Monday, October 14, 2019

RPG Talk: Final Fantasy XV - Episode: Ignis

Unlike the other Final Fantasy XV party member DLCs, Episode: Ignis is flawlessly integrated with the main game, so at no point do you feel something was missed or rushed. It takes place at a time when Ignis is naturally away from Noctis, during the attack on Altissia, because all the party members are separated from him. This also means that unlike Gladio and Prompto's episodes, it's harder to see where his story is going or what it's going to cover.

In some respects, that's a good thing. Episode: Ignis's most dramatic moments are ones we had no idea existed, and make perfect sense given that Ignis is not the type of guy to toot his own horn. But on the other, Episode: Ignis is not really a self-contained story. It covers things we didn't see in the battle of Altissia, and heck it even fleshes out Ravus and Ardyn's motivations in ways the original game neglected, but even though Ignis makes for a compelling protagonist, the story told is not about him in the same way it was for Gladio and Prompto.

Rather, Episode: Ignis is a showcase for Ignis's dedication to Noctis.

Imperial forces are still swarming Altissia after Noctis's battle with Leviathan ends, and in the main game we just skip to everything being over and Noctis waking up in a hotel room to discover Lunafreya left the Ring of the Lucii to him and that Ignis has been blinded by an injury. Episode: Ignis covers everything that happened after the moment the battle with Leviathan ended.

Surprisingly, Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto are all together at the start of the DLC, since it was implied that they split up (and Prompto is even flying solo during part of Chapter 9 when he picks up Noctis to try to bring him closer to Leviathan). When the three try to retrieve Noctis following his victory over Leviathan, the fighting with the imperials destroys the bridge they're on and Ignis is separated.

What follows is Ignis desperately battling his way through the city to reach Noctis. He's largely on his own, because the evacuation must continue, and it's a little funny when other people are the ones telling him not to do something stupid since he's usually the party's voice of reason. Combat aside though, the first half of Episode: Ignis is pretty light on story, though we do get to see the return of one of the side characters. If you wanted to see the demise of Caligo (the imperial officer the party fails to kill in the Chapter 6 base infiltration) he finally meets his ignoble end here.

The second half sees Ignis partnering with Ravus so they both can rescue the people they care about most; Noctis for Ignis, and Lunafreya for Ravus. This gives us better insight into Ravus and his nonsensical hatred for Noctis. We still don't entirely understand why he joined the imperial army in the first place, but now it's extremely obvious why he's slated for execution in later chapters. Not only does he call back all the imperial soldiers over the course of the battle, but he ends up attacking Ardyn, the imperial chancellor, after he and Ignis find Noctis and the dying (or possibly already dead) Lunafreya.

Episode: Ignis might not flesh out Ignis's backstory as much as Prompto's did, but it makes it explicitly clear just how devoted Ignis is to his prince. It's not to say the rest of the bros aren't, but we get to see Ignis at his most desperate, knowing that he might not be able to reach the prince before something happens to him. This forces him to cooperate with Ravus, who he has reason to distrust (given that Ravus is a general for the other side), and once the unlikely pair reach Noctis and Lunafreya, they are forced to confront Ardyn, who as usual, appears to hold all the cards in his hand.

This DLC visually shows Ignis's gradual loss of control through his hair and his outfit. So he begins the storyline in his usual Crownsguard uniform, but after the bridge collapses, he's dunked into the canal and loses his jacket. After his boat is blown up by Caligo he's soaked and some of his immaculately coiffed hair comes down. By the time he's apprehended by Ardyn's escort, he's lost his glasses and his hair is completely plastered wet around his head.

When it looks like Ardyn is going to kill Noctis right in front of Ignis, you can feel his despair. We know Ignis isn't capable of fighting Ardyn alone and Ravus has been restrained as well, but there is a tiny light of hope in that the Ring of the Lucii has landed next to Ignis, leading to one of the ballsiest moves in the game.

Ignis puts on the ring, and since he's not of royal blood it starts to burn him from the inside out, but because he's fighting to protect Noctis, the Lucian kings allow him to use it just long enough to go toe-to-toe with Ardyn and drive him off, allow the rest of the gang to eventually catch up. This gave him the injury that permanently blinded him in the main game. It's a really awesome moment, and a powerful sacrifice, but unfortunately it could have been better telegraphed, and even as I was reveling in the moment, I wanted it to be better.

There are two things that bring me up short. The first is that Ignis and Ravus get to be a bit of a break midway through their battle through the city, and it's possible to ask Ravus about his prosthetic arm. At this point I don't remember if it was in secondary media or later in the main game, but Ravus lost it because he tried to put in the Ring of the Lucii, but was declared unworthy. Ravus does not mention this when asked about his arm, so it's possible the player will not know ahead of time what the penalty is if a non-royal puts it on.

The second is that Ignis mentions that if a Glaive can manage wearing the ring in service of the king, he should be able to as well. This is a problem because it's a reference to the Kingsglaive movie (which the player might not have seen) and also because Ignis should not have any knowledge of the events in that movie since he was not in Insomnia when the relevant Glaive made that sacrifice. The only character in the main game who knew about the Glaive putting on the ring was Lunafreya, who Ignis only catches up with when she's already dead/dying.

If Ignis and the player were both on the same page, I think it would have made the event that much more powerful. Because Ignis gives up more than his eyesight.

When he nears Noctis and Lunafreya earlier in the DLC, he meets Pryna, Lunafreya's otherworldly dog, who gifts him a vision of the future. So when Ignis reaches Noctis, he already knows that the prince is destined to sacrifice himself in the future. After the battle, when Noctis is recovering, Ignis visits him and asks if he would reconsider his journey. Noctis refuses, since it would mean throwing away everyone else's sacrifice, including Ignis's, and Ignis does not further try to dissuade him. It feels very much in character for Ignis to not bother telling Noctis how he lost his sight, or what the future has in store for him. Ignis asking Noctis not to continue is a selfish request, and when Noctis is not interested, he backs down.

But for those who would prefer Ignis to have made a different decision, there is an alternate ending!

The alternate ending splits from canon when Ardyn has captured Ignis and Ravus, and jokingly offers a chance for Ignis to come work with him. Canonically Ignis continues fighting (and it's the only option you can take on first playthrough), but the player can choose to play along instead, which leads to Ardyn leaving Noctis and taking Ignis all the way to Gralea.

Though Ignis is supposedly playing along, it narratively doesn't hold up very long before he and Ardyn start fighting again so Ignis can preserve Noctis's future. Ardyn makes it clear that he has nothing personal against Noctis. He's just really bitter about not being selected by the Crystal as the first of the Lucian kings. It's not much revelation into his character, but it's still something and clearer than it was in the main game.

