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.