Monday, May 21, 2018

VN Talk: Code:Realize ~Future Blessings~ - Part 1: After Stories

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

Platform: PS Vita (also on PS4 as part of Code: Realize ~Bouquet of Rainbows~)
Release: 2018

I wasn't sure what to expect with the Code:Realize ~Future Blessings~ fan disc (other than these things are definitely not discs anymore), but from what I'd read for other games, fan discs are usually semi-sequels with fluffy bits that consist of missing moments or take place post-game. Sometimes they're alternate universe stories, if the original has no room left to explore. They're basically to extend the life of the original property by letting fans revisit their favorite characters.

The original Code:Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~ is still one of my favorite otome games, for having an incredible protagonist and (mostly) compelling love interests. (Sorry, Impey.) So when Future Blessings was announced, picking it up was a no-brainer.

The way this particular fan disk is arranged, each of the main five love interests have a sequel (or "After Story"), Herlock Sholmès and Finis have their own routes called Extra Stories that could have taken place as alternate storylines in the original game, and there is also an Another Story that takes place during the original game's common route.

It should go without saying, but this series of posts will have spoilers both for the original game and the fan disc.

Since the After Stories aren't as long as the original games, I'm going to combine a number of them into two posts rather than giving them their own. Sholmès and Finis will get their own entries (being multi-chapter endeavors), and the Another Story and Delly's Room vignettes will get a separate post, for a total of five in this series.

After Stories

Victor Frankenstein

Being that Victor Frankenstein ended up being my favorite route in the original ~Guardian of Rebirth~, I dove into his story first. And I was surprised by how good it was! It not only addressed a loose plot thread I had been wondering about from a different route in the original, but it brought up and addressed extremely valid concerns about Cardia and her future.

I had complained earlier about Saint-Germain's route in the original game, and how it was odd that he was assigned to kill Cardia, but wouldn't make a move on the other routes (save Lupin's where his backstory comes out). That dangling plot thread is taken care of in Victor's Future Blessings route.

Victor's "After" route opens with him and Cardia living alone together in Saint-Germain's mansion, several months after the end of the first game. He's managed to stabilize her condition to the point she no longer needs to take any treatments to keep the Horologium dormant. Her poison production has been effectively neutralized. Victor is now back with the Royal Alchemy Society working under a reformed Queen Victoria, and he and Cardia are enjoying a sweet domestic life where she sees him off to work each day while she stays home and looks after the house. Though they aren't married, from their behavior they may as well be.

Unfortunately for them, Saint-Germain returns and brings them out to meet Idea, specifically Omnibus and Guinevere. There, Omnibus reveals that though Cardia's poison will remain dormant for Victor's remaining lifetime, as an artificial creation there's no guarantee that Cardia will not live for hundreds or even thousands of years and there is a non-zero chance that her poison will eventually return, in which case they will have to kill her.

Omnibus offers Victor a choice. His soul has the unique quality that will allow him to become an Apostle of Idea, and given his scientific skills he would be an asset to their organization. If he joins them he will become immortal, and thus be able to spend an eternity with Cardia. This way he will always be able to look after her, and make whatever changes are needed to keep her condition under control. However, the Apostles of Idea are also the stewards of humanity, and they make pinpoint course corrections to avoid extinction. Most of the time, that means assassinating their targets, some of whom have no fault other than being born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This makes for a fascinating dilemma. A love interest like Van Helsing could probably join Idea with little change to their psyche, but Victor is by far the kindest and most considerate of Cardia's potential suitors, so for him to turn into an immortal assassin is completely against his nature. And yet, if he doesn't, how can he be wholly certain that Cardia will never revert for however long she may live?

I wasn't expecting this sort of plot or soul searching in his After Story, but it made it quite engaging, especially since both options are undesireable. I doubted Victor would eventually join Idea, though I think it would make for a fascinating sequel, so the question became, how could they find a viable alternative?

Cardia initially doesn't say anything, leaving the choice up to Victor (and considering it's a weighty choice that primarily affects him, I think that's fair), but this renders her fairly passive through a good chunk of the route while Victor agonizes over his decision.

He almost decides to join Idea at one point, because he wants to guarantee Cardia's happiness, even if means destroying his own, but Saint-Germain talks him down from it, asking him to think if Cardia would really be happy with that, which brings us to this route's biggest flaw. Omnibus gives Victor three days to make up his mind, but he and Cardia spend two and a half days of it avoiding discussion about what is arguably the greatest decision of their lives. Though it's Victor's choice, if he joins Idea Cardia will be burdened with the fact he made such a sacrifice for her.

