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.

My favorite Touhou themes

No, it’s still not the end-of-month post, but that’s still on the way. By contrast — this post probably should have been written years ago, and here it is now. Talk about a post with niche appeal, anyway; a lot of readers might not know what the fuck I’m even talking about this time without some background. So let me briefly introduce you to Touhou (which I’ve done before on the site once or twice, but once more won’t hurt.)

Touhou Project is a bullet hell/danmaku shmup series created by Japanese indie game designer/music composer/beer enthusiast ZUN. Touhou is primarily about shrine maiden Reimu Hakurei and mischievous witch Marisa Kirisame along with a few other recurring main characters fighting a bunch of youkai who are also all cute girls who fire lasers and make puns at each other. This all takes place in Gensokyo, a part of rural Japan that was cut off from the rest of the world with a magical barrier in the 1880s, the result being that it now exists in its own dimension.

Touhou has been going strong for nearly three decades now, getting its start on the PC-98 in the 90s when ZUN was still a designer working at Taito. However, his work apparently didn’t get much notice until the release of Touhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, which came out for the PC in 2002. With EoSD and its followups Perfect Cherry Blossom and Imperishable Night, Touhou exploded in popularity on the indie scene in Japan and among the Western niche weeb weirdo circles that I moved in back in the mid-2000s (and that I still do today, of course.)

If you’ve played or seen gameplay of an original Touhou game, a few aspects of it probably jumped out at you, like the intricate, colorful, and often extremely difficult to dodge bullet patterns or ZUN’s famously not-so-great character portraits (which have been long beloved in the community anyway, a lot like Ryukishi07’s slightly scuffed character art in the Higurashi and Umineko VNs.)

But to me and many other past and current fans, the most standout aspect of Touhou is its music. Each of ZUN’s games come with an excellent soundtrack, with pieces generally sorted into one stage and boss theme each over six stages, along with a few extra boss themes and a main theme. As it plays in sync with all that colorful bullet hell going on, the music adds to the effect, and it’s no exaggeration at all to say the games wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable to play muted.

That said, here are seventeen themes from Touhou 6 through 8 and 10 that I rank as my favorites. Yeah, seventeen, that’s right. I couldn’t possibly have reduced this list any more than I have. In fact, I still feel bad about leaving a ton of excellent themes out of it; that seventeen could just as easily have been seventy. The only reason I’m even limiting the selection to four out of the now 20+ original ZUN-made Touhou games is that these are the ones I played when I was really into the series way back before I kind of fell out of it for a while. So if you’re wondering where your favorite DDC or LoLK track is, I’m not putting those down at all — it’s just that I’m not as familiar with those soundtracks and games in general. I’ll also be listing these by order of play if you were playing through the series chronologically, since I can’t bring myself to rank them in quality either. But that also means you get to see some of the evolution in ZUN’s sound, which is pretty interesting in itself.

1) Shanghai Alice of Meiji 17Touhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil — Hong Meiling’s theme

Starting with one of the first hard hitters in the PC-era series. I’m not sure who “Shanghai Alice” is, aside from being the name of ZUN’s doujin circle — there’s an Alice who shows up not here but in Touhou 5 and again in 7 and ends up sticking as a major character in the series — but Hong Meiling is Chinese as the “Shanghai” suggests. But then the song sounds not Chinese but western. According to ZUN, he was thinking more about the 19th century Shanghai French concession, which would explain the western sound and the “Meiji 17” in the title, i.e. 1884.

More importantly, this theme fits Meiling’s character — she’s usually considered comic relief as early stage bosses sometimes are, but she’s no joke in combat, and the fast pace of “Shanghai Alice” reflects that.

2) Locked Girl ~ The Girl’s Secret RoomTouhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil — Patchouli Knowledge’s theme

“Locked Girl” takes a much more somber tone than the last boss theme, again fitting for its character. I admit Patchouli is my favorite Touhou character — she’s a shut-in who lives in a library reading all day and never even bothers to change out of her nightgown, what’s not to like about that? Very relatable; I’d do that too if I could get away with it. But it’s not just favoritism working here, because Patchouli’s theme is excellent too, and a nice showcase of ZUN’s skills at different sounds and styles.

3) Septette for the Dead PrincessTouhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil — Remilia Scarlet’s theme

And it turns out the big bad boss of Touhou 6 is a small vampire girl. Remilia might not look intimidating at first, but like a lot of the other girls in Touhou she has serious magical ability and can fuck you up with it. Remilia also claims to be the daughter of Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes, aka Dracula, the 15th century ruler of Wallachia in modern-day Romania. She’s confirmed to be over 500 years old, but her claim of descent from Dracula is a lie according to the Touhou wiki.

Even so, she’s powerful, and her stately theme fits her character perfectly. “Septette” is famously based on the third movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata. They diverge pretty quickly, but the beginning of “Septette” is very similar, showing some of ZUN’s western classical influence.

4) U.N. Owen was her?Touhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil — Flandre Scarlet’s theme

Of course I couldn’t leave out this iconic piece. “U.N. Owen” is the theme of Flandre, Remilia’s younger sister they keep locked in her room because anyone having contact with her other than Remilia and a select few others ends extremely badly, usually as a splatter of blood and guts on her wall. Flandre’s theme is appropriately chaotic compared to her sister’s, and her fight is hard as hell. Even getting there requires you to beat the game at least on normal mode to unlock the extra stage, which is no small feat itself. I do like how Flandre’s theme is a little playful as well, though — she really just wants someone to play deadly danmaku laser games with and doesn’t seem to fully appreciate her own power.

