Summer cleaning game review special #1: Qora

The worst season of the year is finally here, which is nice, because it means we can now look forward to fall in a few months. To commemorate this summer, I’ve decided to start a special series of posts. I have a few short games that have been in my Steam backlog for years now, and a few others that I very recently bought for barely anything in a huge bundle on itch.io, and a couple of others still on a hard drive that I don’t know the source of.

I wanted to get through these while I had the time (i.e. while most of my country continues taking work-from-home quarantine measures) but I also thought I’d rope these reviews off into a special series to excuse how short some of them will be. If I end up having enough to say about one of these games that it will take more than a few minutes to read, I’ll set it aside for the full review treatment. And if you like my usual long-winded style, don’t worry, because I’ll be posting the usual overlong pieces this summer as well. Those full reviews and deep reads are still on their way.

On to the first game down: Qora.

This was released way back in 2014, and I’m positive that it was one of those games I bought during a big Steam sale. I know I’m not the only one who buys games just because they’re cut in price 80 or 90% and then forgets about them in his Steam library for years on end, and that was the fate of the copy of Qora I bought. Despite how it looks, this isn’t some kind of platformer or minimalistic RPG. It’s instead an extremely linear exploration game without much of any gameplay. In other words a walking simulator, only in 2D instead of the 3D environments such games are usually set in (see Gone Home, Dear Esther.)

So it’s maybe not a big surprise that I didn’t like Qora. The whole experience lasts maybe an hour or two and consists of the protagonist, a nameless, featureless, characterless figure made of several pixels, going on a mystic walking quest to discover the ancient secrets of the land he or she just moved into after receiving a message from one of the local gods along with the ability to see the dead souls of the former inhabitants of the land.

That might make the game sound interesting to you, but the concept doesn’t translate into much of anything in practice. Qora has some nice backgrounds and settings that feel atmospheric and probably would have gone very well with a game featuring an interesting main character doing something that they had an actual motivation to do, but that isn’t the case here. Your only job is to get your pixel figure all the way to the right across dozens of screens by using the tools you get from talking to all your new neighbors in town. Including a set of incense sticks to burn at each shrine you come across, otherwise you’ll probably get a bad ending because you pissed off the gods, but I can’t be bothered to find out.

There are a few amusing parts, like the ancient monstrosities you run into during your journey that are totally harmless and even friendly and gladly get out of your way so you can continue. But by the end of the game, when the big secret was revealed, I was just tired of it and didn’t give a shit. There’s also a lot of that sort of wacky humor at the very end that I don’t care for. Call me a hypocrite if you want — I like Wes Anderson movies, but that kind of “quirky” stuff has to be done just right, and this didn’t work at all for me. Also, after an hour plus of moving along at a slow walk to reveal a secret I didn’t care about and had no investment in, my patience was already worn pretty thin.

So I don’t recommend Qora, and certainly not at its sticker price of ten dollars. It reminded me a lot of a game I played years ago also featuring some interesting backgrounds and atmosphere and not much else called Mandagon. I had much nicer things to say about that game, but it was also free and only took half an hour to get through, so even if it was nothing much, that wasn’t such a big deal (and it also had some sort of Buddhist theme, so if you’re a Buddhist maybe you’ll get a lot more out of it than I did?) I recommend you play Mandagon instead of Qora if you’re looking for this kind of experience, because then you won’t have to complain too much if you thought it was boring.

Other Megami Tensei games I’d like to see released for PC

This is a first: the second post in a row I’m making in response to a current event in the world of gaming. I promise this isn’t turning into a news site. However, the sudden release of Persona 4 Golden on Steam was a shock to almost everyone who cared about it, including me. I don’t have much to say about it, though, except it’s an excellent game that you should buy if you haven’t played it yet, but also that it comes with Denuvo built in which is a real pain in the ass not to mention a show of poor faith. I won’t be buying it yet, but that’s because I have a Vita in good working condition and several savefiles on my P4G card that I can go back to at any time and I absolutely need to finish Persona 5 Royal first. It makes sense that P4G is the first Megaten game to get a non-Japanese PC release, since just about nobody over here bought a Vita aside from me and maybe a dozen other people. And hell, the game is good enough that the Denuvo thing probably won’t matter to you.

No, that’s not what I’m talking about today. Since the door to Megaten PC ports is cracked now, let’s push it wide open. There are several other of these games I would love to see released on PC, so if anyone from Atlus is reading this, here’s my wishlist in order of what I want to see. Please note these aren’t based on what I think Atlus would be most likely to release but only on my preferences, so as usual I’m indulging in wishful thinking. On to the list:

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne

No surprise here, right? Nocturne is my favorite Megaten game and near the top of my favorite games list, whatever that would be. Yet it’s only ever been released for the PS2. It doesn’t seem like a PC port of Nocturne would be hard at all to make considering it’s now 17 years old. It would also make for a fine introduction to the mainline SMT series for new fans who have only played Persona 5 Royal and Persona 4 Golden so far.

Look, it even has dating, just like Persona. Well, sort of.

If I’m being greedy, I’d ask for the JP-only Chronicle Edition that replaces Dante with Raidou Kuzunoha, but people love their Dante from the Devil May Cry series so I know that won’t happen. Leave it to the modders to insert him later.

Persona 3 FES

This one is a lot more realistic than getting either Nocturne on PC or the complete Persona 5-style Persona 3 overhaul people keep clamoring for. A P3 port is the logical next step for Atlus to take after P4G: it’s a game that a lot of new fans haven’t experienced yet, but it’s still close enough to the newer Persona games in style that those fans won’t be put off.

I do think it’s more likely that we’d get the PSP-only Persona 3 Portable instead if only because of how popular its unique female protagonist option is. I’d still prefer FESPortable is sort of a “demake” anyway and lacks some of the features of FES, and most PCs would be able to handle FES in any case. However, the Answer section of FES is a character-destroying pile of shit, so maybe Portable would be better. But then again, you don’t really have to play the Answer if you get FES anyway, so maybe that doesn’t matter. I guess I’m torn over this one.

Persona 2

Both parts. Persona 2 has had a very weird history of western releases — we first only got Eternal Punishment, the second part of the two-part series, for PSX, then we got a port of the first part, Innocent Sin, on PSP but not Eternal Punishment on that system. It would be great to have a package including both games on PC, because the stories are supposed to be excellent in contrast with some quite honestly shitty gameplay and fusion mechanics. Maybe I’d actually get back to playing Innocent Sin again and suffering through that for the sake of the story. Once I beat Royal I’ll have 12 years to wait until Persona 6 comes out anyway.

Seriously though why would you give us each half of the duology on a different system and the second one years before the first, what the hell? I think they’re sadists.

Shin Megami Tensei I and II

I believe these are far less likely to be ported than Nocturne even, and for pretty obvious reasons: they’re a lot older and don’t contain any quality of life features, and II has never even received an official localization. And the localization of I was only for iOS for some fucking reason. But I’d still like to see these translated and ported, preferably in their slightly newer and more updated PSX remake forms. More complete overhauls would also be appreciated, but we’re already so deep in the unlikely zone at this point that I know that’s way too much to hope for. I’d rather hear news about Shin Megami Tensei V than about remakes of and II anyway.

***

There are plenty of other games that would be great to see released as ports on Steam like Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2, the PS2 Devil Summoner games, and SMT if…. However, the games I think we’re by far most likely to see are one of the two later versions of Persona 3 and any of the Persona spinoffs games they can cram onto Steam like the 3/4/5 dancing games and the Arena fighting games. Persona is the cash cow, after all. Or maybe we’ll really luck out and only get ports of obscure games that even most “serious” Megami Tensei fans don’t care about like Demikids and Last Bible. Only time will tell, but I’ll remain hopeful that we get something more on PC at least, because there are quite a few games in the series only playable on old consoles now that could use new life.

Enough of my complaints. Next time it will be back to business as usual. I already have some reviews and commentaries planned for the next few months — planning ahead, something I almost never do here. All this extra time staying at home has really paid off. But if Atlus surprises us with a Steam port of Nocturne, I’ll probably also be running an extremely detailed, tedious beat-by-beat playthrough of that game here. So maybe you should hope that doesn’t happen.

A review of Ame no Marginal (PC)

It’s another visual novel review, this time of Ame no Marginal (also titled Rain Marginalame means “rain” anyway, so it’s basically the same title, but since it officially goes by its halfway-translated version I’ll keep using that one even if it’s awkward.) This work came out in 2015 and was developed by Stage-nana, the same people responsible for the famously melancholic VN Narcissu. Like Narcissu, Ame no Marginal seems to be pretty well regarded, but my feelings about it are complicated.

