Octopath Traveler

This post contains a few major spoilers for the game. I recommend playing before reading.

When I write reviews, I usually like to use them as a thinking process for working out what I felt about the work I’m reviewing. Of course, I know before I start writing what I thought about a game, or film or TV show, and my notes usually give me an indication of where my train of thought is heading. But usually the act of writing informs my “thesis statement” as it were, about a game. But I think it’s bad form to end with your statement, so this time I’ll begin with mine; Octopath Traveler is a good game, but it’s not a game for anyone.

Let me explain; before I started to even review Octopath Traveler, I was told that it’s not a game for me, and that I wouldn’t like it because I was starting to be a bit annoyed at the repetitive nature of the game. I was told, both directly to me and through various internet comments, that the game is for those who want a game focused around the JRPG gameplay loop completely distilled, and that I simply wasn’t a fan of that gameplay loop, whether I thought so or not. Similarly, when I raised some concerns about the game’s story, I was told that it’s for fans of that kind of story. I think, however, that Octopath Traveller is really for neither. It’s a game that takes too many paths and fails to bring any to their completion. The JRPG gameplay loop is distracted by long cutscenes and the multiple stories are forced ungracefully into the gameplay. Both are also hampered by the bizarre structural issues.

With my point hopefully clear, I’ll return to my normal introduction. Octopath Traveler (henceforth Octopath) is a game that was released for the Nintendo Switch back in July. It was first pitched as a throwback to titles like Final Fantasy VI and other 90s JRPGs. I must admit to not having played many of those titles; my JRPG experience is more focused around games like Shin Megami Tensei and Pokémon, but I was initially attracted to Octopath thanks to its early proof of concept demo, which showed off striking visuals and an engaging battle system.

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The aesthetic is perhaps the height of this game’s charms, although even it isn’t quite perfect. The music is, for the most part, charming and beautiful, brilliantly evocative of whatever town or situation it plays in. The boss battle themes are some of the best I’ve heard in any video game, not just of the genre, and unlike JPRG hit Persona 5’s similarly stand out soundtrack, the battle themes change throughout the game, avoiding the chance of you ever getting tired of them.[1]

Of particular note is how the game utilises musical cues in dramatic moments – each boss battle is cued up with music starting in the overworld and smoothly transitioning into battle. Some battles even forgo battle music entirely, using a character’s unique theme or a tension theme to really ram the point home. Joyfully, this technique isn’t overused; it’s very carefully done to ensure maximum impact. Each character having an instrument and different boss battle lead in is also pretty clever, although it’s a bit of a shame their character themes are usually only heard at the end of the chapter. What’s especially heartening about Octopath’s music is that it uses a relatively unknown composer.[2] A throwback game like this might have been inclined to take the easy option to hire an industry veteran, but instead was a bit more daring in its hiring, which has certainly paid dividends.

The visuals are similarly impressive – they revitalize sprite-based graphics in such a clever way, and the ability to soften some of the more overbearing visual effects in the menu is a good touch.[3] The eight environments are all stunning, but it’s a real shame the game never fully makes the most of its “2D-3D” engine. Once it has shot new life into the standard JRPG areas, it feels content to rest on its laurels without providing anything new. Each dungeon is basically either a differently coloured cave or a mansion, and while the first time you walk into that it’s beautiful, the game very rarely expands on this, or offers much new (more on this later). A game with a confident visual style should always be looking for new ways to use that visual style in inventive ways – but Octopath never does.

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The battle sprites also borrow from traditional JRPG convention, with large looming villains and tiny heroes. It serves a double purpose of calling back to the game’s roots and creating imposing looking enemies, meaning it works both as nostalgic and practical. The boss designs are especially spectacular and brimming with personality, but the standard enemy designs fare less well. Not only are they less filled with personality, their designs are sometimes difficult to parse in sprite form. Enemies are often ranked variations on the same type (i.e. 4 or 5 increasingly difficult ‘lizardmen’ enemies), and that ranking is represented by more cluttered designs. These may have looked fantastic on paper but make less of a convincing case for themselves when seen in-game. Overall though, Octopath does a fantastic job in selling its new visual style.

