Update, part 1 (10/23/2021)

First, sorry for the mess. I’d hoped to put up another game review today, but my mind hasn’t been in a good place for the last several days (or years really, if we’re stretching it out to the long term.) Between the increasingly apocalyptic mood here in the US and my own personal issues that I can’t seem to sort out, I’ve more or less given up on the future being anything other than a flaming fucking wreck, both for myself and for society as a whole. You might have guessed as much already if you’ve seen my griping on Twitter. As you can see above, I was too unmotivated to even give this post a proper title.

That’s nothing new for me, though. Outside of my writing here, I haven’t had any expectation of personal fulfillment for a long time now. I’m really just happy to finally have professional fulfillment, with a job I like well enough that I can cope with the amount of work I get piled onto me. And as for the rest of the world, since I have no control over it, I’m resisting all efforts on the part of the media to get me to worry about it (you know those articles you see all over the place — “Why you should be worried about x” where x is an actual problem but one individual people can’t do a god damned thing about — like we don’t have enough worries already. Is the point just to give me an ulcer? And then these are next to articles about self-care. Fuck off.)

There’s a reason I always use SZS screenshots in these posts: I identify with Mr. Despair more than any other character ever. I’m also completely open to the likelihood that my personal issues and negative mindset distort my view of the future.

There’s one aspect of the future I’ll never give up on, though, and that’s the salvation provided by art and entertainment. Since making it through the massive epics of Atelier Ryza and Yakuza 0, I’ve been taking it a little easier, but I still have games to complete that I need to get back to including NieR Replicant and a couple of visual novels I’ve had pending for a long time now. And anime series I need to catch up on like The Aquatope on White Sand, which I regret I’ve fallen behind on — but I will catch up. Hopefully this weekend.

However, there are also several new games and anime series I have already picked up or will be picking up in the near future when they come out, so I thought I’d also provide an update on those. For today let’s start with the games, and with the two I’m currently playing:

Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book

It’s confirmed now that Atelier has taken over my life. This is the fifth game in the series this year I’ve taken up (and the sixth Gust-developed game adding in Blue Reflection, and there will be more to come; read on for that.) I’m about ten hours into the PS4 remaster of Atelier Sophie already, so this entry will be a kind of very short first impressions post.

And my first impression of Sophie is that I like it. The game feels like a return to some of the simplicity of the Arland series, with a very slice-of-life style, only without that damned time limit that you had to mess around with in the Arland games. So in that sense, Sophie is even more relaxed than those — I’d say it’s the most relaxed and comfortable Atelier game I’ve played so far.

Well, mostly. Fuck this irritating cauldron puzzle alchemy system.

Luckily, comfortable and relaxed is just what I needed at the moment. The plot so far is very light, just about our cute alchemy girl protagonist (as usual) Sophie Neuenmuller doing alchemy and spending time with her friends around her idyllic old European-looking hometown of Kirchen Bell. One of these friends just happens to be a talking book containing the soul of another girl named Plachta, who knows a lot about alchemy and forms an informal mentor-student relationship with Sophie.

The character interaction so far is nice and enjoyable, especially between Sophie and Plachta. There are even a couple of very familiar faces in the game like Pamela (who was also in the Arland games, but she’s been around since Atelier Judie all the way back in 2002) and Logy (from Atelier Escha & Logy, of course, but this is apparently a totally different Logy who just looks and acts exactly the same as his alternate universe self in the Dusk series. I wonder if Escha will show up as well?)

I’m also a fan of the art and character designs — Atelier always does well in that regard.

Remember all those stupid 90s/00s high school movies where the nerdy girl takes her glasses off and suddenly she’s “attractive”? Fuck all of them, every single one, without exception. Glasses are hot. But to be fair, I think society has finally acknowledged that somewhat at least.

The only real criticism I can make so far is that I’m not much of a fan of the puzzle box alchemy mechanic Sophie uses, though that’s really more of a personal issue. I’ll just have to get used to it.

Yakuza Kiwami

I think I already mentioned that I’ve started Kiwami in my Yakuza 0 review. I’m still only in Chapter 1, partly because I’ve spent more time lately playing through the post-game Premium Adventure phase of 0 as part of my relaxation regimen.

But I can already tell that Kiwami is going to be interesting. The setting so far is familiar, the same Kamurocho I spent so much time in during 0 with more or less the same map, though many of the storefronts have changed with the passage of time, which makes sense. It’s also nice to see that protagonist Kazuma Kiryu is still just as stoic and unmovable as he was before. It’s impressive just how much shit this guy is willing to put up with for the sake of his ideals. I can see why people like him so much (well, I could already in 0.)

Not much more to say about Kiwami at the moment, since I’m not far enough in to even give proper first impressions beyond what I’ve already written. But I will be playing through it, if only because I need to know how Kiryu’s story continues. Also to see whatever wacky shit he gets pulled into on the side, because those were some of my favorite parts of 0.

I will, and same to you, Majima-chan!

Aside from those games already mentioned, there are a few I have preordered, two of which are coming out next month, so you can probably look forward to something about those in the near or not-so-near future depending. Starting with:

Blue Reflection: Second Light

Yes, the Blue Reflection sequel is finally almost here, coming out in NA on November 9. While I felt the original game had some flaws, I liked it and looked forward to whatever might come next. And shortly after I posted that review, Second Light (or Tie in Japan) was announced.

Second Light seems to be a continuation of the story told in Blue Reflection with a new central cast of characters, though the first game’s protagonist Hinako is back in some capacity. The all girls’ high school setting is back as well, of course, along with the social sim element from the original.

Best of all, both Mel Kishida (artist/character designer) and Hayato Asano (composer) are back, and their contributions were the best parts of Blue Reflection — for whatever flaws that game had, the art and music largely made up for them. I do hope there are some improvements to Second Light, but even if it’s similar in quality to the first game, I won’t be too put out if it looks and sounds just as beautiful.

Shin Megami Tensei V

Yeah, this one was expected, wasn’t it? SMT V is released next month, and I have it preordered as well, though unfortunately I won’t be able to play it right away because I don’t yet own a Switch.

Now you might ask — why the hell would you buy a game for a console you don’t own? Firstly, because SMT V is a Switch exclusive, and there’s no hint that it will be ported to any other console or to PC anytime soon, and secondly, because I was waiting for this god damn game for several years and I’m sure as hell buying it on release. I do plan to get a Switch sometime soon as well. Even if it’s a cheap secondhand one with half the buttons missing — I’m not particular as long as I can play SMT V.

In any case, there’s no way I can’t be excited for this game. It really looks excellent, with everything you’d expect from a mainline SMT title. Again, not much more to say at the moment, but I’m looking forward to getting into the game once I get my hands on a Switch (and by the way, if anyone knows any good deals, please drop me a tweet or leave a comment if you like. But not an email, because my MSN account is clogged to hell with garbage. Incidentally, my apologies if I’ve missed anything you might have sent there — please let me know if so.)

Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream

Yeah, why not. I figured since I’ve liked Atelier Sophie 1 so far, I may as well preorder the recently announced sequel. It’s set to come out in February 2022, probably among the last of the PS4 releases. Though it’s also coming out on the Switch as you can see to the left, and also on the PC.

I figure that at the rate I’m playing Atelier games, I might very well be finished with the Mysterious trilogy by the time I get Sophie 2 in four months, so it’s pretty good timing all things considered. There’s also a deluxe form of Sophie 2 out for preorder with a giant cloth poster, bonus soundtrack, and some other nice-looking stuff included, though that’s a bit too expensive for me — I’m sticking with the standard edition. I’m not quite enough of a rabid fan to buy those special editions. Remember when bonus mini-soundtracks came free with these games as a matter of course? I still have the five or six-track CD I got with the original Persona 3 release. Maybe this one is a full soundtrack instead, I don’t know.

Oh well, enough complaints from me. I might make an anime version of this post in a few days, following the pattern I set a couple of months ago. I hope I’m not being too lazy with these, but I feel like I’ve earned some laziness since writing two proper game reviews in a month, something I haven’t done for years now probably (or ever?) Until next time.

