Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Games for Adults: Space Pirate Sara

Space Pirate Sara Review

                As strange as it may sound to say this, even us eroge players can have guilty pleasures in this genre. For me for the longest while it was from Black Lilith’s games partially because at the time I couldn’t really come up with a good sounding justification for liking the rape genre of dark eroge and I admit during my early years with VNs I was kind of a snob about them giving more favor to the story driven games. Fortunately I grew out of that phase and now enjoy this company’s games with very little guilt these days so when Mangagamer announced their partnership with Lilith Soft I was very pleased. While it probably would be more appropriate to start with their first localized release we’ll instead be looking at the latest of them: Space Pirate Sara, released in Japan by Black Lilith August 24, 2007 and localized by Mangagamer December 26, 2014.

Pros: Interesting story, likable main character, good artwork, good voice acting, nice diverse amount of ero scenes.
Cons: No sequel.
WTF?!: I wonder if Cecil and Karin are secretly avid D&D players…

                You play as Sara Scorpion, a renowned space pirate on the hunt for a long lost sword of great personal value to her. Upon getting a lead on the sword’s location after doing a job for a powerful duke, Sara discovers it in the hands of a pair of twin aristocrat girls who own a resort planet. An attempt at stealing the sword ends in failure and Sara is left at the mercy of these twins with her only hope of escape and obtaining the sword lying in the instructions she gives to her right hand man and only remaining ally Hans to work on stealing the sword while she endures the twins’ torments. 

                Okay I know how the plot sounds but that’s the thing with Black Lilith that makes it so appealing. It brings me back to why I finally found a justification for enjoying the rape genre: it’s basically like enjoying the exploitation flicks of old. They’re low grade and cheap but the ones fondly remembered are the ones that had some love and effort put into them, and Black Lilith I consider to be the eroge equivalent of those movie makers who  knew what they were making was schlock cranked every aspect of that up to eleven and just let their creations be the delightful mental junk food they’re meant to be.

                SPS may have a plot designed to show ero scenes, but the plot itself is an interesting read. There’s some good action scenes in the beginning and ending and we actually get some decent villains in Karin and Cecil as the writing does a good job at making them intimidating. More importantly Sara herself is likable with a decent backstory (for this kind of game anyway), she has some good interactions with Hans (and even on occasion Sylia) which helps make their (surprisingly platonic(only referring to Hans there) relationship so believable and her narration helps to enhance not just the ero scenes but also the key scenes from what we the readers come to learn about her captors as the plot moves forward to the heist aspect of the story.

                Speaking of which one of the interesting aspects of the game is the puzzles that are encountered in between each set of ero scenes where Sara directs Hans through the twins’ vault. Each one is interesting in how they’re set up and you do actually have to think a bit if you plan to solve them without the use of a walkthrough. Of course failing leads to a bad end sooner or later but I can say since this is a Black Lilith game they make losing worth your while too.
                About the only real flaw I can say this game has in the writing department is that the game ends and there hasn’t been even a hint of a follow up. I won’t spoil anything but I will say that while the good ending ends on a satisfying enough note there’s still quite a bit you’ll wish could be further explored. This includes a few hanging questions about the twins and the lore reveals at the end, what’s next on Sara’s agenda, and what’s in store for Sylia? Sadly the chances we’ll see any of these questions answered are about as likely as a film or TV adaptation of the Thrawn trilogy.

                In the area of presentation SPS does pretty well. The artwork done by renowned doujinshi artist Seura Isago is good both for the character portrait art and even more so for the ero scene CG. There’s even some nicely drawn space ship CG that really makes you wish there’d been some more space battles in the story. The voice acting is really good the best cases being Sara’s VA: Emi Motoi, who some of you may recognize as Chou’un/Sei from the Koihime Musou series or for fellow veterans Maria from Private Nurse; plus the VA for both Karin and Cecil: Yuuki Kajita who some of you may recognize as Nao from Resot Boin and its prequel (I’d mention her role in Harem Party, but I think most of us are trying to forget that game…). In both cases it’s tied to how well they bring their characters to life, the former in helping make her character and the latter in how well her voice acting helps to make the twins intimidating in certain scenes. The music is fine but not particularly memorable.

