Monday, October 19, 2020

Bad Apple Wars vs Angel Beats

Note: I wrote this last year after I finished Bad Apple Wars and never got around to posting it. Since my brain power is rather tapped this weekend, I figured now would be a good time.

I'm now in the position where I've both watched Angel Beats and played Bad Apple Wars, and while there are no doubt other stories involving an afterlife trapped in a high school, nearly every blogger I checked out for Bad Apple Wars called it Angel Beats if it was an otome, and going in I wondered how fair was that actually.

So let's get the commonalities out of the way. Obviously there are going to be spoilers for both!

1) High School Purgatory

Both stories involve high school students who die in the prime of their life and awaken in a high school afterlife they cannot leave.

2) Rebelling Students

Both stories feature a group of students rebelling against the way the school is supposed to work. The SSS in Angel Beats knows that people who follow the rules eventually disappear, and conclude that disappearing is bad, so they fight against that. In Bad Apple Wars, the Bad Apples know that people who follow the rules lose their memories and individuality, eventually "graduating" to an unknown rebirth, so they break the rules to stay themselves.

3) There's That Good Student Enforcer

Angel is the initial antagonist in Angel Beats. Whenever the SSS get up to shenanigans she shows up to stop them. In Bad Apple Wars this role is handled by the Prefects as a whole, and they are led by White Mask, who is a particularly difficult individual to run into.

4) They Have a Band

Angel Beats has a full sized band called Girls Dead Monster that performs multiple times in the series, and lead singer Masami disappears (which we later know is a good thing) after her best performance ever. Bad Apple Wars does not have a full band, but the singer and guitarist of one, who had the misfortune of dying in the same bus accident together. Sanzu, the singer, gives the best performance of her afterlife, breaking not one but two of the school's unbreakable rules, after which she disappears (but it was not a good thing).

But there are differences...

Despite their similarities, I think Bad Apple Wars is enough of its own animal that comparing it to Angel Beats is only useful as a convenient shorthand for those already familiar with Angel Beats.

The stories handle their scenarios very differently. The SSS eventually learn that they aren't supposed to fight the system. Disappearing is moving on to a better place, and their high school purgatory is a stopping point for them to come to terms with their regrets before they move on. The problem with the SSS is that they were shooting themselves in the foot by hanging on to regrets of the past instead of learning to let go.

In Bad Apple Wars, the Bad Apples are supposed to fight the system, though they never learn the truth of the matter. The school is set up as a halfway point for students who died in despair. Those who play by the system gradually lose their memories so they can be reborn on graduation. But if students wish to return to the lives prematurely taken from them, they must challenge the rules of the school and earn their resurrection.

This means that in Bad Apple Wars if someone died regretting that they never did something, they could earn a second chance to fix that regret. And one of the characters ends up taking that chance even though he knows he's going to die again soon since the cause of his death (disease) won't go away with his ressurection.

Though nobody can die in either story, being already dead, Angel Beats plays the inability to die for laughs (and as a legitimate combat tactic). Characters will sacrifice themselves in a dramatic fashion knowing that they'll eventually revive, no worse for wear. Revival is not quick though, so it's usually something like they'll die in one episode and be back the next.

In Bad Apple Wars the characters know that "dying" is an impossibility, and they heal up from lethal wounds immediately. This prevents death from being much of an inconvenience and combat between the Bad Apples and the Prefects involves the Bad Apples' Soul Totems (which are unique to each person) and the Prefects' correction tools. Neither side expects to do any lasting physical harm to each other, which is why the Prefects' weapons alter the minds of those hit and the Bad Apples largely to expect to delay or inconvenience the Prefects while they execute their real objectives.

Also different is that the school staff has a role in Bad Apple Wars. While they're just props in Angel Beats, in Bad Apple Wars they are essentially the administrators of this afterlife. Though they are the ones who set up the prefects with their roles, they don't actively work against the Bad Apples and most of them are happy about their charges eventually leaving to go back to their previous lives (except probably Mr. Gas Mask).

I suspect, having watched and played both, that the only reason Angel Beats gets brought up is that it's simply the easiest reference point, given that they both take place in a high school afterlife and both came out of Japan. If you like one, you might not necessarily like the other. One is a romance, the other is a dramedy, and they have diametrically opposed messages about letting go of the past and moving on to reincarnation.

So I wouldn't call Bad Apple Wars an otome version of Angel Beats, because tonally it's not. If anything, I would like to call it another entry in the high school afterlife subgenre. And if that subgenre doesn't already exist, it really should, because there's more that could be done with it.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Spice and Wolf Light Novels Series Review (Vols 1-17)

Light novels are growing in popularity in the US, but are still a bit niche. I don't know too many people who read them, even though many of those who are anime fans have watched numerous anime based on them. Most reviews only cover the series on a volume by volume basis, which makes it hard to see whether a series is worth getting into given that these can get pretty massive.

They're essentially YA serials, aimed at a similar age in Japan as YA is in the US. Generally each book has its own story (though sometimes there are multi-parters) and the characters keep moving forward as long as the series lasts. It's not uncommon for popular series to go on for a dozen plus volumes, but this means sticking with a series can be a serious time investment.

Spice and Wolf by Isuna Hasekura is the first light novel series that I can say I've "finished." It was one of the first translated for American audiences, and the earliest editions even had removeable Americanized covers in an attempt to reach a crossover audience. It's also been around long enough that all seventeen volumes of the original series have been completely translated. I put "finished" in quotations because the series picked up again and there are more installments in the form of Volume 18 and beyond, but Volume 17 is clearly the end of the original story and the Spring Log sequel books seem to be forming their own ongoing subseries.

This review will have some general spoilers, since I want to be honest about the direction the series goes, but it will be light on specifics since I'd like more people to read this series. Though I may complain about parts, I enjoyed it enough that I've spent seventeen books with these characters!

Probably like most English speakers, I became interested in Spice and Wolf through the anime, and though I like Holo, the character I actually fell in love with was Lawrence, who is so different from the usual male protagonist. Lawrence is weak, he's no good in a fight, and while his best asset is his head for economics, he's not perfect about using it and gets himself in trouble when he can't see the forest for the trees. He understands that he's a traveling merchant with meager assets, and his dream is to one day make enough money to settle down somewhere and open a shop. He's simple, but realistic for the time and place he exists.

Of course, what isn't simple is meeting Holo, the erstwhile harvest goddess of one of the towns he routinely visits in his travels. Tired of being taken for granted by the locals, Holo decides to stow away in his wagon and convinces him to take her back to her homeland in the north. Though she was worshipped, in actuality she is more of a very large and ancient wolf from older times when beasts like her were common. She's been gone from her home so long she doesn't remember how to return, nor does she know what happened to her former packmates, but she promises Lawrence that traveling with her will be good business and she will earn her keep.

From there, the series is largely a tale of Lawrence and Holo's misadventures in the various cities and towns they visit along the way. They are rarely in any physical danger (because what danger could possibly stand up to Holo) and there are a lot of details about medieval economics that other authors gloss over. Hasekura makes that his focus, and quite a few of the books are "solved" by Lawrence coming up with an economic scheme that will pan out for all parties involved.

Holo and Lawrence also have good chemistry with each other. Lawrence is tight with his money out of necessity. He doesn't have much of it. But Holo is fond of the finer things in life, particularly good food and drink. While she often helps Lawrence get a good deal, she also eats her way through much of the fortune she brings him, leaving it unclear just how much money he has at any given time in the series.

Despite their differences, as they travel together they realize they're growing fond of each other, but their journey by its nature is designed to be a temporary one. Once they reach her home, Lawrence has other things to do, and there's no reason for her to venture away. Aside from that, Holo is painfully aware that Lawrence is only human and will pass away long before she ever does.

The anime skips the Vol 4 story and uses Vol 5 as its finale, which makes for a good ending for Season 2 since it ends with Lawrence confessing to Holo that he loves her and he's made a choice that puts her well being over his chance to make a profit. It also was a good time for the anime to end in general, because there clearly came a point when Hasekura realized that this series was going to end sooner than the fanbase would like, given that there was a world map and we know the general vicinity of Holo's homeland. Vol 5 puts the end of her journey close enough that it could end in weeks.

Volume 6 begins what I call "the detour." Lawrence and Holo decide to chase after the perpetrator of a business deal gone wrong as an excuse to avoid going to her home right away so they can extend their time together. Eventually they do a lot more than that. Between the three short story collection volumes and the detour itself, the main story is on hold until about Vol 14.

