Monday, January 16, 2017

My Favorite Games of 2016

My gaming backlog is something impressive, as I typically buy a few more than I can play in any given year, and then those extras build up. 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.

But I'm not adverse to playing older games. As long as the gameplay is still there I generally don't care. Maybe that's the same for you?

These are the nine games I liked enough to finish for the first time in 2016, in the order I played them.

Virtue's Last Reward *

I enjoyed 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors for the Nintendo DS, so I intended to pick up the sequel, but took a while due to a bugged 3DS version (now patched) and not having a Vita at the time.

Virtue's Last Reward is quite simply the strongest entry in the Zero Escape series. Science, pseudo-science, multiple universes, time travel, non-linear gameplay, and an incredible cast of characters made this a joy to play. I was up at 3am with tears in my eyes (on a work night!) because I had to see a particularly bittersweet sequence through. Fair warning there is a lot of reading, and the gameplay is all making choices and escape room mechanics, but if that's even remotely your bag it's worth playing.

It'll mean more if you play 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors first, but the good news is that both games are coming to Steam in a remastered edition.

Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest

I was looking forward to Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest, and despite the child problems I blogged about, I enjoyed it. It was refreshing to have a game so focused on family and divided loyalties. I really liked the moral gray area that Corrin and her siblings occupied and as mentioned in my RPG Talk entry, I like that the final confrontation features Corrin standing together with her siblings rather than Corrin plus love interest and motley band of heroes. Familial relationships are usually set behind the romantic ones in games, so having family placed before everything else makes this unique.

Zero Time Dilemma

Zero Time Dilemma had a hell of a lot of hype to live up to, and at the end of the day I don't think it's going to be anyone's favorite out of the Zero Escape series, but it's still an enjoyable game. It keeps a lot of the same mechanics from Virtue's Last Reward, but suffers from a less satisfying mastermind than the other two. There's also a plot twist that people tend to either love or hate. But that said, it does a decent job of wrapping up the series, the escape rooms are still fun, and offers a lot of emotional rewards for fans of the previous two.

Code Realize: Guardian of Rebirth

This is the best otome game I've played to date. I would have liked to include it in my top three games of the year, and it was a narrow miss. Otome games are usually given lackluster, passive protagonists to serve as the female player insert, but not Cardia. That girl is amazing, whether she's piloting an airship, busting herself out of confinement, or being a supportive girlfriend, because why can't one person do all of that. The boyfriends are more interesting than average, with only one route that really bored me. If there's any fault to this game I'd say it's locking Lupin's route behind everyone else's and making it so clearly the "real" route.

Danganronpa: Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls

Ultra Despair Girls is a little strange in that I don't think it's a particular good game, though I still finished it. It's a third person shooter, which is a strange genre jump for what had been a visual novel series. I only played it when I did because the Danganronpa 3 anime had Monaca, who originated in this game. The story isn't bad, it asks good questions and even clears up some others (like where did Junko Enoshima get all those crazy robots), but I'm not a shooter fan and I can't imagine the overlap between visual novels, shooters, and Danganronpa is enough to justify this game's existence. If you suck at shooters though, there's no story penalty for playing on easy. You can still see the whole thing.

Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice

I still haven't posted my VN Talk for this, but the sixth entry in the Ace Attorney series was a bumpy ride. It was good, but it wasn't great, and I think this is mostly due to character bloat. Dual Destinies had three lawyer protagonists so by golly Spirit of Justice has to too, even when the game can't quite figure out what to do with them. Unlike Dual Destinies, where the story honestly belongs to all of them, when it comes down to it, Spirit of Justice is really about Apollo, but the writing tries to showcase everyone, including several supporting characters, which results in a lack of focus. But if you like Apollo, this is the game to play as he has his best moments.

This War of Mine *

I waffled a lot on whether to buy This War of Mine because the vertical cut-away view of the buildings made me think of old platformers I was terrible at, but This War of Mine needs very little in the way of reflexes. I bought it for the for miserable experience of surviving as a civilian in an urban warzone and I was not disappointed. There's no tutorial, but the basics can be picked up by point and click, which feels oddly immersive, as the characters you're tasked with caring for have no idea how they're going to make ends meet either.

