Atelier Ayesha Plus: Okay, I love it

No buts and yets this time: I adore that game and I'm having the time of my life playing it. I've been gorging on it for 42 hours straight, and I'm seriously pondering a physical purchase — despite the sky-high prices complete and mint Japanese copies of that game command these days.

As it stands, I'm about to polish off my second playthrough; and the very existence of that second playthrough must not be chalked up to my love for Ayesha, but rather to the fact that I suck big time at alchemic RPGs. I spent my first playthrough running around like a chicken with its head cut off, spending way too much time on pointless pursuits and not nearly enough time on the stuff that really matters. I fought, foraged and ran around on the world map too much and synthesized too little, and the consequences were harsh and stinging: I didn't manage to reach the final boss' lair in due time, let alone save my sister. This utter and complete failure stung a bit, to be honest — especially after having read on forums that Ayesha was lenient with time and that clearing everything and getting all endings on the first run was piece of cake. Ouch, my poor gamer's pride.

I was not going to stop at that, obviously; I started a New Game + right away and proceeded to streamline my playing. It certainly helped a lot that the game let me keep my overpowered gear, including those awesome items that cut down foraging and travelling time. Those two runs were like night and day, really: this time around, I managed to progress smoothly, synthesize a lot, beat the final boss to a pulp and rescue my sister — and, most importantly, have fun. I'm currently busy tying up a couple of loose ends story-wise and fighting complimentary bosses, and I fully intend to sell my whole inventory right before the end to get funds for my next playthrough. I ran with Linca and Regina during both of my runs, and came to absolutely adore them — so much so that it's going to be really hard to try cruising with other party members. Not that I need to, mind you: I'm in mostly for the atmosphere, the exploration and the fighting, and nothing prevents me from running forever with these two if I want to.

But what about alchemy, you may ask? Yeah, what about the meat and potatoes of the Atelier series? Well, about that... It's, erm, complicated. Like, in every sense of the word. I have to admit that I don't really understand the logics of synthesis yet, and that the whole process is too murky, complex and random for comfort. Like, why are Traits, Effects and Properties separate? What's the Stock Yard for, and how come that the Traits I pour into it more often than not don't end up in the final item? Why are Effect descriptions sometimes so impenetrable? Why do I end up with an item with a Water Power Trait when I've been using two ingredients with Wind Power to synthesize it? Why, why, why? I'm lost, I really am. Ayesha is a game that sorely needs detailed tutorials or a replete booklet to explain this whole alchemy business to noobs like me. And yes, I somehow fathom that the very randomness of synthesizing is what makes the whole process interesting; but to enjoy it at all, one must at least master the basics and understand what they're trying to accomplish in the first place. Maybe the original PS3 version came with a massive manual, for all I know; but the digital-only Vita version does not, and that absence really stings.

Ah, well; no need complaining about what one cannot change. Not mastering alchemy certainly didn't hamper my fun, nor did it prevent me from finishing the game; so I can live with it, I guess. And who knows, maybe I'll become proficient in alchemy as I play more Atelier games. Because indeed, I'm definitely play more of these: Ayesha has managed the tour de force to make me fall in love with the series in earnest; and after my tepid beginnings with Rorona, that was easier said than done. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Norn9-Var Commons: The True Route + Final thoughts

The so-called 'True Route' is not so much a true route as an opportunity to tie loose narrative ends and let us know what happens to Sorata, the genius boy with whom this whole mess started. Indeed, he was not forgotten, and neither was his elusive link to Aion, which was hinted at in the prologue. The android and her reborn creator find themselves falling in love with each other à la Chobits, which was an unexpected but quite lovely turn of events. Having the possibility to actively woo Aion instead of simply witnessing the birth of her relationship with Sorata would have made that epilogue even more entertaining; but hey, this is an otome game after all, and I understand Otomate not wanting to push the envelope too far by sneaking in a splurt of gal game action right at the end.

As I said before, Norn9 is my favourite otome game so far — and by far. This is the first otome game in which I love every single character and enjoy every single route; on top of that, my favourite routes are in greater number than in any otome I've played before — said routes being Natsuhiko, Senri, Sakuya, Akito and Heishi. I'll definitely replay at least those routes at some point, and most likely all of them: they all have their strengths and share of interesting moments and all bring something to the story and the overall atmosphere.

