Currently playing (Neon White, my entire Steam backlog)

It’s been a while since I wrote about any games here, but I haven’t been idle on that front. There’s one game I’m nearly done with and will be writing about in a full review at some point this month — I don’t want to be too ambitious with my schedule considering how much work I’m taking on this month, but that much seems feasible. However, I’ve also been playing a new game and returning to some I’ve had on Steam for years (and maybe itch.io too?) Blowing the dust off of those, just because they’re there, and I don’t feel like spending any more money since I wake up in a cold sweat sometimes thinking about my debt. But then that’s a lot of us, sadly. It’s the reason I have the job I have to begin with. I sure as hell don’t do it for fun.

So let’s talk about something actually fun. Neon White was released in June last year on PC and Switch, but since my PC is garbage, I had to wait until the PS4 release in December to play it. I’m not much for action games as you’ll see if you look through the Games index page on this site, but there are two reasons I picked up this one, starting with the recommendation of fellow blogger Frostilyte. Our tastes in games don’t totally overlap, but his analysis is always a great time to read, and his looks at Neon White got me interested in checking it out for myself. And secondly — I won’t even make a show of downplaying this because I’ve already written about VTubers a few times on the site, but there’s a certain laughing dragon girl who played through the game, and her streams are always entertaining, but before watching any of it I don’t want to spoil anything for myself, least of all the solutions to the stages. That’s as good a reason as any, isn’t it?

Speaking of, Neon White isn’t a standard FPS as the guns might suggest. While there is plenty of shooting in the game, it’s far better described as an action platformer with puzzle elements. Each stage in the game up to the point I’ve played takes place in Heaven, where the characters including the protagonist codenamed Neon White have to clear out a demon invasion. The game’s primary mechanic is a card system: each card represents a gun (a pistol, rifle, shotgun, etc.) with a set amount of ammunition, but the card can also be used up and discarded to perform an extra function like a double-jump or a boost.

I’ll get into the system in greater depth when I’m done with the game, but it’s surprisingly intuitive and easy to get hooked on. There’s a strong speedrunning aspect to Neon White, but you don’t have to be a Hardcore Gamer™ to get into it. I’m certainly not. Another nice aspect of this game is that it’s pretty forgiving about jumps, allowing you to do demon-slaying parkour without worrying about pixel-perfect landings. However, the challenge is still there, especially for those who want to earn the top “ace” medal times in each stage for bragging rights (or the really extreme red medal times, of which I’ve only gotten two. Good thing these really are meant just for bragging rights.)

As for the story and the characters, you may have heard from Frostilyte or elsewhere that they are over-the-top ridiculous, and that’s totally true. Neon White does have a plot, but it feels like something a 13 year-old boy might write with plenty of edge and hot girls with guns etc. etc. The protagonist even has amnesia. What more can you ask for? It’s pretty much a bad anime plot. I’m not sure just how self-aware the developers were, but it feels like they just decided to go all out here, which I respect: commit totally to the over-the-top feel or don’t bother at all.

There’s not much more I can say so far — this isn’t a review since I haven’t finished the game, but I will be taking Neon White on in full at some point. Very fun so far, though.

And then there’s my backlog of old games. I have no hope of clearing this out, not unless I find a rich patron to fund me quitting my job and locking myself in my living space and living off of deliveries which I’d love to do if I could. But I can make a dent in the backlog, at least. Looking through my list of games on Steam, I have several visual novels, a few action platformers, and an assortment of stuff that I can’t easily categorize. I remember HuniePop 2 irritating me for some reason, but it is in there and I do want to return to it — it’s been long enough that I don’t remember what it was that annoyed me about that one. Maybe I was just in a lousy mood at the time. I also have Momodora III and IV, which I’ve meant to play forever now.

Momodora III by indie developer rdein, which I played ten minutes of before getting thoroughly beaten by the first boss. Those demons just won’t let up. But I will be back — the challenge to games like this is in getting the patterns down.

I’d like to get through a few of these sometime soon, but the VNs might take precedence. Not sure how I’ll approach my backlog, but I will at least put a few chips in it, if not even a dent. And HoloCure is coming out with an update this or next week, so I’ll be wasting at least a few hours there when that happens.

I hope the brief update was interesting, anyway. This week is going to be hell for me, so I don’t expect to be able to post anything else until this coming weekend. Hope you all have a better week than I do!

Deep reads #7.1: Better living through alchemy (or, why I like Atelier)

When you hear that a game has crafting in it, what do you immediately think of? Perhaps some thrown-together tacked-on gameplay mechanic like “put this piece of wood and this piece of metal together to make an axe” or “make this weed you found on the side of the road into a potion.” Crafting has a bit of a bad reputation as a gimmicky and unnecessary mechanic among gamers, at least here in the US — to the point that when I’ve tried to sell a few friends on the game series that’s the subject of this post, I’ve had to assure them that even though it’s full of crafting, it actually implements it really well. I swear. Just hear me out, please!

And yes: I’m talking about the Atelier series. Considering how many Atelier titles I reviewed last year — between those and the Blue Reflection games, officially noted as the “Year of Gust” on the site — this new deep reads post might not be such a surprise, even if I did keep you all waiting for a long time on it.

At first, I was planning to put this post off until I finished the Mysterious sub-series, since I’m almost halfway through that now-tetralogy at this point. But I felt like writing it now for various reasons, some of which have to do with opinions I’ve read about the Atelier series that I very much disagree with and that I’d like to offer counters to. Also, I think after having played almost eight Atelier games, I have a pretty good feel for what the series is about. Gust keeps releasing the damn things, too, at least once a year, so I don’t think I’ll ever truly be “caught up” anyway.

As the Arland trilogy taught me, time is extremely valuable, even if there aren’t any monster invasions on the way. (Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland DX)

Another important note before I start: this post is not going to take on the entire series from start to finish. As with my Megami Tensei deep reads post series, I’m admitting upfront that I haven’t played most of its many titles. However, I have played a lot of the Atelier games since the major series overhaul that started with Atelier Rorona at the start of the series’ PS3 era. The series as a whole stretches all the way back to the 90s, starting on the PS1 with Atelier Marie: The Alchemist of Salburg in 1997. However, my understanding is that Rorona wasn’t quite a total change to the series but more of a return to the old alchemy-heavy style of the first games, a shift back away from the more standard JRPG gameplay of the PS2 Atelier Iris trilogy.1 So maybe a lot of what I write about these later games will apply at least generally to the earliest ones. I also have the excuse that a lot of those very oldest Atelier titles (Marie through Viorate I think, 1 through 5) were never localized, at least to my knowledge.

Anyway, enough with the apologies and explanations and on to something hopefully more interesting. First, a few questions that some new players might be asking themselves:

What’s all this about alchemy?

The typical Atelier game centers around usually one and occasionally two alchemists. Said alchemist protagonist(s) almost always happen to be girls (the one exception I’ve played being Logy from Escha & Logy — he’s one of the very few exceptions to that rule.) Though they come from different circumstances and sometimes even from entirely different worlds, these girls always have bright futures ahead of them, though that’s sometimes not apparent at the outset. However, all their various quests, goals, and ambitions can be achieved with the help of their families and friends and most uniquely with the help of alchemy, the practice of gathering and mixing all sorts of ingredients — plants, liquids, metals, minerals, and so on — to create the widest range of goods imaginable, from poisons to medicines, from explosives to apple pies.

The first time I ran into this alchemy concept as a game mechanic was in the also Gust-produced Ar tonelico: Melody of Elemia. While the Ar tonelico games aren’t part of the Atelier series (though they arguably do have links to at least a few of the games) and are very different in both storytelling style and gameplay, they have item-crafting functionality in common with Atelier. The crafting system in Ar tonelico is called synthesis, and while it’s pretty simple and not at all essential to get down to actually beat the games, it does add some nice flavor, especially with the inclusion of sometimes strange and silly recipe notes from the characters making the items. Not quite simply “add wood to metal to make metal beating stick”, then, even if it isn’t all that complicated mechanically speaking.

Okay, I don’t have a screenshot of Ar tonelico synthesis, so instead here’s a conversation from Ar tonelico II. I think I have a thing for certain haughty girls who are really sweet on the inside, but that might be a subject for another post.

Alchemy in Atelier is a different matter. Starting with Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland in 2009, the series again placed a serious emphasis on item-crafting not simply as a helpful tool but as a necessary mechanic that’s also central to the plot. There’s no “fuck this crafting nonsense, let me go fight a dragon boss” option in these games for two major reasons: 1) your power in battle is directly tied to what sort of equipment and attack/defense items you’re using, almost all of which you’ll have to craft to get better than a garbage setup, and 2) the game, depending on which game you’re playing, won’t allow you to progress and might even give you a game over if you’re not keeping up with your alchemist duties and balancing those with your more typically JRPG-style map exploration, enemy-killing, and loot-finding ones.

The choice of the term alchemy for this system of crafting is interesting in itself. Before I’d even heard of the Atelier games, I knew alchemy as most of us do: that old scientifically dubious practice of turning base metals into gold. Historically, alchemy was more than just “turn this lump of iron into gold so I can get rich”, but that was naturally a lot of its appeal. Never mind that if any of these guys had ever found that secret iron/lead/whatever-to-gold recipe, the vast increase in the gold supply would have destroyed its value — they weren’t taking economics classes back in the 1300s. It’s certainly possible to turn one element into another by splitting atoms through nuclear fission and fusing atoms to create heavier elements through the far more energy-intensive nuclear fusion (also the process the Sun uses to convert hydrogen to helium.) But naturally, old-fashioned alchemists didn’t have such technology. They were making potions and probably dumping rat’s tails into them or some nonsense.

That was alchemy in our world: a bullshit science in the vein of astrology, or at least until physicists started shooting atoms at each other in the early 20th century. However, the line between alchemy on one hand and actual chemistry and medicine on the other was often blurred — alchemists could also act as legitimate medicine-makers considering their knowledge of plants with real healing properties and the like.

And there’s the possible connection to alchemy in the world of Atelier. Medicine is always one of the very first items you’re tasked with making, and it’s naturally in high demand and extremely useful in combat. The difference in Atelier is that even aside from the realistic medical benefits of herbs and so on, alchemy as a whole is entirely real and can be done with nothing more than a big pot and a stirring stick — as long as you have the learning and skill to master the recipes.

Speaking of recipes, in Atelier, baking is also an essential and extremely important aspect of the art of alchemy. I don’t think any “real” alchemists ever tried turning lead into a Mont Blanc. (Atelier Meruru DX)

No small feat in itself. Alchemists in Atelier are valued for their knowledge and skill (if not always for their wisdom — that one depends on the alchemist.) Training is intensive, and the few people with the aptitude for it spend lifetimes honing their crafts. While the techniques used in alchemy differ a little between each sub-series within the wider series, it seems to be the case that some kind of inherent skill is required before someone can even hope to start training. What that inherent quality is I can’t say, since the games I’ve played don’t really say themselves, but that’s not important: all you have to know is that your protagonist(s) have that skill along with the necessary motivation to practice and learn.

What’s an atelier (and how is it pronounced?)

The pronunciation thing is a real debate, no joke (Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky DX)

Another common thread that links all these games together is the player’s workshop, or atelier. These terms are pretty interchangeable, and though I haven’t seen it used, laboratory would also fit well. I’m not sure why the creators of the series landed on the term “atelier” specifically, but I like it — it adds to that old European feel a lot of the series has, with its Renaissance/early modern European-looking cities and towns and its characters with largely French and German-sounding family names.

Atelier is a French-to-English loanword, and here a French-to-Japanese one. In its original and English definitions, an atelier is specifically an artist’s workshop, referring to both the fine arts and more practical crafts like dress-making and architecture, something more like a studio than a lab. A search for “atelier” on Google, aside from references to the game series, brings up both art and fashion-related spots around my city. So unless アトリエ/atorie has a different meaning in Japanese, the use of “atelier” as an alchemy workshop is a little unusual here.

Then again, maybe it isn’t. Alchemy in the Atelier series seems to be just as much an art as a science, with alchemists adding their own personal touches to their work. And since you can craft armor, pendants and other jewelry with defensive attributes, and even dresses that fall into the armor category, I guess “atelier” really does fit. (Just don’t ask how such things are produced by mixing a boiling solution in a cauldron: that question was never meant to be answered.)

As for the proper pronunciation of Atelier: excuse me for being all proper, but it should be pronounced in English in the French way in my opinion. I’m not British, but I’m going with Cambridge in this case, and the other authorities agree. The Japanese title atorie might also be a clue — while Japanese can’t quite get the l sound down with the syllable リ (somewhere between li and ri) that エ at the end points to the original French pronunciation. But for fuck’s sake — even if you’re going to pronounce that r at the end out of habit or because saying a French word feels too fancypants for you, at least don’t call it an atleer.2

Ayesha Altugle in her atelier. No safety gear required, even though it really looks like she should be using some. (Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk DX)

Your atelier can take various forms: most often it’s a dedicated workshop, but your alchemist girl might resort to dragging a cauldron into a corner of her family’s house or her room if she doesn’t have that option. You might even be doing alchemy out on the road in a makeshift tent workshop. But no matter what form it takes, when you’re in that atelier, you’ll have access to all the resources you’ve collected and been given in order to brew new potions and craft new items and armor.

