Senran Kagura 2: A very physical edition indeed

I received today my European physical copy of Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson, ordered months ago on the Marvelous website. Joy and delight!

I loved the first game so much that missing on the second one was simply not an option. I was first planning to purchase the North-American version, until I learnt that Marvelous Europe would be printing physical copies on demand. I immediately felt compelled to support this great policy by ordering my own copy, and so did I. I have to admit that Marvelous Europe did an amazing job at offering an wide range of special editions of the game. I'm the kind of gamer who sees goodies and feelies primarily as useless dust-collectors, unless they are somehow connected to the game's content—which they were not in these particular cases—so I went for the game alone. Yet with hindsight, and as much as I commend Marvelous Europe's pre-ordering campaign, I nearly wish that I had ordered the North-American version instead. For, lo and behold:

That cover!! Come on, Marvelous, what were you thinking? Do you realize that because of your tacky design choices, I cannot let this game's box lie around in my flat? On the other hand, it's pretty consistent with the cover art of the first instalment, and I certainly appreciate this consistency. Still... Even the Japanese cover art of both SKB and SK2 is ten times more sober than that, and I cannot help but question the choice of that particular cover art for Europe. Weren't Marvelous Europe afraid that such a raunchy cover would hurt sales? Didn't they realize that for every gamer licking their chops at the prospect of playing games with such risqué covers and going for it shamelessly and petulantly, there would be another gamer that would shudder at the though of being seen in a game shop with these things in their hands and/or at the thought of having them lying around in their bedroom/flat? Oh, well. I personally don't really mind that much, especially knowing the campy and self-derisive undertone of the game. I'll just keep it safely tucked away, lest eyes more innocent than mine fall upon it.

Anyway, I was not planning to play a Beat'em Up right now, but I may well change my mind after having received that precious. Or not. My gaming instinct rules the game, and it has not decided yet what to do regarding SK2. One thing is sure, though: I'm delighted with Marvelous Europe, and I hope they repeat the experience and bring more physical editions of their games to the Old Continent. And if other publishers could follow suit, that would be even better. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Danganronpa-Trigger Happy Havoc: Compare this to a Ferris wheel

Six chapters in, and I still don't have a clue about what's really happening in that game. That's just brilliant.

Well, saying that I don't have a clue is not totally fair. I actually do have tons of clues about what could, may or might be happening in this sky-forsaken school; however, I still lack absolute, rock-solid certainties. Is this all a sick real-TV game? A post-apocalyptic rescue attempt that turned terribly wrong? The crazy product of a psychopathic mind—doubled with a seemingly infinite bank account balance? All of that at once? Or something else entirely, something even more twisted and devious? I do NOT know, and I LOVE not knowing. I love stories that let you imagine anything while confirming nothing, and Danganronpa is one of the most glorious example of them I've ever encountered.

My mind is reeling just now, but I'm trying to keep it in check. I wouldn't want too think too deep and to uncover the actual truth about what's happening, ruining any plot twist to come in the process. Better concentrate on the gameplay and let the story properly blow me away, yes precious. I'm thus trying to bury my doubts about (spoilers) whether the masked body really belonged to Ikubasa Mukuro and may not have been the body of one of the already dead female students, conveniently kept in a cooler before being used in an elaborate setup. I mean, the face was unrecognizable, so it could have been anyone, right? And a tattoo is just so easy to fake. I'm trying to forget the uneasiness I feel regarding Kyoko, who seems just a little to helpful and knowledgeable to be completely honest. How can I be sure that she's not Ikubasa Mukuro herself, or the Mastermind—or both? After all, I didn't get to see what's really hiding under her precious gloves, did I? And how do I know that there are really sixteen students in the school, anyway? And... Oh dear, now I'm starting again.

