Stir Crazy for Starnova: A Review of Shining Song Starnova (Love In Space- Denpasoft, Sekai Project)

I’d like to first state that before this I was never much for idol things of any kind. It was the mysterious passion of a good friend of mine but not much more. Then I happened to come across a Kickstarter for a game from a developer I had heard of but never played, Love In Space. That crowd funding campaign was Shining Song Starnova. As I said, it really wasn’t my bag but the artwork and storyline grabbed me. When I later found out Himari was signed to the project, they had my attention and, more importantly, my support. Cut to a month and a half ago, I had just returned from a long day at work to find a welcome letter in my email with the download code. I figured it was going to be an interesting two weeks. It’s over a month later and I’m still trying to find the words to do this game justice. I have played many before but few are on this thing’s level. That said, I will endeavor to try to shine some starry light on this visual novel that was laid before me that one night not too long ago.

One can’t begin to discuss the characters without first discussing the very excellent talent Love In Space recruited for this project. Chief among them was the voice of the ever effervescent Chocola from Nekopara, Himari. In a manner almost in the vein of Aya Hirano going from Konata Izumi (more on Lucky Star later) to Haruhi Suzumiya, we go from Chocola to the idol onee-san from hell, Mariya Yamamoto. In this role, Himari shines as bright as the star she is playing, the hardened veteran of idol industry and no-matter-the-center team captain whose cynical outlook snaps all of the other girls back to reality. However, I was really impressed by the fact that she alone got her own solo song in the game and…well, it certainly had my spirits singing. However, she is certainly not alone, a number of recognized talents are also among the cast. From Nemu being voiced by the same seiyuu for Anna in Tropical Liquor to Aki’s seiyuu also voicing the role of Ichika Hashima in Momoiro’s Closet, I get to hear some familiar voices from other series I’ve been checking out lately.

This brings us to the characters themselves, which I must say I certainly related to in more ways than one. Each and every one of them had an element of myself to them that made the story more immersive as I could feel their pain from their past experiences and their desires to get beyond them. Furthermore, their respective story plots involving the Producer (Kaoru Nishiyama for those who didn’t catch his name) were very heartfelt from Julie finally finding a man who would never abandon her to Natsuki fulfilling a dream to meet her boy idol heartthrob and gain his affection. Part seinen, part josei, it really matters not who you are but rather what you are as the reader that you take what you will from it. For myself, I found Julie and Mariya’s stories the most enjoyable as I always like to see those who had it rough but never lost their spirit achieve great success in the end. May hit too close from some but not me.

Now, we come to the overall story arc and it is here I have my mixed feelings. While I did get some satisfaction working to get the “real” story arc with Sasami, I really wish I didn’t have to unlock it in a way. True, I got to enjoy the many rollercoaster rides of the other gal’s stories but there was just something disconcerting about it. What is more, each story line had a nasty habit of slowing down during the darkest and most grueling points in the story that almost made me want to put it out of it’s misery. This was especially true of Sasami’s story where Shiro nearly corrupts her. I almost couldn’t bear to watch this angel be despoiled but, being the tough lad I am, I grinned and bore it. However, this tension and despair would be quickly released in a supernova burst of elation and triumph at the end, quite fitting for a story about a group of seven girls being reborn in such a celestial manner. It was this exact storyline, a combination of underdog and redemption tropes, that really endeared me to this game when the going got tough. When I want to escape the mundane in games, that’s the kind of story I look for as the ideal. As if that weren’t enough, the references to a variety of subjects really made me pause to admire the level of craftsmanship in the writing of the game. Shiro insinuating that Sasami is like a certain lovable and naive twin sister in Lucky Star and then immediately quoting one of the funniest lines in the movie Tropic Thunder, that’s a level of cross-cultural, pop-cultural gymnastics I’ve never seen done before but I’m most certainly glad I did. Plus, I’ve never heard of a visual novel make references to the Bible, which seems to make it a thinking person’s kind of visual novel. I also like the political/philosophical themes in this story that, according to interviews about the game, Love In Space has deliberately put in but I think that these conclusions may best be left to the individual reader. That said and if I understand this right, it’s a story of the individual and their thoughts, feelings, and aspirations against the sometimes cold, often narcissistic, and frequently nihilistic collectivist reality of the modern consumer culture. It certainly shows that those virtues of friendship, kindness, decency, optimism, being a part of something greater than yourself, and never losing yourself in the process really do matter. It’s the story of seven talented ladies who each want to find personal satisfaction in the synergy of their idol group Starnova under the guidance of a realistically-minded yet idealistically-motivated producer seeking to give them what he never could get for himself in the same situation. That’s my theory anyway.

Beyond the story, this game really got my appreciation in a number of other ways. The artwork was very well done and the transition between images was almost seamless. I also really liked that almost all of the artwork including the backgrounds is accessible in the bonus section of the menu, something I don’t often get with other visual novels. However, what really got me was the animations for the “love” scenes. For those not so technically astute, this game was rendered using the RenPy engine, an engine I thought incapable of rendering animations. What Love In Space did with it was beyond astounding. In fact, I believe they may have attained a new level when it comes to utilizing this Python-based engine as the animations were almost on the same level of fluidity and motion accuracy as those I see in other games based on more advanced, closed-source engines, which is quite an achievement. The voice tracks were good if a little light on actual dialogue in some areas but being that I like to keep the story moving rapidly, I thought it was alright. However, the same cannot be said of the vocal tracks and the overall soundtrack. Both of these are truly award-winning compositions on level that can be classified as nothing other than cinematic. Enlisting the Seycara Orchestra was the one of the best decision the creators made in the design of this game. That rich, golden to the ear soundtrack evoked the aesthetics of the great films I grew up on. I got the soundtrack as part of my support of the crowdfunding campaign and I have been listening to it non-stop since I got it. In fact, it’s stuck in my head, playing on repeat endlessly. That is not something that happens ordinarily and both the musicians and the developers should be properly commended for creating such a profound soundtrack.