To be fair, I think you could skip from the end of Vol 5 to the start of Vol 14 and the only thing you'd be confused about is the occasional mention of a non-human character from the middle volumes and the fact that Lawrence and Holo obtained a third traveling companion in the form of the boy Col.

And Col never really worked for me. I felt like he upset the Lawrence and Holo dynamic since he was obliviously third wheeling everywhere they went and Holo would use him to try making Lawrence jealous (which wasn't really that effective since Col is clearly underage and ignorant of his part of any of it). If Hasekura added Col expressly to stop Lawrence and Holo from getting any closer, he did a fair job of it, as I feel their relationship didn't go anywhere during those middle volumes.

Volume 14 puts them back in Lenos, the town of Vol 5, which is why it's an excellent place to pick up the series again, and Lawrence is once again confronted by whether he'd rather follow Holo or his livelihood. Unlike most series where characters fall in love and expect everything to work out, over the last few books, Lawrence comes to realize what being in a commitment really means, and sometimes that means giving things up. It's not that he has to stop being a merchant, but he can't pursue every opportunity willy-nilly like he used to, and sometimes it might mean taking a loss.

Volumes 15 and 16 comprise the Coin of the Sun duology and series finale, and while Lawrence and Holo's devotion to each other is clearer than ever and they understand that they will not part at the end of their journey, it's rather dampened by the fact their journey actually isn't over. It also hurts that the second half of this duology focuses more on the needs of other characters than our two leads.

Fortunately, there is Volume 17 to provide the epilogue and the proper ending to the series, because I would have been rather upset if it seriously ended at Vol 16. Hasekura calls Vol 16 the final book in his afterward for it, but really, it's incomplete without Vol 17, which provides the closure the previous volume is missing. Unfortunately there is still one glaring omission in Vol 17, which will no doubt annoy a fair number of people (even my friend who has only watched the anime series was in disbelief about it), and Hasekura brings it up in the narration so it's in no way an accidental omission, but at least it's clear that the pair are settling into their happily ever after.

I still enjoyed the series. There aren't many I'd read seventeen volumes of, but it's more for the journey and the characters involved.

Spice and Wolf continues in both the spin-off series Wolf and Parchment, following a now-adult Col and Myuri, the daughter of Lawrence and Holo, and the main series under the Spring Log arc name. I haven't read either yet.

Part of this is because Spring Log assumes some familiarity with Wolf and Parchment and I'm not sure if I want to read Wolf and Parchment. Col was mostly inoffensive, but also terribly bland as a hapless kid along for the ride. He had an dream about restoring the lost lore of the northlands while also being in service of the church, which could be interesting as an adult, but it would depend a lot on what his adult persona ended up being like.

Monday, October 5, 2020

VN Talk: Murder By Numbers

In which I talk (write) about visual novels from a storytelling perspective...

Platform: Windows (also on Switch)
Release: 2020

A friend of mine gave me the heads up about this indie game by comparing it to the Ace Attorney series, and after I watched the adorable opening movie, I realized I had to buy it. It was a slice of Saturday morning cartoon nostalgia crossed with solving mysteries. I was sold.

And here's your obligatory spoiler warning for a game that is less than a year old, since I'll also be covering some general details about the final villain and the end of the game.

Murder By Numbers clearly takes a lot of inspiration from Ace Attorney, being on the lighter end of mystery games and using humorous sound effects to express someone's shock or dismay. Much of this narrative sunshine is also due to SCOUT, a well-meaning robot who doesn't quite understand human slang and behavior. Usually if the mood is getting low, you can count on SCOUT to either break it with an unintentionally funny line, or by offering a genuinely kind word of encouragement.

However, unlike the Ace Attorney games, Murder By Numbers was written for a western audience, which means that it doesn't need to dance around cultural references. Taking place in Los Angeles in what appears to be the mid-to-late 90s, this means that the cast is diverse, particularly on the LBGT spectrum. This is a game where a robot asks if the fact people are using the pronoun "he" with him means that he is a man. Our protagonist, Honor, is clearly a woman of color, and probably biracial given that she has a Jewish last name, Mizrahi, and her mother looks African American.

I dove into the game appreciating its quirky sense of humor and entertaining cast of characters, but that said, after I played for a while, I realized I wasn't loving the game as much as I wanted to.

While we have the usual colorful cast of characters we'd expect from an Ace Attorney-style game (especially one set in Hollywood) and the associated stretching of what is permissible behavior because of them, I found I didn't quite like some of the characters.

There's a lot about Honor that's appealing. Aside from being a woman of color, she's a divorcee with a strained relationship with her ex-husband, one that she would like to end permanently except that her mother keeps hoping they'll get back together and finds ways to include him. It's complicated and unhealthy, given that her ex used to gaslight her to keep control of the relationship, and that's something we rarely get to see a female protagonist deal with. Honor left that guy, is finding her place as a newly single woman, and gets to have her ex arrested for some shady stuff over the course of her amateur detective work.

I want to like her, so every time she jumps the gun on accusing someone it really hurts. If the game had been written so I was on board with the conclusion that would be one thing, but she's off running to the lead detective to call for someone's arrest while I know we don't have enough enough evidence yet. Not only does this bite her in the butt the first time it happens, but she keeps doing it later in the story. The first time could have been a forgivable case of newbie enthusiasm, but she doesn't learn.

And I'm a little conflicted about how her ex was handled. I'm fine with him being a vile human being, but until his arrest I wasn't exactly sure what level of danger he was to her or anyone else. Is he just a controlling ex, or he is a man capable of calling in a murder? There was a build-up during the second case where it was starting to look like he was involved in something deep, and eventually it looks like "all" he was up to was making Honor's career as an actress crash and burn as revenge for leaving him.

While normally that would be fine, I started suspecting him of being involved with the end of the storyline baddie (instead of just hiring one of their goons), but in the middle of the third case he's just arrested and off he disappears. It felt like solving the largest subplot with a third of the story to go! I was expecting him to hang around until the fourth case before being shuffled off camera.

I also want to talk about the pacing of the game. While this may not be an issue for some players, it's important to realize that this is a combination mystery/puzzle game, with most on the weight being on the puzzle. There are no courtroom trials in Murder By Numbers, so most of the gameplay comes in the form of puzzles called nonograms (also commonly referred to by gamers as Picross). You will do these puzzles every time Honor looks for something or if someone shows her something.

Usually I don't bring up gameplay mechanics, but in this case, the mechanics actually ruined my enjoyment of the story, and it didn't help that it's not possible to save in the middle of conversations like most other visual novel/detective games. Instead, you can only save in the middle of a puzzle or when Honor is allowed to choose her next action.

This caused me numerous late night moments of praying that I could just get to the next break point in the story and save without hitting a puzzle that will take me another 20 minutes to solve so I don't lose track of the conversation. It really sucks starting a conversation, getting a puzzle, realizing I have to stop and save, and then coming back the next day to finish the puzzle only to forget why I was doing the puzzle in the first place. Oftentimes the ending half of the conversation wouldn't give me the necessary context to remember what happened beforehand, so I'd be trying to put things together with vague memories of the case in general.

While the game has one of the better nonogram tutorials, I'm more of a casual dabbler than a hardcore nonogram puzzler, so it wasn't uncommon for me to spend most of an hour long play session on just two or three puzzles. The puzzles were fun at the start, but the further I got in, the more I found them to be hindrance, and while there is a hint option, doing that reduces your score, barring you from unlocking extra cut scenes, so if you're more of a story person than a puzzle person, you still have to do all the puzzles the hard way to get your story.

One of my friends joked about how the game was going to make me do a puzzle to find my keys, and with all due seriousness, you actually do that in the very first case of the game. (Though SCOUT doesn't get it right on the first try.)

The narrative conceit is that SCOUT is looking for clues, and doing the puzzle is him sifting through data to find things, but that doesn't explain why I need to do a puzzle to reveal a driver's license someone else is showing me.

The one thing that saves this game is SCOUT. Aside from being the biggest source of humor in the game, the meta story that runs through all the cases revolves around his origin, and because he's such a good kid we care about what happens to him.

Like the Ace Attorney series, there is a smaller story for each case, and an overarching story that runs through the entire game. However, Ace Attorney usually does a pretty good job making overarching story details relevant to the current plot when revealed in early cases, leading to "wow" moments when you realize that what looked like a minor detail early on is actually really important to a later case.

