Chaos;Child (PS4) Review – Lost in Delusion

Chaos;Child (PS4) Review - Lost in Delusion

The visual novel genre is typified by mountains of text framed by the most minimal semblance of interactivity; most games under its umbrella feel more like sophisticated choose-your-own-adventure books than “video games” when defined by their traditional attributes. Yet they are video games nonetheless, and their textual density is what allows them to tell stories their action-oriented contemporaries can’t or won’t. Chaos;Child, like Steins;Gate 0 and the rest of its “Science Adventure” series brethren, tries to leverage that strength—with varying degrees of success.

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Chaos;Child (PS4) – gameplay image via PQube and MAGES

Chaos;Child is a direct follow-up Chaos;Head, a supernatural thriller about a serial murder case and its unlikely connection to a war between psychics in modern Shibuya, Tokyo. Catching up on its story is something of a tricky prospect, since the Chaos;Head visual novel never released in North America. It did, however, receive an anime adaptation in 2008; I watched it back around the time of its original release, and my recollection of its plot, though hazy, was enough for me to follow the events of Chaos;Child. I’d recommend prospective players do the same or at least read up on Chaos;Head before jumping in here.

Set six years after the conclusion of Chaos;Head, Chaos;Child is centred around Takuru Miyashiro, a Japanese teenager with an intellectual superiority complex. As a member of his high school’s newspaper club, Takuru takes an obsessive interest in a bizarre incident wherein a man cuts off his own arm and eats it during an online stream. In the subsequent days, two more people die under bizarre and highly publicized circumstances. When Takuru notices that their deaths run parallel to the “New Generation Madness” murders that took place during Chaos;Head, he latches on to the case, resolving to figure out what’s happening in his town.

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Chaos;Child (PS4) – gameplay image via PQube and MAGES

Given that Chaos;Child is a visual novel, it spends ample time constructing its world and characters before diving headfirst into the mystery at its core. An early event leads to Takuru and his childhood friend Serika becoming witnesses to yet another murder; this scene, like the initial narrative setup preceding it, establishes the game’s dark tone. When Chaos;Child dives into horror, it does so with unsettling aplomb. Its opening hours are intriguing, and they bode well for the remainder of the game. Then its pacing grinds to a frustrating halt.

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Chaos;Child (PS4) – gameplay image via PQube and MAGES

Chaos;Child‘s wordiness, up to that point an asset, becomes a handicap, with long stretches of game time—hour after hour, chapter after chapter—that feel like nothing is happening. The action moves back and forth between the same locations. Characters make deductions about the murder case, only to dismiss them shortly thereafter. The same conversations seem to happen over and over, with only the tiniest of insights buried within dialogue that veers insipid more often than not.

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Chaos;Child (PS4) – gameplay image via PQube and MAGES

Like Steins;Gate 0 and Chaos;Head before it, Chaos;Child is full of lewd tangents that seem to have no place in the story at large. Here, at least, they’re contextualized by the core theme of “delusion vs. reality.” Throughout the game, the player encounters “delusion triggers,” which are prompts that allow Takuru to experience either a positive or negative hallucination. In practice, this is more or less a binary choice between sexual fantasies or violent daydreams. Choose positive and Takuru will fantasize about swapping bodies with a female classmate and fondling her—his?—breasts; choose negative and that same classmate will turn into a rambling, paranoid psychotic. I wish the delusions weren’t so obviously built as a way to titillate because they’re a fascinating concept that meshes perfectly with the game’s themes. They aren’t optional, either, because certain delusion triggers lead to alternate endings, all of which must be viewed to reach the game’s “true” finale. I’m fine with not liking certain characters or their ideas—people don’t have to be likeable to be interesting, after all—but I do take issue with writers who continue to shoehorn juvenile themes into otherwise mature stories. I’ve had enough moe to last a lifetime. Seriously, enough.

In terms of presentation, Chaos;Child isn’t up to par with, say, Danganronpa V3, but its audio and visuals set an appropriately creepy mood. It has plenty of event illustrations that punctuate key story beats, many of which are shocking, gruesome, and unsettling. One late-game murder, in particular, had my stomach in knots. Given its substantial volume of text and the fact that it was handled by only one translator—which is most impressive, I might add!—the slightly above-average number of typos in its script is a forgivable offence. There are, however, some unusual choices in terms of untranslated assets, like the Japanese text that sometimes appears during flashbacks, or in the inconsistent nomenclature used for key terms—”Sumo Wrestler Sticker” is sometimes represented in images as “Rikishi Sticker” or “Rikishi Seal,” a literal translation of the Japanese term.

