Games for broke people: Drunk edition

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

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

Drunk As I Like: Gensokyo Chugging Contest

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

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

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

Drunk Drunk Goose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HELP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like how the fuck did I get stuck in this tree

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

This is fine, everything is fine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Games for broke people: Digital analog edition

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

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

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

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

No Players Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TASCAR

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

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

Yeah, it’s one of these.

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

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

thanks asshole

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

what fun

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

aaaaAAAAA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can insert a joke here if you feel like it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A review of Blue Reflection: Second Light (PS4)

This review took long enough to come, months after talk about the game died down, or what talk there was at least. But of course, my schedule being what it is, it took me three months to play through it once, so it wasn’t quite by choice. “Arrive late and look back” has become my style anyway, so it’s all right — and there are quite a few games that have waited far longer for that treatment (as the NieR Replicant box sits on my shelf. It would be looking at me reproachfully now if it had eyes. I promise I’ll get to you.)

Today my focus is on another game with a distinct art style and an unusual approach to storytelling. The difference here is that this one didn’t get the attention I think it deserved, at least here in the West, though maybe that was to be expected considering its genre and setting.

Blue Reflection: Second Light (titled Blue Reflection: Tie in Japan) is the sequel to not just one but two works, only one of which I’ve taken on: the PS4 game Blue Reflection, the first in the series released in 2017. My feelings about the original Blue Reflection were somewhat mixed, but positive on the whole — I felt the game was lacking in a few important areas, but I generally enjoyed the story and characters and loved the music and art style (headed up by composer Hayato Asano and artist Mel Kishida, both of who returned to work on Second Light.)

The other work that Second Light follows up on is the 2021 anime Blue Reflection Ray, which I started but never finished, again because of my shitty schedule. Getting through a 24-episode series feels like actual work to me sometimes, even when I like it, and that one unfortunately slipped through the cracks for me. If I’d known at the time that it was leading up to this sequel, I probably would have made more of an effort to stick with it.

Not a big deal, though, because while Second Light features both its own original characters and returning characters from the first game and the anime, it also does a pretty decent job of explaining these characters’ relationships to each other when they eventually show up. Not a perfect job — I had the benefit of knowing all about Hinako’s background and her own struggles from the first game with her friends Lime and Yuzu, but I still didn’t totally get the conflict surrounding the sisters Hiori and Mio from the anime Ray and their fight with Uta.

But it’s not realistic to expect a game to explain everything that came before it, and in any case it’s not necessary at all to play the first game or watch the anime to fully enjoy Second Light. At worst you can always just look up a plot synopsis. That warning/caveat/whatever aside, let’s get on to the game itself.

Second Light opens with its protagonist Ao Hoshizaki, a high school student trudging off to summer school in the early morning. She somehow loses her phone and recovers it in an empty parking lot, but she sees a strange message on the screen when she picks it up: “BE REBORN”. Looks like a prank or a stupid spam message of some kind, but shortly after seeing it, Ao passes out and wakes up in a new and unfamiliar world: a fully equipped but otherwise almost empty high school building on a small island surrounded by water in every direction, with no other land in sight.

Ao finds herself living in this strange school with only three other girls about her age: stern, serious Rena Miyauchi, her near-opposite, the mischievous Yuki Kinjou, and cheerful and always hungry hunting expert Kokoro Utsubo. These three, who had already created a makeshift home out of the school, welcome Ao and explain the situation, which they admit they barely understand themselves: they were all mysteriously transported to this place, and all with their memories wiped, aside from the knowledge that they were from a different world than this one.

Ao and her crew (not seen, but they are there) in the Heartscape

The one aspect of life in this strange world that breaks up the monotony is a mysterious place the girls first name the Faraway, and later the Heartscape once they learn more about its true nature. This world seems to be distinct from but connected to the school and its island, sitting just off the island’s shore through a kind of magical portal. At first, the Heartscape consists only of a forest full of real-world items, including food and water that the girls forage for. However, very quickly they realize that this place is connected with them personally when they start to see some of Kokoro’s childhood memories played out  in them.

After confirming with Kokoro that these visions aren’t just shared hallucinations and that they line up with her own slowly returning memories of her past life, the girls agree to explore deeper into the Heartscape in the hopes that they can turn up more memories and discover the mysteries of this new world and their places in it. This plan isn’t without risk, since the Heartscape is also full of bizarre-looking monsters. Fortunately, Ao, Rena, and Kokoro are all “Reflectors” with the power to fight these beings with magical weapons, and also transforming into elaborate costumes (of course — if you’re familiar with this power from the last game, Reflectors are magical girls.) Only Yuki doesn’t have this power, but she does her best to support the team by hanging back and working on essential housekeeping and food preparation tasks.

Rena and Ao lined up for battle alongside Hinako, protagonist of the first game and one of their newer additions.

As the four girls explore the Heartscape and defeat the aggressive demons living in it, they find that their explorations are changing both the Heartscape and their home base back at the school. Every so often, one of them will discover a memory that summons still another girl into their realm, as usual with an erased memory and no idea of how she got there, shortly after which she usually discovers some memory of her own that summons her own Heartscape section into existence.

As their numbers grow, the team also finds that some of them inexplicably possess Reflector powers while others don’t. Yet as their memories are recovered, they all discover ties and relationships that bound them together from their past lives. The odd one out in this crowd is Ao, whose memory remains strangely blank, and who nobody else on the team remembers from their pasts. Despite this, Ao is a magnetic figure — not the brightest or toughest of the bunch, but the type who manages to attract everyone around her, and with a natural drive that puts her pretty clearly and without any dispute in the position of leader.

Ao at a team meeting describing the plot of a video game, but is it this one?

Ao and company do their best to create a comfortable and even a fun life at the school despite their situation. It’s not all fun and games, however. A mysterious blonde girl with a foreboding air shows up from time to time, the very first resident of this realm, but she can’t even remember her own name — yet she has knowledge of the place the others don’t, and she seems to hold at least part of the solution to that mystery. And every time a major event occurs in one of the Heartscapes, a giant crack appears in the sky surrounding the school, slowly widening. The girls aren’t sure what’s on the other side, but they’re certain it can’t be anything good.

A section of Rena’s Heartscape. Most of these maps have normal enemies wandering around with a few stationary intermediate bosses the player has to get past to advance, like the one just ahead indicated by the red marker.

When I wrote about Blue Reflection last year and speculated about a still unannounced but rumored sequel, I said I hoped for a more fully realized version of that game or something similar. Well the world in general might be a giant pile of shit, but sometimes good things happen, because Second Light is what I was hoping for in almost every way. Aside from a couple of complaints about how developer Gust handled its endings and difficulty settings that I’ll get into later, Second Light at least matches and in some areas surpasses the first game in the series.

First and perhaps most obvious is that music and art direction that everyone rightfully praised in the original. The best news that came out about Second Light early on was that Hayato Asano and Mel Kishida were attached to the project. Both contributed massively to the first game, and it would have been near impossible to imagine a sequel without their involvement (and totally impossible in Kishida’s case, since Blue Reflection never would have existed without him.)

A battle result screen featuring Hinako, Ao, and Hiori in their Reflector outfits. Blue Reflection might just have been Kishida’s excuse to draw a bunch of magical girl costumes, and there are at least twice as many in Second Light.

And as expected, Second Light excels in the aesthetics area. It might not be your particular style — the magical girl theme is sure to turn off some players, after all. But if you were already a fan of Mel Kishida’s work on the other Blue Reflection titles, you won’t be disappointed by the art in this sequel. Drawing girls in stupidly frilly dresses with ribbons and bows all over them is one of his main things; you’ve already seen it if you’ve played Blue Reflection or one of the Atelier Arland games. Unfortunately about half of Ao’s crew lacks Reflector transformation ability, at least in this game, so there are fewer physics-defying magical girl costumes in Second Light than you might expect (and Kokoro’s outfit honestly looks ridiculous, and this is coming from a guy with no fashion sense beyond knowing what “business attire” is because I would have gotten yelled at in previous jobs pre-COVID without a suit on.) But even her outfit reflects her skill as a hunter, just like Hinako’s does hers as a dancer, and in general it’s pretty clear that Kishida paid his usual attention to detail here.

This attention extends to the environments in the game, and especially to the Heartscape, which is far more diverse than the Common of the first Blue Reflection. While the Common was themed around general human emotions and pretty well depicted them (red/orange lava and fire for anger, a blue cold-looking flooded cityscape for sadness, and so on) the Heartscape creates real-world environments that have personal connections to each character, warping them in ways that make sense given the otherworldly nature of the place. While each section of the Heartscape isn’t all that large, each one provides an appropriate atmosphere along with its in-game role as a dungeon/field area to fight enemies, gather items and ingredients, and advance the plot by discovering new memories.

Ao standing in the last section of Uta’s Heartscape. The environments in the Heartscape range from natural-looking to manmade and from light to dark, all in accordance with the state of mind of the person connected to it.

The music contributes to this atmosphere as well, both back at home base in the school and out in the Heartscape. Asano’s compositions are written in a similar style to the first game’s music, with a mix of soft piano/synth-dominated tracks for the more pleasant environments and the slice-of-life stuff back at school and hard, driving electronic tracks for the tense situations and battles that come up every so often. Some of my favorites include Thorns That Still Sting, My REAL, Our Days (sounds more like a track from Atelier Ryza with the strings, which Asano also wrote the soundtrack for) and the romantically titled I Can Feel Your Body Heat (another take on the same theme as “Our Days”, and the title is very appropriate too considering the scenes it’s placed in.) But I could just as easily list half the soundtrack here, which I won’t do. As with the first Blue Reflection, I’d say its music alone is worth checking out even if you have no interest in the game.