The “U.N. Owen” in the song’s title is also a reference to an Agatha Christie novel, though I still don’t get the connection there. Maybe it’s all just meant to fit the generally western theme of the game.

5) The Doll Maker of BucurestiTouhou 7: Perfect Cherry Blossom — Stage 3 theme

Continuing the more western, European sound with “Doll Maker of Bucuresti”, my first pick from Touhou 7. The stage themes in these games are often considered character themes by the fans, even if they technically aren’t meant to be, and when the stage is dominated by one enemy character she ends up with two of them in a game (and sometimes more if she comes back to fight later on.) “Doll Maker” perfectly fits Alice Margatroid, pictured above, a returning character from the PC-98 era who ended up becoming one of the most prominent usually non-player characters in the series (maybe thanks in part to a remix of the next song on the list by IOSYS that got insanely popular in the mid-2000s.)

6) Doll Judgment ~ The Girl Who Played With People’s ShapesTouhou 7: Perfect Cherry Blossom — Alice Margatroid’s theme

And here’s Alice’s other PCB theme, the proper boss battle one this time, and it also fits with her character very well. Alice is one of my favorite characters in the series, usually depicted as somewhat of a loner who lives in a house in the woods with all the autonomous dolls she makes for a living. Despite the ominous sound to her PCB themes, Alice after this game is usually a friend to the protagonists, especially Marisa (though that relationship is sometimes depicted as more than just friendly, and sometimes extremely complicated. It’s been long accepted that the fandom makes up most Touhou lore.)

7) Border of LifeTouhou 7: Perfect Cherry Blossom — Yuyuko Saigyouji’s theme

One of my favorite final boss themes from Touhou, Yuyuko’s theme is a great mix of beauty and power that the series is known for. It fits especially well considering Yuyuko has an extra-tragic story, even if the fandom has made her into a bit of a joke character thanks to some of her lines during her appearance as a player character in Touhou 8. Well, that’s on ZUN, isn’t it? But this is still one of my favorite themes of his.

8) Song of the Night Sparrow ~ Night BirdTouhou 8: Imperishable Night — Stage 2 theme

Sometimes early stage themes aren’t quite as impressive as the mid- and late-stage ones, even according to ZUN himself, who writes notes for each of his songs he puts out with the games. But “Night Bird” stands up very well to a lot of the other pieces in Touhou 8, with plenty of tension building the player up to what’s coming next. And it’s no good scoffing at early stage bosses anyway — Mystia Lorelei, the stage boss and night sparrow of the title, doesn’t put up much of a fight on the Touhou scale, but she does have an interesting gimmick that can really annoy you your first play through. My favorite section starts at 1:27, which is perfectly synced up to Mystia’s appearance (where she starts shooting at you before her fight proper even begins — pretty common in Touhou games to have bosses drop in on you during the stage itself.)

9) Plain AsiaTouhou 8: Imperishable Night — Keine Kamishirasawa’s theme

Keine has one of the more interesting jobs in the Touhou series, even if she doesn’t show up so much these days — she protects the human village of Gensokyo from youkai threats through her power of hiding/erasing history so they can’t find it. Or eating history, which she can do in her animalistic form that she turns into during a full moon, which just happens to occur during Imperishable Night, so you’ll be seeing her again later on. I’m still not sure exactly what “eating history” involves, but there are a lot of weird concepts in the Touhou universe that you just have to accept.

No matter what pair of characters you’re playing as (these team-ups being another unique aspect of 8, at least at the time) Keine presents a fair challenge. But trying to play “Plain Asia” is way more of a challenge. ZUN really went nuts on the piano for Touhou 8; might be part of why it features probably my favorite Touhou soundtrack.

10) Love-colored Master SparkTouhou 8: Imperishable Night — Marisa Kirisame’s theme

In Touhou, sometimes you have to fight your friends, and so it is in stage 4 of Imperishable Night. If you’re playing as Marisa and Alice, you have to fight Reimu, and if you’re playing as Reimu and Yukari, you have to fight Marisa (and you still have to fight one of them if you’re playing as Sakuya/Remilia or Youmu/Yuyuko, but I forget how that breaks down.) I think Marisa might have had a few different themes throughout the series, but “Love-colored Master Spark” seems to be the most associated with her, and I can hear why. It has more of a rock sound, maybe thanks to the electric guitar-sounding synth in there, and fitting with Marisa’s somewhat wild and carefree attitude.

Now that I think about it, Marisa is sort of the Sonic the Hedgehog of Touhou in that sense, making the rock-sounding theme even more appropriate. I don’t know if anyone else has made that comparison, but it feels right to me. Does that make Reimu a non-oblivious version of Knuckles, then? I’m not sure. Maybe this character match-up doesn’t actually work so well.

