Final thoughts on Outer Wilds (from midway to the end)

A view of the Sun, Outer Wilds

Finally, finally. After writing that initial thoughts on Outer Wilds post ten months ago, I set the game aside. I didn’t drop it — as I wrote then, I intended to revisit it someday, but its challenges at the time proved too much for me to take on. Looking back, I might have been approaching Outer Wilds in the wrong way, trying to swallow up the entire thing at once instead of taking it a piece at a time. I knew even then that that was the approach I needed to take with it, but my patience just ran out. Having read various takes on the game around both from people who have finished it and those who haven’t, I’ve seen a lot of that same sentiment, so maybe that’s no surprise.

But I’ve also seen others say that the game’s mysteries were powerful enough to pull them back in. That’s just what happened to me: every time I started up my PS4 when I had a break from work, I’d see Outer Wilds sitting there in my list, and I’d pass it by but remember that promise I made to myself, to figure the damn thing out. And I guess it’s obvious from the fact that I’m writing this post, but I finally did, albeit with a little help from my friends because I’m also a cheat (but then what do you expect from a lawyer? Really now.)

I hope you like my extremely overlongform posts, because this is going to be one of those; I already know it — I have too much to say this time. I’ll start as I did in my first post on the game, with a summarized tour of my travels through the solar system since I picked the game back up, and then with more general thoughts on the themes, the ending(s), all that. If you haven’t read that first post, it’s basically now part one of this two-part review, so if you don’t know anything about the game, what follows will be meaningless unless you’re read up. However, a serious spoiler warning: I’ll be going in depth here and will be spoiling the entire game in its vanilla form (i.e. without the Echoes of the Eye DLC, which I haven’t played.) It’s often said that Outer Wilds is one of those games it’s best to go into as completely blind as possible, and having finished it, I agree. It’s up to you, of course, but fair warning.

The Sun Station, Outer Wilds

When I returned to the game, back at that familiar campfire, I went straight to my ship’s computer to figure out where I hadn’t been and where I needed to go. The list I made was pretty long: the dangerously Sun-adjacent Sun Station, the statue workshop on Giant’s Deep, the core of Giant’s Deep (which I’d tried to penetrate before without luck), the various Quantum Towers (which I somehow hadn’t even found on Giant’s Deep — I know), the Quantum Moon (again, tried and failed), the Southern Observatory on Brittle Hollow, and the entirety of Dark Bramble (tried and swallowed up once, then put that planet on the backburner permanently.)

I started with Sun Station. I’d read so much about the place at this point in Nomai writings that I felt it was a natural first stop. After working out how to get through the warp on Ash Twin through some trial and error (and holy hell was this trek annoying — more using falling/rising sand to avoid deadly cacti) I made it to the solar station, then tried to make the leap across the gap you see above as the bridge was out (because of course it was.) So I jumped, but without using nearly enough thrust, and so I ended up floating helplessly into space.

I shut the game down, remembering why I’d set it aside in the first place. I had to consciously keep myself from grinding my teeth, and while it was tempting, throwing my controller was out of the question, since I’d already had one break on me all on its own and replacement PS4 controllers are obscenely expensive.

But there was no turning back. I was determined to actually finish this god damn game, so I returned to the Sun Station after waiting for that stupid sand flow between the Twin planets to do its work once again, and I made the leap properly this time. And having made it across, I then remembered why I returned to Outer Wilds despite all this frustration: it rewards effort and exploration, most of all with knowledge. I don’t think the Sun Station is technically a vital step on your path to the end of the game, but the Nomai as usual leave their written conversations everywhere, and here I learned that their efforts to use the station to cause a supernova and use the energy collected to time-warp had failed. I also learned that this all happened around 280,000 years ago, unless the Nomai clock on the station had the wrong reading, and there was no reason to assume it did.

Advanced Warp Core, Ash Twin Project, Outer Wilds

My explorations next took me to the core of Ash Twin. I’d figured out that most every planet and at least one station had warp pads here, making Ash Twin into a kind of hub planet for travel, and after even more trial and error I made it entirely by accident to the planet’s core and the heart of the Nomai’s time loop operation, discovering the memory-importing/exporting masks I’d seen through various projection stones and even at the end of every loop when time reset. I also found what you see above: the “advanced warp core” powering the Nomai time-warp fuckery, with a miniature black and white hole contained inside a device. I knew more than I ever wanted to know about this game’s black hole in -> white hole out mechanic from falling into the much larger black hole at the center of Brittle Hollow countless times last year, and the same sorts of miniature black/white hole combinations showed up in the Nomai’s warp pad mechanisms. So this device being at the center, I figured it was monumentally important — a fact that was confirmed when I removed it and a more dramatic, lengthened version of the end-of-loop music started playing.

Clearly I’d made a breakthrough. I supposed I had to do something with this device other than simply remove it from the core, but I had no idea what to do with it. At least one suspicion I had was confirmed at the end of this run: instead of getting the typical end-of-loop memory-mask sequence, I got a “You Are Dead” message, just like the one I’d gotten when I accidentally killed myself by stepping on a geyser on Timber Hearth ten minutes into my first run of the game. The mask hadn’t yet activated then to throw me into that loop and I had to reload my save — this time, I’d turned the entire system off with the same result.

The next stop was Giant’s Deep. I’d finally worked out that I had to land above and inside the massive tornado at the planet’s north pole, and of course there was one of those Quantum Towers, where I finally figured out the trick to landing on the Quantum Moon. Why it kept disappearing when I previously flew headlong into it in frustration, I’m still not sure — maybe it’s the cloud layer shrouding the moon in darkness that did it, which would be an effective clue for how to get to that fucking sixth location if only I’d drawn those dots.

Quantum Shrine, Outer Wilds

After finding a fully suited Nomai corpse on the moon’s surface and remembering, then discovering her ship there, the one I’d recalled on Brittle Hollow, I stumbled on this giant shrine where I found markers for six moon orbit locations as I’d read elsewhere. I would eventually figure out how to quantumly (?) travel between planets’ orbits using this shrine, again through brute force trial and error, but not yet. I knew I had one planet left to visit that I’d been putting off. I’d read that the chief Nomai craft had been wrecked there, and I knew my fellow astronaut Feldspar was in there somewhere too.

