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Blog Entries posted by Clephas

  1. Clephas
    I took my first steps onto the road of the otaku in 1992, when I watched the poorly dubbed (all dubs were godawful back then) Record of Lodoss War Volume 1 OVA VCR tape.  Now, I was already a heavy fantasy addict, having been introduced to the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance in 1990, and my obsession was at its peak at the time.  When I watched Record of Lodoss War, I saw the typical 'elven maiden with human hero' romance in a new way (incidentally, this is a pretty typical romantic theme in those days, less so nowadays).  I also saw oddities that stood out as odd to me precisely because of the oddly black and white point of view enforced on one by the various D&D universes.  
    Of course, I was a chuunibyou brat by that time, already, so it should surprise no one that I got obsessed.  It got ten times worse, however, when I encountered Chrono Trigger as it was played on my cousin's SNES.  Chrono Trigger is still, to this day, one of the single best rpgs ever made.  Looking back, considering all that has been done since then, it is almost TERRIFYING that someone was able to do what was done with Chrono Trigger with the limitations placed by using the SNES system.  The story, the world, and the various layers of time were put together into such a subtly complex experience that, to this day, I've yet to see any other rpg manage it.  Chrono Cross would manage to imitate some elements of this with its parallel world jumping, but Chrono Trigger's jumping around in time gave you impetus to explore how every aspect of the world could change based on how and when you did certain things.  Rumors constantly abounded that there were secret endings (such as the infamous 'vampire Chrono' or 'Save Schala' fake rumors, which some believe led to the way the Chrono Cross storyline was handled), and people - such as me - would play the game repeatedly, using all the meager saves allowed by the cartridge limitations of the time, in hopes that they might trigger those endings or find a way to discover something new.  
    In all honesty, Chrono Trigger being the game that got me into jrpgs probably ruined me for life.  It set my standards to a ridiculously high level on a subconscious plane, resulting in me comparing every single jrpg experience since then to it.  Aesthetically, musically, and structurally, it was a true jrpg kamige.  It was also the game that turned jrpgs into my second otaku obsession.
    During the SNES-PS2 eras, I literally bought and played EVERY jrpg that came out.  I still own them, in fact.  I played most of the PS1 and SNES era games multiple times.
    However, it was also in the PS2 era (often called the 'dawn of the mainstream jrpg') that jrpg quality began to fall off drastically.  The kind of genius and artistic flair using minimal resources you saw in previous eras was lost entirely within a few years of the release of FFX (FFX being a good game that also turned VO from a curiosity to a mainstream 'thing').  Musical direction, a role differing from composition, where someone was assigned to decide the timing of using a musical score and which ones fit which dungeons, which story scenes, disappeared in the middle of the PS2 era, as VO was used to fill the gaps of emotionality.  However, this also meant that the subtlety of previous eras was lost with a swiftness that left me bewildered at the time.  
    By the time the PS3 era came around, jrpgs were slowing down, due to what I now call 'flashy kusoge fatigue'.  Oh, a few sub-genres, such as the Atelier series' alchemy obsessed SOL titles and the more action-based titles continued to be prolific, but what were called 'console-style rpgs' started to vanish.  MMO elements were introduced into normal jrpgs, making progression and gameplay less interesting as a result (mostly because it seemed to have been done primarily to draw the WoW crowds into solo rpgs).  Storytelling was dying a surprisingly swift death, as tedious gameplay elements (for loot and level-obsessed completionists) began to devour higher and higher proportions of each game's overall playtime.  
    There is a very good reason why people go back and play so-called 'retro' jrpgs so much.  There simply aren't that many more recent jrpgs that have that kind of flair and subtle genius.  I know for a fact that one of the best ways to get people addicted to jrpgs is still just to let them play Chrono Trigger.  
    Ironically, it was VNs that saved my soul.  This was back in 2008, four years before I joined Fuwa.  I was introduced to Tsukihime by a fellow anime fansubber, and, for the first time in over three years, I had something interesting enough (story-wise) that I was given a perspective on the nature of my growing irritation and fatigue with jrpgs in general.  At the time, the JVN industry was still as vital and full of genius as the jrpg industry was in the PS1 era.  Tsukihime and a few other major classics put out near the turn of the century had created the potential for a market of story-focused VNs that had allowed more and more creative people to get into the medium.  Masada was releasing his latest version of Dies Irae, and there were literally hundreds of potentially interesting VNs for me to try.
    Needless to say, I lost my mind almost as badly as when I first played Chrono Trigger.  I must have blown four grand of my meager savings on VNs within the first year, and I didn't regret a penny of it.  Yes, roughly two-thirds of what I bought was pure crap.  However, the gems I discovered gave me a taste of the potential of the medium in a way that was horribly addictive.  Moreover, after a few years of being starved of any decent new stories, even the worst VNs had something that I could find I liked about them.  
    In retrospect, I have an addictive personality.  I get addicted to things easily, especially when they scratch my story bug.  People have said to me, when it came to my jrpg obsession 'if you want a good story, why don't you read a book?', to which I usually gave them a blank stare and said 'I'm already reading good books.  I just want stories in my games too.'  
    Interestingly enough, there were a few bursts of true creativity in jrpgs in the years since, like Tales of Berseria and Nier: Automata, but they partially stand out due to the sheer bleakness of the genre landscape.  People praise Octopath Traveler and Dragon Quest XI with intensity, and they practically worship Bravely Default.  However, I have been shocked at how low-quality the presentation of these stories has been.  It's like an entire generation has gotten used to ineptness in presentation to the point where they can be charmed by backhanded efforts at retro-nostalgia.  Octopath has all the grind of the old SaGa Frontier games with none of the charm, the best part of each of the paths being at the beginning.  Dragon Quest XI retains the horribly grindy nature of Dragon Quest games without improving on the formula in any real way.  Moreover, locking so much content into the post-game annoys the hell out of me (I prefer new game +, obviously).  
    JVNs have suffered their own decline, which is ironically due to the same demographics that inflated the medium in the first place (the dominance of the moe/charage lovers).  VNs were always destined to be a niche medium, but the over-specialization of the industry has led to an inability to adapt to changing spending habits and demographics.  Even if they wanted to regear for a new generation of consumers, most companies no longer have the access to the necessary talent to do so.
    I'm fairly sure that jrpgs suffer from a similar lack.  Yes, there are some excellent composers and graphic designers in the jrpg industry, as well as access to the solid voice-acting industry of Japan and the growing one here in the US.  However, there is a severe lack of writers capable of bringing a story to life, and there is no point in a top-tier OST that has no one to properly coordinate its use.  The very fact that something like Undertale could bury so much of the commercial rpg industry, in the eyes of rpg fans, says everything about how far the industry has fallen.
    So what am I getting at?  Not really anything, in truth.  I just needed to blow off some steam.  Thank you for reading.
  2. Clephas
    Seishun Fragile is the latest of Purple Software's VNs.  Purple Software is famous these days primarily for powerful nakige/borderline utsuge like Aoi Tori, Amatsutsumi, and Hapymaher.  However, they also are responsible for Chrono Clock and Mirai Nostalgia which, while having an actual plot, are closer to charage than their more plot-centric brethren.  This game is much closer to Mirai Nostalgia in style (based on a few comments inside the story, it is probably based some years after the latest point of Mirai Nostalgia, while utilizing the same world setting) than it is to the Hapymaher style, so the emotional impact is greatly reduced in comparison.  However, it does have its high points.
    This game focuses on Yugahara, a hot springs resort town where a young man named Shiki Yuuto lives in a mansion that used to be a bed and breakfast.  Other than the fact that he is a magic-user, there is nothing really remarkable about him.  He has a lot of standard-issue charage harem protagonist qualities, like being insanely dense about his osananajimi's deredere attitude and accepting his fake imouto maid's service with a blase attitude, but he is surrounded by a few stranger characters, such as his self-proclaimed magic teacher Liz and his stalker (yes, she is stalking him for real) Setsuna.  
    To be blunt, Setsuna is the main heroine of this game.  The constant hints about a past (serious one) between Setsuna and Shiki, her very real stalking habits, and any number of cues will tip you off if you have been playing VNs as long as I have.  She also has the type of heroine profile that has become typical of true/main heroines in recent Purple Soft games (though I can't reveal what it is without spoiling it for you).
    Despite that, I went ahead and played another path first, though.
    Of course I played the foreigner girl path first.  Yes, a ditzy blonde with no sense of self-control is weirdly attractive to me, even after so long.  The fact that she can use magic is just icing on the cake.  
    Liz's path was... uninspiring.  To be honest, while it had some high moments (mostly comedic), I found the drama to be excessively derivative and disappointing for a Purple Soft game.  Liz, despite her issues, has a rather straightforward personality, and the drama feels kind of forced because it requires a level of complexity that anyone who was reading the common route would have had difficulty reconciling with her characterization.  While I liked the ending, it still felt like this path wasted my time, at least a little, despite my fondness for some of the more comedic moments.
    Setsuna's path stands in direct contrast to Liz's.  I will state this openly... Setsuna is yandere.  Oh, she puts up a good face, but there is a ton of darkness hidden behind her joking manner and 'playful-seeming' stalking habits.  To put it bluntly, Setsuna is more than a little dependent on Yuuto for her mental and emotional stability, and the reasons for it make absolute perfect sense after you get halfway through her path.  
    To be honest, the degree to which this path differs in quality to Liz's pretty much finalized my viewpoint on who the main heroine was, if I hadn't already got it from the common route's cues.  This path has much better emotional buildup than Liz's, and the drama toward the end is actually pretty enjoyable to read, though it made me feel even more like a voyeur of people's pain more than any of the recent works I've encountered.
    Toune is Yuuto's fake imouto/maid.  She is originally from a family that served his since their arrival from Britain a century and a half previously, and she has seemingly devoted her life to feeding her 'dame-oniichan' and cleaning up after him.  
    Generally speaking, if you aren't in her path, Toune takes a supporting role, usually taking Yuuto down a few pegs when he looks to be getting full of himself.  She has a cheerfully optimistic personality and a very strong sense of what she wants out of life, and she is a bit obsessed with resurrecting the B&B that the Shiki family used to run (out of their mansion).  
    Most of her path is a normal 'I always loved you but it was more important for me to be with you than be your lover' transition.  To be honest, this isn't one of my favorite tropes, but it works out all right in this case.  Toune's path gets pretty emotional toward the end, but it lacks the darkness that was so evident in Setsuna's path, giving it less impact over all (more evidence to my Setsuna is the main heroine hypothesis).
    Hio is Yuuto's osananajimi, the younger sister of Hibiki, who runs the Sakuranomiya ryoukan (Japanese inn).  From early childhood, the two families have had close relations, while being sort-of rivals (obviously, that ended when the B&B went under, lol).  Hio is a rather obvious tsundere with a tendency to retaliate against Yuuto's ever-present density (think nuclear reactor shielding thick) with pro-wrestling moves.  To everyone but Yuuto himself, her feelings are ridiculously obvious, and she is horrible at hiding them even in the best of times (even for a tsundere).
    Ah... but about the path.  'Predictable' is the word I'd use for the romance portions.  To be honest, if you have seen a tsundere osananajimi heroine get together with a dense protagonist often enough, you've probably seen a variation on this path.  There is some serious drama, but the drama is even weaker than Liz's path.  Hio is pretty adorable as a girlfriend, but again, that is fairly typical of tsundere heroines once they lose most of the tsun.  Probably the best part of this path was the protagonist's firm belief that sexually harassing Hio doesn't count as sexual harassment (no basis in fact).  Use of that particular running joke was spaced out just enough that it didn't get boring.
    Yura Extra
    Anyone who reads the common route probably likes Yura.  Yura is an occult-obsessed yurufuwa girl who can generally be trusted to make the situation funnier.  Honestly, other than Setsuna, she was my favorite female character in this game, so I had hopes that this would be an actual path...
    ... unfortunately, it was just a brief set of scenes with Yura and Hibiki, followed by an H-scene with each.  To be honest, I was saddened, since I liked both characters.  Maybe we'll see an actual path in a future fandisc?  Especially considering that this game doesn't have an official true ending.
    By charage standards, this would be a top-level game.  By nakige standards, it is undeniably sub-par.  To be honest, if this game had only had Setsuna's path or if there was more complexity to the other paths (maybe removing Hio's path, since it was the weakest), this game might be worthy of replaying in the future.  However, as it is, this one is unlikely to drift to the top of my list anytime soon.  Setsuna's emotional darkness and traumas made her path interesting, but the other paths feel like half-assed attempts at nakige paths (Toune's path was reasonably good at drawing at the emotions, but Liz and Hio's path didn't manage it).  
  3. Clephas
    I honestly normally wouldn't bother explaining why I choose not to play a given VN in a given month, but with Hooksoft games, given their rather high popularity, there is a real need for me to say something.
    First, I don't like Hooksoft games.  They are written well, are visually pretty, and generally have moe-stimulating heroines.  However, they are also perfect examples of every reason I can find not to bother with the genre at times.  The characters are cute, there is plenty of ichaicha and slice of life... and the protagonists, no matter their role, are always just 'normal guys'. 
    This game, in particular, managed to make me lose interest inside the prologue, where most VNs manage to catch my interest.  The simple reason is that the protagonist's accomplishments have already occurred in the past, and all that is left is for him to literally pick one of the girls from his harem of the school's best beauties. 
    To me, this felt right off the bat like a cheap excuse to avoid relationship formation issues.  Within the first thirty minutes, all of the girls have confessed their love to him, on one level or another, and he is put into the position of picking one of them. 
    I'm going to say this straight out... I loathe this pattern.  If they'd gone through the student council election campaign in the prologue and hit this in the first or second chapter, I probably woold have been willing to forgive a lot more, but the decision to start in the middle of things was a seriously poor one in this case.
    As such, I absolutely had to drop this one, as it kept putting me to sleep.
  4. Clephas
    For most people who play VNs, taking a break is a normal thing.  Even taking a hiatus of a few months or a year seems to be standard for many in our little community.
    For ten years, for me, it wasn't.
    My new addiction to litrpgs succeeded in breaking me of my compulsive VN-reading for the first time in a decade.  While some might consider this a bad thing (and have told me so), others have said that it was a good one.  Personally, as I've started playing Purple Soft's latest game, Seishun Fragile, I'm leaning more towards good than bad.  Many things that had ceased to be joyful in recent years have regained their luster, such as cheap manzai humor, obvious moe, and general donkan harem protagonist antics.
    I won't say I love that last part (ha, like that would happen), but I can say that my viewpoint on it is less... bitter and jaded than it was before.  I've had a refresh, and 
    I don't regret it, despite how much it built up my backlog with those few games I bought anyway despite not starting any.  One thing I find interesting is that I find it easier to find good stopping points than before, instead of just forging on ahead for a straight twelve hours and then flopping into bed.  I no longer stare at the screen for entire days while downing endless snacks and bottled water.  
