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.

A review of Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland (PS4)

Years ago, to take my mind off of my extremely irritating studies, I bought a digital copy of Atelier Rorona Plus for the Vita. This was my very first Atelier game, and though I liked its unique style quite a lot, I never got around to playing any of the other Atelier games. Not until I dropped part of my tax refund this year on Atelier Meruru DX, a deluxe PS4 edition of the original Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland on the PS3.

I really like to think that some mom in a Gamestop bought her princess-obsessed kid this game based on the cover, but then it turns out to be all about a princess dealing with bureaucratic deadlines and resource management.

Meruru is the final game in the Arland trilogy, a sub-series of the much larger long-running JRPG Atelier series made by the Japanese developer Gust. While the Arland trilogy shares the central alchemy mechanic in common with the rest of the Atelier games, it also has its own identity distinct from the others.

But first a catch-up on the characters and plot. The protagonist, Merurulince Rede Arls, is the daughter and only child of Lord Dessier, the King of Arls. Somehow this tiny podunk town, population 1,000, counts as a kingdom and has a king with a giant stone castle, but we can’t question that too much. In any case, all that’s about to change.

Princess Merurulince, or Meruru to her friends, constantly shirks her royal duties to practice alchemy under the direction of her teacher, the master alchemist Totooria Helmold. Meruru doesn’t like being a princess, and she reasons that since their tiny kingdom is going to be merged into the far larger Arland Republic in five years, upholding her royal duties doesn’t matter that much anyway. Even so, her dad understandably isn’t too keen on his daughter studying a trade that requires hunting for ingredients in the wilderness, killing monsters, and working with potent poisons and explosive fuels.

However, Meruru won’t back down, so the king’s butler Rufus proposes a compromise that they both accept: if Meruru can use her alchemy skills to increase the population of Arls to 30,000 within three years, Dessier will allow her to become a full-time alchemist.

The stamp makes it official

So while Dessier sits his royal ass on his throne for three years, he leaves it up to his teenage daughter to actually do all the work to strengthen the kingdom. Some king he is, but there’s nothing to be done about it. Meruru (meaning the player) must find some way to increase the population of Arls to thirty times its original size while also maintaining her popularity among the people, otherwise it’s a game over and a bad end.

Thankfully, Meruru isn’t left alone in her efforts. She first gets help from an unexpected place: the castle itself, represented by Rufus. Though he calls himself a butler, he’s really more of a chief advisor and minister to Dessier, and he takes his job extremely seriously — a single needle can’t drop in Arls without Rufus knowing about it. He’s also serious about the development plan he proposed. When Meruru receives requests from the citizens to develop new patches of wilderness or to clear up monster-infested areas, Rufus creates plans for the princess to carry out that will variously open new areas for exploration, increase her popularity, and bump up the kingdom’s population. As Meruru fulfills these goals she also gains points that can be used to build new facilities, bringing even greater population increases and other various benefits.

And of course, the princess doesn’t have to go off gathering alchemy ingredients and killing monsters all by herself, because she has plenty of friends to help her. These include both new characters native to Arls and returning characters from the two previous Arland games, and some of them can be recruited to join Meruru’s party in battle while she explores the various fields, forests, and mountains of the surrounding country. Each of these characters has a different combat style: some are more defensive and supportive like Meruru’s childhood friend/chief maid Keina, while others are offensive like the warrior Lias. They also have very different attack ranges and skills, so no one character plays quite like another, which adds some nice variety (even if it means that some characters kind of suck in battle when compared to others.)

And then of course there are the other alchemist characters. The Arland series specifically features a chain of masters and apprentices continuing from game to game starting with Atelier Rorona, in which Rorona is the player character and apprentice (which you can read about in my very old, completely inadequate review of that game.) In the second game of the series, Atelier Totori, the main character Totori is apprenticed to Rorona, who has become a renowned master of alchemy, though still exactly as clumsy and ditzy as she’s always been.

Totori joining up to kill some wolves in the mountains

Carrying on that tradition, Meruru is now apprenticed to the master Totori. As such, a lot of Meruru’s time is going to be spent in the atelier crafting items using the ingredients she finds in the field and after battles while under Totori’s supervision. Though the Atelier games are turn-based JRPGs, they’re very different from the typical sort of JRPG, and part of this difference comes from the all-important alchemy mechanic. The alchemists in these games are special because they alone have the ability to craft and use items that do everything from heal allies’ wounds to destroying the shit out of enemies, making them potentially very powerful.

This unique gameplay feature adds quite a lot of variety to the game by letting the player mess around with ingredients that have different qualities and traits. One of the most fun aspects of the Atelier games is experimenting with new mixes to see what works and what doesn’t, and the games generally give the player leeway to try new things out. Because as with the other Atelier games, alchemy in Meruru isn’t a mere crafting system: it’s practically a science in itself. For a while, you’ll see traits passed on through synthesis that you have no idea of, there are so damn many of them. Players who commit themselves to getting alchemy down can make truly amazing items, however, and that’s part of the satisfaction that playing Meruru provided me.