Talking about the story, it's a darn good one. My taste in stories can be described in three words: simple, yet effective — and Norn9's story fits that description to a T. By choosing a simple base concept and dutifully sticking to said concept without trying to expand wildly on it, the writers managed to craft an elegant and striking story devoid of plot holes and paradoxes. Sure, one might argue that Norn9 is a bit light on the narrative side: were all the romantic fluff sheared and the main plot written down, said main plot would definitely amount to a short story rather than a novel — but hey, I'd rather read a terrific short story than a lousy novel.

Not only is Norn9 a pretty fine sci-fi story, but it can also be read as a metaphor for the tricky transition between adolescence and adulthood. Teenagers with their unique own special talent are being taken to an unknown place and expected to use said special talent in circumstances that have yet to be clarified, under the authority of yet unknown people: is this not totally a metaphor for joining the workforce and starting living as a self-supporting adult, using your strengths to make a living? Also, the risk of being exploited by the higher-ups and the challenging task of maintaining one's integrity while putting their special talent to good use are mentioned many times, and those are definitely issues anyone has to face on the job. There's no way of knowing if the writers wanted such a metaphor to come across, but it can definitely be read in Norn9's story.

And with that, dear fellow gamers, my paean to Norn9 comes to an end. It goes without saying that I totally encourage you to play that gem of a game, whether you're an otome fan or not. (Heck, I sure wouldn't describe myself as such, and yet I lapped up the whole thing from beginning to end.) Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Norn9-Var Commons: The Mikoto Routes

I had a crush on Mikoto the very second I laid my eyes on her. I had a hunch that she was going to be my favourite girl, and she proved me right: her routes totally delighted and enraptured me, and I'm more than glad I kept said routes for the end. (SPOILERS ahead!)

Mikoto is a interesting character: she's feisty, proud and dependable with a great sense of responsability, which seemingly makes her the perfect shojo heroine; but she's also hilariously modest, quite clumsy, prone to emotional outbursts, and she often fails to behave like a perfect elegant lady despite her aristocratic upbringing. Yet she does try her hardest to fulfill her duty, and doesn't take any pride in failing to be the consumate lady like any regular anime tomboy would; instead, she just acknowledges her failures, and keeps trying. Watching her act and evolve is incredibly entertaining, and she never ceased to surprise me in her routes.

Talking about routes, Mikoto is treated to a great choice of handsome and poised men, along with the most balanced romances: instead of being all about herself like Nanami's routes or all about her beaus like Koharu's, Mikoto's routes pack character development for everybody involved and end up with Mikoto and her potential lover meeting halfway for a fulfilling love story. Note that I said "lover", and that's not just a fancy choice of word to avoid repetition: as the only girl who's legal, Mikoto gets to become intimate with her men, which makes her romances even more pleasantly grounded.

Itsuki: So we have Mikoto, who's prim-and-proper, very modest and a blue blood; and then we have Itsuki, who's the ship's resident womanizer and a red-light district boy. You might think that this route is gonna be a handful, and you'd be totally right — although it's not nearly as bad as it could have been. These two get on each other's nerves and push each other's buttons constantly, and they get to evolve and mature a lot as a result. Itsuki must face the unpleasant consequences of his careless banter and nonchalant handling of his own feelings, i.e. Mikoto's complete lack of trust and respect for him; he's thus forced to overcome his insecurities and be more forthcoming if he wants to win the lady's heart. As for Mikoto, she's driven into a corner by Itsuki's insightful commentaries and has to face the fact that deep inside, she'd like to let go of her overwhelming duty sometimes and to be the one being protected instead of the one protecting. The two find a common ground over time: Mikoto accepts to lay her head on Itsuki's shoulder and show her vulnerable side to him, and Itsuki become a more sensible man who own his love for Mikoto instead of hiding said love under badinage for fear of being rejected.

