Sunday, January 21, 2018

My Favorite Anime of 2017

I review anime over at Diabolical Plots and naturally watch a number of shows over the course of the year. In the final installment of my annual entertainment round-up, I'd like to cover the TV anime I watched in 2017. I decided to remove any sequels (since people generally don't jump in the middle), but allowed a single prequel since it does not require watching any prior material, rounding the number of series out to ten.

Anime listed are not ranked, but presented in the order I watched them. As before, my top three picks of the year are marked with an asterisk (*).

Saga of Tanya the Evil *

Saga of Tanya the Evil could have gone horribly in so many ways with a little girl soldier protagonist and all the German World War I imagery, but it actually works, hilariously so, to the point that I've decided to pick up the translations of the original novel series. Tanya remembers her former life as a cutthroat middle manager in corporate Japan and has no qualms about bringing all that knowledge to bear in her country's war. Her constant feuding with the higher power that condemned her to her new existence is a highlight of the show.

ACCA 13-Territory Inspection *

I wasn't sure what to expect of ACCA. It's definitely not going to be for everyone, but the slow burning intrigue and the ages of the cast are an anomaly in anime. If you love whispers of conspiracy without seeing evidence of the conspiracy itself, ACCA has a lot of that sort of atmosphere, where many characters are feeling each other out without any proof that there are enemies to be found. Jean Otis is a difficult to read protagonist, but it works in his favor, as his poker face is what allows him to play the role he's dealt.

KADO: The Right Answer

KADO is worth a watch for a peaceful first contact situation from a non-American perspective. For that, I'd recommend it. The alien is not as alien as he could be, but he comes in peace offering humanity wonders with no apparent strings attached. He compares it to giving food to a hungry person. If he has more than he can use, why wouldn't he give it away? KADO starts with excellent questions like those and I like that our viewpoint characters are mostly negotiators, but the series doesn't come together in the end and the climax is rather nonsensical, which is a shame since the premise was so good.

Classroom of the Elite

I watched Classroom of the Elite during a slow season when I otherwise would probably have skipped it. Kiyotaka appears to be nobody important, the sort of guy who fades into the background, but he's not, and the school he goes to isn't either. Rather it's a merciless competition between classrooms just for students to stay enrolled, but the graduates are supposedly set for life. There's some really good scheming sometimes, but as a whole there are better shows.

Chronos Ruler

This was also a slow season watch about an organization with powers to fight time eating monsters. If you liked D.Gray-man and need something to hold you over, it's worth a look because it wears its inspiration on its sleeve, but every time it comes up with some potentially devastating character development it manages to shoot itself in the foot with an easy solution. And that's a shame because it has some really good ideas that just don't get the showcase they deserve.


Fate/Zero was a retro-watch for me. It came out in 2011-2012 and is generally regarded as one of the best of the Fate series. I agree with that, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I'd been led to believe. Being a prequel, no prior knowledge of the Fate series is needed and in fact, people even suggest watching it before the ones later in the timeline in order to fully appreciate them. It has some really good modern day mage warring going on, but if you're a female viewer you're probably going to notice that the show tends to be excessively cruel to its women and girls, particularly as motivation for its men.

Pumpkin Scissors

This was another retro-watch from 2006-2007, and unlike Fate/Zero it really shows its age in the pacing and how it uses filler episodes. I think this could have been a lot better series since it covers the recovery effort after a war and the effects on the soldiers who served in it, but it has a lot of silliness and fluff. While I won't say there's no place for such things, I'm disappointed that we didn't get further into the conspiracy plot that's hinted at the end of the series and we never really learn the full history of the Invisible Nine and what happened to them (since survivors of those units seem few and far between).

Recovery of an MMO Junkie *

MMO Junkie is a delightful rom-com between a couple of gamer nerds that happens both in and out of game. The writers really know how online gaming works, so there are visual gags involving crafting, going afk, and so on, making the show feel like it could really be about the people the audience hangs out with online. The romance itself is a little contrived in that Moriko and Yuuta happen live so close together that they can have a meet cute outside of game, but aside from that it's a lot fun.

Juni Taisen: Zodiac War

Juni Taisen is a battle royale between twelve combatants themed after the Chinese zodiac who, for the most part, have super powers. It's fairly bloody and violent, though the worst parts are censored. Each episode typically covers a different character's personal history and reveals why they entered the tournament. Ideally because the POV keeps changing, preventing the development of a main protagonist, the winner should be a surprise, but it's fairly guessable if you know the zodiac, which most of the original Japanese audience will. It's not a bad watch as some of the fights get creative, but it's definitely about the journey more than the ending.

