Monday, December 25, 2017

Quality of Life in Dungeon Fighter Online

Merry Christmas, everyone! Hope that you're enjoying some time off, or at least a less hectic time of year. I don't really expect anyone to be reading this today, but it's Monday, so that means a new blog post (and I wrote this ahead of time).

As one can guess from my post last week, I been delving into Dungeon Fighter Online. I'm not generally a big MMO person, I've played a few free ones here and there, but the only tentpole AAA MMORPG I've played is World of Warcraft, and I've discovered some quality of life things that I really like in DFO that I now wish were in WoW.

So this is more or less a wishlist of things I've noticed that I wished were in World of Warcraft, so I'll be using that game as the baseline. Most of these are quality of life issues.

1) Buying customized quantities on the Auction House

Sometimes you just need seven of a particular item, no more, no less, but the only options in the auction house are Seller #1 listing 200 of Item A for 50 gold each, or Seller #2 listing 10 of Item A for 70 gold each. I could buy from Seller #2 and eat the higher price, hoping to unload the few leftovers individually myself, or I could buy the larger bundle from Seller #1 and be stuck with even more inventory to unload.

DFO lets you buy the specific quantity that you want from the seller that you want. So I could buy seven of Item A for 50 gold each. As a buyer this is the best option since you don't end up with more than you need. And arguably, for a seller, you're sure to sell something as long as it's in demand.

This also solves the ridiculous flooding problem in WoW where someone individually lists two pages of Item A at a high price because the system reads the lowest aggregate price on a bundle rather than the lowest individual price when it presents the lists by price to the buyer. DFO, however, only acknowledges the lowest individual price (since quantity is chosen by the buyer) so all those overpriced one-offs would rightfully be listed at the end.

2) Seeing the prices of other Auction House sellers when you list something

Using the vanilla auction house interface in WoW, it's only possible to see other people's listing for Item A if you search for it and look. Listing the item happens on a separate panel so you can't see the prices while you're listing.

DFO lets you see the prices as you list, and since prices are listed by how much they are individually being sold for, it's easy to decide exactly what you want for your asking price. If everyone else is selling Item A for 500 gold. You can list 495 gold and the game will math out the total price if someone were to buy you out, no additional player hoops needed.

Yes, WoW has mods that will do that for you, but DFO goes a step further with this next item.

3) Showing the average auction price for any listed item (assuming it's listed often enough to have a record)

Whether you're a buyer or seller, the DFO auction house will tell you the historical average price something goes for. If you're a seller and the auction house is currently empty of that item, you have a baseline to set your buyout for. This also tells you whether or not everyone else is currently gouging.

I'm not sure how this is determined, but I assume it's over a period of several days as I've seen the average price change over the course of days, but not over hours. So as a buyer, it lets you know whether something is currently overpriced, and you can choose to wait (or not) as your pocketbook allows. This was immensely helpful as a new player who was looking to buy some quest items. They looked ridiculously expensive, but without the average price helper, I wouldn't have known they were currently overpriced. I waited until the next day and was able to buy them for a third of the previous days' listings. (They were still overpriced, but low enough that I could tolerate it.)

4) Account bound banks

I'm an alt person. Rather than focusing super hard on one character, I like to have lots of them stuck in various stages of development. In WoW that means that if I want to send something to an alt, I have to put in a mailbox. Sometimes, because of the number of alts, I'm not even sure who needs an item most so certain items might end up in a ridiculous mailbox daisy chain bouncing between alts until I find who needs it.

In DFO this is solved by a special bank for any items that are bind on account or capable of being traded between unrelated characters. So things that are "soulbound," to use WoW parlance, are still stuck with whoever earned them, but everything else can be shoved into the account bound and retrieved by alts as needed. No shuffling things through mailboxes.

5) In game encyclopedia of where every equipment drop in the game comes from

WoW has a nice dungeon feature which has in-game maps, boss strategies, etc. for every dungeon and raid in the game. By clicking on each boss, it's possible to see what loot they have. This is nice when you're going on a raid, but if you're looking for a very specific item and you don't know where to start, you usually just end up asking someone or going to a third party web site like Wowhead and typing it in to search.