This battle sees Ignis once again use the Ring of the Lucii to make him Ardyn's equal, and from a storytelling standpoint it does something cool. When he puts on the ring he's given the choice of doing so with the understanding he will risk his life for his king, or that he will sacrifice his life for his king. "Sacrifice" makes him the strongest, but puts up a timer after which Ignis will burn out and die, no longer being able to control the ring's power.

But this is the toughest fight in the DLC and you have limited healing items, so more fumbly players (like me) are probably going to want to choose "risk" a couple times before the game forces the "sacrifice" option to extend the duration of the fight without killing Ignis. While I needed the extra time, it just didn't feel quite as heroic, since Ignis is ranting about how he does not want Noctis to die and he will do anything to prevent that.

And it looks like he beats Ardyn well and good, possibly permanently since Ardyn dematerializes and it seems involuntary.

Noctis and friends catch up shortly, since Ravus defected to help them, and Noctis goes into the Crystal voluntarily this time to reach his full power so he can better protect his friends. This leads to an alternate ending where it seems the long night has come, but Noctis does not sacrifice himself to end it. Instead, he gets to rule as king, making for a happier ending.

Episode: Ignis doesn't give itself the time to explain the particulars about how this works though (probably because it's an alternate ending). As the credits roll we see people going about doing things in daylight, but then we also see Ardyn lurking around the empty throne in Insomnia (is he dead or a ghost?). It's nighttime when older Noctis and friends return to the Citadel, but instead of leaving his friends behind to face an army of daemons while Noctis goes up the steps to sacrifice himself, he meets up with older Ravus, who gives him his father's sword, as he'd meant to do in the main game if he'd lived long enough.

And then from there we see daylight and all seems well again.

Ardyn wasn't the root cause of the eternal night, but was tied to the daemons that came with it, so it makes sense that they wouldn't go away with his death. But it's not clear how or why Noctis doesn't need to die this time around, other than somehow Ignis's sacrifice allowed Noctis to forgo his own.

For these reasons I don't find the story in Episode: Ignis quite as put together as Episode: Prompto. It fills in some nice gaps, has some cool scenes, and presents an alternate ending, but it doesn't feel entirely well thought out. This is probably because it's trying so hard to contribute to a larger story that even though Ignis is unquestionably the star, it doesn't feel like the story is about him. There's not even really a plot per se. It's just a chapter we didn't get to see in the main game. In the end, it's still about Noctis and not a personal story that belongs to Ignis himself.

The canon DLC storyline even bookends the story with Noctis as a child taking Ignis's hand, and then Noctis (post-timeskip) doing it again just before they head to Insomnia, in gratitude for everything that Ignis has done for him. And I suppose that was done to give a better sense of conclusion since there is otherwise no character arc for Ignis. He goes in much the same man as he comes out.

I came here expecting I'd like Episode: Ignis the most, since he's been my favorite of the bros and this DLC was well reviewed, but I actually liked Episode: Prompto more.

Monday, October 7, 2019

RPG Talk: Final Fantasy XV - Episode: Prompto

I enjoyed enjoyed this DLC much more than I thought I would, even though I already knew the key details of Prompto's backstory that were skimmed over in Chapter 13 of the main game. It takes place several days after he's been pushed off the train by Noctis in Chapter 11. By this time Noctis and the others have already met with Aranea in Tenebrae, placing Episode: Prompto during Chapter 12.

Following his separation from the rest of the party, Prompto is desperately trying to catch up with everyone and he's trekking through the snow to get to Gralea, where the group had been heading, but he passes out from weakness and the cold and is brought by magitek troopers to a research facility. Why did they capture rather than kill him? Most likely because of Ardyn, who appears in this DLC for no discernable reason other than to offer zippy one-liners and send Prompto on his way with a physical handgun since the one he would normally summon as one of Noctis's retainers doesn't appear (presumably because Ardyn is blocking it).

It's a pretty flimsy setup, but it gets the meat of the story rolling as our poor guy is trying to find his way out of a hostile facility full of magitek soldiers who would love to kill him. Yes, after dragging him there in the first place.

We know from the main game that Prompto is a sort of proto-magitek soldier. Magitek soldiers are created by infecting babies with the plasmodium parasite that turns people into daemons. When the infected babies sublimate as adults they're ultimately turned into the magitek cores that power the mechanical soldiers. But the main game doesn't really go into more than that. Prompto brings it up when he returns to the party, but it's kind of awkward as he goes through the cliff notes version of his backstory in about 30 seconds and then it's over.

Episode: Prompto draws out everything we couldn't see, but was implied to have happened off camera. There are some really nice touches too, as we see Prompto discover research notes and draw his own conclusions about his origin.

The first time he activates a door lock at the facility he uses his barcode by accident, just by bringing his hand up to the door. But the second time he encounters a locked door, it's only after he's discovered the research into daemonifying human infants and learning that one of them was stolen from the facility by a Lucian. He's been in denial that he could be a part of this, despite the mounting evidence (like his barcode matching the established guidelines issued to every infant based on their birth year), and he knows that if he uses his barcode to open that door he's acknowledging this facility as a part of his past.

It's a really good scene.

Prompto is so much better when he's allowed to be more than the goofy comic relief and deal with his own insecurities. Though it's not directly spelled out, the reason he is the comic relief who generally gets picked on by the other guys is because he's terrified of getting kicked out of their social circle. Being the man of least influence is better than not having friends at all.

But once he learns the circumstances of his birth, he begins to question whether there's a place for him within that circle at all. After all, he was created to attack his friends' homeland. Prompto begins to see himself inside the magitek troopers he's fighting, and at one point even hallucinates Noctis trying to kill him just like the prince had killed many of those soldiers in the past.

After he escapes the facility with help from Aranea, he looks at the barcode tattooed on his wrist and contemplates burning it off, but even if he tries (player's choice) it can't be removed. It's irrevocably part of who he is.

Gradually though, with a little tough love from Aranea, he comes to accept that he can't help where or how he was born, but he can choose how he wants to move forward with his life, and that leads to striking back against his researcher father, who is one of the imperial faces early in the main game who inexplicably never returns again (until this DLC).

It's pretty good stuff and we see genuine character growth from the Prompto who started this DLC to the one who ends it, which I really wasn't expecting, and it's too bad we don't get to see this transformation over the course of the main game.

Prompto has his terrible reunion with his dad, who he was cloned from. He takes out a magitek factory. His episode covers how much researchers in the empire knew or didn't know about what they were doing. It makes the cold unpopulated opening to Chapter 13 make sense. Sure, we find out later in the main game why everyone's gone, but if we'd gotten that information chronologically at the same time Prompto did it would have prepared the player in advance.

But at the same time Episode: Prompto is designed to be played after Chapter 13. With a couple tucks I think it could have been made to run concurrent to the main game's Chapter 12. It shouldn't matter whether we find out Prompto's origin from his own mouth in Chapter 13 versus his father's research in Episode: Prompto.