Natsuhiko: Every Otomate game needs a confinement route, and vagrant engineer Natsuhiko is the one who dons the role of the abductor in Norn9. However, he manages to do so with grace and poise and to not come across as a psychopath or a pervert, which is quite the tour de force. Of course, it helps that he abducts and confines Mikoto not because he nurses some kind of twisted and totally unhealthy love for her, but rather because he wants to use her power to serve his own purpose. She's a mere tool to him, and he has no feeling whatsoever for her; as for Mikoto, she fears and despises him in equal parts. The whole route is about the way they slowly discover each other and fall in love in spite of very unauspicious circumstances; and boy, is it a story well told. Their burgeoning romance is totally believable and deeply fulfilling and heartwarming despite its rocky beginnings, and the whole route made me feel all mushy inside. Cherry on the cake, these two are stunningly gorgeous and ridiculously well-assorted as far as looks are concerned. A special mention to Natsuhiko's short story, which is so impossibly sweet and adorable that I nearly fainted from diabetic coma when reading it.

Sakuya: A.k.a. the Childhood Friend — because hey, every otome game needs one. I usually vomit that trope; but Norn9 masters it so well that I lapped it up this time around. Years of knowing each other give Mikoto and Sakuya's relationship a depth and intensity that's absent from all the other routes (bar possibly Akito and Nanami's one, albeit on a smaller scale). They have not been in love since childhood — in fact, it's implied that they only recently fell in love and are still busy figuring out their feelings — but they developed a very complex and intense relationship over the years nonetheless: an intricate mix of protecting each other and feeling dependent on each other in turn, complete with an unspoken deep admiration for each other and a strong desire to better themselves in order to be worthy of the other. Sakuya's seer power is a constant source of torment for both of them: since Sakuya will supposedly die when protecting the girl he loves, they both decided that he should never, ever fall in love. Yet obviously, he falls head over heels in love with Mikoto; and since she desperately loves him back, she cannot suppress her feelings for him despite trying her hardest. Oh, the intensity! It takes a while, but they finally take a chance on their love instead of cowering in fear at the thought of losing each other and brooding over their repressed feelings, and they fight tooth and nail to protect their union.

That's it for my favourite Norn9 girl — heck, my favourite otome heroine ever would be closer to the truth. I'll see you soon for an ultimate post about the true route and my final thoughts about the game, dear fellow gamers. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Atelier Ayesha Plus: I like it, yet not quite

I started Atelier Totori Plus a couple of days ago, got unsufferably bored with it, stopped playing it and erased it from my Vita's memory card. I then started Atelier Meruru Plus, got unsufferably bored with it, stopped playing it and erased it from my Vita's memory card. Then, because I'm totally a stubborn masochist that doesn't learn, I started Atelier Ayesha Plus... and fell in love with it on the spot.

That sure was a nice and unexpected change. Right from the introduction scene, I was swept away by the beauty of the game world, its sheer scope, its solemn and mysterious atmosphere, its lovely pastel colours, its everything — so much so that I developed yet another full-blown case of gaming fernweh: give me Ayesha's remote hut with its breathtaking vistas and I won't need anything more for the rest of my life. Then the gameplay came in and worked its magic on me, as I became instantly smitten with a bunch of features I'll list down there for your convenience:

  • The new fighting system: More varied that ever, with support moves, effects added to attacks depending on the character and foe's respective positions and the possibility to move around and hit enemies from the back for extra damage, all enhanced by kickass battle animations. Battling was often a dreadful chore in Atelier Rorona Plus, but not so in Ayesha. Plus, we get a brand-new cast of foes to fight: goodbye boring Punis and Rabbits and hello more outlandish and graceful creatures that really look like RPG fauna.
  • The new rules for synthesizing: Gone is the quality system, which made half of your items worthless; now you can keep and use everything you harvest. Gone are also the requirements for specific traits rather than items in recipes, which confused me to no end in Rorona: now you deal with items categories, which is much more simple and straightforward. All this is nicely completed by a new choice of items — I was getting so sick of seeing constantly the same old Eiches and Puniballs in the Arland games, I swear.  
  • The new harvesting mechanics: So much more efficient! Just press the X button when standing on a gathering spot and voilà! Everything is in your basket, and gone is the annoying and time-consuming obligation to review items and select the ones you want to keep/ditch like in the Arland games. Oh, and items stack up in the basket, which means longer harvesting sessions and no worries about the basket getting untimely full. 
  • The new 'Memory Point' system: By synthesizing, fighting foes, harvesting, fulfilling quests and talking to everybody in sight, you gain so-called 'memory points' that can be converted into neat benefits such as stat increases, skills and the like. It's a really lovely and darn efficient incentive to explore, roam, poke your nose everywhere and basically do things and get involved in the game world. 

