Weapon Shop de Omasse

Weapon Shop de Omasse is an interesting addition to the GUILD series because of who made it. While I’ve lauded the series as a way to give game creators space to make a small game with full creative control, Weapon Shop de Omasse gives that control to a Japanese comedian named Yoshiyuki Hirai. Hirai, who is one half of Japanese stand-up duo America Zarigani and also host of a youtube let’s play channel, is clearly a big fan of JRPGs, and his take on the genre is, while not entirely unique, something that you can see a comedian coming up with. It’s a light hearted look at the life of a weapon shop merchant in a semi self-aware JRPG. It’s a clever idea with some stand-out moments, but that the game was created by someone new to game development isn’t a surprise when you start playing for more than a few hours.

Weapon Shop de Omasse is a slightly difficult game to describe, because there isn’t one main activity, but a couple of smaller minigames to play while you man the storefront. The most notable is forging weapons. You have a number of available weapons to forge in a small rhythm minigame, the number increasing as the game continues. The minigame itself is reasonably involved. You hit the block of… iron (what are weapons made out of?) in time with a beat played to you beforehand, à la Parappa the Rapper. The temperature of the weapon slowly goes down as you play, so you need to manage it by occasionally heating up the weapon if it gets too cold before you’ve finished moulding it. As you forge, one of three stats will increase on the weapon, and you can also increase stats by adding various materials to the weapon before playing the minigame. It’s a really good premise and pretty damn fun for the first few tries – juggling heat and tapping to the beat is bolstered by some catchy tunes. The biggest flaw of the system, however, is that it fails to develop at all throughout the game – you’re always doing the same thing to similar looking weapons, and the music selection also remains pretty static; a pitfall I’ve touched on in this blog before. Perhaps its biggest failing comes in the fact that stat upgrades during forging are entirely random, so if you want to craft a katana with good slash power (something all good katanas need), you might have to craft that same katana multiple times, or use a valuable material, because there’s no way to manipulate the RNG.

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Weapons crafted can also be masterpieces, something I found out pretty randomly, after what I thought was me completely messing up one forge pretty late into the game. It turns out that, despite common sense, hitting every beat in the rhythm game probably isn’t the best idea, because slowing down the process allows you to get more stat gains overall, and makes the weapon better. If this review somehow convinces you the game is for you, I’d bear this in mind, because it makes some elements of the forging system make more sense, such as balancing heat, which becomes a non-issue if you manage to hit every beat in the game and craft the weapon before it can cool down too much. Sadly, the game never explains this key mechanic, and by the time I learned it, I was already worn out on forging in general.

Forging isn’t the only thing to do in the shop – you can also polish your weapons, which is an even shallower minigame than forging. It amounts to simply rubbing your weapons with the stylus until they look all shiny. What was a hidden feature in Pokémon Platinum is a core element of Weapon Shop de Omasse, and something that will take up much of your time if you want your weapons to improve, or if you want to actually do something in game that isn’t either wait for a customer or read the “Grindcast”.

I should probably explain where much of the game’s meat lies. You forge weapons to rent out to characters who swing by your shop, some of which follow actual questlines, others of which are just throw-away characters ‘humorously’ named NPC A or B or so on. These interactions are where the game’s various stories come in, pretty much none of which are memorable enough to talk about for long; there’s an axe wielding grandmother looking for her husband; a pair of sisters seeking revenge etc. You rent them suitable weapons you’ve forged, and wait for them to return, hopefully with the weapon you rented still in their possession. Choosing and forging suitable weapons for characters is a pretty fun idea, but the problem comes in how much waiting there is between the opportunities you get to do this.

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Characters will saunter into the shop and ask for a weapon, then leave to give you some time to forge and polish it. When they return you can rent them the weapon, then you can follow their quest in ‘real time’ on a social media app called the Grindcast that functions like Twitter but sounds like Grindr. On completion of the quest they’ll revisit the shop, return the weapon, and you wait for the next customer. What this boils down to in gameplay terms is you waiting for the customer to enter the shop, then waiting for them to come collect their weapon, then waiting for them to do their quest, then finally (wait for it) some more waiting for the next customer. While waiting, you can forge weapons or polish weapons, both of which wear out their welcome pretty quickly. Alternatively, you can just sit and read the Grindcast, which is remarkably unfunny for a game directed by a comedian, with lame half-baked JRPG style jokes that poke fun at the conventions of the genre like a dated webcomic. It’s pretty dire, but you’ll be forced to read it whatever happens, given that updates from the Grindcast appear on the top screen while you forge and polish weapons.

The game’s basic systems and gameplay are fine, but it would be easy to see how these could have been improved. You’d need to remove the RNG in forging and develop the system throughout the game, or make the game shorter. You’d need to make polishing a more involved skill. Most importantly, you’d cut out all of the waiting for customers. Perhaps have the customer enter, request a weapon, and then immediately forge that weapon for the customer. The waiting around in this game is egregious, and sucks the joy out of some properly good gameplay ideas.

This is just some rampant speculation on my part, but I do wonder if Hirai needed some more help on this project. There are ideas here that clearly come from someone who knows about games and what would work in creating a small game about manning a shop in an RPG. But it feels like some really bad ideas that might work in theory should have been shot down by someone with more experience. Creativity needs guidance, especially when you’ve never made a game before, which makes Weapon Shop de Omasse into an intriguing and sincere mess of a game. I can’t in good conscience recommend it, but like most of the GUILD series, it has some interesting ideas from an interesting creator.

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Arrested Development Series Five

This review contains some spoilers for the fifth season of Arrested Development. I recommend watching the show before reading.

I think I should probably clarify upfront that I’m not really as harsh on the fourth season of Arrested Development as many seem to be. Not that it’s anywhere near the heights of the first three, but I found the way it worked around its restraints admirable, even if it created something that neglected the family dynamic that the series is best known for. What I think I liked most about Season Four, however, was how it positioned itself as Arrested Development as made for a streaming platform. In the past, Arrested Development has had overarching series narratives, but mainly attempted to wrap up smaller stories within the confines of one episode. However, with the show now able to be binged in a matter of a day, it makes more sense for Arrested Development to build its trademark twisting narratives over a longer stretch.

Arrested Development Season Five is by most accounts better than Season Four, but it makes some decisions that run counter to how Arrested Development is currently presented. One of the biggest is having to start from the admitted mess that Season Four left the series in. Season Five eventually moves past most of the more questionable plot-threads left dangling by Season Four, but not before they slow the season down considerably with long narrator recaps of previous episodes. Ron Howard again plays dual role as bad actor and good narrator, but here his role telling the story is beefed up considerably. You can see this as continuing from “Season Four Fateful Consequences”, where the remixed way the story was told meant Ron had to present five minute recaps of the story so far at the start of each 20 minute episode. It’s just as exhausting here as it was there, although at least now Howard begins to disappear as the series finds its rhythm, rather than getting more intrusive.

