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.

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.)

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.

Recovery and a short review of Gravity Rush Remastered

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As you can tell from my last post, like many of my fellow Americans I had something of a meltdown for a few days last week inside my brain.  The new reality is so unbelievable to me and to about 100 to 150 million other people here that massive protests and/or riots depending on who you ask and where you look broke out starting on Wednesday last week.  I still think President-elect Trump is at least 50 percent likely to be an absolute disaster, both in terms of social and economic policy, and I’m starting to get ready for the second recession just in case he really steps on the gas pedal of extreme deregulation – the kind of dumb bullshit that very much was a part of the cause of the first recession starting in 2008.  Even if that doesn’t happen, it’s obvious to everyone now that my country is more divided than it has been for over a hundred years.  That would have been obvious no matter who had won.

But fuck me – I can’t do anything to change the future on a large scale.  I can, however, buy a PS4 and copies of a few new games including the new Atelier game and Gravity Rush Remastered, which is an HD port of the Vita original.  Playing the redone Gravity Rush was how I coped with things last week.  There’s perhaps no better game to escape reality with than this one in which you play a young woman who has the ability to shift gravity in any direction, allowing her to fly through the air and run around on walls and ceilings.  The heroine of the game, Kat, has to use her powers to defend the city she lives in from strange monsters called Nevi who seem to have the power to drag people, and even whole pieces of the city, into a different dimension.

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I’m not going to get too deep into analyzing this game.  It’s been out for four years now, and the remastered version for close to a year, and I just now bought it because I recently had the money to buy a PS4.  What I will say is that this version is even better than the original on the Vita and that it’s well worth playing.  It’s amazing playing Gravity Rush on a far larger screen in HD.  Moreover, all the DLC side stories that you had to buy in addition to the original game are included in Remastered.  They’re also fun, and they open up new costumes for Kat that have no extra functionality at all, aside from getting to see Kat in a maid outfit or a tight catsuit with cat ears and a tail.  Yeah, it’s fanservice.  If you don’t like it, you can avoid those side stories.  They don’t add anything to the central game anyway.

The publishers even went with the nice understated cover instead of throwing together a horrible mash of images and faces and bullshit like they usually do for North American game covers! What more can you ask for?

The publishers even went with the nice understated cover instead of throwing together a horrible mash of images and faces and bullshit like they usually do for North American game covers!  Amazing.

I don’t want to give away anything else about the game, so my review is this: buy it.  And don’t listen to the naysayers.  While this game generally got good reviews, a few people complain about the “cheap controls”.  This is one game to which that old gripe doesn’t apply.  None of the fights in this game are especially cheap if you’ve learned the controls and the different moves well.  And honestly, if every single attack in this game were to connect with enemies easily, it would be far too easy.  People also complain about the plot, but they’re wrong too.  Gravity Rush isn’t a masterpiece of storytelling, but it has enough of a story to drive the action.  And it’s fun.  What more do you want?

There’s another reason I’m writing this piece now – Gravity Rush 2 is coming out on January 20 for the PS4.  I’ve got it preordered and I’m really looking forward to it.  If it simply maintains the quality of the first title, it will be an A-level game. 𒀭

Edit (8/23/18): This post came from a place of severe “what the fuck just happened.”  Since I wrote this, Mr. Trump’s personal attorney has copped to eight federal charges in which he implicated the President of the United States in criminal activity and his former campaign chairman has been found guilty of shady money shit (this is the legal term – please believe me, I’m a lawyer.)  Yeah, let’s see how this goes down.

Also, Kat is god damn hot.

Retrospective: Ar tonelico: Melody of Elemia

What would happen if humanity were confined to massive towers built upon a decaying planet? What would happen if humanity’s only hope for survival were a total fucking idiot? Also, what would happen if that idiot were surrounded by beautiful girls who have the ability to destroy their enemies with the power of song? These are the questions posed by Ar tonelico: Melody of Elemia, a JRPG released by Gust (makers of the long-running Atelier series) for the PS2 in 2007.

