A review of Atelier Meruru DX (PS4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stamp makes it official

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

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

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

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

Totori joining up to kill some wolves in the mountains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Totori having a flashback to her own game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer cleaning game review special #1: Qora

The worst season of the year is finally here, which is nice, because it means we can now look forward to fall in a few months. To commemorate this summer, I’ve decided to start a special series of posts. I have a few short games that have been in my Steam backlog for years now, and a few others that I very recently bought for barely anything in a huge bundle on itch.io, and a couple of others still on a hard drive that I don’t know the source of.

I wanted to get through these while I had the time (i.e. while most of my country continues taking work-from-home quarantine measures) but I also thought I’d rope these reviews off into a special series to excuse how short some of them will be. If I end up having enough to say about one of these games that it will take more than a few minutes to read, I’ll set it aside for the full review treatment. And if you like my usual long-winded style, don’t worry, because I’ll be posting the usual overlong pieces this summer as well. Those full reviews and deep reads are still on their way.

On to the first game down: Qora.

This was released way back in 2014, and I’m positive that it was one of those games I bought during a big Steam sale. I know I’m not the only one who buys games just because they’re cut in price 80 or 90% and then forgets about them in his Steam library for years on end, and that was the fate of the copy of Qora I bought. Despite how it looks, this isn’t some kind of platformer or minimalistic RPG. It’s instead an extremely linear exploration game without much of any gameplay. In other words a walking simulator, only in 2D instead of the 3D environments such games are usually set in (see Gone Home, Dear Esther.)

So it’s maybe not a big surprise that I didn’t like Qora. The whole experience lasts maybe an hour or two and consists of the protagonist, a nameless, featureless, characterless figure made of several pixels, going on a mystic walking quest to discover the ancient secrets of the land he or she just moved into after receiving a message from one of the local gods along with the ability to see the dead souls of the former inhabitants of the land.

That might make the game sound interesting to you, but the concept doesn’t translate into much of anything in practice. Qora has some nice backgrounds and settings that feel atmospheric and probably would have gone very well with a game featuring an interesting main character doing something that they had an actual motivation to do, but that isn’t the case here. Your only job is to get your pixel figure all the way to the right across dozens of screens by using the tools you get from talking to all your new neighbors in town. Including a set of incense sticks to burn at each shrine you come across, otherwise you’ll probably get a bad ending because you pissed off the gods, but I can’t be bothered to find out.

There are a few amusing parts, like the ancient monstrosities you run into during your journey that are totally harmless and even friendly and gladly get out of your way so you can continue. But by the end of the game, when the big secret was revealed, I was just tired of it and didn’t give a shit. There’s also a lot of that sort of wacky humor at the very end that I don’t care for. Call me a hypocrite if you want — I like Wes Anderson movies, but that kind of “quirky” stuff has to be done just right, and this didn’t work at all for me. Also, after an hour plus of moving along at a slow walk to reveal a secret I didn’t care about and had no investment in, my patience was already worn pretty thin.

So I don’t recommend Qora, and certainly not at its sticker price of ten dollars. It reminded me a lot of a game I played years ago also featuring some interesting backgrounds and atmosphere and not much else called Mandagon. I had much nicer things to say about that game, but it was also free and only took half an hour to get through, so even if it was nothing much, that wasn’t such a big deal (and it also had some sort of Buddhist theme, so if you’re a Buddhist maybe you’ll get a lot more out of it than I did?) I recommend you play Mandagon instead of Qora if you’re looking for this kind of experience, because then you won’t have to complain too much if you thought it was boring.

Other Megami Tensei games I’d like to see released for PC

This is a first: the second post in a row I’m making in response to a current event in the world of gaming. I promise this isn’t turning into a news site. However, the sudden release of Persona 4 Golden on Steam was a shock to almost everyone who cared about it, including me. I don’t have much to say about it, though, except it’s an excellent game that you should buy if you haven’t played it yet, but also that it comes with Denuvo built in which is a real pain in the ass not to mention a show of poor faith. I won’t be buying it yet, but that’s because I have a Vita in good working condition and several savefiles on my P4G card that I can go back to at any time and I absolutely need to finish Persona 5 Royal first. It makes sense that P4G is the first Megaten game to get a non-Japanese PC release, since just about nobody over here bought a Vita aside from me and maybe a dozen other people. And hell, the game is good enough that the Denuvo thing probably won’t matter to you.

No, that’s not what I’m talking about today. Since the door to Megaten PC ports is cracked now, let’s push it wide open. There are several other of these games I would love to see released on PC, so if anyone from Atlus is reading this, here’s my wishlist in order of what I want to see. Please note these aren’t based on what I think Atlus would be most likely to release but only on my preferences, so as usual I’m indulging in wishful thinking. On to the list:

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne

No surprise here, right? Nocturne is my favorite Megaten game and near the top of my favorite games list, whatever that would be. Yet it’s only ever been released for the PS2. It doesn’t seem like a PC port of Nocturne would be hard at all to make considering it’s now 17 years old. It would also make for a fine introduction to the mainline SMT series for new fans who have only played Persona 5 Royal and Persona 4 Golden so far.

Look, it even has dating, just like Persona. Well, sort of.

If I’m being greedy, I’d ask for the JP-only Chronicle Edition that replaces Dante with Raidou Kuzunoha, but people love their Dante from the Devil May Cry series so I know that won’t happen. Leave it to the modders to insert him later.

Persona 3 FES

This one is a lot more realistic than getting either Nocturne on PC or the complete Persona 5-style Persona 3 overhaul people keep clamoring for. A P3 port is the logical next step for Atlus to take after P4G: it’s a game that a lot of new fans haven’t experienced yet, but it’s still close enough to the newer Persona games in style that those fans won’t be put off.

I do think it’s more likely that we’d get the PSP-only Persona 3 Portable instead if only because of how popular its unique female protagonist option is. I’d still prefer FESPortable is sort of a “demake” anyway and lacks some of the features of FES, and most PCs would be able to handle FES in any case. However, the Answer section of FES is a character-destroying pile of shit, so maybe Portable would be better. But then again, you don’t really have to play the Answer if you get FES anyway, so maybe that doesn’t matter. I guess I’m torn over this one.

Persona 2

Both parts. Persona 2 has had a very weird history of western releases — we first only got Eternal Punishment, the second part of the two-part series, for PSX, then we got a port of the first part, Innocent Sin, on PSP but not Eternal Punishment on that system. It would be great to have a package including both games on PC, because the stories are supposed to be excellent in contrast with some quite honestly shitty gameplay and fusion mechanics. Maybe I’d actually get back to playing Innocent Sin again and suffering through that for the sake of the story. Once I beat Royal I’ll have 12 years to wait until Persona 6 comes out anyway.

Seriously though why would you give us each half of the duology on a different system and the second one years before the first, what the hell? I think they’re sadists.

Shin Megami Tensei I and II

I believe these are far less likely to be ported than Nocturne even, and for pretty obvious reasons: they’re a lot older and don’t contain any quality of life features, and II has never even received an official localization. And the localization of I was only for iOS for some fucking reason. But I’d still like to see these translated and ported, preferably in their slightly newer and more updated PSX remake forms. More complete overhauls would also be appreciated, but we’re already so deep in the unlikely zone at this point that I know that’s way too much to hope for. I’d rather hear news about Shin Megami Tensei V than about remakes of and II anyway.

***

There are plenty of other games that would be great to see released as ports on Steam like Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2, the PS2 Devil Summoner games, and SMT if…. However, the games I think we’re by far most likely to see are one of the two later versions of Persona 3 and any of the Persona spinoffs games they can cram onto Steam like the 3/4/5 dancing games and the Arena fighting games. Persona is the cash cow, after all. Or maybe we’ll really luck out and only get ports of obscure games that even most “serious” Megami Tensei fans don’t care about like Demikids and Last Bible. Only time will tell, but I’ll remain hopeful that we get something more on PC at least, because there are quite a few games in the series only playable on old consoles now that could use new life.

Enough of my complaints. Next time it will be back to business as usual. I already have some reviews and commentaries planned for the next few months — planning ahead, something I almost never do here. All this extra time staying at home has really paid off. But if Atlus surprises us with a Steam port of Nocturne, I’ll probably also be running an extremely detailed, tedious beat-by-beat playthrough of that game here. So maybe you should hope that doesn’t happen.

Does fun belong in “serious” video games?

I don’t know if I’ve seen an upcoming release as controversial as The Last of Us Part II in a while. It’s received almost entirely excellent reviews from the professional game press, who are declaring it a triumph of storytelling and a deep, affecting experience. Meanwhile, consumer opinion seems to be split — people are somehow already bitterly arguing about the game’s quality even though the damn thing isn’t out for another week. Granted, we have the first game to compare it to, but it still seems hasty to call the sequel a piece of shit on that basis, or even to call it a masterpiece based merely on the word of a bunch of professional reviewers.

I won’t be playing TLOU2. Not because I hate Naughty Dog or anything; I don’t care about them one way or the other, and I don’t really have it out for any game developer at all for that matter. Based on what I’ve seen, the game just doesn’t interest me. However, there is a question raised by all the back and forth fighting over TLOU2 that I do find interesting, and one that I was already thinking about before this controversy blew up — should a good game be fun to play? The reviews of this game I’ve read pretty consistently describe a miserable experience fighting through and hiding from both undead and living human threats and requiring the player to make potentially morally uncomfortable decisions. Yet those reviews also declare TLOU2 a triumph, with one guy comparing it to Schindler’s List and causing yet another uproar for it.

It goes on in this fashion

Setting aside Mr. Cannata’s weirdly narrow definition of “everything” being John Wick when it comes to games (I’m currently playing a game about a princess who makes items with alchemy, beats up dragons, and eats pie with her friends and it’s not much like John Wick1) I find his view interesting. The game wasn’t “fun” at all, but it was still an amazing experience. This isn’t a new take on video games, either. See this 2015 piece from Vice titled “The Value of Video Games That Aren’t ‘Fun'” that expresses a very similar view. The idea seems to be that a work of art that puts the player through hell as Cannata writes of TLOU2 can be inspiring and profound, and that such a game’s lack of fun elements can even work in its favor in that sense.

I don’t want to completely dismiss this idea. If video games are an artistic medium, and I think they are, then they can certainly affect the player emotionally and challenge their views of the world just as some of the great novels, plays, films, and music out there have done. To pull an example straight out of that Vice article, 1984 was a very depressing novel to read, but I thought it also totally achieved its goals in getting the reader to really care about a few people living in this unbelievably oppressive society. If a novel like that weren’t kind of hard to read, it would defeat the purpose. The same goes for Schindler’s List for that matter — a film about trying to save people during the Holocaust can’t really be called “fun” either, but it is profound, emotionally affecting, and very worth watching. So then why can’t a game also be depressing and hard to play, therefore making it way more profound and effective in challenging the player’s views of the world?

