Archive for Reviews

_transfer – A Snapshot of Momentum

I had the pleasure of seeing an early build of _transfer at GDC2017, and I’m thrilled now that it’s gotten an official release. This is going to be a very short post about a game that you have to experience.

Screenshot, reading "From one there is nine. It took a bold mind, willing to do anything to save humanity from itself. The mind conceived, and two hands constructed. That is your origin. They are always talking about origins and destructions."

In science and science fiction, there are aspects that can be difficult to understand. There might be a moment of insight where between the trees you can see the sun, but as soon as it was there it’s gone and what you have is an impression of a truth that you almost knew.

In _transfer, that glimpse of the sun is the answer – it’s who you are. And the story is told in the moment of momentum where you can see it. You don’t have the origin and you don’t have the destruction, all you have is a little snapshot of time where you might see the truth if you know what you’re looking for.

If this sounds extremely bizarre and pretentious, this is just the only way I know how to explain it.

The game starts with you logging in to a conversation between AI. You don’t know who you are or where you’re going. It’s irrelevant, and many of them are quickly bored that you’re bothering them with questions about your identity. As you converse with them, memory files are recovered that shed light on the world of _transfer and the lives of these AI. As you start to piece together the themes and concepts at play, the system shuts down and forces you to start anew.

Every time you start a new round in _transfer, important concepts accumulate. If you want to take in all the information, you might want to take notes, but the AI designations change every time, so you can’t count on those. Soon you’ll discover the unimportance of linearity in the “lives” of these AI. They inquire about conversations that you had in previous rounds. You play in a circle, and every time you learn a little more.

The AI in _transfer are curious and confused about sex. “Humans are so obsessed with their own survival that they watch videos of other humans procreating,” reads one of the memory logs. “They are always talking about origins and destructions,” says another. I feel like this is what _transfer is about. Without creation or destruction, what are you at all? I think _transfer is saying that we’re in transit. We’re transferring, from one place to another, and that’s the sunlight through the trees that it’s attempting to express.

_transfer is a fascinating little thesis-statement of a game about AI and the transit of existence. It’s the kind of game that couldn’t have been anything but a game in order to tell this story as intended, and that’s the highest praise I can give anything. Check it out.

DATE THAT DAD! – Dream Daddy

I’ve played a lot of visual novels, and a good half of them or so have been dating sims of some kind. My experience with dating sims in North America has been rather disappointing, compared to some of the treasured stories I’ve read that come from Japan or South Korea, so when I saw Dream Daddy release with fanfare, I had very low expectations.

And I was pleasantly surprised!

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The Wrath of the Wronged – The House in Fata Morgana REVIEW

You’re lost. You’re tired. You’re hungry and you’re sick. You’re stumbling through a forest knowing that if you stop walking, someone will find you. Your life is in danger, be it from a misfortune, a mistake, or a vendetta. You call out to any god or spirit that might be listening to please have mercy and provide you refuge. That’s when you see it: a huge mansion in the woods. The House in Fata Morgana.

The House in Fata Morgana — or as I will call it from here on: Fata Morgana — is the visual novel debut by the group Novectacle, localized into English by Manga Gamer. It guides you by the hand with the help of The Maid as you learn the misfortunes of the people who lived in the mansion over a thousand years. There’s much more to it than that, but to say more would ruin the story for you. This VN is very hard to summarize and review without ruining things.

Fata Morgana, although written by a Japanese team, is a gothic story at it’s core about sin and forgiveness. It handles many themes of Christianity with thoughtfulness, tact, and a bit of the Japanese worldview mixed in. Fata Morgana stands on its own, without falling back on tropes and benchmarks like you often find in visual novels. Fata Morgana is like reading a book more than any visual novel I’ve read before.

If you’re interested, here’s a list of bullet point things that Fata Morgana does well, out of context to sell you on it without providing specific spoilers:

  • Lack of communication ruining relationships.
  • How not to cope with being a psychopath.
  • Toxic masculinity destroying everything.
  • Mistrust due to personal baggage.
  • Recovering from trauma.
  • Being a trans person in a shitty, shitty time.
  • People making stupid fucking mistakes intrinsic to their character flaws that ruin other peoples’ lives.
  • Acceptance.

