A review of Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk (PS4)

It took a while, but I’m happy to say that my gap between Atelier games this time wasn’t nearly as long as my last one — six years between Rorona and Meruru, and only eight months between Meruru and Ayesha, the next game in the line chronologically (though yeah, I know Totori is still missing in that list, and I do intend to take care of that at some point. But I did finish this one, so let me bask in that for now at least. Finishing an Atelier game always feels like a big accomplishment.)

Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk originally came out on the PS3 in 2012, but like the Arland games that preceded it, it got an upgraded Plus release on the Vita and the DX version that I played on the PS4, along with ports on the Switch and PC. With this game, however, we’re leaving behind the colorful world of Arland and traveling to a somewhat bleaker one. Atelier Ayesha and the following two titles Atelier Escha & Logy and Atelier Shallie compose the Dusk trilogy, which takes place in a completely different world from that of the Arland games, one that’s falling apart: the World of Dusk, appropriately named for the time of the day just before night falls. From the very beginning of Ayesha, we learn that plant life has been dying off and sources of nutrition are becoming scarcer in this world, forcing humanity to conserve its resources to survive.

But the story of the game is a lot more personal than that might suggest. We’re not out to save the world, but rather one person. The protagonist, Ayesha Altugle, is an apothecary who makes and sells medicine, but for years she’s also been mourning her younger sister, Nio, who disappeared one day while gathering herbs in a nearby ruin. At the beginning of the game, Ayesha visits the grave built for Nio in the same ruins and sees a brief ghostly vision of her sister above the headstone.

She’s not sure what to make of this vision at first and thinks it might be a hallucination brought on by grief. However, a mysterious man named Keithgriff who happens to be examining the ruins at the same time tells her that her sister isn’t dead and can be returned to their world, but only if Ayesha studies the secrets of alchemy. Before leaving, he also tells her that she probably only has three years to save Nio before she’s lost forever (yes, that old time limit from the Arland series is back again.)

Of course, we already know Ayesha is at least a beginner alchemist. She’s the protagonist of an Atelier game, after all. In fact, Ayesha uses alchemy to make medicine using methods her grandfather taught her, but she doesn’t realize that she’s using alchemy and isn’t even familiar with the term at first. While alchemy is well-known in the world of Arland, in the Dusk series, it seems to be a nearly lost art remembered only by scholars and professionals who have had to piece it together from old reference books and the scraps of past knowledge.

Ayesha is now convinced that Nio is still alive somewhere, so lacking any other lead, she decides to place her trust in Keithgriff’s promises and sets out on a journey to start learning about alchemy and to meet a few old friends and a lot of new ones, all of whom can help her in various ways.

Pictured center, my combat MVP Linca, and right, best girl Marion, out on government business.

There’s not much more to the central story than that. Ayesha has three years to save her sister, and aside from taking on some odd jobs to make money and following character-specific side stories, that’s what you’ll spend this three years working towards. Making it to that goal doesn’t automatically end the game, however: you’ll still have your three years to play with no matter what, time that can be used to prepare for a much easier second run with the benefits that a new game plus provides (rolling over your equipped weapons/armor/accessories, equipped “adventure” items that help you save time while traveling around the map and collecting ingredients among other things, specialized alchemy bonuses, items registered in shops, and money.)

As in previous Atelier games I’ve played, this takes a bit of the sting off of a bad end, since it more or less guarantees you’ll get it right the second time assuming you’ve properly prepared by equipping all the necessary items and selling off all your other items and ingredients before that second cycle begins. While they’re all helpful, that money carryover is especially nice, since I was perpetually short of Cole my first playthrough. All those alchemy books are expensive, but you’re required to buy them to learn new recipes and make more effective items.

Ayesha, just finding out she’s graduated from medicine-maker to weapons manufacturer.

This is only the third Atelier game I’ve played, and the first outside of the Arland series, so it partly felt like revisiting an old series but partly like playing a new one. There are plenty of similarities between Ayesha and the Arland titles I’ve played other than the imposition of a time limit. As before, the alchemy system is a central part of the gameplay. Learning how to efficiently gather ingredients in the field and create healing, support, and attack items with useful attributes is vital to doing well, both in combat and in fulfilling the requests of the townspeople and travelers you’ll come across in the course of Ayesha’s journey. The game also uses a traditional JRPG-style turn-based combat system with the twist once again that the alchemist character Ayesha is the only one who can use items, giving her an extremely important support role in battle.

However, there are more than enough differences between the two sub-series I’ve found so far to make Ayesha feel like a fresh experience. While alchemy is again a critical part of the game, the system you’ll have to learn is very different, involving synthesis restrictions and bonuses and special abilities that weren’t present in the Arland games. Having to learn this new system of alchemy was a little jarring coming off of Meruru, but it was intuitive enough not to be annoying to figure out, and pretty soon I was used to it. It does feel more complex than the alchemy system in Arland, so new players might be slightly intimidated by all the point values and effects and all the other numbers that go into even the simplest synthesis, but the game also has tutorials to watch if you need anything clarified.

I promise this all makes sense once you have it down.

Another big difference in Ayesha and the Dusk trilogy as a whole is the artistic direction. Artist and character designer Hidari’s style has a very different feel from Mel Kishida’s, but I still like it a lot. The game’s world and characters as a whole feel less colorful than they did in Arland, but that fits in well with the dying world of Dusk, and it all still manages to look beautiful in its own right (though I do miss the visual novel-style character portraits during dialogue that we got throughout Arland, but those seem to be gone forever at this point. Maybe I’m just being behind the times here.)

And the characters are still colorful enough in the figurative sense, at least. Ayesha’s old and new friends alike are an interesting set of people of all kinds — miners, merchants, shopkeepers, shepherds, and government officials among others, all with their own quirks and their parts to play in the story. As in Rorona and Meruru, these supporting characters aren’t one-note types but feel sufficiently fleshed out, and there are plenty of entertaining side stories to play through while you take on the central tasks of improving your combat and alchemy skills and taking the necessary steps to find and rescue Nio.

All business in town goes through Marietta, and don’t forget it

It’s also worth noting one major positive I found in Ayesha that I felt to be an improvement in that “quality of life” area. When Keithgriff told Ayesha on day one that she’d have three years to save Nio, I knew exactly what that meant — you have three years to get this done, no exceptions. Meruru also had a strict three-year time limit to achieve its central goal, though with a two-year extension and a new target if you managed to achieve it in that period.

