Monday, March 1, 2021

VN Talk: Café Enchanté - Part 4: Ignis

Ignis is a fun character, but generally not the sort that's my first choice to romance, which is why he was my third playthrough. He's the tough talking jock with a heart of gold that he pretends not to have. Ignis is also the closest in age to Kotone, making him a fairly recent patron of the cafe, compared to the others who arrived while she was still a child.

It probably sounds better in Japanese, but Ignis is a demon beast, to make it clear that he's not simply some mindless animal, but a beast that has a human-like form and powers. Specifically, he's from a clan called the Firewolves. (Or Vinitar depending on the translation, since his route was clearly worked on by different people who did not coordinate with each other, making the in-game terminology for the various beast tribes a hot mess.) He comes from the world of Bestia, which is a frozen wasteland where beasts vie for dominance over each other, and survival of the fittest is taken to the extreme, with stronger beasts frequently slaying the weak for little reason aside from sport.

Ignis is the strongest there is, and he wants to change his world by remaining the strongest while not killing, so he often looks out for weaker beasts and even when he gets into supremacy fights with tougher beasts, he only beats them up enough to incapacitate them. Never to kill. So it's unsurprising that his route chooses to look at what makes Ignis unique among his kind and how Bestia came to be so warped to begin with.
Though there are definitely more than a few hokey deus ex machinas by the end, I found Ignis's story to be well paced and better written than the previous two I'd played. I felt like Canus and Rindo's routes really needed another chapter for the romance to play out, but Ignis's never felt forced, never felt rushed, so even when friends upon friends pop up at the end, I just shrugged and ran with it, because thematically the fact they did was so on point it was forgivable.

For one thing, his route doesn't beat around the bush that he and Kotone could be a couple. Dromi brings it up almost immediately after route split when he sees the two of them together in town and asks if Kotone is Ignis's mate. Ignis being Ignis though, immediately denies that he could ever possibly be interested in her, saying that she's just the cafe owner, and Kotone, not really thinking about romance, amusingly tells Ignis that once he gets himself a girl he should totally bring her to the cafe to meet everyone.

But despite the romcom gaffes, the early chapters of his route make it clear that the way to Ignis's heart is through his stomach, and Kotone, being the cafe owner, is filling that bottomless pit better than anyone. Ignis is a ridiculous pig, and though his enormous appetite is something of a joke, it's also growing, and, it turns out, is part of the story.
Ignis's route builds off of the Minotaur incident in the common route when the group tries to go to the aquarium. His friend Dromi has been investigating in Bestia and discovered that the Minotaurs are jumping through wormholes to the human world, causing them to appear in the town around Enchante. Wormholes are a one way trip, unlike the gate at Enchante, so it's rather baffling that the Minotaurs are taking the plunge, and it's even more baffling that all the wormholes are taking them to the same place, specifically in a ring around Enchante once the GPM manages to put all their data together.

Since Dromi's not the reliable sort, Ingis decides to do some investigation on his own and Kotone accidentally joins him when someone kidnaps her and leaves her for dead in frozen Bestia. After being rescued by a weaker demon beast who picks up Ignis's scent on her, Kotone learns more about what Ignis's life is like, being both powerful and unwelcome in most of his world. But despite his world's value on might, he looks after a tribe of weaker demon beasts so they're comfortable living close to his Firewolf tribe, even though historically the Firewolves have been both feared and ostracized and now live pretty much on the edge of habitable land (such as there is here).

Even among his own tribe, Ignis is not particularly welcome as the result of going berserk during a previous attack on his people that caused him to fight friend and foe alike. Feeling guilty about it, Ignis is fine with the status quo, even though he still protects his tribe and has a somewhat cordial relationship with his uncle.
The key thing that upends everything is the discovery of an ancient history regarding the wolf Vanir, ancestor of the Firewolves, who woke up and devoured just about everything he set eyes on. This kicked off Bestia's obsession with being the strongest, because every other beast needed to be strong just to have a chance of surviving a confrontation with Vanir.

What made Vanir unique among demon beasts, aside from his power, was the fact he could eat. It turns out that nearly all creatures of Bestia are born with the amount of energy they will spend throughout their lives, so eating is not natural for them. Most don't have digestive tracts. And there's a part of me that wished this interesting bit of world building had been carried out a little farther, because generally when something like this happens in our world, the energy comes from the mother who does eat. But if the mothers don't eat in Bestia, and they are similarly constrained in that all the energy they have is limited to what they were born with, either successive generations would get weaker or the energy babies are born with comes from somewhere else. It's not really important to the story, but the biologist in me wants to know!

In any case, there is one known exception to the nobody in Bestia eats that happens to be a Firewolf; Ignis, who we also know has been developing a tremendous appetite.
So of course it turns out that Ignis is teetering on becoming Vanir reborn, and it happens that his friend Dromi is actually not a very good friend and has been planning to push him over the edge for years. It doesn't really make sense to me why Dromi would do that because his wish would not only decimate the stronger beasts that pick on him, but likely get him killed as well. Still, he seems okay with it. And Dromi morphing from comic relief to insane villain was definitely a transition I did not see coming. He's completely ruthless once the secret's out, getting all of Ignis's tribe killed by Minotaurs just to trigger him into fighting so much he can't help but lose control.