Code:Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~

This was not as good an adaptation as I'd hoped, since Code:Realize was one of my favorite games in 2016. The adaptation works as its own stand alone, the plot is coherent and understandable, but it lost a lot of its heart along the way. Rather than shoot for a more general audience, the studio opted for a more conventional otome approach. There were some smart changes made to condense and adapt Lupin's route to the anime, and the show doesn't shy away from protagonist Cardia's ability to melt anything she touches, but a lot of the banter was removed so we get less of a feel for the characters. Cardia is also more passive than she is in the game, which is a shame since a lot of fans liked her specifically because she was more proactive than most otome heroines.

Monday, January 15, 2018

My Favorite Games of 2017

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 2017, in the order I finished them. (I think there could have been more, but I blame Persona 5 for being so long.) 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.

Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness * (PS Vita and Steam)

Fans of the anime series will get the most out of this dystopian cyberpunk visual novel. The player takes the role of one of two investigators tracking down a criminal that cannot be brought to justice in the way the system is intended to work. There are multiple endings based on the choices made, and a walkthrough will probably be needed to see them all. It's easily the best spin-off of the original (and better than the sequel anime) because it manages to be its own thing while playing within the rules of the first series, and it's good. It's not for series newcomers though. Even with a glossary it tends to assume players know the basics.

Attack on Titan (PS4, XB1, and Steam)

Having come out between the first and second season of the anime, it does a good job of extrapolating the story into three playable chapters; the battle for Trost, the Survey Corps expedition prior to being recalled, and the Female Titan arc. There is also an unlockable fourth chapter that vaguely covers the first half of season 2, but with minimal spoilers and a unique ending, so deaths and major plot revelations are withheld. The game does a remarkably good job of conveying the feel of using maneuvering gear and slaying titans is incredibly satisfying. One of the best media-based games I've ever played and even klutzes like me can beat it on Easy. The developers loved the property and it shows.

The Sims 2: Ultimate Collection (PC)

I'd forgotten that I downloaded this a while ago as part of a promotion on Origin. It's every expansion of the Sims 2 plus the base game, and despite the years since its original release, it's still really good and runs just fine even on a new computer with Windows 10. I'd played the base game years ago and this was a welcome trip down memory lane with some new content that I'd never played before (new jobs, university, vacations, oh my!). As always, the fun part for me is making a bunch of Sims based on characters I know (my characters, other people's characters) and seeing how they interact in the sandbox. One of the most hilarious things was Attack on Titan's Erwin Smith deciding that his life's dream was to become a World Class Ballet Dancer.

80 Days (Steam, iOS, and Android)

This came to me through a friend's recommendation. It's not something anyone's likely to play for hours on end, but as an afternoon time-waster it's pleasant enough. You play as Passepartout, the valet to Phineas Fogg from the Jules Verne novel Around the World in Eighty Days. As such you are constantly put upon to care for your master as all sorts of shenanigans occur on your trip around the globe. The player gets to pick the route, and there are some randomized events, so there is some replay value, but I found that two was enough to figure out how to succeed in less than 80 days. I ended up playing a third time though just because I wanted to check out how the same-sex romance was written versus the straight one. It's a fun, casual friendly game, but not something most players are likely to spend more than 4-5 hours on.

Persona 5 * (PS4 and PS3)

Persona 5 was my most anticipated game of the year. I've bought all the Persona games since the first installment (I'm old school) and placed my pre-order for the deluxe edition with all the trimmings. I was not disappointed as it continues the contemporary fantasy setting with a fresh layer of panache as the protagonists are now all phantom thieves. I've never seen heists integrated so well in a video game before, let alone an RPG, and the Persona-specific game systems involving the social aspects of getting through a year of high school are as good as ever. While I'm not sure if it will hold up against Persona 3 and 4 once I have more time and distance from it, at least at the moment it was one of the best games I played this year. If there's a fault I'd give it though, it's that it's extremely long, probably too long, even allowing for the fact the game has an in-game summary so you can catch up if you've been away for a while.

Collar x Malice (PS Vita)

Collar x Malice was my second most anticipated game of the year. It was giving me Zero Escape vibes (though sadly not the Zero Escape puzzles) with a female protagonist. Though this is technically an otome, it's not all fluff. Officer Ichika Hoshino spends as much time chasing a group of vigilante terrorists as she does potentially romancing various officers and ex-cops who are on the same case. It didn't reach the height that Code:Realize did for me, but the storytelling is more even between routes. Yanagi is route locked behind everyone else unfortunately, since his is the "real" route, which I wish Otomate would stop doing.

Plants vs Zombies: Game of the Year Edition (PC)

This came to me via one of the periodic freebies on Origin. I'd never played the original past the demo, but this landed in my lap at a time when I really wanted a puzzle game and it scratched the right itch. Being a puzzle game featuring cartoon zombies it's aged pretty well, though I was surprised when it forced my monitor down to a lower resolution. I didn't think it was that old. It's not too difficult by puzzle game standards and the game makes a point to introduce a new complication every few levels to keep things fresh. I think I only lost once, and that's because I was careless rather than being overwhelmed. I don't think I would have bought this normally though.

