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.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Violet Evergarden and the Emotionless Girl

I started watching Violet Evergarden this weekend. I'd been meaning to since it came out, but I'm not a regular Netflix subscriber so I waited until there was enough content in general for me to "binge" on for a month before unsubbing again. (I just don't watch much of what Netflix has to offer. A good binge is about 15 hours of TV and then I'm done for a year.)

Violet Evergarden is about an emotionless teenage soldier who does not know what to do with herself now that the war is over and her superior officer is no longer with her. I'm only up to the third episode so far, but it's pretty clear that he didn't survive. Normally I dislike such important information being withheld from the protagonist in the name of kindness, but in this case, even though I think it's a bad idea, I can understand why Hodgins is reluctant to tell her. The titular Violet considers herself a tool, and tells him that a tool that is no longer useful should be thrown away.

She initially thinks the major has cast her aside because she lost both of her arms, and they've been replaced with mechanical prostheses. Hodgins is probably afraid that if she knows the major is dead she will self-terminate, so he informs her that her fighting ability is no longer needed since the war has ended. He lets her know that the major asked him to look out for her, and he takes her away from the hospital and into the city.

At first, I thought that Violet was an artificial creation, not because of her arms, but because she has so many "does not compute" moments. When Hodgins takes her to the major's relatives, the Evergardens, it's with the understanding that they'll become her new parents and look after her. However it doesn't work out when Violet bluntly says that she has no need to replace parents she never had and she will not be a replacement for the Evergardens' lost son. It's not that Violet is trying to be cruel, but she literally does not understand what the point of her being in their household is.

Hodgins ends up lodging her in the attic of his business, where he gives her a job. For her it is like taking on a new assignment in the military, which she understands how to do. However, as expected, she goes about it mechanically and without breaks. Hodgins runs a private postal company and her first day she ends up delivering mail well into the evening without understanding that it's possible to leave things for the next day (and this mail wasn't supposed to be delivered until morning).

Eventually, Violet asks to be moved from the delivery room to the Auto Memory Doll department, which is a fancy word for a typist who will put together a dictated letter specifying the client's message the way they intend say it, even if it's not what they're actually able to say. Many people in Violet's world can't read or write, so they rely on the Auto Memory Doll to compose important letters that they can't send themselves.

The animation is beautiful, and the series does a fantastic job at showing how a person says something can change the meaning of their message. The Auto Memory Dolls have to read between the lines because what their client tells them isn't always what they're saying, and Violet thinks that if she becomes one, she can finally understand the last words the major ever said to her.

Unsurprisingly, Violet is terrible at this. The first time she tries a letter, her client is a wealthy young woman who has the attention of a eligible young man in her social circle, but she doesn't want him to think she's easy to get, so she wants a letter that will prompt him to do a little more to chase her. This sort of nuance is way beyond anything Violet can do, and the resulting letter tells the woman's potential beau that she's not interested and he would have to offer more.

Bit by bit Violet grows, and by the third episode she composes her first good letter, aided by the fact the "client" (actually a classmate at her Auto Memory Doll school) told Violet exactly the words that needed to be said without intending to. The important thing is that Violet was able to pick out the necessary words from the unnecessary ones, and though the letter is brief and very much like a field report, the words themselves carried the right message, so the letter works.

But, as I was watching, other things started needling me.

It became apparent from the flashback of when Violet met the major, that she is not an automaton, but an actual girl. Though the major was apparently kind to her and taught her to read and write, he also did not have a problem training her to be a soldier and taking her on the battlefield with him. There's the implication that he might not have had much choice in the matter (seeing as she was some kind of shady "gift" from his brother specifically to become a tool on the battlefield), but female soldiers seem to have been unusual since nearly everyone who meets her describes her as being "like a soldier" as though it's not possible she ever could have been one. It seems like she never should have been deployed, let alone as some sort of crazy bodyguard/aide to the major.

Also, there's the fact that the major's last words to Violet, after telling her she should live and be free, are "I love you." Violet doesn't understand what that means, and wants to become an Auto Memory Doll because she thinks if she can discover how to read other people's feelings she'll know what the major meant. (Keep in mind she's a teenager and the major is probably in his late 20s and this gets rather squicky.)

What I find most surprising, is that when Violet tells this to people (and boy does she tell just about anyone who's willing to hear her life story) nobody tries to explain it to the poor girl! They just kind of look at her sadly as if there are no words. I realize they might not be able to give her a good explanation, but nobody will even do the dictionary version. Hodgins might be reluctant, given that he's aware of her history, but Violet's new friend Luculia has no reason not to say something as simple/asinine as "It's when somebody really cares about another person."

Lastly, a thought occurred to me as I was watching. I've seen a number of stories now about emotionless girls who need to be "fixed" in some fashion, because girls are supposed to be full of emotions, right?

I wondered, how would this story have played out if Violet was a boy? If a teenage boy came home from war, damaged and unable to express emotion, would anybody be going to this length to see that he's well cared for? Or would it be assumed that because he's a boy, it's all right for him to not understand his own emotions or how to read those of others?

All the Auto Memory Dolls are women. There are no men among them.

Monday, July 2, 2018

VN Talk: Code:Realize ~Future Blessings~ - Part 5: Lupin's Gang

This is the last entry in my series of Code:Realize ~Future Blessings~ writing discussions. The previous parts can be found here. This morning I'm covering the game's sole Another Story, which is a non-romantic interlude that takes place during the original story, and I'll finish up with a quick look at Delly's Room.

Another Story

"Lupin's Gang" takes place during the shared route of ~Guardian of Rebirth~, after the airship race, but before the group goes to Isaac's laboratory. It's long enough that it would have been a distraction if it had actually been included in the original game, but as a side story after the fact it's a decent amount of fun.

There are no choices to be made though, so it's a lot of non-interactive reading and while I didn't time precisely how long it took me to get through, it's probably as long as six Code:Realize chapters, give or take, and there are no chapter breaks, which makes it for a long read.

It also has no romance, which is probably the largest strike against it having been placed in a romance game. (Especially given the length!) But if you're willing to read the characters for being themselves, without necessarily having romance involved, I think this is overall a fun addition, though it probably could have used some editing to trim it down.

In a nutshell, Cardia and friends get tangled up in mafia dealings while Lupin is doing his business of stealing back vampire treasures for Delly. We meet the Gordon family; the boss, his daughter, and one of the men, who probably would not be called mafia if this had been written by an English speaking author, since they all appear to be British.

Though they're called mafia, run around with weapons, and get into fights with other gangs, they're comedically considerate mafia who don't kill people and don't commit any crimes. Sholmès says they're really underground vigilantes. (They also apparently run an herbalism farm.)

They do have a problem with an actual mafioso though, and it turns out this guy is behind not only the Gordon family woes, but the forging of fake vampire treasure and a drug empire. For various reasons, everyone in Lupin's gang decides to help out, and Cardia is particularly happy to get to know Shirley Gordon, who becomes Cardia's first female friend.

While Shirley is fun and a type of friend that Cardia has sorely needed, she's also thirteen, which introduces some questionable stuff. For one thing, Cardia's age is never given in game prior to the discovery of her artificial creation, so her perception of her age is whatever she thinks it to be. The ages of her love interests are all in their twenties though, not counting Saint-Germain due to his immortality. From that I previously assumed that Cardia is physically in her early twenties.

