kjorteo: Scan from an old Super Mario Bros. comic,, of King Koopa explaining something to his son with an 8U facial expression. (Koopa: 8U)
Those who know me know I, uh, kind of have a problem with overexplaining things. It's just something I enjoy doing, and the impulse is very hard to control. You may have noticed my SoulSilver LP is on track to be like eight hundred thousand words or more by the time it finishes, and probably at least some of that is due to occasional "For those of you who have never played a Pokemon game before, you throw a ball and there's a certain percent chance depending on...." asides. But trust me, I promise you, what you're seeing now was after I went back and cut out as many of those as I could stand before it became almost physically painful to cut anymore. You should have seen the rough draft.

That being said, last night I had a dream where I was on a team-based game show that looked like some sort of Knightmare/Crystal Maze/Laser tag crossover; teams put on special vests, entered the maze, and then presumably stuff happened. I'd apparently seen this show zillions of times before and knew the procedure by heart, but for whatever reason, our team getting our usual orientation like we were supopsed to. I kind of had to take over that role instead, and the rest of the dream devolved into, "Guys, I know no one said anything but we're actually supposed to all file into this room first to get the mission briefing before we start. It's like an out of the way broom closet I know but the secret door is right here. Guys, no. Guys, you can't enter the main hall yet, you don't even have your VESTS. GUYS."

I'm pretty sure that dreams like this are a sign that the problem is more serious than I thought.
kjorteo: Portrait of a happy Celine hugging a big plush snake. (Celine: Plush)
We briefly interrupt your not-really-regularly scheduled gameblogging because this is still my all-purpose journal and sometimes I write about life stuff too. I mean very very rarely, but it can theoretically happen! This DW is still like 95% games and I'll Poke more Mons as soon as I can, don't worry.

So, I have this plush snake, Snakey. I've had him literally since I can remember (you can tell I was young when I got him because his name is Snakey) to the point where I don't even remember where he came from--as far back as my memory goes, he's just always been there. Between seeing The Brave Little Toaster way too many times as an impressionable child and growing up into someone whose fursona is a literal packrat, suffice it to say that childhood things like Snakey are very, very important to me. To the point that I've commemorated him in a couple of my commissions here and there--that's him in the icon for this post, for example. And here he is IRL after being repaired and restored with fixed seams/more stuffing/new felt eyes and mouth/etc. as a Christmas present in 2013, which was one of the most special, meaningful presents I've ever received.

Today, I happened to get curious about where did he come from, since I couldn't remember, so I asked my mom. It turns out that he was originally a Christmas present from my grandfather to my mom, when she was around 10 or 12. My grandparents had the foresight to hang onto things like that in case grandkids ever happened, and I ended up inheriting him.

I don't have much of a point to this entry, I guess (this is one of those things you write under the "I can dump whatever's in my head because it's my journal" excuse) but I'm just... wow, Snakey is, like, fifty. I had no idea he had so much history, you know? Toy Story 3 fucked me up hard and now I've just kind of been sitting here Feeling Things all day.

I'm gonna hug him so much (gently though!) tonight.
kjorteo: Portrait of Celine looking aroused and making bedroom eyes at the camera. (Celine: Aroused)
Last time: Azalea Town was a perfect feel-good nostalgia trip, except for all the strife.

Let's un-strife the place a bit, shall we? )
kjorteo: Screenshot from Laura Bow 2, of a horrified-looking stuffed porcupine beneath a dead body with blood around its mouth. (Nightmare fuel)
Before getting into this entry, I would first like to give huge thanks to [personal profile] xaq_the_aereon for this lovely artwork! To be honest, I started this run with a sort of glum "I don't expect anyone to read these or care, but I've already written them so I may as well post them I guess" outlook, but... wow, you know your playblog is doing something right when it has fanart.

This really re-energizes me. If people are going to be inspired by this blog, then I want to make this blog inspiring. I want to continue on with this adventure, and make something grand enough to be worth this kind of reaction. I want to live up to this.

I don't feel like I have to, mind. Not in the "oh no now people are watching and I'm stressed out" way, or at least not yet. I feel like my disclaimer in the first entry still has that covered pretty well. But at least as of this writing, I want to keep going with this.

Thank you, [personal profile] xaq_the_aereon, for the encouragement. May you enjoy today's entry as much as I enjoyed your lovely gift!

Last time: We ventured to Violet City, did a bunch of stuff, and got a gym badge.

Let's assess the current team and keep going from there, shall we? )
kjorteo: Portrait of Celine exercising, with a workout headband. (Celine: Exercise)
Last time: I finally learned how to catch Pokemon (thanks, I never knew) and acquired a Hoothoot named Scout for "you'll see why next time" reasons.

