Monday, October 18, 2021

VN Talk: Steam Prison - Part 2: Eltcreed

I entered Steam Prison much like I do other otome. For my first playthrough I role play it out with the idea that I'll choose a love interest based on whoever strikes my fancy, which may or may not be who I thought it would be based on reviews or promotional material.

That did not happen quite as expected this time around because of how the game is structured, with routes being based around whether Cyrus goes to the sanctuary district (possible to avoid on later playthroughs once Yune and Fin are unlocked), and then what she does once she's there (further dividing player choice between Eltcreed and Ulrik on one route and Adage and Ines on another). Given Cyrus's determination to find work after arriving in the sanctuary district, I took the first opportunity given, which locked me into the bodyguard route and limited me to Eltcreed and Ulrik, neither of whom I initially liked.

But between the both of them, Eltcreed is the closest to being the poster boy, so I decided to do his route first.

Given his character design I expected him to be an arrogant bastard, and his first scene did little to dissuade me of that, but he ended up being more of a confident playboy instead. Normally I don't like those kinds of characters because their flirtiness feels so overbearing, and I definitely did not like that his first kiss is without Cyrus's consent, but after she gets curious about it I found I didn't mind as much because she is as dumb as a brick when it comes to romance. Anything other than being overbearingly flirty wouldn't even register as affection, as shown by the fact Fin was clearly devoted to her but she never thought there was anything romantic behind it. (Being raised in the Heights has nothing to do with it. Fin obviously fell in love and Heights people have been thrown into the Depths for falling in love with a non-approved partner.)
It helps that Eltcreed has a strong compassionate streak and wants to help the people of his district as much as possible. I was skeptical when I saw his character trait was Charity in the opening movie, but his life really does revolve around how best to look after the people of his district, and he does it by being the biggest voice in the room.

I suspect his desire to make people happy is why he keeps talking about giving love to people who ask, and why he sleeps with so many partners he can't keep their names straight when he wakes up. He's the most eligible bachelor around given his position as administrator of his district and the head of his family's bank. He's socially savvy, and he's physically attractive.

Which leads to one of the more annoying things on his route. While he doesn't have a fan club per se, his admirers essentially function as one and I dislike the digs Cyrus gets when attending social functions with him as anything other than an obvious bodyguard. It's not a major part of the story, but something I hadn't expected outside of a contemporary setting.

Eltcreed is the one who offers the job that spirits Cyrus out of the sanctuary district and into the Depths where the people who have naturally been born on the ground are. Being impressed with her sword skills, he hires her as a bodyguard, but being that the Depths are more technologically advanced, this is mostly for show as any serious combat will be done with guns. Eltcreed is a big Heights buff since his mother was born there and is completely in love with the idea of Cyrus being his pure and shining knight. This results in him putting her up on a pedestal, convincing himself not to bed her as quickly as he would other women, but notably doesn't stop him from being extremely forward with her.
I don't mind that Eltcreed finds her different from previous women he's been with, because obviously that's a factor when someone has dated a lot and found someone new who interests them, but I didn't like the focus on her purity. It's something Fin also does when he returns in Eltcreed's route.

While I don't think they mean her virginity specifically, by raising her up so high it feels like an impossible standard to reach (especially in Fin's case since he's in two bad endings on Eltcreed's route).

Fortunately, Eltcreed stops bringing it up later in his route as Cyrus begins sorting out her feelings and I like that she later initiates a kiss with him instead of always waiting. She never gets to the point where she can comfortably say she loves him aloud, but she's clearly adapting and has figured out what he means to her; so much so that even if she gets the opportunity to return to the Heights (which may or may not happen depending on player choice) she realizes that the Depths have become her home.

Unfortunately Fin proves incapable of moving forward, and his feelings for her have turned into an obsession due the torturous conditioning he went through with his new employment in the HOUNDS. While I disliked discovering Cyrus's sweet partner on the police force turned yandere, it actually became entertaining once I realized that Fin's insanity is the reason the route escalates into a climax at all (instead of being day to day Cyrus following Eltcreed around to various engagements while being flirted with).

First, after Fin discovers Cyrus is alive he kills a fellow HOUND to prevent his boss from learning where Cyrus disappeared to, and when the man's body is discovered the HOUNDS blame the people of the Depths. Then Fin attacks Eltcreed in a fit of jealousy, giving the people of the Depths reason to demand retribution against the HOUNDs.
Obviously neither side is interested in taking blame for something they did not do (it was all Fin!), but the Heights take issue with Eltcreed capturing a chunk of the HOUNDS and taking over the sanctuary district, so they issue an "invitation" for a representative of the Depths to come to the island to negotiate. Eltcreed agrees to go, since it's his district that's closest and he was the one who riled them up.

What Eltcreed knows, but does not tell Cyrus (at least not right away), is that he's certain the representative will be killed as an example to the Depths, but the other district admins feel that this is an opportunity for the Depths as well. If he dies taking out as many of the people of the Heights with him as possible (as a suicide bomber), then he'll become a martyr and inspire the Depths to go to war.

Given Steam Prison's predilection for branching, I shouldn't have been surprised that Eltcreed would have several different endings depending on Cyrus's affection level with him, but the degree of difference was really what startled me. Aside from bad endings (which tend to be brief and can happen at any time in a route), there are four different ways his story can end.

