Six years of gaming happiness: Playing 'em games

The year was 2011, the month was December. Between gorging on cinnamon biscuits and using the short days as an excuse for copious napping, I was eagerly waiting for my sister's imminent visit — and for the Christmas gift she would bring in her luggage. Make yourself comfortable and bring the pop-corn, dear fellow gamers; for what you're about to read is the sweet story of how I reacquainted myself with gaming after nearly fifteen years away from D-pads.

Icecap Zone, Sonic 3. Because winter, snow, Christmas.

That blissful moment had been a long time coming. Ever since I lost interest in my Mega Drive in 1998 because of a lack of games to play, I had virtually retreated from gaming. I stopped purchasing consoles, stopped following the industry's evolution and generally stopped investing time and energy in all things gaming, pouring instead all my fan instincts and my funds into manga and anime. In 2000, gaming made a timid comeback in my life through emulation, as I discovered the joys of replaying oldies on my newly purchased second-hand PC. However, such bouts of nostalgic gaming were but a mere distraction: I usually indulged in a gaming binge once a year, preferably in summer when free time was abundant, and left my emulators untouched for the rest of the year. This became the pattern for the next fourteen years, up until that fateful year 2011.

I don't remember how this happened exactly; but the fact is that by the end of 2011, I had somehow become interested in gaming again, to the point of wanting to get my paws on a current-generation console for the first time in, like, fifteen years. I spent the second half of 2011 comparing consoles and prospecting for potential games; and upon discovering that the Nintendo DS was blessed with a vast array of RPGs, I decided to just go for it and get on board with Ninty again. Enter my beloved sister, a.k.a. my partner-in-gaming ever since we got our first Game Boys together way back in 1990: we plotted that whole thing together and decided that my Christmas 2011 present from her would be a brand-new DS, complete with a copy of Sonic Classic Collection so that I would have something to feed my DS right out of the box.

I wanted Christmas gaming pictures, but hey, copyright issues.

That awesome Christmas 2011 came to pass, and I felt the joy of laying my hands again on a true blue gaming device at long last. Emulation is all well and nice, but it just cannot compare to the feeling of holding a handheld and knowing that this little machine packs up hours of potential gaming happiness and can deliver said gaming happiness pretty much anytime, anywhere. I was utterly smitten with my gorgeous new DSi and could hardly believe that I owned a console again, after what felt like a million years spent away from gaming.

Yet despite being overjoyed at the prospect of diving into gaming again, I didn't quite do that right away. Years spent on an intermittent gaming diet had taken their toll, and I needed to get used to the thing again — all the more so as even back in my active gaming days, I was not the most avid and obsessed gamer of them all. I basically spent the first half of 2012 playing nothing but Sonic Classic Collection and Sonic Rush, with large periods of not touching the DS in between. Then games started trickling in, amongst which cult classics of mine Avalon Code and Dragon Quest IX; and slowly but surely, the DS became a fixture in my life, along with my ever-growing gaming library.

But lo and behold, these are from my first DS game. How symbolic!

Now, my gaming ways have changed a lot in six years. In the early stages of my gaming rebirth, I used to play each and every game intensely, leaving no stone unturned, no extra dungeon unroamed and no complimentary boss alive. This attitude was born all at once from the desire to recoup my gaming investments, from a sense of duty towards the developers' hard work and, last but not least, from deeply ingrained gaming habits. Games being few and far between in the '90s, I had to squeeze every single ounce of fun out of each and every game I managed to get my paws on. That's how I found myself playing Sonic Triple Trouble on the Game Gear for weeks despite the fact that I hated that game's soundtrack, level design and overall atmosphere; and don't get me started on Super Mario Land, the game that taught me all about making lemonade when life gives me lemons. Coming from that place of scarcity, it should surprise no one that I milked my first DS games dry and kept playing them long after they lost their freshness, despite the fact that I had other games waiting to be played.

