Monday, November 12, 2018

VN Talk: 7'scarlet - Part 4: Toa Kushinada

Continuing my playthrough of all the routes in 7'scarlet, I liked Toa's more than I thought I would, even though Ichiko spends the least amount of time looking for her brother due to being head over heels fascinated with her new love interest. Toa is initially presented as a shy and introverted man with nerdy hobbies. He's a clutz, but a very kind person, and on Hino and Isora's routes he's a pretty one note character, though the game drops some hints that he's probably the "civilian" identity of a huge pop star that goes by a stage name.

One of the side events on all routes is a concert being held at the local middle school by A-TO, one of the country's biggest music stars. It's a bit of a mystery why he would want to perform at a school out in the middle of nowhere, but the school is happy to have him. Given that A-TO is a ridiculously simply anagram of Toa, it wasn't hard to figure out the two are the same person, but we don't see A-TO until Toa's own route, because he's that good at hiding his other identity. As Toa, he dresses in a padded kimono that hides his figure, slouches, wears glasses, and his shaggy hair falls over his face. As A-TO he stands up straight, dresses fashionably, drops the glasses, and his hair is brushed back.

The early part of Toa's route is mostly cute stuff as Ichiko repeatedly bumps into him at bad times and eventually realizes that the shabby-looking guy who loves cats is actually a celebrity. We also get his backstory about how he grew up in Okunezato, how he created the Okune Panda mascot, and how his family's business was eventually shut down by the Murakumo family.

But despite that, the middle section of the plot doesn't feel that much different from Isora's. Most of the fourth afternoon/evening is even recycled from Isora's storyline with Hino having extra work, Sosuke missing the evening meeting, and Yuki suggesting that the group break up.

I didn't like the reduced focus on Ichiko's story much. Though I related to Toa a lot (especially how he takes off his glasses before going on stage so he can't see the audience), it bothered me that Ichiko put off the reason she came to the town in the first place because she couldn't get him out of her head. Also, Hino drops off really badly in this one, and this time there's far less of an excuse for Ichiko not to touch base with him. I know he's not the designated love interest on this route, but they're still friends who came to this town together and I feel like the other hotel staff show up more often than he does.

The last third of Toa's route is really intriguing though. It's not that it comes together as part of his story (in fact you could cut a lot of it and it wouldn't change anything), but it advances the overarching story of the town that cuts across all playthroughs. Even though most people say the local legend about the revenants is just a story, the town's vigilance committee certainly believes in it, and suspects Toa of being one.

It could have ended badly, but Sosuke intervenes and convinces them to let Toa go. Then Toa and Ichiko go back to dealing with celebrity issues (almost) as if nothing had happened. But this was a massive tease for Sosuke's role in the story and made me heavily anticipate going through his route. Obviously he's involved--deeply--with what's going on if the notoriously fanatical vigilance committee will listen to him.

And the route wraps up with the now customary attack by a man in a cat mask.

The game does something odd here, with having a cat being clearly attracted to the killer, when Toa is the only character who we know of who constantly has cats flocking to him. And I was shocked it took me so long to realize that on top of that, the killer is wearing a cat mask. I thought they might be one and the same.

But then Toa appears and defends Ichiko just like Hino and Isora did on their routes before him. I can't help wondering why the cat attraction was included and if it was a dropped plot thread, because after finishing the final route, this appears to be nothing more than a red herring with no additional significance. In most games something like this wouldn't matter, but given that 7'scarlet is a mystery, players are likely to expect a meaning behind any unusual event and in this case there isn't one.

After the cat mask killer is dealt with, Toa's route then resolves with the usual happily ever after and he and Ichiko decide that they'll try to make their relationship work, even though his job as a singer has him traveling and performing a lot. Oddly, his Normal and Good endings are almost identical, but if the player gets his Good Ending, there is one additional piece of information revealed.

Toa is also a childhood friend of Ichiko, which is the pattern I mentioned in Isora's blog entry and why I was glad that I had played Hino first. Given that Sosuke is clearly tied to the town as well and that Yuzuki is the local hotel owner, it wasn't a stretch to assume that all of the love interests are Ichiko's childhood friends (though it turns out that's not entirely true). This made Hino feel less and less remarkable the further I went in.

Needless to say, after the vigilance committee scene, I was looking forward to playing Sosuke's route next, and especially jamming over to Yuzuki's, since multiple characters on prior routes suspect he knows everything.

Monday, November 5, 2018

VN Talk: 7'scarlet - Part 3: Isora Amari

I'm glad I played Isora's route second, because his history is the start of a pattern that I only noticed once I got to Toa's route, and once that happened, Hino started to feel a little less special even though his route is otherwise pretty solid.

Isora is the chef at the Fuurin Cafe attached to the hotel Ichiko and Hino are staying at. He's also a member of the Okunezato Supernatural Club. Initially he appears to be another outsider because he says he came to the hotel to work for the summer (he goes to school in another town), but he later reveals on his route that he was born in Okunezato and had lived here until he was in middle school. Since he is a second year high school student he hasn't been away that long and he's still attuned to how the town works. In fact, he tells Ichiko that he could be a lot of help in finding her brother precisely because the town won't open up to outsiders, but as a local he won't have that problem.

Not that he turns out to be a whole lot of help in that regard. It seems Ichiko's brother kept away from the main thoroughfares and while people vaguely remember a disappearing incident, they don't remember her brother in particular.

Going into Isora's route I was worried about Hino getting arbitrarily ignored by Ichiko just because he's no longer the main love interest, which would be terribly rude considering he was the one who convinced her to come out here in the first place (and they're still friends even without the romance), but the game handles the reduction in his presence well. At first he simply has an extra afternoon of work at the hotel (where he's helping out to pay for his half of the stay), then he gets sick in what she fears is an act of food poisoning intended to kill him, and in the final leg of the plot he's just not able to be present since only Isora knows her location.

As for Isora himself… I didn't like his route much. At first it was because he didn't feel very much like a high school student to me. He felt just as mature as the rest of the cast and has no issue approaching and confidently flirting with a girl at least two years older than him. And though his route ramps up the sensation of danger every bit as much as Hino's does, it doesn't feel entirely fair because it conflates multiple potential dangers with the intention of making the player think they're related (and thus things are getting progressively worse) when in fact they're not.

On the second day of Ichiko and Hino's trip, a body turns up. This happens before route lock so the player gets this scene on every playthrough. The town's lone policeman doesn't know if it was an accident (someone fell down the mountain) or murder, so while it puts a damper on things, no one freaks out over it.

The fourth day of the trip is after the route split and so far on both Hino and Isora's routes, that's when the second body turns up after having fallen down the mountain. That's when people start getting concerned, though there is once again no proof whether it was an accident or a murder. So Yuki suggests that the Supernatural Club cease their activities until they really know what's going on. Hino convinces him to back down, at least until the police report comes in, but Isora completely flips out and even nudges Yuki (as another local) to agree with him that the town is dangerous.

It's a chilling scene, especially when Isora makes a declaration that he will protect Ichiko forever, no matter what it takes. Normally that kind of declaration is made a warm and thrilling moment for the player with romantic music that shows how much the male lead has come to feel for the protagonist, but instead we get the spooky music that plays when someone is relating a creepy story. Isora's declaration is not meant to comfort the player, and I couldn't help wondering: What does he know?

The game continues to build up suspicion against Isora. He serves some tarts to Hino, who ends up sick in the hospital the next day, and the cat Hino fed an extra tart to ends up dead. Isora is upset that people would suspect him, but he was acting strangely, and he knew Ichiko hates strawberries so she never would have eaten the tarts if Hino had offered one to her.

Then Yuki gets kidnapped. He goes to the general store to pick up supplies for the hotel, but never arrives. Naturally everyone's alarmed and Ichiko takes a chance to go looking for him, which results in her getting stabbed in the leg by a mysterious assailant in the old part of town.

When she wakes up, she finds herself in an unknown location with no windows or clocks, so she can't tell the time, but there is a bathroom and a bed. Isora is with her, having bandaged her wound, and tells her she will have to stay here until things die down outside. At first it doesn't seem too bad, but Isora is not forthcoming with what exactly is going on, and it becomes apparent that even though he says he's told everyone else that she's safe, no one ever comes to visit, something that Ichiko knows Hino would do given the chance.

