Game Review: Hyperdimension Neptunia ReBirth 1

I love JRPGs. I love them even when they force me to grind or have characters that boil down to trite stereotypes. I’m not sure how many people who read this are also fans of JRPGs, but if you find yourself looking through gaming sites and fora you’ll inevitably come across complaints that JRPGs have declined in quality in recent years. Some even go so far as to proclaim that JRPGs are dying. While there are definitely some critically acclaimed JRPGs that have come out in recent years (Persona 4 immediately comes to mind), there’s also been a steady increase in fanservice heavy games that don’t pretend to be for anyone but straight male “otaku”.

Hyperdimension Neptunia ReBirth 1 is the perfect example of the sort of decline in JRPG quality.

The Hyperdimension Neptunia series takes place in Gamindustri, which is broken up into four lands, each ruled by a Console Patron Unit, personifications of game consoles, and populated by characters representing various franchises. The CPUs are constantly warring with each other for control of all of Gamindustri, and during one of their fights, one of the CPUs, Purple Heart (representing a fictional Sega console) is defeated by the other goddesses, loses her memory, and becomes Neptune. Teaming up with the personifications of various companies and franchises, Neptune’s journey will take her all across Gamindustri as she fights personifications of piracy.

The very idea of personifications of various consoles, game companies, and franchises going on wild adventures together sounds like a lot of fun and a recipe for a ton of gaming-related humor, and, to be fair, it has that in spades. Fourth wall breaking is commonplace, Neptune will occasionally hum the victory theme after battles, even the monsters are obvious references to many games. Unfortunately, the humour never really goes beyond the self-referential “HA HA LOOK AT THIS ISN’T THIS FUNNY PLAYER LOOK!” and even becomes grating after a time. Neptune insisting that she’s the heroine and should be treated a certain way is funny the first couple of times, but by the fifth and sixth becomes annoying. The script, while not being the worst I’ve ever seen, is far from the worst and is riddled with grammatical errors and lines that don’t make any sense.

It doesn’t help that the characters could all be summed up in a single word or phrase: Neptune likes pudding. Vert is a hardcore gamer. Compa wants everyone to get along. Suffice it to say that I’m willing to bet no one plays this game for its deep characterization, which is not in itself inherently bad (Conception II, one of my guilty pleasure games, does much the same thing, and most JRPGs rely on stock characters and stereotypes) but these characters struck me as particularly vapid, not cute, definitely not endearing.

Now, the character designs are pretty cute, cute in that weirdly sexualized way that is “moe”, but still cute. Unfortunately, the environments and the backgrounds during scenes are bland and repetitive. The music, likewise, is forgettable, although a couple tracks, like the one that plays when you unleash a character’s EXE Drive, had a strong beat and helped me out while I was exercising.

Combat is turn-based and your characters can move around freely within a certain area. Attacks are combo-based and there are three different types of attacks: Rush attacks, which cause less damage but score more hits, Power attacks, which hit less but cause more damage, and Break attacks, which are like Power attacks but break the enemies’ guard. Attacking an enemy fills up your EXE gauge, which can be used to unleash powerful attacks that can utterly crush most enemies and even some bosses. The EXE drives are easily the most satisfying part of combat. Unfortunately, combat quickly becomes a drag, no doubt due to the massive amount of grinding the game makes you do.

To call this game a grindfest is an understatement. The game has a really bad habit of throwing sudden difficulty spikes at you, especially at the beginning. This is coupled with the game’s second bad habit: throwing you into marathon boss fights (or a long scene with a boss fight) without giving you the opportunity to save. In one case, the game sticks you in a dungeon with a series of fights against progressively tougher enemies, no save point in sight, and no way to exit the dungeon. I found a good grinding spot through the use of the Remake System (which lets you add dungeons to the map, weaken enemies, make enemies stronger, change what items you can find in a dungeon, unlock items for shops, and more). There are sidequests, but they are all the find this/kill that fetch quest variety, and the only reason you’ll want to do them is to adjust shares, ditto for the Coliseum fights. Shares are a measure of belief in the goddesses and are required to be a certain amount to unlock the True Ending.

In short, the fanservice is pretty much all this game has going for it and is undoubtedly why it’s so popular, because I can’t see anyone playing this game for its shallow characters, repetitive gameplay, and same-y environments and music. Unless you’re really into that sort of thing, I’d recommend staying far away and picking up The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky instead, or really, almost any other JRPG. Conception II may be a shameless fanservice-y game, but even it’s better than this one, and that’s saying a lot.


Retro-ish Review: Fallout

I have a massive backlog of games. Among the titles in my backlog that are on the list of “games I should play but will probably never get to” are the first two games in the main Fallout series plus Fallout Tactics, which I picked up for free when removed them from their catalog and they’ve been sitting in my library ever since. Now that Fallout 4 is out, I thought I’d finally give the first game in the series a go.

