Bloody Disappointing! The Corpse Party: Blood Drive Review

Well, so far my most anticipated Vita releases for 2015 have (mostly) been serious disappointments.1 First there was Persona 4 Dancing All Night and its numerous issues, and now we have Corpse Party: Blood Drive, a follow-up to the superb (and very under-the-radar) PSP horror title Corpse Party. Unfortunately, Corpse Party: Blood Drive is most certainly not superb. Quite far from it, actually.

Let’s look back at the original game for a moment. Corpse Party was a horror-themed adventure game that began life as an RPG Maker project on the Japanese PC-98 computer, and eventually wound up on the PSP after numerous remakes and revisions. It’s the story of a group of students (and a teacher) who wind up trapped in the abandoned, cursed Heavenly Host Elementary after performing what they think is a harmless friendship ritual, but is actually a rite to enter an evil alternate dimension. Heavenly Host is a long-abandoned school that was the site of numerous horrific happenings, filled with numerous tortured souls who want nothing but to inflict their pain and suffering on others in the most agonizing ways possible. Its roots as an RPG Maker game were obvious in the visuals, which consisted of 2D sprite graphics and top-down environments, as well as its simple interactions, which made it more of a 2D horror adventure game than a “survival horror” experience.

Corpse Party was unusual in many ways, but it worked wonderfully as a horror game: the sprite visuals were incredibly unsettling once the awfulness of Heavenly Host began to set in, the sound design and voice acting was nothing short of amazing (listening to characters’ death throes is nothing short of terrifying), and the technical/engine limitations meant that most of the game’s scariest scenes were told through only text and sound – making them even more effective than if they were purely visual. (You can only see so much hyper-detailed viscera before it loses its impact, but detailed descriptions and sounds of pain and suffering can be absolutely brutal.) The characters were engaging, and they interacted quite well with each other, revealing lots of weird and unique little personality quirks (some far more disturbing than others).

That’s a brief summary. If you want a more detailed review of the original Corpse Party, I shall point you in the direction of friend-of-the-site Gaming Hell!

Anyhow, despite being a PSP exclusive, the game seemed to do well for publisher XSEED – in fact, we wound up getting a collection of side stories (and a brief prologue to Blood Drive) in the 2012 release of Corpse Party: Book of Shadows, which took the game even further into adventure game/visual novel territory. Some folks found it disappointing, but I enjoyed seeing more about the characters and setting of the game as revealed through its various vignettes.

So how does Corpse Party: Blood Drive manage to screw up such a good thing? Oh boy, where to begin…

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  1. Ultra Despair Girls was riveting, though certainly janky at points, so at least there’s that.

Smooch First, Ask Questions About Your Past Life Experiences Later: The Amnesia: Memories Review

Part of the Gaming.moe mission, as I’ve said before, is to look at and review games that would likely get passed over by bigger review sites for various reasons. Visual novels as a whole are generally passed up for reviews on many big outlets, and that goes doubly so for visual novels that have some element that puts them way out of mainstream accessibility. In the case of No, Thank You!, which I reviewed a while back, that element was gay romance and explicit content, but in the case of Amnesia: Memories, it’s because it’s an otome game targeting a primarily female player demographic.

I’ve written about otome games in the past – it’s a genre that interests me on many levels. Since I wrote that piece a few years back, we’ve started to see a more steady flow of localized otome games come westward, particularly on mobile platforms. They seem to be doing well, as the labels Shall We Date? and Voltage had a very noticeable presence at this year’s Anime Expo, MangaGamer’s bringing over OzMafia!!, and there are hints that Sekai Project might be looking at otome titles as well.

Japanese publisher Idea Factory does some of the most well-known otome games on the market under their Otomate label, some of which have been licensed to US publishers like Aksys for translation. Since Idea Factory now has an official US branch, however, they have an opportunity to publish English versions of more of these games themselves – an opportunity they seized with the English release of Amnesia: Memories on PS Vita and Steam recently. Since IFI kindly provided me a review code for the Vita version, well, I certainly wasn’t going to pass up a chance to take a closer look at one of Otomate’s most enduring titles.

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Buckle up, readers, it’s time to mack on some digital boyfriends!

