Monday, November 13, 2017

VN Talk: Collar x Malice - Part 5: Kageyuki Shiraishi

Hey, after a couple weeks away from it, I'm coming back to my discussions on various routes of Collar x Malice for the PS Vita. You can find my VN Talks for the other routes using the Collar x Malice label on my blog. So far I've covered all the default love interests available; Okazaki, Sasazuka, and Enomoto.

Shiraishi unlocks after completing the game at least once. Because that likely meant his route delves deeper into Adonis, and because Shiraishi didn't really appeal to me, I decided to place him second to last for my playthroughs. Though his route can be played any time after Okazaki, Sasazuka, or Enomoto, it is really best played after Okazaki and a lesser degree Sasazuka's. Part of this is because they both bring up the possibility of a mole in the police, but also Okazaki's route covers a lot of the setup that makes Shiraishi's plan later in the route understandable. Otherwise the player just gets the cliff notes version.

Though Shiraishi can be a jerk like Sasazuka, Sasazuka usually has a layer of consideration beneath his prickliness and because of his direct personality, he doesn't hide much. With Shiraishi, it's not that he's rude so much as he likes to play head games. And his persona likely works in his favor since we find out during his route that he's actually an agent of Adonis.

Outwardly he views the X-Day events and Hoshino's collaring as curiosities that pique his interest, and he's the sort of person where if he's not interested, then he doesn't help. He is also the only member of Yanagi's team who is still working for the police force, and he serves as a leak for them, funneling information that Sasazuka can't easily get by hacking their systems. I figured his route would be entertaining, just not my cup of tea, but it really turned out to be something of a mixed bag.

There are multiple reasons I had a problem with this one, and though they tie into each other, I'll break them into two chunks; the September/October X-Day Incident plot and the Adonis/romance plot.

The two X-Day Incidents are handled weirdly, which is unfortunate since I was really looking forward to solving them. The September X-Day event involved a murder disguised as a suicide, and at the start of the game it was the only one with a confessed murderer. He had the Adonis coin and that was good enough for the police who closed the case. Then in October, an X-Day event was announced, and the following day the September suspect killed himself. No other bodies were found and any leads to catching Adonis died with him.

What really happened in these clearly paired events?

Shiraishi's storyline is essentially trying to juggle too many things, and as a result, the plot involving the executors is not handled well and even contradicts the methodology behind the other murders. And the fact the October murder happened, but no body was found, seems to run contrary to Adonis's needs. The whole point of the X-Day Incidents is to draw attention to the injustice in society and the law's inability to help people. If a death happens and nobody knows, then how does it further Adonis's agenda?

Even if the Uno siblings needed to have the murder happen in that abandoned apartment to satisfy their vengeance, Adonis the organization should have dropped some hints to the police about where to look afterwards to ensure the message got across. The October death was hardly the only one to happen in a secluded location.

The teenage siblings Shion and Suzume Uno are jointly the third and fourth executors whose vengeance was satisfied in September and October, and though they have a compelling and sympathetic story, the game doesn't handle them well. For instance, Hoshino just randomly bumps into them a couple times before they're suspects (clearly so they don't come out of nowhere), and then when it's time to bring them in, Shiraishi just casually drops a "Oh hey, and you've met them already," which shortcuts any detective work. It's by far the clumsiest way the game has introduced any of the executors.

Aside from that, though all three starter routes bring up the substitution murders, September and October are not substitutions and there's no explanation why. Shion and Suzume committed the October murder themselves, which breaks with the Adonis MO, and though they had a patsy for the September one (who was also a target of their vengeance), he wasn't a part of Adonis himself. This would be fine if there was an explanation, direct or implied, for why Adonis allowed the deviation in MO, but there isn't one. According to police analysis, the patsy really did kill and set up the fake suicide for September, so the twins didn't even directly handle the person most responsible for their mother's death.

Capping it off, the Uno siblings lose their memory shortly after arrest, and while this is expected given what happens on other routes (except for Ogata, who was arrested on purpose), it feels like an unsatisfying end to their story, especially since it happens right after they discover their surrogate mother figure loves them enough to be their mother in everything but name.

Then there's Shiraishi's connection with Adonis. Unlike the other love interests who deal with their pasts as part of the story, Shiraishi's past is also his present, which makes for some bifurcated storytelling. He has to deal with his past, which is flat out bonkers compared to anyone else since he's been brainwashed since childhood to serve Adonis, and he has to deal with a present day agenda, which is operating apart from his X-Day investigation. While they are ultimately related, it divides up the player's attention because we don't know how everything comes together.

Also, annoyingly, Shiraishi is the worst spy ever because Hoshino suspects him right off the bat before his route even starts. He runs with it until Yanagi tells him to knock it off, but since he actually is and Hoshino keyed in on that right away, it makes it rather stupid that nobody else thought about it. (I mean, Yanagi could be blind out of friendship, but Sasazuka didn't think anything?)

And if having an alternate agenda wasn't enough, Shiraishi is also a difficult person to get to know. While his grating personality is likely intentional, because it allows him to be eccentric without scrutiny, it doesn't do the player any favors. Hoshino spends a lot of time trying to get him to behave like a normal human being, which doesn't always work, like when he leaves her an expensive box of chocolates without the sincerity that comes with a real apology.