First, I may as well get this part out of the way: this review is going to spoil the whole plot along with the ending. Ame no Marginal is another kinetic novel like Planetarian, so aside from the art and music, there’s nothing to talk about other than the story. But unlike with Planetarian, I can’t give it an unqualified recommendation. Then again, I also can’t not recommend Ame no Marginal, because there are things I liked about it, and it’s entirely possible that the aspects of it that bothered me won’t bother you. It’s also possible that I missed some important plot points somehow that would have cleared up the issues I had with the work if only I’d seen them.

But I doubt that too. I wish I could find a way to express those doubts without giving away too much, but all I can say without doing so is that although the game’s premise and characters were interesting, its ending was abrupt and unsatisfying and didn’t make a lot of sense. To explain why I feel that way, I naturally have to get into the story, so let’s do that now.

Ame no Marginal begins in a rainy world consisting only of a flat landscape of paved ground and a large body of water nearby. It also has exactly one resident: a young girl, who we see peering through a magical portal watching a man in the game’s initial scene. This world seems to be separated from ours, and it also seems that the girl looking through the portal can’t reach our world, as she wonders out loud about whether the man remembers her at all.

The story then switches perspective back to our world, to the nameless male protagonist and other main character of the game. We can guess that this is likely the guy the girl was watching in the opening scene. It’s Monday and he’s on his way to a job he hates, living a life he finds pointless. This is confirmed when instead of going directly to his office, he takes the elevator in his building to the seventh floor, the top one, walks out to the roof, climbs over the fence around it and hangs over the edge.

Our protagonist isn’t intent on suicide: he doesn’t jump from the roof, but climbs back over the fence and returns inside. As he puts it, while he doesn’t want to die, he also doesn’t want to continue living. This climbing over the fence is merely a reminder that he can end it at any time, which he claims brings him some comfort and lets him make it through the rest of the week.

The next day, the protagonist returns to work and gets on the elevator again. This time, however, he notices a button for the eighth floor that wasn’t there before. But didn’t this building only have seven floors yesterday? Protag can’t resist pressing that 8 to see what’s going on. When the elevator doors open, he steps out into the rainy world we saw in the game’s first scene.

Protag is naturally shocked to see this seemingly endless landscape of paved floor below and a gray, rainy sky above, all on top of the building he works in. But as he’s exploring, he runs into a young girl, who welcomes him to her world.

This seems to be the same girl we saw in that first scene, but something’s off. Her personality is a bit immature as you’d expect from a kid her age; even though she’s all on her own in this world, we learn she’s only ten. In the intro, though, the same girl seemed to be quite serious, and even her voice was more mature-sounding. In any case, protag hasn’t seen what we have, and while he’s surprised to see another person and even more surprised to see a mere kid living here alone, he accepts it and starts asking her about this mysterious world.

The girl, who calls herself Rin (another female VN main character named Rin; there are really a lot of them) claims that this is a world where time stands still. The rain never stops, so she takes shelter under a pavilion that seems to be the only structure in this place. There’s also a body of water nearby, a sort of river that flows up and downstream, but the river also apparently has no opposite bank, or at least not one that Rin could find. Rin explains that she sometimes find items from the “real world” floating downstream, so she does her best to salvage useful things, even clothes to wear. No worries about running out of food, though — because time stands still for her, she says she’s never suffered hunger or even thirst in this place.

Protag is naturally very confused by what the hell he’s walked into. One thought comes naturally to him: he’s died without realizing it and this is the afterlife. Rin doesn’t think that’s the case, however. She even tells him that two people normally can’t exist in this world and that he’ll be “sent back” after three days, something that’s happened to visitors other than him — even if he were to refuse to leave, it would happen automatically. She also tells him he can leave by entering the elevator again, but she seems happy when he says he’ll stay for a while, presumably excited to have company after being alone in this world for so long.

After this initial meeting, Rin and protag to go sleep under the pavilion and the scene ends, sending the player back to the scene selection screen where a new entry titled “Rin” has been unlocked. This one takes us far back into the past, seemingly into Rin’s past in the real world, where she and her older sister were Shinto priestesses in a secluded shrine in the mountains. The sisters have no other family and were adopted by this shrine to carry a burden — to shoulder a “debt” to the gods as they put it. The older sister is forced to live an austere life, eating only once a day, bathing in cold water every morning, and following a vow of silence, one so strict that her younger sister has never heard her voice.

Rin is naturally upset by watching her sister endure this lifestyle, even though she willingly carries it out in order to perform what she sees as her duties to the shrine and its gods. When her sister’s health starts to decline as a result, Rin becomes angry with the shrine and even with its gods. And she falls into despair when the head priest of the shrine tells her that her sister will soon die and that she’ll have to carry the same burden of constant silence and self-deprivation afterwards, one that must last without stopping for 333 years, three months, and three days, always with a substitute available to take over when the priestess carrying the burden dies.

Her older sister’s life ends not from illness, but rather from a more violent kind of sacrifice. The head priest says that they can’t risk her breaking her vow of silence while she slowly dies, so he and his guards kill her while her younger sister’s mouth is gagged to ensure the proper transfer of the burden. It’s here we learn that the older sister’s name is Rin — the younger one who we meet in the rainy world is never properly named, but has adopted her sister’s name perhaps to carry on her memory.

This new Rin decides that she now doesn’t believe in these supposed gods who let her sister die without helping her. Even so, Rin also resolves to live her sister’s old life and continue paying the debt if only to not let her sacrifice go to waste. However, one night a guard rushes into her room and tells her to flee because the shrine is being attacked and all its priests and staff slaughtered by armed men. Rin runs away into the mountains, still maintaining her silence despite the fact that the shrine is being destroyed along with the head priest she hated. A mere girl like her doesn’t last very long in the cold mountains, and after going without food for three days, she lies down and decides it would be better to die, not wanting to risk a return into town or to what might have been left of the shrine.

After this backstory section ends, we’re thrown back to the scene selection screen, where two new scenes have been unlocked. The middle part of Ame no Marginal proceeds down two story paths, each part of which has to be completed before continuing to read so that the player alternates between them. One path returns the perspective to our modern-day protagonist as he tries to figure out exactly where he is and why both he and Rin are there. When night falls in this world, a completely different side of Rin, or perhaps a different entity altogether, appears. In contrast with her childish daytime self, this Rin seems distant, bitter, and a lot more mature than you’d expect from her apparent age. Despite her cold attitude towards the protag in these nighttime sections, she does answer his questions about the rainy world more clearly than she does during the day, though there still seems to be a lot she doesn’t understand about it.

Also in contrast to her daytime self, this Rin demands that the protag hurry back to the elevator and leave. He refuses to do so, at least for now, reasoning that he’ll be automatically sent back in three days anyway. And in any case, he decides that he might prefer the boredom of the rainy world to his own life in the real one, even if he can’t stay for good. This version of Rin keeps trying to convince him to leave when they talk again the next time, but she also seems to accept that he’s not going to leave of his own free will that easily.

The other story track follows the same girl after what she first supposes is her death in the mountains. As the reader might have guessed, instead of dying, she wakes up in the rainy world and meets its sole inhabitant: a woman who simply calls herself “Lady.” Lady welcomes this girl into her world and gives her essentially the same tutorial that our modern-day protagonist got from Rin: this world only allows for one resident and will kick visitors out after three days. However, Lady is quite mysterious. Despite claiming she doesn’t know why this world exists or who created it, she has the ability to control the flow of water around her.

The girl, who I’ll just keep calling Rin, is amazed by all of this, but there’s a more pressing matter: upon entering this world, she broke her vow of silence by yelling curses at the gods for what they did to her sister. She relates her whole story to Lady, who seems sympathetic but tells her it’s still probably for the best if she leaves this world through a hole in the ground that acted as her portal in. Rin, like nameless protag, is hesitant to go back right away and reasons she’ll be sent back automatically in three days, and she’ll almost certainly die when she gets back in any case. By the end of her stay, however, Lady admits that she’s lied: the one who’s sent back after three days is the one who’s been here longest, and Lady also admits that she’s used force in the past to remove previous visitors so she could remain in solitude for her own reasons.

Lady is seemingly done with her stay, though, because on the appointed third day, she takes Rin to the hole in the ground only to jump in herself, but not before telling Rin that she can still complete the 333-year vow of silence burden in this world if she feels like it, and that it probably will be meaningful somehow. After this talk and a promise that she’ll return one day, Lady drops through the hole and leaves Rin alone in the rainy world.