The atelier isn’t just a workshop, however. Most of the Atelier games I’ve played turn the your workshop into a meeting place and sometimes a regular hangout spot depending on where it is. And in the cases they don’t, the practical effect is the same, because the alchemists always become pillars of their respective communities if they aren’t already. The powers of alchemy can be used for good or evil — you can synthesize some massively destructive items in your atelier, after all. But while disreputable alchemists aren’t entirely unheard of in the series, your protagonists are always the good sort. They differ in personality, sometimes wildly, but they all have a strong desire to help their friends and to be a positive force in the world as a whole.

Which brings me to the final question I’d like to address, and in an extremely long-winded way:

What’s the appeal?

I’ve gone on a lot about ateliers and alchemy and how to pronounce French loanwords, but here’s the key question. What’s the point of all this item synthesis and why should I care? And why are most of these alchemists wearing such frilly fucking dresses? Don’t those ribbons get in the way of the cauldron-stirring?

And what about Sophie’s massive sleeves? (Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book DX)

I can’t address the practicality of those frills and ribbons, but I can describe what I find to be the appeal of Atelier. I can only speak for myself, though I expect a lot of other fans will agree on these strengths of the series.

1) The art and aesthetic

Getting all fancy with “aesthetic” here, but there’s a good reason for it. Gust games are generally known for their excellent art design: between the Atelier, Blue Reflection, and EXA_PICO series, I doubt there’s a single title that doesn’t have at least pretty impressive art.

Atelier in particular stands out for its art and character designs, and all the more so because of the several artists who have worked on the series, bringing their own unique visions to it. In my Atelier reviews, I’ve noted the breakdown of the wider series into subseries, often into trilogies (that may later expand into tetralogies or more: see Atelier Lulua and Atelier Sophie 2) and each of these subseries to date has featured a different art director. Playing these games in roughly sort of chronological order as I’ve been from Rorona on, I’ve prepared to be at least a little let down by the new artistic direction in the following subseries, but that hasn’t happened yet with the very partial exception of the Atelier Ryza series as far as I’ve played it. At worst, the art and general style might just not appeal to me quite as much, but I still end up pretty much liking it and feeling the new style suits the new general direction of the game.

Toridamono’s work is my least favorite out of the four Atelier subseries I’ve played, and he’s still a damn good artist whose work I like a lot, which should speak well for the rest of the series’ art. (Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout)

Among the three other art directors of the series I’ve played — Mel Kishida in the Arland series, and also responsible for the art of the Blue Reflection games, Hidari in the Dusk series, and Yuugen and Noco in the Mysterious series — I can’t even rank them against each other. If Toridamono’s just a notch below them according to my own tastes, the rest are on the same extremely high rung. If you’re imagining one of those tier rankings that have become so popular among streamers and VTubers these days, based on its art alone, Ryza is in the A rank and the rest are up in S.

But what is it about the art in these games that I find so striking? Part of it might be that old European feel most of the games have. Dusk is a little lighter on that feel, though there are still hints of it in especially in Atelier Ayesha, but generally the makers really seem to love the look of those 16th/17th century west European cities and towns. I might be completely off here, but as an American, I think we tend to have a love for that look too, maybe because it feels a bit exotic and also because we don’t have anything similar in our own country aside from the architecture that’s designed specifically to mimic those styles.

I believe this is part of the cover of the original Atelier Rorona for the PS3, the one you absolutely shouldn’t play because the Vita and DX PS4 remasters/remakes look far better. But damn if Mel Kishida’s art isn’t amazing anyway.

More important are the character designs, which are usually memorable and excellent. I’m no visual artist and I’ve never created a character design because I can’t draw worth a shit, but I know what I think is memorable and looks good and what doesn’t, and I haven’t played an Atelier game yet that failed to impress in that way. I’ll just say I own that Artworks of Arland artbook for a reason. I’d own artbooks of Hidari and Yuugen/Noco’s work too, but those don’t seem to exist or else I haven’t found them. I’ve posted examples of their work throughout, especially of Hidari’s, so here’s another CG I love from the Mysterious series:

Just ignore Sophie’s weird gold beret outfit. That one’s not her fault, anyway; it was a gift from another character with some pretty damn dubious tastes. But note the bottle hanging at her side — a nice touch that many of the alchemists’ outfits include considering how often they have to gather materials and work out in the field. (Atelier Sophie DX)

I haven’t seen another game series with such a strong emphasis on costume design, either. It’s most obvious in Atelier Sophie, which contains an entire side plot about Sophie wearing her grandmother’s old alchemist outfit from way back when she was out in the field to gain her courage or something (not the one above; it looks a lot better in my opinion) but this focus runs throughout the series. Of course, unusual costumes in JRPGs are naturally nothing new (see Final Fantasy) but that aspect of Atelier is also notable. Whether it’s a positive is up to you — I feel Ryza drops it a bit in favor of a somewhat more practical-looking “adventurer” look if that’s more to your taste — but I find it adds some great spice to the series.3

If only to see our characters running around in the field and into battle in this getup. Not exactly made for combat, though at least the knight in the front line is dressed for the occasion. (Atelier Sophie DX)

2) The slice-of-life relaxation

Plenty of JRPGs provide breaks to their players in the form of easygoing character interaction, but again, no series I’ve found places such an emphasis on that as Atelier. While you’ll certainly face plenty of challenges in the series, up to and including difficult bosses to fight and the occasional world-ending crisis, most of my experience with Atelier has been pretty relaxed. There are certain story beats I’d grown up to expect after playing other JRPG series as a kid: someone in your party will betray you at a key moment, your home base or town that seems safe will get attacked at some point and you’ll have to flee, your protagonist will probably end up romantically tied to another character, most likely the female lead. And of course, some godlike entity is almost certainly controlling the supposed ultimate bad guy from behind the scenes and you’ll have to beat it up to prevent all life from being destroyed. Some series put their own unique spins on these JRPG tropes (Megami Tensei for example), but they’re tropes for a reason.

You’ll barely find any of the above in Atelier. Hardly any betrayal, much less of the dramatic “top 10 anime betrayal” kind complete with the speech trying to justify the traitor’s backstabbing. Very little romance, outside of some yuri-flavored teasing that never ends up going anywhere (by far most common in the Arland subseries) and an option to get Escha and Logy into an implied romantic relationship in their game that’s otherwise not at all central to the story.

I don’t blame Logy for dating his coworker, hard to resist a girl who can put away cake like this. And yes, Escha is as she looks: another cute cinnamon roll-esque character. I think I have a thing for them too as long as they’re not overdone. (Atelier Escha & Logy DX)

And while Atelier does feature crises, these aren’t always the world-ending kind. The crisis in question is usually a lot more personal than you’d expect: for a few examples, the protagonist trying to track down her missing adventurer mother (Atelier Totori), working to convince her father to let her become an alchemist (Atelier Meruru), or making a trek across the world to sit for an alchemist certification exam (Atelier Firis). A couple of other games do feature potentially world-ending threats, most especially the Dusk subseries (Ayesha, Escha & Logy, and Shallie), which centers around an ongoing catastrophic environmental decay (what an idea — I just can’t imagine that happening in real life, can you?)

But even the Dusk trilogy contains plenty of relaxation and slice-of-life messing around. This is such a staple of Atelier that it would be impossible to imagine the series without it. While exploration and combat are certainly important elements to every Atelier game I’ve played so far, they aren’t the central elements — they take place alongside a lot of necessary work in the atelier.

The combat is fine if you’re all right with turn-based systems, and it does feature some big changes from game to game, most notably in the Ryza series that shifts to a more action-based battle mechanic. I just don’t find the combat a particular strength of Atelier, though a few games do interesting things with it. (Atelier Ayesha DX, with admittedly one of the less interesting battle systems.)

And while your alchemist protagonist is brewing her potions and baking her pies in that cauldron, she’ll receive visits from friends and the few townspeople who are important enough side characters to get character portraits. Building relationships with your party members is a must, but even the shopkeepers in most Atelier titles have roles to play beyond the typical “Hi ___, look at the new wares I have for sale” fare — they’re very often interesting characters in their own rights, and some of them might even join your party.

That’s no mistake: typically the protagonist herself is a shopkeeper, at least of a sort. As the local alchemist, and sometimes the only one in town, part of your task as the player is to fulfill the requests of customers, some of whom are shopkeepers themselves who might go on to sell your wares at a higher price. Everyone benefits from the arrangement: you gather the materials and either sell them or more often use them to synthesize a product that only you can create, and the shopkeeper provides a wider market for the salve, cake, dress, or whatever else it is you’ve made. It’s a small-scale economy at work — not a very complicated one, but then it doesn’t need to be. There’s plenty of complication for you to deal with elsewhere, as we’ll soon see.

Pamela’s shop is the most popular among the town’s men — they all hang out there so much that their wives start complaining about it. Maybe you can see why? That’s right: it’s all the amazing perfume she sells that Rorona synthesized for her. (Atelier Rorona Plus)

All these relationships your protagonist(s) build with their families, friends, and townspeople — even with the odd ghost they might meet during their explorations — these all contribute to the generally relaxed feel of the series as a whole. Because of my near-oppressive work schedule (though a typical one for my profession, sadly) I’ve had to drop every other JRPG for the foreseeable future. Even my beloved Megami Tensei has fallen by the wayside. But Atelier is somehow still keeping me in its grip, and I think its strong relaxed slice-of-life aspect is part of the reason why it’s managed to draw me back in.

3) The alchemy

Alchemy. (Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream)

There’s a good reason I decided to make this edition of my deep reads a series instead of a single post: this fucking alchemy system deserves its own post. Let me correct that: systems, because there’s well more than one. The fact that I’ve spent so many hours crafting items in Atelier where I’ve groaned at two minutes of crafting a sword in some other game and asked why I had to bother — that still escapes me, but I’d like to figure out just why the hell that’s the case, and I’d like to get to it in the next post in this set.

I’m prepared to be totally wrong about at least half of what I end up writing about alchemy in these games, because there are actual experts out there and I’m not one of them. But I’ve gotten used to being wrong about things, so it’s no problem for me. Until next time!

 

1 I really don’t know how I missed out on Atelier Iris back in the day considering I was pretty big into JRPGs at the time. Their exclusion from this post series feels like a serious gap, but it’s not one I can do anything about. The same goes for the Mana Khemia games, which despite their titles are canonically part of the Atelier series.

2 And here’s part of why I think barely any fans lament the loss of the English dubs for these games following Atelier Firis. Though the fact that most of us are probably weebs who default to the Japanese voiceovers also has something to do with it. And no, I don’t blame the VAs at all: I blame the localizers who should have been in charge of giving them proper direction, or maybe Gust if they didn’t allocate a sufficient localization budget to bother with that. I hope those VAs are finding plenty of work elsewhere, anyway. I think Crunchyroll is dubbing a lot of anime these days.

3 This raises an interesting question about the target audience for such games. There are male characters in the Atelier games too — lean pretty boys, muscular tough guys, and a few in between or miscellaneous types, and often with their own interesting designs. But the focus seems to be far more on the ladies, and combined with the very flowery aesthetic I wonder if Atelier has a larger female player base than other RPG series might.

Then again, there’s such a strong emphasis on the ladies that I also suspect the series might be aimed specifically at guys. As I noted at the start of my Disgaea deep reads series way back, Marl Kingdom seems to have had a similar issue with being considering “for girls” when it was localized, possibly with an eye to capture more of a female player base. But I also think the market has changed a lot since then. Then again, I’m no marketing expert or video game historian, so I’ll leave those questions to them.

A review of Coffee Talk

Last post I wrote about my probably unhealthy coffee-drinking habits, so I may as well have a look at a game all about coffee, coffee-adjacent drinks, and the people they bring together in a small independent coffee shop in alternate fantasy universe Seattle. Coffee Talk, released on Steam in 2020, is a visual novel with a drink-mixing minigame attached in which you play a barista and coffee shop owner, serving a diverse mix of the city’s residents — humans, elves, succubi, fairies, werewolves and so on.

Latte art? I’m a coffee guy, not a damn artist. But maybe all baristas are expected to also be artists in Seattle? I’ve never been there.

As the sort-of blank slate player character, your job is to talk to patrons, both regulars and newcomers, and fill their drink orders. You’ll have an increasing stock of ingredients to choose from as the game continues, allowing you to mix dozens of different drinks for your customers.

Pictured: constant regular patron Freya, a woman after my own heart — not a long-lived heart with all the triple espressos I drink though.

Drink-making is an important part of Coffee Talk and provides the only traditional “game” element with a little extra challenge — while some of the orders your patrons make will be straightforward, others will make vague orders or just ask for whatever. You’re free to serve whatever drink you think best, but the drinks you serve at certain points will affect the course of the story. To add to the challenge, you’ll start with a blank drink reference list that fills out as you make each drink, meaning you can’t easily refer to it for clues if you haven’t made a particular order yet (or just look it up online, of course.)

