Games for broke people: Helltaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

The right answer is sometimes not the obvious one

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

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

Games for broke people, master hunter edition

You might have inferred from reading some of my posts here that I’m not an outdoors sort of person, and that inference would have been absolutely correct. I hate camping, hiking, trekking, kayaking, and being present in or near sunlight. I like the idea of nature, but I prefer to keep a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your perspective) distance from it. So you can rest assured that the closest I’ve ever gotten to hunting was playing Duck Hunt on the NES.  No real-life hunting for me, thanks.

But who needs real-life hunting when we have itch.io? The following free games all involve hunting as a mechanic.  Well, sort of.  One game involves hunting, and the other two games are square pegs I try desperately to pound into the round hole that is the theme of this post.  Did I succeed?  You be the judge.

Foxhunt

Not a literal foxhunt, with hounds and horses and all that stuff, so you know I’m more or less breaking the theme of the post already.  Not that I’d really want to play a game like that anyway.  No, Foxhunt is instead a short surreal puzzle game set in a very small looping area that looks like the middle of the Antarctic Desert.  The object of the game is to solve puzzles by following clues on cards scattered around the few abandoned structures and mechanisms in the environment.  These clues have been left by “The Fox”, who may or may not be the white fox that keeps showing up to check in on you before running away and disappearing again when you get too close to it (see the screenshot on the right.)  Then again, how would a fox write notes like this with its paws?  Maybe I’m overthinking this.

I found Foxhunt to be pretty nice for what it is.  The game was interesting enough to keep me playing through the 30 to 45 minutes it took to solve all of its puzzles, and some of the design elements makes me think Anomalina, the creator(s) of the game, was influenced by old adventure/puzzle games like Mystand Riven.  I also have to mention the piano that makes up the game’s background music; it makes for the perfect atmosphere.

Anyway, Foxhunt is worth checking out if you want to play a short puzzle game set in a tundra.  The last note in the game also suggests that the developer plans to expand on the ideas in Foxhunt, so they might be worth following.

Nonsense at Nightfall

The aptly titled Nonsense at Nightfall is the tale of a man who takes a sleeping pill that turns him into a cat, a fact that he takes very much in stride for some reason, because instead of immediately trying to turn himself back into a human, he decides to start looking for a mouse to eat (hence the hunting aspect of the game.  That’s not too much of a stretch, is it?)  This is another one of those Game Boy-ish games that seem to be so common on itch.io, I guess because they’re probably relatively easy to make and hold a bit of nostalgic value thanks to the old-school aesthetic.

Nonsense at Nightfall is only about half an hour long and consists of a few easy puzzles, a couple of weirdly creative twists, and a conclusion so obvious that it would have made me angry had the game been 1) not free and/or 2) longer than half an hour.  But since it’s a short free game, the dumb fourth-wall-breaking joke ending really isn’t so bad, and to be fair, developer Siegfried Croes does set it up decently.  This one was amusing enough to make me not regret downloading it, and that’s pretty much a thumbs up as far as these free games go.  Nice job, Mr. Croes.  Just, you know – if you make a longer game to follow up on this one, give it a more satisfying ending, okay?

Duck Hunt

It’s Duck Hunt.  Yeah, someone just made a port of the NES classic Duck Hunt (probably only considered a “classic” because it was included on that Super Mario Bros. cartridge that came bundled with every NES ever sold, but that’s another matter) and put it on itch.io as a browser game.  I’m pretty sure that’s not legal, even if you give Nintendo credit for their work.  But since Duck Hunt is 35 years old at this point, I can’t imagine Nintendo caring enough to threaten legal action.  Hell, everyone uses emulators these days, so what’s the difference?

Anyway, this port seems to be pretty faithful to the original game, with two exceptions.  The first is that you’re naturally not playing with the NES Zapper but rather with your mouse, and the second is that the dog doesn’t laugh at you for missing ducks.  At least he never did when I intentionally missed every duck and got a game over.  I know how much we all hated that god damn dog for laughing at us, but leaving the laughing dog animation out of Duck Hunt is like leaving the yeti out of SkiFree.  It’s just not the same game without it.  Or maybe I’m missing something here.  It’s been two decades and change since I last played Duck Hunt, so that’s possible.