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Chaos;Child (PS4) – gameplay image via PQube and MAGES

As a mystery that blends science with the supernatural, Chaos;Child certainly presents a compelling premise. Its greatest strength is its ability to be unpredictable, thanks largely to it featuring plain-looking characters whose unassuming façades belie no hint of their true selves. It’s a shame, then, that reaching its hardest-hitting moments requires an unreasonable amount of patience. It’s likely that most players will lose interest in Chaos;Child before its mystery comes to term.

Chaos;Child was reviewed using a “retail” PlayStation 4 download code provided by PQube. You can find additional information about CGMagazine’s ethics and review policies and procedures here.

Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out some more Derek Heemsbergen’s reviews, such as Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony or Etrian Odyssey V!

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Necrobarista Will Likely Invite Some VA-11 HALL-A Comparisons

Necrobarista Will Likely Invite Some VA-11 HALL-A Comparisons

You’re going to hear many comparisons between Necrobarista and VA-11 HALL-A: A Cyberpunk Bartending Simulator in the coming days, weeks, and months. As Necrobarista inevitably gains traction, the concept of a genre story told exclusively inside a drink-slinging establishment may start to feel a bit familiar.

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Necrobarista – gameplay images via Route 59.

For me, there’s one crucial difference between the games: whereas VA-11 HALL-A chose to engage the player with a bartending mechanic and a money management side objective, Necrobarista (at least in the very, very, very short demo I saw) seems to be more of an interactive story. The game takes place in an underground speakeasy where the spirits of the dead get 24 final hours in our world before having to move on to whatever’s next. That’s about as much as I could glean from the demo and a short conversation with one of the developers.

My demo felt more like a vignette than anything else: a sequence where a spirit plays five-finger-fillet against one of the speakeasy’s employees, betting two whole hours of his afterlife on this game. The demo took place in two parts: visual novel scenes where the events of the duel played out, and a couple moments where the player moves the camera around a Police Squad-style frozen room, reading bits of flavour text about the characters’ past and getting some commentary from people in the crowd.

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Necrobarista – gameplay images via Route 59.

With so little to go on, it’s hard to me to form a cohesive, informed recommendation. At the very least, I feel comfortable saying that I found the core gimmick of Necrobarista very enticing, but the script feels overwritten. There’s plenty of verve in the writing, but there’s no honesty. The stuff in the demo feels like it was written for a short story contest, all flash and flavour but no texture. It’s like asking the waiter at the Outback Steakhouse to over-season your steak; at that point, why not just get something else, Ray?

And yeah, of course it feels like a short story, it’s a demo, but that’s why I said “contest.” Those stories don’t exist to fulfill an artistic need, they’re trying to be the most loquacious of the bunch. Maybe the full game will be more authentic, or maybe it’ll feel like somebody was trying to really impress their NaNoWriMo group.

That’s where the VA-11 HALL-A comparisons fall apart for me. VA-11 HALL-A worked for me because it felt real. The characters felt like they had a life outside the game, even if I didn’t see it. Yeah, some of the dialogue could be a little too clever, but the condescension inherent to the way people talk to service employees kept all those interactions grounded in some form of reality.

Necrobarista Will Likely Invite Some VA-11 HALL-A Comparisons
Necrobarista – gameplay images via Route 59.

The reason I’m actually still kind of looking forward to Necrobarista is because that kind of ethereal wordiness can really set a mood if you give it long enough. (See also: Kentucky Route Zero) But in short bursts, especially at a convention, that mood becomes something you might have to fight through rather than something to let wash over you. I’m disappointed to say I had to fight through it—I hope the rest of the game isn’t the same way.

Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out  Mike Cosimano’s interview with Suda51 about No More Heroes: Travis Strikes Again or his preview of Total War: Warhammer!

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Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony (PS4) Review—Truth Versus Lies

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony (PS4) Review—Truth Versus Lies

A few years ago, I wanted nothing to do with Danganronpa. Its morbid premise—a neon-splattered killing game between sixteen talented high school students—sent chills down my spine. I wondered what joy there was to find in their suffering, to watch their faces twist in anguish as their friends’ bodies piled ever higher in a series of elaborate murder mysteries. It turns out that “joy” isn’t the right word to describe Danganronpa. It’s not a joyful sort of experience, but it is bizarrely compelling; to thumb through its virtual pages is to bear witness to humanity in the most stressful circumstances imaginable, and to awe at their ability to persevere through it all with the right mixture of cunning and intellect. Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony carries on that legacy with a brand new killing game that remains both deeply unsettling and impossible to put down.

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Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony (PS4) – gameplay images via Bandai Namco

Danganronpa V3 is once again an interactive visual novel that follows a group of high school students, each with an absurd title like “Ultimate Anthropologist” or “Ultimate Cosplayer,” who are confined to a school campus and forced to participate in an absurd game of kill-or-be-killed in order to win their freedom. The only way to triumph in the game is to commit a murder and successfully evade capture in a peer-moderated class trial, meaning that killers have to be creative in order to fool their classmates. If the culprit is unsuccessful, the punishment is no less than their own execution. This makes for a tense game of cat and mouse where killers reveal their true colours in dramatic fashion when their plans start to go awry. Suffice it to say, Danganronpa V3 contains all of the twists and turns fans have come to expect from the series—and more, really, but to delve into the nitty-gritty of its narrative would rob any prospective player of the authentic Danganronpa experience.