But of course beautiful art and music aren’t enough to make a 40+ hour JRPG worth playing; it also needs a memorable, compelling story and set of characters, and better if there’s exciting gameplay to tie all that together. With one stumble (at least from my perspective; it might not be depending on yours, but I’ll get to it) Second Light provides those as well. The most immediately obvious change to the gameplay is the combat: while it’s still turn-based, the battle system in Second Light is more complex than in the first game while still being pretty intuitive to get down.

Three Reflectors fight in the front line with one in reserve, and they perform attacks and support skills by using ether points that both allies and enemies collect, seen on the scale in the lower right. Also, I love those huge chains hanging off the back of Shiho’s costume. No idea what good those are doing her aside from looking cool I guess?

The Heartscape is the primary battlefield of the game as the girls make their way through its various environments and obstacles. However, much of my time in Second Light was spent back at that isolated island school, because the old social sim element from the first game was carried over, though in a way I could have never guessed. Blue Reflection had its protagonist Hinako hanging out with her non-magical-girl classmates in a real-world school and the surrounding town. While there is no real world in Second Light to speak of, Ao manages to do the same thing even harder than Hinako did by going on “dates” around the campus with all her friends. As in the first game, these outings provide in-game benefits to the party by creating magical fragments that grant battle advantages, but they also provide a lot of entertaining cutscenes showing Ao interact 1-on-1 with the rest of the cast.

Kirara was consistently one of my favorite dates throughout the game; I love that dark energy of hers. I guess I really haven’t gotten over the whole chuunibyou thing.

If you see Second Light described as a yuri game, this is one of the two reasons why (the other being a relationship between two of the girls that’s undoubtedly romantic in nature and that figures into one section of the plot strongly, at least when said characters start to regain their memories.) It’s never stated outright, but if Ao isn’t exclusively into girls, she’s at least pretty bendy in terms of her interests because she flirts hard with every other girl in the game. While the dates she goes on with her friends are mainly very platonic, the player usually gets one or two dialogue options for Ao to choose from, and every so often one of these options (and sometimes both) is spicy as hell.

I mean what do you call this, really

A lot of this stuff ends up coming off as friendly teasing, but then it’s hard for me to tell as a guy, honestly — it seems like women can be a lot closer physically and perhaps even emotionally without feeling like it has to be a romantic thing, whereas in my country at least, two guys even just holding hands is a pretty sure sign there’s more going on there. When I had a look at the anime The Aquatope on White Sand, there was a lot of speculation early on that it would have yuri themes for what I think were similar reasons, which didn’t play out at all as far as I could tell. Friendly intimacy doesn’t need to include or lead to romance, after all. But man, this stuff is way closer to that hypothetical line.

It’s not a big deal, really, but if the whole date thing might be an issue for you, it’s something to know. I liked how flirty Ao got myself, since it resulted in a lot of funny reactions from her friends. Especially when they reciprocate her teasing and end up getting her flustered. Don’t make those moves if you’re not serious, Ao!

How romantic does this feel on a scale from 1 to 100

Ao also spends time with her friends as a larger group. Some of these interactions involve strategy and planning meetings over how to approach the Heartscape, but most of them are about far more mundane subjects like what to make for dinner or how to arrange their sleeping quarters (one classroom on one floor for the quiet girls and another one below that for the noisy ones, seems fair enough.) All these in-school scenes contribute to the strong slice-of-life element of the game, which I think mixes just as well with the heavier plot stuff as it did in the first game.

Second Light even incorporates a bit of a town-building sort of element in the school’s joint kitchen/workshop area, where Ao and co. can use the ingredients they find around the Heartscape to make attack and support items to boost their battle abilities and build improvements to the school grounds. These improvements give Ao and her friends new opportunities to go on dates to check out/use the new attraction you’ve set up along with providing various combat benefits.

While some of them seem pretty realistic and doable, like a festival stand for making takoyaki (though where they got the octopus is another question, because I never found any myself) most are so improbable that you have to stop questioning it after a while. Like a fucking rocketship, you can just make one of those. Apparently life in this pocket dimension makes pretty much anything possible to do as long as it can be imagined.

Some of the available school improvements make the team’s pool to giant hot tub conversion plan seem downright practical.

The split between slice-of-life lightness and serious drama Second Light provides might feel weird to some, but it completely worked for me. It does a better job of that split than the first game did, though it also has the benefit of not being expected to explain why we never see a single adult or any trace of the characters’ home lives — this pocket dimension really is the perfect storytelling tool, though it’s not a trick that could easily be pulled off again, assuming a third Blue Reflection game might ever come out.

And since I forgot to shove this in anywhere above, the request system is also back from the first game. You’d think Hinako could be a little less vague here, but Ao can always follow up with her friends through text to figure out just what the hell they’re asking for and how to get it. And since both going on dates and fulfilling requests boosts that character’s talent points that can be spent on skills, they’re all well worth carrying out.

As a whole, I enjoyed Second Light, and I’d say even more than I did the first game. It ties up the purposely left loose ends from the original Blue Reflection, and presumably it does the same for the anime, though I can’t say that for sure not having watched it. I especially loved the setting and the slice-of-life element in the game — for someone who doesn’t much care for pure SOL anime, that might sound weird, but it’s different when you’re actively taking part in the story as the player character. And Second Light has all that end-of-world drama to go along with that lighter material anyway.

Yuki, why do we have to text when I see you standing right fucking there

However, I did run into a couple of annoyances that I felt could have and probably should have been avoided. One of these had to do with the game’s difficulty. At the start of Second Light, the player has a choice between easy and normal mode. I wondered at the time where hard mode was — turns out it’s at the end of your first playthrough as a new game plus feature. I found this a bizarre choice, especially since other Gust games (say Atelier Sophie 2, which I started playing just after finishing Second Light) give you a wider range of difficulty modes than this right off the bat, with the additional option to switch freely between them during your playthrough in case the hard or very hard modes prove too much to handle.

This problem is made all the worse by the fact that Second Light starts out with a fair level of challenge on normal mode in the early to mid-game but becomes piss easy as you progress. I still enjoyed playing with the new combat system by the end, but it was more enjoyable when I had to use that system wisely to mind my team’s HP while doing damage to strong enemies and bosses. By the late game, there was no need for tactical thinking — I easily hit the game’s level 50 cap with all the girls before the final Heartscape area, and all without grinding (unless you count fighting in the course of fulfilling optional requests, which I don’t.) The game’s crafting option also allows you to create buff and debuff items that were so effective I thought I was playing a Megami Tensei game, only those bosses can still hand you your ass even when you’ve got all those skills. As a result of all this, the final boss was an absolute joke — it could barely scratch my party even in its menacing final form.

None of this would have been a big deal if I could have shifted over to hard mode to at least somewhat make up that difference, but for whatever reason, Gust decided not to let me do that.

In anime and video games, a schoolgirl wielding a magical scythe is automatically the most powerful being in the universe

This difficulty issue ties in with the other, larger problem I had with Second Light: the ending, or at least the ending you’re given after playing through the game once. I avoided spoilers completely before picking it up, so I didn’t know what to expect when I finished it, but I knew the ending I got wasn’t all that satisfying and that it sure as hell wasn’t the true ending. There is a true ending to Second Light, in fact, but you can only achieve it by completing a new game plus run.

Maybe I’m not being reasonable here. I’ve played other games with a similar setup that lock their true endings behind a second playthrough — for example Atelier Escha & Logy, which is currently my favorite in that series. But Escha & Logy had the excuse of featuring two protagonists with slightly different stories and paths, and all the carryovers you get in second Atelier playthroughs make that new game plus pretty easy to breeze through to achieve new endings if you want them. And in any case Atelier usually offers a lot more to uncover and explore the second time around.

I didn’t get that sense about Second Light — as much as I enjoyed those dates, I didn’t feel the need to play through the game a second time to see the ones I might have missed, The secret areas I couldn’t uncover my first playthrough didn’t entice me all that much either, even with the carryovers Second Light did grant me with my clear file. I also have a god damn life to live outside of video games, which means that given the choice between replaying this game, as much as I liked it, and jumping over to Sophie 2 — well, that choice was obvious. I watched the Second Light true ending recordings on YouTube and moved on.

Anyway, I’d already seen the best scene in the game.

This might just be me finally feeling my age. I’m still technically “young”, I guess (though the kids would call me an old man at this point, and certainly a boomer, since that term now seems to apply to anyone just out of their early 20s and even some still in them.) But I just don’t have time to run through typical JRPG-length games twice anymore. I’m lucky as hell that I can even play these games once each given how much else I have to do, and in the future I may not even have that kind of time left.

Considering that this might just be a personal problem, I can’t exactly condemn Gust for locking that true ending behind a second playthrough. But I can still be annoyed by it, and I am. I’m far more annoyed by it now than I am by the paid DLC, which I’ve more or less come to accept as inevitable since Gust now makes a habit of selling “season passes” for each game. And hell, I buy DLC on occasion myself (like the “night pool” above, that didn’t come with the base game) so I can’t exactly criticize them for that, though they could make the system a little less gougy.

