A review of HuniePop (PC)

Yeah, finally. After years of looking at this game every so often on Steam and thinking “well, maybe” the whole series went on sale this summer and I finally went for it. For the few who haven’t heard of it, HuniePop is a dating- and boning-themed puzzle game. Released in 2015, it made the rounds online and especially in let’s plays on YouTube (remember when they were called that? I do, and yeah I’m old.) I guess this popularity was partly because of how straightforward the game was in its intentions, no beating around the bush. So to speak.

But there are games that inspire plenty of memeing but aren’t actually any fun to experience, sometimes not even in that so bad it’s good way. Where does HuniePop fall, and was it worth the two dollars I paid for it on sale? I’ll keep the suspense up for once and not give that away, but maybe you already know the answer.

Are these good lines at the bar, what do you think

HuniePop opens with the player character drinking at the local bar when you’re approached by a mysterious lady in a red dress who seems to be gauging your ability to hit on women. When you prove to be a tongue-tied weirdo, this lady, Kyu, tells you you’re a perfect subject for her efforts. The next scene takes place the following morning at your apartment, where Kyu shows up again and reveals her true form as a pink-haired love fairy whose job it is to help poor guys and ladies like you (you can be either by the way — see the settings) improve their dating/seduction skills.

Even though it’s Monday morning and you’d normally have to get to work or attend school or something, in this world you’re apparently not hurting for money at all and don’t have anything else to do all day but try to pick up girls. Kyu knows this and demands that you start working all day every day on your skills, taking you on a sort of practice date that evening at a nice outdoor lounge to show you how it’s done.

How it’s done

Here you’re introduced to one of the two main game modes. Dating in HuniePop involves solving a match-three puzzle grid. Your moves aren’t timed, but your number of moves is limited, and you can only move one token at a time and only in a straight line horizontally or vertically. Matching up hearts, bells, and teardrops gives you various benefits like extra turns and point multipliers, and matching broken hearts knocks your score down dramatically and so should be avoided as much as possible. A successful date requires you to reach the point threshold within the move limit.

Once you pass the impossible-to-fail tutorial date, Kyu tells you to get out there and start finding girls, giving you a nudge by taking you to the local university campus where you run into the student Tiffany and her professor Aiko.

Who both have very interesting outfits. Attendance at some of my freshman lectures would have been higher than 20% of the class if the professor had looked like Aiko and worn short shorts every day, though I guess the guys wouldn’t have been paying much attention to the lecture itself.

Professor Hotpants leaves and you strike up a conversation with Tiffany after getting some advice from your love fairy tutor, who’s helpfully using magic to make herself invisible to everyone but you so Tiffany doesn’t think you’re hanging out with your cosplayer girlfriend. At this point we get into the other game mode in HuniePop, the conversation. When you meet a new lady, you can talk with her to earn “Hunie” (counted in the pink in the upper right of the screen) with far more earned if you give her answers she likes based on her personality. She won’t feel like talking if she’s hungry, but you can buy her something to eat or drink from the shop to prolong your conversation together with other gifts that can increase the Hunie you gain from talking to her.

During your conversation, you’ll gather information about each woman that you can put in your HunieBee computer or app or whatever it’s supposed to be. And once you’re ready, you can ask her out on a date and shift over to the match-three puzzle mode to hopefully push your relationship to the next level. No need to settle down with one girl either, because each girl you meet leads you to a new dating prospect (see your “Girl Finder” in the menu to find those girls around town.)

Talking to Aiko after meeting Tiffany. She’s talking about eating an orange I just bought her, don’t worry. Though talking about biting in any other context would just be scary now that I think about it.

That’s how HuniePop rolls along until nearly the very end: go out and meet new ladies with a variety of personalities, likes, and dislikes, get to know them through conversation, give them gifts and receive gifts in return, and take them out for dates, then jump over to the puzzle mode and earn “Munie” that you can use to spend on gifts and food to encourage more conversation and relationship-building. The gift-giving factors into the game’s puzzle mode: gifts can be equipped and used to gain effects as long as you match enough Sentiment points represented by the teardrop-shaped tokens on the board. The point requirement for passing a date rises after every successful date you pull off, but you can also spend your Hunie to increase the amount of affection you generate through matches, so it all evens out.

See, it’s easy. Just like real dating!

And in real dating you don’t even get a heart meter to tell you how close you are to getting intimate, I mean what the hell is that

These ladies are also in the habit of answering your questions about them and then quizzing you on those answers, so be sure to either have a good memory or have the HuniePop wiki open while playing so you can get more Hunie. Though there’s also no real penalty for missing answers or for losing at the match-three date puzzles for that matter — all a miss means is that you’ll have to take another shot later on. The true penalty is having to run through a bunch of the same conversations again, really, and especially when some of the questions are “how much do I weigh” and “how big my titties are” since you’re a fucking weirdo who asks those questions but somehow doesn’t get slapped for it. Maybe that’s a sign of just how secretly charismatic the player character is.

But then it’s immediately obvious that HuniePop is fucking ridiculous, and also that it knows that and doesn’t take itself seriously in the slightest. The player character is an initially no-charisma dingus to the extent that Kyu takes you on as a special challenge, and by the end you’re a god of both romance and sex, able to successfully juggle nearly a dozen girlfriends. Reality is out the window in this game. But at least Kyu acknowledges some of that with her limited fourth-wall-breaking powers.

And yeah, you do get to date Kyu too, because this isn’t the kind of game that gives you a sex fairy character and then doesn’t let you also bone her. HuniePop knows what its players are looking for.

And for once it’s a game review on the short side, because I don’t have much more to say about HuniePop. The puzzles are a good time and managed to get me hooked enough to play through the entire game, the voice acting is nice, and the portraits and CGs of the girls you get throughout are also nice (though it should be said nothing in the game is extra-explicit — there’s nudity but the sex is implied by still another match-three puzzle, though a far easier kind than normal.) All that said, it’s important to note what HuniePop isn’t, and what it’s not really trying to be: an actual dating sim. There’s not all that much depth to the characters in this game and none at all to the story, if this even qualifies as a story.

Then again, the game doesn’t care about any of that and doesn’t try to be more than it is. And as for a recommendation — this feels very much one of those “you already know whether you’ll like it” cases. I basically liked it, though I also did feel like a pretty major piece of shit for going out with each one of these women and telling them completely different things about myself, my likes and dislikes and personal history, to get them each to like me, then literally fucking around behind all their backs. This isn’t what people generally mean by “playing the field.” Especially not when you end up with a Jessie and Tiffany situation. You’ll see if you play it.

Yeah, you don’t have continue, I know what you mean by “actress.”

So while it didn’t change my life or anything so dramatic, I was happy to finally get to play HuniePop considering how much it made the rounds several years ago. And hey, it was pretty fun while I had it going, and at least fun enough for me to want to play its sequel, which I also own now, so possibly look forward to that review at some point.

Next time I’ll return with still more anime, though. Until then — don’t be a two-timer, and especially not a nine- or ten-timer. Leave that behavior for the sexy puzzle games.

Games for broke people: Digital analog edition

It’s been a few years since I wrote once of these short free game review posts after digging around on itch.io, but it’s never too late to dig an old concept up again, and there are always broke people around looking for games to play (assuming they don’t want to turn pirate.)