Dungeon Fighter Online * (PC)

This is a quirky online RPG that is like Diablo had a lovechild with your favorite side scrolling beat-'em-up game. It's 2D like Final Fight or Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara, but it's an RPG designed for small parties or solo players. You can perform attacks fighting game style, but there are also equipment drops, skill trees, dungeons, pets, guilds, etc. It's free to play, and amazingly, you can get through the entire leveling experience without spending a cent, and more importantly, without seeing microtransaction ads thrown at you every other screen. The Korean to English translation is a bit janky in places, but if you like retro games, and have a fondness for old school JRPG music, this an excellent bet.

Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth

I actually started this last year, but got derailed about a third of the way through due to This War of Mine. This is probably the closest thing to having a playable Digimon anime series. The player-named protagonist has an online encounter with a mysterious entity that leaves her (or him, I played as a girl) in a weird half-digital body while her real one is comatose. As a result she can jump in and out of the computer networks Tron-style. The story moves at a relaxed pace sometimes, but really captures the feel of the anime. Together with her human friends and their combined Digimon companions they try to solve the mystery behind the origin of the Eaters, why people are being found comatose from EDEN syndrome, and what the corporation Kamishiro Enterprises has to do with all of this.

Monday, January 8, 2018

"Kite Dancer" Is Out In Galaxy's Edge

My latest short story "Kite Dancer" is now out in the January 2018 issue of Galaxy's Edge. You might have already heard if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

This is an alternate World War I with steampunk and wind magic, where China joins the Central Powers (which they did not do in real life). The protagonist Ke-feng used to be a kite dancer who commanded the wind for performances, but that was ruined when the Japanese invaded Tsingtau (which did happen in real life). Left with few options, she has signed up for the military in hopes of freeing her city, but the military has other plans for her.

"Kite Dancer" will be free to read until the end of February. It can also be purchased at any time as a digital or physical copy.

Monday, January 1, 2018

My Favorite Books of 2017

Happy New Year, everyone! It's time to start my 2017 entertainment round-ups, kicking off with the books I read last year.

For a while I was afraid that 2017 would be the year of sequels for me, as I continued reading older series that I'd already started, but I did get a number of stand alones novels in there and even started a new series.

That said, these are the twelve books I enjoyed enough to finish, and in the order I finished them. Maybe you'll want to check them out too. My top three picks of the year are marked with an asterisk (*), though there is a cheater in there since I also included an inseparable pair that cannot be read independently of each other.

Return of Souls by Andy Remic

This is a sequel to the A Song for No Man's Land dark fantasy WWI novella that I read last year. It is totally a middle installment, ending on a cliffhanger, and definitely a lot weirder as most of the story now takes place in the alternate world realm where all the monsters comes from. I wanted to see the skogsra from the end of the first book, but she doesn't turn up in this one.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

I've heard that this one of the best modern Lovecraftian takes in recent years and it is. It's a retelling of "The Horror at Red Hook," but a version Lovecraft himself never could have written about an African American hustler in 1920s Harlem who crosses paths with all the eldritch weirdness that Lovecraft is known for. The work is really good at capturing what it must have been like as a second class citizen both from the perspective of the titular Black Tom and from the POV of the white detective Malone (Lovecraft's original protagonist) who doesn't really hate New York's racial minorities but accepts their lower status for what it is.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo *

The daughter of a failing merchant house is being pressured into a ghost marriage with the deceased son of the rich man her father owes money to, but unsurprisingly she's not interested. It doesn't helping that the ghost of the dead son is haunting her dreams, courting her like the worst of "nice guy" stalkers. He also might have been murdered. The story takes place in late 1800s Malaysia in the Chinese expat community and contains a smorgasbord of southern Chinese culture, particularly in regards to customs involving the dead. I consider it a huge plus that the author went with older, pre-pinyin spellings of names so that the regionalism of the different dialects comes through.

Spice and Wolf Vol 11: Side Colors II by Isuna Hasekura

Vol 11 is another short story volume containing two "lost" moments that take place early in Lawrence and Holo's journey and a novella about the side character Eve Bolan. "The Black Wolf's Cradle" is the clear winner of the three, as it follows the disenfranchised noblewoman Fleur and her transformation into the cunning merchant Eve. Fleur's naivete is heartbreaking, but her resolve is just as unyielding, making her a fantastic protagonist. And that ending! Wow, I did not expect it. It's very dark for this series, but perfectly in line for who Fleur becomes. Though I read Spice and Wolf for the fluff, it's nice to see Hasekura is capable of moving beyond it.

Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

Iron Cast was a whim purchase of mine and honestly I was afraid I would regret it, but I didn't! All I had to go on was one good review, but given the setup with a duo of young women doing skullduggery in the year 1919 through the use of their special powers, I was a easy fish to reel in. And it works! This story is really more YA given the ages of the characters and the themes, though it's told in third person which isn't de rigueur at the moment. The story is a little slow to get going, but Corinne and Ava are lovely and spirited protagonists, and all the building in the first half is rewarded by the second.