I never thought Shining Song Starnova was going to take this long to complete and normally that leaves me grumbling a little about how much time I’ve spent on it. This time, I don’t feel the same. I honestly have a kind of bittersweet feeling about it being finished. I thoroughly enjoyed playing each girl’s story arc and I came to really feel something for it. I almost feel like Junpei as he stood at Starnova’s last live at the Tokyo Dome. Such a feeling must mean I truly have experienced something exceptionally profound. I highly recommend this game and it’s soundtrack. So if you’re looking for a grand adventure with music and drama, then grab your happi coat and light sticks and prepare yourself to see seven stars be reborn in a brilliant flash of light so bright in turns night into day. THEY ARE STARNOVA!!!


Music, Magical Girls, and the Minaduki Middle Catgirls: A Review of Nekopara Vol. 3 (Neko Works/Sekai Project)

Good things come to those who wait…or so they say. However, this was something I had to wait quite a long time to get. In hindsight though, it just seems to be a pattern for me that something comes along right when it is exactly needed. After a long week of ill health and an unending grind at work, I sat down to start my holiday weekend with yet another drop off in my box from the fine folks at Sekai Project. This time it was a the latest volume in a series I have come to know and like quite well, Nekopara. I thought I knew what I was in for but over 72 hours later and virtually non-stop playing, it is as if I have gone back to the feeling of novelty that I had when I played the first one. Though familiar, it feels new. Though like 1, it improved upon 2.

Our story this time takes a slightly different turn as we find our hero Kashou continuing to run his bakery along with his lovable catgirls, four of them now his catpanions. The shop is now even more famous because of the blog run by the ever devoted, and still hopelessly obsessed, Shigure. So much so, that people are coming from far off cities just to eat there and meet the catgirl staff. The plot begins to thicken on a trip to the amusement park on their day off as Kashou finds out how big Shigure’s blog really is and Cinnamon and Maple revive a dream and friendship that had, up until then, waned somewhat. After seeing an old video on the blog where a young Maple and Cinnamon are singing the theme of their favorite magical girl anime, Kashou asks her if she still dreams to be a singer. Though she dismisses it, she is soon confronted again during the stage show at the park where Cinnamon gets, quite literally, wrapped up in the show and, to “save her”, Maple is compelled to take the stage and sing that very theme. The astonishing performance and her bond with Cinnamon becomes the centerpiece of the story from here on. From learning instruments to finding the true meaning of friendship as well as the courage to live their dream, we embark on a journey of heartfelt emotional scenes and frequent comic relief as our two catgirls attempt to make a childhood fantasy an adult reality. Through it all, they also come to grips with their relationships with both each other and with Kashou going from hesitance of their love for each other to fully embracing it and from a general indifference toward Kashou to a determination to be his number one catpanion. The story ends with both girls having accomplished a knockout performance for one of Kashou’s friends, become his latest and greatest catpanions , and see themselves united as a family with their sisters under “The Sun”.

In respect to this game’s attributes, I’d like to start with the most obvious, which is the artwork and animation. To improve upon Sayori’s already excellent character designs, the creators have added additional facial expressions and increased movement to the animation. This makes the characters far more fluid and lifelike, which I found to be one of the biggest improvements of this volume. They also have added closeup pans of the background and, in some scenes like the stage show scene, have scrolling insert images, another aspect that I found to be quite a nice touch. The CG scenes were, as always, expertly done, including the animated ones, which were perfectly smooth in motion and realistic in their physics. I also liked the new backgrounds and text box “talking heads”, which I think were used far better in this volume as a way of balancing characters depictions in context of their placement, such as when Cinnamon is talking to Maple while standing beside Kashou. Last but definitely not least, we actually get a good look at Kashou’s face! Though we have caught some glimpses before, this is the first time we really have seen it in its entirety and I am impressed. Though a good bit of the soundtrack and sound effects are unchanged, I still love them and the new opening and ending themes is absolutely stellar. However, Maple’s rendition of Grandfather’s Clock is on an entirely different level. Considering the vocalist’s (I assume to be Maple’s) primary language is not English, this was one of the best versions I’ve ever heard. In fact, I think I found it as stimulating as the characters did in the story. On the subject of the voice acting, it seems everyone has really hit their strides in respect to their characters and have hit a level of depth and dimension that I think is optimal, if not ideal. Also, the technical aspects of the game have been greatly improved with the addition of the jump feature in the back log, allowing the player to jump back to replay a scene, which I found really useful for making bookmark saves.