Those complaints aside, Blue Reflection: Second Light gets my highest recommendation as long as you’re into the style and also into turn-based JRPGs, and specifically if you have the time free to really soak in it and enjoy that second playthrough, which I feel I don’t. Not sure how it did in Japan, but it’s a damn shame that Second Light seems to have flown so far under the radar here in the West. You’d think some of our pro journalists over here would tout a game with an exclusively female cast all about feelings and even featuring a clear same-sex romance that’s not simply hinted at. But when such things are featured in a JRPG that isn’t titled Final Fantasy, or in any visual novel at all, they go almost entirely ignored by our press outside of the few who reliably and thoroughly cover the niche stuff. God bless those few. As for the rest in the mainstream: bang up job you idiots are doing. Can you tell I’m bitter?

Shipgirls in thighhighs: My year in Azur Lane

Once again, this isn’t the game review post I had planned next. That one is still on its way. But I can’t possibly post more than two proper reviews at a time — I have to bullshit endlessly about personal experiences and feelings sometimes, and this is one of those times. Though this is also a sort of game review depending on how loosely you care to define that term.

Today I want to write about a gacha game, one of the only such games I’ve ever played: Azur Lane. Yes, I fell into that hole a couple of years ago, though thankfully I didn’t go into debt for it (though again, I’d rather pay the publisher of this app than my fucking student loan creditors if I had a choice between them.)

Azur Lane is a simple game at its core: a naval warfare-themed horizontally scrolling shmup with the usual bullet-dodging, fighting smaller enemies leading up to a boss, and training up skills that have various offensive and defensive effects and cooldown times and all that, together with a light visual novel element. But that’s not what makes Azur Lane special. Though people do play the more traditional “game” part of the game plenty, I don’t think this not very remarkable shmup gameplay1 or the story that accompanies it are the reasons this mobile app has done so well.

No, the reason this game and others like it took off is without a doubt its massive collection of cute girl and hot lady characters to roll for, this time around in the form of “shipgirls”, or anthropomorphized versions of mostly World War II-era warships.2

Two family portraits: above, in the foreground, the Japanese battleships Fusou and Yamashiro; below, Fusou and Yamashiro depicted as sisters in catgirl form.

Well, what did you expect? To fight with realistic-looking ships that make sense? Why do that when you can fight with busty fox ladies with giant guns strapped to them instead? This was apparently such a genius concept that the makers of Azur Lane were far from the first to use it — rival naval warfare mobile game Kantai Collection did it before Azur Lane, and the manga Arpeggio of Blue Steel did it before either of them. So maybe you could say developers Manjuu and Yongshi ripped the idea off, but then again, as long as you rip an idea off and do well with it, people won’t complain. And I’d say they did pretty well with it, considering they kept me in the game’s clutches for about a year until I finally got free of them.

But how did they manage to capture me? I have three potential reasons why that I’d like to share, even if I don’t have any kind of inside knowledge about this industry — it’s all from my view as a brainwashed consumer.

1) The quarantine

Yeah, I’m blaming COVID first of all for my fall into a gacha game. It’s being blamed for contributing to most of the ills in society anyway, so why not this one too? I moved house in April 2020, at about the worst time to do so. By the time I was done and had started working from home, being locked in for an indeterminate time, it seemed natural to seek out a free game to dive into. And I made the probably ridiculous decision to go the gacha route.

2) “Free to play”

And of course, that “free” should be put in quotes. The commonly used “free to premium” model of these sorts of games is well-known. It’s so well-known that I don’t think I need to write about it in too much depth. South Park did an episode about it years ago, and that explained it well enough — draw the player in with the promise of free gameplay to take up some of the space between the other mundane bullshit tasks of the day, then put up some kind of shitty paywall or a challenge that’s possible to beat on your own but a whole lot easier if you open your wallet.

To be fair, though I don’t have much of anything to compare it to, Azur Lane seems like it’s not really too bad about that insidious free -> premium model with regard to the gameplay aspect. At the very least, it doesn’t seem to be nearly as pay-to-win as I’ve heard some games are — the game is generous with the cubes you use to build new ships, handing them out pretty freely as long as you log in and play a bit on a regular basis. Azur Lane also features the standard special events during which certain super/ultra-rare shipgirls are featured with higher build rates, along with the occasional collab with another IP. And though people get annoyed by them, even the relatively crap ships that drop constantly and fill up your dock space, the ones you’d normally sell off, can be thrown into a decent enough fleet to play around with. Though players naturally do go for those SSR/ultra-rare ships, and it is possible to buy more of those cubes with that premium in-game currency all these games have if you want to be a whale.

And Azur Lane, like the rest of its mobile gacha game cousins, is without a doubt financially supported by its whales. So how do you convince those deep-pocket players to throw money at you without irritating and transparent gameplay paywall obstacles? This leads me to the third and by far most important reason I kept playing this fucking thing for a whole year, and the reason this post is being written:

3) Shipgirls (or Shikikan-sama’s battle harem)

Azur Lane has enough to it for me to call it a “proper game”, however you’d define that. The shmup stuff can be a fun diversion for a few minutes, and while neither the main nor the side stories ever grabbed me, I can see some players enjoying the visual novel aspects of the game, especially those who are into the naval warfare theme. Players can collect shipgirls named after historical ships from alternate universe versions of countries based on both the Allied and Axis powers, though the story is far more of a science fiction/fantasy than a typical alternate history one, far removed from the terrible aspects of World War II or of real-life war in general.3

But as stated above, I believe the collection aspect of the game is its real draw. I’m obviously not the first one to have this thought — I think it’s commonly assumed about these kinds of games that players are in it largely to build a collection of whatever main asset the game offers. And while the cubes needed to get all these shipgirls are easy to get as long as you don’t obsessively chase after those 0.5% drop characters during events, the girls themselves aren’t the only assets you can collect.

No, the even stronger draw seems to be the many alternate skins available, the great majority of which are naturally only for sale with that premium currency I mentioned. Not only does this game offer hundreds of characters to suit any player’s taste (as long as said player is into anime stylings and is interested primarily in female characters) but also skins for many of its more popular shipgirls to suit various occasions. And while many of these skins are nice and wholesome, some are as lewd as you’d expect, with a few coming as close as possible to the 18+ line without crossing it.

 

Though I was never a paying customer, I did get this free Yamashiro skin, which looks like the result of Manjuu and Yongshi secretly scanning my brain and finding out every single aspect of an anime girl that would appeal to me and putting them all together in one design.

But now here’s one of the usual questions that come up about these gacha games, and specifically about paid skins: why in the hell would anyone pay for a bunch of .png files you can find on the game’s wiki for free?4 It’s a reasonable question considering premium currency in these games doesn’t come cheap, and especially since said .png files can be saved forever, but the ones bought in game may well be gone the day the game goes out of service.

The best answer to this question I can find is back in the game’s collection element. The player takes the role of the Commander, in charge of a naval base that somehow includes shipgirls from every faction, throwing together all the hostile countries together into one pot without conflict breaking out. I’m not sure how that works — I’m sure the game’s story has some explanation that I don’t remember because I played it a while ago and maybe wasn’t paying much attention — but it’s the only way to make the game itself work, since you’ll be building and housing shipgirls from all over this alternate universe Earth.

I’d post a screenshot of one of the game’s endless VN-style conversation side story bits, but I don’t have any because I’d never planned to write about Azur Lane while I was playing it. So here’s another character design I like: the British battlecruiser HMS Hood. I had her in my dock together with Prinz Eugen, the German cruiser who helped sink her in 1941. Don’t remember if that ever came up but it had to be awkward.

On the contrary, aside from the constant war talk you might expect from a game like this, a lot of it feels much more slice of life, involving the various shipgirls’ relationships both with each other and with you, their Commander (or Shikikan, or even better Shikikan-sama as you’ll constantly be called, especially if you’ve got Akagi or other more formal-sounding ladies in your dock.) Assigning a ship as your secretary puts her on the main menu screen, where she’ll comment on your progress and make other quips or complaints or whatever at you depending on her personality.

If you keep one of these ladies assigned for long enough as your secretary ship, along with sending her into battle often but also giving her breaks to let her recover her morale, her affection should rise enough that you can actually commit to her with a ring and everything. It’s not called a wedding ceremony, but that’s damn well what it is. You even get to practice polygamy as the Commander, with the ability to marry your entire fleet if you wish, though extra rings beyond the first are once again locked behind that paywall (well, historically polygamists needed extra resources to support large families, so I guess that’s justified too? I’m monogamous myself, and you can probably guess who I got hitched to in game.)

Yeah. And hey, a free extra skin comes along with the wedding in some cases. I don’t know how she gets around in those insanely tall sandals; guess this isn’t exactly an everyday outfit.

And if you like a girl, well, maybe you want to buy her different outfits to dress up in. As far as I can tell, that’s the real core of the paid part of the game and the true draw for whales — pouring money into certain characters they like through those skins, which often come with their own custom dialogue. I can’t pretend to know how much of the spending on this game is driven by skins, but I can imagine it might be most of the spending, considering how damn many skins there are. And credit where it’s due: these guys got some excellent artists to work on their game.

While I do hate paid content when it constitutes a substantive part of a game, I can accept cosmetic DLC to some extent. When it comes to games made by developers I like such as Gust (for an example of a game I’ve just now completed, and more to come about it very soon) I might even view paying for that DLC as throwing extra money at a dev to support a niche game series I enjoy that doesn’t get nearly as much press as it deserves.

