If you look up discussion of these games in forums or reddit, you’ll often find people asking if they’re worth going back to or if they’re a good place to start with the series, and obviously, gamers being gamers, the answer is always a huge “no.” I never see anyone ever recommending these games, even these SNES remakes. Always described as too clunky, too difficult, simultaneously too simple and too opaque, just all around too old. And it’s true on some level that if you’re used to most post-nocturne SMT games then I don’t think that what you get in especially Megami Tensei I is going to particularly resemble the series you love. If, however, you’re a fan of WIZARDRY, well then do I have a very cool little evolution of that strand of late-80s famicom RPG design for YOU.
The Megami Tensei duology exists in such a weird little liminal period in time for Megami Tensei The Franchise, and it shows in the game itself. It’s popularly known that this franchise in general pulls its aesthetic and setting inspirations from Nishitani Aya’s Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei novels, some of which have complete fan translations and are totally readable if you want to seek them out! They’re kind of sick! People don’t really like them these days and I do understand why; they’re unabashedly trashy in all respects, and the main character is pretty genuinely repulsive and not in a sort of “ah this boy will learn to be better” sort of way. It’s also easy to see why they were such a big hit in Japan, though. Certainly they were part of a larger boom of overtly horrific occult-based media at the time, and they were part of a larger planned multimedia push that included a now-famous OVA adaptation and finally, of course, these games. But they are themselves brimming with a weird energy, mixing the vibes of a transgressing western-style anti-christian occult sensibility with classical mythology with modern technology in a schlocky soup that any teenager would be happy to slurp down. The OVA captures this vibe and translates it perfectly into the kind of bristling erotic violence that OVAs of that era are now infamous for.
So it’s interesting that Digital Devil Story Megami Tensei The Video Game kind of doesn’t even try? What we get is something I might call “loosely inspired by” its namesake rather than an adaptation of it. You have the same main characters in roughly the same roles – the same people act as reincarnations of goddesses, Cerberus and Loki and Set are here being Important Guys, but beyond these superficial trappings there’s nothing else really anchoring us to the original premise of “kid with school shooter energy summons demons and ruins everything instead of doing a school shooting, slow-motion tragedy unfolds.” It’s not quite doing its own thing either, though; only two of the original three novels were out at the time this game was released, and dialogue here suggests this is kind of an original sequel capstone to those books? Maybe even just the first book. Characters at the very least seem to be familiar with each other, and based on how heroically you behave in the game I guess we’re kind of massaging Nakajima’s image too. It’s all very strange, taking a story that’s about a gross, pulpy horror scenario playing out mostly inside of a school building and instead making it an epic quest to destroy Lucifer inside of his massive labyrinth in the demon world.
That’s not to say I don’t LIKE it though. As we have established, I looooove Wizardry, and this game makes explicit a lot of the shit that early Wizardry asks you to kind of do the mental legwork on yourself. The entire game takes place inside this evil labyrinth and it’s stacked with weird fuckers to hang out with. There’s whole towns inside the labyrinth, and all these cool little details about the kinds of people and demons you’ll meet in there, not all of whom will be hostile regardless of your recruitment game mechanic. Deeper down these towns stop being safe zones from random encounters, but they’re still often populated by guys who might have crucial advice or shop stock or hints for you.
Otherwise it’s a pretty smooth ride. Gameplay is simply for anyone with a passing familiarity with RPGs, with ultimately every single fight in the game ending up as a sheer contest of who can make the biggest number the fastest, but there is satisfaction in being the guy who can make the biggest number the fastest. I love Wizardry but I also love Dragon Quest 1. Eventually you have to be able to cover yourself from things like level drain and instant death spells but that’s about as complex as magic gets here beyond healing and occasional status afflictions that rarely have huge impact on a fight.
The Kyuuyaku versions at least (idk about the famicom original) do have the magnetite system, where you gain a second currency by winning encounters that drains with every step you take based on the number of demons in your party and how high their levels are. Once it runs out your demons will start taking damage every step instead, and MP is a precious resource so you really can’t have that. I find this system frustrating because the balance never feels quite right – ideally for something like this you would be feeling some pressure about it, like you need to weigh your options and figure out whether pushing it too hard will tip the scales away from you. Here though I feel like I’m always either completely in danger of tapping out or I’m so abundant on the stuff that I’m not even checking it. Ultimately it’s not a huge deterrent and there are plenty of ways to get powerful demons when you need them but I do think ditching this system later on and letting player level be the determining factor in how fucked up of a guy you can make was a wise move.
I imagine that the biggest barrier to these games for many people will be the dungeons themselves, but I think a lot has been done in these SNES versions of the games to make them pretty smooth. The auto-map feature is a game-changing addition, and when the late game dungeons start adding things like teleporters, one-way doors, and illusory walls it goes from necessary convenience to essential feature. When you can be punted as many floors as this game is willing to fuck you with I can’t imagine having to chart your own shit. There’s also a series of backtracking-based quests to find hidden items associated with every boss that will make them significantly easier to fight, and it’s actually required to do this in by far the most difficult area of the game to be able to kill the final boss at all, which is, I’m not too proud to admit, very tedious when you feel the end coming up in your bones.
I did like Megami Tensei I and I’ll admit that I’m really easy to please when it comes to the kind of very straightforward blobber that it succeeds at being, but the real star of this package is the sequel, which starts directly after the ending of the first game, no credits, no booting you back to the menu, just the ending screens for the first game, following by one of the most startling nuclear apocalypses in games. A flickering, screaming facsimile of a human face flashing in monochrome under an image of the missiles striking. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Now everything you were doing only moments ago seems smaller. Oops! You got some Shin in my Megami Tensei! Fully leaving any pretense of the novels or their original premise behind, the team behind the original game leap the story ahead 30 years to post-apocalyptic Tokyo, where humans live in underground bunkers, fearful of the demons that rule the wastes, or aboveground in cities where they live in communities that serve and worship cults and armies of demon warlords.
Your characters here are Gamers, who accidentally unleash the demon Pazuzu from the video game he was trapped in by the demon Bael (lmao). He says hello everyone I am PAZUZU and I work for GOD from THE BIBLE don’t worry about it I’m super chill and since you freed me you must be THE MESSIAHS please go kill Bael and don’t think about how he’s the most powerful demon in Tokyo and if he was dead I would be the most powerful demon in Tokyo okay see ya later. And your characters are like yeah that checks out I guess we are the saviors of the world! They’re so fucking stupid it rocks. It’s not until the third main character shows up and is like “have you guys considered that Pazuzu is obviously turbo evil” that you are even given the option to be like oh yeah shit that’s so true but even then your buddy will do the classic megaten move of breaking up with you and threatening to kill you next time you meet. Pazuzu even gives you Orthrus to hang out with! That’s Cerberus’ evil pallet swap! MR POLICE I GAVE YOU ALL THE CLUES, and other things of that nature. This isn’t the only time your protagonist demonstrates the brain power of my recently deceased pet cats either, like another time in the middle of the game you have to go get a thing and the thing is inside of the mouth of a big evil statue with blood all over it and you stick your WHOLE ARM IN THERE, and not only that but the arm that has your demon summoning computer and everything!!! And the statue of course fucking bites it off!!!! OBVIOUSLY. But you do get the status effect LOSARM out of this whole situation, as you have to scrabble your way back to the local mad scientist so he’ll make a robot arm for you, taking damage every step and unable to fight or summon new demons until you do. This whole sequence takes maybe fifteen minutes but it’s all time good SMT shit for me. This is also the diagetic way that the game comes up with for upgrading your demon capacity. You got more ram in your robot arm I guess.
Considering that Megami Tensei I is such a clear first run at an idea that feels very within the scope of what one might imagine both a first run at this franchise to look like and also what that would look like on the famicom, it’s kind of wild that Megami Tensei II just IS essentially a modern Shin Megami Tensei game almost fully formed from the ether. The setting is here, you’ve got your shitty friends who stick with you or ditch you based on your alignment choices (although the alignment system for the player character isn’t actually here yet – you’re essentially playing out a scripted version of what would today be considered a sort of combination neutral-law story), the ending is affected by key decisions that would be a little esoteric if they weren’t so obvious, Lucifer is here and behaving much more in tune with how he’s gonna act in almost all of his future appearances – a frustrated guy who sees humans as similarly beleaguered to his own people, if not still generally at the bottom of the worth-pyramid according to his own personal philosophies (in early games, at least). The kitsch comedy is dialed up, the mad science and esoteric fantasy are more heavily emphasized, and the horror is less overt and more ambient, based more in the smog of having the curtain peeling back on the knowledge that your existence isn’t your own and that resistance to the power that governs life is nearly unthinkable. But also like 70% of sapient life would be down to eat you. Both things.
There’s a degree to which SMT as a series but especially the core entries are just telling the same stories over and over again, filtering characters and details but with core identifying elements and story beats and character archetypes, to in my opinion a much greater degree than a lot of series that do a similar sort of thing. I might have expected a kind of bare take on that framework from a Famicom originator of many of those ideas but even today Megami Tensei II feels pretty fresh! In particular I like what the first half of the game is cooking, the post-apocalyptic Tokyo here being the domain of demon lords all jockeying for power against each other in a perpetual status quo rather than there being a real sense of alignment-based organization between the forces of law and chaos. There’s no big war happening right now, the war’s over, this is just the way things are at the moment, especially with no leaders present for most of the game, so it makes sense that it’s only when Pazuzu arrives on the scene to scam a bunch of idiots into starting shit with the biggest guy in town that things really start to spiral out of control. Pazuzu himself is the most interesting character in the game, because I leave it all genuinely uncertain about whether he actually is a representative of God or not? It initially all seems like a scam, one that he has other demons in on like Orthrus, but he DOES give you that special ring to signify your party’s places as messiahs, and later on an angel does speak fondly of him. He does seem to be mostly interested in seizing power for himself though, and for a demon to switch sides with an ulterior motive is equally interesting. The game leaves it ambiguous, or at least I didn’t talk to the right people to know for sure, and I think it’s really cool! There are a lot of NPCs with a ton of personality in this game, enough for the world to feel rich, to have me doing things like speculating on motivations and making observations about cultures and laughing at individual quirks of specific guys. Really impressive stuff.
This kind of early, wizardry-like first-person dungeon crawler exists in a tough spot, where for people who really like the genre and play a lot of these games I think these remakes that simultaneously preserve the really old, simple mechanics but also provide a lot of quality of life improvements, might be a little too simple to hold interest from a play perspective, even with the demon summoning and negotiation element grafted to the top. For players familiar with modern SMT or who are more general RPG fans though, I think even these simpler, easier dungeon crawlers might be a little bit more opaque and unforgiving than they’re used to and comfortable with and I understand that being a turnoff, even if I do think it’s a hump worth getting over (I did and I’m having a wonderful time exploring this genre). Megami Tensei’s personality is truly the thing that sets it apart; visually, sonically, personality-wise, there wasn’t much else even trying to do this kind of shit at the time and it still has a strongly individual vibe, strong enough that I think this collection is totally worth looking into, even if you skip to the second game. But if you’re already a fan of the series, I can’t emphasize enough that it’s really a nonstop parade of treats. I’m begging everyone to play old games. They’re so cool. Everybody wins.
Despite the recent announcement of a thirty-fourth game, Mystery of the Seven Keys, it’s hard not to feel like Her Interactive’s Nancy Drew series as it was is definitively over. The streak of releases they had perhaps erroneously executed for sixteen years will end in 2015 (the game we’re talking about today is the second game for 2012), and beyond the fact that the next game wouldn’t arrive until 2019 and the following one, the aforementioned Seven Keys is still TBD, almost everything is different now. A new engine that leads to a new mode of movement and play, a new voice for Nancy (if you only read these reviews that may not sound huge but Lani Minella is an enormously important part of this series’ identity), almost total staff turnover at Her Interactive. Marketing for Seven Keys has been going hard since the formal announcement and despite seemingly having very little to actually show, the company seems keen to tie this new game to the legacy of its predecessors, evoking visual cues, inventory items, and even things as vague as Setting Tropes that became iconic to this series over the years. Without knowing whether this new game will resemble the tepidly received franchise-reboot-for-mass-appeal-esque Midnight In Salem or something more traditional remains to be seen. It’s hard to know what to take away from the vague advertisements on the official Nancy Drew PC Game social media accounts.
I’ve mentioned this before in passing, but it does make it feel like, regardless of the literal truth of the statement, the Nancy Drew Cyber Mystery Series is rapidly reaching something of a conclusion, and thinking of this last set of games in that context has me reflecting a lot on the past, which is difficult not to do. It happened to me with Megaman too; when a series is dozens of installments that are all kind of riffing on each other, after a certain point it’s hard to not be constantly making internal comparisons, especially if you play them back to back to back to back. I haven’t quite done that with Nancy Drew but cramming 30+ games in less than two years is a different experience than one every six months or so.
With The Deadly Device, I’m specifically thinking about tone. It’s the first game since, if I recall correctly, the literal first game, Secrets Can Kill, to feature a murder as the driving force behind the mystery. In this case, Nancy has been hired by Jeff Bridges From Iron Man 1 to go undercover at his, like, nondescript science lab that happens to be located at the top of a mountain or something equally wild in Colorado in the middle of winter, where a key researcher at whatever they’re doing there which is truly not important has been killed by the giant tesla coil they keep in the middle of their big lab room, which should theoretically not be possible. So all the research has been halted, all the researchers live at this lab and can’t leave, partially because of the investigation and partially because there’s a big snowstorm that’s expected to blow in soon, and Nancy has to find out who the killer is among them while she poses as a different kind of investigator on behalf of like a realtor or something idk her cover story is so flimsy everybody pretty much figures it out right away.
I’ve felt conflicted about really bringing this up in detail across the last few games but Deadly Device offers a perfect encapsulation of the discord I’ve been feeling so here it is: these games have always walked a tightrope between their stated goal of being nominally educational or at least stimulating content for Young Girls, being workable as all ages entertainment that holds the attention and interest of adults, and, increasingly, what feels to me like the growing tension to want to age up with their audience. Which isn’t to say that early Nancy Drew games are for babies and late Nancy Drew games are edgy affairs. These games have always flirted with the kinds of themes you would find in Nancy’s saucier, sleazier affairs from her college age books that they take a lot of direct inspiration from; death and drugs and crimes of nations and even deep personal trauma flits through these games from the beginning, it just usually does so in the distant past, or on the margins of the stories.