We then follow Rin as she searches for and finds both exit and entrance portals to the real world in the endless river near the pavilion, and as she discovers to her despair that she can’t use them to leave. By this point, Rin has lived in this world without any visitors or company for several hundred years. Along the way, she’s also managed to complete that 333-year vow of silence, but seemingly without any result. Rin reasons that because she still resents the gods for what they’ve done to her sister, they will continue to keep her in solitude. As a bit of a bonus, Rin does end up developing the same water manipulation powers as Lady, but there’s not much point to having them if there’s nothing to actually do with them, so they don’t bring Rin any happiness.

The two stories now rejoin, with nighttime version Rin finally telling protagonist that he needs to get the hell back to the elevator on the third night or else he’ll be trapped in this world. He reluctantly gets on and returns to his old life, seemingly forgetting about the rainy world and Rin and looping us back into the prologue. However, who happens to show up at this point but Lady! She tells Rin that she’s the one who purposely selected and sent protagonist to the rainy world for Rin to meet, and also that she should jump into the elevator and chase after him for some reason. Turns out the real world is a bit boring to Lady, who wants several hundred more years of solitude to practice her water magic skills. So Rin finally leaves, and we get to the game’s epilogue.

Wait, what?

And somehow, Rin’s now a student riding the same train as protagonist. They end up accidentally running into each other and meeting again, with a strong hint that Rin remembers who protag is and even that protag has some memory of Rin. Then they walk off on the same street to school and work together and the game ends.

So I just recounted the entire plot of this VN, something I didn’t intend on doing when I set out to write this post. However, it’s hard to talk about Ame no Marginal otherwise because the whole thing’s so weird, and not entirely in a good way.

But let’s start with the good stuff. I liked the premise of an isolated place like the rainy world that may or may not be meant as a sort of divinely mandated time-out. This worked as a hook to get me interested in the game. The story of Rin and her sister is also very tragic, but not so tragic that it’s unbelievable: some people have greatly suffered in the name of maintaining tradition in the real world, and the priests of the temple are depicted as committing these cruelties because they genuinely believe they must, not simply because they’re evil (though you could certainly argue that pushing this debt owed to the gods onto young orphaned girls who have no choice in the matter is a real asshole thing to do.)

The head priest acts like enough of a shithead in this scene alone that I don’t feel bad for him getting killed later on.

I also felt a strong connection with the male lead at the very beginning of the game, even if he’s one of those typically faceless VN protagonists. His section of the prologue, especially when he says to himself that he doesn’t want to die, but also doesn’t want to live — this is an expression of depression that made a lot of sense to me. Even if those two feelings sound contradictory, they really aren’t. And the game does try to tie the protagonist’s disappointment with his life into the plot when he talks to nighttime Rin about the possibility of staying in the rainy world and leaving the real one behind for good. No amount of insisting “but life is a gift” or “you have so much to live for, you should treasure every moment” helps in a state like that, and that’s something Ame no Marginal seems to get.

Even when the protagonist comes to believe that the real world is worth living in because it’s dynamic, unlike the static life of the rainy world, that’s not necessarily a resolution of the feelings expressed at the beginning of the VN. I see it as more of a coping mechanism for getting through life, and that’s a lot more realistic than having the story simply resolve his depressive feelings if that’s what they’re meant to be. So while Ame no Marginal doesn’t fully address the protag’s situation, I feel it does at least acknowledge it.

Going to work with a sense of dread and bitterness, that’s something I can relate to. Not anymore thankfully but good God is it miserable.

This makes it all the more disappointing that so many questions are left hanging. One of the more obvious ones is the nature of the rainy world itself. Neither the protagonist nor Rin learn why it exists, whether it was created by some gods to punish human souls or it simply exists for no reason at all. Even Lady, the self-professed queen of the rainy world, seems to have no idea about its origins. This is one question that I don’t think the story needed to answer, and I even prefer this ambiguity.

However, there are other mysteries that should have been better addressed, like the nature of the difference between the cheerful, childlike daytime Rin and the mature, serious nighttime Rin. She’s clearly putting on some kind of act for the protagonist during the day, but to what end? Maybe it’s to disarm him and make him feel comfortable, but then why bring out “nighttime Rin” at all? This double personality issue is never explained in the VN, and it’s one that really should have been because it has a direct bearing on the characters and plot. It’s also quite hard to believe that several hundred years of isolation didn’t drive Rin completely insane. She’s clearly angry, bored, and distressed for a long time even before protag arrives, but she’s still somehow in full control of her mind even after centuries of walking through a seemingly endless body of water. Sure, she doesn’t have to eat or drink and never ages, but the mental and emotional toll of such a life would have to be extreme.

Maybe all the isolation is supposed to be where Rin’s dual personality comes from? But it still doesn’t really explain that.

There’s also the matter of the ending. It’s as if writer Tomo Kataoka couldn’t think of a good way to get these characters out of the jam they were stuck in, Rin still in the rainy world and protagonist sent back to the life he hates living, so a happy ending is pulled out of nowhere. Lady somehow finds a way back into the rainy world, presumably by taking the same elevator protagonist did (in fact, she shows up very briefly in the elevator near the start of the story, leaving it when protag is getting on, so at least that much is set up.) It’s very convenient that she doesn’t mind going back into isolation for a while, and it’s even more convenient that Rin was somehow able to get set up as a student when protagonist meets her at the end, presumably with a family and friends and everything. How the hell is that supposed to work? Or maybe she’s living under a bridge and pretending to go to school.

There’s a sort of answer to this in the developer notes: Kataoka says that Ame no Marginal is actually a prequel to the light novel series Mizu no Marginal (or Water Marginal, which sounds a lot like Water Margin but probably has nothing to do with it.) Since the VN is a prequel, presumably Rin and maybe the protagonist are characters in it, so there had to be an ending that connected the two. So maybe this bizarre ending is explained in Mizu no Marginal, but I don’t care. I shouldn’t be required to read a sequel to understand what happened at the end of the preceding work: the work should stand on its own in that sense. Kataoka’s notes imply that the ending was thrown together out of necessity, so maybe there’s no other explanation to be had anyway.

And what are Rin and protagonist even going to do now, hang out? She’s a water-bending former Shinto priestess who’s either ten or several hundred years old depending on whether you count her time in the rainy world, and he’s an office worker in his 20s or something. What the hell are they going to talk about? It’s all a bit weird. Maybe the light novels answer this question?

I still wonder exactly what idea Ame no Marginal was trying to express. It seems like it was trying to express something, but the message is obscure if it’s there. Is it a message not to give up on life if you’re in despair? That’s nice and positive, but I don’t think the story bears it out that well, not if the solution it proposes is being transported to an otherworldly plane of isolated existence and meeting a new friend who teaches you the value of life in the real world. And especially not when it pulls a happy ending out of its ass. It’s certainly not an issue with the novel’s length, either: when I compare it to the other short VNs I’ve read like Planetarian and Saya no Uta that have coherent, satisfying endings, the lack of such an ending in Ame no Marginal feels all the weirder.

Even so, like I said before, I can’t quite not recommend Ame no Marginal. The art is nice, and the soundtrack suits the atmosphere of the game very well. There’s a lot to like in the premise. The story is even pretty emotionally affecting in a few places. While its nonsense ending is definitely a problem, there is a lot of craft in this VN, and it seems like it was created simply to tell a story that the writer wanted to tell rather than one calculated to sell as many units as possible.

A gray, depressing game about characters who are giving up on life doesn’t sound calculated to be a big seller to me, at least.

In any case, I think whether you’d find the game worth your time probably has to do with how much or little this kind of ending affects your experience — if you’re the type who enjoys the journey more than the destination, maybe — and with how well you connect with these characters. I don’t regret playing Ame no Marginal despite my issues with it, but your time with it may be very different if you choose to play it.

Then again, I just spoiled the entire plot for you if you haven’t played it yet. So who did I write this review for? I have no idea. Maybe I wrote it for myself. Maybe I need a few hundred years in the rainy world to sort myself out. 𒀭

Games for broke people: Helltaker

So I was planning on taking the rest of the month off from the site as I wrote last post. But then the artists I follow on Twitter started filling up my timeline with cute demon girl fanart, and then I couldn’t rest until I found out exactly what that was all about.

And if she’s a cute demon bureaucratic functionary then even better.

