A review of Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout (PS4)

It’s yet another Atelier game review, yeah. I’ve already brought this one up a few times, but I’m finally ready to pass judgment on it, for whatever my judgment is worth anyway.

Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout was released in 2019 on the PS4 and PC. I remember it getting a lot of talk at the time, more than you’d expect for an Atelier title, which up until then tended to only get much notice around the expected niche JRPG cirles. I was immediately interested myself, but it took me two years to actually buy a copy because of how many other games in the series I’d planned on playing. Including the earlier PS4 Atelier Mysterious sub-series, which I completely skipped over between the Dusk trilogy and Ryza.

The fact that I skipped over Mysterious may or may not be important to understanding why Ryza felt like such a different experience from the other Atelier titles I’ve played. Not that I wasn’t expecting that — all I knew going into Ryza was that it had dropped the old, traditional purely turn-based battle system for a real-time one. And that the protagonist’s character model was probably a draw for American audiences, but more on that later. First I’ll get into the substance of the game.

You can hook people in with thighs, but if your game isn’t quality at its core you won’t be able to keep them — see NieR:Automata for an example of how that works. And see also Atelier Ryza? Maybe. I won’t give that away yet.

Reisalin Stout is a resident of Kurken Island, from the isolated town of Rasenboden. The only child of a farming family, Reisalin (or Ryza as she’s almost always called, continuing the tradition from Arland of the protagonist never being addressed by her full/formal name) is bored out of her mind. She doesn’t care about farming and takes every chance she can to escape from her parents’ demands that she help out around the farm and the house — completely reasonable demands, to be fair.

But there’s no helping it: Ryza is young and full of curiosity about the world outside their island. So she gets together with her childhood friends, the aspiring warrior Lent Marslink and aspiring scholar Tao Mongarten, and leads them in an expedition to explore the mainland.

It’s technically not theft if you plan to return it

Turns out Kurken Island really is isolated, because the nearby mainland is totally uninhabited — or not inhabited by humans anyway. Ryza, Tao, and Lent have run-ins with a few monsters and end up rescuing a traveling girl who was separated from her caravan. As it happens, this girl, Klaudia Valentz, is the daughter of a wealthy merchant on his way from the faraway capital to Rasenboden to establish a trade route.

The group starts to make its way back to the safety of the beach, but not before running into still another monster, this one far too powerful for them to defeat. Fortunately, Ryza and friends are themselves rescued by another pair of far stronger travelers: the alchemist Emper Vollmer and his bodyguard/companion Lila Decyrus. All six return to the dock where they meet Klaudia’s father, as well as an officer from Rasenboden who chews out Ryza for causing trouble yet again by running off with a commandeered boat.

I really wanted to get Agatha into my party, but she never joined. A real shame.

However, aside from getting yelled at by Agatha and later also by her mom, Ryza gains a lot from this first adventure. Klaudia’s father is grateful to her and her friends for saving his daughter, and Klaudia quickly befriends and becomes attached to Ryza’s crew. And Ryza discovers a new personal interest: alchemy. (Naturally; she’s the protagonist of an Atelier game, so we all knew that was coming.) She asks Empel, who’s set up shop temporarily in Rasenboden together with Lila, to teach her this discipline. While he’s not capable of becoming her full-time teacher, Empel does get Ryza started on the basics once he sees that she has the innate ability necessary to becoming an alchemist.

Ryza decides to pursue this new path and sets up a makeshift atelier in her parents’ house. Perhaps understandably, Ryza’s mom is not that happy about her daughter dragging an old iron pot up to her room and setting up a lab full of volatile materials and other things that likely smell pretty bad, so it’s understood that this is a temporary setup — and what better place to establish a proper atelier but on the mainland, where there’s a lot of free land going unused?

Some nice CGs in Ryza by the artist Toridamono, continuing the pattern of a new artist and a new look for each sub-series.

All this is extremely fateful, not just for Ryza but for her hometown and everyone in it. Empel and Lila tell their new hosts that they’re working on sealing an ancient evil in the area that’s starting to reawaken. The population of Rasenboden doesn’t know about any of this, but as Ryza and her friends expand their explorations around the mainland, they come across evidence of this threat, including the re-emergence of dragons. These and other dangerous beasts seem to be connected to the Klint Kingdom, an ancient civilization with advanced technology that was forgotten and lost after it was wiped out by some calamity.

Do the ruins of the Klint Kingdom hold the secrets to defeating this ancient evil? Will Ryza and her crew be able to use their skills to fight said evil if it does reawaken? And will Ryza finally get her parents to stop asking her to help harvest the wheat or whatever else it is you do on a farm?

I’m old enough to sympathize with them now.

As I wrote up at the top, Atelier Ryza felt different from any other game in the series I’ve played. This partly had to do with the new art design and chief artist. Each sub-series gets its own artist and its own look, a nice way of setting up each one as its own separate thing within the larger series. I’m not as much a fan of Toridamono’s character designs as I was of Mel Kishida’s in the Arland series or Hidari’s in Dusk, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like it at all or that it isn’t good — it’s just a matter of personal preference. And if the plan actually was to make Ryza’s character model into a meme in the West, it completely worked, though it’s probably just as or more likely that it was an accident. Damn, what I wouldn’t give to be in that team meeting so I could know for sure.

But despite all the understandable jokes about “Atelier Thighza”, you shouldn’t get the wrong idea — Ryza isn’t a fanservice game or anything of the sort. Aside from a few possibly questionable camera shots during cutscenes, maybe, and then they focus just as much if not more on Lila than on Ryza. From what I remember, anyway.

Really if you’re going to be “thirsty” for a character or whatever dumb shit it is the kids say these days, Lila is the best choice as far as I’m concerned. Well, maybe I’m just showing my M tendencies here. (Also to be fair, 90s/2000s slang was dumb as fuck too.)

Maybe it’s silly to bring this aspect of the game up first, but it’s worth bringing up if only to emphasize that Atelier Ryza isn’t just constant ass all over the place, not even close. Sure, there are the standard swimsuit costumes available, but those have been in every Atelier game I’ve played so far, so again, nothing special or out of the ordinary. If you want that kind of game, I’d direct you to my Senran Kagura review.

It’s also important to note right away because for as much as it was meme’d on in social media (to almost completely positive effect, because it sure as hell got the game attention that others in the series haven’t over here) Ryza came off to me just as much an Atelier game as the rest I’ve played, even though it does feel different in some ways. Certain aspects of the game are streamlined, but you’ll still spend hours in the field gathering ingredients and more hours in the workshop crafting items, weapons, and armor with those ingredients.

The alchemy system in Ryza looks intimidating at first, but it’s just as intuitive to get down as most of the others. But why are we seeing the inside of the cauldron in these synthesis scenes? It’s like we’re actually inside the pot here.

As Ryza learns from Empel, item synthesis is based on the Material Loop system, seen above. To create an item, weapon, piece of armor or whatever else it is you’re crafting, you have to add the necessary ingredients, which have one or more properties of various strengths connected to the elements fire, ice, wind, and lightning as usual. Throw the right type of item with the required elemental strength into the pot, and you’ll unlock one or more new Material Loops, which require still other ingredients usually with different elemental affinities, and so it continues until you have enough to make whatever thing it is you’re trying to make. Unlocking new Material Loops improves the quality of your item, adding various effects to it that can help you in the field.

An example of a synthesized piece of armor. The lock icons on the traits indicate that they’re not available yet — they have to be unlocked by going back into the Material Loop system and adding more ingredients.

My explanation of this system might be shitty and confusing, but the system itself isn’t. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily more intuitive than other Atelier alchemy systems as I’ve heard some people say, at least not the ones used in Arland or Dusk, but it’s not hard to get down. The game is also pretty generous in allowing the player to throw multiple weaker items into one Material Loop to achieve the desired effect. And if you don’t get the quality of item you were going for initially, no problem: Ryza has another alchemy mechanic that lets you add more ingredients to an already created item to unlock more effects and even new recipes (this is the main way you’ll unlock new recipes to create new items, in fact — Ryza can earn books through completed quests or buy them, but if you don’t really get deep into the Material Loop system you’ll miss out on a lot of great recipes.)

Of course, to get those high-level, high-quality items you’re going for, you’ll need to spend some time in the field as usual. Atelier Ryza puts a heavy emphasis on exploration, true to its plot. Each of the characters has their own reasons for wanting to head out into the wilderness of the mainland, and their strengths complement each other in battle (including Klaudia’s — she plays her flute in battle to both heal and buff the party and attack enemies. I love that classic JRPG logic.)

So as usual, the field is where you’ll both gain experience and collect all your ingredients. Thankfully, since there’s no time limit or calendar in Ryza, you don’t have to worry about efficiency if you don’t care to — you can spend all the time you like beating up monsters, collecting loot and ingredients, and going back and forth between the atelier and various fields.

A standard battle. Tao might look like a nerd — he quite literally gets his books dumped once in the game — but he can really fuck up enemies with his magic attacks. Lent still ended up being my chief attacker though.

Now for the much talked-about battle system. Rightfully, because this is a big change for the series, which up until then used old-fashioned turn-based battle systems (again, as far as I’ve played, but it’s true of the Mysterious series as well from what I’ve read.) The combat in Ryza is still kind of turn-based, but it’s more of a hybrid system — the key difference here is that, with one important exception, the action in battle doesn’t stop and wait for you to make your decision. As a consequence, you’re only able to control one character at a time; the other two in your party act on their own, though you do have some control over whether they hold back to conserve their power or go all out.

Fortunately, this isn’t a Persona 3 situation where you’re stuck watching your allies make stupid decisions — first, because there aren’t any useless skills in the game for them to waste their time on, and second, because you can freely switch between characters to control in the middle of battle. It’s also possible to guide your allies by switching between passive and aggressive combat modes and by performing certain actions that they’ll follow up on without using energy, though this takes some extra coordination and attention.

At certain points in battle, you’ll also have the opportunity to take extra actions by using your energy denoted by the AP gauge. This is the only time the action will stop and let you leisurely take your time to make your decision. A bit weird when you never have that chance otherwise, but I’m not going to complain too much about it — battle can feel hectic in Ryza, and I appreciated these breaks.

You can even take lunch if you want while Ryza contemplates her next move. Also yes, I bought the swimsuits, I admit it

I found the battles in Ryza to be quick and brutal, almost always with two outcomes — either I was utterly crushed, or I utterly crushed the enemy. The key to combat as far as I can tell is to have good armor and weapons and to beat the living fuck out of your opponents with debuff and attack items, especially ones that have slowing and stunning traits so they don’t even get to their turn before they’re dead.

True to the Atelier series, your alchemist level matters far more than your separate adventurer level does; even if you’re technically “underleveled” for a fight, you can wipe the floor with your enemy if you have great equipment and make use of items with good stats and traits, and conversely you can easily get wiped out no matter how high your adventurer level is if you haven’t properly prepared in the atelier before venturing out. In fact, this is generally how my game went:

  1. Play through the plot and have a pretty easy time until I get to a boss; get destroyed by the timed and scripted massive fuck-off attack it drops on me.
  2. Go back to the atelier, do a ton of alchemy to improve my equipment/item setup.
  3. Go back to the boss and batter it with upgraded bombs to stun it so it can’t even get to that massive fuck-off attack; continue until I win without so much as a scratch.

I still prefer some of the turn-based battle systems of the older games, especially those in Escha & Logy and Shallie, but changing the combat up can help keep things fresh. It doesn’t just feel like change for the hell of it, either: the battle system works pretty well in the context of the rest of the game and its mechanics. Or else Gust and/or Koei Tecmo really did think people were tired of pure turn-based combat. I’m not, just for the record.

That leaves the plot and characters, which I thought were fine. They worked well enough, but I didn’t get much more than that from them. The overarching plot was just okay, and none of the twists in the story came as a huge surprise. Maybe if you’ve played too many JRPGs you can just see these story beats coming.

More critically, though, the game’s characters mostly didn’t have much impact on me. Not that they were bad at all — again, they just didn’t quite measure up to the excellent casts in the Arland and Dusk series for me, so it’s more a case of “decent/good vs. great.” The fact that the playable cast was so small — only six, the main four of Ryza and her friends and Empel and Lila, who join up later — might have added to this, since those other games have much larger pools of characters to choose from, and the characters outside these six don’t get a whole lot of attention with one significant exception.

Unlike many other Atelier games, Ryza has a typical JRPG “the world might be destroyed by an ancient evil” plot, but it also contains a lot of more mundane sidequests in keeping with wider series tradition.

As with older Atelier games, there are also several prominent non-player side characters around town and plenty of sidequests to carry out for them. It’s not much work to complete these jobs, and you’ll get some good rewards out of them. Longtime fans of the series will also get a special treat if they complete every sidequest, one that I think is pretty well worth the trouble.

But once again, I’m left a little wanting, since I found the non-player characters in Arland and Dusk to be more interesting than the townspeople around Rasenboden. It is a nice town; I have to give them credit for that. And it really does feel like a lived-in place instead of just a setting for Ryza to run around in. Gust didn’t really have to put that much work into the town, but they did, so credit for that. I’d still prefer more interesting side characters, though.

All that said, I did like Ryza as a protagonist, with her adventurous spirit and boisterous personality and all that. It helps that she has some common sense to temper her hotheadedness — she usually knows when to step on the brakes, though it’s probably also good that she has Tao around to warn her when she might be thinking of doing some dumb shit. She’s a great addition to the set of Atelier protagonists. And her thighs honestly don’t even factor in for me. Not that much, anyway. As stated above, I’m more of a Lila guy anyway.

So Atelier Ryza is a pretty good game. It didn’t amaze me or anything, but to be fair, it’s only the first in still another Atelier sub-series, and I haven’t played the direct sequel that came out just last year. My hope is that it builds on the fairly solid base the first game established.

I also hope this goat shows up again. Best side character in the game.

I wish I could leave it there, but unfortunately I can’t, because there’s one shitty thing about Ryza I think I have to address, and that’s the DLC, or some of it at least. The game offers the standard extra costume DLC, which I don’t have any problem with — it’s all purely cosmetic anyway (and I did buy a few of those, so how could I possibly complain about them.) However, several extra stories are also available for sale in addition to the main plot, each of which has to be paid for separately. I didn’t buy any of these, so I haven’t exactly gotten the full Ryza experience, but I really hate the idea of paying for more story, even if it’s considered “extra.”

I don’t know, maybe this is just a personal problem. Or maybe I’m old-fashioned or whatever. But fuck that shit, honestly. If you’ve bought any of these extra stories and have thoughts about them, please feel free to let me know about them in the comments if you like, because I won’t play them. Or tell me if you think I’m being unreasonable or arbitrary in how I feel and try to convince me otherwise if you really care to.

But I don’t want to dump on the game itself for that. Ryza does tell a complete, self-contained story in itself, and the DLC story thing seems like a publisher decision rather than a developer one, so I’ll assume this is Koei Tecmo’s fault rather than Gust’s. And maybe I’ve already played into their hands anyway.

Uh… ask your mom.

In any case, Atelier Ryza 2 will have to wait a while, because I’m continuing my Atelier journey with Mysterious, the very same sub-series I skipped over to play this game. I’ve already started Atelier Sophie DX as of this writing, in fact. I probably won’t barrel through it at the same speed I did Dusk, since I have other games I’m playing through at the same time, but I can’t say that won’t happen either.

It won’t be the next game I finish, though. Probably not, anyway. I’ve had more than enough alchemy this year. Before I return, I’ll be getting over to a game very different in tone from this one. Look forward to it. Until next post!

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster (PS4): First impressions

In what may be the least surprising development in the history of this site, I decided to write a first impressions post about Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster (which I’ll be referring to as Nocturne HD from now on because that’s too damn long to type.) Nocturne has long been one of my favorite games, and I speculated not one year ago that it was a natural choice for a PC port following the success of Persona 4 Golden on Steam. And look: now we have it on Steam in remastered form, along with Switch and PS4 versions.

So far, I’ve played about ten hours of Nocturne HD, up to what I’d consider near the end of the early game (if you’ve played the original: beating you-know-who, getting into the Labyrinth of Amala, and reaching Ikebukuro) and I think I have a pretty good idea of the remaster at this point. I can only address the PS4 version, since that’s the one I’ve got, but hopefully this rundown should give you a feel for the game and whether you might want to consider getting it. And if this post doesn’t achieve that, at least it will have succeeded in entertaining me for a while.