I've mellowed over time when it comes to game completion, and no longer do I force myself to go platinum with my games no matter what. Life is too short and my collection too humongous to lose time playing games I don't fully enjoy; so when I don't click with a game in the first hours of play or don't feel like toiling on a cheated final boss, I ditch the game entirely and without regret. I've learnt that it's simply impossible to end up loving every single game one buys — especially when one buys games by the truckload — and that one must humbly admit their lack of judgement, sell the offending game and simply move on to the next game in line. I'm also much less of a purist when it comes to game series. There was a time when I insisted on playing a series' entries in chronological order, preferably starting with the very first one when it was possible; however, I don't care anymore nowadays and simply play series in any order I fancy, letting my gaming instinct run the show.

That was totally a Christmas post in disguise.

And since I'm mentioning this... My sharp, ever-dependable gaming instinct played a huge part in shaping those six years of gaming awesomeness. See, I don't determine my next gaming pick through rational means, such as asking myself which game/series/genre I want to play right now or deciding on a list of games to play in a given timespan; instead, I simply daydream about my collection until I get a sudden and irrepressible desire to play a given game. I don't even have to look at the games themselves: I just let my memories of them flow until I get that sharp, unmistakable impulse to play one of them. The lucky winner can be my newest acquisition, or it can be a game I bought five years before; there's no rule, apart from letting my gaming instinct run the game. (Pun totally intended.) This also means that I have no backlog to speak of: I simply assume that I'll play all the games in my collection sooner or later — that is, if arthritis doesn't catch up with me first. And the most amazing thing is that it works like a charm: the game chosen by my gaming instinct nearly always end up fulfilling my gaming wishes of the moment.

There you have it, dear fellow gamers: the story of my Second Coming of gaming, my long-awaited return to the gaming roots I should never have strayed away from in the first place. I'm currently basking in my Halcyon Days of gaming, and let me tell you: this time, gaming is here to stay. I made sure of that, by purchasing enough gaming material and backup systems to maintain my gaming habits for years, if not decades. And since I'm mentioning this, no story of my return to gaming would be complete without covering the collecting side of things as well; and that's exactly what I'm going to do in a future post. Thanks for reading, be my guest anytime and, last but not least: Merry Christmas!


Atelier Ayesha Plus: I'll be back, baby

Just a quick post to let you know that I've cleared my second run of Ayesha and nailed three of the game's ten-or-so endings. No true ending in sight, but that was to be expected given that I gave Keith the cold shoulder during my whole run. As promised, I sold my whole inventory in the last days and ended up with a massive 200,000 cole balance that's gonna come in handy during my next run. I managed to cram in a bit of gear appraising during the late stages of the game and made my weapons even better, which should make my next runs an even bigger piece of cake than my newly finished run was. I beat most of the complimentary bosses to a pulp, but not all of them, sadly: those bloody Tera Slags got the best of me every single time, and I could hardly scratch that stupid Tank. Guess there's still some room for improvement when it comes to my appraising skills, indeed.

Having said that, I can gladly claim that my alchemic skills got a bit better. The learning curse was steep indeed, but we're getting there, thanks to an awful lot of observation and experimentation. I no longer feel completely lost at sea when I'm toiling in front of my cauldron, and I've been able to craft pretty nifty items during my last days in Dusk. I'll probably only get better at it as time and playthroughs go on and enjoy that whole alchemy business more and more. And maybe one day I'll be able to generate those insanely good Traits/Effects/Properties that pop up in forums about complimentary bosses.

I only have praise in store for Ayesha, and I have a special soft spot for the land of Dusk. This is simply one of my favourite game worlds ever, and roaming it routinely sent me into heavy-duty bouts of wanderlust. There were times I simply stopped playing to gaze at the scenery, and some of the vistas were so breathtakingly beautiful and evocative that I nearly became teary-eyed just looking at them. Of course, it helps that I'm excessively drawn to mountains as a rule and that Dusk is choke-full with mountainous landscapes; I got some strong Central Asia vibes from that game, mixed with a touch of Tyrol. Dusk feels like a cohesive and organic game world — unlike Arland, which felt more like a collection of disjointed vignettes with little to no consistency. I can only imagine the wonderment of gamers that went from the Arland trilogy to Ayesha and were treated to those breathtaking landscapes thanks to the PS3's horsepower.