Once the princess learns how to synthesize weapons and armaments, that mom realizes this game wasn’t quite what she expected

You might have noticed that I haven’t elaborated on the plot a whole lot beyond the basic premise, and that’s because there isn’t much of one. Certainly unusual for a JRPG, which tend to be very plot-heavy, but in Meruru there are no world-ending comets or plagues or any magic crystals to take away from an evil overlord. There isn’t exactly any villain in this game at all, at least not in the way we’d normally understand it. Meruru’s big goal is simply to be allowed to practice alchemy, nothing more or less, so that motivation is the central force driving the plot.

This is an element of Atelier Meruru that may put some players off, but I don’t really care about it. In fact, it’s nice to play a JRPG (hell, an RPG at all) for once that doesn’t have a great evil emperor pretending to be the big villain with a greater evil god or god-controlled lieutenant of the emperor behind him as the true villain. If you want that, you can get enough of it out of Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem, and as much as I like it yes, Megami Tensei too. The conflicts faced by the protagonists in the Arland series are much more personal — saving your small business from being closed by a corrupt government minister, finding your missing mother, and in the case of Meruru simply not fitting the mold you were intended for.

Offtopic but I like that thing Totori wears on her head, whatever that’s supposed to be

That’s not to say there is no villain at all in Atelier Meruru. I’m not talking about the boss battles you have to fight, or even about that lazy bastard Lord Dessier. No, the villain in Meruru is far greater than any of those: it’s the calendar, or more broadly time itself. When you’re given the three-year time limit arrangement at the beginning of the game, you might be thinking “Okay, three years. That’s a long time. This will be easy!” And then it’s very easy to start getting sidetracked by going on journeys through the countryside and freely doing alchemy. Of course, you’ll notice that time is ticking down as you proceed — traveling, gathering items and getting into battles in the field, and synthesizing items in the atelier all take parts of days or full days to complete depending on the size of the task in question. But no, three years is plenty of time, right?

Hey, look at this fortress we built all thanks to alchemy. We’re doing fine, Meruru! No need to worry about that stupid time limit.

When I played Rorona years ago, I remember Rorona having deadlines to fulfill certain tasks or else she’d get a bad end, but I don’t remember ever having to worry very much about meeting those deadlines. They seemed easy enough to fulfill while playing the game pretty naturally. So I went into Meruru with the same mindset, and it turned out to be the wrong one. It might be my fault for not realizing that it’s a lot easier to gauge your progress towards a one- or three-month deadline than it is towards a three-year one. Still, I got legitimately pissed off at one point when a certain event occurred that I wasn’t expecting, causing me to have to waste extra months running back and forth from a distant area to acquire an item necessary to a development quest. It’s a good thing I make several saves, because when this event occurred I didn’t even know how absolutely fucked I was until a few months later when I realized I couldn’t synthesize what I needed in time to meet the three-year population deadline. So I did something I normally don’t — I reloaded an old save.

Maybe some people would consider that cheap, but I don’t give a shit. I don’t pour hours into a game like this to get a bad end and get kicked back to the beginning of year one. I’m a busy man with a life outside of these games. Anyway, if the game wanted me to commit to a single straight-through run, it wouldn’t have given me multiple save slots. I highly suggest you use at least a few of them unless you’re the type to fully commit to one run without reloading no matter how badly you might screw up. I have respect for people who commit in that way, but hell if I’m one of them myself. The key in this case, as far as I’m concerned, is that the game gave me no reason to believe that I needed to take a certain action before an arbitrary date. Looking back, Meruru did drop a hint of what I should have done, but it turned out to be the kind of hint that you only see in retrospect. Or maybe I’m just an idiot. I have made a lot of terrible real life decisions, so perhaps that’s more likely.

I don’t know if nectar calms your nerves, but I might need a glass after that bullshit.

Without spoiling anything, my general advice to new players is to trust your instincts: if the game seems to be suggesting that maybe you should check something out and it won’t take you too much time to do so, go and check it out and gather what ingredients you can, because you might need them. If the game is giving you a tool to use, say by bringing a new shopkeeper into town who offers a unique service, you should try using it as soon as possible. You should also be fulfilling requests at the tavern on a regular basis, if possible with high-quality items, to keep Meruru’s popularity up and to make extra money, because you can never have too much of either.

Even with all the time pressure, it’s hard to get too mad at Meruru. The game is just too damn positive, cute, and friendly. A lot of this has to do with the game’s style. Every entry in the Arland trilogy features character and background art by the excellent Mel Kishida. The sheer amount of detail in the character portraits and CGs alone make the game worth looking at even for people who aren’t so into turn-based JRPG stuff. I’m not sure if he’s also responsible for the item illustrations, but whether it’s him or someone else, the work on those is even amazing, all the more so because there are hundreds of ingredients and synthesized items in the game.

Playing this game actually made me hungry at times. If only I knew how to bake, damn.

