Sunday, May 31, 2020

VN Talk: Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly - Part 2: Kagiha

This is the first of my character arc looks for Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly. You can get my thoughts for the overall story over here.

Admittedly the main reason I chose to break out my subsequent posts by character arcs rather than routes is because of Kagiha. Since his past and his connection to Beniyuri form the climax of the main story, the main story essentially is his route. Hikage might be the love interest on the cover and the most prominent one on the title screen, but in the story itself Kagiha is the most important person to Beniyuri, and her feelings for him are the fulcrum on which the plot rests.

It's Kagiha's death in the real world that caused her to withdraw out of fear of losing other people, and it's his selflessness that saves her not only as a child, but as a teenager.

Though Kagiha has his own ending like all the love interests, it's very short and very weird (I didn't even think it was really him until the game called it the Kagiha Ending) and would not have been worth doing a full post about since it would be a few paragraphs of me asking what the hell.

Also, there are things I want to bring up from other routes, and it feels best to do this by character rather than doing a post for every ending.

When I started the game I didn't think Kagiha was going to end up being my favorite character, largely because I disliked his character design (it's grown on me since), but the game did a wonderful job of selling me on Beniyuri and Kagiha's relationship as children and when they reunite as teenagers in the manor world. As a result, I completely bought in to their feelings for one another.

It's unusual for an otome heroine to have a canonical first love, but the Best and Real World Endings makes it clear that Kagiha was Beniyuri's. Even before we get to that point, once she begins to remember who he is and what he meant to her, we see her fear of losing him, and this is before she realizes that he's already dead. It's worth noting that even if she moves on to loving someone else in an alternate epilogue where she returns to the world of the living, that doesn't change anything about how she feels about Kagiha during the main game itself.

It also helps that Kagiha is the kindest member of the cast. When Beniyuri struggles to answer whether she still wants to marry him, he doesn't pressure her, even though from his perspective this is all he exists for. And of course his sacrifice to allow Beniyuri and the others to return to life is the emotional high point of the game, especially since Beniyuri is the only one capable of shooting both him and Hikage to free everyone.

We know Beniyuri was broken by losing him, and now she has to lose him all over again, but the girl comes through (unlike a certain someone in 7'scarlet *cough*) and this time Kagiha passes on to a proper death.

With one exception in the main storyline, the Kagiha we see is the Kagiha of Beniyuri's memories; kind and compassionate, the sort of boy willing to sacrifice himself for others.

When he dives into the lake as a child to save Beniyuri, we're not surprised. When he rescues her and goes back for Monshiro, that is not unexpected either, because that is the kind of person he is. It wouldn't have been enough for Kagiha if he saved Beniyuri and left Monshiro to drown, even though that choice ultimately cost him his life.

In fact, that is why I initially didn't believe it was him in his personal ending, because it's so twisted.

Beniyuri wakes up in the middle of the night to the sound of rain and an odd voice that pesters her about how she can't trust her companions since they're withholding information from her. (The laughing voice sounds like her own, implying that she might be going insane.) Trying to get away from the voice, she leaves the greenhouse the group is currently using as a hideout and bumps into Kagiha, who seems to have escaped Hikage.

Though she's initially doubtful it's him (with good reason, seeing as he was dragged off as a hostage), his behavior is of the Kagiha she remembers, not just in the manor world, but also the real one. As part of her internal argument with herself, she pictures a dream world where she and Kagiha are married and live a happy life together, and she becomes lost within it. Reluctantly the voice pestering her gives up, seeing that this is what she really wants.

Which I was fine with as a bad ending. But Kagiha plays along with her hallucination and there's a super creepy image of them in the dream world that transitions to the two of them in the manor in the exact same pose, making it clear that nothing Beniyuri is seeing is real and Kagiha is aware of it. He even calls her his wife and says he will protect her.

That was my what the hell moment, because that's not the wish of a guy who's kind and always looking for the best for those he cares about.

But it turns out, he's actually a darker character than he initially appears. It's just easier to overlook on first playthrough.

When Kagiha died, his soul and Monshiro's arrived in the manor world at the same time. Kagiha agreed to work for Hikage in exchange for the chance to return to life, even when the work became despicable (as we learn on Monshiro's route). More than anything, Kagiha wanted to return to Beniyuri, and that desire never changed.

