Backlog review: Doki Doki Literature Club! (PC)

I tried to write a concise review of this game, but I found it impossible to discuss all its aspects I wanted to hit upon without setting out the proper context, so I dumped that review in the bin and started over.  This second take is by far the longest review I’ve ever written.  How long is that?  So long that this review has a preface.  I promise there’s a point to all of it, though.  

Well, I guess you can be the judge of that.

***

Doki Doki Literature Club! is a free English-language visual novel for PC, one that’s been sitting on my hard drive for quite a while now.  I kept telling myself I’d take it on eventually, and so I did over an evening after work, and well into the night.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a meaningful review of this game without getting into spoilers, but I don’t think I can. What I can say without spoiling the game (because the game itself gives the player a warning about this upon running for the first time) is that while Doki Doki Literature Club! looks like your usual cutesy dating sim VN, it deals with some very heavy subjects.  The cheerful theme and the colorful opening screen featuring the protagonist’s schoolmates wearing the world’s shortiest skirts* don’t tell the whole story behind this game.

Just your average visual novel, nothing to see here.

When I first checked it out, I didn’t think much of that fact.  I played a few VNs years ago like Yume Miru Kusuri that touched on similar issues.  But Doki Doki is different.  When the protagonist is pressured into joining his high school’s literature club by his ditzy childhood friend Sayori and meets her clubmates – the painfully reserved Yuri, the ultra-tsundere Natsuki, and the charismatic club president Monika – you might expect the usual choose-your-own-adventure style quest to win one of these girls’ hearts, but that’s not quite what you’ll get.

Massive honking spoilers regarding the game’s plot, characters, and endings follow under the below screenshot. If you haven’t played the game yet and don’t want to read any further, the short, spoiler-free version of my review ends with this: if you’re okay dealing with talk about depression, anxiety, and related issues, and you don’t mind some disturbing images, you should absolutely play Doki Doki Literature Club!  I promise it’s not just another dating sim.  Also, it’s free to download.  Also, it’s not an h-game, so no worries if you’re creeped out by those kinds of scenes, but it’s still not really for kids.

I know how it looks, but I promise it’s not like that.

I didn’t think a PC game could throw me for a loop again after I finished OneShot.  I already had some idea of the reputation Doki Doki Literature Club! (DDLC from now on, because I’m not planning to wear out my ctrl and v keys today) has as a horror game hidden in the shell of a generic dating sim, so I thought I was ready for anything.  But this game exceeded my expectations in that regard.  The way the game starts contrasts so greatly with where the game arrives at the end of the first playthrough that the effect has to be astounding if you weren’t expecting a twist at all.

So what makes DDLC so special?  If you’ve read this far, you’ve either played it already or don’t care about getting spoiled on it, so I’ll spill it here.  DDLC does indeed start out like your average dating sim visual novel set in a Japanese high school.  The player character is an average student who likes anime and video games, and every other character in the game is a cute girl who’s ready to fall madly in love with him despite the fact that there doesn’t seem to be anything remarkable about him.  The only thing that seems to be different about DDLC at first is the poetry minigame that separates each in-game day in which you have to go home and pick twenty words to dump into a poem to share with the club the next day.  Each of your three romantic targets (the short pink-haired Natsuki, the tall dark mysterious Yuri, and the chirpy, spaced-out Sayori – notice Monika isn’t an option; stick a pin in that fact because it’s important) has certain words she likes according to her personality, and your word choice determines which of them you get closer to.  Upon returning to the clubroom the next day, you share your poem with each of your clubmates, who usually shares her own poem in turn.

Wait, why is suicide an option?

Developer Team Salvato could have just left it at that, creating a nice little free romance VN for people to download on Steam and itch.io.  The characters are cute, the art is well done, and the writing is pretty good for your standard dating sim, especially for a free one.  Hell, the writer had to actually compose several poems written by each girl that fit her personality, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.  The only poem I’ve ever written was an obscene scrawl about being drunk and broke and horny that’s only fit for publication on the wall of a bathroom stall.

But no.  Instead of building a normal dating sim on this solid base, the creators chose to take that tried and true format apart and reassemble it into a game about crippling anxiety, suicidal depression, emotional abuse, and existential angst.  But did they pull it off?

I hope that’s not foreshadowing.

It’s not easy to write about the above-listed subjects in a realistic and tasteful way.  It’s even more difficult to write a piece of meta-fiction that weaves all these themes together.  Despite the initial cheery atmosphere of the literature club, each of these girls has some serious emotional baggage she’s dealing with.  Natsuki is raised by a single father who largely neglects her.  Yuri suffers from severe social anxiety to the point that she can barely hold a conversation if it’s not about literature, and it’s implied that she cuts herself.  Sayori hides a case of chronic depression behind an outwardly sunny disposition.  And Monika – well, Monika’s issue isn’t obvious at first, but it’s the one that causes the game to completely run off the rails in the end.

In a normal dating sim VN, the player, represented by the protagonist, pursues the girl he likes the best.  If all goes well (meaning he makes the right decisions when presented with branching dialogue and action paths) he’ll typically get a few increasingly intimate scenes with the girl and end up confessing his love to her or vice versa.  A nice, clean romance.  DDLC makes the player think that’s the path he’s headed down, and then it closes that path off completely, forcing him to take a detour into mind-bending uncanny valley horror land.  This shift in tone is driven partly by the psychological issues the other characters in the game are dealing with, in particular Sayori’s depression.

I don’t have a funny caption for this screenshot.

As the first act of the game goes on, Sayori starts to withdraw from the club’s activities to the point that even the dense as hell protagonist notices there’s something going on with her.  One day after telling him that she’s got depression, Sayori catches the protagonist in an awkward romantic-looking situation with either Yuri or Natsuki, then once she’s alone with him, she confesses her love to him as she breaks down sobbing.  You have the choice of either returning her love or calling her “your dearest friend” (that has to hurt) but either way, Sayori ends up hanging herself the next morning in her room.  When the protagonist stumbles upon her corpse hanging from the ceiling after checking in on her, he starts to lose his mind, a black screen with the word “END” pops up and the player is kicked back to the main menu, where Sayori seems to have been completely written over.

This… this isn’t right, is it?