That’s how I found Helltaker, a short free puzzle game that tells the story of a guy who wakes up one day and decides he’s going to break into Hell itself to create a harem of demon girls. Forget Dante’s journey through the afterlife: this is the noblest quest someone could possibly have. To do this, our brave protagonist has to solve several block-pushing maze puzzles of increasing difficulty. Each puzzle requires the player to make it to the goal, represented by a demon lady hanging out behind a giant padlock for some reason, within a specified number of steps. Kicking blocks and kicking demon guards to death also count as taking steps, and the addition of spike traps that take extra steps away from you makes things more complicated. Luckily for Helltaker guy, he can regenerate an infinite number of times, so much like Chip from Chip’s Challenge, nothing will stop him from getting the girl(s) no matter how frustrating the maze he’s running might be.

The beginning of level 3. In this case the demon triplets at the top are your goal (mythology fan points if you can guess what they’re a reference to) and the number on the left keeps track of your steps so you know if you’ll hit your limit before reaching them.

Some of these mazes stumped me for a while, particularly numbers 7 and 9 near the end. Fortunately for the impatient, the game lets you skip puzzles if you’re truly stuck, but if you do that you might miss out on finding secrets in certain levels that are required to get the game’s good ending. Anyway, what’s the fun in half-assing a game like this? Every puzzle is solvable, you just have to exercise your brain to discover the solutions.

However, even if you figure out how to reach the goal in time, you’re not done — you still need to convince the demon girl at the end of the puzzle to join your harem and also not to kill you on the spot. Because you’re just a ripped guy in a leisure suit, and while you can kick the regular demon guards in each level to pieces, you’re no match for the girls. If you screw up the negotiation, you’ll get horribly killed and will have to run the maze again.

The right answer is sometimes not the obvious one

There are also a lot of little additions to the game that add some more flavor — as you can see in the game’s main layout, pressing L gets you “life advice.” This gives you a short dialogue with one or more of your newly won over demon wives, who are just as likely to give you tips about how to complete the level you’re on as they are to complain about how long you’re taking or to start arguing with each other. Or to end up getting you killed somehow.

So the main gameplay mechanic of Helltaker is really very simple — it’s a variation on the kind of sliding block puzzle that has existed for over a hundred years. That provides the substance of the game, but there’s a lot of style as well, and that’s what sets Helltaker apart from so much other free and extremely cheap generic-looking stuff. Someone could easily recreate the puzzles that compose each level of Helltaker using white, gray, and black blocks and dots to represent the characters and obstacles, and it would mechanically be the same game. But the distinctive character art and cute dialogues give it that much-needed style. And that’s the reason I discovered it in the first place, after all, so who can say that isn’t important?

Why aren’t visual novels more popular in the West?

I couldn’t think of any better title for this post, but this is a question I’ve been thinking about lately. Visual novels are a well-established part of the gaming world in Japan, but here in the States they’re commonly seen most charitably as novelties, or uncharitably as only for weebs like me who are already immersed in anime and anime-flavored games. Why should this be the case, though? The VN format doesn’t have to be a strictly Japanese or eastern-only thing. Indeed, there have been some VNs produced by western developers, though most of the notable ones are produced by people who are clearly fans and students of Japanese visual novel developers and use anime stylings (Katawa ShoujoDoki Doki Literature Club!)

Not that I even have an answer to the question I’m asking. I do have a few hypotheses, though, based completely on my own probably mistaken, misinformed ideas about the industry. Let’s test them out and see whether they make any sense.

More sense than this, hopefully. From the painfully poorly translated Ever17 (2002).

For those who don’t know what a visual novel or VN is (if you read this site, you definitely know — more for those readers who stumble across this post during a Google search) it’s a type of game that relies mainly on written narrative and dialogue to tell its story rather than traditional gameplay. It’s a novel, in other words. But it’s also visual. VNs typically feature character portraits during dialogue and CG screens that show up during special or important events. In addition to nice visuals, a VN should have a soundtrack with backing music to fit and enhance the mood of the scene, and it may even include voice acting. VNs also often require the player to make decisions at certain points, sometimes while in dialogue and sometimes in the middle of an action scene. Some VNs construct several separate storylines, locking the player onto one route or another depending upon their choices.

There’s one question that might jump out at you here: where’s the gameplay? All you’re doing is reading, watching, and listening. And probably making decisions when you arrive at branching dialogue and action options, but can that really be called gameplay in the sense that we normally think of it? And this is perhaps the most important distinction between VNs and other sorts of games: they don’t involve a lot of player interaction beyond making those occasional choices that determine the path your character takes in the plot. Some VNs don’t even include this feature: there’s a subset of VNs called kinetic novels that involve no player input at all beyond sitting back and taking in the story.

planetarian (2004), a kinetic novel.

For this reason, some don’t consider visual novels to truly be games. Adventure/puzzle series with heavy VN elements like Phoenix Wright and Zero Escape have enough gameplay to avoid getting stuck with the VN label, and those titles have found some success in the West. But over here, plain old VNs seem not to have broken out of the ultra-otaku “I only watch my anime subbed” circle. The only exception I can think of is Doki Doki Literature Club!, and I believe that was only because popular Youtube gamer personalities played it for its horror elements. DDLC is best appreciated if you’re already a fan of the sort of dating sim it’s parodying, so I don’t even know how much other people got out of it aside from thinking “shit, that’s creepy.”

Meanwhile, the visual novel format itself has not caught on among developers here, despite how easy it seems to implement either on PC or in mobile form. If there were any widespread demand for VNs here, you might expect some to be produced for people to play/read on their cell phones on the bus or train or while taking way-too-long breaks in the bathroom while at the office. But if any such mobile titles exist, I haven’t seen anyone playing them yet.

So unless I’m just completely out of touch with the rest of society, which is likely, it seems to me that the VN format has about as much of a presence in the mainstream here as it had twenty years ago, which is almost none at all. Perhaps because it exists in a gray-area realm between PC/console games, novels, and anime. And if a product is hard to categorize, it’s probably hard to pitch to a big publisher.

This relatively small customer base may be part of the reason that I’ve seen such wildly varying quality in the localization of VNs. While my Japanese is still very limited, just about anyone can tell when a translation looks sloppy — if it contains grammatical errors, awkward phrasing, and pieces of dialogue that simply don’t make sense, it’s pretty obvious that the job was rushed or otherwise done without much care. I’ve already posted two examples above of professional localizations that have some problems: Ever17 and Our World Is Ended, released 15 years apart. A real shame, considering that the original works are high-quality in just about every other way.

And they’re not the worst examples. I’ve seen a couple of officially localized VNs that look like they were run through a machine translation. It’s interesting to note that fan-translations of VNs are often far better and more professional-looking than these supposedly professional jobs, but those take years to complete if they’re ever completed at all. There’s a graveyard somewhere full of the remains of dead fan localization projects.

That’s not the only obstacle that the visual novel format faces in the West. There’s another, very different but perhaps even harder to surmount: the belief that VNs are all dating sims or porn games.

Okay, this one is, but a lot of them aren’t. From Nekopara Vol. 3 (2017).

This is similar to the stigma anime used to face. Back in the 90s, outside of popular kid-oriented series like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, a lot of people seemed to think of anime as “that weird perverted Japanese cartoon stuff.” Certainly, there were and still are a lot of hentai series out there, but anime has mostly gotten past the misconception that such material represented the whole medium, to the point that Netflix is now producing anime series that are getting watched by wider audiences than you’d normally expect.

The visual novel medium hasn’t quite gotten there yet. The fact that the VN is just that — a medium, one that can be used to tell pretty much any story the creator wants — still seems to be not that widely recognized. To be fair, again, many VNs are dating sims and/or porn games. But look at the four screenshots I’ve posted above: the first three are from all-ages games, and there are many more of those around to play. And even 18+ titles like Nekopara are commonly available in all-ages versions with the sex scenes removed. Don’t misunderstand me — I have absolutely no problem with 18+ VNs — but the mistaken idea that that’s all VNs are probably wouldn’t exist if there weren’t so many of them.

Not that I’m going to stop playing them. From NekoMiko (2019), no relation at all to Nekopara aside from the catgirls in frilly outfits theme.

In the end analysis, though, is this really something to be concerned about? Should we care whether VNs become more popular, or should we instead be happy to hold onto these as niche-interest sorts of works?

I’d say we should care. If the VN format gets more recognition over here, it means we’ll have more VNs ported to the West, and those that are ported will likely have localizations of higher quality than the current standard. Well, I should say they’d hopefully have higher-quality localizations, but who the hell knows, really. At the very least, the publishers would no longer be counting on sales from the hardcore weeb demographic, so there might be more pressure to satisfy a wider audience with a more polished product. I’d also be interested to see more of what our own developers here would come up with. In any case, it’s not like anyone needs a big pitch to a publisher to create one: some of the best known series started as independent VN projects like Fate/stay night.