So there I was, having fun and enjoying the ride; but then, something sneaked in and spoiled my fun. And lo and behold, that something is the exact same thing that cramped my style in Rorona, i.e. the bloody time management. Did I mention that I absolutely loathe time management? I suck hard at it, and having to pull it off in a video game is not my idea of a good time. At all. As a result, my playthrough of Ayesha is slowly losing its shine and charm as my preoccupation with the calendar and its ever-flying days increases. There's not a single action in that game that doesn't consume precious time — heck, I'm sure a day elapses when Ayesha yawns or releases a fart. I have three years to reach my goal, and I have no idea how stringent the game is when it comes to its deadline: do I have a bit of leeway to experiment, or do I have to make every day and every move count? And why isn't there an instant save feature to spare me the hassle of going back to town and losing precious time just to save?

On top of the time management hassle, the game's lack of guidance and focus is making me seriously antsy. While Rorona offers the player a series of clear-cut assignments, Ayesha gives you this general goal and lets you figure out by yourself how to reach it. Mind you, I would absolutely lap up that concept in any other circumstances; but given that I must figure things out in a bloody limited time lest I get slapped in the face by a Game Over, I'm finding a teensy bit hard to experiment and get lost in the flow of the gameplay. I have to find a way out of that predicament: either I stop playing the darn game, or I just forget about the deadline and follow my every whim without worrying about the outcome. I'm strongly leaning towards the latter right now: I love the game too much to give it up so soon, and I'll certainly learn plenty of interesting stuff in the process; stuff that can be put to good use in subsequent playthroughs of Ayesha in case I fail my current one — not to mention in the two other Dusk games. I'll mull over the matter and come back at you soon with fresh Ayesha tidings, dear fellow gamers. Until then, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Norn9-Var Commons: The Nanami Routes

Nanami was my second-favourite girl, based on her looks and behaviour in the prologue. An uncanny mix of Akane Tendou and Rei Ayanami, I expected her to pack some narrative punch and treat me to routes more gripping than the Koharu ones. Well, she kinda did — although not quite in the way I expected. (SPOILERS ahead!)

Nanami appears as a cool, collected and mysterious character in the other girls' routes; however, once the spotlight shines on her, she turns out to be a deeply insecure individual racked with guilt, self-loathing and a nearly debilitating inability to communicate with others and express her feelings properly. She absolutely hates her power and would like to see it gone, just like her troubled past. Because she's been at her father's beck and call for her whole life, she's mostly unable to make decisions for herself and act as the independant adult woman she's about to become, which leads her to become embroiled in all sorts of sticky situations ranging from crippling to downright dangerous.

With such an array of mental hurdles, it makes perfect sense that Nanami's routes should be the most torturous of the bunch by a long shot. (So torturous, in fact, that I unwillingly landed two bad endings.) It also makes perfect sense that she should be the polar opposite of Koharu in terms of route dynamics and focus: Nanami's routes are all about Nanami, with her beau of choice acting as a catalyst for whatever changes she undergoes.

Heishi: Ever-smiling and bubbly Heishi treats Nanami to her most romantic and heartwarming route — which, given Nanami's personality, still involves plenty of drama. Heishi and Nanami's relationship is choke-full of all sorts of quid pro quos, misunderstandings and generally uncomfortable moments, all due to the cosmic gap between their respective ways of dealing with their feelings. Heishi is conctantly overflowing with strong emotions he tries to keep in check for his fellow espers' sake; Nanami, on the other hand, has a hard time acknowledging her emotions and an even harder time conveying them to others. The whole route revolves around Nanami slowly discovering that Heishi is in love with her and agonizes over her lack of feedback, after which she tries to come out of her shell and show him that his love is not unrequited after all. They make a really lovely and well-assorted couple, if only because they look so much like each other.

