The Lost Child: The nasty bits

It should be abundantly clear by now that I love TLC to pieces; however, that intense love doesn't make me blind to the game's flaws. Whilst I'm tolerating TLC much better than some players out there, there are still a couple of things that rub me the wrong way; and here they are in all their unholy glory. 

The 'Fruits of Wisdom' system: A.k.a. randomized skill acquisition. This is hands down TLC's biggest flaw, because it seriously hampers the player's ability to build a well-assorted party. Sure, it may seem innocuous at first, and even a bit entertaining: after all, what's more delightful than to suddenly gain a brand-new skill in the heat of battle? However, the cracks begin to show when one realizes that there is simply no reliable way to predict an Astral's growth in the Skill department beyond (wild) guesses based on said Astral's base set of skills and stats. Some Astrals learn only physical skills, some only elemental ones, some only buffs and healing spells, and others a mix of all that; some Astrals learn metric tons of skills (cue Enoch), whilst other learn very few (cue Baphomet). In practice, this means that every single Astral is pretty much a bet. You might pin your hopes on a brand-new Astral, only to realize after a couple of hours and scores of battles that they cannot learn the skills you want. Even worse, if one of your party members learns a skill and you lose your progress afterwards for any reason, there is no saying when or even if they'll learn it again. I've lost a good five skills so far, mostly due to intempestive crashes; and whilst three of them have popped up again, two seem to have been lost forever.

The Spirit Reset: As the name implies, that feature allows you to reset an Astral's level to 1 in order to gain a massive stat boost. Sounds neat and nifty, right? But wait, there's a catch: Spirit Reset also wipes out all the involved Astral's skills in the process. Combine this with the Fruits of Wisdom system, and you get a giant hassle and a monumental display of fake longevity. How many battles could it take before your Astrals regain all their skills? In my opinion, far too many to justify resetting any of mine. Although to be fair, that particular criticism is to be taken with a pinch of salt: Spirit Reset seems to be designed especially for those who want to conquer R'lyeh Road, the game's cut-throat 99-floor complimentary dungeon. If you take up that gauntlet in the first place, I guess you won't mind grinding for hours on end, now will you?

No instant save: Given how crucial mapping is in FPDCs, you'd think that instant save would be a fixture in the genre by now. Yet it's not, and it's a royal pain. Having to retread previously cleared ground after a Game Over/random freeze (insert murderous eyes) just so that it'll show on the map is not challenging, it's just tedious and a complete loss of time.

Pointless monster drops: Apart from the occasional potion, most of the monster drops are random items with fancy names. You never get to see what they look like, nor do you get to use them in any kind of synthesis; their sole purpose is to be sold for cold, hard cash. Fair enough; but in that case, why can't I get the cash directly from the monsters and dispense with the selling part? Sure, one might argue that it wouldn't make sense for monsters to roam around with monies; however, they do roam around with stuff called 'medals', 'gems' and 'coins', which is just as implausible. Just gimme the cash and spare me the trip to Leon's store every time I come back from a dungeon, thank you.

I hesitated about putting the random crashing issue here as well; however, I finally decided against it, as I've found no mention whatsoever of that particular problem on the internet. This means that it could be restricted to my own version, maybe because of an incompatibility between the software and my Vita's OS or memory card. At any rate, I hope that the upcoming physical release will be free of any freezing issue. And with that, dear fellow gamers, I'm done with my pet peeves with TLC. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime! 


The Lost Child: A smorgasbord of goodness

I'm so engrossed in my run of The Lost Child that I somehow cannot find the time to write about it. I have to, though — if only to let my fellow FPDC aficionados know that this game is dope, and very much worth a purchase and a playthrough indeed. Without further ado, here's a (non-exhaustive) list of the things TLC nailed perfectly.