Don’t give this guy milk unless you just want to be a jerk

The visual novel part of Coffee Talk is its central element, however — you’ll be spending almost all your time in this game making and listening to conversation over coffee (and tea, hot chocolate, etc.) Coffee Talk features a cast of about ten or a dozen recurring patrons, each with their own stories and challenges that they might bring up while sitting at your counter. While it might seem like a linear story at first, this game does have different endings to achieve, based not on dialogue options (the traditional branching-path VN style) but on whether you serve the right drinks to your customers and friends at the critical moments. It should be pretty obvious when these moments arise, even if the drink you have to serve at that time isn’t.

Things get heavy on occasion. I wonder how often real-life baristas see such scenes. I’ve never worked behind a counter myself, though I did unfortunately suffer through a “scene” at a sort of small bar/restaurant once that was considerably worse than this one.

Anyone who’s read this site for very long might know one of my favorite indie games is VA-11 Hall-A. If you’ve played VA-11 Hall-A yourself or have seen a playthrough of it, all of the above should sound very familiar to you, because Coffee Talk clearly took serious influence from that game — the drink-mixing, the strong social/visual novel elements, and the way the drinks you serve at certain points affects the story. One of the main reasons I picked up Coffee Talk, in fact, was because it reminded me so much of that old favorite. Also because I was getting tired of the endless “where the fuck is it” Atlus-style wait for the long-announced sequel N1RV Ann-A (still “coming soon”, haaah.)

However, it would be a mistake to think of Coffee Talk as simply a copy of VA-11 Hall-A. It’s similar in its structure and mechanics, but it has a different flavor and stands well on its own. The most obvious difference is the setting: where VA-11 Hall-A was set in a dive bar built mostly to serve alcohol, in Coffee Talk you’re running a coffee shop. That’s not a small difference, either, since for better or worse you can’t get anyone drunk and running their mouths in this game like you can in VA-11 Hall-A. That doesn’t mean your drinks don’t have significant effects on your patrons, both energizing and calming — they just won’t be getting boozed up.

Somehow alcohol was not involved with creating this situation

The broader settings of the games are also very different, with Coffee Talk set in a real-world American city known for being a unique sort of place (in a similar way to Portland and Austin, so maybe not actually “unique” but you get the idea — it’s an artsy city.) Both games deal with some pretty serious social issues through their conversations, though again somewhat different ones — you can really tell the fictional Glitch City of VA-11 Hall-A has the sorts of issues thought up more by guys from a place like Venezuela as its developers were, with the talk of government corruption and currency hyperinflation.

I can relate more personally to the complaints about insane drug prices and instability of freelancer life in Coffee Talk, though having lived in an “open corruption/government actually giving no fucks” sort of country before I understand those complaints as well, even if I’ve always had the extreme and undeserved luxury of an American passport.

Either way, I won’t accuse anyone of complaining about “first world problems” if their issues are serious and not just “I got the wrong drink order” or something that inconsequential. I always thought that criticism was bullshit when used as a blanket statement. Family problems, for example, exist everywhere — you can’t get away from them.

Both games took on their more serious subjects without coming off as preachy to me or laying it on too thick as well, which I always appreciate. I don’t like having my nice relaxing coffee or booze game interrupted by a sermon or a TED Talk jammed in out of nowhere, but when the points are made naturally in the course of an interesting story I’m all for it. That’s proper storytelling. Even if you can probably guess the politics of the people who made Coffee Talk (but then it may also help that I’m on board with them myself — and even then most of the serious talk here is more about personal/social matters than really political ones.)

A vampire has a serious conversation with a succubus about relationships while a fairy does her best to sit between them and not feel awkward, life in 2020 if COVID hadn’t happened. It’s important to note that Coffee Talk was released in January of 2020. Maybe the sequel can be set entirely on Teams or Discord; imagine how fucking miserable that would be.

That said, I ended up connecting with VA-11 Hall-A a little more than with Coffee Talk. Both are skillfully and thoughtfully put together, with some interesting characters and side stories, and I’d recommend either one almost completely, only with the exception that VA-11 Hall-A does get a lot more graphically into sex talk for those who aren’t as comfortable with such subjects or just don’t want to get into them in a “comfy game” like this one. There’s no Dorothy here to spice things up in that direction.

I didn’t mind that talk, however. I also preferred the setting and general feel of VA-11 Hall-A to Coffee Talk, though that’s a totally subjective matter. If I had the choice myself, I’d go to the cyberpunk dive bar tended by an embittered lady like Jill than this nighttime-only coffee shop in Seattle, though I’d be happy with either. I feel the same about the soundtrack — the music in Coffee Talk can be flipped through and played like in VA-11 Hall-A, and this soundtrack perfectly fits the setting: lo-fi beats to caffeinate to, with a lot of electric piano, always a plus for me. Again, I just slightly prefer the soundtrack to VA-11 Hall-A, but switch the soundtracks and each would totally clash with the other game’s atmosphere.

I’ve never had coffee with a churro in it, but I have to try a Spanish Sahara now. Coffee Talk introduced me to a lot of new coffee and tea drinks I’d like to try out when I get the time and freedom to do that.

Finally, I preferred Jill as the player character and protagonist of VA-11 Hall-A over the blank slate (though not silent) protagonist of Coffee Talk. This is still another totally subjective preference, since I can’t say one is better than the other or would be more effective for this sort of game. If I couldn’t have related so much to Jill’s troubles, I probably wouldn’t even be saying this, and I honestly wish I couldn’t relate to her on that level. There is more to the player character of Coffee Talk than “our friendly barista” however, which is what I thought I was for a while — I won’t spoil anything more here, though.

That’s another hint that you should check out Coffee Talk for yourself. I found it very relaxing, a nice break from my usual bullshit schedule. One playthrough only takes a few hours, so it’s not a massive time investment either like some VNs can be, though if you want to get multiple endings you’ll have to play through a few more times and make those very particular drinks at the right times to change the course of the plot.

It’s a good thing the quality of your latte art has no effect on the story. No amount of moe moe kyun can fix this.

Finally, if you do decide to go for Coffee Talk, which again I do recommend, I also recommend you check it out on itch.io instead of Steam, because fuck Valve for their still extremely inconsistent (and if you really want to be uncharitable to them, and I don’t feel like being charitable, potentially xenophobic) attitude towards Japanese VNs. Though I still have a massive backlog of games on the platform to get through if I ever can, so I can’t say I’ll be “boycotting” them or anything. I’ve bought most of my VNs there, in fact — I’ll just be doing my best to untangle myself from Steam from now on, at least until there are serious changes at Valve.

Why live-action adaptations don’t generally work for me (featuring the newly announced Gravity Rush film)

A few days ago, news came out on Twitter about an upcoming Gravity Rush film to be directed by Anna Mastro. I don’t know anything about Mastro’s work, so despite some nerves surrounding the announcement, I don’t want to just write off this new project even considering how poor game-to-film adaptations tend to be. Part of that may just be wishful thinking, though I’ve also heard Mastro is pretty fine at directing (not that I’d know right now since I have no interest in whatever Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is, but people seem to like her anyway.)

My concern right now (aside from the fact that Sony dismantled Japan Studio and effectively killed the game series this film is based on) is that the Gravity Rush film is going to be live-action. According to the articles I’ve read so far, nobody knows yet whether this is an animated or live-action project, but looking through Mastro’s resume on IMDB doesn’t give me much hope that it will be animated. It could be, but would Sony take on a director who works on live-action projects to helm an animated one? Maybe they would, but it seems like a weird choice if so.

Kat exploring her new home city, from the remastered Gravity Rush made for the PS4

For those who haven’t played the games, the Gravity Rush series opens with the protagonist Kat, a girl with amnesia who has the power to bend gravity around her, allowing her to float and fly through the air. Technically she’s falling up/sideways, but she also has plenty of special moves in the games that are useful in combat. Kat is tasked with using these abilities to protect her new home from a mass of alien-looking creatures that show up to attack it, and she soon becomes famous as the “Gravity Queen” despite her wish to remain low-key. She also has a rival, Raven, with similar powers who shows up in the first game and features more prominently in the second.

So then what’s the problem with a live-action take on these games? Aside from the extremely long track record of abysmal game-to-film projects running for decades now, I’m afraid that the style of Gravity Rush just won’t translate into live action. The game’s setting is an interesting mix of halfway realistic-looking sort of steampunk and fantasy — I’m not sure whether you’d call it science fiction, but either way it has a unique look that I’d much prefer to see in animation.

Casting is also a concern. Gravity Rush has a sort of cult popularity: fans love it, but unfortunately the series doesn’t seem to have found broad appeal, maybe in part because it debuted on the Vita (a system I still swear by, but then I’m a JRPG fan.) Partly for that reason, whatever actresses are signed on to play Kat and Raven in particular are going to have to fit the bill perfectly, both to satisfy old rabid fans (and I include myself as rabid, sure) and to attract new ones. I don’t have anyone in mind just because I pretty rarely watch live-action movies and don’t follow the Hollywood scene at all, so maybe there are actresses who would be perfect fits, but they sure as hell would have their work cut out for them. Again, I think going with animation would just be a better idea in general.

Flying through the air. I only had screenshots from the first game around, but the second one looks amazing and is a lot of fun to play as well. And yeah I used Kat’s catsuit costume about 80% of the time I played the first game, what did you expect?

I’m not saying Gravity Rush absolutely can’t work in live action, because I don’t know that for a fact. Despite being Japanese-made, the games take some influence from American comics, even featuring western comic book-styled dialogue and action cutscenes between each chapter. Marvel’s done an excellent job translating their comic characters and stories into live action over the last decade plus from what I hear and from the few of them I’ve seen myself, so maybe a live-action Gravity Rush would also work, though it doesn’t have quite the same style as those western comics have. We’ve also seen a couple of movies out recently that actually pulled off the game-to-film transition decently, shockingly including Sonic the Hedgehog (and I still haven’t seen the sequel yet — it’s on my list to watch.)

Whether the film turns out to be animated or live-action, I’ll watch it if it comes out. I want to be positive about something for once, holy hell. And maybe, just maybe, this new Gravity Rush project is a sign that we might get a Gravity Rush 3, and hopefully from the same people who did such a bang-up job with the first two? Now I’m feeling like replaying the series from the start. See you tomorrow with a new post.

Abstraction in game combat: turn-based systems and why I don’t have a problem with them (probably)

I haven’t been putting the usual care into these post titles, probably because I’m just doing my best to get them out the door this month. This daily schedule shit is exhausting, even when you’re sticking with shorter posts. But I ran track in high school, and while I wasn’t the top athlete (I kind of sucked honestly) I never gave up in a race, so I won’t this time, especially when the only competitor is my own laziness.

Recently I thought back to a one-time conversation I had with some guy years ago. Video games somehow came up, and what we were playing at the time, and of course I had a JRPG going and brought that up. Then the inevitable question: does it have turn-based combat? Well of course it did, and that guy said he couldn’t play it in that case.

This issue comes up on gaming Twitter every so often, most recently when Square-Enix announced news about the upcoming Final Fantasy XVI keeping the action-based combat of XV, along with a reason provided by producer Naoki Yoshida: essentially that they’re looking for a younger audience who aren’t used to turn-based combat or don’t find it exciting.

What could be more exciting than fighting demon dogs in a post-apocalyptic mall, even if it’s turn-based?

I don’t know whether younger gamers as a whole are averse to the turn-based style. I’ll even defer to Square-Enix on that point, since they presumably have a far greater ability and budget for demographic studies than I do (though against my nothing and $0 that’s not saying much.) Given how popular the turn-based RPG Persona 5 is among young people, I’d still say Square’s way of thinking is narrow here but maybe there are other factors behind the decision they just don’t want to get into.

But I can understand why some people prefer real-time combat in their RPGs. For that guy I talked to years ago, the problem with turn-based systems was their high level of abstraction — he just couldn’t get into a game that interpreted a fight as the two sides standing in lines opposite each other and taking turns whacking each other with weapons and spells.

That’s a fair reason to dislike turn-based combat, but I don’t feel the same way about it at all, and I think the main reason is that I played it enough as a kid that it ended up feeling natural to me. At least it felt natural enough that I never minded seeing it in the context of an RPG. Sure, turn-based combat of this kind is very abstract, but if you can get past that, I think this system offers plenty of upsides to make up for that potential weirdness, the main one being the added complexity it makes possible with various types of attacks/buffs/debuffs and how they operate with ally and enemy strengths and weaknesses.

There’s a reason I bring up Megami Tensei when people bring up the point about turn-based RPG combat being crusty, old, and boring: the games in that series mostly use that format and manage to make it dynamic and interesting by turning the combat into a sort of puzzle. Brute force leveling isn’t an effective option when the game requires you to keep and use a varied set of skills on your party because the alternative is getting your ass handed to you not just by a boss, but a random encounter. And that’s not the only way to spice up turn-based combat — you can also incorporate rhythm elements if you want to actually test your players’ reaction and timing skills.

Or mix combat up with complex item and weapon-crafting and inventory systems, putting emphasis on planning and teamwork to succeed in what otherwise might be a standard turn-based combat format? Okay, maybe I won’t go that far, that’s only for the truly insane like me.

