Are you ready to rock?! Guilty Gear Xrd Sign is shaping up to be one of the best-looking fighting games in recent memory, thanks to its amazing anime-style graphics rendering tech. I honestly can't say much about the fi...
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Dec 23 //
Sorcery Saga: Curse of The Curry God (Playstation Vita)Developer: Idea FactoryPublisher: Aksys GamesRelease Date: December 10, 2013MSRP: $39.99 ($34.99 on the PSN store)
First, some background: for those who are unfamiliar with random dungeon games (often called roguelikes, after a title called Rogue), the essence of the game is inventory management. Your character navigates a dungeon filled with a semi-random assortment of items and monsters, and your job is to make the best possible use of the items the dungeon provides to defeat monsters, heal yourself, and descend to deeper and deeper levels of the dungeon. Your level also gets reset to 1 every time you enter the dungeon, so you can't just grind your way to victory.
Oh, and did I mention you can't save in a dungeon either? You can "temp save," but that's basically worthless, so if you die on floor 19 of a 20-floor dungeon, you've lost all your progress. Typically in roguelikes you can expect to die a lot, which isn't necessarily true in Sorcery Saga; for that reason, purists would probably consider this an easy roguelike, or a "roguelike-lite." For other good examples of roguelike-lites, check out the Pokemon: Mystery Dungeon and the Izuna: Unemployed Ninja series.
A treasure trove: Weapons, scrolls and yummy rice.
Since inventory management is so critical, you can expect to spend a lot of the game in the Items menu, asking yourself "Do I really need this?" and "Will I regret it if I swap this out?" If that kind of gameplay sounds boring to you, then you should probably steer clear of the entire genre; however, if you're the type of gamer who loves collecting virtual items, it can be surprisingly satisfying.
To its credit, Sorcery Saga puts its own spin on the inventory management game; in fact, it puts its own spin on a lot of typical roguelike mechanics, but let's cover the Curry on Demand system first. In addition to finding weapons, armor and other neat stuff, your character Pupuru is also on the lookout for curry ingredients; if you find the right ingredients you can make a curry that will boost your stats and increase your experience gain. Of course, lugging around curry ingredients takes up a lot of room in your inventory, so holding out for a curry power-up means passing up other useful items. Not only does the curry system add another layer to the inventory management game, but it's amusing as well; when Pupuru has eaten curry, the game acts like she's on a performance-enhancing drug-- so much so that the game actually comes with a warning for "Drug Use," which I find hilarious.
Curry on Demand will sometimes fail, giving you "Cursed Curry,"; or you could just make some curry that really sucks, like I've done here. I'm still not sure what determines your success in curry cookery, although I think it's probably related to your level vs. the quality of ingredients you use.
The first hour or so is very tutorial and plot-heavy, but once you get past that, the game has a good flow; humorous cut scenes show up often enough to remind you that the light-as-a-feather story exists, but not so often as to overstay their welcome. This game finds a much better balance between gameplay and tutorial/story than The Guided Fate Paradox, the other cheeky rougelike released recently. However, while GFP certainly can't be accused of failing to explain its mechanics, the same cannot be said of Sorcery Saga, and therein lies one of the games biggest flaws.
See, the game never really tells you how important the weapon crafting system is. Since I'm a dungeon veteran, I immediately glommed onto the weapon system and started powering up practically the first weapon and shield I found-- a better strategy than you might think, since your equipment actually levels up with you. By the last few dungeons, my equipment was so overpowered that monsters-- even bosses-- were a joke. As a result, this was probably the easiest game of this genre that I've ever played. However, for those who are new to the genre, who are likely to experiment with the wide variety of weapons and shields without committing early on, the game will be several orders of magnitude harder. I've read accounts of people complaining that they're seeing Pupuru die in dungeons all the time, and I have to assume it's because they haven't been using the equipment crafting system much.
To be fair, the manual points out that powering up your equipment is the way to go, but I don't believe the game itself ever does. The game also neglects to tell you a few other important things; I was halfway through the story before I realized that I could use the circle button to throw an item I was standing on without having to laboriously enter my inventory and swap things out. Considering how often you walk around in this game with a full inventory, that's an important feature to be aware of.
You can find items in dungeons that unlock scenes in the "Chara Theater," where chibi versions of the characters interact. It's great that you can watch these scenes when you feel like it, rather than having the game bogged down with cutscenes. Plus, you get cool stuff just for watching these scenes.