Fortunately, as the end of the third day approaches, Cardia decides to give him a piece of her mind. Her timing could be better from a rational standpoint, but from a storytelling one it's fun to see her burst into his meeting with Queen Victoria and pin Victor to the floor (yes, right in front of the queen) while letting him know that under no circumstances does she want him to join Idea.

Their heart to heart is sweet, and a reminder of why I liked Victor the most out of the original love interests. His eventual conclusion, even before Cardia busted in on him, is that a life where the two of them can't be happy together is not worth considering, so he's not going to sacrifice his future and join Idea, and they decide to come up with an alterative to the choice Omnibus offered.

And that is to find a way to ensure Cardia lives a human lifespan.

Omnibus is skeptical, but with Saint-Germain supporting them (and a cameo appearance of the rest of the cast to defend the pair), she backs down with the understanding that Victor will work to ensure Cardia has a human lifespan, even if it takes the rest of his life. Cardia tells Omnibus that if he dies before he succeeds, Idea can come for her then, but this way they can spend their life together.

The route wraps up with Cardia becoming Victor's lab assistant (since he'll be working to fix her lifespan along with his other research work, she might as well help) and the two of them informally exchange wedding vows in front of a church as a sign of their commitment to each other.

I would have liked a formal ceremony given the theme to the opening movie, but unfortunately that's about par for the course with Future Blessings. Despite the fact Lupin got married at the end of the original game, there is only one other wedding in Future Blessings, so most of the guys don't get to catch up.

Abraham Van Helsing

Van Helsing had the darkest, most angsty route of the original five, so it's probably not surprising that his After Story begins incredibly sappy, as if to make up for all the pain that was previously inflicted. I am surprised that he's not a little more randy though, considering the content of his epilogue, where he makes it clear that they need to find a way to get rid of Cardia's poison (since he's a man and he's got man needs).

For those disappointed that Van Helsing's original storyline had so little intimacy (he was the only love interest that didn't manage a kiss scene), Future Blessings kicks off quickly with him running home to meet Cardia after receiving word that Victor has cured her. Van Helsing giving a wide-eyed Cardia an open-mouthed kiss when he finds out he can touch her is the first major impression his After route makes.

Unfortunately it doesn't really escalate from there. What follows is more or less Van Helsing trying to be an indulging boyfriend to Cardia. If anything, he's a little too sweet and considerate, to the point that Cardia gets weirded out by it, but it's not a concrete "problem" that can't be solved by the two of them sitting down and having a conversation... which they don't do.

The "crisis" of his After route, such as it is, is that Cardia unintentionally pulls away when he tries to touch her after the conversation about how the change in him bothers her. Van Helsing is hurt by that, and starts avoiding her, which of course just makes everything worse as he now feels guilty over distancing himself as well as offending her in the first place. And he is bothered by the fact he doesn't know how he managed to turn her off, as in his mind he's been as attentive as possible.

Fortunately, he runs into Lupin and Impey, who make fun of him for moping around (and that's entertaining because Van Helsing usually comes off as too cool to mope), though I disagree with them that Helsing is simply blowing a lovers' quarrel out of proportion. It's not really that Cardia and Van Helsing are having an argument so much as they're having a communication failure about what they want from each other.

Both Cardia and Helsing are new at relationships. It's obviously her first and it's heavily implied that it's Helsing's as well, and prior to their disagreement the two of them were rushing towards commitment at breakneck speed.

While Helsing is getting some frank talk from his friends, Cardia also gets some from Victor, who is as kind and insightful as on his own route. Victor correctly concludes that neither Cardia nor Helsing know how to be in an relationship and in the throes of wanting to do right by the other person they're forgetting they have to look after themselves as well (a novice mistake I'm familiar with), and what Cardia has been picking up is that Helsing has been trying to put her needs waaaaay above his own as if his own don't matter, and that's what's been bothering her.

"It doesn't matter as long as my beloved is happy" sort of thing. (Which is one thing I like about Victor, both in his original route and After. He recognizes that excessively sacrificing for the other person doesn't make them happy.)

Helsing and Cardia get straightened out thanks to the help of their friends, and finally have that heart-to-heart, after which they're okay and Van Helsing asks her to marry him.

As a couple notes, Saint-Germain does not show up in this route, he's supposedly still in France, and Van Helsing's route takes place earlier than Victor's. Presumably this is why the bad news of Idea coming back to claim Cardia does not happen. Saint-Germain is probably still bargaining for her to be spared.

