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.)

First impressions: Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream

Before my next month-end post (which itself is going to be slightly different from the usual; I hope you look forward to that exciting surprise) I wanted to have a first look at the latest game I’ve jumped into after finishing Blue Reflection: Second Light. Yes, it’s yet another fucking Gust game — and another Atelier game! I should make a version of that old meme “friendship ended with guy 1, guy 2 is my new best friend” only guy 1 is Atlus and guy 2 is Gust, the way things are going. Well, my friendship’s not ended with Atlus — I’ll return to them at some point.

For now, let’s focus on the newly released Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream, the direct sequel to the first Atelier Sophie released back in 2015. Conveniently, Sophie 1 is the latest Atelier game I’ve completed — I’ve since started the next game in the original Mysterious trilogy, Atelier Firis, but have stalled out on it because of what I think was some Atelier fatigue. Playing five of those games nearly back to back in one year will do that to you. And luckily enough, I don’t have to feel bad about putting off Firis in favor of Sophie 2, since Sophie 2 is between Sophie 1 and Firis chronologically. There’s my excuse, anyway.

You can insert a joke here if you feel like it

Sophie 2 starts with the skilled alchemist Sophie Neuenmuller and her mentor, the human soul trapped in a book-turned-doll Plachta (it’s a long story; go play the first game or read my post on it to learn more) outside their home of Kirchen Bell, traveling the countryside. But their travels in their world are cut short: when they approach a massive strange-looking tree, a goddess creates a magical portal that sucks them into another dimension.

When Sophie wakes up, she’s found and taken in by two merchants, Alette and Pirka, who bring her to their shop in a nearby city. They explain to Sophie that this is a dream dimension, where the goddess Elvira brings those who have dreams she finds interesting. Her world of Erde Wiege is made for such people to try to achieve those dreams. Nobody living here ages, and people can enter it from across a wide range of time periods, so time isn’t much of a concern here. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your view of it, residency in Erde Wiege is also temporary: people are returned to their own world either once their dreams have been achieved or once they’ve given up, asking Elvira’s leave to return to their normal lives. People are apparently also usually given a choice to enter this world — not at all the case for Sophie and Plachta.

Sophie and her new friends in the city of Roytale, the center of this new world. People still might look normal, but the main characters’ costumes are still extremely distinctive as usual

At this point, however, Sophie is most concerned with Plachta, who’s been missing since both she and Sophie were pulled into this world. She’s told that there is an alchemist with an atelier on the edge of town named Plachta, and Sophie figures this must be her, though she also wonders how Plachta set up shop so quickly. However, this Plachta turns out to be different from the one Sophie is seeking out. Moreover, she doesn’t know Sophie at all, even demanding proof upon their first meeting that this stranger really is a fellow alchemist as she claims.

Right to left: Sophie, Alette, and new Plachta hanging out

Despite this awkward first meeting, Sophie and this new Plachta end up fast friends, bonding over their shared profession. They also quickly realize that this Plachta probably is the one Sophie’s seeking out, only from much further back in the timeline than the Plachta of Sophie 1 who was trapped in a book. They still plan to look for the Plachta we’re familiar with, however, and in the course of their planning Sophie learns that even her grandmother, Ramizel Erlenmeyer, is in this world as a young alchemist. Sophie then resolves to meet her past grandmother as well, because of course it can’t possibly fuck the timeline and cause problems in the future if she does that.

There’s a lot of time and space fuckery in this game so far even in its first several hours that I haven’t seen in almost any of the others, easy to justify when your game happens in a dream dimension

Sorry if that was all too confusing. I promise it makes more sense when you actually play the game, since it spends more than three paragraphs to explain the situation. I haven’t reached Ramizel yet, but I’m only about five hours in, and I know she’s a playable character since she’s on the box (and looking pretty damn hot, honestly — didn’t think I’d be saying that about Sophie’s grandma, but I also didn’t expect to see her in a dimensional warp time travel game like this.)

Ramizel down on the lower left. Good thing this isn’t a possible Fry from Futurama situation, talk about fucking the timeline.

As far as the game mechanics go, Sophie 2 isn’t anything too surprising. Its combat is the traditional turn-based type (sorry to the fans of the hybrid style in Ryza, though I think both have their advantages.) It also carries some challenge; I just got past a few dickhead eagles who nearly wiped out my party until I realized I should probably be using my bombs and healing items in combat. As usual, combat in Atelier absolutely requires you to master alchemy as well; you can’t just cheese these games by leveling up and brute forcing your way through.