On the other hand, if VNs become more popular, they’d probably also draw more attacks from the self-appointed content police I’ve written about, and then we may well see our much-anticipated VNs have controversial content removed to satisfy those pricks. So maybe it wouldn’t be such a great thing.

So apparently this time I’ve got no conclusion at all. Instead of a definite answer, I’m left with still more questions. I’m very sorry for wasting your time, reader. Like I said at the beginning of this post, I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe this was really just my stupidly long-winded way of saying I have a few visual novel reviews and analyses coming up, so you can look forward to those at some point. There’s no better time than now to pick up a VN, after all. 𒀭

A review of LiEat (PC)

It’s been a long time since I wrote a proper game review. Plenty of commentaries and analyses and complaining about everything I hate about life and the world and all that, but no reviews for several months now. Since I have a tall pile of games to complete that I bought during Steam sales (a digital pile, I guess, not a physical one, but I still imagine them stacked up on my desk like it’s the early 2000s again) now seems like a good time to get back to my roots.

The first game I completed in my massive haul was LiEat, a short RPG series about an unlikely pair: a traveling conman who constantly changes his name and appearance and his companion, a young dragon girl named Efina (or just Efi) who has the ability to see the physical forms of lies and eat them. The version of LiEat I got on Steam is actually a trilogy of three games titled LiEat I, II, and III — each game takes place in different settings and with some differences in cast, but the main characters are always Efina and the conman, who first shows up in LiEat I with the name Leo.

Efina eats a lie.

Efina’s ability is a complete mystery, both to her and to her guardian. Even her birth is a mystery: she just happened to hatch from a giant egg that Leo happened upon while he was walking along the road one day. Since Efina didn’t have anyone to take care of her, she attached herself to Leo and started calling him “Papa” much to his annoyance. But Leo takes her in anyway, both looking after her and making use of her lie-eating ability to solve mysteries and hustle people out of their money.

You defeat a lie by beating its physical form down to 0 HP. If only it were that easy in real life.

Leo and Efi make a good team, despite how weirdly the pair seem to match. Efi is naturally curious about the world — despite looking like a pretty normal human kid and having the ability to reason and talk, she’s only a few months old at the start of LiEat and is excited to learn all she can, both about the world around her and about her unique power. Leo, meanwhile, is a jaded, world-weary guy in his early 20s who only likes “beer, money, and women” and tells Efi to shut up when she’s getting on his nerves. Not a natural father figure, but Efi seems to cheerfully accept Leo’s attitude.

It’s no use lying to Efi, but Leo does it anyway.

Throughout LiEat, Leo (later changing his name to Hal and Sid, none of them his real name) and Efi move from setting to setting, meeting new characters and getting mixed up in some kind of supernatural trouble that they’re forced to solve. Inevitably the police also get involved, headed up by a captain and vice-captain who know Leo and are a little wary of him for some reason. This might be because they know he’s a conman, but there’s a lot more to it than that. As the story progresses through I and II, we get hints of Leo’s past and learn his true name (Theobald Leonhart aka Theo — isn’t Leonhart Squall’s last name from FF8? Maybe a reference there?) It’s only in LiEat III that the game lets on about Theo’s broken childhood and about the burden he carries, one that only Efi can help him resolve.

There’s some deep backstory here

LiEat is a very small series of games. Each one takes just about an hour to complete. In fact, while each game has its own set of endings and doesn’t carry levels, equipment, or items over, I see these less as separate games and more as three chapters of the same game. They all have a pretty similar look and feel — all created with WolfRPG, a popular RPG creation template, but with a lot of custom sprites, character portraits, background music, and event CGs. The developer Miwashiba clearly took the time to make LiEat much more than the standard boring templaty1 RPG. The combat is very simple and no challenge at all, just standard turn-based stuff, but I think part of the appeal of LiEat is in that style that Miwashiba adds.

Not a woman you want to get involved with

Despite its short length, LiEat isn’t exactly lightweight either. The story goes to a few unexpectedly dark places. Nothing too gory or horrific, though the third part does have a little bit of the psychological horror element. No, the darkness here is more emotional. The normal ending to the last game, the first one I got, was pretty heartbreaking. I immediately had to figure out how to get the good ending, which the LiEat finale thankfully has — it’s absolutely not a given when it comes to these WolfRPG/RPGMaker games that there will be a good ending at all. And I’ve got to say that I was satisfied. The good ending wasn’t pulled out of the game’s ass just for the sake of ending on a pleasant note; it’s entirely believable and earned.

I was also satisfied with LiEat as a whole. It only cost something like $1.20 when I bought it on sale, but even at its sticker price of three dollars I’d say it’s worth going for, especially if you already know you’re into this RPGMaker-style RPG/adventure genre. It might give you some warm feelings, especially in the sort of parent-child thing that develops between Theo and Efi. And it’s me saying this, and I’m a bitter, emotionally closed-off asshole, so it should say a lot that LiEat worked for me on that level.

A scene from the third part of LiEat. I feel personally attacked.

So that’s a recommendation from me. Especially if you come across it during a sale, because even as of this writing, it costs less than a cup of coffee. But only if that coffee is from Starbucks, which you can’t visit at the moment because they’re probably all closed now because of the coronavirus. At least the one near me is. So instead of buying that overpriced, overburnt mud water2, why not buy a game like LiEat instead to pass a few hours during the international quarantine?

Since I’m not going anywhere either, I’ll continue to just dig through that backlog over the next weeks/months. Until next time, if you come across a giant egg while you’re walking along the road and discover a dragon hatching from it, I guess do the right thing and adopt it on the spot. It worked for Theo in the end, and in the best-case scenario you’ll end up in a Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid kind of situation, and who wouldn’t want that? Shit, maybe I really am just a weirdo. 𒀭

 

1 I know this isn’t a word, but it should be. Haven’t you seen a lot of games that just look like they were thrown together with a game creation tool using basic default assets? I don’t know of any better term to use to describe that sort of game. Not that they’re all bad, but there’s something to be said for setting yourself apart with a distinctive style, which is something LiEat does admirably well.

2 Their regular coffee tastes like ass. I still stand by that assessment. If you really need some gas in the tank, though, the cold brew is worth paying for. There, that’s your bonus coffee review.

Going to the backlog

This is an unexpectedly slow month for the site, partly because of personal circumstances and partly because of how the coronavirus has fucked my work situation. Luckily for me, despite all the worry over the virus, individual people and big ass corporate entities alike will continue to sue each other, so I still do have work. I’m thankful for that, but obviously conditions have changed and we’ve all had to adapt. All this also means that I haven’t had much time to play anything in the last month or so. However, I still have a fair backlog of games to get through piled up in my Steam account. A lot of us are stuck inside for an indefinite period of time, so what better time to catch up on that? Not that I was ever much for going outside anyway.

Here are some of the impressions I have of the games I’ve started. It’s not an exhaustive list, and there’s definitely no guarantee that I will get through all, most, or even any of these. Since I’m doing my best to economize and actually play the fucking games I buy during Steam sales, however, they’re the ones I’m most likely to play in the near future (aside from Persona 5 Royal, which yes, of course I have preordered. Atlus hasn’t let me down yet, except once, and those P3 and P5 dancing games were still basically decent despite the ripoff price.)

Rabi-Ribi

In what’s undoubtedly the biggest shock of the decade so far, I bought a game featuring a bunch of cute animal-eared girls. I know, really unexpected. But that’s not the only reason I got Rabi-Ribi (I won’t lie — it’s a reason, just not the only one.) This is a combination platformer/bullet hell game about Erina, a regular rabbit who mysteriously turns into a rabbit-eared/tailed human one day. So she has to figure out how and why that happened by seeking out her human owner and her other friends, and these adventures involve a lot of bullet hell-style boss fights with other girls.

If you’d say that this sounds a hell of a lot like a Touhou Project game, I would agree. Aside from the fact that it’s a platformer instead of a vertically scrolling shooter, I get strong Touhou vibes from Rabi-Ribi so far. It’s all about cute girls shooting bullets and lasers at each other in a fantasy setting, so there you go — basically a Touhou game. I’m really liking it so far, though I might end up regretting playing the game in normal mode instead of novice mode. But that would just hurt my pride too much, even if I am generally pretty lousy at games like this.

