Listening/reading log #11 (August 2020)

As America gets closer and closer to becoming a mainline Shin Megami Tensei game and I start to consider how to maintain a Neutral alignment (still the best alignment, no Law or Chaos for me) I’m finding comfort in music. Today I’ll be presenting two works: another old classic and one of my favorite albums ever, and something new I discovered recently. And as usual, I’ll also be featuring excellent articles from around the community in the past month.

Red (King Crimson, 1974)

Highlights: Red, Fallen Angel, One More Red Nightmare, Starless (basically the whole album except for one track that’s just okay)

I’ve written these short album reviews for nearly a year, yet until now I haven’t talked about one of my all-time favorites: Red. This album was put together by the second (or third, or fourth, depending on how you’re counting) iteration of the prog band King Crimson, which has changed lineups about twenty million times since it started in 1969. Through the years, the only constant in the band has been guitarist Robert Fripp. The other two guys on the cover are bassist/singer John Wetton (formerly of Family and later of Asia) and drummer Bill Bruford (formerly of Yes, and who’s been featured the most out of anyone in these reviews so far, also on The Yes Album, Close to the Edge, and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic.)

Red is extremely heavy, precise rock, full of memorable songs. The atmosphere this album creates is something to experience — it’s dark but not trying to be “evil” in the way some of the 70s heavy rock and metal was going for. This is one to play late at night during a coffee binge. I love every track except for the improv-sounding piece Providence, and even that’s not exactly bad, just kind of messy-sounding and out of place. But then I know people who love 70s Crimson improv works found on albums like Starless and Bible Black as well, so you might love this too if that’s your thing.

Somehow these guys just broke up right after recording Red and wouldn’t return for seven years, reforming into a totally different-sounding (but still good!) early-80s New Wave band sort of like Talking Heads. Weird stuff, but then Robert Fripp is a weird guy. He’s also responsible for the startup sound in Windows Vista if you remember that thing. Anyway, this is an amazing album that you should check out.

Bon Bon Appétit!! EP (Sugar & Co., 2020)

Highlights: it’s only three songs long and they’re all good, but I love SWEETSWEETSWEET

If Red is too dark and stormy to suit your mood, here’s something completely different in tone and style, and something so sweet that it might be dangerous to listen to. Bon Bon Appétit!! is a short EP that I might never have found if not for Muse Dash, the rhythm game I reviewed last month. Ever since learning about future funk a couple of years ago I’ve really liked what I’ve heard of it, and this is in that style, made by Shanghai-based composer ANK and a few other people operating under this Sugar & Co. name. And the name, album title, and pink as hell anime girl cover fit the contents exactly: Bon Bon Appétit!! is all cute vocals over electronic disco/funk tracks.

There was a time long ago I’d have never listened to this kind of stuff, but not anymore: it’s catchy and addictive like actual sugar is, and I like it about as much. Really nice, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else comes out from ANK and the rest of them. There are a few other tracks in Muse Dash by the same group that I also like, so it seems like they’ve got more material around. I’ll also probably be listening to more future funk in general because of how relaxing I find it — I’ve already gotten a few great recommendations that I’m looking into further.

And now for the featured articles (more than usual to make up for my being too lazy to review more than two albums again, one of which is less than ten minutes long. Sorry!)

Mega Man 6 (Extra Life) — Red Metal completes his analysis of the original NES Mega Man series with his review of Mega Man 6, a game that gets maligned a whole lot but that maybe doesn’t deserve all of that hate. See Red Metal’s in-depth review for more.

Visual Novel Theater – fault (Lost to the Aether) — Another VN review from Aether, this time of fault, an episodic kinetic novel that I haven’t played. Sounds like an interesting premise, though I don’t think I’d be able to deal with the lack of an ending (at least there isn’t one yet, and it sounds like there might never be one from what Aether says.)

Exploring Miyazaki & Aoshima Island at Sunset (Resurface to Reality) — One day I’d like to visit Japan, but for now all I can do is keep reading travel posts like this one, a look at the Kyushu coast from browsercrasher.

Happy Birthday GoldenEye 007! (Mid-Life Gamer Geek) — A birthday tribute to GoldenEye 007. I remember the movie being all right, but the game was legendary, and Mid-Life Gamer Geek does it justice in this post.

Appreciating My Manga Collections More in a COVID-19 World (Objection Network) — Michaela reflects on the dire state of the US and the world as a whole and how it’s made her appreciate manga as a hobby. I’m all about buying physical copies too.

Fate/Grand Order Tierlist: Ranking all Caster servants! (Nep’s Gaming Paradise) — I don’t play Fate/Grand Order, but I do like what I’ve played/watched in the Type-Moon universe, so reading Neppy’s character rankings for the game is still a good time. He’s got a whole series of posts on the subject going, so be sure to check it out.

The Top 5 Animes That Made Me Want to Order Take Out (I drink and watch anime) — Anime often features food that’s incredibly detailed-looking and makes you hungry just seeing it. Irina here recommends five anime series featuring great-looking food. None of these are series you should watch if you’re fasting (also don’t watch Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family, speaking of great-looking food and the Fate series.)

The Uzuki-Chan Drama – Twitter imposing their morals on a foreign culture (A Richard Wood Text Adventure) — Having just gotten current on the anime Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out! I can say it’s fucking weird that this is the show of the season people decided to start fights about. Wooderon addresses the drama surrounding Uzaki-chan and the part moral and cultural superiority is playing in creating said drama, especially on Twitter.

Waifu Wednesday: Rorolina Frixell (MoeGamer) — Anyone with an interest in JRPGs that are a little out of the ordinary should be following Pete Davison’s massive series of Atelier posts covering what looks like the entire series. In this post, Pete highlights some of what’s great about Rorona, the protagonist of Atelier Rorona, one of the few in the series I’ve played so far. And I agree with his assessment — Rorona is easily one of my favorite game protagonists.

I Really Dig Disco Elysium’s Character Building (Frostilyte Writes) — Disco Elysium looks like it has a unique character creation system. I think I can easily get into the mindset of a sad drunken detective already, but Frostilyte’s post about the game got me even more interested in it.

The Plague of WordPress: AI Generated Posts (Umai Yomu Anime Blog) — Yomu delivers a warning about the rise of AI-generated nonsense posts on WordPress that are currently misusing the anime tag. We’ll have to stay one or more steps ahead of the jerks behind this garbage.

Surgeon General’s Warning: DO NOT WATCH ANIME (Mechanical Anime Reviews) — And finally, Scott delivers a warning about the effects of watching too much anime. Sadly, it came too late for me.

That’s all for this month. I have more anime reviews and a couple of game retrospectives coming up soon, but before that I’ll be taking on a couple of tag posts. Until then, stay safe as always.

Summer cleaning game review special #5 and final: Princess Remedy in a Heap of Trouble

Now here’s a throwback, one that feels right for the last post in this series. It’s not a throwback to my childhood or anything, but just to 2016 when I looked at the free short RPG-looking shmup Princess Remedy in a World of Hurt. I liked that game enough that I bought the very cheap sequel, Princess Remedy in a Heap of Trouble, and then not unusually for me forgot about it for four years. But it’s been sitting in my Steam library all that time, and I’ve finally returned to play it. And hey, it’s a good game too, especially if you’re looking for a simple shoot-em-up to take up an hour or so.

The story is that Remedy, the nurse/princess* character from the last game, has been called back from her vacation to deal with another health crisis. Once again, her cures involve talking to sick people and fighting monsters that represent whatever’s wrong with them. These illnesses can be either physical or mental/emotional, so Remedy also works as a sort of therapist.

Your first patient

Also as before, during battle Remedy keeps firing her medicine shot automatically until all her enemies are dead, but she also has to dodge the enemies and their shots in order to survive. However, this time around she can get help from the people she cures by going on a “date” with them. It’s not a traditional date, though: her partner simply follows her around and gives her an extra active or passive ability in battle. Characters can also be freely dumped for new dates, which you might do just to see what they say when you ask them out. Princess Remedy is a heartbreaker.

But her dating around is justified, because she needs to defeat some serious bosses to proceed through the land. Several of them wait for the princess blocking off new areas until she gets the number of powerups in battle sufficient to face it.

Some of the bosses also look like fever dream JRPG monsters

Despite how they look, these Princess Remedy games are only a few years old as of this writing. I think they’re meant to resemble old Atari or Commodore 64 games, or maybe a game from one of those British systems like the ZX Spectrum that I’d never heard of until recently. These were well before my time, so I can’t say I have any nostalgia for the look of these games. But I like them anyway, which hopefully says something for their quality. They’re quite simple but fun, especially if you’re into free-movement shmup action.

They also have a bizarre sense of humor that I like. All the way back in part one of this series when I reviewed Qora, I mentioned I didn’t care for the “so random” humor being dumped on me in the game’s last ten minutes. Part of that was probably because I felt the game was boring to play, but part of it was also that it all seemed like an inside joke that I was never meant to understand in the first place. By contrast, the conversations you have with other characters in Princess Remedy are just kind of absurd. I don’t know if they really count as humor, but I find it a lot funnier than the self-conscious “look at how wacky we are” stuff in Qora. I don’t know, maybe there’s really no difference between the two and there’s something wrong with my brain.

Maybe the problem is that you should be in the ocean instead of on the dock

This is probably more than I needed to write about this game. I liked it. That’s simple enough. And like most of the other short games I’ve reviewed in this series, it’s only a few dollars to buy, so not too much of an ask.

