A review of LiEat (PC)

It’s been a long time since I wrote a proper game review. Plenty of commentaries and analyses and complaining about everything I hate about life and the world and all that, but no reviews for several months now. Since I have a tall pile of games to complete that I bought during Steam sales (a digital pile, I guess, not a physical one, but I still imagine them stacked up on my desk like it’s the early 2000s again) now seems like a good time to get back to my roots.

The first game I completed in my massive haul was LiEat, a short RPG series about an unlikely pair: a traveling conman who constantly changes his name and appearance and his companion, a young dragon girl named Efina (or just Efi) who has the ability to see the physical forms of lies and eat them. The version of LiEat I got on Steam is actually a trilogy of three games titled LiEat I, II, and III — each game takes place in different settings and with some differences in cast, but the main characters are always Efina and the conman, who first shows up in LiEat I with the name Leo.

Efina eats a lie.

Efina’s ability is a complete mystery, both to her and to her guardian. Even her birth is a mystery: she just happened to hatch from a giant egg that Leo happened upon while he was walking along the road one day. Since Efina didn’t have anyone to take care of her, she attached herself to Leo and started calling him “Papa” much to his annoyance. But Leo takes her in anyway, both looking after her and making use of her lie-eating ability to solve mysteries and hustle people out of their money.

You defeat a lie by beating its physical form down to 0 HP. If only it were that easy in real life.

Leo and Efi make a good team, despite how weirdly the pair seem to match. Efi is naturally curious about the world — despite looking like a pretty normal human kid and having the ability to reason and talk, she’s only a few months old at the start of LiEat and is excited to learn all she can, both about the world around her and about her unique power. Leo, meanwhile, is a jaded, world-weary guy in his early 20s who only likes “beer, money, and women” and tells Efi to shut up when she’s getting on his nerves. Not a natural father figure, but Efi seems to cheerfully accept Leo’s attitude.

It’s no use lying to Efi, but Leo does it anyway.

Throughout LiEat, Leo (later changing his name to Hal and Sid, none of them his real name) and Efi move from setting to setting, meeting new characters and getting mixed up in some kind of supernatural trouble that they’re forced to solve. Inevitably the police also get involved, headed up by a captain and vice-captain who know Leo and are a little wary of him for some reason. This might be because they know he’s a conman, but there’s a lot more to it than that. As the story progresses through I and II, we get hints of Leo’s past and learn his true name (Theobald Leonhart aka Theo — isn’t Leonhart Squall’s last name from FF8? Maybe a reference there?) It’s only in LiEat III that the game lets on about Theo’s broken childhood and about the burden he carries, one that only Efi can help him resolve.

There’s some deep backstory here

LiEat is a very small series of games. Each one takes just about an hour to complete. In fact, while each game has its own set of endings and doesn’t carry levels, equipment, or items over, I see these less as separate games and more as three chapters of the same game. They all have a pretty similar look and feel — all created with WolfRPG, a popular RPG creation template, but with a lot of custom sprites, character portraits, background music, and event CGs. The developer Miwashiba clearly took the time to make LiEat much more than the standard boring templaty1 RPG. The combat is very simple and no challenge at all, just standard turn-based stuff, but I think part of the appeal of LiEat is in that style that Miwashiba adds.

Not a woman you want to get involved with

Despite its short length, LiEat isn’t exactly lightweight either. The story goes to a few unexpectedly dark places. Nothing too gory or horrific, though the third part does have a little bit of the psychological horror element. No, the darkness here is more emotional. The normal ending to the last game, the first one I got, was pretty heartbreaking. I immediately had to figure out how to get the good ending, which the LiEat finale thankfully has — it’s absolutely not a given when it comes to these WolfRPG/RPGMaker games that there will be a good ending at all. And I’ve got to say that I was satisfied. The good ending wasn’t pulled out of the game’s ass just for the sake of ending on a pleasant note; it’s entirely believable and earned.

I was also satisfied with LiEat as a whole. It only cost something like $1.20 when I bought it on sale, but even at its sticker price of three dollars I’d say it’s worth going for, especially if you already know you’re into this RPGMaker-style RPG/adventure genre. It might give you some warm feelings, especially in the sort of parent-child thing that develops between Theo and Efi. And it’s me saying this, and I’m a bitter, emotionally closed-off asshole, so it should say a lot that LiEat worked for me on that level.

A scene from the third part of LiEat. I feel personally attacked.

So that’s a recommendation from me. Especially if you come across it during a sale, because even as of this writing, it costs less than a cup of coffee. But only if that coffee is from Starbucks, which you can’t visit at the moment because they’re probably all closed now because of the coronavirus. At least the one near me is. So instead of buying that overpriced, overburnt mud water2, why not buy a game like LiEat instead to pass a few hours during the international quarantine?

