Listening/reading log #26 (December 2021)

Sorry for the late post again; work has been drowning me, but every time this kind of rush happens it gets easier to deal with. Maybe this is part of being a “responsible adult” like I refused to be for most of my 20s.

Anyway, how about that omicron or whatever. It’s getting tiring, isn’t it? Everyone’s already talked about how 2021 was more or less a replay of 2020, and between the virus and the first anniversary of what might have been a massive political disaster in my country that people here are now constantly on edge about (and climate change and nukes of course) the mood still feels apocalyptic. I unintentionally saw the last five minutes of the Netflix production Don’t Look Up and decided I didn’t need to see the rest, partly because something about the general tone and feel of that ending got under my skin, but also because I don’t feel like watching a movie about the end of the world even if raising awareness of our problems was the whole point of it. That’s a worthy goal, sure, but my awareness was raised well enough already.

On to the usual business, sorry. Starting with the music, two classic 60s albums this time:

Odessey and Oracle (The Zombies, 1968)

Highlights: Care of Cell 44, A Rose for Emily, Time of the Season

Damn, that misspelling in the title really gets on my nerves. I want to call it Odyssey and Oracle, but that’s not its title, and you don’t get to just correct mistakes like that. To be fair to the Zombies, the spelling of the word is a bit weird, but couldn’t they have looked it up first? Nobody had a dictionary in the studio to spellcheck?

But once I get beyond my obsession over proper spelling, it’s okay, because Odessey is a fine album. The Zombies were a British group that spent the 60s making pop-rock music with a big emphasis on vocals and keyboards, both piano and organ. The big hit was “Time of the Season”, which is one of those very classic-sounding late 60s songs you’ve definitely heard on oldies radio if you’re old enough to even remember that being a thing. It creates that trippy atmosphere perfectly, and the song is broken up by some cool extended organ solos. I’m a big fan of it even if the lyrics are a bit weird (especially that famous “what’s your name / who’s your daddy / is he rich like me?” What are you up to, guys?)

But there are other notable songs on Odessey, like the extremely depressing “A Rose for Emily” that has a nice upbeat sound to go along with the lyrics about crushing loneliness. And the extra upbeat “Care of Cell 44”, so damn upbeat that I’ve heard the first several bars in commercials — though of course they always cut the song off before you realize it’s about a guy waiting for his lady to get out of prison. And while it’s not quite up there with the other I mentioned, I also like This Will Be Our Year. Will this be our year finally? Let’s hope.

Before I finish with Odessey, though, I should note that I’ve covered one of the band members before: Rod Argent, who would start his own band called Argent after the Zombies broke up the year this album came out. Apparently Odessey as a whole was a flop at the time, which I’m sure didn’t help. Too bad, though like quite a few other deserving works it was later rediscovered, which is something to be thankful for.

Let It Bleed (The Rolling Stones, 1969)

Highlights: All of it

Okay, so maybe I’m being lazy this post. But I’ve written 25 of these already, covering about 60 or 70 albums I think, and yet until now I haven’t brought up the Rolling Stones, who are way more than deserving of at least one mention.

It’s hard to say which of the Stones’ classic albums is my favorite. There are six or seven probably that could try for that spot, musically speaking at least (more on that below) but Let it Bleed is certainly one of the highest on my list. The Stones made a lot of excellent music throughout the 60s and 70s, and though they fell off pretty badly in the 80s, they’ve been somehow active all the way up until now. Quite literally; you can see them on tour this year, though I’m not sure how advisable that would be with COVID still going. I guess Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in particular have survived so much that they’re not too worried about a pesky virus at this point.

But going back 53 years to Let It Bleed — it’s a bit hard to even bring up highlights, because I like pretty much every song on the album a lot, starting with the opening gospel-inspired Gimme Shelter and ending with the choral-inspired You Can’t Always Get What You Want. There’s a lot of country music inspiration here as well carried over from the previous year’s Beggars Banquet — see Love in Vain and Country Honk, the latter of which is better known in its less country and more rock-sounding form as a single, Honky Tonk Women. And if you’re more about blues, see Midnight Rambler. Though the Stones were from London, they got these mostly American styles down very well, though it’s also worth going back to hear the sources of their inspiration.

Maybe the real reason I chose to feature Let It Bleed instead of a different Stones album is that it means I don’t have to talk about songs that are musically great, despite their extremely uncomfortable lyrical subject (like say “Under My Thumb” on Aftermath, or “Brown Sugar” on Sticky Fingers, or “Stray Cat Blues” on Beggars Banquet — these guys would have been immediately canceled today for any one of these songs and might have had the cops called on them for the last one.) But I leave that for people who make a living off of writing about music. I don’t, so I don’t have to address this material myself, which is nice. I can at least say that Let It Bleed is a must, especially for fans of 70s hard rock, because 60s Stones is where those guys got a lot of their own inspiration from.

I’ll be a little more current with the music next post probably. I just wish people wouldn’t dismiss the lot of it as “dad rock” as I’ve heard it called — the great stuff from the era holds up and shouldn’t be thrown out as dated (though there certainly is plenty of dated music from that classic late 60s/early 70s period as well.) Or maybe “dad rock” refers to later guys like Journey and Boston now. Or hell, maybe at this point it’s Radiohead and Nirvana. I don’t have much of a point of reference myself; my childhood music was the late 90s/early 00s technically but I’m not really a big fan of that period in popular music, or not when compared to the late 60s through the early 80s and the early 90s anyway.

Now on to the featured posts this month:

Mieruko-chan (Anteiku Anime Reviews) — Mieruko-chan is a series I’d planned to watch this season, except I don’t feel like paying for more than one anime streaming service, so I couldn’t. But I have it on my list, because it seems like an interesting one. Have you wondered what your life would be like if you were the only one who could see all sorts of terrifying spirits and monsters around you? Read Will’s review for more on this comedy/horror anime.

Tawawa on Monday 2: An Anime Short Review and Reflection (The Infinite Zenith) — An exceedingly in-depth review of the second season of anime short series Tawawa on Monday. Be sure to check out Zenith’s post on it, especially if you’re a fan of exceedingly well-endowed anime girls. Maybe I should pick it up myself…

The Best Stories in Wildermyth Are Told by You (Frostilyte Writes) — Wildermyth looks like one of the most interesting games released in 2021, at least if Frostilyte’s take on it here is any indication. I won’t try to describe the game here since Frostilyte has already done a great job of it on his blog, so please check out his own look at the game there. Wildermyth is another one to add to my increasingly long list.

Shin Megami Tensei V is a Great Return to the Series (The Gamer With Glasses) — I’ve read both positive and negative opinions of the much-anticipated SMT V, but this review at The Gamer With Glasses gives me some hope that the negatives are blown a bit out of proportion (or resulted from specific expectations that were disappointed, which is always the case with these kinds of long-awaited releases.) I still don’t have a damn Switch to play it myself, but I’m hoping my tax refund this year is large enough to justify the purchase finally. Just waiting for that W2 and hoping for the best.

The Return of the Obra Dinn (Nintendobound) — And Matt brings us a review of still another game that I know I have to play at some point. I’ve heard how unique and engrossing The Return of the Obra Dinn is, and Matt’s post on the game gives me one more reason to look forward to it whenever I get around to picking it up.

New Year’s Is for Lovers (I drink and watch anime) — Irina says at the beginning of this post that she’s not much of a romantic. I’m not either, as you might know, but I can still appreciate her presentation of her favorite anime couple from Durarara!! which I shamefully haven’t watched or read. Though now I’m thinking about what it would be like to date someone without a head. I won’t rule out a dullahan, anyway — I’m not that narrowminded (or I’ve just read and played enough weird fantasy to prepare me for that extremely remote possibility.)

Urobuchi December: Fate/Zero (Mechanical Anime Reviews) — Scott at Mechanical Anime Reviews dedicated the last month to the works of Gen Urobuchi. A worthy subject — Urobuchi has come up with some of the most creative and innovative stories in anime and visual novel form, including Madoka Magica and Saya no Uta. In this post, Scott takes a look at his Fate/stay night prequel Fate/Zero, an anime that some consider to be even better than the original work.

One Hour Photo (2002): One of the Finest Works of Cinema I’ve Ever Seen – Film Review (BiblioNyan) — I don’t feature live-action film reviews here too often, but here’s one that I’ve actually seen, though only when it was released 20 years ago. BiblioNyan provides insightful comments on the film One Hour Photo, in which Robin Williams showed he could act just as effectively in a tense dramatic thriller about murder as in a comedy.

Senri Kawaguchi: The Mighty Jazz and Fusion Drummer (Professional Moron) — From Mr. Wapojif, a look at young up and coming Japanese jazz/fusion drummer Senri Kawaguchi. I’ve been getting into Japanese fusion, but mostly the 70s and early 80s work — maybe it’s time to get more modern and see what Kawaguchi and her colleagues have to offer. I need to hear what the “Princess of Many Strokes” as she’s called is capable of.

And finally, thanks to Aether for the excellent answers to the questions I imposed on him a while back with the Let’s Blog Award (and also his answers to Red Metal and Alex of Alex’s Review Corner — Aether did a lot of answering questions this month.) If you want more insight into the man and the legend in his own words, you can’t do better than reading these posts.

It’s a somewhat shorter post than usual this month, but since I’ve been flooded with work and personal concerns lately, I’ve been a bit less engaged than I’d like. I also have pending anime series I’m watching that I feel I have to finish before reading anyone else’s takes on them. I don’t usually make resolutions because I don’t generally believe in all that new year new you or whatever stuff, but I have resolved to finish certain series and at least one game (and probably two) before the end of January. I have a few weeks, so I should be able to keep those. Until next time, all the best.

Listening/reading log #25 (November 2021)

Turns out 2021 was a fucked year too. How about that. Just as we get to the end of it, we’re beaten down by yet another virus variant. So thank God Mark Zuckerberg is here to save us with his complete dogshit watered down VR platform! Also, people are buying NFTs. Apparently this is the utopian future we were promised. Is it too late to go back and try all this shit over again?

As you can see, I’m not happy. But that’s usually the case anyway, so it’s okay. And maybe my mood will improve now, since December is one of my favorite months thanks to the holiday season. Despite my hating some Christmas music that gets way too much play this month (if I never hear those particular songs by Mariah Carey, Wham!, or Paul McCartney again I’ll be happier for sure. And no, Paul doesn’t get off the hook because he was in the Beatles and did some decent-to-good solo stuff in the 70s either. You know what you’ve done, Paul.)

So let’s start by looking at some albums that have no Christmas music on them whatsoever:

Time Out (The Dave Brubeck Quartet, 1959)

Highlights: Blue Rondo à la Turk, Strange Meadow Lark, Take Five

Yeah, more jazz. I know I lean hard on the typically snobby/nerdy stuff like jazz and prog in these posts, but hey I don’t care, so here’s more. Maybe I’ll put up a punk album or something for once to balance the rest out.

But that day hasn’t come yet, so here’s Time Out by Dave Brubeck and his Quartet. This is a landmark jazz album, one of those that has music you definitely know even if you don’t know its title. Namely “Take Five”, a cool piece with an uneven rhythm that gives it a unique character — I guess the “five” in the title refers to the 5/4 time, but despite that unusual time signature (and despite a drum solo that I’m not a big fan of — never was a fan of drum solos honestly) it flows along nicely. “Blue Rondo à la Turk” is almost as well-known, another complex piece with great flow. Speaking of prog, I think ELP covered this one, nice piece for them to show off their skills. Shoved up in the front along with them is my other favorite on here, “Strange Meadow Lark”, a slow, relaxed piece.

