Artbook reviews #3 (Shunya Yamashita, Kantoku, Kazuma Kaneko, Rie Tanaka)

I recently bought a large haul of books, CDs, and doujins straight from Japan. Since I didn’t get the chance to deepen my debt at an anime con last year thanks to the virus, I decided to do that shopping over on Suruga-ya and managed to get these, all used but very affordable considering the outrageous prices some dealers charge at conventions here (this is not a paid promotion by the way; I’m still the same poor bastard you’ve always known without any sponsors, and that probably won’t ever change.)

I was able to pick up some interesting artbooks in this lot, a few of which I’ve coveted for a long time and others that I just discovered. So I’ve decided to have a look here at a few of these books, in the spirit of two past posts I wrote in 2018 and 2019. Which I believe makes this the laziest and least regular post series on the site, even more than that “games for broke people” one I started years before. I should really pick that one up again. Anyway, first up is:

Wild Flower (Shunya Yamashita, 2008)

Here’s an artist I’ve never talked about here before, but he’s a great one. Artist and character designer Shunya Yamashita has worked on magazine covers and games as varied as Final Fantasy X and Makai Kingdom, but he seems to be best known for exactly what you see above: fantasy-themed sexy girl stuff. That’s not everything in this book — there are also some male character designs and monster designs, as well as a few pieces of art with really nice backgrounds, but the book’s cover gives a pretty good idea of what you can expect. If you’re not a fan of the “extremely impractical bikini armor” look then you probably won’t like this stuff; some of these women’s outfits are very skimpy and involve some gravity-defiance (one of the benefits of drawing, I guess.)

It also looks like Yamashita takes a lot of inspiration from western pinup photos, those vintage ones from the 50s and 60s. In that tradition, everything racy in here is kept strictly erotic without crossing into truly 18+ material, though it’s still not a book you’d necessarily want to have out on your coffee table, unless you just really don’t give a shit. There are also a few pages of short notes on each piece by the artist in the back, though they’re all in Japanese (this is going to become a pattern — none of these books seem to have English editions.)

15th Anniversary Book (Kantoku, 2018)

If Shunya Yamashita’s style isn’t your thing, you might prefer Kantoku, an artist who also draws a whole lot of girls but this time in a very cute style as supposed to the former’s sexy one. I wasn’t too familiar with Kantoku before buying this artbook, but he’s done work for quite a few visual novels and light novel covers none of which I’ve read, as well as an anime series called One Room that I haven’t seen. But I do like his style. While the girls seem to always be the focal point in his art (I don’t think there’s a single male character in this book, not that I could find anyway) Kantoku doesn’t skimp on the backgrounds at all — in fact, I’d say those backgrounds add a lot to his work. I love the attention to detail in his art, and I’ll be on the lookout for more of his stuff in the future.

For Japanese readers, there’s also a nice treat in this book: a very long interview between Kantoku and several other artists whose work is also featured in here near the back. Of course, I mostly can’t read it, but if you can, it might be something to check out if you have any interest. From the bits I can read, they’re talking about character design and art, but you could probably guess that anyway without knowing a word of the language.

Digital Devil Apocalypse (Kazuma Kaneko, 1999)

It would be a real disappointment if I didn’t post anything Megami Tensei-related, right? So here’s one of those books I mentioned that I’ve wanted for years: Digital Devil Apocalypse, featuring the work of the great Kazuma Kaneko. I’ve written a bit about his work in my running MegaTen deep reads series — he’s responsible for the great majority of its iconic demon designs and for a lot of early character designs up through the Shin Megami Tensei games and the first few Persona games. I really like his surreal designs, even when they get truly bizarre (Mara, but he’s not the only one, just the most infamous.)

There’s also a very long interview in this artbook with Kaneko that I mostly can’t read, so that’s nice. I really need to pick up my Japanese studies again, because I’d like very much to fully or even just mostly understand it. In addition to the interview, we also get some photos of the man himself looking cool and smoking a cigarette (but really, don’t smoke, kids. It’s extremely bad for you.)

The only real drawback to this book aside from the language barrier, which is entirely my problem, is that it’s currently 22 years old and doesn’t contain any of the many new character and demon designs from Nocturne on. However, I’d say Digital Devil Apocalypse is still very worth buying for MegaTen fans, especially for those who know Japanese. Even if the pentagram cover makes it look like some kind of Satan book. (Well, Satan is technically in it, and Lucifer too, but you know what I mean. Speaking of them, my next deep reads post on Megami Tensei will hopefully be coming soon! Dealing with some potentially touchy subjects this time, but in a mature way I hope.)

Irodorie (Rie Tanaka, 2009)

Hey, yeah, that’s me on the left in the reflection of the cover. It’s the most you’ll ever see, too, at least on this site.

The subject of this book isn’t so reserved, though. This obviously isn’t the same kind of artbook as the above three: it’s instead a photobook featuring the prolific voice actress Rie Tanaka. If you’ve watched many subbed anime series or played many Japanese games, you’ve almost certainly heard her voice at some point. The list of anime and games she’s acted in is very long; among many other characters, she’s the voice of Neptune from Hyperdimension Neptunia, Chii from Chobits, and Lacus Clyne from Mobile Suit Gundam.

And as seen above, she’s also the voice of Mitsuru Kirijo from Persona 3, center, and Suigintou from Rozen Maiden, right. This book isn’t nearly as racy as the cover makes it look; most of it just involves Tanaka cosplaying as characters she’s acted. In fact, I’m pretty sure both this book’s covers were chosen specifically because they’re so eye-catching, making it look like a gravure work of the kind that contains near-softcore photography.

But that’s not what this is. Really, this book is just kind of a weird curiosity to me, even if there are a ton of similar photobooks featuring popular VAs, actresses, and idols out there. I’m not into the idol scene at all (unless we’re talking virtual idols of course) so this is all pretty foreign to me, and I don’t have any particular interest in buying more of these kinds of photobooks. This is a nice one, though. I’m also a fan of Rie’s work — and if I’m being totally honest, she’s pretty damn attractive, so it’s not like I disliked what I saw in here from that angle (especially the bunny suit photos, which are about as spicy as the book’s contents get not counting the front and back covers.) But that aside, the cosplay stuff itself looks great. Not that I’m much of a judge in that area.

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That’s all for now, but I might write another one of these posts in the near future. Things at work are heating up, but I’ll do my best to post as close to weekly as possible. Until next time!

Fanservice done right

Now here’s a subject that I really care about. Probably way too much. I’ve featured a few pieces from other writers around the communities here on WordPress on just this issue in my end-of-month posts, but I sometimes disagree with their opinions even when I feel they make some good points or interesting arguments.

So it’s time for me to put out my own dumb take on fanservice and on the broader subject of sexual content in games and anime and related works. It’s one that I’m sure won’t surprise anyone at all, since I’ve already written about it in the context of law and popular culture a few times, and also considering a few of the works I’ve reviewed in glowing terms here. Even so, I think this is a matter worth bringing up and looking into more closely, since it’s such a constantly controversial one on social media in anime and game circles. As usual, if others won’t shut up about it, then neither will I (though I hope I can at least make real arguments to support my views, unlike some of the kneejerk reaction types we see.)

Also, the usual disclaimer: this post deals in part with sexual content, don’t read if you’re not into that, etc. You know the deal.

If you’re thinking “oh, another excuse for AK to post a bunch of half-dressed catgirls again” well, maybe it’s partly that, but that’s not the main point here.

First: what is the controversy here that people are talking about? Fanservice has been present in anime, comics, games, and related media both western and eastern for decades. Defining it is a bit difficult, though, because people disagree on the boundaries of fanservice, drawing their own borders according to their own reasoning. According to the top-rated definition on the esteemed reference Urban Dictionary, “fan service refers to scenes designed to excite or titillate the viewer. This can include scantily-clad outfits, cleavage shots, panty shots, nude scenes… if it has little plot-redeeming value, but makes the viewer sit up and take notice, it’s probably fan service in one form or another.”

The author of that definition also notes that a broader definition might include gratuitous action, explosions, and other types of non-sexual fan-pleasing scenes, but I’m only concerned with the narrower definition here, since that’s what most people seem to refer to (and complain about) when they use the term.

I won’t deny that there’s a whole hell of a lot of sexual content out there. It’s an old maxim that sex sells — that’s been true for thousands of years, probably ever since someone in Uruk decided to start a peepshow for guys drunk on that ancient beer with the grain floating in it.1

There was fanservice even back in Babylonian times.

But there’s an important distinction to be made here. I believe a necessary part of this concept of fanservice is that it’s gratuitous, that it’s added into an existing work that would have been complete and whole without it. Above I’ve posted a screenshot from the first episode of last year’s Fate/Grand Order – Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia, an anime series that undoubtedly contains a whole lot of fanservicey shots of certain popular characters like Mash Kyrielight (above) and Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love and fertility who looks exactly like Rin Tohsaka for some reason. I think these kinds of shots can be safely put into the fanservice category because they’re pretty damn blatant and clearly gratuitous. When the Servant Mash is protecting her Master by using her Noble Phantasm while they’re falling out of the sky, do we need the above kind of shot specifically to get what’s going on? Not really.

Of course, games also contain plenty of fanservice. A few days ago I saw a review of Atelier Ryza 2, the newest entry in Gust’s long-running Atelier series. This review mostly praised the game but did complain about all the “fanservice”, by which it meant shots of characters in conversation with low camera angles. Presumably these angles focus a whole lot on the protagonist Ryza, since her thighs have become famous (and I still wonder whether she was designed at least in part to appeal to the American market, because if she was, the plan seems to have worked.) I haven’t played Ryza or its sequel, so I can’t say whether that reviewer was making too much of it, but I have seen a few of those conversation scenes in bits of playthroughs and yeah, those shots certainly do exist in the games, though I can’t say how frequently they come up.

However, there are other works in which I’d argue that the “titillating” material is not gratuitous. I’ve written a bit about the Monogatari anime adaptation here, which I mean to pick up again this year because of how much I liked its first few series. Though it had been on my to-watch list for a long time, I have to admit that part of what got me interested in it was the griping I saw about it from some Twitter users for being “horny” in their words. And then I resolved to finally start watching it to see if there was anything to those complaints.

What I found was a series that did contain some material people would call fanservice but that worked in the context of the series, that suited the tone of the story and didn’t involve any out-of-character nonsense. Moreover, this material was largely woven into the story, since confusion between romantic love and mere sexual lust is a pretty prominent theme of Monogatari, at least in the first few series that I’ve watched so far. You could certainly argue that author Nisio Isin pushed the envelope with Nisemonogatari, but in general I never felt like I was being pandered to or watching something meant merely to titillate. And even Nisemonogatari didn’t feel too off to me since the series had established a kind of absurd tone by that point, mixing that in with the more serious dramatic material in a way that I thought completely worked.

Senran Kagura: Estival Versus (2015). Fighting hundreds of bikini ninjas at once is just a normal day in this game

And then there are games and other works so filled with sexual or borderline content that they’re defined by it, but those don’t bother me either. It’s not like I can argue otherwise after everything I’ve written on this site until now anyway. But I think the most important reason I’m not bothered by such works is that they don’t pretend to be something they’re not. When you buy a Senran Kagura or Gal*Gun or HuniePop game, you know exactly what you’re getting. The same goes for anime and manga series with strong erotic elements.

I always find sexual content-based complaints about these works strange. It would be like me reviewing an album by a noise rock group and complaining about how noisy it is. Well shit, what did I expect? I completely understand why these kinds of works put some people off, but I also don’t think complaints over fanservice apply to works that don’t make any secret of what they are. Just read the M for Mature or 18+ notice on it and move on if you’re not into that sort of thing.

Nekopara Vol. 2 (2016), just filling my self-imposed catgirl quota for this post.

I feel the same to be true of optional material in games. As much as paid DLC sometimes annoys me, I don’t have any problem with giving players the option to choose whether they want the spicier parts of a game. The Nekopara series of visual novels provides a nice example: the all-ages versions are cute romance/slice-of-life stories with some light ero sort of stuff thrown in, while the 18+ versions go hardcore by adding the sex scenes. (The full 18+ version of Nekopara Vol. 4, which I’ve recently started reading, is even considerate enough to ask if you’re playing the game while other people are present, and you’d better take it seriously when it asks.) I’d put skimpy DLC costumes in games in the same category — they’re there if you want them, but if you don’t they’re easily ignored.

But then what does that leave? There’s a narrow slice of artistic content that I’d call fanservice that actually annoys me. That’s the type that’s clearly present only to pander to what the creators think I want to see and that either distracts from the story, breaks the tone, or causes characters to act in bizarre or stupid ways or against their established personalities, assuming the characters in the work have personalities worth caring about in the first place. I wouldn’t even include shots like those brought up in F/GO Babylonia or Atelier Ryza 2; my only complaint is with those works that allow the fanservice to seep into the substance, the story and characters, in ways that warp them and screw them up.

I can’t think of any specific examples to illustrate this point, but I know they’re out there. Take your average harem comedy for a general example, the kind that has a dumbass protagonist bumble around and waver between a bunch of girls who inexplicably all like him. I can’t stand this sort of work. It’s not so much the fact that there are usually erotic elements to it, but rather that they’re put there in service of a bunch of boring characters getting into predictable situations.

