Hey guys. I gotta say, I'm a little out of it this month. Vinny's recent career shift into comedy manga cartoonist has really overshadowed these MS Paint comics I once happily produced for you all. It's hard to compete with such layered satire. I'll do my best though, because you all deserve it. So does @omghisam, my erstwhile gold sponsor and fellow fan of extremely anime animes, and the many excellent games of the previous generation which I'm showcasing here as always.
Speaking of which, today we're covering the second half of 2009. A hell of a lot of great games were released in the US during this period of time, making up for the relatively dry first half of that year. There's going to be a long list of recommendations at the end so, uh, try to stay calm?
The third game in the Mario & Luigi series of portable RPGs is easily its best, and the culmination of the series's offbeat charm and self-effacing candor that has allowed it to become the secret greatest Mario spin-off franchise. Bowser's Inside Story splits its time between the Mario brothers, who find themselves embedded deep within the viscera of Bowser, the King of the Koopas, and on Bowser himself as he rampages across the continent petulantly battering his disloyal legions who now answer to a usurping Fawful, making his long overdue return after his dark horse turn in the original Superstar Saga.
The game itself borrows the template originally devised by the Squaresoft/Nintendo crossover Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Super Nintendo (AlphaDream has more than a couple ex-Squaresoft employees), with RPG combat that drops the damage back and forth to single figures to keep it easier to follow but adds a wrinkle in that most attacks require some additional timing from the player in order to hit effectively, or even at all. The game feels simplified without actually being easier, a coup pulled off by trendsetting RPGs like Dungeon Master and Square's own Final Fantasy: with less distracting complications to consider, the overall experience feels purer as a result.
However, the most effective weapon in Bowser's Inside Story's arsenal is its sense of humor; it's peerless in this regard in the grander Mario ludology, and squeezes a lot of mileage out of Bowser's childish tantrums, Fawful's cackling Engrish and the always gormless and cowardly Luigi. Bowser's internal regions are suitably gross but at the same time lend themselves to a lot of imaginative puzzles, and the way the game ties the two teams together by letting the Marios power Bowser up during crucial moments can be very clever. The DS has no dearth of excellent RPGs, and Bowser's Inside Story might well be at the apex of that long list.
Half-Minute Hero looks, sounds and plays like a classic JRPG, but is in actuality a curious breed of puzzle game. Your tiny hero only has thirty seconds to save the world, but can't simply walk right up to the boss and take them down before that time limit expires. For one, the boss is usually hiding behind several dungeon instances and a barrier or two that cannot be overcome with sheer brawn. Most of the game's stages are set up in a way where you need to suss out the solution to reach the bad guy, find the various power-ups littered around the map, balance the amount of money you're making to that you're having to spend to rewind time and then ensure you're at the minimum required level to fight the boss (the game helpfully tells you when you're ready) and take them out before that timer finally ticks down to zero.
Though the game demands a certain amount of alacrity from the player, there's actually plenty of time to cautiously poke around. You'll no doubt fail a few times, but as you piece together the critical path from checking around the map and talking to NPCs, you'll eventually formulate a winning strategy with hopefully some cash left over for new upgrades - the only things that stick with you from stage to stage, unlike your experience and gold. Cleverly, the game branches frequently, letting you try alternate solutions to stages and finding more upgrades in branching paths. Jumping between multiple paths lets you collect new treasures without raising the difficulty level, and having twice as many upgrades makes the tougher later stages far easier to cope with. The RPG elements are in truth largely incidental - grinding is necessary for taking on the boss, but there's no real strategy where combat is involved: battles occur automatically, with the hero simply charging in until they or the enemy is defeated.
In a similar vein as Bowser's Inside Story, one of the game's strongest points is its goofy sense of humor and ruthless evisceration of common RPG clichés. You'll encounter a sympathetic "beautiful evil lord", clearly based on Psaro of Dragon Quest IV and the string of gothic, moody, slightly effete anti-heroes that followed, who eventually becomes the star of his own mode within the game. Likewise, there's a princess with a legion of followers with her own off-shoot as well. The various bosses are humorously given the flimsiest motivations for why they want to destroy the world, and your confidante - the pragmatic Goddess of Time - is as lazy, standoffish and avaricious as she is occasionally helpful. Though originally a PSP exclusive, enhanced digital ports have become available on XBLA and Steam since then, so it's easy enough to track down.
Borderlands is a novel combination of a Diablo style looter and an FPS, with a cel-shaded post-apocalyptic presentation and a sense of humor people will either find lacking or entirely up their alley. As an example, if that "up your alley" got a lascivious chuckle out of you, you are very much in the latter group. Behind all its superficial Mad Max parodies and scatological jokes, Borderlands knows precisely what it's doing regarding the instilling of that psychological compulsion to find color-coded loot and make one's various numbers ever higher that made Diablo such an addictive game back in the 90s. The addition of the fast-paced first-person shooter gameplay only serves to enhance the overall enjoyment of actually playing the game more than its spiritual antecedent's frequently mindless clicking could ever hope to manage.
The real appeal of this combination of genres is that the monster and bandit kills feel earned, despite the emphasis on increasing damage output and finding better loot, because you're the one outmaneuvering them and carefully aiming those devastating headshots. It merges the skill-based satisfaction you get from something like Call of Duty with the equally satisfying feeling you receive when you find a weapon in a chest that's far superior to the one you're holding. Most genre hybrids struggle to find a sufficiently pleasing communion between its two parents, but Borderlands presents a rare case of a "best of both worlds" situation.
