A review of Yakuza 0 (PS4)

This month is now officially dedicated to game reviews only. I have quite a few of them to clear out, and it helps that I binged on games that I’d been stuck on for a while recently, finally getting through them substantially. Not at 100% completion, and not even close in the case of this post’s subject, but enough to get more or less the full experience of them.

And certainly, today’s subject is a massive game, though not in the same way as most other games usually described as “massive” are. I’m not sure that makes sense yet, but keep reading and maybe it will. No, I’m not sleep-deprived, why do you ask. Well, not extremely sleep-deprived anyway. Depending on how loosely you define “extremely.”

The city never sleeps, and neither do I. Kiryu does, though; he looks after his health pretty well as long as you ignore the cigarettes.

Yakuza 0 is a game more or less everyone knows at this point if they’ve spent at least five minutes on the internet. Released in 2015 in Japan and 2017 everywhere else on PS3/4, PC, and Xbox One as a prequel to the long-running Yakuza action series, it’s been played by most everyone and meme’d to hell in its few years of existence — if you’ve ever heard Baka Mitai, you already know something about this game even if you didn’t realize it. And as always, I’m late to the party.

Now on to the business, because there’s a lot of that to get into. Yakuza 0 features two protagonists, the first of whom we meet is the stoic-looking guy above. Kazuma Kiryu is a young yakuza member in the Kazama family headquartered in the Kamurocho ward of Tokyo, a unit of the larger Dojima family, which is itself a subsidiary of the Tojo Clan (this shit gets complicated pretty quickly, so it may help to create or refer to a chart.) Kiryu is indeed a stoic guy, aiming to emulate his direct boss and mentor, the Dojima family captain Shintaro Kazama. Unfortunately for both Kiryu and his fellow Kazama family member/best friend/sworn brother Akira Nishikiyama, Kazama is doing time in prison, and the three lieutenants of the Dojima family below him are all aiming for his job.

So it’s maybe not a great surprise when the murder of a debtor that Kiryu roughed up but certainly didn’t kill is pinned on him. Kiryu and Nishikiyama realize that this puts both of them and Kazama himself in the crosshairs of the higher-ups, and Kiryu takes an extreme step to try to protect the Kazama family from its enemies by asking big boss Dojima to let him take the fall by expelling him from the yakuza.

Not the standard staff meeting

After first being required to beat the shit out of nearly every man in the Dojima family office up to and including one of its lieutenants, Kuze, Kiryu is allowed to leave the family (and Kuze is left less a pinky finger for his loss, classic yakuza-style.) But matters aren’t quite so simple. As Dojima says, Kazama is still on the hook with regard to his responsibility for Kiryu. And of course, Kiryu is also still wanted by police in connection with the murder he’s been framed for.

After going back to Kamurocho and wondering what the hell he should do now that he’s just about fucked, Kiryu is met on the street by a wealthy real estate developer named Tetsu Tachibana who takes him in. Tachibana claims to know and to be working with Kazama for a greater goal and says he needs Kiryu’s help to carry out his plan, which involves tracking down the unknown owner of the “Empty Lot”, a tiny patch of land in the middle of Kamurocho that the Dojima family is after in order to complete their Monopoly same-color property line and start a highly lucrative rebuilding project.1 The murder victim Kiryu is being framed over just happened to be roughed up and later shot dead in the Empty Lot, complicating matters for everyone involved.

Talking it over with Nishikiyama back at Kiryu’s dumpy apartment. Apparently the yakuza is basically politics with more openly violent tendencies? Maybe that’s true of all organized crime.

Kiryu is naturally suspicious about the new arrangement, but he opens up slightly after Tachibana gives him a keepsake from Kazama, one that he couldn’t possibly have without the connection he claims. After doing his own research into Tachibana’s company the next day (involving more punching, of course, because that’s how you usually solve problems in this game) Kiryu decides to accept Tachibana’s offer and joins his company as a real estate agent, going on the straight and narrow — for now, at least. Tachibana’s massive wealth and influence can temporarily protect Kiryu from the police and from the Dojima family he’s now openly antagonizing in order to support Kazama, but for how long?

A good maxim to keep in mind

Meanwhile, in the Sotenbori district of Osaka, our other protagonist Goro Majima is hard at work as the manager of the Cabaret Grand. Majima is known around the popular entertainment district as Sotenbori’s “Lord of the Night” for his great success as a club manager (which we get to see a bit of in maybe the flashiest character introduction in a game ever created.)

Despite this achievement, Majima’s life is pretty lousy. We soon learn that he’s an ex-yakuza who was held for a year in confinement, tortured (hence the missing eye — it didn’t go missing by accident) and then expelled from his family for disobeying his boss in support of his sworn brother. Even so, Majima is desperate to re-enter the Shimano family, his old yakuza association, and so he works to make them money as a “civilian” at the Grand.

Unfortunately, he’s so good at his job that his old boss doesn’t want him going anywhere — in fact, Majima is constantly watched to make sure he never leaves Sotenbori, his “gilded cage.”

But soon enough, an opportunity comes up for Majima when his yakuza handler Sagawa communicates an order from his boss: a hit on someone named Makoto Makimura. He’s told this Makimura is a guy who deceives and draws unwilling women into sex work, so he doesn’t really have to feel too bad about putting an end to him. Better still, if he kills this guy, Majima rejoins the family, no more bullshit civilian work required.

He’s never killed before, but Majima accepts the job and is determined to perform it properly. However, when he discovers the true identity of Makoto Makimura, he finds himself unable to carry out the hit. Can Majima deal with his personal feelings and ideals while also avoiding getting killed by his old family for disobeying orders once again?

And what in the fuck is “HAIR MESSAGE LOVESONG”?

Before going any further, I should note that this is my first Yakuza game. Before playing Yakuza 0, I was just aware of the series’ existence but didn’t take much interest until I heard enough good things about 0 that I finally caved and went for it. At the time, I had a vague idea that this was something like “GTA but in Japan” — probably the same idea a lot of first-time players had. Makes sense, since both series are mainly action games set in large cities that center on organized crime.

But it was the wrong idea, because Yakuza 0 (and I’m assuming the rest of the series probably) isn’t much at all like GTA. Aside from the surface similarities, the two take such different approaches to both gameplay and story that they can’t really be compared. The first obvious difference is that there’s no Auto in Yakuza 0 — there is a bit of driving in the story, but you’re not the one doing it, and almost all the action is confined to the streets of Kamurocho and Sotenbori that are open exclusively to pedestrian traffic.

The settings themselves provide another example of this difference. Kamurocho and Sotenbori are called “cities” in the game’s translation, but they’re more like districts or wards than cities in themselves, both parts of the massive metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka. Based on the real-life entertainment/red-light districts of Kabukicho and Dotonbori, both are relatively small in comparison to the entire cities featured in GTA games. But despite their comparatively small sizes, these two districts offer just as much if not more entertainment than the cities in GTA, packed as they are with clubs, bars, restaurants, shops, arcades, and various other entertainment for Kiryu and Majima to enjoy.

And I don’t mean that just in a general sense, but specifically: many of these spots offer the player healing in the form of food and drink and distractions through minigames. These diversions include but are not limited to (because I couldn’t put a complete list here even if I wanted to): pool, darts, mahjong, shogi (which I still can’t figure out how to play), bowling, poker, blackjack, baccarat, roulette, cee-lo (which I only know from Kaiji, and this one has some extra weird rules I wasn’t aware of), cho-han, underground no-holds-barred fighting, and perhaps most absurd and frustrating, racing tiny cars on a track against a bunch of children.

There are also dancing minigames, the only time/place you’ll ever catch me dancing.

In addition to these diversions, Kamurocho and Sotenbori are filled with side characters the player can interact with. Some of these characters have their own stories that Kiryu or Majima can get involved in, usually either by helping them out with a problem or getting roped into a bizarre situation that they have to resolve.

A lot of games feature sidequests that may just feel thrown in as a matter of course, because they’re expected by the player or to fill out time. The side stories in Yakuza 0, however, aren’t simply thrown in — all those I’ve played so far are so entertaining that they’re well worth the time spent. You don’t really have to go seeking them out, either; for the most part you’ll run into all these citizens and hear their problems out while exploring Kamurocho and Sotenbori.

One example of the many problems you can help fellow citizens with

Many of these side stories involving using your fists to solve problems as is so often the case, but not all of them — sometimes, you’ll need to find the right words instead. A lot of the character of both Kiryu and Majima come out in these stories: Kiryu as the ultra-stoic but also somewhat naive guy, and Majima as also serious but sarcastic (quite a change from his character in successive games.2) The side stories feature a nice mix of everyday mundane life problems and bizarre/absurd situations, with mostly pretty memorable NPCs, some of whom can even show up later to help Kiryu/Majima out with their own ventures.

This side story is up there with Majima’s cult infiltration as one of my favorites.

Speaking of those ventures, not only are there a load of minigames and side stories to enjoy in Yakuza 0, but also two business simulations for each protagonist: Kamurocho Real Estate Royale, in which Kiryu has to take ownership of prominent businesses in various neighborhoods of Kamurocho piece by piece, and Sotenbori Cabaret Club Czar, in which Majima is tasked with taking a small failing nightclub and propelling it to the top club in town just as he did with the much larger Cabaret Grand. These simulations are sort of extended side stories in the sense that they also involve a lot of talking to people around town, sometimes having to find the right words (more in Majima’s case) and sometimes having to beat down hired muscle from rivals (more in Kiryu’s, but also in Majima’s.)

How Kiryu buys real estate. No need for a lawyer or a closing or any of that shit. Just flash a suitcase full of money while standing in front of the place.

And of course, with all this running around and fighting, you’ll have to get into the combat. If you strip all these extra elements away (not that you’d want to, though) Yakuza 0 is a beat-em-up game at its core. Throughout both the central plot and the side stories, you’re required to beat the shit out of hundreds to thousands of men who come at you. Many of these are yakuza grunts going after either Kiryu or Majima, controlled by a higher-up who you may also have to take on in a boss fight. The very first super-extended fight sequence at the end of Chapter 1 is a good example of this arrangement, with Kiryu having to fight through all of Dojima HQ, even taking on a recurring mid-boss sort of character before beating on the lieutenant Kuze.

Kiryu and Majima each have a few fighting styles they can learn and switch between freely in combat, ranging from slower and more powerful to quicker and lighter. Some styles allow the player to pick up and use certain objects like chairs, tables, crates, and even bicycles and motorcycles to smash enemies with. Beating on these guys also raises the player’s Heat bar, and at a sufficient Heat level Kiryu/Majima can unleash their true power with finishing moves — a large variety of them, many involving those objects you can pick up or certain weapons you can take off of fallen enemies or buy at stores.

This is by far one of the most satisfying beatings you give out in the game.

Yakuza 0 isn’t a difficult game, or at least not on its normal or hard modes. Kiryu and Majima have plenty of ways to deal with any situation they might find themselves in, even when surrounded by many enemies at once. Hell, that’s just when they get started — especially Majima when using his Breaker style, which turns him into a breakdancing human tornado. And if there’s a motorcycle anywhere near Kiryu, every one of those enemies will be on the ground within just a few seconds after he rips through that crowd with it.

The game also allows you to stock up on healing items. You get plenty of inventory space as well as an unlimited item box to send extra items to storage. Your item box stuff can only be accessed at certain save points, but that’s not a problem — as long as you have a full supply of energy drinks to raise your health and your Heat meter, you should be able to rip through the long plot-related battles without a problem, even if you’re shit at action games like I am. You can even cheese the boss fights by pausing to recover from the beating you’re taking, though I subscribe to the idea that if the game lets you do it, it’s not really cheating.

If these dumb assholes had also gone by the drugstore on the way here to stock up on Staminan Royales, they probably could have killed me pretty easily. Not my fault they failed to prepare.

Of course, you can also play the game in a more serious way by actually trying to block, dodge, and use tactics instead of just going all out offensive in every fight. Legendary Mode also unlocks as an option once you’ve gotten through the final chapter, so those who want a second, more difficult swing at Yakuza 0 might enjoy that. Either way, I wouldn’t suggest playing on Easy, given that Normal (the mode I played my first run through) is already pretty easy, though it’s an option as well if you just want to have a good time with the story and with Kamurocho and Sotenbori in general.

No worrying about money, either: it’s all over the fucking place. In addition to end-of-chapter monetary bonuses, you can also literally beat money out of people who very stupidly pick fights with you on the street (and I mean literally in the actual sense of the word; banknotes fly out of them when you beat them.) You also have the ability to pick fights with packs of jerks trying to mess with or extort money from law-abiding citizens — a task that’s well worth you time, as you’ll always get a reward for your good work, ranging from a healing item to a million-dollar diamond-encrusted plate. Not bad for a minute’s work.

Piss it all away at the Sotenbori casino; there’s always more. Too bad money isn’t so easily gotten in real life.

As for that central plot, it feels perfect for a gangster story like Yakuza 0. Some players might expect a simple “rise up the ranks” kind of story, especially considering that this is a prequel to the main series, but that’s not quite what this one is. While both Kiryu and Majima are working towards “professional” goals (if you can call being a yakuza professional anyway; the various clans and families in the game do seem to operate like corporations with hierarchies and division of duties) they’re really much more about Kiryu and Majima figuring out what their ideals are and how to live according to those ideals while still surviving in the dangerous world they’ve been brought up in.

This isn’t part of the central story, but it is another very satisfying beatdown involving the strong ideals of our protagonists.

It works, too; in contrast with all the bizarre/surreal/goofy parts of Yakuza 0, the plot does get quite serious at times, but the tonal shifts weren’t a problem at all for me. I’m not sure whether this trend continues after 0 (or before it, I guess, since the next game in line is Yakuza Kiwami, the remake of the PS2 original) but here it provides a nice break from the main action if you need it. Maybe too nice, since I did stall out on this game for a long time playing through that side stuff.

I’m still playing the post-game “Premium Adventure”, the part after finishing the final chapter when Kiryu and Majima have free rein over their cities — makes it a lot easier to continue those business simulations without having the plot on my mind (not to mention without having streets blocked off for plot reasons or having to run away from those Dojima assholes out looking for Kiryu every so often.)

No matter how many times I play it, I still suck at OutRun. I did fill up the scoreboard with three-letter-adapted curse words in true 10 year-old fashion just like we used to at the arcade, though.