Let's see what that's all about, shall we? )
kjorteo: Screenshot from Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, of Bulbasaur smiling and looking excited. (Bulbasaur: Excited)
Right, so, last time we devoted an entire entry to the title screen. What happens if you actually start the game?

Let's find out! )

Next time: Off to Mr. Pokemon's house! Maybe I'll get more than five minutes into the game before derailing on some entire-entry-requiring tangent, but since I know what's coming, I kind of doubt it.
kjorteo: Portrait of a happy Celine hugging a big plush snake. (Celine: Plush)
I started playing this game when it first came out, and I really loved it, but I never finished it. My memory of the experience was that the game was fantastic, but maybe a bit long and samey after a while. I sort of got the point early in world 6 (out of 8) and got bored and stopped. It's been on the "I really should finish this one someday" shelf ever since, and now I finally did. Enough years have passed since then that I was fresh and rested on the Squeak Squad experience, so clearing out the final stretch now was fine. However, even the three worlds this time felt like "Yes this was a good experience, I am content with this and am pleasantly full now," so I can see how I might have gotten tired and overstuffed from the prospect of doing eight.

So, there's my overall impression, I guess: Squeak Squad is phenomenal, and if an abbreviated version of it had been in, say, Super Star or some other collection like that to keep things varied, it would easily have been my favorite game in the entire collection. As a full title, though, I am inclined to agree with my past self's assertion that it runs a bit long. It's a shame that there's too much of a good thing here, though, because I really cannot overstate just how good the thing itself is.

Squeak Squad is a fairly traditional Kirby-style Kirby game (which is kind of saying something in a series that's known for Canvas Curse and other experimental oddities) that's probably most similar to Dyna Blade from Super Star, if I had to pick a point of comparison. It has that Mario 3-like hub world maps between stages, anyway. You can float around and get Copy powers and blah blah the actual draw to Squeak Squad in particular is, of course, the Squeak Squad.

The primary antagonist for most of this game is The Squeaks, a gang of rodent thieves bent on stealing all the treasure in Dreamland. For some oddly specific reason, that includes making double extra sure Kirby can't have the delicious strawberry cake that he was about to eat before it was tragically stolen. Seriously, every faction in this game spends the entire game treating Kirby's cake like it's the Ark of the Covenant. Even Meta Knight gets involved because cake is that important. That's a Kirby game for you, I guess. Because eating is serious business in Dreamland, Kirby will stop at nothing to stop the Squeaks from stopping at nothing to stop him from stopping them.

It's all typical Kirby plot nonsense but I'm saving the best part for last because LOOK AT THESE SQUEAKS. Especially look at their leader, Daroach, who boldly answers the burning question everyone has always been dying to know: "What if Plok's fursona became a magician and then a thief?" He is my new favorite character in the entire Kirby franchise and I love him forever.

Seriously, even their theme music is great. The "Squeak, Squeak!" effect between certain sections is the cutest thing.

(I mentioned Meta Knight is in this too, which is also fantastic. He is my other favorite character in the franchise behind only Daroach, because he is basically an actual canon in-universe version of someone's grimdark DeviantArt Kirby OC. He tries so hard to be Christopher Nolan/Christan Bale Batman in a world that stubbornly insists on treating him as Adam West Batman, and it's incredible every single time. So yeah, this game gets high marks for its cast, for sure.)

Every stage has up to three treasure chests in it. The HUD on the map screen very helpfully shows you how many you've collected, making it very easy to know where to look if you feel like hundred-percenting this game. (Which is recommended, actually, because later it pulls a nasty trick where five star fragments from various chests scattered about the first six worlds are needed to access world seven and continue the game.) Most contain things like alternate palette swap options for Kirby, music packs for the sound test mode, and various extras like that. The typical stage formula sees every treasure chest except the last one be hidden through some side passage or something along the way throughout the stage, and then the last one is in the last room and involves facing off against one of the Squeaks for it. (Grab it and reach the exit while they're chasing you, it's right next to the exit but you need to get there before the Squeak does, beat it out of the Squeak in a straight up miniboss fight, etc.)

It's all good fun and there's not much else to say I guess because I mean it's a Kirby game, but it's a GOOD Kirby game. Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to go back to making heart-eyes at my magic squeaky boyfriend.
kjorteo: Teary Bulbasaur portrait from Pokémon Mystery Dungeon. (Bulbasaur: Teary)
Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition is the best Lilo and Stitch/Super Meat Boy/Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest crossover fanfic I've ever-- wait hold on let me start that again.

So, once upon a time in IM, [personal profile] xyzzysqrl sent me this recommendation:

"As far as I know, you enjoy:
Difficult platformers.
Nonlinear Metroidvania style games.
Cute things.
Crying.