Worse, when Kotone sees him in his battle lust, he does not break out of it and he actually tears a chunk out of her arm and devours it. Though he eventually snaps out of it, Kotone is not unexpectedly terrified of what happened and Ignis doesn't protest when Misyr and the others lock him up inside a barrier so he shouldn't be able to harm anyone.

Except Dromi intervenes, kidnapping Kotone and trying to feed her to Ignis who admittedly found her pretty tasty in his bloodlust. Dromi fails in that respect, but does get Ignis to transform fully into a giant fiery wolf that is completely out of control and willing to devour anything in his path, which sets up the finale in his route.
Though the finale is pretty much "giant flaming wolf beaten by the power of friendship," it works because of the legwork beforehand. Ignis's cafe friends come to the rescue, of course, but also many of the weaker beasts in Bestia that Ignis had been protecting over the years. Now that he's the one in need, they're willing to risk their lives to help. Even the extremely silly "final blow" delivered by Kororo's herd of sea beasts, is not out of line considering that he rescued Kororo when he was crying and alone.

Everyone working together allows Vanir to be beaten enough for Ignis to comes to his senses and for Kotone (now over her fear) to approach and forgive him, letting him turn back into his old self.

The only thing I was a little disappointed with his ending is that Ignis stops eating! He only started when he discovered the cafe, since eating was a foreign concept in Bestia, and it seems like he only got hungry because of all the fighting he was doing. With Bestia largely united and becoming peaceful with his defeat, Ignis doesn't need to fight anymore and without fighting, he doesn't hunger. While that's a good thing, I really liked the earlier scenes with Kotone constantly cooking and packing meals for him, and I'm a little sad at the thought it's no longer going to be a thing.

In the end, I ended up liking Ignis's route much more than I thought I would going in.

Monday, February 22, 2021

VN Talk: Café Enchanté - Part 3: Rindo

Continuing my commentary on the different routes of Café Enchanté, this week I'm covering Rindo, who has the distinction of being the only love interest referred to by his last name. I suspect this is because he's Japanese whereas the other characters are non-human with western naming conventions. While Kotone can be comfortable calling everyone else by their personal names, Japanese social customs prevent her from calling a man over twenty years her senior by anything other than his family name.

I'm glad I ended up playing Rindo's route after Canus's because Rindo's turned out to be a dramatic and wild ride in ways that Canus's was not. Though this later turned out to be true for other routes as well, I didn't know by how much. Canus's story was sweet, but Rindo's moved me.

Like Canus's route, Rindo's starts out fairly mundane, laying additional groundwork for the route-specific conflict in its second half. Rindo has an unusual complication to his romance that in theory applies to most of Kotone's romance options, but is perhaps unfairly applied, and the failure of the first half of his route to really establish why it's a problem prevents it from being as strong as it could be.

Rindo is the only human love interest in Café Enchanté, and though he's considered one of the gang, he's also a member of the GPM, the government agency tasked with monitoring (and if necessary, dealing with) non-human activity. So even though he's a friend and the regulars trust him, they are also aware that the main reason he hangs out with them so much is because it's his job. He's assigned to monitor the cafe and the non-humans who frequent it.
He's also older than most human otome love interests, being 42. Rindo is a career middle manager.

In a game where some of the romance options are hundreds if not thousands of years old, 42 is nothing, but the thing is, the super old ones are all non-humans who look like they're still in their twenties. Rindo looks like he's in his forties. He's fit and good looking for his age, but the artwork doesn't shy from adding small wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. The dude's been around the block a few times and it's refreshing when a major human character is old enough to justify having a bundle of skeletons in the closet.

It's because of the age difference that Kotone begins spending the first half of Rindo's route figuring out what he means to her. We're never given her exact age in game, but the hints given suggest she's around 20, making her half his age. She worries about Rindo, being that his job is dangerous (on occasions he's dispatched with his team to directly deal with hostile non-humans) and also demanding, with long hours where he might only leave the office to sleep.

The game is very careful not to make Rindo come off as predatory, so even though he flirts with her, you never get the impression that he's doing it seriously. During the "date" episode of Il's chapter on the common route, Rindo even admits asking her to dinner at his age is incredibly awkward. He knows the gap is huge, so even though he likes her, he doesn't seriously entertain the idea that they will ever get together, which means that Kotone gets to do the pursuing in his route.

And I really like that.
When they go grocery shopping together to get ingredients for lunch, they get mistaken for a couple and Kotone spends much of the rest of their trip trying to figure out why. She eventually concludes that they don't look like father and daughter, but they don't look like brother and sister either, so a couple is the only thing left. After they get back and make that lunch, Rindo jokes about her becoming his girlfriend, and with all due seriousness, she asks what would happen if she said yes.

From his reaction, you can tell that he expected she would dismiss the possibility and life would go on as it had before.

Rindo as a character is a very closed off personality. He's helpful and friendly, but he doesn't really share his own problems, and it's only at Misyr's suggestion that Kotone starts to push her way into Rindo's space to get to know him better. She doesn't do this in an aggressive manner, but she does ask questions that she might have otherwise withheld, which brings us to the rest of the first half of his route.

