Monday, September 26, 2016

VN Talk: Code: Realize: Guardian of Rebirth - Part 5: Saint-Germain

I saved Count Saint-Germain for second to last because I heard his storyline was very good, so I figured this would pick me up after Impey's route and carry me well into Lupin's.

Though it took me a while to get into it, it ultimately made a good impression. I was still thinking about the final chapters of his route days after I finished it. It wasn't perfect, but the ending made up for a lot.

The problem is that Saint-Germain is a difficult character to get a handle on. He's the mysterious man with an enigmatic smile, so you never really know what he's thinking. When I went through the shared route a fourth time to catch all the Saint-Germain specific scenes, I didn't get much to illuminate his character that I didn't already know. I didn't feel closer to him. And then there was the confrontation with Finis.

At the end of the common route, the love interest who Cardia is closest to, will interrupt the completion of Finis's plan and prepare to fight him off, only for Saint-Germain to suddenly show up and stab Finis from behind, killing him and ending the danger. This is the only time on most routes that Saint-Germain is ever depicted with his eyes open. And he's the only one of the love interests to actually kill another person in front of Cardia. (Van Helsing's got a lot of blood on his hands, but all of it's in the past.)

On all the routes, Cardia is shocked by the sudden death of Finis, who in a sense was her brother, being an artificial creation of her father's, just like herself. Saint-Germain's merciless demeanor can be forgiven and even forgotten when Cardia's attention (and thus the player's) is drawn back to her primary love interest, but that doesn't happen on Saint-Germain's route when he's the only other person present and she has to come to grips with the fact the guy she has an affinity for just snuffed out her brother's life like he was a mosquito.

Saint-Germain's route gets rather weird and uncomfortable fast and stays that way for at least a couple chapters because everything is a secret about him. All we know is that suddenly he wants to kill Cardia and he's isolated her from the rest of the gang to do it.

He doesn't come off as wanting to go through with murdering her, which prevents him from being completely irredeemable, but he's clearly willing, since there are multiple bad endings where he follows through. Fortunately, Cardia is a fairly active protagonist, so even though she cares about Saint-Germain and worries about what he's hiding, she has no interest in passively waiting around for him to kill her either.

I was relieved when she manages to escape (quite smartly too) and make her way back to the other guys, who are gallant enough to help her figure out what's going on with Saint-Germain and his connection to the secret organization known as Idea (pronounced ee-DAY-ah).

The story that comes out is a bit over the top, but this is where his route gets interesting. In a nutshell, Idea is run by the biblical Eve, who can see the myriad possibilities of the future due to having eaten of the forbidden fruit. To make up for her failures she is trying to guide humanity to salvation by preventing catastrophes that would wipe out the human race. The immortal Apostles of Idea, which include Saint-Germain, are her enforcers who do whatever is needed to prevent disasters, even if it means killing a few innocents to save a greater number of lives.

The example Saint-Germain angsts over in game is his failure to stop the Black Plague in Europe, which killed millions, and he could have prevented it if he had executed an infected boy he instead took pity on.

Cardia, being an artificial life, is seen by Idea as an attempt to trespass into the realm of God. Saint-Germain killed Finis for the same reason and presumably killed Cardia's father as well, though Eve doesn't specify which agent specifically did the deed.

But there's a slight problem in that Saint-Germain has developed feelings for Cardia, so he's having trouble following through with her.

Assuming the right choices are made, Saint-Germain eventually decides his love for Cardia is stronger than his sense of duty and turns against Idea knowing that doing so will cause Eve to revoke his immortality, so he races to take out the remaining Apostles and Eve before his body degrades entirely, since he originally died thousands of years ago.

Naturally this won't make for a happy ending for him and Cardia since Saint-Germain will end up dead at the end of it even if he succeeds. So it's up to Cardia and the rest of the guys to come up with a plan to haul Saint-Germain's butt out of the fire (even if he did try to kill Cardia).

While I generally dislike it when love interests run around with a deathwish, Saint-Germain's torment really sells it. The way things stand at the point he turns his back on Idea, he really can't do anything to earn a happy ending with Cardia. If he doesn't kill her, another Apostle will, so his only option is to stop them, and by betraying them, he seals his own fate.

The situation the count is forced into, where all options are bad, made for a good story, and when Cardia makes a gambit of her own to save his life, her options are similarly either bad or worse.

I did have two complaints when I got to the end though. 1) Cardia and Saint-Germain both get a little ridiculous in their willingness to die for their other half, when it's clear that whoever survives is going to be miserable. 2) Saint Germain's storyline doesn't make it clear why he never tries to kill Cardia in the other routes, since presumably that has been his secret mission the entire time. If there was an event specific to his route that gave him a reason to kill Cardia that didn't exist on others, this would make more sense.