The good ending (the one with the most elaborate ending sequence) is the most different, since it's the only one where he doesn't go to the Heights. Basically, Cyrus sees through his death wish and as his bodyguard she decides the best way to protect his life is to ensure that he never goes, which, good for her! I like that she challenges him to a duel, and being the fighter she is, Eltcreed obviously loses and has to figure out another plan.
But my enthusiasm for this ending isn't particularly great because it ends up ignoring the demand from the Heights for the rest of the story. It chooses to focus on the fallout with the other districts, which withdraw their support in the form of trade while fomenting unrest. Though it's nice that Eltcreed ends up freeing the HOUNDS from imprisonment and forging an alliance with them and therefore the sanctuary district, I wanted to see the Heights issue addressed since the HOUNDS work for the Heights and I'm sure Sachsen would turn around and say no go to any trade the instant he got word.

My preference is what would probably be called the "normal" route. He and Cyrus go to the Heights and she refuses to leave his side even though he'll probably die. She reiterates the knightly promise she made to him when she first entered his service and it's a great callback. We also learn more about what makes Eltcreed tick, from the story of his family to why he likes knights so much.

Their impending deaths are spared by the deus ex machina appearance of Yune, who is the one person everyone in the Heights have to listen to, which disappointed me (I wanted to see how they'd get out of it), but Eltcreed's dialogue with Yune provides a potential win-win situation for both parties and wraps up the conflict between the two sides.

Eltcreed goes bomber on the remaining two endings based on affection. It's just whether Cyrus is with him or not.
While I enjoyed playing his route while I was in the middle of it, the more I think about it, the less I feel it holds up. The early parts were slow given that everything is just going day-by-day, and there wasn't much of a plot. While I know realistically Cyrus had no chance of returning to the Heights on her own, I was disappointed that investigating her parents' murder and clearing her name ended up being dropped from this route entirely.

This was especially egregious since Sachen shows up later in the route (in the incident that leads to the HOUNDS' imprisonment) and tells his men to capture her alive if possible so he can deliver her to "him." Who this person is, never comes up. He could have just called for her capture without saying anything more and it would have been fine because it was already established in the common route that Sachen likes tormenting her.

Because Ulrik is on the same bodyguard story branch as Eltcreed, his route will be next!

Monday, October 11, 2021

VN Talk: Steam Prison - Part 1: Overview

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

Platform: Switch (also on Windows)
Release: 2021 (2019 on Windows)

Steam Prison is an otome visual novel I've had on my radar for a couple of years, but I knew it would be a long and involved game and my preferred platform for visual novels is a handheld; something I can curl up with in bed, much like a good book. So I dithered until I heard it was coming out for Switch, at which point I picked it up.

And the farther I get from the game, the more I think that it's greater than the sum of its parts. I get the feeling that the writer really wanted to do something grand with Steam Prison. There's tons of worldbuilding, over and above what I expected, with little nuggets slipped in purely for flavor. The character dialogue is great, particularly the moments of levity, and romances largely work.

But the plot doesn't always hold together with characters sometimes doing nonsensical things, continuity issues, and ignoring its own worldbuilding.

Steam Prison follows Cyrus Tistella, an idealistic eighteen-year-old from the Heights, an isolated city-state perched on an artificial island in the sky. It's connected to the ground below by an elevator shaft to the Depths, where the Heights sends its criminals. Life in the Heights is fairly regimented. The government arranges marriages, couples are expected to have a certain number of children as part of the population plan, and falling in love with anyone other than your spouse is a crime.
Cyrus herself is not keen on getting married, but it's not because of any anti-government sentiment. Ever since a police officer helped her find her lost pendant as a child, she's internalized the idea that the police are there to help the people and became a police officer herself. She knows that she has to get married, and once she does she will have to quit her job to raise her children, but she would like to put that off as long as possible.

Before her impending marriage can go through though, her parents are murdered and she's framed as the murderer. Proper due process is denied and she's rushed off to exile in the Depths, where the majority of routes take place.

Adjusting is difficult for her. The sanctuary district, the penal colony portion of the Depths, is run by the HOUNDS. Though they work for the government like the police, they're ruthless in their administration of the district since from their viewpoint, everyone there is a criminal (even the children born there due to having exiled parents). They have no problem taking advantage of their power and no one can easily fight back since prisoners are not allowed anything bigger than a knife.

The only law is whatever Sachsen Brandenberg, the leader of the HOUNDS, wants it to be, and since that conflicts with Cyrus's sense of justice, she can't help getting herself into trouble. In fact, a fair bit of the Depths portion of the common route has Ines, the vice-commander of the HOUNDS (and probably the only decent man in the organization), warning Cyrus that she needs to learn when to let things go if she's going to survive.
Steam Prison branches in an unusual manner. The four routes available at the start of the game fan out from Cyrus's situation in the Depths. She needs to get a job if she wants to live without relying on handouts for food, and whether she stays in the sanctuary district or escapes to the world outside (where people whose ancestors never went to the Heights live) determines whether her romance options are Adage and Ines, or Eltcreed and Ulrik respectively. The remaining two romances, Yune and Fin, involve Cyrus not going down the Depths in the first place or going down belatedly, so they're unsurprisingly locked at the start.

