Time to die after this
So I played the Hiei Baldrs in order (Force –> Sky –> Heart) in the span of a few months. With the exception of Force where I just spammed missiles on normal to get it over with because I didn’t know how to play the game, they were extremely fun and satisfying experiences. The fights, when used with the context of the story, were maximum hype. I guess I really like eroge that are story heavy but have good gameplay that is well-incorporated into the story and used as 演出.
Force is a well-loved classic from 2002 with a 90 median on EGS. I don’t think most people who play it today will think that highly of it, especially compared to its predecessors, but if I had played it in the early 00’s I would have been very impressed. The story is pretty much cyberpunk 101 with battles happening over the internet, being represented as a virtual reality where organizations have “structures” and humans fight in robots. There are viruses and virtual terrorists and evil organizations with mind control brain chips to make for a mash of various cyberpunk staples. Force doesn’t go too deep into any aspects of the setting and prefers to keep it as a primer to cyberpunk, instead choosing to forward the plot at every opportunity.
The key to enjoying it is to play it like an old video game with more text and dialogue between fights. The pacing is sonic speed and whenever you expect there to be some downtime or room for SoL, the alarm goes off and you’re jumping into another mission where you have to defend against cyber invaders. There are 6 routes, and for the most part, the game uses its multiple routes very well to shape its plot. The 3rd and 4th routes are nothing like the first two, and the game takes the protagonist Tooru first-hand through all of the three primary organizations it revolves around. The 5th route is a good penultimate route featuring the best heroine in the game (and the only one I actually managed to like), and the last route is where all the plot threads come together. The game avoids boring you by giving you enough new things at a short interval — the routes are so varied that after the first two, everything feels fresh.
The downside, other than the first two routes being shit, is that the game never gives you enough breathing room. Out of the 6 heroines I managed to like one, and there’s at least one more that I could have liked if the game actually spent a few more hours letting her interact with Tooru than jumping directly into the next plot point. The heroines of the first two routes are basically unsalvageable, and the final route’s heroine doesn’t even reveal her name until her route. Her characterization is also extremely shallow, to the point where you end up caring more about the rapist cartoon villain than her. There’s also no time spent building the setting — you’re just given a basic cyberpunk setting outline and everything is used to just forward the plot. There are neat concepts that come up and aren’t even explored until the next game, released 7 years later.
There are people still think Force is the best Baldr after playing Sky and Heart, and while I don’t agree, I can sort of see why. The latter games have a more focus, but will never go in all the different directions with multiple routes like Force did. Force also has no downtime and cuts anything that can potentially be labeled as filler to further the story. The other heroines sucked, but Bachelor is great and probably made me like the game a good deal more than I would have. Anyone who despises school settings being “forced into everything” would probably like Force a lot since the only mention of school is in characters’ backstories (usually in some database entry saying that they dropped out of school to become a l33t hacker). Force is probably the best counterexample to the image of eroge being needlessly long and being filled with pointless scenes, but it’s also from a time when that image hasn’t been established yet.
Sky was released in two parts, with my clear time clocking in at over 100 hours. It polishes up Force’s system and makes it so that you actually have to learn how to play, and the story and gameplay working together reduces the distance between the player and the protagonist. Sky takes place in the same setting as Force but in the future, so you end up seeing a more evolved version of Force’s world.
The game begins with Kou getting caught by a attack and losing his memories in the middle of a virtual battlefield. He was chasing after a specific organization, but he can’t recall why or who. Throughout the game he slowly regains fragments of his school days and the events leading up to the Grey Christmas — the day where his city was razed and his 青春 came to an abrupt end. A lot of flashbacks to his high school days will be shown to the player, so although Kou is supposed to be a hardened soldier and a skilled virtual robot pilot, you get this mix of high school SoL scenes and REAL DEAL raids and battles and sci-fi mysteries. This works pretty well as you get to see, in real time, the contrast between the heroines in their high school days and their current form. Some of them remain basically the same, whereas some have lost everything on the Grey Christmas and are practically a completely different person.
The biggest advantage Sky has is time. There is enough time to pursue the topics of transhumanism, AI, and an evolving virtual world that is governed by a network of AIs. There is enough time to properly depict a futuristic society that is dependent on the virtual world — you see not only the battle aspects like in Force, but how people of various social classes live and interact with the virtual. Most importantly it has enough time to get the player to like its heroines and side characters. Rain is the heroine of the introductory route that’s kind of slow and not as exciting, but unlike the heroine of the first route in Force, she manages to remain relevant and even becomes more likable outside her route. The heroines on average aren’t that memorable as far as eroge heroines go (the side characters are just as good or even better IMO), but I managed to actually care about most of them in a way that I never did in Force. Also Aki is amazing and the best. I didn’t think I would like her better than Bachelor but I did.
Hiei Murasaki is a skilled writer who is able to construct a complex, multithreaded plot and unveil information in a way that’s easy to follow. The text is clean and concise, never forgetting that it is writing the plot in a video game (albeit a story-heavy one) and not a textbook. The setting uses many sci-fi ideas and actual theories, and the game spends enough time on them to pique your interest and maybe push you to look them up and start theorizing in your head (and possibly read sci-fi classics that were inspired from), but not so much that you feel like you are in a lengthy infodump with no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s fun to immerse yourself in the world and talk about the possibilities and where they will head to.