Have you seen this game?

http://store.steampowered.com/app/387290/Ori_and_the_Blind_Forest_Definitive_Edition/"


Never let it be said that Sqrl doesn't know exactly how to pitch a game to me.

Ori and the Blind Forest is a Metroidvania-style action platformer that the developers themselves claim was inspired by Super Meat Boy, which I can maybe sort of see in the gameplay. Death comes fast and frequently if you're not careful, but is cheap and relatively painless. You can save almost wherever you want (there are unlockable tech tree abilities specifically to facilitate this) and the death/reload/respawn process is quick and seamless.

The main difference, of course, is that Super Meat Boy is pure carnage played for laughs, whereas Ori's violence is more bloodless and its presentation is that of a more serious and stunningly beautiful game. That trailer should give you a good idea of what this game both looks and sounds like, but I'll also add the Sorrow Pass theme because it's my personal favorite. Definitely get a version that includes the soundtrack if you get this.

Anyway, you play as Unico Ori, and adorable little fluffball with a huge and loving heart and the power to bring light to the darkness, tragically orphaned and put through increasingly intense levels of DOES NOT DESERVE THIS. At first glance the basic plot is almost comparable to an early ZZT purple keys collectathon--the forest is in ruins because the elements need to be restored, do the chain of [Go to area A to find the mystic Thing that unlocks the door to the temple in area B, clear out the inner temple proper which is big enough in its own right to count as area C] a total of three times and restore the three elements and you're done. However, oversimplifying it to this extent does a gross disservice to the emotional impact of the plot in the fine-details level and the characters living through it. Sqrl managed to cry for every single cutscene in the game, and while I didn't quite hit perfect 100% cry completion the way she did, boy I sure got punched in the heart by a lot of them anyway.

Exploration is controlled through a combination of hard and soft gates--things like the door to the temple (or almost any locked door, really) are more or less impassable barriers until the plot lets you through, but there are also collectibles and even entire areas that open up as you gain new powers. The latter is almost just like any Metroidvania, only (with one or two exceptions) rather than needing a new beam or missile or other sort of offensive weapon to blast through a wall, it's mostly just treacherous high jumps that require Ori to get increasingly more mobile in the air, like some kind of speedy high-flying luchador. The game has a very good learning curve and pace to distributing its enhancements, though, so you never really feel overwhelmed by all the moves you're expected to keep track of, even as you go through a series of triple jump-glide-air dash-fire an energy ball and ricochet off your own shot-air dash (again, because the ricochet resets all your jump options) shenanigans near the end.

I have very spoileriffic thoughts about this game which I will hide below the warning, but for now, suffice it to say that this is an exceptional top quality product. Everything from graphics and sound to gameplay are all finely tuned and outstanding, and if Sqrl's recommendation sounds as good to you as it did to me, then definitely check it out. Also check out Sqrl's review when she beat it, which can be found here.

UNMARKED SPOILERS BELOW )
kjorteo: Screenshot from Cho Aniki, of a macho-camp bodybuilder with fairy wings and antennae. (Cho Aniki)
[personal profile] xyzzysqrl is a precious gift and every conversation with her is an adventure.

Celine Kalante:
http://voidseapickle.tumblr.com/post/162203601001/tiergan-vashir-fttarlach-bioandrunaway

XyzzySqrl:
Yeah uhm.

Notice that tiger also has a dorsal ridge?

I can't explain Eorzean wildlife.

Celine Kalante:
... Eorzea is weird.

XyzzySqrl:
Tigersaurus.

Celine Kalante:
Beefy Tigersaurus.

I think there were a couple of those in Zootopia.

XyzzySqrl:
Beefy Tigersaurus is my favorite discontinued Chef Boyardee line.

Celine Kalante:
Beefy Tigersaurus was around when Power Rangers started to get weird.

XyzzySqrl:
oh god

BEEF-Y TIGER-SAUR-USSSSSS
*nyow-NYOOWWW-nyow-nyownyow*
BEEFY TIGERSAURUSSSSS
IT'S A BIG OL' RIPPED OUT TIGER SAUR-UUHHHUUSSS

Celine Kalante:
I would still be watching that show RIGHT NOW if it did that and you know it.

Also thank you for getting that stuck in my head forever.

XyzzySqrl:
I mean... yeah. Yeah, basically.
kjorteo: Screenshot from Hatoful Boyfriend, of Miru & Kaku looking excited and triumphant in the seat of their tank. (Hatoful: Miru & Kaku)
Hi, can you still tell I'm still on my "short, light, and fluffy indie game" kick after recovering from the unexpected marathon that was the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers postgame? This should be the last one before I work my way back to the big stuff, but we'll see.