But though I haven’t stopped playing it exactly, I now feel safe in saying that Yakuza 0 fully deserves all the praise it’s gotten, and I’ll gladly pile onto it. This game gets my highest recommendation. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s a prequel if you’re new to the series, either: I was new to it myself, and I understood everything well enough even if I’m sure there were references or maybe a bit of foreshadowing I missed out on.

I’ll see it in retrospect, maybe. Not sure how far I’ll get into this series, since there are several games that I expect are just as long as 0, but I have just started Kiwami, so we’ll see. I like the contrast I have between Yakuza and Atelier going right now, so I might continue with it. In the meantime, I’ll be coming back to 0 for more adventures in real estate empire-building, cabaret club management, and defending decent citizens from assholes and jerks.

I’ll be back for more punishment one day, I promise.

1 A little history here: Yakuza 0 takes place in 1988, right in the middle of the massive 1986-1991 real estate bubble that further heated Japan’s already hot economy. This is presumably why so much money is being thrown around in the game — you can even quite literally throw money with your “Cash Confetti” ability that lets you avoid unwanted fights; new combat skills can only be learned by “investing in yourself” with money, etc. In this context, it makes at least some kind of sense that these guys would be beating up and even killing each other over ownership of one tiny lot in the middle of a commercial district.

2 Though I was new to Yakuza when I started 0, I was already kind of vaguely familiar with “that crazy guy with the eyepatch.” Majima’s character shift still feels weird, even if an attempt to explain it was made at the end of the game. It feels a lot less like he’s actually crazy and more like he’s thought “well, this world is all fucked up and absurd, so I’ll be even crazier than everyone else” — I’ve heard from long-time fans that his treatment in 0 was basically a retcon. I do like the new (or old?) Majima, but I’ll have to get used to the change.

A review of Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout (PS4)

It’s yet another Atelier game review, yeah. I’ve already brought this one up a few times, but I’m finally ready to pass judgment on it, for whatever my judgment is worth anyway.

Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout was released in 2019 on the PS4 and PC. I remember it getting a lot of talk at the time, more than you’d expect for an Atelier title, which up until then tended to only get much notice around the expected niche JRPG cirles. I was immediately interested myself, but it took me two years to actually buy a copy because of how many other games in the series I’d planned on playing. Including the earlier PS4 Atelier Mysterious sub-series, which I completely skipped over between the Dusk trilogy and Ryza.

The fact that I skipped over Mysterious may or may not be important to understanding why Ryza felt like such a different experience from the other Atelier titles I’ve played. Not that I wasn’t expecting that — all I knew going into Ryza was that it had dropped the old, traditional purely turn-based battle system for a real-time one. And that the protagonist’s character model was probably a draw for American audiences, but more on that later. First I’ll get into the substance of the game.

You can hook people in with thighs, but if your game isn’t quality at its core you won’t be able to keep them — see NieR:Automata for an example of how that works. And see also Atelier Ryza? Maybe. I won’t give that away yet.

Reisalin Stout is a resident of Kurken Island, from the isolated town of Rasenboden. The only child of a farming family, Reisalin (or Ryza as she’s almost always called, continuing the tradition from Arland of the protagonist never being addressed by her full/formal name) is bored out of her mind. She doesn’t care about farming and takes every chance she can to escape from her parents’ demands that she help out around the farm and the house — completely reasonable demands, to be fair.

But there’s no helping it: Ryza is young and full of curiosity about the world outside their island. So she gets together with her childhood friends, the aspiring warrior Lent Marslink and aspiring scholar Tao Mongarten, and leads them in an expedition to explore the mainland.

It’s technically not theft if you plan to return it

Turns out Kurken Island really is isolated, because the nearby mainland is totally uninhabited — or not inhabited by humans anyway. Ryza, Tao, and Lent have run-ins with a few monsters and end up rescuing a traveling girl who was separated from her caravan. As it happens, this girl, Klaudia Valentz, is the daughter of a wealthy merchant on his way from the faraway capital to Rasenboden to establish a trade route.

The group starts to make its way back to the safety of the beach, but not before running into still another monster, this one far too powerful for them to defeat. Fortunately, Ryza and friends are themselves rescued by another pair of far stronger travelers: the alchemist Emper Vollmer and his bodyguard/companion Lila Decyrus. All six return to the dock where they meet Klaudia’s father, as well as an officer from Rasenboden who chews out Ryza for causing trouble yet again by running off with a commandeered boat.

I really wanted to get Agatha into my party, but she never joined. A real shame.

However, aside from getting yelled at by Agatha and later also by her mom, Ryza gains a lot from this first adventure. Klaudia’s father is grateful to her and her friends for saving his daughter, and Klaudia quickly befriends and becomes attached to Ryza’s crew. And Ryza discovers a new personal interest: alchemy. (Naturally; she’s the protagonist of an Atelier game, so we all knew that was coming.) She asks Empel, who’s set up shop temporarily in Rasenboden together with Lila, to teach her this discipline. While he’s not capable of becoming her full-time teacher, Empel does get Ryza started on the basics once he sees that she has the innate ability necessary to becoming an alchemist.

Ryza decides to pursue this new path and sets up a makeshift atelier in her parents’ house. Perhaps understandably, Ryza’s mom is not that happy about her daughter dragging an old iron pot up to her room and setting up a lab full of volatile materials and other things that likely smell pretty bad, so it’s understood that this is a temporary setup — and what better place to establish a proper atelier but on the mainland, where there’s a lot of free land going unused?

Some nice CGs in Ryza by the artist Toridamono, continuing the pattern of a new artist and a new look for each sub-series.

All this is extremely fateful, not just for Ryza but for her hometown and everyone in it. Empel and Lila tell their new hosts that they’re working on sealing an ancient evil in the area that’s starting to reawaken. The population of Rasenboden doesn’t know about any of this, but as Ryza and her friends expand their explorations around the mainland, they come across evidence of this threat, including the re-emergence of dragons. These and other dangerous beasts seem to be connected to the Klint Kingdom, an ancient civilization with advanced technology that was forgotten and lost after it was wiped out by some calamity.

Do the ruins of the Klint Kingdom hold the secrets to defeating this ancient evil? Will Ryza and her crew be able to use their skills to fight said evil if it does reawaken? And will Ryza finally get her parents to stop asking her to help harvest the wheat or whatever else it is you do on a farm?

I’m old enough to sympathize with them now.

As I wrote up at the top, Atelier Ryza felt different from any other game in the series I’ve played. This partly had to do with the new art design and chief artist. Each sub-series gets its own artist and its own look, a nice way of setting up each one as its own separate thing within the larger series. I’m not as much a fan of Toridamono’s character designs as I was of Mel Kishida’s in the Arland series or Hidari’s in Dusk, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like it at all or that it isn’t good — it’s just a matter of personal preference. And if the plan actually was to make Ryza’s character model into a meme in the West, it completely worked, though it’s probably just as or more likely that it was an accident. Damn, what I wouldn’t give to be in that team meeting so I could know for sure.

But despite all the understandable jokes about “Atelier Thighza”, you shouldn’t get the wrong idea — Ryza isn’t a fanservice game or anything of the sort. Aside from a few possibly questionable camera shots during cutscenes, maybe, and then they focus just as much if not more on Lila than on Ryza. From what I remember, anyway.

Really if you’re going to be “thirsty” for a character or whatever dumb shit it is the kids say these days, Lila is the best choice as far as I’m concerned. Well, maybe I’m just showing my M tendencies here. (Also to be fair, 90s/2000s slang was dumb as fuck too.)

Maybe it’s silly to bring this aspect of the game up first, but it’s worth bringing up if only to emphasize that Atelier Ryza isn’t just constant ass all over the place, not even close. Sure, there are the standard swimsuit costumes available, but those have been in every Atelier game I’ve played so far, so again, nothing special or out of the ordinary. If you want that kind of game, I’d direct you to my Senran Kagura review.

It’s also important to note right away because for as much as it was meme’d on in social media (to almost completely positive effect, because it sure as hell got the game attention that others in the series haven’t over here) Ryza came off to me just as much an Atelier game as the rest I’ve played, even though it does feel different in some ways. Certain aspects of the game are streamlined, but you’ll still spend hours in the field gathering ingredients and more hours in the workshop crafting items, weapons, and armor with those ingredients.

The alchemy system in Ryza looks intimidating at first, but it’s just as intuitive to get down as most of the others. But why are we seeing the inside of the cauldron in these synthesis scenes? It’s like we’re actually inside the pot here.

As Ryza learns from Empel, item synthesis is based on the Material Loop system, seen above. To create an item, weapon, piece of armor or whatever else it is you’re crafting, you have to add the necessary ingredients, which have one or more properties of various strengths connected to the elements fire, ice, wind, and lightning as usual. Throw the right type of item with the required elemental strength into the pot, and you’ll unlock one or more new Material Loops, which require still other ingredients usually with different elemental affinities, and so it continues until you have enough to make whatever thing it is you’re trying to make. Unlocking new Material Loops improves the quality of your item, adding various effects to it that can help you in the field.

An example of a synthesized piece of armor. The lock icons on the traits indicate that they’re not available yet — they have to be unlocked by going back into the Material Loop system and adding more ingredients.

My explanation of this system might be shitty and confusing, but the system itself isn’t. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily more intuitive than other Atelier alchemy systems as I’ve heard some people say, at least not the ones used in Arland or Dusk, but it’s not hard to get down. The game is also pretty generous in allowing the player to throw multiple weaker items into one Material Loop to achieve the desired effect. And if you don’t get the quality of item you were going for initially, no problem: Ryza has another alchemy mechanic that lets you add more ingredients to an already created item to unlock more effects and even new recipes (this is the main way you’ll unlock new recipes to create new items, in fact — Ryza can earn books through completed quests or buy them, but if you don’t really get deep into the Material Loop system you’ll miss out on a lot of great recipes.)

Of course, to get those high-level, high-quality items you’re going for, you’ll need to spend some time in the field as usual. Atelier Ryza puts a heavy emphasis on exploration, true to its plot. Each of the characters has their own reasons for wanting to head out into the wilderness of the mainland, and their strengths complement each other in battle (including Klaudia’s — she plays her flute in battle to both heal and buff the party and attack enemies. I love that classic JRPG logic.)

So as usual, the field is where you’ll both gain experience and collect all your ingredients. Thankfully, since there’s no time limit or calendar in Ryza, you don’t have to worry about efficiency if you don’t care to — you can spend all the time you like beating up monsters, collecting loot and ingredients, and going back and forth between the atelier and various fields.

A standard battle. Tao might look like a nerd — he quite literally gets his books dumped once in the game — but he can really fuck up enemies with his magic attacks. Lent still ended up being my chief attacker though.

Now for the much talked-about battle system. Rightfully, because this is a big change for the series, which up until then used old-fashioned turn-based battle systems (again, as far as I’ve played, but it’s true of the Mysterious series as well from what I’ve read.) The combat in Ryza is still kind of turn-based, but it’s more of a hybrid system — the key difference here is that, with one important exception, the action in battle doesn’t stop and wait for you to make your decision. As a consequence, you’re only able to control one character at a time; the other two in your party act on their own, though you do have some control over whether they hold back to conserve their power or go all out.

Fortunately, this isn’t a Persona 3 situation where you’re stuck watching your allies make stupid decisions — first, because there aren’t any useless skills in the game for them to waste their time on, and second, because you can freely switch between characters to control in the middle of battle. It’s also possible to guide your allies by switching between passive and aggressive combat modes and by performing certain actions that they’ll follow up on without using energy, though this takes some extra coordination and attention.

At certain points in battle, you’ll also have the opportunity to take extra actions by using your energy denoted by the AP gauge. This is the only time the action will stop and let you leisurely take your time to make your decision. A bit weird when you never have that chance otherwise, but I’m not going to complain too much about it — battle can feel hectic in Ryza, and I appreciated these breaks.

You can even take lunch if you want while Ryza contemplates her next move. Also yes, I bought the swimsuits, I admit it

I found the battles in Ryza to be quick and brutal, almost always with two outcomes — either I was utterly crushed, or I utterly crushed the enemy. The key to combat as far as I can tell is to have good armor and weapons and to beat the living fuck out of your opponents with debuff and attack items, especially ones that have slowing and stunning traits so they don’t even get to their turn before they’re dead.

True to the Atelier series, your alchemist level matters far more than your separate adventurer level does; even if you’re technically “underleveled” for a fight, you can wipe the floor with your enemy if you have great equipment and make use of items with good stats and traits, and conversely you can easily get wiped out no matter how high your adventurer level is if you haven’t properly prepared in the atelier before venturing out. In fact, this is generally how my game went:

  1. Play through the plot and have a pretty easy time until I get to a boss; get destroyed by the timed and scripted massive fuck-off attack it drops on me.
  2. Go back to the atelier, do a ton of alchemy to improve my equipment/item setup.
  3. Go back to the boss and batter it with upgraded bombs to stun it so it can’t even get to that massive fuck-off attack; continue until I win without so much as a scratch.

I still prefer some of the turn-based battle systems of the older games, especially those in Escha & Logy and Shallie, but changing the combat up can help keep things fresh. It doesn’t just feel like change for the hell of it, either: the battle system works pretty well in the context of the rest of the game and its mechanics. Or else Gust and/or Koei Tecmo really did think people were tired of pure turn-based combat. I’m not, just for the record.

That leaves the plot and characters, which I thought were fine. They worked well enough, but I didn’t get much more than that from them. The overarching plot was just okay, and none of the twists in the story came as a huge surprise. Maybe if you’ve played too many JRPGs you can just see these story beats coming.

More critically, though, the game’s characters mostly didn’t have much impact on me. Not that they were bad at all — again, they just didn’t quite measure up to the excellent casts in the Arland and Dusk series for me, so it’s more a case of “decent/good vs. great.” The fact that the playable cast was so small — only six, the main four of Ryza and her friends and Empel and Lila, who join up later — might have added to this, since those other games have much larger pools of characters to choose from, and the characters outside these six don’t get a whole lot of attention with one significant exception.

Unlike many other Atelier games, Ryza has a typical JRPG “the world might be destroyed by an ancient evil” plot, but it also contains a lot of more mundane sidequests in keeping with wider series tradition.

As with older Atelier games, there are also several prominent non-player side characters around town and plenty of sidequests to carry out for them. It’s not much work to complete these jobs, and you’ll get some good rewards out of them. Longtime fans of the series will also get a special treat if they complete every sidequest, one that I think is pretty well worth the trouble.