Whereas the original Danganronpa trilogy—which technically includes two main entries, a spin-off shooter, and a pair of complementary anime follow-ups—was centered around the warring notions of hope and despair, Danganronpa V3 is a thematic battle between truth and lies. At least one character is a compulsive liar. Others abruptly change their stories and lie to clear themselves of suspicion when they find themselves in danger. A new mechanic in Danganronpa V3 even has the player intentionally commit perjury themselves from time to time in order to manipulate other characters into changing their thinking. The idea here is that sometimes lies are necessary to find the truth, but the game makes it clear that a penchant for dishonesty comes with a psychological cost.

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Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony (PS4) – gameplay images via Bandai Namco

Trial segments return as back-and-forth debates with a sort of manic energy I’d imagine Phoenix Wright might have if he tripled his caffeine intake and never slept. The game attempts to introduce a bit of variety during trials with a handful of mini-games, like a variant of hangman and a stilted Crazy Taxi analogue, but these ultimately feel like filler. Nothing, however, beats the rush of having an “aha!” moment when the disparate pieces of a mystery finally come together during a heated debate. My only real complaint about Danganronpa V3 is that navigating the academy during exploration segments quickly becomes a chore. Fast travel exists, but it’s buried deeper in the main menu than it should be, and travel points aren’t always convenient. More irritatingly, the feature is disabled outright at many points during the game.

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Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony (PS4) – gameplay images via Bandai Namco

Not much has changed in terms of presentation with Danganronpa V3. It’s still a visual novel with some light exploration and a story told mostly through static character portraits. A bright colour palette and wild character designs contrast with gruesome scenes of neon pink violence to create Danganronpa‘s signature atmosphere. Composer Masafumi Takada returns to score V3′s excellent soundtrack, a suite of melodies that oscillate between blood-pumping electronica and mood-setting murder-jazz. Its audio presentation is hampered slightly by uneven audio mixing that tends to drown out character voices; this can be alleviated somewhat by adjusting sound levels in the options menu, though it’s not a perfect solution.

Danganronpa V3‘s sharply written story undulates between fact and fiction with remarkable finesse. Just when things start to go the player’s way, the game has a tendency to pull the rug out from under their feet. This makes it a wildly unpredictable ride that starts strong and remains compelling throughout. I’m being tight-lipped about the details because it truly needs to be experienced first-hand; believe me when I say that this is one finale that Danganronpa fans won’t want to miss.

CGMagazine is Canada’s premiere comics and gaming magazine. Subscribe today to get the best of CGM delivered right to your door! Never miss when a new issue goes live by subscribing to our newsletter! Signing up gives you exclusive entry into our contest pool. Sign up once, you’ll have a chance to win! Sign up today!

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Pillars of the Earth (PlayStation 4) Review – DIY Cathedral

Pillars of the Earth (PlayStation 4) Review - DIY Cathedral

Point-and-click adventure games were—for a few years anyway—thought to be products of a bygone era. In an age of online shooters, MMOs, open-world RPGs, and a million and one retro-indie games, the likes of Full Throttle and Grim Fandango seemed lost to the annals of history. However, there has been a steady stream quietly bubbling alongside the raging river of AAA titles and Early Access multiplayer games. Those of you clamouring for a quiet, relaxing session of gaming that doesn’t require lightning fast reflexes or endless hours of dedication will probably enjoy the thoughtful, pondering experience offered by Pillars of the Earth. On the other hand, if the idea of a game based on a 1,076 page historical fiction novel based around the construction of a medieval cathedral isn’t exactly your cup of tea, perhaps look elsewhere.

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Pillars of the Earth (PlayStation 4) – gameplay images via Daedalic Entertainment.

Pillars of the Earth is based on a novel by Ken Follett, which was also turned into a television mini-series on the Starz network. The story is set in the middle of the 12th century in Feudal England and follows the lives of multiple characters involved in the construction of a Gothic cathedral over a period of around 50 years. This isn’t exactly a scenario that screams “video game,” but at least it’s presented in an appropriate genre. The point-and-click style works well for the story, as it’s not exactly ripe for a brutal hack-and-slash or epic RPG iteration.

Gameplay is pretty stock standard for this kind of game. Players can move their character around various backdrops, interacting with other characters to explore and investigate the surroundings and prod the story along. Aside from the usual “click on everything until something happens,” the characters can pick up various items and select those items to use on the static background. Need to pick up a hot rock? Good thing you grabbed that cheesecloth earlier. For the most part, though you’ll be choosing dialogue options during conversations with NPCs and selecting “do this” or “do that” to carve your path through the plot. As far as puzzles go there’s nothing too extreme, but given the setting, there’s not a whole hell of a lot they could do with that.