There is a substational amount of worldbuilding in Steam Prison, explaining how the Heights came to be and the animousity between the native people of the Depths and those originating from the Heights; details like how the people of the Heights consider everything below them the Depths, while those in the sanctuary district push the definition further to restrict the Depths to everything outside their district so as to keep their feeling of superiority. "We might be criminals, but we're still better than those people."

And there are nice surprises like how the Depths still worship Saint Yune even though he now lives the in the Heights, and that the Depths are actually more technologically advanced than the Heights. (Though no airships yet, or the Heights would be in for a surprise.)

But the elaborate worldbuilding sometimes trips over itself. For instance, after four hundred years of separation the spoken language between the Heights and the Depths is virtually the same, but the written languages are different enough that Cyrus can't read the books of the Depths. Eltcreed tells her on his route that it's a natural evolution because the two societies have been separated so long, which makes no sense because that's not how language works. We might not understand every word, but Shakespeare remains readable to modern English speakers, and we wouldn't say the problem is with the written language but that people don't talk like that anymore.
On Adage's route his explanation is different and it actually works better. He says it was the introduction of the printing press that caused the Depths to simplify the written language to make it easier to print, making it an artifically induced transition akin to the creation of Simplified Chinese from Traditional Chinese (where people who grew up only knowing the latter cannot read a good chunk of the former).

Also, the existence of the HOUNDS is completely unknown to rank and file police officers in the Heights, even though HOUNDS is made up of former police officers. I can buy that the Heights transfers the partners of lawbreaking officers to the HOUNDS through guilt by association, but what I can't buy is that the government is able to keep a lid on the fact that partners of convicted officers disappear and almost never come back. Even if the HOUNDS themselves remain secret, there ought to be a healthy rumor mill about the mysterious fate of partners of convicted felons. Cyrus was an officer for two years and never saw anyone disappear?

This has to happen reasonably often to keep HOUNDS staffed (in Fin's route it's not even a month between new "recruits") and joining HOUNDS is almost as much an exile as being sentenced as a criminal. Saying that the now partnerless officer was "transferred" isn't going to work if an friend decides to visit and discovers the officer's wife hasn't seen her husband since his "transfer," to say nothing about what the wife suspects happened! They live on an island in the sky. Where can anyone even transfer to?

This roughness in the worldbuilding also extends to Cyrus and her knowledge of love and sex. I'm not surprised that she hasn't paid much attention to either given that she would never be able to choose her own partner in the Heights and her assigned fiance is barely more than a stranger she's seen at a few social events, but the game is uneven at presenting the limits of her knowledge, which is important so we know when those limits have been crossed.
For instance, early on in the Depths she's taken in by a woman named Rielith. There aren't a lot of proper jobs in the santuary district so Rielith feeds herself and her son by selling herself (with her best client being an aggressive lout who works for HOUNDS). Cyrus needs a job, but immediately decides that she does not want to sell herself.

This is the first time the topic of sex comes up in the game, so you would think this means she knows exactly what Rielith is doing. Most of the players would. This is an M-rated game in the US.

But then a short while later she is hauled away by a group of HOUNDS who attempt to rape her and it's clear she has no idea what they're about to do other than it's bad. It just had all kinds of WTF bells ringing in my head. If she hadn't known, the writing could have illustrated that by having her ask Rielith what selling herself involves, and if the writer needed Cyrus to stay ignorant Rielith could demur. That way the player would have the appropriate expectation.

That Cyrus doesn't know where babies come from is a little weird (more specifically she thinks they come from the Temple, which is the seat of the government), but less of a stretch after dealing with the not knowing about sex part. I can understand that a bit better since she lives in a heavily regulated society, has no siblings and does not have any extended family that she could have seen during pregnancy, and all her coworkers are male (she's only female police officer), so I find her ignorance plausible if unlikely. It helps that a couple of her love interests call her out on this.
This jumbled approach also extends to the plot. When it's at its best, it's mostly good. When it's not, it mostly skates by on the strength of its characters. Cyrus's overarching mission is to find her parents' murderer and clear her name, but it's telling that she only accomplishes that in one of the six good endings (which I'm defining as the one where the ending credits song is performed by the current love interest's voice actor). The game is more interested in having Cyrus discover love and romance with some guys under difficult circumstances than following up on what created those circumstances in the first place.

Though Cyrus might learn a few things about her parents' murder en route to other endings with other love interests, there are also routes where her personal quest drops off entirely. The worldbuilding involving the Depths (the part beyond the sanctuary district) is interesting, but the two routes based there have nothing to do with her personal story and take her so far from the Heights that they feel out of place. There's no prison, no pursuit of her parent's murderers.

I get the feeling the writer really loved this part of the world since Eltcreed is from it and he's the poster boy and he's the character most prone to hogging the spotlight.

Steam Prison also does something with its ending branching that annoys me. If the player chooses to physically go to one location to see someone versus calling a different person over, it's obvious that the story should play out differently. However, sometimes the player has a decision like: "Do you trust him?" And that will determine whether Cyrus gets a bad ending, even though the characters involved have no idea whether she does. In fact, in this particular case, Cyrus is waiting for him to show up. If she trusts him, he'll be on time, but if she doesn't it turns out he won't make it because he was thrown in jail, meaning that the result of her decision goes back in time and changes whether or not he's able to meet her.
On a branch of Eltcreed's route the affection meter determines whether a deus ex machina saves the day or our couple is hung out to dry even though there's no earthly reason why the deus ex machina would even care how much Eltcreed and Cyrus do or do not care for each other.