I see a few problems with the views expressed by these critics and writers. One is that they seem to be ignoring interactivity, an element of video games that isn’t shared by older media. When you sit down to watch a movie or read a book, you don’t expect to take an active part in it; you’re just taking in a story. With a game, however, unless it’s a visual novel or something similar [edit: and one without much player input either, like a kinetic novel] there’s an expectation that you’re going to get to interact and have some gameplay elements. So if you’re making a game an absolute misery to get through, you’re not just asking for the audience to passively sit and watch or read — you’re asking them to take an active part in struggling through a difficult mess for the payoff. That’s quite a bit more to ask.

A game can’t put a player in a rough situation and also be fun, it’s never been done before

Even that can make for a good game when done right, however. The Silent Hill games gave you pretty much normal-strength humans to control while fighting through and often hiding from vicious monsters. Plowing through enemies would be a lot easier and maybe more fun in some sense, but that’s not the sort of experience those games were meant to deliver. And despite all that, the Silent Hill series is widely beloved (up through Silent Hill 3 at least.) Even though they didn’t quite empower their player characters, putting them in extremely dangerous situations with scant protection and pretty average fighting ability, they also let you work out alternative ways to get through those situations when brute force was not going to work so well. A challenge like that can be fun in itself, and I’d argue the good Silent Hill games achieved that balance.

However, there’s another problem stacked on top of the first. If a game is going to put the player through any kind of hell at all, it has to deliver a payoff at the end that’s worth the effort spent to get there. Otherwise, it’s probably going to leave a rightly frustrated and annoyed player. If a game has something truly profound to say about humanity or life that’s worth the effort it takes to make it through its challenges, then it certainly could be worth playing, just as I think a book like 1984 is worth reading or a film like Schindler’s List is worth watching. If the payoff ends up being some trite message that most every person on Earth over the age of five already knows, however, then by contrast it won’t be worth playing unless the gameplay’s fun on some level. At that point, I’m far better off instead playing a game that’s fun and has no message at all.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t responsible for whatever this is.

Finally, there’s the problem of player agency. If a game’s going to take me to task for making the player character do something it perceives as wrong, it had damn well better give me options. Even though it doesn’t tie into its plot, I remember the old Thief games doing a good job of this: on higher difficulties the games usually forbade you from killing enemies in favor of knocking them out with your blackjack or with sleeping gas devices, the idea being that the protagonist Garrett is a professional thief, not a murderer. This was more difficult but always possible to achieve, and it made a no-kill run of a mission very satisfying to pull off on the harder levels. I think this element of player choice leading to a rewarding feeling was also a big part of why the indie RPG Undertale did so well.

However, a game that essentially forces the player to do something it deems bad only to chew them out for it afterward causes a disconnect between game and player. A game can’t simply make the protagonist do whatever it wants in the same way and with the same consequences as a novel, film, or other non-interactive work can. If I’m being put on rails and shoved down a track, you can’t make me feel bad for whatever happens as a result.2

Again, I don’t have any particular feelings about The Last of Us or Naughty Dog; I can’t and don’t plan on making any judgment of the game, and it’s no skin off my back if it ends up doing well or poorly. And after all, the market has room for all kinds of games. Some of those kinds I don’t especially care for, but why should that bother me? The same is true of every artistic medium on Earth. I just find some of the views expressed by professional reviewers who are praising it to be not very well-considered. By suggesting that this game is both profound and emotionally affecting and “not fun” and really emphasizing that “not fun” aspect, there seems to be an implication that a fun game can’t also be profound and emotionally affecting in the same way, and that doesn’t make a god damn bit of sense to me. 𒀭

1 It’s Atelier Meruru DX for the PS4, and now I’ve totally ruined the surprise when I post my review of it soon.

2 I recently bought a massive bundle of over a thousand games on itch.io. The deal is still on for a couple of days so check it out; the $5 minimum goes to the NAACP and a bunch of bail funds, which I think are pretty damn good causes. Anyway, one of the games included is 2064: Read Only Memories, a game that’s been sharply criticized for doing just this sort of obnoxious “railroad the player and then try to make them feel bad” thing. I might just have to see that for myself since I own it now. I did find the demo pretty irritating, but I shouldn’t judge it based on that alone.

However, the bundle also contains Dreaming Sarah and OneShot last I checked, and I know for a fact that those are both well worth playing.

Seven great video game tracks (part 4)

Happy Memorial Day to my fellow Americans, and a good Monday to the rest of the world if you can bear it. Not that it feels that different from any other day. I don’t guess there are going to be as many barbecues as there usually are on this holiday. To commemorate it, I’m making a post that has nothing to do with Memorial Day: the fourth part of my favorite game music series, to demonstrate again that game music is not just “real” music but is also varied and diverse in style and all that. Not that I probably have to convince you of that if you’re already reading this. Anyway, on to the good stuff. As always, the order the entries are presented in doesn’t matter.

1) Kohei Tanaka — Old Town (Gravity Rush, 2012)

I’ve already written a bit about Gravity Rush — not so much about the substance of it but rather how I’d still probably want to date Kat if she were real, even at the risk of accidentally being flung into a wall thanks to her out-of-control gravity-shifting powers. So let me address some more substantive, less stupid material: the game’s music. You may not be familiar with the name Kohei Tanaka, but it’s likely you’ve seen or played something he’s written a score for if you’re into anime at all. He also wrote the soundtrack to Gravity Rush. It feels like a movie score, and I mean that in a good way. Almost feels like something out of a Ghibli movie. If you like Joe Hisaishi’s work, you should check this out.

The old European feel of the initially accessible part of town is enhanced by this Manneken Pis reference

I picked “Old Town” because it was the first track in the game that I heard a lot and got a strong impression of; it’s the music that plays in the first section of the city as you’re flinging Kat around in the air getting used to the controls. I’ll always associate it with Kat falling hundreds of yards out of the sky flat onto her face or tumbling into the void around the floating city. No, I’m not very good at this game.

2) Tatsuyuki YoshimatsuIn a Lonely Cave (Hakoniwa Explorer Plus, 2018)

Some of my favorite game tracks are the unexpected ones. Hakoniwa Explorer Plus is a retro-style action RPG that includes a lot of dirty jokes and lewd monster girls and stuff like that. It’s not an adults-only game, but there’s a lot of suggestive stuff in here along with all the hack and slash fighting slimes and bee-girls and lamias and similar beings. Since that really sells itself, the makers didn’t have to include a nice soundtrack, but they did anyway.

“In a Lonely Cave” plays when you enter a cave-themed dungeon area as the title suggests, and it made me want to stand in a corner and listen while enemies quickly beat down my HP. It’s very relaxing, especially the piano/acoustic guitar combo later in the track. Maybe this is too relaxing for a combat theme, actually, but I don’t care; I still like it.

3) The Humble Brothers — Terrain (SimCity 4, 2003)

Although I didn’t play it nearly as much as SimCity 2000, I was still somewhat into the series back in high school and bought SimCity 4 on release, and it was absolutely worth getting. In the spirit of the older SimCity games, it also had a good soundtrack. “Terrain” is an interesting one: it’s one of the tracks that plays during the map creation part of the game, but it sounds more like the backing music to a film scene of people walking through the mountains or jungle or some other wilderness, and not because they want to. Very ominous.

The song does suddenly cheer up halfway through, shifting into a major key. I don’t like that part quite as much, but I guess a SimCity game should provide some optimism to make the player feel like his future city will be a success, so I get that. I’d never heard of the Humble Brothers before writing this post, even though I’ve known this song of theirs for 17 years now, but they did a nice job. Maybe they’re too humble to make their identities known.

4) Jerry Martin — Buying Lumber (The Sims, 2000)

Another Sim game. I’m not the biggest fan of The Sims, and I didn’t touch its sequels aside from a very short time with The Sims 3 on someone else’s computer, but I can’t deny how amazingly popular and successful the series was. To their credit, Maxis poured a lot of work into it before they and EA together ended up crapping absolutely everything up, and said work included getting composer Jerry Martin to write music for the first game. This is a solo piano piece that is way, way more contemplative than you’d expect from the title “Buying Lumber.” This track plays when you’re in build mode while the game is paused, so the title makes sense in that way. Still, the few times I’ve been to Home Depot, I haven’t felt this melancholic while walking through the lumber aisles.

This is a depressing-looking house, but I wouldn’t call it melancholic exactly. This guy just needs to clean it up and buy better furniture.

5) ??? — Data Select (Sonic the Hedgehog 3, 1994)

Okay, enough of the profound contemplative music — next is the jaunty Data Select song from Sonic 3. This track doesn’t seem to have an official title; it’s just the song that plays when you’re on the screen to start a new game or load a saved one. I’m also not sure who exactly wrote it, because Sonic 3 famously had a large team of composers working on the music. These included guitarist Jun Senoue, whose work would be a lot more prominent in later 3D Sonic stuff, and keyboardist/frequent Michael Jackson collaborator Brad Buxer. Buxer’s involvement has led many fans to speculate that Jackson himself worked on some of the Sonic 3 tracks and had his name removed later because he wasn’t satisfied with the sound quality on the Genesis.

Too bad if that’s true, because the quality is pretty damn good. It’s impressive to hear how much these guys do with the limited resources of the 16-bit console. This is one of those tracks that a lot of people don’t hear all the way through — it is a data select screen theme after all; you’re not usually lingering on it too long — but it does go on longer than you’d expect. I like the light atmosphere it creates going into the game. If you like it too, be sure to also check out the Tee Lopes cover of the song. This guy was featured in the last entry in this post series; his fan works were good enough that he got hired by SEGA to write music for Sonic Mania, and that game had a great soundtrack too.

6) Shoji Meguro — The Days When My Mother Was There (and another version) (Persona 5, 2016)

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m playing through Persona 5 Royal. I’m liking it a lot so far. Admittedly I’m not as in love with the new Royal-exclusive music as I’d hoped, but it’s still good. It’s hard for that to compete with the amazing soundtrack that already existed in the base game anyway, with songs like “The Days When My Mother Was There”. A lot of people highlight the dramatic vocal tracks like “Life Will Change” and “Rivers in the Desert” and those are indeed great, but I prefer these more relaxed pieces. “The Days When My Mother Was There” sounds like it should be more melancholic from the title than it actually sounds, but there’s some plot stuff going on that provides context if you’re hearing it while playing the game.