By the time Beniyuri arrives in the manor, he's working as the master's assistant, and pretends to have amnesia even though he recognizes her. At some point he modifies the deal he has with Hikage to bring them both back, but he recognizes that what he's doing is terrible. He's become willing to sacrifice anything and everything for the future he's been dreaming of ever since he was a kid. He knows it's wrong and he's afraid Beniyuri will hate him for it, but he can't bring himself to tell her.

Later in the game he even convinces her to give up her mother's ribbon, which is a protective talisman, so that Hikage's plans can proceed. Though he regrets it relatively quickly when he sees Hikage has no intention of keeping his promises, he still did it, knowing that Hikage could not be trusted.

As Hikage points out, Kagiha never believed him, but working with him was his only hope so he had no choice.

It's easy to say that Kagiha makes a lot of bad decisions over the course of the game, and that he should have known better. Monshiro even calls him out over how he's changed since they were kids. But the thing is, Kagiha was about seven when he died, and spent the last ten years in purgatory being neither living nor fully dead.

He was a very mature seven-year-old with a good-natured personality, which maps closely with how he is when he's presenting as seventeen in the manor world, but there are a fair number of cues that Kagiha is still a kid inside. For instance, in the optional Shoujo Manga episode, Kagiha is shocked and embarrassed to see a depiction of kissing between kids at school. It made him look terribly prudish at the point in the game when I unlocked it (not knowing his backstory), but on replay it was hilarious because I realized that's because he's still a kid. In fact, most of his romantic gestures are things people do with close friends and family in general (bringing hot cocoa, cooking together, etc), which is probably because that's the best way he knows to show he cares.

Despite all his mistakes though, Kagiha ultimately makes the right choice, bringing him back the kind of person he was before he died. After holding on for ten years he finally lets go of his wish to return to life, and his final request of Beniyuri before she shoots him and Hikage is for her to smile and live a happy life under the sun; the life she'd largely been denying herself.

Notably, Kagiha is the only love interest without a kiss scene, likely because it wouldn't have fit with his chaste impression of romance.

Monday, May 25, 2020

VN Talk: Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly - Part 1: Overview

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

Platform: PS Vita (also on Steam)
Release: 2018

Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly was the visual novel with the most votes during my Reader's Pick poll last year, and while it did not win the overall vote (that was Final Fantasy XV) that did bump it higher on the priority list for me to play, so here we are now.

I was surprised by the opening to this one, largely because I was expecting a period piece, or one set in a world similar to a historical part of our own due to the supernaturally infested gothic manor the characters are trapped inside. But no, it begins in modern day, as we start off with a fragment of a memory on a bus trip where a few friends are talking before our protagonist sinks into amnesia and wakes up alone inside a cavernous mansion.

Black Butterfly is gothic horror visual novel, though the horror elements are more of an atmosphere or a mood than something that will jump out at you from the shadows; things like a sobbing girl in a goat mask transforming into a clawed monster, the doors and windows to the outside that cannot be opened or broken, or the landscape that is always covered in fog.

It's very much a mystery waiting to be unraveled, but at the end of it, it's a story about dealing with grief and regret, and how each person chooses to bear the scars of their past.

Our five main characters awaken in the manor without memories of who they are and each of them has a text message on their phone giving them clues as to how to survive and escape. It quickly becomes apparent that there is a master to this mansion and he wants them to assemble a kaleidoscope, but shards of it are being held by the various monsters that wander the halls.

Though the five amnesiacs don't want to trust the mansion's master or the occasional masked people they find inside, they realize they don't really have a choice. They have a hideout where they appear to be safe from the monsters, but it only exists at the master's pleasure since it is kept stocked with food and supplies by his rabbit-masked servant.

Since they're without names, the five amnesiacs take nicknames from the name plates on the doors of the rooms they sleep in and settle into their new life; hunting monsters and collecting the shards they keep.

From there the game begins to unravel its mystery, and it's a good one. For this entry, I'd like to talk about the game's two major twists. Though I didn't see either of them coming, one of them was handled extremely well, and the other not so much.

For the first one, the master is a pretty deceptive bastard and it's unlikely that most players will discover his identity before the reveal. Though it's obvious that something is off about the character in question, there's a fair bit of misdirection both in game (and even in the title screen and box art) that keep the player pondering the wrong mystery.

From an outside standpoint, that the master is hiding among the amnesiacs is not an unusual twist, but as the characters get their memories back, they begin to realize that they aren't strangers at all. The group discovers a childhood photo taken at summer camp, and each of them are in it, making it seem like they all know each other.