Lupin and Victor have surprisingly prominent roles in Saint-Germain's storyline, likely because Saint-Germain himself is actually a villain for a fair portion of his own route. I was fairly neutral towards Lupin previously, but after seeing how much he stands by Cardia and tries to help her when Saint-Germain is their enemy/rogue cannon I found I really liked him and I was looking forward to his route. I'm glad I played this one second to last.

Victor is always sympathetic to Cardia, but Saint-Germain's route is notable in that it actually foreshadows what's going to happen to Cardia in Victor's storyline. It makes me want to replay Victor's and see if I can pick out just when he realizes she's turning into a poison time bomb.

Monday, September 19, 2016

VN Talk: Code: Realize: Guardian of Rebirth - Part 4: Impey

I selected Impey for my third playthrough of Code: Realize because I was pretty sure I was going to have the least fun on his route and I wanted him to be the hump to get over before my ride accelerated again to the finish. The problem with Impey is that he's not a particular deep character. He's fantastic as a supporting cast member, but the other love interests clearly have agendas that have helped bring them together.

Impey is along for the ride because something of his was stolen and he hooked up with Lupin to get it back, and it's clear that finding the thief is a secondary priority to finding Cardia's father and stopping a terrorist plot, which is more or less the end goal at the start of the game. Aside from that, Impey serves as the group's comedy relief. He's loud, he's brash, he's the wannabe casanova who can't get a date, and he's known for two talents; being a good engineer and being a good cook.

From the moment he's introduced he's constantly hitting on Cardia and it makes it hard for a real romance to build. Their initial conversations are entertaining because she begins the game as a largely emotionless doll so when she shuts down Impey's flirtatious invitations she does so in a hilariously blunt fashion with no harm intended save the truth itself. Even moments when she chooses to hang out with him are phrased along the lines of "Well, I'm going with you because Lupin looks too busy and Victor's tired, so you were the last one left."

Because Impey is constantly proclaiming his love for Cardia, and Cardia is constantly pushing back (even correcting him when he tells one of the villains not to hurt his girlfriend), it doesn't feel entirely natural when she first admits she loves him, which actually happens a lot earlier than in other routes.

There are a couple nudges along the way to make it clear that Impey isn't just blowing smoke, but her admission comes out in a rush instead of a gradual awakening. It's more of a "Wow, I guess I do like you!" Considering that the admission comes under pressure doesn't help either, and Impey is so keen to prove to the other guys that she actually likes him that I can't help feeling bad for her embarrassment.

Also on his route it turns out that he's a vampire, which explains why he can constantly be pummeled by antagonists without getting killed. But even that revelation felt underwhelming. Though it makes narrative sense to explain his physical abilities (and vampires in this world aren't sunlight sensitive), it feels rather tacked on. There's a whole chapter in the shared route that deals with the fallout from the Vampire War, and while Impey might not be interested in revealing that he's a vampire, his reactions to the attempted genocide are muted and easily mistaken or forgotten.

This is a stark contrast to Victor, who reacts fairly noticeably and more often when elements of his personal story are touched on in the shared route, even if he might not explain why.

I suppose on the one hand, Impey is the last love interest I would have pegged as a vampire precisely because he's the butt of jokes, so there's something about breaking stereotypes. I don't see many greasemonkey vampires who are terrible at flirting with girls. But what you see with Impey, is pretty much what you get. Even being a vampire doesn't feel like a terrible secret so much as something he just never bothered to mention.

When Cardia pushes to know everything about him, we get a story about how he became an engineer, and why he wants to go to the moon in honor of an old friend. It's in character for Impey, but it just doesn't feel like it expanded his character as much as Van Helsing and Victor's backstories. Their flashback sequences allow the player to see another side of them, but Impey is still Impey.

His route also hurts for having the least compelling final villain. Van Helsing's route ends with a confrontation against his mentor, who he had previously trusted. Victor's route ends facing off against Queen Victoria, who is diametrically opposed to him on the use of Zicterium, which he created while in her employ.

Impey's villain is Captain Nemo (also from a Jules Verne novel), but Nemo is presented as a comically insane side character prior to the route split, unlike Victoria and Aleister, who are respectively the queen of Britain and one of the highest ranked agents in Twilight.

It turns out that Nemo is the one who stole Impey's anti-gravity gadget and he uses it to fly a gigantic air fortress called the Nautilus with which he intends to punish anyone in the world who does not acknowledge the power of science. He also has a serious case of "Please notice me, senpai" for those who get the joke.

The result is that the final villain is a whackjob (the characters in game actually refer to him as that) with minimal ties to the main story. Though the game tries to shoehorn him into the greater conflict, it doesn't quite work. His biggest connection is that he stole Impey's gadget, which is given short shrift in every other route, and the other two strands are also tenuous. He knew Cardia's father, but there's virtually nothing new to be learned from him, and even though Twilight is working with him, to the point they actually ditched the government, the reason for that is never explained nor is there enough information to guess why they would in the first place, considering Nemo's insanity.

