Backlog review: Senran Kagura Estival Versus (PS4)

I hate summer.  Maybe it’s because I live in the South, where our summers are unbearably hot and humid, but I can’t stand this season.  And ever since I became an adult, summer has lost the one benefit it carried, which was being out of school.1  All that’s left are the heat and the insects.  So give me fall.  Give me winter.  I’ll even take spring with all its allergy-triggering pollen.  But the rest of you can god damn keep summer for yourselves.

However, even I can’t resist the call of the beach.  And never mind that I’m a neurotic nerd who refuses to go out into the sun without wearing long sleeves and pants, or even that I live four hours from the coast, because I’ve got Senran Kagura Estival Versus. I’ve had this game for over a year, in fact, but until recently it’s just been sitting in my PS4 backlog.  I decided to dig it up again about a month ago, and I’m happy I did, because it makes for the perfect escape.

I hear you, Murasaki. Sorry for putting you through all this.

The Senran Kagura series is a bit infamous among gamers for its copious amounts of fanservice, and it’s naturally gotten more than its share of complaints from the big western game review sites for it.  But God bless them, developer Marvelous! and creator and producer Kenichiro Takaki keep putting these games out, and they keep getting NA and EU ports (though unfortunately not without some cut content recently thanks to Sony’s new policies, namely in Senran Kagura Reflexions for the PS4.)  The look and feel of Senran Kagura owe a lot to character designer and artist Nan Yaegashi, whose artistic direction is responsible for the “bouncy” nature of these games.

Yaegashi is also responsible for the many special CGs in the game.

Released in 2016, Senran Kagura Estival Versus is a beat-em-up starring the usual cast of ninja girls grouped into different academies that seem to have been built for the express purpose of teaching young ladies how to beat the hell out of each other.  One day, each of the four first-string teams of shinobi are magically summoned to an extradimensional tropical island by Sayuri, a retired shinobi and grandmother of Asuka, the leader of one of the four teams.  Sayuri explains to the girls that they must fight each other in the “Millennium Festival”, a battle royale that pits all four teams against each other in a completely non-lethal “defend the base” sort of game, and that time in their own world will stand still while they carry out their contest.

However, matters are complicated when some of the shinobis’ dead relatives also start to appear on the island, alive and seemingly healthy.  Upon being questioned, Sayuri explains that this island is home to shinobi who have passed on to the next life.  Although the four teams are intense rivals, their members are also friendly with each other on some level, and they all agree after talking it over that Sayuri and her assistants seem to be hiding the true purpose behind the festival.  Meanwhile, some of the shinobi start to lose their nerve, expressing a desire to permanently stay in this new dimension with their deceased family members and creating friction with those who want to win the battle and return home to fight an ancient evil that’s awoken to threaten life on Earth, conveniently just at the time the shinobi were teleported to this island.

Asuka fights some low-level shinobi grunts.

It wouldn’t be right to say that Estival Versus is nothing but fanservice.  It has a plot that serves the game perfectly well, and its drama is nicely balanced by Senran Kagura’s brand of absurd humor.  I already addressed this in my review of Our World Is Ended, but I have no problem with throwing “inappropriate” humor and sex jokes into a game as long as it doesn’t cause too much of a tone problem, and it doesn’t in this case.  And anyway, it wouldn’t be a proper Senran Kagura game without all the lewd jokes and wacky girl-on-girl hijinks and misunderstandings.  If that’s not what you’re into, you already know the series isn’t for you anyway, and if you are, it’s just a good time.

The fact that the combat-based clothes-tearing carries over to the post-battle cutscenes maybe slightly deflates the drama of Miyabi not wanting to leave behind the spirit of her dead mother, but that’s okay.

As far as gameplay goes, Estival Versus is on solid ground.  All our favorite shinobi return as playable characters along with a few new faces, and they have a wide variety of fighting styles, some easier to use and some more difficult/frustrating.  This makes it a little annoying that the game requires you to play as every single shinobi at least once to make it through the main Millennium Festival campaign, since the player character is swapped after each mission.  However, it’s not such a big deal: the game lets you change the difficulty level at any time, so if you find one particular shinobi hard to control, you can always switch over to normal or easy mode for her mission if that’s not too shameful an act for you to bear.  Grinding is also easy to do, though it’s not especially necessary.  Upon completing one of the main campaign missions, you can return to play it with any character you like, meaning you can pit a character against herself in battle, which is always fun.  And if you’re really up against a wall, the game gives you the option of cheesing boss fights by butt-stomping your enemies into submission, though that move doesn’t trigger those famous strategic-clothes-tearing-off sequences that would occur otherwise during battle.

Murasaki is my favorite character, even if her weapon is frustrating to use and totally stupid from a practical perspective.

While Estival Versus does have paid DLC, the great majority of its extra content is unlockable within the game proper, which is something I appreciate.  And there is a lot of it.  Each character gets her own story consisting of five unique missions in addition to the main campaign, and there are extra campaigns on top of those.  None of these missions offer anything different gameplay-wise from the usual “beat up huge crowds of low/mid-level enemies and then beat up one to three of your fellow shinobi” structure.  That’s more or less the whole game.  However, what you do get are a lot more goofy scenarios and dialogue between the characters.  Because not only do these girls fight each other when they have an argument — they also fight when they’re having an otherwise nice, civil conversation (my favorite: shut-in Murasaki beating the writer’s block out of Mirai so she can continue her online novel.)  Fighting is what they know, and it’s what they do.  And it’s what you’ll do if you play this game.  There are also the usual antics you can get up to in the dressing room, where you can try out the dozens upon dozens of costumes and put the girls in embarrassing poses if that’s your thing, but that’s all entirely optional.

So this is one of those cases where assigning a score feels pointless, because you’ll already know whether you’ll love or hate this game before you play it.  Estival Versus is a very competent brawler, and the basic gameplay is fun if you’re into that style of game.  But if you’re not a fan of the Senran Kagura aesthetic, you probably won’t like this or any of the other games in the series.2  For my part, I give Estival Versus a 6, because that’s just how much I liked it.  If giving a lewd anime girl beat-em-up such a high score means I lose my credibility as a serious game reviewer… well, as far as I know, I never had any such credibility in the first place, so that’s okay with me.

Yes, this game is a masterpiece. Fight me.

Also, this doesn’t seem to be mentioned very often, but the Senran Kagura games I’ve played before have good soundtracks, and this one is no exception.  The Estival Versus OST features a nice mix of western and eastern instruments and styles, and some of its pieces are really catchy.  And every single character has a theme song as well.  The composers certainly weren’t slacking off on this project.  In fact, check out Yumi’s theme: it’s partly a rearrangement of Mozart’s Requiem.  See, this is actually a very classy game.

1 Which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from The Simpsons from back when the show was good, between Homer and his son Bart when Bart complains about missing summer after breaking his leg and getting a cast: “Don’t worry, boy.  When you get a job like me, you’ll miss every summer.”