However, there are a few things that are a bit off. We know from Yamato (who is not present during the photo discovery) that his younger twin brother had been in a coma for the past ten years. Given that the manor turns out to be a sort of in-between world for those on the border of life and death, it's not surprising that his brother would be one of their number, but Hikage's behavior doesn't come off like someone who's been in a coma since he was in elementary school.

It's not enough to doubt that Hikage is the long lost Kazuya, but the questions the player will have about him will be what happened in the ten years between then and now and when will we learn about it.

Which brings us to Monshiro.

Monshiro appears early on in the game as a mysterious person in a fox mask who saves Beniyuri and Hikage from monsters, and it's thanks to him that Beniyuri learns how to summon a gun to fight back. It's clear that he's existed in the mansion longer than any of the amnesiacs. When she meets Monshiro again, she's intrigued because he's not one of the monsters and he seems to be a nice person of few words. Eventually, Monshiro joins the team in their hideout, but he never removes his mask, making him an outsider.

When the twist comes out, Karasuba reveals that Monshiro is actually Kazuya (which fits with Monshiro's childlike behavior) which makes Hikage a fake, and Hikage owns up to it, announcing that he is in fact the master of the manor.

Hikage's reveal is a turning point in the game, and puts his previous actions in a new context.

Pragmatic and blunt, he had become the team leader. He's the first person Beniyuri, the protagonist, meets after she wakes in the manor. Though she's the first one in their group to figure out how to summon a weapon, Hikage masters it first and helps the rest of the team summon their own. Hikage was also the one who suggested they use the room names for themselves. He was surly and unapproachable as a part of their group, but he got the job done, and why would you suspect the group's ringleader of being a traitor when he's the one keeping everyone safe?

Unsurprisingly, he leaves the group at this point, but he also takes Kagiha with him as a hostage, and this is when the game changes focus to its second mystery. By this point, we know who the master is and what this world is, so the remaining mystery is what happened at summer camp.

When everyone sees the photo they get their memories of summer camp back, except for Beniyuri, and no one wants to talk about it with her. But given their ages, it's not a stretch to assume that whatever happened in Beniyuri's missing memories resulted in Monshiro/Kazuya's coma.

That turns out to be true, but it's not the whole story or even the real reason people are hiding the truth from her, and it's frustrating because everyone else knows but refuses to tell Beniyuri what really happened. Though they do this because they're aware of how she would take the news (badly), this results in a break in the otherwise excellent pacing of the story where Beniyuri spends an entire chapter of the game more or less wallowing in misery.

This is right after the master has revealed himself and he's taken Kagiha hostage. Beniyuri is terrified for her friend, and doesn't understand why no one else is having the same freak out she is, and once you know the truth you understand their perspective, but I had trouble being sympathetic towards the guys when she's breaking down and crying in front of them and they won't tell her the truth because they think it's better this way.

The reason the game does this is purely to hide a very important fact about Kagiha. He's already dead.

While everyone else is on the border of life and death and has the chance to return, there's no doubt that Kagiha is dead dead in the real world. At summer camp, Beniyuri and Monshiro were swept away into the lake during a torrential rain. Kagiha, being the eldest and most responsible of the kids, dove in to save them. He rescued Beniyuri, went back for Kazuya, and never returned.

Beniyuri's extended memory loss is not a defect of the memory restoration process so much as she's terrified of remembering the death of her childhood friend, especially since she was the one who suggested that they investigate the ruins of a lakeside manor even though they'd been warned away by the camp chaperone. In fact, if you view one of Kagiha's optional scenes in the main storyline, Beniyuri recognizes that she had lost someone important to her before, even though she lacks the specific memory.

Once she begins to get fragments of her memory back, it's pretty clear that Kagiha occupied a special place in her heart. They made a childhood marriage promise to each other, he gave her gifts that she treasured (in fact the final kaleidoscope shard was the last thing he gave her while they were still alive), and even years later when he asks, she realizes she's still happy at the thought of marrying him.

So the game hides his death until the climax, when the group faces off with Hikage, in order to inflict maximum pain on Beniyuri, who in the living world blamed herself for both Kagiha's death and Monshiro's coma.

Though it's not particularly clear why Hikage wanted to torment her with the revelation (other than he's a sadistic bastard), it sets up for the tragic finale where Kagiha sacrifices himself again so Beniyuri and his friends can come back to life.