The battle system is perhaps the final real winner of the game – it’s of similar style to Shin Megami Tensei’s “press turn system”, with the central strategy being finding and exploiting enemy weaknesses in order to gain extra turns for your characters and lower the defences of the enemies. In Octopath, hitting an enemy’s weakness a certain amount of times (represented by a number on a shield) will ‘break’ it, allowing you an extra turn and also lowering its defence. But it also borrows the waiting game idea from Bravely Default, so that you wait turns to build up Battle Points, and then can use those to gain extra hits or more powerful special attacks. I actually like the battle system more than most JRPGs I’ve played, because it interweaves the weakness breaking mechanic and the BP mechanic so seamlessly. Taken alone these both have the potential to create compelling battle systems, but Octopath manages to create what might be a better one by using both.

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Some fights, however, last a little too long because of it. Breaking an enemy is the key to beating it, but even some low-level goons need to have their weaknesses hit around 3 times before you gain that extra turn, so if you need to grind it can sometimes become a little tiring because of how long battles can last. Boss battles also suffer – you can have figured out the strategy to go with or the boss’ weakness pretty early and yet still have 20 minutes of mindless chipping away to go. There are disappointingly few moments where bosses significantly change up their strategy midway through fights, and when that does happen, the game normally makes sure to reuse its tricks for a couple other bosses. It’s true that something worth doing once is worth doing many times, but that can also take away from certain bosses’ uniqueness.

SMT negates this particular problem because it only takes one hit to an enemy’s weakness for you to gain an extra move, but Octopath can’t do this because it would make the BP system overpowered. BP would only be needed for doing massive damage, whereas in the current system you need to decide whether you want to use BP to break an enemy quickly by chaining multiple attacks or saving them up to deal more damage once the enemy is broken by more traditional means. So Octopath needs enemies with large shields that require a lot of hits to break in order to make battles interesting.

I think a way the game might have solved this dilemma is to take away random battles entirely and have a more structured way to dole out EXP and battles. While I don’t mind the random encounter system, it is a bit of a relic of the past. It’s not awful here – the encounter rate isn’t stupidly high, and you can reduce it further with a passive scholar skill, but it doesn’t seem to work with this style of long, drawn out battles that the Octopath system is built for. Random battles work well in a game like Pokémon for multiple reasons, such as the surprise of what you find in the long grass (because you can add any enemy to your team), but also because Pokémon battles can be short if you know what you’re doing. Octopath has long battles by design, so it arguably shouldn’t have included a system conducive to shorter battles.

While the inclusion of random battles is slightly more up for debate, there are some retro throwbacks that shouldn’t have made it this far into Octopath. Surprising your enemy or vice-versa is just an annoying feature, the purpose of which is clearly to shake up battles, but is so random as to make some encounters a chore. This might work better in a game with enemies on the overworld, but not with random encounters. If you’ve forgotten to save in a while and are coming off a long grinding session a bit weakened, you could lose a lot of progress just by stumbling into the wrong battle and not being given a chance to move before you’re decimated. You also shouldn’t be able to fail running away – and this game is even more punishing in that your characters lose a turn if you fail running. This is really just player unfriendly. It’s punishing you, sometimes very badly, for losing an RNG you have little control over. Both are systems seemingly borrowed from Octopath’s pedigree without having thought about whether those gameplay systems are actually good, or whether they come from a time of artificial longevity in video games through cheap difficulty.

Other retro throwbacks that shouldn’t have made their way in there include item shops that stock different healing items depending on the town, forcing you to fast travel randomly until you can finally find the one that carries the Inspiriting Plum variation you require. Items carried by team members that are not currently in your party are inaccessible, meaning that you must return to the bar to switch items. These complains may seem nitpicky, but they’re indicative of the sort of design decisions Octopath too often falls back on; that it doesn’t think enough about the elements it both borrows and creates.

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One of my biggest gripes of the gameplay is the levelling imbalance, but to explain that I need to talk about the bizarre structure of the game. So, it’s split into 8 characters. You first pick a character, then travel around the map finding the other 7 and completing all their first chapters. This first part is pretty good, because as you find the first four characters your battle and exploration tactics become more complex – more characters in your party and more options to interact with NPCs through “path actions” (more on these later). The placement of the characters on the world map means that you get all 4 path actions as you collect your first 4 characters, and there’s also some invisible level scaling that means the difficulty curve is steadily increasing.