Anyway, I hope this break from the usual was interesting. I still have a couple of other games that I’m currently playing through from that 1000+ game itch.io bundle. Not all completely good stuff either, but you’ll see when we get there — if it’s interesting enough, I’ll write about it whether I like it or not. Until then.

* And maybe a doctor too, but it’s not clear whether she has her medical degree. She’s not called Dr. Remedy after all. Then again, Mario isn’t a doctor but he calls himself one in Dr. Mario. I don’t think standard medical ethics rules apply in these games.

Do your protagonist or leads have to be relatable?

Relatability is thrown around a lot in discussions about what makes good and bad fiction. If you’re creating any kind of fiction, it helps you get and keep an audience if they have some prominent character at least to connect with in the story — someone who’s sympathetic or is going through a relatable experience.

I thought about this recently when I read through the first few volumes of the manga Ijiranaide Nagatoro-san, officially published as Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro. This manga caught my attention because 1) it’s been getting a lot of talk ahead of an anime adaptation planned for sometime in the near future, and 2) it’s apparently extremely divisive, with some readers loving it and others dropping it almost immediately. To me, something so divisive has to be interesting, so it’s probably worth checking out even if I end up not liking it.

And I can see why someone might drop this manga after reading a couple of chapters. Nagatoro-san is another one of those high school romantic comedies that are so common, but its sadistic element sets it apart from the others. Title character Nagatoro is a popular first-year student who fixates on a nerdy loner art-loving second-year, known only as “senpai” throughout, because of how strongly he reacts when she makes fun of him. People have compared it to series with similar setups like Teasing Master Takagi-san, but Nagatoro cranks the mockery level way up. Of course, as in that series, there are strong hints that she’s only messing with him because she likes him; we see later on that poor Senpai is the only guy she treats this way, usually only in private, and when her friends try to get in on the action and mock him a bit too much she gets pissed off and stops them.

After getting past the initially harsh, hard-going couple of chapters, I ended up enjoying the rest of what I read, I think partly because of how well I could relate to the Senpai character. All this guy ever really wanted was to be left alone to paint still lifes of fruit and draw his wish-fulfillment fantasy comics with his self-insert character. Shortly after Nagatoro wedges herself into that peaceful loner life he’s living, she asks him why he doesn’t fight back when she messes around with him, and his answer is telling: he says that when he’s bullied, he just closes up his heart and ignores it until it goes away.

Of course, again, the reason Senpai doesn’t just ignore Nagatoro in the same way is that he likes her too, and this is obviously one of those slow-burn romances where the two main characters will end up together, but will take a hell of a long time to do it because of their clashing character quirks (see also the now-infamous Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out!) But the way he handles all the other bullying he deals with, that really hit me in the gut. I shouldn’t project any of my feelings onto the author, but it reads just like it was written by someone who’s gone through the same sort of thing, or at least by someone who was a close-up witness to a lot of that treatment at school.

I’m in this manga and I don’t like it

The fact that the protagonist of Nagatoro-san is so relatable to me helped me connect with him and get into the story, which does get quite a bit lighter and nicer when it starts to become clear that Nagatoro is trying to help out and get closer to Senpai, albeit in her own weird, aggressive way. However, it also raised that question of relatability. Does relatability always have to be there to connect with your protagonist and leads?

I’d say it depends on what sort of story you’re trying to tell. A romantic comedy of this kind definitely needs some relatability, since it’s presumably trying to build an emotional connection between the main characters that it wants the readers to get invested in. To use an example from a very different sphere of fans/viewers, the US version of The Office did the same thing with Jim and Pam, two relatively normal, nice characters who many fans wanted to get together. These two were probably more relatable to most than a lot of the other weirdos working in that mid-sized Pennsylvania paper company branch, so it was easier to get invested in the story through their perspectives.*

However, there are works I’ve liked, and even loved, in which the protagonist was totally unrelatable, or in which he was even a complete asshole. For an example of the former, check out Mahjong Legend Akagi. The title character isn’t a bad guy at all, but not because he’s exactly “good” either. In some sense, he rises above basic ideas of “good” and “bad” in the course of his story. As a genius gambler, he knows how to utterly crush his opponents without remorse, and he does so, but what he’s really looking for is a challenge in which both he and his opponent put everything on the line, up to and including their lives. Other characters in the series, almost all crooked cops, shady fellow gamblers, and yakuza members, come to fear him and refer to him as a “demon”, not because he’s evil but because of his sheer talent and just how different and how much more terrifying his ways are when compared with those of the money-driven underworld.

This is a teaser for a future deep reads post, by the way. There’s a lot to say about Akagi, both the character and the series.

Even having an asshole or a plain old criminal for a protagonist can help make for great fiction, however. Up until it started to get stale around the fourth season or so, the US Netflix production of the political crime drama House of Cards did a great job with this, casting excellent actor and now-accused real-life criminal Kevin Spacey as the ruthless, coldblooded House Majority Whip Frank Underwood. Underwood is so ambitious that he’ll do anything for power, and he does a whole lot of evil things to achieve that power up to and including committing multiple murders. There are a few sympathetic characters who take part in the story, and most of them end up crushed and sometimes even killed by one or another of Underwood’s schemes.

While I watched the show, though, I was all in for Underwood. I wanted to see how he would make it to the Presidency, and then how he’d fall from that high office and end up ruining himself. Underwood’s occasional asides, addressed directly to the viewer, helped create this connection. But that’s not quite enough; you also need a compelling story to make this kind of evil protagonist work, and House of Cards managed that for a while at least. Underwood wasn’t relatable, at least not to me, but I was riding along and wanted to see how his ruthlessness and cruelty would play out.

The fact that the character Underwood ended up ruined because of illicit acts his actor was accused of having carried out is quite a weird thing in itself (and the subject for an entirely different post, and really a different sort of blog than mine) but it’s easy to imagine an alternate reality where that story could have played out much more effectively. I have heard that the original UK version of House of Cards told its story in a more effective and compact way, and it had a proper ending too. I might check that out one day myself.

All the Spacey stuff was obviously a problem, but I think the writers had stretched the show out way too long and kind of fucked it up by that point anyway. (Image source)

So when does a protagonist or a central character fall flat or annoy me to the point that I have to drop a series? If the work is trying to portray a shitty, or even a simply unremarkable, character as someone amazing but we the audience don’t see it, that’s when I get genuinely pissed off at it. To me, this is one of the hallmarks of lazy writing: “I want a cool protagonist but I don’t know how to effectively depict one, so all the other characters will say how amazing they are and the reader/viewer/etc. will see it too!”

But it doesn’t work that way. On the contrary, the harder a character like that is pushed without properly establishing why we should like them by showing and not telling, the more I’ll hate them. It’s part of that “Poochie Effect” I wrote about a while ago. Though she has her fans, Marie from Persona 4 Golden was an example of such a character for me. She didn’t really hurt the game, since she was more or less a side character, but the way the game tried to push her was a bit annoying — the temperamental teenager act came off as simply grating, even if there was a lot more behind the character than was evident at first. At the very least, I didn’t feel too compelled to learn about what was behind Marie until I was forced to by the game, and a big part of that had to do with her irritating character traits that I was apparently supposed to find endearing. Or maybe I wasn’t and Atlus are a bunch of sadists too.

So as you can see, I’m no expert. I’m a shitty hack writer myself, so I have to try not to make the kinds of mistakes I’m talking about here when I’m working on fiction. So please tell me if you feel like it: what kinds of characters can you relate to, and what do you think makes for an effective or ineffective protagonist? Do you need to be able to relate to the protagonist or at least to someone in the story to enjoy a work? Do you think this was just an excuse for me to post a review of Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro while pretending I wasn’t doing that? I’m interested to know your opinions. 𒀭

* Kevin is still my favorite character, though. At least before they changed him from secretly smart to just plain stupid. It wasn’t quite as bad as what The Simpsons did to Homer, but still noticeable.

A review of Kizumonogatari

Last month I took a look at Bakemonogatari, the first part of the long-running Monogatari anime adaptation of novels by author Nisio Isin. I liked pretty much everything about what I saw and decided on that basis to keep going with it. But before I could proceed to the next part in the series chronologically, I was advised by top experts to turn back and watch the three Kizumonogatari prequel movies, titled Tekketsu-hen, Nekketsu-hen, and Reiketsu-hen. So that’s what I did. And so here’s my review of all three. I could break this post into three parts as well, but to me these three films really feel like one three-and-a-half hour film broken into three parts — they tell one complete story, and they’re all made in the same style.

But maybe that would have been too exhausting for the audience. Taken all together, there is a lot of shocking, sometimes inhuman-looking violence and gore in these three movies, much more than there was in Bakemonogatari. The same is true of the sexually suggestive content in Kizumonogatari. If you thought that first series was a bit much for you, this set of movies also cranks that element up. Once again, though, I don’t think any of it’s gratuitous, as extreme as these movies get in some of their contents. The story they tell is an extreme one anyway, one that was already set up in the first series, and one that needed to be told to explain some of the characters’ situations in that series.

Aside from the general content warning, here’s another one: there are going to be some specific spoilers in this post, the kind I tried to avoid in that last review. I couldn’t really avoid them this time, partly because of these films’ links to that series. So please take the usual precautions if you care to. In some sense the ending to these films is already kind of spoiled since they’re meant to be watched after Bakemonogatari, but I like to be safe anyway.