But once again, I’m left a little wanting, since I found the non-player characters in Arland and Dusk to be more interesting than the townspeople around Rasenboden. It is a nice town; I have to give them credit for that. And it really does feel like a lived-in place instead of just a setting for Ryza to run around in. Gust didn’t really have to put that much work into the town, but they did, so credit for that. I’d still prefer more interesting side characters, though.

All that said, I did like Ryza as a protagonist, with her adventurous spirit and boisterous personality and all that. It helps that she has some common sense to temper her hotheadedness — she usually knows when to step on the brakes, though it’s probably also good that she has Tao around to warn her when she might be thinking of doing some dumb shit. She’s a great addition to the set of Atelier protagonists. And her thighs honestly don’t even factor in for me. Not that much, anyway. As stated above, I’m more of a Lila guy anyway.

So Atelier Ryza is a pretty good game. It didn’t amaze me or anything, but to be fair, it’s only the first in still another Atelier sub-series, and I haven’t played the direct sequel that came out just last year. My hope is that it builds on the fairly solid base the first game established.

I also hope this goat shows up again. Best side character in the game.

I wish I could leave it there, but unfortunately I can’t, because there’s one shitty thing about Ryza I think I have to address, and that’s the DLC, or some of it at least. The game offers the standard extra costume DLC, which I don’t have any problem with — it’s all purely cosmetic anyway (and I did buy a few of those, so how could I possibly complain about them.) However, several extra stories are also available for sale in addition to the main plot, each of which has to be paid for separately. I didn’t buy any of these, so I haven’t exactly gotten the full Ryza experience, but I really hate the idea of paying for more story, even if it’s considered “extra.”

I don’t know, maybe this is just a personal problem. Or maybe I’m old-fashioned or whatever. But fuck that shit, honestly. If you’ve bought any of these extra stories and have thoughts about them, please feel free to let me know about them in the comments if you like, because I won’t play them. Or tell me if you think I’m being unreasonable or arbitrary in how I feel and try to convince me otherwise if you really care to.

But I don’t want to dump on the game itself for that. Ryza does tell a complete, self-contained story in itself, and the DLC story thing seems like a publisher decision rather than a developer one, so I’ll assume this is Koei Tecmo’s fault rather than Gust’s. And maybe I’ve already played into their hands anyway.

Uh… ask your mom.

In any case, Atelier Ryza 2 will have to wait a while, because I’m continuing my Atelier journey with Mysterious, the very same sub-series I skipped over to play this game. I’ve already started Atelier Sophie DX as of this writing, in fact. I probably won’t barrel through it at the same speed I did Dusk, since I have other games I’m playing through at the same time, but I can’t say that won’t happen either.

It won’t be the next game I finish, though. Probably not, anyway. I’ve had more than enough alchemy this year. Before I return, I’ll be getting over to a game very different in tone from this one. Look forward to it. Until next post!

Summer cleaning game review special #6: Baba Is You

Yes! Summer is back, the worst of all the seasons, and even worse this year because of the heat wave we’re going through. So I thought I’d drag this post series back out as well. It’s especially relevant since just like last summer, I’ve picked up a new massive batch of over a thousand games from itch.io in a bundle, so now I have — well, a lot. There’s some overlap between the two, so I’m not sure how many are in both together, but certainly more than I can ever play in my life.

In this resurrected post series, I’ll again be covering smaller games that I don’t have as much to say about as I would in a typical review. I can use the break from the massive epics I’m working through anyway. Atelier really took it out of me last spring, and I need to gather my energy again.

So why not start with a game everyone’s already heard of? As usual, I’m late to the party, but for those in the same situation, here’s the puzzle game Baba Is You.

This game was released in 2019, when I first started hearing a lot about it but for whatever reason never bothered checking it out. But I should have, because it’s pretty damn close to the perfect sort of puzzle game: easy to learn but hard to master, and one that either lets you or forces you (depending on your mindset) to use unorthodox solutions. The object of each stage in Baba Is You is to reach the goal, which is initially marked by a flag, and your player character is Baba, the white rabbit-looking creature seen above.

But not always. All that can change, because in many cases the player has the power to alter the rules of a stage by moving the text blocks that create said rules. So Baba is you, except when it isn’t. Maybe something else can be you. Or maybe the flag doesn’t have to be the goal — maybe it can be something else entirely. Is a wall or some other obvious obstacle stopping you from proceeding? Maybe you can get around it — or maybe you can change the rules to break straight through that wall.

Is this the solution to this stage? I guess not.

Baba Is You encourages you to try all kinds of stuff that might seem fruitless or even silly at first — if it doesn’t work or results in failure, hitting the z key lets you rewind your actions step by step. And in some cases, an action that might seem silly or unthinkable can be exactly the solution you were looking for.

This game reminds me of nothing so much as the logic game section of the LSAT, the standardized exam that American and Canadian law schools require all applicants to take. I had to take that bullshit exam three times before I got a score I was halfway satisfied with, and those logic games were the bane of my fucking existence for months.* These games were essentially very complex word problems that operated according to logic rules, most of which you’re required to piece together yourself. Here’ are a few good examples of such games. You can see if you play with some of the rules in these problems how the different elements in it can change. The exam does this in some of the questions under each problem, forcing you to quickly factor in those rule changes to find their solutions.

I think this is where I discovered the connection in my head

While the LSAT is a hateful, miserable exam, however, Baba Is You is a fun puzzle game. Probably because it doesn’t impose a time limit upon you or grade you on a curve, and certainly because being bad at it or taking a while to solve its problems doesn’t subject you to shame among your peers and anxiety about your career prospects (unless your desired future career is as a speedrunner, maybe.) But it operates on similar principles, like understanding what rules can and can’t be changed, how multiple rules fit together to create other rules that aren’t obvious at first, and how changeable rules can be broken up or added to. Not every idea is going to work — most of mine were failures, but that’s part of the fun. Even discovering some of the bizarre ways in which you can fail these stages is interesting.

So this one comes highly recommended. Try out Baba Is You for some good brain exercise, because we can all use it.

 

* Of course, now the Law School Admissions Council is getting rid of that section, only after so many of us had to suffer through it. I support that decision, but couldn’t they have made it sooner, preferably before I took the god damn test? Thanks for nothing, assholes.

A review of Sagebrush (PC)

I’m generally not a fan of environmental narrative games. These are also known as “walking simulators”, a term that’s meant as a bit of an insult, though one that’s stuck for good reason. Considering how I’ve felt about those I’ve already played, I wouldn’t normally have gone for a game like Sagebrush. However, it was included in that 1,000+ game itch.io bundle from last year that I’ve still barely made a dent in, and lately I’ve felt like giving a chance to something I typically wouldn’t. Open my mind to new possibilities and all that, which is something I usually don’t have an easy time doing.

Well, I’ll just say it straight out — Sagebrush didn’t change how I feel about this genre. Released in 2018 for PC and later ported to the Xbox, Switch, and PS4, this game received quite a lot of praise from reviewers and players, but I found it frustrating, all the more so because the story it tries to tell seems like it would be an interesting one if it were told as it happened. But as is so often the case with these kinds of games, we only get to see the aftermath of that story. Sagebrush does try to justify that with its ending twist, but it still doesn’t work so well for me, partly because the twist itself didn’t work for me either.

Note: I will be spoiling the hell out of this one, so if you don’t want to proceed further, here’s my bottom line: I didn’t like Sagebrush, but its story and characters have potential, and if you like these sorts of environmental narratives I can see how you’d enjoy it. But I didn’t. Now on to the horrifying details, because this isn’t a pleasant story in the slightest.

Good time to turn back if you’re not up to it, and I wouldn’t blame you.

In Sagebrush, you play as an initially unidentified protagonist visiting an old abandoned cult compound, the scene of a mass suicide. The player isn’t let in on why we’re here at first or even about who we are, but we at least know our objective is to explore this abandoned compound and put together what exactly happened here — or rather how it happened, since the game tells us the conclusion of this story at its beginning.

The player is therefore required to piece this story together by working back from the end and seeing how it happened. Sagebrush leaves a lot of clues around for the player to do just this, with plenty of notes, pamphlets, and journals to read along with more physical and visual forms of evidence, all having to do with the head of the cult, a preacher referred to as Father James Israel, and his followers.

Hey, this Father James guy sounds great! I’m sure he had nothing to do with the tragedy we learned about right after the title screen.

The compound is divided into several distinct areas, most of which are initially locked off and have to be accessed with keys and sometimes with other tools you’ll come across during your explorations. This allows the story to build gradually, showing more and more of the true horror behind this Perfect Heaven cult. What first seems to be a strange but perhaps harmless group of ascetics (starting with a few notes in the community hall, including a meal schedule with “fasting” listed two out of seven days) turns out to include a “cleansing” practice involving self-harm and self-mutilation as penance for sin and an “alternative cleansing” method in private with this Father James, which just happens to only involve certain young women in the cult. The inclusion of a schoolhouse and references to children at the compound makes the situation all the more horrific.

The rectory, where Father James lives and commits some of his more despicable deeds.

No one who’s looked into the history of cults will be surprised by any of this. Developer Nathaniel Berens took inspiration from real-world cults, some of the more likely examples being the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas that ended in a deadly standoff with federal authorities, the California-based Heaven’s Gate that ended in mass suicide, and the FLDS polygamist Mormon sect that still hasn’t ended despite its leader being imprisoned for sex crimes. However, the marks of a cult, and especially of this sort of millennial religious cult — fanaticism, militancy, and unquestioning devotion to a leader who claims he has special powers or speaks with God — can be found throughout history. The earliest example I know much about is the 16th century Anabaptist commune that briefly took over the German city of Münster (even if the link wasn’t intentional, Father James surely has some Jan van Leiden in him, especially with his more sexually oriented “revelations”) but there are certainly even older examples.

All this could make for a compelling story, and I had the feeling from reading all the correspondence and journals in the game that the cult featured in Sagebrush might have been a great subject for a game. However, the usual problems of these environmental narrative games show up yet again here. We only see the remains of the story, its characters and conflicts, through the written and physical evidence left sitting around the ranch. These do fill out the story and suggest what some of the characters are like and how they related to each other and especially to the false prophet James, who is about as big of a shithead as you might imagine and maybe even bigger, considering what you find in his journal near the end of the game.

Do not trust a man who hangs multiple portraits of himself in his own house, especially when he puts them right next to religious imagery

But again, I would have liked to see this all play out in real time. That’s always one of the problems I have with these games. Clearly there are people who enjoy this sort of forensic style of gameplay, but I’m not one of them. I have seen Sagebrush described as having a puzzle element along with the exploration one, but the puzzles in this game are the most basic “go to location x and find item y to open door z” sort of stuff you could ever imagine, to the point that I don’t even think you can call them puzzles at all. It’s not all just finding keys to unlock doors to find new keys, but it’s close enough that there’s no real challenge involved.

So all that’s left is the story, which is again told well after it’s happened. And the way it’s told feels a bit cheap. Initially, the player has no idea who the protagonist is or why they’re exploring this cult compound. Near the end of the game, however, it’s revealed that the protagonist is Lilian, one of the former cult members and the only survivor of the mass suicide by fire that puts an end to the cult. After coming to her senses and escaping the flames into a bunker built by Father James to ride out a police/military standoff, Lilian returned to her family and to society. But it’s implied her time at the compound was so traumatic that she’s repressed many or all of these memories, which return to her in the course of her explorations.

I still only vaguely remember who this Athanasius guy was or why he was important from a classics class I took years ago at college. Maybe the reference is relevant to the story? I have no idea.

I know nothing about psychology, so I can’t say anything about how realistic or unrealistic any of that is. However, hiding Lilian’s identity from the player up until that point feels pretty damn cheap. She hasn’t forgotten who she is, after all, and by the end of the game it’s revealed that she came back to the compound specifically to come to terms with what happened there and with her role in it. You’d think we would at least get some kind of internal monologue when we find Lilian’s living space in the trailer park set up to house the cult members, but we don’t. We only clearly enter Lilian’s mind near the very end of the game, when we get a cryptic message about “facing your past” just before entering the chapel, the final area of the game.

The only other clue before this point that the protagonist is Lilian is the old-fashioned tape deck that keeps showing up in various places. These act as save points, but they also play recorded monologues that turn out to mostly be Lilian’s recollections. My read on it is that these tape decks don’t actually exist at the compound but are just representations of Lilian’s thoughts — or it would be if there weren’t also a tape deck in the middle of the game that plays a monologue by Father James. Maybe this is supposed to be Lilian recalling what James told her, since it does take place at the site of one of his creepy as hell sex pervert “alternative cleansings” that it’s implied she took part in. But this also kind of breaks the rule the game set about the tape decks being Lilian’s thoughts alone, assuming it set that rule at all and I didn’t just imagine it in an effort to make sense of it.*

A few of these descriptions might also contain hints, but I might have missed some.

In any case, none of that changes the fact that the game does pull a surprise reveal about the protagonist being Lilian, despite this separation between the player and protagonist not really working. That kind of separation can actually work — I’d give examples but it would naturally spoil those games’ endings somewhat, so I won’t. Some ambiguity like this in a story can be extremely effective if it’s done right. However, I think it’s very difficult to pull off well, and in the case of Sagebrush it simply feels like the game is hiding the ball. Again, maybe it’s just me being dumb or not picking up on something extra-obvious (and if so please let me know what you saw that I didn’t) but I don’t appreciate this approach.

I wish I could be more generous to this game, because I like the basic story it sets up, and I think Mr. Berens treated his extremely sensitive subject with a lot of respect, but as far as I’m concerned it really is just another walking simulator in the end. If you’re into this sort of game, you might like it. Sagebrush has some atmosphere to it and it does deal with some heavy issues, and I can see a cult survivor or someone close to one connecting with and getting something out of the game.

I leave all the theological questions to others, but you don’t need to know much about that to recognize fanaticism when you see it. Stay alert.

But I don’t know. Aside from the narrative issues I brought up, I just like to have more game in my game than I got here. Maybe that makes me a hypocrite, since I’ve highly praised stuff like Yume Nikki that’s also essentially a lot of walking around and exploration, but surreal dreamscape games like that are so interesting and weird that I’m willing to give them a break. Sagebrush gets no such break. At least it only takes a couple of hours to get through, so not too much of a time commitment if you plan to try it out.