When not dealing with Kotone feeling out her relationship with Rindo, we learn a surprising amount about side character Akira Mikado. Mikado is sort of an annoying character on the common route, fulfilling the role of the genius GPM researcher who is a little too enthusiastic about his work, to the point where no one really wants him at the cafe because they all know he's going to be gross and invade their sense of privacy by asking to touch the gate or requesting blood samples.

Rindo's route actually kicks off with a visit from Mikado and most of its first chapter is Kotone reluctantly helping Mikado pick out a birthday gift for his girlfriend (who most of the cafe regulars assume is either 2D or non-existent). Though Mikado fits the stereotype of someone who wouldn't have a girlfriend, being a short and frequently obnoxious geek with glasses, he's also clearly infatuated with her and spends a lot of effort in picking out a present.

That alone expanded his character, but what really sealed it is when we discover the identity of his girlfriend. Mikado is rarely without a little fox cradled in his arm called Kuu, which is described as a stuffed doll in its first appearance (and it should be noted that the "doll" description is in the in-game dictionary and not Rindo's narration when Mikado is first introduced). Kuu, however, is very much alive, just sleeping, and its real identity is Shizuku Rindo, younger sister to Kaoru Rindo, our love interest.
Seven years ago Shizuku was transformed from a human into a hostile and uncommunicative non-human in what later turns out to not actually be a lab accident, and Rindo nearly put her down as part of his job (knowing it was her) except Mikado intervened, using part of his research to sedate her. She feeds on human blood, but in her sedated state she's no longer killing people, and Mikado handles all her feeding himself, literally giving her his own blood every time she needs to eat.

Though Mikado tells Kotone that he's satisfied because at least Shizuku is alive and they are together, he privately admits that he won't be happy until he can make his girlfriend human again. And damn if I didn't get a bit teary-eyed at the guy caring for his girl for seven years and refusing to give up on her.

While I enjoyed the backstory though, it's supposed to serve as a foundation for Rindo's current view on human and non-human relationships. He is disappointed in himself for not killing Shizuku when he had the chance, and unlike Mikado, he doesn't take solace in the chance that someday Mikado will restore her. Judging from Rindo's reaction to Mikado's affection, it seems he regards Mikado's behavior as akin to playing house with a woman who is in what is essentially a vegatative state.

I can understand that pain, but it's a much harder jump from that to Rindo's fundamental belief that non-humans and humans are too different and even if both are well-meaning such relationships are doomed to end in tragedy. We see an example of that on his route, with a uncontrollable cat spirit that needs to be put down following the loss of his human companion, but Mikado and Shizuku's relationship, while tragic, doesn't appear to be a direct result of her becoming non-human so much as the experiment that made her that way. It could have been an explosion at work that threw her into a coma and it would be fundamentally the same thing (except that Rindo would never have been asked to kill her).

And the thing is, the story needs Rindo's fear and distaste of human/non-human relationships to feel like a solid thing, in order for the second half of his story to work.

The Rindo sibling and Mikado backstory collides with Kotone's budding romance in the second half of Rindo's route when he receives a distress call from work and is wounded by an awakened and rampaging Shizuku. Her attack inflicts a hex on him, and though the cafe crew manages to rescue him, Misyr and Il conclude that he's dying and the only way to remove it would be to stop Shizuku, who is no longer anywhere to be found.

Kotone is contacted by Mikado though and offered an alternative. Mikado has a serum that will save Rindo's life, but by transforming him into a non-human. He offers it to Kotone knowing that she will face a similar choice to his own, living on with a loved one who is no longer human.

Throughout the game Rindo has walked a fine line between being friends with the non-humans and warning Kotone against them. It's not that non-humans are inherently bad, but they can be unexpectedly dangerous without realizing how fragile humans are by comparison (which is borne out during her trip to Medio). He's often filled the role of the naysayer who says Kotone really shouldn't be visiting their home worlds because of the danger involved, but at the same time, he really goes the extra mile to protect the non-humans who are in danger in the human world.

I think his attitude towards them is much like someone who works with wildlife. Yes, non-humans can be great, but you can also be one step away from getting maimed. So even though non-humans can look human, Kotone shouldn't pretend that they are. Rindo believes that most human and non-human relationships will end in tragedy without any harm intended by either party, simply because their perspective is too different.

It's a fair point, but I think the game mistakenly pushes a little too hard on that angle when it comes to Kotone using the serum. She has reservations about administering it because Rindo is unconscious and cannot consent, which is absolutely fair. As the cafe regulars point out, his life as a human will end, and that in itself is a small death, but as Ignis says, if she doesn't use it, he definitely will die. (And as a player, if you don't transform him, the game ends.)
But Kotone also reacts like turning Rindo into a non-human is the last thing he'd ever want, like if there was a scale of 0 to 10 on how much he wants something this would be a -2. While he unsurprisingly turns out to be unhappy with his transformation later on, it's not that bad. The game's narrative gives the player more than enough justification to use it when the choice comes up, and everyone, including Rindo himself, recognizes that if Kotone didn't use it he'd be dead.