So, I'm leaving Ayesha for the time being; but I'll certainly reunite with the endearing alchemist and her colourful pals sooner or later. I'll probably also purchase a physical Japanese copy at some point, when my purchasing instincts awaken — they seem to be hibernating for the time being: I haven't purchased a game in weeks. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Atelier Ayesha Plus: Okay, I love it

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

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

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

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

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


Norn9-Var Commons: The Truth Route + Final thoughts

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

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

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

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

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


Norn9-Var Commons: The Mikoto Routes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Atelier Ayesha Plus: I like it, yet not quite

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

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

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

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

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


Norn9-Var Commons: The Nanami Routes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Avian Solo Runs: Final thoughts

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Norn9-Var Commons: The Koharu Routes

Koharu was the first heroine I tackled, due to a very mundane reason: she was my least favourite girl, so I wanted to get her routes out of the way first. Before we go any further, here's a disclaimer: I only pursued the Good Endings for all the routes, because a) it's so darn easy thanks to the game's cues and b) I love those characters too much to see them suffer in the throes of bad endings. With that said, let's get to it! (SPOILERS ahead!)

Koharu looks like your usual otome heroine at first sight: sweet, innocent, kind and meek, always upbeat and in a good mood despite being lost in a word she doesn't quite understand. Yet her routes reveal a more nuanced and interesting character: a girl that's prone to occasional bouts of brooding and angst and harbours ambivalent feelings towards her power. She's also surprisingly blunt and rather awkward around people, all due to her solitary upbringing. Last but not least, she has a way of blurting out the most embarrassing questions without batting an eyelid, which makes her both endearing and hilarious.

Because Koharu is mostly a blank slate in terms of character and personal history, her routes focus essentially on her men's personalities, the hurdles they face and the character development they undergo. That's not to say that Koharu herself doesn't get to be in the spotlight at times; but her evolution is clearly second to her bachelors' evolutions, which are the meat and potatoes of her routes. She gets a nice choice of kind and well-rounded gentlemen, along with straightforward and heartwarming relationships devoid of excessive drama and complications.

Kakeru: Being both the natural-born leader of the pack and an unwilling mole under mind control, Kakeru is in a bit of a hard predicament. His upbeat and bold demeanour is but a shiny facade, under which lurk metric tons of self-loathing and angst. His manipulative and slightly sadistic streak is consistently neutralized by Koharu's honesty and innocence, which leads him to regret his actions and try to make amends for them. Basically, Koharu acts as an absolution device for Kakeru: her unwavering support and intense love for the boy allows him to face his deepest fears and insecurities and fully accept them, knowing that Koharu will be there for him afterwards. This route shows Koharu at her most determined, tackling Kakeru's self-destructive behaviours head-on and battling to protect him and preserve their relationship. It's the most intense and serious of Koharu's routes and the one that brings the most to the table in terms of story progression.

Senri: As the resident shut-in, Senri goes through a lot of character development. Bathed in Koharu's soothing presence and influence, he learns to become a tad more open to others, to assert himself and stand his ground and to accept his own feelings and emotions instead of trying to ignore them or bottle them in. His growing attraction to Koharu forces him to face his male instincts, which he had not acknowledged until then, and to grow into a full-blown adult despite his tiny frame. This route is the most romantic and heart-warming of the bunch, with an highly emotional Koharu swinging between being flustered and feeling all mushy inside and trying her hardest to convey her love to Senri, who gets gladder to receive said love by the chapter.