Each of the Palace themes in Persona 5 also has an alternate version, and I like this one almost as much as the main theme. I’m a big fan of the electric piano sound it has — I think that contributes to the 60s/70s fusion/funk/soul/etc. sound Persona 5 has in general.

7) Nobuo Uematsu — One-Winged Angel (Final Fantasy VII Remake, 2020)

So I guess I have to eat my words about how I thought the FF7 remake wouldn’t be that good. At least I should prepare to do so, because I’ve been surprised by what I’ve seen so far. Not by the music, though, because I didn’t expect Square-Enix to mess up the excellent soundtrack of the original, and it seems like they haven’t. If you haven’t heard it yet, check out the new version of the classic “One-Winged Angel” with the full orchestra/choir treatment it deserves. Though for nostalgic reasons, I still like the original more. I don’t know, maybe that’s stupid.

Not everything about the original was better.

So that’s it for the latest entry in my favorite game music series. Four entries over six years — I really am lazy. Please look forward to the next entry in 2023. In the meantime, I’m still playing through Royal and a few other games, so I hope to get a couple of reviews/analyses up next month. There’s also a reason I featured a couple of tracks from the Sim series. That’s a not-so-subtle hint at the subject of the next deep reads post. Let’s see if I have anything new or interesting to say about that franchise. You can be the judge when it comes out.

For now, I’ll be taking the rest of the month off to work. I wish I could take off from work to write and play games instead, but as long as I stay on the projects I’m working on (which I absolutely need, so I hope I do) that’s not an option. That’s the life of a contractor: free, but also not all that stable. Well, what can you do. Until next time.

A review of The Expression: Amrilato (PC)

I wasn’t kidding when I wrote a while back that I had a bunch of visual novels to get through. When I wrote that post about visual novels still being a bit of a niche thing in the West, though, I wasn’t thinking of The Expression: Amrilato. No, this game beats all the rest in terms of its niche-ness: it’s a yuri romance visual novel that teaches you Esperanto.

What? Yes, this is a real thing. I first heard about Amrilato when Valve briefly refused to stock it on Steam for depicting a romance between two students, the main characters Rin and Ruka (if you didn’t know this was a yuri VN at first, the cover says everything.) They soon thought better of it and put it back up in their store. It’s an all-ages VN anyway, so I’m not sure what the fuss was to begin with — by the same logic, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet would be banned from the platform, which seems stupid enough.

In any case, this minor incident got Amrilato more press than it would have received otherwise, because it’s how I learned about the game. And after that I filed it in the back of my mind to play, and now I’ve played it. And now I’ll write what I think of it in a very long-winded way, because I have a lot to say about it.

First, an introduction: this is our protagonist, Rin. Rin is a hardworking, cheerful Japanese high school student who’s also pretty thick and often says and does things without thinking. One day, Rin buys a taiyaki (something I’ve never had myself, but I’ve heard a lot about, sounds like a kind of sweet pastry?) and eats it while on the street. Then she blacks out and wakes up on more or less the same street, only now the sky is pink and everyone’s speaking in a language she can’t understand.

Rin is understandably freaked out by this and suspects her taiyaki was drugged, and she goes to cry in a corner, where she’s approached by a girl in an impossibly frilly outfit who tries to talk to her in that mysterious language. Rin is still frustrated, but she does her best to communicate with this girl, whose name is Ruka. Fortunately, Ruka knows a little Japanese and invites Rin back to her house after establishing that she needs help.

Naturally, Rin feels like she’s in the dark at this point — her phone isn’t getting a signal, everyone’s speaking this weird language, and why the hell is the god damn sky pink, even at night? However, she manages to sort herself out in an impressively short time after trying and failing to find her parents’ house. While the city she’s currently in is very similar to her own, there are many subtle differences, and it soon becomes clear that Rin has somehow entered an alternate-universe version of her hometown. Which means no getting back to her family or friends, at least for the time being.

Yeah, yuri vibes from the very beginning

Thankfully, Rin is in Ruka’s care. She soon learns that she’s considered a vizitanto, or visitor, and Ruka takes her to a kind of combination library/government office to get a special ID from her own mentor, the librarian Rei Arbaro. Rei explains that Rin is now something like a resident foreigner, a status that comes with privileges like discounts at stores and a special allowance. Since Rin’s not the first vizitanto to accidentally fall into this dimension, the government has a system in place to care for people in her position until they can get on their feet and be productive members of society.

This is where the game really begins and where we’re introduced to the first of the two major aspects of Amrilato: the Esperanto. As a vizitanto, Rin has to learn Juliamo, the common language in this world. Aside from a few vocabulary and grammar differences and a customized alphabet thrown in to make things feel more other-dimensional, Juliamo is the same language as Esperanto. The player can switch between this fictional Juliamo alphabet and the Latin alphabet used to write the real-life language, but it seemed like a waste to not use the custom alphabet, so I stuck with that.

And naturally, since Rin is learning Juliamo, we’re learning it along with her. As the story progresses with typical dialogue and narrative stuff, Rin gets presented with language lessons that she has to complete as part of her new education. A lot of these involve one-on-one sessions with either Ruka or Rei, and you get to take quizzes and exams at the end of most of these lessons, an experience that will surely remind you of your school days if you’re past them now like I am. These exam sections can be deactivated in settings, but they’re turned on by default, and I get the impression that the developer SukeraSparo intended for the player to actually take the lessons and learn the words, expressions, and grammar rules that they teach.

I was barely familiar with Esperanto before picking up Amrilato. All I knew is that it was a constructed language, or a language created purposely and not developed naturally over thousands of years like English or Japanese. It has an interesting history — the creator, L. L. Zamenhof, was a Polish Jewish eye doctor who in the 1870s came up with the idea for an international language because he thought it would put an end to war. This unfortunately didn’t happen (a sad end to that part of the story, especially considering the fate of his family, still in Poland at the start of World War II) but Esperanto has gone on to become the world’s most widely spoken constructed language.

One of the most interesting parts of playing Amrilato was in seeing Rin’s thought process while learning Juliamo. Even though she’s the player character, her experience with the language and mine were very different. A big part of this difference has to do with the origins of Esperanto: from the basics I learned of it by playing this game, most of it’s derived from existing Romance and Germanic languages, seemingly with more of a lean towards Romance. So if you speak or you’ve studied languages like Spanish, Portuguese, French, or Italian, a lot of this Juliamo will be familiar to you right away. Even someone who only speaks English and has no familiarity with the Romance languages will probably pick up on some of the vocabulary and grammar by instinct because of the strong historical Romance influence on English (it’s a Germanic language, but we’ve also got those Latin roots and the additions from Norman French after William the Bastard Conqueror’s invasion of England.)

Aside from its loanwords, Japanese has barely any relation to these or the other Indo-European languages that form the basis of Esperanto, and so root words and grammatical concepts that might sound natural to a westerner may not be so intuitive to a native Japanese speaker. The lesson sections of Amrilato consist largely of Rin’s thoughts about what she’s studying, and she’s often forced to try to remember her meager English knowledge that she picked up at school to help her understand Juliamo. Things as seemingly simple as the sounds “si” and “zi” are a bit hard for Rin because those sounds don’t exist in Japanese, instead becoming “shi” and “ji.” However, Rin’s stubborn, hardworking nature comes out in these sections, especially when she pushes herself to practice her Juliamo on Ruka, Rei, and strangers when she’s out buying groceries and running errands, and so she manages to push through it.

A lot of Rin’s struggles with Juliamo made me think of my own efforts at learning Japanese. I’m not immersed in the language like Rin is, but it couldn’t be more different from my native language of English, so I find myself asking some of the same types of questions Rin asks when she’s taking Juliamo lessons. Questions like “how the fuck am I supposed to tell when 人 is pronounced nin or jin in a compound kanji?” Questions that sometimes seem to have no answer other than “that’s just how it is” or “you just have to remember it.” These are aspects of language that native speakers grow up with and take for granted, but to the adult brain (or near-adult, in Rin’s case) they can’t simply be absorbed. Fortunately, with Esperanto/Juliamo being a constructed language, most of its aspects seem to have real explanations that aren’t “that’s just how it developed over time, so remember it.” My native language is notorious for shit like that. Sorry to all the ESL students out there.

amrilato-4

Not the face you want to see when you make food for someone

This is where the language-learning aspect of Amrilato connects with its other major aspect: the yuri romance. Rin is very obviously attracted to Ruka from just about the beginning, and as the game goes on, this attraction shifts from being about Ruka’s looks and style to being about the connection that’s grown between them. Even though Ruka is younger than Rin, she takes on the role of Rin’s language tutor and legal guardian, and her mature attitude sometimes makes her seem older, creating an unusual sort of teacher-student relationship. Ruka soon tells Rin that she wants to learn more Japanese, and so each becomes a teacher to the other.

Eventually, these feelings turn romantic, though we initially only see that from Rin’s perspective. At first, the game throws in some hints that Ruka might be interested too, or that she wouldn’t at least be not interested in a romantic relationship with another girl, and even these parts play with language in interesting ways. Early on, for example, Rin buys what looks like a fashion magazine from a vendor that’s wrapped in plastic with the title “Blanka Lilia.” Rin is too thick to get it, but usually when a magazine like that is wrapped in plastic there’s a reason. And anyone who knows the origin of the Japanese term yuri that describes themes of lesbian love/desire in fictional works knows that the same word 百合 also means “lily” and can probably work out that “blanka lilia” means “white lily” and guess at the magazine’s contents.

amrilato-3

When Ruka accidentally gets a look at those contents, she gets red in the face, which suggests a lot more than just indifference. After this episode, there are a few others that are also suggestive, and a lot of Amrilato consists of Rin wondering how Ruka feels about being with another girl, and specifically about being with her, and agonizing over whether she should say anything. The language gap between the pair makes things more difficult, and when Rin finally confesses her love to Ruka, she uses a Juliamo phrase that Rei taught her and that translates into something like “I’m thirsty for you” with some unintended lewd/embarrassing implications. Rei also likes to tease the two students and knows exactly what’s going on even before they do, so her addition into the mix as a kind of older sister/mentor makes things easier in some ways and more complicated in others.