Since I’m not going anywhere either, I’ll continue to just dig through that backlog over the next weeks/months. Until next time, if you come across a giant egg while you’re walking along the road and discover a dragon hatching from it, I guess do the right thing and adopt it on the spot. It worked for Theo in the end, and in the best-case scenario you’ll end up in a Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid kind of situation, and who wouldn’t want that? Shit, maybe I really am just a weirdo. 𒀭

 

1 I know this isn’t a word, but it should be. Haven’t you seen a lot of games that just look like they were thrown together with a game creation tool using basic default assets? I don’t know of any better term to use to describe that sort of game. Not that they’re all bad, but there’s something to be said for setting yourself apart with a distinctive style, which is something LiEat does admirably well.

2 Their regular coffee tastes like ass. I still stand by that assessment. If you really need some gas in the tank, though, the cold brew is worth paying for. There, that’s your bonus coffee review.

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.

Retrospective: JezzBall (and the pain of existence)

Years ago, I wrote about two PC games that were packaged free with computers running Windows 3.1 and 95. SkiFree was a fun time-waster for a few minutes, and Chip’s Challenge was a surprisingly deep, well-crafted puzzle game. However, there’s a game from the famed Best of Windows Entertainment Pack bundle that I neglected to write about, a game that many consider to be a classic on the level of SkiFree and Chip’s Challenge.  A horror game that plumbed the depths of the psyche even more thoroughly than did Silent Hill 2.

I’m talking about JezzBall.

The beginning of stage 2.

JezzBall is a puzzle game in which the player must trap balls (the help file calls them “Jezz atoms” – yes, Jezz atoms, that’s not a typo) that are bouncing around a chamber while a timer runs.  The player can trap these balls by creating walls that reduce the size of said chamber.  However, there are a few catches – the wall is broken if a ball hits it before it’s completely built, each wall that’s broken costs the player a life, and the game is over if all the player’s lives are exhausted or if the timer reaches 0.  The object of the game is to reduce the chamber’s size by 75%.  The player starts with two JezzBalls, or Jezz atoms, or whatever, to trap, and each stage adds another ball to the mix.

You thought this was just a simple puzzle game, but check out this deep lore.

Perhaps you have fond memories of playing JezzBall back in the 90s or one of its clones more recently.  Or maybe you played the 80s arcade classic Qix that this game is based upon.  But did you ever feel uneasy about it?

Most people would say that JezzBall is just a little puzzle game, a fun diversion.  But for me, it’s more.  Playing this game is like looking into the abyss.

In the world of JezzBall, your only purpose is to seal atoms into small areas.  And after you’ve reduced the space they can move in to 25% of the screen, the game “rewards” you with an additional atom to deal with.

Your job becomes more difficult the further you progress, but do your nameless, faceless supervisors care?  No.  Trap more atoms.  Keep trapping atoms.  There is nothing else.

Soon enough, the pace of your job will become unbearable.  You will have a very limited amount of time to trap several atoms without any clear way to separate them into their own chambers.  Every time you try to build a wall, it breaks when an atom hits it before it’s complete.  You try to build a wall starting in the middle of the chamber to at least create a partial wall, but when atoms hit both ends of your wall you lose two lives and are that much closer to a game over.

JezzBall doesn’t care.  It will continue to throw additional atoms at you until you break.  The difficulty curve of this game starts with a gradual slope that leads to a 90 degree cliff face.  And when you fall from that cliff, as we all eventually do, you’re given the “honor” of marking your shame by entering your score on the leaderboard.

Other games I played growing up had an end goal or a winner.  Mario, Sonic, Zelda – the games in these series taught us that perseverance leads to victory.  The NES Mega Man games were difficult, but even an average or poor player could beat Dr. Wily given enough time and patience.  Chip’s Challenge, one of the other BOWEP titles, was a long game, but it also had a final level and an ending to offer.

JezzBall mocks your delusions of victory.  There is no happy ending in JezzBall, just as there is no happy ending in life.  No matter how skillful you are, no matter how far you get, a round of JezzBall always ends in failure.  It only offers you the option to play again.

And if you refuse to play again, it says nothing else – the game simply leaves you sitting in front of a black screen.

Life is a cruel joke.  Life is an absurdity.  Life is JezzBall.

I rate it a 5 out of 7.

A review of Shin Megami Tensei IV

2472251-box_smt4

After 5+ months of playing SMT4, I’ve finally finished it as far as I care to, meaning I got one out of the three endings. I could have easily blown through it in one or two weeks if I weren’t a student, but that’s life. My open memo and exams prevented me from doing much of anything else through the months of October, November and the first half of December.

Firstly, I can definitely say that SMT4 was worth what I paid for it. A lot of people were surprised at the $50 price tag on a 3DS title, but that $50 was for the deluxe package. And those of us who’d been waiting for an SMT4 for years were more than happy to throw our money at Atlus.

So fine. I’m a huge Shin Megami Tensei fan and I loved the game. But how does the game hold up in a more objective light?

smt4start

First, the story. It’s nothing special. The plot is the kind that anyone who’s played an older SMT game will recognize and the characters aren’t interesting – in fact, they’re so one-dimensional that I don’t think the designers even meant them to be interesting. SMT4 is an RPG, but it’s not about the story. Its gameplay is the main selling point.