However, Cardia happily declares that she considers herself and Shirley to be the same age. Maybe Cardia is a terrible judge of age (being artificial and having no true concept of how old she is), but nobody corrects her, and even thinking of her as an older teenager puts an uneasy age difference between her and her love interests. Shirley does look significantly younger than Cardia though, so there's a good chance we can write this off as Cardia being off by several years.

This odd suggestion that Cardia might physically be a teenager comes up in Finis's route as well, though not as obviously. I don't believe ~Guardian of Rebirth~ ever called the original Cardia and Finis twins, but they're considered such in ~Future Blessings~, even though Cardia looks older than Finis. Finis is quite clearly referred to as a boy in dialogue, and looks like a younger teen, while Cardia is never referred to as a child.

Being artificial creations and the originals having died in childhood before they got to the physical ages of the homunculi themselves, it's possible that Isaac simply made the Cardia and Finis we know different ages, but it's still a weird sort of rolling back of how old her appearance is supposed to be.

Aside from that, the Lupin's Gang route is pretty good about giving every love interest a moment to shine (complete with a CG), which is especially nice since the lead up to the finale involves everyone getting new costumes to blend in with the game's idea of what steampunk Victorian mafia would look like. They're so nice to look at it's a shame they're only used in this one route. Since this is pre-route lock, Cardia is a little dense when Shirley asks her if she's interested in any of the men and doesn't admit any romantic feelings towards them.

Shirley also makes a particularly amusing side comment when she realizes that Cardia is sharing a house with five unrelated men. From the outside, that does look rather unusual, and it's also funny because I don't think anyone in game has ever brought that up before. Cardia would have no reason to think the living situation is unusual, but the men don't bring it up either.

Being a side adventure that can't break canon, most of the end drama comes down to the face off between the Gordon family and the Italian gangster, Avido, and this does unfortunately take the camera off our usual protagonists for a while as all the new side story characters have it out with each other.

I think I would have been fine with it if Avido was not 1) really stupid about letting Lupin and company run around unfettered on his ship (it was mind-boggling idiocy from a guy who has the capacity to kill as easily as he breathes) and 2) he didn't come back for a second round confrontation after his initial defeat on the boat.

While it was mildly interesting having a car chase with a tank involved, it didn't really add anything to the story, and I think the most impactful moment on the part of the side story characters was Shirley deciding to take her revenge by destroying Avido's wealth rather than taking his life. And that happened back on the boat.

Everything after that was more giving her dad an excuse to grandstand and hearing Avido's sob story about how his father used to be a member of the Gordon family and how Avido's mom died of disease when he was young because his dad wouldn't resort to illegal means to get the money to save her. I don't think Avido really needed any depth added to him, because it doesn't change our perspective of him. He's still a bad guy with a horribly messed up worldview, and by having Darius Gordon deliver the final punch it feels like it takes away from Shirley, who is the one who actually grew over the course of the story.

I think I would have enjoyed Lupin's Gang more as an OVA to the anime than as part of a visual novel, because it would have been compressed more and the lack of interactivity with something this long hurt. Otherwise it was a nice way to have another adventure with the gang all together again.

Delly's Room

Delly's Room is a small series of shorts that open up with every route completed, for a total of eight parts. They seem to all take place during the shared route of ~Guardian of Rebirth~, except that apparently Cardia already knows about Van Helsing's inability to cook, which she only learned about in the epilogue for his particular route in the original game.

I can't complain too much though, because the results of his lethal cooking are used for excellent comedic effect when Delly is unwittingly left with the results of Van Helsing's baking. Cardia returns finds Delly has eaten everything and expects that he has been horribly poisoned to death, but it turns out he just ate way too much because he loves it, so much that he wants to take lessons from Van Helsing.

Cardia, Delly, and the dog Sisi are the only characters who show up in the Delly's Room segments, and Delly's love for Van Helsing's cooking is really the only thing that carries over from story to story, with the rest being vignettes of Delly happily adapting to his life with Cardia and company.

They're mostly forgettable, unless you just really like Delly, so it's odd that the Delly's Room shorts can only be unlocked by doing the larger, meatier routes. If you're going to complete everything else anyway they're not bad, but I wouldn't go out of my way to do so.

Monday, June 18, 2018

VN Talk: Code:Realize ~Future Blessings~ - Part 4: Finis

Finis's story is definitely one that would have been saved for a fan disc since it's not romantic, but it's also really good, and if you have unanswered questions left after ~Guardian of Rebirth~, this likely has the answers. Also, because this deals with the creation of Cardia and Finis, there is a lot of overlap with Lupin's ~Guardian of Rebirth~ route, but in this case it's understandable. There's no way to tell Finis's story without also going into the purpose of Code:Realize, and this time we get additional insights into the same events.

In ~Guardian of Rebirth~, we learn that Finis has been trying to get a hold of Cardia since the beginning of the game. He was the one who sent the order to have her brought from her mansion in Wales. She's a necessary keystone for enacting their father's plan, Code:Realize, which will resurrect him as a sort of machine god who intends to plunge the world into everlasting war to advance science. (War tends to push along scientific progress, so the base logic is sound, if inhumane.)

But Cardia refuses to go along with this. Because she was rescued/kidnapped by Lupin and company who treat her like a person, she's gained a sense of self and has no interest in being turned back into a doll.

As with Sholmès's route, the story picks up shortly after Cardia discovers she's an artificial creation and runs away from Saint-Germain's mansion. She returns to Wales, much like she does in Lupin's route, in a bid to learn more about herself and her past before going back to her friends, but this time when she's confronted by an angry crowd of villagers, it's not Lupin who saves her, but Finis and Twilight. Realizing that Finis has all the answers she's looking for, Cardia agrees to go with him.

Finis's story takes pains to show the parallels between Cardia and Finis as created tools for their father, except that Cardia had the benefit of being among people who loved her, and Finis spends his days enacting his father's plan and never living for anything more than his purpose. When we first meet Cardia, the only things she has on her mind are her father's last words to her. Even outside of this particular route, we already know Finis works so hard specifically for his father's approval, which is sadly an approval that will never come. Isaac views thanking Finis as the equivalent of thanking a screwdriver for doing its job.

It's not until Finis's story though that we get to see why Isaac's view of his homunculi is so dim. Considering that Isaac's first words to Cardia are out of consideration and that he named the two after his deceased children, it came as jarring that he was so callous to them during the climax of Lupin's route.

We finally get to see Isaac's pain, as he starts with Finis and tries over and over to recreate his son by implanting his memories into a homunculus, but each time the homunculus wakes and sees him as a stranger. Though the many iterations of Finis try to become the Finis of their collective memories, it only serves to shove them further into the uncanny valley and make Isaac realize that they can never be his son. This is why Isaac doesn't love Finis and never smiles at him no matter how hard he tries to please him.

Realizing that he needs to do something else if he wants to recreate his family, Isaac goes on to form his Code:Realize plans and creates Cardia (meaning that she's only Finis's older sister because that was the case for the original Cardia, or because of her physical appearance, and not because she was created first). While she is still sleeping, Isaac realizes that she will probably turn out the same as Finis when she wakes, and because of the poison in her body, he would never be able to hold her like his real daughter. So Isaac gives her those parting words from the opening of ~Guardian of Rebirth~ about how she shouldn't fall love because she is a monster and it would only cause her pain.