I was waiting for things to fuss about over this story, but it is very well done. The narrative is tight. The localization is smooth as hell. The art is good. The music is good. Every character is a fully realized human. Some of the jokes were really dumb? So I guess there was that.

Fata Morgana had a perfect score on Steam by recommendation, and I believe it was well deserved.

Continue on for a summary just a little less careful about spoilers:

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Persona 5 is the JRPG we’ve been waiting for

Persona 5 has disgusting portrayals of gay men, and gross camera shots of female characters for fanservice. These aspects (especially the former) I won’t forgive. However, they weren’t enough for me to give up on Persona 5. The work it does in reestablishing what JRPGs can do is, to me, moving. The graphics, the gameplay, and everything that is included in the game justifies the release date delays. It was all worth it. It’s beautiful, it plays well, and most importantly to me: it establishes itself as a part of the larger Persona/SMT canon.

The troubles surrounding the translation is undeniable, and has been talked about at length in game journalism, so I don’t think there’s more I can offer to the conversation. For the sake of sparing spoilers to anyone, here’s a quick rundown:


  • Localisation
  • Homophobia
  • Fanservice exploiting the female characters
  • Endless material made to pander to every (straight male) gamer’s fetish


  • Dungeons each have a unique design to enhance the narrative
  • UI is beautiful, battles are fun and slick
  • Enhances features that characterized the past two Persona games (school days timeline, stat generation)
  • The narrative design and plot arc structure is very good
  • Futaba’s mental illness is dealt with sympathetically and that is incredible

Persona 5 has a finely fabricated mystery. Character’s arcs, plot developments, and major reveals are telegraphed well enough that you can see them coming, but they build suspense. It isn’t perfect, which I believe are caused by how many storylines they juggle at once and the different ways the player might handle them. I don’t feel like I can fault the dev team for that. Writing games is hard.

Persona 5 makes me excited to see where the future of JRPGs is going to go. Anyone who loves RPGs or games should play it, even if you haven’t seen the series before. I feel like it understand what was created here would be an asset in a developer’s arsenal for the future.

As said above, the most I got out of the game was seeing it tie into the lore of it’s predecessors, specifically into the concepts of Persona 2. Although the allusions were vague, I believe the relation was deliberate. I hope to write a post on that in a year, when I don’t have to worry about spoiling anyone.

Persona 5 has been in development for years, but the themes of rebellion and breaking the shackles of society’s expectations appears to be globally relevant. Older SMT fans might be able to turn to Persona 5 to understand the feelings of today’s youth, while millennials like myself may be touched by the sense of worldwide solidarity, like I was. In the end, all we can do is inherit the earth, make it ours, and make it right.

NieR:Automata – Games, Novels, and Divine Evolution

In recent years, Yoko Taro has grown from a small Japanese developer, to an auteur who I believe will be making waves alongside Hideo Kojima and Suda51 before long. NieR: Automata is his biggest hit to date, and rather emblematic of what Taro-san does when it comes to game and narrative design. NieR games pull in elements from many genres in order to create a game that says things about all games. In this post I’m going to talk a little about this gameplay mosiac and how it works, and the story themes about evolution to godhood in a story about AI.


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The Mental Illness Story We Deserve – Night in the Woods

Oh my goodness Night in the Woods was really something.

Night in the Woods is a simple story game and almost-platformer about Mae Borovski when she comes home after quitting college. She returns to her childhood home of Possum Springs, to the place and the people she’d left behind. Why did she quit school? Why is everyone so hostile toward her? Why does she have dreams of giant animals in the woods?

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I liked Oxenfree too much to have anything to say on it.

Usually when I have a lot to write about a game or whatever I’m reviewing, it’s because some aspect of it either blew my mind or disappointed me. People are interested in what I have to say after I played Oxenfree, but it’s hard because Oxenfree is a very solid, respectable game. I recommend it to people looking for a small, good story, but that’s about all I’ve got.

I loved the characters. I love their interactions. I loved the effects of the dialogue on events. Oxenfree was a linear story with relationships that changed. All of the characters were frustrating teenage brats. It was wonderful.

I feel a little strange writing a review of a game without having a pedestal and a pointing stick to outline every little thing in it that blew my mind, or I hated. Oxenfree effectively used established expectations in games to create something good. It’s a solid story that used its mechanics in an interesting way. It’s a good way to show simply how these things can all be harnessed and used well.