The Rogue Retrieval by Dan Koboldt

I volunteered to review this for the author so I persisted when I might not have otherwise, and it was a good thing since I was enjoying myself by the end. It's about a stage magician from Las Vegas who is pressed into a job where he needs to go to a medieval fantasy world and help a powerful corporation extract a researcher who has gone rogue. (Alas, the rogue retrieval does not involve capturing thieves.)

Baccano! Vol 2: 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Local by Ryohgo Narita *

Baccano continues to be a hot mess in the most entertaining fashion. Most of the cast is different from the last book, but Narita's affection for taking a multitude of colorful characters, trapping them in the same location, and then seeing how it all plays out is done to great effect. This time it's on a cross country train ride with cultists, mobsters, bootleggers, and of course Isaac and Maria, where everybody except the latter two has a different crime job in mind, all of it involving shenanigans on the train. The only flaw really is that it's a two-parter, but with good reason, as I'll get to in a moment.

Baccano! Vol 3: 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Express by Ryohgo Narita *

I read this immediately after Vol 2 because they're a duology within the greater series, but it's not in the conventional sense. The Local and Express parts of 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad cover approximately the same span of time, but are told from two different sets of POV characters. Local gives us what is happening on the surface and Express gives us the POV characters with something to hide. It answers the remaining mysteries of the previous book, including the truth about the Rail Tracer. One is not complete without the other, and for that reason I'm including the two volumes as a pair in my Top 3 of the year.

Attack on Titan: The Harsh Mistress of the City - Part 1 by Ryo Kawakami

I rarely go into a series so much that I follow spin-offs written by other people, but Attack on Titan is one of my favorite series and I picked up Harsh Mistress of the City mostly because it sounds like something I would like to have written had I the opportunity. Taking place immediately after the fall of Wall Maria (the first two episodes of the anime), we follow a young soldier, Rita Iglehaut, as her district is cut off from the rest of civilization by the man-eating Titans. Due to the loss of nearly all the Garrison soldiers, Rita becomes the highest ranking soldier left alive, and her childhood friend Mathias Kramer, who escaped the district, is now coming back to find her.

Attack on Titan: The Harsh Mistress of the City - Part 2 by Ryo Kawakami

After a six month time skip and a heck of a way to end the first volume, things have gone from bad to worse. As far as spin-offs go, if you like those that stick to canon and feel like they really could have happened in the main storyline, this is an excellent pick. Unfortunately the ending is a bit of a deus ex machina and the ultimate fates of our protagonists are left unknown. Kawakami does put his characters through some gut-punch worthy moments, but he's not as clever at getting them out of it.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson *

I came into this one with high expectations, and they were mostly met. Mind, it's not that it wasn't good, but I'd expected more economics and less time marching with an army that belonged to neither Baru's people nor their conquerors. Fortunately, there's a reason for all that, and the writing is good enough that I liked following Baru and the scheming of the various dukes of Ardwynn. Baru is a fantastic protagonist, who is willing to put absolutely everything (love, loyalty, life) through the meat grinder if necessary to save her people. My primary disappointment was finding out this book is the first in a series and the second isn't out yet.

Writers of the Future Volume 33 (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 "The Fox, the Wolf, and the Dove" by Ville Meriläinen, for leaving me sobbing at the end.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Quality of Life in Dungeon Fighter Online

Merry Christmas, everyone! Hope that you're enjoying some time off, or at least a less hectic time of year. I don't really expect anyone to be reading this today, but it's Monday, so that means a new blog post (and I wrote this ahead of time).

As one can guess from my post last week, I been delving into Dungeon Fighter Online. I'm not generally a big MMO person, I've played a few free ones here and there, but the only tentpole AAA MMORPG I've played is World of Warcraft, and I've discovered some quality of life things that I really like in DFO that I now wish were in WoW.

So this is more or less a wishlist of things I've noticed that I wished were in World of Warcraft, so I'll be using that game as the baseline. Most of these are quality of life issues.

1) Buying customized quantities on the Auction House

Sometimes you just need seven of a particular item, no more, no less, but the only options in the auction house are Seller #1 listing 200 of Item A for 50 gold each, or Seller #2 listing 10 of Item A for 70 gold each. I could buy from Seller #2 and eat the higher price, hoping to unload the few leftovers individually myself, or I could buy the larger bundle from Seller #1 and be stuck with even more inventory to unload.

DFO lets you buy the specific quantity that you want from the seller that you want. So I could buy seven of Item A for 50 gold each. As a buyer this is the best option since you don't end up with more than you need. And arguably, for a seller, you're sure to sell something as long as it's in demand.

This also solves the ridiculous flooding problem in WoW where someone individually lists two pages of Item A at a high price because the system reads the lowest aggregate price on a bundle rather than the lowest individual price when it presents the lists by price to the buyer. DFO, however, only acknowledges the lowest individual price (since quantity is chosen by the buyer) so all those overpriced one-offs would rightfully be listed at the end.