The natural thing to do in a situation like this is reload your last save.  But guess what?  The game has god damn deleted all your saves.  All you can do at this point is click on the gibberish option at the top of the menu, which starts a new game, only with Sayori curiously absent.  This time around, Monika herself invites the protagonist to join her literature club, and you join Yuri and Natsuki as its newest member.  Sayori isn’t even mentioned, as if she’s been erased from existence.

This second act of DDLC is where things get really weird and broken.  Yuri and Natsuki start to suffer from bizarre graphical glitches, and their mutual rivalry that was on display in the first playthrough heats up to the point of vicious insults and R-rated name-calling.  Monika seems to be the only level-headed member of the club this this time around.  You might expect that she’s taken Sayori’s place as an option for romantic pursuit, but no, she’s still just a side character.  However, Monika starts to do some weird things too, dropping subtle hints that she somehow knows exactly what’s going on.

Monika, you’re in front of the dialogue box.  Why are you in front of the dialogue box.

The player still ostensibly has the option of romancing Yuri or Natsuki, but this time Yuri reveals her true form as a yandere who is obsessed with the protagonist, using her newly discovered yandere powers to drag him away from Natsuki and Monika at every opportunity.  And if you know anything about the yandere archetype, you know that you do not want to be the target of a yandere’s affections.

Please don’t.

However, Monika isn’t having it.  As Yuri and Natsuki fight over the protagonist, Monika tries pulling rank on them to get you to spend the weekend with her to work on the big festival project the club was planning both in this and the first act.  Yuri’s yandere powers overcome Monika’s efforts once again, but not for long – after confessing her love for the protagonist, Yuri inexplicably pulls out a kitchen knife and stabs herself in the heart.  The player is then stuck in the classroom all weekend with Yuri’s corpse, the passage of time marked by the sun setting and rising through the windows.  For some reason, the protagonist doesn’t get a chance to respond to any of this.  You’re still viewing the action through his eyes, but he’s now effectively absent for some reason.

On Monday morning, Natsuki and Monika return to school.  Natsuki acts like anyone else would upon seeing the two day-old corpse of her classmate – she vomits and runs out of the classroom in tears.  Monika, however, just laughs and apologizes to you for having to spend a boring weekend at school thanks to the “broken script”.  She then promises to fix the problem, opens a console at the corner of the screen, and deletes two files named yuri.chr and natsuki.chr.  She then decides to go all the way and deletes the rest of the world outside of the classroom.

The end?

At this point, it’s obvious what’s going on.  Monika is a self-aware game character – she’s known since the beginning of the game that she exists inside a dating sim and that nothing around her is real.  That even includes the protagonist, who is now definitely no longer around, or at least not around enough to say or think anything.  Monika is now talking directly to you, the player.  She confesses that she was the one screwing with the game.  She figured out how to alter the game files to aggravate Natsuki’s and Yuri’s character quirks in an attempt to make them more unlikable.  She even manipulated Sayori into killing herself when she saw her getting too close to the protagonist, and hence to the player.  Monika then expresses her love for you, the player, on the other side of the screen, and says that the two of you are now together forever.  Once again, it’s pointless to open the load menu – all the saves have been deleted, and restarting the game just brings up Monika again, who asks you why everything just went dark for a minute (echoes of OneShot there, though in a very different context.)

This might seem like the end of the game, but the astute player will likely be wondering what happens if Monika’s character file is deleted as well.  That’s the key to getting to the actual ending of the game, in which Monika’s file is destroyed but she still manages to exist long enough to feel bad for what she’s done and to restore the game and all its characters except for her.  This third act (or fourth act, if you want to count Monika’s void as the third act) is very short – basically a lead-in to the ending.  DDLC will end in one of two ways depending upon whether you managed to see every special event in the game before it throws you into the “broken” second act of the game.  In both cases, Sayori has taken Monika’s place as club president, and in the best ending she thanks you, the player, for being there for all the girls when they needed you most before ending the game – this time for good.

Turns out the whole horrific awareness of yourself as a game character thing is inherited by whoever becomes the club president. Sorry, Sayori.

I like the concept of DDLC.  I’m not sure anyone’s created a fake-out dating sim turned horror game before this one, or at least one that’s been written in or translated into English.  There have been visual novels that use the player’s perspective as a plot point to throw the player for a loop, but I haven’t played one that involves the player himself as a character quite like DDLC does.

More importantly, the creators put together DDLC in a clever way, dropping hints in the first act that something isn’t quite right and building upon that feeling in the second act, culminating in Monika’s deletion of the rest of the game world.  Monika has a few strange lines of dialogue in the first act that break the fourth wall (at one point, for example, she says that a joke Natsuki made based on a Japanese language pun using Monika’s name** “doesn’t work in translation”, then everyone looks puzzled for a second before the dialogue continues.) Monika’s poems also make references to her self-awareness as a game character, though these are naturally a lot more obvious during a second playthrough.  In fact, upon a second playthrough you’ll probably notice a lot of weird things that you passed over the first time around, like the fact that the protagonist doesn’t respond to Monika’s “Writing Tip of the Day” segment at the end of each day, nor to any of the weird fourth-wall breaking stuff going on in either the first or the second acts.  And the fact that in every one of her portraits, Monika is the only character who is always looking directly at the player.  This is the sort of thing that you just don’t notice when you’re playing a VN, and the game uses that fact to set the player up for the big twist at the end of the second act.

See, this is an extra-meta-joke because saving your game in DDLC is mostly pointless.

The second act does contain a few jumpscare-esque moments, but they’re not done in the stupid kind of way you might expect.  The best one involves Yuri giving you her third poem, which is a page full of gibberish covered in bloodstains and also a yellow stain that’s probably exactly what you think it is.  When you stop reading the poem, Yuri is standing six inches from the protagonist’s face looking at him in crazy-eyes mode (not the crazy eyes in the screenshot halfway up, but extra-crazy eyes) asking him what he thinks of it.  I’m not posting a screenshot of that because it is actually pretty god damn disturbing and I do not want to look at it again.  The writer and artist both make effective use of that uncanny horror feeling in the second act, especially with Yuri’s increasingly scary yandere side coming out.