So no, my return to this itch.io bundle didn’t start so hot, but I will be going back to it for a few more interesting-looking games. Among those I have lined up to play are a visual novel about two girls driving around a desert, a weird-looking meta RPGMaker-style game recommended by Frostilyte, and a few others I might pick out if they’re lucky (or not lucky?) But hopefully it is all good stuff that I can use to break up the bigger games I have going right now. Until next time.

 

* It’s also possible that the whole thing occurs not in real life but in Lilian’s mind, and the entire game is just her sorting through and coping with her own memories. A real-life cult compound and site of a mass suicide like this wouldn’t just have all that evidence left lying around by authorities, after all. Or maybe I’m overthinking it? See, I really don’t mind some narrative weirdness, but the rules set have to be consistent, otherwise it’s just frustrating.

A review of Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea (PS4)

This is a road I didn’t plan on taking over the last few months, but sometimes things just happen without your planning for it. And so I’m here reviewing my third Atelier game in a row, the DX PS4 edition of Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea, and the final game in the Atelier Dusk trilogy. While Shallie bears some resemblance to the first two entries Atelier Ayesha and Atelier Escha & Logy, it also represents a major shift in the series through its removal of a standard gameplay element established by those games and by the previous Arland trilogy. My feelings about this game are also a little mixed, though still favorable on balance — I haven’t played a bad or even middling Atelier game yet, but I think the situation with Shallie is a little more complicated than with any of the others I’ve played so far.

Starting a few years after the end of Escha & Logy, Shallie moves us to still another part of the world, this time one that’s pretty well and truly fucked. The vast Dusk Sea is a massive desert with a few settlements clinging to its edges around the few remaining sources of clean water. The people of Lugion, one of these villages, are anxious about their now dangerously low supply of water. And so Shallistera, also known as Shallie, an alchemist in training and the daughter and planned successor of the chief of Lugion, sets out with two trusted men of the village on a ship (yeah, the ships in this world can sail on sand; I don’t think it’s explained really but no big deal) to the one place that might have a solution to their problem: the oasis city of Stellard.

Shallie might technically be a princess, but much like Meruru she doesn’t have an ego about it.

And Stellard is where we meet our other protagonist: Shallotte Elminus, also coincidentally an alchemist in training nicknamed Shallie. Shallotte is a native of Stellard, doing her best to help her mother manage things by synthesizing goods and taking any jobs she can at the city’s Cooperative Union. These jobs mainly consist of picking trash up off of the streets so far, since she doesn’t yet have the recognition she wants from the Union or its president Raoul, but Shallotte is still ambitious and wants to make a name for herself as an adventuring alchemist. Or something like that.

Your endless optimism is killing me, Shallie, please stop.

Of course, fate brings these two girls together soon enough. On her way to Stellard, Shallistera’s ship is chased by a massive dragon, and while sailing full speed to escape it loses control and rams into Stellard’s harbor, causing serious damage. Thankfully, the local authorities and populace don’t really blame Shallistera and her party for this since they know about the dragons lurking around the sea, but it’s still an awkward introduction to Stellard considering they’ve come seeking aid.

So in order to gain the trust of the city, Shallistera agrees to help with their problems. It turns out that despite its reputation as a city of water, even Stellard is drying up, and threats like the dragon lurking around the Dusk Sea in their area aren’t helping matters. And in the course of her work using alchemy to help Stellard, Shallistera meets fellow young alchemist Shallotte. The pair quickly bond over the unlikely coincidence of their shared nickname and profession and agree to join forces to bring water back to the land and help everyone, both in Stellard and back in Lugion.

It’s here that the story really gets going. In this final game of the Dusk trilogy, your object is quite literally to try to save the world, since without any water sources everyone will obviously die sooner or later. All our characters are aware of the urgency of the situation, and while there still seems to be plenty of water flowing in Stellard at the moment (enough that there’s a “Water Festival” event with all the girls in swimsuits late in the game supposedly meant to honor the Lord of Water or something, which hell, you won’t hear me complaining about that even so) things are absolutely dire at this point, even more so than in Escha & Logy, which dealt directly with the world’s declining environment.

Despite that urgency, Atelier Shallie is the first game out of the modern set of Atelier titles, starting with the original Rorona in 2009, that eliminates the series’ time management element. It’s no longer necessary to keep track of any calendars or clocks while in the field or the atelier — you can now do whatever the hell you want without worrying about running out of time and getting a bad end. While I got more or less used to the time management in these games, especially in its more lenient form in Escha & Logy, it was nice to be free from the calendar for once.

As far as I’m aware, Shallie also marked the end of time management in Atelier as a whole, aside from one deadline in the later PS4 entry Atelier Firis that I hear is so easy to meet it’s barely worth mentioning. I don’t know how long-time series fans feel about all this, but though I can appreciate some things about it as I wrote in my Ayesha review, I ultimately don’t mind seeing this aspect of the games go. Even if Shallie has a plot that would have made a time limit very easy to justify.

I wonder if there are any parallels we can draw between this world and our own? No, probably not.

Unlike the other games in the trilogy, then, Shallie is broken not into months and years but chapters, ten in total. After choosing which Shallie you want to play as, the first chapter begins, starting with some plot advancement through character events and dialogue during which you’ll be given tasks to complete. Once the Shallie you’ve chosen as your protagonist (I’ll mostly refer to them as Stera and Lotte from now on, a convention that the game itself starts following around the story’s halfway mark) has completed the major story-related tasks she’s been given, the chapter moves into a sort of free mode in which she’s able to practice her alchemy and explore the world gathering ingredients and beating up monsters for money and experience. You have the option of moving on to the next chapter once you’ve fulfilled enough “life tasks”, which you can check on the menu screen, but you can also stick around in free time after meeting those requirements if you don’t feel like progressing right away.

And you might not want to move on immediately, because the Cooperative Union offers a lot of lucrative jobs in the form of combat and synthesis requests. This time you get real money instead of just candy for your troubles, which is useful since you’re not getting a government stipend this time around. Stera and Lotte also don’t have to submit reports to the bureaucrat Solle (who is still around; he’s moved to Stellard to help with the Dusk problem and has set up shop in the Union, but he’s a little more mellowed out now, which is nice. He even joins your active party this time.)

As usual, your party grows pretty quickly. In addition to the two Shallies, who can both use items in battle, you’re joined by new characters like the treasure hunter Jurie and her dour alchemist younger sister Miruca, Stera’s protector Kortes, and the katana-wielding homunculus Homura, along with returning characters like Escha and Wilbell. A few of these characters also offer their services in ingredient gathering and item creation. Solle delivers reports about the changing environment around Stellard that can affect enemy and ingredient density in certain field areas. And then there’s Miruca, who fills the role of the modern-style alchemist that Logy took last game — she’s the one you’ll be going to for your advanced weapons and armor. (Logy does show up eventually if you’re playing Plus or one of the DX versions to help Escha out a chapter or two after she arrives in Stellard, but he doesn’t have a workshop this time around. Thankfully, he’s a great asset in battle, so he does have more to do than filling out Solle’s endless paperwork. Lucky for him.)

That old-style alchemy Miruca made reference to above comes in yet another form in Atelier Shallie. This time, ingredients have from 0 to 4 slots that can be filled with attributes that hopefully improve the resulting item. While it’s still partly based on the Ayesha alchemy system, it’s much easier to use, easier even than the elemental point system in Escha & Logy, and I have no complaints at all about that. And since Stera and Lotte are both traditional alchemists, they use the same synthesis styles, so no complications there either.

A lot of things about Shallie seem streamlined for the player’s convenience: the removal of the time limit and calendar, the new alchemy mechanics, and even the combat system, which takes the Escha & Logy three member front line/three member back line and removes the positioning element, putting everyone in your party in a single line in front of the enemy. The only gameplay element that’s been complicated a bit is the search equipment setup, which now takes the form of a big grid that you have to fit your items into like a bunch of Tetris blocks. Why does the Globe attack item take the shape of a [ ? No idea, but you have to deal with that shit or else use an item attribute that reduces the space it takes up, which I did a lot.

On top of all that, Shallie looks pretty nice. This game was originally released on the PS3 in 2014, near the very end of that console’s life, and I imagine it gave that PS3 a real workout with some of the elaborate special attack animations in battle. I understand the original Shallie suffered from slowdown problems for that very reason. These issues are apparently even worse in Shallie Plus on the Vita — out of all the Plus versions, I’ve heard that Shallie is the closest to being unplayable only because the Vita couldn’t handle it, at least in the way it was ported over. I don’t know the first thing about the technical aspects of these issues, but I do know that the DX edition on the PS4 doesn’t have any such problems.

Making weapons at Miruca’s workshop.

As expected, the art and music are excellent as usual for the series. Hidari’s characters and CGs look great (I’m especially a fan of Miruca — I like those dour indoor types in general, and her “gothic lolita blacksmith” look is certainly unique, though how the hell she keeps that hair so curled all the time is a mystery.) And the settings this time are especially nice. Stellard really looks like it would be an appealing place to live, with a relaxed port city kind of vibe that makes me wish I were there hanging around in an outside bar in the warm breezy air.* Though maybe it would be more appealing if it were surrounded by an ocean of water than of sand, but then, even some of the wastes in and around the Dusk Sea you explore to fight enemies and gather ingredients look nice in their way.

Considering all the polish on it and the streamlining and quality of life improvements made to the gameplay, you might think Shallie DX would be a good place to start for an Atelier beginner, even despite the fact that it’s at the end of a trilogy. After all, the Atelier games I’ve played so far are usually pretty self-contained stories even when they’re parts of larger narratives, and in a very general sense, Shallie is the same way.

However, I’d advise strongly against playing Shallie if you haven’t at least played Escha & Logy first because of just how much it focuses on characters from the first two games in the trilogy and their stories in the course of its narrative. Stera and Lotte have their own stories, of course, and these largely involve new characters like Jurie, Miruca, and Kortes. However, the returning characters take up a lot of screen time, and while much of that time is spent talking with and working alongside Stera and Lotte, a lot of it also involves references to past events in Ayesha and especially in Escha & Logy that entirely new players would have no idea about.

Of course, the Shallies have no idea about any of this either, and very often in cutscenes they’re listening in on their seniors’ conversations, taking a more passive role in that sense. That’s not unusual, since around the middle of the game they’re surrounded by more accomplished alchemists who they look up to, most notably the protagonists of the first two games in the trilogy. However, it might put the player in a weird position if they have no idea about the importance of the seed Escha brought over from Colseit, for instance, or about the unusual relationship between Keithgriff and Ayesha — and they wouldn’t if they haven’t played through the rest of Dusk.

The reunion scenes between Escha and Logy also mean a lot more if you’ve played their game and know about the stuff they went through together, and especially if they were into each other in your own playthrough like they were in mine. There’s some of that energy here in Shallie too.

For that reason, I think that if you start with Atelier Shallie you might feel a bit lost in its story. This is even more the case because Shallie provides a true conclusion to the Dusk series and to its larger “dying world” narrative. Even Atelier Meruru, which relied heavily on returning characters in the Arland trilogy, didn’t feel like an ending to the story in the same way, since Arland was quite a bit lighter in tone and took a more slice-of-life approach than Dusk (which might be why it’s the one that got a fourth installment in Atelier Lulua much later on — it’s probably easier to add another sequel to a series like that.)

Of course, if you want to start near the end of that story, you’re free to do so, and you can probably get a lot out of Shallie on its own. I just think it’s more satisfying if you play through it understanding what the hell Escha, Logy, Solle, Wilbell, Ayesha, and the rest of the returning characters are talking about when they get into past events in conversation, which happens quite a lot. And unlike in Escha & Logy, some of these past events have immediate importance to the plot. I’d say you can even get away with playing Escha & Logy first, though Ayesha is a good game too, so why not just start at the beginning?

Katla, originally from Escha & Logy, trying to convince the Shallies to join her morally questionable water-hoarding scheme.

None of this is a fault against Atelier Shallie, really. It was clearly designed to be the finale to this story about a world on the brink of death, and I think it pulls that off well enough. However, the relationship between Stera and Lotte did seem weirdly loose and rushed in places. Shortly after they meet, for example, Stera is already thinking about her approach to the drought situation in terms of what Lotte would do, treating her more like a very old friend than someone she’d just met a few days or a week ago. The same is true for Lotte in a few parts of her story. The two clearly contrast in some ways — Stera being more methodical and careful and Lotte being freer and more impulsive — and while the dynamic between Escha and Logy in their own game worked really well partly for that reason, in Shallie that relationship feels a little flatter.

To be fair, the game never really depicts the two as joined at the hip, though they clearly see each other as friends. They do have a major argument partway through their stories that gets resolved fairly quickly, but other than that, their relationship doesn’t change all that much other than their dropping the use of “Shallie” to refer to each other and picking up the nicknames Stera and Lotte instead, seemingly in a mutual acknowledgement that they’re very different kinds of people. I liked that one subtle change in their relationship, but in general, where they end up doesn’t seem very different from where they started out.

I have to say this is a really cute CG and scene, though it feels unusually intimate for these two considering what comes before and after it.

The removal of the time limit also changes the pace of the story in some weird ways. Though I’m not exactly lamenting the passing of that old Atelier time management tradition here, the way Shallie deals with pacing is a little awkward. Once you’re done with your main story tasks and enter the second “free time” half of a chapter, you have to fulfill a certain number of tasks Stera or Lotte have on their list before proceeding. This is really easy to do; you can pretty much synthesize and fight monsters and fulfill requests for money freely and you’ll naturally hit that target after a while.

However, if you’re taking too long messing around, your protagonist’s “happiness meter” will fall. This didn’t seem like a big deal at first, but then I noticed Shallie (Stera in my case in the first playthrough) started literally slowing down — her walking and running speed slowed dramatically. This is how the game encourages you to stay on track without the old time limit. Once you’ve hit your life task goal and are ready to move on to the next chapter, the game prompts you to do so, but it doesn’t force you — you can stick around in your current chapter if you feel like it, but in some cases you’ll be stuck on this slow mode until you move on.

This is a novel way to try to keep players on track without the calendar and time limit mechanic, but it also feels kind of artificial and frustrating. It also happens sometimes even if you’re doing your best to stay on track, especially around the middle of the game when there’s a lot to get done, though by the end of the game at least your happiness meter stays at maximum so you can finish up whatever you were planning to do before moving on to the final fight.

