Secret Little Haven Review: Can’t Leave The Desktop

Developed by Victoria Dominowsk, Secret Little Haven follows Alex, a trans teenager who escapes her life of social pressure from her lonely dad by talking with friends online. Alex also spends a lot of time on the fan forums of her favorite show, Pretty Guardian Love Force, a thinly veiled Sailor Moon homage, called PGFans. These forums are where Alex feels she can better engage with people, unlike how she struggles to communicate with classmates at school or her childhood friend Andy. It’s difficult to discuss Secret Little Haven’s rather intense plot past this point, as exploring Alex’s personal life and friend associations  comprise most of the game.

Secret Little Haven involves maintaining multiple different conversations with Alex’s PGFans friends, usually discussing different aspects of the show they like. This ranges from discussing fan art to full chat role-play sessions. When things get heavy in one chat later in the game, it creates a  weird parallel where Alex is casually role-playing her Pretty Guardian Love Force original character in another. This conceit replicates a certain mood shared by people in the late 90’s when it involved their interests and the social circles  connecting them. This is an experience I know other people  have but it’s not something I am personally familiar with, as I do not engage with fan spaces on this level. It works as a  late 90’s time capsule of anime fandom, including jokes about fansub tape trading.

Desktop cats will save us. They will save ALL OF US.

When a Man Loves an Otome Game(s)

Il Fado de Rie, a fallen angel from a science fiction version of Heaven, is probably the best character in Café Enchante. He’s soft spoken and sort of helpless, with other characters comparing him to a tiny bird they want to protect, but he has  intellectual depth that pops up from time to time. Il’s largest defining personality trait is that he is really into otome games, which are young girl (range tends to go from middle school to college) oriented visual novels. In probably the closest thing to a self-insert character, I immediately identified with Il, as I am also a grown man who plays otome games. Like Il, I have character merchandise of the men from these games (usually small things, because a lot of otome game merch are cheap or impractical, like note pads or cellphone chargers), and while I don’t have the access to go to park events or pop-up cafes (themed restaurants that have entrees and drinks that represent characters from video games or anime), I can still understand why Il wanted to buy ten crepes because each one came with a collectable coaster. Hell, my current PSN avatar is of the cat doctor Kageyuki Shiraishi from Collar X Malice.

I want to make an admission that when I discuss otome games, I am exclusively referring to the output of Otomate, a branch of Idea Factory. As this continues, my snobbery will increase, but an  example of such smugness is how I will not play a mobile otome game. I find them sort of cheap and I get really picky about their art.

What do I get out of otome games and what do I think other people could get out of them? To start, I’ve been reading shojo manga and watching shojo anime for many years, and while that has shifted to reading more Josei manga, targeted at an older audience (it better fits my age range), I still consider myself a shojo liker. I tend to go to shojo for drama or comedy, and that’s also what I try to get out of otome games. I want to see pretty men (and depending on the skill of the artist, pretty women) have adventures, like escaping a locked theme park or defeating an international terrorist cell. Otome games are about one female protagonist being presented with four-to-five different romantic interests and, based on what type of person the player is, dates them in a preferred order. Il loves otome games because they introduced him to the human concept of love between two people. I, on the other hand, zone out during the romantic aspects of the narratives, because I find much of it very selective.

Il woke up and chose violence.

Togainu no Chi ~Lost Blood~ Review: Thicker Than Water

Content warning: as per usual with Nitroplus CHIRAL’s works, Togainu no Chi is a game that explores various dark themes, including sexual assault, sexual slavery, nonconsensual body modification, and drug use. While not as dark as parts of DRAMAtical Murder or roughly 70% of the content in Sweet Pool, please use your best judgement before proceeding.

Way back in ~2006 as a last bastion middle-school Xanga user, I stumbled upon someone who made a custom blog layout with the background being a sad-looking anime guy clutching bloody dog tags. Within the same year, I was perusing Photobucket for pictures and ended up stumbling upon CGs from a game I would later learn was called Togainu no Chi. At the time, I was drawn to the character designs (and very ignorant of the saucier content), so the game’s existence has been present in the corners of my mind for a while. Now, thanks to JAST Blue finally putting an official release out, I can finally tackle this oddity.

