Surreal Sleuthing

Being the new guy without a nickname sucks 🙁

The best word to describe this weekend is probably “perplexed.” That’s not because of three-dimensional numeric puzzles, though, but because I decided to complement that game with Goichi Suda’s debut adventure The Silver Case. During these past couple of days this eccentric visual novel dating back to 1999 has been both charming and annoying in that uncompromising way that, by now, has almost like become a trademark for this renowned video game designer. Whoever decides to experience The Silver Case won’t get off easy but just like most of Suda’s brainchildren, it sure is one unique trip.

The adventure takes place in the year of the game’s original release date, set in the fictional Japanese metropolis of 24 Districts. After a lightweight intro of events, the player ends up as a newbie detective in the Heinous Crimes Unit of the city. They’re troubled not by just everyday cases but also by Kamui Uehara, a legendary serial killer from more than 20 years ago, who escapes a psychiatric institution only to restart his deplorable deeds. The official authorities aren’t the only ones having interest in the guy, as a sleazy chain-smoking freelance journalist, Tokio Morishima, is suddenly given a wealthy contract to dig into the very character of that scumbag. So, detective instincts and investigative journalism, here we go!

The Silver Case is a game in name only. Using an extremely awkward command wheel, you choose between moving, exploring hotspots of interest, utilizing items you have, and saving. Navigating through the maps viewed in first perspective is only about moving and turning one square at a time. A couple more buttons have been reserved for looking up or down, but all this is just trivial cosmetics. There are no moments of having to make a choice, and no chance of dying, so the game mechanics are all about making an otherwise passive story into at least a seemingly interactive one.

That might sound boring but as far as visual novels in particular go, it’s the journey itself that matters. In that respect The Silver Case is… …well, at least sporadically brilliant. Even for a remake of a game that is almost 18 years old by now, it’s still pretty darn stylish on whole. The ambient, jazzy soundtrack supports the on-screen events nicely, and the game’s wild and unpredictable visual mixture of still images, CG sequences, anime, and acted FMV clips is pure art. The dialogue is even better. The characters’ lines are terse and notably coarse, but even if the f**s and s**ts fly like never before in gaming, they flow in a remarkably natural fashion. The character chemistry is absolutely stellar, and the best times are often had just following the back and forth between everyday people talking about everyday stuff.

Towards the end, all this charm pretty much falls apart but as I still haven’t finished the game, more about its shortcomings later.

Happiness through forms unearthed!

As a quick status update, I’m most certainly still into Picross 3D. As a pleasant surprise, its normal mode isn’t nearly as punishing as I dreaded it to be. Sure, there have been a couple of moments when I’ve thought about giving up because I’m just too dumb. Still, when giving any puzzle a few more goes, or enjoying a good night’s sleep before retrying something, everything is still very much solvable. That’s only natural, given that most puzzle games are never so much about intelligence than intellect. I’m still having trouble dealing with cubes that need to be separated into three or more segments but I also think the game itself is doing its hardest to teach me that skill. Overall, the game is getting a tad challenging but it’s still fun!

I Am So Smart! S-M-R-T!

I can’t help but starting to feel that Picross 3D isn’t merely a second-stringer to be played when nothing else of importance is around. Whenever I decide to quickly solve a puzzle or maybe two, I suddenly find myself realizing how time has simply flown by. I’m no longer inclined to guess, and even if those initially oh-so-generous time limits suddenly feel uncomfortably strict, making me either go under or over them by a minute or two, the game is a logic rush like none other! After a whopping 24 hours, I’ve finally completed all Beginner and Easy challenges with three stars. Merely solving a puzzle is worth one, which is good enough to make progress, but the extra stars for not making any mistakes and staying within the time limit have – at least so far – been far to tempting to skip.