Isora's creepy comments continue to pile up. It's clear that he's really getting off on looking after her and comments that if her hands had been injured instead of her leg he would be happy feeding her. To be fair, he quickly backpedals from it, realizing that he's being creepy, but it still came out. Ichiko comes to the realization that it's entirely possible that Isora attacked her specifically to put her in this situation where she's locked away from her friends and is forced to rely on him. (Yes, he locks the door from the outside when he goes, so she can't leave without him.)

If questioned about whether he really told everyone about what he's doing with her, he admits that he didn't, because he can't let anyone know about her location. He doesn't know who he can't trust at the hotel, but he quickly goes overboard and makes it clear that he won't let her leave, as he frames it for her own safety.

I was getting flashbacks to Toma from Amnesia, though thankfully Isora is not as yandere as him. But it's pretty clear that he was designed to appeal to that kind of audience. If you like messed up guys who will do anything to protect their beloved, even if it means disregarding their wishes, Isora is a tamer introduction to that character type.

And to be fair, when the cat-masked villain finally does show up, Isora beats the ever loving crap out of him. It's nice when yandere works for you rather than against you.

In the Normal Ending she thanks Isora and goes on with her life, but in the Good Ending she tells Isora that she still likes him, and wants to be with him even when he admits that he might end up locking her up again if he feels it's warranted.

Oh well.

The weird thing is that a lot of this could of been avoided if Isora had been upfront with Ichiko about why he was holding her captive in an unknown location (like he thinks the killer is at the hotel). He could have given her a clock and a calendar so she could keep track of time. He could have passed notes between her and Hino so they could each be reassured that the other was safe. He also could have like… not lied to her about why he found her so quickly after she was attacked.

But that would have taken away from the yandere and made him a more reasonable person.

Also, having played Hino's route, I knew Isora was not behind the accidents and probably not behind Yuki's kidnapping either, so he was probably a "good" guy aside from his terrible sense of protecting Ichiko.

The worst thing for me was actually Yuki's kidnapping, which ended up not tieing into anything. The only reason it "needs" to happen is to force Ichiko out of the hotel so she can later get attacked by the man in the cat mask, but the two events are completely unrelated.

The Murakumo family "kidnapped" Yuki in order to talk to him. Yuzuki Murakumo is the hotel owner, and Yuki is his employee. Yes, it's weird that the owner's family would want to talk to one of Yuzuki's employees, but Yuki was never in any danger. It's just nobody knew about the arrangement because it was something done at the last minute and they sent a car to pick him up.

Though we get the reason for this "kidnapping" in another route, it's made abundantly clear in general that the Murakumo family controls this town from the shadows, but they have no direct involvement in Isora's story aside from this incident. Even Yuzuki, as the hotel owner, barely shows after route lock.

At this point I feel like Isora's route is rather skippable, as there aren't any deep plot revelations, but it's still mandatory since everyone needs to be played through for the true ending. It makes me wonder if he was written or conceived last, out of a need to have a fifth love interest to promote, since he has the least involvement with anything.

Now that both intro routes are out of the way, Toa Kushinana is up next week.

Monday, October 29, 2018

VN Talk: 7'scarlet - Part 2: Hino Kagutsuchi

Hino and Isora are the first two romance options and Hino has a bit of an edge since he's Ichiko's childhood friend and the one who kicks off the story when he suggests they both go to Okunezato. He notices she's been depressed ever since her brother disappeared a year ago and figured she might feel better if she had to chance to investigate the place where he was last seen.

Admittedly, having Hino made the two route restriction at the start more palatable because he is unlikely to offend. He already knows Ichiko, he's supportive of her, and is an all around nice guy. If there's any reason to dislike him, it might be because he's a little too vanilla and all the qualities that make him a good default pick aren't remarkable enough to make him stand out on his own.

I picked him first because I figured he was a safe bet, and Isora ticked me off by trying to get too friendly too fast.

Hino's route is also the best introduction to the game as nearly every member of the cast makes an appearance and sticks around long enough to make an impression. His story lays out a lot of the mysteries around Ichiko and her inability to remember her past, which, though apparent on other routes, don't get nearly as much attention as they do here.

Much of the early portion of the game, prior to route lock, is hanging out with Hino as the two of them check into the hotel and get the lay of the land. Though the other love interests also make brief appearances shortly after they arrive in Okunezato, Hino is the only character who is not a stranger, and the route lock happens when Ichiko decides who to go to the local festival with.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hino's route is mostly about Ichiko, because his life revolves around her. Even though he has an incredibly hard time admitting his feelings, it's pretty clear to everyone else (except Ichiko herself) that he's has a thing for her. He wants to look after her, for her to be able to rely on him, and takes it really poorly when he fails to live up to the ideal protector he wants to be.

That's not to say that he's going around getting into fights to defend her honor, but he really wants to look out for her after having failed to do so in their childhood. As kids he convinced her to come in a "haunted house" with him only for the two of them to get caught by a serial killer. He could have pulled the trigger on a gun to save her, but Hino found himself unable to do it, and it was Ichiko's brother who showed up and grabbed the gun to shoot the guy.

The serial killer backstory feels over the top, but at this stage of my playthrough I wasn't sure if there was or was not any supernatural element to the story and I felt like there might be more to it (and there is). After the haunted house episode, Ichiko's brother warned Hino that she would attract others like that serial killer, and if Hino wanted to remain by her he would need to be able to protect her. Since then, Hino has been living in her brother's shadow, feeling like he needs to work hard to make himself worthy.

And the guy works. He goes running every morning and he's fit because he wants to be of use to her at that one moment when she needs it the most.

Also of interest is that Ichiko doesn't remember much of the serial killer event, just fuzzy details, so the game reveals it by having Hino tell it to her, and she does not take it entirely at face value, even though it's Hino giving her the story. Nothing comes of it on this route, but from the flashback memories we get at the end of the route, it's clear that both Hino and Ichiko have been to Okunezato before and Hino never reveals this. Though, to be fair, if something has been eating away at Ichiko's memory, it may well have eaten a bit of his too. (And as it turns out, this is true for both of them, and I'll get into that when I talk about the final route of the game.)

Even if Hino is keeping things from her, out of consideration or some other reason, he is still completely supportive of her. When she has a weird dream about another shrine when Okunezato supposedly only has one, he doesn't make light of her. He goes all over town with her to find it. There's only one point when he suggests she drops her quest to find her brother, and that's when it becomes increasingly clear that there is something dangerous happening in town.

If there's anything that particularly bothered me about Hino's route it's the ending. Hino's big hang-up is his failure to protect Ichiko when they were kids. Specifically, that he was unable to pull the trigger on a gun. The memory is so traumatic for him that he can't even handle carnival guns to shoot for a prize.

So of course his moment of redemption comes after Ichiko receives a creepy letter telling her to come alone in the middle of the night to a forbidden area in the mountains around town, otherwise her brother is going to die. Hino follows her there where she's confronted with a large man in a cat mask, and when Hino tries to save the day, the mysterious figure presents him with nearly the same scenario as years before. He tosses out a gun that lands by Ichiko and tells them to shoot him if they don't want him to kill her.

Hino asks Ichiko to throw him the gun and he'll shoot while the villain basically taunts Hino's sense of masculinity if he lets Ichiko shoot for him. Me being me, I'd rather Ichiko make the shot herself, and she does in the Normal Ending, but for the Good Ending she tosses the gun to Hino and he shoots. But the gun isn't loaded and a third party ends up taking out the bad guy by falling off a cliff with him. (Sadly, in the Normal Ending Hino is the one who grabs the guy and bodily pulls him over the cliff.)

While I understand that narratively Hino needed to face his demons, I would rather the gun had been tossed to him directly, rather than have the pointless back and forth between Ichiko and Hino about whether or not to give him the gun. Then it would also mirror the situation from the past instead of just being a facsimile.

We don't find out who the cat-masked man is, but to be honest, given the game's semi-linear route progression and that the story is about solving a mystery, I wasn't as bothered not knowing who he was. We get a lot of clues and questions raised, and I figured I'd learn more on the next route.