Since the transmutation from Horologium to Philosopher's Stone was going to take time, and it appears that Isaac knew he didn't have many years left in his life, he made plans for his resurrection, which was a nice touch. I assumed when Isaac had disappeared he had been violently killed somehow, but it looks like age and overwork just caught up with him. And given Cardia's poison build-up, it made sense that he would leave her in his old abandoned home rather than underground in Twilight's headquarters until the Horologium was sufficiently processed to be usable.

The Finis we know is one of many, each connected through a main body "computer" (for lack of a better term). They all share the same memories, and in a sense they're all interchangeable. If one dies, another takes his place.

Needless to say, this does nothing for Finis's sense of individually. More than any other route, we see Finis hurling multiple instances of himself to bodily block attacks, because "he" doesn't matter. There will always be more of him. If one is injured, he can be thrown away.

Cardia finds this horrifying, believing that each Finis by rights should be an individual life. They're more clones than remote controlled dolls.

His route plays out much like Lupin's with the attack on St. Paul's Cathedral and the Nautilus appearing over the city as Code:Realize is enacted, but eventually one of the many Finis clones becomes marked as an individual. This one is discarded and cut off from the main body as Isaac considers it an acceptable loss to get an Apostle of Idea off the Nautilus at the same time. However, this Finis survives the fall and is found by Lupin and company, allowing him to see the kind of life that Cardia had been living.

Following this particular Finis from that point on, it's possible to see him transform as a character who was an absolute pain in ~Guardian of Rebirth~ to a boy who's finally being allowed to think for himself for the first time. One of the tragic things in the original game is that we knew Isaac didn't care for Finis and would never say he loved him, even though Finis dedicated everything he had to his father. In his own route, Finis is able to grow past that and it's fitting that in the best ending, he and Cardia together take out their father.

Other things things of note:

I suspected during Victor's route that there was a new translator working on this one because his Japanese nickname "Fran" shows up once in his route and on the save files for his After Story. There's no doubt to me that the new translator was also working on Finis's route because after using Apostles of Idea all throughout ~Guardian of Rebirth~ and every other route in ~Future Blessings~ we suddenly get "Idea's Apostles" and the term is used consistently throughout Finis's route. It's essentially the same thing, and it's not a "wrong" translation, but it was annoying because its consistency in that one route broke with the consistency in all the others.

We also get introduced to a new Apostle, Hansel Hexenhaus, who is the Hansel from the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. The soul of his sister Gretel is bonded to his weapon, which is described as a "fork" but that doesn't really do it justice. That thing is more of a trident or ornate battle pitchfork, if you have to keep the "fork" part in it.

I suspect Hansel was created in order to have a different representative present for the finale. Saint-Germain is difficult to use because his character is already established (and besides, he canonically kills Finis on every route, which another Finis is unlikely to forgive without time and distance) and Guinevere is too militant. Hansel, with his brother and sister backstory, is able to be sympathetic to Cardia and Finis, as well as to justify sparing them once Isaac is dead. It's also amusing that he's off-kilter enough that Saint-Germain and Guinevere question his deployment.

Though I'm not entirely sure he was necessary, I did like getting another Apostle. Since there are only thirteen of them, they're a small enough group that they should be individuals rather than random NPC faces.

Lastly, I like that Cardia and Finis go back to Isaac's old house in Wales together and work on rebuilding it to be a proper home. After everything, there's only one Finis left now and the main body is gone, but the Finis that remains is now a real person.

Monday, June 11, 2018

VN Talk: Code:Realize ~Future Blessings~ - Part 3: Herlock Sholmès

Continuing my run through all the stories in Code Realize ~Future Blessings~, this morning I'll be posting about the first of the Extra Stories, which are storylines that could have taken place as an alternate story branch in the original Code:Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~. They each take place after the eighth chapter, shortly after Cardia has learned about her origins.

The first Extra Story I dove into was Herlock Sholmès, because I knew it was going to be a romance and I figured I'd leave the non-romance routes grouped together.

When Herlock Sholmès is first introduced in the original ~Guardian of Rebirth~ he is specifically there to be Lupin's arch-nemesis, so it made sense that he was using the expy name that Maurice Leblanc used to get around copyright. However, during the ending of Lupin's route, it's revealed that Herlock Sholmès is actually an alias that Sherlock Holmes is using post-Reichenbach Falls to continue his hunt for Moriarty (who also survived) while pretending to be dead.

So in Code:Realize, Sholmès and Holmes are canonically the same person.

Aside from the fact it's the worst cover ever (Watson even calls out the fact that Sholmès is operating a detective agency on Baker Street just down the way from his old place), we also know from Lupin's route that Jimmy Aleister, Van Helsing's nemesis, is actually James Moriarty.

In ~Guardian of Rebirth~ this was a bit of a headbanger that didn't need to come out considering that Sholmès is a side character, and it makes me wonder if he was at some point slated to be included as a sixth romance option for the original game. I think if not for Lupin getting the starring role, Holmes would have been a shoe-in for a roster consisting of 19th century fictional characters.

But let's be honest, Lupin's shenanigans are what made ~Guardian of Rebirth~ happen, and Holmes wouldn't have been the same kind of ringleader, if a ringleader at all.

His route reflects this as Sholmès is not nearly as entertaining without Lupin around. He was a perfectly good foil in ~Guardian of Rebirth~, always being one step ahead and getting under Lupin's skin like no other character could. But Sholmès by himself is a man wallowing in his past and surprisingly Lupin barely factors into his story.

Aside from that I'm a little annoyed that Van Helsing's villain for his own route is being reused, because it makes Van Helsing's own story feel like a side project. With Aleister as Moriarty, it's not unexpected that he takes a greater interest in Holmes than Helsing. Using Moriarty is a great source of tension, but it's unfortunately diminishes the meaningfulness behind his plans as a villain, since he basically wants the same thing out of Sholmès as he did Helsing. We've seen this plot before, and this could have been avoided if that connection had never been made.

Perhaps because of this, Sholmès's route is a lot like Van Helsing's in that it has little to do with Cardia and the story is mostly about him, but considering that she abandons Lupin's group I can see why her personal story drops off the agenda.

The route begins shortly after Cardia discovers that she is the 666th iteration of herself, and the first to be successful as a host for the Horologium. As in multiple other routes, she leaves Saint-German's manor in the aftermath of this discovery, feeling that she truly is a monster now that she knows she was created as a poisonous creature rather than being born as a normal human. In other routes she is eventually found by whoever her love interest is (sometimes not even making off the manor grounds), but in Sholmès's she makes it all the way to Whitechapel.

There she's attacked by Jack the Ripper (also borrowed from Van Helsing's route) and rescued by John H. Watson, who makes a dramatic appearance. Contrary to most pop culture portrayals of Watson being a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, this Watson is pretty brash, outspoken, and ever optimistic. It's a shame he's not a love interest himself as I found him much more engaging than Sholmès, but he's still in love with his wife Mary, who passed away before the route began.

Considering that Code:Realize discards a fair portion of these characters' backstories when adapting them for the game, Watson is ridiculously intact, from having lived with Holmes until he married Mary, Mary's death, and then moving back in with Holmes post-Reichenbach Falls. He's still a doctor and a former army man, and they lean into the former army man part of him more than most portrayals as this Watson comes packing heat.