For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past decade (or, like me, never got into the series). Fallout is an RPG set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where humanity has survived nuclear war by sealing themselves in giant vaults. A resident of one of those vaults, you have been tasked with finding a water chip before your community runs out of its water reserves.

Upon creating your character and being given this general goal, you’re thrust into the world and given the freedom to go in any direction you want. I created a high intelligence character and decided to go directly to the vault the game pointed me towards, where I promptly ran into a bunch of scorpions (random events occasionally happen while traversing the world) and died. When I reloaded, I ended up in the small town of Shady Sands–where I couldn’t figure out how to put my weapon away so the NPCs would talk to me. There doesn’t seem to be a “holster” button, instead, you need to press the red button on the left to switch your active item from your weapon to the other slot that isn’t carrying a weapon. This is just one of the many weird decisions the devs made in this game with respect to inventory management, but more on that when I get to the stuff I didn’t like about the game.

Combat in Fallout is turn-based, something you don’t see a lot of in Western RPGs these days. At the beginning of your turn, you have a number of action points which you can spend on movement, attacking, reloading your weapon or using items. Companions you recruit act on their own. It’s pretty standard stuff, what is unique about Fallout is the way it allows you to target specific body parts on your enemies, with various effects. Shooting an enemy’s legs might knock them over or impede their movement, for instance. Most weapons have this ability, which you can toggle by right-clicking your weapon when it’s active. Finishing off an enemy with a critical targeted shot to the head is really satisfying.

Outside of combat, you wander around speaking to and bartering with people. In addition to the quests your Pip Boy records, there are many hidden quests that reward exploration and creative thinking with valuable experience. I mostly focused on the main quest initially (as you are on the clock) so I probably missed a bunch of hidden objectives. Near as I can tell, however, most of them don’t have a huge (if any) impact on the game unless you want the best weapons and armor. I actually found the way quests are structured to be much less stressful than other Western RPGs, which are fond of giving the player a laundry list of objectives that I inevitably put off until the endgame. Oddly for a game that gives you a clear time limit, I didn’t once feel like I was being pressured to complete a legion of sidequests for few rewards. The quests I did participate in were interesting, including one that occurs if you sleep at a certain inn and another that involves a big battle encompassing an entire town.

Many if not all of my gripes with Fallout have long since been alleviated in the RPGs of the present (I hope). For starters, you can’t manually change your Companions’ armor and weapons, you need to “steal” from them, make sure they have ammo for their weapons, and then tell them to use the best weapon in their inventory. They also have the annoying habit of running up to the enemy and attempting to punch them even when they’re low on health. Occasionally I would get “stuck” because one of them wouldn’t move out of a doorway. I definitely feel as if Fallout is meant to be a solo affair and that the companions were added in almost as an afterthought because managing them felt unnecessarily cumbersome.

Then there’s Dogmeat.

Oh, Dogmeat.

Dogmeat is a dog that joins you very early on if you are wearing a certain armor or you offer him an iguana on a stick. He can attack more times in a row that most (if not all) other characters and although he doesn’t do much damage, he has a pretty good chance of knocking enemies down.

However, unlike the other companions, you can’t issue any sort of commands to Dogmeat, which includes ordering him to stay put out of harm’s way. If he gets in the way of an enemy with a weapon with a “burst” setting (like a machine gun) you had better hope it misses or does very little damage. My issues with Dogmeat came to a head during the endgame, where you won’t be able to bluff your way through the final area if he’s following you, and you can’t trap him in a room like you can with other members of your party because he goes with you when you enter and exit an area. There is a mod you can download that will fix these issues, but I’m a purist. I did eventually end the game with my entire party miraculously intact, but I have a feeling I would have beaten it much sooner without them, especially since I didn’t need their help at all to clear the final areas. Another gripe I had was that some useful inventory tricks (such as how the “use” button works) weren’t explained in-game or (in the case of holstering) in the manual at all. Some alternate solutions to quests also seemed to require a bit of off-the-wall thinking. (For players looking for an easier time with the game, I used the Science and Repair skills a lot.)

Fallout is a difficult game to judge on its own merits, having grown up with Western RPGs that take at least a hundred hours to complete. The world felt small and the towns felt strangely empty. Even so, I enjoyed my time with it (although that ending was a load of bull) and already have Fallout 2 set up and ready to go.


Game Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

Way back when the PSP was still amassing a library of games, I stumbled upon the three installments of The Legend of Heroes series (Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch, A Tear of Vermilion, and Song of the Ocean) but didn’t end up giving them a try because, let’s face it, first impressions matter and my first impression of this series was that it was as generic as JRPGs come. This impression solidified when I looked up some reviews and saw that they were mostly average to negative.