LiEat

This is a strange one — a trilogy of what look like RPGMaker games (or maybe WolfRPG; I tend to lump all these kinds of games together) bundled together for a few dollars on Steam. I like stuff like that, so I thought why not drop a few dollars on LiEat. The first game starts out with a pair of travelers: Leo, an experienced, hardened kind of guy, and Efina, a dragon girl who recently hatched from an egg and is in the process of figuring the world out. Efina can also “eat” lies somehow — when someone tells a lie, it manifests as a monster that you can fight and defeat in a turn-based battle.

I’m not too far into it yet, but LiEat is interesting so far. I like strange games like this, and it also doesn’t seem to be that much of a time investment even if it is a bundle of three games.

Yuppie Psycho

Okay, I haven’t even started Yuppie Psycho yet, but I am 99% sure I’d like it from everything I’ve seen and heard of it. So why haven’t I played it yet? I don’t know, but I’ll try to fix that soon. All I know is that it’s a horror game about Brian Pasternack, the young panicked-looking guy in the suit above, starting a new job at a big corporation. It looks like there’s a lot of weird Lovecraftian shit going on, and there’s some kind of AI/android girl in there, and the soundtrack was composed by Garoad, the same guy who made the amazing BGM for VA-11 HALL-A. This game was pretty much made for me, so I will probably get around to playing it soon.

Momodora IV: Reverie Under the Moonlight

This game has been sitting in my backlog for so long that it should have grown some mold by now. It was sitting there so long that the developer has since released a new game, Minoria, that I also haven’t played. I still intend to get around to Momodora IV sometime though. I really liked Momodora II, though part of the reason for that was its being free — but it was legitimately fun, and IV looks and plays a lot more polished. Protagonist Kaho is a shrine maiden and the ancestor of Momo from Momodora II, and she’s going on a similar kind of quest to banish some evil somewhere with a close-range fan weapon and a long-range bow. This is another game that seems to demand some dexterity and skill. It doesn’t even bother to hold your hand in the first area. I like a challenge (even if, again, I’m not great at stuff like this) so that’s fine with me. I’ll get through it eventually. Someday.

Evenicle

When I wrote in my last post that I had picked up Evenicle, I was serious. Since then, in fact, I’ve gotten all the way to the third chapter of the game, which feels like the start of the mid-game in terms of pacing. Evenicle is a turn-based RPG made by Alicesoft, and if you know Alicesoft you know what that means. If you don’t know Alicesoft, it means that this game is full of sex scenes and would probably somehow offend at least 80% of anyone taken off the street at random. Just look up the Rance series and you’ll see what I mean, but don’t do it at work.

Despite a couple of fucked but not unexpected moments (again, not unexpected if you know Alicesoft) I like Evenicle so far. The turn-based combat is pretty basic but works well, and the characters are well-written, even if a lot of the women are throwing themselves at the protagonist Aster. But that’s the whole point, anyway: you’re helping Aster build a giant polygamist household (my favorite wife so far: Riche, though I get the feeling Kathryn might steal that spot when she figures into the plot more.) And to be fair to Evenicle, it’s making Aster earn at least some of the love he gets through his being a generally good-natured guy with a ton of motivation and ability. He’s not just some bland dumbass of an RPG protagonist, in other words: he has an actual personality and some traits that make you believe people would want to be around him.

Also, the character art in Evenicle was done by Nan Yaegashi, the Senran Kagura artist, and I’m the kind of idiot who will buy a game or watch an anime series just because it features the work of an artist I like. It really is fantastic artwork, though. I still wouldn’t recommend this game to most people yet, but you probably don’t need my word on it anyway — Evenicle seems to be one of those “you probably already know if it’s for you” sorts of games just from looking at the title screen and reading the synopsis.

***

So those are the games sitting at the top of my backlog list. I’m hoping that maybe this apocalypse we’re living through will at least give me the opportunity to get through some more of these games instead of being forced to go outside and actually talk to real people in real life. How about I just quarantine myself forever? Why isn’t that an option?

The rabbit girl and the obsolete ゐ

Hey, happy December, and happy official official start of the Christmas/holiday/whatever you want to call it season.  Here’s a post that has nothing to do with any of that.  I mentioned before that I’m doing some Japanese self-study, and now I have some dumbass 外人 ideas about this language that, up until recently, I only slightly understood mainly through reading untranslated doujins.* And if one of those ideas happens to have a connection to games, anime, manga, or the usual kind of thing I write about on this site, I might just post about it like I’m doing now.  Whether you’re fluent, studying, or neither of those, I hope you find it interesting.

For several years, I’ve had the hiragana and katakana down, the two Japanese syllabary writing systems that are used to write out anything that’s not written in kanji, the character-based system derived from Chinese. The largest part of my study by far is of these kanji, of which there are over 3,000. Learning the kanji is a great undertaking, but not as difficult as many people think: the kanji themselves are composed of pieces called radicals, and once you realize how these pieces work, the task of learning the characters they make becomes quite a lot easier.  Still not easy — not even close.  But easier.

However, I’m not talking about kanji today. Today I’m talking about ゐ, a now-obsolete kana, or syllabary character. As the name of the writing system suggests, most of these kana represent a syllable instead of a lone vowel or consonant, the exceptions being the long a i u e o sounds and the lone consonant n. I learned about ゐ well before even properly learning my hiragana, however, thanks to Touhou Project, a shoot-em-up series made by independent game developer/music composer/guy drinking beer in his basement ZUN. One of the most popular games in the series was Touhou 8, subtitled Imperishable Night, which dealt with aliens called Lunarians and moon rabbits causing the moon to stay in the night sky into the day, which somehow causes the world to fall into a permanent night (also, just like in every Touhou game, all these characters are cute girls just like chief protagonists Reimu and Marisa, even the moon aliens.) No, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but none of the plots to the Touhou games make much sense.  You don’t play these games for their plots anyway.

A typically cute depiction of Tewi. You’d never guess she would ever try to murder you by firing hundreds of magical bullets at you. (source: poronegi, pixiv)

The connection to my language study comes with the introduction of Tewi Inaba, an Earth-native rabbit girl who acts as a mid-level boss in Stage 5 and dumps bullets all over the screen at you for a few rounds that you either have to dodge or waste your limited number of bombs on to clear. Tewi isn’t a very important character in the game — while she is distinct from all the common enemies around her and can be a pain in the ass to fight, she falls short of the honor of having her own boss theme, at least in her initial appearance in Touhou 8. However, her name is interesting from a linguistic perspective. Tewi’s name is written last name first in the Japanese fashion as 因幡てゐ, her last name in kanji, and her first name in hiragana: て, te, and ゐ, wi.  In 1946, however, the Japanese government decided wi wasn’t a syllable they’d need anymore since it had disappeared from common usage long before. Thus ゐ got the boot along with ゑ (we).  Since wi is no longer a sound used in Japanese, even Tewi’s name is pronounced when spoken as “Tei”.

So the question remains: why did ZUN use ゐ in Tewi’s name when it’s not pronounced that way anymore? The answer may lay in the setting of the Touhou Project games. Gensokyo is a piece of Japan that for centuries was populated with youkai, mythical beasts that have magical powers they can use to help or harm humans (very often the latter.) In 1885, this land was finally sealed from the rest of Japan with a magical barrier by Yukari Yakumo, an extremely powerful youkai, to protect the youkai within from the outside world, and ever since the human and non-human residents of Gensokyo have had to try to live side by side. Back when Gensokyo was sealed off, therefore, ゐ was still an official part of the Japanese language, so maybe it’s not strange for it to be used in Gensokyo.  Add to that the fact that despite her looks, Tewi is supposed to be over a thousand years old, and her name’s now-obsolete spelling makes more sense.

If you squint you can see the obsolete ヰ in the company’s name printed on the bottle, but not in the loanword “whisky” printed above it. (source: Hispania – own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Either that or ZUN was just doing whatever he felt like doing with the characters’ names. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. After all, the wi syllable isn’t quite dead and buried in our modern world.  ヰ, the katakana counterpart to ゐ, is still used in a few brand names like the Japanese distillery Nikka Whisky, and both hiragana and katakana forms hang onto life in the character sets of the Okinawan and Ainu languages, though those are on the decline and nearly extinct respectively. Small comfort indeed. ゐ now has so little going on that Tewi herself is mentioned in the introduction of the kana’s Wikipedia page as one of the few remaining common usages of the character. The poor kana is relying on being featured in the name of a Touhou character.  Isn’t that rough?  At least Tewi is one of the more popular characters, but still, a long way to fall.