Also, this may be more of a personal thing, but I disliked Impey's need to show off. Cardia is a competent heroine, but if Impey is in the position where he can defend her, he outright refuses to let her fight, even when she says she wants her chance to protect him. Unlike Victor's ending, where choosing to trust him at the final decision point nets the good ending, not choosing to trust Impey earns his good ending, because Impey wants to pull one of those heroic deaths while sending his beloved to safety.

Impey is just very macho about how he wants to present himself to his girl and the fact he doesn't trust or respect Cardia's wishes irritates me.

Monday, September 12, 2016

VN Talk: Code: Realize: Guardian of Rebirth - Part 3: Victor

I went back to Frankenstein for my second playthrough of Code: Realize since he was a close second to Van Helsing, but I was a little more doubtful I would enjoy his route just because I was afraid Cardia would get fewer opportunities to take the initiative as a way to make up for the fact that Victor Frankenstein is never going to be anyone's action hero.

It turns out that I like his route the best, and Cardia still kicks ass precisely because Victor isn't your typical male hero, allowing the two of them compliment each other's capabilities. There's a lot of back and forth with them looking out for each other depending on who's healthiest or most suited for the occasion. When they're both captured and thrown in separate prison cells, she's the one who breaks out, knocks out a bunch of guards, and rescues him.

Though Victor sometime has trouble keeping up with her (if they're on the run usually he's the one who tires out first), I like that he doesn't express regret at being less of a physical fighter than the other men. His emotional hang-ups have more to do with his past instead of traditional notions of masculinity.

Van Helsing's story involved a lot of vampires and a war with them two years prior to the start of the game. This was expected given his literary origins, so I wondered, where was Frankenstein's monster?

And the answer is Cardia herself.

Though he is not directly responsible for creating her, prior to the story Victor was asked by Queen Victoria to work on creating the Philosopher's Stone. As a byproduct of his research he created a highly poisonous substance called Zicterium. In its gaseous form it can be used for chemical warfare, which the government used in the Vampire War that Van Helsing fought in.

Because Victor never intended to create such a devastating weapon, he quit his job (which is not something you do when working on sensitive material for the queen) and became a wanted man, hunted by government agents for being the sole person with the knowledge of how to synthesize Zicterium. If Victor ever left the country and shared his knowledge with other nations it would be a gigantic security breach.

Cardia's father picked up Victor's research where he left off and further refined Zicterium into the Horologium gem that resides in her chest in place of a heart, the very thing that makes her body a mass of poison.

Victor feels guilty that Cardia's life is a mess because of his creation. Without it, she wouldn't exist, and be trapped in a body that forbids her from ever touching another person.

He actually finds out early on that she's an artificial being during the shared route, but declines to fully explain his role in her creation unless pursued as a romance interest (or in the epilogue of Lupin's ending). Regardless of whether or not he reveals his past, on all routes Victor promises to work on a cure for her and is never less than caring. When she joins up with the group, Victor is the one that manufactures custom silverware for her to use that can't be melted by her poison so she can eat at the table like everyone else.

One reason I like Victor's route the best is that his personal story weaves in tightly with Cardia's. On other routes she may fall in love with a character, but, using Van Helsing as an example, his storyline is largely about him. It's his pain, his revenge, and Cardia is the loving girlfriend who saves him from destroying himself.

While Victor also has something dear to accomplish in atoning for his past mistakes, Cardia's well-being is equally important to him. The emotional undercurrent of the final chapter is Cardia needing to believe that he really can handle both, that he can both stop the stored Zicterium from being unleashed in London while also saving her humanity. It helps that one leads to the other, and knowing that he's going to cut it close, Victor asks Cardia to not lose faith in him even at the last moment. Whether or not she does determines whether or not the player gets the good ending to his story.

And damn does Victor cut it close.

Usually when there's a timer in a story, it counts down and the heroes beat it just before zero. Victor's gamble actually runs over, though he goes in understanding there's some wiggle room and it works out in the end.

The other reason I like Victor so much is that most of the guys are interested in either dying for their cause or doing a heroic sacrifice to protect Cardia, which can be admirable, but isn't so great from Cardia's standpoint as the one who has to carry on. However, when Victor has the option to die to ensure Cardia's survival, he categorically refuses it. He realizes that his death would hurt her immensely and in his ending he is adamant that they will both survive. The achievement for completing his ending reflects his choice, being called "The World, With You."

After completing Victor's route, it's worth rereading his scenes along the shared path on a future playthrough, as a second read makes it incredibly clear how much he figures out about Cardia as soon as they meet, and it's possible to read between the lines of many of his evasive comments. The way his expression changes in his very first CG takes on a whole new level of meaning once you realize just why he's reacting the way he does.