However, it didn’t do anything that I believed was revolutionary. And while that may sound like an insult, I don’t mean it as one. Not every single game needs to revolutionize anything. I will play and enjoy every single Telltale Game, regardless of whether or not it gives me something new. Oxenfree is a good game, and that’s just fine. Give me more of this sort of ghost story. Give me more light interaction games. Give me more.

Play Oxenfree for a good ghost story with meaty characters. Enjoy it for that. And please, Night School, give me more.

4/5, highly recommended to people who like things that are good.

Leisure and Suspence Don’t Mix – √Letter

Root Letter by Kadokawa Games is a game that sparked my interest after I saw ads for it on twitter. It is one of few visual novel mystery games that has an official localization, which excites me. As you probably know by now, I love a good story, and I’m interested in visual novels as an art form. So, I contacted the PQube marketing department and asked for a review copy (thank you very much!).

So far I am 2 for 2 out of games I’ve requested for review that I haven’t liked and I feel really terrible about it. So I’m going to try to keep this brief.

Anime Tourism

There is a mystery visual novel game localized as Higurashi When They Cry (ひぐらしのなく頃に / When the Cicadas Cry). It was a big hit in Japan and adapted into an anime, which you’re more likely to know about. Higurashi takes place in a sleepy village in the countryside called Hinamizawa. Higurashi is a mystery/horror story, and so the things that happen in Hinamizawa are pretty terrible. Higurashi turns this little village in the country into an eerie, and sinister place. Regardless of that, the town that Hinamizawa was based on – Shirakawa-go – receives many tourists.

Anime tourism is real and if you ever thought to yourself “I would love to spend my money on a game that makes me want to visit somewhere in real life to spend more money”, you might be interested in Root Letter. The game takes place in Matsue, and I suspect there was some funding by the Shimane tourism board that made that happen. This sort of… ‘product placement’ or whatever isn’t something that I usually let bother me, except when it causes other elements to suffer.

Leisure and Suspence Don’t Mix

The plot of Root Letter is the story of a guy who finds a letter by his old penpal where she confesses she was involved in a murder, so you go to Shimane to look into it. The stakes are high, and there’s no way to know if your old penpal is even alive. Is she dead? Did she kill someone? Would you like to take a leisurely boat ride to tour Lake Shinji? YES let’s have a lovely stroll while we contemplate a possible murder. You have no choice in the matter.

Higurashi has a story to tell that uses its setting to the fullest, crafting an atmosphere that makes even a sunny countryside feel dangerous. It sets up the right conventions of mystery and horror that causes Silent Hill fans to feel a thrill when going down a foggy street.

Root Letter is far too preoccupied with painting Matsue in a beautiful light to use the setting to build any suspence. The mystery is entirely carried on the shoulders of the characters involved. Once you encounter someone who you need to question about your penpal, you’ve had such a lovely day around town that it’s easy to forget what the hell you were doing. Or, in my case, you’re so bored of not doing mystery stuff that you go back to bed.

There’s a way to make a story that uses it’s environment, and Root Letter is trying so hard to overcompensate and make you want to visit Matsue, that it tarnishes overall experience.

If you want to read a good mystery that takes advantage of it’s setting, just read Higurashi.

Please Play LISA

So I lost my life this week to LISA. It is my very favorite thing when this happens to me when I play a game. I don’t think I’d heard about it before this week, so I purchased it when it was on sale.

If you follow me and you agree with my opinions on stuff, please play LISA. It’s about toxic masculinity, sexual abuse and drug abuse in the post-apocalypse. It’ll take about 12 hours of your time, not including the very important DLC: LISA the joyful. You’ll laugh a lot. You’ll cry a lot. You’ll pay the price for trying to protect the last woman alive.

What is LISA?

Okay here’s the story:

The apocalypse happened. It was an event they refer to as “The Flash”. The main character, Brad, survives around his small squad of childhood friends. He finds a child – a girl, possibly the last girl alive – and swears that he will take care of her to make up for past mistakes.

They do their best to raise her, but the girl – Buddy – is curious and anxious being kept contained. In time, their home is attacked and she’s taken away. Brad then does what any father would do a la Taken except in the rapey post-apocalypse: he goes to find her.

How does it play?