Princess Meruru’s goal of “show Dad I can help the kingdom through alchemy so he’ll let me do what I want with my life” was not quite as urgent or serious as Ayesha’s goal of “save my sister from the shadow realm”, but thankfully, Ayesha offsets this by being more forgiving. As before, traveling across the map between towns and field/dungeon areas eats up days, as does gathering ingredients in field areas and using these ingredients to synthesize new items at the workshop. But unlike Meruru, who had to return to Totori’s atelier to do all her alchemy, Ayesha gets to set up several ateliers all over the land, making it easier to manage her time. Battles in Ayesha also feel like they take a lot less time off of the clock than they did before, though I’d have to go back to play Meruru again to say that for sure.

A very early-game battle including Ayesha’s old friend Regina and her new friend Wilbell. Your party is capped at three members, your main character plus two extras as in earlier games. Remember to have Ayesha use those items in combat, because they make her life and yours a lot easier.

Really, as long as you don’t spend months running around in circles or synthesizing items you don’t need, it’s not too hard to reach your goal before time runs out. I had about eight months left on the calendar when I was finished, and my run was not an optimal first pass at the game by any means. I still don’t know if I’d say that Ayesha is necessarily the place to start for an Atelier newcomer who might not be comfortable with the time limit, since it can be a source of stress — I haven’t played any of them yet, but I understand that the later Mysterious trilogy and the Ryza games drop that element altogether. But Ayesha does feel more forgiving about time management than past games,* so I wouldn’t warn new players off of it either.

I used to be a bit bothered by the forced time management aspect of these games myself, but thinking about it now in a more positive light, that time limit can help keep you on track, focused on the central goal of the game. There’s no running around and carrying out lighthearted sidequests while the horrible impending apocalypse is indefinitely put on hold, as happens in so many non-linear RPGs. These PS3-era Atelier games are a bit more linear for that reason, but they don’t exactly shove you down a single track either; you still get to choose exactly how to achieve your goals. Hell, if you don’t mind getting a bad end and restarting with an easier second run, that’s an option too. Admittedly not an ideal one, but with how many endings they feature, these games are made to be played multiple times anyway, another aspect that sets them apart from most other JRPGs.

Ayesha out in the field near the end of Year 1. The calendar always starts on April 1 for some reason, so it will flip to Year 2 once March is done.

In any case, I was thankful for the relative leniency of Ayesha, even if that three-year time limit was never really explained very well (why three years exactly? It made sense in Meruru, but here it seems arbitrary. Maybe Keithgriff knows the reason and he’s just not telling us, which would be completely in character.) Though I still had to manage my time, I didn’t feel like I was on quite as short of a leash as I did when I was playing Meruru. I also didn’t feel the need to reload an old save this time thanks to some bullshit moving dungeon that contained an ingredient I didn’t realize I absolutely needed until it had already moved, causing me to lose a few in-game months that I couldn’t do without. While I generally don’t mind the time limits in the Atelier series so far, that absolutely pissed me off. Unlike Meruru, Ayesha didn’t fuck around with me in that manner, which I consider a plus.

On the other hand, I enjoyed the world of Arland a bit more, though part of that might have been seeing old characters I knew and liked from Rorona show up again. I wouldn’t say I have any real nostalgia for 2014, when I played my first Atelier game (it was also when I finished my first year at law school, which was an ordeal that I don’t have totally positive memories of) but it did add something to the experience. There also wasn’t nearly as much talk about making pie in Ayesha as there was in those older games, or any at all from what I remember. I’m more of a cake guy, but I like pie as well, and the inability to synthesize it in this game was a bit of a drawback.

These chicken pastry things are the closest you can get, and though they do look good, I don’t think they count as pies in the traditional sense.

Bullshit aside, Ayesha really did have a very different feel from the Arland games, but I enjoyed it more than enough to move on to the next game in the Dusk series. I own the entire Dusk trilogy in its deluxe package form on the PS4, and I plan to make it through the whole thing this year. That’s my hope, at least. I’ve heard especially good things about the following game Atelier Escha & Logy, which I’ve already started as of this writing, so I look forward to seeing how it measures up and how it carries on the wider story of the World of Dusk.

I’m also looking forward to hearing more of the series’ music. I’m already loving the jazz lounge class of Escha & Logy, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. Ayesha has an excellent soundtrack, anyway, which seems to be standard for the series. One of the songs, according to the composer’s notes in the game’s library, even features 17 Haruka Shimotsukis. If you know that name, you’ll instantly know the song I’m talking about when you hear it. 𒀭

 

*I’ve heard Totori is even more demanding with regard to the time limit, but again, I haven’t played it yet so I can’t say. Maybe once I get Japanese down well enough, I’ll try to play the original JP release. That could be an interesting measure of my skills, or possibly a slap in the face when I realize I still can’t read kanji beyond a second-grade level.

Deep reads #5.4: Gods and devils

This is the last in my deep reads post series about Megami Tensei, though it’s certainly not the last time I’ll ever write about the series. I can absolutely guarantee that. This one deals a lot with religion in the context of the games, so if you don’t care to read about that, then you probably shouldn’t read it. Otherwise, have a good time! Maybe. That’s for you to judge, not me.

***

I was raised to fear God. Depending on your perspective, this might sound like a strange thing to teach a child. Quite a scary one as well, and in some sense it was. But in the Islamic tradition, it’s completely normal and even natural. The existence of an omnipotent creator of the universe and judge of humanity is taken for granted, as is the fact that this creator and judge is good, forgiving, and just. And in the various places I’ve lived for most of my life, the term “God-fearing man/woman” was a synonym for a good person, which tells you a lot about the values of the cultures I grew up in.

I’m not writing this post to debate the existence of God, gods, angels, demons, spirits, or the supernatural in general with anyone. You may certainly disagree, but to me, that seems like a pretty useless debate to have. If these exist, then they exist; if they don’t, they don’t — there’s nothing any of us can do about that either way. I won’t criticize anyone for their religious belief or lack thereof, either; life is such a miserable shitshow as far as I’m concerned that any way you can find to get through it is fine as long as you’re not hurting or intruding on the rights of other people in the process.1

However, the ways in which people think about religion and the supernatural are really interesting to me. Though Islam is one of the largest religions in the world, there were very few Muslims where I grew up, and there were none at all at my school who I knew of aside from me. This probably gave me a different perspective than my friends from Christian families had about religion in general; since I knew my family’s beliefs were very different from theirs in some ways, I had to accept that most of the people around us didn’t believe in the same way we did.