2 I don’t think any of the Senran Kagura games deserve to be dismissed on the grounds that they reflect bad gender politics, because they’re mostly over-the-top games that don’t really try to say anything about gender politics.  In fact, you could argue that on the occasions these games take a serious tone, they represent empowered female characters who face their problems head-on.

But this is a subject for a different post.  All I have left to say about it right now is this: if these games honestly creep you out, I can’t criticize you for feeling that way.  Everyone has different tastes.  I’d just like it if the “woke” crowd on Twitter and elsewhere would also recognize that fact and stop calling for these games to be censored or not exported to the West.  If you don’t like them, just don’t fucking buy them and let the rest of us have our fun.  Can we agree to that?  (Well, of course we can’t, because they get off on exercising control over others by attempting to shame them over their taste in games and other media.  But good luck getting these brave guardians of wholesomeness to admit to that.)

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On physical copies, bonuses, and Google’s Stadia

This was originally going to be a review of Stella Glow: Song Magic, a five-track album (really more like an EP, clocking in at 22 minutes) that came as a bonus with the initial release of Stella Glow, a tactical RPG for the 3DS developed by the now-defunct Imageepoch and published by Atlus.  Storywise, Stella Glow seems to be Imageepoch’s take on Ar tonelico, because it shares a few themes with Gust’s series (“witches” who can control the elements through singing, and naturally, the witches are cute girls instead of your typical Macbeth old lady witches, because of course they are.) [edit: as user Mamahama very kindly points out below, Stella Glow takes inspiration primarily from other games the developer made before the AT series started.  My most sincere thanks for the correction.]

Note to Hollywood: if you ever start putting witches in movies again, this is what they should look like.  I know you won’t listen, just throwing it out there.

The problem is that I don’t have a whole lot to say about Song Magic.  All five songs on the album are ballads with some nice orchestration, and that’s about all I’ve got, though I do like the closer Ice World a lot.  Nothing here approaches the best songs on the Ar tonelico II albums I reviewed a while back.  That’s not a criticism of this EP, however – both of those albums set an extremely high bar to clear, and even if Song Magic doesn’t quite clear it, it’s still enjoyable.

After not being able to think of anything else to write on this subject, I started thinking about the very idea of owning a physical copy of a game, as well as the bonuses that come with special editions and preorders.  And then Google came out with more news about Stadia, the soon to be released streaming game service that people have been both praising and cursing, and so my thoughts turned to that.  Google recently released some Q&A material that’s meant to answer everyone’s questions about access to and ownership of games bought through Stadia, stirring up even more talk about it before its release.  It makes sense that people would have concerns about ownership in this context.  Unlike the movies hosted by Netflix and other streaming film services, games are interactive, and the right to return to a game months later with an old save file is one that we’ve been able to take for granted for over thirty years now.

While Google says they recognize this right in their latest Q&A, the fact is that they, not the end user, hold the keys.  Just give it a few minor changes to the terms of service, and then a few more, and a few more still, and dedicated Stadia subscribers could find themselves in a situation they didn’t realize they were bargaining for when they signed up.  This is what we lawyers call a contract of adhesion: the kind that you agree to when you click through the typical ToS boilerplate legalese that you don’t bother reading, because the language is insanely dense and convoluted and who has the time?  There’s no room for negotiation; it’s a take-it-or-leave-it proposal, and it’s almost always enforceable in court save some really unconscionable term of the “you owe us your firstborn child” variety.  Naturally, Google’s lawyers know this, and they will make sure they cover their employer’s ass by giving it all the leeway it needs. And if that ass-covering is at the expense of the end user, so be it.

When Google changes the ToS and you can’t do anything about it

And what about those bonuses I mentioned?  You might be thinking that digital bonuses are just as good as physical ones.  After all, a publisher can easily package a digital copy of a game soundtrack or a digital artbook with their game.  They do it on Steam all the time.  I’ve bought those packages on occasion.  Still, nothing beats owning a physical CD, and the same goes doubly for an artbook, one you can hold in your hands and read even when the power goes out (by flashlight or candlelight in that case, but still.)  Also, while digital bonuses are great options for indie developers and small publishers who wouldn’t necessarily be able to send out physical bonuses to everyone, the big guys presumably don’t have that problem.

This is part of the reason that I don’t believe the Stadia will kill traditional console and/or PC gaming as some people have suggested.  Stadia is a nice concept for casual gamers, and I don’t think it’s presuming too much to say they’re a big part of its prospective audience.  Maybe some competitive gamers will also find something to like in Stadia.  However, there are three massive subsets of the gaming population that all the pundits and sensational clickbait hack content creators are ignoring as usual.  First are our friends in economically developing countries and countries with government-mandated telecom monopolies, many of whom have garbage internet connections and can’t obtain the bandwidth necessary to use Stadia.  Second are those who want to mainly play singleplayer games without being forced to connect to the god damn internet the entire time.  And third are those who want to own physical copies of their games and get physical bonuses with those games as often as possible.  For these groups, I don’t think Stadia holds much interest, if any.  I should know; I’m part of both the second and third, and I have relatives in the first who have to deal with their shitty governments’ attempts to stop them from using Skype.

I don’t hate Google for offering up this service, mainly because I don’t believe it will change the face of gaming as we know it.  If you drew a Venn diagram of potential Stadia subscribers combined with the above-mentioned groups and weirdos like me who cared about getting that Stella Glow: Song Magic CD along with that bonus pinup of Hilda, the Witch of Destruction, it would look like an 8.  And despite what the clickbait-writing hacks would have you believe, there are a lot of us out there.

Or maybe I’m just a dumbass who refuses to adapt to this glorious new world that Google is about to show us.  What do you think?

Is this how I came off the entire time? Be honest

A review of Our World Is Ended. (PC)

Our World Is Ended is an all-ages Japanese visual novel localized and released early this year on PS4 and Switch and more recently on PC through Steam.  Yes, the period you see in the title above is officially part of the title, though I won’t be including it because it makes writing about the game grammatically awkward.  If that title looks awkward to you even without the weird punctuation, there is a plot reason why the title has an “is” instead of a “has” as you’d normally expect, so I’ll let that go.

This is also a traditional visual novel, which means there’s no real gameplay outside of reading text and dialogue and making choices based on branching dialogue options.  Since most of what I have to say about Our World Is Ended has to do with the plot and characters, then, this review is going to feature some plot and character spoilers. The very short spoiler-free version of my review is that this is a good game that’s aimed at a very particular audience (as far as the western market goes, that means hardcore weebs and basically no one else) so if you’re not among those ranks, you might not care for it at all. You might even hate it, in fact. Most of the mainstream reviewers who bothered to write about Our World Is Ended seem to either dislike or despise it, but more on that later. For now, let’s start the review proper.

Just another day on the job.