    I also didn't want to get rusty on my Japanese, which is why I started up a new VN today.  It was then that I realized that I no longer felt the pressure that still remained, even after I tossed aside VN of the Month.  To me, this was an amazing sensation, harking back to my third year playing VNs, when my love of the medium was at its most fanatical.  
    I've advised many people to take a step back and rest from VNs when they have started to lose their way, but this was the first time I took my own advice... and it worked (even if it was by accident).
  5. Clephas
    I have only recently 'discovered' the litrpg genre (for those unfamiliar with this, the most similar examples I can give are Overlord, SAO, and Log Horizon) of novels.  As such, I'm not going to presume to review things like stat systems and how the stories 'played'.  It would be ridiculous for me to do so (since I'm not a min-max freak who loves all that math), and it would also be boring as hell to listen to here, lol.  I will note some classic tropes:  Protagonists who jump to wrong conclusions about the 'systems', meaninglessly horrific tribulations that seem tailor-made to force the protagonist to grow, a higher tendency toward gamer brain (dual-thinking amorality, a tendency to consider people not from Earth to be soulless NPCs, etc), and min-maxing and/or crafting obsessed protagonists.  
    The Chaos Seeds
    In the Chaos Seeds, a dark force plotting on a Jupiter-sized world called the Land decides to summon humans from Earth using a video game, whereupon he believes the Chaotic nature of the humans of Earth (who all have a bit of Chaos in their souls) will destroy the seals holding his kind.  Richter, the protagonist, is one of the first such individuals.  Richter is a clever man who was also a heavy gamer on Earth, and his reaction to be ripped from his homeworld is oddly muted (at first).  Rather, he quickly throws himself into adapting to his new world, making the best of it, mostly forgetting Earth as irrelevant.  This story has a lot of fighting, crafting, and town-building for those interested in those things.  I will also say that it doesn't make one of the greater mistakes some litrpgs make, such as making brain-shots non-fatal if the individual has high hp, lol.
    Singularity Online
    To be honest, this is one of my favorites (a relatively recent one).  Essentially, the protagonist, a guy named Jeff from a future that seems just one step removed from the horrors of Giga's Baldr series, is a programmer involved with the company making a VRMMO named Singularity Online.  The setting of the game is an interesting combo of Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time setups, with corrupted races, a powerful and unkillable ultimate evil, and enclaves of the Light surrounded by Blight and Darkness.  Jeff, who is a genius programmer and scientist, through the game's system, manages to gain the class of Sorcerer, which allows him to make his own spells (yes, very D&D), though this requires imagination, inspiration, will, and passion to succeed.  Jeff is a pretty all-around awesome guy, in that he has a powerful sense of self, a strong sense of compassion, and a knack for figuring out stuff he wasn't supposed to.  Reading his story as he works is one of the better litrpg experiences out there, at least so far.
    The Silver Fox and Western Hero
    I'll be honest.  This is actually more Wuxia than litrpg, with the only litrpg element being the protagonist's ability to look at his progression in cultivation.  The protagonist of this story suffers from racism constantly throughout the story, with only rare individuals considering him on a personal level instead of a racial level.  Not only this, he is constantly forced to weather assaults from all fronts in his path toward ascendance, with allies suffering for getting involved with him and those he loves constantly under the most horrific of threats.  He is an insanely stubborn individual, determined to find his own path, forever denying the easy way.  While this series can be immensely stressful, it is also very good, so far.
    Ten Realms
    This series begins with the Two Week Curse, which is both the name of the first book and the name of a phenomena where people from Earth spontaneously begin displaying semi-magical abilities before suddenly disappearing two weeks later.  Erik and Rugrat are mercenaries, playing bodyguard to people from a parasite corporation in a war-torn African nation (unnamed), until they get ambushed (due to their client being a total moron) and Erik loses his legs and gets the Two Week Curse.  They immediately begin to prepare, with Erik using his newfound mana to create a healing spell that lets him regrow his legs and Rugrat building a capsule full of guns and supplies to take with them.  They are then taken to the new world, the Ten Realms, a game-like world with a mix of traditional leveling and cultivation.  Most of the series, so far, has Erik and Rugrat forging a path of progression while dragging their increasing (rapidly) number of followers in their wake.  Erik is the one who constantly pushes the limits of what is possible, while Rugrat tends to rest a little more on his natural talent than his friend, while also supporting him in various ways.  One of the most important things of this series is the soldiers' bond between Erik and Rugrat, that of two men who trust each other utterly, knowing both their own abilities and those of their partner.  It adds a rather unusual flavor to the usual litrpg/Wuxia combo.
    These are the series that have left the best impression on me over the last three months.  While I've read almost forty series and ninety books, these are the ones that stood out the most.
  6. Clephas
    Needless to say, when I hit my latest speed bump in the form of another partial burnout on VNs, I was left wondering what to do with all that free time.  For about forty hours of that time, it was Ghost of Tsushima, but when that was over, I accidentally picked up my first litrpg on Kindle Unlimited... and oh god, I almost wish I hadn't.
    The problem, when I analyze it in retrospect, is that my fondness for anime like SAO, Log Horizon, and Overlord had primed me perfectly, my addictive personality instantly latching onto the familiar elements to draw me in beyond retrieval.  While roughly two-thirds of the books I downloaded weren't worth reading, the ones that were left me unable to stop (The Chaos Seeds, in particular).  
    I'm pretty sure anyone who paid attention during the peak of my VN of the Month years can probably guess that I have a tendency to throw myself into my addictions rather than trying to restrain myself.  In this case, it was made worse by the fact that I'd been 'starved' of anything worth my attention (new) for months on end, so when my first litrpg dug its claws into my stimulus-starved brain, I became incapable of stopping.
    In fact, I haven't really stopped even now, despite 70 different books completed from over a dozen authors in just under forty days.  I even ignored last month's releases, despite Phantom Trigger's latest episode having come out.  I don't even remember the VN I was playing at the time anymore, because I've consumed so much content of late between long bouts of stress working with even more stressed out clients who want even more for less than usual.
    I'm mostly writing this post to laugh at myself, since I have absolutely no intention whatsoever of ceasing to indulge in reading the near-endless list of litrpgs available for free with my KU subscription...
  7. Clephas
    Kami-sama no You na Kimi e is the latest game by Cube, and it is based in a near-future setting where AIs run just about every aspect of society.  In this society, people have gotten past that raw terror of AI horror stories and have pretty much accepted the the ease and luxury of having AI run most of the important things that make civilization possible.  
    At the beginning of the story, the protagonist, Kaito, is hacking into Central AI, the AI based on the Moon that runs most of the world's infrastructure.  Triumphantly, he succeeds, essentially gaining control over the AI that rules the world... and the one thing he asks for before getting out of the system is for it to find his ideal girlfriend, which the system then says doesn't exist.  Kaito, quite naturally, is a bit down after this, but he goes to sleep more or less normally... only to answer the door in the morning to find his ideal girl standing outside.
    Quite naturally, this ideal girl is Tsukuyomi, the game's flagship heroine and the embodiment of Central AI in girl form.  As requested, she is already completely deredere over him, and a great deal of the common route has him running from her excessively sexual approaches.  In the days after this, like dominoes falling in a row, he meets a number of attractive heroines, and he shows off the usual donkan protagonist routine almost constantly when it matters.
    Now, just from this, you'd think this was your standard charage... but in actuality, it is a lot closer to a plotge in structure.  The heroines have real issues, the protagonist doesn't flake out or become less interesting as you proceed, and the paths actually have solid stories that involve most of the game's cast of characters.  For someone who wants an SOL plotge with some decent drama in a futuristic setting, this game is pure crack.
    I probably should have left her for last, but I played Tsukuyomi's path first.  Tsukuyomi is the game's obvious main heroine, the girl who is most prominent on the package and in the advertising, and in general is the one most central in the common route.  In most cases, I don't like 'no common sense' heroines, but Tsukuyomi manages to pull it off without it feeling excessively contrived, which is actually a feat, considering she is a robot heroine.  It is helped along by the fact that Kaito generally accepts that Tsukuyomi is what she is, has no illusions about her nature, and is perfectly fine with her being a different existence from himself.  
    Her story is your usual deredere heroine romance at first, but it quickly goes dramatic about midway through, for reasons that should be fairly obvious.  While the templated turn of events in this path is not revolutionary, it is well-executed and interesting.  There is even a truly surprising and emotional moment near the end that had me crying.  That, in itself, makes this path a success.  My only real complaint is that this path lacked an epilogue to tie off the story.
    Rein is the cold-hearted student council president, an honor student with a black heart and an overabundance of pride.  Her path branches off from Tsukuyomi's path and is a great deal weaker, at least in my opinion.  To be honest, this path was kind of 'meh' for me, since it never revealed anything important about the details of what was going on with Rein beyond the basics that were revealed in Tsukuyomi's path, which is a huge weakness in a plotge or a charage.  While the protagonist remains a cool and interesting character, the failures of this path are really glaring.
    Worse, the same as Tsukuyomi's path, there is no real epilogue, meaning you don't get to find out what happened after.
    Rana... Rana is the heroine on the cover dressed like Sherlock Holmes, a cosplay uniform she wears nearly constantly.  As it indicates, she is a private detective and extremely intelligent... but also fairly perverted (she has a thing for Kaito's butt).  Her path... let's just say it is surprising and diverges widely from the events in Tsukuyomi's path (I didn't really like how Tsukuyomi almost became a non-entity in her path, but meh...).  This path... is a bit depressing, to be honest.  Oh, if you choose the Rana-only good ending, it is actually pretty good and heart-warming at the end, but the process you go through to reach that point is pretty hard if you came to like Rana.
    Sophia/Sophia & Rana
    At first glance, Sophia seems like your standard 'yurufuwa oneesan', but she is actually a fairly intelligent adult (yes, she is the adult heroine in this game).  She is Rana's older sister and one of those involved in developing the S-CHIP, an AI chip designed to be implanted into the human brain as an aid to those who have brain diseases.  Sophia's 'path' diverges from Rana's during the darkest period of Rana's path, and... to be honest, while it is easy to understand why it happens, this path is fairly unusual/stand out for a modern VN for reasons I'm not going to spell out here.  
    Anyway, toward the end of Sophia's path, you have to decide whether you want the protagonist to be with just Sophia or with both Sophia and Rana... of course, after a seriously awkward set of events.  Generally, I recommend the Sophia and Rana choice... the guilt-trip you get from choosing just Sophia is pretty awful.
    Kirika is the protagonist's fellow loner, a girl who accuses him of stalking her because they keep meeting whenever they are trying to find places to be alone.  Her secret comes out relatively early in the common route, but I'll keep it quiet since it is funnier if you don't know in advance.  Her path actually begins very much like a charage path.  It is only toward the end where it becomes as deadly serious as the other paths above.  Indeed, in some ways it is the grimmest and most shocking of the paths, even compared to the depressing aspects of Rana's path.  It is also the path where the other heroines showed the least amount of relevance, a fact that I have mixed feelings about, considering how powerful the characters are.
    Similar to most of the paths above, this path's greatest weakness is the fact that while it does have a conclusion, it doesn't have an epilogue or after-story to tie off the last few loose ends.  For that reason, I'm pretty sure they are planning a fandisc, as I can't see them leaving things as is.
    Airi has the dubious honor of having the single weakest path in the game.  She is a net idol that the protagonist meets in the course of interacting with Kirika, and her main focus in life is on her work, despite being the youngest heroine.  Unfortunately, she is also the least unusual personality in the group, meaning that her character is by far the weakest... and her path follows suit.  Where the other paths had somewhat grandiose episodes that showed off the darkest aspects of an over-connected society, Airi's path's drama feels like an extension of internet trolling, so I had trouble getting into it.  
    A good game with a solid setting and characters, this is probably a good choice for those who want a decent near-future sci-fi plotge who have already played Komorebi no Nostalgica and Missing X-Link.  Tsukuyomi is an above-average AI heroine, though she falls short of the genius of Cinema and Fluorite from Komorebi or the raw emotions experienced with the AIs in Missing X-Link.  It's greatest flaw is how it handles the endings, a common flaw in modern VNs that seems to be born of the bad habits of the fandisc-loving charage companies.  It's greatest strength lies in the way it manages to keep the protagonist, the heroines, and the story interesting while balancing it with enough SOL to make them feel real in the first place.  
  8. Clephas
    Baldr Sky Zero is an entirely different animal from Baldr Sky Dive. I say this as a warning for those who are looking for a complete duplicate of the experience. Baldr Sky Dive was very much like a post-apocalypse apocalypse story in some ways, with a bunch of revenge thrown in. There is much to recommend to both duologies but they are fundamentally different in some ways.
    This review is of the first half of the Zero duology, which covers the Sakura, Kei, and Fran paths. I chose to review it separately because the time between each game’s release was enough to make some differences to the experiences between the two games… enough to require me to feel a need to separate them into two different reviews.
    This path focuses on amnesiac Edward, a Simulcram pilot who is discovered in a corporate virtual space by the members of Squall, the SAS (Southeast Asian Sector) branch of Fenrir. He is ‘rescued’ (he mostly rescues himself) and brought back to the base, where – after some ‘interesting’ events – he joins Squall, which is probably one of the more interesting mercenary teams I’ve seen in a VN or anime.
    A few notes on the setting. This story is based a few years before the events of Sky Dive (which is why it is called Zero). The path that most fans believe to be canon to Sky Dive is Sakura’s (for reasons that become obvious during the last part of the path), and the rest of the paths are essentially parallel world paths similar to how Dive treated the non-true paths.
    The SAS is a different animal from the city Dive is based in. Unlike that city, people spend far less time in virtual space in the SAS, due to a psychological phenomenon that causes homicidal paranoia in those who spend too much time confined there called Black Dog. The SAS is in a constant state of low-level warfare, with people being born and dying at an exponentially faster rate than the rest of the world.
    The setting itself is in many ways far more brutal and cruel than the one you see in Sky. In the SAS, human experimentation is as common as soylent green, the body parts of debtors are sold on the open market (often by the debtor themselves before they are killed), and children are produced in lots to be trained as soldiers. Every newborn child has a chip similar to Kou’s in Dive, and the sheer rate of death has resulted in a far higher aptitude for Simulcram piloting than in the outside world.
    Squall, in this harsh setting, is a rare small elite unit… of what would seem to be complete psychopaths if you didn’t have a constant window into their daily lives and personalities. Squall has a horrible reputation for blackmail, extortion, and general carnage, but their abilities make them too valuable to be disposed of. As one character puts it, ‘The people in Squall seem perfectly normal, but once they get on the battlefield, they laugh and joke as they spread slaughter and carnage.’ To members of Squall, even more than to the average citizen of the SAS, war is just a daily activity, and killing not something to get concerned about to any significant degree.
    In just the common route, Edward likely kills more people than Kou does in both Dive games combined.
