Archive for Reviews

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.

Consent, Compromise, and Cost – Ladykiller in a Bind

In 2014, my wife and I binged on Christine Love’s work. I watched her liveblog it between layovers on my way to Helsinki, and once I arrived she made me sit down to read Analogue: A Hate Story and Hate Plus. Those two games remain high on my list of visual novels that I will recommend to anyone. When Christine revealed her next game was going to be a exploring the themes of manipulation in dating games for women, I was thrilled. I’ve been watching the development closely ever since.

Today, I finished every route. I feel like Ladykiller is impressive and should inspire visual novels to come, but LoveConquersAll Games has bit off more than it could chew. The theme of this review is going to be an apocryphal line by Samuel R Delany:

“If you’re going to fuck the dog, put it all the way in.”

(The review below contains spoilers, discussion about rape, and nudity.)

Read more

Save the Past! – Storytelling in The Silver Case

I’ve been starving for adventure games for a long time now, and I’ve been particularly interested in Suda51’s adventure past since playing Super DanganRonpa 2. In October we finally got one of Suda’s long lost adventure games in English for the first time: The Silver Case, and I dropped the full price for it on release day.

For The Silver Case, I’m not going to talk about the story. Elements of it have been harvested into pop-culture which may lessen the blow of the plot on modern readers. In spite of that, there are other structural features in the game that we can still learn a lot from. I want to talk about how the medium tells the story in The Silver Case, with art direction, the Film Window, localization, and the Transmitter/Placebo separated narratives.

OKAY maybe I’ll talk about the story a bit, but more about it’s construction than it’s contents.

Read more

Mystic Messenger: East vs West vs the Romance Genre


If you’ve followed me for at least a year, you’ve seen how excited I was for the Mystic Messenger release early this summer. Due to technological issues caused by both my outdated phone and cumbersome bugs in the app, it took me until now – October 2016 – to complete all five good endings and both secret endings. In that time, I saw the game grow in popularity and I am so happy to see Cheritz hitting mass appeal (even if it means giving up the mythology built in Dandelion and Nameless).

Cheritz is a company based in South Korea that advertises “sweet solutions for female gamers”. So far, each of their titles showcase romantic routes that encourage personal growth. According to their page on the visual novel database, Mystic Messenger has only been localized from Korean to English, where Dandelion was also released in China and Nameless in Japan during the initial release. Cheritz is one of very few otome game developers that releases their games in English for the west, while others outsource translation and localization, or are adapted by fans (Nitro+Chiral, I’m looking at you). As a result I can only assume that westerners make up quite a bit of their market, which cannot be ignored when you look at their motivations when constructing Mystic Messenger.

Instead of a review this time, I’m going to go through many of the events, themes and characters of Mystic Messenger and assess where the appeals are stacked. Is this for Western audiences in the Americas and the UK? Is it for Korean audiences in Cheritz’s home field? Or is it something indicative of the romance/Dating sim genre? I’ hope this may explain why certain elements in the game didn’t appeal to me or you, and why that is.

Please be aware that this post contains potential spoilers for all endings and routes. Read at your own risk.

Read more

Waifu simulator VA-11 HALL-A is by Otaku, and for Otaku

After playing and adoring Read Only Memories, VA-11 HALL-A came up on my radar. It is also a Japan-inspired visual novel style game with lots of text which is, as you may have noticed, My Thing. VA-11 HALL-A is described on its Steam page as a “booze-em up about waifus, technology, and post-dystopia life.” To be frank, if nothing about that sounds strange, VA-11 HALL-A was made for you.

I managed to receive VA-11 HALL-A by Sukeban Games providing me with a promo copy for review. I feel terrible about this, but I refuse to compromise my honesty for the sake of my guilt. I also appreciate Sukeban Games’ generosity in taking this risk in giving the game to me, and I hope they accept my words as a friendly critique rather than bitter criticism.

tl;dr it was cute but it didn’t fully acknowledge the plots I liked, and it made me feel objectified. I give it a solid 5/10

Read more

Cyberpunk Realism – Read Only Memories Review

I’m a huge fan of the show Game Center CX, localized once upon a time as Retro Game Master, where I watch Shinya Arino struggle with difficult old games that I never plan to put my hands on, ever. While watching him, though, I’ve seen episodes where he’s wrangled with games that I’d never heard of; adventure and mystery games that were either rare or completely unavailable in North America. Watching Arino-san play The Portopia Serial Murderer Incident and the Jake Hunter series has left this nerd girl particularly hungry for more point-and-click mystery games neck-deep in story. I want game makers to give me more Hotel Dusk, Ace Attorney and even L.A. Noire.

Read Only Memories tapped right into that desire with such pointed direction, it’s as if MidBoss read my mind. Or maybe there was a demand out there from more people than just me. Not only did they make a story-rich mystery adventure game, they made a cyberpunk story-rich mystery adventure game, inspired by games like Kojima’s long-lost Snatcher. While I’m still waiting for more can-you-solve-the-mystery games, I enjoyed every minute of Read Only Memories and I humbly require no less than a hundred sequels.


The story starts with you, an investigative journalist living in squalor in Neo-San Francisco. After writing a review for the low low earnings of “exposure”, a small robot shows up at your house in the night. Turing is the first autonomous AI, and his creator – your friend, Hayden – has been kidnapped. Turing enlists your help because he knows you’re poor, bored, and a super sleuth. Together, you navigate Neo-San Francisco on the hunt for clues.

