Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones – GBA

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Ah, yes…the tropes are strong with this one.

Although Fire Emblem is quickly becoming a new favorite series for me, my efforts to charm and amuse you by saying something witty and unique about each game are stymied by the ever-present reality that reviewing individual games in a series is often as productive as reviewing individual chocolates in a bag of M&Ms. That does speak to the strengths of the industry. After all, no one wants to dig into a bag of M&Ms and find twenty chocolates, five skittles, two pennies and a clump of cat litter. Likewise, if Nintendo has established a medieval-fantasy strategy series, it does not behoove them to give players “Fire Emblem: Banjo Simulator.” That’s good for players, but for those of us who write about games, the “if it ain’t broke” approach makes reviews a little difficult to write.

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Zoinks! Scoob, what say you and I check out the kitchen instead?

It’s a fairly simplistic strategy game that reminds me either of Shining Force on the Sega Genesis or a game of chess played on the back of a speeding jet ski. Characters have classes such as knight, archer, paladin, mage, dancer, or insurance claims adjuster, and march into battle with nothing but their unique stats, a few class-specific characteristics (pegasus knights can fly over mountains, for example), and an assortment of weapons crafted from high-quality candy glass so that they’ll shatter after a handful of uses. Victory goes to whichever army can successfully bludgeon the gate keeper, enemy general, or living daylights out of everyone on the other team.

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Laurana, Tasslehoff and Flint will come by to pick it up later.

The story opens on a continent comprised of several kingdoms, one republic, one empire, and zero confusion about who the evil invading power will be based on the Star Wars rule of fantasy clichés. The Empire of Grado starts conquering neighboring kingdoms for no purpose other than to smash their family jewels (literally) in order to set free a long imprisoned demon king. I could make a joke about those motives being so cartoonishly villainous that its like congressmen pitching poor people into piles of burning coal just to speed up global warming, but honestly our current government daily bemoans the lack of trains in this day and age because it reduces the efficiency of tying girls to railroad tracks. Donald Trump is just a handlebar moustache away from being a cartoon villain himself. As for Fire Emblem’s primary antagonist, we get a young prince who can’t decide whether or not he’s possessed by the demon king, controlled by the demon king, or just envious of the hero, so we spend the entire second act of the game chasing around a kid more indecisive than a college student with identity issues who’s on the verge of changing his major for the third time.

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Ephraim experiences “bad touch” with his childhood friend.

The Sacred Stones ramps up the difficulty compared to Shadow Dragon by limiting funding and weapons and replacing them with enough enemies to make the Battle of Pelennor Fields look like a fair fight. Unfortunately, the game seems to have made one offset too many. In spite of names like “Steel lance” and “silver sword,” enemy weapons seem to be forged entirely from noodles of varying degree of wetness. From the beginning, I had a character who wouldn’t take damage if he played a round of golf wearing full plate armor in a lightning storm, and he found himself in good company by the end of the game. While it had its moments, especially near the end of the game, several battles felt much like the Battle of Pelennor Fields if Gandalf had arrived at Minas Tirith with a truck full of AK-47s instead of a socially awkward hobbit. At times even it felt as though the true challenge of the game was leveling up. Unlike Shadow Dragon, Sacred Stones did offer chances to fight outside of of the main story campaign, but the game’s algorithm for assigning experience points didn’t seem to follow any pattern of current level, enemy’s level, or effectiveness of actions, but rather seemed more in line with the effects of locking a chimpanzee in a room with a bottle of whiskey and a dart board.

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Sacred Stones retains the series’ traditional Animal House style endings. The good-natured thief is the one who steals a horse…and puts it in the dean’s office.

Death, in real life, is almost as unforgiving as the girls I dated in high school and college. In video games, though, it’s about as debilitating as the check engine light on my car; it’s there, it worries me, but if I can usually go a little farther without completely bursting into flames, it’ll probably go away on its own at some point. Video game death naturally applies to all characters equally, with the exception of Fire Emblem, one character in any given Final Fantasy game, and that thirtieth guy in Contra. It is a rather unique mechanic, I have to say, because the concern for a character you’ve invested time and energy into can really change the game when he suddenly goes the way of your schnauzer who died when you were in fourth grade. The biggest difference, of course, being that you wear out your reset button about as much as you’d normally wear out your B button. Okay, maybe that’s considered cheating by some…in the way that offering to motorboat your female coworkers’ enormous racks might be considered sexual harassment by some…but I prefer to think of it as forcing me to learn the absolute best strategy for the situation. Resetting the game when a character dies. Not the motorboating things.