Speaking of the season finding its rhythm, Netflix has confusingly started to split up its comedy shows into two half-seasons, presumably in order to reduce their bingeability, or to drum up twice the hype, or maybe there’s some complicated business decision that shows most people watch Netflix comedies in two halves over the period of a couple of months. A move like this works for a show like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which is reasonably exhausting to binge, what with its commitment to a machine-gun barrage of jokes as opposed to having its plot make much sense. But Arrested Development has a very different structure to Kimmy Schmidt. It has retained its complex overarching narrative from Season Four, but now that narrative has been split in half by Netflix. The season has somewhat of a ‘mid-season finale’ in the form of the 2nd July Parade, but that Parade doesn’t wrap up most of the Season’s ongoing plot-points. Some of them get satisfying answers, but most are left in a half-way state. It seems like the decision to split the season was made halfway through production, because I doubt the commitment to an ongoing narrative would have been made had the team known about the split.

The split also affects the quality of the jokes in Season Five. Arrested Development‘s jokes are built through complex repetition. Each new joke has to be introduced a number of times before it becomes a classic by being exposed to new contexts. That’s not to say the show’s jokes aren’t funny the first time, but more a testament as to how it can turn a simple catchphrase like ‘I’ve made a huge mistake’ into something special. Season Five can still pull out jokes from its old bag of tricks, but the split makes establishing new ones much more difficult, and if I’m being honest, I find it difficult to remember most of the new running gags Season Five attempts to establish.

Some of the jokes that do work still aren’t perfect(o). Take, for example, a pretty genius gag from the season “finale” in which, during the parade, the Milford Academy marching band plays in true Milford fashion. It’s one of the funniest jokes in the episode, and would be something only worth mentioning as a positive, did it not run for about 30 seconds, after the point has really been made after about 10. I’ve really harped on about this before, but I think it’s worth saying anyway. The reason most comedies should stay 20 minutes is because it forces a high density of quick, fast jokes. Jokes don’t get worn out, because there isn’t the time, and jokes that don’t deserve to be in there get cut, because there are better jokes that need the time. Arrested Development Season Five tries to stay more towards the 20 minute mark than Season Four, which can only be a positive, but it still lets its Netflix freedom get the better of it, with the season finale being a whopping 35 minutes long.

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I think I’ve been quite negative about the season so far, so let’s rectify that a bit, because it’s still enjoyable enough. The real highlights of the season comes from two characters; Maeby and Tobias. Maeby’s turn as Lucille II’s fake pensioner sister is everything Arrested Development should be; it’s a funny premise that allows for the show to mix in weirdly dark humour (Stan Sitwell’s advances on Maeby), an exploration of messed up family dynamics (Maeby feeling Sitwell could provide the paternal figure she’s missed all her life) as well as still allowing Maeby to fuel the Bluth family plotting through her semi-serious advice to George-Michael.

Meanwhile, as Maeby attempts to move away from the family, Tobias tries desperately to fit in, despite gaining new family of his own in the form of his son/stage-partner as played by a nervous Kyle Mooney. Tobias’ need to fit into his adopted family while completely neglecting his own wife and children is a ripe vein for comedy, especially as he tries to get his own son into the acting (or at least clowning) game, completely oblivious to the reality that there’s more to life than being famous.

Arrested Development Season Five has some real highlights, and I’m tentatively glad it was made, as long as the second half of the season carries this momentum into its second half. But its necessity is still questionable, and the split does nothing to help its case. The cast is still funny, and watching the Bluth family plot against each other to little avail is always enjoyable. But one can’t escape the feeling that Arrested Development should have been allowed to end on a high, or at least that it should have kept the format that allowed its ‘Rube Goldberg machine of comedy’ style to thrive.

Stray Observations

  • I neglected to mention the Jeffery Tambor scandal in the main text, but while it’s true that the New York Times interview was painful to listen to, this season was apparently made before the scandal broke, so while any future appearances by Tambor on the show would be questionable, his role here is at least understandable.
  • Both Arrested Development and Kimmy Schmidt now have the protagonists working for tech companies, although Kimmy‘s seems completely out-of-touch and based on extremely old stereotypes compared to Arrested‘s portrayal of Google.
  • Despite the hype about the whole cast being together again, Portia De Rossi is still green-screened in and missing for much of the season.
  • Although I called out Tobias and Maeby for best of the season, honourable mention goes to GOB, whose telephone call with a suitcase, rotating conversation with Tony Wonder and purchasing of a closet company are all top-notch gags.
  • Clearly the best joke in the season is the multi-car lying at the Mexican border – everything about it is near-perfect; Michael’s twisting of George’s terrible lies; George-Michael’s twisted face as he believes he’s caught his father and Barry riding that motorcycle.

Liberation Maiden

I can safely say I had pretty much no idea what I was doing or what was going on for about 90% of my playthrough of Liberation Maiden, making reviewing it a slightly intimidating prospect. The game was developed by Goichi Suda, better known as Suda51; the man responsible for classics such as No More Heroes and Killer7. Maybe because of this, Liberation Maiden is the most successful entry of the GUILD series, being the only one to spawn a sequel (confusingly a PSVita Visual Novel), and get an iOS port.

Unlike the past two games in the GUILD series I’ve looked at, Liberation Maiden is decidedly not story heavy, but instead a sort of on-rails shooter, which makes the fact that it has exceedingly well-animated anime cutscenes by Studio Bones (Space Dandy; Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood etc.) a slightly confusing choice. Although there are bonus story details included in the options menu, all you need to know is that some time in the future a new nation called ‘The Dominion’ (there’s some nominative determinism if I’ve ever seen it) has taken over Japan, and in a state of military emergency, the Japanese Diet has decided the only reasonable course of action is to put the former Prime Minister’s daughter into a mech suit and send her to fight the invading army forces. This sort of wacky premise is perhaps what you’d expect from a man who refers to himself as a punk game designer, but sadly the rest of the game’s design elements fall much more on the generic than the ‘punk’ side of the spectrum.

I’m not necessarily talking about gameplay right now, but about visual design. Unlike with the super-stylised and super-stylish character and visual design of Suda’s previous games, Liberation Maiden’s characters fall pretty squarely on the ‘generic anime’ side of the equation. Her mech is perhaps a bit sleeker than your average Gundam, but it’s nothing I’ve never seen before in passing. The enemies suffer the biggest fate in terms of visuals. Because they’re never depicted in the cutscenes it’s hard to get a grasp on what they really look like, but most of their tech is either dark grey tanks, dark grey spikes jutting out of the ground, or occasionally dark grey submarines and trains, all equipped with beautiful glowing pink weak spots. The weak spots are needed, however, because of how the game is presented. Your character floats above the ground, but aside from the enemy’s proclivity for heat seeking missiles, all of the other enemy weaponry remains on the ground. The 3DS, while a nifty bit of kit, isn’t quite strong enough to handle the draw distance this game demands, leaving most of the enemies as pretty difficult to parse.[1] This isn’t helped by the sheer amount of visual noise that clutters every frame of the game, leading it to chug at the most demanding moments. It’s a real shame that a game directed by Suda51 is so visually lifeless – the only real visual spark is the mini news bulletins that pop up after completing a mission. The music is enough to add some pizzazz to the proceedings, but not good enough to carry the game’s aesthetic fully on its shoulders.

