Monday, April 1, 2024

Half a Year Later and I Need to Rethink Radiant Tale

I usually don't spend much time thinking about a game after I'm done blogging about it. The writing itself is a way to let all my thoughts and feelings out, and even the things I didn't say usually exist in notes and excised paragraphs (since I like to keep posts to about 2000 words each). If Radiant Tale had been a one and done title my post would probably remain another mark checking off a game I had wanted to play.

But Radiant Tale Fanfare! is coming out at the end of June so I need to reckon with what I thought about the original. Fair warning, spoilers ahead.

The original Radiant Tale interested me because of the noblebright fantasy setting, but also because writers Nao Kojima and Sachi Arino were half the writing team for Code:Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~, which I consider my gold standard for the genre, and Kojima had also written part of Cafe Enchante, which I still think fondly of.

So I was buoyed by expectations for how the story would work based on their past projects, which are particularly notable for their themes around found family, where the protagonists and her various love interests support each other through thick and thin. I like when the guys who aren't currently in a romance with the protagonist get to play an active part in the story and become buddies with the other men. It avoids looking like a harem situation when everyone has a reason for being there and it's not because the protagonist turns them on.

Radiant Tale was my most anticipated title of 2024. Perhaps unfairly, I had expectations. It didn't need to be perfect, Cafe Enchante definitely had things I didn't care for (like what happened to Kotone in Misyr's route), but I did expect the highs to outweigh the lows.

And overall I think they did, which is why I'm fussing over Fanfare. It's more like there are pieces of Radiant Tale that I really like, but it doesn't come together.

For instance, the found family thing. While Radiant Tale does have a reason for everyone to be together besides the protagonist (since Tifalia joins an already established group), and they do help each other when the chips are down, it feels more like a group of coworkers than found family. If you like your coworker you'll help them out, you might drive them home if they're sick, or do other things that are regular acts of kindness. But that doesn't mean you're both going bowling on Friday night.

And that's kind of what Radiant Tale gives us. After the halfway point when CIRCUS is finishing their first tour, they even expect to go their separate ways, never to reconvene again, and there's little to suggest their attitude changes after the actual end of the game. They send a few letters, but the band is not together nor planning to get together (barring Vilio's ending since he has the golden route that solves everyone's problems and caps it off with him and Tifalia getting married months later during one of their performances).

They're not a bad group of characters, I can't say anyone bored me, but they aren't as tight knit as I originally expected them to be. And to be frank Ion's good ending pissed me off with his possessiveness of Tifalia where he didn't want her spending as much time thinking about his friends as thinking about him (and I had liked him up until that point). Jealousy just ruins the found family dynamic when the intention is to restrict one family member from seeing the others.

And it's not just that. I disliked Paschalia's route because everyone in CIRCUS made potentially invasive plans to save Paschalia's life without running any of it by Paschalia himself. As someone who has survived two different cancers I was so mortified for the guy. I'd like to think if they really cared they would have let him decide the way he wanted to approach his illness; present the options but not push. A family should be supportive, rather than deciding support.

And then there was general plot stuff like the scripting at the scene of Balto's murder, Vilio's half-assed common route, what exactly were the circumstances around Radie's amnesia, etc.

I'm not here to nitpick individual instances, since most of this can be found in my 6-part VN Talk series, but the thing is my opinions of a game can change with time and perspective. I left Radiant Tale feeling that it was the weakest sibling of Code:Realize and Cafe Enchante, but would still probably make my Top 10 list of otome. I wanted to feel like I had enjoyed it. Now… I'm not so certain.

And with Fanfare coming stateside this summer, I need to figure out whether I'm going to get it. It used to be I'd clear my gaming schedule for a Code:Realize fan disc (what you'd probably call a stand alone expansion in another genre), and I would have done so for Cafe Enchante if it'd had one, but with Radiant Tale it's not that I hate the original, so much as I find myself disappointed.

I was listening to the even if Tempest soundtrack while working on my blog posts for it and it got me pumped, remembering some of my favorite parts of the game. Cafe Enchante's soundtrack was more hit or miss, but still there were very good tracks that reminded me of the best moments of the game. When I played Radiant Tale though, I just felt… bored. I like the opening song "Michi no Sekai e Fanfare," but none of the instrumental tracks sparked anything in me unless they used "Michi no Sekai e Fanfare" as a leitmotif. While that could be a fault of the composition, it also means that scenes never felt powerful enough to connect with the music.

I can't point to any one thing as a key factor that let me down, but in general I suppose it's more the sense that the package did not come together in a greater whole, and I'm not entirely sure if that's me and my outsized expectations or the game itself. I suspect that if I hadn't known the writing pedigree my expectations would have been lower, but I would likely have complained about the same things.

For perspective, I think Cafe Enchante, despite its problems, ultimately sits comfortably in my Top 5 otome because I felt the game came together well enough to overlook the flaws. Radiant Tale didn't have the magic to keep it together.

It wasn't all bad. Lack of a found family dynamic (and spotty plotting) aside, I liked Zafora and Vilio's story arcs. I liked the worldbuilding and how old tales used as parts of CIRCUS's performances later became critical lore for the final route. But I did dislike the ending to Paschalia and Radie's routes, and the jealousy line in Ion's. When I put it that way, I suppose I liked "half" the game, and I'm not sure that's enough to enjoy a fan disc, especially when there will be After Stories for the endings I didn't enjoy as much.

A fan disc is generally full of low stakes post-game epilogues and side stories so there's less of a chance the game will trip over itself with continuity errors or questionable plotting. The worst case is that it could be boring. And when it comes to it, I might not be interested in seeing what happens next. I could be proven wrong. I didn't like Impey's route in the original Code:Realize, but he won me over in the fan discs, so there's hope.

After writing all this, I think my conclusion is that I'm still interested, there are aspects of the game I'd like to revisit, but I'll wait for a sale. Which likely means I won't be covering it on my blog any time soon, but I've got plenty of backlog so I'm not hurting for material.

Monday, March 25, 2024

X-Men '97: Morph is Back!

I watched the 90s X-Men: The Animated Series back when I was in school with no knowledge of the comic books. While I haven't rewatched it so I can't vouch for how it has aged, I remember that at the time I really enjoyed it for having one of the few things animated television had at the time; an ongoing storyline. As it turns out, many of those story arcs were adapted from the comics, and eventually formed the basis by which I would judge every X-Men adaptation to follow. Also, as it turns out, the character I most fell in love with, was largely made up specifically for the animated series.

More specifically, since it was his job to get killed off in the first two-parter, they reinvented an old Marvel character who wasn't being used anymore and gave him the new code name Morph.

Yes, I managed to fall in love with a character who died in the first two episodes. I was really into shapeshifters so Morph naturally played into the character type I'd root for the most.

The show was still interesting enough though, so I kept watching. And then season 2 happened, and Morph returned as a mind-controlled antagonist. He later got freed from mind-control, but was still mentally messed up. And so going forward generally each season would have a Morph episode I'd look forward to as he dealt with his trauma, and then he'd be gone until the next one. I really liked those check-ins, even though by the final season I knew that a large part of the reason he was kept on the sidelines was likely that he didn't have a comic book equivalent that took part in many of the story arcs they were adapting.

Still, he was included in the send-off of Charles Xavier in the series finale, which made me happy to see that he was still considered in-universe as a core part of the X-Men.

Now, getting close to 30 years later, we have X-Men '97 which rather than reboot the series simply picks up where the original left off. Xavier is gone and the world entrusted to those left behind. (Though I notice they leave it as the Professor has passed away and not that he sailed away in a starship with his alien princess girlfriend as a way to try to preserve his life.)

I figured I would watch it at some point, since it looks like the animation team did an excellent job of recreating the feel of the 90s cartoon as we remembered it rather than what it actually looked like. The side by side opening comparisons on YouTube are a little unfair as the original opening was incredibly good and when you look at actual episode footage from the older show you can see it's much flatter than the new work by Studio Mir, best known for the Avatar series and the Voltron remake.

X-Men '97 was going to remain in the "at some point" like a lot of things in my viewing backlog, except that I did watch one of those opening comparison videos and noticed that there were two additions to the cast. The original X-Men, perhaps realizing they were dealing with a large cast of characters and an audience who are probably unfamiliar with most of them, had a neat opening sequence that would showcase a character (and their powers if possible) along with their name. This allowed viewers to gradually pick up everyone's names over time.

Morph, as I later realized, was not in this line-up, since he was introduced with the intention of being killed off, but since everyone was new to me, it was hard to recognize that his name was not among the deluge before he died.

But he is in the opening of X-Men '97. (And Bishop. Which I have a slightly harder time accepting for story reasons, but don't want to get into here.)

The new opening credits first show Morph as how we knew him back in the older series, before turning him into a blank slate looking humanoid rather like a doppelganger from Dungeons & Dragons, which has been a "I'm a shapeshifting creature with no actual identity" marker in other media before, so while I missed the more human look, I wasn't thrown by it.

It also looks like Morph is now non-binary. Not a problem, since being a shapeshifter able to assume either gender likely makes gender irrelevant, but it was a little jarring that I found out through the informational boxes played during the ending credits and not from natural dialogue (so far as I noticed).

I felt a little like Morph's long journey out of PTSD and back into the land of ready for action was glossed over, though I vaguely remember their return to the manor in the original series was also rather abrupt so this might not entirely be X-Men '97's fault.

Because Morph was introduced and killed off so quickly, in a way, X-Men '97 is the first time we're really seeing them when they're not dealing with trauma, and I'm not entirely sure they would have been my favorite now if I was a kid watching this for the first time. They're a little weird and a little inappropriate with their humor, but it's nice that having them alive gives Wolverine a buddy. The two were supposed to be good friends in the original, so failing to save and actually saving Morph were big character moments for Wolverine, but it was something that was said rather than told.

X-Men '97 makes sure Morph and Wolverine hang out and get to be the buddies they're supposed to be. Which is great.

But watching the two launch episodes also gives me another reason to understand why Morph was likely left to "recover" for the majority of the series. Now that they're part of the active team again, it's pretty obvious that Morph isn't that great at combat in a series where the majority of the showcase mutants are living weapons.

There are moments where they get to use their shapeshifting to great effect, turning into the mutant Archangel in order to fly, and others where it seems a little more forced. Basically, to make Morph combat-worthy, the writer uses them as a source of Easter eggs mimicking various characters from the old show, often giving them their powers as well. While this makes sense for Archangel, who has wings, it was stretching my disbelief a bit to see Morph turn into Psylocke and use her psychic blades, since this implies it's not just a physical mimicry but one that goes all the way down to the genetic level. At that point, what's stopping Morph from shifting into a double of Magneto and using all the power of magnetism?

(This actually reminds me of one of the old Morph episodes when Wolverine tries to hunt them down and a mentally unstable Morph turns into a rhinoceros while fighting him. Once the shapeshifting stretched beyond humanoid forms, one of my friends called bull on the writing.)

Still, I'm glad Morph's integration into the cast gave me the impetus to watch X-Men '97 since it was an enjoyable return to memory lane and I look forward to seeing what the rest of the series has for the season. I know there are a lot more characters than room to give all of them story arcs (hence retaining an updated version of the opening credits that lists all the key players in the cast and seems to be updated with every episode), but I hope Morph gets a bit of a spotlight for themselves. I feel like we still have a lot of catching up to do.

And also, I just really want to see Morph on an infiltration mission of some kind. That's what shapeshifters do best!

(Next Day Addendum: I ended up watching the 72 episodes in 35 minutes recap over on Screen Crush which does an amazing job of touching on every single episode of the original X-Men and I'd completely forgotten Morph had shapeshifted to use other mutants' powers in the past, and that they pretty much solo-ed Master Mold in one of their return episodes, so I take back that they would have been baggage for lack of combat ability. Now it's more of a question of why wouldn't you throw them at every enemy you've got?)

Monday, March 11, 2024

even if Tempest is a Fabulous Mystery Game

I love mystery games, as you may have noticed if you've spent any time reading here. My introduction to visual novels was the Ace Attorney series and since then I've enjoyed titles such as Danganronpa, Raging Loop, and Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happinesss. I also enjoyed Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, which if it hadn't been in 3D may as well have been a visual novel. Getting to the bottom of a crime-laden mystery is something I enjoy.

But when I heard that even if Tempest had trials where you use evidence to ferret out the culprit, I assumed it would be a half-baked mechanic, mostly because it's otome. Perhaps that's an unfair assessment, that media aimed at women would phone it in, but most otome games that come to the US are visual novels and if there is any gameplay beyond making choices, it's a relatively easy activity so the player doesn't get frustrated when the main point of the game is playing out a romance.

Both Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly and Collar x Malice require the player to shoot a gun sometimes, but one is extremely forgiving and the other is more of a matter of having good timing than good aim. As someone with notoriously bad shooter skills, those examples were not a downside for me, but being a mystery lover, a half-assed murder trial would garner a sigh of boredom at best and ruin my immersion at worst.

I needn't have worried.

After I finished my first high tension witch trial, during which I was afraid I'd screwed up so badly my protagonist Anastasia was going to be burned at the stake, I was actually discombobulated to come to the next scene and be greeted by Anastasia's love interest. In the midst of all the investigation, sussing people out, and going through my evidence list at the trial itself I'd somehow forgotten which genre of game I was playing.

After the initial surprise, I realized that this is a game that feels particularly geared towards me. I like Anastasia as a heroine. She's willing to do the years of hard work to forge herself into the person she wants to be. She plans ahead. She knows the object of her revenge and how to expose him, and she is willing to do whatever it takes to save the person closest to being family that she has.

So when Anastasia needs to bring down the Witch of Ruin as part of the bargain for her friend's life and her revenge, she barrels into the witch trial like hell on wheels.

Which is to say, she's a lot more action oriented than most otome protagonists, and clearly takes the lead in the investigations, even if her current man is tagging along. This makes her work well as the protagonist for a mystery game and she's just as motivated as the player to get these murders solved.

And from a game mechanics perspective, I was pleasantly surprised. Unlike Ace Attorney and Danganronpa, which also allow the player to visit a variety of locations, there is a limited amount of time to hunt down clues, which prevents the player from starting the trial with a full suite of information. You have a set of suspects marked by the Witch of Ruin, but only one of them has been turned into the witch's plaything, and I was given 11 hours until the trial began (appropriately at midnight). Each avenue of investigation had a time cost associated with it, so I wouldn't be able to follow all of them before the trial began, which as a mystery game veteran was rather unsettling.

It's okay to proceed without all the clues? I can't have all the clues? What madness is this?

And then the trial itself isn't really about establishing evidence or pointing out the flaws in another person's logic, though that can help. The witch trial is decided in the court of public opinion so even if you're completely correct, it won't mean anything if Anastasia is pissing off the 300 jurors so much that they're unwilling to believe her.

Though I don't think the trials are as freeform as they initially appear, I found I loved the format. Knowing that the right answer might not actually exist in my evidence because I didn't do that investigation added an edge to the presentation, and presenting the wrong answer usually doesn't result in the player being thrown back to the evidence list until they find the right answer. Instead, most of the time the game will acknowledge you chose poorly and the trial will move on, with failure being the result of multiple decisions over the course of the trial rather than a failing to present an obscure piece of evidence five times in a row at a single point in time. (I do like Ace Attorney but I don't like feeling obligated to save right before presenting evidence because I don't know which item out of twenty is the one I need.)

The trial even has decision points where you can choose to focus the debate around a particular person, and there is more than one option that will satisfactorily end the trial with the correct culprit being identified. As long as Anastasia does enough to shift the blame where she wants it to go (because it's court of public opinion), it's a win.

There are only two things that bothered me. The first is that when the game transitions to the evidence list, it doesn't let you back up and read the last line of dialogue regarding what you are trying to prove or disprove. Since most of the time the penalty is just a reputation hit and the trial moves on, it's not horrible, but being able to read the last line of dialogue lets you compare the evidence to what was just said and that's not possible here. Most other games with a trial system will let you do this. Worse, on the rare occasion you really have to pick a specific piece of evidence before the game will move on, you might find yourself stabbing in the dark for your second or third picks because you can't remember what you're supporting or disproving.

The second issue is that I think it's actually possible to hose yourself going into the witch trial on Zenn's route. (And spoilers ahead for the rest of this paragraph and the next.) I often went into witch trials with missing pieces of evidence, so I didn't think anything of it when I entered the Zenn route trial with the intention to falsely convict Crius of being the Membrum. But the problem was, I got far enough that Anatasia was ready for the killing blow that would "prove" his guilt and I didn't have anything. I kept trying one thing after another and none of my evidence seemed to be working. After about five tries using increasingly absurd pieces of evidence (eiT is not as obtuse as AA can be) and taking constant reputation hits, I finally gave up and loaded an older save.

I think there are only two ways to falsely convict Crius, either by revealing that he knew the first victim, or providing a motivation for killing the second. There are only four investigation leads at this point in the game, and the player has time for three, so in theory there's no way the player can leave without at least one piece of evidence to earn a conviction unless they purposely stop investigating early, but it's possible to do one of the investigations and not get the evidence based on a dialogue choice, which is what I'd done. I don't mind not having all the evidence necessary for a perfect trial, but having to restart the game from an earlier point in time because I can't finish the trial at all shouldn't happen.

End spoilers.

When the witch trials came to an end, there was still more story to go, but I realized I was a little sad that it was not likely many fans of mystery games (who aren't also part of otome fandom) would bother to play this game. The non-linear trial system that accepts multiple answers and provides multiple investigation routes without losing the thread of the story is quite frankly an amazing experience and I hope to see something like it again in another game. Unfortunately, with even if Tempest being an otome and the story wrapping up so witch trials will no longer happen, this is not a case where we would expect a sequel with those mechanics back in action, and Voltage, the publisher and developer, has never developed anything outside of otome so it's unlikely this mechanic would return in an unrelated title.

If you're interested in a game that will give you three solid trials and a pretty engrossing mystery that sometimes has romantic overtones, then I absolutely recommend this. It's a novel spin on the investigation and trial system.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Ten Trials of Babel: The Doppelganger Maze

Platform: Windows (also on Mac)
Release: 2023

Most otome that finds its way into English is of the visual novel genre. Otome itself is more of a story/demographic categorization, involving female protagonists romancing male love interests, but the gameplay itself can be a rhythm game, a visual novel, or an RPG. Some people will even include games such as Fire Emblem and Dragon Age which are not restricted to female protagonists but nonetheless have a strong romantic component to them.

That is to say, there is a reason I'm not including Ten Trials of Babel: The Doppelganger Maze in the usual VN Talk series even though it is otome. This is a puzzle adventure game and if you're not using a walkthrough, you're probably going to want a notepad near you to work out some of the puzzles. But if you want an assortment of guys to fall for your protagonist, that's all there.

Ten Trials of Babel: The Doppelganger Maze is probably the gaming mash-up of my dreams, being otome crossed with a survival game and for something as short as it is, I was pleasantly surprised by how big it went with the worldbuilding. At first I thought it was too much for a game that I knew was going to be limited in scope, but it manages to make it work for reasons that I'll get to. But first, it just launched in English last November, so be warned there are SPOILERS after the break, including the ending.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Ghost Trick: An Underrated Gem

Platform: Switch (also on DS, PS4, XB1, Windows, iOS)
Release: 2010 (DS), 2012 (iOS), 2023 (Switch, PS4, XB1, Windows)

Ghost Trick is a stand alone project helmed by Shu Takumi of Ace Attorney fame that originally came out in the heyday of the Nintendo DS. I never got around to picking it up back then, perhaps because what I really wanted was another Ace Attorney game, and largely forgot about it until the Switch remaster.