Flaws aside, the game does a good job of putting what's good about the roguelike formula front-and-center while ameliorating the more frustrating elements. Having to start over from level 1 every time you enter a dungeon can be repetitive, but the presence of Kuu--your cute and voraciously hungry companion-- changes things up. While Pupuru doesn't learn skills by leveling, Kuu does, and he learns his skills in random order. What skills Kuu gets, and in what order, can significantly change the gameplay; if he learns the Kuushi Beam, he becomes a force to be reckoned with by helping Pupuru in combat by blasting enemies, while if he learns Crafting Smarts, inventory management becomes much easier. Some of Kuu's skills are much more useful than others (leading to annoyance when you're waiting for him to learn Crafting and instead he learns, say, Anti-Stun), but it's still a fun twist on the "start from level 1" formula that keeps things fresh.
Sorcery Saga also takes traps mostly out of the equation, which is an interesting choice. There are glyphs that you can choose to stand on, with effects that can be positive or negative, but it's your choice to subject yourself to them; even if you stand on one by accident, you still have a choice whether or not to use it. The only trap of note is the Monster House, or a room that suddenly fills with monsters, which provides an element of danger.
In general, the game seems to have taken everything that's particularly frustrating about the genre and nerfed or excised it. Traps? Not a problem. Status effects? A minor nuisance at most. Too many items, too little inventory space? Feed your items to Kuu, that's what he's there for. As a result, you almost never encounter those situations that make you want to throw your game system into a wall, where you feel like the game screwed you by putting you in a horrible situation there was no way out of; in fact, the few times Pupuru got knocked out during my game, I felt like it was genuinely my fault for being careless. However, as a trade off for the lack of frustration, roguelike fans are bound to find this game severely lacking in challenge.
I'm not going to spend much time on story and production values, since I thought both were perfectly adequate without being stellar, although the boss fight theme with vocals is a nice touch. The abundant humor is appreciated, although personally I'm getting a little sick of these super-self-aware chibifests; I think I've just been playing too much Disgaea, which isn't this game's fault. Characters are likable, if a little generic.
Your main reward for completing milestones in the game is unlocking new outfits for Pupuru, which are fun to mess around with. There are also DLC outfits. Warning: the above combination is dumb and no one should wear it.
Another feature worthy of note is Pupuru's magic spells. As a mage-in-training suspended from magic school (don't ask), our curry-gobbling heroine learns a bunch of spells like Fire, Ice, Thunderstorm, etc. However, she only gets a few uses of each spell per dungeon, meaning you end up saving the spells for emergencies as opposed to using them on a regular basis. I wish you could use magic more often, but I suppose that would make an already easy game just that much easier. You can find items that refresh your spell allotment, but needless to say, they're rare.
Another area I think the game could have done more with is the bonus quests; you win prizes (mainly outfits for Pupuru) by completing various objectives, but most of these objectives are things you were going to do anyway over the course of the game, like completing various dungeons and beating the bosses. I thought it would be cool if there was a Persona-like quest system where NPCs rewarded you for finding certain items, since it would make use of the game's huge variety of gear and consumables. Alas, I can't have everything I want.
The one flaw in the game that I really can't forgive is that it tends to freeze, which is horrible in a game where you aren't allowed to save often by design. It only froze on me once, but from what I've heard, many other plays have experienced freezes as well. Now that I've beaten the game, the next thing to tackle is the 256-floor bonus dungeon, but I'm really afraid the game is going to freeze on me somewhere around floor 245, wasting hours upon hours of progress. Freezing isn't the only technical issue either; the game lags in some places, which isn't a big deal for most of the game, but becomes really annoying when Pupuru feels like she's underwater frequently in the bonus dungeon. It's really a shame, because I have to caution players about these irritating problems (and dock it some points) no matter how much I like the game otherwise.
So, where does all of this leave us? If you're a roguelike fan, you should play this game; it'll be easy, but the weapon crafting system is surprisingly deep and gives you plenty of stuff to play around with. If you're a newbie to the genre and want to give it a try, this game is probably one of the best that's readily available on a current-gen console; just keep in mind that the game doesn't tell you everything you need to do to succeed. And if you like curry, well go to a restaurant and order some damned curry, because watching Pupuru whip up batch after batch of mouth-watering dishes in the dungeon does absolutely nothing to soothe your curry cravings; believe me, I am in a position to know this.