Also as expected, the game’s alchemy system is based on the “fitting materials in the cauldron” one found in Sophie 1 with some new features. It’s extremely easy to use, even more so than the system in the first game, which required you to fuck around with lousy 4×4 grid cauldrons at first that you couldn’t do much with.

Sophie practicing her craft. This might look a bit intimidating, but it’s very easy to get down.

On that note, I also like the fact that Sophie 2 doesn’t knock Sophie’s adventurer and alchemy levels down to 1 for no apparent reason other than forcing the player to trudge through relearning new recipes. It instead acknowledges Sophie’s expertise and puts her at a fairly high level, though with a far higher level cap than the first game had and with many more recipes to learn as a result. You naturally can’t just make mega-powerful items right away, since that would have made Sophie too overpowered, but this game seems to have achieved a good balance between those points.

Sophie and Plachta are both able to synthesize items. And man, Yuugen and NOCO are good artists; I like their work about as much as Hidari’s and Mel Kishida’s now. They beat even Kishida at creating strange costumes for their characters to wear, which is a plus for me.

The one new aspect of Sophie 2 that stands out to me right now is its exploration aspect. Unlike Sophie 1, which had a pretty straightforward approach to its dungeon and field settings, this sequel uses a weather-changing mechanic controlled by the player to turn rain on and off, thus raising and lowering water levels and opening or closing off certain areas (in a way that’s not exactly realistic, but again, this is a dream world so realism is out the window — something the characters themselves comment on.) I like this function so far and look forward to seeing what it can add to the game aside from letting Gust show off its characters drenched in rain, which I’m sure had nothing to do with this decision.

Well, it probably didn’t. I wouldn’t know.

That’s all I’ve got on Atelier Sophie 2 just several hours in. I’m enjoying it a lot so far, and I hope I continue to enjoy it throughout. Based on my history with Atelier, I’m not too worried about that — the people who work on these games know their stuff if the last seven Atelier games I’ve played are any indication. Unfortunately, I don’t see Sophie 2 making a whole lot of waves out there like Ryza and its sequel did, but we all know at least in part why Ryza did so well here. There’s no denying that appeal. Until next time!

A review of Blue Reflection: Second Light (PS4)

This review took long enough to come, months after talk about the game died down, or what talk there was at least. But of course, my schedule being what it is, it took me three months to play through it once, so it wasn’t quite by choice. “Arrive late and look back” has become my style anyway, so it’s all right — and there are quite a few games that have waited far longer for that treatment (as the NieR Replicant box sits on my shelf. It would be looking at me reproachfully now if it had eyes. I promise I’ll get to you.)

Today my focus is on another game with a distinct art style and an unusual approach to storytelling. The difference here is that this one didn’t get the attention I think it deserved, at least here in the West, though maybe that was to be expected considering its genre and setting.

Blue Reflection: Second Light (titled Blue Reflection: Tie in Japan) is the sequel to not just one but two works, only one of which I’ve taken on: the PS4 game Blue Reflection, the first in the series released in 2017. My feelings about the original Blue Reflection were somewhat mixed, but positive on the whole — I felt the game was lacking in a few important areas, but I generally enjoyed the story and characters and loved the music and art style (headed up by composer Hayato Asano and artist Mel Kishida, both of who returned to work on Second Light.)

The other work that Second Light follows up on is the 2021 anime Blue Reflection Ray, which I started but never finished, again because of my shitty schedule. Getting through a 24-episode series feels like actual work to me sometimes, even when I like it, and that one unfortunately slipped through the cracks for me. If I’d known at the time that it was leading up to this sequel, I probably would have made more of an effort to stick with it.

Not a big deal, though, because while Second Light features both its own original characters and returning characters from the first game and the anime, it also does a pretty decent job of explaining these characters’ relationships to each other when they eventually show up. Not a perfect job — I had the benefit of knowing all about Hinako’s background and her own struggles from the first game with her friends Lime and Yuzu, but I still didn’t totally get the conflict surrounding the sisters Hiori and Mio from the anime Ray and their fight with Uta.

But it’s not realistic to expect a game to explain everything that came before it, and in any case it’s not necessary at all to play the first game or watch the anime to fully enjoy Second Light. At worst you can always just look up a plot synopsis. That warning/caveat/whatever aside, let’s get on to the game itself.