I also have to mention the game’s beautiful soundtrack. I don’t hear Atelier get mentioned too often when it comes to game soundtracks, and to be fair I haven’t mentioned it either, but now I’ll give these composers their dues, because both Rorona and Meruru, and I have to assume probably Totori as well, feature a wide variety of music that’s all suited for fighting in battle, gathering ingredients in the field, running around in town, and working in the atelier. From what I’ve heard of the following Dusk trilogy in the Atelier series, that quality of music continues on as well.

The game also gives the player plenty of time to relax with dialogue cutscenes that come up throughout the game without any prompting. A lot of these involve characters from the previous two games in the Arland series. Though it helps provide context if you’ve played those games, it’s not necessary to understanding what’s going on. I’m in a bit of a weird position since I’ve played the first game in the series but not the second, so while old faces returning from Rorona are familiar to me, those from Totori aren’t. But again, it doesn’t matter that much. In fact, if you start off playing Meruru before the others, you’ll be in the same position as Meruru herself, who’s meeting all these recurring characters aside from Totori for the first time.

Totori having a flashback to her own game.

Of course, all these character interactions wouldn’t be so fun if the characters were all two-dimensional cardboard cutout types, and they aren’t. Some of them are a bit exaggerated in their weird traits, but almost all of them feel more or less like people who you might know in real life (well okay, maybe not Pamela, but I did say almost.) Series with a lot of characters like this tend to give their secondary characters very little detail, usually with only one broad trait and absolutely nothing else, but the Arland games take that extra step to make them feel a little more fleshed out. Maybe because they contain dialogue and slice-of-life style chatter in place of that big serious plot.

This aspect of the series is more obvious with the main characters. The protagonist here is a great example — although Meruru gets along well with her teacher Totori, the two have very different personalities: while Totori is careful and meticulous, Meruru tends to jump into new, potentially dangerous situations without thinking too much about it. And this balance works: Meruru, despite not really wanting to be a princess, accepts her role as a leader for her people and uses alchemy to help them thanks in part to her more level-headed teacher’s guidance. The alchemists central to the games’ plots are all very different kinds of people, but they manage to work together to create amazing machines and objects to help their friends and fellow citizens, and isn’t that what life is all about?

So this might be a pretty obvious conclusion to this review since I’ve been mostly gushing over how good it is, but do I recommend Atelier Meruru? I do, especially if you’re into the kind of obsessive collecting that I am, because unlocking new items to create through alchemy fulfills that weird need I have very well. I don’t know how it measures up to any of the other games aside from Rorona, but it  measures up to that game pretty well even if I still feel like Meruru was quite a bit bullshittier in parts. But again, I’m pretty forgiving of that. Maybe too forgiving. It’s that damn bishoujo style Kishida draws — I would not have accepted this nonsense from a less cute game. There is also plenty of game content left after your three years is up assuming you don’t get a bad end, so that adds some slightly more relaxed time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. And as with the other Arland games you get some benefits from a new game plus, making successive runs quite a bit easier to manage if you decide to go after some of the game’s hardest challenges or see new endings.

As for which version of Meruru you should buy, the only one I’ve played is the DX version on the PS4, which runs well and contains some DLC costumes and recruitable characters who weren’t in the original. There are also DX versions on the Switch and PC, and those are probably fine as well, but not having played them I can’t say whether they might have some technical issues. If you’re the kind of true patrician who owns a Vita, there’s also Meruru Plus, which is probably also fine to play if it’s anything like Rorona Plus, but again, I can’t really say. Just buy whichever one suits you best.

I don’t own Meruru Plus, but here’s a screenshot from my very own Vita copy of Rorona Plus if you want a general comparison. Why do I have so much high-grade perfume? I don’t know, but Pamela seems happy about it.

As a side note, the Atelier games in general still seem to be in a bit of a weird niche area, though the series may be branching out to a new audience now. All of the more modern games have been localized, but the series as a whole seems to have gone largely unnoticed outside of the usual weeb circles up until the most recent game Atelier Ryza, which attracted some new players thanks to Ryza’s, let’s say “generous” character model. But so much the better. I know some people feel that bringing in more fans can “ruin” a series or whatever (just have a look at any Persona-oriented board for some of that) but more fans mean more exposure for the series in question, and that probably isn’t such a bad thing. It also means more people get to appreciate these quality works, and I don’t see how anyone could object to that. 𒀭

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.

Backlog review: Senran Kagura Estival Versus (PS4)

I hate summer.  Maybe it’s because I live in the South, where our summers are unbearably hot and humid, but I can’t stand this season.  And ever since I became an adult, summer has lost the one benefit it carried, which was being out of school.1  All that’s left are the heat and the insects.  So give me fall.  Give me winter.  I’ll even take spring with all its allergy-triggering pollen.  But the rest of you can god damn keep summer for yourselves.