After that the game ‘opens up’ so that all characters’ second chapters are available at once. The level scaling is now fixed with each chapter having its own set recommended level, so it’s not exactly open world, even if the map initially gives that impression. Instead, there’s a pretty fixed order you should do it in, and although you can cheese it a little, that doesn’t mean that’s the way the game wants itself to be played. This then continues until each characters’ third and fourth chapters, giving a total of 32 chapters (there’s also some optional post game stuff I’ll talk about later).

The way I played it was this – I did all the Chapter 1s, meaning my first four characters were slightly levelled above the others, even moreso because of an EX-granting enemy called a Cait I found during my 4th chapter. This was a bit of a mixed blessing, because even though my first four were correctly levelled, the next couple weren’t. Although I grinded with Olberic so I could use him instead of H’aanit, I didn’t do that for Cyrus, Tressa or Primrose. So, then I went through the game with my main party of Alfyn (you annoyingly can’t switch out your first character until you’ve completed their story), Olberic, Therion and Ophelia, switching out one of them for a really under-levelled character when I needed to do their chapter and just praying that character wouldn’t die.

This is probably the wrong way to do things, and it’s to the game’s credit it let me make such a mistake. But while I appreciate this, I also think the path I took will be a pretty common way to play the game, and that there are some simple fixes to improve the levelling issue. For example, each chapter one could make it so that you meet the character at a higher level depending on how many other characters you’ve collected in your party. JRPGs normally do level scaling of party members – not every Pokémon found in the wild is at level one after all.

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So, talking of structure and characters, let’s move onto them, starting with my first pick and main character – Alfyn, the apothecary. Choosing your first character is a bit of a gamble, given that you don’t know much about them beyond a short description and a nicely drawn picture. Maybe if there was a bit more description about the way their path action and battle actions affected gameplay, as well as some stats, it might be more of an informed decision, but I had to choose Alfyn based on my gut instinct. Knowing my gut, this is usually a mistake.

Alfyn’s story, like most of the stories in the game, starts with a character confident in their current position. Alfyn is one of the best apothecaries in his village, just as Therion is one of the best thieves and Cyrus a top scholar adored by all. But eventually a sense of boredom encloses these people, a desire to reach for more. Alfyn’s story is the least defined in this aspect. Rather than a certain goal pushing him to reach for greater heights, his story is just him travelling around the world somewhat aimlessly, pushed from town to town for no apparent reason. There’s a plot thread about his old master who inspired him, but it’s only mentioned briefly until the fourth chapter and post-game content. Alfyn’s third chapter raises some interesting concerns about the role of a healer, but his story is still the one with the least drive behind it.

This lack of a distinct path for Alfyn exposes some flaws of the open world. Octopath uses an open world in that all towns are connected, and you can run around the world without using fast travel. But the game’s stories are built around fast travel – Alfyn’s story doesn’t even tell you where he’s going next, so you sort of have to use the map to zip around. It doesn’t feel like a natural journey, but instead a series of mini-stories of Alfyn helping people like an apothecary version of the A-Team. So even though there is a large world to explore, the game feel more like clicking levels on a menu.

Alfyn (and Cyrus) has a ‘path action’ that lets you glean information from people. Cyrus uses this for his knock-off Miles Edgeworth impression of logic, while Alfyn just uses this to learn a little more about peoples’ backstories. Once again, Alfyn lacks clear definition in his story and path action. There’s nothing very ‘apothecary’ about talking to people, but at least it sort of fits with him being just a general mensch. It’s nice that every NPC has proper backstory written about them, but don’t think this comes close to the Dark Souls style of subtle world-building through item/character descriptions.[4] It’s true a lot of work was put into these descriptions, but sadly that doesn’t make them worthwhile. It’s rarely used for some clever puzzles, but most of the time it’s just that each character has a not-particularly interesting backstory probably written by some office intern.