Second Light opens with its protagonist Ao Hoshizaki, a high school student trudging off to summer school in the early morning. She somehow loses her phone and recovers it in an empty parking lot, but she sees a strange message on the screen when she picks it up: “BE REBORN”. Looks like a prank or a stupid spam message of some kind, but shortly after seeing it, Ao passes out and wakes up in a new and unfamiliar world: a fully equipped but otherwise almost empty high school building on a small island surrounded by water in every direction, with no other land in sight.

Ao finds herself living in this strange school with only three other girls about her age: stern, serious Rena Miyauchi, her near-opposite, the mischievous Yuki Kinjou, and cheerful and always hungry hunting expert Kokoro Utsubo. These three, who had already created a makeshift home out of the school, welcome Ao and explain the situation, which they admit they barely understand themselves: they were all mysteriously transported to this place, and all with their memories wiped, aside from the knowledge that they were from a different world than this one.

Ao and her crew (not seen, but they are there) in the Heartscape

The one aspect of life in this strange world that breaks up the monotony is a mysterious place the girls first name the Faraway, and later the Heartscape once they learn more about its true nature. This world seems to be distinct from but connected to the school and its island, sitting just off the island’s shore through a kind of magical portal. At first, the Heartscape consists only of a forest full of real-world items, including food and water that the girls forage for. However, very quickly they realize that this place is connected with them personally when they start to see some of Kokoro’s childhood memories played out  in them.

After confirming with Kokoro that these visions aren’t just shared hallucinations and that they line up with her own slowly returning memories of her past life, the girls agree to explore deeper into the Heartscape in the hopes that they can turn up more memories and discover the mysteries of this new world and their places in it. This plan isn’t without risk, since the Heartscape is also full of bizarre-looking monsters. Fortunately, Ao, Rena, and Kokoro are all “Reflectors” with the power to fight these beings with magical weapons, and also transforming into elaborate costumes (of course — if you’re familiar with this power from the last game, Reflectors are magical girls.) Only Yuki doesn’t have this power, but she does her best to support the team by hanging back and working on essential housekeeping and food preparation tasks.

Rena and Ao lined up for battle alongside Hinako, protagonist of the first game and one of their newer additions.

As the four girls explore the Heartscape and defeat the aggressive demons living in it, they find that their explorations are changing both the Heartscape and their home base back at the school. Every so often, one of them will discover a memory that summons still another girl into their realm, as usual with an erased memory and no idea of how she got there, shortly after which she usually discovers some memory of her own that summons her own Heartscape section into existence.

As their numbers grow, the team also finds that some of them inexplicably possess Reflector powers while others don’t. Yet as their memories are recovered, they all discover ties and relationships that bound them together from their past lives. The odd one out in this crowd is Ao, whose memory remains strangely blank, and who nobody else on the team remembers from their pasts. Despite this, Ao is a magnetic figure — not the brightest or toughest of the bunch, but the type who manages to attract everyone around her, and with a natural drive that puts her pretty clearly and without any dispute in the position of leader.

Ao at a team meeting describing the plot of a video game, but is it this one?

Ao and company do their best to create a comfortable and even a fun life at the school despite their situation. It’s not all fun and games, however. A mysterious blonde girl with a foreboding air shows up from time to time, the very first resident of this realm, but she can’t even remember her own name — yet she has knowledge of the place the others don’t, and she seems to hold at least part of the solution to that mystery. And every time a major event occurs in one of the Heartscapes, a giant crack appears in the sky surrounding the school, slowly widening. The girls aren’t sure what’s on the other side, but they’re certain it can’t be anything good.

A section of Rena’s Heartscape. Most of these maps have normal enemies wandering around with a few stationary intermediate bosses the player has to get past to advance, like the one just ahead indicated by the red marker.

When I wrote about Blue Reflection last year and speculated about a still unannounced but rumored sequel, I said I hoped for a more fully realized version of that game or something similar. Well the world in general might be a giant pile of shit, but sometimes good things happen, because Second Light is what I was hoping for in almost every way. Aside from a couple of complaints about how developer Gust handled its endings and difficulty settings that I’ll get into later, Second Light at least matches and in some areas surpasses the first game in the series.

First and perhaps most obvious is that music and art direction that everyone rightfully praised in the original. The best news that came out about Second Light early on was that Hayato Asano and Mel Kishida were attached to the project. Both contributed massively to the first game, and it would have been near impossible to imagine a sequel without their involvement (and totally impossible in Kishida’s case, since Blue Reflection never would have existed without him.)

