Pokemon Sun/Moon: A departure

Greetings and Merry Christmas to you all, dear fellow gamers! I've been writing about general gaming matters since the beginning of december, and you may wonder if I've been playing any game at all during that time. Well, the answer is yes: as a matter of fact, I've been pretty engrossed by a single game these last weeks, and that game is none other than the newly released Pokemon Sun. I've been polishing off two playthroughs of it already, and run reports are very much in the pipeline. But for the time being, I want to write about my overall impression of the game and analyze the many changes it packs in its tiny cartridge. Without further ado, let's dissect the newest Pokemon beast together! (Slight SPOILERS ahead!)

The Sun/Moon pair means a lot to me, because they are the first brand-new Pokemon entries released since I discovered the series in 2014. I've been waiting and pinning for them with a lot of trepidation and anticipation; and oh boy, did they gloriously fulfill my expectations. I can proudly claim that Sun and Moon are my favourite Pokemon entries ever and that insular Alola managed to charm and enrapture me like no other Pokemon region ever did. Heck, cruising through Alola even awakened in me an overwhelming desire to visit its real-life inspiration and gorge on deliciously real malasadas.

The early stages of my exploration of Sun, however, were not that glorious: in fact, my initial feelings about the Alolan entries were lukewarm at best. The excessive linearity, constant hand-holding and abundance of cutscenes were a shock to my system, and I think the only reason I was able to soldier through the first hours of the game without ditching it entirely before writing a scathing review was because my levels of energy were still quite low at the time and could thus accommodate an overbearing game. And that's all for the best, because once I managed to accept that this was the newest Pokemon fashion and got fully used to it, I fell head over heels in love with Alola. I love the rural insular setting of that new region and the fact that it sports no huge and confusing city like entries from generations V and VI. I love the fact that Alola is so cosy and welcoming, with a nice variety of pint-sized landscapes that don't take hours to explore. I love the gentle atmosphere and the fact that the locals are so hell-bent on collaborating and welcoming a complete stranger like me. Feeling like a foreigner and being routinely challenged by locals in a slightly antagonistic way in former Pokemon entries was a thrilling experience, but I definitely prefer the comfy, heartwarming and welcoming vibe of Sun and Moon, in which every NPC treats me as an important part of the community. (Of course, it certainly doesn't hurt that one of the local Guardian Deities entrusted me with a Sparkling Stone that let me use D-moves five minutes after I set foot on Alola, thus making me a kahuna in all but name, now does it?) I love this friendliness so much that I simply cannot help but go out of my way to chat with every single NPC in Alola.

Given that Alolans are so open and friendly, it makes perfect sense that the game won't pit you against a hot-blooded rival this time around. For all the wild speculations on the internet regarding the rival mattergoing from the notion that your character is actually supposed to play the role of the rival towards Hau to the idea that your real and true rival is Professor Kukuiwe have to face the truth here: there is no traditional rival in Pokemon Sun and Moon. Hau is way too friendly to be a rival, all the more so as he chooses the starter that's weak against your own. Gladion appears too unfrequently to be considered a true rival and has his own goals that have nothing to do with becoming the strongest trainer around. As for Professor Kukui, he fights you only once and does so as the resident champion. Sun and Moon take away the good old rival figure and replace it with a variety of antagonists that fight you for various reasons and are nowhere near as aggressive and determined to beat the crap out of you as the rivals of old. And boy, is that refreshing. As much as I enjoyed showing over-confident pricks à la Barry who was the boss, I relish this change of pace in all things rivalry.

The resident villain team was also treated to a much-needed makeover. Let's face it: although they are initially designed to be threatening, villain teams always come across as foolish and slightly pathetic. Game Freak seem to have noticed this pattern and taken it in their stride; this time around, they created a team of villains that were very blatantly designed as laughing stocks, with hilarious behaviours and one-liners that bring a lot of humour into the game. On the other hand, they introduced a villain team in disguise in the shape of the Aether Foundation employees, whose rigid ethos and self-righteous behaviours, constant meddling and too pristine outfits are bound to elicit unease and suspicionwhich turn out to be totally justified. It is later revealed that the two teams work hand in hand for very mundane reasons; and although they do some harm over the course of the game, neither of them are as inherently evil and rotten as teams from former entries, which is a welcome change of tone.

That leads us to the story, which is considerably more fleshed-out than your usual Pokemon romp. No more "take that pokedex and become the strongest trainer out there", no more teams of villains with murky and far-fetched motives; this time, your trainer gets to interact with characters that have believable goals and sound reasons to act the way they do. Sun and Moon's storyline is surprisingly grounded and well put together, and all the characters turn out to be pleasantly relatable. Instead of dealing with guru-like team leaders that want to get their paws on godly 'Mons for purposes unfathomable to anyone but themselves, we are confronted with a slightly insane wealthy woman who collects pokemons she deems perfect for her own selfish enjoyment. In a region so intent on cooperating and helping one another as Alola, this comes across as the ultimate treason and a potentially dangerous behaviour that must be stopped at any costand that's obviously a job for your trainer, along with many helpers. I was very fond of that simple yet well-constructed story, although I could have done with slightly less cutscenes and hand-holding along the way, as well as a trifle less linearity. This is the first Pokemon entry in which the story moves you forward instead of the opposite, and I cannot help but feel a bit sorry for all the players whose primary purpose is the hunting and breeding of 'Mons and who must endure heavy amounts of narrative to reach the next area in line.

I can't avoid mentioning the biggest change of them all, namely the ousting of Gyms. The streamlined and compact Gym structure with its unmovable eight milestones has been replaced by the much looser Trial structure. The core goal is still the same, i.e. fighting strong Trainers and 'Mons and ultimately getting the upper hand as well as an item that will prove your victory beyond any doubt; however, Trials have a much more roundabout way to lead you towards that goal. They come in all shapes and sizes, involve a wide variety of endeavours and are scattered around the islands in uneven numbers. All this makes them much more unpredictable than the Gyms of old and thus quite refreshing for veteran players. Although I slightly miss the thrill of taking one Gym after the other in an neat and orderly fashion, I have to admit that the Trial structure is a stimulating change of pace that's perfectly suited to the more rural and insular nature of the Alolan region to boot.

What's highly interesting about these changes is that they all target unexpected features and aspects of the series. Pokefans have been calling for many changes over the years, but I was never aware that there were massive pleas to change the Gym system, the rival dynamic or the narrative. All these changes were not only not demanded, but also not inherently needed: Pokemon games just worked fine the way they did and could have kept doing so. These massive changes in areas that were not in dire need of changes can be interpreted as a message from Game Freak, and by extension Nintendo. They are basically telling us that this time, they mean business and are ready to usher a new era. This is consistent with the changes that could be spotted in other upcoming entries of Nintendo IPs, such as the open world of Breath of the Wild, and it's also consistent with the innovative and revolutionary image of the Switch. Nintendo have being consistently accused of resting on their laurels and recycling their old gaming formulas ad nauseam during the whole 3DS and WiiU era, and they obviously want to silence such criticism for good and prove that they can evolve if they put their mind to it. I'm curiousand a bit anxious, I admitto see where this brand-new direction will lead them; although this could bring some welcome innovations to the fold, I fervently hope that I won't ever have to suffer through an open-world Pokemon instalment.

These were my overall feelings about Sun and Moon, but I'm far from being done with these games, both in playing and writing. I'll see you very soon with more Alolan goodness, dear fellow gamers! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Pondering portable gaming prospects (2)

After having pondered the evolution of portable gaming until now, it's time to unroll my informed speculations regarding its future. 2017 is going to be a paramount year for portable gaming, because it's very likely over the course of that year that we are going to find out whether portable gaming as we currently know it has a chance to survive or not.