The fighting system: Granted, there's not a shred of originality to be found in TLC's fighting system — bar maybe the fact that skill acquisition is random, which could actually be seen as a bit of a flaw. This is typical turn-based fare, with your usual element complementaries, skillsets, classes and the like; yet what that system lacks in originality, it makes up for in sheer depth. To put it simply, TLC totally lets you fight it your way. Want to bulldoze your way through by focusing on a few monsters and molding them into war horses? You can! Want to fine-tune your strategies to the fullest by swapping monsters on the fly and cherry-picking the perfect ones for the fight du jour? You can too! Want to do a bit of both? Why, you can as well! TLC comes with all the necessary tools to humour every fighting style, from the most mindlessly brutal to the most subtly strategic.

The dungeon crawling: Let's face it, TLC's dungeons are not exactly pretty. However, they are incredibly well-designed: they boast just the right length to be engrossing without wearing you out, their layouts are stimulating without being over-complicated, and they offer genuinely clever puzzles that still remain fair and solvable without running to an FAQ. Add to this a perfectly balanced encounter rate, neither annoyingly high nor boringly low, and you get some pure dungeon-crawly goodness. As a matter of fact, TLC's small yet wholesome roster of dungeons delivers one of the best first-person crawling experience I've had since I started indulging in the genre.

The sidequests: Dungeon crawlers usually don't lend themselves well to sidequests of the breather type, and that's kinda understandable: indeed, what could a dungeon crawler offer in the way of diversion, apart from even more crawling? TLC acknowledges that hurdle and tries its hardest to work around it, by streamlining its sidequests and offering great incentives for clearing them — and holy cow, does it succeed indeed. Not only are TLC's sidequests short and sweet, consisting often solely in beating a boss that kindly stands a couple of rooms away from the dungeon's entrance, but they deliver genuinely useful rewards for a change. Those rewards are none other than powerful special attacks to be used in battles, as well as complimentary gameplay features that can make your life as a TLC player genuinely better. The beauty of it all is that whilst none of these perks are truly necessary to play the game, they still make enough of a difference to justify hunting for them.

The overall balance: TLC manages to create a flawless and wholesome loop between its resources and gameplay features. Fighting trash mobs grants you loot and so-called Karma; the former can be sold for money, whilst the latter can be used to level up captured monsters. Money can then be used to strengthen your weapons, buff yourself up before entering dungeons or transforming useless monsters into Karma, which can then be reinvested in better monsters — all this to make your party stronger and allow you to fight more efficiently, get more loot and Karma, and so on. Nothing's wasted in this gorgeous display of self-sufficiency, and the game delivers just the pitch-perfect amount of loot and Karma: you probably won't ever have to farm if you manage those resources cleverly, but neither will you be swimming in them.

I just passed the 30-hour mark, and I can feel I'm heading towards the end. I'm certainly not done at all with writing about TLC, though; and I'll see you later with more posts about that game's sheer awesomeness. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


London Detective Mysteria: The route report

I finally decided to write a report of the five "good" romantic endings I managed to clear. Follow me down LDM's murky maze of love entanglements, dear fellow gamers! (Massive spoilers ahead!)

Holmes: Young Holmes' route, derivative is thy name. It's simply impossible to play that route and enjoy it on its own merits after playing Code:Realize, which stars the exact same protagonists in the exact same relationships. Sure, it's not Karin's fault that Sir Conan Doyle's and Maurice Leblanc's works do feature Holmes' friendship with Watson and rivalvry with Lupin, and it's even less their fault that Code:Realize treaded that exact same ground with much more success; but with Otomate's input being the most popular otome take on the Sherlock Holmes lore, Karin's version comes across as a sorry retread despite actually predating Otomate's one by a full year. To make matters worse, Karin's Holmes is rather milquetoast, he gets his thunder stolen by pretty much everybody around him (starting with his own father, the much more charismatic and bonkable Holmes Sr.) and his relationship with Emily never fully takes flight. Even if you choose to ignore the class difference factor, those two people seem to sap each other rather than strengthen each other. Heck, I can totally see them drift apart as soon as the physical passion cools down and end up getting on each other's nerves.

