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Showing most liked content since 07/14/2019 in Blog Entries

  1. 2 points
    Winged Cloud, creators of the infamous Sakura series, are visibly past their prime, which shows not only in their diminishing Patreon support and smaller interest in their games in general, but also the lack of marketing effort and innovation. For two and a half year now their VNs are only becoming shorter, simpler and more iterative, making the already not-particularly-impressive projects from the peak of studio’s popularity, such as Sakura Nova or Sakura Fantasy, look like absolute heights of quality and ambition. At the same time, the company seems heavily disinterested in actively promoting their work or opening new niches, even nearly dropping the production of straight eroge for the sake of pushing out more yuri games, feeding of this niche's popularity with Western audience. And few things symbolise this sorry state of affairs quite like the Sakura MMO trilogy, the latest three entries in the mainline Sakura franchise, this time tackling the grossly overused theme of gameworld isekai. Coming out between October 2018 and June 2019, with little fanfare (the second and third game pretty much appeared out of nowhere, with no communication from Winged Cloud’s social media accounts before the releases) and to a rather lukewarm reception from players, Sakura MMO games still stand out in some ways from Winged Clouds usual output. Particularly, it was the first time since Sakura Beach that a game in the series received a direct sequel, and the only instance one received two. This, at first glance, makes it look like one of most ambitious projects Winged Cloud ever attempted, but one thing should be said in advance: all three Sakura MMO games are very short (3-4 hours) and heavily overpriced, with each costing $10. For the amount of content you’d usually find in one 10-15 dollars VN, you’re asked to pay 30, while also having to deal with issues that wouldn’t be there if it was all released as a single product or a well-constructed episodic game, like your choices not transferring between parts and somewhat shoddy continuity. But aside from it being a shameless cash-grab, is there something worthwhile within this trashy sub-franchise? Inma’s art is, as usual, one of the selling points of the game, but even it gets diminished by the constant reuse of assets and straight-up mistakes Sakura MMO follows the story of Kotone, a bored Japanese salarywoman who blows off steam from her stressful job by playing an MMORPG called Asaph Online. There, with her mage avatar named Viola, she became something of a dominating figure, styling herself as a “dark witch” and casually humiliating other players – the act she enjoys so much that she considers herself a sadist. While having relatively little fondness for her real-life routine and few meaningful bonds with other people, she is still deeply in shock when she one day wakes up in her avatar’s body, in one of the bedrooms of Nightmare Citadel – the massive castle acting as her player-owned residence and holding her immense in-game wealth (no, you won’t see much of the castle, only a few generic-looking rooms). She’s also immediately greeted by Neve, a darkling NPC who she placed in the castle as mere decoration, but now became a real person, dead-bent on serving her as a maid and bodyguard (with impressive magic skills to aid her in both tasks). Thus starts Kotone’s, or rather Viola’s adventure in search of meaning behind her summoning to Asaph and, possibly, a way back to her world. And probably most importantly, a journey of creating an ultimate harem of cute, gay girls for her to dominate – after all, if life gives you ultimate power and wealth, it’d be a shame to not indulge yourself at least a little bit? If by this point you feel a certain disconnect between the serious and trashy, ecchi-oriented parts of the setup, you’re definitely not wrong – the Sakura VN template prioritise fanservice over anything else and the more serious and grand the premise, the more obvious Winged Cloud’s shortcomings become. Art prioritizes random boob shots over crucial events in the plot, the story frequently comes to a halt to give space for variably out-of-place scenes of cuddling and lesbian sex. One remedy that could make it bearable is humour, which is what JP fantasy eroge often use to keep the formula fun to read, but this might actually be Sakura MMO’s biggest problem – for the most part, it feels utterly humourless and the few jokes that actually are there rarely land. It introduces a high-stakes main intrigue (even if it's heavily trope-filled), but couples it with one-dimensional characters and repetitive interactions that make it hard to get engaged in the story, failing to even give satisfying context to the porn the way some older Winged Cloud titles did. Splitting everything into three games help little, as each part only has space for two-three significant plot developments between fanservice and pointless banter. The bickering between heroines, by the way, would not be a bad thing if it was funny or witty enough to justify its existence, but it fails to do so even by Winged Cloud’s mediocre standards. The whole