Before I continue, I should note that Ar tonelico contains a whole lot of sexual innuendo. This innuendo is woven into both the game mechanics and the story, but in a way that’s entirely unnecessary, as we’ll soon see. In any case, if these kinds of themes make you uncomfortable, you might want to stop reading.

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Ar tonelico takes place on a tower of the same name. Humans have been forced to flee to three great towers forming the Ar tonelico complex, a structure that offer shelter from the volatile surface of their planet. The towers themselves are large enough to support cities and towns, and essentials like water are freely available.

This game puts us in the role of Lyner, a young knight employed by Shurelia, the administrator of one of the towers of Ar tonelico. Lyner is sent on a journey by Shurelia to discover a cure for a virus outbreak affecting the tower’s Reyvateils – an all-female race of humanoids designed by humans specifically to control the elements with the power of their voices. Lyner is dedicated, brave, and hardworking. Unfortunately for the residents of Ar tonelico, Lyner is also an incredible idiot.  (Example: one of the later scenes in the game involves Lyner running headlong into a dangerous forcefield after every character – including Lyner – sees the forcefield and acknowledges its existence.)

Despite his astounding thickness, Lyner makes progress in his journey with the help of Aurica and Misha, two Reyvateils who are also pursuing their own goals, and with several other JRPG-ish characters (the Tough Guy, the Noble Knight, the Tomboyish Engineer Girl, etc.) who tag along. And this is where the game’s many strange mechanics come into the picture. Ar tonelico features “grathmelding”, which is basically a simplified form of the alchemy mechanic already present in Gust’s Atelier games – the idea here is that the player finds various ingredients around the game world that he can fuse to create new items. More interesting, however, are two gameplay elements introduced by Ar tonelico: Song Magic and Diving.

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The use of Song Magic is going to be your main battle strategy throughout Ar tonelico. At first glance, the game’s battles use the standard turn-based system, with your characters with high defense (Lyner, Jack, Krusche etc.) in front and your squishy magic-user/healer (the Reyvateil) in the back. However, it will soon become apparent that your front-line characters’ true purpose is to soften the enemy up and defend the Reyvateil while she charges her Song Magic in preparation to release it in a massively damaging attack. The game’s battles also incorporate a rhythm element – players who are quicker on the controller will be able to more effectively defend their Reyvateils from enemy attacks.

So how do you get Song Magic? All Reyvateils come with a basic, chargeable “energy ball” sort of attack, but to get elemental forms of attack magic or healing magic, you’ll have to conduct a “dive.”  In the world of Ar tonelico, Diving is entering a Reyvateil’s mind, or soul, or something, and rooting around in it. Essentially, Lyner has the ability to get more forms of magic and more powerful versions of songs by “diving” into Aurica, Misha, or the third Reyvateil whose identity I can’t say about because it’s a bit of a spoiler. Each Reyvateil has something called a Cosmosphere that represents her mind, and poor, thick Lyner is tasked with helping her sort out her inner demons. Lyner’s sheer stupidity makes this difficult, and he’ll sometimes find himself suddenly shut out of the Reyvateil’s Cosmosphere after particular events take place. However, once Lyner helps the Reyvateil come to some kind of inner revelation or understanding about herself, his relationship with the Reyvateil “levels up”, which means that he can unlock new Song Magic and enter deeper recesses of her mind.

Really, though, “diving” is just a placeholder for sex.

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Uh, well…

If you don’t believe me, play the game or look up a relevant Youtube video. Ar tonelico is full of sexual innuendo, and most of it involves the dive mechanic. The game’s “Dive Shops” are basically treated like pay-by-the-hour hotels, and both Lyner and the Reyvateils express concerns about diving that could apply just as easily to sex if you change a few words in the dialogue. Two of the Reyvateils even compete for Lyner’s affections throughout much of the game, and the player’s choice of either Aurica or Misha as a dive partner can change his mid-game route and lead to a different ending.* In fact, the fanservice elements of Ar tonelico are pretty strong – the Reyvateils can also unlock new costumes that change their stats in various ways, and some of these costumes, as you might predict, leave very little to the imagination (for example, one of Aurica’s costumes is called “Lilim.”  Go ahead and look that up on Google, but not if you’re at work unless you were planning to get fired.) Really, Ar tonelico could almost qualify as an “ecchi game” (don’t look this term up at work either, by the way) and it’s kind of amazing that the ESRB let it go with a T rating.**