Fast forward to a point where JRPGs were starting to trickle onto Steam and I noticed The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky was in the upcoming section. I also started seeing a great deal of positive comments about the game, from its great female characters to the staggering amount of text and content.

headerMany JRPGs are about a protagonist who goes from humble beginnings in a small town to saving the world from some kind of Evil Overlord or Ancient Evil or both. Trails in the Sky is about a girl, Estelle, and her adopted brother, Joshua, trekking across the country in order to gain membership into the Bracer Guild, a guild of politically neutral mercenaries slash peacekeepers slash volunteer police force. They are also looking for Estelle’s father, Cassius Bright, a former high-ranking officer in the military and currently a respected Bracer.

You know how the protagonist in many RPGs is part of a band of mercenaries/in the military, and usually the tutorial level is dedicated to testing them to see if they make it in? Trails in the Sky turns that single test into a game-long excursion. The majority of Trails in the Sky is not spent tracking down an Ancient Evil, but wandering around helping people, slaying monsters, the usual things you’d expect a volunteer police force like the Bracers to do. It’s a far more personal quest, for the most part, and because of that, it can be a little slow at times. The characters also adhere to JRPG stereotypes for the most part: Estelle is an energetic tomboy with a habit of rushing headlong into danger, Joshua is her calm and collected counterpart, Schera is the sexy mentor, Olivier is the flirt (and a bit of a narcissist) who is constantly getting into trouble, Agate is the jerkass, Kloe is the polite young lady who only reluctantly joins the fray, the list goes on, and it’s only until very late in the game that character development happens which appears to subvert some of these tropes, and in spite of the fact that they neatly fit into their assigned roles, I found them unexpectedly endearing. It’s hard to hate Estelle when her enthusiasm is so infectious, or smile at the way Olivier tends to constantly land himself in hot water and need rescue by Mueller, his beleaguered childhood friend.

I should back up a bit and explain that Trails in the Sky was originally intended to be a single (huuuuuuuuuuuge!) game but had to be split into two games, likely due to technical limitations. Considering that this game along took me about fifty hours to beat, and Second Chapter apparently clocks in at around 70 – 90 hours, that’s more time than I spent playing Skyrim (currently at 99 hours).¬† This also explains why the game is a bit of a slow burn in terms of plot.

Trails in the Sky feels less like an epic quest to save humanity and more like a job that requires constant travel. Each town and city you stop in has its own flavour, from the mercantile city of Bose to the port city of Ruan, and every NPC (and I do mean every NPC) has something to say, before AND after every story event. The music can get a little repetitive, but is still pretty great, with tracks that reminded me of Chrono Cross (although I was a bit underwhelmed by the jazzy battle theme) and it fits the slow, nearly carefree nature of the game.

In addition to the main story, there are also a ton of sidequests that you can complete at the Bracer Guild. Completing these quests nets you Bracer Points, money (mira), and rare Quartz to give you an edge in battle. Although many quests are the sort of “go here and kill X number of things” many quests are also accompanied by plenty of flavour text that flesh out the characters and the world, and there are definitely some memorable quests, like the one where you pursue a thief by following the riddles they’ve left behind. There are also a number of hidden quests that you get by talking to certain people at certain points in the game. I decided to randomly speak to the priest in the first town and he gave me a letter to deliver to the priest in the next one. I didn’t manage to find and complete all of these quests, but found most of them in my fifty hour playthrough.

Combat in this game is turn-based. Using arts (magic) requires two turns: one to ready the spell and one to cast it. You can use this to your advantage by electing to sacrifice your turn to move characters out of the way of incoming magic attacks. Characters can also use skills, called Crafts, if they have enough CP (obviously, Craft Points) for it, you gain CP when attacking an enemy or being hit by one. When the CP bar is full, you can use special S-Crafts, similar to the way limits work in Final Fantasy VII. Honestly, the system is not bad, but it’s nothing earth-shattering, if anything, it’s serviceable. The process of learning arts is similar to the Materia system in FFVII as well. Enemies drop material known as Sepith that corresponds to various elements. Sepith can then be used to unlock slots (giving that character a wider range of abilities) or refined into quartz that can be placed into the slots. Quartz usually grants both passive and active abilities. For instance, a single quartz might let you use a basic fire spell in addition to raising your max HP. Some slots can only be fitted with a certain type of quartz. This may sound complicated on paper, but in practice it’s just a matter of fighting a ton of battles, unlocking slots, and using quartz to customize the characters.

