Monthly Archives: March 2016

Game Review: Fire Emblem Awakening

It’s Easter so it seems appropriate to review the game that resurrected a series that was on its last legs. Fun fact: Fire Emblem Awakening was originally supposed to be one of the first reviews for a 3DS game on this blog, the fact that it very much isn’t should tell you something about how long it took me to finish it, for reasons I will discuss below.

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I picked up the first Fire Emblem game to be released in North America (called Fire Emblem when it was actually the 7th in the series) on a whim instead of Golden Sun, a decision I have never regretted since I tried Golden Sun and didn’t like it. Since that day, I’ve replayed Fire Emblem and Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones multiple times. Both these games were great, the remake of the very first game, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, was not, although my dislike of that game has more to do with the fact that the previous portable games spoiled me with support conversations and actually gave me incentive to keep my characters alive, but that’s a conversation for another day. Suffice it to say that when a new game was announced for a system I actually own, I was very excited.

The key word there is “was”, you’ll see why in a minute.

Previous Fire Emblem games I’ve played have either had the player be a silent Tactician (Fire Emblem) or had the player take direct control of one of the Lords (Sacred Stones). Awakening again has you step into the role of Tactician, but this time they’re more of a character than a blank slate, although they (surprise!) have amnesia. The player character (default name Robin) is found and recruited by Prince Chrom, this game’s generic sword-wielding Lord character who leads a vigilante group known as the Shepherds. As is typical for video game plots, they go from chasing bandit groups around Ylisse to becoming embroiled in war to possibly saving the world from a dark power that wants to destroy everything, possibly. It’s a pretty standard plot, although it does throw in some interesting twists. Personally I prefer Sacred Stones’ plot, but there’s nothing wrong with Awakening in this area even if the plot is pretty standard, although the time travel is….weird….

Battles in Fire Emblem games are often likened to a game of chess. You can move your units around on a grid (how far depends on their MOV stat). Once you’ve finished positioning your units, the enemy units take their turn, and so on and so forth. The strategy is in those little decisions you make each turn: do you send a unit to take out the hostile mage, or do you leave them alone, go after a unit that’s closer, and trust that the RNG is feeling merciful? A new feature in Fire Emblem Awakening is the pair up system, where adjacent allies will attack enemies, prevent characters from taking damage, and boost allies’ stats. It’s a system that will be familiar to anyone who has played a Fire Emblem game in the past. A staple of the franchise is permadeath–once a unit is gone, they’re gone for good unless you’re playing on Casual Mode, like Sacred Stones, you have the option to enter free battles to grind for experience, gold, and support levels. Another staple of the series is the ability to promote characters to stronger classes using seals. Promotion in this game gives players the option to promote units to be almost any other unit, although I only promoted each character once because I am a bit of a purist.

Speaking of which, the other familiar element in Fire Emblem games is support conversations, talking to the characters and getting to know them is what makes permadeath sting. This time around, characters who reach S support level can get married and have children, which you can then add to your army (because time travel). Characters who build relationships benefit more from the pair up system, and using these systems effectively can turn your army into a well oiled unstoppable killing machine. Interestingly, the mother is the more important parent, not only does the mother decide most of the offspring’s stats, but they also get unique support conversations with their children (which leads to a cast with a lot of mommy issues).

Unfortunately, what really killed my interest in this game was not Casual Mode, because I don’t care if people don’t play the game the way I play it, nor the fact that pair ups make the game pretty easy at times, not the fact that Light magic has been removed (previous entries had a magic triangle just like the weapons triangle) but the fact that the characters didn’t interest me that much, and after a certain point I just didn’t bother to view any of their support conversations. I also really didn’t like the awkward marriage proposal supports. Unlike say, Eliwood and Ninian, who took a very long time to get to S rank, Awakening’s characters felt like they barely knew each other before they popped the question. This is somewhat justified given that you can add their children to your army, so endgame marriages like in the first Fire Emblem are out of the question, but for me it became less of a “let’s pair these characters because I ship them” and more of a “let’s pair these characters so I can recruit their spawn and have a full roster”. I felt a strange obligation to pair characters that didn’t exist in past games, and while shippers undoubtedly love this feature, I found it restrictive. I’m also really skeptical that a character like Lon’qu, who is gynophobic, could ever find happiness in a heterosexual marriage. Beyond that, Awakening had some interesting levels (like an indoor map where you’re constantly being harried by mages with horrible aim) but it could have used more variety. I was playing on normal difficulty and overall I found the game to be a bit on the easy side even without using child characters. The player character and Chrom in particular become so ridiculously powerful (especially as a couple) that they could pretty much clear maps on their own, that is not to say that there weren’t challenging fights, but I did manage to defeat the final boss in three turns so either I am pretty good or very lucky.

