their differences are exaggerated — as before, our protagonists and their friends feel like pretty believable and sometimes relatable sorts of characters — but their differences are still stark enough to make their relationship more interesting. And probably partly because of that, when the game gets around to a little bit of drama between the two later on, it feels believable as well.

Escha and Logy’s differences complement each other nicely in the story, but these are also worked into the gameplay, especially when you’re working in the atelier. When you start Escha & Logy, you have the choice of playing as either protagonist, but the choice doesn’t matter all that much aside from getting some story details particular to one or the other in each playthrough. You’ll be working together for the entire game anyway; there are certain things that only Escha knows how to do, and certain other things that only Logy can do, so they have to rely on each other. Since Escha is versed in traditional alchemy, she performs all the item synthesis, while Logy uses his modern techniques to create new weapons and disassemble relics found in the field and dungeon areas to break them down to their component ingredients. And since they’re both alchemists, they can both use items in battle, which is a massive benefit once your alchemy level starts rising.

Who would have thought making an apple tart could be so complicated? I can’t bake at all, so for all I know, this is what it’s like in real life too.

Escha and Logy don’t have the freedom to do whatever they like, because there’s still more time management in this game. However, unlike Ayesha, which sticks you with a single goal and a three-year time limit to achieve it, Escha & Logy is broken down into several four-month terms. At the beginning of each term, you have a staff meeting with Marion, who reviews your work in the previous term and gives you your new assignments. These are broken into a 5 by 5 bingo card-looking grid, with one mandatory assignment to complete in the center and optional secondary assignments surrounding it.

Failing to complete the mandatory assignment results in a game over, so that’s where your efforts should always be directed first, but it’s always worth trying to fill out the entire grid for the alchemy and combat bonuses they give you (and also to get praised by Marion, which is a plus in itself. Or maybe I just like hearing more of her ara ara onee-san style voice. Am I showing my hand too much here?)

Since they’re government employees, Escha and Logy also have to receive approval for their expenses from the government based in Central City, and to do that, they have to go through resident bureaucrat Solle Grumman. This guy might seem like a real jerk at first, but he’s actually on your side — more or less, anyway. In addition to Marion’s assignments, Solle offers item synthesis and monster-killing requests for you to fulfill that he’ll pay you for in sweets that you can give to the resident homunculus (the small furry animal-looking guys) who use their magic to replicate items. This is an incredibly useful function that you’ll want to use to save time and energy, especially later on in the game when you’ll be trying to create items and gear with special and rare properties.

The upside to being government employees is that you’ll get a monthly stipend, the size of which depends on how much productive activity you’ve engaged in that month fulfilling Solle’s requests, fighting monsters out in the field, or creating items in the atelier. This was a nice break from my playthrough of Ayesha, where Ayesha had a nearly empty purse most of the time. Despite all the griping about how arrogant and shitty the central government is to its branch offices, they don’t skimp on those stipends.

I know this screenshot makes Escha & Logy look like some kind of anime Bureaucracy Simulator game, but bureaucracy has its benefits too.

And as always, you’ll have outside help from friends both old and new while running around in the field and dungeon areas. Escha & Logy again features a map with a lot of areas to discover and explore, monsters to fight, and ingredients to gather, and the pair is joined in the field by returning characters like Linca, Wilbell, and Nio (the very same Nio you were tasked with rescuing in Atelier Ayesha) and new characters like Awin, badass fighter/historian Threia, and child merchant Katla, whose irresponsible as hell parents left her all alone to manage their store while they’re out traveling the world. But she does try to rip you off a whole lot, so it’s hard to feel too bad for her.

Katla is a damn brat, but despite how she looks and acts, she’s an asset in a fight.

Each game I’ve played in the Atelier series so far has managed to create its own special character and feel distinct from the others. Escha & Logy, despite having a similar look to Ayesha with the same character designer and artists and taking place in the same world, plays very differently. While Ayesha was focused more on exploration, Escha & Logy puts a big emphasis on item and gear synthesis and creation. Its base alchemy system is taken partly from Ayesha, but it feels a little more intuitive. Which is good, because you’ll probably be doing a hell of a lot of alchemy to fulfill requests and especially to maximize the value of your time out in the field.

Organizing Escha and Logy’s gear before going out to the field. Items this time around are automatically replenished when you return to base. However, you have limited space to carry them, and other party members aside from the protagonists can’t carry anything, so resource management is once again a must.

The old turn-based combat system has also been improved, with a new three-member front line and three-member reserve setup in which your back line characters can offer supporting attacks and swap into the front line if needed. This new system is a lot more engaging than the more basic combat featured in Ayesha, so people who get bored with more standard forms of turn-based combat might find something to like here. Having two alchemists in the party also comes with great benefits: Escha and Logy can learn new joint techniques later on in the game that really help when trying to take down massively powerful bosses. Working out how to use Double Draw effectively is necessary to deal with the most challenging fights.

This dragon looks difficult, but it’s nowhere near the most frustrating fight in the game. Also see Escha here, perfectly suited for combat in a wedding dress bonus costume. I don’t even remember why I put this on her, but it looks pretty funny seeing her and Logy fight in wedding gear.