2) Seeing the prices of other Auction House sellers when you list something

Using the vanilla auction house interface in WoW, it's only possible to see other people's listing for Item A if you search for it and look. Listing the item happens on a separate panel so you can't see the prices while you're listing.

DFO lets you see the prices as you list, and since prices are listed by how much they are individually being sold for, it's easy to decide exactly what you want for your asking price. If everyone else is selling Item A for 500 gold. You can list 495 gold and the game will math out the total price if someone were to buy you out, no additional player hoops needed.

Yes, WoW has mods that will do that for you, but DFO goes a step further with this next item.

3) Showing the average auction price for any listed item (assuming it's listed often enough to have a record)

Whether you're a buyer or seller, the DFO auction house will tell you the historical average price something goes for. If you're a seller and the auction house is currently empty of that item, you have a baseline to set your buyout for. This also tells you whether or not everyone else is currently gouging.

I'm not sure how this is determined, but I assume it's over a period of several days as I've seen the average price change over the course of days, but not over hours. So as a buyer, it lets you know whether something is currently overpriced, and you can choose to wait (or not) as your pocketbook allows. This was immensely helpful as a new player who was looking to buy some quest items. They looked ridiculously expensive, but without the average price helper, I wouldn't have known they were currently overpriced. I waited until the next day and was able to buy them for a third of the previous days' listings. (They were still overpriced, but low enough that I could tolerate it.)

4) Account bound banks

I'm an alt person. Rather than focusing super hard on one character, I like to have lots of them stuck in various stages of development. In WoW that means that if I want to send something to an alt, I have to put in a mailbox. Sometimes, because of the number of alts, I'm not even sure who needs an item most so certain items might end up in a ridiculous mailbox daisy chain bouncing between alts until I find who needs it.

In DFO this is solved by a special bank for any items that are bind on account or capable of being traded between unrelated characters. So things that are "soulbound," to use WoW parlance, are still stuck with whoever earned them, but everything else can be shoved into the account bound and retrieved by alts as needed. No shuffling things through mailboxes.

5) In game encyclopedia of where every equipment drop in the game comes from

WoW has a nice dungeon feature which has in-game maps, boss strategies, etc. for every dungeon and raid in the game. By clicking on each boss, it's possible to see what loot they have. This is nice when you're going on a raid, but if you're looking for a very specific item and you don't know where to start, you usually just end up asking someone or going to a third party web site like Wowhead and typing it in to search.

DFO allows you to open up an encyclopedia in game and you can look for every piece of equipment based on rarity and equipment type, and then from there it's possible to look at the individual item stats and where they drop or where they can be bought/crafted. You can also see the stats while you're at it, so you can decide whether you want that item in preference to another.

I suspect there are mods that allow this as well, but again, this is not something natively supported.

6) Mileage system

I think WoW has tried to find ways to reward players just for playing and doing what they want, but the game doesn't feel like it's ever quite hit the mark, because it generally boils down to giving people gear, and better gear comes from raids. It's not that there are only gear-based rewards, but a lot of times it feels like the rewards are gated behind having the gear to do something.

For instance, it's common to have a special cosmetic reward for having completed a difficult challenge. And while it's fine to have something to strive to, there's no "thank you for simply playing."

DFO has something called "Mileage," which is earned by completing dungeons of an appropriate level (which can be done solo and is what the player has already been doing the entire game anyway). The character does not need to be max level and a level 30 character earns mileage as the same rate as a level 90.

Mileage can be used to buy a variety of things, from avatar appearances to in-game tokens that can be exchanged for equipment, to experience boosting potions to use while leveling, and other consumables specific to the DFO ecosystem. While nothing in there is so incredible I'd go out of my way to earn mileage for them, they're very nice quality of life things to get after I've already been playing.

As of this writing I have enough Mileage to buy 390 Demon Invitations, which is a hefty bonus as DIs are used for chances at epic equipment during special dungeon runs. It would take me 13 million gold to buy this normally, and while 13 million does not go as far in DFO as it would in WoW it is still a fair chunk of money.

But the reality is, I probably won't spend all my Mileage on DIs because I don't expect to become an end game raider. So I will probably spend a good chunk of my Mileage on avatar appearances and potions to increase the amount of gold dropped during my next few dungeon runs.

It's nice having this kind of flexibility. And while WoW has activities where you can gradually accumulate currency or reputations towards something, it's always tied to a particular faction or activity. There's no general purpose bucket, so there's no happy surprise where you can suddenly get something that you want without realizing that you've been working to earn it this entire time.


It isn't that I think DFO is wildly better in WoW, particularly since they take very different approaches to their games, but having spent most of my MMO life in the World of Warcraft ecosystem, I haven't had much opportunity to see how other companies do things. Prior to DFO I didn't think things were particularly better on the other side, especially when so many games end up ape-ing WoW to some degree or another.