Murder By Numbers doesn't do this, since the overarching story elements tend to be tangentially or completely unrelated to individual case stories. SCOUT's existence doesn't have much to do with any of the cases, not even the one that kicks off the final case, but the narrative expectation is that somehow everything is being masterminded by the secret organization that created him (or at least that's what I was hoping after watching the opening movie) when that isn't the case at all.

I mean, the death at the end of the first case and the final villain are tied together, but it feels almost incidental since what the villain wants is so far removed from what his lackey was contracted to do by Honor's ex. It might feel a little unfair expecting the story to ape the same plot beats as Ace Attorney did, but it's clearly a setup the developer was going for when they hired the same soundtrack composer and they included the same audio cues that match the intonation of how a character is speaking. I ended up feeling like the individual cases didn't matter as much as they should have.

For example, by the time I finished with the last case, I realized that I had no idea how I got from the start of the case with a quirky movie director to arresting the head of a security firm, which was in no way related to the director's own crimes. The two characters never even meet.

Part of this was due to being burnt out on puzzles, so I ended up taking a two month break, but I've done that with other games and not had nearly the same amount of difficulty picking up the story again as I have with this one.

But if there was one plot thread that could pull me through, it was caring about SCOUT. I knew he'd been altered since his creation because someone wanted to turn him into a weapon, and then he was discarded when one of his team members was accidentally killed by him. So it was easy to root for a robot that just wants to be loved and not hurt the people he cares about.

Since the final villain is in direction opposition to all that, and was responsible for altering SCOUT in the first place, we care about defeating him not because of anything recent he's done, but because of what he did to SCOUT before the story even started, which is good because as a primary villain he leaves something to be desired.

Sure, Jack is menacing and he's got a gun, but his attitude and the dubious morality of his security firm are completely at odds with his high-minded claims that he's doing all of this to save lives by making weaponized robots to fight in place of people. It's not that he can't have that be his end goal, we have well-meaning extremist characters all the time, but I have trouble believing that a guy so quick to get his hands dirty is really interested in saving lives. I would've had an easier time believing he was trying to land a lucrative military contract for his end game.

Though the ending seems to tie everything off with a bow, with SCOUT's creator dead, all our criminals either dead or behind bars, and SCOUT officially declared destroyed so he can start over without his previous history, the post-credits includes a sequel stinger with the SCOUT prototype having gone missing, and that gave me mixed feelings.

I don't mind that it was included. The main story was complete and having a sequel hook for a potential second game in a series isn't a bad idea. But on the other hand, I don't know if I want to do a second go-around.

Because the gameplay/game design interfered with my enjoyment so much, I would need a couple things to play a sequel. 1) The ability to save whenever I want during the visual novel segments (so I can stop at a good breaking point in the story, and not the moment of a reveal, which is when the puzzle shows up). 2) Either fewer puzzles or no punishment for using hints when I want to speed up so I can finish my play session while I understand what's happening in the story. I'm here for the plot, and if taking hints means I'm barred from seeing all the story, then I won't use hints, and though I think Murder By Numbers has a lot of potential, I didn't love it enough to keep playing when I burned out on puzzling.

If you love nonograms for their own sake and you're fast at solving them, then you'll probably enjoy playing through a lot more than I did. But if you're just an Ace Attorney fan and not a nonogram one, you may want to try a few nonograms independently of the game first and decide whether you can stand doing multiple 15x15 nonograms in a row by the time you get to the later cases.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Anime Talk: Norn9

After playing Norn9: Var Commons, I was particularly curious how the anime adaptation would work given that there isn't a golden route that wraps up everyone's stories. It would need to weave events from multiple routes to tell a complete story, and with three heroines, nine love interests, and a frame story, the anime would need to cut a lot in order to make its twelve episode run time. (And given that there's a recap episode, it looks like they originally planned for thirteen and then ran too close to deadline so they had to turn one episode into filler).

Given those restrictions and that the anime tried to resolve some of the weaknesses in the game itself, it did a remarkably good job with the limited amount of time that it had.

Probably the wisest decision in the first episode was ditching the frame story with Sorata. Instead Kakeru and Akito go down to the ground to look for their new esper when the Norn signals that it's found one, and they bring Koharu up and introduce her to everyone. This also allows for a gorgeous establishing shot of the Norn that works much better than its introduction in the game.

But on the other hand, we don't get to see what makes Koharu unique, as she comes off as just another nice girl otome game protagonist. Her early interactions with Sorata in game make it abundantly clear that there's something off about her and that as far as bulbs go, she's rather dim. The anime doesn't give us anything about her needing to take notes about how to interact with people or how she read about something in her book of manners. Instead it alludes to a tragic past, which in the game we actually don't learn about until much later since Koharu prefers to live in the present.

The second episode features the introduction of Natsuhiko as well as throwing out terms like Reset and mentioning that he left the island eight years ago, all of which was previously end game material. Though the idea of a traitor comes out immediately after the attack, there's no mention of the fact that there are only rooms for nine espers, so they're stuck with two extra people. Which is kinda weird since, you know, the title is Norn9.

The end of the second episode also introduces Sorata in an extremely abbreviated fashion, putting him on the ship with no explanation for how he got on, as well as quickly establishing the year as 1919 to Sorata's 2016 (updated from the 2015 in the game).

That said, Norn9 does a surprisingly good job of marrying multiple storylines together into a single cohesive plot. I'm impressed by just how much fat they've trimmed to do so. Events happen quickly and lead from one to the other without feeling rushed as they follow the main plot about the espers (mostly referred to as people with power until the last couple of episodes when the translators seem to decide on the word "Gifted") and their journey to see The World.

We don't always get events exactly as they happened in game, sometimes the locations or the circumstances around them change, but they're close enough that we can follow the same narrative beats of the primary three love interests.

Since there are nine love interests for the three heroines, Norn9 departs from the usual otome adaptation tradition of shipping the heroine with all of them and primarily pulls from four storylines, pairing Koharu with Kakeru, Nanami with Akito, and Mikoto with Sakuya and Natsuhiko (since she's not kidnapped until past the halfway point, by which point they've mined everything critical from Sakuya's storyline except for the climax and epilogue).

And by combining storylines, the traitor gets to be more active, as that was a problem on some routes, where nothing much happened. But with the combination of Kakeru, Sakuya, and Natsuhiko's routes, Ron is plenty busy, and happily enough we get to see Masamune doing some solo investigation of his own, using his power to view the past, which he rarely got to put into practice during the game itself.

The scare maze being rejiggered into the haunted house was a pretty good adaptation that not only preserved the spirit of the original event (which was mostly fluff on Heishi's route), but also served as a final chance for the group to make memories together while resolving the fallout of Sakuya's bad take on seeing Mikoto with Itsuki (though sadly without ever letting the guy know how the misunderstanding came to be). We even got Masamune paired with Ron for a direct confrontation about why Ron caused the explosion at the start of the series. The adaptation writer of that episode was really on fire.

We also get to sit in on Masamune's reports to the World, though there is one scene where he comments on the number of people being wrong, when the number of people being on board not matching the number of rooms has never been brought up at all. (There doesn't appear to be a room shortage in the anime as Koharu has her own room and we don't see Masamune and Kakeru sharing.) However there is one part in Masamune's report that struck me as a bit odd, where he seems annoyed that the World won't help with the traitor.

While that's news he doesn't deny when speaking with everyone else in the game, he also knows why they won't help, which isn't clear in the anime.

The anime lifts a little bit from almost everyone's route (like Shiro Yuiga meeting up and running off with Koharu comes from Senri's route, even though Senri is not romantically involved with her in the anime) and it's nearly always the exciting bits that make things more dangerous. Unlike the game, the rumblings of war and the fact the Reset is supposed to prevent it comes out much earlier. The espers get the lowdown on the reason for Reset and the fact the world has already had three Resets two-thirds of the way through the anime, instead of at the end, and there's a great part where Masamune realizes that Shiro Yuiga is probably taking Koharu to the island where The World is. By going there, the espers are flung into a panic as to whether that means they will have to perform the Reset when they haven't had the time to discuss it (given all the running around trying to find Mikoto and then Koharu after their separate kidnappings).