First of all, what’s Nocturne about? If you haven’t played this game yet, you’re in for a good time. You play as a silent protagonist high school student who meets his asshole friends at a hospital to visit your teacher Yuko Takao. However, it turns out that Yuko is part of a scheme headed by a cult leader to remake the world according to his own ideals by carrying out an arcane ritual that quite literally turns Tokyo inside out, forming it into an inverted spherical world (now called the Vortex World) and killing everyone outside of the hospital.

I’m still not sure what happened to everything outside of Tokyo, but since we’re cut off from the rest of the world at this point, it hardly matters anyway. Just before it all ends, Yuko says that she’s on your side despite everything and asks you to survive and find her in this new world.

This ruined Tokyo is filled with demons, many of whom are ready to cut you to shreds. Luckily (?) just after the world goes through this rebirth, a mysterious boy and an old woman shove a parasitic worm into your body that turns you into a demon yourself, giving you the power both to fight and to talk with other demons. As the “Demi-fiend”, you still have your human intellect and your old personality, at least for now, but it’s up to you to figure out what the hell is going on and what part you’re going to play in the struggles for dominance you come across.

There’s a lot more to the story, but I’ll leave that for later. If you really want to get spoiled on more of that, I wrote a bit about Nocturne and its plot here, where I probably misunderstood a few aspects of the lore behind the game. But this post is meant to address what I’ve come across in the HD remaster so far, so that’s what I’ll do.

Yeah, thanks Pixie.

Maybe this is a predictable or underwhelming statement to make, but here it is anyway: playing Nocturne HD feels a lot like playing Nocturne. Which is exactly how it should feel, so that’s not an insult at all. The game certainly looks nicer, though I have heard people complain that the textures are still low-quality, which yeah, some of them are. I don’t care myself, and I’m not sure about the technical aspects of remasters like this, so I won’t comment on that. Nocturne still looks like Nocturne, anyway, and that’s enough for me. I’ve always liked that cel-shaded style.

Fusing a Jack Frost — each demon, including Demi-fiend, has eight slots available to equip with physical, magic, and supportive skills.

This is probably a standard thing when it comes to remasters, but your experience with Nocturne HD is certainly going to be different based on whether you’ve played the original. See above for one important example. Being able to choose the skills you inherit when fusing demons might not seem like a big deal, but in the original Nocturne, you didn’t have this option — the game chose your inherited skills for you. Fortunately, you weren’t stuck with what it gave you; leaving the demon fusion screen and re-selecting your second fused demon acted as a re-roll, giving you a new set of inherited skills.

The drawback to this setup was that you sometimes had to go through this re-rolling process dozens, potentially even hundreds, of times to get the exact arrangement of skills you wanted on a demon. This was made all the more frustrating by the fact that some skills were more likely to be selected by the game than others — a skill that didn’t fit with a demon’s general affinity was hard to get on said demon, like say Hama (a light-based instant death spell) on a Lilim, so if you wanted an especially weird setup of skills like I sometimes did, you might have to put yourself through this hell for 15 or 20 minutes. But no longer! This is a massive quality of life improvement as they say, though one you’ll only truly feel if you’ve already suffered through that old re-rolling ritual.

A Chakra Drop? Do you know how valuable those MP restoratives are? You’re not worth that and you know it.

Some aspects of Nocturne will always be frustrating, though, and just as they should be. The demon negotiation system is just as annoying and seemingly arbitrary as ever. I actually like that it’s made this way, since it fits with the theme of the new chaotic Tokyo and the demonic cultures that have taken it over. But that doesn’t mean I still don’t want to throw my fucking controller when Angel takes 800 macca and a Chakra Drop from me when I try to recruit her into my party, only to call me a “bore” and then leave.

Or when a demon asks me a question with a seemingly completely random “correct” answer. I don’t know if people far smarter or more obsessive than me have mapped all this out; I’m just going by my own gameplay experience — and the negotiation mechanic in Nocturne HD doesn’t seem to be any different so far from the original. Of course, I still enjoy it, despite or even because of this frustrating randomness. Maybe I just like being punished.

Also just as before, some demons won’t join you through negotiation, like the elements you can only find in this one extremely irritating dungeon. Even having Pixie talk to this Erthys instead makes no difference in this case. Some demons have specialized talk skills that give them bonuses in certain situations or with certain demons, but these skills all take up valuable space that can be used for better skills, while Demi-fiend’s talk ability is built in and doesn’t occupy one of his eight skill slots. Though you can get some pretty funny conversations between certain demons depending on their relationships in folklore and myth. Try it out if you have a slot free!

Battles are also just as nerve-wracking as ever. I haven’t yet seen that game over screen, but I’ve gotten extremely close, and I’m sure I will eventually (it is a really nice one, so I’m almost tempted to let Demi-fiend get killed on purpose right after a save just so I can see how it translated into HD.) If you’re new to the game, you might be surprised by how quickly a battle can turn against you if you’re not prepared for it with effective skills or if you’re weak to the enemies’ skills — even a normal random encounter can kill you, though this is thankfully pretty rare as long as you keep a healer and a good mix of demons in your party to swap out as needed.

Another difficult aspect of the gameplay in Nocturne that hasn’t changed with the HD release is the extremely high encounter rate. Or rather, it can feel extremely high because of how variable it is. The colored diamond at the lower right of the screen while you run around dungeon areas (and even most town areas, because yes, you get attacked there too) turns to orange and then red indicating the likelihood of the next encounter coming up. But there have been times when I’ve gone quite a long way without hitting another battle and times when I’ve literally gone a few steps before the next one. And those “I just walked a few steps and then what the hell???” moments are the ones you remember.

Paired with the long dungeons and the constant threat of being one-shot by a demon who hits Demi-fiend with a lucky insta-death spell, this can be annoying. Especially so since, if Demi-fiend dies, it’s a game over, even if the rest of your party is still alive. I guess his demon friends consider their contract broken once he’s dead, even if they happen to have revival skills. Thanks a lot, assholes. But even then, they’re still better friends to Demi-fiend than his old human ones.

Fortunately, there is a partial way to deal with the constant battles: if you talk to a demon of the same kind as one in your party (even in your inactive stock) in most cases they’ll acknowledge that and leave battle.

All this considered, it’s a good thing that the suspend save feature was added to Nocturne HD. It’s not quite a quick-save, but it does let you make a temporary save and quit the game in case you have to do something else (or in case a lightning storm has suddenly rolled in and might fry your PS4 because your fucking power strip is a worthless piece of trash.) This is something I’m grateful for. I only plan to use it for these kinds of emergencies, since I never found the spacing between save points in Nocturne too unreasonable, but then I do remember getting killed and losing an hour of progress before just like all of us have.

The overworld map in Vortex World Tokyo. Don’t cross this bridge early on if you value your life or unless you’re a big risk-taker.

There are a couple of major criticisms of Nocturne HD I’ve seen going around that I don’t want to dismiss. One is the fact that it’s capped at 30 fps. This pissed off a lot of people. I don’t care myself about the game being capped at 30 fps; it looks fine to me, but I’m not going to try to tell other players what aspects of their games they are and aren’t allowed to care about like some certain tiresome professional reviewers and journalists do. So if you really hate that 30 fps cap, you might not want to get Nocturne HD. Or maybe wait in hopes that the cap will be removed, like I’ve seen some speculation about. Again, I don’t know the mechanics behind any of this.

I can comment a bit more on the other criticism I’ve seen of the game, which has more to do with Atlus than with the game itself. Last year, I expressed the hope that we’d get the Chronicle Edition of Nocturne ported. This was the limited Japan-only release that had Raidou Kuzunoha, the Taisho-era demon summoner who starred in two of his own MegaTen games on the PS2. Amazingly, that’s exactly what we got. So I was very happy about that, but I wasn’t so happy to see that the original NA version of Nocturne featuring Dante from the Devil May Cry series was locked behind a paid DLC. Maybe that was necessary to cover the expense of adding in this new mode. I have no idea.

But again, I can’t tell anyone that they’d be wrong for being upset about it, especially since that Dante version is the one American players grew up with. Atlus has also gotten into the habit of adding a lot of paid DLC to its games lately, though I guess if people buy it, they’ll just keep adding it.

Is he right? That’s up to you to decide.

None of that is nearly enough to sour me on Nocturne HD, however. I’ve been having a great time reliving this classic, and I fully intend to go all the way with the true ending this run through. In the meantime, I’ll see you again probably not before next weekend — work has been insane as usual, so the regular end-of-month post may be a few days late. More time to listen to some suitable music to talk about, anyway. Until then!

A review of Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky (PS4)

I’m really plowing through Atelier now. Only one month after writing about Atelier Ayesha, I didn’t think I’d be done with the next game in the series so soon. But Escha & Logy is just that kind of game — the kind that pulls you in and refuses to let you go. Or at least that’s what it was for me.

Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky is the middle game in the Dusk trilogy of the much larger Atelier series. While it continues along in the same world and features some returning characters, it’s a more or less self-contained story like almost every Atelier game seems to be, so you don’t have to start from Ayesha to understand what’s going on here. All you’ll miss out on are some references to Ayesha and her situation that aren’t critical to the central plot of Escha & Logy. So don’t worry about starting from the middle if that’s what you plan on doing, though if you’re buying the Dusk trilogy as a package as it’s commonly sold, I’d still recommend starting from the beginning with Ayesha (though of course it is possible to buy any of these games separately as well if you don’t want to take that plunge, and Escha & Logy stands well enough on its own in that regard.)

Also, just a note that as before, this is a review of the DX edition released on the PS4. I can’t comment very much on any of the other versions since I haven’t played them.

Note that there are two names in this game’s title and a plural Alchemists in there: this time around, we have two protagonists instead of one. Our story begins in a small government office in the frontier town of Colseit, where two young alchemists have just been hired to join the Research and Development department. Escha Malier is a girl native to the town who grew up practicing traditional alchemy (the “stir a bunch of stuff in a giant cauldron” type we’re familiar with from past games) and she’s joined by a new arrival from Central City, Logix Ficsario aka Logy, who uses more modern, specialized forms of alchemy and is totally unfamiliar with Escha’s practices.

But they’ll have to work together. Marion Quinn, their direct superior (and the first of several familiar faces if you’ve played Ayesha) has the duty of restoring both the reputation and the budget of Colseit’s branch R&D office by showing its value to Central City, and Escha and Logy’s alchemy and exploration skills will be vital to these efforts.

Bureaucracy, budgeting, and resource management: now this is a god damn game

Escha and Logy couldn’t be more different in some respects. Aside from their different methods of alchemy, from day one it’s obvious that they have divergent personalities and outlooks on life in general. Escha approaches her work with a lot of excitement and with a sense of wonder. By contrast, while Logy is certainly serious about his work, he also comes off as a lot more grounded, trying to pull Escha back when he thinks her ideas are a bit out there.

This gap between Escha and Logy becomes more obvious when talk comes up about the Unexplored Ruins, a massive ruin built by a lost past civilization that somehow floats in the air. Nobody knows how it’s floating or how or why it was built, but Escha’s cousin, the airship engineer Awin, dreams about exploring it and tells Escha and Logy that he’d like to build an airship capable of somehow making it through the dangerous debris surrounding the ruin. Escha encourages Awin and says she’d love to explore the ruins too, but Logy is skeptical about the whole thing. While he’s naturally interested in whatever mysteries the ruin has to offer, if it’s basically impossible to make it there, what’s the point of thinking about it in the first place?

This hot and cold sort of odd couple dynamic between Escha and Logy works really well. It’s not played up to a ridiculous point where their differences are exaggerated — as before, our protagonists and their friends feel like pretty believable and sometimes relatable sorts of characters — but their differences are still stark enough to make their relationship more interesting. And probably partly because of that, when the game gets around to a little bit of drama between the two later on, it feels believable as well.

Escha and Logy’s differences complement each other nicely in the story, but these are also worked into the gameplay, especially when you’re working in the atelier. When you start Escha & Logy, you have the choice of playing as either protagonist, but the choice doesn’t matter all that much aside from getting some story details particular to one or the other in each playthrough. You’ll be working together for the entire game anyway; there are certain things that only Escha knows how to do, and certain other things that only Logy can do, so they have to rely on each other. Since Escha is versed in traditional alchemy, she performs all the item synthesis, while Logy uses his modern techniques to create new weapons and disassemble relics found in the field and dungeon areas to break them down to their component ingredients. And since they’re both alchemists, they can both use items in battle, which is a massive benefit once your alchemy level starts rising.

Who would have thought making an apple tart could be so complicated? I can’t bake at all, so for all I know, this is what it’s like in real life too.

Escha and Logy don’t have the freedom to do whatever they like, because there’s still more time management in this game. However, unlike Ayesha, which sticks you with a single goal and a three-year time limit to achieve it, Escha & Logy is broken down into several four-month terms. At the beginning of each term, you have a staff meeting with Marion, who reviews your work in the previous term and gives you your new assignments. These are broken into a 5 by 5 bingo card-looking grid, with one mandatory assignment to complete in the center and optional secondary assignments surrounding it.

Failing to complete the mandatory assignment results in a game over, so that’s where your efforts should always be directed first, but it’s always worth trying to fill out the entire grid for the alchemy and combat bonuses they give you (and also to get praised by Marion, which is a plus in itself. Or maybe I just like hearing more of her ara ara onee-san style voice. Am I showing my hand too much here?)

Since they’re government employees, Escha and Logy also have to receive approval for their expenses from the government based in Central City, and to do that, they have to go through resident bureaucrat Solle Grumman. This guy might seem like a real jerk at first, but he’s actually on your side — more or less, anyway. In addition to Marion’s assignments, Solle offers item synthesis and monster-killing requests for you to fulfill that he’ll pay you for in sweets that you can give to the resident homunculus (the small furry animal-looking guys) who use their magic to replicate items. This is an incredibly useful function that you’ll want to use to save time and energy, especially later on in the game when you’ll be trying to create items and gear with special and rare properties.

The upside to being government employees is that you’ll get a monthly stipend, the size of which depends on how much productive activity you’ve engaged in that month fulfilling Solle’s requests, fighting monsters out in the field, or creating items in the atelier. This was a nice break from my playthrough of Ayesha, where Ayesha had a nearly empty purse most of the time. Despite all the griping about how arrogant and shitty the central government is to its branch offices, they don’t skimp on those stipends.

I know this screenshot makes Escha & Logy look like some kind of anime Bureaucracy Simulator game, but bureaucracy has its benefits too.

And as always, you’ll have outside help from friends both old and new while running around in the field and dungeon areas. Escha & Logy again features a map with a lot of areas to discover and explore, monsters to fight, and ingredients to gather, and the pair is joined in the field by returning characters like Linca, Wilbell, and Nio (the very same Nio you were tasked with rescuing in Atelier Ayesha) and new characters like Awin, badass fighter/historian Threia, and child merchant Katla, whose irresponsible as hell parents left her all alone to manage their store while they’re out traveling the world. But she does try to rip you off a whole lot, so it’s hard to feel too bad for her.

Katla is a damn brat, but despite how she looks and acts, she’s an asset in a fight.

Each game I’ve played in the Atelier series so far has managed to create its own special character and feel distinct from the others. Escha & Logy, despite having a similar look to Ayesha with the same character designer and artists and taking place in the same world, plays very differently. While Ayesha was focused more on exploration, Escha & Logy puts a big emphasis on item and gear synthesis and creation. Its base alchemy system is taken partly from Ayesha, but it feels a little more intuitive. Which is good, because you’ll probably be doing a hell of a lot of alchemy to fulfill requests and especially to maximize the value of your time out in the field.

Organizing Escha and Logy’s gear before going out to the field. Items this time around are automatically replenished when you return to base. However, you have limited space to carry them, and other party members aside from the protagonists can’t carry anything, so resource management is once again a must.