Our protagonist Reiji (the guy wearing the helmet above) is a bright-eyed college freshman working as a part-time “Assisting Director” at Judgement 7, a small game development studio.  Reiji is a pretty normal guy.  Extremely normal, in fact.  So normal that the other members of Judgment 7 find it remarkable just how plain his tastes, hobbies, and general demeanor are.  Then again, Judgment 7 is otherwise staffed by people who are as far from normal as possible.  They include:

  • Founder and president Sekai Owari, a genius programmer who is also a massive pervert, albeit a “clean and harmless” one (according to him, anyway)
  • Scenario-writer Iruka No. 2, a man who always wears sunglasses and a fedora and lives in a fantasy world of his own creation, speaking mainly in arcane game lore, bizarre screams, and shouted spell names he makes up on the spot
  • Artist and character designer Natsumi Yuki, a moody goth girl who calls herself the Dark Angel of Chaos and claims she doesn’t need friends
  • BGM composer and sound director Asano Hayase, a tomboyish woman who punches people, drinks a lot of beer, and usually ends up the butt of everyone else’s jokes because of her relatively flat chest, poor cooking skills, and tone-deaf singing voice
  • Asano’s younger sister and Reiji’s fellow part-timer Yuno Hayase, a cheerful, airheaded high school-aged girl whose employment at this company is probably breaking some labor laws
  • And assistant programmer Tatiana Alexandrovna Sharapova, a Russian child prodigy with a doctorate who throws tantrums when she doesn’t get her way and whose employment at this company is definitely breaking some labor laws.

Somehow this lot, which has so far only succeeded at publishing games that people mostly either hate or ignore, has succeeded at creating a virtual reality headset that can convert the wearer’s view of the real world into a virtual world where he can do all kinds of things he wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.  Things like laying new graphics over existing surfaces and putting different sets of clothes on people without their knowledge.  Because president and chief programmer Owari is a pervert, so of course it can do that.

The future is now, and it looks like this.

When the assembled Judgment 7 crew tries out the headsets all together early on in the game at their company headquarters, however, the helmets seemingly malfunction and the whole cast ends up getting trapped in a closed-off looping bizarro world version of the Asakusa district of Tokyo that they can’t escape.  Even more strangely, it’s inhabited not by other humans, but rather by NPCs and monsters from previous games they’ve made.  They finally manage to make it back into the real world, but Owari is determined to learn more about this strange new world, and the team puts the development of their new game on hold to investigate the phenomenon.  Meanwhile, Reiji is mystified by the appearance in both the virtual and real worlds of “Girl A”, a mysterious girl who seems to know something about the new world that Judgment 7 has discovered and who has special powers within that world.

As the team continues to dive into the virtual Asakusa, agents in dark suits and sunglasses begin to show up in both the real and virtual worlds to track and chase after them.  Judgment 7 soon realizes that their new world has somehow merged with Akashic, another VR project run by Riken North, a private facility where Tatiana’s father Yuri is a lead researcher.  It eventually emerges that Riken North and Lab 13, an associated rogue research group, are building Akashic as the first step in a larger plan to create a virtual world that the rich and powerful can use both to live forever in virtual form and to control the real world.  And when the Akashic project gets out of control and unexpectedly ends up threatening Tokyo and its residents with total destruction, the misfit members of Judgment 7 are the only ones who can stop it.

Get all that?  Also: script errors.

The first aspect of Our World Is Ended that really attracted me was the art.  The character portraits and event CGs are really nice, and the characters are very expressive a real plus for a VN, in which you’ll be spending most of your time staring at the same characters for dozens of hours while they talk to each other.  I have to praise the background music as well; every piece is at least serviceable and some of them are pretty memorable.  A couple of tracks remind me of Shinji Hosoe’s work on the Zero Escape series, and a few of the usual VN everyday slice-of-life tracks would make for excellent waiting room music (and that is a compliment just because waiting room music usually blows doesn’t mean it has to.  There’s nothing wrong with some nice easy listening sometimes.  Or am I just getting old?) The voice acting is also fantastic.  Every VA does a great job, especially Eri Kitamura, who has to play Asano both sober and drunk on top of singing purposely off-key karaoke several times (Asano’s bad singing comes up a lot and is even weaponized to fight enemies a few times.)  I also have great respect for Iruka’s VA, whose throat probably went dry after having to generate weird screams from it so many times.  There’s no English dub, though, so if reading subtitles is a dealbreaker, this game isn’t for you.

It’s also worth mentioning that much of Our World Is Ended takes place in a setting modeled after the real-life Asakusa.  The famous Senso-ji Buddhist temple is prominently featured in the game, and the various locales that the crew frequents throughout are also real if the ending credits thanking those businesses are any indication.  Seems like Our World Is Ended is doubling as an Asakusa tourist guide, something like Akiba’s Trip was for Akihabara.  Pretty convenient if you’re planning a trip to Tokyo, isn’t it?  Well, not that playing this would help with your trip that much, but it’s still interesting to know some of the places in this game are based on real locales.

That’s Kaminarimon in the background, one of Tokyo’s landmarks. It shows up in quite a few other games as well.

However, all that’s just the icing on the cake.  The real substance of a visual novel is in the story.  When it comes to other kinds of games, you might be able to forgive an average or even a poorly-written plot and boring stock characters if the gameplay is fun.  But with a VN, if your story is garbage, your game is garbage.  So is Our World Is Ended garbage?

The short answer is no. It’s not the best VN I’ve ever read, and it wouldn’t even make my top ten list, but it is good.  However, I have a few qualifications to attach to my recommendation that I’ll get into below, along with an explanation of why I think the western critical reception of this game has been so poor and why I mostly disagree with their assessments of it.

Did I drink beer while the Sun was out last weekend while finishing this game? The answer is yes.

If you look this game up on Google, you’ll find it has lousy Metacritic ratings, ranging from the 40s to the 50s as of this writing depending upon which version you’re looking at. As I see it, there are a few reasons for these low scores. First, this is a visual novel, and a straight up no-apologies visual novel at that. Almost no frills, bells or whistles, no puzzles or point-and-click exploration sections or drink-mixing minigames to be found here. The closest thing Our World Is Ended has to a gameplay mechanic, “Selection of Soul”, is really just a jazzed-up version of the usual branching dialogue choice in which the choices scroll across the screen, forcing you to make a snap decision.  It’s a novel addition, but it’s not enough for the game to disguise itself as anything other than a VN.  And unfortunately, visual novels still seem to be a hard sell in the West even to the typical “hardcore gamer” set, leaving that good old core weeb audience I mentioned above, which tends to have tastes that run a bit counter to the mainstream. That’s especially true of this game about a small-time Japanese game developer that’s been translated into English.

One of many Selection of Soul sequences in the game. Making a lunch order has never been so stressful

Second, these reviewers seem to have expected something different out of Our World Is Ended from what they got. From reading their reviews, it looks like they expected a capital-S Serious story about the dangers of virtual reality and of advanced technology in general and how their use and abuse might affect everyday life. While Our World Is Ended does touch on those issues, the plot when taken on its own is pretty thin compared to what you can find in stuff like Steins;Gate and the Zero Escape series.  No, the real meat of the game is rather in its diversely strange cast of characters and their relationships with each other and with Reiji in particular. It also doesn’t take itself very seriously, because it’s essentially a dating sim wrapped in a sci-fi drama casing (yes, complete with romantic endings with the ladies* and joke endings with the guys based on Reiji’s dialogue choices.)