And maybe that perspective helped me get into Megami Tensei. Because out of every game series that I’ve ever played, MegaTen would probably be considered by strict adherents of any of the Abrahamic religions to be the most sacrilegious.2 Certainly it could come off that way at first glance, without even giving it a second look — just check out the cover of Persona 3 FES, the expanded version of the very first game in the series I bought and the first real breakout the series had here in the US:

Yeah, that is a pentagram in the background, behind the silhouette of Aigis. I think it’s meant to be a magic circle, which would make sense considering its origins. It seems to be a modified version of the older symbol used on the covers of Shin Megami Tensei I and II, which feature a six-pointed star and a more elaborate design in general with what I think is Loki’s face in the middle as a reference to his summoning by Nakajima in the original novel. However, over here, when people see a pentagram, the usual assumption is that it’s associated with some kind of devil business. The fact that the pentagram design specifically was used only in the West had to be deliberate on the part of Atlus — it’s also on the NA cover of Nocturne, maybe put on to add some extra edge (which honestly wasn’t necessary in my opinion, but if it attracted some edgy kid gamers I guess so much the better for their sales.)

In a way, it might have been a good thing that Megami Tensei had a very low profile in the West before P3. By the mid-2000s, the controversies connected to supposed Satanic references in popular media had died down, but in the late 90s they were still going strong. This may have been a result of the larger “Satanic Panic” of the late 80s and 90s generally, during which you couldn’t turn a corner without finding a den of devil-worshipers carrying out a sacrifice — or at least that was what people were saying at the time. I was either not alive or way too young for most of that period to notice that kind of talk or to care about it even if I had, but I do remember the continuing scare in the late 90s that most prominently involved Harry Potter and Pokemon.

The supposed Pokemon links were just silly, probably a result of some parents confused by all these weirdly popular creatures and thinking there must be something sinister about them. At least Harry Potter actually dealt with witchcraft, though the hero of that series and his friends were decidedly good wizards and witches fighting against evil ones, so even that doesn’t fit the bill of a Satan-inspired work. No — if the upset parent groups had really wanted something to be scared by, they should have raised the alarm over Megami Tensei, a series of games that actually featured Lucifer and that even let you join his cause and fight against God himself if you so desired.

(And here’s where I start getting into the actual theology, so please correct me if I get something wrong. Though I have an interest in it, I’m a total amateur in this area.)

“Louis Cyphre” as depicted in Shin Megami Tensei by Kazuma Kaneko. He never bothered trying too hard with his pseudonyms, at least not in the early days.

And Lucifer himself would have been the source of a lot of this controversy. While he doesn’t seem to figure into Judaism very much or at all, in Christian tradition, Lucifer was originally one of the prominent angels in the service of God. But this prominence made him prideful, and he eventually led a failed rebellion against God, who tossed him and the rebel angels who joined him into Hell. Lucifer is sometimes depicted as a sort of king of Hell, ruling over vast legions of demons, including many of his fellow fallen angels featured in old European grimoires like The Lesser Key of Solomon and The Infernal Dictionary. Lucifer is also generally equated with Satan and is often simply referred to as “the Devil”, the one who tempts humans to sin so he can drag them down to Hell when they die.

Islamic tradition contains a similar story about the rebellion against God, only Lucifer is named Iblis and is considered by many Muslims to have been not an angel but rather a powerful djinn, a supernatural being with free will and the source of the genie legend that we know over here. But the gist of the story is the same — Iblis refuses to accept God’s command (in this case, by vocally disapproving of his plan to create humanity) and gets cast out of Heaven and thrown into Hell, but with special permission to tempt humans to sin once again. And in both traditions, it’s implied that he’s the serpent who causes the fall of man by convincing Eve to eat a fruit from the tree of knowledge, who then got Adam to eat the same fruit, and then we were all royally boned and had to till the soil and all that nonsense for thousands of years.

As with just about every element of our religious traditions, there are a lot of disagreements over much of the above between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and between members of sects and schools within those religions, and even of sects within some of those sects — for example, over whether Lucifer and Satan are the same or are distinct beings,3 over his or their origins, over whether he even exists, over whether or how an apocalypse will go down and how he might be involved in it, etc. etc. What really interests me in this case, however, is the relationship Lucifer, or the Devil, or whatever you want to call him has with God and with humanity, how those play out in the universe of MegaTen, and what that might mean for religious believers who might not be comfortable with its interpretations.

Mastema, an angel loyal to God, as depicted in SMT: Strange Journey offering support to you and your friends. But is he really trustworthy?

The biggest difference between these traditional interpretations and the ones found in MegaTen as I see it is based in the Law vs. Chaos system used so often in the series. In tradition, God is absolutely good and Lucifer/Satan is absolutely evil.

There are very old, famous interpretations of Lucifer than are more nuanced that that. The best-known of these is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which depicts him as a tragic figure. The Devil is also featured briefly in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, not laughing maniacally over his kingdom but rather trapped in a mass of ice in the center of Hell, uncontrollably weeping over his fate and being frozen in by his own tears.

However, in both these works, Lucifer is still considered to be evil, or at best extremely misguided. By contrast, in the Megami Tensei universe, Lucifer is not at the evil end of a good-evil scale but rather at the chaotic end of a law-chaos scale, with God or an avatar of God at the law end. One of the results of this difference is that the games don’t put any particular moral weight on your choice between the two, leaving you to make that call for yourself. I’ve written a bit about the hero’s unusual role in these games before — you’re generally required in Shin Megami Tensei games especially to decide between joining God or one of his avatars and his allied forces and supporting a regime of total order, in which peace reigns but at the cost of freedom, or joining Lucifer and his forces and going full chaos with all the freedom but also the destruction and misery that leads to. If you’re lucky enough to manage it, you can also reject both and fight for humanity independent of these two supernatural powers on the Neutral path, though thanks to the games’ strict requirements it’s usually a pain in the ass to achieve this route.

And then you have to fight this asshole. No, I haven’t forgotten about you.

There are many more gods and demons from around the world thrown into the MegaTen mix, and some games center more on eastern traditions (the Digital Devil Saga duology, for example, which is based largely in Hinduism and Buddhism.) But the idea of “killing God” that Megami Tensei is known for is still in those games to some extent. It still feels a little sacrilegious to me somehow, even if these gods aren’t the ones I was brought up to believe in.

This idea of killing God isn’t unique to Megami Tensei, of course: it’s a staple of the JRPG genre itself. If there’s an organized religion in a JRPG, it’s almost certainly dysfunctional and corrupt at best and an insane, evil cult at worst. Gods, if they exist in the game universe, are also generally best mistrusted, since they’re often planning to either end the world or use and sacrifice the heroes for their own ends, and they generally don’t give a shit about humanity or any other sentient life even if they’re not actively trying to destroy it. There are exceptions, but this seems to be the standard, at least in older JRPGs.