But before we even get there, we have to face the sad truth: 2017 will certainly mark the end of the 3DS' shelf life. Although Nintendo claim that they will continue to support the system after the release of the Switch, anybody who's been following them for more than a console generation knows that such promises are as empty as the Virtual Boy gaming library. If their track record regarding older console support is any indication, they will support the 3DS for a couple of months and then ditch it without a second though. In this particular case, they will probably wait until the handful of games that are still in development are released and then announce the end of the 3DS production. All this will likely take place before the end of 2017, and that means that we may well end up missing a couple of appetizing localizations in the process. For instance, I'm not too sure that games like Etrian Odyssey V and Monster Hunter Diary will arrive on our shores, unless publishers pull off tardy releases à la Devil Survivor 2. At any rate, the tiny number of slated 3DS releases for 2017 is quite telling: the 3DS is on its last legs and heading towards retirement, sooner rather than later. Although it's far from being my favourite portable console of all times, I'm a little bit sad at the though that Nintendo's ultimate dedicated portable system is about to go retro.

The question is, will the 3DS bail out alone or will it do so alongside the console that should have been its main competitor but never managed to rise up to the challenge, a.k.a. the Vita? Nothing seems to be clear-cut when it comes to the immediate future of the unofficial sanctum and anchorage for all games quircky and nichey, as Sony steadily refuses to mention the console at official events or comment on its possible future. While this snubbing is infuriating, it can also be interpreted in a positive way: as long as Sony is uttering no word about the Vita, they are at least not announcing the end of its production. And since they have no planned successor to their unloved portable, the Vita may actually endure longer that the 3DS and enjoy a much longer pre-retirement period. Indeed, there are tons of Vita games slated for physical release in 2017, both in Japan and in the West; and it's not a stretch to assume that the Vita will manage to survive until the beginning of 2018maybe even until late 2018 or early 2019. Despite pitifullly failing to fulfill Sony's expectations, the Vita has managed to carve itself a niche and to build up a small but devoted and passionate fan base, both in Japan and in the West. The type of games that are currently gracing the Vita can't be found on any other console, and there is undoubtedly a market for such games; this is why I can envision the Vita going strongin the niche acception of the wordfor a couple of extra years, supported by developers and publishers that won't find any better outlet for their budget niche games. In the best possible scenario, niche Vita releases will keep going until the market dries up and Sony will abstain from interfering, offering the black sheep of its console line-up a pleasant and peaceful departureand boy, isn't that the least they can do after ignoring it for years.

But regardless of how long the Vita clings to life, the survival of our beloved current brand of portable gaming is still at stake; and it hinges entirely on how the upcoming Switch will perform and how third-party developers will handle itmaking Nintendo once again THE company that will single-handedly make portable gaming or break it. We've reached a point where portable console gaming and home console gaming have become vastly different experiences, so much so that they should be discussed separately; and in what can only be described as a giant display of irony, they have somehow switched places over time. Portable gaming has claimed for itself the variety and boldness that used to characterize home console gaming back in the days, and home console gaming has shrunk and become just as lacklustre and samey as portable gaming used to be in its early stages. Home console gaming has become overcautious, tired and crusty while portable gaming is the avant-garde bristling with dynamism, and it's up to future Switch developers to maintain the latter's edge. If things turn out right, the Switch can even bring a breath of fresh air to home console gaming and shake it from its hyperrealistic AAA slumber.

In the most gloriously optimistic scenario, current 3DS and Vita developers will massively flock to the Switch and focus solely on the portable side of Ninty's all-in-one console, thus ignoring home console standards entirely and releasing games similar to the ones they've been releasing on former portable systems. Just because the Switch can behave like a home console doesn't mean that all developers must take that possibility into account and that every Switch game must abide to home console criteria. After all, many developers have a track record of diligently ignoring Nintendo's and Sony's gimmicks du jour, developing games as though dual screen, touch screens and stereoscopic 3D were never a thing; and they can keep ignoring Ninty's latest flight of fancy if they want to. Portable gaming would thus coexist peacefully with home console gaming on a single system; and if such a cohabitation turns out to be fruitful for all parties involved, it could definitely set a new standard for gaming consoles and encourage other hardware manufacturers to cross the Rubicon and start producing similar all-in-one systems that can cater to all brands of gaming.

In the most depressingly pessimistic scenario, most current 3DS and Vita developers won't make to move to the Switch, and those who do will ditch the current brand of portable gaming without a second though and start catering to the home console audience by releasing games bristling with open worlds, camera fiddling and attempts at hyperrealism. The portable games of the last twelve years will be dismissed as pitiful by-products of technical limitations and the whole console industry will bow down to home console standards. In such a case, the Switch will probably underperform dramatically compared to its counterparts and scare away potential developers, thus ending up as yet another third party games-deserted fiasco. And given that Nintendo are about to ditch the 3DS and fuse their home console and portable console departments in what is arguably the boldest and most dangerous move in their history, they will be left with no flourishing portable console department to fall back on and will most definitely go belly up for good.

Between these two extremes stands the reasonably realistic scenario, in which Nintendo and a handful of third-party developers will occasionally release the odd game inspired by former portable console standards, thus transforming the present-day brand of portable gaming into a niche of sorts. Mind you, there are actually a lot of clues pointing to that outcome to be found in the current home console landscape, as we are now seeing home consoles being graced with games that would have remained confined to the realm of portable gaming a couple of years ago. Sonic Mania, Mighty No. 9, Nitroplus Blasterz, Digimon Story Cybersleuth, every indie game ever Kickstarted into existence: you name them, the home consoles have themand portable consoles more and more often don't, which is just the weirdest situation ever. It's like home console gaming is trying to reclaim its long-forgotten diversity and taste for innovation while at the same time attempting to put portable gaming back in the place that it left so long ago, i.e. in the shadow of all TV-tied consoles. In such a scenario, the current brand of portable gaming, which is very much its own entity, would merge into home console gaming, and Gaming with a capital G would be unified once again under the old banner of home console gaming, with portable gaming being reduced to a mere hardware option like back in the days.

The Switch does have the potential to give birth to these three scenarios, which is just the most dizzying and overwhelming feeling. It's not a coincidence that analyses and commentaries are describing the Switch both as a portable console that can be plugged to a TV screen and as a home console with an extra portable display; just like Schrodinger's cat, the Switch is actually both of these things as long as it's not released. Only time, developer support and actual games will determine the destiny of the Switch, and by extension the destiny of portable gaming as a gaming trend of its own.

It goes without saying that I will follow the Switch's performances very closely. I don't think I've ever been that eager to see how a Nintendo console will perform, which is quite ironic given that I'm not even planning to buy the thing in the next years. Nevertheless, the Switch's fate will determine if I have to retreat into the solace of retro gaming for good or if the gaming industry still have some juicy bites to offer me, and it's definitely something I'm anxious to find out. The die is cast, and we'll see which number pops up. In the meantime, I'll enjoy my precious collection, give my bank account a well-deserved rest and keep writing about games for my pleasure and yours, dear fellow gamers. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Pondering portable gaming prospects (1)

Portable gaming has been my holy land ever since I started playing video games. From Game&Watches to my beloved Gameboy to my expectation-shattering Vita, I've seen portable gaming evolve in ways I could never have imagined when I first laid my thumb on a D-pad. And right now, after more than twenty-five years of portable gaming growth, we are standing at a crossroad. An ominous crossroad, shall I say, because it will determine whether portable gaming as we currently know it will endure or disappear. And boy, wouldn't that be a pity to see portable gaming disappear now that it finally managed to reach its peak after years spent in the shadow of home console gaming.