However, the most profound aspect of Nekopara Vol 3 has to be its story. It was familiar to be sure but there was something completely new about it. One of these aspects is the fact that we have a few periods of narration that are not Kashou’s but rather Maple and Cinnamon’s. Unlike the short monologue with Shigure in the first volume, we have multiple scenes where it’s the catgirls who tell the story. Now, who is exactly telling the story in the scenes is not entirely clear but if the dialogue is a clue, it is both Maple and Cinnamon speaking in unison. Another aspect of the story are the nods made to the first volume in terms of actions and flashbacks. The first example being the scene where Maple gives the newly arrived Cinnamon a tough love pep talk, pulling the same heartstrings as the story of how Kashou cared for the sick Chocola and Vanilla when they first came to the Minaduki household. Then there are the flashbacks on specific utterances that each of our two main catgirls have made when Kashou realizes something, which is also found in the first volume. However, the most interesting of all is the scene on the boat after the performance. Maple and Cinnamon get very emotional and start crying followed by Kashou petting them on the head to comfort them. The scene is almost identical to the one at the end of the first volume, right down to Kashou’s hand placement. These aspects gave me the sense of the familiar but the story goes in a number of completely new directions as well. One of these is the yuri facet of Cinnamon and Maple’s relationship, which is a first in the series. I think the creators made an interesting addition to the story here as it is not placed without reason. Maple’s reluctant feelings about romance in general seems to stem from the conflict within her about returning Cinnamon’s intimate affections. In fact, it fully explains why Cinnamon gets hot and flustered so easily and why Maple gets so unconformable when she does. Once they sort this out, they both seem to be less conflicted with each other as well as more romantically inclined toward Kashou. Speaking of him, we find Kashou far more sentimental than in previous volumes. Whereas in the first one, he was very selfish and aloof to his catpanions, he seems far more affectionate, attentive, and passionate with them in this one. He more often professes his love for them and seems even more devoted to them than before. With the increased emotional mood of the story in general, we not only see through Kashou’s eyes but also feel through his heart. These sentiments are amplified in the H scenes where the catgirls strongly reflect them, conveying the mood eve more intensely. I would like to say that this was something that I really enjoyed, for once you really do feel the love and it makes the experience all the better. So, the story is very familiar but at the same time it really seems to be a completely new game underneath it all.

Though I did miss not seeing Milk or Vanilla’s “pervert” glare, I really did enjoy this game greatly. I was somewhat concerned when it was delayed so many times, especially the last one involving Sayori’s health. However, it was truly worth the wait as I have found myself in a state of sublimity after finishing it. The story will grab you by the heartstrings and nearly rip them out. You will laugh, you’ll get choked up, you’ll shake your head, and you will most certainly sing along with a star. Though it is already a very successful series, Nekopara Vol 3 outstandingly adds to it. This game is not for those with a cat’s tongue for games. So, use your paws and get it already!

Neko Ninjutsu: A Review of Neko-Nin exHeart (Whirlpool/ Sekai Project)

Let me start off by saying that it’s rare that I am at a loss for words upon completing a game that I am reviewing or, even more profound, completely changed in my impression of it from when I began it. More interesting, I thought it was going to be something I wouldn’t be playing for long periods of time. Well, I guess one should truly expect the unexpected. I picked up the latest game from Sekai Project, Neko-Nin exHeart, while I was pursuing one afternoon. I thought I was in for a game that would give me some decent entertainment between my preparation for an upcoming computer course and my daily job grind. Several days later and nothing else having my undivided attention, I am still in awe of what I have just played. In fact, I was forced to reflect on it for some time to find the words to describe it for this review. After much contemplation, I think I have found the words to do this visual novel justice.

Neko-Nin exHeart is the story of how everyday student Haruki Houjou has his humdrum life interrupted by the Demi-Human duo of catgirl ninjas, Yura and Tama Fuuma, who have come to pledge their fealty to him as their lord for the sake of their hard-pressed ninja village. At first, Haruki is unconvinced and turns them away only to find them that very night sleeping in the garden right next to his bedroom window, which in turn compels him to cover them with a blanket. What follows is an exciting journey of a young man struggling to support his two cat girls and balancing their romantic jealousies between each other for him all the while trying to hide them from his family, friends, and teachers. Through it all, Haruki uncovers the truth of their mission and finds out what really in his heart. He also gets to escape his mundane life and take a walk on the wild side in more ways than one. For their part, Yura and Tama use their ninjutsu to great comedic effect in a number of instances, from releasing a swarm of bees to deal with a certain teacher to mirroring their master’s form in attempt to get an apartment. Combined with a mysterious transfer student, another shadowy ninja catgirl, and parents who are never home, this thing has all the comedy and drama that makes for a well-made visual novel and, perhaps, an anime. Even better, the ending leaves us with a possible plot for a sequel, which leaves me even more intrigued.

In respect to Neko-Nin’s attributes, I think this was an astoundingly crafted and executed visual novel. The art has aesthetic all its own with variability in camera angles in the backgrounds as well as the many different character designs used. All the designs are crisp and very well detailed, especially in respect to the CG scenes, which I really liked for their ability to convey the mood of a scene just as well as the writing. The animation was also pretty decent. The story was well written and kept me riveted to my computer for hours on end. It captivated and made me feel every emotion of every scene to the point where I really could see it through Haruki’s eyes. The audio component to this visual novel was also quite good. The vocals were superb and were fitting to each character in terms of both intonation and pitch. However, the secondary vocals in certain scenes tended to overlap the main dialogue, which made it indecipherable at times and mildly annoying. That said, the vocals and their accompanying sound effects were a great aspect of this game. However, it’s greatest audio attribute has to be its music. Nothing conveyed the sensations, actions, and mood better than the soundtrack, especially the track for romantic scenes. This particular piece seems to share more than a few riffs with Atlantic Starr’s Masterpiece. Whether this was intentional or not, it was an excellent inclusion to this game and I don’t think any other composition would have been better. Finally, I would like to talk about a rather nerdy technical aspect of this game that I think is quite unique to it. Whirl Pool used a setup that allowed for 150 regular save cells and 30 quick save cells as well as a set number of autosave cells. This I found to be very useful for a game that, despite having a single ending, has multiple paths to that ending. Considering that all of these need to be explored to fully complete the game, you need a lot of save cells. I also like the autosave feature for key points of the game though I do wish it included the decision points so that one could go back and explore the alternative storylines in a quicker and easier way. However, this would be a minor improvement on an already exceptional setup.