Recently though, those elements stick out at the forefront a little more. Shadow at the Water’s Edge putting the commonly-seen historical side of its story only one generation behind us, rippling directly into the lives of the main cast whose inability to process their grief drives the plot is a stark tonal difference even from the similarly themed Haunted Carousel, which tells a story like this one through the comedy stylings of an annoying robot bird who might have spoken in rhyme? The Captive Curse’s standard scooby doo real estate scheme plot is both used to explore the main side character’s lingering grief and also parallel Nancy’s personal problems, the first ones she’s really ever had in the whole series. Are they good? No. But that doesn’t matter for what we’re talking about here. Alibi in Ashes, of course, puts a question to the very idea of Nancy Drew and what life around her would even look like for regular people and, maybe surprisingly, it’s pretty nasty and mean-spirited about it! The game suggests that Nancy gets to live the life she lives and enjoy the success she does almost entirely because of her wealth and privilege, that any moment one bad day could see everything she has and all of her work fall down around her if she only makes the wrong person mad or tries to pull her brand of justice in a town that’s just a little too corrupt. This will never happen, of course, not in our games, but knowing that it’s happened to other people and that it happens in the world she lives in makes everything she does hit a little differently. Tomb of the Lost Queen similarly pulls its past story straight to the lives of pivotal characters in ways that are toxic and destructive and doesn’t try to work around them either; another game that revisits ideas of an early game with, well, not less nuance, but more willingness to let discomfort exist. Lost Queen may end with a conflict resolved and a peace achieved between factions but it is certainly not the offensive idealism of Mexican government employees happily saluting the people looting their country for profit.
Deadly Device is so far I think the pinnacle of this new subtle shift to slipping this shit into otherwise stock standard Nancy Drew affairs, by like, being about a murder. They get around this of course by keeping the details of the death in the margins; Nancy arrives long after the body has been removed, and she’s only interviewing people for the most part. But when you’re interviewing a lot of angry, stressed people whose careers are functionally over who all already suspect that one of their number is a malicious saboteur with killing on the brain? Well. You’re doing all the Nancy Drew Stuff. You’re doing all the same kind of puzzles (for my money the best puzzles in the entire series by far – diagetically satisfying and almost all of them challenging and engaging), the same kinds of social interactions, you have a day/night cycle to manage, you even have the dumbass Hardy Boys on the phone. But it hits weird. A guy’s dead. A murderer is still around.
Point and click adventure games are one of the best gaming vehicles for horror in my opinion, partially because they distill the player agency at the heart of many horror games to its finest solution. You have very little to do in the moment to moment but direct yourself to the next screen. You feel constantly vulnerable but you’re always the one who has to pull the trigger on the transition to whatever you’re going to see next, and in a lot of games, especially older ones, that’s an instant transition. It’s basic but if it’s a feeling that’s catered to it’s really effective. Nancy Drew games often employ this towards their endings, when a culprit is identified but you haven’t caught them yet, where Nancy is doing whatever she needs to do but you know the bad guy is Around. Sometimes this leads to a direct confrontation at the end of the game but sometimes there’s a situation where the villain is clearly Present or even stalking Nancy and as a point and click character who is also a nebulously teenaged girl, it’s very easy to feel vulnerable in these bits.
Deadly Device capitalizes on this really well. A lot of the time you’re sneaking into people’s work areas, or distracting people with alarms in one part of the facility so you can get to somewhere you’re not meant to be that will only be safe for a really unclear amount of time. One of the main ways to get around is a grated elevator that moves soooooooo slooooooowly so there’s almost always a tension of seeing the person you’re afraid of on the other side of that grate as your view comes up or down from the darkness of the space between floors. And finally when you do identify the culprit, you also know that he already knows you know, and is likely to try to kill you. But by now you don’t know where he is. But you do know that he’s a very large man, and prone to angry outbursts, and the team at Her Interactive understands really well that that’s basically the scariest thing in the world to a young woman. Just about the tensest moments of play I can recall from these games since a similar sequence in Shadow Ranch, but I think it’s done better here, because it’s not a chase, it’s just the fear of not knowing where he is or when he might appear.
That said, the game isn’t terribly dour. It mostly just plays out like a normal Nancy Drew mystery, which is what I mean when I talk about that tonal tightrope – the lack of a present corpse and slight removal in time from the murder means Nancy herself is just kind of operating as usual, which for her means extremely insensitively. You get to call the Hardy Boys, which sucks for me every time they show up because they’re fucking cop losers even worse than Nancy and they get impressively more annoying every game. Their thing this time is that one of them is making up new words by mashing together existing words and being really annoying about it, and the other one is really insistent about the importance of grammar and the immutability of the perfect english language, which is itself an enormous red flag. Get these fucking losers out of my games!!!!! Her actually did make one Hardy Boys game on the Nintendo DS so I have to wonder if they have their personalities from this series in that. If they do that might explain why they only got one go at it. Disaster shit.
Don’t worry though everybody Nancy Drew Cuck Watch is alive and well, it’s just from the most unexpected but welcome place in the form of Nancy’s rival Deirdre from Alibi In Ashes. Or, well, I say Rival but what I mean is she is a regular criminology student and all around normal person who doesn’t like Nancy very much because Nancy is the least likable person of all time, and Nancy thinks they’re rivals because she’s unable to understand the concept of someone knowing who she is and being like “I could go for not hanging out with Nancy.” This has flipped somewhat though to Deirdre basically being like a whiny flirt to Nancy nonstop in this game???? Half of the time complaining loudly about having to do anything and the other half of the time seeming very amused that Nancy thinks she doesn’t like her and continues to insist that Deirdre is her enemy even though Deirdre is obviously into her, which Nancy will never catch on to because she doesn’t know about gay people. It’s good. Deirdre continues to be my shining beacon of light even in a game I already enjoy very much. More on this story as it develops. AND IT HAD BETTER DEVELOP.
PREVIOUSLY: TOMB OF THE LOST QUEEN
NEXT TIME: GHOST OF THORNTON HALL
NEXT TIME: GHOST OF THORNTON HALL
This review contains spoilers
I’ve got a reputation among friends as The World’s Only Cal Kestis liker. My impression of Jedi: Fallen Order is that it’s an enormously POPULAR game, given that it fulfilled everyone’s wishes for a story-driven single-player AAA Star Wars game about lightsabers where you actually tangibly swing one around, something that is not actually uncommon at all but I guess five years feels like a long time for a franchise that gets a new thing every six months. But despite being a AAA game that everyone played I never got the sense that Fallen Order was an especially beloved game; people have big quibbles with its sort of chunky approximation of souls combat, its admirable commitment to No Fast Travel and Not Even That Many Shortcuts, making you walk back and forth across levels at length (which has a side effect of making traversal powers and equipment feel REALLY game changing every time but I digress), and also smaller quibbles that add to the pile like, why are you killing so many ANIMALS in that game?? It’s weird how many like, alligators you’re just fuckin chopping up they’re just chilling! The biggest stickler for many people is of course Cal Kestis himself. Cal Lightsaber. Gotham’s The Joker. Star Wars Archie Riverdale. People HATE Cal. They hate how he talks. They hate that they feel his backstory is overused in extra-filmic Star Wars media. They hate his cool ponchos. They hate the way his character develops. They hate his name for some reason. They loudly hate how he looks which is rude considering he is just a face capture of his actor.
Not me though. I love Cal. Is he generic? Sure. Is his story predictable? Yes. That’s fine though dude. I’m playing a Star Wars game is it supposed to revolutionize storytelling? Was I expecting the 200 million dollar EA published Respawn game to shock and surprise me? I’m not watching frickin’ A Brighter Summer Day over here bro. Cal Kestis is a lil frickin’ cutie. Love me some Cal Kestis, he’s my guy. And I think the first game set the stage to take him and his winning supporting cast in all kinds of directions, it really could have been anything.
I find myself a little bit surprised at the direction that Survivor takes itself. If Fallen Order is a game that is, rotely and blandly, about learning to live trauma, Survivor is a game that is about this same group of people but especially Cal asking themselves what it looks like to live, period, and that’s a much headier question that the game admirably doesn’t pretend there are easy answers to. If the first game ends on something of a note of “well our quest was a bit of a bust but we’ve learned valuable spiritual lessons and come out the stronger for it, Cal has faced his fear and he’s finally found something to fight for and people to fight with,” then Survivor reexamines what it means that the thing he found to fight for was that he deeply internalized the last thing his master saying to him, when he was fourteen years old and fleeing for his life, being “hold the line.”
So a few years after the first game this expresses itself as Cal working for Saw Guerrera, a Star Wars character famous for being a guy who the narratives of Star Wars always say “whoa look out that’s the guy who’s a rebel but he’s Too Extreme and Goes To Far” but actually any time he’s onscreen he’s just being cool and morally correct about literally everything he ever does. So Cal’s working for him for seemingly years now, apart from his old crew which has broken up, and he’s taken on the responsibility of the Jedi Order which to him, a guy who was beginning to come of age at the philosophical nadir of the Jedi as a political organization and during a war in which the Jedi were moved from being The Cops to being The Army, means he has a moral responsibility to use all of his unique and considerable power to fight the empire in a militarized way every single day with no breaks, because every second of his downtime is a second that other people who need help that only he can give aren’t getting it. It’s a very single-minded way to approach the problem of how he can help people against the Empire and he is in fact so fucking weird about this that the only other Jedi he knows, Cere, has stopped hanging out with him over it and they’re not on speaking terms.
The central idea of the game being how to best live under the Empire and how best to fight them is like, shockingly well-woven between every main character. As one might guess, the main plot of the game, about some loser from the disastrously awful High Republic media line is brought out of cryogenic stasis and reveals that there’s a super secret planet that is effectively impossible for the Empire to know about or travel to, and everybody is like oh sick we could go live in peace there! But this guy, Dagan Gera, is like no no you see actually I’m like an evil weirdo 200 year old Jedi and I’m the bad guy now okay see ya later. And so the game becomes a series of quests to find bits and bops of various doohickeys to help Cal beat Dagan to the Ultimate Doohickey that unlocks the Special Planet or whatever it doesn’t REALLY matter, the important thing is that it’s an excuse to have Cal parade around the galaxy and reunite with his shipmates from the first game so they can all hash out their shit and explain the themes of the game to him.
Greez, the original pilot of the ship you fly around in, has settled on a remote frontier world called Koboh, and opened a little bar in a small town menaced by the raiders that Dagan commands. Greez was never fit to fight the empire, he was always just a guy, and a pretty frazzled one, and it makes sense for him to get out of dodge. This is cool. This is okay! He’s had a room in the basement set up for Cal for five years but Cal is so petulantly angry at him and so wrapped up in his own sense of mission that he hasn’t visited once. Merrin, who joined the crew after living most of her life alone among the ghosts of her people’s dead, left the crew, and the Fight, to find her identity. She’s toured the galaxy, and importantly she has helped people out, and decided that the place most appropriate for her most of the time is with Cere, who has joined a group of Jedi cultists who specifically aim to collect and preserve Jedi knowledge and relics from across the galaxy in secret, while also harboring and shuttling people who need protection from the Empire – an elaboration upon the group’s mission from the first game. Cal sees this as quitting, as walking away, and he can’t understand that it’s a different and important part of a fight against an enemy that is all-powerful, monolithic, and who wins by eliminating culture more than by killing people.
It’s cool that this game takes place after such a long timeskip because it’s clear that all of the fights you see have been had many times and really after like the first one with Greez all of the emotions in these arguments are very cooled. Cal is genuinely trying to let go of the betrayal he feels, he’s just not ready to understand what people are telling him, and they aren’t even trying to fight, they only want him to see a broader vision of what life is allowed to be, even in a world where justice legitimately does need to happen via violence.
The game is mature enough to understand that Cal is wrong but it’s also mature enough to know that the answer isn’t “Cal should lay down his lightsaber and embrace a retirement from his fight.” It’s ultimately temperance that everyone comes to understand is necessary for him. Cere knows that her path isn’t Cal’s path and she doesn’t try to convince him, ever, to join her. Merrin knows that she can do more with a group or a partner than she’s done on her own, but also that her newfound wisdom is a valuable asset to her. And Cal is shown multiple examples of the kinds of things that single-minded obsession with noble goals can do to someone in his position via the game’s villains.
Dagan Gera is of course a Jedi, but he is obsessed with his utopian vision of a future for the order that he controls via his discovery of the special planet and his guidance of new Jedi there, and when things start to go wrong he thinks he can pull it out of the fire himself. He truly believes that only he can make things go the way they’re supposed to, and a combination of betrayal by his closest ally and then finding the state of the galaxy when he is resurrected 200 years later to find a tyrannical empire in charge, having decimated the Jedi Order, he thinks his feelings of superiority have been justified, and that now it’s only he who stop this Empire, and he immediately starts doing awful shit in the name of fighting them. And there is of course the true villain of the game, Bode, who is present for most of the time as Cal’s newest and most stalwart ally, just a guy with a daughter he needs to protect, a dead wife he wants to avenge, and a thirst for stormtrooper blood that will never be quenched, but who is also generally very friendly and a quiet emotional rock for Cal at all times. He is, of course, a spy, but an unwilling one, with his daughters safety guaranteed only so long as he operates for the Imperial Security Bureau. Bode’s villain reveal is extremely predictable but the nuances of it may be less so. He is, like Cal, a Jedi survivor, but one who has obviously strayed a little (but importantly ONLY a little) further from his old ideals than Cal has. Protecting his daughter is now the only thing Bode REALLY cares about and he uses that as a shield for the thousands of people he gives up to the empire, but he also, genuinely, didn’t want to do it – it’s suggested that he’s fully prepared to turn tail and run with his kid to the secret planet with our heroes until they start talking about using it as a rebel safe harbor, and he’s just too scared and too selfish to let that kind of risk in. This single-mindedness mirrors Cal’s; it’s the only thing he really talks about, and he behaves increasingly extremely in the service of it. He and Cal both tap fully into what Jedi would call the Dark Side of the force by the end of the game to serve their desperate needs to protect what little family they have left, but Cal listens to his when they has him to be true to himself as he uses this power, and Bode is too scared to do anything but lash out at his daughter. Ultimately both men are desperate to feel a sense of control over the things that are important to them in a world where, fundamentally, they can’t control anything, and a big part of the game is about learning to accept that this isn’t possible. Bode can’t, and he dies.
Cal does, though. His last words, and the last moments of the game before the credits, spoken to a departed friend, are that he knows what he has to do, but he’s scared. This feels on the surface like a walking back of previous game, which was very much about Cal overcoming fear that he had lived with for the years since the Empire’s rise to power and the events of the game. But the fear Cal feels at the end of Survivor is wisdom. It’s the fear of vulnerability, of really letting people in again, of being himself, of letting go of a philosophy that was poisonous in its day and that can’t serve him in the present. Cal thought at the beginning of the game that everyone wanted him to stop fighting, but what they actually wanted was for him to fight and be a person, and that’s so much harder. It’s a much more uncertain place to leave things than the previous game left us with, and indeed if you boot up the post-game there’s now a Star Destroyer hanging in the sky over Koboh – the Empire comes for everyone eventually. But it’s a confident ending, and it feels right. Cal doesn’t have answers, and he doesn’t even really have peace with himself, but he’s opened himself up in a healthier way than he was able to in the beginning, and in a situation like the one these characters find themselves, I don’t think that’s nothing.