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Skyrim – PS3, XBox 360, PC

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One of countless beautiful images that aren’t actually taken from real gameplay.

Writing this about halfway through my hiatus, it’s probably a good idea to look back and see how productive my break has been. Let’s see…I sent out submissions for my novel and got about three form rejections and a bunch of non-answers…I got fifteen pages into a play and ran out of plot ideas…oh! This one is fun—I regularly spent my days having nine-year-old kids swearing at me like they’ve got one night of shore leave and want to get into a brawl before visiting the whorehouse. No, I wasn’t playing Call of Duty online. I was substitute teaching fourth grade. Yeah, take that, my parents’ generation; a lifetime of video games made me a pacifist, and one semester of being a responsible adult shepherding the minds of our nations future gave me fantasies of having the authority to draw and quarter children. So after a few weeks of “break,” I began slipping into an existential despair void of all meaning and purpose to the point where I imagined I might soon have to fight against the heroes of a Final Fantasy game. So I did the most reasonable thing I could think of; I played Skyrim.

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Fuck you, bear.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, saying, “I need to devote time to my writing” and then popping in The Elder Scrolls V is a lot like those girls in high school who told me, “I’m not ready for a relationship right now” before diving tits-first into bed with some douchebag who’s favorite brand of cigarettes are “found on the side of the roads.”

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Yep. A hundred plus hours of beautiful scenery, which sadly is more than we’ll ever see in the real world.

Skyrim expands on the world of Tamriel, taking players to the far northern province. The country is split into several holdings, each ruled by a jarl, proud, stately noblemen and women dedicated to preserving law and order in a bountiful world with a necromancer for every corpse and a clan of bandits for every shopkeeper, and where 95% of the castles, outposts and other government infrastructure have been abandoned and fallen into disrepair. Personally, it doesn’t seem like having such a large and thriving criminal population would work well in a feudalist, capitalist or communist society, but Skyrim operates on a quest-based economy where everyone has an item they need retrieved, a cavern they need explored, or a foe they need slaughtered. Hey, it’s not my place to ask why all these vindictive spelunkers have misplaced their shit. My biggest concern is whether or not the potions I found in these ancient tombs have passed their shelf-life. You know, considering the completely dysfunctional nature of my idealized fantasy worlds, it’s a wonder I don’t vote Republican. I mean, there are so many thousand-year-old monsters awakening from their slumber to unravel the fabric of existence that you’d think Skyrim was the United States Senate.

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Yeah, a flying mammoth looks weird, but I guarantee that at least two or three NPCs have a prophecy about it.

Anyway, you play as the Dragonborn, the legendary warrior with the soul of a dragon who will save the world from a magical apocalypse caused by Alduin, the king of the dragons. At least, that’s what the game told me. Fulfilling my role as the archenemy of dragonkind, I once encountered a drake fighting two bears. I killed both bears to catch its attention, but the dragon immediately took off after a deer like a cat chasing a laser pointer. Not to be ignored, I chased down my ancient enemy, only to find him about five minutes later, a short distance from the deer corpse, completely absorbed in mortal combat with a mudcrab. But honestly, who hasn’t turned aside from their ultimate destiny in favor of a seafood buffet? Still, I have to wonder how many times I get ignored for something that crawled out from under a rock before the “it’s like dating in high school” joke gets old, and I have to ask some serious questions about my life.

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Me versus the true dragonborn.

The game follows Western RPG format, meaning it tries to simulate the experience of tabletop gaming without all the pesky social aspects and no way to interact with the game but for a selection of one to three dialogue options thus robbing you of any creative thought or character personality. But if you’re fine playing a character with a personality as vivid and dynamic as a bucket of rocks, there are plenty of skills to practice. In particular, I played as a mage this time, something I rarely do. I might advise against this in the future. I played through the game once as an archer and remember that around level 30 or so, my arrows could tear through bandits like hollow-point shots from a .50 caliber Desert Eagle punching through 2-ply toilet paper. As a mage, though, you’re given an arsenal of spells that do a pre-determined amount of damage despite your level, which is more like trying to punch through a concrete wall using nothing but your forehead and a jar of aspirin. I’m not saying you can’t get by using only the basic skills, but you don’t see a lot of fourth grade music students learn to play a diseased recorder that’s been inside more kids than the combined clergy of the Catholic Church and end up playing for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

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Wait…this isn’t a Skyrim screenshot. This is a picture of me cleaning out my basement here in Duluth.