Chances are, a first playthrough is going to be unsuccessful. People will die along the way, and you'll feel awful, which is the point. You get to put down the game and go home whereas the people who really lived this life could not. It was a sobering realization. (This War of Mine was inspired by the real world Siege of Sarajevo.)

The Room

This was a purchase based on a friend's recommendation because we both like escape rooms. While you're not escaping anything in The Room, the type of puzzle solving is familiar to anyone who has done escape rooms, and it's a affordable fix that can be done in an afternoon or two. The story is minimal and the atmosphere creepy, though it's manageable for those who scare easily (with one possible exception during the ending, but you've solved everything by then). I'm skipping the sequel because I react poorly to jump scares, even the ones that are so mild that most people wouldn't even consider them jump scares.

Civilization V *

When Civilization VI came out, I realized I wanted to play a Civ game again, but rather than getting the latest and greatest at full price, I decided to pick up Civilization V during a Steam sale, which netted me the base game and all the expansions and DLC for under $14. This turned out to be $14 well spent as I've now logged an embarrassing amount of hours on it. It's a lot of strategy and management to bring my chosen civilization to victory, but fun since the AI leaders of other civilizations have their own personalities. I had a really good tussle with Caesar in my Carthage campaign, which felt appropriate.

My only complaint is that Europe feels over-represented in the number of civilizations available. There are multiple options for a continent like Africa, with Carthage, Morocco, Ethiopia, Egypt, Songhai, and Zulu available, which show that the game designers did put effort into avoiding a Eurocentric world, but it feels like it's not enough when 15 of the 43 civilizations are European (17 if one counts Byzantium and Ottoman, which I'm not since they're partially in the mideast), making them slightly more than a third of what's available.

As I did with my book roundup, the three games I tagged with an asterisk (*) were my favorites of the year and definitely worth playing.

I'd also like to mention the four games I replayed this year since it's rare that I replay anything, and four is unprecedented.

Fire Emblem: Awakening (second time)
Dragon Age II (third time)
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (third time)
Danganronpa 2: Good-bye Despair (second time)

The Danganronpa games were mostly because of the anime and wanting to relive the experience, but Fire Emblem: Awakening and Dragon Age II were purely unprompted, with the former having happened before the release of Fire Emblem Fates.

Monday, January 9, 2017

My Favorite Books of 2016

I didn't read nearly as much as I'd wanted to in 2016, though I read more than the list below suggests since I'm omitting my research books. It's hard to stack up a historical non-fiction piece with novels and anthologies since they're read for so many different reasons.

That said, these are the nine books I enjoyed enough to finish, and in the order I read them. Maybe you'll want to check them out too.

Thief of Songs by M.C.A. Hogarth *

Thief of Songs is what Hogarth describes as a pastoral romance; low stakes, not a lot of drama, lots of sweetness. It made the long list for the James Tiptree Jr Award, and features a world where there are four genders; female, male, hermaphrodite, and neuter. The world building is amazing and feels like a living place, though the hermaphrodite pronouns are a little hard to get used to at first since they don't map to any real world ones (as far as I know).

Justice Calling by Annie Bellet

Annet Bellet's Justice Calling is the first in her Twenty-Sided Sorceress series and stuffed full of pop culture geeky references centered around magic. I'm not usually an urban fantasy reader, but this was fun and I have the second book in my to-be-read pile.

A Song for No Man's Land by Andy Remic

World War I is one of my favorite settings (as most of my writer friends are well aware of, considering the stuff I send them) and Andy Remic's dark fantasy take on it is really dark, melding what's real and what's not with the horror of the trenches. This is the first in a trilogy and again I already have the second book waiting to be read.

Romancing the Null by Tina Gower

Disclaimer, I got a review copy of this one since Tina is a friend. That said, Romancing the Null is a fun urban fantasy romp through the eyes of an actuary for fantastical events. The fact her profession is such an unusual one (and not one pre-disposed towards ass-kicking) is what makes this fun.