The problem is that the ending of his episode shows Prompto waking up imprisoned in Chapter 13, though we don't know why/how other than Ardyn probably had something to do with it. We see Noctis and company rescue him, and in the post-credits scene Noctis apologizes to Prompto for pushing him off the train and basically saying that it doesn't matter where Prompto came from.

It was nice having Noctis apologize, since he never does it in the main game, but if we cut the credit roll scene and post-credits scene, we wouldn't have any Chapter 13 spoilers and you actually could play Episode: Prompto right after Chapter 11 when he gets booted off the train and it would work seamlessly with what's already in the main game.

And there are ways the main game could have been altered a bit to make Prompto's "by the way" bombshell a little less of a surprise, especially since most players probably ended up going through the main game first, making Prompto's origin reveal all the more awkward. If, for example, the player could discover research notes not just related to humans being turned into magitek soldiers, but that one of the infants had been kidnapped to Lucis that would have helped. Just little tips that would eventually make the player realize before Prompto returns that Prompto was born to turn into a magitek soldier.

That would better set up the fact that the rest of the party tells him it's no big deal that he was born in the Niflheim Empire, because they, and the player, would have already had time to process that information.

One small thing that still sticks with me after the DLC though, is that Prompto used to be chubby as a kid, and that's how he looked when he first met Noctis and was encouraged by Lunafreya to befriend the prince. It seems like becoming the trim person that he is in the present day is likely part of trying to look like a presentable member of the team, one worthy of being a companion to Noctis. So it comes off as cruel now that one of the main game's party banter conversations is Prompto asking if they can check out the Crow's Nest diner for food, and Ignis telling him that's fine if he wants to put on weight.

Ignis is probably not trying to be mean, as that doesn't seem to be in his personality, but considering he already knew Noctis at the time Noctis met Prompto, I find it difficult to believe that he's completely oblivious to the fact Prompto used to be overweight.

The fact that Episode: Prompto has made me think a lot about it following the ending and recontextualize conversations in the main game makes it a solid addition. I can't speak much for the gameplay since I'm not a shooter fan, but for non-shooter fans it's not too difficult to complete even on Normal difficulty thanks to the existence of healing potions.

Next week I'll take a look at Episode: Ignis, finishing off the party member DLCs.

Monday, September 30, 2019

RPG Talk: Final Fantasy XV - Episode: Gladiolus

I didn't hear great things about this DLC when it came out, but it provides about an hour and a half's worth of play time for $5 unless you rush it. If you remember in the base game, Gladio disappears at the start of Chapter 7 saying that he needs to take care of some business, no further explanation given, and then he's just gone until the start of Chapter 8.

At the time I found it bizarre. Prompto and Ignis's disappearances for their DLCs are perfectly woven into the story, whereas Gladio's is so abrupt that I wonder if the design team simply had no idea what to do with him.

In Chapter 6 of the main game the four guys run into Ravus in an encounter so bland that I barely remember it happened and had completely forgotten that Gladio was upstaged by Ravus. Even with a refresher that the two had met, and vaguely remembering something about Ravus forcing Gladio out of the way, I couldn't quite recall Gladio actually being flat out beaten by him. Maybe there was a cut scene. There certainly wasn't a boss battle.

The fact that a scene I barely remember serves as the impetus for Gladio's solo journey is probably why his departure reads so poorly. It's not possible for the player to see that Gladio is so upset that he needs to take some personal time off. While Gladio in Episode: Gladiolus plays it off as not wanting the other guys to worry (and he is certainly the "tough guy" of the bunch), it makes it harder on the player in the main game, lacking this point of view. It could have been solved with Noctis realizing that Gladio is suffering from something, but as we already know, he's not the most emotionally aware prince in the world.

So Episode: Gladiolus covers Gladio's attempt to take on a trial intended for Shields of the King. He figures with this he'll come back as a stronger Shield for Noctis and be able to protect him in ways that he couldn't before. This trial, though, is a deadly one, which no one has passed and only one survived, Cor Leonis, the marshal in charge of the Crownsguard.

I like that the DLC presents the trial with a frame story, with Noctis and friends sitting around the campfire asking Gladio about what he was up to and how he got his new scar, because that's a conversation that should have happened in the main game.

Though the opening of Gladio's retelling begins in the ever popular Crow's Nest diner where he meets Cor, it quickly moves past it to the trial dungeon. Cor accompanies him and the two share a few Cup Noodles together at various campsites in the game's ongoing product placement. Aside from that though, the camping allows us some insight into one of the more compelling early game characters who just disappears in the second half.

We get nice tidbits about Cor's past when he was a hothead teenager who thought he was all that and how he gained the sobriquet "the Immortal." It's a bit hilarious realizing that Cor got it for living despite failing the trial. It's a constant reminder that he wasn't good enough. He just didn't do as badly as everyone else.

And people did do badly. Though there are daemons in this dungeon as expected for this setting, many of the enemies Gladio faces are the souls of those who failed the trial.

Though Cor helps Gladio through most of the dungeon, Gladio is left to face all the bosses by himself, and they're all straightforward affairs to ensure he is tough enough to face Gilgamesh, the first Shield of the King, and thus tough enough to do his own job of protecting the Chosen King.

The funny thing is though, initially Gladio wants to do the trial to get more physical power to protect Noctis, but he doesn't leave with it. After the confrontation with Gilgamesh, what he gets is his confidence. He doesn't initially think he even passes the trial, because he realizes during the battle that he might never be capable of protecting his king to the degree that he wants, but the trial forces him to accept that and he becomes a stronger person for it.

Oh yeah, and we also get to see that Gilgamesh is the "other guy" who gave Gladio his scar, which was more or less expected, though it was a bit wonky seeing a cut scene fly up in the middle of combat to show the moment.

Episode: Gladiolus is not a terribly deep story and I can't really advocate playing it for the plot. I'm annoyed that the opening created for it in the main game was so bad, and if the DLC had been a rewarding look into Gladio's character, the abruptness could have been forgivable. I wouldn't go so far as to say the DLC is bad though. If you like Gladio and fighting with a massive two-handed sword it satisfies well enough.

It's just that there's not much to the story aside from the trial, some backstory about Cor, and a few words about Gladio's father. I guess I'm starting to see why Gladio didn't talk about his trial when he got back, because there really wasn't much to say about it.

Fortunately, that's not the case for all the DLC. Episode: Prompto is next.

Monday, September 23, 2019

RPG Talk: Final Fantasy XV - Noctis

I realized I had to have a blog post specifically about Noctis's journey when I was trying to write my original RPG Talk for this game and realized that 3/4s of it was all about Noctis and there wasn't going to be room for anything else. Perhaps more than in most RPGs, Final Fantasy XV is really about Noctis's personal journey than anything else. Other protagonists in other games might be the hero who rises to the occasion, and it's not to say that Noctis does not, but so much of the story is intrinsically tied to who he is and his family's heritage.