It's thanks to Watson that Cardia eventually ends up on Sholmès's doorstep and though she feels bad about leaving Lupin's gang unannounced, she decides she's not ready to go back yet so she stays with Sholmès and Watson.

In a third person scene, Aleister permanently disposes of Finis after seeing a coded message in the newspaper from Sholmès, and that sets the stage for the rest of the route. Finis and his plans are out of the way, paving the way for the Holmes vs. Moriarty showdown.

The showdown itself isn't bad. There are mind games going on, and some dangers that Sholmès could not have known about, but it borrows heavily from elements previously used in Van Helsing and Victor's ~Guardian of Rebirth~ routes, specifically Van Helsing's brainwashing, Aleister's need for a companion as messed up as he is, and Cardia's poison going into overload. While it's not bad, it's doesn't do anything unique either.

It doesn't help that Aleister/Moriarty ends up killing himself to leave Sholmès with a potentially unsolvable mystery in order to save Cardia's life. Even if Aleister won, he wouldn't get to enjoy it, and it feels like the writers did this just so Sholmès would not have to kill him himself.

As for the romance, I think it had potential, but Sholmès is really hurt by the fact that he's missing eight chapters of the shared route. While he does show up a few times earlier in the original game, Cardia doesn't really bond with him. By the time his route begins, that's when the individual plot accelerates into overdrive and everything happens within a few days. That's not much time for Sholmès and Cardia to believably fall in love. Certainly they could have attraction, and Sholmès can be gallant (such as when he holds on her wrist so she doesn't fall, even though her blood is eating away at his skin), but it feels way too rushed.

Mostly, it feels like she falls in love with Sholmès because he's nice to her and doesn't treat her as a monster, which is pretty much what every love interest does. But the reason it doesn't work with him as well as the others is that she doesn't have much of a shared history with him to build that love on. The bar is set way too low, and Sholmès himself doesn't act like he has much romantic interest in her so much as he's being a compassionate human being. That's fine, but that's not enough reason to fall in love within a span of a few days.

Writing this it feels like I'm mostly griping about the plot, but it does provide an alternate reason for why Finis doesn't reappear after his death by Saint-Germain on some of the routes in ~Guardian of Rebirth~. Since Aleister knew the truth about him, presumably he could have found a reason to get rid of all the Finis clones as well as the main body, and this would allow Aleister to remain active on route like Victor's in ~Guardian of Rebirth~ where he is still around but Finis never returns.

Though there is a lot of retread, interesting things certainly happen, with the supposed death of Queen Victoria and Holmes being framed for her murder. This is the odd route where the middle is more interesting than the beginning and end since it's where all the original stuff is. It keeps things exciting even if the climax and the romance don't quite come together.

Next week I'll cover Finis.

Monday, June 4, 2018

VN Talk: Code:Realize ~Future Blessings~ - Part 2: After Stories Cont.

Sorry! Holidays always throw me off, so I missed my usual Monday post last week. This time I'm going to continue through Code Realize: ~Future Blessings~ and the last three of the After Stories. You can catch up on my thoughts regarding Victor and Van Helsing's After Stories here. As before, there are spoilers both for the ~Future Blessings~ content and the original ~Guardian of Rebirth~.

After Stories Continued

Arsene Lupin

Lupin is not route locked this time! While I liked his original route second to Victor's, I didn't find Lupin himself as compelling a love interest as Victor or Van Helsing, since most of his personality is bluster and righteousness. He's fun, but he doesn't have much depth.

His After Story picks up after Cardia and Lupin's marriage to find out that despite tying the knot, they don't have a place of their own (they're still living at Saint-Germain's) and they aren't even sharing a room like a proper married couple. This is mostly because Lupin finds it fun and romantic to sneak into her room at varying times in the middle of the night to surprise her. (If I was Cardia I probably would have yelled at him after a few days of that!)

Annoyed that Lupin is having all the fun, Cardia decides that she wants him to be as caught off balance and flustered about her as she is about him, which basically sets the route up for shenanigans as her friends try to help her. If you like the idea of Van Helsing being a total goofball because he draws entirely the wrong conclusion as to how to help a couple become closer together, this will scratch the right itch.

The first half of the route is pure silliness. Since every character's storyline was wrapped up in Lupin's original route there is no danger to speak of. Everyone is living their best life. And due to the whole Cardia and Lupin not seeing eye to eye about their romance, Lupin's route starts off feeling very similar to Van Helsing's. Eventually after enough of their friends acting out of character (and Lupin getting twinges of jealousy seeing Cardia on a "date" with Impey and Saint-Germain), the two have a talk and he admits he has a poker face because it's part and parcel for being a gentleman thief, but on the inside he's completely crazy for her and that seems to be enough for Cardia.

This initially feels like the end of the route, but there's a second half to the storyline, and this part is more interesting because it has to do with Cardia's feelings about her father, Isaac Beckford.

Since Lupin's ~Guardian of Rebirth~ route is the only one where she meets Isaac, his After Story is the only one where she can unpack what her father means to her, considering that she is not the "real" Cardia that Isaac mourned over. She wonders what kind of man he was before he became a villain, and whether he ever loved her. His earliest words in her memory are caring, and nothing at all like what he was when they finally reunited.

It also spells out what was implied in Lupin's ending, that Isaac's reason for Code:Realize wasn't just to advance civilization through endless warfare, but also to reunite with his lost family (presumably because technology would eventually advance to the point that was possible). Even if the romance in Lupin's After Story was pretty flat, the second half makes up for it with its theme of finding and cherishing family.

One thing of note though, that I found really strange, is that Cardia keeps calling Lupin by his last name even after they get married. While I understand in some places and eras a wife would call her husband by his last name in public, saving personal name usage for when they are in private, I don't think that's what the game was going for here since Cardia calls him "Lupin" all the time and he never asks her to change it. I assume this was done for the player's sense of familiarity, but it still feels weird, considering that she freely calls Impey by his first name and she's not married to him.


Saint-Germain's route was good. I really like when there's something to these After Stories besides problems adapting to a deeper relationship. Though Saint-Germain also has communication issues, his route handles them a lot better, because of his reason for not communicating. While Van Helsing and Lupin are largely being romantic dunces in regards to Cardia's feelings, Saint-Germain is a being who has been alive for thousands of years and is all too aware he should be talking to her. He's just afraid he won't like the answer.

This route introduces us to Saint-Germain's backstory. It's implied he was originally a slave who labored on the Tower of Babel and was met by an Apostle of Idea who had been the one to destroy the tower. His After Story deals with the wish he made in exchange for service to Idea (to know an ordinary happiness, since he'd had none as a slave) and his inability to die like normal men. Though his lifespan is reduced to that of an ordinary human in his ~Guardian of Rebirth~ ending, he is still very inhuman in other ways, such as his regenerative abilities. Since Cardia is not cured of her poison in his original ending, this leaves him as one of the few people who can touch her, because even if she melts him, he'll just heal.

Because of this, his After Story is flashback heavy and more about him than Cardia. It follows his induction into Idea, his vitriolic friendship with Hermes Trismegistus (a historical figure, and in Code:Realize, a fellow Apostle of Idea), and how Trismegistus's research into the Philosopher's Stone eventually led to his death at Saint-Germain's hands under orders from Idea. Cardia's Horologium is the premature incarnation of the Philosopher's Stone, so in the present day Saint-Germain plans to find Trismegistus's research in hopes it can be used for a cure, since those were the terms he and Cardia made with Idea to spare them.