Baccano: The Rolling Bootlegs by Ryohgo Narita

Baccano is one of my favorite anime series and the original novels are finally being translated into English! It's a hot mess (in a good way) when mobsters, an alchemist seeking immortality, and two cuckoo thieves get mixed up in the transit of a few bottles of alcohol that are totally not the booze most people take them for.

Spice and Wolf Vol 10 by Isuna Hasekura

Spice and Wolf is my guilty pleasure. Hasekura is not the strongest writer out there, but he still manages to spin a charming romance between a wolf goddess and an ordinary merchant who don't want their time together to come to an end. Volume 10 takes them to a monastery heavily in debt that might have the bones of Holo's fellow wolves, which leads to the usual economic shenanigans the series is known for.

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone *

Gladstone's Craft Sequence is supposed to be readable in any order since the volumes are stand alone, but I figured I'd start with the first, and I have to say that after reading it, I'm really going to miss Tara when I move on to the next! She's easily my favorite new protagonist of the books I've read this year, for being so creative in how she gets the job done. And the setting doesn't hurt either, being a sort of early 20th century magic-tech society.

Another by Yukito Ayatsuji *

Though there is an anime based on Another, Ayatsuji's original is much, much better, with a lot more details fleshed out. Kouichi Sakakibara gets a late start at his new school, and when he gets there, he discovers there is a supernatural phenomenon that is periodically killing the students and families of those in class 3. It sounds like a creepy horror novel, but in practice plays out like a whodunnit mystery, as there are rules to the phenomenon involving how a dead person can masquerade as one of the living.

Writers of the Future Vol 32 (anthology)

I almost always read the latest of these, since I know so many of the writers who end up in them. There's a wide variety so subgenres can jump drastically from story to story. This approach might not work for someone looking for a theme, but there's more than likely something that appeals. My favorite this year is "A Glamour in Black" by Sylvia Anna Hiven, for being so creepy and having the best reveal at the end.

The three novels I tagged with an asterisk (*) were my favorites of the year, the ones I considered the page turners where I tried to get a few more pages in every night before going to bed. I can't recommend them enough.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Top 5 Blog Posts of 2016

Hey everyone, Happy New Year!

This is the first year that I've (mostly) managed a blog post a week, and as is typical of who I am and what I do, most of the blog's content has been about video games, anime, and my writing. Traffic has jumped up quite a bit since I start posting regularly, so what do you know, more and regular content works.

Since this is the first year I've been so prolific, I figure now is a good time to look back at which posts were the most popular, starting with the Top 5 in reverse order.

We start with...

#5 - VN Talk: Zero Time Dilemma - Non-Linear With Style

I played Zero Time Dilemma very close to launch so I was able to talk about it while the property was still hot. Like most of my VN (Visual Novel) Talk series, it covers what I thought of the plot and how it was handled. I wasn't surprised that this landed in the top 5, and in fact, it wasn't my only post on the subject.

#4 - #My5: My Five Writing Influences

This was the shared creative influence post between me, K. M. Alexander, Mike Ripplinger, and Eric Lange, which no doubt helped drive traffic to my blog that it wouldn't have gotten otherwise. I talk a lot about the different media sources that had an implact on my work, and some of them are fairly non-standard!

#3 - 5 Writing Lessons I Learned from Zero Time Dilemma

I still want to write a non-linear time-bending story just because Zero Time Dilemma was so damn fun with all its timeline hopping, decision making, and the characters being conscious of it all and as often as not, not giving a damn. It wasn't perfect, but there was lot to like in this game and because I can't write like Kotaro Uchikoshi (yet) I will have to quietly brood in a corner about it, for now.

#2 - Fire Emblem Fates' Child Problem

This was another gaming post for the hugely popular Fire Emblem series that again I was playing relatively close to launch so I was able to tap into the player base more. Fates wasn't necessarily a bad game, but it suffered from trying to be everything that Awakening was but better, and living under that shadow meant that it had to keep features (like the child system) even when it no longer made sense.

#1 - Voltron Legendary Defender: Changing My Favorite Character was the Best Thing They Could Have Done

Far and away my most popular post of 2016 was my explanation for why changing Sven into Shiro for Voltron Legendary Defender was the best decision ever. Seriously, this post had more views than the other four combined, so if you want an essay about representation, my childhood, and pictures showing why I was so happy Takashi Shirogane is Asian again, this is it!