Anyway, let’s talk a bit more about path actions in general. There are four path actions, each with two variations. These are: learning more information about NPCs; stealing/buying goods from NPCs; fighting NPCs and guiding NPCs around for use in battle. Although having two of each is a nice idea, only the buy/steal one has any real meaningful difference. You can either spend money to guarantee getting the item or take a chance at stealing it.[5]

Having to inspect every NPC in a town, however, quickly becomes a chore once you have all four path actions. They are rarely used for clever puzzles, and even then only in sidequests. In the main story, path actions are always used just to tell you where to go next. Even attempts at puzzles using the system are hampered by the game telling you who to use a path action on next with a green bubble. Here’s an example – in Primrose’s chapter two you need to enter a carriage. The owner of that carriage won’t let you in, but talking to him reveals he’s in debt to the bartender. Instead of letting you work out you need to guide the bartender to him, the bartender’s location is marked on the map, he has a green bubble above him, and every option other than guide is greyed out. It’s nice that each NPC is so fleshed out but it’s sadly so often not worth the hassle.

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After Alfyn I went to Therion the thief. Therion’s quest for the magical dragon balls (yes, seriously) gives him a much better motivation for travelling the world, but his whole shtick is at odds with travelling in a group. The dialogue sets him up as a lone wolf, someone wary of travelling with other because of former betrayal. There is a bit of “ludonarrative dissonance” (if you’ll excuse the term) with most of these people travelling together, but it can be solved by a little head-cannoning. I saw someone compare it to a D&D party, so I do get the idea of enjoying the characters being a bit at odds with each other, but there are still moments that stretch even the most generous suspension of disbelief. Returning to Primrose’s chapter two, the carriage you eventually get let into takes you and you alone into a top-secret brothel. Were Primrose travelling alone it all makes sense, but she’s part of a large motley crew, and even with the bartender’s approval the guard wouldn’t be letting you all in. Another example of this is in Therion’s Chapter Three. A character literally says to you ‘You were foolish to come alone’. Well, he’s the foolish one for not seeing the conga line of people come in behind me. Moments and lines like this do not need to be in a story that is about 4 people travelling together. There’s a difference between leaving things a bit open to player interpretation and wilful snubbing of the core conceit of your game, and Octopath seems too willing to partake in the latter.

Therion’s plot is seriously melodramatic, featuring all sorts of fun tropes, from the lone wolf thief to the story of betrayal. Whether it’s Ophelia’s father’s tragic death or the story of Olberic’s friend betraying him and his king (lots of betrayal in this game), it’s rare to find a story in Octopath not plagued by a bit of hammy melodrama. Like many others, I appreciate Octopath aiming for smaller scale stories, but even that is sort of undone by the secret final dungeon and how a lot of them end. Sure, Primrose’s story is about her taking down small-scale pimps, but they all turn out to be part of a shadow cult by the end. There’s slightly more character focus in the stories of Octopath, but given that the characters are mostly a collection of tropes I’ve seen before, it’s hard to get too invested.

I think the writing in the game is fine – considering the sheer volume of text there’s bound to be a few awkward lines, and Octopath does have a few too many, but generally it’s salvageable. That is, aside from H’aanit the hunter, who speaks in strange semi-Shakespearean English which is exclusive to her one tiny forest town. It’s seriously awkward, and reads awfully out loud, although luckily switching to Japanese audio alleviates some of those problems.

After H’aanit comes Ophelia the cleric. At the end of Ophelia’s story chapter about her dying adopted father and distraught sister, you must go through another cave and fight a huge golem for some religious ceremony. The game is so wedded to the “route to dungeon -> dungeon -> boss” formula for most of the game that it slots them in whether they fit or not. Ophelia shouldn’t be fighting so many big beasties, but the game can’t come up with anyway more inventive for her to get EXP so it’s another massive monster at the end of another similar dungeon. Tressa suffers a similar fate – at the end of her third chapter, a final encounter with a giant poison tiger comes out of nowhere. It isn’t at all foreshadowed or mentioned, but the game needs a big beast, so it simply forces one in. This even applies to the final bosses of some chapters. There’s a palpable sense of disappointment fighting an ‘Ogre Eagle’ in Alfyn’s final chapter because it not only seems to appear in the story for the worst reasons, it fails to fully capitalise on the interesting themes raised by Alfyn’s story.[6] It smacks of creative laziness, especially when compared to another character’s continuous inventive deconstruction of the game’s formula.