So while we're investigating the September/October events, we're repeatedly spliced in scenes with Shiraishi checking in with an unknown speaker (whose identity you can figure out if you've played Okazaki's route) and getting scenes from Shiraishi's point of view to reassure us that yes, he's feeling conflicted about his alternate agenda and yes, in his own way he is trying to be nice to Hoshino.

Because if we didn't have those, we wouldn't know what exactly is exactly is going on with him. His personality is intended to change as the situation calls for it, and the player knows from his phone conversations that his orders are intentionally to get close to Hoshino so she falls in love with him. (Thankfully it's made clear these orders only come down when they decide to work together, which is why he's not horning in on the romance in other routes.)

The problem is that Hoshino is entirely in the dark about this. While all the routes use secondary POVs besides Hoshino, Shiraishi's route is particularly egregious about it, and makes it clear that Hoshino has no idea what she's getting into. It's annoying watching her waltz around blindly about getting through to the real Shiraishi when it's a calculated part of his job to get close to her.

Even though it does end up being a case of falling in love with the mark, it takes so long for that to come out that it feels more like relief than payoff when it does. While it can be fantastic for the audience to know something protagonist does not in order to ratchet up the tension, it doesn't feel like Hoshino is in actual danger until the end, because all of Shiraishi's inner conflict is kept away from her until the climax of the story.

I felt there was so much time spent trying to figure out how to work with Shiraishi and hinting at his alternate agenda that the Uno siblings' story came together too late (hence the shortcuts to tracking them down), and even after it was resolved, the main story didn't feel like it was going anywhere.

Even Hoshino eventually gets ticked off about his waffling and she has way more patience than I do.

On the bright side though, because Shiraishi is so infuriating, Hoshino is unusually direct when interacting with him. There's no sweet hoping the guy notices something. She expects Shiraishi to be oblivious to social cues, and she does not expect him to change for her, so she's very blunt when she asks for things. If she doesn't tell him, he won't know, and it's a realistic touch to a relationship.

I was deep into Chapter 5 (Chapter 6 is the last on all routes but Yanagi's) and I still didn't know his alternate agenda. Barely any lip service was paid to the fact that his whole route started because Hoshino was concerned about a mole in the police. Even after I finished his route, I wasn't 100% sure it was him since he doesn't own up to that specifically. (Sasazuka suspects the mole is on the investigation team in his route, and Shiraishi is not part of that group.)

We do eventually see what his agenda was though, both from his own perspective and the plan that Zero, the leader of Adonis, laid out for him. It clumsily dovetails into why she was collared in the first place, though we don't really understand at this point since the full details don't come out until Yanagi's route.

My feelings about the ending are mixed as well. On the other hand, I think he has one of the best tragic endings (each love interest has one). It's incredibly messed up with a broken Hoshino joining Adonis and getting to keep a mute and even more messed up Shiraishi has her boy toy while Adonis takes over the world. (If you're going to go that dark, might as well go all the way?)

But his legit "good" ending still fires off all kinds of creepy vibes. Basically, regardless of whether Hoshino successfully shoots Zero in the final trigger mode in the game, she gets stabbed by the poison needle in her collar. The difference is that if she makes the shot, she kills Zero and Shiraishi is able find the antidote before she dies.

However, she's completely paralyzed and has amnesia when she wakes up in the underground room where Shiraishi is keeping her because he can't bear to take her to a proper doctor (though he gets an underground one for her). If denying her proper medical after a life and death incident is not enough, he then lies about who he is when she wakes up (he says he's her doctor) and keeps her underground for an entire year while she recovers!

I was horrified.

Unsurprisingly, her memory doesn't come back since she never gets any stimulus with which to remember things. Topping all this off, is that after the year is over and she's able to walk, Shiraishi takes her to the detective agency to hand her over to Yanagi and company, which means that everybody else was totally okay with this! Even her younger brother!

Who the hell says it's okay to keep their friend or loved one in an underground room for a year with no visitors or any proper medical care other than the lovestruck dude looking after her? Even if they forgave Shiraishi for being part of Adonis, I imagine they would have wanted to see her! But, then it wouldn't have been "romantic" with Shiraishi giving her a surprise and fulfilling his promise to spend Christmas with her and everyone else (since she got injected on Christmas Eve). And then he gets ready to turn himself into the police, because he's still got to own up to his crimes.

I guess this passes as romantic for some people, but for me, this ending was one final bump on an already bumpy ride. Fortunately, Yanagi's route was a good pick-up-me after this, and he's next.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Killing It Softly 2 Anthology

Digital Fiction Online has released the second in their horror anthology series Killing It Softly 2, and I'm in it! You can pick it up on Amazon and it's ridiculously big, with over 30 short stories.

And I'm sharing a ToC with Elaine Cunningham. Oh my! I read so much of her D&D stuff back in high school and she was one of the authors who regularly would hang out on the Wizards of the Coast forums where other aspiring fantasy writers were talking about submissions.

Killing It Softly 2 has a reprint of my story "Unfilial Child." If you'd like some dark urban fantasy set in LA's Chinatown, you may want to give it a look!

Monday, October 30, 2017

NaNoWriMo 2017

November sure sneaks up fast! I'm taking a break from the Collar x Malice breakdown to say that I'll be doing National Novel Writing Month as usual. I'll be writing somewhere in the ballpark between 50-60k in November.