There are just a couple things that felt extremely clunky to me due to the storyline compression. The first is Akito and Nanami's romantic subplot. While the anime does a decent job weaving Akito's route in with everything else in the first half, eventually we get to the part where he reveals himself as Senri's older brother so he can take Senri's power. It's not clear in the anime why he chooses that moment to do it, other than we're getting close to the end of the series. In the game it was clearer that they anticipated there could be a conflict and Akito would need powers to participate, which is why he reveals himself and takes the other half from Senri, but in the anime he kinda seems to do it so Senri doesn't have to feel burdened, and it's not prompted by anything.

The second one is the stargazing scene with Natsuhiko. The anime shortcuts all the drama between him and Mikoto when she first arrives at his base, so she's barely even a hostage. (She even goes looking for the keys to his plane at one point.) That's fine, except that they didn't change how Natsuhiko baits her into coming stargazing with him.

Game Mikoto hated having anything to do with him, so he literally had to say "I'm going to kill the espers" or she wouldn't come on board to try to stop him. Anime Mikoto didn't need that kind of goading because she's had perfectly normal conversations with him already, so the idea that he'd need to threaten her friends to get her to come was ludicrously off-key.

The story also gets more and more original the closer it comes to the finale as it becomes harder to draw material directly from the game, which at this point would be focusing almost exclusively on the issues of a single couple. Some of it is handled really well. Like Shiro Yuiga gets to be the tragic villain, dying with dignity and the memories of his lost wife, that he didn't fully become in the game. And Kakeru and Koharu both get to see him in his last moments since he was the father figure for both of them.

Other parts were not so clean. There is a recap episode 9.5, which is what happens when an anime's production schedule has slipped so badly they can't make the appointed air date. The series does not get additional air time when something like this happens, so that means one of the originally planned thirteen episodes got burned and the studio had to do plot gymnastics to compress what was supposed to be four remaining episodes into three.

It looks like a good chunk of what was originally supposed to be episode 10 just got trashed, because the end of episode 9 has the Norn head to the island where the World is because that's where Sakuya's vision said the missing Mikoto and Koharu would be, but instead everybody changes their mind and leaves for Shiro Yuiga's base and they reunite over there.

I don't know if it was a compression casualty, but there's also a weird moment when Mikoto is about to get shot by one of Shiro Yuiga's robots. Sakuya, who we would expect to take the hit given that he's the one who shouts the warning and the one with the future where he dies protecting her, is actually too far away for protecting her to be reasonable, so Natsuhiko does the honors (though he lives).

Fortunately the anime recognizes that this is strange and manages to massage it a bit later on in the second to last episode where Sakuya and Mikoto have a conversation that suggests that perhaps they shouldn't rely on their powers as much as they have so they can make their own path.

The anime also shoots for an anime-only ending, which is a good thing given that the game doesn't have a unified ending of any kind. With Shiro Yuiga already taken care of, Aion sends a "test" Reset to all the espers, making it seem like their powers are being taken for the Reset to see how they would react. Most of them seem okay with it, but Koharu really freaks out, and being the strongest of all the espers, this results in the imminent destruction of the Norn due to her raging fire powers. (Probably not a wise idea on Aion's part.)

I get that the anime probably wanted a flashier decision on the Reset than just a bunch of espers sitting down talking it out (as happens in Sakuya's ending, the only one where everyone is present while Aion is still capable of doing the Reset), but it seems poorly thought out. And the anime even puts in the doors to view the past and the future, but doesn't explain what they are, so they just look like some strange vision that Kakeru and Koharu are having.

But what the anime ending did that the game didn't, was give us a better look at what everyone's doing in the days following the choice not to Reset. Most of the last episode is actually epilogue, with just a bit of tension due to Kakeru being missing for most of it (though being a romance story, of course he comes back by the end, though it was a surprise that Ron would be the one to make the delivery). No one is left out of the epilogue. Though not everyone gets as much focus as the girls and those immediately around them, all the major characters get at least a moment so we know where they ended up in the end.

Also, I was happy to see that Sorata found a place with Natsuhiko and Mikoto, working on their plans to go to the moon. It seems a lot better than spending his life trying to rebuild Aine/Aion, who meant more to his previous self than his current one.

And speaking of Sorata, his storyline was also handled better in the anime. It wasn't perfect, as it's not entirely clear why Aion both saved him from a previous Reset by putting him in cryosleep and at the same time woke him up to leave him wandering around the Norn, but Sorata's had moments throughout the anime (unlike the game) where he would see the apparition of Aine, so you could see that there was something going on with him. This made his bond with Aion in the final episode, much more believable than it actually was on most routes of the game.

Lastly, I'd also like to comment on the opening and ending credits. The opening credits is clearly a homage to the original in game, using many of the same visual motifs and even several of the character poses, though I really like what it does for the secondary love interests to give each of them a chance in the limelight. The opening director also included Masamune removing his glove as part of his limelight pose, which is a really nice touch since the game was never explicit about the fact he wears one on his right hand to prevent unintentional activation of his power.

The ending credits are remarkable in that they don't feature any of the espers at all, but focus on Shiro and Aion in mirrored poses. While both of them are absolutely critical to the Reset storyline, and I like the idea of them being two sides of the same coin (heck in the game neither of them are even able to live long past the other), at first it seemed strange to me that they would be positioned as reflections of each other.

It turns out that what binds them together is the wish to see a loved one again (Haruka, his wife, for Shiro Yuiga and Sorata, her creator, for Aine). And you can almost see that parallel in the anime, where Kakeru explains that the reason he had to come back to Koharu was because he saw his father's wish to see his wife again in the door to the past (which is the parallel in the game), only to swish past it because Kakeru is obviously relating it to his desire to see Koharu.

Since Shiro Yuiga died two episodes before the ending it was much harder to put together the parallel between his dead wife and Sorata, and his and Aine's desires to see their loved ones again, but once I realized that, the ending credits suddenly made a lot more sense to me.

I'm not sure I would recommend viewing Norn9 to those who haven't played the game, as particularly the last few episodes start skimming on details you need to know if you haven't played, but it's worth a shot if you have.

Monday, September 21, 2020

VN Talk: Norn9: Var Commons - Part 4: Mikoto

I mentioned earlier that Mikoto isn't like most otome heroines, and she's really not. Outwardly she looks like a Type A lady of impeccable breeding, with an arrogant attitude to match, but she's a more complex character than that. Yes, she comes from a noble family and has proper training in ladylike affairs, but she didn't particularly excel at them. In fact, she was a tomboy and liked to run around outdoors or sneak over to her friend Sakuya's house.

She is incredibly headstrong though, as a result of her determination to keep Sakuya (and other people) alive through her barrier powers. Mikoto wants people to feel assured in her presence, so many times she'll outwardly say not to worry over her and that she is perfectly capable even though that's not the truth. Given how strong she is, I wish she'd had a good solo image I could have used for the header of this post, but this is literally the only CG in the game that gives a good view of her face without having too many other people in the picture.

The result is that her internal voice and her external voice often clash, making her a contradictory character to many members of the cast, and an entertaining perspective to play through.

Because her determination to be so proficient with her powers stems from wanting to protect Sakuya from the future he saw for himself as a clairvoyant, it's worth playing his route first. Not only because his future is discussed at some point on both Itsuki and Natsuhiko's routes, but because it also explains why even though he's clearly more than an overprotective childhood friend, he doesn't make romantic overtures to Mikoto himself.

Sakuya

Sakuya was actually the second route I played. While I had the option of Senri or Heishi among the remaining intro routes, I had originally wanted to pick Mikoto first among the heroines, and he's the recommended option of her three choices. Also, while I'd gone through the Kakeru playthrough, I found Sakuya interesting because of his divination powers and entertaining for his repeated takedowns of wannabe casanova Itsuki.

However, nothing really prepared me for the angst I was going to get on this route. I knew Mikoto and Sakuya were childhood friends, which typically means that one of them has been pining in the face of the other's obliviousness, but that isn't the case here. Sakuya is pretty upfront with Mikoto that if he can't fall in love with her, he's not interested in falling in love with anyone else.

What ties them together, beyond the usual memories of playing together as children, is a painful promise to never fall in love with anyone. Not anyone else, but anyone.

Initially, before the promise is fully explained, it seems like it was Mikoto's decision, due to her sense of obligation to her duties. Her psychic barriers are capable of saving lives, and in fact are what protects the ship on all routes of the game, and their strength depends on her willpower. She's fastidious about looking after her physical health and it would not be surprising if the tumult of a relationship would adversely affect her mental one.