I’ve also been watching some videos on YouTube in the “analog horror” category. This is a fairly new genre that from what I can tell is based on taking early 90s aesthetics and putting them into a psychological horror context. Kind of like a creepy version of vaporwave, I guess. It’s a strange concept, but some of it works pretty well. I’ve already talked up the series Gemini Home Entertainment, which I thought made great use of the old home video format to put together an interesting horror story. On the other hand, I also watched the wildly popular analog horror series Mandela Catalogue and wasn’t impressed with it, despite how much it’s talked up online — it even got a few eye rolls out of me, which is death when it comes to horror unless you’re going for a comedic effect, and it definitely wasn’t.

So maybe this is just a hit-and-miss genre for me. Or maybe I just need to play some games in the same genre instead? So I picked one free analog horror game, and then another game on itch.io after searching for “analog” when I couldn’t find any other analog horror stuff that didn’t look like a takeoff of Gemini or Mandela or Local 58. I also searched for “analogue” to include the non-American works as well, since the rest of the world thinks we spell that word incorrectly. But that didn’t yield anything too interesting aside from a free pdf tribute to Laika, the dog who died after being launched into space on Sputnik 2. I thought I was fucking depressed, but some of these people on itch.io, man.

Finally, just to get a third game in, I typed “aaa”, hit enter, and played the first game that didn’t look like complete tossed-off garbage from the thumbnail and description. Maybe there was a reason I retired this post format.

No Players Online

Starting with one that apparently just about every big horror jumpscare spooky game let’s player YouTuber already covered two years ago, the ones who used to dramatically scream at every shadow they saw until people finally got tired of that irritating shit.

No Players Online simulates an early 90s-looking capture the flag FPS, a beta multiplayer game with up to 16 players able to join each server, presumably in teams of up to 8 each. However, checking the server list reveals a column of 0/16s. Mysteriously, some of these servers are still online. Joining one of these drops you into an empty FPS map, a brutalist-style concrete structure with a couple of courtyards and trees and a central chasm that I tried to jump into but couldn’t.

I always wondered what other possible function the weird structures in these old FPSes could serve aside from being deathmatch arenas.

You have a gun that shoots a random number of bullets before you have to reload, but that’s not a problem since you’re the only player in the game. What follows is the easiest capture the flag game in history — at least until the creepy stuff starts happening, which doesn’t take long. No Players Online doesn’t let on about how you’re supposed to deal with said creepy stuff, but getting close to your goal of getting 3 out of 3 points does reveal a bit of what’s going on, and you’ll have a choice at that point between completing and not completing your mission. If you choose not to complete it, you can always quit and try another server.

There doesn’t seem to be much of an ending to the game at first, but after a little digging, I found that there is some kind of ARG thing going on with it featuring encoded messages and clues outside the game, and naturally people have already used those to solve its mysteries. Apparently it can’t be fully solved independently any longer, but that’s just how it is with these kinds of projects that rely on other media — sometimes you end up hitting a wall with a broken link or a disconnected phone number.

There’s a good chance this guy is a fan of the Caretaker too

I found the empty server pretty creepy, at least the first time I played through a “match” in it, so good on the developer for getting that atmosphere down. However, it also leans a little too much on the kind of “spooky distorted face man oh no” bullshit that made me dislike Mandela. There’s also just not that much game in this game, at least in the traditional sense. No Players Online is not exactly what I was looking for, but at least it’s an original concept, and there is more here than it might seem like at first glance, so it might still be worth a look for players who are into such projects.

TASCAR

One of the nice things about hunting for games on itch.io is that some of them are playable on your browser, no messing around with installation. These tend to be smaller/shorter games of course, but it’s possible to have fun with even a five minute-long game, so why discriminate in that sense?

While searching for “analog”, I found TASCAR, one of these browser games that promises a top-quality racing experience in the form of a text adventure. It’s not a horror game, though — at least not in the traditional sense.

Yeah, it’s one of these.

I believe TASCAR was created by someone who hates both stock car racing and text adventures, because this game seems to be purposely nearly unplayable. I was curious about how the hell someone managed to depict a car race in text form, but the point of it rather seems to be purely to piss the player off.

Oh yeah, you might be saying “hey, there’s a help option, try that out!” So I started a new game and decided to ask for directions for once.

thanks asshole

Eventually I managed to enter the fucking race and drive after the game refused to understand the commands drive, proceed, and step on the gas pedal, but this was the ultimate result:

what fun

I was wondering how aggressively hateful towards its players a game would have to be for me to still dump on it even when it’s free, and I think I’ve found a good example in TASCAR. I guess it’s just meant as a joke, but if so, it’s the Takeshi’s Challenge kind of joke where you basically end up kicked in the balls if you bother with it. If you’re a real masochist, then, you might enjoy this more than I did.

aaaaAAAAA

There’s a title that accurately describes how I felt after playing the above game. Despite its strange name, aaaaAAAAA is actually playable. It’s also frustrating and obtuse, though this time I can blame myself in part for just not being very good at such games.

aaaaAAAAA is a platformer that requires the player to jump on falling blocks to get as high up as possible. There are two gimmicks to it that complicate matters: the controls change every minute, and the player has to constantly hold down the a key at the same time to replenish their HP.

This is what the kids call “a mood” I guess

I’m not the most coordinated person on the planet. There’s a reason I mostly play JRPGs and avoid a lot of action games and platformers that require extreme timing and precision. That said, aaaaAAAAA seems like a nice free game to check out if you like to challenge yourself.

The spiked bricks falling on your character’s head and the constant screaming also make this game feel a lot like living life, which if that was the point was very well executed in my opinion! Congratulations to the developer Mewore for really getting that feeling down well if that was their intention. And even if it wasn’t, I still can’t help but think of the game as a metaphor for life. The fact that I suck at it makes that metaphor all the more accurate.

On that sunny note, as usual, that’s it for this round of free itch.io games. Next time I try out this feature, I’ll probably drop the themed aspect of it, because it clearly isn’t working out for me anymore.

A review of Blue Reflection: Second Light (PS4)

This review took long enough to come, months after talk about the game died down, or what talk there was at least. But of course, my schedule being what it is, it took me three months to play through it once, so it wasn’t quite by choice. “Arrive late and look back” has become my style anyway, so it’s all right — and there are quite a few games that have waited far longer for that treatment (as the NieR Replicant box sits on my shelf. It would be looking at me reproachfully now if it had eyes. I promise I’ll get to you.)

Today my focus is on another game with a distinct art style and an unusual approach to storytelling. The difference here is that this one didn’t get the attention I think it deserved, at least here in the West, though maybe that was to be expected considering its genre and setting.

Blue Reflection: Second Light (titled Blue Reflection: Tie in Japan) is the sequel to not just one but two works, only one of which I’ve taken on: the PS4 game Blue Reflection, the first in the series released in 2017. My feelings about the original Blue Reflection were somewhat mixed, but positive on the whole — I felt the game was lacking in a few important areas, but I generally enjoyed the story and characters and loved the music and art style (headed up by composer Hayato Asano and artist Mel Kishida, both of who returned to work on Second Light.)

The other work that Second Light follows up on is the 2021 anime Blue Reflection Ray, which I started but never finished, again because of my shitty schedule. Getting through a 24-episode series feels like actual work to me sometimes, even when I like it, and that one unfortunately slipped through the cracks for me. If I’d known at the time that it was leading up to this sequel, I probably would have made more of an effort to stick with it.