Though a part of me was a bit disappointed that the only human romance option in the game ends up being non-human by the end of it, there are two things about Rindo's transformation that I did like. 1) The game delivers on the impact of his life changing. Rindo's new non-human appearance cannot be easily hidden, given that it encompasses part of his face, one arm, and both hands, and he does not have transformational abilities like some of the other non-human characters. And 2) Rindo does not become human again by the end of the story, so there's no magic reset button. His new body is his new self and though perhaps someday he'll become human again, there's no expectation that will ever happen.

The climax of the story worked thematically for me, though it felt a little forced. It ends up that Mikado was behind the attack on the GPM building, spurred on by the revelation that Shikuzu's transformation was done to prevent her from becoming a whistleblower over the GPM's less savory experiments. As revenge he let Shizuku eat up the people involved, which apparently sets her on the path to recovering her sense of self and becoming human again. However, Mikado goes a step further and has her basically take over the entire GPM building and start feeding off everyone inside, including people who had nothing to do with her transformation.

Kotone and Rindo show up to stop him and Rindo in particular says that Shizuku wouldn't want this, which Mikado acknowledges, but he's willing to go ahead anyway just to restore her. Furthermore, he suggests that Kotone and Rindo join him. Kotone is in much the same position as he is, and being that the serum he gave Rindo incorporates Shizuku's blood, Rindo should be able to become human again by the same method. (Never mind that he only got hexed in the first place because Mikado was letting Shizuku run rampant!)
This leads to a pretty good sibling battle where the no-longer-human brother and sister fight each other while protecting their loved ones, and though it's not a straight shot by any means, it eventually ends with Rindo being forced into the same position he was seven years ago; finishing off his sister. Though Mikado pleads again, Rindo can't spare her this time because Kotone got hit in the battle and ended up hexed herself.

I kinda wanted him to go through with it, but Shizuku ends up crumbling on her own after stabbing Mikado for some reason, so he dies along with her. It felt a little cheap, but not unexpected since having Mikado go to jail might not be a fulfilling enough ending for a tragic romance and I guess the writer wanted to spare Rindo from doing a coup de grâce on his sister.

I did like the epilogue though. Rindo takes a leave of absence from the GPM since he obviously can't show up to work looking the way he does now and begins helping Kotone out at the cafe. The fact he's older than her, and now non-human to boot, doesn't seem as big an obstacle as it had earlier in the story. As Kotone says, her idea of normal is much different from most people because she's the owner of Enchanté.

Monday, February 15, 2021

VN Talk: Café Enchanté - Part 2: Canus

Canus was my first route in Café Enchanté and this entry and the posts to follow in this series will have spoilers.

As I mentioned in my overview, I ended up with Canus as my first route in a bit of an accident. I actually did like him a lot in the beginning. He's a character who takes himself so seriously it's funny, but because he also has the best of intentions, you don't knock him for it. In fact, I found that part of him rather endearing.

And as far as supernatural love interests go, a headless knight is fairly unusual, but the lack of a visible head doesn't mean a lack of expression. Canus has ghostly flames that emerge from his neck and they change color and intensity based on his mood. The game does not spell out what all the colors mean, though when the flames turn floofy pink it's not hard to figure out that he's flustered.

Canus's route deals mostly with his role in the fairy world of Medio and how it goes against the kind of person he is. We know from the common route that fairies are born into their purpose, and he's shunned by most of the others due to his position as the Fairy of Death, but no one at the cafe asks him why he's known as that, not even Kotone who notices his loneliness during her first visit to his world.
Medio is one of the realities that has had repeated contact with the human world (which is why humans have fairies in folklore) and their world is dominated by the giant tree Yggdrasil, but we learn that Yggdrasil is not a benevolent tree so much as a invasive species from Earth that has grown wildly out of control in its new habitat. So even though it forms the homes of the fairies and their queen resides in its heart, it doesn't care anything about them. It might be magical, but it's still a tree.

And it's a very big tree that needs a lot of sustenance in order to survive. As it turns out, Yggdrasil eats fairies. If it's given the soul of a dead fairy once a month it remains in a dormant state where the rest of Medio gets to go about its business. If it wakes up, well, that's really bad news, and the last time Yggdrasil got wound up, only 10% of the fairy population survived.

This is where Canus comes in as the Fairy of Death. The Fairy of Death is responsible for culling the fairy population so that Yggdrasil remains dormant. It's a sucky job, but someone has to do it, and Canus was literally born to do so. (Fairies don't have children. If there is a need, a new one is born. So Canus was born after the last Fairy of Death died.) Being a kind-hearted soul, Canus is unhappy that his job requires him to kill in order to preserve the greater good, and though it's not directly spelled out, it's pretty obvious that he cherishes his time in the human world because it allows him to be the noble and helpful person that he wants to be.

Canus is ridiculously popular with the humans who live, work, and go to school around the cafe (thanks to Misyr's magic preventing them from thinking too hard about the helmet he wears wherever he goes) and he's all too happy to help them with any issues they're having. No job is too small.
Being a straightforward person, Canus's story doesn't have much in the way of surprises. Kotone starts visiting Medio more often and becomes better friends with Queen Titania and her irritable sibling Vennia, and that's when she happens to catch a glimpse of Canus doing his job. Unable to reconcile what she saw with the Canus she knows, she eventually confronts him about it, and, well, Canus doesn't take it very well.