Considering my own thoughts on the story, I have to say that I am not unimpressed in the least. It grabbed me by the belt buckle and refused to let go. I felt genuine feelings of sympathy for Tama and Yura’s living situation, just as Haruki does in the story. I also liked that our protagonist had a face to his character and that it was regularly shown throughout the story in the CG art, something I don’t see as often as I’d like in visual novels. Speaking of the CG art, I like the variety of styles used from simple chibi motifs to very anime-like designs. So, if you’re in the mood for a romantic comedy with plenty of action and drama that you can’t put down, look no further. So sharpen your claws and kunai and prepare yourself for the purr-fect game you seek!

How Hyperdimention Neptunia Presaged the Future of Gaming

A little over a month ago, I sat watching the Nintendo Switch presentation on live stream. While many were cheering and others were cursing, I just sat there chuckling. The reason why was the realization that a game and anime series I have been a hardcore fan of had predicted the future of the game industry. Hyperdimention Neptunia tells the story of the adventures of the four CPU goddesses of the world of Gameindustri, Blanc of Lowee (Nintendo), Noire of Lastation (PlayStation), Vert of Leanbox (XBOX), and our favorite, fourth wall-breaking protagonist Neptune of Planetune (a fictional Sega console). Through their many sagas, from stopping various CPU-powered female villains to saving the personification of the Dreamcast, they battle evil while trying to keep up the trust and spirit of the people of their respective nations. In mk2 (or it’s improved remake, Re:Birth 2) of the series, we are introduced to their little sisters, Nepgear, Uni, Rom and Ram. These sisters are also the future CPU goddesses of Gameindustri. It is on that point that I realized that this over half a decade long series had predicted the future of gaming.

One might ask how did they do that? Well, there is one major fact that blatantly stands out. The sisters are considered the future and they are all handhelds. It seems, if the Switch as well as Phil Spencer’s comments about it and the statements on the future of XBOX are any clue, this is the way console gaming is going. Though the Scorpio and the Pro versions of the XBO and PS4 are delivering exceptional advances, home console gaming is just not what it used to be. They aren’t selling currently as good as the last generation and the competition from mobile and PC isn’t helping. It seems that Nintendo has made peace with this fact with the Switch but they are not alone. Sony tried to do the same with Vita/Playstation TV but were unsuccessful due to the technology being only now just able to make the concept work suitably enough for widespread acceptance thereof. Considering Nintendo is trying to make this advance, Playstation is sure to try again with the improved technologies. Microsoft also spoke favorably of the Switch concept, which seems to imply that they themselves are considering something like that as well. They already have an established presence in mobile technology and their desire to create a whole Windows ecosystem with said products seems to imply they will go this route competing with the other two.

You might raise an objection about where is Vert’s sister or that’s just a superficial coincidence. Really? Well, consider this,Vert in the games and the animated series has a very close relationship with Nepgear and Nepgear does consider her to be another older role model for herself. Now, most of us remember Sega as the company that was very creative and high tech in both their consoles and games from the Mega Drive to the Saturn to the Dreamcast (Visual Memory Unit anyone?). After the end of the Dreamcast, it seems XBOX has assumed that mantle left in Sega’s absence with things like the Kinect. So, Vert being close to Nepgear seems to be an acknowledgement of their roots and the new course they may be plotting. We might also consider something truly remarkable as well. The alternative color scheme for the Joy-Cons on the Switch are bright shades of Red and Blue. Blanc’s sisters, Rom and Ram, are only a few shades lighter. When one realizes they are the future of the Nintendo nation in Gameindsutri, albeit originally intended as the representation of the DS, it’s quite an interesting coincidence.

One might also consider one of the villains in the extra part of the third installment, Victory/Re:Birth 3, where the CPUs and their sisters battle two beaver looking creatures that represent mobile gaming. They loose ground to them in shares (read: consumer confidence) and are left in quite a conundrum as to how to deal with it. They solve it by creating mobile games of their own that can be also played on their respective consoles. If that isn’t what the Switch and Super Mario Run embody as well as the efforts by the other members of the Big 3 now and in the future to the same effect, then I am Mickey Mouse. That is exactly how the Big 3 intend to compete against mobile gaming by giving the user home console AAA titles with the ability to be taken anywhere anytime besides any mobile gaming they venture with on iOS or Android.

There is, of course, another aspect that should be seriously considered. The little sisters are just a bit behind their big sisters in power and capability. Down another layer, Rom and Ram are just below the level of Nepgear and Uni. This is almost exactly how the current model Switch will probably stack up to these hypothetical consoles that Sony and Microsoft will produce. However, Rom and Ram catch up quickly as the story in the second game and original anime unfolds, just as an improved Switch will likely be just as up to speed with these consoles when they are released in next year or so. It should also be noted that in one of the endings for mk2/Re:Birth 2, the CPUs are thought to have died and the sisters prepare to undergo the ritual to become full-fledged CPUs. Though their sisters make a triumphal return before it is done, it reveals one important thing. The fact that they could readily replace their older siblings seems to directly imply this fact in the real world in respect to these new hybrids replacing traditional consoles.