But if there's anything Steam Prison likes, it's lots of endings. Every love interest has a minimum of five, and even the bad endings are generally more involved than a blood splatter and a game over. Every love interest has one good ending (with individualized credits and a song performed by their VA), a few of them have "normal" endings where things don't turn out as well but usually are positive in some fashion (which I'm defining by they have the non-character specific credit song with vocals), and the bulk are bad endings (dour credits song with no vocals).

One thing I found highly unusual in Steam Prison is getting endings for other characters when it's not their route. If the affection between Cyrus and her love interest is too low during any of the routes unlocked at the start, something will happen to separate Cyrus from the love interest and she will get an ending with the alternate choice for the warder/bodyguard branch (for example: Adage will replace Ines).

These endings are generally sad (usually, but not always, involving death), but at least in the warder routes they come with a promise of a brighter future.

I'm not normally a route order person, but I would suggest playing Adage's route first. Though Eltcreed is the closest to being the poster boy and he's the free demo on Switch, I found his route to be the least satisfactory and not the one I'd want to judge the game by. His route doesn't have anything to do with Cyrus's personal story and doesn't answer many questions, even low level worldbuilding ones (like why Cyrus desn't get sick even though she stops taking pills when she leaves the sanctuary district), or gives the less satisfactory presentation. (It's absurd that on his route, Eltcreed, a dude who was born and lives in the Depths, is the one to explain to Cyrus where the HOUNDS get their members.)
Sure, you get the least amount of spoilers doing Eltcreed, but at the cost of the game putting its worst foot forward. (On the other hand, Eltcreed's route probably won't be as disappointing if that's your starting point to begin with.)

Adage's route handles the worldbuilding better, it's on theme for what the game sets up for (Cyrus spending time in prison), and it also concludes the plotline for her parents' murder. After that, route order doesn't matter so much. Ines should be after Adage though, just because the end of his route will change how a certain character is viewed in Adage's.

Though it seems like I've slammed Steam Prison a lot, it did keep me reading, largely because of the strength of its early worldbuilding and because I quite frankly love Cyrus. Despite being a complete dunderhead towards romance, I adore how proactive she is and her stubborn belief in the strength of her sword. She kicks serious ass and often wins fights that in another otome the heroine would lose so her love interest can save her. In a genre where heroines are often praised for traditionally female traits, it's nice to have a protagonist who's not very girly, making Cyrus the most relatable otome protagonist I've played yet.

Next week we'll take a look at Eltcreed's route, because I did my first playthrough blind and locked myself into the bodyguard routes.

Monday, September 27, 2021

September Health Update

My post-surgery cancer treatment ended about a week and a half ago, but I didn't say anything sooner because quite frankly the side effects are still with me, and they're only finally starting to ebb. Even this weekend I would still dry heave if I sat up too long, which is not fun. And I still tire very quickly.

But things are supposed to get better in the coming weeks and I already feel like I'm on the upswing. It's a very slow upswing, but it's going up.

I have a lot to do to get healthy again. I'm finally starting to exercise a bit after radiation treatment left me trying to stay prone for most of the past month, and I've got to put some weight on.

Previously I'd mentioned that I have a feeding tube in my gut to supplement my calorie intake. It's still there and doing its job, but I'm hoping in the next month or so I'll finally be eating enough by mouth to have it removed.

At the very least, treatment is over for the foreseeable future and now we're moving on to the monitoring phase to periodically check for signs of it coming back (which it hopefully won't).

Monday, September 13, 2021

VN Talk: Famicom Detective Club: The Girl Who Stands Behind

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

Platform: Switch
Release: 2021

Famicom Detective Club: The Girl Who Stands Behind is a prequel to Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir, and because of that it doesn't have to deal with any of the fallout from the previously published game. The result is a less personal story, but definitely a creepier one.

The two games can be played in any order (and in fact you can import your protagonist's name from either game if you have save data from one or the other), though personally I enjoyed having gone in chronological order of release date. As with the first game, I think it mostly holds up over the thirty years since it's been written, but despite the fact I "solved" The Missing Heir early on and could not say the same for The Girl Who Stands Behind, I found The Girl to be the less memorable of the two.

I'll be discussing spoilers from here on out, so now's the time to tap out if you don't want to see them!
As a mystery, The Girl Who Stands Behind is significantly more complicated than The Missing Heir. Though the culprit is not immediately obvious in either game, in The Missing Heir you have some likely candidates to start with. The Girl Who Stands Behind has nothing of the sort. Rather, it's a new mystery tangled up in an older one.

When Ayumi's friend Yoko is murdered, we learn that she was investigating the school's urban legend about "The Girl Who Stands Behind," which is pretty much the kind of legend you'd expect it to be from the name. When you're alone at school, late at night, you may hear a voice call out to you from behind, and it's a ghost called "The Girl Who Stands Behind."

However, since someone got killed over this, there's obviously more to "The Girl Who Stands Behind" than being a simple urban legend. This leads into a deep dive into when the legend started, what was the inciting event, who the real girl could have been, and why she was killed.