As I've developed as a writer I find I just work better when I do as much of the first draft as possible in a single streak. Taking breaks is bad, because then I forget things. (Honestly, I tend to forget things anyway in the middle of a draft, but it's worse when the draft is stretched out over several months.)

This strategy might not work for everyone, but it does for me, especially if I come prepared with an outline, which I have. I'm expecting this will be my best first draft in a while, thanks to my prep work.

Like writing, outlining is a skill and I think it's the most comfortable outline I've made yet. This helps me churn out words without having to think as much about where the story is going. I'll adjust if needed, but the idea is that most of the story is laid out already so I can focus on the writing itself rather than where the story needs to go next.

I'm also a short chapter person, so I find that by writing at my usual NaNoWriMo pace I end up writing a chapter a day, which works out, because I always have my ending point to shoot for and I know where I need to be by the end of the day.

Monday, October 23, 2017

VN Talk: Collar x Malice - Part 4: Mineo Enomoto

It looks like the treat I'd hoped to share last week isn't ready yet, so we'll continue on with the Collar x Malice discussion with Enomoto's storyline.

Enomoto is sandwiched in the middle of my playthrough of all routes much like Impey was in Code:Realize because I figured he would be the guy I was least interested in. He must be playing towards a particular type because both he and Impey are the impulsive guys with long red hair who manage to be the most dim-witted members of their teams and the butt of jokes. Enomoto is not constantly hitting on Hoshino, but he definitely shares Impey's status as the character least likely to be taken seriously and the most concerned about coming off as manly.

However he has a genuinely good storyline and I had fun with it. His burgeoning relationship with Hoshino is entertaining, particularly when it becomes apparent that she likes him and he's too flustered to conclude why she's really interested in him. Like Sasazuka's route, there are a lot of laughs when the story is taking a break from the drama, though it's usually from Enomoto being comically serious in everything he does.

As his character type suggests, he's very keen on coming off as an experienced man, when in fact he has no relationship experience to speak of and doesn't necessarily know what he's doing. But because his heart's in the right place it's easy to forgive a lot of his romantic misunderstandings.

He's also the one love interest where the player has a couple different opportunities to decide how to tease him. One of them is particularly hilarious since they're not dating yet and he's finally decided to accept her as his investigation partner because of everything she's done for him. He makes a big deal about declaring his appreciation for her and sticking his hand out. The player can ask him to do it again, but with more effect, which he does by getting down on one knee and shouting out his wish for her to be his partner. Since this is in public, all the bystanders overhear and assume that he's making a declaration of love.

If this sort of thing is appealing, it's indicative of what Enomoto's romance is like. Lots of errors in judgment, but always with the best of intentions and usually to put a smile on the player's face. I found I liked him much better than I thought I would and the reason Enomoto works well even though I hated the Impey romance is because he doesn't push the macho button to the point where he forces a perfectly competent protagonist to sit in the back so he can defend her. When he and Hoshino are confronted with a dangerous target holding her brother hostage, they're both a critical part of the plan. He trusts her marksmanship and loves her for being the kind of cop she is.

As with the others, Enomoto's route also delves into two of the previous X-Day Incidents, and more than the others, he's got a personal stake in them because his mentor was one of the police officers kidnapped in the April incident and then murdered as part of the May incident.

The joint April/May incidents are different from the other X-Day events. Aside from being the first ones, no one was actually killed in the April event, and then when the kidnapped officers were killed in May, only one body was found. There's no proof the other three are actually dead, and the X-Day countdown number was painted using the blood of only one person; Enomoto's mentor, Yuuta Fujii.

Furthermore, we know that the X-Day events are typically substitution murders, where one person is avenged by an unrelated party, but the manner of Fujii's death, where he was clearly tormented before being killed, makes it look like the murderer had a particular reason to hate him.

There's a lot of cool stuff to learn here from an investigative standpoint, and Enomoto's final face-off is against Tomoki Ogata, who is probably the most interesting Adonis member I've met so far. Though he also appears in Okazaki's route, and his presence there is critical to figuring out the existence of the substitution murders, we don't get his backstory except in Enomoto's.

Adonis picks up people who have a reason to feel let down or abandoned by the law; the woman whose stalker is not arrested, the victim of online bullying, etc. In Ogata's case, he was wrongfully arrested while trying to save another person's life, and though the charges were eventually dropped, by then his life and reputation had been ruined. His family has left him and he can no longer keep a steady job because his past arrest keeps following him around.

Though he clearly has an axe to grind, like most Adonis pawns, Ogata is also a person with a strong sense of justice, which makes his actions more interesting to watch, especially when his own values begin to conflict with that of Adonis. This also makes him a good foil for Enomoto, whose sense of justice was damaged by the discovery that his mentor had faked evidence in order to arrest Ogata.

I'm actually a little disappointed that Ogata seems to have been just a pawn rather than a ranking member in Adonis since I'd like to see him again on another route and his manipulation of the media was a very savvy thing to do! When he was going on talk shows, using his false arrests (the real first one and the faked second one) to try to win people over to Adonis I honestly expected him to turn out like Sanjou in Okazaki's route, but he actually loses contact with Adonis entirely and for some reason they don't wipe his memory.