Speaking of wedding gear, there’s the Escha-Logy relationship, which as far as I know is unique in the series. This isn’t the only game that features a choice of protagonist,1 but it is the only one I know of that seriously suggests a romance between them, or between any characters who aren’t already together for that matter. It’s still a very light element of the game and not central to the plot at all, so light in fact that it wasn’t even featured in the PS3 original. But from Escha & Logy Plus on the Vita on to the DX editions, the player has had the choice in some conversations between two dialogue options, one friendly and the other romantic, each choice helpfully indicated by a smile and a heart. So it’s up to the player: if you want to imagine Escha and Logy as just good friends, you can keep things strictly platonic, but if you want something more between them, you can go the romance route, and you’ll get some extra bits of dialogue that show they have feelings for each other and that other characters recognize they might be getting especially close.

Usually these games don’t touch on romance very much at all aside from some extremely coy “these two girls might be into each other” yuri stuff (probably more prominent in the Arland series — see Rorona and Cordelia, Totori and Mimi, and Meruru and Keina.) It’s more explicit here, though, and I don’t mind that.2 And really, Escha and Logy seem like they’d make a good couple anyway. Opposites attracting and all that stuff. I know that’s a bit of a cliché, but these two have great chemistry, and they’re the sorts of opposites who could actually complement each other well, so the option doesn’t feel forced at all.

All that said, I still wonder what drew me in specifically about Atelier Escha & Logy so quickly. I’ve basically enjoyed every game in the series I’ve played so far, but none of the others captured me in the way this one did. The entertaining dynamic between the two main characters is definitely part of it — it was pretty fun seeing how Escha and Logy reacted to new situations and played off of each other.

The CGs featured in a lot of these situations were also a draw; the art in Escha & Logy is just as good as ever. And yeah, Escha’s tail is explained in the game. I was wondering about it too.

I think it has to do with the structure of the game as well. I found that breaking the action into smaller four-month pieces rather than having one massive three-year task to complete made the game more approachable than Ayesha and Meruru. I don’t know if this was Gust’s intention, but it felt like a throwback to Atelier Rorona, which featured similar three-month goals to complete. The time pressure in Rorona still felt greater, too, at least from what I remember. Escha & Logy certainly wants to keep you on track, but it gives you all the resources you need to complete everything well within its time constraints. In just about every term, I was able to finish all my tasks so early that I had plenty of free time to develop my alchemy skills and explore as I wished.

I also like the way the story of the game is rooted in its setting. The World of Dusk we first explored in Atelier Ayesha was clearly in serious decline, with vegetation dying off and land drying up in parts, but things didn’t look quite so bad in Ayesha’s part of the world, and the game didn’t focus on that aspect so much anyway. Escha & Logy, by contrast, is directly concerned with the declining environment and its effects on human life — many of Escha and Logy’s tasks have to do with exploring the causes of these changes, examining drying water sources and using alchemy to try to improve harvest yields. Colseit is a kind of oasis in this part of the world with its apple orchards, but it’s not immune from the effects of these catastrophic changes either. And as in Ayesha, it’s implied that the misuse of alchemy by the fallen past civilization caused many of these problems.3

The team exploring a volcano/lava flow. Nio’s sister Ayesha is an important part of this “responsible use of alchemy” theme. Given how much she’s brought up on the side here, maybe we’ll meet her again in the next game. I’d like to see what’s happening with her too.

There’s also the usual praise I have to give to the art and music. As far as the character design goes, I think Hidari fully measures up to Mel Kishida at this point. And I really like the jazz and prog flavor in the soundtrack. The connection isn’t a big surprise, because I’m pretty sure someone at Gust is a big fan of Yes — there are battle tracks in this game titled “Close to the Edge Part 2” and “Don’t Kill the Dragon”, and I can absolutely see the prog influence in a few tracks (like The Tiger of Dorothea, sounds ELP-ish? Maybe with a mix of fusion with that guitar. I like it.) Also, the opening theme Milk-Colored Pass is excellent.

Since I’ve been nothing but positive about Atelier Escha & Logy up until now, I may as well drop a few potential negatives about the game, starting with its increased emphasis on learning and using alchemy to create better items. The space restrictions you have to deal with throughout aren’t too unreasonable, but they do require you to do some work to fit as much power as you can into Escha and Logy’s setups. And near the end of the game, you’re thrown into a very long one-year-plus final term with a special assignment in which you’re encouraged to do some extremely precise alchemy to get very particular high-level attributes on items and gear so you can take on difficult bosses (and to carry over to the second playthrough if you’re going for the true ending, which you can’t even get on the first since it requires you to complete both Escha and Logy’s stories anyway.)

Which means you have to run through all these field and dungeon areas twice if you want that true ending, but the second time around it will be a lot quicker as long as you have your new game plus overpowered weapons, armor, and accessories equipped.

None of this is actually a negative point for me, since I liked this aspect of it, but it may be for some players who prefer the exploration and combat aspects of JRPGs like these. And it might not even be true for you depending on how you play the game. This is just how I felt the game pushed me to play, given the challenges it threw at me and the tools I had to deal with them. Like the others, it doesn’t absolutely force you to play in any particular way, but if you don’t use those tools it provides effectively, you might have a harder time.