A battle result screen featuring Hinako, Ao, and Hiori in their Reflector outfits. Blue Reflection might just have been Kishida’s excuse to draw a bunch of magical girl costumes, and there are at least twice as many in Second Light.

And as expected, Second Light excels in the aesthetics area. It might not be your particular style — the magical girl theme is sure to turn off some players, after all. But if you were already a fan of Mel Kishida’s work on the other Blue Reflection titles, you won’t be disappointed by the art in this sequel. Drawing girls in stupidly frilly dresses with ribbons and bows all over them is one of his main things; you’ve already seen it if you’ve played Blue Reflection or one of the Atelier Arland games. Unfortunately about half of Ao’s crew lacks Reflector transformation ability, at least in this game, so there are fewer physics-defying magical girl costumes in Second Light than you might expect (and Kokoro’s outfit honestly looks ridiculous, and this is coming from a guy with no fashion sense beyond knowing what “business attire” is because I would have gotten yelled at in previous jobs pre-COVID without a suit on.) But even her outfit reflects her skill as a hunter, just like Hinako’s does hers as a dancer, and in general it’s pretty clear that Kishida paid his usual attention to detail here.

This attention extends to the environments in the game, and especially to the Heartscape, which is far more diverse than the Common of the first Blue Reflection. While the Common was themed around general human emotions and pretty well depicted them (red/orange lava and fire for anger, a blue cold-looking flooded cityscape for sadness, and so on) the Heartscape creates real-world environments that have personal connections to each character, warping them in ways that make sense given the otherworldly nature of the place. While each section of the Heartscape isn’t all that large, each one provides an appropriate atmosphere along with its in-game role as a dungeon/field area to fight enemies, gather items and ingredients, and advance the plot by discovering new memories.

Ao standing in the last section of Uta’s Heartscape. The environments in the Heartscape range from natural-looking to manmade and from light to dark, all in accordance with the state of mind of the person connected to it.

The music contributes to this atmosphere as well, both back at home base in the school and out in the Heartscape. Asano’s compositions are written in a similar style to the first game’s music, with a mix of soft piano/synth-dominated tracks for the more pleasant environments and the slice-of-life stuff back at school and hard, driving electronic tracks for the tense situations and battles that come up every so often. Some of my favorites include Thorns That Still Sting, My REAL, Our Days (sounds more like a track from Atelier Ryza with the strings, which Asano also wrote the soundtrack for) and the romantically titled I Can Feel Your Body Heat (another take on the same theme as “Our Days”, and the title is very appropriate too considering the scenes it’s placed in.) But I could just as easily list half the soundtrack here, which I won’t do. As with the first Blue Reflection, I’d say its music alone is worth checking out even if you have no interest in the game.

But of course beautiful art and music aren’t enough to make a 40+ hour JRPG worth playing; it also needs a memorable, compelling story and set of characters, and better if there’s exciting gameplay to tie all that together. With one stumble (at least from my perspective; it might not be depending on yours, but I’ll get to it) Second Light provides those as well. The most immediately obvious change to the gameplay is the combat: while it’s still turn-based, the battle system in Second Light is more complex than in the first game while still being pretty intuitive to get down.

Three Reflectors fight in the front line with one in reserve, and they perform attacks and support skills by using ether points that both allies and enemies collect, seen on the scale in the lower right. Also, I love those huge chains hanging off the back of Shiho’s costume. No idea what good those are doing her aside from looking cool I guess?

The Heartscape is the primary battlefield of the game as the girls make their way through its various environments and obstacles. However, much of my time in Second Light was spent back at that isolated island school, because the old social sim element from the first game was carried over, though in a way I could have never guessed. Blue Reflection had its protagonist Hinako hanging out with her non-magical-girl classmates in a real-world school and the surrounding town. While there is no real world in Second Light to speak of, Ao manages to do the same thing even harder than Hinako did by going on “dates” around the campus with all her friends. As in the first game, these outings provide in-game benefits to the party by creating magical fragments that grant battle advantages, but they also provide a lot of entertaining cutscenes showing Ao interact 1-on-1 with the rest of the cast.

Kirara was consistently one of my favorite dates throughout the game; I love that dark energy of hers. I guess I really haven’t gotten over the whole chuunibyou thing.

If you see Second Light described as a yuri game, this is one of the two reasons why (the other being a relationship between two of the girls that’s undoubtedly romantic in nature and that figures into one section of the plot strongly, at least when said characters start to regain their memories.) It’s never stated outright, but if Ao isn’t exclusively into girls, she’s at least pretty bendy in terms of her interests because she flirts hard with every other girl in the game. While the dates she goes on with her friends are mainly very platonic, the player usually gets one or two dialogue options for Ao to choose from, and every so often one of these options (and sometimes both) is spicy as hell.