Masamune: As the crew's self-proclaimed peacemaker and big brother, Masamune has a lot to deal with and very little time for romance. Yet under this diplomat guise hides a healthy young man, whose carnal instincts pop up when he lets his guard down — which, for some reason, happens when he wolfs down sugary stuff. Masamune's personal challenge revolves around making more time for Koharu while simultaneously trying to repress his urges to do the naughtiest things to her, and that's a balancing act he has trouble dealing with for most of the route. As a result, Koharu strays away from him in an attempt to find someone who will see her as valuable and important, which nearly results in a disaster; fortunately, Masamune wake up and smells the coffee before it's too late and manages to bring her back to the fold. This route is the funniest of the three, Masamune and his sugar-induced bouts of lust being an obvious comic relief; but it's also the most angsty and frustrating, with Masamune failing to give Koharu the attention and love she craves until it's nearly too late.

In the end, I came to like Koharu and her romances much more than I initially expected. Her routes are refreshingly simple and straighforward, with limited amounts of drama and satisfying endings that leave no ambiguity about Koharu and her beau's deep love for each other. The same thing cannot be said about our next girl's routes — but I'm getting ahead of myself there; more about that very soon, dear fellow gamers! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


The Avian Solo Runs, Episode 5: Talonflame in Pokemon Y

This is it, dear fellow gamers: the fifth and last instalment of my Avian Solo Run feature. The winged star of this ultimate episode is none other than Fletchling, a bird whose ultimate evolution Talonflame is deemed the most dazzling regional bird ever created by many a Pokefan. And rightly so, shall I say: Talonflame improves so much on the old regional bird formula that he virtually creates a league of its own — a league that, so far, is his turf alone. Sure, older regional birds are good, even great in some cases; but Talonflame is simply outstanding, and its awesomeness is made even more extreme by the fact that it comes right after what is arguably the crappiest regional bird ever created, i.e. Unova's 'my-Stats-don't-match-my-ridiculously-tiny-Move-pool' Pidove. And yet, weirdly enough, it actually turns out that Talonflame is not the best suited regional bird for a solo run. He may be stellar competitive material allright; but when roaming Y as a lone ranger, the fiery bird displayed a number of unexpected foibles — foibles that didn't detract from my run at all, but definitely came as a surprise from a bird that highly rated.

I'll cover Talonflame's unexpected shortcomings very soon; but for now, let's focus on his brilliancy and achievements. This is a bird that managed to rise above his regional bird condition, raising the bar for all regional birds to come in the process. These birds, while often great battling material, are usually afflicted with poor defensive Stats, a rather dull Normal/Flying double typing and, last but not least, severely restricted Move pools. Talonflame virtually pulverizes these traditional limitations by boasting more balanced Stats, a more strategically interesting Fire/Flying double typing that he gains by evolving and a deliciously varied Move pool that covers a much wider array of Move Types than his kind usually allows. Over the course of my run, my Talonflame wielded in turn Thief (Dark), Peck, Aerial Ace and Fly (Flying), Ember, Flame Charge and Flamethrower (Fire), Fighting-type Hidden Power and Return (Normal), Solar Beam (Grass), plus a couple of other early Moves I can't be bothered to list here. That's a whole lot of Moves, and that welcome variety made for tons of fun on the battlefield. Cherry on the cake, this is a helluva gorgeous bird, with a lovely middle evolution and a superb final evolution whose splendor is made even greater by the fact that it's constantly airborne when fighting. And talking about being airborne, I could at long last take part in all those Sky Battles that I had to decline constantly when playing X and Y with non-flying 'Mons. You never get too many Trainers to fight, indeed!

My Talonflame run was overall a smooth and pleasant run full of glorious one-shooting moments; despite having to resort to Battle Items to escape unscathed from Grant's Rock Gym and final showdown against Champion Diantha, I mostly breezed through the game with a virtually unstoppable Talonflame at my side. And yet, cruising Kalos with the fiery bird actually proved harder than I expected given said fiery bird's track record and overwhelming popularity in the Pokemon community. Talonflame is afflicted with two solo run-unfriendly weaknesses that made him regularly unable to one-shoot opponents, leading him in turn to take hits and sustain copious amounts of damage — to the point that I slapped Leftovers on him just to avoid having to heal him constantly.