Though he certainly understands Kotone's concern, he doesn't want to explain himself and doesn't want to get her involved. He can't change his job, so he distances himself in the worst way possible; telling her that it's not her business to get so involved with a customer. Her grandfather was never this much of a busybody and that's the kind of relationship he wants with the cafe. And then he stops going there.

Of course, even if he's going to sulk, everyone else at the cafe knows Canus is being stupid and encourages Kotone to have a heart to heart with him, which she eventually does. And I love that she absolutely takes him to task for his terrible communication skills. She gets through to him that she's not her grandfather so she's not going to run the cafe exactly like he did, and she's worried about him, which breaks down Canus's barriers so he becomes willing to speak honestly about how he really feels.
It's pretty adorable how he lists all the things he loves about her cafe, not the least of which is her.

But that confession is actually in the second to last chapter rather than the end of the story, because there's actually a second plot going on involving Vennia and Yggdrasil. In addition to the dead fairy a month, Yggdrasil feeds slowly off a single fairy who is connected to the tree via a "throne" that allows her a limited ability to command it. This fairy is known as the World Tree Bride (a fancy title given in acknowledgment of her sacrifice) and is currently Titania. Vennia, being a devoted younger sibling, doesn't want their sister to die to feed a tree, and hasn't given up on saving her even though a previous attempt by their eldest sister to kill Yggdrasil failed.

Once Vennia sees that Canus is in love with Kotone, they put their plan in motion and manage to swap Titania with Kotone. Since Kotone is now one being drained, and she's not a fairy who can properly bond with Yggdrasil, Canus is forced to take on a rampaging world tree (which has woken up and gone crazy due to a wormhole damaging its roots) that is wildly killing fairies left and right.

There's a nice moment when the rest of the cafe gang shows up and helps evacuate all the fairies in Medio by leading them through the gate to safety. This leaves Canus free to rescue Kotone and ultimately kill Yggdrasil, ending the cycle of feeding the tree for good. It wasn't a plot twist of an ending, but was pretty much what to expect with a headless knight who serves as the muscle of the group.
The epilogue was sweet if a little more forward than I expected. The fairies start rebuilding Medio and Canus (who's a hobby gardener) has been helping new plants grow, so he wants to eventually become known as the Fairy of Life. (Cheesy, but I get it.) He also proposes marriage to Kotone, in a delightfully Jane Austin style speech where he highlights his own faults, but also his desire to be with her. It was a lovely proposal, but my issue with it is that we didn't really get to see enough bonding moments between the two for marriage to seem the natural next step. They obviously like each other, but barely moved past the being friends stage before Vennia's plan went into motion.

I can see Canus proposing, because it's established that marriage is a foreign concept to fairies and he has no way of gauging that he could be moving too fast, but Kotone's acceptance feels like it's more the need to tie off a happy ending than something she should be jumping into.

Aside from that though, it was a decent enough route and I enjoyed myself. But it's overall one of the weaker options in Café Enchanté, which only becomes evident after playing the other routes. Because of that, I really recommend playing it first as it would likely be disappointing if played after any of the others.

Monday, February 8, 2021

VN Talk: Café Enchanté - Part 1: Overview

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

Platform: Switch
Release: 2020

Café Enchanté shares a lot of its staff with the team behind my favorite otome, Code:Realize, including one of the writers, so I ended up looking forward to it a bit more than I would have otherwise considering its low stakes premise.

Kotone Awaki inherits her grandfather's cafe after he passes away, and the cafe itself sits on a dimensional gate leading to other worlds. Because of this, the cafe's customers are almost exclusively non-humans (though with human enough forms that romance does not look out of the question). The regulars are initially dismayed over the death of Kotone's grandfather, who had been a valued friend and father figure to all of them, even those who are much older than him in terms of sheer age, but they quickly get behind her when she decides to continue running the cafe in her grandfather's stead.

Though each of the regulars is extremely powerful compared to the average human, and in most cases are important people in their respective homeworlds, the cafe is a place where they can relax and get away from expectations. Canus, the headless knight, isn't shunned for his association with death. Ignis, the demon beast, doesn't have to constantly brawl in battles for superiority.
In keeping with the cafe being a place to hang with friends, the story is low key and episodic (up until the route split). There's no overarching quest that must be resolved before the end of the game, though there are certainly seeds planted that can crop up again on individual routes, but it's not like reaching the World in Norn9 or Cardia's search for the truth about herself and her father in Code:Realize. One chapter will be about learning to run the cafe, another will be about a particular incident that happens at the cafe, and so on.

I particularly like that Kotone's grandfather, Souan, continues to be relevant beyond the game's introduction as the cafe regulars mourn his loss in their own way, and we get to hear stories of what their interactions with him were like.

Kotone, though young and inexperienced as a proprietor, throws herself into her work with gusto, and though she has no powers herself, she manages to be a proactive protagonist on the majority of the routes. Admittedly I was worried when I watched the opening movie and most of the images of her show her looking shocked or uncomfortable, but it's more like the movie editor primarily chose images where looking shocked or uncomfortable made sense, rather than the images where she looks happy or at least neutral. Kotone is a nice person who wants to be helpful, but she's willing to put her foot down (and does, multiple times) when necessary.
When the game finally splits to a particular character's route it feels more like the route is the start of another day in the life of the cafe rather than a culmination of what has come before. Kotone's narration even wraps up the end of the common route with a bookend narration that feels very much like the end of a TV season.