11) Cinderella Cage ~ Kagome-KagomeTouhou 8: Imperishable Night — Stage 5 theme (or Tewi Inaba’s theme, why not)

“Kagome-Kagome” is another great stage theme that builds up the excitement as you approach the final parts of the game and hope to any and all gods or spirits or whatever else you like that you don’t run into a stray bullet or get boxed in by a pattern without a bomb to clear the screen. The title might be familiar — the main melody is based on a song that accompanies an old Japanese children’s game of the same name.

No idea what that has to do with moon rabbits or Princess Kaguya or anything else that Imperishable Night is about, but the piece works really well here anyway. “Kagome-Kagome” is also the closest thing stage mid-boss Tewi Inaba has to a theme as far as I know unless she received one later on. Usually these mid-boss-only characters don’t get much popularity, but Tewi is a pretty big deal in Touhou, even being featured on the Wikipedia page for the obsolete kana that’s part of her name. Do you have the distinction of being featured on the Wikipedia page for a dead letter? I certainly don’t, but if I had the chance I’d want to get on the page for ȝ.

12) Reach for the Moon, Immortal SmokeTouhou 8: Imperishable Night — Fujiwara no Mokou’s theme

Apologies to true final boss Kaguya for not including her theme Flight of the Bamboo Cutter ~ Lunatic Princess in this list (there’s her honorable mention anyway) but I like this extra boss theme more. Mokou is hell to fight, and her theme reflects that. If I ever got to be a boss in a game, I’d also want a theme with as cool a name as “Reach for the Moon, Immortal Smoke.” This one is the badass sort of piece that brings out the edgy 13 year-old in me, though I’m pretty sure that’s not what ZUN was going for.

13) The Road of the Apotropaic God ~ Dark RoadTouhou 10: Mountain of Faith — Stage 2 theme

Another excellent stage 2 theme with great build-up. The Mountain of Faith soundtrack feels like it has a lot more organ in it, which I like. Not much else to say about this one except I still don’t get the deal with Hina and why she’s constantly spinning.

14) The Gensokyo the Gods LovedTouhou 10: Mountain of Faith — Stage 3 theme

Now here’s a fucking song. “The Gensokyo the Gods Loved” is so iconic in the series that a lot of fans refer to it as the Gensokyo national anthem. A lot of them also say it has a nostalgic feel, which I agree with. Maybe it’s partly the fact that I’d gotten used to those synth trumpets ZUN loves so much (aka the ZUNpets, if you’ve heard that term — that’s what those refer to.)

I partly love this theme as well because of its contrast with the stage boss theme:

15) Candid FriendTouhou 10: Mountain of Faith — Nitori Kawashiro’s theme

Again, what a piece. More organ, with a slightly rock sound this time. I’m a big fan of Nitori as well, a kappa engineer who invents all sorts of strange machines some of which show up in later non-mainline games like Touhou Luna Nights (which I own, but I’m way too horrible at — I need to try it again.)

16) Faith is for the Transient PeopleTouhou 10: Mountain of Faith — Sanae Kochiya’s theme

If I don’t have as much to say about the Mountain of Faith pieces, it’s not because I like them less — I just wasn’t quite as hooked on Touhou by the time 10 came out and didn’t engage with it in quite the same way. I never stopped listening to the music, though. Sanae is another interesting character, a natural rival to Reimu as a fellow shrine maiden, though they eventually end up pretty cordial with each other. However, Sanae’s theme is appropriately fierce in Touhou 10, reflecting the fact that she doesn’t let up in combat either.

17) Native FaithTouhou 10: Mountain of Faith — Suwako Moriya’s theme

Of course. How could I not end this list with “Native Faith”? It’s another piece I don’t have a lot else to say about except how good it is. All of Mountain of Faith feels like it has an earthy feel to it, the music included, sort of like how Imperishable Night has a spacy one. Frog goddess Suwako’s theme caps that off nicely, though once again, as an extra stage boss she takes some effort to reach.

And that’s my list of favorite Touhou themes, again, with a lot of excellent music necessarily left out, otherwise this post would be even longer than 3,000 words, which is probably already too long. If you’ve made it this far, I hope I’ve been able to show just how special the music in this series is. Touhou is well worth picking up and trying out, though unfortunately most of the games on this list aren’t available to play legally very easily. I’m pretty sure the games from Mountain of Faith on are all on Steam now, but for practical purposes 6 through 9 are only playable as downloads unless you can track down physical copies. The PC-98 games take more work to play, since they require an emulator to run, but they’re available out there as well if you don’t have qualms about less than legal methods (and I was going to link to the fansite Moriya Shrine here and say ZUN apparently doesn’t have an issue with piracy of practically unavailable games, but maybe he does, since just last month it seems to have been hit with DMCA notices, so never mind? I own copies of EoSD, PCB, and IN but I got them at anime cons back when Touhou had more of a presence in those circles than it does now. Maybe go check the subreddit instead.)

Whatever path you choose, whether you’re already a fan or you decide to check the series out or leave it, I hope you at least enjoyed the music. If you did, there’s an unimaginably massive amount of fan-created Touhou albums out there in every style for you to explore, a few of which I’ve looked at here on the site, specifically the jazz stuff by Tokyo Active NEETs and DDBY, so be sure to check on those as well. Next post, I really will be getting to the featured articles from March and a couple of album reviews, so until then.

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 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.