His first weakness is his (surprisingly) low Attack: with a base Attack of only 81, Talonflame is the second-weakest of all regional birds, standing a mere point above Pidgeot and his 80 base Attack. Such a low base Attack simply couldn't guarantee one-shooting in all battles, even when factoring in overleveling. The fiery bird's second weakness is his lack of Special Move options. Despite the fact that he boasts a base Sp.Attack of 74, which is simply the highest base Sp. Attack of all the final evolutions of regional birds, Talonflame can learn very few Special Moves; and most of the Special Moves he can learn are two-turn Moves that are quite hard to pull off in a solo run. You'd think that given his Stats, GameFreak would have made him a mixed attacker; yet he ends up being mostly a Physical attacker, with the Move pool to match. Talonflame's overreliance on Physical Moves meant that I couldn't pull off my tried-and-tested strategy of using Special Moves to get rid of 'Mons with low Sp.Defense such as Rock and Steel 'Mons, making some battles much harder than they would have been with, say, Pidgeot or Swellow. I fortunately got some much-needed leeway after getting hold of Hidden Power and Flamethrower in the late stages of the game; but having no Special options during most of my run certainly made cruising with Talonflame much harder than it should have been. This was not even something I could circumvent with suitable strategies; the only thing I could do was patiently wear down my opponents while taking damage and heal afterwards. Until the next battle.

I could also verify my hunch regarding solo runs being the perfect EV training regimen; and lo and behold, it turned out that I was right. As proven by the picture on the right, my Talonflame maxed out his EV solely through battling every Trainer and wild 'Mon that crossed our path. I didn't keep track of when the maxing-out exactly occurred, but the deed was done by the time I reached Laverre City and was presented with the Effort Ribbon. Now, this fact doesn't really change anything as far as my solo runs are concerned; but it sure fills me with pride to know that I took all my beloved One and Onlies to such lofty grinding heights. One last anecdote for the road: remember that torturous fight against Aegislash in my Skitty run? Well, what do you think happened this time? I one-shot the bloody sword, that's what happened. Oh, and Lucario too. Pokemon solo runs sure can be wildly different depending on your lone 'Mon's Type and Moves! And with that said, dear fellow gamers, this Talonflame run report comes to an end. I'll write an ultimate wrap-up post about these Avian Solo Runs though, so stay tuned for an ultimate bout of feathery goodness! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Norn9-Var Commons: Oops, I'm in love

It's official: Norn9 is my favourite otome game/visual novel so far. I've been glued to that game for a couple of days, gorging on it and gulping down one route after the other in a frenzy. This is a most pleasant development, all the more so as my expectations for that game were initially pretty low. Here's everything Norn9 does right, a.k.a. the reasons it qualifies as a near-perfect game in my book:

Story: A true blue huis clos, rife with mystery and drama without being cheap or over-the-top. Here's the pitch: a bunch of youngsters with various powers travel aboard a ship headed towards an unknown destination under the guidance of a mysterious and elusive entity called "The World" — and that's really all you need to know, lest we trample on spoiler's territory. The writers were clever enough to stick to their premise and not deviate from it, and there's not a shred of ad hoc or deus ex machina in Norn9's craftily woven narrative. Sure, the story is not perfect: The World's true identity can come across as a trifle underwhelming, and some routes are just plain stingy when it comes to revealing new elements and add painfully little to the overarching narrative mix. Nonetheless, Norn9's story is expertly crafted and manages to be captivating without resorting to cheap plot devices, and that's rare enough in the realm of VN to be mentioned and praised.