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Pillars of the Earth (PlayStation 4) – gameplay images via Daedalic Entertainment.

The game is beautifully drawn, with hand-painted backdrops and bleak vistas that really hammer home how difficult, dirty, and cold life was in the 12th century. Character animations are janky and slow, but it’s not a quick paced game by any means so this doesn’t really matter too much. The cathedral and the town of Kingsbridge work wonderfully as backdrops and have a grim, comic-book aesthetic that does a fantastic job of contrasting warmth and cold, and bright and dismal colours.

I do have one major complaint with the game, and this is a completely personal thing so take that, as you will. I am a huge fan of history and theology, and while I’ve never read Pillars of the Earth, it sounds like something I’d really enjoy. For a video game though? I don’t want to insult the developers of the game because it’s very blatant they poured a lot of heart and soul into Pillars of the Earth—but my goodness is the game boring. I haven’t really played a point-and-click adventure game in probably two decades, but the lack of humour and the dry, historical setting just wasn’t very much fun. If this is your jam then it’s a very well constructed and shows a lot of depth, but for anyone else, the game is quite a slog to push through. The mellow, medieval music, simple puzzles, and monotonous gameplay did not make for an entertaining experience—in my opinion.

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Pillars of the Earth (PlayStation 4) – gameplay images via Daedalic Entertainment.

Pillars of the Earth is, by all means, a work of passion from people who were fans of Follett’s novel. It’s got solid depth and length, beautiful artwork, and a unique setting. The backdrops are wonderfully painted, the story is epic in its own way and again, and a game like this doesn’t come around often. If you’re sick and tired of the bright, fast, and shiny world of video games in 2017 this is definitely a step in a different direction. However, if you’re not into medieval English history, Christian theology, or religious architecture, you might find the game a bit tedious and boring. It’s a good game; it’s just not for me.

CGMagazine is Canada’s premiere comics and gaming magazine. Subscribe today to get the best of CGM delivered right to your door! Never miss when a new issue goes live by subscribing to our newsletter! Signing up gives you exclusive entry into our contest pool. Sign up once, you’ll have a chance to win! Sign up today!

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Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception (PS4) Review – Too Sexy for its Own Good

Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception (PS4) Review - Too Sexy for its Own Good

There’s no denying that the written word is no longer the most popular avenue of narrative ingestion. Compared to its flashier audio and visual counterparts, textual storytelling demands a higher degree of concentration from its audience.

Read moreUtawarerumono: Mask of Deception (PS4) Review – Too Sexy for its Own Good

Kimmy (PC) Review: The Charms And Hidden Sorrows Of Childhood

Kimmy (PC) Review: The Charms And Hidden Sorrows Of Childhood

Kimmy aims to take players back to past memories of summers spent babysitting, caring for younger children even though they were only kids themselves. Under the summer sun, they’ll play games, make friends, and get to know the neighbours in this visual novel slice of 1960’s Massachusetts.

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Kimmy gameplay images via

Players take on the role of Dana, an older girl who stumbles across the titular Kimmy playing in the streets. The little girl has slipped the rope that tied her to her porch, and through a few conversations, Dana soon finds herself taking over the rope’s job of looking after Kimmy.

If that setup seems off, it should. Despite its charming nature, Kimmy features some harsh aspects of growing up. Without spoiling them, there are some bleak aspects to these childrens’ lives, and players will get hints and snippets of them as they speak to these children on a daily basis. It’s up to them how much they may want to know about the other kids’ lives and how invested they get, but there are deep, sometimes upsetting stories behind each of the smiling faces the player comes across.

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Kimmy gameplay images via

That might not seem apparent from the art style. Kimmy’s visuals ooze wonder, carrying a child-like appearance and looking as if they’d been drawn in crayon. The characters have a simplicity and cheer about them in this style, yet all stand out as unique, as does the world the girls inhabit. It feels like meandering through a child’s drawings, yet with the skill for composition, expression, and character that comes from a skilled artist.

The writing does a fantastic job of capturing the conversations of children. From their erratic, constant topic-switching to their powerful enthusiasm and extreme emotions, players will be caught up in a torrent of conflicting emotions and ever-shifting subjects, only just barely able to hang on as the children speak. They’ll want to listen, though, as each character stands out, offering their own interesting story.

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Kimmy gameplay images via

Playing games with the kids is another story, though. To play a game, players must guess the rules of the game across dialogue options. Guessing the rules of hopscotch and tic-tac-toe is easy, but having to select them each time the player wants to select that game with that child is irritating, and since it’s mandatory to do for each conversation, it gets a bit tired and feels pointless.