Which brings the game back to the real world, where we learn that Yamato, Karasuba, and Beniyuri had been on a trip to pay their respects to Kagiha when their bus overturned, landing in the lake, which trapped them in the realm between life and death. Monshiro wakes up from his coma and a year later they all visit the lake to say good-bye to Kagiha and move on for good this time.

And that's really what this game is about. By going through the other story branches, flashbacks, and prologues, we learn that this game is about how the three survivors of the accident (Yamato, Karasuba, and Beniyuri) dealt with the loss of Kagiha and Monshiro. Beniyuri shut down, afraid of letting anyone get close to her again. Yamato feels guilt over his brother's coma. Karasuba wants to forget everything because he doesn't like the person he was in the past. As five they had been inseparable friends, but as three they are hollow and broken, their present overshadowed by the past.

Though Kagiha and Monshiro have been trapped in between for years, they have remained in purgatory primarily because they refused to lose their attachments to life; Kagiha fixated on a future with Beniyuri, and Monshiro wanting to return a ribbon to a girl he no longer remembered.

Perhaps because none of the endings based off the main storyline result in an all around happy ending (you can get various friends to survive, but Kagiha always remains dead) there is an alternate ending where you can replay the summer camp flashback and make a different choice that prevents the original accident.

This results in a happy ending where the five friends have remained close and intact, and perhaps knowing that its existence is a bit of fanservice, the ending reintroduces the characters in present day in the order we know of their well-being. Karasuba and Yamato greet Beniyuri in the morning before school, Monshiro appears in the afternoon after school, and of course Kagiha (who is never seen in the real world in any other ending) shows up last.

And for good measure, the childhood marriage promise comes up again, but unlike the main story, where the promise is a symbol of an opportunity lost, in the happy ending it's treated as a joke with Karasuba saying that childhood promises are past their expiration date.

I quite enjoyed this game, even though it wasn't quite what I expected. I refrained from mentioning this until now because it doesn't play like one, but Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly is actually billed as an otome game. However, the usual gameplay elements of choosing a character route barely exist (they don't have a common divergence point), and barring Kagiha's you can't actually access them until the self-labeled "best" ending is unlocked due to spoilers. In fact, in the best ending Beniyuri doesn't end up with anyone at all since Kagiha sacrifices himself and passes on to the afterlife.

Rather than having separate storylines that spin off into different directions depending on the player's choice in romantic lead, Black Butterfly is a single story that has a variety of alternate endings to fill out the details the player might not otherwise learn. With its easy to use flowchart for jumping around, revisiting scenes, and criteria for unlocking new ones, it feels structurally closer to Virtue's Last Reward.

As such, I debated whether or not to do the usual multi-part post I do for most otome. Kagiha's storyline is essentially the main one and if the game consisted only of that, it would still feel like a complete experience. But I decided that I did have more to say than I could fit in here, so this will be a series, but I'm structuring it differently this time.

Instead of looking at each character specific route (especially since some of them are quite short) I'll be taking a look at each character and their personal arcs over the course of the story.

Next week, I'll be writing about Kagiha.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Rivals in Otome - My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!

I haven't been in the mood for much anime lately, which is strange considering that I've been cooped up at home, but one series I have been watching is My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom! which I had been anticipating for a while since it's a female spin on the more commonly male-oriented brand of isekai.

As a child, My Next Life as a Villainess's protagonist discovers that she used to be a person in our world, but died and was reborn into the last game she was playing, which happened to be Fortune Lover, an otome game where the heroine goes to magic school and gets to fall in love with one of four different men. However, our hapless protagonist has been reborn not as the heroine, but her rival, who ends up exiled or killed on every route of the game.

Not content to let this stand, Catarina begins hatching a multitude of plans to avoid meeting her doom by the time she's old enough to meet the heroine in magic school.

The anime is based on a series of light novels, and it's easy to see that the writer knows their otome games (arguably better than a lot of isekai writers know their MMORPGs). I might write a proper review at some point, but today I want to focus on one particular element of the series, and that's the role that Catarina occupies: the romantic rival.

The reason this role stood out at me is that even though a rival is an easily defined role within the story, I actually had to do a lot of thinking to remember the last otome I played that actually had one and the closest I could come up with was Rika from Amnesia, which I played four years ago. Rival characters don't appear to be that common.

Part of the reason for this is that otome games by their nature tend to skew male heavy on their cast. If the audience is heterosexual female, then time and effort is better spent on providing a number of love interests than building the supporting cast. (At least for games coming out of Japan. A fair number of western developers will make both genders romanceable.)