This episodic storytelling works both for and against the game. On the one hand, it's refreshing that Kotone doesn't have personal baggage that must be resolved by the end of the game, and it allows her wants and desires to be flexible according to the chosen route. On the other hand, there's minimal plot build-up, no anticipation for what happens next, because each chapter prior to route-split tends to be relatively self-contained.

This isn't helped by the fact that Chapters 4-8 are also very obviously designated as showcase chapters for the different love interests, complete with character specific artwork for the chapter panels. I actually thought I'd entered route lock at first because that's not normal for an Otomate title.

At first it was novel getting to know Canus a bit more (since he's Chapter 4) and I loved Rindo's chapter (Chapter 5) which I thought built really well on what we learned from Canus's. But Ignis's (Chapter 6) had little to do with anything we'd learned before, and by the time I got to Il's (Chapter 7) I was tiring of the character episode treatment, because by then the pattern was fairly apparent. Misyr's (Chapter 8) picks up with signs of larger problems that make things exciting again (though it oddly seems as much about Rindo as Misyr), but none of those really matter until you're on his route, which is locked behind completion of the other four.
While the showcase chapters are nice for getting to know the individual characters and what drives them they can be a little too focused, with the rest of the cafe regulars falling too far into supporting roles. While they're never absent entirely, and in some cases you can make choices that favor them, the character focus felt less like a natural outgrowth of the story and more like this is [insert name]'s turn to shine because everyone needs a chapter.

This hurts some characters more than others. I really liked Canus in the beginning, but by the time I got through Misyr's chapter he'd dropped out of focus so much that I'd actually moved most of my emotional investment on to Rindo (who does a better job of staying relevant in chapters other than his own).

It also made it incredibly awkward when my first playthrough ended up pairing me with Canus. I didn't mind once I got on Canus's route, and I was quite happy with what I got, but it just felt weird at the beginning of it because he was no longer the primary love interest in my head by the time his route started.
Normally I'd have put up a spoiler warning near the start of this article because this game is less than a year old and I'd want to talk about deeper themes or the overall story, but in this case, there isn't much in common between the different routes and most of them do not tie together in any way. I will say though that the game is not as light-hearted and fluffy as the opening movie would suggest. Aside from possibly Canus's route (which for that reason I think should be played first), the others are substantially more grim, and I've heard fans use "bittersweet" more than once to describe the true nature of Café Enchanté.

Before going on to the character specific routes, there are two specific things I'd like to bring up. The first is that this game surprisingly has a non-binary character in Vennia. In their own words they do not identify with a gender and the English translation uses they/them pronouns for the entirely of the common route.

However, because they don't care about which pronouns are used for them, Kotone eventually settles on referring to them as Titania's little brother in Canus's route, likely because Japanese uses gender-specific words for elder vs younger siblings and the gender neutral word for sibling does not specify birth order. Once that happens, Vennia becomes he/him not only for Kotone, but in the narration and the dialogue for every other character for the rest of the route. I was disappointed in that since Kotone's personal decision shouldn't immediately impact everyone else.
The other issue is the editing quality. I really don't like bringing up text issues in a visual novel, because I'm a writer. I know how typos slip in and the longer the work, the more likely it is that something will pass through the spellchecker because it's perfectly spelled but it's the wrong word. But even for a visual novel, Café Enchanté's error rate is on the high side. It's not Collar x Malice level egregious where one translation flat out didn't make sense and text strings got scrambled in Aiji's route, but it's a fairly consistent typo here, typo there, missing a word here, using a similarly spelled but incorrect word there, and given that the translation has a professional level of polish when it's not tripping over itself, it feels like Café Enchanté was done in a rush without any time for proofreading.

Probably the biggest sign that the game needed a proofread is that there are multiple instances of names and terminology being translated differently. For instance, Vennia is called Venir (a legitimate alternate way of writing the character's name) in one particular chapter and the sea beasts are sometimes called paku depending on which route you're on and whether you're looking at the in-game glossary.

What likely happened is we had at least two translators working on the game and there was no cross-checking between them to see whether they were translating things differently, and those two examples are just a couple of the instances where names and terms didn't line up. This becomes really apparent if you open the glossary every time a new entry unlocks in the narration and dialogue, because the term that triggers the entry will often not match the title of the entry itself.

All of this should have been caught and addressed before release, and the fact it wasn't leads me to believe it was a rush job to meet the manufacturing deadline. The game isn't unplayable, I still enjoyed it, but it's definitely a lower quality of translation than I'd normally expect.

Next week I'm going to talk about Canus's route.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Another Health Update

It's been a while, so I figure it's time for another update.

I am currently done with chemo. I was scheduled for four two-week rounds of chemotherapy prior to surgery, and the last of those two week periods has ended. Now I'm recovering and my goal is to gain weight and exercise. No date for surgery has been set yet, because it will depend on what my weight and overall health looks like as we get closer to the middle of the month.