                As for the ero scenes they’re good in the art and voice department and have quite the varied amount for you to see. Basically each in game day has Sara choose what type of “training” to receive from the twins and of those three choices there’s quite a variety there too. Since you only get three days there’s quite a bit of replay value in that along with the scenes you’ll get with each type of bad ending depending on which type you focus on.

In Conclusion:
                Space Pirate Sara is an enjoyable little dark nukige that manages to have a decent enough plot and characters sandwiched between all its ero content. While certainly not the best of these cases it’s still worth looking at provided the dark genre is your cup of tea (if not this probably isn’t going to change your mind) and of the Black Lilith games available in English right now I can say it’s the best of them. Plus, who knows? Maybe high sales in the west will persuade someone at Black Lilith to make us a sequel…even if that is about as likely as Bioware making KOTOR 3.

Final Score: 7/10 Great
Author Recommendation: Buy it Now.

                As for the anime, it’s a decent adaptation even if the art style is jarringly different from the games. The action scenes it shows are pretty good and there even some scenes unique to the OVA. Strangely there’s an alternate/extra ending which I think was designed to give a bit more closure to the stuff concerning the twins but it’s a little too short to have much value as a possible addition to canon (or H content). I recommend playing the game first.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Games for Adults: NO, THANK YOU!!!

NO, THANK YOU!!! Review

                If there’s one genre in the area of anime/manga and games I have limited experience with it’s the yaoi genre. Oh I’ve seen plenty of anime/manga geared towards girls with a 99% male cast that certainly have developed their shipping fanbases, but very few gave much if any evidence of the relationship of the characters being any more than platonic and as a result the yaoi anime and manga I’ve experienced I can count on one hand’s worth of fingers. In gaming my only experiences were Bioware games (ahh,  Zevran…) and the rare occasion in eroge where the hero dabbles in bisexuality with a rather effeminate minor male character. Yes, there were a couple yaoi eroge released in English but none of them really appealed to me; I basically wanted my first pure yaoi game to be something special. Fortunately that would arrive on February 27, 2015 when Mangagamer released NO, THANK YOU!!!, originally released in Japan by parade on August 29, 2014.

Pros: Good story, main characters are interesting, excellent artwork, good music, great voice acting, interesting system idea.
Cons: Getting 100% completion, some ero scenes interrupt the flow of the story, Yamato and Tatsuya are unwinnable, you’re left wanting more at the end.
WTF?!: Hiroyuki’s shirt…where can I get one?

                On a warm summer day our protagonist saves a man about to be hit by an out of control car only to get struck by the car instead and upon awakening finds himself with amnesia. The man he saved, sympathetic at his savior’s plight, offers him a job at the bar he owns and a place to live. The bar staff give him the name Haru and as he works there he learns that the bar is actually a front for a private detective agency in which the owner and staff take cases the police and other agencies won’t. As time goes on Haru starts to become an important part of this agency, but the question of Haru’s identity and forgotten memories remain…
                If there’s one word that best fits the story of NO, THANK YOU!!! it’s “surprise”. Well…I suppose there’s an exception in that it’s no surprise that the story is good, but on the other hand it’s surprising how much better it is than you’d expect. From what you’d see in the beginning (and the demo) you’d expect this game to be a simple sex comedy with slightly more serious stories from the Haru and co. take in between all that. The thing is NTY’s story goes in a direction much different from those expectations and while I won’t spoil anything I will say that one of the best things about the story is how it’s able to pull off this change without it seeming unnatural in comparison to the initial tone. This is accomplished not just through good story writing but also good character writing as each character’s reaction to when things go from light hearted to more serious situations come off as believable.
                Concerning the characters, NTY has a sizable cast (click here for profiles) and all the major characters are given the right amount of writing to make them memorable. It’s actually really interesting to see how a side character’s role might change from route to route and often times it reveals (or strongly hints) something about one of the main characters. Speaking of which, you can expect a well-rounded main cast as each winnable hero has the right character elements to back up the stories for their respective routes. Before we get to route rankings though, our main character Haru must be addressed as he is without a doubt the most memorable of the cast (a veritable leap up from the last MC with that name). To put it simply as a character he owns the show with a very charming personality that draws you in and soon gets you invested in the many paths he takes in this game. Part of this comes from his viewpoints which range from being light hearted and perverted to very down to earth but at times strangely innocent, and this helps to make his interactions with the heroes even more interesting .  The other part comes from a combination of good writing and excellent voice acting that brings out the multifaceted nature of Haru that make his taking very different action in each route still seem in character for him.
                Moving on to the routes, my ranking is as follows:
1)      Ryu
2)      Hiroyuki
3)      Kouichi
4)      Maki