Noctis begins the game as a bit of an emotionally stunted and socially awkward prince who has never been outside of the capital city. He's sent off by his father to his arranged marriage to Lunafreya as part of a peace arrangement between his country of Lucis and the Niflheim Empire. Rather than a more elaborate retinue though, he's simply sent off in his father's car with three of his friends/retainers.

At first it seems drastically little for a prince being escorted to a major political ceremony. Their car even breaks down on the way to the port where he's supposed to catch a boat. But it quickly becomes apparent that his father was trying to get him out of the city before the Niflheim Empire attacked, knowing that they had no intention of actually following through with the peace accord. Then it makes sense that the prince would have left the capital with such a small retinue via a method of transportation that gives him an incredible amount of discretion.

Noctis, however, isn't ready to be king.

He's known since he was a child that he's the Chosen and that the kings of Lucis have a duty to the Crystal that protects their country, but he doesn't fully understand what it means to be Chosen. Only Lucian monarchs are able to use magic and gift it to their followers. (When the party enters combat and weapons materialize in their hands, that's not a cosmetic affect for gameplay purposes. They are literally summoned through Noctis's power as prince.) However, using the Ring of the Lucii necessary to commune with the Crystal saps the user of their vitality, as Noctis knows from how frail his father was getting. He knows what kind of future lies in front of him and it's one of self-sacrifice.

Heavy burden aside, Noctis is a young man who is still trying to get comfortable with who he is. Though he doesn't come off as spoiled, Noctis is clearly uncomfortable with how to behave around others. Early in the game, when Noctis first interacts with people on the road there are many chances for him to ask his friends what kind of answer he should give to a person and whether he should help them out.

His friends, though they are that, are also clearly there because they are chosen retainers. Gladio's family has served as the king's shield for generations. Ignis, a noble scion, was introduced to Noctis when he was six and is considered his royal advisor. The only spoiler in the bunch is Prompto, a commoner who befriended Noctis. But even that feels a little calculated, as if to remind Noctis of what the average citizen in his country may be like.

Throughout the first half of their journey they banter like a group of friends who have known each other for years. It's rare to find an RPG where the party at the beginning is the entirety of the party at the end. They joke with each other, take each other to task, and through Prompto's constant camera clicking we're reminded every time the guys bed down for the night that despite everything going on, these are a group of young men who enjoy each other's company.

However, Noctis is clearly the one in charge, even if he doesn't say a word about it. When they drive into town, sometimes Gladio will ask what they intend to do there, and Ignis will reply that it is up to Noctis. When Noctis decides to go fishing (at the player's discretion), he can literally leave his friends bored for hours when he pursues his hobby without a second thought that they might rather be doing something else. And we know they're bored because they comment on it.

Noctis doesn't impose his wishes over theirs maliciously (his behavior is pretty much what any player does from a meta perspective), but the game makes it clear that much of what the party does is because of or on behalf of Noctis, because he's the prince and he's the one who matters, whether he likes it or not.

It's telling that when the Crown City falls that Noctis only freaks out about his own family and doesn't spend a word asking about the families of his friends, though they must have had family there, and that's confirmed later when we find out that Gladio's younger sister, Iris, was spirited out of the city. Since she's the only one we hear about, presumably the rest died in the attack, including Gladio's father, who was serving as the king's shield for King Regis like Gladio does for Noctis.

Once the capital falls, Noctis is forced to come to terms with the fact he needs to become Lucis's next king and fulfill his fate as the Chosen, but he's not happy about it. He's doing it because he's told he has to and not because he wants to, and all the things that subsequently happen around him are because of who he is.

One of the things the game makes clear is that when a previous king is toppled, it is not just his family that is removed from power, but that of his followers. When Gladio's younger sister escapes the Crown City she does so along with the Amicitia family's personal retainers, who are still loyal despite the danger and the turmoil. While Noctis is running around getting royal arms and meeting with Astrals, one of those retainers is killed by agents of the empire. The retainer might have been able to save himself if he revealed Noctis's location, but he didn't. Noctis isn't even able to properly avenge the guy.

When Noctis faces his trial against Titan, it's narratively the most dangerous part of the early game, and Noctis begins freezing up, but Gladio forces him to accept that he's going to be king and he needs to start acting like it. If the burden becomes too great, then he needs to realize that he can give some of it to Gladio to share. Gladio has to tell Noctis this because Noctis himself isn't aware enough to know when to volunteer.

Though Noctis doesn't entirely lose his awkwardness in the first half of the game (allowing him to get all but bullied into side quests for certain NPCs), he gradually gains confidence and begins to call some shots of his own instead of letting himself get dragged where fate tells him to go.

Once the second half of the game begins, the open world is closed off and stakes get high fast. Noctis wants to reunite with Lunafreya in Altissia, where she plans to awaken Leviathan so he can receive her blessing as the Chosen, the True King. In order to do that, he has to negotiate with another state for the first time as a representative of his country, and in a nice touch the player gets to choose how Noctis will handle his attempt at diplomacy, which can be clumsy or surprisingly adept. This also results in splitting up his team so they can help evacuate the city in the event Leviathan turns destructive, which turns out to be the case.

It's an exciting chapter with Noctis getting powered up with the might of previous Lucian kings, and the city is destroyed, but at the same time Lunafreya is killed.

I wish, though, that he'd had more time with her so her death had meant as much to me as a player as it presumably did for Noctis. The game plays it cool, given that they were supposed to have an arranged marriage, so when Noctis and Luna exchange messages via notebook throughout the first half of the game, Noctis can be brusque or genuinely looking forward to the idea of seeing her.

Someone made the effort to code different descriptions of the notebook following Lunafreya's death, depending on how Noctis corresponded with her, but chances are most of the player base will never see it, which is a pity. Since Noctis is an introvert, it's not surprising he's not comfortable talking about Luna with the other guys, so reading the notebook description after her death is really the only way to know how he felt about her, and it's entirely player decided. I played Noctis as genuinely looking forward to marrying her, and learning that he kept the notebook, now stained with the tears he shed after her passing, was moving, but I only discovered it towards the end of the game.

After the battle, Ignis is the one who delivers the news of Lunafreya's death to Noctis, giving our prince a one-two punch as he realizes that his plan has not only cost Luna her life, but his friend's eyesight. He walks slower and uses a cane, and in the ensuing chapter, Gladio will chew out Noctis if he runs so far ahead that Ignis is left behind. Eventually, Ignis brings up the elephant in the room about his disability and that he still wants to come with Noctis, but that he will need to be left behind if he becomes a burden, because Noctis is king and his duty takes precedence, and you know Noctis doesn't want to be a position where he one day has to make that choice.

But when it comes to leaving someone behind, it's not Ignis who is lost, but Prompto, who Noctis accidentally pushes off a train due to an illusion.