Obvious fanservice here in Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out!, but this didn’t bother me too much.

This is part of why I usually dislike romantic comedies unless there’s something really special about them. The Uzaki-chan anime didn’t deserve all the silly controversy it got itself into last year, but it did come close at times to falling into that boring overused trope category for me — that was the only real complaint I had about it. Even stuff like the standard beach episode seen above didn’t bother me, since it’s not unusual for people to go to the beach on vacation, and nobody was acting out of character in this part. It’s only when the characters repeated the same old gags, going through that tired cycle of “are we just friends or more than that” bits that I got irritated. I know that’s the whole point of the series, but there are more interesting ways to do it (see again Nagatoro, but maybe I should reserve my judgment to compare its own anime adaptation to that of Uzaki, especially since I haven’t read the Uzaki manga.)

So really, I guess my only complaint about fanservice is when I feel I’m being very obviously pandered to in a cheap way, or when I’m being bored by something overly predictable. It’s not enough to just have some cleavage or thighs on screen every so often; you need to provide an interesting story or compelling characters or fun gameplay, and then you can throw in all the titillation you like as far as I’m concerned as long as it fits into the work naturally and isn’t just a dumb distraction. The real sin in my mind is creating something that’s dull — as long as the game or series in question is entertaining, I’m fine with these sexual elements, and used in the right way and context I think they can even add to the appeal of a work.

Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica (2007). This JRPG contains some suggestive conversations and some eye-catching costumes, but I’d say these are examples of fanservice done right, presented in an interesting and clever way.

Finally, I want to address an argument I’ve seen brought up that I find interesting: that anime and related games and other media should be cleaned up somewhat to get rid of the stigma some people attach to them. This very argument was raised by an article I featured on the site back in October, which dealt specifically with fanservice in anime. I agree that this stigma is a real thing; certainly some people think poorly of anime in general at least partly because of its sexual content. However, I don’t agree that the stigma is a problem. Those who dislike anime are free to find other media to enjoy, and that’s provided they never discover that there’s plenty of anime out there they probably would like. Creators shouldn’t feel compelled to water down their work in the hopes that they’ll reach a wider audience, especially since a lot of established fans would likely be upset by it. If they want to take that risk, that’s their choice, but I believe in most cases that it would be the wrong one.

Of course, I get that a lot of people would disagree with me on these points. I obviously don’t have the same moral objection to h-games or similar 18+ material that some do, and my tolerance for sexual content in games, anime, manga, and VNs and in art in general is pretty high.2 These are just my opinions, and as usual, I’m always happy to read differing ones as long as we all keep things civil. But we always do here anyway, don’t we? We can keep all the stupid fighting for social media. I think I’ve gotten used to Twitter’s bullshit by now, at least enough to not be driven crazy by it. š’€­

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1 On this subject, it’s not really my concern anymore, but I think it’s pretty weird that all these modern breweries try to replicate these very old drink recipes like Dogfish Head’s ancient Egyptian-style beer, which from what I remember tastes like liquid ass. Probably for a reason: people back then were making alcohol from whatever they had around, and when you’re a commoner tasked with building King Menkaure’s pyramid, life probably sucked enough that you were fine as long as you could get hammered every day. This has nothing to do with fanservice; it’s just something else I wanted to complain about.

2 This is also not strictly related to what I’m writing about here, but I do believe drawn and animated 18+ material can be a moral substitute for people who have objections to similar live-action videos — especially relevant now considering certain large websites that have collapsed in on themselves thanks to apparently practicing little or no oversight over their content. But then many people who object to live-action videos also seem to object to the 2D adult material, sometimes in even far stronger terms, so maybe their problem is with the subject matter and not the people involved in depicting it.

In any case, it’s important for the purpose of regulation to make a distinction between suggestive and downright pornographic material, both in live action and in drawing and animation. Conflating the two leads to serious problems (and unfortunately that’s something legislators seem all too willing to do, especially if they see votes in making a moral issue out of art. But I’ll save the political/legal soapbox stuff for a later post.)

Deep reads #5.3: Getting personal with Persona

My post focusing on the PersonaĀ series is finally done. I still have more to go in this set of posts, though. Hopefully the next one won’t take three god damn months to write. A couple of general plot trends and minor spoilers in here, particularly about one confidant link in Persona 5, but aside from that, you can read without fear since this post deals generally with the modern Persona games, their themes, and how I’ve related to them. Sorry for getting so personal this time (that title isn’t just a dumb joke even if it looks like one) but I’m also interested in how you’ve related to these games if you’ve played them — the comments section is always open.

As before, I’ll also let you know that this is the third part of a series about Megami Tensei. If you want more context for this post, you can get it from the first part, but it’s not that necessary to understand what I’m talking about here.

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I don’t think it would be any shock to regular readers of this site if I admit that I’m not a very social person. I’m pretty sure I’ve brought my extreme introversion up before, in fact. It’s something I’ve mostly gotten past purely out of necessity, but I still much prefer to be alone most of the time.

Partly for this reason, my feelings about the Persona games are a bit complicated. On one hand, they provided my way into Megami Tensei as a whole — Persona 3 back in 2007 was the first MegaTen game I played, and I was hooked from my first time stumbling into the Dark Hour with theĀ P3Ā protagonist up until today. Over the last 14 years, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Persona 3, 4, 5, and their expansions alongside the mainline SMT games and other spinoff series I’ve explored. On the other hand, the Persona games alone among all the other MegaTen titles, starting with 3, combine the traditional demon-fighting JRPG mechanic of the series I like so much with a social sim, introducing extra depth and story for the characters along with some weird pacing issues that the series never had to deal with before. Persona wasn’t the first game series to take this approach, but it’s definitely been the most visible and commercially successful one to try it out, and this dungeon crawling RPG/social sim hybrid setup is now a series standard.

It didn’t start that way, though. Fans often acknowledge the 1994 Super Famicom title Shin Megami Tensei if… as the spiritual predecessor to the PersonaĀ series, since it was the first to take place in a high school setting and focus on a group of students. Like SMT if…, the first three actual Persona games, Megami Ibunroku Persona in 1996 and the two parts of the Persona 2 duology in 1998 and 1999, were more or less straightforward JRPGs. However, they did put a lot more emphasis their characters and the relationships between them than the mainline SMT games, which mainly focused on the broader story and had pretty thin character development.

Persona 3 inner cover art by Shigenori Soejima

This trend continued with Persona 3, which came out in 2006 in Japan and 2007 here in the States. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Megami Tensei or any of its already massive 20 year-long catalog, even though I was already deep into some JRPG series at the time. My future favorite game SMT III: Nocturne had been released in America a few years before but apparently without much commotion. But I did hear Persona 3 talked about around its release, probably because of its novelty over here as a hybrid RPG/social sim. Of course, back then people were calling it more of an RPG/dating sim, which was a pretty big simplification if an understandable one — the game does feature a dating mechanic, with five of your female classmates available for you to romantically pursue in the original game.

But although the dating might have been the flashiest feature in the game, there was a lot more to its social aspect than that. Persona 3 takes place in the city of Tatsumi Port Island, a nice seaside spot that’s been stricken with a condition called Apathy Syndrome, which causes its sufferers to sit around not caring about doing anything even to the extent that they can starve to death. The protagonist, a transfer high school student, soon learns that this strange condition is connected to the Dark Hour, a “hidden” hour that takes place at midnight every night and corresponds with the appearance of a giant tower called Tartarus that just happens to be at the same site as his new school, Gekkoukan High. Protagonist’s new dormmates are all in on the secret as well — he and they are some of the few who actually experience the Dark Hour, with everyone else suspended in time for that period and therefore left unaware of it.

You also all happen to possess the power of Persona, magical representations of your alter egos that have the ability to fight and defend against both human and otherworldly entities, up to and including gods. To me back in 2007, this was where the game really stood out. From the very beginning, when your unnamed1 main character enters his new dorm late at night and is approached by a mysterious ghostly boy who asks him to sign a shady-looking contract, there’s a strange, heavy atmosphere around the place. P3 doesn’t waste much time getting to the point — the protagonist is special; not only does he hold the power of Persona, but he’s also a “wild card”, meaning that unlike his friends, he can summon any number of Personas to fight for him.

“When you’re done with class today, do you want to get together and fight some shadow demons in the nightmare world only we can access?” “Sure, sounds good.” (Source, CC-BY-SA)

This all fits into the usual setup of Persona collection in battle and fusion in the Velvet Room, mechanics taken straight from the mainline Shin Megami Tensei series and adapted into this new format. However, Persona 3 adds that social aspect on top, allowing your protagonist to create bonds with his fellow students and certain people around town who are sorted into different Tarot Arcana categories that the Personas are also grouped into. By leveling up these “Social Links”, the player is able to make progress in battle through bonuses in fusion to the corresponding Arcana.

These links are often made with people you might not normally expect. Many of them are with your teammates and other school friends and colleagues, only natural considering that you’re all going through the horrible ordeal of high school together (and especially natural in the case of your fellow Persona-users, who also have to juggle school and social lives with fighting shadow demons in that nightmare world of Tartarus.) As you progress through the story, your bonds with your teammates in particular get stronger thanks to all the dangers you’ve gone through together trying to defeat the growing menace of the Dark Hour, but the same is true even for your bonds with other friends who don’t realize what you’re going through.

At some point in there, you also all had a shared dream about a dance competition one night. And yeah, this is part of the canon as far as I know.

As a result, the Persona games feel a lot more personal to me than others in the overarching Megami Tensei series. Like mainline SMT, they take place against apocalyptic backdrops with demon and shadow invasions of the human world and all that, but they also feature stories about individual struggles and the power of true friendship and love that help us break through them.

So then what’s an embittered, world-weary jerk like me doing enjoying games like this with such positive approaches to life? There’s a lot about the Persona series I like, and part of that has to do with its acknowledgement that even though the power of friendship can be great, life can also be profoundly, remorselessly, and unbelievably shitty. In fact, I think that’s part of why they emphasize the importance of forming bonds with others so much. Life doesn’t always work out in these games: broken bonds between characters aren’t always perfectly fixed, dilemmas aren’t always sorted out nicely by the end like they are in old sitcoms. And when a character dies, with a few major (and controversial) exceptions, they’re dead for good. So sometimes, there’s no happy ending — the resolution to a social link story might only consist of a character accepting and coming to some kind of peace with a less-than-ideal situation.

That’s something I can appreciate. As embittered as I am, I still don’t believe that humanity is all shit, that it’s just naturally evil or corrupt. I think this is a stance too often taken by hack writers and artists who think being dark automatically means you’re being deep. It’s both inaccurate and intellectually dishonest — it should be clear to anyone looking at it with a more honest approach that human nature isn’t nearly that simple. For the same reason, the other extreme of false optimism feels just as dishonest to me. Because yes, maybe life really is a wonderful gift that I should cherish. Yes, I know it only happens once,2 and I get that it was incredibly unlikely that it was going to happen to me, that I’d be given this opportunity. I can tell myself that all day, but it doesn’t change the fact that life sometimes feels like complete dogshit, a burden that I have to carry rather than a gift that I should be thankful for.

The social link rank-ups help, though.

I see a lot of this false optimism in the society I live in. As a way to cope with the hardships of life, I completely get it — if telling yourself all of the above really helps you make it through the day, I can’t criticize that. To me, though, that approach ignores a lot of the negative aspects of life that really cannot be overlooked if you’re trying to write personal stories like these. For the most part, the side stories that the Persona games tell strike a nice balance between these two extremes.3

And yeah, I am taking the tonal differences between the modern Persona games into account when I say that. Persona 3 is generally considered much darker and more pessimistic in tone than later Persona games, and that’s a characterization I’d agree with. However, even the later games feature some side stories that have somewhat sad or bittersweet endings. While there are probably better or more obvious examples to use here (the links with the terminally ill young man in Persona 3 and the widow in Persona 4 both come to mind) the one standout figure in this sense to me is Yuuki Mishima from Persona 5.

Mishima is one of your classmates who you meet during the game’s first story arc. He quickly becomes a devotee of the Phantom Thieves, the secret team the protagonist and his friends create when they realize they have the power to make criminals have changes of heart and confess their crimes through the typical Persona-using methods. He also figures out pretty early on that the protagonist and company are in fact the Phantom Thieves, after which he sets up a fan site where people can express their support and even suggest those who might need a change of heart. In this way, Mishima feeds the protagonist new target info while maintaining a “wink and nod” attitude about his secret identity.

All this is well and good, but a few scenes into Mishima’s social link, it becomes obvious that he’s starting to go on a power trip, taking some liberties with his influence as de facto leader of the Phantom Thieves online fan community. After he starts insisting that you target a popular male celebrity he’s jealous of, you and your friends decide to track down and give Mishima’s shadow self a visit. Finally, Mishima realizes he’s been an asshole and sincerely apologizes, maturing a bit and becoming somewhat more secure in his identity.