DFO allows you to open up an encyclopedia in game and you can look for every piece of equipment based on rarity and equipment type, and then from there it's possible to look at the individual item stats and where they drop or where they can be bought/crafted. You can also see the stats while you're at it, so you can decide whether you want that item in preference to another.

I suspect there are mods that allow this as well, but again, this is not something natively supported.

6) Mileage system

I think WoW has tried to find ways to reward players just for playing and doing what they want, but the game doesn't feel like it's ever quite hit the mark, because it generally boils down to giving people gear, and better gear comes from raids. It's not that there are only gear-based rewards, but a lot of times it feels like the rewards are gated behind having the gear to do something.

For instance, it's common to have a special cosmetic reward for having completed a difficult challenge. And while it's fine to have something to strive to, there's no "thank you for simply playing."

DFO has something called "Mileage," which is earned by completing dungeons of an appropriate level (which can be done solo and is what the player has already been doing the entire game anyway). The character does not need to be max level and a level 30 character earns mileage as the same rate as a level 90.

Mileage can be used to buy a variety of things, from avatar appearances to in-game tokens that can be exchanged for equipment, to experience boosting potions to use while leveling, and other consumables specific to the DFO ecosystem. While nothing in there is so incredible I'd go out of my way to earn mileage for them, they're very nice quality of life things to get after I've already been playing.

As of this writing I have enough Mileage to buy 390 Demon Invitations, which is a hefty bonus as DIs are used for chances at epic equipment during special dungeon runs. It would take me 13 million gold to buy this normally, and while 13 million does not go as far in DFO as it would in WoW it is still a fair chunk of money.

But the reality is, I probably won't spend all my Mileage on DIs because I don't expect to become an end game raider. So I will probably spend a good chunk of my Mileage on avatar appearances and potions to increase the amount of gold dropped during my next few dungeon runs.

It's nice having this kind of flexibility. And while WoW has activities where you can gradually accumulate currency or reputations towards something, it's always tied to a particular faction or activity. There's no general purpose bucket, so there's no happy surprise where you can suddenly get something that you want without realizing that you've been working to earn it this entire time.


It isn't that I think DFO is wildly better in WoW, particularly since they take very different approaches to their games, but having spent most of my MMO life in the World of Warcraft ecosystem, I haven't had much opportunity to see how other companies do things. Prior to DFO I didn't think things were particularly better on the other side, especially when so many games end up ape-ing WoW to some degree or another.

Even then, these are mostly quality of life issues, particularly with the Auction House. I don't use it too heavily in DFO yet, but the Auction House has been a great source of in-game wealth for me in WoW and now that I've seen how DFO's works it irks me that we don't have some of these things as a baseline in World of Warcraft. It would save so much hassle!

Monday, December 18, 2017

RPG Talk: Dungeon Fighter Online

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

Platform: PC (standalone and on Steam)
Release: 2010 (original) and 2015 (global relaunch)

I debated whether or not to write an RPG Talk for this one, because the game is rather story lite in that the plot mainly serves as an excuse to move the player from one setting to another as they brawl their way through the fantasy world of Arad. But that said, Dungeon Fighter Online does some interesting things that I think are worth talking about, some of which requires real world context.

I don't remember when I made my first DFO account, but it was during the original Nexon release, and while I had fun, I eventually put down the game and was a little sad to hear in 2013 that the North American servers were shutting down. Because I had played during this period, I was aware of what is now known as the pre-Metastasis world. I'd adventured in it.

When DFO returned in 2015 as a worldwide edition under the umbrella of its original Korean developers, Arad had gone through a massive event called the Great Metastasis that upended the world. On a whim, I logged in on my new account in 2017 expecting to relive my glory days in Grand Flores only to discover that the newbie forest had burned down!

I'm not sure if the overhaul was a reboot intended for the relaunch, or something that happened in the Korean original (like how World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion transformed old Azeroth), but it was definitely a surprise and if tied specifically to the relaunch, then there was no better way to do it.

Though an online game, DFO is closer to being a side scrolling Diablo series in execution. Barring a few instances, gameplay can be done completely solo (though there are shared town instances so players will see each other while in shared areas).

The new storyline has the player character going through Arad after the Great Metastasis, which has torn the world so badly that the formerly subterranean city of Underfoot is now on the surface, serving as the main player hub, and the Sky Tower which connected Arad with the land of Empyrean has been destroyed.