The odd thing is that Catarina is not even the only rival in the game. Later in the anime, Mary is introduced as another rival (though as part of Catarina's messing around with the timeline, she's unlikely to ever become a rival with the heroine).

And Mary's probably the reason that we don't have very many rivals. Original Catarina, the one in the game, was an unlikable bully, so chances are players of Fortune Lover like our protagonist wouldn't feel sorry for her after forming a romantic bond with her childhood fiancé. However, Mary, according to the reborn Catarina, doesn't get vengeful or upset. Instead she wishes her fiancé well and runs away in tears when the heroine wins the heart of her beloved.

If I was playing Fortune Lover I'd probably feel like a heel. (And what's with going after engaged men? I realize they're nobles so childhood engagements aren't out of the question, but half the heroine's romance options are technically spoken for.)

But by adding another rival and having Catarina bring the sister of a love interest and the heroine herself (Maria) into her social circle, we end up with a pleasantly gender balanced central cast, which is pretty nice.

Though I play otome for the romantic aspects of the game, I appreciate having additional female members in the cast so it's not one girl and a whole lot of men. One of the best parts of Collar x Malice was Ichika hanging out with Sakuragawa and Mukai and listening to them complain about a dude at work. It felt very real and gave the player as Ichika a couple of cheerleaders to back up her romantic endeavors.

At this point in My Next Life as a Villainess (episode 7), Maria does not appear to be traveling any particular romantic route, nor are any of the men interested in her, so it's probably safe to say that Catarina is no longer a romantic rival. But her machinations have resulted in making just about everyone else in the main cast (regardless of gender) rivals for her. She's too much of a blockhead to realize it, but that makes the series light-hearted fun and I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Flights of Foundry

When I was a newbie writer, one of the things I was told was to go to a convention as a way to pick up tips on the craft and perhaps make a few contacts. I hated the idea of "networking" (talking to people, what is that?) even though I didn't mind the idea of learning, but one thing was a major barrier towards attending, and that's cost.

However, there is one convention for beginning creatives that is happening this month, and it's virtual so no travel is required. Also, it's completely free, though donations are appreciated. And that's the Flights of Foundry convention being run by the Dream Foundry.

It's being held the weekend of May 16th-17th and has multiple guests of honor (writers, editors, artists, and also translators!), just like a physical convention in meat space. Programming should run most hours of the day, though the bulk of it will be during waking hours for those in the US.

The Dream Foundry's work is intended to support multiple disciplines, so there should be something available for everyone.

If you're worried about the tech requirements, everything you need is listed in the FAQ. The social and networking aspects will happen on Discord.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Intergalactic Medicine Show Now Free To Read

Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show shut down last year, which was a shame since it was a long-running market that leaned more towards adventure than most other venues. Being subscription based, it wasn't as easy to read as other online magazines like Lightspeed or Strange Horizons, but following its shutdown, it's now opened its archives to be free to read for everyone.

I've been fortunate enough to have two stories published there; "All Times, All At Once" and "Poison Maiden, Open Skies."

If you haven't had a chance to read either of them, now is the time.

"All Times, All At Once" follows a group of scientists investigating the mysterious deaths of a group of colonists following a distress call. Things get very Lovecraftian.

"Poison Maiden, Open Skies" is another WWI story from me involving the women of Harpy Squad, a special unit composed of former munitions workers who have become deadly poisonous following an accident in their factory. It's also a Christmas story (I'm not kidding).

Both stories were fortunate enough to receive gorgeous color art, which in itself is worth checking out!

Monday, April 13, 2020

AI: The Somnium Files

Platform: Switch (also on PS4 and Windows)
Release: 2019

If you like adventure games and murder mysteries, then AI: The Somnium Files really should be on your radar It's the latest brainchild of Kotaro Uchikoshi, the writer/director of the Zero Escape trilogy, so naturally I was curious about it, but I didn't know much aside from the fact the protagonist was a detective with an AI that lived inside his cybernetic eye. And something about entering dreams.

But that was okay! With murder mysteries, less is more, and less chance of getting spoiled.

Even though this is the first game I played in 2020, I have a feeling it's going to be one of my top three by the end of the year. It was just that good.

Since it hasn't been out for more than a year, and it's a murder mystery, please be aware there are spoilers below, including the ending. I mean, how could you really talk about the success of a mystery story without covering the ending? If you're thinking of playing it anyway based on the director's previous work, just go for it. It won't disappoint.