So the writers at Atlus didn’t exactly invent this idea. However, they are the only ones I know of to actually put the God of the Abrahamic religions in their games and let you quite literally punch him in the face, mostly notably in the form of YHVH, the Tetragrammaton or four letters of the name of God of the Old Testament. When this guy shows up, he demands absolute obedience or else. Fitting for the one who represents the Law path, but it leaves a bad impression on me, especially when the end result of taking that path involves a lot of people dying as it inevitably does.

This really hit me when I first played Nocturne. That game, unlike most of the others in the main line of Shin Megami Tensei games, doesn’t work on a Law-Chaos scale but rather gives you a choice of three different Reasons, essentially the life philosophies of three characters who are trying to make a reborn world out of the ruins of Tokyo, one that operates according to their own ideals. All three result in pretty shit worlds as far as I can tell, though Musubi is still my favorite (even if my ideas about what Musubi means for its inhabitants might not be correct; I might have to revisit that someday.) Different classes of demons support different Reasons, and strangely enough, the faction of angels decides to support Yosuga, the “might makes right” Reason that has some resemblance to the Chaos concept in terms of its violence against the weak, only with a supreme leader standing at the top who can’t be knocked over by a new challenger.

This was strange to me because I’d always understood that one of the tasks of God’s angels was to protect the weak against the strong, but here they were doing just the opposite. So when I made it to the near-endgame fight against the archangels — including Gabriel, who plays a major role in the tradition I was brought up in4 — I didn’t have any problem knocking the shit out of all of them, since they were clearly twisted depictions of those figures that I couldn’t recognize.

Seraph as depicted by Kazuma Kaneko

Even so, I partly understand this sort of interpretation of God and his angels. The Old Testament God was famously testy, putting his people through all kinds of trials, inflicting plagues and infestations on them and even drowning them in a massive flood. And while God later said he wouldn’t do that again, the prophesies of apocalypse found in the Bible and Quran both have that same sort of feeling to them, to me at least.

And even setting the Old Testament aside, a lot of our shared religious tradition comes off as a lot more terrifying to me than some of us are taught. The idea of a final judgment of all souls is scary enough in itself, but some of the angels as described in the Bible come off as very strange and alien — Kaneko’s depiction of the seraph, left, a high-ranking class of angel, is a lot closer to those descriptions than the guy or lady with wings we generally think of. Hell, even most of Kaneko’s lower-level “guy with wings” angel designs look pretty fierce and unapproachable.

Of course, the point is that if you’re a righteous person and a true believer, you have nothing to worry about despite how scary it all seems. The mercy and forgiveness of God are constantly emphasized as well. All this nice stuff fits perfectly well with the terrifying aspects of religion, because it truly can inspire terror if you believe in it — the kind that hopefully sets you on the moral path. I guess that’s the idea, anyway.

Whether any of that is true or not, I never had the feeling playing these games that I was doing anything particularly against the religion I was brought up in. For one thing, it’s all fiction, so no matter how many angels or even versions of God I beat up in these games with insta-kill dark attacks or Freikugels, I don’t think it matters. But even if it does matter, the ideals expressed by the Law path, to me anyway, never lined up very well with my own concept of God. I admit that concept might not be an orthodox one, either in Islam or any of the other related religions. But I do think it’s totally possible for even a strong religious believer to enjoy these games on that basis, even if they don’t want to follow the Law path. Megami Tensei contains some interesting angles on the ideas of religious faith and how it can affect humanity that are worth exploring, no matter what your feelings about faith in the real world are.

But I won’t be addressing those here. Not yet, anyway, because I’m done with Megami Tensei for now. There’s a lot more that can be said about these games, and I’m sure it’s all been said already. Of course, if I feel like returning to this series, I won’t let that stop me from saying it over again.

Until that time, I’m saying goodbye to MegaTen for a while. At least until SMT V comes out, whenever that might be. If there’s one thing being a fan of this series has taught me, it’s how to wait. 𒀭

1 This view itself could be considered a sacrilegious one, since true believers (at least in my tradition and the related ones in the Abrahamic line) are meant to feel and express gratitude for life, which I’m not properly doing.

That’s the reason I also want to reject a lot of what I see as the more useless social norms. It’s not just because of my leftover bits of edginess from when I was a kid (though I’m sure those are still buried around somewhere, probably in the lines I wrote above now that I look at them again) but mainly because I believe life is generally enough of a burden to bear that people should not be required to conform with such norms on top of that, especially when they’re handed down from generation to generation for no reason other than “this is how we’ve always done it.” Again, as long as nobody’s being hurt or having their rights infringed upon, I say you should be free to cope with life as you like.

Of course, that issue becomes more complicated when the reason is “because this is how God told us to do it.” I think that’s an interesting issue, but it’s not something I feel like getting into here, and anyway it’s way outside the scope of this post and site in general (and also outside the scope of my own abilities to address in a meaningful way, which is another reason for me to avoid the subject.)

2 And maybe of eastern religions as well, though I don’t know enough about them to say for sure.

3 In these games, Lucifer and Satan are portrayed as different beings, and even as directly opposed to each other. The MegaTen depiction of Satan is as scary as you might expect, but he is a loyal servant of God carrying out the role of accuser of humanity on his behalf.

4 The MegaTen version of Gabriel is interesting, partly because the games depict the archangel as female, but more because they generally show her as actually feeling some sympathy for humans that isn’t shared by either her colleagues or her boss (though this doesn’t come up in Nocturne from what I remember.) Even if she still does follow God’s orders no matter what, at least she feels bad about it sometimes.

Fanservice done right

Now here’s a subject that I really care about. Probably way too much. I’ve featured a few pieces from other writers around the communities here on WordPress on just this issue in my end-of-month posts, but I sometimes disagree with their opinions even when I feel they make some good points or interesting arguments.

So it’s time for me to put out my own dumb take on fanservice and on the broader subject of sexual content in games and anime and related works. It’s one that I’m sure won’t surprise anyone at all, since I’ve already written about it in the context of law and popular culture a few times, and also considering a few of the works I’ve reviewed in glowing terms here. Even so, I think this is a matter worth bringing up and looking into more closely, since it’s such a constantly controversial one on social media in anime and game circles. As usual, if others won’t shut up about it, then neither will I (though I hope I can at least make real arguments to support my views, unlike some of the kneejerk reaction types we see.)

Also, the usual disclaimer: this post deals in part with sexual content, don’t read if you’re not into that, etc. You know the deal.

If you’re thinking “oh, another excuse for AK to post a bunch of half-dressed catgirls again” well, maybe it’s partly that, but that’s not the main point here.