So I had no choice but to brave the interior of the broken, twisted Dark Bramble. I put it off as long as possible, checking everything else off my list that I could: finding the horribly confusing path to the Southern Observatory, getting into the statue workshop hidden in a practically underwater cave, finally managing to dock with the broken orbital cannon I kept seeing at the start of every loop around Giant’s Deep. Only that planet’s core evaded me, but I rightly guessed that I’d find the key to that inside this final “planet.”

Listen: fuck Dark Bramble. I hated this place. Not because it was especially scary — I got used to drifting by the deadly anglerfish pretty quickly, as terrifying as they look, and I actually found having to navigate under the ocean of Giant’s Deep far more terrifying (thalassophobes take note; you’ll have to deal with that too.) But navigating through this place is a massive pain in the ass: not only can you not even use a touch of your main thruster to propel yourself if you so much as hear an anglerfish nearby since they hunt using their sharp sense of hearing, but the main “seed” in the core of the planet contains many more seeds inside it, all of equal or even greater size on the inside. Dark Bramble is a nesting doll of timespace bullshit, and while it’s actually cool and impressive how the developer strung together this internally looping maze, it sure isn’t much fun to get through when you’re worried about that 22-minute time limit yet you can only move at a crawl.

I ended quite a few cycles in Dark Bramble: getting lost, getting eaten, wishing I could kill every fucking fish inside this hellhole and bring their skeletons home as trophies (if only I had the ability and the time.) After much more trial and error, I finally found Feldspar, our legendary pilot and the first Hearthian to venture into Dark Bramble only to lose their ship after being chased by a god damn anglerfish. Feldspar complimented my resolve (nice to hear after all the bullshit I’d just gone through) and gave me the key to getting into the core of Giant’s Deep, pointing me to a dead electric jellyfish mysteriously frozen in the ice at the “south pole” of this broken planet just like the jellyfish swimming around Giant’s Deep’s core, with a note that they’re good insulators and a hint that they can be entered and comfortably ridden like a vessel through their bottom holes (the less I think about it the better.)

After a few more runs at Dark Bramble, I found the other thing I knew I was looking for: the remains of the Nomai, their escape pod and the corpses of the stranded around another seed only big enough for a scout to travel through. Using that signal, I found their primary ship, preserved after nearly 300,000 years albeit in a pretty wrecked state, invaded by giant vines.

Inside, I found the bridge and the answer to my question about what to do with that warp drive I’d taken from Ash Twin many cycles ago: in the center was an identical mechanism to hold the drive with a shattered, dead drive floating nearby. But I suspected it wouldn’t be enough to just fly to Ash Twin on a new cycle, fly back, and then jam the fresh drive in here, especially as I also found a three-panel input device that looked like it needed a particular code to activate. Everything was pointing me to the Giant’s Deep core, which I finally knew how to get to anyway, and after enduring a lot more deep sea bullshit and an extremely unpleasant jellyfish ride, sure enough, I was rewarded with a pattern that a Nomai computer referred to as the coordinates of the Eye of the Universe.

After finally figuring out the sixth location (which I’m still not clear on logic-wise — couldn’t have I just blinked or looked into a corner of my ship and changed the moon’s location while it was entirely out of view? Did I have to be in the shrine with the lights off?) and having a surprise meeting and discussion with an alive version of the Nomai Solanum, or at least some kind of quantum version of her that got trapped in this bizarre timespace, I decided it was time to shove that core in that whatever it was in the Nomai ship. Amazingly, my planned trip to Ash Twin and then the vessel on Dark Bramble went well enough (it helped that I could now highlight its location on my computer and track it, a nice hint there) and I shoved that core into the ship’s bridge, powering it up, and then I entered the three-part code into the rotating panel doing my best to control that irritating light ball the Nomai loved to use for their locks and switches. And after activating one more switch, I reached the end of the game.

On the Nomai vessel, after finding the Eye of the Universe, Outer Wilds

Looking from the Nomai vessel bridge out into the void surrounding the Eye. I know I have to go out there, but do I really want to?

I won’t get into the specifics of how all that plays out, but it ends with you joining your fellow astronauts from around the solar system at a fire. Or quantum versions of all of you around a quantum fire, I guess, together with Solanum, who I assume wouldn’t show up if I hadn’t met her considering the whole sixth location thing turned out to be interesting but not a requirement for the ending. Talking to each of your friends prompts them to start playing their old song all in unison, triggering the creation of a sky-colored sphere. And jumping into that sphere breaks the time loop, ending all life in your system and the game as a whole.

Why did I write out all of the above? Was it really necessary? Maybe not, but I did go through all this bullshit after all, and maybe you found it entertaining and/or informative to read about my suffering. Of course, if it had just been suffering, I wouldn’t have continued playing all the way to the end: Outer Wilds never once held my hand, requiring me to meet every challenge head-on, taking all the hints and clues I’d gathered throughout the solar system and piecing them together in a way that made some kind of sense. If you’ve played it yourself, you already know that this is the furthest thing possible from a simple “go to place A to get item B to unlock door C” sort of standard video game task. In the end, you do have to go to place A to get item B and shove it into item C, and I believe it might even be possible to reach the game’s ending on the very first loop if you know exactly how to do it, but that’s not a task you’ll even know you have to carry out without exploring the entire solar system and gathering all its knowledge together.

Exploration is one of the main strengths of Outer Wilds anyway. You don’t play a game like this simply to figure out how to beat it, or at least not at first: though I did eventually get determined to figure its final puzzle out, whatever that happened to be, most of my flying around and searching just sent me to places that were interesting and that contained knowledge through the Nomai’s notes and recordings that I’d be able to use to make more discoveries, or that would explain why or how they operated as they did. Very often the importance of such a piece of lore would only become obvious much later, when I was at the ship’s computer trying to piece together what I had gathered.

Even the environment itself provided clues as to how to proceed. When I found the Dark Bramble seed in a crater on Timber Hearth, for instance, it seemed natural to point my scope at it and to try to shoot my scout into it when I picked up a signal. Using the rising and falling sands between the Twin planets to reach otherwise inaccessible areas, purposely (or more usually accidentally) falling through the black hole at the center of Brittle Hollow to reach locations also pulled in that you wouldn’t be able to find on the planet itself, even simply figuring out that your ship doubles as a shitty makeshift submarine when you plunge into the ocean of Giant’s Deep — these are all clues as well, and the game damn well expects you to use them in creative ways to progress. And if these creative ways happen to involve a high risk of bodily harm or even of death, well, the universe is a harsh place, isn’t it? And it’s a good thing you’re stuck in a time loop, if an extremely painful and frustrating one.