Summer cleaning game review (?) special #7: Super Radical Solitaire / ART SQOOL

It’s time for still another double feature, because I don’t have enough to say about either of these games for as full a post as I’d like. I did manage to fit them into a theme, however, so you can’t say I’m not trying here at least. This particular post also doesn’t have any proper reviews because I didn’t play enough of the games to actually review them, but said games are also weird enough for me to want to write about them, if only to relieve my annoyance. Maybe you’ll see something you like, or if you’ve played these maybe you can tell me if I’m missing something here.

Super Radical Solitaire

Remember Radical Solitaire? Developer Vector Hat has created a new version of its bizarre Klondike/Breakout hybrid, and it’s even weirder than before.

If you haven’t played the first one, the idea behind it was that you could win any game of Solitaire you started by dragging a useless card to a pile called “GET RAD”. GETTING RAD entailed playing a game of Breakout in which you attempt to hit the card behind the blocks to flip it, changing it to a hopefully useful card before your Breakout game ends. It was a novel concept, at least to me, though the presumably intentionally eye-destroying color palette gave me a headache.

Breakout, but this game calls it something else. It’s Breakout though.

Super Radical Solitaire features the same old Klondike Solitaire game, but now with two new mini-games added: a version of the extremely addictive Japanese gambling game Pachinko, and a Puzzle Bobble/Bust-a-Move clone.

The image saved as a jpg and the colors were muted; it’s actually brighter than this.

There seem to be other, secret mini-games according to the game’s itch.io page, but I didn’t play long enough to find them. Because this game is even more eye-scraping than before, with flashing bright colors (which it does warn you about in the opening screen — the photosensitive should stay far away from this game) and the addition of a screeching robot voice that reads out each new card you play and makes a few other announcements. So now it’s ear-destroying too!

In the plus column, unlike its predecessor, Super Radical Solitaire is free. So credit to these guys for not charging for this game, but I still question what the fuck they’re thinking with these design decisions. I think this game is a meme or something, but I don’t even want to guess. Try it for yourself as long as you’re not prone to seizures from flashing lights. It’s certainly unique — I can’t accuse Vector Hat of making generic-looking games at least.

ART SQOOL

And now for a game that’s very different in style but equally confusing in execution.

And also just as hard on the eyes!

This is ART SQOOL. All in caps, apparently — fair enough. The gameplay in this one consists of walking around this school’s “campus” consisting of floating, mostly disconnected platforms while collecting art supplies, including different colors of paint and tools, and then drawing something that hopefully makes your AI professor happy enough to give you a decent grade. FROSHMIN as your character is called has their damn work cut out for them, because it’s not that easy to get a good grade. Or else I’m way too shit at drawing (this is the real reason, I’m sure.)

I didn’t know what “something wiggly” might involve, so I tried a sandwich, but I didn’t really have the tools or paint for it. Mustard is my favorite condiment. I deserved an F, but the professor was too nice to fail me.

Among the many games in the itch.io bundles (ART SQOOL was featured in both the racial justice and Palestine relief ones, so you have it if you bought either) this one was talked up quite a lot. Developer Julian Glander seems to be a known quantity, because one of the reviews on the itch.io page calls ART SQOOL “characteristically Glander.” It also mentions a lot of references to other artists in the game. If you’re deep into the visual arts then you’ll probably get some of them — if I even came across them, I’m sure I didn’t recognize them myself.

I do appreciate the use of Wingdings though; we had a lot of fun fucking around with this crazy Word font when we were kids. Can anyone translate these signs?

This game also hurt my eyes because the whole damn thing is a pastel nightmare (there’s the theme I mentioned at the top — it’s “eye-destroying” this post.) But some people really seem to like it, and maybe you’d be one of them? Feels a little too “lol random” for me, but then I wouldn’t get the inside art jokes anyway, whatever they are.

ART SQOOL promises five or six hours of gameplay, so there’s probably a lot more here than I found in my approximate 45 minutes of dicking around in it. If you own either last year’s or this year’s bundle, anyway, you own this game, so try it out and either enjoy it or be utterly baffled and annoyed by it like I was. Just like Super Radical Solitaire, this game gets the “unique” stamp, but with the qualification that it’s not my kind of unique.

That’s all for now. Next time in this series, I’ll look at something better suited to my uncultured dumb ass. Until then!

 

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 Highway Blossoms: Remastered (PC)

It’s back to the visual novels. And it’s also back to the itch.io bundle, and specifically last year’s racial justice donation bundle, not to be confused with the recently ended Palestine relief one I talked up last post (which I will be getting to in turn, because there are a few interesting games in there as well. Also thanks to itch.io for that bundle again and to everyone for putting up over 900K for a great cause.)

But for now, here’s the 2016 kinetic novel Highway Blossoms, which I just got around to reading after a year of owning it. This is specifically the recently released remastered version, which adds in voice acting and probably a few other features I didn’t notice because I didn’t play the original. I’m not sure if the old version is even around for sale anymore, but it seems this is the definitive version anyway. (And some story spoilers, since this being a kinetic novel, there’s not much to talk about other than characters and story. But that might not be such an issue either way.)