Identifying the girl isn't that hard once the protagonist finds out when the legend started, because a girl named Shinobu went missing fifteen years ago, and one of the teachers who was a student at the time admits to having seen a bloody Shinobu late at night, but figuring out why she was bloody, who killed her, and why her body was hidden is much more complicated.
Maybe too complicated.

While I was writing this, I came to realize that the reason I didn't like this game as much as The Missing Heir is that there are too many players in the game with hidden backstories tying them to a crime of several years ago that Shinobu had the misfortune to stumble into.

We have multiple pairs of misbehaving fathers and sons, and one of the sons we never get to meet alive, even though he seems like a suspect at one point and was still breathing through a good chunk of the story. Running counter to that, we end up spending a ridiculous amount of time with a suspicious janitor who is actually not involved at all. We spend so much time investigating around the janitor we even run out to visit his mother!

And there are frustrating red herrings like that stupid wall (if you've played the game you know exactly which wall I'm talking about). Even the protagonist admits he thought it hid the body at one point, but are you ever allowed to investigate it? Can you even bring it up as a possibility to anyone prior to the end of the game? Nooooooo.
Though I had fun running through the case as I was playing it (I really did like unraveling the urban legend portion of the story), The Girl Who Stands Behind just didn't give me that strong a punch at the end. The Missing Heir felt like everything wrapped up, and even though a lot of people died, it felt like an upbeat ending. The Girl has a very creepy visual of Shinobu's corpse falling down on Hibino's shoulder, which definitely lands a reaction (especially since I was not expecting her body to be behind the mirror), but I just didn't feel as satisfied.

Worse, the game tries to land that upbeat ending by framing Principal Urabe's covering for Hibino's crimes as an act of fatherly love. While Urabe's actions could have come out of love, the result of it was tragedy and should not be celebrated as the feel good capstone to a murder mystery. With the reveal of her body, it feels like Shinobu has finally gotten her justice, but Yoko, whose death kicks off the story, ends up feeling like a forgotten victim.

That said, I enjoyed a lot of the school elements of the story. The protagonist is sent in to investigate precisely because he's the same age as the other students and they're more likely to talk with him than the police. This is the first time he works with Ayumi, who runs support for him in The Missing Heir. She has a lot more to do in this game and The Girl Who Stands Behind also introduces Hitomi, who I wish had been in The Missing Heir as he's very funny. Hitomi is typically a girl's name, so the fact this Hitomi falls into the 80s Japanese delinquent archetype is a hoot.
The setting in general feels a little livelier, a little less artificial with all the students around. There are kids hanging out between and after classes, and a much larger student body to press for information than the relatively static number of villagers in The Missing Heir. No small number of them will comment on the protagonist being a teen detective, but it doesn't seem quite as out of place as when the police would do it in the previous game since these are his peers.

I'd still recommend The Girl Who Stands Behind, but overall I think The Missing Heir was the better mystery.

Monday, September 6, 2021

VN Talk: Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir

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

Platform: Switch
Release: 2021

Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir was originally an old adventure game for the 8-bit NES some thirty odd years ago. It wasn't brought over to the US at the time, and no wonder since it has more in common with PC games than what we considered console games at the time. Famicom Detective Club has a lot of text and requires a player willing to read a lot and puzzle out which actions to take next given the information they have.

Sometimes those actions are arbitrary or silly in the fashion of adventure games of the late 80s and early 90s, and none of that gameplay was updated when Nintendo did a remake of the two FDC games, The Missing Heir and The Girl Who Stands Behind.

The story, at least for The Missing Heir, likely would have required some rewriting for content that would have been unacceptable at the time as well.

So what about the story? This is a thirty year old game!

Surprisingly, it holds up well! Put on your spoiler hat though. This is a mystery game and it only was translated into English for the first time this year. It's not possible to discuss without spoiling the ending.

The Missing Heir features a nameable protagonist who is a teen detective called out to investigate the death of Kiku, the matriarch of the wealthy Ayashiro family. The butler wants the protagonist to find Kiku's missing daughter and heir to the family business and fortune.
However, someone also tries to kill the protagonist, resulting in him starting off the game with amnesia and needing to be briefed on what happened. Despite his lack of memories, he's still game for solving the case, and with his friend Ayumi doing secondary investigations remotely, he's able to make good progress.

He also has a personal quest of his own. Being an orphan he wants to find his birth family, and it doesn't take a genius to realize that even if he's not the missing daughter, he must be her son and thus a missing heir himself.

And that turns out to be true. His mother eloped to marry the man she loved and his parents died in a house fire that he survived as a baby. The reason for the murder attempt on him earlier in the game was because someone realized his connection to the family and there are others who stand to inherit if his mother's fate is never brought to light. There's a talisman his mother left him that is considered proof of being the family heir and no way to claim the inheritance without it.

His amnesia is just a convenient way to keep that hidden until late in the story where it can be a surprise reveal, and while it's realistic for him to not suspect he has a personal relationship to everything going on, it's a little aggravating when the player is expecting him to eventually figure out he has the burn mark signifying that he's Yuri's baby. Fortunately, the game does address why he doesn't notice it until someone else points it out, but until we see exactly how it's positioned on his body it's a bit of a hangbanger wondering how he's missed seeing a scar on his own arm.
The villain also has a good reason for keeping the protagonist alive after the initial murder attempt because he needs that talisman Yuri left behind, thus establishing why the protagonist is allowed to investigate through the game than being immediately offed in a second attempt. (The first attempt was by an accomplice who didn't know better.)