Here’s our protagonist again. At the beginning of Bakemonogatari, the student Koyomi Araragi has already survived a serious ordeal, a run-in with the supernatural that nearly killed him and put one of his friends in great danger. At the start of Tekketsu-hen, he’s just a regular guy, though one without friends at the moment. Araragi prefers to keep to himself. However, that changes over his two-week spring break. When school gets out and he’s aimlessly hanging around the front gate, he comes across one of his classmates, the legendarily smart and proper student council president Tsubasa Hanekawa. The first look he gets of her is quite improper, though. When the wind blew down the street and flipped her skirt up, I understood where that very first scene in Bakemonogatari came from.

That’s one of the powers of the author, to create a convenient gust of wind at just the right time

Despite this embarrassing start to their first meeting, Hanekawa laughs it off and insists on talking with and getting to know Araragi better. It turns out they both know about each other, but until now they haven’t interacted despite being in the same class. Araragi tries desperately to get away, putting up a show of acting cold towards her, but Hanekawa follows him anyway and goes on about school, their future plans, and some rumor she heard about a beautiful blonde vampire woman stalking around town. She also puts her number into his phone and tells him that he’s made a friend whether he likes it or not.

After she cheerfully waves goodbye to him and leaves, Araragi skips home, secretly happy that he met and got to know Hanekawa. However, he can’t get that first accidental and improper look at her out of his head, and it starts to seriously bother him in just the way you might expect. So late that night, he leaves his weirdly empty house (he lives with his parents and two little sisters, but they’re nowhere to be seen in these movies) and runs to a bookstore to buy a girly magazine to relieve some of that stress. On the way back home, however, he gets sidetracked by a trail of blood leading down to a subway station, and what he finds there puts every other thought out of his mind. There lies a blonde woman with all her limbs cut off, gushing blood all over the platform.

Despite her state, she speaks to Araragi calmly, even with an arrogant tone, commanding him to give her his blood. This seems to be that vampire Hanekawa was talking about: the strangely named Kiss-Shot Acerola-Orion Heart-Under-Blade. Kiss-Shot tells Araragi he should be grateful to have such an opportunity, but Araragi turns to flee in terror after she tells him she’ll need all his blood to survive.

Despite initially running for his life, Araragi decides to throw it away to save this vampire woman after she loses her haughty demeanor and starts crying and pleading with him. Kiss-Shot thankfully accepts his offer and bites him, and the scene fades out. However, we know he’s obviously not going to die, so what does happen to him? Naturally, he wakes up a vampire himself — a follower of Kiss-Shot, who’s been restored to health with all her limbs intact.

Well, sort of. Kiss-Shot explains that she indeed sucked Araragi dry, and by doing do she turned him, making him her servant. She also explains that in order to regenerate her body, she needed to take the form of a child. In this weak form, though, she can’t fight against the vampire hunters who cut off and took her limbs. To recover that strength, Araragi will have to use his new vampiric regeneration ability and strength to defeat them one by one and acquire her arms and legs, all video game boss style. Only then will she have the power to turn him back into a human. In the meantime, the pair take refuge from the sun in an abandoned cram school building.

Also, headpats are how you show your vampire master that you submit to her. At least that’s what Kiss-Shot claims. Maybe she’s just making that up — it would be totally in character for her.

When Araragi ventures out of the cram school at night to face these powerful vampire hunters who are after Kiss-Shot, they all gang up on him at once. Araragi freaks out and tries to run away, but one moment before they close in and kill him, the final character in the story shows up to save him: Meme Oshino, the ghost/youkai/apparition expert from Bakemonogatari. This Oshino guy apparently has a scary enough reputation that the three vampire hunters run away, and he and Araragi return to the cram school to sort things out with Kiss-Shot. A solid team is formed, although the mysterious Oshino refuses to do any fighting himself, only “lending a hand” as he puts it, and for a steep price at that. But he seems to know his stuff, so they accept his help.

Oshino is legitimately a cool guy, and not just because vampire hunters are afraid of him.

And that’s the basic premise of Kizumonogatari. In fact, I just set out all the events of the first movie, which is only about an hour long. The rest of the story sees these plot setups play out, with emphases on the relationships Araragi builds with Oshino, Kiss-Shot, and Hanekawa. Because even though she doesn’t seem connected with the rest of the story, Hanekawa ends up involving herself in it with obviously serious risks. These are risks that she seems to fully understand, but she takes them anyway.

Before getting into more details, I should say that I completely get now why Kizumonogatari is meant to be watched after Bakemonogatari, even though it comes first chronologically. It seems to have been written specifically as a prequel. If I’d watched these movies before that first series, I don’t know if I’d understand why certain characters take some of the seemingly strange actions they do here. For example, the reason that Araragi would give his life up for this vampire woman probably won’t be clear unless you’ve watched Bakemonogatari and know what kind of person he is. As we’ve already seen in that series, it’s not out of character for him to help someone else even at the risk of his own life, and even if that someone else is an apparition, monster, or spirit. It really would have been more out of character for him to let her die.

The same is true for Hanekawa. Araragi himself is confused about why this perfect young lady, this model student and class president, would even bother talking to a loser like him. From what I could tell, for as much screentime as Hanekawa gets in these movies, the narrative doesn’t make this clear either. She tells Araragi at their first meeting that she has a fascination with vampires and supernatural things in general, but the reasons she’s found wandering around town at night, or why she gravitates towards Araragi as if he’s a magnet, even when she knows he’s been turned into a vampire — these only make some sense if you’ve seen Bakemonogatari and understand what a miserable home life she has. Again, Kizumonogatari doesn’t go into any details; it relies on the viewer having seen the first series or read the first set of novels already.

It’s not a baseball movie, this is just part of one of the fights

If you were starting with these movies, you might also think based on the events of Tekketsu-hen that their focus is going to be on how Araragi learns to use his new vampiric powers to fight the three vampire hunters and retrieve Kiss-Shot’s limbs. That does happen, complete with elaborate fight scenes — these scenes fill out a lot of the action of the second Nekketsu-hen film — but it turns out that these three enemies aren’t even close to the greatest threat Araragi has to face. No, that would be Kiss-Shot herself.

Oshino, who Araragi comes to half-trust as a mentor and half-suspect as a weirdo with unclear intentions, drops a few hints that help him discover this fact. Though Araragi absolutely wants to become a human again, he also seems to be drawn somewhat to Kiss-Shot. This isn’t such a surprise — in her weakest form, she takes the form of a kid who looks like she needs protection, albeit one who talks in a very haughty and superior way and uses old-fashioned language (I don’t know how it comes out in Japanese, but in the translation she refers to him as “ye” a lot.) As Araragi collects her limbs, Kiss-Shot consumes them and ages up, getting closer to the looks she has when we first meet her. But he seems more and more taken by her, up to the point when she’s fully restored and at full power again.

I mean, not that I can really blame him.

By this point, he seems to have forgotten an important fact, one that he curses himself later for not realizing: Kiss-Shot is a vampire, and that means she kills and consumes humans. He gets a stomach-turning reminder of this fact when he tells her he’ll go get a meal to celebrate their last night together before she turns him into a human again. Kiss-Shot cheerfully agrees, but when Araragi returns with some takeout, he finds she has started without him, feeding upon the corpse of one of the vampire hunters he’d earlier defeated. Kiss-Shot seems genuinely surprised when she sees he’s brought normal human-style food and not the “portable food” she expected: that “bespectacled, braided girl” she’d briefly met before, that class president who had been sticking around Araragi and bringing him supplies while they hid out in the cram school — Tsubasa Hanekawa.

In a later episode of Bakemonogatari, Araragi tells Hanekawa that he owes her his life. It’s not clear what he’s referring to then, but in Reiketsu-hen Hanekawa snaps him back into reality when he’s despairing about having revived a murderous vampire. By this point in the films, the two have built a strange sort of relationship — Hanekawa pushed a friendship on him that he didn’t plan to accept, then he tried pushing her away out of fear that he’d put her in danger. When she was put in danger anyway by trying to help him during a fight with one of the vampire hunters, the hunter mortally wounds her, and Araragi is only able to save her with the timely help of Oshino. By the middle of the third film, Araragi and Hanekawa understand each other and their connection has been made real, letting the viewer make a direct link to the unusual friendship between the top student and burnout slacker in Bakemonogatari.

Kiss-Shot showing off her stupidly long sword: one that she purposely doesn’t use in the final fight.

This is the link that gives Araragi the strength to fight and defeat his vampiric master Kiss-Shot. Having resolved that he can’t let her continue to kill humans, he faces her in battle. Though they’re both immortal at this point and can almost instantly regenerate limbs and even their own heads, Kiss-Shot is clearly on a far higher level having been around for 500 years. So it’s a bit of a surprise when Araragi manages to get an opening and latch onto her neck, literally sucking the life out of her as she withers back to a small, weakened form. And here’s the other big connection to Bakemonogatari and the rest of the story: it’s revealed that Kiss-Shot wanted to die after living for such a long time — specifically that she wanted to die for a human after seeing her first human-turned-vampire follower die centuries before — and this was just how she intended to restore Araragi to human form.

Araragi refuses to grant her wish, however. After Oshino (who’s been hiding in a corner and watching this whole time) comes out and gives Araragi a few options none of which are that great, our protagonist goes for the ending that will make everyone unhappy: he drains Kiss-Shot of blood until she’s almost dead and has lost almost all her power, making him almost human but not quite. By doing this he creates Shinobu, the silent vampire girl from Bakemonogatari who has to drink his blood to survive. It’s now clear why Araragi feels guilty towards Shinobu, having taken away almost all of her power and even the right she has to her title and name while not granting her wish to die, and this guilt makes it even more clear why he might have been reluctant to ask for her help at the end of Bakemonogatari even when he knew he needed it.

