Monday, September 19, 2022

Betrayal Legacy Board Game

I feel like my fiction blog has mostly transformed into my gaming blog rather than using gaming content to fill in between my writing posts, and even then, I haven't been good about putting up posts every week. Part of this was due to my second round of cancer last year and the shingles kicker earlier this year, but ever since my shingles episode my energy has been low so there have been more times than I've liked where I just decided it was easier not to post. (I need to run through another big otome game, lol. Those give me content for weeks.)

Don't worry, I'm still seeing all my doctors regularly, so I hope to have more energy again soon.

So this week, I'm going to talk about Betrayal Legacy, which is one of a growing number of board games that play out over an extended number of gaming sessions. Each group of players will have the story play out differently for them based on who wins and who loses.

Betrayal at House on the Hill is the original base game featuring a bunch of premade characters who will explore an old house. It's been around since 2004, and the players take turns moving from room to room, uncovering spooky things, until eventually enough ill omens have been unturned that the "haunt" is revealed.

The fun thing about the original Betrayal is that you have no idea what's going to happen when you start. Based on the omen drawn and the room the player is standing in, you flip through a book to the appropriate entry and it tells you what happens. One player is usually turned traitor (it's usually but not always the haunt revealer) and sent from the room to read one set of instructions while the rest of the players read another. When both parties are done, the game resumes with the main party and the traitor each trying to fulfill their objectives. A few scenarios might not have a traitor at all.

Since you never know what you're going to get, there's a lot of replayability, and I've played this version of the game with several different groups of people without ever getting a repeat.

Betrayal Legacy is the campaign version of Betrayal at House on the Hill. You still start out with a house, but it's not creepy yet. Each player picks one of five families to play, and my group had four fairly static players who were there for most sessions, and the fifth family was shared by a fifth and sixth player who were never there at the same time.

We started this game as something to do in between our D&D sessions if we didn't have our full group present for important story points or the DM needed a break, and while I don't remember the exact date we started, I would hazard a guess that we began in 2018, because we had already been playing for a while before we wrapped up our D&D campaign in 2019. (And I know that date, because when Covid forced us into isolation in March 2020 we all were like "Thank, God we finished that campaign!" Which sounds kinda funny, but it'd been running longer than any of us thought it would and our last few sessions had already been hard to schedule.)

So Betrayal Legacy didn't start up again until late 2021, after people started getting vaccinated and I could be reasonably safe coming out of the house (because, you know, immunocompromised).

Still, it's a fun game. Each session at its most basic level plays out like Betrayal at House on the Hill, except that sometimes you might start somewhere other than the ground floor hallway. You then explore the house until enough omens have been triggered for the haunt to start and someone (usually) ends up being designated the traitor and presumed to be working for nefarious purposes. In one scenario my group had though, they were pretty sure the traitor was actually the good guy and everyone else was doing something bad. This was more or less confirmed by the scenario immediately after it, which was a nice twist.

However, unlike the base game, things that happen can affect the house. There are ghosts haunting certain rooms, and open spaces for new ghosts to be added if someone dies there. Though dying sucks a bit since it leaves you out of play and passively witnessing the rest of the conflict (unless you're the traitor, in which case you may have minions to move), it is fun adding a sticker to permanently mark on the gameboard where your character ate it.

Different conclusions to the scenario are read depending on the result, whether the traitor wins/loses, or if the party wins/loses in the traitorless scenarios, and in turn, those results affect future iterations of the game. We physically destroyed room tiles because something happened in them that according to the story rendered them forever unusable, and replaced them with other rooms according to the story. Some event cards, random things that could happen throughout the game, could be destroyed before ever being put into play because they were simply "not part of our story."

And yet, the final scenario felt rather pre-ordained. I won't spoil the particulars, but despite all the this is/isn't part of your story, I don't think the final scenario would have been all that different if we had done drastically different things. I haven't read how other people's games turned out, but it felt like who won/lost all our previous sessions didn't really matter, and being a writer I had hoped for a more personalized narrative build up.

In retrospect this may not have been possible, or difficult to implement, but it still felt like a missed opportunity. I was not the game owner for our sessions so I don't have the box to reference, but there was essentially a story deck we'd go through to start off each scenario, and things would occasionally be taken out of it as directed by the game. Since the story deck is pretty static, the final scenario is likely the same for everyone. It's just the set dressing might be different.

Though it took us about four years to finish, we're pretty happy that we did, and we only really had one complaint about the final scenario and it involved a particular game mechanic we collectively didn't like. Since we didn't like it, we avoided engaging with it unless we absolutely had to. In the final session it turned out that if we'd regularly been using it, we would have gotten a massive bonus towards the final showdown. Instead the final session turned into a weird slog where four of us were dead (including the traitor) and our last player spent several turns engaging with this mechanic solo while everyone else watched. And then he died in an anti-climatic fashion unique to this mechanic and that was it. The traitor won.