Finally, most of these reviewers take issue with the game’s script, specifically with all its sex jokes. This ties in with the above complaint, the idea being that all the lewd stuff drags the game down into the realm of mere fanservice. You might have guessed at this point that I have no problem with the fanservicey aspects of the game, but not just because I’m a fucking weirdo (well, I am, but that’s beside the point here.) Part of it has to do with the game’s unusual structure. Instead of having the typical rising action/climax/denouement setup you might expect, Our World Is Ended is layered like a lasagna.  Only instead of strips of pasta and meat/cheese, the ingredients are “sci-fi apocalypse hacker drama” and “wacky summer sex comedy”.  So as you play, you have some of one, then some of the other Reiji and co. have their lives imperiled in the virtual world of Akashic, and right after getting out of that jam they have a rooftop barbecue/visit a nearby bathhouse/take a vacation at a seaside inn with all the hijinks you’d expect, then they return to Akashic and almost die again in a different manner than they almost died last time, and this pattern continues almost to the very end of the game.  The result is that if you don’t like one of these two ingredients, you won’t like the game, because the two can’t be separated.  You know, just like a lasagna.

Owari hits on an NPC he programmed in virtual Asakusa. Bonus Japanese lesson: the 変態 on Owari’s shirt are the kanji for “hentai”. Dude is such a pervert he wears a shirt that says “PERVERT” on it. Also, please don’t ask why I know this word but barely any of the others.

This might make it sound like the game has a problem with wild tonal shifts, but it really doesn’t, because none of the more lighthearted scenes feel shoehorned in. Although the members of Judgment 7 all have exaggerated quirks, they’re written well enough that they always act consistent with those quirks and in ways that make sense to them, and considering the shit the crew goes through, it makes sense for all of them to go on a vacation or have a party to let loose.  And while some players will certainly be put off by the boob jokes and the ogling at the girls in their swimsuits at the beach and all the typical anime-flavored fanservice, the fact that this game is at least half sex comedy isn’t a bad thing in itself. Not every game has to be completely stone-faced and serious, and not every game has to be PG-rated (though it bears repeating that it’s not R-rated either being an all-ages game on Steam, it doesn’t have anything even approaching a sex scene.)

However, Reiji does get into about five dozen of these kinds of misunderstandings that only exist in anime/manga/visual novel series.

That’s not to say Our World Is Ended is perfect. When this game gets hold of a running joke, it keeps it running until the joke is exhausted and dry heaving on the side of the track. Asano gets a raw deal in this respect, receiving constant jabs about her “saddening” nature and her small bust, one of which she can’t help, and as for the other, I don’t see anything wrong with pounding a few beers and singing karaoke alone. These and a few other jokes get pretty damn worn out before the game ends. The writers also pull the “you think you and/or your friends are being killed by the bad guys, but it was really just a simulation within a simulation and you’re fine” trick a few times, which is annoying because that’s a trick that only works once.  The first time it happens in the game, it’s impactful as hell.  The rest of the times not so much, because you know it’s a trick at that point. And though I maintain that this game doesn’t have a tone problem, some of the plot’s finer points can get lost among all the comedy bits.  That’s less a problem with tone and more a problem with focus, I guess.  It’s not even really much of a problem, honestly, unless you’re looking for something profound and deadly serious, in which case Our World Is Ended is not your game anyway.

Finally, while the game’s translation looks mostly okay, the script has way too many typos. There isn’t a constant stream of them, but there are enough to be noticeable. I don’t know what kind of budget PQube was working with, but surely they could have hired a proofreader or two? There aren’t any Ever17 “Naturally, I knows the hacker”-level screwups, but a few lines come close.

None of that really bothers me too much, though (well, aside from the typos; those still bother me.) Because the real drama in Our World Is Ended doesn’t lie in Lab 13’s plot against Tokyo, but rather in the relationships between the members of Judgment 7 as the constantly changing virtual world forces them to face their insecurities.  Yuno and Asano both face up to their repressed fears stemming from their rough childhood together after their parents died.  Natsumi confronts her fear of losing her remaining friends in Judgment 7 after the death of their former director Reina and accepts that her Dark Angel of Chaos act is just that – an act.  On the way to the true ending, Reiji acknowledges and stands up to his fear that he’ll never measure up to Reina as a game director and that he’ll never be a true member of the team.  Even Reina, despite being a virtual copy of a deceased person, goes through a bit of a character arc, and one that’s not just played as a cheap tearjerker as you might expect.  The world of Akashic provides the challenges necessary for these characters to change and grow.  It also gives them plenty of opportunities to interact with their own game characters in fun ways, even when said game characters are trying to murder them.

I can’t even really explain the context of this scene, I don’t even remember

So sure, Our World Is Ended has a few rough edges, and it doesn’t really do or say anything new, but by the end I didn’t care. The characters were a lot of fun to watch as they dragged the hapless Reiji along into their insane schemes and fought against and then alongside their own game characters to save Tokyo from destruction.  And it does actually have some genuinely moving parts to it, despite initially coming off as a mere fanservice game.  It’s more than that.  I still wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who’s not into visual novels or anime comedy stylings, and it doesn’t rise to the level of some of the really great VNs I’ve played, but it’s an enjoyable game with a lot of character, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to be dismissed out of hand.

I had to really think about what score to give Our World Is Ended, and I settled on a 5 out of 7.  That’s a pretty high 5, though.  Maybe more like a 5½.  Shit, I’m breaking my own stupid rating system now.  Well, whatever.  I liked this game.  That $60 price tag for the console versions is a little steep, though, especially considering the fact that the game is only about 25 to 30 hours long, which is not overly long for a VN of this kind.  It’s more reasonably priced on Steam, and if you see it featured in a sale, I’d say it’s worth springing for.

***

*Here I should address the fact that Tatiana does get a route as well, and she’s also involved in some of the more lightweight comedy of lewd errors parts of Our World Is Ended. Even though she’s a genius programmer, she’s also just a kid, both in terms of her age and maturity level, so this might come off as weird to some players. A few reviewers have even dragged this game over the coals for it, and one in particular stopped playing it for that reason alone (I’m talking about Mike Fahey of Kotaku; his non-review of Our World Is Ended comes up on the first page of the game’s Google results.) I could explain how the game doesn’t actually sexualize Tatiana, or how it even discourages perving on her and figuratively kicks you (i.e. Reiji) in the dick for doing so during the Selection of Soul decision branches, but Pete Davison of MoeGamer has already thoroughly addressed the issue here, so I defer to him.

Avoiding the Poochie Effect, or why I’m slightly nervous about Persona 5 Royal

Just slightly.  One percent nervous and 99 percent excited, maybe.

I guess this post won’t be of any interest to you if you haven’t already played or were never planning to play Persona 5, but either way, you’ve likely heard that it’s getting an expansion/director’s cut in the form of Persona 5 Royal, to be released next year.  See above for the new trailer released during E3 this week complete with English dubbing.  This is nothing new for the Persona series; Persona 3 and Persona 4 went through the same process.  The results have been good so far: Persona 3 FES and Persona 4 Golden were both excellent games that added to the experience of the originals, and I believe Persona 5 Royal will be just as good.  However, any time a new character is announced to be added to the main cast, there’s a risk that character will fall victim to the Poochie Effect.