Not that I have anything against action games or action-based combat in RPGs, but it just annoys me when I see what really seem like lame excuses from Square-Enix or any other developer for taking one path vs. another. Square made Final Fantasy a household name by setting new trends, not by following them, and it sure as hell doesn’t sound like they’re interested in innovating anymore. But maybe I’m wrong and FF16 will be amazing. You tell me whenever it comes out.

That’s all for today. I think I covered a lot of old ground here, but there’s no way I’ll be able to keep a daily posting schedule this month without doing that. Until tomorrow, and hopefully with something new.

Listening/reading log #31 (June 2022)

I originally had something depressing written in this first line, but we don’t need any more of that right now, so I changed it. Chalk it up to my temperamental nature.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the music and the posts from around the community as usual. On the bright side, the proper album reviews are finally back, so if you liked those then that should be good news. And hey, happy Bastille Day to all my French readers too.

Mellow Dream (Ryo Fukui, 1977)

Highlights: Mellow Dream, Horizon, Early Summer

Starting with something truly mellow, just like the title says. Ryo Fukui was an excellent jazz pianist who put out a lot of albums I hadn’t heard until recently even though YouTube kept recommending his 1976 album Scenery to me. So for some reason I decided to start with Mellow Dream from the following year, maybe because I liked the bird on the cover.

So far all the Japanese jazz I’ve featured in these posts has been mostly the fusion kind, but Mellow Dream sounds a lot more like the older modal style, the kind you can hear on older classics by Miles Davis and John Coltrane and similar legendary jazz guys from back in the 50s and early 60s. It’s a bit hard for me to write about this stuff — I don’t love everything I’ve heard in this more traditional jazz style, but I do really like some of it depending partly on which instruments are more prominent in the mix. Prominent piano is a huge plus, so Mellow Dream worked for me. I’m a big fan of the piano/bass/drums combo, especially in faster-paced pieces like the title track and “Horizon”. “Early Summer” is also impressive, according to the liner notes an addition to a re-release of the album from a live performance at Fukui’s Sapporo club in 2006.

So if you like jazz, you can’t go wrong with Mellow Dream. Maybe you don’t need me to tell you — all the huge jazz fans probably know the guy well already anyway, and it’s not like I know what the hell to say about these pieces except that I like them. For some reason I find more to say about fusion. Maybe that’s why I’ve featured those albums a lot more? But this makes for excellent listening too, especially if you need some relaxation, and God knows plenty of us do these days.

NEWS AT 11 (猫 シ Corp., 2016)

Highlights: No idea, but I guess that’s not the point anyway.

And concluding with an album that isn’t so relaxing, or might not be depending on who you are. NEWS AT 11 is another sort of vapor/post-vaporwave/post-whatever album I found recommended on Bandcamp, like the dark ambient album TOWERS I checked out a while back. Produced by a Dutch musician working under the name 猫 シ Corp. (Nekoshi Corp.? I’ve seen it written as “Cat Corp.” too, which makes sense, so I’ll just use that from here on) NEWS AT 11 was very deliberately put out on September 11, 2016 — it seems to be a nostalgic look back to the period before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that shook not just America but the entire world.

The album achieves this effect by interspersing a lot of light/smooth weather report jazz and mall muzak with old ad spots with actual news report audio excerpts from the morning of September 11. But none of these excerpts deal with the attacks themselves as you might expect: they’re instead taken from the early morning reports before the attacks occurred and started getting coverage, with the very last clip ending just before the sudden cutaway to the breaking story.

The first half of NEWS AT 11 was an interesting listen. Its nostalgic effect, if you want to call it nostalgia, pretty much worked for me. I’d just started high school and was a few weeks into classes before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the subsequent “War on Terror” they sparked. So while I was still basically a kid without much in the way of adult concerns in that pre-9/11 world, I remember that world well. Both the news report and mall smooth jazz/muzak stuff sounds extremely familiar to me — not that I actually recognize any of the tunes, but the style is burned into my memory. Even the news clips take me back to those middle/high school days, most of them taken from NBC’s The Today Show that was usually on in the kitchen early in the morning before I had to leave for school. And the fact that these were all taken from that early morning of September 11, just hours and even minutes before that old world was shattered, adds a lot of meaning to the use of those clips (and even more so the fact that The Today Show was filmed live in Manhattan not far from the Trade Center.)

All that said, this nostalgic effect obviously won’t work for everyone. Hearing NEWS AT 11 takes me back to that childhood, growing up as a kid in America in the 90s, when the future seemed bright and people seemed generally optimistic and before that illusion was put to an end. Someone who didn’t grow up in that world likely won’t get as much from this album, though. I don’t know if there’s a lot of musical value independent of that either — I wouldn’t seek out any of the smooth jazz or muzak that NEWS AT 11 samples outside of this context, since I don’t actually like it much and never listened to it by choice to begin with. Now that I think of it, the same is also true for The Today Show.

I also don’t get at all why Cat Corp. filled the second half of his album with those “Weather Channel 1 – 11” tracks, which really do just sound like distorted excerpts from old Weather Channel reports and their accompanying smooth jazz soundtracks. These are claimed on the Bandcamp page to be “from a lost and found VHS”, though if that’s true then why someone was taping old Local on the 8s broadcasts for posterity is beyond me. A few like tracks 4, 6, and 8 on this side get into funky grooves that weren’t bad while they were on, but that’s about it (and 6 is sampled from Kenny G — shocked that he could make something I could tolerate for three minutes considering what else I’ve heard of his, but I’ll give out credit where it’s due. He wrote a halfway decent Persona shop theme! Though he still can’t come close to beating Shoji Meguro at that.) But how do these tracks fit the theme? I’m not sure. Maybe you can tell me in the comments if I’m missing something. (edit: I’ve seen it suggested that this part represents someone trying to block out the horrific news by switching to the Weather Channel that day. Maybe staying in bed and closing the blinds/curtains too. That angle makes sense to me if that’s what was intended by it.)

I think NEWS AT 11 mostly works as intended, anyway. Try it out, but keep in mind it’s more of a collage than a traditional album and that it indirectly deals with heavy and serious matters that might weigh on you depending.

I didn’t expect to write that much about NEWS AT 11, but it really did bring up some dormant memories in me and I ended up pouring them all out. Sorry about that. On to the featured articles:

Pokémon Sun and Moon (Extra Life) — Red Metal has a look at two classic Pokémon titles. Which I haven’t played, because I haven’t really played Pokémon at all despite it being practically required playing in my age group/general fan area. No, I don’t get it either, but I can still appreciate Red Metal’s review and you should too.

Thoughts on the Obi-Wan Kenobi series (WCRobinsion) — Just what the title says. I didn’t watch Obi-Wan Kenobi, but I’ve heard it was more interesting than the typical Star Wars fare we’ve come to expect in recent years. See WCRobinson’s look back at the full series for the details.

SPY x FAMILY Episode 12 Review – Best In Show (Crow’s World of Anime) – Crow concludes his episode-by-episode look at the big hit anime Spy x Family. I tried doing this sort of thing once three years ago and it almost killed me, so I respect bloggers who can go season to season and episode by episode like this. And Spy x Family is well worth that treatment.

Final Fantasy VII Remake – Episode INTERmission Review (Honest Gamer) — I’ll keep doing penance for probably unfairly dumping on the concept of an FF7 remake years ago. Not by playing it myself, because I don’t have the time to spare considering the other things I’d rather watch/play anyway, but by linking Stephen’s review of an extra add-on story to the game featuring Yuffie. I still remember her stealing my materia in the original game and chasing her down, but I did forgive her and ended up using her a lot in my party. I liked her at the time, and maybe you do too, so check out Stephen’s site for more information on this extra episode.

My Dress-Up Darling: Whole-series Review and a Full Recommendation (The Infinite Zenith) — If I didn’t convince you to watch this anime, maybe Infinite Zenith will with this more in-depth review.

Rogue Legacy 2 Review – Stuck in the Past (Frostilyte Writes) — Is Rogue Legacy 2 worth your time and effort if you’re a roguelike fan? The title of the post might give you a general idea of what to expect, but read Frostilyte’s review to find out about the sequel’s positives and negatives.

My Top 3 Ghibli Movies (They aren’t Miyazaki Films) (Dopey Likes Anime) — A look at three great anime films by Ghibli not directed by best-known Ghibli guy Hayao Miyazaki. These films deserve plenty of attention too, so be sure to check out Dopey’s post if you have an interest.

What I want from Atlus, as someone who has spent 70% of the past 4 years thinking about Persona 5 (Eleanor Rees Gaming) — Eleanor has written in great depth about Persona 5 for a while, so she has some interesting thoughts about what we might reasonably expect and what we should hope from Atlus in the future regarding the series.

Why draw anime girls when AI can do it for you? (Umai Yomu Anime Blog) — I find AI-generated images to be interesting but also sometimes terrifying thanks to the extreme uncanny effect they can produce. It’s somewhat easier to take in anime form since anime art is already stylized, and thankfully Yomu has covered some interesting AI tools to make your own waifu or hypothetical series complete with art.

Madoka Brings Back the Anime Demographic Question (I drink and watch anime) — Irina has a look at how manga and anime are classified with a special focus on the unusual overlap between shoujo and seinen (series made for girls and young men respectively) in series like Madoka Magica. Yuru Camp, Bisque Doll, and even Akebi’s Sailor Uniform that I’ve recently reviewed are all classified as seinen too, which you might find surprising. But maybe these series and their audiences aren’t always so well defined? I’m not the expert in this area, so be sure to read Irina’s post.

Vitamin C: Can Song is a Bopping, Shuffling Ode to Fruit & Veg (Professional Moron) — We listen to Can in this household. That’s to say I do, so I appreciate Mr. Wapojif’s post on their classic song “Vitamin C” from one of my favorite albums Ege Bamyasi (which I’ve featured in an earlier listening/reading log post, though I don’t remember which one.) And thanks to Damo Suzuki for warning me to get my vitamin C, or else. Or else what? It’s hard to say.

Why You Should Become a (Anime) Blogger (Side of Fiction) — Finally, Friendly Overlord Jacob gives the reader some excellent reasons for getting into anime blogging themselves. I can relate to these reasons myself, and maybe you can too.

And that’s it for last month. As for me, I’m going to be crushed by work for the next six months. I know this already. Even so, I’ll keep posting on the site on a regular basis because I’ve found that going for more than a week or two at most without writing something causes me to lose my mind. Most of all, this is why I write: to maintain my sanity.

But hopefully you can get something out of it too. I have a couple of games to cover this/next month along with plenty of anime, all from the backlog. There’s been more of a lean towards anime here just as I thought there would be if only because that’s something I can actually take part in without having to spend whole blocks of hours that I often can’t spare. I don’t see this situation ever getting better for me considering where I’m headed, but life is all about adaptation, right? And there’s plenty of anime to talk about anyway.

But as always, I’ll do my best to keep the subjects mixed up here at least slightly. At least I can commit to picking up on these monthly album reviews again. Until next time.

Listening/reading log #30 (May 2022)

Aaaagh. That describes the last two months. I’m somehow simultaneously worked to hell and behind on my work. Makes me miss my government job a little bit, when I didn’t have such worries… being a leech on society isn’t so bad. Though I am still a leech, or at least some people would consider me so. Oh well, society is all about leeching, couldn’t have a society without it! What a joke.

Today I’m trying to make up for missing last month’s end-of-month post, but it’s going to be different (again.) First, because I’m including posts not just from May in this one, but also because I don’t have any albums to write about, since I haven’t really listened to any lately. It’s all been classical, ambient, and city pop playlists on YouTube, depending on my mood. Then what “listening” can I write about in this post, since I don’t want to put it off any longer? Audiobooks, that’s what. So for this one post, that’s what I’ll be doing before getting on to the featured articles. On to it, putting the spotlight on three audiobooks I’ve enjoyed in the last couple of years out of the dozens in my list:

The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution by Yuri Slezkine

Starting off with a massive, lengthy tome. I have a strong interest in history, always my favorite subject in school, and one of my particular areas of interest is early 20th century European history for just how chaotic it was (and isn’t that relatable these days?) The House of Government is an extremely in-depth history of the rise and fall of the high officials, bureaucrats, and specialists of the Soviet government, focused around the “House of Government”, a giant luxury apartment complex built in the early 30s to house many of these VIPs. If you know much about the Soviet Union at the time, you’ll know this also means accounts of constant purges, arrests, deportations, imprisonments, and executions of even the highest officials directed by Joseph Stalin and his inner circle — some of whom also ended up purged and often killed. Closeness to the boss didn’t afford you any protection with that guy.

Prof. Slezkine does a great job telling the personal stories of some of these important figures, using accounts of their trials, publications, and personal letters among other primary sources. His story is compelling and fascinating, though it can also get hard to follow especially when he takes lengthy side trips into the Old Testament, medieval witch hunts, and the Satanic Panic of 80s and 90s America to draw parallels with the situation in Russia at the time. It might also be difficult to follow the story if you don’t have at least some familiarity with the general story and its main figures considering just how many of them show up. This shit makes Legend of the Galactic Heroes look like a basic romantic comedy anime.