Since he's naturally the most kind-hearted member of the cast the fact he's hiding something doesn't come across as sinister, making it easy on a first playthrough to overlook all the times he changes the conversation, deflects questions, or outright refuses to answer.

Monday, September 5, 2016

VN Talk: Code: Realize: Guardian of Rebirth - Part 2: Van Helsing

Unfortunately I got horribly sick from food poisoning last weekend, so I didn't get around to finishing my write-up for Van Helsing's route, which ironically was the first one I played in Code: Realize, considering that the rest are pretty much post-ready.

At the time I knew I wanted to write something for Code: Realize I wasn't sure if I'd be doing a single blog post or one for each route as I had done for Amnesia, and since Van Helsing was first, my entry for him ended up being the least developed.

When I started the game I wasn't sure who I would end up with on my first playthrough, and unlike Amnesia, where I had to make a choice at the beginning, I figured I'd just go where the story pulled me. Initially, I bought the game for Lupin, because he looks like a really fun character, but his ego in the early scenes rubbed me the wrong way (and it turns out he's gate-locked) so I figured I would end up with Victor Frankenstein. He surprised me, being the sweetest and most introspective of the five men, but that pretty much went out the window once Van Helsing got introduced.

Aside from the fact I've always favored vampire hunters over vampires, Van Helsing is the one who teaches Cardia martial arts and how to defend herself. (And she uses those lessons!) He lays down one of the best IRL rules for combat, as in don't fight if you can avoid it, and then proceeds to explain what Cardia should do if she has no choice, including weaponizing the poison in her body.

I loved that he didn't coddle her and that he took her seriously, which makes his overprotective change in demeanor later in the storyline easier to swallow, because the fact he acts differently shows that how he feels about her has changed as well. Tough luck getting him to admit it though.

Being a renowned slayer of vampires he naturally has baggage and Van Helsing is carrying so much that he's pretty much only standing for the sake of revenge. When it becomes increasingly apparent just how much his revenge is going to cost, he begins pushing Cardia away so she won't go down with him.

Visual novels can have action sequences, but because the player has no input into them, their success relies on their ability to convey the stakes. What would be a traditional last boss fight usually doesn't work, but the action scenes are fun, and it helps that hearing a gun click is used so well that it invokes a Pavlovian response in the player.

It means Van Helsing is here, and he's about to kick ass.

Van Helsing as a character fits a certain "type," the kind I tend not to have so much patience with anymore, though he's not as bad an example of others. He's very much a tsundere, pretending he doesn't care about Cardia and that there's nothing between them until he realizes that if he doesn't reveal the extent of his feelings she's going to get hurt/killed (never mind all the hurting he himself does while trying to drive her away for her own safety).

I think it hurts a little too that his route loses a lot of levity from earlier in the story. While Van Helsing has a blood drenched past, he has a dry sense of humor that comes out earlier in the story, and ends up the butt of a joke himself. (Seriously, the Van Helsing Cannon during the airship race was amazing! Who needs a weapon when you can shoot Van Helsing himself at your enemies?)

But once his story is fully underway, Cardia's own plot is swept away so the game can drag all of Van Helsing's skeletons out of the closet; how he was blackmailed into killing hundreds of peaceful vampires to save his family (in what world is that okay?), how he was a human experiment, and how his mentor was the one who orchestrated all of it in order to create a monster.

In the final chapter of Van Helsing's route it's obvious that his mentor, Aleister, will succeed if the drugged and brainwashed Van Helsing kills Cardia, because killing the woman he loves will sever the last thread of what sanity he has left. Once Van Helsing realizes what he's done, he'll break.

To her credit, Cardia does not sit in a corner weeping over her fate, and in one of the most badass moments I've seen in an otome heroine, she rips off her glove and grabs Aleister by the throat bare-handed to get him to call off Van Helsing. Aleister is a little too messed up in the head to be phased by the fact she's melting his skin off, but the action does get him to commit suicide, preventing him from seeing the completion of his plan.

This leaves the climax between Cardia and the still brainwashed Van Helsing, and what follows is the only scene that made me want to sit Cardia down and give her a stern lecture.

We just got through how killing her is the last thing that Van Helsing wants, and it's what's going to push him over the edge. But somehow, when he finally pins her and wants to kill her as the object of his revenge, Cardia tells him to go ahead if that's what it takes to break his madness, and I'm like "What part of letting yourself die do you think is going to make him happy?!"

After enough anguished dialogue, he comes to his senses long enough to not kill her, but Van Helsing is aware that it may only be a temporary reprieve, so he chooses to stab himself in the chest and end all threat to Cardia.

Now, I wasn't sure what would happen. This was my first playthrough and I wasn't using a walkthrough. It was entirely possible I didn't get a good ending, and Helsing was going to die right in front of Cardia. His farewell, everything that had led up to this point, was entirely in character,

I had gone into Code: Realize looking forward to a light and fluffy romance, but found myself tearing up instead. (Probably should've known it would happen when I went for the vampire hunter. Alas.)