How Adonis is handled in Enomoto's route is actually the weakest of the bunch. Though we get some creepy vibes and see how Adonis contacts their executors, after they wipe Hana's memory, we don't hear anything from Adonis anymore. The police suspect that Adonis is falling apart as it nears its X-Day deadline and there is confusion within the ranks. That's why the X-Day events in December are so much sloppier than the ones in the past, but we know from other routes that part of the reason for the sloppiness is that Adonis wants the X-Day cases to be solved and they are intentionally sacrificing pawns, so this explanation can't be taken at face value.

The fact that Adonis calls off X-Day in the epilogue just makes the whole thing disappointing, like the organization never had teeth to begin with. There's not even a raid of any kind before Adonis just disappears. (There's a reason for this, and particularly astute players might figure it out based on circumstantial evidence, but it's not revealed in full until Yanagi's route.)

It's also unclear why Adonis might have wanted Enomoto. The opening suggests that Yanagi's team and Hoshino might come over to their side once uncovering the truth behind X-Day. Not only do we not learn the truth behind X-Day on Enomoto's route, but Adonis never attempts to speak with him either (even before the going silent part). Once we know Enomoto's backstory it also becomes improbable that Adonis would have ever tried recruiting him. His hang-up is that his mentor turned out to be guilty of forging evidence for a false arrest, which caused Adonis to kill him. Though he's upset that his mentor was not the person he thought he was, Enomoto still remembers the kind of person he thought him to be and wants to bring down Adonis to avenge him. That's not great recruit material.

That said, Enomoto's route is also nicely balanced, with all the team members participating fairly equally in the story. Mostly this is because Enomoto is a hothead and lacks the technical expertise of Sasazuka and Shiraishi. Perhaps because Enomoto is actually a decent person, this is the one route where Yanagi doesn't express concern over who Hoshino is working with. Oddly enough, Sasazuka rejoins the police force on Enomoto's route as well, though in exchange for far less than in his own. (It's implied that ten donuts and helping save lives is enough.) I realize that was likely done for reasons of expediency, but I would've liked a little more of a fight from him, especially since his rejoining in Yanagi's route implies that he similarly made a lot of demands.

I also got a new appreciation for Okazaki on Enomoto's route. While Okazaki's weird demeanor has always been apparent, he's used for excellent comic effect, interrupting awkward moment after awkward moment with just the right timing to make it even more awkward.

On Sasazuka's route he asks Hoshino if she's ever hated someone enough to want to kill them. She's not sure that's possible, but the player can get the answer in Enomoto's. If the player fails to shoot Hana while she's holding Kazuki hostage, the rescue fails and Kazuki dies. That's enough to push Hoshino into unloading bullets into Hana until she's dead for a bad ending.

If you know anything about guns you might be amused to know that Enomoto is also the only love interest who poses "gangsta" style with his gun, which is a good way to hurt yourself and/or make your gun jam. This was probably an artistic decision, but it's also Enomoto, so the fact he would conceivably shoot stupid just to look better is something I'd buy into.

Also as a funny side note, all the routes have some kind of moment where Hoshino's brother discovers her "boyfriend" (since this always happens before they're dating). Enomoto is the only one that Kazuki gets along fabulously with. Kazuki actually smiles because he's having such a good time talking with him.

Enomoto's romance is easily the most light-hearted of the bunch, even when it comes down to what should be a nail-biting finale. The confrontation is good because of how well Ogata is handled as a villain and how the player is allowed to know his sense of justice, but when Enomoto gets involved in the arrest the ending gets a little more physical than intended.

No one gets hurt, though Enomoto has a terrible way of wording things that makes is seem like maybe there's another shoe ready to drop (there isn't), and thus life goes on, Enomoto-style.

Monday, October 16, 2017

VN Talk: Collar x Malice - Part 3: Takeru Sasazuka

Continuing my Collar x Malice talk, Takeru Sasazuka was my second playthrough, since he was mentally tied in my head with Kei Okazaki. If I had been more aware of when I was making the route lock decision, I might have chosen him instead.

Sasazuka used to be in the Cyber Crime Division of the police and is as prickly as all hell. The first couple chapters of his story are full of verbal abuse, with him usually calling Hoshino "stupid," "idiot," "cat," "dog," or some combination of "stupid/idiot" followed by one of the animals. He even calls her "pooch" or "poochie" a few times.

Though it is apparent that he has some sense of consideration for her situation in the prologue (probably so players don't outright hate him), the only thing that dials this back once his route begins is Hoshino proving that she has value as an assistant. If she wants to work on the August case with him, she needs to show that she can keep up, otherwise he's not going to bother.

Sasazuka is not always a jerk. He does have a softer side to him, but he's not inclined to show it and he's displeased with people who can't keep up with his thinking. If he's happy with Hoshino, it's common for him to offer her some food, which she dislikes because she feels like he's treating her like a pet. (He is, because she's wearing a collar.) It's more like: if Sasazuka knows she's not about to break down, he doesn't care about pushing her, but if she's mentally wrecked, he's (generally) considerate enough to hold his tongue.

Believe it or not, telling Hoshino that she's looking ugly is actually Sasazuka expressing concern.

As his chapters progress, he insults Hoshino less and finds her more useful, but getting that far can be a bit cringe-inducing and I wish Hoshino would give back as much as she takes, since she knows that Sasazuka is not put off by being on the receiving end of blunt conversation. Sakuragawa used to speak in an extremely frank manner with him (especially by Japanese standards) and she's the only person at the police station who seems to have been friends with him before he left.