It’s somewhat unfortunate that due to the nature of how AAA games are produced, the tv show Andor was conceived, produced, and aired entirely during the dev cycle for Survivor, because these two works do take place in generally the same setting within Star Wars and cover an overlapping set of themes. Through that lens Survivor does feel a little bit like We Have Andor At Home but I think it’s served well by its very zoomed-in focus on Cal’s approach to the question of How To Live And Perform Rebellion vs Andor’s wider-lens, and, in the words of a dear friend of mine, there are MUCH worse things to be in this world than Andor At Home. So I’m left impressed and surprised by Survivor. I do think the game is improved over its predecessor in every single way even if I’m not talking about the play of the game, but like as much as I’m The World’s Only Cal Kestis Fan, that was notable largely because Fallen Order’s writing is so aggressively forgettable, which itself is a staggering improvement over all other writing from Respawn as a studio. I hope that now there will be more of us. I hope that now I will be Only One Of Many Cal Kestis Fans. I imagine it helps that he’s way hotter in this one. I put the windswept hair on him with a short beard. It was the right thing to do.
I never liked dungeon type rpgs very much growing up. I was a really story-focused gamer even in my youth and I didn’t love super fiddly systems stuff so anything more complicated than like a Bioware system was a pretty hard pass from me, and a lot of those games didn’t even have the types of really overt narratives that I preferred anyway. My love for Stories In Games hasn’t gone away but a perusal through my backloggd account will tell anyone that I’ve broadened the scope of where I look for them. I’ve also really blown out my tastes for what kinds of games I’ll play, and my experience with Dungeon Encounters in 2022, which I would describe as nothing less than euphoric from start to finish, activated a thirst for this specific type of tile-based rpg in me. I played Phantasy Star (or, most of it) around that time too and found myself completely enchanted by the first-person dungeons in that game, even as bare as they were there.
So I’ve found myself, as I often do, back towards the beginning of things. I’m not going to talk directly about the mechanics, about the act of playing Wizardry on your keyboard or controller, because Cadensia has already done that here so much better than I would have and I think anybody interested in what it feels like to Play Wizardry who doesn’t somehow already know should read her piece on it, it’s really good.
I found myself thinking about The Story in Wizardry a lot while I was playing it. The narrative is, I think, the most interesting thing about the game by far. But I was also thinking a lot about how all I had ever heard about this game and indeed this whole genre that it spawned was that they eschew narrative in favor of taking inspiration from the more mechanically minded, number crunching side of the earliest editions of Dungeons and Dragons. And that’s true, right, there aren’t narrative scenes in Wizardry, people aren’t talking to you, there aren’t really NPCs the way we think about them today. And this remains true today today – I’m a solid few hours into Etrian Odyssey right now, a game that so famously Doesn’t Have A Story that its remake would add a game mode that gave your party bespoke character art and personalities and dialogue and insert a much stronger narrative structure into the game as it existed. One of the major selling points of the even more recent and very popular Labyrinth series by Nippon Ichi Software is that they have their developer’s signature long, elaborate, dialogue-heavy stories. All kinds of scenes where one guy stands on one side of the screen and another guy stands on the other side of the screen and they go back and forth in the text box in those games.
But in playing these games I’m finding this to be a really weird understanding of what’s happening here. Etrian Odyssey is a game drenched in story. DRIPPING with incidental dialogue from the MANY characters who live in the base town at the top of the labyrinth, which changes constantly as you continue to descend, and all of whom are extensively characterized across various missions and side quests in which you interact with them. You’re constantly encountering other people within the labyrinth itself, and often get a choice of how to express yourself to them. There are little encounters sprinkled throughout the dungeon, where often you’re making a choice as small as whether you want to take a short break or pluck a piece of fruit you’ve found or investigate a rustling in the brush; rarely do these moments have huge effects but every time they are lending your characters, your environment, and your situations deeper context and personality. The game is full of narration, gorgeous prose that so expertly communicates wonder and danger, which both loom constantly in equal measure. There are immediate hints of a greater mystery at play regarding the circumstances of the dungeon’s existence and hints that other people already know what’s going on and purposely withhold information from you, to mysterious ends. This isn’t “no story.” This is “the girl on the boxart doesn’t talk about her backstory if I choose to play as her.” This is players not doing their half of the work. Which is fine! We don’t have to want to be active participants in every part of what a game’s doing. But we shouldn’t accuse games of having failures when what we’re actually doing is disagreeing with a style.
Anyway so like, Wizardry. The thing about it is. It’s fucking sick. THE PROVING GROUNDS OF THE MAD OVERLORD holy shit dude. Something I didn’t know before I played this game is that the mad overlord isn’t the guy you decapitate at the end but in fact a fucking loser ass king who has shoved you into the dungeon forever until you get his necklace back for him from a tricky little guy or die trying. IT BEGINS right like yeah you gotta read the manual to get the Good Good flavor but oh baby the flavor is hits. Fuckin Trebor what an asshole. His magic amulet is stolen by the evil wizard Werdna and a gigantic evil dungeon appears beneath his castle and he’s like hmm yes I will pretend this evil dungeon is here on purpose. Now everybody has to go die in the dungeon. If you get out of the dungeon with my amulet you get to be my bodyguards for life also you can’t turn that job down.
This immediately paints everything about the game in A Light. Given the time this came out, and its audience, and the guys who made it, most of this is cast in a fun light, like oh the place you buy your equipment is run by a funny fantasy dwarf who would sell you your own arms if he thought he could get away with it hoo hoo hoo (the manual goes out of its way to clarify that it means your body arms and not your weapons in fact). The castle is always bustling with activity, and there are always new adventurers at the pub to refresh your party with or uh, make a new one if you fucking wipe in the dungeon. At the same time though, the act of play itself creates a dour scenario for us. It’s brutal down there, no doubt about it. A punishing grind, one that kills and demeans the poor losers who find themselves trapped here at every turn. Adventurers have free reign to come and go from the labyrinth as they please because, after all, they don’t seem to have the freedom to leave the castle town itself. Every step could bring you into conflict with some monster or shade or even other guys, and who knows what their deals are? Other adventurers, given up on their hope of conventional success? You run into a lot of wizards but their relationship to Werdna is unclear, especially on these upper floors.
This is how you live now, though, and it’s here that the mechanics of the game that I see almost universally complained about create richness for this emergent narrative of tedious despair that felt most appropriate for my parties. It’s so, so, so easy to die, in the dungeon. If your friends can lug you back out then great news, you live in dungeons and dragons and the priests over at the Temple of Cant can revive you but like, only maybe, and fuck dude it costs a LOT of money to try. They mention these prices have been going up. They used to be tithes. Makes you wonder if these economies, not just the exploitative services run by the church but the pub, the armorer, if this little bubble is a result of the Mad Overlord’s perpetually trapping of adventurers into his death maze or if it was only made worse by it. If they fuck it up and you’re lost in death forever you uh, don’t get your money back.
Money essentially loses all meaning so quickly, which is bad news because it’s like the single extrinsic motivator your characters have for exploring; there’s a huge cash payout when you find your triumph, and your dubious final reward is a supposedly lucrative position of honor and prestige. But you’ll find yourself drowning in gold with nothing to spend it on before long. The shit at the weapons shop can barely handle a couple floors worth of enemy scaling, and all else there really is to buy are resurrections and other permanent status cures. By now though you’re empowered enough that you’ll need them less and less often.
That means there’s less and less incentive to spend time in town, and more and more to spend time in the dungeon. Deeper, darker, more twisted up. More disoriented. Meeting more guys who start to look more like you. Ghosts. And monsters are friendly as often as not! They’ll leave you alone if you leave them alone. That’s up to you, though. Something that’s undeniable is that you’re getting old down here. Every time you stay at the inn in town the game suggests that this isn’t a night of rest but an extended period of time out of the dungeon. These aren’t brief trips in and out. You make camp every time before you go down, you’re in there for a Long Time and when you come out you need to recover. Your characters age, and if you let them they’ll age substantially over time. When you change their classes it takes them three or four years to learn their new trade. Sometimes stats get lower when they level up. They’re getting old. They can die of old age! You might have to make a bunch of new guys because your old guys were Literal old guys who fucking died from being in the dungeon too long, at the behest of a cruel king but without the magics that grant him and his adversary power and longevity.
When you do this, if you do this, making new parties for any reason, such as stepping on a trap that teleports you into a location that makes your body impossible to recover such as into the castle moat or the inside of a rock wall, there is created a sense of generational knowledge, that old guard adventurers pass homemade maps and wisdom on how traps work and how to fight certain enemies to the new suckers who find themselves trapped here. After all, you’re making those maps in your notebook, and you’re keeping tabs on which enemies have fucking permanent level drain skills. Your new guys don’t learn that from nowhere. And you’re making Guys, definitively, like you name them and shit, they’re people. At least, they’re what you bring to them.
I bring a lot to this game. We can’t forget either that this is still this game where the two big evil guys are named Trebor and Werdna, the names of the game’s two developers, Robert and Andrew, spelled backwards. This is funny, this is a funny thing to do. There’s nothing intrinsically dark about the game beyond perhaps the oppressive feeling of claustrophobia that its main setting naturally implies, and indeed you’re always running into funny little tablets that read more like bits of graffiti or troll posts than they do ominous inscriptions. I can’t stop thinking about how when you fight Werdna he’s joined by a Vampire Lord and some normal vampires like what was going on were you guys just hanging out were you playing halo 3 did I crash the party. But it’s easy for me to pull all these elements into what felt like the story that was coming together for me, too.
I do think it’s worth mentioning also that while I did actually finish the NES version of this game I spent a significant amount of time poking around with the DOS, Gameboy Color, and PS1 editions of Wizardy as well, and all of these have very different renditions of this world and its environments and creatures and sounds. The PS1 version is by far the most self-serious, the one that at first glance lends itself the most the story that Wizardry and I told together, but something about the near-monochrome of the NES, the encompassing blackness of the screen at almost all times, and the way that it’s so much easier to completely lose your sense of place in the dungeon that made me feel so much more afraid than I ever did in the comparatively earthy and well-lit early floors of the Playstation version.
My point, at the end of all this, is that all that stuff is there for the reading at all. It’s been there the whole time, waiting to be engaged with. Wizardy isn’t a deep game really at all. Especially given how influential it is on all modern video games but especially turn based RPGs, it’s THE template for over 40 years now, and beyond the act of physically mapping your own shit while adapting to some often comically mean-spirited traps, the part where you get into fights never ever amounts to more than grinding until your number is bigger and you know more spells. But that didn’t matter to me. I had a great time with Wizardry, entirely down to the atmosphere that was in no small part created by how brutally terse that mechanical crunch felt. I don’t know if when I play Wizardry II it will be this version or if I’ll fully jump ship to the Playstation and its automap features, but for the experience I got these last few months with this game I wouldn’t trade any of that friction for anything, and I wouldn’t put any cutscenes in a remake either.
DEAD SOULS DEAD SOULS DEAD SOULS DEAD SOULS
LIKE A DRAGON OF THE END
What a name, right? Fuck, dude.
Usually I think of myself as someone who is on the other side of being a Like A Dragon enjoyer than, like, The Fans. Obviously on the whole I like these games a lot and I have written extensively about them on this website. I do find though that I’m a lot more critical of the writing in the series than almost anyone I’ve seen doing any written or video content about them, so a lot of the time when I talk about Like A Dragon, a series that I on the whole quite enjoy, I often sound like a huge grouch who doesn’t want anyone to have any fun.
Not this time though. This time I find myself in a bizarro upside down world where I have to look around and be like what the fuck are you guys all talking about. This game rocks. I feel like I’ve played a different game than everyone else who’s ever talked about it. I am getting the vibe that this is one of those times where a game that’s relatively annoying to access nowadays has developed a memetic reputation that’s just been repeated over and over and over online enough that everyone just accepts its shittiness as obvious fact even though only like nine people in the world ever actually played it. And those people simply have bad taste dude.
The story of Dead Souls is the simplest and shortest of any Like A Dragon game I’ve played; someone has engineered a zombie virus and unleashed it upon Kamurocho in a strategic manner that is clearly targeting offices of yakuza families associated with the eternally losing Tojo Clan, and eventually the guy behind it kidnaps Haruka because of course this entire thing was set up to fuck with specifically Kazuma Kiryu as revenge for the events of Yakuza 2 at the hands of some no name Omi Alliance guy who has gone rogue to do zombie stuff. The game is structured in the same way as Yakuza 4, split into four chapters where you control a different guy who each have a different perspective and access to different parts of the events going on and who each have some particular gameplay or story quirk that makes them unique, capping off with a climatic finale chapter to wrap everything up. Despite this sort of repeat in structure, everything you expect to be here is here. You have substories, you have all the minigames, you have hostess stuff, they even have made a third version of boxcelios just for this. It is, in every way that you would expect, a fully featured Like A Dragon.
Which does make the ways that it’s extremely not that feel more impactful. This is everyone’s big sticking point right: the game is not a brawler, but we have twisted the LAD3 engine into something that enables us to use all our existing assets to make a third person shooter that everyone hates. But like, it’s good! I Like It. It’s fine. The big thing that seems to really stick in everyone’s craw is the controls, and it’s true that Deal Souls doesn’t remotely resemble what had even in 2011 become basically standardized third person shooter controls. There’s no cover system and your guys are not particularly maneuverable. You have to unlock a lot of basic moves with level up points, stuff like melee attacks to clear rooms from often impressively large groups of zombies, dodge rolls, snap-aiming when you look down your sights. The flip side of this, to me, is that the RPG mechanics are impressively meaningful. There aren’t THAT many things to actually upgrade and unlocking two more inventory slots or the ability to pick up heavier shit or lock onto a head for a second just by pressing L2, these are huge, meaningful upgrades, and I’m happy to have them.
And the basic controls themselves, they cover basically every situation you need! Normally you’re walking around with the typical LAD range of movement, your guy just points in the direction you point the left stick, and you control the camera with the right stick. This doesn’t offer a great degree of precision to aim with but you rarely NEED precision – as long as you’re pointing roughly in the direction of a zombie, you’ll hit them. The range you need varies based on your weapon type of course but it holds true generally speaking. You can, however, hold the L1 button to lock your guy in a forward facing position which allows you to strafe horizontally or in a circle if you need to clear a crowd or slowly track a guy, or you want to shoot with some degree of measured care or in closer quarters but you need some maneuverability. Finally holding L2 locks you in place and you enter a first person aiming down your sights or scope, and yeah, you move that cursor with the left stick and that sucks, but y’know, in my 27 hours with this game, I did get used to it in the first, like, thirty minutes. Between these three degrees of movement vs precision, I never felt ill-equipped for any situation the game threw at me, and the game does give you a lot to work around.
There are a couple of strains of regular cannon-fodder zombies (some of them are Sort Of Large, you see, and knock you over instead of grabbing you, and some of them throw molotov cocktails), but much like in a musou game, which Dead Souls does resemble in a lot of ways, you know shit’s mostly worth your time when you see a guy with a health bar. There are ten-ish Mutant zombie types, and while the majority of them are stolen UNASHAMEDLY from other games like Left 4 Dead and Resident Evil, this kind of outright stealing is wise, imo. It ain’t broke, y’know? These guys are introduced at a steady clip throughout basically the entirety of the game, and for the most part they are all basically fun to deal with and add just enough complication to any given fight to be a good surprise to see rather than an annoyance. Particularly in Kiryu’s chapter where they start popping up in novel combinations and groups of two or three among hordes of normal zombies who are affected by some of the mutants’ behaviors, juggling the specific requirements for handling each of them all at once is some of the best stuff in this game from a play perspective. They also drop a good portion of the upgrade materials for your weapons and PERSONALLY I prefer fighting these guys to doing gambling minigames which is the other source of high level materials (thankfully money flows enough that you can buy your way out of engaging with any of that shit by the time you really need those upgrades).