Like I said, better concentrate on the gameplay. To my utter delight, there is a substantial amount of it—enough to make Danganronpa more akin to a Point and Click on rails than to a full-blown Visual Novel. There's a delicious amount of roaming around and clicking on suspicious and/or interesting areas, and it wasn't look before I felt like the whole school was my territory—as much as a prison can be considered territory, that is. The Class Trials are a vibrant potpourri of gameplay mechanics that are challenging enough to keep me on edge, especially since I set the logic level to "Mean" when I started the game. In retrospect, I should have set the action level to "Gentle", because the shooting parts often give me a hard time. I even royally failed the first Bullet Time Battle: to my utter shame, I totally panicked and ended up tripping on my own fingers and losing before I could say "ohshitshitshit that's a bloody rhythm minigame!!!" I fortunately got better at it with time, but Bullet Time Battles are still far from being my favourite parts of the game. Oh, well.

I really love the characters, and I deeply regret that so many are dead already. They are glorious clichés that zealously adhere to anime and manga tropes, that much is sure, but they do so in a clever and tongue-in-cheek way that makes them incredibly endearing. They cannot be deemed realistic or even complex characters, but that fits the style of the narrative perfectly. The unrealistic, slightly surreal premise of being stuck in a school and encouraged to kill your classmates by a creepy mastermind certainly wouldn't work as well with realistic characters—especially when the mastermind in question assumes the shape of a Teddy Bear with a lopsided grin.

Anyway, I'm now heading towards what I hope will be a mind-blowing ending. There's only one Class Trial left, and it will be the most intense of them all. Brace yourself, Monokuma! Whoever you may be, I'll shed light on your true identity! Until then, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Lord of Magna: From good to gone to amazing

Oh, how fast can a gamer's feelings towards a game change.

Right now, I am soaked in Lord of Magna and feeling like I could play it forever; however, things were drastically different just a few gameplay hours ago. So drastically different, in fact, that I had virtually given up on the game somewhere around the end of July, after ten hours of what I would describe as excruciatingly tedious gameplay. I couldn't stand anymore the vapid dialogues, tepid battles and general lack of bite of the game, which felt painfully like the unfinished business it is. Although I deeply loved the aesthetics and the gentle atmosphere of Lord of Magna, it was just too boring, empty and unfulfilling, and I dropped it with a deep, mournful sigh of regret for all the money I had spent importing my physical copy, seemingly for naught.

So what happened in the meantime? Well, after a couple of weeks away from the game, I found myself yearning to play it again. This was my gaming instinct at work, and I usually never resist it, so I caved in and dove back into Lord of Magna. I had given up just before the rescue of Adelheid, i.e. virtually at End Game's doors, so mustering the energy to give one final push and clear the whole thing didn't seem too hard. However, something totally unexpected happened: I started enjoying the game in earnest. This major change can be attributed solely to one thing: the discovery of Free Battles, which I hadn't deigned to touch until then. These battles allowed me to indulge into an activity that I was sorely missing without even realizing it: Grinding. And boy, what a pleasant grinding it was! Not only did I reap tons of money and levels, powering up my crew in the process, but it also gave me a much better understanding of the fighting system. Up until then, battles had been too few and far between to get the gist of said battle system in earnest; but this lack came to an end as I fought one Free Battle after the other, exhilarated by the quick progression of my characters and the smoothness of the whole process. Before I knew it, I had beaten Kaiser to a pulp—the poor guy didn't really stand a chance against my Lv. 94 crew—and was headed to New Game Plus. That was when I became hooked for good, as I discovered that the levels of two characters could be carried over to the new run as well as a couple of items. Add to this the unrestricted use of the fast-forwarding option during the story segments and you get a deliciously flowing and intoxicating gameplay experience, with battles faster and smoother than ever. I'm totally in love with Lord of Magna right now, and I want it to never, ever end.

It will end, of course, but not before I get my fill of it. My current goal is to raise the levels of the whole crew to their maximum, as well as to unlock all the romantic events (read "battles", for this is how it goes in this game) for all the ladies and to own all the available Skill Chips. I let Charlotte and Luchs keep their levels to give me a good edge during that second run, and it's working like a charm: I already reached Chapter Four, and it shouldn't be too long before I reach the end. Of course, I'm fighting Free Battles like there's no tomorrow, because it is such a giddy pleasure to see Charlotte and Luchs go on a rampage while Beatrix and Elfriede gain levels at the speed of light. I can't get enough of it, really—which is good, because I still have a couple of runs to clear before reaching my aforementioned ultimate goal. Until then, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!