It was in an IndieGala bundle recently and it just looked too cute not to try, and I'm glad I did! It was indeed very cute and charming.

I've long had a complicated history with games like Seiklus and Endless Ocean. They promise gentle stress-free exploration, no combat or anything, just explore around and have fun. On paper, that sounds like something that really should appeal to me. It's at least interesting as a game concept, and I really want it to work out and have fun with it. In practice, though, neither Seiklus nor Endless Ocean particularly did it for me. The former is easy to get lost and, well, kind of boring honestly, and the latter starts out strong but is a bit too long, wears out its welcome, and kind of runs out of things to do. Which is a shame, because I really want to like these kinds of games!

Enter Marvin's Mittens, which at best looked like it could finally be what I was looking for, and at worst was like a couple dollars as part of a bundle so it's not like I'd really be out anything if it was another failure. The trailer looked very promising, like a sort of Seiklus-alike but with a "child playing in the snow" theme.



You play as Marvin, a cute little overly-bundled up kid with suspiciously good voice acting. (Seriously, did they find an actually-good actual-child actor for this? Or is that just the best impression of one I've ever heard?) One day, while playing in the snow, a cute but fast little blur of a fuzzy thing steals one of his mittens. In the nearby elf village (this game plays fast and loose with the laws of realism) the elves reveal that they, too, have had their mittens stolen, and give Marvin the special power of that sort of double-jump-hover-thing you see in the trailer, where the second jump has him float upwards. The kind of height he gets on that depends directly on how many snowflakes he's collected; it barely improves his mobility at all at first, but the kid can basically fly by the time you get them all.

There is a daily time limit, where eventually the sun goes down and the voice of Marvin's mom calls out that it's time to come home, at which point the day is over and the game cuts back to Marvin's home. It autosaves and continues over a screen of Marvin sleeping in bed with a gentle lullaby playing, complete with a dream thought bubble cycling through images of things he's seen so far on his adventure like an early Windows screensaver. Then Marvin sets out again from his home the next day. Progress is made by expanding your range and how far you can go before it's time to head home, which you accomplish mostly by Etrian Odyssey-like shortcuts that have to be opened from the other side first. On day 1, I barely made it to the Elf Village before mom called me home. By day 3, after collecting just enough snowflakes to boost my jump, retrieving my sled for quicker downhill travel, and opening a well-placed shortcut tunnel, I could get there in about fifteen seconds, and of course then I had the rest of the day to keep exploring from there.

This game was everything I wanted it to be, and I was delighted with it from start to finish. The graphics are adorable, the music is so cozy that I might put the soundtrack on next time my anxiety issues start acting up, and the game is just the right length (about three hours) to feel like something "real" and not some Flash game or something while still being light and breezy. The only "difficulty" comes from trying to find everything (1,000 snowflakes total split up over about 30-50 per room on average, plus 11 animals you can sketch and get a picture of if you walk up slowly enough to not scare them away) and even those are perfectly balanced--just barely hidden enough that I felt clever and like an explorer for finding them all, but nowhere even close to FAQ-requiring "where the fuck is the last bullshit snowflake" frustration. Basically, if you're even moderately thorough then you'll be fine.

I'm still a little confused about this genre, because truth be told, I don't know why I loved this game after hating Seiklus. Marvin's Mittens has a gentle and loving aesthetic, far better graphics and sound, and the daily reset gives you a nice overall feeling of progression, I guess, but is that really what was holding Seiklus back? Or was it that Seiklus was a little too labyrinthine and Marvin's Mittens felt easier to me? Or something else entirely? I don't know.

But I do know that I adored Marvin's Mittens and I highly recommend it.
kjorteo: Glitched screenshot from Pokémon Yellow, of Pikachu's portrait with scrambled graphics. (Pikachu: Glitch)
As I said in my Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers entry, my original plan had been to cross a few more light and fluffy one- or two-hour popcorn games off the backlog before starting on my next big project, and I had very mistakenly assumed PMD:E was one of those. (All I had to do was the postgame! I should just breeze through that, right?)

After what was supposed to be a light and fluffy popcorn game instead turned into a marathon, I needed another light and fluffy popcorn game just so I could remember what those were like. I wasn't sure I could handle jumping from PMD straight to another full-length game. Enter Thomas Was Alone, possibly the poster child of one-hour indie jaunts.