Normally I'd be irritated by a story taking as long as this one does to reveal the promise that both primary characters are aware of, but I ultimately found the pay-off worth it, given that it happens at a moment when Mikoto is forced to confront her greatest fear. Hints are given along the way too, including that Sakuya made the promise in their childhood to stop Mikoto from crying, and that something bad would happen if he fell in love. All this leads up to the reveal halfway through the story that Sakuya's first psychic vision was of him dying to save the girl he loves.

The promise between Mikoto and Sakuya is to thwart his death, and suddenly it's understandable why she's constantly throwing up distance between them even though they are supposedly friends. She cares about him, and would be devastated by his loss, so the last thing she wants is for him to fall in love with her.

Not that he is afraid of it. Though Sakuya is not a deathseeker looking to play hero, he's happy with the way his life will end, because he would be saving her, and he feels it would be his chance to pay her back for all the times she protected him when they were children.

Playing Sakuya's route is a little counterintuitive in some ways because raising his affection often means acting out of character for Mikoto and unintentionally encouraging him to act on the romantic love he supposedly does not have for her. I enjoyed his route a fair bit, but there are two turns I didn't particularly like.

The first is the emotional fallout from the shared dream sequence where Mikoto mistakenly proclaims her love to Itsuki, thinking that the man in her dream was actually Sakuya. Sakuya witnesses this and then takes his jealousy out on Mikoto once they're back in the waking world. Aside from the fact he's blaming her for something that happened in a dream without any proof it was a shared experience, he vents his frustration at the fact she (seemingly) does not reciprocate his affection by forcing himself on her. He stops himself before things progress too far, but by then the damage is done, and no amount of Mikoto telling him later that she was fine with it made it okay because the artwork is pretty clear she was not fine with it at the time.

This scene irritated me because it feels like the writers wanted to give Sakuya a "manly" scene so he doesn't come off as too much of a doormat in the face of all the crap Mikoto does to intentionally distance them, but I didn't find Sakuya's even-tempered personality emasculating. So I was watching in disbelief that this was the route where male frustration turns to ripping off clothing.

The second turn I didn't like was how avoiding his death is handled. There's adequate foreshadowing that Sakuya's death will be caused by a gunshot, and half the cast gets involved in a brainstorm to save him, but no actual plan comes out of it. And though there are two good moments where it looks like Sakuya's death could happen, neither of them are clearly the avoided shot.

The first time is the obvious moment when Natsuhiko shows up and begins shooting at everyone rapidly enough that Mikoto's barriers can barely hold out. Due to an unorthodox (and poorly foreshadowed) use of her powers she's able to destroy Natsuhiko's gun.

But there's a second moment of tension immediately after. If the player is already aware that Ron is the traitor, there's an anticipation that the other shoe is going to drop once everyone lets down their guard. Ron draws his guns at Natsuhiko's order, but his weapons are quickly (and perhaps too conveniently) destroyed by Koharu's fire. Then for whatever reason that goes unexplained, Ron then betrays Natsuhiko, and so the second possible moment for Sakuya to be killed goes by without fanfare, making for an uneven climax.

If you play Sakuya's bad ending, it's possible to see that Natsuhiko's shot was meant to be the one that kills him, and if I hadn't already known Ron was the traitor I would have viewed that scene as "the moment" on first playthrough, but considering that Sakuya is only one of four recommended beginner routes, it's highly likely that the player will go in knowing who the traitor is. This makes the late reveal of Ron's role as the traitor on this route a narrative whiff, because by then it either no longer matters (for players who didn't know his role), or it's a waste of tension (for players who thought he was going to do a surprise attack).

Itsuki

Along with Akito, Itsuki is one of the two routes that are not recommended for first time playthroughs, but are nonetheless available without clearing another route. Like Akito's route, some things won't be explained in much detail early on because it'll be assumed you know. I particularly think it would be much harder to understand what's going on between Mikoto and Sakuya without playing Sakuya's route.

To be frank, when I played my first few routes I found Itsuki to be either annoying or forgettable when not used for comic relief. And because of his ridiculously unwelcome advances on Mikoto I was predisposed towards not liking him. Itsuki's come-ons are all about trying to get Mikoto to loosen up and be a more pliable girl and I wasn't interested in seeing the otome version of The Taming of the Shrew.

For that reason I'm glad that if acting out of character and being nice to Sakuya is the key to his romance, the key to Itsuki's is refusing to cut him a break, at least in the early chapters.

And given that putting him off is critical to raising his affection, I was concerned about how the player is supposed to feel about him. There are moments when he starts being serious and makes it seem as though his flightiness has a greater (and well-intentioned) purpose, but then he quickly spins around and passes it off as something he was just saying and not because he genuinely felt for Mikoto. By the end of his route it's clear that he was screwing around with Mikoto at the beginning, but eventually wanted to own up to the words he said, which didn't make it any easier for me to like him.

If the writers wanted me to feel as frustrated as Mikoto with the mixed signals, that worked, but Itsuki also kept pissing me off with the fact that Mikoto was clearly not cool with his flirtation. When he was touching her in the hot spring he created in the shared dream sequence, I was pretty much cheering when Sakuya showed up with an axe and presumably beheaded dream Itsuki.

My other fear with Itsuki's route was that Sakuya would be written poorly, perhaps even written out of the story entirely, to avoid the fact that he's Mikoto's childhood friend and should be around her a lot. (Much like what happened to Hino on multiple routes in 7'scarlet.) But he's handled fairly well. Sakuya frequently shows up and clashes much more seriously with Itsuki than he does in other routes, but without knowing his backstory with Mikoto it would probably be baffling to players (as it is to Itsuki) as to why Sakuya doesn't come out and confess his feelings directly.

More critically, when Sakuya's vision of his future changes, Mikoto rejoices and it's not possible to know in that moment exactly what the two of them are talking about if you haven't played Sakuya's route. (Interestly, the love theme plays while Mikoto is bawling in relief, even though Sakuya is not the current romantic interest.)

By the tail end of Itsuki's route I started wanting it to end already. I didn't buy the turning point when Mikoto started to acknowledge that she liked him (considering it was right after the dream where he pissed her off), and I found her far too forgiving of his violations where he trapped her in a dream and also took her powers without telling her. Considering Sakuya also had his moment crossing the lines with Mikoto, it made me concerned about what boundaries might break next in Natsuhiko's route, especially since he's one of the main antagonists, but oddly he manages to be more of a gentleman than either of them, once you set aside the circumstances they meet under.

Itsuki's route probably has the worst ending in that it resolves nothing. The build to a climax happens near the end of Chapter 6 when Mikoto realizes that she no longer has her powers and the ship is attacked, causing it to crash out of the sky. Chapter 7, despite being the last chapter, is straight denouement, wrapping up a few Itsuki-route specific loose ends and that's it.

Strangely, Natsuhiko just leaves everyone alone for several days rather than trying to finish the job and that's enough time for all the non-combat espers to leave, and the ones who can fight to prepare. No longer being able to fight, Mikoto leaves with Itsuki and they settle down in a nearby town so he can heal from his injuries, and when they go back to see what happened to everyone they find the ship has disappeared. They never hear from any of the other espers again. *shrug*

He's the only route where you don't learn anything you can't find out on another route, so if you are inclined and don't care about the Sorata epilogue, Itsuki is completely skippable.

Natsuhiko

Before I started the game, I didn't realize that Natsuhiko was not actually one of the espers on the ship. Rather, I'd assumed that his different uniform was due to being in a command position, so it was a surprise to learn that he's actually one of the game's antagonists. And unlike Ron, who Nanami has a chance to bond with before learning that he's the traitor, Natsuhiko is openly hostile to Mikoto the moment they meet. I became curious how a romance would even work. He wants to kill all the espers on the ship, and she wants to defend them.

Though Natushiko's route did not have all the answers I hoped it would, it does serve as a nice transition towards the true ending because Mikoto chooses to be the odd one out on her team without a partner and conducts her investigation of the traitor solo. This results in Sorata tagging along with her, making this the romance route with the largest amount of Sorata time as he tries to figure out his time traveling predicament. Mikoto and Sorata manage to discover a lot through their teamwork, answering questions I'd been wondering about (like why the ship seems to be traveling for ages but never leaves Japan) and builds a surprising amount of evidence that Masamune is actually deceiving the other espers, which is he, though not maliciously.