Even then, these are mostly quality of life issues, particularly with the Auction House. I don't use it too heavily in DFO yet, but the Auction House has been a great source of in-game wealth for me in WoW and now that I've seen how DFO's works it irks me that we don't have some of these things as a baseline in World of Warcraft. It would save so much hassle!

Monday, December 18, 2017

RPG Talk: Dungeon Fighter Online

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

Platform: PC (standalone and on Steam)
Release: 2010 (original) and 2015 (global relaunch)

I debated whether or not to write an RPG Talk for this one, because the game is rather story lite in that the plot mainly serves as an excuse to move the player from one setting to another as they brawl their way through the fantasy world of Arad. But that said, Dungeon Fighter Online does some interesting things that I think are worth talking about, some of which requires real world context.

I don't remember when I made my first DFO account, but it was during the original Nexon release, and while I had fun, I eventually put down the game and was a little sad to hear in 2013 that the North American servers were shutting down. Because I had played during this period, I was aware of what is now known as the pre-Metastasis world. I'd adventured in it.

When DFO returned in 2015 as a worldwide edition under the umbrella of its original Korean developers, Arad had gone through a massive event called the Great Metastasis that upended the world. On a whim, I logged in on my new account in 2017 expecting to relive my glory days in Grand Flores only to discover that the newbie forest had burned down!

I'm not sure if the overhaul was a reboot intended for the relaunch, or something that happened in the Korean original (like how World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion transformed old Azeroth), but it was definitely a surprise and if tied specifically to the relaunch, then there was no better way to do it.

Though an online game, DFO is closer to being a side scrolling Diablo series in execution. Barring a few instances, gameplay can be done completely solo (though there are shared town instances so players will see each other while in shared areas).

The new storyline has the player character going through Arad after the Great Metastasis, which has torn the world so badly that the formerly subterranean city of Underfoot is now on the surface, serving as the main player hub, and the Sky Tower which connected Arad with the land of Empyrean has been destroyed.

Following the Metastasis, a malevolent force called the Black Nightmare has infected Arad. Its tendrils reach everywhere, making elemental spirits go mad, bringing the dead back to life. It's much the usual fantasy world bad mojo and the player character gets roped into helping various people investigate it.

There apparently were four great heroes who faced off with one of the Apostles (incredibly powerful and not necessarily evil entities) and gained fame because of it. The timeline's a bit fuzzy, but this seems to have happened before Metastasis since it's clear a fair bit of time has passed for them and the Metastasis itself may have been about ten years before the game starts, and it wasn't just a physical remaking of the world. Reality itself changed, so some characters who were previously enemies in the original timeline could be allies in the current one, and the interesting thing is we get to visit the original timeline at a few points.

Much like Diablo III, each character class gets a class-based introductory sequence that explains who they are and how they came to the starting point of the game. For classes with different genders, they will have two entirely different sequences depending on whether the character is male or female. (This carries over to gameplay as well, as characters of different genders will play a little differently even if they're the same base class.) In some cases, the character's past will come up during the story, though never to the point where it interferes with the plot. For instance, the demonic lancer was once a famous gladiatorial slave in the imperial arena and when he meets Vaughn, an imperial knight, he hopes that Vaughn doesn't recognize him. It has no relevance to the main story, but it's a nice touch.

Beyond the occasional class-based nod, the player character dialogue appears to be similar across classes, though as of this writing I've only spent a significant amount of time with the male mage and the demonic lancer (the latter of which is currently a male only option, but might open up to a female variant later as most of the older classes were single gender at the start and eventually got male/female variants). The result is occasionally odd as the same dialogue doesn't always feel appropriate depending on which class the player is playing.

Compounding that, the Korean to English translation was clearly not done by a native English speaker, and the translation quality varies wildly. A game like this is large enough that there were probably multiple translators. The result feels like a fantasy adventure written by a kid. It's been spellchecked, but sometimes the wording is a little strange and the dialogue feels like it fell out of a cartoon. (For instance, while writing this, I found this gem from an enemy: "Sonic waves never miss! Dang!") Quests are typically workmanlike, go here and do that, and when there is an attempt at humor, it feels forced. The cinematic subtitles are actually worse than the rest of the game and have that "Engrish" feel of older Japanese to English game translations.

I'm not sure if DFO reads this clunky in Korean, it's not a deep story to begin with, but I feel like some opportunities were lost.

For instance, there are two clearly sad moments in the main story. The first is when Iris is revealed as a traitor. She begins helping the player early on in the first third of the story, and by the final third, we learn that she was an instrumental part in causing the Great Metastasis. In fact, she's been manipulating the player since they'd met.

Her betrayal is played for tragedy, because it was out of her control, but even with the requisite soft piano music, it wasn't enough to feel like it really meant something. Clearly it was supposed to be, but I just didn't feel it.