The whole album is nice, though. Time Out makes for an excellent mood-setter, especially if you need something classy to play at a dinner party or something. But then, it’s also not boring like a lot of other “mood-setting” music tends to be — there’s a lot here to actively enjoy too. In that sense, I’d put it in a similar category with the bossa nova I’ve also looked at here like Wave and Getz/Gilberto. And the latter had a piece of modern art on the cover too. Not sure what that’s about, but at least it’s more creative than the band photo covers albums in the late 50s usually got.

The Faust Tapes (Faust, 1973)

Highlights: ???????

Warning: still more weird shit here. Faust was a German band in roughly the same artsy rock category as Can and Amon Düül II. But this band is a lot less listener-friendly than Can, and maybe even less so than Amon Düül II? I haven’t heard their whole catalog, so I can’t say that for a certainty, but I have heard The Faust Tapes, which consists of one track with a bunch of seemingly disconnected weird percussion and sounds stitched together with a few pieces that sound almost like normal songs but not quite. From what I understand, Faust was in this real hardcore avantgarde territory throughout their career, which would explain why they might not be better known today — nothing here makes sense exactly.

But does it have to make sense? I don’t think it does, as long as the end result is interesting. It’s easy to dismiss all this avantgarde stuff as pretentious, meaningless bullshit, but I don’t get that feeling from Faust here. Firstly, because they actually can and do play their instruments properly and put together some catchy songs, like the nice folk one starting around 1:20 and the stretch of almost funk-sounding music transitioning to more acoustic folky French poetry recitation (or maybe he’s reading out of a user manual for a vacuum cleaner, not like I’d know the difference) around minute 35 to the end.

And secondly, because even the more nonsensical parts of the album do work if you’re in the right mindset. I don’t know if this is what the band was going for, but The Faust Tapes sounds to me like a normal album filtered through a dream; everything sounds sort of off and strange. It reminds me of Yume Nikki in that way, maybe because that game is literally about dreams and consists of a lot of disconnected pieces that run into each other in a similar way. Like Yume Nikki, it’s not always pleasant, more like a nightmare than a nice dream in parts, but it still works for me somehow.

So not exactly a broad recommendation this time, but if you’re into the really weird artsy side of rock music, Faust was at the core of all that. And The Faust Tapes even reportedly sold well, hitting the charts in the UK in 1973. Though that definitely had to do with it being sold for the price of a single to get their sales numbers up. A nice marketing trick, but how many people do you think regretted that purchase right away?

Adventure (Momoko Kikuchi, 1986)

Highlights: Adventure, Night Cruising, Mystical Composer

Since I had a look at something as bizarre as The Faust Tapes just now, let’s go to the opposite end of that spectrum again with something ultra-commercial: more city pop! On top of that, Adventure might be the most aggressively 80s-sounding album I’ve featured in these posts until now. Lots of those very 80s-sounding synths and drum machines and all the other musical trappings of that decade.

Normally I don’t go for that stuff too much, but I like a lot of this album anyway. Adventure is another album with a perfectly fitting cover: singer Momoko Kikuchi wading in what looks like the ocean under a pink sky, with the water lit up like the whole ocean is a massive swimming pool. The album itself is just as relaxed and luxurious-sounding as that, and Momoko’s nice soft voice fits and adds to that vibe as well. The title track sums up that feeling nicely, as does “Night Cruising” (even the title reminds me of Kingo Hamada’s “Midnight Cruisin'” — they were doing a lot of cruising in Japan in the 80s I guess.)

But the real standout on Adventure is “Mystical Composer”, a song that I’d bet did a lot on its own to inspire the vaporwave movement. Both because of its general sound and because I’d heard it quite a few times remixed before finding it in its original form here. Makes sense, because that chorus is catchy as hell.

As an aside, and since I’ve looked at a few city pop albums on the site, it’s interesting to see how this musical movement that died off at the end of the 80s, when Japan’s real estate bubble popped and its economy fell into shambles, has come back in such a big way on the internet — and now, when the whole fucking world seems to be on fire. Maybe it’s all driven by a desire for escape from reality, the same one that I theorized gave a boost to VTubers (and that might partly explain how one in particular exploded, as a VTuber known for singing city pop?)

But I’ll leave that to the people actually qualified to talk about it, or at least until I write another dedicated bullshit post of my own on the subject.

And now as usual for the featured posts:

Shoot from the Hip – Gravity Rush (Shoot the Rookie) — pix1001 gives Gravity Rush some well-deserved attention in this look back at the game. I maintain the series didn’t get nearly enough of the praise it should have, so I’m always happy to see it getting more.

Wrapping up 13 Sentinels Aegis Rim – waffling about a game I love (Video Games And Things I Write About Them) — From skyraftwanderer, a piece on another game that got far too little attention. I loved 13 Sentinels, and this post and the other posts on this blog about the game sum up everything I loved about it.

Mega Man 7 (Extra Life) — Red Metal examines Mega Man 7, Capcom’s first throwback to its original Mega Man series on the NES (or Rockman on the Famicom if you want to be more of a weeb about it, sure.) I was always lousy at those old NES titles, though I liked them for the most part, but I never had the chance to play 7. Find out above whether it’s worth a try.

The Power of Two: Princess Jellyfish (Confessions of an Overage Otaku) — I’ve heard a bit about the anime Princess Jellyfish, and the more I read, the more I’m interested in seeing it for myself — and this post might have tipped the scales finally.

Chihayafuru: An Objective Review (Mechanical Anime Reviews) — From Scott, an “objective” review of Chihayafuru, an anime about students who compete at karuta games, or Japanese card games. Scott also shows here just how hard it is to write an objective review. Please check it out (and maybe Chihayafuru as well? I haven’t seen it, but it sounds interesting.)

Return of the Destined Battle! Aether vs. Yandere Simulator, Round 2 (Lost to the Aether) — Yandere Simulator has become the prime example of an indie game in development hell, with its developer known for putting off work on the project. Shockingly, a new playable beta or something recently came out, and Aether in this post saves us the trouble of having to play it by enjoying/suffering through it himself and giving his thoughts on it. Thanks, Aether.

Give Ever Oasis another chance on the Switch (Nepiki Gaming) — From Nepiki, a look at Ever Oasis, an action-adventure RPG now on the Switch. Nepiki gives plenty of great reasons to take notice if you’re a Switch-owner (which sadly I’m still not, but hopefully soon!)

Shin Megami Tensei V First Impressions (The Gamer with Glasses) — Speaking of not owning a Switch, here’s a first look at SMT V from someone who does. A great post to check out if you’re interested in the game. I hope I can join in the fun soon enough.

Moonglow Bay – A cute, cosy and flawed game about Fish (but not necessarily always chips) (A Richard Wood Text Adventure) — A review of an inviting-looking but seemingly flawed indie game. Too bad, but hopefully the makers will improve on their mistakes next time — and you might still find something to like here, so be sure to check out Wooderon’s post.

The Best Games I Didn’t Play This Year (Frostilyte Writes) — Frostilyte writes a post that I should probably try out myself, considering I’ve only played a single game released this year. Some interesting-looking stuff, though God knows if I’ll find the time for any of it myself with my damn schedule.

Uniformity With God’s Will In Anime #4: Yuuta Togashi (The Traditional Catholic Weeb) — Our fellow Weeb highlights an anime high school romantic comedy protagonist with more depth than usual through a religious lens. An interesting angle, and one I hadn’t considered, but it sheds more light on why I liked Yuuta from Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions (and my shared confusion at why he ended up being so into Rikka, but who knows about the mysteries of the heart I suppose.)

Asterisk War vs Chivalry of a Failed Knight: Showdown! (Crow’s World of Anime) — This is a joint project, a comparative look at two anime series with similar story setups. I haven’t seen either of these and I’m not sure I have any interest in either — these sorts of stories aren’t really my thing. But I like the idea of putting two similar series head-to-head like this. Might be something to try in the future!

1000th Post. 10 Quick Tips for Anime Bloggers. (Otaku Orbit) — Congrats to Jiraiyan on one thousand posts (and shit, that’s a whole lot — not a landmark I expect to reach anytime soon!) To mark the occasion, he’s posted some excellent advice for those looking to get into anime blogging.

A Look Back On ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ – 20 Years Later (Jon Spencer Reviews) — I was born about a year too late to care that much about Harry Potter, at least as a kid — I have seen some of the films since, and my thought was that they were pretty good adventures (and anything that included the late Alan Rickman will be naturally elevated by his presence anyway — my favorite character for sure, especially when he was acting like a dick.) Author J. K. Rowling has fallen out of favor among a lot of fans, but her work seems to have kept its popularity. Jacob over on Jon Spencer Reviews has a look back at the first film in the series 20 years on.

Why You Should Pay Attention to EDs and OPs (I drink and watch anime) — Irina gives us some good reasons to care about anime openings and endings. While they can’t make or break a series, good openings and endings can add a lot to their entertainment value (and also possibly prevent me from skipping intros/endings, which I admit I sometimes do.) And I’ve found a few really good bands through them as well.

Exploring Anime Fictophilia (I drink and watch anime) — The rare double feature this post, but for good reason: I couldn’t go without highlighting this insightful piece also from Irina about the strange love some fans have for fictional characters, bordering on and sometimes even crossing the border into romantic sentiment. Strange, but is it unnatural? Maybe not. Be sure to read Irina’s post for her thoughts on the matter.

You’re Missing Out – if You’re Not Watching Enna Alouette, the Songbird of Nijisanji EN (The Unlit Cigarette) — I can’t end this post without fulfilling my self-imposed VTuber mention quota. Thankfully I have some help from @valsisms, who here takes a well-deserved look at Enna Alouette. Enna is part of Nijisanji’s third wave of English-language streamers with a special talent at singing, but that’s not all she does.

These days, in the very rare moments I have the chance to watch a stream, it’s almost always a Nijisanji one. These girls have stolen my heart completely, though I still have a lot of respect for the talent over at the rival Hololive group. But despite their great chemistry, they haven’t caught on quite as much in the West as Hololive has (and don’t forget the stiff competition from the western-based agency VShojo — mostly not my thing, but they’re formidable as well, and I admit I do appreciate the talents of Projekt Melody that… well, go beyond the usual VTuber skill set, to put it mildly.) But if you have the spare time and the inclination to do so, I’d highly recommend giving Enna and her friends a shot.

That’s all for this month. I don’t have anything special planned for Christmas or any of the other stuff going on, just the usual possible reviews and features coming up. I haven’t even drafted anything yet, so I know exactly as much as you do at this point. Until next post, then!

Update #4 (Squid Game / Blue Reflection: Second Light / Atelier Firis / Komi Can’t Communicate)

Barring any work emergencies, I have a four-day weekend, which is amazing. I barely know what to do with this much time. Except catch up on anime and games while hiding from people I don’t want to interact with, which is what I’m doing now. Fuck the outside and being a social person! I’ve had enough of it for one lifetime. Wake me up when full dive VR happens (or so I’d like to say, but I have actual social obligations to carry out eventually when I run out of viable excuses to avoid them. Again: fuck it all, I say!)

Now that my regular bitter, bile-filled complaints are out of the way, why am I writing still another unfocused mess of a post? There are series and games I want to write about that separately, at least at this point, might not warrant their own posts, so I decided to dump them all in here. As always, proper reviews and commentaries are on their way, along with the usual end-of-month post.

Let’s start with something truly unusual, however, at least for this site: a look at a live-action series.