It's not perfect of course (I didn't care much for most of its boss fights), and the length for which it can keep your interest will vary from person to person. I was fine after a single playthrough with one character class, but others might beat (and have beaten) it several times on multiple difficulty levels with every character available. When those hooks dig into you, they dig deep. There's always the equally good sequel as well, though I got my fill of that one a lot sooner for whatever reason.
As is now customary, we're going to look at a few comics I made previously for games released in this period. I promised three new ones with each of these features, so I can't simply give these a lick of paint and hope no-one notices. I'm not Hanna Barbera.
Before they remastered NES favorite DuckTales, WayForward also updated a certain other game for Nintendo's inaugural console, albeit one that didn't quite make as much of a splash. A Boy and His Blob updates David Crane's A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia, a game about a boy and his alien friend who is able to assume various utilitarian forms in order to help the boy through a confusing and occasionally hostile world. The Wii remake has some incredible visuals: an animation style that looks like it was lifted directly from one of those heartwarming Studio Ghibli movies about kids and their otherworldly pals. What A Boy and His Blob doesn't quite prepare you for is how challenging some of the later stages can become, where the game is far more demanding on the player's skill level than it is on their ability to work out the customary jelly bean puzzles. Also, yeah, this game has a hug button. Why wouldn't it have a hug button?
A Boy and His Blob shares its excellently animated, mostly dialogue-free sense of whimsy with Amanita Design's Machinarium, the game that put the Czech Indie developers on the map. A point and click graphic adventure game set in a rusty metropolis filled with mechanical life, the game relies on simple ideograms and character animations to convey its story and characterizations, with the puzzles being the usual sort of "using an inventory item on a hotspot to get another item you need elsewhere" business. The game alleviates the common problem of these games, which is to have you walking around with half a theme park's Lost and Found in your inventory and having no clue as to what goes where, by compartmentalizing the game into several smaller sections. After solving what needs to be done in one area, the game moves onto the next with most of the now superfluous inventory items stripped away. As a result, the game moves at a pleasing clip, rather than dragging its heels with too many abstruse puzzles.
The Other Ones!
And here's the rest. Didn't bother making comics for these, there's simply too many to get through. Make no mistake: they're all still every bit as commendable.
Shatter (Sidhe Interactive, PC/PS3, July): Shatter's a psychedelic Breakout throwback in much the same way as, say, Resogun is a psychedelic Defender throwback or Pac-Man Championship Edition DX is a psychedelic Pac-Man throwback. I suppose this whole glowy neon lights and particle effects being added to old Arcade games model really started back with Geometry Wars, or perhaps even whatever it is Jeff Minter does when he's not tending to his llamas. Regardless, Shatter has some good additions beyond superficial laser light shows for its Breakout reimagining, with some clever physics manipulation involving magnetically repulsing and attracting the ball to change its trajectory, as well as perspective switches from horizontal to vertical to a weird semi-circular tube configuration. The stand-out aspect by far is its superb electro soundtrack, created by Indie musician Module. Just go take in the audio majesty that is Argon Refinery, if you need an example.
Little King's Story (CING, Wii, July): Little King's Story is an odd departure for CING, who usually content themselves with humorously overwrought adventure visual novels like Another Code, Again and Hotel Dusk: Room 215. Or at least, they did until they were unfortunately closed down a few years back. Little King's Story is an entirely different sort of affair: a real-time squad-based strategy puzzle game that immediately invokes something like Pikmin, a comparison helped in some part by its cute and colorful countenance. It also contains a kingdom building sim element, though it's fairly basic - you simply use the spoils of your adventures to build special structures once they become available, and these structures expand the quantity and variation of units you can use as well as having other benefits. It's a deeply weird game, and much of its appeal is in seeing which odd tangent it goes off on next. As the Wii U is the only "next gen" (gotta ween myself off saying that) console with backwards compatibility, Wii games still retain their value going forward. If a Nintendo platform's not your system of choice, there's always that Vita port that's supposed to be OK.
Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady, PS3/360/PC, August): The Arkham games have become something of a franchise juggernaut since their debut with Arkham Asylum, and it probably goes without saying at this point that the game ably emphasizes everything that makes the Batman character great: His deductive intelligence, his fierce martial ability, his gadgets, his predilection for stealth and intimidation, a rogue's gallery of colorful villains and the grim and gritty atmosphere of post-1980s Gotham. Not that you see much of Gotham outside of the titular mental institution, as Asylum wisely keeps all the action locked away on its titular facility's solitary island. It's a limitation that works in the game's favor, as its sequels would find out, because there's still an immense number of locations and secrets to explore yet you don't have to run (or float, I guess) a couple miles each time you want to backtrack with a new piece of kit or traversal ability. Happily for an OCD completionist like myself, there's lots to find and do between chasing down supervillains.
Shadow Complex (Epic Games/Chair Entertainment, XBLA, August): Shadow Complex seems like a SpaceWhipper having its 3D cake and eating it 2D, as its able to combine a lot of 3D gunplay elements within its 2D explorational platformer in ways more meaningful than simply having polygonal objects on a 2D plane. Enemies appear in the background, and the hero can target them as he runs left and right. We haven't really seen this exact arrangement replicated since, oddly enough, though Shadow Complex's core SpaceWhipper gameplay has certainly inspired a lot of fellow small studio games of this genre, the most recent being the new Strider remake. It's five years old, but it's probably still the best game of its kind outside of one the better portable IGA Castlevanias.
Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (Level-5, DS, August): Layton's second outing is every bit as charming and clever as the first, but introduces what we now refer to as "matchstick fatigue". Well, maybe it's just me that calls it that. The Professor Layton games all have excellent presentation, great little mystery plots that get solved entirely without your help and more Mensa puzzles than you could shake a Riddler cane at. It's best to pace these things out, though, because their success has necessitated a lot of retreading of familiar territory. But hey, this one is set on a train for most of its playtime, and who doesn't like a good mystery set on a train? The Lady Vanishes, anyone?
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (Naughty Dog, PS3, October): Uncharted 2's the undisputed (at least I'd like to hope so) gem of the Uncharted trilogy, a game that sees Nathan and chums on fine form as they globetrot around picturesque locations to stop a psychotic Russian military commander from taking over the world (how unfortunately prescient). It has less of the dead weight that dragged down its predecessor and successor, and its combat is an able mix of clever stealth sections, rapid brute forcing and "hold your ground" bunker survival sequences. You've also got the requisite Tomb Raider-esque puzzles and traversal to enjoy in equal measures. It's a game built to appeal to everyone, without losing any of its vitality for the sake of wider audience accessibility. There's a reason it got voted 2009's GOTY, after all.
Demon's Souls (From Software, PS3, October): What can be said about Demon's Souls at this point that wasn't hammered home by Brad and Vinny's recent playthrough of From Software's breakout gothic hit? It's a Western-styled RPG built upon their King's Field series, which saw a lot of innovative additions that not only elevated it beyond From's earlier flawed ludology but allows it to stand head and shoulders above most RPGs in general. Working with (or against) other players, forcing the player to gradually comprehend the dangers around them in the harshest way imaginable, a very in-depth combat system that greatly favors split-second timing and patience over simple button mashing and a passive approach to lore and worldbuilding that lets players decide just how much they want to invest in the specifics of this grim, foreboding land. Just... don't get too obsessed with the crystal lizards. They aren't generally worth the high blood pressure.
Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time (Insomniac Games, PS3, October): The third of the Ratchet & Clank Future games, the franchise rebrand that occurred once the series hit the PS3, is perhaps the best R&C game ever made. It keeps the two heroes separated for a while, letting Clank focus on some devious time-based, clone-making puzzles while Ratchet fulfills the more overtly action-oriented magnet-rail and gunplay sequence quota. There's also an expansive galaxy to explore in your own ship, with lots of little one-off planetoid stages that reminded me a bit of Super Mario Galaxy. The plot's the same goofy Saturday morning cartoon show the series has always been, with the same deceptively sharp writing and characterization. You can't really go wrong with any R&C game (well, Deadlocked and All 4 One weren't too great), but this one's my clear favorite. I would recommend you play Tools of Destruction and maybe Quest for Booty first though, since they all tie together narratively.
Risen (Piranha Bytes, PC/360, October): Risen's a classic CRPG made in the modern era, a evolution of the well-regarded Gothic series of CRPGs that most of Risen's development team once worked on. You're simply dumped on an island and given the briefest of directions, and eventually must choose between factions and carefully consider developing your character based on desired skills and abilities. There's not enough character building points to learn everything, so you prioritize what's necessary or suited for whatever type of character build you're going for. My favorite part of Risen is that it feels like a classic RPG through and through: There's a big island, not a whole lot of restraints (other than the difficulty of some monsters), no inventory limit and lots to see and do. Just keep in mind that it can be a bit rough around the edges, given that it's a big RPG produced by a relatively small European studio.
Assassin's Creed II (Ubisoft Montreal, 360/PS3/PC, November) : Assassin's Creed would finally come into its own with the second core game, and the introduction of Ezio Auditore da Firenze. The Italian rapscallion is a far more charismatic lead than the dour Altair ever was, and the game engine's been heavily modified to include far more mission variety. Italy is a particularly attractive part of the world, especially around the Renaissance, and the plot surrounding the anti-Pope Rodrigo Borgias and Ezio's quest for revenge feels a little more relatable than a Templar headhunt. The game also does a handful of interesting things with the modern day Desmond Miles, though the series would end up squandering a lot of the mad twists that conclude this game. If you were looking to jump into the giant haystack that is the Assassin's Creed franchise, II is probably your best bet. (Then Brotherhood, then directly to IV if most accounts are anything to go by. The rest you can try should you find yourself heavily invested in the series, though Revelations and III aren't all that great.)
Dragon Age: Origins (BioWare, 360/PS3/PC, November): Dragon Age: Origins is BioWare doing for its forte of elves and dragons what it recently did for sci-fi with Mass Effect: In a similar fashion, Dragon Age feels both familiar and new, a dichotomy brought about by some clever worldbuilding and inspiration sourcing. You'll see shades of Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire everywhere you look, but the muddy realm of Ferelden - a medieval nation beset every so often by immense hordes of demonic terrors - is quite well realised, and the individual stories you come across while attempting to recruit political factions for a big counterattack create a lot of smaller, memorable adventures in the style of a series of D&D modules. Dragon Age 2 squandered some of the series's appeal, but Origins is a fantastic RPG that caters to all levels of player experience.