Going into AI: The Somnium Files, I expected (given the plural in the title) we'd have a series of cases building up into one final one. It's the narrative structure I'd come to expect from other crime solving games out of Japan, like the Ace Attorney and Danganronpa series. But it's one long case, and it's really only in the second half that you're able to start piecing things together.

There are also multiple story branches, leading up to five different endings (not counting bad or joke endings), but the mystery is only solved once the last ending is completed, revealing the final pieces of how the events of the game came to pass.

The biggest divergence in the storyline happens early on, so for simplicity's sake I'll refer to the two halves of the story as the Serial Killer Branch and the Iris Branch, with the stuff prior to that as the Prologue.

The Prologue establishes who Kaname Date is, his job, his relationship with his ward, Mizuki, and that he has no memories from prior to six years ago, which is a nice twist to the hero with amnesia trope. Date doesn't know his past, but in the years since he's built up friends and seems like a well adjusted (and often dorky) individual.

I really like playing him for his serious game face and complete goofball interior life. He and Aiba, the AI that resides in his prosthetic eye, are the kind of friends who constantly bicker with each other, and their dialogue is the highlight of the game. Since they're neurally linked they can talk to each other without speaking aloud, and they'll even have conversations in the middle of dialogue with other characters. Sometimes this leads to people thinking Date is spacing out, but the best times are when he's annoyed with Aiba and his retort comes out verbally, leading people to think he's talking to himself.

You can also examine a ton of objects in the game (not surprising for a mystery game) and there are lots of silly lines from either Date or Aiba from examining things that don't have anything to do with the story. They both like puns and there are tons of nonsensical easter eggs (like apparently So Sejima's pond is the home of both a merman and a kappa).

The game's humor provides a welcome sense of levity because the murders themselves are gruesome, and the game makes sure you know what you're in for with the very first murder victim; a friend of Date's who is found tied to a merry-go-round horse with her left eye removed from its socket. She died from being stabbed with an ice pick.

Her daughter Mizuki (Date's ward) is found nearby clutching the ice pick, but can't speak due to her trauma, leading to the introduction of the game's central gimmick; the psync machine. By connecting the subject of the psync and the psyncer (Date's job), the psyncer is able to enter the Somnium, the subconscious mind of the subject. It's supposed to be a way for the police to get information from witnesses who can't (or won't) provide information.

Somniums are muddy though, and what the psyncer sees and how they interact with the world might not make any sense, but the game lays out the rules pretty clearly. The subject has to have knowledge of something that appears in their Somnium (you can't dream the face of a real person you've never seen), but the context might be different (you might dream of meeting a friend at a party, but you never actually went to one together).

Depending on how Date progresses through the Somnium and what memories he sees, the story can branch, and Mizuki's is the first branching point. In one branch, Date manages to reach Mizuki, who blames herself for her mother's death, and this leads to the Serial Killer Branch, and in the other he instead finds the body of a girl, Iris, and this leads to the Iris Branch.

The two branches play out significantly differently, though a few events happen in both since characters who are not yet affected by the deviation continue to do their own thing. In the Serial Killer Branch, it's not long before the body count starts piling up, and it's what I expected to be doing in the game; following a trail of bodies to the truth.

But in the Iris Branch, Date spends most of his time trying to protect the teenage Iris from getting killed. She's not actually dead, but because of what he saw in Mizuki's Somnium and upon seeing a mysterious corpse that looked just like her, he can't shake the feeling that something bad is going to happen to her, and Iris herself said that she's going to die soon, though she played it off as a joke.

Both the Serial Killer and Iris Branches have locks on certain routes so the player cannot proceed until they have more information (by completing the three endings available at the start), so the game ensures that the player knows the stories of most of the central characters before unlocking the last two endings and revealing what's really going on.

Looking at this as a piece of writing, Somnium Files is excellent with its foreshadowing and red herrings, which is critical for a murder mystery. One of my favorite conversations in the early game on the Iris Branch is Date and Aiba arguing and Aiba subsequently threatening to self-destruct in his eye socket. He demands to know why she even has that function, and she explains that she's a highly classified piece of equipment, so she should not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands, but admits that she does not have the ability to self-destruct without permission.

Though this conversation starts out exasperated and jokey, it ends seriously with Aiba suggesting a command code for Date to use should he ever need her to self-destruct. Feeling that a single string of numbers is not strong enough he suggests that she require a second confirmation from him. If the next thing he tells her within a minute is a lie, then she should consider that the second confirmation.