As it is, Ar tonelico is a colorful and interesting game with some unusual game mechanics and an excellent soundtrack (some of the Song Magic and regular game tracks are written and performed by Akiko Shikata, a singer/musician who’s done music both on her own and for game OSTs for a long time.) However, it’s definitely not the greatest JRPG ever made – in fact, it’s not even the best game in the Ar tonelico series. While the battle system is unique, the battles themselves can get repetitive, and the game doesn’t offer much in the way of challenge. AT also suffers from as a result of its terrible localization. The game was published in North America by NIS America, and I have to say that they really dropped the ball, both with this title and 2009’s Ar tonelico II. Certain sections of dialogue don’t make any sense at all, and many of the game’s item descriptions are totally baffling. The English dub is also absolutely horrific, and the game offers no way to turn the voices off or to replace them with the original Japanese VAs.

Despite being a better game with a deeper combat system and a more interesting plot, Ar tonelico II‘s localization is even worse – the voice acting still sucks, some of the dialogue consists of strings of non sequiturs (especially during the IPD infection sequences) and NISA’s localization team somehow managed to leave bits of Japanese text in the game’s North American port.  The NA version of AT2 even features a game-breaking bug.  This utter failure on the part of a highly professional outfit like NIS America is confusing, especially considering the fact that they did a fine job with the ports of Ar tonelico Qoga and Ar nosurge, the third and fourth games in the series made for the PS3. Maybe they just didn’t have the budget for good VAs or for actual Japanese-to-English translators who knew what the hell they were doing back in 2007.

AT2 is a terrible port of a good game.

AT2’s combat offers more variety, but the bad quality of its official unpatched port will make you want to die.

So can I recommend this game? I don’t really know. On one hand, it’s pretty good despite its localization problems and its lack of difficulty. The setting is interesting, the art and music are quite good, and the interactions between the boneheaded Lyner and the Reyvateils are genuinely funny at times and are probably worth watching. On the other hand, the localization really is awful, and the game’s high degree of fanservice may turn some people away. If lots of sexual innuendo with cute anime girls is “your bag”, however, Ar tonelico and its sequels are worth a look.

Another possible issue is the game’s price. Like many JRPGs from the Dreamcast/PSX/PS2 libraries, the prices of both AT and AT2 are stupidly high. The original copies of these games came with soundtrack CDs and artbooks, and these deluxe packages tend to sell for well over $100.  There are certainly copies of .iso files of these games floating around on the internet, but I don’t advocate illegally downloading games.  Not at all.  Especially not with the unofficial translation patch of AT2, which fixes the port’s game-breaking bug and most/all of the dialogue.

* The player also has the option to leave both of them behind and go for the mystery Reyvateil, which I highly recommend doing, since she’s a lot better than Aurica or Misha. Doing so also opens up the game’s third act, which the player can’t access on either Aurica or Misha’s routes.

** You might have read somewhere about a JRPG for the PS3 featuring actual stripping. That game is Ar tonelico Qoga, the third title in the AT series, in which the Reyvateils absorb more power from the planet through their skin by taking off their clothes during battle (NSFW, more or less.) Yes, really. This is how the game explains it. But the ESRB wasn’t impressed – Qoga got slapped with an M rating.

A review of Persona 4: Dancing All Night

Shut up and dance

I didn’t really plan on buying or reviewing Persona 4: Dancing All Night.  “A rhythm game?” I said to myself, dismissively, when I heard about this game.  “I shall not stoop to buy such an obvious cash-in.  I loved Persona 4 and Persona 4 Golden, and Atlus knows that and they’re just trying to get into my wallet.  But I have more integrity than they think.  Just fucking release Persona 5 already, please.”

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Then I saw a friend playing the game on his own Vita and decided I wanted it.  Because really, Dancing All Night isn’t just a toss-off – it’s really a good rhythm game.  It even tries to have a plot, and the plot almost isn’t totally stupid!  Almost.