But if you do, it’s worth the trip. I enjoy Slezkine’s style too — it feels almost self-indulgent sometimes, but I get self-indulgent in my own writing too, so I naturally like that when it’s actually done well. And it’s all done to a purpose. For other writers both professional and amateur, there’s also an interesting focus in here on the sad fate of a few Soviet writers and literary critics who fell to claims of ideological impurity. Imagine having to deal with that, and on a far worse level than just a Twitter cancellation.

Bakemonogatari Part I by Nisio Isin

After watching Bakemonogatari, I was curious about the original light novels it was based on. But since my Japanese reading level is probably somewhere around age 5 or 6, along with maybe a couple hundred largely half-remembered kanji, I couldn’t hope to read them in the original language, and certainly not considering how complex and convoluted I was sure the writing would be. I also generally don’t have time or even the inclination to read a physical book anymore given how much I have to read at work. But I’m happy to listen to a book read to me, and thankfully someone both translated and recorded English-language versions of the three parts of Bakemonogatari, along with the prequel Kizumonogatari and sequel Nekomonogatari White.

I obviously can’t speak to how good the translation is since I can’t read or listen to the Japanese version, but I enjoyed the Part I audiobook pretty well. This covered the first two arcs, Hitagi Crab and Mayoi Snail, and from listening to these I could tell just how faithful the anime was to its source material, because it lined up with what I’d watched. It was also fun being in the neurotic protagonist’s head even more than in the anime, since Koyomi himself is the narrator. Which makes me wonder: is that initial ridiculous pantyshot scene from Kizumonogatari depicted in that novel? My bet is on yes.

This stuff is just as self-indulgent as you’d expect if you’ve seen the anime or even if you just know its reputation, but as I wrote above, I like self-indulgent if it’s done well — that’s the theme this post I guess. And once again, there’s a point to it all. The only issue someone might have with this work (aside from the self-indulgence if they aren’t into that, and also Koyomi’s somewhat pervy nature which I still argue works in context) is the voice acting. It’s well-done and suits the characters, but I never watch dubs, so it took me a little getting used to since I “knew” these characters through the anime only. I’ve heard Monogatari is impossible to dub, but maybe that’s not so true. But then again, maybe it is true considering the many puns and jokes Nisio Isin makes that wouldn’t translate well or even at all, and that might not in this very translation.

Now I challenge these guys to take on Nisemonogatari. I bet they won’t ever do it, but then I wouldn’t blame them for being afraid to try (and if you’re curious about why, you can read my review here, but only if you don’t care about spoilers.)

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

There’s a serious problem with the above two audiobooks: you have to pay for them. Moreover, if you buy them from Amazon or through Audible, you have to pay Jeff Bezos for them, and maybe you object to giving money to that bastard. If so, here’s a better option: get a free public domain audiobook. A book in the public domain can still be copyrighted in audiobook form, the reading being a copyrightable performance in itself. Thankfully, we have Librivox, an amazing site that contains tons of audiobooks created by users and uploaded to be listened to freely by everyone. No bullshit subscription fees, no pay-per-download, none of that.

Out of several books I’ve listened to through Librivox, probably my favorite has been the famous 19th century epic The Count of Monte Cristo by French author Alexandre Dumas. This one doesn’t need much introduction: guy is wrongfully accused of crimes by jealous and corrupt assholes, then he escapes prison and delivers justice to those who deserve it. The story is a lot more massive than just that, though. Monte Cristo is a classic for a reason — Dumas was a master storyteller, and he provides plenty of suspense and excitement and all that good stuff. If you try to avoid older literature because you think it’s too long-winded, maybe this novel will change your mind. It is long, but I’d argue it’s not long-winded. (That’s partly why I didn’t suggest Moby Dick instead, another old favorite of mine also on Librivox — Melville won’t change anyone’s mind about that. I like his work, but the guy is long-winded.)

Now there are three books you wouldn’t expect to see all together on one list, I guess. Hopefully there’s something up there that everyone can like, and if not you can go digging on Librivox. Some of the readings are much more amateur-level than you’d get on Audible, but then some are excellent, and even the less good ones seem to be pretty spirited. And they’re all free, can’t complain about that.

Now on to the featured articles for the last two months:

StarTropics (Nintendobound) — From Matt, a review of StarTropics, sometimes considered a lost/forgotten NES classic. Justly or unjustly? Read Matt’s review for more insight.

Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~: Reflections and Reminiscence on A Journey to the Land of the Rising Sun Five Years Earlier, and Revisiting My First Visual Novel (The Infinite Zenith) — Zenith revisits a visual novel that I’ve heard a lot about but have never played, in which the protagonist flies to Japan and gets an introduction to the country and its culture by two cute sisters one of whom he can get close to (of course! But at least you can’t get close to both of them at the same time. That’s an entirely different sort of drama.)

Monster Hunter Rise Ruined my Favourite Weapon (Frostilyte Writes) — Sometimes in trying to fix a perceived problem with a weapon or another game mechanic, the devs end up causing other, perhaps even greater, problems. Frostilyte examines one such case, this one from Monster Hunter Rise.

In Defense of Danganronpa’s Problematic 2nd Case – What it Means to be a Man (Dopey Likes Anime) — An interesting look at gender norms and how they’re reflected in games and perceived by players, this time in Danganronpa.

Aquatope on White Sand (Anteiku Anime Reviews) — It’s always interesting to read differing opinions on a work I’ve covered here, such as Will’s review of The Aquatope on White Sand. This review contains some of the criticisms I addressed in mine, but you might find his view of this anime more convincing. Be sure to check it out (but spoiler warning, just like with mine.)

Character (Re)analysis: Asuka Langley Soryu (The Overage Otaku) — Evangelion seems like a deep well to pull from, so deep that new things can be said about it 25 years after its release. Overage Otaku here checks back in on Asuka and her tragic role in the story, one that’s already so full of tragedy on its own.

East Meets West #17: 5 Centimeters Per Second vs. The Great Gatsby (The Traditional Catholic Weeb) — I’ll admit that I have never seen a Makoto Shinkai film and that I almost certainly never will, for exactly the same reason I’ll never watch Your Lie in April, no matter how good I hear it is. However, I have read The Great Gatsby, and Traditional Catholic Weeb makes some interesting comparisons and contrasts in this post between Fitzgerald’s classic novel and Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters Per Second.

Should You Read Kubo-san? (Side of Fiction) — Here’s something more to my taste these days, a nice light romantic comedy school-based manga about a girl who pulls a guy out of his self-imposed isolation and obscurity. Not this one that I’m already reading, no: it’s Kubo-san Won’t Let Me Be Invisible, which I’ve been recommended already because of my reading habits. Read Jacob’s review of the first translated volume above.

Chuunibyou in the Wild (Umai Yomu Anime Blog) — Apparently anime sometimes isn’t all that realistic! Who would have thought. Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions was a good time, but in the above post Yomu gives his own view of the chuunibyo, or “second year of middle school disease”, phenomenon in which students pretend or even half-believe they have magical powers or are commanded by dark spirits to set themselves apart from their peers, all from his perspective as a teacher who’s worked in Japan. It’s probably a good thing the anime and others that feature chuunibyou kids exaggerate matters, because I can’t imagine having to deal with one kid like Rikka, much less more than one.

The Biggest Heart of Gold – Millie Parfait of Niji EN (she also has nice robes) (The Unlit Cigarette) — Yes, even more Nijisanji EN shilling from me here. This post is from June, but all the rules are out the window today anyway, so why not put it here. Especially since you need to know about Millie Parfait if you have any interest at all in VTubers, and you know I do from my last post. An excellent singer, an entertaining performer, and a straight talker — Millie is deserving of all the support she’s gotten and more.

Loid Forger is not James Bond (I drink and watch anime) — Finally, Irina has some interesting insight about the character of Loid Forger from the so-far excellent anime Spy x Family. Loid, a.k.a. Twilight, is a spy masquerading as a family man, complete with a fake family including his wife Yor, an assassin, and their young adopted daughter Anya, a telepath. It’s a complicated situation — I’ll save the full explanation for the review that’s coming this or next month once I finish it. But Loid isn’t the typical spy thriller hero, not a James Bond. He’s flawed in interesting ways, and therefore much more human and even likeable than 007 (though I do like some of the James Bond movies, sure — but a character like that absolutely wouldn’t work in the story Spy x Family is telling.) Read Irina’s post for the details.

That’s all for this month. Or these months, I should say. Work is still crushing me, but I just have to figure out how to deal with that while pursuing what I really enjoy doing. i.e. not law, and I would bet every cent of the negative amount of money I have (taking into account my student loan debt) that most lawyers would say the same. The subject is already seeping into every fucking post I write, isn’t it? I’ll try to stop that from happening if only for my own sanity.

In the meantime, what’s next from me? I’m hoping to finally, finally finish Atelier Sophie 2, which I’ve had on hold for a while not because it isn’t good (it is, at least so far — more on that soon-ish hopefully) but for the aforementioned time and schedule issues. I’ll also be taking on a few more anime series pretty soon, almost certainly including Spy x Family, even if nobody is going to really need the seven millionth review of it I provide. The bits I was able to pick through of Zenith’s review of Akebi’s Sailor Uniform while mostly avoiding spoilers also convinced me that I was being unfair to the series from my watching of the first episode — I’ll probably give that another shot.

And finally, thinking about Monogatari again has gotten me motivated to actually watch Nekomonogatari White at least and to probably write something about it. I was wondering how I should divide those future posts up, and whether the entirety of the Second Season run should get one, but I think I’ll just continue taking the separate pieces on as I was back in 2020. Seemed to work well enough then. Until next time!

Initial thoughts on Outer Wilds (about 15-20 hours in)

Look at that screen. That’s more or less the opening screen of Outer Wilds, an extremely acclaimed and talked up game, including among some people whose opinions I trust very well. I bought it a few weeks ago and went in knowing nearly nothing about it, since it seemed like one of those kinds of games, the kind you’d rather go into blind.

Usually I write a post like this once I’ve finished a game, but Outer Wilds is a complicated case for me. Not in a bad way — the game has an extremely thoughtful design, with a unique concept that works for me so far. But I don’t know whether I’ll get around to finishing it anytime soon. Yet I still do have some thoughts about it, just not thoughts I can put into the context of a proper review — since I haven’t finished the game yet and might never do so. I’m not a professional game journalist after all; they’re the only ones who can review games they’ve barely played (sorry for the jab, but I couldn’t resist it.)

Or maybe there’s no real difference between reviewing a game and “giving thoughts” about it. I just want to be straightforward about what this post is. It might turn out to be a sort of “part 1” to an actual review I write once I complete Outer Wilds if that happens, but that is an if. So fair warning. I’ll also be spoiling what I know so far (though if you’ve played the game to an ending, please don’t spoil that for me in the comments, but feel free to comment otherwise. I gain energy from reading new comments much like vampires gain energy from drinking fresh blood. Well, maybe that’s not the best analogy.)

The first guy you meet in the game and the moment I realized I wasn’t a human either

Outer Wilds is a sort of space exploration game, though not the traditional sort at all. It takes place in a star system that’s home to one actually habitable planet (though more on that later, because we’ll stretch the definition of “habitable” soon) and a bunch of other planets that are both interesting and complete fucking nightmares to navigate, though some more than others. You play nameless protagonist, a newly minted astronaut from Timber Hearth, a planet home to a peaceful-looking vertically-built town inside a crater and full of other blue four-eyed beings. These guys are extremely interested in exploring their star system and have built a series of spacecraft with both take-off and landing ability — think a more versatile version of the Apollo lunar lander.

The natives of Timber Hearth aren’t merely interested in poking around randomly either — one of their greatest goals is to discover new information about the Nomai, an ancient race of aliens who left their mark across the system in the form of ruins, writings, and other artifacts.

An ancient statue of the Nomai. This isn’t ominous at all, I’m sure nothing weird will happen

Your mission is simple enough: when you’re prepared, get in the spacecraft at the top of the launch pad in the center of town, lift off, and start exploring. While up at the observatory/museum to get your launch code from the scientist Feldspar, however, everything gets a lot more complicated when an ancient Nomai statue recovered from a ruin turns towards you, opens its eyes, and sends you into a sort of trance or trip for several seconds. It’s not quite clear what this is all about at first, and your colleagues are just shocked that the statue has moved and opened its eyes seemingly of its own will (though they unfortunately missed the part where you were given a mystical experience by hypnosis or whatever that incident might have been.)

Now following my own playthrough — after I had my head back on straight, I returned to the launch pad, got into the rickety as hell looking spacecraft I’d been provided, and took off. Liftoff was easy enough, and in just several seconds I was in space, with plenty of locations in my star system to visit.

All shrouded in shadow, Giant’s Deep also not looking at all ominous

I chose this nearby planet. Seemed promising enough. I was still getting the hang of space flight, but I was more or less able to get into orbit around this Giant’s Deep planet and try landing.

HELP

This was a mistake. So I thought at first, anyway, as my lander fell through the planet’s thick cloud layer and into its violent tornadoes that sent it flying again, then plunging into the ocean beneath. Scared out of my wits by this surprise, I immediately got the holy fuck off of this planet, blindly firing the thrusters that were somehow still working to send me back into space.