There’s only one real fault I can find with DDLC.  The meta-fiction derailment of the story in the second act is clever and surprising, but it also prevents the game from more seriously addressing the emotional problems that the characters face.  I can imagine an alternate version of DDLC in which the protagonist has to try to romance one of his clubmates while considering not only her feelings but also the feelings of the other girls in the game.  DDLC starts down that path in the first act but goes in a different direction after Sayori’s suicide.  That’s not a bad thing in itself, but I feel like there was a missed opportunity here.  On the other hand, the meta-fiction element of the game is a big part of what makes it special, so I can’t complain too much about the path the creators decided to take.  At the very least, Monika’s existential crisis freakout gets solved in the end, though not in an entirely happy way.

Or you can hang out with Monika in the void forever. That’s not a bad option either.

And that’s all I have to say about Doki Doki Literature Club!  As far as plot, characters, crazy meta-fiction elements and attention to detail go, DDLC is extremely impressive, especially for a free visual novel.  You just don’t expect this kind of quality from a free VN you can download off of Steam or itch.io.  I certainly didn’t, which is probably part of why it took me so long to play this game.  It’s a real achievement, and I hope the developer stays in the business.  Maybe they can follow DDLC up with a reverse-twist by creating a VN that everyone expects to be bizarre and meta but that ends up being a completely normal dating sim.  Now that would be interesting. 𒀭

* This is a Futurama reference, which means that I’m not being perverted by pointing out the shortness of the characters’ skirts.  That’s how that works, right?

** Translator’s note: ika means squid.

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Games for broke people, caffeinated edition

Coffee is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity.  Indeed, it’s one of the few things that makes life worth enduring.  If a doctor told me that I’d have to give up coffee or else die an early death, I would immediately find a probate attorney and draft my will, because there is no force in the universe that will keep me from my daily cups.

Sadly, coffee is not free, especially not if you’re buying that overpriced brew from Starbucks.  The following coffee-themed games, however, are free.  I downloaded these from itch.io, and they all involve coffee as a central theme, though perhaps not always in ways you’d expect.

Need More Coffee

 

You know how you’ll go out in the morning with no money in your pocket and an empty glass coffee cup in your hand, picking quarters up off the street so you can get enough to fill that cup with coffee at your local café?  And then you’ll run to the next café down the street while evading rabid dogs and weaving through dangerous, unprotected construction sites?

No?  You don’t do that?  Well neither do I, but we’re not the protagonist of Need More Coffee.  This Game Boy-ish title features a nameless man who must run from café to café while drinking coffee to keep his energy up, allowing him to run faster, jump higher, and clear all the obstacles in his way.  Drinking coffee fills up your “battery”, which is constantly draining.  And that’s a bad thing, because when your battery is empty all you can do is shuffle around and hop a little bit.  Unfortunately, this guy is pretty fragile, and even walking on a crack in the sidewalk will cause him to fall down completely incapacitated, which isn’t much fun. The idea behind using coffee as a sort of power-up/fuel in a platformer is interesting, but this game just makes me feel like I’m controlling a Game Boy version of my own out-of-shape self, which I really don’t enjoy at all.  The creator did a pretty good job capturing the look and feel of a Game Boy game, though, so good on him for that.

Cappuchino Spoontforce Deluxe VI: Girl of the Boiling Fury

That’s quite a title. Not only did these guys misspell cappuccino, but they made a title longer to say than it takes to actually play the game. And that’s almost not an exaggeration. According to the info on the developer’s itch.io page, Cappuchino Spoontforce stars Sajiko, a girl taking a bath in a cappuccino. Your object is to get points by adding milk and sugar to the drink with your constantly moving pitcher and tongs while maintaining its temperature by adding coffee. If the cappuccino gets cold, Sajiko gets angry, stands up, and shakes her fists at you as the game ends (don’t worry, she’s wearing a towel – not sure why she’d be taking a bath while wearing a towel, but who the hell takes a bath in coffee anyway?) Complicating matters is the fact that Sajiko keeps moving around, and it is possible to douse her in milk or coffee (ouch) or hit her in the head with a sugar cube, which seriously pisses her off and makes her more likely to quit her coffee bath. The game is pretty damn mean-spirited, though, because it gives you 500 points every time you successfully brain her with a sugar cube. Shit. The protagonists in these games aren’t getting any breaks, are they?

Okay, I have to be honest – I like this game, as bizarre as it is. It’s pretty difficult to keep the game going, trying to drop the ingredients in and around Sajiko to keep the coffee hot while trying not to hit her and piss her off. It’s a novelty, at least, and a pretty fun one for five or ten minutes. Definitely weird, though. But you probably already knew I was weird myself, so does it really come as a surprise that I’d enjoy something like this?

Coffee Physics

 

Coffee Physics is a game about throwing cups of coffee at people.  Or rather at sentient men’s bathroom sign figures who are constantly chasing you for some reason.  Tossing your coffee at these things will knock them over, but the chase continues until your stock is exhausted (that’s a lot of full coffee cups for one person to be carrying, though – maybe they’re all stored in a holster or a bandolier that we’re not seeing.)  You can also run around town knocking over objects, because this is one of those games where everything, no matter how solid you’d think it is, has the density of styrofoam.

I don’t like these kinds of games, but maybe you do.  In any case, it’s free, so if you really feel like throwing coffee at vaguely person-shaped objects, playing this game is probably the easiest and most legal way to do it.

Games for broke people: Momodora II

Yes, it’s yet another free game review.  Sorry about that – I’m trying to be more financially responsible right now, which means that I’m living more or less like I’m broke.  Not forever, though.  I still plan to get a Switch at some point.  In the meantime, I have my backlog, and I also have a bunch of freeware from Steam and itch.io that I’ve culled to weed out the boring and non-functional, leaving only the good, the interesting, and the weird.  At least I hope I’ve done that.  I guess you can be the judge, because I’ll probably be making a few more of these posts this May as I tighten my belt and work longer hours.

Today, we’re taking a look at one of the best free games I’ve found so far.  I typically write short reviews for freeware lumped into groups of two or three to a post, but Momodora II is enough of a full-fledged game that it deserves a post all to itself.

Spoilers: it’s not fucking safe

The Momodora series is one that I’ve known about for quite a while.  In fact, Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight, the fourth and latest game in the series, is one of those games sitting in my backlog right now.  The first two games are free to play, while the third is pretty damn cheap at just two dollars, and while they’re not as pretty or polished (or probably nearly as long) as the latest installment, there’s a lot of entertainment to be had with them if Momodora II is any indication.  I started with the second title because rdein, the creator of the series, claims on the itch.io page for the game that Momodora I is really unpolished and that we should start with the sequels instead, so sure, why not.  I bet that’s just your typical artistic modesty, though.