Complicating things even further is the character of Rin herself. She’s stubborn and hardworking, but she also totally lacks self-confidence. By acting before she thinks, Rin ends up getting herself into awkward social situations, but then she gets carried away thinking of what a grave mistake she’s committed and imagines outcomes that are a thousand times worse than what could realistically occur. She also constantly thinks poorly of her own intellect, looks, and general desirability as a partner. In reality she’s a little thick but not at all stupid and perfectly capable, and her looks are just fine. She keeps thinking of herself as out of shape, but the character art doesn’t give me that impression at all. Maybe it’s the effect of that soft anime art style the game uses, but I prefer to think this is just Rin being unnecessarily down on herself, which would fit with her character.

I can see how Rin’s awkwardness, her yelling in surprise at inappropriate times, and her constant second-guessing of herself could get on a player’s nerves and make her a grating character, but most of these traits just made me feel bad for her. I find her lack of self-confidence to be relatable, in fact, which is a pretty shitty thing to deal with. It can be dealt with, but Rin doesn’t seem experienced enough with life at this point to have figured that out, which leads to a lot of emotional turmoil in the game — up until the player gets the few massively important choices near the end of the game that have serious relationship and ending implications. And there are a few different endings available, two of them pretty sad. But even if you give Rin lousy directions, you won’t have to backtrack very much to see the other endings. There’s only one route in Amrilato, and that’s the Ruka route.

And of course, Rin and Ruka do cement their relationship, because it wouldn’t be much of a yuri VN without some yuri. It’s all very PG-rated, hence people wondering why the hell Valve had a problem with it — yuri doesn’t necessarily have to involve anything explicitly sexual. Though there is definitely a physical element to their attraction, the emphasis in Amrilato is on emotion, and on the ability to show one’s emotion through using one’s expressions. This sort of romantic stuff can be easily screwed up and turned to total cheese if it’s not done well. However, Amrilato builds up the relationship between Rin and Ruka to the point that when they finally break through those language and emotional barriers, it feels nice to see. It’s earned. As for the endings — well, you’ll have to play the game to see those, because I won’t spoil them here. If you want a real deep dive, go check out Pete Davison’s post series about Amrilato on MoeGamer.

This is about as close to R-rated as Amrilato gets. I still find it funny that publisher MangaGamer offered this game free to schools because of its educational content. We never had a scene like this in Oregon Trail unless I really missed out on something.

So was I satisfied with The Expression: Amrilato? You can probably guess by now that the answer is yes. It was a nice experience, something new and unexpected, and it worked for me. I still have no interest in learning Esperanto, but I can see Amrilato getting at least a few players hooked on the language, and I think promoting an international language is a commendable goal in any case, so I give SukeraSparo credit for that.

As for the lesbian aspect of the game, it isn’t even played up that much as an issue in the way you might expect. All of Rin’s agonizing is really just over whether Ruka would go for her — the game doesn’t give the impression that either one is even necessarily exclusively into girls; the issue is more about how Rin and Ruka fit together. In that sense, I think this game is the same vein as VA-11 HALL-A: it’s progressive but in quite a natural way. What matters is the purity of the love and the expressions used to convey it.

Or something. I don’t know. I’m not a god damn romantic. But I did like The Expression: Amrilato, for what it’s worth. Now I’ve had enough cute romance for a while. I’ll probably play GTA for a change of pace. 𒀭

Liebster Award questions and answers (and another open question)

Many thanks to Frostilyte for tagging me for the Liebster Award. Writers on this platform have come up with a lot of these, haven’t they? In the creator’s words:

It’s an award in which bloggers nominate other bloggers for showing respect to their works and their dedication. It’s an appreciation and recognition for all the fellow bloggers out there in the blogosphere!

Which is something I can’t argue with.

So first, I highly recommend Frostilyte Writes — if you like the sort of stuff I post here, you should be following that site as well for deep game analyses, reviews, and art. Frostilyte has insightful takes that are very worth reading, and the blog comes with my seal of approval.

Now to the questions:

1) We’re four months into the year (at the time of writing) – what’s your favourite game played thus far?

The only 2020 release I’ve played so far is Persona 5 Royal, so I guess that’s my answer. Technically it’s a 2019 release, and the West had to wait another eight months for the localization as usual. But who am I to complain about a long wait? P5R is excellent so far, even if there are real questions to be asked about how necessary Royal is for people who have played the original and aren’t dumbass fans like me who will buy anything with Persona or any Megami Tensei branding on it.

There really is new content in Royal, though, like this. I know how it looks, but it’s not that kind of game.

2) What’s your favourite Pokémon? (don’t read into this too much)

I know this is a massive sacrilege, but I’m not really into Pokémon, which you might have guessed from the fact that I’ve never written about it here. Not that I think it’s bad or anything; I just missed the boat on it. Which is weird, but I think I was just about a year too old when it really got big where I lived — the card-trading game was seen as a kids-only thing in my class, so we weren’t doing it, and the series never caught on with us as a result. I also missed out on Harry Potter for probably the same reason.

Remember when both those series were condemned by some weird people as being Satanic? Those were better days, back when there was so much less to worry about that assholes had to invent controversies to get mad about.

Actually, they still do that, so never mind.

I still want to answer this question, though, and I am a little familiar with Pokémon, so I’ll just say Farfetch’d because I like his name and design. I don’t know if he’s any good in combat, but he’s a weird duck carrying a leek, how can you not like that.

3) Have you watched any shows lately that you’d highly recommend?

I just started watching Babylon Berlin, a Netflix original German production. It’s a crime/espionage drama set in 1929 in the Weimar Republic, the first democratic period of Germany’s history that ended when Hitler and his Nazis overthrew it. This is one of the most interesting times and places in history to me, considering all the political and economic chaos that occurred there. Not such a great time and place to live in, though, as you can see if you watch the show. I’m only into part of the first season, but it’s good so far — a lot of intrigue and backstabbing going on, just what I like.

4) What was your favourite movie from 2019?

I know it’s a boring answer, but hell if Parasite wasn’t just that good. I guess I won’t spoil anything here, but if you haven’t seen it, you should watch it. That’s all.

5) How do you feel about games with no single player content?

I don’t give a damn about them. Nothing against multiplayer-only games; they’re just not my thing. Part of the reason I got into gaming was because it was something I could do without having to talk to other people. If that sounds weird and unhealthy, it probably is. But God knows I need a fucking break sometimes, and I don’t need to spend it trying to awkwardly interact with strangers. This answer says a lot more about me than it does about multiplayer games.

6) What is your least favourite genre of game?

First-person shooters. Maybe partly because so much of the content in those games is multiplayer, but also because I just find them boring. The only one I ever liked very much was Goldeneye, and I don’t know how well it would hold up.

The second-to-last place prize goes to the MMO, partly for the reasons I put up in answer #5. Two free weeks of EVE Online was enough time for me to decide I’d never play another one again. I can appreciate the escapism they deliver, but I prefer to get mine through singleplayer games.

7) What is your favourite genre of game?

Turn-based RPGs. This genre has gotten a lot of shit in the past several years. I get that certain gameplay mechanics can get stale, but there’s still a lot of room for innovation using turn-based or hybrid setups. The mostly turn-based Megami Tensei series, for example, has kept its gameplay fresh for three decades by constantly tweaking its combat systems.

My answer extends to tactical RPGs. For people who feel regular turn-based RPG combat is too much of a weird abstraction, with enemies waiting their turn to attack and all that, this might be a better alternative. It’s still turn-based, but it feels more like playing a giant game of chess with way more types of pieces and freedom of movement, and your pieces have HP and SP and can use magic attacks.

Okay, it’s not much like chess, but at least the board game feel of it is different from the standard RPG combat setup. I once knew someone who couldn’t stand mainline Final Fantasy but really liked Final Fantasy Tactics for just this reason.

8) What game from your backlog have you recently finished?

I haven’t quite finished it, but I just got through two of five routes in the visual novel Katawa Shoujo. If I told you a bunch of 4chan regulars made a dating sim featuring girls with physical disabilities, you might imagine that it’s got to be incredibly offensive, but so far it’s just the opposite. I kept meaning to play this VN for several years now, and I’m happy that I’ve finally gotten around to it.

The third (and maybe last, maybe not) route I’m on is Rin’s. I get the feeling that Rin is supposed to be how the typical 4chan user saw himself back when the game was being made around ten years ago. She’s a spaced-out artist who despises authority and talks to her peers in a direct and sometimes harsh way. There’s another character in the game who represents that typical 4chan user a lot better in reality, probably, but I’ll get around to that if I write something on Katawa Shoujo. Anyway, I have no idea what the typical user of that site or its various boards is like today — this game may as well have been released 700 years ago for how fast society and culture move now.

9) Physical or digital?

Physical. I do own a lot of digital copies of games, partly because of Steam sales and partly because so many low-budget indie projects can only offer digital copies. If I have the choice, though, I’ll always go with a physical copy. I still vaguely remember the pre-internet era that ended when I was still very young, and I have some nostalgia for it. I also miss not having adult concerns. No one told me being an adult would be such dogshit, or if they did then I wasn’t listening.

10) Pinecone?

No thanks, I already ate.

***

Thanks again to Frostilyte for the questions. I’m reluctant to keep this chain going myself because I’ve taken part in a lot of them in the last year, and I’m afraid of asking essentially the same questions and annoying the same fellow writers I’ve kept tagging (or I’m just too lazy to bother; it’s up to you to decide which is true.)

So once again, I nominate everyone who’s bothered to read all of my rambling answers for a Liebster Award because if you have, you honestly deserve it whether or not you even have a blog. And I have a question for you that you can answer in the comments, or on your blog, or not answer at all, or just do with it whatever you feel like. Here it is:

Virtual reality-based games right now are clunky messes that cause motion sickness and headaches, but that probably won’t be the case forever. How do you feel about the prospect of games becoming increasingly immersive, to the point that they might even feel as “real” as reality itself? Do you think this would have more of a positive or negative impact on society as a whole, or would it make a significant difference?

I’m thinking of writing something about this soon, and you might guess at my own feelings about the subject, but I’m interested in knowing what other people think, and specifically in what the sort of person who reads my site thinks. It’s all still speculative, but it’s not so bad to speculate sometimes.

Meanwhile, it’s back to the drudgery of work for me. Once I’m past that crap, next up will probably be more visual novel reviews/analyses. Between the lunar new year and Golden Week sales, I’m loaded up with them, and I’ve also got more routes of Katawa Shoujo I can play through. So I hope you’ve liked it so far, because 2020 is the year of the visual novel for me apparently. Until next time. 𒀭

Deep reads #3: Just a little broken (Planetarian)

What’s the line between human and machine? If an artificial intelligence were created that seemed so natural and lifelike that we treated it as human, would there effectively be no difference between that artificial life and a natural one? And do these questions even really matter?