The old turn-based combat system has also been improved, with a new three-member front line and three-member reserve setup in which your back line characters can offer supporting attacks and swap into the front line if needed. This new system is a lot more engaging than the more basic combat featured in Ayesha, so people who get bored with more standard forms of turn-based combat might find something to like here. Having two alchemists in the party also comes with great benefits: Escha and Logy can learn new joint techniques later on in the game that really help when trying to take down massively powerful bosses. Working out how to use Double Draw effectively is necessary to deal with the most challenging fights.

This dragon looks difficult, but it’s nowhere near the most frustrating fight in the game. Also see Escha here, perfectly suited for combat in a wedding dress bonus costume. I don’t even remember why I put this on her, but it looks pretty funny seeing her and Logy fight in wedding gear.

Speaking of wedding gear, there’s the Escha-Logy relationship, which as far as I know is unique in the series. This isn’t the only game that features a choice of protagonist,1 but it is the only one I know of that seriously suggests a romance between them, or between any characters who aren’t already together for that matter. It’s still a very light element of the game and not central to the plot at all, so light in fact that it wasn’t even featured in the PS3 original. But from Escha & Logy Plus on the Vita on to the DX editions, the player has had the choice in some conversations between two dialogue options, one friendly and the other romantic, each choice helpfully indicated by a smile and a heart. So it’s up to the player: if you want to imagine Escha and Logy as just good friends, you can keep things strictly platonic, but if you want something more between them, you can go the romance route, and you’ll get some extra bits of dialogue that show they have feelings for each other and that other characters recognize they might be getting especially close.

Usually these games don’t touch on romance very much at all aside from some extremely coy “these two girls might be into each other” yuri stuff (probably more prominent in the Arland series — see Rorona and Cordelia, Totori and Mimi, and Meruru and Keina.) It’s more explicit here, though, and I don’t mind that.2 And really, Escha and Logy seem like they’d make a good couple anyway. Opposites attracting and all that stuff. I know that’s a bit of a cliché, but these two have great chemistry, and they’re the sorts of opposites who could actually complement each other well, so the option doesn’t feel forced at all.

All that said, I still wonder what drew me in specifically about Atelier Escha & Logy so quickly. I’ve basically enjoyed every game in the series I’ve played so far, but none of the others captured me in the way this one did. The entertaining dynamic between the two main characters is definitely part of it — it was pretty fun seeing how Escha and Logy reacted to new situations and played off of each other.

The CGs featured in a lot of these situations were also a draw; the art in Escha & Logy is just as good as ever. And yeah, Escha’s tail is explained in the game. I was wondering about it too.

I think it has to do with the structure of the game as well. I found that breaking the action into smaller four-month pieces rather than having one massive three-year task to complete made the game more approachable than Ayesha and Meruru. I don’t know if this was Gust’s intention, but it felt like a throwback to Atelier Rorona, which featured similar three-month goals to complete. The time pressure in Rorona still felt greater, too, at least from what I remember. Escha & Logy certainly wants to keep you on track, but it gives you all the resources you need to complete everything well within its time constraints. In just about every term, I was able to finish all my tasks so early that I had plenty of free time to develop my alchemy skills and explore as I wished.

I also like the way the story of the game is rooted in its setting. The World of Dusk we first explored in Atelier Ayesha was clearly in serious decline, with vegetation dying off and land drying up in parts, but things didn’t look quite so bad in Ayesha’s part of the world, and the game didn’t focus on that aspect so much anyway. Escha & Logy, by contrast, is directly concerned with the declining environment and its effects on human life — many of Escha and Logy’s tasks have to do with exploring the causes of these changes, examining drying water sources and using alchemy to try to improve harvest yields. Colseit is a kind of oasis in this part of the world with its apple orchards, but it’s not immune from the effects of these catastrophic changes either. And as in Ayesha, it’s implied that the misuse of alchemy by the fallen past civilization caused many of these problems.3

The team exploring a volcano/lava flow. Nio’s sister Ayesha is an important part of this “responsible use of alchemy” theme. Given how much she’s brought up on the side here, maybe we’ll meet her again in the next game. I’d like to see what’s happening with her too.

There’s also the usual praise I have to give to the art and music. As far as the character design goes, I think Hidari fully measures up to Mel Kishida at this point. And I really like the jazz and prog flavor in the soundtrack. The connection isn’t a big surprise, because I’m pretty sure someone at Gust is a big fan of Yes — there are battle tracks in this game titled “Close to the Edge Part 2” and “Don’t Kill the Dragon”, and I can absolutely see the prog influence in a few tracks (like The Tiger of Dorothea, sounds ELP-ish? Maybe with a mix of fusion with that guitar. I like it.) Also, the opening theme Milk-Colored Pass is excellent.

Since I’ve been nothing but positive about Atelier Escha & Logy up until now, I may as well drop a few potential negatives about the game, starting with its increased emphasis on learning and using alchemy to create better items. The space restrictions you have to deal with throughout aren’t too unreasonable, but they do require you to do some work to fit as much power as you can into Escha and Logy’s setups. And near the end of the game, you’re thrown into a very long one-year-plus final term with a special assignment in which you’re encouraged to do some extremely precise alchemy to get very particular high-level attributes on items and gear so you can take on difficult bosses (and to carry over to the second playthrough if you’re going for the true ending, which you can’t even get on the first since it requires you to complete both Escha and Logy’s stories anyway.)

Which means you have to run through all these field and dungeon areas twice if you want that true ending, but the second time around it will be a lot quicker as long as you have your new game plus overpowered weapons, armor, and accessories equipped.

None of this is actually a negative point for me, since I liked this aspect of it, but it may be for some players who prefer the exploration and combat aspects of JRPGs like these. And it might not even be true for you depending on how you play the game. This is just how I felt the game pushed me to play, given the challenges it threw at me and the tools I had to deal with them. Like the others, it doesn’t absolutely force you to play in any particular way, but if you don’t use those tools it provides effectively, you might have a harder time.

Another possible issue is the game’s tendency to throw you into boss fights without much warning. This happens a few times in Escha & Logy, and I can see it being a pain for some players who might prefer a hint as to what’s coming so they can be properly prepared. On the other hand, the game might be using this as a way to hammer home the old Boy Scouts’ motto “always be prepared.” I was never a Boy Scout, so I was caught off guard when this happened and just managed to scrape by. On the plus side, I appreciated the challenge the game provided in these fights — though I was thrown into them, I could also deal with them by using proper tactics in battle and by having a mix of powerful attack and healing items.

Protip: Make Knowledge Books

Finally, there’s the problem with certain item and effect names and descriptions in this game. I’d say the above two points aren’t flaws at all but rather purposeful design aspects of Escha & Logy that some players might not enjoy. However, this one is undoubtedly a flaw, and not an insignificant one. For one example, item effects in Atelier Ayesha followed the very familiar “S -> M -> L” small, medium and large naming convention also followed by t-shirt manufacturers and fast food places, but Escha & Logy inexplicably flips this order, with L denoting the weakest and S the strongest effect. So now instead of small to medium to large, the scale now presumably runs from light to moderate to strong or something like it.

If that had been the convention the trilogy and the series as a whole had been following until now, it would have been fine, but it wasn’t, and changing it like this is bizarre and confusing. And hell if it doesn’t go right back to the old small, medium, and large system in the following game Atelier Shallie, meaning you have to unlearn this dumb shit and mentally readjust anyway if you’re playing straight through the whole Dusk trilogy as I am.

One entry in the game’s large library. This one makes it sound like Escha and Logy can access the Midnight Hour, but unfortunately the Time Watch doesn’t actually work that way.

This issue extends to some of the expanded descriptions in the library. Take the attribute Fixed Healing+ for an example. I had to look up what the flying fuck the game meant by Healing item is fairly enhanced by a set amount. The weaker the base power, the higher the effect. It vaguely makes sense, but what does it mean in real terms? That this effect is proportionally less powerful the more powerful the item is? I guess, but I’m still not sure how that works out in comparison with other healing-related attributes I could be using in synthesis instead. And if it’s a “set amount”, why does the second sentence imply that the amount can change based on the power of the item? Then it’s not actually a set amount, is it?

This might all be a stupid nitpick. However, Atelier games contain reams of information about monsters, weapons, accessories, and items and their associated effects in battle, and while some of this info is clearly just there for flavor and background, a lot of it’s actually useful to know when you’re synthesizing items. And when there are so many items, ingredients, and attributes available to play with when doing alchemy, clarity and consistency of language are necessary. I’m not sure how much of the weirdness in the descriptions in Escha & Logy came from the original Japanese release and how much was a result of a poor localization job, either. The S/M/L thing might have been an issue with the original, but the item descriptions feel like more of a bad translation issue. But I can’t say any of this for sure since I haven’t played the JP version of the game.

Whoever was responsible for this maybe should have taken a cue from the game and held a staff meeting to hammer it out, because it seems like an extremely avoidable problem. (Also I love Linca’s expression on the right. She’d rather be out killing dragons than dealing with paperwork. Sorry, Linca.)

Despite that pretty large annoyance, I’d say Escha & Logy is the best Atelier game I’ve played so far. If nothing else, it’s a credit to just how much this game drew me in that despite these issues, I finished Escha & Logy within one month of finishing Ayesha, and also given how much work I’ve had to do at the same time that wasn’t playing JRPGs. (If I could make a career out of that… but I’m not a cute anime girl with a streaming setup on YouTube or Twitch, so I have no chance.)

And now it’s on to the final game in the Dusk trilogy, Atelier Shallie. I’m already a few chapters into Shallie at the time of writing, so it shouldn’t be too long until I’m through with that as well. But before moving on, I should note that Escha & Logy got a 12-episode anime adaptation that I haven’t seen, as far as I know the only Atelier game to have this distinction. From what I hear, it’s not that great and I’m not missing anything by skipping it. My anime backlog is already way too long to add a show telling a story I already know, and then probably not as well as the source material did. If you saw it, though, feel free to let me know your thoughts about it in the comments. 𒀭

***

1 Atelier Shallie also has two protagonists, and I think Atelier Lydie & Suelle probably does as well based on the title alone. I went with Escha on my first run, but you have to play through the game as both Escha and Logy to get the true ending anyway, and thankfully the new game plus bonuses make that second run a lot easier.

2 I honestly wouldn’t mind slightly more explicit yuri stuff in these games either — not explicit in the 18+ sense of course, but more something like what Escha & Logy gives us. Then again, maybe all the hinting without actually coming out and saying it is what yuri fans really want. I can’t say for sure.

3 Even the names of the protagonists fit into this theme: Escha, with the ch pronounced as a hard “k” sound, Logy with a soft “g”, and the & pronounced to in Japanese, all jammed together, make the word eschatology, or the study of the end of the world. Wordplay based on an English word that only works if you use Japanese to get there, that’s pretty damn impressive.

A review of Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk (PS4)

It took a while, but I’m happy to say that my gap between Atelier games this time wasn’t nearly as long as my last one — six years between Rorona and Meruru, and only eight months between Meruru and Ayesha, the next game in the line chronologically (though yeah, I know Totori is still missing in that list, and I do intend to take care of that at some point. But I did finish this one, so let me bask in that for now at least. Finishing an Atelier game always feels like a big accomplishment.)

Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk originally came out on the PS3 in 2012, but like the Arland games that preceded it, it got an upgraded Plus release on the Vita and the DX version that I played on the PS4, along with ports on the Switch and PC. With this game, however, we’re leaving behind the colorful world of Arland and traveling to a somewhat bleaker one. Atelier Ayesha and the following two titles Atelier Escha & Logy and Atelier Shallie compose the Dusk trilogy, which takes place in a completely different world from that of the Arland games, one that’s falling apart: the World of Dusk, appropriately named for the time of the day just before night falls. From the very beginning of Ayesha, we learn that plant life has been dying off and sources of nutrition are becoming scarcer in this world, forcing humanity to conserve its resources to survive.

But the story of the game is a lot more personal than that might suggest. We’re not out to save the world, but rather one person. The protagonist, Ayesha Altugle, is an apothecary who makes and sells medicine, but for years she’s also been mourning her younger sister, Nio, who disappeared one day while gathering herbs in a nearby ruin. At the beginning of the game, Ayesha visits the grave built for Nio in the same ruins and sees a brief ghostly vision of her sister above the headstone.

She’s not sure what to make of this vision at first and thinks it might be a hallucination brought on by grief. However, a mysterious man named Keithgriff who happens to be examining the ruins at the same time tells her that her sister isn’t dead and can be returned to their world, but only if Ayesha studies the secrets of alchemy. Before leaving, he also tells her that she probably only has three years to save Nio before she’s lost forever (yes, that old time limit from the Arland series is back again.)

Of course, we already know Ayesha is at least a beginner alchemist. She’s the protagonist of an Atelier game, after all. In fact, Ayesha uses alchemy to make medicine using methods her grandfather taught her, but she doesn’t realize that she’s using alchemy and isn’t even familiar with the term at first. While alchemy is well-known in the world of Arland, in the Dusk series, it seems to be a nearly lost art remembered only by scholars and professionals who have had to piece it together from old reference books and the scraps of past knowledge.

Ayesha is now convinced that Nio is still alive somewhere, so lacking any other lead, she decides to place her trust in Keithgriff’s promises and sets out on a journey to start learning about alchemy and to meet a few old friends and a lot of new ones, all of whom can help her in various ways.

Pictured center, my combat MVP Linca, and right, best girl Marion, out on government business.

There’s not much more to the central story than that. Ayesha has three years to save her sister, and aside from taking on some odd jobs to make money and following character-specific side stories, that’s what you’ll spend this three years working towards. Making it to that goal doesn’t automatically end the game, however: you’ll still have your three years to play with no matter what, time that can be used to prepare for a much easier second run with the benefits that a new game plus provides (rolling over your equipped weapons/armor/accessories, equipped “adventure” items that help you save time while traveling around the map and collecting ingredients among other things, specialized alchemy bonuses, items registered in shops, and money.)

As in previous Atelier games I’ve played, this takes a bit of the sting off of a bad end, since it more or less guarantees you’ll get it right the second time assuming you’ve properly prepared by equipping all the necessary items and selling off all your other items and ingredients before that second cycle begins. While they’re all helpful, that money carryover is especially nice, since I was perpetually short of Cole my first playthrough. All those alchemy books are expensive, but you’re required to buy them to learn new recipes and make more effective items.

Ayesha, just finding out she’s graduated from medicine-maker to weapons manufacturer.

This is only the third Atelier game I’ve played, and the first outside of the Arland series, so it partly felt like revisiting an old series but partly like playing a new one. There are plenty of similarities between Ayesha and the Arland titles I’ve played other than the imposition of a time limit. As before, the alchemy system is a central part of the gameplay. Learning how to efficiently gather ingredients in the field and create healing, support, and attack items with useful attributes is vital to doing well, both in combat and in fulfilling the requests of the townspeople and travelers you’ll come across in the course of Ayesha’s journey. The game also uses a traditional JRPG-style turn-based combat system with the twist once again that the alchemist character Ayesha is the only one who can use items, giving her an extremely important support role in battle.

However, there are more than enough differences between the two sub-series I’ve found so far to make Ayesha feel like a fresh experience. While alchemy is again a critical part of the game, the system you’ll have to learn is very different, involving synthesis restrictions and bonuses and special abilities that weren’t present in the Arland games. Having to learn this new system of alchemy was a little jarring coming off of Meruru, but it was intuitive enough not to be annoying to figure out, and pretty soon I was used to it. It does feel more complex than the alchemy system in Arland, so new players might be slightly intimidated by all the point values and effects and all the other numbers that go into even the simplest synthesis, but the game also has tutorials to watch if you need anything clarified.

I promise this all makes sense once you have it down.

Another big difference in Ayesha and the Dusk trilogy as a whole is the artistic direction. Artist and character designer Hidari’s style has a very different feel from Mel Kishida’s, but I still like it a lot. The game’s world and characters as a whole feel less colorful than they did in Arland, but that fits in well with the dying world of Dusk, and it all still manages to look beautiful in its own right (though I do miss the visual novel-style character portraits during dialogue that we got throughout Arland, but those seem to be gone forever at this point. Maybe I’m just being behind the times here.)

