Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween Demo Impression: euphoria

euphoria Demo Impression

                I’d just started college when the Saw series became a Halloween staple and looking back on it, one of the first things I think of is how the guys at the dorm always mixed in those movies into the Halloween Night Marathon we’d have playing from evening till some point after midnight (usually by the time all the pizza, candy and booze took their effect). I’m bringing this up because we’ll be wrapping up this year’s Halloween with a look at what some would consider the eroge equivalent, and Mangagamer’s upcoming acquisition from Clock Up come November 27, 2015: euphoria.

Pros: Interesting plot set up, the characters (for the most part) are pretty interesting, good artwork, very good music and voice acting.
Cons: Not sure if Rika’s character is supposed to be annoying or not and whether that’s a good thing either way, the demo ends.
WTF?!: Wonder how many guys would be thinking that in this position…

                The plot of euphoria begins with our protagonist, Keisuke Takatou, waking up to find himself and six women, all of whom he’s at least acquainted with, trapped in a strange white room. A mechanical voice then informs them that the reason for their entrapment is to participate in a game that is also their only hopes of getting out. The game’s rules are:

As outrageous as the rules sound, the group is soon given a demonstration of what happens to those who refuse to participate and makes it clear participation is the only way to make it out alive. 

                I admit while this game’s plot premise sounds (and if you browse euphoria’s very NSFW web page, looks) like it’s just there in order to justify its extreme H content (plus the demo ends on two samples of it per chosen heroine) but the story content of this demo does hint at what could be some interesting story to come. For instance, you can tell very quickly that there’s something slightly off about Keisuke (even before it’s brought to light) in how strangely analytical his narration comes across and it leaves you wondering just how the unlocking events will affect him as the story goes on, and the mystery of the game itself from its purpose to who’s behind it also makes for a plot thread you want to follow. I have heard there’s significantly more story from here so hopefully they’ll be enjoyable, plus I have a couple theories already and only time will tell how close those guesses are…

                Speaking of which, the other characters (click here for profiles) they’re mostly interesting as the demo content does a good job establishing their personalities based on their varying reactions to what the game entails. There’s typical reactions like with Kanae and Rika, an attempt at rationality from Aoi, but the most interesting are the unusual ones from Rinne’s seeming apathy towards the game’s rules and Nemu’s amusement with it all. It gets you interested in seeing how this could factor into their route’s plots and the character reveals and development that will occur. About the only flaw here is why I just said “mostly”, basically the one heroine that’s hard to get interested in is Rika. The reason for this is while her reaction to the game’s events is typical it’s overplayed to the point of making the character annoying, the equivalent of that one annoying character in the horror movie you’re just waiting to see panic and run away from group and into the waiting jaws/claws/knife/chainsaw of the monster/killer. The thing is I don’t know if Rika’s character is supposed to be annoying or not; whether this is a character we’re supposed to feel sorry for and it’s just not written right or a character I’m supposed to root for bad things to happen to. The full game will probably better establish this though I’m kind of leaning towards the latter since there’s some scenes of Nemu trolling Rika while she’s fretting over the prospect of participating in the game and they really do make for a good chuckle.

                In the area of presentation, euphoria looks to do really well. The visuals shown in the demo have been good from the background CG with some good detail to the facility, to the character models, to the manga-esque artwork for the choice of heroines screen, to the “very detailed” CG…I’ll explain later. In the sound department the demo shows we can expect good on both fronts. The music does a good job establishing the atmosphere, particularly in making the facility the characters are trapped in feel unsettling. The voice acting is all good, with the voice actresses doing a good job portraying the emotions of their characters. It also helps that we have some really good voice actresses to listen to including Ringo Aoba as Nemu, who some of you may recognize as Qoo from the Osadai games and Kanade from Deardrops, Mei Misono as Aoi, who some of you may know as Momoka from Eroge! as well as Nellis and Nadine from the Kyonyuu Fantasy series, and (despite my problems with the character so far) Yukina Fujimori aka Konoha as Rika who many of you probably recognize as Nene from Eroge!, Ruseria and Elicia from the Kyonyuu Fantasy series and Konomi from Princess Evangile.
                As for the ero scenes, they’re good though I should remind you that since this is considered the eroge answer to Saw (though to be honest I’m more reminded of the Zero Escape series) expect scenes of the hardcore variety and what you see in this demo are just the tip of the iceberg. There is an option in the game to make some of the more “nastier stuff” like scat and gore not show up, but you’ll still need to read about it.