Again, I hope that was interesting.  Don’t know if I’ll write more of these posts or if I’ll make this a regular feature; I’ll just make it up as I go along like I always do.  It may also be a while until my next post — unless you want to read a lengthy, unedited mess of nonsense garbage, I’ll have to take some more time on it.  So I thought I’d post this as a kind of bonus.  Happy December again, and I hope you don’t freeze too much this season if you’re not one of those lucky people in the Southern Hemisphere or the tropics right now.  I’d say you can warm yourself up with some Nikka whisky, but it seems to cost at least 50-60 dollars a bottle.  Must be good stuff. 𒀭

*I’ll leave to your imagination the kinds of expressions I learned from reading doujins, but they certainly aren’t ones you’d say in polite society.

A review of Strange Telephone (PC)

I already hinted that I’d review this in a recent post, and here it is: Strange Telephone, a 2D exploration game created by solo developer yuta/HZ3 Software out of Japan.  Strange Telephone was first released in 2017, but it was recently updated and expanded with a few new features and endings.  This version 2.0.1 is my first experience with the game, and true to its title, it was a strange one.

Strange Telephone doesn’t bother explaining much to the player upfront; after a couple of instructional screens about the mechanics of the game it simply starts, with the protagonist Jill waking up in a weird void in front of a giant door that won’t open.  At first, Jill seems stuck here, but lucky for her she has a friend: a flying telephone named Graham who can transport Jill to various worlds that correspond to six-digit numbers.  Most of these worlds contain residents and objects that Jill can interact with, though a few of them pose serious dangers to her.  The object of the game is essentially to solve a bunch of puzzles using items you can find, receive, or create for the purpose of opening that giant door and getting back to your own world.

A friendly ghost gives Jill a very obvious clue to get her started on her quest

If this game seems familiar, that might be because it bears a strong resemblance to another game I reviewed some time back: Dreaming Sarah.  Both are 2D exploration games featuring a pony-tailed girl who is teleported through bizarre dream-like worlds.  They even start in exactly the same way, with Sarah/Jill waking up and finding herself in a strange place.  It’s no coincidence that they’re so similar, though: both developers outright say that they were inspired by Yume Nikki.  The Yume Nikki influence is just as obvious here as it was in Dreaming Sarah: many of the objects and characters Jill runs into during her travels through the extradimensional phone book look like they came out of a dream and occasionally out of a nightmare, and some of the puzzles involve just the kind of dream logic that Yume Nikki and its descendants like to use.

Tell me this fucking thing didn’t come from a nightmare

However, none of that’s to say that Strange Telephone is a copy of Yume Nikki.  Just like Dreaming Sarah, this game uses that inspiration to create something new.  The biggest difference between Strange Telephone and other games like it is how it implements its exploration element.  Instead of having several large worlds to explore, Jill has over a million small worlds that are only a couple of screens wide each.  Walking left or right off of the edge teleports her to the next world over, which will probably be completely different from the one she just left.

The in-game dialing pad

Of course, there aren’t really over a million worlds.  There are more like a dozen or so with a bunch of variations in their residents, objects, and backgrounds.  Fortunately, you can get a device early on that lets you see what sort of world you’re about to enter when you punch in a number but before you dial, saving you a lot of time trying out random numbers.  This is an absolute necessity, in fact, because the game expects you to figure out more or less on your own where to bring each item and how to use it when you get there to advance.  It drops subtle hints sometimes, but that’s about it.  So, for example, knowing how you can trigger the moon rabbit event and where to find the moon rabbit when he shows up is important, because it’s required to see every event and ending in the game.

He needs fuel to get home.  This is why you fill your tank all the way to F before a long trip

Jill’s explorations are complicated by the fact that as she explores the phone worlds, distortion in her connection increases (measured by the circle at the top left) and when it’s full, something happens that disrupts her journey.  So you constantly have to let Jill duck out of the phone worlds back into the central “core” area to start again.  This isn’t a huge problem, though; each world is small enough that you should have enough time to do what you have to do to get the plot moving along.  The game also gives you a book you can use to save specific numbers so you can return to interact with the characters/objects there without having to randomly punch in numbers to find them again.

And yeah, there really is a plot here, even if it’s not that obvious.  Strange Telephone takes the Yume Nikki approach in showing a lot but refusing to tell a damn thing, so you have to piece every bit of information the game gives you together on your own.  Part of that process is getting every ending and finding every secret in the game, which is basically what you’ll be doing anyway as you experiment with different item/character/object combinations in the phone worlds.

Okay Jill, just start throwing shit in the pot and see what happens

If I sound frustrated with that, though, I’m not, because it’s part of what made Strange Telephone interesting.  Jill doesn’t bother giving any exposition, Graham doesn’t talk at all, and most of the other characters you meet in the phone worlds are also mute, even the ones that interact with you.  But I like these games that don’t spell everything out for you and let you roam around and figure things out on your own.  I don’t mind the cryptic story, either, because it fits with the surreal atmosphere of the game.  Strange Telephone does have some sense to it, though it’s still up for debate what some of the endings mean for Jill.  I guess this is where fan theories come in to fill the gap.  Yume Nikki has a ton of them, so it would make sense for Strange Telephone to have some too.

That said, the surreal atmosphere can’t explain away every bit of weirdness in this game.  There are a few things you have to do to beat Strange Telephone that just don’t make any logical sense.  I hit a wall a few times in my explorations and ended up having to shove different objects into a few characters’ hands to see if they’d do anything with said objects to make a new object or to advance my progress somehow.  Most of the solutions to the puzzles in Strange Telephone can be worked out with logic, but a few feel a bit too bizarre and random to be satisfying.

New contractual demand: every game I play from now on must have at least one (1) hot demon girl in it

Still, on balance Strange Telephone was a good enough time for me to recommend it.  The character designs are imaginative, the atmosphere is nice and otherworldly, the background music fits and enhances that atmosphere, and the exploration and experimentation with items drew me in.  I like games that do something different and execute that something well, and Strange Telephone is just such a game.

Since I’m stuck with this dumb rating system I created, I’ll say Strange Telephone gets a 5, which has basically come to mean “it wasn’t amazing or life-changing, but I liked it.”  The two or three hours of Yume Nikki-esque surreal dream logic weirdness I got out of the experience was worth the five dollars I paid for it on Steam.  If you loved Yume Nikki, in other words, Strange Telephone is worth checking out.

A review of Nekopara Complete Edition (PC)

Disclaimer: the game(s) reviewed here contain adult content, but my review is safe for work.  However, this post does feature catgirls in French maid uniforms and one instance of explicit tail-brushing.  On second thought, maybe it isn’t really safe for work.

I have no excuses this time.  I’ve written in the past about a few visual novels, but they were either not pornographic at all (Umineko no Naku Koro ni, Our World Is Ended, Doki Doki Literature Club!) or had sex scenes that contributed to a psychological horror story plot and that didn’t seem intended for the purpose those scenes usually are (Saya no Uta, Saya no Uta again.)  Nekopara, however, is without a doubt an h-game series.  Yes, there are all-ages versions of the games that cut out all the sex scenes, but naturally I got the 18+ DLC that unlocks those scenes again.  I could defend my purchase by telling you I bought Nekopara Complete Edition during a Steam sale when it and the DLC were both heavily discounted, but the fact is that I bought it.  I bought these games about creating a catgirl harem and now I’m writing about them here.  If you needed any more proof that I’ve given up on the possibility of living a normal life, here it is.

Okay, I’m just kidding.  I did actually have to think a bit about whether to write about Nekopara, since I haven’t reviewed a straight up h-game in the six years since I started this blog.  But then I got back on Twitter after some time away and saw a lot of complaining about how immoral, dirty anime and comics and games are destroying society, and if those people are going to keep spewing such nonsense, why should I hold myself back?

She’s not wrong

Nekopara Complete Edition is a package containing four volumes in the Nekopara series of visual novels by developer NEKO WORKs.  More accurately, these games are kinetic novels, or visual novels that don’t involve any player input to move the plot along.  So these are really more like regular novels with character portraits, backgrounds, sound effects, and music than even your standard VN is.  Also, aside from the very short prequel Vol. 0, all of these games have sex scenes unless you only buy the base all-ages versions.  Until recently, Valve didn’t allow pornographic content on its platform, so for the longest time Nekopara was only available there as a series of nice, cute VNs about a guy running a French bakery with catgirl waitresses in which the boning was merely implied.