At this point, the game’s most rewarding feature is its pacing. I began with “heh, this is laughably simple” only to quickly run into “oh dear Lord, is this even solvable” and eventually “hoo boy, this sure takes time to solve.” Every now and then that one single cube needed to proceed does a stellar job hiding out of sight but on whole, relentless practice truly does make perfect. The geometry of any puzzle still occasionally allures me to mark and remove cubes that are right “for sure” but such seduction no longer works; I’m now all about numbers and logical deduction. The time limit is still nothing more than a needlessly stressful feature that mostly leads to stupid mistakes and a quick restart. Then again, the frequency of those mistakes seems to dwindle as I go, so perhaps such a virtual whip has a well-intentioned purpose after all. Then again, the 3DS sequel purportedly does away with time limits altogether, and it sounds like the best overhaul ever.

Whatever the case, I’m now totally into Picross 3D. After 144 puzzles solved, I’m (slightly worriedly) off to tackle the ones under the Normal category. This won’t end well.

In the meantime, the last few acquisitions of the first half of the year have finally arrived to wait for their turn to shine come summer vacation (or perhaps retirement) days. Despite all the snide remarks that PlayStation Vita is dead, it’s still very much alive and well, the dungeon crawler slash visual novel (?) Ray Gigant serving as exhibit A and the ecchi shooter (?) Gun Gun Pixies as exhibit B. Obscure Japanese oddities, of course, might not even count in the first place but after all these years, I’ve still managed to end up with slightly more Vita games than 3DS games. The difference is negligible, though, so as far as handheld console gaming goes, it’s definitely a case of either or – preferably – both.

Chisel Work

Oh, them uncomplicated days…

I’ve spent the rest of this weekend admiring Nintendo’s marketing strategy. More than a year ago, 3DS gamers were given a free Pokémon Picross poisoned with microtransactions. Playing it was always a matter of hitting an artificial wall requiring a little bit of money to continue. Even if freemium is the worst thing gaming has witnessed, and even if I refuse to support it with a single penny, the game still managed to teach me the basics of picross. A bit later, 3DS also got a traditional, good to honest retail game, Picross 3D: Round 2. In the end, not only did I buy that one, I also grabbed its predecessor, the 2010 Nintendo DS release, Picross 3D. That’s the one that has been keeping me busy this weekend, and even if my hip is still busted, at least my brain gets a proper workout.

Picross 3D little cares about storytelling. After creating a profile, a peculiar yellow bird (…which I suppose it is) swiftly introduces you the basics. You’re challenged by a 3D lump consisting of cubes. Many of their faces have numbers that indicate how many consecutive cubes belong to that axis. Based on this information, you have to chisel out a thing or a form that will then perform a little congratulatory animation before you move to the next puzzle. The source material can be freely rotated with the stylus, and holding down a d-pad button enables you to either chisel away a single cube or mark it as part of the final product. Just going around the edges is good enough for a moment but as the challenges get more devious, you have to utilize scalpels. They allow you to dissect the lump to get a better understanding of its nature, and it’s more or less the only way to solve items that have hollow interiors.

Even ordinary, two-dimensional picross might look utterly incomprehensible, and it sure is hard to even describe the way it works in 3D. Still, you can be sure to learn the gist of it surprisingly fast. What you can’t be sure, though, is quickly turning that learning into comprehension. After 14 hours, I’m still not even one fourth through the game’s massive 350+ puzzle collection. My brains are already screaming mercy, and I’m still stuck with challenge sets labeled easy. Every so often, you get an irresistible urge simply to guess, but it’s always a bad idea. Even if you were right, you probably just managed to screw up your own logical path a bit further down the road. If you were wrong, you are usually given five mistakes until a game over, but even one mistake is enough for a tiny personal death. Should that happen, at least we perfectionists just give up and start the puzzle from its very beginning. The worst feature in the game is definitely it’s time limit. It’s always extremely gracious, but still something that annoyingly ticks away in the background. Good performances tend to be given a 5-15 minute limit, passable ones even more than half an hour. Still, even if that sounds like a lot, time sure does fly while thinking.

Even at this point, I think it’s already safe to say I’ll never be able to complete this game but what the heck, let’s see where my brain takes me. At least it should be a neat support game for whatever main project I might choose next.