storyline ends up feeling soulless and dull, despite a few relatively fun fights and amusing moments scattered around. Like in every other game by Winged Cloud, fanservice constantly gets in the way of Sakura MMO’s story, but the surprisingly serious main plot makes this dissonance particularly visible If there’s something genuinely intriguing here, it’s probably the protagonist, who’s a contradictory character but not necessarily in a bad way. She likes domineering over others and as Viola, she maintains the boastful, aloof persona she relied on while playing, proudly announcing to be a villain and a sadist. At the same time, she cares about her companions more than she is usually willing to admit and is capable of self-sacrifice when the stakes get really high. With better writing, she could’ve easily become a very compelling lead and still manages to be the strongest part of the whole scenario. Other characters lack either potential or proper growth. Neve is mostly a one-beat heroine, with her clingy, servile and overprotective attitude towards Viola growing irritating quite quick. She gets an excellent piece of development and crucial role to play in the third game, but kind of reverts to her previous behaviour after that, to my genuine frustration. Fion, a homeless thief that steals a powerful artefact from Viola in the first game is a lazy, demoralized glutton and there’s honestly little more to her character all throughout the storyline. She also gets the dumbest ending, illogical and absurd in its implications. Eleri, the knight, is probably the most consistent heroine, hiding her shy and insecure personality behind a facade of a stalwart defender of law and justice. Being the only other character transported from Japan and having a much more traumatic arrival to Asaph than Viola, she is hell-bent on coming back and acts as a counterweight of sorts to the protagonist and her embracing of life in the fantasy world. In the end, while not the most attractive love interest personality-wise, she’s the most believable and least irritating girl of the bunch. The secondary characters and the overarching intrigue (finishing with an epic [?] confrontation with a fallen deity), suffer from similar problems – they might even look reasonably good on paper, but are implemented in a deeply mediocre way. This extends even to the thing usually working as the highlight of every Sakura game – the visual assets. While I’m personally fond of Inma’s artstyle and there’s plenty of amusing fanservice and softcore porn illustrations in the game, there’s also a good deal of things that should’ve been shown in CGs but are only described in text, straight-up drawing mistakes contradicting the game’s text and battle illustrations reused on every possible occasion. This very much reminded me how Sakura Agent screwed up its theme by never showing the aliens and generally, why Sakura games in action-oriented genres generally don’t work – the dev team simply doesn’t want to invest appropriate resources into these projects, Sakura Dungeon, Fantasy and Nova being the only outliers. MMO at least manages to wrap up its story properly, with romance endings for each heroine and a harem one, but in every possible path, the journey leading to those conclusions was heavily underwhelming. There was also the issue with the episodic structure of the story, as Sakura MMO 1 & 2 also offered romance-oriented endings for each heroine, but as your choices do not transfer between the games, the scenario more or less resets with every new chapter – it's not a huge problem, but it further undermines the already wonky cohesion and immersiveness of the storyline. The storyline in Sakura MMO is far from being the worst thing Winged Cloud produced and concludes in a rather satisfying way, but each game on its own feel short and underwhelming, hardly justifying the $10 price tag Continuing the topic of h-content, Sakura MMO is distinctly softcore even when compared to some other entries drawn by Inma – the scenes generally rather vanilla, don’t show genitals and are rather short. They offer decent variety, including a lot of milder sequences of cuddling & nudity, but don’t include the kind of straight-up fapping material you’d find in Sakura games with art drawn by Wanaca – something I don’t mind personally, as that is not what I’m after with these ecchi VNs, but might easily leave some people disappointed. One interesting gimmick connected to erotic content in MMO trilogy is that the games often place Viola in intimate situations with the heroines and it depends on your choices whether you escalate each interaction, or back down from it – it’s the kind freedom I’m always fond of, as while it isn’t crucial to the endings you get (that where the more story-centric choices come in), it lets you effectively “roleplay” different routes within the game’s linear framework, pursuing only the girl(s) you're actually interested in. Like other fantasy games by Winged Cloud, Sakura MMO includes a climatic, JRPG-style soundtrack by Zack Parrish and a decently-varied set of pleasant-looking backgrounds, but in the end, these qualities can hardly save it from feeling dull, undercooked and cynical. Apart from people interested solely in