I will try not to textwall because otherwise I would stand a very real chance of spending longer writing this entry than I did actually playing the game, and also because... like... everyone knows about this one already, right? I mean, PewDiePie has a fetish for it. It's not exactly something I have to explain...

okay fine real quick this is an indie platformer about a bunch of squares and rectangles with different jumping abilities and miscellaneous powers and they have to help each other get to the goal. The thing that sets it apart is the cozy British narration of Danny Wallace, who personifies everyone in a way that is surprisingly effective and thoughtful for such simple gameplay. Like, you'll be controlling a long flat rectangle who serves as a trampoline, and then the narrator will helpfully inform you that her name is Laura and she has always been insecure about her ability and even tries to hide it from new people she meets, because she's afraid of people who just use her to reach high places and then abandon her. It works really well!

My favorite character is probably Claire, the big massive square with the power of being the only character in the game who doesn't instantly die in water. This makes her the game's Surf HM for the rest of the party, but the way the narrator spins her personality as a depressed insecure wreck who suddenly fancies herself a superhero is instantly endearing. Like, I can easily imagine this big massive (heavyset?) slow square throwing herself into the superhero role because it beats the alternative of feeling like a failure at everything else. I just want to give her a hug and cheer for her. You are definitely my hero, Claire.

So yeah. Good game. Even better palate cleanser.
kjorteo: Teary Bulbasaur portrait from Pokémon Mystery Dungeon. (Bulbasaur: Teary)
The original plan, way back when I had finished 999, was to complete a few more quick things from my backlog before venturing into my next big "start a full-length game from scratch" project. I had a ton of games on the list that were either one-hour indie romps or something I'd already 90% finished years ago, and just needed to dust off and do the final stuff. I like cheap easy victories to pad the "number of games I've completed this year" and blog post counts. So it was that I nibbled my way through shorter games like AM2R and "I was almost done anyway" games like TIS-100. While I was at it, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness had been haunting my to-do list basically since it came out, and I'd already beat the main game, so I just needed to do the postgame content and be done with it.

I vastly underestimated just how much postgame content there was.

It's only fitting, I suppose; the sunk cost fallacy is basically what pulled me through a good chunk of the game, even down to the fact that it was this version I was playing. Honestly, if you're going to play PMD: Explorers, play Explorers of Sky instead. It is literally the same game but better, a later enhanced rerelease with extra dungeons and side stories and generally more and better everything. There is no downside to Sky and no reason whatsoever to pick Time/Darkness, unless you're like me and were already 35 hours into Darkness when Sky first came out and you just didn't want to start over. (In retrospect, with how much of a marathon the final few acts of this game became, not having to play it twice was absolutely the correct decision.) But even then, for the love of Arceus, make sure you still find a way to catch Sky's side stories and content--maybe in a YouTube Let's Play or something. They are easily as good as, if not better than anything in the main game.

Version differences aside, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers has all the things you would expect, including:
  • Pokemon!
  • Mystery Dungeons!
  • Explorers!
  • Having your feelings crushed like a grape!

I have no idea how it came to pass that a series whose entire premise is "You know those cute collectible monsters kids love? Put them in a slightly-friendlified Roguelike" also became synonymous with having among the highest amount of sobbing per capita in Nintendo game history. Neither Pokemon games nor Roguelikes are typically known for their plot, but mix the two and it somehow explodes in a geyser of tears. It's like Professor "Stock brainteasers and crying" Layton in that regard, I guess. Everyone who's played any PMD or even has heard of its reputation knows what they're in for at this point, but if you were somehow unaware, there's a reason this is the series where this icon (along with all my other emotional Bulbasaur icons) came from.

The gameplay of Explorers can get a bit repetitive. (Do you like exploring mysterious dungeons? Do you like exploring mysterious dungeons to the point of it almost being a fetish even within the game itself, with characters revering it the way people in the Laytonverse talk about Puzzles? Good, because here's fifty hours of it.) Furthermore, not every story element worked. The main, non-postgame ending is almost identical to that of the earlier PMD: Rescue Team, with slightly different explanations for why the same things are happening, and overall I feel like Rescue Team did it better. Granted, some of that could be because I'd played Rescue Team first and it doesn't hit quite as hard the second time you see the same thing, but Explorers' take on it did ruin some of its own impact with some clumsy fridge logic which I might get into at another time (ask me in PM or something.) The postgame had a ton of padding, with entire plot arcs that go nowhere and gratuitous abuse of the "Go out and do random bulletin board missions to pass a few days before you wake up one morning and suddenly..." method of plot advancement. The game has more endings than Peter Jackson's The Return of the King, with me at various times thinking I was finally done with it when I had:

  • Completed the main story
  • Completed the first postgame story arc
  • Oh no that was just one arc and it turns out there are five entire arcs according to this walkthrough
  • Completed all five postgame story arcs and defeated the postgame endboss
  • "After a few more filler days, you'll wake up to find there's a commotion on the beach..." (I was done with dungeons after the postgame endboss, so at this point I tried passing the days via the sentry duty foot-identification minigame because I didn't want to go out anymore. It didn't work, so instead I found a password generator and gave myself a bunch of Wonder Mail passwords to go arrest a low-level Pachirisu on B1F of Beach Cave.)
  • Recruited a certain Pokemon after a few filler days, who told me about the existence of a dungeon after a few more filler days. I didn't care. But hey, that was officially where the story events stopped happening which means technically...
  • Wait no you can still go complete Spacial Rift again to unlock the ability for you and your partner to evolve Don't care.
  • Watched an LP of all the Sky side stories (Obviously yes to this one)
  • Recruit all the Legendaries, max your levels and IQ, unlock the extra dungeons, do all the plotless hardcore 99-floor Zero Isle South type bonus nonsense No.

In short, a lot of this could be because I'd underestimated the postgame and expected it to be over sooner, but the main story ending fell flat and a lot of the postgame was kind of a slog.

However.

What Explorers does do well, it does really well. Explorers is, above all else, a story about its characters, and this is where it differentiates itself from Rescue Team and really shines. The cast is full of personality, especially after you've lived in Treasure Town for a while and really gotten to know everyone. These personalities become a huge part of the game's draw. Even if they had the same main story ending (and Rescue Team's was better), Rescue Team didn't have Wigglytuff, Chatot, Bidoof, Sunflora, and all the others in Wigglytuff's Guild, who bond with each other and with you over the course of the game. They all have their quirks, some you invariably end up liking more than others, but together they're a family. That family includes you, by the way. Toward the end of the postgame there is an entire dialogue to that effect. On one hand, it is so Stock Heartwarming Speech that I swear it came straight from 80s Ending, but on the other it worked and it was moving and, yes, I choked up for that too. (I expect this part in particular will hit [personal profile] xyzzysqrl even harder if/when she ever plays it. She is 100% okay with "yeah it's a little cheesy BUT" and, well, given how much she likes Summer Wars....)

And wow, does Explorers live up to the series' reputation of punching you in the feelings, the Sky content in particular. People warned me that Bidoof's Wish was the destroyer of emotions, and they were largely correct. I expected In the Future of Darkness to be pretty devastating just given who/what it was about, and braced myself accordingly, even if that bracing was kind of like remembering to close the screen door before a hurricane. No one warned me about Igglybuff the Prodigy, though.

So, even though I was really starting to get tired of how many different ways I had to complete this game before it was actually completed, I absolutely loved it in retrospect. In fact, even though I'm free now, a part of me really wants to do Super Pokemon Mystery Dungeon next. I probably won't, if only because I have a lot of other games that kind of have dibs as far as what I need to play next. Someday, though. As grateful as I am that Explorers is finally over for real this time, it did leave a very good impression, such that "okay but this is technically a new and different game" is apparently all it takes to make me want to jump right back in.

But for now, it's onto the next game for me, and I guess a certain Bulbasaur in Wigglytuff's guild will just have retire to a quiet life of staring at Pokemon feet all day. I'm sure that's what she would have wanted.
kjorteo: Screenshot from Daedalian Opus, of a solved puzzle with the text "GOOD" displayed on underneath it. (GOOD)
I picked this up from the Humble Voxatron Bundle ages ago. The point of the bundle was obviously to promote Voxatron (but not PICO-8, sadly; this was before they came out with that one.) Voxatron didn't interest me at all, but the bundle also came with three other Lexaloffle games: Jasper's Journeys, Chocolate Castle, and Zen Puzzle Garden. The latter two caught my eye enough to push the bundle into "Eh, why not" territory, and now here we are.

In Zen Puzzle Garden, you are a monk raking the sand in a giant... well, zen garden. The gameplay is a combination "paint every tile" quest with "you can only change direction when you hit something" controls straight out of every ice skating room puzzle ever. Eventually it introduces further complexities in statues can be pushed and leaves must be collected in a certain order and act as walls until it's their turn. Still, the goal is always to rake every square of the garden and then get back out safely without trapping yourself.

This game started out strong for me, with a charming aesthetic and beautiful sand graphics. Yeah, the little monk dude looks like he came straight out of an early newbie RPG Maker game, but the sand, both raked and unraked, is more gorgeous than it has any right to be. The soothing riffs as you make moves and the "Puzzle Complete" tune are suitably... well, zen. In the earlier parts of the game, this was something I could not only enjoy, but relax while figuring out the solution. For someone with anxiety issues, this is always a nice bonus.

Those last few rows of puzzles, though. Whoof.