The whole experience also suffers from a sense of either the developers running out of time or lacking a certain creative energy. 32 chapters is a lot, and it’s shocking how little variation there is in them. Of the 32 chapters, only about 3 or 4 divert from the chapter structure set up in the very first chapter. That’s a tiny percentage, and it’s no wonder some critics have bemoaned the game’s repetitiveness.

Dungeon design is also creatively a bit bankrupt – it’s all caves or forests and it’s always a twisty road with a few hidden paths to chests and around to the save point before the boss. There’s also normally a ‘road to the dungeon’ area which is normally just a straight-ish line to the cave entrance. It’s all so rote even by the time you reach each character’s second chapters and shows no meaningful signs of progress as the game continues.

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Cyrus the scholar’s story about a missing evil library book starts in the city of Atlasdam, the ‘biggest town in the region’. The towns in Octopath are generally well-designed, and they each take care to have a notable landmark. But it’s not quite enough to stop them falling into the trap of similarity. Each has the requisite shops needed, and then a few houses that are either empty or plot-important and can’t be accessed until a certain character’s chapter. The churches all look the same, and although the idea of segregated living is interesting in developing the economic situation of the fictional world, it’s not interesting enough to simply be repeated in a bunch of the game’s towns without much expansion on in the story. Cyrus is clearly rich, and Alfyn is a bit poorer etc, but this never really plays into how the townspeople treat you or anything.

The two characters with the best stories are perhaps Tressa the merchant and Olberic the knight. Tressa’s story is light-hearted and without much consequence. It’s also surprisingly funny at times, which is always a plus in my book. If a game like this wants to not focus too much on story and instead wants to put effort behind crafting an engaging combat system, maybe a story like Tressa’s is perfect for it, because a lightness of tone and a simple story supports a game which is more focused on the gameplay. Any idea that the developers might have ever intended this, however, is negated by the fact that the cutscenes take up way too much time. Sure, you can skip them if you need, but they really shouldn’t be this long for a story this light.

Olberic has the simplest design and backstory but also manages to have the most unique chapters. Perhaps the fact that he’s the most basic class of JRPG character, the fallen knight, meant that they put an extra bit of elbow grease into his set-pieces, but his chapters are fantastic. The first follows the Octopath formula to a tee, but the second throws it out of the window for a boss rush, where you can use the path actions to find out the opponent’s weaknesses before battle, but you aren’t specifically prompted to do so. The third chapter is somehow even better. It starts with another boss rush, then a standard dungeon followed by boss, and then a one-on-one duel with your rival. Moments like this show creativity in using the game’s systems and are all the better for it. Both Tressa and Olberic’s stories then, show the game either crafting a story that benefits its gameplay, or changing the gameplay formula to benefit the story.

In contrast to popular opinion, my least favourite story was that of the final adventurer I picked up; Primrose the dancer. Like Persona 5, Primrose’s story tries to incorporate some pretty gruesome sexual assault storylines. But Persona 5 focused a lot of time on getting its abuser, the PE teacher Kamoshida, right and properly developed. Beating him feels satisfying, but the effect he caused is still there, and it takes hours to get to him. Octopath rushes its first pimp character, and then makes the other one in Primrose’s second chapter even more despicable. So I guess there’s a natural raising of the stakes, but the fact that these villains get so little time spent on them feels manipulative, like it’s just using sexual assault as a short-hand for a bad guy without properly examining the effect of Helgenish’s actions. This problem is compounded by Primrose’s path action, which is to use her sex appeal to have NPCs join your team. It’s a bit troubling to say the least, and I think that it shows reasonably well that sexual assault isn’t something that should just be thrown into a story to up the stakes, but should be used a bit more carefully than it is here.