Lupin: Described by many LDM players as the best route in the game, the gentleman thief's route left me cold. I see it as a giant missed opportunity, with the dichotomy between flamboyant Lupin and shy Lupine being painfully underexploited. The writers could have expanded upon Lupin's inner struggles and made him a genuinely conflicted character, torn between his father's expectations of him and his own desire to live a normal, thievery-free life; instead, they went the easy way by making Lupine a sheer decoy, nullifying his whole character in the process. Not that the romance itself is any better, mind you. First, you have that nude scene, which is both weirdly raunchy and utterly implausible in the story's context. No matter how horny Emily is as a healthy teenage girl, there's no way she would enjoy suddenly finding herself buck-naked in the arms of a guy she hardly knows; more like she'd get utterly hysterical this is Victorian era England, after all. And then you have the teeny-tiny issue of Lupin being a giant prick who spends his whole route blowing hot and cold and toying with Emily's heart. How am I supposed to root for that pair in earnest, when Emily herself calls Lupin out for being sleazy and manipulative? She'll probably toss him out once she gets bored of his scheming ways, or beauty-obsessed Lupin himself will ditch her for a prettier dame.

Akechi: Unlike his two predecessors in this post, Akechi is blessed with a truly fascinating personality and stellar character development. His route is rife with mystery and action, including (but not limited to) a bout of confinement, a duel under the moonlight and a boat travel overseas. Cherry on the top, his whole arc touches upon genuinely interesting and occasionally heart-wrenching topics, from the hardships of being an expatriate to the sacrifices one must make to protect others. What a pity, then, to see l'amour fail utterly in that otherwise brilliant route! With Emily and Akechi both being loyal and serious characters and having unescapable duties to fulfill in different continents, there is simply no way their budding love story can endure. The game itself doesn't even try to give us a glimmer of hope regarding their future together, preferring instead to describe in exquisite details the many differences between them and the countless obstacles that keep them apart. This is a different brand of depressing: Lupin and Holmes' routes give us poorly assorted couples that can be together, while Akechi's route gives us a well-assorted couple that cannot be together. Oh, the torture! Unless they can make do with bonking each other once a year, their relationship is pretty much over before the credits even roll.

Jack: If you can stomach all the gore and grime packed by this route, you're in for a touching and bittersweet love story that's marginally more believable than the ones above. Jack is a tainted character through and through and the biggest roturier in the whole game, which should automatically disqualify him as a love interest for pure, noble Emily; and yet, their common history beautifully illustrates how the noble and low classes can learn from each other and help each other. There is something weirdly poignant in Jack's rebirth as Emily's butler: this feels like the most torturous situation ever, and yet one cannot help but think that this is exactly the atonement Jack deserves for his crimes. With the game firmly implying that Pendleton was once Emily's late mother's very own Jack, we can only hope that Jack himself will grow into as badass a butler as Pendleton. On the other hand, there seems to be little hope as far as romance is concerned, with Jack's sole prospect being to love Emily from the shadows for the rest of his life. There's not even the slightest guarantee that the lady will be able to return that love at all; although Emily claims that she'll stay single forever for Jack's sake, that cute youthful resolve probably won't last long in the face of House duties, desire for offspring and the like.

Watson: It's hard not to see the apprentice doctor as Emily's canon mate. Not only do they interact an awful lot during the common route, but they genuinely care for each other and don't mind showing it. To crown this all, they met once during their childhood although only Watson remembers it. Their love story has 'fate' written all over it and is deliciously heart-warming; what a pity, then, to see that sweet love story unfold in what is arguably the weakest route in the whole game! Most of Watson's route consists of unplausible events and out-of-character behaviours: like, why the heck would Emily foolishly follow Watson alone in the East End after she was nearly attacked there once? Why would Watson avoid Emily for days on end after they developed such a close relationship? To create fake drama and fill in the blanks, of course! After all the fulfilling interactions between Watson and Emily in the common route, their dedicated romantic route somewhat feels like filler, which is the most pitifully ironic thing ever. Very little is said about their future romantic prospects, but I guess their situation is the least desperate here: not only is their love genuinely strong, but Watson has the potential to become a talented doctor and thus a palatable mate for Emily. Sure, that still wouldn't make him nobility; but a doctor would still be a better potential husband for a lady than, say, a thief or a murderer.