And the characters are still colorful enough in the figurative sense, at least. Ayesha’s old and new friends alike are an interesting set of people of all kinds — miners, merchants, shopkeepers, shepherds, and government officials among others, all with their own quirks and their parts to play in the story. As in Rorona and Meruru, these supporting characters aren’t one-note types but feel sufficiently fleshed out, and there are plenty of entertaining side stories to play through while you take on the central tasks of improving your combat and alchemy skills and taking the necessary steps to find and rescue Nio.

All business in town goes through Marietta, and don’t forget it

It’s also worth noting one major positive I found in Ayesha that I felt to be an improvement in that “quality of life” area. When Keithgriff told Ayesha on day one that she’d have three years to save Nio, I knew exactly what that meant — you have three years to get this done, no exceptions. Meruru also had a strict three-year time limit to achieve its central goal, though with a two-year extension and a new target if you managed to achieve it in that period.

Princess Meruru’s goal of “show Dad I can help the kingdom through alchemy so he’ll let me do what I want with my life” was not quite as urgent or serious as Ayesha’s goal of “save my sister from the shadow realm”, but thankfully, Ayesha offsets this by being more forgiving. As before, traveling across the map between towns and field/dungeon areas eats up days, as does gathering ingredients in field areas and using these ingredients to synthesize new items at the workshop. But unlike Meruru, who had to return to Totori’s atelier to do all her alchemy, Ayesha gets to set up several ateliers all over the land, making it easier to manage her time. Battles in Ayesha also feel like they take a lot less time off of the clock than they did before, though I’d have to go back to play Meruru again to say that for sure.

A very early-game battle including Ayesha’s old friend Regina and her new friend Wilbell. Your party is capped at three members, your main character plus two extras as in earlier games. Remember to have Ayesha use those items in combat, because they make her life and yours a lot easier.

Really, as long as you don’t spend months running around in circles or synthesizing items you don’t need, it’s not too hard to reach your goal before time runs out. I had about eight months left on the calendar when I was finished, and my run was not an optimal first pass at the game by any means. I still don’t know if I’d say that Ayesha is necessarily the place to start for an Atelier newcomer who might not be comfortable with the time limit, since it can be a source of stress — I haven’t played any of them yet, but I understand that the later Mysterious trilogy and the Ryza games drop that element altogether. But Ayesha does feel more forgiving about time management than past games,* so I wouldn’t warn new players off of it either.

I used to be a bit bothered by the forced time management aspect of these games myself, but thinking about it now in a more positive light, that time limit can help keep you on track, focused on the central goal of the game. There’s no running around and carrying out lighthearted sidequests while the horrible impending apocalypse is indefinitely put on hold, as happens in so many non-linear RPGs. These PS3-era Atelier games are a bit more linear for that reason, but they don’t exactly shove you down a single track either; you still get to choose exactly how to achieve your goals. Hell, if you don’t mind getting a bad end and restarting with an easier second run, that’s an option too. Admittedly not an ideal one, but with how many endings they feature, these games are made to be played multiple times anyway, another aspect that sets them apart from most other JRPGs.

Ayesha out in the field near the end of Year 1. The calendar always starts on April 1 for some reason, so it will flip to Year 2 once March is done.

In any case, I was thankful for the relative leniency of Ayesha, even if that three-year time limit was never really explained very well (why three years exactly? It made sense in Meruru, but here it seems arbitrary. Maybe Keithgriff knows the reason and he’s just not telling us, which would be completely in character.) Though I still had to manage my time, I didn’t feel like I was on quite as short of a leash as I did when I was playing Meruru. I also didn’t feel the need to reload an old save this time thanks to some bullshit moving dungeon that contained an ingredient I didn’t realize I absolutely needed until it had already moved, causing me to lose a few in-game months that I couldn’t do without. While I generally don’t mind the time limits in the Atelier series so far, that absolutely pissed me off. Unlike Meruru, Ayesha didn’t fuck around with me in that manner, which I consider a plus.

On the other hand, I enjoyed the world of Arland a bit more, though part of that might have been seeing old characters I knew and liked from Rorona show up again. I wouldn’t say I have any real nostalgia for 2014, when I played my first Atelier game (it was also when I finished my first year at law school, which was an ordeal that I don’t have totally positive memories of) but it did add something to the experience. There also wasn’t nearly as much talk about making pie in Ayesha as there was in those older games, or any at all from what I remember. I’m more of a cake guy, but I like pie as well, and the inability to synthesize it in this game was a bit of a drawback.

These chicken pastry things are the closest you can get, and though they do look good, I don’t think they count as pies in the traditional sense.

Bullshit aside, Ayesha really did have a very different feel from the Arland games, but I enjoyed it more than enough to move on to the next game in the Dusk series. I own the entire Dusk trilogy in its deluxe package form on the PS4, and I plan to make it through the whole thing this year. That’s my hope, at least. I’ve heard especially good things about the following game Atelier Escha & Logy, which I’ve already started as of this writing, so I look forward to seeing how it measures up and how it carries on the wider story of the World of Dusk.

I’m also looking forward to hearing more of the series’ music. I’m already loving the jazz lounge class of Escha & Logy, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. Ayesha has an excellent soundtrack, anyway, which seems to be standard for the series. One of the songs, according to the composer’s notes in the game’s library, even features 17 Haruka Shimotsukis. If you know that name, you’ll instantly know the song I’m talking about when you hear it. 𒀭

 

*I’ve heard Totori is even more demanding with regard to the time limit, but again, I haven’t played it yet so I can’t say. Maybe once I get Japanese down well enough, I’ll try to play the original JP release. That could be an interesting measure of my skills, or possibly a slap in the face when I realize I still can’t read kanji beyond a second-grade level.

A review of Blue Reflection (PS4)

Here’s a post that’s been a long time coming. From the very back of my backlog, or at least the backlog I’m actively keeping track of, comes Blue Reflection, a JRPG developed by Gust and released in 2017. Gust is principally known for the extremely long-running Atelier series (see Rorona and Meruru and a bunch of others) but Blue Reflection was something very different — instead of the fantasy Renaissance European cities and towns we’re used to from that series, we get a modern Japanese high school setting, and instead of an alchemist for our protagonist, we get a magical girl. This game was created under the supervision of Mel Kishida, the character designer and artist who also worked on Gust’s Atelier Arland games, and apparently he really wanted to make a magical girl game.

And that’s just what Blue Reflection is. If you’re looking for a game that fulfills the requirements “turn-based JRPG” and “has magical girls” this is probably the title that will come up first. You likely won’t be disappointed with the result either, at least as long as you’re in that very specific demographic. Blue Reflection does feel like it has niche appeal, which might partly explain the mixed reviews and generally cold reception it seems to have gotten here in the US outside of the hardcore Gust fan circle; I don’t even see it brought up much among JRPG fans in general. Which is really too bad — it does have flaws, but I found Blue Reflection a unique and interesting game. At the very least, you can’t say it’s like any other game out there (barring some possible Japan-only games I’ve never gotten to play before.)

I’ll get into all that in depth below, however. And all without getting into plot/character spoilers beyond the basic story setup, so don’t worry about those this time around.

Japanese high school is no joke

This is our protagonist, Hinako Shirai. Before starting high school, Hinako had a promising future as a ballerina, but a leg injury has forced her to put those dreams on hold. Blue Reflection begins during her first year at the prestigious Hoshinomiya High School, a small all-girls school divided into special classes for those pursuing careers in the arts and sports and regular classes for everyone else. Now stuck in the regular class thanks to her injury, Hinako is understandably depressed about her situation.

Then she meets an unusual pair in her class, the twins Yuzuki and Raimu Shijou, or simply Yuzu and Lime. These two quickly befriend Hinako, and after hearing her story they decide to offer her a special gift: the power of the Reflector. Reflectors have the ability to enter the Common, a weird metaphysical mindscape full of demons that represent and are empowered by human emotions. When these emotions get out of control, the demons start to act up, and Hoshinomiya just happens to be on some kind of emotional fault line that’s causing its students to become especially distraught and wild. As a Reflector, Hinako will have the responsibility along with Yuzu and Lime to fight and subdue these demons, and by doing so they can help resolve their classmates’ emotional distress.

Hinako, Yuzu, and Lime in the only nice-looking section of the Common; the rest are pretty fucked up

And yeah, Reflectors are magical girls, complete with those transformation sequences you’ll know if you’ve watched any magical girl show ever made. Blue Reflection also features massive, monstrous bosses to battle in the form of the Sephira, who are trying to use all this emotional chaos to take over the world. So just like a proper magical girl, Hinako is now basically going to be tasked with saving humanity along with her new friends, assuming of course that she accepts the twins’ offer.

Hinako does accept, partly because Yuzu and Lime tell her by defeating the Sephira she’ll be able to gain a wish. For Hinako, this wish is obvious — in her current state, there’s no guarantee that she’ll ever be able to dance again, so she reasons that this is a sure way to heal her leg and get back on stage.

Hinako at home reflecting on her situation (get it?! …yeah, sorry.)

The game proceeds along this path, with Hinako spending her days at school studying, making new friends, and fighting shadow monsters using her magical girl powers. The story is broken into chapters, each of which starts out with some major event usually leading to a big boss fight, and then to a block the game calls “Free Time” in which you’re free to run around school talking to fellow students, solving their issues by fighting demons in the Common alongside Yuzu and Lime. Most of these chapters are also broken up by side character stories resulting in a new classmate for Hinako and co. to befriend.

This social element is only part of the game, however. Blue Reflection is still a turn-based JRPG and features plenty of fighting, mostly in the dreamlike world of the Common. Thankfully, this isn’t the plainest turn-based combat system around: Blue Reflection relies heavily on timing and using skills to slow down and knock back enemies. Hinako, Yuzu, and Lime also draw power from a common pool of “Ether” that they can charge up while fighting. Collecting enough Ether unlocks the massively powerful Overdrive ability, which allows the use of multiple skills in a single turn at reduced MP use rates.

The frilly dress is cool and all, but I wish I didn’t have to fight these weird deer monsters

Luckily for Hinako, the power of friendship isn’t just a metaphor for the happiness and fulfillment she gains from the confidants she makes throughout the game. It is that, sure, but it also adds to the magical girl trio’s actual strength in battle by manifesting as “Fragments” formed from said emotions that give various bonuses when equipped to skills. To that end, and also because it’s a good way to break up all the fighting, the player will spend most of the time they’re not fighting with their schoolmates, having lunch, playing sports, and going out to various spots in town to raise Hinako’s affection points.

Some of her friends are pretty damn weird, but they mean well. And despite the implications of the term “affection points”, no, there’s no dating in this game. Sorry if you’re a yuri fan; you’ll have to look elsewhere for that.

Now I might guess what some readers are thinking — isn’t this familiar? Isn’t there another series of games that are turn-based JRPG dungeon crawler/social sim hybrids and that use the protagonist’s links with their friends to support them in battle? Yeah, this game drew a lot of comparisons to the Persona series when it was released from what I remember. That it came out only months after the big hit Persona 5, which was still very much talked about at the time, probably contributed to those comparisons.

The Persona comparisons might have also led to some disappointment, because aside from their superficial similarities, Blue Reflection doesn’t feel at all like a Persona game. To its credit, it also doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be a pale imitation of Persona but rather to do its own thing entirely. Unlike Persona, which builds fairly realistic worlds full of people both in and outside the school setting to interact with, Blue Reflection concerns itself exclusively with Hinako and her classmates, ignoring almost everything else around them. Hoshinomiya High School is all filled out with students hanging around in classrooms, club rooms, the library, sports field, and courtyards, but the only points outside of school featured are the various hangout spots Hinako can visit with her friends and Hinako’s own room, where she prepares for her next day of school and goes to sleep. Though it’s implied that they are around, we never see any adults — not even a single teacher is seen at school, where almost every scene takes place after classes are out.

Hinako helping one of her generic non-story classmates through her existential crisis on the school roof. As you can see, there’s this whole town down there, but you never get to interact with anyone in it.

Moreover, unlike the calendars that the modern Persona games strictly follow, Blue Reflection doesn’t keep track of how many days you spend in free time hanging out with friends, going home, and returning to school. Unless it’s a lunch or school activity event, every one of these sends Hinako home when they’re finished, but the game doesn’t seem to mind if you spend a month or two during a chapter of free time (though I don’t think I ever got that far myself, just projecting based on what I did with Hinako’s schedule.) Eventually you’ll run out of events to watch in a given period anyway and will probably want to move on at that point by reporting your progress to Yuzu and Lime, but this quality gives Blue Reflection almost a strange Groundhog Day sort of feel even if that’s not what’s actually going on.

Another field in the Common, with enemies stalking around in the background.

However, it seems to me like that’s what the creators were going for. This might be a stretch, since I have no idea what their intentions actually were, but Blue Reflection has a dreamlike feel to me — everything from the weirdly sparse real world outside of the school to the surreal areas of the Common you have to visit to fight demons adds to that feel. Whether or not that was how they intended players to feel, Blue Reflection is clearly not trying to be a sort of budget Persona or anything like that. It’s too different in tone for me to get that impression.

The art and music in the game both contribute to that dreamlike feel as well. Mel Kishida seems to have had a huge influence on Blue Reflection as the supervisor, and a lot of the game feels like a showcase for his character and monster designs and his settings, which contrast strongly with each other in a way that I think works. The soundtrack by Hayato Asano, full of relaxing piano-based pieces and driving battle themes, is also excellent and enhances this feel. Even if you have no interest in this sort of game, I recommend at least checking out the OST.

If Yuzu and Lime’s constant social life management wears you out, at least you have nice music to listen to while you try to meet their demands before the story can progress.

I did bring up flaws at the top of this post, though, because Blue Reflection has some pretty glaring ones. The biggest issue I had with the game was its pacing, especially with a couple of seemingly major story beats that came up near the end and then resolved themselves so quickly they may as well not have happened. It’s strange to say, given how lenient the game is about letting Hinako take time out to hang around with her friends in between giant otherworldly monster attacks, but the story seemed very compressed by the end for this reason. These left me with a few gaps in characters’ judgments and reasonings, specifically in Hinako’s, that I think weren’t explained very well.

The game is also pretty damn easy. HP and MP are replenished after each encounter, so there’s no reason not to go all out in every fight you get into in the Common. After unlocking more advanced offensive skills, I was able to clean up most fights in the game with one massive all-enemy attack from Yuzu. And once you master the use of knockback skills, Ether collection, and Overdrive in battle, even end-game bosses become complete jokes. Hinako’s magical sword is the most powerful weapon in the world apparently. If she got to use it in the real world or while not fighting Sephira, she could probably take over the world herself (not that she’d really want to, though there is one character she’d definitely have to hide it from. If you’ve played Blue Reflection, you might know who I’m talking about.)

Hinako about to destroy another giant horrific world-eating monster

Finally, it generally feels like there was some untapped potential to expand the story and explore some of its characters and themes more deeply. Maybe there were budget or timeline issues in the game’s development. The translation is a bit sloppy with some typos left in the script, but that’s a localization problem, and Blue Reflection came out in North America six months after its Japanese release, so that doesn’t seem like it would indicate anything about the game being rushed out. So maybe there were no development issues and this game turned out exactly as the creators intended, though in that case I wish they’d added a bit more to the story and character interactions.

Even with these flaws, however, I liked Blue Reflection. The dreamlike, unreal nature of the whole experience was a positive in my mind. I thought it suited the story the game was telling, and it also set it apart from the other modern real-world setting JRPGs I’ve played. I haven’t seen much magical girl stuff really, so I don’t know if the story of Blue Reflection would be played out to someone who’s deep into that genre, but I also liked that the story dealt with themes of friendship that weren’t trite but actually dealt with loss of identity and sacrifice in a way that more or less worked.

Hey, I can read some of this finally. Not all, though. Thanks for reminding me I need to get back to my kanji studies, blackboard.

I get the feeling this is a highly personal sort of work. If you can’t get enveloped in the world and the atmosphere the game creates, or you’re just not into the style or look of it, you might just be bored and frustrated by it. I can understand why many players would feel that way about it, but I’m happy that I finally got around to playing Blue Reflection. There have been rumors of a sequel around for a few years now, and I hope if that happens that we get something even better, more polished and fully fleshed out.