I mean what do you call this, really

A lot of this stuff ends up coming off as friendly teasing, but then it’s hard for me to tell as a guy, honestly — it seems like women can be a lot closer physically and perhaps even emotionally without feeling like it has to be a romantic thing, whereas in my country at least, two guys even just holding hands is a pretty sure sign there’s more going on there. When I had a look at the anime The Aquatope on White Sand, there was a lot of speculation early on that it would have yuri themes for what I think were similar reasons, which didn’t play out at all as far as I could tell. Friendly intimacy doesn’t need to include or lead to romance, after all. But man, this stuff is way closer to that hypothetical line.

It’s not a big deal, really, but if the whole date thing might be an issue for you, it’s something to know. I liked how flirty Ao got myself, since it resulted in a lot of funny reactions from her friends. Especially when they reciprocate her teasing and end up getting her flustered. Don’t make those moves if you’re not serious, Ao!

How romantic does this feel on a scale from 1 to 100

Ao also spends time with her friends as a larger group. Some of these interactions involve strategy and planning meetings over how to approach the Heartscape, but most of them are about far more mundane subjects like what to make for dinner or how to arrange their sleeping quarters (one classroom on one floor for the quiet girls and another one below that for the noisy ones, seems fair enough.) All these in-school scenes contribute to the strong slice-of-life element of the game, which I think mixes just as well with the heavier plot stuff as it did in the first game.

Second Light even incorporates a bit of a town-building sort of element in the school’s joint kitchen/workshop area, where Ao and co. can use the ingredients they find around the Heartscape to make attack and support items to boost their battle abilities and build improvements to the school grounds. These improvements give Ao and her friends new opportunities to go on dates to check out/use the new attraction you’ve set up along with providing various combat benefits.

While some of them seem pretty realistic and doable, like a festival stand for making takoyaki (though where they got the octopus is another question, because I never found any myself) most are so improbable that you have to stop questioning it after a while. Like a fucking rocketship, you can just make one of those. Apparently life in this pocket dimension makes pretty much anything possible to do as long as it can be imagined.

Some of the available school improvements make the team’s pool to giant hot tub conversion plan seem downright practical.

The split between slice-of-life lightness and serious drama Second Light provides might feel weird to some, but it completely worked for me. It does a better job of that split than the first game did, though it also has the benefit of not being expected to explain why we never see a single adult or any trace of the characters’ home lives — this pocket dimension really is the perfect storytelling tool, though it’s not a trick that could easily be pulled off again, assuming a third Blue Reflection game might ever come out.

And since I forgot to shove this in anywhere above, the request system is also back from the first game. You’d think Hinako could be a little less vague here, but Ao can always follow up with her friends through text to figure out just what the hell they’re asking for and how to get it. And since both going on dates and fulfilling requests boosts that character’s talent points that can be spent on skills, they’re all well worth carrying out.

As a whole, I enjoyed Second Light, and I’d say even more than I did the first game. It ties up the purposely left loose ends from the original Blue Reflection, and presumably it does the same for the anime, though I can’t say that for sure not having watched it. I especially loved the setting and the slice-of-life element in the game — for someone who doesn’t much care for pure SOL anime, that might sound weird, but it’s different when you’re actively taking part in the story as the player character. And Second Light has all that end-of-world drama to go along with that lighter material anyway.

Yuki, why do we have to text when I see you standing right fucking there

However, I did run into a couple of annoyances that I felt could have and probably should have been avoided. One of these had to do with the game’s difficulty. At the start of Second Light, the player has a choice between easy and normal mode. I wondered at the time where hard mode was — turns out it’s at the end of your first playthrough as a new game plus feature. I found this a bizarre choice, especially since other Gust games (say Atelier Sophie 2, which I started playing just after finishing Second Light) give you a wider range of difficulty modes than this right off the bat, with the additional option to switch freely between them during your playthrough in case the hard or very hard modes prove too much to handle.