Protagonist (now officially named Yu Narukami, though I can’t get used to it because I never called him that in my P4 playthroughs) and his Investigation Team friends are roped into joining their fellow Investigator and former pop idol Rise Kujikawa for her big comeback as her backup dancers.*  She’s re-debuting at a big concert alongside Kanamin Kitchen, a newly popular girl group with a bizarre and slightly creepy animal/meat theme.

Is it a commentary on how pop idols are treated like meat by their fans, as mere eye candy? Is Persona 4 Dancing All Night really a deep and philosophical game?

Is it a commentary on how pop idols are treated like meat by their fans, as mere eye candy? Is Persona 4: Dancing All Night really a deep and philosophical game?

As you could guess from the instant you meet them, every member of Kanamin Kitchen gets dragged into a shadow-filled world and the Investigation Team has to save them.  Protagonist’s uncle Dojima, a grizzled detective, is also on the case, and he discovers that a bunch of fans of the group are going into comas after watching a creepy video on the internet, and these people are naturally being dragged into the shadow world too.  (As a nice reference for players of Persona 3, this condition is referred to as Apathy Syndrome.  Though we already got a P3 cameo in Persona 4 Golden and a P4 cameo in Persona 3 Portable, so this isn’t really a big deal.)

The big twist about this shadow world is that, until the TV world of P4, the characters can’t fight or summon their personas through the usual methods.  Instead – no joke – they have to dance to defeat the shadows and save each pop star.  Somehow, dancing well makes the shadows happy, then they dissipate into the air and blow away.  Or something.  The game tried to explain this, but it still doesn’t make any sense.

Even in Persona dancing games you have to battle supernatural monsters that are expressions of your dark inner self

Even in Persona dancing games you have to enter an evil shadow world to battle supernatural monsters that are expressions of your dark inner self

So the story really isn’t much of anything.  Story Mode is pretty short and is just kind of there as a placeholder – as far as visual novels go it’s about as light as you can get.  But the point of this game isn’t its deep and engaging plot.  The point is getting to see your favorite P4 characters bust moves to the great Persona music that you’ve come to both love and completely get sick of after hearing it five thousand times in battle and while running around town.  Every member of the Investigation Team takes the stage at some point, and all of them can be played in Free Mode.  A new character is also thrown into the mix, and as a special treat for fans Nanako is also a playable character.  Though the whole subplot involving Nanako, a little girl, performing pop idol songs on stage in front of millions of fans is kind of weird in itself.

All that aside, the gameplay is a lot of fun.  The game makes use of three of the four button on each side of the Vita (only the -> and ◻ go unused) and players can also tap the screen to use the scratch function.  Most of the songs also allow the main dancer to pick a partner to jump in at some point if the player’s hitting the notes well enough.  Mercifully, the game offers easy, normal and hard mode versions of each song, so even if you’re total crap at rhythm games you should be able to get through it.  And the music itself is obviously great.  My favorite battle theme “Time to Make History” is thankfully in there, and there are plenty of other plain unadorned tracks from P4 together with remixes, most of which are good (though I could easily leave a few of them.)

The developers obviously put a lot of attention into the details.  Each character’s dance style really matches their character (ex: Chie does a lot of kicks/kung fu stuff, Kanji headbangs) and the other characters cheer their friends on while they dance.  (My favorite: Nanako commenting on Protagonist and Yosuke’s “bromance” when they’re paired up.)  Atlus also thoughtfully included a lot of unlockable costumes and DLC for each character, some of which are extremely fanservicey.  So if you enjoy hearing Chie complain about you making her wear a bikini while she dances, this is the game for you.  You know, if you’re into that kind of thing.

But did you expect any less?

But did you expect any less?

All in all, I have to say I’m pretty happy that I got this game.  It’s a fun diversion from my bullshit law student life. I also really like the fact that both this somewhat fluffy, fanservicey rhythm game sits in the same Shin Megami Tensei franchise as the hardcore dark Lucifer-worshipping face-breakingly-difficult Nocturne.  Though Nanako dancing to the Junes theme is pretty fucking hardcore too.