Remember when I played Splice and then had that problem that I needed a better word to describe? I never really found a term that jumped out at me but... that issue. (Here's someone complaining about it happening in Cosmic Express, for reference, which kind of makes me feel better knowing it's not just me.) It happened in Splice, and unfortunately, Zen Puzzle Garden ended up going in that direction toward the end as well.

I was talking with [personal profile] xyzzysqrl about this the other night, and I think the best way to explain it is that I get overwhelmed and can't keep up when puzzles become too open. Puzzles can still be hard, but as long as they give you some sort of clue what you're supposed to do, I'm okay. I can work with that. Hell, it's actually pretty fun to work with that! For example, take this later level from Hanano Puzzle 2:



(For reference: blocks bloom flowers when they touch same-colored existing flowers. They bloom in the direction printed on them, so that red block with an upward arrow on it, once it touches a red flower, would turn into a 1x2 piece consisting of a block on bottom and another red flower on top. Movement is sort of Yoshi-style swapping controls; adjacent blocks can swap places with each other, or you can move one block along by continuously "swapping" it with the empty space in front of it. The goal in each stage is to make every colored block bloom.)

Once you have a good handle of the rules and how these puzzles work, you can look at this screenshot and sort of work backwards. The only way to get that blue block to bloom is to move it one space over to touch the flower next to it, which means that there needs to be some sort of solid surface plugging that hole so it won't just fall off the ledge when you move it. Given the layout of that area, it looks like the only way to do that is to have the upward-pointing red block slide underneath that low ceiling and then bloom upward when it touches the flower on the ground. That, in turn, means that you need to find a way to move the upward-pointing red block from its perch in the upper left corner there all the way over to that lower-right area, clearing that gap in the middle (blocks can't exactly fly and, short of blooming shenanigans, there isn't an easy or convenient way to lift them again once they're on the ground,) all without having it touch any other red flower and blooming prematurely before it reaches the one below the blue block.

It's a tall order, and it's definitely a tricky puzzle (this is a Qrostar game we're talking about) but you at least have that goal, you know? You can see what you're supposed to do, so the trick is just figuring out how.

Compared to that, Zen Puzzle Garden is far more open, and ultimately I do not think that is a good thing. I didn't mind or even notice this at first, because the earlier puzzles are easy enough...





Push the statue down just enough that it's between the rocks, turn the movement from that into sectioning off the top and sides. The only real trick is remembering the "previously-raked areas count as walls" rule so you can bump against your own work to get that dip in the bottom center there.

That's fine. That's all well and good. It works, and it's even pretty fun! But then later on you get things like...



What in the everfuck.

What... I can't... I'm sorry but there are just too many directions this puzzle could possibly go for my mind even to process where to start. Every one of those statues can be moved somewhere (they can be, but maybe some of them are fine where they are, who knows) and the only real overall goal you have is to come up with some sort of configuration that lets you rake every square. This makes it next to impossible to tell whether any given solution is on the right track.

Let's say you push that statue in the lower right corner up and then to the left, to slide it in between the two stones in the upper right corner. Then, later, you seemingly paint yourself into a corner and run out of valid moves. Is that because you're just not seeing the right solution for that last part? Or is it because there is no solution, your very first move was a fatal mistake, and you've been searching fruitlessly in a doomed timeline this entire time?

For the record, I'm pretty sure this is the kind of puzzle design logic that turns Roberta Williams on.

It's that lack of confidence when puzzles get too big and open and out of control that regrettably kills the final portion of this game for me. I don't mind difficult puzzles--I like difficult puzzles, even--but I have to at least know I'm on the right track. Otherwise, I tend to miss things because I assume getting stuck later on means I must have messed up earlier (even when I actually haven't) which is far more frustrating than fun.

Fortunately, Lexaloffle has hints and solutions on their own site, and needless to say I started relying on those pretty heavily toward the end. As it turns out, the very last puzzle ended up having a perfect example of the exact point I'm making: Four hints in, the board looks like this. Once I got that far, filling in the sectioned-off areas on the top were easy enough, but something very interesting happened in that three-tile-tall strip along the bottom there.

There is, of course, a trick to winding yourself around those rocks and putting that statue somewhere less in the way, all without creating any dead ends. It is somewhat sneaky and not immediately obvious. I was stuck for a while even after getting the board to this state, just trying to figure out how fill in that bottom part. And you know what? At that point, it was fine! I knew for a fact that there was a way to do it, because the hint said right there that the board was in fact supposed to look like this, so anything beyond that was just some hidden answer I wasn't seeing. Eventually, I found it. I actually felt pretty clever and proud of myself when I did. This is, in fact, what puzzles are supposed to feel like.