It turns out that if the player makes enough good choices, Van Helsing pulls through and his unconsciousness is only temporary, leaving the door open to a happily ever after. Now that he's all done with revenge, he's ready for a more peaceful life, and he stops pushing Cardia away.

Van Helsing in the epilogue and his bonus scene is a much warmer person, and much more affectionate to Cardia, though there is still the poison issue since they pretty much discarded that part of her storyline in his route. He does note that he wants to get that fixed, since that kinda gets in the way of any bedroom activities.

Normally I would mind the lack of resolution on that front, but overall I had a lot of fun with it, and aside from dropping Cardia's plot and the weird "it's okay to kill me" part at the end, it was enjoyable and likely what most players would expect from a romance with a vampire hunter.

Monday, August 22, 2016

VN Talk: Code: Realize: Guardian of Rebirth - Part 1: Cardia

I played Code: Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~ back to back after Zero Time Dilemma. Not because I really needed a palate cleanser, but because I had been wanting to play it for a while. I picked it up at a nice price at Anime Expo and I still had a little vacation time left to get started.

I generally like playing otome visual novels when I'm in the mood for something light and fluffy and Otomate is my favorite producer of them. Otomate's Hakuoki, which I covered earlier on this blog was the first otome I played, and I've played few more since. Amnesia: Memories aside (which uses a different story structure), I like the Otomate otome style because it makes a point to have a plot, one long and engaging enough that it takes several hours to get through, and it's more of a choose-your-own-adventure than a dating sim where you decide what to do everyday.

The typical Otomate heroine starts in the same place and has a chance to meet and get to know all her potential love interests before the story eventually branches off based on the player's favoritism towards a particular man. Equally important is that the love interests interact with each other, which allows them to become fleshed out characters who are more than a pretty face to pine over the protagonist.

Code: Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~ outdid itself in length as this is probably longest of the Otomate games I've played through, with a single branch taking me over 15 hours to get through, which is feat considering that gameplay is primarily reading/listening and making the occasional decision. I'm used to having 7 to 9 chapters for each storyline, but Code: Realize jumps to a whopping 13 for each love interest (unlike Hakuoki which shortchanges a few characters).

Also, Code: Realize has probably one of the best otome heroines ever.

It's common for the heroine to be passive so her love interest can protect her and she can be the one he is fighting for. If she has some meager combat skills they generally won't be enough to do anything meaningful.

Cardia (who can be renamed at the cost her name being unvoiced in dialogue) starts out like a doll because of who and what she is, but most importantly, she grows over the course of the story. She has her own emotional arc besides supporting the guy she's with and her own turbulent history she's trying to get over, which puts her on even footing with the guys. Once she's trained to look after herself, she does a fair job of it, whether escaping from imprisonment or busting a few mooks.

One of the things I disliked about Chizuru in Hakuoki is that she had special powers of regeneration and was a full blooded demon, but she didn't do anything with her natural abilities. She should have had the potential to be an equal combatant to the swordsman she loved instead of sitting on the sidelines bawling about how helpless she is.

Cardia likewise has something unusual about her, but she's not afraid to use it. Her body is filled with a corrosive poison so strong that anything that touches her skin (save her specially treated clothing) melts away. It even eats through titanium. She has a note at the start of the game from her father telling her to never to leave the mansion she lives in and to not fall in love, because it will cause her suffering on account of being a monster. Her poison accumulates around her, so if she remains in one place too long it builds up, and she knows firsthand that anyone trapped in an enclosed space with her will eventually die from prolonged exposure.

Obviously Cardia does leave her mansion at the start of the game, and over the course of the story she falls in love, but the game never forgets that she's filled with a powerful poison. Aside from causing romantic complications, Cardia understands that she can use that ability as a tool, and there are multiple times where she takes her gloves off to burn through something. In one ending, she even uses it to attack the man harming her love interest.

Code: Realize does not get enough love for having this girl as the heroine.

As for the rest of the game, it takes place in an alternate 1853 steampunk London. Each of the five love interests is taken from either history or a 19th century novel and aged appropriate to the heroine, so the player can romance a twenty-something Arsène Lupin, Abraham Van Helsing, Victor Frankenstein, Count Saint-Germain, or Impey Barbicane. I was at least passingly familiar with most of them, with the exception of Impey Barbicane, who I had to look up. (He's a Jules Verne character from From the Earth to the Moon.)

The game does an excellent job of introducing the five and how their disparate quests come together and bring Cardia in as well. Though the shared path between all of them is a weighty eight chapters long, it's a lot of fun as the group gets into a variety of hijinks and you can see how the guys play off each other. I consider it important that the rest of the group interacts and have lives outside of their relationship to Cardia. The airship race chapter in particular was fun, because it made the cast come together as a well-honed team.