I guess I can’t just assume everyone knows what I’m talking about.  Especially if you’re in your early twenties or younger and you don’t remember a time when The Simpsons was funny or relevant.  To find such a time, we have to go back to 1997 and Season 8 of the series (well, Seasons 9 and 10 had their moments too) to the episode “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”.  This episode is centered around The Itchy & Scratchy Show, an in-universe popular and extremely cartoonishly violent show that I think was meant to be the writers’ take on Tom & Jerry and similar stuff.  The TV executives in charge of the show decide to spice it up with a new character, a talking dog named Poochie, to add to the original ultraviolent cat and mouse duo (of course voiced by Homer, despite Homer being a pretty lousy voice actor.)  However, the audience reaction to Poochie isn’t quite what those executives expected.

Poochie ends up backfiring on the studio so badly that the executives famously axe the character in the following episode by sending him to his “home planet” and saying he died on the way just for good measure.  The audience hated this character so much that they cheer his death, and Itchy & Scratchy immediately wins that audience back as a result.

This Simpsons episode addresses the pitfalls of adding a character to an already established and beloved cast.  Said new character has to prove that they’re just as worthy of the audience’s love as the rest of the cast, so character traits that could be perceived as annoying or obnoxious work against them even more than they would had they been around from the beginning.  Even worse if members of the original cast spend time with and fawn over the newcomer for seemingly no reason other than that they’re a new character who needs screen time.  For a real-life instance of this very thing, look up Scrappy-Doo, Scooby-Doo’s annoying puppy nephew who Hanna-Barbera inserted into the existing cast of Scooby-Doo and who the actual real-life audience hated.  In fact, it seems likely that Poochie is a direct reference to Scrappy-Doo, since that show was airing when some of the Simpsons writers would have been kids.  In any case, the warning is clear: if you’re going to write a new character into your story, make sure they don’t come off like a writer’s pet who only exists to be praised by everyone around them for no reason.

So what’s any of that got to do with the Persona series?  It’s probably obvious at this point that I’m talking about Marie from Persona 4 Golden.  Marie was a completely new character who wasn’t even mentioned in the vanilla version of Persona 4 because she almost certainly didn’t exist at that time, not even as a concept.  Despite first meeting her in Inaba, the town P4 is set in, the protagonist discovers that Marie is actually connected with the Velvet Room, an extra-dimensional space managed by Igor and his assistant Margaret where he can fuse Personas and all that business.  However, Marie isn’t exactly a Velvet Room attendant like Margaret or her siblings.  Her role in Persona 4 Golden is quite different.  I won’t get into what it is exactly, but Marie does figure into one of the side-plots inserted into P4G, and also the protagonist can romance her, because it’s a Persona game and of course he can.

It’s just not worth it, Souji.  Trust me.

While Persona 4 Golden turned out to be a hit – seemingly one of the few on the Vita – Marie was most definitely not a hit.  She’s one of the very few characters in the Persona series who’s outright hated by a lot of fans.  Why?  It could have to do with the fact that she acts like a temperamental teenager throughout most of the game, or that she writes poems of exactly the type a temperamental teenager would write that you’re forced to read every so often when you enter the Velvet Room.  Or that despite her irritating qualities, the members of the Investigation Team who make up the main P4 cast all seem to like her for no real reason, other than that she’s hanging out with the protagonist.

Whatever the case, a lot of fans really disliked Marie.  The only other major character in a Persona game who draws this much ire from the audience is probably Yukari Takeba from Persona 3 because of her haughty attitude, but Yukari is around from the very beginning of Persona 3, while Marie is a newcomer to the cast in Golden.  So Yukari more or less gets a pass, while Marie doesn’t.  The funniest part of all this is that unlike the studio executives in The Simpsons, Atlus hasn’t sent Marie back to her home planet.  She’s appeared in almost every P4 spinoff released since, including Persona Q, Persona Q 2, Persona Arena Ultimax, and Persona 4: Dancing All Night, either as a DLC character or a character in the game proper.  Maybe the Japanese fans who make up the primary market for these games don’t hate Marie at all, or maybe Atlus just doesn’t care.

That brings us to Persona 5 Royal.  Almost all of the buzz surrounding P5R is centered on Kasumi Yoshizawa, the new cast member.  Not much is known about Kasumi aside from what we’ve seen of her in the trailers: that just like Akira, she’s a transfer student to Shujin Academy who has Persona-summoning abilities.  It’s pretty obvious that Kasumi joins the Phantom Thieves at some point in P5R, but what’s not clear is whether she’s a true friend or an enemy planning to betray the group.

She also has a huge appetite.  Just look at that lunch, it’s practically packed in a damn shipping container.

Since this character was made public, she seems to have gotten nothing but love from the fans.  However, since we don’t really know anything about Kasumi’s characterization or her role in the story yet, who’s to say she won’t fall into the same trap Marie did?  Character quirks that would normally be endearing can become irritating under the wrong circumstances, and Marie’s quirks fell into that latter category for a lot of players.  Just like Marie, Kasumi has to convince the player that she’s worthy of joining a beloved cast of characters.  The fact that the fans like her now might turn out to be a moot point.

Hell, this whole post might be moot.  Kasumi looks like she’ll be a cool character.  She seems to be a cheery, spunky kind of girl, and people like that.  Either way, I’ll be preordering Persona 5 Royal.  Because I’m an idiot who will buy anything Atlus puts out, but also because Persona 5 was really good, so the expanded version of P5 has got to be good as well, even if Kasumi ends up falling flat on her face in terms of fan reception.

School counselor Takuto Maruki is also a new character, but because he’s not a cute girl, nobody cares. Sorry, man.

So either Kasumi turns out to be a hated character and this was prophetic, in which case I won’t be happy because I want to like her, or she doesn’t and I just wrote 1,300 words about nothing at all.  This is what happens when I have a sick day and can’t go to work: I drink Robitussin and write nonsense.  Hell, I didn’t even hate Marie that much myself, and I’m sure there were players who liked her.

I’m going back to bed.  You can chalk this one up to a case of delirium.  Do your best to avoid summer colds, everyone.

Games for broke people, master hunter edition

You might have inferred from reading some of my posts here that I’m not an outdoors sort of person, and that inference would have been absolutely correct. I hate camping, hiking, trekking, kayaking, and being present in or near sunlight. I like the idea of nature, but I prefer to keep a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your perspective) distance from it. So you can rest assured that the closest I’ve ever gotten to hunting was playing Duck Hunt on the NES.  No real-life hunting for me, thanks.

But who needs real-life hunting when we have itch.io? The following free games all involve hunting as a mechanic.  Well, sort of.  One game involves hunting, and the other two games are square pegs I try desperately to pound into the round hole that is the theme of this post.  Did I succeed?  You be the judge.