But I’m not Mr. Fucking Moneybags. I have to be sensible with my money, and I don’t really view Manjuu and Yongshi or any gacha game developer or publisher at all in the same light as a Gust or an Atlus (and even with them I have a limit.) Yeah, it would be nice if I had the resources to throw at this kind of game, but I get the feeling that not every whale can exactly afford to be one anyway. I never saw this happen back in the bad old days when I was practicing as a bankruptcy attorney, but I would not be surprised today to hear that a debtor had declared several hundred dollar monthly expenses on gacha games.5

So I resisted the call of those paid skins. As admittedly appealing as that USS New Jersey bunny suit outfit was.

Just imagine the real battleship wearing a giant pair of bunny ears; maybe it would have confused the enemy long enough to get in an extra shot on them.

I didn’t have any kind of big revelation before quitting the game, either — after a while, Azur Lane just got a bit dull. It’s still installed on my cheap beat-up tablet, but I haven’t touched it in quite a while, so my poor shipgirl fleet is rusting in port right now.

And that was my time in Azur Lane. I never brought it up here before aside from a few general remarks, since I didn’t have anything to say about its gameplay or story, and I doubt very much anyone would have wanted a post about me saying “yeah this anime catgirl battleship I just rolled is pretty hot” for too many words. Or maybe they would, since I seem to get way more views from Google when I write about spicy subjects like this. Readers know very well by now that I’m a degenerate anyway, so why not?

In any case, this post helped me put my feelings about Azur Lane and gacha games like it together in a hopefully semi-sensical way. I hope this also marks the end of my relationship with gacha. Genshin Impact looks really nice, yeah, but I can’t stomach any more rolls and don’t need the temptation of that premium option bullshit — the generally predatory nature of the gacha model pisses me off enough that I don’t want to think about it anymore. Though I might check out more of that Azur Lane anime one day just to see how bad it is — I hear even fans of the game weren’t crazy about it.

 

1 Though to be fair, aside from playing a lot of Touhou Project ten years ago or so I don’t know shmups that well, so maybe I can’t judge. I do have Mushihimesama on Steam but haven’t touched it yet. One day…

2 And yeah, for the fans of dudes out there, sorry — they really are all shipgirls. No shipboys here. Maybe it can be justified better by the fact that for a long time, ships were referred to with the feminine pronoun? Though I think that’s fallen somewhat out of favor with recent pushes to change pronoun usage in English.

To further go off on a tangent, the great majority of the shipgirl designs in both this game and Kantai Collection from what I’ve seen of that one are just “anime girl with gun/landing strip attachments.” You might call that a bit lazy and boring considering these girls are meant to represent and have the capabilities of warships, and maybe it is. But while more creative and fantastic sorts of mechanical girl hybrid designs might be interesting to see, they would also defeat the purpose for the large proportion of players who just want a cute waifu shipgirl to take into battle and aren’t into android or mecha-styled girls. At least that’s how I see it — I don’t know how much thought went into any of these decisions behind the scenes.

3 This removal is necessary considering that the real-life Kriegsmarine and Imperial Japanese Navy obviously sailed in support of horrific practices/ideologies, and these are naturally the two most prominent Axis-based entities in the game in the form of the Iron Blood and Sakura Empire factions. But Azur Lane takes place in an alternate universe setting where that never happened, and the German faction seems more based in the older German Empire that fell at the end of World War I anyway. That seems like a common path to take for writers going for a militaristic German setting but with characters who need to avoid those far more serious moral issues related to World War II — see also Tanya the Evil.

Though in Azur Lane, there are also two rival French factions modeled on the Axis-allied Vichy regime and the Free French resistance forces led by Charles de Gaulle, and that’s clearly a reference to World War II. And a lot of the shipgirls in the game have lines referring to specific events in the war. But maybe it’s better not to think too much about any of this. It’s a fanservice-filled alternate universe sci-fi game after all, not a work pretending to have anything to do with actual history.

4 I should mention there are a few animated Live2D skins that this argument doesn’t quite apply to — but of course those are sold at a premium.

5 Or would those be treated as gambling expenses, assuming they were all spent on extra rolls? There’s a question for my friends still practicing in bankruptcy. Either way, spending money for the chance to get cute waifu .png files that hold a one-sided conversation with you is still a far better use of your resources than buying NFTs.

A review of Needy Streamer Overload (PC)

Not the game I’d planned to review next, or even the post I’d planned to write next, but life has a way of fucking up your plans, doesn’t it? And that’s a lesson that’s very relevant to the game I’m reviewing today.

Despite its sugary sweet look, this one deals with adult subjects like sex and drug use and heavy, serious subjects mostly related to mental health and various kinds of psychological and physical self-harm up to and including suicide, so the usual warning here for kids and those who prefer not to touch such games. The game has its own covering our ass “this is all fiction and please don’t do any of this” message every time you start it up, and the message is warranted.

Needy Streamer Overload, put out by Japanese developer Why so serious, Inc. (with the original title Needy Girl Overdose, changed apparently when it was put up on Steam, though both titles fit it pretty well) is an ADV game depicting a month in the life of Ame, a girl who’s into some of the usual hobbies like gaming, watching anime, and cosplay. At the start of the game, Ame’s decided that she’s going to take advantage of her cuteness and on-screen charisma to become a streamer on MeTube (of course) and to rake in love, attention, and superchat money from shut-ins and nerds across Japan.

And you the player are her boyfriend (edit: or girlfriend if you prefer; as commenter phoenix below pointed out to me there’s no explicit reference to the player character’s gender, so keep this in mind going forward since I’m not taking the minimal effort to edit the rest of this post. But thanks for the catch!) known only as “P-chan”, as she claims above because you’re perfect for her, but also because you’re basically her producer. As Ame promises on day 1, she’s placing her life in your hands: she’ll do whatever you ask of her, and her only demand is that you drive her channel to a million subs in a month. Sounds difficult, but not impossible, because when she’s on camera Ame uses makeup, a wig, and a flashy costume to transform from her dour regular self into the peppy OMGkawaiiAngel-chan or KAngel for short.

The contrast between her persona and her real self is most obvious through the tweets Ame makes on the in-game Twitter equivalent through her public KAngel account and the private one only you can read.

Each day is divided into three time periods called day, dusk, and night, and as Ame’s live-in boyfriend/producer your responsibility is to direct her entire life. Throughout the day, Ame has various activities she can take part in, including using the internet/social media to get new ideas and pump up her subscriber/viewer counts, going out to neighborhoods around Tokyo with P-chan to take in the sights, and staying inside to play a game or spend some one-on-one time with P-chan (including an option labeled *** with a bed icon — I wonder what that could be? Well, the game doesn’t actually try to hide it.)

Daytime, with the available options on the left side and the text screen on the right. An exclamation point on an activity option means Ame will get an idea for a new stream if you choose it for her. Also man what the hell, don’t say that.

While the first two parts of the day are dedicated to letting Ame get new ideas, shill her own channel online, or rest, the night is for streaming. It is possible and sometimes advisable to skip a day and put the stream off to the next evening, but night is the only time Ame will stream since it’s peak viewing hours. After picking one of several available stream idea options for her, your job is to watch Ame’s stream and monitor chat for shitty comments to delete (not necessary, but deleting the right ones will reduce her stress slightly) and colored superchat comments with donations attached for Ame to read at the end of the stream (though only two of them, because KAngel doesn’t give her love out to her adoring fans that freely, and this also isn’t strictly necessary.)

Most comments are nice and positive, but you always have a few assholes in chat. Sometimes they’ll even pay money to try to get Ame to read their asshole comments. What a use of money that is.

Finally, note the Task Manager at the top right of the screen. This is an extremely important window to keep track of, as it measures both Ame’s all-important follower count and three aspects of her mental/emotional state: her stress level, her “mental darkness” which sounds related to but is distinct from her stress, and her affection towards P-chan. Every action you choose for Ame has effects on one or more of these stats: streaming almost always dramatically increases her stress along with her follower count, spending time with P-chan lets Ame de-stress and also increases her affection towards him, and while sleeping is a safe way to prepare Ame for her next stream stress-wise, it also takes up time that could have been used to find new stream ideas.

You can also tell Ame to take her meds at the recommended dose, or you can make her load herself up to the gills with drugs if you feel like being an asshole to her. But of course, there are consequences.

If Ame’s stress or mental darkness get too high, she may start acting strangely and refuse to listen to your commands, making decisions for herself that usually turn out poorly for her. You also don’t want Ame’s affection level to get too low (or too high!) since this will have consequences for P-chan’s relationship with her. And since P-chan is the (mostly) silent player character, if you fuck things up for him, your game is over and you’ll be kicked to the title screen to try to be a better boyfriend/producer in a new playthrough.

Texting Ame back and not ignoring her or telling her to go on dates with other guys on “Dinder” as the app is titled here is another important part of keeping her happy, but if you pick the third option here you obviously deserve to lose her. The second is also a dick response in my opinion, though less of an aggressive one than the third.

Needy Streamer Overload feels like a timely game. People who normally would have been going out over the last two years have been largely shut inside because of COVID (aside from those who act like it doesn’t exist, but again, a subject for a different blog than mine.) This seems to have driven online traffic a lot — I’ve seen the rise in my own site’s stats that track exactly with the beginning of the global virus in March 2020. I’ve seen theories that it also had to do specifically with the rise in popularity of livestreaming and especially of VTubers, who first became widely known in the US in that same year with a flood of translated Hololive clips on YouTube and then the development of English-language branches of Japanese streaming projects like Hololive and Nijisanji.