Kimmy tells a delightful story of childhood playmates, all with an undertone of mystery and sadness that’s buried beneath games, silly conversations, and youthful enthusiasm. It effortlessly weaves that childhood wonder and the crushing weight of dark real life events, forming a story that drags the player in with its grinning characters and light art.

Root Letter (PS4) Review

Root Letter (PS4) Review

A girl, an unmarked letter, and a dark secret eating away at seven hearts; the mystery at the core of Root Letter, the latest visual novel from Kadokawa Games, is a gripping one. Takayuki, a 30-something Japanese man, waxes nostalgic about a pen pal named Aya Fumino he lost touch with fifteen years ago. While sifting through the stack of letters she once sent him, he uncovers one— mysteriously unopened—in which Aya confesses to killing someone and announces her intent to disappear. Takayuki, his curiosity piqued, travels to Aya’s hometown to question her former friends and find out what happened to her so many years ago.

Root Letter (PS4) Review 3I was immediately intrigued by Root Letter‘s narrative hook, but even more interested in its setting: the game takes place in the beautiful Shimane prefecture, across the real-life cities of Izumo and Matsue. I had the pleasure of staying in Izumo for a week during my transformative excursion to Japan two summers ago, making the game a surreal nostalgia trip for me. All of the places Takayuki visits in Root Letter are modeled after real locations; I have a picture of myself standing in front of Matsue Castle that lines up so perfectly with its in-game depiction that it’s almost eerie. And while my experience with Shimane certainly elevated my appreciation for Root Letter‘s nature-rich locales, anyone should be able to appreciate their gentle, rustic beauty.

Over the course of Root Letter‘s ten chapters, Takayuki pieces together the information he gleans from Aya’s letters to find her former classmates, all of whom are still living in Shimane. Each of these classmates, in turn, reveals a little bit more about the circumstances surrounding Aya’s mysterious disappearance. Who did she kill? Was she even who she said she was? Could there have never been an Aya in the first place? These questions propel the mystery forward until the player reaches one of five endings, though not all are conclusive. The trouble with Root Letter begins here: a visual novel lives or dies by its writing, and Root Letter has a terminal case of inelegance. Its prose lacks finesse, wildly see-sawing between serious and comedic, with irrational characters that spout absurd dialogue.

Takayuki’s drive to discover Aya’s whereabouts borders on obsessive, yet he is wholly without motive aside from idle curiosity. He refers to characters using Aya’s nicknames for them, which range from “Monkey” and “Shorty” to the bizarrely crude “Bitch,” a name he humourlessly throws about with wild abandon. “You’re that chatty Bitch, aren’t you?” he asks a middle-aged single mother, and yet she seems relatively unfazed by his accusation. Takayuki himself is something of a jerk, regularly harassing bystanders for information and repeatedly visiting Aya’s friends at work, even after they’ve repeatedly told him to buzz off. There’s a certain appeal to having an abrasive main character, but Takayuki has little personality aside from his dedication to finding Aya, making him difficult to sympathize with.

Root Letter (PS4) Review 4The game’s strange writing is compounded by its core mechanics. Root Letter aims to be more than a straightforward visual novel by introducing investigation elements in the vein of Ace Attorney. Takayuki can check objects in the environment, refer to his guidebook, and present items to coax information out of people. The problem is that there is exactly one way to proceed in any context, period. The story only diverges during the final two chapters, which differ depending on a series of clearly defined choices throughout the game that are easy to manipulate. The investigation phases ultimately become exercises in trial and error, and unlike Ace Attorney, there’s little deduction required on the player’s part—sometimes it’s a matter of selecting every seemingly-unrelated dialogue option until the game decides to progress.

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It’s a shame that Root Letter has such abysmal writing, because there truly are some fascinating plot threads to unravel throughout this brief journey. It nails the “visual” part of “visual novel,” showcasing nature’s abundant bounty in a little-known slice of the Japanese countryside. Meanwhile, its soundtrack boasts a handful of stunningly beautiful melodies, but they repeat far too often, further lessening the impact of climactic events. The game feels decidedly out of balance, its compelling premise at odds with a wildly uneven presentation. There’s a great story buried somewhere within Root Letter, but it simply can’t find the right words to tell it.

Kokurase – Episode One (PC) Review

Kokurase - Episode One (PC) Review

RPG Maker, as an engine, has a bit of a bad reputation among the gaming community. To be fair, a large portion of the projects to come out of it aren’t very good, as is the case with any relatively affordable, open-access development tool. Yet the tools are only as good as the developer, in my opinion, and some really interesting ventures have come out of it over the course of its lifespan. Kokurase is another one to add to the “interesting” list, because despite some flaws, it’s an endearing little game with a price tag you can’t really beat: free.