If I had anything negative to say about the game, it would be that I wished they’d included a “Defend” button, because there were times when I didn’t want to do anything with my characters (including move them). Cutscenes are also unskippable, and since the characters can talk for quite some time before jumping into a fight, it would have been nice to have a skip button that didn’t require holding down the spacebar. Another annoyance is there doesn’t seem to be a way to back out of using S-Crafts, so if you clicked the red button by accident, be prepared to follow through. The graphics aren’t anything to write home about, but they have a certain charm to them and remind me of PS1 era 2D RPGs, and they aren’t awful by any means. The game could have really benefited from a fast travel system as well, although there is flimsy justification for it in story (Bracers should see as much of the land as they can), even the characters start complaining after awhile, and even though it never takes very long to walk from point A to point B, a fast travel system would have easily cut down on the tedium in a game that is already a slow burn.

As for potential triggers, there are a couple of scenes that involve Joshua cross-dressing (once for a play and once to infiltrate a heavily guarded area) that are played for laughs. Olivier frequently attempts to flirt with Joshua, making the latter very uncomfortable, and the only dark-skinned character in the game (Schera) is not only the most sexualized, in fact, pretty much the only sexualized character in the game, but appears to be a walking Romani stereotype (background involves being in a circus, fortune-telling, etc.). It’s disappointing, especially when the game has no other fanservice-y content to speak of, although there is a hot springs scene (usually a prime opportunity for fanservice), it’s used in a way to flesh out the relationship between Estelle and Joshua. Speaking of which, some might be a bit put off by the way their relationship develops. Although they are definitely not blood siblings, I did find myself kind of side-eyeing how Estelle kept referring to Joshua as her brother (and Cassius referring to him as his son) when she was obviously developing feelings for him.

Overall, , when compared to recent JRPG offerings, which seem to be focused more and more on fanservice for straight men, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is a breath of fresh air. I am stoked for Second Chapter, which is coming out next week, and Trails of Cold Steel, which is coming out in December. If you’re willing to put up with the slow pace of its story and cliche (but endearing) characters, Trails in the Sky is one of the best, if not the best, JRPGs on PC right now and definitely one of the better JRPGs I’ve played in recent months.

Game Review: Life is Strange (Episode 5)

It seems like it’s been years since angry dudebros on the Internet complained about this game being too feminist, and here we are at the end.

The last episode ended with a twist some of you may have seen coming, and what follows is Max’s attempt to try and fix everything that’s gone wrong up to this point.

In the first episode, I mentioned how Max annoyed me a little due to her hipster attitude, in this episode, the characters shine. Max and Chloe have one of the most intense friendships (or is it more than that?) that I’ve ever seen in a video game. Even characters you’ve grown to hate, like David, are fleshed out and, I would say, sympathetic, in the end. I also feel like the voice-acting in this episode was particularly good.

This episode is much more puzzle heavy than the previous episodes. The troublesome focus mechanic from previous episodes makes an appearance, but luckily the devs have thrown us a bone and enabled us to skip focusing by pressing and holding the spacebar. One particularly frustrating moment for me was a puzzle involving sneaking around while avoiding various light sources. Another puzzle was a bit more gruesome in which you try and prevent a murder. This puzzle actually unnerved me, as I had to watch this character die over and over again before I finally found the correct solution. Fortunately, there’s no ridiculously annoying and long detective work sequence to deal with this time around.

Naturally, for the final episode of a reasonably popular game, the fandom seems divided on the issue of whether your choices actually mattered. Personally I think the journey I took to the endpoint is more important than reaping the consequences of every single decision I made, but at the same time I feel like we were left with a lot of unanswered questions. On a purely technical note, it seemed to me like the graphics weren’t as clear as they’ve been in previous episodes (texture issues, perhaps?). I’m not the graphics police but it definitely seemed like there was a slight lack of polish.

As for potential triggers in this episode, again there are photographs of drugged women in vulnerable positions (one of which you need to use for the focus mechanic), needles, shooting deaths, and the surreal “nightmare” sequence, which may leave players wondering what the hell is going on.

The entire game has been a roller coaster ride, but episode five ends it with a bang and overall, as much as I hate the ending I got and the way it gave me so many feels (TOO MANY FEELS!), I enjoyed my time with hipster girl and her wacky time-traveling adventures, and would love to see a second season, perhaps focusing on a new power. If you’ve been reading my reviews of the previous episodes and wondering whether this game is worth the purchase, I would definitely say that it’s worth the money, especially if you enjoy high school dramas, magical realism, or can appreciate stories about strong friendships between ladies.

On the Recent Vanatru Drama

If you follow me on tumblr or if you make the rounds of Pagan blogs on WordPress, you’ll know about the recent drama that’s touched the Vanatru community recently. For those of you who haven’t heard anything, tumblr user Da’at Ass has recently alleged that Sebastian Lokason (who you might know as Nornoriel, author of Visions of Vanaheim) abused him and those closest to him, and has been doing the same to others for about a decade.