In Conclusion:
                The demo for euphoria does a good job showing that we’ll probably have something to be thankful for the day after this Thanksgiving. From its interesting plot premise and characters to the excellent artwork, music and voice acting, I get the feeling we won’t be disappointed. A shame this game couldn’t make it for Halloween though as according to this interesting little interview witheuphoria’s Chief Graphics Designer, we may have a zombie in the game.

                And with that we bring another series of Halloween Reviews to a close. My apologies if it seems a bit scanty this year as I did have a really good import game planned to review go along with this demo impression and just got to the True Route last weekend…and then a nasty head cold came along and each day up till today made my head feel something in common with the many pumpkins being carved into jack-o’-lanterns. Hopefully I’ll have more to offer next year, but for now a very Happy Halloween to you all!!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Games for Adults Halloween: School Days HQ

School Days HQ Review

                Well I knew I’d be getting to this game eventually, and considering what this game is perhaps known for the most Halloween makes for a very fitting time to review it.  I say perhaps because the other aspect to this School Day’s fame is from its initial Japanese release by Overflow on April 28, 2005 (since then it’s been ported to PS2 and PSP and given an upgraded PC rerelease) it was advertised as a fully animated game where you could make choices that could change the plot and take it in many directions. When I first started hearing about this game was also about the time I was getting into Bioware’s games (I still hope for another Jade Empire game, someday…), so hearing that there existed an eroge with a similar sounding concept definitely caught my interest. Of course when JAST announced they’d be releasing the game (and to top it off it would be the upgraded version hence the “HQ”)through cooperation with a fan translation group (turned legitimate nowadays)called Sekai Project who’d been working on it prior to that I was very excited to try School Days HQ out on its release date of June 28, 2012. Now that I’ve played it I can say it’s a very interesting game with several things to like, but…

Pros: Interesting core cast of characters, animation is good where it counts, very good voice acting.
Cons: Too much plot diversity, game’s writing seems more interested in rewarding one type of choice over the other, not as “fully animated” as advertised, animation is not very good in some parts.
WTF?!: A movie adaptation of The Silmarillion exists in this game’s universe?! I have so many questions as to how that’s possible. Even aside from the legal issues from the Tolkien estate, I want to know how they go it into one movie. I mean there’s so many time periods that book covers from the creation and theft of the Silmarils (not to mention the very world’s creation) to the War of Wrath, the fall of Numenor and Gondolin, not to mention…*

*Our apologies, but it’s been decided to cut off the author’s ramblings here as uncut it goes on into triple digit page length. Please enjoy the rest of this review.

                School Days’ story begins with a student named Makoto Itou, who secretly admires a girl named Kotonoha Katsura, who rides the same train as he does to their school. In a twist of fate, one of his classmates, a girl named Sekai Saionji, discovers his crush and decides to help get the two together. After a period of time it seems Sekai’s matchmaking pays off, but while helping Makoto and Kotonoha get together Sekai develops feelings for Makoto herself.
                Okay, I admit the story’s premise sounds like the most cliché plotline you’d get in a tween romance story or soap opera, but I can say School Days does make a clear effort to work with the tropes to craft something interesting from them. For example the beginning does a good job introducing the core cast as we get a good feel for their situation and develop an interest in what direction their stories could go depending on your choices. This leads into the main strength this game has in the writing category: its core cast of characters (click here for profiles).