Where Dead Souls does have drop the ball PRETTY HARD is in the way the game structures itself. Because there’s an ongoing zombie apocalypse, the map is separated between regular Kamurocho as we’re familiar with it and the quarantine zone, which is where you’ll be making your runs any time you have to do story stuff or for basically all side content. This makes sense, of course; the problem is that the process of accessing parts of the town is hugely restrictive now. Substories still have you running back and forth all over the neighborhood, the same way they ever have, but now all of their steps are formally broken up into three or for chapters of substory. So now rather than a substory called Brother And Sister that has multiple steps, you have four substories called Brother and Sister 1, 2, 3, and 4. Additionally, at any given time there are at most only two designated points where your character can be smuggled into the quarantine zone, but usually it’s only one. Which means you start in the same part of town every time and have to walk to wherever you need to be. ON TOP OF THIS, many of Kamurocho’s normal streets are clogged with debris or crashed cars within the quarantine zone, meaning travel is much more restricted and linear than usual in these games. So every time you want to advance the story you are talking to the quest giver, then walking to the quarantine zone entrance (walking around regular Kamurocho is also more difficult because you have to walk around the walls of the QZ), loading into the QZ, walking from the spawn point to the location of the substory, usually just doing One Fight that takes Thirty Seconds, then almost always you have to walk your way out of the QZ as well and back to the quest giver on the outside, rather than just warping you out when you’re done. Because hey, you might have other shit you wanna do in here!
So that is miserable. There’s some degree to which you can consolidate substories, but because you have to dip out to start the next phase of most of these quests, you’re always going in waves even if you’re operating at your absolute most efficient. Enemy layouts and aggression do change as you advance the story, and so do the points from which you enter the QZ and sometimes shortcuts open up within it, but not enough, and because the QZ grows to consume more and more of Kamurocho as the game advances, this problem actually gets worse over time. If there’s one noose around the game’s neck, that’s it. THAT’S where the feeling of unceasing repetition comes from, should one choose to engage with it, even after you realize there’s really no reason to be shooting like 90% of the enemies outside of the story missions.
I really do think the combat itself works perfectly well, though. You have a lot of weapon types that offer distinct use cases and the game makes a good argument for unlocking a lot of weapon slots and keeping a small variety on you as the difficulty ramps up in the late game. Each character carries a pistol with infinite ammo and their Signature Weapon (a shotgun for Majima, a gatling gun for Goda WE WILL TALK ABOUT HIM YES) but you get full freedom with the rest of their loadout and even though I always leaned into the main weapon of whoever I was playing as, a balanced kit gets you out of tight spots as the encounter design becomes more complex. This is probably best exemplified in the Subterraneas, a pseudo-roguelike mode that each character unlocks in a series of cartoonish tunnels underneath the city. The layouts and enemy configurations are randomized as you explore these depths and they can throw some really wacky and evil shit at you, rooms full of exploding guys or stacked with really fucked combinations of boss monsters. It’s good shit and an excellent showcase for the versatility that the systems in this game actually offer if you care to engage with them.
Meeting the game in good faith is kind of the theme of this experience for me. I am taking a pretty holier-than-thou tone here but I went into it expecting something a little more tongue-in-cheek than we get. And it’s not NOT that. The tone is lightER than you might see in a mainline LAD game. Majima gets a whole chapter to himself that doesn’t betray the fact that he’s actually a serious an competent leader within his organization who does his best to keep every situation in check from a supporting position, but it does ALSO indulge in the memey joke shit that Majima’s character is often reduced to when he doesn’t have a significant role in a given game’s story.
Ryuji Goda is perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about here because while he’s the third character you play as I think his chapter is the first time the game really digs its teeth into the possibility of what this kind of non-canon setting can do. Akiyama and Majima kind of just give you what you might expect those guys to do in this situation but Goda really breaks down the psychology of a guy whose psychology I’m distinctly uninterested in. I do like this character in the second game but a large part of why I like him is because he is uncomplicated to the point that his inability to Play The Game makes it clear that his path to power is enabled as much if not moreso by his prestigious name than his actual ability. Goda is interesting in Yakuza 2 because of the way the world warps around him, and when his personhood becomes the focus of the story is my least favorite shit in that plot.
Here, though, we don’t get very much of what we might expect to dig into about Goda. It’s not explained at all how he lived through the events of Yakuza 2, and an explanation for how he came to live the life he lives now, that of an apprentice to a takoyaki stand owner, happens in a completely offhand, undetailed way, after his own chapter even, to help explain why he knows how to get a big cool gun for Kiryu. The Goda we’re presented with in Dead Souls is an explicit, conscious mirror to Kiryu in almost every way. He’s a legendary guy with a huge reputation in his family, even years after he left the game, and he IS out, very firmly. He has a humble life that he earnestly loves and no one he associates with understands. He’s a gruff guy who isn’t portrayed as perfectly wise or anything but HAS realized that the violence and greed that dominated his life were childish and destructive drivers, and he tries to gently steer others away from paths he’s been down even if he still enjoys indulging himself under the right circumstances. And, also like Kiryu, The Life won’t let him be happy, and won’t let him be alone. The villain of the game is one of his former subordinates, hell-bent on getting revenge on the Tojo Clan, whom Goda doesn’t care about, and on Kiryu, whom Goda admires, partially on behalf of Goda himself, and refuses to hear Goda when he says this revenge is meaningless. The Tojo clan assumes Goda is in on this plot, even if they are decimated too quickly to really act on their suspicions. No one will just let him live his life. Even the man who saved his life and equipped him with his prosthetic arm made sure that arm can turn into a giant cartoonish gatling gun, one which he had never once used before the zombie shit started up. He makes takoyaki.
And this stuff is good but there’s more to him. Goda is much like Tanimura in Yakuza 4 where his character has depths to plumb but the game also realizes it forgot to put the plot in the first two chapters so most of his story is taken up by that stuff instead of shit that details the life of this new character, so all his most interesting shit is in his substories. In one of them he’s in the QZ and notices his master’s takoyaki pan with food being cooked badly in it, unattended. When he investigates a group of teenagers attempt to rob him. He doesn’t treat them compassionately but he doesn’t take them seriously as threats either, mostly just trying to get info about where his boss might be, but when zombies show up everyone scatters. When he runs into the group’s leader later the boy explains to him that they’d been stuck in the QZ since the beginning of the outbreak and he’d hidden himself in the ruins of the takoyaki stand. The food that was cooking wasn’t a trap, it was a poor attempt at making the first meal any of them would eat since the outbreak, and they only jumped him out of desperation. Goda offers to make them food because, after all, that’s his job, and you get a genuinely touching scene out of this where these teenaged boys start crying at being offered comfort and compassion and the space to not put up walls in an impossible situation, and Goda clearly takes enormous pleasure in being able to offer nourishment and comfort to people who need it. He’s a genuinely changed guy and this moment sells it better than anything else in the game, where he does still have to be a posturing badass a lot of the time, even if he’s a nice one now.
In another substory he meets a woman who looks startlingly like his sister Kaoru, a major character from Yakuza 2, one who is looking for her missing brother. Over the course of a long series of events in which they bond over their similar family situations growing up, Goda mostly unthinkingly shows this woman, and eventually also her brother, an enormous, life-changing amount of generosity and kindness. When everything is resolved and they part ways, the woman tells Goda that he acted like a brother to her in the brief time they knew each other. Goda actually doesn’t take this to heart - he barely knows his sister; they met briefly and in a horrible situation. He doesn’t think of himself in familial terms, and he thinks it’s strange and ridiculous for this woman to acknowledge compassion that he doesn’t realize he’s shown in remarkable quality. All he can do is hope his own sister is well. There’s a complex character to this guy that is honestly unnecessary and unexpected, but entirely welcome! I didn’t go into the funny zombie LAD game thinking I would come out a Ryuji Goda fan but they really went the extra mile to honor the fact that like, hey, we’re doing all the fanservice shit in this one, we might as well go balls out if this is the last we see of this guy. It’s an incredible send off for a fan favorite. And I mean like, he does also have a funny gatling gun arm. That’s here too.
And that’s what I mean too when I say that this is a full-featured Like A Dragon, they didn’t half-ass anything about it. There’s all time good LAD shit in this game. Like, when Kiryu arrives at Kamurocho things are fully dire, the neighborhood is almost completely overrun, and he breaks into the quarantine zone and he’s super mad and he’s being swarmed by zombies...and the game suddenly, for the first time in 20 hours, is making you do regular ass Yakuza hand to hand combat. It even puts little button prompts on the screen to remind you how to do it. Because of course Kiryu didn’t bring a fuckin gun, he doesn’t own a gun, why would he even think to do that. And the game does make you just punch and kick like twenty zombies, in a sequence that made me really appreciate how impressive it is that they got all this going using the Yakuza 3 tech. Fighting more than like five guys at a time in classic yakuza fashion feels really cool. So eventually Kiryu is rescued by the game’s main original supporting character, played by and modeled after Chiaki Kuriyama who is WAY too famous to be Kiryu’s sexy JSDF sidekick for two hours in a Yakuza SPINOFF game but sure, and she explains zombies to him and that you gotta shoot them. But he STILL refuses a gun, he’s like NO these are the people of Kamurocho there must be another way. It’s sick. It’s not until he meets a guy and the guy turns into a zombie right in front of him and you get into a fight AGAIN and the game makes you deplete this zombie’s health bar like eight times before Kiryu’s new friend is like come on man this is inhuman and finally Kiryu does it. But afterwards he respectfully closes his eyes and is very solemn about it. Despite everything this is not a SUPER solemn game but it’s Kiryu at his most dour in the series, partially because Haruka is in direct danger and partially because Kamurocho means to much to him and it kills him to see it and its people so thoroughly destroyed.
And that’s the ACTUAL best part of Dead Souls. The atmosphere it strikes is uniquely harrowing. When the outbreak starts nobody on the outside knows what’s happening. The government doesn’t let any information through, they only erect these gigantic walls between buildings and post soldiers up at them to hem the plague in with absolutely no plan for real containment or treatment. If people on the outside are sick it’s implied they’re quietly executed. There are groups of people gathered around a lot of these walls in the early chapters of the game, demanding answers, wondering if their coworkers or loved ones are trapped, are safe, wondering if work and life are supposed to continue normally if their jobs or homes are on the inside and they’re out here. But just as much there are people being normal. Yakuza series npcs are spawning and walking around like always. The stores are all open. The anxious ambient chatter is matched by the usual shit you hear in these games, people talking about fads and food and life in the district. And after every major story event the quarantine zone grows. First it’s just Tenkaichi Street and the nearby alleyway but very quickly Theater Square is just gone. These massive walls move, or new ones are in place. And still people have to live their lives. It’s clear some people are able to smuggle themselves in and out. Information is spreading among the people of Kamurocho. And the stores are all open, and the people are walking around, talking about what bar they’re going to go to tonight. And tomorrow Millennium Tower is gone. And Shichifuku Street. At one point you enter a building outside of the QZ in the Champion District, watch a cutscene, and when you leave you’re in the QZ now. It expanded while you were inside. Your character is, of course, empowered to leave but the people who live there aren’t, and getting out in this instance takes you across the paths of the employees at Shellac and a lot of people who live in Little Asia who have no choice but to try to figure it out now that they’re trapped with the zombies. And as the normal spaces shrink and the QZ continues to grow the anxious chatter does begin to outweigh the normal stuff, and cops and soldiers do begin to post up in bigger numbers, and the vibe becomes more and more stressed. But life is still going until the very second the plague envelopes an area.
I think we’re a little past that time where we’re all writing shit about Stuff That’s Quaint Now That We’ve All Done Covid so forgive me but I read the Eurogamer review for this game and one of the reviewer’s huge sticking points about the game, which he liked more than most critics did, was that he found this disconnect between the apocalyptic quarantine zone and the completely functioning everyday life right outside the walls completely unbelievable, that even in a series with as much tonal flexibility as Like A Dragon, that was too much for his suspension of disbelief. And all I can think in 2023 is how this is one of the truest feeling depictions of pandemic life I’ve seen in fiction now. Life goes on, no matter how ill advised or illogical or stupid it seems. Are the people ignorant, is the government incompetent, is everyone willing this danger upon themselves when they could be preventing large portions of it? Yeah man I don’t know! This thing that feels like almost certainly a combination of tech limitations and excuses to have all the Yakuza Minigame stuff still be available all the time was really affecting to me twelve years later. It’s a shame this game is trapped on the PS3.
Four thousand words later I feel like I could probably tighten it up, maybe especially considering that Dead Souls isn’t really ABOUT anything? Like I didn’t even mention that the OTHER main villain, the evil scientist who actually invents the zombie plague is just like “hoo hoo hoo being alive sucks so I made a virus that makes you cum so much that you turn into a zombie and want to spread your ecstasy to everyone else” and kiryu is just like “no, living is hard but being a cum zombie is a coward’s way out and persevering is the cool thing to do” but this is not like really a theme this is just a thing two people say at the end of a game that is otherwise not really doing anything with these ideas. I didn’t mention the boss fights at all? There are a lot of them and they’re all massive mutant monster guys like you see in Resident Evil or House of the Dead and almost all of them are really cool! I didn’t mention that this game has the hot goth doctor lady from Persona 5 with a tragic backstory who has you do tests for her in exchange for rewards but like many years before P5 did that and they even have very similar designs.
But almost nobody is going to actually play this game right so I wanted to really soak in this stuff. There are so many unfairly maligned games out there that are completely easily accessible that nobody ever wants to touch. Dead Souls has SO much going for it that even when it took a long time to show me its best writing, or the gameplay was frustrating me, or I was frustrating myself by doing all the substories which I don’t really recommend they’re mostly just okay in this one, I never considered stopping. And it did eventually reward me with some of my favorite stuff in the series. If I had to rank all the Like I Dragons I’ve played right this second it wouldn’t be at the bottom, I’ll say that. I’ve absolutely spent twenty bucks on worse games.
At the end of the day, when you finish a mission you get a results screen of Kazuma Kiryu holding a giant anti-personnel rifle while you get ranked on an S to D or E scale (idk how low it goes I’m too good at video games) for your mission performance based on factors such as accuracy and how many heat moves you used and how many zombies you headshotted and TO ME, that is the essence of video games. It does not get more Video Games than that.
Everybody told me you haven’t seen SHIT yet ina, you’re playing Mysteries of the Sith? Saddle the fuck up girl cuz everything you thought was bad in Dark Forces II is way worse in that one. And you know something, they were all right. Everybody who said that to me was correct. Mysteries of the Sith basically is just a large scale double down on everything that sucks in the main game BUT on the other hand it is also a doubling down on the stuff that I think is COOL in that game. The stuff that I think is great in Dark Forces II, philosophically, is even stronger here.