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I should probably start talking about the gameplay. I described it above as an on-rails shooter, but that’s not quite true. While you are somewhat shepherded from one shooting gallery to the next, you mainly have pretty full control of your mech during these sections. It might instead be that I called this game a on-rails shooter because I think it would have worked a lot better as one. Controlling your mech is a little clunky, as is controlling the camera. The camera isn’t locked behind you unless you press the L button, but doing that also locks your control of movement to being only side to side. If you want free movement, you’ll mainly have to just trust the camera, which works most of the time until the game throws a surprise stealth mission at you in the third level. Here, unable to see the enemies you have to avoid without moving your character, a minor annoyance becomes a lot more frustrating. What’s more, when near a target, your mech will automatically start moving towards it if you aren’t controlling it yourself, one of the most baffling design decisions of the game, making it seem more often than not like you’re wrestling with the controls. Much like Kid Icarus: Uprising, controlling your aim is done through the touch screen. You lock onto enemies using the touch screen aim, then fire. However, given that the L button is already taken for putting you into strafe mode, you have to release your stylus in order for your weapon to fire. This is much easier to forget to do than it seems, especially in the heat of the moment.

By around the 4th level, I had finally gotten to grips with the control scheme, and at times, in the thick of the action, it can reach the heights of Kid Icarus. It can even occasionally exceed the depths of that game’s shooting mechanics, as Liberation Maiden includes a fun risk/reward system, wherein the nodes that orbit your mech are used for both attack and defence, meaning that firing too many off will put you in greater danger, forcing you to wait for some to return. Annoyingly, however, the game could have used this to test you on your dodging skills when you’re out of ammo, but the abundance of heat-seeking missiles mean sometimes damage is pretty inevitable.

However, as soon as the game started for me, it was all over. The game only includes 5 levels, with the last only containing a boss fight. Confusingly, the game teases a surprise final boss fight after the fifth stage, but ends after showing the enemy. The first 4 levels are also all structured identically; first find 3 small spikes sticking out of the ground and destroy those, then destroy a final large spike. Past the second level, then, when a new laser weapon is introduced,[2] the gameplay has pretty much finished evolving, without all that much variation. It’s a game that is content to be short but sweet, which I normally appreciate, but the complexity of the mechanics and inefficient tutorials meant that I spent most of the game lost. It was only with a second playthrough that I was able to have more fun with it, but by that point the surprise of what was coming next was lost.

Liberation Maiden is a perfectly fine action game, but it’s not the kind of game I expect from the GUILD series, or Suda51. In a way, its oddity is that, despite coming from an experimental director and an experimental series of games, it seems amazingly risk-averse. I can’t say I didn’t ever enjoy my time with Liberation Maiden, but while I’d rather play it over The Starship Damrey, a part of me would rather see a bold failure than a dull semi-success.

[1] The game should have really taken a page from Kid Icarus: Uprising, which came out a month before and has stunningly better visual design that this game.

[2] Introduced, but sadly never explained. I had to look up a separate review of the game after playing to work out how the laser recharged and how damage was calculated using it. I ended up ignoring it most of my playthrough because of that. It requires manual aim rather than auto lock-on, and it’s not well telegraphed as to how long it lasts.

 

The Starship Damrey

“This game contains no tutorials or explanations. Part of the experience is to discover things for yourself” Disclaimer before starting The Starship Damrey.

The last time I looked at the GUILD series was to wax lyrical about Attack of the Friday Monsters, a game I thought would never have been made in the way it was were it not for the funding and support of Level-5. With their help, creator Kaz Ayabe was able to create a game that he wanted to, and it was a near-unqualified success. But while that game exemplifies the highs of the GUILD experiment, The Starship Damrey shows that not all projects of this nature are created equal.

The start of the game shows a lot of promise, because of the disclaimer quoted above. For those not in the know, The Starship Damrey is a horror-adventure game, and starting one of those by promising the ultimate obscurity is a really good beginning. Here, you might think, is the start of another small, creatively-fulfilling premise. Sadly, this is not to be the case. The game opens with the main character awake in a cryo-stasis pod, with a few simple commands at your service; you can turn on and off the lights, unsuccessfully attempt to open the hatch, and boot up the computer. Within the first few seconds of booting up the computer, the game tells you exactly how to do boot-up system works. An inconsistent follow-through on its own premise will become a crucial theme of the game’s failure.

Eventually, through the computer you’re able to take control of a robot to guide you through the ship. Controlling the robot is similar to an old-school dungeon crawler; you can turn in four directions and go forward or back. The problem, of course, is that this style of gameplay is pretty outdated for a reason; it’s slow and clunky and the robot’s lethargic turn cycle does little to aid this.

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The game is filled with “spooky” darkened rooms and corridors, and so the robot’s field of view is further constrained by the tiny torch light you’re given. Exploration of the surrounding area is encouraged, because you’re asked to both find items scattered on the ground, as well as exterminate “space leeches”, tiny sprites that litter the floors and walls. In order to free the robot’s view, you have to press the A button, then move the D-pad around while standing still. Halfway through the game, I realised that pressing the A button was an unnecessary step because simply moving the analogue stick would do the job for you, but because the game “contains no explanations or tutorials”, I was stuck playing it in a slightly tedious way. It’s not a game changer, but instead just a way in which the premise turns into an annoyance rather than a cool feature. When the game can’t teach you its own mechanics through gameplay, sometimes a tutorial is useful.

Tedium is an annoyingly common feature of The Starship Damrey, and to illustrate that, let’s look at two of its puzzles. The first is probably the cleverest puzzle in the game; there’s a robot blocking your way and attacking you, and you have to find some way to stop it. Looking in the game’s database you can find information that robots can’t handle temperatures over 200 degrees, so you figure you have to find something that will be hot enough to disable your robo-assaulter. While doing some exploring you find an empty cookie jar, and will hopefully figure out that by putting the oil you found earlier in there and heating it up on the hotplate in the common room, you’ll have a perfect weapon. I’m being nice here and assuming that you remember both the oil and the hotplate, and don’t have to go searching through every room before you figure out the solution. Either way, you first head down through the elevator to the oil tap. Then, you place the jar under the tap and fill it with oil. After leaving the room and heading back up to the second level, you realise that you didn’t take the oil jar with you; the game has a nasty habit of requiring you to examine objects multiple times before being allowed to interact with them, so you forgot that the oil tap had to be examined again before you could remove the jar. After traipsing all the way back to the oil tap, then back again to the second floor, then finally to the hot plate, you have to watch a stupidly long heating-up process before you have the hot oil weapon of your desires. And that’s the good puzzle.

The puzzle directly after this requires you to remove a pile of debris that’s blocking your way to the next room. In the nearby lab, you find an assortment of chemicals, and in the doctor’s study you find a recipe for an explosive mixture. Of course, in a sensible game, you’d have enough inventory space to carry all the necessary chemicals to the debris, then create the explosion there. But no, the robots on the good Starship Damrey are only capable of holding one item in their claws, meaning you have to slowly trundle from the lab to the debris three times before you can create the explosion. Unlike the previous puzzle, this one is as simple as they come, but it’s made needlessly tedious. What’s more, it highlights just how obnoxious only being able to hold one item at a time is. Not only does this simplify the puzzles and mean they can only be designed in a linear fashion; it also causes situations like the one described above. Those two are extreme examples, but the game isn’t long enough to let them become forgettable distractions. It’s a shame that some smart and some simple puzzles are bogged down by poorly streamlined game design to the point of frustration.