                Aside from the beginning of the game doing a good job establishing Makoto, Kotonoha and Sekai as characters, School Days writing strength for all three stems how well it uses system of many choices and their subsequent branching paths to show the multifaceted aspect of them and how well it’s integrated into the game’s episodic structure. It really is interesting to see your choices bring out the best and worst of these three (and some of the side characters) and everything in between. It’s rare that you see an eroge take this route with its characters, but this game pulls no punches in how your choices can result in one of these characters getting pushed not only into acting downright despicable, but also outright breaking them into murderous insanity. That’s not a joke or exaggeration, with the right choices any of our three main characters can end up on a path leading to a psychotic break down with differing but no less disturbing results. While I admit this aspect has over time become a little too gimmicky for this game over time (which we’ll get to later), these aforementioned routes are presented well enough in terms of writing and visuals to be the factor that earns School Days a spot in this year’s Halloween review series.

                That isn’t to say the game is all dark and disturbing, as School Days does have its share of light moments, though most of them are in the beginning, and as I said before you do get to see the characters at their best. This ranges from good character moments such as a scene between Sekai and her best friend Nanami near the end of one of Kotonoha's routes that does a good job showing the two as friends willing to support each other when things get bad to even subtle character development that can have you considering the quality of the characters as people and how their redeemable qualities stack up against their negative ones. For this reason I recommend not using a walkthrough on your first playthrough; just pick whatever choices feel natural or make sense and see which path you end up on. It’s a good way to gain the right impression of the characters and from there you’ll better appreciate the other routes, be the outcomes good or bad.

                Before we get to the flaws, I guess I should address something that many consider a flaw: our protagonist, Makoto Itou. Ever since School Days registered on the eroge community’s radar, Makoto has been called (at least one of) the worst and/or most despicable protagonists of all time. Having played the game…I have to say that while I can understand why some may feel that way, I don’t. Part of the reason is because I admit I kind of identified a little with him at the start. I was socially awkward myself through most of high school so I could understand why someone might act that way, especially taking into account that despite the required characters’ age disclaimer in this game the characters in this are written as teenagers and actually act like them. That isn’t to say I was 100% okay with our much maligned protagonist as there are quite a few moments of his that did make me shout “Really?!?!” at the game and some of these were when I was trying for a “good” Makoto playthrough. Finally there’s the fact that Makoto’s overall portrayal is dependent on the choices you make;  he can be a decent guy if you make the right decisions and an unlikable person if you make more irresponsible decision. I’m almost tempted to say this would be like holding it against the MCs of the Bioware games if you play Dark Side/Renegade/Way of the Closed Fist (I don’t think Dragon Age has a choice label), but that’s not quite the best analogy and why brings us to our next subject…

                The main flaw School Days has in the writing department is the fact that as impressive as its many choices and subsequent plotlines are, they’re also a double edged sword in how there’s simply too much of it. What we have here is a problem that’s essentially the equivalent of a problem many open world games suffer from: lack of focus on everything in between the beginning and end portions of the game. This is a problem because while the many paths show us different facets to the main characters and subsequently bring up interesting plot points, we don’t get any more focus than the bare minimum on most of them, which is really too bad because these plot points have so much story potential. For example, in one of the harem routes one of the plot points that comes up fairly often is how Sekai’s friends aren’t particularly fond of Kotonoha, and while this does serve the purpose of showing how much one of these characters cares about Sekai even to a fault the plot point is essentially dropped once she and Kotonoha begin sharing Makoto, leaving the player wondering how this would affect Sekai’s relationship with her friends since it’s obvious this would come up eventually considering how the story goes.
                One more writing flaw also stems from the choice system and it’s also the reason why the aforementioned Bioware analogy doesn’t fit:  the game’s writing favors you making the more “irresponsible” choices when it comes to Makoto’s actions. Basically more interesting stuff happens storywise if you have Makoto do the more thoughtless thing over what would be considered a “good” choice (though admittedly there are still interesting plot points going that path, just not as many). Now I know with that statement some of you are probably rolling your eyes, laughing or about to point out my contradicting my earlier statement regarding Makoto as a protagonist, but let me explain. My problem isn’t with the actions themselves, my problem lies with the fact that one type of choice was given more writing attention than the other. I admit this could be me being spoiled by more modern games that use choice to determine character action, growth and story progression and through that School Days may simply be showing its age, but it’s still off putting all the same, especially taking into account this is supposed to be the expanded version of the original release. Still, I don’t even have to look to the aforementioned triple A titles for comparison, there exists an eroge about the same age as SD that does a better job on the writing front in regards to story for both sides of the moral choice system, and it’s been updated about as much too. It’s called MinDead Blood.