Backlog review: Doki Doki Literature Club! (PC)

I tried to write a concise review of this game, but I found it impossible to discuss all its aspects I wanted to hit upon without setting out the proper context, so I dumped that review in the bin and started over.  This second take is by far the longest review I’ve ever written.  How long is that?  So long that this review has a preface.  I promise there’s a point to all of it, though.  

Well, I guess you can be the judge of that.

***

Doki Doki Literature Club! is a free English-language visual novel for PC, one that’s been sitting on my hard drive for quite a while now.  I kept telling myself I’d take it on eventually, and so I did over an evening after work, and well into the night.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a meaningful review of this game without getting into spoilers, but I don’t think I can. What I can say without spoiling the game (because the game itself gives the player a warning about this upon running for the first time) is that while Doki Doki Literature Club! looks like your usual cutesy dating sim VN, it deals with some very heavy subjects.  The cheerful theme and the colorful opening screen featuring the protagonist’s schoolmates wearing the world’s shortiest skirts* don’t tell the whole story behind this game.

Just your average visual novel, nothing to see here.

When I first checked it out, I didn’t think much of that fact.  I played a few VNs years ago like Yume Miru Kusuri that touched on similar issues.  But Doki Doki is different.  When the protagonist is pressured into joining his high school’s literature club by his ditzy childhood friend Sayori and meets her clubmates – the painfully reserved Yuri, the ultra-tsundere Natsuki, and the charismatic club president Monika – you might expect the usual choose-your-own-adventure style quest to win one of these girls’ hearts, but that’s not quite what you’ll get.

Massive honking spoilers regarding the game’s plot, characters, and endings follow under the below screenshot. If you haven’t played the game yet and don’t want to read any further, the short, spoiler-free version of my review ends with this: if you’re okay dealing with talk about depression, anxiety, and related issues, and you don’t mind some disturbing images, you should absolutely play Doki Doki Literature Club!  I promise it’s not just another dating sim.  Also, it’s free to download.  Also, it’s not an h-game, so no worries if you’re creeped out by those kinds of scenes, but it’s still not really for kids.

I know how it looks, but I promise it’s not like that.

I didn’t think a PC game could throw me for a loop again after I finished OneShot.  I already had some idea of the reputation Doki Doki Literature Club! (DDLC from now on, because I’m not planning to wear out my ctrl and v keys today) has as a horror game hidden in the shell of a generic dating sim, so I thought I was ready for anything.  But this game exceeded my expectations in that regard.  The way the game starts contrasts so greatly with where the game arrives at the end of the first playthrough that the effect has to be astounding if you weren’t expecting a twist at all.

So what makes DDLC so special?  If you’ve read this far, you’ve either played it already or don’t care about getting spoiled on it, so I’ll spill it here.  DDLC does indeed start out like your average dating sim visual novel set in a Japanese high school.  The player character is an average student who likes anime and video games, and every other character in the game is a cute girl who’s ready to fall madly in love with him despite the fact that there doesn’t seem to be anything remarkable about him.  The only thing that seems to be different about DDLC at first is the poetry minigame that separates each in-game day in which you have to go home and pick twenty words to dump into a poem to share with the club the next day.  Each of your three romantic targets (the short pink-haired Natsuki, the tall dark mysterious Yuri, and the chirpy, spaced-out Sayori – notice Monika isn’t an option; stick a pin in that fact because it’s important) has certain words she likes according to her personality, and your word choice determines which of them you get closer to.  Upon returning to the clubroom the next day, you share your poem with each of your clubmates, who usually shares her own poem in turn.

Wait, why is suicide an option?