Even so, Mishima doesn’t exactly get what he wants by the end. What he really seemed to want was to be the protagonist himself, or at least a very visible hero of some kind. By using his newfound power, he tried to take the lead and have his own way and to achieve his own selfish ends, and he ends up getting rebuked for it. Mishima’s feelings are very understandable, at least to me — the character comes off as an outsider, a guy who’s seen as nice and pleasant enough but also a bit obsessive and irritating to others. He’s also something of a doormat, and this seems to be the source of his power trip, which starts when he feels he finally has some control and isn’t just being pushed around by everyone else. By the end of his social link, Mishima has grown a bit and gained some real backbone, but he’s still behind the scenes and hasn’t become the hero he wanted to be.

But that’s okay. Mishima accepts his place and commits to becoming a better person, even if he can’t have exactly what he wants. A lot of the other social link stories in the Persona series proceed along the same lines, ending with resolutions that aren’t usually totally happy for those involved but at least involve some new understanding and growth. I’ll admit that a few of these links fall flat, with characters who don’t feel very realistic or just aren’t all that appealing or sympathetic, and a few others that resolve themselves a little too neatly, but in general, they feel pretty satisfying in this sense.

I’ve even lightened up on my feelings about Marie a bit. Not much, though.

Most of the villains of the modern Persona games also fit pretty nicely into this framework. This is at least true for those who act as foils to the games’ protagonists. There are a very few other Persona-using characters who possess the same wild card ability as the protagonist, but typically they differ in that they use their powers for evil rather than good. That might sound pretty standard and boring, but I think there’s more to it than simply the “hey, I’m the story-appointed bad guy” stuff you’d expect from RPGs like these. The wild card ability carries great potential, represented by the protagonist’s place in the Tarot Arcana as the Fool, the card denoted by the number zero — here not a negative but rather a positive, meaning the protagonist can become anything he likes and use his ability to achieve things others can’t.

But not without the help of his friends and colleagues. This is the major difference between the Persona protagonists, who build relationships of trust with the people around them, and the antagonists who possess the same wild card ability but decide to reject these relationships, either because they’ve been burned in the past or because they feel they’re not getting their proper due from society. So they give in to feelings of bitterness, and ultimately they can’t achieve what the protagonists can for that reason.

At least that’s how I read it. Again, all this is a bit strange for me on a personal level, because I feel like I can identify with these antagonists sometimes a bit more than I can with the protagonists. Maybe it’s only natural, after all: I’m also a bitter person with an extremely skeptical view of society in general, and there’s nothing in the world I’d like to do more than escape from it all. But then again, that’s really not an option, and I have to admit that the antagonists in these games are selfish assholes — and as bitter as I feel sometimes, I never want to become one of those.

I can’t even bring myself to kill shadows or demons when they beg for their lives; that’s how soft I really am.

So despite what some people say, Persona isn’t all style and no substance, not even close. There is a whole lot of style to the series, though. A big part of this has to do with the music, which I already touched upon back in my first post. Shoji Meguro is the composer responsible for most of the music in these games. Aside from just generally writing excellent music, Meguro writes each soundtrack with its own character, so that one doesn’t sound much like the rest. Comparing the three mainline modernĀ PersonaĀ games alone,Ā Persona 3 has a strong rap sound with a lot of pop mixed in,Ā Persona 4 is much more pop/rock-sounding, andĀ Persona 5 goes heavy on 70s style funk and jazz. My personal favorite isĀ 5 just because I’m into that style the most, but they’re all fantastic.

And then there’s artist Shigenori Soejima, who has done just as much as Meguro to define the feel of the modern Persona games. Soejima is one of my very favorite character designers, with a style distinct from Kazuma Kaneko’s but that still fits pretty well with Kaneko’s original work on the games’ many MegaTen demons. Even if you’ve never played Persona before, you may have seen Soejima’s work, since he’s also responsible for the art and character designs of Catherine and its PS4 expansion Catherine: Full Body. Though I can’t say I prefer one style over the other, I love his art — I don’t own both his artbooks for nothing.

The English versions of Soejima’s artbooks (left) seem to be extremely hard to find and expensive now, but used Japanese-language copies (right) are still going cheap on eBay. On the plus side, the Japanese copies are a bit nicer and sturdier, with protective transparent dust jackets that the English versions lack. At this point, if you’re interested, I think you’re a lot better off going for the Japanese ones even if you can’t read the text in them.

As for the shipping and waifu wars the modern Persona games have inspired thanks largely to that dating mechanic I mentioned, I don’t have anything to say about those. Have fun fighting on Twitter or Reddit over that dumb shit if you really feel like doing that. Not me — I will maintain as I always have that Aigis is best girl, not just in Persona 3 but throughout the part of the series I’ve played, but I respect your tastes completely no matter what they are. Even if you like that alcoholic journalist fromĀ Persona 5 the best. Yes, even Ohya is a fine choice. I’m not one to judge.

I also like Lisa Silverman a lot, but I haven’t finished Persona 2: Innocent Sin yet so I can’t make a definitive call on her yet.

And that’s really all I have to say about Persona, even though there is a lot more to say about it. I could write an entire set of posts dedicated to this spinoff series alone, or even to one of the games in it. But that’s not my goal here. Others have gone into great depth about Persona already, and I’m not sure I have that much more to add at this point, except to say that it’s a series worth getting into.

So next time, we’ll take a look at issues raised more by the mainline SMT series, specifically with matters of the divine, the human, and the very weird and complicated relationships between the two. Will I be condemned forever for my bizarre heresies? Probably! All the more reason not to follow my example, if reading this post didn’t convince you of that already. š’€­

* * *

1 The protagonists of these games do have official names, one taken from the manga adaptation and usually a different one for the anime and for later spinoff works. However, in true Megami Tensei fashion,Ā Persona lets you name your protagonist whatever you want, so there is no official name at least as far as the games themselves go.

2 Unless you believe in reincarnation, and there are hints throughout Megami Tensei that it does exist in-universe, at least in a few cases.

3 I’ve seen it argued that Persona 5 leans too much towards the optimistic side, even more than the relatively bright and cheery Persona 4 does. I don’t think P5 goes too far myself, but I can understand these arguments, especially considering how easy it seems to be for Joker and co. to resolve their friends’ problems by changing people’s hearts in Mementos. I wouldn’t be surprised if Persona 6 takes a slightly darker turn again for that reason.

Seven things that remind me of my childhood

What is it about nostalgia that’s so popular? It seems like it’s always been a thing to look back fondly on certain aspects of the past. You can probably go back to ancient Sumeria, assuming you have the means, and find people talking about how great the 2230s BC were and how kids these days just can’t appreciate the songs from back then. Nostalgia is also part of why I write on this site — not the entire reason or even close to it, but sometimes I do dig back into my own past to get some ideas about what next to watch/read/play/listen to, though, and on occasion a new game or anime series will even make me remember some long-forgotten piece of that past.

Just as a break from the usual, and because I don’t have my next posts prepared anyway, I’ll write about some things that give me those nostalgic feelings. Starting with…

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

That’s how old I am now, yeah. I don’t hate the 3D games or newer games in general like some people do, but to me the Genesis/Megadrive Sonic titles will always be the best (and Sonic Mania is up there as well, though a lot of that might have to do with how much of the spirit of those games it captures.) In particular, Sonic 2 brings me back to my days as a babby gamer — one of my first game-related memories is playing as the invincible 2-player mode Tails running behind my older cousin, who always insisted on playing as Sonic, and helping him beat Dr. Robotnik.

I guess that’s not the Floating Island in the background, is it? Just some other island. This used to confuse me as a kid, since Sonic 3 & Knuckles also had an island setting.

The music also has a lot to do with those feelings. I think this is really the first game BGM that was burned into my brain. I’ve written about a bit of musician and composer Masato Nakamura’s work on the first two Sonic games here before, but it’s worth revisiting for how damn catchy and good it all is. I also love the soundtracks to the following Sonic CD, Sonic 3, and Sonic & Knuckles, but I think Sonic 2 will always be the standout for me in terms of music, even if I have to give the best game award to the combined S3&K (my favorite platformer period, even more of a favorite than any of the Mario games from the same period, though I love those as well.)

OutRun

This wasn’t by design, but it seems now like a lot of the games I write about fall under the Sega umbrella. That became especially true after Index Corporation dissolved, causing a bit of a freakout among fans until Sega bought Atlus, creating a new subsidiary also called Index Corporation that also became the parent corporation of Atlus and then was renamed Atlus itself and merged into that company (or something like that.) So now all my MegaTen stuff on the site is technically Sega-related as well.

OutRun is another Sega game I remember playing in my faraway distant childhood. This racing game originally came to arcades in 1986, but it had a very long life and was still popular by the time I came around and got coordinated enough to understand and play a game like this. I was lousy at it and I still am, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have nice memories of it that take me back to the early/mid-90s. Once again, the music is a big part of this nostalgia trip — the original BGM is very short, consisting of just three main racing themes and a short high score screen theme that you can’t hear all the way through during normal play because of the 30-second “insert your initials” timer. But I’m not alone apparently, because for a while there’s been a whole subgenre of music called “Outrun” that seems to take a lot from 80s electronic, creating a kind of retro-futuristic sound. A bit like future funk, which I really like.

Playing OutRun in Yakuza 0 has only reminded me how fucking bad I am at it.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

It’s been a long time since I actually watched Evangelion, but I still have fond memories of it as the first anime series I ever watched in a serious way. This might be hard to believe, but before this show, I really wasn’t into anime at all. Admittedly, I was way too young back in 1998, when I watched Eva through 100% totally perfectly legal means and not in Winamp in 360p, to get all the themes Hideaki Anno probably meant me to get. Back then I really just liked the style, the massive robot fights, and the weird religious symbolism. Eva also introduced me to my first fictional sort-of crush in Captain Misato Katsuragi, years before “waifu” became an English-to-Japanese-back-to-English loanword.

Classic waifu. I miss that 90s anime look sometimes too.

Winamp

Yeah, speaking of Winamp, that reminds me of my childhood too. It’s still the best Windows media player program in my opinion, even if it has been dead for several years now. Remember all those skins?

The Beatles Past Masters Vol. 1

Now all right, I’m not so old that the Beatles are from my childhood. But I did grow up hearing a lot of them as a kid in the 90s, because they did come from my mother’s childhood, and she played the hell out of the above compilation. Later on I got into the Beatles’ more artsy out there stuff starting from the 1965 album Rubber Soul on, but as a kid I knew them from their early poppy stuff, which is exactly what Past Masters Vol. 1 contained. And the songs are still really good, even if they don’t have that weird edge. Nothing wrong with some good pop music like A Hard Day’s Night, even if I’ve heard it so many times I never need to hear it again in my life.

Unfortunately, it didn’t contain any of that later stuff, not even the 1965 ones before they really went artsy like Paperback Writer (a great song with a very dumb nonsensical story in the lyrics, but still fun) or Drive My Car (also the theme to the local news morning traffic report, specifically the “beep beep, beep beep, yeah” part. I don’t even know why I remember that. More nostalgia at work I guess.) Still really good, though.

Churros

Moving into the realm of food now, something I almost never write about here, but taste after all figures a lot into nostalgia and childhood memories, at least from what I understand. Churros originated in Spain and from there went off to Latin America and then up here to the States. As a kid, though, I didn’t know this history — I only knew them as those fried dough sticks with sugar on them that we got at the state fair I went to every year. Along with corn dogs, churros are one of my old, very unhealthy childhood favorites for just that reason. They are excellent, and I regret that I haven’t had one in years now.

Source: Licensed under CC BY 2.0, by Jude Adamson, a guy who took a photo of this churro in something called Catalan cream alongside a dessert wine. Not how I consumed it as a kid, but it does look good.

Open fields/plains

Here’s a strange one. I grew up in the suburbs, but on the very edge of them — outside the development I lived in, there was a whole lot of nothing stretching for miles, so far you could see mountains on the horizon. Since leaving that place as a kid, I’ve almost always lived in large cities, so maybe seeing an open plain like that just reminds me of the stark difference between that part of my childhood and becoming a teenager and ultimately an adult. But it might also have to do with this liminal space concept I found out about a while back, in which depictions of places you’ve never even been are supposed to remind you of distant memories or something. Obviously I don’t understand it very well, but it seems interesting. This YouTube guy made a comprehensive video about the concept. (His video on the bizarre complications of creating a real-life anime girl is also quite something, though I do disagree with him about what he sees as the more negative aspects of escapism through future technology. Still interesting, though!)

I don’t look back too often to my childhood in general — it was fine, I can’t complain about any of it; it’s just something that happened, and while being an adult has its own challenges, I can’t say I’d want to go back and relive the 90s or anything. But it’s still nice to reminisce sometimes. Now that I have it out of my system, though, I’ll go back to trying to make high-effort posts instead that take actual planning and work. Unless you want a line-by-line breakdown about why the story to “Paperback Writer” makes no sense at all, and nobody wants that. So what are you nostalgic for? Please leave a comment and join in if you feel like it.

A review of Blue Reflection (PS4)

Here’s a post that’s been a long time coming. From the very back of my backlog, or at least the backlog I’m actively keeping track of, comes Blue Reflection, a JRPG developed by Gust and released in 2017. Gust is principally known for the extremely long-running Atelier series (seeĀ Rorona andĀ Meruru and a bunch of others) but Blue Reflection was something very different — instead of the fantasy Renaissance European cities and towns we’re used to from that series, we get a modern Japanese high school setting, and instead of an alchemist for our protagonist, we get a magical girl. This game was created under the supervision of Mel Kishida, the character designer and artist who also worked on Gust’s Atelier Arland games, and apparently he really wanted to make a magical girl game.