                Ryu’s route I like best for a few reasons. First this is as close to a true end route as you can get and it’s done the right way for me. This route is enhanced by the story and character information you get from the other three routes yet it doesn’t in any way invalidate the others, instead letting them stand as they are. Second the story for this route is arguably the best, having a good underlying mystery concerning Ryu that ends up tying in well with the main plot. Also some sub characters are given better plot resolutions than in the other routes. Third, Ryu and Haru have really good character chemistry of two opposites bouncing off each other (especially via roundhouse kicks) that while often times funny also make for good character building which gets you invested in the pair’s ultimate fate at the end.

                Hiroyuki’s route comes in at close second because not only is his route a really good introductory route for the game, but the story is really good too. The writing does a good job in tying Hiroyuki’s backstory into many events of the game and you get really invested in a subplot concerning his friend Yamato late in the game. Also out of all the heroes I’d say Haru and Hiroyuki have the best traditional romantic chemistry from Haru’s teasing of him which comes off as genuinely funny and even cute at times to when we see how ultimately different the two are personality wise becoming apparent as the story goes on and how it affects Haru personally. The only thing that keeps this route from tying with Ryu’s is there are some plot elements in this route that are approached and resolved differently in Ryu’s and in that case they’re obviously supposed to be the better resolution.

                Kouichi’s route is an interesting one as it provides some backstory related info concerning the main plot and Haru. There’s also a nice pace to the plot and some very funny scenes in terms of what ideas Haru comes up with in the ero scenes. Still the most stand out part of the route happens at the end where we get a twist and from there things take a turn that in the hands of a less skilled writer would come off as a cheap shock value move but it’s pulled off thanks to good writing and the performance by Haru’s VA. I won’t spoil it but I will say that at least your eyes will probably widen when it happens. The only thing that keeps this route in third place is its focus is more on story building than relationship building and the ending feels a little too open.

                Maki’s route while at the bottom of the list is still a good one. Maki’s backstory is interesting once the story starts to reveal it and there’s a very nice payoff in the later parts of the route. This is first seen in the culmination of the clash of Haru and Maki’s personalities where we see the former finally voice his frustration at Maki after a certain story event and the voice acting does carry the right emotional weight for the scene. The second is a series of some very thrilling sequences involving the pair that make for a very satisfying resolution of a couple plot points. The main problem that this route has is it’s really slow. I get why that may be since that approach does match with Maki’s character, but the pacing is off putting all the same. Also for a minor nitpick the ending, while good, kind of leaves you wishing you could see more of Haru and Maki now that they reach a better understanding of one another after the route’s events.
                Before I move on I should give a mention to the bad endings. If you ask me they’re very much worth viewing as they can provide some character insight concerning Haru a couple even have some good story elements, those two occurring in Ryu and Hiroyuki’s routes respectively as they have the right feeling of tragedy at the end that feels like a believable “what if?” scenario that leads to a bittersweet closure for Haru.
                Concerning flaws NTY has in the story department, there’s a few, but first let’s get the nitpicks out of the way. First there’s the inevitable “unwinnable” complaint which in this case falls to Hiroyuki’s friend Yamato and his boss Tatsuya as they’re both interesting characters and Haru does express some attraction to the latter character. I admit it would be a bit challenging considering how the story goes for these two, but it could’ve been interesting. The second nitpick is the endings for all four routes end on a bit of an open note, resolving all the necessary plot points, but you can’t help but you can’t but want more afterwards especially concerning Haru. I file this under nitpicks mainly because I understand a sequel would be difficult and could very well contradict a major theme of the game’s story. One can dream though, and this is at the moment is parade’s only release and it only came out in Japan last year so maybe…
                Anyway, onto real flaws, the first major one would be getting 100% completion is unbelievably tedious. While it does give incentive to check out the bad ends plus POVs from some of the characters that are unlocked upon route completion, you also have to go through the game again after completing all four routes so the game can recognize that you have read every…singleword contained within and the reward you unlock is not really worth it. The second one is that occasionally an ero scene can interrupt the flow of the story. A good example would be in Ryu’s route where we find out something about a character but before we can continue on that plot point we have to see an ero scene first. The scene itself I don’t mind, but I don’t really appreciate it being placed where it kind of interrupts the story.