                Regarding the system, the game does well in making the fact that it’s designed to be like an interactive anime to be as user friendly as possible. You can pause almost wherever you want (in some key scenes you can’t for a while) and you can also fast forward at whatever speed you like (which does make for some amusing sounds hearing scenes fast forwarded through) or skip scenes all together. Perhaps the only real flaw here is you can’t pause during choices, but you are given enough time to make a choice and sometimes not picking until the time runs out leads to interesting results.

                In the area of presentation, School Days HQ is kind of a mixed bag and nowhere is this more apparent than in the visual department. While there a good number of scenes that are very well animated (which thankfully apply to major story scenes)there are also a number of cases where the animation just isn’t very good. This ranges from cases where the studio obviously recycled character animations for the character’s more day to day conversations, to many awkward pauses in conversation which I’m not sure are intentional or the game trying to remember where in the story branch tree it’s at to what are essentially flick flubs where you briefly see characters in scenes who aren’t supposed to be there like the far end side of their character portrait. This brings us to another visual flaw in that this game isn’t as “fully animated” as advertised.

                Aside from the aforementioned recycling of character animation for conversations, School Days HQ has a far more noticeable break in its “full animation”: the use of still images during some conversations. Now I get animating a game like this is expensive and of course cuts need to happen to stay within budget, but seriously, I think they could have done better than what we have pictured above which looks like a screenshot from an early PS2 game and barely looks like it fits in this game. Even taking into account these stills are supposed to be for background purposes, it seems strange that Overflow wouldn’t draw still images that would better match with the game and just use some visual tricks to make it less noticeable as a still image like having the camera pan to the left or right as the characters’ conversation moves along. I know this may seem like nitpicking to some, but bear in mind advertising aside this is supposed to be the upgraded version. Kind of makes you wonder what the old version looked like…
                In the sound department, School Days HQ fares much better. Everyone in the game is voiced and their VAs turn in pretty good performances. The music’s pretty good too, though I admit I can't name any tunes since for some reason this game lacks a music gallery.

                As for the ero scenes, they’re overall just okay and the reason is only some of them are well animated. The ones that aren’t have a noticeably cheap and rushed look to them that kind of make you miss the animated ero scenes featured in games from studios like ZyX and even softhouse seal since those may have just been looped images but they still looked good. Plus there are cases where the character voices and their lip movements match up about as well as a Godzilla dub.
                Still, so as not to end the presentation on bad note and since it’s in the spirit of Halloween, there is one scene category that School Days HQ does not mess up on: the bad ending death scenes. Like I said before, the right route can lead to a character’s psychotic break and from there the game is not shy at showing the (literal) bloody culmination of it all. Let me leave you with a little sample image below and I promise there’s more where that came from…

In Conclusion:
                School Days HQ is an overall decent game with its good points showing just how much ambition was behind it in its creation. Sadly as impressive as its plot with multiple branches is, its noticeable lack of writing to support such a level of plot diversity leaves its story stretched thin.  In the end I’d say it’s worth playing but it’s still a bit disappointing in getting only a decent story when you can clearly see the potential for a much greater story there but not taken advantage of.

Final Score: 6/10 Above Average
Author Recommendation: Try it Out.