The other moment has to deal with Vaughn, who is probably the most complicated character in the story. Vaughn is one of the heroes who defeated Sirocco, but he's flighty, gives his men a hard time, and is constantly talking about his wife, Emily. He also clearly has an agenda as we discover he was involved with the Metastasis experiment that caused the tragedy (not to mention whatever the hell it was he grabbed off the last boss in that final cinematic).

Emily never appears in the game, but Vaughn uses her as an excuse to go disappear an awful lot, or talks about how he wants to be with her. It turns out that Emily dies during the storyline while Vaughn is helping the land of Empyrean get under control again. There is no indication at the moment it happens, because Vaughn behaves completely normally (doing the usual gushing about how he's going to see her and it'll be so sweet). The player finds out much later, in the final leg of the game, that Emily passed away.

The fact that Vaughn hid that should have revealed something about his character, but he more or less says that he didn't want his men to worry. While that is a reason, it didn't feel like an honest one, because we never see him interact with any of his soldiers aside from Hartz, who takes just about everything in stride.

Eventually the player tracks down the origin of the Black Nightmare to the Apostle Luke (I'm not sure if he was named after the Luke in the Bible because 11 of the 13 Apostles do not have Biblical names) and it's funny how fighting the Nightmare is everything to the people of Arad, and yet it's merely a means to an end for Luke. Luke, ironically, had a vision that foretold of his death, and he's been using the Black Nightmare to collect energy so he can strengthen himself and survive. But in doing so, he brought about his own end.

This isn't lost on the other Apostles who help bring him down.

The Apostles are interesting, because they're not a united front. They come from different realities and eventually arrived in the land of Pandemonium. They are not able to kill each other, and there seems to be some sort of mechanic that forces them to acknowledge those of a similar power. But they don't have to like each other and may scheme to have another killed by the hands of mortals. Though the storyline currently ends with Luke's death, it's implied that Hilder, who was the one behind Iris, has plans that can now be enacted due to Luke's death.

The world of Dungeon Fighter Online is an interesting mash-up of genres, which helps since the gameplay largely consists of punching through dungeons upon dungeons of enemies. Though Arad is more or less medieval fantasy, the land of Empyrean is an Asian-influenced future with energy plants, robots, and a train that cuts across the ocean. Yes, DFO has the usual goblins and minotaurs (called "taus" in this world), and various demonic threats, but the player also faces pirate crocodiles, biker gangs, and robot insects. It's an everything and the kitchen sink approach, but it oddly works as the enemies are themed to where they appear and though biker gangs aren't appropriate to medieval fantasy, they work well enough in the more modern Empyrean.

Arad is a little unusual though, using a dark elf city for its main hub, and the human empire on Arad is oddly unnamed for most of the story. When I finally found it, it turned out to be cultural mishmash with De Los Empire being led by Emperor Leon Heinrich (not to mention that "De Los Empire" sounds like it was named by someone who knew what Spanish looked like, but not what it meant). And though the empire is typically portrayed as the evil empire, it has redeeming qualities in the individuals who represent it, showing that it's not the monolith it appears to be.

From my understanding, the current storyline is at its end, and there has already been a soft reboot of the world on the Korean servers. It will probably remain playable for a few months, maybe even half a year or more, on the global servers, and it's not bad. If you're looking for a RPG brawler, it's enough to keep you entertained.

Monday, December 11, 2017

VN Talk: Collar x Malice - Part 7: "Hidden Route"

This is the final entry in my Collar x Malice VN Talk series. You can find my other entries for the five main routes using the Collar x Malice label on my blog or the RPG/VN Talk tab above, once I have a chance to update it.

Note: This route spoils everything in case you got here without checking out the rest of the game. I was debating whether or not to write an entry for it, but I realized over the course of playing Yanagi's route that I would spend way too much time unpacking this guy's story on a blog post that was supposed to be dedicated to a romantic lead, so I decided it was best to split them in two. And at least as far as the PSN trophies are concerned, this is a legit route, granting its own trophy and an in-game CG with Hoshino and her new partner.

So… Due to how this route is accessed (through Yanagi's playthrough) I'm not going to spend much time talking about it from the perspective of playing through the game so much discussing Yuzuru Saeki and how the game uses him.

Saeki first shows up in the prologue as Hoshino's police academy buddy. He's friendly, he has her back, and whenever she's down he's one of the first to cheer her up. And the relationship is totally platonic. Yanagi thinks it might not be, but Saeki never hits on her and I really like the heterosexual buddy vibe.

I suspect most players will like pre-reveal Saeki. I know when I first was going through the game I was disappointed he wasn't a romance option because he was just so fun to be around (even as I was applauding the game for having a just-friends relationship).

Of course, as anyone who's gone through Yanagi's route knows, Saeki is secretly Zero, the person who put the poison collar on around Hoshino's neck, and also the head of the Adonis organization.