If there’s a mandatory reading/playing list of visual novels, Planetarian would have to be on it. First released in Japan on PC in 2004, this kinetic novel has gotten both fan and official translations on several platforms and is now widely considered a classic of the medium, and rightly so. This isn’t my favorite VN, but it is one I enjoy and respect a whole lot, and it takes on the above questions in a unique and interesting way.

Before I begin my look at Planetarian, however, I want to lay out exactly what approach I’m taking with it. I initially tried to write this as a normal review, but then I kept writing until I had a whole damn treatise on the thing. So it’s full of spoilers, both for Planetarian and a certain popular sci-fi film with some surface similarities that I contrast it with, one that took a promising premise and managed to completely shit it up in its last ten minutes (and one that was marketed partly through a harebrained scheme using a fake Tinder profile to catfish SXSW attendees. Okay, it’s Ex Machina.) So if you want to go into either of these raw, here’s your warning.

I do want to persuade people who haven’t experienced Planetarian yet to check it out, though, so here’s a one-sentence no-spoiler review: if you like the idea of a short post-apocalypse sci-fi story with excellent characterization, voice-acting, and music, but no branching decision points or route because it’s a kinetic VN, you should like it. I think the ending of this work is pretty well known by now since Planetarian has been around in various forms for 16 years, but I still feel the need to put a warning up here. It’s only a few hours long anyway, so it’s not a huge time investment.

The basic premise of Planetarian is that the world has gone completely to hell. About thirty years after a nuclear war and its aftermath destroyed almost all of humanity, Earth is only inhabited by still-operating autonomous weapons and a scattering of human survivors doing their best to live off of the ruins of their dead civilization. A constant radioactive downpour simply called “the Rain” makes this new world even more difficult to live in. In the midst of all this misery is our unnamed protagonist, simply called the Junker, a man who makes a living off of salvaging useful scraps from the old world to trade with: parts, food supplies, and the extremely rare and valuable preserved packs of cigarettes and bottles of liquor. Junker is exactly the kind of protagonist you’d expect to find in a post-apocalyptic work like this. He’s tough and battle-hardened, always armed and on the lookout for valuables and potential enemies, both mechanical and human.

At the opening of Planetarian, Junker has come across a “sarcophagus city”, a settlement that has been heavily fortified against attack. Unfortunately, those defenses weren’t quite enough: the city was abandoned by its population long ago, left to become yet another ruin. This is an opportunity for Junker, who thinks he may be able to salvage some useful items here.

There is one other being still operating in this dead city. Her name is Hoshino Yumemi, a robot built in the form of a young woman. Despite the fact that the city had been long since destroyed and emptied of its population, Yumemi still works for exactly one week per year as the receptionist, usher, and hostess of the Flowercrest Department Store’s planetarium, spending the rest of her time in sleep mode charging at a station that’s still working off of a trickle of power somehow still available from a nearby vacant military installation. Since the outbreak of the global war and the exodus from the city, however, the planetarium hasn’t seen any business — not until Junker arrives there looking for shelter.

Junker is shocked to find a young woman alone in this ruin and immediately suspects a trap, but he soon realizes that Yumemi is just a robot who has been operating autonomously all this time. As Yumemi herself explains, she was left in charge of the planetarium while the human staff were out. Since the day they left the city almost thirty years ago, she has carried out her duties to the best of her ability for the one week per year that she’s able to operate. And what luck — she happens to be freshly recharged and active when Junker arrives. Yumemi, seemingly oblivious to Junker’s appearance and all the destruction around her, processes him as a customer, greets him warmly, and tells him that in honor of his status as the 2,500,000th customer the staff has prepared a special projection that she intends to show him. She then offers him a makeshift bouquet made of wires and junk she found lying around, apologizing profusely and explaining that the florist’s shop downstairs had unexpectedly closed for the time being. She also admits that he’s not really the 2,500,000th customer, but she’s rounding up because there hasn’t been much business lately.

Junker naturally does not give a shit about any of this. After trying without success to explain to Yumemi that he’s not a god damn customer, he lays out his supplies and equipment to dry, then drifts off to sleep in one of the planetarium’s seats. When he wakes up, Yumemi is still around performing her duties, and she cheerfully greets him, addressing him as “Mr. Customer” (or okyakusama, a term like “honored guest” that doesn’t quite translate because we don’t have a similar term in common use in English) and doing her best to serve his needs. Of course, Yumemi can’t really serve Junker’s needs. When she offers him a refreshment, he asks whether she has any liquor in sealed bottles, and she tells him there are liquor shops on a lower floor. Tragically, that lower floor is completely flooded and inaccessible, so Junker can’t even have a nice drink to calm him down.

Yumemi continues to insist that she’ll show Junker the projection, and he finally gives in to her demands if only to shut her up. However, there’s a problem: the projector is broken. No big surprise, since the planetarium has been inactive for nearly 30 years, but Yumemi is seriously distressed when the projector doesn’t move or respond at the start of the show. Since she was built to be a sort of greeter/hostess and not a maintenance worker, there’s not much Yumemi can do to fix the giant machine, and so she asks Junker if he can repair “Miss Jena” as Yumemi refers to it.

This leads to the first of two fateful decisions Junker makes. By deciding to help Yumemi out, Junker takes up valuable time and energy that he admits he should be using to get the hell out of the city and resupply. He’s established that the planetarium and attached mall don’t have anything of value to him. Yet he stays and starts working on Jena, an extremely complex piece of equipment with a bunch of small moving parts that hasn’t been maintained for three decades. Meanwhile, Yumemi can only stand by and express her concern. She clearly feels bad about asking a valued customer to repair one of the planetarium’s machines and tries to help Junker by asking him if various tools might be useful, but it’s obvious she wasn’t designed for that sort of thing, so she steps back and lets him work.

After a couple of days of work, Jena is finally repaired, and Yumemi is able to run the special projection she had planned. Junker is still anxious to get the hell out of there, but once the lights dim and Yumemi starts her presentation, he’s drawn in. So much so that when the power fails for good shortly after the projection starts, Junker asks Yumemi to continue her monologue as he closes his eyes and uses his imagination to fill in the visual gaps.

If you’ve read Planetarian already, this may seem like a weird statement, but this scene provided the biggest emotional punch for me as Yumemi talks about the birth and growth of the human race and of its reaching out to the stars through the space program. The same space program that was in progress when the global war began 30 years ago, destroying its base on the Moon, grounding its spaceships, and and eventually killing the great majority of humanity. It’s all the more heartbreaking because, despite the fact that she’s a robot, Yumemi seems genuinely proud of humanity’s growth, just as though she were human herself. But her information is painfully outdated. Junker knows the truth of the matter all too well, but he lets Yumemi finish without saying anything about it.

When the show is over, Junker is ready to leave. But not without Yumemi. This second serious decision puts Junker at yet another disadvantage — Yumemi doesn’t seem to understand how dire the situation is outside the mall and planetarium, and she’s already told Junker that she’s not designed to handle rough environments or to move very quickly. Junker nevertheless doesn’t want to leave her there, and presses the facts on her that the planetarium won’t recover its limited source of power again and that she’ll never see another customer show up. Yumemi still seems optimistic despite Junker’s warnings, so when she offers to walk him to his car, a sort of post-apocalypse combat vehicle, he takes her up on her offer and decides to bring her along with him to a nearby inhabited settlement.

Getting to his vehicle is no easy matter, however, and it’s even more difficult when he’s essentially doing an escort mission. Yumemi trips several times and admits that she hasn’t been very well maintained lately. But she still keeps her spirits up, pointing out popular restaurants and attractions around town and printing coupons from the port in her ear for him to use, apparently not recognizing that that they’ve all been long abandoned and lay in ruins. Eventually, after several breaks to let Yumemi recover and prevent her from overheating, they reach the city wall, close to Junker’s car. A giant tank with a massive gun sits at the entrance of an opening in the wall through which they’ll have to pass, but Junker believes trying it would be suicide — despite the end of the war, the automated weapons deployed back then are still active and will attack anything that moves. So Junker tells Yumemi to hang back in a relatively safe place while he tries to destroy the tank with a grenade launcher.

Junker’s grenade is unfortunately a dud, and the tank turns its gun on him. He manages to escape and mostly disable the machine against all odds in the game’s only action scene, but it’s still barely functional and is about to kill Junker when Yumemi steps between them in a dramatic Tienanmen Square moment.

Yumemi tries to send the tank an electronic signal to get it to stop attacking, but in its final moments it shoots its gun directly at her.

Yumemi is torn apart at the waist, but she’s still able to function for a few minutes, just long enough to show Junker some of her memories recorded in her eyes: of happy guests, adults and children, telling her how much they enjoyed their time at the planetarium, and of the rest of the staff being forced to evacuate the city and saying their painful goodbyes to her. She then reveals that she realized long ago the planetarium was finished, but that she was happy to see one more customer show up. As she finally shuts down, Yumemi opens the port containing her memory card, and Junker takes it and seals it in a waterproof case, resolving to find a new body for her somehow so she can live again.

And that’s Planetarian. Quite a sad story in typical Key style — this studio is well known for creating melancholic visual novels. As miserable as the whole thing might seem, though, the story of Planetarian is not a hopeless one. Yumemi’s body is destroyed in the end, but her mind essentially lives on, waiting for Junker to find a new vessel for it.

What’s more interesting to me than the ending is the relationship created between Junker and Yumemi, a human and a robot. From the beginning it’s no secret that Yumemi is not a human, and a lot of her mannerisms reinforce that. When asked a question she doesn’t know the answer to, for example, she’ll tilt her head a bit and then deliver word-for-word the same response about not being able to make contact with some control center that she’s programmed to message in such cases. Her insistence upon carrying out her regular duties in a workplace that’s clearly been abandoned and left to rot for thirty years also seems kind of inhuman. A human would have left the planetarium behind long ago, just as Yumemi’s coworkers did, but she keeps performing her programmed duties faithfully.

But there are things about Yumemi that also seem strangely human. One of these is her extreme talkativeness. Yumemi simply won’t shut up. Junker is clearly annoyed by this and tries giving her a command to stop talking — a command that she acknowledges for about ten seconds before breaking it and asking him a question, after which he gives up trying.

Yumemi explains that this chattiness is caused by an error in her programming, one that was never fixed because the staff of the planetarium thought she was cuter for it. She refers to herself as “just a little broken” both because of that design flaw and her recent lack of maintenance. Certainly, Yumemi doesn’t act like a perfectly honed android of the kind you might see in some other sci-fi works, but these imperfections made her seem all the more human to me. She also constantly shows genuine concern for Junker despite having just met him, asking if he’s feeling sick and offering to call the mall’s medical center that she doesn’t realize is now abandoned. Indeed, Yumemi seems determined to help Junker out and tend to his needs as the “customer” he is, even when he insists he’s not one.

