Summer cleaning game review special #3: Radical Solitaire

Does that screen hurt your eyes? Well it did mine. This is Radical Solitaire, another game in that itch.io bundle. You might be wondering what’s so special about a solitaire game, especially one released this year (and not in 1982 as developer Vector Hat claims, the liar!) And especially one that at first doesn’t look that different from the standard game of Klondike that has come with every version of Windows since the dark ages, aside from having a title screen that changes to different eye-destroying color schemes every ten seconds.

Well, there are a few differences. The only reason I decided to check Radical Solitaire out among the many games in that bundle was that it claimed to be different in its tagline, which makes the promise: “never a bad deal, always a RAD DEAL!” So I downloaded it to see what was so rad about this solitaire game.

This deal doesn’t look that fucking rad to me

At first it just seemed like a regular game of Klondike with some weird sound effects, something like a robotic yelp every time I uncovered a new card. However, when I got stuck in my game, I went over to the GET RAD button. Clicking it didn’t do anything, but dragging an upturned card to it did:

Yes, this is a Klondike/Breakout hybrid. Any time you’re stuck, you can drag a useless card to that GET RAD button and play a game of Breakout to change it out for any still-hidden card. Every time one of the balls breaks through and hits the card, it changes, and each game can get quite chaotic — new balls are embedded in the wall and can be broken out and used to hit the card as well. There’s no guarantee that the card you’ll end up with at the end of your Breakout game will be useful, but you can play new games of Breakout as many times as you want to get something you can use. Hell, you can just play Breakout all day if you want. Radical Solitaire doesn’t seem to care if you ignore the solitaire part of it.

It’s definitely an interesting combination, and I think the basic idea works. The fucking color schemes still hurt my eyes, though to be fair the game does at least provide a night mode if you’re up playing this at 3 am. As for whether I’d recommend it, I don’t know. If the weird colors don’t bother you and you’re a huge fan of both solitaire and Breakout, you’ll probably like this. If not, it’s probably not for you. If it were free I’d say try it out either way just to experience how strange it is, but it does normally cost three dollars, so whether you want to spend that money is up to you (and if you have epilepsy, I guess you should be careful — I’m not sure how the flashing lights issue works, but this game does have those, though it looks like they can be turned off.) In any case, next time I’ll look at a game that hopefully won’t give me eyestrain.

A review of Atelier Meruru DX (PS4)

Years ago, to take my mind off of my extremely irritating studies, I bought a digital copy of Atelier Rorona Plus for the Vita. This was my very first Atelier game, and though I liked its unique style quite a lot, I never got around to playing any of the other Atelier games. Not until I dropped part of my tax refund this year on Atelier Meruru DX, a deluxe PS4 edition of the original Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland on the PS3.

I really like to think that some mom in a Gamestop bought her princess-obsessed kid this game based on the cover, but then it turns out to be all about a princess dealing with bureaucratic deadlines and resource management.

Meruru is the final game in the Arland trilogy, a sub-series of the much larger long-running JRPG Atelier series made by the Japanese developer Gust. While the Arland trilogy shares the central alchemy mechanic in common with the rest of the Atelier games, it also has its own identity distinct from the others.

But first a catch-up on the characters and plot. The protagonist, Merurulince Rede Arls, is the daughter and only child of Lord Dessier, the King of Arls. Somehow this tiny podunk town, population 1,000, counts as a kingdom and has a king with a giant stone castle, but we can’t question that too much. In any case, all that’s about to change.

Princess Merurulince, or Meruru to her friends, constantly shirks her royal duties to practice alchemy under the direction of her teacher, the master alchemist Totooria Helmold. Meruru doesn’t like being a princess, and she reasons that since their tiny kingdom is going to be merged into the far larger Arland Republic in five years, upholding her royal duties doesn’t matter that much anyway. Even so, her dad understandably isn’t too keen on his daughter studying a trade that requires hunting for ingredients in the wilderness, killing monsters, and working with potent poisons and explosive fuels.

However, Meruru won’t back down, so the king’s butler Rufus proposes a compromise that they both accept: if Meruru can use her alchemy skills to increase the population of Arls to 30,000 within three years, Dessier will allow her to become a full-time alchemist.

The stamp makes it official

So while Dessier sits his royal ass on his throne for three years, he leaves it up to his teenage daughter to actually do all the work to strengthen the kingdom. Some king he is, but there’s nothing to be done about it. Meruru (meaning the player) must find some way to increase the population of Arls to thirty times its original size while also maintaining her popularity among the people, otherwise it’s a game over and a bad end.

Thankfully, Meruru isn’t left alone in her efforts. She first gets help from an unexpected place: the castle itself, represented by Rufus. Though he calls himself a butler, he’s really more of a chief advisor and minister to Dessier, and he takes his job extremely seriously — a single needle can’t drop in Arls without Rufus knowing about it. He’s also serious about the development plan he proposed. When Meruru receives requests from the citizens to develop new patches of wilderness or to clear up monster-infested areas, Rufus creates plans for the princess to carry out that will variously open new areas for exploration, increase her popularity, and bump up the kingdom’s population. As Meruru fulfills these goals she also gains points that can be used to build new facilities, bringing even greater population increases and other various benefits.

And of course, the princess doesn’t have to go off gathering alchemy ingredients and killing monsters all by herself, because she has plenty of friends to help her. These include both new characters native to Arls and returning characters from the two previous Arland games, and some of them can be recruited to join Meruru’s party in battle while she explores the various fields, forests, and mountains of the surrounding country. Each of these characters has a different combat style: some are more defensive and supportive like Meruru’s childhood friend/chief maid Keina, while others are offensive like the warrior Lias. They also have very different attack ranges and skills, so no one character plays quite like another, which adds some nice variety (even if it means that some characters kind of suck in battle when compared to others.)

And then of course there are the other alchemist characters. The Arland series specifically features a chain of masters and apprentices continuing from game to game starting with Atelier Rorona, in which Rorona is the player character and apprentice (which you can read about in my very old, completely inadequate review of that game.) In the second game of the series, Atelier Totori, the main character Totori is apprenticed to Rorona, who has become a renowned master of alchemy, though still exactly as clumsy and ditzy as she’s always been.

Totori joining up to kill some wolves in the mountains

Carrying on that tradition, Meruru is now apprenticed to the master Totori. As such, a lot of Meruru’s time is going to be spent in the atelier crafting items using the ingredients she finds in the field and after battles while under Totori’s supervision. Though the Atelier games are turn-based JRPGs, they’re very different from the typical sort of JRPG, and part of this difference comes from the all-important alchemy mechanic. The alchemists in these games are special because they alone have the ability to craft and use items that do everything from heal allies’ wounds to destroying the shit out of enemies, making them potentially very powerful.

This unique gameplay feature adds quite a lot of variety to the game by letting the player mess around with ingredients that have different qualities and traits. One of the most fun aspects of the Atelier games is experimenting with new mixes to see what works and what doesn’t, and the games generally give the player leeway to try new things out. Because as with the other Atelier games, alchemy in Meruru isn’t a mere crafting system: it’s practically a science in itself. For a while, you’ll see traits passed on through synthesis that you have no idea of, there are so damn many of them. Players who commit themselves to getting alchemy down can make truly amazing items, however, and that’s part of the satisfaction that playing Meruru provided me.

Once the princess learns how to synthesize weapons and armaments, that mom realizes this game wasn’t quite what she expected

You might have noticed that I haven’t elaborated on the plot a whole lot beyond the basic premise, and that’s because there isn’t much of one. Certainly unusual for a JRPG, which tend to be very plot-heavy, but in Meruru there are no world-ending comets or plagues or any magic crystals to take away from an evil overlord. There isn’t exactly any villain in this game at all, at least not in the way we’d normally understand it. Meruru’s big goal is simply to be allowed to practice alchemy, nothing more or less, so that motivation is the central force driving the plot.

This is an element of Atelier Meruru that may put some players off, but I don’t really care about it. In fact, it’s nice to play a JRPG (hell, an RPG at all) for once that doesn’t have a great evil emperor pretending to be the big villain with a greater evil god or god-controlled lieutenant of the emperor behind him as the true villain. If you want that, you can get enough of it out of Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem, and as much as I like it yes, Megami Tensei too. The conflicts faced by the protagonists in the Arland series are much more personal — saving your small business from being closed by a corrupt government minister, finding your missing mother, and in the case of Meruru simply not fitting the mold you were intended for.

Offtopic but I like that thing Totori wears on her head, whatever that’s supposed to be

That’s not to say there is no villain at all in Atelier Meruru. I’m not talking about the boss battles you have to fight, or even about that lazy bastard Lord Dessier. No, the villain in Meruru is far greater than any of those: it’s the calendar, or more broadly time itself. When you’re given the three-year time limit arrangement at the beginning of the game, you might be thinking “Okay, three years. That’s a long time. This will be easy!” And then it’s very easy to start getting sidetracked by going on journeys through the countryside and freely doing alchemy. Of course, you’ll notice that time is ticking down as you proceed — traveling, gathering items and getting into battles in the field, and synthesizing items in the atelier all take parts of days or full days to complete depending on the size of the task in question. But no, three years is plenty of time, right?

Hey, look at this fortress we built all thanks to alchemy. We’re doing fine, Meruru! No need to worry about that stupid time limit.

When I played Rorona years ago, I remember Rorona having deadlines to fulfill certain tasks or else she’d get a bad end, but I don’t remember ever having to worry very much about meeting those deadlines. They seemed easy enough to fulfill while playing the game pretty naturally. So I went into Meruru with the same mindset, and it turned out to be the wrong one. It might be my fault for not realizing that it’s a lot easier to gauge your progress towards a one- or three-month deadline than it is towards a three-year one. Still, I got legitimately pissed off at one point when a certain event occurred that I wasn’t expecting, causing me to have to waste extra months running back and forth from a distant area to acquire an item necessary to a development quest. It’s a good thing I make several saves, because when this event occurred I didn’t even know how absolutely fucked I was until a few months later when I realized I couldn’t synthesize what I needed in time to meet the three-year population deadline. So I did something I normally don’t — I reloaded an old save.

Maybe some people would consider that cheap, but I don’t give a shit. I don’t pour hours into a game like this to get a bad end and get kicked back to the beginning of year one. I’m a busy man with a life outside of these games. Anyway, if the game wanted me to commit to a single straight-through run, it wouldn’t have given me multiple save slots. I highly suggest you use at least a few of them unless you’re the type to fully commit to one run without reloading no matter how badly you might screw up. I have respect for people who commit in that way, but hell if I’m one of them myself. The key in this case, as far as I’m concerned, is that the game gave me no reason to believe that I needed to take a certain action before an arbitrary date. Looking back, Meruru did drop a hint of what I should have done, but it turned out to be the kind of hint that you only see in retrospect. Or maybe I’m just an idiot. I have made a lot of terrible real life decisions, so perhaps that’s more likely.