And here’s the end of Kizumonogatari, or Wound Tale. I wrote in that first Monogatari review that I’d heard these movies were somewhat divisive, and I have seen a few criticisms of them since. One is of their visual style, which is very different from that of Bakemonogatari and the other TV series in some ways. Kizumonogatari is a lot more violent with a focus on body horror — during his fights, Araragi loses and regrows body parts, which regenerate in almost infant-looking form back into their original shapes. All this is accompanied by a lot of viscera and spraying blood. The worst scene by far for me isn’t one of these but rather a more realistic-looking one, when Hanekawa gets very graphically disemboweled by one of the vampire hunters. Probably because it is more realistic-looking, even if she does get magically restored by Araragi’s vampire power with the advice of Oshino.

There are more mundane differences too, like the character models themselves: Oshino is pretty much unchanged, but Araragi looks a lot bulkier in Kizumonogatari, even before he gets buff and largely shirtless during his time as a vampire. And Hanekawa looks extra-cute, to a way more exaggerated extent than in the other series. I did notice these differences, but they didn’t bother me. I can even take the extreme violence — as I wrote at the top, this is an extreme sort of story anyway, so the extreme visuals fit in that sense. I should note generally how good the animation in all three films is; Kizumonogatari looks like it had a pretty high budget. Even so, people who can’t take extremely violent scenes might want to avoid these movies.

More of those facial closeups that I’ve come to expect from this series now. Maybe Hanekawa’s weirdly exaggerated cuteness is meant to contrast with the extreme violence later on? Just a guess, because I have no idea.

There’s also the sexual content. There’s no outright sex in Kizumonogatari, but there is a ton of tension between Araragi and Hanekawa from their very start of their first encounter. Araragi is obviously attracted to Hanekawa from the beginning, and Hanekawa seems to start feeling that way about Araragi. After their interactions in the second and third movies, it’s honestly pretty surprising that nothing ends up happening between them, with Araragi eventually getting grabbed up by his other classmate Hitagi Senjougahara. It definitely comes as no surprise when we later learn in Bakemonogatari that Hanekawa’s secretly interested in him and that this interest started right here during Araragi’s vampiric spring break.

Even so, there’s a bit of criticism that Hanekawa is unnecessarily or overly sexualized in these movies, especially during the gym storage room scene between her and Araragi in Reiketsu-hen. While I can understand some people being uncomfortable with that scene, it doesn’t really clash with the characters that were developed either here or in Bakemonogatari in my opinion. This and a couple of other scenes also provide some background for the relationship between Araragi and Hanekawa. So far I’ve seen a recurring theme in Monogatari of the contrast between lust and serious romantic love. It’s one that’s very relevant to this relationship, and one that will come back with serious consequences for both characters later in the series.

Also, both the anime series and films are based on novels written from the perspective of Koyomi Araragi, a high school student with raging hormones, so it’s only natural if he’s fixating on more sexual details. He doesn’t seem to be a totally reliable narrator anyway. Not sure how much that perspective affected the angle taken in Kizumonogatari, but it’s worth noting.

As usual there’s context to explain this strange-looking scene

There’s a lot of emotion in Kizumonogatari, and it’s not the cheap kind. Sure, it is a vampire romance, and those aren’t anything new. But the characters here show that they’re willing to make great sacrifices for each other in ways that both explain and connect with events in Bakemonogatari, and for that reason alone these films are quite something to watch. They have a style fitting the dark, depressing tone of the story, though there are some comedic breaks as well — this is also written by Nisio Isin, so there’s still some quipping here, though there aren’t any 20-minute stretches where two characters sit on a park bench and play out comedy wordplay bits like there are in Bakemonogatari.

The pacing in Kizumonogatari is still a bit strange at times in the way you’d expect if you’re familiar with this series, with a few very weird scenes in the middle (my favorite: Araragi playfully spraying Hanekawa with a bottle of Coke while they run around in a field of wheat???) But again, that didn’t bother me at all. It seems like anything weird that comes up in these adaptations is taken straight out of the original novels. The pacing also suits the story these movies tell, and that’s part of why I can imagine Shaft having made this one extra-long film with an intermission in the middle, the sort American studios produced back in the 50s and 60s. I think that could have worked well, not just because of the relatively short lengths of each but also because they have some of the feel of those old-fashioned epics. Though presumably there would be a lot fewer ticket sales for one movie than for three. They did air all three in theaters from what I understand, which makes sense — Kizumonogatari really feels to me like it was made for a big screen.

That’s quite a skyline. Later on Araragi talks about how he lives in a “small town”, but this doesn’t look that small to me. Maybe it’s meant to be a boring suburb.

The ending theme to the second and third movies also suits the tone of these movies beautifully. When I first heard “Étoile et toi” I thought it was an old French song they had adapted, but it turns out it was written specifically for these movies. Even if you have no interest in watching this or Monogatari at all, you should at least check out that song and its variations.

Obvious content warnings aside though, again, I think there’s a lot to miss out on here if it’s passed up. I really liked Kizumonogatari, even if it was exhausting to watch all at once, or maybe partly because of it. And the very last lines of the movie sealed the deal up for me. Araragi sparing Kiss-Shot’s life, though it cost her everything else, fits perfectly with the other parts of the series I’ve seen up until now: even though she’s a vampire, as Oshino says, aberrations like her can’t really be blamed for doing what they do. To him, and later to Araragi, this work of containing demons and spirits doesn’t seem to be a matter of good and evil so much, even though both are doing so largely to protect human life. The result of their efforts in this case was an unhappy ending, but it was also a satisfying one and a great setup to what comes afterward.

I don’t have anything big and profound to close with, so here’s Hanekawa’s :3 face.

And shit, that’s a lot more than I thought I’d have to say about Kizumonogatari. I did say in my first Monogatari post that my next anime review would be something different, but I guess I lied. Sorry. But I’ve been sucked into the series now. I really will try to find something different for my next anime review, though. This one took it out of me.

Until next time… I don’t know. Try to avoid vampires, maybe? Seems like a good idea. 𒀭

Seven years on

It’s been seven years since I started this blog. When I first created it in 2013, I didn’t have any plans beyond writing about games I liked and a few places I’d been to and complaining about everything else I hated. As I’ve written before, it was a way for me to manage things while returning to school and a rigorous and stressful program of study.

Sometimes I think, if I had millions of dollars and didn’t have to work or stress over other issues, I’d play games, watch anime, listen to music, and write all day. But I wonder if I’d even bother writing under those circumstances. I probably would, just because that’s something I like doing. But it wouldn’t be the same, because beyond just being a hobbyist sort of thing, this site is also a way for me to cope with bitter reality. It’s part of the escape I need from life — that’s the reason for the site’s tagline.

For its first five years, though, I didn’t make much of an effort to connect with fellow writers here on WordPress. I didn’t even really know about the loose-knit communities of video game and anime fans here. It was only after leaving a lousy job and improving my situation that I had a little more time to sit around and explore the platform relatively free of worries. I’m grateful for that opportunity, because finding and connecting with other writers and fans has given this project new life. To everyone who follows my site, leaves comments, or even just reads what I write on occasion, I want to say thanks. It may not seem like much, but all that continues to make a big difference in my life, and all for the better.

And always remember Flonne’s words: friendship power beats anything. Even shark dragon monsters.

So what’s next for the site? I haven’t made an update post in a while, but nothing much is changing here. I plan to continue writing reviews, commentaries, opinion pieces, the usual stuff. I will probably be putting more of an emphasis on anime and visual novels for the rest of the year, since those are more of what I’ve been taking in lately, but I won’t be abandoning traditional video and PC games.

In fact, I was planning to make another “here’s my backlog” post, but it seems like every time I make such a post I curse myself never to actually finish the games I list. If you’re really curious, following me on Twitter is a good way of finding out some of what I might be playing and watching, because I’ll post about it sometimes (without spoilers, of course, so don’t worry — I’m not that kind of jerk.)

In the meantime, best of luck and health to everyone, and I’ll write again very soon.

The Great JRPG Character Face-Off: My top five

Last month, Pix1001 at Shoot the Rookie and Winst0lf started a month-long battle to determine the greatest JRPG characters, to be conducted by both bloggers and commenters making lists of their top fives with explanations. And I thought, hell, I like JRPGs, so I’ll thrown my opinions in. This is a list I might have thought up, written, and posted during a slow month, but I’m happy that I can use it to contribute to a community event like this. Hell, I can make a top ten or twenty list, probably. Maybe one day. I’d probably end up shifting a lot of these characters around and bumping some out of the top five as well, so fair warning that I’d be completely inconsistent about it. Sorry in advance!

For now, here’s my list. Also, there are probably some very, very general character arc spoilers for each of them, because I couldn’t really find another way to explain my choices.

5) Lyner Barsett (Ar tonelico)

Lyner might be the densest JRPG protagonist ever created, so god damn dense he’s about to collapse into a black hole. He’s a powerful warrior and all, but he also has a “just rush ahead” approach that gets him into trouble. And when it comes to women, he’s hopeless, or at least he should be. Ar tonelico centers on the relationships he builds with the three Reyvateils Aurica, Misha, and Shurelia, all women who can harness and use magical powers through singing. Poor Lyner has to largely rely on his own wits to progress his relationships with them to improve their compatibility in battle, and he will end up romantically involved with one of them in the end. That’s left to the player, so there is no “right” choice (the right choice is Shurelia, though. It’s Shurelia.)

Misha’s fine too, I guess. As long as it’s not Aurica.

