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!