The route also covers other elements of Van Helsing's original ending, such as the reconciliation between humans and vampires. While it's not a cornerstone of the route, there's a lot more Delacroix than in Victor's route and Marquis Renfield (only mentioned previously) actually gets some spoken lines.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Darling in the Franxx and Becoming More Like Your Partner

One of my friends asked me when I was going to write another Darling in the Franxx post and I wasn't really planning to, except maybe at the end of the series. We're now about seven episodes until the end, but something did happen that I think is worth posting about.

This episode just aired this Saturday, so if you're wary of spoilers, stop here!

What I'd like to talk about in today's post is what's happening with Hiro.

It's very common to have inter-species relationships in fiction. Sometimes they're very different species, but usually they're between a human and a character who has a human-ish form. Also, if one of them is to cross the species barrier to become more like the other, they overwhelmingly feature the inhuman female becoming human to be with her male human love. The reverse option is rarely considered.

The Little Mermaid serves as the model for a children's tale Zero Two learned as a child. A princess of beasts falls in love with a human prince at a distance, and sees a witch to have her wings removed so she can become human and be with the man loves. However, the princess is unable to remain a human forever because that is not what she truly is, so she is given the choice to kill the prince and live, or to spare the prince and die. Like the Hans Christian Andersen mermaid, she chooses death.

Though Zero Two does not seem to be overly concerned that she is the princess of her own tale, she likewise met a human, Hiro, when they both were children. He was nice to her when everyone else treated her like a test experiment, and she recognized that they were fundamentally different. Though the series hasn't explained how Zero Two lost her scaly red skin (yet), she files down her horns to the nubs they usually are and presumably does the same with her teeth and nails.

Zero Two's driving motivation for much of the series has been to become human so she can be with her childhood darling, and she's been fighting the alien klaxosaurs because she was told that eventually if she killed enough she would become human. (I have to ask why she would believe anything the military told her, considering how she otherwise behaves around them, but I guess that's a question for another day.)

Now Zero Two and Hiro have been reunited, they remember their shared past, and something is happening to Hiro as well. The reason he's able to partner with her, and can only partner with her, is due to him having ingested her blood when they were children (he was trying to clean a scrape on her knee by licking the wound). This also has the effect of increasing his "saurification."

The series hasn't fully explained the link between humans and their klaxosaur enemies yet, but Zero is somehow a hybrid of the two and we see the results of her own saurification after she devours a few dozen more partners. Her horns grow into antlers, she has fangs and claws, and her mind is almost completely feral.

Until this Saturday's episode, Hiro looked fine, though he was briefly hospitalized. He has heavy bangs though, and in Episode 17: Eden, Zero Two brushes them back to reveal that he appears to be growing horns as well, currently small enough that they haven't broken the skin.

Zero Two seems to be saddened by the fact his fate has changed due to meeting her, but Hiro does not seem to be bothered at all. He's never been put off by her appearance (not even when she was a feral little girl with red scales), nor has he ever asked Zero Two to become human like him.

I was really afraid that this series would end with Zero Two becoming human in some fashion so she could be with Hiro (assuming she doesn't die due to the fairy tale motif), because that would be pointless when he never asked that of her. But I would be perfectly happy if Hiro continues transforming to be more like her. He didn't ask for it, but he's not doing it for her either. It just happened and he's okay with it.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Managing My Gaming Backlog

This is probably a funny post to be making in May, given that the time for New Year Resolutions was back in January, but this is more of an update to a plan I already laid down. And it seems to be working. Mostly.

Back in January I decided I was tired of looking at my gaming backlog and really wanted to make a point to play a lot of these games I was buying. I participate in the annual Reading Challenge at Goodreads, so I figured, why not make one for my games? Specifically for trying to get through titles I had been wanting to play or finish, but hadn't gotten around to.

So I made a list of five games that I wanted to finish (that I'd already started) and four that I hadn't started at all. I also made them of a variety of genres and moods (dark, light, serious, fluff). I also included a list of new games that I expected I would be buying this year, so I could tally how much was incoming versus outgoing.

After all, it's not making a dent in the backlog if I'm not finishing more than I'm buying.

So far this year I've completed five games. Two were unplanned acquisitions (being free indie titles), one was from my list of games that I expected to buy, and two were from my list of games that I hadn't started.

While the free indie games didn't help reduce my backlog, at least it wasn't me paying for something that was going to sit around unplayed.

What I found most helpful though, is the list of games I hadn't started. I've completed half of that list of four now, and I'm about to start a third game. (I probably won't do the fourth though, because that's Final Fantasy XV and the director has planned out content through 2019 so I'll probably take a rain check until he's done.) I have a lot of backlogged titles though, so I'm thinking of adding a couple more to the list.