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Incompletionism: The Games I Wanted to Review

One thing I’ve learned as a professional reviewer is that people will give you a huge ration of shit if they even think you haven’t beaten a game you’ve reviewed. In most cases, I feel like this shouldn’t even be an issue. Yes, you should certainly make a good-faith effort to play through as much of the game as possible, because there are many excellent games that are slow starters – and some with midgame sequences that are miserable and drag the product down. There are extremely few games that come to mind where the ending sequence really, really damages the product to the point where I’d actually give the game a lower score as a result (looking at you, Devil Survivor)1. Really, when you sit down and think about it, saying something like “I didn’t finish this game because of reasons x, y, and z” can be very helpful in a review context! But that doesn’t matter – unless you were totally thorough to some nebulous standard in your playthrough, your opinion is invalid in the eyes of many a reader.

Even when I’m writing on here, my personal site, I still feel like if I don’t spend as much time with a game as possible, I’ve somehow “failed” the criteria for reviewing it. I’m always looking for stuff to cover on this site that wouldn’t really fit with any of the pro outlets I work for. I’ve started and finished quite a few games that I intend to write about more thoroughly (like Phantasm, I swear!), but there are other games I picked up with the express intent of reviewing them on the site… and then never finished them, and have no real desire to finish them. So instead of writing “proper” reviews for these games where I give a general overview of a product and evaluate various aspects of it, I’m going to tell you why I’m not going to finish them. Short and to the point… mostly.

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  1. I bet somebody who is still REALLY ANGRY about Mass Effect is gonna come barging in here, I can feel it. Time to let it go, buddy.

Anime on anime: Shirobako

Though I risk putting myself up for intense mockery, I must get this confession out of the way immediately:

I cried during Shirobako.

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It was the arc during episodes 7 and 8, where Ema Yasuhara is struggling with her craft as a key animator. She wants to do good quality work, but she has to learn to do things quickly, because the production is falling behind schedule and deadlines are cruel in the world of making anime. But the people checking her are unhappy with her work, asking her to redo it. She just can’t seem to get it right to her and their satisfaction, and she’s terrified, because not delivering something acceptable means that people won’t give her more work. She wants to be proud of her work, she wants others to like her work, but her own self-doubts and frustration and a looming deadline are crushing her. All she wants to do is make a living off the creative work she loves, but now she’s doubting her ability to do that.

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shirobako2I cried alongside her as she voiced her fears to the lead character, Aoi Miyamori. I knew how she felt. I’d been where she was many times over. Sometimes I still find myself feeling like her. It’s a scary, scary place to be, and here it felt all too real. Even as I was watching it again to get screens for this article, it felt like a gut-punch: seeing her just barely holding it together in front of Aoi and going into full-blown panic after she steps away.

This is one of the many reasons why Shirobako is such a terrific show: the emotional highs and lows of the characters resonate with anyone who has ever gone to work in a field they were starry-eyed over. It’s a show about following your dreams, seeing the reality of those youthful dreams firsthand, and struggling to come to terms with exactly why you’re following those dreams.

It’s an anime about people who make anime.

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Rude Dudes bein’ Lewd: No, Thank You!!! BL Game review

WARNING: This review covers an adult-oriented PC game. While explicit images will not be shown in the review, the review text and/or subject matter discussed may be considered not work-safe. Reader discretion is advised.

One of the reasons I started up Gaming.moe was because I wanted to take a critical and analytical eye to games that don’t fit the coverage profile of major gaming review sites. Up until now, that’s mostly applied to under-the-radar releases, indies, and retro games. But No, Thank You!!! is something mainstream review sites really won’t touch: It’s an 18+ game, it’s a visual novel, and the central theme is gay relationships. Yes, it’s a complete 180-degrees from weird old Taito games, but it’s still the sort of game I want to experience and talk about.

“But Heidi,” you say, “Is there actually that much to talk about here? Isn’t the point of Japanese eroge as a whole just to get to the smut scenes?” And to that question (which you, in actuality, probably weren’t asking but I like my hypotheticals dammit) I’d answer “Well, yes, there’s actually a lot of interesting elements to this title, and also the genre’s a bit more nuanced than that but that’s a whole different article entirely!”1

So without further ado, let’s take a long, hard2 at No, Thank You!!!, the first official English release of a Boys’ Love game in quite a long time.