Foxhunt

Not a literal foxhunt, with hounds and horses and all that stuff, so you know I’m more or less breaking the theme of the post already.  Not that I’d really want to play a game like that anyway.  No, Foxhunt is instead a short surreal puzzle game set in a very small looping area that looks like the middle of the Antarctic Desert.  The object of the game is to solve puzzles by following clues on cards scattered around the few abandoned structures and mechanisms in the environment.  These clues have been left by “The Fox”, who may or may not be the white fox that keeps showing up to check in on you before running away and disappearing again when you get too close to it (see the screenshot on the right.)  Then again, how would a fox write notes like this with its paws?  Maybe I’m overthinking this.

I found Foxhunt to be pretty nice for what it is.  The game was interesting enough to keep me playing through the 30 to 45 minutes it took to solve all of its puzzles, and some of the design elements makes me think Anomalina, the creator(s) of the game, was influenced by old adventure/puzzle games like Mystand Riven.  I also have to mention the piano that makes up the game’s background music; it makes for the perfect atmosphere.

Anyway, Foxhunt is worth checking out if you want to play a short puzzle game set in a tundra.  The last note in the game also suggests that the developer plans to expand on the ideas in Foxhunt, so they might be worth following.

Nonsense at Nightfall

The aptly titled Nonsense at Nightfall is the tale of a man who takes a sleeping pill that turns him into a cat, a fact that he takes very much in stride for some reason, because instead of immediately trying to turn himself back into a human, he decides to start looking for a mouse to eat (hence the hunting aspect of the game.  That’s not too much of a stretch, is it?)  This is another one of those Game Boy-ish games that seem to be so common on itch.io, I guess because they’re probably relatively easy to make and hold a bit of nostalgic value thanks to the old-school aesthetic.

Nonsense at Nightfall is only about half an hour long and consists of a few easy puzzles, a couple of weirdly creative twists, and a conclusion so obvious that it would have made me angry had the game been 1) not free and/or 2) longer than half an hour.  But since it’s a short free game, the dumb fourth-wall-breaking joke ending really isn’t so bad, and to be fair, developer Siegfried Croes does set it up decently.  This one was amusing enough to make me not regret downloading it, and that’s pretty much a thumbs up as far as these free games go.  Nice job, Mr. Croes.  Just, you know – if you make a longer game to follow up on this one, give it a more satisfying ending, okay?

Duck Hunt

It’s Duck Hunt.  Yeah, someone just made a port of the NES classic Duck Hunt (probably only considered a “classic” because it was included on that Super Mario Bros. cartridge that came bundled with every NES ever sold, but that’s another matter) and put it on itch.io as a browser game.  I’m pretty sure that’s not legal, even if you give Nintendo credit for their work.  But since Duck Hunt is 35 years old at this point, I can’t imagine Nintendo caring enough to threaten legal action.  Hell, everyone uses emulators these days, so what’s the difference?

Anyway, this port seems to be pretty faithful to the original game, with two exceptions.  The first is that you’re naturally not playing with the NES Zapper but rather with your mouse, and the second is that the dog doesn’t laugh at you for missing ducks.  At least he never did when I intentionally missed every duck and got a game over.  I know how much we all hated that god damn dog for laughing at us, but leaving the laughing dog animation out of Duck Hunt is like leaving the yeti out of SkiFree.  It’s just not the same game without it.  Or maybe I’m missing something here.  It’s been two decades and change since I last played Duck Hunt, so that’s possible.

Backlog review: Doki Doki Literature Club! (PC)

I tried to write a concise review of this game, but I found it impossible to discuss all its aspects I wanted to hit upon without setting out the proper context, so I dumped that review in the bin and started over.  This second take is by far the longest review I’ve ever written.  How long is that?  So long that this review has a preface.  I promise there’s a point to all of it, though.  

Well, I guess you can be the judge of that.

***

Doki Doki Literature Club! is a free English-language visual novel for PC, one that’s been sitting on my hard drive for quite a while now.  I kept telling myself I’d take it on eventually, and so I did over an evening after work, and well into the night.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a meaningful review of this game without getting into spoilers, but I don’t think I can. What I can say without spoiling the game (because the game itself gives the player a warning about this upon running for the first time) is that while Doki Doki Literature Club! looks like your usual cutesy dating sim VN, it deals with some very heavy subjects.  The cheerful theme and the colorful opening screen featuring the protagonist’s schoolmates wearing the world’s shortiest skirts* don’t tell the whole story behind this game.

Just your average visual novel, nothing to see here.

When I first checked it out, I didn’t think much of that fact.  I played a few VNs years ago like Yume Miru Kusuri that touched on similar issues.  But Doki Doki is different.  When the protagonist is pressured into joining his high school’s literature club by his ditzy childhood friend Sayori and meets her clubmates – the painfully reserved Yuri, the ultra-tsundere Natsuki, and the charismatic club president Monika – you might expect the usual choose-your-own-adventure style quest to win one of these girls’ hearts, but that’s not quite what you’ll get.

Massive honking spoilers regarding the game’s plot, characters, and endings follow under the below screenshot. If you haven’t played the game yet and don’t want to read any further, the short, spoiler-free version of my review ends with this: if you’re okay dealing with talk about depression, anxiety, and related issues, and you don’t mind some disturbing images, you should absolutely play Doki Doki Literature Club!  I promise it’s not just another dating sim.  Also, it’s free to download.  Also, it’s not an h-game, so no worries if you’re creeped out by those kinds of scenes, but it’s still not really for kids.

I know how it looks, but I promise it’s not like that.

I didn’t think a PC game could throw me for a loop again after I finished OneShot.  I already had some idea of the reputation Doki Doki Literature Club! (DDLC from now on, because I’m not planning to wear out my ctrl and v keys today) has as a horror game hidden in the shell of a generic dating sim, so I thought I was ready for anything.  But this game exceeded my expectations in that regard.  The way the game starts contrasts so greatly with where the game arrives at the end of the first playthrough that the effect has to be astounding if you weren’t expecting a twist at all.

So what makes DDLC so special?  If you’ve read this far, you’ve either played it already or don’t care about getting spoiled on it, so I’ll spill it here.  DDLC does indeed start out like your average dating sim visual novel set in a Japanese high school.  The player character is an average student who likes anime and video games, and every other character in the game is a cute girl who’s ready to fall madly in love with him despite the fact that there doesn’t seem to be anything remarkable about him.  The only thing that seems to be different about DDLC at first is the poetry minigame that separates each in-game day in which you have to go home and pick twenty words to dump into a poem to share with the club the next day.  Each of your three romantic targets (the short pink-haired Natsuki, the tall dark mysterious Yuri, and the chirpy, spaced-out Sayori – notice Monika isn’t an option; stick a pin in that fact because it’s important) has certain words she likes according to her personality, and your word choice determines which of them you get closer to.  Upon returning to the clubroom the next day, you share your poem with each of your clubmates, who usually shares her own poem in turn.

Wait, why is suicide an option?