* For those who didn’t play P4, the story behind this is that Rise retired from show business to settle down back in her hometown at the ripe old age of 15, where she gets tangled up in the events of the game. Apparently Japan retires pop stars before they even reach their majority.

Four portable games not to play on the plane (because they’re perverted)

I’m taking a long plane trip tomorrow, about as long as a plane trip can be while still staying inside the 48 states of the contiguous Union. The plane sucks ass and is horrible, mostly because I’m not a rich man and cannot afford even business class.

One of the things that makes a 7-hour plane ride more bearable is the fact that I can bring along my Vita or 3DS. The stupidly difficult Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl alone should take up a lot of my time and attention while shoved like an anchovy in my godawful coach seat. However, the plane being an incredibly public place, there are certain games that I feel I simply would not be able to play on it for reasons of embarrassment and public decency. The following Gamespot/Target/Walmart-sold, legitimate triple-A video game designer-made portable titles are unsuitable for travel-play for all but the most shameless and fedora-wearing-est of gamers:

1) Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed

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This one’s really not as bizarrely fanservicey as the cover or title suggest. Akiba’s Trip is really more of a nerd’s fantasy sort of game, involving an anime/game/figure-obsessed young man who meets a cute vampire girl (but she’s a good vampire, kind of like Twilight) who must strip the clothes off of secret evil vampires pretending to be normal people to protect the nerd-paradise Tokyo neighborhood of Akihabara from… something.

The thing that makes Akiba’s Trip not so bad in the embarrassment department is the people you’re fighting and stripping are of both genders. This still isn’t much of an argument for playing the game on the plane. Especially not when you play dress-up with your several female companions, one of whom is a Finnish weeaboo fangirl who always wears a maid’s dress but can also wear this apparently (warning: not really safe for work.)

2) The entire Senran Kagura series

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You might think the above image doesn’t really suggest much of anything, and you might be right. But Senran Kagura is a game series that entirely involves schoolgirls beating each other up with ninja punches so hard that their clothes get torn off. This process is lovingly displayed in mid-fight cutscenes. There’s not much more to say than that. The games themselves look like decent enough Dynasty Warriors-style massive beatdown games, and from the bit I’ve played of Shinovi Versus that’s what they pretty much are, but without the thick layer of fanservice it’s questionable whether anyone would care about them.

3) Criminal Girls: Invite Only

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This bizarre title involves a young male protagonist sent to Hell and forced, for some reason, to take charge of an assortment of cute animal-eared girls who also live in Hell and lead them in battle, or something.

I haven’t actually played Criminal Girls, but I don’t think I have to play it to get the basic idea of the game, because the gimmick of this one is that you have to “punish” the girls to motivate them, and you do that by simulating a BDSM session by rubbing a lewd picture of said girls on your Vita’s screen.

I would say the purpose of Criminal Girls is obvious – from watching a short gameplay video on Youtube, the actual gameplay parts kind of looked simplistic, rushed and tacked on (though maybe it gets better as you go on, I don’t really know.) However, NIS America decided that the best way to avoid controversy with the NA and EU releases was to keep those BDSM scenes but cover them with a translucent pink fog (note: censored, but still incredibly not safe for work.) At this point, you may ask yourself whether it’s even worth the effort to try to play this game with one hand, as it was obviously intended to be played. I can’t answer that question, but I can say that you sure as hell shouldn’t play it on the plane. Especially considering how, let’s say, not mature some of the animal-eared girls in the game look. You might actually get your name on a list if you play Criminal Girls while anywhere even remotely near a public place.

4) Monster Monpiece

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I’ll be honest with you. And not just because this is an anonymous blog. I did buy Monster Monpiece. I bought it for a bargain price and mostly for the sake of journalistic curiosity, but that does not erase the fact that I bought a game in which you must rub a monster girl’s naughty bits through her clothes until somehow parts of her clothes are removed.