I thought playing a mage might solve a few problems for me. Carrying around weapons and armor had always severely limited my inventory—a severe problem in a game full of more junk than an old lady’s attic. But not only did I still end up spending more time on inventory management than when I worked as a clerk at Sam Goody, I ended up repeating simple battles for hours on end because I came armed with what amounted to a taser with a dead battery and armor that wouldn’t protect me from a pan of bacon sizzling in the next room. But somehow, I still managed to work my way up to the Archmage of the College of Winterhold, a sweet package that gave me Indiana-Jones-amounts of time off for the purpose of adventuring, and absolutely no responsibilities to teach, help anyone, or maintain the day-to-day operations of the college (so basically, like a regular college administration job). Meh. It looks better on a resume than “substitute teacher” and “hobbyist video game writer with delusions that he’s funny.”

Fire Emblem: Fates – 3DS

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Enemies on opposing sides of a bitter conflict take a moment to squeeze everyone in to the photo.

Chess is a great game for those of us who like strategy and medieval combat, simple and elegant like an inbred European princess, and as timeless as the practice of marrying cousins to keep the bloodlines pure. But as the Lannisters and the Targaryens have shown us, that kind of simplicity sometimes results in abstractions that, well, make the game kind of weird. And to those of you who resent me comparing chess to inbreeding…how else do you get bishops so cross-eyed that they can only see things at diagonal angles? Personally, I can think of few things more obtuse than chess strategy, and I am literally subbing for a high school geometry teacher as I write this. So chess is great, but do you know what would make it better? Arming your pieces and making them fight to the death, rather than just grabbing and capturing each other like a bunch of child molesters in the ball pit at McDonald’s.

Fortunately, there’s an entire genre of video games that did just that. Among that genre is Fire Emblem, my newfound favorite series. And if you’ve ever thought, “Chess is great, but I wish we could turn it into more realistic medieval combat while keeping the creepy Harvey Weinstein sex offender aspects,” you’re not alone. You’re a goddamn pervert, but fortunately for you, there’s Fire Emblem: Fates, best described as a combination tactical strategy game and dating simulator.

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When your sister really wants a wedding ring…

So up front, Fire Emblem Fates is actually available as three separate games, two available as physical games for the 3DS with the third as DLC for either of them, or for the low-low price of at least $110 on eBay, you can buy the special edition that contains all three on the same game cartridge. Despite the fact that Fire Emblem has always produced high-quality-yet-low-quantity games, thus ensuring prices never drop, it almost feels like Nintendo is taking their business philosophy directly from Luigi’s Mansion, and their entire marketing department is now issued cash-sucking vacuum cleaners.

But that being said…the game just might be worth the price. You play as Generic Faceless Protagonist, or GFP for short, who due to character customization never appears in pre-rendered cutscenes or is mentioned by name in the voice acting, though this is not as conspicuous as in Final Fantasy X and X-2 where the protagonist is so off-puttingly jock-ish that the entire cast goes two full games without caring to ask for his name. Quite the contrary, actually, GFP begins the story on a battlefield surrounded by more people calling him “brother” than if he had joined a 13th-century English monastery populated by African American monks. (Or, if you choose to play as a female, let’s go with lesbian nuns at a women-only burning man festival.) It turns out that your character was abducted from one royal family into another, and is early on presented with the choice of which family to side with in the middle of a war between them (or the third scenario being to side with neither).

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The smug satisfaction one only gets from knowing that the privilege of your birth gives you the funds, the training, and the equipment it takes to eviscerate peasants like you’re carving a pumpkin.