Not being very nice to the one-eyed freaks, are we

So what’s Momodora II about?  It has a simple plot: the protagonist Momo, a young shrine maiden, travels to a dangerous temple/cave/dungeon complex near her village to defeat Isadora, an evil demon queen who’s been causing trouble as evil demon queens are wont to do.  For some reason, Momo’s older sister just lets her wander in without helping out, which is pretty weird.  But maybe she’s right to be confident, because Momo is more than capable of defending herself – she carries a magic leaf that she uses as a kind of blade and can pick up some nice power-ups throughout the game, including a ranged attack and a double-jump ability.  As Momo fights through the complex on her way to Isadora, she’ll run into a string of other young women who are also there to take out said evil demon queen, including one who mistakes Momo for an enemy and serves as your first and second act boss battles before she comes to her senses.

Momodora II isn’t all that difficult, thanks in part to the many health regeneration/long range shot drops and the several bells around the game field that act as save points and full heal stations, but it does contain some challenge, mostly in the final section of the game and the final sort-of-bullet-hell-style boss fight with Isadora.  The map is broken into five or six different sections that vary in theme and enemy type and strength, and enemies do respawn once as you move from one section to the next, so you can’t just clear out the entire map, though that also means you have unlimited health and ranged shot drops to use if you’re stuck on a boss.

Even the maids are your enemies, and they’re just cleaning up the place

Even though Momodora II isn’t a very big game, I really enjoyed the exploration aspect of it; the level design is set up so that new sections of the map become accessible once you’ve gained certain powerups.  You’ll also have to hunt around the map for certain items before you can feasibly take on the final boss, including a set of “love letters” that fill Momo with tender feelings when she reads them, giving her an extra heart in her life counter.  At least I guess that’s how it works.  I don’t think those love letters were even addressed to her.  They’re just sitting around in chests in a dungeon; who could they be addressed to even?  Best not to think about it.

I hide my love letters behind rows of deadly spikes

The only real criticism I can make of Momodora II is that its controls can be a little too sensitive sometimes, especially when you’re trying to make jumps in a few areas that require great precision.  It’s not a major problem, just something that comes up occasionally.  If I’d paid more than a few dollars for this game, I’d also be kind of upset that it’s only about 60 to 90 minutes long (though you can get through it more quickly with a guide, but where’s the fun in that) but since Momodora II costs zero dollars, I can’t say anything about that.  This game asks for nothing but a bit of your time, and it delivers some solid entertainment, cool background music, a nice little plot and a few secrets to discover.  What more do you need, really.  Unless you’re allergic to action platformers, you should check this one out.

A review of OneShot (PC)

Yeah, I’m late again, aren’t I? OneShot was making the rounds back in 2016/2017, and here I am about two years after the party ended as usual.  But I’ve finally played it. This RPG Maker game was originally a free title released in 2014, but it got a massive overhaul along with a completely new chapter near the end of 2016. This is the version that’s been put up for sale on Steam, and it’s the version I played.

So, uh. How to approach this one. This game isn’t that easy to review for reasons that will hopefully become apparent. OneShot is the story of Niko, a child with cat-like features (big yellow cat eyes and fangs and whiskers – not a cat, though, as we’ll learn later on) who wakes up in a creepy dark house alone. Well, he’s not quite alone – you, the player, are with him.* After finding a mysterious self-lighting light bulb, Niko finds his way out of the house into a strange fantasy world totally different from his own. There, Niko finds a robot dressed like a holy man, who calls him “Savior” and tells him the light bulb he found is this world’s new sun and that his mission is to bring it to the top of a massive tower to restore light to the world, replacing the old sun that broke one day without warning. This world contains independent light and power sources, but they’re finite, and once they’re exhausted, the world will be shrouded in darkness.

I mean no pressure or anything, you know

The robot also instructs Niko to contact you. Yes, you, the player. So Niko closes his eyes and tries talking to you… and you respond to him. Through predetermined dialogue options and dialogue trees, but you do respond to him. Holy robot man tells the amazed Niko that that’s god talking to him and that god (i.e. you) will be guiding him throughout his quest.

I played Contact a long time ago, a DS JRPG that broke the fourth wall. I also played Undertale, the game that OneShot always seems to be compared with, and that game broke the fourth wall as well. OneShot doesn’t just break the fourth wall – it demolishes the damn thing, 1989 Berlin Wall style. You, the player sitting behind the screen, are one of the main characters in OneShot, and everyone in the world knows you exist… including the game itself.  I can’t elaborate on what that means without spoiling parts of the game, so I’ll leave it at that.

As you guide Niko through this strange world, you’ll have to help him solve puzzles, typically by finding, trading, using, and combining items in your inventory. There’s no combat, no boss battles, nothing like that. That’s not to say Niko’s not in any danger – the world he’s meant to save is collapsing bit by bit for reasons that remain unknown to its residents.

Industrial equipment also poses a danger to Niko (not really, though.)

Along the way, Niko meets some of the residents of the world who decide to help him out, partly because they recognize him as the savior (some of them even address him as Messiah) who will return their sun to the tower and save the world.  Well, maybe save the world.  There seems to be disagreement among the world’s citizens as to whether restoring the sun will stop the strange instances of corruption and decay that have been occurring, eating up the land and swallowing it into a void.  Even so, they’re putting all their hopes on you and Niko to do your best to save them.

Well shit, thanks for telling us that now.

While Niko finds friends throughout his journey, the most important character relationship in OneShot is the one between Niko and the player.  Niko will sometimes talk to you when you direct him to make certain decisions, and there are a few points in the game where he opens up about the world he comes from and asks about you and your world.  It’s easy to imagine the writer screwing this up by making Niko irritating, but he’s not.  Niko is a pretty smart kid, but he’s not annoyingly precocious; he takes the challenges presented to him in stride, but he still misses his mom and the rest of his family and friends in his village and wants to go home.  This desire becomes evident if you decide to let Niko take a nap in one of the few usable beds scattered around the game world.  When you put Niko to bed, the game saves and closes, and upon opening it again you’ll get to witness Niko having a dream about being back home before he wakes up and continues his journey.

Niko dreams of pancakes.