    However, outside of battle or preparation for such, the character interactions in this game are often humorous, regardless of the subject of conversation. Edward has very little impulse control beyond a certain point, Sakura has a serious potty mouth and a gambling addiction (really, all of them are gambling addicts), Kei is constantly eating, Merrill has no common sense, Reena is constantly ragging on the Commander about his brothel bills, Dmitri is a sadist who never loses at gambling and uses invisible floating turrets to get his point across, and the Commander is a whimsical bastard who loves war, women, and alcohol far too much.
    In other words, this cast of characters, and the atmosphere of the game in general, will be something of a shock to anyone coming straight from Dive or expecting a similar experience.
    Moreover, the shift to polygon-based 3D graphics for the combat makes the gameplay a significantly different experience. The gameplay is somewhat less fluid and streamlined than the traditional Baldr battle system, and the Giga team obviously didn’t have the programming talent at the time to really handle Unity (which means save frequently and expect random crashes even with the last game update).
    Kei... is on the surface a stubborn genkikko with an excessive fondness for food in a world that has a serious dearth of good cooking (though Riina can make soylent green palatable through nanomachine reprogramming).  However, underneath that somewhat fluffy exterior is a will of iron and a typically-SAS pragmatic attitude toward the mercenary life of risking her life and killing people on a daily basis for money.   I mention the latter because, while all the characters share this attitude to one degree or another, it is an unexpected element to her personality in particular, given the template she seems to fill at first glance.
     Kei's route is, as should be obvious to anyone who reads through the initial encounter with her, a trip into her past with Edward (it is so blatantly obvious she knows him from the very beginning, so her efforts to obfuscate make no difference at all).  It is pretty interesting and exciting, and it provides the most intimate view of what it is like to grow up as a normal child in the SAS (hint: It is horrifying even by the standards of a tin-pot dictatorship/banana republic).  It is the route most often recommended to be played first, in part because of this fact.  For most people who play this game, Kei is the least liked heroine, because she does better as a joke character and Merril's sidekick.
    Sakura is... a surprisingly complicated girl.  Your first impression of her is as a foul-mouthed wildcard who has no self-control and a horrible gambling habit (all true), but she is also surprisingly innocent about some things and sensitive about the others on her team in a way that is only rivaled by Riina, who fundamentally misses nothing.  
    Her path is focused on her own past and Church 22, a half-religious organization of virtual drug-addicted wounded and retired soldiers who constantly go on suicidal rampages throughout the SAS network.  Let's just say that Church 22 is very much like a cult, and the Kool-aid is CGH (the virtual drug in question).  It is also the canon link path to Sky Dive, for those who are interested.
    Fran is Commander Goodman's daughter, an underdeveloped girl (the story calls her a loli, so she's a loli, lol) who has a tendency to take solo missions and act on her on recognizance more often than is probably wise.  She is highly intelligent, but her social upbringing (in a mercenary organization that has a high rate of psychological cripples) has left her with a speech impediment when she is outside the spheres of warfare or hostile/semi-hostile interactions with her fellows.  
    This is the only path I'll mark for its romance, though Sakura's was interesting that way too.  This path's romance is very much a seduction by Fran.  She essentially wears Ed down (not emotionally, since he falls in love with her early on, but rather H-wise) over time through sheer persistence.  It is fairly hilarious to watch, though this path may be the reason this game will never get brought over here.
    This path is also about equal in length to the previous two combined (it adds an extra chapter and each chapter is around 25% longer).  The reason for this is because the scale of what is going on is so much bigger than in the previous two paths.  Elements of Sakura's plotline are included in this path, but those are incidental to what is going on, for the most part.  Fran has a rather obvious grudge against Wotan and WALRUS, who are considered the most dangerous group in SAS's net wars (and that's saying a lot, considering how many threats exist).  This path plows a really complicated path through the ins and outs of SAS politics, science, and history, and it has a great deal of potential for traumatizing the reader if they have a good imagination.  
    If it weren't for Fran's and Edward's relationship being so utterly hilarious, this path would be downright depressing.  However, the comedic parts of this path serve to lighten the atmosphere just enough to strike a balance between it and the darker elements.
    If you go into this game thinking to see a carbon-copy prequel to Baldr Sky Dive, then you really need to change how you are thinking.  In reality, this is a drastically different story, though it is still a Baldr story at heart.  Horror, humor, and warfare all in one package... so whether the reader likes it or not will depend mostly on how the reader takes in the content.
    Short Guide to text-hooking Baldr Sky Zero
    I'm just going to come out and say it... all games that use mono or its successor Unity (VNs, that is) have text-hooking problems, for those of you who can't wait for translations but don't quite have the skill or the patience to read the kanji or just want the furigana for reference.  Pretty much your only real options are Textractor and VNR (ITHVNR no longer being workable on Windows 10).  The h-code up on the h-code wiki is a fake, so don't bother.
    Textractor is my recommendation for this game.  VNR doesn't reliably pick up the threads that have the text in them, and it has a tendency to cause freezes, because you can't delete the excess threads that VNR continually detects, causing freezes, load problems, and general annoyance all around.  It makes the game almost unplayable.
    Here is the guide to hooking this with Textractor without making it crash.
    1.  Start Baldr Sky Zero and either start a new game or load an existing one that is in the middle of a story portion.
    2.  Start Textractor (whether you have already hooked this game before or  not, you have to do it this way or the game will crash before you can do the next few steps)
    3.  Hook the game then proceed one line forward in the text.  Do NOT click like crazy to try to get it to work.  Click once, then leave it alone until it proceeds.
    4.  As soon as it has proceeded to the next line, go back to textractor and click on 'remove hook'.
    5.  Look through the drop down list of threads until you find ones that seem to contain most or all the text.
    6.  Delete ALL hooks (by double-clicking on them) that don't contain the text in question.
    7.  Close the remove hook box.  
    8.  Open it again after proceeding at least once more through the text, then repeat the process on any excess hooks that might have popped up.
    9.  Generally speaking, the textractor thread-linking function is unreliable with mono/unity games, so you'll probably have to deal with a few cut-off symbols in the thread that contains all lines (in my experience, it usually cut off the last one to three symbols, varying upon the line).  
    10.  Configure game does not work properly with this game, so don't use it.
  9. Clephas
    *pukes a river of sugar*
    *wipes his mouth clean*
    Ok, I'm better.  This game is very much what you would expect if you came in knowing nothing of Lump of Sugar's past works and only knew the name of the company itself.  It is sugary sweet, adorable, and generally interminable to someone who likes a nice balance between the cuteness and ichaicha and other aspects of a VN.
    That's not to say it doesn't have good points... the common route is pretty funny, if you are a cat lover, and I can honestly say the heroines are attractive, though not all are my type.  I will also be frank that I only played one path (and it was long), Tsuki's path.  I only played one because, by the time the path was over, I was dealing with ichaicha overdose symptoms (including a headache and a desperate urge to go to sleep).  
    Understand, I could see from the beginning what type of game this would be, but mimikko girls are my primary fetish, so there was no way I wouldn't at least try to play it.  If it had merely been a standard charage with a standard-length route and a standard level of ichaicha, I probably would have had a better end impression.  Instead I got a game that had me plowing through literally hours worth of ichaicha in the heroine path before the atmosphere changed and there was some nakige drama that I couldn't fully enjoy because of how tired I was.  
    If you want a game with an excessively fluffy atmosphere and a large amount of ichaicha scenes, this is a good choice.  Otherwise, there are better games out there, lol.
  10. Clephas
    Yes, it is another Takaya Aya game... to be specific, his joint work with Morisaki Ryouto (known for his sci-fi bent and work with Applique).  This work is also considered to be one of his penultimate masterpieces, which is ironic, since the company he created got bought out almost immediately after this game was released, hahaha.  
    Anyway, Komorebi no Nostalgica was one of two contenders for my VN of the Year 2013 and lost out to Hapymaher.  However, given how Hapymaher has proven somewhat difficult to replay (the Christmas arc puts me to sleep every time), and the way I find new things in Komorebi every time I replay it, I'm going to go ahead and say that that decision was probably a mistake, lol.  Komorebi is a meticulously-written game, with so much attention to detail on the part of Takaya and Morisaki that it is literally impossible to pick up everything on one playthrough... and more importantly, it has a strangely powerful emotional impact that can't help but make you reflective on the issues it brings up.
    The setting of Komorebi no Nostalgica is based in the twenty-fifth century, long after the changing climate sank wide swathes of the world's land beneath the oceans and fifty years after a humanoid AI rebellion that resulted in what amounts to a negotiated draw (mostly because the AIs didn't want to wipe out humanity).  The AIs in question are self-aware machines that possess human looks and emulate human emotions using a quantum processor and a unique set of self-developing algorithms.  They are called the Metosera and live alongside humans in a larger society that coexists with human society while they dwell in 'Arks', large towers in the major cities that take on the maintenance and 'procreation' of their race.  The government is now a world government, mostly because the nations that existed before the war were utterly dependent on Humanoids for most forms of manufacturing and manual labor and couldn't continue to exist on their own.  
    This VN focuses on a group of friends that discover an extremely high-spec pre-war Humanoid hidden in the walls of their school building, and the discoveries they make as they rebuild Cinema (the Humanoid in question) and learn from her.
    Cinema is not a heroine, but she is undeniably the centerpiece of the story.  The mysterious 'Store Manager' that customized her (to the extreme) and his intentions become central issues in several paths, and her unique aspects come into play in others.  However, the universal aspect is that her presence sparks a number of issues that were dormant to rise to the surface during the course of the paths.  
    Main Characters
    Shimazu Shouta is the protagonist, a guy who loves retro machines and is great at repairing old hardware and jury-rigging solutions to mechanical problems.  By default, he is the homemaker of the family, since the two women living with him (his stepmother Kagari and his adoptive sister Akira) are both programming geniuses incapable of taking care of themselves.  What stands out in regards to his character is his adaptability and his acceptance of the way the world is.  This is important because it is what makes him an excellent partner for Fluorite in her path and gives the perfect perspective on Cinema.
    Shimazu Akira is Shouta's adoptive little sister, a natural-born hacker with a neural implant and way too much talent for her own good.  Unfortunately, her impulsiveness and intolerance of 'inelegant' solutions to programming problems lead to constant trouble, since she has no impulse control.  She is utterly dependent on her brother, to the same extent as her mother, without the wisdom of years to stabilize her.
    Fluorite Alvega is a Metosera who has spent most of her formative years with the 'group of friends', making her somewhat unusual for her kind, who usually end up spending more time with their own than with humans.  While she has the Metosera tendency to think in straight lines and constantly analyze the world around her, she is more self-reflective and tolerant of the flaws and foibles of humans than many, who tend to be overly straight-laced.  
    Kaja Fruhling is the daughter of two of Kagari's (Shouta's stepmother's) coworkers and was born in Germany.  She is an easygoing girl who shares Shouta's love of motorcycles and scuba diving, and she is generally easy to get along with.  While has some tomboyish aspects, she is surprisingly perceptive and compassionate beneath the surface.  She is an all-around athlete who often gets recruited by the athletic clubs for help, but she isn't interested in joining any of them permanently.
    Sawatari Itsuki is a sharp-tongued young woman who is the most reserved and bookish in a group that is full of straightforward people.  Of the group, she is the most 'balanced' in terms of talent, being a general prodigy (as opposed to one-point monsters like Seijuurou/male-Momoka, Flow/humanoid AI, or Akira/genius hacker).  She is bookish and tends to get put in positions of responsibility, but this is mostly because she has a surprisingly forceful personality that is at odds with her appearance.  She is also feared because of her tendency to wield 'correctness' as a weapon while being perfectly willing to ignore it if it is inconvenient to her personally.  
    Cinema is the Humanoid uncovered in the school's secret room.  Last active the year the Two Years War began, she was designed by someone even Akira describes as a 'genius'.  She displays reactions that can only be described as 'emotional' and 'alive' in a fashion even the Metosera have difficulty managing, and certain aspects of her design indicate an extremely unusual design philosophy.  However, she is undeniably too low-spec to gain sentience in the same way the Metosera did... so the question is just how is it that she leaves such a non-mechanical impression on those who see her...?
    Samon Seijuurou is the last member of the 'group of friends', a muscleheaded martial artist who is infamous for knocking the classroom door off its rails as he runs in just before the bell.  At one point in the past, he wanted to become the strongest fighter in the city and went around picking fights with delinquents from other schools, but he eventually ran out of people to challenge.  He is very simple-minded and straightforward and disinclined to question things.  He has a good heart, but his inability to understand subtlety often trips him up (not to mention that he is an idiot and an open pervert).
    Important Side Characters
    Shimazu Kagari- Akira's birth mother and Shouta's stepmother.  A genius programmer who is utterly incapable of taking care of herself (a quality her daughter shares).  She has a very childlike manner and tastes, but she is in actuality very intelligent and mature (if in an odd way) beneath that appearance.  Her attitude toward parenting is very much a 'wait and see while taking everything in' approach, and this has resulted in her daughter becoming a hacking wild child (who is essentially good natured) whereas Shouta became a mature homemaker despite his natural tendencies.
    Samon Munenori Seijuurou's grandfather and the master of the dojo that Seijuurou, Shouta, and Kaya attend.  He is a veteran of the Two Years War and one of the few veterans who managed to get past his resentment of what amounts to humanity's defeat by their creations (it was only a draw because the Metosera avoided killing humans directly, though some died due to complications later or because they helped the Metosera).  
    Celes is Fluorite's 'mother' and the Elder of the New Capital's Ark, the home of the city's/region's Metosera.  She is a veteran of the Two Years War and one of the first Metosera to obtain sentience.  She has a gentle manner and is deeply compassionate, and her attitude toward Fluorite and her friends resembles that of a gentle grandmother, as she merely laughs off the antics and trouble they got into in the Ark as kids.  She sees Fluorite's oddities, born of her mixed socialization, as a source of hope for the future of her race, and she treasures the relationships that her 'daughter' has formed.  
    Fluorite Path
    If you want the joy of discovering the details of the setting for yourself, do not open the spoiler box.  I'm essentially getting extremely nerdy in the paragraphs in the spoiler box, so if you want my usual completely spoiler-free commentary, just ignore it.  I considered just leaving it in the open, but I concluded that some people would not want to be spoiled about the setting to this degree.
    As I say above in the spoiler box, Flow has a rather stunning gap-moe thing going in her route, with her normally calm, almost flat manner showing serious cracks when she is around Shouta (hints of this can be seen in her reactions to Cinema in the common route as well).  The early part of this route is very telling about both Flow personally and the Metosera as a whole, revealing a great deal about how they think (analyzed partially by Shouta himself, who has spent most of his life around Flow as a friend).  The latter half is fairly action-focused, with Cinema's issues taking center stage (really, in all the paths this happens), and it is very strongly focused on the legacy of the Two Years War.  The climax of the path would have anyone in tears, and I honestly found my heart breaking each of the four times I played this game and this path in particular.  The box below has a very general setting spoiler involved with this path.