What’s amazing is that he doesn’t strike out with all of them, because Lyner is an absolute dumbass. At one point late in the game, he and his party see a powerful forcefield that they can’t get past, and Lyner acknowledges it, and then he walks right the fuck into it getting hurt. When the other characters ask him what he was thinking, he can’t really explain himself very well other than to say he just likes to run straight ahead or something similar. You can’t just run straight through obstacles sometimes, Lyner. Lucky thing that he has women around him who are smart, and also Aurica.

So maybe it’s weird that I’m putting Lyner on this list. There was a time when he just irritated me. But now I can respect his drive, sincerity, and strong sense of morality. He’s a dense fucker, but he’s also a genuinely good guy, and one who gets thrown into a bad situation and has to make the best of things. Fellow protagonist Croix Bartel from Ar tonelico II is also a great character and a lot more capable, but it’s just that capability that puts him lower on the list of characters from #6 down that I’m not making. Croix also has a little sister to help him out in addition to his own set of Reyvateil companions. Those are advantages that Lyner doesn’t have, yet he makes it through all the same. Good man.

4) Etna (Disgaea series)

Make no mistake: even if Etna is one of my favorite JRPG characters, she’s probably not someone I’d want to know, and she’s certainly not someone I’d want for a boss. I’m not nearly that much of a masochist.

But Etna is still a great character. This prickly, vain demon girl was introduced by Nippon Ichi to the world in Disgaea 1 back in 2003, in which she was the “loyal” vassal to the young hotheaded prince and protagonist Laharl. Not really that loyal, of course — she’s extremely ambitious, and Laharl keeps a close eye on her. Etna also seems to enjoy beating up on the Prinnies, her penguin-esque servants who contain the souls of dead human sinners working off their debts in the afterlife. So she is pretty treacherous and mean on the surface, but as the story progresses, we learn that she does have a caring side to her. She loves to mock and needle Laharl, but she’s also genuinely invested in his becoming a great and caring leader in the mold of his deceased father, a man she sincerely respected.

If it weren’t for that other side of her, Etna would simply come off as sadistic and kind of annoying, but she does have her caring and forgiving sides, even towards those Prinnies she hauls around. She’s also carefree enough to make friends with humans and angels when they blunder their ways into the Netherworld. Etna pretty much does what she wants, and while she pretends to be evil, her whims usually lead her in the right direction. Eventually, anyway.

3) Ryudo (Grandia II)

I always like a character who can make light of a bad situation. Ryudo is the mercenary protagonist of the classic Dreamcast JRPG Grandia II, and he makes this list thanks in part to his dark sense of humor and his frequent quips. Like the other characters on this list, Ryudo really is a good guy, but he also buries his sense of honor deep under a thick layer of sarcasm. By putting up a bitter, jaded front, he tries to protect himself. His talking bird partner Skye sees right through it and calls him out occasionally, but it isn’t really until Ryudo takes a job with the big church organization to protect the nun Elena that that shell starts to break. That emotional front is something that helps me connect with this character, even if I wouldn’t last five seconds in the kinds of battles he gets into in Grandia II.

Bread and coffee and nothing else at every meal, that’s Ryudo’s way. I can respect it, though I’d prefer to have Mareg’s dinner (the beast guy on the far right.)

Grandia II doesn’t have the most original plot, and a lot of the story beats and especially the big twist at the end can be seen coming from very far away, especially by players who are used to standard JRPG tropes. I still really like the game’s characters, though. The game builds a real sense of camaraderie, especially during its dinner conversation scenes in which the character make small talk. Why don’t more games include those?

2) Esty Erhard (Atelier Arland series)

If this were a top list of JRPG characters who are unlucky in love, Esty would absolutely be my #1 choice. We meet Esty early on in Atelier Rorona — she’s a bureaucrat for the Kingdom of Arland and helps the alchemist player character Rorona fill orders. She’s also a knight, however, and together with her fellow knight-bureaucrat Sterkenburg, she can join Rorona while in the field hunting for ingredients and fighting monsters.

Esty makes the list mainly for her dedication to her work paired with her somewhat carefree attitude. She makes a great pair with Sterk, a bulky knight who’s extremely serious most of the time. Unfortunately, her work doesn’t leave her much time for relationships, so when she shows up in the third Arland game Atelier Meruru, still single, she’s a bit on edge about it. But not enough on edge that she isn’t still one of the best characters in the game to take along into the field. Esty’s balance between serious dutifulness and relaxation is something to admire, especially when she shows up in Meruru to encourage/intimidate her younger sister Filly.

Moments later, a sword is ready to be pulled.

And yes, it’s Esty Erhard. That’s her last name in the JP versions of these games. No, I’m not just being a big weeb here as usual: the localizers at NISA changed it from Erhard to “Dee” to create a hilarious joke. Esty Dee. Get it?!?!?! Truly, they can fuck off. I like Esty. She’s honestly one of the most likeable characters in these games, which is saying quite a lot. If Atelier games had Persona-style dating sim mechanics, she’s the one I’d go for, absolutely no question. There, now someone can go on Twitter and call me a simp for Esty, or whatever the stupid term is they’re using now.

1) Aigis (Persona 3)

Once again, no surprise here. Aigis is certainly one of my favorite game characters period, largely for her character arc in Persona 3. A weapon created to fight Shadows, Aigis goes through the old “android discovers human feelings and love” plot but in a way that isn’t nearly as tired and cliché as that might sound. I can’t say much more about why Aigis is so great without posting major spoilers for Persona 3, though, so I’ll leave it at that. Just play Persona 3, either FES or Portable — I preferred FES, but they’re both good choices.

I do hope this isn’t considered a cop-out to excuse me not being able to explain myself. If WordPress had spoiler tags, I’d use them, but it doesn’t. So blame WordPress. Hey, WordPress admins, maybe consider adding spoiler tag solutions that also work in the Reader/don’t require a plugin or a paid subscription to use? A lot of us write about fictional works on your platform if you haven’t noticed.

Those are my entries. If you also want to join the party, be sure to check out the links at the top of the page. These community events are a nice break for me, and I hope they continue to catch on.

A review of Muse Dash (PC)

Sure, I like playing my hardcore simulation games and JRPGs and all that, but I also like to have a few casual games to mix things up. Especially these days when I have so much work to get through, being able to pick up a game for half an hour or even a few minutes can be useful. So I’ve been getting a lot of use out of Muse Dash, a rhythm game out for PC, Switch, and mobile platforms. I say casual, but in some sense, Muse Dash is extra-casual. Unlike other rhythm games I’ve covered here like Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Future Tone and the Persona dancing titles that feature four tracks to keep up with corresponding to the four buttons on the PS4 controller, Muse Dash only has two. There’s no story to the game either, at least not one I could find.

But that’s fine. This was just the kind of game I needed for these bullshit times we currently live in. It’s colorful and fun, and you don’t really have to think too much about it.

Muse Dash in its base form features a few dozen tracks to play through. The player can pick one of the three muses Rin, Buro, or Marija to play through these rhythm-based courses with, beating up enemies and dodging obstacles to the beat of the song. Each course includes a “boss” sort of enemy who will shoot more shit at your muse that she has to dodge/hit to maintain her combo. Missing an enemy breaks that combo, and getting hit by an obstacle or enemy deals damage and drains her health bar. And naturally if that bar gets to 0 HP, the stage is failed.

So the basic gameplay is pretty simple, intuitive enough to pick up and start playing right away. One of the nice things about Muse Dash is that it offers a wide variety of difficulty levels rated by number. Even if you’re someone who’s not very good at rhythm games (for example: me) there are plenty of songs from 1 to 4 in easy and even hard mode that aren’t too much trouble to master.

Don’t get hit by her peppermint candy cannon, it hurts

If you greatly improve your skills or you have naturally amazing reflexes, there are also higher-rated hard and master mode levels that provide a nice challenge. However, Muse Dash is also considerate enough to let the player level up quickly by playing through courses no matter what difficulty they’re set to, meaning even a crap player like me can unlock most of the content in the game.

And there is quite a lot of content that’s initially unavailable. These include most of the game’s songs, useful helper characters called Elfins who can be paired with your muse, and a variety of costumes for Rin, Buro, and Marija that change their HP and abilities. Most of these costumes took hours upon hours of grinding through songs to unlock, but most of them are worth getting for the benefits they provide. Anyway, those hours didn’t feel like grinding; they just passed naturally as I played the game.

She’s not the best character to use, but my favorite one is still catgirl witch mode Marija.

The base version of Muse Dash sells for only three dollars, and the few dozen songs it includes offer some nice variety in speed and style. However, there’s a heavy emphasis on sweet-sounding poppy material. The game also features some harder-edged rock and electronic tracks, some jazzy stuff, and a few classical/orchestral-sounding pieces. But between all the J-pop/cute anime theme-style music (a lot of it seems to be Chinese as well, but it’s also done in that style) and the game’s cute visuals, Muse Dash might be too extra-sugary for some players. At least it won’t affect your blood glucose level, but you might feel the same way playing Muse Dash as you would eating a bunch of cupcakes or those horrible glazed Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I’m not a fan of every track I’ve played so far, but I enjoy most of the music, especially the more relaxed chilled-out stuff.

However, that’s just the base game. Muse Dash also comes with a DLC package that sells for $30 and piles several dozen more songs and courses onto the tracklist. I know I’ve complained about overpriced DLC already, but this time the price feels more justified, especially since it acts as a sort of “season pass” that applies to future DLC. It also looks like the makers are actively releasing new songs and characters. It’s entirely possible to get a lot of play out of the basic three-dollar version, enough that you might be satisfied with that alone — the $30 version seems made for players who really get into the game.