As for the ending, it's happy enough. Though Ichiko never learns exactly what happened to her brother, she comes to terms with his loss and moves on together with Hino.

I suspect that from a game design perspective that Hino's route was laid out first as there are a number of Easter eggs to be found that will only make sense after completing the hidden, final route, and most of them are exclusive to his route. After finishing the final route I knew I would want to replay Hino's and I wasn't disappointed by a second run, but I'll cover those perspectives when I get to the final part of this series.

Isora's up next week!

Monday, October 22, 2018

VN Talk: 7'scarlet - Part 1: Overview

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

Platform: PS Vita
Release: 2018

7'scarlet is an otome in which the female protagonist enters a possible romance with multiple characters, but is a little different from the standard in that playing through all the routes is a somewhat linear process. All but two of the routes are blocked off at the beginning, and the rest gradually unlock as more routes are completed. This allows the story can be told a particular way and reserves the characters who know the most about what is truly happening for later playthroughs.

I've complained about route locks in Code:Realize and Collar x Malice, but that's mostly because the routes do nothing to warrant them being locked aside from building a grand finale that can wrap up everybody's storyline in a single route. I didn't mind the locks in Hakuoki and Sweet Fuse because the locked routes took the protagonist off the beaten path and featured the perspective of characters who are villains and/or knew too much so it made sense to close them off to first-timers.

7'scarlet is closer to the latter, but done in incremental steps as we start with two routes, then a third unlocks, then a fourth, fifth, and so on.

Since I am writing this within a year of the game's English release, I figure there are people who may still be adverse to spoilers, so be aware that I will be spoiling all routes, including the overall storyline. If you're worried about spoilers, you should stop reading now.

7'scarlet follows Ichiko Hanamaki, a college student on summer break, as she heads for the small town of Okunezato to look into the disappearance of her older brother.

She goes along with her childhood friend, Hino, who is part of the Okunezato Supernatural Club, a group of online enthusiasts who are curious about the town's various mysteries (of which mysterious disappearances is one). The club is holding their first offline meeting in person in the town of their curiosity, but after Ichiko and Hino arrive, it quickly becomes apparent that there are more mysteries than the disappearance of her brother.

Though this is an otome game, the story is only partially about Ichiko, her search for her brother, or finding romance. It's also a story about a town, its turbulent history, and breaking free of the past it's been shackled with. The town may as well be a character, which is an unusual tact for a game.

The early mysteries are fairly mundane: the club admin who arranged their stay doesn't show up (though kindly enough he did prepay the bill for their get-together dinner), for some reason the hotel owner fired all but three employees a month ago (which leaves the staff incredibly short-handed even though this is a small hotel), and somebody seems to be watching Ichiko.

7'scarlet dances in between being a summer mystery to be solved among friends and a much darker thriller with a supernatural tease. You don't quite know (at first) whether the town's local legends are true or not, and the local portion of the cast is dismissive of their ancestral stories.

It makes for an interesting balance, because as you're playing, you aren't quite sure if there is anything supernatural at all, or this is just the work of a serial killer sheltered by a town that dislikes outsiders butting into their secrets. Sure there's a legend about people coming back to life as revenants who must kill others to obtain the life force that keeps their otherwise hollow bodies going, but we're not really going to see the undead in this game. Are we?

With each route, more of the truth is uncovered about Ichiko's history with the town of Okunezato, the legend of the revenants, and how she has forgotten what happened in there in years past. Though it's not amnesia, she has a problem with her long term memory, where even memories of elementary school are distant and vague to her. She knows that she and Hino have been friends for years, but she doesn't actually know that much about him.

The mysteries are what make 7'scarlet fun and more than just another otome. I wanted to figure out who the killer was before the game revealed it, and I enjoyed trying to solve mysteries before the characters themselves made the connections (and sometimes I did).

In fact the game makes good use of the fact the cast consists of modern day characters who make pop culture observations about their situation; like being in a rural town with a bunch of supernatural loving strangers is just asking for the weather to go bad and trap them in the hotel. When they find the town mascot wandering around in costume at night, Hino remarks on how creepy it would be if it turns around and there's blood all over its face. That doesn't happen (the blood part), but he thinks about it, which is perfectly in character and a fun addition to the script.

But 7'scarlet doesn't quite come together because Ichiko's goal of discovering the fate of her brother and doesn't mesh with whatever romance she finds. Her brother's been gone for a year and is considered dead, so it's understandable that she no longer feels a sense of urgency and can entertain the thought of falling in love, but every ending other than her brother's route results in her not finding him. Usually, if she gets anything at all, it's just one of his possessions along with the assumption that he was killed. It's not possible to have a well thought out romance and have Ichiko accomplish her goal of reuniting with her brother.

The two are mutually exclusive, and given the way they wrote her brother, Hanate, I'm not sure that he ever would have consented to going home with her. After playing Hanate's route, it's pretty clear that no matter which path the player takes, Hanate is both in town and aware that Ichiko has come looking for him. The fact he doesn't show himself on any route other than his own can only be construed as he doesn't want to. There is no golden route here where everyone leaves happy. In fact, Hanate's route ensures that that Toa's true ending will never happen.

In a way, I don't mind that too much, as I prefer games where one route is not so clearly the canon route. 7'scarlet actually does a really good job with this. If you look at the box art all the of the guys (save Hanate, who is held back as a surprise) are given equal prominence and in the opening videos everyone's presented in playthrough order with only a slight edge to Hino who gets to appear by himself in one of the shots when the other love interests are paired off. And that makes sense since he starts the game with Ichiko, and he's the one who convinces her to come to Okunezato.

Also worth noting, because Hino is a prominent character, the story doesn't write the player into a corner regarding Ichiko's feelings for him. She's simply blind to his crushing on her, making it feel a bit odd on some routes that she would not spend a certain amount of time with him, since they're still friends. His presence, or occasional lack thereof, is handled really well in Isora's route without making it seem like she ditched him. (I mean, who goes on vacation with a friend and then ditches said friend?) But other times it comes across as incredibly awkward, like how he's barely in Toa's and even leaves town without her.

I thought all the routes save the hidden one at the end were fairly solid, and I particularly enjoyed Hino, Sosuke, and Yuzuki's, though my appreciation for Hino's was greatly amplified by the final route.

Taken on its own it's still good, but there's a lot of additional context and a layer of tragedy to Hino's once you know the whole story. Usually I have a clear favorite route, and only feel like replaying one of them after I finish the game, but to be honest, I'd be happy replaying the majority here.

As with my previous VN Talk entries, I'll go through the routes one week at a time, in the order that I played them. Hino's route will be going up next week!

Monday, October 15, 2018

The End of Persona 5: The Animation

I was going to start a different thread this week, especially since my last post was also about Persona 5: The Animation, but I finished the series this weekend and I have thoughts. Also, my next post would have been the first in a new VN Talk series, and if you've read any of those, they're multi-part affairs as I run down every route of a visual novel. The next game in that queue ended up having eight parts due to the large number of routes and I realized that, well, that's two months' worth of posts. Persona 5 isn't going to wait that long.

I also want to get this off my chest because even though I'm going to review Persona 5 for Diabolical Plots, this is all the stuff I'm not going to be able to talk about because of spoilers for both the anime and the game. You've been warned!

(As if the post title didn't give it away.)

So I'm going to talk about Akechi. It's been a year and he's still my favorite character in the game (the little backstabber).

The anime went out of its way to introduce more scenes with him, and at first I was wondering why this was necessary. There's a lot of ground for the anime to cover, and especially as the series goes on, it becomes apparent that there are a lot of filler scenes that the series shouldn't be able to spare. (Even with the eventual ending that they went with, I still think there were a lot of extraneous scenes.)

But the scenes with Akechi aren't necessarily among them.

The cameos, sure, when he's only present for a moment or two, but when he starts helping Ren with Yusuke's side story, that's when getting him involved early begins to pay off. Ren and Akechi become an interesting duo where phantom thief and detective are working together to help someone. It's actually something that I wish had been in the game, as their game incarnations are never in the position where they're helping each other out on equal footing.