Kokurase - Episode One (PC) Review 3The basic idea behind Galanti’s hybrid visual novel is that there’s a secret club operating on high school grounds. This club makes a business of other people’s business, which is to say that they fancy themselves as problem-solvers. In this debut episode, a girl named Sakura is chronically shy, and can’t work up the nerve to ask out the very popular, very aloof Yoshimitsu. She enlists the help of the titular Kokurase, an eclectic group of students, to help her build up her courage and get the guy.

This might seem pretty straightforward, but fear not—the delivery of this game is anything but. Plot threads involve framing Yoshimitsu for being a peeping tom and stalking a stalker. Characters can see ghosts and use magical logic powers to solve problems. Bits of dialogue include being attracted to somebody because they look like the family dog. What I’m getting at, then, is that Kokurase is a very, very strange game, memorable in its absurdity and endearing in its weirdness. A cute, yet sort of offputting art style in the spirit of Touch Detective adds to the odd charm.

Most of the gameplay is decidedly less odd, for the most part. Walk a little 2D sprite around, scroll through dialogue, switch characters, rinse and repeat. It’s basically a visual novel with mild interactivity. That mild interactivity, though, is used to an interesting extent sometimes. On the text side of things, players collect “key phrases,” then use them to progress the narrative—taking a very clear page from Ace Attorney’s case file. As far as navigation goes, players will occasionally have to do specific things, such as clean a room, stay hidden in a locker room, or shove a person down hallways to move them. Again—it’s a visual novel with some interaction. Nothing more, nothing less. The visuals are a bit drab and don’t pop very much, though, which makes walking around kind of dull. It’s saved by some really adorable and weird character portraits, at least.

Kokurase - Episode One (PC) Review 4As endearing as I find Kokurase, though, there are flaws that hold it back from actual greatness. For starters, some of the logic outright makes no sense, due to awkward phrasing and weird misdirection. People familiar with presenting random evidence in Ace Attorney and hoping for the best will know what I’m talking about, although it’s much more infuriating here due to how many key phrases you can have at once. The game’s stilted dialogue and strange delivery actively hinders its flow in some cases.

Kokurase - Episode One (PC) Review 5What’s also irritating is the save system, which is infuriatingly sparse—to the point where it’s possible to ruin the save file. Near the end of the game, players are prompted to save often in a particular section, due to possible fail states. I did just that, but I was one line of dialogue behind, and as a result, I completely ruined my save file. There are no checkpoints, or anything like that—hard saves only. I’m a pretty old school as far as gaming goes, and once ruined a Tomb Raider III save file by saving just as Lara Croft fell to her death. But Tomb Raider III came out in 1999—it’s 2016, and no significant checkpointing is a major oversight. At least Kokurase’s first episode is short (it can be finished in a little over an hour) but being able to doom your save and be forced to start over is awful.

Ultimately, though, I do like Kokurase. It’s a quirky, cute little game with a memorable cast of characters, and I’ll probably buy the remaining episodes. It’s far from perfect, or even “great,” but a specific audience will find something charming here. I definitely have, and in spite of some lack of polish, irritating flaws, and occasionally stilted progression, I look forward to a few more adventures with the lovable members of Kokurase.

Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters: Daybreak Special Gigs (PS Vita) Review

Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters: Daybreak Special Gigs (PS Vita) Review

Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is one of the many criminally overlooked gems in the Vita library. While it’s a far from perfect game, and against typical gaming conventions by design, there’s nothing quite like it out there. It’s a weird game that revels in its own idiosyncrasies, breaking conventions of how you’re “supposed” to make both visual novels and role-playing titles. As a sucker for anything weird and “out there,” it carved out a little spot in my heart when the original release hit last March.

Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters: Daybreak Special Gigs (PS Vita) Review 3With Daybreak Special Gigs, an expanded re-release, I was surprised to not just get more of the same. While the core narrative remains—outside of an extra new chapter—Toybox’s revision can be seen as a director’s cut of sorts. Some characters get more exposition and internal monologues, which made me care about them more. For example, Sayuri, a character who’s been haunted by ghosts her whole life, gets standalone sequences of flashbacks that I don’t recall being present in the original. Little flourishes like this make the cast feel less cookie-cutter, and the narrative feel less like a vehicle for your self-insert protagonist.

That narrative is the primary draw of the game, as you’ll spend most of your time scrolling through text. Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters essentially amounts to an episodic ghostbusting story, with the protagonists finding new haunts each episode, learning new backstory, and going in for the kill—erm, capture? The cases are gleefully campy and macabre, from vengeful fiances to wrathful rockers, and the characters manage to feel authentic and relatable throughout each “episode.” Peppered with references to Ghostbusters, X-Files and even Supernatural, the plot is strange love letter to cheesy horror media that I love, and by consequence I love the end result.