Indeed, it took portable gaming quite a bit of time to mature and reach its full bloom. Portable consoles were initially low-fi versions of their more popular and flashier home counterparts, with game libraries made of downgraded versions of more popular and flashier home consoles games. Game releases were usually simultaneous, with each home console game getting its budget, barren equivalent on portable consoles. Home console gaming was running the game (indeed) at the time, with portable gaming following suit as a mere extensionor as an afterthough in some cases. Exclusive portable games were few and far between, and they either took their cues from home console gaming or were conceived as experiments that would have cost too much to produce on home consoles. (Think Final Fantasy Legend II or the original Pokemon Red and Green for examples of such safe bets.)

Things started to change with the Gameboy Color. At the time of its release, home console games had become too advanced to be squeezed into portable cartridges, be it with a lot of downgrading. The Gameboy Color and portable gaming as a whole had to find a new avenue if they wanted to keep striving and prosperingor even if they wanted to survive full stop. The genius solution at the time was to turn to NES ports and remakes from the former gaming generations, peppered with a couple of exclusive games blatantly inspired by 16-bit gaming. This potent mix worked as a charm and allowed the Gameboy Color to enjoy a decent lifetime; but most importantly, it instigated the separation between home console gaming and portable gaming and paved the way for an independant brand of portable gaming that would be a viable alternative to home console gaming.

The Gameboy Advance solidified these advancements and took portable gaming even further away from its home console counterpart. Retro gaming was growing in popularity at the time, and the GBA cleverly surfed the nostalgia wave by offering all at once lush ports and remakes of SNES games and brand-new games that emulated 16-bit era gaming. It's no coincidence that the GBA has been dubbed "the SNES emulator"; its whole library is basically one giant homage to 16-bit home console gaming. This planted the idea that portable gaming was somehow bound to hark back to older gaming eras and to revive dead gaming trends; and oh boy, did it indeed do so in the years that followed the GBA's retirement.

Let's face it: the last twelve years have been the Halcyon Days of portable gaming. We're talking about the seventh and eighth generation of consoles here, and they saw portable gaming reach its full maturity and peak as a gaming trend, with more dedicated systems and games to choose from than ever before. 2004 marked the glorious release of both the DS and PSP, two systems that would be instrumental in making portable console gaming its own glorious entity. They introduced a staggering variety of gaming genres and gaming experiences, from convincing copies of AAA games to much more niche games and everything in between, without forgetting remakes and ports from former generations. Even better, they actually revived genres that were dead and buried, such as hardcore 2D platformers and first-person dungeon crawlers. No console under the gaming sun can claim a gaming library as wide and varied as the DS' and PSP's ones, which span every single gaming genre and subgenre ever created.

Two consoles come very close though, and that's obviously the 3DS and the Vita. The proud successors to the DS and PSP refined the thriving unique brand of portable gaming established by their elders by getting rid of most of the shovelware that plagued the DS and PSP gaming libraries and focusing on genres that portable gamers lapped up and wanted to play more of. The Vita throwed itself into niche gaming full force and became the unofficial haven and refuge for all games quircky, nichey, fan-servicey and budgety; as for the 3DS, it gave gamers more of what they wanted to play the most by releasing lovingly crafted entries of the most successful DS series and ditching less popular franchises without a second thought. Remakes and ports were still going strong, keeping alive the portable gaming tradition of maintaining fruitful ties to the pastalthough at that point, they were starting to feel more like quick cash-ins than like shout-outs to former gaming eras. The 3DS and Vita offered a wide variety of games while keeping an sharper eye on quality control; their gaming libraries are like upgraded and honed versions of their predecessors' ones, in which only the best gaming formulas have been kept and fine-tuned until they become the creme de la creme.

These glorious and peaceful days of portable gaming may be about to come to an end, though. As I mentioned before, we are standing at a crossroad, and the next years will determine the fate of portable gaming. The question is: will portable gaming as we currently know it endure? Will it maintain its nichey, budgety aspect, its staggering variety and its independance from home console gaming, or will it be absorbed by stronger gaming trends and dissolve entirely, leaving nothing behind but fond memories and dusty cartridges coveted by wistful retro gamers? As Nintendo is about to unleash an all-in-one console upon the world and Sony is planning no successor for the Vita, it's now time for informed speculations regarding the future of the brand of portable gaming that we currently know and love.

And you know what, dear fellow gamers? I'll actually unroll these informed speculations in another post, because this one is getting close to being dangerously stuffy. You won't have to wait long though, because the whole thing is pretty much mapped out in my head as I'm writing. I'll see you very soon for the end of my portable gaming musings, dear fellow gamers! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Why I will wait a long time before buying the Nintendo Switch

I have to admit it: for all my past rantings about Nintendo, I am currently interested in the Switch. Ever since the big reveal some weeks ago, I've being thinking that maybe, just maybe, that console could delight me after all. I mean, this is technically a portable system, and I'm a portable console aficionado; so there's really no reason I should write the Switch off, right? Well, things are not that straightforward. Although I am definitely pondering a purchase, that doesn't mean that said purchase has to happen Day One, or even Year One. Or year two, three or four, for that matter.

Here's the thing: I am currently planning to let a good amount of time pass before I do purchase a Switch. In fact, I'm planning no less than to purchase a Switch at the very end of the console's lifetime, maybe even after production has stopped. Not only could I then take full advantage of the Switch's Pit, but that would also allow me to avoid a couple of pitfalls that are likely to be waiting for me if I purchase the Switch Day One. Without further ado, here are my very sound reasons to bide my time to get my paws on Ninty's all-in-one offering:

  • Prices tags: Although I would solely use the Switch as a portable console if I buy one, there's no denying that this is actually a home console/portable console hybrid, with prices to match. The price tag of 300$ for the system alone is currently floating around the internet, and I have to admit that such a price tag is a trifle too high for my taste. I never invested that much money in a gaming system ever and I'm not ready to start now. And that's without even talking about the games, which will probable come with price tags anywhere between 60$ and 80$. I'm really not ready to fork out that much cash to get my paws on the Switch and its gaming library, hence my decision to wait for the end of the console's lifetime and the concomitant price dips to invest in the whole package.
  • Prospective game library: Although many third-party developers have come forward and claimed that they fully support Nintendo and the upcoming Switch, such claims are little more than declarations of intent at this point. Real, actual games still have to be confirmed; and for all we know, the Switch may end up being totally bereft of third-party support and suffer the same fate as the WiiU. Given that 95% of my Nintendo gaming libraries are made of third-party games, I'd rather wait patiently until such games do indeed turn up on the Switch before considering a purchase. Because let's be honest, I'm not a great fan of most of Nintendo's IP and I certainly wouldn't purchase a Switch just to play Pokemon. 
  • Release schedule: Even if third-party developers lavish the Switch with great games and if every single franchise that ever released games for the DS, 3DS and Vita move on to the Switch, it's highly likely that the release pace of all these games will be much slower than it used to be on older portable systems. We're talking about a home console of sorts, after all, and it can be expected to follow home console standards when it comes to development times and release schedule. As a long-time portable gamer, I've been pampered with rapid-fire releases that delivered at least two or three entries of each franchise on every system, sometimes more. That makes one game per year, or one game every two years at the worst; and now that I'm fully used to this release pace, I don't want to switch gears and spend many a year pinning for a series' newest entry. I'd much rather wait until the Switch runs its course and then purchase all the games that interest me at once. And gee, wouldn't that be the most amazing shopping spree of them all. I'm nearly looking forward to it, actually. 
  • Call of the backlog: After five amazing years of intensive collecting, I'm sitting on a nice, big fat collection of games that are begging to be played. And you know what? I'm in the mood to humour themand myself in the process. After five years spent ordering games, waiting impatiently for them and wasting spending unspeakable amounts of money in custom fees, I am now ready to sit back, relax and enjoy my hard-earned games. By the time the Switch bails out, my game purchasing drive will probably have returned full force and it will be a great delight to indulge in a massive orgy of Switch-related purchases. Until then, I'll enjoy my collection to the fullest as a full-time retro gamer. 
  • Once bitten, twice shy: After Nintendo's shenanigans during the 3DS and WiiU era, I know better than to jump blindly on any new console they release. Ninty has a lot to answer for as far as I'm concerned, and they really have to step up their game in a major way if they want to get me on board again. I'm thus waiting, and watching. If they get rid of the cursed region-lock, pick up the pace when it comes to game development and releases, stop cutting games in pieces and releasing them as standalone games, drop the excessive gimmickry and cut the crap with the artificial shortages, then I'll be more than glad to invest in their stuff again. If they don't, then I'm out for good. 