Here's to more posting, more writing, more gaming, and more anime in 2017!

Monday, December 19, 2016

"Poison Maiden, Open Skies" now up at IGMS #54

My latest short story "Poison Maiden, Open Skies" went live a few days ago at Orson Scott Card's Intergalatic Medicine Show as part of their special Festivals on the Front holiday issue.

"Poison Maiden, Open Skies" is about a group of women who were caught in a chemical explosion at the munitions factory where they worked, turning them into literally poisonous women, who constantly emit a cloud of deadly poison around them.

Together they now form Harpy Squad, a special assault team the British use against the Germans on the Western Front, but even though their abilities now make them invaluable living weapons, the women hold out hope for a cure and a return to a normal life.

The amazing art for my story is by Nicole Cardiff, and you can pretty much see what happens to the hapless souls who have the bad luck to just be standing near them.

Monday, December 12, 2016

My 2016 Award Eligibility Post

It's the last month of the year, so it's time for eligibility posts. Cat Rambo, our SFWA president, is encouraging everyone to make them, and I do have a few things that are eligible for the Nebula and Hugo awards this year.

All of them are short stories. If you'd like a review copy, please shoot me an e-mail.

In publication order, my works are:

"Confidence Game" - Galaxy's Edge, January 2016 - An ex-con man turned magician gets roped into back into his old work, by the space station authorities no less. Sleight of hand in space!

"The World That You Want" - Galaxy's Edge, July 2016
- The demon apocalypse happened and most of humanity died in the ensuing months, but Joan continues to survive because she can reconcile her existence with the that of the demons.

"The Final Gift of Zhuge Liang" - Swords v Cthulhu (anthology), 2016 - Jiang Wei is saddled with the impossible expectation of becoming the successor to Zhuge Liang, the greatest general the kingdom of Shu has ever known.

"Hunters of the Dead" - Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, September 2016
- Wild magic marks the site of an ancient war, causing the dead to rise in search of a battle that has long ended. The king has abandoned those lands, but the hunters have not.

"Poison Maiden, Open Skies" - Intergalactic Medicine Show, December 2016 - The women of Harpy Squad are literally poisonous thanks to an accident in a munitions factory. Now there is no place they can safely exist, save as weapons on the battlefield.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Anime Talk: Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak High School

My non-spoilery review of Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak Academy, both Future Arc and Despair Arc will be up at Diabolical Plots later this month with the rest of my anime reviews, so if you don't want to be spoiled, check out my thoughts over there. What this post is about is all the things I couldn't discuss due to being spoilers that came up midway through the series, or even at the finale.

Mostly, I figured this was the best way to wrap-up the Danganronpa series that I've been doing on my blog, seeing as this is the conclusion to the Hope's Peak Academy storyline. (Annoyingly, Funimation and Aksys differ in their translations, so you'll often see me revert to the game translations; i.e. "academy" instead of "high school.")

How does Danganronpa 3 serve as a capstone for the games and does it work?

Obviously, spoilers for all games and the anime from here on out!

Danganronpa 3 had three things that the series needed to address. 1) It had to deal with Makoto facing the Future Foundation's ire after having saved the Remnants of Despair in Danganronpa 2. 2) It had to deal with Monaca and her grooming to become the next Junko Enoshima. 3) Though not a plot issue, it also had to deal with the retirement of veteran voice actor Nobuyo Ōyama, who was the voice of series antagonist Monokuma, whose sadistic brand of creepy cute is what defines much of Danganronpa.

I'll tackle the last point first, in that the series deals with Ōyama's retirement by drastically cutting back on Monokuma's involvement, such that Junko Enoshima actually has nothing to do with the third killing game at all. Monokuma only shows up to make the characters believe that Junko is involved.

I don't know if this decision was made to accommodate the change in VA, but I did have difficulty adjusting to the new Monokuma (now voiced by Tarako) and the series did hurt for lack of Monokuma's involvement. The new killing game honestly felt like it was left on autopilot (and truthfully it was) since Monokuma did not show up to regularly taunt and tease the unwilling players.