People often complain about dei ex machina, but I don’t really see it as a major problem in Sky since I thought most of the events were very well-foreshadowed, with the final route being an execution of theories discussed in previous routes. A certain part near the end of Sora’s route irked me since it felt like a cheap attempt at emotional manipulation using the rest of the cast, especially when someone who has been paying attention to the things the game tells you about the setting will be able to see what comes after that will render whatever just happened irrelevant. Other than that my main complaint is the amount of unskippable text that should have been skippable by all means. I’m talking about a repeat of chapters 1-4 in Chinatsu’s route that should have counted as “read text” aside from a few scenes but didn’t. There’s also Reminiscence, where you finally get to see Kou’s past memories up to the Grey Christmas in chronological order…except you’ve already seen 90% of it through the various flashbacks the game has shown you up to that point! The new scenes are very good, but the rest is the exact same as what you’ve seen before with a few fights thrown in so that you can see how shitty Kou was at fighting back then compared to now.
The construction of the world and the way the story is told in Baldr Sky agrees with my tastes very well so I am quite biased towards it. It’s a well-made game and a fun 100+ hours spent.
Announced and released this year, Heart’s announcement was what triggered me to start the series. The new art style seems to have gotten flak for being more “moe” and the school setting brought upon accusations of Baldr trying to force modern eroge trends to gain more sales (a company trying to sell to a modern audience and not people from a decade ago who may not be into this shit anymore is corrupt and terrible, right?). After playing I’d say that the latter is arguably true: the game takes place in a school with all the heroines being school student-aged, but there is probably less time spent at school than Baldr Sky. At the end I don’t really care as I’m not averse to school settings in serious games. The art…has shiny coloring which may not appeal to the audience of Force and Sky, and my complaints have to do with the tachi-e being more stiff compared to Sky’s variety of dynamic poses rather than anything being “too moe.” The heroine designs and CG in Sky are quite moe when they’re not busy being off-model or inconsistent.
Heart takes place probably 100~200 years after Sky, and actually incorporates the technological advancements made during Sky and shows the ways the world has evolved as hinted by its predecessors. There’s less of a focus on the AI network as the debate of surrounding them has mellowed out and they’re back to an observing role, but the evolution of the virtual world is shaped by the AI network’s study of people, and so the topic shifts heavily to transhumanism and virtual reality. The stuff happening in the background is very much a direct continuation of what Sky hints at. You get to see how certain concepts first tackled in Force and evolved through Sky go to their extremes in Heart, and the limits of a society that has been increasingly dependent on the virtual reality. The end of Heart hints at a massive technological revolution that may very well change the fundamentals of what defines human life.
The argument Baldr Heart makes is that as technology reaches extreme levels of advancement, it starts being indistinguishable to the average person from fictitious concepts such as magic and the worlds described in religions. The line between the real and the virtual blurs as time goes by, and the virtual world is shaped by the AI network’s observation of the human psyche — which tends to heavily desire possibilities described by fiction. As the current society approaches its limits, humanity itself may have transformed into an unrecognizable state in a future game. Where humanity goes in the context of the world in Baldr is very, very interesting to me, and as such I enjoyed Baldr Heart immensely. It casually drops theories about higher dimensions that may simply just be unobservable by the human senses in their current state, and writes the setting to a point where future entries will basically be unbounded. I sure hope eroge survives until then.
Looks like I went too far on a tangent for “brief impressions” and still didn’t say anything about the story or characters. The story doesn’t get on the scale of Sky in terms of breadth, but it goes deeper into abstract concepts. It’s similar to Force and Sky in how it introduces many plot points that converge at the end, but the structure is not that well-planned out as you have 3 routes that follow the same plot but scratch the surface of the mysteries a bit more each time, and a final route that is basically twice as long and actually goes to the depths you expect. Sky felt more balanced. At the end it doesn’t bother me that much as Nagi’s route was great, but it kinda sucks that a heroine I was ready to like was sacrificed to the first route and Kanna, who is obviously the Wizard successor to past best girls Bachelor and Aki, just has no route. She’s better than most of the heroines. I can see why someone who loved Sky and has been waiting years for Heart would be disappointed at its smaller scale and shorter length, but I only had about two months of built-up hype and ended up really getting into the final route so I was pretty satisfied. The side characters are also really good, better than most of the heroines IMO. The gameplay is refined and evolved from Sky, and Very Hard is actually fun to start on. The problem is that towards the later routes, mobs become killer while bosses are pushovers.
I appreciated the final boss being an actual character this time around and not just some ball of wreckage or a thing that is mentioned in passing shows up for the first time at the final battle. Sky had twice the time and ended up with twice the good characters and scale, but Heart is a solid game and one of the better games I played this year. It may not be as impressive in the current market as Force was in ’02/’03 or Sky in ’09, but it’s decent effort in this dying market (;_;).