    Itsuki Path
    First I'll say that the romance in this path is fairly conventional.  Itsuki and Shouta have known one another for a long time, and they already care about one another, so there is a lot less of a hurdle for Shouta in getting together with her than with Flow, where he had a moral dilemma born of him worrying about how he affected Flow.  As such, I won't comment on the romance any further, since it is little more than a device to help the story along in this path.
    There is an excellent fight scene (by non-chuunige standards) toward the end of this path, and that is something to look forward to for action fans.  However, the true spotlight of this path is
    Yep, that was me geeking out again.
    Essentially, this path contrasts the Metosera's evolution with Cinema's once again.  This is one of the primary themes of the game, and Itsuki's path provides another point to build things up for the reader.
    Also, the epilogue to this path is as good as Flow's if in a different way.  
    Kaja Path
    One thing that is interesting about replaying VNs is that you realize the reasons why you forget things and remember others.  All of the heroines in Komorebi no Nostalgica are extremely close to the protagonist, and all the ones other than Akira can be considered 'osananajimi' (childhood friend) characters.  However, Kaja fits the most perfectly into the osananajimi template, especially in the romantic elements of her path.
    Kaja's role with Shouta is as the 'friend he doesn't really see as a woman', a trope that gets pulled out a bit too often in VNs for my taste (it isn't so bad when they aren't heroines, but when they are heroines, the romance is usually wince-worthy at best).  Because of this, it is no surprise that I avoided this path on future playthroughs, despite the insights it provides on Cinema.   I should note that this path is one of those where there is a massive wall of text between the actual love confession and them becoming lovers (meaning the 'worrying about this and that' period is that long).  
    Unlike the previous two paths, this path doesn't have a major action scene, though it does have some drama.  While this is a much better path than charage equivalents of the same trope, I still hate that trope, lol.  The epilogue, like the previous two, is a 'several years later, after graduation' epilogue, which is always nice, since it is great to know how things turn out for the characters central to the path.
    Akira Path
    If Komorebi was based on D&D rules, Akira would have an intelligence stat of 40 and a wisdom stat of 5.  To be blunt, Akira is something of a spoiled brat whose talent, mother's social position, and Shouta's tendency to spoil her have shielded her from most of the sticks and stones that would have hit someone like her.  Her hacking ability is extremely high (helped by her uncontrollable curiosity and disinterest in restraining herself), but she tends to outright forget common sense in any number of situations.
    One thing that stands out about the romantic part of this path (other than Shouta over-thinking things, as usual) is Kagari is a great mom, despite being incapable of cooking, cleaning, or doing the laundry (Shouta does all these things, lol).  Her tendency to see through Shouta and the others is present in all the paths, but it is particularly in the open in this one.
    Let's just say that this path has less of a philosophical bent than Flow's or Itsuki's and less of a romance/SOL focused bent than Kaja's.  This path's drama is mostly focused around the search for 'Tenchou's' identity and fate after he concealed Cinema.  While there is some action, the actual stakes involved are far less than in Flow or Itsuki's path.  
    Last Episode
    Last Episode is a chapter unlocked by completing all four heroine paths.  It is very revealing about how and why 'Tenchou' vanished from the public world, and it also provides a conclusion to the story as a whole.  Certain aspects of this chapter change based on which heroine you choose at the very first part of the chapter, as this determines which heroine is your canon heroine, lol.  Of course, I always choose Flow... if there is a choice between human and non-human, I will always choose non-human.
    There are some seriously teary moments in this episode... particularly 
    To be blunt, this chapter is really about Cinema and the final purpose for which she was created.  If you, like me, have come to love Cinema by this point, you will probably break down in happy tears.  
    There really isn't anything to the extra chapter (accessed using the usual Takaya Aya code nkmr).  It's basically a short joke skit written for people who have finished at least one of the paths.
    A few stylistic comments first.  Each chapter of this game has an episodic preview that hints at a key aspect of the next chapter.  It is done using the second opening song and credits, and I thought it was worth noting, because while it hints at what comes next, it does so without spoiling things.  It is also notable that the second opening song is just as beautiful as the first one (in retrospect, the music in Komorebi is top-tier, but Hapymaher's god-tier BGMs are so beyond the pale that comparing them at the time couldn't help but be a win for Purple Soft's flagship game).  
    Komorebi no Nostalgica is one of a very small number of VNs that is 'complete' in every conceivable way.  For better or worse, most VNs leave an opening for fandiscs, sequels, or dlc.  However, Komorebi ties off all the loose ends and provides the answers any sane reader having experienced this story would want to know.  Moreover, it does so in a manner that is not detrimental to any of the four heroines or their paths, which is, in itself, an incredibly unusual thing (essentially providing a true path that applies to all the heroines).  
    Komorebi no Nostalgica also touches on a wide range of philosophical and ethical topics, in particular relating to AI and information technology in general.  That this was done without compromising the emotional aspects of the story at all is a tribute to the genius of the writers.
    Final Comments
    If I have any advice for someone playing this game, is that the magic (not the devil) is in the details.  This is a game that rewards people who actually take the time to think about or look up things they don't quite understand from what they are reading, and both Takaya and Morisaki rather obviously created this as a work of love and art, not just business.  There is food for both the intellect and the heart in almost every (non-H) scene, and the characters, especially the main ones, are all well-written and brought to life well in the course of the story, which is in and of itself both touching and food for thought.
  11. Clephas
    This is a list of my favorite artificial (non-magical) heroines.  The reason I thought this up was because I am currently replaying Komorebi no Nostalgica, which is pretty much the top for an AI-focused VN.  
    Emmy from Akabanzu  https://vndb.org/c42670
    Akabanzu itself is an unusual game in that it is a charage focused on a protagonist being forcibly rehabilitated from game addiction.  The AI in this game, Emmy, focuses on a support role, which makes for a surprisingly interesting (and comedic) story.  She isn't one of my absolute favorites, but failing to note her would leave the ignorant with no way to know such a VN existed.
    Tsukuyomi from Kamikimi  https://vndb.org/c85636
    Tsukuyomi is a pretty interesting individual AI.  Designed from the beginning to answer the protagonist's desires, she is somewhat... excessively enthusiastic about what she considers to be her duties.  However, her story as a heroine and a side-character in the other routes is powerful, so I honestly consider her a good choice for a robot waifu.
    Himefuuro from Missing X-link  https://vndb.org/c78927
    Himefuuro is an AI designed to form empathic links with her master, one of two projects (the other conflict-oriented).  I'll be straight and say she is a lot like a cross between an older sister who spoils her younger brother rotten, a psychological therapist, and a maid.  Her role is rather unusual while at the same time being the epitome of what a young male with a scarred psyche would seek from an empathic AI.
    Accela from Reminiscence  https://vndb.org/c12819
    In the underground arcology that Reminiscence is based in, robots like Accela serve a number of service roles, and they have evolved a great deal since the age of Akagoei (which was centuries before).  However, Accela is unusual in that her limiters (especially on emotional reactions) have been removed.  She is the glue that keeps Aki and Hidetaka from breaking into pieces, a dear friend to Aki, and the holder of an emotional debt he won't even allow himself to speak of to Hidetaka.  
    Fluorite Alvega of Komorebi no Nostalgica  https://vndb.org/c11680
    A member of a race of self-aware and independent AIs in the twenty-fifth century, she is straight-out a member of the 'group of friends' in the game, having grown up with them quite literally.  She is still in the process of developing emotionally (a process that never really ends, apparently), and her mechanical origins are obvious by her choice of wording and mannerisms.  However, she does display emotion (if subtly) and cares about her friends (and Shouta in particular) greatly.  As the member of a publicly-acknowledged machine race with equal rights to humans, she is unique on this list.
    Neueblau T MILLA of Re:Birth Colony  https://vndb.org/c44998
    An AI 'child' born of the genius of a single scientist and grown inside a partially biological body, she is unusual on this list that while her origins are entirely artificial, she is nonetheless partially biological.  She is an agent and diplomat for another arcology, and she acts as such, partly out of her duty to search out and handle dangers born of pre-Disaster projects.  As a lover, there is little difference between her and the average human, save that she can switch bodies at need.  Her older sister is married to the protagonist of Fake Azure Arcology in the story's canon and is also an AI.
    Misora of Shiawase Kazoku-bu  https://vndb.org/c23258
    What can I say about Misora?  Think 'standard-issue anime robot heroine' and you won't be far off.  The game itself is more notable than her, similar to Akabanzu.
    Ripple of Aekanaru Sekai no Owari ni  https://vndb.org/c58825
    The mischievous AI main character and main heroine of the sci-fi VN Aekanaru Sekai no Owari ni.  I could say a lot about her, but not without spoiling the game.  The game gets mixed reviews from those who like this kind of thing (mostly because of its age), but Ripple is a pretty good AI heroine, if one that is less 'convenient' as a heroine than most (you'll understand what I mean if you play the game).  
    There are other AI heroines out there (many of whom I have probably forgotten or don't consider to be heroines) but these are the ones that came to mind when I asked myself about AI heroines from games I could feel safe recommending.  
  12. Clephas
    To be honest, I had great hopes for this game, based on the fact that Agobarrier wrote up the drafts for the story before his unfortunate passing.  I thought I'd see the peculiar humor, the deredere-MAX heroines, and the wacky antics that I associated with the original game.  I expected running jokes (frequently used as accents to various scenes), and I hoped that Navel would finally regain some of its original 'magic'.
    Unfortunately, it seems that those hopes are a bit too high.  Perhaps it was inevitable... the team that did this game was partly made up of the writers that have been doing the Da Capo games, which should have told me they would have a less amusing approach to things (though it saddened me that Ou Jackson didn't manage to force things into his style more often...).  The loss of Agobarrier's unique style is sadly all-too-clear in this game, as, while it does channel some parts of the original, the way the most important scenes is handled is far more fumble-fingered and lacking in flare, which is just sad.  
    That said, there were some parts where the writing quality suddenly jumped up massively, such as in any scene where Primula was involved (for some reason).  To be honest, it was that very jump in quality that illuminated just how poorly some parts of the game - in particular the prologue and large swathes of the common route - are handled.  
    What is truly sad is what they got perfectly right... the characterization of side characters.  Primula, despite being, and all the side characters are really well-done.  So it kind of amazed me that the heroines were so sloppily done.  There is far more effective character development done in the common route for the side characters than the heroines (other than Lims, who has good characterization for the most part) considering their roles, which struck me as a horrible approach.  Rishia in particular is a horribly awkward character from the very beginning, and while some of that comes from her character concept, more of it comes from everything from her VA to her sprite poses... not to mention an odd lack of face time in the common route.  Her voice actor is a familiar and excellent one, so I can only imagine that it was the director that screwed things up...  
    To clarify, the heroines that had the strongest characterization in the common route go in this order Lims>Kohaku>Kirara (I hate Kirara anyway though)>Rishia>Nelia.  I say this because Kohaku gets more face time due to living with Raito and Kirara's characterization is so blatantly obvious that it can't help but be effective, if annoying.  Nelia has the least amount of face time in the common route (even if you pick her 'side' of things in the various choices) than the other heroines, and Rishia suffers from her initial introduction.
    What is canon?
    Without spoiling the important stuff:
    1.  It is 100 years since the end of Shuffle.
    2.  A great disaster happened sixty years in the past.
    3.  Primula is apparently an eterna-loli and is still alive and well.
    4.  The current King of the Gods is the son of Shia's much younger (born after Shuffle) brother.
    5.  All characters other than Primula from the original have long-since passed away.
    7.  At least some of the events in each path actually occurred.  
    8.  Rishia was very close to her great-aunt, Shia, who passed while she was still a child.  
    9.  Neria was very close to Nerine, who died childless and was her adoptive grandmother.  
    Primu- errr... I mean Limstone
    Lims was the first heroine I went after.  This wasn't because of any fetishes on my part (my fetishes lead me to Nelia), but simply because she had the best characterization of the non-human heroines in the common route.  Her development and even her story pretty much mirrors that of Primula's, up to a point.  More is revealed to the protagonist than was to Rin in his time, and the development of their relationship - up to a point - feels natural and even touching.
    Unfortunately, the romance is handled... awkwardly.  Considering this comes from a team known for having at least minimal skills in this area (if few others), I was awed at the way the romance in this path felt so unnatural.  While this isn't a path-killer for me (because romance isn't that important to me as part of a story), it was a disappointment.
    On the other hand, the drama in the last part of her path and the path up to the actual relationship formation were both excellent... too bad the ending was a little wince-worthy in terms of quality.
    Nerine's adoptive granddaughter is a seductive young woman who has horrible characterization in the common route (if you read the official character profiles and compare them to the actual heroine in the game, there are almost no similarities).  She has inherited her grandmother's recipe for tamagoyaki, and her path has some eerie similarities to Nerine's in Shuffle (in a generalized sense) without having the same impact.  I won't spoil the original game for you, but I had to wince at the drama used in this path.  
    I'll be honest, if more effort had been put into making Nelia into a real character instead of a caricature in the common route, this would have been a good path.  Unfortunately, very little time was spent on Nelia in the common route relative to the other heroines, and this has an unfortunate dampening effect on the reader's emotional investment.
    I have to wonder after finishing this path if they just intend to partially mirror the paths from the original game...
    Rishia's scenes in the prologue are the single most awkward introduction scenes I've seen from a heroine in a commercial VN from a major name in over ten years... no, ever.  To be honest, considering that intro scenes are something most charage writers do well, I didn't expect the awkwardness I experienced.  I mean, I almost dropped the game inside the first half hour, which I wasn't expecting, considering how much I loved the original.  Rishia's character eventually sheds the awkwardness created by the introductions, but I thought my feelings toward her would be ruined by the introduction to the very end.
    However, her actual path is a complete turnaround from my experiences in the common route.  Suddenly (and jarringly) the quality of presentation goes up and Rishia goes from being a thin caricature of a heroine to an actual person.  To some extent, this also happened in Nelia's path, but part of the reason this path suddenly took on depth for me was the way it tied into the story of Spiral.  In fact, it feels like a direct extension of the political elements of Spiral, which is why it felt much deeper to me than it probably is if you haven't played Spiral.  
    That said, the impact it had was enough to overcome the awful introductory scenes... but it still needs to be noted that this game is horribly flawed, not the least of which by the difference in style between the four writers (why they combined the writers of Tsuki ni Yorisou, Otome no Sahou and that fluff-fest series - Da Capo- I'll never understand).
    Understand, I have no interest in the human heroines in this game.  Kohaku is ok, but I find Kirara to be so annoying that the idea of romance with her makes me want to vomit.  
    Anyway, this game's primary flaws lie in the common route, which is, to be blunt, mostly fluff.  The character introduction for Rishia was botched, and there was a severe lack of face time for the two main heroines.  These flaws don't make the game unplayable, but for fans of the original, it can't help but be a disappointment.  Rishia's route manages to overcome most of the weaknesses of this particularly mismatched group of writers, but that is more because of the existence of Spiral than the inherent value of the story.