And that’s just what Blue Reflection is. If you’re looking for a game that fulfills the requirements “turn-based JRPG” and “has magical girls” this is probably the title that will come up first. You likely won’t be disappointed with the result either, at least as long as you’re in that very specific demographic. Blue Reflection does feel like it has niche appeal, which might partly explain the mixed reviews and generally cold reception it seems to have gotten here in the US outside of the hardcore Gust fan circle; I don’t even see it brought up much among JRPG fans in general. Which is really too bad — it does have flaws, but I found Blue Reflection a unique and interesting game. At the very least, you can’t say it’s like any other game out there (barring some possible Japan-only games I’ve never gotten to play before.)

I’ll get into all that in depth below, however. And all without getting into plot/character spoilers beyond the basic story setup, so don’t worry about those this time around.

Japanese high school is no joke

This is our protagonist, Hinako Shirai. Before starting high school, Hinako had a promising future as a ballerina, but a leg injury has forced her to put those dreams on hold. Blue Reflection begins during her first year at the prestigious Hoshinomiya High School, a small all-girls school divided into special classes for those pursuing careers in the arts and sports and regular classes for everyone else. Now stuck in the regular class thanks to her injury, Hinako is understandably depressed about her situation.

Then she meets an unusual pair in her class, the twins Yuzuki and Raimu Shijou, or simply Yuzu and Lime. These two quickly befriend Hinako, and after hearing her story they decide to offer her a special gift: the power of the Reflector. Reflectors have the ability to enter the Common, a weird metaphysical mindscape full of demons that represent and are empowered by human emotions. When these emotions get out of control, the demons start to act up, and Hoshinomiya just happens to be on some kind of emotional fault line that’s causing its students to become especially distraught and wild. As a Reflector, Hinako will have the responsibility along with Yuzu and Lime to fight and subdue these demons, and by doing so they can help resolve their classmates’ emotional distress.

Hinako, Yuzu, and Lime in the only nice-looking section of the Common; the rest are pretty fucked up

And yeah, Reflectors are magical girls, complete with those transformation sequences you’ll know if you’ve watched any magical girl show ever made. Blue ReflectionĀ also features massive, monstrous bosses to battle in the form of the Sephira, who are trying to use all this emotional chaos to take over the world. So just like a proper magical girl, Hinako is now basically going to be tasked with saving humanity along with her new friends, assuming of course that she accepts the twins’ offer.

Hinako does accept, partly because Yuzu and Lime tell her by defeating the Sephira she’ll be able to gain a wish. For Hinako, this wish is obvious — in her current state, there’s no guarantee that she’ll ever be able to dance again, so she reasons that this is a sure way to heal her leg and get back on stage.

Hinako at home reflecting on her situation (get it?! …yeah, sorry.)

The game proceeds along this path, with Hinako spending her days at school studying, making new friends, and fighting shadow monsters using her magical girl powers. The story is broken into chapters, each of which starts out with some major event usually leading to a big boss fight, and then to a block the game calls “Free Time” in which you’re free to run around school talking to fellow students, solving their issues by fighting demons in the Common alongside Yuzu and Lime. Most of these chapters are also broken up by side character stories resulting in a new classmate for Hinako and co. to befriend.

This social element is only part of the game, however. Blue Reflection is still a turn-based JRPG and features plenty of fighting, mostly in the dreamlike world of the Common. Thankfully, this isn’t the plainest turn-based combat system around: Blue Reflection relies heavily on timing and using skills to slow down and knock back enemies. Hinako, Yuzu, and Lime also draw power from a common pool of “Ether” that they can charge up while fighting. Collecting enough Ether unlocks the massively powerful Overdrive ability, which allows the use of multiple skills in a single turn at reduced MP use rates.

The frilly dress is cool and all, but I wish I didn’t have to fight these weird deer monsters

Luckily for Hinako, the power of friendship isn’t just a metaphor for the happiness and fulfillment she gains from the confidants she makes throughout the game. It is that, sure, but it also adds to the magical girl trio’s actual strength in battle by manifesting as “Fragments” formed from said emotions that give various bonuses when equipped to skills. To that end, and also because it’s a good way to break up all the fighting, the player will spend most of the time they’re not fighting with their schoolmates, having lunch, playing sports, and going out to various spots in town to raise Hinako’s affection points.

Some of her friends are pretty damn weird, but they mean well. And despite the implications of the term “affection points”, no, there’s no dating in this game. Sorry if you’re a yuri fan; you’ll have to look elsewhere for that.

Now I might guess what some readers are thinking — isn’t this familiar? Isn’t there another series of games that are turn-based JRPG dungeon crawler/social sim hybrids and that use the protagonist’s links with their friends to support them in battle? Yeah, this game drew a lot of comparisons to the Persona series when it was released from what I remember. That it came out only months after the big hit Persona 5, which was still very much talked about at the time, probably contributed to those comparisons.

The Persona comparisons might have also led to some disappointment, because aside from their superficial similarities, Blue Reflection doesn’t feel at all like a Persona game. To its credit, it also doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be a pale imitation of Persona but rather to do its own thing entirely. Unlike Persona, which builds fairly realistic worlds full of people both in and outside the school setting to interact with, Blue Reflection concerns itself exclusively with Hinako and her classmates, ignoring almost everything else around them. Hoshinomiya High School is all filled out with students hanging around in classrooms, club rooms, the library, sports field, and courtyards, but the only points outside of school featured are the various hangout spots Hinako can visit with her friends and Hinako’s own room, where she prepares for her next day of school and goes to sleep. Though it’s implied that they are around, we never see any adults — not even a single teacher is seen at school, where almost every scene takes place after classes are out.

Hinako helping one of her generic non-story classmates through her existential crisis on the school roof. As you can see, there’s this whole town down there, but you never get to interact with anyone in it.

Moreover, unlike the calendars that the modern Persona games strictly follow, Blue Reflection doesn’t keep track of how many days you spend in free time hanging out with friends, going home, and returning to school. Unless it’s a lunch or school activity event, every one of these sends Hinako home when they’re finished, but the game doesn’t seem to mind if you spend a month or two during a chapter of free time (though I don’t think I ever got that far myself, just projecting based on what I did with Hinako’s schedule.) Eventually you’ll run out of events to watch in a given period anyway and will probably want to move on at that point by reporting your progress to Yuzu and Lime, but this quality gives Blue Reflection almost a strange Groundhog Day sort of feel even if that’s not what’s actually going on.

Another field in the Common, with enemies stalking around in the background.

However, it seems to me like that’s what the creators were going for. This might be a stretch, since I have no idea what their intentions actually were, but Blue Reflection has a dreamlike feel to me — everything from the weirdly sparse real world outside of the school to the surreal areas of the Common you have to visit to fight demons adds to that feel. Whether or not that was how they intended players to feel, Blue Reflection is clearly not trying to be a sort of budget Persona or anything like that. It’s too different in tone for me to get that impression.

The art and music in the game both contribute to that dreamlike feel as well. Mel Kishida seems to have had a huge influence on Blue Reflection as the supervisor, and a lot of the game feels like a showcase for his character and monster designs and his settings, which contrast strongly with each other in a way that I think works. The soundtrack by Hayato Asano, full of relaxing piano-based pieces and driving battle themes, is also excellent and enhances this feel. Even if you have no interest in this sort of game, I recommend at least checking out the OST.

If Yuzu and Lime’s constant social life management wears you out, at least you have nice music to listen to while you try to meet their demands before the story can progress.

I did bring up flaws at the top of this post, though, because Blue Reflection has some pretty glaring ones. The biggest issue I had with the game was its pacing, especially with a couple of seemingly major story beats that came up near the end and then resolved themselves so quickly they may as well not have happened. It’s strange to say, given how lenient the game is about letting Hinako take time out to hang around with her friends in between giant otherworldly monster attacks, but the story seemed very compressed by the end for this reason. These left me with a few gaps in characters’ judgments and reasonings, specifically in Hinako’s, that I think weren’t explained very well.

The game is also pretty damn easy. HP and MP are replenished after each encounter, so there’s no reason not to go all out in every fight you get into in the Common. After unlocking more advanced offensive skills, I was able to clean up most fights in the game with one massive all-enemy attack from Yuzu. And once you master the use of knockback skills, Ether collection, and Overdrive in battle, even end-game bosses become complete jokes. Hinako’s magical sword is the most powerful weapon in the world apparently. If she got to use it in the real world or while not fighting Sephira, she could probably take over the world herself (not that she’d really want to, though there is one character she’d definitely have to hide it from. If you’ve played Blue Reflection, you might know who I’m talking about.)

Hinako about to destroy another giant horrific world-eating monster

Finally, it generally feels like there was some untapped potential to expand the story and explore some of its characters and themes more deeply. Maybe there were budget or timeline issues in the game’s development. The translation is a bit sloppy with some typos left in the script, but that’s a localization problem, and Blue Reflection came out in North America six months after its Japanese release, so that doesn’t seem like it would indicate anything about the game being rushed out. So maybe there were no development issues and this game turned out exactly as the creators intended, though in that case I wish they’d added a bit more to the story and character interactions.

Even with these flaws, however, I liked Blue Reflection. The dreamlike, unreal nature of the whole experience was a positive in my mind. I thought it suited the story the game was telling, and it also set it apart from the other modern real-world setting JRPGs I’ve played. I haven’t seen much magical girl stuff really, so I don’t know if the story of Blue Reflection would be played out to someone who’s deep into that genre, but I also liked that the story dealt with themes of friendship that weren’t trite but actually dealt with loss of identity and sacrifice in a way that more or less worked.

Hey, I can read some of this finally. Not all, though. Thanks for reminding me I need to get back to my kanji studies, blackboard.

I get the feeling this is a highly personal sort of work. If you can’t get enveloped in the world and the atmosphere the game creates, or you’re just not into the style or look of it, you might just be bored and frustrated by it. I can understand why many players would feel that way about it, but I’m happy that I finally got around to playing Blue Reflection. There have been rumors of a sequel around for a few years now, and I hope if that happens that we get something even better, more polished and fully fleshed out.

The Second Annual EIBFY Game Awards!

Yeah, I said I’d do it again, didn’t it? Screw those “official” Game Awards. I’ve got something better: a collection of my own awards based on total nonsense categories and accompanied by no physical trophies and no prestige whatsoever. Who wouldn’t want that instead?

As before, I’ll be considering games I played this year, not games that were released this year, because that would be a very small pool of games. And I don’t keep up with the times anyway, so it wouldn’t be right for me to even try something like that. Enough talk now; let’s start the show.

***

Best free game (that also comes with a harem)

Winner: Helltaker

I’m pretty cheap usually, unless I’m out eating with friends and don’t want to look like a stingy asshole. What with COVID, that hasn’t happened since last March, though, so I’ve been holding onto my money — but it’s still nice to find a good game that doesn’t cost anything to play. Helltaker is just that: a pretty simple block-moving puzzle game that wouldn’t be all that remarkable but for its cast of cute demon girls plus one angel who somehow managed to wander into Hell. All these ladies join up with the protagonist, who’s breaking into the underworld specifically for the purpose of building a harem of supernaturally powerful women all of whom can easily kill him if they really want to. That’s an interesting choice, and I have to respect it.

Sure it’s depicted as a set of cute triplets in Helltaker, but remember, Cerberus is still the guard of the gate of Hades. Not one to be trifled with.

Helltaker itself is fairly short and simple, but I think there’s a lot of potential in these kinds of characters with something like a visual novel if creator Łukasz Piskorz were inclined to make one. I also love the game’s unique art style. Here’s hoping we see more!

***

Best nightlife

Winner: Yakuza 0

A while back, I decided to settle down in my personal habits and my life in general, quitting all that boozing and street fighting I was doing. You know how it is — fast living catches up with you. But I still feel nostalgic for those days sometimes, so I’m happy that I have a chance to relive them by playing Yakuza 0. This is a game I’ve barely scratched the surface of as of this writing, but I did start it in 2020, so I say it counts. Especially for the purposes of this category, since no other game in my list comes close to recreating anything like Tokyo’s Kamurocho or Osaka’s Sotenbori, commercial and red light districts that are based on real-life neighborhoods in those cities. This is my first Yakuza game, and also the first that allows me to get in a fight instigated by hooligans who don’t know any better, beat money out of them, and spend that money on a meal to replenish any health I lost.

Pretty sure this guy is advertising okonomiyaki. I could go for that right now.

Honorable mention goes to Persona 5 Royal, which I also haven’t finished somehow, but that has already provided a pretty nice experience of life in Tokyo, recreating several of the city’s districts. However, the nightlife just isn’t the same. You play as a high school student in that game instead of an adult, so there’s a limit to what the game lets you do. No drunken street-fighting in that one. But it still provides a nice tour of a few prominent wards of Tokyo.

