Politics in art and the value of escapism

Warning: it’s a real load of bullshit this time. I talk about politics, angry people on the internet, and the end of the world, and it’s probably a mess. Maybe. Judge for yourself. I had to get this out, anyway. Next time I’ll post something more normal.

I’ve written about politics here on occasion, usually in the context of law when it relates to the main subjects on this site — games, anime, etc. Anyone who knows me well in real life can tell you roughly where I fall politically (because I probably went on about it once in a caffeine-fueled rant to them, something like this one): I believe in maintaining the rule of law, in fair and equal process without discrimination, in improving both the access to and quality of essential social services like public education and health, and in rebuilding and repairing the national infrastructure. I consider one of the most important roles of government to be the maintenance of a balance between individual freedoms and the good of society as a whole. And I wish we’d have a metro system where I live that’s not a complete fucking embarrassment.

Even the shitass train and highway system in my old, long-gone SimCity 2000 save is better that what we have in my city.

But why am I talking about my politics now? Because apparently the subject just can’t be avoided, even if I were to stick to writing about games, anime, and music on this site without any reference to politics. Because the concerns I’ve brought up in past posts on the subjects of access to art, on public censorship and private pressures to freeze out NSFW/18+ work, apparently put me in the alt-right camp where some of these are used as talking points. So I’ve been told in a few conversations. Sure, I’m alt-right… even though I’d be thoroughly despised by just about everyone in that camp for most of the views I expressed above.

But no, they’re correct. I must actually be in the alt-right without knowing it. Well, it makes sense — after all, people with anime avatars and by extension anime-styled game-themed avatars are probably mostly extremist trolls. And do you like the wildly popular Attack on Titan? Be careful — it’s also a favorite of the far right.

Of course, some people believe that all art is political and so it’s only natural that the conversation involves politics. But then I don’t agree with that stance at all. Is some art political? Absolutely. Art has been used to express political ideas for thousands of years. And of course, anime and games are included in that set of work: it would be ridiculous to suggest Legend of the Galactic Heroes doesn’t involve politics for example; it can’t even be talked about meaningfully without bringing its politics up. And some works that don’t explicitly address such issues can still be examined from political, social, and economic angles.

And LOGH is more relevant now than it’s ever been since it aired.

But is all art political? Is a pure jazz album without lyrics or any apparent message like MSB political? What about an ultraviolent over-the-top gangster story like Vice City? What about a surrealistic slapstick gag comedy like Asobi Asobase, or a silly romantic comedy like Uzaki-chan Want to Hang Out? Where’s the politics behind these works? According to the definition of “political” I’ve sometimes seen used, any work of art that deals with any aspect of life at all is political. To me, this definition is so broad that it becomes completely meaningless.

And even if we agree that a more ambiguous work of art deals with politics, how can we pin down what sort of politics it espouses? The New Republic article above is a good example: the author, a professed left-winger and a fan of Attack on Titan, comments on how both left- and right-wingers have interpreted the series in very different ways that fit their own worldviews. By the end of the article, he notes that manga author Hajime Isayama doesn’t want to tell his readers how to interpret his work — a feeling that I understand and sympathize with myself. But the writer of the article seems almost to blame Isayama for not correcting posters on the virulently right-wing sections of 4chan and elsewhere about what Attack on Titan is supposed to mean. As if that would prevent such people from making their own interpretations of it anyway.1

Another problem I have with this “all art is political” argument is that it often seems to be used as a way to argue some work or other is socially harmful to justify its removal from a private platform, or to try to discourage and freeze out NSFW styles of art. I already addressed this argument here, so I won’t go through it again in detail, but the gist of my response was that if a great enough social harm can be shown to justify removing access to the work in question, I’m fine with having it kicked off platforms. However, the justification I hear so often of “because I think it’s distasteful/disgusting” without more isn’t enough to prove this kind of harm. The burden of proof on those arguing to remove access to artistic works has to be set extremely high, otherwise it’s too easy to turn out any work with anything near a sharp edge that might put a few people off. Granted, I’m not talking here about a legal burden of proof — I leave that for arguments involving the First Amendment, which this one doesn’t necessarily. But I think the concept can and should be applied in a similar way when considering not just the creation of art but of access to it.

I don’t think any of the points I’ve made here are particular to a right-wing mindset. To any right-wingers who might be reading, feel free to tell me if I’m wrong, but you’re not the only ones who profess to believe in free expression, are you? On the contrary, we’ve seen throughout history that those greedy for control and power, regardless of their political stance, are happy to deny freedom of expression and to deny the public access to artistic works they dislike. For the most recent major example, see Xi Jinping’s wide-reaching crackdowns on popular culture in mainland China — anything that even smells like a hint of diversity away from the standard he and his CCP hold up seems to be a target now.