Another possible issue is the game’s tendency to throw you into boss fights without much warning. This happens a few times in Escha & Logy, and I can see it being a pain for some players who might prefer a hint as to what’s coming so they can be properly prepared. On the other hand, the game might be using this as a way to hammer home the old Boy Scouts’ motto “always be prepared.” I was never a Boy Scout, so I was caught off guard when this happened and just managed to scrape by. On the plus side, I appreciated the challenge the game provided in these fights — though I was thrown into them, I could also deal with them by using proper tactics in battle and by having a mix of powerful attack and healing items.

Protip: Make Knowledge Books

Finally, there’s the problem with certain item and effect names and descriptions in this game. I’d say the above two points aren’t flaws at all but rather purposeful design aspects of Escha & Logy that some players might not enjoy. However, this one is undoubtedly a flaw, and not an insignificant one. For one example, item effects in Atelier Ayesha followed the very familiar “S -> M -> L” small, medium and large naming convention also followed by t-shirt manufacturers and fast food places, but Escha & Logy inexplicably flips this order, with L denoting the weakest and S the strongest effect. So now instead of small to medium to large, the scale now presumably runs from light to moderate to strong or something like it.

If that had been the convention the trilogy and the series as a whole had been following until now, it would have been fine, but it wasn’t, and changing it like this is bizarre and confusing. And hell if it doesn’t go right back to the old small, medium, and large system in the following game Atelier Shallie, meaning you have to unlearn this dumb shit and mentally readjust anyway if you’re playing straight through the whole Dusk trilogy as I am.

One entry in the game’s large library. This one makes it sound like Escha and Logy can access the Midnight Hour, but unfortunately the Time Watch doesn’t actually work that way.

This issue extends to some of the expanded descriptions in the library. Take the attribute Fixed Healing+ for an example. I had to look up what the flying fuck the game meant by Healing item is fairly enhanced by a set amount. The weaker the base power, the higher the effect. It vaguely makes sense, but what does it mean in real terms? That this effect is proportionally less powerful the more powerful the item is? I guess, but I’m still not sure how that works out in comparison with other healing-related attributes I could be using in synthesis instead. And if it’s a “set amount”, why does the second sentence imply that the amount can change based on the power of the item? Then it’s not actually a set amount, is it?

This might all be a stupid nitpick. However, Atelier games contain reams of information about monsters, weapons, accessories, and items and their associated effects in battle, and while some of this info is clearly just there for flavor and background, a lot of it’s actually useful to know when you’re synthesizing items. And when there are so many items, ingredients, and attributes available to play with when doing alchemy, clarity and consistency of language are necessary. I’m not sure how much of the weirdness in the descriptions in Escha & Logy came from the original Japanese release and how much was a result of a poor localization job, either. The S/M/L thing might have been an issue with the original, but the item descriptions feel like more of a bad translation issue. But I can’t say any of this for sure since I haven’t played the JP version of the game.

Whoever was responsible for this maybe should have taken a cue from the game and held a staff meeting to hammer it out, because it seems like an extremely avoidable problem. (Also I love Linca’s expression on the right. She’d rather be out killing dragons than dealing with paperwork. Sorry, Linca.)

Despite that pretty large annoyance, I’d say Escha & Logy is the best Atelier game I’ve played so far. If nothing else, it’s a credit to just how much this game drew me in that despite these issues, I finished Escha & Logy within one month of finishing Ayesha, and also given how much work I’ve had to do at the same time that wasn’t playing JRPGs. (If I could make a career out of that… but I’m not a cute anime girl with a streaming setup on YouTube or Twitch, so I have no chance.)

And now it’s on to the final game in the Dusk trilogy, Atelier Shallie. I’m already a few chapters into Shallie at the time of writing, so it shouldn’t be too long until I’m through with that as well. But before moving on, I should note that Escha & Logy got a 12-episode anime adaptation that I haven’t seen, as far as I know the only Atelier game to have this distinction. From what I hear, it’s not that great and I’m not missing anything by skipping it. My anime backlog is already way too long to add a show telling a story I already know, and then probably not as well as the source material did. If you saw it, though, feel free to let me know your thoughts about it in the comments. 𒀭

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1 Atelier Shallie also has two protagonists, and I think Atelier Lydie & Suelle probably does as well based on the title alone. I went with Escha on my first run, but you have to play through the game as both Escha and Logy to get the true ending anyway, and thankfully the new game plus bonuses make that second run a lot easier.

2 I honestly wouldn’t mind slightly more explicit yuri stuff in these games either — not explicit in the 18+ sense of course, but more something like what Escha & Logy gives us. Then again, maybe all the hinting without actually coming out and saying it is what yuri fans really want. I can’t say for sure.

3 Even the names of the protagonists fit into this theme: Escha, with the ch pronounced as a hard “k” sound, Logy with a soft “g”, and the & pronounced to in Japanese, all jammed together, make the word eschatology, or the study of the end of the world. Wordplay based on an English word that only works if you use Japanese to get there, that’s pretty damn impressive.