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  1. I also don’t want to cover anything that’s just 100% outright porn for a variety of reasons.
  2. I SWEAR THIS WAS NOT INTENTIONAL WHEN I WROTE IT but it’s funny so I’m keeping it

Japanese Free-to-Play Hell: Bubblen March

My dear sister recently moved into a new job out of the country, and bequeathed unto me her iPhone. Up until that point, I’d been using Android phones, and while I still prefer the Android OS as a whole, one of the big things that iOS offers is ease of switching between music/app store territories. Just make a new Apple ID account, throw in a random overseas address, and BAM! You have a new account in whatever country you please, and can download pretty much anything from their stores. Actually paying for said apps and music is another story, since you’ll need someone to buy you iTunes cards from that territory, but there’s still ample free apps for you to grab if you don’t want to go through the trouble.

As we’re well aware, Japan’s mobile gaming industry has eagerly embraced the free-to-play model, and being the brave soul that I am, I’m trying to wade through that muck in the iOS app store and see if any free-to-play spinoffs of beloved franchises getting  are actually worth a damn. Yes, a lot of free-to-play games are garbage, and I say that having defended the model as not completely terrible: It’s all about implementing it correctly, in a way that makes the player feel satisfied, not strongarmed, to spend money on a service. Taito’s shown that they can do that well with Groove Coaster Zero, a fantastic free-to-play music game that offers numerous tracks as paid expansions. I’d recently seen a few of their upcoming mobile game announcements: a Wizardry roguelike, Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders (it kills me that this isn’t out yet), and a match-3 puzzler called Bubblen March. Being the Bubble Bobble nerd that I am, Bubblen March immediately caught my attention, and it wasn’t long before it was sitting on my iPhone’s app set.

I’ve been playing for a couple weeks now, and my feelings towards Bubblen March are… complicated, to say the least.

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Hardware review: The New Nintendo 3DS XL

Up until Nintendo graciously bestowed upon me a New 3DS XL (how’s that for disclosure?), I had been playing the same aqua-blue system I’d owned since launch. Despite the temptation of numerous special-edition models and the XL version, I loved my little blue wonder and decided I was going to stick with it as long as I could. After going through something like five different models of the original DS/Lite/i, I wasn’t going to spend extra cash on another 3DS unless I felt it was absolutely necessary.

Of course, when Nintendo announced the New 3DS and games that would run exclusively on said platform, I knew I’d have to wind up getting one eventually simply because I need to be able to keep up with potential work opportunities. Thankfully, Nintendo sent one my way so I wasn’t forced to fight the throng of people attempting to preorder a (quite beautiful, I should note) Majora’s Mask New 3DS system.

As much as I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, I’m among the folks who are quite displeased that the only North American New 3DS offering is of the XL variety. I was greatly looking forward to swapping out faceplates procured from abroad and colored Super Famicom-style buttons that proclaimed to the world “this isn’t a mobile device, this is a specialized portable game machine!” Instead, I got a giant, boring black brick that looked just like every other piece of mobile kit I hauled around while commuting.

But it didn’t take long to figure out how to improve it drastically.

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Now this is a 3DS for me.

Anyhow, I’m not here to brag, honest! I’m here to look at the New 3DS and give you my impressions so you can hopefully decide for yourself whether or not it’s worth the scratch. Let’s have a look!

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Controller Review: HORI Fighting Commander 4 for PS3/PS4/PC

If you asked me what the worst part of the last console generation was, I’d probably say “too much overproduced yet soulless design-by-marketing-committee games.” But perhaps, on occasion, you might catch me complaining about the controllers. As far as I’m concerned, last gen was the absolute dregs when it came to controller design: the 360 pad was ergonomic but had possibly the worst D-pad ever inflicted upon mankind, the SixAxis/DualShock 3 fixed approximately zero of the issues with the previous DualShocks (clunky ergonomics, still-awful D-pad, and horribly placed convex analog sticks), and… well, I mean, the Wii Remote should probably go without saying.

Then again, my taste in controllers is a little odd in general – after all, I love the GameCube controller for games that aren’t Smash. My favorite controllers are generally third-party or custom-made options, though I’ve had really good luck with HORI products in the past. (Hell, I owned – and rather liked – that crazy Dragon Quest slime controller they made!) I’ve been looking to get a new digital-input-centric pad for my PS3 for a while, but I was never able to jump on the Fighting Commander 3s when a limited amount were made available Stateside, and their aftermarket prices wound up being downright stupid.