Developer Team Salvato could have just left it at that, creating a nice little free romance VN for people to download on Steam and itch.io.  The characters are cute, the art is well done, and the writing is pretty good for your standard dating sim, especially for a free one.  Hell, the writer had to actually compose several poems written by each girl that fit her personality, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.  The only poem I’ve ever written was an obscene scrawl about being drunk and broke and horny that’s only fit for publication on the wall of a bathroom stall.

But no.  Instead of building a normal dating sim on this solid base, the creators chose to take that tried and true format apart and reassemble it into a game about crippling anxiety, suicidal depression, emotional abuse, and existential angst.  But did they pull it off?

I hope that’s not foreshadowing.

It’s not easy to write about the above-listed subjects in a realistic and tasteful way.  It’s even more difficult to write a piece of meta-fiction that weaves all these themes together.  Despite the initial cheery atmosphere of the literature club, each of these girls has some serious emotional baggage she’s dealing with.  Natsuki is raised by a single father who largely neglects her.  Yuri suffers from severe social anxiety to the point that she can barely hold a conversation if it’s not about literature, and it’s implied that she cuts herself.  Sayori hides a case of chronic depression behind an outwardly sunny disposition.  And Monika – well, Monika’s issue isn’t obvious at first, but it’s the one that causes the game to completely run off the rails in the end.

In a normal dating sim VN, the player, represented by the protagonist, pursues the girl he likes the best.  If all goes well (meaning he makes the right decisions when presented with branching dialogue and action paths) he’ll typically get a few increasingly intimate scenes with the girl and end up confessing his love to her or vice versa.  A nice, clean romance.  DDLC makes the player think that’s the path he’s headed down, and then it closes that path off completely, forcing him to take a detour into mind-bending uncanny valley horror land.  This shift in tone is driven partly by the psychological issues the other characters in the game are dealing with, in particular Sayori’s depression.

I don’t have a funny caption for this screenshot.

As the first act of the game goes on, Sayori starts to withdraw from the club’s activities to the point that even the dense as hell protagonist notices there’s something going on with her.  One day after telling him that she’s got depression, Sayori catches the protagonist in an awkward romantic-looking situation with either Yuri or Natsuki, then once she’s alone with him, she confesses her love to him as she breaks down sobbing.  You have the choice of either returning her love or calling her “your dearest friend” (that has to hurt) but either way, Sayori ends up hanging herself the next morning in her room.  When the protagonist stumbles upon her corpse hanging from the ceiling after checking in on her, he starts to lose his mind, a black screen with the word “END” pops up and the player is kicked back to the main menu, where Sayori seems to have been completely written over.

This… this isn’t right, is it?

The natural thing to do in a situation like this is reload your last save.  But guess what?  The game has god damn deleted all your saves.  All you can do at this point is click on the gibberish option at the top of the menu, which starts a new game, only with Sayori curiously absent.  This time around, Monika herself invites the protagonist to join her literature club, and you join Yuri and Natsuki as its newest member.  Sayori isn’t even mentioned, as if she’s been erased from existence.

This second act of DDLC is where things get really weird and broken.  Yuri and Natsuki start to suffer from bizarre graphical glitches, and their mutual rivalry that was on display in the first playthrough heats up to the point of vicious insults and R-rated name-calling.  Monika seems to be the only level-headed member of the club this this time around.  You might expect that she’s taken Sayori’s place as an option for romantic pursuit, but no, she’s still just a side character.  However, Monika starts to do some weird things too, dropping subtle hints that she somehow knows exactly what’s going on.

Monika, you’re in front of the dialogue box.  Why are you in front of the dialogue box.

The player still ostensibly has the option of romancing Yuri or Natsuki, but this time Yuri reveals her true form as a yandere who is obsessed with the protagonist, using her newly discovered yandere powers to drag him away from Natsuki and Monika at every opportunity.  And if you know anything about the yandere archetype, you know that you do not want to be the target of a yandere’s affections.

Please don’t.

However, Monika isn’t having it.  As Yuri and Natsuki fight over the protagonist, Monika tries pulling rank on them to get you to spend the weekend with her to work on the big festival project the club was planning both in this and the first act.  Yuri’s yandere powers overcome Monika’s efforts once again, but not for long – after confessing her love for the protagonist, Yuri inexplicably pulls out a kitchen knife and stabs herself in the heart.  The player is then stuck in the classroom all weekend with Yuri’s corpse, the passage of time marked by the sun setting and rising through the windows.  For some reason, the protagonist doesn’t get a chance to respond to any of this.  You’re still viewing the action through his eyes, but he’s now effectively absent for some reason.

On Monday morning, Natsuki and Monika return to school.  Natsuki acts like anyone else would upon seeing the two day-old corpse of her classmate – she vomits and runs out of the classroom in tears.  Monika, however, just laughs and apologizes to you for having to spend a boring weekend at school thanks to the “broken script”.  She then promises to fix the problem, opens a console at the corner of the screen, and deletes two files named yuri.chr and natsuki.chr.  She then decides to go all the way and deletes the rest of the world outside of the classroom.

The end?

At this point, it’s obvious what’s going on.  Monika is a self-aware game character – she’s known since the beginning of the game that she exists inside a dating sim and that nothing around her is real.  That even includes the protagonist, who is now definitely no longer around, or at least not around enough to say or think anything.  Monika is now talking directly to you, the player.  She confesses that she was the one screwing with the game.  She figured out how to alter the game files to aggravate Natsuki’s and Yuri’s character quirks in an attempt to make them more unlikable.  She even manipulated Sayori into killing herself when she saw her getting too close to the protagonist, and hence to the player.  Monika then expresses her love for you, the player, on the other side of the screen, and says that the two of you are now together forever.  Once again, it’s pointless to open the load menu – all the saves have been deleted, and restarting the game just brings up Monika again, who asks you why everything just went dark for a minute (echoes of OneShot there, though in a very different context.)

This might seem like the end of the game, but the astute player will likely be wondering what happens if Monika’s character file is deleted as well.  That’s the key to getting to the actual ending of the game, in which Monika’s file is destroyed but she still manages to exist long enough to feel bad for what she’s done and to restore the game and all its characters except for her.  This third act (or fourth act, if you want to count Monika’s void as the third act) is very short – basically a lead-in to the ending.  DDLC will end in one of two ways depending upon whether you managed to see every special event in the game before it throws you into the “broken” second act of the game.  In both cases, Sayori has taken Monika’s place as club president, and in the best ending she thanks you, the player, for being there for all the girls when they needed you most before ending the game – this time for good.

Turns out the whole horrific awareness of yourself as a game character thing is inherited by whoever becomes the club president. Sorry, Sayori.

I like the concept of DDLC.  I’m not sure anyone’s created a fake-out dating sim turned horror game before this one, or at least one that’s been written in or translated into English.  There have been visual novels that use the player’s perspective as a plot point to throw the player for a loop, but I haven’t played one that involves the player himself as a character quite like DDLC does.