This problem is made all the worse by the fact that Second Light starts out with a fair level of challenge on normal mode in the early to mid-game but becomes piss easy as you progress. I still enjoyed playing with the new combat system by the end, but it was more enjoyable when I had to use that system wisely to mind my team’s HP while doing damage to strong enemies and bosses. By the late game, there was no need for tactical thinking — I easily hit the game’s level 50 cap with all the girls before the final Heartscape area, and all without grinding (unless you count fighting in the course of fulfilling optional requests, which I don’t.) The game’s crafting option also allows you to create buff and debuff items that were so effective I thought I was playing a Megami Tensei game, only those bosses can still hand you your ass even when you’ve got all those skills. As a result of all this, the final boss was an absolute joke — it could barely scratch my party even in its menacing final form.

None of this would have been a big deal if I could have shifted over to hard mode to at least somewhat make up that difference, but for whatever reason, Gust decided not to let me do that.

In anime and video games, a schoolgirl wielding a magical scythe is automatically the most powerful being in the universe

This difficulty issue ties in with the other, larger problem I had with Second Light: the ending, or at least the ending you’re given after playing through the game once. I avoided spoilers completely before picking it up, so I didn’t know what to expect when I finished it, but I knew the ending I got wasn’t all that satisfying and that it sure as hell wasn’t the true ending. There is a true ending to Second Light, in fact, but you can only achieve it by completing a new game plus run.

Maybe I’m not being reasonable here. I’ve played other games with a similar setup that lock their true endings behind a second playthrough — for example Atelier Escha & Logy, which is currently my favorite in that series. But Escha & Logy had the excuse of featuring two protagonists with slightly different stories and paths, and all the carryovers you get in second Atelier playthroughs make that new game plus pretty easy to breeze through to achieve new endings if you want them. And in any case Atelier usually offers a lot more to uncover and explore the second time around.

I didn’t get that sense about Second Light — as much as I enjoyed those dates, I didn’t feel the need to play through the game a second time to see the ones I might have missed, The secret areas I couldn’t uncover my first playthrough didn’t entice me all that much either, even with the carryovers Second Light did grant me with my clear file. I also have a god damn life to live outside of video games, which means that given the choice between replaying this game, as much as I liked it, and jumping over to Sophie 2 — well, that choice was obvious. I watched the Second Light true ending recordings on YouTube and moved on.

Anyway, I’d already seen the best scene in the game.

This might just be me finally feeling my age. I’m still technically “young”, I guess (though the kids would call me an old man at this point, and certainly a boomer, since that term now seems to apply to anyone just out of their early 20s and even some still in them.) But I just don’t have time to run through typical JRPG-length games twice anymore. I’m lucky as hell that I can even play these games once each given how much else I have to do, and in the future I may not even have that kind of time left.

Considering that this might just be a personal problem, I can’t exactly condemn Gust for locking that true ending behind a second playthrough. But I can still be annoyed by it, and I am. I’m far more annoyed by it now than I am by the paid DLC, which I’ve more or less come to accept as inevitable since Gust now makes a habit of selling “season passes” for each game. And hell, I buy DLC on occasion myself (like the “night pool” above, that didn’t come with the base game) so I can’t exactly criticize them for that, though they could make the system a little less gougy.

Those complaints aside, Blue Reflection: Second Light gets my highest recommendation as long as you’re into the style and also into turn-based JRPGs, and specifically if you have the time free to really soak in it and enjoy that second playthrough, which I feel I don’t. Not sure how it did in Japan, but it’s a damn shame that Second Light seems to have flown so far under the radar here in the West. You’d think some of our pro journalists over here would tout a game with an exclusively female cast all about feelings and even featuring a clear same-sex romance that’s not simply hinted at. But when such things are featured in a JRPG that isn’t titled Final Fantasy, or in any visual novel at all, they go almost entirely ignored by our press outside of the few who reliably and thoroughly cover the niche stuff. God bless those few. As for the rest in the mainstream: bang up job you idiots are doing. Can you tell I’m bitter?

Listening/reading log #27 (January 2022)

Well, that wasn’t the start to the new year I wanted. But work piled on as usual. Fuck all this talk about “work/life balance” and de-stressing. As far as I’m concerned, that’s seven days off, living in a villa on Capri.

But that’s not happening this year at least, so time to keep toiling and doing our best to take our minds off the fact that God cursed us for all eternity when Adam and Eve ate that fruit off that stupid fucking tree. Thanks for that (and sorry for this blasphemy — another reason I’m mostly anonymous on this site.) In the meantime, here’s more great music and great writing from around the communities.

