The Demo Runs: Foreword

Greetings, dear fellow gamers! I've had a hard time focusing on gaming lately; as a result, the last weeks have been littered with aborted playthroughs and wishful thinking about playing this, that and the other game. I pick up a game I fancy playing, only to give up on it after a mere hour of play because I cannot stand the thought of pouring 30 more hours in it. That's the issue when your game library comprises mostly RPGs, I guess! But deep down, I still want to play games; and that's why I've decided to use that low-energy spell to play a couple of Switch and Vita demos.

I have seven demos lined up, two for the Vita and five for the Switch; and for suspense's sake, I'll keep the names of the involved games under wraps until I write about them. See you soon for my first demo report, dear fellow gamers!


Tetris: How I learnt to stop worrying and love the game (somewhat)

Although I firmly consider Super Mario Land to be my first ever Game Boy game, it's actually not the first Game Boy game I played: just like probably 99% of Game Boy owners, I first cut my teeth on packed-in Russian cult classic Tetris. However, this is a fact that I'm usually very prompt to forget, and with good reason: I've always hated that most famous of puzzle games.

Okay, maybe "hated" is a bit too strong a term. Let's just say that I never saw the appeal of Tetris: whilst my sister and my neighbour could rack up lines for what seemed like hours and got to feast their eyes on the fabled space shuttles on multiple occasions, I was bored stiff after ten minutes of play. That is, when I actually lasted that long: on top of not liking Tetris, I sucked hard at it, and it usually took but a couple of minutes before my screen became cluttered beyond repair. The fact that seemingly everyone but me loved that game and excelled at it only added fuel to the fire of my aggravation: what was I missing there, and why couldn't I enjoy that darn game when it was the only one I owned? To top it all off, the sound effects grated on my nerves especially that stupid squeaky whimper after clearing the Holy Four Lines, which always made me feel like my Game Boy was in pain. Like, as much in pain as me when playing that game. The only thing I truly liked in Tetris was the B theme; and even that awesome piece of music was not enough to convince me to suffer through the game. As soon as I got my paws on other games, I dropped Tetris and never touched it again. That is, until now.

I purchased a Tetris cartridge recently for two reasons: I had one unused cartridge case and wanted a game to fill it up, and I was curious to see if I still hated Tetris after nearly twenty years of not touching it. (Very stupid reasons indeed, which probably wouldn't have cut it hadn't my cartridge been dirt cheap.) The answer to the latter is, surprisingly enough, not quite. I found myself not only playing Tetris with surprising ease, but also enjoying it; and that most unexpected state of affairs is due to the fact that I managed to alleviate most of the things that irritated me as a kid. Namely:

The open-endedness: I never liked games with no definitive goal and no ending, and I don't think I ever will; however, that issue was neatly solved when I discovered the B mode, a gameplay style that I cannot remember playing as a kid. Having to clear a puny 25 lines instead of a potential infinity of them suddenly makes the whole thing seem much more manageable not to mention that you can ramp up the challenge by cranking up the speed and block height, confident that you'll manage to survive those 25 lines most of the time. 

The messiness: Unlike fellow packed-in Game Gear game Columns, which looks crystalline and pristine, Tetris looks rough and messy. The pieces are so weirdly shaped that you always end up with bits sticking out here and there, no matter how hard you try to keep things compact; this is worsened by the fact that after wiping out a line, pieces above said line don't gracefully fall into the holes below, but rather float awkwardly in the air. I'll admit it: I simply couldn't stand this as a kid, and Tetris routinely sent me into the pits of OCD hell. Now, how do I keep all that unruliness at bay as an adult, you may ask? Well, on top of being (fortunately) more desensitized when it comes to OCD triggers, I simply manage to stack up pieces in a more efficient way nowadays, avoiding ugly holes and protuberances. Ah, the joys of getting older and wiser.

The unforgiveness: Tetris is a much more unforgiving brand of puzzle game than, say, Puyo-Puyo or Columns. The latter are colour-based and usually give you a lot of leeway to improvise; Tetris, on the other hand, is exclusively shape-based, with shapes so specific that things can easily go haywire in a matter of seconds if you don't get the right pieces or fail to arrange your pieces properly. Every Tetris player has felt that pang of regret when placing a piece in a certain spot, only to realise one second later that it would have worked better in a different spot and/or that the next piece in line would have fitted even better. Nowadays, my answer to Tetris' stern brand of gameplay is simply to relax and let go of perfectionism. A bit of strategizing goes a long way in Tetris: little tricks I couldn't figure out as a kid, such as pondering your next move while letting the current piece fall after positioning it properly, or stacking long pieces on the sides to free some room in the middle and avoid protrusions, can really work miracles and change one's fortunes. Also, mistakes won't necessarily doom a run: a poorly placed piece can always be recycled and used in a different setup later! And if you lose still, no sweat: you'll just do better in the next run, which is a mere couple of seconds away.  

Now, as the title of this post implies, I'm still not that fond of Tetris. Granted, I like it much more than when I was a kid; but there are still plenty of things that annoy me to no end in that game, such as the impossibility of twisting tetraminos when they're in contact with the walls, the overeliance on luck in the harder levels of the B mode, or the unavoidable acceleration that occurs in A mode and prevents the player from simply enjoying the game at their own pace. Last but not least, playing too much Tetris simply irritates me: after a couple of runs, I invariably become tense and angry, and I must fight strong urges to throw my GBA at the nearest wall. That's when I know I've had enough Tetris for the day. Still, the fact that I can now play that game and enjoy it to some extent is nearly a miracle, given how much and how long I've despised it. Oh, and I really, really dig the A Theme now! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime! 