By this time I knew it was regarded as an underrated title, so I decided to pick it up, and I'm really glad that I did as it may well be one of Shu Takumi's best written games. Since the ending wraps up the story completely and it would be hard to narratively justify a sequel, that's likely why Ghost Trick slipped away into the realm of being an underappreciated classic, but now that the remaster is available on multiple platforms (most importantly Steam), it'll be easy for players to find for years to come.

In Ghost Trick you play as an amnesiac ghost, recently deceased, who discovers he can manipulate objects around him, much like a poltergeist, to influence the actions of nearby people. Additionally he can travel from place to place via land lines (this game is clearly pre-cell phone era) as long as he knows the destination phone number, and most importantly, he can rewind time to 4 minutes before a person's death and by using his abilities it's possible to change their fate, resulting in a new timeline.

Using these "ghost tricks" results in a fun bit of puzzle solving which absolutely ties into the plot itself, but what we're really here for is the story. So there will be spoilers for a 13-year-old game after the break!

Monday, January 22, 2024

My Top 5 Blog Posts of 2023

Though I expect most of my blog visitors are here to read about the various games I've played, oftentimes which one rises to the top in a given year is a bit of a surprise. Most of the posts are weighted towards the first half of the year, which is expected given that they've been out longer, but coming out earlier did not automatically mean that a given game (or anime)'s post was read more often.

That said, here are the Top 5 of 2023 along with a little speculation about why they're here:

#5 - Frostpunk - Yes, There's a Story Here

Frostpunk has been out for over five years now, so I'm a little surprised by the traffic with this one, but figure there are liking two reasons for this. First, 11-bit Studios ramped up their media push for Frostpunk 2 so there is likely renewed interest in the first game, and second, I talked about the story and the emotional journey taken by the player, which is not usually discussed when talking about a city builder game. It's mentioned so little that I didn't know there was a fixed scenario format when I first started the game.

#4 - Anime Talk: Why Raeliana Ended Up at the Duke's Mansion

This one surprised me because I came to Raeliana late and didn't write about it until several weeks after its run ended. Perhaps I'm not the only one hungry for a second season, or likes to read commentary after having watched a show. I'm still hopeful that we'll get the remainder of the novels/manga animated.

#3 - Ambition: A Minuet in Power

I feel a little bad about this one, since I spent a chunk of the post talking about all the flaws in Ambition (especially since the more you play it, the more apparent the problems become, and I played a lot to finish the game with every possible love interest). But that said, I can see why this post would have attracted attention, since Ambition is an indie title and it wasn't a breakdown hit so hasn't been much written about it. It's for smaller titles like this that I try to play and write about an indie or two every year. A high society sim on the eve of the French Revolution is just not a game most people would make, and for that if nothing else, I'm glad Ambition exists.

#2 - OPUS: Echo of Starsong

I'm a little surprised that this wasn't my most popular post last year, since it's a relatively recent indie title, though admittedly one that had already gotten a fair bit of press compared to most so I'm hardly the first person to have covered it. I really enjoyed a number of games last year, but if I had to pick one, OPUS: Echo of Starsong would be it. I know I bounced through a number of reviews before picking it up, and if my own post in turn convinced someone else to play it, that would be worthwhile indeed.

#1 - AI: The Somnium Files - nirvanA Initiative

For some reason my AINI gripe-a-thon must have struck a nerve since it was head and shoulders above anything else even though it went up about half a year after the game came out since I'd taken so long to finish it. I'm guessing I wasn't the only one with a mixed reaction to it. When I finished I was such a ball of frustration that I also sought out the writings of other people to see if I was the only one who felt the way I did. I'm a bit disappointed that my top post of 2023 is one where I had to force myself to focus on just three gripes or I'd spend pages and pages complaining, but perhaps it was a useful exorcism.

And that covers my round-ups for 2023. Next post should be the first of several covering some of the games I ran through in the final months of last year, giving me a bit of a buffer while I figure out my first game for 2024!

