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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How Arknights Got Me to Sorta Like Gacha Games (?)

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Not many logistics group hire a pocky-eating wolf girl and a pie-obsessed angel.

On and off over the years, I’ve made occasional attempts to get into a variety of gacha games, but nothing’s really stuck. Typically, I get easily frustrated with these types of games, as their difficulty plateaus and meta-imbalances, designed to leech money out of players, tends to be inscrutable for me. I also follow a lot of the criticisms marked at these games, of the smarmy “who would pay hundreds of dollars for a JPEG image of a waifu that can be taken away from you if the game shuts down?” variety. Around mid-2020, I decided to make another attempt at gacha games, starting with Tales of Crestoria and Sinoalice. I was remarkably disappointed by Sinoalice, after being personally excited for the game’s release for over a year as a massive Yoko Taro fan. The game has a great soundtrack and art direction but it’s also an absolute snooze fest to play. I’ve still been following Tales of Crestoria since launch and will openly admit I dislike playing the game. I never got the chance to play Tales of the Rays before Bamco shuttered the English release, so I’m stuck with a super boring turn-based Tales of title. I dislike the gameplay to the point of always letting the game’s barely optimal auto-battle work for me. I mostly stick with the game because of the surprisingly good story and game-original cast, particularly the murderous love interest Misella and self-aware edgelord hedonist Vicious. I also started playing Princess Connect Re: Dive (which I…like? I don’t have a strong opinion on it), and I’m eagerly awaiting the English release for Touken Ranbu.

Amidst this mess of gacha game attempts and questionable usage of free time, I also got into Arknights around the end of 2020. I didn’t really start “seriously” playing the game until January of this year, but the game managed to subsume the better part of my free time, for good reason.

Whoever designed the UI deserves a raise, honestly.

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Return to Castle Dr. Quandary

Edutainment games are a staple of childhood, now turned into interesting relics of early PC software. There exist two camps for edutainment: narrative-driven adventure games that are extensively point-n-clicks for kids, games like Spy Fox and Putt-Putt, and capital E games like Math Blasters, and that one where a rabbit teaches phonics (no, not that one, no, the other one). As an adult, revisiting series like Spy Fox and Putt-Putt (“don’t you forget Pajama Sam” you say with a clenched fist) was great because, like revisiting an episode of The Simpsons you only watched as a kid, I got more of the references. For instance, there is a movie theater that shows fish themed film parodies in Freddie Fish 2, where as an adult I recognized Flash Gordon and Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp. It was an actually rewarding use of my time. But these were games I played over and over again because I personally had them, unlike the phantom nightmare The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary.

My entire experience with this game involved watching someone else play it badly after school, so for years, I could not remember its name. I have a similar failed memory with an arcade fighting game that I played once at a long-since closed CiCi’s Pizza. I want to say it was Fighting Vipers, but I’m not sure. Developed by now-gone developer MECC, known for classroom staple Number Munchers, The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary is a trip.

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I’m just imagining a child skipping the text and ending up playing the game on d. feecult by mistake.

Beyond Fight, Magic, Run: Spotlighting Unique RPGMaker Creators

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Sad times in a proof-of-concept.

In the past decade, there’s been an increase in RPGMaker games focused on story and character interaction, often sidelining the RPG aspects or removing them entirely. One of the best examples of this is Freebird Games’s To The Moon, a sci-fi drama about altering the memory of a dying man. To The Moon is focused on its characters, story, and futuristic setting. However, its gameplay is simplistic, involving navigating the protagonist scientist characters through memory landscapes and solving simple puzzles. The rise of itch.io also helped encourage the rise of non-standard RPGMaker games, since the site allows for easier hosting of indie titles without having to traverse the Steam approval process. Plus, fan translations of Japanese RPGMaker games are surprisingly plentiful, thanks to contributors like vgperson, who also worked on many official paid Steam releases.

Using RPGMaker for narrative-driven adventure games rather than sword-and-sorcery RPGs is nothing new. Indie Japanese horror games made using RPGMaker are practically a genre on their own, popularized by fan translators and Let’s Plays. Fun fact: while Yume Nikki is probably best known for popularizing Japanese RPGMaker horror games amongst an English-speaking audience, many aspects of its stylistic blend of surrealistic horror can be traced back to the 1998 game Palette, which later received a PS1 re-release.

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A Pata-preciation Post

When putting together a list of my favorite video games of all time, one of the titles that consistently breaks my top 5 and has yet to leave is Patapon 2. Standing alongside games like the original Bioshock, Nier Gestalt, and Earthbound is a PSP game about using war drums to command a singing army of eyeball creatures. My particular enjoyment with the Patapon games (specifically 1 & 2) is something I’ve hawked for years but have yet to actually articulate, so why not finally do so?