Like killing this giant thing. It just showed up out of nowhere, actually scared me for a second. Powerful enemies like this will start spawning in previously cleared areas after a while.

But Shallie still has plenty of positive points about it. The choice of protagonist this time around matters a little more than last time, since unlike Escha and Logy who basically are joined at the hip (even in this version of Shallie) Stera and Lotte largely take their own paths, especially in the early chapters of the game. Even after their stories converge around chapters 4 and 5, the two practice alchemy in different settings, Stera on her ship and Lotte in her mother’s house. And generally speaking, they know they have their own paths to follow, though their friendship is always maintained as a central aspect of the game. For that reason, I’d say you get a bit more out of a second playthrough of Shallie in terms of variety than in Escha & Logy.

The game also does sum up some of the returning characters’ stories nicely, especially Ayesha, Odelia, and Keithgriff’s that started all the way back in Atelier Ayesha. The same is even true for a couple of non-returning characters, one of whom is even tied in to a major plot point that explains some of the side events in Escha & Logy. So if you have played the trilogy straight through, Shallie provides some satisfying wrap-ups in that sense.

And though there are some things I didn’t love about the game’s execution, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the game as a whole, because I did. Atelier Shallie is well-made and adds some more colorful and interesting characters to the Dusk story. The alchemy is still satisfying, especially if you’re an obsessive like me. And I really did like Stera and Lotte as the protagonists, setting aside the aspects of their relationship that felt weirdly out of place or rushed.

But to fully appreciate this game, I think again that you need to play Shallie after you’ve gotten through at least some and preferably all of the rest of the Dusk trilogy. This might seem like a stupidly obvious statement, since Shallie is the last game in the series, but since Atelier games are so often touted for working well as standalone games, I think this needs to be mentioned. It would be a shame to play a game like this without being able to fully appreciate it, anyway.

Lotte is still a bit much to take sometimes though. That doesn’t change.

And that’s it for Atelier Shallie and for the Dusk series as a whole. I bought the Dusk Trilogy DX package last year, and I’m happy that I’ve finally played through the whole thing. It’s a unique, interesting, and enjoyable trilogy of games, and as a whole it’s well worth playing through as long as you’re not allergic to turn-based JRPGs or bored shitless by gathering ingredients and crafting items. If you are, you’d better just avoid Atelier entirely, at least up to the Ryza games, which have adopted a kind of hybrid turn-based/action system of combat.

Speaking of that, the first Atelier Ryza is the next Atelier game I’m playing. Yes, I’m skipping over the Mysterious series for the moment, though I do intend to get the recently released DX package at some point. However, I think I need a break from Atelier for a while now. I have a few other games to get around to.

But rest assured: I’m not even close to done with this series yet, and at the rate Gust puts these games out (about one a year) I may never be done with it. And that’s fine with me. You can’t have too much of a good thing, at least not in this case. 𒀭

 

* Is it pretty obvious that I need a fucking vacation? I guess it is now.

A review of Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky (PS4)

I’m really plowing through Atelier now. Only one month after writing about Atelier Ayesha, I didn’t think I’d be done with the next game in the series so soon. But Escha & Logy is just that kind of game — the kind that pulls you in and refuses to let you go. Or at least that’s what it was for me.

Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky is the middle game in the Dusk trilogy of the much larger Atelier series. While it continues along in the same world and features some returning characters, it’s a more or less self-contained story like almost every Atelier game seems to be, so you don’t have to start from Ayesha to understand what’s going on here. All you’ll miss out on are some references to Ayesha and her situation that aren’t critical to the central plot of Escha & Logy. So don’t worry about starting from the middle if that’s what you plan on doing, though if you’re buying the Dusk trilogy as a package as it’s commonly sold, I’d still recommend starting from the beginning with Ayesha (though of course it is possible to buy any of these games separately as well if you don’t want to take that plunge, and Escha & Logy stands well enough on its own in that regard.)

Also, just a note that as before, this is a review of the DX edition released on the PS4. I can’t comment very much on any of the other versions since I haven’t played them.

Note that there are two names in this game’s title and a plural Alchemists in there: this time around, we have two protagonists instead of one. Our story begins in a small government office in the frontier town of Colseit, where two young alchemists have just been hired to join the Research and Development department. Escha Malier is a girl native to the town who grew up practicing traditional alchemy (the “stir a bunch of stuff in a giant cauldron” type we’re familiar with from past games) and she’s joined by a new arrival from Central City, Logix Ficsario aka Logy, who uses more modern, specialized forms of alchemy and is totally unfamiliar with Escha’s practices.

But they’ll have to work together. Marion Quinn, their direct superior (and the first of several familiar faces if you’ve played Ayesha) has the duty of restoring both the reputation and the budget of Colseit’s branch R&D office by showing its value to Central City, and Escha and Logy’s alchemy and exploration skills will be vital to these efforts.

Bureaucracy, budgeting, and resource management: now this is a god damn game

Escha and Logy couldn’t be more different in some respects. Aside from their different methods of alchemy, from day one it’s obvious that they have divergent personalities and outlooks on life in general. Escha approaches her work with a lot of excitement and with a sense of wonder. By contrast, while Logy is certainly serious about his work, he also comes off as a lot more grounded, trying to pull Escha back when he thinks her ideas are a bit out there.

This gap between Escha and Logy becomes more obvious when talk comes up about the Unexplored Ruins, a massive ruin built by a lost past civilization that somehow floats in the air. Nobody knows how it’s floating or how or why it was built, but Escha’s cousin, the airship engineer Awin, dreams about exploring it and tells Escha and Logy that he’d like to build an airship capable of somehow making it through the dangerous debris surrounding the ruin. Escha encourages Awin and says she’d love to explore the ruins too, but Logy is skeptical about the whole thing. While he’s naturally interested in whatever mysteries the ruin has to offer, if it’s basically impossible to make it there, what’s the point of thinking about it in the first place?

This hot and cold sort of odd couple dynamic between Escha and Logy works really well. It’s not played up to a ridiculous point where their differences are exaggerated — as before, our protagonists and their friends feel like pretty believable and sometimes relatable sorts of characters — but their differences are still stark enough to make their relationship more interesting. And probably partly because of that, when the game gets around to a little bit of drama between the two later on, it feels believable as well.

Escha and Logy’s differences complement each other nicely in the story, but these are also worked into the gameplay, especially when you’re working in the atelier. When you start Escha & Logy, you have the choice of playing as either protagonist, but the choice doesn’t matter all that much aside from getting some story details particular to one or the other in each playthrough. You’ll be working together for the entire game anyway; there are certain things that only Escha knows how to do, and certain other things that only Logy can do, so they have to rely on each other. Since Escha is versed in traditional alchemy, she performs all the item synthesis, while Logy uses his modern techniques to create new weapons and disassemble relics found in the field and dungeon areas to break them down to their component ingredients. And since they’re both alchemists, they can both use items in battle, which is a massive benefit once your alchemy level starts rising.

Who would have thought making an apple tart could be so complicated? I can’t bake at all, so for all I know, this is what it’s like in real life too.

Escha and Logy don’t have the freedom to do whatever they like, because there’s still more time management in this game. However, unlike Ayesha, which sticks you with a single goal and a three-year time limit to achieve it, Escha & Logy is broken down into several four-month terms. At the beginning of each term, you have a staff meeting with Marion, who reviews your work in the previous term and gives you your new assignments. These are broken into a 5 by 5 bingo card-looking grid, with one mandatory assignment to complete in the center and optional secondary assignments surrounding it.

Failing to complete the mandatory assignment results in a game over, so that’s where your efforts should always be directed first, but it’s always worth trying to fill out the entire grid for the alchemy and combat bonuses they give you (and also to get praised by Marion, which is a plus in itself. Or maybe I just like hearing more of her ara ara onee-san style voice. Am I showing my hand too much here?)

Since they’re government employees, Escha and Logy also have to receive approval for their expenses from the government based in Central City, and to do that, they have to go through resident bureaucrat Solle Grumman. This guy might seem like a real jerk at first, but he’s actually on your side — more or less, anyway. In addition to Marion’s assignments, Solle offers item synthesis and monster-killing requests for you to fulfill that he’ll pay you for in sweets that you can give to the resident homunculus (the small furry animal-looking guys) who use their magic to replicate items. This is an incredibly useful function that you’ll want to use to save time and energy, especially later on in the game when you’ll be trying to create items and gear with special and rare properties.

The upside to being government employees is that you’ll get a monthly stipend, the size of which depends on how much productive activity you’ve engaged in that month fulfilling Solle’s requests, fighting monsters out in the field, or creating items in the atelier. This was a nice break from my playthrough of Ayesha, where Ayesha had a nearly empty purse most of the time. Despite all the griping about how arrogant and shitty the central government is to its branch offices, they don’t skimp on those stipends.

I know this screenshot makes Escha & Logy look like some kind of anime Bureaucracy Simulator game, but bureaucracy has its benefits too.

And as always, you’ll have outside help from friends both old and new while running around in the field and dungeon areas. Escha & Logy again features a map with a lot of areas to discover and explore, monsters to fight, and ingredients to gather, and the pair is joined in the field by returning characters like Linca, Wilbell, and Nio (the very same Nio you were tasked with rescuing in Atelier Ayesha) and new characters like Awin, badass fighter/historian Threia, and child merchant Katla, whose irresponsible as hell parents left her all alone to manage their store while they’re out traveling the world. But she does try to rip you off a whole lot, so it’s hard to feel too bad for her.

Katla is a damn brat, but despite how she looks and acts, she’s an asset in a fight.

Each game I’ve played in the Atelier series so far has managed to create its own special character and feel distinct from the others. Escha & Logy, despite having a similar look to Ayesha with the same character designer and artists and taking place in the same world, plays very differently. While Ayesha was focused more on exploration, Escha & Logy puts a big emphasis on item and gear synthesis and creation. Its base alchemy system is taken partly from Ayesha, but it feels a little more intuitive. Which is good, because you’ll probably be doing a hell of a lot of alchemy to fulfill requests and especially to maximize the value of your time out in the field.

Organizing Escha and Logy’s gear before going out to the field. Items this time around are automatically replenished when you return to base. However, you have limited space to carry them, and other party members aside from the protagonists can’t carry anything, so resource management is once again a must.

The old turn-based combat system has also been improved, with a new three-member front line and three-member reserve setup in which your back line characters can offer supporting attacks and swap into the front line if needed. This new system is a lot more engaging than the more basic combat featured in Ayesha, so people who get bored with more standard forms of turn-based combat might find something to like here. Having two alchemists in the party also comes with great benefits: Escha and Logy can learn new joint techniques later on in the game that really help when trying to take down massively powerful bosses. Working out how to use Double Draw effectively is necessary to deal with the most challenging fights.

This dragon looks difficult, but it’s nowhere near the most frustrating fight in the game. Also see Escha here, perfectly suited for combat in a wedding dress bonus costume. I don’t even remember why I put this on her, but it looks pretty funny seeing her and Logy fight in wedding gear.

Speaking of wedding gear, there’s the Escha-Logy relationship, which as far as I know is unique in the series. This isn’t the only game that features a choice of protagonist,1 but it is the only one I know of that seriously suggests a romance between them, or between any characters who aren’t already together for that matter. It’s still a very light element of the game and not central to the plot at all, so light in fact that it wasn’t even featured in the PS3 original. But from Escha & Logy Plus on the Vita on to the DX editions, the player has had the choice in some conversations between two dialogue options, one friendly and the other romantic, each choice helpfully indicated by a smile and a heart. So it’s up to the player: if you want to imagine Escha and Logy as just good friends, you can keep things strictly platonic, but if you want something more between them, you can go the romance route, and you’ll get some extra bits of dialogue that show they have feelings for each other and that other characters recognize they might be getting especially close.

Usually these games don’t touch on romance very much at all aside from some extremely coy “these two girls might be into each other” yuri stuff (probably more prominent in the Arland series — see Rorona and Cordelia, Totori and Mimi, and Meruru and Keina.) It’s more explicit here, though, and I don’t mind that.2 And really, Escha and Logy seem like they’d make a good couple anyway. Opposites attracting and all that stuff. I know that’s a bit of a cliché, but these two have great chemistry, and they’re the sorts of opposites who could actually complement each other well, so the option doesn’t feel forced at all.

All that said, I still wonder what drew me in specifically about Atelier Escha & Logy so quickly. I’ve basically enjoyed every game in the series I’ve played so far, but none of the others captured me in the way this one did. The entertaining dynamic between the two main characters is definitely part of it — it was pretty fun seeing how Escha and Logy reacted to new situations and played off of each other.

The CGs featured in a lot of these situations were also a draw; the art in Escha & Logy is just as good as ever. And yeah, Escha’s tail is explained in the game. I was wondering about it too.

I think it has to do with the structure of the game as well. I found that breaking the action into smaller four-month pieces rather than having one massive three-year task to complete made the game more approachable than Ayesha and Meruru. I don’t know if this was Gust’s intention, but it felt like a throwback to Atelier Rorona, which featured similar three-month goals to complete. The time pressure in Rorona still felt greater, too, at least from what I remember. Escha & Logy certainly wants to keep you on track, but it gives you all the resources you need to complete everything well within its time constraints. In just about every term, I was able to finish all my tasks so early that I had plenty of free time to develop my alchemy skills and explore as I wished.

I also like the way the story of the game is rooted in its setting. The World of Dusk we first explored in Atelier Ayesha was clearly in serious decline, with vegetation dying off and land drying up in parts, but things didn’t look quite so bad in Ayesha’s part of the world, and the game didn’t focus on that aspect so much anyway. Escha & Logy, by contrast, is directly concerned with the declining environment and its effects on human life — many of Escha and Logy’s tasks have to do with exploring the causes of these changes, examining drying water sources and using alchemy to try to improve harvest yields. Colseit is a kind of oasis in this part of the world with its apple orchards, but it’s not immune from the effects of these catastrophic changes either. And as in Ayesha, it’s implied that the misuse of alchemy by the fallen past civilization caused many of these problems.3

The team exploring a volcano/lava flow. Nio’s sister Ayesha is an important part of this “responsible use of alchemy” theme. Given how much she’s brought up on the side here, maybe we’ll meet her again in the next game. I’d like to see what’s happening with her too.