Möst Wöndërfül

First some speed and then a leap into the unknown

The beginning of this Saturday has been quite jovial. I chose to play Type:Rider, which is a French 2D art platformer that was included in this month’s PlayStation Plus pile. It touts itself as a typographical video game, and it stars a happy little umlaut (or perhaps it’s a colon?) that rolls and jumps its way through mankind’s character, font, and printing history ranging from ancient cave paintings to modern day digitization. Along the journey, there are plenty of famous typeface letters to collect, including asterisks that open up really rather interesting little articles about the pioneers and innovations of the printing industry. It’s fun and educational; not bad!

The minimalist, stylishly designed stages are full of woodcuts, lithographs, posters, and typefaces. Traversing them is all about honoring the laws of physics, except when they make you curse physics altogether. The player’s two rolling dots are capable of jumping and rotating in the air but it’s quite tricky to keep them in perfect control. Inertia is your best friend but when it either runs out or there’s too much of it, you usually take a wildly spinning plunge into oblivion. Thankfully there are loads of checkpoints, and the game isn’t that challenging to begin with. Every now and then, there are also lightweight puzzle rooms where you have to free a third dot and then push it to a pedestal that enables you to proceed.

All the collectible letters can be found with relative ease, and even if you go after all of them, the game shouldn’t take longer than about two and a half hours to complete. One hour more, and I even managed to unlock all of its trophies. Those who want more can still improve their automatically tracked completion times or head to a separate speed run track that provides considerably more challenge for competitive gamers. Also, each stage has been split into four sections, each of which can be warped into via the in-game menu. In this game, reliving its best moments or practicing its slightly more challenging parts is remarkably quick and easy.

Even as a little snack, Type:Rider made me smile a lot. It’s original and stylish in a way that many French game developers seem to handle so eerily well. Sure, it’s also short and easy but then again, it never outstays its welcome, and it’s actually quite relaxing to play a game that isn’t constantly trying to make its player lose their cool. What a delightfully entertaining morning this has been!

Two Note Wonder

So adorable in stills, so brutal in motion

After an additional five hours or so, I’ve completed all songs of Taiko no Tatsujin: Dokodon! Mystery Adventure on Normal. 59 of them with a full combo, 11 others in a less-stellar fashion. There might still be a few more hidden songs but I think I’ll let them remain hidden. The song selection was, once again, a delightful mixture of all sorts of stuff, even if nothing was exceptionally memorable. As for game songs, the Kirby and Ace Attorney medleys were nice, and some of the Namco original tracks were just as silly as they were awesome. The jpop and anime picks, however, came off surprisingly generic. Then again, we all have our own taste in music, so the game still deserves praise for its diversity.

On whole, Dokodon! Mystery Adventure is probably just as comfy and familiar to hardcore fans of the series as it remains slightly more unconventional for the rest of us. The video above sums it up quite nicely. If you truly want to excel in Taiko games, you need A) a flat surface, B) willingness to embrace the touch screen , C) two styluses, and D) the soul of a drummer. If you prefer the casual, traditional way of holding the console in your hands and using your thumbs and index fingers to hit the notes, it’s a perfectly viable style on Easy and Normal but not so much on the two harder difficulties. The series is simply designed to be experienced in a way that is eventually way too fast for finger reflexes alone.

That’s actually both the main strength and weakness of the whole series. Taiko games require a unique playstyle. Eventually mastering it is probably highly rewarding but unless you dream of becoming a drummer, or are willing to dedicate your life to master a single series, it’s not even remotely as exciting. Each to their own, of course, but I still prefer an everyday eight button Hatsune Miku experience to pure two note divinity, even if the latter is bloody impressive when showcased by a skilled professional. As such, this is a game that can easily provide hundreds of hours of entertainment but it’s also a game that can be experienced in a jiffy, still appreciating its songs, replaying at least some of them just because they’re fun, and finding nothing genuinely wrong with the gameplay, either. For the sake of diversity, though, I’ll now take my 17 hours and, having once again satisfied my hunger for rhythm, rush towards new experiences.

Hooray for physical!