The visuals certainly help. Outer Wilds doesn’t exactly look realistic, especially given its extremely small solar system by scale and its entirely alien cast, but you may know how I feel about the triple-A obsession with constant realism. No, this game’s style suits it perfectly. The Hearthians have their rough wood and metal constructions and technology that work but are a little janky as you might expect from a small civilization still in its early stages of spaceflight. While the Nomai technology left over is clearly far more advanced, the product of a perhaps galaxy-spanning species, they also have a unique style, incorporating color and artistic patterns into many of their crafts and stations. And of course, you may already know that the game’s soundtrack is not just excellent but essential to the story in ways you can only understand if you’ve played it.

That style extends from the game’s art to its many conversations, some you hold with your fellow Hearthians and many more you’ll find in written form among the long-dead Nomai. Each of their written lines are identifiable to particular Nomai, and far from the stoic, ultra-serious advanced alien race some creators might go for, these beings are clearly just as varied in personality as the Hearthians, with their own needs, concerns, and personal relationships expressed in their writings. I can’t use the term “humanized” here, since there isn’t a single human in this game, but it does make them feel much more real than they might feel if they’d simply been writing no-nonsense reports about their project to explode a star for scientific purposes.

Much like the doomed people of Pompei, we learn a lot about how relatable these Nomai are from their wall graffiti. That comparison is especially apt considering how suddenly their lives ended.

That leads me to the game’s endings, of which I’ve only gotten two (though technically three if you count my very first pre-loop death.) I’m pretty sure there are more than that available that I haven’t found, but since one of them was the true ending described above, I feel I’ve more or less finished Outer Wilds. While the ending was very well done, and probably the most fitting sort of ending for this game, I had a different reaction to it than many others apparently did, or at least than others who write about the game or make YouTube videos about it.

When I learned that the Sun Station had failed to cause a supernova, I figured it was likely that I wouldn’t get an exactly happy ending to this story. Deactivating some mechanism placed here by the Nomai that prevented the Sun’s explosion would have been too easy a solution anyway, and there were other clues that this station wasn’t the actual cause of the Sun being 22 minutes away from explosive death, like the fact that it starts expanding into a red giant pretty soon after the loop begins. I thought Giant’s Deep’s orbital cannon firing off might have something to do with it, but that cannon clearly shoots in a different direction at the beginning of each loop, and you learn when you explore the cannon and its control room that it’s just shooting off a probe to find the Eye of the Universe, the object the Nomai came here seeking in the first place.

During my first run through the game last year, I don’t remember visiting Chert on Ember Twin more than once, early on in the loop. They’re pretty upbeat at that point, just relaxing in their very near solar orbit (way too near for my taste, but maybe that’s what their reflective helmet is for, to keep off the sunlight and the heat.) This run, however, I visited Chert late in the cycle while I was flying around the planet aimlessly during one of my “fuck this, I don’t know what to do” spells. Throughout the game, I was wondering if anyone would react to the clearly extremely fucked about-to-explode Sun, and finally I found one: at this point, depending on when you get to them, Chert is either extremely concerned, actively having a freakout, or resigned to their death and everyone else’s, asking you to sit and join them by the fire as all life dies everywhere.

And yes, they do mean everywhere. Chert, who was sent out to make observations of the sky, comments around the middle of the cycle about how many supernovae they’ve been seeing just today, wondering if the universe is a lot older and closer to its end than they’ve projected. Talking to Chert confirms and lines up with writing from other Nomai craft found in the Dark Bramble-bound vessel: we’re not the only ones about to die. Whether it’s just our galaxy being snuffed out or the entire universe, assuming this universe extends beyond one galaxy, hardly matters if we’re effectively cut off from the rest of it anyway.

I’ll tell you, at the risk of seeming more neurotic than usual (is that possible?) that Chert’s existential freakout on Ember Twin is maybe the most relatable moment to me in Outer Wilds. That dread, then utter denial in the face of the truth, then sad resignation, that’s probably what I’d go through myself. That’s all keeping in mind that Chert doesn’t know about the time loop, but that’s hardly a comfort to the player either if there’s not much hope that ending the loop will avert disaster.

Yeah, I could have told you that looking out the window, thanks

The true ending left me feeling a bit empty initially. Even if, as the very final screen of the ending suggests, a new universe was born from the old, dying one, one that creates new worlds similar to ours 14.3 billion years later — that’s well and good, and I’m happy for them, but what does that have to do with us? We’re all dead, wiped clean away from history forever.

You might say that may just be how it is, and that’s fair. However, I want to raise a point I brought up back in my first post, that the message of Outer Wilds supports the outlook of optimistic nihilism. I don’t know whether that’s the message that writer Kelsey Beachum intended to express, but it’s the message a lot of people seem to have taken from her story, and I agree that it’s a reasonable reading of the true ending. Especially when I take the other ending I got into consideration.

Having gotten the true ending, I wondered what would happen if I took the advanced warp core from Ash Twin and just fucked off with it. Not simply to get caught in the supernova and die permanently, but to get far enough from the star that its explosion wouldn’t reach me. I’d done this once very early on in my playthrough, and while I escaped the supernova itself, the time loop still resets since the whole point of the Ash Twin Project is the preservation of memories when a being is linked with a mask from loop to loop (also the reason that lazy fuck Gabbro on Giant’s Deep also experiences the loops — they just happened to also be hanging out near one of those statutes at the relevant time.)

Something different happened when I’d powered down the Ash Twin core. Since the loop could no longer be powered by the supernova’s energy, the entire star system was swallowed up and I was left in my lander speeding away into the void, getting text a minute later that I’d escaped the supernova but would drift in space until I ran out of resources.

That certainly seemed like a profoundly shitty ending. Quite a lonely one, and perhaps deservedly so, as I’d abandoned my home and all my friends to their deaths like an asshole. But another point struck me: I didn’t get any sort of message about a new universe spawning from the dying old one. My reading is that the visit to the Eye wasn’t simply one last get-together before certain death but was absolutely necessary somehow to the creation of the new universe. Since the old universe was on the brink of death, then, this seemed in retrospect like as happy an ending I could hope for.