    Also, there should have been a path for Marine and Citron.  
    To add to the canon above, I should note that Spiral was apparently written as a prequel to this game.  It occurs a few months before Rishia's arrival in the human world, and it is centered around an agent from the Divine Realm.  I originally thought it was a prequel to Shuffle, but it turns out that it was a prequel to this game, lol.  
  13. Clephas
    Semiramis no Tenbin is a game by Caramel Box, best known in the West for the Otoboku series but who is more generally famous in Japan for being the home of Takaya Aya, one of the better writers in the industry.  This game... is unique.  I say this outright because there literally is no other VN like this.  It isn't the characters or the themes that make it unique (though those are part of it), but rather the sheer impact of Takaya Aya's 'side trip into thinking like a chuunibyou patient' as he put it.  
    Semiramis no Tenbin is a game with two sides, Law and Chaos.  Law is represented by the Fortune-Telling Club's president, Eru, and Chaos is represented by Kamio Ami, the 'demon' of the story... a transfer student who appears in the prologue.  The other heroines are placed at various points of balance between the scales (Sunao for Chaos, Touko for Balance, and Fumika for Law), with Eru and Ami serving as the absolute points of their alignments, as defined by Takaya Aya.
    The game really begins with the protagonist, Hayami Reiji, being blackmailed by Ami after she tricks him into having sex with her by using her circumstances to manipulate him (this is not a spoiler).  Ami is the penultimate pragmatist, an individual who puts results above means, and while she can't (quite) be called ruthless, she comes pretty close to it.  She is a heroine type that is rare to unheard of in Japanese VNs, an extremely manipulative person who wields her genius level IQ throughout the story to create situations in her immediate vicinity that would otherwise never have occurred.
    Much of the common route (two-thirds of which is standard, with the last third being split into Chaos and Law branches) is spent with Ami proposing a result she wishes to achieve, with Eru presenting her argument against it, and the protagonist acting or arguing in favor of one side or the other to decide things.  
    Eru and Ami are both extremely intelligent individuals, whose conversations provide a lot of food for thought, not the least of which because Ami is ingenious at manipulating conversations to go her way, whereas Eru is good at seeing through these manipulations.  While there are only five of these direct 'debates' in the common route itself, they leave a strong impression and provide a reason to come back later, if only to ruminate over what is said.  
    Calling Ami evil would be easy.  She is pragmatic to a fault, doesn't believe in valuing the 'process' of doing something over the results, and she has a tendency to manipulate situations when there is no apparent need to do so.  One thing that is striking about Ami's character, other than the obvious, is that she has extremely good reasons for being the way she is, reasons that are ironically similar to why Eru is the way she is.  
    Ami does have a (very limited) sense of ethics, but these ethics are extremely narrowly-defined.  It is her viewpoint that even if she manipulates a situation and people in a way that has negative results, it was the people involved who made the choices that led to that situation, so it isn't her concern what happens after.  However, if an unexpected factor gets involved to cause such unpleasant results, she is willing to act to counter that unexpected factor.  In addition, she does have a strong affinity for helping those she gets close to, though this also usually involves manipulating and controlling them into better results, because this is apparently the only way she can really involve herself with others.
    Eru, throughout much of the game, has a tendency to react with a logical interpretation of standard morals and ethics.  This is not necessarily because she believes in them blindly but because of how she was raised (it is more complex than stated in the common route).  She is referred to as a 'wall of ice' by Ami and at least one other person during the common route, as she fundamentally defaults to keeping people at arms length and reacting using that same logical attachment to common morals and ethics.  
    That's not to say she isn't fond of some people... she likes the members of the Fortune-telling Club and values her time there, but it also needs to be noted that the situation is unique for her, as she apparently doesn't hold the rest of her positions in life in the same esteem, apparently.
    Fumika plays the role of the sweet-natured kouhai with a speech impediment.  She is very good at worming her way into the affections of Reiji and the few others she trusts, but she is surprisingly detached from most others.  She is also one of only two characters other than Reiji himself who manage to worm their way into Ami's heart in any of the paths (which is notable, since while Ami might become fond of someone, it usually doesn't extend to actually caring about their life and fate).  
    Her path... has so much impact you would never guess that she isn't one of the characters in the foreground of the game's cover.  To be blunt, Fumika's quotes in this path have an impact that have stayed with me for the past six years, often serving to me as an example in the best uses of powerful phrasing at key points.  Fumika rarely speaks in full sentences, so the sheer impact when she forces these quotes out of her mouth without stumbling is...staggering.
    Touko is the game's erstwhile narrator, (though it isn't apparent through much of the game) and the character presented as being the writer of a novel based on the events in the story at the very beginning.  She is also the heroine who has potentially the most intimate friendship with Ami, which says a lot about her hidden perceptiveness at important points.  Normally, she is presented as a 'yurufuwa' character, a bookworm who sleeps through much of the day at school while speaking in slow but clearly enunciated sentences when awake.  She is Reiji's osananajimi and many fans of the game consider her the 'hidden true heroine', as she is the heroine that represents Balance.  
    Sunao is the weakest of the game's heroines.  There are a number of reasons for this, but the most obvious one is that she is deliberately a derivative of Ami (a more normal/healthy minded version).  The most powerful one, though, is that her ending can be considered a second bad Ami ending (there is a bad ending in Ami's path).  I won't go into details, but once you get accustomed to Ami's quirks, you quickly realize what she is doing with Sunao and Reiji, which makes it hard to even maintain an interest in Sunao... much for the same reasons Reiji puts forth if you pick the conversational path that leads away from a relationship with Sunao.  I honestly don't recommend playing Sunao's path unless you are just a completionist.
    Notes on the Common Route progression
    One thing that will probably strike anyone who picks the Law route is that the conflicts are... darker.  To be blunt, the last few arcs of the common route are much darker in nature in the Law route than they are in the Chaos Route, which can be seen as the world bearing out that Ami's viewpoint of results over process being a better choice might be correct.  Ami is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a 'good' person.  However, the story itself states that the results she get are more likely to create a good situation.  I found this an interesting - and possibly telling - choice on the part of Takaya.
    In addition, this game has a tendency to rile 'pure-hearted weaboos'.  I say this because the picture of Japanese society it presents is as unflattering as that of Yume Miru Kusuri... if not moreso.  If nothing else, the portrayals of how 'officials' react to domestic violence are telling of the flaws built into their legal system.
    If you are wondering why I don't go into more details on the routes and the like, it is because it is impossible to do so without spoilers.  I focused on giving each heroine a proper introduction and telling you what to expect from them.  This game is not meant for those who want sweet and romantic.  Most of the paths aren't romantic, except in a really rough sense.  There is love, there is affection, and there is sex.  However, it tends to come in a fashion that is 'dirtier' than most VN readers will be accustomed to, unless they dig into the borderline dark nukige out there.
  14. Clephas
    Normally, considering how far I got into this game, I would have just kept going (I got halfway through, literally).  However, it needs to be said that I only kept going in hopes the game would get more interesting as things went on.
    The answer was no.
    This game uses a system that draws partially from the early Fire Emblem games, partially from the Disgaea series by NIS, and partly is drawn from other Eushully games.  The Fire Emblem elements include the basic 'flow' of strategy rpg battles, leveling up where stats randomly appear (it is purely random, I know from some deliberate testing with saves), and an intermission where preparation for battle occurs.  The Disgaea elements primarily reside in the 'Ritual' system, where you can use various rituals to strengthen your allies, level them up (by expending Ritual Points) and sacrifice or contract captured monsters (the former giving you Ritual Points, the latter giving you a new unit).  
    A few negative aspects, first.  No battle is repeatable in a single playthrough, there are no 'free battles', and battles take a ridiculous amount of time to finish.  The reason for the last part is simply economical.  If you don't take the time to capture as many enemies as possible, you'll be unable to maintain a capable army.  As such, capturing a good portion of each map's enemies is not a convenience... it is a necessity.  This is not to mention the other Disgaea-like element, which is putting a bunch of sub-missions into each battle, which you fulfill for ritual points and items.   Treasure chests have to be opened by an ally unit with the unlocking skill.
    The positives next.  If you aren't trying to capture enemies, the battles are actually quite interesting.  The ritual system has an immense amount of potential (if they'd taken the time to make it deeper with a wider variety of potential paths for unit evolution), and capturing monsters only to use them as sacrifices later is totally fitting with the game's aesthetic.
    Now let's get to the story... never mind, there isn't one.  I'm not kidding.  For beating a battle that took you thirty minutes, most often you'll get a very, very short scene (think thirty seconds for a fast reader) and get sent back to the intermission.  There are technically scenes in the intermission (called interaction scenes), but these are generally equally short... and halfway through the game, I've only found ten total, for all the characters I have combined (most of them just excuses for h-scenes and new skill acquisition).  Technically, I guess you could count the ubiquitous contract h-scenes (one for each female unit type and one for a small minority of the males), but I don't.
    All in all, this game wasn't providing me with any joy for the amount of time I put in (think thirty minutes of story for twenty hours of play), I so just dropped it.
    Edit: As a side-note, the potential ways to improve this game are so blatantly obvious a five-year-old could figure it out.  They needed to create a large number of interaction scenes and extend the story scenes to make it actually worth digging into it.  As it was, the tiny number of interaction scenes I'd experienced halfway through the game (despite having leveled the named characters thoroughly) only taught me what the heroines were like when they were naked.
  15. Clephas
    This game, is to some extent, a redemption of my hopes for Ensemble.  I say this from the beginning because I will inevitably be critical in a familiar way about some parts.  However, this game was far closer to Ensemble at its best than we've seen in the last six years.
    The story is set in an academic city in a school that has a weird setup where individuals who want to get involved with student government join the Knighthood, with Chevaliers and apprentices serving in roles from librarian to student council president all under the same title/role.  The protagonist, a ninja (yes, a ninja) essentially transfers into the school because of evidence that a hacker/political activist/mischief-maker called the Bat is using it as their base of operations.  
    Essentially, the role of the ninja in this setting is as a sort of secret police that exist to stabilize the nation's politics, quietly manipulating things so the worst of the worst get knocked out of power without disrupting things and taking down terrorists and other problems before they surface.  The protagonist is a young member of this organization (which is deliberately nameless) and has several successful missions under his belt.  His personality is serious and loyal to his mission, while having a surprisingly strong sense of decency and justice without letting it get in the way of what is required of him.  He is fairly capable, but, by his own description, he is at best near the middle or somewhat above it in the organization's ninjas.  He is unfamiliar with women in general due to having grown up basically doing nothing but training to become a ninja (honestly, this part of the setting makes the least amount of sense, since classic ninja settings have the ninja deliberately making their personnel familiar with sex to use it as a tool or prevent it from being used against them).
    To be honest, this setting made me rofl a bit, since it almost felt like a 'pirates vs ninja' kind of setup, and he does, indeed, face off against a few of the knights during the progress of the story.  
    One thing that struck me is the improvement in the action scenes from other Ensemble games.  While they are still more generalist than some would like, they are far more detailed than is the norm in non-chuunige, and the CGs are actually halfway decent.  The protagonist shows off his abilities only occasionally during the story (mostly because combat isn't his job), but when he does, it is sufficiently impressive to satisfy.
    Story-wise, this game actually has a story *pauses for screams of shock* which is something most Ensemble games of late have lacked (maybe they finally figured out that while fluff sells at first, it doesn't make for repeat customers... nah, this is a Japanese company we are talking about).  The common route serves as a more than adequate introduction to the heroines, and choices are kept to an absolute minimum - one - which was pleasant (to be blunt, excessive meaningless choices do nothing but disrupt the storytelling).  
    The heroines are: the overly serious but compassionate knight Kagura; the mischievous but pragmatically idealistic Knight Captain Mai; the unsociable but kind-hearted and capable coder Yui; and the overly enthusiastic but troubled (deep under the surface) wannabe ninja and classmate Kanon.
    Choosing Kagura for my first heroine was a no-brainer for me.  I'm a sucker for serious warrior heroines from old families, and she fits the bill nicely.  I will say that I disliked one part of how they handled this part... despite the fact that she has restrictive and controlling parents, there is no actual conflict with said parents in the path.  That said, the actual drama that is present is better than decent, and Kagura is a great deredere heroine once she falls for Jin.  
    In this path, Jin takes up a number of roles other than lover toward Kagura.  He is a sparring partner, a friend, and a protector (despite her being capable, he is moreso, lol) which struck me as unusual for an Ensemble game, where it has become the norm to kill any talents the protagonist might have in the heroine paths.  
    If I have one serious complaint about this path, and it goes for all the paths in this game, is that Ensemble still used the 'we are going to have a fandisc where we tease at adding content but don't actually add anything but H' system for the endings.  While there is a significant climax to the story in this path, there is a distinct lack of after story beyond the usual 'a few days later' copout.
    Since Mai shares VAs with Maia from Hapymaher, it is literally impossible for me not to pick her early on.  Okajima Tae (under various names) has voiced a surprisingly large portion of the best supporting female characters out there, along with a number of truly awesome heroines.  She has a particular flair for mischievous but deeply perceptive characters, which fits in perfectly with Mai's characterization.  
    Mai's path is similar to Kagura's, albeit it is more wrapped up in the internal politics of the Knighthood than in the personal issues of the heroine herself.  The role the protagonist plays in this path differs, in that Mai serves in the 'older sister wife' type role, pampering him in a way that his mother doesn't (though she dotes on him too, lol).  He does aid her in similar ways (both with behind the scenes activities and by helping her perfect her swordsmanship), but his role is more blatantly supportive in this path.
    The ending of this path is, again, a decent climax with not nearly enough after story.  This path in particular could have done with a 'five years after' epilogue, because of the nature of the decisions Mai made toward the end of the path and the resolution of both Jin and herself in regards to those decisions.
    Yui is a fairly straightforward archetype.  Her character is the overly serious and socially inept nerd with sister issues.  She is kind-hearted and finds it difficult to turn away those who come to her asking for help, but few people get past her tendency to present herself as being a somewhat thorny individual.  
    Yui's path is the first path in the VN that actually focused on the Bat, which is perhaps another area I should have complained about, but since the Bat isn't that interesting in concept as an antagonist, I mostly wasn't bothered by it in the previous paths.  Unlike in Mai and Kagura's path, where there were serious combat scenes present, this path is more about the slow revelation of one aspect of what is going on behind the scenes through solving Yui's issues.  
    Jin's role in this path is very much that of the older partner in a romantic relationship, but it is also a surprisingly equal relationship, perhaps because Jin doesn't need to worry as much about hiding his abilities from Yui as he did from Kagura or Mai.  
    This path does have a good climax, but again, it lacks an after story to close things off.
    Kanon is our wannabe ninja girl... a foreigner (as usual, Northern Europe with no country name given, lol) who got hooked on ninja anime (the hero type) and by accident discovers Jin is a ninja (though not his full identity, which he conceals throughout all the paths).  She is a bright and cheerful girl with a strong sense of justice and a compassionate heart... though she is more than a little bit of an innocent.