But even though the protagonist's heritage is the titular mystery, there's more going on in this game, and this is where it gets good. For what was probably considered a children's title, there's a pretty high body count, and surprisingly the police have zero problems with allowing a teen detective check out a crime scene.

Matriarch Kiku has two nephews, a niece, and a grandnephew in addition to her missing daughter (who most don't realize is already deceased) and presumably all of them would like to inherit the company rather than some cousin who's been missing for years. But then, one by one, they start turning up dead, and their deaths don't necessarily look like murders either, like the guy hung from a noose with no signs of a struggle. Is that murder or suicide?

Finding the missing link to figure out how the deaths happened, who the murderer is (since you have a pretty good idea of name, but not the face), is a much better ride. I really liked the discovery that the two nephews and Kiko herself had been killed through poison-laced tobacco, using their own vice against them and murdering them in a way that did not leave a mark. And it also explains why the later murders had to be more violent with clues left behind because those victims didn't smoke.
It was on learning this that I realized this plot point was probably a major blocker in getting this game localized when it originally came out. Cigarettes would have been a no-no and here it was an integral part of the murder method.

Once all the relatives are popped off and Kiko's lawyer Kanda stands to inherit, it's pretty obvious that the culprit has to be him. But he's impossible to meet in any obvious way as he's never in his office. It's not until the protagonist undergoes the traditional Ayashiro family trial to inherit the company that Kanda finally reveals himself and tries to kill the protagonist now that he has everything he needs to legitimately take over the company.

In a way, it's a little surprising that the protagonist does not take any countermeasures against this knowing that someone already tried to kill him once. He's not able to beat Kanda, but is saved by his adopted uncle Kazuto, who, like Kanda, remains an enigma most of the game that we barely catch a glimpse of.

I'd actually forgotten about him entirely so when he barged in to rescue the protagonist it took me a while to figure out who he was. Since he was the son of a mistress, he never stood to inherit anything and was actually sent away after Kiku's husband died, which is likely why he never made Kanda's hit list.

With Kanda apprehended, the game moves on to a predictable ending. Kazuto tells the protagonist he's the heir and the head of the company now, but the protagonist is just happy to have finally discovered his family and makes his uncle the new heir, since he's better positioned to run a business.
It's a short game and doesn't really break any new ground, but it's aged well and probably would have blown my mind had I been able to play it when it originally came out. Even thirty years later it's still a solid title. Next week, health permitting, I'll cover the second Famicom Detective Club game, The Girl Who Stands Behind.

Monday, August 23, 2021

RPG Talk: The Caligula Effect: Overdose

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

Platform: PS4 (also on Switch and Windows)
Release: 2019

I was interested in the original The Caligula Effect from the day I first heard about it, when it was still a Japan-only title that might never be localized. I liked the idea of characters trying to escape a virtual world that they originally arrived at in order to avoid the pain and trauma in their real lives. And the game had a pedigree, having been written by one of the original Persona writers, from before Persona 3.

However, Caligula Effect was plagued with gameplay and loading issues so I ultimately decided to pass on it.

Then The Caligula Effect: Overdose was announced with additional content, a new game engine to go with the new consoles it would be releasing on, and perhaps the best form of advertising; an anime series. I ended up reviewing the anime at Diabolical Plots and while it was flawed, I really liked the core of it. So when Overdose released, I bought it.

Though the loading issues are gone, The Caligula Effect: Overdose is still a flawed game with a flawed story that I think otherwise had so much potential.
What I liked about the game is that it pulls from a wide range of reasons that a person in pain might withdraw from the world. Every playable character suffers from a personal trauma. Some of the traumas are definitely in the vein of "Yes, that's a problem!" and it's easy to see why someone suffering from bereavement or body dysmorphia could find solace in another reality. But even the more "mundane" issues can still mean a lot to the right person, and I'll get to specifics after I lay out how the story is arranged.

Much like the Persona series, Caligula has your band of high schoolers with issues who come together for a purpose. Only they're not actually high schoolers. The only people in the virtual world of Mobius who are "real" appear as high school kids, but could be any range of ages in the real world.

All of them have realized that Mobius is fake and decided that they want to go back to reality. As with Persona 4 and on, the cast delves into one dungeon after another that focuses on individual characters and gradually more people join the party as we run into more dungeons.

The problem with Caligula Effect and particularly with Overdose is that there are too many damn characters! Our heroes are part of the Go-Home Club, and for every one of them, there is a Musician on the antagonist side, who is fighting to preserve Mobius. Each dungeon beyond the first focuses on a duo, one member of the Go-Home Club and one Musician, who are thematically linked in some fashion. For instance, Mifue has body dysmorphia that makes her starve herself, and she shares a focus dungeon with Sweet-P, who likes to eat but hates being fat.
This gives us a cast of twenty humans plus two virtual idols, μ and Aria, who are the ones responsible for creating Mobius in the first place. With few exceptions, when the plot demands it, there is no time in the main game to do more than touch on the problems these characters are facing, leaving their personal stories for the optional Character Scenarios.