How the hell are you standing on top of a limo and shooting missiles out the back? This is definitely a traffic violation!

The only problem I’ve had with Muse Dash so far is some occasional slowdown and stuttering in the tracks. When this happens, the song and course fall out of sync and then you may as well quit and restart, because your run will probably be completely screwed up if you can’t rely on the beat to guide you. This has only happened to me a few times when I had too much other crap running in the background, so it’s likely just an issue on my end.

So I don’t have much to say about Muse Dash, but in this case, that’s not a bad thing. I’ve been playing the Steam version off and on for a while now, and it’s been a great break from my work schedule, especially considering how easy it is to break into five- and ten-minute runs. Like pretty much every other game out there, it’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly for me. Even if it is pandering a bit with those costumes. Why aren’t there more catgirl witch characters around anyway? Someone needs to work on this deficiency as soon as possible.

Listening/reading log #10 (July 2020)

Last month was one of my most prolific ever. Between the Atelier and Monogatari stuff and my Sim series retrospective, I managed to say more than I thought I had to say, which might be a sign that I need to edit. But I’m too lazy to edit. I’m a bit tired now, but don’t worry: I still have several anime and game review drafts sitting around and even more to come after that, so there’s no end in sight.

For now, let’s do the usual end-of-month thing and check out some good music and writing from fellow bloggers. I didn’t get much of a chance to hear any new music in July that wasn’t part of a soundtrack, so this time I’m pulling two old classics out, both by groups that I covered a long while back:

Maggot Brain (Funkadelic, 1971)

Highlights: Maggot Brain, Hit It and Quit It, You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks

I guess I haven’t actually talked about Funkadelic before but rather Parliament, but they’re sort of the same thing. They were musical groups with a lot of overlap in membership, both led by musician/composer/producer George Clinton, and are often referred to together as P-Funk. There were differences, though: while Parliament’s releases tended towards dance-oriented stuff, Funkadelic was more of a psychedelic rock/funk group as their name suggests.

Maggot Brain is also one of their best albums. It has a lot of great energy and emotion, even in cases where it’s hard to tell if the music’s about anything — see the excellent title track for some of that, with guitarist Eddie Hazel playing his heart out. I really like some of the shorter songs as well. The only song I don’t like is the closer Wars of Armageddon, which I would describe charitably as “a fucking mess” but then it sounds like that was the intention anyway. The rest of Maggot Brain is good enough to still made it a personal favorite.

And no, I don’t know why that lady is buried up to her neck in dirt on the cover. She doesn’t look like she’s having a great time, though.

Emerson Lake & Palmer (Emerson Lake & Palmer, 1970)

Highlights: Take a Pebble, Knife-Edge, Lucky Man

At first glance, ELP and Funkadelic might not look like they have much to do with each other. But both of the albums I’m looking at today have a lot of energy and a nice degree of weirdness to them, even if stylistically they’re very different. This is the debut album of the prog group Emerson Lake & Palmer, three guys who were already well-established when they joined together in 1970. So despite being a debut album, it sounds very confident right out of the gate.

My favorite here is “Take a Pebble”, which doesn’t feel its length at all. It’s relaxing and mellow in parts but also builds a lot of tension near the end with Keith Emerson’s great piano-playing and Greg Lake’s dramatic vocals. ELP swiped the tune to the classical-rock piece “Knife-Edge” from Czech composer Leoš Janáček without crediting him until they were called out for it, but it’s still a great song. And “Lucky Man” was supposedly a song Lake wrote when he was a kid, a nice simple guitar ballad about a guy who isn’t really so lucky.

I don’t know if I prefer this over ELP’s followup Tarkus, so I’ll just say they’re both classics. Maybe I’ll also take on their later album Brain Salad Surgery one day, though my feelings about it are more complicated. I do love its insane-looking cover. If you’re a fan of H. R. Giger, look it up.

Now for some great posts from the past month:

The Persona 3 Retrospective Part 5 – Plot and Themes (Lost to the Aether) — I’m not putting the whole long title of this article here (those are “Mass Destruction” lyrics, right?) but you can and should check it out for yourself above, in which Aether continues his multipart analysis of the excellent JRPG Persona 3. There’s a lot here I never considered even after playing the game through a few times in different forms, with Aether going into depth about its connections to the Tarot and the Fool’s Journey.

The Great JRPG Character Face-Off! (Shoot the Rookie) — If you’re looking for a blogging community event that’s also an excuse to talk about your favorite JRPG characters, check out Pix1001’s post above detailing the rules. I’ll probably be taking part myself — it seems like a waste not to since I’ve been playing JRPGs for over 20 years now. Can’t waste all that valuable experience.

A perhaps biased opinion on Disgaea (Nep’s Gaming Paradise) — Neppy played through the first Disgaea game and gives his thoughts on it. He says his view is biased, but it’s not any more biased than mine — I love Disgaea 1, but this post brings up some weaknesses in the game that are worth talking about. We may not agree in our analyses of the game, but Neppy’s take on it is very interesting and worth reading.

Steam’s Inconsistency is Hurting Visual Novels – How We Can Help (MoeGamer) — Valve has been up to their old tricks with the visual novels on their game platform, removing an all-ages version of the VN Bokuten from Steam without warning. Pete Davison addresses the matter and raises the option of buying digital copies of VNs from alternative platforms and stores to try to break Valve’s virtual monopoly.

Anime Review #40: Little Witch Academia (The Traditional Catholic Weeb) — Here’s a Trigger series that passed me by completely. I was planning to watch their newest show BNA, but I’m now also interested in Little Witch Academia thanks to the Traditional Catholic Weeb’s very positive and thorough review of it.

Senko-san and Japan’s corporate culture (Reasons to anime) — From what I understand, some companies in Japan work their employees so hard, often without overtime compensation, that the Japanese language had to invent a new word. The word is 過労死karoushi, meaning death from overwork — not a figure of speech, but rather literal death caused by work-related stress. Casper examines the anime series The Helpful Fox Senko-san and how effectively it addresses corporate culture and workers’ quality of life.

The Toxic Side of Fanbases (Lex’s Blog) — Being part of both the Persona and SMT fanbases, I can say for sure that we have some crazy in there, with more than our share of infighting and weird feuds that probably look like total nonsense from the outsider’s perspective. Lexine raises some of the issues with fanbases, particularly with the minority of people in most every fanbase who are hostile to newcomers.

What I Learned from Watching the Ghost Stories Dub (I drink and watch anime) — The English-language release of the series Ghost Stories is legendary among a set of western anime fans because of its intentionally bizarre dub. The original work was pretty mediocre, but the dub turns it into an ultra-offensive comedy of the kind that probably wouldn’t fly today. Irina analyzes the ways in which this dub completely changed the feel of the series into something uniquely western.

I finally played “Da Capo” (Baud Attitude) — And from Baud Attitude, a look at the romance visual novel Da Capo and a comparison with its anime adaptation. Anime versions of VNs really do always go with the most boring, safest routes, don’t they? I bet if a Tsukihime anime were made, it would do exactly the same thing. Good thing that hasn’t happened.

And here’s to yet another month. Good luck and health to everyone, and please look forward to more of my nonsense posts to come. I might even review a banned-from-Steam VN or two if I can get them.

Deep reads #4: Playing God (The Sim series)

A few years ago, I started a game of SimCity 2000 on a virtual machine that I documented here on the site. The result was a fifteen-part series that ended in a stupid joke non-ending because the VM crashed, or my file got corrupted or something, and I lost all my progress. Should I have backed the file up? Probably, yeah. Do I understand a thing about virtual machines beyond the bare basics of how to run one? Not really, no.

Behold my glorious creation and despair that the city file is now forever lost.

But recalling my own stupidity is not the point of this post. There’s plenty of time for that later. The point of this is rather to look back at my experience with the Sim series, a long-running and now seemingly dead series of games started by defunct developer Maxis. I say my experience because that’s just what it is: mine may be very different from others, because at some point I left the series behind. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say the series took off in a different direction and left me behind.

Game developer Will Wright, the man whose name comes up most often when talking about the Sim series, was faced with the problem in the mid-80s of how to create a game that would be fun to play and that focused not on fighting and destroying, but rather on building and maintaining. The game he and his team ended up making, SimCity, was a city-building simulator just as the name suggests. It had a hard time getting much distribution at first because of how different it was from the usual fare, but those distributors who rejected it must have felt like real assholes later on because the game became a hit.

No, it’s not a farming game despite the cow on the title screen. If you wanted to be a virtual farmer instead, you had to buy SimFarm, released a few years later.

I have serious respect for the original SimCity, but it’s not one of the Sim games I have fond memories of. First put out in 1989, it was slightly before my time, and even after it was polished and re-released as SimCity Classic I more or less skipped over it.1 No, the game that hooked me onto this series was the one I went back to when I was feeling nostalgic a few years ago: its sequel SimCity 2000. First released in 1993 on DOS and later ported to every system on Earth, SC2K was an improvement upon the original in every way. The old top-down view was replaced with a more satisfying isometric one. The constant building and rebuilding, abandonment and repopulation from month to month made the city feel more alive. But the changes weren’t just cosmetic: many more substantive city-building features were added as well.

And of course there were the disasters. These were also present in the original SimCity, but watching your city get wrecked by an earthquake, hurricane, or nuclear meltdown felt more exciting in this new isometric view. I know it doesn’t look like much today, but in the mid-90s this was really impressive to watch, and despite approaching 30 years old as of this writing, the game with its 90s graphics still feels just as functional and playable as it did then.