Still alive and kicking!

No, That Extra Level ain't dead yet! I don't want my blogging ventures to end just now. I feel like I've barely scrapped the surface of that whole blogging thing: there is still so much to discover and so many games to write about! I didn't even reach my 100th post, damnit! And frankly, I miss writing about games. It had become part of my routine before I even realized it, and life without my daily dose of gaming-related writing feels a bit... hollow.

That being said, my schedule issues didn't magically disappear in two days. They are still alive and well, but I've found a way to circumvent them: to reduce the size of my posts. I cannot afford anymore to write these exquisitely, achingly, impossibly long posts in which I tried to cover every single aspect of a game, often including data and trivia that could be found somewhere else on the internet. This was not my goal at first: although I love reading data and trivia about games, my intention was never to relay such information on my blog. My intention was to offer my own insight into the games I play, and I've deviated from that goal somehow. It's now time to steer back onto the right track, and I'll do so by shearing my posts of any unecessary fat. No more data that everyone can check on Wikipedia, no more trivia that can be found compiled on websites dedicated solely to that purpose, no more pictures by the truckload while professional gaming sites offer tons of much higher-quality pictures. What will remain are my own impressions and thoughts about games, all exposed in a gloriously detailed way. It wouldn't be That Extra Level if I didn't zealously dissect everything in sight, now would it?:D

To accommodate my schedule better, I will also give up on a rule that I followed since the very beginning, namely to wait until I completely clear a game before I start writing about it. Not only did this rule force me to compile an impossibly huge amount of information at once, but it is also at odds with my way of playing games. See, I like to scour games thoroughly and to wring every last shred of enjoyment out of them before moving on to the next game in line, fully sated and happy. This often involves playing several runs in a row and/or grinding intensively, and it is obviously not compatible with waiting to have cleared a game to write about it. I could pull it off until now because I somehow forced myself to rush through games in order to be able to play more of them, but I want to go back to my natural ways now. I want every game to be a gastronomic feast that I take all the time in the world to savour, not a fast-food meal that I gobble down without really enjoying the taste of it. This means that I will write about games as I discover them and play them; and if anything, it may lead to an even greater avalanche of details. Brace yourself!

So, I'll soldier on and overcome the obstacle by making the necessary changes. As Celeste in Danganronpa says, "You have to adapt or perish", or something along those lines. I'm not ready to put this blog to death yet, and I'll do my best to make it thrive and flourish. See you soon for more posts! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime! 


Closed until further notice

I won't beat around the bush, dear fellow gamers: from now on, this blog is on indefinite hiatus.

The reason for this is quite simple: schedule issues. Ever since I started that blog, I've been using some of my alloted gaming time to write my posts. Writing about games thus meant that I could play less games, and I used to laugh at the sweet irony of that situation; however, now that I have slightly less gaming time on my hands than two years ago and more games to play than ever, I'm not laughing any longer. Blogging is preying upon my gaming time in more ways than one, and the situation has slowly but surely become unsustainable. Something's got to give, and since it's certainly not going to be gaming, it has to be blogging about games.

Though only time will tell if I will start posting again in two months, one year or never, that doesn't mean that I abandon the blogging sphere entirely. I will keep reading and commenting my favourite gaming blogs as well as checking That Extra Level every now and then; and if I find a clever way to work things out schedule-wise, I will be back with more posts. So, it's a good-bye for now, but hopefully not an adieu. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime! 


Steins;Gate (2): From good to gone (SPOILERS!)

After roughly thirty hours of intense reading and button-mashing, I am finally done with Steins;Gate. I am somehow relieved that the whole thing is over at long last, but that is not my dominant feeling about that game. No; my dominant feeling is disappointment.