You get the point, dear fellow gamers: if I do indeed end up purchasing a Switch, it will be by the time the Switch is about to go retro. This is actually a bit of a pattern in my gaming life: I'm just as likely to invest and indulge in a console's library after said console's prime is over than during said console's heyday. And when I say "just as likely", I mean it literally: half of all the systems I ever purchased were acquired during the console's official lifetime, and the other half right after the console bailed out. There's something oddly comforting in purchasing a system and its library as another console generation is about to kick in: not only does it spare you the fake hype, the long waiting times between game releases and the sky-high prices, but it nearly makes you feel like a savior of sorts for taking in a forlorn console that nobody wants anymore. Only time will tell if I will end up adopting a Switch; in the meantime, I'll go full retro and keep playing and reviewing games from the last four console generations. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!  


Code:Realize: Fifty shades of frustration

A.K.A. the route report I promised you, dear fellow gamers. My drive to write about Code:Realize is drying up fast, so I'll wrap this up nicely and tighly before said drive entirely evaporates. Without further ado, let's get to it! (SPOILERS ahead!)

  • Impey: I had very low expectations regarding the crew's token goof's route, but Impey's route pleasantly surprised me. It packs a lot of action as well as some really interesting character development. Goofy Impey turns out to be much deeper than expected and Cardia gets to show a lot of courage and to mature accordingly. Although the two often feel more like friends than like lovers, there's no denying that the chemistry between them is really good and that they make a jolly good pair. All in all, this whole route reminded me a lot of Jules Verne's most hectic books, which is more than fitting given that a lot of the route's narrative elements are lifted straight from Jules Verne's oeuvre. Heck, playing this route even made me want to reread Journey to the Center of the Earth, my favourite Jules Verne book ever! I would definitely rank this route in my top favourites, and it may have been my ultimate favourite route if not for the fact that Impey and Cardia don't get to consumate their relationship. I'm still pissed off about this whole abstinence thing, I really am. 

  • Saint-Germain: Bizarre is the right word to describe this route. It boasts some narrative developments that come completely out of left field as well as some character development that's, well, totally out of character. It starts with a bout of unexpected confinementor maybe not so unexpected, because it seems that every Otomate game must feature confinement of the heroine in at least one of the routesand it ends with a fight between immortal beings on London Bridge, with tons of uncanny events in between. This route left a very weird taste in my mouth, and the forced abstinence that popped up once again certainly didn't alleviate my distaste for it.

  • Van Helsing: Oh, what a torture! Playing this route was as pleasant as whipping myself with nettles or jumping head first in brambles. Van Helsing is by far the most antipathic, rude and disgraceful character I've encountered in an otome game. He's neither a tsundere not an ice queen; tsundere are sometimes nice and ice queens can be defrosted, but Van Helsing remains cold and rude to Cardia throughout the whole route. He's a bloody iceberg, that's what he is, with not defrosting in sight whatsoever. He doesn't show a shred of affection towards Cardia, and it was seriously depressing to see him rebuff her time and time again. Even worse, Van Helsing doesn't even have the decency to deal with his heavy past in a graceful way. Unlike the other guys, who carry their own personal burden with dignity and soberness, Van Helsing faces his past sins with anger, bitterness and a lot of whining. And guess on whom he vents his frustration and pent-up rage? Why, on poor little Cardia, of course! So much for the love he claims to feel for her. If that's what love means for this guy, then he doesn't deserve my lovely, sweet Cardia. And he's not gonna get the whole of her anyway, because forced abstinence is once again part and parcel of this route. 

  • Victor: Well, I certainly didn't expect that. Who would have thought that this route would turn out to be the most perfect and fulfilling of the bunch? Victor and Cardia have it all: the connection, the chemistry, the tenderness, the loving and comforting words and, last but certainly not least, the kisses and whatever comes in their wake. Yup, innocent-looking Victor gets some, and that's probably the biggest plot twist in the whole game. Anyway, the alchemy between Victor and Cardia is amazing and their love story is heart-warming. They care for each other deeply and they show it blatantly in the sweetest and most honest way. What's not to love, seriously? The rest of the narrative is also deeply satisfying, with a lot of intense moments and an overall atmosphere that's a perfect mix of sadness, hope and gentleness. Absolution is a strong theme in this route, and it packs an interesting plot twist that only serves to increase the bond between Victor and Cardia. Cherry on the cake, the route hints at the fact that Queen Victoria could also have a chance at love, which was a nice touch. This route is my favourite and the one that touched me the most, and probably the only one I would bother replaying if I ever pick up Code:Realize again.

  • Lupin: The one True Route, the one that should have wrapped things up in the most satisfying way and failed to do so. For one thing, Lupin is not a very convincing love interest. It's clear that the developers wanted to create a well-rounded bachelor that would potentially appeal to all players; unfortunately, Lupin is so well-rounded and middle-of-the-road that he ends up being painfully transparent. It's hard to figure out his personality and what makes him tickso much so that I didn't manage to nail his true ending on my first try like I did with the four other routes. The sad truth is that there is really not much to Lupin beyond his playful bragging, cape flourishes and mademoiselle, and even his supposedly painful past pales when compared to his counterparts' hurdles. To make matters worse, the chemistry between him and Cardia is non-existent: if anything, they feel more like long-lost siblings than like lovers, and the cliché wedding at the end of the route doesn't change that fact one bit, nor does the fact that they have the rare privilege to be able to enjoy physical intimacy. 

As for Cardia's story, the least that can be said is that it doesn't end up in a satisfying way. There is no logic whatsoever to the fact that her father didn't keep her at his side at all times, and the whole concept of him being somehow transformed in a big ball of something and about to become a new God falls completely flat. How about something less far-fetched and not dripping so much in ad hoc and deux ex machina, game? I cannot take that conclusion seriously at all because it's too damn improbable, even when taking the nature of the story into account. I mean, even the most fanciful fantastic story must have a modicum of coherence to function properly. Otherwise, you can just throw anything into the mixaliens, furries, Jedis, Cthulhu, whatever gets you out of a narrative bindand call it a day. And now that I think of it, isn't there a logical fallacy in the act of sticking the Horologium in Cardia's body? Since the story establishes that the stone needs to spend some time in a living body to reach its full potential and is the very thing that keeps Cardia alive in the first place, why not stick it in Finis' chest, since Isaac seemingly hates him so much? Why give it to the clone of its supposedly beloved daughter, knowing that she will die the moment the Horologium is ripped out of her chest? Yeah, I know the answer: because the game wouldn't have existed otherwise. Now that's tautology at its best, and I don't like it much.