Yeah I played in windowed mode, I admit it

Highway Blossoms tells the story of Amber (above, left), a young woman driving down a highway in the American Southwest in the RV she inherited from her recently deceased grandfather. As our protagonist drives along, she comes across a hitchhiker standing next to her car on the side of the highway, and against her better judgment she stops to help out. Said hitchhiker is Marina (right), another young woman looking for a lift from a stranger. Which is also against all good judgment and common sense, as Amber herself says — but we’ll soon learn that Marina is a bit lacking in the common sense department.

Amber decides to bring Marina along, afraid of what might happen to her if some seedy weirdo comes across her instead. And so their adventure brings, and also their romance, because Highway Blossoms is a yuri (i.e. lesbian) romance VN and this is our couple. That’s not really a spoiler, either: the game bills itself in exactly that way, and its promotional art makes it very obvious that these two will get together, so I don’t feel like dropping that fact here is a big deal when it says all this stuff on the cover basically.

Amber likes black coffee, Marina likes milkshakes. With this odd couple character dynamic plus the yuri tag on the game, you can see it coming from miles away.

There’s another major aspect to Highway Blossoms aside from the yuri romance, and that’s the travel guide one. This game takes place entirely in the American Southwest region, starting in New Mexico, running through Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, and ending in inland California. What starts as a simple lift turns into an extended trip through an entire quarter of the United States when Amber learns that Marina is out on her own searching for a legendary treasure of gold scattered and buried in parts by a 19th century prospector with clues left about their hiding places.

Amber is a naturally skeptical type, and the fact that this prospector’s journal is being sold at gas stations and corner stores all over the place and has sparked a new “gold rush” to find his treasure cements her opinion that it’s all a scam. However, Marina seems dead set on finding these stashes of gold, so Amber unaccountably (even to her, at least at first) agrees to help her.

It also helps that Amber has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Southwest and the ability to decipher vague hints based on its geography despite still only being 19. Not that a 19 year-old can’t be that smart, but I feel like life length/experience should factor in a bit more, especially when so many people are on the hunt.

This gold rush is the excuse for Amber and Marina’s tour through this part of the country, and we get to visit some big natural landmarks along with them, like Shiprock and Arches National Park, places where the prospector hints that his treasure was buried. And of course, a rivalry develops between Amber and Marina on one side and a team of treasure hunters they keep running into on the other, spurring them on to try to find the gold before the other group cleans them out.

The rivalry is really between Amber and this constantly half-naked lady Mariah; anime hair man and Mariah’s little sister who are along for the ride are actually pretty nice. And nice crack on ska there. Why the hate for ska anyway? It’s not that bad.

Finally, between these points, we get a nice dose of what people call “Americana”1 — it’s a term I always found strange, since it only seems to refer to a narrow slice of what life in America is like, but here we’re talking about country/western folk sort of music, 24-hour roadside diners serving heart attack food, and weird man-made tourist attractions like the tallest thermometer in the world. All the stuff you find on Route 66, even though that famous US highway isn’t mentioned at all in Highway Blossoms unless I missed something. But since Amber and Marina are bouncing between different states constantly, it makes sense that they’d have to go off the beaten path a bit more.

I forget exactly what this spot was, but it must be another important natural landmark.

Before going into what I liked and didn’t like about Highway Blossoms, I want to acknowledge something that I very probably got wrong last year when I wrote about visual novels here in the West — they seem to be more popular here than I gave them credit for. I was thinking more about mainstream popularity then, which I feel VNs still don’t really have here, but my perspective was too narrow to see other niches this medium has gotten into, especially with all the otome games out there.

Original English-language visual novels (OELVNs as they’re commonly called) still look like a niche thing to me, but I might still be out of touch in that area — Highway Blossoms is only the third one I’ve played in my life after Doki Doki Literature Club two years ago and Katawa Shoujo (or part of it anyway)2 last year. But it also feels like a first for me in the sense that it’s an entirely American VN with regard to its setting and characters. I also get the impression that the writers at the indie developer Studio Élan are American, or at least that they’ve been around the Southwest and are very familiar with the cultures down there.

There’s still a lot of very obvious influence from Japanese VNs in certain aspects like the character design (which I’m naturally not complaining about — I am still a damn weeb after all, and Amber and Marina and a few of the game’s other characters look pretty fine) but this is otherwise very much an American work, and as an American who’s somewhat into the visual novel medium, that’s nice to see.

In general, Highway Blossoms feels pretty polished, with full voice-acting, original music that mostly fits that Southwest country/western folkish feel, and some pretty nice CGs. Including a few in its 18+ scenes near the end of the story — the base game is all-ages, but there’s an 18+ patch you can download and apply from the Steam page, even if you got Highway Blossoms through itch.io like I did. It only adds maybe ten minutes to this ~5-6 hour game, but to the publisher’s credit, the patch is free.

The only real complaint I have with the game’s presentation is that the otherwise nice-looking character portraits looked a bit crusty in their outlines when set against the backgrounds, but then maybe it was an issue on my end somehow. I don’t know enough about the technical aspects of putting a VN together to say. It’s not a big annoyance for me either way, but just something I noticed.

Now for the writing, which is certainly the most important aspect of this game considering that there’s no gameplay here to speak of. And this is where I have a few more substantive criticisms to make, one of which has to do with the central relationship between Amber and Marina.