Read Only Memories brings forth a refreshing new brand of cyberpunk that isn’t based in the cynicism of the 90s like Snatcher or Shadowrun. ROM takes place in 2064, where heroes and villains are at work through greed, goodness or revenge in equal measure. The purest hearts have prickly exteriors, and the warm and forthcoming may have ulterior motives, and each character is a well-thought-out artefact of the world that they grew out of. The vibe of ROM is more realistic than a lot of science fiction I’ve encountered in some time, and I cannot praise the writers highly enough for that.


As an LGBT+ creator myself I also feel the need to point out to others the levels of inclusion that exists in ROM. Early in the game Turing creates a login system for you, where you identify your name, pronouns of choice, and diet preferences. There are many pronoun options, including one where you can put in custom ones not listed. Detective Lexi Rivers is your sister’s ex-girlfriend, and the two burly male bartenders are in love. One of your main contacts, Tomcat, is explicitly non-binary. Gender and sexuality are a non-issue fifty years from now, but other problems of discrimination have arisen thanks to the times. Hybrids who have adopted animal genes often to remedy disabilities are discriminated against, along with people who augment their lost sight with cyborg eyes and so forth. These things are valuable in an earth-based science fiction story for two reasons:

  1. Disabled people and LGBTQA are featured as window-dressing, which is entirely how we prefer to be featured. Our existences by this story’s 2064 has been so normalized that it is no longer an issue and is barely worth being mentioned in the narrative, except that it is there. This is smart world building as well as a responsible storytelling technique that has been executed with amazing tact.
  2. This is a perfect example of something I mentioned earlier about cyberpunk realism as opposed to cynicism: while we have won several battles, several more lie before us. There will always be struggles in life, but progress has been made. It is not a dystopia, and it is not a utopia. It’s realistic.


I don’t want to spoil too much about the fascinating measures of worldbuilding that takes place in Read Only Memories. I just have to implore you to play it for yourself, especially if you’re like me and value story in a game above all else. The point-and-click setup of an adventure game is tried and true, and you can take your time to make choices and digest all of the optional dialogue about VR Drama developers in Japan, and Turing’s favorite types of trees, or not. Make yourself a classy drink, curl up in bed with your laptop, and enjoy Read Only Memories like a good book.

In Loving Praise of Restraint in Metal Gear Solid V

One of the first critiques you will hear as a creative writer of any kind is this: show, don’t tell. The Metal Gear Solid franchise has never taken that piece of advice (not that I’m complaining) until we were allowed to get into the head of Big Boss in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. The beautiful drawn cutscenes by Ashley Wood draw a wordless parallel between Naked Snake shooting The Boss in Russia in the 60’s, to the present day 1970’s where he puts down her horse in Costa Rica. The Snakes often say little about how they feel, but this scene is where Kojima really shows what he’s learned since Metal Gear Solid IV, and uses visual storytelling to say things without using words. It’s important especially in the context of Peace Walker, where Big Boss navigates a second time what The Boss taught him, or at least, what he thought she had taught him. If she had been entirely open with him in the first place, he may have not still struggled with her message.

And that leads us to the controversy of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. There is very little in the narrative that is simply told to the player. For many fans of the earlier titles in the series, The Phantom Pain was a disappointment. As a fan myself, I understand why. I, too, miss the long codec conversations about military history and characters’ personal histories. The sacrifice of these though (and adaptation into fewer, more carefully selected tape recordings) earns MGSV an A+ in game design. The medium is the message in The Phantom Pain, and the message is about silence and projection.

I feel like here I need to leave a disclaimer that 1: there are spoilers ahead and 2: I was not on board the MGSV hype train leading up to the game’s release in October 2015. I bought a playstation 3 for the sole purpose of having it for the Metal Gear Solid IV release, and after that I gave up on the Metal Gear franchise entirely. Not because I was unhappy with IV (I wasn’t! I was pleased with it, although I have some issues with it now) but because I didn’t want to encourage a franchise that Kojima no longer wanted to make. So when I came home to Canada in mid-October 2015 to find my roommates deep in Metal Gear Solid hell, I played Peace Walker, Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain in one go, without any expectations of what any of these games entailed. Considering the angst much of the fandom went through waiting, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I realize, however, that the marketing of MGSV led to certain expectations of the game that were not met, and it’s important to understand that this was not how I experienced it.

Read more

The Devil is Real – We Know the Devil & Theological Terror

I grew up in a white Christian community with a family that were not passionate Christians. My mother would occasionally decide that yes, this week we’ll be going to church. Every Sunday. For real. She’d pick a church that looked interesting (as long as it wasn’t Catholic) and we’d attend for a few weeks until she worked on a Sunday or was too tired, and the ideal would fall apart. I had the building blocks. I had the cultural osmosis. But I did not have the real experience.

I have a degree in religious studies (sort of) which has led me into a very atypical relationship with it. I love religion, the same way that someone loves science fiction movies. Every day I am a happily non-denominational agnostic, educating people on comparative religious views and why we should say “happy holidays” instead of “merry christmas”. A former roommate has politely asked me on at least one occasion to stop talking about religion. It wasn’t until much later that I understood why. From top to bottom, We Know The Devil made me think of her.


Read more

%d bloggers like this: