Monday, October 29, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isora's up next week!

Monday, October 22, 2018

VN Talk: 7'scarlet - Part 1: Overview

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

Platform: PS Vita
Release: 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 15, 2018

The End of Persona 5: The Animation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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