Togainu no Chi ~Lost Blood~ (“Blood of the Reprimanded Dog”) was originally released back in 2005 as Nitroplus CHIRAL’s debut boy’s love (BL) title. Like many other Nitroplus CHIRAL titles, the game also received various console ports that probably cleaned up some of the game’s more explicit content. Despite the game’s age and reputation as a debut title, TnC seems to be rated pretty highly amongst other BL games and even other Nitroplus CHIRAL games.

Gee Rin, how come your mom lets you have TWO boyfriends?
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Here Come the Mystery Teens! Review: Looking For Someone Else’s Spooky Inheritance

Let’s Plays by themselves are not usually things I really watch or get into unless the people playing them are already someone I enjoy from a different venue. It’s probably a para-social deal, where I would rather listen or watch people I already discuss video games, art film, or the novels of French writer Marcel Proust. For example, I have watched a bunch of Youtuber Pikasprey’s Let’s Plays because he plays a lot of games he discusses in video essays or reviews, usually Pokémon fan games, 2-D Castlevania, or indie horror games. Press Buttons N Talk is another Let’s Play channel I started watching because I enjoy voice actor Sungwon Cho’s channel, as he reviews a lot of board games. Sungwon hosted Press Buttons N Talk with his friend, Alex Mankin, the sole developer of Here Come the Mystery Teens!, a meow-and-click adventure. Segue way, provided!

Here Come the Mystery Teens! follows the titular Mystery Teens: useless leader/walking TinTin reference Duke Douglas, high energy Sunbeam Song, macho but levelheaded Mugsy Malone, serious and regal Valorie Violet, and coward Larold Leremy. The Mystery Teens are assigned to enter the mansion of late eccentric millionaire Oscar O. Oswell’s and retrieve a painting for a family member. Instead of playing as any one of these kids, control is through their cat (named by the player and will now be referred to as Sabre, in reference to the cat companion from Dragon Quest V). Sabre’s main method of communication is through meowing, which lets them talk with the mansion’s Ghost Tricklike ghosts to solve puzzles, thus helping the Mystery Teens finish their assignment.

Also our faces. Please help us find our faces.

Building a Stairway…Off This Island

Coming up with things to discuss on this site, without dusting off the old chestnuts of RPGs, point-and-clicks, and late 90’s and early 2000’s FPS, is not easy. You write what you know. But as of last year, I have been really getting into resource management games (the internet seems to call these open world survival action-adventures, but that is too long), including Astroneer, Subnautica, and The Survivalists. Granted, calling them resource management games make them sound like factory simulators like Satisfactory, and the perfectly named Factorio. Whatever they are called, these games do provide distinct single and multiplayer experiences.

These types of resource management games, while similar on paper to farming sims, such as  Harvest Moons, Stardew  Valley, or Gleaner Heights, tend to share a different thematic start. Instead of inheriting a farm from a dead or dying relative, the player crash lands on a planet, a deserted island, or a deserted island planet. The Lost in Blue series (or Survival Kids for the five people on this planet who somehow own and played possibly the rarest GBC game) feel like the progenitor of this type of game. Lost In Blue follows different teenagers who find themselves trying to survive on a desolate tropical island. Food and water need to be consumed to keep the player alive, usually in the form of fresh coconuts and river water. Good news was that as  early DS games, Lost in Blue were not as long as the RPG-length sagas the average resource management game requires. Bad news was that as early DS games, Lost in Blue was controlled mostly through the stylus (a pain for those who wanted to do extra combat damage in Magical Starsign). Gameplay focused on constantly tracking vitals and building up a home base that lessens the strain of said vitals start here. But these teens cannot stay on the island forever, they will need to step out of their comfy cave and somehow leave the island. Finally leaving the base continues in later resource management games as a common end goal.

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Wouldn’t it be wild if punching alligators was just incorrectly calculated as being the most effective way to hurt them in Lost In Blue? Like how the butterfly net in some Zelda games works on bosses.