I don’t know if nectar calms your nerves, but I might need a glass after that bullshit.

Without spoiling anything, my general advice to new players is to trust your instincts: if the game seems to be suggesting that maybe you should check something out and it won’t take you too much time to do so, go and check it out and gather what ingredients you can, because you might need them. If the game is giving you a tool to use, say by bringing a new shopkeeper into town who offers a unique service, you should try using it as soon as possible. You should also be fulfilling requests at the tavern on a regular basis, if possible with high-quality items, to keep Meruru’s popularity up and to make extra money, because you can never have too much of either.

Even with all the time pressure, it’s hard to get too mad at Meruru. The game is just too damn positive, cute, and friendly. A lot of this has to do with the game’s style. Every entry in the Arland trilogy features character and background art by the excellent Mel Kishida. The sheer amount of detail in the character portraits and CGs alone make the game worth looking at even for people who aren’t so into turn-based JRPG stuff. I’m not sure if he’s also responsible for the item illustrations, but whether it’s him or someone else, the work on those is even amazing, all the more so because there are hundreds of ingredients and synthesized items in the game.

Playing this game actually made me hungry at times. If only I knew how to bake, damn.

I also have to mention the game’s beautiful soundtrack. I don’t hear Atelier get mentioned too often when it comes to game soundtracks, and to be fair I haven’t mentioned it either, but now I’ll give these composers their dues, because both Rorona and Meruru, and I have to assume probably Totori as well, feature a wide variety of music that’s all suited for fighting in battle, gathering ingredients in the field, running around in town, and working in the atelier. From what I’ve heard of the following Dusk trilogy in the Atelier series, that quality of music continues on as well.

The game also gives the player plenty of time to relax with dialogue cutscenes that come up throughout the game without any prompting. A lot of these involve characters from the previous two games in the Arland series. Though it helps provide context if you’ve played those games, it’s not necessary to understanding what’s going on. I’m in a bit of a weird position since I’ve played the first game in the series but not the second, so while old faces returning from Rorona are familiar to me, those from Totori aren’t. But again, it doesn’t matter that much. In fact, if you start off playing Meruru before the others, you’ll be in the same position as Meruru herself, who’s meeting all these recurring characters aside from Totori for the first time.

Totori having a flashback to her own game.

Of course, all these character interactions wouldn’t be so fun if the characters were all two-dimensional cardboard cutout types, and they aren’t. Some of them are a bit exaggerated in their weird traits, but almost all of them feel more or less like people who you might know in real life (well okay, maybe not Pamela, but I did say almost.) Series with a lot of characters like this tend to give their secondary characters very little detail, usually with only one broad trait and absolutely nothing else, but the Arland games take that extra step to make them feel a little more fleshed out. Maybe because they contain dialogue and slice-of-life style chatter in place of that big serious plot.

This aspect of the series is more obvious with the main characters. The protagonist here is a great example — although Meruru gets along well with her teacher Totori, the two have very different personalities: while Totori is careful and meticulous, Meruru tends to jump into new, potentially dangerous situations without thinking too much about it. And this balance works: Meruru, despite not really wanting to be a princess, accepts her role as a leader for her people and uses alchemy to help them thanks in part to her more level-headed teacher’s guidance. The alchemists central to the games’ plots are all very different kinds of people, but they manage to work together to create amazing machines and objects to help their friends and fellow citizens, and isn’t that what life is all about?

So this might be a pretty obvious conclusion to this review since I’ve been mostly gushing over how good it is, but do I recommend Atelier Meruru? I do, especially if you’re into the kind of obsessive collecting that I am, because unlocking new items to create through alchemy fulfills that weird need I have very well. I don’t know how it measures up to any of the other games aside from Rorona, but it  measures up to that game pretty well even if I still feel like Meruru was quite a bit bullshittier in parts. But again, I’m pretty forgiving of that. Maybe too forgiving. It’s that damn bishoujo style Kishida draws — I would not have accepted this nonsense from a less cute game. There is also plenty of game content left after your three years is up assuming you don’t get a bad end, so that adds some slightly more relaxed time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. And as with the other Arland games you get some benefits from a new game plus, making successive runs quite a bit easier to manage if you decide to go after some of the game’s hardest challenges or see new endings.

As for which version of Meruru you should buy, the only one I’ve played is the DX version on the PS4, which runs well and contains some DLC costumes and recruitable characters who weren’t in the original. There are also DX versions on the Switch and PC, and those are probably fine as well, but not having played them I can’t say whether they might have some technical issues. If you’re the kind of true patrician who owns a Vita, there’s also Meruru Plus, which is probably also fine to play if it’s anything like Rorona Plus, but again, I can’t really say. Just buy whichever one suits you best.

I don’t own Meruru Plus, but here’s a screenshot from my very own Vita copy of Rorona Plus if you want a general comparison. Why do I have so much high-grade perfume? I don’t know, but Pamela seems happy about it.

As a side note, the Atelier games in general still seem to be in a bit of a weird niche area, though the series may be branching out to a new audience now. All of the more modern games have been localized, but the series as a whole seems to have gone largely unnoticed outside of the usual weeb circles up until the most recent game Atelier Ryza, which attracted some new players thanks to Ryza’s, let’s say “generous” character model. But so much the better. I know some people feel that bringing in more fans can “ruin” a series or whatever (just have a look at any Persona-oriented board for some of that) but more fans mean more exposure for the series in question, and that probably isn’t such a bad thing. It also means more people get to appreciate these quality works, and I don’t see how anyone could object to that. 𒀭

Summer cleaning game review special #2: WitchWay

Starting this series off with a negative review doesn’t seem right. So let’s fix that today, because I only have good things to say about today’s subject. WitchWay is another one of the games I found in that massive itch.io bundle I bought last month, and it’s definitely one of the more interesting ones in there. The premise is very simple: you play as a nameless witch girl, or maybe a student at a magic academy (she is wearing a school uniform-looking outfit after all) who falls down an extremely deep well. Somehow she manages not to break her neck or any bones and still has a lot of energy, so your goal is to reach the surface again. That’s all the plot you get, or at least all I’ve discovered so far. Because this isn’t any normal well: it’s full of chambers, doors, platforms covered in spiky plants that will kill you if you touch them, and lasers that will also kill you if you touch them. Just what the hell kind of well is this exactly?

The central map. That’s a damn complicated well

Luckily our protagonist soon finds her wand, and with that she’s able to remotely control movable blocks that she can use to press switches that open doors and remove obstacles in her way. WitchWay is divided into separate chambers containing progressively more difficult puzzles to solve to reach the exit and make it over to the bucket on a line that acts as an elevator to higher levels and eventually to the surface again. Some of these puzzles force you to get creative in your control of these blocks — after the first few chambers, simply moving them around won’t cut it. The game gives you all the tools you need, however, and it relies on you to use those to find your way out.

All this spiky shit will kill you, but you can ride certain blocks around to avoid traps and carry you to higher platforms

It’s not too difficult to get out of the well — you can even skip a lot of chambers and breeze your way out of there. You can also go the completionist route and find every secret the well has to offer. There are a few artifacts to collect as well as eight rabbits also trapped in the well that you can rescue by collecting them in your hat. All of these are naturally trapped behind walls of spiky plants and lasers that need to be blocked, avoided, or redirected, so a 100% run of this game will naturally take quite a bit longer than a straight play through, probably a few hours in total.

You probably won’t be able to bear leaving these poor rabbits trapped in this well anyway

I enjoyed my time with WitchWay. The puzzles were pretty rewarding to figure out, and there’s a lot of polish on the game — a good-looking pixel graphic style that reminds me of early 90s 16-bit platformers and nice background music. It only sells for a few dollars on itch.io as well, which I think is a good value for what you get here. If you need a plot in every game you play, you might be disappointed, but I don’t think this sort of game really needs one. Though the developers probably could have easily added one. But if you really want one, you can make it up yourself. Maybe you’re a Harry Potter fan and this is a background character from the series having her own adventure. Or maybe you’re a Touhou fan and any blonde witch girl character makes you think of Marisa Kirisame, and she’s been dropped into this well by a bored Yukari and needs to find her way back to Gensokyo. It would certainly explain how she can fall hundreds of feet onto a stone floor and not be hurt at all.

Enough of my nonsense. I’ll be following the creators, the four listed here — I look forward to seeing what they might come up with next.

Summer cleaning game review special #1: Qora

The worst season of the year is finally here, which is nice, because it means we can now look forward to fall in a few months. To commemorate this summer, I’ve decided to start a special series of posts. I have a few short games that have been in my Steam backlog for years now, and a few others that I very recently bought for barely anything in a huge bundle on itch.io, and a couple of others still on a hard drive that I don’t know the source of.

I wanted to get through these while I had the time (i.e. while most of my country continues taking work-from-home quarantine measures) but I also thought I’d rope these reviews off into a special series to excuse how short some of them will be. If I end up having enough to say about one of these games that it will take more than a few minutes to read, I’ll set it aside for the full review treatment. And if you like my usual long-winded style, don’t worry, because I’ll be posting the usual overlong pieces this summer as well. Those full reviews and deep reads are still on their way.

On to the first game down: Qora.

This was released way back in 2014, and I’m positive that it was one of those games I bought during a big Steam sale. I know I’m not the only one who buys games just because they’re cut in price 80 or 90% and then forgets about them in his Steam library for years on end, and that was the fate of the copy of Qora I bought. Despite how it looks, this isn’t some kind of platformer or minimalistic RPG. It’s instead an extremely linear exploration game without much of any gameplay. In other words a walking simulator, only in 2D instead of the 3D environments such games are usually set in (see Gone Home, Dear Esther.)

So it’s maybe not a big surprise that I didn’t like Qora. The whole experience lasts maybe an hour or two and consists of the protagonist, a nameless, featureless, characterless figure made of several pixels, going on a mystic walking quest to discover the ancient secrets of the land he or she just moved into after receiving a message from one of the local gods along with the ability to see the dead souls of the former inhabitants of the land.

That might make the game sound interesting to you, but the concept doesn’t translate into much of anything in practice. Qora has some nice backgrounds and settings that feel atmospheric and probably would have gone very well with a game featuring an interesting main character doing something that they had an actual motivation to do, but that isn’t the case here. Your only job is to get your pixel figure all the way to the right across dozens of screens by using the tools you get from talking to all your new neighbors in town. Including a set of incense sticks to burn at each shrine you come across, otherwise you’ll probably get a bad ending because you pissed off the gods, but I can’t be bothered to find out.