So, the gameplay: it’s solid and mostly consists of the same old demon battles/negotiations and frustrating boss fights that SMT vets are already familiar with. Pretty much every fight in every game in the SMT series, including the Persona titles, hinges on the elemental strengths and weaknesses of your party and the party you’re fighting. As a result, most non-boss battles in SMT4 are extremely one-sided, and having a strong party that balances out its weaknesses is a must.

This is all pretty standard for the SMT series. But I do have a few complaints about SMT4 – aspects of the game that knock a couple of points off its score.

1) The pace

For the most part, the game has a pretty good pace – from the “late early” to the “late mid-game” sections, I guess; maybe from 8 hours to 40-50 hours in. But the early and late games are a different matter. SMT4 takes about 6 to 8 hours to really get started and to get interesting. This isn’t such an issue, but it could turn off gamers looking for an immediate hook. (By contrast, SMT3’s “hook” comes about half an hour into the game – so the makers don’t have an excuse here.)

The late game is a more serious issue. If you plan to pursue the Law or Chaos paths, you maybe won’t have to worry too much about it, but the Neutral ending piles requirements on the player that essentially force him to grind. Granted, Atlus added a paid DLC add-on that makes late-game grinding quick and easy, but we shouldn’t have to pay extra for it, should we? In any case, the grind that the Neutral path required of me really put me off. I’m a student, Atlus – I have shit to do other than play games. Okay?

2) The boss battles

SMT4 uses the Press Turn system that was created for SMT3: Nocturne, its PS2 predecessor. The way it works: your player character, your own demons and enemy demons have unique strengths and weaknesses to the different elements, including physical attacks. If you happen to hit an enemy with something he blocks, you lose two “turns” where you’d normally lose one. If it’s an element he repels or absorbs, you lose all your turns and he acts immediately. If, however, you hit him with in a weak spot – for example, he’s weak to wind and you hit him with wind – you only lose a “half turn”. So you can accumulate turns and wipe out most enemy parties before their turn comes around. SMT4 compounds this effect with its “smirk” mechanic, which will sometimes give a guaranteed crit to a demon (or the protagonist) if he hits a weak spot or gains a critical. The same goes for enemies, by the way: they can also crit/hit your weaknesses, gain more turns and wipe out your party thus.

And then the game will rub your face in it.

And then the game will rub your face in it.

So what’s the problem? The bosses are the problem. Specifically some of the later bosses. The especially strong ones can and will abuse this system to wipe you out utterly. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal but for two issues:

– One of your allied NPCs also often fights with you, and he (or she) is completely fucking stupid when it comes to fighting. This means he’ll hit a boss with a physical attack after he’s cast Tetrakarn, a spell that reflects physical attacks. This means the boss will get a smirk on the next round, and he will crit and possibly destroy your party through no fault of your own (unless you get lucky and the boss wastes his smirk on a buff or a debuff spell or something similar.)

– Bosses will sometimes make the first move. This really, truly makes no sense to me. Nocturne and the other SMT titles always gave your party the first turn in a boss fight, the idea being that you could prepare yourself for his or her attacks by throwing up shields, buffing/debuffing, and so on. Here, however, a strong boss – and that’s a whole lot of the bosses in SMT4 – will, if he gets first shot, destroy your party or break it to the point that you won’t be able to recover on your turn. All you can do at this point is reset the game. Why Atlus chose to do this is beyond me, because all it adds to the game is pure frustration. It’s the difference between a tactically demanding and difficult boss fight and a downright cheap one. Sadly, quite a few of the boss fights in SMT4 comes down to either pure luck or brute force.

SPOILER: Beelzebub is a fucking asshole.  Okay, not really a spoiler.

SPOILER: Beelzebub is a fucking asshole. Okay, not really a spoiler.

3) The quests

Most of SMT4’s quests are interesting and make sense within the story, but a few are completely stupid and nonsensical. Just wait until you’re forced to take a picture of a particular building for some jerk for no reason at all. This won’t be a problem if you’re going Law or Chaos, but Neutral and just plain completionist players will find it almost impossible to manage without the help of a guide.

It seems like all I’ve done is complain about SMT4 for a thousand words. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s bad, though. It’s a very good JRPG. The music and art are classic SMT, even without the work of the amazing Shoji Meguro on the soundtrack. The gameplay is pretty fun, and anyone who’s obsessive and weird enough to want to recruit and fuse every demon in the game (like me) will love the good old negotiation system, which can produce some strange results. The story and atmosphere in SMT4 are lacking when compared to those of Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga and some other SMT titles, but they’re not bad in themselves – just in comparison to older, better games in the line.

The fact that I find SMT4 lacking probably has a lot to do with my growing up with classic PS2 SMT titles. Nostalgia isn’t something one should consider when trying to fairly judge a game (or anything else for that matter) so I’m not in the best position to judge this title. Still, these are my honest opinions, six months after the fact. If you’re an SMT fan and you own a 3DS, you’ve already played SMT4. If you’re not a fan but the above sounds appealing to you, and you don’t mind some old-school style cheapness and frustration, I’d say go for it – the game might not be worth the unusually high sticker price to you, but it’s probably being sold used at this point. It will give you dozens of hours of gameplay, so you’ll be getting plenty of game for your dollar.