Niko’s characterization is one of the greatest strengths of OneShot.  Your first run of the game will probably take about three to five hours to complete, so you don’t really spend that much time with Niko, but the writer used that time very effectively.  By the end of that first run, I wanted to protect Niko at all costs, because he’s a good kid and he deserves to go back home, damn it.  People often compare OneShot to Undertale, but if there’s one big difference between them, it’s that while Undertale made me care about the world of the game, OneShot made me care about its protagonist.

I’m sure this game won’t present me with a dilemma that plays on the fact that I want to protect this kid

I like the game’s art style.  You can tell it’s an RPG Maker game, but the character designs are great, the character portraits are nice and expressive, and I love some of the weird little details included in the game’s settings.  The world itself isn’t very big for a game of this kind, but it’s got quite a bit to explore, with a lot of flavor dialogue and descriptive text and a few secrets to reward the obsessive completionist who has to talk to everyone and find every available item.  It’s certainly possible to speed through OneShot if you’re good at working out logic puzzles, but a lot of the game’s charm comes from wandering around and talking to everyone you and Niko can find.  The game’s background music adds to the experience – none of the tracks jumped out to me as amazing, but they’re all perfectly fitting if that makes sense.

If there’s one criticism I can make of OneShot, it’s that the other characters in the story aren’t all that fleshed out.  Not that they couldn’t be – most of them seem interesting, but it feels like you and Niko just kind of fly by them on your way to the ending.  You do get to revisit these characters in the game’s new final chapter, though.

Not a cat, not a Persona 5 reference

Time to give this game a score, I guess.  How about a 6 out of 7?  Yeah, that fits.  OneShot might just be an RPG Maker game, but like Yume Nikki, it manages to do something special with a relatively limited program.  The highest praise I can give OneShot is that it surprised me and kept me guessing all the way to the end of the final chapter.  It’s well worth buying.  As for the older free version, it’s still available to play, but it doesn’t contain the final chapter of the game, and it requires the player to play through without quitting the game except at the beds.  This is apparently why the game was titled OneShot – it only gave you one shot to beat it.  Kind of a harsh restriction, though.  Check it out if you feel like it, but this Steam version seems to be the definitive one.

Okay, I’m tired.  Two posts in the span of 48 hours is a lot for me.  Maybe I’ll go to bed and dream of pancakes. 𒀭

 

* I know Niko’s gender is never addressed in the game, but I always thought of Niko as a boy for some reason, and so I refer to him. Niko just as easily might be thought of as a girl.  It doesn’t really matter.

Backlog review: Sonic CD (PC)

Yeah, I said I’d be cleaning up the backlog, and here’s the proof.  I bought Sonic CD on Steam during a sale years ago and immediately forgot about it.  I’d messed around with the game on Sonic Gems Collection on the Gamecube years before, and I remembered it being a sort of strange novelty and not much else (classic Sonic + time travel?  What a combination!)  But that’s not being very fair to Sonic CD.  It’s an interesting game in its own right, and a pretty good one too, despite its problems.  Probably more interesting than good, which is more or less what I wrote about Knuckles’ Chaotix a long time ago.

Let’s start with the basics: what the hell is this?  Sonic CD was released in 1993 on the Sega CD, a Genesis add-on that more or less flopped. Sonic CD was originally meant to be the sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog, but while Sega of Japan worked on it, legend has it that series brainchild Yuji Naka fucked off to California to get with a branch of the company named Sega Technical Institute that created what would become the actual Sonic the Hedgehog 2, aka one of the Sonic games you actually remember playing when you were a kid.  Sonic CD ended up the flagship title for the Sega CD and was pretty much forgotten until it was re-released in 2005 on the aforementioned Gems Collection, which contained otherwise crap novelty games like Sonic R and Sonic the Fighters.  Then it was semi-forgotten until it was re-re-released on Steam a few years ago with some serious upgrades and additions made by Christian Whitehead, the guy who ported this and a few other 2D Sonic games to Steam and other platforms and who also worked on Sonic Mania.

Future and Past signposts. I’d make a Moody Blues joke here but I don’t think I’ll ever be old enough to do that.

The premise of Sonic CD is that Sonic has to once again save the world from Dr. Robotnik. Yeah, very original, I know. But this time, he also has to rescue Amy Rose, a hedgehog girl who crushes on him hard (and yeah, this will come back in later Sonic games dozens of times) from the clutches of a robot version of himself that fans have dubbed Metal Sonic (or maybe the original manual called it that – I don’t know, I don’t have it.)  Sonic also has the option of changing the history of the world by time-traveling through the use of posts that let him travel into set points in the past or future and destroying Robotnik’s robot-making machines in each level Back to the Future style.

Sonic’s world also had Roman times in its past, just like our world. Coincidence???

Aside from the usual run past the final post and beat the boss at the end of each zone stuff, Sonic CD features a new style of bonus stage that I completely hate because I’m bad at it.  It’s in some kind of weird pseudo-3D track that Sonic has to run around while destroying UFOs for some reason.  Destroying all the UFOs before the time runs out nets you a Time Stone, which is this game’s version of a Chaos Emerald, because… because why the fuck not have a new kind of rock you have to collect?  Incidentally, destroying all of Robotnik’s machines in the past or getting all the Time Stones gets you the good ending and creates a good future that you can travel to if you want to see the fruits of your labor, which unfortunately does not include going Super Sonic because that wasn’t a thing when this game was being developed.  The good future looks nice and shiny and clean, whereas the bad future looks like a Captain Planet dystopia covered in oil and electrical equipment.

Robotnik still shows up to try to kick your ass in the good future, but unfortunately for him, all but one of the boss fights in this game are complete garbage.

I want to love this game.  I love Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 & Knuckles.  Sonic CD is hard to love, though.  It’s just too oblique with its ridiculous level design.  Almost every stage is stacked up in bizarre ways that don’t really work that well with Sonic’s style of play.  Other 2D games in the series let Sonic go fast, but Sonic CD tells Sonic to slow the fuck down.  Using speed to get through one section of a stage often ends with an obstacle stopping you or springing/catapulting you back to where you started.  There’s nothing wrong with that in itself – it’s not like I want a straight left-to-right course without any obstacles – but at times it feels like this game is giving me a middle finger.

