Adventures to go: (Really just) a farming fest

Some say that the PSP is the true king of the RPG hill as far as handhelds go; and as much as I love all my DS and Vita RPGs, I have to admit that there's a kernel of truth in that assertion a mighty big kernel, mind you. Even the most low-fi and budget PSP RPG has a certain wholesomeness to it, as though RPGs released on that system miraculously managed to capture the very essence of what RPGs are about. PSP RPGs usually strike a perfect balance between fulfilling gameplay mechanics, gorgeous graphics that borrow from both retro and modern gaming and premises that are original yet not too gimmicky or outlandish. They are so utterly excellent that I still have to play a PSP RPG that I don't like and whose evocation don't bring a giddy smile to my face and dreamy memories to my mind.

Adventures to Go is no exception to that rule of PSP RPG awesomeness. It's very obviously a budget release; and yet it sports pretty decent graphics, an entertaining cast of characters and a fighting system that's the stuff of dreams, expertly delivering turn-based combat goodness with a whiff of strategy. If you've played Rainbow Moon, you'll feel right at home playing ATG: this is the exact same fighting system, with the added and wonderful possibility of ambushing foes in ATG. Last but not least, ATG boasts a simple yet terrifically efficient and addictive premise: to farm items in randomly generated dungeons, over and over. 

As you may know already, I really hate farming; and yet, I found myself really digging ATG. There are two reasons for that unexpected love: the first, and most minor one, is the forgiving drop rate that pretty much guarantees that you'll snatch the required item(s) after a mere couple of battles. The second and major reason is the fact that dungeons are designed on demand by none other that you, the player. You can mix and match enemies and landscapes to obtain the dungeon of your dreams in other words, the dungeon that will grant you the stuff required by your quest du jour. Not only does that feature provide a modicum of control over events and eliminate the frustration that can stem from genuine random dungeon generation, but it also allows for some welcome profitability. If you play your cards well, you can polish off several quests in one fell swoop and a single dungeon visit! In practice though, that dream scenario is not always possible: enemies and landscape options in dungeons cost a hefty sum of money, and ATG's tigh money balance won't always allow you to make the most of your trips. Using cheap or free dungeon visits to farm money is pretty much required, especially if you want to upgrade your party's gear on a regular basis or build up their magical abilities.

As much as I love ATG, it's hard to ignore its major flaw: the farming premise, as entertaining as it is, is simply not meaty enough to support a whole game. The thrill of discovering new locations, foes and items quickly wears out, especially when dungeons get longer and foes grow more obnoxious. Either ATG should have been significantly shorter and more fast-paced, or it should have introduced more features as it went on; because as it is, that game is really not much deeper than your average phone game. Sure, one can argue that phone games were not yet a thing back then, and that ATG's premise was thus perfectly acceptable; however, that doesn't make the gameplay any less boring on the long run. I just dropped ATG after a mere 10 hours of play, simply because it was becoming too dull for my taste. That doesn't mean that I swore it off, though; I'll definitely come back to it later, just like I did with Rainbow Moon. Some games are made to be enjoyed in small doses, indeed! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk: How to spoil a good VN

PAH was off to a good start, it really was; but that was before the writers took a couple of unfathomable and painfully uninspired decisions, messily soiling their own work in the process. PAH had the potential to be a true gem, one of the very best VNs out there; instead, it ends up being merely passable, and here's why. (Spoilers!)

The ties with Black Butterfly. This is simply the single worst decision pertaining to PAH's story: not only does the link between the two stories come somewhat out of left field and feel shoehorned into the story, but it creates a milling mass of plotholes that wouldn't have existed otherwise. It's also really just cheap fan-service, when you think of it: so Kagiha, Hikage and Usagi from PBB are now stranded in PAH's world under a slightly different guise because reasons, and I'm supposed to cream my pants at the mere sight of them? Even though making Usagi an actual rabbit is possibly the worst case of dumb literal interpretation I've ever encountered? Am I also supposed to lose it when discovering the cast of PAH in school uniforms in the Girl Ending? To me, this is nothing but lame pandering to the current trend of unifying videogame series under a single narrative flag by forcing together games and stories that were conceived as independent entries. (I'm looking at you, Pokemon and your stupid parallel universes, Zelda and your ridiculous timelines.) Or, in PAH's case, should have been conceived as separate entries: using the Psychedelica concept in different and totally independent settings would have worked beautifully, and even opened the door for sequels and appetizing variations of said concept. 