It's a lovely way to dovetail his backstory into Cardia's, and Trismegistus had a limited ability to see into the future. Though it's not spelled out, Trismegistus told Saint-Germain he was doing his research to grant a friend's wish, and given what happens in the end, that Victor is able to take Trismegistus's research and complete a cure for Cardia, it's not hard to read between the lines and conclude that Trismegistus did this for Saint-Germain.

And lest Trismegistus come off as incredibly self-sacrificing just to grant Saint-Germain his wish, he also admitted he was getting tired of being immortal and dying might be nice after all these millennia.

The problem with Saint-Germain and not communicating is that while he wants to free Cardia, he's also afraid that he'll lose her. He told her back in the first game that he was the only one who could accept her touch, due to the poison, and now with her possibly losing that poison, he starts to panic thinking that maybe he won't be special to her anymore. Of course, that's not true, but it's possible to understand why he would be insecure when curing her would potentially open up her dating pool to just about anybody.

Lupin is the one to beat that notion out of Saint-Germain. It's nice because aside from taking point in Saint-Germain's original route when he left the gang, Lupin also brings up the fact that he was the one who promised to fulfill Cardia's wish to touch another person. Lupin was fine with entrusting that promise to Saint-Germain when she began to favor him, but if Saint-Germain won't do it now, Lupin will. It gets Saint-Germain to reprioritize himself and it's a nice touch seeing that Lupin is still sweet on Cardia even though she eventually chose someone else.

Though she's not fully cured by the end of the After Story (this is the only non-Lupin storyline where Victor does not get a hold of Zicterium to make his cure), she expects to be fully detoxed within a year, after which she and Saint-Germain make plans to marry.

I also liked this route for being the only one not primarily set in London, which made for a good change of pace. Cardia and Saint-Germain went traveling at the end of his route in the first game, so it's not surprising they're in France for about half his After Story.

Impey Barbicane

I left Impey for last because he was my least favorite of the original love interests, since his machismo left me cold. Fortunately, he has two things going for him in his After Story: 1) there's nobody for him to fight so he can't be obnoxious about protecting Cardia from threats she can very well handle herself, and 2) his After Story has a storyline (putting him ahead of Lupin and Van Helsing). His After Story is also the only one that is 100% relationship problem free.

We pick up with Cardia and Impey still living in Saint-Germain's mansion while he travels abroad. They're working on Impey's plan to get to the moon, but have hit a funding snag, because as it turns out, building all the tech necessary to get to the moon is expensive. With help, they manage to secure Queen Victoria's patronage in exchange for helping her make a new submersible Britain can showcase at the next World's Fair.

Victor Frankenstein plays a large part in this route as Impey's co-designer on the submersible, which he has done to get resources for a secret project he's been working on with Impey. It's not outright stated, but it's pretty clear what he got was the Zicterium needed to fashion the cure for Cardia. (Seriously, the writers leaned really hard on Victor to patch up the other non-Lupin After Stories.)

Much of the story is going from point A to point B, but the thing is, it's fun along the way. Impey is a comedic character and the group's butt monkey, and the writing isn't afraid of making fun of him at his expense. His After Story is a complete hoot, especially when he learns about all the "safety" measures the rest of the guys have left with Cardia in case Impey ever gets too randy with her (ranging from shotguns to tranquilizers to secret escape routes).

The best part is when Cardia is finally cured and Impey leans in for the obligatory kiss scene. The screen goes dark to transition to what should be the kiss CG, but instead it brightens to show a speechless Victor and Royal Guard Captain Leonhart, who just walked in. The timing was pitch perfect. (And they do get that kiss later after the embarrassed parties leave.)

Impey's After Story is capped off by a post-credits, skydiving with anti-gravity wedding between him and Cardia. Since they're planning on going to the moon together, he wanted it as high as they currently could get with the rest of the guests below them on an airship. It was sweet and after playing this route I could buy into their romance much more than I could in the original game. Cardia teases Impey just as much as anyone and I'm glad somebody got married in this game given the artwork.

Next week I'll dive into Sholmès' route!

Monday, May 21, 2018

VN Talk: Code:Realize ~Future Blessings~ - Part 1: After Stories

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

Platform: PS Vita (also on PS4 as part of Code: Realize ~Bouquet of Rainbows~)
Release: 2018

I wasn't sure what to expect with the Code:Realize ~Future Blessings~ fan disc (other than these things are definitely not discs anymore), but from what I'd read for other games, fan discs are usually semi-sequels with fluffy bits that consist of missing moments or take place post-game. Sometimes they're alternate universe stories, if the original has no room left to explore. They're basically to extend the life of the original property by letting fans revisit their favorite characters.

The original Code:Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~ is still one of my favorite otome games, for having an incredible protagonist and (mostly) compelling love interests. (Sorry, Impey.) So when Future Blessings was announced, picking it up was a no-brainer.

The way this particular fan disk is arranged, each of the main five love interests have a sequel (or "After Story"), Herlock Sholmès and Finis have their own routes called Extra Stories that could have taken place as alternate storylines in the original game, and there is also an Another Story that takes place during the original game's common route.

It should go without saying, but this series of posts will have spoilers both for the original game and the fan disc.

Since the After Stories aren't as long as the original games, I'm going to combine a number of them into two posts rather than giving them their own. Sholmès and Finis will get their own entries (being multi-chapter endeavors), and the Another Story and Delly's Room vignettes will get a separate post, for a total of five in this series.

After Stories

Victor Frankenstein

Being that Victor Frankenstein ended up being my favorite route in the original ~Guardian of Rebirth~, I dove into his story first. And I was surprised by how good it was! It not only addressed a loose plot thread I had been wondering about from a different route in the original, but it brought up and addressed extremely valid concerns about Cardia and her future.

I had complained earlier about Saint-Germain's route in the original game, and how it was odd that he was assigned to kill Cardia, but wouldn't make a move on the other routes (save Lupin's where his backstory comes out). That dangling plot thread is taken care of in Victor's Future Blessings route.

Victor's "After" route opens with him and Cardia living alone together in Saint-Germain's mansion, several months after the end of the first game. He's managed to stabilize her condition to the point she no longer needs to take any treatments to keep the Horologium dormant. Her poison production has been effectively neutralized. Victor is now back with the Royal Alchemy Society working under a reformed Queen Victoria, and he and Cardia are enjoying a sweet domestic life where she sees him off to work each day while she stays home and looks after the house. Though they aren't married, from their behavior they may as well be.

Unfortunately for them, Saint-Germain returns and brings them out to meet Idea, specifically Omnibus and Guinevere. There, Omnibus reveals that though Cardia's poison will remain dormant for Victor's remaining lifetime, as an artificial creation there's no guarantee that Cardia will not live for hundreds or even thousands of years and there is a non-zero chance that her poison will eventually return, in which case they will have to kill her.