A review of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim (PS4)

Where to start with this game? It’s hard to say, because there’s a lot to talk about here. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was announced all the way back at the Tokyo Game Show in 2015, but it came out late in 2019 in Japan and late in 2020, only a few months ago, in North America. While it wasn’t released to a lot of fanfare over here, anticipation seems to have been very high among fans of developer Vanillaware, known for their unique art style and great attention to detail with earlier titles like Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown.

The big question in these cases is whether the game was worth the long wait. I can’t claim I was one of those fans waiting for five years on the edge of my seat. But after playing through it, I can say that if I had waited that long or even longer, I think 13 Sentinels would have been more than worth it to me. It’s not going to appeal to everyone (just like most of the games I write about here, that’s nothing new) but I liked its mix of gameplay styles and especially its characters and story.

Of course, I’ll be getting into all that in more depth here. Before that, there’s one more thing I have to bring up: this is going to be a no-spoilers review. I’m still putting a disclaimer up even in this case, though, because 13 Sentinels is one of those games that it’s best to go into completely blind if possible. If you trust me enough to just take my word on faith (which I don’t expect at all) then here it is: I greatly enjoyed 13 Sentinels and highly recommend it. But not everyone is going to agree with that assessment, and in any case you probably need more than just me saying “hey it’s great the end”, so I’ll get into why I liked this game so much below without dropping any major plot points or character details, because you should discover those for yourself.

I also promise I won’t make any “get in the robot Shinji” references. They don’t exactly fit here anyway.

On the surface, 13 Sentinels is a game about high school students who have to fight city-destroying mechanical kaiju-style monsters by piloting giant mechs called Sentinels. A lot of the gameplay and plot revolve around these battles and the enormous strain they put on their young pilots, both physically and mentally. As with a lot of other “teenagers in giant robots fight to save the world” stories, though, there’s more going on under that surface.

From the very beginning, 13 Sentinels is split between three different gameplay modes: Remembrance, Destruction, and Analysis. Remembrance is the one you’ll likely be in most of the time. It’s the one that looks like the typical Vanillaware game, only there’s no combat in this mode — it’s sort of in the style of an older adventure game, consisting almost entirely of exploration and character interaction. This is where we really get to know our characters and where almost all of the plot unfolds.

One of the 13 protagonists, Juro Kurabe, at school. The colored bars in the upper right indicate topics or actions that your protagonist has yet to consider or carry out in a scene, some of which are prerequisites to moving their story along.

Each of the 13 protagonists in the game has their own story to play through in the Remembrance mode. In the beginning, the game only gives you a couple of characters to start with, but as you advance their stories, the game unlocks other characters that you can switch between as you see fit. At that point, the initially hidden connections between these characters reveal themselves. These connections are not at all obvious at first in some cases, especially considering the fact that our protagonists are scattered throughout time, with a few from the past of wartime Japan and a few from the far future.

For some reason, everyone ends up meeting in the Japan of 1985, where both the battles against the kaiju and the bulk of the story occur. Figuring out how and why they’ve all converged on this point in time and this place is part of the mystery the game presents. Remembrance involves a lot of tracking down and talking to or otherwise interacting with other characters in the course of this story, but we also get directly into the heads of our player characters. The Thought Cloud is an integral part of this exploration section of 13 Sentinels — it lets the player scroll through the protagonist’s various thoughts, which are updated as they make new discoveries.

Ass-kicking delinquent girl Yuki Takamiya takes a break on the roof in the middle of her various thoughts, one of which is “maybe I should drink this juice box.” Getting your vitamins is important.

But you can’t just make progress through exploration and talking to people: you have to actually fight those big kaiju battles by directing your 13 protagonists in their mechs. This is where the Destruction mode comes in. Destruction is a real-time tower defense game, starkly different from the adventure game style of Remembrance both in its looks and style. Taking place during what the game calls the final battle against the invading kaiju, a horde of giant mechanical monsters, Destruction requires the player to direct a strike team of up to six characters in the defense of a giant terminal that itself acts as a defensive mechanism against the kaiju. Defeating all the kaiju on the map typically leads to victory, though a couple of the game’s 31 maps (not counting the first seven tutorials) require the player to destroy a specific powerful target.

The heat of battle. These screens can get a bit confusing with all the enemies, missiles, and lasers shooting off and flying around, but it’s not hard to get the rhythm of combat down.

A lot of your success in battle comes from preparation. Each of the protagonist’s Sentinels can be upgraded using “Meta-chips” you earn both from advancing the story in Remembrance mode and fighting battles in Destruction mode. Around the middle of the game you’ll be able to unlock some extremely powerful weapons to use against the kaiju, both short- and long-range, allowing you to play defensively by turtling around the terminal and using long-range attacks or offensively by taking the fight directly to the kaiju and punching them in the face. There are four types of Sentinel to choose from as well, each types with its own strengths and weaknesses, so you can mix things up depending upon your preferred play style with a combination of defensive and offensive tactics.

Natsuno’s Missile Rain is stupidly powerful, and I relied on it a lot. Thanks Natsuno, and also Tomi and Keitaro who have the same ability — you saved the team more than a few times. Also god damn, those Sentry Guns.

Finally, there’s the third mode, Analysis, which isn’t so much a gameplay mode as it is a giant cache of information that grows as you progress through the game. Analysis includes a library of previously played scenes that you can return to watch as many times as you like as well as a set of “mystery files” that are unlocked and added to as the game progresses. These files contains information on just about everything in the game, from the characters and their backgrounds, stories, and relationships down to various foods and drinks your characters consume during their adventures. It might seem weird to have entries for such trivial information, but in this game, sometimes the most seemingly trivial bits of information can be important in strange ways down the line.

I’m not kidding; there’s even an entry for strawberry crêpes. Though I have to give credit: the artist made all this food look amazing. I got hungry playing 13 Sentinels a few times for foods I can’t even obtain where I live. Thanks a lot for that, Vanillaware.

It might seem a bit strange at first to put so much information about the game’s major plot points and characters into a library like this. But it doesn’t feel at all like a lazy shortcut to make telling the story easier. On the contrary, I think this Analysis mode is necessary, because the story and its characters’ relationships get so complicated that it’s sometimes helpful to go back and check on a few already established points. Naturally I can’t give any examples without spoiling things (I even went to the trouble of redacting the above image in five seconds in Paint; a lot of work, I know.) It’s enough to say that this mode is very useful in a game like this in which each character’s story has its own flowchart practically.

That takes me back to the story itself. I think the greatest strength of 13 Sentinels by far is in its writing, in the plot and its massive tangled web of characters and relationships. The story is ambitious, but unlike some other works that try this sort of thing and get lost in technobabble and confusion and end up a mess, 13 Sentinels keeps it all together. Part of this might have to do with the organization of the information you receive in Analysis mode and in the character timelines that let you track your progress and jump around from point to point to a limited extent.

For example, should you get crêpes or ice cream after school? This really is one of those branching path decision points.

However, I think more of it has to do with the strength of the game’s characters. Each of the protagonists along with several important side characters are given enough screen time to establish their personalities and motivations. Through their story paths in Remembrance mode, we come to understand how and why they end up in these giant mechs fighting kaiju. These aren’t a bunch of cardboard cutouts either. Each character feels pretty well fleshed out and realistic, allowing the game to build believable rivalries, friendships, and romances. And there are romance subplots in 13 Sentinels, and even though I’m about as unromantic as it’s possible for a human to be, they worked for me — they’re not just shoehorned in for the hell of it but actually play their parts in the larger plot.

That’s love, man, who knows

Then there’s the other half of 13 Sentinels, speaking in terms of gameplay at least: the RTS tower defense section. This one seems a bit controversial. I’ve barely played any tower defense games before, so I really have nothing to compare the tower defense element in 13 Sentinels to, but I found it to be pretty fun for what it was. It was definitely the lesser of the two sections for me, though. Combat in this game, with the exception of maybe two or three boss battles, presented no challenge at all — once you figure out how to play defensively and get the skills to beat the shit out of kaiju without them getting anywhere near you, you’ll be all right for the most part. The second-to-last fight did give me some trouble, but I still beat it on my first try, and I’m not even very good at this sort of thing.

I’m not sure if this game will satisfy hardcore RTS/tower defense fans because I’m not one of them, but playing on hard mode is a good idea if you’re looking for more of a challenge. It’s probably also important to note that, as you can see in the battle screenshots I posted, the combat takes place in top-down view, as if the player is controlling everything from a command center. If you were hoping for the combat sections to be all drawn and animated in that Vanillaware style like they were in Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown, you won’t get that in this game. But I didn’t mind too much — the real draw of 13 Sentinels for me was in the story and its interesting character relationships and conflicts.

I wish I lived in Shu’s apartment, what a view. This is my ideal living space.

There’s plenty of style in this game as well. The art is very impressive, much of it handpainted and animated in the typical Vanillaware fashion. That’s one of the reasons I used so many screenshots here, probably more than I normally would in a review like this: the beautiful art adds a lot to an already great experience. The soundtrack is also excellent, from mood-setting pieces in the Remembrance sections to tense battle themes in Destruction mode. And as an added bonus for western players, the NA release features both Japanese and English dubs, so you can choose whichever one you like. Kids these days really have it easy — I remember when we didn’t have that option.

I have more I can say about 13 Sentinels, but not without getting into spoilers, so I’ll leave it there. It’s obvious by this point that I really liked this game and that I’d highly recommend it, especially if you’re a fan of other weird sci-fi material like the Zero Escape series and Steins;Gate. I’ll only add the caveat that it might not be much of a tower defense game if that’s really what you’re looking for. But again, since I’m no expert in the tower defense genre, I can’t say much about that. Again, it’s really all about the story for me in this case, and I was happy with what I got out of 13 Sentinels in that respect. Now I just have to track down some yakisoba pan to see if it’s really as good as the game claims it is, and it will get a perfect 10 out of 10.

Does fun belong in “serious” video games?

I don’t know if I’ve seen an upcoming release as controversial as The Last of Us Part II in a while. It’s received almost entirely excellent reviews from the professional game press, who are declaring it a triumph of storytelling and a deep, affecting experience. Meanwhile, consumer opinion seems to be split — people are somehow already bitterly arguing about the game’s quality even though the damn thing isn’t out for another week. Granted, we have the first game to compare it to, but it still seems hasty to call the sequel a piece of shit on that basis, or even to call it a masterpiece based merely on the word of a bunch of professional reviewers.

I won’t be playing TLOU2. Not because I hate Naughty Dog or anything; I don’t care about them one way or the other, and I don’t really have it out for any game developer at all for that matter. Based on what I’ve seen, the game just doesn’t interest me. However, there is a question raised by all the back and forth fighting over TLOU2 that I do find interesting, and one that I was already thinking about before this controversy blew up — should a good game be fun to play? The reviews of this game I’ve read pretty consistently describe a miserable experience fighting through and hiding from both undead and living human threats and requiring the player to make potentially morally uncomfortable decisions. Yet those reviews also declare TLOU2 a triumph, with one guy comparing it to Schindler’s List and causing yet another uproar for it.

It goes on in this fashion

Setting aside Mr. Cannata’s weirdly narrow definition of “everything” being John Wick when it comes to games (I’m currently playing a game about a princess who makes items with alchemy, beats up dragons, and eats pie with her friends and it’s not much like John Wick1) I find his view interesting. The game wasn’t “fun” at all, but it was still an amazing experience. This isn’t a new take on video games, either. See this 2015 piece from Vice titled “The Value of Video Games That Aren’t ‘Fun'” that expresses a very similar view. The idea seems to be that a work of art that puts the player through hell as Cannata writes of TLOU2 can be inspiring and profound, and that such a game’s lack of fun elements can even work in its favor in that sense.

I don’t want to completely dismiss this idea. If video games are an artistic medium, and I think they are, then they can certainly affect the player emotionally and challenge their views of the world just as some of the great novels, plays, films, and music out there have done. To pull an example straight out of that Vice article, 1984 was a very depressing novel to read, but I thought it also totally achieved its goals in getting the reader to really care about a few people living in this unbelievably oppressive society. If a novel like that weren’t kind of hard to read, it would defeat the purpose. The same goes for Schindler’s List for that matter — a film about trying to save people during the Holocaust can’t really be called “fun” either, but it is profound, emotionally affecting, and very worth watching. So then why can’t a game also be depressing and hard to play, therefore making it way more profound and effective in challenging the player’s views of the world?

I see a few problems with the views expressed by these critics and writers. One is that they seem to be ignoring interactivity, an element of video games that isn’t shared by older media. When you sit down to watch a movie or read a book, you don’t expect to take an active part in it; you’re just taking in a story. With a game, however, unless it’s a visual novel or something similar [edit: and one without much player input either, like a kinetic novel] there’s an expectation that you’re going to get to interact and have some gameplay elements. So if you’re making a game an absolute misery to get through, you’re not just asking for the audience to passively sit and watch or read — you’re asking them to take an active part in struggling through a difficult mess for the payoff. That’s quite a bit more to ask.

A game can’t put a player in a rough situation and also be fun, it’s never been done before

Even that can make for a good game when done right, however. The Silent Hill games gave you pretty much normal-strength humans to control while fighting through and often hiding from vicious monsters. Plowing through enemies would be a lot easier and maybe more fun in some sense, but that’s not the sort of experience those games were meant to deliver. And despite all that, the Silent Hill series is widely beloved (up through Silent Hill 3 at least.) Even though they didn’t quite empower their player characters, putting them in extremely dangerous situations with scant protection and pretty average fighting ability, they also let you work out alternative ways to get through those situations when brute force was not going to work so well. A challenge like that can be fun in itself, and I’d argue the good Silent Hill games achieved that balance.

However, there’s another problem stacked on top of the first. If a game is going to put the player through any kind of hell at all, it has to deliver a payoff at the end that’s worth the effort spent to get there. Otherwise, it’s probably going to leave a rightly frustrated and annoyed player. If a game has something truly profound to say about humanity or life that’s worth the effort it takes to make it through its challenges, then it certainly could be worth playing, just as I think a book like 1984 is worth reading or a film like Schindler’s List is worth watching. If the payoff ends up being some trite message that most every person on Earth over the age of five already knows, however, then by contrast it won’t be worth playing unless the gameplay’s fun on some level. At that point, I’m far better off instead playing a game that’s fun and has no message at all.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t responsible for whatever this is.

Finally, there’s the problem of player agency. If a game’s going to take me to task for making the player character do something it perceives as wrong, it had damn well better give me options. Even though it doesn’t tie into its plot, I remember the old Thief games doing a good job of this: on higher difficulties the games usually forbade you from killing enemies in favor of knocking them out with your blackjack or with sleeping gas devices, the idea being that the protagonist Garrett is a professional thief, not a murderer. This was more difficult but always possible to achieve, and it made a no-kill run of a mission very satisfying to pull off on the harder levels. I think this element of player choice leading to a rewarding feeling was also a big part of why the indie RPG Undertale did so well.

However, a game that essentially forces the player to do something it deems bad only to chew them out for it afterward causes a disconnect between game and player. A game can’t simply make the protagonist do whatever it wants in the same way and with the same consequences as a novel, film, or other non-interactive work can. If I’m being put on rails and shoved down a track, you can’t make me feel bad for whatever happens as a result.2

Again, I don’t have any particular feelings about The Last of Us or Naughty Dog; I can’t and don’t plan on making any judgment of the game, and it’s no skin off my back if it ends up doing well or poorly. And after all, the market has room for all kinds of games. Some of those kinds I don’t especially care for, but why should that bother me? The same is true of every artistic medium on Earth. I just find some of the views expressed by professional reviewers who are praising it to be not very well-considered. By suggesting that this game is both profound and emotionally affecting and “not fun” and really emphasizing that “not fun” aspect, there seems to be an implication that a fun game can’t also be profound and emotionally affecting in the same way, and that doesn’t make a god damn bit of sense to me. 𒀭

1 It’s Atelier Meruru DX for the PS4, and now I’ve totally ruined the surprise when I post my review of it soon.

2 I recently bought a massive bundle of over a thousand games on itch.io. The deal is still on for a couple of days so check it out; the $5 minimum goes to the NAACP and a bunch of bail funds, which I think are pretty damn good causes. Anyway, one of the games included is 2064: Read Only Memories, a game that’s been sharply criticized for doing just this sort of obnoxious “railroad the player and then try to make them feel bad” thing. I might just have to see that for myself since I own it now. I did find the demo pretty irritating, but I shouldn’t judge it based on that alone.