With that said, I'm done with this post, and I'm done with Code:Realize as well. I'm glad I got this out of my chest, and I can now move on to greener gaming pastures with a sigh of relief. I must admit that Code:Realize left me a trifle nauseated and not too eager to tackle other otome games right now. Although I would certainly have appreciated to maintain my current mellow gaming stride, I just can't bring myself to face more torturous love stories. So I'll let otome games rest for a while and find another relaxing game instead. See you soon with more gaming goodness, dear fellow gamers! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Code:Realize: Please get me out of here

After my glowing experience with Sweet Fuse, I was still pretty low on energy and not quite ready to tackle a demanding RPG, which led me to elect another otome game as Sweet Fuse's follower. The happy winner was Code:Realize, an game that has been patiently waiting for its time since last year. Now that I'm done playing it, I think it could definitely have waited longer.

I'll be blunt: I didn't like Code:Realize. It had its moments and it managed to captivate me to some extent; but overall, it was a pretty negative experience that left a bad taste in my mouth. And yet, as I mentioned above, I played it entirelyand intensively, since I polished off the whole thing in a couple of days without taking a break to write about it. So why was I so hell-bent on playing a game I didn't like, you may ask? Well, I guess it was out of curiositymorbid curiosity, that is. I wanted to see how ludicrous the story would get and what absurdities it would throw at me; and last but not least, I wanted to see if the game would manage to wrap things up in a fulfilling and convincing way. For the record, the answer was no.

As you probably guessed already, my main beef with the game and bone of contention with its reviewers is the story. It's widely said to be stellar, so much so that the game garnered the stellar score of 85 on Metacritic and was highly praised even by male reviewers; and yet that stellar story failed to enrapture me. This is the Steins;Gate situation all over again: a supposedly amazingly good story that started auspiciously yet ultimately left me cold and annoyed. If you want to know why, follow me through the next SPOILER-bristling paragraphs, dear fellow gamers.

I'll start with a disclaimer: CR's story is not inherently bad, although it has its flaws. It's suspenseful, gripping and well told, with interesting and loveable characters and narrative arcs that converge towards a conclusion that ties all ends together. There are very few contradictions and plotholes, but that's not saying much given the nature of the story: it belongs to the fantastic genre and as such, it's much more likely to get away with plotholes through the shameless inclusion of ad hoc narrative elements. There are a couple of incoherencies, such as the fact that Cardia was virtually abandoned in the middle of nowhere instead of being securely kept at her father's side, or the fact that she could talk despite being an artificial being that had never been in contact with humans before escaping the mansion; but without these, the story would basically not exist. So let's just exercise suspension of disbelief and move forward.

My main issue with CR's story is how sprawling and all over the place it is. See, I am a rather single-minded person that tends to favour slightly claustrophobic "huis clos" narratives, such as locked-room mysteries. I love when writers stick to a simple premise and skilfully work their way around it to weave a gripping and potentially mind-blowing story. And that, dear fellow gamers, is exactly what CR's writers did not do. They do offer an interesting premise, if only a bit cliché; but instead of sticking to it, they expand their narrative to the infinite and beyond, throwing tons of disparate elements that clash vigorously with each other into the mix. Vampires, British monarchy, philosophal stone, cloning, Knights of the Round Table, giant flying fortress: you name them, CR has them. Some developments come completely out of left field and seem to have been included for the sole purpose of avoiding plotholes, filling up narrative threads or giving a backstory to some of the charactersI'm looking at you, Saint-Germain's route.

What I dislike even more than sprawling stories is derivative sprawling stories, and CR is a proud exemple of the genre. Not only are the characters lifted straight from literary works, but their backstories and the content of their personal narrative arc are more often than not also lifted from said literary works in the process. Such a heavy-duty borrowing of narrative elements verges on plagiarismor at the very least on a very blatant and massive lack of inspiration. The blunt thruth is that despite its pizzazz and flashiness, CR is little more than a glorified cross-over fanfiction.

Even worse, CR doesn't even have the grace to be a fulfilling cross-over fanfiction. As anybody who ever laid their eyes on this peculiar form of writing knows, the main purpose of fanfiction is to create romances that were never intended by the original material's creatorsthe smuttier, the better. Since romance is also the meat and potatoes of otome games, we should have a match made in heaven, right? Well, not quite so. Someone at Otomate apparently decided that it would be a great idea to make most of CR's romances entirely platonic. Yup, you read that right: not even a kiss to reward you for all your hard wooing work, let alone the promise of steamy physical intimacy between the newfound lovers after the credits roll. The harsh truth is that in three of the five routes, Cardia simply cannot touch her lover or be touched by them at all without the protective layers of her poison-resistant clothing. Really, game? Sure, this situation is justified by the narrative, but it sucks nonetheless. What's the point of having a love story in an bloody otome game if it doesn't allow for physical intimacy? That's cruel to the characters, and even crueler to the player that spent several hours of their precious time pursuing a bachelor, only to be rewarded by forced abstinence at the end. Shame on you, Otomate. I feel robbed, I really do.

Mind you, there is worse to the routes than the inconclusiveness of their featured love stories. I've come to understand that otome games always have a so-called "true route" that is supposed to fully answer all the questions raised by the story and to put an end to said story for good. Well, CR's writers went absolutely overboard with the true route: they made it the canon route by excellence, grossly neglecting the four other routes in the process. Said four other routes come across as mere side dishes, aborted versions of the main story that the player must plod through to gain access to the only real and authentic route that answers all questions. These routes shift the focus from Cardia's mysterious identity to whatever hurdles her bachelor of choice is facing, leave heaps of questions unanswered and don't even have the decency to offer conclusive love stories, which makes them feel entirely non-legit and out of place in the grand scheme of things. Games like Amnesia: Memories and Sweet Fuse had a true route all right, but all the non-true routes stood on their own and offered satisfying endings. Not so in CR, the game in which all non-true routes are mere roadblocks on the path to the one and only true and cannon route. And boy, does it suck.

My, that was a lot of ranting, wasn't it? You get my point, dear fellow gamers: far from impressing me, CR's story ultimately left me frustrated and disappointed. It certainly doesn't help that it was so darn long: count three to four hours of play for the common route alone, plus two and a half to three hours of play for each route. That's nearly twenty hours of play, and these twenty hours left me drained and exhausted. Mind you, that won't prevent me from writing a route report very soon; I have more things to get out of my chest to settle the score between this game and me. I'll see you soon, dear fellow gamers! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Sweet Fuse: Refreshing

Gee, it's been a while since I last wrote, isn't it? I apologize for the long delay, dear fellow gamers. See, I was pondering which game to play after my last post when I was suddenly forced to take care of urgent matters that invited themselves into my life with the grace and subtlety of a cannonball. I had to use a lot of energy to solve these issues and I didn't lay a finger on any of my gaming devices during the last four weeks. Fortunately, the matter is nearly fully solved as I'm writing; and as the dust is settling and blood is drying on the now quiet battlefield, I can finally indulge in gaming again.

I chose Sweet Fuse because I wanted an easygoing game that required as little player input as possible—I'm still quite low on energy, I must say. Sweet Fuse turned out to be a fun, entertaining little game that packed more punch than I had expected, and I enjoyed every minute of it. The story is gripping—albeit a bit too easy to figure out for my taste—and the romancing process is as simple as it gets: there is no flag system, and the game lets you kindly know when you've made the "right" choice, i.e. the choice that will make the coveted bachelor fall deeper in love with you. This is straighforward and unfussy, just as I like my video game romancing to be. On the other hand, the production values are the lowest of the low: apart from the rather appealing character designs and good voice acting, everything in Sweet Fuse screams "budget". I could probably count on my two hands the number of background pictures used throughout the game and the cutscenes look horrible most of the time. But that's a bit of a law of the genre, I guess; I still have to uncover a VN with stellar production values.