Rabbids Go Home (Ubisoft Montpellier, Wii/DS/PC, November): Most Rabbid games seem fairly disposable on first glance, like UbiSoft's own variant of Mario Party or any number of lesser mini-game collections. Rabbids Go Home is an entirely different lagomorphic beast, with a story focused around collecting garbage from the humans and using it to build a giant tower to the moon. The hows and whys of the Rabbits' plan isn't important; being a willful participant of the madcap chaos of steering a shopping cart into as many piles of objects as possible while terrorizing the milquetoast humans with your kleptomaniac rampage is both fun and funny. If only I could portmanteau those two words.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers (Square-Enix, Wii, December): I was a little cold on Crystal Bearers and eventually abandoned it once it became clear I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going, but as an even more divergent entry in a spin-off series known for a few odd decisions (multiplayer action RPGs? In my Final Fantasy?) it has merit in its sheer weirdness. Less an RPG than a, I don't even know, throwing shit around simulator, Crystal Bearers has a goofy, self-aware "anything goes" charm about it that has you wildly jumping around from one mini-game sequence to the next while greatly emphasizing experimentation with its combat. You pick things up, throw them at the enemies chasing you around the level and hope for the best. I kind of wish I gave it more of a chance, but at the same time I do wonder what the developers were smoking.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (Nintendo, DS, December): Spirit Tracks is the third and presently final entry in the Wind Waker Zelda sub-series, and the second game for the DS after Phantom Hourglass. It continues on after the events of its two predecessors, but fast-forwards a hundred years into the future after Link, Tetra and her pirates colonize a mysterious island filled with train tracks which then prospers enough to become the Kingdom of New Hyrule after a few generations. While the game follows the usual Zelda spiel of locating dungeons, plundering new gadgets, defeating bosses and moving onto the next den of evil in the sequence, there's lot of oddly engrossing Densha de Go! styled train sequences. Acquiring new rail routes and carefully escorting NPCs for rewards become important factors for progression as the game proceeds, and Zelda herself is given way more attention in her character development than usual, continuing Wind Waker's trend of crafting a Hyrulian princess with some personality for once. Just be sure to play it on its native DS, because the 3DS's mic isn't exactly sufficient for some of the game's musical panflute sequences (the panflute standing in for the usual ocarina).
The Saboteur (Pandemic Studios, PS3/360/PC, December): The Saboteur initially seems like the sort of open-world also-ran you saw everywhere last generation (and possibly this one, if InFamous: Second Son's accolades end up leading to more imitators): the sort of game where you run around a large city (in this case, Paris) and free regions from enemy control by performing the same handful of tasks over and over, while occasionally following a main storyline revolved around personal vengeance. However, there's a few interesting elements aiding The Saboteur that help set it apart in that well-populated genre. The first is that it's a historical representation of Nazi-occupied Paris in the midst of the second World War, and the player character is an embittered Irish racecar mechanic determined to bring down the Nazi occupying forces with as much grit and grace (and TNT) as he can muster, which isn't a setting you see exploited too often outside of FPS games. The second is that the game makes terrific use of color, displaying Nazi-occupied sectors as noirishly monochromatic and drab with a few splashes of red here and there in swastikas and propaganda posters. Liberating a region brings color back to it, creating a very vivid impression that your efforts are having an effect. It's not too subtle, but it works, and I had a lot of fun running around taking down guardtowers and other Nazi structures than I might've otherwise anticipated.
All right, that's it. Thanks for sitting through a second incredibly wordy blog in a row. I'll be back with the first half of 2010 in the middle of April some time.
I've spent what feels like the best part of a month playing Tales of the Abyss, the eighth main series title in Namco Bandai/Tales Studio's venerable action JRPG franchise originally released in 2005 for the PS2 (2006 in the US) that was recently ported to the 3DS which also marked its European debut. What's often an issue when discussing any one of these Tales games is how difficult it is to avoid talking about how many of its core elements are shared between its predecessors and successors, due to how the series has evolved in a far more gradual and incremental fashion akin to Dragon Quest than in the much more experimentally diverse and discrete leaps between, say, any two given adjacent Final Fantasy games.
That isn't to say Tales is staid and formulaic, at least not entirely. The series is beloved by many because it sticks to its guns in some fundamental respects while returning to the drawing board for those facets which need to be refreshed: specifically, the cast of characters, the setting and some tweaking of tertiary mechanics that perhaps didn't pan out as satisfactorily last time. By allowing certain immutable elements, like the core combat systems and item naming conventions (though Tales is hardly alone in the latter - this is a particularly common trait among JRPG series to maintain a uniformity), the franchise feels lived in and familiar, which is the sort of tactic that can maintain a fanbase without repulsing them in turn by serving up the same dish over and over to diminishing returns. Like Zelda or the IGA Castlevanias, there'll always be a mix of visitors that will be satiated after a few entries, perhaps occasionally coming back to the series every once in a blue moon when a particularly well-regarded sequel transpires, and those on its wavelength that are salivating for each new iteration regardless of how homogeneous they are perceived by those outside the zealous fanbase.
Still, even with the numerous elements unique to Tales of the Abyss, it's way too easy to drop a couple hundred "this is a feature implemented in earlier Tales games" or "this reference calls back to Tales of ___". So... screw it. I'm going to do a full analysis of this game from top to bottom, throwing in as many allusions and references to the other Tales games as frequently as I deem germane. This'll include a deeper look at the lore, the setting, the characters and the finer mechanics of the various RPG systems in play. But, you know, in a typically frank and irreverent manner. Trying to talk around its dumber moments or how it entirely lifted ideas from earlier entries would be almost impossible, and I wouldn't have a whole lot of fun writing that sort of 'beating around the bush' scrutiny. Nor, I can imagine, would it be that much fun to read either. (I should also state here that there's spoilers up until the end of the first act of the game, which is only when the plot really starts to kick off.)