It was good stuff, but before she can share any of this with the rest of the cast, she is tricked by Ron and thrown out of the ship so Natsuhiko can capture her. I realize this needed to happen so the two could meet, but even if I hadn't known Ron was the traitor, he was so damn vague and shifty about finding the attacker she was looking for I don't know why that didn't ring alarm bells for her.

From there, Natsuhiko and Mikoto have a battle of wills while she's held prisoner in his base. She's inclined to go on a hunger strike. He's trying to get her to use her powers for his benefit, offering her survival in exchange for her cooperation. Eventually he gets around to explaining that he's fighting against Shiro Yuiga in order to preserve world peace, and takes Mikoto out to a battle to show her what he's fighting against. This convinces her to help for the sake of civilians caught in the line of fire.

But their relationship is pretty frigid because of her initial first impression of the guy (and I certainly don't blame her). Natsuhiko is curt, uncompromising, and cold. Even though they eventually become a good duo on the battlefield, and she comes to realize he is a good person in some ways, she can't stand to be around him. And there's the whole fact he wants to kill the espers thing.

The story handles the romance by having Natsuhiko be the one to fall in love with her first. Recognizing that he isn't welcome, and the less she sees of him the happier she is, Natsuhiko gifts her with a small robot companion so she'll be less lonely and have someone to take care of her. Robots being uncommon, Mikoto doesn't recognize that Natsuhiko has the option to manually control it, so she pours out her heart and her problems to it in ways that she wouldn't open up to him.

Because the situation can't stay this way, the game takes a giant leap to defrost the relationship. It does this with a plane crash that Mikoto feels guilty over for not preventing, and Natsuhiko carrying her unconscious body over to a nearby village before collapsing himself. Following the crash, he has temporary memory loss and he and Mikoto settle down in the village until he recovers. Conveniently, the only thing he remembers is Mikoto's name.

This allows the two of them to play house while Mikoto goes over her own conflicted feelings, trying to resolve the man she hates with the fact he saved her life in the crash. And it doesn't help that amnesiac Natsuhiko is confused over what their relationship had been in the past. He gets that he wasn't very nice to Mikoto, but is positive that he was in love with her regardless.

The chapter was nice and fluffy, but felt really out of place considering that the other chapters on his route are filled with war and suspicion. It clearly existed to accelerate the relationship, because the end result is that they bang, Natsuhiko gets his memory back, and then once he's himself again he's openly loving and affectionate towards her, even offering to retrofit her robo-companion with land mine detection. (Natsuhiko being proud of ridiculous add-ons to his domestic robots is one of the most entertaining things about him.) He also agrees that he will no longer attempt to kill the espers, because wouldn't that be a damper on the relationship!

I feel like his route just ran out of time though, with the fluff chapter being second to last, because there's no real finale to his route. There is a clear resolution to his personal character arc, as he realizes that if he wants an end to a dependency on weapons of war, he needs to be able to lay down his own weapons as well. But everything else is pretty rushed, particularly the off-camera loss and recovery of Kakeru which sounds like it's going to be a long operation, but conveniently completes entirely within the span of the epilogue.

We don't even get a satisfying face off against Shiro Yuiga, even though he's the primary reason Natsuhiko has so many weapons in the first place. So even though Natsuhiko route has a lot of good moments I genuinely enjoyed, it was more for the individual parts rather than how it came together as a package.

Next week, I expect to wrap this up with a post about the Norn9 anime and how it chose to handle an adaptation of a game with nine routes and no canon storyline.

Monday, September 14, 2020

VN Talk: Norn9: Var Commons - Part 3: Nanami

In today's part of my Norn9:Var Commons series, we're looking at Nanami and her love interests.

Of all the girls, I found Nanami the most relateable. She's a quiet, reserved girl who isn't that great at expressing herself, but has no intention of conforming to social pressures to be more girly. A lot of times things would probably go easier for her if she said something, but her route understands that sometimes it's hard to do that. She also has a whimsical side to her in how she still carries around kunai and views things through the eyes of a shinobi (even though her family hasn't been ninja for generations).

Though Nanami isn't the only girl weighed down with emotional baggage, she handles it differently from the others. She can brush off her peers quite easily, but Nanami has a lot of difficulty disobeying a superior, which is a problem since she possesses the extremely powerful memory erasure ability. She hates her power because it can only take from other people. It's not something she can be proud of or use to protect people, but she knows that if she's ordered to, she'll use it, even if she hates herself while doing it.

Like Koharu, Nanami's routes also deal with her power, but rather than coming to terms with and accepting it, Nanami's story usually deals with her trying to get out of situations that would force her to use it. It's not surprising that on most routes where espers get to choose whether or not to keep their powers she usually gets rid of hers.

Heishi

Heishi would not have been my first choice if all routes were equal, being the group's butt monkey, but I started to develop an appreciation for him after playing my first two routes. Though he's one of the dimmest bulbs on the ship, he's incredibly honest and friendly. In fact his open personality is rare to see in a group's lone telepathic character. He's not very good at controlling his ability to broadcast, so while intentional broadcasting is not a problem for him, generally everyone on the ship knows his current mood because his emotions leak all over the place.

I figured his inability to hide anything would make for an interesting romance, culminating in everybody on the ship knowing how happy he was at the climax of the romantic arc, but it didn't work out that way; at least as far as the climax went. Heishi is very aware that he can't hide anything, and his upbeat outlook is not because he's a dimwit and ignoring the fact that there's a traitor on board. He's conscientious enough to realize that if he was afraid and suspicious of others, his emotions would flood into everyone else, making them afraid and suspicious as well. It might be dangerous maintaining that outlook, since he leaves himself open, but the alternative could destroy morale.

Having him be a romance option for Nanami also works really well. Even though she has trouble expressing herself with both words and facial expressions, Heishi's empathic abilities allow him to directly read her emotions. Even if he doesn't know what's causing them, since he can't read minds, he still knows whether she's happy, sad, or upset. For that reason, I really liked his romance with Nanami. He's somebody who would always have her back and be the conscientious, extroverted partner to her introverted self.

I also liked that his route placed a lot of emphasis on the relationships between other characters, because it made the ship feel more alive. We get to see a Mikoto and Itsuki romance (and without making Sakuya a non-appearance) and Heishi and Itsuki get to have an actual friendship that we don't see much of in other routes.

One thing I found sweet on Heishi's route is that not only does he propose to Nanami once, but after she's forced to erase his memory to save his life, he does it a second time just because it's on his mind as something he has to say to her. It's not clear just how long their journey is taking them, but Heishi is already established as an impulsive character, so once he latches on to the idea that he wants to marry Nanami it's unsurprising that he'd refuse to let go.

This culminates in the two of them running away from the ship to avoid being separated by The World upon landing (which is both funny and completely unnecessary if you've played other routes at this point). The good ending is sweet with the two of them remaining together in their new life as wandering vagabonds making money through street performances and travel photos. The bad ending is oddly more informative than the good one (if you don't already know about Aion), but gets really weird in that after running away Heishi becomes yandere-level protective of Nanami. I had trouble buying that level of transformation and it rather soured me on him, so I'm glad I played that after I'd already gotten the good ending.

Akito

Akito was the first route I played that wasn't locked, but also wasn't one of the recommended starters either, and I can see why. There are a lot of parts that are covered in more detail in other routes and a first time player could be misled as to the identity of the traitor and the attacker. Also, I don't think Akito's story would have worked quite as well if the player doesn't already understand Senri's limitations and feel some sympathy for him, and for that reason I think it's a good idea to play Senri's route before Akito's.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this route when I started, other than it's probably the one most centered around Nanami since Akito's portrayed with her more openly than her other love interests, making him look like the unspoken canon version of her story.

It's not hard to see why. Nanami starts off the route with the surprise revelation (to the player) that she and Akito already know each other, and she wronged him in the past, which is why she's referred to her memory erasure power in other routes as something that can only take and never give. This unhappy connection serves as the foundation of their story.

The fact that Akito can't stand her makes the pairing nigh unworkable, with both Kakeru stepping in to make it happen and Heishi trying to get Nanami out of it when it seems like it's going to explode. Surprisingly, it's the playboy Itsuki who convinces Nanami that it's worth trying to get things sorted out, even if it hurts in the end, and him being a good friend made me look forward to playing his own route a lot more.