Ame isn’t a VTuber, but a lot of what I saw in Needy Streamer Overload made me think of the small amount of time I’ve been able to scrape up watching VTuber streams and seeing fan interactions on Twitter and other sites. This game does present an extreme case of a streamer who really shouldn’t be streaming at all, who belongs in school or a regular job and definitely in some kind of therapy considering her mental/emotional state. However, it also partly addresses the unusual and not always entirely healthy relationship between the streamer and her fans on social media and in chat during her streams, and that’s not particular to Ame or her KAngel persona.

Not even Doom streams are immune

From what I’ve seen, the vast majority of viewers are just dropping in to be entertained and have a pretty casual attitude. Fans seem to be pretty accepting of most any subject a streamer might want to bring up or an idea she might want to try out, even if the stream ends up crashing and burning (as happens a few times in Needy Streamer Overload, though KAngel’s reactions to these failures end up getting her more viewers than she would have had otherwise.)

Despite this casual and accepting atmosphere, there’s still a pretty common expectation, at least as far as I understand, that a streamer like KAngel or a VTuber who presents herself in a similar way shouldn’t be romantically involved, much less sexually active. Or if she is, as a lot of fans realize is at least possible, she should never even suggest or hint at that possibility that she might have a boyfriend.1 I’ve even heard about a couple of “incidents” in which viewers heard a male voice during a stream and the streamer had to explain the situation later (probably by saying “don’t worry that was just my brother” or something similar.)

Or “it was a ghost”, that might work too

That might sound like a silly or harsh standard to you, but there seems to be a practical reason behind it. A streamer who creates a persona as Ame does has to maintain that persona in front of the camera and on her social media accounts. Talking about personal issues isn’t necessarily discouraged, and in fact it can help viewers feel more closely connected to the streamer. However, part of the appeal of this sort of streamer, whether she uses a VTuber model or not, is her cuteness and weirdly enough her romantic availability — even though, practically speaking, she’s not romantically available to any of her viewers. Again, this is not true of all such streamers, but it certainly is of KAngel/Ame, who’s pretty open about using her looks and her cute persona to attract a probably primarily male fanbase.2

KAngel is pure, but luckily for P-chan, Ame sure isn’t.

This approach to the division between the streamer’s persona on one hand and her private life on the other seems to have been carried over from the idol scene, a subject I got into when I had a look at the film Perfect Blue. In both works, many fans express their adoration and/or love for the main character, and some express envy for the attention she receives.

But of course, that attention has a double edge. Ame looks to be suffering from a mix of depression and anxiety and maybe a severe personality disorder or two thrown in, and while taking medication helps her out a bit, it’s only a temporary fix in the game. Higher viewer counts get her excited for a while, but she soon becomes dissatisfied and wants more, and then it’s clear that she’s looking for something streaming alone won’t help her with.

At the same time, a lot of Ame’s viewers also seem to be depressive shut-ins or otherwise living on the margins of society. As someone with those tendencies (at least as far as I feel, since I disguise myself pretty well in public and society as a basic normal guy more or less — no time to mope around over here) I can completely understand why such people would seek an escape like watching streamers, especially since you can spend quite literally all day every day watching them live now. And that’s not even mentioning the nearly endless stock of VODs that I’m sure fans are obsessively archiving just in case a nuclear war or solar flare destroys the internet.

The definition of nerd: if you’re watching this, it’s you

I don’t want to overstate this point. The vast majority of interactions and talk in general I’ve seen around VTubers and fans has been positive. But the term “parasocial relationship” has been thrown around a lot lately for good reason. As much as it pains me to say it, while following one of these personalities can be fun, it’s not a substitute for having a social life of your own. Not even if the cute fox girl on the screen reads your superchat.

And no surprise, with all these strong emotions running and especially with five or six day-per-week streaming schedules, there’s always potential with this arrangement for things to get out of hand, with minor and even unintentional slips or incidents being blown well out of proportion. I’m not sure how much of this translates over from VTuber/liver work to “real 3D” or in-person livestreaming or whatever you’d call it, but I recognized a lot of what I saw in this game.

Avoiding textboards and imageboards is also a good policy, though /st/ seems like it’s mostly all right surprisingly enough. I miss ASCII art.

All that said, Needy Streamer Overload, despite its often dark tone and its dozens of bad endings to achieve, isn’t entirely negative. Ame does have serious problems she needs help with, perhaps even beyond the ability of you as P-chan to fix (and her extreme dependence on her P-chan is likely a serious problem in itself.) But she also seems to genuinely enjoy streaming sometimes, even if she likes to put down her viewers a bit as her “little nerds” in her private account, and most of her fans reciprocate that positivity.

If this game went full-on 100% dark all the time, I’d criticize it for that — despite how negative I can be, I find that sort of approach in any medium of art way too boring and simplistic, and it wouldn’t reflect reality all that much. Needy Streamer Overload already presents what seems like a purposely exaggerated situation, but it’s exaggerated in the right way and mostly has the right effect. A few of the bad endings do feel pretty weird and abrupt, but there are plenty of endings in the game. Almost all of them bad, but I get that too — I guess the game’s makers didn’t want to make it so easy for us.

Keep working towards that good ending

So reading all that back, I just bullshitted a lot about subjects I probably don’t have too much understanding of and read far too deeply into everything. But that’s the usual way for me. As for the game itself — I liked it. I’m a big fan of the art style and general look of it, it has some catchy and fitting background music, and I had fun watching Ame stream as KAngel when she wasn’t an out-of-control train five seconds from derailing, which I always felt responsible for because I was the one directing her life. Needy Streamer Overload is still another one of those works that’s not meant for everyone, or perhaps even for most, but if the style grabs you and you can deal with the subject matter, I’d recommend it.

 

1 Or a girlfriend, I guess, but that possibility doesn’t seem to come up as much, and I get the impression more fans would be generally okay with their favorite having that sort of relationship (though certainly still not all of them.) I’m also not sure how much any of this might apply to male streamers — that’s a totally different world as far as I can tell, and if anyone reading this is deep into male VTubers, I’d be interested to know if there are similar hangups among those fan groups.

2 To be sure, not all fans feel this way, and that difference in opinion is also depicted in Needy Streamer Overload. However, it seems like a common enough issue that it’s still worth bringing up. I’m also not trying to justify this feeling on the part of the more obsessive fans, since I do think it’s pretty unreasonable, but it’s worth trying to understand at least. For what it’s worth, the few VTubers I follow seem to have a healthy and practical attitude towards all this, though of course it’s impossible for me to say that for sure since I don’t actually know who they are behind the curtain. Not my business anyway.

Update #4 (Squid Game / Blue Reflection: Second Light / Atelier Firis / Komi Can’t Communicate)

Barring any work emergencies, I have a four-day weekend, which is amazing. I barely know what to do with this much time. Except catch up on anime and games while hiding from people I don’t want to interact with, which is what I’m doing now. Fuck the outside and being a social person! I’ve had enough of it for one lifetime. Wake me up when full dive VR happens (or so I’d like to say, but I have actual social obligations to carry out eventually when I run out of viable excuses to avoid them. Again: fuck it all, I say!)

Now that my regular bitter, bile-filled complaints are out of the way, why am I writing still another unfocused mess of a post? There are series and games I want to write about that separately, at least at this point, might not warrant their own posts, so I decided to dump them all in here. As always, proper reviews and commentaries are on their way, along with the usual end-of-month post.

Let’s start with something truly unusual, however, at least for this site: a look at a live-action series.

Squid Game (S1) (a very short no-spoilers review)

Yeah, I watched a popular thing on Netflix. I guess I’m a sellout now. No more hipster weeb cred for me. In fact, normally when I keep hearing about a series that’s exploded in popularity like this one has, I’m more inclined not to watch it, partly because I wonder whether it’s really as good as the hype suggests. That’s not really fair, though — just because something is insanely popular doesn’t mean it’s good or bad. Getting past that whole “popular thing = good/bad” mindset is necessary anyway.

And this time I was intrigued by what I’d heard, so I decided to give said popular series a shot. If you’ve been out in space orbiting Mars and haven’t had any signal for the last few months, Squid Game is a Korean series about a set of games run by a shady organization in which 456 players in serious debt compete for a massive amount of money. And naturally, since the reward is high, so is the risk: players who lose are eliminated in the fullest sense of the word.

We mostly see these death games through the perspective of the protagonist Seong Gi-hun, a down-on-his-luck divorced father with severe gambling debts who just wants to do right by his daughter and his mother for once. Gi-hun, despite all his faults, is a decent man at heart, but he’ll have to navigate a treacherous series of mind games and temporary alliances that test his senses of justice and morality to get at the final prize.

People have compared Squid Game to quite a few other survival game series, but the one I immediately thought of was Kaiji. If you’ve read or watched it, you can probably notice the similarities even from the synopsis above. I saw a parallel in the protagonist too: Gi-hun is very much a Kaiji sort of guy in that he’s unremarkable until faced with a life-or-death situation, when he gains nerves of steel, but all while attempting to stay true to his ideals. He’s far from perfect, but I found him to be sympathetic enough to root for along with a couple of other players who become close to him. The biggest strength in Squid Game I found was how it built its characters — with one massive exception, but that’s something I want to address in a separate post I’m planning.

The games themselves and the organization running them are also interesting. Again, as in Kaiji, these pit debtors against each other, resulting in some instances of teamwork and others of treachery and backstabbing. However, in Squid Game, the contests are all incredibly dangerous adaptations of children’s games. The strange and unique art style of the show adds to its appeal and probably did a lot to get people’s attention, and I think it works well, though I can see how it would put some viewers off.