Squid Game (S1) (a very short no-spoilers review)

Yeah, I watched a popular thing on Netflix. I guess I’m a sellout now. No more hipster weeb cred for me. In fact, normally when I keep hearing about a series that’s exploded in popularity like this one has, I’m more inclined not to watch it, partly because I wonder whether it’s really as good as the hype suggests. That’s not really fair, though — just because something is insanely popular doesn’t mean it’s good or bad. Getting past that whole “popular thing = good/bad” mindset is necessary anyway.

And this time I was intrigued by what I’d heard, so I decided to give said popular series a shot. If you’ve been out in space orbiting Mars and haven’t had any signal for the last few months, Squid Game is a Korean series about a set of games run by a shady organization in which 456 players in serious debt compete for a massive amount of money. And naturally, since the reward is high, so is the risk: players who lose are eliminated in the fullest sense of the word.

We mostly see these death games through the perspective of the protagonist Seong Gi-hun, a down-on-his-luck divorced father with severe gambling debts who just wants to do right by his daughter and his mother for once. Gi-hun, despite all his faults, is a decent man at heart, but he’ll have to navigate a treacherous series of mind games and temporary alliances that test his senses of justice and morality to get at the final prize.

People have compared Squid Game to quite a few other survival game series, but the one I immediately thought of was Kaiji. If you’ve read or watched it, you can probably notice the similarities even from the synopsis above. I saw a parallel in the protagonist too: Gi-hun is very much a Kaiji sort of guy in that he’s unremarkable until faced with a life-or-death situation, when he gains nerves of steel, but all while attempting to stay true to his ideals. He’s far from perfect, but I found him to be sympathetic enough to root for along with a couple of other players who become close to him. The biggest strength in Squid Game I found was how it built its characters — with one massive exception, but that’s something I want to address in a separate post I’m planning.

The games themselves and the organization running them are also interesting. Again, as in Kaiji, these pit debtors against each other, resulting in some instances of teamwork and others of treachery and backstabbing. However, in Squid Game, the contests are all incredibly dangerous adaptations of children’s games. The strange and unique art style of the show adds to its appeal and probably did a lot to get people’s attention, and I think it works well, though I can see how it would put some viewers off.

I can’t give Squid Game an A+ or 10/10 or whatever equivalent you prefer, though, because I had a few issues with it, most seriously with the ending. I won’t get into it here in detail, but I felt the last episode undercut some of the story and especially one relationship that was central to the show, and in a way that didn’t pay off at all. I also found some strange inconsistencies in how the organization operated that weren’t explained.

Despite those negatives, I don’t regret watching Squid Game at all — I really liked it, at least up until the last episode (and well, episodes 7 and 8 were kind of goofy and bizarre in a not entirely good way either) and since the show is now confirmed for a second season, maybe it will somehow build on what it established at the end of this first season. So I’d recommend Squid Game if you’re into this survival/death game genre and don’t mind a whole lot of graphic violence, but with the caveat that the ending is kind of a mess, just not quite enough of one to overturn the rest of the series.

There’s more I want to write about the issues I had with the narrative, but I’ll save it for a spoiler-filled post (and I’ll probably spoil Kaiji as well, since I think there are some good comparisons to be made there.)

Now on to a couple of games I’ve started recently, one of which I’ve mentioned a bit already:

Blue Reflection: Second Light

I do know, yeah.

Since my look at the demo last month, I’ve gotten up to Chapter 6 of Blue Reflection: Second Light, which seems to be a bit more than halfway through the game, and I’m happy to say that it’s fully lived up to my high expectations so far. This sequel has surpassed the original in most ways, with a lot of fun and engaging characters and more fully fleshed-out relationships between them.

The game’s new setting helps: the protagonist Ao and her several companions are all students who have been mysteriously transported to this small dimension that only contains an otherwise unpopulated high school on a small island, with a connection to a strange separate set of dimensions composed of fragments of the girls’ places and memories and patrolled by dangerous and bizarre beasts called demons. Naturally, this “Heartscape” as the girls eventually name it is where all the combat takes place and where significant parts of the plot are moved along.

The start of combat against a dangerous demon in the Heartscape. The girls start out fighting in their normal forms but can transform into Reflectors (i.e. magical girls) and gain new power in the course of battle.

There’s not much else to say yet about Second Light other than the yuri, which the game really went hard on this time around. There were hints of it in the original, but nothing close to what the sequel offers. Ao can go on “dates” with her friends, which just consist of walks to various points of interest in the school like the gym or the pool where a short cutscene takes place. It’s a nice bit of relationship-building, though just as in the first game, spending time with your companions unlocks fragments that can be used to boost the characters’ stats and gain other benefits in battle.

Conversations can also take place on the way to your date spot. And yes, Ao gets flirty with every other girl in the game.

There’s also at least one real deal no bullshit romantic thing going on between two of the girls, though as far as I’ve played, it’s not clear whether those feelings are only one-way or are going to be returned. I’m honestly surprised they went straight for it, though — usually these games dance around the issue, merely hinting at such feelings or playing them partly for comedy (see any of the Atelier Arland games, also made by Gust with Mel Kishida’s involvement) but Second Light went for it without ambiguity. It will be interesting to see how that aspect of the story develops.

I also like this chalkboard note

There’s the update on Second Light, if you cared to have it: it’s good so far, and I don’t see it going bad unless the ending sucks or something. I’ll see soon enough.

And now for still another Gust game, because aside from a couple of other games, I’ve entirely dedicated this year to them for some reason:

Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey

Hi again Sophie and Plachta

No sooner was I done with Atelier Sophie than I started the next game in the Mysterious DX package. Atelier Firis is still another example of just how much Gust mixes things up from one game to the next, because aside from the somewhat similar alchemy system, Firis provides a completely different experience.

Our protagonist is the above-named Firis Mistlud, a girl who is soon to become an alchemist (surprise!) Firis was born and raised in Ertona, a strange mining town that exists entirely inside a cave sealed by a door only allowed to open for certain people. And sadly, Firis isn’t one of them. Highly valued by the elders of Ertona for her almost magical skill at detecting ore in the ground without using tools, she’s stuck where she is for the time being.

But of course, this soon changes. After a chance encounter with Sophie, the protagonist of the previous game, Firis discovers the wonders of alchemy and gets a shot at learning the discipline from her. Together, they manage to convince the town elders and her parents to let her go outside accompanied by her older sister/bodyguard, the hunter Liane, on the grounds that she needs to expand her knowledge so she can help the community more with this new skill. However, there’s a condition attached: Firis has to make it to the faraway city of Reisenberg and pass a notoriously difficult alchemy exam within one year, or else she’ll have to return to her hometown for good.

Outside for the first time in her life, Firis and her big sister face down a Puni, the Atelier version of the slime.

Despite being the next game in the same trilogy, Firis is very different from Sophie. Firstly, in terms of its settings: instead of the relatively small exploration fields and dungeons typical of Atelier that we got in Sophie, Firis features massive landscapes to run around in, with maps that fill out as Firis explores the world around her. That change works pretty well, since it fits with the theme of the game — Firis is all about exploration, after all.

The other change is maybe a bit more questionable, though it was one I already knew was coming: the return of the dreaded time limit. I don’t usually mind time limits in Atelier, but this one has me slightly on edge. The game isn’t kidding when it tells Firis to get to Reisenberg and pass that alchemy exam within a year, because it features a clock and a countdown starting at 365 days, presumably with a bad ending if you fail to meet your goal in time.

As in Sophie, there’s also an LP meter again that restricts how far you can travel without resting.

The trouble is that I have no idea how far I am from Reisenberg or how much I have yet to do to meet the game’s requirements for me to pass this first year. I’ve heard the time limit in Firis is an easy one to clear, so I’m taking my time to level Firis, both in the atelier and out in the field (which I have to do anyway for plot reasons, so it’s just as well) but with a constant eye on that countdown. As a result, I don’t feel like I can enjoy this newfound freedom.

But maybe that’s the point — Firis is under pressure in the game’s story, so having a time limit makes sense when you approach it from that angle. And once she passes the exam, the time limits are apparently all gone for good and I’ll get to explore at my leisure, so I’m looking forward to that.

And finally, moving over to anime an update on a series I may or may not finish:

Komi Can’t Communicate

Now I can see why this series seems to be divisive. Apparently a lot of people really dislike the protagonist Tadano because they think he’s being underhanded in his intentions towards Komi somehow. I don’t really get that impression myself — my read on the guy is that he’s a pretty normal awkward, dense anime romantic comedy protagonist. Sure, he’s obviously into Komi, but then everyone is too. And even so, Tadano and his friend Najimi are among the very few at their school who treat her like a fellow human instead of a goddess.

No, my problem with the series is its side characters. The fears I expressed in my first impressions post have been fully realized: aside from the above-mentioned ones, nearly the rest of the students at this school are a bunch of annoying one-dimensional dipshits. I’m pretty sure they won’t change much either, because then we’d lose the amazing jokes that come along with them.

This aspect of Komi hit me in the face in episode 3, which starts with a nice plot about a classmate of theirs, Himiko Agari, who has social anxiety similar to Komi’s, only Agari can’t stand when people look at her. Tadano thinks the two might bond over their shared socialization problems, and after some expected communication problems they end up friends, which is perfectly nice.

Then Agari turns immediately into this:

Anyone who’s read this site for any amount of time will know I’m absolutely not prudish at all. I’m all about letting your freak flag fly and all that stuff. That said, I don’t get how making Agari into a masochist who wants to literally lick Komi’s shoes makes any god damn sense in the context of everything else that happened in her episode. It feels thrown in at the end, as if to say “by the way, this is Agari’s thing and it’s going to be hilarious every time she acts like a dog in front of Komi and weirds her and everyone else out.”

Then there was episode 4, featuring Ren Yamai, the school’s resident yandere who’s naturally also obsessed with Komi and who apparently gets to kidnap and plan the murder of a fellow student (Tadano for being too friendly with her god-queen Komi, because right, Tadano’s the creepy one in this story) without so much as a referral to the school counselor.

Whatever

I get that Komi is a comedy and it’s not meant to be realistic, but I feel like mixing this sort of almost surreal, bizarre style with the attempt at a heartfelt, emotional story doesn’t work so well. But still, if I don’t drop Komi, I’ll write a more complete review of it. To be fair, the latest episodes I’ve seen were easier to take than the third and fourth, and there are still some aspects of the show I like — they’re just in danger of being outweighed by the things I don’t, and those things are still present in the series. Anyway, humor is pretty subjective, isn’t it? A lot of people find Komi funny, and if I don’t, maybe that’s just my problem.

In any case, even at its worst, Komi is still ten billion times better than fucking Big Mouth, which is still on the front page of Netflix every time I log in. So if you have to choose between the two for some weird reason, please watch Komi instead.

Also, I’m still watching Aquatope, takt.op Destiny, and Jahy-sama, but I’ll save my thoughts on those for the end of the season. I’ve already written more than enough by now to bore the hell out of everyone around. I hope you found something interesting above, at least. The next post will likely be that end-of-month one, so until then — happy Thanksgiving if you’re also in the US, and happy Black Friday, and I hope you didn’t get mauled too badly out there. Though if you’re the sort of person who reads my site, you’re probably holed up inside too.

A review of Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book (PS4)

My journey through Atelier continues. After finishing Ryza, I was afraid I might be burned out on the series for a while, but apparently that’s not the case yet. The fact that the Mysterious DX trilogy was on sale at the time also helped my decision, admittedly, but I was destined to play this anyway. So better sooner than later: it’s on to still another world, another story, and a new cast of characters with Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book.