There’s also the usual praise I have to give to the art and music. As far as the character design goes, I think Hidari fully measures up to Mel Kishida at this point. And I really like the jazz and prog flavor in the soundtrack. The connection isn’t a big surprise, because I’m pretty sure someone at Gust is a big fan of Yes — there are battle tracks in this game titled “Close to the Edge Part 2” and “Don’t Kill the Dragon”, and I can absolutely see the prog influence in a few tracks (like The Tiger of Dorothea, sounds ELP-ish? Maybe with a mix of fusion with that guitar. I like it.) Also, the opening theme Milk-Colored Pass is excellent.

Since I’ve been nothing but positive about Atelier Escha & Logy up until now, I may as well drop a few potential negatives about the game, starting with its increased emphasis on learning and using alchemy to create better items. The space restrictions you have to deal with throughout aren’t too unreasonable, but they do require you to do some work to fit as much power as you can into Escha and Logy’s setups. And near the end of the game, you’re thrown into a very long one-year-plus final term with a special assignment in which you’re encouraged to do some extremely precise alchemy to get very particular high-level attributes on items and gear so you can take on difficult bosses (and to carry over to the second playthrough if you’re going for the true ending, which you can’t even get on the first since it requires you to complete both Escha and Logy’s stories anyway.)

Which means you have to run through all these field and dungeon areas twice if you want that true ending, but the second time around it will be a lot quicker as long as you have your new game plus overpowered weapons, armor, and accessories equipped.

None of this is actually a negative point for me, since I liked this aspect of it, but it may be for some players who prefer the exploration and combat aspects of JRPGs like these. And it might not even be true for you depending on how you play the game. This is just how I felt the game pushed me to play, given the challenges it threw at me and the tools I had to deal with them. Like the others, it doesn’t absolutely force you to play in any particular way, but if you don’t use those tools it provides effectively, you might have a harder time.

Another possible issue is the game’s tendency to throw you into boss fights without much warning. This happens a few times in Escha & Logy, and I can see it being a pain for some players who might prefer a hint as to what’s coming so they can be properly prepared. On the other hand, the game might be using this as a way to hammer home the old Boy Scouts’ motto “always be prepared.” I was never a Boy Scout, so I was caught off guard when this happened and just managed to scrape by. On the plus side, I appreciated the challenge the game provided in these fights — though I was thrown into them, I could also deal with them by using proper tactics in battle and by having a mix of powerful attack and healing items.

Protip: Make Knowledge Books

Finally, there’s the problem with certain item and effect names and descriptions in this game. I’d say the above two points aren’t flaws at all but rather purposeful design aspects of Escha & Logy that some players might not enjoy. However, this one is undoubtedly a flaw, and not an insignificant one. For one example, item effects in Atelier Ayesha followed the very familiar “S -> M -> L” small, medium and large naming convention also followed by t-shirt manufacturers and fast food places, but Escha & Logy inexplicably flips this order, with L denoting the weakest and S the strongest effect. So now instead of small to medium to large, the scale now presumably runs from light to moderate to strong or something like it.

If that had been the convention the trilogy and the series as a whole had been following until now, it would have been fine, but it wasn’t, and changing it like this is bizarre and confusing. And hell if it doesn’t go right back to the old small, medium, and large system in the following game Atelier Shallie, meaning you have to unlearn this dumb shit and mentally readjust anyway if you’re playing straight through the whole Dusk trilogy as I am.

One entry in the game’s large library. This one makes it sound like Escha and Logy can access the Midnight Hour, but unfortunately the Time Watch doesn’t actually work that way.

This issue extends to some of the expanded descriptions in the library. Take the attribute Fixed Healing+ for an example. I had to look up what the flying fuck the game meant by Healing item is fairly enhanced by a set amount. The weaker the base power, the higher the effect. It vaguely makes sense, but what does it mean in real terms? That this effect is proportionally less powerful the more powerful the item is? I guess, but I’m still not sure how that works out in comparison with other healing-related attributes I could be using in synthesis instead. And if it’s a “set amount”, why does the second sentence imply that the amount can change based on the power of the item? Then it’s not actually a set amount, is it?

This might all be a stupid nitpick. However, Atelier games contain reams of information about monsters, weapons, accessories, and items and their associated effects in battle, and while some of this info is clearly just there for flavor and background, a lot of it’s actually useful to know when you’re synthesizing items. And when there are so many items, ingredients, and attributes available to play with when doing alchemy, clarity and consistency of language are necessary. I’m not sure how much of the weirdness in the descriptions in Escha & Logy came from the original Japanese release and how much was a result of a poor localization job, either. The S/M/L thing might have been an issue with the original, but the item descriptions feel like more of a bad translation issue. But I can’t say any of this for sure since I haven’t played the JP version of the game.

Whoever was responsible for this maybe should have taken a cue from the game and held a staff meeting to hammer it out, because it seems like an extremely avoidable problem. (Also I love Linca’s expression on the right. She’d rather be out killing dragons than dealing with paperwork. Sorry, Linca.)

Despite that pretty large annoyance, I’d say Escha & Logy is the best Atelier game I’ve played so far. If nothing else, it’s a credit to just how much this game drew me in that despite these issues, I finished Escha & Logy within one month of finishing Ayesha, and also given how much work I’ve had to do at the same time that wasn’t playing JRPGs. (If I could make a career out of that… but I’m not a cute anime girl with a streaming setup on YouTube or Twitch, so I have no chance.)

And now it’s on to the final game in the Dusk trilogy, Atelier Shallie. I’m already a few chapters into Shallie at the time of writing, so it shouldn’t be too long until I’m through with that as well. But before moving on, I should note that Escha & Logy got a 12-episode anime adaptation that I haven’t seen, as far as I know the only Atelier game to have this distinction. From what I hear, it’s not that great and I’m not missing anything by skipping it. My anime backlog is already way too long to add a show telling a story I already know, and then probably not as well as the source material did. If you saw it, though, feel free to let me know your thoughts about it in the comments. 𒀭

***

1 Atelier Shallie also has two protagonists, and I think Atelier Lydie & Suelle probably does as well based on the title alone. I went with Escha on my first run, but you have to play through the game as both Escha and Logy to get the true ending anyway, and thankfully the new game plus bonuses make that second run a lot easier.

2 I honestly wouldn’t mind slightly more explicit yuri stuff in these games either — not explicit in the 18+ sense of course, but more something like what Escha & Logy gives us. Then again, maybe all the hinting without actually coming out and saying it is what yuri fans really want. I can’t say for sure.

3 Even the names of the protagonists fit into this theme: Escha, with the ch pronounced as a hard “k” sound, Logy with a soft “g”, and the & pronounced to in Japanese, all jammed together, make the word eschatology, or the study of the end of the world. Wordplay based on an English word that only works if you use Japanese to get there, that’s pretty damn impressive.

A review of Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk (PS4)

It took a while, but I’m happy to say that my gap between Atelier games this time wasn’t nearly as long as my last one — six years between Rorona and Meruru, and only eight months between Meruru and Ayesha, the next game in the line chronologically (though yeah, I know Totori is still missing in that list, and I do intend to take care of that at some point. But I did finish this one, so let me bask in that for now at least. Finishing an Atelier game always feels like a big accomplishment.)

Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk originally came out on the PS3 in 2012, but like the Arland games that preceded it, it got an upgraded Plus release on the Vita and the DX version that I played on the PS4, along with ports on the Switch and PC. With this game, however, we’re leaving behind the colorful world of Arland and traveling to a somewhat bleaker one. Atelier Ayesha and the following two titles Atelier Escha & Logy and Atelier Shallie compose the Dusk trilogy, which takes place in a completely different world from that of the Arland games, one that’s falling apart: the World of Dusk, appropriately named for the time of the day just before night falls. From the very beginning of Ayesha, we learn that plant life has been dying off and sources of nutrition are becoming scarcer in this world, forcing humanity to conserve its resources to survive.

But the story of the game is a lot more personal than that might suggest. We’re not out to save the world, but rather one person. The protagonist, Ayesha Altugle, is an apothecary who makes and sells medicine, but for years she’s also been mourning her younger sister, Nio, who disappeared one day while gathering herbs in a nearby ruin. At the beginning of the game, Ayesha visits the grave built for Nio in the same ruins and sees a brief ghostly vision of her sister above the headstone.

She’s not sure what to make of this vision at first and thinks it might be a hallucination brought on by grief. However, a mysterious man named Keithgriff who happens to be examining the ruins at the same time tells her that her sister isn’t dead and can be returned to their world, but only if Ayesha studies the secrets of alchemy. Before leaving, he also tells her that she probably only has three years to save Nio before she’s lost forever (yes, that old time limit from the Arland series is back again.)

Of course, we already know Ayesha is at least a beginner alchemist. She’s the protagonist of an Atelier game, after all. In fact, Ayesha uses alchemy to make medicine using methods her grandfather taught her, but she doesn’t realize that she’s using alchemy and isn’t even familiar with the term at first. While alchemy is well-known in the world of Arland, in the Dusk series, it seems to be a nearly lost art remembered only by scholars and professionals who have had to piece it together from old reference books and the scraps of past knowledge.

Ayesha is now convinced that Nio is still alive somewhere, so lacking any other lead, she decides to place her trust in Keithgriff’s promises and sets out on a journey to start learning about alchemy and to meet a few old friends and a lot of new ones, all of whom can help her in various ways.

Pictured center, my combat MVP Linca, and right, best girl Marion, out on government business.

There’s not much more to the central story than that. Ayesha has three years to save her sister, and aside from taking on some odd jobs to make money and following character-specific side stories, that’s what you’ll spend this three years working towards. Making it to that goal doesn’t automatically end the game, however: you’ll still have your three years to play with no matter what, time that can be used to prepare for a much easier second run with the benefits that a new game plus provides (rolling over your equipped weapons/armor/accessories, equipped “adventure” items that help you save time while traveling around the map and collecting ingredients among other things, specialized alchemy bonuses, items registered in shops, and money.)

As in previous Atelier games I’ve played, this takes a bit of the sting off of a bad end, since it more or less guarantees you’ll get it right the second time assuming you’ve properly prepared by equipping all the necessary items and selling off all your other items and ingredients before that second cycle begins. While they’re all helpful, that money carryover is especially nice, since I was perpetually short of Cole my first playthrough. All those alchemy books are expensive, but you’re required to buy them to learn new recipes and make more effective items.

Ayesha, just finding out she’s graduated from medicine-maker to weapons manufacturer.

This is only the third Atelier game I’ve played, and the first outside of the Arland series, so it partly felt like revisiting an old series but partly like playing a new one. There are plenty of similarities between Ayesha and the Arland titles I’ve played other than the imposition of a time limit. As before, the alchemy system is a central part of the gameplay. Learning how to efficiently gather ingredients in the field and create healing, support, and attack items with useful attributes is vital to doing well, both in combat and in fulfilling the requests of the townspeople and travelers you’ll come across in the course of Ayesha’s journey. The game also uses a traditional JRPG-style turn-based combat system with the twist once again that the alchemist character Ayesha is the only one who can use items, giving her an extremely important support role in battle.

However, there are more than enough differences between the two sub-series I’ve found so far to make Ayesha feel like a fresh experience. While alchemy is again a critical part of the game, the system you’ll have to learn is very different, involving synthesis restrictions and bonuses and special abilities that weren’t present in the Arland games. Having to learn this new system of alchemy was a little jarring coming off of Meruru, but it was intuitive enough not to be annoying to figure out, and pretty soon I was used to it. It does feel more complex than the alchemy system in Arland, so new players might be slightly intimidated by all the point values and effects and all the other numbers that go into even the simplest synthesis, but the game also has tutorials to watch if you need anything clarified.

I promise this all makes sense once you have it down.

Another big difference in Ayesha and the Dusk trilogy as a whole is the artistic direction. Artist and character designer Hidari’s style has a very different feel from Mel Kishida’s, but I still like it a lot. The game’s world and characters as a whole feel less colorful than they did in Arland, but that fits in well with the dying world of Dusk, and it all still manages to look beautiful in its own right (though I do miss the visual novel-style character portraits during dialogue that we got throughout Arland, but those seem to be gone forever at this point. Maybe I’m just being behind the times here.)

And the characters are still colorful enough in the figurative sense, at least. Ayesha’s old and new friends alike are an interesting set of people of all kinds — miners, merchants, shopkeepers, shepherds, and government officials among others, all with their own quirks and their parts to play in the story. As in Rorona and Meruru, these supporting characters aren’t one-note types but feel sufficiently fleshed out, and there are plenty of entertaining side stories to play through while you take on the central tasks of improving your combat and alchemy skills and taking the necessary steps to find and rescue Nio.

All business in town goes through Marietta, and don’t forget it

It’s also worth noting one major positive I found in Ayesha that I felt to be an improvement in that “quality of life” area. When Keithgriff told Ayesha on day one that she’d have three years to save Nio, I knew exactly what that meant — you have three years to get this done, no exceptions. Meruru also had a strict three-year time limit to achieve its central goal, though with a two-year extension and a new target if you managed to achieve it in that period.

Princess Meruru’s goal of “show Dad I can help the kingdom through alchemy so he’ll let me do what I want with my life” was not quite as urgent or serious as Ayesha’s goal of “save my sister from the shadow realm”, but thankfully, Ayesha offsets this by being more forgiving. As before, traveling across the map between towns and field/dungeon areas eats up days, as does gathering ingredients in field areas and using these ingredients to synthesize new items at the workshop. But unlike Meruru, who had to return to Totori’s atelier to do all her alchemy, Ayesha gets to set up several ateliers all over the land, making it easier to manage her time. Battles in Ayesha also feel like they take a lot less time off of the clock than they did before, though I’d have to go back to play Meruru again to say that for sure.

A very early-game battle including Ayesha’s old friend Regina and her new friend Wilbell. Your party is capped at three members, your main character plus two extras as in earlier games. Remember to have Ayesha use those items in combat, because they make her life and yours a lot easier.

Really, as long as you don’t spend months running around in circles or synthesizing items you don’t need, it’s not too hard to reach your goal before time runs out. I had about eight months left on the calendar when I was finished, and my run was not an optimal first pass at the game by any means. I still don’t know if I’d say that Ayesha is necessarily the place to start for an Atelier newcomer who might not be comfortable with the time limit, since it can be a source of stress — I haven’t played any of them yet, but I understand that the later Mysterious trilogy and the Ryza games drop that element altogether. But Ayesha does feel more forgiving about time management than past games,* so I wouldn’t warn new players off of it either.