That’s right, disappointment. Steins;Gate basically failed to live up to my expectations and transformed over time into something that I didn’t quite enjoy. Of course, you could blame me for having expectations in the first place, but here’s the thing: the game itself planted these expectations in me. The truth is that I had no preconceived idea about Steins;Gate before I started playing it; however, after being fed the delicious data-laden four exposition chapters, my expectations regarding the narrative went off the roof. I pictured a convoluted storyline with branching paths completing each other à la 999, rife with plot twists and dramatic time paradoxes, all peppered with mind-bending concepts and dripping with irony and dark humour.

Worse by the ending

What I got instead was a cliché light novel with a strong romantic flavour and a touch of harem. When I complained about the mundanity of Suzuha and Okabe’s blooming love story in the “Irreversible Reboot” ending, little did I know that this was actually the template for five of the game’s six endings. I was absolutely livid when I realized that, and after having cleared these five romantic endings in a row, I was literally frothing at the mouth. Had I written a post at that moment, it would have been the most scathing harangue of them all; fortunately, the uncovering of the so-called “True Ending” somehow saved the day and soothed my foul mood. That’s not to say that said “True Ending” is a deeply satisfying outcome that managed to redeem the whole game in my eyes, but it certainly fared much better than its five counterparts. At least, it didn’t turn out to be a harem ending of sorts; I think a piece of my soul would have died if it had been the case. Anyway, let’s take a closer look at these ill-fitted romantic endings:

6/Isolated Jamais Vu: This ending occurs at the end of the 7th chapter if you choose not to send the D-Mail, regardless of how many True Ending flags you triggered before. It pairs Okabe with Faris and is by far the most unpolished ending of the bunch, leaving gaping plot holes in its trail. For one thing, it actually takes place on a yet another Attractor Field, although the game never tells you that clearly. According to the Steins;Gate wiki, this is supposed to be Attractor Field Omega, an attractor field in which the SERN threat may still be lurking around if the presence of the divergence meter is to be believed. The changes occurring in this worldline are quite drastic, since Okabe finds himself being your average student instead of the chuunibyou patient he used to be and not knowing Daru and Mayuri at all. That is all nice and well, and I certainly appreciate the harshness of this outcome, but there is a problem: we are not told how this result was obtained. We only know that Faris sent a certain D-mail that was supposed to save her father, but the actual content of that mail is not shown to us; instead, we only get to witness the radical consequences of its sending. Do you seriously expect me to swallow this and be happy with it, game? Sorry, but that won’t happen. I won’t let you get away with such complacency, and I deem that ending the crappiest of the bunch. Next!

—5/Irreversible Reboot: This ending occurs at the end of the 6th chapter if you choose not to send the D-Mail, regardless of how many True Ending flags you triggered before. I criticized it in my last post, but in hindsight, it is actually my second favourite ending after the True Ending. It is poignant and laced with angst, and it gives a greater understanding of Suzuha’s character. Of course, it is not satisfactory either, since we’re left with no idea if Okabe and Suzuha’s risky trip to 1975 bears fruit (and to my dismay, the others endings don’t allude to this point at all).

—4/Lind of Corruption and Rebirth: This ending occurs at the end of the 8th chapter if you choose not to send the D-Mail, regardless of how many True Ending flags you triggered before. It takes place on Attractor Field Alpha and pairs Okabe with female Lukako. Honestly, this ending is a complete joke. We have to face the horrible truth here: Lukako’s absurd sex change was implemented in the game for the sole purpose of allowing Okabe to have a romance with Lukako without treading into Boy’s Love territory. Sure, the writers tried to integrate that element into the narrative by making it affect the worldlines, but the result is utterly laughable: it turns out that female Lukako broke the IBN 5100 because she was sweeping the storehouse where it was kept, while male Lukako only swept the courtyard and thus left the computer intact. So, same body, voice and clothing from male to female, but different sweeping patterns? Allow me to grin sarcastically at that point.