Ron: It had to fall upon Nanami to be the dedicated love interest for the game's resident fruitcake/ sociopath/unbalanced douchebag — who also happens to be the traitor everybody hunts. My, such prime romance material! This route is nasty and downright harrowing, with little to no romance or tenderness involved; and yet, it's also one of the most interesting when it comes to Nanami's character development. Ron has a hidden gauge — which I'd dub the 'domination gauge' — that fills up when Nanami behave in a submissive way towards him; his normal affection gauge, on the other hand, fills up when Nanami is assertive and confronts him. This leads to two vastly different outcomes: when the hidden gauge fills up, Nanami winds up in a twisted master-slave love relationship with Ron, obeying him blindly — literally — and doing everything she must to stay with him. When the regular affection gauge fills up, those roles are somehow reversed: Nanami uses her power to wipe out Ron's memory, after which they start a love relationship in which he relies fully on her for daily guidance until he makes new memories. Those two outcomes are perfectly consistent with Nanami's personality and possible evolution: the 'submissive' outcome is but a continuation of her past relationship with her father, while the 'wiped memories' outcome shows her come to terms with her power and use it to bring Ron and herself happiness.

Akito: The game's resident delinquent is by far Nanami's most formidable romantic challenge. Due to a sombre event in their past, he absolutely despises her; this only adds to her own self-loathing, and she becomes a complete doormat when Akito is involved, so great is her desire to atone for what she did to him. Of course, one cannot help but feel a thrill of giddy excitement at such a premise: how will these two characters, who have nothing but bad blood between them and bring out the worse out of each other, ever manage to become a happy, lovey-dovey couple? That was a steep challenge for sure; yet the game took up the gauntlet and managed to make the whole thing work — and beautifully at that. Nanami is totally earnest in her desire to expiate her past sins and make Akito feel better in the process, offering to let him hit her and even suggesting that he may kill her if he wishes. Akito is shaken by her sincere remorse and her steely determination to alleviate his suffering, which in turn leads him to see Nanami as a human being rather than a cold-blooded monster. A lot of reassessing of past and present events ensues for both Nanami and Akito, along with the birth of genuine romantic feelings. Nanami gets an unvaluable opportunity to fix what she unraveled back in the days — which translates into a branching path in the game: a certain choice must be made to fully earn Akito's love and secure his Good Ending. This route is the most heart-wrenching of the bunch, but also the most rewarding and fulfilling when one successfully clears it, because it deals with the most painful and entranched obstacle to Nanami's happiness — and Akito's one; and gosh, is it a relief and a joy to see them finally overcome that roadblock together.

So, that's Nanami for you: misunderstandings, submission, atonement, self-loathing — the full monty of relationship drama. I certainly didn't expect her to be such a mass of negative emotions and psychological hurdles; but her routes were entertaining nonetheless, and she went through a lot of pleasantly subtle and convincing character development. With that said, I'll see you soon with Mikoto's route report, dear fellow gamers. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


The Avian Solo Runs: Final thoughts

Here comes the ultimate post about my Avian Solo Run experience; and my, what a remarkable and entertaining ride that was. I came to realize many things during these six playthroughs, which resulted in an heightened appreciation of the Pokemon series and of GameFreak's work as a whole. But first, I must tip my hat to all regional birds: because gosh, are these feathery 'Mons stellar solo run material and great fun to run with. They all performed greatly despite the occasional weakness and shortcoming, and I can only recommend them warmly to any bird lover who wants to indulge in a Pokemon solo run with their species of choice. I'd be hard-pressed to pick up a favourite, because all these birds really rocked; but I have a soft spot for Swellow's design, and my Pidgey run of HeartGold stands out because of how deliciously long it was and how far it took my Trainer and my beloved Pidgey.

Playing four generations of Pokemon games in quick succession made me realize how much the series has progressed in the last fifteen years and gave me a better appreciation of the improvements made between generations. The Pokemon series has been routinely blamed for constantly sticking to the same old tired gameplay mechanics and for somewhat betraying its own motto by refusing to evolve; but the truth is that it did evolve, only in a discreet and unobstrusive manner. GameFreak have managed the tour de force of improving consistently on their flagship series while keeping the familiarity of said series entirely intact; that's a tough balance to strike, a balance that many famous videogame series missed completely over time. (For each Pokemon that manages to maintain its initial shine and get subtly better over the years, you have ten Sonic that crash and burn because the developers involved wanted to overhaul everything and follow the latest gaming fashions.) I won't go into all the minute improvements made to balance 'Mons and improve competitive play, because this is really not my area; instead, I'll stick to more mundane details such as the game asking you if you "want to use another Repel" from generation V onwards. This looks like nothing, and yet it's the kind of detail that can save you a lot of menu hassle and button-pressing.