It's something that's a lot of fun in other series; two people who would otherwise never work together have to do so for the greater good.

Though we do get that when Akechi joins the team in the game, he also blackmails the Phantom Thieves into working with him, which ruins any chance of them feeling like true teammates who simply have different philosophies.

And the anime has to build Akechi this way because of how and where in the story they chose to end the series. As you likely know if you've read this far, Akechi is the traitor who turns Ren over to the police and the series ends with him apparently putting a bullet in Ren's head. Akechi isn't even the big bad on the human side, with Shido calling the shots, but Shido's presence in the story has been reduced, which makes Akechi the face of villainy as far as Persona 5: The Animation is concerned, and that's why his story had to be ramped up for as much impact as possible. If you're going to end the series with the villain walking off into the sunset that betrayal has gotta hurt.

For the most part, I think the anime does a better job of hiding that Akechi is a traitor than the game did. It's not just the fact he's more of a helpful friend, but the TV format helps a lot. One the things that I noticed in game is that after Ren is captured, his friends spend time worrying about him, but Akechi is absent in all those scenes, which struck me as odd. It looks like he disappears as soon as the casino heist is done, which is like having him wave around a flag to the rest of the Phantom Thieves saying "Hey, traitor over here!"

The anime fixes this by having Akechi clearly with the thieves as they leave, and even ties in his going to Ren's interrogation as an attempt to break him out, because he's literally the only member of their team who can get access.

Also, the weekly half hour format leaves less time for the player to be stewing over potential plot twists. Persona 5 is a 100+ hour game, and Akechi is probably with the team full time for around 10 of those. In the anime, the entire joining the team and betrayal happens in less than two hours (and in the meantime he helps with Sojiro's subplot, further cementing him as a friendly).

Akechi's betrayal also feels like less of a narrative cheat when it does happen because the show does not clearly have a narrator. We follow Ren's POV in the game, so there aren't many scenes that happen without him. Theoretically everything Ren knows that is relevant to the story is something the player knows as well, but it turns out that's not true, especially when it comes to the upcoming twist.

We know from the game that Akechi's killing of him isn't going to stick. A lot of people are posting about how the anime is going with the bad ending of the game, but it's actually not. The bad ending requires Ren to sell out his companions, which he doesn't.

The path to the other two endings involves Akechi killing a cognitive version of Ren, which is exactly what happens here, and works better in the anime without the constraints of Ren's POV.

Since Ren and the other Phantom Thieves are actually aware that Akechi is joining them under false pretenses, this entire arrest and shooting is a setup. We can see the anime supports this because Sae shows Ren's phone to Akechi, which discretely activates the Metaverse Nav to send Akechi into the cognitive world where he will kill a fake Ren without realizing he made a mistake.

This works in the anime to surprise the viewer, because we're not following a particular storyteller but it doesn't work in the game because Ren knows what's happening, but we as the player do not. And it's not like this is backstory that he wouldn't be thinking about. It's critical to saving his life.

I'm not sure if anime-only viewers were fooled by Akechi the whole way through, but I think there's a better chance than with the game players. I wish that Akechi's betrayal had been a thing I was kicking myself over not noticing rather than something I was fairly certain was going to happen.

The anime goes to the trouble of adding Akechi to the end credits after his Phantom Thief costume is revealed, but doesn't update the opening credits to match, which I think is a rare misfire in what otherwise would have been a flawless cover. Granted, it would only have been for a single episode, but still, they did an entirely new sequence for the final episode so it's not like they didn't have the budget.

A special to wrap up the series has been announced, since it's clearly not over, and if they can make it a good two hours long I think that will be enough to wrap everything for real. But now that they've built Akechi up like this, I can't help wondering if Shido is going to be that compelling given that it's been his son who's had our attention this entire time.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Thoughts on Persona 5: The Animation

Almost exactly a year ago I posted my RPG Talk entry for Persona 5. Though I enjoyed the game, I noted that the pacing was bad and the story was bloated, making my playthrough much longer than it had to be. I wasn't inclined to play the game again anytime soon.

So the best way to relive the highlights is to watch the anime, which is coming up on its final episodes.

Unlike the game, which can bloat without care for the player's time, the anime is restricted in episode count (there won't be more than 26 for a two cour show) so they have to practice some restraint.

I started catching up on it recently, and I'm still behind, but it's a much smoother ride than the game. Though it faithfully follows the same order of events, meaning that we have a regular pattern of getting new party members at the same time we get a new dungeon, it cuts out a lot of bloat by reducing most dungeons to montages of various shots with only key moments actually being animated. The new pattern is roughly three episodes involving the dungeon and the characters around it (most of the scenes being outside the dungeon itself) and then one or two episodes of filler during which the characters get to know each other and the protagonist, Ren, gets to have scenes with other Confidants who are supporting characters in the game.

The Persona 4 anime ended up implying the friendships being made between a bunch of its Social Link characters in a single "catch-up" episode (so it wouldn't have to dedicate an episode to each of them), but Persona 5 seems more intent on showing everyone as a person, so even secondary characters like Tae and Hifumi have multiple appearances in different episodes to establish them as part of the world before Ren goes diving into any personal stories.

Though I didn't think it's necessary, the show also put more focus on Akechi early, and makes it clear early on that he will get directly involved with the Phantom Thieves. I thought he showed up enough in the game that he was already important to me by the time he got heavily involved, but the newer scenes at least make his encounters with Ren in more comfortable settings than say the subway station on the way to school.

One thing I really like in Persona 5: The Animation versus the Persona 4 adaptation is that the characters are depicted using their weapons in combat. I thought it was really strange how Persona 4: The Animation more or less ended up with the characters standing around and yelling while their Personas did all the work. It oddly made it feel like watching Pokemon or Digimon, with its largely passive human trainers.

Persona 5 lets its humans get their hands dirty and actually watching the characters fight is much better than watching their Personas fight, as the Persona budget seems to have been mostly limited to a few very good-looking poses and magic attacks. I can't help feeling like the show doesn't know what to do with Makoto's Persona Johanna, which takes the form of a motorcycle that she rides. The other Personas can be safely animated hovering over someone's head, but Makoto is actually astride Johanna, which means that if she's doing something with her, like an attack, she needs to be in motion. And the result is kinda... meh. It's like the animator was obligated to have her move, but didn't want to put any more effort that they would for any other Persona that wasn't moving nearly as much.

But when it comes to the human characters, the action is good, and I don't mind that they're not constantly using their Personas. They also make a point of showing that the Personas appear from the Phantom Thieves' masks, so their masks disappear when their Personas are being used. It's something we know happens in the game from the cut scenes, but because of the size of the models, we don't really notice.

Also, the anime managed to integrate my least favorite part of the game in a very good way. I disliked Mementos for being a gigantic timesink with no main plot purpose up until the end of the game. It was a huge pain and required multiple trips over to avoid falling behind. Since the anime doesn't need to show every fight, it already had an advantage, but it also takes the trouble of introducing Mementos' mechanics, how it connects to the public consciousness, and how each level gradually unfolds with every increase in notoriety. Though the Phantom Thieves don't go there every episode, the show takes a few minutes here and there to remind the viewer that they are constantly exploring it, and that's a nice way to keep the dungeon in the minds of the viewers when they aren't actively slogging through it themselves.

I'm just over halfway through the series now, so it'll be interesting to see how it all comes together.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Changing Tabletop Game Systems

My gaming group has had a rough time with our current fantasy adventure campaign. Though we play a lot of systems to try them out, there was one campaign started about two years ago that is considered our "main" campaign, but even though we've played in it multiple times, it's been moving in fits and starts. We're older than when we first got together (two-thirds of our group started playing together at my first job out of college) and now people have kids and responsibilities. Instead of once a week, we now play once a month, and that's assuming nothing goes wrong, which it often does.

And then there are the game systems themselves.

We started our current campaign in Hackmaster (5th edition) because that's what our Dungeon Master wanted to try. He sold it to us as an updated remake of the older 1st and 2nd editions of Dungeon & Dragons with the kinks hammered out. I cut my teeth on 2nd Ed D&D. That was what I played in high school, so I was willing to give it a shot.