Going back to the first point, the series does deliver on the promise of following the story of what happened to Makoto after he reported back. He gets thrown into another killing game, but he does report in and we see the friction between him and the various heads of the Future Foundation.

I think it's a testament to the writing that even with different translation teams, it's quite clear that Kyosuke Munakata, the vice-chairman of the Future Foundation, is the unnamed writer of an e-mail chewing out Makoto in Danganronpa 2.

As far as the second point goes, I think that series writer/director Kazutaka Kodaka was kicking himself for leaving that loose plot thread and teasing Monaca as the second coming of Junko Enoshima.

For one thing, she appeared in a side game, which means that a fair portion of the fan base never played it. (I did not until the anime came out and I wanted to get her backstory.) And for another, her existence makes it harder to plan a surprise revelation as to who the mastermind is, because the players who have played Ultra Despair Girls will be expecting her.

Danganronpa 3 has no choice but to include her if it's going to close off all the storylines, but having a villain come out of nowhere (for most viewers, since she is definitely not part of the Future Foundation) is a bad idea.

The TV series chooses to handle it by introducing an android version of Future Foundation member Miaya Gekkogahara, who was killed off camera before the series start. Fairly early on, Monaca is revealed to the audience as the controller behind Gekkogahara, and because of the early reveal, we know she can't be the mastermind. It's very rare that the audience finds out information before the protagonists, and something as critical as the mastermind's identity isn't going to come out in the first half of the series.

Eventually at the mid-point is there is a strange and mildly nonsensical side episode that is full of nothing but Ultra Despair Girls fanservice, which reveals that Monaca is not the mastermind and that she's actually done with the whole Despair crap.

It's played off as funny, with Monaca being a slacker in a trailer rather than a megalomaniac's base, and her dismissal of Nagito, who was going to train her to be Ultimate Despair, is likely to elicit a laugh from those who know what he's like.

But Monaca then exits the series and we don't know find any greater significance to her meddling. She does leave a couple clues behind for Makoto to puzzle over, but they don't really feel like they had to come from Monaca. We find out that she was an unrelated interloper, which makes her abrupt departure is unsatisfying. The game had built her up to be something, and Danganronpa 3 (prior to the trailer reveal) had done the same.

So when she finally leaves, it feels like all that time spent on her for little to no payoff was a waste.

I'm honestly not sure how it could have been handled better, but I think she should have been used for a second half reveal that could have counted for more, and it would have helped if she had participated in the game in person (like the previous masterminds). Having her depart in a side episode and relaying her clues by proxy was what really ruined her appearance.

Danganronpa 3 also had two sides to it, in order to make a whole. The Future Arc followed Makoto's story and the Despair Arc covered the lead-up to Danganronpa 1 and had the messy task of showing the backstories of the eventual Future Foundation members as well as how Junko Enoshima corrupted Class 77 (the main characters of Danganronpa 2).

While the two sides were good for building out the characters of the Future Foundation, the Despair Arc had far too much on its plate and unfortunately it needed to be a giant retcon mess in order to work.

Granted, we know Junko Enoshima can lie as it suits her, but there is no reason for her to lie at the end of Danganronpa 2 about what she did to Class 77. At that point in the story, she wants them to know the truth, because the truth is so horrible, that knowing it will bring them to the point of despair. If the survivors in Class 77 don't believe her, if they have reason to doubt, then her words won't have impact.

Junko and the assorted documents she reveals to them, tell the story of individuals who were corrupted and fell into despair. Even Izuru Kamukura, was described as simply being broken by her. It builds Junko up to be this horrifying human being, with the both the charisma and the capacity to cause hundreds of students to commit suicide in her name.

Lifting the curtain to see exactly how she did all that turns out to have been a poor decision as it comes down to brainwashing, and suddenly she's not really much of a boogeyman anymore. She's still a ruthless individual, but she's much more human and less a force of nature.

Izuru is not even that involved with her, so much as trying to decide whether he's more invested in Hope (which Junko says is boring and predictable) or Despair (which is chaos). But I will say that the Despair Arc does gift the series with the best reason for Izuru to have starting the second killing game. He says he can't decide between Hope and Despair, so he wants to see for himself which is stronger, and that provides the best reason, from his perspective, to upload the AI to the virtual world in Danganronpa 2.