Tales of the Abyss can be awfully trite at times, the plot moves glacially at certain points and there's a veritable exhibition of very common tropes that appear frequently in the Tales series, and by extension to JRPGs in general, but Tales has always been more interested in inventing characters and letting them develop than it is in its greater schemes and stories. A lot of the story beats are the same old power struggles and wrong decisions spurred by good intentions, but it's in creating a likeable ragtag team of protagonists, putting them through these familiar rigors and letting them discuss these experiences among themselves that the Tales series usually flourishes.
Of course, each new team of Tales heroes and heroines are carefully designed from a gameplay perspective as well. Characters fulfill basic class roles as they would do in any party-based RPG, though Tales is fairly unique in how each character's fighting style is tailored to suit their personality. Tales' chaotic real-time combat plays out similarly to one of those arena fighters like Anarchy Reigns or Ehrgeiz, with each character given a list of special attacks named Artes that consume varying amounts of a "Technical Points" stat (a slightly convoluted means of allowing weapon skills and magic spells to draw from the same mana pool, which regenerates to some extent after each normal attack and the battle's conclusion); a foundation of frantic free-for-all chaos upon which greater layers of general team AI strategies are spread. Certain characters are predisposed for the front lines, of course, but whether they're there to run interference and aggro enemies while the player's magic-user does all the heavy lifting damage-wise, or if you've set those magic-users to support and healing while you, as the melee fighter, go to town with your best combos will often change depending on the story circumstances, the type of opponent(s) being faced or just your preferred playstyle. When discussing either their role in the plot or in battle, the characters adhere to broad archetypes but are nuanced sufficiently to set themselves apart as unique entities, even as the overall cast of the Tales series grows and grows. It's a factor that always been instrumental to the success of these games, and one the designers seem to always pay keen attention to above all else.
The Tale of Tales of the Abyss
Tales of the Abyss is set on Auldrant, a world locked in a seemingly endless war between two vaguely European sovereign states that between them comprise of most of the globe's five continents. The third, much smaller kingdom is that of Daath: a theocratic ersatz Vatican City that mediates the peace and not-so-secretly controls the two other factions with an immense prophetic scripture called the Score.
The Score is an all-encompassing and absurdly detailed divination regarding everything and everyone that was transcribed from a group of floating rocks during the Dawn Age, an ancient time of unparalleled technological advancement, that everyone follows without question. In exchange for utter obedience to the Score, the people and nations of the world are promised untold prosperity. As such, the fragile peace between the two empire-nations has been kept in check, until the Score decrees that the two must come to blows once again.
Now I'm fairly sure those last two paragraphs set off about five or six JRPG cliché warning klaxons in your head, but it's the nature of any Tales game to stick to a few common themes and find ways of shaking them around by the foundations a little, if never toppling them entirely. For instance, the game zigzags on the veracity and potentially nefarious nature of the Score quite a few times, setting up villains and heroes that adhere to and reject it in equal measure. The game also has a wild conclusion to its first act, spurring a complete moral shift for at least one of its characters and features an entire team of recurring villains that each get a surprising amount of screentime for their individual backstories that properly frames their motivations, among other factors.
Science Time with Professor Anime
The setting of TotA is unusual among Tales games because it leans so much more heavily on the game's bizarre invented science regarding fonons - an elemental matter I can really only compare to midichlorians given the number of times they've been used to explain away some scientific implausibility in a fantasy world that probably shouldn't be trying to apply scientific scrutiny to itself in the first place. The fonons are in both organic and inorganic matter and are instrumental in keeping the body's atoms held together(?). And there's a chain of seventh fonons that circle the planet like an accretion disc named the Planet Storm that civilizations have been drawing on to power their technology. And then it just gets weirder. The discovery that the entire world is suspended several thousand feet in the air, including the oceans, in order to keep the continents away from the now toxic surface of the planet is a bizarre twist, though given that something very similar happened towards the end of Tales of Destiny in reverse it's perhaps more that Tales is playing around with its own mythology a bit. Then there's a whole bunch of hooey about "isofons" - replicating a person or object by copying their fonic data and creating a duplicate from wandering fonons - and the game starts veering towards Parts: The Clonus Horror territory.
Without getting too deep into all this pseudo-science (which is gradually explained to a main character ignorant of much of the world due to his sheltered upbringing) lest I inadvertently start spoiling things, Abyss immediately sets itself apart from its brethren by just how deep into its own lore (or up its own ass, if you'd prefer) it's willing to get. It's a fascinating, if absurdly detailed, narrative decision that aids the verisimilitude of what might well have been another batch of JRPG made-up "lifestream" hokum, and also helps to emphasize the point that there's a hell of a lot of weird business going down that most of the world's scientific community is only barely cognizant of, but are itching to discover (or rediscover, I suppose, given that all the ancients had this figured out at one point). When you start seeing the requisite "how the hell did they do this?" scenes when encountering ancient super-advanced machinery, such as the enormous light pillars keeping the tectonic plates afloat, it comes from a place of knowing just enough about the world's grasp of science to understand how far beyond the current level of technological advancement much of these ancient gizmos really are. It almost feels like a Jules Verne world (though I'm probably putting way too much stock into this game with that comparison) because the science tries to be as sound as it can be despite its entirely fictitious nature. Maybe Star Trek would be a better comparison: a show that supposes the existence of certain outlandish fantasy elements like the ability to travel at faster than light speeds by warping space, or creating food and supplies out of photons, but most everything else must have some degree of scientific plausibility for that world to operate effectively and come off as realistic to us, the viewers. At least that was always the case for the Next Generation, where they weren't bumping into mobster planets and Greek gods every other episode.