That said, Sasazuka's storyline is a lot of fun precisely because he's inclined to say whatever he feels like without consideration of other people's feelings. He's not stupid, he knows when to hold himself back, but if restraint is unnecessary he's great at pissing people off in ways that would be terrible in real life but entertaining in a game.

One of the best scenes is when he and Hoshino have dinner with her brother Kazuki and his friend Akito. The whole point of Sasazuka being there is to make with contact with Akito, who is suspected of being part of Adonis, but Sasazuka has never been to Hoshino's house before so they need to make up a reason for him to be there. Sasazuka tells her that he will come up with something and then introduces himself to her brother as her boyfriend. He then proceeds to refer Kazuki as "little brother" which irritates the heck out of him and embarrasses Hoshino. (As if she could ever have such a boorish boyfriend! Oh wait…)

The dinner is awkward as expected, and there's one point when Sasazuki starts telling Hoshino to fill up his bowl with different items from the hot pot. Kazuki is rightfully annoyed with seeing her "boyfriend" ordering her around like that, but what makes it funny is that it's not really any different from their working relationship as part of the investigation team, where she's often picking up food items on the way to the office or to his place and then handing it over. Their behavior looks perfectly normal within the context of the investigation, but totally abnormal outside of it.

By Chapter 4 though, Sasazuka's insults become closer to a form of teasing. His affection for Hoshino starts fairly early compared to the others, and perhaps his blunt personality makes it easier to see when he's being considerate. Sasazuki is not one to give blanket reassurances (he's still very much a tell it as it is kind of person), but in a way that makes it a lot sweeter when he does choose to support Hoshino. As he says, he's not going to spoil anyone, but if she's at her limit and needs someone to lean on, he'll be there.

Surprisingly, he kisses her on the mouth halfway through his route (during the scene above), which is unusual since that's typically an event saved for the end, if it happens at all. I mostly attribute that to his direct personality. Sasazuka doesn't mess around. And it makes for a nice change of pace, because I'm so used to the commitment happening just before or after the finale. But Sasazuka's invested early, which allows more time to think of him and Hoshino as a couple rather than just becoming a couple.

It also makes the ribbing they get from other characters more entertaining since everyone else is also able to see how close the two of them are (for instance, coming into work together since she spent the night at his apartment).

Ironically at the point Sakuragawa says this, Hoshino has already been in bed with Sasazuka twice. Nothing happened. The first time they were both tired and never awake at the time same. The second time Hoshino was drunk and passed out.

Sasazuka's personal story also dovetails neatly with Adonis's comments about wanting the ex-cops of Yanagi's agency to eventually come over to their side. His motivation for joining the police in the first place was to uphold the Swords and Firearms Control Law, which makes it illegal for ordinary citizens to own weapons. When it was removed and the average citizen armed in the wake of the August X-Day Incident, Sasazuka saw no reason to continue work with the police. He only later rejoins in his route because there is a chance he can get the law reinstated.

The reason it's so personal to him is that his mother was murdered right in front of him by a shooter while he lived in the US. The gunman was a minor and had powerful underworld connections, so he got off with a light sentence. Teenage Sasazuka would have killed the other kid if he could, but lacked the means to get to him.

Late in his route, in a bid to get him to switch sides, Adonis offers Sasazuka the chance to get his vengeance, and it plays perfectly into what Adonis does. It offers revenge and organizes a way for people to get it. By the time this offer comes out, the player has discovered all of Sasazuka's backstory, and the idea that he would change sides is highly believable. I thought there was a decent possibility that the last chapter of the game would be chasing after Sasazuka to bring him back.

Though that's not what happens, there is a bad ending where he frees Hoshino from the collar (presumably as part of a deal) and then leaves to join Adonis. In the real ending he solves a puzzle left behind by Akito Sera and uses the information there to launch a raid on Adonis's headquarters. Sadly he doesn't go on the raid himself, so there's no danger or shooting going on like at the end of Okazaki's route, so his last chapter is pretty tame. Most of it is actually epilogue material.

On the other hand, the epilogue fluff is really good fluff. We see Sasazuka and Hoshino formally start dating and admit that they love each other, though the confession goes about off-kilter as you'd expect between Hoshino's hesitation and Sasazuka's attitude.

We also get closure for Kazuki and Akito, since Hoshino's younger brother has had a tough time of it, seeing his best friend get apprehended as a murderer.

Though I was worried about Sasazuka going in, I really liked his route and he ended up being my favorite romance. He'd probably be a pill in real life, but from a storytelling perspective he's a lot of fun, and I like that we don't go through a lot of romantic hesitation with him.

There were so many moments when I had a stupid grin on my face or was laughing from the situations or the dialogue. His route lacks the finality of a direct face-off, but aside from that, I found it fulfilling. It's not necessarily a funny route, there's still a lot of death involved, but when it chooses to be humorous, it's a lot of fun, and to date, it's the only time I've had a drunk protagonist madly protesting that she's not drunk.

Next week I hope to share something about my upcoming project! If you'd like to get a look before everyone else, you can sign up for my mailing list using the tab just under the name of my blog.

Monday, October 9, 2017

VN Talk: Collar x Malice - Part 2: Kei Okazaki

Kei Okazaki is the narcoleptic weirdo who makes his introduction in the story by climbing in through a window on the fifth floor. He's portrayed as a happy-go-lucky airhead without much in the way of social common sense, but there's a strong feeling that his outward demeanor is an act, because he's a member of the Security Police (SP), which is sort of like the Secret Service, except it seems to be more general purpose, since their bodyguard duties extend to more than just national-level government officials and their families. They are considered part of the police.