7.0 – Good. Genre fans will eat this up with a spoon, but a few serious technical issues and lack of difficulty keep it from achieving greatness.
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Feb 15 //
Elliot: Hi Ben, I’d just like to thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom. I can imagine you’re a pretty busy man, being surrounded by all those beautiful samurai and what not! To start things off, could you tell the readers a little bit about what you do over at Aksys Games? Introduce yourself! We want to know more about you!
Ben: ‘Sup, bros and bro-...whatever the feminine-conjugated version of “bro” is. “Bra”? “Broette”?
I’m Ben Bateman, and I’m one of two editors here at Aksys Games. You could call me the senior editor, because I’ve been here longer than Engler, and because if enough people do maybe I’ll be able to convince IHOP to give me that discount. My primary job is editing text, although I also wear a lot of (metaphorical, my head is freakishly huge and cannot accommodate normal) hats. For instance, if you’ve ever talked to the Official Aksys Games Twitter Account,we have spoken.
As an editor, though, my job goes pretty much like this:
● Our translators...translate...the text and digitally hand me the English version of the script for whatever game I happen to be working on. (I know all of a single character in Japanese: の)
● The translation is made with an eye for meaning, not sentence flow, character, etc. My job is to make it talk pretty. How long this takes varies a lot depending on the game, but it usually takes a while. In the case of Hakuoki, it took almost half a year.
● Once I’m finished with the script, I send it off to Japan, where it’s implemented back into the game. Sometimes I’ll check in on the bug reports to make sure the testers aren’t ruining my perfect baby, and I also help out with other promotional stuff like interviews.
Also I really, really like cats.
Elliot: Before coming onto Hakuoki, had you worked on any visual novel-like titles? Given that they're not exactly a common commodity in western territories, what was your general impression of the genre?
Ben: I’ve worked on more visual novels or visual-novel-like-things than probably a good 90% of localization editors working today (Claim not based on actual math or research)! More specifically, I was the primary (and only!) editor on the following projects:
1. Jake Hunter: Memories of the Past
2. Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors
Jake Hunter is actually part of a long, long franchise that had never been to the States before we published it (twice), and is—if you’re not familiar with it—a little bit like a Law and Order-y version of Phoenix Wright, if Lenny Briscoe talked like he was pretending he was Humphrey Bogart. 999 is less strict-visual-novel, as it contains *gasp* gameplay in the form of puzzles, but it also has a fat load of text so you spend most of the game reading.
My impression of the genre is...complicated. Personally, I’m real big on narrative, and it’s nice to see a genre that places that at the forefront, unlike...pretty much any other videogame. On the other hand, why spend $30 or $40 or more on something I’ll be reading off of a tiny screen that hurts my eyes when I can buy a book for a third of that price? Additionally, most of the visual novels I’ve been made aware of either seem to be convoluted just for the sake of being convoluted, misogynistic harem fantasies, or both (although to be fair, this describes a lot of Japanese media). My own exposure is extremely limited, though. There are some games that would fall under the visual novel umbrella that I’ve enjoyed quite a bit, like Phoenix Wright, but as the Japanese market focuses more and more on wringing money out of the otaku demographic, I think that any sort of mainstream acceptance will fade away, and with it chances of more titles being localized. Which would kind of suck.
Elliot: Having read quite a few visual novels over the last couple of years, I can see them being somewhat intimidating to a lot of publishers. Typically lacking traditional gameplay but containing bountiful amounts of text, I can only imagine that editing it all must be a nightmare. Can you tell us a little bit about your work schedule on Hakuoki? How did you go about approaching such vast quantities of text?
Ben:If I recall correctly, my work schedule for Hakuoki lasted for about 6 months, during which time I did essentially nothing else.
As far as how I tackle that sort of thing, by and large the answer is not very exciting—I just sit down and work at it. It’s a little like eating an entire cow: You just take it a little bit at a time and before long you realize you ate an entire animal and what in God’s name is wrong with you.
When I start, I usually sit down with the translators (who are usually a little ways into the project by the time I start) and talk about some of the important terms in the game: Should we localize them? If so, how? We build a list of what terms localize to what, which helps our team of translators (we’ll usually have anywhere from one to three working on a project at once) make sure their translations for specific terms stay consistent. Usually we’ll discover new terms as we move through the text, or discover more meaning behind terms we’ve already decided on, and have to go back and revise things.