A review of Yakuza 0 (PS4)

This month is now officially dedicated to game reviews only. I have quite a few of them to clear out, and it helps that I binged on games that I’d been stuck on for a while recently, finally getting through them substantially. Not at 100% completion, and not even close in the case of this post’s subject, but enough to get more or less the full experience of them.

And certainly, today’s subject is a massive game, though not in the same way as most other games usually described as “massive” are. I’m not sure that makes sense yet, but keep reading and maybe it will. No, I’m not sleep-deprived, why do you ask. Well, not extremely sleep-deprived anyway. Depending on how loosely you define “extremely.”

The city never sleeps, and neither do I. Kiryu does, though; he looks after his health pretty well as long as you ignore the cigarettes.

Yakuza 0 is a game more or less everyone knows at this point if they’ve spent at least five minutes on the internet. Released in 2015 in Japan and 2017 everywhere else on PS3/4, PC, and Xbox One as a prequel to the long-running Yakuza action series, it’s been played by most everyone and meme’d to hell in its few years of existence — if you’ve ever heard Baka Mitai, you already know something about this game even if you didn’t realize it. And as always, I’m late to the party.

Now on to the business, because there’s a lot of that to get into. Yakuza 0 features two protagonists, the first of whom we meet is the stoic-looking guy above. Kazuma Kiryu is a young yakuza member in the Kazama family headquartered in the Kamurocho ward of Tokyo, a unit of the larger Dojima family, which is itself a subsidiary of the Tojo Clan (this shit gets complicated pretty quickly, so it may help to create or refer to a chart.) Kiryu is indeed a stoic guy, aiming to emulate his direct boss and mentor, the Dojima family captain Shintaro Kazama. Unfortunately for both Kiryu and his fellow Kazama family member/best friend/sworn brother Akira Nishikiyama, Kazama is doing time in prison, and the three lieutenants of the Dojima family below him are all aiming for his job.

So it’s maybe not a great surprise when the murder of a debtor that Kiryu roughed up but certainly didn’t kill is pinned on him. Kiryu and Nishikiyama realize that this puts both of them and Kazama himself in the crosshairs of the higher-ups, and Kiryu takes an extreme step to try to protect the Kazama family from its enemies by asking big boss Dojima to let him take the fall by expelling him from the yakuza.

Not the standard staff meeting

After first being required to beat the shit out of nearly every man in the Dojima family office up to and including one of its lieutenants, Kuze, Kiryu is allowed to leave the family (and Kuze is left less a pinky finger for his loss, classic yakuza-style.) But matters aren’t quite so simple. As Dojima says, Kazama is still on the hook with regard to his responsibility for Kiryu. And of course, Kiryu is also still wanted by police in connection with the murder he’s been framed for.

After going back to Kamurocho and wondering what the hell he should do now that he’s just about fucked, Kiryu is met on the street by a wealthy real estate developer named Tetsu Tachibana who takes him in. Tachibana claims to know and to be working with Kazama for a greater goal and says he needs Kiryu’s help to carry out his plan, which involves tracking down the unknown owner of the “Empty Lot”, a tiny patch of land in the middle of Kamurocho that the Dojima family is after in order to complete their Monopoly same-color property line and start a highly lucrative rebuilding project.1 The murder victim Kiryu is being framed over just happened to be roughed up and later shot dead in the Empty Lot, complicating matters for everyone involved.

Talking it over with Nishikiyama back at Kiryu’s dumpy apartment. Apparently the yakuza is basically politics with more openly violent tendencies? Maybe that’s true of all organized crime.

Kiryu is naturally suspicious about the new arrangement, but he opens up slightly after Tachibana gives him a keepsake from Kazama, one that he couldn’t possibly have without the connection he claims. After doing his own research into Tachibana’s company the next day (involving more punching, of course, because that’s how you usually solve problems in this game) Kiryu decides to accept Tachibana’s offer and joins his company as a real estate agent, going on the straight and narrow — for now, at least. Tachibana’s massive wealth and influence can temporarily protect Kiryu from the police and from the Dojima family he’s now openly antagonizing in order to support Kazama, but for how long?

A good maxim to keep in mind

Meanwhile, in the Sotenbori district of Osaka, our other protagonist Goro Majima is hard at work as the manager of the Cabaret Grand. Majima is known around the popular entertainment district as Sotenbori’s “Lord of the Night” for his great success as a club manager (which we get to see a bit of in maybe the flashiest character introduction in a game ever created.)

Despite this achievement, Majima’s life is pretty lousy. We soon learn that he’s an ex-yakuza who was held for a year in confinement, tortured (hence the missing eye — it didn’t go missing by accident) and then expelled from his family for disobeying his boss in support of his sworn brother. Even so, Majima is desperate to re-enter the Shimano family, his old yakuza association, and so he works to make them money as a “civilian” at the Grand.

Unfortunately, he’s so good at his job that his old boss doesn’t want him going anywhere — in fact, Majima is constantly watched to make sure he never leaves Sotenbori, his “gilded cage.”

But soon enough, an opportunity comes up for Majima when his yakuza handler Sagawa communicates an order from his boss: a hit on someone named Makoto Makimura. He’s told this Makimura is a guy who deceives and draws unwilling women into sex work, so he doesn’t really have to feel too bad about putting an end to him. Better still, if he kills this guy, Majima rejoins the family, no more bullshit civilian work required.

He’s never killed before, but Majima accepts the job and is determined to perform it properly. However, when he discovers the true identity of Makoto Makimura, he finds himself unable to carry out the hit. Can Majima deal with his personal feelings and ideals while also avoiding getting killed by his old family for disobeying orders once again?

And what in the fuck is “HAIR MESSAGE LOVESONG”?

Before going any further, I should note that this is my first Yakuza game. Before playing Yakuza 0, I was just aware of the series’ existence but didn’t take much interest until I heard enough good things about 0 that I finally caved and went for it. At the time, I had a vague idea that this was something like “GTA but in Japan” — probably the same idea a lot of first-time players had. Makes sense, since both series are mainly action games set in large cities that center on organized crime.

But it was the wrong idea, because Yakuza 0 (and I’m assuming the rest of the series probably) isn’t much at all like GTA. Aside from the surface similarities, the two take such different approaches to both gameplay and story that they can’t really be compared. The first obvious difference is that there’s no Auto in Yakuza 0 — there is a bit of driving in the story, but you’re not the one doing it, and almost all the action is confined to the streets of Kamurocho and Sotenbori that are open exclusively to pedestrian traffic.

The settings themselves provide another example of this difference. Kamurocho and Sotenbori are called “cities” in the game’s translation, but they’re more like districts or wards than cities in themselves, both parts of the massive metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka. Based on the real-life entertainment/red-light districts of Kabukicho and Dotonbori, both are relatively small in comparison to the entire cities featured in GTA games. But despite their comparatively small sizes, these two districts offer just as much if not more entertainment than the cities in GTA, packed as they are with clubs, bars, restaurants, shops, arcades, and various other entertainment for Kiryu and Majima to enjoy.

And I don’t mean that just in a general sense, but specifically: many of these spots offer the player healing in the form of food and drink and distractions through minigames. These diversions include but are not limited to (because I couldn’t put a complete list here even if I wanted to): pool, darts, mahjong, shogi (which I still can’t figure out how to play), bowling, poker, blackjack, baccarat, roulette, cee-lo (which I only know from Kaiji, and this one has some extra weird rules I wasn’t aware of), cho-han, underground no-holds-barred fighting, and perhaps most absurd and frustrating, racing tiny cars on a track against a bunch of children.

There are also dancing minigames, the only time/place you’ll ever catch me dancing.

In addition to these diversions, Kamurocho and Sotenbori are filled with side characters the player can interact with. Some of these characters have their own stories that Kiryu or Majima can get involved in, usually either by helping them out with a problem or getting roped into a bizarre situation that they have to resolve.

A lot of games feature sidequests that may just feel thrown in as a matter of course, because they’re expected by the player or to fill out time. The side stories in Yakuza 0, however, aren’t simply thrown in — all those I’ve played so far are so entertaining that they’re well worth the time spent. You don’t really have to go seeking them out, either; for the most part you’ll run into all these citizens and hear their problems out while exploring Kamurocho and Sotenbori.