Considering all this, it’s not a great leap for Junker to start thinking of Yumemi as less of a machine and more of a human, at least in terms of how he treats her. The pair have the kind of chemistry where one complements the other — Junker’s bitter, harsh, practical attitude with Yumemi’s optimistic and cheerful one — and they start to have real conversations by the end of his stay at the planetarium. The first time I read through Planetarian, I thought it was a bit weird that this extremely pragmatic guy would decide to bring a slow, partially broken robot along with him through the streets of the city, where autonomous, heavily armed tanks were still operating. Junker wonders that himself and doesn’t seem to understand exactly why he’s doing it. But there has been a connection created between the two when the final part of the VN begins, to the point that I can believe Junker simply couldn’t allow himself to leave Yumemi alone in the now unpowered mall to shut down — effectively to die, left to be “harvested” for her parts by other junkers as he puts it.

This is where Planetarian totally departs from a lot of other modern sci-fi. When I watched the 2014 film Ex Machina a while back, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Planetarian and how completely different each work was in spirit, despite the fact that they both deal with human/AI interaction. Ex Machina takes place in a near-future Earth that’s still thriving, in which the eccentric genius CEO of a massive search engine company has built a line of realistic androids. Said CEO rigs up a fake contest to select one of his employees, a coder/programmer type named Caleb, to spend a week at his high-tech, high-security mansion in the wilderness. There Caleb gets the chance to run a series of tests by having conversations with Ava, like Yumemi an android in the shape of a young woman. Ava seems to be curious both about the outside world, which she hasn’t seen, and about Caleb himself. She also comes off as having an almost human-seeming sense of humor and a pretty sharp wit. After a few days of testing, Ava tells Caleb that she knows he’s attracted to her, that she’s attracted to him, and that she wants him to help her break out of the CEO’s mansion and escape.

Despite their efforts to conceal these parts of their conversations, the CEO realizes what’s going on, but in a double-twist Caleb reveals that he outsmarted the CEO by secretly fucking with the power system so that he’d be sealed inside his own high-security bunker of a house without being able to get out while Ava and Caleb would run away together. CEO tries killing the plan by ordering Ava to go back to her room, but she and another android get the better of him in a fight and stab him to death. We’ve seen him act like a real asshole to them throughout the film, so sure, this makes sense. However, in a final betrayal, Ava traps Caleb in the house and escapes without him, leaving him to die as well. The end.

Does this remind anyone else of those old creepy Svedka ads? Is it just me?

What message is to be taken from Ex Machina exactly? Caleb admittedly didn’t think through his actions fully, but he was motivated by a desire to help Ava escape because he essentially saw her as human, or at least as a being deserving of human rights. While Caleb did mean to seal the CEO into a virtual tomb in the course of his plan, he also found and watched tapes of said CEO treating the androids like garbage during tests and generally being a dick, and he also knows of his plan to erase Ava’s memory at the end of this testing phase. So his feelings are a bit understandable. However, the relationship Caleb thinks he has with Ava is pure fantasy. She’s been manipulating him this whole time, and far from being grateful for his help, she traps him and effectively murders him at the end of the film for no clear reason that I can understand, other than director/screenwriter Alex Garland wanting to throw a final twist in to shock us.

At first, Ex Machina left me asking “so fucking what?” The actors are good (Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac as Caleb and the CEO, for you Star Wars sequel trilogy fans if there are any left, and Alicia Vikander as Ava) and the look and feel of the movie in general are pretty nice, so I can’t exactly call it total garbage. But the writing. The first 100 minutes of the movie now seem entirely pointless, with its attempts at making me feel bad for the plight of Ava by making her come off as self-aware and sympathetic — such a being would have at least recognized Caleb as her ally and let him live, even if she’d been manipulating him up to that point. But no, turns out she’s nothing of the sort, more of a HAL from 2001 sort of character. Only 2001 took the time to establish HAL as a scary psychopath sort of AI making the course of the story believable, whereas Ex Machina just throws us an ending twist without bothering to set it up in the slightest.

So the message I’m forced to take from Ex Machina — because there clearly is a message in there; everything about the film suggests it’s meant to be taken as Serious Art instead of a basic horror movie — is that we can’t trust those god damn androids because there’s no way they’ll treat us with any care or affection despite what we might think. This is a depressingly pessimistic message. That’s fine with me; I’m a depressingly pessimistic guy myself, so I get that.

But what I can’t forgive is the sheer dishonesty of it. Ex Machina presents a dark future without any real argument to back it up. While many critics and fans have praised Ex Machina, I believe Garland completely screws up its treatment of its central human/AI relationship, which is quite an unbelievable and stilted-feeling one created to express the message, when the message should instead flow naturally from a believable story. Planetarian also depicts a dark future for humanity in its global war and post-apocalyptic setting, but in creating the relationship between Junker and Yumemi it doesn’t try to pull a cynical trick on the reader. Yumemi is exactly what she seems from the first time Junker meets her — an android who likes the company of both her machine and human colleagues. She has fond memories of working with the planetarium staff and helping customers and has a desire to continue her work.

Whether that’s because she’s programmed to do so doesn’t seem to matter anymore, at least not to Junker. By the end, he doesn’t see her as a mere piece of machinery. Yumemi herself, while conscious of the fact that she’s a robot, doesn’t want to be separated from humans. This is the meaning of her saying “please do not divide Heaven in two”, one of the game’s best-known lines — when she asks whether Junker has ever prayed to God, a weird sort of theological question comes up about whether there might be a separate God of Robots. Yumemi says her coworkers told her that robots get to go to their own Heaven when they shut down, but because she doesn’t want machines to be separated from humans, she prays that they can all go to the same Heaven.

This is where I think you can find the optimism in Planetarian. It’s a sad story with a bitter ending, sure. But there is hope in the end, both for Junker and Yumemi, and maybe for both humans and machines beyond them, living in the world together. Yumemi sees both organic humans and other, non-humanoid machines like Jena as her friends and colleagues, and she even says Junker shouldn’t blame the tank for what it did — in the end, it was simply doing its best to carry out its duties faithfully.

This view is very different from the one given by works like Ex Machina, in which humans create technology that ends up destroying them of its own will. In those works, there’s an assumption that any form of advanced AI will necessarily be separate from the natural world. Humans are animals, androids are machines, and there can’t be any meaningful emotional relationship between them. When a well-meaning character like Caleb foolishly believes he’s created one with an android like Ava, she ends up betraying him. She can’t empathize with him, and he was stupid to think he could empathize with her. Planetarian, by contrast, does not make any such assumptions. Humans started the global war that wrecked civilization. They used technology to do it, but the story doesn’t give any indication that the AI employed in the war rebelled against their human creators or did anything other than follow the orders given to them.

I’m not saying a robot apocalypse will never happen. But it seems both disingenuous and lazy to just assume that advanced AI will definitely turn against its creators when you’re putting together a work of fiction, or that they’ll even necessarily see themselves as that different from their creators.

I wrote at the start of this post that Planetarian isn’t my favorite visual novel. While I don’t have any problem with kinetic novels, I prefer VNs that give the player dialogue and action options and branching story paths. And I don’t know if writer Yuichi Suzumoto is responsible for this or if it’s the translation, but the prose occasionally gets really awkward — just see the above screenshot for an example. Thankfully it doesn’t happen that often, but those instances stick out and hurt an otherwise good game.

But I’d still rank this pretty highly among the VNs I’ve played. A good story can end with disaster and total despair, but the way it gets to that ending is important. Planetarian doesn’t take the same straightforward, lazy “technology is bad” route that Ex Machina and many other modern sci-fi works go with. And it’s not afraid to express the hope at the end that maybe things won’t be so miserable one day, and what the hell is wrong with that? Nothing. In real life, people keep hope alive even in the worst of circumstances, so it’s not a sin to give your audience some hope as well, despite what some writers and directors seem to think.

And that’s true even if that hope directly follows a tearjerker scene. I mean, I didn’t cry when Yumemi got blown up. Really, I didn’t. I just had bad allergies that day. You know how that pollen is in the spring.

***

I hope I’ve represented Planetarian well enough here. It also has anime OVA and film adaptations that I haven’t seen, but I’ve heard good things.

I also want to note that I’m not trying to do a “western vs. Japanese take” comparison with this commentary. Reading back through it, all the crap I dumped on Ex Machina might make it seem that way to some people, and everyone knows I’m a degenerate weeb after all, but it’s not the case. I only meant to highlight two approaches sci-fi writers have taken with regard to human/AI relationships and how I think one is more natural and honest than the other. If you want proof of my sincerity, here you go: the Spike Jonze movie Her does thousands of times better at this than Ex Machina, and it involves an actually believable romance between a human and an AI character if that’s what you’re looking for. 𒀭

Persona 5 Royal: First impressions and predictions

Yes. One week after everyone else has posted their full reviews of Persona 5 Royal, I’m making this bullshit post that’s going to be completely useless because I’ve only gotten through two in-game months to the third chapter, probably a quarter of the way through the game. But it’s a major Megami Tensei release, so of course I need to say something about it already. However, I promise that this is all I’ll say about the game until I finish it in a few months or however long it takes, and that next post I’ll write something that people might actually want to read. This might all be complete nonsense to you if you haven’t already played Persona 5, so for those who don’t know about it, the series involves high school students coming of age as they discover magical abilities and fight monsters in shadow worlds that are manifestations of human feelings — in this case, “Palaces” in which the player has to steal the corrupt desires of villains, thus forcing them to confess their sins in real life. If that doesn’t make sense, it’s because it’s honestly a bit of a weird concept, but I think it works.

Before I go into my scattered, unorganized thoughts about it, here’s my general judgment of the game so far: it’s definitely worth getting if you haven’t played the original Persona 5 or if you have and you loved it so much that you need more of it. If you’ve played P5 but didn’t care for it, either because you didn’t like the characters or plot or you just can’t stand turn-based RPGs, I don’t yet see this expanded version of the game changing your mind. I’m not too far into it, hence the “yet” there. It seems to have added some of those “quality of life” features that are so popular these days, and maybe the new characters and confidant links are amazing enough to bump P5 up to an 11 out of 10. Seems doubtful, though, since the core of the game feels the same as before.