Library after the end, Outer Wilds

We might all be fucking dead, but at least we don’t have to deal with these assholes anymore. This is about as positive as I can get.

I’m no philosopher. All my studies beyond my early college years have to do with far too practical and worldly matters, though often taught in overly theoretical ways to suit their actual contents. But I do have feelings about matters like this. Some years back I went through my own sort of existential crisis, one that I’m not sure I’ve truly gotten past or ever will. After starting to seriously doubt a faith that I was raised in and never held too strongly anyway, I explored some of the atheistic philosophies and found them utterly empty, outright rejecting the question of “why” with the answer “there is no why.” I know some of these approaches are practical and workable for others, and I’m happy that they are, but I could never and still can’t accept a universe that simply wipes us out of being without a trace and without purpose.

I know very well that my feelings on the fate of the universe and the beings in it doesn’t affect our actual fate. The materialists and/or the nihilists may well be correct. But even if they are, I can’t accept this concept of optimistic nihilism that seems to be rising in popularity. I’ve read and heard many times now that “we can create our own meaning.” I understand, but my problem — and I grant that it’s an entirely personal problem — is that I don’t see how meaning survives death in this sort of universe. And if death destroys meaning, then how can it really be meaning? Is it possible to have temporary meaning, or even just to accept a meaningless universe with joy? Certainly some people can do that, but I can’t. I’ll admit, I almost envy you if you can.

Again, personal problem, but it does affect how I take the ending of Outer Wilds for whatever that’s worth. Though if our actions leading to the true ending did give birth to a new universe, I guess you can’t say our actions didn’t have lasting meaning, so at least in that sense, in this game, our meaning survived our deaths. This ending reminds me of Isaac Asimov’s story The Last Question for that reason — maybe that was an influence?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just best to have a sense of humor about life and try not to worry too much about things I can’t control. Or I’d say that if life didn’t feel largely like a burden. I think this is partly why I use entertainment as escapism when I can — it feels like the only break I get.

Well, sorry for all the bad philosophizing. To give you an idea of my mood right now, I’ve had Casiopea’s cover of Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess on loop for the last half-hour as I write this. But Outer Wilds put me into this heavy mindset as it apparently has many other players. It was an excellent game, a special experience, and it will certainly stick with me. I stand by what I wrote last year: this is the only “environmental narrative” I’ve played that actually lives up to that name. If I had any issues with Outer Wilds, they were personal ones that I can’t really hold against it — again, the same goes for other games with similar philosophical angles I’ve played like NieR:Automata, and I’m only too happy to praise that one as well, even if neither of these games moved me to change my own outlook on life. But then maybe they don’t need to do that for me to enjoy them.

That said, I’m not sure I’ll be playing the Echoes of the Eye DLC. It’s not necessarily off the table, but the ending of Outer Wilds as I played it felt satisfying enough (minus my personal issues, of course.) But please feel free to push it in the comments if you think I might find it worth a try.

Now I’ve written enough. Next post won’t be quite as heavy as this one, either in terms of subject or length. See you then.

A look at an assortment of stuff I bought recently

Or a “haul” as the kids say. Look, I have to make these lower-effort posts every so often; I just hope they’re entertaining or informative somehow. I think I picked up some interesting items, anyway, though you can be the judge — I might end up writing dedicated posts on a few if they’re suitable and I have something more to say about them than I’ve written here. Starting with:

Unofficial Hatsune Mix by Kei

I found this brick of a manga volume in a Goodwill of all places while looking for an old shitty bookcase to drag back to my apartment. I eventually did find such a bookcase — it was very cheap and came with a bonus spider pet inside, and also a rusty fucking nail sticking out in a spot I couldn’t see. I believe God was watching over me that day considering I didn’t cut myself on that thing and get tetanus.

I’m also thankful that I found this book, a complete 400-page+ manga about the singing android Hatsune Miku and her other Vocaloid friends just living their lives. From reading the first several chapters, it looks like it’s mostly going to be absurd comedy, which suits me perfectly. There’s some very nice art inside as well, with a few all-color pieces, and all by Kei — if the name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s Miku’s character designer and the guy who drew the original illustration on the Vocaloid 2 Character Vocal Series 01 box way back in 2006/7 or whenever that was.

The book itself is extremely used, with a massive crease on the back cover, but for five dollars from a Goodwill that’s okay with me. Anything to buy physical, especially if it’s cheap. And the insides are all there and accounted for as far as I can tell, and that’s what counts.

Girls und Panzer: This is the Real Anzio Battle!

Remember back in my Girls und Panzer review how I complained that Oarai’s match against the Italian-themed school Anzio got skipped over? Well here it is, the whole story behind the match in OVA form: one 40-minute episode on a single Blu-ray. The waste of disc space is astounding, and even more so since there’s an entirely different “OVA Collection” DVD/Blu-ray set, yet this OVA isn’t on it and has to be bought separately. Is it excusable or a cash grab?

I don’t know about that, but I’ve already watched those OVAs on a streaming service and this one on this ripoff disc, and I can say they’re both worthy additions to the series. But I might write an entire post about that very soon. It turns out that I have a lot of OVAs and spinoffs to catch up on, not a single one of which I’ve written about here. Yet — that’s going to be fixed soon. If I can actually write anything about them, anyway.

As for this Blu-ray itself, I can at least say that I got it for a low price. Fair enough considering that Anzio apparently isn’t available to stream (legally) anywhere at all, which is some real bullshit. Oh well — I don’t mind the cash grab as much when I consider that if this were an Aniplex production, I’d be paying at least fifty dollars. Now those are some fucking ripoff artists.

20 centimes (Haiti, 1895)

Yeah, I have yet another depressing nerd hobby: I collect old money. Not that much of it, really, but I pick up stuff on occasion that interests me. This particular coin was minted in Haiti in 1895, and for eight dollars it’s a good deal for me: I didn’t have any older coins from Haiti before this one, and it’s a nice .835 fine silver piece as well, if a small one. The reverse of the coin also has the fineness and weight stamped on it, a standard you can find on pretty much all coins from Latin America and some from the Caribbean (I don’t guess Haiti is part of Latin America because it was formed out of a French colony? Not sure about how the definitions work here.) Another interesting aspect of this coin is that it only has French inscriptions — modern Haitian money has both French and the French-derived Haitian Creole, now co-official languages.