Moving on to the ending, there are a few points I want to touch.

The Danganronpa series is known for its high body count, and while Danganronpa 3 is no different (seriously, so many Future Foundation members die), who dies bothers me. There are a couple of faked deaths in the series, and I'm fine with that. Juzo Sakakura surviving what had looked like a kill was freaking amazing! But what I had a problem with was plot immunity.

If this had been a conventional killing game by Monokuma, everyone would have had specific buttons pressed to make them go off the deep end, and Kyoko's forbidden action in the third killing game is making it past the fourth round if Makoto is still alive. She dies and it was the moment I'd been waiting for, because Makoto relies on her so heavily and he's closer to her than any of their other fellow survivors.

But the series seems to have trouble killing anyone who was not canonically dead at the end of their respective games. It chooses to err on the side of hope. If there was any way possible for someone to live and they came from Danganronpa 1 or 2, then they survived.

Kyoko was revived in an off-camera moment, so she could show up as a surprise to Makoto, and everyone from Danganronpa 2 has been restored from their brain dead/coma predicaments.

I was also a bit disappointed that the Danganronpa 2 cast looks perfectly healthy and in peak physical condition considering that they were supposed to have been maimed and abusing themselves while in Junko's service. The only nod to that is Fuyuhiko's eyepatch, which he sports in-game even in the virtual world.

The Danganronpa 2 cast also takes out specially trained military units which is kind of fun to watch, even though it's eye-rolling at the same time. Even though they're Ultimate students, that doesn't make them an elite combat unit.

The final bit that I wish to address is the main story itself. Danganronpa 3 is not a game related in Junko Enoshima, but rather the entire thing was engineered to produce the opposite effect. Instead of enforcing a world of despair, Kazuo Tengan wants to create a world of hope, and he intends to do it by showing Ryota Mitarai so much despair under the pretense that the Junko's followers are making a comeback, that Mitarai concludes the best thing to do is to brainwash the world into becoming a world of hope.

This is why brainwashing had to be used so much in the Despair Arc because Mitarai was the unwilling key to providing Junko the power she needed.

At the time Mitarai is finally set off, there are hardly any Future Foundation members left standing (only four remain in the killing game, including himself), so it's not surprising that he gets pushed off the deep end. He gets talked down from it by the Danganronpa 2 cast, who by rights should have been his classmates if fate hadn't intervened, and that was all right, but let's circle back to the game.

The third killing game, like the others, had another purpose besides causing despair to those immediately involved. But the execution of that purpose, was flawed. And while I might set lower expectations for Tengan than I would Junko, he does make a number of mistakes.

Tengan needs Mitarai alive at the end of the killing game in order for his plan to succeed. Mitarai gets involved on accident because he wasn't supposed to be at the meeting when everyone gets trapped and gassed unconscious. At this point, Tengan should have removed Mitarai from the game, and let it continue without him.

Sure, there would have been some comments about that, but his plan would have automatically failed if Mitarai had gotten killed, because the game is run on autopilot. Whoever is closest to a Monokuma monitor at the end of a round, gets brainwashed into killing themselves (which, by the way, was one of the ingenuous twists--that there was no secret traitor).

Even if he had built in a failsafe to avoid brainwashing Mitarai, the Monokuma-encouraged witch hunt to find the traitor results in other people dying. Mitarai is pretty non-aggressive, so he doesn't top anyone's list as a suspect, but if he had just gotten unlucky, being at the wrong place at the wrong time, he easily could have died.

And then some of the forbidden actions were just senseless. Since this was Tengan and not Junko, one would think the forbidden actions would balance the playing field. And to some degree they do. Sakakura, the former Ultimate Boxer, can't punch anyone. Munakata, being unable to open doors, is incredibly crippled.

But then other people have limitations that are downright bonkers. Kizakura can't open his left hand. Great Gozu can't be pinned for a three count (incredibly unlikely considering he's the Ultimate Wrestler). Kimura can't let anyone step on her shadow.