Shortly afterwards I found a planet or a moon or something that wasn’t on my chart and apparently had no name. Without any other goals at the moment, I approached it.

Is it just me, or is the Sun looking a little redder and fatter than it was before? No, just my imagination.

After moving into landing mode and switching cameras, I saw nothing under my spacecraft. Switching views again, the moon had completely disappeared.

Thoroughly confused at this point, I flew around a bit longer, then headed back towards my home planet. I’d completely neglected its moon, called the Attlerock. Probably would have been the place to start my journey but somehow I missed it. So I landed there, discovering a base occupied by one of my fellow four-eyed blue guy astronauts. After a friendly conversation and a little info-gathering, I wandered around the planet in my space suit, keeping a watch on my oxygen level.

Getting a nice view of my home planet from its moon. This was where I started wondering what the fuck was going on with the Sun. It couldn’t be…

I didn’t get screenshots of what happened next, but if you’ve played the game even for half an hour you’ve seen and heard it yourself: after a short musical cue plays, the Sun collapses in on itself and explodes in a blue-white supernova, vaporizing all planets, moons, and life around it in the process.

Fortunately, this wasn’t game over. In fact, this first death seems to be where Outer Wilds actually begins. Following this surprise disaster, you’re resurrected, sent right back to your initial spot by the fire on Timber Hearth just before launch. Moreover, the player character remembers everything that’s happened, up to and including dying in a supernova.

Soon enough it’s revealed that this is a Groundhog Day-esque time loop, perhaps triggered by that Nomai statue that sent you on the trip: you have 22 minutes to explore before the Sun collapses again and explodes, inevitably killing you and everyone else, at which point you’re again sent back to the starting point. Strangely enough, you seem to be the only one so far who realizes this is going on — you’ll later find characters who also keep their memories from past loops, but nobody on Timber Hearth knows what the hell you’re talking about when you try to warn them of the situation.

Translating Nomai writing. Their ruins are scattered throughout the system and are one of the best sources of information for your investigation

So there’s your goal: investigate your entire star system, all its planets and moons and various other bits that aren’t on your chart, to piece together what’s going on. Every planet, including Timber Hearth itself, holds a lot of points of interest, many of them Nomai ruins that are filled with old messages like the above. These usually take the form of conversations between the Nomai, who were scientifically advanced far beyond the current intelligent civilization in the system and were using their advancement to search through system after system for something called “the Eye of the Universe.” The Nomai’s messing around with black holes, teleportation, and time fuckery also turns out to have something to do with the amazingly rapid death and explosion of the Sun — no doubt, since the process we see over 22 minutes usually takes billions of years.

This knowledge might result in total panic if most anyone else knew what was going on. Thankfully, they don’t, so it’s mainly up to you to fix this problem. And since you effectively have infinite lives, at least for the purposes of this one time loop that’s been created, you have all the time in the universe to try to fix it or at least to understand it.

Good thing, because it lets me do stupid shit like this without fear. Landing “on” a black hole would normally be a horrible idea, but in this game it’s just another 22-minute loop

Outer Wilds was released in 2019 by developer Mobius Digital. I’d never heard of these guys, but whatever else you might say about their game, it’s damn impressive. I went in without knowing anything about this game beyond the fact that it presented the player with some kind of mystery, but though I haven’t finished it by getting an ending, it’s already given me more than enough to make my time with it worth it.

Some time back, I played an environmental narrative (aka “walking simulator”) game called Sagebrush that I didn’t care much for. I’ve wondered whether any game in that category would ever satisfy me at all — I won’t go through all the issues I have with the genre, which I’ve been through already, but I think if any game could be called an environmental narrative that works, it’s Outer Wilds. Its story is told mainly through its environment, but unlike others I’ve played (for example Sagebrush above, and also The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide which I don’t care for either despite some interesting ideas they present) this one is thoughtfully put together, made for players who want to have a good time exploring and puzzling out how to get from one new discovery to the next. It also gets rid of the linearity of the above games* — the player is pretty much encouraged from the beginning to just take off and do whatever. It’s not even necessary to leave Timber Hearth to start exploring: your home planet has plenty of its own mysteries to discover that tie into the others.

Like how the fuck did I get stuck in this tree

Most of the action takes place away from Timber Hearth, however. It’s easy to see why this planet is the only one now inhabited by a civilization: each of the others has some kind of bizarre/terrifying aspect that makes it inhospitable. Like the planetary pair Ash and Ember Twin locked in a tight orbit far too close to the Sun for comfort and covered in sand that’s flowing from one to the other, or Giant’s Deep with its terrible storms and strange floating islands that are lifted all the way above its atmosphere into space and back again by giant tornadoes. Or Brittle Hollow, which is literally being torn apart from inside by a black hole. Or Dark Bramble — the less said about that one the better.

This is fine, everything is fine

Adding to this effect, your ship as you can see above isn’t the sturdiest in the universe. A more maneuverable version of the lunar lander is great for landing and taking off, but it still isn’t the ideal spacecraft to fly around in tight spaces, much less to brave these kinds of absolute terrors. But complain about it to that engineer sitting next to you at the campfire each time you die and wake up again — as he tells you, this ship is the one you’ve got, and you’d better learn to pilot it as well as possible.

This less forgiving aspect of Outer Wilds is why I’m stalled out on it for now. I do respect that about the game — its more difficult tasks give it a nice level of challenge, and of course you have infinite shots to get them right. But it does get frustrating the fifth time you misjudge a distance on Brittle Hollow and end up falling through that goddamn black hole yet again, being spit out on the other side of the system so far from your parked ship you have no hope of getting back to it before the next loop. Or falling into a sand pit and having your suit punctured by a fucking cactus and choking to death. Or meeting whatever fate might await you in Dark Bramble, and the list of possible ways to horribly die goes on.

The nice thing about the constant failure and death is that once you figure out how to reach a difficult area, it becomes a lot easier to get there in the future barring stupid mistakes — which you will still make. It’s also possible to learn a “meditation technique” from one character to send you straight to the next cycle, no waiting around if you’re stuck in an impossible position.

This frustration can become taxing after a while, and after running frantically through a series of tunnels trying to avoid being crushed by rising sands and failing for the sixth or seventh time I put the game on pause. Not permanently, I think — I will try to reach the ending at least, because I do want to figure out just what the fuck those Nomai were up to and how I might be able to prevent the Sun from exploding and killing everyone (or not prevent it? No guarantees that this story will have a happy ending, are there? I haven’t been spoiled on that yet either.)

But to its credit, even in the most seemingly hopeless situations, there’s enough to discover in the game that you can be quite literally flung into a new discovery as happened to me a few times. More often you might be flung into a rock and killed, but there’s your chance to start a new exploration if you have the time and patience to spare. And there’s where the thoughtful construction of Outer Wilds comes in again: every point I’ve found so far takes well less than 22 minutes to reach assuming you learn how to clear the obstacles in your path, enough time to get there and explore for a while before going through another reset. Your ship’s computer is also helpfully not affected by these resets, keeping the records of everything you’ve found along with notes that you can study before planning out your next trip off of Timber Hearth, and time also pauses while on the computer so you don’t have to worry about impending death while you prepare. Though you can turn that feature off if you really want. I don’t know why you would, but maybe you’re all about that extra challenge or realism.

Taking notes is important for a lawyer, but even more so for an astronaut: negligence on our part is bad, but at least it doesn’t usually get us killed

Anyway, that’s my general impression of the game so far. I like it, and I’ll likely return to it at some point because it’s compelling enough to get me back; I just need a break for now. Though before going in, it’s important to note what it isn’t: Outer Wilds is not anything close to a realistic space flight/exploration sim, so if you’re looking for that, you’ll be disappointed by it. Scales in the game are pretty weird, with planets and a star that are extremely small in comparison with the inhabitants of Timber Hearth and the few various other beings hanging around the system. But then Outer Wilds obviously wasn’t trying to be a realistic space sim, and despite its miniature-scale star system, each planet and moon I’ve found has a lot to explore on their surfaces and sometimes underneath.

Outer Wilds also isn’t a traditional horror game obviously, but it is still one of the more terrifying games I’ve played. How reasonable that fear is might be hard for me to gauge, since I actually have a fear of looming massive astronomical bodies for some reason — even though I’m also very much into space and astronomy. I guess it’s a phobia, since I have no reason to be afraid of suddenly seeing Jupiter through my window one day. This game tested that fear, and it was interesting enough to get me to set it aside, so that’s a point in its favor too (though the fear has gotten easier to manage over time — I still can’t plunge into the ocean in Google Maps without freaking out and have a hard time with photorealistic full maps of Earth, though I’m fine with traditional maps and even have a few hanging where I live and work. Does anyone else know what I’m talking about, or is it really just me?)

I’ve also never been so immediately grateful for trees, which replenish your suit’s oxygen tank, like this one in a Nomai ruin inside Brittle Hollow aka the black hole planet. Also, these ancient people chose to live above a fucking black hole. Don’t think I could manage that.

The only real issue I’m anticipating having with Outer Wilds is its ending. As I’ve said, I have no idea what it could involve at this point — it’s entirely possible that I’ll even hate it, though I doubt with all the accolades this game has gotten since its release that its ending sucks (though even then it very well could, I guess, considering some of the stories with dogshit awful ruinous endings people have praised because they thought they were deep or thoughtful when they weren’t.) But I have seen Outer Wilds mentioned alongside existentialist ideas, and also “optimistic nihilism”, an approach that I have serious problems with.

I certainly wouldn’t end up hating the game for having that sort of ending, though. After all, I liked NieR:Automata, and it had that sort of ending, one I thought was a lot more depressing than others apparently did. I recognize that the fact I hate life and need some meaning more than what we can find in the material world to get any value out of it is a personal problem, so I can’t take that bitterness out on Yoko Taro, nor on the people who made this game if that’s the angle they’re taking here.

I have more practical problems anyway, like where am I right now and how the hell am I going to get back to my ship that’s 12.1 kilometers away

I’ll save the mad raving over how I think optimistic nihilism is nonsense for another post, anyway. Maybe the next post I write about this game, if that happens and assuming it fits. For now, that’s all on Outer Wilds. I hope I can return to it and get far enough to write a proper review, in which case as stated at the top this non-review post will turn into a sort of part 1 to that part 2. It’s a sloppy way of operating, but it’s the best I can do right now.

The next game I plan to write about thankfully works on a far less intellectual and far more physical level than this one, if you get me. I have to get to this game, finally, after I’ve left it sitting on my to-play list for so long, but it will be a nice break from all these stupid deep thoughts. Until then!

 

* Arguably Stanley Parable isn’t linear, but it also kind of is — but then I guess that’s the point of the game itself. I’m not fucking reviewing Stanley Parable here though, no way am I bothering with that. More than enough people have argued about it and continue to do so with that new update that just came out. I’m sitting that one out.

My favorite Touhou themes

No, it’s still not the end-of-month post, but that’s still on the way. By contrast — this post probably should have been written years ago, and here it is now. Talk about a post with niche appeal, anyway; a lot of readers might not know what the fuck I’m even talking about this time without some background. So let me briefly introduce you to Touhou (which I’ve done before on the site once or twice, but once more won’t hurt.)

Touhou Project is a bullet hell/danmaku shmup series created by Japanese indie game designer/music composer/beer enthusiast ZUN. Touhou is primarily about shrine maiden Reimu Hakurei and mischievous witch Marisa Kirisame along with a few other recurring main characters fighting a bunch of youkai who are also all cute girls who fire lasers and make puns at each other. This all takes place in Gensokyo, a part of rural Japan that was cut off from the rest of the world with a magical barrier in the 1880s, the result being that it now exists in its own dimension.

Touhou has been going strong for nearly three decades now, getting its start on the PC-98 in the 90s when ZUN was still a designer working at Taito. However, his work apparently didn’t get much notice until the release of Touhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, which came out for the PC in 2002. With EoSD and its followups Perfect Cherry Blossom and Imperishable Night, Touhou exploded in popularity on the indie scene in Japan and among the Western niche weeb weirdo circles that I moved in back in the mid-2000s (and that I still do today, of course.)

If you’ve played or seen gameplay of an original Touhou game, a few aspects of it probably jumped out at you, like the intricate, colorful, and often extremely difficult to dodge bullet patterns or ZUN’s famously not-so-great character portraits (which have been long beloved in the community anyway, a lot like Ryukishi07’s slightly scuffed character art in the Higurashi and Umineko VNs.)

But to me and many other past and current fans, the most standout aspect of Touhou is its music. Each of ZUN’s games come with an excellent soundtrack, with pieces generally sorted into one stage and boss theme each over six stages, along with a few extra boss themes and a main theme. As it plays in sync with all that colorful bullet hell going on, the music adds to the effect, and it’s no exaggeration at all to say the games wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable to play muted.