    Her path is, like the other paths, full of various incidents and drama with a huge amount of ichaicha on the side.  It was a decent path, but she isn't my type, so I can't say I was emotionally invested this time around.  There are some good - but very short - fights in this path, but they are mostly one-sided affairs.  Like the three previous paths, this one lacks a good after story.
    Secret is the name I given to the overall 'incident ending' that you can access after finishing all three paths.  In this ending (basically, it can be interpreted that any of the girls is your heroine), you finally get to discover the antagonist's identity... and it is one that might surprise you.  There is also a really good battle scene to treat you to, and the reasons for the antagonist's actions is a bit of a surprise... 
    This is, by far, the best Ensemble game made since Ojousama wa Gokigen Naname.  It doesn't make it to kamige level and it shares the ending problem that most of the more recent Ensemble games have had, but it has a decent story, good characters, and enough drama to be memorable.  While I'm probably not going to place this on an all-time favorites list, it is one of my favorites for this year so far.
  16. Clephas
    The final game in the Silverio series enters with a whimper and exits with a bang.
    First, this game absolutely requires that you have played the previous two to appreciate.  Too much of what is going on requires understanding of concepts that aren't reintroduced but constantly referenced throughout the game.  This game is based only a few years after Trinity in Canterbury, the theocratic state ruled by a Japanophilic religion based on seeing old Japan as a sort of El Dorado.  
    I should note that the brief summary of the concept I am about to give WILL spoil parts of Trinity and Vendetta, so I am going to ask that anyone who wants to avoid these skip down past the next paragraph..  I also recommend that anyone who has played the previous two games that wants to start Ragnarok avoid the official website and store pages' descriptions and character profiles at all costs.  While most of the information there is revealed within the first hour or two of play, it does hurt the experience that so much is revealed just by reading up on the game in advance.
    Ragnarok starts as a revenge story, wherein the protagonist - Ragna - and his childhood friend - Misaki - set out to take revenge on the four immortal gods who founded and have ruled Canterbury for the past thousand years.  They are accompanied by Cecile, the current head of the Liberati family of Antalya and they are allied with Angelica, an Inquisitor of the Church.  
    Now, I should note that a recurring theme throughout the story is that the four immortals are not, as is standard to most stories, full of weak points that can be easily used against them.  They are immortals who have long-since left behind the weaknesses of their youth.  They have such an immensity of experience behind them that they have literally seen (in a general sense) every variation on rebellion, love, hate, betrayal, etc that humans have to offer.  In addition, their brains are still young, so they are constantly learning, and they instantly process everything around them based on preexisting experience.  I feel the need to make the distinction partly because it is constantly emphasized at every point of the story and in part because my own assumptions were sort of left in the dust by this approach to immortality.
    I'll be blunt, while the first scene is dramatic and awesome, the pacing of the early part of the game is pretty abrupt.  I think this is worth noting because it is out of character for Light, which tends to produce games that start out at a pretty deliberate pace before accelerating rapidly as you approach path splits.  This led to an uncharacteristic disconnect with the characters for me during much of the common route, which is perhaps the most negative part of this game.  In addition, there are a lot of aspects of this game that are more... intimately gut-wrenching and visceral than either of the previous two games.  In particular, any major scene that involves Izana threatens to give me nightmares, because she seems like someone you would normally see in a Clock Up game.  I also felt a constant sense of pity for all the people used by the antagonists.  To be honest, the degree to which the antagonists quite naturally manipulate people without it seeming like manipulation makes Gilbert from Trinity look open and honest.  
    Now for the main characters.  One thing I liked about this game is that the main characters had actual reasons for being so deadly beyond mere 'fate' or natural talent.  Ragna and Misaki are mercenaries (with Ragna having been an unwilling comrade of Dainslief at one point), Cecile was raised from birth to her role, and Angelica both has unmatched talent and has worked to polish it.  One problem that constantly hurts many chuunige is the obsessive tendency many games have to give massive power to someone who has no training, no knowledge, and no skills to use it.  It might make newbies find it easier to empathize with them, but for someone a bit more jaded it can be highly irritating.  
    The music in this game utilizes a mix of music from previous games in the series, as well as new tracks.  In this case, it works to the game's advantage, because it provides a distinct sense of continuity between the three entries in the series.  This is especially the case for the few SOL scenes and the less climactic battle scenes, where a new track would be unlikely to help.  
    For people who hate Izana as much as I do, Angelica's path can be seriously depressing at times.  Of the three paths, it pushes the plotting aspects of the four immortals into the forefront the most bluntly and in the most distasteful of ways.  There is no sense of the glorious (a common experience in Trinity and Vendetta) in the battles, save for one midway through, and there is a lot of devastation left in the wake of the story's progression (even by Light standards).  
    Angelica is an Inquisitor, as well as being the one in control of the foreign pleasure district, and she has a good brain to match.  This is a girl who has survived by hiding her rebelliousness and utter hatred for the four immortals for the entirety of her young life, always acting the obedient servant of the gods.  As such, she is as twisted up inside as some of the series' antagonists, and she makes Chitose from Vendetta seem simple and straightforward.  That said, she is an Amatsu, so she is predictably extreme in her loves and hates.
    This path's most excellent moments mostly concentrate near the end, with there being a lot of plotting and losing battles (which can get frustrating) in the middle.  That said, without the buildup of all those tragic and frustrating moments, this path wouldn't have turned out nearly as good.
    Cecile is the head of the Liberati, one of the Ten Families of Antalya, an oligarchic nation ruled by laissez-faire capitalism at its worst.  As such, she has a definite dark side... but with Ragna and Misaki she is easygoing and loving.  In fact, with Ragna she aggressively shows her loving side... while showing her bloodlust in private whenever they speak of the antagonists.  Other than Ragna and Misaki, she has the most intense hatred for the game's antagonists, and the impression of her as a blood-hungry avenger is only enhanced, rather than weakened, by her friendship with the other two avengers.
    Her path is more straightforward than Angelica's, but it still has a ton of plotting by the path's two primary antagonists.  What would be a perfect plan to the antagonist of a normal chuunige antagonist is only the first of many layers for the antagonists of this game, and this path shows the sheer cold-blooded nature of that plotting without the more grotesque aspects you see in Angelica's path.  I'd say that the battles in this path are slightly improved from that of Angelica's.
    ... it is fairly obvious that this is the true path from the beginning, but even without that, the fact that this path is literally 2.5 times longer than the other two heroine paths would tell you that in any case.  Misaki is Ragna's childhood friend, partner, almost-lover, and best friend all wrapped into one silver-haired package.  Normally, she is a cheerful, easygoing country girl with a slight tendency toward eccentricity.  However, in the worst kind of battles, she can show a cold harshness that is at odds with her normal persona.
    This path has so many turn and turn about moments that I won't bother to explain them here.  Just let it be said that this path was a fitting... a more than fitting end to the series that I wished would never end.  There are so many points where you think things are over and suddenly the apparently losing side turns the tables that after a while, I just felt like I was going to drop from sheer emotional exhaustion.  
    This is, by far, the most complex of the three games.  As such, it is also the most challenging for the reader to keep everything that is going on straight.  Considering that both Vendetta and Trinity were fairly complex, even as chuunige go, that is definitely saying something.  I will say that, while the pacing can be choppy toward the beginning, once things really get going in the heroine paths, that clears itself up pretty quickly.  This game, like most Light chuunige, has great battles, great characters, great writing, and a great story... and it probably will never get translated, lol.
    I'm sad to see this series end, and I am even more sad not to know the future of Light's staff or even the Light name (I'm still hoping that Akabei will keep the team together).  However, if it had to end, it does end on a bang.
  17. Clephas
    Ogishima (Brandole) Jun
    The son of Id Brandole and Yukari of the Ogishima family.  He was raised as a human by his mother, who sealed his vampiric nature on a regular basis since early childhood.  While he seems mild-mannered on the surface, he has an incredible capacity for rage and ruthlessness in defense of those he considers family.  He is highly intelligent, even brilliant.  At the beginning of the story, Belche arrives to inform him that, if she thinks he is fit to rule, he will take over the Brandole Family of vampires and marry a woman of good family (Lian).  Jun, while he resents the intrusion at first, quickly adapts to Belche's presence in his life, coming to see her as a mentor, a second mother (who loves him deeply and makes it obvious in a number of little ways), and vassal.  His tendency to value 'family' (in a broad sense) over anything else is apparently shared by all men of his bloodline.  As a Shinso/First, he is technically immortal (he can be killed but will eventually resurrect given time) and will turn anyone he bites or shares bodily fluids with.  His blood, saliva, and other fluids feed his vampire virus to his servant vampires, maintaining their lives and powers.  

    Belche (Elceranto De Annoyance)
    Belche is perhaps the most interesting character in the game.  She was originally from Ireland (up to four hundred years ago, as the rumors and historical records are blurred and she herself states she forgot just how old she was), and she was turned into a vampire by Id Brandol in order to grant her revenge on those who had harmed her.  She relates her experience of growing into vamprism as a process of 'staining a white canvas, as my common sense was blotted out by a frightening darkness' in a tone devoid of any emotion.  To the entire Ogiwara 'family', she is a mother figure, gentle but strict, wise beyond words.  To the enemies of her family, she is death and horror itself, the Witch of Cacophany, who brings death and horror with her wherever she goes.  (it is also remarked a few times in the story that she is the most powerful Second to have ever existed)
    "My flesh is untouched by age and undying.  Even should I die, I shall rise again and again for the sake of my master.  For my name is both the strongest and most terrible.  For those who hear my name, let those who are correct find tranquility... and for those of evil heart, may they hear the echoes of Hell... I am a servant of the Brandole Clan, Elceranto De Annoyance.  All of my existence is solely for the sake of my master... Pleased to make your acquaintance from now on, Master." 

    Lian Lucie Dimermore
    Lian is a lesser First of the Dimermore family, which is known for the sheer amount of the vampire virus they carry in their blood.  At first she comes across as arrogant and ignorant of the ways of the world outside of vampire society, but she is also deeply loving.  Having been raised as a noblewoman intended to marry the successor of the Brandole Clan, she was originally promised to Id (who was MUCH older than her), a fact that did not in any way displease her, as he was one of the few adult vampires that didn't treat her as a bother or a tool to be used.  She has the ability to alter the minds of those around her, and she has a tendency to use it with casual ruthlessness on those she considers lesser.

    Rika Pembleton
    Draculius's resident tsundere, a fake nun from a vampire-hunting organization who is insanely trigger happy, has problems with details, and is something of a zealot.  Her fiery nature causes her a great deal of trouble, and she becomes Jun's first 'child', to both their dismays.  Like many tsundere characters, she actually has an immense capacity for emotional dependence, and she also has a strong need to have a purpose in life, which is one reason why she is so zealous in her work.  She is also Jun's first lover.  She gains the ability to alter the flow of time, which also allows her to alter the trajectory of her bullets (an ability that was eventually given to the protagonist of 3rdEye's Bloody Rondo, along with part of the terminology used in this story).  Of the characters, Rika probably changes the most obviously depending on which of the two paths, the joke path or the true path, you choose to go down.  
    Takayanagi Misao
    One of Jun's closest friends, a trans girl who constantly clashes with Jun and Shuu for teasing her (because they both think of her as a boy and Japanese society didn't recognize trans officially at the time this was made save as a curiosity or a trope).  She is fairly simple-minded, though reasonably intelligent (she gets good grades but is easily tricked and manipulated).  She is something of a glutton and more than a little childish, constantly being mothered by those around her to a ridiculous extent.  She is not a heroine in the story, though she wishes she was.

    Xeno Jailburn
    Lian's werewolf servant (she is also a vampire, since Lian's and Id's virus was used to allow her grow up healthy) who is obsessively loyal to her mistress.  Despite her loyalty (which is absolute), one of her favorite pastimes is making fun of her somewhat naive mistress, and her sense of humor is definitely the most hilarious in the game.  Like her mistress, she has a deep capacity for love, but that capacity is very narrowly focused, usually limited to people she considers family (which is a very strict delineation in her mind, stricter than Jun's).  She takes great pleasure in rubdowns in her wolf form from those she trusts, but earning that trust is not easy, to say the least.  She has the ability to turn into a liquid, which allows her to do things like hiding in Lian's shadow or entering areas through cracks in doorways.  
  18. Clephas
    Ou no Mimi ni wa Todokanai is one of my favorite games by AXL, which has consistently made high-quality games since the middle of the last decade.  Ou no Mimi is based in a medieval fantasy village in a nation that is still recovering from a war that wasted most of an entire generation of young men's lives.  The protagonist, Cactus (generally called Cas), lives his daily life as a self-proclaimed bodyguard for Baree Village while skipping out on working in the potato fields and taking long naps at the riverside.  However, at night he really does protect the village, patrolling the area to look for bandits, wild beasts and monsters, and various other dangers that might harm the village.
    Cactus was originally a spy and assassin from an organization known openly as the Izayoi Knights and behind the scenes as the King's Ear.  During the war, he carried out all sorts of dirty work for the King, ranging from assassinating enemy commanders to purging traitorous aristocrats.  However, in the last days of the war, he was used as bait, along with his friend Collum, and his friend was killed in the process, though not before asking him to bring his heirlooms to his grandmother in Baree Village.  When he arrived at the village after a long period of wandering, Collum's grandmother's kindness gave him a purpose, in quietly protecting his friend's village and family, while never letting on he was doing so.
    Now, none of this spoiler material.  All of it is revealed in the prologue or in the Getchu page.  However, a lot of people don't take second looks at AXL games because their art style is different from the current trends (though it has been refined over the years).  So I felt a need to go into more detail about the setting than is usual.
    Now, this game, is for the most part, a medieval slice-of-life game with occasional moments of serious drama (in both the common route and the heroine routes both).  This game probably has the darkest moments of any game made by this company, with the possible exception of Shugotate 2.  Cas was a master of assassination and misdirection, and there are times in each path where he gets to show off that expertise.  His primary weapon is the needle, followed by the long dagger.  He is also a master of poisons and various chemical concoctions which he uses to provide specific effects, which can range from mundane stuff like laughing endlessly to instant death or the complete loss of all memories.  
    The four heroines are Coreo, Thistle, Peony, and Jinnia.
    Jinnia is the princess of the Reste Kingdom in which Baree Village sits.  She is a proud but kind-hearted princess with high ideals who can nonetheless admit when she is wrong.  While she has led a very sheltered existence, she lacks the arrogant disregard for commoners which is common to her fellow aristocrats, and this leads to her being a much more interesting character than  most variations on the princess archetype.
    Coreo is the daughter of a former mercenary and bandit who has spent most of her young life looking after her father and his small gang, who now work mostly by hunting meat and exchanging it with the villagers for veggies and various other goods.  She fell in love with Cas at first sight and has been pursuing him for years, but she is innocent of most of the details of what goes on between men and women, which can lead to a number of amusing situations.