One example of the many problems you can help fellow citizens with

Many of these side stories involving using your fists to solve problems as is so often the case, but not all of them — sometimes, you’ll need to find the right words instead. A lot of the character of both Kiryu and Majima come out in these stories: Kiryu as the ultra-stoic but also somewhat naive guy, and Majima as also serious but sarcastic (quite a change from his character in successive games.2) The side stories feature a nice mix of everyday mundane life problems and bizarre/absurd situations, with mostly pretty memorable NPCs, some of whom can even show up later to help Kiryu/Majima out with their own ventures.

This side story is up there with Majima’s cult infiltration as one of my favorites.

Speaking of those ventures, not only are there a load of minigames and side stories to enjoy in Yakuza 0, but also two business simulations for each protagonist: Kamurocho Real Estate Royale, in which Kiryu has to take ownership of prominent businesses in various neighborhoods of Kamurocho piece by piece, and Sotenbori Cabaret Club Czar, in which Majima is tasked with taking a small failing nightclub and propelling it to the top club in town just as he did with the much larger Cabaret Grand. These simulations are sort of extended side stories in the sense that they also involve a lot of talking to people around town, sometimes having to find the right words (more in Majima’s case) and sometimes having to beat down hired muscle from rivals (more in Kiryu’s, but also in Majima’s.)

How Kiryu buys real estate. No need for a lawyer or a closing or any of that shit. Just flash a suitcase full of money while standing in front of the place.

And of course, with all this running around and fighting, you’ll have to get into the combat. If you strip all these extra elements away (not that you’d want to, though) Yakuza 0 is a beat-em-up game at its core. Throughout both the central plot and the side stories, you’re required to beat the shit out of hundreds to thousands of men who come at you. Many of these are yakuza grunts going after either Kiryu or Majima, controlled by a higher-up who you may also have to take on in a boss fight. The very first super-extended fight sequence at the end of Chapter 1 is a good example of this arrangement, with Kiryu having to fight through all of Dojima HQ, even taking on a recurring mid-boss sort of character before beating on the lieutenant Kuze.

Kiryu and Majima each have a few fighting styles they can learn and switch between freely in combat, ranging from slower and more powerful to quicker and lighter. Some styles allow the player to pick up and use certain objects like chairs, tables, crates, and even bicycles and motorcycles to smash enemies with. Beating on these guys also raises the player’s Heat bar, and at a sufficient Heat level Kiryu/Majima can unleash their true power with finishing moves — a large variety of them, many involving those objects you can pick up or certain weapons you can take off of fallen enemies or buy at stores.

This is by far one of the most satisfying beatings you give out in the game.

Yakuza 0 isn’t a difficult game, or at least not on its normal or hard modes. Kiryu and Majima have plenty of ways to deal with any situation they might find themselves in, even when surrounded by many enemies at once. Hell, that’s just when they get started — especially Majima when using his Breaker style, which turns him into a breakdancing human tornado. And if there’s a motorcycle anywhere near Kiryu, every one of those enemies will be on the ground within just a few seconds after he rips through that crowd with it.

The game also allows you to stock up on healing items. You get plenty of inventory space as well as an unlimited item box to send extra items to storage. Your item box stuff can only be accessed at certain save points, but that’s not a problem — as long as you have a full supply of energy drinks to raise your health and your Heat meter, you should be able to rip through the long plot-related battles without a problem, even if you’re shit at action games like I am. You can even cheese the boss fights by pausing to recover from the beating you’re taking, though I subscribe to the idea that if the game lets you do it, it’s not really cheating.

If these dumb assholes had also gone by the drugstore on the way here to stock up on Staminan Royales, they probably could have killed me pretty easily. Not my fault they failed to prepare.

Of course, you can also play the game in a more serious way by actually trying to block, dodge, and use tactics instead of just going all out offensive in every fight. Legendary Mode also unlocks as an option once you’ve gotten through the final chapter, so those who want a second, more difficult swing at Yakuza 0 might enjoy that. Either way, I wouldn’t suggest playing on Easy, given that Normal (the mode I played my first run through) is already pretty easy, though it’s an option as well if you just want to have a good time with the story and with Kamurocho and Sotenbori in general.

No worrying about money, either: it’s all over the fucking place. In addition to end-of-chapter monetary bonuses, you can also literally beat money out of people who very stupidly pick fights with you on the street (and I mean literally in the actual sense of the word; banknotes fly out of them when you beat them.) You also have the ability to pick fights with packs of jerks trying to mess with or extort money from law-abiding citizens — a task that’s well worth you time, as you’ll always get a reward for your good work, ranging from a healing item to a million-dollar diamond-encrusted plate. Not bad for a minute’s work.

Piss it all away at the Sotenbori casino; there’s always more. Too bad money isn’t so easily gotten in real life.

As for that central plot, it feels perfect for a gangster story like Yakuza 0. Some players might expect a simple “rise up the ranks” kind of story, especially considering that this is a prequel to the main series, but that’s not quite what this one is. While both Kiryu and Majima are working towards “professional” goals (if you can call being a yakuza professional anyway; the various clans and families in the game do seem to operate like corporations with hierarchies and division of duties) they’re really much more about Kiryu and Majima figuring out what their ideals are and how to live according to those ideals while still surviving in the dangerous world they’ve been brought up in.

This isn’t part of the central story, but it is another very satisfying beatdown involving the strong ideals of our protagonists.

It works, too; in contrast with all the bizarre/surreal/goofy parts of Yakuza 0, the plot does get quite serious at times, but the tonal shifts weren’t a problem at all for me. I’m not sure whether this trend continues after 0 (or before it, I guess, since the next game in line is Yakuza Kiwami, the remake of the PS2 original) but here it provides a nice break from the main action if you need it. Maybe too nice, since I did stall out on this game for a long time playing through that side stuff.

I’m still playing the post-game “Premium Adventure”, the part after finishing the final chapter when Kiryu and Majima have free rein over their cities — makes it a lot easier to continue those business simulations without having the plot on my mind (not to mention without having streets blocked off for plot reasons or having to run away from those Dojima assholes out looking for Kiryu every so often.)

No matter how many times I play it, I still suck at OutRun. I did fill up the scoreboard with three-letter-adapted curse words in true 10 year-old fashion just like we used to at the arcade, though.

But though I haven’t stopped playing it exactly, I now feel safe in saying that Yakuza 0 fully deserves all the praise it’s gotten, and I’ll gladly pile onto it. This game gets my highest recommendation. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s a prequel if you’re new to the series, either: I was new to it myself, and I understood everything well enough even if I’m sure there were references or maybe a bit of foreshadowing I missed out on.

I’ll see it in retrospect, maybe. Not sure how far I’ll get into this series, since there are several games that I expect are just as long as 0, but I have just started Kiwami, so we’ll see. I like the contrast I have between Yakuza and Atelier going right now, so I might continue with it. In the meantime, I’ll be coming back to 0 for more adventures in real estate empire-building, cabaret club management, and defending decent citizens from assholes and jerks.

I’ll be back for more punishment one day, I promise.

1 A little history here: Yakuza 0 takes place in 1988, right in the middle of the massive 1986-1991 real estate bubble that further heated Japan’s already hot economy. This is presumably why so much money is being thrown around in the game — you can even quite literally throw money with your “Cash Confetti” ability that lets you avoid unwanted fights; new combat skills can only be learned by “investing in yourself” with money, etc. In this context, it makes at least some kind of sense that these guys would be beating up and even killing each other over ownership of one tiny lot in the middle of a commercial district.

2 Though I was new to Yakuza when I started 0, I was already kind of vaguely familiar with “that crazy guy with the eyepatch.” Majima’s character shift still feels weird, even if an attempt to explain it was made at the end of the game. It feels a lot less like he’s actually crazy and more like he’s thought “well, this world is all fucked up and absurd, so I’ll be even crazier than everyone else” — I’ve heard from long-time fans that his treatment in 0 was basically a retcon. I do like the new (or old?) Majima, but I’ll have to get used to the change.