I used to be a bit bothered by the forced time management aspect of these games myself, but thinking about it now in a more positive light, that time limit can help keep you on track, focused on the central goal of the game. There’s no running around and carrying out lighthearted sidequests while the horrible impending apocalypse is indefinitely put on hold, as happens in so many non-linear RPGs. These PS3-era Atelier games are a bit more linear for that reason, but they don’t exactly shove you down a single track either; you still get to choose exactly how to achieve your goals. Hell, if you don’t mind getting a bad end and restarting with an easier second run, that’s an option too. Admittedly not an ideal one, but with how many endings they feature, these games are made to be played multiple times anyway, another aspect that sets them apart from most other JRPGs.

Ayesha out in the field near the end of Year 1. The calendar always starts on April 1 for some reason, so it will flip to Year 2 once March is done.

In any case, I was thankful for the relative leniency of Ayesha, even if that three-year time limit was never really explained very well (why three years exactly? It made sense in Meruru, but here it seems arbitrary. Maybe Keithgriff knows the reason and he’s just not telling us, which would be completely in character.) Though I still had to manage my time, I didn’t feel like I was on quite as short of a leash as I did when I was playing Meruru. I also didn’t feel the need to reload an old save this time thanks to some bullshit moving dungeon that contained an ingredient I didn’t realize I absolutely needed until it had already moved, causing me to lose a few in-game months that I couldn’t do without. While I generally don’t mind the time limits in the Atelier series so far, that absolutely pissed me off. Unlike Meruru, Ayesha didn’t fuck around with me in that manner, which I consider a plus.

On the other hand, I enjoyed the world of Arland a bit more, though part of that might have been seeing old characters I knew and liked from Rorona show up again. I wouldn’t say I have any real nostalgia for 2014, when I played my first Atelier game (it was also when I finished my first year at law school, which was an ordeal that I don’t have totally positive memories of) but it did add something to the experience. There also wasn’t nearly as much talk about making pie in Ayesha as there was in those older games, or any at all from what I remember. I’m more of a cake guy, but I like pie as well, and the inability to synthesize it in this game was a bit of a drawback.

These chicken pastry things are the closest you can get, and though they do look good, I don’t think they count as pies in the traditional sense.

Bullshit aside, Ayesha really did have a very different feel from the Arland games, but I enjoyed it more than enough to move on to the next game in the Dusk series. I own the entire Dusk trilogy in its deluxe package form on the PS4, and I plan to make it through the whole thing this year. That’s my hope, at least. I’ve heard especially good things about the following game Atelier Escha & Logy, which I’ve already started as of this writing, so I look forward to seeing how it measures up and how it carries on the wider story of the World of Dusk.

I’m also looking forward to hearing more of the series’ music. I’m already loving the jazz lounge class of Escha & Logy, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. Ayesha has an excellent soundtrack, anyway, which seems to be standard for the series. One of the songs, according to the composer’s notes in the game’s library, even features 17 Haruka Shimotsukis. If you know that name, you’ll instantly know the song I’m talking about when you hear it. 𒀭

 

*I’ve heard Totori is even more demanding with regard to the time limit, but again, I haven’t played it yet so I can’t say. Maybe once I get Japanese down well enough, I’ll try to play the original JP release. That could be an interesting measure of my skills, or possibly a slap in the face when I realize I still can’t read kanji beyond a second-grade level.

A review of Blue Reflection (PS4)

Here’s a post that’s been a long time coming. From the very back of my backlog, or at least the backlog I’m actively keeping track of, comes Blue Reflection, a JRPG developed by Gust and released in 2017. Gust is principally known for the extremely long-running Atelier series (see Rorona and Meruru and a bunch of others) but Blue Reflection was something very different — instead of the fantasy Renaissance European cities and towns we’re used to from that series, we get a modern Japanese high school setting, and instead of an alchemist for our protagonist, we get a magical girl. This game was created under the supervision of Mel Kishida, the character designer and artist who also worked on Gust’s Atelier Arland games, and apparently he really wanted to make a magical girl game.

And that’s just what Blue Reflection is. If you’re looking for a game that fulfills the requirements “turn-based JRPG” and “has magical girls” this is probably the title that will come up first. You likely won’t be disappointed with the result either, at least as long as you’re in that very specific demographic. Blue Reflection does feel like it has niche appeal, which might partly explain the mixed reviews and generally cold reception it seems to have gotten here in the US outside of the hardcore Gust fan circle; I don’t even see it brought up much among JRPG fans in general. Which is really too bad — it does have flaws, but I found Blue Reflection a unique and interesting game. At the very least, you can’t say it’s like any other game out there (barring some possible Japan-only games I’ve never gotten to play before.)

I’ll get into all that in depth below, however. And all without getting into plot/character spoilers beyond the basic story setup, so don’t worry about those this time around.

Japanese high school is no joke

This is our protagonist, Hinako Shirai. Before starting high school, Hinako had a promising future as a ballerina, but a leg injury has forced her to put those dreams on hold. Blue Reflection begins during her first year at the prestigious Hoshinomiya High School, a small all-girls school divided into special classes for those pursuing careers in the arts and sports and regular classes for everyone else. Now stuck in the regular class thanks to her injury, Hinako is understandably depressed about her situation.

Then she meets an unusual pair in her class, the twins Yuzuki and Raimu Shijou, or simply Yuzu and Lime. These two quickly befriend Hinako, and after hearing her story they decide to offer her a special gift: the power of the Reflector. Reflectors have the ability to enter the Common, a weird metaphysical mindscape full of demons that represent and are empowered by human emotions. When these emotions get out of control, the demons start to act up, and Hoshinomiya just happens to be on some kind of emotional fault line that’s causing its students to become especially distraught and wild. As a Reflector, Hinako will have the responsibility along with Yuzu and Lime to fight and subdue these demons, and by doing so they can help resolve their classmates’ emotional distress.

Hinako, Yuzu, and Lime in the only nice-looking section of the Common; the rest are pretty fucked up

And yeah, Reflectors are magical girls, complete with those transformation sequences you’ll know if you’ve watched any magical girl show ever made. Blue Reflection also features massive, monstrous bosses to battle in the form of the Sephira, who are trying to use all this emotional chaos to take over the world. So just like a proper magical girl, Hinako is now basically going to be tasked with saving humanity along with her new friends, assuming of course that she accepts the twins’ offer.

Hinako does accept, partly because Yuzu and Lime tell her by defeating the Sephira she’ll be able to gain a wish. For Hinako, this wish is obvious — in her current state, there’s no guarantee that she’ll ever be able to dance again, so she reasons that this is a sure way to heal her leg and get back on stage.

Hinako at home reflecting on her situation (get it?! …yeah, sorry.)

The game proceeds along this path, with Hinako spending her days at school studying, making new friends, and fighting shadow monsters using her magical girl powers. The story is broken into chapters, each of which starts out with some major event usually leading to a big boss fight, and then to a block the game calls “Free Time” in which you’re free to run around school talking to fellow students, solving their issues by fighting demons in the Common alongside Yuzu and Lime. Most of these chapters are also broken up by side character stories resulting in a new classmate for Hinako and co. to befriend.

This social element is only part of the game, however. Blue Reflection is still a turn-based JRPG and features plenty of fighting, mostly in the dreamlike world of the Common. Thankfully, this isn’t the plainest turn-based combat system around: Blue Reflection relies heavily on timing and using skills to slow down and knock back enemies. Hinako, Yuzu, and Lime also draw power from a common pool of “Ether” that they can charge up while fighting. Collecting enough Ether unlocks the massively powerful Overdrive ability, which allows the use of multiple skills in a single turn at reduced MP use rates.

The frilly dress is cool and all, but I wish I didn’t have to fight these weird deer monsters

Luckily for Hinako, the power of friendship isn’t just a metaphor for the happiness and fulfillment she gains from the confidants she makes throughout the game. It is that, sure, but it also adds to the magical girl trio’s actual strength in battle by manifesting as “Fragments” formed from said emotions that give various bonuses when equipped to skills. To that end, and also because it’s a good way to break up all the fighting, the player will spend most of the time they’re not fighting with their schoolmates, having lunch, playing sports, and going out to various spots in town to raise Hinako’s affection points.

Some of her friends are pretty damn weird, but they mean well. And despite the implications of the term “affection points”, no, there’s no dating in this game. Sorry if you’re a yuri fan; you’ll have to look elsewhere for that.

Now I might guess what some readers are thinking — isn’t this familiar? Isn’t there another series of games that are turn-based JRPG dungeon crawler/social sim hybrids and that use the protagonist’s links with their friends to support them in battle? Yeah, this game drew a lot of comparisons to the Persona series when it was released from what I remember. That it came out only months after the big hit Persona 5, which was still very much talked about at the time, probably contributed to those comparisons.

The Persona comparisons might have also led to some disappointment, because aside from their superficial similarities, Blue Reflection doesn’t feel at all like a Persona game. To its credit, it also doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be a pale imitation of Persona but rather to do its own thing entirely. Unlike Persona, which builds fairly realistic worlds full of people both in and outside the school setting to interact with, Blue Reflection concerns itself exclusively with Hinako and her classmates, ignoring almost everything else around them. Hoshinomiya High School is all filled out with students hanging around in classrooms, club rooms, the library, sports field, and courtyards, but the only points outside of school featured are the various hangout spots Hinako can visit with her friends and Hinako’s own room, where she prepares for her next day of school and goes to sleep. Though it’s implied that they are around, we never see any adults — not even a single teacher is seen at school, where almost every scene takes place after classes are out.

Hinako helping one of her generic non-story classmates through her existential crisis on the school roof. As you can see, there’s this whole town down there, but you never get to interact with anyone in it.

Moreover, unlike the calendars that the modern Persona games strictly follow, Blue Reflection doesn’t keep track of how many days you spend in free time hanging out with friends, going home, and returning to school. Unless it’s a lunch or school activity event, every one of these sends Hinako home when they’re finished, but the game doesn’t seem to mind if you spend a month or two during a chapter of free time (though I don’t think I ever got that far myself, just projecting based on what I did with Hinako’s schedule.) Eventually you’ll run out of events to watch in a given period anyway and will probably want to move on at that point by reporting your progress to Yuzu and Lime, but this quality gives Blue Reflection almost a strange Groundhog Day sort of feel even if that’s not what’s actually going on.

Another field in the Common, with enemies stalking around in the background.

However, it seems to me like that’s what the creators were going for. This might be a stretch, since I have no idea what their intentions actually were, but Blue Reflection has a dreamlike feel to me — everything from the weirdly sparse real world outside of the school to the surreal areas of the Common you have to visit to fight demons adds to that feel. Whether or not that was how they intended players to feel, Blue Reflection is clearly not trying to be a sort of budget Persona or anything like that. It’s too different in tone for me to get that impression.

The art and music in the game both contribute to that dreamlike feel as well. Mel Kishida seems to have had a huge influence on Blue Reflection as the supervisor, and a lot of the game feels like a showcase for his character and monster designs and his settings, which contrast strongly with each other in a way that I think works. The soundtrack by Hayato Asano, full of relaxing piano-based pieces and driving battle themes, is also excellent and enhances this feel. Even if you have no interest in this sort of game, I recommend at least checking out the OST.

If Yuzu and Lime’s constant social life management wears you out, at least you have nice music to listen to while you try to meet their demands before the story can progress.

I did bring up flaws at the top of this post, though, because Blue Reflection has some pretty glaring ones. The biggest issue I had with the game was its pacing, especially with a couple of seemingly major story beats that came up near the end and then resolved themselves so quickly they may as well not have happened. It’s strange to say, given how lenient the game is about letting Hinako take time out to hang around with her friends in between giant otherworldly monster attacks, but the story seemed very compressed by the end for this reason. These left me with a few gaps in characters’ judgments and reasonings, specifically in Hinako’s, that I think weren’t explained very well.

The game is also pretty damn easy. HP and MP are replenished after each encounter, so there’s no reason not to go all out in every fight you get into in the Common. After unlocking more advanced offensive skills, I was able to clean up most fights in the game with one massive all-enemy attack from Yuzu. And once you master the use of knockback skills, Ether collection, and Overdrive in battle, even end-game bosses become complete jokes. Hinako’s magical sword is the most powerful weapon in the world apparently. If she got to use it in the real world or while not fighting Sephira, she could probably take over the world herself (not that she’d really want to, though there is one character she’d definitely have to hide it from. If you’ve played Blue Reflection, you might know who I’m talking about.)

Hinako about to destroy another giant horrific world-eating monster

Finally, it generally feels like there was some untapped potential to expand the story and explore some of its characters and themes more deeply. Maybe there were budget or timeline issues in the game’s development. The translation is a bit sloppy with some typos left in the script, but that’s a localization problem, and Blue Reflection came out in North America six months after its Japanese release, so that doesn’t seem like it would indicate anything about the game being rushed out. So maybe there were no development issues and this game turned out exactly as the creators intended, though in that case I wish they’d added a bit more to the story and character interactions.

Even with these flaws, however, I liked Blue Reflection. The dreamlike, unreal nature of the whole experience was a positive in my mind. I thought it suited the story the game was telling, and it also set it apart from the other modern real-world setting JRPGs I’ve played. I haven’t seen much magical girl stuff really, so I don’t know if the story of Blue Reflection would be played out to someone who’s deep into that genre, but I also liked that the story dealt with themes of friendship that weren’t trite but actually dealt with loss of identity and sacrifice in a way that more or less worked.

Hey, I can read some of this finally. Not all, though. Thanks for reminding me I need to get back to my kanji studies, blackboard.

I get the feeling this is a highly personal sort of work. If you can’t get enveloped in the world and the atmosphere the game creates, or you’re just not into the style or look of it, you might just be bored and frustrated by it. I can understand why many players would feel that way about it, but I’m happy that I finally got around to playing Blue Reflection. There have been rumors of a sequel around for a few years now, and I hope if that happens that we get something even better, more polished and fully fleshed out.

A review of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim (PS4)

Where to start with this game? It’s hard to say, because there’s a lot to talk about here. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was announced all the way back at the Tokyo Game Show in 2015, but it came out late in 2019 in Japan and late in 2020, only a few months ago, in North America. While it wasn’t released to a lot of fanfare over here, anticipation seems to have been very high among fans of developer Vanillaware, known for their unique art style and great attention to detail with earlier titles like Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown.