The game's also way more into eschatology than usual. It's not surprising to discover some sort of doomsday scenario in a JRPG which inevitably comes to pass during the game's events, but the Score's foretelling of a time of desolation is a central plot point and comes to define a lot of the characters' motivations as they attempt various means to escape the fate that the Score has preordained for the world.
And then there's the Kabbalah influences. The Jewish Kabbalah's one of those insane (in its complexity and scope that is; not to denigrate anyone's religious beliefs) mysticism things like Gnosticism that is as every bit as ripe for a JRPG adaptation as Norse or Greek mythology. Xenogears is a particularly well-known example of a JRPG that gets deep into wacky Judeo-Christian concepts while also balancing it with a bunch of mechs and a plot that moves one word box an hour. In Abyss's case, the entire world of Auldrant is represented as a physical manifestation of the idea of Kabbalah's Sephirot trees: a set of ten virtues that denote the divine potential of humanity, with chaos and toxicity surrounding it on all sides and threatening to smother those virtues in vices - in-game, this is represented by the floating Outer Lands being held up by literal trees of light referred to as Sephiroth gates, with the Qliphoth (a Kabbalah term referring to poisonous outside forces) as a sea of toxic "miasma" mud generated by the sick planet's core. Kabbalah involves a lot of complicated theological hoo-ha, and the game seems to simplify a few of its concepts, borrow its glossary and generates a largely facile facsimile with which to build its world around, but even so it's an impressively deep cut for a source for inspiration you rarely see exploited too often, even given the reputation JRPGs have for pontificating on too much spiritual twaddle.
Cast (Into the Abyss) (That Was a Thing I Did There)
As previously stated, any given Tales game puts most of its emphasis on its brand new cast of characters, developing them with backstories and complex motivations, and fleshing them out with various optional "skit" conversations between party members. Abyss only has six playable characters, a slightly lower number than usual for the series, but they're certainly a memorable bunch! (/movie trailer). I've included a "Pantheon Position" paragraph to discuss that particular cast member in the extended universe of Tales characters. Certain traits tend to repeat quite often, though even with my incessant critiquing I'm not above acknowledging a new twist on a character archetype whenever it emerges.
Luke fon Fabre
Luke's a petulant noble youth from Kimlasca's fon Fabre family, second only in power to the Royal family. He was kidnapped as a child by Malkuth, the rival empire, and as such has been locked away in the family mansion for his own safety until he comes of age. A lifetime of confinement has made him both ignorant of the world and just kind of an entitled ass in general.
Even though his character goes through a drastic development arc due to accidentally nuking a town (hey, shit happens), he never quite settles on being a likable character. He's either too arrogant or too self-effacing, and painfully earnest in both incarnations of the character. It's apparently the unfortunate fate of every JRPG protagonist to be the oblivious straight man.
In combat, Luke's a tank. Unfortunately, that means he's also every bit as slow as a panzer, as most of his sword artes require some build-up time. He has the most diverse range of strike artes (as in, the ones that involve hitting things) but a lack of alacrity doesn't make him a whole lot of fun to play as.
Pantheon Position: Luke's fairly novel due to his bratty incarnation, and it's an interesting experiment to pull on the player to see how much they can tolerate following this spoiled rich kid around as he alienates everyone he comes into contact with. After the change he's pretty much every other Tales protagonist: Well-meaning, impulsive and a little slow.
Asch the Bloody
Asch is also Luke. It's complicated. As the customary broody temporary character, Asch only joins the party at brief intervals when his and the party's immediate goals match. He's antagonistic throughout the entire game due to his disdainful opinion of Luke, and is seemingly irritated by every little thing he does. Like other temporary Tales characters, such as Kratos or Flynn Scifo, he's considerably more badass than anyone in the core team. You get the impression that he stays away just so the game can retain some degree of challenge.
Asch fights identically to Luke, but right up until the end of the game vastly overpowers him with his wide range of strike and magic artes.
Pantheon Position: Very much adheres to the Tales temporary character core personality model: He's powerful, but kind of a dick.
If Luke has the thankless job being the humorless buffoon hero, Tear has the equally unenvious role as the strict but caring foil that steers him on the right course. A military singer priestess (sort of?), Tear's a special agent of the Order of Lorelei - the official church of the world of Auldrant. Attuned to the McGuffin-esque Seventh Fonon, a rarity among magic-users, Tear fulfills a convenient healer role in the group. When she's not sternly reprimanding Luke for screwing up again, she's acting coy around cute creatures, her "thing". Just imagine Azumanga Daioh's Sakaki-senpai with even more bangs and the ability to not-so-softly kill things with her song.
Tear's the healer, which means she stays at the back and helps out. Her Fonic Hymns are an unusual twist on magic artes, but not so unusual that they don't feel like regular spells with the requisite charge times and glowy pyrotechnics.
Pantheon Position: Tear's a healer, which is the standard female deuteragonist role, but her temperament as a cold, business-like soldier gives her some space to come into her own as the typical compassionate and thoughtful foil to the brash, inconsiderate hero in a much more believable fashion. Tear's arc is far more interesting than Luke's, though also oddly parallel: She was also raised in seclusion, given a very specific role in the salvation of the world as detailed by the Score and she's not entirely sure of who's in the right and how much she can trust those around her. She's also forced to fight almost everyone who had a hand in raising her, which is when we start seeing cracks in her detached veneer.