Bandai's would be the worst, since he can't witness acts of violence, but I assume that was given out to make him a sacrificial lamb, so everyone else would take the forbidden actions seriously.

Danganronpa 3 doesn't quite come together, but as a series capstone? It could do worse. It's clear from the ending that Hope has won. Makoto is now the principal to the newly reopened Hope's Peak Academy, with the implication that everything is going to be good again.

The Danganronpa 2 cast sails off into the sunset (almost literally since they're on a boat) taking Mitarai with them.

And even Munakata, the only Danganronpa 3 cast member aside from Mitarai to survive, has found a reason to keep going.

Watching the Future Arc felt pretty good while the mysteries were still unknown, and I did like the ending despite being fluffier than I expected. The anime may have been incredibly messy at times, but there are no questions left. And I'm okay with that.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Danganronpa: Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls

Danganronpa: Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is not a game I would have ordinarily picked up if not for the Danganronpa name, largely because it's a third person shooter, and most people who've played shooters with me know, I'm terrible at them. My tactics are very much along the lines of "spray and pray."

But playing was the only way to see the story, so I set the game mechanics to the easiest difficulty, held my nose, and took the plunge.

Ultra Despair Girls is an interquel, taking place between Danganronpa 1 and 2, specifically, three months after the death of Junko Enoshima. The Remnants of Despair are still on the loose, and if anything are even more fanatical now that she's gone.

Most of this is background noise for Komaru Naegi, who is the first series protagonist not to have gone to Hope's Peak Academy, instead being the younger sister to Danganronpa 1's Makoto. After being held captive in an apartment with no human contact for a year and a half, Komaru escapes to find the surrounding Towa City is full of Monokuma robots that are killing all the adults in town.

She finds herself in a middle of a child revolution, where the children are using Monokuma robots to slay all the adults and establish a child-only paradise, and they're led by five children in particular who call themselves the Warriors of Hope.

Aside from how the children managed to get a hold of such technology (tech that must have originated from Junko and the Ultimate Despairs), I found the Warriors hard to empathize with since they initially come off as a bunch of delusional brats. Even if they are supposed to be geniuses (having come from Hope's Peak Elementary, the elementary school associated with Hope's Peak Academy), I had trouble imagining them finding life better without adults.

Though parent-child conflicts happen all the time, I think most children understand that the adults are the providers, and without adults, there won't be anything for them to eat, wear, or use. There is a power difference, and sometimes an unfair one, but one they have to live with until they're old enough to become independent.

Danganronpa is well aware of that power difference, and so are these kids. The Monokumas finally put them in a position where they can have power over the adults. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that the reason the Warriors of Hope are so angry and trying to kill all the adults is because they're all abused children. Kotoko's story is particularly triggery, with sexual abuse and a side of victim blaming. When Komaru tries to tell her that not all adults are bad, Kotoko asks "Then why didn't anyone help me?" and there's no good answer for that.

The Warriors' vengeance is very much along the lines of "They hurt me so I'm going to hurt them back," which is childish, but perfectly in line with their ages.

This also puts the player in the uncomfortable position of fighting against abused children, and the game takes advantage of the fact that Komaru and her reluctant partner, Toko, are both teenagers, making them straddle the divide between being an adult and being a child. At the start of the game the Warriors almost spare Komaru because she isn't quite an adult yet, but ultimately turn her into their prey for their hunting game when she spends too much time trying to rationalize with them, which is a very grown-up thing to do.

The player never actually fights any of the children directly, instead facing them in proxy boss battles with robots, but what happens to the Warriors when they lose looks fairly horrific. Despite the stylization, it's heavily implied that all but one of them are killed (though there is an ending credits image that shows them alive post-game).

Being a Danganronpa game, the conflict between the adults and the children isn't truly about the war we see on the surface, but something more sinister. It's clear early on that the real leader of the Warriors of Hope is the girl Monica, who is very interested in despair, much like Junko Enoshima, and Monica has been manipulating the rest of the Warriors of Hope. The child-only paradise isn't her end goal, but having the other Warriors think that has been useful for her.