Yellow Magic Orchestra (Yellow Magic Orchestra, 1978)

Highlights: Firecracker, Simoon, Tong Poo

For the longest time I didn’t know anything about Yellow Magic Orchestra beyond their name (which I connected in my head with Electric Light Orchestra, though I don’t think they have that much in common otherwise) and the song Kimi ni Mune Kyun, which I first heard in its Yuu Kobayashi cover version as the ending theme to the anime Maria Holic. What a damn weeb, I know. (edit: also see this Hatsune Miku cover; YMO would probably approve.)

“Kimi ni Mune Kyun” is a catchy song, but I didn’t have quite the right impression of YMO from it — I thought they were New Wave synth-pop sorts of guys, which they apparently were on their later albums. But their debut sounds very different, taking a lot more inspiration from mid-70s electronic experimenters like Kraftwerk. It’s almost entirely instrumental aside from a few vocal samples and some very distorted singing on “Simoon”, which sounds a lot like an old 40s standard filtered through 70s synths. My other favorites on the album, “Firecracker” and “Tong Poo”, are just jazzy funky instrumentals with still more electronic sound over them.

Not what you’d normally think of as big hit material, but it seems this album did pretty well. Maybe not a surprise, though, since all the members of YMO were already well-established musicians/composers before starting this project. And according to the comments under “Tong Poo”, that song was apparently played on loop in an Okinawa fish processing factory? (There’s an unexpected link with my previous post as well, nice. I still want to go to Okinawa.)

Finally, if there’s a bridge from that original mid-70s electronic music to the video game BGM of the 80s and on, it sounds to me like it starts here with YMO’s debut. There are even very short themes to computer games on the album titled as such (though I don’t know whether these were real games; maybe some actual music/game historian can clarify that.) The whole album feels very ahead of its time, maybe in part because of this connection — seems a lot of the big-time game composers were influenced by YMO and this earlier work of theirs in particular, and I can hear it. So if you’re into video game music in general, and if you read my site it’s fairly likely you are, you should really check YMO out.

Remain in Light (Talking Heads, 1980)

Highlights: Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On), Crosseyed and Painless, Once in a Lifetime

Okay, well I guess I’m not being too adventurous this month. Remain in Light is still another late 70s/early 80s New Wave album acknowledged by pretty much everyone as extremely important even if they’re not into the sound. And I am into the sound, so it’s one of my favorites and has been for a while.

I’ve already brought up Talking Heads once before in one of my early month-end posts when I looked at The Name of This Band is Talking Heads, one of the best live albums ever made as far as I’ve heard. But then it didn’t seem right to just skip over their studio work, since it’s also excellent and has a pretty different feel, thanks in part to the work of legendary producer/musician Brian Eno and to the several great guest musicians who played on the album including the future soon-to-be-reformed King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew (and you can hear him on Discipline, which I’ve also covered before.)

But the greatest credit goes to the four members of the band proper. Most visible and famous of these four is singer/guitarist David Byrne, the extremely nerdy-looking guy in that “Once in a Lifetime” video linked above. Byrne was and probably still is a strange guy (see his film True Stories for more insight into that weirdness, which also had a Talking Heads album attached as a sort of soundtrack — it’s not bad!) I’m not totally sure what the fuck he’s singing about on any of these songs, but Remain in Light has a paranoid atmosphere that wasn’t unusual for the band, even starting with their early work back when they were playing alongside a bunch of punk guys in NYC in the mid-70s.

I don’t have any particular comments to make about the songs themselves other than that. It’s all good. You’ve probably heard some of it before if you grew up in the US during the 90s or 00s like I did (even though Talking Heads’ more “normal” sounding mid-80s music gets way more play, “Burning Down the House” and the like.) But this album really is as great as they all say, and you should hear it too.

Now for the featured posts:

The Aquatope on White Sand: Whole-Series Review and Recommendation After The Finale (The Infinite Zenith) — Starting with an article written in December, but that I couldn’t appreciate until January when I’d finished the anime. Read Zenith’s series review and other in-depth posts for more insight into The Aquatope on White Sand, a unique anime series that I liked a lot but that a lot of other people seem to have had some problems with. What’s new with anime, anyway — one of the fun (?) aspects of this medium is how nobody can fucking agree on anything about it.

Subs or Dubs: A Futile Argument And Yet We’ll Just Keep Having It (100 Word Anime) — Speaking of aggravating arguments, here’s one of the longest-running in the western anime world. Do you only watch dubs? Then you’re a filthy pleb! Only watch subs? You’re a snobby elitist! No, you can’t just watch anime the way you prefer and acknowledge that it’s nice we have both sub and dub options more often than we used to, with higher-quality English dubs than before. You have to fight about it. But thankfully Karandi has some great points to make about this tired debate.