I remember reading reviews deploring the fact that Sweet Fuse was too geared towards a young female audience for males to play it without cringing. I'm quite perplexed by such statements, which I'm tempted to blame on the fact that otome games were virtually unknown in the West when Sweet Fuse was released; because honestly, Sweet Fuse is not that soaked in girliness. Main heroine Saki is far from being a girl's girl, the overall tone is rather grisly and the game packs so little romantism that Amnesia: Memories' rough story feels like an Harlequin scenario compared to Sweet Fuse. Sure, there are a couple of kiss scenes here and there, and they can be cringing at times; but that's mostly because they are very poorly drawn. In a nutshell, don't let the otome nature of Sweet Fuse stop you, for you would miss a deeply entertaining and fast-paced story in the process.

Now's the time to talk about the routes. Here's my own personal ranking, from my least favourite route to my utmost favourite one:

  • Mitarashi: A rather unmemorable route as far as I'm concerned. In fact, I can't even remember what exactly happened. Mitarashi lacks depth and the whole "yankee-turned-escort" scenario was at once too far-fetched and too cliché to grab my attention.
  • Urabe: This is the Toma situation all over again, i.e. a guy who's incredibly kind and polite yet hides some dark impulses behind the polished surface. Just like Toma, Urabe is prone to confine and imprison the object of his affection in the name of protection; and just like Toma, he comes across as more than a little unbalanced. This route was actually rather entertaining and would have been ranked higher if not for the fact that it's too short and that Urabe whines way too much for my taste.
  • Shidou: My, what a disappointment. Shidou being a sexy b*tch with a cold-as-ice attitude, I expected a Defrosting Ice Queen scenario of massive magnitude rife with steamy moments—well, as steamy as a game geared towards teenage girls can allow, anyway. Alas, I was let down by Shidou's route. Not only does Shidou remains cold and boring until the end, but the route itself is far too long and poorly paced. As for the alchemy between Shidou and Saki, it's quite on the frosty side too. Heck, close to the absolute zero would be more accurate: during most of their cutscenes, he seems indifferent and bored and she seems ill at ease. Well, so much for the steaminess! Frankly, I expected more from the most popular character of the male cast and unofficial poster boy for the game. 
  •  Wakasa: A nice entertaining little route. It can best be described as mid-tier: good enough to be pleasant when you play it yet not good enough to be truly memorable. Although the idea of a blooming love story between an idol and a regular girl is too unlikely to really convince, it must be noted that Saki and Wakasa have a good chemistry—if only because they look so much like each other.
  • Shirabe: A surprisingly good route. It's fast-paced and gripping, and there's a very good love chemistry between Shirabe and Saki despite their age difference. I only regret that the developers threw Shirabe's daughter into the mix; it feels slightly forced and it cheapens the overall narrative in general and this route in particular. Obviously, your mileage may vary on that one, and maybe many a player found Shirabe's daughter a cute addition to the game; but as far as I'm concerned, having a kid from a former union in the picture is a trifle gross. If I were a teenage girl, there's no way I would get romantically involved with a man who's already been spreading his genes around—especially if the result of said spreading is more than old enough to be my little sister.
  • Mikami: Now we're reaching the top-tier routes and it's getting really, really good. Mikami's route is an intense, gripping and hectic route in which each wrong answer will result in an untimely death—exactly like Ukyo's route in Amnesia: Memories. Mikami actually shares something else with Ukyo, i.e. an unstable personality peppered with bouts of psychopathic behaviour. In other words, he's a bit of a nutcase, and that's why it's so enthralling to watch his story unfold. This route is the most "romantic" of the bunch, in the sense that it revolves nearly exclusively around saving Mikami from the dark side of the Force, shall we say. All in all, I deem Mikami more interesting than Ukyo in the role of the game's resident fruitcake: he's a charming nutter with a goofy side, a weirdly soothing voice and looks that make you want to take a trip to the nearest beach. 
  • Meoshi: Please welcome my favourite route! Not only was it enthralling and ideally paced, but the alchemy between Meoshi and Saki is quite amazing. The route is rife with sweet moments between the two of them and the slow blooming of their love story is just so totally believable that it made me all mushy and stupidly happy. Even better, Meoshi is the only character that undergoes some character development reaching beyond the scope of the narrative. We get to know quite a lot about his introverted personality and we see him come out of his shell and become bolder and more assertive as his route unfolds, which is a great development. This route resonated strongly with me, partly because I identify closely with Meoshi. There's the obvious "gamer" element, of course; but there's also the fact that I used to be painfully shy and introverted and prone to social anxiety in my early twenties. Heck, I was basically Meoshi in my early twenties; and just like him, I managed to overcome these hurdles. That's why his route had such an impact on me.  
Jeez, I'm quite drained after writing for the first time in a month. Let's wrap this up, shall we? I don't have much to add anyway, apart from the fact that Sweet Fuse is a refreshing otome game that deserves to be played. Oh, and Count Hogstein is hilariously awesome—totally on par with abhorrent Monokuma from Danganronpa. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


World of Final Fantasy: Thanks, but no thanks

And yet another Square Enix RPG that I won't buy. You know, I'm starting to think that the issue may be that I actually don't like Square Enix' current style. The only recent Square Enix games I truly adored were Dragon Quest IX and Bravely Default; everything else has been either a lukewarm experience or an instant hate affair. So maybe I'm simply going to write off Square Enix and stop purchasing their games altogether.

Anyway, I'll keep this post mercifully short. I hated the little I've played of World of Final Fantasy and I certainly won't purchase it. To sum it up, the graphics are lacklustre and the game world is totally devoid of charm, battles are painfully slow and tedious, the camera moves make me nauseous and last but not least, it's a crappy Pokemon rip-off. Square Enix' pilfering of other successful gaming formulas is still going on full force, and it seems that this is indeed their new way of creating games.

Well, I certainly won't support that. Square Enix may be a powerhouse and a gaming legend, but past glory can only carry you on for so long. I don't care how great a developer's resumé is; if their current games don't please me, then I won't invest in them. I did love both Square and Enix RPGs in the past; but in my humble opinion, what they produce nowadays is utter crap. Now I seriously dread playing my newly purchased copy of Dragon Quest VII and having to face yet another disappointment. But hey, what's bought is bought! At least, I avoided spending money on WoFF.

Now I'm going to dig up a funny and light-hearted game to play next, because I really need to relax and unwind after my recent lukewarm gaming experiences. I'll see you soon with more gaming goodness, dear fellow gamers! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!

Criminal Girls 2: I've had enough

I just erased my CG2 save file and boy, am I relieved. I just can't play that game anymore.

The last straw was yet another Wake-Up Call Boss that would have needed insane amounts of level-grinding, strategizing and patience to be overcome. I already grinded like crazy to beat Shadow Tsukasa and a couple of other wake-up call bosses before her, and I'm just sick of it. I managed to get used to the unbalanced field battles, but these cheated bosses are just ruining my fun.

On top of being sick to death of unfair boss battles, I feel like I've seen enough of the game to quit now. All the girls have been rehabilitated and Knighted, so my job as a Program Instructor is done. I don't care that much about whatever final boss may come after that, nor do I care about the unavoidable harem ending and the post-game segment that will let me recruit Enri and fight yet another super-cheated boss. I'll just watch the ending(s) on Youtube and call it a day, thanks a lot.

Still, there's no denying that I would still be playing if not for the game's horrendous fake difficulty and lack of balance. The girls' interactions are intense and gripping and they are all interesting characters despite being copy-pastes of CGIO's cast, and I would have liked to spend more time with them—all the more so as their Knight outfits are stunningly gorgeous. But hey, the gaming instinct wants what it wants, and it says that more grinding and cheated bosses are out of the question.