Not a big deal, though, because while Second Light features both its own original characters and returning characters from the first game and the anime, it also does a pretty decent job of explaining these characters’ relationships to each other when they eventually show up. Not a perfect job — I had the benefit of knowing all about Hinako’s background and her own struggles from the first game with her friends Lime and Yuzu, but I still didn’t totally get the conflict surrounding the sisters Hiori and Mio from the anime Ray and their fight with Uta.

But it’s not realistic to expect a game to explain everything that came before it, and in any case it’s not necessary at all to play the first game or watch the anime to fully enjoy Second Light. At worst you can always just look up a plot synopsis. That warning/caveat/whatever aside, let’s get on to the game itself.

Second Light opens with its protagonist Ao Hoshizaki, a high school student trudging off to summer school in the early morning. She somehow loses her phone and recovers it in an empty parking lot, but she sees a strange message on the screen when she picks it up: “BE REBORN”. Looks like a prank or a stupid spam message of some kind, but shortly after seeing it, Ao passes out and wakes up in a new and unfamiliar world: a fully equipped but otherwise almost empty high school building on a small island surrounded by water in every direction, with no other land in sight.

Ao finds herself living in this strange school with only three other girls about her age: stern, serious Rena Miyauchi, her near-opposite, the mischievous Yuki Kinjou, and cheerful and always hungry hunting expert Kokoro Utsubo. These three, who had already created a makeshift home out of the school, welcome Ao and explain the situation, which they admit they barely understand themselves: they were all mysteriously transported to this place, and all with their memories wiped, aside from the knowledge that they were from a different world than this one.

Ao and her crew (not seen, but they are there) in the Heartscape

The one aspect of life in this strange world that breaks up the monotony is a mysterious place the girls first name the Faraway, and later the Heartscape once they learn more about its true nature. This world seems to be distinct from but connected to the school and its island, sitting just off the island’s shore through a kind of magical portal. At first, the Heartscape consists only of a forest full of real-world items, including food and water that the girls forage for. However, very quickly they realize that this place is connected with them personally when they start to see some of Kokoro’s childhood memories played out  in them.

After confirming with Kokoro that these visions aren’t just shared hallucinations and that they line up with her own slowly returning memories of her past life, the girls agree to explore deeper into the Heartscape in the hopes that they can turn up more memories and discover the mysteries of this new world and their places in it. This plan isn’t without risk, since the Heartscape is also full of bizarre-looking monsters. Fortunately, Ao, Rena, and Kokoro are all “Reflectors” with the power to fight these beings with magical weapons, and also transforming into elaborate costumes (of course — if you’re familiar with this power from the last game, Reflectors are magical girls.) Only Yuki doesn’t have this power, but she does her best to support the team by hanging back and working on essential housekeeping and food preparation tasks.

Rena and Ao lined up for battle alongside Hinako, protagonist of the first game and one of their newer additions.

As the four girls explore the Heartscape and defeat the aggressive demons living in it, they find that their explorations are changing both the Heartscape and their home base back at the school. Every so often, one of them will discover a memory that summons still another girl into their realm, as usual with an erased memory and no idea of how she got there, shortly after which she usually discovers some memory of her own that summons her own Heartscape section into existence.

As their numbers grow, the team also finds that some of them inexplicably possess Reflector powers while others don’t. Yet as their memories are recovered, they all discover ties and relationships that bound them together from their past lives. The odd one out in this crowd is Ao, whose memory remains strangely blank, and who nobody else on the team remembers from their pasts. Despite this, Ao is a magnetic figure — not the brightest or toughest of the bunch, but the type who manages to attract everyone around her, and with a natural drive that puts her pretty clearly and without any dispute in the position of leader.

Ao at a team meeting describing the plot of a video game, but is it this one?

Ao and company do their best to create a comfortable and even a fun life at the school despite their situation. It’s not all fun and games, however. A mysterious blonde girl with a foreboding air shows up from time to time, the very first resident of this realm, but she can’t even remember her own name — yet she has knowledge of the place the others don’t, and she seems to hold at least part of the solution to that mystery. And every time a major event occurs in one of the Heartscapes, a giant crack appears in the sky surrounding the school, slowly widening. The girls aren’t sure what’s on the other side, but they’re certain it can’t be anything good.

A section of Rena’s Heartscape. Most of these maps have normal enemies wandering around with a few stationary intermediate bosses the player has to get past to advance, like the one just ahead indicated by the red marker.

When I wrote about Blue Reflection last year and speculated about a still unannounced but rumored sequel, I said I hoped for a more fully realized version of that game or something similar. Well the world in general might be a giant pile of shit, but sometimes good things happen, because Second Light is what I was hoping for in almost every way. Aside from a couple of complaints about how developer Gust handled its endings and difficulty settings that I’ll get into later, Second Light at least matches and in some areas surpasses the first game in the series.

First and perhaps most obvious is that music and art direction that everyone rightfully praised in the original. The best news that came out about Second Light early on was that Hayato Asano and Mel Kishida were attached to the project. Both contributed massively to the first game, and it would have been near impossible to imagine a sequel without their involvement (and totally impossible in Kishida’s case, since Blue Reflection never would have existed without him.)

A battle result screen featuring Hinako, Ao, and Hiori in their Reflector outfits. Blue Reflection might just have been Kishida’s excuse to draw a bunch of magical girl costumes, and there are at least twice as many in Second Light.

And as expected, Second Light excels in the aesthetics area. It might not be your particular style — the magical girl theme is sure to turn off some players, after all. But if you were already a fan of Mel Kishida’s work on the other Blue Reflection titles, you won’t be disappointed by the art in this sequel. Drawing girls in stupidly frilly dresses with ribbons and bows all over them is one of his main things; you’ve already seen it if you’ve played Blue Reflection or one of the Atelier Arland games. Unfortunately about half of Ao’s crew lacks Reflector transformation ability, at least in this game, so there are fewer physics-defying magical girl costumes in Second Light than you might expect (and Kokoro’s outfit honestly looks ridiculous, and this is coming from a guy with no fashion sense beyond knowing what “business attire” is because I would have gotten yelled at in previous jobs pre-COVID without a suit on.) But even her outfit reflects her skill as a hunter, just like Hinako’s does hers as a dancer, and in general it’s pretty clear that Kishida paid his usual attention to detail here.

This attention extends to the environments in the game, and especially to the Heartscape, which is far more diverse than the Common of the first Blue Reflection. While the Common was themed around general human emotions and pretty well depicted them (red/orange lava and fire for anger, a blue cold-looking flooded cityscape for sadness, and so on) the Heartscape creates real-world environments that have personal connections to each character, warping them in ways that make sense given the otherworldly nature of the place. While each section of the Heartscape isn’t all that large, each one provides an appropriate atmosphere along with its in-game role as a dungeon/field area to fight enemies, gather items and ingredients, and advance the plot by discovering new memories.

Ao standing in the last section of Uta’s Heartscape. The environments in the Heartscape range from natural-looking to manmade and from light to dark, all in accordance with the state of mind of the person connected to it.