    Thistle (pronounced as Shizuru) is a poverty-stricken aristocrat girl living alone with her butler in the run-down manse at the edge of town.  She is sweet-natured and compassionate, as well as being a glutton with a stomach that seems to have a black hole inside.  She is also immensely clumsy, constantly tripping over her own feet or getting into other messes that put her in compromising positions (think lucky sukebe).  
    Peony is an apothecary/doctor (literal Japanese term is kusushi, which is a pre-modern word for a doctor who is trained in the use of herbal remedies as well as minor surgery and diagnosis of various common ills) who is dispatched to Baree Village shortly after the beginning of the story... and turns out to be Cas's estranged adopted sister.  Kind and impartial by nature, with a tendency to be harsh with Cas's apparent laziness, she serves as a tsukkomi character throughout much of the game.  She is also the game's main heroine, though none of the heroines are neglected in any way.
    I have already reviewed this game in the past, so I'll conclude by saying this is an excellent game with well-written routes with just the right balance between SOL and drama in a medieval setting.  For those who want something based outside of a school in modern Japan, this game is an excellent choice.
  19. Clephas
    Kanojo-tachi no Ryuugi is a game made by 130cm back in 2006, during the 'golden age of VN innovation'.  Like many of the games made during this period, it is far less bound by convention than you see in modern VNs, which has its ups and downs (as most games from this era do).  In this case, the most striking element for modern VN readers would probably be the fact that the protagonist is fully voiced.  The second is that, in most of the H-scenes (of which there are plenty), the females are the dominant side and the protagonist isn't a bed yakuza even when he is dominant, for the most part.  
    Essentially, this game's story begins when Kotaro, the protagonist, is called back to his estranged family's home after his mother dies of illness.  There, his twin older sisters, Tobari and Akane are waiting for him... but their attitudes are odd.  Akane, the older sister, has become active, mischievous, and selfish, and Tobari, the younger, has become a cold, expressionless young woman.  There is no sense that he is welcomed into his old home, despite the fact that he and his sisters were once very close.  
    Things become a bit clearer when he discovers his sisters are vampires (and bisexual), and he ends up having sexual relations with both of them (Tobari reverse-rape and Akane essentially psychologically cornering him into doing it).  Worse, there is no sense of actual affection from either of his sisters, who apparently can draw sustenance from the acts.
    Now, the reason why I drew out these initial scenes is because they aren't really spoilers (my rule limiting spoilers to the prologue at max), is because you need to understand that this, typically of most of 130cm's games, is a heavily incestuous story (literally and metaphorically) with some seriously twisted relationships resulting.  There is love, but it is often only referenced laterally or after a great deal of pain on all sides.  Kotaro has serious hangups that keep him from forming healthy relationships with anyone (mostly because of his weird relations with his sisters, Tobari in particular), and the girls aren't that much better.
    Really, it is recommended that Suzuki and Seseri be handled first by most people who read this VN, but I always end up going for Tobari first... mostly because figuring out all that is going on in her head is seriously hard the first time around.  Tobari is a genius in general but also a genius when it comes to acting in particular.  The drama club and its play, which serve a central role in all the paths to one degree or another, is her idea, as is drawing in Kotaro as the heroine (yes, he does dress up).  While there is another club president, she is the obvious leader of the club.  Moreover, her forceful personality and overwhelming acting talent pretty much keep anyone else from really even considering disobedience toward her.  
    Her relationship with Kotaro, in their childhood, was that of really close siblings, but the changes she began to experience (vampires in this setting are atavistic throwbacks to previous generations who lose the ability to have children, live eternally, and must consume blood or life energy through sexual intercourse in order to survive) shattered their family without Kotaro every knowing why.
    Her attitude toward Kotaro is cold and distant, except when she suddenly draws him into sexual relations or the drama club in general.  She loves Akane and will show emotion toward her easily, but in most other matters, her expression remains flat.  Her path is a journey of unwinding the twisted ball of yarn that is her emotions toward Kotaro and the circumstances that make everything about their relationship difficult.
    Akane is technically the older sister, but at first glance, you would guess her to be the younger.  She is more active, she is less mature, and she has no intention of controlling any of her impulses.  Anything that feels good (drinking blood, having sex with Kotaro, eating food, etc) is good for her, and she has no interest in struggling to do anything she doesn't feel like doing.  
    As a child, Akane was sickly to the extreme, rarely leaving her bed and unable to do even the simplest of activities for the  most part.  For her, vampirism was salvation, though it cost her five years with her younger brother (she does care, but her hedonistic nature dominates mostly).  While she isn't precisely affectionate toward Kotaro (there is some affection, but, again, her hedonism tends to hide it), she is affectionate and loving toward Tobari.  Despite this, Tobari can be considered to be the 'dependent twin' of the two.
    Akane's path is more about dealing with Akane's own inability to understand certain aspects of her sister's feelings toward Kotaro, the harmful aspects of her impulsiveness, and Kotaro himself.  It is more straightforward than Tobari's path, but it also has some serious issues, some of them leftover from before she became a vampire.
    Suzuki is a misanthrope who only trusts Seseri.  She is described as 'excruciatingly beautiful', but her manner, especially toward Kotaro, tends toward the acidic in the best of times.  She has a rather extreme version of the aversion many women of her age have for sexuality in general, though it does have a good reason.  
    Her path is more about Kotaro getting past his siscon and her getting past her dislike of him (and herself) than anything else.  Of the heroines, she is by far the most psychologically fragile, despite her thorny persona.  She understands Kotaro the best of the heroines, when it comes down to it on a fundamental level, and this becomes rather evident toward the conclusion of the path.
    Seseri is your standard deredere kouhai and Suzuki's best friend.  Seseri is a really straightforward and innocent girl who hits everything head on, yet she is also sensitive enough to get down in the dumps at times, though she usually gets right back up.  The very first scene of the game has her confessing her love to Kotaro and him refusing her.  
    Her path on the surface seems to be an odd couple romance, but in fact it is a bit different.  Seseri's feelings toward Kotaro never change, she loves him and she is really open about this fact.  
    Honoka's path splits off pretty late from Akane's path, before things get all twisted up with Tobari and requires that you have played Akane's path to pursue.  Honoka is the retainer (not maid) for the Shirogane family (Tobari and Akane) and a sort of blood bag for the two vampires.  On the surface she is a mature older woman, but underneath she is pretty girly.  
    Her path is the most straightforward romance in the game, with an incident bringing her feelings for Kotaro into the open and forcing her to confront them.  She has some real-life hangups that make for some mild drama toward the end, but her path ends on a pretty familiar (for charage readers) note.
    Chisato is the game's tsundere osananajimi, and she is also perhaps the most template of the heroines.  For this reason alone, I would have wanted to avoid her path, but since I'd already gone through all the other  paths, I felt I had to finish hers as well.  This is perhaps the only path in the game where the protagonist's past is revealed in something other than the words of the protagonist and heroines.  There are a few flashback scenes that are pretty revealing about a young Tobari and Chisato, and it does add to the story in general... but it also felt like the writer was favoring the least interesting heroine in the game a bit excessively.
    Like all the heroines except Seseri, she has issues.  Chisato has an inferiority complex toward Tobari, whom she considers a friend (Kotaro also has one toward Tobari), and she is by nature a hard worker who makes up for a lack of talent by putting more effort and time into things.  The path is pretty revealing about Tobari as well... however, it feels like Tobari's path should have been the one route-locked, not Chisato's, in the end.
    Black Moon
    There is no need to hide this, but this is the game's true ending.  This ending serves as an alternate ending to Tobari's path and is fairly dramatic.  To be honest, I found this about ten times more interesting than most of the other paths in this game, save for Tobari's original one... which is probably the point.  the first half of this path is the Tobari path told entirely from Tobari's point of view up until a certain turning point, where Kotaro takes an action that is different from the original.  
    This game has a number of flaws, not the least of which that there really only needed to be three heroines (Honoka, Tobari, and Akane) and the fact that the actual paths feel abrupt at points, showing the peculiarly odd pacing that was common to a lot of games from the time.  However, it is also a nice game for people who like messed up and twisted relationships that don't stray into NTR or rape-related stuff.  
  20. Clephas
    Realive is Purple Soft's latest game.  For those unfamiliar with Purple Soft, they are the makers of Hapymaher and Chrono clock, and their specialty lies in nakige with fantasy and/or sci-fi elements.  As an example, Chrono Clock has the time-manipulation watch, Amatsutsumi has 'kotodama' (the ability to control people and some phenomena with words), and Aoi Tori has divine and demonic powers.  In this case, the characters are drawn into playing an AR game called Alive, which grants them strange abilities based on how far they have progressed in the game.  Since these abilities actually bring about real life results, I call it a 'mystical app', lol.
    Anyway, this game was written by Nakahiro of Hoshimemo and AstralAir fame.  In combination with the sheer eroero nature of Purple Soft's artists' character designs (since his previous works that weren't nukige were mostly 'cute' games) it definitely presents a different picture from what you would expect from Nakahiro at first... but as you progress through the game, you will inevitably - if you have played his previous games - come to recognize similarities in how he handles the emotional and comedic elements to his previous works. 
    The common route of this game is mostly light-hearted, though it shows at times the deep worries the various heroines and protagonist have (on the surface level).  For those familiar with Hapymaher (which is translated), it becomes evident that Nakahiro is a fanboy of that particular work pretty early on, as he deliberately inserted many small easter eggs into the character personalities and settings that are drawn from the characters of Hapymaher.  Sadly, he doesn't seem to have been fond of Saki (how could anyone play that and not love Saki?!!) but the heroines seem to have carried on a lot of elements from Hapymaher characters for some reason... though I won't spoil it for you.  Have fun figuring out which characters inherited which Hapymaher elements, lol.
    Anyway, there are four heroine routes in this game and one Grand Route (just a different name for a true route, save that it usually has a bigger focus on resolving central elements of the main game's story as opposed to the heroines' individual ones).  I'll introduce the heroines as I go.
    Kaya is, on the surface, your classic arrogant/selfish ojousama.  She has distinct manipulative tendencies and a strong need to be on top, no matter what the situation.  However, that surface hides a crybaby who lived a sheltered but strictly-regulated existence that tried to squeeze all traces of personality out of her.  This is not that uncommon in ojousama heroines, but the way Kaya is presented is cute, generally speaking.  Her class is Alchemist, which oversees destruction and creation of objects.
    Like all the four initial heroine routes, this one focuses on resolving Kaya's issues as she tries to complete the game, which is often difficult, since the conditions of the missions given by the game are often vague and designed to help the characters grow and face their inner demons... and Kaya's demons are a doozy (those this can be said about all the heroines to one extent or another).  While some of her issues might seem minor to someone looking from the outside in, it is nonetheless made easy for the reader to empathize with her suffering.
    This path was my first experience with how the endings were going to be handled for this game... and the ending was something of an exercise in frustration for me, primarily because there is so much hinting at the background setting without giving me answers to match up with my suppositions.  In addition, since we have no way to see how things progressed between the events at the climax of the path to the epilogue (this is deliberately not spoken of), I found myself wishing that they'd left epilogues to after the game was done completely.
    Minato is a loner by choice, living a hard life working part-time jobs to keep her in food and shelter while attending high school.  She actively hates the idea of trusting others, and she resents deeply the hypocrisy of those who try to help her out of pity.  Normally, she presents the picture of a 'koakuma' heroine (and that's what she is), but she is also a rather obvious tsundere, albeit one who only shows her true tsun when someone manages to embarrass her.  Her class is Trickster. 
    Minato's path is... much more viscerally emotional and at the same time amusing than Kaya's path.  I chose her second because she was the other 'outlier' heroine amongst the four initially available (I almost always pick heroines who aren't already close to or in love with the protagonist first, since osananajimi and deredere classmates are usually boring).  She resists both the idea and reality of her romantic feelings for Chihaya (the protagonist) for a long time, and her reactions to those feelings were just hilarious... up until the point she finally gets down to being deredere, then she is even more clingy than Kaya, and that takes work.
    Minato's theme is 'overcoming dependence and making peace with the past', and it was much more effectively executed than Kaya's path... that said, i do still have complaints with how the epilogue was handled.  However, that's the case with all of the four initial endings, so I'm just going to grin and bear it.
    I'll go ahead and get this out in the open.  Nemuru and Satsuki are the heroines I had no interest in from the beginning.  Satsuki is an osananajimi in the classic 'cooks and cleans for him' style (albeit not tsundere for the most part) and Nemuru is your typical shy girl who has trouble speaking with men.  Nemuru's class is, ironically (at least on the surface) Idol, and her skills are all centered around gathering or controlling the attention of others. 
    My major problem with Nemuru's path came down to the fact that Nemuru was the heroine, in the end.  As a path, it is actually fairly good, even if it lacked a lot of the non-standard twists and turns seen in the previous two paths (incidentally why I picked those two heroines first).  However, Nemuru's character was irritating to me (shy heroines who remain shy for most of the game drive me crazy), and while she grows a great deal as she overcomes her trauma (much like the previous two), I was left unmoved due to my lack of interest in her. 
    Again, her path is technically good, and a less-jaded player would undoubtedly be able to empathize more with her (the me of two or three years ago probably could have), but I've grown used to not bothering to tolerate heroines I don't like of late, so my reaction was probably inevitable.
    Satsuki is the osananajimi neighbor, living with her younger sister Yayoi.  She constantly wants to take care of people, especially the protagonist, and she intentionally matches her time leaving the house to his... do I have to enumerate anymore reasons why I left this path to last?  lol
    Anyway, Satsuki has a strongly self-sacrificing personality with an intense desire to help and protect others.  This is reflected in her class, which is Knight.  Her path is perhaps the second most emotional (for me) so far, right behind Minato's.  That said, her existence as an osananajimi and an essentially 'normal' person pretty much eliminated any possibility of me preferring her as a heroine, hahaha.  Her path is all about overcoming the loss of something precious, and as such, it is inevitably a tear-jerker. 
    Grand Route
    Early in the Grand Route, the reason for the links to Hapymaher become clear, and about a third way through, it becomes clear why all the events in the other path occurred.  I'll be blunt... you'll probably spend most of the first third of this path in tears, if you have a heart.  It is also an extremely familiar set of themes and setting ideas for someone who has read Hapymaher, so I can clearly state that this game is a Hapymaher derivative rather than just supposing it might be. 
    This path forces the protagonist and the heroines to face their largest trauma, the one not mentioned even slightly in the other paths.  This trauma... is bad enough that I'd honestly be tempted to rename this an utsuge.  However, typical to Purple Soft's nakige brand, the ending is a happy one, if somewhat bittersweet.  I know I cried.  I will say that the protagonist's solution to the problem was... novel and typically convenient of a Japanese nakige, lol.
  21. Clephas
    I hadn't paid attention, but this series was apparently made by a subsidiary of the same company that owns Minato Soft... which explains the familiarity of the humor and the sound effects.