I have to admit that for all my rambles about my gaming instinct leading the way, I really enjoyed this bout of 'planned' gaming. It was great to have an clear-cut objective for my gaming du jour; so great, in fact, that I'll probably streamline my gaming once in a while from now on. Now, as far as Pokemon solo run features are concerned, this is really only the beginning. Those avian solo runs have opened the floodgates for many similar endeavours, and here's a quick teaser about future solo run features:
  • The Starter Runs: A set of solo runs that feature all Starters from all generations — providing that said Starters are viable for a solo run, that is. I'm definitely not going through the Snivy hassle again. 
  • The Eevee Runs: A set of solo runs featuring all eeveelutions. Given Eevee's distribution, these runs would exclusively take place in Black 2/White 2 and X/Y — unless I manage to trade fully evolved Eevees between my own games, that is.
  • The Full Type Coverage Runs: A set of runs featuring all the Types I haven't dabbled in yet, namely Ice, Electric, Ground, Dragon and Fairy. 
Those runs should provide me with ample amounts of Pokemon action and keep me occupied in the months to come. Here's to a glorious Pokemon solo run rampage to come; stay tuned for all that furry goodness, dear fellow gamers! Until then, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


The Avian Solo Runs, bonus episode: Hoothoot in Pokemon HeartGold

I was initially not planning to tackle a Hoothoot solo run; but as I pored over the bird's specs on Bulbapedia, my interest was piqued. Not only does Hoothoot have an unusual Stat distribution for a regional bird, with high Sp.Attack and Sp.Defense, but it also blissfully strays from the usual Normal and Flying Move diet most regional birds have to put up with as they evolve. Here is a bird that learns a good number of Psychic Moves despite not belonging to that Type; and after my satisfying experiences with male and female Meowstic, I couldn't help but want to wield such Moves again. And so, after running around in the tall grass to no avail for a couple of minutes and finally figuring out that Hoothoot was literally a night owl, I got my paws on a specimen and started cruising Johto once again.

What followed was a regular yet satisfying run; Hoothoot is no stellar solo run material, but he gets the job done without a fuss. Most of his Moves are Special Moves: no trolling à la Pidove there, Hoothoot is unshamedly a Special attacker and rocks at it. After a while, my Move pool was pretty much set with Air Slash (Flying), Shadow Ball (Ghost), Extrasensory (Psychic) and Hidden Power: Special Moves only, and powerful ones at that. Most of the roadblocks I encountered when cruising Johto with Pidgey were easy as pie with Hoothoot: Milktank, for instance, was knocked out cold after three turns, and Mahogany's Gym was a mere formality.

Sure enough, he ran away.
After having cruised with Hoothoot, I still have trouble wrapping my head around that 'Mon: how come he can learn so many Psychic Moves while being Normal/Flying Type? And a Ghost Move? This is the first time I hear about a Normal 'Mon being able to learn a Ghost Move. Not that I complain, mind you: Hoothoot is a very interesting regional bird, on par with Fletchling when it comes to Move pool variety and Type combinations. But that also makes me wonder: why put the regional birds of the three next generations on such a drastic Move diet? Was it for the sake of STAB? Or was Hoothoot originally intended as a regular bird and then recycled as a regional before the game's release? We'll never know for sure, but it's undeniable that Hoothoot is one of the most atypical regional birds to ever roam a region's first Routes.

I don't have much to add about that run, really. It was entertaining, and I'm pretty sure I could have taken my little owl all the way to Red; but after having polished off a full HeartGold playthrough mere weeks ago, I was not in the mood to repeat the deed, and so I gave up after I was crowned Champion. At least my Avian Run feature is complete now; and really, it would have been a pity to miss out on Hoothoot given how serviceable that bird is. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!