I guess a coin doesn’t exactly fit the themes of the site, but I did buy it recently, so I’m putting it here anyway. Haiti has an interesting history that doesn’t get taught all that much up here in America as well. Maybe because we did plenty to fuck things up for them, and not too long after this very coin was minted? If you want to read a horrific story, go look up the fate of Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. Not a very nice man considering what he did to lead to his death, but even so, that’s rough. I also have a lot to say about Woodrow Wilson, and not much of it very nice, but that’s for a different time and place.

S&M Ecstasy by Michiking

Sorry about the censoring. If it annoys you, here’s the full cover in a nice resolution (and NSFW of course.) I’m just doing my best not to give Google, WordPress, or whoever the hell any more excuse to make my site adult-only or whatever else they might be planning on doing. Considering how often I type “fuck” here, I really can’t be too careful. Just look at what YouTube is doing to creators now.

But to get to the point, yeah, I bought a hentai manga. Officially translated into English and best of all decensored, so you don’t have to deal with those annoying censor lines (that you may well mentally erase anyway if you’re used to this kind of stuff.) Michiking’s art is very nice, and the stories — well, it’s porn. There’s not much to this stuff story-wise, but then that’s not probably what you’re looking for if you’re buying this. It’s not all S&M as the title suggests, either, though that is in there too if you’re into it.

More interesting to me is the market for physical hentai works here in the States. There are a few specialty publishers who put this stuff out, most prominent among them Fakku, who published this and many other of these manga volumes, and JAST, who also publish translated/decensored original doujin works. I’m not sure how many perverts with tastes similar to mine are around and what subset of us insist on buying physical when it’s at all feasible, but that might be a good business to get into if you don’t have any moral qualms with this kind of art. I certainly don’t, but then you knew that already.

Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy

A digital copy. No, I’m not that happy about it, but here’s a story you can probably relate to: I saw this for 50% off on the Playstation store, so what was I supposed to do? Now the problem is ever finding any time to play this thing. Maybe when AI takes all the jobs and our benevolent government passes laws creating a post-scarcity society utopia, then I can do this stuff full-time. And maybe I’ll grow wings and gain laser-eye powers too while I’m in fantasy land here.

Sorry, I’m in a lousy mood this morning as I write this last entry. But searching around for a usable Ryza 2 cover helped cheer me up — I couldn’t find any I liked that weren’t 300×300, but then I came across original Ryza artist and character designer Toridamono’s many Ryza 2-related pieces like the one on the left from his Twitter feed, and I guess no further comment is necessary.

That’s all for today. I hope to return with another post this weekend, but in the meantime, I hope we can all drag ourselves to the end of another fucking week. Until next time!

SimTower revisited

My working days are full of stress, and those are almost all my days. So what to do? I’ve come to appreciate a certain kind of game — I’m not sure if it falls into a single genre, but it’s the kind that I can play and just relax to. Often they don’t even gave a story to follow, but if they do, it’s a light one. The island exploration game A Short Hike falls into this category, and so does the landscape creation puzzle game Dorfromantik. And though this may be surprising, so does SimTower, the original building construction and management simulator.

I wrote a retrospective review of this entry in the Sim series way back in 2014, not long after I started this site. Back then, I was also under a lot of stress as a student. It was a different kind of stress than I have now, but playing SimTower helped me relieve a little of it. And while part of its appeal to my adult self may have been the nostalgia it inspired in me — I first played SimTower soon after its release in 1994 as a kid on the one family computer — it wouldn’t hold up at all if nostalgia was all it had going for it. So after nine years away, I decided to return to my old Windows 95 virtual machine and my tower construction duties to see just how well this game would stand the test of time.

The humble beginning of my new grand tower, just a dumpy building in a dying office park off the highway. Since we can’t afford another elevator car just yet, my tenants’ employees will have to stand in line since they’re too god damn lazy to use the stairs. This will become a theme.

I went over the basics of the game in my old post, but to recap, SimTower was created by Japanese game developer Yoot Saito and his team. According to an interview I read in the “official guide” to the game (and actually a very good one) Yoot got the initial idea for the game while waiting for an elevator in an office building and wondering why he had to wait for the furthest elevator from him to stop at his floor, a story which if you’ve played SimTower for even ten minutes you can immediately believe. Yoot expanded this elevator-based concept into a building simulator, as far as I know the first of its kind, and at some point he met Maxis head Will Wright and sold him on the idea as a natural addition to his SimCity line. Therefore, while it was released as simply The Tower in Japan, Yoot’s game got the Sim branding in North America.

I felt I got more out of this third playthrough of SimTower, or if not more, then something different than before. In the foreword to the same guide I looked through, Yoot himself says that in SimTower he wanted to create a hakoniwa, or a kind of miniature garden. I don’t know much about the concept, but I think I basically understand what he was going for, and if my idea is right, I think he succeeded. Though there’s a ton of complexity in certain aspects of the game — the traffic flows most of all — the greatest appeal to me of SimTower now is being able to just let time run and watch the residents of and visitors to my tower live their lives, doing my best to accommodate their needs and wants but otherwise letting it flow.

Here’s a typical day in your mid-sized tower: office workers show up every workday morning, take the elevators to their offices, and work through the day with a break for lunch in one of the building’s fast food places. Most offices close at five, with some working longer hours (more realistically in my experience) starting the rush home, the white-collar workers passing the arriving hotel guests on the elevators, which are always too slow and backed up. The hotel guests will go straight to their rooms and stay up for a while doing whatever they’re doing (no overly personal details shown, but maybe implied) before sleeping, unless you’ve provided proper restaurants for them to have dinner at in which case they’ll give you even more business. And repeat the next day, excepting weekends when the offices are closed but your commercial spaces see more business from outside to compensate.

The tower grows, slowly becoming worthy of its name. It’s especially important to plan ahead in your elevator placement, which I didn’t do here — I ended up deleting the shaft on the left and building a new one on the far left to make room for needed improvements.