You get to either implicitly or explicitly bone six of these seven characters

Protagonist Kashou Minaduki is a young pastry chef from a long line of traditional Japanese confectioners who sets off to open his own western-style bakery against the wishes of his parents.  While unpacking his cooking equipment at the beginning of Vol. 1, Kashou hears cat noises coming from his pile of boxes and discovers two of his family’s catgirls, Chocola and Vanilla, hiding inside.  These twin catgirls insisted upon moving in with Kashou and stowed away with the help of their master, Kashou’s younger sister Shigure, who still lives at the Minaduki family home but who will show up later and who figures prominently in every volume of Nekopara.

Sure it’s cute in the game, just don’t try shipping real cats in boxes like this

Together, the twins convince Kashou to let them live with him in his apartment above the bakery and to help him run the place as waitresses and apprentice bakers.  Throughout the course of Vol. 1, the protagonist gets closer to Chocola and Vanilla, who eventually choose to become his “catpanions”, or catgirl girlfriends.  (Speaking of, if you hate puns, and especially if you hate puns based on the word “cat” and Japanese cat sounds, you will truly hate these games.)  Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 each pick up the story from where the previous game left off and involve Kashou developing similar relationships with Coconut, Azuki,1 Cinnamon, and Maple, the other four catgirls in the Minaduki family.

You might need more background on these catgirls to understand why this is happening.  They’re a sort of genetically engineered human with cat features.  Not that different from your typical anime-style catgirl.  But they have a weird legal status in this world.  While catgirls all seem to basically have human intelligence, they also have all the standard feline instincts.  They play with cat toys, love tuna, get fucked up on cat nip, react violently to loud noises, and go into heat (and yeah, of course that last part comes up during the games, especially if you get the 18+ versions.)

An example of highly inappropriate workplace behavior

As a result, catgirls have to be trained to conform with human laws and practices and must pass an exam to prove that they can go out on their own without running around in the streets and causing chaos.  And just like normal pets, catgirls in this world have “masters” that they’re generally expected to obey, though there are a whole lot of conditions involved in those relationships (as any cat owner will tell you, the cat often seems to be more the human’s master than the other way around, and the same is true in Nekopara.)  So while a catgirl in this world isn’t exactly treated as a human, she can earn the right to be considered more or less human if she passes her exam and gets her bell, the mark of a licensed catgirl.

Sometimes the training doesn’t take very well

You might have already guessed that some other reviewers have found the Nekopara games troublesome for this reason, especially since each game involves the protagonist having romantic relationships with all six of his family’s catgirls.  However weird that might sound, though, all these relationships are socially acceptable in the world of Nekopara.  This is despite the fact that catgirls can’t have children with humans, even though they’re almost completely human in their physical makeup and their intellect aside from all the feline instinct stuff.  (Or maybe because?  Sounds like an effective form of nationwide birth control.  In fact, it sounds like the potential cause of a disastrous crash in birth rates, but that never comes up in these games.) They also all take the initiative in their relationships with Kashou, who just seems to be along for the ride most of the time.

Even the harem element isn’t a big deal in the context of the game.  As Vanilla tells Kashou in Vol. 2, catgirls don’t have a problem with polygamy as long as he loves them all equally.  Because catgirls are capable of feeling jealousy, as we learn in Vol. 1 when Vanilla threatens to hide a mix of wasabi and hot sauce in Kashou’s underwear because he very briefly and innocently talked to another woman who approached him while she, Chocola, and Kashou were all out on a date.  God damn, that Vanilla is one scary woman.  Or catgirl, or whatever.

Vanilla is my favorite; I guess I’m a masochist

If all this sounds like a lot of fantastic wish fulfillment to you, I think that’s just the point.  Nekopara feels like it’s meant to be a romantic comedy for people who are into the whole 2D and anime and girls who could never exist in real life thing.  Each game does feature some conflict in which Kashou has to navigate the complicated feelings of the women around him (including Shigure, who has a weird sibling-Oedipus-complex obsession with her brother and who works behind the scenes the entire series to set up Kashou’s relationships with her catgirls.)  But all the conflicts are resolved by the end of Vol. 3, when Kashou has built his catgirl harem/patisserie empire.

I don’t mean any of that as a negative criticism of Nekopara, because there’s a lot of craft and attention to detail in these games.  The art, character portraits, and voice acting are excellent.2  The music is mostly light and fluffy but meshes with the tone of the games perfectly.  And the six catgirl characters aren’t the kind of cardboard cutouts you might expect from a series like this — they all have distinct and more or less believable personalities (though some of them are a little exaggerated.)  The fact that all this talent was used in the service of an escapist fantasy isn’t a waste as I see it.  I’m often up for playing a game with heavy, serious content, but sometimes I just want some pure fantasy, and Nekopara provides that.  The real world can be a miserable grind, and games like these provide some much-needed relief for their fans.  As long as you don’t forget that you ultimately live in that shitty real world and that you’ll have to return to it eventually, there’s nothing wrong with losing yourself in that intoxicating haze for a while.3

Still technically not porn yet

If I have one serious criticism of the Nekopara games, it’s that they’re quite short for what you pay if you get them at full price (about 30 dollars for all the base games together and another 30 for all the 18+ patches.)  While “wait for a Steam sale before you buy” is generally good advice, I really recommend it this time.  I paid half price for the whole package, which felt about right, but that doesn’t change the fact that it usually sells for $60, and that’s for maybe 15-20 hours of content.  Quality content, sure, but quantity still matters.  Those looking for serious dramatic content will probably also be disappointed, because Nekopara doesn’t have much of that.  The relationships and conflicts do get a little more complicated as you move through the three main volumes of Nekopara, though, so if you find Vol. 1 too light, you may like the second and third volumes more.  They still don’t rise above the level of slice-of-life comedy plus a little soap opera-style drama and some stuff about following your dreams (especially in Vol. 3 with the Maple and Cinnamon becoming musicians plotline, which I liked) but it’s worth a note.

It’s also worth mentioning that unlike many of his visual novel protagonist counterparts, Kashou isn’t an average guy with absolutely no skills and nothing interesting about him — he’s an accomplished pastry chef and a successful business owner.  So maybe this game will motivate you to try harder to be successful if you’re unhappy with your lot in life.  So you can, uh… have your own catgirl harem one day?  Okay, maybe not.

Opening a catgirl cafe isn’t out of the question, though. If I were a crazy billionaire I would start a chain and beat the shit out of Starbucks.

This is usually where I sum up the review and assign the game a score.  But this time the score doesn’t really matter.  I’ll give Nekopara Complete Edition a strong 5, but that only applies if you’re into light, fluffy visual novels full of cute girls, sappy romance, and sex scenes (or if you’re not into sex scenes and get the all-ages version; most of the games’ content will still be there for you to play.)  While the writing in these games isn’t anything amazing, it’s good enough to tell the story the games want to tell.  And from all the care and attention put into the games’ character designs, animations, and voice acting, I get the impression that the creators poured a lot of time and love into this project.  And yeah, I’m including the 18+ content in that assessment.  I’ll keep it non-X-rated here, but if you’re curious, the full CG sets are just a Google search away.

Settle down, Cinnamon

Nekopara is obviously not for everyone, and I certainly understand why some people are skeeved out by it, but it worked for me.  In fact, I’d gladly give Complete Edition a 6 — the actual contents of the games on their own deserve that score, but I really don’t like the fact that you have to essentially buy each volume twice to get the full experience with the 18+ DLC.  Feel free to add that extra point on if you can also buy these games at or around half price.  Though the fact that the sex scenes are still censored with those stupid mosaics does bother me, and as far as I know there’s no uncensor patch available. I wish Japan would repeal that dumbass law.

Nekopara never breaks the fourth wall, but this still feels directed at me.

And now that I’ve admitted to being a horny pastry puffer, I’m done with my review.  Next time I’ll probably take on a weightier game, both in terms of themes and having gameplay beyond clicking the mouse, but Nekopara was a nice break for me.  Now it’s back to the miserable grind of the real world. 𒀭

 

1 The catgirls in Nekopara are all named after different sweets or flavors used in baking.  I wasn’t familiar with azuki before playing these games — it’s a sort of bean used to make a sweet paste that’s a common ingredient in Japanese confections.

2 All in Japanese. As far as I know, there are no plans for an English dub.

3 When you approach Nekopara the way it’s meant to be taken, the answer to the question “Why are all these cat-human hybrids female?” is obvious: because the target audience isn’t interested in males.  At least I don’t think they are.  I’m sure there’s a male cat-human-hybrid waiter visual novel out there somewhere if that’s more to your taste.