If you’ve read or played or watched any similar romances, it’s not much of a surprise: Amber is the serious one, somewhat bitter for her age and carrying around an emotional burden she’s trying to deal with (the recent death of her grandfather, the one who raised her in place of her deadbeat parents and the only person in her life she really cared for) and Marina is the free spirit she comes across by chance, the one who shows her a new way to think about life and who helps her resolve that emotional burden. The road is a bit bumpy; there are a few arguments and one big fight near the end between them, but the two are finally able to come together and realize and express their love for each other. There’s a happy ending as the pair set aside uncertainties over their futures for the moment and embrace their love.

I’m not saying the above is even that unrealistic, but it does feel like a tired sort of story. Maybe I’m just a bitter fuck, but believe it or not, I actually can appreciate a good romance if it gives me something new and fresh to enjoy, and this doesn’t really. For all her impulsiveness and spontaneity, Marina might even be put in that dreaded “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” category that film critics created in the mid-2000s to describe such free spirits. See the 2004 film Garden State for a good example of that character type: the free spirit in this case being Natalie Portman, who pulls depressed guy and writer/director Zach Braff out of a slump with similar results.3

To be fair, though, I think Highway Blossoms avoids falling into that old trope too much, because Marina does have a backstory and a personality beyond “cute girl who loves life and doesn’t let things bother her etc.” She’s not nearly as out to lunch as a few of the other characters I’ve seen stuck into that category either — Marina’s actions seem to make sense to her, at least, without just coming from a place of pure whimsy or whatever the hell nonsense those other movies were trying to pull. The “Marina’s thoughts” feature helps a bit there — throughout the game, we hear Amber’s thoughts, but certain objects the pair collect are catalogued in a separate menu with Marina’s thoughts on them in the attached notes. It’s clear that though she does lack some common sense, Marina doesn’t deserve to be called a simple airhead. Even if she does a couple of profoundly stupid things in the course of the story that Amber ends up having to fix.

I found the romance a bit dull, but at least sort of believable.

The bigger problem is that as a kinetic novel without any player choice or interaction, the story is all Highway Blossoms has beyond its nice art and music, and there’s not much there for me to enjoy. The romance is nice enough, but nothing more, and all the treasure hunt and travel stuff feels like a reason for the romance to take place more than anything. Again, maybe I really am just an embittered type too far beyond that point of life to appreciate the game’s messages. Maybe this game simply wasn’t meant for me — the main characters in it are 19 and 18, both with their whole lives ahead of them, and while I was once like that, I’m now a professional chained to my desk with no real personal goals beyond “get a few hours of total escapism a day to put up with this shit”, all of which is entirely my fault.

So I’ll go for a complete, shameless cop-out and give the typical lawyer’s answer to the question of whether Highway Blossoms is a good visual novel: “it depends.”4 I feel now like I did when I was looking at Blend S, in fact, only instead of the feeling being “this is for me but might not be for you”, it’s “this isn’t for me but might be for you.” If all of the above really appeals to you, or if you’re the type who melts at romance, you might want to check the game out. I liked Highway Blossoms a hell of a lot better than I did Garden State, at least, if that gives you any point of reference. If it doesn’t, I’ll just say that while I didn’t exactly dislike this game, it did fall flat a bit for me.

Okay, not this part, though. There’s something about that “one character has to wear another’s clothes” thing, especially when the two are still just romantic interests. I don’t know. I’m not the only one, right?

Maybe Highway Blossoms does have some value as a Southwest travel guide, though. I’ve never been to that part of the country before, so I can’t say how well it captures the region and its natural beauty, cultures, and all that. But if it does so sufficiently, some of the states it features might consider officially adopting it as a tool to drive tourism — Japanese VNs do this sort of thing often enough, with Our World Is Ended for example set in Asakusa and even talking up particular restaurants.

Something to think about, at least. Though I don’t know how Utah would feel about using a lesbian-themed visual novel to promote itself. Maybe about as good as they would using a lesbian-themed visual novel to teach their schoolchildren Esperanto. There really are a lot of great potential uses to VNs, aren’t there? 𒀭

 

1 Of course, there’s also apple pie and baseball, as seen in this photo I found under “Americana” taken by someone at the USDA Agricultural Research Department. Those are somewhat more widespread in the US, but I’d say still partly outdated as a representation of what America is considering how far baseball has fallen against other sports like basketball, football, and NASCAR (and even soccer, which has been steadily rising in popularity here recently.)

Apple pie is still good, though. I’m more of a cake guy myself but I can appreciate it.

2 I have a load of very old notes on Katawa Shoujo and I still might write something about it here. The trouble is I don’t know if I should write about it if I’ve only gotten through two of its five routes, but then again it is a proper 30+ hour visual novel with branching decision paths and bad ends and all that. Maybe I’ll just finish the damn thing finally, since I’ve thoroughly liked what I’ve played of it so far (there’s your preliminary review of it at least.) In any case, there are more visual novel reviews to come as I plow through what I still have in my massive backlog.

3 I don’t remember their characters’ names, but these two were quite big back at the time: Braff was one of the main guys in the TV comedy Scrubs, and Portman was in quite a few other movies throughout the 90s/2000s, including the first run of bad Star Wars films. The only movies I saw Portman in that I actually liked were Heat and The Professional, the latter of which admittedly had some very weird vibes that may have been explained recently by what’s come out about director Luc Besson. I don’t know how well it holds up, but Jean Reno and Gary Oldman are both always good. But then there are those weird vibes again, so I don’t know. Maybe it’s worth a re-watch?