Frankly, the fact that I played this expansion hot off the heels of it kept me in that Dark Forces II headspace insofar as like, yes, I recognize that the level design is more winding and oblique than ever before, and that it is entirely unreasonable to put doors where this game puts doors, and switches where it puts switches, and secrets where it puts secrets, and that some of these puzzle solutions are absolute nightmare shit, BUT. Y’know? But. However. I’m already there. I’m cruising right along from Dark Forces II ending with a bunch of this exact same horseshit, so I barely feel the escalation. I enter a truly meditative zone when I’m clicking on the walls and the floors and testing force powers and shit. I have been trained to think the way the developers think. The way they think is twisted. Evil. But I, too, am twisted and evil, and not just from being transgender this time. So I don’t feel the friction as much as I did in the main game.
It does feel a bit weird calling Dark Forces II the Main Game and Mysteries of the Sith the Expansion Pack because while it was shot out in less than a year and it IS an add-on to Dark Forces II, Mysteries is like, the same length and a NOTABLE technological leap over the Jedi Knight. So much SHIT can be on the screen now. So many EFFECTS. They have modeled spaceships flying around outside the windows, they have flashy real time zone transitions. It’s all the same engine and of course the lack of time and budget means we’re missing those completely rad FMV cutscenes in favor of much more gangly in-engine stuff, but there’s a lot of really impressive work done that’s clearly putting the Sith Engine as it exists in this game through its paces.
My favorite stuff this time, as last time, is when the game is asking you to consider yourself as if you were in a real place, some sort of ludonarrative...consonance? I guess? And that’s been escalated here. There’s a whole level where you’re just wandering around a city trying to track a guy down without attracting too much attention to yourself, no gunplay, and it mostly resembles something like a real city. There’s a bit where you’re captured and you spend some time locked in a jail cell and the game does ask you to just sit in that cell for a bit, and when you do get out your escape is legitimately harrowing compared to how powerful your characters feel throughout the entire rest of the game. Towards the end when you enter the requisite fucked up force zone things take a radical turn towards the lightsaber and force powers after a full game of not really needing those that much and not facing a single guy who could stand up to your melee attacks, and the puzzles abruptly switch from bad cold machine logic to bad weird intuition logic, as befits weird naturalistic jedi bullshit.
The thing that TRULY endears me to the game though is its star, Mara Jade, or rather, what her presence signals about the intentions of the developers in making this expansion. Mara Jade, if don’t know her because you are the kind of person for whom knowing about Mara Jade doesn’t help you with girls (aka you’re cisgender), was a big deal character in the pre-Disney Star Wars expanded universe, one of the PREMIERE OC Do Not Steals, alongside Kyle Katarn himself in the pantheon of embarrassing but also very unironically cool non-movie Star Wars guys. She was an imperial assassin who looked like Mary Jane from spider-man and I guess is named after her, and she had a cool lightsaber and knew palpatine personally and tried to kill luke skywalker but he convinces her to turn good and then they get married and she outlives chewbacca. One of the most important things about her though is her omnipresence. Her story was so fractured, so piecemeal, like sure most of everyone’s stories happened in novels but Mara Jade showed up in comics and video games and anywhere else they could shove her. Because she was fucking cool!!! And she is. But she is also a character who requires basically the deepest cut knowledge to have understanding of, if not interest in. Because Star Wars was a bunch of messy bullshit even in 1998. So the vibe I get here is that Lucasarts kind of knew, right? This One’s For The Sickos. Only some percentage of people who already bought the game are going to play this one so we’re going balls out, we’re gonna stick like a kind of important piece of Mara Jade’s character development at the time, where she asserts her will to become a real agent of compassion and nobility for the first time after shedding her assassin life, into the expansion to the sequel to a game about a heretofore completely unrelated guy. This One’s For The Sickos. That’s me though so it’s fine.
They do a great job, too. There is such a specific style of novel cover that Mysteries of the Sith completely captures. If you know the ones I’m talking about then you INSTANTLY know what I mean. The like snarky dialogue that’s not really funny at all. The precarious situations with really anticlimactic outs. The incredible, unearned melodrama that deflates emotional arcs. The way everything is swimming in shades of green and brown. The very specific orange, heavily outlined hue of Mara Jade’s lightsaber. This is that Michael Stackpole shit. That Timothy Zahn shit. This strain of atmosphere has been part of Dark Forces’ spirit from the beginning, but never has it been so perfectly or totally captured like it is here. It’s really something, but only if you have a lot of affection for this particular flavor of mid-to-bad 90s sci-fi.
There is, I suppose, also the fact that the story itself does blow huge ass. Completely barebones, entirely boring. Nothing happens, and the three or four plot beats we get are stretched dangerously thin. Starting the game as Kyle for a few levels before he goes to find some force thing on some planet that he acts like was mentioned in the game but I’m pretty sure wasn’t. Mara Jade dicks around A LOT doing odd jobs for the New Republic like making deals with crime bosses for supplies, getting betrayed by crime bosses, escaping and extorting crime bosses, I don’t fucking care man. You’re chasing one guy for like three levels. Then oh man Kyle’s been gone for a while better go check on him oh shit he’s evil oh wait no it’s cool Mara Jade asked him to stop and he did. Great.
It’s weird because this is like, a pivotal moment for both of these characters and it seems like they just kind of threw it together narratively. There’s very little weight to any of these events, very little fanfare to any victory or defeat, very little drama considering the stakes Mara Jade is weighing are two souls that ostensibly she is struggling very hard to retain both of against insurmountable odds. SO much care was put into the levels themselves that it stands out when the stories told within them are so lacking in that same vibrancy and feeling of passion.
I don’t mind it too much, though. The game is obviously doing a lot for me aesthetically, and as I’ve mentioned, my brain was completely broken for most of it so I glided through the expansion without a lot of trouble from the play itself. A pleasant way to spend a few evenings with famous cool girl Mara Jade and her faildad Kyle. I have to be honest I am looking forward to the next game being developed by people who have made shooters before though.
Next Time - Star Wars: Jedi Knight - Jedi Outcast
Dark Forces was an unexpected pleasure in a lot of ways but I think the real surprise there is that it was genuinely innovative in its space when it came out, not just in its tech but in its approach to level design and narrative conveyance in the shooter space. This was especially impressive as Lucasarts’s first foray into a crowded genre. I theorized before that even though Dark Forces was in development before Doom came out, it was probably influenced heavily by Doom’s success, and it didn’t see its own release until after even Doom II hit store shelves – that’s a long time for a game like this to be cooking in the early 90s, even considering this license and its unique baggage. Playing Dark Forces II, then, made me feel like that hunch was uhhh extremely correct, because rather than feel like a real sequel to its predecessor, Jedi Knight is ALSO a game that has the vibe of a trend chaser.
This isn’t like, a dig or anything, of course; video games were changing very quickly in this era, and so were the tastes of their consumers. I imagine that in a post-quake world it would be a lot harder to sell another relatively straight Doom clone, even one that iterated on something as transformative as Dark Forces. The 3D-ness of the game omnipresent here, but I’m not also comparing it to stuff like Turok or Goldeneye, which it also arrives hot on the heels of, because it also has another strongly defining mark: PC Exclusivity. There’s shit happening here that would be just outright impossible on consoles in a way that even a compromised port couldn’t solve, like when Dark Forces 1 hid a lot of keyboard commands in a pause menu and scrapped most of the lighting effects on the PS1. Part of that is that there is a set of active powers that are if not necessary to completing most of the game, then at least necessitate real time action to implement properly. But everything being fully modeled, including your guy, for important reasons, puts a lot of demand on the game too.
That’s to say nothing of how much straight up video content is crammed into this thing; these cutscenes are already compressed to hell, they could not pull a Resident Evil 2 to put this on an N64 cart, I don’t believe it, Jason Court’s beautiful face would not survive. The mere presence of those live action cutscenes is itself a mark of the game’s inextricable Pcality. Jedi Knight arrived in this beautiful, crystallized moment in time between gamers foolishly deciding that pixel art was for losers but also 3D graphics couldn’t like, make a face look normal yet where a lot of PC and PC-adjacent console games were doing live action FMV instead of producing CGI cutscenes like they were doing on the PS1. Even as early as this game’s own expansion pack the following year we’ll stop doing this shit (that one might be a budget thing but 1998 is also the year of Metal Gear Solid and Half Life delivering at-the-time acclaimed stories entirely in-engine with puppetted models and it went fine!). So for only one beautiful game and what cane only possibly be a total of like 40 minutes of footage we get all these idiots rendered in beautiful live action, the closest thing to a Real Star Wars Movie this sleeping fanbase had tasted in fifteen years and buddy it fucking rocks.
Returning characters are definitely THEMSELVES but the VIBE is so so so different when I’m supposed to still take Kyle Katarn as the New Republic’s edgy buddy who does the dirty jobs but he is no longer the world’s most square craggy set of pixels but instead now 34 year old Jason Court with his feathery hair and loose shirt with a PERFECTLY TRIMMED neckline on his beard, saying all the same kinds of things he said in the previous game but looking vaguely confused most of the time and all gravitas totally consumed by an all-encompassing frat bro vibe that is iconic to the character now but obviously not intentionally and isn’t present in any other depiction of him. Every single character is like this, not at all embarrassing because of the complete and utter commitment that every actor brings to being a little bit silly. The very clear standout is main villain Jerec, played by British character actor Christopher Neame with an intense enthusiasm and dedication to just being a weird little freak, never saying words the way you would expect him to, getting WAY up in people’s faces, doing a lot of weird fucking sighing and moaning and just all around relishing being The Big Bad Final Boss guy in a way that truly you don’t get to see very often. But everybody in this game is like this, from his number two, the mysterious (and mysteriously accented) Evil Woman Sariss, whose choking gasp of “……….WHY” after she accidentally cuts one of her compatriots in half is burned into my brain; to Boc Aseca THE CRUDE (their appellation, not mine) whose thing is that he’s just a freak and whose actor is extremely dedicated to doing a Crazy Guy Laugh; to my personal favorite loser in the game – YUN, THE DARK YOUTH (again, I did not name him this), who is possibly the most homosexual character ever committed to Star Wars as a franchise, from Rafer Weigel’s smirking, foppish performance to the way Yun fights Kyle exactly one time and is immediately so committed to him that he would die only to give Kyle a chance to get murdered later rather than now, and Kyle spends the rest of the game fighting with Yun’s lightsaber! That’s gay, dude!!
All of these losers are introduced by a narration from uhhh, some guy? Some jedi guy who gets murdered by Jerec in the intro to the game and who is also guiding Kyle along his journey in spirit. The plot of this game is that Jerec extracts the location of the mysterious Valley of the Jedi from Kyle Katarn’s dad, and then kills him. This drags Kyle into a race with Jerec’s order of Dark Jedi to find the Valley, a burial ground for many ancient jedi whose residual spiritual energy Jerec vaguely plans to absorb so he can vaguely achieve godhood. Along the way Kyle is guided to resume the jedi training we didn’t know he had quit earlier in life and hone the force talents that Darth Vader comically hinted him to have at the end of the first game. There’s ultimately not much here, with basically the same structure of big cutscenes every three levels or so and occasional quips from Kyle during play, but everything is so endearing now that it’s performed with the verve of low budget CGI sets designed around real actors doing c-tier expanded universe novel plots that are kind of just playing the hits of what the residual Star Wars audience of 1997 would want to see, but it’s legitimately better than like, MOST live action star wars content including a lot of stuff in movies that have budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars; more exciting, more entertaining, more fun to engage with, even as it’s also very simple and goofy. When Star Wars was nothing in the culture it could be anything too, and when it was this sometimes, that’s good for me.
It sucks how much I dislike everything else then. Level design is I think tangibly worse across the board, with the new engine affording an expansion in scope from what was previously possible and an iteration on some of the trends of the previous game but blown out beyond the range of what I can personally handle. I’m constantly lost in Jedi Knight’s bigger levels, partially because they are often bland to look at but also because they quickly become confusingly maze-like, less in a way that emulates Id design philosophies and more in a way that emulates motion sickness in me. This is exacerbated by the puzzle design, which was I think on the whole pretty well done in the first game, but is now leaning towards absurdity and obtuseness. There’s a ton of shit in this game that’s just there to Get You, and maybe that’s a timed level with hidden routes that make it much more doable or alternatively fuck you if you mess them up, maybe it’s hidden switches, or chutes that lead to a previous part of the level with nothing to do but wander your way back to the place you jumped down from. A lot more fiddling with switches without knowing exactly what they’re doing and making leaps of faith both metaphorical and literal in Jedi Knight.
Most offensive to me is the implementation of force powers. The powers themselves range from extremely situational to feeling borderline necessary to invest in. Some things come up rarely but in key moments like skills that specifically counter the skills that only the seven Dark Jedi bosses will use on you, but others like force speed and force jump fundamentally change the way you’re interacting with the world all the time and in a game where even with a lightsaber you’re gonna spend most of you’re time shooting guys in a late-90s engine, Strafing Faster is basically the best power up you can offer, while a fully upgraded force jump breaks the level geometry in ways that ARE intended but FEEL like you’re getting away with something, always a tricky balance for a developer to strike. This is all good. My big problem is that your upgrade points are directly tied to how many of the Level Secrets you find in each level and this sucks huge shit dude. Those things are deviously hidden a lot of the time and buddy I’m not gonna look up a walkthrough for Star Wars Dark Forces II Jedi Knight come onnnnn. This is the other half the puzzle design feeling more hostile, everything in the design feels just a little more hostile in that way that late 90s Lucasarts was just starting to get a little like, okay guys settle the fuck down. We all love the story and aesthetic in Grim Fandango but nobody’s acting like every single puzzle in that game doesn’t suck huge shit and the same thing is happening here.
The lightsaber itself is the biggest tangible addition to the Act Of Play and it slots itself into your repetoire beautifully; hugely empowering, completely transformative, and uniquely applicable to the way you interact with the world, it works on everything and everyone basically exactly the way you would hope that it would. They’re really smart about how they work around it, too, though. Creating a lot of situations with tight corners and narrow halls and enemy layouts where darting around in third person with a killer sword makes the most strategic sense and feels correct, often being subtly nudged into pulling the bad boy out, but just as often being so outnumbered or outgunned that the lightsaber becomes a liability and a more flexible set of weapons is more situationally practical. The lightsaber never feels like a crutch and it never feels useless, they tune the enemy distribution almost perfectly around it.