As I mentioned last time, I didn't realize how I ended up locked into a route, and I was initially bothered because Okazaki is the only love interest who is not part of Aiji Yanagi's crew. I didn't want to wander off the beaten path on my first outing, but I figured since they already gated two of the love interests he's probably not as far off as he looks at first glance.

Okazaki is also fairly prominent in the artwork, which likes to place him in similar prominence and opposite of Yanagi, which suggests his story is almost of as high a consequence (or maybe it's just that he's voiced by Yuki Kaji, who is currently very popular).

It turns out that Okazaki is an excellent first route as far as the main plot goes. Aside from the fact he's not part of Yanagi's agency, his route gives the player an excellent sense of grounding in how Adonis works and makes natural connections between different X-Day Incidents. He also has the most satisfying climax out of the default three since there's a spectacular level of danger and a feeling that Adonis has suffered an immense setback.

Because Okazaki is not "in" he's also the only love interest who starts off not knowing about the collar, nor can Hoshino tell him about it since notifying the police is one of the criteria to getting killed. He does find out eventually, but since the circumstances for its revelation are completely out of Hoshino's control, Adonis cuts her a break and warns Okazaki to drop the matter unless he wants to get her killed.

As expected, Okazaki's irreverent personality and lack of social tact hides one sharp cookie. He has a way of sneaking up on people, even the cautious ex-cops of Yanagi's agency, and his reflexes are quite good. Okazaki is also fully capable of dropping the doofus act, which I assume he keeps up because it disarms people even if they're suspicious of him.

That said, it doesn't seem to be entirely an act as his subordinate Yoshinari finds it out of character when he's not munching on crazy flavored snacks, falling asleep in alleys, etc. Okazaki also admits to Hoshino that he's terrible at just about anything unrelated to his job. He can't cook, not because he's never tried, but because he'll likely start a fire as soon as he lights the stove. No one should be literally that bad, but he claims to be.

My biggest fear was that playing Okazaki's route would cut me off from Yanagi and his team, because other otome games have done that post-route lock and half the cast just disappears, but they're not entirely out of the picture. Sasazuka and Enomoto are reduced, but Yanagi is still a comforting presence and Shiraishi a creepy one. In fact, Yanagi's behavior in Okazaki's route just made me want to play his route more and I'm not sure if that was supposed to be intentional.

Okazaki's route is not without its flaws though. From a storytelling perspective, one of the most irritating moments I noticed is when Hoshino takes a dramatic stand against Okazaki, recognizing that he may have to kill her as part of his job, but regardless she is going to work with Yanagi and his team because she has to in order to save lives, including her own. It's a very gutsy thing to say and Okazaki is impressed.

Problem is, a few days later she ends up not going to Yanagi and company because she decides she has other things to do, which kind of takes the oomph out of that kind of declaration. If she wasn't planning on going back right away, there wasn't much risk in her saying that. It was a waste of good dialogue.

The player definitely does not spend much time with the regular investigation team though, and Hoshino decides to investigate the July, and later November, X-Day crimes, which Yanagi's team had not been directly looking into. Okazaki is supposed to be "protecting" (actually spying) on Yanagi's team for the police, but despite this, he chooses to follow Hoshino around to protect her since she's going into potentially dangerous situations alone. It doesn't entirely make sense how he's able to ditch his assignment like that, though I suppose on the back end he could be finagling things since Hoshino's contact with Yanagi's group is suspicious to the higher-ups in the police.

His route was all right, and the Adonis stuff really held me through, but it wasn't quite the jumpstart I wanted for my first route through the game, mostly because Okazaki isn't really the type of character I enjoy. I didn't like his repeated efforts to put Hoshino out of harm's way, and while it makes sense to some degree since he has a lot more experience than her, he's also got a death wish, and I hate that.

Dying heroically for a girl just doesn't do anything for me. It's one thing to not have a choice in order to save someone's life, but Okazaki doesn't feel alive unless the person he's protecting is in danger, and he's thrilled by the thought of dying to protect what he treasures most. That's not really a good foundation for a lasting relationship.

Fortunately, Hoshino agrees and even turns down his bodyguard efforts later in the story because of it. I don't think I've seen such a good back and forth fight in an otome before. He wants to die for her, she want him to live for her, and their strongest wishes are mutually incompatible. She even dumps him.

The best part is when their fight spills out in front of Yanagi's team. Everyone seems to agree that it has to be Okazaki's fault, but Hoshino should at least hear him out, and the two of them are eventually kicked out of the office and told to go come back after they've figured things out.

Hoshino does manage to talk him out of it, though oddly he's not moved by the fact that losing him would make her sad. What does it, are really two things. The first is she manages to tap into his jealousy, by telling him that if he dies she might fall in love and marry Yoshinari or Yanagi. Okazaki really doesn't like the idea of her being with another man. The second, which we know from one of the bad endings is the one that echoes with him, is that death is permanent. There's nothing else after it, not just the big things, but the little things too, like enjoying good food and seeing new movies. She's really persistent.