This is where the game splits off into some deep, Rick-and-Morty style discussion of alternate time lines based on a single split decision, albeit with not as many fart jokes. Without intending to, Fates follows in the grand tradition of Groundhog Day, that one episode of the X-Files where Mulder has to prevent a bank robbery from going sour, and one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where they make self-aware references to the previous two. Next to a literary cannon like that, it’s not likely we’ll be studying Fire Emblem Fates along side William Shakespeare anytime soon, but the three alternate realities all provide GFP with key aspects of characters and elements of plot that raise intriguing questions on their own, but viewed alongside each other, the three plots create one uniquely told story as a collection of alternate moments, and that’s some hardcore, Kurt Vonengut Slaughterhouse V stuff right there, and if a novel about toilet plunger aliens putting a PTSD soldier in a zoo with a porn star can make it into the ranks of fine literature, then…wait…forget Fire Emblem. Let’s talk about the porn star zoo in English class!

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…is that a euphemism?

Okay okay…I’ll get back to the game so as not to sound like I have the attention span of a brain damaged goldfish. Fire Emblem Fates does very little to change the traditional grid-based tactical/strategy genre. Bam. Game described. Well, they did remove the concept of weapon degradation for non-healing equipment, but charging into battle with a sword made from candy glass and a lance stamped “Made in China” never seemed like a brilliant military tactic for anyone who wanted to win anything other than a battle with gangrene. But basically, you can expect almost the same game play as with any other Fire Emblem, Shining Force, or Age of Empires. Of course, in the world of video game criticism, statements like, “Didn’t change a thing” or “Completely different from its predecessors” tend to come off as ambiguous, and not even funny ambiguous like the websites for “Pen Island” and “Therapist Finder,” but frustratingly ambiguous like a politician who condemns an opponent’s marital infidelities while dodging questions about the dead hookers in their car.Think of it in terms of Mega Man: a series of awesome games each with the unique individuality of a box of 1040-EZ tax forms. Except they’re not really identical, are they? Mega Man can only really pull off using bubbles as a weapon once or twice before he starts to look like a tomboyish six-year-old at a birthday party. Fire Emblem knows how to pull it off. Gameplay is perfect. Hell, if we hadn’t perfected Medieval warfare by the battle of Agincourt, there weren’t a lot of knew ways to hit people with sharpened bits of metal left to discover. It’s the scenarios, the maps, and the individual quirks of each campaign that make the game interesting.

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I did…but I have to say you’re doing a lot to…ahem…raise my accuracy.

Well, that and the added feature that allows you to invite your units to your tree fort for a booty call. Honestly, I’m not sure if I should suggest that’s a surprisingly lax policy that makes used-panty vending machines look like relics from a conservative past long dead (like segregation, cotton plantations and Pat Robertson), a likely attempt to recruit soldiers turned off by Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, or a symptom of the new wave of authoritarian sexual harassment culture. The game warned me that I’d be able to marry one of my units (hehe…units), but it didn’t quite prepare me for how to do that. Just be prepared guys, if a girl asks you if you want to “proceed to S rank” with her, apparently that’s the new slang for getting hitched. Fortunately, all three of my wives seemed to be fine with me continuing my booty call habit, and even seemed to like it when I’d invite others back to the tree fort for what I assume were tree-ways.

Update

After maintaining radio silence for two months, it’s about time I give you an update. I’ve spent some time trying to focus on some personal issues, rather than my weekly blog entries. I think I’ve actually been quite successful, to be honest. Rather than writing weekly articles that get ignored by a handful of people on the Internet, I’ve managed to write an entire novel that’s been ignored by every agent and publisher who represents fantasy literature, and dozens of job applications that have been ignored by dozens of schools who don’t want the hassle of hiring someone smarter and more qualified than anyone they’ve got working there already! I mean, let’s be honest…why hire someone unconventional to challenge your students when you could just put your students in a room with one teacher who refuses to change methods from the last fifty years and just hope that this year it’ll turn out better than before? (Cue Dr. Evil’s theme song…)

To quote from my collection of worthless advice I’ve been given over the years, “It’s their loss.”

Yeah, well, who do you think you’re talking to? I’m not in a position to be altruistic enough to care whether other people win or lose. When I’m still unemployed, all that matters is it’s my loss too.