Smile for Me Review: Smile Puns Don’t Bring Happiness

Developed by Gabe Lane and Yugo Limbo, the two people behind publisher LimboLane, Smile For Me is a 2019 point-and-click adventure game. After visiting Dr. Habit’s GeoCities website inviting unhappy people to their facility, called The Habitat, the Flower Kid is woken up by a puppet show hosted by Dr. Habit. Dr. Habit explains that the Habitat is for sad and lonely people to learn how to be happy again, but as the game goes on, it seems its only a happiness created by Dr. Habit . Flower Kid is going to have to help the other twenty-two patients at The Habitat find their own happiness and escape Dr. Habit’s big plan.

What sets Smile For Me apart from other point-and-clicks is that all player interaction is in first person. While most of the traditional puzzles often found in these kinds of games are still present, such as  finding a key item for a person or using a tool to progress, direct player interaction is different. All of Smile For Me is set in one large sky-box, where you walk around a 3D world with everyone else being a stuck-in-place 2D avatar. It’s similar to interacting with characters in the overworld segments of the Danganronpa games. Flower Kid has to nod yes and shake no to directly communicate with the other patients. Point-and-clicks are traditionally sprite-based 2D games, where each location is blocked off by a screen transition. Smile For Me restricts areas with locks and chains, but the entire game is in one location. Flower Kid is forced to engage with the other patients at Dr. Habit’s pace. They get tired at the end of the day and if they don’t return to their talking cowboy bed, Dr. Habit will get mad and Flower Kid loses half of the next day to sleep in.

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Many of the video segments are just Dr. Habit narrating over analogue footage of flowers or other wildlife.

We Built This City on Card Games

Video games like to use cards for just about everything. The GameCube seemed to love them for RPGS like the Lost Kingdoms and Baten Kaitos games, where cards were used for combat. Slay the Spire uses it as part of its rogue-like game play. App games like Hearthstone, Ascension, or Magic: The Gathering Arena utilize each respective card game with a focus on online competitive play. But I want some story and characters to get invested in with my card games. Where is the Netrunner game about a cyberpunk future where everyone puts on their goggles and styles their mohawks to play Netrunner at a run-down bar or at a table in front of a ramen shop? Where is the Final Fantasy 8 spin-off where a nameless street urchin plays to become the Triple Triad champion of the world? Where have all the Trading Card Game adventure games gone?

Monster Rancher Battle Card Game GB was a Game Boy Color game about collecting cards representing the dozens of memorable Monster Rancher creatures in a world in which you fight to defeat…something. Joking aside, I never got farther than five minutes into this one as a kid. The Pokemon TCG game for the Game Boy Color was this charming world where everyone on Trading Card Game Island (that’s its real name) only cared about one thing, a kid’s card game. Like regular Pokemon, TCG Island has a resident Professor, this time it’s Dr. Mason (Oyama). People like me who cite Bulbapedia verbatim know that Dr. Mason is based on Pokemon TCG co-creator, Kouichi Ooyama, and compared to Professor Oak, Dr. Mason is flush with funding. Professor Oak has maybe two assistants, whereas Dr. Mason has fifteen, spread across two large rooms. TCG Island clearly cares more about its research of pieces of card board with images of Pokemon on them more than Kanto cares about actual Pokemon.

I think I read somewhere that the island is in the shape of Mew, but don’t quote me out of class on this.

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Surviving Horror in a Cool Pad

Horror video games use to break up their chills and thrills with safe rooms, these often pleasant breaks from monster hunting or, more realistically, surviving. Because horror games seem to be focused less on that surviving, safe rooms are not as common. Lone Survivor was a game I played when I first started to use Steam. Made exclusively by developer Jasper Byrne, Lone Survivor focused on a nameless masked man tasked with getting out of his comfy bed and leaving his monster-filled apartment complex. He’ll even die in bed if he’s not motivated enough to escape. Proximity to danger is the kind of horror Lone Survivor revels in, as monsters roam literally outside the apartment front door. Safety inside means the apartment now has to work as a base, not just a safe space. The survivor’s exit from the apartment is right in front of him when he gets up, as it’s the fire exit by his bedroom window, but he needs to progress before it can be unlocked.