From a meta perspective some players figured out his identity due to being the only non-romanceable male around Hoshino's age who appears on all routes (and if you're good at visual cues, the visible part of Zero's face under his hood is identical to Saeki's). Most notably, observant players will notice that the only route where Adonis falls apart due to lack of leadership is on Enomoto's route, where Saeki is shot and unconscious in the hospital. Within the context of the main story itself though, there are a few clues as to Zero's civilian identity, and I think most players will eventually figure it out by the time they're asked to do so on Yanagi's route.

Saeki is a different kind of villain than I expected. Adonis is laying down terrorist attacks to revolutionize Japan and is completely ruthless in doing so. So when it becomes obvious that Saeki is Zero, it's interesting how little his personality changes between being Hoshino's academy buddy and the leader of a terrorist organization.

A lot of Saeki's words about why he became a cop and how he wants to protect people are actually values he upholds even as Zero. As we know, all of Adonis's X-Day crimes are revenge killings on behalf of people who didn't get justice due to a failure in the system. Saeki is looking to create a world where those who don't have power are able to feel safe (though as pointed out by Okazaki on his route, when taken to extremes there won't be anybody left in such as world, because people are always hurting each other, even if unintentionally).

Saeki's route itself is kind of random. It happens in the later part of Yanagi's route when Hoshino takes it upon herself to confront him about his true identity, but it's not clear why it plays out so differently depending on whether or not she shoots him, so it feels more like a bonus.

What his ending does is make his reasoning a bit more sympathetic. Saeki is not entirely wrong, though he's going about his solution in an extreme manner, and there's an element of tragedy as Hoshino takes his hand to join him while surrounded by the bodies of her friends. While she now understands his point of view, she also realizes that once their work is done she will have to kill him as the root of all the sorrow he's caused, and Saeki wants that.

As I'd mentioned on Yanagi's route, it's odd how the strongest relationship in the room during the showdown at the church is between Hoshino and Saeki rather than Hoshino and Yanagi. Saeki's fate is the one that determines how Hoshino feels about herself.

If she disables him without killing, there isn't much thrill in the arrest. The game handles Saeki in an unconventional manner for bringing down the boss of a terrorist organization. Rather than being upset or vengeful, Saeki is honestly perplexed why she wouldn't kill him. After all, he's going get the death penalty anyway. Instead he looks sad and filled with regret that he could not convince her to follow in his path.

We learn that Saeki wishes to create a world where anyone can achieve justice for themselves, no matter how powerless they feel. He sees himself as a champion of the weak, the underprivileged, those who the police and the law are either unable or unwilling to help. Hoshino is actually pretty close to him in some ways, in that she wants the best for everyone and is willing to hear out any complaint, no matter how minor, in the hopes that a solution can be found.

Because they both want to save the same people, Saeki hoped that she would be convinced help him rid the world of malice, which he views as the root cause of the world's sorrow. And a part of that, involves killing the malice so it cannot spread. Saeki, being a bringer of malice himself in order to create his malice-free world, needs to be judged according his own philosophy, and that is why he wants Hoshino. His hope is for her see his point of view, kill him, and then carry on his work.

It was a satisfying enough ending. I ended up enjoying the reveal of Saeki as Zero and he's an interesting villain because he never loses sight of the fact his ultimate goal is to help people, especially victims. Life isn't fair, and he's trying to balance the scales for those too weak to manage on their own.

Viewing the Criminal chapter after beating the game can be painful depending on personal experiences. It expands the backstory behind Saeki and each of the executors so we see more of what made them the people they became and Zero brings up good points. What allows one person to place a value on another's pain?

Zero found people at the end of their emotional rope and told them that their pain was real and that they could do something about it. They were wanted, and they could make a better world for others like them.

Barring Rei Mikuni, all the executors were ordinary people, and Zero intended it to be that way. He wanted a world where ordinary people would feel comfortable administering justice themselves instead of relying on weak laws and a corrupt police force.

What makes Saeki a more interesting villain is that he's not above his own ideals. Even when he begins sacrificing executors so that Hoshino will discover the truth, Saeki is doing so under the belief that he should be judged as well, because the world he wants has no place for a person like him.

The Collar x Malice Unlimited fan disc has been announced in Japan as of this writing. I don't know if it'll make it over stateside, but ends on a tease with someone taking the hand of another who is wearing a black glove, which is part of Saeki's appearance as Zero. It's very likely that the fan disc will include a longer Saeki route of some kind.

I would rather his route have been included to begin with, as Otomate has certainly included villain routes in the base game before, and six routes isn't that unusual, but the game already has a redeemed villain in Shiraishi, and I think it would ruin Saeki's character for him to give up on being Zero, so I'm not sure what angle the story would take. Saeki's cause is a sympathetic one, even if his methods are extreme, so I suppose the fan disc could blow that out and have Hoshino join him as an equal rather than a victim.