First: what is the controversy here that people are talking about? Fanservice has been present in anime, comics, games, and related media both western and eastern for decades. Defining it is a bit difficult, though, because people disagree on the boundaries of fanservice, drawing their own borders according to their own reasoning. According to the top-rated definition on the esteemed reference Urban Dictionary, “fan service refers to scenes designed to excite or titillate the viewer. This can include scantily-clad outfits, cleavage shots, panty shots, nude scenes… if it has little plot-redeeming value, but makes the viewer sit up and take notice, it’s probably fan service in one form or another.”

The author of that definition also notes that a broader definition might include gratuitous action, explosions, and other types of non-sexual fan-pleasing scenes, but I’m only concerned with the narrower definition here, since that’s what most people seem to refer to (and complain about) when they use the term.

I won’t deny that there’s a whole hell of a lot of sexual content out there. It’s an old maxim that sex sells — that’s been true for thousands of years, probably ever since someone in Uruk decided to start a peepshow for guys drunk on that ancient beer with the grain floating in it.1

There was fanservice even back in Babylonian times.

But there’s an important distinction to be made here. I believe a necessary part of this concept of fanservice is that it’s gratuitous, that it’s added into an existing work that would have been complete and whole without it. Above I’ve posted a screenshot from the first episode of last year’s Fate/Grand Order – Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia, an anime series that undoubtedly contains a whole lot of fanservicey shots of certain popular characters like Mash Kyrielight (above) and Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love and fertility who looks exactly like Rin Tohsaka for some reason. I think these kinds of shots can be safely put into the fanservice category because they’re pretty damn blatant and clearly gratuitous. When the Servant Mash is protecting her Master by using her Noble Phantasm while they’re falling out of the sky, do we need the above kind of shot specifically to get what’s going on? Not really.

Of course, games also contain plenty of fanservice. A few days ago I saw a review of Atelier Ryza 2, the newest entry in Gust’s long-running Atelier series. This review mostly praised the game but did complain about all the “fanservice”, by which it meant shots of characters in conversation with low camera angles. Presumably these angles focus a whole lot on the protagonist Ryza, since her thighs have become famous (and I still wonder whether she was designed at least in part to appeal to the American market, because if she was, the plan seems to have worked.) I haven’t played Ryza or its sequel, so I can’t say whether that reviewer was making too much of it, but I have seen a few of those conversation scenes in bits of playthroughs and yeah, those shots certainly do exist in the games, though I can’t say how frequently they come up.

However, there are other works in which I’d argue that the “titillating” material is not gratuitous. I’ve written a bit about the Monogatari anime adaptation here, which I mean to pick up again this year because of how much I liked its first few series. Though it had been on my to-watch list for a long time, I have to admit that part of what got me interested in it was the griping I saw about it from some Twitter users for being “horny” in their words. And then I resolved to finally start watching it to see if there was anything to those complaints.

What I found was a series that did contain some material people would call fanservice but that worked in the context of the series, that suited the tone of the story and didn’t involve any out-of-character nonsense. Moreover, this material was largely woven into the story, since confusion between romantic love and mere sexual lust is a pretty prominent theme of Monogatari, at least in the first few series that I’ve watched so far. You could certainly argue that author Nisio Isin pushed the envelope with Nisemonogatari, but in general I never felt like I was being pandered to or watching something meant merely to titillate. And even Nisemonogatari didn’t feel too off to me since the series had established a kind of absurd tone by that point, mixing that in with the more serious dramatic material in a way that I thought completely worked.

Senran Kagura: Estival Versus (2015). Fighting hundreds of bikini ninjas at once is just a normal day in this game

And then there are games and other works so filled with sexual or borderline content that they’re defined by it, but those don’t bother me either. It’s not like I can argue otherwise after everything I’ve written on this site until now anyway. But I think the most important reason I’m not bothered by such works is that they don’t pretend to be something they’re not. When you buy a Senran Kagura or Gal*Gun or HuniePop game, you know exactly what you’re getting. The same goes for anime and manga series with strong erotic elements.

I always find sexual content-based complaints about these works strange. It would be like me reviewing an album by a noise rock group and complaining about how noisy it is. Well shit, what did I expect? I completely understand why these kinds of works put some people off, but I also don’t think complaints over fanservice apply to works that don’t make any secret of what they are. Just read the M for Mature or 18+ notice on it and move on if you’re not into that sort of thing.

Nekopara Vol. 2 (2016), just filling my self-imposed catgirl quota for this post.

I feel the same to be true of optional material in games. As much as paid DLC sometimes annoys me, I don’t have any problem with giving players the option to choose whether they want the spicier parts of a game. The Nekopara series of visual novels provides a nice example: the all-ages versions are cute romance/slice-of-life stories with some light ero sort of stuff thrown in, while the 18+ versions go hardcore by adding the sex scenes. (The full 18+ version of Nekopara Vol. 4, which I’ve recently started reading, is even considerate enough to ask if you’re playing the game while other people are present, and you’d better take it seriously when it asks.) I’d put skimpy DLC costumes in games in the same category — they’re there if you want them, but if you don’t they’re easily ignored.

But then what does that leave? There’s a narrow slice of artistic content that I’d call fanservice that actually annoys me. That’s the type that’s clearly present only to pander to what the creators think I want to see and that either distracts from the story, breaks the tone, or causes characters to act in bizarre or stupid ways or against their established personalities, assuming the characters in the work have personalities worth caring about in the first place. I wouldn’t even include shots like those brought up in F/GO Babylonia or Atelier Ryza 2; my only complaint is with those works that allow the fanservice to seep into the substance, the story and characters, in ways that warp them and screw them up.

I can’t think of any specific examples to illustrate this point, but I know they’re out there. Take your average harem comedy for a general example, the kind that has a dumbass protagonist bumble around and waver between a bunch of girls who inexplicably all like him. I can’t stand this sort of work. It’s not so much the fact that there are usually erotic elements to it, but rather that they’re put there in service of a bunch of boring characters getting into predictable situations.

Obvious fanservice here in Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out!, but this didn’t bother me too much.

This is part of why I usually dislike romantic comedies unless there’s something really special about them. The Uzaki-chan anime didn’t deserve all the silly controversy it got itself into last year, but it did come close at times to falling into that boring overused trope category for me — that was the only real complaint I had about it. Even stuff like the standard beach episode seen above didn’t bother me, since it’s not unusual for people to go to the beach on vacation, and nobody was acting out of character in this part. It’s only when the characters repeated the same old gags, going through that tired cycle of “are we just friends or more than that” bits that I got irritated. I know that’s the whole point of the series, but there are more interesting ways to do it (see again Nagatoro, but maybe I should reserve my judgment to compare its own anime adaptation to that of Uzaki, especially since I haven’t read the Uzaki manga.)