So it seems the universe is making a huge deal about how little I actually matter, and even though I’ve still got a project underway (about 60% of a play about four strippers pulling a bank heist), I’m torn between continuing in that vein, or going back to writing humor for the three or four of you who weren’t scared away when your Google search for “Tifa Hentai’ led you to the wall of text I usually churn out like exhaust from a redneck’s truck.

So starting March 5, I’ll once more be posting, hopefully at least once every other week, and more if I feel inspired.

Thanks for Playing!

Hello Internet!  I’ve got an announcement for you today.

I love writing about video games, and honestly I’m shocked that I’ve kept up this blog regularly for more than four years.  There’s enough material here to fill nearly two standard-length books!

And yet, I’ve been having more and more trouble recently keeping up with other demands in my life.  Most important among them, I need to focus on my other writing so I can get something published. Sadly, this blog just doesn’t get the traffic to do it even semi-professionally, so I need to concentrate on my novels.

That doesn’t mean I’m giving up, though!  I like to keep in practice for humor, even if sometimes I’m not as funny as I think I am.  But I need some time to restructure.

So I have to take a short hiatus, hopefully no longer than a few months.  Check back near the end of February or the beginning of March for updates.  In the mean time, drop a comment below to tell me your favorite game that I’ve written about, and which game you’d most like to see me write about in the future!

Thanks for reading, loyal viewers!

Dune – Frank Herbert / Sega CD

dune1Way back in 11th grade, my friends and I watched in jaded horror as our English teacher posted the famous College Reading List, the one thing in existence that condemns more people’s culture and interests than Fox News, police who pull over black men, and your grandfather at Thanksgiving dinner combined. This was the list of the ONLY BOOKS WORTH READING if you didn’t want to wind up trading your sperm for heroine so you didn’t die of withdrawal in a federal prison cell some day. While I was fuming over the fact that the Sword of Shannara made it on the list due to an unused historical footnote about nuclear annihilation, which apparently gave the book a message and therefore far more value than the story it plagiarized, my friend Al noted another curiosity. “Dune?” he said. “Usually people just go watch the movie, but why don’t you just go play the video game?” I’ve decided to take Thanksgiving off, but to spice up your holiday, I thought I’d do a special double entry on Frank Herbert’s Dune and its Sega CD adaptation.

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Starring Kim Jung-un as Duncan Idaho, the legendary Scottish Highland potato farmer.

The novel tells a story of a spice mined on the desert planet, Arrakis. The Spice increases life span, expands consciousness, lets you fold time and space, and basically does every profound thing people tell you weed does before you smoke your first joint and spend two hours giggling over how profoundly funny it is to say the word “crayons” backwards. The folding-time-and-space qualities, though, being rather helpful for space travel, makes the spice rather important for imperial expansion, so Dune opens on a setting of space-colonialism, exploitation of resources, and cultural appropriation that I guess we’re all just supposed to be okay with. Paul Atreides, a fifteen-year-old nobleman (who Herbert keeps describing as though he were ten), comes to the planet with his father, the duke, to oversee the mining operations for the emperor, and as long as they’re there, to provide a white-skinned overlord for the Fremen, the vaguely Arabic natives of the planet. But, hey, it’s not racist because the old nobleman, Baron Harkonnen was downright genocidal, so in a way, the Atreides are doing them a favor, right? Plus, setting up Paul as the Fremen messiah saves them the trouble of whitewashing him like we did to Jesus.

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I’m dead sexy!

But whatever. Harkonnen is fat and ugly while Paul is young and beautiful, and as several of my ex girlfriends will tell you, anything that a pretty person does is morally pure just on virtue of being attractive and popular. But Paul, being a good sport, goes into hiding with the Fremen after Harkonnen goes all teen-slasher-flick on his family. There he must learn their ways and become accepted among them, like Jane Goodall among the apes. Through displays of hand-to-hand combat, he wins the Fremen’s respect (not to mention the wife of the man he kills and an adoring young fangirl), learns how to wrangle the vicious predatory sandworms, expands his mind through the casual use of drugs, and just happens to discover the secret connection between the worms and the spice (hint: I’m pretty sure it’s the active ingredient in Slurm).

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Melange…it’s highly addictive!

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Yeah, I fell asleep and my two-year-old found the hair clippers.