                Concerning systems, while NTY is your standard VN it does have an interesting little feature called the “NO, THANK YOU!!!” button, which shows up at certain scenes in the game. Clicking it will have Haru take a certain action in the scene that he would not have if you didn’t click the button. Sometimes clicking the button is essential to avoiding a bad ending…sometimes it’s the opposite. It’s an interesting little feature and does make for good save points if you’re going to unlock everything. Another system related aspect is you can make adjustments to some of the ero scene CG by adjusting the heroes' body hair. Not really much to say about that other than turning one character's hair off does make a shaving scene rather funny. Also another interesting extra is along with the standard CG  and ero scene unlocking upon route completion, you also unlock staff commentary that can be accessed in the extras section and they all make for a good listen, particularly from the voice actors and their impressions of the characters they played.

                In the area of presentation NTY goes great all around. To begin with, artwork is fantastic both for the character design and the CG. Interestingly the artwork is done by Shigeo Hamashima, whose work some of you may recognize from another game MG has localized Eroge!~Sex and Games Make Sexy Games~ (review here in case anyone’s interested) as well as the upcoming Euphoria. It’s definitely interesting to see an artist’s approach to a different genre than we’re used to seeing and in fact earlier this year MG put up an interview where she discussed this a little so feel free to check it out. 

                Concerning the sound department this is NTY really shines. For starters the music is excellent with a varied track that fits not just the mood of the scenes they play in but also the bar centric setting. Most of the background music tunes are piano based and are ones you could imagine being played on a bar piano and the aforementioned instrument for this track has an added bonus of having a thematic tie in with one particular character route. Of course there are tunes designed for the scenes with action or suspense that aren’t really of that mold but they’re good too. Finally the opening and ending themes are both great in their own way with the former having an upbeat tune to get you psyched for the coming story and the latter tying in well with the openness of the routes’ endings by having an upbeat and hopeful sound mixed in with some sadder sounding notes to emphasize some of the bittersweet aspects of the ending.

                Lastly there’s the voice acting and it certainly is not least of the sound aspect. This game features full voice acting and every voice actor turns in a great performance. The acting really does a good job in bringing the characters to life from their personalities to how well they can convey how each character feels in the more serious parts of the story, especially in their routes. Still out of all the VAs the one whose performance stands out is Haru’s: Tetsuto Furukawa who some of you may recognize from a number of Liarsoft games such as Gil from Sekien no Inganock. Not only does he make Haru an appealing character but he captures the multifaceted aspect of the character perfectly. Whether it be a scene where Haru’s being playful and silly to outright angry or threatening to nurturing, the voice acting works together harmoniously with the writing to make it all seem in character even in scenes where this comes off as a new side of Haru we haven’t until that point. I don’t know if there are any awards given out in the eroge or VN side of gaming but if there are I really hope Furukawa-san earned one.