Omnibus offers Victor a choice. His soul has the unique quality that will allow him to become an Apostle of Idea, and given his scientific skills he would be an asset to their organization. If he joins them he will become immortal, and thus be able to spend an eternity with Cardia. This way he will always be able to look after her, and make whatever changes are needed to keep her condition under control. However, the Apostles of Idea are also the stewards of humanity, and they make pinpoint course corrections to avoid extinction. Most of the time, that means assassinating their targets, some of whom have no fault other than being born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This makes for a fascinating dilemma. A love interest like Van Helsing could probably join Idea with little change to their psyche, but Victor is by far the kindest and most considerate of Cardia's potential suitors, so for him to turn into an immortal assassin is completely against his nature. And yet, if he doesn't, how can he be wholly certain that Cardia will never revert for however long she may live?

I wasn't expecting this sort of plot or soul searching in his After Story, but it made it quite engaging, especially since both options are undesireable. I doubted Victor would eventually join Idea, though I think it would make for a fascinating sequel, so the question became, how could they find a viable alternative?

Cardia initially doesn't say anything, leaving the choice up to Victor (and considering it's a weighty choice that primarily affects him, I think that's fair), but this renders her fairly passive through a good chunk of the route while Victor agonizes over his decision.

He almost decides to join Idea at one point, because he wants to guarantee Cardia's happiness, even if means destroying his own, but Saint-Germain talks him down from it, asking him to think if Cardia would really be happy with that, which brings us to this route's biggest flaw. Omnibus gives Victor three days to make up his mind, but he and Cardia spend two and a half days of it avoiding discussion about what is arguably the greatest decision of their lives. Though it's Victor's choice, if he joins Idea Cardia will be burdened with the fact he made such a sacrifice for her.

Fortunately, as the end of the third day approaches, Cardia decides to give him a piece of her mind. Her timing could be better from a rational standpoint, but from a storytelling one it's fun to see her burst into his meeting with Queen Victoria and pin Victor to the floor (yes, right in front of the queen) while letting him know that under no circumstances does she want him to join Idea.

Their heart to heart is sweet, and a reminder of why I liked Victor the most out of the original love interests. His eventual conclusion, even before Cardia busted in on him, is that a life where the two of them can't be happy together is not worth considering, so he's not going to sacrifice his future and join Idea, and they decide to come up with an alterative to the choice Omnibus offered.

And that is to find a way to ensure Cardia lives a human lifespan.

Omnibus is skeptical, but with Saint-Germain supporting them (and a cameo appearance of the rest of the cast to defend the pair), she backs down with the understanding that Victor will work to ensure Cardia has a human lifespan, even if it takes the rest of his life. Cardia tells Omnibus that if he dies before he succeeds, Idea can come for her then, but this way they can spend their life together.

The route wraps up with Cardia becoming Victor's lab assistant (since he'll be working to fix her lifespan along with his other research work, she might as well help) and the two of them informally exchange wedding vows in front of a church as a sign of their commitment to each other.

I would have liked a formal ceremony given the theme to the opening movie, but unfortunately that's about par for the course with Future Blessings. Despite the fact Lupin got married at the end of the original game, there is only one other wedding in Future Blessings, so most of the guys don't get to catch up.

Abraham Van Helsing

Van Helsing had the darkest, most angsty route of the original five, so it's probably not surprising that his After Story begins incredibly sappy, as if to make up for all the pain that was previously inflicted. I am surprised that he's not a little more randy though, considering the content of his epilogue, where he makes it clear that they need to find a way to get rid of Cardia's poison (since he's a man and he's got man needs).

For those disappointed that Van Helsing's original storyline had so little intimacy (he was the only love interest that didn't manage a kiss scene), Future Blessings kicks off quickly with him running home to meet Cardia after receiving word that Victor has cured her. Van Helsing giving a wide-eyed Cardia an open-mouthed kiss when he finds out he can touch her is the first major impression his After route makes.

Unfortunately it doesn't really escalate from there. What follows is more or less Van Helsing trying to be an indulging boyfriend to Cardia. If anything, he's a little too sweet and considerate, to the point that Cardia gets weirded out by it, but it's not a concrete "problem" that can't be solved by the two of them sitting down and having a conversation... which they don't do.

The "crisis" of his After route, such as it is, is that Cardia unintentionally pulls away when he tries to touch her after the conversation about how the change in him bothers her. Van Helsing is hurt by that, and starts avoiding her, which of course just makes everything worse as he now feels guilty over distancing himself as well as offending her in the first place. And he is bothered by the fact he doesn't know how he managed to turn her off, as in his mind he's been as attentive as possible.

Fortunately, he runs into Lupin and Impey, who make fun of him for moping around (and that's entertaining because Van Helsing usually comes off as too cool to mope), though I disagree with them that Helsing is simply blowing a lovers' quarrel out of proportion. It's not really that Cardia and Van Helsing are having an argument so much as they're having a communication failure about what they want from each other.

Both Cardia and Helsing are new at relationships. It's obviously her first and it's heavily implied that it's Helsing's as well, and prior to their disagreement the two of them were rushing towards commitment at breakneck speed.

While Helsing is getting some frank talk from his friends, Cardia also gets some from Victor, who is as kind and insightful as on his own route. Victor correctly concludes that neither Cardia nor Helsing know how to be in an relationship and in the throes of wanting to do right by the other person they're forgetting they have to look after themselves as well (a novice mistake I'm familiar with), and what Cardia has been picking up is that Helsing has been trying to put her needs waaaaay above his own as if his own don't matter, and that's what's been bothering her.

"It doesn't matter as long as my beloved is happy" sort of thing. (Which is one thing I like about Victor, both in his original route and After. He recognizes that excessively sacrificing for the other person doesn't make them happy.)

Helsing and Cardia get straightened out thanks to the help of their friends, and finally have that heart-to-heart, after which they're okay and Van Helsing asks her to marry him.

As a couple notes, Saint-Germain does not show up in this route, he's supposedly still in France, and Van Helsing's route takes place earlier than Victor's. Presumably this is why the bad news of Idea coming back to claim Cardia does not happen. Saint-Germain is probably still bargaining for her to be spared.

The route also covers other elements of Van Helsing's original ending, such as the reconciliation between humans and vampires. While it's not a cornerstone of the route, there's a lot more Delacroix than in Victor's route and Marquis Renfield (only mentioned previously) actually gets some spoken lines.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Darling in the Franxx and Becoming More Like Your Partner

One of my friends asked me when I was going to write another Darling in the Franxx post and I wasn't really planning to, except maybe at the end of the series. We're now about seven episodes until the end, but something did happen that I think is worth posting about.

This episode just aired this Saturday, so if you're wary of spoilers, stop here!

What I'd like to talk about in today's post is what's happening with Hiro.

It's very common to have inter-species relationships in fiction. Sometimes they're very different species, but usually they're between a human and a character who has a human-ish form. Also, if one of them is to cross the species barrier to become more like the other, they overwhelmingly feature the inhuman female becoming human to be with her male human love. The reverse option is rarely considered.

The Little Mermaid serves as the model for a children's tale Zero Two learned as a child. A princess of beasts falls in love with a human prince at a distance, and sees a witch to have her wings removed so she can become human and be with the man loves. However, the princess is unable to remain a human forever because that is not what she truly is, so she is given the choice to kill the prince and live, or to spare the prince and die. Like the Hans Christian Andersen mermaid, she chooses death.