With all of these points considered, it seems clear that this series gave some thought to the future as well as the present when it was being created. This forward thinking may have presaged the future of gaming. However, as the Switch presentation stated, this is something the industry has been trying to do for some time. Yet, no one else seemed to have thought the same way. Hyperdimention Neptunia seems to be the only series to have alluded to this possible reality. For this reason, I say that Hyperdimension Neptunia predicted the future of gaming…like a kangaroo! Now, all we need is a Ram/Rom game on the Nintendo Switch. Thoughts, Criware?

On The Road With Ladies: A Review of Love, Guitars, and The Nashville Skyline-Cosmillica/Sekai Project

Like as so often before, I find myself in a great dilemma. I have so many games to review and not much time to do them all simultaneously. I would have liked to have written this review sooner but things have been crazy. Better late than never, though. I was scanning the Sekai Project website awhile back before the holiday and saw the much anticipated new title from the fine folks at Cosmillica, Love Guitars, and The Nashville Skyline, was up for acquisition. After much wrangling, I was able to get a copy and load it up. Then life happened and my much anticipated game found itself on the back burner. After some time, I found my day jobs began to require me to sit down to game every night just to open the safety valve. Since I had a particularly heavy week recently, I decided to run the game I had been saving for a special occasion and booted it up. It’s several days later and I am still contemplating what I just played through.

Our story follows the journey of Amanda Etheridge, a hard-working exec who has been commanded by her boss to take a vacation despite the company having major issues with an upcoming project. Deciding to go somewhere she hasn’t been before, she goes to Nashville. There and after one hell of a night that she at first cannot recall, she finds herself quite literally involved with a troubled troubadour named Juliet Sutherland. With nothing better to do and warming up to the idea of a fateful adventure, these two newly minted lovers embark on a whirlwind tour of the upland South searching for enlightenment, inspiration, meaning, personal growth, and romance while examining the complex thing that is the American experience. Along the way, things are complicated by Juliet’s past, her little sister, and Amanda’s cloistered nature. From these elements, we get a story of an artist discovering her voice and another who finds a new mentality from the simple act of escaping one’s mundane environment akin to a famous generation of postwar writers who also took to the road for the same reason. That’s right, this visual novel has a Beat pedigree. What the audience gets is all the comedic and dramatic elements that make for a smashing visual novel as well as, hopefully, an OVA. The drive-by smooch just after the credits also seems to indicate that we might get a sequel too.

In regard to specs, I think Cosmillica has made great improvements from Atom Grrl. The art has been suitably improved but what amazed me most was the use of minimally processed images for the backgrounds. From my perspective, I am not as much of fan of visual editor effects as others. So, to see these kinds of imagery used in such backgrounds was quite interesting. It is also worth considering the fact that I noted this very issue in my review of Atom Grrl and, it seems, Cosmillica may have taken this into account for this game. For that, I thank them. It really is awesome when a company is receptive to user feedback, if this be the case. The voice acting and character renderings were outstanding, the kind of quality I have come to expect from this developer. The music was, however, quite an exceptional element. Overall, the soundtrack seems to put a focus on the folksy and outlaw subgenre of country music, which is the “non-Music Row” kind of sound that fits perfectly with the theme of the story. There are also hints of 1990s indie guitar artists as well, which fits Juliet’s personality, half Jewel/ half Alanis Morrissette. However, the most interesting element was the opening theme. In the last game, I spoke of the opening music evoking the spirit of one of my favorite 2000s bands, CKY. Perhaps in that vein, they gave me a theme that seemed to be reminiscent of Dog and Butterfly by Heart. The only question in my mind, though, is who is the dog and who is the butterfly? As such, they’ve produced another outstanding game in these aspects.

Before closing, I would like to thank Cosmillica for giving the Commonwealth of Virginia such a marvelous showing in this visual novel. I almost leaped to the ceiling when I saw the image announcing that they had arrived in Virginia, which is from the southbound portion of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on the Capitol Beltway. Though this image is from the north of the state, it’s still the same welcome sign greeting you down south. I also really appreciated the attention to detail when they talked about small towns and cities like Woodstock and Bristol. To those who’ve never been there before, Woodstock is really like that, small town America in all it’s glory. However, I fell back out of my chair when I got to the part where Juliet’s sister, Emmy, goes on the run to Winchester. The image for it shows the exit for Winchester if you’re going southbound on US-29. I have been down that way many times as well. In fact, I think I may know what bakery they are referencing when they find Emmy in the town. Finally, most of the commentary in this part of the story had positive air to it, especially Juliet finding her artistic voice in Bristol. So, once again, thank you for showing that Virginia really is for lovers.

Naturally, I really liked this game and it truly was successor to those that came before it. If you like great journeys on the open road or just want a yuri game with a great plot (in more ways than one), then definitely give this game a shot. Pick up your guitar, grab your denims, and gas up the pickup for one hell of an adventure. Y’all come back now, y’hear!

Selling the Sound: My Interview with Aki Glancy aka EmpathP of VOCAMERICA

Tonight, I have a special treat for you all. I sat down with Aki Glancy (EmpathP) of the recently very successful Kickstarter project, VOCAMERICA: The Western VOCALOID Concert Project. We discussed her history with VOCALOID and her latest work, which utilized her own original Vocaloids. From the impact of the program on Western audiences to the specific mechanics, we talked about it all. Enjoy!