The game flood of early 2017 is starting to recede but while I was busy with one, two others still managed to sneak their way in. Of those, The Silver Case is a remake of a PS1 adventure from 1999. The reason for its comeback is undoubtedly its delightfully strange writer and designer, Goichi Suda. The Silver Case was his debut into the gaming industry, so it’s rather interesting to see just how eccentric it is. If I had to wager, I’d say extremely. The other game, Stardew Valley, is more or less about a single person as well. Eric Barone developed this Harvest Moon -esque agriculture RPG all by himself, and it has received nothing but praise from multiple sources. Since it was finally deemed worthy of a physical release, too, I’m definitely excited to give it a go.

Let’s Try That One Part Again, Boys!

Me on the left: smile, sweat, and act like you understand

Bugger me! Taiko no Tatsujin: Dokodon! Mystery Adventure ended up being a surprisingly full-bodied JRPG. Whereas the previous (handheld) games in the series haven’t had a story mode at all, or it has been nothing more than a brief distraction lasting just a few hours, the story of this one took closer to 12 hours to complete. It probably would’ve taken even longer if I could understand what its characters were continuously blabbing about. Thankfully the language barrier never got hopelessly high. The dungeons were short and straightforward, and even if the story occasionally came to a standstill, wandering around towns and conversing with the residents usually kicked it back in motion.

The biggest hurdles were the countless, delightfully challenging boss fights, in which each of the baddies did their very best to hamper an otherwise rhythmical performance with plenty of FU-scale dirty tricks such as obstructing the note line, switching note colors at the last possible moment, flinging notes to the hit window in chaotic arcs, and scattering loads of damaging bombs among them. Despite all this, Don and Katsu have an ace up their sleeve, too. Each note successfully hit s-l-o-w-l-y raises a Taiko power meter which, once full, can be activated by tapping the 3DS’ touch screen. That’s when, for a woefully brief moment, the game takes over the song being played and hits every note perfectly. Even if I had trouble following the torrent of notes flowing in, at least I still got an aural clue of what kind of rhythm was required. I rarely ever beat a boss on my first try but the countless retries never felt cheap. Listen, learn, remember, try again. Harsh but fair.

I guess I could already toss this one to the pile of finished games but since it’s all about the music, I’ll instead head off to experience its complete song list. I doubt all of them even played during the adventure mode, and it’s all about principle and self-respect to complete everything on at least normal difficulty. In the meantime, the game already gets a cautious thumbs up. Even if Miku and her gang have already conquered the 3DS rhythm game genre with the Project Mirai games, the Taiko series is still a commendable alternative and of those, Dokodon! Mystery Adventure is definitely the most ambitious so far.

Drums Like John Bonham

Hit the notes, hope for the best (^^;)

Actually, no. Not in the slightest. I suppose it’s due time to dig into the recent haul from Japan, and I’m already deep into Taiko no Tatsujin: Dokodon! Mystery Adventure. The games in this series aren’t particularly interesting to write about as they’re essentially just A) an up-to-date summary of Japan’s pop, anime, and game music at any given time, and B) means to eventually barrage any gamer of any skill level with such ruthless note sequences that you probably have to be an innate rhythm virtuoso, then die, and then resurrect to have any chance of beating them.

Although the game’s selection of more than 70 songs is alluring, I first chose to experience its story mode. This time around, the ever-so-familiar taiko drums Don and Katsu end up helping out a priestess called Tia and her monkey sidekick against a coalition of villains headed by a whimsical pink-haired witch brat. Or something very roughly along those lines, as the language barrier in this one is nigh on insurmountable. Thankfully, this lightweight JRPG journey follows the standard town-dungeon-boss cycle, so I’m making headway without really understanding anything.

Despite the story mode, the game is still very much all about rhythm, and all random encounters in the dungeons are handled in a good old Taiko no Tatsujin style. A song starts playing, followed up by blue notes that you hit with shoulder buttons and red notes that you hit with pretty much any other button. Big notes require two buttons, and long notes are all about hitting buttons as fast as possible. Missed notes deal damage to your own party, and it also counts as a loss if you fail to beat the opposing party by the end of the song. After you win a battle, some adversaries might even plead to join your own party, which seems to hold up to nine members. They are then leveled up, improved via items, or nonchalantly chucked into an alchemy bin to turn a bunch of weaklings into one slightly more adept individual. Or, once again, something like that, as I honestly have very little clue about what is going on.