Developer Team Salvato could have just left it at that, creating a nice little free romance VN for people to download on Steam and itch.io.  The characters are cute, the art is well done, and the writing is pretty good for your standard dating sim, especially for a free one.  Hell, the writer had to actually compose several poems written by each girl that fit her personality, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.  The only poem I’ve ever written was an obscene scrawl about being drunk and broke and horny that’s only fit for publication on the wall of a bathroom stall.

But no.  Instead of building a normal dating sim on this solid base, the creators chose to take that tried and true format apart and reassemble it into a game about crippling anxiety, suicidal depression, emotional abuse, and existential angst.  But did they pull it off?

I hope that’s not foreshadowing.

It’s not easy to write about the above-listed subjects in a realistic and tasteful way.  It’s even more difficult to write a piece of meta-fiction that weaves all these themes together.  Despite the initial cheery atmosphere of the literature club, each of these girls has some serious emotional baggage she’s dealing with.  Natsuki is raised by a single father who largely neglects her.  Yuri suffers from severe social anxiety to the point that she can barely hold a conversation if it’s not about literature, and it’s implied that she cuts herself.  Sayori hides a case of chronic depression behind an outwardly sunny disposition.  And Monika – well, Monika’s issue isn’t obvious at first, but it’s the one that causes the game to completely run off the rails in the end.

In a normal dating sim VN, the player, represented by the protagonist, pursues the girl he likes the best.  If all goes well (meaning he makes the right decisions when presented with branching dialogue and action paths) he’ll typically get a few increasingly intimate scenes with the girl and end up confessing his love to her or vice versa.  A nice, clean romance.  DDLC makes the player think that’s the path he’s headed down, and then it closes that path off completely, forcing him to take a detour into mind-bending uncanny valley horror land.  This shift in tone is driven partly by the psychological issues the other characters in the game are dealing with, in particular Sayori’s depression.

I don’t have a funny caption for this screenshot.

As the first act of the game goes on, Sayori starts to withdraw from the club’s activities to the point that even the dense as hell protagonist notices there’s something going on with her.  One day after telling him that she’s got depression, Sayori catches the protagonist in an awkward romantic-looking situation with either Yuri or Natsuki, then once she’s alone with him, she confesses her love to him as she breaks down sobbing.  You have the choice of either returning her love or calling her “your dearest friend” (that has to hurt) but either way, Sayori ends up hanging herself the next morning in her room.  When the protagonist stumbles upon her corpse hanging from the ceiling after checking in on her, he starts to lose his mind, a black screen with the word “END” pops up and the player is kicked back to the main menu, where Sayori seems to have been completely written over.

This… this isn’t right, is it?

The natural thing to do in a situation like this is reload your last save.  But guess what?  The game has god damn deleted all your saves.  All you can do at this point is click on the gibberish option at the top of the menu, which starts a new game, only with Sayori curiously absent.  This time around, Monika herself invites the protagonist to join her literature club, and you join Yuri and Natsuki as its newest member.  Sayori isn’t even mentioned, as if she’s been erased from existence.

This second act of DDLC is where things get really weird and broken.  Yuri and Natsuki start to suffer from bizarre graphical glitches, and their mutual rivalry that was on display in the first playthrough heats up to the point of vicious insults and R-rated name-calling.  Monika seems to be the only level-headed member of the club this this time around.  You might expect that she’s taken Sayori’s place as an option for romantic pursuit, but no, she’s still just a side character.  However, Monika starts to do some weird things too, dropping subtle hints that she somehow knows exactly what’s going on.

Monika, you’re in front of the dialogue box.  Why are you in front of the dialogue box.

The player still ostensibly has the option of romancing Yuri or Natsuki, but this time Yuri reveals her true form as a yandere who is obsessed with the protagonist, using her newly discovered yandere powers to drag him away from Natsuki and Monika at every opportunity.  And if you know anything about the yandere archetype, you know that you do not want to be the target of a yandere’s affections.

Please don’t.