You can imagine the process of localization as being a little like this:
Someone has given you the first draft of a novel. The plot is solid and the skeletons of the characters are there, but the writing isn’t that great and the characters need to be fleshed out.
You get one draft, and half the time you’d like to have.
Elliot: Taking place in old Japan can't have made things any easier. I find that older Japanese can get pretty wordy and circular at times, and I feel as though even the raw, translated text would probably have similar issues. What sort of process did you take to find a unique voice for all of the main characters?
Ben: I really wish I could say “Lots and lots of hard liquor” but I don’t really drink so that would be a bald-faced lie.
Probably a good 50% of my “method” (for just about everything, to be honest, not just writing) is what you might call “winging it.” I do something, and if it feels right, I keep it. If it feels bad, I change it. The more I write for a character, the better of a feel I get for who they are, and the easier that part gets.
For another, say, 30% or so, I look at who the character is, and what they’re about, and I think about how I could reflect that in how they talk. Hijikata and Saito are probably two of the best examples.
Hijikata is a rough, hard son of a bitch. He wasn’t born a samurai, and he’s had to bust his hump to get where he is. Even though Kondou is officially the head of the Shinsengumi, it’s Hijikata who gets everything done, figures out who needs to go where, decides who has to die. He’s a good man at heart, but he’s carrying an almost unbelievable weight on his shoulders, and his response to that stress has been to tighten up, pull all of his emotions into himself, and harden himself against the rest of the world. He doesn’t waste anything—thoughts, words, or especially actions.
I tried to reflect this by giving him a speech pattern that is hard, clipped, and extremely terse. Many times I would write a line for him, then take a look at it and say, “All right, how can I get rid of more words?” I like to imagine that when he’s forming a sentence in his head, he just whips out the Japanese equivalent of a butcher knife, hacks off anything unnecessary, and slams it down in front of him, daring anyone to challenge it. He actually ended up sounding a little bit like Rorschach, from Watchmen, which is...interesting. His word choice and speech is still rough—i.e., he swears, using slang and contractions, etc—to reflect both his somewhat humble origins, and the fact that he quite literally has no time for your shit, and said shit includes being polite.
Saito, on the other hand, is defined by his silence and introspection. His entire worldview is predicated on service and obedience, but instead of being some sort of mindless grunt he spends a hell of a lot of time contemplating the world and his place in it. Unlike Hijikata, he actually comes from a samurai background, but left it for reasons that will be revealed in the game hint hint hint and now actually does a lot of the Shinsengumi’s dirty work.
All of this is (hopefully) reflected in the fact that his speech is very flat, but very formal. He rarely expresses any sort of emotion, but his words are calm, well-thought-out, and well-structured. This is probably kind of a bizzare analogy, but if Hijikata hacks away at his sentences like a butcher and throws them in front of his audience, Saito’s words are like thick pewter, carefully set on a heavy sheet of rich, dark velvet.
The other 20% is probably, like, dicking around on Twitter or something. Honestly I kind of tune out for a lot of it.
Elliot: In particular, was there a certain character(s) that proved more difficult to write for than the rest? Why?
Ben: I’d say there were probably two that were the hardest, for very different reasons.
Out of the romanceable guys, Harada was probably the most difficult to write, simply because he was the most “normal.” Hijikata is the stone cold commander with a heart of steel, Saito is the silent assassin, Toudou is the kid, etc. Harada is just...the one with the spear who hangs out with Nagakura and drinks a lot. He’s a little bit of a bro, and he’s real big on protecting women and keeping them off the battlefield, but apart from that his personality is hard to define, apart from “nice guy,” which is made even more difficult by the fact that Nagakura is very similar, just...more. It reflects the fact that they’re like brothers from different mothers, but it made him really hard to write for. He doesn’t come off sounding bad, per se, his character just didn’t feel quite as developed to me as some of the others.
Now, Chizuru on the other hand...