Characters: I love that crew — heck, if I were 20 years younger, I'd probably have written fanfiction or drawn fanart featuring them. On top of looking absolutely stunning — kudos to Teita for her outstanding work — they also manage to rise above your average anime trope and to come across as genuinely complex and original characters. Take for instance Sorata, the game's red thread: he's your usual genius boy allright, but he's also immature, broody and slightly antisocial instead of being the dedicated helper genius characters usually are (cue Ami Mizuno in Sailor Moon). Or take Koharu: sure, she's meek and sweet like your usual otome heroine, but she's also quite blunt, socially awkward and prone to occasional bouts of anger, all due to her solitary life prior to boarding the ship. Mikoto could have been a prim-and-proper lady or a tomboy; instead, she's neither of these — or a subtle mix of both, depending on how you see it. She has a genuine sense of responsability and tries hard to behave like a lady, yet occasionally fails at it; but instead of moping or wearing her inability to conform like a badge of honour, she does her best to accept her limitations and work around them when possible. The same pattern goes for the rest of the crew: they are all surprisingly complex and much closer to actual humans than your usual impossibly perfect anime characters, and that makes them both endearing and easy to relate to.

Presentation: The cream of the crop, really. On top of Teita's amazing character design, we are treated to gorgeous background art full of lovely crystalline colours, making the whole game a delicious eye-candy. The soundtrack is also mesmerizing, completed by very convincing sound effects.

Gameplay: This is a VN, so there's obviously not much interactivity to be found there; but the little gameplay offered by Norn9 is perfectly handled. For once thing, having three different heroines to choose from introduces a welcome modicum of variety to the routes on top of allowing for better-matching couples — it always struck me as odd and unrealistic that a single heroine could wind up with vastly different guys in otome games. For another, the game lets you kindly know when a guy's affection is going up, which saves tons of time and allows you to make a beeline for the good ending. Simple and unfussy, and perfect for an otome noob like me.

Atmosphere: Norn9's ambience is all at once subdued, contemplative, foreboding, grim, gentle and humourous, switching between all these moods on the fly and mixing them at will. The result is a pretty unique vibe that manages to be both soothing and heart-wrenching, a vibe that left its inprint in me and will definitely linger with me for a while. I can say with absolute certainly that I will replay Norn9 to bask again in its subtle and entrancing atmosphere.

Norn9 is a game I wanted to cherish and treasure, a game I want to replay again — and lucky me, I have a physical copy that will allow me to do so at will. Coming soon are full run reports for all three heroines; stay tuned for more Norn9 action, dear fellow gamers! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


The Avian Solo Runs, Episode 4: Unfezant in Pokemon White 2

Welcome to the fourth chapter of my Avian Solo Run epopee, dear fellow gamers! The feathery 'Mon du jour is none other than Pidove, a bird as mocked, ridiculed and globally considered as crap as Pidgey and Starly are revered and beloved. Pidove is dismissed as a lazy knockoff of one of the most common birds ever known to man, and one must admit that there's a kernel of truth there — a mighty big kernel, mind you: while Pidove's final form Unfezant packs a modicum of personality and originality along with lovely plumage colours and patterns, his original form is, to all intents and purposes, a mere pigeon. A very grey, very realistic, very boring pigeon. Couldn't GameFreak come up with a fancier inspiration for the regional gen V bird than a species that's universally associated with the grime and dirt of big cities? Surely North-America has more local birds to offer, right? How about a Canada goose — or better yet, a bald eagle, the very symbol of the US of A itself? There are not nearly enough birds of prey in Pokemon games, if you ask me. But hey, what's done is done, and we have to make do with what we're given; and that's how I found myself yet again cruising Unova with a pigeon-turned-game bird.