After about four hours, I’m now banging my head against a sturdy wall of an incredibly cranky boss dragon. Even if he keeps on wiping me out, at least every failed attempt is still rewarded with experience points, so thanks to the holy blessing of mindless grinding, he’ll eventually succumb. Ability to read might make things easier but what the heck, this isn’t entirely hopeless. Granted, rhythm games don’t really even need stories like these but as long as it’s there, I’m going to see it through, even if just as a weird little appetizer before the actual musical steak.

Feisty Fish

Three arms and a bowl. I’M INVINCIBLE!! Until next stage.

This lazy Sunday has been all about extravagant nothing. My only accomplishment has been grabbing the last few trophies of a two-year-old indie 2D shooter Shütshimi: Seriously Swole. It’s yet another fake retro style release that was given free to PlayStation Plus subscribers a little over a year ago. Back then, its humorous angle was much appreciated but since the game always felt awfully challenging, it ended up being something I played on and off in little bursts over a long period of time. Apparently each session still taught me something, as I finally managed to complete the damn thing. To be precise, I actually finished it last week, triumphed over its boss rush mode last Friday, and spent today cleaning off its remaining few trophies.

Shütshimi’s take on shoot’em ups is amusing and brisk. You play as a totally pissed-off gold fish that defends its home waters against all sorts of maritime nasties, be they laser-shooting sharks or even underwater bears. Each stage only lasts about ten seconds, and between them you get to quickly choose between three random bonuses. Some of them are genuinely useful (say, a protective fish bowl, extra arms for additional damage, or a bouncy castle where everyone plays nice), others mostly cosmetic (a huge pile of hats), and the rest downright nasty (inverted controls, twice the size, or plenty more enemies to kill). You only get a few seconds to choose between these verbosely described bonuses, so it’s either a matter of blind luck or getting good enough to spot the ones that are practical or, in the worst case scenario, at least remotely less annoying.

At first, Shütshimi seems easy and relaxed. Every five enemy waves, a brutal boss appears. You shoot them for as much as the time allows, and if that’s not enough, it’s another five waves to survive to continue from where you left off. Even if no stage lasts longer than those ten seconds, it’s often long enough for the enemy hordes to flatten your stalwart gold-scaled hero and, since the game plays like a dream, you always have no one but yourself to blame. It probably doesn’t take longer than an evening or two to deal with the three main bosses of the game, but when you are then challenged to beat their advanced forms… I haven’t kept track of time spent with this one but as mentioned, it’s a game that has been steadily bugging me for a year or so.

While the indie scene is hopelessly crammed with these pixel-art forays, Shütshimi was a pleasant little surprise. It’s a simple, challenging game that I ended up coming back to over and over again, just like back in my youth when some games were equally brutal and yet somehow inexplicably compelling. I guess that’s the best recommendation I can give.

A Girl and Her Golem

I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship

Since the heavy hitters of gaming often require so much time and commitment, I think I’ll conserve most of them until summer vacation. Until then, there are delightfully compact experiences to enjoy on everyday weekends such as this one. This Saturday, for example, was all about jolly good time spent with A Rose in the Twilight. Then again, jolly might not exactly be the best adjective here, considering the game is a gloomy story of a cursed little girl, Rose, who wakes up in a dungeon of a decrepit castle with a white, thorny rose growing from her back. There’s not a living soul in sight and everything looks dreary, so it’s definitely due time to get out. Soon enough, Rose finds out she’s immortal and that her rose is capable of absorbing both color and time from objects nearby. Sadly, most of the color around is nothing but blood, giving Rose a glimpse into the final moments of the deceased as well as her own, forgotten past. What could be considered slight consolation, she at least bumps into a mysterious golem that just might help her find her away outside.

If you wanted the briefest of summaries of A Rose in the Twilight, it would be Japanese Limbo. A fragile little girl paves her physics-based way through forlorn surroundings, brutally dying dozens and dozens of times on the way. Even if the player was skilled enough, by the time new areas of the castle need to be opened, Rose has no choice but to bravely enter an execution chamber to give up one more of her infinite lives to offer blood to the brambles guarding the door to the next area. It’s all extremely harsh, although still skewed more towards desolate sadness than pure sadism.