And though Hackmaster was a lot more granular than 2nd Ed D&D, it really did seem to capture the feel of it. I liked that everyone's stats were meant to be taken as rolled, with a few build points to do some customization afterwards. Best of all, I liked that all characters, even those with middling stats were considered playable, and they were! (Needing obnoxiously high stats just to be viable was my biggest beef with 4th Ed D&D. My 4th Ed group used a point-buy system and I went for what I considered "reasonable" stats and ended up missing with my sword more than half the time because a Str 15 on a cleric wasn't considered passing grade.)

My level 1 ranger came out of the creation system with mediocre rolls. His stats averaged a 10, and there was only one above 13. I probably could have pushed his stats up more with build points, but I spent a lot of them on non-combat skills because I love me some RP and he's based on one of my novel characters, which means that I wanted to have a lot of his personal history and skills represented in the game.

In 4th Ed, he would have been hopeless. In Hackmaster, his arrows were doing so much damage due to the penetrating dice mechanic that a car backfired in the alley next to us and we joked that was my character's shots landing.

We finished our opening adventure (which took three sessions and a hell of a lot more months), and got to level up, where we ran into a jam. It was difficult enough getting everyone to create their characters the first time around, but leveling up in Hackmaster required more effort than D&D since there are all these build points to go into feats, skills, stats, etc. I had fun with it, because I love customizing around a framework. (I dislike truly classless RPG systems, but give me classes and a ton of ways to customize them and I'm pretty happy.) But the rest of the group was not as enthusiastic.

So we changed systems, to make character maintenance easier for everyone, and we went from Hackmaster and its tons of customization to Dungeon Crawl Classics, which has zero customization, other than you can RP that you have the knowledge for something if it seems reasonable (to replace having a skill list).

There were a few problems with this transition. Our elf rogue turned into just a rogue as far as his class was concerned, because DCC is like playing original red box D&D where only humans get classes and all the other races are just elf, dwarf, and halfling. Our elf mage went with the elf class and suddenly could use swords, but our dwarf fighter was largely okay because the generic dwarf is pretty fighter-y anyway.

The biggest problem was that my character was a ranger, and that class simply did not exist in DCC, and shoehorning him into a fighter did not feel appropriate since they aren't built to be archers. So we found a couple fanmade ranger class write-ups and tried one of them.

It was terrible.

Aside from the fact that my damage sank into the toilet, I was missing, a lot. It was so bad I spent half a battle shooting and missing while we were on a boat, and it was only after the enemies got on board and I switched to a sword that I actually hit someone.

I told my DM that maybe we could further mod the class so I could get a power boost, since I was the only one suffering this badly from the transition. If my character had been this way from the beginning it would have just been a shrug and a joke, but knowing what I'd lost actually made my ranger a lot less fun to play. Frustrated, my DM decided to just chuck DCC as a bad fit.

Which brings us to our current system.

We came home to D&D, but it's now 5th Ed. This is my first time playing it, and I recreated my ranger, using the same stats from Hackmaster, and without the human racial stat boost, because my DM was afraid of what the dwarven stat boost would do to our overpowered dwarf, who decided to become a barbarian in this latest transition. (In universe the transition was pretty funny since we did it in the middle of a siege, so the dwarf went from axe and shield in chainmail to a raging dude in leather in a few minutes.)

I was skeptical this would work, given my stat pains in 4th Ed, and especially because my Hackmaster stats are below average for 5th Ed (which uses 4d6 drop lowest rather than a flat 3d6 with no rearrangement).

But I was surprised. The power I'd lost in DCC had come back. It helped that I was using the Unearthed Arcana version of the ranger (one of my group members heard it was improved over the one in the PHB and suggested I use it), which gave me advantages towards attacking first. Aside from that, 5th Ed adds a number of attack bonuses that I didn't have in the DCC version of the ranger (and bonuses I would have been hesitant to ask for). I was hitting more often than not and I was killing things again. I even had a nice AoE ranger spell that shot out thorns from where my arrow landed.

Suddenly I was something resembling a killing machine again.

We're probably going to stick to D&D from here out. Everyone knows the system to some degree, even if it's not in depth, and it seems everyone's found what they want to be. The elf rogue is now both an elf and a rogue again, and our elf wizard has settled into being an elf warlock, which he seems quite proud of. And I get to shoot things again.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Attack on Titan: Historia Choosing Her Fate

First, this post has spoilers for Attack on Titan Episode 45 "Outside the Walls of Orvud District," which aired yesterday, so if you haven't seen it yet, go watch it before coming back here, because I'm going to talk about something that happens at the end of the episode.

I've mentioned before that there were a number of changes from the manga to the story arc for Season 3 of the anime. This was mostly to punch up the pacing, but as a result, some scenes were removed entirely, resulting in lost motivations and smaller details that would have made later scenes (which were kept!) more effective.

One of those removed scenes was when Historia finds out that part of Erwin's plan is to install her as the new queen. Originally, this happens shortly after the team tortures the Interior Military Police and learns that the Reiss family is the true royal family. Once Erwin learns this, he realizes the military can use Historia to overthrow the current government, which is currently using a false king as a figurehead. With Historia, they can spin their coup as restoring power to the true royal family.

Levi, Historia's captain, receives Erwin's instructions and tells Historia that she's going to become queen. And if you know Levi, he's a bit of a jerk, and doesn't bother sugarcoating anything, so he has zero sympathy when she hesitates in the face of this understandably enormous responsibility. He get that it is a lot to take in, but he doesn't have the time, and this results in him physically grabbing and shaking her to get her to make up her mind. Though he stops short of immediately ordering her, he essentially gives her a few seconds to either get the hell out or he's going to make her queen whether she wants to or not.

Historia agrees, but it's not from a position of strength, as she's obviously rattled and looks at it as just another role to play. She's pretended to be a kind of person she wasn't before, so this is no different.

The anime initially removed this scene. Historia is not at the cabin when they learn the truth about the Reiss family because she has already been kidnapped. Thus she is in the dark about Erwin's plan to make her queen until she is eventually rescued several episodes later, and during this time, she has a fair bit of character development and finally figures out the kind of person she wants to be.

As the Survey Corps prepares to face the largest titan yet, Levi informs Historia that she is to become queen on Erwin's orders and her fellow squad members protest about forcing her into that kind of role. I was surprised to see this scene here, because Historia is now a different person at this point in the story, and Levi shaking her would undermine everything she's gone though.

Fortunately, the scene has been rewritten--for the better!

Historia meets Levi's order on her own terms and agrees to become queen, with the admonition to her squadmates that it is up to her to decide whether or not this role has been forced on her. Moreover, she places a condition on her agreement, which as manga readers can guess, it's that she will participate in the upcoming battle.

The following scene has Historia striding into the strategy room, fully geared for combat, to take her place by her squadmates, to a sweeping and inspiring theme by composer Hiroyuki Sawano, and all I really wanted to do was root for this girl. She's come a long way, and it's even better having her so proactively choose this fate for herself.

Most of Season 3 I feel like the manga did better, but this was extremely well done and the best change I've seen so far.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Escape Rooms Have a Narrative

I like escape rooms. The kind where you (and possibly your friends) are stuck in a room and have to find your way out. My first introduction was the old Crimson Room flash game, but I mostly cut my teeth on the Zero Escape series on the handheld video games systems (and now on Steam!). While I was playing solo, physical escape rooms gradually became more popular in the US to the point that there are probably over a dozen of them within 30 miles of me.

I haven't done those as much, owing to the fact that they require a group and I'm not the best organizer, but I've done three now, the most recent one being on Saturday night, which is what inspired this post.

At its most basic level, the story of an escape room is that you have to escape. But that's not enough. There should be a reason why you're trapped. A video game has plenty of room to explore this. The Zero Escape series is largely a visual novel outside of the escape room segments for this very reason. However, a physical escape room in the real world doesn't have the time to sit the players down for an elaborate story. Generally a "room" is actually 2-4 rooms in which a small team of players work their way through multiple puzzles and have somewhere between 45-60 minutes to escape.

Typically any given escape room entertainment center will have multiple rooms, each with a different theme. You might be trying to escape zombies in one, or a detective's office in another. This gives players some variety and sets the atmosphere.