And so I comply. I'm leaving CG2 to roam greener pastures, starting with the demo of World of Final Fantasy that I downloaded a couple of days ago. Let's see if Square's newest offering will be a gem or a turd! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Criminal Girls 2: Deja vu

Let's not beat around the bush, dear fellow gamers: Criminal Girls 2, or CG2 for short, is a carbon copy of its predecessor Criminal Girls: Invite Only. Not only does it sports the exact same gameplay, but it also proudly features the exact same dungeons so far (albeit redrawn), the exact same "motivation" minigames (albeit slightly more sophisticated) and last but not least, the exact same cast of foes (without albeit: they were virtually lifted straight from CGIO). The only brand-new feature is the cast of characters, their backstories and the saucy scenes that go along with themalthough then again, we're not exactly dealing with genuine novelties there. All the girls are blatantly inspired by their CGIO counterparts, be it in terms of looks, personality and demeanor: Chloe is a virtual copy-paste of Alice, Tsukasa of Ran, Yurine of Tomoe and so on. (It was actually quite entertaining to tie each CG2 girl with her respective CGIO inspiration.) Anyway, you get the picture: CG2 is basically CGIO with revamped art, a new yet familiar cast and ramped-up fan-service. Which in theory is totally fine by me, since I really don't mind treading on familiar ground when it comes to beloved gaming formulas.

In practice, things are a bit more complicated. I'd like to claim that I fell head over heels for CG2 just like I did with CGIO and that I'm having tons and tons of fun playing it; but unfortunately, the reality is quite different. While I'm having a decent amount of fun with CG2, I'm far from being glued to it and I deem it quite inferior to its predecessor. This is due to a sole reason that jumped out at me as soon as I started my playthrough: CG2 is unreasonably hard. We're not talking about the "challenging" kind of hard there, but rather about the "tedious" type of hardthe one that generates eyerolls, exasperated sighs and ragequits. I was visibly not the only one being put off by CG2's excessive difficulty, since a so-called "casual" patch was made available for the Japanese version. This patch was added to the Western version, and I switched to Casual mode after a mere couple of minutes because playing on Normal mode was an absolute chore. Not that it changed my fortunes wildly, mind you: the only difference between Normal and Casual mode is that foes hit slightly less hard on the latter, but everything else is left untouched. Brace yourselves, this is how CG2 rolls when it comes to difficulty:

—All foes have ridiculously high defense, coupled with a ridiculous amount of HP. They are also several steps ahead of the girls by default, with better skills that the girls often cannot prevent or counteract. As a result, all battles tend to be painfully slow and tedious. Even the meanest field enemy takes several turns to die and can inflict ugly status effects on the whole party long before the items or skills that can cure said status effects have been uncovered. As for the bosses, they are so cheated that it's not even funny. They are always lightyears ahead of the poor girls, with better stats, better skills and literally twenty times more HP. Beating bosses in CG2 requires all at once pre-battle grinding, strategizing, luck and a treasure trove of patience, and having all that doesn't even guarantee that you won't die after twenty-five minutes of arduous fighting. Battles in CGIO were stimulating and challenging affairs that flowed smoothly; battles in CG2, on the other end, feel like painful interruptions that take way too long to be resolved. In a nutshell, what we have here is a serious case of The computer is a cheating bastard.

—The girls' suggestions in battle are often off the mark, especially when compared to CGIO. I've lost count of the number of times when all girls pull out their most powerful skills to dispose of a mere field enemy or coyly offer regular attacks when fighting a boss. They are also quite reluctant to suggest buffs and debuffs, which doesn't make boss battles any easier. This definitely qualifies as fake difficulty because of Artificial Stupidity.

—The "Motivation" minigames have been made unnecessarily fussy and are now bristling with confusing instructions and complicated control schemes, which leads to fake difficulty because of Some Dexterity Required. Not only are they often tedious to play, but they don't allow for much clumsiness, unlike their CGIO counterparts. This means a higher failure rate, which means less XP gained, which means more grinding to gain CM points, which means more slow battles. Now that's the fake longevity cherry on top of the fake difficulty cake.

You get the picture, dear fellow gamers: we have a big fat case of fake difficulty here, and it takes away a good chunk of the player's rightful enjoyment. Granted, I've already given praise to games that were choke-full with fake difficulty, such as Astonishia Story; so why am I so finicky all of a sudden, you may ask? Well, it's all a matter of expectations. While I fully expect a retro-ish game like AS to be unreasonably and unfairly difficult, I expect a fan-servicy game like CG2 to boast a light-hearted, easy-going and fun gameplay that complements its sassy overtone. I do NOT want to grind in a fan-servicy game, nor do I want to spend half an hour fighting a non-final boss. I don't know which point Nippon Ichi Software were trying to make by delivering such an unforgiving gameplay, but the outcome doesn't sit well with me. Now that I think of it, maybe they are actually taking the piss out of the player: you come here to indulge in SM fare with helpless girls and you end up being roughed up by the game—what goes around comes around, karma's a b*tch and all that, you know. That would sure be a brilliant display of irony, but that wouldn't make the fake difficulty easier to swallow. I've come very close to rage-quitting a couple of times, and I'm not sure I will be able to clear my current playthrough of CG2: I started playing it to get a break from Rainbow "grindy" Moon, and fake difficulty and drawn-out boss battles that requires metric tons of level-grinding to be overcome are not exactly what I signed for. Oh, well. The gaming instinct will decide, as always! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Rainbow Moon: On hold

After 50 hours of play, I'm taking my first official break from Rainbow Moon. The break I took some time ago to try out Dragon Quest Builders was a mere intermission that hardly lasted a day; this time, I'm planning to stay away from the game much longer. Although I still love Rainbow Moon dearly, there's no denying that I'm starting to feel a teeny-weeny bit of grinding fatigue. I'd rather wisely take a break from the game now and come back to it later than soldier on and end up vomiting the whole thing. After such elating beginnings, such an outcome would be quite a pity and a shame indeed.

This break is also partly fuelled by my trip abroad. Not only did that trip broke my grindy Rainbow Moon routine, making it kind of hard to hop back on the grinding treadmill once I came back home, but it gave me the opportunity to amass some absolutely glorious gaming loot. I found no less than five recent releases in a single shop—including three Vita games, of all things! And we're not talking about just any Vita games, dear fellow gamers: this trio of acquisitions includes Criminal Girls 2 and Valkyrie Drive, two games I never expected to find in shops in a million years. Well, not only were they here and ready for the looting, but they were also proudly advertised as the top-selling games of the moment. Looks like there's still some life in the Vita after all! At any rate, it's been years—if not decades—since I was able to purchase that many games in a brick and mortar store, and my elation is so intense that I literally want to play them all right now.

The gaming instinct wants what it wants, and that's why Rainbow Moon must take a backseat while other contenders are taking center stage. I can already tell you that after much inner debate, Criminal Girls 2 is the game I elected to grace my Vita slot these next days. Time to indulge in another sort of grinding! That being said, I'm still very much planning to write about Rainbow Moon, and that promised list of the things I love in the game is still very much in the pipeline. See you soon for more gaming goodness, dear fellow gamers! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Rainbow Moon: An exhaustive list of the things I don't like

43 hours, level 40. My Baldren Solo Run—because yes, I'm now officially luxuriating in a Baldren Solo Run, without fear of jinxing the game by being too bold—is going stronger than ever and treating me to tons and tons of fun. I was afraid I had been too cocky a couple of hours ago, when I hit a difficulty spike of sorts upon entering Shadow Wall Mountains and found myself roughed up by local foes; fortunately, a bit of grinding and a couple of extra levels took care of that issue neatly and smoothly. Rainbow Moon is undoubtedly the type of game in which a few levels makes a huge difference—which makes total sense, since levels are so hard to gain to begin with. Anyway, after pimping up my little Baldren with overpowered gear, feeding him every single stat-increasing items I found and boosting his stats with Rainbow Pearls, I've reached a point where I'm virtually unstoppable and can single-handedly dispose of trash mobs as well as bosses without breaking a sweat. I also curbed my roaring obsession with the game to more manageable levels, and I don't feel anymore like my heart is being ripped out when I lay down my Vita.