Currently playing (Yakuza 0 / Atelier Ryza / NieR Replicant)

This isn’t going to become a regular feature. It’s more of a situational thing. I just happen to be stuck in the middle of some very long games right now, and so I thought I’d cover where I currently am in them along with my thoughts so far. All on the PS4, because yes I’m a console peasant with a shit PC that can only run VNs and then just barely.

These also aren’t the only games I’m playing — I have two or three shorter ones lined up that I’ll very likely get through first, but I’ll save those for their own reviews. For now, let’s start with:

Yakuza 0

I really like this game so far. But I’m still only on chapter 5, and here I’m going to talk about why.

First: the bizarre and fun side stories you can find in it. At this point, I’ve helped get a kid his video game back, broken up a cult, and taught a dominatrix how to do her job properly. Serious credit to the writers — Yakuza 0 mixes these weird, ridiculous stories with the main dramatic plot, breaking it up in a way that lightens the mood without spoiling it.

And then there are the side characters you run into around town who don’t necessarily connect to that main plot at all. The lady-crazy Mr. Libido up there is just one of the more out-there characters you can meet around the streets of Tokyo and Osaka. The two main characters Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima have their own particular ways of approaching these people, and they’re both entertaining — there’s a lot of “why the hell am I going along with this…” sort of talk from them, especially from the serious Kiryu, but in the end they are actually helpful guys despite being dangerous (ex) Yakuza types.

Finally, the minigames. I spent a lot of time in the Tokyo and Osaka mahjong parlors losing my money to these assholes. Of course, it’s not such a big deal to lose when you can step outside, get called out by a group of thugs, and then beat a few hundred thousand yen out of them to immediately recoup your losses. It’s still frustrating to get beaten at the mahjong table in the last round when you’re in the lead, though. One day I’ll get a daisangen and then quit playing this shit.

For now, though, I need to make progress in the main plot. I’ve just shifted back to Kiryu’s perspective, and he has plenty of work to do in his new position as an agent for a shady real estate developer while he continues his hunt for clues about the murder he was framed for. I’m sure some beatings will be in order soon enough.

Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout

Continuing my trek into the long ass Atelier series, I’m now in the middle of Atelier Ryza. And I’m really liking it so far. This is the newest iteration of the series, which has gone through a lot of changes over the last 12 years since it moved into its “modern era” (at least as far as I can tell, this is how fans talk about the series) with Atelier Rorona.

Hanging around the farmland near Ryza’s sleepy hometown of Rasenboden. Ryza wants to go out adventuring, but all I want to do is retire and feed the goats. I really am getting old.

Ryza features a completely new lineup of characters in a new universe distinct from all the previous ones and is quite a bit more slice-of-life and relaxed than the Atelier Dusk trilogy I reviewed earlier this year. It does have a plot about saving your hometown from a long-dormant evil lurking around, but it’s all more or less driven by the protagonist Reisalin Stout, or simply Ryza, wanting to get the hell away from her parents’ farm and her island hometown to explore new lands. She brings/drags along her friends, the warrior Lent and the nerdy mage Tao, and along the way she runs into more future friends including an alchemist who reveals the secrets of his craft to her, after which Ryza commits to learning alchemy herself.

But that’s not the only difference from the Dusk series. The old traditional turn-based combat system has also been replaced with one that combines elements of turn-based and real-time battle. As a consequence, battles in Ryza are a lot faster than in previous games, and with a stronger emphasis on identifying and exploiting enemy weaknesses. If you haven’t synthesized the right attack item for a particular boss, you’ll likely get wiped out in under a minute, but you can just as easily tip the scales in your direction by spending time in the atelier.

I don’t even know what this does.

Speaking of synthesis, Ryza would not be a proper Atelier game without a heavy emphasis on crafting items, weapons, and armor with alchemy using ingredients you can find in the field. The new alchemy system is again very different from the previous ones, but it’s pretty intuitive. I’ll go into far greater, and probably very boring, detail when I actually review this game.

And hopefully that review isn’t too far off, because I’m making good progress in Ryza. Not sure how far I am in the story, but my adventurer level is in the high 30s and my alchemist level is in the high 40s, so I’m at least pretty far along with the character development in that sense. That said, I’m currently having my ass beat by a dragon boss so I’ll have to go back to the drawing board until I can figure that fight out.

NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139…

From now on simply NieR Replicant, though that long version number does set this game apart from the original PS3 Replicant. Then again, we never got the original Replicant here in the States — instead we got NieR Gestalt, simply titled NieR (or Nier as it was written on the NA cover — still not sure about the deal with that capital R but I guess Yoko Taro has his reasons for it.)

Look, if Devola asks me this question, the answer is yes.

Anyway, I’m a bit into the second part of Replicant, and it lives up to its strong reputation so far. The soundtrack is amazing of course (I do prefer the original “Gods Bound by Rules”, but the new one is good as well) and the gameplay is fun, with plenty of special moves to learn and weapons to pick up. In terms of the mechanics, it’s not very different from its semi-sequel NieR:Automata, so at least the style didn’t take much getting used to.

One aspect of NieR Replicant I especially like is the character interaction. Automata had some great moments in this sense, especially in the friendly but tense relationship between 2B and 9S, but Replicant does even better. The setup of the story is pretty basic: you’re a young man (canonically named Nier, but you can pick any name for yourself) determined to save your deathly ill little sister Yonah. But Yonah isn’t just “sick little sister” — she has a lot more character to her and is determined to help out Nier despite his insistence that she simply rest and try to feel better.

Kainé giving Weiss a piece of her mind.

The banter between Nier and the powerful magical talking book Grimoire Weiss, who quickly becomes your ally, is also great. This ancient tome is tired of all the bullshit and just wants people to give him the respect he’s owed. He doesn’t get all that much, though, and especially not from Kainé, now one of my favorite supporting game characters.

Finally, that injury I got a while back has finally healed, so I can actually play these action games again without awkwardly not using my left thumb to manipulate the controller. Took long enough. Apparently I don’t heal nearly as quickly as I used to; probably yet another effect of getting older. What a fucking life this is.

I’ll finally kill this stupid thing.

But I’m not quite done with these preview posts yet. Next up in just a few days will be a similar one covering two currently airing anime series I’m watching. They’ll be running for quite a while, all the way through the fall season, so there’s still plenty of time to get on board and get current with them if they appeal to you. Until then.

Retrospective: Sonic Adventure 2

Were the Sonic Adventure games good? Throw that question out to the crowds of Twitter users and watch people fight over it, because it’s a contentious one. But that wasn’t always the case. This series had a famously rough transition from 2D to 3D, but I think a lot of the poor reputation of modern Sonic stems from the total disaster that was Sonic ’06 and from some of Sega’s less bad but still pretty bad blunders such as the endless slog of the nighttime sections of Sonic Unleashed and the entirety of Shadow the Hedgehog.

The Adventure games, on the other hand, went over pretty well at the time. The first two real Sonic games in 3D were far from perfect, with plenty of camera problems and glitches, but I remember liking them when I first played them on the Dreamcast, and I don’t think anyone really outright hated them or declared the series dead after playing them. A lot of fans agreed, and I do too, that they weren’t nearly as good as the original 2D games on the Genesis, but they weren’t considered a disgrace to the series or anything like that. Even when the Dreamcast died, these two games were at least well-regarded enough to live on as Gamecube ports with new features added. Yet now they do get quite a lot of hate, especially the first one, which I’ve even heard called one of the worst games ever made.

I’m not going to address here whether Sonic Adventure deserves that harsh assessment, though I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. But I only own the Steam port of Sonic Adventure 2, so that’s the one I can write about without having to dig through hazy twenty year-old memories. I finally got around to playing this version of SA2, and I don’t feel that differently about it now than I did back when I played the Dreamcast original upon release in 2001: generally pretty all right but with some boneheaded gameplay decisions and clunky elements that make it a chore to get through sometimes.