Since I haven't gone back to any of the partially completed games there is probably a reason for that and I'm not enthusiastic about revisiting them, even though these are games that I probably would have finished if real life hadn't intervened in some way or another.

I find the list of unplayed games reminds of what I already own and had previously been excited about. Since it's pre-curated, I don't need to spend time figuring out what to play next or staring at shelves of games. Instead I can just look at the list and immediately see a few options I'm already interested in, not an overwhelming number, and pick from there.

Monday, April 30, 2018

VN Talk: Root Double: Before Crime * After Days - Part 4: √Double

√Double is the conclusion of Root Double and it's remarkable how the story manages to turn so much of what we already know on its head. It's also a ridiculously talky route that requires boring into the memories of almost every character in the game, which means it's flashback city.

This is a bit of a shame because the overall story is quite good, but it's hampered by the designers wanting to be absolutely the player got everything, to the point that they'll do two or three times the amount of flashback necessary to get the message across.

That wasn't what expected given the opening of the route. Natsuhiko and Watase don't fully trust each other, but the two of them reluctantly decide that due to Natsuhiko's condition (having sustained numerous gunshots wounds from pre-memory loss Watase) they need to work together if they're going to get out of here. Natsuhiko has the knowledge, but Watase has the mobility. I expected much of the route with be a give and take between the two as Watase gets closer to recovering his memory and Natsuhiko wants him to stay away from it.

Then the first chapter takes a nosedive when Natsuhiko meets Yuuri. As mentioned in the √Before route, Yuuri is Natsuhiko's dead childhood friend, except that it turns out she's not really dead and she's also implanted the phantom version of herself that was haunting him for nine years of his life. It was a misguided attempt to move him out of the catatonic state he was in when he first learned she was dead.

My problem with this is twofold. First is that it undoes all the emotional growth that happens at the end of √Before. The goodbye scene between the phantom Yuuri and Natsuhiko was perfect. We saw Natsuhiko grow to the point he could live without her. By bringing her back, all that growth became unnecessary, and then made everything awkward, as Natsuhiko had realized at the end of √Before how much Mashiro meant to him, only for the real Yuuri to show up and make a love triangle (which is not resolved by the end of the game!).

The second part of that I disliked is that Yuuri created the phantom thinking that would make everything better. She was eight or nine at the time, so I can understand that as a child she thought this was a good idea, but the thing is that she kept updating the phantom year after year when she saw him unconscious during his annual hospital stays. At no point did she decide this was a bad idea until the √Before route started and she realized that he was going to discover she was legally dead. If he hadn't tried to stop the terrorist attack, he probably would be seeing phantom Yuuri the rest of his life.

Given Natsuhiko's relationship to her, I'm not surprised he forgives this, but from an outsider's perspective, her nine years of screwing with his mind is horrifying. She even doctored the beautiful goodbye scene specifically to make an impact.

Fortunately, the game does upend expectations shortly after that, as Watase asks Natsuhiko directly if he had hurt him before. Natsuhiko and Yuuri certainly try to dodge the question, but by the end of √After Watase already had enough information to conclude he'd done some awful things and that he was possibly the one to shoot Natsuhiko. Once he guesses what Natsuhiko did to his memories, he asks if Natsuhiko can restore them, and then to shoot him if he tries killing him again.

The interesting revelation here is that we discover there are two sets of memories in Watase. Someone else had previously altered his memories the way Natsuhiko had done, and once Natsuhiko reverts everything properly to its original state, Watase comes back as a third personality, obviously his original one, which is the hardass that his squadmates remember, but he's no longer a psycho or as unquestioningly compassionate as his amnesiac self.

We also get his backstory, since it was the alteration of his personal history that caused him to hate telepaths to the point of justifying killing them. (Though he's always feared the idea of someone else reading his mind, original Watase wasn't inclined to kill people over it.)

The nutshell version is that Watase is a terrorist, but only as a means to an end. His sister was killed in the largest case of arson the city had ever seen. It was blamed on an extremist group, but in truth a telepath who was working with a government research group had become N-ified, which is a dangerous state that Rank S telepaths can degenerate to if they overuse Senses Sympathy, the highest level telepath ability that allows for the copying, altering, restoration, and destruction of memories (what Natsuhiko is using). The city hid the truth of the incident and built the fake nuclear facility to research telepaths in secret, and the N-ified telepath was incarcerated there.