I can’t give Squid Game an A+ or 10/10 or whatever equivalent you prefer, though, because I had a few issues with it, most seriously with the ending. I won’t get into it here in detail, but I felt the last episode undercut some of the story and especially one relationship that was central to the show, and in a way that didn’t pay off at all. I also found some strange inconsistencies in how the organization operated that weren’t explained.

Despite those negatives, I don’t regret watching Squid Game at all — I really liked it, at least up until the last episode (and well, episodes 7 and 8 were kind of goofy and bizarre in a not entirely good way either) and since the show is now confirmed for a second season, maybe it will somehow build on what it established at the end of this first season. So I’d recommend Squid Game if you’re into this survival/death game genre and don’t mind a whole lot of graphic violence, but with the caveat that the ending is kind of a mess, just not quite enough of one to overturn the rest of the series.

There’s more I want to write about the issues I had with the narrative, but I’ll save it for a spoiler-filled post (and I’ll probably spoil Kaiji as well, since I think there are some good comparisons to be made there.)

Now on to a couple of games I’ve started recently, one of which I’ve mentioned a bit already:

Blue Reflection: Second Light

I do know, yeah.

Since my look at the demo last month, I’ve gotten up to Chapter 6 of Blue Reflection: Second Light, which seems to be a bit more than halfway through the game, and I’m happy to say that it’s fully lived up to my high expectations so far. This sequel has surpassed the original in most ways, with a lot of fun and engaging characters and more fully fleshed-out relationships between them.

The game’s new setting helps: the protagonist Ao and her several companions are all students who have been mysteriously transported to this small dimension that only contains an otherwise unpopulated high school on a small island, with a connection to a strange separate set of dimensions composed of fragments of the girls’ places and memories and patrolled by dangerous and bizarre beasts called demons. Naturally, this “Heartscape” as the girls eventually name it is where all the combat takes place and where significant parts of the plot are moved along.

The start of combat against a dangerous demon in the Heartscape. The girls start out fighting in their normal forms but can transform into Reflectors (i.e. magical girls) and gain new power in the course of battle.

There’s not much else to say yet about Second Light other than the yuri, which the game really went hard on this time around. There were hints of it in the original, but nothing close to what the sequel offers. Ao can go on “dates” with her friends, which just consist of walks to various points of interest in the school like the gym or the pool where a short cutscene takes place. It’s a nice bit of relationship-building, though just as in the first game, spending time with your companions unlocks fragments that can be used to boost the characters’ stats and gain other benefits in battle.

Conversations can also take place on the way to your date spot. And yes, Ao gets flirty with every other girl in the game.

There’s also at least one real deal no bullshit romantic thing going on between two of the girls, though as far as I’ve played, it’s not clear whether those feelings are only one-way or are going to be returned. I’m honestly surprised they went straight for it, though — usually these games dance around the issue, merely hinting at such feelings or playing them partly for comedy (see any of the Atelier Arland games, also made by Gust with Mel Kishida’s involvement) but Second Light went for it without ambiguity. It will be interesting to see how that aspect of the story develops.

I also like this chalkboard note

There’s the update on Second Light, if you cared to have it: it’s good so far, and I don’t see it going bad unless the ending sucks or something. I’ll see soon enough.

And now for still another Gust game, because aside from a couple of other games, I’ve entirely dedicated this year to them for some reason:

Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey

Hi again Sophie and Plachta

No sooner was I done with Atelier Sophie than I started the next game in the Mysterious DX package. Atelier Firis is still another example of just how much Gust mixes things up from one game to the next, because aside from the somewhat similar alchemy system, Firis provides a completely different experience.

Our protagonist is the above-named Firis Mistlud, a girl who is soon to become an alchemist (surprise!) Firis was born and raised in Ertona, a strange mining town that exists entirely inside a cave sealed by a door only allowed to open for certain people. And sadly, Firis isn’t one of them. Highly valued by the elders of Ertona for her almost magical skill at detecting ore in the ground without using tools, she’s stuck where she is for the time being.

But of course, this soon changes. After a chance encounter with Sophie, the protagonist of the previous game, Firis discovers the wonders of alchemy and gets a shot at learning the discipline from her. Together, they manage to convince the town elders and her parents to let her go outside accompanied by her older sister/bodyguard, the hunter Liane, on the grounds that she needs to expand her knowledge so she can help the community more with this new skill. However, there’s a condition attached: Firis has to make it to the faraway city of Reisenberg and pass a notoriously difficult alchemy exam within one year, or else she’ll have to return to her hometown for good.

Outside for the first time in her life, Firis and her big sister face down a Puni, the Atelier version of the slime.

Despite being the next game in the same trilogy, Firis is very different from Sophie. Firstly, in terms of its settings: instead of the relatively small exploration fields and dungeons typical of Atelier that we got in Sophie, Firis features massive landscapes to run around in, with maps that fill out as Firis explores the world around her. That change works pretty well, since it fits with the theme of the game — Firis is all about exploration, after all.

The other change is maybe a bit more questionable, though it was one I already knew was coming: the return of the dreaded time limit. I don’t usually mind time limits in Atelier, but this one has me slightly on edge. The game isn’t kidding when it tells Firis to get to Reisenberg and pass that alchemy exam within a year, because it features a clock and a countdown starting at 365 days, presumably with a bad ending if you fail to meet your goal in time.

As in Sophie, there’s also an LP meter again that restricts how far you can travel without resting.

The trouble is that I have no idea how far I am from Reisenberg or how much I have yet to do to meet the game’s requirements for me to pass this first year. I’ve heard the time limit in Firis is an easy one to clear, so I’m taking my time to level Firis, both in the atelier and out in the field (which I have to do anyway for plot reasons, so it’s just as well) but with a constant eye on that countdown. As a result, I don’t feel like I can enjoy this newfound freedom.

But maybe that’s the point — Firis is under pressure in the game’s story, so having a time limit makes sense when you approach it from that angle. And once she passes the exam, the time limits are apparently all gone for good and I’ll get to explore at my leisure, so I’m looking forward to that.

And finally, moving over to anime an update on a series I may or may not finish:

Komi Can’t Communicate

Now I can see why this series seems to be divisive. Apparently a lot of people really dislike the protagonist Tadano because they think he’s being underhanded in his intentions towards Komi somehow. I don’t really get that impression myself — my read on the guy is that he’s a pretty normal awkward, dense anime romantic comedy protagonist. Sure, he’s obviously into Komi, but then everyone is too. And even so, Tadano and his friend Najimi are among the very few at their school who treat her like a fellow human instead of a goddess.

No, my problem with the series is its side characters. The fears I expressed in my first impressions post have been fully realized: aside from the above-mentioned ones, nearly the rest of the students at this school are a bunch of annoying one-dimensional dipshits. I’m pretty sure they won’t change much either, because then we’d lose the amazing jokes that come along with them.

This aspect of Komi hit me in the face in episode 3, which starts with a nice plot about a classmate of theirs, Himiko Agari, who has social anxiety similar to Komi’s, only Agari can’t stand when people look at her. Tadano thinks the two might bond over their shared socialization problems, and after some expected communication problems they end up friends, which is perfectly nice.

Then Agari turns immediately into this:

Anyone who’s read this site for any amount of time will know I’m absolutely not prudish at all. I’m all about letting your freak flag fly and all that stuff. That said, I don’t get how making Agari into a masochist who wants to literally lick Komi’s shoes makes any god damn sense in the context of everything else that happened in her episode. It feels thrown in at the end, as if to say “by the way, this is Agari’s thing and it’s going to be hilarious every time she acts like a dog in front of Komi and weirds her and everyone else out.”

Then there was episode 4, featuring Ren Yamai, the school’s resident yandere who’s naturally also obsessed with Komi and who apparently gets to kidnap and plan the murder of a fellow student (Tadano for being too friendly with her god-queen Komi, because right, Tadano’s the creepy one in this story) without so much as a referral to the school counselor.

Whatever

I get that Komi is a comedy and it’s not meant to be realistic, but I feel like mixing this sort of almost surreal, bizarre style with the attempt at a heartfelt, emotional story doesn’t work so well. But still, if I don’t drop Komi, I’ll write a more complete review of it. To be fair, the latest episodes I’ve seen were easier to take than the third and fourth, and there are still some aspects of the show I like — they’re just in danger of being outweighed by the things I don’t, and those things are still present in the series. Anyway, humor is pretty subjective, isn’t it? A lot of people find Komi funny, and if I don’t, maybe that’s just my problem.

In any case, even at its worst, Komi is still ten billion times better than fucking Big Mouth, which is still on the front page of Netflix every time I log in. So if you have to choose between the two for some weird reason, please watch Komi instead.

Also, I’m still watching Aquatope, takt.op Destiny, and Jahy-sama, but I’ll save my thoughts on those for the end of the season. I’ve already written more than enough by now to bore the hell out of everyone around. I hope you found something interesting above, at least. The next post will likely be that end-of-month one, so until then — happy Thanksgiving if you’re also in the US, and happy Black Friday, and I hope you didn’t get mauled too badly out there. Though if you’re the sort of person who reads my site, you’re probably holed up inside too.

A review of Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book (PS4)

My journey through Atelier continues. After finishing Ryza, I was afraid I might be burned out on the series for a while, but apparently that’s not the case yet. The fact that the Mysterious DX trilogy was on sale at the time also helped my decision, admittedly, but I was destined to play this anyway. So better sooner than later: it’s on to still another world, another story, and a new cast of characters with Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book.