Meanwhile, with how stuck I got just on that one section, I know for an absolute fact that, had I tried this level unaided, I would have assumed that getting the board to this state was obviously wrong. I would have fiddled with the bottom for a bit, concluded it was clearly impossible if you make the top look like that, and then I'd be stuck forever trying something else from the very beginning, never knowing I incorrectly wrote off the right track as a dead end.

So, yeah. In the end, Zen Puzzle Garden is the kind of game where the bottom third of the final puzzle is a fun and appropriate challenge.
kjorteo: Screenshot from Hatoful Boyfriend, of Miru & Kaku looking excited and triumphant in the seat of their tank. (Hatoful: Miru & Kaku)
I am massively bending if not outright breaking my own rules to count this one as something I completed this year. I actually played through it with [personal profile] davidn and Elijah last November and the only thing I "completed" now was finally getting around to editing and posting the video we took. I was planning on doing some sort of award roundup thing around the end of the year, and I wanted this one to be included. It deserves it. It may not actually win anything (the categories I'm thinking for it have some very fierce competition) but if nothing else, it deserves a shot.

Plus, this way I get to gush about A Bird Story in blog entry form. I know a couple of my friends have hangups about YouTube videos with our real-life voices and whatnot (and mine really isn't all that great anyway,) so here's your chance to hear how much I love this game even if you didn't watch our Team Hatoful play-through and hear how much I love this game.

A Bird Story is a game by Freebird Games, which usually means several things:
  • It's an RPG Maker game, though there's no combat and it's basically a story-driven walking sim.
  • It has gorgeous high-quality custom assets (sprites, tilesets, music) that make it both visually and musically beautiful.
  • It will punch you in the feelings. Frequently and hard.

In this game's case, I think all you have to do is check out the title theme and its cover art and you can pretty much tell this one's going to be a great big check for all three.

Also, this one is sort of related to the Sigmund series, so if you're going to play it, probably best to do so after To the Moon and its two minisodes (but before Finding Paradise, if you're reading this in the future and Finding Paradise is out.) There aren't any To the Moon spoilers or anything, and this isn't even directly related, nor does it any of To the Moon's characters, but... it's sort of a side story in the same universe. The boy from this game will apparently have an upcoming role in Finding Paradise, if that counts for anything.

Anyway, A Bird Story is very short and... honestly, kind of weird until you get used to it. There is no textual dialogue--some rebus bubbles every now and then, but even those are rare--and the entire story is told through visuals, gestures and expressions, etc. Our protagonist is a somewhat neglected latchkey kid whose primary communication with his parents consists of notes that would probably say something like "Working late, dinner's in the fridge" if there were text in this game. He's kind of a ghost at school, too; not exactly picked on or anything but no one really notices him either. He goes through the routine every day, but it's a gray and lonely-feeling existence, until one day he happens to encounter and save an injured bird in the forest. Hilarity Feel trips ensue.

The presentation is incredibly surreal. The game will signify walking home after school by just sending you down a hallway that starts out in a school with tiles and lockers and and then slowly blends into dirt and trees and then an apartment building. The journey is always exactly as long as it needs to be for the narrative--if the point the game is currently trying to make is "He grabbed his umbrella before heading out the door, and at school there was a...." then his classroom might be just across the street about ten feet away from his bedroom, because we're taking the trip there for granted. Of course, him walking through the woods is very important on the day he finds that bird, so there it's shown and extended. Also, the trees literally move and change configurations as he approaches them to signify him going a different way home than usual. And that's not even getting into his ability to turn an entire book's worth of pages into a giant paper airplane and back. The whole game is made of effects like that, and I still don't claim to understand a lot of them. It all feels like traversing a dream... or a memory, which could be very important given the potential Finding Paradise connections.

Either way, there's hardly any gameplay to be had here. With the exception of a few "press space to splash in the puddle" type playing-around moments, it's literally just walking from one cutscene to the next as the narrative unfolds. But it's a really good narrative so this is fine.

I mentioned this in the Team Hatoful run, but here it is again for people who don't want to watch that: It is hard to tell a story visually. Words are cheap, but it takes skill to show the plot, what the story even is to the protagonist's emotional reactions to it, just by the way a character walks or runs or looks up or down or breaks into a wide-eyed O_O face. It is also hard to pull off effective dreamlike visuals with wildly differing settings melting into each other. Freebird Games not only was able to do both in one game, but it did both in one game in RPG Maker. I really want you all to stop and think about how impressive that is. How much work must have went into the tilesets, the boy's sprites, the cutscene scripting.... Freebird plays RPG Maker like an experienced old master plays a priceless artisan-crafted musical instrument, to just as beautiful results.

So yeah, this one was so good I worked around my own rules to include it.
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