It was a great scene that showcased both their relationship and their professionalism, and I really was hoping that one day that conversation would pay off. Even if it didn't, it was funny and enjoyable for its own sake, but fortunately it did!

As far as red herrings go, the game is also great about throwing in scenes that suggest Boss cannot be trusted despite being presented as a supportive friend. She knows Date from pre-memory loss, but also refuses to discuss the circumstances of the original Cyclops Killer case with him even though they are presently dealing with the New Cyclops Killer. There are clear differences in the killers' MO, so there's some leeway when she says the cases are unrelated, and the details are classified. But narratively we know there has to be something that ties them together, especially since they happened six years ago, which is right when Date lost his memory and was given his present identity.

Boss ends up being on Date's side the entire time, and there are good reasons why she hid what she did from him, but the constant deflection and even committing a murder in one scene (which turned out to not be her) did a really good job of casting doubt on her character, and it did this without making her look like a solid choice for the villain. I was frequently waffling between whether I could trust her or not.

The Serial Killer Branch really ups the body count and at one point Boss asks Date to think about what all the victims had in common and to think about who ties them together, which is really good in trying to figure out the culprit. I actually sat back and went through all the surviving named characters to try figuring out who would kill the victims, but at that point in the story it's actually not possible to discover the culprit (but interestingly, Boss is one of the few characters who is not cleared by doing this).

The second half of the game begins when the first lock on the Iris Branch lifts and from there we ping-pong between the two locked routes (one on each major branch) to get the rest of the story. On one path, five people are dead, on the other, only Shoko, the initial victim, appears to be dead. It's pretty wild and difficult to summarize all the details, so for a high level recap, it turns out the psync machine is capable of switching bodies between psyncer and subject.

You always have a six minute time limit when doing Somniums, because that's how long it's supposed to be safe for Date to be in there without his consciousness being subsumed by the subject. But in actuality, by staying in too long, the psyncer's consciousness pushes out the subject's and the subject's consciousness goes into the psyncer's. Consciousness goes first, memories second. What happened to Date six years ago was that the psync broke off before it was complete so he only got his consciousness and virtually none of his memories after the body swap (he has vague impressions of things from his previous life, but details are missing).

The body swapping is probably the game's biggest stretch in a story that otherwise likes to present as hard science fiction, but for what it's worth, it tries to keep everything else as grounded as possible (including that Date has unknowingly been getting medicinal supplements to address hormonal deficiencies native to his host body).

Because the real killer has been body hopping throughout the game, that's why the string of murders on the Serial Killer Branch makes no sense and it's not possible to pin down a motivation for a single culprit who knew all of them. But with one exception, all the victims are tied to Date. Date is the lynchpin, and it's specifically because the real killer wants to torment him before getting his old body back, which Date is presently inhabiting.

The game does pretty good by its details, including why it took six years for this to get going again, how the two Cyclops cases come together, and it's completely possible to figure out who the real culprit is before Date names him himself. This made the late story quite a ride as details kept coming out and missing gaps kept getting filled all the way up to the final confrontation.

Saito Sejima is probably not the most compelling villain in gaming, but he plays his psychotic nut job role well, and he's intelligent enough to be able to mimic the behaviors of the bodies he inhabits without tipping people off. It's pretty freaky when inside his Somniums (which you unknowingly visit twice) while he's inside the bodies of other people.

Why does Iris have memories of the original Cyclops Killings? Was she watching them as a little girl? No, it's because those are Saito's memories.

It's also pretty crazy when you realize that what he's been doing the entire Serial Killer Branch is daisy-chaining the victims after using them as his hosts. He uses Renju's body to kill Shoko, then uses Iris to kill Renju, and so on. The reason the killings stop in the Iris Branch is because Date freaks out when he thinks he sees Iris's body in Mizuki's somnium and tells Iris not to go outside no matter what, so she never takes the invitation from Saito-inside-Renju that leads to Saito taking over her body.

The climax is excellent though, with both Saito and Date back in their original bodies for the final face-off, with the only thing really marring the ending being Aiba's sacrifice. They really build up that all her systems and backups are being shut down because she and Date have done rogue, so when she (still inside Date's old body, now inhabited by Saito) requests the self-destruct code it's with the knowledge that she will be gone forever.