My last conflicted thought in the sack of conflicted feelings that is Dark Forces II is the game’s approach to its ludonarrative. I had a lot of praise for Dark Forces’ dedication to created a sense of place with the constraints of its level designs and game engine in addition to its cinematic elements. I’m less thrilled with Jedi Knight. There are levels here that are similarly impressive on that front, including the opening cityscape where you begin in the backrooms of a bar and make your way out of the seedy underdistrict of a busy metropolis that feels lived in, or a later level where you’re evacuating a ship that’s in the process of destructing. But then very shortly after this Kyle must visit his childhood home to, among other things, retrieve his father’s lightsaber, and we discover that Kyle was raised inside of a fuckin reality-defying labyrinth that would explode euclid's brain were he unfortunate enough to lay eyes upon it, one that barely resembles something people could live in at all, and that it's populated by dozens and dozens of tusken raiders, an offshoot of humans native to another planet entirely and not known to have ever left it, and you as Kyle will murder all of them. Really inconsistent with that shit!
That moment sticks with me as especially odd because this game does do something that I think is very cool and good, which is Have Two Endings tied to a morality meter. Unlike most video games at the time and still today though, Jedi Knight doesn’t tie your morality to big binary choices that you make for Kyle; rather it observes your behaviors – are you shooting the unarmed civilians that populate the game’s city levels? Which force powers are you using? You can see which way your meter is leaning but it’s entirely determined by this stuff rather than any big story moments where you’re an active participant. Then, when the big story moment comes along where normally you would make that choice, it’s taken out of your hands and Kyle behaves according to how you’ve been acting the whole time. You’ve already made the choice in your persistent behavior. That’s sick! So it is especially funny to have the friction of this stuff bumping up against the scene were a hologram of Kyle’s dad solemnly bids that his son use that lightsaber he’s just been given for the sake of good, as Kyle stands among the corpses of a ton of guys who didn’t really do anything wrong except move into a gigantic abandoned compound and then defend it from an attacker, having just committed basically the same action that only five years later will be implicitly depicted as the thing that cemented Darth Vader as on the path to nigh-irredeemable villainy in the short term of his life lol.
That kind of encapsulates my thoughts about Jedi Knight. There’s not nothing worthwhile here; there’s a LOT worthwhile here, actually. The game is really consistently doing cool and interesting things, it’s just that every one of those things is constantly matched or overshadowed by something that sucks or unfortunately the part where you have to play the game?? Which contains pockets of joy but the primary impression I’m left with is tedium. There’s fun to be had here but given the hoops I had to jump through to even get this bad boy to work on my computer I don’t know if there’s all THAT much more fun that you’d get from just watching all the fucking incredible cutscenes on youtube.
Someday - Star Wars: Jedi Knight II - Jedi Outcast i think that's what it's called god the fucking numbering on this series goddamn
I’m a real fairweather Star Wars fan in the sense that I was deeply obsessed with it as a kid who was the prime age for prequel era stuff to be hitting real hard but how I interact with media and my relationship to concepts like fandom have radically changed over the years so that I’m not really the kind of person that big Disney franchise stuff appeals to. That said, I’m not like, anti-Star Wars; I had a great time with Andor and I’m the world’s only Cal Kestis liker (he’s nice! His ponchos are cool shut the fuck up!!). Something that’s really Activated the latent Star Wars fan in me like the world’s most annoying Manchurian Cnadidate, though, is that last year I started a podcast with a friend, a monthly book club where we read through all of the books by Matthew Stover, who has a lot of very good original work but is best known for the handful of Star Wars books he wrote, most famously the well-liked novelization of Revenge of the Sith.
So in the last three months I’ve read and talked about three really good books with my cohost who is a much bigger Star Wars person than me and they’re all occupying the old no-longer-canon extended universe stuff and man that shit really just scratches your brain. In particular was New Jedi Order: Traitor, the thirteenth book in its series set long after the original movies, occupying a similar narrative space that the current films and tv shows do but instead of interminable Disney franchise pipeline stuff they are trashy 90s sci fi schlock novels. Which is still generally very stupid, and very bad, but the WAY that they’re stupid is so much more unique, so much more propulsive and compelling as dumb art than anything anyone has made in the last decade for a franchise this big. It puts you in a mood.
This guy is that vibe personified. Kind of edgy but not really fake ass han solo luke skywalker in one dude ass guy in a doom game fighting What If Stormtroopers Had Black Armor And Were Big?? Fuck yeah dude this is the gamer’s star wars guy. His name’s fucking Kyle. But he does have a lot of character to him, even if it’s articulated mostly through voice lines during missions and the rare cutscene where he appears prominently. A lot of the story of this game happens around Kyle rather than to him or because of him.
But the fact that Kyle is such a distinct entity here is really noteworthy in and of itself. Dark Forces is a deceptively innovative game for something that looks like any other Doom II or Duke Nukem 3D like. A big part of that is how story driven it is. There aren’t actually that many cutscenes, maybe one every three levels or so, but they contextualize the missions well, and each individual mission has an extensive briefing beforehand that outlines everything in a lot more detail, written in character from your handler’s perspective (except for one mission where she’s captured by the empire and your goal is to rescue her – your briefing is absent because she’s gone it’s a great detail!). Missions have unique objectives and usually multiple per level that are all thematically appropriate to whatever you’re doing whether that’s stealing shit or looking for a guy to take hostage or planting bombs or finding evidence of a secret project or killing someone. This gives the game a different feel from levels that are purely Get To The End affairs, and the end NOT being get to the goal a lot of the time changes the way levels lay themselves out. Lucasarts was first and foremost an adventure game studio at this time and you definiteely feel that in the approach to puzzle design; you get a little bit of red key on the red door but there’s a lot of more esoteric navigational shit here too. Feels way more to me like Doom 64 than Doom II.
This game was actually in development BEFORE the original doom and coming out a year ahead of Duke Nukem, Dark Forces brings a lot to the mid-90s FPS table. It seems likely that Doom coming out would play heavy influence on this bad boy mid-development, but there’s a heavy emphasis on verticality in the level design here that’s explored really thoroughly through the 14 missions. Elevator puzzles, caverns, shafts, loops and cliffs, lots of different ways to explore this whole other axis of space. Platforming is a core part of this experience too and it works well. You can even like, point your gun up and down it’s wild.
The last way Dark Forces I think REALLY separates itself in this category of games (which I’m NOT an expert in and I know some of you reading are – please forgive me for not being a huge 90s shooter know stuff-er) is how aesthetically distinct it is. Levels very rarely reuse assets, and along with their distinct themes and objectives they all have distinct locations and visuals. More importantly than that though, they all try very hard to approximate real environments and the work pays off. These levels are abstract industrial spaces, they’re factories and mines and sewers and ships. Nothing like mind-blowingly innovative but it’s impressive how much these levels work as both 90s PC shooter levels and visibly true Places in a way that’s just not the case for most games like this.
It IS all in service of fighting guys called Darktroopers who are big stupid robots but that’s fine, really, that stupid shmooziness is a charm point, really. That’s the part that I WANTED from this game. The fact that on TOP of that it’s an extremely ambitious and completely successful shooter was a wholly unexpected surprise.
In 2021 and 2022 I made a project out of finishing every game I play, writing about every game I finish, and specifically reaching backwards for the games I was seeking out, trying to fill in some gaps in my knowledge and experience at the same time as I wanted to better my critical ability. I think I was more or less successful and this year I’m letting myself off the hook. I am still gonna play a lot of old stuff because I’ve found that I like all kinds of games, but I’m not gonna write about everything and most relevant to Secret of Mana I’m not going to force myself to get through everything just for the sake of completionism. I do like all my little series retrospectives and I find them educational and often fun projects, but goddamn. I don’t like Secret of Mana! Why would I do this to myself.
This is a big shock to me because I was absolutely enchanted by the first Mana game, a relatively simple but hugely dynamic work with a great central gimmick and just enough melodrama to match the restrictions of its platform. So for Secret of Mana to repel me so thoroughly that I gave it up after what a walkthrough would later tell me was only about a third of the game, a lot of stuff would have to really go wrong here.
These frictions are certainly not to be found in the presentation here – Hiroki Kikuta’s score suits the need for every moment and does it really well. It excels in the pensive bits but I didn’t hear a bad track in my time with the game. We’re really rockin’ it visually too, Square is famous for pretty much always bringing the heat on the SNES, and this game’s shared origin with Chrono Trigger isn’t just evident in its character designs but particularly its sprite work. The way people are built, the way their limbs flop, their emote animations, all hit the same notes that the sprites in that game do, and as cool as I am on Chrono Trigger as an experience you will never hear me say a single thing bad about how it LOOKS. Same thing here. Beautiful game to behold.
WHY is it LIKE THAT in my HANDS then?
Why does everything feel so sticky? Combat that once felt fluid and natural becoming awkward and stiff. The emphasis on dexterity in movement that was so valuable to the first game isn’t gone here but it’s so deemphasized by a doubled down emphasis on magic that is poisonous to the experience. It’s impossible to fully communicate how completely disastrous it feels to me to emphasize a system that fully pauses all of the action for five to ten seconds constantly to trigger effects that often also just remove characters from the fight for further periods of time. What are we doing. Why are the menus like that. I understand that they’re cute but they’re also a chore to navigate and more importantly the game is structured so that you have to juggle weapons and spells between three characters nigh constantly, so you’re constantly pausing to go through these awful menus on top of all the other ways the game slows itself to a crawl. Which is extra grating because THE Final Fantasy Adventure is a game I generally regard as like, extremely thoughtful about the way it implements items and menus. Perhaps the biggest indignity is that the attack bar fills SO slowly bro what’s up with that the gameboy game made that thing fill up faster as you progressed but that hasn’t evidently happened across several hours with this bad boy.
Not helping matters is that Secret of Mana, at least the way it was localized, does appear to be a game for like literal seven year olds in terms of the scope of its story and characters and the way it tries to deliver these things, which was just not true of its predecessor, which was on a hardware that limited both text and imagery and also made ample use of archetypal fairy tale aesthetics in its early goings but like very clearly was not so babying the way this game comes off as. And it’s COMPLETELY possible that Secret is waiting to spring some of the melancholy and starkness about how sometimes we have to live with the irreparable harm our fathers have done to us and to the world and that even despite this the world is worth investing in even as it must be mourned. But I think a lot of that sauce came from one really important guy on the FFA team and that guy was Yoshinori Kitase and when the SOUP that eventually spawned the projects that became Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy IV put Kitase in charge of one of those it was NOT THIS ONE and I think that’s like, immediately evident. My gut tells me that Secret doesn’t have a Marcie up its sleeve.
So that’s it. Secret of Mana broke my spell. I still like to do my lil projects but I’m not making myself do shit I don’t wanna do anymore and I’m not forcing myself to write about everything, life’s too short, you couldn’t pay me to write about every trails game are kidding me I would die. I sound mad but I’m not mad at Secret of Mana, I am only a hater. I don’t wanna take it away from anybody. But I DO wanna whine about how much I didn’t like the famous classic to my friends in private. Which I will continue to do. That’s kind of my last thought here I hope Legend of Mana is good lol
This isn’t going to shock anyone who knows me, but I’ve got a lot of affection for gamebooks as a gaming medium. I spent a lot of time as a kid going through the most basic Choose Your Own Adventure brand CYOA stuff, but elementary school libraries and book fairs made sure that I quickly gained access to shit that was aimed at kids older than me, with more complex choice branches, more grisly depictions of your self-insert characters’ many terrible fates, and, when I was lucky, full fledged RPG mechanics. I’ve always been fascinated with the space that gamebooks occupy in the RPG world, somewhere between the social and varyingly freeform experience of a tabletop game with friends and the more narrative driven and inherently linear RPG video games that would begin to emerge somewhat contemporaneously to gamebooks as a medium in the mid-1980s. Gamebooks invite an imaginative element, an insertion of oneself into the role of the protagonist and a degree of choice in determining a narrative’s outcome, sort of, that’s not common in video games and more focused than a group-based campaign of Dungeons & Dragons might be. I think you could make the case that a lot of modern solo tabletop games take a lot of design cues from classic gamebooks, and you see a lot more freedom from these a lot of the time to create narrative more openly than you could between the confines of a page. Similarly, people often like to call old Final Fantasies and similarly structured RPGs “open world” games but they’re not, they’re fully linear; just because you have a large map you can wander around and occasionally some side objectives you can distract yourself with doesn’t mean that you’re not making specific progress through the game in a particular order. A gamebook is like this too – no matter what freedom of choice you have to accomplish your goal, you’re ultimately being shunted along and between a few relatively narrow paths to an ending. The real amount of choice can vary from book to book. It’s a malleable form.
I never played the book version of Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!, but I do have some experience with its parent franchise, Fighting Fantasy, which is probably the biggest name in that space still today and definitely was when I was twelve. I’m sort of glad that I didn’t, though, because having perused the first book upon finishing Inkle’s adaptation of it earlier this week it kind of obviously blows most of the stuff I was reading out of the water? Its big claim to fame is introducing a second entire character build, a wizard who can cast magic instead of the kind of generic sword guy you automatically play as in most of these. There are literally dozens of spells that you can cast in any number of situations that could have many outcomes and while there are restrictions on how to cast them and the game only offers six options at a time, that so radically opens up the play space that the idea of playing the book as a normal guy who can’t do the thing the book is named for is like, genuinely impossible for me to fathom.
Inkle takes the choice out of your hands though, one of many very smart decisions they make in what surprised me by being actually an extremely faithful adaptation of the book to the video game format. Ya girl got a new phone so I’m fuckin GAMING now and I’ve had my eye on these for a while. I did NOT know they all got ported to the switch like a year ago sue me. But there’s something nice about having them on my phone, it’s definitely well-designed around that screenshape and a touch interface.
So some fuckin asshole magician stole The Crown Of Kings, which is an important magical artifact that a few countries pass around every once in a while and it’s a big deal. You’ve been chosen to go steal it back and it has to be kind of a stealth mission because the crown is so powerful that if they just sent armies then the now all powerful Archmage could supposedly just like bzzzzap everybody or whatever. In this first of four game adapting the first of the four Sorcery! books, your goal is to travel across a stretch of land known as the Shamuntanti hills, which is a generally blighted, mountainous region with lots of little caves and sad, inhospitable settlements between your starting point and the also shitty-sounding big city of Kharé.
The format of a gamebook translates perfectly to the mobile template, with bite-sized paragraphs leading into one another, occasionally embellished or with options to expand on detail if you want them, but by and large you’ve got all the information you need at most two clicks away at any time, and it’s very easy to put down between events and pick back up any time. The adventure is episodic to begin with as you encounter people on the road, get attacked by monsters or perhaps an assassin as you sleep in the woods, chat with the mysterious lady in her cabin (is she a witch or just kind of weird?). Things are punctuated at the most important moments with the original artwork by John Blanche, beautiful and occasionally grotesque, taken directly from the original gamebook. The general background aesthetic and UI has clearly been designed with an eye towards matching matching his art style in a modernized context and I appreciate that, it all looks good together, it doesn’t feel like they pasted a bunch of drawings from 1983 into an ugly phone game from 2013.
The big changeups are to combat and magic. Combat is done largely via narration, where you read the description of the clash you’ve had and decide based on your enemy’s poise whether they’re going to swing heavy, light, or guard. You choose how much energy to expend out of a possible 10, and if your number is higher, the enemy takes damage and vice versa. If one of you blocks and the other attacks, the blocker takes 1 damage no matter what. It’s a very smart way to handle combat, it’s snappy, it feels as narrative as the choices because of how tied it is to reading and enemy characterization, and it’s possible to really fuck yourself up if you commit to it and can’t learn your enemy’s patterns.