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However, the imaginary defender of this game (I say imaginary because of the handful of people who actually played this game, I can’t think of any of them getting much out of it), might argue that the puzzles in the game are merely a conduit to the interesting and atmospheric story. I sympathise with this view to an extent; I’ve forgiven poor gameplay for a great story in the past, and had this game had a story worth experiencing, I might still have recommended it.

Sadly, that is not the case. The atmosphere of this game is as generic sci-fi horror as it comes – a dark and abandoned spaceship with dead crew strewn around the floor and a little girl hologram randomly appearing for the odd jump-scare. The scariest thing in the game is the sound that the space leeches make when you go near them, which is a bizarre and unexpected static-like screech. But the one weird sound doesn’t excuse the design of every corridor, robot and alien, which are all as stock as they come. The ship is comprised of endless grey corridors and big empty grey rooms; the robots are simple designs that could be in any sci-fi game, and the alien has literal glowing red eyes and a simple grey humanoid design. There’s so much fucking grey in this game.

As for the story, it’s remarkably obtuse until after the credits, when all is revealed. I’ll put a spoiler warning here for anyone seriously wanting to play this game, but for those who have been put off by my ranting; the game’s overarching mission is to free yourself from the pod you’re trapped in, as well as work out what’s happened to all of the crew members. The answer is amazingly boring; you’ve kidnapped three aliens in order to research them, and they ended up killing the crew. It’s not exactly 2001 (although the game does throw in a cheeky reference to that film). In the post credits stinger, it’s revealed that you aren’t a person in the pod, but one of the aliens, and that you’ve basically freed yourself in order to bring havoc to humanity or something. That twist is alright, but it’s awfully clued – there’s nothing to suggest that more than one alien was ever on board until the game tells you in the end. So while it may be shocking, it’s not satisfying.

Mercifully, the full game takes under 3 hours to complete, meaning you don’t have to spend more time than necessary in the Starship Damrey. It’s a shame that not every project would work out as well as Friday Monsters, but I think Damrey shows the limits of GUILD as much as Friday Monsters shows the strengths. Although the game has a bigger budget than it might have been awarded otherwise, it’s spent here on pointless cutscenes, rather than making the ship an interesting place to explore. And while a small-scale game can focus on interesting gameplay concepts that might not get funding elsewhere, like a game without tutorials, or an inventory, that doesn’t mean those ideas are worth pursuing. The Starship Damrey is an odd game in the GUILD series, because it feels as experimental as it is rote. However, with it out of the way, we’re free to explore the games that fall in between these levels of quality.

Attack of the Friday Monsters

In the 1950s, the prospering Japanese film industry reinvented the “monster movie.” The giant monsters of the era were “kaiju” that often symbolized the effects of pollution, such as radiation and hydrogen bomb experiments.
In the 1960s and 70s, the “hero show” was born. Brave heroes challenged the kaiju on prime time television, and the entire nation tuned in.
The heroes were just as big as the monstrous kaiju, but they were more like friends to the children of Japan, or even a father that would protect them, no matter the sacrifices he had to make…
      – This text appears each time you start up Attack of the Friday Monsters

I first heard about Level-5’s Guild series through Official Nintendo Magazine, an old UK-based Nintendo publication that I subscribed to before it sadly shut down in 2014. The Guild series consisted of two 3DS games published by Level-5 that were a collection of small games made by different famous game directors. Although sold in a bundle in Japan, in the West, these games were released without the “Guild” tagline on the eShop. At first, the only game of this collection I bought was Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale. This is because of a certain phrase from the ONM review that stuck out to me; that the game made the reviewer ‘nostalgic for someone else’s childhood’. Although I’ve long since lost my copy of that magazine and the website has been shut down for some time, that phrase and this game have occupied a part of my mind for quite a while now. And while I talked about this game in my list of my favourite 3DS games, I’ve wanted to expand not only on why I consider Friday Monsters such a treasure, but on the Guild series as a whole, and why it was such a worthwhile experiment. 

Attack of the Friday Monsters centres around a young boy named Sohta, who has recently moved to Fuji no Hana, a fictional small suburb of Tokyo. Every Friday, giant monsters supposedly fight in the fields near the town, and as such, the children are warned from wandering too far afield. As Sohta, you investigate the truth behind the monster attacks, as well as find out more about the other inhabitants of Fuji no Hana.

Gameplay as a whole is pretty simple, and mainly consists of running from objective marker to objective marker talking to people. Occasionally (and I really do mean occasionally, it’s only necessary at two points in the story), you have to play a card game against your friends. The game is called “Monster Cards”, and it’s a clever take on the rock-paper-scissors game — serving as a decent distraction from the main plot, and something to keep you coming back once the story is over. The catch is that the way you collect cards for playing Monster Cards is by finding “glims” scattered on the ground around Fuji no Hana. Collect 5 of the same type of glim and you get a Monster Card. At the start of the game, you are asked to run around collecting at least 20 glims, assuming you never pick up more than 5 of the same type. This could be excused as a way to familiarise players with the map, but given its small size and detailed map on the touchscreen, it comes across as tedious padding.

When the game starts, a small musical cut scene plays that near perfectly encapsulates much of what I love about Attack of the Friday Monsters. I’ve linked the opening scene above for you to see, but there are a few things in it I really want to highlight.

The first is the fact that there’s an opening scene at all, sung from the perspective of Sohta. Sohta is obsessed with the hero shows of early 1970s Japan, and often sees his life as mirroring one. That a day in his life has an opening theme tune, or that each of the tasks you have to complete in the game are referred to as ‘episodes’ is just a lovely bit of theming.

It’s also a bit of theming that ties into the main idea of the game; the confusing nature of childhood. In the lyrics of the opening song, Sohta mentions that “Both my Mom and Dad love me, I don’t really know why, what should I do?” This uncertainty of life as a child is present throughout the game. It’s not just in Sohta or any other characters’ relationships with their parents, it bleeds into everything, including the plot.

The main hook of the game is found in seeing whether or not the monsters really do come out on Friday. As a viewer, you see many clues telling you they don’t, such as a TV station that seems to be responsible for the evidence that might prove the existence of said monsters. But Sohta consistently fails to put two and two together. Even when he and his friends come close — such as realising the monster footprints have been dug by people, and finding that a sign believed to be in an alien language was just made by the father of one of Sohta’s friends — the kids still never doubt the existence of the monsters or aliens. It’s a lovely bit of childhood wonder, and by the end of the game the viewer is sucked into it as well, as events occur that seem unexplainable through ‘adult’ logic, and we are asked to simply accept them. Although the game starts by maintaining a relative distance between the player and the child characters by offering the the former rational explanations for what the children see as fantastical, by the end it has eased us into their perspective and asks us to suspend our disbelief as well. For me, it works perfectly.