Cardia's story does not always come to a conclusive end. In fact, there's only one route where all the cards are laid out on the table, but they all feel like endings, with the promise of a happily ever between Cardia and the man she loves, even if she might still be a poisonous maiden who can't touch anyone. The love interests who don't get a poison-free Cardia at the end mostly take this in stride, though those endings also make it clear that they'll keep looking for a cure.

Code: Realize is probably my favorite otome to date, not just because Cardia is an awesome protagonist with her own growth, but because the story is good about keeping everyone involved no matter whose route the player is on. This is vital to keep interest from flagging when the player needs to play each of the routes to get the whole story, and the personal goals of the different men get nods even if they aren't the focus of a given storyline.

In general, Code: Realize is also good about making elements from one timeline exist in another. While the player's choices should have an immediate effect on Cardia and her friends, they shouldn't change things beyond the scope of her personal influence, and most of the time the game respects this even while furnishing wildly difficult climaxes for each route. It's not perfect, but generally it's possible to understand why certain things only happen in one timeline and not another.

Unfortunately Code: Realize is only on Vita (which seems to be the console of choice for visual novel fans), but since more and more Vita games have been finding their way to Steam, I suppose it's possible this one might be ported someday.

A US localization of the Code: Realize fan disc has also been announced, which I think is the going to be the first of its kind released stateside, so I assume it has been doing fairly well in sales. Even though Hakuoki has had fan disc material released in English before, it was only in a much later edition that combined it with the original game.

In Japan it's common to for successful otome games to have a fan disc (not literally a disc anymore) that provides additional scenes set either during or after the main story. They're generally fluff that doesn't affect the main plot but allows the audience to spend additional time with their favorite character(s).

Judging from the opening movie to Code: Realize's fan disc and the wedding motif, this one's heavily focused on the happily ever after.

I've also heard that an anime version of Code: Realize has been announced, but a release date hasn't been set yet. I hope it makes it out of development and into production, because I think of all the otome games I've played this has the most compelling story and, more importantly for an anime series, the most compelling protagonist, so people will want to cheer her on instead of viewing her as dead weight for the rest of the cast.

Though otome is aimed at heterosexual women where they can choose a romantic partner for their protagonist, Code: Realize doesn't focus as strongly on the romance as other titles. The plot has plenty of action, tension, and humor that I think will let it appeal to a wider audience once the buttons the player is pushing are removed.

Next week I'll dive into the first of the routes I played and spoilers will begin!

Monday, August 15, 2016

5 Writing Lessons I Learned from Zero Time Dilemma

Zero Time Dilemma was one of my most anticipated games this year, being the third and final game in the Zero Escape series, but while I enjoyed it, it didn't quite live up to the hype. I suppose part of that comes from the long anticipation period I had after Virtue's Last Reward, which is one of my favorite visual novels of all time. ZTD had an incredible legacy to live up to.

So I suppose I shouldn't have been too surprised that it didn't. I enjoyed it to be clear. I ended up taking the week after Anime Expo off from work and spent most of that in a gigantic bum rush going through Zero Time Dilemma.

But even though ZTD did some very cool things like the non-linear storytelling and the memory loss every 90 minutes, there were other things that felt weird or left me cold. So here are five writing lessons I learned from Zero Time Dilemma (spoilers included), starting with the negative stuff and ending on a positive note.

1) Hiding information for a surprise twist can backfire spectacularly, even if you've done it well before

This is an issue because of Q, and probably my biggest beef with the game. The nine people trapped in the Decision Game are divided into three teams of three, and the player is mislead by camera angles during the team leader announcement to think the boy with the helmet is Q, but Q-Team actually has four people on it. The real Q is not shown on screen until Sean (the boy) correctly identifies him as Delta, and the mastermind behind the game.

However, Q has been with the rest of Q-Team for the entire portion of the game. The reason the player doesn't know is because the camera angles never show more than his shadow and even his own team members barely mention him because they think he's blind and deaf and unable to be communicated with.

This was particularly annoying, because when I finally discovered Delta was the mastermind and had Sean call him out, the camera suddenly moved over to reveal him and I was shocked that there was an old man in a wheelchair who had apparently been sitting in plain sight of everyone except for me.

In retrospect I was able to find clues to his existence, but they are so minor as to be easily missed during a player's first time through. The characters are disoriented by their ordeal and enforced memory loss so the player tends to be similarly adrift.

Now, this trick can be done well, because Virtue's Last Reward did it earlier in the same series. VLR hid Sigma's physical age from both Sigma and the player (that he's an old man instead of a young one). But the reason it worked is because the game took place almost entirely in first person from Sigma's point of view, so what he didn't know, we didn't know. Also, Sigma's arms are cybernetic and clothed with artificial skin and muscle, so he didn't know the arms he was using were not his original 20-something year old limbs.