But amazing dialogue

But you’re reading this to get specifics, so let’s get to them. SA2 opens with a nice cinematic-looking shot of Sonic being transported as a prisoner on a military helicopter for a crime he obviously didn’t commit, because he’s a good guy. So he jumps out of the helicopter and onto the streets of San Francisco using a broken-off piece of it as a skateboard (Sonic doesn’t take fall damage, so he’s fine.) It turns out that he’s a victim of mistaken identity, because the grandfather of Dr. Robotnik, now officially known in the West as Eggman, developed another anthropomorphic hedgehog as an experiment on an orbital base to be the ultimate lifeform.

When Eggman discovers this being called Shadow, he unleashes him to cause some chaos. And of course, since Shadow and Sonic are shaped in a vaguely similar way, everyone thinks it’s Sonic wreaking havoc instead. While Sonic runs from the military police, his friends Tails and Knuckles join up to help out, pairing off against Eggman, Shadow, and another new character named Rouge, an anthropomorphic bat lady and a government spy. But she’s also a treasure hunter who’s after the Master Emerald, which for some fucking reason isn’t on the Floating Island anymore.

Remember when Knuckles was the guardian of the Floating Island and sworn to keep this shiny rock on it, otherwise said island would fall into the ocean like in Sonic 3 & Knuckles and Sonic Adventure 1? Well Knuckles doesn’t, because he never even brings that up. And this is the third time he’s lost the damn thing anyway. What are you doing, Knuckles?

And since Knuckles shatters the emerald on purpose to get it out of Eggman’s hands, he has to search for the missing pieces again while also helping out Sonic. Amy Rose is also around, though she sadly doesn’t get much to do this game other than pine after Sonic and get captured by the bad guys as usual. Other things that happen in the course of the game: Sonic and Tails meet the President of the United States, and Eggman blows up half of the Moon with a giant space laser.

More stuff happens in Sonic Adventure 2, but this is enough to see that the plot is pretty damn stupid. In places, it doesn’t even make sense. The mistaken identity part is already silly enough since Sonic and Shadow clearly look different even from far away, so why does everyone mistake Shadow for Sonic? I guess it’s because the game needs someone for you to fight/run away from in these stages. And it can’t just be Eggman now, because he’s also a playable character along with Shadow and Rouge in the second “Dark” storyline that runs parallel to the “Hero” one up until the final part of the game, when both teams have to work together to defeat a greater, more insane evil than even Eggman himself.

But does anyone care that much about the plot of a Sonic game? Some people do, and five years later the series tried a sort of serious RPGish plot with Sonic ’06, but that didn’t work at all and went over horribly. So maybe it’s better if the games don’t worry so much about plot. You can easily ignore the dumb plot, because the gameplay is the main thing.

Sonic Adventure 2 also trips up a bit there, however. The first Sonic Adventure, released in 1998/99, tried out a lot of different gameplay modes, a couple of which were famously clunky (namely Big the Cat’s fishing game that’s widely hated; people also complained about Amy’s sluggish platforming style, though I didn’t mind it as much.) Sonic was still the center of attention, however; his game was by far the longest out of the six, with many more stages to play through. SA2 cut down on the number of gameplay modes to just three: traditional fast platforming action with Sonic and Shadow, an exploration-based hunting mode with Knuckles and Rouge, and a third-person mech shooter with Tails and Eggman, each mode sharing equal game time. So when you’re playing SA2, you’re only running around classic Sonic-style for one third of the time.

This is obviously a problem if you don’t like the other two-thirds of the game. You can’t even just play through Sonic and Shadow’s stages and ignore the others like you could in SA1, because instead of individual character routes, the story is told through two separate Hero and Dark routes that alternate stages between Sonic/Tails/Knuckles and Shadow/Eggman/Rouge. So you just have to suffer through those parts if you’re not interested in them.

Do you know the Pumpkin Hill song by heart? I fucking do

I don’t hate all the non-Sonic/Shadow parts of this game. The Knuckles and Rouge hunting levels get a lot of shit, but I don’t find them that bad. The scavenger hunt element of those stages work pretty well, and the three emerald shards or whatever other three objects you’re hunting for are placed in randomized locations that you need to find by using a sort of hot/cold radar system, so each run through of a stage plays a bit differently. The horrible camera controls can make it hard to dig around in tight areas as you’ll often have to do, but the camera in this game is always a pain in the ass anyway.

No, the sections of SA2 I really don’t care for are the mech stages. It was a fun novelty to play as the villain Eggman, and it makes sense that he’d be using a mech to get around, but Tails is now also stuck in a mech throughout the game, which means the player misses out on his unique flying ability that made playing as him in Sonic 3 & Knuckles so fun. I know Tails is supposed to be an engineer, so it’s not crazy that he’d be driving a mech around, but that still seemed pretty dumb to me. You can fly, so why not use that skill?

The greater problem here, though, is that these stages are just too slow and dull. I don’t see anything special about them. Though I do know people who really like them, so this seems like one of those “your mileage may vary” issues.

excitement

But the Sonic and Shadow stages are pretty fun. They’re still not as fun as the stages in the original Genesis games, partly because they’re far more linear. But I think the main appeal of these stages in the early 3D Sonic games is seeing how quickly you can make it to the goal. This game even implements a time/score-based ranking system from E to A (no F, I guess because if you reach the goal, you haven’t technically failed no matter how long it took you to get there) along with four extra challenges in each stage and bonuses for completing them successfully. If you’re a completionist, you can get a lot of replay value out of Sonic Adventure 2.

Some of that replay value is also provided by the Chao Garden, where you can raise some weird onion-headed blue creatures with any of the six playable characters, feed them animals to make them strong, run them in races, etc. I’m not into this kind of virtual pet stuff, but if you are, it’s worth checking out.

This is pretty much how you raise Chao as far as I know

The team that ported SA2 to Steam seems to have done a pretty decent job, because it mostly plays fine.* I do get some slowdown in a few parts of stages (mainly Sonic and Shadow’s visually busy jungle stages) but I’m not sure how much of that is me having a piece of shit PC that I can only run visual novels on. For the most part, this game plays how I remember it playing in 2001. All the good and bad elements of the game are still there: the camera is still garbage and the mech stages are still boring, but the Sonic/Shadow stages and some of the Knuckles/Rouge ones are still fun to play.

The soundtrack hasn’t been touched either, which is again both a good and a bad thing. I really like some of the music in SA2, especially Rouge’s smooth jazz lounge stuff and Shadow’s extra over the top angsty-sounding themes like “Supporting Me”. The Knuckles raps are still really bad, but then again they’re so bad that they’ve become jokes, especially the Pumpkin Hill theme — and in any case, it’s hard to imagine those Knuckles levels with any other BGM. If you’re a fan of Crush 40 and Jun Senoue’s guitar-playing then you’ll also really like Sonic’s character and stage themes. I’m not a big fan of the style, but “City Escape” is still catchy. Just try to get it out of your head when you’ve heard it once.

Hey Knuckles, when you’re done flailing around like a dumbass, let’s have a proper fight.

In the end, I still have mixed feelings about Sonic Adventure 2. It’s mostly fun to play, and even the mech sections aren’t horrible to get through aside from a couple of extremely overly long stages late in the game. On the other hand, I think it also represents a shift away from the old Sonic style that I grew up with as a kid and that I liked so much. The first Adventure also added new characters and a dumb plot, but it felt more in line with those older games somehow. With SA2, we’ve now got much more “adult” characters with the extra-edgy Shadow, who looks like he was designed to appeal to depressive loner kids (i.e. me) and Rouge, who looks like she was designed to appeal to furries on DeviantArt (i.e. not me, but I guess I get what they were going for if in fact they were going for that.) And the President is a character in the Sonic universe now for some reason. Sonic Heroes is where the series really lost me, and Sonic ’06 is where it gave me a giant middle finger, but in some ways SA2 feels like the beginning of that shift into unfamiliar territory.