Magic may or may not be more freeform than the gamebook; I’m unsure if you’re offered more opportunities to cast, or if you ACTUALLY have more options once you do, but rather than just picking from a table of six spells you have to spell out words from a jumble of letters you’re presented with, which is both more simple and more complex than it sounds. Because your spellbook is within a different menu, 50 pages long, and digitized (and so must be thumbed through slowly and one page at a time on a touch screen), it’s much more difficult and tedious to refer to it than the spellbook that acts as a glossary in the gamebook, which encourages players to generally have an idea in mind of what they want to do when they go into a cast.
And this shit is all, like, it’s all good, but the game is, as far as I can tell, a 95% faithful transliteration of Steve Jackson’s original work, and so it’s very good that Steve Jackson’s original work is as good as it is at doing what it’s doing. This IS a pretty standard 1980s Western Fantasy Adventure and what you spend most of your time doing is walking up and down hills and maybe into a cave and into the odd village or not it’s your choice. But there’s an element of keeping track of your food intake, making sure you’re sleeping properly, staying not TOO hurt. Because it’s very easy to get caught with your proverbial pants down.
Sorcery! is, at its core, a game about judgment and trust. Not in a DEEP way, not that I’m trying to indicate that it wants to inspire pondering in you, only to say that this game is very very good at making you question whether the guy you just met is going to knife you in the ribs if you help him out of that tree, or if these guys in this tavern are gonna steal your sword if you disarm like their cultural custom says to, or if these elves are gonna be cool with a human walking by their land no matter how you plead their case, or if this witch you’ve talked your way into the good graces of will remain gracious if you make even one incorrect comment, or or or. Subversively, however, I found trust to almost always be worthwhile. After that initial and disastrous encounter with the elves (whose grievance with men at large is extremely well-founded), which did effectively put The Fear in me, it almost always paid to at least be kind or generous in spirit on the surface of most of my interactions. Trusting my defensive and antisocial fairy companion to do the right thing in a dire situation when it was clear from his comments that no one had done this before and he wasn’t used to being treated honestly, helping people out of binds despite warnings against their characters or returning stolen items that you’ve come into possession of when I met their owners didn’t always reward me and in fact once lost me what I think could have been a valuable resource in a future game, but the always led to a more enriching experience. And of course, it didn’t stop me from fleecing and stealing from people who could afford it. You can roleplay a decent range of behaviors and motivations for your character.
The prose, of course, is the real star, but combined with the decision-making it can really sing. The very last obstacle in the game for me was a trial where I found myself agreeing to help rescue the kidnapped daughter of an orc village’s mayor. I was lowered by basket into a pitch black tunnel system, made my way through the creeping maze, and used most of my stamina casting spells to kill the manticore that dwelled there before the kid safely led me back to the entrance. The orcs said hey you can both get in the basket at the same time we’ll pull you up, but I didn’t want anything to go wrong so I put the kid in alone and told them to pull. The basket didn’t come back down. I had the option to call up, or to wait. My character rationalized that they were probably celebrating, this kid had been missing for days after all. Wait again. Nothing, silence, too far up to hear them. Wait. I had to wait four times before the basket came back down. That’s a lot of faith. I don’t know what might have happened if I hadn’t had the trust and the respect for those guys to get me out of there, but there had been multiple moments before where there had been misunderstandings and miscommunications and every time I had chosen to work it out in good faith and every time things had been chill. Good dudes. And they were good dudes, and we went back to the village and partied hard and I moved on happily into Sorcery! book two.
Most of the people in the Shamuntani Hills are good dudes, given the chance. It’s not a game without danger or treachery or mistrust and not all of that mistrust is unfounded, but the undeniable warmth that sits at the core of it is just pleasant, and it’s nice to see such a traditional work of fantasy playing with these ideas in a time I don’t really associate with generous depictions of fantasy cultures in lowbrow Western media.
After the decidedly mixed response to their first project, an IF adaptation of the Frankenstein novel, I think it makes sense that Inkle might have done something more directly akin to a conversion than an adaptation for their next project, but given the way their fortunes have turned over the past decade I’m glad they were brave enough to keep pushing out the edges of what their projects could look like. What I’m most interested to see is whether future installments of Sorcery! take on more of Inkle’s authorial voice. They made 80 Days in between the second and thirds installments of this four-part series so I would very much like to see them take more adaptation agency. Even if they don’t, though, Sorcery! Seems from this first impression like such a rich source material to begin with that it would be hard to come away wanting.
There’s an outrageous amount of character to Fire Emblem Dark Dragon and the Sword of Light. It’s easy to forget what 8-bit consoles were really capable of, I think. The internet so inundates us with images of like the cheapest and most rushed out shovelware of the era and there was SO much of that that, and there are so few games LIKE Dahk Dragon n Da Sword o Light that it can be hard to conceptualize stuff that doesn’t look like a side scroller or a final fantasy-like. I know I talk about this kind of shit every time I write about a game this old please forgive me.
But IMMEDIATELY it’s shocking how fully formed Fire Emblem is. Pretty much everything you expect to be here is here. You got all your little dudes, they all have their cute little idle animations on the map screen, units don’t have unique sprites but classes have bespoke animations for crits and the battle screen is a full on Fire Emblem ass battle screen. There’s so much text in this game! And while a lot of it is using characters to tutorialize stuff for you, or to tip you off about which guys you might be able to recruit, those dialogues and the ensuing recruitment ones are full of personality. They’re thoughtful too – rarely do you just have Marth walk up to a guy to make them join, a lot of the time there’s more specificity to their wants or needs. And sure, more often than not that’s Sheeda instead of Marth lol but because of this you get a very full sketch of Sheeda as this guile princess who knows how to play people but is compassionate enough to use that skill for their good instead of just callously using them for more manpower, SOMETIMES. Other times she is just kind of playing dudes in a very funny way, she’s a great character. Riff is a crusty old man and he sucks ass and guess what his weapon skill sucks shit and he’s the worst healer in the game, they’re interlinking systems and character immediately, it’s a well-designed game!
I found so much here and so much that was familiar that I didn’t even REALLY mind that I had to count out every unit’s individual movements because those aren’t mapped for you here, or that the AI, impressive as it is for the platform, can be gamed somewhat easily, or that without even a weapon triangle the actual strategy is somewhat more shallow, if a little more exactly weighted towards stats.
It’s simply a good time. It’s a little slow, a little meandering, and a little long. IDK that this is a game I would go around RECOMMENDING to people sight unseen, but I wouldn’t recommend fuckin, Path of Radiance or Three Houses to anybody off the street either. It’s a worthwhile bit of history if you’re already inclined.
A game that could very easily have fallen into any number of pitfalls in the messages it tried to convey or they ways it tried to convey them, but deftly dodges every one. A game about numbers and systems and relationship values that is steadfastly against the idea of gamifying life and relationships, that asks us to value each other and the in-between moments of life.
On my good days, I’m here. On my bad days, I’m still here.
Losing parts of ourselves and our identities are as essential to the experience of living as growing them is. Individuals can only do so much but they can still be so much for each other, and that’s worth as much as anything else. In a world where there is no ultimate victory for ideology or faction, where there is no intrinsic value in any one outcome that is ultimately worth more than any other, we’re still gonna find ourselves in each other.
I’m still here.
This review contains spoilers
There are moments in Yakuza 4 where I think it’s the best game in the series and there are moments where I think it’s complete trash. This isn’t an experience unique to this game; if any one statement encapsulates my feelings about Like A Dragon as a series it’s that it’s a land of contrasts, often offering up genuinely fun, exciting melodrama and deeply charismatic characters with one hand while it bops you on the ear with puddle deep (sometimes offensive) political commentary and bloated, meandering mysteries with the other. Something that seems ludicrous to observe now in 2023, when we’re expecting not one but three brand new games or remakes starring Kazuma Kiryu in the next two years is that Yakuza 3 felt like an ending for him. He got out, he made a life, he resolved all his shit, he solved the biggest possible problem not only for his former clan and his new family but also the literal country of Japan lol. And Yakuza 4 makes good on this! It’s at most an epilogue for Kiryu, who is barely in this game at all, being sent off into the proverbial sunset with a feeling of finality in a game that very consciously echoes all three of its predecessors constantly. It certainly inherits everything that consistently sucks about every one of these games and comes up with some new problems all its own, but when the highs hit they hit fuckin hard dude.
Yakuza FOUR. FOUR guys. FOUR chapters AND a finale that is just as long as the other shh shut the fuck up. FOUR stories sort of. FOUR fighting styles. It’s a big explosion in scope compared to what’s come before, and even though on the surface everyone has less to do and fewer options and their bits are all very short, there’s still a lot of thought put into each of these characters and how they interact with the world. Even though each individual part feels truncated this still ended up being my longest overall playtime of the first four games.
Thoughtful might be the word I would use to describe the game at large, which surprised me, because as I’ve mentioned here already and in previous writing about Yakuza 3 I think these games are often obvious to the point of getting in their own way. But we can break it down a bit. Like, the order of the characters’ chapters clearly wasn’t arranged arbitrarily in the scenario planning. Carefree moneylender Akiyama going first makes the most sense in terms of the narrative because he has little personal connection to it but bit personal connection to the established ecosystem of Kamurocho; he eases us back into the familiar setting through a new perspective so it makes sense to see that post-kiryu world via the guy who is most and least similar to Kiryu. He is like Kiryu in that he plays similarly; not mechanically but philosophically, he’s way less technical than the other two new guys, much easier to simply press buttons and win fights. He is personality-wise almost Kiryu’s polar opposite but that makes it more ironic when his part almost plays out early chapters of Yakuza 1 again in miniature, with the inciting Yakuza shooting, the mysterious woman, the suitcase full of money. There is also, of course, the fact that he wouldn’t be here at all if not for the ending of Yakuza 1, where the 10 billion yen exploding from the top of the Millennium Tower gave him the chance to pull him out of poverty. As the game goes on Akiyama’s past is more directly connected to both the events of this game and the events of previous ones than he realizes, but that’s kind of all he’s got; he’s on the margins of this story to the degree that the crush he develops on the main female character being treated as equally worthy of grief to her brother’s when she dies towards the end is actually kind of insulting lol.
With Akiyama having set the stage the two middle chapters are given over to Saejima and Tanimura, who are the characters who actually emotionally anchor this story on the heroes’ side. The game really tries hard to make it about All Four Boys and have Four Bad Guys To Punch at the end but truly this is Saejima and Tanimura’s game, as the entire plot revolves around their pasts, their histories, and how events that shaped them in the 1980s continue to harm people in 2010. They also pair nicely in other ways. Each of them are in a way outsiders in Kamurocho, Saejima quite literally because he’s been away for 25 years (him having a unique dialogue about how things have changed every time you enter a building for the first time is a wonderful touch) and Tanimura because he’s one of the many ethnic minorities of people who come from or are descended from people who come from mainland Asia, most of whom live together in poverty in a small neighborhood-within-a-neighborhood in Kamurocho. They’ve both got more technical playstyles too. I think Saejima ultimately makes it out of the game better off, largely because his chapter comes first and isn’t as burdened as Tanimura’s is by being almost entirely plot-based, and I also think Tanimura’s playstyle just doesn’t fit the rhythms of yakuza’s combat very well, but they’re both great characters who add strongly to Yakuza 4’s central thesis of breaking cycles of historical harm (along with lots of other smaller ideas that this game is chock full of and much messier with).
Finally then there’s Kiryu, who largely comes in at the end of the game like a steamroller to charge in and save the day, except in Yakuza 4 there is a distinct and incredible sense that he has simply done all of this before. Kiryu is to some degree going through the motions. There isn’t a scheme or type of guy in this game that Kiryu has not already done a version of. Once you’re taking down CIA-backed International Arms Smuggling Rings there’s not really anywhere left to go right? But it’s also not old hat for him; he doesn’t do a better job, he fucks up in basically the exact same ways he fucks up every time, and people tell him so. When he tells one of the villains that he Won’t Let Him Get Away With This that guy replies something like “you won’t stop me, you’re always too late. That’s why these things happen.” and it’s sick as hell. Kiryu’s final boss is both an acknowledgment and a failure and his ending is extremely dark. He finally says out loud what anyone with eyes and ears has known for three games: that making Daigo Dojima the head of the Tojo Clan was an enormous mistake, and leaving yakuza life immediately afterward sealed the Clan’s fate to a slow death. The way he fails though is that his attempt to course correct this is to just kind of beat Daigo up, and rather than find a real solution to the problem he created in Yakuza 2, the last scene of the game indicates that Kiryu is simply back in the life, taking a hands on approach to fixing his mess. It may be a form of responsibility but it’s a sacrifice of the life he’s spent years earning, and he does it with a smile on his face. Kiryu will never get out, and the game is ambiguous about these circumstances so it’s unclear whether he knows it. He’s the only guy in the game who can’t break free, only try to massage his problem back out of sight.
I think this core set of ideas in Yakuza 4 is really strong and in fact I think it’s the first Like A Dragon game where I’ve like actually enjoyed the execution on it. The way the story has to be siloed between four discrete chapters definitely hurts the presentation of the overall mystery and conspiracy composition (this one actually probably falls apart in the last chapter much harder than any of its predecessors, an actively comical series of pileups where literally every villain in the game stabs one of the other ones in the back it’s truly amazing), but this truly is a game about The Boys and also one or two of the Bad Boys and to that end I think it succeeds a lot more than it fails. It is true that Akiyama’s central relationship to his final boss exists entirely off screen, it is true that Saejima’s reunion with his sister, the emotional core of the entire story, happens off screen and they in fact never interact at all unless you count him screaming her name a bunch after she’s been shot, and it’s true that Tanimura’s chapter is so completely overtaken by Plot Machinations that almost all of his actual characterization happens in his substories, but hey, I play all the substories, that’s just the kind of gamer girl you’re reading about. These quibbles amount to quibbles, ultimately, paling in the face of the sheer volume of character-driven shit in the game, almost all of it well-worth the price of admission.
And of course, four characters with four different perspectives on Kamurocho means the side content is a lot more tailored than it’s been before. Everyone gets a really tailored experience, with Akiyama’s shit revolving mostly around his two businesses and giving you insight into what his day to day life might look like when he’s not accidentally embroiling himself in vast criminal conspiracies. Saejima has the most interesting section – with him being a very famous escaped prisoner, the city is crawling with cops on the lookout, and Saejima has to make much more careful use of Yakuza 4’s newly-introduced rooftop, underground, and sewer areas to get around undetected. He’s also, obviously, homeless, and integrates with Kamurocho’s homeless community in a way that is more intimate and less cornily exploitative than they’ve been portrayed in previous installments. Tanimura may be a corrupt dirtbag cop but he’s still a cop and a lot of his stuff revolves around doing both Corrupt Cop Stuff and Normal Cop Stuff, which is good for his flavor, and he has two long questchains that involve extended police investigations, one of them tied intimately to his past (in a different way than the main plot lol). Nothing as mechanically interesting as the murder mystery quest in Yakuza 3 but there is some variety to his activities. His real good shit though is the stuff involving his insular neighborhood of Little Asia. As an ethnic minority and a polyglot who gets by in most of the languages spoken around town, Tanimura is both an official and unofficial police liaison for his entire found community, and the game is clumsily but earnestly interested in making him a complicated guy who does bad shit in the name of doing real good for his neglected community.