fanservice CGs, I can’t really imagine any audience that would be fully satisfied with what this trilogy has to offer, or the value proposition it represents. Despite my questionable fondness of trashy ecchi VNs, I find it hard to seriously recommend getting into Sakura MMO, even if you find it on deep sale – it simply excels at nothing to a degree that would make it a worthwhile experience, and lacks the junky charm that makes more comedic Sakura games fun to read, even if they were never genuinely good. If this is the quality level Winged Cloud is going to offer from now on, their games might stop being fun to follow even in a semi-ironic fashion, or for the die-hard fans of their formula. And by this point, it’s kind of hard to imagine them stepping up their game – I just hope that whenever this studio fade into an uncomfortable, but closed chapter of EVN history, someone will utilize the admittedly impressive skills of its character artist to some much more worthwhile projects. Final Rating: 2/5 Pros: + Decent art + Good variety of fanservice and hentai scenes Cons: - Dull heroines - Short episodes and rushed main intrigue - Cliched writing devoid of wit or humour VNDB Page (Sakura MMO; Sakura MMO 2; Sakura MMO 3) Buy Sakura MMO trilogy on Steam
  2. 2 points

    Book Series: The House War

    The House War series is one of three co-existing (to some extent, each of the series co-exists in time, often with the same characters) series written in the same universe by Michelle West, a half-Japanese, half-Canadian writer who first came to my attention when I was stunned by the first book of the Sun Sword series. The universe created in the three series (the Sacred Hunt duology, the Sun Sword series, and the House War series) extend across over thirty years of time in-series and involve as many varied perspectives, people, and desires as the more infamous large-scale high fantasy book series out there (the Wheel of Time, the Game of Thrones, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, etc). However, it is distinct in every way from them in style. While the world West puts together is often as harsh or more so than the Game of Thrones series, it manages a degree of mystique that Martin never achieves, at least partly because the focus is more on the people and setting then making as many dirty deeds as possible occur in the shortest time possible (incidentally, that is my assessment of Martin's works). A typically Japanese flavor exists in the writing, mixed with flavors of Celtic and even Middle Eastern tones at times. Depending on which characters form the core of an individual book, the atmosphere differs dramatically. The House War series is centered around Jewel Markess ATerafin and the people that surround her. Jewel is a key character in all three series, though in different ways. In the Sacred Hunt, she is the desperate leader of a den (think street gang) of orphans whose existences are only considered relevant relative to her. As such, little focus or spotlight is put on the den, except to give them some minimal color and give you a vague idea of how they matter to Jewel. Jewel is seer-born, a rare form of 'talent' that causes her to see potential futures in dreams and instinctively (knee-jerk, gut-level) know when her own life is in danger and avoid it reflexively. Other talents, such as mage-born, healer-born, god-born, bard-born, and maker-born are all present in the series, but explanations for each are generally only presented as aspects of their existence become relevant to the story at large. She lives in Averaalan, the capital city of an Empire ruled by the Kings, two god-born children born of the gods of Wisdom and Justice. The complex society of the Empire nonetheless has only a very limited privileged class, made up of a wealthy but not feudal 'patrician' nobility, the commons, and the Ten. The Ten are one of the constructs I like most, besides the Kings, in this particular setting. They are a group of ten aristocratic clans that are granted almost complete internal autonomy and are not hereditary. Instead, the Ten increase their numbers by merit-based adoption, wherein individuals that have talents and skills desired or needed by the clan as a whole are 'adopted' regardless of origin. The House War series follows Jewel's life from early childhood, details the creation of her den, and further writes in details of the events around the duology solely from the point of view of the den and Jewel herself in the first book. The rest of the books detail her rise after the events of the Sun Sword series to the rank of the Terafin (the ruler of the Terefin, the greatest of the Ten) and the results of her choices until she meets her destiny. Of the three series, the House War series most deeply details the aspects that are left oblique and unexplained in the previous books, regarding the nature of human talent-born, the nature of power in that universe, and the nature of the immortals and gods. Jewel is, other than her power, merely a fiercely compassionate woman who cares far too deeply for someone who rules. Her immortal companions are frequently frustrated by her (mostly because they only understand the power she wields and what it will become), and