There are a few amusing parts, like the ancient monstrosities you run into during your journey that are totally harmless and even friendly and gladly get out of your way so you can continue. But by the end of the game, when the big secret was revealed, I was just tired of it and didn’t give a shit. There’s also a lot of that sort of wacky humor at the very end that I don’t care for. Call me a hypocrite if you want — I like Wes Anderson movies, but that kind of “quirky” stuff has to be done just right, and this didn’t work at all for me. Also, after an hour plus of moving along at a slow walk to reveal a secret I didn’t care about and had no investment in, my patience was already worn pretty thin.

So I don’t recommend Qora, and certainly not at its sticker price of ten dollars. It reminded me a lot of a game I played years ago also featuring some interesting backgrounds and atmosphere and not much else called Mandagon. I had much nicer things to say about that game, but it was also free and only took half an hour to get through, so even if it was nothing much, that wasn’t such a big deal (and it also had some sort of Buddhist theme, so if you’re a Buddhist maybe you’ll get a lot more out of it than I did?) I recommend you play Mandagon instead of Qora if you’re looking for this kind of experience, because then you won’t have to complain too much if you thought it was boring.

Other Megami Tensei games I’d like to see released for PC

This is a first: the second post in a row I’m making in response to a current event in the world of gaming. I promise this isn’t turning into a news site. However, the sudden release of Persona 4 Golden on Steam was a shock to almost everyone who cared about it, including me. I don’t have much to say about it, though, except it’s an excellent game that you should buy if you haven’t played it yet, but also that it comes with Denuvo built in which is a real pain in the ass not to mention a show of poor faith. I won’t be buying it yet, but that’s because I have a Vita in good working condition and several savefiles on my P4G card that I can go back to at any time and I absolutely need to finish Persona 5 Royal first. It makes sense that P4G is the first Megaten game to get a non-Japanese PC release, since just about nobody over here bought a Vita aside from me and maybe a dozen other people. And hell, the game is good enough that the Denuvo thing probably won’t matter to you.

No, that’s not what I’m talking about today. Since the door to Megaten PC ports is cracked now, let’s push it wide open. There are several other of these games I would love to see released on PC, so if anyone from Atlus is reading this, here’s my wishlist in order of what I want to see. Please note these aren’t based on what I think Atlus would be most likely to release but only on my preferences, so as usual I’m indulging in wishful thinking. On to the list:

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne

No surprise here, right? Nocturne is my favorite Megaten game and near the top of my favorite games list, whatever that would be. Yet it’s only ever been released for the PS2. It doesn’t seem like a PC port of Nocturne would be hard at all to make considering it’s now 17 years old. It would also make for a fine introduction to the mainline SMT series for new fans who have only played Persona 5 Royal and Persona 4 Golden so far.

Look, it even has dating, just like Persona. Well, sort of.

If I’m being greedy, I’d ask for the JP-only Chronicle Edition that replaces Dante with Raidou Kuzunoha, but people love their Dante from the Devil May Cry series so I know that won’t happen. Leave it to the modders to insert him later.

Persona 3 FES

This one is a lot more realistic than getting either Nocturne on PC or the complete Persona 5-style Persona 3 overhaul people keep clamoring for. A P3 port is the logical next step for Atlus to take after P4G: it’s a game that a lot of new fans haven’t experienced yet, but it’s still close enough to the newer Persona games in style that those fans won’t be put off.

I do think it’s more likely that we’d get the PSP-only Persona 3 Portable instead if only because of how popular its unique female protagonist option is. I’d still prefer FESPortable is sort of a “demake” anyway and lacks some of the features of FES, and most PCs would be able to handle FES in any case. However, the Answer section of FES is a character-destroying pile of shit, so maybe Portable would be better. But then again, you don’t really have to play the Answer if you get FES anyway, so maybe that doesn’t matter. I guess I’m torn over this one.

Persona 2

Both parts. Persona 2 has had a very weird history of western releases — we first only got Eternal Punishment, the second part of the two-part series, for PSX, then we got a port of the first part, Innocent Sin, on PSP but not Eternal Punishment on that system. It would be great to have a package including both games on PC, because the stories are supposed to be excellent in contrast with some quite honestly shitty gameplay and fusion mechanics. Maybe I’d actually get back to playing Innocent Sin again and suffering through that for the sake of the story. Once I beat Royal I’ll have 12 years to wait until Persona 6 comes out anyway.

Seriously though why would you give us each half of the duology on a different system and the second one years before the first, what the hell? I think they’re sadists.

Shin Megami Tensei I and II

I believe these are far less likely to be ported than Nocturne even, and for pretty obvious reasons: they’re a lot older and don’t contain any quality of life features, and II has never even received an official localization. And the localization of I was only for iOS for some fucking reason. But I’d still like to see these translated and ported, preferably in their slightly newer and more updated PSX remake forms. More complete overhauls would also be appreciated, but we’re already so deep in the unlikely zone at this point that I know that’s way too much to hope for. I’d rather hear news about Shin Megami Tensei V than about remakes of and II anyway.

***

There are plenty of other games that would be great to see released as ports on Steam like Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2, the PS2 Devil Summoner games, and SMT if…. However, the games I think we’re by far most likely to see are one of the two later versions of Persona 3 and any of the Persona spinoffs games they can cram onto Steam like the 3/4/5 dancing games and the Arena fighting games. Persona is the cash cow, after all. Or maybe we’ll really luck out and only get ports of obscure games that even most “serious” Megami Tensei fans don’t care about like Demikids and Last Bible. Only time will tell, but I’ll remain hopeful that we get something more on PC at least, because there are quite a few games in the series only playable on old consoles now that could use new life.

Enough of my complaints. Next time it will be back to business as usual. I already have some reviews and commentaries planned for the next few months — planning ahead, something I almost never do here. All this extra time staying at home has really paid off. But if Atlus surprises us with a Steam port of Nocturne, I’ll probably also be running an extremely detailed, tedious beat-by-beat playthrough of that game here. So maybe you should hope that doesn’t happen.

Does fun belong in “serious” video games?

I don’t know if I’ve seen an upcoming release as controversial as The Last of Us Part II in a while. It’s received almost entirely excellent reviews from the professional game press, who are declaring it a triumph of storytelling and a deep, affecting experience. Meanwhile, consumer opinion seems to be split — people are somehow already bitterly arguing about the game’s quality even though the damn thing isn’t out for another week. Granted, we have the first game to compare it to, but it still seems hasty to call the sequel a piece of shit on that basis, or even to call it a masterpiece based merely on the word of a bunch of professional reviewers.

I won’t be playing TLOU2. Not because I hate Naughty Dog or anything; I don’t care about them one way or the other, and I don’t really have it out for any game developer at all for that matter. Based on what I’ve seen, the game just doesn’t interest me. However, there is a question raised by all the back and forth fighting over TLOU2 that I do find interesting, and one that I was already thinking about before this controversy blew up — should a good game be fun to play? The reviews of this game I’ve read pretty consistently describe a miserable experience fighting through and hiding from both undead and living human threats and requiring the player to make potentially morally uncomfortable decisions. Yet those reviews also declare TLOU2 a triumph, with one guy comparing it to Schindler’s List and causing yet another uproar for it.

It goes on in this fashion

Setting aside Mr. Cannata’s weirdly narrow definition of “everything” being John Wick when it comes to games (I’m currently playing a game about a princess who makes items with alchemy, beats up dragons, and eats pie with her friends and it’s not much like John Wick1) I find his view interesting. The game wasn’t “fun” at all, but it was still an amazing experience. This isn’t a new take on video games, either. See this 2015 piece from Vice titled “The Value of Video Games That Aren’t ‘Fun'” that expresses a very similar view. The idea seems to be that a work of art that puts the player through hell as Cannata writes of TLOU2 can be inspiring and profound, and that such a game’s lack of fun elements can even work in its favor in that sense.

I don’t want to completely dismiss this idea. If video games are an artistic medium, and I think they are, then they can certainly affect the player emotionally and challenge their views of the world just as some of the great novels, plays, films, and music out there have done. To pull an example straight out of that Vice article, 1984 was a very depressing novel to read, but I thought it also totally achieved its goals in getting the reader to really care about a few people living in this unbelievably oppressive society. If a novel like that weren’t kind of hard to read, it would defeat the purpose. The same goes for Schindler’s List for that matter — a film about trying to save people during the Holocaust can’t really be called “fun” either, but it is profound, emotionally affecting, and very worth watching. So then why can’t a game also be depressing and hard to play, therefore making it way more profound and effective in challenging the player’s views of the world?

I see a few problems with the views expressed by these critics and writers. One is that they seem to be ignoring interactivity, an element of video games that isn’t shared by older media. When you sit down to watch a movie or read a book, you don’t expect to take an active part in it; you’re just taking in a story. With a game, however, unless it’s a visual novel or something similar [edit: and one without much player input either, like a kinetic novel] there’s an expectation that you’re going to get to interact and have some gameplay elements. So if you’re making a game an absolute misery to get through, you’re not just asking for the audience to passively sit and watch or read — you’re asking them to take an active part in struggling through a difficult mess for the payoff. That’s quite a bit more to ask.

A game can’t put a player in a rough situation and also be fun, it’s never been done before

Even that can make for a good game when done right, however. The Silent Hill games gave you pretty much normal-strength humans to control while fighting through and often hiding from vicious monsters. Plowing through enemies would be a lot easier and maybe more fun in some sense, but that’s not the sort of experience those games were meant to deliver. And despite all that, the Silent Hill series is widely beloved (up through Silent Hill 3 at least.) Even though they didn’t quite empower their player characters, putting them in extremely dangerous situations with scant protection and pretty average fighting ability, they also let you work out alternative ways to get through those situations when brute force was not going to work so well. A challenge like that can be fun in itself, and I’d argue the good Silent Hill games achieved that balance.

However, there’s another problem stacked on top of the first. If a game is going to put the player through any kind of hell at all, it has to deliver a payoff at the end that’s worth the effort spent to get there. Otherwise, it’s probably going to leave a rightly frustrated and annoyed player. If a game has something truly profound to say about humanity or life that’s worth the effort it takes to make it through its challenges, then it certainly could be worth playing, just as I think a book like 1984 is worth reading or a film like Schindler’s List is worth watching. If the payoff ends up being some trite message that most every person on Earth over the age of five already knows, however, then by contrast it won’t be worth playing unless the gameplay’s fun on some level. At that point, I’m far better off instead playing a game that’s fun and has no message at all.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t responsible for whatever this is.