It’s really no help that the game itself is actually a pretty good tactical card/board game that involves some serious thinking. If you play this on the plane, the only thing your neighbor will notice is you furiously rubbing a picture of a large-breasted spider-girl on your Vita’s screen. This does have the effect of changing the monster girl’s stats in battle, but it doesn’t matter. Saying you’re playing Monster Monpiece for the card battle parts is like saying you read Playboy for the articles: it could certainly be true, because both Monster Monpiece and Playboy have legitimate non-fap purposes. But no one is going to believe you.

Sometimes good things really do happen: Zero Escape 3 announced

Occasionally, life isn’t total shit. One of those occasions was a few days ago, when Zero Escape 3 was announced for release next summer on the 3DS and Vita.

Anyone who’s wondering what the hell that crowd is screaming about should play 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward. These two games (the first two in a planned trilogy) start to tell a story that is way to complicated to even give a hint about here. Both of them, and presumably the still to be titled Zero Escape 3, are essentially visual novels with strong puzzle elements. The characters are interesting, the twists are insane, and some of the puzzles are pretty damn challenging, generally involving or taking place during life-or-death situations. Kotaro Uchikoshi, the creator of the Zero Escape series, also wrote the cult-fan Infinity series, and those visual novels have a lot of the same elements (though they’re kind of long-winded and don’t feature much in the way of gameplay, being more traditional VNs.)

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999 and Virtue’s Last Reward are both must-plays for anyone who enjoys puzzles, drama, and intrigue. I enjoy all of those, and I played through both after being encouraged by a friend. One week later, I read an announcement that the third game in the series had been canceled, and I nearly cried. Well, not really, but I felt like crying. (This was all the more unbearable because VLR ends on a serious cliffhanger.)

So imagine my happiness today. I’m excited about this game. In fact, it is definitely the release I’m most looking forward to. To put this into perspective, I like Star Wars pretty well and I’m excited about the J.J. Abrams-directed Star Wars VII coming out in December, but I’m about 20 to 30 times more excited about Zero Escape 3. It might even beat out The Winds of Winter for anticipation value, though not by much.

Are you ready for crazy nine-way prisoner's dilemma backstabbing antics.  I hope you are.

Are you ready for crazy nine-way prisoner’s dilemma backstabbing antics. I hope you are.

Okay, enough talk. I don’t normally write posts like this, but I was too happy about this news to let it pass by without comment.

Why I’m not excited about the Final Fantasy VII remake

I’m sure all this has been posted before by other, more recognized/successful/better people, but I’ll also say it: I don’t think the Final Fantasy VII remake is a great idea. It’s being hyped like crazy, but let’s examine just two reasons why the next FF7 might not be very good (except for Square-Enix’s bottom line, maybe, because they could sell a box of dog shit with the Final Fantasy name on it and it would still fly off of the shelves and get a 9/10 from IGN.)

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1) Final Fantasy VII is kind of a goofy game

Final Fantasy VII is goofy as fuck. Yeah, it has a serious theme – the end of the world. And yes, Cloud gets both his brood and his ellipses on the whole time, and he’s a super-serious protagonist.

But consider all the bizarre parts of FF7 that don’t fit the story. There are plenty of weird little bits of dialogue that read like jokes, and even during tense situations, like when the whole party is on the ship heading out from Junon and everyone has to disguise themselves like sailors, even Red XIII, who’s awkwardly trying to stand on his hind legs. There’s even a joke character in the form of Barrett, a/k/a Mr. T. Finally, there’s the whole Wall Market sequence, where Cloud famously crossdresses and also gets gangbanged by several burly men in a bathhouse, all of course to save Tifa from creepy fuck Don Corneo. (Well, it’s possible that such a scene could be some kind of take on gender fluidity and sexual identity, but the original FF7 played the whole thing off as a weird joke.)

I guess my question is whether Square plans on including all that stuff in the remake. If they do, the new FF7 is going to have serious tone problems. All the goofiness kind of worked when I was playing this game at 10 years old because the graphics were blocky and Cloud and co. were running around with their pipe cleaner arms and big heads and it all seemed to work in a strange way. With the realistic style of newer FF games, I feel like it wouldn’t work so well.