Okazaki does have a reason for his death wish, a colleague had died saving him when he did not believe his own life worth saving, so Okazaki wants to die preserving someone better than him. But it's still weird, and even after he's convinced to give up his death wish he makes it clear that though he is living for Hoshino, he does not expect to live past her death.

The Adonis story in Okazaki's route resolves for the most part, though it's clear that the head of the organization is not captured and that the substitution murders might have an ulterior purpose behind them. We don't learn the reason behind Hoshino's collaring. But Sanjou, one of the Adonis agents, does bring up a good point about what they do.

He is the perpetrator (not executor) of the August murders on behalf of an online harassment victim, which feels like a terribly topical subject. Sometimes there's very little someone can do to stop or get back at the people hurting them and legal recourse is barely or non-existent.

To someone suffering from that, Adonis could be a godsend.

As an aside, Collar x Malice uses text messaging a lot between characters who are not in the same location, which is a cool plot device. It's not the only modern day game to use it, but it's a nice way for the characters to express their personalities. In particular, Okazaki has cute Japanese style emojis that are a delight to see if you like that kind of stuff.

Since blunt jerk with a presumed heart of gold was my other interest from the starting pool of characters (and I probably would have chosen him if I was aware of the route lock question), Sasazuka is up next, either next week or the week after, depending on news.

Monday, October 2, 2017

VN Talk: Collar x Malice - Part 1: Overview

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

Platform: PS Vita
Release: 2017

I originally wanted to play Collar x Malice the day I got it, even though I was still embroiled in Persona 5. I was mostly playing Persona on weekends due to the length of its dungeons, so I thought I'd make Collar x Malice my weekday game that I could play 30-60 minutes and then go to bed. Except that after I started it, I realized that I couldn't, because thematically, there's a pretty strong overlap between the two games and I wasn't in the right mindset to enjoy a darker, more murderous version of the Phantom Thieves.

The premise of Collar x Malice is that a terrorist group called Adonis is fed up with corruption in Japan. They punish those the law did not or could not bring to justice in preparation for a mysterious event they call the X-Day. Once a month they commit a murder (or group of murders) and leave a Roman number painted in red, counting down from IX, and a unique coin that has not been revealed to the public, so a genuine crime committed by Adonis cannot be confused with a copycat.

Adonis is much like an extreme version of the Phantom Thieves, and their members are willing to kill to get society's attention.

Please be aware, since I am writing this within a year of the game's release, that I will be discussing spoilers for all routes and there is a definite spoiler screenshot later in this overview. If you're worried about spoilers, you should stop reading now.

Also worth noting, though Collar x Malice is an otome visual novel aimed at heterosexual women, much of its focus revolves around solving the X-Day Incidents. It's not a straight-up romance and characters will occasionally ask the protagonist for her opinion on cases, suspects, methodology, etc. Though the game is forgiving, messing up too often can lead to a bad ending. Attentive players will have an easier time picking through the noise, gaining information, and winning the trust of those they're working with (which includes the love interest).

When I talk about Collar x Malice in person with friends, I can rave about the mystery and solving the terrorist attacks and feel 100% genuine about it. It's a solid thriller.

However, there's no getting away entirely from the romance end of things, as the player has to be put on a romance route to complete the game. Honestly, the way Collar x Malice is set up, there's nothing that requires it to be a romantic story. From a narrative standpoint, stopping Adonis is the main plot and the romance is the subplot, so it should have been possible to do a stag route too.

But hey, if romance is what it took to get this game greenlit, I'm good. Like Code:Realize, I think Collar x Malice has the potential to translate well into an anime series, because there's a lot to chew on besides the romance and that could widen the appeal.

What kicks off the story is the kidnapping of Ichika Hoshino, the protagonist. She's a rookie police officer who gets tangled up in the X-Day events when she is mysteriously knocked unconscious and a metal collar fastened around her neck. The collar is a link to Adonis, and they can listen in on everything around her, but if she reveals its presence to anyone who doesn't already know about it or tries to remove it, it will kill her via lethal injection.

Adonis leaves her to be rescued by a group of ex-cops who are investigating the X-Day Incidents, and because Hoshino is their biggest lead, the men want to keep her around even if they don't fully trust her. Adonis tells them in a letter that Hoshino is a sympather to their cause (which she is assuredly not!) and hopes that as the team closes in on the truth they will side with Adonis as well.

I like Hoshino. Though she occasionally suffers from the usual dose of otome heroine helplessness, she has a hidden reserve of guts and insists on going into danger if she has to. (She is a police officer after all.) Hoshino's the kind of gal who likes to do practice rounds at the firing range to keep her skills sharp and considers her marksmanship to be one of her best points. In fact, despite being a visual novel, Hoshino (and thus the player) does have to shoot on occasion, which surprised me. It's a minor quick time action event, but it's still there.

Another thing I like about Hoshino is that she has a life outside of the X-Day events. She has a younger brother who she's on shaky terms with, she has coworkers, she goes out drinking after work, and we know she's comfortable enough with her drink buddy that she's taken him home numerous times. (And it's cool that their relationship is both close and totally platonic, which shouldn't be as rare as it is in fiction.)

As a result of Hoshino having a life beyond the events of the story, we often get scenes of her normal life, doing her usual work, as well as the ones where she is discretely investigating Adonis. Some of the best scenes are when the two worlds collide, because one cannot be informed about the other. Her supervisor wonders how she knows an SP (Security Police officer), her brother discovers she has a "boyfriend" she's never mentioned before, etc. It keeps her reality grounded when her coworkers are talking about each other or her non-existent holiday plans.