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A Run Through The Dungeon: A Review of Sakura Dungeon (Sekai Project/Winged Cloud)

OK, everyone, I know I have a tendency to do visual novels and the like but I opted for something completely different for my next review. On launch day and after a long week of work, I was ready to spend my weekend journeying through Sakura Dungeon, a new fantasy RPG brought to you by the fine folks at Winged Cloud and Sekai Project. I thought this would be a relatively quick game that I could complete in the space of three or four days. A little over three weeks and a pile of Mountain Dew Black Label cans later, I think I have sufficiently annihilated all resistance to the fox spirit’s reconquest of the dungeon. Through it all, I have lost hours of sleep, my temper, and, potentially, my mind while going on this epic journey to find out who took over the dungeon and how this motley crew of fantasy characters will get it back. It was a tough run but I couldn’t walk away from it. Lord knows, I tried.

Our story begins when the intrepid and hotheaded adventurer Ceri comes across the sealed fox spirit Yomi while investigating a dungeon for her guild. After unsuccessfully battling her and finding out that Yomi’s former dominion, that very dungeon, has been usurped from her, Ceri agrees to enter Yomi’s service to take it back. As they attempt to do so, they came across a whole coterie of guards from maid-uniformed catgirls to a succubus and even a pair of twin sister reapers. They are also joined by old friends Maeve, Ceri’s guild master, and Sylvi, Yomi’s former dark elven protégé, whose presence causes their fair share of tension and drama. Despite being a bit of a hodgepodge, they become a force to be reckoned with as advance through each and every level of the dungeon. You, the player, shall determine exactly how they go about it and who should be in the party. Choose wisely, though, or your characters may find themselves in compromising, exploitative, or even dangerous situations. That said, the ability to slash the clothes off these fearsome opponents and the eye-candy ecchi cutscenes make the struggle all worth the risks. To top it all off, you’ll be refurbishing Yomi’s old wardrobe of swimwear, lingerie, and other exotic get ups, giving our two chief heroines quite an appealing aesthetic as they battle this hoard of malevolent yet moe monsters.

I would like to say that much of this game is finely crafted and executed. The story is really well-written with the proper mix of drama and comedy. This is especially true of the arguments between Ceri and Sylvi, fighting for Yomi’s attention and praise, but also in respect to Yomi and Maeve, who both seek Ceri’s best interests as they see it. Not only moving the story along, these frictions become the catalysts for some really interesting scenes as the game progresses. Then there is the constant gag of Ceri being subjected to Yomi’s fashion sense, much to her chagrin and embarrassment as well as contrasting her paladin-like purity against Yomi’s more liberated worldliness. Combine these things with a healthy dose of heartwarming interludes of romance and camaraderie, epic boss battles, and certain objects, including two reluctant knights, being used for relief and entertainment purposes and what you get is a story that is guaranteed to get you hooked no matter how difficult the levels get. The plot firmly follows the lines of a fantasy JRPG, very similar to the Hyperdimension Neptunia series as a matter of fact, but the mixture of Japanese anthropomorphic character types and the ability to recruit former enemies make it truly unique. The art is well done for both the characters and backgrounds, utilizing crisp and clean lines with just the right amount of animation to convey the action and emotions without losing it’s simplicity. Furthermore, the character designs and, in some ways, personalities of Yomi and Ceri were certainly derived from Mieko and Hiromi from Sakura Swim Club, which was of great appeal to me and something I hope is retained in future titles of this series. The music is quite good, ranging from tin whistle-based Celtic themes to airy ancient sounds in the pyramid level. Although it did get a bit repetitive, especially those related to battle sequences. This fact notwithstanding, it certainly conveyed the mood and ambiance admirably for such a simple soundtrack. So as far as the aesthetics of the game are concerned, they are in very good order.

Unfortunately, there are some significant shortcomings with this game and, I’m afraid, they happen to be with some of it’s more core aspects. One of the chief issues is with the leveling of characters. Under normal circumstances, it takes quite awhile to level each character and this assumes that you are fighting characters of the same level or a little higher. Such requirements mean grinding and when you consider the fact that each character must level up by a factor of two to three levels to have a good chance of success against the boss on each floor, it adds up to quite a lot of effort and time being expended before this is possible. Though I do concede this is a common aspect of the genre, I think the amount of combat the player has to do to raise each character’s level borders on excessive. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the ability of gaining group experience points in battles were not limited to Yomi alone. It would also have been a great improvement if you could use all six of your fighters in battle rather than having to manually rotate them in and out of first line and second line positions. Many times, a player may find themselves in need of both Maeve and Ceri’s blades as well as Yomi and Sylvi’s spells. If all six chosen characters had been able fight together, certain floor bosses might have been cleared a lot more quickly. Furthermore, it would allow the player to more flexibly fight the many types of guards on each level, whose resistances to fire, poison, electric, and ice attacks can vary greatly. This is even more true in the higher levels when you deal with characters like the reaper twins, who can deploy magic shields at random during battle, or those floor bosses with the Dual Soul capability, which allows them to almost completely heal themselves in the middle of combat. Then again, the ability for any character in the player’s party to heal in mid-battle might also have been an excellent addition to the game. It certainly would have made the fight against a certain mystical warrior a hell of a lot easier. Another issue is the floor challenges, like the one on the Shrine floors where you had to walk a certain set of paces in a certain amount of time to open a door before it relocked or the disorientation tiles in the Abyssal level that force you to navigate by dead reckoning. Unless you really paid attention in game theory, you are going to have quite a challenge on your hands. This added difficulty, when guards are factored in, seems to tax the player to the extreme, having to juggle their paces, time in battle, and how they are going to defeat this guard and proceed. Considering how they seriously impede the player’s progress, I think, with respect, these things should have been omitted. Now, I would like to take a quick moment to note that these things do not condemn the game but rather show how this potentially phenomenal game missed the mark, in the words of Max Smart, “by that much.”