This is doubly a problem if you’re going for a good ending by finding and destroying each one of Robotnik’s machines.  This requires you to travel to the past and to find and destroy said machine.  This might sound easy, but it’s not, for the simple reason that the god damn game makes it a chore for Sonic to maintain top speed for long enough to time-travel.  All too often you’ll find yourself faceplanting into a wall just before your jump.  The worst part of it is that losing momentum after a couple of seconds makes you lose the ability to jump until you hit another post, and the next post you’ll find is usually a useless Future post.  It’s frustrating, and the crazy level design only adds to the madness.

Okay, I already don’t know where to go and I’m only 18 seconds in, please help

But there is a lot of good in Sonic CD.  As much as I might complain about how much of a pain in the ass it is to navigate your way to a good future in each stage, it does add some replay value to the game.  The soundtracks, both American/European and Japanese, are also really good.  Sonic CD features a massive soundtrack for its time – each stage has a present theme, a past theme, a bad future theme and a good future theme.  This had to take a lot of effort, and it paid off.  For some reason, the western and eastern soundtracks feature mostly different tracks aside from the past themes, but I like all of them.

I also like the art in Sonic CD.  The style is pretty different from the Genesis Sonics.  I don’t know whether that has to do with the fact that it was made for a CD-based console or what, but it looks good.

The special stages look really good too, but I still hate them.

Major props go to Christian Whitehead, who made some great modifications to the original Sonic CD for its Steam release, cementing it as the definitive version of the game.  It lets you choose whether to play the NA/EU or the JP soundtrack, which up until this release was a huge point of controversy among fans.  It allows you to play with the Sonic 2-style spindash that wasn’t present in the original Sonic CD, giving Sonic more of a boost (this is a big deal, believe me.)  It even lets you play as Tails once you’ve beaten the game as Sonic, which is some Knuckles in Sonic 2-level game-breaking insanity.  Tails’ flying ability adds a new dimension of “fuck this level, I’ll fly over it” to some stages, and it’s just a lot of fun to explore parts of the stages you can’t get to with Sonic.  Tails is nowhere to be found in any of the older versions of Sonic CD, so this is a welcome addition.

Best of all, Whitehead added all that good stuff without taking out any of the weird little touches that made Sonic CD interesting, like the bit at the end of the very first stage where Amy chases after Sonic.  That’s important lore.  Establishing character and shit.

Maybe if I hide up here long enough she’ll go away

Sonic CD is the weird cousin of the classic Sonic lineup.  It’s still recognizably classic Sonic – all the elements are there – but it’s different in so many small ways that it just belongs in its own category separate from everything else.  That doesn’t make it a bad game by any means.  There’s a lot to recommend it: it’s got great music and plenty of action.  But I can’t ignore its main flaw.  Sonic CD suffers from such completely fucky, non-intuitive level design that large parts of it are frustrating to play, which is something I can’t say at all for Sonic 2 or Sonic 3 & Knuckles (it’s something I can say for Sonic 1, but Sonic 1 is still more enjoyable than Sonic CD, and it gets a break for being the first game in the series.)

Even so, I like Sonic CD.  Maybe it’s because I was the weird cousin too when I was growing up, so I feel some kind of strange man-to-game camaraderie with it.  It gets a 5 out of 7 on my stupid nonsensical scale.  It’s worth playing, but it’s not as good as any of the Genesis titles except for Sonic Spinball, which isn’t really that good at all.  If you haven’t played any of the old Sonics, I wouldn’t advise you to start with this one.  Get Sonic 2 or 3&K first and see how you like them, and get this if you end up hooked on those.  It’s probably worth it for the soundtrack alone.

Retrospective: Yume Nikki

Several years ago, at some point during the complete mental haze of my life that was my early 20s, I played Yume Nikki. I’ve made a few references to it on this site, and I’ve reviewed at least one game that was directly inspired by it, but I haven’t really taken a good look at the game itself until now. Yume Nikki (trans. Dream Diary) had humble origins.  It was first released as a free RPG Maker game in 2004 on 2channel, but after a fan put out an English patch the game spread around the internet by way of video game and anime imageboards and textboards (the much-maligned 4chan played a big part in this process, as did one particular event from the game that produced a meme popular around the boards.) As a result, Yume Nikki ended up a cult classic among some of the obsessive weirdo subcultures of the internet, so much so that it acted as an influence on several other popular games in the horror, exploration, and RPG genres, including the critically acclaimed Undertale.

Madotsuki’s bedroom in the real world.

I get the feeling that Kikiyama, the creator of Yume Nikki, didn’t set out to do any of this when he (or she?  Nobody knows) put the game together, because it is a very simple game at its core. After a brief three-screen tutorial, the player starts the game controlling Madotsuki, the above-pictured pigtailed girl, in what seems to be her bedroom.  There’s no prompt at this point – no text box, no inner monologue, no mother or older sibling character banging on the door telling Madotsuki to wake up and get ready for school.  The sliding door at the bottom of the screen leads to a balcony, and Madotsuki shakes her head when you try to guide her through the door at the top to explore the rest of the apartment she presumably lives in.  Madotsuki’s TV turns on, but the cable is out.  There are only really three things for Madotsuki to do in her room: play the one game she owns on her game console (a playable game-within-a-game called Nasu that’s pretty damn boring and repetitive), write in her diary that functions as a save file, and go to bed.

The hub world.

Almost all the action in Yume Nikki takes place in Madotsuki’s dreams, because it’s only in her dreams that Madotsuki is willing to open her bedroom door, which now leads to a chamber containing 12 more doors.  Each of these doors leads to a separate dream world ready for Madotsuki to explore, worlds that contain passages to still more worlds that loop in on each other in bizarre ways.  While none of these dreamscapes are really terrifying (well, almost none, anyway) most of them aren’t exactly inviting either.  Madotsuki’s dream worlds all exist in her head, but they don’t seem to exist for her own amusement.  Just like dreams in our world, Madotsuki’s dreams are filled with vague shapes, strange characters, and a whole lot of seemingly meaningless symbols and structures.  None of these things can hurt Madotsuki – she’s only dreaming, after all – and if she gets stuck in an unpleasant situation or a dead end during her explorations, she can wake herself up by pinching her cheek (i.e. by pressing 9.)

The vending machine is out of order.