The big question in these cases is whether the game was worth the long wait. I can’t claim I was one of those fans waiting for five years on the edge of my seat. But after playing through it, I can say that if I had waited that long or even longer, I think 13 Sentinels would have been more than worth it to me. It’s not going to appeal to everyone (just like most of the games I write about here, that’s nothing new) but I liked its mix of gameplay styles and especially its characters and story.

Of course, I’ll be getting into all that in more depth here. Before that, there’s one more thing I have to bring up: this is going to be a no-spoilers review. I’m still putting a disclaimer up even in this case, though, because 13 Sentinels is one of those games that it’s best to go into completely blind if possible. If you trust me enough to just take my word on faith (which I don’t expect at all) then here it is: I greatly enjoyed 13 Sentinels and highly recommend it. But not everyone is going to agree with that assessment, and in any case you probably need more than just me saying “hey it’s great the end”, so I’ll get into why I liked this game so much below without dropping any major plot points or character details, because you should discover those for yourself.

I also promise I won’t make any “get in the robot Shinji” references. They don’t exactly fit here anyway.

On the surface, 13 Sentinels is a game about high school students who have to fight city-destroying mechanical kaiju-style monsters by piloting giant mechs called Sentinels. A lot of the gameplay and plot revolve around these battles and the enormous strain they put on their young pilots, both physically and mentally. As with a lot of other “teenagers in giant robots fight to save the world” stories, though, there’s more going on under that surface.

From the very beginning, 13 Sentinels is split between three different gameplay modes: Remembrance, Destruction, and Analysis. Remembrance is the one you’ll likely be in most of the time. It’s the one that looks like the typical Vanillaware game, only there’s no combat in this mode — it’s sort of in the style of an older adventure game, consisting almost entirely of exploration and character interaction. This is where we really get to know our characters and where almost all of the plot unfolds.

One of the 13 protagonists, Juro Kurabe, at school. The colored bars in the upper right indicate topics or actions that your protagonist has yet to consider or carry out in a scene, some of which are prerequisites to moving their story along.

Each of the 13 protagonists in the game has their own story to play through in the Remembrance mode. In the beginning, the game only gives you a couple of characters to start with, but as you advance their stories, the game unlocks other characters that you can switch between as you see fit. At that point, the initially hidden connections between these characters reveal themselves. These connections are not at all obvious at first in some cases, especially considering the fact that our protagonists are scattered throughout time, with a few from the past of wartime Japan and a few from the far future.

For some reason, everyone ends up meeting in the Japan of 1985, where both the battles against the kaiju and the bulk of the story occur. Figuring out how and why they’ve all converged on this point in time and this place is part of the mystery the game presents. Remembrance involves a lot of tracking down and talking to or otherwise interacting with other characters in the course of this story, but we also get directly into the heads of our player characters. The Thought Cloud is an integral part of this exploration section of 13 Sentinels — it lets the player scroll through the protagonist’s various thoughts, which are updated as they make new discoveries.

Ass-kicking delinquent girl Yuki Takamiya takes a break on the roof in the middle of her various thoughts, one of which is “maybe I should drink this juice box.” Getting your vitamins is important.

But you can’t just make progress through exploration and talking to people: you have to actually fight those big kaiju battles by directing your 13 protagonists in their mechs. This is where the Destruction mode comes in. Destruction is a real-time tower defense game, starkly different from the adventure game style of Remembrance both in its looks and style. Taking place during what the game calls the final battle against the invading kaiju, a horde of giant mechanical monsters, Destruction requires the player to direct a strike team of up to six characters in the defense of a giant terminal that itself acts as a defensive mechanism against the kaiju. Defeating all the kaiju on the map typically leads to victory, though a couple of the game’s 31 maps (not counting the first seven tutorials) require the player to destroy a specific powerful target.

The heat of battle. These screens can get a bit confusing with all the enemies, missiles, and lasers shooting off and flying around, but it’s not hard to get the rhythm of combat down.

A lot of your success in battle comes from preparation. Each of the protagonist’s Sentinels can be upgraded using “Meta-chips” you earn both from advancing the story in Remembrance mode and fighting battles in Destruction mode. Around the middle of the game you’ll be able to unlock some extremely powerful weapons to use against the kaiju, both short- and long-range, allowing you to play defensively by turtling around the terminal and using long-range attacks or offensively by taking the fight directly to the kaiju and punching them in the face. There are four types of Sentinel to choose from as well, each types with its own strengths and weaknesses, so you can mix things up depending upon your preferred play style with a combination of defensive and offensive tactics.

Natsuno’s Missile Rain is stupidly powerful, and I relied on it a lot. Thanks Natsuno, and also Tomi and Keitaro who have the same ability — you saved the team more than a few times. Also god damn, those Sentry Guns.

Finally, there’s the third mode, Analysis, which isn’t so much a gameplay mode as it is a giant cache of information that grows as you progress through the game. Analysis includes a library of previously played scenes that you can return to watch as many times as you like as well as a set of “mystery files” that are unlocked and added to as the game progresses. These files contains information on just about everything in the game, from the characters and their backgrounds, stories, and relationships down to various foods and drinks your characters consume during their adventures. It might seem weird to have entries for such trivial information, but in this game, sometimes the most seemingly trivial bits of information can be important in strange ways down the line.

I’m not kidding; there’s even an entry for strawberry crêpes. Though I have to give credit: the artist made all this food look amazing. I got hungry playing 13 Sentinels a few times for foods I can’t even obtain where I live. Thanks a lot for that, Vanillaware.

It might seem a bit strange at first to put so much information about the game’s major plot points and characters into a library like this. But it doesn’t feel at all like a lazy shortcut to make telling the story easier. On the contrary, I think this Analysis mode is necessary, because the story and its characters’ relationships get so complicated that it’s sometimes helpful to go back and check on a few already established points. Naturally I can’t give any examples without spoiling things (I even went to the trouble of redacting the above image in five seconds in Paint; a lot of work, I know.) It’s enough to say that this mode is very useful in a game like this in which each character’s story has its own flowchart practically.

That takes me back to the story itself. I think the greatest strength of 13 Sentinels by far is in its writing, in the plot and its massive tangled web of characters and relationships. The story is ambitious, but unlike some other works that try this sort of thing and get lost in technobabble and confusion and end up a mess, 13 Sentinels keeps it all together. Part of this might have to do with the organization of the information you receive in Analysis mode and in the character timelines that let you track your progress and jump around from point to point to a limited extent.

For example, should you get crêpes or ice cream after school? This really is one of those branching path decision points.

However, I think more of it has to do with the strength of the game’s characters. Each of the protagonists along with several important side characters are given enough screen time to establish their personalities and motivations. Through their story paths in Remembrance mode, we come to understand how and why they end up in these giant mechs fighting kaiju. These aren’t a bunch of cardboard cutouts either. Each character feels pretty well fleshed out and realistic, allowing the game to build believable rivalries, friendships, and romances. And there are romance subplots in 13 Sentinels, and even though I’m about as unromantic as it’s possible for a human to be, they worked for me — they’re not just shoehorned in for the hell of it but actually play their parts in the larger plot.

That’s love, man, who knows

Then there’s the other half of 13 Sentinels, speaking in terms of gameplay at least: the RTS tower defense section. This one seems a bit controversial. I’ve barely played any tower defense games before, so I really have nothing to compare the tower defense element in 13 Sentinels to, but I found it to be pretty fun for what it was. It was definitely the lesser of the two sections for me, though. Combat in this game, with the exception of maybe two or three boss battles, presented no challenge at all — once you figure out how to play defensively and get the skills to beat the shit out of kaiju without them getting anywhere near you, you’ll be all right for the most part. The second-to-last fight did give me some trouble, but I still beat it on my first try, and I’m not even very good at this sort of thing.

I’m not sure if this game will satisfy hardcore RTS/tower defense fans because I’m not one of them, but playing on hard mode is a good idea if you’re looking for more of a challenge. It’s probably also important to note that, as you can see in the battle screenshots I posted, the combat takes place in top-down view, as if the player is controlling everything from a command center. If you were hoping for the combat sections to be all drawn and animated in that Vanillaware style like they were in Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown, you won’t get that in this game. But I didn’t mind too much — the real draw of 13 Sentinels for me was in the story and its interesting character relationships and conflicts.

I wish I lived in Shu’s apartment, what a view. This is my ideal living space.

There’s plenty of style in this game as well. The art is very impressive, much of it handpainted and animated in the typical Vanillaware fashion. That’s one of the reasons I used so many screenshots here, probably more than I normally would in a review like this: the beautiful art adds a lot to an already great experience. The soundtrack is also excellent, from mood-setting pieces in the Remembrance sections to tense battle themes in Destruction mode. And as an added bonus for western players, the NA release features both Japanese and English dubs, so you can choose whichever one you like. Kids these days really have it easy — I remember when we didn’t have that option.

I have more I can say about 13 Sentinels, but not without getting into spoilers, so I’ll leave it there. It’s obvious by this point that I really liked this game and that I’d highly recommend it, especially if you’re a fan of other weird sci-fi material like the Zero Escape series and Steins;Gate. I’ll only add the caveat that it might not be much of a tower defense game if that’s really what you’re looking for. But again, since I’m no expert in the tower defense genre, I can’t say much about that. Again, it’s really all about the story for me in this case, and I was happy with what I got out of 13 Sentinels in that respect. Now I just have to track down some yakisoba pan to see if it’s really as good as the game claims it is, and it will get a perfect 10 out of 10.

Miscellaneous game reviews from that huge itch.io bundle (pt. 1 of ?)

Remember that summer cleaning series I ran months ago? I still have a ton of games from the huge itch.io bundle I downloaded back then. There are well over a thousand games in that bundle, including a few long titles that I’m currently stalled out in — partly because of my own laziness, and partly because playing one of them is like listening to someone scrape their nails on a damn chalkboard.

Anyway, here are a few games I had planned to write about, but that I felt I didn’t have quite enough to say about to give their own dedicated posts. I meant to write about them sooner, but you know how it is with the aforementioned laziness and all. So let’s finally fix that:

Sonar Smash

If you’ve ever thought to yourself: I want to play a shmup about a dolphin killing its fellow sea life, then there’s a game made just for you. Sonar Smash stars a cute dolphin who has the ability to shoot sonar bullets (?) at its enemies. Using this ability, you’ll need to fight your way through waves of enemies who show up to harass you from the top of the screen classic shmup style. It’s easy to mess up and take hits, but luckily there are also shops you run into between waves that offer upgrades and health refills.

And that’s the whole game — you’re just getting as far as you can using your dodging and aiming skills. There’s not much more to Sonar Smash in terms of gameplay. It has some style on top of that, though, with nice retro-looking graphics and a surprisingly good BGM, sort of an electrofunk thing that I really like. The game is probably worth checking out for the music alone, honestly. The sea life killing is fun too, though.

Cityglitch

Cityglitch is a straightforward sort of puzzle game set on a series of 95 5×5 boards. On each of these boards, your goal is to use your main character, an unnamed being that I think looks like a levitating red-haired girl, to activate every red symbol. Your character can move all the way across the board if not blocked by an object, but only in a straight or diagonal line. There’s no time or move limit to complete a board, but there are enemies who move according to set rules that can either block the red symbols or run into your character and remove her from the board, requiring you to start over. The game doesn’t give too much background about why you’re doing this aside from its main page on itch.io, which states “touch runes to illuminate them / light them all to complete the ritual / release the glitch” but for a game like this I don’t guess you need more explanation than that.

You might wonder how much someone can do with a game board as small as five by five squares, but Cityglitch gets quite creative with the setup. The different enemy types and maze layouts can require the player to use some fancy tricks to maneuver the obstacles and clear the board. If an enemy moves across one of the activated symbols, it will also deactivate it, so you have to factor that in when making your own moves.

The green snot-looking things are stationary, the blue dots appear when you move your mouse around to see your range of movement, and the blue guy in the lower left corner is an asshole trying to stop you from completing your task.

And yeah, I liked this game too. I was surprised how quickly it hooked me, in fact — it’s impressive how much developer mindfungus was able to do with these small puzzles. I also like the blocky style of the graphics. For some reason they remind me of those old games people used to program for those TI-83 graphing calculators we used to have in high school, except those were all in black and white. Did anyone else waste time in class with those games? I can’t be the only one who played Caterpillar during trigonometry lessons. Maybe that’s why I never got onto the STEM path…

I should also mention the ambient synth background music, which fits the mood of the game very well. Again, a little style like this can go a long way towards making a simple game a lot more memorable — see also Helltaker, even though in terms of their looks they are very different (and Helltaker is more interesting, but then it also featured a cute demon girl harem, and how do you really compete with that?)

Siberia

I didn’t grow up in the age of those old-fashioned text adventures, but I think that’s the kind of game Siberia is taking after. The scenario it presents is pretty rough: you’re in a plane flying over Siberia that has engine trouble and is about to crash, so you have to parachute out and try to find help without dying.

As you play, the game presents you with branching decision points that you have to resolve before moving on Choose Your Own Adventure style, and as you might imagine, a lot of these decisions will end up getting you killed.

Siberia really has no mercy — there are a lot of ways to die in this game. Fortunately, if you make the wrong decision, it will either kill you instantly or after only a few more screens. This is a very small game, and each playthrough takes five minutes at most. None of the statistics at the bottom of the screen seem to matter that much, because from what I found while playing, I never actually reached 0 in any of them; I’d either be rescued or dead well before that point.

These guys were definitely going for that old 80s aesthetic here. Playing Siberia on a visible old CRT monitor felt a bit weird, but I liked the simple ASCII art the game used for illustrations. Again, this stuff is a bit before my time, but I do remember making and sharing crude text drawings online as a kid in the 90s. Those really were better times, at least for me.

So maybe the nostalgia angle really did work for me here. Siberia is very short — I didn’t get more than 30 minutes out of it, far less than most typical text adventures have to offer. However, it only costs one British pound, which I think is something like $1.25. Not such a bad price for what this is, though the monotonous background music might also drive you crazy. Considering all that, I can’t give it a definite recommendation, but it’s something to check out if you’re into this sort of throwback game.

And that’s it for the moment. Will I return to this bundle to review more of its games long after the bundle was on sale? Maybe. That ? in the title of this post might be a 1, or it might be a larger number than that. I might also get around to reviewing a few of the longer, more involved games in the bundle if I ever finish them. Even the nails-on-a-chalkboard bullshit one, though I might not have terribly nice things to say about it. If I do, I’ll do my best to be fair as always, though.