Considering all the facts and my own experience with the game, I did, in the end, like it a great deal. It is true you may find yourself frustratingly walking out of the room, muttering incoherent profanities under your breath as you try to figure out how to beat each floor, but you will find yourself coming back to take a second crack at it time and again. This is actually quite a rare trait to be found in a game today, which is one of the main reasons why it should be praised. Winged Cloud has given us a game we can’t refuse no matter how difficult it may be. Furthermore, it has so many great attributes, you can’t be frustrated for long before you find something to like about it again. Perfectly balanced, no, but pretty close to it. Besides, watching Ceri flip out at latest outfit she’ll be forced to wear and the yuri subplots should be more than enough of a reward for the effort. Even without the gameplay, it would still make a hell of a visual novel on just the story and art alone. Try getting that out of your average fantasy RPG, gamer boy! If you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you will be rewarded by one of the most novel fantasy games you can play. Hail to the dungeon mistress, baby!



Pulp Yuri: A Review of Atom Grrrl!! (Sekai Project/Cosmillica)

I sometimes wonder how things end up so perfect for me when I review games. I had another hell of the day on the job with enough stress to make one’s hair go white. Though exhausted, I had just enough energy to flick the mouse and open my email account. In it was a package from Sekai Project to review a new game. Being the punk rock lad I am, I chose Atom Grrrl!! to begin my next round of video game reviews. After extracting the files and starting up Wine, I opened the game to see the Cosmillica logo, a tall stack of triple decker hamburgers with the Confederate St. Andrews Cross superimposed over it. Then I got to the saloon-style menu and…the rest is history.

To begin with, this story is as if Thema and Louise and Pulp Fiction had a bastard child that came of age on a yuri blog site. Our story involves the damned duo of Jessica Huster and her ever present companion Anna. The two leaders of a gang called The 99th Floor, they keep the peace on the corrupt and hopeless streets of Las Vegas. The next in line to the great mafia family Huster, Jessica is the queen of the youth underworld, just returning from a long stint in Yamato (read: Japan). After being picked up from the airport and discussing ala Jules and Vincent the differences between Yamato and America, the pair find themselves at the offices of the chief female gangster of Sin City, Big E. After receiving instructions from Big E to deal with a casino operating on her turf, Jessica and Anna then take some “personal time” before dealing with the offending casino. Little do either of them know, the casino is owned by Jessica’s own cousin, Very, as part of her plan to succeed as the head of the Huster family. Through the misadventures of a bungling drug dealer, catgirl trysts, and Jessica’s own bad bet in the very casino she is supposed to be taking down, the story goes from five different points into a spectacular, cinematic collision with our two heroes cuddling blissfully as chaos rages outside.

In general, this is quite an interesting visual novel and a decently done one at that. The art is crisp and clean with an excellently done set of backgrounds. However, I did find the painted-over photo motif to be a tad bit tacky. The storyline is very good and, though disjointed in a Tarantino-esque manner, it still remains coherent. On top of that, the yuri scenes were quite interesting as well. In fact, as a bonus for all you lonely lads and lasses out there, they have no mosaic for your viewing pleasure. The characters were quite well developed and had many memorable traits. The only real exception to this is the slingblade strap-on used by Big E that will make you never conceptualize a futinari hentai the same way ever again. The audio was a different story. I really liked the opening theme, which constantly invoke memories of CKY’s Suddenly Tragic. The remaining background tracks remind me of the pop rock styles of the late 90s/ early 00s and gave the game a kind of smooth acoustic aesthetic. What is more, the voice acting is very well done, especially in respect to Anna and Jessica. Finally, the sound effects were very well chosen and crafted from the shot/ricochet sound effect used in the main menu to the background gaming machine sounds in the casino.

These facts notwithstanding, I had some issues as well. The story does get a bit strung out to the point where I am constantly clicking to avoid a voracious vichyssoise of verbosity that seems to make constant appearances throughout the game. I also think that there were not enough image shifts for the characters and the backgrounds had a habit of becoming stale quickly. To round it all off, some parts of the story seem to have contradictions, especially in respect to Vincent, who doesn’t approve of Jessica’s rise but won’t do anything to promote his daughter’s claim. It just doesn’t square right for me.

Overall, I did like what I saw and, if you got the time, you should give it a go. This is even more true if you are, as I am, a bonefide Tarentino film aficionado. This yuri game is worth the watch. So, load your pistol, grab a fast food milkshake, and enjoy the ride. Booyah!


Nekonomics Brought to Life: A Review of Neko Para Volume 1 (Sekai Project/Neko Works)

I would like to start this by saying that I am not often one for moe and kawaii stuff but there are those Japanese products that compel you to make exceptions. The first volume in, what may be the beginning of something really awesome, the Neko Para series is one of them. While perusing through the Dealer’s Room recently at Anime USA, I came upon this game at one of my friend’s booths, Collector’s Anime. Considering the fact that it was sold as a Steam card, it seemed the perfect addition to my collection. After figuring out that non-Steam OS games and Linux don’t mix, I bought the Regular Edition and settled in to play, for how long I didn’t know.

