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.

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

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!