Of course, Square might go the other direction and change a lot of FF7 for the remake. Which brings me to problem #2:

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2) The latest Final Fantasy games haven’t been very good

FF7 was released in 1997. That was 18 years ago. The FF series (and JRPGs as a whole) have changed a lot in that time. Looking at the series’ recent history, the last main numbered non-sequel game in the line was Final Fantasy XIII, released in 2010. I mostly hated that game because of its linearity. It was a pretty game and the music was great, but the actual experience of playing it was lousy. And yeah, the game world does open up after a while, but having to grind through hours and hours of the same characters saying the same things and fighting the same fights over and over again really wears you down. Who looks forward to a bowl of ice cream after being forced to eat a gallon of creamed corn?

I know a lot of people will disagree on this point, but if the new FF7 ends up anything like FF13, it’s going to 1) suck and 2) not be much of anything like the original FF7. Tetsuya Nomura is directing it apparently, and he hasn’t directed an FF game before as far as I know, so that could be interesting, but I’m still bothered by it. Then again, maybe it will be more like the soon-to-come Final Fantasy XV? Who knows if that would be a good thing.

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So that’s all I have to say about that. The new FF7 could be great, and it’s definitely a good move for Square-Enix as far as accumulating money goes, but it could easily be a big fuck disappointment as well.

Retrospective: Disgaea

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I’m a big fan of Nippon Ichi Software. Their approach to the strategy RPG is unique, and their games have a light comedic quality that’s a real breath of fresh air in a genre that is choked with seriousness and end-of-the-world scenarios and angst-filled heroes (SRPGs as a whole aren’t as guilty of this sort of thing as more typical turn-based JRPG titles are, but they’ve got their fair share of DRAMA.)

NIS, a Japanese developer (if you couldn’t tell from their name – “Japan’s Best” I think it means?) started out getting notoriety with the release of Marl Kingdom for the Playstation. I’ve never played Marl Kingdom, but it is apparently an RPG about a teenage girl in a fairytale land with a puppet girl as her best friend and is full of Disneyesque musical numbers. For a reason that is totally impossible to understand, this game was stamped with the title Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure and imported to the US, where I’m pretty sure 98% of Playstation owners at the time were teenage boys who wouldn’t be caught dead with such a game in their Playstations (well, I know because I was one of them.) So the game flopped Stateside. NIS followed up with the SRPG La Pucelle Tactics for the PS2, which I have played, and it really tones down the pure unadulterated cheese of Marl Kingdom. You play as a tomboy nun-in-training who’s also a member of an elite demon-hunting team. So that’s different right there.

Prier, the protagonist of La Pucelle Tactics

Prier, the protagonist of La Pucelle Tactics

It’s still a pretty obscure game here, but La Pucelle must have been a relative success in the States, because big-time developer and publisher Atlus took a chance on 2003’s Disgaea and published it in the US. And Disgaea was definitely a hit – it would become the first title in a long line of sequels, spinoffs and ports to portable systems.

So what is Disgaea exactly? For the novice, imagine an SRPG – say a Fire Emblem or Shining Force game – with soldier and mage sort of characters moving around on a grid and attacking each other. Now replace these soldiers and mages with demons and monsters that have 500,000 HP, 300,000 MP and attacks that can bring down meteors and giant lasers upon their opponents. Every turn. Also, exploding penguins. That’s Disgaea.

Step 1: Become the Overlord of the Netherworld.  Step 2: Laugh menacingly inside your huge castle.

Step 1: Become the Overlord of the Netherworld. Step 2: Laugh menacingly inside your huge castle.

Disgaea tells the story of Laharl, the son of the king of the Netherworld, who unbeknownst to him has been dead for two years (because Laharl has been taking a two-year nap, you see.) Laharl, who now believes himself to have inherited the title of Overlord from his dead father, decides to show all his new vassals that he means business. Sadly for him, nobody seems to accept this kid as their new king, so he’ll have to use some force to get his subjects to obey him.

Laharl doesn't get much respect initially, no.

Laharl doesn’t get much respect initially, no.