Though Zero Two does not seem to be overly concerned that she is the princess of her own tale, she likewise met a human, Hiro, when they both were children. He was nice to her when everyone else treated her like a test experiment, and she recognized that they were fundamentally different. Though the series hasn't explained how Zero Two lost her scaly red skin (yet), she files down her horns to the nubs they usually are and presumably does the same with her teeth and nails.

Zero Two's driving motivation for much of the series has been to become human so she can be with her childhood darling, and she's been fighting the alien klaxosaurs because she was told that eventually if she killed enough she would become human. (I have to ask why she would believe anything the military told her, considering how she otherwise behaves around them, but I guess that's a question for another day.)

Now Zero Two and Hiro have been reunited, they remember their shared past, and something is happening to Hiro as well. The reason he's able to partner with her, and can only partner with her, is due to him having ingested her blood when they were children (he was trying to clean a scrape on her knee by licking the wound). This also has the effect of increasing his "saurification."

The series hasn't fully explained the link between humans and their klaxosaur enemies yet, but Zero is somehow a hybrid of the two and we see the results of her own saurification after she devours a few dozen more partners. Her horns grow into antlers, she has fangs and claws, and her mind is almost completely feral.

Until this Saturday's episode, Hiro looked fine, though he was briefly hospitalized. He has heavy bangs though, and in Episode 17: Eden, Zero Two brushes them back to reveal that he appears to be growing horns as well, currently small enough that they haven't broken the skin.

Zero Two seems to be saddened by the fact his fate has changed due to meeting her, but Hiro does not seem to be bothered at all. He's never been put off by her appearance (not even when she was a feral little girl with red scales), nor has he ever asked Zero Two to become human like him.

I was really afraid that this series would end with Zero Two becoming human in some fashion so she could be with Hiro (assuming she doesn't die due to the fairy tale motif), because that would be pointless when he never asked that of her. But I would be perfectly happy if Hiro continues transforming to be more like her. He didn't ask for it, but he's not doing it for her either. It just happened and he's okay with it.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Managing My Gaming Backlog

This is probably a funny post to be making in May, given that the time for New Year Resolutions was back in January, but this is more of an update to a plan I already laid down. And it seems to be working. Mostly.

Back in January I decided I was tired of looking at my gaming backlog and really wanted to make a point to play a lot of these games I was buying. I participate in the annual Reading Challenge at Goodreads, so I figured, why not make one for my games? Specifically for trying to get through titles I had been wanting to play or finish, but hadn't gotten around to.

So I made a list of five games that I wanted to finish (that I'd already started) and four that I hadn't started at all. I also made them of a variety of genres and moods (dark, light, serious, fluff). I also included a list of new games that I expected I would be buying this year, so I could tally how much was incoming versus outgoing.

After all, it's not making a dent in the backlog if I'm not finishing more than I'm buying.

So far this year I've completed five games. Two were unplanned acquisitions (being free indie titles), one was from my list of games that I expected to buy, and two were from my list of games that I hadn't started.

While the free indie games didn't help reduce my backlog, at least it wasn't me paying for something that was going to sit around unplayed.

What I found most helpful though, is the list of games I hadn't started. I've completed half of that list of four now, and I'm about to start a third game. (I probably won't do the fourth though, because that's Final Fantasy XV and the director has planned out content through 2019 so I'll probably take a rain check until he's done.) I have a lot of backlogged titles though, so I'm thinking of adding a couple more to the list.

Since I haven't gone back to any of the partially completed games there is probably a reason for that and I'm not enthusiastic about revisiting them, even though these are games that I probably would have finished if real life hadn't intervened in some way or another.

I find the list of unplayed games reminds of what I already own and had previously been excited about. Since it's pre-curated, I don't need to spend time figuring out what to play next or staring at shelves of games. Instead I can just look at the list and immediately see a few options I'm already interested in, not an overwhelming number, and pick from there.

Monday, April 30, 2018

VN Talk: Root Double: Before Crime * After Days - Part 4: √Double

√Double is the conclusion of Root Double and it's remarkable how the story manages to turn so much of what we already know on its head. It's also a ridiculously talky route that requires boring into the memories of almost every character in the game, which means it's flashback city.

This is a bit of a shame because the overall story is quite good, but it's hampered by the designers wanting to be absolutely the player got everything, to the point that they'll do two or three times the amount of flashback necessary to get the message across.

That wasn't what expected given the opening of the route. Natsuhiko and Watase don't fully trust each other, but the two of them reluctantly decide that due to Natsuhiko's condition (having sustained numerous gunshots wounds from pre-memory loss Watase) they need to work together if they're going to get out of here. Natsuhiko has the knowledge, but Watase has the mobility. I expected much of the route with be a give and take between the two as Watase gets closer to recovering his memory and Natsuhiko wants him to stay away from it.

Then the first chapter takes a nosedive when Natsuhiko meets Yuuri. As mentioned in the √Before route, Yuuri is Natsuhiko's dead childhood friend, except that it turns out she's not really dead and she's also implanted the phantom version of herself that was haunting him for nine years of his life. It was a misguided attempt to move him out of the catatonic state he was in when he first learned she was dead.

My problem with this is twofold. First is that it undoes all the emotional growth that happens at the end of √Before. The goodbye scene between the phantom Yuuri and Natsuhiko was perfect. We saw Natsuhiko grow to the point he could live without her. By bringing her back, all that growth became unnecessary, and then made everything awkward, as Natsuhiko had realized at the end of √Before how much Mashiro meant to him, only for the real Yuuri to show up and make a love triangle (which is not resolved by the end of the game!).

The second part of that I disliked is that Yuuri created the phantom thinking that would make everything better. She was eight or nine at the time, so I can understand that as a child she thought this was a good idea, but the thing is that she kept updating the phantom year after year when she saw him unconscious during his annual hospital stays. At no point did she decide this was a bad idea until the √Before route started and she realized that he was going to discover she was legally dead. If he hadn't tried to stop the terrorist attack, he probably would be seeing phantom Yuuri the rest of his life.

Given Natsuhiko's relationship to her, I'm not surprised he forgives this, but from an outsider's perspective, her nine years of screwing with his mind is horrifying. She even doctored the beautiful goodbye scene specifically to make an impact.

Fortunately, the game does upend expectations shortly after that, as Watase asks Natsuhiko directly if he had hurt him before. Natsuhiko and Yuuri certainly try to dodge the question, but by the end of √After Watase already had enough information to conclude he'd done some awful things and that he was possibly the one to shoot Natsuhiko. Once he guesses what Natsuhiko did to his memories, he asks if Natsuhiko can restore them, and then to shoot him if he tries killing him again.

The interesting revelation here is that we discover there are two sets of memories in Watase. Someone else had previously altered his memories the way Natsuhiko had done, and once Natsuhiko reverts everything properly to its original state, Watase comes back as a third personality, obviously his original one, which is the hardass that his squadmates remember, but he's no longer a psycho or as unquestioningly compassionate as his amnesiac self.

We also get his backstory, since it was the alteration of his personal history that caused him to hate telepaths to the point of justifying killing them. (Though he's always feared the idea of someone else reading his mind, original Watase wasn't inclined to kill people over it.)

The nutshell version is that Watase is a terrorist, but only as a means to an end. His sister was killed in the largest case of arson the city had ever seen. It was blamed on an extremist group, but in truth a telepath who was working with a government research group had become N-ified, which is a dangerous state that Rank S telepaths can degenerate to if they overuse Senses Sympathy, the highest level telepath ability that allows for the copying, altering, restoration, and destruction of memories (what Natsuhiko is using). The city hid the truth of the incident and built the fake nuclear facility to research telepaths in secret, and the N-ified telepath was incarcerated there.