So really, I guess my only complaint about fanservice is when I feel I’m being very obviously pandered to in a cheap way, or when I’m being bored by something overly predictable. It’s not enough to just have some cleavage or thighs on screen every so often; you need to provide an interesting story or compelling characters or fun gameplay, and then you can throw in all the titillation you like as far as I’m concerned as long as it fits into the work naturally and isn’t just a dumb distraction. The real sin in my mind is creating something that’s dull — as long as the game or series in question is entertaining, I’m fine with these sexual elements, and used in the right way and context I think they can even add to the appeal of a work.

Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica (2007). This JRPG contains some suggestive conversations and some eye-catching costumes, but I’d say these are examples of fanservice done right, presented in an interesting and clever way.

Finally, I want to address an argument I’ve seen brought up that I find interesting: that anime and related games and other media should be cleaned up somewhat to get rid of the stigma some people attach to them. This very argument was raised by an article I featured on the site back in October, which dealt specifically with fanservice in anime. I agree that this stigma is a real thing; certainly some people think poorly of anime in general at least partly because of its sexual content. However, I don’t agree that the stigma is a problem. Those who dislike anime are free to find other media to enjoy, and that’s provided they never discover that there’s plenty of anime out there they probably would like. Creators shouldn’t feel compelled to water down their work in the hopes that they’ll reach a wider audience, especially since a lot of established fans would likely be upset by it. If they want to take that risk, that’s their choice, but I believe in most cases that it would be the wrong one.

Of course, I get that a lot of people would disagree with me on these points. I obviously don’t have the same moral objection to h-games or similar 18+ material that some do, and my tolerance for sexual content in games, anime, manga, and VNs and in art in general is pretty high.2 These are just my opinions, and as usual, I’m always happy to read differing ones as long as we all keep things civil. But we always do here anyway, don’t we? We can keep all the stupid fighting for social media. I think I’ve gotten used to Twitter’s bullshit by now, at least enough to not be driven crazy by it. 𒀭

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1 On this subject, it’s not really my concern anymore, but I think it’s pretty weird that all these modern breweries try to replicate these very old drink recipes like Dogfish Head’s ancient Egyptian-style beer, which from what I remember tastes like liquid ass. Probably for a reason: people back then were making alcohol from whatever they had around, and when you’re a commoner tasked with building King Menkaure’s pyramid, life probably sucked enough that you were fine as long as you could get hammered every day. This has nothing to do with fanservice; it’s just something else I wanted to complain about.

2 This is also not strictly related to what I’m writing about here, but I do believe drawn and animated 18+ material can be a moral substitute for people who have objections to similar live-action videos — especially relevant now considering certain large websites that have collapsed in on themselves thanks to apparently practicing little or no oversight over their content. But then many people who object to live-action videos also seem to object to the 2D adult material, sometimes in even far stronger terms, so maybe their problem is with the subject matter and not the people involved in depicting it.

In any case, it’s important for the purpose of regulation to make a distinction between suggestive and downright pornographic material, both in live action and in drawing and animation. Conflating the two leads to serious problems (and unfortunately that’s something legislators seem all too willing to do, especially if they see votes in making a moral issue out of art. But I’ll save the political/legal soapbox stuff for a later post.)

Deep reads #5.3: Getting personal with Persona

My post focusing on the Persona series is finally done. I still have more to go in this set of posts, though. Hopefully the next one won’t take three god damn months to write. A couple of general plot trends and minor spoilers in here, particularly about one confidant link in Persona 5, but aside from that, you can read without fear since this post deals generally with the modern Persona games, their themes, and how I’ve related to them. Sorry for getting so personal this time (that title isn’t just a dumb joke even if it looks like one) but I’m also interested in how you’ve related to these games if you’ve played them — the comments section is always open.

As before, I’ll also let you know that this is the third part of a series about Megami Tensei. If you want more context for this post, you can get it from the first part, but it’s not that necessary to understand what I’m talking about here.

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I don’t think it would be any shock to regular readers of this site if I admit that I’m not a very social person. I’m pretty sure I’ve brought my extreme introversion up before, in fact. It’s something I’ve mostly gotten past purely out of necessity, but I still much prefer to be alone most of the time.

Partly for this reason, my feelings about the Persona games are a bit complicated. On one hand, they provided my way into Megami Tensei as a whole — Persona 3 back in 2007 was the first MegaTen game I played, and I was hooked from my first time stumbling into the Dark Hour with the P3 protagonist up until today. Over the last 14 years, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Persona 3, 4, 5, and their expansions alongside the mainline SMT games and other spinoff series I’ve explored. On the other hand, the Persona games alone among all the other MegaTen titles, starting with 3, combine the traditional demon-fighting JRPG mechanic of the series I like so much with a social sim, introducing extra depth and story for the characters along with some weird pacing issues that the series never had to deal with before. Persona wasn’t the first game series to take this approach, but it’s definitely been the most visible and commercially successful one to try it out, and this dungeon crawling RPG/social sim hybrid setup is now a series standard.

It didn’t start that way, though. Fans often acknowledge the 1994 Super Famicom title Shin Megami Tensei if… as the spiritual predecessor to the Persona series, since it was the first to take place in a high school setting and focus on a group of students. Like SMT if…, the first three actual Persona games, Megami Ibunroku Persona in 1996 and the two parts of the Persona 2 duology in 1998 and 1999, were more or less straightforward JRPGs. However, they did put a lot more emphasis their characters and the relationships between them than the mainline SMT games, which mainly focused on the broader story and had pretty thin character development.

Persona 3 inner cover art by Shigenori Soejima

This trend continued with Persona 3, which came out in 2006 in Japan and 2007 here in the States. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Megami Tensei or any of its already massive 20 year-long catalog, even though I was already deep into some JRPG series at the time. My future favorite game SMT III: Nocturne had been released in America a few years before but apparently without much commotion. But I did hear Persona 3 talked about around its release, probably because of its novelty over here as a hybrid RPG/social sim. Of course, back then people were calling it more of an RPG/dating sim, which was a pretty big simplification if an understandable one — the game does feature a dating mechanic, with five of your female classmates available for you to romantically pursue in the original game.