Monday, January 8, 2024

My Favorite Games of 2023

Last year feels rather strange to me in that I didn't complete any RPGs and I'm not entirely sure how that happened, since I usually manage at least one of them. That said, it felt like such a good year for enjoyable gaming. I only list games I liked enough to finish, which usually means I felt they were good or very good, but great games are fewer and further between.

I usually designate these great games as my Top 3 picks each year by marking them with an asterisk (*) and I was pretty sure that I knew what my Top 3 were going to be as we went into November as I'd played what I thought was a shoe-in for my third stellar game in October, but even if Tempest slid in at the end of the year and blew me away, so I'm going to call out Ghost Trick as an honorable mention. In another year it probably would have made Top 3 and it is still a solid game I highly recommend.

With that said, these are the 12 games I liked the most out of the ones I finished in 2023, in the order I played them. If the game is available on multiple platforms, the one I played on is listed first.

OPUS: Echo of Starsong (Switch, Windows, Mac, iOS) *

More often than not, I find one of my favorite games of the year at the start of the year, and that was definitely the case with OPUS: Echo of Starsong, making it one of the few linear games where I dove back in immediately after I finished. Told from the perspective of an elderly Jun Lee, he reflects on the short period of time he knew Eda and what being with her meant to him. If you want an intimate piece of space opera with deep lore and some far future Chinese flavoring, all wrapped up in 12-15 hours of gameplay, this is a must-have, but bring tissues. That's not a spoiler. The frame story makes it clear that Jun and Eda are deprived of any happy ending.

Ambition: A Minuet in Power (Switch, Windows)

When Yvette arrives in Paris on the eve of the French Revolution, her fiance mysteriously does not pick her up, nobody seems to want to associate with him, and he's left her paying for the rent and the maid at what would have been their home. Refusing to return to her village, Yvette forges a new life in Parisian high society, and the player can decide whether she reunites with her fiance or discovers a new love entirely. With a tight calendar system and selling gossip for money, Yvette can nudge the tensions in Paris one way or another. Probably more fun if you like French Revolution stuff, but also good if you just like being a schemer. You can make Yvette somewhat upstanding if you want, but there are a lot of options to play as an awful person.

Buried Stars (Switch, PS4, Windows)

Mystery/suspense visual novel in which a group of aspiring k-pop stars and their floor director are trapped inside a collapsed building. Despite the unusual choice in cast (I never thought I'd be putting on my detective hat with a pop star as my protagonist), the mystery is effective and had me on the edge of my seat through much of the main game. The game's UI is a little misleading in regards to how the story will actually play out, and there are some obvious translation errors, but despite the bumpiness I think this will end up one of the more memorable mystery VNs I've played. Saying why would be a spoiler, but I talk about it here.

My Sweet Bodyguard (iOS, Android)

Part of the Love 365 library app. A college student discovers she's the long lost daughter of the Japanese prime minister and is threatened by unknown forces who want to influence her father. Fortunately she has a crack team of bodyguards looking out for her in what is a surprisingly upbeat and light-hearted romance adventure. It also gets really silly on some routes, so don't come here for any realism. Each route may as well take place in a different reality since plot points and villains generally don't cross over.

Frostpunk (Windows, Mac, PS4, XB1) *

Brutal survival-based city building game. After a deep and potentially neverending frost settles over Victorian England, you play as the captain in charge of a new settlement that strives to survive heading in an unknown future. Though it is possible to make a relatively comfortable life for your people once you know how the game works, I think most first time playthroughs will either end in failure or with barely anyone alive (and you might end up a despot on top of that too). I like how the game makes you consider which lines you'd be willing to cross in order to allow your city to survive, and if you fail, was it because of poor planning or because you valued your morals?