Finally, there were multiple conversations that Sigma had directly with other characters where they made fun of his age. Unlike Q, who was not party to the conversations that mentioned him, VLR's conversations were directly with the player character, so it's unsurprising that the insults are more memorable and taken more personally. At the time it's easy for the player and Sigma to write off other people as being rude, only for those clues to come back when the reveal is made.

2) Don't set up expectations you can't or don't expect to fulfill

Virtue's Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma were conceived at the same time, but due to VLR's poor sales in Japan, ZTD came along years later and only after a successful fan campaign on the part of the English-speaking audience. I'm not sure if that factored into the discontinuity, but there was a bonus post-game scene in VLR that was included for players who managed to get all the bonus files in the game.

Game writer Kotaro Uchikoshi came out last week and said that the Another Time ending in VLR is not canon, because not every player who reaches the end of the game will see it, but the thing is, it feels very real and sets up a lot of expectations for what needs to happen in ZTD.

We learn that a mysterious entity "?" might be what allows the existence of a timeline where Radical-6 never escapes. We learn that Kyle has presumably jumped back in time even though he doesn't have a body to go to.

VLR proper closed everything off really well, only for Another Time to pop open a lot of questions, so players went into ZTD expecting to see how "?" fits into everything, and looking for Kyle, only to not find anything of either, as though Another Time never happened.

It was unsatisfying without knowing this from the start, and Uchikoshi has since said that it was a mistake to connect Another Time to the timeline flowchart in VLR, which made it look like it was canon, when it shouldn't have been. Uchikoshi says it was included as a bonus, since at the time VLR was in production the 2011 Tohoku quake had just happened and he wanted to give a little hope to what was otherwise a grim ending.

I'm not sure if that was always his intention, it's possible he threw away Another Time later on when he figured he could make a better story without it, but it could have been handled a lot better.

3) Player/character disorientation works even better when something expected is missing

This was a fun one to experience in action.

We know the Decision Game involves teams of three, and the three characters on each team all know who the others are. They're already expecting to pass out after 90 minutes, and they're expecting they will have forgotten things since their last period awake. They have a lot of be anxious about.

So the first time I played a story fragment where C-Team woke up with only two people I feared for the worst. Junpei was missing and I didn't know why.

Worse, I was now being forced to solve an escape room to leave the pantry, when the biggest issue on my mind was Junpei's safety.

Much of the anxiety worked because even though this fragment can be played early in the game, Junpei was the protagonist from Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors which was the very first game in the Zero Escape series. Junpei and Akane's relationship and how they aided one another quite literally through time and space, was the most memorable part of 999, so when Akane wakes up and Junpei is nowhere to be found, we panic over his absence just as much as she does.

And of course the kicker is… right after we solve the puzzle, we do find out what happened to Junpei.

4) It's fun when one story makes you think of an older one in a new way.

The Zero Escape series has always contained some element of alternate universes, where the story branches depending on choices the player has made, but unlike most games which consider those exclusive from each other, Zero Escape has had information readily cross back and forth between them. Sometimes the information to solve a puzzle cannot be found in the timeline the player is currently in, but can be discovered in a different one that otherwise leads to an undesirable end.

When Carlos discovers his consciousness has hopped between two closely related timelines without understanding how, Akane chooses to explain the multiverse to him by using Back to the Future.

I watched Back to the Future ages ago as a kid, and though Marty McFly changes the future after his trip back in time, I didn't take the ending as much more than what I saw at face value. Marty went back in time where he started with a mousy "loser" for a dad, changed the past by making his dad cool, and went forward in time to discover his adult dad is a much more confident person.

Akane is not me though, and says that when she got to the end of the movie, she wanted to know what happened to the Marty of the second timeline, the one who grew up with the confident, rich dad, because that Marty must have existed, before the Marty we know goes back to the future. So whatever happened to the second timeline's Marty?

It was a good question to ask! And one I'd never thought of.

5) A little humor, even black humor, goes a long way the darker the main story gets

Shortly after Akane explains the multiple timelines to Carlos, she suggests the team hop timelines to escape their current predicament. This kickstarts a hilarious string of events where Carlos, Akane, and Junpei hop timelines with the specific intent of abusing their ability to do so.

It's a creative sequence because it's very much something a player would be inclined to do.

The reason for the humor comes from multiple sources. First is Akane's completely blasé approach to overloading a nuclear reactor specifically because it's easier to hop timelines when under duress.

Second is that when someone's consciousness jumps, they switch places with the version of themselves that they're going to, which means that if they're about to die, they're going to be killing their other self when they jump. While Junpei and Carlos are initially reluctant about swapping under those circumstances, they get comfortable fast, to the point they treat their alternate lives about as cheaply as the player does.