4 I don’t mean to say here that it always depends — I absolutely don’t subscribe to the view that the quality of all art is a subjective matter. I just feel this is one of those cases where the problem might be partly with where I am more than with the work itself.

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.

The Second Annual EIBFY Game Awards!

Yeah, I said I’d do it again, didn’t it? Screw those “official” Game Awards. I’ve got something better: a collection of my own awards based on total nonsense categories and accompanied by no physical trophies and no prestige whatsoever. Who wouldn’t want that instead?

As before, I’ll be considering games I played this year, not games that were released this year, because that would be a very small pool of games. And I don’t keep up with the times anyway, so it wouldn’t be right for me to even try something like that. Enough talk now; let’s start the show.

***

Best free game (that also comes with a harem)

Winner: Helltaker

I’m pretty cheap usually, unless I’m out eating with friends and don’t want to look like a stingy asshole. What with COVID, that hasn’t happened since last March, though, so I’ve been holding onto my money — but it’s still nice to find a good game that doesn’t cost anything to play. Helltaker is just that: a pretty simple block-moving puzzle game that wouldn’t be all that remarkable but for its cast of cute demon girls plus one angel who somehow managed to wander into Hell. All these ladies join up with the protagonist, who’s breaking into the underworld specifically for the purpose of building a harem of supernaturally powerful women all of whom can easily kill him if they really want to. That’s an interesting choice, and I have to respect it.

Sure it’s depicted as a set of cute triplets in Helltaker, but remember, Cerberus is still the guard of the gate of Hades. Not one to be trifled with.

Helltaker itself is fairly short and simple, but I think there’s a lot of potential in these kinds of characters with something like a visual novel if creator Łukasz Piskorz were inclined to make one. I also love the game’s unique art style. Here’s hoping we see more!

***

Best nightlife

Winner: Yakuza 0

A while back, I decided to settle down in my personal habits and my life in general, quitting all that boozing and street fighting I was doing. You know how it is — fast living catches up with you. But I still feel nostalgic for those days sometimes, so I’m happy that I have a chance to relive them by playing Yakuza 0. This is a game I’ve barely scratched the surface of as of this writing, but I did start it in 2020, so I say it counts. Especially for the purposes of this category, since no other game in my list comes close to recreating anything like Tokyo’s Kamurocho or Osaka’s Sotenbori, commercial and red light districts that are based on real-life neighborhoods in those cities. This is my first Yakuza game, and also the first that allows me to get in a fight instigated by hooligans who don’t know any better, beat money out of them, and spend that money on a meal to replenish any health I lost.

Pretty sure this guy is advertising okonomiyaki. I could go for that right now.

Honorable mention goes to Persona 5 Royal, which I also haven’t finished somehow, but that has already provided a pretty nice experience of life in Tokyo, recreating several of the city’s districts. However, the nightlife just isn’t the same. You play as a high school student in that game instead of an adult, so there’s a limit to what the game lets you do. No drunken street-fighting in that one. But it still provides a nice tour of a few prominent wards of Tokyo.

For the purposes of any other possible awards I dream up, though, I’ll reserve final judgment of Persona 5 Royal for next year’s ceremony. I’m not even to the game’s third semester yet. Lazy, I know.

***

Best-looking food

Winner: Atelier Meruru DX

One of the big draws of the Atelier series is the level of detail the games get into about the various items your alchemist protagonist can craft. This isn’t just any old crafting system, either: it’s a central gameplay mechanic, and one that I always find fun to master.

Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland is no different from the other games in the series in that regard. Also like the other Atelier games, and particularly in the Arland sub-series, Meruru has a ton of beautifully illustrated food items to craft. These do have practical uses in restoring health and mana to your characters in battle, but the characters also talk a lot about both crafting and eating food in the game’s many dialogue breaks and cutscenes. Just as in real life, being good at cooking and baking are great ways to make friends, and the same goes for making food magically through alchemy. Serious credit goes to artist Mel Kishida, who I believe was responsible for this artwork along with the game’s character designs and backgrounds.

Mont Blanc is the best dessert right alongside cannoli. The Italians and French know their sweets. If I lived in either of those countries I’d definitely be in lousy shape right now.

This year’s 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim comes in a close second in this category and therefore gets an honorable mention for also containing a lot of talk about food and nicely illustrated food items that made me hungry while playing. However, 13 Sentinels didn’t feature any Mont Blancs. Crêpes are good too, but Meruru wins for having the better dessert.

***

Best physics

Winner: Wolf Girl With You

I didn’t play a Senran Kagura game this year, so this 2016 h-game gets the coveted Best Physics award instead. I don’t know how much Wolf Girl With You really counts as a game, though. It’s more a series of 3D animations strung together with some short sets of dialogue. But really, that’s close enough in my opinion. It’s just a game about having some private time with your cute werewolf girlfriend, so I don’t think it needed more than that anyway.

Hey, this one also has food in it. And so does Yakuza 0. If I end up gaining weight again anytime soon I’ll have to blame it on all these games.