Sophie Neuenmuller is a young alchemist living alone in her atelier on the outskirts of her hometown of Kirchen Bell. Sophie doesn’t have a lot of experience with alchemy yet, but she’s determined to improve her skills, in part to carry on the legacy of her alchemist grandmother, who raised her and taught her what she knew before her passing.

She still has plenty to learn however

Sophie’s life might seem a bit lonely, living and working entirely on her own, but she has plenty of friends, including her childhood companions Monika and Oskar. All of Kirchen Bell is with her as well — her grandmother was a valued citizen and friend who helped everyone around town, and all that goodwill is also extended to Sophie, who does her absolute best to be worthy of it.

While working as usual one day, something happens that changes Sophie’s life forever: one of her reference books, an old tome she inherited from her grandmother, starts floating and talking to her. At first, Sophie thinks she’s suffering from a hallucination brought on by working too much, but she soon realizes that this is no illusion. The book calls itself Plachta and tells Sophie that it has regained a little of its memory thanks to her writing alchemy recipes in it.

Sophie soon learns that this Plachta was a human girl like her, and another alchemist no less, who five hundred years ago had to transfer her soul into a book for some reason. That reason is still unknown because Plachta has unfortunately lost her memories. But Sophie is determined to help her new friend. By learning more alchemy recipes and writing them into Plachta, she can slowly recover those lost memories. Not just for her own sake, either: as Plachta tells Sophie, she transferred her soul into this book for an as of yet unknown reason, but an extremely important one, making their goal all the more critical to achieve.

Naturally, Sophie has to explore uncharted and dangerous lands outside the safety of Kirchen Bell and its surroundings to gather rare ingredients for her alchemy recipes. As always, our alchemist protagonist has plenty of help from both old and new friends who join her in adventuring. And while Plachta can’t (yet) join Sophie in battle against the monsters that menace them, she helps out by teaching her what she knows about alchemy as her memories return.

Also, Oskar can communicate with plants. At first it comes off as a joke, but he’s dead serious, and his unique skill actually is helpful later in the game.

If that doesn’t seem to you like much of a story to play through, especially for a JRPG, I’d say you’re right. But that seems to be by design. Sophie is the most slice-of-life, relaxed Atelier I’ve played yet, and that includes both Ryza and the parts of the Arland series I’ve played that were already pretty slice-of-life themselves. So Sophie isn’t really that unusual for the series as a whole, and Atelier is a pretty atypical sort of JRPG series in that sense anyway. This game just carries that more relaxed tendency even further than usual, and I imagine this would have been even more noticeable to players coming directly off of the Dusk series that preceded it.

I don’t want to overstate this point, however. Because there is a plot to Sophie, and the game does require the player to make progress towards an eventual end goal that’s directly related to recovering Plachta’s memories. The big difference is that instead of working under time pressure as you would have been in Arland or in parts of Dusk, there’s no deadline here. Sophie doesn’t even punish you for spending too much time in one particular section of the game by literally slowing you down the way Shallie did, which is much appreciated, because I didn’t much care for that aspect of Shallie.

In fact, you can just spend time away from the plot fulfilling item synthesis and monster-killing requests for money and vouchers at the local pub so you can buy the ticket that lets you go on a date with your bunny girl waitress friend Tess. And you’re sure as fuck right that I did just that, much to the despair of her many male admirers who missed out. Sorry guys. Maybe you should have spent less time drinking coffee and leering at her and more time busting your asses too.

Atelier Sophie is clearly designed to let the player take their time — everything about it is set up so that you can’t rush the game even if you try. One reason for this slower pace is the alchemy system, and specifically the method this new sub-series uses to teach its protagonist new recipes. There are still a few books lying around for Sophie to read and learn more alchemy from, but the vast majority of new recipes in Sophie are learned simply by doing things. Just doing things, yeah. Fighting enemies, synthesizing new items in your cauldron, or even just talking to people around town or finding unusual spots while out in the field can give Sophie new ideas, which are denoted by a light bulb appearing over her head, after which she writes something in her book (which apparently isn’t Plachta, though she does actually write in Plachta when she returns to the workshop.)

The item synthesis system is also totally different from previous systems and takes some getting used to, but as usual it’s not hard to get down once you’re practiced at it. Still easier than the relatively opaque and weird trait transfer system in Ayesha, though some might disagree.

I found both of these new aspects of the alchemy system a bit annoying, especially at first when my options for crafting items were limited. This new system seems to simulate the cauldron itself, giving the player a square grid layout to insert each ingredient into with the variously colored squares corresponding to the usual fire/water/electricity/wind element system and with a fifth white element (holy or something like that? I guess.) The key to improving your items above the relatively crap level you start out with is getting new cauldrons with better properties and larger grids — there’s not much you can do with a 4×4 cauldron, for example, but a 6×6 one gives you a lot more room to work with.

Getting used to the cauldron stuff wasn’t too bad, but the recipe book system that went along with it was slightly more irritating because of how vague it could sometimes be. Some recipes were pretty straightforward about their requirements for being unlocked, but a few others weren’t, and I ended up having to look up a few hints about where to go and what to do to unlock such and such recipe to create a new item — something I never like doing. It may be that I’m simply an idiot, a possibility I always hold open, but I think the game was just being too damn obtuse in a few places.

The water of life is booze, isn’t it? Well, Sophie is still under Kirchen Bell’s drinking age as the café/tavern owner Horst reminds her, so I guess it’s non-alcoholic in this game.

But maybe it’s not such a big deal. Because there’s no time limit and no penalty for running in circles in Sophie, you’re free to do so, though players who actually want to stick to a schedule might be annoyed by getting caught up with some of these riddles. Then again, there are plenty of side stories available to play through, one for each party member and also for a couple of more major side characters (namely, Logy from the Dusk series and Pamela from Arland, who return confusingly enough as alternate-universe versions of themselves.)

Logy is exactly the same personality-wise as he was in Dusk, even working again as a blacksmith, although not an alchemist this time. But Pamela is pretty different — she’s far more mature and also not at all flirty with any of the guys around town like she was in Atelier Meruru. In fact, she’s a nun in this game, so just the opposite.

While I felt the side character stories in Ryza were pretty thin, in Sophie they’re somewhat more interesting and fleshed out. As usual, we’re presented with a cast of colorful characters, and for the most part they’re pretty fun to hang around and to help out — you can even give them gifts that they’ll reciprocate later on, a nice way to clear out your overfull inventory of ingredients while also improving your standing and moving their side plots along.

And naturally, some of these side plots also require Sophie to venture out into the field. And going into the field requires her and her friends to fight monsters. Unlike in past installments, every character in Sophie can use items in battle, though only Sophie and a few others can actually handle high-level items well enough to stock them in their inventories. Otherwise, Sophie uses a turn-based combat system similar to those in Arland and Dusk, though with a few twists of its own. I found combat to be pretty straightforward anyway — it relies heavily on having effective attack items on you and weapons and armor equipped with helpful traits as you’d expect, so as usual your alchemist level seems to be more important than your adventurer level in taking down powerful enemies.

This dragon was piss easy when I finally got around to fighting it, mainly because of the high-level weapons and armor I’d crafted.

That leaves the aesthetics, which are always a big part of the appeal of an Atelier game for me, and with the partial exception of the music (Dusk still has the best soundtracks in my opinion, but the music here is all right — just doesn’t quite rise to the level where I’d want to go back and listen to any tracks on their own) those are up to par as well. Following series tradition, this new trilogy brings with it a new art style, this time courtesy of artists/character designers Yuugen and NOCO. I wasn’t familiar with these guys before, but I like their designs and the art direction in general — Sophie, and from what I can tell so far the Mysterious series in general, returns to the more colorful look of Arland, moving away from the earthy look of Dusk, but again with its own style distinct from the others. I like them all, though; each one fits well with the character of its respective series, which is what matters.

Some really nice CGs in Sophie, also a series tradition.

Sophie also adds some of its own flavor in the characters’ costumes, which are somehow even more elaborate than some of those put together by Mel Kishida back in the Arland series. You might have already noticed Sophie wearing two very different outfits above, and then there’s still a third, an old set of clothes her grandmother wore when she was about the same age, which Sophie decides she has to recreate and wear at certain points in the game to embody her spirit or something. One of your party members, Leon, is even a traveling tailor and fashion designer who makes the honestly kind of strange-looking gold shorts and beret getup for Sophie you see above.

Well, it fits anyway — as someone said in a previous game (Wilbell maybe?) alchemists always dress strangely. And Leon is apparently one of those haute couture designers who specializes in unusual dresses like you see in those weird as fuck fashion shows in Milan and Paris, so I shouldn’t question her work.

I actually prefer Sophie’s grandmother’s dress design to the others, seen here. See also pimp hat ghost

You might think it’s strange to focus on the protagonist’s costumes so much, but they actually play a minor part in the story this time around. And not just Sophie’s — Plachta’s as well. It’s not much of a spoiler considering the fact that she’s on the cover, but Sophie and friends eventually manage to put together a life-sized, fully autonomous and functional doll body for Plachta and transfer her soul from the book into it. This procedure is part of their plan to help Plachta recover her memories by giving her as close to her old human body as possible, and more conveniently for the player it also allows Plachta to finally join the party and fight.

However, there’s also a “doll-making” mechanic that lets you put new clothes on Plachta. I still have no idea whether it has any actual effect on her skills or stats or anything; my mind was probably too clouded at the time to notice (edit: I’m stupid and it does.) But I do remember what I ended up putting Plachta in for most of the rest of the game once I discovered it:

Of course I go with the catgirl outfit. You’re not surprised, are you. And in my defense, this isn’t even close to the skimpiest one.

Anyone who was looking for all the fanservice in Atelier and went straight to Ryza based on the (admittedly pretty damn good) thighs? They completely missed it, because it was all here in Sophie. I’d still say there still isn’t that much fanservice in this game in the grand scheme of things, but the doll-making mechanic does stand out in a funny way. In any case, though, it’s entirely optional — you’re free to leave Plachta in her original Leon-designed costume that makes her look a bit like a tower administrator from the EXA_PICO series. Which hey, those are also Gust games, so maybe it’s not a coincidence.

And none of that’s a complaint, to be clear — not coming from me anyway. No, my only actual complaint with Atelier Sophie is that it returns to some of the old ambiguity in item, effect, and trait descriptions that we got with Escha & Logy. Added to the intentional ambiguity in some of the game’s requirements to learn new alchemy recipes, this can cause some real problems, especially for the player looking to complete their recipe books and craft the absolute best items, weapons, and armor possible. None of that’s necessary to complete the game’s main plot, but since Atelier tends to attract obsessive completionist types (at least I imagine, considering the emphasis it puts on filling out compendiums of items and ingredients etc.) this may still be an issue for some players.

God damn it Logy, stop pretending you don’t know what alchemy is. You did so much of it with Escha in your own game. Help me out here.

But aside from that still relatively minor issue, I was happy with Atelier Sophie. The slow-paced slice-of-life style of the game was refreshing, and even when I got stuck at points, it was pretty easy to just go with the flow and carry out other tasks in the hope that a solution would eventually present itself (though again, on occasion that just didn’t happen.)

I can also finally agree with the pretty common opinion I’ve heard that Sophie is a good place to start for the Atelier beginner. It still has a lot of depth in its alchemy mechanics, but it’s not all that demanding either, and in some ways it feels like a return to the simpler “cute girl doing alchemy in an old European-looking town setting” setup that Arland had going, only without that series’ restrictive time limits. The only drawback I can see to starting with Sophie (or Ryza for that matter, which I think also makes for a decent enough starting point) is that going backwards from here into Dusk and/or Arland might feel uncomfortable as a result.

Not as uncomfortable as going to university lectures hung over, but still maybe a bit uncomfortable. Those memories will stick with me forever.

But hell, you have to start somewhere, and it may as well be here if you’re planning on getting into Atelier. As usual, I wouldn’t recommend Sophie to those who dislike games with turn-based combat or a lot of collecting items and crafting. Those looking for a deep and/or intense plot won’t find much of that here either.

However, if you’re looking for a nice light slice-of-life game about cute girls doing cute things and also doing a lot of alchemy and killing dragons and ghosts with it, you can’t go wrong with Atelier Sophie. Having only played the DX version, I can’t say how much it adds to the original, but since it’s now the standard it’s likely the one you’d end up getting. Though if you want a physical copy, I think you have to stick with the original plain vanilla version. If only I could get my hands on one myself… but I do have the upcoming direct sequel Atelier Sophie 2 preordered, so that’s some consolation.

Before that, though, I have the rest of Mysterious to get through. As usual, as of this writing I’ve already started the following game in the trilogy Atelier Firis, and I can already tell just a few hours in that it’s very different in its approach from Sophie while maintaining a consistent style. I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me — hopefully someplace equally pleasant. So until then.

Let’s Blog Award from Frostilyte

Since it’s a slow period right now, still in the middle of airing anime and a few games I’m digging through, I think it’s time once again to go back to the archives and find some old post nominations I’ve gotten from fellow writers around WordPress. This one comes from friend of the site Frostilyte, who writes about video games in a lot of depth — if you’re not following his site already, be sure to follow him now. Do it!

The rules are as follows:

1. Answer the 10 questions sent by the nominator.
2. Write your 10 questions for the nominees.
3. Answer your own questions.
4. Nominate as many bloggers you want for this award and notify them that they got nominated.
5. Tag the post #Let’s Blog Award.

Shit, that is a lot of work, but I’ll get to it. First, Frostilyte’s questions:

1) Is there a game that you were originally opposed to playing because of the advertised difficulty, but really enjoyed when you gave it a shot?

The most famously difficult game I remember picking up and really liking was probably Strange Journey. I’ve written about it a bit here before, but even for an SMT game, it gives you a good whipping. The difficulty level suits the story it tells — you play as a member of an international military task force sent to infiltrate a massive tornado-esque demon-filled anomaly engulfing Antarctica. Strange Journey combines the dungeon-crawling gameplay style of Etrian Odyssey with the difficulty of a typical SMT game. And of an Etrian Odyssey game, come to think of it.

It is a fun game, though. It offers a lot of challenge in its increasingly complex mazes full of random encounters and boss fights, but there’s not so much challenge that I was put off of it.

2) Have you ever played a game because you thought it had a really good soundtrack?

Absolutely: NieR:Automata. Or however it’s punctuated. I’d already heard a lot of the soundtrack from the previous game NieR and loved it, and I knew the same people were making the music for Automata. The soundtrack was at least half of the reason I ended up buying the game. No regrets at all, either, because it was great (like it needs more praise piled onto it, but I’ll pile on anyway.)

Of course, I can’t pretend that 2B’s famously generous backside wasn’t part of the reason as well. Ultimately I stayed for the fun gameplay and excellent, horribly depressing story, but hooks like these are important to get people in the door, I guess.

I came for the music and the ass, and I stayed for the music and the depression.

3) What difficulty do you tend to play games on?

I always default to Normal mode, and if I go for a second round I generally shift up to Hard or whatever the equivalent is. I don’t tend to go for Lunatic/Nightmare/etc. modes; I can’t take that much punishment. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m not a true masochist — I just have some M tendencies.

4) What have you been watching lately via streaming service of your choice?

An assload of anime on VRV. It’s not a bad service, though I absolutely have issues with its playback features. It does have an excellent library, however. Almost all of the recent anime I’ve looked at I’ve streamed through VRV, and I’ll be writing about some VRV-hosted anime series in the near future as well. I recommend it if you’re into anime at all; getting both Crunchyroll and Hi-Dive’s catalogs is a good deal (and unlike those people on YouTube, this isn’t a paid endorsement, sadly.) It’s almost enough to cope with the lousy playback and the fucked subtitles on some of the Hi-Dive-hosted series. How has that not been fixed yet, anyway?

5) What is your favourite game played thus far this year?

I haven’t played too many games this year; most of them have been long epics a few of which I’ve finished and others I’m still working through. Out of those I’ve finished, I’ll say it’s Atelier Escha & Logy. All the Atelier Dusk DX games are good, but Escha & Logy is the best of the three, and it works as a standalone story very well despite being the middle game in the trilogy. It’s certainly not for everyone — after all, it’s a turn-based JRPG with time limits, bureaucratic elements, and a heavy emphasis on crafting high-grade items, and one of those alone would be enough to put off a lot of people. But it was just about made for me.

6) What is something you’ve accomplished this year that you’re proud of?

Aside from my work, which is far too boring to bring up here (and side note: if you think being a lawyer is very exciting from watching a TV drama or playing Ace Attorney, it’s really not, at least not what I do) my big accomplishment has to be just how much of the Atelier series I’ve made it through this year, playing through all of the Dusk trilogy, Atelier Ryza, and as of this writing almost to the end of Atelier Sophie and possibly through the followup Atelier Firis by the end of the year — so at least five and maybe six.

Atelier Escha & Logy; let’s see if it keeps my favorite game played this year spot.

Once I complete the Mysterious trilogy I might just write a deep reads post on the series in general, considering the fact that I’ll have played most of what’s available in English (though maybe I should wait until I finally get around to Atelier Totori? She’s still in the back of my mind.)

7) What is the pettiest reason you’ve chosen to not play a game?

I would say “a weirdly obsessive fanbase”, but I honestly can’t think of a game I’ve avoided for that reason. I might have ended up avoiding Undertale if I hadn’t played it shortly after it came out and shortly before it attracted that, let’s say interesting fan community. Then again, I tout the good Sonic games and encourage people to ignore the weirdo fanatics around it, so I should be more forgiving. (I have actually avoided reading the webcomic/multimedia series Homestuck for those kinds of reasons, despite getting it recommended a whole lot. So the hypocrite label still attaches to me in this case.)

So the pettiest reason might actually have been bad box art. Just shows how important those covers are, despite western publishers for the longest time not seeming to understand that basic concept that bands knew since the mid-60s.

8) When you replay a game with a heavy emphasis on choice do you tend to choose the same decisions or do you make new decisions?

I always make new decisions. I don’t generally bother replaying a game unless I either have different options to make that change the story path or unless there’s a lot of new game plus material in there. For one example, take Persona 5 Royal, which I’ve treated until now as basically a replay of the original (though there is a lot added in, but the core game is the same up to the point I’ve played, and thanks to my Persona fatigue I haven’t gotten back to it yet.) The supporting character you decide to cement a relationship with is a massively important choice to a lot of players. Instead of going for the somewhat controversial pick of Futaba like last time, I went onto the far more controversial “Hot for Teacher” route by dating Sadayo Kawakami.

I honestly don’t know why Atlus included Kawakami and the other mid-20s professional women around town as romantic options for your high school-aged main character, because it’s weird as hell. Why bring back this bizarre double standard set by Persona 3 Portable (though there in an admittedly perhaps even weirder form?) I won’t get into it here, because I can go on for a while about it. Then again, I did take that bait, so whatever; I guess I can’t complain about it too much.

I think there’s a weird disconnect going on in my case between the player and the protagonist. That’s to say, I’m the one who wants to date Kawakami, but I don’t think she’s a good choice for the protagonist for hopefully extremely obvious reasons. But then there are also people who got pissed that Futaba was a dateable option when she’s far closer in age to and far more appropriate for Joker here. So you clearly can’t please anyone at all.

To answer the question more generally and in a less off-track way, I just get bored if I’m replaying a game and doing the same things over again.

9) Have you ever replayed a game you used to like but found it substantially less fun because your gaming preferences changed?

I remember playing Rampage on the NES when I was very very young and liking it, then playing it a few years later and realizing it’s boring. Way too repetitive. Excitebike held up better.

In general, I’m also a lot less tolerant of mindless grinding than I used to be, probably because I just don’t have time for it anymore. If I’m leveling my party in an RPG while also fighting towards a clear goal, that’s fine, but if the developer didn’t bother to incorporate any plot or character progression into the process or just decided to throw a wall up in the form of a boss that I have to scale by gaining five levels fighting grunts in a shitty field somewhere, I’m probably going to drop the game unless I have some extra-compelling reason to keep going.

10) Toilet paper over, under, or pinecone?

If you’re referring to how I hang it, then over. Under is criminal. Not sure what pinecone involves, unless we’re talking about a different aspect of TP use in which case no comment.

And now for my questions. Sorry if any of these are repeated from older posts; my mind has been broken over the years to the point that it’s about half-functioning at this point. Also, I broke the rule and reduced the number of questions to seven because I couldn’t think of ten good questions (if the following even qualify as “good.”)

1) Have you played/watched a series that you first liked but felt went off the rails at some point?

As far as games go, Sonic is the answer some people might give, but I wouldn’t myself despite its many misses, just because it still has potential. Even if that potential lies in a Sonic Mania 2 that might never get made.

Or Sonic CD 2? Why not?

So I’ll go with the ultra-casual answer: Game of Thrones. I’ve already mentioned it a few times here, but I was one of the multitudes of people watching the HBO adaptation, and I also watched it collapse in on itself. I’d say that collapse started as far back as season 6, when most people were still enjoying the show despite its turn into some incredibly boneheaded writing decisions (just look up “season 6 Arya chase scene” — you will never convince me that everything about it and surrounding it is not completely stupid.) But of course, the last season was the real betrayal.

Maybe I’ll get into it in more detail sometime. Maybe when The Winds of Winter comes out? Which also might never get made, so don’t hold your breath for either. But at the very least, we can still have hope for the story and characters in the novels, since they’re completely separate from the show as far as I can tell now. And that spinoff series House of the Dragon might be good, especially since the story material has already been written by Mr. Martin himself.

2) What about the reverse — a series that you first disliked or had no feelings about but came to enjoy?

I honestly can’t think of any answers to this question myself. When I dislike something (or someone, in fact) I tend to keep disliking it/them. But that might say more about me.

3) How forgiving are you of glitches in a game?

Pretty forgiving, as long as they’re not game-breaking. The fact that I’ve ever spoken at all positively about Sonic Adventure should say a lot (though the Dreamcast original was also a lot less glitchy than future ports, to be fair to it.) If the glitches are just minor, I can deal with that and even find some amusement in it. Game-breaking glitches are another matter — take a game like the infamous Ride to Hell: Retribution, which had no redeeming qualities even if it could have been played without the earth opening up and swallowing your biker protagonist whole.

4) What about a poor localization?

I have a harder time with this, though it’s certainly more of an issue for players who are mainly into Japanese games like me. The general quality of game localization has risen a lot in the last two decades, along with players’ expectations, but there are still actual fucking machine-translated visual novels being sold on Steam. Which is a double crime, firstly against the buyer who was expecting some level of quality control in their game, and secondly against every translator out there hunting for work.

So a message to publishers: don’t be cheap. Hire proper translators and editors. If you don’t, honestly and completely without any sense of irony, fuck you. I’ve heard the excuse that hiring these staff would increase costs — fine, then to reduce costs a restaurant might also justify using the lowest-grade meat possible and buying nearly rotten produce at extreme discounts from markets about to throw it out. To those making the above argument: would you happily eat at that restaurant?

5) How do you feel about cursing/general vulgarity in art and media?

This question just suddenly came to me, and my answer probably won’t surprise you too much: I don’t mind it as long as it’s warranted. Above, for example, I didn’t think I could properly express my pure hatred for penny-pinching asshole publishers other than with a “fuck you.” I’ve heard people claim that “cursing is the sign of someone who lacks imagination/can’t use language properly” and so on, which is priggish bullshit. Sometimes foul language is absolutely called for, as I think it is here.

That said, cursing and vulgar language can be both overused and inappropriately used. When applied at the wrong time or in the wrong situation, it’s like hitting a sour note, standing out in a bad way. Overuse also lessens its effect. I may well overuse certain vulgar words here on the site, but I do try to limit them to maintain their effect. Hearing someone just throw out fucks and shits constantly for no reason can be offputting as well.

And of course, I’m not advocating for these words and others like them to be used on Sesame Street. Kids should learn cursing properly: by reading said words written on bathroom stalls and then whispering them behind teachers’ backs like we did.

6) What three countries would you most like to visit, assuming you could do so without worries about time/cost?

My three choices are Spain (again, because I liked it a lot the one time I was there and want to see it a second time), Italy (art, music, history, etc. etc.), and Japan for reasons that are so obvious if you read this site that I don’t need to explain them.

7) What’s your favorite drink(s)?

Not necessarily the alcoholic kind. In my drinking days I used to like stout in the winter and lager in the summer, but now I stick to seltzer and coffee. And occasionally tea, but coffee is the true gift from God. I just hope I don’t end up like Balzac.

Though I no longer drink, I’d still hang out in the bar in VA-11 Hall-A. Just don’t put any karmotrine in there, Jill. Still waiting patiently for that sequel too…

And now, who are my marks?

Red Metal

Aether

Iniksbane

The Gamer with Glasses

Moyatori

pix1001

and finally Irina if she can fit it into her amazing posting schedule.

And taking the idea from Frostilyte, here are those questions set out in an easy-to-copy format:

1) Have you played/watched a series that you first liked but felt went off the rails at some point?

2) What about the reverse — a series that you first disliked or had no feelings about but came to enjoy?

3) How forgiving are you of glitches in a game?

4) What about a poor localization?

5) How do you feel about cursing/general vulgarity in art and media?

6) What three countries would you most like to visit, assuming you could do so without worries about time/cost?

7) What’s your favorite drink(s)?

Listening/reading log #24 (October 2021)

Late again. I’ve been going through shit as usual, but that’s no excuse. All the more reason for me to post. First up: music.

Juice (Ryo Kawasaki, 1976)

Highlights: Raisins and Bamboo Child are great, but again it’s all very even

Even more Japanese jazz recommended by YouTube. The damn site finally understands what I actually like; fucking took it long enough. The interesting album cover also pulled me in — a healthier theme than Camel’s on last month’s entry Mirage, though I don’t believe that electronic orange is made for eating.

Not that it has much to do with the subject of the album, which is really nothing but music. Specifically jazz fusion funk kind of music made by legendary guitarist Ryo Kawasaki and played by him and a bunch of his friends. I had never heard Kawasaki’s music before, but based on Juice I want to seek out more, because pretty much every piece on the album is a hit.

If vocals are a must for you, you might not care much for Juice, since it’s entirely instrumental. But I’d still give it a chance, because at least some of these songs are just as catchy as any good pop or rock song might be, the biggest standouts for me being “Raisins” and “Bamboo Child”. Some of the others are more jams or grooves than song-like compositions, but those have their place too after all. And when the musicians are this good, plain old jamming can be entertaining in itself. In terms of the energy on this album, it reminds me a lot of Casiopea released just a few years later — I wouldn’t be surprised if those guys were listening to this album in 1976 in fact. (Actually, they may well have been listening to Camel as well, since that album also has plenty of fusion flavor.)

I also wouldn’t be surprised if Shoji Meguro had listened to this album, because I can say with plenty of confidence that if you liked the soundtrack to Persona 5, you’ll like this — it’s just the kind of 70s fusion/funk that game’s soundtrack draws from for influence, at least in the instrumental parts.

An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (The Caretaker, 2011)

Highlights: It’s not that kind of album really

Early this year I wrote a review of Everywhere at the End of Time, a six-album project by The Caretaker, a.k.a. British artist Leyland Kirby. While that massive series is his most visible and now best-known work, Kirby has been at work for a long time creating ambient albums.

Like Everywhere, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World makes use of slowed and sometimes distorted 20’s-40’s ballroom music and even older orchestral work to try to simulate the experience of an Alzheimer’s patient. Unlike Everywhere, however, An Empty Bliss isn’t a very difficult listen despite its heavy subject matter. Partly because it’s a single album only around 50 minutes long, but even the journey the listener is taken through here isn’t nearly as harsh or jarring as that on Everywhere — no hours-long stretches of distorted mangled songs mixed with noises, no “Hell Sirens”, none of that. I was struck by just how peaceful this album felt in comparison after getting through the ordeal of Everywhere.

Even so, it’s not all sunshine on An Empty Bliss, not even close. The mood still gets pretty low, especially around the middle of the album, where the initially pretty clear-sounding pieces get a bit more stretched out and slowed down and buried in parts under static and droning. Parts of the album feel to me like a milder form of Stage 3 of Everywhere, though that may be partly because they have at least two source songs in common (the title track, with the same title on Everywhere but sounding quite different, and “Libet’s Delay”, which shows up on Everywhere as “Back there Benjamin” and then again a few more times in increasingly distorted forms.)

I’d recommend An Empty Bliss to those who might not want to take the dive into Everywhere at the End of Time, or at least not yet. This album doesn’t have quite the impact of Everywhere — it feels more like a blueprint for that much more fully realized work, which makes sense considering this album was put out five years before the first stage of Everywhere.

But An Empty Bliss is still a downer, appropriately for its subject matter, and it still stands on its own pretty well in addition to giving new listeners a hint of what to expect if they decide to take that plunge later on. Not a bad idea, because I can’t emphasize just how emotionally taxing that six-hour-plus experience is (but again, it’s worth it if you can make it through.) Certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, though — I don’t suppose it’s meant to be anyway.

Sonic CD OST (Naofumi Hataya, Masafumi Ogata, and others, 1993)

Highlights: Considering the length, I’m too lazy to pick but it’s all good — all 4+ hours of it

And I’m cheating yet again with another game soundtrack. But not really cheating, because I was listening to this last month after all. Anyway, game soundtracks still deserve more respect than they sometimes get, and especially in this case. Despite losing out in both popularity and overall quality to its Genesis sibling Sonic 2, CD absolutely didn’t lose out in its backing music. In fact, a lot of collective effort was put into the game’s soundtrack: the whole thing when collected together is four and a half hours long.

Here I’m obligated to note, just as everyone is when they bring up this subject, that Sonic CD really has two soundtracks: the JP/EU version and the NA version. All my memories of the game, up through owning it myself for the first time on the Gamecube-exclusive Sonic Gems Collection (which was otherwise almost devoid of gems — thanks Sega) were with the NA soundtrack, so that’s the one I’m most used to. However, both versions of the soundtrack are excellent; they just have slightly different vibes (for example, with a lot more vocal samples in the Japanese version.) I’ve heard a lot of people say the Japanese version is the better one, though, and maybe you’ll agree? I don’t have a strong opinion on the matter. I couldn’t imagine starting the game without the NA-only “Sonic Boom”, but again that might just be that stupid nostalgia working on my brain.

The Sonic CD soundtrack is further lengthened by each stage getting four separate, dedicated themes, three types of which are also separated into their JP/EU and NA versions. If you’ve played the game, you already know that its defining mechanic is time travel: when Sonic hits a Past or Future post, he can warp through time accordingly to a past or future version of the stage as long as he keeps his speed up (easier said than done in most cases.) In addition to altered stage layouts and decorations/color schemes, each past and future stage also gets its own theme. Not only that, but the future stages and themes are divided into “good” and “bad” variations depending on whether Sonic has fulfilled certain optional goals. For some reason, the past themes are shared between the JP and NA soundtracks, but otherwise they’re each different as well.

So you get a hell of a lot of music in your Sonic CD no matter which version you’re playing, and it’s all quality. Some of my favorite stage themes include the various Stardust Speedway themes (especially the normal JP version, 90s funk as hell), the final stage themes, and the chilled-out bonus stage themes that don’t match that well with how pissed off I got because I kept failing the harder ones.

Sonic CD is a unique game. Not perfect, but it’s still well worth a play. And its soundtrack is unique as well, which is fitting: just like the game, while the music has some resemblance to the also excellent Genesis soundtracks (aside from Spinball, which I don’t count anyway) it very much does its own thing. It’s also had a lot of impact on some of the newer Sonic soundtracks — just listen to Tee Lopes’ work on Sonic Mania and you’ll hear the influence.

Now on to the featured articles:

Some Yuri Recommendations (KS Blogs) — One game I’ve just started (yes, it’s the Blue Reflection sequel, of course) has me thinking about yuri a bit. If that subject is on your mind as well, why not try out some of these recommendations on KS Blogs for good yuri manga? I’m not much for manga, but there are a ton of translated titles out there for every palette.

Halloween Movie Review — Godzilla (1998) (A Richard Wood Text Adventure) — aka “that really bad one with Matthew Broderick.” But there might be a little more to the film than you think, so be sure to read the linked review!

Donkey Kong Land III (Extra Life) — Red Metal continues his look through the Donkey Kong series with another Game Boy title. Does it improve on the first two handheld games in the series? Red Metal delivers his usual insight in this review.

Metroid Dread (Nintendobound) — Matt gives his thoughts on Metroid Dread, the new entry in the long-running series. Maybe once I get a damn Switch I’ll try it out too!

Anime Review: School Babysitters (Lex’s Blog) — Sometimes you need a break from all the bullshit, and maybe anime dealing with serious dramatic subjects or featuring a lot of fighting, explosions, or death gambles won’t help. School Babysitters seems like a good choice in that case. Shit, maybe I should watch it too. Thanks to Lex for the review!

How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom Review (Umai Yomu Anime Blog) — Or maybe a fantasy isekai is more your thing. Yomu has been reviewing a ton of those on his blog lately, among them How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom. Compelling concept maybe, but does it hold up? I’ve become pretty numb to all these new isekai series that are constantly being released, but Yomu’s analysis is still interesting, and it’s a must-read if you’re into the genre.

Like Mom’s Chicken Soup: Bravely Default II (Eating Soup with Trailing Sleeves) — From Trailing Sleeves, a review of Bravely Default II with a look at its comfortable aspects through a chicken soup analogy. Also, I like those chibi character designs, but I get why some people wouldn’t. The styles do clash a bit.

Stop Quitting Early (Frostilyte Writes) — From Frostilyte, some thoughts about when quitting in a competitive game is called for and when it isn’t, with a particular look at the popular MOBA Pokémon Unite. A good read for any competitive gamer.

Reflections on That One Scene in Peter Pan (Lost to the Aether) — Aether here takes on the heavy subject of racism in old films, with a look at a scene in Peter Pan featuring a lot of Native American stereotyping, and some insight into the importance of considering historical context in such cases. (And returning to the subject of Godzilla, Aether is also continuing his long-running Godzilla movie review series, so please check that out as well if you’re interested.)

Zak Starkey: Ringo Starr’s Son & The Importance Of Being Idle (Professional Moron) — I didn’t know Ringo Starr’s son was also a high-profile drummer, but apparently he takes after his father in that way, having filled in when needed on tour for other giants like The Who. Mr. Wapojif also focuses here on Starkey’s drumming on a particular Oasis track that showcases his talent. (And hey, a good place to note that his dad also released a ton of solo albums post-Beatles… none of which I’ve heard. Maybe I’ll try one out for the hell of it. The guy wrote a few fine songs when he was a Beatle, even if he was overshadowed by the other three in that department.)