On learning that the city's carelessness led to the N-ification of the responsible telepath and in turn the arson, Watase joined Ukita, a researcher at the facility (and currently one of the nine trapped underground), as part of the terrorist group Q. Their plan was to rescue the two currently living test subjects in the facility and then blow it sky high. They would then have the test subjects testify against the government to bring it down and end the secret testing on telepaths.

Being conscientious people, despite their terrorist affiliation, Watase and Ukita's deal with Q allowed them to choose how organize the crisis and they arranged it so that all staff would evacuate (the mysterious explosions at the start of the game) with the goal being that the facility would be completely empty when the bomb blows and no lives would be lost.

Naturally, there were complications.

Yuuri was one of the test subjects (which is why her death was faked, so she could be incarcerated), but the other, called Subject N, had already been N-ified. And the problem with N-ification is that the telepath loses their sense of self. When that happens the telepath becomes a destructive ball, flinging out malice to every unprotected mind in range. During the rescue, Subject N came into content with many minds, resulting in all the deaths discovered over the course of √After, including her own (she was an unidentified body found by the cargo elevator). She was the one responsible for rewriting Watase's memories.

I talked about pacing issues in √After and how the stakes aren't clear until the end of the first chapter. √Double is much the same way. By the time we reunite with Yuuri and get Watase's memories back, it's the end of Chapter 2 out of 7 and then the opening movie plays, because this is when the stakes are clear.

There are only two hours left until the bomb blows, it is no longer possible to use the escape route Watase originally intended, and they want to escape with all nine survivors alive.

From there, the game takes a fairly predictable route. The sane people try to stay alive and capture the people infected with malice (which turns out to be Kazami, Jun, and Ukita, the ones who all went crazy in √After) and Natsuhiko ends up diving in everyone's memories, infected or not, to either free them or confirm they're all right.

The game likes to play with how our personalities are informed by our memories, so changing those memories also changes a person's personality. For instance, it doesn't matter if Watase is innately a good person, if the memories leading up to today gave him a reason to hate. The infected characters aren't insane so much as their memories have been altered to push them to the limit where extreme actions are the only things that make sense.

By checking everyone's memories and dispelling the mental echoes of Subject N, Natsuhiko eventually gets the entire story of what happened this day.

If there's a theme to Root Double as a whole, it's communication, and how no matter how much we want to understand another person, we're unable to completely do so, even in a world with telepaths. The events of September 16, 2030 occur precisely because none of the people involved had the full picture of what was going on before they went in, and once they know each other's stories they're able to unite towards a single goal.

If Watase and his fellow conspirators had known about Subject N's condition, they probably would not have freed her. If Natsuhiko and his friends had known that Watase and Ukita's goal was to rescue test subjects and not cause a nuclear meltdown, they might not have gotten in their way. Even less immediate concerns are covered, such as how Natsuhiko would never have been as cold to his mother if he'd known the real reason she was working so many long hours away from him.

Root Double is unusual in that there is no on screen villain. Though Subject N is certainly the antagonist Natsuhiko battles over most of √Double, she's actually dead before the route even starts. Arguably the city government is the real villain, but it's an abstract one, and one that cannot be fought directly.

So the real climax is after everyone has been freed from Subject N and they have to deal with how to escape. Natsuhiko's mother has been secretly working to free Yuuri independently of the terrorists, and during the evacuation she left behind a means to override the main computer and open the bulkheads for 30 seconds, but three people need to perform it (a more extreme version of the two-man rule).

At this point the player can choose which set of three remain behind to face the explosion so the other six can escape, resulting a Normal ending. If they refuse to sacrifice anyone though (and other conditions are met), the group puts their heads together to figure out a way to escape with everyone alive.

In that event, Natsuhiko, Yuuri, and Watase stay behind while everyone else escapes through the bulkheads. The remaining three hide in the coolant exhaust pipe Watase opened in √After in a failed escape attempt, and the water cushions them from the explosion. They then escape through the water intake pipe, which wasn't possible earlier since opening it would flood the facility, but with the facility on fire and no one else left inside, this was no longer an issue.

This is when the stand-off between Watase and Natsuhiko, alluded to in the first opening movie, finally happens.

To gain Watase's cooperation at the end of Chapter 2, Yuuri agreed to go with him once they escaped, so he would have the telepath needed for Q to confront the government. Naturally Natsuhiko is against this, which results in Watase pulling a gun on him. From here, there are an additional four Good endings (this game loves its endings), which, oddly enough, never involve Yuuri leaving with Watase.