But outside of those really oppressive examples, why does any of this shit matter? There’s still another argument I’ve heard that none of the above matters very much in the face of far more serious social, economic, and political problems — another one that I’ve addressed once before.

Again, I’ll acknowledge that the entire human race faces massive obstacles, some of which may not even be possible to get over. To me and to many others, climate change is the greatest of these obstacles. Together with the threat of civilization-scale suicide by nuclear war that’s been around since the 1940s and more generally defects in human nature that haven’t disappeared or arguably even diminished very much since ancient times,2 and with COVID on top of that, it’s no wonder there’s so much talk about apocalyptic scenarios these days (at least for us humans. The roaches will still be around, damn them.)

And yet again, I say: all the more reason to have a permissive attitude towards escapist styles of art. What the hell else are people supposed to do to let off steam? Yoga, exercise, and healthy eating just aren’t enough sometimes, and certainly not now. Art has practical uses in addition to its inherent value. One of these is its use as a way to express political ideas, yes, but another is the power it holds to let people escape from reality for a while into a novel, a game, an anime or TV series or comic — and of course, there’s nothing to say the two can’t be combined in the same work.

A lot of the anger over games and other popular art forms being “attacked” or “invaded” by people with political agendas is misplaced, I think — all art should be open to criticism, and it’s impossible to “remove the politics” from anime and games since some of these works clearly deal with political and social issues. Certain right/alt-right figures in the gaming and film spheres especially have used this anger to stir the pot for their own purposes, making and inspiring arguments based on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other -isms and -phobias (see some of the criticism of the last few Star Wars films or The Last of Us Part II for examples — though of course some defenders of these works were all too happy to paint all criticism with that brush, which was completely inaccurate and disingenuous.)

At the same time, I understand the mistrust some fans feel towards the especially vocal critics who speak against works full of sexual and/or violent elements. This debate around the contents of popular media, and especially of video games, has been raging for three decades now, and for what? There’s never been proof (despite constant claims of it) that these kinds of expressions affect real-life behavior for the worse. On the contrary, it feels to me more natural to think that they act as a sort of “release valve” for people to indulge in extreme behaviors they never would in real life. If you’ve played GTA, for instance, how many wild, murderous rampages have you gone on in game? Does that mean you’d go on any in real life? Have these in-game experiences even made you more callous towards real-life suffering? Similar questions can be raised about sexual content in games, anime, and elsewhere.

I just wanted to play GTA for half an hour but suddenly I’m okay with murder as a result. Shit.

Too often I’ve heard it said with complete authority, but no factual support, that “fiction affects reality” with the implication that writers, artists, and others involved in the creative process have a duty to always create in a socially responsible way. Maybe it’s a mark of my embarrassing immaturity, but I can’t agree with that, or at least not in all cases. If the work is meant to address serious issues — if the creators opened that door — then I agree that such criticism is completely warranted. But there has to be room for pure escapism as well. Age-restricted if necessary, of course, but beyond that, without an extremely strong argument I don’t think it’s warranted to call for the removal of games or series from platforms, bookstores, or any other shops or the freezing out of such works on these grounds.

And I don’t think saying so puts me in a certain political camp. Unless that camp is “people who like lewd anime girls”, and despite efforts to make that seem like an alt-right thing, I’m also committed to helping defend democracy from the extremists who would destroy it. Quite literally: I took an oath to defend the US Constitution when I joined the bar, and I take it seriously. I’m also worried about the future of my country for perhaps obvious reasons. That said, I’m not going to simply fold up and drop this other subject, since I feel more than anything that they go hand in hand.

Yeah I picked this screenshot to place here because they’re holding hands, but it’s also relevant because The Expression: Amrilato was briefly removed from Steam for supposedly being too spicy. Which it really isn’t.

As usual, please feel free to tell me if you think I’ve lost my mind. More likely I’ve never found it.

To be more serious, I know my own life experience colors my feelings about all of the above, and though I do my best to consider my arguments fairly and without too much bias, it’s not possible to remove myself from them. It’s probably not advisable anyway, even if I could. Otherwise what would be the point of writing here? But for this reason and others, I’m always happy to hear differing opinions. In the end, after all, we’re all in the same boat — a boat that might be sinking.

 

1 This isn’t to say that an artistic work with an explicit political message is any worse than one with an ambiguous message or none at all. It all depends on how honestly the work approaches the beliefs and the issues it’s dealing with and how much or little credit it gives its audience. i.e. don’t talk down to me like I’m a child or try to pull some silly straw man bullshit to “prove” your stance is correct.