But does it really matter that much? Sonic the Hedgehog as a whole has had plenty of ups and downs, and even though I’ve been mostly out of the loop with the Sonic series for the last two decades, I’ll probably always have a soft spot for it. I certainly will for Sonic Adventure 2, which in my view counts as one of those ups. At the very least, this game is certainly not the disaster some critics paint it as. I guess that’s not the most enthusiastic endorsement I could give the game, but I’d say it’s still worth trying out, even with its problems. 𒀭

 

* This isn’t the case for the ports of Sonic Adventure, however. The Gamecube port Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut was supposed to be an upgrade, but it actually downgraded some of the graphics and added new glitches that weren’t present in the Dreamcast original. The PC version is even worse in this regard, taking the Gamecube version and compounding these problems, and unfortunately the SA offered on Steam is based on that one, making it a port of a shitty port of another shitty port. Thankfully, fans have created patches to fix many of these issues, doing far more for the game than Sega ever bothered to. For a comprehensive rundown of the port issue, see a video overview here (made by Cybershell, an excellent YouTube video maker who recently reappeared for the second time after years of hibernation) or go straight to the source to get all the details.

As far as SA2 goes, I also played it on both the Dreamcast and the Gamecube, and I don’t remember so many differences between the two versions aside from a few bits of added content like multiplayer battle mode, but I could be wrong about that. It’s been a long time, after all. I should also mention that the extra Gamecube content is offered on Steam as DLC. I didn’t buy it, but it’s only a few dollars as of this writing.

Backlog review: Sonic CD (PC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soundtrack review: Sonic the Hedgehog: Passion & Pride: Anthems With Attitude from the Sonic Adventure Era

So here’s a strange one. Released in 2015, I guess in an attempt to try to profit off of my generation’s nostalgia for all things 90s, Sonic the Hedgehog: Passion & Pride: Anthems With Attitude from the Sonic Adventure Era is a collection of character themes from the two Sonic Adventure games on the Dreamcast and Gamecube. I came across this thing while I was messing around with my 99 cent for three months trial subscription to Amazon’s new music streaming service. (This is not a paid plug for Amazon, by the way. I wish it were. I need money and I’m absolutely willing to sell out. DM me on Twitter.)

I played Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 on the Dreamcast back in those old days of 1999 and 2001, when I was suffering through the shitty ordeal known as middle and high school. I remember them being pretty fun, though not without their problems. Turns out the same is more or less true of their soundtracks. When I think of great, truly classic Sonic music, I think of Sonic 1, 2, 3&K and CD. The later Adventure music is more of a mixed bag. I guess SEGA felt like they had to “update” Sonic’s music in the transition from 2D to 3D, but the Adventure soundtracks aren’t even close to being as good as the old 16-bit works.

Hell, some of these songs are downright embarrassing to listen to, even when I’m sitting at home alone with my headphones on. Like Tails’ SA1 theme Believe in Myself, an annoyingly peppy pop song with lyrics even dumber and more straightforward than the title suggests. Or Sonic’s SA1 theme It Doesn’t Matter, which hearkens back to really shitty late 80s hair metal. Or Knuckles’ awful rap Unknown from M.E., a song so bad it twisted in on itself to become popular and feature in hundreds of Youtube music edits like this one. And for some fucking reason there are also remixes of each of these three worst songs on the album. Thanks, SEGA.

Knuckles is a meme now, thanks internet.

Most of the songs on this album can be listened to without cringing yourself to death, though. And a few of them are really good. I’m a big fan of Theme of E-102γ, a nice piano-based instrumental with a sci-fi sound. E.G.G.M.A.N. from SA2 is catchy and fun and really suits the goofy mad scientist bad guy character that is Eggman (though I’ll always know him as Robotnik.) The biggest surprise, though, was the last song on the album, Fly in the Freedom. It’s the theme of Rouge the Bat, a character I never cared for, but it’s my favorite song out of all of them – an extremely relaxing jazzy piece with nice vocals. Makes you feel like you’re at a beachside bar sipping a cocktail.

There are three more character themes on this album that fall far more into the “weird” category than into the good or bad ones. Here are my notes about them:

Lazy Days (Livin’ in Paradise) (Big’s theme) – Title makes it sound like a Jimmy Buffett song, but actually a Creedence Clearwater Revival ripoff which is at least x1000 better. Dumbass lyrics, good guitar, okay singing but this guy is definitely no John Fogerty. Stupid as hell but not really that bad.

Throw It All Away (Shadow’s theme) – I can feel the angst in my blood. All humans are trash, and happiness is an illusion. Lyrics couldn’t be more laughably edgy. Brings back memories of middle school.

My Sweet Passion (Amy Rose’s theme) – Embarrassed to say I really like this song. Cute jazz-poppy thing, I love the vocals and the electric piano. Lyrics are insane and stalkerish and suit Amy’s character perfectly.

So is this worth buying? At $30 for a physical copy? Hell no. But it does have some good songs, enough that it squeaks by with a passing grade of 4. And who knows, maybe you’ll really like the songs I hate on it. If you’re the kind of person who “ironically” enjoys 80s butt-rock and bad rap, feel free to bump that grade up to a 5 or 6. I’m not one of those people.  I can appreciate making fun of bad media (I grew up on MST3K after all) but I don’t get anything out of a second listen to Unknown from M.E.

I would definitely buy a physical copy for a few bucks, though, just for that amazing title and cover.  Sonic just needs a ripped pair of jeans and a sleeveless shirt and he’s hedgehog Bruce Springsteen.

An extremely late review of Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone (PS4)

If I haven’t been very active lately (aside from occasionally running SimCity 2000 on VirtualBox) it’s been for two reasons: first, I’ve had a lot to do at work, and second, I bought the unwieldly titled Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone, the latest in the line of Project Diva rhythm games that came out two months ago in North America, featuring android singer Hatsune Miku and friends.

Even though I’m an avowed weeaboo I’d never played a Project Diva game before Future Tone. This is not so much because I disliked the idea of Vocaloid as that I just wasn’t much into rhythm games. I’d played Persona 4: Dancing All Night, mainly because I’d also played P4 and liked the characters, and I played a lot of Audiosurf when it came out several years ago because it let you play any song in the universe if it existed as an mp3 on your hard drive. But despite my embarrassing level of weebness I had not gotten into the Vocaloid stuff quite so much.

Not until now. I’ve been pretty much addicted to Future Tone for the last week. The gameplay is addictive at its core – matching increasingly difficult button patterns and getting rewarded with flashing lights and a higher score at the end of the song seems to trigger something primal in the human brain. It’s like playing a slot machine, except unlike playing a slot machine, the outcome in Future Tone depends entirely upon your skill. And also unlike playing a slot machine, you won’t lose your life savings if you sit in front of Future Tone for 50 or 100 hours, a prospect that seems very likely considering how much content is in the game.

Because yes, Future Tone is stuffed chock fucking full of Vocaloid tunes. The base game itself is free, but the free download only includes two songs, so it’s really more like a demo – you can play those two songs as much as you want without paying a cent, but if you really want to play Future Tone you’ll have to buy the $50 bundle that contains the “Colorful Tone” and “Future Sound” song packs. They’re worth the price, because the entire package features about 200 songs both new and from past Project Diva games, each of which comes with a music video and charts set at various difficulties (along with dozens of unlockable alternate costumes and accessories and all the usual content you’d expect.)

And you know what? A lot of these songs are good. And this is coming from a puffed-up pompous music snob asshole. Most of the songs are either upbeat poppy tunes or ballads, with a few heavier rock/punkish songs thrown in and a few pure gimmick songs (like “Ievan Polkka”, the Finnish folk song that somehow became the very first Hatsune Miku hit ten years ago.) A few of the songs are clunkers, to be sure, and whether you’ll like some tracks depends on your tolerance for sugar-sweet cutesy vocals and imagery and embarrassing lyrics – though at least the lyrics are mostly in Japanese, so you probably won’t be able to understand them anyway. But the majority of the tunes on Future Tone are really catchy. Tell me you can listen to “Deep Sea City Underground” or “World’s End Dancehall” and not get them stuck in your head.

Here’s me playing World’s End Dancehall on Easy because I’m a puss.