What first jumped out at me about P5R, before it even began, is that “merciless mode” has been unlocked after only being available as DLC in the original Persona 5. I don’t recommend playing the game in this super-hard mode unless you really like frustration and crying. Some people do, and those people probably also add special challenge conditions of their own like playing without buffs or debuffs or beating the game with the default lvl 1 player Persona. I’m not one of those people.

The Velvet Room doesn’t seem to have changed much. There are some new Personas, including unique character-linked Personas from Persona 3 and 4 like Orpheus, Izanagi, and even Marie’s Kaguya from P4 Golden. There are also probably a few new fusion features that I haven’t gotten to yet. But the Velvet Room is still staffed by Igor and the twin sister wardens Justine and Caroline, who look like kids wearing French gendarme costumes for Halloween. In fact, there are a few other French-themed elements to Persona 5: Justine and Caroline fuse your Personas by “executing” them with guillotines, and at least three of your character-linked Personas in this game are characters from French works of fiction (Arsène Lupin, Carmen, and Milady from Three Musketeers.) I still don’t really get how the French thing ties into the main point of the game, but maybe the designers just thought it was cool.

The basics of combat in the game haven’t changed much either, but there are a few new additions to the mechanics. Occasionally you’ll run into a “disaster shadow”, a normal demon that explodes and deals damage to its own allies when you kill it. It also automatically counters every attack, but this really feels like it makes combat easier so far as long as you have enough variety of skills in your party to hit most every possible enemy weakness.

Even demon negotiation feels more forgiving now, with Morgana giving you constant advice on how to talk to demons to convince them to join you. All this could just be my imagination, or because the last Megaten game I played much of was Strange Journey Redux, which constantly punishes the player for even trying to play it. With the demon negotiations in that game, you may as well blindfold yourself and press a random answer to their questions because I swear they are randomized.

This time around, talking to a demon you already have a contract with to become your Persona can get that Persona extra experience, which is nice if you’re grinding up specifically to learn a new skill. I don’t remember this feature being in P5 vanilla, though it might have been and I forgot about it. A lot’s happened over the last few years.

There have also been a few dungeon redesigns, including the addition of “Will Seeds”, three in each Palace. These are supposed to be the seeds of the Palace owner’s negative feelings or something, I don’t know. The point is that collecting one slightly restores your SP, which is really useful in a game where SP-restoring items take time and effort to collect. Collecting all three Will Seeds also gets you a special item, so it’s worth scouting out every corner of each Palace to get them.

The game is also nice enough to include most of the cosmetic DLC from Persona 5 for free, though Atlus has still put together a nice hefty-priced DLC package for the new character Kasumi. I would say fuck that cash-grab bullshit, but I did buy the P3 and P5 dancing games, so I’ve supported them in that and can’t really talk. Anyway, here’s our starting lineup of Phantom Thieves mostly dressed as samurai from Shin Megami Tensei IV (and Morgana in a Persona 2-themed costume, a reference that I guess a lot of players aren’t going to get.) I love this combination samurai/colonial-era pirate sort of outfit — I’d wear it myself if I had one and wouldn’t be treated as a crazy person when I went outside.

Another nice thing about these Megaten universe costumes is that the battle theme changes based upon which one the protagonist is wearing, so if you really love hearing “BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY” every time you start a battle, you can put him in the Gekkoukan High uniform from Persona 3. I’ve had enough of that song to fill fifty lifetimes myself.

And of course the randomized dungeon Mementos is still here, with a new resident this time: Jose, who looks like some kind of robot boy. This kid hangs out in Mementos and will accept flowers that you collect by driving around these floors in exchange for items, including SP restoratives. In fact, restoring SP seems easier in P5R between Jose and the Will Seeds, which means you’ll likely be able to grind out a full Palace (or the full section that the story will allow you to play before moving the plot along) in one day, which means more time to work on those Confidant Links and social stats.

Speaking of that, let’s leave the world of demons and shadows and visit the real world for a while, since the Persona series is split between the two. Shibuya Station in Persona 5 is really nicely detailed, complete with slumped-over depressed-looking salarymen going to work. I’ve never been to Tokyo, but the parts that are depicted in this game look and feel like real places. I guess the trains in the city are pretty confusing as well, because it’s easy to get lost in here, with all its corridors, staircases, and ticket gates. The protagonist has been sent to Tokyo from the countryside at the start of the game, so if you’re confused by these labyrinthine train station layouts, that’s probably just what the makers intended.

Naturally your protagonist still has to keep up with his studies since he’s a high school student, so you’ll have to answer classroom questions on occasion and take exams. You get actual benefits from acing your exams, so it’s worth taking the time out to study, and the Knowledge stat is useful for other gameplay-related reasons. And you get to learn some useful facts too, including the name of the ukiyo-e artist who moved his residence over 100 times in his life (Katsushika Hokusai.)

The shadow demon-filled Palaces might be dangerous, but high school can be dangerous too. Thankfully, protagonist is not the object of Creepy Female Student’s creepy desires. He has more than enough on his plate without having to deal with yandere love.

This real-world half of the game contains plenty of reminders that it’s pretty damn Japanese. Of course, it was made by a Japanese developer and takes place in Tokyo, so that’s obvious. I’m talking on a more fundamental level. In the above screenshot, for example, we’re getting chewed out by the student council president, something that nobody would ever give a shit about in my own country where student government has just about no impact aside from maybe arranging dances. Makoto here seems to take her role a lot more seriously than that. The ultra-serious student council is common enough in these school-setting games and anime series that I think it must actually be a huge deal in Japan, but it certainly doesn’t line up with my experience as a student in the US. Or maybe I was always just too lazy to bother with student government myself and too apathetic to care about it.

And while the game’s plot involves fighting against a corrupt society, which is sadly something that we can all relate to on some level, I get the feeling that a lot of the details are particular to Japan. Ann’s story is a good example: a couple of friends who played the original JP release of Persona 5 told me that her confidant link was partly rewritten to remove references to her being discriminated against for being mixed-race (why Atlus USA might have done that I don’t know.) I’ve also heard one of the major villains in the game is supposed to be a stand-in for Shinzo Abe, the then- and still-current prime minister of Japan, and if that’s true then Abe must be a real asshole. But since I don’t have the Japanese perspective, a lot of that would necessarily go over my head.

That said, I’m pretty sure that vending machines in Japan don’t contain drinks blended with placenta. Hopefully it’s not human placenta, at least. Even so, you’ll damn well be buying these sodas, because even with the extra SP items included in Royal, you can never have too much of them in reserve.

Back at Shibuya Station. If you played Persona 4, here’s a face you should recognize: it’s Rise Kujikawa. And she has a new single out, so I guess she returned to the pop idol life after retiring in P4. This ad alternates with one for a single by Kanami Mashita, who we met in Persona 4: Dancing All Night. I’m pretty sure there are other Persona 4 references around, and maybe even a couple of Persona 3 ones, but I haven’t seen those yet. If you were hoping to see any Persona 1 or 2 references outside of the costume DLC, I’m sorry.

But how about the new characters? Persona 5 Royal adds two totally new characters with their own Confidant Links and new corresponding arcana. The first you make a connection with is Dr. Maruki, a school counselor brought in after the end of the first chapter for reasons that will become obvious at that point. Talking to Maruki provides you with increased SP and SP-regenerative techniques, giving you even more stamina while fighting through the Palaces. He also seems like a genuinely nice guy — and that’s why I suspect that he’s really a villain. These slightly eccentric, absent-minded characters always turn out to be putting on an act to trick the protagonist and his friends into relationships of trust. I have my eye on this one.

And then there’s Kasumi Yoshizawa, your fellow transfer student. The game doesn’t give much of an impression of her character at this point aside from her being a hard-working and talented student athlete. We already know she has Persona-summoning abilities from her brief appearance in the intro of the game, and it’s pretty obvious that she’ll join the Phantom Thieves at some point and be a major part of the plot. But if I’m right about Maruki, then I don’t think Kasumi will be a secret villain — doesn’t make sense to add two new characters who are both bad guys, and female characters never seem to fall into that category in these games anyway. I predict that the game will try to pretend Kasumi is secretly an antagonist but then pull a twist, or what it thinks is a twist. Or maybe there will be a genuine twist regarding Kasumi? But even if there is, that doesn’t mean it will work (just ask Rian Johnson about plot twists not working, though he still defends Last Jedi to the death.)

In any case, she’s not gratingly annoying like a certain other addition to a Persona expansion, so that’s at least one point in her favor no matter what else happens.

And for my last game highlight, here’s one of the most interesting characters in P5. You might not think so, but to me Yuuki Mishima is a fascinating tragedy of a guy. In fact, I like to think Mishima is the protagonist of his own separate game that’s going on parallel to Persona 5. He kind of looks like a typical dating sim protagonist, doesn’t he? Maybe he’s the main character in a visual novel where he gets caught up in embarrassing misunderstandings with female classmates because he’s socially inept and awkward, and then he has to learn how to grow a spine and ask one of the girls out. If Atlus is trying to find a new way to milk Persona 5 for years to come as I’m sure they are, here’s a free idea for them.

That concludes my first look at Persona 5 Royal. Again, I’m liking this second playthrough a lot, even if that is mostly what it feels like so far instead of a first playthrough of a new game. But I’m hoping for some changes down the line that give characters like Yusuke and Haru more to do. Not hoping that much, since I wouldn’t be surprised if the new characters take up that time instead. I suppose I’ll find out if my predictions are right or wrong long after most everyone else has finished the game.

But will I ever find out the real reason they call her a “High Pixie”? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

Mystery Blogger Award Double Feature

Time for a break from all the serious analyses and reviews and complaining about the world (well, not that last one — I’ll never stop that, I swear.) I was lucky enough to receive Mystery Blogger Award tags from both Fanfiction Anime World and Extra Life! Many thanks to both animeandfanfiction and Red Metal. They both have excellent sites that you should be following, by the way. If you like anime, films, or video games at all (and if you don’t, how are you reading this post?) give them a look.

I’d normally break this into two parts, but I decided to just write one massive post answering both of their questions, which add up to 16. So I hope you’re ready. First I’ll take on animeandfanfiction’s questions, since those have been pending for a while now.

1) If you could make any fictional character real who would it be and why? What would their relationship be with you? ( best friend, enemy, stranger, partner etc.).

I’ve addressed this sort of thing once or twice before, but I’ll take a different angle this time: I’d want to have a mortal enemy/rival but with enough mutual respect between us that when one of us dies, the other will be disappointed that we didn’t manage to defeat him and make him an ally instead. I’m thinking of a rivalry from Legend of the Galactic Heroes that I won’t say any more about because it would be a spoiler, so I won’t specify a character, but if you’ve seen LOGH you may have some idea of who I’m talking about. Have you watched LOGH yet? You really should.