That said, here are seventeen themes from Touhou 6 through 8 and 10 that I rank as my favorites. Yeah, seventeen, that’s right. I couldn’t possibly have reduced this list any more than I have. In fact, I still feel bad about leaving a ton of excellent themes out of it; that seventeen could just as easily have been seventy. The only reason I’m even limiting the selection to four out of the now 20+ original ZUN-made Touhou games is that these are the ones I played when I was really into the series way back before I kind of fell out of it for a while. So if you’re wondering where your favorite DDC or LoLK track is, I’m not putting those down at all — it’s just that I’m not as familiar with those soundtracks and games in general. I’ll also be listing these by order of play if you were playing through the series chronologically, since I can’t bring myself to rank them in quality either. But that also means you get to see some of the evolution in ZUN’s sound, which is pretty interesting in itself.

1) Shanghai Alice of Meiji 17Touhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil — Hong Meiling’s theme

Starting with one of the first hard hitters in the PC-era series. I’m not sure who “Shanghai Alice” is, aside from being the name of ZUN’s doujin circle — there’s an Alice who shows up not here but in Touhou 5 and again in 7 and ends up sticking as a major character in the series — but Hong Meiling is Chinese as the “Shanghai” suggests. But then the song sounds not Chinese but western. According to ZUN, he was thinking more about the 19th century Shanghai French concession, which would explain the western sound and the “Meiji 17” in the title, i.e. 1884.

More importantly, this theme fits Meiling’s character — she’s usually considered comic relief as early stage bosses sometimes are, but she’s no joke in combat, and the fast pace of “Shanghai Alice” reflects that.

2) Locked Girl ~ The Girl’s Secret RoomTouhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil — Patchouli Knowledge’s theme

“Locked Girl” takes a much more somber tone than the last boss theme, again fitting for its character. I admit Patchouli is my favorite Touhou character — she’s a shut-in who lives in a library reading all day and never even bothers to change out of her nightgown, what’s not to like about that? Very relatable; I’d do that too if I could get away with it. But it’s not just favoritism working here, because Patchouli’s theme is excellent too, and a nice showcase of ZUN’s skills at different sounds and styles.

3) Septette for the Dead PrincessTouhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil — Remilia Scarlet’s theme

And it turns out the big bad boss of Touhou 6 is a small vampire girl. Remilia might not look intimidating at first, but like a lot of the other girls in Touhou she has serious magical ability and can fuck you up with it. Remilia also claims to be the daughter of Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes, aka Dracula, the 15th century ruler of Wallachia in modern-day Romania. She’s confirmed to be over 500 years old, but her claim of descent from Dracula is a lie according to the Touhou wiki.

Even so, she’s powerful, and her stately theme fits her character perfectly. “Septette” is famously based on the third movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata. They diverge pretty quickly, but the beginning of “Septette” is very similar, showing some of ZUN’s western classical influence.

4) U.N. Owen was her?Touhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil — Flandre Scarlet’s theme

Of course I couldn’t leave out this iconic piece. “U.N. Owen” is the theme of Flandre, Remilia’s younger sister they keep locked in her room because anyone having contact with her other than Remilia and a select few others ends extremely badly, usually as a splatter of blood and guts on her wall. Flandre’s theme is appropriately chaotic compared to her sister’s, and her fight is hard as hell. Even getting there requires you to beat the game at least on normal mode to unlock the extra stage, which is no small feat itself. I do like how Flandre’s theme is a little playful as well, though — she really just wants someone to play deadly danmaku laser games with and doesn’t seem to fully appreciate her own power.

The “U.N. Owen” in the song’s title is also a reference to an Agatha Christie novel, though I still don’t get the connection there. Maybe it’s all just meant to fit the generally western theme of the game.

5) The Doll Maker of BucurestiTouhou 7: Perfect Cherry Blossom — Stage 3 theme

Continuing the more western, European sound with “Doll Maker of Bucuresti”, my first pick from Touhou 7. The stage themes in these games are often considered character themes by the fans, even if they technically aren’t meant to be, and when the stage is dominated by one enemy character she ends up with two of them in a game (and sometimes more if she comes back to fight later on.) “Doll Maker” perfectly fits Alice Margatroid, pictured above, a returning character from the PC-98 era who ended up becoming one of the most prominent usually non-player characters in the series (maybe thanks in part to a remix of the next song on the list by IOSYS that got insanely popular in the mid-2000s.)

6) Doll Judgment ~ The Girl Who Played With People’s ShapesTouhou 7: Perfect Cherry Blossom — Alice Margatroid’s theme

And here’s Alice’s other PCB theme, the proper boss battle one this time, and it also fits with her character very well. Alice is one of my favorite characters in the series, usually depicted as somewhat of a loner who lives in a house in the woods with all the autonomous dolls she makes for a living. Despite the ominous sound to her PCB themes, Alice after this game is usually a friend to the protagonists, especially Marisa (though that relationship is sometimes depicted as more than just friendly, and sometimes extremely complicated. It’s been long accepted that the fandom makes up most Touhou lore.)

7) Border of LifeTouhou 7: Perfect Cherry Blossom — Yuyuko Saigyouji’s theme

One of my favorite final boss themes from Touhou, Yuyuko’s theme is a great mix of beauty and power that the series is known for. It fits especially well considering Yuyuko has an extra-tragic story, even if the fandom has made her into a bit of a joke character thanks to some of her lines during her appearance as a player character in Touhou 8. Well, that’s on ZUN, isn’t it? But this is still one of my favorite themes of his.

8) Song of the Night Sparrow ~ Night BirdTouhou 8: Imperishable Night — Stage 2 theme

Sometimes early stage themes aren’t quite as impressive as the mid- and late-stage ones, even according to ZUN himself, who writes notes for each of his songs he puts out with the games. But “Night Bird” stands up very well to a lot of the other pieces in Touhou 8, with plenty of tension building the player up to what’s coming next. And it’s no good scoffing at early stage bosses anyway — Mystia Lorelei, the stage boss and night sparrow of the title, doesn’t put up much of a fight on the Touhou scale, but she does have an interesting gimmick that can really annoy you your first play through. My favorite section starts at 1:27, which is perfectly synced up to Mystia’s appearance (where she starts shooting at you before her fight proper even begins — pretty common in Touhou games to have bosses drop in on you during the stage itself.)

9) Plain AsiaTouhou 8: Imperishable Night — Keine Kamishirasawa’s theme

Keine has one of the more interesting jobs in the Touhou series, even if she doesn’t show up so much these days — she protects the human village of Gensokyo from youkai threats through her power of hiding/erasing history so they can’t find it. Or eating history, which she can do in her animalistic form that she turns into during a full moon, which just happens to occur during Imperishable Night, so you’ll be seeing her again later on. I’m still not sure exactly what “eating history” involves, but there are a lot of weird concepts in the Touhou universe that you just have to accept.

No matter what pair of characters you’re playing as (these team-ups being another unique aspect of 8, at least at the time) Keine presents a fair challenge. But trying to play “Plain Asia” is way more of a challenge. ZUN really went nuts on the piano for Touhou 8; might be part of why it features probably my favorite Touhou soundtrack.

10) Love-colored Master SparkTouhou 8: Imperishable Night — Marisa Kirisame’s theme

In Touhou, sometimes you have to fight your friends, and so it is in stage 4 of Imperishable Night. If you’re playing as Marisa and Alice, you have to fight Reimu, and if you’re playing as Reimu and Yukari, you have to fight Marisa (and you still have to fight one of them if you’re playing as Sakuya/Remilia or Youmu/Yuyuko, but I forget how that breaks down.) I think Marisa might have had a few different themes throughout the series, but “Love-colored Master Spark” seems to be the most associated with her, and I can hear why. It has more of a rock sound, maybe thanks to the electric guitar-sounding synth in there, and fitting with Marisa’s somewhat wild and carefree attitude.

Now that I think about it, Marisa is sort of the Sonic the Hedgehog of Touhou in that sense, making the rock-sounding theme even more appropriate. I don’t know if anyone else has made that comparison, but it feels right to me. Does that make Reimu a non-oblivious version of Knuckles, then? I’m not sure. Maybe this character match-up doesn’t actually work so well.

11) Cinderella Cage ~ Kagome-KagomeTouhou 8: Imperishable Night — Stage 5 theme (or Tewi Inaba’s theme, why not)

“Kagome-Kagome” is another great stage theme that builds up the excitement as you approach the final parts of the game and hope to any and all gods or spirits or whatever else you like that you don’t run into a stray bullet or get boxed in by a pattern without a bomb to clear the screen. The title might be familiar — the main melody is based on a song that accompanies an old Japanese children’s game of the same name.

No idea what that has to do with moon rabbits or Princess Kaguya or anything else that Imperishable Night is about, but the piece works really well here anyway. “Kagome-Kagome” is also the closest thing stage mid-boss Tewi Inaba has to a theme as far as I know unless she received one later on. Usually these mid-boss-only characters don’t get much popularity, but Tewi is a pretty big deal in Touhou, even being featured on the Wikipedia page for the obsolete kana that’s part of her name. Do you have the distinction of being featured on the Wikipedia page for a dead letter? I certainly don’t, but if I had the chance I’d want to get on the page for ȝ.

12) Reach for the Moon, Immortal SmokeTouhou 8: Imperishable Night — Fujiwara no Mokou’s theme

Apologies to true final boss Kaguya for not including her theme Flight of the Bamboo Cutter ~ Lunatic Princess in this list (there’s her honorable mention anyway) but I like this extra boss theme more. Mokou is hell to fight, and her theme reflects that. If I ever got to be a boss in a game, I’d also want a theme with as cool a name as “Reach for the Moon, Immortal Smoke.” This one is the badass sort of piece that brings out the edgy 13 year-old in me, though I’m pretty sure that’s not what ZUN was going for.

13) The Road of the Apotropaic God ~ Dark RoadTouhou 10: Mountain of Faith — Stage 2 theme

Another excellent stage 2 theme with great build-up. The Mountain of Faith soundtrack feels like it has a lot more organ in it, which I like. Not much else to say about this one except I still don’t get the deal with Hina and why she’s constantly spinning.

14) The Gensokyo the Gods LovedTouhou 10: Mountain of Faith — Stage 3 theme

Now here’s a fucking song. “The Gensokyo the Gods Loved” is so iconic in the series that a lot of fans refer to it as the Gensokyo national anthem. A lot of them also say it has a nostalgic feel, which I agree with. Maybe it’s partly the fact that I’d gotten used to those synth trumpets ZUN loves so much (aka the ZUNpets, if you’ve heard that term — that’s what those refer to.)

I partly love this theme as well because of its contrast with the stage boss theme:

15) Candid FriendTouhou 10: Mountain of Faith — Nitori Kawashiro’s theme

Again, what a piece. More organ, with a slightly rock sound this time. I’m a big fan of Nitori as well, a kappa engineer who invents all sorts of strange machines some of which show up in later non-mainline games like Touhou Luna Nights (which I own, but I’m way too horrible at — I need to try it again.)

16) Faith is for the Transient PeopleTouhou 10: Mountain of Faith — Sanae Kochiya’s theme

If I don’t have as much to say about the Mountain of Faith pieces, it’s not because I like them less — I just wasn’t quite as hooked on Touhou by the time 10 came out and didn’t engage with it in quite the same way. I never stopped listening to the music, though. Sanae is another interesting character, a natural rival to Reimu as a fellow shrine maiden, though they eventually end up pretty cordial with each other. However, Sanae’s theme is appropriately fierce in Touhou 10, reflecting the fact that she doesn’t let up in combat either.

17) Native FaithTouhou 10: Mountain of Faith — Suwako Moriya’s theme

Of course. How could I not end this list with “Native Faith”? It’s another piece I don’t have a lot else to say about except how good it is. All of Mountain of Faith feels like it has an earthy feel to it, the music included, sort of like how Imperishable Night has a spacy one. Frog goddess Suwako’s theme caps that off nicely, though once again, as an extra stage boss she takes some effort to reach.

And that’s my list of favorite Touhou themes, again, with a lot of excellent music necessarily left out, otherwise this post would be even longer than 3,000 words, which is probably already too long. If you’ve made it this far, I hope I’ve been able to show just how special the music in this series is. Touhou is well worth picking up and trying out, though unfortunately most of the games on this list aren’t available to play legally very easily. I’m pretty sure the games from Mountain of Faith on are all on Steam now, but for practical purposes 6 through 9 are only playable as downloads unless you can track down physical copies. The PC-98 games take more work to play, since they require an emulator to run, but they’re available out there as well if you don’t have qualms about less than legal methods (and I was going to link to the fansite Moriya Shrine here and say ZUN apparently doesn’t have an issue with piracy of practically unavailable games, but maybe he does, since just last month it seems to have been hit with DMCA notices, so never mind? I own copies of EoSD, PCB, and IN but I got them at anime cons back when Touhou had more of a presence in those circles than it does now. Maybe go check the subreddit instead.)

Whatever path you choose, whether you’re already a fan or you decide to check the series out or leave it, I hope you at least enjoyed the music. If you did, there’s an unimaginably massive amount of fan-created Touhou albums out there in every style for you to explore, a few of which I’ve looked at here on the site, specifically the jazz stuff by Tokyo Active NEETs and DDBY, so be sure to check on those as well. Next post, I really will be getting to the featured articles from March and a couple of album reviews, so until then.