While cruising alongside Pidove, I slowly but surely uncovered the real reasons why this bird is so universally vilified by Pokefans, and most especially by online meta aficionados. Those reasons can be summed up in a single, lapidary sentence: Pidove is a complete troll, the crème de la crème of trolly 'Mons. To see the full extent of GameFreak's trolliness when it comes to Pidove&evos, let's lay down the bird's specifics. Unfezant, Pidove's final evolution, has a base Attack Stat of 105 and a base Sp.Attack Stat of 65 — quite the gap, shall we say. This makes Unfezant a perfect Physical attacker; yet half of the Moves Unfezant can learn by leveling up, as well as nearly half of its TM Moves, are Special Moves. But there is worse: Pidove is, so far, the only example I've encountered of a 'Mon that cannot learn offensive Moves belonging to its own Type. I had no idea this was even a thing, and I swear I nearly choked on my own spit when I discovered my Unfezant couldn't learn bloody Sky Drop and Acrobatics. And what a coincidence, those are actually Physical Moves that would have taken perfect advantage of Unfezant's stellar Attack! Such a setting must have been intentional on GameFreak's part; they must have wanted Pidove to not live up to its full potential by severely restricting the bird's access to good Physical Moves, and I can only speculate about their reasons for doing so. My main guess is that they wanted to shake up the online meta my delivering a regional bird that was good for little beyond being a Fly slave. And if that's indeed the case, then they totally succeeded; because while Staraptor was gloriously perched on the heights of the OU tier in gen IV, Unfezant is pitifully nested in the depths of the PU tier, i.e. the absolute bottom of the barrel when it comes to competitive tiers.

Mind you, the glaring discrepancy between Pidove's Stats and its potential Move Pool is not its only shortcoming: the poor bird is also a complete regression when it comes to Move variety. GameFreak basically wiped the slate clean with Pidove, taking away all the subtle improvements made in gen III and IV in term of Move pool expansion for bird 'Mons and putting gen V's regional on the worst Move diet I've seen this side of Oricorio. The picture on the right shows the Move pool I used during the latter half of the game, and it fully showcases how utterly desperate I was to get my paws on offensive Moves for my Unfezant. I went as far as to give him an HM, which is something I usually never do in solo runs; and I had no choice but to slap two Special Moves on him just to be make sure I got Moves with high power, high accuracy and a decent amount of PP. (I know he can technically learn Steel Wing and U-Turn; but the former is not a TM in the gen V games, and the former would have been useless before I reached the Pokemon League and got rid of my HM slaves — not to mention that it's a pain to obtain.) And mind you, things would have been even worse if not for the awesome Move Tutor in Driftveil City who taught my Unfezant Uproar — i.e. one of the most amazing Normal Moves I've ever had the honour of handling. Uproar is basically a three for one discount, with each PP delivering three turns of intense action — perfect for restroom breaks. On top of that, it's a Special Normal Move, which is a configuration rare enough to deserve a bit of notice and praise — despite the fact that said configuration was not the best suited for my run. Uproar was a breath of fresh air by sheer virtue of being a Move I never used before, and its use was basically a bet every time: I could never be sure the next 'Mon in line wouldn't be resistant or immune to Normal Moves, and it made the use of Uproar widly entertaining.

The weird thing is that despite Pidove's huge limitations, cruising Unova with him was actually kind of a breeze. He was more than able to hold its own on the battlefield right from the beginning; and from the halfway point, he actually became overleveled enough to one-shoot opponents with Special Moves Air Slash and Uproar. Having these Special Moves was actually an ace in the hole all things considered, because it allowed me to reprise the strategy I used in my Pidgey solo run and dispose neatly of Rock and Steel 'Mons, and more generally of all 'Mons with a less-than-stellar Sp.Defense. That's the weirdest thing ever, really: for all intents and purpose, Pidove&evos is a crappy 'Mon and the shittiest regional bird ever created, and yet he is perfectly decent solo run material in practice. I'd be tempted to attribute this unlikely performance to Black&White 2 being shamelessly easy, if not for the fact that my Snivy solo run of Black 2 was far from being a cakewalk. How my Pidove-turned-Unfezant managed to perform so amazingly well despite his obvious limitations is quite a mystery to me, and I'll just chalk it up to a perfect combination of overleveling, fitting Moves and sheer luck.

With that fourth Avian Run under my belt, this feature is slowly but surely coming to an end, with just one more feathery solo run to tackle. I'll see you soon with the run that wraps it all up, dear fellow gamers; and I sure hope it will be the most glorious closure of them all. Until then, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Ray Gigant: Not quite a dungeon crawler

I have to face the harsh truth: I've been playing Ray Gigant for 10 hours and I don't quite enjoy it.