The music contributes to this atmosphere as well, both back at home base in the school and out in the Heartscape. Asano’s compositions are written in a similar style to the first game’s music, with a mix of soft piano/synth-dominated tracks for the more pleasant environments and the slice-of-life stuff back at school and hard, driving electronic tracks for the tense situations and battles that come up every so often. Some of my favorites include Thorns That Still Sting, My REAL, Our Days (sounds more like a track from Atelier Ryza with the strings, which Asano also wrote the soundtrack for) and the romantically titled I Can Feel Your Body Heat (another take on the same theme as “Our Days”, and the title is very appropriate too considering the scenes it’s placed in.) But I could just as easily list half the soundtrack here, which I won’t do. As with the first Blue Reflection, I’d say its music alone is worth checking out even if you have no interest in the game.

But of course beautiful art and music aren’t enough to make a 40+ hour JRPG worth playing; it also needs a memorable, compelling story and set of characters, and better if there’s exciting gameplay to tie all that together. With one stumble (at least from my perspective; it might not be depending on yours, but I’ll get to it) Second Light provides those as well. The most immediately obvious change to the gameplay is the combat: while it’s still turn-based, the battle system in Second Light is more complex than in the first game while still being pretty intuitive to get down.

Three Reflectors fight in the front line with one in reserve, and they perform attacks and support skills by using ether points that both allies and enemies collect, seen on the scale in the lower right. Also, I love those huge chains hanging off the back of Shiho’s costume. No idea what good those are doing her aside from looking cool I guess?

The Heartscape is the primary battlefield of the game as the girls make their way through its various environments and obstacles. However, much of my time in Second Light was spent back at that isolated island school, because the old social sim element from the first game was carried over, though in a way I could have never guessed. Blue Reflection had its protagonist Hinako hanging out with her non-magical-girl classmates in a real-world school and the surrounding town. While there is no real world in Second Light to speak of, Ao manages to do the same thing even harder than Hinako did by going on “dates” around the campus with all her friends. As in the first game, these outings provide in-game benefits to the party by creating magical fragments that grant battle advantages, but they also provide a lot of entertaining cutscenes showing Ao interact 1-on-1 with the rest of the cast.

Kirara was consistently one of my favorite dates throughout the game; I love that dark energy of hers. I guess I really haven’t gotten over the whole chuunibyou thing.

If you see Second Light described as a yuri game, this is one of the two reasons why (the other being a relationship between two of the girls that’s undoubtedly romantic in nature and that figures into one section of the plot strongly, at least when said characters start to regain their memories.) It’s never stated outright, but if Ao isn’t exclusively into girls, she’s at least pretty bendy in terms of her interests because she flirts hard with every other girl in the game. While the dates she goes on with her friends are mainly very platonic, the player usually gets one or two dialogue options for Ao to choose from, and every so often one of these options (and sometimes both) is spicy as hell.

I mean what do you call this, really

A lot of this stuff ends up coming off as friendly teasing, but then it’s hard for me to tell as a guy, honestly — it seems like women can be a lot closer physically and perhaps even emotionally without feeling like it has to be a romantic thing, whereas in my country at least, two guys even just holding hands is a pretty sure sign there’s more going on there. When I had a look at the anime The Aquatope on White Sand, there was a lot of speculation early on that it would have yuri themes for what I think were similar reasons, which didn’t play out at all as far as I could tell. Friendly intimacy doesn’t need to include or lead to romance, after all. But man, this stuff is way closer to that hypothetical line.

It’s not a big deal, really, but if the whole date thing might be an issue for you, it’s something to know. I liked how flirty Ao got myself, since it resulted in a lot of funny reactions from her friends. Especially when they reciprocate her teasing and end up getting her flustered. Don’t make those moves if you’re not serious, Ao!

How romantic does this feel on a scale from 1 to 100

Ao also spends time with her friends as a larger group. Some of these interactions involve strategy and planning meetings over how to approach the Heartscape, but most of them are about far more mundane subjects like what to make for dinner or how to arrange their sleeping quarters (one classroom on one floor for the quiet girls and another one below that for the noisy ones, seems fair enough.) All these in-school scenes contribute to the strong slice-of-life element of the game, which I think mixes just as well with the heavier plot stuff as it did in the first game.

Second Light even incorporates a bit of a town-building sort of element in the school’s joint kitchen/workshop area, where Ao and co. can use the ingredients they find around the Heartscape to make attack and support items to boost their battle abilities and build improvements to the school grounds. These improvements give Ao and her friends new opportunities to go on dates to check out/use the new attraction you’ve set up along with providing various combat benefits.

While some of them seem pretty realistic and doable, like a festival stand for making takoyaki (though where they got the octopus is another question, because I never found any myself) most are so improbable that you have to stop questioning it after a while. Like a fucking rocketship, you can just make one of those. Apparently life in this pocket dimension makes pretty much anything possible to do as long as it can be imagined.

Some of the available school improvements make the team’s pool to giant hot tub conversion plan seem downright practical.

The split between slice-of-life lightness and serious drama Second Light provides might feel weird to some, but it completely worked for me. It does a better job of that split than the first game did, though it also has the benefit of not being expected to explain why we never see a single adult or any trace of the characters’ home lives — this pocket dimension really is the perfect storytelling tool, though it’s not a trick that could easily be pulled off again, assuming a third Blue Reflection game might ever come out.

And since I forgot to shove this in anywhere above, the request system is also back from the first game. You’d think Hinako could be a little less vague here, but Ao can always follow up with her friends through text to figure out just what the hell they’re asking for and how to get it. And since both going on dates and fulfilling requests boosts that character’s talent points that can be spent on skills, they’re all well worth carrying out.

As a whole, I enjoyed Second Light, and I’d say even more than I did the first game. It ties up the purposely left loose ends from the original Blue Reflection, and presumably it does the same for the anime, though I can’t say that for sure not having watched it. I especially loved the setting and the slice-of-life element in the game — for someone who doesn’t much care for pure SOL anime, that might sound weird, but it’s different when you’re actively taking part in the story as the player character. And Second Light has all that end-of-world drama to go along with that lighter material anyway.

Yuki, why do we have to text when I see you standing right fucking there

However, I did run into a couple of annoyances that I felt could have and probably should have been avoided. One of these had to do with the game’s difficulty. At the start of Second Light, the player has a choice between easy and normal mode. I wondered at the time where hard mode was — turns out it’s at the end of your first playthrough as a new game plus feature. I found this a bizarre choice, especially since other Gust games (say Atelier Sophie 2, which I started playing just after finishing Second Light) give you a wider range of difficulty modes than this right off the bat, with the additional option to switch freely between them during your playthrough in case the hard or very hard modes prove too much to handle.

This problem is made all the worse by the fact that Second Light starts out with a fair level of challenge on normal mode in the early to mid-game but becomes piss easy as you progress. I still enjoyed playing with the new combat system by the end, but it was more enjoyable when I had to use that system wisely to mind my team’s HP while doing damage to strong enemies and bosses. By the late game, there was no need for tactical thinking — I easily hit the game’s level 50 cap with all the girls before the final Heartscape area, and all without grinding (unless you count fighting in the course of fulfilling optional requests, which I don’t.) The game’s crafting option also allows you to create buff and debuff items that were so effective I thought I was playing a Megami Tensei game, only those bosses can still hand you your ass even when you’ve got all those skills. As a result of all this, the final boss was an absolute joke — it could barely scratch my party even in its menacing final form.

None of this would have been a big deal if I could have shifted over to hard mode to at least somewhat make up that difference, but for whatever reason, Gust decided not to let me do that.