As Lokason is such a prolific writer and prominent voice for Vanatru, these allegations concerned me. Full disclosure: Da’at actually contacted me about a week before the post went live. Prior to that, I’d heard mutterings, which, although they were a cause for concern, I put them in the back of my mind because I figured it was a private matter and didn’t want to bring it up until the parties involved were ready to talk about it. Shortly before Lokason left tumblr, I was beginning to distance myself from him, not just because of the allegations, but because I didn’t see my Vanatru going in the same direction that his was going.

I would encourage you to please read the links above as well as Lokason’s response to the post that started it all. Please also read this post where he talks about his UPG. i am not going to link to the post where he leaks chat logs of private conversations between himself and Tif and Da’at, but you can read those too if you like.

I have been asked where I stand on this issue and which side I am on. My answer is that I am on my own side, but here is a more complex answer. I am willing to admit:

  1. That I do not know all the facts
  2. That I was not there
  3. That I cannot verify any claims that were made about astral entities, or indeed, instances of mundane abuse
  4. That perhaps there were times that both sides were assholes, because everyone is an asshole at some point

However, I have tried to read as much as I can about this whole kerfluffle, and have come to the conclusion that I can’t really support someone who has threatened to dox folks in exchange for silence, hasn’t been up front with regards to claiming to be the Queen of Vanaheim (which in my view may represent a conflict of interest), and apparently, judging by the list of people who have come forward, has a history of repeating the same patterns with others. This isn’t about being queer, or being trans, or even having “weird” UPG or being a godspouse, this is about abuse and the shitty behaviour that followed the original post on the subject.

I want to stress, again, that these are allegations. The only people who really know what happened are the people involved in the incidents. I would encourage everyone to read as much as they can and make their own decisions.

I wasn’t originally going to post here because I’m sure most of you have already heard about it, and to be honest, I’m already sick of it and ready to move on. This is not what I want people to think of when they talk about Vanatru. This is not what I think Vanatru is about. This is not what my deities are about.

I’m expecting to probably get some hate for this as I know I’ve been named as an “instigator”. I would like to say, for the record, that I try not to be transphobic, and have not once (that I recall) referred to Lokason with the wrong pronouns (although I was still calling him “Nono” until recently). I am also queer and pro-godspouse. In fact, one of my first posts on this blog was a repost of a member of the Cauldron’s advice to someone who wanted to be a godpouse of Loki’s and was jealous of someone else’s experiences. I have never been against godspouses, or spirit-spouses, and I’ve regularly stood up for people who were being bashed for having “odd” beliefs. (Although I will admit that in my early days of being on tumblr and this blog that I said some unkind things about otherkin.) I’ve also read the debunkings and various “testamonials” from friends and followers of his on WordPress, and I’ve found them to be unconvincing. Once again, however, I would encourage everyone (especially my fellow Vanatruar) to read everything on the subject and decide where your support belongs.

Review: Chameleon Moon

It’s been a long time since I reviewed an ebook as I’ve been focusing on my backlog of physical books, and I usually only read a maximum of two books at once.

Chameleon Moon is an interesting mashup of dystopian fiction, fantasy, and a little bit of superhero fiction. The setting is the city of Parole, a burning city where black smoke blots out the sun and the citizens are watched by a totalitarian police force. It’s also hiding a secret from the rest of the world: people who have powers they should not have. Regan is one of them: a hitman with the skin of a lizard, he finds himself in an unlikely alliance with Evelyn, a singer and unofficial superhero. Together, its up to them to uncover the secrets Parole hides before it’s too late.

The main cast of Chameleon Moon is composed of misfits trying to survive in a hostile environment, both in terms of the environment itself being hostile and the police force meddling in everyone’s business, and that’s not even considering the anxiety, amnesia, and PTSD that our protagonists need to live with. Rose was a particular favourite of mine, a calming presence who can manipulate plants. In fact, only one character really grated on me, Finneas, Evelyn’s fanboy who has a really hard time over the course of the book. Sorry Finneas. I also love how the ladies in particular are consistently shown to be strong and resourceful, even characters with smaller parts like Lisette or Evelyn’s mother have a presence, and they seem to know much more about what’s going on than Liam, the guy who runs the mysterious Turret Home where the cast eventually finds themselves.

I also want to give the author props for the strong beginning to the book, which reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s works. I felt like it hit all the right notes and hooked me (as it should), although, I did find that the book slowed down considerably¬† after that. I would say this book is definitely more character driven, although the world is interesting.

Speaking of world-building, the book has an interesting premise of a drug that cures users of nearly any ailment but occasionally has interesting side effects (including death) which allows for a really interesting cast of characters with a range of powers, like Danae, who can create living beings out of assorted parts and scrap metal, or Zilch, a Frankenstein’s monster-esque man who is practically immortal as long as no one harms his heart, but otherwise I found the world to be almost….bare….Sylver doesn’t waste time with flowery descriptions, which is appropriate, in a way, because Parole is anything but flowery, but I did feel like there were definitely times that the world could have been fleshed out but wasn’t.