Actually the most satisfying 2016 game I’ve played so far. It serves as not only a continuation to the second game from last year, but also as a grand conclusion to the first game from 14 years ago. Wow, almost as much time passed in real life as it did between games! I didn’t expect to like the series so much as I picked up the first game on a whim when it was offered on PS+, but holy shit I do love some oriental fantasy RPG that obscures an unexpected setting and executes 王道 in a wonderful way. I liked all the characters across the games and the finale was so good.
The first half was actually a bit disappointing since it didn’t depict the 乱世 like the ending to the second game implied it would (the war is too orderly), but it managed to give the characters some nice serious moments. Especially good were Nekone, who gets a tough role that is a lot of pain and suffering, and Anju, who develops from the brat she was in 2 to a brave, strong, kind, and cool emperor. Anju is seriously a miracle of the universe and the first character from a game this year that hits all the right spots. I put her up there in my list with a certain ninja loli from Amatsukaze and I want to see her go on adventures forever.
There’s a few problems I have with the plot development like how you get a scene showing Kuon’s resolve to accept her role in Tuskul, and while the resolution is close to what I expected, it happened in a single chain of events early on. I expected it to be played for dramatic effect later on, but it ended up being an early event that marks the turning point for Anju. The second half’s villain was also kind of anticlimatic, but they were going for a different focus like the end of the first game so I guess that’s understandable. I really liked the chess-like process of predicting the enemy’s moves and intent in the war in the first half, so Raikou was a cooler villain than [redacted] in the second half.
Utaware 3 doesn’t do anything groundbreaking to the first and second games, but it’s a very enjoyable journey that leaves the player with a good feeling at the end. Playing it “safe” and going for the 王道 in a commercial product isn’t always a bad thing, and can be very effective when you’ve got good characters and scenes. The gameplay is really fun and the difficulty is a step up from Utaware 2, being an SRPG where you actually have to think and know the abilities of the characters inside-out. SRPGs are kind of a stale genre without groundbreaking systems in recent years (a common complaint for turn-based RPGs, but I find it more applicable to SRPGs) and I’m glad Utaware 2/3 manage to be innovative and engaging.
Anju is the best なのじゃ
For years this game has been a meme response to the “what VN is good for Japanese beginners?” question because Mareni uses lots of uncommon vocabulary and writers long lines that cover the entire screen in NVL format. He’s easily the most intimidating eroge writer to a Japanese learner at first glance because he writes like he’s from two centuries ago. People like compare his style to 泉鏡花, a writer from the 19th century.
Mareni’s style is strange to read at first, especially when you haven’t touched any Real Literature and sit around playing video games all day (me). But honestly it’s not that bad once you get used to it — it’s a vivid style that sucks the reader in, and is packed to the brim with imagery. Nothing much may have happened in the few hours you spent reading but it sure feels like you’ve seen a lot. Unlike modern fiction that like to be faithful to their genre or several genres, Albatross begins as a story about a failure of a human getting forced to work on a boat and ends up being some indescribable mixture of a bunch of other genres that just blows up if you try to categorize it. There are a lot of developments that are just plain weird when you look at it through the lens of a consumer of contemporary entertainment, but are oddly engrossing.
When someone mentions Classic Literature and fancy Prose one may sneer at it and think of a work trying too hard to appeal to a Master of Fine Arts. Albatross is lewd and vulgar and actually a perfect fit for eroge in theory. Horny teenage protagonists and lewd jokes are merely child’s play compared to how unrestrained Mareni is with his 下品 depictions. Albatross is nothing short of pure fun as you follow a real ダメ人間 of a protagonist (here is a part of his amazing backstory) onto a creaky run-down boat with a useless little girl of a captain, a pair of mean and vulgar twins who are all too eager to bully you and lady who unintentionally brings deadly bad luck and an assassin tasked to kill you but also becomes your drinking buddy.
The stories revolving the heroines are based on familiar tales but told in absolutely unfamiliar ways. I particularly liked the bits in Rui’s route about humans and engagement with folklore and archetypes. The routes don’t have “smooth” and cathartic conclusions but end in ways that make sense, and I especially like how the protagonist is extremely convincing as a ダメ人間. He’s perverted, lame, and pathetic, and although he develops through the course of the story, it doesn’t change the core traits that make the foundation of his character. The setting seems all kinds of ridiculous when it gets revealed in pieces throughout the routes, and by the time you learn the truth of the world Mareni has shown you enough absurdity that you just roll with it.
Mareni is great at showing the reader scenes through text that paints vivid imagery rather than telling. You get sucked into the absurd world he crafts without inserting yourself into any particular character. It feels like you’re not reading an eroge while reading material that is perfect for an eroge and wouldn’t belong anywhere else. I don’t think a lot of people will actually get into Mareni’s writing and I personally needed extensive concentration to read, but when you do get into it you get completely absorbed. In terms of raw writing power I haven’t read anyone close to Mareni’s level, but his stuff is peculiar, to say the least. Albatross ended up as a really fun read.