This dramatic irony is also used in the child characters’ dialogue for the game’s lightly comedic moments. There’s nothing in this game that comes close to laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s meant to be gently amusing, and it mostly nails that feel. The dialogue for the children is pretty spot-on, although when the game attempts weightier dramatic moments, it occasionally veers too close to melodrama for comfort. Take, for example, the game’s bully character. He isn’t in the game for too long, but whenever he is, his storyline falls much too in-line with every bully stereotype, including Sohta literally asking him “You’re just lonely, aren’t you?” It’s a rare and disappointing step into stock tropes in a game that otherwise defies them in its strange storyline. The argument could be made that the childrens’ often stock personalities are calling back to the hero shows that the game is constantly referencing, but it manages to defy expectations in its adult characters and central plotline, so I don’t see why it can’t for the younger members of the cast.

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Returning quickly to the opening song, it also serves as an introduction to my favourite thing about this game; its unique and perfectly realised atmosphere. Here’s where the idea of ‘nostalgic for someone else’s childhood’ really comes into play; it’s not just that the game recreates what it’s like being a child that makes it impressive, it’s that the game recreates what it’s like being a child in 1970s suburban Tokyo.

The lot you have to explore is small and doesn’t change much or open up a lot during the game, but it’s quietly beautiful. All the backgrounds are hand-drawn, with the 3D character models placed on top of them; an effect that works surprisingly well, even if it’s a shame that the 3DS’ image quality sometimes stops this from looking as good as it could be. It also means that each screen on the game has a fixed camera angle à la Resident Evil, although it works better in this game given the slow moving nature of the gameplay.

Attack of the Friday Monsters makes use of its status as a videogame even outside of Monster Cards. Although much of what I’ve described of Friday Monsters’ strengths could come forth in a book or film, games as a whole are more immersive, and there’s something to be said for small atmospheric details — such as the radios playing in shops, or the train announcements that get quieter as you move away from the train station — that can only have the effect they have in a video game form. Additionally, even though the story is highly structured, the small moments of freedom that come from deciding in which order to complete optional episodes, or even which route to take to a point on the map all contribute to sucking you in to this act of tourism in someone else’s memories.

Attack of the Friday Monsters was created by Kaz Ayabe (born in 1965), who is best known otherwise for creating the Japan-only series Boku no Natusyasumi (lit. My Summer Holiday). These games have a similar gentle, holiday feel to them, but they are more open life-sims. Attack of the Friday Monsters is a much stranger game, and a much more personal game. For someone like me, this exemplifies the strengths of the Guild series. It gave creators a chance to make extremely personal projects with a big budget, not ever having to worry about anything except how to best bring to life their vision. Boku no Natusyasumi has 4 games in its series, whereas there will likely and hopefully never be an Attack of the Saturday Monsters. But therein lies its charm – Ayabe was allowed to make a game about the strange inconsistencies and confusing nature of childhood, all the while bringing the player into a slice of Japan that can no longer be experienced. It does indeed make me nostalgic for someone else’s childhood.

Netflix’s Fullmetal Alchemist

This post contains spoilers for Fullmetal Alchemist, the Fullmetal Alchemist anime and won’t make any sense if you haven’t seen at least one of them. 

Perhaps a natural consequence of being a Japanese student at university, I have recently found myself drawn slowly back into the murky waters of anime. A big contributor to this has been Netflix, which reintroduced me to anime with Devilman Crybaby (more on that in an upcoming review). Their next big-ditch effort to get me watching anime again is with the live action adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist; one of my favourite TV shows, animated or otherwise. (People will be quick to point out that this film isn’t really a Netflix film, but hey look it’s distributed by them here and it fits with my opening spiel so shh).

For those not in the know, I highly suggest not reading this post, and instead retreating to a cave for a couple of weeks to binge through the 2003 and 2009 adaptations of Hiromu Arakawa’s manga (and then coming back to this please). But if you really don’t have the time, then here’s a brief rundown of what Fullmetal Alchemist is all about. The story takes place in the fictional European country of Amestris post-Industrial Revolution. The country is ruled by a large military, which employs various ‘state alchemists’; essentially scientists who use alchemy (which in this universe is basically a kind of magic) for military purposes. The main plotline of Fullmetal Alchemist follows one such state alchemist in his effort to find the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, which grants the user the power to perform alchemy without following the ‘Law of Equivalent Exchange’, which dictates that in order to create something, something of equal value must be sacrificed. Said alchemist, Edward Elric, needs the stone in order to get his arm and leg and his brother’s body back, having lost them attempting to resurrect their mother.

Despite how badly I explained that, you’ll have to trust me that the story of Fullmetal Alchemist is incredibly well told, and its world beautifully well realised. It perfects, to my mind at least, everything you need from a fantasy epic; an interesting and thought out setting; a complex but not pedantic plot; stakes that raise in a natural and addictive way, and most importantly, engaging and well-written characters. One day I’d love to write about the series and its many good adaptations. But, of course, that’s not what you’re here for. Instead, let’s talk about this adaptation.

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To put it simply, the new live action Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation is bad. Really, really bad. It works neither for fans of the series, nor for newcomers.

I think we can cover most of the film’s issues with an examination of one plotline, and it’s one of the most famous from the original story; the meeting between Edward Elric and Shou Tucker, the Sewing Life Alchemist. For many fans, this is the moment that sticks out most in all of Fullmetal Alchemist, and it’s for a good reason. This is the pivotal moment in which the series undergoes a pretty harsh tonal shift. There are undercurrents of tragedy throughout the series’ start, with the loss of the Elric’s mother and the loss of Rose’s husband. But the dramatic murder of Nina and Alexander is sure to stick in anyone’s mind. It brings the Elric brother’s to their lowest point, starts to expose the flaws in the military, and introduces the potential horrors of alchemy. So, of course, I was interested to see how the live action adaptation would handle it.

First impressions are pretty good; specifically in the casting. Shou Tucker in this version is pretty unassuming, much more so than the slightly creepy Tucker of the original. I’m sure his dramatic shift will come as more of a surprise than the original Tucker’s might have done. Nina and Alexander are also pretty adorable, just to stick the knife in as much as possible. In general, the casting in the film is on point, although, of course, with the caveat that the actors are Japanese.

Hollywood adaptations are often given a bad rap for their lack of diversity, and while I understand that, Fullmetal Alchemist dodges that criticism because the main cast are all European. I’d be fine with the Japanese version retconning the story to take place in a Japanese setting, or even keep the European style and have all the characters be Japanese, but instead the live-action version compromises. Blond characters, including Edward Elric, seem to either be wearing a wig or have their hair bleached, which looks awful. Doing this instead of hiring blond actors or simply not bothering makes it look like the characters are simply cosplaying, a problem that also extends to the costumes. Of this slavish devotion to the anime’s look, the Homunculi suffer the worst. Gluttony looks comical, while Envy’s outfit is just absurd. I know I’ll get a lot of flak for this, but I much prefer adaptations that change the look of the original to suit live action. Give me a US Death Note over a Japanese Fullmetal Alchemist any day.

Returning to Tucker, the meeting between him and Ed starts with the two of them talking about Tucker’s backstory while Winry and Al play with Nina and Alexander. Ed then tells Tucker about his backstory, which has just been shown to us around 2 scenes ago.