What some people might not love, however, is the way the story progresses. While it’s technically true that Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is a visual novel, it also doesn’t play like any other visual novel on the market. Outside of certain actions, there aren’t actually any dialogue choices per se. Instead, players progress through the story by navigating two separate wheels—one with emotions, the other with body parts. For example, a “fist” coupled with “hand” means you express anger; a “heart” with a “hand” means bad touching on another character. At least sometimes, because both those things can produce totally different results in different circumstances. The game doesn’t actually explain how the wheels work, leaving players to determine the best way to use them. Personally, I love the system for being an intentionally obfuscated puzzle and for forcing players to think about their response, or if they even want to respond. However, some people might not appreciate how complicated it is, preferring a more traditional system.

The same can be said of the combat, which you’ll have to experience once or so during the thirteen episodes. In theory, it’s a grid-based strategy game. In execution, it’s a bizarre hybrid of turn-based RPG, trap-laying, and straight-up guesswork. Players use a map, which they lay traps on before battles, to pinpoint the location of the main spectre (there are other, weaker ghosts on each map.) From there, they try to figure out the ghost’s movement pattern, hope it stumbles into a trap, and try to plan your attacks one or two turns in advance, hoping they hit. It’s frustrating at times, but it’s also sort of a refreshing break from role-playing conventions. For those put off by the “guesswork” portion, Daybreak Special Gigs alleviates some of the original’s frustrations. The game automatically sets recommended traps for you, and characters can now take more than one action per turn. While this makes it significantly easier, it also makes it simpler for people to get back to the visual novel portions, which are the highlight of the package in my opinion.

Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters: Daybreak Special Gigs (PS Vita) Review 4Aside from the new narrative content and tweaked gameplay, the rest of Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is the same. The same wonderful score, the same gorgeous animation, the same evocative art direction—it’s the same charming, weird little gem it was to begin with, just a bit more polished. It’s still not for everyone, and I suspect some people will outright hate it for being so “out there,” so to speak.

Yet I still can’t help but admire Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters, especially with the refined Daybreak Special Gigs release. As someone who loves oddball visual novels, like Lux-Pain and Time Hollow, Artbox’s supernatural romp is a slick, clever title that’s unashamed of being different. In a market of conformity, I’ll take that over a cookie-cutter open-world game any day of the week.

A.W. Phoenix Festa (PS Vita) Review

A.W. Phoenix Festa (PS Vita) Review

There was once a time when the idea of “playing” an anime made me weak in the knees. I was an unabashed otaku in my teens, my emergent interest in Japanese exports exceeded only by my (continued) love of RPGs. In the PSX era, games like Thousand Arms were the closest I’d get to interacting with anime characters, but today, a much wider variety of tie-in games exist to fill that niche. Bandai Namco leads the charge with its Play Anime lineup, replete with Naruto and Sword Art Online titles for eager fans to enjoy. Their latest offering is A.W. Phoenix Festa, a hybrid visual novel/action RPG set in the Asterisk War anime universe. Regrettably, its only saving grace is its connection to the franchise from which it spawned, and even that isn’t saying much. Fanservice is not enough to make an otherwise uninspired game palatable. Even for Asterisk War diehards, Phoenix Festa is a hollow shell of a game, utterly lacking in both substance and style.

A.W. Phoenix Festa (PS Vita) Review 2Phoenix Festa makes a good first impression with an attractive introductory movie, but its development budget clearly stopped there. The game is visually dull, mechanically shallow, and astonishingly brief (my first playthrough clocked in at about two and a half hours). As either series protagonist Ayato Amagiri or a custom-made character, the player enrolls at Seidoukan Academy, where students duel for supremacy using high-tech weapons called Luxes. The player is tasked with wooing one of a handful of girls and partnering together with her to enter the titular Phoenix Festa, a fighting tournament that awards the winning pair with the fulfillment of a single wish apiece.

In terms of gameplay, the player bounces between visual novel segments and short two-on-two 3D battles. Both of these elements are half-baked at best. The story advances so quickly that it never develops any character or plot point in a meaningful way. To be specific, it fails on two key fronts: one, it assumes complete familiarity with the anime, and two, it relies on boring, clichéd tropes to characterize its meager cast. Within five minutes of beginning the game, I watched the protagonist “accidentally” grab the heroine’s breasts in an eye-rollingly stupid “misunderstanding” and listened as another character rattled off a list of names and events that I was presumably supposed to know about already. At one point, I had to take a midterm exam that asked questions that I had absolutely no frame of reference for because they were never mentioned in the game. Worse still, the game teases a larger story, but abruptly ends upon the player’s victory in the tournament. At best, it’s perplexing, and even the brief amount of time I spent with the game felt like a waste. It is also worth mentioning that the writing is consistently flat and uninspired throughout, though I suppose the localization team could only do so much with the mess they were handed.