The book does have a definite 18th-century white supremacy vibe to it, just shy of packing the Fremen onto spaceships and sending them to Tatooine to work on Jabba’s moisture plantations, but beyond that it tells a pretty compelling story of Paul’s mythological transformation into messiah, along with a political savvy the likes of which the U.S. hasn’t seen since…uh…well, for lack of a better example, let’s say the last season of Game of Thrones. Such a complex, masterful tale is definitely worth the read. So what about the game? Can I save myself the time and effort and get the same effect out of a Sega CD?

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Such wonderful graphics! Do you know what we need in this game? Hours more of this image right here.

Let me put it this way: I’ve seen better adaptations from eighty-year-old men in computer labs. I’ve seen tumors with more respect for their source material. You’d find more literary value by reading a shredded condom wrapper on the floor of a public restroom. The Sega CD Dune adaptation is a fairly straightforward point-and-click adventure, likely coming to us by way of the 1984 movie, which I confess I have never seen. Frank Herbert gave us a philosophical examination of the role of religion and politics in the course of human history, and Cryo Interactive distilled the essence of the story down to long ornithopter rides through desert wasteland. And when I say long, I mean I’d set the game to fly to a new location, then go off to use the bathroom, have a conversation with Anne, pick up the dry cleaning, or partake in a vision quest deep in the woods for a week or two before coming back to check on the progress. I guess it’s sort of neat how they sync the video with the map, where dark spots on the map correspond to rocky sections of the desert, but I’d have to be dropping some hardcore spice before my brain wants to sit and watch that for ten minutes at a time.

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Paul Atreides, meet Paul Rubens

Dune works as a book because everyone can relate to a coming-of-age story, and when your other coming-of-age stories suggest that you might discover freedom among the antebellum American South, or that your papa will marry you off to a well-bred Victorian gentleman, Frank Herbert strokes our egos by suggesting the final step in growing up is apotheosis, that the truly special among us will become messiahs (which might be easier to swallow for those of you who don’t struggle just to get a handful of people to follow your blog). Cryo Interactive, however, dumped any insightful bildungsroman in order to double down on the white man’s burden, dropping it solidly in Paul’s lap. As Paul, you fly your giant metal mosquito to each of the Fremen settlements in order to command them to, “Work for me.” And, of course, the Fremen are more than happy to oblige, being underdeveloped minorities who will forever live as uncivilized barbarians lest they have some white boy Bon Jovi groupie show up to give them directions.

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…please don’t.

As I mentioned, the game is likely based on the 1984 movie, however its obvious from the inconsistent art style that not everyone signed off on their likeness rights. Jessica and Princess Irulean quite clearly were converted directly from the film, with Irulean’s opening narration still intact. Paul still looks photorealistic, but somewhere in development they decided to give Kyle MacLachlan hair like a Soul Glo model. Duke Leto Atreides is just someone’s drawing of a Star Wars villain, and someone in the art department is clearly pranking Patrick Stewart, making his character look like the hell spawn of Buffalo Bill and Pennywise the clown on his way to audition for the role of Dr. Frank N. Furter.

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Dad…why did you wink at me when you said that?

Theoretically, the game eventually shifts focus away from being a point-and-click mining management simulator, and you can begin to raise and equip troops to fight the Harkonnens, so I gather it turns into something like Age of Empires meets Microsoft flight simulator, minus all the fun parts of each. But let’s get right down to it…forget the politics, forget the character development, forget the mythology, even…the reason you play a Dune game is because of sand worms. And if I have to fly around the same boring desert landscape for fifteen hours before I even catch a glimpse of one, I’m going to go watch Beetlejuice instead.

Kuon – PS2

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Hey! Eyes up here, mister!

Any connoisseur of horror might get the impression that the Japanese have as much variety a a nun’s sex life. It seems like everything coming out of Japan involves young girls, hair flipped forward, emaciated and wet like a St. Bernard that just jumped into the bathtub. This is the genre that gives us the Ring, the Grudge, and Silent Hill. Does nothing scare these people save for thought’s of Cousin It’s prepubescent daughter? As it turns out, yes. There’s a sub-genre of Japanese horror called Kwaidan, which as best I can describe is two parts fairy tale, two parts urban legend, and one part Weird Al Yankovic album. Roughly translating to “strange story,” kwaidan deals with the tough subjects that the faint of heart don’t have the guts to tackle, like flying heads that detach from their bodies, monsters who have re-purposed their anuses as eye sockets, and in the case of Kuon, evil incarnations of mulberry trees who use silkworms to practice human sacrifices.