It’s a very deep show

2) If you could choose to have any power from an anime what would it be? (Examples, jojo stands, my hero academia quirks, etc.).

It might just be because I’m playing Persona 5 Royal, but I would go with the power of Persona. Since the modern Persona games got anime adaptations, I’ll say that counts. I suppose it is similar to a JoJo stand, though. The idea of having an alter ego that’s a reflection of your true self or however that works, I really like it. Though I wonder who my Persona would be. Are there any historical or mythical figures cranky and embittered enough to fit?

3) Is there any blogger on here you’d like to get to know better and be friends with? If so, feel free to tag them and share your honest thoughts!

Here’s your expected cop-out answer: everyone in the community. I really haven’t come across someone in the general anime/game-fan circles here on WordPress who I haven’t liked. That’s certainly not something I can say for creators on other platforms like Youtube, though to be fair I don’t move in that exalted circle. Some big Youtube revenue would be nice, but there also seems to be a lot of drama and poison that goes along with it. I can do without that.

Anyway, I’d be happy to have a dinner with all of you, a rowdy one. After the massive health crisis is over, of course.

4) What anime theme/opening/ending is one of your favorites right now? Is it because it’s catchy, fun or emotional for you and why? (Example easy breezy because it’s fun to dance to).

Well, I don’t/can’t dance, but I’ve always liked the openings to the Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei series. Especially the first one: it has a real title but people just know it as “bure bure” for reasons that are obvious if you listen to it. It’s nice and aggressive with plenty of despair in the lyrics and tone. I know this one is pretty old at this point, but I still love it just that much.

5) Is there anything not animated yet that you’d like to be? It can be a manga that hasn’t been, a video game, a tv show, etc. Possibilities are endless.

Moby-Dick in anime form, only all the characters are now cute girls. Tell me an entirely genderswapped Moby-Dick wouldn’t be popular. It’s not like that would be going too far — they’ve already turned World War II naval ships into girls, twice in fact. My idea is actually less extreme than that. I just think it would be fun to have an insane lady Ahab yelling about killing the White Whale. Hell, make the whale a girl too, why not. You’d also get the yuri fans on board with the ambiguous Ishmael/Queequeg relationship. Now I really want someone to do this.

This Touhou fanart is the closest I could find to what I’m thinking of. (source: Wool, pixiv)

And now, Red Metal’s questions:

1) What is the most unusual work you’ve ever experienced?

I’ve listened to some weird music — Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica or anything at all put out by the Residents. I’ve seen some strange films as well, though they’re popular in their own niches even if some people don’t “get” them (stuff by David Lynch, David Cronenberg, guys like that.) The most unusual work, though, would probably be The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade which I checked out just out of morbid curiosity back when I was a student. To be fair, I didn’t read anywhere close to the whole thing; it’s extremely slow going and still just as shocking as it probably was back when it was written. But de Sade also deserves credit for writing material that got him thrown into prison and insane asylums many times throughout his life — he wrote this work while imprisoned in the famous Bastille a few years before it was broken into by the French revolutionaries.

Not that it makes 120 Days any easier to read, with characters relating how they committed horrific acts against other characters, who themselves mysteriously heal or even come back to life for no apparent reason other than the story being kind of a mess. It’s a godawful work that I don’t really recommend to anyone, but the history surrounding it and its author is interesting and worth studying. It should be noted that although his literature got him into legal trouble, de Sade was also thrown into prison for committing murders and other horrible acts in real life, so he wasn’t exactly the “pure artist imprisoned for expressing himself” type.

2) What is the best work you have experienced that no one else seems to know about?

That depends on what set of people I’m talking to. I have friends and family with pretty different tastes in art from mine, and they haven’t experienced or even know about most of what I’ve written about on this site. But among that other set of friends, they know stuff like Shin Megami Tensei and Disgaea very well. So once again, it’s hard for me to pin down one single work that I can say is very obscure that I liked. The closest I can think of is something like the album H to He by Van der Graaf Generator that I wrote about a while back. The band definitely has some fans around, but I’ve never met anyone else in real life who’s heard of this music.

3) If you could go back in time and go to the premiere of a classic film, which one would you choose?

Psycho. Aside from being a great movie on its own, the stories of people being terrified by an actual movie in the theater are really interesting — it would be fascinating to sit in with a 1960 audience and watch them lose their shit.

4) If you decided to write fiction, which genre would you choose?

I’ve already started a few stories (not that they’re necessarily ever going anywhere, but they are started) and they’d mostly fit into the science fiction genre. Modern-day realistic settings are too boring, and historical settings require a lot of research that I don’t feel like doing. I find it easier and more entertaining to create my own world. As far as the contents of the stories themselves go, if there’s a genre called “depressive contemplative fiction”, I guess most of it would be in there.

5) What is the most disappointingly predictable plot twist you’ve ever experienced?

This is a spoiler for Grandia II… but shit, that game’s been out for 20 years now, and you’ll see this twist coming too if you play it now for the first time anyway. The big twist involves the Catholic-esque Church of Granas. This massive church organization recruits the main character, the mercenary Ryudo, to escort the nun Elena as she seals pieces of the Devil away so they can’t go around causing a bunch of havoc and killing innocent people.

Well, this is an organized religion in a JRPG, so how do you think that will end? It would have been a far more shocking twist if the Church of Granas had turned out to be completely honest and transparent. While the simple priests and sisters like Elena are well-meaning, their Pope reveals himself to be a mad tyrant who actually wants to steal the power of the Devil to become a living god on Earth. The guy is even named “Pope Innocentius”. How could a character with that name possibly be a good guy? And the game also drops all this material near the very end, as if we’re supposed to be shocked by it. Grandia II is still a great game and a childhood favorite, but even as a kid reading the manual and seeing this guy’s character profile I knew he’d turn out to be a villain. Not much of a twist.

Official Grandia II promo art. The Pope is the guy all the way on the right.

6) What do you consider to be the strangest title for a work?

There are plenty of light novels with stupidly long titles, so any of those might qualify, but since that seems to be an industry standard for light novels none of them stand out. So my answer is the title of the album I mentioned in answer #2 above: the whole thing is H to He, Who Am the Only One. The first part refers to the hydrogen to helium fusion process that the Sun is constantly working on, so at least it makes some kind of sense, and one of the songs is about space travel so I’ll give them that. But the second part of it makes no sense at all. It’s not even grammatical. “Who Am”? What the fuck. I know it’s a dumb cliché but I have to assume some hallucinogenic drugs were involved and the title made perfect sense at the time. There’s no other reasonable explanation for that.

7) Where in a theater do you prefer to sit?

Near the back, but not all the way back. The last movie I saw I nearly got a neck sprain looking up because we were stuck in front and all the other seats were taken. I like to get to the theater early, but not everyone feels the same way (i.e. one friend who insists on doing everything at the last possible minute.)

8) Do you have any graphic novel/manga series you’re currently following?

I don’t usually go in for those, but I have been reading a manga series called Forbidden Scrollery, which as far as I know is the only officially translated and published Touhou Project manga series around. It’s pretty fun, and about what you’d expect from a Touhou manga adaptation if you know the series — cute girls drink tea, solve supernatural mysteries, and threaten to shoot each other with magical bullets and lasers.

I like it, but if you’re not familiar with the setting and background of Touhou before going in, I imagine Forbidden Scrollery could be kind of confusing because it does not really bother setting any of that up. If you’ve played one of the games and know something about the series, though, it’s worth looking up. It’s written by series creator ZUN himself, though the art is thankfully done by Moe Harukawa, who unlike ZUN can actually draw. She has a cute style that fits well with the light mood of the manga. If you like the idea of a slice of life/fantasy mix set in an Edo-era Japanese village, you should check it out (or just check out Touhou in general.)

9) When it comes to reviewing films, which do you feel are more effective – traditional, written reviews or video essays?

This is a hard one, because I have a natural bias as someone who writes reviews (not film reviews, but the bias is still there.) I like the written form of review better in general just because there’s less spectacle — it’s all words on a page, maybe with a few screenshots thrown in. There’s nothing to distract from the analysis itself. I do get why a lot of people prefer to watch a video review on Youtube, and there are a couple of reviewers there who I think are pretty effective. However, I think the aforementioned Youtube drama bullshit can draw attention away from the basic review/analysis element, which is the whole point in the first place. Not that that’s necessarily the fault of the creators themselves. Maybe it’s just an issue with popularity fomenting drama regardless of the medium.

10) What aspects of old-school game design do you wish would make a comeback?

The aspect where you’d get a full, complete game when you bought it without having to buy DLC. I’m not talking about cosmetic DLC, of course — that stuff is fine with me as long as it doesn’t affect the experience in a significant way. No, I mean having to buy the ending to a game separate from the base game itself. Or having to buy the 18+ scenes in a visual novel at the same rate the base VN sells for, making the full version double the price of the all-ages version. I get that we all like to make more money, but fuck these practices. To be sure, ripping players off has been something the game industry’s been doing since the 80s, so it’s not like this is a new problem, but it is a relatively new form of the old ripoff.

11) What aspects of old-school game design are you glad went away?

Cheap difficulty. That hasn’t totally gone away, of course, but it seems to have been a lot more common in the 80s and early 90s. I’m fine with a game that’s difficult because it presents a true challenge that can be worked out through strategy; that’s great. But a game that presents you with a complete crapshoot of a challenge that takes pure luck to beat, or one that barely even gives you a chance to learn the controls and layout because it only gives you a couple of hits before it kills you — that game is just a piece of shit. Sure, we had GameShark back then and Game Genie before it, but if you have to break a game with cheats to make it playable, its developer has failed.

***

Now it’s my turn to ask a question. But here’s the twist: it’s one multi-part question, and it’s one that I want to pose to everyone reading who cares to answer it. No specific nominations this time, because everyone is nominated.

Do you think the current worldwide health crisis will permanently affect the way people get their entertainment, or will we return to the “old normal” after it’s over? And do you think it would be a positive or negative if people decide in the future to stay home and play games or stream shows or movies instead of getting out to the theater or to concerts? I don’t think it would be a great loss, but I’m not the best person to ask about that because I’m a severe introvert who has no problem being shut in for days or weeks at a time. I have to force myself to go out and socialize, but I know that’s not the case for most people. Well, it might be more the case in the anime/game fan circles, but I don’t want to generalize too much. What’s your opinion?