Thankfully, there’s the golem. The two main characters are swiftly switched between by the press of a button, and unless both are present at the exit gate of any given area, it’s no-go. Not only does the golem have no trouble pushing through thorns that are fatal to Rose, it can also grab, carry, and throw stuff, Rose included. She, on the other hand, excels on absorbing color and momentum from objects and then transferring it somewhere else. The game mechanics are a breeze to pick up, and they serve a lovely round of puzzle-induced platforming. The two often get separated but the eventual reunion is always a jubilant occasion.

A Rose in the Twilight is stylish in a minimalistic fashion. Aside from a bunch of diary entries and a few tutorial messages, there’s hardly anything to read. The golem is mute, of course, but so is Rose. The story is all about hunting down and watching unspoken theatrical cutscenes, and the music is all instrumental, artfully conveying a feel of solitude. The best part is the presence of an actual story. The game can be a bit challenging at times, and by the first time the credits roll it might feel like enough is enough. Choose to push on, though, and it’s so much more worth it.

That’s not to say the game wouldn’t be an occasional, massive arsehole, though. All platformers relying on physics are more or less unpredictable, and by the time you restart a checkpoint for the tenth time to get to the next one while multitasking between two different characters with two different skill sets under an annoying time limit, it’s not necessarily fun. Even if everything else goes peachy, Rose’s (ac)cursed rose is probably in full bloom when it shouldn’t and the other way around. My personal nine-hour journey now feels worth every minute but during it, things weren’t always quite as elated.

The game has some speedrun trophies that can just as well shove it, but the overall experience was decidedly a good one. A Rose in the Twilight might not set the gaming world on fire but as a grim, yet fundamentally beautiful fairytale, it leaves behind an aftertaste most exquisite!

Just Business

About to get medieval on your ass, you racist little prick!

Not only did this Easter vacation give me a chance to rest my still awfully temperamental hip, it was just enough to complete Mafia III. As a delightful surprise, the story missions towards the end actually involved a bit of handwriting. While they still weren’t anything more than massive firefights, at least they took place in spectacular settings. Since getting to Marcano also required to go through most of his relatives as well, Clay’s vengeful odyssey began to pack some serious assertiveness. When the CIA just spurs you along while a priest watches in horror what the once upright young man is turning into, it’s something you start thinking as a player, too. At least you still get your say in the final decisions, and as I try to keep things as spoiler-free as possible, let’s just say the eventual meeting between Sal Marcano and Lincoln Clay is a small, yet beautiful and memorable piece of storytelling in games.

Before Marcano, I paid a quick visit to the Faster, Baby! DLC, which opens up an entirely new district on the map. Sinclair Parish is a pathetic backwater suburb where the official authorities are essentially nazis and asshole residents proudly don their white bedsheet capes. Together with a hard-boiled afro chick, Roxy, Clay gets to wreak biblical havoc on the local, utterly racist excuse of a sheriff. The best word to describe this DLC is speed. The area is flat and unobstructed, designed around excessive speeds and massive police chases, which is what the add-on is all about with the absurdity meter cranked up to eleven. Using Roxy’s bad-ass pickup, you end up trashing half the neighborhood and jumping through billboards in cinematic fashion that pays homage to every car chase movie ever. It’s a nice, rambunctious break from the main game but then again, it hardly takes more than a couple of hours to experience, including plenty of cutscenes. It also gives you a chance to grow and cultivate cannabis to sell but the darn seedlings took so long to sprout that I ended up passing my chance for the joys of horticulture. Still, there’s supposed to be two more story-focused add-ons released later this year, so perhaps I’ll get back to this come summertime.

As a concluding statement, Mafia III isn’t particularly noteworthy but also not nearly as hopeless as its review scores might imply. It falls short on storytelling, which is strong in the beginning and in the end, but the beef in the middle is just repetitious, meaningless fluff. Still, during my playthrough of 41 hours, I pretty much never felt unsatisfied or annoyed, and the time just flew by. The game might not provide a captivating story but as a 60’s sandbox, it was certainly worth one very merry Easter!

Random Rambling of a Gaming Otaku