LISA is like a side-scrolling RPG platformer. There are jump/movement mechanics that often make zones into tiny puzzles themselves. The battle system is reminiscent of Earthbound, but with a lot of unique elements like combo mechanics.

One of LISA’s heavily marketed features is perma-death. The post-apocalypse is a terrible place where you have to pay the price. Characters are knocked out when their HP reaches zero in battle, but other situations will get them killed for good. Certain special moves will take them out permanently, but most of the time it’s scripted events that put your treasured NPC’s lives at risk.

NPC ally death doesn’t have story repercussions, aside from leaving you to level up new randos that you might not like as much. Save often.

Spoiler-Free Praise

LISA is inspired by the P.D. James novel Children of Men. (The movie is pretty good too, if you’re interested.) It takes the concept of low-fertility dystopia from A Handmaid’s Tale and looks at it from a separate perspective – the men’s perspective. LISA goes a step further and leaves the concept of fertility behind to fall into a James Tiptree Jr. style feminist horror. There is no evidence to say that anything killed the women in LISA except for men.

I can’t say too much about the complex gender politics without spoiling things, so I might save that for another blog post.

LISA also explores – using character permadeath and other mechanics – a sense of player agency. I can’t help but compare how these elements play out to other games like Undertale and my treasured OFF.

LISA never blames you for how the events unfold. Instead, it instills a constant sense of moral confusion where your hands are tied, but you struggle with Brad to decipher if you’re doing the right thing. Even at the end of it all, it never points fingers at the player. Everything in the end works toward a sense of storytelling rather than meta-narrative commentary. (It seems like a strange thing to praise, but I could make a whole other post about player agency as narrative.)

In Conclusion…

Please play LISA.

Please play LISA.

Please play LISA.

The Last Guardian – Game of the Year please

If it’s not game of the year I guess I’ll have to play some other games.

I don’t want to talk too long about The Last Guardian. I do want to waste a little time on the storytelling, so I’ll get the gripes out of the way:

I agree with some of the typical criticisms. The camera was annoying, but it was the beast from an old system that was tried and true for Team ICO. In the future I’m sure they’ll try different ways of doing things. It doesn’t make the game unplayable to me. Let’s stop talking about it.

It appears that major criticisms of the game are polarized on Trico’s animal behavior. Your companion is a creature that doesn’t understand your language, although Trico is very intelligent otherwise. If you hate animals, especially cute ones that you’re working together with to get out of danger, I’d take a pass on The Last Guardian.

My major criticism is that there was too much old man narration. His puzzle tips were helpful, but I sometimes felt like he was spoon-feeding the story to the player. In fact, I bet that it was something they were forced to put in. Shadow of the Collossus had very, very little dialogue. Team ICO is good at telling a story without using words, but maybe gamers don’t have the patience to put it together over several playthroughs. I wonder if The Last Guardian suffered for being a triple-A game.

Sitting at my desk now, thinking about my experience with The Last Guardian, I feel a little overwhelmed. Team Ico is to games what Studio Ghibli is to film. Animated feature films have an older and more complex stake in the greater art world, but The Last Guardian features many aspects that Miyazaki incorporates into his own works. The Last Guardian and other Team Ico games hang tenaciously onto a sense of wonder and exploration. I believe anyone could pick up a system and learn how to communicate with Trico, if given the tools. They’re surrounded by a land that is wonderful, dangerous, and mysterious. What Ghibli has that Team Ico doesn’t is lengthy dialogue.

When I was playing, a friend of mine, Rachel, was also playing. When I finished it, she asked me, excited, what I’d thought of the plot.

I couldn’t think of what to say. It felt to me that the way The Last Guardian was built, proceeded, and came together at the finale.

The plot was clear, but the story was the play. It does, absolutely, tell a story, but The Last Guardian is even more interested in giving you stories to tell. Your adventures with Trico are yours, because you sat down and picked up your controller and engaged with it. The Last Guardian was about teamwork with an unlikely friend in order to flee to safety. The game doesn’t need to explain that much to you with words (although it does).

If you’re confused by anything in The Last Guardian, that’s okay. Take a break. Put it away. Next time you have the time, play it again, and your depth of understanding will increase. You’ll learn more, every time, and put the pieces together on your own. This is what the game wants from you, and it’s okay.

In fact, I’d say it’s great.

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