Finally, there’s the problem of player agency. If a game’s going to take me to task for making the player character do something it perceives as wrong, it had damn well better give me options. Even though it doesn’t tie into its plot, I remember the old Thief games doing a good job of this: on higher difficulties the games usually forbade you from killing enemies in favor of knocking them out with your blackjack or with sleeping gas devices, the idea being that the protagonist Garrett is a professional thief, not a murderer. This was more difficult but always possible to achieve, and it made a no-kill run of a mission very satisfying to pull off on the harder levels. I think this element of player choice leading to a rewarding feeling was also a big part of why the indie RPG Undertale did so well.

However, a game that essentially forces the player to do something it deems bad only to chew them out for it afterward causes a disconnect between game and player. A game can’t simply make the protagonist do whatever it wants in the same way and with the same consequences as a novel, film, or other non-interactive work can. If I’m being put on rails and shoved down a track, you can’t make me feel bad for whatever happens as a result.2

Again, I don’t have any particular feelings about The Last of Us or Naughty Dog; I can’t and don’t plan on making any judgment of the game, and it’s no skin off my back if it ends up doing well or poorly. And after all, the market has room for all kinds of games. Some of those kinds I don’t especially care for, but why should that bother me? The same is true of every artistic medium on Earth. I just find some of the views expressed by professional reviewers who are praising it to be not very well-considered. By suggesting that this game is both profound and emotionally affecting and “not fun” and really emphasizing that “not fun” aspect, there seems to be an implication that a fun game can’t also be profound and emotionally affecting in the same way, and that doesn’t make a god damn bit of sense to me. 𒀭

1 It’s Atelier Meruru DX for the PS4, and now I’ve totally ruined the surprise when I post my review of it soon.

2 I recently bought a massive bundle of over a thousand games on itch.io. The deal is still on for a couple of days so check it out; the $5 minimum goes to the NAACP and a bunch of bail funds, which I think are pretty damn good causes. Anyway, one of the games included is 2064: Read Only Memories, a game that’s been sharply criticized for doing just this sort of obnoxious “railroad the player and then try to make them feel bad” thing. I might just have to see that for myself since I own it now. I did find the demo pretty irritating, but I shouldn’t judge it based on that alone.

However, the bundle also contains Dreaming Sarah and OneShot last I checked, and I know for a fact that those are both well worth playing.

A review of Ame no Marginal (PC)

It’s another visual novel review, this time of Ame no Marginal (also titled Rain Marginalame means “rain” anyway, so it’s basically the same title, but since it officially goes by its halfway-translated version I’ll keep using that one even if it’s awkward.) This work came out in 2015 and was developed by Stage-nana, the same people responsible for the famously melancholic VN Narcissu. Like Narcissu, Ame no Marginal seems to be pretty well regarded, but my feelings about it are complicated.

First, I may as well get this part out of the way: this review is going to spoil the whole plot along with the ending. Ame no Marginal is another kinetic novel like Planetarian, so aside from the art and music, there’s nothing to talk about other than the story. But unlike with Planetarian, I can’t give it an unqualified recommendation. Then again, I also can’t not recommend Ame no Marginal, because there are things I liked about it, and it’s entirely possible that the aspects of it that bothered me won’t bother you. It’s also possible that I missed some important plot points somehow that would have cleared up the issues I had with the work if only I’d seen them.

But I doubt that too. I wish I could find a way to express those doubts without giving away too much, but all I can say without doing so is that although the game’s premise and characters were interesting, its ending was abrupt and unsatisfying and didn’t make a lot of sense. To explain why I feel that way, I naturally have to get into the story, so let’s do that now.

Ame no Marginal begins in a rainy world consisting only of a flat landscape of paved ground and a large body of water nearby. It also has exactly one resident: a young girl, who we see peering through a magical portal watching a man in the game’s initial scene. This world seems to be separated from ours, and it also seems that the girl looking through the portal can’t reach our world, as she wonders out loud about whether the man remembers her at all.

The story then switches perspective back to our world, to the nameless male protagonist and other main character of the game. We can guess that this is likely the guy the girl was watching in the opening scene. It’s Monday and he’s on his way to a job he hates, living a life he finds pointless. This is confirmed when instead of going directly to his office, he takes the elevator in his building to the seventh floor, the top one, walks out to the roof, climbs over the fence around it and hangs over the edge.

Our protagonist isn’t intent on suicide: he doesn’t jump from the roof, but climbs back over the fence and returns inside. As he puts it, while he doesn’t want to die, he also doesn’t want to continue living. This climbing over the fence is merely a reminder that he can end it at any time, which he claims brings him some comfort and lets him make it through the rest of the week.

The next day, the protagonist returns to work and gets on the elevator again. This time, however, he notices a button for the eighth floor that wasn’t there before. But didn’t this building only have seven floors yesterday? Protag can’t resist pressing that 8 to see what’s going on. When the elevator doors open, he steps out into the rainy world we saw in the game’s first scene.

Protag is naturally shocked to see this seemingly endless landscape of paved floor below and a gray, rainy sky above, all on top of the building he works in. But as he’s exploring, he runs into a young girl, who welcomes him to her world.

This seems to be the same girl we saw in that first scene, but something’s off. Her personality is a bit immature as you’d expect from a kid her age; even though she’s all on her own in this world, we learn she’s only ten. In the intro, though, the same girl seemed to be quite serious, and even her voice was more mature-sounding. In any case, protag hasn’t seen what we have, and while he’s surprised to see another person and even more surprised to see a mere kid living here alone, he accepts it and starts asking her about this mysterious world.

The girl, who calls herself Rin (another female VN main character named Rin; there are really a lot of them) claims that this is a world where time stands still. The rain never stops, so she takes shelter under a pavilion that seems to be the only structure in this place. There’s also a body of water nearby, a sort of river that flows up and downstream, but the river also apparently has no opposite bank, or at least not one that Rin could find. Rin explains that she sometimes find items from the “real world” floating downstream, so she does her best to salvage useful things, even clothes to wear. No worries about running out of food, though — because time stands still for her, she says she’s never suffered hunger or even thirst in this place.

Protag is naturally very confused by what the hell he’s walked into. One thought comes naturally to him: he’s died without realizing it and this is the afterlife. Rin doesn’t think that’s the case, however. She even tells him that two people normally can’t exist in this world and that he’ll be “sent back” after three days, something that’s happened to visitors other than him — even if he were to refuse to leave, it would happen automatically. She also tells him he can leave by entering the elevator again, but she seems happy when he says he’ll stay for a while, presumably excited to have company after being alone in this world for so long.

After this initial meeting, Rin and protag to go sleep under the pavilion and the scene ends, sending the player back to the scene selection screen where a new entry titled “Rin” has been unlocked. This one takes us far back into the past, seemingly into Rin’s past in the real world, where she and her older sister were Shinto priestesses in a secluded shrine in the mountains. The sisters have no other family and were adopted by this shrine to carry a burden — to shoulder a “debt” to the gods as they put it. The older sister is forced to live an austere life, eating only once a day, bathing in cold water every morning, and following a vow of silence, one so strict that her younger sister has never heard her voice.

Rin is naturally upset by watching her sister endure this lifestyle, even though she willingly carries it out in order to perform what she sees as her duties to the shrine and its gods. When her sister’s health starts to decline as a result, Rin becomes angry with the shrine and even with its gods. And she falls into despair when the head priest of the shrine tells her that her sister will soon die and that she’ll have to carry the same burden of constant silence and self-deprivation afterwards, one that must last without stopping for 333 years, three months, and three days, always with a substitute available to take over when the priestess carrying the burden dies.

Her older sister’s life ends not from illness, but rather from a more violent kind of sacrifice. The head priest says that they can’t risk her breaking her vow of silence while she slowly dies, so he and his guards kill her while her younger sister’s mouth is gagged to ensure the proper transfer of the burden. It’s here we learn that the older sister’s name is Rin — the younger one who we meet in the rainy world is never properly named, but has adopted her sister’s name perhaps to carry on her memory.

This new Rin decides that she now doesn’t believe in these supposed gods who let her sister die without helping her. Even so, Rin also resolves to live her sister’s old life and continue paying the debt if only to not let her sacrifice go to waste. However, one night a guard rushes into her room and tells her to flee because the shrine is being attacked and all its priests and staff slaughtered by armed men. Rin runs away into the mountains, still maintaining her silence despite the fact that the shrine is being destroyed along with the head priest she hated. A mere girl like her doesn’t last very long in the cold mountains, and after going without food for three days, she lies down and decides it would be better to die, not wanting to risk a return into town or to what might have been left of the shrine.

After this backstory section ends, we’re thrown back to the scene selection screen, where two new scenes have been unlocked. The middle part of Ame no Marginal proceeds down two story paths, each part of which has to be completed before continuing to read so that the player alternates between them. One path returns the perspective to our modern-day protagonist as he tries to figure out exactly where he is and why both he and Rin are there. When night falls in this world, a completely different side of Rin, or perhaps a different entity altogether, appears. In contrast with her childish daytime self, this Rin seems distant, bitter, and a lot more mature than you’d expect from her apparent age. Despite her cold attitude towards the protag in these nighttime sections, she does answer his questions about the rainy world more clearly than she does during the day, though there still seems to be a lot she doesn’t understand about it.

Also in contrast to her daytime self, this Rin demands that the protag hurry back to the elevator and leave. He refuses to do so, at least for now, reasoning that he’ll be automatically sent back in three days anyway. And in any case, he decides that he might prefer the boredom of the rainy world to his own life in the real one, even if he can’t stay for good. This version of Rin keeps trying to convince him to leave when they talk again the next time, but she also seems to accept that he’s not going to leave of his own free will that easily.

The other story track follows the same girl after what she first supposes is her death in the mountains. As the reader might have guessed, instead of dying, she wakes up in the rainy world and meets its sole inhabitant: a woman who simply calls herself “Lady.” Lady welcomes this girl into her world and gives her essentially the same tutorial that our modern-day protagonist got from Rin: this world only allows for one resident and will kick visitors out after three days. However, Lady is quite mysterious. Despite claiming she doesn’t know why this world exists or who created it, she has the ability to control the flow of water around her.

The girl, who I’ll just keep calling Rin, is amazed by all of this, but there’s a more pressing matter: upon entering this world, she broke her vow of silence by yelling curses at the gods for what they did to her sister. She relates her whole story to Lady, who seems sympathetic but tells her it’s still probably for the best if she leaves this world through a hole in the ground that acted as her portal in. Rin, like nameless protag, is hesitant to go back right away and reasons she’ll be sent back automatically in three days, and she’ll almost certainly die when she gets back in any case. By the end of her stay, however, Lady admits that she’s lied: the one who’s sent back after three days is the one who’s been here longest, and Lady also admits that she’s used force in the past to remove previous visitors so she could remain in solitude for her own reasons.