Hugh. Not only is that guy's design bland and his characterization flat, but he's also the worst case of Deus ex Machina I've seen this side of the Akashic Records in Period Cube. Heck, the writers didn't even try to hide the fact that he's a narrative device on legs: he can teleport, talk to people in their dreams, modify his appearance at will, and generally do anything that's required to get the characters and the story out of a bind. Oh, and he pops up out of thin air to deliver the story's MacGuffin to Jed because hey, why not? To add insult to injury, we're not even treated to a juicy and meaty explanation regarding his identity and the reason behind his amazing powers. It's been speculated that a third Psychedelica game was in the making and would provide answers regarding those matters; however, two years have passed since PAH's release, and it's becoming less and less likely that this fabled sequel will ever see the light of day.

Confusing is thy name: Unlike Black Butterfly, Ashen Hawk does a really poor job at explaining the ins and outs of its story when it actually tries to explain them. I have to admit that some plot points remain a mystery to me, and I'm not too sure that I would be able to recap the whole thing if I had to. Were the jewels removed from the Kaleido-Via in the 'real' world or in the Psychedelica? Is Jed's red eye ultimately to blame on the jewel stuck in it, or is it a trait inherited from her mother? If everybody remain stuck in the Psychedelica in all endings but the Girl Ending, as the game seems to imply, why does the Psychedelica remain unchanged in some endings yet deteriorates in others? How can there be so-called ghosts in the Psychedelica, when all its inhabitants are already disembodied spirits? Clearing a second run might shed light on those murky matters, granted; but I really shouldn't have to do that in the first place. A story that doesn't leave the reader with a clear view of what happened is just a case of bad storytelling, period.

In for the (cheap) thrill: Some of the story's twists and turns come seriously out of left field, and undermine other genuinely good plot twists in the process. For instance, the reveal of Francesca's scheming nature was a excellent development: as the head of one of the towns' leading factions, it made perfect sense for her to be involved in some dirty machinations and to be a shrewd operator behind her kind facade. On the other hand, making her kill Aria out of sheer jealousy is a step too far and doesn't square with the calmness and sangfroid she displays throughout the story not to mention her affection towards Jed, the very daughter of the woman she hated. Likewise, discovering that kind, responsible and collected Lavan harbours a burning hate for his father and a desperate drive to avoid becoming like him adds some welcome depth to his character; on the other hand, learning that jolly, happy-go-lucky Levi is a serial killer with an unquenchable lust for blood feels far-fetched and solely designed to upset the reader. And then we have all sorts of incoherencies and out of character behaviours, such as Olgar remaining cold to Jed after learning that she is his daughter, Jed ruthlessly manipulating Tee or Lavan behaving like a brooding, sullen douche in his dedicated ending.

Too little, too fast: All the endings, without exception, are rushed and unfulfilling. It's really a pity and a shame to see all the game's patient exposition squandered and spoiled in unsatisfying endings that don't do justice to the characters. The 'romantic' endings are particularly nasty in that regard: after all the expertly handled steamy moments between Jed and the beaus over the course of the story, it stings to be slapped in the face with those depressing outcomes that hardly show a shred of affection between Jed and her beau du jour

 At the end of the day, PAH is a VN that started well yet ran out of steam at the worst possible moment. I was thoroughly disappointed by the endings and the big reveals that came along with them; and yet, somehow, I still love that game. The characters, the art and the whole atmophere left a huge mark on my heart; and although I would have wanted a different outcome for the whole story, I don't regret my purchase one bit and I'll certainly replay PAH someday. And this, dear fellow gamers, is the end of my 'Summer of Mystery' adventures. Will I ever get to play another localized otome game? Only time will tell! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime! 


Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk: How to build a good VN

Here it is, dear fellow gamers: the last 'Summer of Mystery' instalment, and probably the meatiest as well. Ashen Hawk is similar to Black Butterfly: a Choose Your Own Adventure type of VN, with plenty of branching paths and no active romancing. And as the title implies, it's really good. In fact, it's one of the best VNs I've read, with a stellar build-up and sky-high production values. Here's how PAH manages to be the cream of the crop of otome VNs:

— The leading lady is a genuinely deep character and not a mere placeholder for the player. Forget about your usual mute, nondescript otome heroine: Jed is the story's main focus through and through, and her personality and interactions with the rest of the cast are lovingly detailed and get tons of screen time. She's also fully voiced, and we get to see her 'act' on the screen instead of merely seing her portrait in a corner of the dialogue box.

— NOT every single male in sight is a love interest, and the leading lady has interactions with other people beyond her potential lovers. All too often, otome VNs create some sort of love bubble that solely contains the heroine and her beaus, as though the rest of the world had simply evaporated. If you're lucky, you get one or two female friends, a baby brother or a bunch of comic relief sidekicks; but there's never any doubt about the fact that those extra characters are mere side dishes. Not so in PAH: not only is a good half of the male cast out of Jed's romantic reach, but she also entertains all sorts of relationships with all sorts of characters, from superficial friendliness to deep filial love.  