More importantly, the creators put together DDLC in a clever way, dropping hints in the first act that something isn’t quite right and building upon that feeling in the second act, culminating in Monika’s deletion of the rest of the game world.  Monika has a few strange lines of dialogue in the first act that break the fourth wall (at one point, for example, she says that a joke Natsuki made based on a Japanese language pun using Monika’s name** “doesn’t work in translation”, then everyone looks puzzled for a second before the dialogue continues.) Monika’s poems also make references to her self-awareness as a game character, though these are naturally a lot more obvious during a second playthrough.  In fact, upon a second playthrough you’ll probably notice a lot of weird things that you passed over the first time around, like the fact that the protagonist doesn’t respond to Monika’s “Writing Tip of the Day” segment at the end of each day, nor to any of the weird fourth-wall breaking stuff going on in either the first or the second acts.  And the fact that in every one of her portraits, Monika is the only character who is always looking directly at the player.  This is the sort of thing that you just don’t notice when you’re playing a VN, and the game uses that fact to set the player up for the big twist at the end of the second act.

See, this is an extra-meta-joke because saving your game in DDLC is mostly pointless.

The second act does contain a few jumpscare-esque moments, but they’re not done in the stupid kind of way you might expect.  The best one involves Yuri giving you her third poem, which is a page full of gibberish covered in bloodstains and also a yellow stain that’s probably exactly what you think it is.  When you stop reading the poem, Yuri is standing six inches from the protagonist’s face looking at him in crazy-eyes mode (not the crazy eyes in the screenshot halfway up, but extra-crazy eyes) asking him what he thinks of it.  I’m not posting a screenshot of that because it is actually pretty god damn disturbing and I do not want to look at it again.  The writer and artist both make effective use of that uncanny horror feeling in the second act, especially with Yuri’s increasingly scary yandere side coming out.

There’s only one real fault I can find with DDLC.  The meta-fiction derailment of the story in the second act is clever and surprising, but it also prevents the game from more seriously addressing the emotional problems that the characters face.  I can imagine an alternate version of DDLC in which the protagonist has to try to romance one of his clubmates while considering not only her feelings but also the feelings of the other girls in the game.  DDLC starts down that path in the first act but goes in a different direction after Sayori’s suicide.  That’s not a bad thing in itself, but I feel like there was a missed opportunity here.  On the other hand, the meta-fiction element of the game is a big part of what makes it special, so I can’t complain too much about the path the creators decided to take.  At the very least, Monika’s existential crisis freakout gets solved in the end, though not in an entirely happy way.

Or you can hang out with Monika in the void forever. That’s not a bad option either.

And that’s all I have to say about Doki Doki Literature Club!  As far as plot, characters, crazy meta-fiction elements and attention to detail go, DDLC is extremely impressive, especially for a free visual novel.  You just don’t expect this kind of quality from a free VN you can download off of Steam or itch.io.  I certainly didn’t, which is probably part of why it took me so long to play this game.  It’s a real achievement, and I hope the developer stays in the business.  Maybe they can follow DDLC up with a reverse-twist by creating a VN that everyone expects to be bizarre and meta but that ends up being a completely normal dating sim.  Now that would be interesting. 𒀭

* This is a Futurama reference, which means that I’m not being perverted by pointing out the shortness of the characters’ skirts.  That’s how that works, right?

** Translator’s note: ika means squid.

Games for broke people, caffeinated edition

Coffee is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity.  Indeed, it’s one of the few things that makes life worth enduring.  If a doctor told me that I’d have to give up coffee or else die an early death, I would immediately find a probate attorney and draft my will, because there is no force in the universe that will keep me from my daily cups.

Sadly, coffee is not free, especially not if you’re buying that overpriced brew from Starbucks.  The following coffee-themed games, however, are free.  I downloaded these from itch.io, and they all involve coffee as a central theme, though perhaps not always in ways you’d expect.

Need More Coffee

 

You know how you’ll go out in the morning with no money in your pocket and an empty glass coffee cup in your hand, picking quarters up off the street so you can get enough to fill that cup with coffee at your local café?  And then you’ll run to the next café down the street while evading rabid dogs and weaving through dangerous, unprotected construction sites?

No?  You don’t do that?  Well neither do I, but we’re not the protagonist of Need More Coffee.  This Game Boy-ish title features a nameless man who must run from café to café while drinking coffee to keep his energy up, allowing him to run faster, jump higher, and clear all the obstacles in his way.  Drinking coffee fills up your “battery”, which is constantly draining.  And that’s a bad thing, because when your battery is empty all you can do is shuffle around and hop a little bit.  Unfortunately, this guy is pretty fragile, and even walking on a crack in the sidewalk will cause him to fall down completely incapacitated, which isn’t much fun. The idea behind using coffee as a sort of power-up/fuel in a platformer is interesting, but this game just makes me feel like I’m controlling a Game Boy version of my own out-of-shape self, which I really don’t enjoy at all.  The creator did a pretty good job capturing the look and feel of a Game Boy game, though, so good on him for that.

Cappuchino Spoontforce Deluxe VI: Girl of the Boiling Fury

That’s quite a title. Not only did these guys misspell cappuccino, but they made a title longer to say than it takes to actually play the game. And that’s almost not an exaggeration. According to the info on the developer’s itch.io page, Cappuchino Spoontforce stars Sajiko, a girl taking a bath in a cappuccino. Your object is to get points by adding milk and sugar to the drink with your constantly moving pitcher and tongs while maintaining its temperature by adding coffee. If the cappuccino gets cold, Sajiko gets angry, stands up, and shakes her fists at you as the game ends (don’t worry, she’s wearing a towel – not sure why she’d be taking a bath while wearing a towel, but who the hell takes a bath in coffee anyway?) Complicating matters is the fact that Sajiko keeps moving around, and it is possible to douse her in milk or coffee (ouch) or hit her in the head with a sugar cube, which seriously pisses her off and makes her more likely to quit her coffee bath. The game is pretty damn mean-spirited, though, because it gives you 500 points every time you successfully brain her with a sugar cube. Shit. The protagonists in these games aren’t getting any breaks, are they?

Okay, I have to be honest – I like this game, as bizarre as it is. It’s pretty difficult to keep the game going, trying to drop the ingredients in and around Sajiko to keep the coffee hot while trying not to hit her and piss her off. It’s a novelty, at least, and a pretty fun one for five or ten minutes. Definitely weird, though. But you probably already knew I was weird myself, so does it really come as a surprise that I’d enjoy something like this?

Coffee Physics

 

Coffee Physics is a game about throwing cups of coffee at people.  Or rather at sentient men’s bathroom sign figures who are constantly chasing you for some reason.  Tossing your coffee at these things will knock them over, but the chase continues until your stock is exhausted (that’s a lot of full coffee cups for one person to be carrying, though – maybe they’re all stored in a holster or a bandolier that we’re not seeing.)  You can also run around town knocking over objects, because this is one of those games where everything, no matter how solid you’d think it is, has the density of styrofoam.

I don’t like these kinds of games, but maybe you do.  In any case, it’s free, so if you really feel like throwing coffee at vaguely person-shaped objects, playing this game is probably the easiest and most legal way to do it.