Anime Review #73: New Game! (The Traditional Catholic Weeb) — From Traditional Catholic Weeb, a review of New Game!, another anime that’s on that long watchlist I have. And that’s just my Crunchyroll watchlist mind you. This post got me interested in the series again, so it’s one of those I might actually get around to this year — I’m a fan of these professional job-setting anime series.

Newer Anime I Enjoyed in 2021 (Mechanical Anime Reviews) — A good list to reference for newer anime to check out from Scott of Mechanical Anime Reviews. I’m shifting to my older backlog for a while myself, but if you’re more interested in recent anime, be sure to read this!

Donkey Kong 64 (Extra Life) — Red Metal takes on the classic Donkey Kong 64. I have some vague memories of playing this, though I never got into Donkey Kong the way I did other old platforming series like Mario and Sonic. But that makes it more interesting to read about than a game I already know inside and out, anyway. DK64 seems to be a divisive one for good reason.

Extensive Analysis of Bakemonogatari: What makes it so unique? – Hitagi Crab 1 (Convoluted Situation) — In addition to all the old and new anime series I need to get around to, I also need to continue Monogatari, a task I’ve been planning for months now. And again, speaking of divisive — I’ve seen Monogatari described by some as one of the greatest and most beautiful anime series ever made and by some others as a disgusting, self-indulgent mess. If you’ve read my reviews of each “first season” series up through Nekomonogatari Black, you know which side of that divide I fall on. It’s a nuanced series, in any case (as I got into myself with my look at Nisemonogatari a bit — protagonist Koyomi Araragi is clearly not meant to be a role model in every way, but I think a lot of people see the character in a different light than I do.)

This long and unnecessary preface is my way of directing you to Edy’s in-depth analysis of the first episode of Bakemonogatari. Check it out and see what makes this series so special. (And yeah this is another cheat on my part: this post was put up in November, but I just saw it now so I see this as a correction. I’ll try not to make a habit of it.)

Trails of Cold Steel: Great from Start to Finish (The Gamer with Glasses) — I never got into the Trails series myself, but it seems to have just as fervent fans as other JRPG series I know better like Megami Tensei. Gamer with Glasses here gives us some thoughts on the first Trails of Cold Steel.

Best Games of 2021 (Frostilyte Writes) — Unlike me, Frostilyte actually played and wrote about some games that were released in 2021, so his look at the best of the past year is worth reading. It’s also a reminder that I still need to play Huniepop.

Shoot from the Hip – Belle (Shoot the Rookie) — A look at the new film Belle from famous anime director Mamoru Hosoda. Looks like it’s my sort of thing, and I’ve heard enough about Hosoda’s work to be interested in seeing some of it, so it’s still another film to check out if I can find it on a streaming service.

All ‘Encanto’ Songs: Ranked (Jon Spencer Reviews) — Something different for my site — I don’t usually look at western animation at all, and I don’t have any plans to watch Encanto, but I’ve heard it’s a good film with a good soundtrack. So if you like animated musicals in the old Disney tradition, be sure to read Jacob’s ranking of Encanto songs. I know nobody will shut up about this Bruno guy, so I assume that song is the new “Let It Go”.

A Collection of Anime OPs/EDs I Actually Like (Volume Three) (The Visualist’s Veranda) — More my style, here’s a look at some excellent anime OPs and EDs from Visualist’s Veranda. Some great songs here, and even if it were the only one on the list, any article that talks up “Real World” from Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita deserves the unrivaled honor of a place in my month-end post.

My Blog Search Criteria are Bumming me Out (I drink and watch anime) — Finally, anyone who runs a blog will understand the feeling you get when you see your stats and wonder how the hell people are finding your work through those bizarre Google searches. Even with the very meager crumbs we get from the free stats WordPress provides, a few questionable results can slip through. Irina writes about this issue in her annual look back at her search results for 2021.

That’s it for this month. A little shorter than usual again, much too late, and again I didn’t have the kind of engagement here I’d like. But work continues to pile on top of me, and unless Mr. Biden decides to cancel my student loan debt (and I believe he won’t, and it’s debatable whether he even can — but the situation here will continue to be a horrible mess either way) I’ll have to toil harder to start repaying those again soon. But I’ll keep escaping through anime, games, and music as I always have, count on that — and I’ll keep writing here. I have a few anime series in particular I want to get to very soon, and a game that I’m nearly done with that should probably be up next for review. Until then!