—3/Stardust Sky: This ending occurs at the 10th chapter if you triggered none of the True Ending flags beforehand. It takes place on the recovered Beta Attractor Field and pairs Okabe with good ol’ Mayuri, but also implies the death of Kurisu. This is an unremarkable ending for the most part and seems to have been put in the game solely to inflate the number of available outcomes.

—2/Paradox Meltdown: A tad harder to obtain, this ending occurs at the 10th chapter if you triggered up to five True Ending flags. Taking place on both the Alpha and Beta Attractor Fields, it is a very emotional ending that shows Okabe admitting his crush on Kurisu and mourning the fact that he has to sacrifice her to save both Mayuri and the future. It is also mostly superfluous, since it turns out to be a truncated version of the True Ending.

Although endings 4 to 6 offer interesting developments as well as revelatory insights into some of the characters’ psyche, they have the major flaw of shifting the focus from the eradication of the SERN menace to the pursuit of Okabe’s newfound romantic interests. Well, excuse me, but I don’t care one bit about Okabe’s carnal urges and fickle love stories. What I care about is to know whether the SERN threat has been circumvented for good, which is not answered in a conclusive way in any of these three endings. Worldlines have been manipulated so thoroughly that it could be the case, but we don’t know for sure, which is deeply frustrating. As for endings 2 and 3, they do solve the SERN issue by shifting back to the original Beta Attractor Field, but they are far from being satisfying either. If you look at it closely, they are actually the same exact ending in terms of actual events, the only difference between them being Okabe’s romantic focus: “Stardust Sky” shows him content with his decision to save Mayuri and brushing off Kurisu’s death, while “Paradox Meltdown” extensively shows his despair at losing his beloved Kurisu. At any rate, they both turn out to be a trifle boring and they fail to elicit the deep relief that a return to Attractor Field Beta should be expected to provide.

True Ending, where art thou?

To feel that much-awaited relief, you have to wait for the unfolding of the fabled and highly elusive “True Ending”. Titled “Open the Steins Gate”, it is by far the most complete and satisfying of the bunch: it ties together loose elements that appeared at the very beginning of the story and wraps things up in a clever and delightful way. Too bad this masterful narrative was not the template for all of Steins;Gate’s endings, really. That delicious dish of a True Ending is only ever-so-slightly spoiled by the cliché concept that supports it, namely the existence of a worldline independent from any attractor field where the future could be shaped according to one’s own free will. Hum, haven’t I seen this before in, like, a million J-RPGs? Oh, well.

I finally used an FAQ to navigate my way to this ending—and boy, don’t I regret it. The requirements for the unlocking of “Open the Steins Gate” are ridiculously arcane, and I’m pretty sure that I would have given up on the game long before triggering them. Here’s the deal: you must build a relationship with Kurisu that will prove intense and enduring enough to motivate future Okabe on worldline Beta to dive again into time-travel research and find a way to set things rights after Kurisu’s death. This is done by exchanging a series of emails with Kurisu over the course of the game’s ten chapters, and the true ending flags are triggered by answering specific words in her emails—or, in one case, by not answering them. Aside from the fact that exchanging a couple of emails seems a trifle too superficial a way to strengthen a love bond, even in these digital times, these flags present a stinging problem: although they make perfect sense in the context of the True Ending, it is virtually impossible to guess what they are before uncovering said True Ending. You could spend dozens of hours trying to figure out which emails are relevant between Mayuri’s, Faris’, Lukako’s and Kurisu’s and trying every single possible combination of answers before unearthing the True Ending—that is, if you don’t get bored to death and jump ship long before. Things are all the more confusing as this flag system is only used for the True Ending and it corollary, the truncated “Paradox Meltdown”, while the other four endings use a branching path system. Maybe this is common practice in the realm of Visual Novels, but it is quite confusing for a beginner like me. 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors, which is the closest thing to a VN I’ve played before Steins;Gate, used a branching path system and stuck to it; as a result, it was much more satisfying to navigate and the uncovering of the various endings was much smoother. There was a flag of sorts to unearth, granted, but it was only a single occurrence and it made perfect sense in the context of the narrative, so guessing what this flag was and recovering it was piece of cake. On the other hand, the lack of cohesiveness of Steins;Gate’s ending requirements and the arcane quality of its flag system forces you to rely on trial-and-errors—or FAQs as a last resort—which is anything but fulfilling.