However, the bundle also contains Dreaming Sarah and OneShot last I checked, and I know for a fact that those are both well worth playing.

Persona 5 Royal: First impressions and predictions

Yes. One week after everyone else has posted their full reviews of Persona 5 Royal, I’m making this bullshit post that’s going to be completely useless because I’ve only gotten through two in-game months to the third chapter, probably a quarter of the way through the game. But it’s a major Megami Tensei release, so of course I need to say something about it already. However, I promise that this is all I’ll say about the game until I finish it in a few months or however long it takes, and that next post I’ll write something that people might actually want to read. This might all be complete nonsense to you if you haven’t already played Persona 5, so for those who don’t know about it, the series involves high school students coming of age as they discover magical abilities and fight monsters in shadow worlds that are manifestations of human feelings — in this case, “Palaces” in which the player has to steal the corrupt desires of villains, thus forcing them to confess their sins in real life. If that doesn’t make sense, it’s because it’s honestly a bit of a weird concept, but I think it works.

Before I go into my scattered, unorganized thoughts about it, here’s my general judgment of the game so far: it’s definitely worth getting if you haven’t played the original Persona 5 or if you have and you loved it so much that you need more of it. If you’ve played P5 but didn’t care for it, either because you didn’t like the characters or plot or you just can’t stand turn-based RPGs, I don’t yet see this expanded version of the game changing your mind. I’m not too far into it, hence the “yet” there. It seems to have added some of those “quality of life” features that are so popular these days, and maybe the new characters and confidant links are amazing enough to bump P5 up to an 11 out of 10. Seems doubtful, though, since the core of the game feels the same as before.

What first jumped out at me about P5R, before it even began, is that “merciless mode” has been unlocked after only being available as DLC in the original Persona 5. I don’t recommend playing the game in this super-hard mode unless you really like frustration and crying. Some people do, and those people probably also add special challenge conditions of their own like playing without buffs or debuffs or beating the game with the default lvl 1 player Persona. I’m not one of those people.

The Velvet Room doesn’t seem to have changed much. There are some new Personas, including unique character-linked Personas from Persona 3 and 4 like Orpheus, Izanagi, and even Marie’s Kaguya from P4 Golden. There are also probably a few new fusion features that I haven’t gotten to yet. But the Velvet Room is still staffed by Igor and the twin sister wardens Justine and Caroline, who look like kids wearing French gendarme costumes for Halloween. In fact, there are a few other French-themed elements to Persona 5: Justine and Caroline fuse your Personas by “executing” them with guillotines, and at least three of your character-linked Personas in this game are characters from French works of fiction (Arsène Lupin, Carmen, and Milady from Three Musketeers.) I still don’t really get how the French thing ties into the main point of the game, but maybe the designers just thought it was cool.

The basics of combat in the game haven’t changed much either, but there are a few new additions to the mechanics. Occasionally you’ll run into a “disaster shadow”, a normal demon that explodes and deals damage to its own allies when you kill it. It also automatically counters every attack, but this really feels like it makes combat easier so far as long as you have enough variety of skills in your party to hit most every possible enemy weakness.

Even demon negotiation feels more forgiving now, with Morgana giving you constant advice on how to talk to demons to convince them to join you. All this could just be my imagination, or because the last Megaten game I played much of was Strange Journey Redux, which constantly punishes the player for even trying to play it. With the demon negotiations in that game, you may as well blindfold yourself and press a random answer to their questions because I swear they are randomized.

This time around, talking to a demon you already have a contract with to become your Persona can get that Persona extra experience, which is nice if you’re grinding up specifically to learn a new skill. I don’t remember this feature being in P5 vanilla, though it might have been and I forgot about it. A lot’s happened over the last few years.

There have also been a few dungeon redesigns, including the addition of “Will Seeds”, three in each Palace. These are supposed to be the seeds of the Palace owner’s negative feelings or something, I don’t know. The point is that collecting one slightly restores your SP, which is really useful in a game where SP-restoring items take time and effort to collect. Collecting all three Will Seeds also gets you a special item, so it’s worth scouting out every corner of each Palace to get them.

The game is also nice enough to include most of the cosmetic DLC from Persona 5 for free, though Atlus has still put together a nice hefty-priced DLC package for the new character Kasumi. I would say fuck that cash-grab bullshit, but I did buy the P3 and P5 dancing games, so I’ve supported them in that and can’t really talk. Anyway, here’s our starting lineup of Phantom Thieves mostly dressed as samurai from Shin Megami Tensei IV (and Morgana in a Persona 2-themed costume, a reference that I guess a lot of players aren’t going to get.) I love this combination samurai/colonial-era pirate sort of outfit — I’d wear it myself if I had one and wouldn’t be treated as a crazy person when I went outside.

Another nice thing about these Megaten universe costumes is that the battle theme changes based upon which one the protagonist is wearing, so if you really love hearing “BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY” every time you start a battle, you can put him in the Gekkoukan High uniform from Persona 3. I’ve had enough of that song to fill fifty lifetimes myself.

And of course the randomized dungeon Mementos is still here, with a new resident this time: Jose, who looks like some kind of robot boy. This kid hangs out in Mementos and will accept flowers that you collect by driving around these floors in exchange for items, including SP restoratives. In fact, restoring SP seems easier in P5R between Jose and the Will Seeds, which means you’ll likely be able to grind out a full Palace (or the full section that the story will allow you to play before moving the plot along) in one day, which means more time to work on those Confidant Links and social stats.

Speaking of that, let’s leave the world of demons and shadows and visit the real world for a while, since the Persona series is split between the two. Shibuya Station in Persona 5 is really nicely detailed, complete with slumped-over depressed-looking salarymen going to work. I’ve never been to Tokyo, but the parts that are depicted in this game look and feel like real places. I guess the trains in the city are pretty confusing as well, because it’s easy to get lost in here, with all its corridors, staircases, and ticket gates. The protagonist has been sent to Tokyo from the countryside at the start of the game, so if you’re confused by these labyrinthine train station layouts, that’s probably just what the makers intended.

Naturally your protagonist still has to keep up with his studies since he’s a high school student, so you’ll have to answer classroom questions on occasion and take exams. You get actual benefits from acing your exams, so it’s worth taking the time out to study, and the Knowledge stat is useful for other gameplay-related reasons. And you get to learn some useful facts too, including the name of the ukiyo-e artist who moved his residence over 100 times in his life (Katsushika Hokusai.)

The shadow demon-filled Palaces might be dangerous, but high school can be dangerous too. Thankfully, protagonist is not the object of Creepy Female Student’s creepy desires. He has more than enough on his plate without having to deal with yandere love.

This real-world half of the game contains plenty of reminders that it’s pretty damn Japanese. Of course, it was made by a Japanese developer and takes place in Tokyo, so that’s obvious. I’m talking on a more fundamental level. In the above screenshot, for example, we’re getting chewed out by the student council president, something that nobody would ever give a shit about in my own country where student government has just about no impact aside from maybe arranging dances. Makoto here seems to take her role a lot more seriously than that. The ultra-serious student council is common enough in these school-setting games and anime series that I think it must actually be a huge deal in Japan, but it certainly doesn’t line up with my experience as a student in the US. Or maybe I was always just too lazy to bother with student government myself and too apathetic to care about it.

And while the game’s plot involves fighting against a corrupt society, which is sadly something that we can all relate to on some level, I get the feeling that a lot of the details are particular to Japan. Ann’s story is a good example: a couple of friends who played the original JP release of Persona 5 told me that her confidant link was partly rewritten to remove references to her being discriminated against for being mixed-race (why Atlus USA might have done that I don’t know.) I’ve also heard one of the major villains in the game is supposed to be a stand-in for Shinzo Abe, the then- and still-current prime minister of Japan, and if that’s true then Abe must be a real asshole. But since I don’t have the Japanese perspective, a lot of that would necessarily go over my head.

That said, I’m pretty sure that vending machines in Japan don’t contain drinks blended with placenta. Hopefully it’s not human placenta, at least. Even so, you’ll damn well be buying these sodas, because even with the extra SP items included in Royal, you can never have too much of them in reserve.

Back at Shibuya Station. If you played Persona 4, here’s a face you should recognize: it’s Rise Kujikawa. And she has a new single out, so I guess she returned to the pop idol life after retiring in P4. This ad alternates with one for a single by Kanami Mashita, who we met in Persona 4: Dancing All Night. I’m pretty sure there are other Persona 4 references around, and maybe even a couple of Persona 3 ones, but I haven’t seen those yet. If you were hoping to see any Persona 1 or 2 references outside of the costume DLC, I’m sorry.

But how about the new characters? Persona 5 Royal adds two totally new characters with their own Confidant Links and new corresponding arcana. The first you make a connection with is Dr. Maruki, a school counselor brought in after the end of the first chapter for reasons that will become obvious at that point. Talking to Maruki provides you with increased SP and SP-regenerative techniques, giving you even more stamina while fighting through the Palaces. He also seems like a genuinely nice guy — and that’s why I suspect that he’s really a villain. These slightly eccentric, absent-minded characters always turn out to be putting on an act to trick the protagonist and his friends into relationships of trust. I have my eye on this one.

And then there’s Kasumi Yoshizawa, your fellow transfer student. The game doesn’t give much of an impression of her character at this point aside from her being a hard-working and talented student athlete. We already know she has Persona-summoning abilities from her brief appearance in the intro of the game, and it’s pretty obvious that she’ll join the Phantom Thieves at some point and be a major part of the plot. But if I’m right about Maruki, then I don’t think Kasumi will be a secret villain — doesn’t make sense to add two new characters who are both bad guys, and female characters never seem to fall into that category in these games anyway. I predict that the game will try to pretend Kasumi is secretly an antagonist but then pull a twist, or what it thinks is a twist. Or maybe there will be a genuine twist regarding Kasumi? But even if there is, that doesn’t mean it will work (just ask Rian Johnson about plot twists not working, though he still defends Last Jedi to the death.)

In any case, she’s not gratingly annoying like a certain other addition to a Persona expansion, so that’s at least one point in her favor no matter what else happens.

And for my last game highlight, here’s one of the most interesting characters in P5. You might not think so, but to me Yuuki Mishima is a fascinating tragedy of a guy. In fact, I like to think Mishima is the protagonist of his own separate game that’s going on parallel to Persona 5. He kind of looks like a typical dating sim protagonist, doesn’t he? Maybe he’s the main character in a visual novel where he gets caught up in embarrassing misunderstandings with female classmates because he’s socially inept and awkward, and then he has to learn how to grow a spine and ask one of the girls out. If Atlus is trying to find a new way to milk Persona 5 for years to come as I’m sure they are, here’s a free idea for them.

That concludes my first look at Persona 5 Royal. Again, I’m liking this second playthrough a lot, even if that is mostly what it feels like so far instead of a first playthrough of a new game. But I’m hoping for some changes down the line that give characters like Yusuke and Haru more to do. Not hoping that much, since I wouldn’t be surprised if the new characters take up that time instead. I suppose I’ll find out if my predictions are right or wrong long after most everyone else has finished the game.

But will I ever find out the real reason they call her a “High Pixie”? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

Deep reads #2.3: The power of love (Disgaea 1)

Almost every time I’ve read a review of a game from the Disgaea series on one of the mainstream game review sites, I think the reviewer felt obligated to mention how crazy and over the top the story/characters/humor in the game are, either at or near the beginning of the review. As if to say “yeah, I know these ultra-powerful demons and angels look cartoonish and silly and all, I know” and almost apologizing for that before going on to mainly praise the game.  This doesn’t seem too different from the “guilty pleasure” disclaimers you’ll see people post at the beginning of reviews for works that are traditionally considered embarrassing to like too much.  I know I’ve seen people attach similar disclaimers to reviews of otherwise critically acclaimed movies, stuff put out by Marvel and the like.  Hell, I know for a fact I’ve done this myself with a few games right here on this site.

So you’d be justified in calling me a hypocrite if I say that I don’t like seeing these disclaimers, simply upon the principle that if you like something, you should like it without shame (that’s a belief it took me a while to finally reach, but I have.)1  That’s especially true of the Disgaea series for me.  Because under all the slapstick antics, the the over-the-top expressions, and the planet-destroying sword and magic attacks, the Disgaea games have substance and a real heart to them.  And while the series would make a lot of mechanical upgrades throughout its decade-plus run, the best example of this heart is still in Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, the PS2 original, and its several ports and remasters.  (Actual disclaimer: All the screenshots here are from Disgaea 1 Complete, the PS4 remaster, but it’s essentially the same game for story/character purposes at least.  Also, I don’t feel like digging my PS2 out of the box it’s in.  I’m moving again soon, you know how it is.)

Also: massive spoilers ahead.  I spoil the whole damn plot to this game below, so fair warning as usual.

Fighting a dragon in the tundra, just another day in the Netherworld

In my first post in this series, I covered how ridiculous and wacky the characters and stories in Disgaea can feel, at least at first. That tradition started with Disgaea 1.  The game opens with a text crawl and narration explaining that the Overlord of the Netherworld, King Krichevskoy, has died, leaving his only child Laharl the heir to his throne.  Laharl, however, went for a nap two years ago and hasn’t woken up since.  In the course of his sleep, the Netherworld has gone to hell, with petty demon lords rising up and taking control of their own pieces of it.  This is where Disgaea 1 begins: with Etna, one of Laharl’s few remaining loyal vassals, trying to wake him up by hitting him in the face with various weapons and power tools.  Finally, when she’s about to try shooting him, Laharl wakes up and wonders what the hell all the noise is about and why Etna is pointing a gun at his head.  Maybe we should call Etna questionably loyal.

Not trying to kill you, I promise

Once Laharl learns that his father is dead, he immediately declares himself the new overlord by right of birth and sets off to rule over his realm.  Except it’s been without a ruler for two years, and vassals who were formerly loyal to Laharl’s dad because of his strength and influence don’t have any regard for his kid.  So Laharl decides that he’ll need to beat some sense into his subjects to get them back into line. The only help he’ll have with that at first is Etna and her squad of Prinnies, a set of penguin-esque monster characters that contain the souls of sinful humans put to work in the Netherworld until they can pay off their moral debt balance and reincarnate.

One of Laharl’s vassals giving him valuable advice.  I wish I could tell you we get to take this talking dragon with us to battle, but these lazy NPCs just hang around the castle all day while we do the fighting.

Unfortunately, the Prinnies aren’t terribly useful at first.  Being monster characters, they can’t equip regular weapons like swords and spears, and they’re not especially impressive in any one stat.  As Laharl starts to plunder the estates of nearby petty demon lords, however, he makes money that he can use to recruit new demons into his army, including a growing set of specialized character types like Mages, Archers, Thieves, Ninjas, and Healers, each with their own special sets of skills and weapon proficiencies.

Just as there’s a Netherworld populated by demons, there’s a heaven-like land called Celestia populated by angels.  And at around the same time Laharl begins his quest to consolidate power, the head of the angels, Seraph Lamington, decides to send one of his trainee angels down to the Netherworld to assassinate King Krichevskoy.

Pictured: probably not your ideal candidate for the open assassin position.

Wait, what?  Yes.  At first, it might seem that Celestia has some bad intel, but we eventually come to learn that Lamington has some ulterior motives and is sending Flonne down to this hellish land for another purpose entirely that he isn’t telling her about.  Because 1) he already knows Krichevskoy is dead, and 2) from the one scene we’ve seen her in at this point, Flonne comes off as the exact opposite type you’d want to carry out an assassination: cheerful, kind, and a little naive.  This is made clear shortly afterward when Flonne somehow makes it down to the Netherworld, arrives at Laharl’s castle, accidentally runs into him while doing her best ninja impression… and politely introduces herself as an assassin.