When the battered group finally reaches Gralea, the capital of the Niflheim Empire, their party is down to three, and their car, the Regalia, is smashed getting them inside the city gates. I have seriously never felt as sad about the loss of a game vehicle than hearing Noctis's farewell to the Regalia, since it ended up being one of the last things his father gave him.

And shortly after that Noctis is separated from his remaining friends and his powers as sealed, leaving him nearly helpless and unable to call on his magic or his weapons in a strangely vacant and nocturnal city which has now been filled with daemons. It's so bad that he finally puts on the Ring of the Lucii, which is the only thing that still works, even though it's probably killing him every time he uses it. While the gameplay changes in this chapter in ways that I didn't like (shoving in survival horror stealth aspects along with jump scares), there's no denying in how effectively it isolates Noctis, who finds himself not only shouldering the fate of his kingdom, but now the world.

Through his losses and his acceptance of the burden he bears, Noctis pushes on even though it's entirely possible he has no one left to count on. Though the team reunites again before the end of the chapter, even Prompto, Noctis is forced to leave them behind again, voluntarily this time, so he can go for the Crystal while they hold off what looks like a never ending horde of daemons without him. He doesn't want to, but he has to, because he's the Chosen and if he doesn't make it to the Crystal nothing else will matter. The aimless Noctis from the beginning of the game isn't there anymore.

But the Crystal doesn't turn out to be the saving grace he expects it to be. Rather he's consumed by it and learns what it truly means to be the Chosen. Just as his subjects will devote their lives for the king, he has to sacrifice his own to save theirs.

The game doesn't pull any punches with it. Noctis spends ten years sleeping inside the Crystal and when he finally wakes the only thing on his mind is meeting up with his friends again to finally end the literal darkness that is covering their world.

After the timeskip, he emerges a much more somber character and cognizant of what he needs to do without having to be prodded. In the mid-credits scene, which actually takes place prior to the final battle, he tells his friends that he's made peace with what he has to do, and finally, though it's hard, he manages to tell them how happy he is to have known them.

When Final Fantasy XV was still in development, they announced "Stand By Me" as the theme song, which I thought was an odd choice, given that it's an American song from the 1960s, but after it rolled on top of the first set of credits I was stunned by how appropriate it was. The friendship between Noctis and his friends is the emotional core of the game, but the story that sticks with me beyond the plot to save the world from another evil empire, is that of Noctis's personal journey. He started the game as an aimless prince, but ended very much a king.

Monday, September 16, 2019

RPG Talk: Final Fantasy XV - Main Story

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

Platform: PS4 (though it's also on XB1 and Windows)
Release: 2016

Final Fantasy XV won my Reader's Pick poll to see what I should play while recovering from surgery, and like a number of other games, it had been sitting in my backlog for a while. Now that I've finally experienced it, I'd have to say that Final Fantasy XV is a bit of a mixed bag. I enjoyed it, quite a bit actually, but even with the story patch that was supposed to shore up some of the game's weaknesses it doesn't quite come together.

What it does well, it does really well, but what it doesn't is fairly flawed, and I decided that I really needed to break this particular RPG Talk into two entries, one to focus primarily on the main story (which is what these articles are about!) and another to focus on Noctis's personal journey. Today's entry is focusing on the story.

That said, there is no doubt that the appeal of FFXV lies more in its core cast of characters than the plot. The game never lets narrative sensibility get in the way of an entertaining set piece, so there are mandatory adventures that are fun to play through, but when you take a step back they don't make any sense as nothing in particular was accomplished. (I'm looking at you Chapter 6 base infiltration.)

After spending over 70 hours to complete this game, I'm a bit surprised by how little there is of a story. There is certainly worldbuilding enough. There's history to different regions of the world, cultural details. The architecture changes. Even the food you eat and the fish you catch while fishing changes from place to place. There's a clear cosmology and you get the feeling that the world lives and breaths even when the main characters aren't around to experience it.

But a solid cast and a nice world does not make a story. And it's not that the premise is bad. FFXV has the bones of a good plot. Noctis is a prince on the run after the death of his father and the fall of his nation's capital. His family's history is directly tied to a prophecy of the King of Kings, the True King, and the world is afflicted with a scourge that causes daemons to rise at night.

The problem lies in the execution of the story, because there isn't enough meat hanging on those bones, resulting in chapters with transitions that don't make sense, seemingly important characters that do nothing, and what amounts to a two chapter fetch quest, which is a lot when the story itself only runs fourteen! Some of this is patched up in subsequent DLC or other media (movies, books, etc), but it really shouldn't be in the first place.

For instance, after Insomnia, the capital of Lucis falls, the Niflheim Empire steps up its presence in the outlining regions of the country. Supposedly it's to help hunt down the terrorists responsible for what happened in Insomnia, but 1) Lucis is not their country and 2) the player knows Niflheim is the one who blew up the capital in the first place! So who are these terrorists? Turns out the "terrorists" are scapegoated Kingsglaive soldiers, which you'd only know if you watched the Kingsglaive movie or read a wiki.

Despite its problems though, FFXV manages to work, and that's largely because of the heavy lifting done by Noctis and friends.

The opening of the game is about as low stakes as you can get. We meet Noctis, Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto on the road in the middle of the desert where their car has broken down and they need to push it to the nearest gas station. Though it's mundane, it's surprisingly important, because it shows us who these guys are, what their personalities are like, and how they interact with one another.

Noctis is heading for a port town to catch a boat to Altissia for his arranged marriage to the Oracle, Lunafreya, as a means to seal a peace treaty between his country of Lucis and the rest of the world, which has been subsumed by the Niflheim Empire. The other guys are not only his retainers, but his friends, and we see that come through in their interactions. They call him "Noct" rather than "your highness" and the four of them joke around like any group of buddies.

One of the highlights of the game is the party banter, and since the four main characters are both your starting and ending party, you really get to know these guys. They comment about everything, whether it's Cup Noodles (in one of the most awkward RPG product placements I've ever seen), the monsters they're fighting, or a trivial side quest Noctis just picked up. If the player enters an optional dungeon they found on accident, they'll say something about checking it out, making the player feel less bad about deviating from the main story.

The first half of the game is open world, which feels a little odd since Noctis has a wedding to get to, but there's not too much to do in the beginning so eventually even the most side quest avid player is going to end up at Galdin Quay where the first chapter ends and Noctis learns about the fall of Insomnia and hears propaganda announcing that he, his father, and his fiancee Lunafreya are dead. (Why Lunafreya was in Insomnia to begin with when Noctis just left and they're getting married in Altissia is another of those see the answer in other media moments.)

From there the urgency of having to be in a specific place drops by a fair amount. Noctis realizes he has to visit the tombs of his ancestors and gain the power of their royal arms if he wants to take back his country. While in a nice touch he's not required to get all of their weapons before the end of the game, it's "what he's supposed to be doing" in the early portion of the game. That he's also off running random side quests could be excused as being out of money, needing resources, or training, while checking up leads. In fact, some level of side questing will probably be necessary in the third chapter since the main quest dungeon nearly killed my party on my first visit.