A tornado rips through the center of my city. Not much you can do in a case like this except wait for it to go away and rebuild.

Both this and SimCity Classic gave the player something they didn’t usually get: the power to create and to lord it over that creation. Not that this meant everything is necessarily going to go the player’s way. You have the ability to build, but you naturally have to pay for what you’re building, which in hard mode means taking out a municipal bond that has to be repaid with interest. And even if you’re doing well financially, your citizens might not be so happy with your performance. Cost-cutting measures like not building enough police and fire stations lead to higher crime rates and more fires breaking out, while skimping on hospitals and schools directly and immediately affects your citizens’ quality of life. And if you’re playing with disasters turned on, your city can be struck with tornadoes, earthquakes, and fires at any time — all disasters that are more difficult to manage if you’ve been too tight-fisted to build and properly fund those all-important services.

You might think that you’re safe from the wrath of your people no matter what you do. The citizens living in the world of SimCity 2000 are stuck with you: they can’t vote you out of office for doing a bad job or oust you from power in a coup. They can protest, however, and if they get pissed off enough riots can break out, leading to fires being set around your city. In the end, it’s enough of a hassle that even if you don’t care about your citizens’ happiness, it’s just easier to keep them content by following fair, sound policies.

This happens sometimes when you try to build a nuclear plant or a water treatment facility near a residential area. People don’t like pollution or the possibility of a horrific disastrous meltdown in their town, who would have guessed.

One of the reasons I think the SimCity games did so well was the balance they struck between accessibility and complexity. SimCity 2000 was easy to pick up and play without any preparation, but it also had enough respect for the player’s intelligence not to dumb things down. The game didn’t require you to manage municipal ordinances or to go through all its charts and adjust commercial and industrial tax rates, but if you wanted to mess around with those to try to make more money or spur growth you had that option. As a consequence, both children and their parents might get hooked on this game — it’s intuitive enough for a kid to pick up on quickly, but complex enough for a teenage or adult player looking for a challenge.

The most tutorial-style help SimCity 2000 gave the player in the course of normal play was advice provided by city officials on the budget screen, but again, you weren’t required to consult with them or to take their advice if you did. And sometimes said advice wasn’t even very good, just like you’d expect from a city council in real life.

For example, this nonsense. Legalized gambling is necessary to a city’s lifeblood in my opinion. The more unpleasant elements the better.

So the game let you play seriously if you felt like it. But if you weren’t feeling like it — say, if you had a hard day at school and wanted to let off some steam — you could also use the well-known cheat code to open debug mode (PRISCILLA, typed in all caps while holding the city toolbar, to this day I remember it.) This gave you access to unlimited money and rewards like statues, mansions, and the city-within-a-city arcologies. It also let you wreck everything with an expanded list of disasters that you could trigger. The normal disaster menu let you freely start the usual fires, riots, tornadoes, and earthquakes. But now, like a vengeful god, you could make a volcano rise out of the earth and swallow your city up (or rise off in an uninhabited corner of the map — it seemed to be random where it ended up.)

This part of the city looks nice and idyllic now but just wait until the wrath of God hits it.

SimCity 2000 stole dozens of hours of my childhood that might have been better spent outside in the sun. That’s what some people say, anyway. I’m not sure I believe that myself. And that’s just as well, because this wasn’t the only Sim game that occupied my time. SimTower was released for PC in 1994, and I jumped on it. This one wasn’t developed by Maxis but rather by the Japanese company OpenBook Co., later renamed Vivarium, under the leadership of famous strange game developer Yoot Saito.

But I didn’t know any of that at the time. To me, this was like a followup to SimCity, only scaled down from a city to a single building — a concept that really appealed to me. I felt like I was building a tower that might exist in one of those cities I built in SC2K, one of the big skyscrapers in the heavy commercial zones. Even though it was made by a different developer and was merely branded with the Sim name when ported over to America (in Japan it was simply titled The Tower) SimTower felt like it fit in well with SimCity thematically, which is likely part of why Maxis rebranded and published it here in the first place.

A basic office building like this is easy to build and maintain, but a real skyscraper in SimTower takes way more micromanagement to keep up.

When I wrote a short retrospective on this game years ago, I called it a happiness management simulator, and I stand by that description. Look at all those people lined up in front of the elevators in pink and red: those colors denote progressively more pissed-off tenants and visitors. Elevators quickly reach capacity and just as in real life, people don’t want to take the stairs. Meanwhile, each office, condo, and hotel room you build also has a quality meter that takes a hit if it’s too close to a busy restaurant or shop. And of course, if the shops and restaurants you build don’t get enough traffic, they lose money, and that’s on you somehow — instead of collecting your rent, you either end up paying to keep the place open or axe it and try over. All this day-to-day activity on a smaller scale makes SimTower a little more hectic-feeling than SimCity, but I still liked the feeling of building something and seeing it run, even if my creation kind of sucked at making money.

Years later, I picked up Yoot Tower, which was not released under the Sim name but was a sequel to SimTower in every way right down to the visual style. It seemed to have a few mechanics problems, such as certain businesses being automatic failures no matter where or when you built them (maybe this was intentional, but in that case I’d ask why the hell include those?) but it was still pretty fun seeing how this game expanded on the original.

Why did I even build this stupid ramen shop, nobody likes it

In the mid-90s, however, I was still hooked on SimCity along with a couple of other simulation and strategy games, so much so that I bought SimCopter when it came out in 1996. This was a helicopter flight sim that let you fly around the custom cities you built in SC2K putting out fires and transporting citizens in medical airlifts. Never mind that the game looked like complete ass. It was still a good time flying around the cities you built solving problems or causing even worse problems. Maxis knew the same players who started disasters in their own cities in SC2K would also try to destroy their cities from the inside in SimCopter, so the game lets them cause chaos in ways that it doesn’t really have to: dragging passengers’ icons outside your helicopter actually kicks them out of the vehicle, even if you’re a thousand feet in the air, and visiting a military base in your city lets you steal an Apache that shoots actual missiles. If you’re wondering what happens if you steal an Apache in SimCopter and use it on a nuclear plant, Maxis thought of that too — it was almost more fun causing horrible disasters in your cities than playing the missions and making money to upgrade your helicopter the proper way.

While games like SimCopter and Streets of SimCity were fun diversions, they seemingly didn’t make much of an impact on anyone. Not so for the next big idea Maxis had, which around the beginning of 2000 would start an entirely new spinoff series of games, one of the best-selling of all time. Although it was both critically acclaimed and a massive commercial success, The Sims was where the series lost me. Not that I angrily swore off the Sim series claiming I’d been betrayed or anything dramatic like that. It just didn’t provide what I was looking for when I picked up a Sim game. And since The Sims was more or less what the entire series became rolling into the 2000s as the original sold millions of copies, I naturally drifted away from it.

Relive the excitement of the shitty house you rented your last two years of college!

Okay, so maybe I’m being a bit unfair with the above screenshot, because the game lets you do a lot more than recreate a sad existence eating cold pizza in a three-room house. It was advertised as a sort of life simulator, taking you down to the level of the individual people living in a suburb, perhaps just the sort of suburb you might have built in the then-recently released SimCity 3000. You had the option of starting with a family of one to eight people and either buying a pre-built house or building a new house for them to occupy. After your characters, called “Sims” in a tradition stretching back to the old SimCity days, were named and appointed to a house, they started living their everyday lives.

And that’s where almost all the gameplay lies. Left to their own devices, your Sims go about their days, pursuing hobbies, entertaining themselves, and interacting with each other. They have autonomy, and they’ll generally do what they need to do to fulfill their desires: eat, sleep, shower, talk to each other, play games, watch TV, and so on. However, they also have to make money (not to pay rent — they live rent and mortgage-free somehow, which is very convenient, but food, furniture, and other goods still have to be paid for.) So you need to press them to get jobs. Children automatically go to school, but some of your adult Sims can be kept unemployed if you want to keep control of them 24/7.

Build mode lets you design and furnish your own house.

The Sims is largely a social simulator — your Sims gain and lose points with each other in their various interactions, and both love and hate can bloom between them. However, the building process is also an important part of the game. I imagine The Sims is at least twice as fun if you’re into interior design, because the game gives the player quite a few options to choose from: wallpaper, siding, floors, light fixtures, many styles of door and window, and of course a lot of furniture ranging from crappy-looking and cheap to posh and expensive. Gardening fans also have the option of planting trees and bushes outside. Your Sims appreciate getting some fresh air, so a nice garden serves them well. It takes some extra money, but building a pool is a good way of completing your Sims’ home.

Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. Your Sims have that autonomy, and they’ll use it to get to their jobs on their own and do the other things that are absolutely necessary like eating and using the bathroom. However, they also have their own personalities that are set through point systems in the character creation screen, and they’ll act according to their likes and dislikes. A naturally messy Sim won’t be quick to clean up spills, for instance. In extreme cases, if a Sim neglects the bathroom (or if you were an asshole who didn’t bother to build a proper bathroom in your house) they might piss themselves and leave a puddle on the floor. Even worse, your Sims can potentially miss work if they’re distracted by other things. Urine can be cleaned up, at least, but money that goes unmade can’t be made back unless you have a time machine.

With only one or two Sims to deal with, this stuff isn’t too hard to manage. But with eight, all with different personalities and their own likes and dislikes running headlong into each other, things can easily turn chaotic.

Some dumbass starts a fire in the kitchen. This and the other examples I’m using here are official pre-release screenshots from Maxis (the actual game replaces that ugly “GO HERE” button with something nicer and adds toolbars and extra functions) but this is essentially what happens if a disaster strikes: your Sims waving their arms around and being useless, panicky idiots.