Sophie Neuenmuller is a young alchemist living alone in her atelier on the outskirts of her hometown of Kirchen Bell. Sophie doesn’t have a lot of experience with alchemy yet, but she’s determined to improve her skills, in part to carry on the legacy of her alchemist grandmother, who raised her and taught her what she knew before her passing.

She still has plenty to learn however

Sophie’s life might seem a bit lonely, living and working entirely on her own, but she has plenty of friends, including her childhood companions Monika and Oskar. All of Kirchen Bell is with her as well — her grandmother was a valued citizen and friend who helped everyone around town, and all that goodwill is also extended to Sophie, who does her absolute best to be worthy of it.

While working as usual one day, something happens that changes Sophie’s life forever: one of her reference books, an old tome she inherited from her grandmother, starts floating and talking to her. At first, Sophie thinks she’s suffering from a hallucination brought on by working too much, but she soon realizes that this is no illusion. The book calls itself Plachta and tells Sophie that it has regained a little of its memory thanks to her writing alchemy recipes in it.

Sophie soon learns that this Plachta was a human girl like her, and another alchemist no less, who five hundred years ago had to transfer her soul into a book for some reason. That reason is still unknown because Plachta has unfortunately lost her memories. But Sophie is determined to help her new friend. By learning more alchemy recipes and writing them into Plachta, she can slowly recover those lost memories. Not just for her own sake, either: as Plachta tells Sophie, she transferred her soul into this book for an as of yet unknown reason, but an extremely important one, making their goal all the more critical to achieve.

Naturally, Sophie has to explore uncharted and dangerous lands outside the safety of Kirchen Bell and its surroundings to gather rare ingredients for her alchemy recipes. As always, our alchemist protagonist has plenty of help from both old and new friends who join her in adventuring. And while Plachta can’t (yet) join Sophie in battle against the monsters that menace them, she helps out by teaching her what she knows about alchemy as her memories return.

Also, Oskar can communicate with plants. At first it comes off as a joke, but he’s dead serious, and his unique skill actually is helpful later in the game.

If that doesn’t seem to you like much of a story to play through, especially for a JRPG, I’d say you’re right. But that seems to be by design. Sophie is the most slice-of-life, relaxed Atelier I’ve played yet, and that includes both Ryza and the parts of the Arland series I’ve played that were already pretty slice-of-life themselves. So Sophie isn’t really that unusual for the series as a whole, and Atelier is a pretty atypical sort of JRPG series in that sense anyway. This game just carries that more relaxed tendency even further than usual, and I imagine this would have been even more noticeable to players coming directly off of the Dusk series that preceded it.

I don’t want to overstate this point, however. Because there is a plot to Sophie, and the game does require the player to make progress towards an eventual end goal that’s directly related to recovering Plachta’s memories. The big difference is that instead of working under time pressure as you would have been in Arland or in parts of Dusk, there’s no deadline here. Sophie doesn’t even punish you for spending too much time in one particular section of the game by literally slowing you down the way Shallie did, which is much appreciated, because I didn’t much care for that aspect of Shallie.

In fact, you can just spend time away from the plot fulfilling item synthesis and monster-killing requests for money and vouchers at the local pub so you can buy the ticket that lets you go on a date with your bunny girl waitress friend Tess. And you’re sure as fuck right that I did just that, much to the despair of her many male admirers who missed out. Sorry guys. Maybe you should have spent less time drinking coffee and leering at her and more time busting your asses too.

Atelier Sophie is clearly designed to let the player take their time — everything about it is set up so that you can’t rush the game even if you try. One reason for this slower pace is the alchemy system, and specifically the method this new sub-series uses to teach its protagonist new recipes. There are still a few books lying around for Sophie to read and learn more alchemy from, but the vast majority of new recipes in Sophie are learned simply by doing things. Just doing things, yeah. Fighting enemies, synthesizing new items in your cauldron, or even just talking to people around town or finding unusual spots while out in the field can give Sophie new ideas, which are denoted by a light bulb appearing over her head, after which she writes something in her book (which apparently isn’t Plachta, though she does actually write in Plachta when she returns to the workshop.)

The item synthesis system is also totally different from previous systems and takes some getting used to, but as usual it’s not hard to get down once you’re practiced at it. Still easier than the relatively opaque and weird trait transfer system in Ayesha, though some might disagree.

I found both of these new aspects of the alchemy system a bit annoying, especially at first when my options for crafting items were limited. This new system seems to simulate the cauldron itself, giving the player a square grid layout to insert each ingredient into with the variously colored squares corresponding to the usual fire/water/electricity/wind element system and with a fifth white element (holy or something like that? I guess.) The key to improving your items above the relatively crap level you start out with is getting new cauldrons with better properties and larger grids — there’s not much you can do with a 4×4 cauldron, for example, but a 6×6 one gives you a lot more room to work with.

Getting used to the cauldron stuff wasn’t too bad, but the recipe book system that went along with it was slightly more irritating because of how vague it could sometimes be. Some recipes were pretty straightforward about their requirements for being unlocked, but a few others weren’t, and I ended up having to look up a few hints about where to go and what to do to unlock such and such recipe to create a new item — something I never like doing. It may be that I’m simply an idiot, a possibility I always hold open, but I think the game was just being too damn obtuse in a few places.

The water of life is booze, isn’t it? Well, Sophie is still under Kirchen Bell’s drinking age as the café/tavern owner Horst reminds her, so I guess it’s non-alcoholic in this game.

But maybe it’s not such a big deal. Because there’s no time limit and no penalty for running in circles in Sophie, you’re free to do so, though players who actually want to stick to a schedule might be annoyed by getting caught up with some of these riddles. Then again, there are plenty of side stories available to play through, one for each party member and also for a couple of more major side characters (namely, Logy from the Dusk series and Pamela from Arland, who return confusingly enough as alternate-universe versions of themselves.)

Logy is exactly the same personality-wise as he was in Dusk, even working again as a blacksmith, although not an alchemist this time. But Pamela is pretty different — she’s far more mature and also not at all flirty with any of the guys around town like she was in Atelier Meruru. In fact, she’s a nun in this game, so just the opposite.

While I felt the side character stories in Ryza were pretty thin, in Sophie they’re somewhat more interesting and fleshed out. As usual, we’re presented with a cast of colorful characters, and for the most part they’re pretty fun to hang around and to help out — you can even give them gifts that they’ll reciprocate later on, a nice way to clear out your overfull inventory of ingredients while also improving your standing and moving their side plots along.

And naturally, some of these side plots also require Sophie to venture out into the field. And going into the field requires her and her friends to fight monsters. Unlike in past installments, every character in Sophie can use items in battle, though only Sophie and a few others can actually handle high-level items well enough to stock them in their inventories. Otherwise, Sophie uses a turn-based combat system similar to those in Arland and Dusk, though with a few twists of its own. I found combat to be pretty straightforward anyway — it relies heavily on having effective attack items on you and weapons and armor equipped with helpful traits as you’d expect, so as usual your alchemist level seems to be more important than your adventurer level in taking down powerful enemies.

This dragon was piss easy when I finally got around to fighting it, mainly because of the high-level weapons and armor I’d crafted.

That leaves the aesthetics, which are always a big part of the appeal of an Atelier game for me, and with the partial exception of the music (Dusk still has the best soundtracks in my opinion, but the music here is all right — just doesn’t quite rise to the level where I’d want to go back and listen to any tracks on their own) those are up to par as well. Following series tradition, this new trilogy brings with it a new art style, this time courtesy of artists/character designers Yuugen and NOCO. I wasn’t familiar with these guys before, but I like their designs and the art direction in general — Sophie, and from what I can tell so far the Mysterious series in general, returns to the more colorful look of Arland, moving away from the earthy look of Dusk, but again with its own style distinct from the others. I like them all, though; each one fits well with the character of its respective series, which is what matters.

Some really nice CGs in Sophie, also a series tradition.

Sophie also adds some of its own flavor in the characters’ costumes, which are somehow even more elaborate than some of those put together by Mel Kishida back in the Arland series. You might have already noticed Sophie wearing two very different outfits above, and then there’s still a third, an old set of clothes her grandmother wore when she was about the same age, which Sophie decides she has to recreate and wear at certain points in the game to embody her spirit or something. One of your party members, Leon, is even a traveling tailor and fashion designer who makes the honestly kind of strange-looking gold shorts and beret getup for Sophie you see above.

Well, it fits anyway — as someone said in a previous game (Wilbell maybe?) alchemists always dress strangely. And Leon is apparently one of those haute couture designers who specializes in unusual dresses like you see in those weird as fuck fashion shows in Milan and Paris, so I shouldn’t question her work.

I actually prefer Sophie’s grandmother’s dress design to the others, seen here. See also pimp hat ghost

You might think it’s strange to focus on the protagonist’s costumes so much, but they actually play a minor part in the story this time around. And not just Sophie’s — Plachta’s as well. It’s not much of a spoiler considering the fact that she’s on the cover, but Sophie and friends eventually manage to put together a life-sized, fully autonomous and functional doll body for Plachta and transfer her soul from the book into it. This procedure is part of their plan to help Plachta recover her memories by giving her as close to her old human body as possible, and more conveniently for the player it also allows Plachta to finally join the party and fight.

However, there’s also a “doll-making” mechanic that lets you put new clothes on Plachta. I still have no idea whether it has any actual effect on her skills or stats or anything; my mind was probably too clouded at the time to notice (edit: I’m stupid and it does.) But I do remember what I ended up putting Plachta in for most of the rest of the game once I discovered it:

Of course I go with the catgirl outfit. You’re not surprised, are you. And in my defense, this isn’t even close to the skimpiest one.