This book is one of the most diverse I’ve ever read. The main cast is made up almost entirely of MOGAI characters, Rose is black with metallic legs, her wife, Danae, has PTSD, Evelyn is trans, Regan himself has anxiety, a prominent side character hasn’t decided on a gender that fits them and they’re okay with that. There’s also an important Latino character and two men who end up together by the book’s end, but I won’t spoil anything. The book is very clear that anyone can be a hero, even if you don’t feel like one.

If I had any criticisms of this book it would be that some scenes felt like they kind of dragged on, and I also felt like a few major questions (such as most things to do with the Turret Home) were left unanswered. Presumably, at least some of these mysteries will be addressed in the sequel. Strangely, given my first criticism, I definitely think the book could have stood to be expanded and the world fleshed out in a bit more detail. There were times when the book relied on some common tropes (like amnesia) but even this makes sense in context.

In terms of potentially triggery content, characters have depression, anxiety, and PTSD, and experience drug addiction and withdrawal (their powers result from taking a fictional drug, so it’s referenced a lot. Evelyn experiences a little transphobia (which she quickly shoots down). There’s also a brief description of a character’s suicide, and a (IMHO) graphic depiction of a character’s arm being severed and that character going into shock from it, which was one of the few things that squicked me about this book.

Overall, if you’re looking for a short, diverse dystopian superhero story, you can’t go wrong with Chameleon Moon. The characters are endearing and diverse, and despite the hopelessness of the setting, the book manages to end on a surprisingly upbeat note.

Game Review: Undertale

There are a few things that I look for in a game: a strong story, relatable  characters, interesting gameplay, and enough content (including replay value) that I feel makes it worth its asking price. The lack of compelling characters and story is what caused me to take The Legend of Legacy off my wishlist (and I was really looking forward to it).

Undertale is a game that seems to have flown under the radar for many, and TBH, I wouldn’t blame anyone for looking at its minimalist presentation and goofy description on Steam and figuring that it’s another dime a dozen RPG made in something like RPG Maker, but as the title indicates, it’s what’s under the candy-coated surface that makes this game something special.

Long ago, the world was ruled by humans and monsters. A war broke out between the two races, and the victorious humans sealed the monsters underground. One day, a human child falls into the underground ruins. Their journey will take them through monster territory as they try to find a way to get back home.

It’s a simple premise, one that you’ve probably seen in many RPGs. In fact, the entire game is an affectionate parody of 90s RPGs, anime, and geek culture, and I suspect if that were all it was, some would be content with that, though i doubt it would have so many people naming it a game of the year. It’s mostly a labour of love of one man, Toby Fox, and that love shows, trust me.

The central premise of Undertale is that you do not have to kill anyone. Many games treat pacifism as more of a self-imposed challenge or claim that you can avoid combat except for certain boss fights. Undertale, on the other hand, actively encourages the player to find ways to resolve conflicts that don’t involve smacking monsters with weapons until they stop moving. It might be as simple as cheering on a depressed ghost or encouraging a shy mermaid to sing.

Encounters are random but break from the typical turn-based fare of many JRPGS. There are four separate commands you can use: Fight, Act, Item, and Mercy. Using the fight command allows you to attack an enemy by pressing a button when the indicator is over the center of the image that pops up. Item lets you use consumables and equip weapons and armor mid battle, whereas act allows you to perform certain actions that are unique to each monster (sort of like the Talk command in Shin Megami Tensei). Monsters will drop hints as to their likes and dislikes, and picking certain options can make fights easier or harder. For instance, not picking on a monster who says “Don’t pick on me!” can cause them to lose their will to fight. The Mercy option allows you to flee or spare an enemy when their name is in yellow. Enemies attack you through “bullet hell” like sequences where you are represented by a heart and must move around dodging attacks until it’s your turn to act again. This system keeps both aggressive and pacifist approaches interesting, and it makes battles challenging without being unforgiving. In case difficulty is a concern, let me assure you that I’ve never played a bullet hell shooter and I’m terrible at shooters in general, and I managed just fine, only having to stock up on healing items for particular boss encounters.

I chose cinnamon, for the record.

For such a short game, Undertale has a quirky, endearing cast of characters, from the motherly Toriel to the skeleton brothers Sans and Papyrus, the former who deals out terrible skeleton puns at the drop of a hat and the latter who seems to take everything seriously, to the nerdy, anime obsessed reclusive scientist, the passionate guard captain, even the random monsters you encounter have their own quirks. One complaint I’ve always voiced about the SMT games is that sooner or later using the “talk” command on a demon involves picking an option and hoping the RNG is nice to you. In this game, I dealt with two monsters of the same type in very different ways.