All this is very satisfying to watch run when it’s going well, meaning your elevator placement isn’t fucked and your zoning is reasonably sensible. You have relative freedom over the placement of your units, the greatest restriction being that you can’t place certain units like hotel rooms and offices underground. So while you can put a fast food place next to an office, the office drones won’t be very happy about the noise and the smell of frying oil next door unless you lower their rent. Not that the hired help would probably care much about the office’s overhead, but maybe the offices’ evaluation bars only care about the owners’ and operators’ opinions. Temps and grunts like me can fuck off as usual.

Not that that’s a point against this game. It’s probably obvious at this point, but there’s a lot of abstraction to SimTower. Most of it necessary — imagine having to balance elevator and stair traffic concerns in a 60-story mixed-use tower with the details of electricity and cable hookups, maintenance, and waste disposal. Even the calendar is extremely simplified, with a game year broken into four quarters, each quarter consisting of just one week of three days each, two working days and one weekend day for a 12-day year. Admittedly a strange calendar, but you’ll be grateful for it considering that your office tenants pay their rent on a quarterly basis.

And don’t worry about attracting tenants or guests to give you money: SimTower takes place in a city with seemingly unlimited demand for office space and hotel rooms, as they’re all rented out on the very same day you build them with a few special exceptions. There’s even a condo option available, though it’s a shitty one that I never take seeing as how condo owners are assholes who only pay you once and then spend the rest of their residence in your tower complaining about noise and traffic. Fuck condos: don’t build them.

So none of that’s very complicated. No, the most complex aspect of SimTower by far is traffic management, and the greatest focus otherwise is simply on building. That relative simplicity works for me — it would probably be impossible to get that miniature garden sort of feel Yoot wrote about if the player were having to stress more than necessary.

I especially get this feel where the commercial, office, and hotel sections meet. Express elevators are a godsend at this point, allowing hotel guests and theater patrons to bypass all that shitty standard elevator traffic and go straight to my deluxe sky mall without any unnecessary stops.

But then again, there’s one form of abstraction to SimTower that some people may find especially strange. It’s perhaps the most obvious one, and one shared by the sequel Yoot Tower: the total lack of a third dimension. Your SimTower is entirely 2D, with just one view available of the front of the building. Or maybe the side, since the lobby entrances are on either side, presumably opening to the streets than you can’t see. It doesn’t matter, though, since you can only place units on a flat plane in this view. I guess the depth is implied, but it does still strike me as weird being stuck in this 2D cross-section view when I think too much about it.

There were obvious technical limitations on SimTower, released nearly 30 years ago now, that would have made it difficult if not impossible to expand into a third dimension. Back when I first wrote about it, the only such games I knew of aside from SimTower was its 1998 sequel, which faced similar limitations and had a similar fully 2D style. But now, looking back, I think there was more to this decision than just technical considerations. Expanding a hypothetical new SimTower-style game into three dimensions, with individual units and rooms, might be so incredibly complex as to be fundamentally unplayable by a single person. At that point you’re basically just building an actual building, which takes massive crews of engineers, planners, and other specialists. Naturally none of it would be real, but even so, combining that complexity with the kind of management you’d expect from a SimTower sequel anyway might be too much for anyone possibly aside from hardcore Victoria series players.

And even if that were feasible, I think you’d end up losing a lot of that hakoniwa feel Yoot wrote about and that’s such a part of the appeal of these games for me. Back when I wrote about SimTower, I speculated about another sequel to this series, which we’d get two years later with Project Highrise, and though I haven’t played it myself, it looks from the gameplay footage I’ve watched that it also uses a 2D cross-section format. Maybe there’s a good reason for that.

There’s something peaceful about a scene like this one, your hotel guests headed to their rooms. If I were one of them, I’d take the elevator up to floor 16 and get a coffee before the café closes.

Given how good this game was and how relatively well it must have done, considering that it’s one of the better-remembered old Sim games, it’s a little surprising that we went through an 18-year gap between Yoot Tower and Project Highrise for proper building simulators. My best guess is that the scope of the building simulator has something to do with that. The Sim series has thoroughly covered life on a large city-wide scale with SimCity (though with the failure of the last entry in that series, the city-building torch has completely passed to Paradox and their Cities: Skylines series) and even far more thoroughly on a small scale with the wildly popular The Sims. SimTower and Yoot Tower are somewhere in between those two, and maybe they’re a little mundane for that reason. SimCity features natural disasters and even alien attacks; The Sims features extreme interpersonal drama. The only disasters in SimTower are the occasional fire and terrorist bomb threat. Which are admittedly pretty dramatic, but even those can be dealt with through money if you have enough and don’t trust your security team enough to leave it to them.

But I don’t mind if SimTower is a little more mundane than its city simulator counterparts. Again, I think that contributes to its appeal.

Maybe what SimTower truly needs is a series where you fall into the Backrooms but it’s all the building’s parking lot that warps into endless creepy empty hotel corridors at night. That kind of dumb bullshit spinoff might get the kids interested in this old rusty game. (Though I do like Kane Pixels’ video series, obligatory mention there. Check it out; it’s good.)

As for BIGPPTWR, as it’s officially known because of the eight-character name limit, it currently stands at 37 floors, topped by a row of fancy hotel suites that nobody has yet stayed in. I’m not sure whether I’ll bother building any higher than that — if I really cared about reaching four stars, which requires a population of 5,000, I’d build wider than I am, but I decided to restrict myself to nine office lengths for aesthetic reasons. If you want to play properly (as far as there even is a way to play a Sim game properly, which I guess there isn’t) you can really just fill the entire screen with building, including the underground section as long as you remember to leave the bottom three levels for that metro station.

For my part, I’m just happy to let my modest tower run. Maybe 37 floors is tall enough. Or maybe I’ll get the urge to keep obsessively building higher. Either way, I’m happy to say that SimTower does hold up. If you want to try it for yourself, I’d encourage you to download a copy of the game’s iso image from the library: since SimTower seems not to be sold anywhere at all, not even on GOG, this seems like a reasonable option. And in case you’re wondering, I wanted to check out Yoot Tower again and tried to do so, but I couldn’t get the damn thing to work on my virtual machine, even though it’s supposed to run on Windows 95, and I don’t have a copy of Windows 98 to try it out on. Despite my issues with 95, though, it’s still far more user-friendly than this Windows 10 shitpile.