In a nutshell, everything is fine and dandy and I'm enjoying myself tremendously. I'm actually planning to write a massive list of all the things I like in Rainbow Moon; but first, I want to get the few things I don't like so much about the game out of the way so as to keep le meilleur pour la fin, as they say in France. Without further ado, here are the Rainbow Moon features that I would gladly do without:

—No stackable items and no automatic item sortering in the inventory: items just pile up as they come, with no rhyme or reason whatsoever. There is an semi-automatic sortering option that even lets you choose the type of sortering you want—by name, type and so on—but it has to be activated manually from the inventory menu and reactivated every time you get some new stuff. Tedious doesn't even begin to describe how annoying this is, especially in a game so rich in loot.

—Battles can't be sped up and battle animations can't be skipped at all. Being the grindy game par excellence, Rainbow Moon would really, really need both of these options. I fortunately got used to the long, drawn-out battles over time and even came to appreciate them to some extent; but that doesn't change the fact that Rainbow Moon forces the player to spend waaaaay too much time watching friends and foes do their thing and strut their stuff. I really hope SideQuest Studio will fix this issue in the upcoming Rainbow Skies and mercifully allow players to indulge in faster battles.

—The hunger factor. To be fair, I don't really dislike it; a part of me even appreciate this throwback to classic rogueliking. But one must admit that apart from paying homage to a 35-years-old gaming subgenre, the hunger factor serves no purpose at all in Rainbow Moon—apart from needlessly cluttering your already tight inventory, that is. The whole hunger thing is designed to keep you on your toes in roguelikes, and it works beautifully; but it makes absolutely no sense to implement a hunger factor in a game where food can be purchased every ten meters and found in harvesting points on a regular basis.

—Allies. Now, your mileage may vary on that one, but I found extra party members to be giant liabilities. The whole game is designed to accommodate a single character, from the size of the inventory to the Rainbow Pearls feature to the story itself (a man stranded in a foreign world trying to go back home, locked up in an endless pursuit of his nemesis), so why throw extra characters into the mix? They make battles a nightmarish slog, they are a chore to manage from the menu, they must be protected like fragile sprouts during their levelling-up process, they eat up your precious food and monetary resources and, last but not least, they ruin the glorious feeling of being a lone ranger in a unknown world. Sure, I do not doubt that they bring some variety to the gameplay if you can tolerate all these inconveniences; but there were other ways to achieve that goal. Give Baldren more skills, more weapons or even the possibility to change classes, but don't bother me with extra characters that requires tons of pampering. And if extra party members are required for safely navigating postgame territory like it's the case in some games, then let me recruit them in postgame—and properly levelled-up while you're at it. Don't just drag down my whole main game experience with those boulders when I can just as smoothly run solo.

—The dungeons are all a bit samey. This didn't bother me so much in the early stages, when dungeons were few and far between; but now that they are getting larger and more abundant, I would like to see a bit more variety when it comes to dungeon design and decoration.

I'm so far behind on my HP that it's not even funny.
—Boosting up HP in the Attribute Shop requires a ludicrous number of Rainbow Pearls. We're talking about 15 Pearls for each extra point, and that's 10 or 12 too many given how much extra HP is available. Granted, this mountain of complimentary HP is by no means necessary to progress smoothly, but it's galling to be unable to get my greedy paws on it without an insane amount of Pearl farming. My theory is that this absurd situation is the result of a glitch or an oversight by the developers, who may have initially planned to implement less extra HP or to make each point cost less Pearls.

That's the entirety of the things I don't like in Rainbow Moon so far; and as you can see, there are quite few of them and none of them are deal-breakers. Mark my words, my upcoming list of the things I like in Rainbow Moon is going to be much longer than that. It's going to have to wait a tad longer though, because I'm holydaying abroad for a couple of days starting tomorrow. I'll come back with a refreshed mind and (fingers crossed) some good gaming loot! Until then, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Dragon Quest Builders Demo: Not my cup of tea

There are some developers/publishers out there whose RPG offerings I can purchase blindly, knowing that I will always enjoy them. These luminaries of mine include Nihon Falcom, Sting, Compile Heart and a few others that never failed to satisfy me with their awesome RPGs. Powerhouse Square Enix, on the other hand, is not part of that list of gaming happiness purveyors. In my personal ranking, their RPGs range anywhere from cult classic (Dragon Quest IX) to abject failure (Adventures of Mana) and everything in between (Final Fantasy Explorers). There is basically no guarantee of satisfaction with Square Enix as far as I'm concerned; their RPGs can enthrall me just as readily as disappoint me. In an effort to preserve my bank account and spare myself some disappointment, I decided lately to do some thorough checking before purchasing any Square Enix RPG instead of blindly jumping on them like I used to do. I applied that brand-new treatment to Dragon Quest Builders, whose demo was released on the PSN lately, to figure out if that Dragon Quest spin-off was worth a spot in my precious collection.

It turns out that the answer is no, which makes me glad I've given a try to that demo. DQB didn't click with me at all, leaving me bored stiff after a mere hour of play. Here are the main points that bothered me during that time:

—The graphics are unappealing. While Minecraft's graphics have some sort of pixelated, low-fi charm, DQB's graphics just look like your average phone game graphics. It doesn't help that the colour palette is dull and washed-out. I expected to find some Dragon Quest graphical touch at work there, but the sad truth is that there is no visual reminder of the series apart from a couple of slimes fooling around and an avatar with distinctly Toriyama-esque features.

—Too much camera fiddling. Any game that actually requires me to control and manually orient the camera is a no-go, so DQB is more or less doomed from the start.

—The controls are messy and lack precision. Now, this may be due to the fact that I'm not familiar with building games à la Minecraft, but I found incredibly hard to position blocks properly—despite the outlines kindly provided by the game. A big part of this issue can be blamed on the fact that the analog stick doesn't allow for precise positioning; and while I'm sure that it's possible to get the hang of that positioning thing with practice, my first frustrating steps with it didn't exactly encourage me to persevere. To make matters worse, I don't like the menu interface at all and I find the commands really confusing.

On a more fundamental level, it turns out that I'm not fond of the whole building thing. Building games invariably failed to enrapture me when I was a kid, and it seems that this lack of interest is still alive and well. While playing this DQB demo, I realised that the prospect of erecting huge structures didn't thrill me in the slightest; as a matter of fact, it sounded much more like a genuine chore to my ears. The conclusion is unplacable: Dragon Quest Builders is not a game for me, and thus it won't join my precious collection. That makes more room and money for another game, and that's great.

On a more general note, playing that demo makes me wonder about Square Enix's policies of late. It seems that their main gaming formula these days consists in ripping off a successful gameplay style and slapping a heavy-duty layer of in-house fan service on top of it. Final Fantasy Explorers was basically Monster Hunter with a shiny Final Fantasy varnish, and DQB is Minecraft with a Dragon Quest sugar-coating. The upcoming FFVII remake seems to be borrowing heavily from the Telltale Games formula, and I just wonder: is this their new way of creating games? Are they just content with milking off their famous franchises while borrowing gameplay styles they didn't create and tweaking them ever-so-slightly? If they've really come down to this, that's a little bit sad—but hey, whatever floats their boat.

At any rate, my thorough checking plan worked perfectly, and I firmly intend to apply the same treatment to the upcoming World of Final Fantasy. I've lost all excitement for that game after my recent string of disappointements with Square Enix RPGs, and it will have to prove really stellar to deserve a place in my precious collection and not share DQB's fate. And now, I'm diving back full force into my beloved Rainbow Moon. We were not apart for long, now were we? Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!