However, even I can’t resist the call of the beach.  And never mind that I’m a neurotic nerd who refuses to go out into the sun without wearing long sleeves and pants, or even that I live four hours from the coast, because I’ve got Senran Kagura Estival Versus. I’ve had this game for over a year, in fact, but until recently it’s just been sitting in my PS4 backlog.  I decided to dig it up again about a month ago, and I’m happy I did, because it makes for the perfect escape.

I hear you, Murasaki. Sorry for putting you through all this.

The Senran Kagura series is a bit infamous among gamers for its copious amounts of fanservice, and it’s naturally gotten more than its share of complaints from the big western game review sites for it.  But God bless them, developer Marvelous! and creator and producer Kenichiro Takaki keep putting these games out, and they keep getting NA and EU ports (though unfortunately not without some cut content recently thanks to Sony’s new policies, namely in Senran Kagura Reflexions for the PS4.)  The look and feel of Senran Kagura owe a lot to character designer and artist Nan Yaegashi, whose artistic direction is responsible for the “bouncy” nature of these games.

Yaegashi is also responsible for the many special CGs in the game.

Released in 2016, Senran Kagura Estival Versus is a beat-em-up starring the usual cast of ninja girls grouped into different academies that seem to have been built for the express purpose of teaching young ladies how to beat the hell out of each other.  One day, each of the four first-string teams of shinobi are magically summoned to an extradimensional tropical island by Sayuri, a retired shinobi and grandmother of Asuka, the leader of one of the four teams.  Sayuri explains to the girls that they must fight each other in the “Millennium Festival”, a battle royale that pits all four teams against each other in a completely non-lethal “defend the base” sort of game, and that time in their own world will stand still while they carry out their contest.

However, matters are complicated when some of the shinobis’ dead relatives also start to appear on the island, alive and seemingly healthy.  Upon being questioned, Sayuri explains that this island is home to shinobi who have passed on to the next life.  Although the four teams are intense rivals, their members are also friendly with each other on some level, and they all agree after talking it over that Sayuri and her assistants seem to be hiding the true purpose behind the festival.  Meanwhile, some of the shinobi start to lose their nerve, expressing a desire to permanently stay in this new dimension with their deceased family members and creating friction with those who want to win the battle and return home to fight an ancient evil that’s awoken to threaten life on Earth, conveniently just at the time the shinobi were teleported to this island.

Asuka fights some low-level shinobi grunts.

It wouldn’t be right to say that Estival Versus is nothing but fanservice.  It has a plot that serves the game perfectly well, and its drama is nicely balanced by Senran Kagura’s brand of absurd humor.  I already addressed this in my review of Our World Is Ended, but I have no problem with throwing “inappropriate” humor and sex jokes into a game as long as it doesn’t cause too much of a tone problem, and it doesn’t in this case.  And anyway, it wouldn’t be a proper Senran Kagura game without all the lewd jokes and wacky girl-on-girl hijinks and misunderstandings.  If that’s not what you’re into, you already know the series isn’t for you anyway, and if you are, it’s just a good time.

The fact that the combat-based clothes-tearing carries over to the post-battle cutscenes maybe slightly deflates the drama of Miyabi not wanting to leave behind the spirit of her dead mother, but that’s okay.

As far as gameplay goes, Estival Versus is on solid ground.  All our favorite shinobi return as playable characters along with a few new faces, and they have a wide variety of fighting styles, some easier to use and some more difficult/frustrating.  This makes it a little annoying that the game requires you to play as every single shinobi at least once to make it through the main Millennium Festival campaign, since the player character is swapped after each mission.  However, it’s not such a big deal: the game lets you change the difficulty level at any time, so if you find one particular shinobi hard to control, you can always switch over to normal or easy mode for her mission if that’s not too shameful an act for you to bear.  Grinding is also easy to do, though it’s not especially necessary.  Upon completing one of the main campaign missions, you can return to play it with any character you like, meaning you can pit a character against herself in battle, which is always fun.  And if you’re really up against a wall, the game gives you the option of cheesing boss fights by butt-stomping your enemies into submission, though that move doesn’t trigger those famous strategic-clothes-tearing-off sequences that would occur otherwise during battle.

Murasaki is my favorite character, even if her weapon is frustrating to use and totally stupid from a practical perspective.

While Estival Versus does have paid DLC, the great majority of its extra content is unlockable within the game proper, which is something I appreciate.  And there is a lot of it.  Each character gets her own story consisting of five unique missions in addition to the main campaign, and there are extra campaigns on top of those.  None of these missions offer anything different gameplay-wise from the usual “beat up huge crowds of low/mid-level enemies and then beat up one to three of your fellow shinobi” structure.  That’s more or less the whole game.  However, what you do get are a lot more goofy scenarios and dialogue between the characters.  Because not only do these girls fight each other when they have an argument — they also fight when they’re having an otherwise nice, civil conversation (my favorite: shut-in Murasaki beating the writer’s block out of Mirai so she can continue her online novel.)  Fighting is what they know, and it’s what they do.  And it’s what you’ll do if you play this game.  There are also the usual antics you can get up to in the dressing room, where you can try out the dozens upon dozens of costumes and put the girls in embarrassing poses if that’s your thing, but that’s all entirely optional.