Still, it was overall a good experience, and even though the campaign is over, my friend the game owner started going through the rules and apparently the fun can continue. We jointly decided to permanantly transform a particular room tile into a different version of itself by placing a massive sticker on it, and apparently we can still heirloom items (a nifty way to mark something as having been in your family for generations).

One last thing I want to mention is the helm. In Betrayal Legacy you're given this disc called the helm and once per game session you're allowed to fill up a crest slot on the helm with your family crest in order to get a free reroll of the die. Obviously this is very nice when you're in a tight spot and about to die, but at the same time... you're pretty sure you shouldn't be doing this. Nothing comes for free, especially in a game like this one.

Despite that, the game encourages you to worship the helm and find your own way of revering it as it's lifted out of the game box each session. The helm is only ever to be handled by two hands, never one. That kind of stuff.

Well, I'm quite happy that I disrespected the helm. And while it likely will never come into play again, I'm tickled that there is now a physical reminder of my disrepect that will remain forevermore.

Monday, September 12, 2022

VN Talk: Yrsa Major: An Elchemia Story

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

Platform: Windows (also on Mac, Linux, and Browser)
Release: 2021

Yrsa Major has been in my indie gaming backlog since it came out last year, largely because of its protagonist, Yrsa. She's a tall, broad-shouldered woman, who we're introduced to when she kills a daimon with a shovel in front of a bunch of quaking guards with actual weapons. On top of that, she's the "unimaginable" age of thirty, which is quite old for a female romantic lead, especially in otome.

Though we've had female protagonists before who are capable of handling themselves in the midst of combat, Yrsa is a bit unusual in that despite her size, she's not defined as a warrior. She's a carpenter who just happens to be good at killing monsters if push comes to shove. And not being defined by her strength and her appearance is very much what Yrsa Major is about, even though Yrsa herself is initially unaware of it.

Shortly after Yrsa's daimon slaying introduction, we get to see her in a tavern in the nearby town where people seem to be celebrating her victory, but she's spending most of her time arm-wrestling the men who want to challenge her. We quickly realize something is off when a drunkard challenges her and begins to tell her of all the sweet things he'll do for her when he wins, only for her to quickly defeat him without breaking a sweat. She then leaves as a bard begins to strike up an old song about a man who married a bear in a time when women were literally bears.

Yrsa doesn't complain or show that she's upset in any way, which tells us a lot about her.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Anime Talk: Phantom of the Idol

My favorite new anime for the summer season is pretty random. I have a taste for the dramatic, stories set in other worlds or other times, but even though Phantom of the Idol is not entirely grounded in reality (it has a literal ghost in it!), it's definitely a show more interested pop culture than my usual fare.

Our feckless protagonist is Yuuya Niyodo, a young man who became one half of an idol duo because he thought it would be an easy way for him to make money without really doing anything. However, an idol isn't just singing and dancing on stage. Idols are also about being available to one's fans. (Agency-managed meet and greets with fans is something you don't really have for performers in the west.) It's a lot of work, but if you manage to buy into the fact that Niyodo somehow stumbled into this gig and was able to survive it for a year before being threatened with getting fired, you're set.

Because Niyodo is like... the worst idol. He doesn't smile, he looks half dead most of the time, and usually talks as though he was bored as soon as he stepped in the room. And yet, he has some fans. Not a lot, mind, but there are a few who are drawn to the fact he is such a weird guy who sometimes forgets the lines to the song he's singing.

In fact, every episode so far (I've seen up to 6) ends with a few of his hardcore fans drinking at the local izakaya as they talk over the latest about him. I've never followed any performer with any level of ferver, but their enthusiasm and belief in their idol is highly relateable for anyone who has ever been a fan of a niche subject matter.

While faced with his impending firing, Niyodo coincidentally meets the ghost of Asahi Mogami, a hugely popular idol who tragically died a year ago. She's been lingering around, unable to pass on, wanting to perform, but unable to be seen, until she meets Niyodo. For some reason, he's the only person who can see her, and when she accidentally falls into him, she ends up taking over his body. (Niyodo is still there, along for the ride, and can experience everything along with her.)

Thus begins their partnership. Though Mogami knows the fans are not there for her, she loves performing regardless and agrees to take on some of Niyodo's performing work, which is a great bargain for him since he no longer needs to do it. They butt heads over how best to improve his career though, since Asahi thinks he could do a lot better than he does, while Niyodo remains firmly in the mindset that he does not want to expend the effort.

But the funny thing is, Mogami is not good at being Niyodo, and part of it is that she doesn't entirely want to try. She wants to perform! A lot of which means being herself. Niyodo's fans definitely notice, and it drives them into a frenzy when they can't tell whether he's going to be his usual flat self or "God Mode." Nobody really questions why Niyodo occasionally goes through these drastic personality shifts, other than to surmise that he's probably gotten more serious about his job, and why would they? He's clearly sane no matter which personality is currently in the driver's seat, and nobody would guess that he's voluntarily letting the ghost of a dead idol perform for him!

This is my first anime hearing Fumiya Imai, the voice of Niyodo, and he does a fantastic job jumping between Niyodo's tired baritone and the tenor he uses when possessed by Mogami. He and the voice actor for Yoshino perform the opening credits as their in-universe duo ZINGS. While it's very common for voice actors to be able to sing in Japan, it's significantly less common for them to perform the opening (or ending) credits to their own shows, so I like the extra level of immersion of having them sing.

The only thing that really bothers me about the show is the use of CG in the dance segments. Most of the show has the look we typically expect from hand drawn anime, but when the show shifts to a ZINGS performance, suddenly Niyodo and Yoshino look like two plastic dolls as they step around the stage. It looks more like robots dancing than people, which is strange when you consider that these sequences are probably mo-capped, and can probably be attributed to the fact their clothing just doesn't sway the way we expect it would.

But aside from that, I find myself looking forward to the next episode every week.

Monday, August 1, 2022

VN Talk: Pre-Odyssey: Odysseus, Penelope, and her Ducks

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

Platform: Windows (also on Mac and Android)
Release: 2022

When I saw this lovely gem I knew I needed to play it. I was a huge Greek mythology buff when I was in school and Pre-Odyssey: Odysseus, Penelope, and her Ducks is a light-hearted take on how Odysseus and Penelope met, with one significant alteration to the story: Penelope can communicate with ducks. In fact she's surrounded by enough of them everyday that she's a little ostracized by other people for being "the duck girl."

Penelope is the protagonist of Pre-Odyssey, and despite being a Spartan princess, she's highly relatable, especially through the expressive portraits the game uses. She's socially awkward, gets easily flustered, but isn't above "looking respectfully" at the nearly naked Odysseus when he's about to race her father for the right to marry her. (Seriously, the camera in that scene does such a good job conveying her gaze. Rather than the usual pan up, it also goes side to side and zooms in and out. I about died.)

This is a new game that just came out of this year's NaNoRenO 2022 game jam, so just so you know, spoilers ahead. I mean, this is based on mythology, so what happens in terms of broad strokes isn't really a spoiler, but if you want to know how the ducks fit into all this, maybe that's a spoiler to you?

Monday, July 18, 2022

VN Talk: Variable Barricade - Part 6: True Route

I'd like to preface this with a comment that the true route is not supposed to be the canon route for a game. It is supposed to be a route where the overall truth behind the story is revealed.

Sometimes a separate true route is necessary in order to tie up story details that did not get a satisfactory ending in the traditional romance routes. Maybe some characters had pieces of the overall story, but no one person knew everything. Maybe the romance derailed the political or action-oriented parts of the plot. But the thing is, I didn't feel like there were any lingering, unanswered questions in Variable Barricade. We know what prompted the suitors being thrown at Hibari at such a young age (Kazuya's marriage proposal, and Takamune's limited ability to block it due to extended family problems), and Hibari eventually falls in love with one of the men her grandfather has chosen. What else is there?

Well, that's obviously spoilers so follow along after the break!

Monday, July 11, 2022

VN Talk: Variable Barricade - Part 5: Ichiya

I know what I expected from Ichiya from Variable Barricade's promotional art, and it's not what I got. Given that he's the poster boy and poses with a suave, debonair air, I expected him to be a flirty ladykiller. While I got the flirty part right, a ladykiller he is not. He's always one bad line away from Hibari wanting to be sick.

That isn't to say that Ichiya has no dating experience, he's good looking and women are attracted to him, but all his previous girlfriends both initiated the relationship and ended it. So when it comes to courting Hibari, he actually doesn't know how to attract her. As a result he flirts like crazy, but all his lines are so over the top cheesy that, to paraphrase Tsumugi, it sounds like he was flipping through some shoujo manga to find all his material.

As with all of Hibari's suitors though, there is more to Ichiya than we initially see, and since this title is still fairly new, be aware there will be major spoilers after the break.

Monday, July 4, 2022

VN Talk: Variable Barricade - Part 4: Taiga

This week's love interest is Taiga, who seems to be fairly popular among English speakers. He's loud and abrasive, but Hibari can be too, which means that she's not one to lay down and take it. As always for these types of posts, this is a recent game and there are spoilers ahead, so if you want to avoid them you'll want to stop reading now.

That said, I found Taiga very strange and off-putting in the common route. He's blunt and likes to tease Hibari (and not in a romantic fashion) to get a rise out of her. Though insightful like Shion, he lacks Shion's sense of discretion. And this is weird, because he's supposed to be one of Hibari's suitors, but in the common route he doesn't really do anything to try to court her. Ichiya's always cooking and showering her with cheesy romance lines. Shion tries to cuddle with her and take her to spas or fashion boutiques. Even Nayuta tries to get her attention in order for her to pick him.

Taiga doesn't try to be nice. So he was the last of the suitors whose barricade board I did in the common route, but when I did it, I saw that beneath the crass exterior was a guy with a big heart. I mean, I figured something of the sort was coming as a character detail because this is a rom-com and not the kind of otome where you expect to find assholes (though, hello Shion), but it was nice to see how the game would soften him.