2019 First Annual EiBfY Game Awards (and a brief site forecast for 2020)

Yes, in yet another first, I’m starting my own very prestigious annual game awards ceremony!  Hell, I have as much right to do that as Geoff Keighley and his stupid Game Awards.  Do I really have any less legitimacy than they do?  (Please don’t answer that question.)

Anyway, here are the awards.  These aren’t based on what came out in 2019 but rather what I played or otherwise experienced in 2019, and also in December of 2018 because that’s really when I revived the site again, so why not.  Congratulations to the winners, who can hopefully take some comfort (or discomfort as the case may be) in their achievements.

Best free game that should be converted into a mobile game if it hasn’t been already

Winner: Cappuchino Spoontforce VI: Girl of the Boiling Fury

In this bizarrely titled game, you have to attend to one Sajiko, a miniature woman taking a bath in a cappuccino by adding coffee to keep the temperature up.  You can add milk and sugar cubes to the coffee to gain points, but they lower its temperature, and if you hit the bathing girl in the face with any of them she’ll get pissed off.  The object of the game is to get as many points as possible before she gets so upset that she leaves the bath (again, she is wearing a towel, so this isn’t 18+ or anything.)

This is a strange concept for a game, but it’s a fun diversion for a few minutes.  Fellow blogger the Otaku Judge suggested down in the comments that this would make for a good mobile game, in fact, and I quite agree.  Never mind that most games will probably devolve into the player giving up on keeping the coffee hot and seeing how many times he can smack Sajiko in the face with sugar cubes/douse her with milk. At least that was my experience with it.  Now that I think of it, maybe this game actually is 18+.  All depends on how you approach it, I guess.

Best game of the year that I already played 15 years ago

Winner: Disgaea 1 Complete

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is an eternal classic, but it was really asking for a remaster, and 15 years after its release it got one.  I was very happy for the chance to play through Disgaea 1 again, complete with all the additions made in its mobile versions on the DS and PSP.  However, it’s hard to deny that aside from the extras and cosmetic upgrades, Disgaea 1 Complete is at its core the same game it was in 2003, which is why it gets this award.  I still highly recommend it to anyone who’s never played the original.  And hell, you can probably find it pretty cheap now, so even if you played the original you may as well get this one as well.  It probably is worth it just to have those extras, especially Etna Mode.

Most effective fourth-wall-breaking

Winner: OneShot

Yeah I was late to the party on this one, I know.  But out of the two fourth-wall-breaking games I played this year, OneShot made the more effective use of the mechanic by making me feel connected to a fictional character in a way few other works ever have.  I think this partly has to do with the game not keeping its central premise a secret.  You know almost from the beginning that Niko, the cat kid protagonist, knows you exist in a different world and that you have some degree of control over his actions and the world around him.  It also really helps that the writer managed to create a child character in Niko who is actually likable and not overly precocious and irritating on one hand or dumb on the other.  I still highly recommend this game to pretty much everyone.

The other fourth-wall-breaking game I played this year was good as well, so it gets an honorable mention, but the title is left out for those who don’t want to be spoiled on its central premise.  Even if everyone already knows its central premise, and they do.  You probably know what game I’m talking about anyway.  Never mind.  On to the next award:

Best game soundtrack that still has some really bad songs on it

Winner: Passion & Pride: Sonic the Hedgehog: Anthems with Attitude from the Sonic Adventure Era

This might be the most “back-handed compliment” award ever made.  Or maybe it’s just a plain insult.  I have pretty fond memories of playing Sonic Adventure 1 and 2 way back in the day on my Dreamcast.  I know they’re not perfect games, but I still like them.

However, the music is a different story.  Some of it’s actually pretty damn good, especially the smooth jazz/pop Rouge and Amy themes that I couldn’t appreciate when I was younger because they were too “girly”.  And a part of me really likes Shadow’s theme, the part that’s still an angsty 13 year-old boy.  (In fact, I think SA2’s angsty as hell song “Supporting Me” is a great boss theme, though it’s not on this album.)  But some of this music is rough to listen to.  I hate Tails’ theme, and Knuckles’ bad rap and Sonic’s bad hair metal throwback music annoy me too.  And the lyrics, even in the songs I like, are generally pretty fucking terrible.  If I didn’t understand English, I think I’d like this album a lot better than I do.