So here we come to the film’s second problem; exposition. Fullmetal Alchemist is about 27 manga volumes long, and each of its adaptations run for around 60 episodes. It’s clear that the film won’t get through that much content in 2 and a half hours, and at many points it thankfully doesn’t even try. This means, however, that there’s bound to be a lot of exposition, but the amount of scenes of characters just talking at each other is frustrating. When Ed talks to Tucker about his backstory it’s especially bad seeing as we’ve seen it play out minutes beforehand, but even if the information is new to the viewer, it’s often presented in the most boring way possible.

The anime also had exposition dumps, but the dialogue was often filled with personality, and the animation took full use of its potential, with wildly expressive characters. In this adaptation, if the characters aren’t expositing in a bland meeting room, then they’re expositing on the battlefield, between attacks. In anime, the suspension of disbelief allows you to get away with a lot more – in live action it’s much stricter. When Lust pauses during the fight with Mustang and Ed to explain her own weak point to them, I was baffled at just how poorly the writers were conveying this information.

When Ed has finished telling Tucker what we already knew, Tucker offers to help examine Al’s body, a touch I enjoyed, because it gives Tucker more to do than just own a library. Tucker then tells Ed about Dr. Marcoh, but he confusingly does this offscreen, despite the film already proving that it loves to shove exposition dumps at us.

When Ed returns from seeing Dr. Marcoh, we finally get to the scene when the truth about Tucker is revealed and it’s a let-down to say the least.

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Firstly, the scene takes place in pretty much broad daylight. I know that thunder and lightning during a dramatic scene is a bit rote, but pathetic fallacy is used for a reason; it ups the drama considerably, and allows some more interesting lighting. The scene in the anime looked threatening and dynamic – here it looks flat and cheap. This flat lighting is present throughout the film and really makes the whole thing look incredibly cheap and bland.

Evidence of the film’s budget is inconsistent – often the CGI looks amazing. Al’s armoured body is especially good, with some real weight behind it. Other times it looks less than convincing, and the Nina/Alexander chimera also suffers some because of it. In the anime, the flat, empty eyes of the dog were haunting because they were so simplified, but they just look a bit strange when made 3D. Other creations, such as the immortal army just end up looking incredibly strange, although maybe the fact that I can’t figure out if I find them incredibly creepy or completely ridiculous means they’re a success.

Eventually Ed figures out the truth behind Tucker’s mad experiment and starts to beat him up (again, lacking the dramatic lighting of the original). And I think it’s here where I can highlight my final problem with the film; the acting.

I want to preface this by saying I’m not entirely sure that it’s the actors who are completely at fault here, because there are some scenes with real promise in them. Instead, I’d say it was the script, and not even necessarily the original script. Instead, it’s a confusing devotion to the manga’s script and tone. In anime, you can get away with going extremely over-the-top, especially for comedy, but that doesn’t work as well in live action. When the actors imitate the anime’s line delivery it just doesn’t work, not just because of their many pregnant pauses in between lines, but because their facial expression just can’t match the energy required of them. Even in drawing Arakawa realised that the tonal shift of the way characters spoke sometimes was a bit jarring, and for comedic zany moments would simplify the art style to ease the reader into the new tone. Of course, you can’t do that in live-action, but the zany lines were kept in and it all just feels a bit odd.

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It’s not just comedy where this happens; melodrama creates it as well. In the anime, when Tucker starts revealing his true self to Ed, the lines he says are quite cliched, quite melodramatic (“Me and you; we’re the same!” is the sort of thing Dr. Evil says to Austin Powers, not what real people say to each other), but the animation makes it work. The Tucker of this version gives a subtler performance, but he’s asked to spout the same lines, and so they’re exposed to not really working in live action.

I think that’s the point, isn’t it? Fullmetal Alchemist would never work in live action, at least not when so accurately recreated on-screen. I’m fine with this, because the story exists in its perfect form already, but I think every anime adaptation needs to learn from this. Yes, changing the story dramatically will be controversial. No one (except me) responded well to the Netflix Death Note film, but the answer isn’t to go back to making 1:1 recreations. Stories need to be adapted to their medium, and what works in animation won’t work in live-action. I’m not just talking about the size of the plot, or the specific moments of flashy animation – I’m talking everything from character design to tone.

So. If Hollywood ever decides to make a Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation, or when Japan inevitably puts whatever was popular a few years ago to film – I want the directors to ask what they can bring to the story beyond just the bare minimum.

Stray Observations

  • Trisha Elric’s death scene is unintentionally hilarious, and a really bad start to the film, given that she just kinda… falls over.
  • The film is able to retcon Winry’s hair colour, but not Ed’s or Riza’s?
  • General Halcrow is given an expanded role in the film, but the Fuhrer isn’t in it. Halcrow’s role is that of a face for military corruption, but I really don’t see why they couldn’t have used the Fuhrer. I’m guessing this was to do with leaving him for a sequel, but it just makes Halcrow’s role very weird and underdeveloped. (Also, if he is supposed to be a symbol of widespread corruption, then why does he claim that no one gives him orders? Doesn’t that mean that everything that happened in Lab 5 was just down to him? Did Bradley even know in this canon????)
  • Also Tucker comes back for no reason at the end of the film. Basically he just says some exposition then is killed.
  • Speaking of ‘no reason’ – there’s no reason the Homunculi keep Ed alive. They keep saying he’ll be a good sacrifice, but this is never bought up. Instead, all he does is hinder their plan, so them keeping him alive is baffling.
  • The soundtrack is really awful – not just bland, but at times jarring.

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

This post contains heavy spoilers for the ending of Ghost Trick, and I recommend having played the game before reading.

I view it as a mark of shame on my own self that it has taken me this long to finish playing Ghost Trick. I have owned the game on DS and iOS for a couple of years, but until playing it for this review I have never managed to get past the second chapter. This has been something I’ve been loath to admit, because the game’s writer and director, Shu Takumi, was responsible for the creation of the Ace Attorney series, and wrote what are its best entries. Ghost Trick is his first departure from that series in 10 years, and some fans hail it as his best game, or even his masterpiece.

To evaluate whether Ghost Trick is Takumi’s best game would involve comparing it to his other works, and the purpose of this review isn’t to do this. Instead, I want to talk about Ghost Trick alone, to attempt to come to terms with my own feelings about the game after having finished it; that I regard Ghost Trick as no real masterpiece, nor even Takumi’s best game, but that I found myself thoroughly enjoying it regardless.

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Last year, when I reviewed Breath of the Wild, I said that all of its various strengths can be easily shown off in its opening sequence and I think the same is true of Ghost Trick, so this post will use that sequence as its structural foundation.

When the game opens, it does so with spotlights; a visual flair Takumi is clearly enamoured with, given its use in his latest duology, the Dai Gyakuten Saiban series. It’s remarkably easy to see why – the spotlights instantly shine a light (pun very much intended) on the game’s unique sense of style. I tried, mostly in vain to think of an appropriate catchy name for this style, but the best I could come up with is ‘cheery noir’, which doesn’t quite work – but hopefully gives you a sense of what I’m going for. In its opening area and night-time setting, Ghost Trick has many of the trappings of a noir style; the city at night, in the rain, with an appropriately jazzy soundtrack and hitmen dressed in suits. The spotlights aren’t a traditional noir trapping, but given the genre’s heavy emphasis on the interplay between light and shadow, they fit right in. This noir theming continues throughout the game; even as the settings and plot become more and more ridiculous, the soundtrack and certain visual hints continue to connect this game to its noir influence.