In anime and video games, a schoolgirl wielding a magical scythe is automatically the most powerful being in the universe

This difficulty issue ties in with the other, larger problem I had with Second Light: the ending, or at least the ending you’re given after playing through the game once. I avoided spoilers completely before picking it up, so I didn’t know what to expect when I finished it, but I knew the ending I got wasn’t all that satisfying and that it sure as hell wasn’t the true ending. There is a true ending to Second Light, in fact, but you can only achieve it by completing a new game plus run.

Maybe I’m not being reasonable here. I’ve played other games with a similar setup that lock their true endings behind a second playthrough — for example Atelier Escha & Logy, which is currently my favorite in that series. But Escha & Logy had the excuse of featuring two protagonists with slightly different stories and paths, and all the carryovers you get in second Atelier playthroughs make that new game plus pretty easy to breeze through to achieve new endings if you want them. And in any case Atelier usually offers a lot more to uncover and explore the second time around.

I didn’t get that sense about Second Light — as much as I enjoyed those dates, I didn’t feel the need to play through the game a second time to see the ones I might have missed, The secret areas I couldn’t uncover my first playthrough didn’t entice me all that much either, even with the carryovers Second Light did grant me with my clear file. I also have a god damn life to live outside of video games, which means that given the choice between replaying this game, as much as I liked it, and jumping over to Sophie 2 — well, that choice was obvious. I watched the Second Light true ending recordings on YouTube and moved on.

Anyway, I’d already seen the best scene in the game.

This might just be me finally feeling my age. I’m still technically “young”, I guess (though the kids would call me an old man at this point, and certainly a boomer, since that term now seems to apply to anyone just out of their early 20s and even some still in them.) But I just don’t have time to run through typical JRPG-length games twice anymore. I’m lucky as hell that I can even play these games once each given how much else I have to do, and in the future I may not even have that kind of time left.

Considering that this might just be a personal problem, I can’t exactly condemn Gust for locking that true ending behind a second playthrough. But I can still be annoyed by it, and I am. I’m far more annoyed by it now than I am by the paid DLC, which I’ve more or less come to accept as inevitable since Gust now makes a habit of selling “season passes” for each game. And hell, I buy DLC on occasion myself (like the “night pool” above, that didn’t come with the base game) so I can’t exactly criticize them for that, though they could make the system a little less gougy.

Those complaints aside, Blue Reflection: Second Light gets my highest recommendation as long as you’re into the style and also into turn-based JRPGs, and specifically if you have the time free to really soak in it and enjoy that second playthrough, which I feel I don’t. Not sure how it did in Japan, but it’s a damn shame that Second Light seems to have flown so far under the radar here in the West. You’d think some of our pro journalists over here would tout a game with an exclusively female cast all about feelings and even featuring a clear same-sex romance that’s not simply hinted at. But when such things are featured in a JRPG that isn’t titled Final Fantasy, or in any visual novel at all, they go almost entirely ignored by our press outside of the few who reliably and thoroughly cover the niche stuff. God bless those few. As for the rest in the mainstream: bang up job you idiots are doing. Can you tell I’m bitter?

A review of Needy Streamer Overload (PC)

Not the game I’d planned to review next, or even the post I’d planned to write next, but life has a way of fucking up your plans, doesn’t it? And that’s a lesson that’s very relevant to the game I’m reviewing today.

Despite its sugary sweet look, this one deals with adult subjects like sex and drug use and heavy, serious subjects mostly related to mental health and various kinds of psychological and physical self-harm up to and including suicide, so the usual warning here for kids and those who prefer not to touch such games. The game has its own covering our ass “this is all fiction and please don’t do any of this” message every time you start it up, and the message is warranted.

Needy Streamer Overload, put out by Japanese developer Why so serious, Inc. (with the original title Needy Girl Overdose, changed apparently when it was put up on Steam, though both titles fit it pretty well) is an ADV game depicting a month in the life of Ame, a girl who’s into some of the usual hobbies like gaming, watching anime, and cosplay. At the start of the game, Ame’s decided that she’s going to take advantage of her cuteness and on-screen charisma to become a streamer on MeTube (of course) and to rake in love, attention, and superchat money from shut-ins and nerds across Japan.

And you the player are her boyfriend (edit: or girlfriend if you prefer; as commenter phoenix below pointed out to me there’s no explicit reference to the player character’s gender, so keep this in mind going forward since I’m not taking the minimal effort to edit the rest of this post. But thanks for the catch!) known only as “P-chan”, as she claims above because you’re perfect for her, but also because you’re basically her producer. As Ame promises on day 1, she’s placing her life in your hands: she’ll do whatever you ask of her, and her only demand is that you drive her channel to a million subs in a month. Sounds difficult, but not impossible, because when she’s on camera Ame uses makeup, a wig, and a flashy costume to transform from her dour regular self into the peppy OMGkawaiiAngel-chan or KAngel for short.

The contrast between her persona and her real self is most obvious through the tweets Ame makes on the in-game Twitter equivalent through her public KAngel account and the private one only you can read.

Each day is divided into three time periods called day, dusk, and night, and as Ame’s live-in boyfriend/producer your responsibility is to direct her entire life. Throughout the day, Ame has various activities she can take part in, including using the internet/social media to get new ideas and pump up her subscriber/viewer counts, going out to neighborhoods around Tokyo with P-chan to take in the sights, and staying inside to play a game or spend some one-on-one time with P-chan (including an option labeled *** with a bed icon — I wonder what that could be? Well, the game doesn’t actually try to hide it.)

Daytime, with the available options on the left side and the text screen on the right. An exclamation point on an activity option means Ame will get an idea for a new stream if you choose it for her. Also man what the hell, don’t say that.

While the first two parts of the day are dedicated to letting Ame get new ideas, shill her own channel online, or rest, the night is for streaming. It is possible and sometimes advisable to skip a day and put the stream off to the next evening, but night is the only time Ame will stream since it’s peak viewing hours. After picking one of several available stream idea options for her, your job is to watch Ame’s stream and monitor chat for shitty comments to delete (not necessary, but deleting the right ones will reduce her stress slightly) and colored superchat comments with donations attached for Ame to read at the end of the stream (though only two of them, because KAngel doesn’t give her love out to her adoring fans that freely, and this also isn’t strictly necessary.)

Most comments are nice and positive, but you always have a few assholes in chat. Sometimes they’ll even pay money to try to get Ame to read their asshole comments. What a use of money that is.

Finally, note the Task Manager at the top right of the screen. This is an extremely important window to keep track of, as it measures both Ame’s all-important follower count and three aspects of her mental/emotional state: her stress level, her “mental darkness” which sounds related to but is distinct from her stress, and her affection towards P-chan. Every action you choose for Ame has effects on one or more of these stats: streaming almost always dramatically increases her stress along with her follower count, spending time with P-chan lets Ame de-stress and also increases her affection towards him, and while sleeping is a safe way to prepare Ame for her next stream stress-wise, it also takes up time that could have been used to find new stream ideas.

You can also tell Ame to take her meds at the recommended dose, or you can make her load herself up to the gills with drugs if you feel like being an asshole to her. But of course, there are consequences.

If Ame’s stress or mental darkness get too high, she may start acting strangely and refuse to listen to your commands, making decisions for herself that usually turn out poorly for her. You also don’t want Ame’s affection level to get too low (or too high!) since this will have consequences for P-chan’s relationship with her. And since P-chan is the (mostly) silent player character, if you fuck things up for him, your game is over and you’ll be kicked to the title screen to try to be a better boyfriend/producer in a new playthrough.