Flonne then remembers she’s on a secret mission and runs away, but not before deliberately bowing and saying goodbye, seemingly not realizing who she’d been talking to. Laharl is so flustered by what the hell just happened that she gets the start on him; however, despite her ninja skills and serious magic abilities, an angel like her can’t get far in the Netherworld. Laharl and Etna fight through a bunch of angelic monster summons, finally manage to corner and capture Flonne, and find out what she’s up to.  But when Laharl tells Flonne that the old Overlord, his father, is already dead, Flonne bursts into tears.

This understandably weirds Laharl the fuck out considering the fact that he’s talking to his dad’s intended assassin. Flonne asks Laharl why he doesn’t seem sad about his father’s death, and he replies that it’s only natural, because love isn’t something demons feel. She can’t bring herself to believe this, however, and decides to join Laharl and Etna for a while to discover whether the Netherworld’s demons truly can’t feel love. Laharl lets her tag along, reasoning that he’ll have fun shocking her with the kinds of horrors she’d never witness in Celestia.  Meanwhile, Etna wonders out loud what the hell Laharl is thinking by letting an angel into his court.

The mid-game follows this trio as they work to claim the overlordship of the Netherworld for Laharl. Along the way, they run into a lot of other strange characters, including a money-loving pig demon, a Dracula-esque vampire lord, a team of ineffective, understaffed Power Ranger/Super Sentai ripoffs, and a Buck Rogers 50’s serial-style dashing hero from Earth.  The crew must defeat all these characters and more in battle, and in many cases these defeated enemies are converted into allies and join Laharl’s party, often completely without his consent.

Laharl’s vassals gather to take him down. Thankfully, these ones are just a bunch of basic grunts.

By the game’s final act, Laharl has defeated his demonic foes and claimed his throne, but he and his crew then have to ward off a joint human/angel invasion of the Netherworld led by General Turner, the military ruler of Earth, and Seraph Lamington’s hotheaded lieutenant Archangel Vulcanus.  At the end of this war, assuming the player achieves the best ending, Laharl establishes himself as the new overlord, and everyone is happy except for the assholes who instigated the Netherworld invasion in the first place.

Assholes like Vulcanus, here trying out for the role of YHVH in the next Shin Megami Tensei game.

So maybe you’re thinking sure, that sounds kind of silly.  And it is in parts.  Disgaea 1 features plenty of buffoonish characters, slapstick antics, and dirty jokes.  However, buried under the surface is a story about coming of age and coping with loss — about a kid who rejects the concept of love not because he’s a demon, but because it’s the only way he thinks he can deal with losing the person closest to him.

The first hint of this seriousness comes when Laharl has to decide how to handle one of his father’s old vassals, the money-grubbing Hoggmeiser, a pig demon who “says” dollar signs at the end of his sentences in the same way some characters end theirs with hearts. Laharl is all set to kill this disloyal vassal, but when Hoggmeiser’s young son stands between them and refuses to move, the prince decides to let his enemy off the hook.  He even leaves the family enough money to get by without starving. Laharl still loots most of Hoggmeiser’s stuff, but this act of mercy is enough to give Flonne hope that Laharl does have some love in him.

I know I’ve used this screenshot before, but it sums up Etna so well

A few chapters later, Etna intentionally leads Laharl into a trap set by another one of his dad’s former vassals, the above-mentioned Dracula-esque demon lord Maderas.2  Not for no reason, either: Maderas is blackmailing Etna in exchange for the return of her memories that he somehow stole from her, straight out of her brain. In true villain fashion, Maderas decides to have the whole lot of them killed once has has them surrounded, including Etna.  But Etna has already outsmarted him by paying off the Prinnies he sent to spy on her, and the team wipes the floor with him and his demons (assuming you beat them in a boss fight, of course — these parts are entirely up to the player’s skill.)

After the fight, Laharl naturally asks Etna what the hell she’s about. Etna admits that she betrayed Laharl at first, but says she really intended to use Laharl as bait to get back at and defeat Maderas, which is supposed to make her original betrayal okay somehow. Anyone would expect this self-proclaimed Overlord of the Netherworld to show no mercy in a case like this.  However, after freaking out at Etna a bit, Laharl laughs it off, saying he would expect no less of such a devious demon.  Flonne is surprised to see this mercy on Laharl’s part and decides that demons might have love for each other they show in ways other beings don’t.  Laharl clearly feels some kind of bond with Etna — not one of love in the way we’d normally understand it, but there’s some kind of affection there even if Laharl would never admit to or even recognize it.

This is where things start to get a bit heavy

Even the sarcastic, cynical Etna seems to genuinely care for Laharl in her own way.  Despite being his vassal, she treats him like a kid, albeit one she cares about, a bit like an older sister might a younger brother.  This semi-sibling relationship is strengthened by the fact that Laharl’s father took Etna in as an orphan.  She has a lot of reverence for Krichevskoy, going so far as to ask Laharl if she can steal a portrait of his father from the wall of one of his other vassals to keep for herself.  While she does go hard on Laharl most of the time, she also says she’d like him to become the kind of ruler his father was — powerful but fair-minded.  She also says she’ll kill him and take his place as Overlord if he fails to do so, and the game gives us no reason not to believe her.  But there’s still a kind of caring there.

This brings us to Vyers.  This guy is initially presented as a joke character, an extremely vain upstart demon lord who has nicknamed himself the “Dark Adonis.”  Vyers is the very first enemy that Laharl pursues, mostly for the purpose of getting some loot to build his army up.  He puts on a lot of airs when they meet face to face, but Laharl and Etna aren’t impressed and give Vyers a different name that they think suits his character better.  Since he’s not even important enough to be a final boss, they call him “Mid-Boss”, and in the first of many, many meta-jokes in the series, Vyers’ name in the game’s dialogue box (and his profile, stats page, and everywhere else) immediately changes to “Mid-Boss.”

Mid-Boss after taking yet another beating from Laharl and company

Mid-Boss refuses to leave the party alone, showing up a few more times throughout the game to challenge Laharl and his vassals to a fight.  However, despite appearances, he isn’t just some buffoonish fop who keeps annoying Laharl for no reason.  Now and then, the game cuts away from the Netherworld to see how things are playing out in Celestia between the serene Lamington and his eternally pissed-off and aggressive subordinate Vulcanus.  When Vulcanus isn’t around, Lamington has private conversations with a hidden figure who happens to sound a lot like Mid-Boss.  Players who are paying attention the few times Krichevskoy’s portrait comes up on screen might also notice a resemblance between him and Mid-Boss.  The game doesn’t spell it out until the late game, but it’s heavily implied by the end that Mid-Boss is Laharl’s father in disguise, revived for a short time by Lamington so he can watch over his son long enough to ensure he’ll be all right on his own.

Laharl’s long-deceased mother is also present and watching over him, though again, the game doesn’t hint at this fact for a while.  There’s one Prinny in Etna’s squad of servants that’s different from the rest in almost every way: demeanor, voice, style of speech, and even color.  All the other Prinnies we meet are lazy and prone to partying and getting drunk when they’re not on the job, and they use that now-iconic “dood” interjection at the ends of almost all their sentences.  By contrast, this “Big Sis Prinny” is diligent and responsible, and she seems to have to consciously remind herself to add in that “dood” interjection.3  She even helps Flonne out early on during her stay in the Netherworld by giving her a potion to help her survive the hellish environment.  As Etna points out, the Prinnies in the Netherworld generally house the souls of the worse sort of sinners and so aren’t usually inclined to be too helpful to others, but we already know Big Sis Prinny is different from her colleagues.

Just as planned?

If you’re used to these kinds of twists, you might have predicted that this unusual Prinny carries the soul of Laharl’s mother.  Laharl only discovers this Prinny’s true identity in his efforts to stop some of the Prinnies working in his castle from reincarnating and leaving his service without his permission.  Laharl and his crew pursue them and even fight a group of death-god demons to prevent them from being sent to their next lives.  After beating them, however, Laharl is persuaded to let them go by Big Sis Prinny, who’s also in line for reincarnation.  This particular Prinny, it turns out, was sent to the Netherworld as a punishment for suicide.

At this point, it becomes clear that she’s Laharl’s mother, though she doesn’t come out and say it directly.  A few chapters earlier, Etna related to Flonne the story of how Laharl suffered from a terminal disease when he was a child.  No doctor could cure him, but the Queen knew of a sure way to save him: by sacrificing the life of someone who loved him, he could recover.  She therefore took her own life to save his.  The cure worked, but at an obviously great price, both to Laharl and his father.  It’s implied, then, that this is why Laharl is so down on love — he blames love for his mother’s death.  Of course, there’s a massive irony here: in saying that he doesn’t believe in love because it took her from him, Laharl is admitting that he loved his mother.  Otherwise, he naturally would not have cared about her dying to save him.

To the game’s credit, it doesn’t take this chance to write in a tearful, heart-string-pulling reunion.  Laharl’s mother says she has no right to face her son after everything that’s happened.  She only asks Flonne and Etna to take care of Laharl before her soul is transported, leaving the empty shell of her Prinny form crumpled on the ground.  Laharl, meanwhile, seems to have quietly absorbed all this and tells his crew that they’re headed back to his castle, leaving the rest of the Prinnies to reincarnate in peace.

Laharl’s arc comes to an end in the final chapter, when he and his vassals are about to face up against that allied human/angel invasion force.  In the course of helping to defeat both the massive spacecraft fleet of General Turner and the angelic forces of the archangel Vulcanus, Flonne ends up injuring humans and fellow angels — two of the most serious sins an angel can commit.  And when Flonne decides to go back to Celestia to seek out Lamington and ask him about the invasion, Laharl, Etna, and their crew of newly conquered human allies come along, resulting in her leading a sort of informal counter-invasion.  Not that Flonne intended for it to be taken that way, but she’s not given the warmest welcome when she returns home.

I could write a separate post about how angels are usually arrogant assholes in JRPGs and how that contrasts with the view we have of them in the West.

So our heroes are required to fight a bunch of battles once again on their way to meet the Seraph.  When they finally reach Lamington and find Vulcanus at his side, Flonne explains herself to him and delivers her account of the Netherworld’s invasion.  Lamington realizes Vulcanus has been conniving behind his back all this time trying to purposely start a war between their two worlds, and he fucks his disloyal lieutenant up by turning him into a flower.  However, Lamington also tells Flonne that she must be punished for her own sins and turns her into a flower as well — if not exactly killing her, then putting an end to her existence as a sentient being.

Despite his insistence throughout almost the entire game that he doesn’t care about Flonne and finds her completely irritating, Laharl completely loses it at this point and proclaims that he will kill the Seraph for what he’s done.

Yeah, the fun’s over now

What happens next depends upon the ending you’re locked into. In the course of the final fight with Lamington (PROTIP: you should have a thief in your party to steal his equipped item Testament; it’s good) Laharl gets the upper hand and defeats the Seraph. However, despite his anger, Laharl concludes that killing Lamington won’t help bring back Flonne. He instead prepares to give his own life to revive her, repeating the sacrifice his own mother performed to save his life when he was a child.

If you’ve achieved the best ending, Mid-Boss shows up at this point to stop Laharl. He explains that he and Lamington had been secretly working together to make peace between Celestia and the Netherworld by sending Flonne down as a sort of envoy in disguise.  Apparently direct negotiations would not have worked, so this backdoor approach had to be taken instead.  Even Flonne had no idea that this was her true role — her natural kindness more or less acted on its own, something that Lamington had been counting on.

Mid-Boss then tells Laharl his self-sacrifice isn’t necessary and revives Flonne himself, but not as an angel. Flonne instead returns as a fallen angel, a special class of demon. He says this was Flonne’s true punishment for fighting against humans and angels.  Not that it seems like much of a punishment.  Flonne ends up looking a little demonic, with a pair of bat wings, a tail, those pointy demon ears, and red eyes instead of blue.  Otherwise, she’s exactly the same old Flonne as she was before.  Mainly because she still doesn’t shut up about love and kindness, much to Laharl’s current and future annoyance.

I like the new look better myself

Lamington, despite being passed out for most of this final scene, is all right, and when he gets up he makes a peace deal with Laharl, just the thing that he and Laharl’s father had been planning for behind the scenes.  Laharl’s father, meanwhile, uses up the rest of his borrowed reincarnation power and finally disappears, joining his wife in the afterlife.  And Laharl and Etna return to the Netherworld along with Flonne, who’s now a permanent resident at Laharl’s castle.  Laharl establishes himself as Overlord, Flonne continues to try to teach demons about love with probably very mixed results, and Etna does… whatever it is Etna does.

Part of it probably involves her making fun of Laharl for acting like he doesn’t care about Flonne, as in this scene where she’s doing a mocking imitation of him (it works better if you’re listening to the voice-over.)

So despite how it looks on the surface, Disgaea 1 does have some pretty heavy emotional moments, with Laharl coming to terms with the death of his mother and nearly sacrificing himself for Flonne’s sake.  It’s easy to imagine how a different game might play up the melodrama, but Disgaea does a good job at keeping it measured, even when Laharl is going berserk near the very end of the game.  It’s only when Flonne is turned into a flower that Laharl loses control in that dramatic scene, but by this point the drama is earned because their relationship has been pretty well established.  Even if Laharl still won’t admit it, it’s pretty obvious well before this point that he cares about Flonne, even with all her irritating talk about love.

And when Captain Gordon, Jennifer, and their retro-sci-fi robot Thursday are thrown into the mix and fight/make friends with/join Laharl’s party, they don’t take away at all from this aspect of the story even though they’re coming in straight from a 50s sci-fi serial, a style that you wouldn’t think would mesh at all with the game up until that point. Gordon is a buffoon of a space captain sent by General Turner to the Netherworld as an unwitting tool to open the way for an invasion from Earth — he’s sort of a Zap Brannigan from Futurama, only a lot more noble and less of a selfish jerk, standing against Turner when his true intentions are revealed.  In fact, his far smarter and more competent assistant Jennifer has her own drama dealing with the fact that General Turner, her adoptive father, is an asshole who only cares about using her for her genius mind.  (The fact that Jennifer always wears a bikini and nothing else isn’t even a distraction from this dramatic character development.  Okay, maybe just slightly, but not too much.)

I think Jennifer is probably a reference to an old sci-fi serial character too, but I have no idea.  Maybe Nippon Ichi just wanted a busty blonde somewhere in their game.

Disgaea 1 also tries to incorporate its gameplay mechanics into the plot.  As you play through the regular missions and move the story along, you may very well accidentally kill an ally.  This is surprisingly easy to do, especially once you start to unlock attacks with wide areas of effect, and it’s all the more likely to occur if you take breaks from the main game to dive into the Item World.  At first, this doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  A unit that gets knocked down to 0 HP during a battle isn’t killed forever, after all — all it takes to bring it back is the right price paid to the Netherworld Hospital.

However, killing even one ally means that you lock yourself out of the best ending, in which both Laharl and Flonne survive unscathed.  The ally kill count can be tracked by checking the game stats with the male healer standing in one of the corners of Laharl’s castle, but it can only be reset by starting a new game cycle.  There are thankfully ways to do this without playing through and completing the game’s final chapter, but most players will likely do exactly that and be left with a bittersweet ending on their first playthrough in which Laharl goes through with his sacrifice and revives Flonne, ending his own life in the process (well sort of — as we’ve seen, death isn’t a totally permanent state in the world of Disgaea, and this ending concludes with Flonne and Etna talking about a new Prinny at the castle who has antennae sticking out of his head that look just like Laharl’s.)  Other, significantly harsher endings can be achieved by really going nuts and killing loads of your allies early on in the game.

I do like the fact that there are multiple endings to Disgaea 1.  It fits well with the game’s central themes of love and sacrifice that Laharl is made to actually carry his sacrifice out in one of the more common endings.  The one-ally-death mechanic is a little harsh, though.  Even when you’re actively trying to avoid causing ally kills, one or two always seem to occur in the course of a typical game.  It’s easy to remedy the situation by saving often, cycling those saves, and checking the ally kill count with that male healer NPC on a regular basis, but this does add some extra work to the game that some players might get frustrated with.

No, I’m not mistaken, this is indeed the male healer

And I wouldn’t really be able to blame them.  Later games in the series eased up on this criterion for getting the best ending, requiring an ally kill count that would take serious negligence or total callousness towards ally units on the player’s part to achieve.  This works better in a thematic sense as well — if the idea was that Laharl could only achieve the best ending for himself by proving himself a good ruler and not harming any of his allies, it seems unreasonable to punish him for screwing up a single time.  It doesn’t even have to be Laharl who screws up, in fact.  Even if he’s is killed by one of his allies, the player is locked out of the best ending.