So this is one of those cases where assigning a score feels pointless, because you’ll already know whether you’ll love or hate this game before you play it.  Estival Versus is a very competent brawler, and the basic gameplay is fun if you’re into that style of game.  But if you’re not a fan of the Senran Kagura aesthetic, you probably won’t like this or any of the other games in the series.2  For my part, I give Estival Versus a 6, because that’s just how much I liked it.  If giving a lewd anime girl beat-em-up such a high score means I lose my credibility as a serious game reviewer… well, as far as I know, I never had any such credibility in the first place, so that’s okay with me.

Yes, this game is a masterpiece. Fight me.

Also, this doesn’t seem to be mentioned very often, but the Senran Kagura games I’ve played before have good soundtracks, and this one is no exception.  The Estival Versus OST features a nice mix of western and eastern instruments and styles, and some of its pieces are really catchy.  And every single character has a theme song as well.  The composers certainly weren’t slacking off on this project.  In fact, check out Yumi’s theme: it’s partly a rearrangement of Mozart’s Requiem.  See, this is actually a very classy game.

1 Which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from The Simpsons from back when the show was good, between Homer and his son Bart when Bart complains about missing summer after breaking his leg and getting a cast: “Don’t worry, boy.  When you get a job like me, you’ll miss every summer.”

2 I don’t think any of the Senran Kagura games deserve to be dismissed on the grounds that they reflect bad gender politics, because they’re mostly over-the-top games that don’t really try to say anything about gender politics.  In fact, you could argue that on the occasions these games take a serious tone, they represent empowered female characters who face their problems head-on.

But this is a subject for a different post.  All I have left to say about it right now is this: if these games honestly creep you out, I can’t criticize you for feeling that way.  Everyone has different tastes.  I’d just like it if the “woke” crowd on Twitter and elsewhere would also recognize that fact and stop calling for these games to be censored or not exported to the West.  If you don’t like them, just don’t fucking buy them and let the rest of us have our fun.  Can we agree to that?  (Well, of course we can’t, because they get off on exercising control over others by attempting to shame them over their taste in games and other media.  But good luck getting these brave guardians of wholesomeness to admit to that.)

Avoiding the Poochie Effect, or why I’m slightly nervous about Persona 5 Royal

Just slightly.  One percent nervous and 99 percent excited, maybe.

I guess this post won’t be of any interest to you if you haven’t already played or were never planning to play Persona 5, but either way, you’ve likely heard that it’s getting an expansion/director’s cut in the form of Persona 5 Royal, to be released next year.  See above for the new trailer released during E3 this week complete with English dubbing.  This is nothing new for the Persona series; Persona 3 and Persona 4 went through the same process.  The results have been good so far: Persona 3 FES and Persona 4 Golden were both excellent games that added to the experience of the originals, and I believe Persona 5 Royal will be just as good.  However, any time a new character is announced to be added to the main cast, there’s a risk that character will fall victim to the Poochie Effect.

I guess I can’t just assume everyone knows what I’m talking about.  Especially if you’re in your early twenties or younger and you don’t remember a time when The Simpsons was funny or relevant.  To find such a time, we have to go back to 1997 and Season 8 of the series (well, Seasons 9 and 10 had their moments too) to the episode “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”.  This episode is centered around The Itchy & Scratchy Show, an in-universe popular and extremely cartoonishly violent show that I think was meant to be the writers’ take on Tom & Jerry and similar stuff.  The TV executives in charge of the show decide to spice it up with a new character, a talking dog named Poochie, to add to the original ultraviolent cat and mouse duo (of course voiced by Homer, despite Homer being a pretty lousy voice actor.)  However, the audience reaction to Poochie isn’t quite what those executives expected.

Poochie ends up backfiring on the studio so badly that the executives famously axe the character in the following episode by sending him to his “home planet” and saying he died on the way just for good measure.  The audience hated this character so much that they cheer his death, and Itchy & Scratchy immediately wins that audience back as a result.

This Simpsons episode addresses the pitfalls of adding a character to an already established and beloved cast.  Said new character has to prove that they’re just as worthy of the audience’s love as the rest of the cast, so character traits that could be perceived as annoying or obnoxious work against them even more than they would had they been around from the beginning.  Even worse if members of the original cast spend time with and fawn over the newcomer for seemingly no reason other than that they’re a new character who needs screen time.  For a real-life instance of this very thing, look up Scrappy-Doo, Scooby-Doo’s annoying puppy nephew who Hanna-Barbera inserted into the existing cast of Scooby-Doo and who the actual real-life audience hated.  In fact, it seems likely that Poochie is a direct reference to Scrappy-Doo, since that show was airing when some of the Simpsons writers would have been kids.  In any case, the warning is clear: if you’re going to write a new character into your story, make sure they don’t come off like a writer’s pet who only exists to be praised by everyone around them for no reason.