Following the Metastasis, a malevolent force called the Black Nightmare has infected Arad. Its tendrils reach everywhere, making elemental spirits go mad, bringing the dead back to life. It's much the usual fantasy world bad mojo and the player character gets roped into helping various people investigate it.

There apparently were four great heroes who faced off with one of the Apostles (incredibly powerful and not necessarily evil entities) and gained fame because of it. The timeline's a bit fuzzy, but this seems to have happened before Metastasis since it's clear a fair bit of time has passed for them and the Metastasis itself may have been about ten years before the game starts, and it wasn't just a physical remaking of the world. Reality itself changed, so some characters who were previously enemies in the original timeline could be allies in the current one, and the interesting thing is we get to visit the original timeline at a few points.

Much like Diablo III, each character class gets a class-based introductory sequence that explains who they are and how they came to the starting point of the game. For classes with different genders, they will have two entirely different sequences depending on whether the character is male or female. (This carries over to gameplay as well, as characters of different genders will play a little differently even if they're the same base class.) In some cases, the character's past will come up during the story, though never to the point where it interferes with the plot. For instance, the demonic lancer was once a famous gladiatorial slave in the imperial arena and when he meets Vaughn, an imperial knight, he hopes that Vaughn doesn't recognize him. It has no relevance to the main story, but it's a nice touch.

Beyond the occasional class-based nod, the player character dialogue appears to be similar across classes, though as of this writing I've only spent a significant amount of time with the male mage and the demonic lancer (the latter of which is currently a male only option, but might open up to a female variant later as most of the older classes were single gender at the start and eventually got male/female variants). The result is occasionally odd as the same dialogue doesn't always feel appropriate depending on which class the player is playing.

Compounding that, the Korean to English translation was clearly not done by a native English speaker, and the translation quality varies wildly. A game like this is large enough that there were probably multiple translators. The result feels like a fantasy adventure written by a kid. It's been spellchecked, but sometimes the wording is a little strange and the dialogue feels like it fell out of a cartoon. (For instance, while writing this, I found this gem from an enemy: "Sonic waves never miss! Dang!") Quests are typically workmanlike, go here and do that, and when there is an attempt at humor, it feels forced. The cinematic subtitles are actually worse than the rest of the game and have that "Engrish" feel of older Japanese to English game translations.

I'm not sure if DFO reads this clunky in Korean, it's not a deep story to begin with, but I feel like some opportunities were lost.

For instance, there are two clearly sad moments in the main story. The first is when Iris is revealed as a traitor. She begins helping the player early on in the first third of the story, and by the final third, we learn that she was an instrumental part in causing the Great Metastasis. In fact, she's been manipulating the player since they'd met.

Her betrayal is played for tragedy, because it was out of her control, but even with the requisite soft piano music, it wasn't enough to feel like it really meant something. Clearly it was supposed to be, but I just didn't feel it.

The other moment has to deal with Vaughn, who is probably the most complicated character in the story. Vaughn is one of the heroes who defeated Sirocco, but he's flighty, gives his men a hard time, and is constantly talking about his wife, Emily. He also clearly has an agenda as we discover he was involved with the Metastasis experiment that caused the tragedy (not to mention whatever the hell it was he grabbed off the last boss in that final cinematic).

Emily never appears in the game, but Vaughn uses her as an excuse to go disappear an awful lot, or talks about how he wants to be with her. It turns out that Emily dies during the storyline while Vaughn is helping the land of Empyrean get under control again. There is no indication at the moment it happens, because Vaughn behaves completely normally (doing the usual gushing about how he's going to see her and it'll be so sweet). The player finds out much later, in the final leg of the game, that Emily passed away.

The fact that Vaughn hid that should have revealed something about his character, but he more or less says that he didn't want his men to worry. While that is a reason, it didn't feel like an honest one, because we never see him interact with any of his soldiers aside from Hartz, who takes just about everything in stride.

Eventually the player tracks down the origin of the Black Nightmare to the Apostle Luke (I'm not sure if he was named after the Luke in the Bible because 11 of the 13 Apostles do not have Biblical names) and it's funny how fighting the Nightmare is everything to the people of Arad, and yet it's merely a means to an end for Luke. Luke, ironically, had a vision that foretold of his death, and he's been using the Black Nightmare to collect energy so he can strengthen himself and survive. But in doing so, he brought about his own end.