Deep reads #7.2: A short course in alchemy (or, let’s make a Mystery Elixir)

Warning: Only applies to Atelier Sophie 2. And it’s going to be a really bad Mystery Elixir, in case you found this looking for a guide on Google. Sorry, you’d better continue your search.

For everyone else, this is part 2 of my deep read run of posts on the Atelier series (and I recommend you start with part 1 if you haven’t read it for an overview of the Atelier series if you’re not familiar with it.) I’m still not sure whether it’s part 2 of 2 or of more than 2, but I knew I couldn’t stop with the one post, because I had to take on what to many players is likely the most intimidating aspect of Atelier: all the alchemy. Gathering ingredients, using them to craft items that can be used to craft still more items, with hundreds of properties to choose from and many more effects specific to each item depending upon their elemental makeups. And best of all, not only does each sub-series within Atelier have its own alchemy system that has no relation to any of the others, even each game within those sub-series introduce new elements and remove older ones, requiring the player to learn a new sort of alchemy each time they jump into a new title.

But it’s not enough to just say that: I have to illustrate it. (Do I? Probably not, but I will anyway.) Lately I’ve been playing through the final part of Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream, the direct sequel to the first Atelier Sophie and the fourth title in what used to be the Mysterious trilogy. If that seems confusing, I’ll be writing a review of the game sometime soon to put it into its proper context. For the purpose of this post, we’re not concerned with the why but the how: how to make this fucking Mystery Elixir. And to really illustrate the process, I’m going to write this post in the form of an old-fashioned screenshot Let’s Play. (If you don’t know what that is, I’ve done one before that ended abruptly a few years back; see also for some very old-school examples of user-created playthroughs some of which existed before YouTube.)

Here’s Sophie, our alchemist protagonist, ready to start crafting the Mystery Elixir, a high-level healing item. This or something like it is always featured near the ends of these games to help you out with your final fights and bosses, not to mention the extra/optional ones. I’ve already synthesized one of these, but it’s not a very good one — I can do a lot better.

Starting the synthesis process. Four ingredients are required, one of which is a Dunkelheit, an extremely rare flower that I only have one of, meaning once I make one of these, I can’t make another elixir until I come across another one. (Actually, I can get more of these easily by fulfilling certain requests and redeeming tickets for them, but they’re rare in the wild anyway.)

There’s a problem, however: I want to get particular traits onto my elixir while adding enough of the proper elements to the item to get the most HP recovery and other benefits out of the thing as possible. The best way to achieve this is to synthesize a component item with all of those elements, and the easiest component to use for that purpose is a neutralizer, a sort of liquid… something that can be used in almost any recipe if you’re creative enough.

I’m making a White Neutralizer because why not, it works. But to get this thing to as high a quality as possible, I’m going to want to duplicate a high-level magical item to use in the recipe. It’s time to go to Pirka’s shop.

The Priarco is a craftable item, a sort of crystal pyramid thing. I have no idea what it’s for — in the item’s notes, Sophie says it’s a light manipulation device (a prism?) but I’m not sure what benefit that’s supposed to give to a liquid. But it’s high-quality and cheap to duplicate, and it can be used to make a high-quality White Neutralizer, so who cares. It’s a magical item too, so I guess there’s no arguing about how it functions. It’s just magic, okay?

Speaking of magic, here we see Pirka duplicating this pyramid prism thing.

Also damn, Pirka. If I lived in this dream world (again, I’ll explain when I take on the game as a whole) I’m sure I’d find plenty of excuses to drop by her shop to use her duplication services. Why couldn’t she have joined my party, anyway? I guess someone has to tend the shop, and she doesn’t have any employees.

Time to make the neutralizer. This is the core of the alchemy system in the Sophie games and in a broader sense in the Mysterious sub-series. I think the 7×7 grid is meant to represent the cauldron — in Sophie 1 you could craft new cauldrons and switch them out, starting with 4×4 grids up to 6×6 depending on your alchemy skill and ingredients. Here the range runs from 5×5 to 7×7, and at this point in the game we really can’t do without the full 7×7 grid. You’re also technically crafting “catalysts” this time instead of cauldrons that perform different functions that I won’t even get into here — I don’t fully understand that system myself, but thankfully I’ve been able to get by somehow. I’m using the Limitia catalyst here because it’s the one I currently have that affords me the most flexibility, with the ability to flip and invert pieces to better fit them into the grid.

Anyway, Sophie places every elemental piece of each ingredient in the cauldron in this grid formation, or at least as many as she can manage to fit in. The restricted panels crossed out above can be toggled on and off, but turning them off and having the entire grid free also limits your item growth potential. It’s best to link as many of the glowing nodes of the same element as you can, since that opens up more points to fill on the right side and greatly improves your item. As you can see, we’ve maxed out this neutralizer’s attributes.

Nice work! Now we have a pretty high-quality neutralizer. Could be higher, but it’s fine. Now to move on to the Mystery Elixir.

Just kidding, we have to synthesize still another item first. Often you’ll need to follow multiple steps to get all the good stuff you want onto your resulting item. This can be a pain in the ass, yeah, but it also allows you to customize your items, armors, and weapons and to make them massively powerful. In this case, we can’t directly throw a neutralizer into the elixir, so we’ll have to make an intermediate-step item.

In this case, we’re making a Cure-all Base. Let’s shove a killer bee in there, why not.

Using the cauldron again. And the result:

Sure, that’s fine. Note the traits at the bottom of the item description, all carried over directly from the neutralizer we threw into the cauldron. The item used is important to the final result — my choice of a Cure-all Base was just me being lazy, which I’ll end up paying for soon. But at least I’ve got those nice traits carried over.

Finally, it’s time to make that fucking elixir.

Every ingredient we’ve chosen has been shoved into the cauldron. We’re not even bothering with the lightning element — it probably does something good, but I don’t want that at the expense of what I consider the more important wind and ice attributes: HP Recovery and Auto Activate so that the item is automatically used when the equipping character falls to less than half their HP. Bosses in this game like to take multiple turns and spam massive attacks that can wipe your party out, so this is a (very) partial fix.