The original Patapon was released in 2007, during a time when PSP developers realized that yes, you can develop games specific to the console that aren’t janky action games (ports like Tomb Raider, Star Wars Battlefront or otherwise) that function better with two analogue sticks. A direct sequel was released two years later, and the final game in the trilogy came out in 2011. The games were iconic enough to warrant a bizarrely specific stage appearance in Playstation All-Stars, wherein the patapon beat the tar out of God of War’s version of Hades. 2017 brought an HD remaster of Patapon 1, with a remaster of 2 following a year after. Oh, and apparently the games were popular enough to warrant a Chinese knock-off iOS/Android game called Patapon-Siege of Wow!.

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Art from Rolito’s website.

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Loving and Hating Pikmin

Wouldn't the ship being covered in gold make it harder to fly because of how heavy gold is?

OG Pikmin is a weird game. This almost twenty-year-old game series, about tiny freight drivers turned tiny explorers like Captain Olimar, who use whistles to control colorful plant aliens, is a pretty clever premise for a real-time strategy game. On the surface, Pikmin’s focus on traversing through a monster-filled alternate version of Earth while solving puzzles with pikmin offers a distinct playing experience not easily replicated in other games. Yet, I have struggled with Pikmin, particularly OG Pikmin and Pikmin 2. Both games walk right alongside a sandtrap with “greatness” at the bottom, but just never truly fall in.  

I started with Pikmin 2 as a kid, soI’ll also use it as my starting point here . Exploration, especially at the start of each of Pikmin 2’s spring, summer, fall, and winter themed areas, feels great. OG Pikmin kept the world more like a secluded forest compared to Pikmin 2’s random person’s backyard or post-apocalyptic civilization. Similar to the Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards planet Shiver Star, a planet that looks like an Earth destroyed by a new ice age. The areas are filled with large plant pots, hollow logs, and even some tiled showers. The game’s starting area is even a snow-covered street with man-hole covers. These dioramas, often impressively vibrant with clear waters and pretty flowers, are fun  to look at despite being somewhat limited by the GameCube’s texture rendering. The environmental storytelling in Pikmin 2 hints at an unseen but bigger world outside of Olimar and partner Louie’s. 

That's why they call this town Silent Pikmin.

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Exploring Abandoned Research Facilities for Skill Points and Relaxation

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System Shock 2 is one of my favorite games. This late 90’s PC game, is a mix of low-key cyberpunk and the alright movie Event Horizon. It further combines survival-based combat with a focus on RPG style skill trees and paths created its own distinct subgenre of video game, often labeled “System Shock 2 like”. Dracula’s castle from Castlevania: Symphonia of the Night was metroidvania’s mother (father…adopted gay mom?), and System Shock 2’s spooky mega-corporation owned space ship, the Von Braun, create an iconic setting within a subgenre it unintentionally created. What sets apart, and realistically limits the amount of games given the moniker “System Shock 2-like” compared to the relatively swamped subgenre of metroidvanias is, a necessary bigger budget. Additionally, these game require an almost constant reliance on utilizing some of the original System Shock 2 staff. As if metroidvanias like Hollow Knight, Dust: An Elysian Tail, and Quacamelee! would have to invite Castlevania’s real life Dracula, creative director Koji Igarashi, to consult on each game as a show of authenticity.

System Shock 2-likes” feel as if they have at least one big hand print of System Shock 2, like a Urah-kai’s mark of Saruman, over the design document. The legacy of System Shock 2 is so impactful, that even a later game like Void Bastards is marketed front and center with the tag line “from the development director of System Shock 2 and Bioshock”. This shared creative staff creates an odd familiarity for these games set, sometimes only partially, in isolated abandoned research facilities, including Bioshock 1 and 2, Prey (2017), and the distant cousin Soma.

Active exploration is big in “System Shock 2-likes”, where certain key areas are returned to over and over. Prey protagonist Morgan Yu’s office being refitted into a home base comes to mind, similar to the frequent backtracking in metroidvanias. That compulsive need to open every drawer, filing cabinet, or bathroom stall, common in story-focused walking simulators like Gone Home, is encouraged. It’s rather amusing that a subgenre of games so fixated on creative methods for dispatching grotesque monsters or armor-plated robots feels best when every enemy is simply ignored because you are only returning to Engineering because you just remembered there was a hidden unopened safe. Screw progressing the overarching plot to find answers as to why the research facility is abandon and why everyone is dead. You have audio logs detailing how much Margret in Hydroponics dislikes Brendon from Neuromod Division because his last White Elephant gift was something shitty, like an expensive bag of whiskey stones. Soma’s safe mode even removes all direct combat with its instant death undersea monstrosities, letting the player scatter papers and coffee cups in relative peace.

The solo journey of the “System Shock 2-like” is great for providing a creepy atmosphere, where often the only non-monster met are recently-deceased crewmate set pieces. Explore a lab in System Shock 2, find a hanged researcher. Explore a train corridor in Soma, find a technician being barely kept alive by a respirator AI. Go literally anywhere in Prey, find a staff member dried of their energy by the Typhon so they now look like a tar-covered mummy. It invokes this great feeling, like in the original Alien, that while you are scurrying to  survive, creatures bigger and scarier than you are also keeping busy.