Listening/reading log #28 (February 2022)

Time for the end-of-month post a bit late again. But what a fucking month it was. The invasion of Ukraine isn’t something I’ve commented on here or elsewhere almost at all until now, because it’s not the sort of subject I write about on a regular basis, and what can I add to this discussion anyway? But I have always used the beginning of these posts to vent on heavy matters, so: to hell with Vladimir Putin, hopefully quite literally, both for this and many other past and present crimes, not least of which is using the threat of nuclear war as a shield while he ravages a smaller neighbor.

I hope he ends up knocked off of his throne at the very least. And if he ends up suffering the same fate as a Ceaușescu, a Mussolini, or a Gaddafi, well, that would be fine too. Ideally, the man should be in the dock in The Hague, but since my country doesn’t recognize the authority of the International Criminal Court (because we have our own war criminals right here in America and God forbid they should be held to account for their own misdeeds) it’s hard for us to make that sort of argument — except right now, when a world leader openly defies international borders, human rights, and common sense.*

I don’t have a personal connection to Ukraine, but a large part of my family were refugees in the past and the effects are felt to this day, so this still feels like a personal matter. And even if I didn’t have that sort of background, I’m sure I’d feel the same, as should anyone who’s not brainwashed or heartless. Anyway, I realize none of what I’m writing here is very brave, especially since unlike many in both Ukraine and Russia I’m in no danger of being arrested or shot in the head for writing such things. But I just felt like expressing these thoughts.

If you also have the luxury to not be worried about your survival right at the moment, let’s check out some music and some excellent writing from around the communities as usual. I took a slightly different approach to my music section this time, however — I didn’t really listen to any full proper albums that I felt like writing about, but I also had some pieces of albums and a lot of single songs that either came from albums I otherwise don’t feel strongly about or that were never on albums to write about, or just a few curiosities I stumbled over, and these never fit into that typical “album review” format I use in these posts. So this is a deviation from the usual, a rough mix of songs all thrown together, but I’ll return to the regular format next month.

Various — 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Original Soundtrack — (LEUCINE)

Starting with my favorite piece out of part of a soundtrack I’ve been listening to a lot the past week. I played through 13 Sentinels on the PS4 and loved it, but it didn’t get much love over here back when it was released. Hopefully that changes when it comes out for the Switch soon, because more people need to play this game.

Part of that appeal is its soundtrack. “(LEUCINE)” and the other 13 Sentinels battle themes are amazing in how well they build tension, fitting perfectly into the giant mech vs. kaiju battles of the game’s combat sections. The softer pieces that mostly play during the adventure/investigation parts are nice as well — the soundtrack is great as a whole, but these battle themes stand out to me.

Also, if you’re confused by the album cover, I get that. It really doesn’t look like the cover to an OST for a game about giant mechs fighting kaiju monsters. Only the small robot hints at this even being a sci-fi game. But that girl on the cover does have significance to the game’s plot, and if I say any more, I’d have to get into spoilers, which I won’t. So just be sure to check out 13 Sentinels if you haven’t already. If anyone ever tries to excuse Michael Bay’s shitty Transformers movies by saying “they’re just movies about giant robots fighting, of course they’re dumb!” just know that this game fucks that excuse up completely.

Joji — Nectar Like You Do

Now this sort of song I’d normally never feature here. It’s not really my kind of music, this slow, romantic-sounding stuff. “Like You Do” is a nice one for sure, a great choice to sing under some girl’s window if you’re lovesick over her as long as you can hit those high notes. I also like the strange video that goes along with it (are those fish eggs and a chain floating around in red jello? Aside from the chain, I’m probably wrong, but no idea what else those could be.)

But though I think Joji is certainly a talented guy, that’s still not reason enough for me to feature this music. The real reason I know about Joji at all is because he’s the same guy who was making stuff like this six/seven years ago:

If you’re not familiar, this singer/composer Joji aka George Miller used to make both music and bizarre comedy videos with his friends on YouTube playing characters like the above Pink Guy. The main character in this whole thing was a disgusting misanthropic mess of a man called Filthy Frank. Joji got famous making music like the above song and also videos in which he and his buddies acted like idiots in public and baked hair and even worse things into cakes and ate them. It was either absurdist comedy or moronic depending on how you look at it (probably both really, and the people who took part would likely agree based on what I’ve heard.)

The common feeling now is that Joji was smart to retire all these characters back before comedy like this became culturally way less acceptable, and I agree — even a few of the lines in the above song wouldn’t fly today, and that’s apart from its intentionally offensive tone. The fact that he was able to make the transition from this stuff to performing songs people cry over at the bar or sing at their weddings is pretty damn amazing. Now Taylor Swift’s famous transition from country to pop music doesn’t seem so impressive.

Franz Ferdinand — Franz FerdinandThis Fire

This is one of the songs that played a whole lot when I was in high school, about ready to get out of that miserable hellhole. Good song, a lousy time in my life, but the music is still remembered fondly. This stuff brings back memories of studying for those fucking IB exams. If any other readers had to take the IB, let me know so I can send you my best wishes. And thanks to Shoot the Rookie for reminding me about this song/band over on Twitter during her song share event.

Chirinuruwowaka — Atelier Escha & Logy Vocal AlbumMilk-Colored Pass

Speaking of that song share event, one of the songs I posted on Twitter at the time was the OP theme to Atelier Escha & Logy. As much as I like Atelier, its music doesn’t always stand out to me (though it’s always at least pretty good, just not always standout amazing, you know.) But this theme is an exception. It’s just a good catchy as hell song. I also like the kind of rough vocals that match the feel of the music well.

Casiopea — Make Up City Gypsy Wind

I’m going to make a statement here that some might consider criminal: aside from their excellent debut album, I don’t care for a lot of what I’ve heard from Casiopea. I almost completely hate their second album Super Flight with all the cheesy synth tones gooped into it and the horrific vocoder nightmare of “I Love New York”, and I’m pretty cold on most of the rest of what I’ve heard, which feels like it’s sliding too much into generic doctor’s office waiting room music.

But before all the hardcore 80s fusion fans hang me, I want to say that I do like “Gypsy Wind” from their third studio album. It sounds like a tropical breeze feels, which is something I haven’t felt in an extremely long time, but I have enough of a memory of being in Hawaii once when I was a kid to connect the two.

_

Just a few days ago, the group      released this song, titled ”    “. I still don’t know what kind of weird invisible characters they’re using to make those untitled titles. I’m sure there are some typeface experts out there who already know the answer.

I’ve featured this nameless group before, and I’m always happy to see a new song out of them. This is another good one, though my favorite song of theirs is still _. I’m also a big fan of the artist who does their illustrations — just check out this horror, though not if you have a problem with creepy face paintings-within-paintings staring at characters within the larger painting and probably freaking them out as well. I’d hang this in my house if I owned one, but then I’m a fucking weirdo as you know.

xx — イワシがつちからはえてくるんだ / A Sardine Grows from the Soil

Finally, something very different from the rest. “A Sardine Grows from the Soil” is one of several songs created by the same person with the free Vocaloid-style software Utau. This person is talented as hell, or was, at least, since they’ve vanished from the internet. There’s a reason I’m not naming the creator of this song: for whatever reason, they specifically requested that everyone forget about them, while leaving permission to at least keep sharing this and several of their other songs (see also here and here, and also The Bluefin Tuna Comes Flying, which is a kind of companion piece to this one) as long as they’re uncredited.

Not sure what that’s about, but I like their work. I’m not even sure who all the characters are in these videos aside from Teto Kasane, the pink-haired girl in the center singing — she’s a sort of off-brand Vocaloid with some popularity. The lyrics are also interesting; all in Japanese, so I’m sure I’m missing some nuance, but though their meanings seem obscure they all have a pretty dark feel to them. And thanks to this guy for making a piano cover of “Sardine”. It’s pretty damn good and I’d love to learn it myself, but I don’t have four fucking hands to play it with. Feels like a Gershwin-style piano roll for the 21st century.

That’s it for the music. I hope you liked the different format. I’m out of individual songs to talk about, so next time it will be back to the full albums as promised. Now on to the featured articles:

Breath of the Wild Retrospective (Frostilyte Writes) — I’ve never been the biggest fan of Zelda, even if I can appreciate its quality. I know there are plenty of classic games I’ve missed out on. But is Breath of the Wild one of them? Though it was popular, this open-world title seems to have been a bit divisive. No matter what your feeling about it is (or even if you don’t have any, because like me you haven’t played it) you should read Frostilyte’s article on the game.

13 Sentinels Is Damn Good When the Training Wheels Come Off (Adventure Rules) — Speaking of 13 Sentinels again, from Adventure Rules, a series of insightful posts on the game. I’ll be following it, and you should too.

OneShot: Darkness, a Cat Thing, and Story-Driven Puzzles (Professional Moron) — Mr. Wapojif takes a look at OneShot, an excellent indie game that uses fourth-wall-breaking in an innovative way to tell a unique story. If you haven’t taken my word on the game yet, please read his post and then play OneShot; you won’t regret it.

Lake Review (Honest Gamer) — A review of the indie game Lake, one I hadn’t heard about before reading this post. Sounds interesting, although not without some technical problems. I can appreciate these kinds of relaxation games better these days, anyway.

Wordplay and Double Entendre in Bloodborne (Meghan Plays Games) — I haven’t played Bloodborne, but from Meghan’s post, it sounds like there’s a lot there to like — including some clever wordplay! And as someone who plays around with words, though usually with shit results, I’m all about that wordplay, especially when it’s actually done well.

The Portopia Serial Murder Case (Extra Life) — Last month, Red Metal took on an old Japanese text adventure that has had a massive impact on gaming, even though many of us (myself included) haven’t heard of it. The Portopia Serial Murder Case is a fascinating game to read about, so be sure to check out Red Metal’s review.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (Nintendobound) — Even more games I haven’t played, that’s today’s theme in this section of the post. Matt has a look at the DS GTA title Chinatown Wars. I owned a DS, but apparently I missed out on this one!

Yakuza: Fighting toxicity one punch at a time. (Zanfers Gaming) — Out of the Yakuza series, I’ve still only really played Yakuza 0, but even in that game alone, I could tell that there was something special about its two leads Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima. Kiryu in particular makes for a great role model, and not just because he can pick up a entire fucking motorcycle and beat hooligans over the head with it. This post gets down exactly why Kiryu is a man to emulate (though maybe not that motorcycle part, okay. There are probably better ways to deal with those situations in real life.)

Planetes: Fighting the Cruelty of Space (Mechanical Anime Reviews) — From Scott, a look at Planetes, one of my old favorites, though it’s not without its faults. Older anime series tend to get lost in the mix as the hot new stuff is trending, so it’s good to see classics being written about around here. I hope I’ll be doing some of that myself soon when I dig back into my anime backlog.

Anime Review #75: K-On! (The Traditional Catholic Weeb) — Another older anime review, this time a hard look at K-On!, one of the most iconic “cute girls doing cute things” series. I passed it by when it aired after seeing a couple of episodes, though that was when the seasonal lineups were so full of these “cute girls” series that they suffered a backlash from some fans, something like isekai is getting now. It’s worth reading about K-On! at least considering how much influence it’s had — it’s likely you’ve heard at least one of the songs from the series if you’re anywhere in that weeb sphere like we are.

Top 5 Romantic Anime that End Badly! (I drink and watch anime) — It wouldn’t be an end-of-month post without featuring one of Irina’s articles, so here’s a look at romantic anime series with rough endings. I’m not into tearjerkers, and while I can take plenty of depression in my media, I don’t go for the broken romance type unless it’s incorporated into a larger story with higher stakes than that. But romance is pretty high stakes for a lot of viewers, and if you enjoy personal tragedy and heartbreak, you’ll probably be interested in Irina’s post.

My Break-Up Letter With Last Exile (In Search of Number Nine) — I haven’t seen the anime Last Exile — I only know it from the involvement of character designer/artist Range Murata, but it’s always been on that to-watch list I keep. Iniksbane has an interesting history with the show and gives some insight about what makes a favorite series and how tastes and one’s critical approach to art can change over time.

3 Years of Gaming Omnivore (Gaming Omnivore) — And finally, congrats to Gaming Ominvore on three years of writing! It takes dedication to keep that up. Here’s hoping for many more.

That’s it for the last month. Sorry about the heavy subject matter directly at the top (and in the endnote below) and also sorry for posting a Pink Guy video near the beginning. I hope you could get through whatever the fuck you’d call that to read this. Going forward, assuming humanity isn’t all annihilated or whatever it is all the foreign policy experts on Twitter think is about to happen, I’ll be watching some anime and playing Atelier Sophie 2. Be sure to check out my first look at that game if you have any interest in cute girls doing alchemy. It’s a nice escape.

 

* It’s worth mentioning that people didn’t raise such a fuss when Putin was murdering civilians in Syria in support of fellow blood-soaked tyrant Bashar al-Assad. But what can you expect. Maybe they would have if it had been reported more widely.

And though this hypocrisy absolutely annoys me, it does make sense at least that people would be a lot more nervous about a war in Europe for obvious reasons — the comparisons between Putin and you-know-who are warranted as far as his approach to propaganda goes (denial of nationality leading to the destruction of statehood: that’s straight out of that Austrian-born dictator’s instruction manual, though he wasn’t the first to do it either.)