Pokemon X: The Wigglytuff Solo Run

When it comes to Pokemon solo runs, I love nothing more than to draw inspiration from external sources. This often leads to all sorts of thrilling challenges that I would probably not have thought of, were I left to my own devices. Sources of Pokenspiration range from Youtube videos (cue my Meowstic solo runs, inspired by a video about gender dismorphism in the Pokemon franchise) to comments from you, dear fellow gamers; and let's be honest, the latter is definitely more entertaining, as it means that I'm not the only one invested in the success of the involved run. Sieg and Kumiko have already provided me with many a great solo run candidate; and recently, faithful reader Melanie expressed her dream of cruising Kalos with Jigglypuff. This was wishful thinking, though; because, as she mentioned herself in a comment, Melanie hates the sheer grindiness of the series. What was I to do? Heck, take up the gauntlet and give her the opportunity to tackle a Jigglypuff solo run vicariously, of course! And that's how I found myself roaming Kalos with that cutest, pinkiest and roundest of 'Mons.

I might add "crappiest" to that list of superlatives; because oh boy, is Jigglypuff very crappy indeed when it comes to stats and general battle prowess. I honestly fail to fathom what that cute creature's niche was supposed to be, or even if it was supposed to have a niche at all beyond looking adorable. With a base Defense of 20 and base Sp.Defense of 25, Jigglypuff is even more fragile than Skitty; and her base 45 Attack and Sp.Attack are nothing to write Professor Oak about. Even worse, Jigglypuff is crippled by the worst base Speed I've seen this side of Roggenrola, i.e. a puny, pathetic 20. Her only redeeming quality are her ample amounts of HP, which still do little more than guarantee that she'll stay alive longer than one turn on the battlefield. In a way, this was maybe my most formidable solo run challenge to date: would I, as a Trainer, be qualified to take such a weak, fragile and slow 'Mon all the way to the Pokemon League?

Nope, I didn't do nothing.
As it turned out, the answer was yes although to be fair, I had to cheat a little bit to kickstart the run. The main issue is that Igglybuff, Jigglypuff's pre-evolution, is one of these baby 'Mons that are utterly powerless on the battlefield: the creature learns its first offensive Move at lv.5 and just cannot hit before that. So I had the choice: either switch with my Starter until my Igglybuff reached lv.5 and learnt Pound, or slap an offensive Move on her before the trade. Feeling lazy at the time, I opted for the latter option and let my newly hatched Igglybuff learn Flamethrower before sending him to my copy of X. Because hey, if you're gonna cheat, you might as well go for it full force! And mind you, Igglybuff's stats are so horrid that Flamethrower didn't even do that much damage, let alone one-shot anything.

Although the early stages were kinda rocky, my run changed for the better when Igglybuff finally trusted me enough to evolve into an adorable Jigglypuff. My initial plan was to run with that form for as long as I could, maybe even all the way to the Pokemon League; however, an oversight on my part regarding Type weaknesses kinda spoilt that plan. Overcoming the Rock Gym was difficult enough, yet manageable; however, when we reached the third Gym, home to Korrina and her Fighting 'Mons, I reasoned that the time to use the Moon Stone had finally come. My Jigglypuff was reaching the obedience level cap, and I simply needed the extra buff provided by the evolution into Wigglytuff to conquer that Gym or even survive it, for that matter. Or so I though; because indeed, I hadn't factored in Jigglypuff's double Type, which simply cancelled out her weakness to Fighting. Talk about being a Pokemon noob!

Anyway, the evolutionary Rubicon was crossed, and I cruised with Wigglytuff from that point on. And my, did the rabbit-like creature perform honourably on the battlefield despite her lacklustre stats. On top of Flamethrower, which my Wigglytuff wielded until the very end, I taught her Ice Beam, Dazzling Gleam and Return; and armed with that neat Move pool and the occasional Battle Item, we conquered every Kalos Gym and the Pokemon League. And that, dear fellow gamers, pretty much proves that ovelevelling can transform even the wimpiest of wimpy 'Mons into a fighting powerhouse. That run also proved that even traded 'Mons with the fastest levelling-up rate can stay below the obedience level cap all the way through in X&Y, providing that you leave Pokemon Amie untouched and avoid Trainers when your One and Only starts flirting with the current level cap. Being able to run with a 'Mon from the very beginning of the game used to be an experience restricted to the Starters; but thanks to the combination of breeding and trading, I can now get that intense bond with any 'Mon under the sun and take pride in cruising the whole region with them, from my modest hometown to the perilous heights of the Pokemon League! No more making do with a Starter I cannot get attached to until I reach my 'Mon of choice; I can now do genuine 100% solo runs even with the latest of late-gamers, and that's awesome.

So here's to you, Melanie: the Jigglypuff Solo Run of your dreams, brought on a silver platter by yours truly! And my, was it fun too. Although if I'm totally honest here, I still feel that I have a bit of unfinished business with the pink round creature. There's the issue of her evolving too early for my taste, obviously; and I also cannot help but wonder how she performed before Gen VI, i.e. as a purely Normal 'Mon. Dare I say that I now want to tackle a Jigglypuff solo run in an older entry? Why yes, I'll totally say it! But in the meantime, I though of a neat little challenge: I want to invite you, dear fellow gamers, to come up with the most unsuitable candidates you can think of for Pokemon solo runs and then, I'll obviously tackle runs with said most unsuitable candidates and try my hardest to take them all the way to the Pokemon League. Feel free to leave your most outlandish suggestions in the comments; and as usual, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Adventures to go: (Really just) a farming fest

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


7'scarlet: Better by the route

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

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

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

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

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

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


Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly: The romance that never was

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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