LDM was not an unpleasant ride, but let's face it: I got more enjoyment out of the lovely art, the gorgeous music, the beautifully written text and the constant mentions of tea than out of the story and the romance. I toyed with the idea of purchasing the original PSP version at the beginning of my run, but nothing could be further from my mind now. Will I ever pick up LDM again and clear the rest of the routes, only time will tell! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


The Lost Child: What to expect

2017's The Lost Child was one of the very last first-person dungeon crawler released on the Vita; and as a physical version is heading towards our shores (insert eyes teary with gratefulness), I had to check out somehow if it was worth a purchase. Normally, the mere fact that we're talking about a FPDC should have been enough to warrant a purchase of the "Shut up and take my money" sort; but in that particular case, I have to admit that the reviews somewhat confused me. With scores ranging from 81 to 50 and reviewers describing the game as a host of different (and sometimes conflicting) things, I had my doubts about TLC. Was it a tedious monstrosity mix of VN and dungeon-crawling à la Ray Gigant, as some reviews seemed to imply? Or was it a more classic FPDC with bits of storytelling in between? I had to check before commiting to a physical purchase; and lucky me, the PSN January sales were in the mood to humour me. TLC was here for the taking for a very cheap price, and that's how I unexpectedly found myself playing it — and loving it very much indeed. But more on that later; for now, let's shed a welcome light on what TLC is — and isn't.

It's not a visual novel: No matter what some reviews seem to imply, TLC cannot be described as a VN by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, there are some story-telling segments; but they are mercifully short, and few and far between to boot. Oh, and did I mention that the story is painfully erratic and makes little sense? Anybody who's in for a narrative treat should wisely abstain from coming close to TLC. On the other hand, all my fellow crawlers are more than welcome, as TLC's story-telling doesn't detract in any way from its (excellent) dungeon crawling.

It's derivative as heck: Nearly every feature and gameplay mechanic in TLC has been done before and is bound to remind you of another game or franchise. Its main feature, the monster-collecting and evolving thing, vigorously screams Pokemon; and some have even compared TLC to the Shin Megami Tensei series. I cannot comment on that supposed resemblance since I have yet to play a MegaTen game, but let me tell you this: if the Shin Megami Tensei series is anything like TLC, then I'm most certainly gonna have the time of my life when I finally play it, oooh yes precious.

Ia! Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The white goat with a thousand teeth!

It's definitely not a piece of Lovecraftian fanfiction: And that's all for the best, really. Lovecraft's creations were always designed as entities far beyond the scope of our pitifully limited human perception, and there's no way a mere budget dungeon crawler could have done them justice. The Lovecraft references in TLC are just as derivative as anything else in the game, being but a couple of names slapped on monsters, bosses, NPCs and whatnot; they could be seen as an homage at best — and as a shameless display of creative laziness at worst. As a matter of fact, they are far from being the only blatant source of inspiration here, as the game gaily and shamelessly pilfers names from religions, mythologies, legends, and whatever else the writers happened to fancy.

It's a total grindfest: It starts innocuously enough, with a forgiving encounter rate and quick battles; but before the end of the third dungeon, you'll be facing packages of 5 to 10 enemies on a regular basis. You cannot shy away from random encounters too often if you want to exploit your monster foils' full potential, given that they learn new skills solely in battle and level up through the use of resident resources obtained by killing trash mobs. And since backtracking is part and parcel of the roaming due to the dungeons' design and the absence of an instant save feature, that means even more grinding along the way.

It's really not optimized: I think this is the first time I encounter a FPDC that requires load times when entering dungeons and between dungeon floors. Not just load times, but very long load times. Text is ridiculously tiny and sometimes skips before you can read it, regardless of the selected text speed. More embarrassing is the game's unfortunate tendency to crash randomly, with my own version freezing on me a good five times since the beginning of my run — with collateral losses of good progression involved, as you'd expect. I can only hope that the upcoming physical version will alleviate those issues.