However, Monika isn’t having it.  As Yuri and Natsuki fight over the protagonist, Monika tries pulling rank on them to get you to spend the weekend with her to work on the big festival project the club was planning both in this and the first act.  Yuri’s yandere powers overcome Monika’s efforts once again, but not for long – after confessing her love for the protagonist, Yuri inexplicably pulls out a kitchen knife and stabs herself in the heart.  The player is then stuck in the classroom all weekend with Yuri’s corpse, the passage of time marked by the sun setting and rising through the windows.  For some reason, the protagonist doesn’t get a chance to respond to any of this.  You’re still viewing the action through his eyes, but he’s now effectively absent for some reason.

On Monday morning, Natsuki and Monika return to school.  Natsuki acts like anyone else would upon seeing the two day-old corpse of her classmate – she vomits and runs out of the classroom in tears.  Monika, however, just laughs and apologizes to you for having to spend a boring weekend at school thanks to the “broken script”.  She then promises to fix the problem, opens a console at the corner of the screen, and deletes two files named yuri.chr and natsuki.chr.  She then decides to go all the way and deletes the rest of the world outside of the classroom.

The end?

At this point, it’s obvious what’s going on.  Monika is a self-aware game character – she’s known since the beginning of the game that she exists inside a dating sim and that nothing around her is real.  That even includes the protagonist, who is now definitely no longer around, or at least not around enough to say or think anything.  Monika is now talking directly to you, the player.  She confesses that she was the one screwing with the game.  She figured out how to alter the game files to aggravate Natsuki’s and Yuri’s character quirks in an attempt to make them more unlikable.  She even manipulated Sayori into killing herself when she saw her getting too close to the protagonist, and hence to the player.  Monika then expresses her love for you, the player, on the other side of the screen, and says that the two of you are now together forever.  Once again, it’s pointless to open the load menu – all the saves have been deleted, and restarting the game just brings up Monika again, who asks you why everything just went dark for a minute (echoes of OneShot there, though in a very different context.)

This might seem like the end of the game, but the astute player will likely be wondering what happens if Monika’s character file is deleted as well.  That’s the key to getting to the actual ending of the game, in which Monika’s file is destroyed but she still manages to exist long enough to feel bad for what she’s done and to restore the game and all its characters except for her.  This third act (or fourth act, if you want to count Monika’s void as the third act) is very short – basically a lead-in to the ending.  DDLC will end in one of two ways depending upon whether you managed to see every special event in the game before it throws you into the “broken” second act of the game.  In both cases, Sayori has taken Monika’s place as club president, and in the best ending she thanks you, the player, for being there for all the girls when they needed you most before ending the game – this time for good.

Turns out the whole horrific awareness of yourself as a game character thing is inherited by whoever becomes the club president. Sorry, Sayori.

I like the concept of DDLC.  I’m not sure anyone’s created a fake-out dating sim turned horror game before this one, or at least one that’s been written in or translated into English.  There have been visual novels that use the player’s perspective as a plot point to throw the player for a loop, but I haven’t played one that involves the player himself as a character quite like DDLC does.

More importantly, the creators put together DDLC in a clever way, dropping hints in the first act that something isn’t quite right and building upon that feeling in the second act, culminating in Monika’s deletion of the rest of the game world.  Monika has a few strange lines of dialogue in the first act that break the fourth wall (at one point, for example, she says that a joke Natsuki made based on a Japanese language pun using Monika’s name** “doesn’t work in translation”, then everyone looks puzzled for a second before the dialogue continues.) Monika’s poems also make references to her self-awareness as a game character, though these are naturally a lot more obvious during a second playthrough.  In fact, upon a second playthrough you’ll probably notice a lot of weird things that you passed over the first time around, like the fact that the protagonist doesn’t respond to Monika’s “Writing Tip of the Day” segment at the end of each day, nor to any of the weird fourth-wall breaking stuff going on in either the first or the second acts.  And the fact that in every one of her portraits, Monika is the only character who is always looking directly at the player.  This is the sort of thing that you just don’t notice when you’re playing a VN, and the game uses that fact to set the player up for the big twist at the end of the second act.

See, this is an extra-meta-joke because saving your game in DDLC is mostly pointless.