I can’t really criticize any of this too much. The Sims was very well-made, with great attention to detail. Much like the older Sim titles, it didn’t feature characters or a story but let the player more or less create their own, and it put the same kind of emphasis on balancing micromanagement and long-term planning.

It still didn’t work for me. Maybe I was just bored with watching a bunch of simulated people live lives that weren’t really that different from our own real-world ones. There was just something so mundane about The Sims that I couldn’t get past. I guess SimCity and SimTower were just as mundane in a way: they also took place in realistic modern-day settings and involved managing money and people to some extent. But they also felt different. I’d never have the ability to control an entire building or city in real life unless I somehow became an insanely powerful CEO or an emperor or someone like that, and I had the sense even as a child that that was not going to happen. Living an everyday life, however — that was something I was already doing when I played The Sims, and it’s still something I do today. Why did I need to recreate that? I didn’t even like my regular life very much, and playing what amounted to a smaller, simpler version of that life didn’t provide the kind of escape I normally looked for in games.

Is this really a kind of escapism, by contrast? Maybe all this is saying more about me than about these games.

This is where my time with the Sim series just about ended. I did buy SimCity 4 when it came out a few years later, and it was a great update to SimCity 2000 and 3000 before it (why they didn’t just continue that trend and call it SimCity 4000 I don’t know; maybe they felt silly about the “thousand” part of the title at that point.) It was nothing new to me, though. The graphics were nicer and more detailed, and there were many more building options and features to choose from, but the old excitement of creation just wasn’t there anymore.

That lack of excitement had nothing to do with SimCity 4 itself. I’d bet that if I were ten years younger, I’d be talking about it in just the same way I talk about SimCity 2000. I’d also bet that there are players out there five or ten years older than me who felt that excitement with the original SimCity and didn’t feel it with SimCity 2000. The first four SimCity titles are excellent games; I believe how you feel about each is largely a matter of which one you started with.

My SimCity 4 city is just as shitty as my SimCity 2000 ones

The fact that I don’t have any nostalgic feelings for The Sims may also have a bit to do with the age at which I played it, but I think that’s more a case of my simply not liking the premise very much. Too bad for me, because that’s the basket where Maxis and its new parent company Electronic Arts put almost all their eggs. The first Sims was followed in the next few years by seven separate expansion packs, not counting later deluxe editions that tied some or all of those expansions to the base game. The Sims 2 and 3 were released in 2004 and 2009, along with their own dozens of expansion packs and with similar critical and commercial success.

I was off the ride at that point, but my ears still perked up when I heard about the newest SimCity release planned to come out in 2013. The release of what was essentially supposed to be SimCity 52 would result in a public relations disaster for EA and Maxis, and the abysmal reception that it received is arguably a large part of the reason that no major Sim titles have been put out in the last seven years other than The Sims 4, which was already well into development at the time. What happened, then?

A promo screenshot of an intersection in 2013’s SimCity.

The new SimCity looked beautiful, but it had the worst release imaginable. Because while it was widely expected to be a principally singleplayer game like its predecessors, it required a connection to EA’s servers to run. The servers crashed upon release, however, so nobody could play the damn game. This was a double whammy for EA and Maxis — first, the fact that having bought a $60 game (still considered a fairly high price tag for a game in 2013) most of its owners could not play it, and second, that it required a connection to play in the first place. The developer and publisher’s defenses of their actions (that they weren’t actually deceiving anyone, and particularly that it wasn’t in anyone’s interest to play SimCity in offline mode) were worse than useless, seen by many as disingenuous and insulting towards the fans. Even Will Wright, who had left Maxis behind well before development started, took shots at his old company for essentially putting DRM into the game that broke it for legitimate players.3

At the time, I watched all this happen, and then I watched EA and Maxis scramble to reassure everyone that The Sims 4, planned for release in 2014, would be playable offline. And though I was very put off by how they handled the whole matter, I think I was done with the series anyway at that point. I likely would have checked SimCity out just out of curiosity, and because it really did look that good, at least from the promotional materials and pre-release videos. But it wasn’t something I was obsessing over, and I didn’t really lose out on much in the end.

But what about the kids who were around that same age I was when I first got hooked on SimCity 2000? It seems to me that they were cheated out of a potentially great experience. To this day, the new SimCity carries a poor reputation, one not helped by the fact that it was also reportedly pretty buggy on release. The go-to city-building games as a result now seem to be SimCity 4 — 17 years old as of this writing, but seen as the last true SimCity game by a lot of fans — and Cities: Skylines, a series put out by serious-business ultra-complex strategy game publisher Paradox.

Cities: Skylines might be good, but does it have stupid-looking mad libs style newspaper articles?

Maybe it’s just my sense of nostalgia talking again. Maybe Cities: Skylines is really a great game, a true successor to the old SimCity titles. But I do think something was lost when EA and Maxis screwed up the new SimCity release and then blamed the players for not accepting the new situation they were trying to create with their always-online scheme. There was no reason the series had to die. It’s not like these PC game series have expiration dates. Sid Meier’s Civilization series, one of my other childhood favorites, has been going strong for almost 30 years now without much trouble. No, it seems like sheer arrogance killed the Sim series. Even though I don’t care for The Sims that much, I can see why a lot of people loved and still love that game and its sequels. And I can also see why a lot of people hated what the series turned into in 2013 and why they turned their backs on it.

Despite all that, the impact the Sim series had on me and a lot of other people has been significant. It took an unusual game concept that hadn’t been tried on a large scale by the late 80s and proved it had wide appeal if done right. Even if it was just a simplified simulation, it showed us the workings of a city, how it was almost like a living organism that could thrive or wither based on how it was maintained and what conditions it was subjected to. And it taught us the joys of making a new save file probably titled [city name]-2 and then unleashing fires, riots, and UFO attacks on said city to see just how much would be left standing after the chaos ended. Many of the same lessons go for SimTower, and though it didn’t work for me, I think The Sims had a similar impact for others. Even if the Sim series is permanently dead now, that impact will never go away. It’s something worth remembering.

***

Sorry, I didn’t mean to get so melancholic by the end. I really feel old after writing all that, scouring my memories of the series and how I felt about it. It all feels like it happened a lifetime ago. There are also a lot of highly praised Sim titles like SimAnt and SimFarm that I didn’t even touch on because I never played them, but I’m sure players have plenty of good memories of those games as well. I don’t know if anyone has any especially good memories of the new SimCity, but if you do, please feel free to leave a comment. A different perspective is always interesting to hear. 𒀭

 

1 I did own SimCity Classic, but only because I ordered it out of the Scholastic catalogue thinking it was that SimCity 2000 game I’d played some of on my cousin’s computer. Still a good game, but I was quite disappointed when it came in the mail and I realized my mistake.

2 I know I’m not even close to the first person to point this out, but it seems like new games released in long-running series that are put out with exactly the same titles as their respective originals have all failed to capture the feeling of those originals: Sonic the Hedgehog in 2006, SimCity in 2013, Thief in 2014. And though it’s a movie, let’s not forget Ghostbusters in 2016, which despite getting a lot of critical praise and some mild commercial success has since been hidden away and almost totally forgotten. It’s almost like there was unwarranted pride at work in all these cases.

3 To be fair, Wright faced his own DRM-related backlash with the less botched but still controversial release of his own game Spore in 2008. I guess he’d learned his lesson by this point.

Summer cleaning game review special #4: A Short Hike

A Short Hike is another game I dug up in the pile of 1,000+ games in that itch.io bundle. I didn’t know it at first, but this game seems to have gotten a lot of attention for a small indie title since it was released last year. Makes sense: it has a lot more polish on it than most of the others I’ve played, with nice graphics and music and a small world to explore.

You play as Claire, a bird girl in a world of Animal Crossing-looking characters, on vacation on an island popular for its hiking trails. There’s not much direction at first; the only stated goal is to climb up a difficult trail that turns out to lead to the top of the mountain in the center of the map. Since she’s a bird, Claire can fly and glide, abilities that will help her get up the mountain, but there are also items that will improve those abilities. The key items to look out for are the golden feathers sold by a couple of characters and scattered around the island; these give Claire the added ability to climb up steep surfaces and to jump multiple times in midair.

Halfway up the mountain

In addition to the main objective of “get up the mountain” there are a bunch of fetch quests, races, and other challenges you can take on by talking to NPCs. The game doesn’t demand you do any of this stuff, though. If you feel like leisurely exploring your surroundings, you can just do that. There’s no way to die; Claire doesn’t take fall damage or drown or anything like that, and there’s no time limit. And the controls feel very natural, so it’s fun to just run around aimlessly in this world finding new characters and items.

A Short Hike feels like it was made to be approached this way. Maybe I’ve played a few too many indie games that looked innocent and fun at first but then had a big plot twist and turned into psychological horror or broke the fourth wall and started talking directly to me. So for a while part of me was bracing for something weird to happen, but nothing ever did. As much as I like some of those games, it’s fine that I could take this one at face value. A Short Hike isn’t trying to shock the player or make any big statement; it just feels made for relaxation, especially in the way the background music changes as you run and fly around the island to suit the mood of each area.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a big deal

A Short Hike goes for eight dollars on itch.io. Admittedly I didn’t pay that price, but it doesn’t seem like such a bad one considering what you get for it. I think it’s the kind of game I might just load every so often to run around in for a bit. If that’s not your thing, then you should definitely avoid it, because there’s not much else to do beyond the various side quests and exploration. But it might be therapeutic for you, especially in these shitty times.