I want to stress that Fire Emblem Awakening is not a bad game, it’s not even the worst Fire Emblem game I’ve played, but between the incredibly awkward support conversations, only a handful of characters that actually interested me, lack of map objective variety, and the way marriage and children is compulsory if you want the full experience dampened my enthusiasm for this game considerably. However, I’m not ready to give up on this series yet and I’m hoping Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest is more my cup of tea. That said, Awakening is a good entry point for those who are new to the series, I’m just an elitist curmudgeon who hates new things.

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Game Review: Brilliant Shadows: Book 1 of the Book of Gray Magic

Here is a list of things that I like:

  1. Fantasy fiction
  2. Queer representation
  3. Visual novels

I’ve played a bunch of visual novels, both Japanese and Western made, and while I can usually find ones that offer fantastical experiences or queer representation, few have rich fantasy worlds with a variety of queer characters. It should come as no surprise that Brilliant Shadows is a visual novel that has an interesting fantasy world and plenty of queer representation.

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Veronica “Ash” Ashmar is a recent graduate of the Mountain and a necromancer who specializes in plants. Tradition dictates that all new graduates undergo the pairing ritual, where necromancers and paladins bond, their lives and magic intertwining, symbolized by a matching mark on their dominant hands. When Ash unexpectedly finds herself with a mark but no partner, she sets out on a quest to find answers and solve this magical mystery.

Brilliant Shadows has a distinctive art style. It kind of reminds me of Tim Burton and uses plenty of bright colours. It’s not quite as pretty as Cinders, but the colours definitely stand out, even if the art is a bit cartoonish. It also has one of the most dramatic title themes I’ve heard, although I found the music to be more atmospheric than memorable. I was actually surprised by the amount of voice work in this title, every line of dialogue is voice acted, most of it was decent for an indy title, a couple of the voices were a bit grating, but tolerable.

Similarly, I found most of the characters likeable, even the characters that I didn’t like at first (like spoiled necromancer Belinda) grew on me by the end, particularly since they all get time in the spotlight to flesh out their characters a bit. Ash has some really great moments with her paladin friend Prude and, surprisingly, Belinda. It’s nice to see some strong friendships between female characters. Even Hektor, who I didn’t immediately warm up to due to him being slightly arrogant (while it isn’t openly stated in game, the devs have stated he is autistic and he himself states that he lacks empathy) ultimately my Ash was able to find common ground with him

There’s some pretty good representation in this, of the main cast, Ash is a lesbian and Aelfnod is gay, he also mentions two fathers, of which one is bisexual. Luciana and Zakaria, the Heads of each Order on the Mountain, are married. Aelfnod is also black, Belinda and Luciana are a bit more ambiguous but have darker skin than Ash or Hektor, a number of side characters are also black, saying anything else would be spoiling the story. There’s a good range of body types, Belinda is a woman of size while Aelfnod and Prude are more muscular (appropriate for paladins).

If I had one complaint about this game, it would be that the writing is somewhat awkward in places, particularly when transitioning between scenes. It often felt like I was missing something when the scene switched, like I’d walked in in the middle of a conversation. There were also a bunch of times where the words that were used didn’t make any sense in context or were clearly meant to be a different word that came out wrong somehow (“revulsed” instead of “repulsed”). The script definitely could have been better. I also thought the endings seemed kind of rushed and left me with more questions than answers, although given that this is only part one, it’s understandable that there are still some things left to discover. I should note, however, that book one stands on its own and doesn’t abruptly break off with a nasty cliffhanger.