The second act does contain a few jumpscare-esque moments, but they’re not done in the stupid kind of way you might expect.  The best one involves Yuri giving you her third poem, which is a page full of gibberish covered in bloodstains and also a yellow stain that’s probably exactly what you think it is.  When you stop reading the poem, Yuri is standing six inches from the protagonist’s face looking at him in crazy-eyes mode (not the crazy eyes in the screenshot halfway up, but extra-crazy eyes) asking him what he thinks of it.  I’m not posting a screenshot of that because it is actually pretty god damn disturbing and I do not want to look at it again.  The writer and artist both make effective use of that uncanny horror feeling in the second act, especially with Yuri’s increasingly scary yandere side coming out.

There’s only one real fault I can find with DDLC.  The meta-fiction derailment of the story in the second act is clever and surprising, but it also prevents the game from more seriously addressing the emotional problems that the characters face.  I can imagine an alternate version of DDLC in which the protagonist has to try to romance one of his clubmates while considering not only her feelings but also the feelings of the other girls in the game.  DDLC starts down that path in the first act but goes in a different direction after Sayori’s suicide.  That’s not a bad thing in itself, but I feel like there was a missed opportunity here.  On the other hand, the meta-fiction element of the game is a big part of what makes it special, so I can’t complain too much about the path the creators decided to take.  At the very least, Monika’s existential crisis freakout gets solved in the end, though not in an entirely happy way.

Or you can hang out with Monika in the void forever. That’s not a bad option either.

And that’s all I have to say about Doki Doki Literature Club!  As far as plot, characters, crazy meta-fiction elements and attention to detail go, DDLC is extremely impressive, especially for a free visual novel.  You just don’t expect this kind of quality from a free VN you can download off of Steam or itch.io.  I certainly didn’t, which is probably part of why it took me so long to play this game.  It’s a real achievement, and I hope the developer stays in the business.  Maybe they can follow DDLC up with a reverse-twist by creating a VN that everyone expects to be bizarre and meta but that ends up being a completely normal dating sim.  Now that would be interesting. 𒀭

* This is a Futurama reference, which means that I’m not being perverted by pointing out the shortness of the characters’ skirts.  That’s how that works, right?

** Translator’s note: ika means squid.

Games for broke people, caffeinated edition

Coffee is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity.  Indeed, it’s one of the few things that makes life worth enduring.  If a doctor told me that I’d have to give up coffee or else die an early death, I would immediately find a probate attorney and draft my will, because there is no force in the universe that will keep me from my daily cups.

Sadly, coffee is not free, especially not if you’re buying that overpriced brew from Starbucks.  The following coffee-themed games, however, are free.  I downloaded these from itch.io, and they all involve coffee as a central theme, though perhaps not always in ways you’d expect.

Need More Coffee

 

You know how you’ll go out in the morning with no money in your pocket and an empty glass coffee cup in your hand, picking quarters up off the street so you can get enough to fill that cup with coffee at your local café?  And then you’ll run to the next café down the street while evading rabid dogs and weaving through dangerous, unprotected construction sites?

No?  You don’t do that?  Well neither do I, but we’re not the protagonist of Need More Coffee.  This Game Boy-ish title features a nameless man who must run from café to café while drinking coffee to keep his energy up, allowing him to run faster, jump higher, and clear all the obstacles in his way.  Drinking coffee fills up your “battery”, which is constantly draining.  And that’s a bad thing, because when your battery is empty all you can do is shuffle around and hop a little bit.  Unfortunately, this guy is pretty fragile, and even walking on a crack in the sidewalk will cause him to fall down completely incapacitated, which isn’t much fun. The idea behind using coffee as a sort of power-up/fuel in a platformer is interesting, but this game just makes me feel like I’m controlling a Game Boy version of my own out-of-shape self, which I really don’t enjoy at all.  The creator did a pretty good job capturing the look and feel of a Game Boy game, though, so good on him for that.