"The Yellow Dart"
My man, the Yellow Dart. Guy Cecil is a talented swordsman and servant of House Fabre, and one of Luke's few friends growing up. Guy's past is shrouded in secrecy for much of the game so I needn't delve into it here, but let's just say a smartly dressed fellow with an unusual swordfighting style working as a footman in a regal household is probably not all he claims to be. Guy's also a big fan of machines that run on fonic power and is intensely curious about how they work, in case he wasn't cool enough already without adding some Donatello to the mix. His humorous (but eventually tragic) character quirk is his severe aversion to women, at least while they're in close proximity.
Guy fights similarly to Luke, but greatly favors speed and combos over raw damage and high defense. Instead of tanking his way through most battles, Guy's more about hit and run tactics and has a very useful self-heal in case of emergencies. He's extremely adaptable and the easiest character to play as in combat.
Pantheon Position: Guy seems to have been created last second to give the player another swordsman (usually the Tales "class" with the most built-in artes) with a different speed/power distribution in case they wanted a change of pace. Story-wise he most closely resembles Loni from Destiny 2, or perhaps Chester from the original Phantasia - that sort of supporting "best friend" role that's largely incidental to most of the story beats. Of course, Guy has a secretive backstory that gets a lot of plot mileage, and he's easily the funnest character to play, so to call him inessential would be wildly inaccurate.
"Above This Shit"
Jade's a Malkuthian Colonel and a sinister looking guy who on first impression comes across as cold and ruthless. Mildly sociopathic, even. The best part of Jade's character is that none of these apparent traits are inaccurate, and you spend the entire game wondering when he'll double-cross you, or at the very least leave you in an icy bathtub without your kidneys. The reveal that Jade's chequered past paints him as someone who once had to redeem himself after a mistake assuages the player's concerns that's he on the level, but not entirely. Jade's already a fantastic presence due to him being in his 30s and very impatient with his youthful companions' BS, which means I immediately identify with him, but the added wrinkle of being a potential supervillain who interferes with corpses certainly helps.
Jade's your standard mage nuke in combat, with most the game's most devastating spells. He can also summon a spear with the power of his goddamn mind and can perform a few magic-enhanced combos with it. He's suited for distance, ideally, but he's there for pure damage in whatever form it's required.
Pantheon Position: Jade both fulfills the "socially awkward mage" and "grouchy old man" roles common to Tales, like a cross between Rita and Raven for the Vesperia fans out there. He's been given the outward personality of a recurring scientist villain though (think: a much more grounded Hojo from Final Fantasy VII), presumably to change things up a bit and keep the player guessing, since party members betraying you and departing forever are certainly not uncommon to Tales. He's prone to inappropriate jokes (of the gallows humor kind, rather than the lascivious anime kind) and deadpan sarcasm, and is continually exasperated by the rest of his team and their youthful antics. I'd probably invoke Ricardo from Innocence had anyone actually played that game, because there's very few situations where he seems happy to be in most scenes unless there's some schadenfreude to enjoy.
"The J in JRPG Stands For Jailbait"
Anise is the game's comic relief character, a man-hungry 13 year old eager to marry into wealth and somewhat more worldly than she lets on. She's also the bodyguard of the fey Fon Master Ion, the highest official in the Order of Lorelei, and leaves the fighting to her enormous war puppet Tokunaga. She's essentially Cait Sith, right down to the combat marionette and covetousness (and a certain other shared aspect that would be too telling to reveal). As creepy as her attempts to intermingle with men twice her age might seem, she's always rebuked and it's usually played for comedy. But, as you all know, anime is as anime does.
In combat, the tiny girl is inexplicably the strongest and slowest physical attacker. She's also an intermediate spellcaster, so she has a bit more variety than most of the other characters. I suppose an accurate description of her combat role would be a juggernaut: slow to act, but hard to stop. The various unique accessories she can use - which changes her puppet to resemble various Namco Bandai properties as diverse as Wonder Momo and The Prince of All Cosmos - also gives her something of a wild card edge.
Pantheon Position: Every Tales has their oddball character, one who takes a bit of practice before you understand their combat role fully. Combining a slow heavy-hitter with a magic user is inspired, because both modes take their time to get going. I'd hate to do this to Anise, because she's a lot of fun, but she most closely resembles the infamous Marta of the Symphonia sequel, simply because she's worldly, opinionated and utterly convinced of her own irresistible nature. Whether it's because she hits on everyone who looks like they might have a fortune stashed away, or because of her puppet's constant rictus grin, I just kind of get skeezed out whenever she's around.
Natalia Luzu Kimlasca-Lanvaldear
"Princess von Kickass"
Natalia is the regal and compassionate princess of Kimlasca, and Luke's betrothed. She's also Luke's cousin, so I don't even know what this game is saying about monarchy but it's probably accurate. Natalia's as naive and opinionated as Luke, but considerably more bearable to be around, and of all the characters is the happiest to be running across the world every five minutes for the next plot coupon. That makes one of us, I guess?
Natalia's an archer and the only true long-range unit. Most of her strike artes either stop enemies in their tracks or knock them back if they get too close, so she's a great character to control if you don't like to get hurt. She's also the party's second healer, so you can't really ask for better support.
Pantheon Position: Archers tend to get the short shrift in their character development, and I'm only guessing it's because they're usually treated as support characters both in and out of combat. Chelsea and Nanaly weren't particularly important characters in their respective games (Destiny and Destiny 2, for those asking) and the archers since then haven't really stood out much either. Natalia's healing elevates her support role to something practically indispensible, but she's given very little plot development beyond a certain mid-game twist that resolves itself fairly quickly. She's best utilized as a counterpart to Luke: a Royal who actually acts close to the ideal, rather than an entitled little brat.