                As for the anime (talking about the show as I haven't seen the OVAs)…it’s okay. Admittedly it’s one of those love it or hate it kinds of shows and while I kind of lean towards the latter I can understand why the former appreciate it, usually as a deconstruction of harem style anime as one could easily make that argument about the game being that way with similar tropes in many VNs. My reason for not being all that fond of it kind of has to do with its being an adaptation of the bad end routes, not because of that though, the reason being the entire purpose of the adaptation just seems to be so it can lead into an all new death scene that was created for the anime. This is where we get to that bit I mentioned before, while I get that the death scenes are more or less what made School Days famous I think the creators may have let it become too much of a gimmick and let that get the focus for the anime and thanks to that the look at the characters is more on their negative aspects over the positive ones. To be fair though, the manga adaptation also has some of that too but manages to pull it off better from a writing perspective. While I recommend the manga over the anime when it comes to adaptations I will say one point in the anime’s favor is how interesting the story of its death scene’s censorship inspired a certain meme concerning boats. Aside from the fact that said meme makes a nice shirt (no pun intended) I won’t say anymore and suggest googling it if you don’t know what I’m talking about as it’s something has to be believed.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Games for Adults Halloween: Armored Warrior Iris

Armored Warrior Iris Review

                Seeing as it’s Halloween, what’s Halloween without some schlock? So for that we’ll be turning to good old Black Lilith for what can also qualify as a sci-fi creature feature of sorts in Armored Warrior Iris, originally released in Japan on March 24, 2006 (digitally with the physical release following a week later) and released in English by Mangagamer July 18, 2014 with a physical release on May 4, 2015. Some of you may remember Space Pirate Sara and the praise I had for it; it had a decent plot in between all its ero scenes and a likable heroine. I bring this up because one of the writers for this game wrote for Sara as well. So with that surely there’s the same level of quality, right? Well, sort of, but…

Pros: Good story concept, the intro’s really good, Iris is a decent heroine, very good art for the characters, mechs and aliens, good voice acting.
Cons: The concept has been done better in another game, a certain important plot element is given minimal addressing, can’t save at the “customer” selection screens.
WTF?!: While “this is no Zaku” it sure goes down about as quick as one.

                In Armored Warrior Iris, you play as the titled character, Iris Rebel, a first class space cop who takes down space criminals throughout the galaxy with her partner, Mei Li Naceri. While on a routine mission the pair’s mechs are shot down and Iris is captured, taken into hostile territory to a city known as Dark Town to be sold into slavery and ends up being forced to work as a prostitute by the city’s leader Bozuk and under the supervision of his top servant Riruru, who bears an uncanny resemblance Mei Li. As she tries to find a way out of this situation, Iris must also figure out the fate of her missing partner…
                I admit that this story doesn’t sound like much, but in all fairness AWI does put in some effort into establishing its main character. The game’s prologue does a good job introducing Iris and is convincing enough in showing that despite the main events of the game she is pretty badass.  In fact the story segments in between all the ero scenes help at giving her some character as depending on some of the choices you make can alter her outlook slightly, which become especially noticeable  as the endings approach. Speaking of which, aside from the many bad endings there are two possible endings where things turn out well for Iris: a good ending and an evil ending, the former being canon though the latter is still worth looking at since it does have a couple minor but still interesting extra bits of info about Iris and Mei Li’s group. Also well done are the interactions between Iris and Mei Li as thanks to those scenes it is easy to believe these two as being partners and from that you are curious to find out what happened to the latter character. If only the revelation were handled better…

                Since we’re starting the flaws I figured I might as well start with the aforementioned (and don’t worry, I won’t spoil it): while what happened to Mei Li is one of the main plot threads, the revelation isn’t handled all that well. We’re given an answer, but it’s not given the appropriate treatment a prevailing mystery should have (even taking account this is a nukige). We’re basically just given a brief explanation and then the plot moves on to the ending. It also leaves a couple plot holes regarding some stuff we’re told that we now have to accept as false too. Sadly can’t give any specifics without spoilers.
                Moving on the root of AWI’s flaws is if you’ve played Space Pirate Sara then that may weaken the experience of the former. Basically AWI is a proto-Sara since while the characters are different, the structure is very similar. Our main heroine is basically trapped in a hostile location at the mercy of its ruler, you’re given the choice of what ero scenes are to occur while she plots her escape, and we have a heroine in a similar position who could be a potential ally. The thing is with Sara being the later game it manages to do it all better: Bozuk is a pretty flat villain compared to the twins as he lacks the writing that made them intimidating, there’s a stronger purpose behind Sara’s enduring the events the twins force her into choosing among while with Iris it’s more like biding time until an opportunity arises, and while Iris and Riruru interact far more than Sara and Sylia do the latter pairing manages to have better chemistry.