Shin Megami Tensei V Hype Train (The Gamer with Glasses) — And finally, a post from the Gamer with Glasses rightly hyping up the much-anticipated Shin Megami Tensei V. No, I still don’t have a Switch, but I do have my copy of SMT V preordered. I look forward to finally getting to play it (at some point.)

Apologies if I missed anything else especially good last month, but I wasn’t entirely myself through most of October. Or maybe I was, which was the real problem. Either way, I wasn’t so engaged, but I hope to get back to more writing and exploring around the community this month.

I also have a ton of running anime and games on top of the work I actually get paid to do, including the above-mentioned Blue Reflection: Second Light, which is holding up very well so far. Also, Atelier and Yakuza are still happening, and I still have three games in particular that I need to get done at some point soon if I can. Also anime. Is it possible to sleep one hour a night and not suffer horribly for it? No? Shit.

Well, I hope the afterlife will allow me to catch up on whatever I’ve missed, assuming I’m deemed deserving of that privilege. Until then, I’ll still be writing, so see you next post.

Demo mode: Blue Reflection: Second Light (PS4)

I have some actual time off for once, and not a moment too soon as I was feeling a bit run down. I hope this long weekend will help me recuperate mentally somewhat, since I have to dive right back into it on Monday.

That’s all the vacation I get. Enjoy your summers while you still can if you’re still in school.

Thankfully, I also have some interesting games to keep me occupied, including a demo for a very soon-to-be-released one. I mentioned Blue Reflection: Second Light just a couple of posts ago as a game I had preordered, but at the time of posting I didn’t realize that a free demo was also about to be put out. I don’t usually pay much attention to demos, since I’m generally pretty sure I’ll like the games I buy these days, but I was curious to know what Second Light might have to offer, assuming the demo wasn’t just a trailer with a few bits of gameplay slapped on.

And it’s really not. This is a legitimately good demo, with enough substance that I’m able to write in a meaningful way about what it presented. In fact, this piece will probably work well enough as a first impression post, unless the finished game is somehow very different from the impression its demo gave me.

The Second Light demo is divided into two parts: Prologue, consisting of an opening chapter lasting an hour or two and featuring the basic story setup and a series of battle tutorials, and Story Demo, which takes place in a short section around the middle of the game and shows off more of its character interaction mechanics.

Starting in the natural place with the prologue, we meet our protagonist, Ao Hoshizaki, waking up from her nap in what looks like a high school club room. Ao is indeed in a high school, together with three other students, Rena, Kokoro, and Yuki, none of whom she had ever met before mysteriously finding herself transported here a few days earlier. Because this isn’t her high school — in fact, as we can tell from their different uniforms, all four girls are from different schools, and they all found themselves also mysteriously transported to this strange school, which is fully furnished with all the stuff a school should have but is otherwise abandoned.

Stranger still, they seem to be completely cut off from the outside world. Their new school exists in its own small isolated dimension surrounded by water with the exception of a gateway leading to another world, a wilderness the girls have named “the Faraway”. This Faraway is full of useful materials that fortunately include food, but it’s also full of demons that attack Ao and friends if they’re detected. Luckily, Ao, Kokoro, and Rena all possess the power of Reflectors, giving them magical abilities that they can use in combat to defeat these demons.

While Ao and company are getting along all right, they’ve also committed to exploring the Faraway to try to discover some way back to their own world. Mysteriously, only Ao has retained all her memories of the life she left — her new friends are all more or less amnesiacs, so hopefully the Faraway and their Reflector powers can help them unlock their memories as well.

These guys will be familiar if you’ve played the first game. Combat in Second Light is turn-based, but again with some extra elements that set it apart. See also the crusty graphics with Ao out of focus in the foreground; not sure what that’s about, but everything looks great otherwise.

The prologue chapter runs up to a point just before what looks like a boss fight, where we get a “To Be Continued…” screen and a trailer for the game proper. As for the Story Demo, there’s not much to say — it’s a nice chance for the player to explore the school grounds and talk to various new characters who have apparently joined the crew (and one old character in Blue Reflection protagonist Hinako Shirai, though her presence here is still a mystery) and to get a feel for the slice-of-life aspect of the game.

It’s nice to see Hinako again. Hoping she’s here in a kind of “I’ve been through this kind of shit, I’ll help you out” mentor role.

My impression based on the demo is entirely positive. It does throw a lot of information at you, and it might help if you’ve played the first game and already know about Reflectors and how they’re given their power, how it works and all that, but it doesn’t seem necessary at all. Second Light looks like it’s carrying on the theme of power being attached to emotion, both positive and negative, and with a special emphasis on building relationships between the protagonist and her new friends. Reflectors aren’t really any different from magical girls aside from the fancy title, and if you can accept the weird premise of the game it’s pretty easy to get what’s going on (at least so far; hopefully it doesn’t get too convoluted in the game proper.)

Messing around in the Story Demo section that focuses on all that relationship stuff. Apparently there’s also a new school improvement mechanic that lets you build new structures and forms of amusement, but you can’t actually do anything with it at this point.

I especially like the isolated world featured in Second Light. I wrote in my review of Blue Reflection that I thought its world felt sparse and isolated despite the whole story taking place in a seemingly pretty normal town, with our characters doing their best to live their everyday school lives. Yet the game didn’t contain a single parent or teacher or any other figure onscreen aside from the school’s students and the otherworldly monsters Hinako, Lime, and Yuzu had to fight.

I wasn’t entirely sure whether that strangely sparse feeling was intentional in the first game, but it certainly is intentional this time around. And all the better, because I love games and series that throw its characters into these kinds of isolated, mysterious settings that they have to find their way out of (see the Infinity series of visual novels and Zero Escape for other examples.) Works for me — if you’re going to create a magical dream world full of demons anyway, why not create another magical pocket dimension with a fully furnished high school for our characters to camp out in?

I don’t know about this, though. A hamburger from a vending machine? Sounds like something Ashens would review on his channel.

The combat is again turn-based but feels a bit more challenging than in the first game if only because your health isn’t regenerated after each fight this time around. The system itself also seems more complex, though the demo only gets into the basics of battle with some grunt-level demons and one slightly stronger enemy who’s still pretty easily defeated.

Finally, there’s the art and music, which so far are at least equal to the high standards set by Blue Reflection. No surprise, considering both Mel Kishida and Hayato Asano worked on this sequel. As I wrote before, even if it’s lacking in other aspects, I’ll enjoy Second Light well enough if it maintains that quality in these areas — though it also looks like the sequel might improve on some or most of the other aspects of the first game based on this demo.

Mel Kishida is always a great character designer, but have you ever seen anyone in real life actually able to make that 3 mouth Yuki has here? I don’t think it’s possible.

Saying more than that would be speculating way too much, so I’ll leave it there. Credit to the publisher for putting out a free demo that actually has some substance, again, though I suspect I’ll be taking a lot of that credit away when they inevitably gouge players on DLC (at least if Atelier Ryza was any indication, and that was also put out by Koei Tecmo, so there might be reason to worry.) But DLC is just DLC in the end, and in any case the demo is free, so be sure to check it out if any of the above grabs you.

Update, part 1 (10/23/2021)

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

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

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

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

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

Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yakuza Kiwami

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Reflection: Second Light

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

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

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

Shin Megami Tensei V

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

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

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

Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream

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

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

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

A review of Yakuza 0 (PS4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not the standard staff meeting

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

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

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

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

A good maxim to keep in mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A review of Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout (PS4)

It’s yet another Atelier game review, yeah. I’ve already brought this one up a few times, but I’m finally ready to pass judgment on it, for whatever my judgment is worth anyway.

Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout was released in 2019 on the PS4 and PC. I remember it getting a lot of talk at the time, more than you’d expect for an Atelier title, which up until then tended to only get much notice around the expected niche JRPG cirles. I was immediately interested myself, but it took me two years to actually buy a copy because of how many other games in the series I’d planned on playing. Including the earlier PS4 Atelier Mysterious sub-series, which I completely skipped over between the Dusk trilogy and Ryza.

The fact that I skipped over Mysterious may or may not be important to understanding why Ryza felt like such a different experience from the other Atelier titles I’ve played. Not that I wasn’t expecting that — all I knew going into Ryza was that it had dropped the old, traditional purely turn-based battle system for a real-time one. And that the protagonist’s character model was probably a draw for American audiences, but more on that later. First I’ll get into the substance of the game.

You can hook people in with thighs, but if your game isn’t quality at its core you won’t be able to keep them — see NieR:Automata for an example of how that works. And see also Atelier Ryza? Maybe. I won’t give that away yet.

Reisalin Stout is a resident of Kurken Island, from the isolated town of Rasenboden. The only child of a farming family, Reisalin (or Ryza as she’s almost always called, continuing the tradition from Arland of the protagonist never being addressed by her full/formal name) is bored out of her mind. She doesn’t care about farming and takes every chance she can to escape from her parents’ demands that she help out around the farm and the house — completely reasonable demands, to be fair.

But there’s no helping it: Ryza is young and full of curiosity about the world outside their island. So she gets together with her childhood friends, the aspiring warrior Lent Marslink and aspiring scholar Tao Mongarten, and leads them in an expedition to explore the mainland.

It’s technically not theft if you plan to return it

Turns out Kurken Island really is isolated, because the nearby mainland is totally uninhabited — or not inhabited by humans anyway. Ryza, Tao, and Lent have run-ins with a few monsters and end up rescuing a traveling girl who was separated from her caravan. As it happens, this girl, Klaudia Valentz, is the daughter of a wealthy merchant on his way from the faraway capital to Rasenboden to establish a trade route.

The group starts to make its way back to the safety of the beach, but not before running into still another monster, this one far too powerful for them to defeat. Fortunately, Ryza and friends are themselves rescued by another pair of far stronger travelers: the alchemist Emper Vollmer and his bodyguard/companion Lila Decyrus. All six return to the dock where they meet Klaudia’s father, as well as an officer from Rasenboden who chews out Ryza for causing trouble yet again by running off with a commandeered boat.

I really wanted to get Agatha into my party, but she never joined. A real shame.

However, aside from getting yelled at by Agatha and later also by her mom, Ryza gains a lot from this first adventure. Klaudia’s father is grateful to her and her friends for saving his daughter, and Klaudia quickly befriends and becomes attached to Ryza’s crew. And Ryza discovers a new personal interest: alchemy. (Naturally; she’s the protagonist of an Atelier game, so we all knew that was coming.) She asks Empel, who’s set up shop temporarily in Rasenboden together with Lila, to teach her this discipline. While he’s not capable of becoming her full-time teacher, Empel does get Ryza started on the basics once he sees that she has the innate ability necessary to becoming an alchemist.

Ryza decides to pursue this new path and sets up a makeshift atelier in her parents’ house. Perhaps understandably, Ryza’s mom is not that happy about her daughter dragging an old iron pot up to her room and setting up a lab full of volatile materials and other things that likely smell pretty bad, so it’s understood that this is a temporary setup — and what better place to establish a proper atelier but on the mainland, where there’s a lot of free land going unused?

Some nice CGs in Ryza by the artist Toridamono, continuing the pattern of a new artist and a new look for each sub-series.

All this is extremely fateful, not just for Ryza but for her hometown and everyone in it. Empel and Lila tell their new hosts that they’re working on sealing an ancient evil in the area that’s starting to reawaken. The population of Rasenboden doesn’t know about any of this, but as Ryza and her friends expand their explorations around the mainland, they come across evidence of this threat, including the re-emergence of dragons. These and other dangerous beasts seem to be connected to the Klint Kingdom, an ancient civilization with advanced technology that was forgotten and lost after it was wiped out by some calamity.