In terms of potential triggers, the titular gray magic involves a bit of body horror (killing your pair and placing their organs in your own body). Some might be uncomfortable with the way Ash suspects Hektor (who is all but stated to be autistic) of wrongdoing, compounded by the fact that he has poor social skills and often seems confused about the appropriate way to act. There’s also a close up illustration of a man with boils breaking out on his face in one of the endings.

One last note about game length, Steam has me clocked at six hours, and that’s after getting all three endings (using the fast forward function). There are multiple ways to get each ending. I would recommend this to anyone who likes a little queerness in their fantasy fiction. .

Game Review: Cupid

[rape tw, incest tw, abuse tw, NSFW]

You know what’s better than a visual novel? A free visual novel, and two free visual novels happened to come out on the same day on Steam. Free visual novels are a mixed bag, as you might expect. I’ve played some good ones (Who is Mike?, Seduce Me the Otome). Heck, some of them are better than some games I’ve paid actual money for.

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Cupid is a dramatic horror/romance visual novel with an interesting twist: the player plays as a third party: Mother, an entity who can only influence the main character’s actions. Naturally, your decisions can lead to one of five (four regular, one secret) endings. Do you console or berate your charge? Are you seeking justice or revenge? It’s an interesting place to position the player, and, of course, the protagonist has a will of her own, so if you’re not careful, she could turn against you.

The plot revolves around Rosa, who is taken in by the Perride family, including musical prodigy Catherine and her sister Emilie, along with their noble patron, a Marquis named Guilleme. When Catherine dies under mysterious circumstances and Rosa suspects that Guilleme is not what he seems, it’s up to her (and the player) to ferret out his secrets and enact sweet revenge.

What follows is probably one of the most twisted, fucked up games I have ever played. Cupid pulls absolutely no punches with its subject matter, having not one, but at least two rape scenes, one ending explicitly involving incest, as well as physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. At best, the player character, Mother, is cynical and physically and emotionally abusive, although she does want to protect her daughter, however twisted her love may be. At worse, she’s constantly berating the main character, and it’s heavily implied in one ending that she sexually abused her. The closest the player can get to playing a “nice” Mother is to choose options that aren’t outright abusive, but there’s really no way around it. Mother is not a nice character, and the players aren’t supposed to identify with her. (Although, it might be, like Undertale, a take on the player’s godlike ability to affect the world.)

It feels weird to say that a game that includes rape is about love, but the many different kinds of love (from storge to agape) play a major role in the story. Unfortunately, the game’s messages are often lost in its less than stellar writing. It’s a shame that the writing wasn’t more polished, as I feel like a lot of the waxing philosophical could have made a bigger impression on me had there not been so many grammatical errors. I also hated how the story was delivered one line at a time, which was such a hassle to click through on my first playthrough, and the game is surprisingly long for a free visual novel.

Admittedly, part of me likes this hot mess of a game just because it’s that fucked up, which is, yes, a pretty shallow reason for liking a game. There’s a real soap opera feel to watching these characters deal with horribly traumatic experience, and in some ways it reminds me of We Know the Devil in its embrace of the monstrous, only in this case the monster is actually monstrous.

Unfortunately, due to the subject matter, I would hesitate to refer to the queerness in this as true representation. Rosa’s feelings for Catherine are apparent, but the one intimate scene they have is while drunk, during which Catherine makes Rosa feel very uncomfortable and Catherine is obviously horrified in the aftermath. Guilleme apparently had male lovers, but his diaries seem to indicate that he was raped at one point by a priest (although I found the text to be ambiguous), and that’s not even taking into account his (graphic) assault of Catherine, which to me places him squarely in the Depraved Bisexual category, and that is also in addition to the incest in one ending. Perhaps the most positive example is found in the bonus epilogue, a dialogue between two men, but there are no images accompanying this segment and it’s likely non-canon.

This is very definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, and if you’re looking for a more positive philosophical game that also deals with the monstrous, I’d recommend We Know the Devil. I feel like Cupid is one game that could definitely have benefited from better writing. There’s an interesting idea in there, but the game’s sensitive subject matter and adherence to some pretty biphobic tropes bring it down. Still, it is free, so all you lose by playing it is time.