I still like it more than I don’t, though, so congrats to all the composers and musicians, even on the lousy songs.

Best game about telephones

Winner: Strange Telephone

Okay, so this game didn’t have any competition in its category.  However, it still deserves an award for its unique and interesting gameplay and for the creepy, oppressive atmosphere it created.  Not that it’s really a horror game at all — it’s more of a psychological exploration puzzle game.  Strange Telephone barely gives you any hints and throws you into the deep end to let you figure out how to get Jill and her magical flying telephone back to her world, and that’s just the sort of thing I like.  Congratulations to the developer yuuta for making something different that worked.

Best physics

Winner: Senran Kagura Estival Versus

There was only one game I played in 2019 that truly qualified for this prize, and so it won: Senran Kagura Estival Versus is a masterpiece of physics. Lots of bounce in this game, even in the above screen if I could have posted it animated. I suppose I could have made a gif, but that’s too much effort. Just play the game yourself and you can make Yumi and her friends and rivals bounce as much as you want. Unless you’re playing as Mirai, of course. But Mirai brings that “short angry pettanko” appeal that every series needs; see also Cordelia from the Atelier Arland games.

And speaking of angry pettankos, here’s the most important award of all:

Best girl

Winner: Asano Hayase (Our World Is Ended.)

Asano is the most bullied character in a game I played last year or possibly any year.  Not that she’s alone in getting that kind of treatment — most every character in the apocalypse summer sex comedy visual novel Our World Is Ended is made fun of, both by the other characters and by the game itself.  But Asano really gets it bad.  She’s a terrible cook, a tone-deaf musician who thinks everyone loves her singing, and a lousy drunk who responds to the slightest provocation with violence.  She has an almost flat chest, a fact that she can’t help but that she gets made fun of for anyway.  And she has some extremely socially unacceptable interests, to put it politely.  She’s a complete wreck.  She could also be the mascot of this site, because I’m a complete wreck too.  So she gets her deserved recognition today.

(None of that’s counting her many good qualities, which you can discover if you play Our World Is Ended.  I’ll also give honors to Asano’s voice actress Eri Kitamura, a professional singer who had to force herself to sing incredibly badly and also record a bunch of lines spoken in drunk.  I don’t know much of anything about voice acting, but I thought Kitamura did an excellent job, so congrats to her as well.)

***

And that does it for the First Annual Everything is Bad for You Awards.  Will there be a Second Annual next year?  That depends on whether I get a minute away from work to play any games this year.  I certainly hope I do.

And now that we’re done with the big retrospective, we can look forward to 2020.  I never like to make solid plans, but I do have a few projects I’m working on, including two sets of posts about two of my favorite game series, one of which I wrote about above (points if you can guess which one, though I suppose it won’t come as a big surprise when I start it.)  I’m finding I like doing these kinds of deep-dive commentaries, even if they take a god damn eternity to write.  But I do have a few of these epic-length analysis articles mostly written up already in very rough forms, and a few more outlines for others that I think would be interesting.  If you liked my treatment of Kaiji back in November I hope you’ll like these posts as well, because they’re panning out to be just as obsessive as that one was.

Aside from continuing that deep reads series of posts along with maybe a few basic game retrospectives, I don’t have any particular plans, which is my usual approach.  If I get an idea, I’ll try to make a post out of it and hope it’s entertaining, or at least not irredeemably stupid.  Until next time, I hope your return to work from the holidays isn’t too painful (or if you also worked through the holidays, well, I hope you can take a vacation soon.)

A review of Our World Is Ended. (PC)

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

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

Just another day on the job.

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

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

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

The future is now, and it looks like this.

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

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

Get all that?  Also: script errors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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