Prey found body

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Why Town Simulators in Non-Town Simulator Games Are Better, Actually

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Harvest Moon, or the modern equivalents My Time At Portia and Gleaner Heights, ask a lot of my time. The average Harvest Moon like is close to forty-to-sixty hours long, and because video games have that pacing problem where things start to plateau after the first ten hours with nothing drastic or new happening till the very end, I have a particular itch I can’t scratch. There exists distinct merit in the limited village-building aspects of all these games that I value over the farming simulation and villager-gifting player-loop. The Rune Factory games and the mining parts of Stardew Valley are a middle ground, but that’s not enough. The key is for the village aspect to be almost separate to the core of the game, like how it’s probably worth it to do the real estate campaign in Yakuza 0, but it’s not necessary. Wait, Breath of Fire II has a town sim?

The last Breath of Fire on the SNES, Breath of Fire II, centers on rebuilding an old dilapidated cottage into the player’s home base, called Township. After being accused of stealing from a wealthy man in the town of Hometown (a lot of BF2’s translations are goofy like this), sad dog Bow goes with protagonist Ryu into hiding. While Ryu goes off in search of the real thief to prove Bow’s innocence, Bow is joined by other characters to rebuild Township. This becomes a cool subplot for Ryu, where party members, like the tough but bored armadillo man Rand, will recommend leaving them behind to help expand Township. Ryu eventually goes to the town of Capitan, the carpenter center of their world, and can  hand pick a preferred village design. Opinions include boring 12th century high fantasy brick house, treetop cabins like Fortree City from Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, and the actually cool Mughal style.

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Is the party scared or embarrassed, cause they are all looking away from me? Exhibit 1.

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Stop Children, What’s That Sound (Novel)?

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An ode to the sound novel. The once-popular medium for Japanese adventure games has sadly fallen into obscurity after being mostly replaced by the contemporary visual novel, with its character sprites and dating sims. While sound novels never really took off among English-speakers (07th Expansion’s works aside), there are a few significant sound novels that have ties to otherwise fairly popular/well-known works.

So, first off, what the heck are sound novels? Early in the 90’s, game developer Chunsoft (well before merging with company Spike and being here fore known as Spike Chunsoft since 2012) pioneered sound novels with their title Otogiriso. Sound novels are technically a precursor to visual novels and are characterized by the usage of text fully overlaying still backgrounds with emphasis on sound design through music and effects. Sound novels also employ the typical visual novel gameplay by means of multiple choices with branching story routes and multiple endings. Many sound novels were mystery or horror-flavored, though according to this Giant Bomb list, there was also a period of anime-spinoff sound novels landing on the Nintendo DS. Nowadays, sound novels are a rarity and visual novels have largely overtaken them as a medium.

With that intro out of the way, let’s get to the focus of this article: weird sound novel spin-offs (and one that isn’t a spin-off but led to one more well known than the parent game). The games I’ll be covering include Radical Dreamers, Play Novel: Silent Hill, and 428: Shibuya Scramble.

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Quoting Hip-Hop Lyrics from Sega Games

The best hip-hop lyrics, like other forms of poetry, are easily quotable. For example, lyrics can be a quote useful for summarizing a situation, often swapping a single word given the context. KRS-One’s My Philosophy is a touchstone for much referential potential; for instance “I just produce, create, innovate on a higher level” (quoted while making hand raising gestures on “higher level”) works as a useful statement on one’s attitude towards their own creative output. Wherein “It ain’t about money cause we all make dollars” conveys a helpful attitude about how creative work’s true value is not always dependent on its direct monetary value. Sometimes, the quote can just act as a non-sequitur between friends “but as you know, Boogie Down Production is made up of people [actual lyric is “teachers”, so it is a modification]”, similar to how people will quote movie lines to each other. Sega games have a history with hip-hop music and with that history comes tons of quotable lyrics.

Burning Rangers for the Sega Saturn main theme has two different versions. The original Japanese version entitled Burning Hearts Burning ANGEL features some catchy vocals by Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, the Daytona USA composer known for his distinct voice, the English theme We Are Burning Rangers hits harder. While singer Arif St. Michael substitutes Takenobu Mitsuyoshi to bring the funk, the lyrics of Robin A. Small really stand out. Small’s lyrics  “The Rangers have nothing to hide/ So as they fight they stand side-by-side/ For what’s right they tangle with pride/ Protectin’ the people from all sorts of evil” sounds  like he’s both their hired PR guy or in fact secretly a member of the titular Burning Rangers. It’s like the Bop Alloy’s song Save the Day where lead MC Substantial name drops himself and producer Marcus D flexes with lyrics like “Our name’s catching on, we’re so contagious”. Both Smalls and Substantial are hyping people up to convey how cool both groups are, like how great they are at putting out fires and rescuing civilians or simply getting attends pumped at a concert. Though Small takes the Burning Rangers far more seriously than Substantial with Bob Alloy, contrasting Small’s awesome but  overblown lyric “Giving Nightmares, like Wes Crave” to Substantial’s humble “Got a license to kill, but it’s missing the k”.

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