Another important facet of this game is the way it reacts to your choices. Even something as simple as buying a doughnut at the beginning of the game can have an impact on a certain boss battle. Actions you take during some random encounters will have an impact on other random encounters. For instance, convincing a monster to overcome their shyness and sing will allow you to sing a lullaby to a different monster, putting them to sleep and allowing you to spare them. The game will not only remember and comment on how many enemies you’ve killed, but will even recall what you’ve done in past saves, yes, even if they’ve been overwritten. When I was playing the demo, I ended up killing a character I liked so I started again without saving, only to have the game acknowledge this character’s death and call me out on it. Much of the game is very lighthearted but make no mistake, it can and will tear your heart out at times, especially if you approach it the way you would any other RPG, where overcoming enemies through physical force is often the easiest way to progress the story.

This review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the soundtrack, which takes me back to hours spent playing Final Fantasy IV, V, and VI, in fact, there’s a really well done parody to a notable scene in Final Fantasy VI that had me laughing my ass off. Boss battles feel epic, going on a “date” with a skeleton is accompanied by an upbeat track that underscores the ridiculous situation. I highly recommend purchasing the soundtrack to go with the game.

It’s difficult to say anything more about this game without spoiling anything, and this is one of those games that you really need to experience for yourself. I finished the game and got the “True Pacifist” ending in 17 hours, although most are saying a single playthrough can take half the time. There is another route you can take through the game, labeled the “Genocide” route, which, as its name might suggest, is far more dark and sinister, but personally I am content with the path I took.

This is probably one of the queerest games I’ve played this year. The main character is canonically non-binary (characters refer to them with “they” pronouns), one character you can “date” is possibly aromantic, the aforementioned nerdy scientist is bisexual and has a crush on the (female) guard captain. There are also two guards that you can set up who decide not to fight you in lieu of going to get ice cream together.

If I had any criticism of Undertale to make, it’s that the middle portion of the game (at least, in the Pacifist run) focuses more on self-referential humour but makes up for it with a strong beginning and ending. If you’re the sort of person who is a stickler for graphics, Undertale probably won’t win any points from you for its very minimalist pixel graphics.

In terms of triggery content, there are some puzzles and encounters in the game that feature flashing images (such as the colored tiles in one of Papyrus’ puzzles) and fast scrolling text (the latter is particularly true during the endgame). Boss battles in particular can get really hectic with fast moving shapes and the final boss is particularly flashy, I would say it would be best to avoid this title if you are epileptic. The worst ending you can get (which is practically impossible to get by accident) features a jumpscare and scrolling text. As was previously mentioned, the game remembers things like how many times you’ve died to certain bosses or who you’ve killed even if you’ve deleted that save file. There is a particular boss fight where the game will crash to desktop if you die, and, once again, the worst ending causes the game to come up as a blank screen (you just need to wait a bit). If you have issues with paranoia or unreality, this is probably not the game for you (although if you can tolerate it, there are plenty of video walkthroughs on YouTube for you to watch). The true ending also has a sequence that involves some body horror. There is additionally the ableist implication that a character who loses the ability to express their emotions turns into a killer.

Undertale is a game that will make you laugh and cry, sometimes in the same scene. It’s at once hopeful and terrifying, filled with both puns and punches to the gut. If you are a fan of JRPGs, or just RPGs in general, if you can appreciate much breaking of the fourth wall, want an emotional roller coaster ride, or are just really fed up with games that seem to lack heart and want something different, I absolutely recommend you at least try Undertale’s demo. This is one purchase that is well worth the $10 or so price tag.

Stay determined.

Review: Maplecroft (The Borden Dispatches #1)

I’ve never been much of a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. Don’t get me wrong, the Cthulhu mythos and related stories changed how people thought of horror, but I’ve never been able to get past his unabashed racism and xenophobia. However, recently I’ve been taking a look at Lovecraftian works like She Walks in Shadows, an anthology of short fiction by women about women and the mythos, and films like Cthulhu (2009) which has a gay protagonist, and everywhere I looked, everyone and their mother is recommending that fans of Lovecraft’s works read Maplecroft.

Maplecroft‘s main character is the infamous Lizzie Borden, accused and acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe and inspiring a rhyme based on it. Maplecroft asks “What if Lizzie Borden did commit the murders? What if she had a very good reason for doing so?” When a series of bizarre murders occur in Fall River and the surrounding area, Lizzie, along with her brilliant sister Emma and the town doctor, Dr. Seabury, must race to uncover the truth of these incidents before Fall River is swallowed by a tide of nightmares and madness.

Or, to summarize, “queer Lizzie Borden fights Lovecraftian horrors that come from the sea”.

The book’s format is an epistolary novel, that is, the story is communicated through letters and other documents (Dracula used the same format). It’s kind of odd, thinking of all the characters taking incredibly detailed notes about everything that happened that day, but by the end of the book I didn’t really notice. The book switches between multiple first person perspectives, each character getting a chapter.