Lone Survivor’s gameplay rhythm is reflected in its protagonist’s mutterings, which often boil down to “cool I got this new important item, better go home and sleep”. It’s an active way for the game to remind you to save, but it shows how important he feels about his one pleasant space in his new hellish existence. Similar to how collecting bedding or sticks for the cave in the Lost in the Blue games feel like a massive boon to the standard of living, the man can find stove gas or a can opener that can help him both physically and emotionally comfort himself. I rather enjoyed how one third of the man’s apartment is locked off for the first thirty minutes of the game. It provides something minor to work on, separate from the nebulous act of escaping monsters. The game has a teleport mechanic where all the other apartment mirrors are connected to the one in the main hallway, as teleporting into a safe space sort of feels like returning to a more relaxing state of mind. When Lone Survivor gets really stressful and resources are low, I started missing the protection of apartment 206 just as much as the nameless man.

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The nameless man’s pixels are undetailed enough that I thought his mask was just him grinning really big. Like some big creepy smiley face. Scariest thing in the game.

Rakuen Review: Calling Home

FYI, due to some screencapping issues with the game, I’m using the images from the game’s Steam page.

Rakuen is an RPG Maker adventure game created by Laura Shigihara. Shigihara is a singer, songwriter, and soundtrack composer who has contributed music to various games, including Melolune, Plants vs Zombies, To The Moon, and Deltarune. Rakuen is the first game created and developed by Shigihara and was released in 2017.

Rakuen follows the story of a child only known as the “boy”. Stuck in a hospital for certain reasons (and wearing a cool paper samurai helmet), his greatest joy comes from his mother’s regular visits, when she reads him his favorite book, Rakuen. The tale of Rakuen described a mystical fantasy forest under the charge of guardian Morizora, who can grant wishes. One day, the book goes missing, and after slipping away to the guarded-off and worn segments of the hospital, the boy confronts a mysterious old man named Uma, who has been stealing various items from the hospital. Uma reveals that Morizora’s forest is real and demonstrates that a magical door between worlds can allow the boy to travel there. The boy and his mother make their way through Morizora’s cave, where they find the guardian of the forest is sleeping and can only be awaken by activating runes tied to various individuals – the forest dwellers who are alternate versions of various hospital denizens. To awaken runes, the boy must learn about the problems these individuals experienced, help guide them along, and obtain their songs.

You’re only in this cave at the beginning of the game, but it sets a strong tone for the rest of the game.
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Dogpiling on the Protagonist for Fame and Fortune

Perhaps the most maligned main Tales of game, which happens to be one of my favorites, is Tales of the Abyss. Abyss gets a ton of my praise for being the only Tales of game to have a full bad guy team that act as an evil parallel  to the heroes. Similar to my desire for a Mario and Luigi Super Star Saga but with Wario and Waluigi, I feel there is untapped potential in a Tale of the Abyss: Inverse where you play as the badass God-Generals like Dist the Rose, Largo the Black Lion, and that one loli girl no one likes. Speaking of characters no one likes, Tales of the Abyss protagonist Luke fon Fabre serves as the naïve and sheltered player surrogate for the big world around him. This means every time a character gets annoyed that they have to explain an otherwise simple aspect of their world or Luke says something dumb, it goes back onto you, the player. Controlling a protagonist in a video game does not always involve playing a personality-free blank slate, but playing a character with the capacity to piss off other game character doesn’t feel great either.

RPGs with parties, or really any video game with some kind of crew or squad, run the potential risk of having protagonists whose character flaws boil down to “anything I do pisses everyone off”. I call this “dogpiling”. This can be divided up into two different camps: the protagonist is a person with predefined thoughts and interests or is the previous referenced personality-free blank slate that can only exposit player input. Video game protagonists already struggle to have a range of different archetypes, so having an outlined character who does something imperfect should be valuable, as it makes them less cookie-cutter. It can often feel like a punishment.

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A great summary of the first four hours of Tales of the Abyss.

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