Here we’ve got Auto Activate 50%, the best ice attribute we can achieve, but the wind attributes are still a little lacking. I don’t even know what “Activate Split” means, but I can probably get something better than that if I max out the green. So I went back to the ingredient lists… but while I changed Activate Split to Activate Scatter (???) I still couldn’t achieve the top maxed out green attribute. I probably actually can reach it given the right ingredients and the right catalyst, but at this point my laziness overtakes me and I give up. HP Recovery XXL sounds pretty good. This is where my choice of the Cure-all Base might have screwed me over, however: I might have that maxed-out attribute if I’d picked an intermediate item to synthesize with more of the wind element to it. Oh well.

And with these traits carried over from that neutralizer we made at the beginning of the process, we’re looking pretty good now: stronger healing through the Tremendous Healing and Superb Quality traits, and Multiply, which weakens the item’s effect but allows us to use it six times instead of just three. Since inventory space in combat is extremely limited, this is an important trait — we don’t want to run out of uses in the middle of a long fight. And see how happy Sophie is about this synthesis? She’s smiling for a reason: thanks to the setup I managed to put together in the cauldron, with several complete rows and columns, my Super Success Rate rose and activated a massive boost in item quality.

But we’re not done. Now it’s back to Pirka’s place. Yes, I have a legitimate reason for being back here: I need more than one elixir but I’m out of Dunkelheits, and while I can easily get more by doing requests and redeeming tickets at Kati’s bar, that method would also require me to go through the whole synthesis process again, which I don’t feel like doing. Fortunately, Pirka can duplicate my Elixir.

It’s far more expensive to duplicate these, and I end up spending about 80,000 on the job for five of these, but since Sophie 2 lets you spend as much time taking the same requests down at Kati’s bar as you like, money is essentially an unlimited resource. I have far more than I need anyway. I should note that money always carries over to your New Game Plus in Atelier, so it might be in your interest to save up and sell all the materials you’d lose anyway in your new cycle (remembering to keep the gear you want to retain equipped, of course) but I don’t have time for second playthroughs anymore.

Finally, our task is done, so I send Sophie back to the atelier to get some rest. Sleeping in this game doesn’t seem to do anything other than pass time — you can choose what time of day to wake up, and I think certain events or materials might only be available at certain times of day. But since none of the Atelier games have time limits anymore, you can potentially sleep all you want without consequence. I guess the main benefit is getting to see this CG every time (or the equally nice alternate one that I won’t mention because the other character featured is technically a very early game spoiler if that’s even a thing. I’ll save it for that dedicated Sophie 2 post.)

And that’s alchemy. At least, it’s alchemy in Atelier Sophie 2. I mentioned that each game has its own form of alchemy to learn. These are generally, though not always, pretty intuitive to get down. One of the less intuitive systems, at least for me so far, is the somewhat different cauldron/grid format used in Atelier Firis — similar since it’s a game in the same Mysterious sub-series but with some extra elements added in.

Outside of this sub-series, you’ll find totally different alchemy mechanics, however. Like the Material Loop system featured in the Atelier Ryza games:

Or the system from the Dusk series, again with variations between each game. This one is from Atelier Shallie. Is this OK? I’m not sure, but it was the best I could do this early in the game.

Since each of these sub-series takes place in its own universe, it makes sense for them to have different forms of alchemy. It’s a nice way to mix things up as well — the alchemy system would get a little too dull and samey if it were merely repeating, even with slight tweaks, in each successive game. Because alchemy is more than just a tacked-on game mechanic, as I’ve brought up before: it really is at the core of the series. To truly enjoy Atelier fully, I think you have to be at least a little obsessive, willing to mix various ingredients after gathering enough to have a wide variety of types in enough volume to ensure a good mix of traits and high enough quality ratings to make synthesis worth your while.

This usually doesn’t require grinding, either, at least in the way a JRPG would normally demand it. While there’s plenty of combat to be had in the fields and dungeons of a typical Atelier game, many fights can be outright avoided if you don’t want to bother with them by simply running around enemies. This is especially true in the later games, which tend to have enemies that aren’t easily aggro’d unless you really get into their faces. Of course, you can’t avoid all fights: you’ll need to level as you progress, and every Atelier I’ve played has featured a usual lineup of increasingly powerful bosses, some of whom can send you packing back to the atelier to synthesize new armor, weapons, and attack/buff/debuff items.

Especially true for me in Ryza, since I’m not great at coordination and that battle system demands more of your attention with its active element.

However, I’d encourage anyone feeling too intimidated by these complex systems not to be scared off of trying out Atelier. It does require a lot of item-crafting, yeah, but you don’t usually have to go into the kind of depth I do to get S-level items and gear. Hell, I’m not even going into all that much depth — a real series veteran will probably note that my Mystery Elixir still kind of sucks, which I’ll freely admit to myself. For that reason and others (certain rare ingredients only appearing in certain places at certain times, for example) Atelier is one of the few series I’d feel absolutely no shame in looking up a guide for. There are plenty of resources online detailing all the minutia of each game and its items, ingredients, monsters, weapons, and so on. I get the feeling that Atelier was made to please the kinds of completionists and obsessives who are able to put together such guides.

Still, again, you don’t have to be one of them to beat an Atelier game, much less to have fun with one. Though some of the games are more immediately accessible than others — despite being a sequel, Sophie 2 seems like a pretty good title to start with provided you’re okay with a purely turn-based combat system.

And even more ridiculous costumes than usual, but I enjoy those too. What’s with those crystal bunny ears anyway? Naturally, we never get an explanation for them.

That’s it for Atelier, at least for the moment. This series seems to have no end, so there’s always more to say. It’s truly a hidden gem, at least here in the West, where it still seems to get barely any notice outside of the typical fan circles that I move in. More hipster weeb cred for me to enjoy, anyway, if I can really be said to “enjoy” that. Not like I can shoot the breeze with anyone I know in real life and bring this game series up without getting a blank look. Is that a good or a bad thing?

I’m not sure, but either way, it’s my fate now. See you next time!

Currently playing (Neon White, my entire Steam backlog)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s all this about alchemy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the appeal?

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

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

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

1) The art and aesthetic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) The slice-of-life relaxation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) The alchemy

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

A review of Coffee Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow alcohol was not involved with creating this situation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening/reading log #31 (June 2022)

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

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

Mellow Dream (Ryo Fukui, 1977)

Highlights: Mellow Dream, Horizon, Early Summer

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

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

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

NEWS AT 11 (猫 シ Corp., 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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