2 Here I’m starting down an entirely different path that involves history, psychology, sociology and a lot of other -ologies (all ending in eschatology, of course.) I love reading and thinking about history, but I’m an amateur at best in that field and can’t even call myself one in the others. Still, here’s my dumbass opinion: I feel we have far stronger norms these days generally speaking that keep us in line and cooperating to some extent (see international organizations and agreements that only became a standard thing after World War II — I’m not counting the clusterfuck that was the League of Nations) but in the end, human nature seems like it’s still more or less what it always has been. Read Thucydides to see a good example of that. What struck me most about his History of the Peloponnesian War, written 2,400 years ago, is how familiar all the political deceit and militaristic dick-swinging he describes felt, especially at the time I read it in the mid-2000s.

But that’s a debate that I won’t engage in any more deeply because, once again, I’m not really qualified to do so. I’m not academia and never have been. Though a gig as a law school professor would be nice — those people are so incredibly overpaid that it’s practically a crime.

Going to the backlog

This is an unexpectedly slow month for the site, partly because of personal circumstances and partly because of how the coronavirus has fucked my work situation. Luckily for me, despite all the worry over the virus, individual people and big ass corporate entities alike will continue to sue each other, so I still do have work. I’m thankful for that, but obviously conditions have changed and we’ve all had to adapt. All this also means that I haven’t had much time to play anything in the last month or so. However, I still have a fair backlog of games to get through piled up in my Steam account. A lot of us are stuck inside for an indefinite period of time, so what better time to catch up on that? Not that I was ever much for going outside anyway.

Here are some of the impressions I have of the games I’ve started. It’s not an exhaustive list, and there’s definitely no guarantee that I will get through all, most, or even any of these. Since I’m doing my best to economize and actually play the fucking games I buy during Steam sales, however, they’re the ones I’m most likely to play in the near future (aside from Persona 5 Royal, which yes, of course I have preordered. Atlus hasn’t let me down yet, except once, and those P3 and P5 dancing games were still basically decent despite the ripoff price.)

Rabi-Ribi

In what’s undoubtedly the biggest shock of the decade so far, I bought a game featuring a bunch of cute animal-eared girls. I know, really unexpected. But that’s not the only reason I got Rabi-Ribi (I won’t lie — it’s a reason, just not the only one.) This is a combination platformer/bullet hell game about Erina, a regular rabbit who mysteriously turns into a rabbit-eared/tailed human one day. So she has to figure out how and why that happened by seeking out her human owner and her other friends, and these adventures involve a lot of bullet hell-style boss fights with other girls.

If you’d say that this sounds a hell of a lot like a Touhou Project game, I would agree. Aside from the fact that it’s a platformer instead of a vertically scrolling shooter, I get strong Touhou vibes from Rabi-Ribi so far. It’s all about cute girls shooting bullets and lasers at each other in a fantasy setting, so there you go — basically a Touhou game. I’m really liking it so far, though I might end up regretting playing the game in normal mode instead of novice mode. But that would just hurt my pride too much, even if I am generally pretty lousy at games like this.

LiEat

This is a strange one — a trilogy of what look like RPGMaker games (or maybe WolfRPG; I tend to lump all these kinds of games together) bundled together for a few dollars on Steam. I like stuff like that, so I thought why not drop a few dollars on LiEat. The first game starts out with a pair of travelers: Leo, an experienced, hardened kind of guy, and Efina, a dragon girl who recently hatched from an egg and is in the process of figuring the world out. Efina can also “eat” lies somehow — when someone tells a lie, it manifests as a monster that you can fight and defeat in a turn-based battle.

I’m not too far into it yet, but LiEat is interesting so far. I like strange games like this, and it also doesn’t seem to be that much of a time investment even if it is a bundle of three games.

Yuppie Psycho

Okay, I haven’t even started Yuppie Psycho yet, but I am 99% sure I’d like it from everything I’ve seen and heard of it. So why haven’t I played it yet? I don’t know, but I’ll try to fix that soon. All I know is that it’s a horror game about Brian Pasternack, the young panicked-looking guy in the suit above, starting a new job at a big corporation. It looks like there’s a lot of weird Lovecraftian shit going on, and there’s some kind of AI/android girl in there, and the soundtrack was composed by Garoad, the same guy who made the amazing BGM for VA-11 HALL-A. This game was pretty much made for me, so I will probably get around to playing it soon.