However, as the game continues, the “cheery” side of my newly-minted phrase becomes more apparent. It’s present from the beginning in the use of certain strong colours in Lynne and Sissel’s clothing, but as characters such as Cabenela and Missile start to crop up, the game’s tone becomes more upbeat and does so almost seamlessly. This balance between the game’s ever-present noir influence and its at-times relentless optimism is really reflected in the game’s style; in its music, its settings, its character design. From a visual side, Ghost Trick represents a game coming very close to appealing directly to my own sensibilities, and I love it for it.

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Of course, visuals are only a small part of the game’s appeal, and after the opening cutscene, the game deigns to explain to you its main mechanics; the ‘Ghost Tricks’ themselves. I’m hoping and assuming that those reading this will have played the game, but for a quick refresher (or for you naughty daredevils who really don’t care about spoilers); the main gameplay thrust is solving puzzles that require you to manipulate objects around a room, poltergeist-style, in order to prevent the deaths of various kooky characters around a nameless city over the course of a single night. By rewinding time to 4 minutes before the person’s death, our protagonist Sissel watches the actions leading up to their murder, then possesses and moves certain objects in order to save their lives. For my money, the best example of this system at work comes in the manipulation of a literal Rube Goldberg machine (or Heath Robinson contraption for us Brits) in order to prevent the firing of a gun at the end of the device.

All of the action in Ghost Trick is presented on a 2D plane, aiding greatly with visual clarity. When manipulating objects, it should always be obvious what effect that object has and setting the game’s action in vertical slices of large environments makes it clearer to the player what’s going on, without sacrificing the game’s visual design.

In the game’s opening chapter, upon possessing Lynne’s corpse, the player is shown a quick video of her death, and this becomes one of the game’s best ideas for preventing the puzzles from being turned into just trial and error (more on this later). When the game shows you the events before the corpse’s death, it often shows you how certain objects interact, and therefore what you might need to do to change the fates of the unfortunate victims. Take, for example, the second chapter murder of Kamila. Here, the video shown beforehand informs you that the mice are attracted to the doughnut; that the dog, Missile, barks at the mouse; and that Kamila will follow Missile wherever he is barking in order to shut him up. When the game then tells you to hide Kamila when the hitman enters, you have all the information required to lure her where you want – the only thing to work out is how to move the doughnut to where you want it.

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The problem comes in later chapters where the game is stingier with its information. Take, for example, the Chicken Kitchen chapter. Here, the video of the death is taken from inside the car, and helpfully shows the cause of death. However, all the actual manipulation to be done is inside the kitchen, an area you know nothing about until you arrive there. This is, to be fair, a lesser example – the puzzle inside the Chicken Kitchen is relatively simple, but this is a problem that shows up at various points; it’s there in the Justice Minister’s Office; in the Superintendent’s Office near the end of the game and in the Submarine, so it’s a shame when such a clever solution to an obvious complaint is abandoned so quickly.

The puzzles themselves, then, do often contain quite a lot of trial and error. While most are simple enough not to be too much of a problem, I don’t think that’s an excuse for the game’s worst habits. Trial and error can be fun; working out each object’s role is often a captivating experience, but it throws up two distinct problems.

The first of these problems is the lesser one. When the player is forced to mosey around the landscape for a while, working out how different things fit together, this often removes a lot of tension from the situation. Although it’s easy to argue that the time-travel mechanic means that these situations were never meant to be tense to begin with, the music and dramatic visual cues hint otherwise. I think this is probably something exacerbated by the last chapters, and you can tell that the final chapter was made easier to mitigate this problem, but it’s still worth pointing out, even if it might not have affected every player.

More importantly, the trial and error natures of the puzzle kills a lot of momentum that the game has, especially when you consider the fact that the puzzles are really just video manipulation. You see, the game often makes you pause and wait for a certain action to happen in the video before you can act. So the game, and not you, dictates when and how you can move, or even solve the puzzle.

Just as an act of facetiousness, I decided to look up a walkthrough of Ghost Trick and cmd+f to see how many times the word “wait” appears (it’s 34 times in 16 puzzle chapters). Of course, it would be fallacious to claim that this meant the game made you wait exactly this much, because this is based off of a perfect walkthrough guided playthrough. What’s more, most of this waiting is inconsequential, or won’t even be noticed by the player because they might realise what the next action should be when the video is at the perfect place for them to act on it. You could, however, twist it the other way; a player who doesn’t know what to do will often find themselves creating new wait opportunities for themselves, as they might mess with objects that require the action of another character to return to their original state (to continue with using Chicken Kitchen as an example, the fans in that room can be turned on by the player, but they then have to wait for the waitress to turn them off).

Regular followers of toatali reviews, or those who chat to me outside of it will know that I get more frustrated than the average person of a game wasting my time, even in minor ways, and at certain points I did wish the game streamlined itself with the inclusion of a fast-forward or rewind button. I’m sure that this was brought up in development, but if I had to imagine why it was shut down, it was probably due to the addition of certain timing challenges, such as realising that you have to use the split-second opportunity to move to the Chief Justice’s water jug in the puzzle in his room. With a rewind button this puzzle would be completely trivialised. As the variety in the style of puzzle the game presents is already slightly thin on the ground, I don’t think that abandoning this kind of puzzle for the slight convenience of a rewind button would be worth it as the game stands now.

This whole section might have sounded pretty nitpicky, especially to those who never picked up on these issues during their playthrough. For the most part, the puzzles were simple and well-telegraphed enough that the wait time issue wasn’t too big a problem. However, even if it only affected a few people a few times throughout the game, it would still be worth touching on.

I would like to reiterate, however, that I am still a big fan of Ghost Trick’s puzzles. They are extremely unique to the game, and for the most part, extremely clever in how they manage to tie together seemingly disparate objects and movements in order to string together some complex chain reaction that prevents a murder.

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There’s also a lot of smart little details to how the game plays with its puzzles. That the initial setting of the tutorial is a junkyard, for example, allows the game to use whatever objects it wants in order to make the puzzle solving mechanics obvious to the player. Or that a central plot device is a Rube Goldberg machine, which is a perfect distillation of the game’s environments into one device. The later addition of Missile’s object-swapping mechanic makes for some really clever puzzles, but it’s also impressive that the game can still think of innovative ways to use Sissel’s manipulation abilities so long into the game, with puzzles like guiding Jowd around making for some ingenious variations on the classic Sissel-based puzzles.

I think I’ve said enough on the gameplay, so let’s go onto story. In the introduction to the game, a number of central questions are asked that provide a core running hook to keep the player invested throughout the game. The main one is obviously “Who Am I?” but other subjects brought up at this point include Lynne and the case she’s investigating, the desk lamp Ray and his identity, the motivations of the hitman, and whatever the hell “Temsik” is. These plot threads all spiral off into multiple branching questions, until, at around the midpoint of the game you may have trouble just identifying what it is you’re looking for. At a certain point, the main narrative thrust becomes following a chain of dead bodies without knowing how this is connected to the central mysteries. But the game eventually deftly ties up all these plot points, capping it off by answering the two most intriguing questions; who are you, and who is Ray?