Her end game culminates in an attempt to turn Komaru into the second coming of Junko Enoshima. All the trials Komaru suffers throughout the game are designed to bring her to the peaks of hope and then crashing down into despair so deep she can never emerge. Naturally, Komaru was chosen because her brother Makoto had become known as the Ultimate Hope in his face-off with Junko, the Ultimate Despair.

Unlike Danganronpa 2, where I complained that the choices were too heavily weighted towards the emergency shutdown being the only good decision, the ending choices for Ultra Despair Girls are both bad. One more bad than the other, but there is no ending that results in a happy ending for the people of Towa City.

Komaru is given the controller that is operating all the Monokuma robots in the city, robots that are busy killing any adults they can find, and she is told to destroy it. But if she does, the helmets controlling all the brainwashed children (all the children aside from the Warriors of Hope) will explode.

The moment of that reveal was a pitch perfect moment of despair, or would have been if gameplay hadn't been so annoying about repeatedly hammering in the "break it/don't break it" decision. People will die if the robots are not stopped, and another set of people will die if the robots are left alone. The fact there was no easy end to the fighting is not the end game that anyone except Monica was looking for.

Komaru is pressured into pushing the button by Monica, who knows this will destroy her, and also by the leader of the surviving adults, who argues that the exploding helmets could be a bluff.

Interestingly, the adults who still survive in the city are incredibly likely to be single and without children, since the brainwashed children turned on the nearest adults first, which were likely to be their parents. This puts a divide between the adults and the children, since the adults who remain are those who are least likely to be sympathetic towards them.

While not pushing the button is clearly the "right" thing to do, so much as anything can be, the game unfortunately spends an hour (not kidding!) of yanking the player back and forth and forcing them to confirm that they do not want to press the button with other people yelling at them to do it. It got really annoying and it's not a good sign that my greatest fear on facing the last boss was that I'd die and have to sit through that all over again.

Nothing in Ultra Despair Girls directly feeds into the other games, so it's fairly skippable with the exception that the Danganronpa 3 anime makes use of it for the majority of one episode, and that's likely because there is a plot thread left hanging.

The game ends with Monica having survived her confrontation with Komaru and being carried away by Nagito, who promises to help groom her into the next Junko Enoshima, so she won't have to worry about having a proxy. The ending credits bolster the idea that she intends to follow his instructions, which clearly sets her up to be a villain the future, and the anime could not leave that unaddressed.

Ultra Despair Girls does have some worth on its own though, as it's one of the few girl "buddy" games I've seen. The player is in control of either Komaru or Toko at all times, and while there are some conversations about Toko's one-sided crush on Byakuya, most of the dialogue is refreshingly about either their objectives or trying to get along with each other. Komaru doesn't have a love interest and the strongest relationship in the game, the one that gets its moment to shine, is the friendship between her and Toko (both of her personalities, even the psychotic one).

Toko can be a bitter pill and she's so prickly and delusional that I found it hard to sympathize with her in the first Danganronpa, but she makes an excellent partner for Komaru who tends to make fun of how generic she is. And indeed, considering how colorful the rest of the cast is in all three games, Komaru is frightfully normal. As ironic as it sounds, Toko humanizes Komaru, so she's not just a generic everygirl. She gives Komaru such difficult material to work with that they're entertaining to watch, as Komaru tries to normalize that which can never be normal.

Finally, as a gamer who generally sucks at shooters, Ultra Despair Girls is fairly forgiving on the lowest difficulty. There are moments I died, but it's a sort of game where slow and steady (rather than twitch reflexes) can help a lot. Many times it's possible to hear the Monokumas before seeing them, so it's possible to creep out and lure them one at a time, and the worst places tend to have reasonably placed checkpoints. Bosses actually throw out healing items, so if a fight is going poorly due to a mistakes, it's usually possible to play defensively for a minute or two and get back to full strength before going on the offense again.

I wouldn't entirely recommend the game, but as a novelty it's interesting, and manageable for Danganronpa fans who wouldn't ordinarily play shooters. It is currently only on PS Vita, but there are PS4 and Steam ports on the way.

Now, having covered all the games in the Hope's Peak continuity, there's just one more Danganronpa post in me, and I'll use that to cover the Danganronpa 3 anime.