It was a beautiful scene with Date's lie (the second confirmation code) being that he hates her and never wants to see her again. But then the game undercuts itself in the epilogue when, surprise, Aiba has been rebuilt!

Despite that, I was pretty happy with the game. There are some strange things that broke my immersion (like the various mercenaries' improbable porn fascination, to the point they'll stop a shootout to go look at women's underwear), but those largely disappear by late game and the rest of the story is good enough that I found myself able to overlook the few tonally deaf moments. And even when I was going through them, I was still having a good time thanks to the strength of Date and Aiba's banter.

If you're squeamish this might not be your cup of tea. There was one murder I really didn't like since I do consider myself a squeamish person, and even if there aren't always clear visuals, the implied level of gore is high. But the bones of the plot are good, and like Date himself, the game also knows that it doesn't need to take itself seriously 100% of the time. The final ending still has baggage hanging over a few characters, but nearly everyone is alive with a brighter future ahead of them.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Baccano - The Slash

One of my favorite anime series is Baccano!, the overlooked cousin of the more popular Durarara!! (the author clearly loves his exclamation points). I was introduced to it by dumb luck. Simulcasting was not yet a big thing, and I was just digging through online anime catalogs to find something that looked interesting, and an anime set in the 1930s with gangsters was right up my alley.

It ended by being one of the few anime series in my adult life where after I finished it I immediately turned around and rewatched it; though I did switch dub languages from Japanese to English for my second viewing. And in this particular case I prefer the English dub because 1) they attempt appropriate regional accents for the time period, and 2) for a story set in the United States featuring a cast that is primarily white, it's really weird hearing Japanese honorifics.

What enchanted me about Baccano is how the story unfolds. You have three different storylines taking place in three different years, but the way the scenes were laid out, outside of chronological order, is simply brilliant because you learn things at the point when they matter most even if the situation was actually set up the previous year.

I was a bit disappointed when I started reading and discovered the anime was primarily drawn from the first four books of the novel series (which are short since they're light novels, roughly the equivalent of YA in the US, but heavily serialized). The novels are set by year, so you don't quite have the same jumps in the anime, but it quickly became apparent to me that author Ryohgo Narita likes chaos.

Reading Baccano! is like watching someone set up five lines of dominos that are on a collision course with each other. He jumps POVs a lot and characters are constantly moving. What happens in one scene might not make sense initially, but then he'll revisit it later from a different POV and suddenly it'll mean something. He also takes advantage of those jumps to play with readers' expectations. We know someone's coming, so when the doorbell rings we expect it's them, but it's not. And it isn't the second time either. It is the third time, but then who's ringing the doorbell the fourth time? Isn't everyone here already?

And this is a long winded way to say I've finished reading The Slash arc. The anime covered up to Vol 4 (and the OAVs that make up episodes 13-15 are Vol 14, which is not in English yet) and Vol 5 was strange for being a stand alone volume set in 2001, so it really couldn't have been added to the anime in any sensible fashion, especially since the majority of the 1930s characters aren't even in it.

Vol 6 and 7 comprise The Slash though, and it's too bad Baccano didn't get a second season because this would have been a fun addition, and it follows up right where the anime and OAVs left off. Jacuzzi's gang has set up shop in New York, Eve has finally dredged her brother out of the river, and Claire and Chané are an item. We also get introduced to our latest misanthropes, Tick and Maria, who previously made animated appearances, but were limited to a single scene each.

Most of the characters in Baccano! are a bit messed up, which isn't unexpected for a series that focuses on gangsters and immortal alchemists, but I've never met a more heartwarming duo of torture expert and assassin. I don't know that I could call either Tick or Maria sane, but when Maria begins to doubt the usefulness of her katana, Tick is the most supporting ray of sunshine he can possibly be. And Tick, who doubts the existence of anything he can't physically cut, finally finds a human bond in Maria.

There's definitely a lot of cutting in The Slash; with scissors, with katanas, with spears, and less conventional weapons too. We finally see what Huey Laforet's plans are, given we see very little of him in the anime, and the demon responsible for giving out the immortality elixir is formally revealed as part of the preexisting cast. Heck, even the senator who has a bit role in the anime turns out to be a person quite knowledgeable about many of these ostensibly secret events.

This wraps up the year 1933 for the Baccano series and it moves to 1934 with an arc set on Alcatraz next. Huey is already imprisoned there and we know that Ladd Russo from The Grand Punk Railroad arc is being transferred there, so things are sure to be interesting.