Anyone who was looking for all the fanservice in Atelier and went straight to Ryza based on the (admittedly pretty damn good) thighs? They completely missed it, because it was all here in Sophie. I’d still say there still isn’t that much fanservice in this game in the grand scheme of things, but the doll-making mechanic does stand out in a funny way. In any case, though, it’s entirely optional — you’re free to leave Plachta in her original Leon-designed costume that makes her look a bit like a tower administrator from the EXA_PICO series. Which hey, those are also Gust games, so maybe it’s not a coincidence.

And none of that’s a complaint, to be clear — not coming from me anyway. No, my only actual complaint with Atelier Sophie is that it returns to some of the old ambiguity in item, effect, and trait descriptions that we got with Escha & Logy. Added to the intentional ambiguity in some of the game’s requirements to learn new alchemy recipes, this can cause some real problems, especially for the player looking to complete their recipe books and craft the absolute best items, weapons, and armor possible. None of that’s necessary to complete the game’s main plot, but since Atelier tends to attract obsessive completionist types (at least I imagine, considering the emphasis it puts on filling out compendiums of items and ingredients etc.) this may still be an issue for some players.

God damn it Logy, stop pretending you don’t know what alchemy is. You did so much of it with Escha in your own game. Help me out here.

But aside from that still relatively minor issue, I was happy with Atelier Sophie. The slow-paced slice-of-life style of the game was refreshing, and even when I got stuck at points, it was pretty easy to just go with the flow and carry out other tasks in the hope that a solution would eventually present itself (though again, on occasion that just didn’t happen.)

I can also finally agree with the pretty common opinion I’ve heard that Sophie is a good place to start for the Atelier beginner. It still has a lot of depth in its alchemy mechanics, but it’s not all that demanding either, and in some ways it feels like a return to the simpler “cute girl doing alchemy in an old European-looking town setting” setup that Arland had going, only without that series’ restrictive time limits. The only drawback I can see to starting with Sophie (or Ryza for that matter, which I think also makes for a decent enough starting point) is that going backwards from here into Dusk and/or Arland might feel uncomfortable as a result.

Not as uncomfortable as going to university lectures hung over, but still maybe a bit uncomfortable. Those memories will stick with me forever.

But hell, you have to start somewhere, and it may as well be here if you’re planning on getting into Atelier. As usual, I wouldn’t recommend Sophie to those who dislike games with turn-based combat or a lot of collecting items and crafting. Those looking for a deep and/or intense plot won’t find much of that here either.

However, if you’re looking for a nice light slice-of-life game about cute girls doing cute things and also doing a lot of alchemy and killing dragons and ghosts with it, you can’t go wrong with Atelier Sophie. Having only played the DX version, I can’t say how much it adds to the original, but since it’s now the standard it’s likely the one you’d end up getting. Though if you want a physical copy, I think you have to stick with the original plain vanilla version. If only I could get my hands on one myself… but I do have the upcoming direct sequel Atelier Sophie 2 preordered, so that’s some consolation.

Before that, though, I have the rest of Mysterious to get through. As usual, as of this writing I’ve already started the following game in the trilogy Atelier Firis, and I can already tell just a few hours in that it’s very different in its approach from Sophie while maintaining a consistent style. I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me — hopefully someplace equally pleasant. So until then.

Demo mode: Blue Reflection: Second Light (PS4)

I have some actual time off for once, and not a moment too soon as I was feeling a bit run down. I hope this long weekend will help me recuperate mentally somewhat, since I have to dive right back into it on Monday.

That’s all the vacation I get. Enjoy your summers while you still can if you’re still in school.

Thankfully, I also have some interesting games to keep me occupied, including a demo for a very soon-to-be-released one. I mentioned Blue Reflection: Second Light just a couple of posts ago as a game I had preordered, but at the time of posting I didn’t realize that a free demo was also about to be put out. I don’t usually pay much attention to demos, since I’m generally pretty sure I’ll like the games I buy these days, but I was curious to know what Second Light might have to offer, assuming the demo wasn’t just a trailer with a few bits of gameplay slapped on.

And it’s really not. This is a legitimately good demo, with enough substance that I’m able to write in a meaningful way about what it presented. In fact, this piece will probably work well enough as a first impression post, unless the finished game is somehow very different from the impression its demo gave me.

The Second Light demo is divided into two parts: Prologue, consisting of an opening chapter lasting an hour or two and featuring the basic story setup and a series of battle tutorials, and Story Demo, which takes place in a short section around the middle of the game and shows off more of its character interaction mechanics.

Starting in the natural place with the prologue, we meet our protagonist, Ao Hoshizaki, waking up from her nap in what looks like a high school club room. Ao is indeed in a high school, together with three other students, Rena, Kokoro, and Yuki, none of whom she had ever met before mysteriously finding herself transported here a few days earlier. Because this isn’t her high school — in fact, as we can tell from their different uniforms, all four girls are from different schools, and they all found themselves also mysteriously transported to this strange school, which is fully furnished with all the stuff a school should have but is otherwise abandoned.

Stranger still, they seem to be completely cut off from the outside world. Their new school exists in its own small isolated dimension surrounded by water with the exception of a gateway leading to another world, a wilderness the girls have named “the Faraway”. This Faraway is full of useful materials that fortunately include food, but it’s also full of demons that attack Ao and friends if they’re detected. Luckily, Ao, Kokoro, and Rena all possess the power of Reflectors, giving them magical abilities that they can use in combat to defeat these demons.

While Ao and company are getting along all right, they’ve also committed to exploring the Faraway to try to discover some way back to their own world. Mysteriously, only Ao has retained all her memories of the life she left — her new friends are all more or less amnesiacs, so hopefully the Faraway and their Reflector powers can help them unlock their memories as well.

These guys will be familiar if you’ve played the first game. Combat in Second Light is turn-based, but again with some extra elements that set it apart. See also the crusty graphics with Ao out of focus in the foreground; not sure what that’s about, but everything looks great otherwise.

The prologue chapter runs up to a point just before what looks like a boss fight, where we get a “To Be Continued…” screen and a trailer for the game proper. As for the Story Demo, there’s not much to say — it’s a nice chance for the player to explore the school grounds and talk to various new characters who have apparently joined the crew (and one old character in Blue Reflection protagonist Hinako Shirai, though her presence here is still a mystery) and to get a feel for the slice-of-life aspect of the game.

It’s nice to see Hinako again. Hoping she’s here in a kind of “I’ve been through this kind of shit, I’ll help you out” mentor role.

My impression based on the demo is entirely positive. It does throw a lot of information at you, and it might help if you’ve played the first game and already know about Reflectors and how they’re given their power, how it works and all that, but it doesn’t seem necessary at all. Second Light looks like it’s carrying on the theme of power being attached to emotion, both positive and negative, and with a special emphasis on building relationships between the protagonist and her new friends. Reflectors aren’t really any different from magical girls aside from the fancy title, and if you can accept the weird premise of the game it’s pretty easy to get what’s going on (at least so far; hopefully it doesn’t get too convoluted in the game proper.)

Messing around in the Story Demo section that focuses on all that relationship stuff. Apparently there’s also a new school improvement mechanic that lets you build new structures and forms of amusement, but you can’t actually do anything with it at this point.

I especially like the isolated world featured in Second Light. I wrote in my review of Blue Reflection that I thought its world felt sparse and isolated despite the whole story taking place in a seemingly pretty normal town, with our characters doing their best to live their everyday school lives. Yet the game didn’t contain a single parent or teacher or any other figure onscreen aside from the school’s students and the otherworldly monsters Hinako, Lime, and Yuzu had to fight.

I wasn’t entirely sure whether that strangely sparse feeling was intentional in the first game, but it certainly is intentional this time around. And all the better, because I love games and series that throw its characters into these kinds of isolated, mysterious settings that they have to find their way out of (see the Infinity series of visual novels and Zero Escape for other examples.) Works for me — if you’re going to create a magical dream world full of demons anyway, why not create another magical pocket dimension with a fully furnished high school for our characters to camp out in?

I don’t know about this, though. A hamburger from a vending machine? Sounds like something Ashens would review on his channel.

The combat is again turn-based but feels a bit more challenging than in the first game if only because your health isn’t regenerated after each fight this time around. The system itself also seems more complex, though the demo only gets into the basics of battle with some grunt-level demons and one slightly stronger enemy who’s still pretty easily defeated.

Finally, there’s the art and music, which so far are at least equal to the high standards set by Blue Reflection. No surprise, considering both Mel Kishida and Hayato Asano worked on this sequel. As I wrote before, even if it’s lacking in other aspects, I’ll enjoy Second Light well enough if it maintains that quality in these areas — though it also looks like the sequel might improve on some or most of the other aspects of the first game based on this demo.

Mel Kishida is always a great character designer, but have you ever seen anyone in real life actually able to make that 3 mouth Yuki has here? I don’t think it’s possible.

Saying more than that would be speculating way too much, so I’ll leave it there. Credit to the publisher for putting out a free demo that actually has some substance, again, though I suspect I’ll be taking a lot of that credit away when they inevitably gouge players on DLC (at least if Atelier Ryza was any indication, and that was also put out by Koei Tecmo, so there might be reason to worry.) But DLC is just DLC in the end, and in any case the demo is free, so be sure to check it out if any of the above grabs you.