Though it feels odd to put off the main thrust of the game to help catch frogs (seriously, there's a quest chain to do just that), all this open world running around doing errands provides the emotional grounding the second half of the game needs. When the four guys are driving around in their car, the Regalia, they talk with each other. Prompto will ask if they can stay in a hotel if they drive past when it's getting dark. Noctis will complain about camping in the wild if they've been doing it multiple nights in a row. Ignis will drink coffee while he drives, because that's what he does.

Knowing these guys and their friendship is the only reason this game works. We learn how they behave with each other when they're allowed to relax, and we also see them under duress. Their dynamic is more than Gladio being the musclehead, Ignis the smart guy, and Prompto the funny one. The constant camping, having Ignis cook for everyone, challenging Gladio to a beach race, or picking out which of Prompto's photos of their trip to save, makes it feel like you were there for all those light-hearted moments, hanging out while they hung out. Most of the screenshots for this post were actually taken by Prompto.

So when the stakes get upped in the second half, they hurt.

Ignis is permanently blinded implementing Noctis's plan to help Lunafreya summon Leviathan, and spends the next few chapters walking with a cane while trying to figure out how he can still be a useful member of the team. Though Lunafreya actually survived the fall of Insomnia, she dies passing the Ring of the Lucii to Noctis, as his father wanted her to do. Shortly thereafter, Prompto is accidentally pushed off a train and then left behind for the greater good of the people the rest of the team is trying to save.

Even the Regalia itself is wrecked and abandoned, as if to emphasize to the player that there is no going back to those happier days when everyone would drive around in the car running silly side quests.

For most of Chapter 13 Noctis finds himself completely isolated from his friends, left utterless weaponless and alone, and the reason the feeling of helplessness works so well is that we know he only got this far because of his friends and those who believed in him.

But when you take the focus off of Noctis and friends, the story starts to fall apart. In Chapter 13 Noctis has to cross through Gralea, the imperial capital, in order to get to the keep where the Crystal is stored. For some reason, Gralea is completely empty save for random daemons. We know the empire has a human population, we've seen human imperial characters before, but there aren't any here.

If the player is assiduous, they can find radio transmissions warning the population to stay indoors due to the daemon infestation, and that parts of the city are under quarantine, but that doesn't explain why even the military sections of the city are devoid of humans. Even Noctis wonders where everyone went, as if the developers wanted to emphasize to the player that this is unnatural and not that they were being lazy.

Eventually it's possible to piece two and two together and discover that somehow the population has turned into daemons. The main antagonist, Ardyn, even taunts Noctis asking him if he really knows where daemons come from. But learning the truth doesn't affect the story in any material way. This should have been a major revelation, but it's treated largely like a footnote, and actually brings up the question of why nobody knew this already.

People turn because they were afflicted with the Starscourge disease that Lunafreya healed with her powers as the Oracle. Since Oracles have been healing this disease for centuries and people know they needed treatment for it, how did no one learn prior to this moment that lack of treatment meant turning into daemon?

And even though the Niflheim Empire is collectively the antagonist for most of the game, the majority of imperial characters showcased early on don't (or barely) even show up later, including the emperor, who turns out to be a bit player in the grand scheme of things.

Lunafreya's brother Ravus has a lot of potential as a secondary antagonist, because we meet him as the High Commander of the Niflheim forces, being tasked with hunting down his own sister after she escapes from Insomnia. This could have been great drama, fleshing out both their characters!

But in the second half of the game we find out from a completely missable newspaper article that he's been sentenced to death for his poor performance in Altissia (which we don't see except in broad strokes as part of the general imperial military action) and the next time Noctis sees Ravus he's already dead, killed off-camera under mysterious circumstances that clearly were not a formal execution. We never learn why he took the position of High Commander for a country that annexed his homeland, nor why he disliked Noctis so much.

And though Ardyn is the main antagonist, I never understood what he wanted and why he was doing what he did. He shows up numerous times over the course of the story to "help" Noctis along and generally make a nuisance of himself, but we never learn why all that was necessary. Helping Noctis didn't seem to benefit him, and "it amused me" only goes so far as motivation. Did he want revenge? Was he just insane?

Having the ability to make smarmy remarks doesn't make a good villain. Lacking any reason to understand him, I defeated Ardyn simply because that was what had to be done. He might as well have been a mindless daemon for all he contributed to the plot. I assume his DLC answers a lot of questions about him, but he was so unsatisfying that I can't convince myself to pay $10 to find out.

Speaking of DLC, the episodes for Gladio, Ignis, and Prompto all take place when they aren't with Noctis, which only happens during select portions of the game. Ignis and Prompto's take place organically, with Ignis's being when the entire party splits up in Chapter 9 to evacuate Altissia, and Prompto's when he's accidentally pushed off the train in Chapter 11.

But Gladio's was awful, with him voluntarily leaving at the start of Chapter 7 so he can go take care of something and then returning in Chapter 8 with a new scar and a comment about how Noctis should have seen the other guy. It was so blatantly obvious that the departure was for his DLC adventure and it probably only worked without ruining the main story because this happens during the two chapter fetch quest so it didn't matter that Gladio was out of the picture.

Despite its problems though, I think FFXV is probably my second favorite Final Fantasy of the four I've played, and it's largely because of the bros. I am not a dedicated follower of the series and to be honest, if Final Fantasy Versus XIII's first trailer hadn't existed, promising a dark and somber take on Final Fantasy, there's a fair chance I would have skipped this one, because all the early promotion after being rebranded as Final Fantasy XV focused on a bunch of guys on a roadtrip, which really wasn't what I was looking for in an RPG. But it was still a trip worth taking.

The last chapter, when the four guys reunite and head back to Insomnia where everything started, was surprisingly effective, and it simply wouldn't have worked if we didn't care about the characters.

Next week, I'm going to take a deep dive into Noctis's personal story, which I didn't have room to talk about here.

Monday, September 9, 2019

VN Talk: Bad Apple Wars - Part 6: Alma

I'm really glad I saved Alma for last, because he comes off as distant and unapproachable in other routes. He's the unflappable leader of the Bad Apples, who never gets upset, never raises his voice, but never gives up. Alma works harder than anyone, and yet its rare to see him get emotional about anything and it's hard to tell what he's thinking. Even the few times he's surprised by something, his reactions are muted compared to the rest of the cast. You want quiet determination? Alma's your guy.

But it isn't as though he doesn't have feelings. On all the other routes it's fairly obvious that he struggles with the loss of Sanzu, and that causes him to pull back on Bad Apple activity out of fear he'll lose someone else.

There's also a unique facet to him that I wish the game had explored more. Alma is the oldest of the Bad Apples, in that he's been at NEVAEH the longest, which means that all the rule-breaking, the discovery of how to keep one's sense of self, was all started by him. In fact, once you start his route, it becomes obvious that Alma is not like the other students, even the other Bad Apples, and that's likely part of why he's an effective leader (though I wish the game explained how he knew the method by which Rinka had died).