Two of them involve Natsuhiko going with Watase instead (since Watase just needs a Rank S telepath who knows the truth, and Natsuhiko will do just as well), with the variation being how much of Yuuri's memory Natsuhiko wipes out when he leaves. And there are another two where Natsuhiko chooses to wipe Watase's memory instead, with varying degrees of how much he erases, so he and Yuuri can safely escape.

That's pretty much the rub. Natsuhiko doesn't want to let his childhood friend sacrifice her future and become affiliated with a terrorist group after having been incarcerated for nine years as a test subject. Watase lost two squadmates and fellow conspirators this day and has already sacrificed his present day life just for the chance to see justice done against a corrupt government. They both have their points and it seems like there is no good way to end the stand-off without someone getting hurt.

The way I played, I did all the endings in the order of Bad -> Normal -> Good -> True because I wanted to see the progression (and knowing my mentality, once I see the True ending I'm not doing anything else), and I really didn't see any way the two could compromise, and this was after they know the whole story because of all the memory sharing. Completely knowing another person's mind doesn't mean that they'll ever agree.

In the True ending though, Natsuhiko combs through all the information he learned from everyone's memories and manages to dredge out a common thread between all the tragedies leading up this day. He paints an uglier picture of Q than Watase realized, that makes Q ultimately responsible for everything (though the government is still horrible). I found this reasoning a little shaky, since Watase already knew they weren't great people, but it's enough to convince him that he really shouldn't be working with Q anymore, which ends the stand-off and Watase turns himself in.

The epilogue covers how the telepaths involved in the incident flee, how those who remain behind fight to bring out the truth, and depending on the player's friendship with various characters, there are special character-specific epilogues for all of them (except Ukita, because he's another dude and clearly the audience only cares about the fates of the protagonists and their female companions).

Unfortunately we never learn if Q, the Rokumei City government, or the forces behind them are ever fully taken down, but everyone travels to the city park on the one year anniversary of the incident (Watase and Ukita had ridiculously shortened sentences in exchange for their cooperation in hunting Q) to reminisce with the assumption that things will be better going forward.

It's possible that tackling the larger issues and making a better life for telepaths is just too big a thing for the game to properly handle in an epilogue (and would certainly be very complicated in real life), but I think it's more likely that the creative team was more concerned about the inter-character conflict than the external reason the conflict began, so letting the player know knowing the cast is all right and moving on is enough.

There is a final game mode called Xtend Episode that is unlocked after beating the game that allows for additional scenes from the perspectives of different characters to round out a few plot holes, but they're mostly fluff. They do answer who stole the supply of AD in √After though, which never got resolved in the main game.

Monday, April 23, 2018

VN Talk: Root Double: Before Crime * After Days - Part 3: √Current

As mentioned last week, this will be a short post. √Current covers the √After route from Natsuhiko's perspective so it mostly exists to give us new perspectives on previous scenes. It explains why Natsuhiko only spoke to Watase intermittently and clears up Watase's memory gaps (such as when he passes out) and some (but not all) of his hallucinations.

At the end of √Before, Natsuhiko accidentally links his mind with Watase's and "goes along for the ride" following the the destruction of Watase's memory, but the anti-radiation medicine is actually a psychic dampener, so every time Watase injects himself during √After Natsuhiko loses contact and goes to sleep.

This makes √Current fairly short since it's recap and Natsuhiko is unconscious for a lot of it, but it's also funny because Natsuhiko can't directly converse with anyone, other than sending the occasional telepathic thought to Watase, and he's not happy about being stuck in the mind of the terrorist who tried to kill him. One of the best lines in √After is when the voice in Watase's head starts protesting about what the hell he's doing and Watase starts talking back to it, thinking he's probably going crazy, and the scene is no less entertaining the second time around in √Current now that we know Natsuhiko's circumstances.

Because of the psychic link, Natsuhiko has a vested interest in keeping Watase alive, but Watase can't help being suspicious to everyone because of his unaccountable memory loss. To combat this, Natsuhiko "gifts" him with some plausible, but fake memories to make him seem more like an honest person. These end up being the memories that reveal Watase is not telling the 'truth" about what he was really doing when he went down to the basement or when he supposedly found Yuuri's body, because Natsuhiko doesn't consider how much other people might have known or would have been able to figure out.

Natsuhiko also ends up destroying new memories when Watase chases after his friends (Watase fully believes himself a rescue worker and wants to save them) and Natsuhiko doesn't want him to catch up to them, especially when it becomes apparent that Watase may begin recovering his original memories. The only thing that stops Natsuhiko from doing even more damage is that he eventually realizes that erasing memories physically harms the brain (rewriting does not) so he holds off on memory destruction after that.