                As for the ero scenes, they’re good…as far as I can tell. I’ll admit as a matter of personal preferences only some of the ero scenes, well… “reacted” with me. I can however say I can see the appeal and appreciate the work that went into making them. Some of the scenes have a very funny setup and a few even have an emotional appeal to them (though one in particular won’t be in the way you might expect from that description). I’ll also point out there’s a good number of them so this isn’t quite the game where you can skip through the ero scenes and focus on the story. All in all I’d say these should appeal to you if you’re into yaoi.

In Conclusion:
                NO, THANK YOU!!! is a very good read as eroge go with its appealing characters, interesting story and enjoyable soundtrack and voice acting…provided you don’t mind the yaoi aspect. The game does have some flaws but even the most apparent ones are pretty easy to get around. I’d definitely recommend this to anyone who likes yaoi or is willing to try something different in the eroge world. If you’re absolutely sure yaoi isn’t your thing then this is a game you’ll probably have to quote its title to.

Final Score: 8/10 Awesome
Author Recommendation: Buy it now.

Should point out that recently Mangagamer announced hard copies for the game which you can order here. Though if you'd rather save money the digital version is cheaper.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Games for Adults: Harem Party

Harem Party Review

                If you were to ask me what my favorite literary genre is I would immediately answer fantasy. Give me a world full of magic, dragons, elves and a cast of characters who I can get invested in and I’m happy. When it comes to eroge I’ve developed a fondness for games that are willing to go with the harem route and still be able to tell a good character focused story. The game we are looking at today, Harem Party, released in Japan on November 17, 2006 by Tactics and localized by Mangagamer on November 25, 2011 is certainly of the fantasy genre and true to the name it does go the harem route…but it is sadly not a good example for either.

Pros: Decent artwork, mostly good voice acting, a few jokes are funny.
Cons: Sofie, writing that ranges from forgettable at best to curse spewing rage inducing at worst, forgettable music.
WTF?!: I’d say we’re in agreement here, Haru.

                I’d give my own plot summary but quite honestly this game is not worth the mental energy so here’s Mangagamer’s:
“The protagonist of our story, Moriuji Haru, is just about to complete an unnamed RPG, but just as the final boss is in his death throes, the game's heroines appear in his room!
They say they have escaped the game world and come to the real world in pursuit of the Demon Lord himself.
Haru is understandably shocked by this sudden, unbelievable turn of events, but the girls are overjoyed that they can finally meet the 'Hero of Legend' who is so famous in their world.
When the girls reveal that they can't remain in the real world without having sex with him, Haru succumbs to their pleas, and so begins the story as he tries to help in the search for the Demon Lord while educating the ignorant game girls in the ways of lovemaking...”

                As ridiculous as that sounds I was willing to give this game a chance, especially since it was obviously a comedy and the promotions for it sounded good enough. I went in expecting a simple comedy with jokes on the JRPG genre (which I’m a big fan of) in between and maybe even during some of the ero scenes. What I got instead was disappointment at first and rage by the end.
                At its best Harem Party feels like a nukige designed by a robot given a check list of what makes a good sex romp eroge: talented voice actresses, many ero scenes, etc. but being a robot the execution is done with little to no comprehension of emotional appeal. As a result the jokes often times fall flat (though I will admit there are occasional funny ones), the story is slow and boring in how padded the arc for Haru is (if it’s a joke on level grinding I’ve seen funnier), and that’s not helped by how bland the character interactions usually are. That last one is unfortunately a common problem in harem routes: the heroines (click here for profiles) don’t really have much to say to the MC or each other outside of the ero scenes. The thing is a harem route can be forgiven for that since they’re usually short and often times an unlockable extra, but for a game that’s built around this premise is another matter. The best scenes the heroines have are in their routes and even then it’s just concerning that individual heroine and how that relates to her relationship with Haru; the other heroines involvement is minimal at most.  