Kiryu’s side content is the most interesting on a meta level, again invoking this idea of looking back, remixing the past, and inevitable finale that the game will yank away from him at the last second. Almost all of his substories feature characters from previous games, checking in with Kiryu potentially many years since he’s seen them last, showing him how he’s changed their lives in small or big ways. New ones involve helping a woman to stop denying her present and cope with her grief, or Kiryu beating up all the new street gangs that have been moving into the neighborhood. That quest is especially good, overt comedy stretched over several hours as Kiryu absolutely demolishes five purposely underpowered sets of characters whose encounters are weaker than even the random encounters you’ll find at the very beginning of the game. Because that’s who Kiryu is at this point, that’s what this is to him – a nostalgic romp, a reminiscence on that time he did this before. No one who walks up to Kiryu in the street can hurt him, they can’t even TOUCH him unless he purposely offers them his hand before they knife him in the belly.
It’s not ALL good, of course. We still have this series’ most obtrusive writing issue of being able to identify social problems but being too cowardly to say anything about them other than that they exist. Case in point, one of Tanimura’s substories involves three kids in Little Asia tagging buildings with anti-japan graffiti, and they say they’re doing it because they’re pissed at the Japanese government for deporting their dads for essentially the crime of Being Poor. And Tanimura’s response to this is to tell them to shut the fuck up, this situation is no one’s fault, and they shouldn’t complain about it. He says that every one of us has the potential to be rich and happy, and that blaming others and complaining won’t solve anything and all the kids are like wow you’re right! And it’s like??? Tanimura these children are 8 years old they can’t VOTE. Let them complain about the enormous structural problems that tore their families apart and make them live with strangers in a cordoned off area of a seedy red light district, jesus. No One’s Fault, come on.
Or the way Arai insinuates to Tanimura that now that the corrupt cop villain has been thwarted, the Police as an institution will no longer be corrupt, seemingly forgetting that Tanimura himself is so corrupt that he has a famous nickname, and he was doing it totally independently from the vast evil cop conspiracy. This is mostly just funny but it’s another way that the series is just constantly looking to talk about real problems without TALKING about them, without treating them like REAL problems.
Less funny is the return of the series’ persistent Hatred of Women, largely localized to Akiyama but deeply concentrated within him, a guy who loves to belittle his secretary, is generally lecherous and shitty to most women he talks to, and of course, he does own that hostess club where he dates his employees and sends women to work there so they can prove themselves worthy of him lending them money. Listen I like Akiyama as much as anyone, he is extremely cool, but he’s a real fuckin scumbo. There’s also the only major female character in the game, Lilly, who just kind of wanders in and out of scenes, supposedly doing a lot of really sicko shit but never really displaying any aptitude for this sort of thing, always having her moments taken from her, having her events play out just out of sight (including the aforementioned saejima reunion), and being told to settle down because she might get so emotional that she kills herself (seriously lol).
Less funny is the return of the series’ persistent Hatred of Women, largely localized to Akiyama but deeply concentrated within him, a guy who loves to belittle his secretary, is generally lecherous and shitty to most women he talks to, and of course, he does own that hostess club where he dates his employees and sends women to work there so they can prove themselves worthy of him lending them money. Listen I like Akiyama as much as anyone, he is extremely cool, but he’s a real fuckin scumbo. There’s also the only major female character in the game, Lilly, who just kind of wanders in and out of scenes, supposedly doing a lot of really sicko shit but never really displaying any aptitude for this sort of thing, always having her moments taken from her, having her events play out just out of sight (including the aforementioned saejima reunion), and being told to settle down because she might get so emotional that she kills herself (seriously lol).
So we’re not batting 1000 (.1000? whatever the good one is, I am only good at batting cages in yakuza 4 idk shit about baseball). But we’re doing altogether better than previous games, I think. I like the vibes, I like how they play with the genre space a little bit between parts via different music for each character unified by a shared jazzy throughline, I like the progression system and how clear and customizable it is, and most importantly how achievable it is when you have four guys who go to level 20 instead of one guy who goes to level 80. On an individual scene by scene basis Yakuza 4 might be the best the series has been yet, and I think the cast here is genuinely fantastic. When Tanimura is the weak link in your chain I think you have a very strong chain. This Is also the Like A Dragon game with the strongest set of villains overall, I think. There are many of them this time, to match having Many Boys be important on the heroic side, and almost all of them are distinct and sympathetic voices who get enough time to be dynamic and interesting dudes, even if their relationships to their particular good guy aren’t always properly fleshed out. I’ve accepted by now that Like A Dragon simply isn’t ever going to be a cohesive package, and Yakuza 4 in particular is a sprawling mass of half-developed thoughts and underexplored ideas propped up by a very strong thematic backbone and a really incredible cast. I know that this series will go in a lot of directions from here, with 5 and 7 being infamously big games and 6 and Judgement narrowing the scope a lot. I remember 0 sitting somewhere in the middle of how I imagine that scale. So I can’t say “this is how I want Like A Dragon to be,” but I can say that I’m happy with this, and I’ll be happy to see the form of it shift more in the future. I only hope that when it does so it’s with the same degree of success I found here.
Okay so here we are, the era of sixteen bit Castlevania experimentation is complete, three games on three consoles, each with a markedly different philosophy on what they’re trying to accomplish. If Super IV is a reimagining of the original Castlevania that recreates the vision of that game with new ideas and new possibilities, and Rondo of Blood is a successor to the original style of Castlevania that only utilizes the new hardware for style while essentially keeping the spirit of the originals intact, then Bloodlines seems to really embrace the fact that it’s entirely unburdened by legacy and just get a little wild with it. We’re left with something that’s still very obviously Castlevania, just looking and sounding and feeling a little different than usual in a way that’s been reserved for handhelds and remakes and spinoffs so far and honestly? Tbh?? It rules dude this game absolutely owns.
We’ve advanced far enough along the timeline now that we are just fully in the twentieth century, and which means that this game has to reckon with both the fact that the novel Bram Stoker’s Dracula has happened and that the first World War is ongoing. Wait did I say “has to” because actually they didn’t have to do either of those things at all but DO they? Yes. So, gone are the Belmonts, who do have some sort of descendant here but he’s a gigantic buff American with the biggest shoulders and funniest walk cycle I’ve ever seen named John Morris who is presumably not directly of Richter’s line (Richter stays losing, poor guy). Also present is John’s best friend Eric Lecarde who fights with a spear (my personal favorite Video Game Weapon Archetype) and is a trans icon, definitely taking her estrogen, excited to find out what name she chooses. This pair of fucking knucklehead losers evidently...saw? The climax of Dracula? The Book? Maybe the Coppola movie? That was out a couple years before this. I would use it as the basis for my hardcore edgy vampire game too, that movie is unbelievably cool. I dunno so they saw Dracula get dusted in 1897 and now it’s 1917 and his NIECE who is also an evil vampire and a sorceress is trying to revive him early by CAUSING WORLD WAR ONE and generating enough Bad Vibes all over the continent to rehydrate Dracula early. So our heroes trek across a nightmarish hell version of Europe to go kill her. Does this, like? Are you reading this shit. It’s so cool. It’s also incredibly funny to me that this woman, she’s called Elizabeth Bartlet but she’s very clearly based on Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian noblewoman from like the 1500s or something who MAY OR MAY NOT HAVE BEEN but probably actually wasn’t a prolific serial killer, who, after her death, became an international subject of myths and folk tales about how she would kill girls and drink their blood and shit. It’s funny to me that the devs of this game were like “are there any other historical figures associated with vampire stuff who we could turn into real cartoon vampires in our video games? Oh yeah just one? Fuck yeah dude hell yeah let’s go” like yeah guys go for it this rules she killed millions of people and turned the leaning tower of Pisa into fuckin nightmare tower sure.
It’s just such a different tone, even as it hits all the formal beats and nothing in the game is SO far removed from anything we’ve seen previously. All the small stuff adds up. We’re on the Sega Genesis and there’s such a fuckin Genesis-y vibe to the whole thing, particularly the way there is suddenly a TON of gore. We’re not censoring shit over here like over on your fuckin Nintendo Baby Box Goo Goo no sir, we’ve got as much goofy cartoon blood as you could possibly ask for. It’s still schlocky and haunted housey, it’s just the kind you see on midnight block horror movies or the kinds of haunted houses you don’t take eight year olds to now. It’s great! Less great are some of the visual tricks used, with the mind-bending screen cutouts in the evil late game hallway certainly less offensive than the genuinely cool mode 7 stuff that Super IV was doing or the simple but effective parallax and color usage of the Rondo on the PC Engine. Still though, the game looks good when it’s sticking to fundamentals, and the setting of a continental trek leads to a lot of jaw dropping vistas you just can’t find in other Castlevanias so far; the highlights for me being the aforementioned Evil Tower of Pisa and the long trek across a jewel-toned lake at sunset, scrabbling over ruins as the cool, supernaturally flat water bobbed up and down beneath my feet.
The other way it FEELS like we’re on the Genesis is just like, how it plays. We look more like the kind of arcadey brawlers that were at home on this console and we play more like them too. John and Eric move a little faster than their ancestors did, and they’re more maneuverable in general. Platforming isn’t nearly as forgiving as it is in Super IV but there’s way less emphasis on it than there’s ever been before in the series. Instead you’re bombarded with enemies almost nonstop; this is a game of combat attrition and reflexes, and fittingly both characters are kitted in interesting ways to make that focus both fresh and challenging. John doesn’t have the full Super IV moveset but he can attack diagonally, while Eric has more reach and a jump attack but can’t aim in diagonal directions or make quick back attacks. OBVIOUSLY I played as Eric partly because I immediately found a true kindred spirit (spear, extremely gay, obviously trans) and partly because I just took some variety from Whip Guy when it was offered to me! But the game is easily completable with both of them and their stylistic differences do make that second run interesting as you adapt to the feel of the second character, which is truly and meaningfully different beyond just having a different special attack.
So I dunno man! I dunno how much more there is to say, I feel like this game has really frazzled me, this game is ridiculous. It feels ridiculous to play, slaughtering your way through a munitions factory full of German zombies and then stomping through a fountain that’s creating skeletons out of blood outside the palace of Versailles! On your way to go stab Dracula’s serial killer niece through the chest! Death makes you do a tarot themed boss rush! It just rules. Nothing else to it really. All of these three experiments in what Castlevania IS and what is CAN be have been really successful I think, even the one I didn’t like personally very much. Even if I were to stop playing through these right here I think this would be a really rewarding journey, a really interesting look into the way these kinds of things can evolve. So many what ifs happening in this period and like I know Symphony is next, I know everything is about to change and, to some degree, homogenize. I’m just glad we got something like Bloodlines before it did.
NEXT TIME: SYMPHONY OF THE NIGHT
I knew from inescapable reputation that Rondo was the one where Castlevania first dipped into Full Anime for its style of presentation, but nobody had prepared me for the fact that this is not the the Dragon Ball ass Slam Dunk ass 90s shonen extreme hard shit jump treatment I was expecting. Rather Rondo of Blood swerves hard into shoujo aesthetics and this is endlessly infinitely more delightful to me as someone who likes that side of the industry way more and as an American has to work harder to find my shit a lot of the time.
It would be easy to say that Rondo is just giving Sailor Moon, specifically its anime adaptation, and that’s not NOT true. You can hear it in the ethereal jazz pop of most of the arrangements, you can see it in the way characters are framed and in the intense and bright color choices used in the cutscenes, you can see it in the shape of Richter’s face even. But there are details all over these cutscenes and voice performances and castle designs and everything that harken not only to Takahashi’s 90s behemoth but as far back as stuff like Rose of Versailles and Moto Hagio’s European-set works. The VIBE is just more akin to the DRAMA and INTENSITY and FORCE of classic shoujo, where feeling is empowerment but not the same as power, and tragedy mars beauty around every corner. Really unexpected, really delightful.
Delightful is the name of the game, and it’s so so cool to see that of the three main branches of sixteen bit Castlevania, each of the first two have sought to be radically different visions of what the franchise could evolve to be and both are equally exciting and worthwhile. Rondo is not quite as immediately game changing as Super IV; in terms of game feel it’s much closer to tradition, but it starts to differentiate itself i subtle ways. Unlike the NES games you do get a LITTLE leeway midair in jump control, and Richter Belmont can execute a sick backflip in midair from a flat jump. He can’t whip in all directions or swing around but he DOES have fuck off stupid super moves tied to his subweapons. These things are really important because while otherwise the player is as slow and tanky as they’ve ever been in Castlevania (and without any of the slick movement or combat options that other characters afforded in Dracula’s Curse), enemies are way more fast and maneuverable and generally aggressive. If the axe knights on the NES used to throw one or two axes at a time, now they throw three or four and toss out a vertical throw just like you do in the middle of it, and you can’t dodge it anymore. Spear skeletons stab through the floor layers, they’re assholes! It makes for easily the hardest game in the series so far and I had a much harder time getting a handle on it, my longest runtime and most deaths for sure. You NEED that backflip and those special moves to keep pace. It’s not an unfair challenge though, nor unbalanced, and the ever-present infinite continues and generous checkpointing of the series are welcome as ever. Unlike a lot of its peers and despite its appearances Castlevania never wants you to fail.
The appearances are sick tho. The game is absolutely gorgeous, top to bottom, some of the slickest uses of parallax layers I’ve ever seen. Full of little touches. Every boss has a little intro cutscene that happens during gameplay where they come in from the background element. You’re revisiting locations from past games, even Simon’s Quest! Flames look bright, spirits look properly ghostly, dungeons look dingy, you only see that the boss who chases you through that one level is just a torso if you let him catch up enough to fully enter the screen. It’s so cool, a game that really never stops giving.
And there’s Maria!! An entire second character who plays completely differently and is so fun and cool! She’s also hilarious, nobody in this game knows what to do with her. She gets the same like morale-breaking speech from Dracula that Richter does in the ending but she’s like eight years old and a badass so she’s like shut the fuck up Dracula you loser and he’s just like yeah fair enough I guess you’re not a weenie like Richter. I love her she’s so fuckin sick dude make Maria the Star these Belmont guys all suck ass and fail constantly. I don’t think Richter even kills Dracula in this ending?? Kind of hard to tell???? I’m not sure if I just can’t read the cutscene or if it’s ambiguous on purpose or I’m supposed to understand that he got away. I guess Symphony is a sequel to this one and I’ll find out in a couple games.
Regardless I get it I’m on board I’m not gonna be a contrarian here dude Rondo is sick as fuck just a rowdy ass game, good ass time, every five minutes I saw something that had me hooting and hollering. This is gaming for real, doesn’t get any better than this.