PAH is a gorgeous case of 'Show, don't tell'. The game sports plenty of character interactions that give us a good feel of the cast' personalities and relationships, but also allow us to discover the game world and its stakes. FAH really takes the time to establish its lore and atmosphere which, incidentally, led a number of reviewers to deem the story too lengthy and drawn-out. It's a matter of taste, I guess: as far as I'm concerned, I totally lapped up PAH's long exposition and patient world-building. 

FAH is blessed with the Greatest Art of Them All, a splendid display of drawing mastery that enhances the atmosphere and makes us love the cast even more. I honestly don't think I've ever taken that many screenshots in a VN heck, every single cutscene called for a screen capture! Not only that, but the chara design is also stupendously gorgeous, with lovely outfits, stylish aircuts and lovingly detailed facial expressions. I deem Lavan the Best Otome Beau Ever as far as looks are concerned: not only does he genuinely look like the young adult he's supposed to be, but he's so ridiculously hunky that he manages to pull off a mullet and make it look darn sexy. 

PAH is rife with erotic and romantic tension despite its tricky cross-dressing setting. Mind you, this was quite the tall order: having an heroine pose as a male was not exactly the ideal setting to create a sultry atmosphere, and I wondered how the game was going to pull the whole thing off. The answer is: darn well. I won't tread too much on spoiler territory, but suffice to say that the writers found plenty of clever little ways to sneak in steamy moments without requiring any major suspension of disbelief from the player. Cherry on the cake, eroticism stems from different settings depending on the involved beau (spoilers!): Lavan knows that Jed is a woman yet uses Jed's male act to get physically close to her without looking like a pervert, while Lugus falls in love with the double cross-dressing female version of Jed upon a misunderstanding; as for Levi, he loves Jed regardless of her gender and is thus deeply troubled by any physical closeness or mark of affection from her. (End of spoilers)

As dazzling a VN as PAH is, it unfortunately doesn't manage to be dazzling all the way through. Somewhere around the two-third mark, things subtly start going astray; and in a matter of chapters, PAH squanders its amazing potential and fizzles out, going from a brilliant VN to a merely decent one. Let's meet again soon for the story of that demise, dear fellow gamers; until then, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


7'scarlet: Better by the route

Of the three 'Summer of Mystery' VNs, 7'scarlet is the one that lives up the most to the name: not only does it take place during the summer, with natsu matsuri, warm starry nights and other summery staples, but it also oozes mystery and suspense through every still. 

7'S is very much a slow burner of a VN. It doesn't seem to hold much promise at first: the country town setting feels tame and prosaic, the revenant premise sounds overused and cliché, and the art is really not that stellar. And yet, as time and routes fly by, 7'S slowly but surely grows into a fantastic gem of a story. Not only does it manages to craft an enrapturing atmosphere out of its pedestrian settings, but it also spins its mundane story into fascinating and unexpected directions

Storytelling is definitely the game's strongest suit. This is the first time I play a VN that not only holds my interest all the way through, but also makes me more enthralled by the route. All too often, VNs don't live up to expectations and squander their potential, leaving the reader with a serious case of route fatigue; 7'S, on the other hand, only cranks up the suspense and becomes more riveting as routes go on. It distills its lore and explanations in a seamless and organic fashion, leaving you craving for more until the ultimate route that wraps up the whole mystery. 

7'S offers a deeply fulfilling resolution that ties up all loose ends while still leaving some of the story's mysteries intact. (Spoilers!) Not providing a definitive explanation for the existence of revenants and their ties to the Violacea was a risky bet that could have left the reader insanely frustrated; yet the game manages to pull it off by injecting a modicum of metaphysics into the narrative. Guided by the characters' musings about all things unexplained and unexplainable and the tiny scope of human knowledge, we warm up to the idea that some events are beyond our understanding and must simply be accepted as they are; and as the story comes to an end, we take in the whole revenant lore gladly and make peace with the story's uncanny events. I love the bittersweet yet open nature of the ending: Ichiko loses her beloved 'brother' for good, yet the remaining Violacea in her garden leaves us with a glimmer of hope: maybe, just maybe, he could eventually come back to her. (End of spoilers.)