Our hero, the aspiring pastry chef Kashou, is starting out on his own as a newly-minted shop owner after leaving his family behind to pursue his love of baking. That is until he discovers two of his family’s catgirls, the cheerful Chocola and the reserved Vanilla, have stowed away for the ride. Stuck with the madness of opening his new establishment while trying come to terms with being a new guardian to two catgirls, a hilarious and heartfelt story follows. All the while, he comes to realize what he lost when he tried to strike out on his own. From the first click to the last on the dialog box, the outstanding writing and storyline give the reader an immersive experience to the point where you can truly feel as if you have become Kashou-sama, seeing it through his own three dimensional sight, not a 2D computer screen. To add to this incredible interactive experience is a combination of sight and sound that conveys the mood as good as your favorite anime. The still graphics and animations are spectacular, very well mimicking live action movement to the point where one’s eyes can be easily tricked (yes, even the H scenes, you perverts). The character’s are drawn with remarkable realism right down to the “chest bounciness” of the catgirls, which can be adjusted to the player’s tastes and actuated at any time. The soundtrack astoundingly conveys the mood in a style reminiscent of the easy listening music of the late 1990s and early 2000s with the usual Japanese audio motifs. However, the most interesting feature to Neko Para is the character voice acting, which is even more immersive to the viewer than the written dialogue. I don’t care how tough of a man you are, when Chocola cries, you are going to get choked up. Shigure’s sugary sweet voice gives an added dimension to her love and devotion for her Nii-sama as well as her own cuteness. Furthermore, the tones and emphasis lend themselves perfectly to the animation and action in each and every scene.

Though a very finely polished visual novel, there are a few points that must be noted. This is a kawaii/moe game, which means the female characters are portrayed in a youthfully cute manner. This can wonder into near lollicon territory. If you are not comfortable with such things, beware. Furthermore, those who can not understand the Japanese tongue-in-cheek incest humor, you should bear this warning in mind. While I could expound more on these ideas, I think these things are better left to otaku-produced YouTube videos than a review article.

For those who do like moe and kawaii visual novels and can appreciate a really interesting story of a young man’s struggles with love, dreams, and family, I suggest you take a bite out of the story of La Soleil in Neko Para. You’ll find yourself staring at your screen as intently as a cat to a feather lure and leaving you so elated you simply just want to purr. Meow!

NEKOPARA Vol.2 - Cast2

Into the Wild Blue Depths: A Review of Sakura Swim Club (Sekai Project/ Winged Cloud)

I have seen many visual novels from Japan over the years. Many are your typical fan service and late night novelty type whose story line is written as such that you end up laughing at that alone. Then, on an unrelated search for another visual novel rendered in a usable format for my computer, I found Sakura Swim Club, the latest chapter in the Sakura series from Winged Cloud. I thought I was going to get a Friday night jolly for cheap. It’s now been a week and a half and I can’t seem to not crank it up over and over again.

To begin with, the story of Kaede, our playable and unseen hero, from apathetic student to accomplished athlete through the help of the moody but secretly sweet Mieko and the cool yet troubled Hiromi is something that grabs you by the belt buckle and by the heart strings. The writing sucks you in through the screen into the story environment so well that you can almost smell the chlorine and hear the lapping of the water against the tile. The characters are well defined with a great deal of development from beginning to end. To add to this ambiance is a soundtrack that is simply astounding and subliminally evokes a strong mood in one’s mind with every scene. The driving metal track during the argument scene between Hiromi and Mieko conveys the fury of the two women struggling for Kaede’s affections while the cacophony of the awkward track leaves the viewer at a loss not too dissimilar to our hero. More than that, the general background tracks give the experience a very aquatic feel from calm to exhilarated. Though the artwork is much what would be expected of such a semi-animated game, it’s very well done and the scene stills convey the action in such a way that it seems to be better than if it had been fully animated.

The only potential downside is, despite an impressive set of sound effects, there is no character voice content. It should be noted that with the combined stimulation of all the other elements, your imagination seems to be able to synthesize the voices quite well internally. However, it would have been a better visual novel to have had some voice acting for the characters. There is, of course, the inevitable dichotomy between the Steam-sanitized version and the full-on R18 version of the game. While you can play without the H scenes, why bother if you can’t fully experience the passion of this aquatic trio and the romantic bond they build? I’d rather feel the love.

If you’re looking for a non-yaoi swimming club story, then you should really give this visual novel a few laps. It has everything you want from the casual viewer to the most discerning, school swimsuit-obsessed weeboo. If you like high school drama and romantic comedy with a happy ending, in more ways than one, then you should dive into Sakura Swim Club.

UPDATE: A new voice pack was released earlier this year. The voices for our two heroes, Mieko and Hiromi, are fantastic. The dialogue is well structured with the proper pauses and inflections. That said Mieko’s voice is a bit sharp, which can be an issue if you’re playing while listening through headphones. However, they are the only voices in this game. It would have been interesting to know what Kaede’s father sounded like or the teacher of Kaede’s class. Considering the popularity of the game, I suspect we might hear their voices soon enough.

Sakura Swim Club

The Mad Skill Your Mother Warned You About