Piofiore: Fated Memories (Switch)

Liliana has grown up as a ward of the church, but for reasons unbeknownst to her, she is extremely important to varying factions fighting for control of a city in 1920s Italy, thus sparking a journey with various men from one of the city's three mafia families or an agent of the church. It's otome, but darker than usual because none of the guys can really say they've walked away without killing someone, though they're generally presented in a nicer light if they're Liliana's current love interest. While I bought this as a fan of anime takes on mafia, it's worth mentioning that Liliana is a civilian, so even if she's present during the action bits, she's usually a non-participant, and some of the heavy decision making by the men happens in scenes when she is not around.

Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders (Windows, Switch, PS4, XB1)

Series of murder mysteries in the style of the old point-and-click pixel adventure games, starring a fictionalized version of Di Renjie, more popularly known in English as the protagonist of the Judge Dee books/movies/TV series, but was a real historical person. This Di is portrayed as relatively young and new to his work, though historically he would have been pushing fifty by the time of the game, which mostly involves solving a series of murders on behalf of Empress Wu Zetian. It's a fairly short game, with some of the usual point-and-click genre problems of not being able to figure out what you missed, but otherwise a fun bit of intrigue. Good if you don't have a lot of time or want a quick palate cleanser before diving into something else.

Radiant Tale (Switch)

It took me a few games to realize that found family is one of my favorite tropes in otome. I love when the entire cast is a group of friends who support each other through thick and thin, so when I realized Radiant Tale shared staff with Code:Realize and Cafe Enchante I knew I had to get this. Tifalia joins a performance troupe called CIRCUS and gains a wacky surrogate family that includes personalities as varied as a fun-loving dragon, a flashy noble, and possibly the world's most unfriendly clown. They're on a JRPG-eque quest to free the kingdom's prince from the spell that has frozen his body and heart in time, and only by literally bringing joy to the world can they heal him. Despite the overly bright and optimistic theming, some of the routes can get unexpectedly dark.

Ghost Trick (Switch, PS4, XB1, Windows, DS, iOS)

HD remaster of the underappreciated mystery solving puzzle game for Nintendo DS. You control an amnesiac ghost who has a number of "tricks" he can perform in order to manipulate the environment and the living around him in order to figure out who he is and why he died. Without spoiling too much, I think pet lovers will enjoy this game. It's not too long, but not too short either, being the rare game that is just the length it needs to be and no more. Fans of Ace Attorney will recognize writer/director Shu Takumi's brand of character writing, though Ghost Trick is less episodic since there is only one central mystery that covers the entire game.

Ten Trials of Babel: The Doppelganger Maze (Windows, Mac)

Indie puzzle adventure game where humans and various fantastical races are unwillingly placed in a survival game where the winner can ensure the continued existence of their race. English translation is usually pretty good, which makes it more obvious when it's not. Puzzles will give you a pretty good workout if that's your thing. Best played with a pad of paper next to you in order to make notes. Though it's probably possible to reach the best ending without romancing anyone, Xixy needs a certain level of friendship with her main three party members to open the way to the true ending.

even if Tempest (Switch) *

I was truly blown away by the narrative in this game, which is marketed as otome, but aside from affection-related dialogue options, plays out more like Raging Loop since it also features one love interest per timeline and a protagonist who tries to abuse timeloops in order to solve a problem. The worldbuilding is fantastic and Anastasia is one of the most engaging female protagonists I've ever had a chance to play, getting to be both strong and vulnerable, vengeful and kind, and rising from a childhood of abuse to being the person she wants to be. She is willing to do whatever it takes to save the ones she loves, and some of what she does is truly heartrending both for her and the player. There are witch trials which will likely appeal to Ace Attorney and Danganronpa fans, with the unique twist that they are playing out in the court of public opinion in which judgment is less a matter of truth than what the jury comes to believe.

The Last Matches (Windows, Mac)

Indie visual novel based on The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen. It's very short (about an hour to play through), but felt like a fitting title to close out the year given that it takes place around Christmas. Both the original tragic ending of the story and a happier one are available for our protagonist. I liked the sad ending better, perhaps because it pulls from the original and works better thematically, but also because the happy ending feels surreal, like I can't tell if it really happened. Still, it's a nice little package if you want something quick that will pluck at the heartstrings.