It's good stuff, and when the duo finally end up back in Area N, Watase collapses and Natsuhiko begins to piece together everything he knows about the day's events thus far. √Before had mentioned seven urban legends about telepathy and its users, and over the course of the story all of them have been proven true, save for the last, which is that "monster-fied" telepaths, who have become that way through overuse of their powers, are stored in a secret location beneath this facility.

I was a little irritated that an urban legend (that I largely ignored during the √Before route) becomes the pivot on which the story turns to its final leg, but there you go. Natsuhiko realizes if that last legend is also true, they have one more thing to worry about and he's going to need Watase's help to end all this, though of course this is when Watase passed out at the end of √After.

Next week is √Double, and the conclusion to this mess!

Monday, April 16, 2018

VN Talk: Root Double: Before Crime * After Days - Part 2: √Before

Welcome to Part 2 of my Root Double: Before Crime * After Days discussion. I'll be writing about √Before with the assumption that √After has already been played, and it really should be the player's second route even though chronologically it takes place earlier. I covered √After two weeks ago.

The ending of √Before spoils several of the unanswered mysteries in √After, and I think playing them in reverse would make √After significantly less interesting, since the mysteries contribute significantly to the story's tension. However, there doesn't seem to be anything in √After that has the same impact on √Before.

I didn't really know what to expect for this route, other than Natsuhiko and his friends Mashiro and Salyu would eventually end up on some kind of mission that would take them to the nuclear facility while on the verge of a crisis.

The idea of following the day to day life of a high school student over the course of a week just didn't feel that appealing on the heels of having my characters figure out how to survive hour by measly hour in a facility that is slowly filling up with radiation and has a killer on the loose.

Fortunately, the game chooses to handle this by starting in media res with Natsuhiko and friends already at the facility just as the first explosions start. When the normally security-locked doors open to facilitate evacuation, Natsuhiko and his friends, who are already in the lobby, dive into restricted territory and meet up with another of his childhood friends, Yuuri, who is mysteriously inside the facility when she's a shut-in who never leaves home.

From there each chapter of the story follows a particular structure. We relive a day of Natsuhiko's life in the week leading up to what we now know is a terrorist attack by a group that hates telepaths and the specially built city that shelters them. At the end of each day, Natsuhiko has a conversation with Yuuri (in the past), which gets really weird as she asks Natsuhiko about his friendships, tells him how he is no longer the person he was, and lets him know that his peaceful days are ending. After each Yuuri conversation, he jumps back to the present at the nuclear facility and tries to progress through the bombs and the fires to stop the nuclear meltdown that he expects will happen.

Whenever Natsuhiko hits a crisis, the cycle repeats, until eventually the past catches up with the present. Interestingly enough, the bad endings only happen in the present, and are generally the result of Natsuhiko not listening to Yuuri, which causes him to lose focus in the face of danger. While Natsuhiko ends up on death's door in every bad end, he always hears Yuuri ask why he didn't do something or why he had forgotten something, and a watch ticks as he's fading away. The implication is that every time he fails he goes back in time and relives where he went wrong so he can fix it.

While the tension is not a constant presence as in √After, the present day segments help remind the player that there is something urgent happening. Meanwhile, the idyllic days in the past flesh out the characters in ways the √After cast never gets to experience, making them as a whole, more rounded personalities.

I enjoyed √Before overall more than √After, despite the lesser amount of tension, though it's not going to be for everyone. If you like the first half of the anime Charlotte, involving people with powers going to school, you'll probably like √Before as well, as a good chunk of it is slice of life with Natsuhiko going to school with his friends. And there are definitely shenanigans that happen in a school intended for telepaths.

√Before also has moments where it gets incredibly info-dumpy, to the point that my eyes were glazing over at one particularly dense section, because the story really wants you to understand its pseudoscience. While it's arguably necessary to fully understand the inner workings of the plot, it's not terribly well presented. The explanations read like a textbook and are about as dry as one too.

The worst parts are probably the flashbacks within a flashback. We already have Natsuhiko in the present reliving his previous week, but on top of that we have Natsuhiko in the previous week remembering events from ten years ago and nine years ago; which are basically the formation of his friendships with Mashiro and Yuuri, as well as some terrible memory from nine years ago that prevents Yuuri from ever leaving the house she shares with Natsuhiko and his mother.

I didn't mind some of it, since Natsuhiko's previous trauma is critical to the story, but there's so much of it that it's distracting and while Natsuhiko's adult-voicing-a-child voice is not horrible, it grates after hearing for the umpteenth time.