I didn't want to believe it at first, you know. I mean, we're talking about a first-person dungeon crawler, i.e. one of my favourite subgenres under the RPG sun and one I'm not too picky about, given how much I enjoyed mediocre offerings such as Class of Heroes and Moe Chronicles; so how come I disliked Ray Gigant? I thought about it a little bit, and it suddenly struck me that Ray Gigant was not really a first-person dungeon crawler after all. Or, to be more precise, Ray Gigant looks and plays like a FPDC to some extent, yet it lacks all the trappings of the genre I've come to know and love. Here are the game's most glaring shortcomings, which are also my main beefs with it:

Easy in all the wrong places: Ray Gigant replenishes your team's health after each and every battle and lets you exit dungeons at any time, which is all well and nice; but I would have preferred an instant save option along with the possibility to heal outside of battle, thank you very much. Likewise, each dungeon features a single save point that also automatically reveals the whole map of said dungeon; but as a dungeon crawler aficionado, I feel totally robbed by that feature. Half of the fun in FPDC comes from maniacally exploring every nook and cranny of a dungeon and seeing the map filling up as you do so, and I don't fancy seeing a game take that simple pleasure away from me.

Too much story: Ray Gigant is a game that has a story to tell and really wants to tell it. In practice, this means that crawling is constantly interrupted by cutscenes bristling with dialogues. Maybe the story is fascinating for all I know — and I don't know that much, given that I stopped paying attention to cutscenes very quickly — but I don't play FPDC for their stories. In fact, I deem stories in dungeon crawlers detrimental to my fun, because constant narrative interruptions prevent me from becoming engrossed in the flow of the crawling. Also, the darn game is so hell-bent on telling its darn story that it doesn't allow diversions such as side quests. How rude!

Too linear and constrictive: I don't mind a bit of linearity in my dungeon crawling, as my intense love for 7th Dragon III abundantly proves; but Ray Gigant goes way too far in that department. For one thing, dungeons are, to quote Doc Brown in Back to the Future, erased from existence as soon as you polish them off. How dare you, game? I painstakingly explored these dungeons and it's my absolute right to be able to keep visiting them at leisure, dang it! For another, levels are capped, which forces you to resort to strategy rather than brute force in boss fights and makes level-grinding entirely pointless once you've maxed out your team's level. Now, I don't mind strategizing once in a while, but why can't I also level-grind if I want to? I'd rather have hardcore difficulty along with the possibility to level-grind rather than a reasonably easy game thats coerces me into a single course of action. It's all about freedom and playing it my way, and Ray Gigant won't allow me to do that — and I despise it for its interfering ways, ooh yes I do.

Too simplistic: No substantial loot. No shops. No real equipment management. No crafting system to enhance said equipment. No items. No side quests, not even Fedex ones. Palette swaps up the wazoo. Tiny and empty dungeons. Enemy placement that never varies. There's a fine line between simple and barren, and Ray Gigant definitely crosses it — more like leaps over it, really.  

That being said, not all is doom and gloom: I've been playing Ray Gigant for 10 hours, so it obviously has a couple of redeeming qualities. Roaming dungeons — when the game lets me do so — is delightful, the difficulty curve is well implemented and I really liked starting over with a new party once I was done with my first team. The final boss fight for Ichiya&co was also a neat and thrilling challenge: you have to balance parasitism, AP and SBM while hitting the boss and making sure everybody stays alive, and it was great fun. But alas, those good points are not enough to make me want to keep playing Ray Gigant. The last straw was when Kyle&co got stupidly wiped out in a stupid encounter after half an hour of intense crawling and fighting, which pissed me off so much that I erased my save file. I'm thus done with Ray Gigant for the time being, and maybe forever: because let's be honest, this game doesn't deliver at all on the dungeon crawling front. It's more akin to a visual novel with bouts of first-person dungeon crawling squeezed between events, and that's not how I want my dungeon crawlers to feel and play. What I want is freedom, huge dungeons choke-full of hazards and loot by the truckload; and if I cannot get all that in Ray Gigant, then I'll get it in other games. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!