Momodora IV: Reverie Under the Moonlight

This game has been sitting in my backlog for so long that it should have grown some mold by now. It was sitting there so long that the developer has since released a new game, Minoria, that I also haven’t played. I still intend to get around to Momodora IV sometime though. I really liked Momodora II, though part of the reason for that was its being free — but it was legitimately fun, and IV looks and plays a lot more polished. Protagonist Kaho is a shrine maiden and the ancestor of Momo from Momodora II, and she’s going on a similar kind of quest to banish some evil somewhere with a close-range fan weapon and a long-range bow. This is another game that seems to demand some dexterity and skill. It doesn’t even bother to hold your hand in the first area. I like a challenge (even if, again, I’m not great at stuff like this) so that’s fine with me. I’ll get through it eventually. Someday.

Evenicle

When I wrote in my last post that I had picked up Evenicle, I was serious. Since then, in fact, I’ve gotten all the way to the third chapter of the game, which feels like the start of the mid-game in terms of pacing. Evenicle is a turn-based RPG made by Alicesoft, and if you know Alicesoft you know what that means. If you don’t know Alicesoft, it means that this game is full of sex scenes and would probably somehow offend at least 80% of anyone taken off the street at random. Just look up the Rance series and you’ll see what I mean, but don’t do it at work.

Despite a couple of fucked but not unexpected moments (again, not unexpected if you know Alicesoft) I like Evenicle so far. The turn-based combat is pretty basic but works well, and the characters are well-written, even if a lot of the women are throwing themselves at the protagonist Aster. But that’s the whole point, anyway: you’re helping Aster build a giant polygamist household (my favorite wife so far: Riche, though I get the feeling Kathryn might steal that spot when she figures into the plot more.) And to be fair to Evenicle, it’s making Aster earn at least some of the love he gets through his being a generally good-natured guy with a ton of motivation and ability. He’s not just some bland dumbass of an RPG protagonist, in other words: he has an actual personality and some traits that make you believe people would want to be around him.

Also, the character art in Evenicle was done by Nan Yaegashi, the Senran Kagura artist, and I’m the kind of idiot who will buy a game or watch an anime series just because it features the work of an artist I like. It really is fantastic artwork, though. I still wouldn’t recommend this game to most people yet, but you probably don’t need my word on it anyway — Evenicle seems to be one of those “you probably already know if it’s for you” sorts of games just from looking at the title screen and reading the synopsis.

***

So those are the games sitting at the top of my backlog list. I’m hoping that maybe this apocalypse we’re living through will at least give me the opportunity to get through some more of these games instead of being forced to go outside and actually talk to real people in real life. How about I just quarantine myself forever? Why isn’t that an option?

A review of Our World Is Ended. (PC)

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

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

Just another day on the job.

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

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

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

The future is now, and it looks like this.

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

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

Get all that?  Also: script errors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

First impressions of Strange Journey Redux (and minor spoilers)

Apologies again for the long break. My life as a lawyer is so thoroughly soul-draining that it is hard to find the motivation to make an effort at anything else. Thanks to Atlus, I can at least find an escape into an apocalyptic hellscape with the recently released 3DS game Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux, a remake of the infamously difficult 2010 DS title Strange Journey. Three dungeons in, I can say that I’m enjoying it so far – for the most part. Strange Journey Redux is a mainline Shin Megami Tensei game that plays as you would expect. You fight and recruit demons while trying to either save humanity, follow God/YHVH and create a world of light, or join Lucifer and plunge the world into chaos. (This is not a spoiler – it’s the plot of every SMT game.) Strange Journey and Redux both differ from other SMT games in that they take place in Antarctica with a cast of space marines rather than in Tokyo with a cast of students (or knights/samurai in SMT4.) SJ is also much more of a dungeon crawler than the other SMTs – the lower screen of the DS/3DS is dedicated to the map, which is filled in as you explore.

Redux features a new coat of paint and a bunch of extras – voice acting, improved graphics, new demons to fight and fuse, a few anime cutscenes, some DLC that isn’t worth buying. All that stuff (aside from the DLC) is great. What isn’t so great, at least so far, is the new character Alex, a young woman in a red coat who drops in on your player character and murders him. She is pretty aggravating. Not very interesting either, if she’s supposed to be what I think, which is a Sarah Connor type-“I have to kill these people to save the future” girl. Bleh.

The main character is revived in the Womb of Grief, a Labyrinth of Amala-style optional (I think) dungeon, by Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest and fertility. Why they decided to design a fertility goddess as a little kid is beyond me.  Someone should ask new character designer Masayuki Doi.

Anyway, Strange Journey Redux is good so far.  I hope I’ll survive my job long enough to finish it.