So what’s any of that got to do with the Persona series?  It’s probably obvious at this point that I’m talking about Marie from Persona 4 Golden.  Marie was a completely new character who wasn’t even mentioned in the vanilla version of Persona 4 because she almost certainly didn’t exist at that time, not even as a concept.  Despite first meeting her in Inaba, the town P4 is set in, the protagonist discovers that Marie is actually connected with the Velvet Room, an extra-dimensional space managed by Igor and his assistant Margaret where he can fuse Personas and all that business.  However, Marie isn’t exactly a Velvet Room attendant like Margaret or her siblings.  Her role in Persona 4 Golden is quite different.  I won’t get into what it is exactly, but Marie does figure into one of the side-plots inserted into P4G, and also the protagonist can romance her, because it’s a Persona game and of course he can.

It’s just not worth it, Souji.  Trust me.

While Persona 4 Golden turned out to be a hit – seemingly one of the few on the Vita – Marie was most definitely not a hit.  She’s one of the very few characters in the Persona series who’s outright hated by a lot of fans.  Why?  It could have to do with the fact that she acts like a temperamental teenager throughout most of the game, or that she writes poems of exactly the type a temperamental teenager would write that you’re forced to read every so often when you enter the Velvet Room.  Or that despite her irritating qualities, the members of the Investigation Team who make up the main P4 cast all seem to like her for no real reason, other than that she’s hanging out with the protagonist.

Whatever the case, a lot of fans really disliked Marie.  The only other major character in a Persona game who draws this much ire from the audience is probably Yukari Takeba from Persona 3 because of her haughty attitude, but Yukari is around from the very beginning of Persona 3, while Marie is a newcomer to the cast in Golden.  So Yukari more or less gets a pass, while Marie doesn’t.  The funniest part of all this is that unlike the studio executives in The Simpsons, Atlus hasn’t sent Marie back to her home planet.  She’s appeared in almost every P4 spinoff released since, including Persona Q, Persona Q 2, Persona Arena Ultimax, and Persona 4: Dancing All Night, either as a DLC character or a character in the game proper.  Maybe the Japanese fans who make up the primary market for these games don’t hate Marie at all, or maybe Atlus just doesn’t care.

That brings us to Persona 5 Royal.  Almost all of the buzz surrounding P5R is centered on Kasumi Yoshizawa, the new cast member.  Not much is known about Kasumi aside from what we’ve seen of her in the trailers: that just like Akira, she’s a transfer student to Shujin Academy who has Persona-summoning abilities.  It’s pretty obvious that Kasumi joins the Phantom Thieves at some point in P5R, but what’s not clear is whether she’s a true friend or an enemy planning to betray the group.

She also has a huge appetite.  Just look at that lunch, it’s practically packed in a damn shipping container.

Since this character was made public, she seems to have gotten nothing but love from the fans.  However, since we don’t really know anything about Kasumi’s characterization or her role in the story yet, who’s to say she won’t fall into the same trap Marie did?  Character quirks that would normally be endearing can become irritating under the wrong circumstances, and Marie’s quirks fell into that latter category for a lot of players.  Just like Marie, Kasumi has to convince the player that she’s worthy of joining a beloved cast of characters.  The fact that the fans like her now might turn out to be a moot point.

Hell, this whole post might be moot.  Kasumi looks like she’ll be a cool character.  She seems to be a cheery, spunky kind of girl, and people like that.  Either way, I’ll be preordering Persona 5 Royal.  Because I’m an idiot who will buy anything Atlus puts out, but also because Persona 5 was really good, so the expanded version of P5 has got to be good as well, even if Kasumi ends up falling flat on her face in terms of fan reception.

School counselor Takuto Maruki is also a new character, but because he’s not a cute girl, nobody cares. Sorry, man.

So either Kasumi turns out to be a hated character and this was prophetic, in which case I won’t be happy because I want to like her, or she doesn’t and I just wrote 1,300 words about nothing at all.  This is what happens when I have a sick day and can’t go to work: I drink Robitussin and write nonsense.  Hell, I didn’t even hate Marie that much myself, and I’m sure there were players who liked her.

I’m going back to bed.  You can chalk this one up to a case of delirium.  Do your best to avoid summer colds, everyone.

A review of Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight

Yes, I caved in and bought the Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight package for the PS4.  Yes, I am ashamed of myself for buying this grossly overpriced cash-in.  Yes, I hate myself completely and utterly, and you can’t possibly put me down in any way I haven’t already done to myself.

Aigis is in it, so I had to buy it. That’s my flimsy excuse.