Texting Ame back and not ignoring her or telling her to go on dates with other guys on “Dinder” as the app is titled here is another important part of keeping her happy, but if you pick the third option here you obviously deserve to lose her. The second is also a dick response in my opinion, though less of an aggressive one than the third.

Needy Streamer Overload feels like a timely game. People who normally would have been going out over the last two years have been largely shut inside because of COVID (aside from those who act like it doesn’t exist, but again, a subject for a different blog than mine.) This seems to have driven online traffic a lot — I’ve seen the rise in my own site’s stats that track exactly with the beginning of the global virus in March 2020. I’ve seen theories that it also had to do specifically with the rise in popularity of livestreaming and especially of VTubers, who first became widely known in the US in that same year with a flood of translated Hololive clips on YouTube and then the development of English-language branches of Japanese streaming projects like Hololive and Nijisanji.

Ame isn’t a VTuber, but a lot of what I saw in Needy Streamer Overload made me think of the small amount of time I’ve been able to scrape up watching VTuber streams and seeing fan interactions on Twitter and other sites. This game does present an extreme case of a streamer who really shouldn’t be streaming at all, who belongs in school or a regular job and definitely in some kind of therapy considering her mental/emotional state. However, it also partly addresses the unusual and not always entirely healthy relationship between the streamer and her fans on social media and in chat during her streams, and that’s not particular to Ame or her KAngel persona.

Not even Doom streams are immune

From what I’ve seen, the vast majority of viewers are just dropping in to be entertained and have a pretty casual attitude. Fans seem to be pretty accepting of most any subject a streamer might want to bring up or an idea she might want to try out, even if the stream ends up crashing and burning (as happens a few times in Needy Streamer Overload, though KAngel’s reactions to these failures end up getting her more viewers than she would have had otherwise.)

Despite this casual and accepting atmosphere, there’s still a pretty common expectation, at least as far as I understand, that a streamer like KAngel or a VTuber who presents herself in a similar way shouldn’t be romantically involved, much less sexually active. Or if she is, as a lot of fans realize is at least possible, she should never even suggest or hint at that possibility that she might have a boyfriend.1 I’ve even heard about a couple of “incidents” in which viewers heard a male voice during a stream and the streamer had to explain the situation later (probably by saying “don’t worry that was just my brother” or something similar.)

Or “it was a ghost”, that might work too

That might sound like a silly or harsh standard to you, but there seems to be a practical reason behind it. A streamer who creates a persona as Ame does has to maintain that persona in front of the camera and on her social media accounts. Talking about personal issues isn’t necessarily discouraged, and in fact it can help viewers feel more closely connected to the streamer. However, part of the appeal of this sort of streamer, whether she uses a VTuber model or not, is her cuteness and weirdly enough her romantic availability — even though, practically speaking, she’s not romantically available to any of her viewers. Again, this is not true of all such streamers, but it certainly is of KAngel/Ame, who’s pretty open about using her looks and her cute persona to attract a probably primarily male fanbase.2

KAngel is pure, but luckily for P-chan, Ame sure isn’t.

This approach to the division between the streamer’s persona on one hand and her private life on the other seems to have been carried over from the idol scene, a subject I got into when I had a look at the film Perfect Blue. In both works, many fans express their adoration and/or love for the main character, and some express envy for the attention she receives.

But of course, that attention has a double edge. Ame looks to be suffering from a mix of depression and anxiety and maybe a severe personality disorder or two thrown in, and while taking medication helps her out a bit, it’s only a temporary fix in the game. Higher viewer counts get her excited for a while, but she soon becomes dissatisfied and wants more, and then it’s clear that she’s looking for something streaming alone won’t help her with.

At the same time, a lot of Ame’s viewers also seem to be depressive shut-ins or otherwise living on the margins of society. As someone with those tendencies (at least as far as I feel, since I disguise myself pretty well in public and society as a basic normal guy more or less — no time to mope around over here) I can completely understand why such people would seek an escape like watching streamers, especially since you can spend quite literally all day every day watching them live now. And that’s not even mentioning the nearly endless stock of VODs that I’m sure fans are obsessively archiving just in case a nuclear war or solar flare destroys the internet.

The definition of nerd: if you’re watching this, it’s you

I don’t want to overstate this point. The vast majority of interactions and talk in general I’ve seen around VTubers and fans has been positive. But the term “parasocial relationship” has been thrown around a lot lately for good reason. As much as it pains me to say it, while following one of these personalities can be fun, it’s not a substitute for having a social life of your own. Not even if the cute fox girl on the screen reads your superchat.

And no surprise, with all these strong emotions running and especially with five or six day-per-week streaming schedules, there’s always potential with this arrangement for things to get out of hand, with minor and even unintentional slips or incidents being blown well out of proportion. I’m not sure how much of this translates over from VTuber/liver work to “real 3D” or in-person livestreaming or whatever you’d call it, but I recognized a lot of what I saw in this game.

Avoiding textboards and imageboards is also a good policy, though /st/ seems like it’s mostly all right surprisingly enough. I miss ASCII art.

All that said, Needy Streamer Overload, despite its often dark tone and its dozens of bad endings to achieve, isn’t entirely negative. Ame does have serious problems she needs help with, perhaps even beyond the ability of you as P-chan to fix (and her extreme dependence on her P-chan is likely a serious problem in itself.) But she also seems to genuinely enjoy streaming sometimes, even if she likes to put down her viewers a bit as her “little nerds” in her private account, and most of her fans reciprocate that positivity.

If this game went full-on 100% dark all the time, I’d criticize it for that — despite how negative I can be, I find that sort of approach in any medium of art way too boring and simplistic, and it wouldn’t reflect reality all that much. Needy Streamer Overload already presents what seems like a purposely exaggerated situation, but it’s exaggerated in the right way and mostly has the right effect. A few of the bad endings do feel pretty weird and abrupt, but there are plenty of endings in the game. Almost all of them bad, but I get that too — I guess the game’s makers didn’t want to make it so easy for us.

Keep working towards that good ending

So reading all that back, I just bullshitted a lot about subjects I probably don’t have too much understanding of and read far too deeply into everything. But that’s the usual way for me. As for the game itself — I liked it. I’m a big fan of the art style and general look of it, it has some catchy and fitting background music, and I had fun watching Ame stream as KAngel when she wasn’t an out-of-control train five seconds from derailing, which I always felt responsible for because I was the one directing her life. Needy Streamer Overload is still another one of those works that’s not meant for everyone, or perhaps even for most, but if the style grabs you and you can deal with the subject matter, I’d recommend it.

 

1 Or a girlfriend, I guess, but that possibility doesn’t seem to come up as much, and I get the impression more fans would be generally okay with their favorite having that sort of relationship (though certainly still not all of them.) I’m also not sure how much any of this might apply to male streamers — that’s a totally different world as far as I can tell, and if anyone reading this is deep into male VTubers, I’d be interested to know if there are similar hangups among those fan groups.