Akito and Nanami seem to get themselves sorted out around Chapter 5, making the route look like it's going to shift to the main story. Mikoto returns after having disappeared off the ship and tries to convince everyone to not complete their journey to see The World, but then Shiro Yuiga interrupts when he shows up claiming that he's a messenger of The World and tries to get all the espers to follow him. Half of them eventually do so.

Tensions rise when the remaining espers realize that Shiro Yuiga is actually an enemy of The World, and they might need to fight to get their friends back, to say nothing of the Reset that all the espers were called to do. With Mikoto being held by Natsuhiko, and Koharu and Kakeru being with Shirou, Akito is the only esper left with a combat-ready power.

But then Nanami and Akito still can't get past their shared past and the guilt they feel over it, making the climax of the story not getting their friends back, but talking it out with each other.

That might not have been too bad, except that immediately after they agree to move forward, we get a time skip and discover that Akito ended up giving his power back to Aion because she was about to shut down, so none of that emotional build-up with Nanami being worried about his health actually mattered. And then bringing their friends back fell on to the remaining cast who conveniently do it off camera during the epilogue.

So what was all the kerfuffle? When they were kids, Nanami's family was hired to have her remove Senri's memories of his older brother, Akito, so the boys' village could make use of his powers without Akito interfering out of concern for Senri's health. The villagers were definitely being jerks about it, but the drought was serious and the village would not survive without Senri's help.

Needless to say, Akito was horrified by what Nanami did without realizing that she could have been an unwilling party. In fact it was in trying to spare his frailer brother that Akito tried absorbing some of Senri's power through a transfer method Aion taught him, which is how Senri's power came to be split in the first place. And it's only in Akito's route that the brothers can be reunited since that's the only one where Akito tells Senri how they're related.

Normally I love this sort of thing when the story of the protagonist and her love interest dovetail, but even though I like Akito as a character, I found I didn't actually like his route much. He runs hot and cold with Nanami while he's trying to sort out how he feels about her and I didn't feel like there was a coherent plot on top of all the backstory, which is why his second half is so uneven with a threat and a ramp up to a rescue that ultimately our leading couple does not participate in. The route didn't fail for lack of ingredients so much as lack of a central story.

Ron

Ron is the traitor and it's impossible not to know this by the time his route is available since he reveals himself on both Heishi and Akito's routes, and the player has to complete at least one of them to unlock him. It's also worth playing Akito's route first since it will explain the tension between him and Nanami that Ron is able to read into with a better understanding than the player likely could on their own.

Ron is the sort of person I'd hate to know in real life, but is a lot of fun as a character. He sloughs off his chores on to the rest of the espers, offers congenial but clearly insincere apologies, and never seems to remember anyone's name or even what happened as recently as breakfast. Heishi describes him as a bit of an animal, just operating on instinct, and for the most part, Ron reminds me of a cat, wanting all the food and scritches for doing nothing but existing.

Of course, that's not his entire story, because he's the traitor, and his route is the first time we get to see him in any context beyond evading chores or backstabbing people. Ron is surprisingly astute, making it clear that his slothfulness and inability to remember things is not because of a lack of capability. He's very efficient when he wants to be. He pokes and prods at Nanami to get the information he's looking for without doing anything more than looking like a pain in the neck to someone who doesn't already know he's the traitor.

But even though we get a better look at him, we never really learn all that much. We learn that he's going blind and is working with Natsuhiko in exchange for cybernetic eyes to replace his failing eyesight, but aside from that, we know nothing about his past. We don't even know how he managed to get on the ship in the first place. Everyone who arrived prior to Heishi (which included Ron) was supposed to have been escorted on board by agents of The World, and that obviously could only happen when the ship lands. While it's possible Natsuhiko was able to fake an escort, it would have been nice if this had been better fleshed out.

We also never get a feel for what makes Ron tick. It takes a certain kind of person to be willing to board and sabotage a ship full of espers while possessing no powers themselves, and while the cybernetic eyes are a nice reward, the risk involved is tremendous. We see Ron perform multiple acts of sabotage over all the routes, but he also refrains from doing the worst possible damage, and on one route he even betrays and takes out Natsuhiko.

Reading between the lines from the game's objective description of him, Heishi's empathy (which is a constant reminder that Ron is not inherently a malicious person), and Ron's own cryptic comments on his route, we get a picture of young man who is used to being distrusted and disbelieved, and he's learned to be cavalier about it. In all likelihood he has had to do a number of awful things to get by, and has come to terms with that.

The game never gives us a formal explanation for why the explosion that kicks off the first chapter happens in an unoccupied section of the second floor instead of someplace where it could kill a lot of people (like the dining hall). After playing Ron's route, it's pretty obvious that the reason is: he doesn't want to kill anyone even though Natsuhiko's goal is to kill all the espers. He's even the one who calls Nanami's attention to the fact that the hole must have been made from the inside, which she relays to Mikoto, and in turn helps to spur the meeting that causes everyone to split into pairs.

It's interesting that this is the one meeting where Ron, who often is absent or inattentive, actually participates in the traitor discussion and agrees that there probably is one, when it would be to his advantage to keep his mouth shut or provide a counter argument.

His route mostly consists of him poking at Nanami to figure out her power and her conflicted attraction to him because he's simultaneously both an unpleasant human being and the one person who lets her know that who she is as a person doesn't have to be defined by her power.

What redeems Ron for me is that his support of Nanami is always sincere. He pushes her to make the choices she wants. Even his super dark bad ending only happens with her consent, so I didn't feel nearly as bad about it as other bad endings where the heroine had no choice in what her love interest did to her. Ron may be an awful person in many ways, but he's upfront about it.

And then there's his good ending. He destroys Aion so the Reset can't happen, fulfilling part of his bargain with Natsuhiko, but then because he refuses to kill the espers, he tears out his one cybernetic eye and destroys it. When Nanami finds him after the conflict, he suggests using her memory erasure abilities on him, and she realizes that he wants to forget. Particularly if you get the more tragic variation of this ending, it's clear that Ron cares about Nanami but doesn't trust himself. If a person's identity is composed of their memories, he's hoping that if she obliterates everything he can finally be a decent person.

The good ending shows that it works. Amnesiac Ron is finally able to be a good person and no longer holds any interest in guns or conflict. I'm not sure I liked him as a romantic partner for Nanami, he's still a jerk in many ways, but as a playable route I enjoyed his the most out of her three.

Monday, September 7, 2020

VN Talk: Norn9: Var Commons - Part 2: Koharu


Going up a bit late today due to having computer troubles yesterday (I blame the incredible heat wave we had this weekend), but the Labor Day holiday is allowing me a little time to catch up.

Continuing my Norn9:Var Commons series, we're looking at Koharu and her romances.

Koharu is an odd duck. She's the closest to the traditional otome heroine, being extremely self-conscious and wanting the best for everyone. But instead of being simply naive, she is ridiculously so, to the point that she takes notes on human behavior because she doesn't understand most social cues, and what she does know has largely come from a book.

On the bright side, the game is able to play this both for humor and for sympathy. She doesn't understand much, but she honestly tries. Sometimes it backfires spectacularly, like when she tries imitating Kakeru's sense of a joke, but everyone thinks she's serious because she shouldn't be capable of joking (and the suggestion would have been incredibly tasteless at face value).

All of Koharu's routes have her coming to terms with her pyrokinetic power. She's the most powerful of all the espers, being able to use it for long periods of time without tiring, but hates the level of destruction she can cause since people had despised her for it in the past. Because of that (and the fear that the other people on the ship might suspect her of being the traitor who blew a hole in the side of the ship), she keeps her power hidden on most routes, including her own, until pressured into using it.

Kakeru

I played through Kakeru first because the game clearly presents him as an intro choice. He makes an effort to be friendly to Koharu, and he seems like a fun person to be around. When Koharu gets to make her selection, Kakeru is displayed in the middle of her three choices and highlighted by default. Clearly, one can't go wrong choosing him.

And I found his route to be a decent opener, though I was surprised by how peaceful everything was for most of it. While the other characters were somewhat good about staying in their pairs early on, it wasn't uncommon later to see people running around without their partners and surprisingly no one ever called them out on it. (Unfortunately this is true of most routes.) That could have been a result of everyone relaxing their guard, since danger doesn't present itself in any meaningful manner until the fifth out of seven chapters, but it felt more like the writers just forgot.

Most of Kakeru's route revolves around Koharu learning how to interact with people through his advice and then Kakeru's personal hang-ups regarding the kind of person he is. For most of his route, Kakeru comes off as a congenial guy with a strong mischievous streak, though he's more careful of his jokes with Koharu once he realizes that she has a tendency to take them literally (or worse, attempt similar jokes on others).