                This brings us to the routes and normally I’d give a ranking but really only Agnes and Cleo’s routes are the only decent ones and I like them about the same. One of the reasons for this is because when the story gives these heroines some focus there are some interesting moments. In Agnes’ case it’s how her more dutiful and altruistic personality clashes with Haru’s more laidback and less confident one and in Cleo’s case it’s mainly on the comedic end be it in how Haru’s personality grates hers which do make for a decent take on the “tsundere” type route plus she has some funny scenes with side heroine Anzu. Unfortunately the game’s strange unwillingness to look more into these is what keeps these routes from being any more remarkable than the only decent ones in the game. This is especially seen in Cleo’s route where we get a very interesting reveal about her….but it happens near the end of the route and is only given the absolute minimum story focus. The other factor that makes these routes at least somewhat appealing is their voice actresses have the talent to carry the routes to keep them from falling into the pit of terrible. And speaking of which…

                Now we move on to Sofie’s route and oh boy…I don’t really know how to start talking about this route because this one takes the cake in terms of awful. This is where my robot theory gets thrown out the window as I don’t think even the most malevolent artificial intelligence could produce a route this terrible. The fault in this route rests squarely on Sofie herself as she is without a doubt one of the most annoying heroines I have ever encountered in fiction. Basically she’s supposed to be the weakling of the heroine team and her arc is to essentially show that her weakness is actually a strength that no one but Haru can see it, but this is botched spectacularly in the game’s writing. There is so much focus on how useless she is to the group you don’t buy her character development, made worse by the subsequent incessant whining we get from her throughout the route. It’s annoying already in the common route but it’s greatly multiplied in her route and is so bad that even when other characters are antagonistic towards her you’re on their side even though the story wants you to be on Sofie’s. I’d make a comparison to Jar Jar Binks, but quite honestly it feels unfair to Jar Jar if only because he at least did stuff in the stories he was involved in…plus he’s a hilarious character compared to Sofie. The only thing close to a good thing in this route are her sidekicks Urr and Nia as aside from having some funny moments there’s even a reveal about them in this route that has the potential to be interesting but is sadly squandered in favor of focusing on Sofie instead. 
                Unfortunately this game’s problems in the area of writing don’t end with just Sofie’s route. The unlockable harem end which you get upon completing all three routes is perhaps only slightly better than Sofie’s because it’s shorter and has a few funny scenes. The problem with this route lies in its humor premise which is basically writing it as if the writer decided to acknowledge “yeah, if you think about it pretty much all of this game’s characters are assholes”. It’s not the premise itself that’s bad as like I said there are some funny scenes; the problem is this premise quickly devolves into our heroes becoming annoying instead of funny. It also doesn’t help that one of the running jokes toys with making Sofie the game’s main heroine…truly a rewarding unlock.

                In the area of presentation Harem Party does a so-so job. The artwork is decent, but it’s really best when they’re doing the SD style CG for comedic scenes. The music is forgettable but the sound is mostly redeemed by the voice acting. The best examples are the VAs for Agnes and Cleo: Mio Okawa who many of you should recognize as Bachou from Koihime Musou and Iori from Eroge! and Arigatou who some of you may recognize as Zebia from Kyonyuu Fantasy 2 and if. These two are putting in more effort than this game deserves and as a result their characters personalities at least succeed in making some good impression. Sadly this offset by the performance for Sofie played by Nana Hosoda who sadly brings the annoyance to life a little too well. I will say though that I think the blame lies in her lines than anything else as I’ve heard her in other games and she was fine in those.
                As for the ero scenes, they’re just okay. The voice acting is fine, it’s just like much of the game most of them are pretty forgettable.

In Conclusion:
                Harem Party is a game that at its best is largely dull save for some occasional laughs and largely squandered interesting character moments and at its worst a game that will give you headaches followed by Hulk style rage at not being able to strangle Sofie all throughout her route. It’s not helped any by the artwork only being okay except for the SD artwork and the music being completely forgettable. The voice acting for Agnes and Cleo is enough to barely salvage their routes but not enough to save the game itself. If you’re looking for a nukige I recommend passing on this as there are better ones available in English unless you’re a big fan of the voice actresses.

Final Score: 3/10 Terrible
Author Recommendation: Avoid It.