This isn't lost on the other Apostles who help bring him down.

The Apostles are interesting, because they're not a united front. They come from different realities and eventually arrived in the land of Pandemonium. They are not able to kill each other, and there seems to be some sort of mechanic that forces them to acknowledge those of a similar power. But they don't have to like each other and may scheme to have another killed by the hands of mortals. Though the storyline currently ends with Luke's death, it's implied that Hilder, who was the one behind Iris, has plans that can now be enacted due to Luke's death.

The world of Dungeon Fighter Online is an interesting mash-up of genres, which helps since the gameplay largely consists of punching through dungeons upon dungeons of enemies. Though Arad is more or less medieval fantasy, the land of Empyrean is an Asian-influenced future with energy plants, robots, and a train that cuts across the ocean. Yes, DFO has the usual goblins and minotaurs (called "taus" in this world), and various demonic threats, but the player also faces pirate crocodiles, biker gangs, and robot insects. It's an everything and the kitchen sink approach, but it oddly works as the enemies are themed to where they appear and though biker gangs aren't appropriate to medieval fantasy, they work well enough in the more modern Empyrean.

Arad is a little unusual though, using a dark elf city for its main hub, and the human empire on Arad is oddly unnamed for most of the story. When I finally found it, it turned out to be cultural mishmash with De Los Empire being led by Emperor Leon Heinrich (not to mention that "De Los Empire" sounds like it was named by someone who knew what Spanish looked like, but not what it meant). And though the empire is typically portrayed as the evil empire, it has redeeming qualities in the individuals who represent it, showing that it's not the monolith it appears to be.

From my understanding, the current storyline is at its end, and there has already been a soft reboot of the world on the Korean servers. It will probably remain playable for a few months, maybe even half a year or more, on the global servers, and it's not bad. If you're looking for a RPG brawler, it's enough to keep you entertained.

Monday, December 11, 2017

VN Talk: Collar x Malice - Part 7: "Hidden Route"

This is the final entry in my Collar x Malice VN Talk series. You can find my other entries for the five main routes using the Collar x Malice label on my blog or the RPG/VN Talk tab above, once I have a chance to update it.

Note: This route spoils everything in case you got here without checking out the rest of the game. I was debating whether or not to write an entry for it, but I realized over the course of playing Yanagi's route that I would spend way too much time unpacking this guy's story on a blog post that was supposed to be dedicated to a romantic lead, so I decided it was best to split them in two. And at least as far as the PSN trophies are concerned, this is a legit route, granting its own trophy and an in-game CG with Hoshino and her new partner.

So… Due to how this route is accessed (through Yanagi's playthrough) I'm not going to spend much time talking about it from the perspective of playing through the game so much discussing Yuzuru Saeki and how the game uses him.

Saeki first shows up in the prologue as Hoshino's police academy buddy. He's friendly, he has her back, and whenever she's down he's one of the first to cheer her up. And the relationship is totally platonic. Yanagi thinks it might not be, but Saeki never hits on her and I really like the heterosexual buddy vibe.

I suspect most players will like pre-reveal Saeki. I know when I first was going through the game I was disappointed he wasn't a romance option because he was just so fun to be around (even as I was applauding the game for having a just-friends relationship).

Of course, as anyone who's gone through Yanagi's route knows, Saeki is secretly Zero, the person who put the poison collar on around Hoshino's neck, and also the head of the Adonis organization.

From a meta perspective some players figured out his identity due to being the only non-romanceable male around Hoshino's age who appears on all routes (and if you're good at visual cues, the visible part of Zero's face under his hood is identical to Saeki's). Most notably, observant players will notice that the only route where Adonis falls apart due to lack of leadership is on Enomoto's route, where Saeki is shot and unconscious in the hospital. Within the context of the main story itself though, there are a few clues as to Zero's civilian identity, and I think most players will eventually figure it out by the time they're asked to do so on Yanagi's route.

Saeki is a different kind of villain than I expected. Adonis is laying down terrorist attacks to revolutionize Japan and is completely ruthless in doing so. So when it becomes obvious that Saeki is Zero, it's interesting how little his personality changes between being Hoshino's academy buddy and the leader of a terrorist organization.