It's also obvious upon starting his route that Alma has deep psychological issues that otherwise have no reason to come up. It's first hinted at in his first meeting with Rinka, but it makes his manner of death different from everyone else. Higa died when he was struck by a vehicle (like Rinka), Satoru overworked himself, Shikishima died from disease, and who knows what actually did in White Mask, but Alma is heavily implied to have committed suicide. And instead of escaping his pain in life, he found himself in an afterlife where he's now more afraid of forgetting what it's like to feel pain than the actual act of experiencing pain himself.

Unlike most routes, Alma gives Rinka the rundown on people's inability to die right away, and demonstrates it right in front of her by slitting his own throat. Pain can still be experienced at NEVAEH even if death cannot, but he behaves as if this is no big deal (and Rinka is rightly horrified).

Playing Alma's route answers questions about his behavior on most other routes (including why we don't see him eat his forbidden apple in Shikishima's ending) as we get a good deep dive into what makes him tick. For that reason I feel like he probably works best as either a first playthrough (so everything is on the table) or a last one (to answer questions), but not in the middle.

Though Alma gives off the appearance of constantly being in control of himself and his situation, he's really not. All the times he disappears on his own and in other routes is largely because he needs time to cope, which he tries to manage alone. He cares deeply about his role as the group's leader and sincerely wants to give everyone a chance to be reborn, even if he does not plan to return to life himself.

As Rinka learns from her Soul Touches with him, Alma was in love with a girl from a young age and she ended up spending all her time in the hospital before they even got to high school. Alma wanted to grow up and become a doctor so he could cure her, but he had attitude problems, so even though he was a brilliant student, nobody liked him and he was constantly getting into fights. His own father disowned him. The girl was the one bright spot in his life and he promised to be with her until the end, but he failed to do even that when a brawl kept him from getting the hospital before she died.

Alma takes his promises seriously, and was broken up by his failure to keep that one, and so he made another promise not to forget her, but the problem is that time takes away a lot of things, and a year after she died he realized he was starting to forget things about her. That led to him going to the roof of his school in an attempt to stop himself from losing any more memories of her (by killing himself).

His failures haunt him pretty badly, which is why Sanzu's graduation sinks him into such a great depression. Until that point it didn't appear to be possible to actually lose any of the Bad Apples, because no one could die.

And since Alma's own life ended on such a miserable note, he has no desire to go back. Like Yoh, he doesn't see the point in returning to a life without the one he loves, and he says this is why he had no words to console Yoh when Sanzu died, because he realized they were in much the same situation and Alma has no words to make his own pain disappear.

But there is a reincarnation wrinkle. As we know from other endings and from the graduation process itself, reincarnation happens and it's laid out fairly early along Alma's route that Rinka feels she has met him before. In fact a couple of her first few Soul Touches with him are uncommonly affectionate for someone she doesn't know well, patting his hair and touching his face, and she's not entirely sure why she wants to do that with him.

One of the interesting things we learn in Alma's route is that the longer someone is at NEVAEH, the more their memories of their previous life and their memories of school life bleed into each other. Since Alma has been around the longest, he suffers from episodes where he can't tell when or where he actually is, and this spills over on to Rinka, who he conflates with the girl he loved.

It doesn't take much to put two and two together to realize that Rinka is the reincarnation of his previous love, and if that's not enough, Alma all but spells it out in the graduation ceremony scene when he loses his Soul Totem. I kind of would have liked it if Rinka wasn't actually a reincarnation though. For a moment it looked like the story might go that route, and I think it would have been a nice change of pace of it did, but that would have broken the red string of fate motif running through his route. Alma's Soul Totem is a red thread and seems to be a literal manifestation of his tie to the love of his life.

Alma's ending is also different from the others. Unlike Shikishima and Higa who would be clearly too old (or dead) by the time Rinka is born, or White Mask and Satoru who are her contemporaries, Alma exists in a bubble between time periods. I was hoping there would be at least one of these where Rinka or her love interest had to wait a few years for the other to catch up (mostly I was hoping this would be the case with Satoru since he died in middle school), and Alma's mostly fits the bill. The age gap is on the large side, even if we're really generous about when he was born, but it allows him to be an adult when they meet up again.

The game is vague about Alma's birthdate, with the only mention being that he was born fifteen years after Higa, who in turn was born in the 1950s. This means if we want a young Alma and put Higa's birth in 1959, then Alma was born around 1974, give or take for rounding errors. Assuming Rinka dies in 2015 (the Japanese release date), this puts Alma in his 30s by the time Rinka is born and in his early 40s when they reunite, which he totally does not look like in the ending illustration.

If we ignore the suggestion of his birthdate, or run with the assumption that Rinka comes from a year earlier than 2015, Alma's love died when she was of high school age, making her at least fifteen. Allowing time for her to be reborn as Rinka and grow up, Alma is likely a minimum of sixteen years older than her, so he can't be anything less than his early 30s when they reunite.

So even though they see each other again in his ending, their meeting is very chaste. He's now a doctor and ends up being the surgeon in the emergency room when she's rushed in, and there's a nice comparison between the knife he used to fight with in NEVAEH and the scalpel he's now using to save her life. He's well aware that for her, NEVAEH is a recent battle she's still fighting. When she wakes, she sees him (no longer with dyed red hair since he's in a respectable profession now), and they're happy that they remember each other.

It's the epilogue three years later, after Rinka graduates, that is the real coda to their story. Alma, no doubt recognizing and caring about the age difference more than she does, puts off their relationship until after her high school graduation so the epilogue consists of Rinka rushing to the hospital to see him. That's when they finally spill the love confessions they couldn't say in NEVAEH and he asks Rinka to marry him.

Mind, there would still be external problems with their marriage. Even if we've seen their journey together, I'm sure Rinka's parents are going to have opinions if their newly graduated daughter is eager to marry a guy sixteen years older than her. And while we don't know what Alma's adult social network looks like I'm sure he'd get a lot of cradle-robbing comments.

I'm also a little disappointed that we don't seem to get Alma's real name, though this might have been a translation preference. Rinka calls him Dr. Alma Fudoh in the epilogue, but Alma is not a Japanese name. It's probably Aruma (which would be pronounced the same), but I was hoping there was a reason behind his unusual name in NEVAEH. This is compounded by the fact his former love called him "Al" which sounds completely weird when listening to the Japanese audio.

Still, this was a good note to end the game on, and as a whole I enjoyed Bad Apple Wars more than I though I would. If you enjoyed this blog series, please consider leaving a tip in the Ko-fi jar. Ko-fi followers get the first heads up when there's a poll to vote on what game I should cover next.