It's also what provides the story.

And it's how I realized that I didn't get into my third escape room as much as I could have.

Last Saturday my friend had a birthday get-together and had never done escape rooms before so a group of us went to one where we needed to escape an insane asylum. (Completely not my choice. I don't do well with horror attractions.) When start time hit, we were led into the room and the attendant prepared to close the door behind us, which was my first instinct that something was off.

It was well and good that we were inside the room and about to start, and obviously nobody wants to be locked in an insane asylum, but what was the story? Why were we there? Why were we trapped?

We had a good time anyway. A couple of us really got into it and I now have my friend's most blood-curdling scream to treasure for years to come, but the ending was a tad anti-climatic, even though we escaped with 8 minutes to spare. The problem was that the rooms were escalating the notion that there was something very wrong about this asylum, especially with the creepy words written all over the second room and the bloody handprints in the third, but the third room consisted of a single, relatively easy puzzle with a single part which ended up giving us a key. Rather than opening up to a fourth room, it turned out to be the exit key.

And that was it. We didn't learn the fate of the crazy inmate whose room we presumably rummaging through. We don't know why there were bloody handprints. The atmosphere was just fine (hence the screaming from my friends), but I felt like something was missing.

That's when I looked back at the two previous rooms I had done and realized why I had enjoyed them more.

The first room I ever did was a haunted theater, in which we were informed that we were the new stagehands and we had been trapped backstage by a ghost. The only way to escape was to find and perform a ritual to release the ghost before time was up.

We went through the puzzles, freaked out when we found out there was a second room (being my first real world game I thought it would be literally one room), and with a minute remaining we finally had all the objects we needed, shouted the words to the ritual and shook around the various objects we'd gathered, and the game ended with seconds to spare.

It was a rousing way to end the game. We knew why we were in the escape room scenario, and we had a hell of a way to successfully end it as well. Everything we were doing was building up to a single moment, that ritual, which made for an excellent payoff when we finally performed it.

My second game similarly had a narrative opening and ending (though it was based on the Zero Escape series, so it obviously needed to tie in for the sake of the fans).

Even though an escape room largely serves as a series of puzzles for real world players, it still could use a story, and is made a lot better for it.

Monday, August 27, 2018

On Real Names

Last week, Kelly Marie Tran had an essay published in the New York Times about the harassment she experienced online for not being white. It's good. If you haven't read it, I suggest doing so do.

That is not the point of this post though. What I want to talk about is how she chooses to end her essay with the words: "My real name is Loan."

While Tran is Vietnamese rather than Chinese, it is common for people in several Asian ethnic groups to have multiple names; an eastern one in their ancestral language and a western one. Growing up, I called the latter my American name.

In my case, my American one is my legal one and the Chinese one unofficial.

For some of my friends, it's the reverse. Their Chinese (or Korean) name is the legal one and they use their American names in day-to-day conversation.

Generally, speaking, the American names are for ease of use. It really sucks repeating your name a half dozen times and listening to someone constantly butcher it as they make a valiant attempt to get it right. To me, both my names are real, regardless of which is the one that appears on a legal document.

A conversation came up on Twitter between Asian American writers about "real names" and what made a name real and how the term might not have sat well with them, because like me they have multiple real names, and it's not as though one of them is more real than the other.

But in Tran's case, without knowing her personally, I feel like the use of "real name" here is that if she had the choice, she might have wanted to be credited as Loan Tran, rather than Kelly Marie. But having an Asian name hurts more than it helps in Hollywood. Chloe Bennet is half-Chinese, half-white, and acts under a white-passing name because she could not get work under her legal name of Chloe Wang. For Tran, even if she used Kelly Marie regularly in day to day life, there probably wasn't much choice about whether she wanted to use it professionally.

I've written before about how hard it is for Asians to get entertainment work in the US. Many times they have to make a go of it in their ancestral country, and maybe if they get popular enough there, they can transition to doing work in English (like Daniel Wu). But that's not an option for everyone.

By saying that her real name is Loan, Tran wanted us to know that there was a part of her she felt she had to hide, and because of that she couldn't fully be herself. But she can now, and I hope she will. I want to see her in more films in the future.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians and Being Chinese American

I saw Crazy Rich Asians last week. I don't normally watch romantic comedies. It's just not my genre. But it's been ages since I've seen an Asian-led cast in English speaking media. (The last one I could think of was Better Luck Tomorrow, though most of the press has focused on Joy Luck Club since it was a major studio release.) Usually if I see that many Asians on screen it's because I'm watching something produced in China or Japan. But hearing most of the dialogue in English without dubbing?

That's unusual. And that's why I decided to go see the movie.

I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, since it was not as comedic as I feared. There was a fair bit of drama and I was in tears at the end, which was all good to me. I'm not sure how closely it adheres to genre convention since it's not my thing, but apparently other people enjoyed it as well, with both critics and the audience giving it a solid 93% at Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing.

On the one hand, I'm relieved, because my Twitter feed had been bouncing with buzz leading up the movie and it would have been terrible if it just face-planted on launch. But on the other, I don't know that it'll actually lead to a renaissance of Asian-led media. That requires the people who greenlight these things to regard Crazy Rich Asians as the sign of a hungry audience rather than a one time anomaly.

But I saw a few things that really worked for me.

My family immigrated to the US starting with my grandparents. I don't really speak Chinese in any functional capacity. I just know a few words here and there. And my family's dialect is Taishanese, which is not taught anywhere, so learning it in school was never an option (and as a child I really wanted to!). So when the protagonist Rachel doesn't fit in because she's a "banana" being yellow on the outside and white on the inside, I really related to that.

Most of my Chinese friends growing up were from more recently arrived immigrant families, either being born abroad themselves or born from immigrant parents. They spoke Mandarin and to them, Mandarin was synonymous with Chinese. Though my friends didn't mind that I didn't speak it, there were a lot of awkward moments of visiting their homes and getting greeted by their parents in Mandarin and being told "Oh no. Laurie doesn't speak Chinese." Which was 99% true, but if they'd greeted me in Cantonese (which is closely related to Taishanese) I would have had a vague chance at understanding a word or two.

I read that at one point a producer wanted Rachel to be played by a white woman, and thankfully that was shot down. While that would also be a fish out of water story, it would have been tonally different, because a white character wouldn't feel an obligation to belong. But an Asian one looks like she should fit even if she is unable to do so, and that's something I understand very well, as I watch the bilingual language jokes go by on social media and realize that I'm incapable of understanding them even though my heritage says I should.

Not everything was alien though, or a remainder of how I don't fit. The sound of the language (not Mandarin--given that it's Singapore it ought to have been Cantonese or Hokkien), the clicking of the mahjong tiles (the parlor scene!), and the soundtrack (wow, the soundtrack) made me feel welcome and comfortable. And I loved the mahjong parlor scene. Even though I don't entirely understand the game myself, I know enough that when the scene started I knew it was face-off time, and there's a really good article about the particulars of scene from the perspective of those who play.

Crazy Rich Asians is not going to be everything to everyone, but even if it's not, I feel like it's something I've wanted to see. I just didn't know it.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Spice & Wolf VR

I'm not entirely sure what a virtual reality anime is, but Spice & Wolf is getting one. It's one of my favorite novel series at the moment, for being a generally low key romance about a traveling merchant escorting a wolf goddess home.

There was a proper anime series a few years ago, but the adaptation stopped after the fifth book, whereas the novel series itself is over twenty volumes (and counting, even though by now Holo has gotten home).

So, the VR anime.

The visual is gorgeous and it's being written by the original author, Isuna Hasekura. But being VR, one of the things I figured is likely, is that the player would take on the role of Lawrence and interact with Holo. The reverse would be be unlikely, as would the possibility of the player interacting with both characters.

This is because Holo is the wolf goddess. She's cute and feisty, she's the face of the series, and she's on all the merchandise.

And it turned out that my original prediction was eventually confirmed.

But I think not having Lawrence does him a disservice.