Still, this effort to link the player’s in-game conduct to the ending is admirable.  It’s not exactly innovative; plot-driven RPGs and visual novels had been doing it for a long time by this point, but usually by way of more straightforward player choice through branching dialogue options or decisions to be made at key points.  The bad endings of Disgaea 1, by contrast, are generally unexpected and really hit you in the face as a consequence when they happen.  The game is essentially set up to lock you out of the best ending your first play through, since killing allied characters seems so consequence-free at first.  So unless you’re using a guide to play, it’s more than likely you’ll rub out a few of your allies by accident and think nothing of it.

Linking this game mechanic to the ending you get also might serve to show that the love Flonne keeps going on about isn’t strictly familial love, the kind that Laharl claims he never felt for his father.  The love she talks about is a broader kind, including the bonds between friends, and even the bonds that should exist (but rarely do) between a boss and his subordinates.  Even the extremely unromantic Etna pushes Laharl to show this kind of love to his subjects so that, rather than ruling over them through brute force, he can gain their respect the way his father did.  Realizing this kind of love exists within him is part of Laharl’s arc throughout the game, to the point that by the end of the game he manages to show mercy even to a mortal enemy.

And of course there’s an element of romantic love in Disgaea 1 as well, namely between Laharl’s parents.  Because both these characters are technically sort of dead at this point, all of this romance occurs before the events of the game, but there are some hints dropped throughout that suggest Laharl’s father and mother were very much in love.  You might even read an implied future relationship into whatever it is Laharl and Flonne have going, since they pretty much shack up together at the end of the game.  Well, so does Etna, but I can’t see Etna settling down with anyone.  Anyone who tried getting with her would most likely end up on the wrong end of her spear.

If you’re looking for a game that places the main characters into a straightforward romance, check out Disgaea 2. No, not involving the talking frog, but rather the human warrior Adell here and the demon princess Rozalin on the right. There’s a bit of that commoner/nobility romance novel appeal in this game too. An old angle, but it still works.

While this emphasis on the power of love works as a theme, I think the storytelling in Disgaea 1 ultimately succeeds because it implements that theme in an interesting and effective way.  In a typical JRPG, you’d play as the hero, probably a human, entering a Netherworld to fight its demon overlord, and you’d probably end up drawing from your friendships and the power of love in that sense to gain the strength to defeat him.  In Disgaea 1, by contrast, you’re playing as the demon overlord and fighting/recruiting the heroes sent to vanquish you.  This in itself is turning the usual RPG setup on its head, but it does so still again by depicting the demon overlord and his minions as not typically evil.  They think they’re supposed to be uncaring and unloving and try their best to act that way, but the game slowly reveals that these demons are a lot more complicated than even they realize.  Meanwhile, while Lamington and Flonne talk about love and peace and all that good stuff, most of the angels we meet in Disgaea 1 are almost robotic in their obedience to Vulcanus, who even the top demons of the Netherworld think is an evil bastard.

By the end of the game, both demons and angels come off as a mixed bunch — driven by the same emotions of love, caring, greed, and ambition.  They really just come off as overpowered, more extreme versions of humans.  Maybe that’s the main gist of the game: that despite our preconceived notions about what we’re “supposed” to be, we’re not all that different from each other.

In the end, maybe Disgaea is just another JRPG about how the power of friendship defeats evil. But it does so in a unique and interesting way, and that’s why I like it. 𒀭

***

If you were wondering why it took so long for me to post this, I guess it’s pretty obvious by now.  I try not to make these too long, but the show/game-specific deep dives that get into plot specifics are hard to edit down too much.  And I’ve still got one more to go.  Next time, we’ll finish out the series with a look at Disgaea 5, seeing how the series evolved over twelve years and examining some of the weird quirks that make that game unique in its own right.  Until then.

=

1 Here’s a meta question for you: was this opening itself the kind of disclaimer I was just saying I didn’t like?  Am I still a hypocrite?  Think about it.

2 I don’t know the English-language voice actor who plays Maderas, but he does a good Bela Lugosi impression.

3 After all this time playing Disgaea games, I still don’t know where “dood” came from.  I think it was the localization team’s best attempt at translating the Japanese sentence-ender the Prinnies use, which is something like -ssu.  It might be related to “ossu”, which is a very casual greeting that fits with the Prinnies’ kind of sloppy, lazy attitudes.

Deep reads #2.2: Nippon Ichi’s Netherworld Vacation

Today we return to the Disgaea retrospective series.  But didn’t I promise to start getting into specific games by now?  Why am I hanging around a hot springs instead like a lazy asshole, writing an entirely different kind of post?

It’s because I felt I should more deeply explore some of the gameplay elements that make the series so uniquely appealing to obsessive-compulsives like me, which involves looking into the many distracting extra features of Disgaea.  It also seems appropriate to explore these before getting more in-depth with the story and character elements and how they mesh with gameplay and game structure.  I encourage the reader to think of this as less of a delay and more of a bonus, anyway, since this is all extra material. But just like the extra material in the Disgaea games, it’s all good fun.  (Or, well, you’ll be the judge of that instead.  Both in terms of how much fun these games seem to you and how good or bad my writing is.  I hope you like way too many parentheticals containing stupid, rambling tangents.  But if you didn’t, I’m sure you’d have stopped reading this site a long time ago.)

The main hub of Laharl’s castle in Disgaea 1 Complete.

Once again, we start at the beginning with Disgaea 1, here represented in its remastered Disgaea 1 Complete PS4 version as before.  Even in its original form, the first Disgaea had more to offer than its story-based maps.  We’ve already briefly been over the potentially infinite Item World grind, which opens up to the player shortly after the game begins.  It’s not quite right to call the Item World optional, though; the game does require you to complete at least ten levels in one item to progress past a certain point.  This is simple to do, but it also acts as a hook to reel the player into more and more Item World adventures.

Flonne gets the MVP title with the killing blow on the very first Item King taken out.

This is the Item World in its most basic form of the series, but it still contains those essential elements that make it fun to play.  The size, enemy layout, and geography of these maps are pretty widely variable, sometimes defying gravity and logic, so you really don’t know what you’ll get next as you clear each one.

Occasionally you’ll see a map like this, but they are definitely the exception. I gave this poor lone mushroom demon a break and walked to the exit panel.

While this randomization makes the Item World more interesting and dynamic, I found the real addictive hook in the maps’ Geo Panel puzzles.  These are colored panels on the game board that can create various effects, both good and bad, on any unit standing on them depending upon the colored pyramid-shaped Geo Symbol controlling them.  On the story maps, these Geo Panels and Symbols are often set up specifically to give the player a challenge — for example, by making it impossible to enter a certain key area without running through a gauntlet of enemies, or by pumping up the enemies’ attack and defense in one area of the map.  In the Item World, by contrast, the Geo Panels and Symbols are placed randomly just like the enemies are.  This can make some maps very difficult to quickly complete through clearing out all the enemy units, especially if that damn Invincibility effect is active.

These effects and panels can also provide the player with fabulous prizes, however.  When a Geo Symbol is destroyed on a Geo Panel of a different color than the Symbol, it will set off a chain reaction, changing each Panel of that color to the destroyed Symbol’s color.  This reaction also destroys every other Symbol in the affected area, which causes the reaction to repeat in the color of each destroyed Symbol.  The mechanics of it can be a bit confusing depending upon the layout of the map, but setting off a long chain of reactions is worth it because it means your bonus gauge shoots up, getting you money, EXP, and potentially rare items if you clear the map.  I find it’s also extremely satisfying to score that massive reaction.  Maybe it’s all the changing colors and sounds and lights going off triggering something in that old lizard part of my brain, the way a slot machine works.

A geo chain reaction going off.

If none of the above Item World stuff interests you, though, it’s no problem: the game has more to offer, most of it waiting to be unlocked in the Dark Assembly.  Laharl might call himself the Overlord of the Netherworld, but his power isn’t absolute.  He still has to deal with this parliament of demons and monsters to do things like stock the stores with higher-quality items.  And if you want Laharl to invade Earth or take on any of the post-game bosses, you have to get the Dark Assembly’s approval by sponsoring a bill in the Assembly to put up to a vote.  The many post-game and extra maps that can be unlocked through the Dark Assembly give the player a reason to spend time powerleveling Laharl and company — the most powerful boss in the game sits at level 6,000.

Good luck passing this bill.  Just as in real life, it’s hard to get money out of legislators, especially when you have no real reason to do it other than wanting more money.

Sometimes the Assembly passes these bills easily, with little or no opposition.  However, bills that become available later in the game often meet with stiff resistance.  It costs mana to present a bill to the Assembly, mana that can typically only be gained through fighting and killing enemies, and if a bill is voted down that mana is lost (unless you cheat by doing a lot of saving and resetting, of course.)  So what’s to be done?  You can accept your defeat and give up — mana is easily recovered through combat, so it’s no big deal to lose a bit.  You can also present the bill again and try to butter up the senators by bribing them with items out of your inventory.  Or you can bend the Assembly to your will by beating them into submission in a battle upon the failure of the bill.  The Dark Assembly itself can therefore become a boss if the player really wants to make it one.

Every Disgaea has its own version of the Dark Assembly. Pictured here, the Strategy Assembly in Disgaea 5. You know you can bribe Sen. Corrupt without her raising any ethics complaints.

So Disgaea 1 is already pretty loaded up with content to distract you from the main story for a while.  However, later games in the series continued to pile more features on, eventually resulting 12 years later in the massive clusterfuck that is Disgaea 5.

Well, I just called Disgaea 5 a clusterfuck, but I meant that in an entirely positive way.  I really like the latest entry in the Disgaea series, but there’s no denying the fact that it has a lot of extra features crammed into it, enough to distract you from the main story so much you might damn near forget the game had a main story to begin with.

An optional surprise Item World boss that I am avoiding because like hell I can beat him at my level.

Firstly, there’s the Item World, back and full of extra features: insanely difficult optional boss fights, chances to level the item more quickly by destroying or lifting certain objects on the map before clearing it, and bonus rooms between Item World stages that offer all kinds of crazy shit for lack of a better term.  Even more optional boss fights, secret shops, hospitals, frustratingly difficult jumping puzzle mazes filled with treasure chests, a room full of cloned versions of your own units that you can fight, another room filled to the brim with enemy Prinnies, the hot springs pictured at the top of the page, and more.  And of course the same Geo Effect system that was introduced in Disgaea 1.  The Item World of Disgaea 5 is practically a separate game in itself.

Killia, the protagonist of Disgaea 5, after failing the jumping puzzle maze room in one of D5’s Item Worlds. It’s not his fault, it’s mine. Thankfully, there’s an exit back to the Item World proper down here.

A few of the Item World bonus rooms even offer the player a chance to gamble.  The hot springs room, for example, lets you soak in the springs, resulting in a number of either positive or negative outcomes leading into the next room: you might start with a full bonus gauge, or you might start with restored or drained HP and SP.  Far more potentially infuriating, however, is the fortune-telling room.  This is a wooden ship with a foxy lady fortune teller (this isn’t me just referencing Jimi Hendrix for no reason — she’s a literal fox woman, one of the Nine-Tails monster-type demons you can recruit) who can give you anything from a great fortune to a lousy fortune, affecting the level of the item accordingly.  So if you get the worst fortune, the item you’re working on can lose something like five levels, which may well be the number of levels you had to work up through to get to the fucking fortune teller in the first place.*  There’s nothing quite so infuriating, at least when you’re playing through the Item World.

It makes me mad enough to want to rob a bank, which is also something you can do in the Disgaea 5 Item World.

But the new Item World is only the beginning.  Disgaea 5 both carries over features from previous sequels to the original and adds its own.  Among those carried over are the request board, where you can take on jobs both easy and difficult for rewards of money, equipment, and items.

At least they’re honest about their dishonesty.

There’s also Chara World, a board game-style challenge playable by any single unit in your company that includes still more fabulous prizes and the opportunity for greater growth if the unit reaches the end goal in time.  And the research center, where you can send squads of your units to distant planets to plunder them, capture residents as POWs, and unlock yet more boss fights.  And when you get your POWs from these distant planets, what else should you do but interrogate them?  The game thoughtfully provides an Interrogation Room option to turn enemy demons over to your side through coercion.

No real surprise that demons don’t have their own Geneva Conventions to keep them in line.

There are several other features in the game to sidetrack you, to the point that the hub world of Disgaea 5 feels more like a casino than the wartime base of operations it actually is.  You and your demonic friends can put the war they’re fighting on hold for an eternity if you feel like it and go on a vacation of gambling, gaming, and rampaging.

And who are you taking along on your vacation?  Just about whoever you feel like.  Disgaea 1 was hardly lacking in units to recruit, but newer games added even more options.

The unit recruitment screen in Disgaea 3. The Archer unit is one of my favorites throughout the series. Sorry for robbing that bank earlier, Archer.

I usually get a lot of use out of the story character units in these games, since some of them are naturally the first you use in battle and have some good unique skills.  However, it’s a bit hard to get by just using them.  Far from impossible, certainly, but the games offer a wide variety of generic units ordered by class that can be recruited early on.  There are a whole lot of them, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, weapon proficiencies, growth stats, and special skills.  Each class also has up to five advanced unit types with higher starting stats and better proficiencies and resistances that unlock as you level the more basic units.  And the same is true of just about every monster unit you’ll encounter as an enemy — they can pretty much all be recruited as well, the only real differences being that they can only equip their own special sets of monster weapons and can’t pick up and throw other units.

Yes, this is a real attack skill you can use in a Disgaea game.  It still got a T rating, too.  Maybe the ESRB isn’t as uptight as I thought?

So you can pretty much throw together any composition of units you like.  If you want to put a sensibly balanced force into the field with tanky, close-combat units in the front and long-range attackers and mages in the back lines, you can do that.  If you want to raise a brigade exclusively made of ultra-powerful mages who can bomb the shit out of everything on the map before the enemies get within ten panels of them, you can do that.  If you want to give those mages swords, axes, and spears instead and command them to charge the enemy head on, the game won’t stop you from trying out such a foolish strategy.  And if you want to field an army made entirely of pole-dancing succubi like the one above — that might take a bit longer, but it’s potentially feasible, and I salute you if that’s your plan.

Again, Disgaea 5 takes all this one step further.  Not only can you recruit dozens upon dozens of humanoid and monster characters, but the game lets you choose from three different personalities for each, which come along with different voice samples during battle and unique responses when you talk to them while roaming around the central hub world.

This mage has us all figured out.

It could perhaps be argued that all these extra features and games-within-games are a bit too much content shoved into a single game, especially considering just how much they can distract from the main story missions.  There are a bunch of additional elements here I didn’t even bring up, not to mention all the extras also present in Disgaea 2, 3, and 4.  There are some Item World events that I’m sure I haven’t seen yet, and I know for a fact there are post-game bosses in some of the Disgaea titles that I’ve never even tried to take on.

I don’t see any of that as a problem, however.  How can I complain about extra content for the same price?  And it is extra, after all: aside from one required dive into the Item World and the completion of a couple of request board missions, it’s usually entirely optional.  You’re free to stick to the story maps using a basic setup of units and play the game straight through.  But the option to take an extended Netherworld vacation is always there waiting for you if you so desire.  Just try not to indulge too much when you do.

Oh, to have those good old days back.

***

Well, that was certainly a huge god damn mess, looking back at what I just wrote.  I wonder if anyone can follow it.  I’m not sure I can myself.  But maybe that’s appropriate considering the subject matter.  Maybe there’s no other way to describe the strange chaos of the world of Disgaea than to do so chaotically yourself.

I hope that absolves me of all the writing sins I committed above.  The next post in this series will be an in-depth look into one of the Disgaea games, and I actually mean it this time.  In the meantime, try not to get so hammered you have to sleep on the sidewalk, though if you feel the need to do that, I can’t blame you. 𒀭

 

* There’s a way to get those levels back almost instantly, but I don’t want to give it away.  See if you can find out for yourself.