A lot of Saeki's words about why he became a cop and how he wants to protect people are actually values he upholds even as Zero. As we know, all of Adonis's X-Day crimes are revenge killings on behalf of people who didn't get justice due to a failure in the system. Saeki is looking to create a world where those who don't have power are able to feel safe (though as pointed out by Okazaki on his route, when taken to extremes there won't be anybody left in such as world, because people are always hurting each other, even if unintentionally).

Saeki's route itself is kind of random. It happens in the later part of Yanagi's route when Hoshino takes it upon herself to confront him about his true identity, but it's not clear why it plays out so differently depending on whether or not she shoots him, so it feels more like a bonus.

What his ending does is make his reasoning a bit more sympathetic. Saeki is not entirely wrong, though he's going about his solution in an extreme manner, and there's an element of tragedy as Hoshino takes his hand to join him while surrounded by the bodies of her friends. While she now understands his point of view, she also realizes that once their work is done she will have to kill him as the root of all the sorrow he's caused, and Saeki wants that.

As I'd mentioned on Yanagi's route, it's odd how the strongest relationship in the room during the showdown at the church is between Hoshino and Saeki rather than Hoshino and Yanagi. Saeki's fate is the one that determines how Hoshino feels about herself.

If she disables him without killing, there isn't much thrill in the arrest. The game handles Saeki in an unconventional manner for bringing down the boss of a terrorist organization. Rather than being upset or vengeful, Saeki is honestly perplexed why she wouldn't kill him. After all, he's going get the death penalty anyway. Instead he looks sad and filled with regret that he could not convince her to follow in his path.

We learn that Saeki wishes to create a world where anyone can achieve justice for themselves, no matter how powerless they feel. He sees himself as a champion of the weak, the underprivileged, those who the police and the law are either unable or unwilling to help. Hoshino is actually pretty close to him in some ways, in that she wants the best for everyone and is willing to hear out any complaint, no matter how minor, in the hopes that a solution can be found.

Because they both want to save the same people, Saeki hoped that she would be convinced help him rid the world of malice, which he views as the root cause of the world's sorrow. And a part of that, involves killing the malice so it cannot spread. Saeki, being a bringer of malice himself in order to create his malice-free world, needs to be judged according his own philosophy, and that is why he wants Hoshino. His hope is for her see his point of view, kill him, and then carry on his work.

It was a satisfying enough ending. I ended up enjoying the reveal of Saeki as Zero and he's an interesting villain because he never loses sight of the fact his ultimate goal is to help people, especially victims. Life isn't fair, and he's trying to balance the scales for those too weak to manage on their own.

Viewing the Criminal chapter after beating the game can be painful depending on personal experiences. It expands the backstory behind Saeki and each of the executors so we see more of what made them the people they became and Zero brings up good points. What allows one person to place a value on another's pain?

Zero found people at the end of their emotional rope and told them that their pain was real and that they could do something about it. They were wanted, and they could make a better world for others like them.

Barring Rei Mikuni, all the executors were ordinary people, and Zero intended it to be that way. He wanted a world where ordinary people would feel comfortable administering justice themselves instead of relying on weak laws and a corrupt police force.

What makes Saeki a more interesting villain is that he's not above his own ideals. Even when he begins sacrificing executors so that Hoshino will discover the truth, Saeki is doing so under the belief that he should be judged as well, because the world he wants has no place for a person like him.

The Collar x Malice Unlimited fan disc has been announced in Japan as of this writing. I don't know if it'll make it over stateside, but ends on a tease with someone taking the hand of another who is wearing a black glove, which is part of Saeki's appearance as Zero. It's very likely that the fan disc will include a longer Saeki route of some kind.

I would rather his route have been included to begin with, as Otomate has certainly included villain routes in the base game before, and six routes isn't that unusual, but the game already has a redeemed villain in Shiraishi, and I think it would ruin Saeki's character for him to give up on being Zero, so I'm not sure what angle the story would take. Saeki's cause is a sympathetic one, even if his methods are extreme, so I suppose the fan disc could blow that out and have Hoshino join him as an equal rather than a victim.

Monday, December 4, 2017

VN Talk: Collar x Malice - Part 6: Aiji Yanagi

Whoops! Missed posting last week. Conventions will do that to. Today I'm going to cover my next installment my Collar x Malice VN Talk series. You can find my VN Talks for the other four routes using the Collar x Malice label on my blog.

Aiji Yanagi's route took a while for me to get into, because it wasn't the warm fuzzies I was originally expecting when I started the game, nor did it ever get as dark as the preview visuals that came with his route unlock, which happens after the player finishes their fourth route. Given that preview and the blood soaking the screen I was totally wondering what kind of violent past Yanagi was hiding!

As with Code: Realize's Lupin, Yanagi's route is pretty much the canon route as everything is revealed here. Everyone has something to do, and their personal stories are more or less addressed so life can go on.

Yanagi's route is also the longest. He has two extra chapters, one that takes place before the prologue, showing how he assembled his X-Day investigation team, and one additional chapter in the main story. The reason for this, is that Yanagi's storyline manages to touch on nearly all the X-Day Incidents while also giving adequate time to the romance between him and Hoshino, the truth behind X-Day, and Hoshino's relationship to Zero.

That's a lot of ground to cover, but the extra chapter gives it the room that I think Shiraishi's lacked, and it's good thing because Yanagi's romance takes a while to warm up. It's not without reason, because Yanagi and Hoshino have a shared history she blocked out due to trauma, but it didn't feel like it had the emotional payoff it should have.

When Hoshino was nine she was kidnapped and badly beaten by her kidnapper. She was rescued by a black monster covered in blood that bludgeoned a screaming man until the screaming stopped. Unsurprisingly, she locked that memory away as she grew up. This memory doesn't come up in the other routes, though in the common prologue she does realize there's something familiar with Yanagi and he comments on not wanting something to happen like the last time.

It turns out that then teenage Yanagi had tried rescuing her, failed initially, resulting in his own beating and capture, and then broke free. Afraid for his life and that of the kid next to him, Yanagi took a metal pipe and beat the kidnapper into a coma from which he never woke. He then freed Hoshino, who was scared and recoiled away from him, much to his dismay. No charges were pressed against Yanagi since the assault was ruled self-defense, but he continued to feel guilty about it as he got older.

From his route we learn that Yanagi is actually not close to anyone, and he doesn't like to be. Even though he is kind and friendly, and honestly wants to help as many people as he can, he also wants to keep any relationship professional, which is the obstacle in getting any romance to happen. He also struggles with the magnitude of what he believes in, because after nearly killing the kidnapper, he found out that he doesn't want to kill in any situation at all, which is what caused him to eventually leave the police force.

Adonis is aware of this struggle and how Yanagi's act of violence against the kidnapper places him in the same circumstance as an executor, but they also notice how he is held back by his sense of morality. I get the feeling that Adonis didn't really research him well, because Yanagi's fear of killing someone is so strong that he nearly botches a rescue attempt out of fear of misusing his gun.

That's not really something I expected to be dealing with on his route, especially since he openly carries his sidearm and until that point, seems comfortable with it. He's not like Sasazuka who refuses to carry and dislikes the fact that anyone could. In fact, one of the things I was most hoping for on his route was some dynamic team-ups with him and Hoshino kicking ass together.

It does happen once, but not at the climax, and Yanagi needs to be reassured before he'll go for it. Failure leads to a bad ending.

Since Yanagi is initially distant and reluctant to get close, the game contrives situations to throw him and Hoshino together, whether it's over her brother, helping a lost child, or just investigating the numerous December X-Day Incidents together. Because most of the executors are swapping crimes with each other, this means that his route also delves into many of the cases, at least on a superficial level, so the story can tie everything together. I am also amused by the fact that the Uno siblings are the only executors not dealt with on his route, which contributes to their status as the odd ducks who did a crime that doesn't fit the MO.

All this takes time. Yanagi doesn't fully open up to her until the second to last chapter, and even then, he needs a little help from Hoshino's coworkers. They take her out drinking and find out about her non-existent Christmas plans, but that she likes someone, so they convince her to give Yanagi a call asking him to show up at the bar.

It's funny and awkward, especially since they know who Yanagi is, having dealt with him before while he was still on the police force. And when they leave, Hoshino finally has the chance to confess her feelings to him, which is nice because rather than having her waffle over "What are these feelings I'm having?" like she does on some of the other routes, she comes out and says she loves him first.

As far as the main story goes, Hoshino eventually figures out that Zero is her coworker, Yuzuru Saeki. Given the criteria that Zero would have to fit in order to have accomplished Hoshino's kidnapping, he's the only possible culprit. He knows when she leaves work, he knows her as a person, and he works for the police.

I was a bit disappointed that Saeki wasn't able to play off Yanagi more. The two of them actually don't have much of a face-off, since Saeki's interest is almost entirely on Hoshino. While that's not bad, because she is the protagonist, there's nothing about Yanagi's storyline that really make clear that he had to be the canon route. He just happens to be, because he's the team leader and the poster boy of the game.

The thing is, his mysterious backstory was kind of cool, but dealt with in the first half, and he's not really tempted by Adonis. It's not like Sasazuka's route where you get the feeling he honestly could turn. I'm not sure why Saeki chose his group to be the one to rescue Hoshino unless it was specifically because he wanted to take advantage of Shiraishi's presence to monitor her.

Yanagi's route is still good as a story, and the plot revelations about Adonis and Zero live up to expectation. We have the guys running into Adonis headquarters like big damn heroes and Shiraishi comes clean to help everyone. I just wanted something that made Yanagi a little more critical to the plot of his own route, especially since once the romance does come out, he's terribly sweet and he's the only love interest to propose to Hoshino at the end of his story.

When we get to the finale in the church where everything started, Hoshino and Yanagi meet Saeki there and Yanagi mostly ends up being a dude in distress with Saeki shooting him in order to provoke Hoshino. The strongest relationship in the room at that moment is not Hoshino and Yanagi, but Hoshino and Saeki. She's concerned about her boyfriend, yes, but the relationship that matters, the one that's going to change the outcome of their confrontation, is the one she has with Saeki, and it's actually pretty strong.

In fact, if the player fails at shooting to disable Saeki, she accidentally ends up killing him and the weight of having done so is bad enough that she leaves Yanagi forever. Though Hoshino can't have a romantic relationship with Saeki, he is damn important to her, and the player will know this because Saeki has constantly been showing up throughout the game as a friend in her ordinary work life.

Yanagi's route does have the best ending though, because as the canon route we get to see everyone, and I mean everyone other than the Adonis members, show up at Yanagi's agency for a final hurrah. The get-together allows Collar x Malice to show off the best of its romantic comedy bits, and the ensuing fistfight with Enomoto, the invitation from Yanagi for Hoshino to stay the night, are a pleasant way to end the story.

Unfortunately, I do want to bring up that Yanagi's route suffers from the most text errors in the game. Normally I wouldn't call something like this out, but Collar x Malice is a detective game as much as an otome so inaccurate information is a headache.

This wouldn't be a problem if it was just typos or the occasional missing connector word, but at various points the text has switched around the months of two of the incidents, mentioned the wrong month entirely, scrambled the dialogue breaks so that Hoshino name appears on the bottom of the dialogue box and her actual dialogue appeared in the character name box on the next screen, and the worst one made one of the player choices nonsensical when it was the correct choice.

Just before the climax when Hoshino is drawing conclusions about Saeki's motivations and his current location, she has two options for the reason he collared her. One is because they were friends (which was my original choice) and the other is "He wanted to kill me."

Saeki does kill her through the collar in a couple endings, but that's not why he collared her. While I don't have access to the original Japanese, it's clear from the rest of the game that his goal is to have her kill him. She can't fulfill his plan for her if she's dead. Unfortunately it means that anyone who is not using a guide will probably get this choice wrong on their first playthrough because a translator mixed up who needs to kill who.

Now, there's going to be just one more post in this series. And that's because there's a lot more that I want to unpack about Saeki, who has his own route, of sorts.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Loscon 44 Schedule

I will be at Loscon again this weekend, and I'll be on a number of panels. If you happen to be at the convention, feel free to say "Hi!" I'll be there all three days, though I'm only on panels for two of them.

And an early Happy Thanksgiving to those in the US!

Panel Schedule

Science Fiction Slash Blank
25 Nov 2017, Saturday 10:00 - 11:15

Writers and Illustrators of the Future
25 Nov 2017, Saturday 16:00 - 17:15

Going From Fan To Pro
26 Nov 2017, Sunday 11:30 - 12:45

Writing & Intuition: What Happens Next?
26 Nov 2017, Sunday 14:30 - 15:45

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.