For the purposes of any other possible awards I dream up, though, I’ll reserve final judgment of Persona 5 Royal for next year’s ceremony. I’m not even to the game’s third semester yet. Lazy, I know.

***

Best-looking food

Winner: Atelier Meruru DX

One of the big draws of the Atelier series is the level of detail the games get into about the various items your alchemist protagonist can craft. This isn’t just any old crafting system, either: it’s a central gameplay mechanic, and one that I always find fun to master.

Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland is no different from the other games in the series in that regard. Also like the other Atelier games, and particularly in the Arland sub-series, Meruru has a ton of beautifully illustrated food items to craft. These do have practical uses in restoring health and mana to your characters in battle, but the characters also talk a lot about both crafting and eating food in the game’s many dialogue breaks and cutscenes. Just as in real life, being good at cooking and baking are great ways to make friends, and the same goes for making food magically through alchemy. Serious credit goes to artist Mel Kishida, who I believe was responsible for this artwork along with the game’s character designs and backgrounds.

Mont Blanc is the best dessert right alongside cannoli. The Italians and French know their sweets. If I lived in either of those countries I’d definitely be in lousy shape right now.

This year’s 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim comes in a close second in this category and therefore gets an honorable mention for also containing a lot of talk about food and nicely illustrated food items that made me hungry while playing. However, 13 Sentinels didn’t feature any Mont Blancs. CrĆŖpes are good too, but Meruru wins for having the better dessert.

***

Best physics

Winner: Wolf Girl With You

I didn’t play a Senran Kagura game this year, so this 2016 h-game gets the coveted Best Physics award instead. I don’t know how much Wolf Girl With You really counts as a game, though. It’s more a series of 3D animations strung together with some short sets of dialogue. But really, that’s close enough in my opinion. It’s just a game about having some private time with your cute werewolf girlfriend, so I don’t think it needed more than that anyway.

Hey, this one also has food in it. And so does Yakuza 0. If I end up gaining weight again anytime soon I’ll have to blame it on all these games.

In any case, creator Seismic deserves all the credit for the physics displayed by his 3D model of Liru from the anime Magical Pokaan. I was already a fan of this wolf girl, but the bounce added a lot to the experience. Though Magical Pokaan itself featured some of that too from what I remember. That outfit Liru’s wearing is her regular one from the show, after all, so you can’t blame the creator of this game for that bikini/shorts look if you don’t like it. (No complaints here, however.)

***

Least amount of time played before eyestrain

Winner: Radical Solitaire

Seriously Vector Hat, change your fucking color scheme. The colors above do change, but they still clash and glare in my eyes in horrible ways. I still like this one, though. Radical Solitaire is an interesting game I found in a huge itch.io bundle last summer that combines Klondike Solitaire (also known as Patience, I think in the UK?) with Breakout. Check it out if you can bear all the neon and the weirdly contrasting dark layout in the main game sections.

***

Best educational game

Winner: The Expression: Amrilato

Every year, I’ll probably give out an award that only one game I played even comes close to qualifying for, and this time it’s best educational game. Arguably the only educational game I played this year was The Expression: Amrilato, a visual novel that centers on a yuri romance plot but also teaches the player the basics of Esperanto. If that sounds like a strange mix, then yeah, it is, but I found it worked pretty well, with the game managing to weave its lesson sections in naturally with the plot as you learn the Esperanto-inspired in-game language Juliamo along with the protagonist Rin. The girl-girl romance stuff is also nice if you’re into yuri — I’m not a dedicated fan of it, but I also have no problem with it and find it a nice break from the usual thing sometimes. (Back in the day we called it “shoujo-ai” over here. Is that different from yuri? I don’t even know. Feel free to educate me in the comments if you do.)

***

Jury Prize

Winner: 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

I wanted to continue the tradition of not giving a game of the year award that I started last year. However, I found a loophole that still lets me sort of give one without actually giving one: the Jury Prize. The Cannes Film Festival gives these to movies that “embody the spirit of inquiry” according to Wikipedia. I’m not totally sure what that’s supposed to mean, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

So I decided steal the idea of this award from the Cannes people. I convened a jury consisting of myself, held a closed door session by myself in my walk-in closet, and came out with the winner: 13 Sentinels. If any game I played this year embodies the spirit of inquiry or whatever, it’s this one. I posted a review gushing over it a few weeks ago, but here’s the short version: 13 Sentinels is an RTS tower defense/adventure game hybrid with a weird science fiction story and a lot of interesting character developments and plot twists. It was different and it worked, and that’s my favorite kind of game (or favorite kind of artistic work in general really.)

The beautiful art almost goes without saying for a Vanillaware game, but there’s a lot more to 13 Sentinels as well.

I don’t want to spoil anything else here, so I’ll just say this game deserves a lot more recognition than it’s gotten, which I’ve heard is largely the fault of Atlus not marketing the game very well here in the West. Considering their other bungles, that’s entirely believable.

***

Best girl

Winner: Esty Erhard (Atelier Arland series)

Okay, so best “girl” might not be appropriate. Best woman, maybe? Though I know a lot of people will disagree, I feel like the “girl/boy” cutoff is somewhere around one’s early 20s, maybe at 25. And we first meet Esty Erhard at 26 in Atelier Rorona, while working in her role as a knight for the Kingdom of Arland. Esty is a hardworking and capable bureaucrat who helps the protagonist Rorona out in her efforts to keep her alchemy atelier open against the efforts of the government’s chief minister to close it. Even though Esty is part of the government, she and her grim-looking subordinate Sterkenburg Cranach give as much support as they can to Rorona, joining her in the field to beat the shit out of monsters while she collects vital ingredients.

Esty is one of my favorite characters in the Atelier Arland series; she has an admirable no-nonsense attitude but also has a sense of humor. The main reason she gets this award, however, is because she’s one of those characters who’s maligned pretty unfairly. Not by fans, at least as far as I know, but more in-game. Esty is chronically unlucky in love throughout the series. When she returns with Sterk 14 years later in Atelier Meruru, she’s still unmarried despite her efforts to find a match, and she has to deal with some ribbing (mainly from her younger sister Filly) over it. She even became the butt of a rather inelegant joke by the localizers at NIS America who decided to change her last name to “Dee” (yeah really.)

Meruru seen here caught in a tense conversation between sisters.

I haven’t played the newly released fourth Arland game Atelier Lulua, so I don’t know if Esty’s been granted the happy ending she was looking for, but she deserves it. I don’t see why she shouldn’t have it. Maybe the guys in the world of the Arland games are all afraid of a woman who can beat them up. Well, I’m here to say that much like the guy in Helltaker, I have no such fear. I’m all about Esty, and that’s ultimately why she’s getting this award.

***

Congratulations to all the winners! To close this ceremony out, just like last time, I was going to detail some of my plans for the coming year, but I really don’t have much to say about it after my last post aside from “expect more of the same.” Maybe that’s not so exciting, but I hope you’ve liked the posts I’ve put up since reviving the site two years ago, in which case that should be good news.

Either way, I don’t want to post a list of games or anime series I plan to write about here, because I always seem cursed never to actually finish them if I do. So I’ll maintain an air of mystery here. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll probably be able to guess some of what’s coming up anyway.

Listening/reading log #15 (December 2020)

We’re at the end of the year, finally — now for 2021. Not that changing the year by one number makes that much of a difference in reality, since it’s just another bit of distance of the Earth revolving around the Sun, but maybe there’s a real psychological effect in changing years. We humans made up the calendar, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. So let’s hope for better things this year as we collectively give a middle finger to the last one.

And let’s also do the usual end-of-month thing: talk about some good music and good writing. This month, I’m returning to two bands that I’ve already covered twice before. But these are both really good albums, so it’s excusable I think. The holidays are all about being comfortable anyway, and I’m totally in my comfort zone today. On to the business:

Discipline (King Crimson, 1981)

Highlights: Discipline, Matte Kudasai, Thela Hun Ginjeet

When I wrote about King Crimson’s album Red a while back, I mentioned that the band broke up shortly after it was released and wouldn’t reform for seven years.Ā Discipline is what they came back with, “they” being constant Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, returning jazz/prog drummer Bill Bruford, and two new guys in bassist Tony Levin and guitarist/singer Adrian Belew.

80s Crimson is completely different from 70s Crimson in sound. Instead of the heavy rock, DisciplineĀ and the following two studio albums are done in a New Wave style that gets compared to Talking Heads a lot but is more technical and weird in a different way. Adrian Belew is a bit of a neurotic goofball like David Byrne, but I like his brand of strangeness too, and he’s also an excellent guitarist with an interesting experimental edge just like Fripp. Discipline mixes things up with the fierce fast-paced “Thela Hun Ginjeet” and a nice love song in “Matte Kudasai” (aside from love songs never being much of a King Crimson thing in the 60s and 70s, check out the title — “please wait” in Japanese. Were these guys also weebs before it was cool?) “Discipline” is also an insanely precise instrumental that shows off all their talents, with Fripp and Belew’s guitars going off into different key signatures and meeting up again.

I still think Red is the best album Crimson put out, but I also like that the band has changed things up so much throughout their run (well, they’ve changed their lineup a lot too, aside from the mainstay Fripp) and the 80s version of the band made a lot of good music. I also recommend the excellent live album Absent Lovers, which includes some great songs from Discipline and the following albums Beat and Three of a Perfect Pair along with a few old 70s standards like “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part II” and “Red”.

Fragile (Yes, 1972)

Highlights: Roundabout, South Side of the Sky, Heart of the Sunrise

When I said I was in my comfort zone this post I wasn’t kidding. I’ve already written about The Yes Album immediately preceding this and Close to the Edge immediately following it, so I had to write about Fragile too; I couldn’t leave that gap in there. Also, like those albums and Discipline above, Fragile features Bill Bruford on drums, making this his sixth appearance in these short reviews up until now. He really is a great drummer, so he’s deserving of that great honor.

Fragile is also just a really entertaining album. Everyone reading this probably already knows the opener “Roundabout”, either because it’s an old rock radio standard in its shorter edited form or because it was the ending theme to the first season of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and was featured in seventy millionĀ of those “to be continued” meme videos. But there are other great epic-length songs on Fragile, including the multi-part ultra-complicated super-proggy piece “Heart of the Sunrise” and my personal favorite “South Side of the Sky”, a driving heavy song about people desperately trying to cross a snowy mountain range with a really nice piano solo in the middle from Rick Wakeman. Unique among these albums, Fragile also features shorter solo-focused pieces for each band member to show off in, which are pretty fun as well.

I recommend Fragile highly together with The Yes Album and Close to the Edge, especially if you have any interest at all in that classic early 70s progressive rock period. Yes made a lot of other good music, especially in the 70s and on the 80s pop standard album 90125, but to me this run of albums contains their best work.

Now that I’m done with my fanboy nonsense, reviewing albums I’ve listened to since I was in high school like a lazy asshole instead of expanding my horizons, let’s move on to the featured articles from around WordPress:

In Memoriam: Adobe Flash (Nepiki Gaming) — Flash has been a big part of many of our lives, especially for anyone who grew up on the internet in the late 90s and through the 2000s and even the 2010s, which I have to imagine covers almost everyone reading this. Nepiki gives a eulogy for the now discontinued program.

The Romance of Space as an Ocean (Mechanical Anime Reviews) — Scott examines how certain science fiction works treat space like a massive ocean and the romantic aspects of that theme. I love space operas as well (watch Legend of the Galactic Heroes, it’s great!) and I can relate to the feelings he expresses here.

Beginnerā€™s guide to indie (2020): part one (Later Levels) — Kim at Later Levels has posted a series on indie games, which as you know I’m all about. There are some interesting-looking titles she brings up I haven’t played either. In the same vein, her review of the indie sort of-visual novel VA-11 Hall-A is worth reading. I loved that game. Still waiting for that “coming soon” semi-sequel though. Maybe we’ll get it this year.

The Traditional Catholic Weeb Speaks: Nichijou Revisited (The Traditional Catholic Weeb) — A review of Nichijou, a weird comedy anime series that I vaguely remember from years ago. Traditional Catholic Weeb’s detailed and comprehensive post got me interested in it again, and I might finally get around to watching it now.

Lightning Warrior Raidy (PC/FMTowns/PC-98): A Surprisingly Solid Dungeon Crawler (Detailed Review) (NSFW) (Guardian Acorn) — Annie Gallagher takes on Lightning Warrior Raidy, an old and famous (or maybe infamous?) h-game. Not safe for work as the title suggests, but if you’re not at work and otherwise okay with it, I suggest checking this review out.

My 5 favourite games I watched other people play in 2020 (A Richard Wood Text Adventure) — Ever since the invention of the Let’s Play way back in 2007 or around then, people have been watching other people play video games online. This might seem strange, but some games can be interesting to watch in the context of someone else’s playthrough if their commentary and personality add to the experience (and given how many VTuber game streams I’ve watched in parts lately I certainly can’t say otherwise without being a huge hypocrite.) Wooderon here addresses some of his favorite games to watch others play paired with a few particular streamers.

Looking Back: 2020 Post Mortem (Frostilyte Writes) — This was a shitass year all things considered. I don’t even really have to say that. But thankfully, some of us have been able to do something productive with the crap 2020 gave us. Frostilyte here looks back on his own year and what he got done blogging and gaming-wise. I should also thank him for being one of the people who finally convinced me to start on the Yakuza series, which I recently started at 0, so I’ll do that here. Thanks!