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Forget Cousin It’s daughter. I’ve always had a huge crush on Cthulu’s little sister.

Kuon’s main storyline follows two characters. First, Utsuki is the disappointment child of Doman, a priest so cheerful and approachable that he looks on altar boy rape as being too kind-hearted. Doman gives Utsuki one job: take care of her sister Kureha, who hasn’t been feeling well on account of having died and begun to decompose. But Kureha runs off and, as luck would have it, darts straight into a haunted house like a bomb-sniffing dog navigating a field of land mines to get to a plate of snausages. Meanwhile, Doman sends the second character, Sukuya, into the manor with a team of paranormal investigators, most of whom meet the end we all hope for any time we see a team of paranormal investigators. Sukuya, however, keeps her wits about her and begins to piece together that Doman has taken a page from Albert Wesker’s playbook and sent them in as an unwitting buffet. Both Utsuki and Sukuya periodically run into the Japanese Shining Twins, inexplicably following the commands of these creepy little girls whose hands say, “Go investigate that room,” but whose eyes say, “We’re going to strip the flesh from your bones like a piranha with a tape worm.”

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Jinkies!

Kuon is neither a long game nor a difficult one. However, since each characters’ phase can be played in either order, they feel the need to run me through the tutorial twice. Sukuya’s tutorial was even delivered by one of the other investigators, a 13-year-old Buddhist monk who sounds like he studied in a remote mountaintop temple just outside of Houston. This boy has all the grace and poise we would expect from Feudal Japanese clergy, right down to his comment, “Can’t you just stick it in any old way?” when it comes to solving a puzzle. I presume. But the repetition doesn’t stop at the tutorial. The first have of both scenarios require the player to open the same locked doors, solve the same puzzles, and fight the same monsters. It’s as if taking priority over unique and thrilling game play, Kuon really wanted you to learn something, so it’s like an episode of Dora the Explorer. But with human sacrifice. (“House…underground…ritual chamber. House…underground…ritual chamber!”)

Kuon3

Gakis be pimpin’

But that isn’t to say it’s a bad game. It does follow the pages of the survival horror playbook rather well, right up to scattering those pages halfway across the bloody country for you to find and assemble. Instead of zombies, you fight gaki. Instead of guns and bullets, you get cards that cast magic spells. And instead of keys you…wipe bloody rags on doors you want to open? I gotta be honest—that seems a little unsanitary. Not a lot of survival horror games culminate in an epic battle against hepatitis. It makes it all the worse by the seals on the doors being named after planets. I’m sorry, but nobody wants to carry around a bloody rag from Uranus, especially considering no one had yet discovered the planet during the story’s era, so the seal has to be either a butt joke or a reference to sailor scouts (none of which had been discovered yet either).

Kuon2

Just casually wandering through the aftermath of a lynching.

Unfortunately, for all that Kuon gets right about the genre, it also suffers from the same tropes as every other survival horror game. “Oh no! There’s a corpse blocking my path? If only I could lift my feet up higher than ten centimeters! Between this and the paper screen in the other hallway, how will I ever progress?” Or even, “A silk web stretches across the tunnel? If only I had a tool to get rid of it, but all I have is a magic dagger and a collection of magical fireballs! I guess I have to go back and search!” It almost feels like the developers got lazy and skimped on certain key details. Characters don’t move their mouths to talk, but they still hear each other just fine, apparently communicating like animals in a Garfield strip. That and the inexplicable repetition of certain events but not others pulled me out of the story a bit. They obviously wanted some sort of Resident Evil 2 scenario mash-up, but pulled it off like a sixth grader giving a report on a book he hasn’t read, so he just copies the plot of another book and hope his teacher won’t notice.

The game certainly isn’t winning any awards, except maybe “rarest” and “most overpriced” PS2 game, but it’s worth playing. It’s short enough that the repetition isn’t tedious, the atmosphere perfectly captures the feeling of a kwaidan tale, and the story is unique and eerie. I’ll even give the game bonus points for voicing Doman with the same actor who played Mojo Jojo. I guess that makes you the Feudal Japanese Power Puff Girls.