The closest thing Yume Nikki has to an objective is the collection of “effects”, items that Madotsuki can acquire in her dream worlds that let her transform in various ways.  Some of these effects let Madotsuki mess with the inhabitants of her dream worlds: for example, getting the Traffic Light effect and turning into a red light freezes them in their tracks, while using the Cat effect pulls them towards her (because, I don’t know, people like cats?)  Others allow Madotsuki to travel more quickly (the Bicycle effect, which is a must to get early on, because walking through all the worlds of Yume Nikki takes a really god damn long time.)  Some effects don’t have much of an actual effect aside from changing Madotsuki’s appearance.

I like the posters.

Yume Nikki doesn’t feature an apparent plot or any dialogue beyond a few bits of garbled text in one of the dream worlds that doesn’t make sense.  The few human and humanoid characters to be found other than Madotsuki live in her dreams, so it’s impossible to say whether they’re based on people she knows in the real world or whether they’re just pure creations of her mind.  These figures often don’t acknowledge Madotsuki’s presence, and even when they do, their interactions with her don’t make sense.

So how did such a weird game with a silent protagonist and blank slate for a story gain such popularity?  And more importantly, why should you play it?

Why is it snowing in my house?

Yume Nikki is all about exploration.  It doesn’t make any demands of the player.  It doesn’t feature any real puzzles or objectives other than the collection of effects, and even that’s presented by the game in a sort of offhand way.  While I can’t really call Yume Nikki relaxing – there’s a little too much bizarre and unsettling imagery in it for that – it’s definitely not taxing in the way some later RPG Maker horror games can be (see Witch’s HouseBlank Dream, and Ib.)  I think it’s the fact that Yume Nikki is such a blank slate that made it popular.  The player can read pretty much whatever he wants into Madotsuki and her surroundings.  Most descriptions of the game say Madotsuki is a hikkikomori – a sort of shut-in with extreme social anxiety – but the game never actually tells the player why she won’t leave her bedroom.  Maybe there’s been a massive war or a supervirus outbreak and that’s why she’s holed up in her apartment.

There are a ton of other fan theories out there about Madotsuki, her dream world, and the characters in it, some of them pretty damn dark.  The beauty of it is that there aren’t really any right or wrong answers.  People can argue over competing theories when it comes to most other games, but Yume Nikki?  Who knows what any of it means, or whether any of it means anything at all.  But that seems to be the whole point.*

What the hell is happening

If you’re going to take one recommendation from me, make it this one: play Yume Nikki.  It’s now on Steam, true to its origins still free to play, and you can also download and play the old version (it’s pretty much the same) if you have the right version of Game Maker installed.  If you’ve played Undertale, or Dreaming Sarah, or any of the RPG Maker games I mentioned above, you owe it to yourself to experience the game that did so much to inspire those.  Not just for “historical” purposes, either, because Yume Nikki is a legitimately fascinating game to play.

*****

* Here I should note there are light novel and manga adaptations of Yume Nikki that I haven’t read.  Maybe they provide explanations about Madotsuki and her world that the game doesn’t.  Taking the game in itself, though, there aren’t any answers to these questions that I’m aware of.

Saya no Uta revisited: A Valentine’s Day review

Happy Valentine’s Day, all you lovebirds.  To commemorate this wonderful day, I decided to replay a game I covered several years ago – the most romantic game I’ve ever played.  As far as contemporary love stories go, you can throw Twilight in the trash, toss Fifty Shades in the woodchipper, dump all those grocery store romance novels in the landfill, and dissolve all those Hollywood romcoms in a vat of acid, because we have Saya no Uta.

Saya no Uta (translated as The Song of Saya by JAST, publisher of the official localization) is the creation of developer Nitroplus and writer Gen Urobuchi.  If you’ve watched Madoka Magica, you might have a vague idea of what to expect from this visual novel.  My original review of this game was spoiler-free, so if you want to check out Saya no Uta unspoiled, you can find it here.  This new review of Saya is an analysis rather than a glossing-over like the first, and it contains major spoilers about the plot and the endings, so stop reading after the below image if you want to avoid those.  Finally, the usual disclaimer that anyone has to tack on when talking about Saya: this game contains sexually explicit content and some extremely disturbing imagery and scenarios, so if your imagination is especially active or you’re just not interested in that sort of thing, you might want to stop reading and also avoid the game altogether.

Scroll past Saya for major spoilers

My new playthrough of Saya no Uta several years after my first was very different.  Not in terms of its content – Saya is a short VN, about five hours for a 100% run, and only features two branching option paths and three endings.  It was rather different in terms of the response the game got out of me.  If you’ve read this far, you’ve likely already played Saya and know what it’s all about, but for those who haven’t and just don’t care about being spoiled on it, here’s a brief summary: our main character, medical student Fuminori Sakisaka, is nearly killed in an accident that claims the lives of both his parents and leaves him with a seemingly incurable condition that causes him to see all people, animals, and things in the world as mounds of horrible, stinking meat and flesh-beasts.

Fuminori is driven to the brink of suicide by his condition, but he unexpectedly finds hope when a girl appears at his hospital bedside.  This girl, named Saya, claims to be secretly living in the hospital while looking for her missing father, a university professor.  Fuminori clings to Saya, the only other being in the world who looks like a human to him, and promises to find her father if she agrees to live with him in his now-empty house in Tokyo upon his discharge from the hospital.  Saya agrees, and they begin their life together while Fuminori does his best to return to his normal routine, struggling to hide his mental disorder from his friends and fellow med school students Kouji, Oumi, and Yoh, his doctor Ryouko Tanbo, and the rest of the world out of fear that he’ll be permanently institutionalized if they learn the truth.  Meanwhile, Fuminori and Saya go beyond mere roommates and develop a romantic relationship (and a sexual one – this is most of the reason why Saya is an h-game.)

Since my last playthrough of Saya, I’ve tried out a little fiction writing, and despite being a total hack I do have some opinions about what makes for good and bad storytelling.  One of the hallmarks of bad writing, in my opinion, is going for shock value with no purpose or goal beyond offending the sensibilities of the reader.

Saya contains a lot of shocking content.  The most immediately obvious is Fuminori’s relationship with Saya, who is apparently not much more than a kid (of course, she’s really not a kid, or even a human, but we don’t know that until the game starts to drop hints about Saya’s true nature halfway through the story.)  In the course of trying to protect his life with Saya, Fuminori also commits kidnapping, murder, and cannibalism.