In focusing so much around a variety of questions, however, Takumi creates a problem for himself, and one that rears its ugly head as soon as the player talks to Lynne for the first time. There are quite a few names for this problem, as it’s certainly not exclusive to Ghost Trick. It’s linked to JJ. Abram’s infamous ‘mystery box’ style of storytelling, and it’s something that Takumi has become so fond of that a friend of mine had to address it in their review of Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2, referring to it as ‘pointless abstraction’. And of course, people might notice me doing it just there, as I name-drop the existence of this ‘thing’ without telling you what it is. To that effect, I’ve decided to, perhaps cringeworthily, name it the “ano hito” problem. “Ano Hito” literally means “that person”, and it’s because I’ve noticed this problem in quite a few Japanese TV shows and games that I decided to use that language in my desperate attempt to add at least one phrase to the pop-culture lexicon.

Anyway, enough beating around the bush – the problem in Ghost Trick is that Takumi loves to beat around the bush at any occasion given to him, because drawing a player in is more important than having characters address one another coherently. Sometimes it shows itself in the way I described, with characters saying things like “we have to tell that person that that thing is happening tonight”, but more often it’s strange character choices such as Lynne not telling Sissel about the case she’s working, even though he’s a ghost who just saved her life. Or perhaps when Jowd tells you that he killed the criminal in the park, just so the meteorite revelation can be a twist. If you look out for it, there’s a whole lot of plot convenience in the way people talk in Ghost Trick.

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I think that the ‘ano hito’ problem is a direct result of the kind of interconnected story that Takumi tries to tell here and in the Dai Gyakuten Saiban franchise; stories with sprawling plots and a myriad of twists and turns. Many of these twists are executed with pinpoint precision. I was, for example, a huge fan of the twist involving Sissel’s identity, which manages to be well forecast, and explain some of Sissel’s annoying character quirks, such as not knowing some basic English vocabulary. Other twists, such as Ray’s identity or Cabanela’s true good nature, build perfectly on characters we know.

Other twists left me slightly cold. Another problem of Takumi’s writing that surfaces in Ghost Trick is his reliance on tragic past events to inform character motivations. It’s there in DL-6, and SL-9, as well as 6 other cases throughout the trilogy (being generous), and of course crops up in Apollo Justice’s final case. Ghost Trick has two tragic crimes that become integral to solving the mystery of the present, and while past tragedies aren’t necessarily a bad motivation for character, it’s disheartening to see Takumi fall back on this old crutch.

More damning for me, though, were the twists that felt tonally inconsistent. Take my least favourite – the Rube Goldberg death of Jowd’s wife. It’s a tragedy, for sure, that Kamila ends up killing her mother (what is it with writers for AA and matricide?), but the murder method is just a bit absurd. While Takumi is a master of tonal balancing, he often strikes that balance by segueing between the absurd and the emotional, and when he jams them into the same scene, it tests my suspension of disbelief more than I would want. Kamila’s matricide could have been more of a gut punch were Yomiel to have simply manipulated Kamila into directly shooting her, as he later does with Lynne, but this isn’t the case. The Rube Goldberg death might have even been acceptable if the game had hinted prior to the revelation that Kamila was a fan of building these machines, but instead that’s a detail it casually throws in after the fact, when you’ve already seen a woman get shot with a birthday cake delivery machine and asked to buy it with a straight face.

The revelations behind the ghost trick powers of the dead that involve the meteorite Temsik also didn’t quite strike the right note with me. I was happy to buy that the powers of the dead just were; I didn’t need a space radiation-based explanation. My biggest problem with Temsik, however, is that occasionally it’s used to cleverly explain certain aspects of the plot, such as who gets ghost powers and how the appearance of certain cores differ – but occasionally I feel like it’s used to write its way out of certain plot difficulties. Most jarring to me was the half-hearted explanation as to how ghost powers change over time so that the game can explain away some of Yomiel’s, and later Missile’s, actions. If the game hadn’t even tried to explain the powers of the dead, I think I would have probably just bought all of it, as I did at the start of the game, but when they are explained it casts them under new scrutiny as a plot mechanic rather than just a gameplay one, and they hold up less well.

Ultimately, I’m left wondering if Ghost Trick is really the right game for this kind of story. In Ace Attorney, a game that also revels in its twists and reveals, those twists are delivered in the hands of the player. We expose the murderer, we reveal how he got away with it, and we expose the truths behind tragic cases from the past. In Ghost Trick, Sissel is a useless character outside of gameplay; the various plot revelations are just told to him, and it feels more like watching a film with occasional semi-related gameplay breaks, as opposed to being a ‘Phantom Detective’ myself. Were the game to allow you to solve the mysteries, I wonder how I would have reacted to some of the more outlandish twists, having proved them myself, but as they stand, I can only fully get on board with a few of them.

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If there’s an aspect of the plot I can get fully behind, it’s definitely the characters. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I think the characters turn Ghost Trick from a game I like to a game I’m very close to loving. The main characters are fantastic; each are surprisingly static in terms of character development (Cabanela seems to be the only character who changes much, but it’s hard to know if it’s him that changes, or simply the player’s perception of him), but the emphasis is mainly placed on getting you to want to spend time with them. If the plot of Ghost Trick is a rollercoaster, then the main characters are the people you’d want to experience it with. This may sound sentimental, and I think it is a bit, but it shows the power of Takumi’s writing.

If I can single out one specific thing Takumi does well, it’s writing animals. I’m not just talking about Missile, who is a stunningly well written little doggie, but also about Sissel himself, who was the perfect kind of begrudgingly friendly that the revelation that he was a cat all along was surprisingly natural.

It’s not just the central cast, however; the world of Ghost Trick is just such a bizarre pleasure to be in. The way Takumi writes the bit parts in Ghost Trick has, I feel, improved from his Ace Attorney days, but he’s aided by the game’s animations. The characters were originally rendered and animated in 3D, before being squashed onto the 2D plane, and this allows their range of movement to be unlike any other I’ve seen in an adventure game. There’s a subtlety to their actions that allows wordless scenes to convey character as well as any of Takumi’s writing. In an interview Joystiq did with Takumi, they point out the way Lynne backs up against a fence in the opening scene and quickly looks back against it. When admiring Ghost Trick’s animation, it’s easy to think of Bailey’s panic dance or Cabenela’s shimmy down the stairs, but I think it’s these moments that make the animations such an essential part of Ghost Trick.

Is Ghost Trick, then, Takumi’s masterpiece? I hope I’ve proven to you why I think that it isn’t. The game has too many minor issues that niggle away at the back of my mind to come even close to matching the two games I think best showcase his writing (Trials and Tribulations and Dai Gyakuten Saiban).

That’s not a problem, however, nor is it a deterrent that prevents me from really enjoying this game. When I finished the game, I messaged a friend of mine that it was a “lovely little game”. I think that this summation of the game is a little flippant, but to dismiss this instinctual reaction would also be wrong. I think that Ghost Trick has so much going for it; the gameplay is fun and original; the writing is funny and engaging. Even if it can’t reach the heights it might aspire to, I’m still just happy for its existence. I thought that writing about it might sour me on the game, as it has done for others in the past, but ultimately I’ve just been reminded of its charm in spite of its flaws.

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