Lady is seemingly done with her stay, though, because on the appointed third day, she takes Rin to the hole in the ground only to jump in herself, but not before telling Rin that she can still complete the 333-year vow of silence burden in this world if she feels like it, and that it probably will be meaningful somehow. After this talk and a promise that she’ll return one day, Lady drops through the hole and leaves Rin alone in the rainy world.

We then follow Rin as she searches for and finds both exit and entrance portals to the real world in the endless river near the pavilion, and as she discovers to her despair that she can’t use them to leave. By this point, Rin has lived in this world without any visitors or company for several hundred years. Along the way, she’s also managed to complete that 333-year vow of silence, but seemingly without any result. Rin reasons that because she still resents the gods for what they’ve done to her sister, they will continue to keep her in solitude. As a bit of a bonus, Rin does end up developing the same water manipulation powers as Lady, but there’s not much point to having them if there’s nothing to actually do with them, so they don’t bring Rin any happiness.

The two stories now rejoin, with nighttime version Rin finally telling protagonist that he needs to get the hell back to the elevator on the third night or else he’ll be trapped in this world. He reluctantly gets on and returns to his old life, seemingly forgetting about the rainy world and Rin and looping us back into the prologue. However, who happens to show up at this point but Lady! She tells Rin that she’s the one who purposely selected and sent protagonist to the rainy world for Rin to meet, and also that she should jump into the elevator and chase after him for some reason. Turns out the real world is a bit boring to Lady, who wants several hundred more years of solitude to practice her water magic skills. So Rin finally leaves, and we get to the game’s epilogue.

Wait, what?

And somehow, Rin’s now a student riding the same train as protagonist. They end up accidentally running into each other and meeting again, with a strong hint that Rin remembers who protag is and even that protag has some memory of Rin. Then they walk off on the same street to school and work together and the game ends.

So I just recounted the entire plot of this VN, something I didn’t intend on doing when I set out to write this post. However, it’s hard to talk about Ame no Marginal otherwise because the whole thing’s so weird, and not entirely in a good way.

But let’s start with the good stuff. I liked the premise of an isolated place like the rainy world that may or may not be meant as a sort of divinely mandated time-out. This worked as a hook to get me interested in the game. The story of Rin and her sister is also very tragic, but not so tragic that it’s unbelievable: some people have greatly suffered in the name of maintaining tradition in the real world, and the priests of the temple are depicted as committing these cruelties because they genuinely believe they must, not simply because they’re evil (though you could certainly argue that pushing this debt owed to the gods onto young orphaned girls who have no choice in the matter is a real asshole thing to do.)

The head priest acts like enough of a shithead in this scene alone that I don’t feel bad for him getting killed later on.

I also felt a strong connection with the male lead at the very beginning of the game, even if he’s one of those typically faceless VN protagonists. His section of the prologue, especially when he says to himself that he doesn’t want to die, but also doesn’t want to live — this is an expression of depression that made a lot of sense to me. Even if those two feelings sound contradictory, they really aren’t. And the game does try to tie the protagonist’s disappointment with his life into the plot when he talks to nighttime Rin about the possibility of staying in the rainy world and leaving the real one behind for good. No amount of insisting “but life is a gift” or “you have so much to live for, you should treasure every moment” helps in a state like that, and that’s something Ame no Marginal seems to get.

Even when the protagonist comes to believe that the real world is worth living in because it’s dynamic, unlike the static life of the rainy world, that’s not necessarily a resolution of the feelings expressed at the beginning of the VN. I see it as more of a coping mechanism for getting through life, and that’s a lot more realistic than having the story simply resolve his depressive feelings if that’s what they’re meant to be. So while Ame no Marginal doesn’t fully address the protag’s situation, I feel it does at least acknowledge it.

Going to work with a sense of dread and bitterness, that’s something I can relate to. Not anymore thankfully but good God is it miserable.

This makes it all the more disappointing that so many questions are left hanging. One of the more obvious ones is the nature of the rainy world itself. Neither the protagonist nor Rin learn why it exists, whether it was created by some gods to punish human souls or it simply exists for no reason at all. Even Lady, the self-professed queen of the rainy world, seems to have no idea about its origins. This is one question that I don’t think the story needed to answer, and I even prefer this ambiguity.

However, there are other mysteries that should have been better addressed, like the nature of the difference between the cheerful, childlike daytime Rin and the mature, serious nighttime Rin. She’s clearly putting on some kind of act for the protagonist during the day, but to what end? Maybe it’s to disarm him and make him feel comfortable, but then why bring out “nighttime Rin” at all? This double personality issue is never explained in the VN, and it’s one that really should have been because it has a direct bearing on the characters and plot. It’s also quite hard to believe that several hundred years of isolation didn’t drive Rin completely insane. She’s clearly angry, bored, and distressed for a long time even before protag arrives, but she’s still somehow in full control of her mind even after centuries of walking through a seemingly endless body of water. Sure, she doesn’t have to eat or drink and never ages, but the mental and emotional toll of such a life would have to be extreme.

Maybe all the isolation is supposed to be where Rin’s dual personality comes from? But it still doesn’t really explain that.

There’s also the matter of the ending. It’s as if writer Tomo Kataoka couldn’t think of a good way to get these characters out of the jam they were stuck in, Rin still in the rainy world and protagonist sent back to the life he hates living, so a happy ending is pulled out of nowhere. Lady somehow finds a way back into the rainy world, presumably by taking the same elevator protagonist did (in fact, she shows up very briefly in the elevator near the start of the story, leaving it when protag is getting on, so at least that much is set up.) It’s very convenient that she doesn’t mind going back into isolation for a while, and it’s even more convenient that Rin was somehow able to get set up as a student when protagonist meets her at the end, presumably with a family and friends and everything. How the hell is that supposed to work? Or maybe she’s living under a bridge and pretending to go to school.

There’s a sort of answer to this in the developer notes: Kataoka says that Ame no Marginal is actually a prequel to the light novel series Mizu no Marginal (or Water Marginal, which sounds a lot like Water Margin but probably has nothing to do with it.) Since the VN is a prequel, presumably Rin and maybe the protagonist are characters in it, so there had to be an ending that connected the two. So maybe this bizarre ending is explained in Mizu no Marginal, but I don’t care. I shouldn’t be required to read a sequel to understand what happened at the end of the preceding work: the work should stand on its own in that sense. Kataoka’s notes imply that the ending was thrown together out of necessity, so maybe there’s no other explanation to be had anyway.

And what are Rin and protagonist even going to do now, hang out? She’s a water-bending former Shinto priestess who’s either ten or several hundred years old depending on whether you count her time in the rainy world, and he’s an office worker in his 20s or something. What the hell are they going to talk about? It’s all a bit weird. Maybe the light novels answer this question?

I still wonder exactly what idea Ame no Marginal was trying to express. It seems like it was trying to express something, but the message is obscure if it’s there. Is it a message not to give up on life if you’re in despair? That’s nice and positive, but I don’t think the story bears it out that well, not if the solution it proposes is being transported to an otherworldly plane of isolated existence and meeting a new friend who teaches you the value of life in the real world. And especially not when it pulls a happy ending out of its ass. It’s certainly not an issue with the novel’s length, either: when I compare it to the other short VNs I’ve read like Planetarian and Saya no Uta that have coherent, satisfying endings, the lack of such an ending in Ame no Marginal feels all the weirder.

Even so, like I said before, I can’t quite not recommend Ame no Marginal. The art is nice, and the soundtrack suits the atmosphere of the game very well. There’s a lot to like in the premise. The story is even pretty emotionally affecting in a few places. While its nonsense ending is definitely a problem, there is a lot of craft in this VN, and it seems like it was created simply to tell a story that the writer wanted to tell rather than one calculated to sell as many units as possible.

A gray, depressing game about characters who are giving up on life doesn’t sound calculated to be a big seller to me, at least.

In any case, I think whether you’d find the game worth your time probably has to do with how much or little this kind of ending affects your experience — if you’re the type who enjoys the journey more than the destination, maybe — and with how well you connect with these characters. I don’t regret playing Ame no Marginal despite my issues with it, but your time with it may be very different if you choose to play it.

Then again, I just spoiled the entire plot for you if you haven’t played it yet. So who did I write this review for? I have no idea. Maybe I wrote it for myself. Maybe I need a few hundred years in the rainy world to sort myself out. 𒀭

Games for broke people: Helltaker

So I was planning on taking the rest of the month off from the site as I wrote last post. But then the artists I follow on Twitter started filling up my timeline with cute demon girl fanart, and then I couldn’t rest until I found out exactly what that was all about.

And if she’s a cute demon bureaucratic functionary then even better.

That’s how I found Helltaker, a short free puzzle game that tells the story of a guy who wakes up one day and decides he’s going to break into Hell itself to create a harem of demon girls. Forget Dante’s journey through the afterlife: this is the noblest quest someone could possibly have. To do this, our brave protagonist has to solve several block-pushing maze puzzles of increasing difficulty. Each puzzle requires the player to make it to the goal, represented by a demon lady hanging out behind a giant padlock for some reason, within a specified number of steps. Kicking blocks and kicking demon guards to death also count as taking steps, and the addition of spike traps that take extra steps away from you makes things more complicated. Luckily for Helltaker guy, he can regenerate an infinite number of times, so much like Chip from Chip’s Challenge, nothing will stop him from getting the girl(s) no matter how frustrating the maze he’s running might be.

The beginning of level 3. In this case the demon triplets at the top are your goal (mythology fan points if you can guess what they’re a reference to) and the number on the left keeps track of your steps so you know if you’ll hit your limit before reaching them.

Some of these mazes stumped me for a while, particularly numbers 7 and 9 near the end. Fortunately for the impatient, the game lets you skip puzzles if you’re truly stuck, but if you do that you might miss out on finding secrets in certain levels that are required to get the game’s good ending. Anyway, what’s the fun in half-assing a game like this? Every puzzle is solvable, you just have to exercise your brain to discover the solutions.

However, even if you figure out how to reach the goal in time, you’re not done — you still need to convince the demon girl at the end of the puzzle to join your harem and also not to kill you on the spot. Because you’re just a ripped guy in a leisure suit, and while you can kick the regular demon guards in each level to pieces, you’re no match for the girls. If you screw up the negotiation, you’ll get horribly killed and will have to run the maze again.

The right answer is sometimes not the obvious one

There are also a lot of little additions to the game that add some more flavor — as you can see in the game’s main layout, pressing L gets you “life advice.” This gives you a short dialogue with one or more of your newly won over demon wives, who are just as likely to give you tips about how to complete the level you’re on as they are to complain about how long you’re taking or to start arguing with each other. Or to end up getting you killed somehow.