Early Impressions on Yakuza: Like a Dragon (Lost to the Aether) — Speaking of Yakuza, here are Aether’s first impressions of the recently released Yakuza: Like a Dragon, a game that takes the Yakuza setting and feel and combines it with a turn-based RPG mechanic. An interesting combination, but does it work? Aether takes that question on in the above-linked post.

Evangelion Sword Exhibition at Toei Kyoto Studio Park (Resurface to Reality) — I love the idea of an Evangelion-themed exhibit like the one described here at Toei Studio Park in Kyoto. As usual, I regret not being able to visit it myself, but reading about it is interesting.

Who I Want for Roommates or Neighbours in Quarantine (Anime Edition) (A Geeky Gal) — Meg at A Geeky Gal considers the following: which anime characters would you have as roommates during quarantine? A question to be carefully considered since you’ll have been stuck with them for nine months as of this writing.

December 2020 in Summary: Hindsight Is 2020 (Extra Life) — Red Metal’s overview of his last month of blogging. I don’t usually feature end-of-month recaps on other sites like the one I’m writing here right now because that feels a bit weird to me, featuring that kind of post in a similar one like this. But this one contains Red Metal’s takes on some excellent movies likeĀ Ben-Hur, The Twilight Samurai, All The President’s Men and others that should be read.

Some of my favourite openings! (Umai Yomu Anime Blog) — And Yomu takes the time to write about some openings he likes. I’m a fan of #6 on the list myself.

And that’s it for the year. I’ll get more into my own plans for this year in an upcoming post, but the extra-short version is that I have a ton of games I’m either working through or have lined up in the backlog, so there should be no lack of game-related material in 2021. The same is true for anime, which I’ll keep writing about as well, along with music and the occasional pissed off set of complaints that you’ve come to expect from me. The same goes for my deep reads posts, though the latest one I’ve been working on has been giving me hell. I hope to have it out sometime this month, though.

Until next time, I wish you extreme prosperity, maximum happiness, and whatever else your heart desires this year.

Deep reads #5.2: That was cheap

Here’s a fun Hardcore History-style disclaimer: This is part two in a multi-part feature on the Megami Tensei game series. If you haven’t read part one, here’s a link — I recommend reading that first before proceeding to get the proper context if you need it. But if you just want to dive in here, that’s totally up to you.

You can also read this disclaimer in Dan Carlin’s voice if you want. But if I had his voice, I’d probably be podcasting instead of writing a blog. Anyway, on with the show.

“Cheap” is a term that gets thrown around a lot when players die in games in ways they feel to be unfair. I don’t know if it’s possible to pin down exactly what a cheap death is, or where specifically a death goes from “okay, that was my fault” to “fuck this cheating piece of shit game” along with a possible thrown/broken controller.

Maybe the best way to define cheap in this case is to use that famous definition of pornography given by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.”1 The best example I can give of just such an “I know it when I see it” instance is this.

I like the detail on his sarcophagus, though. Kazuma Kaneko pays a lot of attention to detail in his designs.

That’s a compilation made by YouTube user Jim Reaper of parts of the boss battle against Mot, an Egyptian god of death, in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. This fight occurs at a point fairly late in the game when the part-human part-demon protagonist Demifiend is running through the Vortex World, a small sort of bubble universe containing the ruins of Tokyo. After fighting through the somehow perfectly preserved Diet Building, Demifiend is forced to face this sarcophogus-encased asshole to proceed.

Mot normally shouldn’t be a big problem at this point in the game if you’ve built up a team of demon allies with diverse strengths and abilities. However, he has a trump card that he’ll decide to pull if you’re unlucky: Beast Eye. This is the weaker of two special abilities that gives the user extra half-turns denoted by the flashing icon in the upper right.

Essentially, Beast Eye and the even stronger Dragon Eye let you get more turns for free, something like wishing for more wishes from a genie. Only bosses can use this move; for obvious reasons neither Demifiend nor any of his allies gets to use either of them (including boss demons that become recruitable or fuseable after they’re defeated.)2 This would be cheap enough, but Mot alone among all his boss colleagues can use Beast Eye multiple times in one turn. It doesn’t happen in every fight, but when Mot remembers he has that ability, he can effectively deny the player his turn, using a combination of Beast Eye, buffs, and powerful Almighty magic attacks that can’t be nullified to kill Demifiend and company even if they’re fully healed and buffed.

Granted it does lead to the game’s beautiful game over sequence that I never get tired of seeing, but still, annoying.

So maybe it’s not easy to pin down exactly what constitutes “cheap” in a boss battle, but that sure as hell is cheap. I’m not sure if it was even put in intentionally or was an accident; there’s no particular reason Mot alone among all the bosses should have this frustrating ability, which is why I think it might not have been intentional.

But this is not the only big “FUCK YOU” moment in a Megami Tensei game. I had a much more personally frustrating experience with the Beelzebub fight near the end of my Neutral route run of Shin Megami Tensei IV. This feared chief lieutenant to Lucifer is very strong, as he should be given his position as an endgame boss, and the battle is naturally difficult to clear. However, when the fight starts there’s a good chance, possibly 50/50, that on top of all that Beelzebub will get the first turn, which he will use to absolutely fucking destroy your party. If he hasn’t completely wiped you out and sent you off to Charon before you get a turn, your party will almost certainly be too injured and weak to effectively answer Beelzebub’s first strike, and you’ll probably end up dying on your second or third turn.

After beating slapped around by this giant fly for a dozen rounds, I just started automatically quitting and reloading when he got the first shot assuming I wasn’t totally dead at that point. Because to me, this fight jumped over “challenging” and landed in that cheap territory, at least when it gave Beelzebub the first turn. I wouldn’t call it a controller-throwing moment, since SMT IVĀ was on the 3DS and like hell I was about to break that precious thing by flinging it into a wall. But the fight was frustrating and felt fundamentally unfair. A coin toss mechanic works fine if the two parties are relatively balanced in strength, but that wasn’t the case here.

More Kaneko, depicting the Lord of the Flies in his ultimate form. I said it seven years ago in my review of the game and I’ll say it again now: Beelzebub is an asshole.

There are a few other instances I can think of in the series that might count as cheap, like the Sleeping Table fight in Persona 3. However, almost none of the other difficulties I’ve faced in an SMT, Persona, or other game in the MegaTen series has really pissed me off to such an extent as this fight against Beelzebub. I have heard some of these games called difficult to the point of being entirely cheap, though, and that’s what I want to address here. I can’t blame anyone for feeling that way about any of the mainline games in particular — they do like to beat up on the player, Strange Journey probably being the worst in that regard.3

But I don’t mind that. That’s partly because these games usually give you all the tools you need to meet their challenges. When I talked about cheap SMT bosses above, the name “Matador” might have sprung to mind — this powerful fiend dressed up like a Spanish bullfighter shows up early in Nocturne and will usually wipe out new players because of how steep a jump in difficulty his fight represents. However, there’s a big difference between the way Matador fights and the ways Mot and Beelzebub fight in the examples I gave above. In the latter cases, the player can easily get battered to death no matter how prepared they are through the enemy’s use of unique advantages that are extremely difficult to survive, much less to counter.

Matador, however, can easily be countered as long as the player has the right party and skill setup. He seems to be the game’s way of telling the player “Hey, we’re not going to let you breeze through this just by staying properly leveled. You have to use your head.” You could argue that a boss battle designed to beat the player the first time around is a bit cheap in itself, but as long as you’re hitting save points promptly, you’ll lose very little progress, and it’s an easy matter to fall back and come up with a new strategy. And almost every other difficult battle in the series I’ve played so far fits this model: it presents an obstacle that seems insurmountable until you come up with the winning strategy (though having some luck still helps.)

And don’t forget the buffs. No joke, Megami Tensei really is the one JRPG series I’ve played in which buffs and debuffs are not only useful but essential to winning.

That’s not the only aspect of Megami Tensei that sometimes feels unfair, however. There’s another mechanic present in a lot of these games that might make you tear your hair out: demon negotiation.

Negotiating with fellow humans is hard enough. But when you’re a human (or a former human-turned-demi-human as in Nocturne) dealing with devils, angels, spirits, and even deities, it’s time to leave behind logic entirely. Players new to the series who picked up Persona 5 got a taste of that pure insanity in its own negotiation system, but the mechanic in that game is fair and easygoing compared to its counterparts in the mainline games.

In the other games, the demons you’re talking to aren’t typically knocked down or pleading for their lives, so maybe that’s the reason for their relative docility in P5. And in case you’re wondering, yeah, I did let her live.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a summary: in many Megami Tensei games (ex. the SMT series, the Devil Summoner series, and of course Persona 5) you have the option of fighting against your enemies or talking to them.4 Once you initiate the conversation, several things can happen depending upon the game you’re playing. Most often, the demon you choose to talk to will acknowledge that you’re asking them to join your party and will start to haggle with you, asking you to give them specific items or amounts of money or to let them drain some of your HP or mana. After a few requests that you can either take or leave, the demon may then ask you a multiple-choice question. This question is often a philosophical one, something like “Don’t you think the strong should protect the weak?” or “Is beauty only skin-deep?”, the sort of question depending upon the demon you’re talking to. And if the demon likes your answer, it will probably join your party.

But note all those qualifiers I wrote above: often, may, probably. None of these are sure outcomes. Again, it depends on which game you’re playing, but the demon you’re talking to may be able to reject your advances outright, or take the items and money you’ve given it and run, or decide it doesn’t like how you answered its question and leave or even get angry and attack you, or decline to join your party but give you an item instead (sometimes the very same item you gave it!) Sometimes the question it asks has a bizarre “correct” answer, or one that doesn’t seem to line up with the alignment of the demon asking it. Sometimes the “question” isn’t even a question but an exclamation or a command that you have to do your best to interpret. And depending upon the type of demon, you might not even be able to enter negotiations, either because it’s a mindless beast that can’t communicate with you or because it’s an evil god or demigod who’s too arrogant to even consider giving you the time of day.

And if you talk to a demon under certain circumstances, like a full moon phase in a mainline game, good luck getting anything meaningful out of it, because the full moon apparently gets demons high. Though that’s also a great time to trigger events that won’t normally happen at any other time, like having one of those haughty but extremely powerful Tyrant demons join your party (though I wonder if they end up regretting their decision when they come down after the full moon phase ends. Too bad, because it’s too late once you’ve got them!)

Okay Demifiend, I agreed to join your party but does that mean we have to take these weird group photos? Also please stop twisting my nose. (Source: still more Kaneko official art. This post is really doubling as a Kaneko art appreciation piece, isn’t it.)

At this point, you might be wondering whether it’s worth negotiating with these jerks at all if there’s always a good chance that it will go wrong. To be sure, it’s extremely annoying to have a demon run off with your items without you being able to stop them or to constantly get turned down by one specific demon you’re trying to pick up because you keep failing its stupid tests. But negotiation is still a must. It’s necessary to getting through these games’ challenges efficiently, since it provides useful fodder for fusion to get new demons with more than their typically meager default set of skills.

More importantly, negotiation in these games is fun, largely because of how insane it can get. Negotiation is a gamble that provides the player with a lot of possible outcomes, some of which may only turn up after dozens or hundreds of rounds of talks with various enemies. This makes the mechanic a lot more interesting to use for me, even if the results can be occasionally frustrating — especially when you’re trying to recruit one particular demon you need for a fusion (or just because they look cool or are a hot lady demon or guy demon depending upon your preference; those are legitimate reasons too.) If the gambling aspect of negotiation weren’t there, I could imagine it becoming a bit repetitive and boring, but I’ve never had that feeling about it in one of these games.

Moreover, the crazy, unpredictable nature of negotiation in SMT and the other spinoffs that feature it fits in nicely with the chaotic environments that most of these games take place in. Imagine trying to talk to a powerful mythical beast or spirit, much less trying to convince them to join your team and follow your orders. You’d be lucky if they merely ignored you and didn’t decide to eat or possess you or something similar. Since your protagonist in these games typically has either the natural ability or the pure strength to bring these beings over to his side, it’s reasonable that he at least has to deal with this human-demon cultural divide, and in a few cases with a sort of language gap.

Uh, shit. Okay, maybe “human” is the right answer because it’s the odd one out, but maybe this demon will agree and eat me if I say that. What to do.

To me, this is why these crazy, often unpredictable negotiations fit in so well with the general feel of the Megami Tensei games, and especially with theĀ mainline apocalyptic SMT ones. When you’re thrown into the deep end like that, it makes sense that you’d have to deal with this kind of madness. The games usually do give you a bit of help with a free demon, typically a Pixie who takes some pity on your squishy human self, joins your party for free, and explains the basics of negotiation to you. But beyond that, generally speaking you’re on your own, which is just the way it should be.