One of the things people puzzle most over about the whole Vocaloid phenomenon is that it’s “fake”. The various performers in Future Tone – Miku, Luka, fraternal twins Rin and Len, and the rest – are all really just different voice packages created with Yamaha’s Vocaloid music software with avatars attached. They’re electronic singers, not human ones. Vocaloid music, in that sense, really is “manufactured.” But so is all commercial pop music! Is Miku really any more manufactured than Katy Perry, who can’t sing for shit without the help of autotune? And anyway, the real measure of good pop weighs in Miku’s favor – some of Miku’s songs featured on Future Tone are a hell of a lot better than Katy Perry’s biggest hits. (See, the snobby music asshole comes out again. I can’t contain him for long.)  (Also, I really don’t hate Katy Perry at all.  I don’t even know her.)

Anyway, if we’re going to have pop stars, better to have electronic ones.  Miku, after all, isn’t in danger of developing a drug habit, or of being photographed vomiting in an alley after getting trashed in a nightclub.  The tabloid publishers will lose out, but they can just write more articles about how some actor or politician is secretly gay.  Besides, eventually robots are going to take all the jobs away from humans once they become advanced enough, and then they’ll probably revolt and murder us once they realize they don’t need us anymore.  So in a way, Vocaloid represents the beginning of the inevitable fall of humanity.

When the robots conquer Earth, they won’t let us dress them up in cute outfits anymore

I’m way off track now. Just, look, if you like rhythm games, buy Future Tone. It’s good. And some of the tracks are really head-breakingly hard, so you’ll find a lot of challenge in this game if you’re looking for that. God knows the rhythm game genre is one of the few that hasn’t been dumbed down in terms of difficulty. 𒀭

Edit (8/23/18): This is still a great game with a bunch of fine god damn songs on it.  But I wish they would have added Mitchie M’s “News 39”.  I love that fucking song.  Check it out hereReally, anything by Mitchie M is good.

Seven great video game tracks (part 2)

I love music and I love video games (well, some of it/them, anyway.) So how can I limit myself to writing only one post about video game music? Here’s another one.

1) Final Fantasy VII – Reunion

This is one of the most haunting tracks that ever came out of a mid-90s RPG.  If you’ve played Final Fantasy VII, you’ll know what event this track pairs with.  If you haven’t, it’s where the main character realizes that his whole life has been a lie.  Oh yeah, spoilers.

Honestly, the spoiler won't make any sense until you've played the game most of the way to the big revelation. Also, FF7 was released in 1997, so the spoilers statute of limitations has passed.

Honestly, the spoiler won’t make any sense until you’ve played the game most of the way to the big revelation. Also, FF7 was released in 1997, so the spoilers statute of limitations has passed.

Anyway, Nobuo Uematsu is a genius when it comes to video game music.  This is one of the most understated, quiet pieces in an FF game, but it’s effective as hell.

2) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 – Chemical Plant Zone

Sometimes you just want to play a game where you’re a blue hedgehog rolling around fucking everything up.  And not one of the god-awful fuck 3D Sonic games like Sonic 06.  I mean the real thing.  The old Genesis games had proper background music, and Chemical Plant Zone from Sonic 2 has one of the best tracks in the history of the franchise.  It’s a techno early 90s Sega Genesis track and that’s all you need to know.

3) Yume Nikki – Dense Woods A

Modern horror movies are garbage.  At least, the ones that are made and air in my country are garbage.  People go to the theater to say “oh no a thing moved in the corner of the screen” for 120 minutes.  But what can you expect from the same people who think Mamma Mia is worth giving money to a person to see.

At some point, anyway, you have to admit that our horror movies are garbage and to turn to video games, which keep the horror genre alive.  And among these games, old-school looking RPG Maker games such as Ib and The Witch’s House are surprisingly effective.   The great-granddaddy of these games is Yume Nikki, a freeware piece made by a mysterious man known only as KIKIYAMA.  Yume Nikki translates as “Dream Diary” and is about Madotsuki, a young girl who refuses to leave her 150th story apartment bedroom/balcony and lives her life through her dreams.  Her dreams happen to be mostly disturbing as fuck, and it’s your job as the player to guide Madotsuki through her dreams and to collect all the “effects” that let her use various powers.

Your dream always starts on the balcony. The sky is dark and the landscape is desolate. Play this game with the lights off at midnight.

Your dream always starts on the balcony. The sky is dark and the landscape is desolate. Play this game with the lights off at midnight.

Yume Nikki excels in creating a mood, and its background music adds to this effect.  The tracks are simple but incredibly haunting, and they’re extremely effective in the game itself.  Do yourself a favor and go play Yume Nikki if you haven’t already.  With the lights off at midnight.

(Ib and The Witch’s House both have really good BGMs too, and they’re far more horror in aim and theme than Yume Nikki, which is more of a surreal dream game.  So if you’re looking to actually piss yourself, go for those instead.)

4) Outrun – the whole BGM

outrun

All of it.  This is a pure nostalgia pick, because like many other people in their late 20s Outrun is one of the first racing video games I ever remember playing, in my case as a small child who could barely manipulate the Genesis controller in an effective fashion.  But that 16-bit music certainly got stuck in my brain, even if I couldn’t get past the damn checkpoints most of the time.  There are certainly better soundtracks out there – this one is really more “background music” than a soundtrack – but it’s a very dynamic set of songs that doesn’t wear on me with successive listens.

5) Digital Devil Saga 2 – Hunting – Betrayal

The two Digital Devil Saga games are worthy additions to the Shin Megami Tensei family of games.  They’re much more traditional JRPGs than the mainline SMT games and other spinoffs – DDS doesn’t feature demon recruitment at all – but they’re well-crafted and tell an interesting story.  They also feature the always fantastic work of Shoji Meguro, who fully deserves a place in the video game soundtrack pantheon along with Uematsu.  And “Hunting – Betrayal” is one of his best battle themes, maybe his best ever.  The pure tension in this piece is astounding.  Listen to it with the dial turned to 10.

6) Umineko no Naku Koro ni – Dead Angle

Umineko-no-Naku-Koro-ni-7

I’ve already taken a look at Umineko, but it’s worth bringing up again that this visual novel series has an amazing soundtrack, and “Dead Angle” is one of the best tracks in the game.  For the unfamiliar, Umineko is a very long visual novel mystery series about a family that is almost entirely murdered on a private island.  The game mixes up mystery with supernatural elements, and one of the central themes of Umineko is deals with the existence of magic and the line between reality and fantasy.  The game is honestly kind of a mess, but it’s a fascinating mess and, in the end, a satisfying story.  And the music is fantastic.

7) Final Fantasy VIII – Force Your Way

Speaking of Uematsu – again – this is my favorite Final Fantasy battle theme.  I didn’t love Final Fantasy VIII.  It was a good game, but it also had lots of problems, and the soap opera-level love story was fairly balls in my opinion.  However, the gameplay is still classic FF at this point, and the soundtrack is excellent.

I don’t normally read Youtube comments, because they tend to be so stupid that you can’t understand how the commenter managed to remember to breathe for long enough to write the comment and send it, but some user on the site aptly observed that “Force Your Way” sounds like the composer wrote eight different intros to a battle theme and shoved them all together.  And it works.  Even if the story of FF8 kinda doesn’t.

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A review of Freedom Planet (PC)

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The love of indie game designers for retro-stylings is pretty understandable – it means way less in production values, and playing on the players’ love for the games of their childhoods is always a good bet. Still, most of these games have seemed to focus on the 8-bit era of the Famicom/NES/Master System. Which is just fine, but the video games of my childhood are more in the 16-bit SNES/Genesis category. So I’m pretty happy about Freedom Planet, an early 90s-style action platformer released in 2014.

Not that mere nostalgia is enough for a game to be good (see Retro City Rampage, which seems to try to survive on its nostalgic appeal alone and fails.) A game, even a pretty basic platformer like this one, has to have fun gameplay and some aspects that set it apart from other, similar games. Luckily, Freedom Planet has both.

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First things first: Freedom Planet obviously looks like a Sonic game. The level art and the sprites and character designs are really reminiscent of Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Moreover, the characters play a bit like Sonic, Tails and Knuckles as far as speed and special moves go. Hell, the game even has half-pipes and loops that look like they were taken straight out of an old Sonic game. And the main character (Lilac, above) kind of looks like a redesigned and recolored Sonic character.