2 To be sure, not all fans feel this way, and that difference in opinion is also depicted in Needy Streamer Overload. However, it seems like a common enough issue that it’s still worth bringing up. I’m also not trying to justify this feeling on the part of the more obsessive fans, since I do think it’s pretty unreasonable, but it’s worth trying to understand at least. For what it’s worth, the few VTubers I follow seem to have a healthy and practical attitude towards all this, though of course it’s impossible for me to say that for sure since I don’t actually know who they are behind the curtain. Not my business anyway.

A review of Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book (PS4)

My journey through Atelier continues. After finishing Ryza, I was afraid I might be burned out on the series for a while, but apparently that’s not the case yet. The fact that the Mysterious DX trilogy was on sale at the time also helped my decision, admittedly, but I was destined to play this anyway. So better sooner than later: it’s on to still another world, another story, and a new cast of characters with Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book.

Sophie Neuenmuller is a young alchemist living alone in her atelier on the outskirts of her hometown of Kirchen Bell. Sophie doesn’t have a lot of experience with alchemy yet, but she’s determined to improve her skills, in part to carry on the legacy of her alchemist grandmother, who raised her and taught her what she knew before her passing.

She still has plenty to learn however

Sophie’s life might seem a bit lonely, living and working entirely on her own, but she has plenty of friends, including her childhood companions Monika and Oskar. All of Kirchen Bell is with her as well — her grandmother was a valued citizen and friend who helped everyone around town, and all that goodwill is also extended to Sophie, who does her absolute best to be worthy of it.

While working as usual one day, something happens that changes Sophie’s life forever: one of her reference books, an old tome she inherited from her grandmother, starts floating and talking to her. At first, Sophie thinks she’s suffering from a hallucination brought on by working too much, but she soon realizes that this is no illusion. The book calls itself Plachta and tells Sophie that it has regained a little of its memory thanks to her writing alchemy recipes in it.

Sophie soon learns that this Plachta was a human girl like her, and another alchemist no less, who five hundred years ago had to transfer her soul into a book for some reason. That reason is still unknown because Plachta has unfortunately lost her memories. But Sophie is determined to help her new friend. By learning more alchemy recipes and writing them into Plachta, she can slowly recover those lost memories. Not just for her own sake, either: as Plachta tells Sophie, she transferred her soul into this book for an as of yet unknown reason, but an extremely important one, making their goal all the more critical to achieve.

Naturally, Sophie has to explore uncharted and dangerous lands outside the safety of Kirchen Bell and its surroundings to gather rare ingredients for her alchemy recipes. As always, our alchemist protagonist has plenty of help from both old and new friends who join her in adventuring. And while Plachta can’t (yet) join Sophie in battle against the monsters that menace them, she helps out by teaching her what she knows about alchemy as her memories return.

Also, Oskar can communicate with plants. At first it comes off as a joke, but he’s dead serious, and his unique skill actually is helpful later in the game.

If that doesn’t seem to you like much of a story to play through, especially for a JRPG, I’d say you’re right. But that seems to be by design. Sophie is the most slice-of-life, relaxed Atelier I’ve played yet, and that includes both Ryza and the parts of the Arland series I’ve played that were already pretty slice-of-life themselves. So Sophie isn’t really that unusual for the series as a whole, and Atelier is a pretty atypical sort of JRPG series in that sense anyway. This game just carries that more relaxed tendency even further than usual, and I imagine this would have been even more noticeable to players coming directly off of the Dusk series that preceded it.

I don’t want to overstate this point, however. Because there is a plot to Sophie, and the game does require the player to make progress towards an eventual end goal that’s directly related to recovering Plachta’s memories. The big difference is that instead of working under time pressure as you would have been in Arland or in parts of Dusk, there’s no deadline here. Sophie doesn’t even punish you for spending too much time in one particular section of the game by literally slowing you down the way Shallie did, which is much appreciated, because I didn’t much care for that aspect of Shallie.

In fact, you can just spend time away from the plot fulfilling item synthesis and monster-killing requests for money and vouchers at the local pub so you can buy the ticket that lets you go on a date with your bunny girl waitress friend Tess. And you’re sure as fuck right that I did just that, much to the despair of her many male admirers who missed out. Sorry guys. Maybe you should have spent less time drinking coffee and leering at her and more time busting your asses too.

Atelier Sophie is clearly designed to let the player take their time — everything about it is set up so that you can’t rush the game even if you try. One reason for this slower pace is the alchemy system, and specifically the method this new sub-series uses to teach its protagonist new recipes. There are still a few books lying around for Sophie to read and learn more alchemy from, but the vast majority of new recipes in Sophie are learned simply by doing things. Just doing things, yeah. Fighting enemies, synthesizing new items in your cauldron, or even just talking to people around town or finding unusual spots while out in the field can give Sophie new ideas, which are denoted by a light bulb appearing over her head, after which she writes something in her book (which apparently isn’t Plachta, though she does actually write in Plachta when she returns to the workshop.)

The item synthesis system is also totally different from previous systems and takes some getting used to, but as usual it’s not hard to get down once you’re practiced at it. Still easier than the relatively opaque and weird trait transfer system in Ayesha, though some might disagree.

I found both of these new aspects of the alchemy system a bit annoying, especially at first when my options for crafting items were limited. This new system seems to simulate the cauldron itself, giving the player a square grid layout to insert each ingredient into with the variously colored squares corresponding to the usual fire/water/electricity/wind element system and with a fifth white element (holy or something like that? I guess.) The key to improving your items above the relatively crap level you start out with is getting new cauldrons with better properties and larger grids — there’s not much you can do with a 4×4 cauldron, for example, but a 6×6 one gives you a lot more room to work with.

Getting used to the cauldron stuff wasn’t too bad, but the recipe book system that went along with it was slightly more irritating because of how vague it could sometimes be. Some recipes were pretty straightforward about their requirements for being unlocked, but a few others weren’t, and I ended up having to look up a few hints about where to go and what to do to unlock such and such recipe to create a new item — something I never like doing. It may be that I’m simply an idiot, a possibility I always hold open, but I think the game was just being too damn obtuse in a few places.

The water of life is booze, isn’t it? Well, Sophie is still under Kirchen Bell’s drinking age as the café/tavern owner Horst reminds her, so I guess it’s non-alcoholic in this game.

But maybe it’s not such a big deal. Because there’s no time limit and no penalty for running in circles in Sophie, you’re free to do so, though players who actually want to stick to a schedule might be annoyed by getting caught up with some of these riddles. Then again, there are plenty of side stories available to play through, one for each party member and also for a couple of more major side characters (namely, Logy from the Dusk series and Pamela from Arland, who return confusingly enough as alternate-universe versions of themselves.)

Logy is exactly the same personality-wise as he was in Dusk, even working again as a blacksmith, although not an alchemist this time. But Pamela is pretty different — she’s far more mature and also not at all flirty with any of the guys around town like she was in Atelier Meruru. In fact, she’s a nun in this game, so just the opposite.

While I felt the side character stories in Ryza were pretty thin, in Sophie they’re somewhat more interesting and fleshed out. As usual, we’re presented with a cast of colorful characters, and for the most part they’re pretty fun to hang around and to help out — you can even give them gifts that they’ll reciprocate later on, a nice way to clear out your overfull inventory of ingredients while also improving your standing and moving their side plots along.