Even more horrific are some of the acts that Saya commits, however.  Her true form, or her form as the rest of the world aside from Fuminori sees it, is a monstrous mass of flesh and guts, just the sort of creature that Fuminori sees all other humans as.  When Saya first meets Fuminori in his hospital room, she shows up intending merely to scare him – just the sort of innocent prank a kid might try to play on someone, and she’s surprised when Fuminori sees her as a human being instead of the eldritch abomination she really is.  Throughout the game, as Saya and Fuminori grow more emotionally attached to each other, Saya starts to commit far more atrocious acts.

While Fuminori tries to protect Saya from the outside world, Saya also does her best to protect Fuminori.  Collectively, the pair end up killing one of Fuminori’s former friends and attempting to kill another when they try to investigate his new life.  The third ends up suffering a fate even worse than death at Saya’s hands.  Saya, after conducting a few experiments on the neighbors, discovers that she can rewire human brains to see the world as Fuminori does and even convert humans into creatures like her that Fuminori sees as human, molding and mutating them to compensate for his mental disorder.  The results of these experiments are completely horrific and lead to what I and probably most other people would consider the most disturbing scenes in the game.

Even though all of this content is shocking, though, none of it is gratuitous.  While playing Saya, I never had the sense that Urobuchi was writing a scene merely to turn my stomach.  Every one of the terrible acts Fuminori and Saya commit make sense to them, and every one serves the purpose of plot or character development or both. However, while we can understand why Fuminori and Saya do what they do, we can’t forgive them.  At key points in the story, Saya no Uta shifts the player’s perspective away from Fuminori to his friends and his doctor.

When the game puts us in the minds of Tanbo, Kouji, Yoh, Oumi, and humans other than Fuminori, we see the world as it truly is, and we see Fuminori as the rest of the world sees him – a man who avoids his former friends and snaps at them when they try to approach him, who lives in a house with overgrown grass and weeds in the front yard, whose house stinks to high heaven with the smell of rotten meat, and who happily lives and mates with a flesh-monster that hunts and kills other humans.  Fuminori is the protagonist of Saya no Uta, but there’s no doubt that both he and Saya are the villains of this story.  They pose an extreme threat to everyone living around them, especially Saya, whose abilities to mutate human minds and bodies are constantly growing.  Which is why, when Kouji decides to try to kill Fuminori (either with or without Tanbo’s help – one of the two branching paths in the game) I can completely get behind his decision, even if I feel some sympathy for Fuminori.

This is how you know Saya wasn’t written by an American.

Which is why it’s so strange that the objectively best ending of the game is so god damn depressing.  In one of the three available routes, Dr. Tanbo and Kouji, Fuminori’s former best friend and lover of Oumi, one of Saya’s victims, confront Fuminori and Saya.  Tanbo manages to inflict a fatal wound upon Saya by splashing her with liquid nitrogen, and Fuminori, in a rage, kills Tanbo with an axe and then turns the axe on himself in despair after seeing that Saya is dying.  Kouji survives the ordeal but goes insane, and it’s implied that he later commits suicide.  I know this doesn’t sound like a traditional good ending, but aside from these four, Oumi, Yoh, and a few other of Saya’s human victims, the world is saved from disaster.  (The ending that most people consider the “true ending” involves Saya dying after sprouting a set of wing-like protrusions that multiply into countless seeds that spread throughout the world, turning humans into Saya-like creatures, which was what drove her instinct to consume Fuminori’s, uh, essence – something Saya herself doesn’t seem to realize until this moment.)  Still, it doesn’t feel good watching these events play out, because we’re watching characters we’ve been with the whole game meet their ends.

None of them are completely unsympathetic, either – not even the villains.  Fuminori has completely discarded his humanity by the game’s third act, effectively becoming a predatory creature like Saya who lives on raw animal (and human) flesh, but it’s clear that his mental condition drove him to that point, even if he did eventually make the conscious decision to arrive there.  Even Saya remains pure in some sense, because everything she does is meant to please and help Fuminori.  As we learn near the end of the game, Saya seems not to have even made a conscious decision to come to our planet (or our universe – it’s not clear whether she’s a standard alien or an extra-dimensional being, though I’m leaning towards the latter.)

And that’s why Saya no Uta is a great romance.  The acts that Fuminori and Saya commit in the course of the story are unforgivable and unjustifiable, but none of them are gratuitous in the context of the story, because they’re motivated by the pair’s unnatural love for each other, and Urobuchi writes their love in a way that we can believe and understand.

As bad as the “every character dies” ending is, this one is far worse.

Damn, I did not intend to write that much about Saya no Uta.  But I couldn’t really help it.  This game made me feel things, and that’s not very common considering how cynical and emotionally locked up I am.  Since I’ve heaped a lot of praise on the writing in Saya, it would be unfair not to mention the game’s beautiful art (even though a lot of it’s meant to be ugly) and its atmospheric soundtrack.  Saya is still one of my favorite visual novels, though I absolutely would not recommend it to some, or even most, considering its mix of Lovecraftian horror and sexual content.  Even though it contains a lot of explicit content, however, I don’t consider Saya to really be an h-game.  Yes, it has sex scenes, but even those scenes move the game’s plot and character development – and they’re clearly not meant for that purpose.  At least, it’s hard to imagine the sort of person who would be aroused by anything in Saya.  I’m sure such a person exists in the world, and I hope I never meet them.

I wonder how the American remake of Oldboy is too, I should check it out

One more note about Saya: in 2010, IDW released a three-volume comic book adaptation of the game titled Song of Saya.  It apparently put the story through the bowdlerization machine.  Saya now looks like a woman in her 20s, which is understandable considering the trouble IDW might have gotten into if they’d tried to depict Saya as she is in the original work.  But I’ve heard that the writers made a lot of other changes that were not even remotely necessary and that it just sucks in general.  I have a weird fascination with shitty media and bad adaptations, though, so if I ever come across these Song of Saya comics in a bin somewhere for a few dollars I’ll probably check them out just for the hell of it and let you know what I think.  I haven’t read this thing, so maybe I’m being unfair.

Anyway, happy Valentine’s Day once again, if you’re still in the mood for romance after reading all that.  I’ll be sitting at home working.  Love is nice, but money is better.  I guess I really am a cynic at heart.