Tonal whiplash is also a problem considering you can go straight from Primrose’s first chapter to Tressa’s second chapter if you wanted. The chapter structure doesn’t allow for a flowing narrative, it’s all stops and starts, which isn’t conducive to a consistent tone or even to a coherent story, given that you have to remind yourself of what happened last time. It makes the stories feel a little disjointed.

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Moving onto the second chapters, the game does finally allow interaction between characters. That the characters never talk much is something that’s been heavily criticised, but being generous to Octopath, I could say that that’s reviewing something not in the game, so I can’t be too harsh. The devs wanted to tell 8 separate stories, not one big one. But from Chapter 2 onwards you are occasionally prompted to ‘press + for banter’. The banter scenes aren’t great but bafflingly they’re all consigned to a strange nether-dimension, where two characters are whisked away for a small chat about the current situation. There are occasional ‘tavern banter’ sections with more than two characters in your party, but even though they happen in a fixed spot, it still whisks the conversation away to another plane. The game has already got lengthy cutscenes, and the legwork of writing all these banter scenes has been done – the simple step of putting these conversations in the cutscenes would do wonders to avail criticisms of the characters not feeling like a team.

Although the game doesn’t contain any real interaction between the cast or stories, critics post-launch were berated for neglecting to mention the appearance of a post-game dungeon. This is completely hidden for a lot of players in the game, given that it requires the completion of two seemingly random side quests to access. Nevertheless, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it, given its discovery prior to me playing the game. Now it’s also worth noting that the final boss is insanely difficult and I haven’t beaten it yet, but the lore moments are more accessible. The Graham Crossford revelations are genuinely pretty good at tying together some of the character’s stories, and it re-contextualises some boss battles[7] and story beats, which is a lot of fun. But it’s not a cure-all to the valid critique that the stories still feel very disjointed. Most of my problems don’t come from the fact that there isn’t some cool lore tying together Tressa’s diary and Alfyn’s saviour, but from the fact that the stories are wildly differing in tone and that there are story beats that simply make no sense in a game about 8 people on a journey together. So yes, the final dungeon is a good addition, but no, it’s not a fix to a lot of complaints.

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I like Octopath Traveller, and I won’t deny it’s a fun game that I had some great times with. There’s a lot in it to enjoy, and the high sales have proved a market for a throwback JPRG like this. That said, there’s something rather sloppy about a lot of the game’s major design decisions. The battle system is engaging and interesting, but it feels out of place in a game with the structure of a more retro-JRPG. This game was, according to developer interview, developed first with the idea of making a love-letter to the games they grew up with, but it’s worth saying that had they started with the idea of this battle system, I doubt that some of the systems in this game would be present. Likewise, had they begun development with the idea of making a game based around eight characters, I imagine the story structure would be far different, because it’s hard to imagine this being the first choice of structure for a game with “eight unique stories” as its core conceit. So there’s an element of moving the genre into the future with some of the design decisions of Octopath, but the game also feels significantly held back by its past.

So Octopath Traveller has some good ideas. It has a good idea for a battle system, a good idea for having multiple stories, a good idea for making a retro JRPG. Sadly, though, it consistently fails to reconcile these good ideas into something truly great. Much like the game’s eight distinct stories, the small successes of Octopath Traveller never truly coalesce into a satisfying whole.


 

[1] To my mind They Who Govern Reason may well be the greatest boss battle music in any video game I’ve heard.

[2] Yasunori Nishiki has worked on a couple of anime, but this seems to be his first major composing job on a video game.

[3] It’s worth noting that this option was a response to player feedback on the demo, which is something I’d love to see more games do.

[4] Finally I manage to cement myself as a proper game critic with a Dark Souls reference. Hopefully my parents are proud.

[5] If you fail stealing it a few times your reputation in town can be damaged, but simply paying off the bartender will repair it, which is a nice touch.

[6] Speaking of Alfyn’s Chpater Four, I’m not even sure where to start with his strange mind palace recreation of events in order to remember about the Ogre Eagle’s existence. It’s incredibly strange and forced in the worst way. Alfyn being the first character I picked and the first character whose chapter four I finished was a bit of a disappointment given that I like him as a character and his middle chapters are so strong.

[7] In particular the Red-Eye fight takes on a slightly more disturbing edge

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.

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.