                On the technical side I’m afraid there’s another aspect where AWI falls short compared to SPS. While you select what type of ero scene is to occur, you can’t save at the selection point unlike in SPS. This creates a little bit of an inconvenience since in this game scene selection determines what ending you get so when you want to save at a branch point you have to save at some point before the choosing and when you want go a different path you load to that point and then use the skip function to  get to the selection point. I admit this isn’t a big issue, but it is still a bit of an annoyance.
                In the area of presentation Armored Warrior Iris does pretty good. The artwork is really good for the characters, who have a design style somewhat reminiscent of anime from the 80s and 90s, and more especially for the aliens we see in this game. That’s basically the qualifier for why I picked this for Halloween:  a number of the creature designs are based on (and probably tributes to) alien creatures from various scifi movies. This ranges from obvious ones like Bozuk being based off the Hutts from Star Wars or a Martian based off the ones from scifi comedy Mars Attacks to ones that are a bit more obscure like a background alien in a CG being of similar design to a certain alien from one of the Star Trek movies. I admit it may be a flimsy justification, but hey, don’t we all have at least one creature feature in our queue of movies set aside for this month?

                Of course there is one more aspect of the art department that’s worth mentioning: the mech designs. While admittedly we only see them during the prologue, they make for a good window dressing, especially with one action scene we get with them and their obvious Mobile Suit Gundam inspiration. Really makes you wish Black Lilith would make a game in a Gundam-esque setting…
                In the area of sound AWI does good enough. Its only problem is the music is forgettable, but thankfully that’s barely noticeable thanks to the good voice acting for our two heroines.  Of the two I’d say the one who does the best performance is Iris’ VA: An Kasuga, who some of you may recognize as the voice for Mizuki from Kansen 3, Makoto from Kansen 4 or Sigurd from Valkyrie Svia.

                As for the ero scenes they’re all really good, provided you’re into the dark stuff. I’ll say when it comes to the different types of scenes you’ll see AWI is about as diverse as Sara, though in an interesting difference from the latter you won’t get much of an idea as to what kind of ero scene you’re going to get from the selection screen, which only tells you what species the client is. It’s an interesting way to make the player see one thing from Iris’ perspective, being as in the dark as she is as to what’s to come with each choice. What makes this an interesting difference between the two games is how it’s a different but still somewhat similar approach to the ero scene choice:  Sara could only choose by category and what the choice would entail on that front would be for her to find out.

In Conclusion:
                Armored Warrior Iris is an overall decent dark scifi nukige. It has a likable lead and it’s well drawn and acted. Its main problems are its overarching mystery is given a pretty lackluster solution and if you’ve played Space Pirate Sara you may feel like you’ve played a better version of this game already. Still I can say it isn’t bad for what it is, and admittedly it is interesting to see for yourself what aspects of AWI would be better used in Sara. Just don’t go in with high expectations and you probably won’t be disappointed.

Final Score: 6/10 Above Average
Author Recommendation: For Fans Only.

                As for the anime, it’s actually a pretty good adaptation that follows the good ending path. We also get some additional scenes that would have been nice to see in the game like some mech action in the first and last episode and I have to say the anime does the Mei Li mystery reveal a little better. That’s not to say this is a perfect adaptation: there are some animation flubs here and there where the animation doesn’t look as good as the rest and for some reason not only is the prologue skipped over but so is the good ending’s epilogue. Strangely there is a DVD extra scene but it isn’t an adaptation of the epilogue which seems strange since if the point of that extra was additional H content then the epilogue had that and it would have been more memorable than the throwaway scene we got instead. I guess that would be one more win from Iris vs Sara as the latter’s extra scene was an epilogue…even if it wasn’t in the game.