Though I like Holo, I actually read the series for Lawrence. I love him as a male lead because he has very practical concerns and does a lot with what little he has. He can't fight, but somehow finds himself meeting demigods, smugglers, and soldiers, and yet every situation he gets into he (or Holo) manage to diffuse it without resorting to violence. That is, if those kinds of situations arise at all, since this is a low key series and the source of conflict is not always a grand one. Most of the time, Lawrence can solve the book's problems just by using his knowledge of the local economy. And, particularly for anime, he's not a complete idiot about romance.

Though Lawrence is a bit slow at the start, once he realizes that Holo likes him in return the series gets a lot more fun as he and Holo readily flirt with each other. Their banter, and constant trying to one-up each other, is a highlight of the series. Usually Holo wins, but Lawrence gets in his digs, and he's smart enough to realize when it's better to let something go rather than win for the sake of winning (sometimes Holo's comments bite because she's upset and hiding it). He spends a lot of the series trying to understand her and why they might not be seeing eye to eye.

Also, Lawrence has excellent life goals. After all this traveling is over he wants to settle down and open up a shop.

I find Lawrence incredibly endearing, and while he's not the sort of man one would expect to end up with a goddess, I can see why one might fall in love with him.

And that's why I'm disappointed that the VR anime is making Holo while the viewer is playing from Lawrence's perspective. It's clear that it's being made to appeal to heterosexual men, but for those of us who find Lawrence appealing as well, it's unfortunate.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Attack on Titan Season 3 Adaptation Thoughts

I've blogged about Attack on Titan multiple times before, so it should come as no surprise that I've been watching Season 3 of the anime.

This is the beginning of what fans generally refer to as "The Uprising arc" or "the political arc" and if people are going to complain about the series, this is generally the arc where they say everything goes downhill.

I liked it, but I can see why other people didn't.

For this post, I will only spoil up to the current anime episode (39), but I will be making several manga references and comparisons for events already covered.

Until this point in the story, Attack on Titan follows the pariah branch of the military, the Survey Corps (also called the Scout Regiment). Most of humanity lives behind a series of gigantic walls, to separate them from the man-eating titans on the other side. The titans can't climb the walls, so humanity (at least until the series started) was safe, and the Survey Corps consisted of the only fools crazy enough to go outside the walls and fight them.

Over the past two seasons, things got really complicated with the revelation that there are people who have come from outside the walls and they can turn into titans themselves. However, regardless of any plot developments, there was lots of titan fighting; soldiers fighting titans, titans fighting each other, and so on. The series is called Attack on Titan and there was definitely attacking and titans going on.

The Uprising arc is different. As anime viewers now know, the danger in the upcoming episodes has nothing to do with external threats, so much as internal ones. The government is now out for Eren and Historia, there's a secret royal family, and a badass squad of Military Police has been deployed to take out members of the Survey Corps.

This arc is a lot of humans fighting other humans, which is arguably not what the audience signed up for. Some people enjoyed it anyway. Other people hated the detour.

And it turns out that Hajime Isayama, who both writes and illustrates the original manga, didn't like how this arc turned out either. So he gave his blessing for the animation studio to revise it.

This is the curious part.

Rather than simply condensing the work, the anime is now juggling scenes. Both Episodes 38 and 39 pull from a total of six chapters each. For comparison, each episode of Season 2 was based on a single chapter, maybe two. And they don't pull six different chapters either, so there's a lot of overlapping. Part of Chapter 54 is in Episode 38, part of it is in Episode 39, and part of it isn't used at all (yet).

It's like someone threw the first nine chapters of the Uprising arc into a blender and just pulled the various scenes that came out. Some were rejected, some were placed into various episodes, but even if they were, they were not necessarily in the same order.

For instance, Kenny's introduction was originally after Sannes is tortured into revealing that the Reiss family is the true royal family.

The result is that the first two episodes cover a lot of ground and touch on multiple subplots, but we don't get to see anything in depth. I can see some justification for hurrying things up. In the anime world Attack on Titan is known for incredible action set pieces, and left to the original manga's pacing, we wouldn't get our first combat scene until the fourth episode at best (assuming two chapters an episode). For a primarily visual medium and to sell the series based on what has become its signature style, the anime needed to accelerate that scene to the first episode.

And it's a great fight. People like the new character Kenny, and his squad of elite Military Police certainly impress with how they take out members of the Survey Corps before they can even respond.

If the original complaint about the arc was that the pacing is too slow, that's gone now, but in its place is the fact that nothing has any depth either. The scenes are quick and they jump around a lot, following various groups of people and ever-changing locations.

Some of the characterizations suffer. Jean looks like he has a case of nerves rather than a well established aversion to killing people, and Dimo Reeves's change of heart no longer makes sense now that the story of how he helped Trost has been removed.

We have weird instances of knowledge traveling between characters with nobody actually informing the person involved. Hange bursts in on Erwin and announces that Eren and Historia have been kidnapped, without having been told that themselves. The scene occurs immediately after the kidnapping that same afternoon and I doubt Levi sent any of his squad off-camera to let Hange know because everything happened so fast.

And then we have the sleeping dart technology attached to a firearm that clearly should never have a shotgun-to-sleeping dart replaceable barrel. I might not be a gun expert, but I'm pretty sure that if you remove the barrel of a shotgun, you would not be able to add a narrower sleeping dart barrel and still have a weapon that works just fine. But the sleeping dart needed to happen to speed up Eren and Historia's capture.

None of these were issues in the original manga, but are the result of the blender approach to improving the pacing of the Uprising arc.

It's still possible that other issues I had will be addressed later in the season (there's definitely one scene that got truncated in what I thought was a meaningless fashion, to the point I think they should have removed it entirely if that's all they were going to show), but for these, the changes are in there and there's no undoing them.

I have to wonder what this is like for an anime-only viewer though. Is this too much, too fast?

At its heart, despite all the fight scenes and the increased sense of urgency, this is still a political arc that relies more on plot details than bombast. They're going to have to sit down and have a long talk at some point.

Monday, July 16, 2018

RPG Talk: Lost Dimension

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

Platform: PS Vita (though it's also on PS3 and Steam)
Release: 2015

Lost Dimension is an idea RPG, and by that I mean that it's based on a particular gameplay mechanic or gimmick to stand apart from the rest. Specifically in this case, the player and their cohort are climbing a tower to prevent the end of the world, and on each floor one of their party members turns traitor. The player needs to figure out who the traitor is and root them out before they get stabbed in the back, and the traitors are randomized each playthrough so it's not possible to use a walkthrough to identify them.

Needless to say, I wondered how this was going to work when your party is not a group of faceless mooks. Most RPGs rely on some level of interaction between characters to get through the game and if everybody other than the protagonist is potentially a traitor… how would the game balance that? Would everybody be a flimsy personality, or would it be possible to have a party that I'd genuinely care about by the time I got to the end?

There are eleven playable characters, ten aside from the protagonist, and a total of five will betray the the team by the end, which means that any given companion has roughly a 50-50 chance of being a traitor, with one exception. George is always the first traitor on the first playthrough. I don't know if this was a gameplay decision, because he also has the least developed skill tree out of the cast (for the life of me I can't figure out how his analysis is supposed to work), or because he has the least developed personality, to the point that I can best describe him as Japanese caricature of an American weeb.

Though George is a bit lacking, the rest of the cast is not, which is good because they're the highlight of the game. Each one is distinctive, with their own personality quirks and hang-ups, compounded by the fact they know there are traitors among them. They naturally have trouble trusting each other in the beginning, but bit by bit the backbiting falls away until they feel like a well-honed team.

I would have liked another female character though (the playables are 4 female to 7 male), because they do a fantastic job with the ones they have.

Himeno in particular has become one of my favorite female characters in any RPG, to the point that I feel bad that the only way I can hear her story is by constantly shoving Sho (the protagonist) in her face to bother her.

It's not just that she's as tough on the rest of the party as she is with herself, but I love her hilarious habit of trying brush off Sho with a little TMI. She recognizes that with some men, friendship is just cookies towards a sexual relationship and she isn't having any of that. By telling him things that aren't his business she intentionally makes the conversation as awkward as possible.

The premise of Lost Dimension is that a terrorist going by the name The End, has already wiped out two billion of the Earth's population with targeted strikes in large population centers. He taunts the UN and promises to nuke the rest of the world in thirteen days. In the meantime he waits inside of a mysterious and alien tower called the Pillar that appeared out of nowhere.