Cappuchino Spoontforce Deluxe VI: Girl of the Boiling Fury

That’s quite a title. Not only did these guys misspell cappuccino, but they made a title longer to say than it takes to actually play the game. And that’s almost not an exaggeration. According to the info on the developer’s itch.io page, Cappuchino Spoontforce stars Sajiko, a girl taking a bath in a cappuccino. Your object is to get points by adding milk and sugar to the drink with your constantly moving pitcher and tongs while maintaining its temperature by adding coffee. If the cappuccino gets cold, Sajiko gets angry, stands up, and shakes her fists at you as the game ends (don’t worry, she’s wearing a towel – not sure why she’d be taking a bath while wearing a towel, but who the hell takes a bath in coffee anyway?) Complicating matters is the fact that Sajiko keeps moving around, and it is possible to douse her in milk or coffee (ouch) or hit her in the head with a sugar cube, which seriously pisses her off and makes her more likely to quit her coffee bath. The game is pretty damn mean-spirited, though, because it gives you 500 points every time you successfully brain her with a sugar cube. Shit. The protagonists in these games aren’t getting any breaks, are they?

Okay, I have to be honest – I like this game, as bizarre as it is. It’s pretty difficult to keep the game going, trying to drop the ingredients in and around Sajiko to keep the coffee hot while trying not to hit her and piss her off. It’s a novelty, at least, and a pretty fun one for five or ten minutes. Definitely weird, though. But you probably already knew I was weird myself, so does it really come as a surprise that I’d enjoy something like this?

Coffee Physics

 

Coffee Physics is a game about throwing cups of coffee at people.  Or rather at sentient men’s bathroom sign figures who are constantly chasing you for some reason.  Tossing your coffee at these things will knock them over, but the chase continues until your stock is exhausted (that’s a lot of full coffee cups for one person to be carrying, though – maybe they’re all stored in a holster or a bandolier that we’re not seeing.)  You can also run around town knocking over objects, because this is one of those games where everything, no matter how solid you’d think it is, has the density of styrofoam.

I don’t like these kinds of games, but maybe you do.  In any case, it’s free, so if you really feel like throwing coffee at vaguely person-shaped objects, playing this game is probably the easiest and most legal way to do it.

Games for broke people: Momodora II

Yes, it’s yet another free game review.  Sorry about that – I’m trying to be more financially responsible right now, which means that I’m living more or less like I’m broke.  Not forever, though.  I still plan to get a Switch at some point.  In the meantime, I have my backlog, and I also have a bunch of freeware from Steam and itch.io that I’ve culled to weed out the boring and non-functional, leaving only the good, the interesting, and the weird.  At least I hope I’ve done that.  I guess you can be the judge, because I’ll probably be making a few more of these posts this May as I tighten my belt and work longer hours.

Today, we’re taking a look at one of the best free games I’ve found so far.  I typically write short reviews for freeware lumped into groups of two or three to a post, but Momodora II is enough of a full-fledged game that it deserves a post all to itself.

Spoilers: it’s not fucking safe

The Momodora series is one that I’ve known about for quite a while.  In fact, Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight, the fourth and latest game in the series, is one of those games sitting in my backlog right now.  The first two games are free to play, while the third is pretty damn cheap at just two dollars, and while they’re not as pretty or polished (or probably nearly as long) as the latest installment, there’s a lot of entertainment to be had with them if Momodora II is any indication.  I started with the second title because rdein, the creator of the series, claims on the itch.io page for the game that Momodora I is really unpolished and that we should start with the sequels instead, so sure, why not.  I bet that’s just your typical artistic modesty, though.

Not being very nice to the one-eyed freaks, are we

So what’s Momodora II about?  It has a simple plot: the protagonist Momo, a young shrine maiden, travels to a dangerous temple/cave/dungeon complex near her village to defeat Isadora, an evil demon queen who’s been causing trouble as evil demon queens are wont to do.  For some reason, Momo’s older sister just lets her wander in without helping out, which is pretty weird.  But maybe she’s right to be confident, because Momo is more than capable of defending herself – she carries a magic leaf that she uses as a kind of blade and can pick up some nice power-ups throughout the game, including a ranged attack and a double-jump ability.  As Momo fights through the complex on her way to Isadora, she’ll run into a string of other young women who are also there to take out said evil demon queen, including one who mistakes Momo for an enemy and serves as your first and second act boss battles before she comes to her senses.