Even worse, an angelic assassin has been sent from Celestia to kill him. Fortunately for Laharl, she’s new to the job and doesn’t really know what she’s doing (see top of page.) Together with his “loyal” vassal, Etna, the three of them end up having wacky Netherworld antics together. Or something. It’s definitely a nice story, and in 2003 Disgaea stood out for its humor where most other games in the genre were deadly serious. Juvenile jokes are mixed up with references to the Power Rangers (or old sentai shows if you’re from Japan) and 50s sci-fi serial Buck Rogers-type stuff. It’s a weird mix, to be sure, and it could be dismissed as a lot of pointless goofiness, but I think it works.

A pretty basic Disgaea battle

A pretty basic Disgaea battle

Gameplay-wise, as good for its time as La Pucelle was, Disgaea outdid it in every category. Disgaea is more or less divided into two parts: the initial game, which covers the main story, and the post-game, which is totally optional and can potentially go on forever if you let it. The core of the gameplay should be familiar to anyone who’s touched an SRPG before. You have your units and move them around on a map divided into squares on a big diagonal grid. The object of each map is usually to kill all the enemy units, though there are also maps where the goal is to reach a particular space on the map.

Disgaea has a lot more to offer than its regular missions, though – specifically two innovations that have become a staple of the series. The Dark Assembly (or the Dark Senate) is the first. Here, you can choose one of your characters to present a “bill” to an assembly of other demons who will vote on it. Subjects for debate include opening up new post-game areas, getting triple exp on the next map played, and even extorting money from the senators. If your bill fails, you even have the option of forcing it through – by beating up all the nay-voting senators in the assembly.

Like this, but with more swords and magic spells.

The second innovation in Disgaea is the Item World. The Item World is a truly devilish gameplay element. It allows you to level up any item in the game by playing through a succession of maps “inside” that item (it’s weird, I know.) Most items contain 30 levels, but some have 60 and some 100. Each level is designed to be beatable but is otherwise more or less randomly generated. The Item World is infuriatingly addictive and may well comprise the part of Disgaea you spend the most time playing.

An actual Item World level.  They're usually not this easy, believe me.

An actual Item World level. They’re usually not this easy, believe me.

Together with the ability to create new units from dozens of different character types and classes that can fight alongside the story characters, Disgaea offered an insane amount of customization and depth when it came out. I played the hell out of it and loved every minute, and that’s why I’m now an NIS fanboy. Not the proudest of badges to wear, but I will wear it all the same.

Disgaea has spawned three sequels featuring different casts and stories (Disgaea 2, 3 and 4), a direct sequel featuring the original cast (Disgaea D2), a bunch of SRPG spinoffs with different stories and different gameplay mechanics (Makai Kingdom, Phantom Brave, Soul Nomad and the World Eaters), a couple of stupidly difficult PSP platformers (Prinny 1 and 2), a weird visual novel sort of thing (Disgaea Infinite), a sort of crappy looking anime adaptation, and a truckload of portable system ports for the PSP, the Vita, and the DS (basically one for every Disgaea game and then some.) It also inspired this cross-stitch of one of its main characters, Etna:

To be honest, later Disgaea games have really improved on the old formula, especially the third one; Disgaea 3 is a great title that I like about as much as the original. Still, the original is the original and should get some respect. The original Disgaea is currently out in its PS2 original and as a port to the DS and the PSP. Of the two ports, the PSP one is definitely better, though the DS port has a couple of extras that fans might like (like the opportunity to get fan favorite silent girl Pleinair as a playable character.)

Pleinair doesn't talk.   That's her thing.  She has a sentient stuffed rabbit toy that sometimes talks for her.  No, I don't get it.

Pleinair doesn’t talk. That’s her thing. She has a sentient stuffed rabbit toy that sometimes talks for her. No, I don’t get it.

So if you’re unemployed and need something to do between searching for jobs, or you’re in solitary confinement for life and somehow get to have a PSP or Vita in your cell with you, I highly recommend Disgaea. I’d also recommend Disgaea 3, which is just as good cast-wise and has tons more content (and also looks prettier, being a PS3 game.) You can’t really go wrong with either one. The only danger involved is that you’ll become an NIS fanboy/girl, which is not really a fate I can recommend. Well, better than being a brony, I guess.