Persona does this as well, but it's much better integrated because Caligula does not have an in-game calendar. Instead, new scenarios are unlocked by dungeon progression, and because there are only so many dungeons in the game (even with the four new characters original to Overdose) this usually means you'll end up doing scenarios back to back.

You also can only do scenarios after having done their dungeon (with the exception of Shogo and Thorn, being the final duo), so with late game characters, this creates an unfortunate logjam where you'll end up doing six or more scenarios in a row because the game is ending and you literally could not start sooner, but the scenarios themselves treat the story as happening over several days, which is frankly baffling.

And this is too bad, because with room to breathe, these characters really could have been something. This cast is broken and it is absolutely no surprise when their secrets come out why they could have been seduced into leading a virtual life where they don't have the problems they have in the real one; whether it is a lack of self worth, grief, or fear. No problem, whether society would consider it big or small, is beneath μ's desire to help.
Suzuna's trauma is referred to as "lunchmate syndrome" where she ate lunch by herself in the bathroom because she didn't want to be seen as having no friends to eat with. It sounds like a nothing problem, high school angst that she'll eventually get over. But it was traumatic for her and that's enough reason for μ to want to give her a better life in Mobius.

And Sweet-P's trauma, if handled with more time and sensitivity could have been amazing (cw: transphobia).

Unsurprisingly, Sweet-P would like a world where she looks like her ideal self, which is physically a far cry from her real world body (not just in terms of gender), and because of that she's one of the Musicians, the game's antagonists. Her character scenarios focus on her dissatisfaction with her real world life, being in middle age and considering gender reassignment surgery, and what it's like being assigned male but liking stereotypically feminine things (especially as an older person with a masculine appearance). In more capable hands her story really could have been good!

So it's terrible that the Go-Home Club, despite being the heroes, frequently says things like "she's actually a man" and outs her status to other characters who otherwise wouldn't know. Worse, the game pulls stupid crap like having everyone pause before the gendered doors in the sauna dungeon so one of the characters can wonder which door she used. Though only the group's meathead thinks Sweet-P would have gone into the men's sauna, showing that most of the characters are aware she thinks of herself as female, they clearly don't agree with her assessment of herself from their behavior elsewhere.
And then the game does things like walk back whether Sweet-P is actually transgender and maybe she's really just a middle-aged man who likes cute things, which could be fine if not for the fact it feels more like the writer got cold feet. I mean, that earlier scene in the sauna where Sweet-P is approached by Ayana felt like serious transgender fear of being attacked for not having the right body type and not the fear of a man being caught in the wrong bath.

My one consolation is that if the player wants to do her character scenarios, they have to be supportive, as expressing disgust or hate towards her gender results in the player being locked out of her stories. So even if the rest of the party behaves poorly, the player is encouraged not to.

Characters aside, Caligula suffers a lot from the same new enemy, new dungeon scenario that Persona 5 does. The Go-Home Club needs to get to μ to force her to let them go home, and μ is working with the Musicians to keep Mobius running, so each dungeon is basically "Hey, we're chasing down another Musician!" culminating in a fight with said Musician, and after a few dungeons the formula starts to get stale. That Overdose actually adds another two dungeons does not help.

What Overdose does add that kind of works is allowing the player to join the Musicians as a covert operative, unlocking the Musician character scenarios, so the characters are not as flat as they were in the original game, and allowing the player character to unlock another ending.

This addition is not all that clean, and in fact results in even more dungeon running as you now revisit dungeons with Musician party members and fight the Go-Home Club, but if you're going to play anyway, it's worth it for the character scenarios. It's not for the added plot.
Ostensibly Thorn is trying to convince the player as the Go-Home Club president to side with the Musicians by seeing the story from their side, but ultimately she ends up brainwashing most of the Musicians to force them to continue fighting for Mobius, and she doesn't do this with the player protagonist. Obviously this is because removing player control would be bad, but this could have been handled with an ultimatum where the player stays or leaves when faced with the brainwashing, so at least Thorn would know that an unbrainwashed player agreed with her. It doesn't seem right that she would have let the player do as they please as a loose cannon.

Thorn as the lead villain is all right. Her ultimate goal is completely insane, destroying the world because her deceased friend no longer exists in it, but that's fine given that this is the game for characters with issues. What I disliked about her was actually added in the Overdose route.

The whole reason the Musicians are fighting the Go-Home club instead of kicking out the people who want to go home anyway, is that denying Mobius's reality as authentic actually causes Mobius to become unstable. The Musicians are trying to preserve the status quo, and for many of them, going back to the real world would be unbearable. Even for someone as unpleasant as Mirei, staying in Mobius means spending time with a loved one who is dying and otherwise confined to a bed. For Kuchinashi, it means living with the family she lost to an arson fire.
But in the Musician route, Thorn oddly threatens the Musicians with sending them back home to keep them in line, which completely contradicts why the Go-Home Club is a problem to begin with. There's no reason to keep this a secret as sending them home would solve everyone's problems and be a win-win for all around. Even if Thorn was keeping this secret on purpose to keep Shogo around for torment, the other Musicians should have said something.