All of this culminates in a tear-jerking moment when Natsuhiko in the present finds himself inside his mother's office, inside the now burning facility, looking for a keycard so he can escape. In that moment he finds a report on the incident from nine years ago, the day that he and Yuuri had snuck into the facility to find his mother and got caught up in an arson attack.

Thanks to those documents Natsuhiko remembers the truth of what happened back then, and that Yuuri actually died from smoke inhalation. The Yuuri who has been with him is a delusion, one that his mother and friends indulged him with because he would have painful PTSD episodes without it. Since he viewed the incident with Yuuri as his fault, he's pulled back from taking risks and kept people at arm's length because he didn't want a repeat of before. Now that he finally knows the truth, he has to face reality and say good-bye.

Writing this, it actually sounds cheesy, but the game plays fair. When Yuuri meets up with the three kids in the present day nuclear facility, she's not in the security camera shot in √After. Mashiro and Salyu do not see her when Natsuhiko brings her over to them (since Yuuri supposedly never leaves home, they have no reason to expect he will see her). Also, when they meet a couple rescue workers, Natsuhiko says he and his friends are a group of four. Yuuri is visibly standing with them, but the workers are confused about the number, because in actuality there are only three.

It's harder to tell in the past segments since Yuuri never leaves home. Salyu is a little unsociable so it's not surprising that she ignores Yuuri unless prompted, and Mashiro is a high level telepath who has been using her power to "hear" Yuuri in Natsuhiko's mind, so Mashiro has been able to fully mask that she's interacting with someone who isn't actually there.

Unlike Watase, who spends most of his route trying to figure out his memories (and never getting there), Natsuhiko actually has a personal character arc that transforms him from someone who doesn't want to get involved to risking his life to stop an act of terrorism. We get his backstory and he overcomes it.

The rest of √Before from that point on is a fun lead up to the opening of √After. We finally learn why we didn't see Mashiro in √After (because she got shot and Natsuhiko sent her up the cargo lift to escape), we know who destroyed the controls to the cargo lift (Natushiko, so the terrorists couldn't chase after her), and we see Natsuhiko get shot multiple times by Watase, giving him the injuries he has when he finally appears in √After. The game does not even bother to hide Watase behind a silhouette like it did with Natsuhiko.

Watase pre-memory loss has a major beef with telepaths, attributing the death of over a hundred people to them, including someone who is implied to be his sister. His hatred is so great that when Natsuhiko reads his mind he gets a litany of "kill, kill, kill" on repeat.

They face off in Area N, where Natsuhiko desperately tries to stop Watase from ever getting to Mashiro and as a result shatters his mind, setting up the start of √After. Thus we know why nobody was able to find the three kids; Natsuhiko was in the reactor room that was supposedly flooded with radiation, Mashiro was sent up the cargo lift, and Salyu is canny enough to stay hidden or run away.

On a brighter note, the weird ogling of the female cast is also less prevalent and Natsuhiko is significantly less sexist. He does worry about his companions, but at least it seems like a reasonable worry over a friend, especially since Salyu is only thirteen.

Unlike √After, I was pretty happy at the end of this route, though I still had a lot of questions, particularly involving Yuuri, who is also one of the civilians in √After. √Before ends on an ominous note with Yuuri "waking" even though she's supposed to be dead. And though Watase is confirmed to be a terrorist in √Before, we still don't know how much he knew before he went into the facility, including whether he'd known that it does not actually have a nuclear reactor.

Next week I'm going to cover √Current, which is going to be a short post. √Double is the real final route, but because it's so long I don't think I can comfortably cover that and √Current without getting too wordy.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Listen to "The Ancestors" on Toasted Cake

Last week "The Ancestors" went up on the Toasted Cake podcast. It was originally published in Crossed Genres" and this is the first time "The Ancestors" has appeared in audio.

Ching Ming (or Qingming, depending on dialect and where you grew up) is what my parents called Chinese Memorial Day. We go out to the graves of our ancestors and drop off flowers and offer food. Sort of like how people in the west will visit cemeteries on Easter, except I don't think setting out food is as common on Easter.

One of the things I noticed growing up is that my family didn't do things the same way as other families we'd see at the cemetery, or the way that it would be discussed in class (if it came up at all, being that I went to American schools). My family never picnicked in the cemetery, and we didn't burn proper paper money. On the other hand, we had a bowing and wine pouring ceremony for the male members of the family that I didn't see others doing.

When I asked my dad about it, he said that every family celebrates differently, and the memory of that answer is what formed the nucleus of my story "The Ancestors."

For those reading my Root Double: Before Crime * After Days VN Talk series, it will resume next week!