Momodora II isn’t all that difficult, thanks in part to the many health regeneration/long range shot drops and the several bells around the game field that act as save points and full heal stations, but it does contain some challenge, mostly in the final section of the game and the final sort-of-bullet-hell-style boss fight with Isadora.  The map is broken into five or six different sections that vary in theme and enemy type and strength, and enemies do respawn once as you move from one section to the next, so you can’t just clear out the entire map, though that also means you have unlimited health and ranged shot drops to use if you’re stuck on a boss.

Even the maids are your enemies, and they’re just cleaning up the place

Even though Momodora II isn’t a very big game, I really enjoyed the exploration aspect of it; the level design is set up so that new sections of the map become accessible once you’ve gained certain powerups.  You’ll also have to hunt around the map for certain items before you can feasibly take on the final boss, including a set of “love letters” that fill Momo with tender feelings when she reads them, giving her an extra heart in her life counter.  At least I guess that’s how it works.  I don’t think those love letters were even addressed to her.  They’re just sitting around in chests in a dungeon; who could they be addressed to even?  Best not to think about it.

I hide my love letters behind rows of deadly spikes

The only real criticism I can make of Momodora II is that its controls can be a little too sensitive sometimes, especially when you’re trying to make jumps in a few areas that require great precision.  It’s not a major problem, just something that comes up occasionally.  If I’d paid more than a few dollars for this game, I’d also be kind of upset that it’s only about 60 to 90 minutes long (though you can get through it more quickly with a guide, but where’s the fun in that) but since Momodora II costs zero dollars, I can’t say anything about that.  This game asks for nothing but a bit of your time, and it delivers some solid entertainment, cool background music, a nice little plot and a few secrets to discover.  What more do you need, really.  Unless you’re allergic to action platformers, you should check this one out.

Retrospective: Yume Nikki

Several years ago, at some point during the complete mental haze of my life that was my early 20s, I played Yume Nikki. I’ve made a few references to it on this site, and I’ve reviewed at least one game that was directly inspired by it, but I haven’t really taken a good look at the game itself until now. Yume Nikki (trans. Dream Diary) had humble origins.  It was first released as a free RPG Maker game in 2004 on 2channel, but after a fan put out an English patch the game spread around the internet by way of video game and anime imageboards and textboards (the much-maligned 4chan played a big part in this process, as did one particular event from the game that produced a meme popular around the boards.) As a result, Yume Nikki ended up a cult classic among some of the obsessive weirdo subcultures of the internet, so much so that it acted as an influence on several other popular games in the horror, exploration, and RPG genres, including the critically acclaimed Undertale.

Madotsuki’s bedroom in the real world.

I get the feeling that Kikiyama, the creator of Yume Nikki, didn’t set out to do any of this when he (or she?  Nobody knows) put the game together, because it is a very simple game at its core. After a brief three-screen tutorial, the player starts the game controlling Madotsuki, the above-pictured pigtailed girl, in what seems to be her bedroom.  There’s no prompt at this point – no text box, no inner monologue, no mother or older sibling character banging on the door telling Madotsuki to wake up and get ready for school.  The sliding door at the bottom of the screen leads to a balcony, and Madotsuki shakes her head when you try to guide her through the door at the top to explore the rest of the apartment she presumably lives in.  Madotsuki’s TV turns on, but the cable is out.  There are only really three things for Madotsuki to do in her room: play the one game she owns on her game console (a playable game-within-a-game called Nasu that’s pretty damn boring and repetitive), write in her diary that functions as a save file, and go to bed.

The hub world.