Now that the self-hatred part of the review is out of the way, how are these games? They’re… all right.  Fine.  Kind of disappointing, to be honest, and not for the reasons you might expect.  The Persona series has one of the best sets of soundtracks of any game series ever, thanks to composer Shoji Meguro and the many performers who play the music.  So I didn’t expect to be disappointed by the tracklists to these games.  Persona 4: Dancing All Night, released back in 2015 for the Vita, was no slouch in the tracklist department and featured a lot of good remixes.  The remixes in P3D and P5D, by contrast, are mostly pretty lackluster.  It’s not good when I end up greatly preferring the original track to the remix – if that’s the case, it would be better just to use the original track instead, and that’s what Atlus ends up doing with a lot of the featured dances.  Another problem is the length of each tracklist – only around 25 or so in each game, not counting DLC songs, and some of them don’t even feature the characters dancing but rather animated cutscenes from the games.  Considering the price tag of each game, this is really not acceptable.

Dancing was invented so Atlus could milk Persona games

Some fans have also been disappointed by the fact that, unlike P4:DAN, the P3 and P5 dancing games have no story mode option.  These games instead have very thin story sections that consist of Velvet Room attendants Elizabeth (in P3D) and Justine and Caroline (in P5D) transporting all of SEES/the Phantom Thieves to special dance studio Velvet Rooms in their dreams while they all sleep to have a dance-off against each other.  The two teams never actually meet, which is another disappointment – since they’re all dreaming, and the Velvet Room attendants assure them they won’t remember any of their dreams (isn’t that convenient) it wouldn’t have affected the games’ stories at all.  Hell, you guys already had the P3 and P4 teams meet in Persona Q, and they’ll all be thrown together again in Persona Q 2, so why weren’t these two games combined into one with separate modes for each team like Q was?

The closest thing we get to story mode is a social/confidant link system with eight conversations with each team member, including Elizabeth and Justine/Caroline.  These conversations are full of references to their respective games, so parts of them aren’t going to make a whole lot of sense to newcomers to the series, but at least we get something to do other than play the rhythm game section constantly.  Although the conversations do have to be unlocked by getting achievements, so you’ll have to work for them.

That’s very “meta”, Futaba, thank you

Well shit.  All I’ve done is complain about these games so far, and I don’t want to give the impression that I hate them.  So what about the positives?  The music is pretty damn good on balance – the original soundtracks to both games are great, after all, and even some mediocre remixes can’t ruin good tracks.  The new Persona 3 character models look great.  And the dancing itself is really well done.  Like in P4:DAN, each character dances in a way that’s very much an expression of their personality – Mitsuru’s dancing is elegant, Yusuke has a weird, artsy style, Akihiko and Makoto use a lot of fighting moves, Aigis is extremely precise, and Fuuka is kind of awkward but clearly trying her best.  The character pairings during dances are also pretty fun; it’s especially cute how Futaba tries to imitate the style of the main dancer when she joins in.  My favorite is Haru, though – I don’t remember if she ever dropped the fact that she’d formerly been a ballerina anywhere in Persona 5, but here she busts out some great-looking ballet moves.  Pirouettes.  Swan Lake?  I don’t know ballet that well, sorry.  I’m not cultured enough; I only specialize in stupid weeb games like these.

Ballet combined with aikido moves makes for a good combination.

I guess the biggest question is whether these games are worth buying at their unforgivably high sticker prices for people who haven’t played or aren’t especially fond of Persona 3 or Persona 5.  The answer is absolutely not.  I don’t usually mess around with bold text, and this is both bold and italicized, so you know I’m serious.  Not that P3D or P5D are really bad games.  To the average consumer, they’ll probably come off as serviceable rhythm games.  And if you see them on sale somewhere, I’d say at least one of them is worth buying for the non-initiate (probably not both, because they’re effectively the same game with different casts of characters and different tracks to dance to, which is partly why I’m reviewing them jointly.)  At a sticker price of 60 dollars each, however, they are stupidly overpriced.  The PS4 bundle, which includes both games and a digital copy of Persona 4: Dancing All Night for 100 dollars, is a better deal, and I might even say it’s worth getting if just to have P4:DAN on the PS4, which isn’t available separately, at least at the moment.  But that deal is hardly worth it for the non-hardcore fan.

If you’re a massive fan of the core games, you’ll obviously get more value out of these.  A lot of the content in P3D and P5D is basically dessert for people who finished P3 and P5.  We also get the expected fanservice with a lot of unlockable costumes, including the usual bathing suits and butler suits for the guys and maid outfits, swimsuits and fantasy bikini armor for the girls.  So if you’re into that kind of stuff, have fun.  There’s also plenty of paid costume DLC too, so have your fucking credit card or Paypal account ready if you really want it that badly.

Just pile on the fanservice boys, the more the better

Anyway, ratings.  I can only give each of these games a 4 on my scale – just passing.  The dancing is fun and all, and it’s nice to see our beloved P3 and P5 casts together again, but there were too many disappointments here with their respective tracklists to give these games anything higher, and I’m pissed off at Atlus for effectively using these games as a DLC delivery service.  As far as rhythm games go, the Vocaloid title Project DIVA Future Tone is far better, both in terms of value and variety of music, and it’s the one to buy if you don’t care about injecting Persona fanservice directly into your bloodstream. Bump that score up a point if you can get either or both of these games for a bargain, because they are basically good, but I’m still pissed off about the whole thing.