Cut to the present day, where I have acquired a PS4 and Guilty Gear Xrd, and it’s looking like the PS4 will be the console of choice for future fighting game endeavors.  I wanted something nice to play 2D-heavy games with, but I was disappointed to see that many games still do not support PS3 controller backwards compatibility (which simply require the implementation of a freely available driver – seriously, what’s the excuse?), meaning I can’t use my custom stick. After surveying some folks online, the HORI Fighting Commander 4 emerged as a good option – I wanted a pad more than another stick right now, it was backwards compatible with the PS3, and my experience with HORI products has been overwhelmingly positive. Even better, Play-Asia had the controller on sale at the time – along with shockingly cheap overseas express shipping – so I figured now was as good a time to take the plunge as any. Did the Fighting Commander 4 live up to my high hopes?

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(Sort of) Review: Why NES Remix maddens me

It’s a feeling I think we’ve all experienced: the uncomfortable notion from withing that there is something deeply wrong with us for not enjoying a particular piece of media. It’s especially discomforting when it’s something that seems engineered to push all of our individual Like buttons, as though somehow we’re the ones that are flawed for not properly adoring this work made to cater explicitly to us.

This feeling cropped up when I started playing the NES Remix games on Wii U. Here were cleverly conceived compilations of classic NES titles with the addition of “remix” games: parts of classic titles remodeled and mashed together in unique ways to deliver bite-sized new challenges. I certainly love Nintendo history, having grown up on so many of these titles, so the concept excited me immensely. But actually playing NES Remix 1 and 2 on Wii U felt strangely unfulfilling,  even downright frustrating. I wondered if it was the platform – these sorts of short objective-driven challenge experiences, I feel, tend to work better in mobile games that you can dig out and play for ten minutes. With this in mind, I picked up Ultimate NES Remix on 3DS, but even playing it to break up long Persona Q sessions left me feeling more irritated than amused.  Obviously, it wasn’t the platform that’s the problem. So then, what is it that makes NES Remix considerably less than the sum of its parts?

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Book review: Shigeki Toyama Works Artworks Volume by Zekuu/circle Game Area 51

First off, I apologize for this review taking so long – I haven’t been in the best of physical health this week, and that combined with the craziness of family obligations over the holiday weekend meant that I couldn’t update the site as I wanted to. I’d intended to have this up around last Monday or so, but those plans came crashing down fairly quickly. I don’t want to disappoint gaming.moe supporters with a lack of site content, but alas, sometimes real life foils even the best-laid plans. I’m working on a manner of contingency plan for the next time such a thing happens. Anyhow, on to the main piece!

A while back I wrote a piece for WIRED about the subsection of the Japanese doujinshi subculture that caters to gaming devotees. Part of the reason why doujin fascinates me so much is because of the sheer variety of stuff people create under the term, and the fact that there are other extremely passionate nerds self-publishing books about all manner of delightful gaming minutae makes me very happy indeed. I interviewed a publisher under the name Zekuu for the piece, as his circle, Game Area 51, does some of the most impressive and in-depth doujin publications on retrogames and important people involved with their creation. Thanks to his work, I’ve become more aware of the contributions of many creators to games and companies that have notable places in gaming history.

Such is the case with Zekuu’s books about Shigeki Toyama, who has a lengthy history at Namco. I was mostly unfamiliar with Toyama’s contributions to gaming, but the two volumes of doujin Zekuu published – two interview books and an artbook – have taught me a great deal about the man who designed Mappy, the iconic graphical imagery of Xevious, and several arcade cabinets and logos. He was also a robotics designer, helping create everything from small animatronics to massive amusement attractions (such as the gigantic Galaxian³ setup at the Osaka Expo in 1990). Later, he’d also be a key contributor to the design of Sony’s AIBO robot dog. After learning so much about everything Toyama had helped create, I found myself filled with a profound respect for his incredible talent. (And, to be honest, I felt a little bit embarassed that I hadn’t properly recognized it sooner.)

Out of the three books, I chose this one for review because it’s largely art-based – and since I’m writing for a primarily English-speaking audience, it doesn’t really do folks much good to recommend an interview book in Japanese. It’s 242 pages long, B&W, and contains a truly astounding amount of design material for some of the coolest, most ambitious stuff that Namco ever produced. Without further ado, let’s look over….

00_art_hyoushiShigeki Toyama Works: Artworks Volume (Toyama Shigeki Sakuhinshuu: Artworks Hen)

Cover image: A sampling of titles Toyama’s talent has touched

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