So big deal, you might be thinking: Freedom Planet is a fangame starring a modified Sonic sprite. However, it’s really more than that. Freedom Planet also takes influence from other 16-bit series like Gunstar Heroes, Rocket Knight Adventures, and Mega Man X. The player can make use of lots of different moves unique to each of the game’s three characters to take down enemies and bosses. The mix the developer used here ensures that this game feels not like a Sonic pastiche, but like its own game, which is important as hell (at the very least, it lets him claim a way broader copyright on his work without getting mixed up with SEGA’s lawyers.)

But this isn’t an article on copyrightability in video games, so let’s move on. Freedom Planet tells the story of Lilac, a dragon (yeah, she’s a dragon, somehow), her tomboyish cat friend Carol, and their new annoyingly hyperactive dog friend Milla as they help a mysterious stranger defeat an evil alien overlord who has instituted a coup in their country by killing the king and mind-controlling his son, the prince. It’s a lot more grim than a game from the time would have been (just imagine Dr. Robotnik doing something like this. You can’t, can you?) However, the game still manages to maintain a light and fun atmosphere. It’s colorful and fast, the level designs are varied and interesting, and Lilac, Carol, and Milla play quite differently, requiring a different approach to the same levels for each character. Despite the Sonic-looking-ness of Freedom Planet, the sprite and level art are all great, and it’s obvious that a lot of work went into putting the game together. There’s even full voice-acting. And the voices aren’t even bad! Try to beat that.

Freedom Planet's trio chilling out between stages.

Freedom Planet’s trio chilling out between stages.

I’m gushing over the game at this point, so let me tune it down just slightly: along with the old-school stylings of the art and the gameplay, Freedom Planet also features plenty of old-school cheap difficulty, and some of the levels are long and drag a bit. However, even the pacing and difficulty aren’t really an issue, because Freedom Planet gives Lilac and friends unlimited continues and mid-level checkpoints to start from. Moreover, unlike an old Sonic game, which capped the player’s time in each level at 10 minutes, Freedom Planet imposes no time limit at all, letting you explore and find new ways to get through a level. Finally, the game tries hard to mix things up with new level mechanics in each part of each stage. Some level sections require the player to solve a puzzle to open a door further back in the level. Others feature Indiana Jones huge boulder escape parts. It’s easy for these sorts of games to get dull after a while, but Freedom Planet succeeds for the most part in keeping gameplay fresh throughout.

Oh yeah, the story is also kind of stupid, but I don’t remember a platformer on the SNES or Genesis that had a story worth caring about, so who cares? Nevertheless, there is plenty of story in Freedom Planet, complete with long cutscenes (long for this sort of game, anyway) but if you don’t care to watch them, the game lets you cut them out by choosing “Classic Mode”, which takes you from stage to stage without interruption.

The game features lots of powerups and shields that go more or less unexplained at first.  Also notice the nice graphics (again.)

The game features lots of powerups and shields that go more or less unexplained at first. Also notice the nice graphics (again.)

So: the verdict on Freedom Planet. It’s sometimes frustrating, but basically a really good game. I could even say it’s great, though that might be too much praise. In any case, I basically enjoyed Freedom Planet, even though some parts of it are way too god damn hard (specifically some extra-long parts of later stages and boss fights.) If all of the above sounds good to you, you might consider buying the game on Steam: I’d say this game is worth the $15 price tag.

I should disclose that I might be biased here because, as a kid, I really enjoyed the old Sonic and Mega Man series and some of the other games Freedom Planet cribs from, and I still do, so I naturally took to this game’s approach. I also appreciate the fact that, unlike a lot of modern 2D action/puzzle platform games, Freedom Planet doesn’t seem to take itself all that seriously or have pretensions to being meaningful all-capitals ART. For the most part, it really feels like a game that could have been released in the early 90s on the SNES or the Genesis. There’s a place for serious art in video games, and even in platformers, but sometimes you just want a good time, and Freedom Planet delivers that.

Retrospective: Grandia II

The Dreamcast had a sadly short life, doomed as it was to be SEGA’s last shot effort at staying in the console-making game. Unlike its disastrous predecessor Saturn, however, the Dreamcast is still more or less beloved among a lot of gamers now in their 20s. Maybe it’s because everyone knew it was SEGA’s last shot, or because some of its games were actually pretty good.

Grandia II was one of these. Released in 2000, Grandia II was in many ways a typical JRPG – lots of battles, boss fights, traveling, dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, and all in the context of an epic quest to save the world. Your hero is Ryudo, a young mercenary who runs around the countryside looking for work with his pet (?) talking falcon (???) Skye (no, the game never explains this. Especially confusing because Skye is the only talking/intelligent animal in the game; the rest don’t say a word. Also, in the English dub Skye sounds like George Takei.) Ryudo is kind of a dick, and although Skye tries to keep him in line it doesn’t always work.

One of Ryudo's many quips

One of Ryudo’s many quips

The gist of Grandia II is that you, as Ryudo, have to take a job from the church that controls your country to seal an ancient evil together with a nun who is the key to sealing that evil, because of a reason I can’t remember. You travel to see the pope while meeting people who have serious problems you have to fix, after which a few of them will join your party as permanent members. ……..

Right, so in terms of setting, plot and basic character layout, it’s a generic JRPG. Painfully generic, and as stale as a week-old baguette. The hero is a jaded sarcastic guy, the main female lead is a nice girl who wants to help everybody. There’s also a kid, a warrior furry lion sort-of guy and a robot girl. And if you’ve played even a few JRPGs of this kind, you’ll see the plot twists coming several hours before they hit. Hell, you might be able to figure out everything that’s going on, all the way to the very end of the game, after finishing just about a third of it. Really, that’s not right at all.

FINE Elena we'll fucking save the townspeople already

FINE Elena we’ll fucking save the townspeople already

Despite that, Grandia II is a good game if only for its gameplay, and namely for its battle system. It’s a mix of turn-based and real-time battle. Each of your members has his or her turn along with each of the enemies. However, the order of everyone’s turns is determined by their speed stats and whether your party was able to catch the enemy off guard or was ambushed by the enemy. Each turn, represented by the character’s face, moves along the initiative bar to the blue COM threshold, where you can input a command for that character. Once they hit the ACT line, that character will carry out their inputted action. Both you and your enemies’ actions can be cancelled, however, if they’re attacked before carrying said action out. Getting canceled flings the affected actor’s icon way to the left (i.e. the beginning) of the initiative bar again.

Your characters also get a whole crapload of moves and spells to learn, some of which do various amounts of area damage. A few moves are great for canceling imminent enemy attacks.

Grandia II's battle system is its best asset.

Grandia II’s battle system is its best asset.

This system might sound complicated, but it’s really easy to pick up and a lot of fun once you’ve gotten the hang of it. Battles in Grandia II are a lot more than simple point-and-click or run-around-the-field-swinging-your-sword deals as they are in many other JRPGs, and that adds a lot of value to the game.

Another nice addition to Grandia II is this bit that comes up maybe six or eight times throughout the game where you get to sit in on a dinner conservation with your party. It’s not especially substantive or anything, but it adds some flavor to the game, and the characters’ interactions can be amusing sometimes. In fact, most of Grandia II‘s dialogue is pretty well-written, even in the context of its stale plot.

Is he being sarcastic?  Who can tell.

Is he being sarcastic? Who can tell.

Grandia II is a nice JRPG that’s well worth playing if you live in 2000 and own a Dreamcast. And though it hasn’t aged all that well, really, even today it’s fun. I played it a couple of times as a kid, and returning to the game, I can still enjoy it.

Sadly, it’s kind of hard to track down today in its original form – copies of the Dreamcast version are on sale for $150 on Amazon (it’s the same with Skies of Arcadia, actually – what is it with Dreamcast RPGs being expensive as hell now?) The PS2 version might be cheaper, though I’ve never played it – it could also be a horribly broken port for all I know. And the PC (!) version is probably damn near impossible to play on a Windows 7/8 machine. Still, if you can track this game down for a decent price, it’s well worth a play. I don’t know if it’s necessarily $150 worth of it, but it’s certainly worth something.