Maybe dessert truly is the best way to describe these games: buying and playing them are like gorging on cake.  Nice at first, and incredibly sweet, but in the end you feel sick and regret what you’ve done.

On the other hand, maybe it’s worth it to hear Akihiko’s underwear tips.

With that, I’m done spending money on games for a while.  I’m trying to keep my head above water and save some money to put a down payment on a house after the next housing bubble pops, so until Shin Megami Tensei V or Disgaea 6 forces me to finally buy a Switch, you can look forward to a bunch of reviews from my massive backlog, along with my planned soundtrack reviews, “games for broke people” reviews, the occasional post about law, and the constant depression and bitching and moaning I deliver.  In other words, nothing’s really going to change.

Disgaea revisited: A review of Disgaea 1 Complete

Well shit. I should write at least one review of a game I played this year before it ends. So here you go: Disgaea 1 Complete for the PS4.

Yes, Disgaea is back on the PS4 (and the Switch, which I don’t own yet much to my chagrin.) I wrote about the 2003 original a few years back, and being a big Disgaea fan I had to check out this remake. The first Disgaea game lacks all the frills and bells and whistles of its sequels, but it still has the best cast and the best story out of all of them. It introduces the Netherworld, an underworld ruled until recently by the late King Krichevskoy, and now under the (sort-of) control of his young son, the demon prince Laharl. Laharl spends the game trying to consolidate his control with the help of his vassal the backstabby, mischievous demon girl Etna and her squad of press-ganged Prinnies, penguin-like creatures who are inhabited by the souls of sinful deceased humans. Meanwhile, Laharl has to dodge assassination attempts by would-be usurpers (and by the innocent angel girl/assassin Flonne, the third main character in the cast.)

If you’ve played Disgaea, you already know more or less what this game is like: isometric tactical RPG action, a plot with a lot of weird humor and references to sci-fi series like Buck Rogers and Super Sentai (or Power Rangers if you’re a westerner.) And a lot of power-grinding. You don’t really have to grind to beat the game proper and get one of the several endings, but everyone who’s played any of the Disgaea games knows that the real meat is in the post-game – the Item World and the unlockable extra bosses that require stupid amounts of grinding. I no longer have time to perform stupid amounts of grinding, working in the field I do, but thankfully there are ways to efficiently power-grind if you want to beat all the optional post-game bosses.  If I want to beat level 4,000 Tyrant Overlord Baal, it’s still going to be a month or two.  I might pass on it this time.

Leading ladies Flonne and Etna. The character portraits in D1 Complete were mostly preserved from the original game, and they look good in HD.

Is there anything special about Disgaea 1 Complete, aside from its being in HD? Sure – if you haven’t played the PSP or DS versions of the game, at least. Extras from the PSP’s Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness and Disgaea DS are included in this remake, meaning you can play the game with Etna as the protagonist instead of Laharl in Etna mode, recruit Pleinair, the ultra-powerful demon girl who hangs around as a silent NPC in every Disgaea game, and fight new extra bosses like Adell and Rozalin, the hero and heroine of Disgaea 2. Also notable are the new designs of certain classes to line up with their counterparts in newer Disgaea games. The original Disgaea: Hour of Darkness featured some character designs that had already been completely redone by Disgaea 2, and as a result the Mage, Skull, and Archer units have received an update. The most extreme change in the cosmetic category is the Clergy, a male healer unit – he was already androgynous in his original form, but now he’s gone full trap, pigtails and all. I guess NIS is trying to appeal to a certain demographic who’s into that sort of thing.

Aside from extras and cosmetic differences, though, there doesn’t seem to be anything new in Disgaea 1 Complete.  The Item World (a randomized dungeon that lets you level up items and equipment) is still its old bare-bones self, lacking all the new features that would be added in later titles.  No new classes, either, apparently.  There’s nothing wrong with that – it just means that if you’ve played the original and at least one of the handheld ports, D1C doesn’t add much aside from a new coat of paint, and that’s something to consider if you can only buy one game this month/season.

The D1C Item World. Occasionally you get a ridiculously easy level like this one, just like in the original Disgaea.

If you’re a big NIS/Disgaea fanatic like I am, Disgaea 1 Complete is probably worth getting, if only to relive a true classic 15 years later.  If you’ve never played the PS2 Disgaea or either of its handheld ports, however, D1C gets an unconditional recommendation.  This really is the definitive version of Disgaea, and it’s still a great game 15 years on, even after the release of Disgaea 5 a few years ago.  It might lack all those bells and whistles, but it’s worth the time you’ll put into it.  Unless you decide to go after Tyrant Overlord Baal.  That’s on you.

Rating: 7 if this is your first go-around in Disgaea 1, 5 if it isn’t.

Oh yeah, Merry Christmas.  I hope nobody got too drunk and went on a political rant at your Christmas office party or dinner.  That’s why I always limit my drinking around family and work colleagues.