I have to admit something: I’ve probably changed Chizuru quite a bit. Not what she does, obviously, or even necessarily what she says, but what she thinks is somewhat different. Chizuru was difficult to write because she was frequently doing one—or all!—of the following things:
1. Being less than clever
2. Responding to everything with insane, noodley-arm-waving terror
3. Unwittingly describing her romantic encounters as if they were some kind of assault
4. Repeating every. Single. Thing.
Some of these (especially 3 and 4) are just because of how Japanese works, how things translate, and how the Japanese talk about love and romance. For instance, I’m quite sure that the authors didn’t intend for her to make a kiss sound like she was being attacked, but when you translate it that’s how it sounds, for both cultural and semantic reasons.
The others are... I don’t know, to be honest. But she wasn’t a sympathetic character. She wasn’t even really a likable character, unless you like wide-eyed doormats. Clearly something had to be done.
I didn’t want to change her too much, because that goes against the whole point of my job (plus it is a lot of work), and obviously she still had to do everything she does in the game. What I eventually resolved to do was try to cast her actions in a slightly different light by modifying how she perceived and interpreted them in her internal monologue (which is what narrates the story). Now, instead of thinking the equivalent of “Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh” whenever something remotely exciting and confusing happens, she is more likely to comment on it with something approaching dry humor. She doesn’t repeat to herself (or out loud) everything everyone says. She raises intelligent questions about what’s going on and what it means, even if they’re sometimes only to herself. I also tried to tweak the tone of the monologue slightly, so that it sounds slightly more adult and educated, as if she’s retelling the story of her younger years to a friend or a child some time later.
Whether this will pay off or I’ll be hung for blasphemy remains to be seen, but it’s done now so I might as well fess up to it.
Elliot: In Japan, Hakuoki is a huge franchise. Spanning multiple games, manga and anime series, you'll find entire sections of stores dedicated to it. It's also marketed as an otome game, meaning that the primary demographic they're aiming for in Japan are the female buyers. I personally think there's plenty to enjoy here regardless of gender, but what would you say to buyers who are on the fence about Hakuoki?
Ben: If you’re on the fence because it’s “for girls” and you are a dude, then I would say: “Grow a pair.” Women have been buying games targeted at men for years and—to the extent of my admittedly anecdotal knowledge—it has not caused them to develop testicles, grow copious body hair, or otherwise change into something they are not.
In all seriousness, though, I think the game has something for everyone. The romance is pretty understated, which may or not be a selling point depending on what you’re looking for. It’s really a quasi-historical supernatural drama first, and a romance game second. A lot of time is spent examining the political situation at the end of the Edo period—something you might already be a little familiar with if you’ve seen, for example, Kenshin—and the personalities and histories of the guys. It’s got intrigue, fights, blood, supernatural monsters, and just enough romance to make you feel warm inside.
Elliot: All right, now it's time to get serious. Out of the entire cast of Hakuoki, men and women, who would you most like to romance? Answer truthfully, good sir. I can sense lies!
Ben: Man, you really ask the tough questions, don’t you?
I think I’m gonna have to go with Okita, even though I know it would never work out since neither one of us—so far as I know—is gay, or even bi. But a man can dream!
I enjoyed Okita’s character the most, and his arc—which is about a man who walls himself off from others emotionally by being a snarky asshole (something I obviously know nothing about)—was one of the character journeys I liked most in the game. More importantly, though, he was the guy who treated Chizuru the most like an equal, and I can only hope he would treat me the same way. <3
Plus, I mean, have you seen him? His milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and I should know.
Elliot: With the first game finished, what are the chances of you folks releasing any of the subsequent Hakuoki games? Will we ever see Hijikata and his crew of beautiful badasses again?
Ben: I honestly have absolutely no idea. Although I am graciously allowed to express my opinion in company meetings, that decision is ultimately way above my pay grade. If Hakuoki were to go out and sell a million copies, I can pretty much guarantee that we’d have the next one we could get our hands on out before the ink on the contract was dry. Unfortunately, we’re about as likely to get those kinds of sales numbers on this title as I am to wake up and discover I’ve suddenly grown a six-pack, The Rock-style pecs, and a thick mat of luxurious chest and back hair.
If the game does well enough, there’s always a chance we’ll consider bringing over some of the other Hakuoki titles, but that’s a question only the future can answer, and to be honest he’s kind of a dick and never returns my calls.
Elliot: Final question. If you could pick any Japanese game for localization, what would you choose?
Ben: Do you even need to ask?
[Special thanks to Mr. Ben Batemen for taking the time to answer some questions about Aksys Games' newly released visual novel, Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom. If you haven't already, check out Michelle's review!]
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