So the main gameplay mechanic of Helltaker is really very simple — it’s a variation on the kind of sliding block puzzle that has existed for over a hundred years. That provides the substance of the game, but there’s a lot of style as well, and that’s what sets Helltaker apart from so much other free and extremely cheap generic-looking stuff. Someone could easily recreate the puzzles that compose each level of Helltaker using white, gray, and black blocks and dots to represent the characters and obstacles, and it would mechanically be the same game. But the distinctive character art and cute dialogues give it that much-needed style. And that’s the reason I discovered it in the first place, after all, so who can say that isn’t important?

A review of The Expression: Amrilato (PC)

I wasn’t kidding when I wrote a while back that I had a bunch of visual novels to get through. When I wrote that post about visual novels still being a bit of a niche thing in the West, though, I wasn’t thinking of The Expression: Amrilato. No, this game beats all the rest in terms of its niche-ness: it’s a yuri romance visual novel that teaches you Esperanto.

What? Yes, this is a real thing. I first heard about Amrilato when Valve briefly refused to stock it on Steam for depicting a romance between two students, the main characters Rin and Ruka (if you didn’t know this was a yuri VN at first, the cover says everything.) They soon thought better of it and put it back up in their store. It’s an all-ages VN anyway, so I’m not sure what the fuss was to begin with — by the same logic, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet would be banned from the platform, which seems stupid enough.

In any case, this minor incident got Amrilato more press than it would have received otherwise, because it’s how I learned about the game. And after that I filed it in the back of my mind to play, and now I’ve played it. And now I’ll write what I think of it in a very long-winded way, because I have a lot to say about it.

First, an introduction: this is our protagonist, Rin. Rin is a hardworking, cheerful Japanese high school student who’s also pretty thick and often says and does things without thinking. One day, Rin buys a taiyaki (something I’ve never had myself, but I’ve heard a lot about, sounds like a kind of sweet pastry?) and eats it while on the street. Then she blacks out and wakes up on more or less the same street, only now the sky is pink and everyone’s speaking in a language she can’t understand.

Rin is understandably freaked out by this and suspects her taiyaki was drugged, and she goes to cry in a corner, where she’s approached by a girl in an impossibly frilly outfit who tries to talk to her in that mysterious language. Rin is still frustrated, but she does her best to communicate with this girl, whose name is Ruka. Fortunately, Ruka knows a little Japanese and invites Rin back to her house after establishing that she needs help.

Naturally, Rin feels like she’s in the dark at this point — her phone isn’t getting a signal, everyone’s speaking this weird language, and why the hell is the god damn sky pink, even at night? However, she manages to sort herself out in an impressively short time after trying and failing to find her parents’ house. While the city she’s currently in is very similar to her own, there are many subtle differences, and it soon becomes clear that Rin has somehow entered an alternate-universe version of her hometown. Which means no getting back to her family or friends, at least for the time being.

Yeah, yuri vibes from the very beginning

Thankfully, Rin is in Ruka’s care. She soon learns that she’s considered a vizitanto, or visitor, and Ruka takes her to a kind of combination library/government office to get a special ID from her own mentor, the librarian Rei Arbaro. Rei explains that Rin is now something like a resident foreigner, a status that comes with privileges like discounts at stores and a special allowance. Since Rin’s not the first vizitanto to accidentally fall into this dimension, the government has a system in place to care for people in her position until they can get on their feet and be productive members of society.

This is where the game really begins and where we’re introduced to the first of the two major aspects of Amrilato: the Esperanto. As a vizitanto, Rin has to learn Juliamo, the common language in this world. Aside from a few vocabulary and grammar differences and a customized alphabet thrown in to make things feel more other-dimensional, Juliamo is the same language as Esperanto. The player can switch between this fictional Juliamo alphabet and the Latin alphabet used to write the real-life language, but it seemed like a waste to not use the custom alphabet, so I stuck with that.

And naturally, since Rin is learning Juliamo, we’re learning it along with her. As the story progresses with typical dialogue and narrative stuff, Rin gets presented with language lessons that she has to complete as part of her new education. A lot of these involve one-on-one sessions with either Ruka or Rei, and you get to take quizzes and exams at the end of most of these lessons, an experience that will surely remind you of your school days if you’re past them now like I am. These exam sections can be deactivated in settings, but they’re turned on by default, and I get the impression that the developer SukeraSparo intended for the player to actually take the lessons and learn the words, expressions, and grammar rules that they teach.

I was barely familiar with Esperanto before picking up Amrilato. All I knew is that it was a constructed language, or a language created purposely and not developed naturally over thousands of years like English or Japanese. It has an interesting history — the creator, L. L. Zamenhof, was a Polish Jewish eye doctor who in the 1870s came up with the idea for an international language because he thought it would put an end to war. This unfortunately didn’t happen (a sad end to that part of the story, especially considering the fate of his family, still in Poland at the start of World War II) but Esperanto has gone on to become the world’s most widely spoken constructed language.

One of the most interesting parts of playing Amrilato was in seeing Rin’s thought process while learning Juliamo. Even though she’s the player character, her experience with the language and mine were very different. A big part of this difference has to do with the origins of Esperanto: from the basics I learned of it by playing this game, most of it’s derived from existing Romance and Germanic languages, seemingly with more of a lean towards Romance. So if you speak or you’ve studied languages like Spanish, Portuguese, French, or Italian, a lot of this Juliamo will be familiar to you right away. Even someone who only speaks English and has no familiarity with the Romance languages will probably pick up on some of the vocabulary and grammar by instinct because of the strong historical Romance influence on English (it’s a Germanic language, but we’ve also got those Latin roots and the additions from Norman French after William the Bastard Conqueror’s invasion of England.)

Aside from its loanwords, Japanese has barely any relation to these or the other Indo-European languages that form the basis of Esperanto, and so root words and grammatical concepts that might sound natural to a westerner may not be so intuitive to a native Japanese speaker. The lesson sections of Amrilato consist largely of Rin’s thoughts about what she’s studying, and she’s often forced to try to remember her meager English knowledge that she picked up at school to help her understand Juliamo. Things as seemingly simple as the sounds “si” and “zi” are a bit hard for Rin because those sounds don’t exist in Japanese, instead becoming “shi” and “ji.” However, Rin’s stubborn, hardworking nature comes out in these sections, especially when she pushes herself to practice her Juliamo on Ruka, Rei, and strangers when she’s out buying groceries and running errands, and so she manages to push through it.

A lot of Rin’s struggles with Juliamo made me think of my own efforts at learning Japanese. I’m not immersed in the language like Rin is, but it couldn’t be more different from my native language of English, so I find myself asking some of the same types of questions Rin asks when she’s taking Juliamo lessons. Questions like “how the fuck am I supposed to tell when 人 is pronounced nin or jin in a compound kanji?” Questions that sometimes seem to have no answer other than “that’s just how it is” or “you just have to remember it.” These are aspects of language that native speakers grow up with and take for granted, but to the adult brain (or near-adult, in Rin’s case) they can’t simply be absorbed. Fortunately, with Esperanto/Juliamo being a constructed language, most of its aspects seem to have real explanations that aren’t “that’s just how it developed over time, so remember it.” My native language is notorious for shit like that. Sorry to all the ESL students out there.

amrilato-4

Not the face you want to see when you make food for someone

This is where the language-learning aspect of Amrilato connects with its other major aspect: the yuri romance. Rin is very obviously attracted to Ruka from just about the beginning, and as the game goes on, this attraction shifts from being about Ruka’s looks and style to being about the connection that’s grown between them. Even though Ruka is younger than Rin, she takes on the role of Rin’s language tutor and legal guardian, and her mature attitude sometimes makes her seem older, creating an unusual sort of teacher-student relationship. Ruka soon tells Rin that she wants to learn more Japanese, and so each becomes a teacher to the other.

Eventually, these feelings turn romantic, though we initially only see that from Rin’s perspective. At first, the game throws in some hints that Ruka might be interested too, or that she wouldn’t at least be not interested in a romantic relationship with another girl, and even these parts play with language in interesting ways. Early on, for example, Rin buys what looks like a fashion magazine from a vendor that’s wrapped in plastic with the title “Blanka Lilia.” Rin is too thick to get it, but usually when a magazine like that is wrapped in plastic there’s a reason. And anyone who knows the origin of the Japanese term yuri that describes themes of lesbian love/desire in fictional works knows that the same word 百合 also means “lily” and can probably work out that “blanka lilia” means “white lily” and guess at the magazine’s contents.

amrilato-3

When Ruka accidentally gets a look at those contents, she gets red in the face, which suggests a lot more than just indifference. After this episode, there are a few others that are also suggestive, and a lot of Amrilato consists of Rin wondering how Ruka feels about being with another girl, and specifically about being with her, and agonizing over whether she should say anything. The language gap between the pair makes things more difficult, and when Rin finally confesses her love to Ruka, she uses a Juliamo phrase that Rei taught her and that translates into something like “I’m thirsty for you” with some unintended lewd/embarrassing implications. Rei also likes to tease the two students and knows exactly what’s going on even before they do, so her addition into the mix as a kind of older sister/mentor makes things easier in some ways and more complicated in others.

Complicating things even further is the character of Rin herself. She’s stubborn and hardworking, but she also totally lacks self-confidence. By acting before she thinks, Rin ends up getting herself into awkward social situations, but then she gets carried away thinking of what a grave mistake she’s committed and imagines outcomes that are a thousand times worse than what could realistically occur. She also constantly thinks poorly of her own intellect, looks, and general desirability as a partner. In reality she’s a little thick but not at all stupid and perfectly capable, and her looks are just fine. She keeps thinking of herself as out of shape, but the character art doesn’t give me that impression at all. Maybe it’s the effect of that soft anime art style the game uses, but I prefer to think this is just Rin being unnecessarily down on herself, which would fit with her character.

I can see how Rin’s awkwardness, her yelling in surprise at inappropriate times, and her constant second-guessing of herself could get on a player’s nerves and make her a grating character, but most of these traits just made me feel bad for her. I find her lack of self-confidence to be relatable, in fact, which is a pretty shitty thing to deal with. It can be dealt with, but Rin doesn’t seem experienced enough with life at this point to have figured that out, which leads to a lot of emotional turmoil in the game — up until the player gets the few massively important choices near the end of the game that have serious relationship and ending implications. And there are a few different endings available, two of them pretty sad. But even if you give Rin lousy directions, you won’t have to backtrack very much to see the other endings. There’s only one route in Amrilato, and that’s the Ruka route.

And of course, Rin and Ruka do cement their relationship, because it wouldn’t be much of a yuri VN without some yuri. It’s all very PG-rated, hence people wondering why the hell Valve had a problem with it — yuri doesn’t necessarily have to involve anything explicitly sexual. Though there is definitely a physical element to their attraction, the emphasis in Amrilato is on emotion, and on the ability to show one’s emotion through using one’s expressions. This sort of romantic stuff can be easily screwed up and turned to total cheese if it’s not done well. However, Amrilato builds up the relationship between Rin and Ruka to the point that when they finally break through those language and emotional barriers, it feels nice to see. It’s earned. As for the endings — well, you’ll have to play the game to see those, because I won’t spoil them here. If you want a real deep dive, go check out Pete Davison’s post series about Amrilato on MoeGamer.

This is about as close to R-rated as Amrilato gets. I still find it funny that publisher MangaGamer offered this game free to schools because of its educational content. We never had a scene like this in Oregon Trail unless I really missed out on something.

So was I satisfied with The Expression: Amrilato? You can probably guess by now that the answer is yes. It was a nice experience, something new and unexpected, and it worked for me. I still have no interest in learning Esperanto, but I can see Amrilato getting at least a few players hooked on the language, and I think promoting an international language is a commendable goal in any case, so I give SukeraSparo credit for that.

As for the lesbian aspect of the game, it isn’t even played up that much as an issue in the way you might expect. All of Rin’s agonizing is really just over whether Ruka would go for her — the game doesn’t give the impression that either one is even necessarily exclusively into girls; the issue is more about how Rin and Ruka fit together. In that sense, I think this game is the same vein as VA-11 HALL-A: it’s progressive but in quite a natural way. What matters is the purity of the love and the expressions used to convey it.

Or something. I don’t know. I’m not a god damn romantic. But I did like The Expression: Amrilato, for what it’s worth. Now I’ve had enough cute romance for a while. I’ll probably play GTA for a change of pace. 𒀭

Deep reads #3: Just a little broken (Planetarian)

What’s the line between human and machine? If an artificial intelligence were created that seemed so natural and lifelike that we treated it as human, would there effectively be no difference between that artificial life and a natural one? And do these questions even really matter?

If there’s a mandatory reading/playing list of visual novels, Planetarian would have to be on it. First released in Japan on PC in 2004, this kinetic novel has gotten both fan and official translations on several platforms and is now widely considered a classic of the medium, and rightly so. This isn’t my favorite VN, but it is one I enjoy and respect a whole lot, and it takes on the above questions in a unique and interesting way.

Before I begin my look at Planetarian, however, I want to lay out exactly what approach I’m taking with it. I initially tried to write this as a normal review, but then I kept writing until I had a whole damn treatise on the thing. So it’s full of spoilers, both for Planetarian and a certain popular sci-fi film with some surface similarities that I contrast it with, one that took a promising premise and managed to completely shit it up in its last ten minutes (and one that was marketed partly through a harebrained scheme using a fake Tinder profile to catfish SXSW attendees. Okay, it’s Ex Machina.) So if you want to go into either of these raw, here’s your warning.

I do want to persuade people who haven’t experienced Planetarian yet to check it out, though, so here’s a one-sentence no-spoiler review: if you like the idea of a short post-apocalypse sci-fi story with excellent characterization, voice-acting, and music, but no branching decision points or route because it’s a kinetic VN, you should like it. I think the ending of this work is pretty well known by now since Planetarian has been around in various forms for 16 years, but I still feel the need to put a warning up here. It’s only a few hours long anyway, so it’s not a huge time investment.

The basic premise of Planetarian is that the world has gone completely to hell. About thirty years after a nuclear war and its aftermath destroyed almost all of humanity, Earth is only inhabited by still-operating autonomous weapons and a scattering of human survivors doing their best to live off of the ruins of their dead civilization. A constant radioactive downpour simply called “the Rain” makes this new world even more difficult to live in. In the midst of all this misery is our unnamed protagonist, simply called the Junker, a man who makes a living off of salvaging useful scraps from the old world to trade with: parts, food supplies, and the extremely rare and valuable preserved packs of cigarettes and bottles of liquor. Junker is exactly the kind of protagonist you’d expect to find in a post-apocalyptic work like this. He’s tough and battle-hardened, always armed and on the lookout for valuables and potential enemies, both mechanical and human.

At the opening of Planetarian, Junker has come across a “sarcophagus city”, a settlement that has been heavily fortified against attack. Unfortunately, those defenses weren’t quite enough: the city was abandoned by its population long ago, left to become yet another ruin. This is an opportunity for Junker, who thinks he may be able to salvage some useful items here.

There is one other being still operating in this dead city. Her name is Hoshino Yumemi, a robot built in the form of a young woman. Despite the fact that the city had been long since destroyed and emptied of its population, Yumemi still works for exactly one week per year as the receptionist, usher, and hostess of the Flowercrest Department Store’s planetarium, spending the rest of her time in sleep mode charging at a station that’s still working off of a trickle of power somehow still available from a nearby vacant military installation. Since the outbreak of the global war and the exodus from the city, however, the planetarium hasn’t seen any business — not until Junker arrives there looking for shelter.

Junker is shocked to find a young woman alone in this ruin and immediately suspects a trap, but he soon realizes that Yumemi is just a robot who has been operating autonomously all this time. As Yumemi herself explains, she was left in charge of the planetarium while the human staff were out. Since the day they left the city almost thirty years ago, she has carried out her duties to the best of her ability for the one week per year that she’s able to operate. And what luck — she happens to be freshly recharged and active when Junker arrives. Yumemi, seemingly oblivious to Junker’s appearance and all the destruction around her, processes him as a customer, greets him warmly, and tells him that in honor of his status as the 2,500,000th customer the staff has prepared a special projection that she intends to show him. She then offers him a makeshift bouquet made of wires and junk she found lying around, apologizing profusely and explaining that the florist’s shop downstairs had unexpectedly closed for the time being. She also admits that he’s not really the 2,500,000th customer, but she’s rounding up because there hasn’t been much business lately.

Junker naturally does not give a shit about any of this. After trying without success to explain to Yumemi that he’s not a god damn customer, he lays out his supplies and equipment to dry, then drifts off to sleep in one of the planetarium’s seats. When he wakes up, Yumemi is still around performing her duties, and she cheerfully greets him, addressing him as “Mr. Customer” (or okyakusama, a term like “honored guest” that doesn’t quite translate because we don’t have a similar term in common use in English) and doing her best to serve his needs. Of course, Yumemi can’t really serve Junker’s needs. When she offers him a refreshment, he asks whether she has any liquor in sealed bottles, and she tells him there are liquor shops on a lower floor. Tragically, that lower floor is completely flooded and inaccessible, so Junker can’t even have a nice drink to calm him down.

Yumemi continues to insist that she’ll show Junker the projection, and he finally gives in to her demands if only to shut her up. However, there’s a problem: the projector is broken. No big surprise, since the planetarium has been inactive for nearly 30 years, but Yumemi is seriously distressed when the projector doesn’t move or respond at the start of the show. Since she was built to be a sort of greeter/hostess and not a maintenance worker, there’s not much Yumemi can do to fix the giant machine, and so she asks Junker if he can repair “Miss Jena” as Yumemi refers to it.

This leads to the first of two fateful decisions Junker makes. By deciding to help Yumemi out, Junker takes up valuable time and energy that he admits he should be using to get the hell out of the city and resupply. He’s established that the planetarium and attached mall don’t have anything of value to him. Yet he stays and starts working on Jena, an extremely complex piece of equipment with a bunch of small moving parts that hasn’t been maintained for three decades. Meanwhile, Yumemi can only stand by and express her concern. She clearly feels bad about asking a valued customer to repair one of the planetarium’s machines and tries to help Junker by asking him if various tools might be useful, but it’s obvious she wasn’t designed for that sort of thing, so she steps back and lets him work.

After a couple of days of work, Jena is finally repaired, and Yumemi is able to run the special projection she had planned. Junker is still anxious to get the hell out of there, but once the lights dim and Yumemi starts her presentation, he’s drawn in. So much so that when the power fails for good shortly after the projection starts, Junker asks Yumemi to continue her monologue as he closes his eyes and uses his imagination to fill in the visual gaps.

If you’ve read Planetarian already, this may seem like a weird statement, but this scene provided the biggest emotional punch for me as Yumemi talks about the birth and growth of the human race and of its reaching out to the stars through the space program. The same space program that was in progress when the global war began 30 years ago, destroying its base on the Moon, grounding its spaceships, and and eventually killing the great majority of humanity. It’s all the more heartbreaking because, despite the fact that she’s a robot, Yumemi seems genuinely proud of humanity’s growth, just as though she were human herself. But her information is painfully outdated. Junker knows the truth of the matter all too well, but he lets Yumemi finish without saying anything about it.

When the show is over, Junker is ready to leave. But not without Yumemi. This second serious decision puts Junker at yet another disadvantage — Yumemi doesn’t seem to understand how dire the situation is outside the mall and planetarium, and she’s already told Junker that she’s not designed to handle rough environments or to move very quickly. Junker nevertheless doesn’t want to leave her there, and presses the facts on her that the planetarium won’t recover its limited source of power again and that she’ll never see another customer show up. Yumemi still seems optimistic despite Junker’s warnings, so when she offers to walk him to his car, a sort of post-apocalypse combat vehicle, he takes her up on her offer and decides to bring her along with him to a nearby inhabited settlement.

Getting to his vehicle is no easy matter, however, and it’s even more difficult when he’s essentially doing an escort mission. Yumemi trips several times and admits that she hasn’t been very well maintained lately. But she still keeps her spirits up, pointing out popular restaurants and attractions around town and printing coupons from the port in her ear for him to use, apparently not recognizing that that they’ve all been long abandoned and lay in ruins. Eventually, after several breaks to let Yumemi recover and prevent her from overheating, they reach the city wall, close to Junker’s car. A giant tank with a massive gun sits at the entrance of an opening in the wall through which they’ll have to pass, but Junker believes trying it would be suicide — despite the end of the war, the automated weapons deployed back then are still active and will attack anything that moves. So Junker tells Yumemi to hang back in a relatively safe place while he tries to destroy the tank with a grenade launcher.

Junker’s grenade is unfortunately a dud, and the tank turns its gun on him. He manages to escape and mostly disable the machine against all odds in the game’s only action scene, but it’s still barely functional and is about to kill Junker when Yumemi steps between them in a dramatic Tienanmen Square moment.

Yumemi tries to send the tank an electronic signal to get it to stop attacking, but in its final moments it shoots its gun directly at her.

Yumemi is torn apart at the waist, but she’s still able to function for a few minutes, just long enough to show Junker some of her memories recorded in her eyes: of happy guests, adults and children, telling her how much they enjoyed their time at the planetarium, and of the rest of the staff being forced to evacuate the city and saying their painful goodbyes to her. She then reveals that she realized long ago the planetarium was finished, but that she was happy to see one more customer show up. As she finally shuts down, Yumemi opens the port containing her memory card, and Junker takes it and seals it in a waterproof case, resolving to find a new body for her somehow so she can live again.

And that’s Planetarian. Quite a sad story in typical Key style — this studio is well known for creating melancholic visual novels. As miserable as the whole thing might seem, though, the story of Planetarian is not a hopeless one. Yumemi’s body is destroyed in the end, but her mind essentially lives on, waiting for Junker to find a new vessel for it.

What’s more interesting to me than the ending is the relationship created between Junker and Yumemi, a human and a robot. From the beginning it’s no secret that Yumemi is not a human, and a lot of her mannerisms reinforce that. When asked a question she doesn’t know the answer to, for example, she’ll tilt her head a bit and then deliver word-for-word the same response about not being able to make contact with some control center that she’s programmed to message in such cases. Her insistence upon carrying out her regular duties in a workplace that’s clearly been abandoned and left to rot for thirty years also seems kind of inhuman. A human would have left the planetarium behind long ago, just as Yumemi’s coworkers did, but she keeps performing her programmed duties faithfully.

But there are things about Yumemi that also seem strangely human. One of these is her extreme talkativeness. Yumemi simply won’t shut up. Junker is clearly annoyed by this and tries giving her a command to stop talking — a command that she acknowledges for about ten seconds before breaking it and asking him a question, after which he gives up trying.

Yumemi explains that this chattiness is caused by an error in her programming, one that was never fixed because the staff of the planetarium thought she was cuter for it. She refers to herself as “just a little broken” both because of that design flaw and her recent lack of maintenance. Certainly, Yumemi doesn’t act like a perfectly honed android of the kind you might see in some other sci-fi works, but these imperfections made her seem all the more human to me. She also constantly shows genuine concern for Junker despite having just met him, asking if he’s feeling sick and offering to call the mall’s medical center that she doesn’t realize is now abandoned. Indeed, Yumemi seems determined to help Junker out and tend to his needs as the “customer” he is, even when he insists he’s not one.

Considering all this, it’s not a great leap for Junker to start thinking of Yumemi as less of a machine and more of a human, at least in terms of how he treats her. The pair have the kind of chemistry where one complements the other — Junker’s bitter, harsh, practical attitude with Yumemi’s optimistic and cheerful one — and they start to have real conversations by the end of his stay at the planetarium. The first time I read through Planetarian, I thought it was a bit weird that this extremely pragmatic guy would decide to bring a slow, partially broken robot along with him through the streets of the city, where autonomous, heavily armed tanks were still operating. Junker wonders that himself and doesn’t seem to understand exactly why he’s doing it. But there has been a connection created between the two when the final part of the VN begins, to the point that I can believe Junker simply couldn’t allow himself to leave Yumemi alone in the now unpowered mall to shut down — effectively to die, left to be “harvested” for her parts by other junkers as he puts it.

This is where Planetarian totally departs from a lot of other modern sci-fi. When I watched the 2014 film Ex Machina a while back, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Planetarian and how completely different each work was in spirit, despite the fact that they both deal with human/AI interaction. Ex Machina takes place in a near-future Earth that’s still thriving, in which the eccentric genius CEO of a massive search engine company has built a line of realistic androids. Said CEO rigs up a fake contest to select one of his employees, a coder/programmer type named Caleb, to spend a week at his high-tech, high-security mansion in the wilderness. There Caleb gets the chance to run a series of tests by having conversations with Ava, like Yumemi an android in the shape of a young woman. Ava seems to be curious both about the outside world, which she hasn’t seen, and about Caleb himself. She also comes off as having an almost human-seeming sense of humor and a pretty sharp wit. After a few days of testing, Ava tells Caleb that she knows he’s attracted to her, that she’s attracted to him, and that she wants him to help her break out of the CEO’s mansion and escape.

Despite their efforts to conceal these parts of their conversations, the CEO realizes what’s going on, but in a double-twist Caleb reveals that he outsmarted the CEO by secretly fucking with the power system so that he’d be sealed inside his own high-security bunker of a house without being able to get out while Ava and Caleb would run away together. CEO tries killing the plan by ordering Ava to go back to her room, but she and another android get the better of him in a fight and stab him to death. We’ve seen him act like a real asshole to them throughout the film, so sure, this makes sense. However, in a final betrayal, Ava traps Caleb in the house and escapes without him, leaving him to die as well. The end.

Does this remind anyone else of those old creepy Svedka ads? Is it just me?

What message is to be taken from Ex Machina exactly? Caleb admittedly didn’t think through his actions fully, but he was motivated by a desire to help Ava escape because he essentially saw her as human, or at least as a being deserving of human rights. While Caleb did mean to seal the CEO into a virtual tomb in the course of his plan, he also found and watched tapes of said CEO treating the androids like garbage during tests and generally being a dick, and he also knows of his plan to erase Ava’s memory at the end of this testing phase. So his feelings are a bit understandable. However, the relationship Caleb thinks he has with Ava is pure fantasy. She’s been manipulating him this whole time, and far from being grateful for his help, she traps him and effectively murders him at the end of the film for no clear reason that I can understand, other than director/screenwriter Alex Garland wanting to throw a final twist in to shock us.

At first, Ex Machina left me asking “so fucking what?” The actors are good (Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac as Caleb and the CEO, for you Star Wars sequel trilogy fans if there are any left, and Alicia Vikander as Ava) and the look and feel of the movie in general are pretty nice, so I can’t exactly call it total garbage. But the writing. The first 100 minutes of the movie now seem entirely pointless, with its attempts at making me feel bad for the plight of Ava by making her come off as self-aware and sympathetic — such a being would have at least recognized Caleb as her ally and let him live, even if she’d been manipulating him up to that point. But no, turns out she’s nothing of the sort, more of a HAL from 2001 sort of character. Only 2001 took the time to establish HAL as a scary psychopath sort of AI making the course of the story believable, whereas Ex Machina just throws us an ending twist without bothering to set it up in the slightest.

So the message I’m forced to take from Ex Machina — because there clearly is a message in there; everything about the film suggests it’s meant to be taken as Serious Art instead of a basic horror movie — is that we can’t trust those god damn androids because there’s no way they’ll treat us with any care or affection despite what we might think. This is a depressingly pessimistic message. That’s fine with me; I’m a depressingly pessimistic guy myself, so I get that.

But what I can’t forgive is the sheer dishonesty of it. Ex Machina presents a dark future without any real argument to back it up. While many critics and fans have praised Ex Machina, I believe Garland completely screws up its treatment of its central human/AI relationship, which is quite an unbelievable and stilted-feeling one created to express the message, when the message should instead flow naturally from a believable story. Planetarian also depicts a dark future for humanity in its global war and post-apocalyptic setting, but in creating the relationship between Junker and Yumemi it doesn’t try to pull a cynical trick on the reader. Yumemi is exactly what she seems from the first time Junker meets her — an android who likes the company of both her machine and human colleagues. She has fond memories of working with the planetarium staff and helping customers and has a desire to continue her work.

Whether that’s because she’s programmed to do so doesn’t seem to matter anymore, at least not to Junker. By the end, he doesn’t see her as a mere piece of machinery. Yumemi herself, while conscious of the fact that she’s a robot, doesn’t want to be separated from humans. This is the meaning of her saying “please do not divide Heaven in two”, one of the game’s best-known lines — when she asks whether Junker has ever prayed to God, a weird sort of theological question comes up about whether there might be a separate God of Robots. Yumemi says her coworkers told her that robots get to go to their own Heaven when they shut down, but because she doesn’t want machines to be separated from humans, she prays that they can all go to the same Heaven.

This is where I think you can find the optimism in Planetarian. It’s a sad story with a bitter ending, sure. But there is hope in the end, both for Junker and Yumemi, and maybe for both humans and machines beyond them, living in the world together. Yumemi sees both organic humans and other, non-humanoid machines like Jena as her friends and colleagues, and she even says Junker shouldn’t blame the tank for what it did — in the end, it was simply doing its best to carry out its duties faithfully.

This view is very different from the one given by works like Ex Machina, in which humans create technology that ends up destroying them of its own will. In those works, there’s an assumption that any form of advanced AI will necessarily be separate from the natural world. Humans are animals, androids are machines, and there can’t be any meaningful emotional relationship between them. When a well-meaning character like Caleb foolishly believes he’s created one with an android like Ava, she ends up betraying him. She can’t empathize with him, and he was stupid to think he could empathize with her. Planetarian, by contrast, does not make any such assumptions. Humans started the global war that wrecked civilization. They used technology to do it, but the story doesn’t give any indication that the AI employed in the war rebelled against their human creators or did anything other than follow the orders given to them.

I’m not saying a robot apocalypse will never happen. But it seems both disingenuous and lazy to just assume that advanced AI will definitely turn against its creators when you’re putting together a work of fiction, or that they’ll even necessarily see themselves as that different from their creators.

I wrote at the start of this post that Planetarian isn’t my favorite visual novel. While I don’t have any problem with kinetic novels, I prefer VNs that give the player dialogue and action options and branching story paths. And I don’t know if writer Yuichi Suzumoto is responsible for this or if it’s the translation, but the prose occasionally gets really awkward — just see the above screenshot for an example. Thankfully it doesn’t happen that often, but those instances stick out and hurt an otherwise good game.

But I’d still rank this pretty highly among the VNs I’ve played. A good story can end with disaster and total despair, but the way it gets to that ending is important. Planetarian doesn’t take the same straightforward, lazy “technology is bad” route that Ex Machina and many other modern sci-fi works go with. And it’s not afraid to express the hope at the end that maybe things won’t be so miserable one day, and what the hell is wrong with that? Nothing. In real life, people keep hope alive even in the worst of circumstances, so it’s not a sin to give your audience some hope as well, despite what some writers and directors seem to think.

And that’s true even if that hope directly follows a tearjerker scene. I mean, I didn’t cry when Yumemi got blown up. Really, I didn’t. I just had bad allergies that day. You know how that pollen is in the spring.

***

I hope I’ve represented Planetarian well enough here. It also has anime OVA and film adaptations that I haven’t seen, but I’ve heard good things.

I also want to note that I’m not trying to do a “western vs. Japanese take” comparison with this commentary. Reading back through it, all the crap I dumped on Ex Machina might make it seem that way to some people, and everyone knows I’m a degenerate weeb after all, but it’s not the case. I only meant to highlight two approaches sci-fi writers have taken with regard to human/AI relationships and how I think one is more natural and honest than the other. If you want proof of my sincerity, here you go: the Spike Jonze movie Her does thousands of times better at this than Ex Machina, and it involves an actually believable romance between a human and an AI character if that’s what you’re looking for. 𒀭