And naturally, some of these side plots also require Sophie to venture out into the field. And going into the field requires her and her friends to fight monsters. Unlike in past installments, every character in Sophie can use items in battle, though only Sophie and a few others can actually handle high-level items well enough to stock them in their inventories. Otherwise, Sophie uses a turn-based combat system similar to those in Arland and Dusk, though with a few twists of its own. I found combat to be pretty straightforward anyway — it relies heavily on having effective attack items on you and weapons and armor equipped with helpful traits as you’d expect, so as usual your alchemist level seems to be more important than your adventurer level in taking down powerful enemies.

This dragon was piss easy when I finally got around to fighting it, mainly because of the high-level weapons and armor I’d crafted.

That leaves the aesthetics, which are always a big part of the appeal of an Atelier game for me, and with the partial exception of the music (Dusk still has the best soundtracks in my opinion, but the music here is all right — just doesn’t quite rise to the level where I’d want to go back and listen to any tracks on their own) those are up to par as well. Following series tradition, this new trilogy brings with it a new art style, this time courtesy of artists/character designers Yuugen and NOCO. I wasn’t familiar with these guys before, but I like their designs and the art direction in general — Sophie, and from what I can tell so far the Mysterious series in general, returns to the more colorful look of Arland, moving away from the earthy look of Dusk, but again with its own style distinct from the others. I like them all, though; each one fits well with the character of its respective series, which is what matters.

Some really nice CGs in Sophie, also a series tradition.

Sophie also adds some of its own flavor in the characters’ costumes, which are somehow even more elaborate than some of those put together by Mel Kishida back in the Arland series. You might have already noticed Sophie wearing two very different outfits above, and then there’s still a third, an old set of clothes her grandmother wore when she was about the same age, which Sophie decides she has to recreate and wear at certain points in the game to embody her spirit or something. One of your party members, Leon, is even a traveling tailor and fashion designer who makes the honestly kind of strange-looking gold shorts and beret getup for Sophie you see above.

Well, it fits anyway — as someone said in a previous game (Wilbell maybe?) alchemists always dress strangely. And Leon is apparently one of those haute couture designers who specializes in unusual dresses like you see in those weird as fuck fashion shows in Milan and Paris, so I shouldn’t question her work.

I actually prefer Sophie’s grandmother’s dress design to the others, seen here. See also pimp hat ghost

You might think it’s strange to focus on the protagonist’s costumes so much, but they actually play a minor part in the story this time around. And not just Sophie’s — Plachta’s as well. It’s not much of a spoiler considering the fact that she’s on the cover, but Sophie and friends eventually manage to put together a life-sized, fully autonomous and functional doll body for Plachta and transfer her soul from the book into it. This procedure is part of their plan to help Plachta recover her memories by giving her as close to her old human body as possible, and more conveniently for the player it also allows Plachta to finally join the party and fight.

However, there’s also a “doll-making” mechanic that lets you put new clothes on Plachta. I still have no idea whether it has any actual effect on her skills or stats or anything; my mind was probably too clouded at the time to notice (edit: I’m stupid and it does.) But I do remember what I ended up putting Plachta in for most of the rest of the game once I discovered it:

Of course I go with the catgirl outfit. You’re not surprised, are you. And in my defense, this isn’t even close to the skimpiest one.

Anyone who was looking for all the fanservice in Atelier and went straight to Ryza based on the (admittedly pretty damn good) thighs? They completely missed it, because it was all here in Sophie. I’d still say there still isn’t that much fanservice in this game in the grand scheme of things, but the doll-making mechanic does stand out in a funny way. In any case, though, it’s entirely optional — you’re free to leave Plachta in her original Leon-designed costume that makes her look a bit like a tower administrator from the EXA_PICO series. Which hey, those are also Gust games, so maybe it’s not a coincidence.

And none of that’s a complaint, to be clear — not coming from me anyway. No, my only actual complaint with Atelier Sophie is that it returns to some of the old ambiguity in item, effect, and trait descriptions that we got with Escha & Logy. Added to the intentional ambiguity in some of the game’s requirements to learn new alchemy recipes, this can cause some real problems, especially for the player looking to complete their recipe books and craft the absolute best items, weapons, and armor possible. None of that’s necessary to complete the game’s main plot, but since Atelier tends to attract obsessive completionist types (at least I imagine, considering the emphasis it puts on filling out compendiums of items and ingredients etc.) this may still be an issue for some players.

God damn it Logy, stop pretending you don’t know what alchemy is. You did so much of it with Escha in your own game. Help me out here.

But aside from that still relatively minor issue, I was happy with Atelier Sophie. The slow-paced slice-of-life style of the game was refreshing, and even when I got stuck at points, it was pretty easy to just go with the flow and carry out other tasks in the hope that a solution would eventually present itself (though again, on occasion that just didn’t happen.)

I can also finally agree with the pretty common opinion I’ve heard that Sophie is a good place to start for the Atelier beginner. It still has a lot of depth in its alchemy mechanics, but it’s not all that demanding either, and in some ways it feels like a return to the simpler “cute girl doing alchemy in an old European-looking town setting” setup that Arland had going, only without that series’ restrictive time limits. The only drawback I can see to starting with Sophie (or Ryza for that matter, which I think also makes for a decent enough starting point) is that going backwards from here into Dusk and/or Arland might feel uncomfortable as a result.

Not as uncomfortable as going to university lectures hung over, but still maybe a bit uncomfortable. Those memories will stick with me forever.

But hell, you have to start somewhere, and it may as well be here if you’re planning on getting into Atelier. As usual, I wouldn’t recommend Sophie to those who dislike games with turn-based combat or a lot of collecting items and crafting. Those looking for a deep and/or intense plot won’t find much of that here either.

However, if you’re looking for a nice light slice-of-life game about cute girls doing cute things and also doing a lot of alchemy and killing dragons and ghosts with it, you can’t go wrong with Atelier Sophie. Having only played the DX version, I can’t say how much it adds to the original, but since it’s now the standard it’s likely the one you’d end up getting. Though if you want a physical copy, I think you have to stick with the original plain vanilla version. If only I could get my hands on one myself… but I do have the upcoming direct sequel Atelier Sophie 2 preordered, so that’s some consolation.

Before that, though, I have the rest of Mysterious to get through. As usual, as of this writing I’ve already started the following game in the trilogy Atelier Firis, and I can already tell just a few hours in that it’s very different in its approach from Sophie while maintaining a consistent style. I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me — hopefully someplace equally pleasant. So until then.

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.”

Kiryu Kazuma in the opening sequence of Yakuza 0

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.

Kiryu Kazuma faces a group of thugs in an early chapter of Yakuza 0

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.

Kiryu Kazuma and his friend and sworn brother Nishikiyama

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?

Goro Majima in Yakuza 0

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.”

Majima and Sagawa talking in Yakuza 0

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?

Getting into a fight on the street with thugs in Sotenbori, Yakuza 0

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.

Nighttime in Sotenbori, Yakuza 0

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.

Kiryu Kazuma on the dancefloor in Yakuza 0

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.

A sidequest about stolen pants in Yakuza 0

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.

Kiryu watches a dominatrix and her client in the street, Yakuza 0

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.)

Kiryu buys property with a suitcase full of cash, Yakuza 0

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.

Fighting thugs in the homeless park in Yakuza 0

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.

Yakuza guys threaten Kiryu, Yakuza 0

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.

Playing blackjack in Yakuza 0

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.

Majima defending a girl from criminals in Yakuza 0

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.)

Playing OutRun in Yakuza 0

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.

Dominatrix Ayu-sama in Yakuza 0

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.