It's unabashedly old-fashioned: Let's face it, TLC is more Wizardry than Dungeon Travelers. Not only does it shamelessly dispense with player-friendly features such as instant save and warp points, but it makes no effort to charm the player's senses. TLC's dungeons are austere to a fault, with a bleakness pretty typical of old-school FPDCs — and so are its soundtrack and its character and enemy designs. The whole art style is highly reminiscent of '90s manga — early Bastard!, Psychometer Eiji and the like — and the dungeon themes are atmospheric and brooding pieces à la Ecco the Dolphin. This is a game that doesn't try to woo the player and draw them in, but rather dares said player to conquer it — and learn to love it while doing so.

In a nutshell, TLC doesn't try to be anything more than a serviceable FPDC for aficionados of the genre. It doesn't bring anything new to the table, but it does everything right nonetheless and delivers good, robust dungeon crawling by the truckload. I already have 18 hours of TLC under my belt, and I'm nowhere near finished with that game indeed. See you soon for more TLC goodness, dear fellow gamers! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


London Detective Mysteria: Not my cup of tea, dear

Playing London Detective Mysteria filled me with newfound respect for Otomate. Sure, their stories are sometimes utter piles of horse manure, and I roughed them up more than once on this very blog; however, when it comes to gameplay, Otomate offerings boast a sheer accessibility that other developers such as Karin can only dream of. Otomate games have everything nicely streamlined, to the point where even complete otome noobs like me can land the good endings and unearth the true route without fail. Which, oh dear, is so not the case in LDM.

LDM's gameplay suffers from a painful lack of clarity and readability. There are just too many systems at work: a bit of flag system here, an affection gauge there, branching paths left and right, a hidden 'detective gauge' in the corner, timed choices sprinkled on top and a throroughly confused player in the end. Because of all these conflicting features, it's extremely difficult to pinpoint the requirements for a given ending. You'd think that zeroing in on a given beau to get locked on their route and then being more or less nice to them would land you the whole range of romantic endings, but that's not the case: you also need to factor in the detective gauge, and maybe one or two flags as well. Weirdly enough, bad romantic endings are actually harder to land than good ones; and don't get me started on the non-romantic routes, whose requirements are even more impossibly arcane. Mind you, the fact that most endings play so hard to get wouldn't be an issue, if not for the fact that viewing pretty much all of them is required to unlock the True Ending. Since I gave up after uncovering the five good romantic endings, I cannot say if going through all these loops is ultimately worth it.

This segues nicely into the next point, namely LDM's story. I'd like to say that all things narrative are that game's saving grace; but alas, it's not the case. (Spoilers!) I could expand on the tone shift issue, which sees the story go from light-hearted comedy to gritty noir in a matter of chapters; but that's far from being my biggest problem here. Said biggest problem would be the sheer unlikelihood of the romantic entanglements, which defeats the very purpose of that game being an otome rather than a mere VN. Ironically enough, that very issue stems from something that could be seen as positive, namely MC Emily's very developed character. The game goes to great lengths to give her a depth properly unseen in the genre, and utterly succeeds; and that succeed turns out to be l'amour's downfall. Emily is no mere placeholder for the player indeed: she's a noblewoman with duties aplenty and a grisly past to deal with. Not only does she seem almost too busy to fool around, but the fact that she's determined to become the head of her house in a near future and do a great job at it obliterates all her possible relationships with the game's beaus, whose extraction is certainly not noble enough to court a lady. The power imbalance between Emily and the boys is so massive that jaded old me cannot see those relationships last, let alone flourish; and that's a tad depressing to be served with love stories that are so obviously bound to fail. (End of spoilers)

So I'll take my french leave and drop LMD for the time being and maybe forever, because let's face it: my initially warm feelings for that game have sadly grown cold. Sure, it has really pretty colours and gorgeous art; but so do many VNs with better stories in my precious collection. I may write a route report if I feel like it, but no promises here. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Psycho-Pass - Mandatory Happiness: A lovely discovery