Branching is handled a little differently for an Otomate title. Though there is still a common route like in Hakuoki and Code:Realize, it's very short this time, comprising only a single chapter, and depending on their choices the player gets little to no notification about how their eventual route is chosen.

This surprised me since prior to route lock, Hoshino emphasizes that which case she chooses to research will impact who she works with. I really studied those case files, expecting that at some point I would be asked which one I wanted to tackle and that in turn would nudge me towards the person whose route I'd end up with. That didn't happen. When I made my choice it was in such a non-obvious manner that I didn't realize the significance of it until replay.

It's probably for the best though as the potential love interests are somewhat dysfunctional and do not come across as good people to get involved with, except possibly Aiji Yanagi, who is annoyingly locked off as the final route. He was the one I was most interested in, and between the other four there were two that piqued my interest, though truthfully, I mean it when I say they're dysfunctional. The two I was otherwise open to were the blunt jerk with (presumably) a heart of gold and the narcoleptic weirdo who likes to come into the office through a window (on the fifth floor!).

There are only three routes available at the start, so the player is asked to make a dialogue choice with each of the currently available men. They're essentially a affirmative/negative to see whether or not the player has any rapport with them and then if they do, when they meet Sakuragawa she will probe Hoshino for her commitment to the cause. Hoshino's potential answers are how route assignment is decided. As it turns out, I'd given affirmatives to two of them (the jerk and the weirdo) and so the two dialogue options I had were "There are things that I need to protect." and "I want the details of the weapons ban repeal."

Not wanting to sounds like a blunt jackass, I answered the former. If I had hit it off with the third guy, I would also have the choice "I want to research X-Day's beginnings" which would have made it more clear that my answer was choosing what I would research, and therefore which case I would be handling.

From there Hoshino will gradually build up trust and later affection between her and the man whose route she is on as they solve the X-Day Incidents. Since there are eight incidents, not counting the one that begins in December, not all of them are addressed in any given route. Rather, each route focuses on the root causes of two of them and Yanagi's route deals with them as a whole.

The neat twist that makes the monthly X-Day crimes difficult to solve is that the people who are the likeliest suspects always have an alibi and even when the police catch a perpetrator, they're not necessarily possible to pin down as one. For instance, the July incident had to to have been an X-Day crime, because of the spray painted VI and the coin found in the victim's home, but when the victim died, it looked like he was attacking the alleged murderer and his death was in self defense. The murderer had no connection to either the victim or the woman the victim was stalking so it shouldn't have been possible for the death to have been pre-arranged.

This is possible because of what the game calls a "substitution murder."

Adonis believes that the law is not doing its job, and allegedly everyone it kills deserved to die for a crime that went unpunished. They're revenge killings, and what Adonis does, is organize a swap. Person A kills the target of Person B's vengeance, and in return Person B kills Person A's target, except on a grander scale. In most cases, the pawns in Adonis have no direct connection to their targets and are given their assignments based on their ability.

Interestingly, there are achievements tied to the the X-Day events, but they're not for catching the perpetrator of the event. They're for learning the story behind the person whose vengeance was fulfilled that day. In game they're known as the executors.

Collar x Malice looks for where the system is failing people, and the reason Adonis can be hopeful about the ex-cops on Yanagi's team is that each of them had quit for a personal reason where being a part of the police would no longer help them.

Normally I don't think much about which route is the best play order, but because Collar x Malice is a mystery thriller on top of an otome the information the player learns on each route is different, and they interlock in a way that questions raised in one storyline can be answered in another.

I played Okazaki > Sasazuka > Enomoto > Shiraishi > Yanagi and ended up very happy with the reveals, but I think Sasazuka could be moved before Okazaki or after Enomoto without a problem. I like Okazaki before Enomoto though, simply because one of the Adonis executors on Enomoto's route gets a better introduction in Okazaki's route than he does in Enomoto's and he later ends up being a critical character on Enomoto's route. Either Okazaki or Sasazuka should be before Shiraishi though, because the player should be aware of the mole before tackling his, and Enomoto never brings it up.

For an otome, there are bad endings galore, usually violent. Hoshino has been stabbed, injected, shot, bludgeoned to death, and other horrible things in my quest to unlock the trophy for getting all endings in the game. It's not particularly gory, most of the violence is off camera, but the game is not always fair about signaling which choices will lead to a bad ending. Sometimes the deaths can feel pretty random and in fact, each route will have a cameo appearance of an executor from another route, which results in player death.

Also, though switching viewpoint characters isn't unheard of in otome, Collar x Malice does it a lot; between Hoshino, her love interest, Adonis, and sometimes even the police investigation team. Because everything around Hoshino is relayed to Adonis, sometimes other characters need to relay critical information when out of earshot of her. Other times it's to cover events that happened when Hoshino is not around. There are a lot of moving parts to the story and Hoshino is not intricately involved in all of them; Adonis's infighting, deals made between other major characters, etc.

As with my previous VN Talk entries, I'll go through the routes one week at a time, in the order that I played them. A personal project of mine is getting close to the point I'm comfortable talking about it though, so the Collar x Malice series will probably be interrupted periodically in favor of writing news. In the meantime, Okazaki is planned for next week!