The expectation is that I'll lose a lot of weight after surgery (since part of my stomach will be removed and I won't be able to eat solid food for while) so I need to pack on the pounds in order to have something to lose. The surgeon doesn't want me to become a skeleton, and chemo has been making my weight yo-yo up and down. Now that it's done, my weight is more up, but still not as high as the surgeon would like it to be.

I don't know whether or not the chemotherapy has been effective yet, though I'm hoping it has been. I had a CT scan last week and have a doctor's appointment this week to go over the results. Fingers crossed the thickening of my stomach has gone down so they have a better idea of where the cancer is vs what was inflamation due to the cancer.

On a somewhat related note, my blogging will likely continue without much interruption even once surgery is underway. I can queue posts in advance, so if I can finish assembling them before I go in, the blog can run without me for a few weeks or more while I recover (though hopefully it will not be that long!). I played a number of visual novels while laid up with cancer treatment, so I've got a Cafe Enchante series of posts as well as single posts for Hatoful Boyfriend and Our Life: Beginnings and Always that should carry this blog through to the end of March.

Monday, January 18, 2021

My Favorite Anime of 2020

Ironically, despite spending so much time at home due to Covid in 2020, I actually watched less. Part of it was a lull in the number of series I was actually interested in, but also (as happened last year while I was dealing with cancer) my daily ritual of coming home and watching a half hour of anime while eating dinner didn't happen anymore. It wasn't that I wasn't eating dinner anymore, but the ritual changed and I ended up reading the news instead.

I did see a few things though, and here they are, presented in the order I watched them.

Carole & Tuesday

When this first came out, I remember it being a "big deal" because the series was from the same director as the beloved Cowboy Bebop, but the reason I watched it was more for the music and the light sci-fi touch to the story, which places it on a terraformed Mars where musical acts are supported by computers that will generate the hit songs for them. The first half is a lot of fun, the second not so much, but the two leads are energetic (one being a person of color who isn't drawn as a caricature) and the music is fantastic. It feels very much like a love letter from the Japanese director to western music.

My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!

I was already planning on buying the novel series before I started watching, and after I did, that cemented it. The series is obviously fond of romance games and since protagonist Catarina has been reborn inside the last video game she played, she actually knows some of what's about to happen and she doesn't like it! Catarina's attempts to avoid death and exile (as the villainous rival character) start from her childhood years and she's so caught up in trying to cheat fate that she completely misses how good everything has become for her.

Psycho-Pass 3: First Inspector

The movie that wraps up Psycho-Pass Season 3. Surprisingly, given the limited run time, it manages to do exactly that in a satisfying manner while also setting up for a fourth season. Not every question gets answered, but it hits all the major ones while still being entertaining as a movie. Watching Season 3 beforehand is a must, as there is no attempt to get the viewer up to speed.

Norn 9

Adaptation of the Norn9 visual novel following a group of young people gifted with special powers on a journey to see the World on a magnificent flying ship, the Norn. I liked this a fair bit better than most otome adaptations because of its effort to integrate multiple storylines while still serving up the main plot. In some cases it actually does better than the source material, and the original ending is on par with those in game (or even better for some characters).

Bofuri: I Don't Want to Get Hurt, so I'll Max Out My Defense

This isn't really a series for the ages, but it's a nice look at what virtual reality gaming can be when it's not trapping people in the world of the game or turning everything into a death match. Maple is a complete VR MMO newbie and as such, makes new player mistakes in her character build because no one honestly expects anyone to play like that, but she makes it work. She's so good natured that no one really faults her for playing her way (especially since playing her way actually works for her) and even the people in rival guilds are really just rivals because they're having a guild vs guild match and not because people bear grudges. This makes it a nice series to cuddle up with.

Monday, January 11, 2021

My Favorite Games of 2020

I'm getting better at not buying more games than I can consume in a year, but I still play the occasional free-to-play indie title and wind up with a number of commercial games through promotional giveaways. The result is that I rarely play any game in its year of release unless it's a part of a favorite series, and even then, depending on how busy I am, a much anticipated game might get postponed.

These are the 12 games I liked enough to finish for the first time in 2020, in the order I played them. If the game is available on multiple platforms, the one I played on is listed first. My top three picks of the year are marked with an asterisk (*).

AI: The Somnium Files (Switch, PS4, Windows) *

I didn't think I'd find one of my top 3 games right out of the gates, especially since it had a fair number of early road bumps that would have turned me off had this been any other game. Date and his AI partner Aiba make for a winning team though, and I lived for their banter. By the time I was about a third to halfway in I was seriously invested, and by the time I finished I was sad that it was over. This might be a game about solving gruesome murders, but the frequent moments of levity keeps it from getting too dark. I also like Date for being able to keep a professional face for his job while being a complete dork on the inside. It makes him highly relatable.

Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly (PS Vita, Windows) *

A mystery visual novel with romantic overtones. The mystery element is an overwhelming part of the main story, with the romance tacked on as alternate and arguably optional endings so this is probably not a first choice for romance fans, but the mystery is fantastic with two big twists which put a number of events in a different context on replay. Though the characters start out as five strangers trapped within a mysterious manor, there's so much about that statement that isn't necessarily true or doesn't properly represent their true situation.