    Shukusei no Girlfriend 2
    This entry in the series focuses on Maya, the heroine who serves as an antagonist initially in the first game.  Maya is a very straightforward girl with a strong desire to take care of those younger than her.  She is very much a warrior maiden with a strong motherly side (which she shows frequently).  She is also a tennen character, meaning the humor in her path lies mostly in her continual failure to understand exactly what is going on until it smashes her in the face... particularly when it comes to the protagonist's normal sexual desires.
    Unlike Yuuri, is a misandrist, Maya is more of a tennen boke (one of those types who doesn't recognize romantic inclinations for what they are).
    Shukusei no Girlfriend 3
    This path focuses on Kanoko, Yuuri's best friend and the slightly yandere-ish girl you are introduced to in the first game.  Unlike the first two, which occur around the same time period (2 starts about a month or two after the point where 1 began), this one occurs a year later, after Maya and Petra have settled solidly into their new roles.  Unlike the previous two games, which forced the heroine and protagonist (Seiji) together within the first ten to twenty minutes of the game, this one takes about twice as long to reach that point, showing Seiji gradually falling for Kanoko while Kanoko comes to realize he exists (Kanoko isn't exactly a people person).
    This is the longest of the three games... the first two each took up about four hours of my time, whereas this one took up about five and a half hours.  This is perhaps because of Kanoko being the most complex of the three heroines by several degrees...  There are a few serious points to this game, but even during the serious points there is a lot of ecchi, H, and comedy.  Kanoko's dere is... dangerous.  Well, all three heroines have a powerful dere (constructed by several months alone with the protagonist), but Kanoko's stands out for the fact that she is a closet pervert of a rather hard persuasion as well as a natural nympho.  Well that, and I liked the long stretch there in the middle where 
    Fujiko Disc
    Fujiko's path is of decent length, and it is basically an ichaicha-only path with none of the battle time you see intermittently in the other paths.  Nor does it have an actual plot.  Rather, it uses the same setup as Yuuri's path from the first game to create a live-together situation between Fujiko and the protagonist, with the result that they end up together.  
    Overall for the series
    This is a pretty good series of games if you want to play something heavy on ecchi, ichaicha, and Minato soft style comedy.  If you are looking for tentacle rape and aku-ochi, you will be (mostly) disappointed.  
  22. Clephas
    Shukusei no Girlfriend is the first of three games in the series, based in a world where mahou shoujo-like girls calling themselves Stars fight demons to protect humanity... a pretty standard setting that, in most games, would mean lots of tentacles, aku-ochi, and general mayhem that would range from the mildly distasteful to the outright disgusting.  While in anime (non-hentai) most mahou shoujo are fairly straightforward and rigidly formulaic battle anime, in VNs, mahou shoujo usually end up on the wrong side of tentacles and/or monsters in the worst kind of way.  Shukusei no Girlfriend, however, is neither... it is essentially a series of live-together rom-com vns.  
    This one focuses on Yuuri, the genius wielder of light magic whose power is only matched by her arrogance, laziness, and narcissism.  Normally, she puts on the face of being your standard 'pleasant to everyone' girl, but when in her Stars form, she shows her self-worshiping face as she exterminates massive numbers of Demons with her powerful light magic.  Unfortunately, one night, she gets mortally wounded while failing to protect the protagonist (Seiji) and their lives get linked together... and they can't go more than a meter away from one another without dying.  Yay! A perfect excuse for a live-together rom-com!  
    Anyway, Yuuri is a bit of a misandrist, and at first there is a bit of mild domestic violence.  However, the game soon shifts to a mix of ecchi, Yuuri being hilariously arrogant and occasionally showing her weak points.  Generally speaking, the actual plot of this game is nonexistent to weak, but it is a generally amusing experience with nice ichaicha, an excellent cast of equally amusing female character, and a great ending (I love ten years later endings).  
  23. Clephas
    The Recluce Saga, despite being a somewhat niche 'high fantasy' novel series, is perhaps one of the largest and most monolithic such series to have been written in the last forty years.  Beginning back in the eighties and spanning more than twenty books now, it is LE Modesitt Jr.'s signature series, the series that propelled him from a somewhat eccentric author of varying science fantasy and science fiction novels and series to one of the quiet dominators of high fantasy as a genre.  
    The Recluce Saga setting is defined by wars, conflicts, and clashes between normal society and the mages of the two forces known as chaos and order.  Chaos is energy, change, destruction, and entropy, whereas order is structure, reinforcement, defense, and healing/restoration.  It is very easy, if you read the early books, to regard users of chaos as 'evil', and it is true that a disproportionate number of them are evil.  Order users find it extremely difficult (painful and sometimes deadly) to be dishonest in any fashion, to kill, and even to touch edged weapons at times.  Chaos users fling firebolts, break down the structure of objects, and corrupt/corrode the people and world around them.  Chaos users and those who are touched by chaos are natural liars and deceivers, often selfish and ambitious, and they generally can't be trusted at all. 
    However, later books, regarding the foundation of Hamor and the Cyador era (both in the past) show that there are chaos users who escape the fate of those who not only use chaos but let it into their souls.  Lorn'alte is a man who has the passion and ambition of a chaos user, combined with the idealism and sense of what is right that one who can also touch order possesses.  In a nation built on the use of chaos, he sees what is best about his nation and strives to make it stronger, even as the forces of those whose ambitions are entirely selfish and those driven by irrational fears try to destroy him again and again.  Lerial, the second son of the Duke of Cigoerne, has a journey from a somewhat petulant child of a chaos wizard to a mature adult who understands the costs and necessities of protecting the fledgling nation his grandmother formed.  Perhaps the greatest gift these two series granted me, as a long-time reader of the series, was transforming white mages from faceless schemers and destroyers to people with cares and woes not so different from the average person, just enhanced by their power.
    The earlier books primarily focus on events around Recluce and the order users.  Recluce is a nation formed by one of the most powerful weather mages (weather magic being born of order) in history and a gray mage who was bound to him.  Recluce is a nation born as a refuge of order users, who are often disliked by those in power because their benefits are subtle and their ability to see truth (and the knowledge they don't lie) is well-known to the average person.  However, by the time of the first book (Magic of Recluce) Recluce is one of the greatest powers in the world (a defensive-isolationist power but still a power), with steam ships made out of black iron and mage-engineers forging weapons that no chaos mage can stand against.  Most of the protagonists of the various arcs of the early series are young men who are idealistic order mages, who don't learn until after many painful trials and tribulations that the world is what it is and what is right is not necessarily what is.  This is an issue for many young order mages, apparently, because of their tendency to view what is right as what should be (order mages have a tendency toward rational morality that is somewhat rigid).  Moreover, as a result of their journeys through life, they experience suffering on enormous scales, as they must deal with the world's backlash to their attempts to make it better.  Many end up unleashing terrible destruction and change upon the world, ironically creating the very chaos they themselves sought to reduce.
    And that comes to the nature of the Balance.  In the world of the Recluce saga, the two forces are always, no matter what, evenly matched.  For every iota of order energy in the world, whether bound in objects or free in the world, there will always be an equal amount of chaos present.  As Recluce builds itself up, chaos mages become more plentiful and powerful, and it becomes possible for Recluce and artificers in general to make better and more effective weapons from iron and steel, thus also incrementally increasing the amount of free chaos in the world.
    Most of the protagonists in the Recluce saga are good people at heart, often forced into situations where they have no choice but to kill, destroy, and bring about change in order to make things better for the future.  They are people who can see beyond the immediate, who often see generations and centuries into the future, and they possess the inner steel necessary to change things... even as their actual desires are often more humble in origin, to have a family, to be able to work a forge without fear of caprice from the powerful, to see that their female children not be used as chattels, etc.  This is a theme throughout most of Modesitt's fantasy, as the basic motivations of his characters are humble while resulting in great change, because of the expanded viewpoint they gain as a result of their journeys through life.  
  24. Clephas
    Orefuka is the newest game by Hulotte, a company infamous for making extremely ecchi charage with actual plot.  In this game, the protagonist, Haruki, is given pills that make him invisible by a net idol named Kusunoha Chitose, and he begins using it to stand in the same room while the heroines get naked, masturbate, etc without even a hint of hesitation.
    Haruki is a young man who sees everything around him as an opportunity for fun, and he sees not having fun as a waste of time.  If he finds an idea or activity interesting, he will do it without hesitation, and he doesn't hide the fact that he wants to see all the heroines naked at all.  That said, he is not just an open pervert protagonist.  Rather, he uses his open perversion to hide a tendency toward quietly helping those around him, though he isn't always aware that is what he is doing.
    The common path is an endless series of him sneaking in to see the heroines naked along with comical reactions, and SOL scenes full of heroines either going along with his 'nori' or acting in the tsukkomi position.  
    Nayuri is the student council president, a brilliant young woman with an eidetic memory, as well as one of the heroines who goes along with the protagonist, constantly dropping hints that she doesn't have any problem with him going through with his openly-stated desires involving her.  Her route is... extremely ecchi.  There is serious drama in toward the end, but it is resolved in a classic manner that was so predictable I had to shrug and give a wry smile.  I did like that she turned out to be a total nympho and she wasn't kidding at all in the common route.
    Ame is the protagonist's cousin who lives with him and her older sister.  She refers to him as 'nii-san' and is fairly obviously in love with him, even before a certain scene in the common route.  She is very serious and straight-laced on the surface, but under the surface is an endless lake of deredere brocon imouto jelly.  As the game's resident tsundere, quite naturally her dere is pretty ridiculously adorable.  However, the sheer amount of effort it takes to get to that point in her route is seriously ridiculous.  It doesn't help that her route is one of those 'sex before confession of love' routes.
    On the surface, Kohaku is what is referred to as a 'cool beauty'.  She doesn't show her emotions, and she has a tendency to just quietly do what is required of her without complaint.  However, she is actually has the most common sense of all the heroines (including Ame, who is essentially a pool of molten dere inside whose common sense melts away when it comes to nii-san), and it shows in the way she gets together with Haruki.  Unlike the two paths above, it isn't a 'sex before confession' route, and it makes sense that way, seeing as she is the most 'distant' of the four heroines initially available (Chitose being locked).  The lack of intensive previously-existing intimacy (emotional or physical) means their relationship comes together in a more natural form.  
    Kohaku's path after the romance is formed is a bit more of a 'kandou' (touching in a non-cathartic way) type, as opposed to the somewhat nakige (and nearly identical) drama at the end of the previous two paths.  Kohaku is also a lot more straight-up adorable than Ame and Nayuri from the beginning (Ame being a tsundere and Nayuri being a mischief-making oneesan type).  
    Towa is what is called a 'gyaru' heroine, a heroine who dresses and does makeup in such a way that it is both flashy and fashionable (by Japanese standards).  One thing I should note about these heroines is that there is a huge gap between them in nukige and charage/moege.  Gyaru heroines in charage/moege are usually using their fashion-love to cover up a fragile but kind/sweet heart and/or some kind of trauma.  In nukige, they are usually nymphos who are selling their bodies on the side.  Keep in mind that this is one area where the two umbrella genres split rather dramatically.
    Towa is a kind-hearted kouhai with a love of gaming who is very weak to peer pressure.  She is pretty obviously deredere over Haruki (like most of the heroines) from the beginning, but she isn't self-aware enough to realize it.  Her path stands out in the way it handles the plot device that played such a huge role in Nayuri and Ame's paths, as well as the 'different' approach it had.  Sorry I can't go into specifics without spoiling it, but this particular template was used in a very conventional fashion in Nayuri's and Ame's paths, whereas Towa's path gives it something of a twist.  Towa and Haruki's relationship is something of a traditional 'transition from good friends to lovers' path, albeit without quite as much in the way of relationship drama as such situations tend to bring up in charage that don't have a story to provide real drama.  Towa does have a personal issue that becomes central to the path in general, but it isn't quite as severe as Nayuri's or Ame's.  Overall, it was a good path, though not a godly one.
    Chitose is the game's true heroine and the provider (AKA drug dealer) who provides Haruki with the invisibility pills.  She is a virtual idol who attracts her followers through a mix of random daytime talk, cute mannerisms, and humorous interactions with them through paid comments.  Haruki is also one of her most devoted followers.  While she seems whimsical and easygoing on the surface, underneath lies an endless sea of desperate loneliness and self-denigration.  
    That said, her path seems to be one of hope regained, despite the way it begins (incidentally, the scene where things start to tip toward romance is unbelievably rofl-worthy, hahaha), up until the point where you run into her underlying trauma...  though, needless to say, this trauma is resolved to an extent (as you would expect, since this isn't an utsuge) and she is 'saved' (truthfully, after playing this path, I wince to think of her fate in the ones besides Towa's).
    Harem Scenes
    This is basically an extra scenario where you can pick from a number of sub-heroine and threesome 'endings' that don't have any story.  It doesn't add anything but fap material and laughs, lol.
    Overall, this is a decent game for someone who wants a charage with high ecchi and H content and a central storyline.  I'll probably forget this game fairly soon (charage are usually forgettable, even when they have stories), but I can still honestly say it is a good VN.  In particular, the way the protagonist uses the invisibility and gets used to staring at Ame naked regardless of the path (it becomes routine, which his funny in and of itself) makes me laugh.
  25. Clephas
    To be clear, I dropped this game today after about nine hours of playtime, mostly because I wasn't getting any joy out of it.  That's not to say the story wasn't interesting, but...
    Anyway, Soushin no Ars Magna is the most recent release from Ninetail, the rpg-focused sister brand of Dual Tail, the makers of the Venus Blood series... and it shows.  
    This game reuses a modified version of the gameplay from Venus Blood Brave, which was a more dungeon-exploration oriented game than previous entries, which tended to split between conquest strategy and dungeon defense or invasion.  To be blunt, this was probably a poor choice for a game where alchemy plays such an integral part.
    The dungeon exploration in the game is focused on you moving your party down specified paths one point at a time, hitting traps, enemies, treasure, or materials based on the point.  This isn't necessarily an awful idea... except that for purposes of gathering materials for alchemy, it makes things unnecessarily tedious.  While alchemy-based rpgs and dungeon crawlers are generally at least a little tedious at times, the relatively low returns for dungeon exploration, whether in terms of money and resources or in terms of experience and materials, makes it necessary to abuse the free dungeons... and since you can't just get what you want then leave immediately and the materials aren't always the same, this can be frustrating.  This also means that there is no real sense of exploration, which is one of the attractions of a dungeon explorer game in the first place.
    Story-wise, the game definitely has possibilities... but the sheer amount of grinding it takes just to strengthen your party through level gaining, finding crests, and alchemy makes it feel like you do a lot for relatively little reward.  Considering that I'm comparing this to Venus Blood games at their worst, that should tell you a lot.  
    My impression of this game is a half-hearted attempt to reuse a more polished version of a previous system to make a few extra bucks.  While the story has possibilities, the game balance is iffy at best, and the lack of better customization items speaks of laziness on the part of the makers.  
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