Monday, September 2, 2019

VN Talk: Bad Apple Wars - Part 5: Satoru

Man, where to start with this guy. Satoru is actually the first love interest Rika interacts with in Bad Apple Wars, by virtue of the fact they arrive at NEVAEH Academy at the same time and are seated together as new students during the opening ceremony. But at the same time calling it an interaction is overselling it a bit, because it's more like she tries to talk to him and he blows her off so he can study words and phrases out of his reference book.

In other routes Satoru is frequently used as a demonstration to show how bad apples are treated by the Prefects. We see his Soul Totem (his reference book) being taken from him, we see him being "corrected" multiple times, and even the good apples laugh at him for being so obstinate for no discernable reason. All he cares about is studying what he thinks is important, resulting in a disconnect between what's actually happening in class and what he's preparing himself for, and yet he never wavers in his single-minded dedication to his studies. Anyone who gets in his way, be it Rinka, a Prefect, or even a teacher, gets the cold shoulder and/or a lot of attitude so he can continue doing what he does.

When I started playing he was highly irritating, but as I watched him get smacked down route after route, I started to wonder, why does he need to study so badly? Clearly it's some failing from his previous life. The exam, which highlights the test taker's weakest subject, asks him to write an essay on how to make friends, which unsurprisingly is something Satoru is completely incapable of doing. (He's really pissed that's the exam too.) So even though I wasn't that eager to hug the porcupine, by the time I was on my fourth route I was ready to see what made this guy tick.

Satoru takes a fair bit of narrative effort to crack, to the point that there are some things that happen a lot differently on his route because otherwise he'd never get involved. For instance, in all other routes, the key in the Reaper Game is in a classroom where it goes undiscovered by all other students save Rinka. But Satoru has no reason to participate in or to monitor the game--he just wants to study--so he never leaves the gym to go on the scavenger hunt. This necessitates moving the key (on to Satoru's back no less) so Rinka can discover it while in his presence.

His route also has him getting dragged along by one of the tertiary Bad Apples to their clubhouse so he can be better known by the rest of the cast, which doesn't happen in any other storyline.

Things like this keep Satoru front and center in a story where he would otherwise melt into the background through sheer non-participation. And by pushing his trigger buttons (like telling him to "drop out" in regards to the Reaper Game), the story is able to showcase what Satoru is like when he's really passionate about something. Not to mention that it's hilarious watching him go berserk just because White Mask told him to drop out.

It takes a while, but after Rinka Soul Touches with him enough, she learns the reason why he's so focused on studying to the exclusion of everything else. He was being raised by a single mother in the wake of his father's untimely death, and while he is not naturally a good student, he realized that getting good grades was one of the few things that would lift his grieving mother's spirits.

He subsequently went overboard in his determination to make his mother happy and decided to shoot for the best high school even though it was in all likelihood beyond his academic ability. His teachers argued against it, saying that even if he managed to pass the entrance exam, he'd never be able to keep up with his new classmates, but Satoru refused to accept no as an answer. The solution to everything was simply to study harder, no matter what it took.

As a result, he gave up all his hobbies, stopped seeing his friends, and dedicated everything he had to being a more knowledgeable student, even if was detrimental to his own well-being. In fact, the reason he died and ended up at NEVAEH is because he was fueling himself almost entirely on coffee and sacrificing sleep so that he could study more. Once he arrived at NEVAEH he was so focused on his studies that it took him until Chapter 5 to even realize he was dead. (Presumably on the other routes this never dawns on him.)

But once he does, it's a complete heartbreaker for him, because he realizes that all his hard work was essentially meaningless. Since he died, he never got into the high school he wanted, and now his mother has not only lost her husband but her son as well.

And I do want to stop here a moment and say that Satoru is oddly enough (considering that this is a high school afterlife) a third year middle school student. He says he's in eighth grade in the translation, but it's actually closer to ninth grade, since high schools are a three year program in Japan and first year high school students are fifteen. It's not a huge deal as far as being in a relationship goes since he and Rinka are only one year apart, but it's odd that he's not in high school but is in a high school afterlife, and somehow everybody intuitively knows that Satoru is younger than Rinka since she gets ribbed about liking a younger boy. Prior to getting all his Soul Touch flashbacks I thought Satoru died after his entrance exams so he'd at least made it in.

Satoru is the only love interest who consciously makes the choice to become a good apple over the course of his story because the message being drummed into NEVAEH's students is exactly what he learned from his own death. Trying is meaningless. It only ends up getting you hurt when you fail.

As in White Mask's route, Rinka has to step up to save Satoru from himself, making this one of her better storylines. She quits being a Prefect, right in front of White Mask no less, and decides to break the unbreakable rules so she can give Satoru the forbidden apple.

Despite the fact that Satoru became laser focused on his studies while still alive, he actually had a relatively normal life beforehand, having both friends and hobbies that he dropped in pursuit of better academics, and from Soul Touch Rinka knows this and wants to give that life back to him. In her presence, Satoru manages to loosen up a bit, and once of the sweeter things in his route is how the other Bad Apples go out of their way to give Satoru and Rinka some time together. They ship the pair before Rinka and Satoru are ready to acknowledge feelings for each other.

The finale is a bit rushed since the inappropriate relationship and crying at graduation rules are broken almost simultaneously, so we don't even get to see one of the apples like we would on the other routes, but at least we kinda have a clue that both are broken when Rinka causes Satoru to cry at graduation and then kisses him. The two of them also face down the Rotten Apple together with their answer about returning to life, which is a nice touch.

Interestingly enough, the era Satoru comes from is never discussed with Rinka. I suppose he just comes off modern enough that Rinka is relatively certain he's from the same time period as her, so when he comes back to life he is still one year younger than her. He presumably did not get into the elite high school of his dreams, but he also realizes how much he's been hurting the other people in his life and that his mother was devastated when she nearly lost him. So it's a more mature Satoru who ends up going to the same high school as Rinka.

But I wish that at least some of the epilogue had taken place from Rinka's point of view because it's not immediately clear why Rinka and Satoru reunite at her high school's opening ceremony and why she's sitting with the new students, especially since she's a year older than him. However, from Higa and Shikishima's endings we know that she falls back a year in school due to the time it takes for her to recover from the accident. If the player has already gone through at least one of their routes it all makes convenient sense, and it's nice to have them get to be first years together, but if Satoru is the player's first playthrough this scene will feel a little off.

I feel like Satoru was a middle of the road route for me overall. Though it complements White Mask's route nicely, and has some genuinely fun moments, I don't feel like I ever got super invested in Satoru himself. I could feel for his circumstances, but he felt more like a boy who really needed a good hug rather than a potential romantic partner for Rinka. I get that he's fourteen and probably put any thoughts of romantic attraction on the backburner when he cracked down on his studying, and that's fine. I just think he and Rinka worked together better as friends than romantic partners, no matter how much the Bad Apples pushed it.

Next week we'll wrap up Bad Apple Wars with Alma's route!