In response, the UN sends a team called SEALED to infiltrate the Pillar, and among the various members of SEALED are people known as the Gifted, who each have a different psychic power. However, shortly after arriving, the only members of SEALED to actually make it inside are eleven Gifted, our playable characters. Worse, they have memory loss as to how they actually got inside. None of them know each other, but they recognize they're part of the same team from their uniforms.

The central gimmick of Lost Dimension is the Room of Judgement. After a number of required fights in each stratum of the Pillar, the Room of Judgement is unlocked and the members of SEALED must vote for one of their number to be erased, otherwise the stairs up to the next floor will not appear. There is no way around it. They've tried searching for an alternate exit, but there isn't one, and their psychic abilities (pyrokinesis, teleportation, etc.) are neutralized in the Room of Judgement so they can't cheat their way out.

However, if they have to erase someone and one of their number is a traitor, it would be most convenient to erase the traitor, right? That is the reasoning provided by The End, and though they are reluctant to agree with that line of reasoning, it becomes the most logical choice.

Sho is unusual for a protagonist is that his ability is not the flashy kind. Himeno is the pyrokinetic in the group. Toya has electromagnetism. Agito is the guy who teleports.

What Sho has is precognition. It's an interesting choice, given that most stories put precogs in support functions, but Lost Dimension makes Sho's ability central to the game. At the end of each battle Sho hears echoes of his teammates' voices from a potential future. (The fun thing after having beaten the game a couple times is that I recognize the various conversations where many of the future lines come from.)

If there is a suspicious person in that group of five he can hear the discord in their thoughts. Being suspicious is not enough though. Given the fact everyone is on edge and knows there are traitors around, it's unsurprising that people would be watching their backs, so Sho has to use a deeper vision into a given suspect's mind to find out if they're the traitor. The game limits the number of times he can do this and autosaves on every use, so there's no cheating around it.

The traitor is obviously not interested in being erased, so they will be manipulating the opinions of the rest of the team as well. Being a precog, Sho can call up a prediction of how the vote would turn out if everyone voted at that very moment, so if he sees an innocent person is currently slated for erasure, the player can do something about it to sway opinions.

The game doesn't call it out, and Sho himself is not inherently a manipulative person, but what he ends up doing is socially isolating the traitor on every floor and ensuring that they're the one erased rather than one of his allies. But as I played, I began to wonder why Sho never tries talking to a traitor prior to erasing them. There's no time when everyone votes, since the giant eraser beam activates shortly after voting, but narratively he should be able to try beforehand.

George actually brings this up in his character dialogue (which means it's only accessible on a second playthrough) and though Sho doesn't directly spell it out, it's implied that the reason he doesn't speak to the traitors prior to voting, is because even if he knew the other person's motivation, it wouldn't change the fact the team has to erase someone at the end of every stratum. If he knew their reasons, it might be too hard to erase them.

This is understandable given Sho's personality. He walks a nice balance between wanting to believe in his companions and being realistic enough to know that sometimes he can't. But as a player it's frustrating, especially on a second playthrough and the answers just aren't coming.

Lost Dimension's greatest fault is the pacing of its otherwise intriguing premise, requiring at least two playthroughs to see the true ending. Worse, the first ending is the unsatisfying kind that gives no answer. Sure, Sho and his surviving band of psychics defeat The End, but even they know that there is a significant part of the story they're missing. The End claims that with their choice they've condemned billions of people to death and Sho has a strange vision of a meteor crashing into the Earth. But the world is still there. He doesn't knows what happened.

The true end is locked by two factors. The first one is that Sho must correctly erase all traitors, and second is that he must befriend all his companions. The latter is only possible across multiple playthroughs since early traitors will be erased before their storylines can be completed.

On top of that, the randomized traitors mean that the second condition for obtaining the true ending (becoming friends with everyone) is a potential gamble (*). Two playthroughs is the minimum for the best ending, but by no means a maximum.

And the second playthrough is not immediately enlightening. Other than the fact a certain mysterious child shows up earlier in second and subsequent playthroughs, and the player can pick up new research files, there's nothing new in between the start of the game and the fifth stratum on New Game+ unless the player is on the path to the true ending.

So why are people betraying the group? Once you get past the premise of Lost Dimension, finding traitors and rooting them out, that's really the question worth asking, isn't it?

It's actually a nifty idea, which is why I dislike how the execution in game was so poor, and if not for the teaser tidbits I probably would've stopped sooner.

The thing is, a long time ago all of the Gifted were ordinary kids until they were implanted with the Fate Materia, which is a set of stones that protects Earth from extinction level calamities (just roll with it). There are twelve stones and twelve Gifted. The End is the twelfth.

When a giant meteor threatened to destroy Earth, the scientists of the time built TOF, otherwise known as the Pillar, which is a sort of link between dimensions, specifically that of their Earth and a new one they replicated (without the meteor attack). The Gifted were instrumental in the creation of the new world, but because of certain qualities of the stones, not all of them could cross over to the new one, otherwise the new dimension would become a complete replica of the one with a meteor attack. To stay meteor free, six of them would have to be left behind on a world that was doomed to be destroyed in the next ten years.

Being a precog (though still a child at the time), Sho was given the task to select who would stay behind. One of them was The End. The children's memory of this was later erased.

The SEALED members who show up at the tower at the beginning of the game, confused and with partially missing memories, are from both dimensions, both the original meteor-stricken one and the newer meteor-free one. Sho is always from the meteor-free dimension, but at the beginning no one is aware that they're from two different dimensions, which is only possible because of the tower they're in.

The traitors are all from the meteor dimension, and The End enlightens them one at a time as they go up the tower, which is why they all turn on Sho at the end of the game if he has not erased them on the way up. Because the Earth was only replicated, the original dimension is still in need of saving and the traitors are willing to kill Sho to do it.

What isn't clear is how the meteor dimension can be saved by defeating Sho. In the super bad ending where Sho erases all his allies instead of the traitors, The End implies he will somehow acquire Sho's power and go back in time, but that really doesn't explain how he and the others will stop the meteor.

And it doesn't explain why everybody except the Gifted appear to exist in both worlds. Why would people create a new world that survives when theirs doesn't? It's not like "Well, at least a copy of me continues existing somewhere else" is much comfort. And why are the six Gifted left behind randomized except for The End? Their powers are always the same, so they should have the same stones inside them no matter what. Is it that multiple combinations were viable so child Sho could actually make more than one choice?

True ending was disappointing. After all that anticipation, all that build-up, it doesn't entirely make sense, and makes even less sense once Sho decides to find a way for The End to live. He essentially combines his power with The End's and somehow that allows him to teleport to the meteor dimension and literally punch out the meteor before it hits, thus sparing life in the original dimension.

At that point my brain fried. Did that really just happen?

Sho is a precog and The End's ability allows him to witness other dimensions (which is how we get the randomized traitors, any given playthrough is a different reality The End is witnessing), so how does he do any of this? We see chunks of rock falling down, reaction shots of The End and the surviving party members, and that's it. No sign of Sho. Is he dead? Did he stay in the meteor dimension? Nobody knows.

I feel like this is a game where the mechanics were made first and then they forced the story around it. It has some really nice ideas. I like people being from two different dimensions and not knowing it. I like the randomized traitor as a gameplay mechanic. The worldbuilding with the research notes was excellent. It just needed more of it, and for the story to be better thought through so it would come together in the end.

And seriously, something better than teleporting into space and punching a meteor.

(*) Gameplay Note: I don't usually mention gameplay, but walkthroughs don't cover this and I had really bad luck with randomized traitors. As a result of my many playthroughs, I can say with some confidence that traitors are not truly random. They're picked based on battle rankings at the start of each floor from the second stratum onward, so someone at the bottom who is at risk of being voted out is not going to be the traitor, even if they are a suspicious voice. Traitors will only come from the middle or top ranked characters. So if there's someone you really want to survive, use them only the bare minimum to keep them from being erased. I was able to spare two people this way (three may be pushing it). Starting with the fourth stratum up, when the final traitors are decided, you can safely put them back in your party.