But although the dating might have been the flashiest feature in the game, there was a lot more to its social aspect than that. Persona 3 takes place in the city of Tatsumi Port Island, a nice seaside spot that’s been stricken with a condition called Apathy Syndrome, which causes its sufferers to sit around not caring about doing anything even to the extent that they can starve to death. The protagonist, a transfer high school student, soon learns that this strange condition is connected to the Dark Hour, a “hidden” hour that takes place at midnight every night and corresponds with the appearance of a giant tower called Tartarus that just happens to be at the same site as his new school, Gekkoukan High. Protagonist’s new dormmates are all in on the secret as well — he and they are some of the few who actually experience the Dark Hour, with everyone else suspended in time for that period and therefore left unaware of it.

You also all happen to possess the power of Persona, magical representations of your alter egos that have the ability to fight and defend against both human and otherworldly entities, up to and including gods. To me back in 2007, this was where the game really stood out. From the very beginning, when your unnamed1 main character enters his new dorm late at night and is approached by a mysterious ghostly boy who asks him to sign a shady-looking contract, there’s a strange, heavy atmosphere around the place. P3 doesn’t waste much time getting to the point — the protagonist is special; not only does he hold the power of Persona, but he’s also a “wild card”, meaning that unlike his friends, he can summon any number of Personas to fight for him.

“When you’re done with class today, do you want to get together and fight some shadow demons in the nightmare world only we can access?” “Sure, sounds good.” (Source, CC-BY-SA)

This all fits into the usual setup of Persona collection in battle and fusion in the Velvet Room, mechanics taken straight from the mainline Shin Megami Tensei series and adapted into this new format. However, Persona 3 adds that social aspect on top, allowing your protagonist to create bonds with his fellow students and certain people around town who are sorted into different Tarot Arcana categories that the Personas are also grouped into. By leveling up these “Social Links”, the player is able to make progress in battle through bonuses in fusion to the corresponding Arcana.

These links are often made with people you might not normally expect. Many of them are with your teammates and other school friends and colleagues, only natural considering that you’re all going through the horrible ordeal of high school together (and especially natural in the case of your fellow Persona-users, who also have to juggle school and social lives with fighting shadow demons in that nightmare world of Tartarus.) As you progress through the story, your bonds with your teammates in particular get stronger thanks to all the dangers you’ve gone through together trying to defeat the growing menace of the Dark Hour, but the same is true even for your bonds with other friends who don’t realize what you’re going through.

At some point in there, you also all had a shared dream about a dance competition one night. And yeah, this is part of the canon as far as I know.

As a result, the Persona games feel a lot more personal to me than others in the overarching Megami Tensei series. Like mainline SMT, they take place against apocalyptic backdrops with demon and shadow invasions of the human world and all that, but they also feature stories about individual struggles and the power of true friendship and love that help us break through them.

So then what’s an embittered, world-weary jerk like me doing enjoying games like this with such positive approaches to life? There’s a lot about the Persona series I like, and part of that has to do with its acknowledgement that even though the power of friendship can be great, life can also be profoundly, remorselessly, and unbelievably shitty. In fact, I think that’s part of why they emphasize the importance of forming bonds with others so much. Life doesn’t always work out in these games: broken bonds between characters aren’t always perfectly fixed, dilemmas aren’t always sorted out nicely by the end like they are in old sitcoms. And when a character dies, with a few major (and controversial) exceptions, they’re dead for good. So sometimes, there’s no happy ending — the resolution to a social link story might only consist of a character accepting and coming to some kind of peace with a less-than-ideal situation.

That’s something I can appreciate. As embittered as I am, I still don’t believe that humanity is all shit, that it’s just naturally evil or corrupt. I think this is a stance too often taken by hack writers and artists who think being dark automatically means you’re being deep. It’s both inaccurate and intellectually dishonest — it should be clear to anyone looking at it with a more honest approach that human nature isn’t nearly that simple. For the same reason, the other extreme of false optimism feels just as dishonest to me. Because yes, maybe life really is a wonderful gift that I should cherish. Yes, I know it only happens once,2 and I get that it was incredibly unlikely that it was going to happen to me, that I’d be given this opportunity. I can tell myself that all day, but it doesn’t change the fact that life sometimes feels like complete dogshit, a burden that I have to carry rather than a gift that I should be thankful for.

The social link rank-ups help, though.

I see a lot of this false optimism in the society I live in. As a way to cope with the hardships of life, I completely get it — if telling yourself all of the above really helps you make it through the day, I can’t criticize that. To me, though, that approach ignores a lot of the negative aspects of life that really cannot be overlooked if you’re trying to write personal stories like these. For the most part, the side stories that the Persona games tell strike a nice balance between these two extremes.3

And yeah, I am taking the tonal differences between the modern Persona games into account when I say that. Persona 3 is generally considered much darker and more pessimistic in tone than later Persona games, and that’s a characterization I’d agree with. However, even the later games feature some side stories that have somewhat sad or bittersweet endings. While there are probably better or more obvious examples to use here (the links with the terminally ill young man in Persona 3 and the widow in Persona 4 both come to mind) the one standout figure in this sense to me is Yuuki Mishima from Persona 5.

Mishima is one of your classmates who you meet during the game’s first story arc. He quickly becomes a devotee of the Phantom Thieves, the secret team the protagonist and his friends create when they realize they have the power to make criminals have changes of heart and confess their crimes through the typical Persona-using methods. He also figures out pretty early on that the protagonist and company are in fact the Phantom Thieves, after which he sets up a fan site where people can express their support and even suggest those who might need a change of heart. In this way, Mishima feeds the protagonist new target info while maintaining a “wink and nod” attitude about his secret identity.

All this is well and good, but a few scenes into Mishima’s social link, it becomes obvious that he’s starting to go on a power trip, taking some liberties with his influence as de facto leader of the Phantom Thieves online fan community. After he starts insisting that you target a popular male celebrity he’s jealous of, you and your friends decide to track down and give Mishima’s shadow self a visit. Finally, Mishima realizes he’s been an asshole and sincerely apologizes, maturing a bit and becoming somewhat more secure in his identity.

Even so, Mishima doesn’t exactly get what he wants by the end. What he really seemed to want was to be the protagonist himself, or at least a very visible hero of some kind. By using his newfound power, he tried to take the lead and have his own way and to achieve his own selfish ends, and he ends up getting rebuked for it. Mishima’s feelings are very understandable, at least to me — the character comes off as an outsider, a guy who’s seen as nice and pleasant enough but also a bit obsessive and irritating to others. He’s also something of a doormat, and this seems to be the source of his power trip, which starts when he feels he finally has some control and isn’t just being pushed around by everyone else. By the end of his social link, Mishima has grown a bit and gained some real backbone, but he’s still behind the scenes and hasn’t become the hero he wanted to be.