And all that’s in between

Endings aside, Steins;Gate's narrative suffers from a couple of blatant flaws. It fortunately avoided major plot holes, but that is only a small relief compared to the disappointment brought by these flaws, which go as such:

—Ad hoc overdose: Steins;Gate relies way too much on ad hoc to get out of narrative binds. Okabe is stuck because he doesn’t know the contents of Faris’ D-mail and has absolutely no way to recover them? No problem! Just let Faris gain Reading Steiner out of the blue and remember all of a sudden events from other worldlines, even though it was previously established that only Okabe had this ability—and even though it creates more problems than it solves, problems that I will cover in a couple of lines. No one can figure out the identity of Suzuha’s father? No problem! Just transform dumb-as-a-brick Mayuri into Conan Edogawa long enough to solve the matter, and—case closed! Yeah, right. And no, making Okabe comment on the fact that Mayuri can be “surprisingly perceptive at times” doesn’t add a shred of believability to that most unlikely turn of events. There is also the infamous Lukako affair that I mentioned in my first post, along with plenty of other minor occurrences that I won’t detail here to avoid boring everybody to death—including myself.  Such cheap narrative tricks are infuriating and shouldn’t be used in a storyline that presented itself from the onset as based on scientific concepts and ruled by strict determinism.

—Missed identification to narrator: Protagonist-based first person narration is supposed to help one relate to the narrator and somehow identify to them. It fails spectacularly in the case of Steins;Gate, and it does so for one simple reason: Okabe is an absolute MORON. There is no way I can relate and identify to a character that cannot put two and two together on a regular basis and sprouts crap such as “Twenty years from now is such a long time, I don’t want to sacrifice my friends’ precious memories right now. Let’s rather sacrifice the future of the whole humanity, yoo-hoo!” I know that the latest theories in neuroscience claim that the parts of the brain involved in decision-making are not fully developed until age 25, but such a lack of common sense and twisted sense of priorities is just ridiculous. As a whole, most of Okabe’s decisions are totally at odds with what any sensible person would decide in the same circumstances—and let’s not even talk about his propensity to get horny in the most inappropriate situations. Hum, could you forget your privates and think a little more about the fate of the world instead, you stupid and unrelatable main character? Jeez, I so hate being stuck in your brain.

—Lack of attention to details: Like most Vita games, Steins;Gate has a very obvious “budget” quality. That’s okay per se: it is the Vita style, and it is kind of endearing, actually. However, it is not okay when the lack of polish goes as far as to undermine the narrative. There are numerous times when the pictures on screen blatantly contradict the text, which is simply unacceptable in a visual novel. I’ll limit myself to one single example: in endings 2 and 3 after the return to the Beta Attractor Field, Okabe mourns the fact that Kurisu’s upgrades to the PhoneWave are gone and that the machine is back to its prior state. Yet what do we see on screen? Heck, you guessed it: the PhoneWave with all the upgrades added by Kurisu. Way to ruin the moment and destroy its emotional impact, game! This mistake is hardly forgivable, especially since the game does feature pictures of the original PhoneWave; it’s not like the developers needed to create a specific picture for that scene. This is simply carelessness, carelessness that spoils the immersion.

It’s time to wrap this up, folks. Although I adored Steins;Gate at first, my love sadly grew cold as chapters and endings went by. That game had some incredible potential and could have been a masterclass mind-bender; instead, the writers decided to play it easy and to indulge into some romantic meanderings. Well, be it. I don’t buy it, and Steins;Gate will remain a major disappointment as far as I’m concerned. That won’t deter me from playing more visual novels, though—and very soon at that, because I need compensation. I need a fresh mouth washer to clean my palate of the bitter taste left by Steins;Gate, and that mouth washer is going to be none other than Danganronpa. I hope it will perform its duty well and give birth to a stellar review! For now, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!