And I think that’s true for the entire Megami Tensei experience as a whole. These games vary in tone a lot, from pretty hopeful and even light and fluffy with a few of the spinoff of spinoff games (really the Persona ones) to grim and “why even go on living” with stuff like Strange Journey. Those are both aspects of the series that I plan to cover in later parts of this run of posts, but I think the mercilessness of the combat and dungeon-crawling and the chaotic nature of the negotiation throughout a lot of the series suits it well in both cases. I couldn’t imagine MegaTen in general without it, anyway. It just wouldn’t be the same. Even the fights that feel cheap still fit that kind of setting in my opinion, though I could still do without Beelzebub starting first and destroying my party while I watch helplessly.

I could go on with even more such banging my head against the wall but also fun instances from these games, but I hope I’ve made my point well enough by now. Next time, I plan to move from gameplay mechanics over to story elements, diving right into the characters, story, and lore, so prepare yourself for that. Once again, I hope you’ll join me on that journey. š’€­

 

1 Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964), in case you thought I wouldn’t bother to cite the case properly. You can find the quote on page 197 if you don’t believe me. There are also very obvious questions raised here about how much experience Justice Stewart had seeing pornography considering his comment, but these questions lie outside the scope of this post series.

2 And possibly some very strong normal enemies as well, but I don’t remember if that’s the case. In general if I write something incorrect in these posts, which is very very likely, please feel free to leave a comment correcting me.

3 Just to be clear, I’m not talking about ultra-frustrating final bosses like Mem Aleph in Strange Journey, or optional extra bosses like Demifiend in Digital Devil Saga. Some people might see those as kind of cheap, especially Demifiend who can summon a wide variety of demon allies just like he can when the player’s controlling him in Nocturne. However, these are the kinds of bosses you fight either specifically for a challenge or at a point in the game where you’re expected to throw everything you have left at it, so if there is any cheapness there, it feels more appropriate to me.

4 If “talking to enemies instead of fighting” makes you think of Undertale, that’s no coincidence: from what I understand, Megami Tensei is where its creator got the idea from, though he took his own conversation mechanic in a very different direction. There’s no pacifist run possible in any MegaTen game that I’ve ever played, anyway.

Deep reads #5.1: Why I like Megami Tensei

This was bound to happen at some point. I’ve written a lot about the long-running Megami Tensei JRPG series on this site, certainly more than I have about any other game series — maybe even more than every other series put together. I don’t care to go back and measure that out, but it seems likely.

But why? What’s so special to me about Megami Tensei that I can’t shut up about it? I’ve written reviews of a few games in the series and about various aspects of it here and there, including these two commentary posts from last year. With this new set of posts, I want to dive into that question and examine what makes this series unique and what I think it may have to offer new fans just getting into Persona through the Persona 4 Golden PC port, for example, or wondering about news of the Nocturne HD remaster and the upcoming Shin Megami Tensei V.

As with the Disgaea series I wrote way back in January through April, this one will run as long as it needs to, and like that one, it’s partly meant to win over converts. But don’t worry! It’s fun in the world of MegaTen. At the very least, it might put you into the right mindset to deal with the coming demon apocalypse that will begin in 2033 when a portal opens over your city and Loki and Set fly out.

Speaking of Loki and Set, first things first:

A very brief history of the series and an explanation of just what the hell Megami Tensei is exactly

Megami Tensei (儳ē„žč»¢ē”Ÿ, literally “Goddess Reincarnation” though it’s never gotten an officially Anglicized title like that as far as I know) started out as a trilogy of novels by author Aya Nishitani. These have to do with a bullied high school student named Akemi Nakajima who summons the Norse trickster god Loki through a computer program he wrote to beat those bullies up, but the kid goes a bit power-mad, and Loki ends up using him to escape the computer and enter the real world somehow. Then Nakajima becomes an actual hero, trying to stop Loki with the help of his classmate Yumiko Shirasagi, who also happens to be the reincarnation of the Japanese creation goddess Izanami (which is where the title Megami Tensei comes from.)1

Following the success of the first novel in the series, two games were made titled Megami Tensei and released in 1987. The first to come out was a Gauntlet-looking top-down action game made by developer Telenet that has absolutely no connection with what came afterward. The second was a turn-based JRPG developed by Atlus for the Famicom and was the starting point for the now three decade-long series we’re talking about here. Though this game was based on Nishitani’s first novel, as soon as the sequel Megami Tensei II the series moved away from the source material and started doing its own thing.

But where does that Shin come from? And how do Persona, Devil Summoner, and all the other spinoffs relate to it?

And what makes this cover kind of misleading?

In 1992, Shin Megami Tensei was released for the Super Famicom. Like a lot of other game series that jumped over from the Famicom, this Shin was added as a prefix to set it part from older titles — the character ēœŸ has a few meanings but here it’s used as something like “true”, like “hey, this is the real thing.” Like its predecessors, Shin Megami Tensei was a turn-based JRPG about fighting a demon invasion while recruiting demons into your party through a unique negotiation system. It also spawned a sequel, establishing what we now call the “mainline” SMT series, running through those first two Super Famicom games, SMT III: Nocturne,Ā SMT IV,Ā SMT IV Apocalypse, and the upcomingĀ SMT V.1

However, in the mid-90s Atlus started producing a load of new games in the Megami Tensei universe, using a lot of the same mythological figures and creatures that were featured as demons in the older Megami Tensei/Shin Megami Tensei games. Series like Devil Summoner, Megami Ibunroku Persona (the first Persona game, yes) and later on Digital Devil Saga and the strategy RPG DevilĀ Survivor. These games either had sequels or started entirely new spinoff series, the most successful of which was Persona, which has gotten far more press than even the original series that spawned it.

It’s also important to untangle some of the title-related weirdness that’s gone on when these games have received NA/EU releases. Fans of Final Fantasy will be very familiar with these problems, getting a “Final Fantasy III” that’s actually Final Fantasy VI and so on. The issues with some of the 90s/00s titles in Megami Tensei are weird in a different way. In their attempts to sell this series to the West, Atlus messed around with its titles a bit, releasing Persona 3 and 4,Ā Devil Survivor 1Ā andĀ 2, and theĀ Digital Devil Saga and Raidou Kuzunoha games with the Shin Megami Tensei prefix when none of them were actually SMT games. Megami Tensei, yes, but throw out the Shin because it doesn’t belong there.

It doesn’t have a ēœŸ, but Persona games aren’t a bad place to learn a few other kanji. Thanks for the help, Ryuji! From Persona 5 (2016).

Thankfully, they seem to have quit doing this, but it’s still a bit of a mess for westerners who want to look up information on the Japanese versions of some of the 90s and 00s games. Basically, if the original title doesn’t contain that ēœŸ, it’s not SMT. That naturally has nothing to do with its quality or anything; it’s just a problem with classification. But hell, classification is important. How are we supposed to find anything without it?

I’ll stop boring you with classification talk now, though, and answer the question I posed in the beginning: what do I find so great about this series? Let’s get on to it:

1) Use of mythological, historical, and religious figures from around the world

Many game series that rely on myth and legend for their characters and worldbuilding use beings from one culture or part of the world. Or they go the route of Elder Scrolls and D&D-based worlds and use Tolkien’s old lore. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, and I’ve really enjoyed games that stick to those standards.

But one of the reasons I find Megami Tensei so interesting is that it doesn’t limit itself to any one set of traditions. Certain games will have specific focuses, but as a whole the series branches out into the tradition of just about every culture it can find. Many of the demons in the series (and note: “demon” is a neutral term here referring to any supernatural or mythological being regardless of their alignment) are taken from pretty well-known and common sources, including the active Abrahamic, Hindu, and Buddhist religious traditions and the ancient Greco-Roman, Norse, and Egyptian ones, and sometimes with a special emphasis on Japanese myth. But there are also beings taken from traditions like the Buryat (best bird Moh Shuvuu), Ainu (Koropokkur), and Hawaiian (Pele). The addition of a few other “fallen” gods who were toppled by now-dominant religions like Christianity and Islam make for some interesting character relationships that play out in some of these games.

Alilat, an ancient Arabian goddess whose idol was smashed in Mecca, is back to take it out on your party. Well, not exactly, but I like to think she’s carrying around that grudge. From Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (2009).

The demon designs add a lot to this variety. Most of them were done by artist and series co-creator Kazuma Kaneko, who has an extremely distinctive style. Some of Kaneko’s designs are straightforward, while others get extremely creative, taking some liberties with the demons in question. But even when that’s the case, the designs still usually make sense. The two alternate designs for the common series Angel are good examples of both his approaches: the one that’s used in SMT I andĀ II looks like the typical depiction of an angel from western tradition, while the design used in Nocturne and the Persona games is… well, not typical at all. Yet even that provocative “bondage angel” design has some connection to what an angel is supposed to be in our set of traditions here. It’s not just provocative for its own sake.2

And of course there’s the classic case of Mara, the villainous god of desire/temptation in Buddhist tradition, but also known among MegaTen fans as “dick chariot” for reasons that will be obvious if you look it up. I’ll do you a favor by not posting it here, but you’ll have seen it in some form or another if you’ve played a MegaTen game, and maybe even if you haven’t. That damn dick chariot just won’t stop showing up — he’s a fan favorite, after all.

2) The relationship between the supernatural and human

This connects to the first reason above. It’s also a theme that I plan to write about in a more in-depth way later on. But here, I can at least say that the Megami Tensei series does a lot more with its various gods, angels, demons, spirits, monsters, and mythical heroes than dumping them into a game and making the player fight them. Most of the games involve the human characters having to deal with the supernatural leaking over into the world of humans. This was the basis of the very first Megami Tensei novel and its game adaptations, and though the series has branched out greatly since then, that basic premise is still there.

The relationship between humans and gods and/or godlike supernatural beings isn’t a new theme for the JRPG genre. It’s been present in the genre pretty much since the beginning. The original Megami Tensei has its roots in that beginning, but other major JRPG series like Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem, and Ys also established it as a common theme. Megami Tensei carries that theme even further by having its human and demon characters not only fight but also bond and work together towards common goals. The demon negotiation system is part of that, one of its most unique elements and still one of my favorite mechanics in any game series. Cooperation between humans and demons also plays heavily into the plots of these games, however: particular demons join up with or try to influence human leaders to take actions depending upon their alignments, and the most powerful of them pull the strings from behind the scenes.

Or, you know, they become your demon waifu like Pixie here. From Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (2003).

In the SMT games and some of their spinoffs, this places the player character in an awkward position where fellow human party members will fall into one of the ideologies that make up these alignments. By the end, the player is usually forced into one of these alignments depending upon his dialogue and action choices at fixed points throughout the game. And it’s very much to the credit of the series that it never presents one of these paths as “the right one.” Megami Tensei doesn’t set values of “good” or “evil” on your decisions, going instead with a law-neutral-chaos scale and leaving the players to make up their own minds about the morality of their choices.3

By doing this, the series avoids falling into the trap of trying to force a morality-based karma system that may come off as overly simplistic. Such a system might work for some games, but it wouldn’t really work forĀ MegaTen. While some gods, spirits, and demons certainly identify with being on the good or evil side of things, many of the others have little or no regard for these paltry human concepts of morality. Even the MegaTen version of big bad Lucifer, the Devil himself, doesn’t seem to consider himself evil but rather more a force of chaos, pushing a world of might-makes-right-based total freedom. Whether his goal is good or evil is up to you to decide.

3) A variety of gameplay styles

Megami Tensei is best known for being a turn-based JRPG series, and to be fair a lot of its games use that combat style, including the mainline SMT and Persona titles. If turn-based combat isn’t your thing, though, the series still has plenty to offer, like grid-based tactics battle systems (Devil Survivor) and real-time action (Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha.) So even if you’re completely allergic to the old JRPG “stand and wait for the enemy to hit you, then hit him back” standard, you don’t have to write MegaTen off completely.

And even the turn-based games themselves vary greatly both in gameplay mechanics and in atmosphere and narrative style. There have been a lot of complaints in the last decade about how “stale” the JRPG genre has gotten, partly because of its wearing down of old plot and character tropes and partly because of its use of the old turn-based combat system that hasn’t changed much since the 80s. That’s a take I generally don’t agree with anyway, but I do think MegaTen has been able to avoid being subject to these complaints both by defining its own unique narrative styles and by keeping combat fresh from game to game. Combat in SMT and the other series spinoffs has a different rhythm, relying on the player’s use of buffs and debuffs, exploitation of enemy weaknesses, and effective defense of their own weaknesses.

The Press Turn system in Nocturne is a good example of this: by hitting enemies’ weaknesses, the player only spends half a turn instead of a full one that can be used for a strategic advantage, but hitting enemies with attacks that they void, repel, or absorb costs the player extra turns or even cancels the player’s attack round altogether. The same rules apply to the enemy’s attacks, requiring the player to use both a strategic offense and defense to win. This creates a situation where the battle will tip for or against the player depending upon their party composition and how smartly they’re playing. As a result, brute-forcing your way through an SMT game is simply not an option.

Trumpeter toots as he pleases, no matter how overleveled you are.

And then, of course, there’s Persona. This MegaTen spinoff series has blown up everywhere, comparatively moreso in the West where Megami Tensei didn’t have much of a presence up until Persona 3 got some notice from players here. The Persona games use a modified form of the turn-based SMT battle system, but it’s their inclusion of the social sim aspect that really sets them apart from the rest. It wasn’t a new concept when Persona 3 came out — the Sakura Wars series had been doing it for a while by then — but it was a new concept to me when I picked the game up on its NA release in 2007, and despite a few pacing issues it really worked for me. But I’ll get more into that in a later post.