I usually start off by talking about the characters but in this case I think the overall atmosphere of the book has a much greater impact than the individual characters. The book is permeated with this sense of melancholy and madness and the deep dark mysteries of the ocean. Many characters undergo a descent, of sorts, first, making some offhand comment about forgetting something in the beginning, and having things steadily get worse until they are not themselves anymore. Even Lizzie and Emma, the characters who are at the heart of the story, are not unaffected by it. Priest nails Lovecraftian horror, and she does it without calling anyone a “mongrel” and having multiple amazing female characters. This book gave me major Aegir and Ran feels. The sea isn’t just sinister in this book. it’s beautiful and mysterious and fascinating, and it can also eat you alive.

The book isn’t all melancholy. of course, there are moments where Lizzie takes her axe and throws down with otherworldly creatures, and there’s the whole mystery of why this is happening in Fall River, and why does it seem like the Bordens are at the center of it all? There were some great moments outside of the book’s more melancholic moments: Lizzie’s relationship with Nance O’Neil, Emma writing respected research papers under a pseudonym. I found the pacing was decent, and it helps that chapters were generally short, allowing the reader to walk around in another person’s shoes for a bit before swapping them out. Some have referred to this book as “historical horror” and I would say this is accurate, although the book never feels like it neglects the horror bits to focus on the historical and vice versa.

If I had to criticize Maplecroft, I’d say that the resolution to the central mystery was a bit….weird…even by Lovecraftian fiction’s standards. The book was also way too short. I want more. I can’t stand not knowing what happens. Fortunately, the sequel, Chapelwood, is out now, so I won’t have to wait long to read more of this series.

In terms of potentially triggery content, madness is practically a stable of Lovecraftian works, but there’s also plenty of murder and suicides, that, while not graphically described, are certainly gruesome, and children are not exempt from being targets of violence. Emma also frequently coughs up blood, which might be a bit jarring for some.

In terms of representation, there are no characters of colour, but Lizzie and Nance are depicted as being in a relationship and Emma is disabled, and while this does play into the story, she is ultimately shown to be intelligent, resourceful, and not nearly as helpless as she appears (while still requiring assistance at times). As a woman writing scientific papers under a pseudonym, she also experiences sexism to such a degree that at one point she wishes she were a man. Lizzie herself feels the brunt of being ostracized by Fall River and frequently sees herself as a lone woman fending off oceanic terrors while the rest of Fall River sleeps.

Bottom line: I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I’ve been burned by the hype machine before but this book deserves all the hype it can get. I recommend it to anyone into Lovecraftian horror, particularly if you appreciate historical fiction.

Game Review: Life is Strange (Episode 4)

The fifth (and final) episode of Life is Strange is due out on October 20th. I’ve enjoyed the ride and I’ll be sad to see it come to an end. I suppose life must go on.

I’ll be honest, I have mixed feelings about this episode. There are some very intense scenes in this episode, and some hard choices to make, especially after how the last episode ended, and it’s difficult to talk about things without spoiling everything. Suffice it to say that stuff you may have not noticed in the first episode become very important in this one. I also really liked how you could end on friendlier terms with characters like Frank and Victoria, even if the former kind of didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

There were a couple of things I didn’t like about this episode. The first is that the game seems determined to play the “out of control kid with a scaaaaary mental illness” card, although if you do some poking around and read notes and emails, they help give a bit of perspective to his issues, although I don’t think the player is required to look at them. My other issue is that the player ends up exploring a creepy barn and then is forced to spend time looking at photographs of women in very vulnerable positions, which may be triggering for some (I was more than a little creeped out by them). In terms of gameplay annoyances, there is a really annoying “detective work” sequence that isn’t explained very well. I actually had to do it over again because I had to look something up. I also felt like it doesn’t really fit with the other puzzles that have been in the game.

The episode ended on a really intense note and I’m hoping the finale will make up for the stumbles in this episode.


A Post That Isn’t a Review

Happy Fall, everyone!

I love fall, I wish it was a bit warmer in general, but today was gorgeous (and it’s supposed to be like this for a couple weeks).

I know you’re probably all sick of my reviews, and believe me, I’ve thought about posting more serious stuff, but I’ve come to the realization that my tumblr blog’s sort of taken over the “serious” posts, and there’s only so much I can say about the Vanir that I haven’t already said or that someone else hasn’t already said.

So, I continue to hack away at the review backlog, but I’d like to just take a little time and appreciate fall.

I’m starting to really appreciate having a cup of tea in the morning. Summer just felt too hot for tea. I’m looking forward to hearty “fall foods” and the leaves changing colour. I’m less enthused about winter, we’ve never gotten along. I hate snow.

Well, I guess I’ve got Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen on PC to look forward to in January. There’s one good thing about winter.