Almost all the action in Yume Nikki takes place in Madotsuki’s dreams, because it’s only in her dreams that Madotsuki is willing to open her bedroom door, which now leads to a chamber containing 12 more doors.  Each of these doors leads to a separate dream world ready for Madotsuki to explore, worlds that contain passages to still more worlds that loop in on each other in bizarre ways.  While none of these dreamscapes are really terrifying (well, almost none, anyway) most of them aren’t exactly inviting either.  Madotsuki’s dream worlds all exist in her head, but they don’t seem to exist for her own amusement.  Just like dreams in our world, Madotsuki’s dreams are filled with vague shapes, strange characters, and a whole lot of seemingly meaningless symbols and structures.  None of these things can hurt Madotsuki – she’s only dreaming, after all – and if she gets stuck in an unpleasant situation or a dead end during her explorations, she can wake herself up by pinching her cheek (i.e. by pressing 9.)

The vending machine is out of order.

The closest thing Yume Nikki has to an objective is the collection of “effects”, items that Madotsuki can acquire in her dream worlds that let her transform in various ways.  Some of these effects let Madotsuki mess with the inhabitants of her dream worlds: for example, getting the Traffic Light effect and turning into a red light freezes them in their tracks, while using the Cat effect pulls them towards her (because, I don’t know, people like cats?)  Others allow Madotsuki to travel more quickly (the Bicycle effect, which is a must to get early on, because walking through all the worlds of Yume Nikki takes a really god damn long time.)  Some effects don’t have much of an actual effect aside from changing Madotsuki’s appearance.

I like the posters.

Yume Nikki doesn’t feature an apparent plot or any dialogue beyond a few bits of garbled text in one of the dream worlds that doesn’t make sense.  The few human and humanoid characters to be found other than Madotsuki live in her dreams, so it’s impossible to say whether they’re based on people she knows in the real world or whether they’re just pure creations of her mind.  These figures often don’t acknowledge Madotsuki’s presence, and even when they do, their interactions with her don’t make sense.

So how did such a weird game with a silent protagonist and blank slate for a story gain such popularity?  And more importantly, why should you play it?

Why is it snowing in my house?

Yume Nikki is all about exploration.  It doesn’t make any demands of the player.  It doesn’t feature any real puzzles or objectives other than the collection of effects, and even that’s presented by the game in a sort of offhand way.  While I can’t really call Yume Nikki relaxing – there’s a little too much bizarre and unsettling imagery in it for that – it’s definitely not taxing in the way some later RPG Maker horror games can be (see Witch’s HouseBlank Dream, and Ib.)  I think it’s the fact that Yume Nikki is such a blank slate that made it popular.  The player can read pretty much whatever he wants into Madotsuki and her surroundings.  Most descriptions of the game say Madotsuki is a hikkikomori – a sort of shut-in with extreme social anxiety – but the game never actually tells the player why she won’t leave her bedroom.  Maybe there’s been a massive war or a supervirus outbreak and that’s why she’s holed up in her apartment.

There are a ton of other fan theories out there about Madotsuki, her dream world, and the characters in it, some of them pretty damn dark.  The beauty of it is that there aren’t really any right or wrong answers.  People can argue over competing theories when it comes to most other games, but Yume Nikki?  Who knows what any of it means, or whether any of it means anything at all.  But that seems to be the whole point.*

What the hell is happening

If you’re going to take one recommendation from me, make it this one: play Yume Nikki.  It’s now on Steam, true to its origins still free to play, and you can also download and play the old version (it’s pretty much the same) if you have the right version of Game Maker installed.  If you’ve played Undertale, or Dreaming Sarah, or any of the RPG Maker games I mentioned above, you owe it to yourself to experience the game that did so much to inspire those.  Not just for “historical” purposes, either, because Yume Nikki is a legitimately fascinating game to play.

*****

* Here I should note there are light novel and manga adaptations of Yume Nikki that I haven’t read.  Maybe they provide explanations about Madotsuki and her world that the game doesn’t.  Taking the game in itself, though, there aren’t any answers to these questions that I’m aware of.