Meanwhile, battles, which had the potential to be Phoenix Festa‘s saving grace, are insultingly simple and devoid of strategy. The action takes place in a 3D arena, functioning like a scaled-back Custom Robo, only without any of the… well, customization. There are a few different weapon types, but between only two possible attacks (weak and strong) and extremely basic enemy AI, I won every single battle by approaching my foe and mashing one button. That’s it—there really isn’t anything more to it, and believe me, I searched for depth everywhere I could.

A.W. Phoenix Festa (PS Vita) Review 6Other miscellaneous oddities worsen the experience; for instance, the player can invite girls out for duels or dates, but they often inexplicably refuse, and the game advances anyway. Most of the events that happen day-to-day are randomized, and can happen regardless of which girl the player decides to pursue. Even after a partner has been selected and the player is locked into her story route, the game still presents opportunities to pursue the other girls, even though there remains no tangible benefit to raising their affinity levels. A strangely compressed voice track and grating sound effects round out the disappointing package.

I began Phoenix Festa with an earnest desire to learn more about its world, but there is virtually nothing within the game worth discovering. Series devotees may eke out a few morsels of enjoyment, but they deserve better than such a half-hearted attempt to cash in on their fandom. Phoenix Festa is shallow, predictable, and suitable only as a companion piece to an anime I quickly realized I wasn’t remotely interested in watching.

VA-11 Hall-A (PC) Review

VA-11 Hall-A (PC) Review

Larger-than-life experiences are a staple of many games, and for good reason. Nobody is going to raid a tomb, steal a sports car, or shoot a demon in their daily life. Games let us do all those things, and then some. When a market becomes saturated in spectacle however, some might crave something with a bit more nuance to it. Something smaller, more intimate, and humanistic. Where you don’t pull off an elaborate headshot or outrun an explosion, but instead sit and chat about life, death, love, and everything in between.

VA-11 Hall-A (PC) Review 8

This is what VA-11 Hall-A is about. An experience where players get to simulate the quiet intimacy of genuine human interaction, sans the pretentions of many “art” games. At its core, it is a game about talking, and a game in which the goal is to get people to talk more to Jill, the player-character.

Jill is a bartender at a dive bar nicknamed “Valhalla,” one that reeks of “dog urine and hand soap.” It’s a bar that happens to be located in a futuristic dystopia of a society, where hackers engage in large scale cybernetic warfare, and a Big Brother-esque police force called the White Knights maintains order—when they’re not sometimes turning on their own. Your part to play in this, though, is relatively small. Because, ultimately, Jill’s tale just boils down to trying to live her life out in peace while mixing drinks for a diverse mélange of characters, most of whom are agents of change in the world.

VA-11 Hall-A (PC) Review 1

In VA-11 Hall-A, the only way to find out more about these characters’ lives and to spark friendships, or even relationships with them is through mixing drinks. There are no options to simply click a line of dialogue and see where things go. Jill has to take their order, then decide whether to make it as-is, add a little more kick, or mix something different entirely. What you make and how you make it directly impacts where a conversation will head.

Considering this is the only way to influence the narrative, it comes as a relief that the drink-mixing mechanic is charming and fluid. Once you understand which ingredients do what, it’s easy to fall into a rhythm and start mixing the fictitious beverages like a seasoned pro. During my time with the game, I started committing the cocktails and their ingredients to memory, becoming immersed in serving drinks and altering the plot.

“Alter” is the operative word here, because the outcome of the narrative changes significantly based on what you prepare. If you play your cards right, Jill will learn about the connection that certain characters have between each other, how they feel about each other, what they think about the state of society, etc. It’s easy to give the customer what they want, but a little experimentation at the right time goes a long way and leads to a more fulfilling, enriching narrative.

VA-11 Hall-A (PC) Review 2

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that VA-11 Hall-A has one of the most fulfilling narratives of 2016. The myriad ways in which it explores human sexuality, emotional fragility, and the consequences of surveillance through a deeply humanistic lens is nothing short of fascinating. Sukeban Games bills their title as a “waifu bartending” game, but it’s a lot more. Without going into spoiler territory, this title goes places I never thought games would dare to, or even could, tread, such as the ethicality of sex work, or intimacy involving perceivable minors.

Not only is the narrative—with all of its outcomes—riveting and emotionally involved, but it also forced me to challenge and reassess my subjective worldview. This is a game that can, depending on your disposition, change your life, which isn’t something to take lightly, nor is it something 99 per cent of games can claim to do.

VA-11 Hall-A (PC) Review 4

With an aesthetic influenced by MSX-90 titles, and a soundtrack that has roots in 80’s J-Pop and 90’s RPGs, VA-11 Hall-A is retro futurism at its finest. Not only is it a title with an original and novel concept, but it manages to push players out of their comfort zone, and to potentially question the way they live their entire life. It is, without question, one of the finest examples of art in gaming that I can think of.