But that’s okay. Mishima accepts his place and commits to becoming a better person, even if he can’t have exactly what he wants. A lot of the other social link stories in the Persona series proceed along the same lines, ending with resolutions that aren’t usually totally happy for those involved but at least involve some new understanding and growth. I’ll admit that a few of these links fall flat, with characters who don’t feel very realistic or just aren’t all that appealing or sympathetic, and a few others that resolve themselves a little too neatly, but in general, they feel pretty satisfying in this sense.

I’ve even lightened up on my feelings about Marie a bit. Not much, though.

Most of the villains of the modern Persona games also fit pretty nicely into this framework. This is at least true for those who act as foils to the games’ protagonists. There are a very few other Persona-using characters who possess the same wild card ability as the protagonist, but typically they differ in that they use their powers for evil rather than good. That might sound pretty standard and boring, but I think there’s more to it than simply the “hey, I’m the story-appointed bad guy” stuff you’d expect from RPGs like these. The wild card ability carries great potential, represented by the protagonist’s place in the Tarot Arcana as the Fool, the card denoted by the number zero — here not a negative but rather a positive, meaning the protagonist can become anything he likes and use his ability to achieve things others can’t.

But not without the help of his friends and colleagues. This is the major difference between the Persona protagonists, who build relationships of trust with the people around them, and the antagonists who possess the same wild card ability but decide to reject these relationships, either because they’ve been burned in the past or because they feel they’re not getting their proper due from society. So they give in to feelings of bitterness, and ultimately they can’t achieve what the protagonists can for that reason.

At least that’s how I read it. Again, all this is a bit strange for me on a personal level, because I feel like I can identify with these antagonists sometimes a bit more than I can with the protagonists. Maybe it’s only natural, after all: I’m also a bitter person with an extremely skeptical view of society in general, and there’s nothing in the world I’d like to do more than escape from it all. But then again, that’s really not an option, and I have to admit that the antagonists in these games are selfish assholes — and as bitter as I feel sometimes, I never want to become one of those.

I can’t even bring myself to kill shadows or demons when they beg for their lives; that’s how soft I really am.

So despite what some people say, Persona isn’t all style and no substance, not even close. There is a whole lot of style to the series, though. A big part of this has to do with the music, which I already touched upon back in my first post. Shoji Meguro is the composer responsible for most of the music in these games. Aside from just generally writing excellent music, Meguro writes each soundtrack with its own character, so that one doesn’t sound much like the rest. Comparing the three mainline modern Persona games alone, Persona 3 has a strong rap sound with a lot of pop mixed in, Persona 4 is much more pop/rock-sounding, and Persona 5 goes heavy on 70s style funk and jazz. My personal favorite is 5 just because I’m into that style the most, but they’re all fantastic.

And then there’s artist Shigenori Soejima, who has done just as much as Meguro to define the feel of the modern Persona games. Soejima is one of my very favorite character designers, with a style distinct from Kazuma Kaneko’s but that still fits pretty well with Kaneko’s original work on the games’ many MegaTen demons. Even if you’ve never played Persona before, you may have seen Soejima’s work, since he’s also responsible for the art and character designs of Catherine and its PS4 expansion Catherine: Full Body. Though I can’t say I prefer one style over the other, I love his art — I don’t own both his artbooks for nothing.

The English versions of Soejima’s artbooks (left) seem to be extremely hard to find and expensive now, but used Japanese-language copies (right) are still going cheap on eBay. On the plus side, the Japanese copies are a bit nicer and sturdier, with protective transparent dust jackets that the English versions lack. At this point, if you’re interested, I think you’re a lot better off going for the Japanese ones even if you can’t read the text in them.

As for the shipping and waifu wars the modern Persona games have inspired thanks largely to that dating mechanic I mentioned, I don’t have anything to say about those. Have fun fighting on Twitter or Reddit over that dumb shit if you really feel like doing that. Not me — I will maintain as I always have that Aigis is best girl, not just in Persona 3 but throughout the part of the series I’ve played, but I respect your tastes completely no matter what they are. Even if you like that alcoholic journalist from Persona 5 the best. Yes, even Ohya is a fine choice. I’m not one to judge.

I also like Lisa Silverman a lot, but I haven’t finished Persona 2: Innocent Sin yet so I can’t make a definitive call on her yet.

And that’s really all I have to say about Persona, even though there is a lot more to say about it. I could write an entire set of posts dedicated to this spinoff series alone, or even to one of the games in it. But that’s not my goal here. Others have gone into great depth about Persona already, and I’m not sure I have that much more to add at this point, except to say that it’s a series worth getting into.

So next time, we’ll take a look at issues raised more by the mainline SMT series, specifically with matters of the divine, the human, and the very weird and complicated relationships between the two. Will I be condemned forever for my bizarre heresies? Probably! All the more reason not to follow my example, if reading this post didn’t convince you of that already. 𒀭

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1 The protagonists of these games do have official names, one taken from the manga adaptation and usually a different one for the anime and for later spinoff works. However, in true Megami Tensei fashion, Persona lets you name your protagonist whatever you want, so there is no official name at least as far as the games themselves go.

2 Unless you believe in reincarnation, and there are hints throughout Megami Tensei that it does exist in-universe, at least in a few cases.

3 I’ve seen it argued that Persona 5 leans too much towards the optimistic side, even more than the relatively bright and cheery Persona 4 does. I don’t think P5 goes too far myself, but I can understand these arguments, especially considering how easy it seems to be for Joker and co. to resolve their friends’ problems by changing people’s hearts in Mementos. I wouldn’t be surprised if Persona 6 takes a slightly darker turn again for that reason.

A review of Blue Reflection (PS4)

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

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

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

Japanese high school is no joke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hinako about to destroy another giant horrific world-eating monster

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

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

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

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

The Second Annual EIBFY Game Awards!

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

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

***

Best free game (that also comes with a harem)

Winner: Helltaker

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

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

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

***

Best nightlife

Winner: Yakuza 0

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

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

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

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

***

Best-looking food

Winner: Atelier Meruru DX

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

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

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

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

***

Best physics

Winner: Wolf Girl With You

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

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

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

***

Least amount of time played before eyestrain

Winner: Radical Solitaire

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

***

Best educational game

Winner: The Expression: Amrilato

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

***

Jury Prize

Winner: 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

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

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

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

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

***

Best girl

Winner: Esty Erhard (Atelier Arland series)

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

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

Meruru seen here caught in a tense conversation between sisters.

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

***

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

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

A review of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim (PS4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s love, man, who knows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sonar Smash

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

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

Cityglitch

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

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

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

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

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

Siberia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original character do not steal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep reads #5.2: That was cheap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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