One thing I really like about 7'S is the way our experience as readers completly mirrors Ichiko's experience: we discover things as she does, and we naturally come to the exact same conclusions. Or at least, we do as far as all things thriller and mystery are concerned; because indeed, when it comes to l'amour, 7'S fails to deliver. There is some active romancing this time around, with romantic routes, affection markers and character endings; but alas, that romance lacks a bit. Not only does it feel a tad rushed, but we also don't get to know the beaus all that much, neither before nor after wooing them. As a result, the love stories feel wooden and forced, and pale when compared to the rest of the story: ending up with any given bachelor feels like a mere side dish, while the overarching story remains the juicy main course that keeps us salivating. It becomes then all the more unbelievable and frustrating to see Ichiko put her search for her brother on the back burner to focus on her beau du jour. It's a pity, really: with better love stories, 7'S could have become a true otome gem, instead of being merely a excellent VN with lacklustre romancing. 

Since the romance is so underwhelming and the beaus so underdeveloped, I'll skip the route report this time as well. I'll thus see you soon with my thoughts about the ultimate 'Summer of Mystery' offering, dear fellow gamers. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly: The romance that never was

Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly is a fantastic visual novel. It oozes style and beauty, boasts a mesmerizing atmosphere, stars a cast that has charisma in spades and is dressed to kill, and sports a life-saving flowchart system that guarantees that you won't ever miss an ending. Cherry on the cake, it also has a lush soundtrack and an unexpected yet delightful shooting mini-game. It's an awesome game that I just loved playing; and yet, it's also a bit of a rip-off.

Despite being part of Aksys' 'Summer of Mystery' campaign and being branded as an otome game, PBB is actually a regular visual novel masquerading as an otome game. Sure, a couple of its endings have romantic overtones; however, there is no actual romancing in that game. All the staples of otome games, from romantic routes to affection-raising dialogue choices to good&bad character endings, are nowhere to be found in PBB. Instead, the game boasts branching paths by the truckload, making it more akin to a gamebook than to a true-blue otome. All in all, playing PBB is not about romancing handsome beaus while distractedly following a story that is more often than not a vehicle for l'amour; it is about unraveling a mystery and uncovering all the narrative strings that, put together, create a gorgeous tapestry of a story.

Since I'm mentioning the story, here's my two cents' worth: it was well built and well told, with nary a plothole and many a plot twist, and I really loved it overall. However, I would have adored it, had the writers implemented the following suggestions (spoilers ahead!):

— Make Monshiro less of a vegetable and more of an actual teenage boy, with testosterone and the like. I know Monshiro is supposed to be the calm type; but there's a not-so-subtle difference between a quiet and shy character and a character who's completely lifeless and apathetic. Not to mention that after ten years spent in a monster-infested psychedelica, Monshiro should have grown into a grizzled, rugged lone ranger à la Aragorn rather than into the wimp he is.

— Don't make every single beau secretly in love with Ai since, forever. This is trite and lazy, and there's only so much suspension of disbelief a player can apply before discarding the story as maudlin crap. The 'childhood friend who's been secretly in love with the heroine for years' trope works better when it's scarcely used. 

— Concurrently, make the cast mixed. Since there is no romancing to speak of, it's perfectly possible to introduce more female characters and thus more interesting situations. How about a rivalry between Ai and a female childhood friend, which ultimately gets resolved in the manor? How about unrequited love, or even a whiff of love triangle? All this would be more thrilling than a bunch of boys enamoured with little Ai for seemingly no other reason than her being the only girl in the group.

— A bit more narrative gusto, please. I know that VNs are developed on a budget as a rule; but surely it should be possible to give the beaus a modicum of depth and subtlety and make them more than walking otome clichés all the more so as PBB is not an actual otome game. Apart from Hikage, who is by far the most complex and well-developed character, every single member of the cast is just a lose asemblage of speaking patterns, stylish poses and gimmicky behaviours including Ai/Beniyuri, who's little more than a placeholder for the player despite playing a central role in the story. PBB's premise is quite excellent, and it deserves solid characters that make it shine rather than dull it.

Since there are no character routes in PBB, there's no route report ahead, and thus come my final words about the game. If you want mystery in a stylish packaging, with little to no ending hassle, then give PBB a try; on the other hand, if you want to woo anime beaus until you swoon, you're definitely better off giving PBB a miss. I'll see you soon with the next 'Summer of Mystery' instalment, dear fellow gamers; until then, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Dragon Quest V: Happy ending