Third is that they choose very strange timelines to jump to while they have very little time to discuss anything resembling a plan. There's nothing that gets a laugh and a fair bit of concern like suggesting they jump to the timeline where they're all about to die in a hail of machine gun fire.

Fourth, Junpei wants to break the game by getting two of them killed in one timeline so they can use their X-codes (obtained on death) and then hopping to safety to another where they can use the codes to escape.

It's a very meta way of looking at his own existence, and involves him and Carlos sacrificing their other selves (who, by the way, are currently celebrating their amazing victory at rolling three 1s on three different 6-sided dice, a 0.46% chance) and jumping just ahead of Akane, who stays behind long enough to hear their X-codes before jumping herself, presumably leaving her other self bewildered and confused with the bodies of her friends.

Since you can repeat fragments whenever you want, going back through this sequence was one of my favorite parts to replay. It's so messed up, but it had me in stitches, and it's just what I needed since this is by far the darkest and most bloody installment in the Zero Escape series.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Writing "The Final Gift of Zhuge Liang"

I was really tickled by the idea of writing a more action oriented Cthulhu Mythos piece, particularly one that should be set in the past to accommodate a focus on melee weapons. I had previously written "The Ancestors" as my Chinese American take on "Shadows Over Innsmouth" so I figured why not make another go around?

It didn't take long for me to decide that I wanted to work in the Three Kingdoms period due to it being one of the most famous and intense periods of Chinese history. But the problem was, aside from the names of the major players and a few of the battles, I really had no idea what the context for the whole thing was. Most of my previous Chinese history research had been regarding the Qing Dynasty (which served as the model for the fictional dynasty used in "The Held Daughter") and there's about 1400 years of history in between the two.

All I knew about the Three Kingdoms was that the Han Dynasty had fallen and there was a war that divided the empire in three as three different men claimed themselves to be the true emperor and successor to the Han.

It was a setting ripe for conflict and made famous by the 12th century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

While brainstorming my initial choice for protagonist was Zhuge Liang, because he was known as the master strategist of Shu and possibly the most brilliant person on any side of the war. Due to the nihilistic nature of Lovecraftian fiction, I wanted to set the story during Zhuge Liang's final battle, because I knew he had died before the war was over.

But then I learned that Zhuge Liang had died due to a combination of stress and overwork, which was not a dramatic death at all, even if he had been on the campaign trail at the time.

I also considered using his wife Lady Huang, who was considered to be as talented as he was, but information on her was so scant and I could find no evidence that she accompanied him on the campaign trail.

Then I considered making Sima Yi the main character, figuring that it might be interesting to tell the story of the person who was fighting against an opponent with mythical tactical abilities (and supernatural powers), but it just wasn't clicking, because Sima Yi only wins by outlasting Zhuge Liang and when he finally gets out of his fortress on the Wuzhong Plans he's routed largely due to his own paranoia.

Finally I noticed a name that I remembered hearing before, but didn't know much about. Jiang Wei. He was Zhuge Liang's successor.

Reading about Jiang Wei I found him to not be as cut and dry a successor as I thought he would be, but his mixed legacy was attractive, and I found it fascinating that he was so devoted to his adopted nation of Shu even though he had originally been an officer in Wei (his personal name "Wei" is written differently from the country "Wei").

In Romance of the Three Kingdoms Jiang Wei is presented as a very romanticized character, with the brains of Zhuge Liang and the fighting skills of Zhao Yun, who had the misfortune of being one of the last Shu generals of any standing left towards the end of the war, at which point there was nothing he could do to save the kingdom.

The reality was more complicated, but still, I liked the idea of the student who can never surpass the master, when it's something we always want to happen. Zhuge Liang today is still a part of Chinese culture, with four different actors portraying him in two different movies and two different TV series in the last ten years alone. That's pretty good for a guy who's been dead for 1800 years! How can anyone live up to that kind of legacy?

So I decided that the heart of the story would be about Jiang Wei trying to live up to being Zhuge Liang's successor while also keeping the Shu army intact during their retreat from the Wuzhong Plains. While the reality of Sima Yi's retreat was more a combination of paranoia and a well-placed ambush, in folklore the Shu army either used a wooden statue of Zhuge Liang or Jiang Wei dressed as Zhuge Liang himself to scare him off.

I figured on something a little more supernatural…

But I still have a nod to both, because I think readers who are more familiar with the time period (or are only familiar with it from the novel) might be expecting them.

I really enjoyed writing this one, and I'm mulling over ideas for the future considering that Jiang Wei has many more battles ahead of him in which I could still being the Mythos to bear.

If you would like to check out a preview of this story, there is a teaser now up at Stone Skin Press.

Music listened to while writing: "No Differences" from the Aldnoah.Zero soundtrack and "Kimi no Matsu Sekai" (trans: "The World Where You Are Waiting") from the first set of opening credits to Magic Kaito 1412