9:05 (Web)

I played this little text adventure web game because it was in an article I read about the best video game endings and it promised that it was a short 5 minute playthrough. I think it was actually closer to 10 for me and I did not like the surprise ending. Ironically, 9:05 was created to show why it's a bad idea as a game writer to hide certain things from the player, and in that respect it works beautifully. So I agree with the author, that this is supposed to be bad!

Valkyria Chronicles (PS3, PS4, Switch, Windows)

If you ever wanted a change of pace from medieval fantasy and far future sf for your strategy RPG, Valkyria Chronicles has you covered with its WW2-inspired low fantasy gameplay. The small touches like having characters break line of sight, take cover in tall grass or behind bunkers, are details you just don't get in similar titles out of Japan. Magic is rare so most of your squad consists of regular people running around with guns, and each one of them is an individual with their own backstory. The watercolor-inspired art style still holds up twelve years later, and the overarching story does too.

The Sexy Brutale (Windows, PS4, Switch, XB1)

I'm not entirely sure what to call this. Maybe a puzzle-adventure game? The protagonist is stuck in a time loop inside a marquis's manor and is tasked with saving the guests from the mansion's murderous staff. Though the subject matter is dark, the game itself is more of a black comedy, with staff taking a certain amount of glee in their over-the-top murders (and the sheer variety of ways they can off someone). By taking advantage of the time loop, the protagonist can learn which events need to change in order to prevent a murder, and each "solved" murder gives new abilities that can be used later in the game. Took me about 9 hours to complete, which felt like just the right length for this kind of game.

Return of the Obra Dinn (Windows, PS4, Switch, XB1) *

As chief inspector of the East India company, the player is dispatched to investigate the listless Obra Dinn, which has drifted into port with damaged sails and no sign of the crew. Armed with a mysterious watch that allows the wielder to see and listen to a dead person's final moments, the inspector is tasked with documenting what happened to all the souls on board. There are no jump scares, but the atmosphere can get unnerving just because there are a lot of dead people to catalog and most of them did not go out on pleasant terms. A lot of the gameplay is unraveling the mystery, so the less you know going in, the better.

Norn9: Var Commons (PS Vita)

Otome visual novel following a group of espers on a flying ship in an alternate 1919. Unusual for having three playable protagonists, all voiced, and a total of nine fully fleshed out romance routes. One of the better otome I've played, but really faceplanted on anything that wasn't romance, resulting in unanswered questions and a half-baked frame story. Taken in pieces it's fine, but this is a case where the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Some of the parts are pretty good though!

Path of Exile (Windows, PS4, XB1)

Gritty action-RPG in the style of the Diablo series. You mass murder monsters and they drop loot. It's free to play and microtransactions are only for cosmetics or quality of life (like additional storage space beyond the generously sized stash they give you to begin with). The skill tree is pretty gnarly, but as a result it's super customizable so if you want to do something weird like a melee witch or a cold-blasting ranger you can. Path of Exile has a feature called "leagues" where every three months a new league is introduced with its own special set of mechanics to liven up the game and give something new for players to do. Leagues can be hit or miss, but the right mechanic can add enough spice to play through the game again.

Murder By Numbers (Windows, Switch)

Murder mystery game combined with solving nonograms to earn clues. Music is by the same composer as the Ace Attorney series and it really shows. Most of the tunes are really good, though they may start to grate if you're slow at solving puzzles (I had to mute a couple times because I couldn't take them anymore). The mysteries are entertaining with the usual colorful group of characters for this type of game, and considering the game takes place in Los Angeles, the cast is fairly diverse with a woman of color in the lead role. I would have to say though that I'm not good enough at nonograms to love this game though, and there was a point where I had to take a long break, not because I lost interest in the story, but because I honestly couldn't look at another nonogram, and that may impact your enjoyment of the game.

Cafe Enchante (Switch)

Romance game based around the owner of a cafe that serves a group of non-human regulars. The first half of the game is very low stakes, slice of life storytelling, which makes it a bit jarring when things go off the rails in the second half for most of the routes. Three of the five endings are on the bittersweet side, which I did not expect given the fluffy intro about life in a cafe with non-humans (with all that absolutely gorgeous food art). I enjoyed this game a lot, and I hope it gets a sequel/fandisk, but I also have a lot of bones to pick with it.

Hatoful Boyfriend (Windows, PS4, PS Vita, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS)

I technically finished this back in 2015, but only did one ending and never got to the fabled Bad Boys Love ending which turns the rest of the game on its head. Now that I have, I'd have to say that the world building is pretty good and deceptively deeper than you would expect from a game that presents itself as a high school romance with pigeons. The gameplay itself is not to my tastes though (I found several of the choices to be too arbitrary and I dislike stat building in visual novels) so I wouldn't have given it another shot if not for a walkthrough.

Capcom Beat 'Em Up Bundle (Switch, PS4, XB1, Windows)

Technically seven games in one since this is a collection of Capcom's old beat 'em up arcade brawlers, but because they're all short individually I decided to count them together. Final Fight is the most polished of the bunch and is the marquee title, but I bought it for The King of Dragons which is my childhood favorite. I also enjoyed Knights of the Round and Warriors of Fate, though I wish the latter had been accurately translated as a Romance of the Three Kingdoms game.