Dear fellow gamers, let me introduce you to the first contender in the 'Let's polish off all those digital Vita games before I lose interest in them' sessions! (Which games will still stand in the end, no one knows.) To say that I had low expectations regarding Psycho-Pass would be the understatement of the week: not only are reviews for that game far from dripping with praise, but it's part of a greater franchise that started with an anime which means that it had the potential to be derivative as heck and incomplete unless one watches the anime in question. Heck, I would never even had purchased it, if not for its current ridiculously low price tag on the PSN. How delightful, then, to be pleasantly surprised by that game and end up loving it in earnest! Here's how PP managed to win my jaded gamer's heart:

It's short! All too often, VNs simply cannot tell a story in a concise and elegant way. From Chaos;Child to Code:Realize, many overstay their welcome, dragging every single scene and stuffing them with useless dialogue and descriptions until the poor reader screams for mercy. This is exactly what PP abstains from doing, choosing instead to go straight to the point and telling a short, sharp and slick story. One evening is more than enough to clear a run of PP, which makes the prospect of experimenting with it and hunting every single one of its many endings much less daunting than in your average VN with a 15-hour long reading time.

It's sober! With its subdued art style and colour palette, PP visibly aims for an older audience than your average VN. There is no trace of kawaisa in the character design, and your usual anime tropes are nowhere to be found; instead, we are treated to a cast of complex and relatable characters, whose relationships and modi operandi are pleasantly realistic. No power of friendship or going to the end of the world for the sake of a pretty face here! As PP's two MCs, we face dilemmas and quandaries on a regular basis; and like in most real-life dilemmas and quandaries, we have to make a decision alone and face the consequences of said decision alone as well, as the game wisely abstains from taking a moral stance towards its own world or firing deus ex machinas left and right.

It's efficient! PP might be short, but it does an amazing job at telling its story nonetheless. This is in no small part due to the fact that unlike many VNs, PP doesn't clumsily separate action and exposition, forcing us to endure the latter before launching into the former. Both are one and the same here: we get to know the crew through their reactions to the story's events, and we take in the stakes at work and soak up the atmosphere through those same events. It's also worth noting that there are absolutely no fillers, every line of dialogue and every narrative development being meaningful. Last but not least, we players get to enjoy plenty of agency through the game's many choices and branching paths: forget about being just a reader, this is a true Choose Your Own Adventure VN we have here.

I played a single run and got the "Symbol of Faith" ending; and although I still have to uncover a metric ton of routes, I'm not gonna play more PP for the time being. My run left me fully sated, in the most positive fashion: I loved everything about PP, and it left me with unabashedly positive feelings and very willing to purchase its physical edition indeed. Here's to one digital game taken care of and possibly one new recrue in my precious collection! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


New Gaming Year!

Happy New Year 2019, dear fellow gamers! Hope you had the nicest Christmas holidays, full of lovely moments with your loved ones and scrumptious food. I certainly got my share of both; so much so, in fact, that I didn't put a single finger on my precious handhelds for the last three weeks, so busy was I enjoying that whole Christmas indulgence.

But now that everybody is back home, it's time to get back to the daily grinding! I don't have that many gaming plans lined up for 2019, though: as the 3DS and Vita are slowly but surely retreating from the current gaming scene, my collecting prospects are drying up, leaving me sad and relieved at once. But I'll expand on my inner game collector in a dedicated post; for now, let's stay on my gaming plans for 2019. Apart from following my ever-dependable gaming instinct wherever it may lead me, there is one thing I really want to achieve this year, and that would be to play all my digital Vita games. Those games feel less and less important and worth playing as time goes on, no doubt due to their, erm, intangible quality; I'll probably soon reach a point where I just don't care anymore, and I'd rather give them a fair chance before it happens. This is all a matter of recouping my investment, and hopefully also unearthing a couple of gems worth a physical purchase in the process just like my beloved Pandora's Reflection, whose japanese physical edition joined my precious collection lately after I played the digital version and fell in love with it one year ago.
So there you have it, dear fellow gamers: a teeny-tiny bit of collecting here and there and lots of (hopefully) fullfilling playing, that's what 2019 is shaping up to be. Feel free to share your own gaming plans for this year in the comment section; and as usual, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!