It’s also worth mentioning that none of these different spinoffs feel like cash-ins based on fads, as though Atlus was throwing out something slapped together for fans to buy up because it had MegaTen branding.4 All these various game styles are at the very least playable even if you’re not a particular fan of them (I’m awful at the Raidou games’ real-time action combat to the point that it’s just frustrating for me to play, but that’s more my problem than the games’.)

4) The music

Yeah, of course the music in this series needs its own section. Every Megami Tensei game I’ve played or even just seen played by someone else has had amazing music, without exception. This is largely thanks to longtime series composer Shoji Meguro (responsible for much of the music in the first three SMT titles,Ā the Persona, Digital Devil Saga, and Devil Summoner games among others.) These soundtracks have very different feels that suit the mood set by each game:Ā Nocturne and DDS combine hard rock with softer ambient-sounding tracks, the Raidou Kuzunoha games use some older jazz styles that suit their 1930s setting, and the modern Persona games have more modern-sounding soundtracks with emphases on rap/hip-hop (Persona 3), pop/rock (4), and jazz/funk (5). And though they don’t get as much attention,Ā Persona 1 and theĀ 2 duology have excellent music as well — I’ve had the battle music in Persona 5 Royal set to A Lone Prayer for a while and I’m not getting tired of it yet. The common point here is that these soundtracks are all excellent, full of memorable, moving, and powerful themes.

While Meguro is the most prominent music guy involved in Megami Tensei, credit also has to be given to Ryota Kozuka, composer for SMT4 and a great one in his own right, and Kenichi Tsuchiya, who provided the massively impressive church organ music for Nocturne and a number of other pieces throughout the 2000s. And of course, the performers get serious credit as well: rapper Lotus Juice played a big part in defining the sound of Persona 3, just as the singer Lyn did for Persona 5 — if Mass Destruction and Last Surprise were stuck in your head when you played these games, they were partly responsible for that.

I actually do like “Mass Destruction” but god damn did it get old after hearing it 500+ times in battle. From Persona 3 (2006).

I could make a list of my favorite Megami Tensei tracks, like say Normal Battle ~Town~, Hunting – Betrayal, Memories of You, Tokyo… but that would probably be an entire post (or series of posts?) in itself.

And as for the other reasons why I like this series — I’ll be getting into those in far greater depth starting with my next entry. I don’t plan to focus each of these entries on individual games or sub-series, but rather on concepts and approaches the series as a whole takes. This will still require going into depth about specific games’ plots, characters, gameplay mechanics, and themes, but I will be trying to avoid specific end-game spoilers. I don’t have any of the other posts even close to done yet, but this is a promise I’ll try to keep.

Hell, I don’t even really know how long this set of posts will be yet. Let’s just say that it will be as long as it needs to be. No need to worry about the details yet. I feel like I’m stepping into a minefield here anyway — may as well just charge ahead and hope for the best. š’€­

 

1 But is SMT: Strange Journey a mainline SMT game? On one hand, it’s thematically in line with the other mainline games; on the other, it doesn’t take place in Tokyo and doesn’t have a numbered title. I’d say it falls into the same category as SMT if… — It’s SMT, but not a mainline game strictly speaking.

Again, though, I don’t know how much it really matters. You could just as easily argue the opposite based on the similarities SJ shares with the numbered games and where Atlus implies or some fans believe it lives in the series’ bizarre, complicated five-dimensional multiverse timeline. I’m not getting into any of that, though. I don’t have enough pushpins and yarn for it.

2 At least I don’t think it is. Maybe Kaneko was having a joke on us. He seems like he has that kind of sense of humor. Just look at Mara.

Also, I’m not forgetting Shigenori Soejima here — he’s one of my favorite artists, but I’ll get into his work when I dive into Persona specifically later on.

3 Nocturne’s Reasons are an exception, but aside from Shijima, Yosuga, and Musubi being a bit different from the usual Law/Chaos/Neutral paths, they operate the same way in the sense that the game doesn’t place a moral value upon them. I still think Hikawa is an asshole, though.

4 With the arguable exception of the Persona 3 and 5 dancing games. Technically they were fine, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get some enjoyment out of them, but the way they were released did come off like a cash grab, which is something I won’t even say about any of the other many Persona spinoffs. Still, they didn’t feel slapped together or anything.

Also with the possible exception of the gacha game SMT Liberation Dx2, but I can’t say because I haven’t played it. I’m naturally suspicious of the “free-to-play” gacha game model, but I’ve also heard that the game has had a lot of work and care put into it, so I don’t want to judge it unfairly. (Besides, even though I say I’m suspicious of gacha games, I’ve played both Puzzle & Dragons and Azur Lane, so who the fuck am I to talk.)

Listening/reading log #12 (September 2020)

No, I didn’t forget — the monthly recap is here. And this marks a full year of them. It’s weird to think, I had the idea for this post series when I was at the office, which is somewhere I haven’t been now for the last half-year since the work-from-home plan was put into place. But I’m okay with that. I would honestly be fine with never leaving my apartment again. In fact, I’ll just sign up for that Singularity thing where we get to become consciousnesses in a massive universal computer network or a simulated universe or however that’s supposed to work.

As usual, I’m going to highlight some excellent posts from around the community here, but first, here are short looks at a couple of albums. This time I wanted to do something more seasonal. Everyone likes Halloween and it’s October now, so here are two real classics that I like but also find to be spooky. Well, maybe more unnerving than spooky. I’d include that Boards of Canada album I covered in the very first one of these posts, but I already wrote about it. It’s pretty chilling too; check it out if you’re into that.

Duck Stab!/Buster & Glen (The Residents, 1978)

Highlights: not even going to try

The Residents might be the most bizarre band ever created. It’s hard to call them a “band” actually; the names and even the number of Residents have always been unknown, and some of what they do involves other media like film or falls more into the realm of performance art than music alone. And even though they tour and do live shows, the performers always wear various disguises, most famously giant eyeball-helmets, sometimes with top hats and full formal suits included. Maybe that’s where Daft Punk got their own helmet disguise idea from?

However, I didn’t pick Duck Stab to highlight because of any of that. It’s rather because this album creeps me the fuck out. None of it’s “scary” exactly, but it can be kind of unnerving in parts. The Residents are known for their deconstruction of pop/rock music, and you can hear that happening right here — most of these songs should sound pretty close to normal with beats, melodies, verses, choruses and all that, but everything is just “off” enough to sound completely bizarre instead. Some of the songs sound intentionally ugly, like the opener Constantinople that seems like it was made to try to get you to turn the album off in its first ten seconds. Or Semolina, which sounds like a Beach Boys song produced in Hell. Laughing Song and Birthday Boy are genuinely creepy as well.

Listening to Duck Stab, I get the feeling that the Residents could have easily made a good album full of regular rock and pop songs if they’d wanted to. Even though a lot of it’s ugly, this music is also interesting and even catchy sometimes. It’s very obvious that these songs weren’t just some shit they threw together but were written, probably with a lot of care. The Residents just chose to make the songs fucked up on purpose, with clashing instrumental parts and vocals and lyrics that almost make sense but not quite, resulting in something that I think resembles an Uncanny Valley effect for music. Captain Beefheart did the same sort of thing in the 70s; this reminds me a lot of his album Trout Mask Replica. It’s worth looking up Duck Stab if you’re into that kind of strange music (and if you haven’t heard it, look up Trout Mask Replica too!)

MekanĆÆk DestruktĆÆįŗ Kommandƶh (Magma, 1973)

Highlights: no

More weird stuff from the 70s. And yeah, the title is meant to be written that way. Both the album and song titles, and even the lyrics themselves, are written in a fantasy language that sounds a lot like German but isn’t quite. Magma was a French band, however, and the only French prog band I know anything about. Like the Residents, these guys were known for their strange compositions, but Magma’s are different. MekanĆÆk DestruktĆÆįŗ Kommandƶh has separated tracks with titles but feels like one full piece, almost like an old opera with characters singing and sometimes yelling and ranting in this fantasy language over organs, pianos, and pounding bass and drums.

There’s a story behind the whole piece that looks spiritual in nature, but I can’t tell what’s going on with it. Maybe it’s an extremely high-minded concept album like Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans about some esoteric religious ideas. But I just think the music is cool aside from whatever the lyrics might be about. The first parts sound ferocious and martial and can even get a bit frightening with the main singer’s ranting and yelping and more singers joining in, but the tone softens and gets more peaceful in the second half of the album. From the flow of it, I can believe there’s a story being told here, even if I don’t really get it.

In any case, Magma are some interesting guys, quite different from a lot of the British progressive bands I’ve covered. I like the fantasy language element of the music as well. Reminds me of the Hymmnos songs from Ar tonelico and the made-up futuristic English/French/Gaelic/Japanese lyrics in the NieR games’ tracks.

And now, the featured posts:

The Great JRPG Character Face-Off: The Results! (Shoot the Rookie) — pix1001 concludes the contest co-run with Winst0lf to determine the greatest JRPG character, and the result may surprise you! But I’ll say it’s a deserving win.

You are the main character of your own life. (Umai Yomu Anime Blog) — An introspective post from Yomu about how we think of our own places in our lives and how anime usually puts that in a different light. I can’t really do it justice here, so do yourself a favor and check it out.

The Last of Us Part II (Extra Life) — A massive and truly comprehensive review of the controversial The Last of Us Part II from Red Metal, digging into both the gameplay and the story. No matter how you feel about the game, this is very worth reading.

Introducing the Frosty Canucks Podcast (Frostilyte Writes) — Frostilyte is now co-hosting a game-related podcast! It’s good stuff, I’ll be following it from now on, and you should too.

Rozen Maiden (The View from the Junkyard) — From Roger Pocock, a review of the mid-2000s anime series Rozen Maiden, which is about a socially maladjusted kid who gets a harem of living dolls that fight each other. This is one that seems almost totally forgotten these days, but it was insanely popular back at the time it aired. Also not quite as weird as it might sound from how I described it, though it has been over a decade since I watched it so I might not be remembering something. I do remember Suigintou being a pretty good villain, though.

Divinity, demons, and decay (Kimimi the Game-Eating She-Monster) — Kimimi writes about her take on Shin Megami Tensei II, a game that until pretty recently was a pain in the ass to play here since it was never officially localized. Anytime anyone writes about SMT I’m interested, and especially about the older or lesser-known titles like this one.

Freaked Out Now and Dead on Arrival. The Persona 3 Retrospective, Part 6(a)- Characters (S.E.E.S. and Protag) (Lost to the Aether) — Speaking of Megami Tensei, Aether’s in-depth analysis series of Persona 3 continues with a look at the unusual school club SEES and the protagonist who joins it at the beginning of the game. Nothing is what it seems at first, and Aether has some great insights about the game once again in this post.

Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light ā€“ Review (Nepiki Gaming) — Check out Nepiki’s newly remodeled site for a great review of this Final Fantasy game. I’ve been off the FF train for a long time now, but it’s still a rich series and a good time to read about.

Why I Hate Fan Service in Anime (The Anime Basement) — Keni over at The Anime Basement puts forward some arguments about why fanservice can be a problem and how some anime series use it in a way that’s not very tasteful. I partly disagree with him, but he does bring up interesting points, and it’s always good to get a different perspective on these matters. (I do agree with him that Kill la Kill does fanservice really well and in a way that makes sense in the context of the show, but maybe that will be a subject for a separate post someday.)

Anime I like, but havenā€™t talked about yet: Maria the Virgin Witch (Mechanical Anime Reviews) — Scott writes about Maria the Virgin Witch, another anime series that doesn’t seem to get a lot of talk. It’s a pretty short series, so no reason not to take the time out to watch it — I’m halfway through it now and it’s very good so far.

Hololive English: Examining a Worldwide Phenomenon (MoeGamer) — I’ve admitted that I fell into that infamous Hololive/Vtuber rabbit hole recently, just before that English-language branch that started a few weeks ago (and you’ll know that for sure if you saw me talking up Gura’s great singing or Amelia’s interesting mix of chilled-out and weird on Twitter or in comments somewhere.) Pete here gives a history of the Vtuber phenomenon and a rundown of what makes the various personalities of Hololive special.

The Soul of an Online Community (ft. Vtubers) (Anicourses) — Sadly, though, the Vtuber thing is not all sunshine and roses, as we’ve seen recently with the suspension of popular streamers Kiryu Coco and Akai Haato over extremely sensitive international political matters (really, I’m not kidding.) Over at Anicourses, Le Fenette examines empathy and connections between fans and players in online communities, including the very active and sometimes volatile world of Vtuber fandom and how it may have contributed to cutting one Vtuber’s career short.

And finally, congrats to The Traditional Catholic Weeb and Dewbond on two years of blogging!

So let’s finally close the book on last month. These posts keep getting longer, just like my reviews. And I have plenty more coming up: I’m in the middle of a few visual novels that I may or may not finish soon, I’ve just started 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, and I’ve finished a few anime series I may write about soon (including even more Monogatari! So I hope you’re not tired of that.) Until next time.