On learning that the city's carelessness led to the N-ification of the responsible telepath and in turn the arson, Watase joined Ukita, a researcher at the facility (and currently one of the nine trapped underground), as part of the terrorist group Q. Their plan was to rescue the two currently living test subjects in the facility and then blow it sky high. They would then have the test subjects testify against the government to bring it down and end the secret testing on telepaths.

Being conscientious people, despite their terrorist affiliation, Watase and Ukita's deal with Q allowed them to choose how organize the crisis and they arranged it so that all staff would evacuate (the mysterious explosions at the start of the game) with the goal being that the facility would be completely empty when the bomb blows and no lives would be lost.

Naturally, there were complications.

Yuuri was one of the test subjects (which is why her death was faked, so she could be incarcerated), but the other, called Subject N, had already been N-ified. And the problem with N-ification is that the telepath loses their sense of self. When that happens the telepath becomes a destructive ball, flinging out malice to every unprotected mind in range. During the rescue, Subject N came into content with many minds, resulting in all the deaths discovered over the course of √After, including her own (she was an unidentified body found by the cargo elevator). She was the one responsible for rewriting Watase's memories.

I talked about pacing issues in √After and how the stakes aren't clear until the end of the first chapter. √Double is much the same way. By the time we reunite with Yuuri and get Watase's memories back, it's the end of Chapter 2 out of 7 and then the opening movie plays, because this is when the stakes are clear.

There are only two hours left until the bomb blows, it is no longer possible to use the escape route Watase originally intended, and they want to escape with all nine survivors alive.

From there, the game takes a fairly predictable route. The sane people try to stay alive and capture the people infected with malice (which turns out to be Kazami, Jun, and Ukita, the ones who all went crazy in √After) and Natsuhiko ends up diving in everyone's memories, infected or not, to either free them or confirm they're all right.

The game likes to play with how our personalities are informed by our memories, so changing those memories also changes a person's personality. For instance, it doesn't matter if Watase is innately a good person, if the memories leading up to today gave him a reason to hate. The infected characters aren't insane so much as their memories have been altered to push them to the limit where extreme actions are the only things that make sense.

By checking everyone's memories and dispelling the mental echoes of Subject N, Natsuhiko eventually gets the entire story of what happened this day.

If there's a theme to Root Double as a whole, it's communication, and how no matter how much we want to understand another person, we're unable to completely do so, even in a world with telepaths. The events of September 16, 2030 occur precisely because none of the people involved had the full picture of what was going on before they went in, and once they know each other's stories they're able to unite towards a single goal.

If Watase and his fellow conspirators had known about Subject N's condition, they probably would not have freed her. If Natsuhiko and his friends had known that Watase and Ukita's goal was to rescue test subjects and not cause a nuclear meltdown, they might not have gotten in their way. Even less immediate concerns are covered, such as how Natsuhiko would never have been as cold to his mother if he'd known the real reason she was working so many long hours away from him.

Root Double is unusual in that there is no on screen villain. Though Subject N is certainly the antagonist Natsuhiko battles over most of √Double, she's actually dead before the route even starts. Arguably the city government is the real villain, but it's an abstract one, and one that cannot be fought directly.

So the real climax is after everyone has been freed from Subject N and they have to deal with how to escape. Natsuhiko's mother has been secretly working to free Yuuri independently of the terrorists, and during the evacuation she left behind a means to override the main computer and open the bulkheads for 30 seconds, but three people need to perform it (a more extreme version of the two-man rule).

At this point the player can choose which set of three remain behind to face the explosion so the other six can escape, resulting a Normal ending. If they refuse to sacrifice anyone though (and other conditions are met), the group puts their heads together to figure out a way to escape with everyone alive.

In that event, Natsuhiko, Yuuri, and Watase stay behind while everyone else escapes through the bulkheads. The remaining three hide in the coolant exhaust pipe Watase opened in √After in a failed escape attempt, and the water cushions them from the explosion. They then escape through the water intake pipe, which wasn't possible earlier since opening it would flood the facility, but with the facility on fire and no one else left inside, this was no longer an issue.

This is when the stand-off between Watase and Natsuhiko, alluded to in the first opening movie, finally happens.

To gain Watase's cooperation at the end of Chapter 2, Yuuri agreed to go with him once they escaped, so he would have the telepath needed for Q to confront the government. Naturally Natsuhiko is against this, which results in Watase pulling a gun on him. From here, there are an additional four Good endings (this game loves its endings), which, oddly enough, never involve Yuuri leaving with Watase.

Two of them involve Natsuhiko going with Watase instead (since Watase just needs a Rank S telepath who knows the truth, and Natsuhiko will do just as well), with the variation being how much of Yuuri's memory Natsuhiko wipes out when he leaves. And there are another two where Natsuhiko chooses to wipe Watase's memory instead, with varying degrees of how much he erases, so he and Yuuri can safely escape.

That's pretty much the rub. Natsuhiko doesn't want to let his childhood friend sacrifice her future and become affiliated with a terrorist group after having been incarcerated for nine years as a test subject. Watase lost two squadmates and fellow conspirators this day and has already sacrificed his present day life just for the chance to see justice done against a corrupt government. They both have their points and it seems like there is no good way to end the stand-off without someone getting hurt.

The way I played, I did all the endings in the order of Bad -> Normal -> Good -> True because I wanted to see the progression (and knowing my mentality, once I see the True ending I'm not doing anything else), and I really didn't see any way the two could compromise, and this was after they know the whole story because of all the memory sharing. Completely knowing another person's mind doesn't mean that they'll ever agree.

In the True ending though, Natsuhiko combs through all the information he learned from everyone's memories and manages to dredge out a common thread between all the tragedies leading up this day. He paints an uglier picture of Q than Watase realized, that makes Q ultimately responsible for everything (though the government is still horrible). I found this reasoning a little shaky, since Watase already knew they weren't great people, but it's enough to convince him that he really shouldn't be working with Q anymore, which ends the stand-off and Watase turns himself in.

The epilogue covers how the telepaths involved in the incident flee, how those who remain behind fight to bring out the truth, and depending on the player's friendship with various characters, there are special character-specific epilogues for all of them (except Ukita, because he's another dude and clearly the audience only cares about the fates of the protagonists and their female companions).

Unfortunately we never learn if Q, the Rokumei City government, or the forces behind them are ever fully taken down, but everyone travels to the city park on the one year anniversary of the incident (Watase and Ukita had ridiculously shortened sentences in exchange for their cooperation in hunting Q) to reminisce with the assumption that things will be better going forward.

It's possible that tackling the larger issues and making a better life for telepaths is just too big a thing for the game to properly handle in an epilogue (and would certainly be very complicated in real life), but I think it's more likely that the creative team was more concerned about the inter-character conflict than the external reason the conflict began, so letting the player know knowing the cast is all right and moving on is enough.

There is a final game mode called Xtend Episode that is unlocked after beating the game that allows for additional scenes from the perspectives of different characters to round out a few plot holes, but they're mostly fluff. They do answer who stole the supply of AD in √After though, which never got resolved in the main game.