However, things turn when he loses his earring about halfway through his route. At first he seems to be discombobulated by losing the only keepsake he has of his father, which is completely normal, but by Chapter 6 we're lunging straight into Crazy Town when we find out that his father is some sort of time traveling villain that had previously brainwashed Kakeru and then forgot about him. The earring is actually a mind-controlling device, and the reason Kakeru is so uncertain of himself without it is because he lost the certainty that came from the orders it was giving him.

While the romance between Kakeru and Koharu is sweet, and twined nicely given that Kakeru's father is also the traveler who inspired Koharu to make the journey to the ship in the first place, his route ends with a lot of unanswered questions.

Some of them I was fine with. For instance, Natsuhiko shows up towards the end, and while we can infer he's been the enemy attacking the ship, we don't really know how he fits in the picture versus Kakeru's father since he appears to be against both him and The World.

But rescuing Kakeru only to find out that his father is mysteriously dead by the time everyone else reaches him felt unsatisfying. We don't know what his father wanted or how he fit into the story, and it feels like if any route was going to address that, it should be Kakeru's. This is problematic not just for Kakeru's sake, but also because his father apparently knew about the timing of the ship and its travels years before it actually stopped where Koharu lived so she could get on board. Not only that, but he even had the ship's uniform for Koharu to wear.

From the characters' perspective, it didn't feel like they were really bothered by the unanswered questions, and they got their happy ending, but for me as the player I felt like I got cheated out of something. Even though we eventually get some of those answers from other routes and the epilogue (since Kakeru's dad is Shiro Yuiga), it still felt like more of that should have been on Kakeru's actual route.

Senri

I wasn't sure what to expect with Senri's romance, given that he's a pessimistic shut-in who wants nothing more than to be left alone. While I'd seen him a lot on Kakeru's route as a sad target of Kakeru's mischief, he can be such a whiner and downer that I had trouble seeing how a romance would even work. But surprisingly, it does, and Senri and Korahu make a wonderful duo.

The problem is getting him out of his shell. And to the game's credit, Senri doesn't make any kind of crazy 180 by the end of his story. He does get better at dealing with people, but he remains recognizably himself. As Masamune sums it up near the end of Senri's route: "Koharu tries so hard to do anything she can, no matter who asks it of her. ... Senri is the opposite. He doesn't want to do anything unless he is absolutely forced to, even if it is something he's capable of." And when something he absolutely has to do is bring his girl back from being used as a weapon of war, he does it!

The fact we know he's a scaredy cat, that he doesn't want to do anything hard, makes it much more remarkable when he does want to do something, especially when it's something no one expects of him for being the smallest, most fearful person on the ship. That he calls out Natsuhiko's ego while they're escaping with Koharu is just icing on the cake. Senri might look like a weakling, but he's got bite when he wants to use it.

Similarly, it's adorable as he starts to realize his own feelings for Koharu and tries shooing off other guys. Being Senri, he's unable to say anything directly, but planting himself right beside Koharu and staring at Masamune is more than enough to get the message across.

If there's anything I didn't particularly like on his route it's that Koharu is even dimmer than usual. While her naivete is still charming, like failing to distinguish the romantic "I like you" from liking friends in general, she completely fails to recognize the dream hiyoko as Senri, even though she does that with ease on Kakeru's route.

She spends a fair amount of the route struggling to understand the feelings she has for Senri because she thinks love is supposed to be a grand thing, but she ends up feeling nervous and ugly because of it. It's not unrealistic that she would have those issues, given how sheltered she's been growing up, but the fact she doesn't on other routes is what makes it stick out. Even after Senri kisses her on the cheek and makes it clear he wouldn't do this with anyone else (to ease her feelings of jealousy), she's still fretting over why she's jealous at all.

Like in Kakeru's route, Shiro Yuiga serves as the villain, and we get a little more insight into how he fits into the picture, but no resolution. It's not quite as bad as Kakeru's route since rather than cramming in Shiro Yuiga's mysterious death, Senri and Koharu just run away, and that is entirely on theme with the way Senri proposes that the two of them live their lives going forward. If they live cowardly lives they never need to fear that they will be turned into weapons.

But I wanted to know more about why Senri was only given half the powers of water. While I figured he was hydrokinetic given that Akito was obviously jacking his powers from him in Kakeru's route, I thought that meant that Akito's power was to absorb the powers of others. Instead it turns out that the power of water is split between Senri and Akito, thus accounting for why there are ten espers but only nine rooms.

Given that Senri only had half a power, you'd think an explanation would be given in his route, especially since other characters are willing to justify why Senri was an unsuitable choice for being an esper in the first place, being weak in body and cowardly in spirit. But instead Aion just gives an assurance that she doesn't make wrong decisions, and Senri is fine even after he takes Akito's half to give himself the full allotment of the hydrokinetic potential.

Despite the unresolved questions and Koharu being more dense than usual, I laughed a lot of this route, Senri's antics are adorable, and the high points are still very good, making this one of my favorite routes in the game.

Masamune

Masamune is the team's contact with The World and the only person on the ship (besides possibly Ron) who knows the truth about what's about to happen because he grew up on the island where Aion resides.

His route surprisingly doesn't contain much new information, given his connection with The World, and he's largely locked because the tail end of his route contains a lot of conversations that wouldn't make sense without already knowing about the Reset and the role the espers play in it. As long as the player has gone through Kakeru or Senri's route though, either of which are required to play Masamune, they'll have that though.

I would also suggest having played Sakuya's route as well, since he and Mikoto play a prominent role in Masamune's route and it's easier to understand what they're going through and the tragedy that happens in the end if you know the reason behind it.

As far as Masamune's route itself went, I feel like the strongest parts weren't well connected to any central story, which made it harder to enjoy. At its core, his personal romantic thread is falling in love with Koharu while having conflicting priorities in his duty to the ship and to The World. Once Koharu willingly becomes a weapon of war, and The World orders the espers to stay on the battlefield, he loses his faith in the system and chooses to run away with her.

But his internal conflict wasn't the strongest emotional part of his route. Instead it was seeing Mikoto run into town against orders to use her barrier powers to protect civilians, Sakuya sacrificing himself to protect Mikoto, and then Koharu's guilt that none of that would have been necessary if she had used her powers to begin with. That this is the only route where Koharu is happy to use her powers against an enemy says a lot about how devastated she is by her friends' suffering.

I actually liked Masamune's bad ending for not having enough affection, since it spends a fair amount of time with Mikoto's subsequent grief and Koharu's attempts to look after her, and we don't get that kind of processing on other routes even when tragedy occurs (though usually that's because it's a bad ending and the game cuts off shortly thereafter).

I have mixed feelings about his happy ending though. Even if Koharu is willing, it's clearly not healthy the way the army is using her, so I like the idea of Masamune spiriting her away from a warzone. But because he knows she won't go on her own, he has Nanami wipe out a bunch of her memories so he can escape with her.

What's not clear is just how much Nanami wipes out. While Koharu obviously remembers Masamune, she doesn't remember Nanami after it happens and presumably doesn't remember Mikoto otherwise she'd run immediately back on to the battlefield. But does she remember how she met Masamune? Does she remember being on a ship? Does she remember they were going to see The World?

All of that is just glossed over for an epilogue at Natsuhiko's base where Masamune is busy trying to get them set up for a new life. While I like the idea of Masamune breaking away from The World in theory, the execution just felt lackluster to me. It should have been the most powerful event in his story, given his position on the ship and the knowledge he holds, but even though the reasons were right, it felt understated, and the fact that Koharu is completely unaware of his change of heart doesn't help either since it removes her as a witness to his decision.

About the only thing I got a kick out of in his ending is the discovery that the hiyokos canonically do take over the monitors of Natsuhiko's base from time to time.

Oddly, Masamune's power to view the past barely figures into his route, whereas a romanced esper's power and how it shaped their life usually plays a large role in their route. The only time it comes up is when Masamune comforts Kahoru when she's lost control of her fire and he manages to see her past, making him the only character to learn her real name and why she forgot it in the first place. He also suggests that he might be able to eventually return Koharu's lost memories after Nanami's memory wipe, but those are really the only two times his power comes up at all. I would have liked to see it used more, or at least more critically to the story.

Next week, I'll be taking a look at Nanami.