Sadly, this feels par for the course for this game. It's got a lot of interesting ideas, fits and starts of something cool, but it just can't pull it together into the exceptional experience it could have been. I liked the bits I found, and seriously, if the character traumas had been given the proper room to breathe this could have been a highly memorable cast, but this is a case of where the parts are better than the whole.

Monday, August 16, 2021

VN Talk: My Vow to My Liege - Part 5: Wu Zixu

This is the last installment of my My Vow to My Liege VN Talk series. As mentioned before, beware of spoilers since I will cover plot points up until the end of his route.

If there is any character that the title My Vow to My Liege applies to, it's Wu Zixu. Though all the love interests are loyal (or not) to Fuchai, Wu Zixu's vow is front and center from the common route on. He clearly states that his goal in life is to see his king and country prosper. Though he and Fuchai disagree a lot, particularly on the common route, it feels like constructive disagreement. He's there to point out the things she can't or won't see, and there's no doubt that he will never abandon her, no matter what decisions she makes. Zixu dies on half the routes, protecting her kingdom in her absence after getting her to safety.

It was really hard not to like the guy after that, and I was glad I saved his route for last as it let me end the game on a high note. Not only is his route the most unique out of the four (the march to Qi doesn't happen at all), but it's replaced with palace intrigue and more nods to history than any other route, including Goujian's. He even quotes the classic poem Young Reeds Before Flowering (蒹葭) that is used as the lyrics for the ending credits song.

My only disappointment was that his bad ending didn't include his historical line to Fuchai that his eyes be posthumously hung on the gates of Gusu so he could watch the capital's capture. I guess that wouldn't have made for a tragically romantic ending, and I did like his actual bad ending, which flips an earlier question Fuchai had about what the king would be without her prime minister, making it clear that neither of them are anything without the other.

I suppose that was a dismal note to start things off with, so let's get to the meat of his route.

Getting Zixu's route involves pissing off Goujian (by being willing to kill him as a scapegoat), which I was all for, and results in a much more contentious king of Yue for the rest of the story. I found I liked it when Fuchai stops backing him up so much. And the thing is, even though Zixu's warnings about Goujian seem overly much during the common route, he's absolutely right about him.

Once the naval battle happens, Fuchai returns to the capital after hearing about a possible coup, only to find out that Wu Zixu is being dunked on by the rest of the palace ministers, led by Bo Pi (who historically was bribed by Goujian). Because Gusu's granaries were damaged on his watch, Zixu temporarily exiles himself from court.

This eventually leads to Zixu being framed for treason once mind-controlled Chenfeng "confesses" to setting the city on fire on Zixu's orders. And Goujian, who is providing much needed food aid to Ng, lets Fuchai know that he was shot during the naval battle by Ng forces (which we know from Goujian's route was done on Zixu's orders).

Fuchai's ministers push for her to execute Zixu and she's furious that she seems to be the only one who trusts him. She demands to see the room in the palace where he's being held and her ministers are clearly afraid that allowing her a private conversation with him will convince her to spare him, but she's so upset that no one dares deny her.

What happens next is one of my favorite scenes. She wants to convince Zixu to become her husband (and even tries to undress before he stops her) because, she reasons, the father of the future king would be above reproach. But Zixu, being the guy that he is, tells her that she should execute him, even if the charges are false (mostly, he did give the order to kill Goujian). He tells her that she can't run a country without her ministers, and in aggregate she needs them. If his dying preserves the peace, so be it.

Fuchai does not take this very well. And to the player it looks like she angrily respects his wishes when she tosses a sword at him and tells him to stab himself, leaving her to fly solo for much of the remainder of his route. We even see his "corpse" hauled out after said stabbing.

While I was not surprised he would come back later in the story, since it was far too early to be either a good or bad ending, I wasn't sure how that would happen. And I definitely did not think that faking his death (by not quite stabbing himself lethally enough) would be the case.

Apparently "stab yourself to end things once and for all" is code for "fake your death and escape the city with a bunch of loyal followers" so Zixu can save the day when Goujian and the Kingdom of Qi try sacking Gusu. I am hoping something was just lost in translation (perhaps a reference to a historical event?) because I couldn't read into the exchange so Zixu's return came out of left field. I thought it would be more likely that the dream world (when Fuchai is trying to become master of the Ding of Virtue) would revive him somehow, since she's able to influence the past in it.

Still, Zixu's route ended up being my favorite of the bunch. I really liked how forward Fuchai was, from initially suggesting the marriage as an off the cuff method of getting Zixu back in court, to seriously trying to get him to marry her to save his life, to actually marrying him in the epilogue. Having all the palace intrigue didn't hurt either.

Fuchai remains king in Zixu's good ending and they have a daughter, who will inherit the throne since Fuchai has since made amendments to the law to allow a woman to become king. The implication is that Fuchai herself still presents as male at court though (likely to make sure that the law has teeth) and her marriage to Zixu is a secret.

I'm not surprised by that, since it's likely something he would have been in favor of, but I'm a wee bit disappointed that we find out he's stepped down as prime minister in his good ending, since it's not clear what he's doing with his time anymore. Their daughter is recognized as the legitimate heir, so she's probably being taken care of by palace nursemaids (if not Chenfeng, who is babysitting in this ending), so Zixu probably has lots of time on his hands now.