In any case, creator Seismic deserves all the credit for the physics displayed by his 3D model of Liru from the anime Magical Pokaan. I was already a fan of this wolf girl, but the bounce added a lot to the experience. Though Magical Pokaan itself featured some of that too from what I remember. That outfit Liru’s wearing is her regular one from the show, after all, so you can’t blame the creator of this game for that bikini/shorts look if you don’t like it. (No complaints here, however.)

***

Least amount of time played before eyestrain

Winner: Radical Solitaire

Seriously Vector Hat, change your fucking color scheme. The colors above do change, but they still clash and glare in my eyes in horrible ways. I still like this one, though. Radical Solitaire is an interesting game I found in a huge itch.io bundle last summer that combines Klondike Solitaire (also known as Patience, I think in the UK?) with Breakout. Check it out if you can bear all the neon and the weirdly contrasting dark layout in the main game sections.

***

Best educational game

Winner: The Expression: Amrilato

Every year, I’ll probably give out an award that only one game I played even comes close to qualifying for, and this time it’s best educational game. Arguably the only educational game I played this year was The Expression: Amrilato, a visual novel that centers on a yuri romance plot but also teaches the player the basics of Esperanto. If that sounds like a strange mix, then yeah, it is, but I found it worked pretty well, with the game managing to weave its lesson sections in naturally with the plot as you learn the Esperanto-inspired in-game language Juliamo along with the protagonist Rin. The girl-girl romance stuff is also nice if you’re into yuri — I’m not a dedicated fan of it, but I also have no problem with it and find it a nice break from the usual thing sometimes. (Back in the day we called it “shoujo-ai” over here. Is that different from yuri? I don’t even know. Feel free to educate me in the comments if you do.)

***

Jury Prize

Winner: 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

I wanted to continue the tradition of not giving a game of the year award that I started last year. However, I found a loophole that still lets me sort of give one without actually giving one: the Jury Prize. The Cannes Film Festival gives these to movies that “embody the spirit of inquiry” according to Wikipedia. I’m not totally sure what that’s supposed to mean, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

So I decided steal the idea of this award from the Cannes people. I convened a jury consisting of myself, held a closed door session by myself in my walk-in closet, and came out with the winner: 13 Sentinels. If any game I played this year embodies the spirit of inquiry or whatever, it’s this one. I posted a review gushing over it a few weeks ago, but here’s the short version: 13 Sentinels is an RTS tower defense/adventure game hybrid with a weird science fiction story and a lot of interesting character developments and plot twists. It was different and it worked, and that’s my favorite kind of game (or favorite kind of artistic work in general really.)

The beautiful art almost goes without saying for a Vanillaware game, but there’s a lot more to 13 Sentinels as well.

I don’t want to spoil anything else here, so I’ll just say this game deserves a lot more recognition than it’s gotten, which I’ve heard is largely the fault of Atlus not marketing the game very well here in the West. Considering their other bungles, that’s entirely believable.

***

Best girl

Winner: Esty Erhard (Atelier Arland series)

Okay, so best “girl” might not be appropriate. Best woman, maybe? Though I know a lot of people will disagree, I feel like the “girl/boy” cutoff is somewhere around one’s early 20s, maybe at 25. And we first meet Esty Erhard at 26 in Atelier Rorona, while working in her role as a knight for the Kingdom of Arland. Esty is a hardworking and capable bureaucrat who helps the protagonist Rorona out in her efforts to keep her alchemy atelier open against the efforts of the government’s chief minister to close it. Even though Esty is part of the government, she and her grim-looking subordinate Sterkenburg Cranach give as much support as they can to Rorona, joining her in the field to beat the shit out of monsters while she collects vital ingredients.

Esty is one of my favorite characters in the Atelier Arland series; she has an admirable no-nonsense attitude but also has a sense of humor. The main reason she gets this award, however, is because she’s one of those characters who’s maligned pretty unfairly. Not by fans, at least as far as I know, but more in-game. Esty is chronically unlucky in love throughout the series. When she returns with Sterk 14 years later in Atelier Meruru, she’s still unmarried despite her efforts to find a match, and she has to deal with some ribbing (mainly from her younger sister Filly) over it. She even became the butt of a rather inelegant joke by the localizers at NIS America who decided to change her last name to “Dee” (yeah really.)

Meruru seen here caught in a tense conversation between sisters.

I haven’t played the newly released fourth Arland game Atelier Lulua, so I don’t know if Esty’s been granted the happy ending she was looking for, but she deserves it. I don’t see why she shouldn’t have it. Maybe the guys in the world of the Arland games are all afraid of a woman who can beat them up. Well, I’m here to say that much like the guy in Helltaker, I have no such fear. I’m all about Esty, and that’s ultimately why she’s getting this award.

***

Congratulations to all the winners! To close this ceremony out, just like last time, I was going to detail some of my plans for the coming year, but I really don’t have much to say about it after my last post aside from “expect more of the same.” Maybe that’s not so exciting, but I hope you’ve liked the posts I’ve put up since reviving the site two years ago, in which case that should be good news.

Either way, I don’t want to post a list of games or anime series I plan to write about here, because I always seem cursed never to actually finish them if I do. So I’ll maintain an air of mystery here. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll probably be able to guess some of what’s coming up anyway.

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

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

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

Sonar Smash

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

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

Cityglitch

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

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

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

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

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

Siberia

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

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

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

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

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

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