After 35 fulfilling hours, my DQV playthrough comes to an end. That's not to say that I defeated the last boss and saw the credits roll, though; because the truth is that I didn't. I found said last boss at the bottom of his lair, and engaged him unprepared to test the waters; and while vanquishing his first form was easy enough, his second form wiped out my whole party in a matter of turns. The right course of action would be to go back at him with an vengeance and a solid strategy; however, I just cannot bring myself to do that. To be honest, I don't really care that much about beating Grandmaster Nimzo to a pulp. For once, he's not exactly my sworn enemy: the first time I met him was precisely during the final showdown, and it feels weird to kill a big baddie I just met. Sure, he more or less destroyed my MC's whole life through his minions' actions; but he remained such an elusive presence throughout the whole game that it's hard to resent him genuinely. Slaughtering Ladja was a thrill because of all the bad blood between us; but slaughtering Nimzo feels more like your obligatory Final Boss Fight. And then, there's the issue of me being lazy: there were so few boss fights during the game that I basically grew complacent, and I just cannot be arsed to rack my brain for strategies and try again.

And so will DQV remain unfinished business for now. I had a most lovely time with that game, and I'll definitely miss my awesome party especially my little jailcat Jayla, i.e. the best party member an RPG player could wish for. (She was fast, strong, versatile, and totally adorable to boot; what's not to love?) I won't lie and claim that I loved DQV more than DQIX, though. My DQIX run was one of my most epic RPG playthroughs ever, and DQV simply cannot emulate the sheer scale of DQIX. DQV is more of a domestic RPG, with basic mechanics, a small game world and a mundane yet endearing story. The overall simplicity of the game bordered on shallowness at times, and there was a bit too much flirting with fake longevity; but playing DQV made me happy all the way through, and that's all that matters.

So what's next, you may ask? Well, I just secured physical copies of the 'Summer of Mystery' otome games from Aksys; and since I've had my fill of grinding for the time being, I'm gonna unwind by playing those ultimate Aksys offerings. (I cannot imagine any physical Vita game coming out in the West in the months to come, let alone an otome game.) I'll see you soon with tidings of romance and mystery, dear fellow gamers; and as usual, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Dragon Quest V: Soothing late stages

30 hours, getting close to the final boss. After the slightly tumultuous middle stages of my run, I finally made peace with the game. No longer do I even try to figure out where to go or what to do next if the story doesn't kindly direct me; instead, I run straight to an FAQ and move on. That shameless display of laziness oh-so-wise decision allowed me to focus fully on what I love the most in traditional RPGs, i.e. the holy Grinding. And oh boy, did I grind indeed. My hero and his two feline foils now boast a hefty Lv.45; and although that might be enough to slaughter the final boss, I'm still gonna keep grinding until they all reach the big 50. Just to be sure, and because I love grinding oh so much.

The last ten hours have been smooth sailing, a soothing bland of grinding and dungeon exploration. I would have loved to tackle a couple of sidequests as a diversion and grind along the way; but weirdly enough, there are just no sidequests to be found in DQV. (Or, if there are any, they are incredibly well hidden.) I'm quite puzzled by that absence, all the more so as DQIX was a giant sidequest fest. This makes the proliferation of 'Where do I go next' instances in DQV look suspiciously like an attempt at fake longevity, methinks. But I digress; I was actually praising the game and the lovely, grindy ten hours I just spent with it. I recruited a Moosifer around the 25-hour mark, and I don't regret it one bit: that new ally is incredibly strong and sturdy, and he can hold his own on the battlefield just as masterfully as the rest of the crew despite boasting only a paltry Lv.16.

I've grinded so much that I unfortunately feel a bit disconnected from the story now; on top of that, the events of the last ten hours somewhat failed to captivate me. (Spoilers!) It was nice to see my expectations as a seasoned RPG player neatly subverted, as the so-called 'Legendary Hero' turned out to be my MC's son instead of said MC himself; however, since I hardly ever interacted with the twins since their introduction, I couldn't care less about my son being the resident Chosen One. That sure won't give him extra levels, and I'm not sure equipping the Zenithian gear can compensate for the 10-level gap between him and his father; but since he's a good healer, maybe he'll be allowed to partake in the final fight if the going gets rough. As for being reunited with Bianca, it was pretty much a case of 'Too little, too late'. I honestly didn't care anymore at that point, and I wouldn't have minded a post-final boss reunion at all. It goes without saying that leveling her up is unthinkable; I would have liked to fight with her more, but she's just too far behind the rest of my crew. Now if you ask me, dropping undelevelled party members on the player so that they'll be forced to grind looks awfully like a display of fake longevity. Especially when it's done multiple times over the course of a single game. (End of spoilers.)

So here I am, in the final dungeon and nearly at the last boss' door. I'll grind just a bit more, as promised; and then, it will be time for the final showdown. See you soon for my ultimate DQV tidings, dear fellow gamers! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!