Do the ruins of the Klint Kingdom hold the secrets to defeating this ancient evil? Will Ryza and her crew be able to use their skills to fight said evil if it does reawaken? And will Ryza finally get her parents to stop asking her to help harvest the wheat or whatever else it is you do on a farm?

I’m old enough to sympathize with them now.

As I wrote up at the top, Atelier Ryza felt different from any other game in the series I’ve played. This partly had to do with the new art design and chief artist. Each sub-series gets its own artist and its own look, a nice way of setting up each one as its own separate thing within the larger series. I’m not as much a fan of Toridamono’s character designs as I was of Mel Kishida’s in the Arland series or Hidari’s in Dusk, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like it at all or that it isn’t good — it’s just a matter of personal preference. And if the plan actually was to make Ryza’s character model into a meme in the West, it completely worked, though it’s probably just as or more likely that it was an accident. Damn, what I wouldn’t give to be in that team meeting so I could know for sure.

But despite all the understandable jokes about “Atelier Thighza”, you shouldn’t get the wrong idea — Ryza isn’t a fanservice game or anything of the sort. Aside from a few possibly questionable camera shots during cutscenes, maybe, and then they focus just as much if not more on Lila than on Ryza. From what I remember, anyway.

Really if you’re going to be “thirsty” for a character or whatever dumb shit it is the kids say these days, Lila is the best choice as far as I’m concerned. Well, maybe I’m just showing my M tendencies here. (Also to be fair, 90s/2000s slang was dumb as fuck too.)

Maybe it’s silly to bring this aspect of the game up first, but it’s worth bringing up if only to emphasize that Atelier Ryza isn’t just constant ass all over the place, not even close. Sure, there are the standard swimsuit costumes available, but those have been in every Atelier game I’ve played so far, so again, nothing special or out of the ordinary. If you want that kind of game, I’d direct you to my Senran Kagura review.

It’s also important to note right away because for as much as it was meme’d on in social media (to almost completely positive effect, because it sure as hell got the game attention that others in the series haven’t over here) Ryza came off to me just as much an Atelier game as the rest I’ve played, even though it does feel different in some ways. Certain aspects of the game are streamlined, but you’ll still spend hours in the field gathering ingredients and more hours in the workshop crafting items, weapons, and armor with those ingredients.

The alchemy system in Ryza looks intimidating at first, but it’s just as intuitive to get down as most of the others. But why are we seeing the inside of the cauldron in these synthesis scenes? It’s like we’re actually inside the pot here.

As Ryza learns from Empel, item synthesis is based on the Material Loop system, seen above. To create an item, weapon, piece of armor or whatever else it is you’re crafting, you have to add the necessary ingredients, which have one or more properties of various strengths connected to the elements fire, ice, wind, and lightning as usual. Throw the right type of item with the required elemental strength into the pot, and you’ll unlock one or more new Material Loops, which require still other ingredients usually with different elemental affinities, and so it continues until you have enough to make whatever thing it is you’re trying to make. Unlocking new Material Loops improves the quality of your item, adding various effects to it that can help you in the field.

An example of a synthesized piece of armor. The lock icons on the traits indicate that they’re not available yet — they have to be unlocked by going back into the Material Loop system and adding more ingredients.

My explanation of this system might be shitty and confusing, but the system itself isn’t. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily more intuitive than other Atelier alchemy systems as I’ve heard some people say, at least not the ones used in Arland or Dusk, but it’s not hard to get down. The game is also pretty generous in allowing the player to throw multiple weaker items into one Material Loop to achieve the desired effect. And if you don’t get the quality of item you were going for initially, no problem: Ryza has another alchemy mechanic that lets you add more ingredients to an already created item to unlock more effects and even new recipes (this is the main way you’ll unlock new recipes to create new items, in fact — Ryza can earn books through completed quests or buy them, but if you don’t really get deep into the Material Loop system you’ll miss out on a lot of great recipes.)

Of course, to get those high-level, high-quality items you’re going for, you’ll need to spend some time in the field as usual. Atelier Ryza puts a heavy emphasis on exploration, true to its plot. Each of the characters has their own reasons for wanting to head out into the wilderness of the mainland, and their strengths complement each other in battle (including Klaudia’s — she plays her flute in battle to both heal and buff the party and attack enemies. I love that classic JRPG logic.)

So as usual, the field is where you’ll both gain experience and collect all your ingredients. Thankfully, since there’s no time limit or calendar in Ryza, you don’t have to worry about efficiency if you don’t care to — you can spend all the time you like beating up monsters, collecting loot and ingredients, and going back and forth between the atelier and various fields.

A standard battle. Tao might look like a nerd — he quite literally gets his books dumped once in the game — but he can really fuck up enemies with his magic attacks. Lent still ended up being my chief attacker though.

Now for the much talked-about battle system. Rightfully, because this is a big change for the series, which up until then used old-fashioned turn-based battle systems (again, as far as I’ve played, but it’s true of the Mysterious series as well from what I’ve read.) The combat in Ryza is still kind of turn-based, but it’s more of a hybrid system — the key difference here is that, with one important exception, the action in battle doesn’t stop and wait for you to make your decision. As a consequence, you’re only able to control one character at a time; the other two in your party act on their own, though you do have some control over whether they hold back to conserve their power or go all out.

Fortunately, this isn’t a Persona 3 situation where you’re stuck watching your allies make stupid decisions — first, because there aren’t any useless skills in the game for them to waste their time on, and second, because you can freely switch between characters to control in the middle of battle. It’s also possible to guide your allies by switching between passive and aggressive combat modes and by performing certain actions that they’ll follow up on without using energy, though this takes some extra coordination and attention.

At certain points in battle, you’ll also have the opportunity to take extra actions by using your energy denoted by the AP gauge. This is the only time the action will stop and let you leisurely take your time to make your decision. A bit weird when you never have that chance otherwise, but I’m not going to complain too much about it — battle can feel hectic in Ryza, and I appreciated these breaks.

You can even take lunch if you want while Ryza contemplates her next move. Also yes, I bought the swimsuits, I admit it

I found the battles in Ryza to be quick and brutal, almost always with two outcomes — either I was utterly crushed, or I utterly crushed the enemy. The key to combat as far as I can tell is to have good armor and weapons and to beat the living fuck out of your opponents with debuff and attack items, especially ones that have slowing and stunning traits so they don’t even get to their turn before they’re dead.

True to the Atelier series, your alchemist level matters far more than your separate adventurer level does; even if you’re technically “underleveled” for a fight, you can wipe the floor with your enemy if you have great equipment and make use of items with good stats and traits, and conversely you can easily get wiped out no matter how high your adventurer level is if you haven’t properly prepared in the atelier before venturing out. In fact, this is generally how my game went:

  1. Play through the plot and have a pretty easy time until I get to a boss; get destroyed by the timed and scripted massive fuck-off attack it drops on me.
  2. Go back to the atelier, do a ton of alchemy to improve my equipment/item setup.
  3. Go back to the boss and batter it with upgraded bombs to stun it so it can’t even get to that massive fuck-off attack; continue until I win without so much as a scratch.

I still prefer some of the turn-based battle systems of the older games, especially those in Escha & Logy and Shallie, but changing the combat up can help keep things fresh. It doesn’t just feel like change for the hell of it, either: the battle system works pretty well in the context of the rest of the game and its mechanics. Or else Gust and/or Koei Tecmo really did think people were tired of pure turn-based combat. I’m not, just for the record.

That leaves the plot and characters, which I thought were fine. They worked well enough, but I didn’t get much more than that from them. The overarching plot was just okay, and none of the twists in the story came as a huge surprise. Maybe if you’ve played too many JRPGs you can just see these story beats coming.

More critically, though, the game’s characters mostly didn’t have much impact on me. Not that they were bad at all — again, they just didn’t quite measure up to the excellent casts in the Arland and Dusk series for me, so it’s more a case of “decent/good vs. great.” The fact that the playable cast was so small — only six, the main four of Ryza and her friends and Empel and Lila, who join up later — might have added to this, since those other games have much larger pools of characters to choose from, and the characters outside these six don’t get a whole lot of attention with one significant exception.

Unlike many other Atelier games, Ryza has a typical JRPG “the world might be destroyed by an ancient evil” plot, but it also contains a lot of more mundane sidequests in keeping with wider series tradition.

As with older Atelier games, there are also several prominent non-player side characters around town and plenty of sidequests to carry out for them. It’s not much work to complete these jobs, and you’ll get some good rewards out of them. Longtime fans of the series will also get a special treat if they complete every sidequest, one that I think is pretty well worth the trouble.

But once again, I’m left a little wanting, since I found the non-player characters in Arland and Dusk to be more interesting than the townspeople around Rasenboden. It is a nice town; I have to give them credit for that. And it really does feel like a lived-in place instead of just a setting for Ryza to run around in. Gust didn’t really have to put that much work into the town, but they did, so credit for that. I’d still prefer more interesting side characters, though.

All that said, I did like Ryza as a protagonist, with her adventurous spirit and boisterous personality and all that. It helps that she has some common sense to temper her hotheadedness — she usually knows when to step on the brakes, though it’s probably also good that she has Tao around to warn her when she might be thinking of doing some dumb shit. She’s a great addition to the set of Atelier protagonists. And her thighs honestly don’t even factor in for me. Not that much, anyway. As stated above, I’m more of a Lila guy anyway.

So Atelier Ryza is a pretty good game. It didn’t amaze me or anything, but to be fair, it’s only the first in still another Atelier sub-series, and I haven’t played the direct sequel that came out just last year. My hope is that it builds on the fairly solid base the first game established.

I also hope this goat shows up again. Best side character in the game.

I wish I could leave it there, but unfortunately I can’t, because there’s one shitty thing about Ryza I think I have to address, and that’s the DLC, or some of it at least. The game offers the standard extra costume DLC, which I don’t have any problem with — it’s all purely cosmetic anyway (and I did buy a few of those, so how could I possibly complain about them.) However, several extra stories are also available for sale in addition to the main plot, each of which has to be paid for separately. I didn’t buy any of these, so I haven’t exactly gotten the full Ryza experience, but I really hate the idea of paying for more story, even if it’s considered “extra.”

I don’t know, maybe this is just a personal problem. Or maybe I’m old-fashioned or whatever. But fuck that shit, honestly. If you’ve bought any of these extra stories and have thoughts about them, please feel free to let me know about them in the comments if you like, because I won’t play them. Or tell me if you think I’m being unreasonable or arbitrary in how I feel and try to convince me otherwise if you really care to.

But I don’t want to dump on the game itself for that. Ryza does tell a complete, self-contained story in itself, and the DLC story thing seems like a publisher decision rather than a developer one, so I’ll assume this is Koei Tecmo’s fault rather than Gust’s. And maybe I’ve already played into their hands anyway.

Uh… ask your mom.

In any case, Atelier Ryza 2 will have to wait a while, because I’m continuing my Atelier journey with Mysterious, the very same sub-series I skipped over to play this game. I’ve already started Atelier Sophie DX as of this writing, in fact. I probably won’t barrel through it at the same speed I did Dusk, since I have other games I’m playing through at the same time, but I can’t say that won’t happen either.

It won’t be the next game I finish, though. Probably not, anyway. I’ve had more than enough alchemy this year. Before I return, I’ll be getting over to a game very different in tone from this one. Look forward to it. Until next post!