her mortal companions fear for her as her power grows and she struggles against the necessity to change in order to master it. The over-arching antagonist of all three series is Allasakar, the Lord of the Hells, a being that is deliberately demonized (lol) in the Sacred Hunt, given some perspective through the eyes of Kiriel, his half-human daughter, in the Sun Sword, and given a third and more complete relative perspective based on the truths revealed in the House War series. I won't go into detail about this, but Allasakar is presented as being inimical to all mortal life... and this is true in every way. However, one thing that gets revealed in a rather stark manner in the House War is just how inimical ALL immortals in this series are to mortals. The world Jewel and the other characters live in is one that is asleep, the gods having withdrawn to another realm for reasons of their own, the Firstborn (their 'children) confined to the mystic wilds, and many of the other immortal existences in a thousands of years long sleep. Because of this, a marked difference between the early books and the later ones is the stripping away of the gentle human 'myths' that gloss over just how terrible the immortals, regardless of alignment, were. If the Duology was a simple good vs evil play and the Sun Sword was an interwoven tapestry of demons an politics, the House War is the mortal coming into contact with and struggling against the immortal. Michelle West's concepts of the immortal are very Japanese, for someone familiar with Japanese Buddhism and Shinto. Indeed, I can say that while there is a strong Celtic influence on the aesthetic, the essence is almost entirely Japanese when it comes to immortals in the story (it becomes even more so later on). For those with an interest on why I said there is a strong Middle-eastern influence, I recommend you read the Sun Sword series. Following the events in the lands of the Dominion, in particular the first book of the series which almost exclusively centers around that region with few outside influences, brings that influence out in full. Serra Diora, one of my favorite characters in the series, is someone I can honestly describe as one of the most admirable characters in the series as a whole, while being one of the weakest relatively (Edit: In terms of power, not personality). It gave me a much better perspective on Middle Eastern culture, and it is one of the reasons I actually began reading some literature from that part of the world.
  3. 1 point

    Dead Days

    On request and because I am a Kurashiki fan, I decided to play this, despite worries about the concept and the characters... and I came out finding my worries perfectly justified. First, the protagonist Teru... in a standard chuunige, he would be the jackass that gets killed after begging for his life in the opening act after doing something totally scumbag-like. Worse, rather than being merely a cold-blooded manipulator (which is how the Getchu page presented him), he is actually an irritable kid who thinks he is a lot smarter than he is. Second, the heroines... first, the punk-like Aira who overdoes her makeup and generally speaks like an airhead but has definite anger issues. Second is Asami, another man's wife who is generally weak-spirited and only clings to her second life out of a desire not to lose what she has left (her husband and child). Third is Mao, the protagonist's osananajimi who has a strong sense of justice, is pretty naive in general, and tends to get on the protagonist's nerves constantly (this gets worse after he dies and gets resurrected). Mao is the true heroine of the game... and also the single most annoying character in the game, even setting aside the protagonist's issues with her. To be blunt, she is yet another Victim A heroine presented as the true heroine of a serious game with violence... Third, the writing... I wanted to cry at how low-quality the writing in this game is compared to Kurashiki's previous two Clock-up games. Both Okami and Maggot showed off his skills in full, and as a result, they have a cult fanbase even amongst those who don't like the sexual themes involved in the latter or the social ones in the former. The basic narrative quality is scaled down to the level of the protagonist, which is hugely disappointing. Last, though this is more of a universal complaint for all Clock-up games... too much meaningless h-scenes. I hate Clock-up's visual style for H-scenes (there aren't any torture rape scenes in this one, outside of the bad endings which I didn't watch), and the presence of loli content made me vomit... twice. Seriously, was that really necessary? The good points of this VN lie solely in the individual heroine paths, because the common route is just poorly handled and paced. The heroine paths, on the other hand, are slightly stronger, though only Mao's has a decent epilogue (even by VN standards). Overall, this game felt like a really inept attempt at psychological horror. Considering how good a job Kurashiki has done previously at this kind of thing, it startled me how huge the gap in quality was between this and his previous works... both for Light and Clock-up. Even Sora no Baroque was better, and that is saying a lot.