"The Squeaky Mascot"
Mieu's a cheagle, a race of semi-intelligent woodland critters that the Church of Lorelei holds in great esteem, for some reason. In broader terms, he's the team mascot and the conduit for the Sorcery Ring - the quintessential Tales item that allows the player to perform several field actions to get past obstacles or find hidden treasure chests. He says cute things and is cute and everyone just kind of tolerates having him around, except for Luke. Mieu is inexplicably tied to Luke due to some variant of the Wookiee life debt, but the hatred Luke feels for this fuzzy little annoyance is palpable. I think I got like three Star Wars references in that last sentence by mistake.
Mieu doesn't appear in combat. He's a lover, not a fighter.
Pantheon Position: Almost all Tales games have a mascot character, with varying levels of importance to the plot and to the fighting. For instance, Vesperia's Repede was a serviceable member of the party in battles as well as the "cute thing" certain characters would fawn over (though I'd hesitate to call Repede "cute). Mieu's just this trope obnoxiously dialed up to 11, since his only job is to be the Sorcerer's Ring equivalent.
Fon Master Ion
The Fon Master is the one of the highest ranks in the Church of Lorelei, second only to Funkmaster. Ion is like a young, bishounen John Paul II; a saintly ideal for the Order he represents. For much of the game he follows the party around, partly to dispense advice to a conflicted Luke, partly to use some very specific fonic artes when the plot calls for it but mostly so he can get kidnapped a lot and spur everyone onto the next dungeon.
Pantheon Position: Ion's that quintessential guest character, one who never fights but is there for color commentary for skits and the like. The guy also has "martyr" written all over him, considering his kindness and how he faints every time he has to exert himself, but don't let that concern you.
Emperor Peony Upala Malkuth IX
The King of Kimlasca, King Ingobert VI, is your standard JRPG King, right down to imprisoning the party at a crucial juncture due to misinformation and composing operas about lost children, but the laid-back Emperor of Malkuth is a different matter entirely. Though he's kept his kingdom on the straight and narrow with his wisdom and foresight, the dude would clearly prefer looking after his pet rappigs and teasing his old friend Jade over doing any actual work. In New Game+, he even gives everyone Power Ranger costumes for the hell of it.
Pantheon Position: Peony reminds me a lot of Destiny's Max, largely because he was an off-beat authority figure who kicked ass whenever he was on screen. His friendship with Jade is an important part of the latter's backstory, but that's about it beyond being the far more chill and open-minded of the two rulers the party is forced to co-operate with often. He doesn't appear often enough in the plot for my liking.
"Definitely Not the Bad Guy"
Despite looking like a samurai Ming the Merciless, Van is introduced as Luke's sword instructor and mentor and an all-round cool guy. He seems to be Luke's only true ally early on, and frequently disappears around the world to stop the Oracle Knights (the stormtroopers of the Order of Lorelei) from doing bad things. The game really doesn't want you to think that he's a megalomaniacal nihilist obsessed with ending the control the Score has over the world by blowing it up and killing everyone. Let it never be said that a Tales villain's motivations aren't completely sympathetic.
Pantheon Position: Vesperia's Alexei immediately comes to mind, right down to the obvious heel turn twist, but almost all of Tales's main antagonists were well-intentioned extremists who bordered outright psychopathy a little more closely than anyone was ever willing to admit.
The Six God-Generals
"Oh, It's These Guys Again"
The six "God-Generals" (I have no idea what that means, but it sounds intimidating) of the Order of Lorelei are a group of recurring villains loyal to Van and Van alone. Though they seem like a disposable team of flamboyant villains, each has a deeper link to the plot or one of the six main characters in some way that eventually emerges as the game progresses.
We have Legretta the Swift, a gun-kata badass who regularly gives the party a run for its money. There's Largo the Black Lion, a hulking beast of a man with a giant axe who is nonetheless cool and calculating. There's Sync the Tempest, a mysterious masked fonic user who looks and sounds exactly like Fon Master Ion as if we wouldn't figure that out. There's Arietta the Wild, a former bodyguard of Ion and another tiny girl who uses monsters to fight for her (I have no idea why the Order of Lorelei doesn't hire adults to protect their most important official). Lastly, we have Dist the Reaper, a malevolent scientist who flies around in a jet-powered throne and sounds exactly like James from Team Rocket, because that's how you make a goddamn JRPG villain. The sixth is actually Asch, but he bails on the group almost immediately once he cottons on to what they're up to.
Pantheon Position: Most recurring villains in the Tales series either existed as a collective group that were fairly nebulous on an individual case by case basis, or they were simply independent recurring villains that didn't necessary align with one another. Symphonia's Desian Grand Cardinals are a good example, since they were largely autocratic and many were instantly forgettable once they had been dispatched; the few with a bit more story importance didn't really fall in with the rest. The Six God-Generals are each as important as each other, and none of them feel like superfluous "boss-fight bait" because of their ties to the heroes.
The Black Wings
"The Recurring Bosses That Aren't"
The Black Wings are another bunch of recurring villains, except they don't really do much to you besides inconvenience you a couple times. A troupe of circus performers who are secretly a crack team of international thieves is a trope as old as Final Fantasy IX, at the very least, but they're a colorful trio that tend to pop up whenever Asch is in the vicinity. How a humorless grump like that guy fell in with a bunch of gaudy Pirates of the Caribbean extras with their own Namco Bandai theme park hideout is anyone's guess.
Pantheon Position: It's odd you never get to fight the Black Wings, because the idea of a group of comical villains who are really only looking for ways to get rich quick than try to conquer the world has been around for ages, both in and outside of Tales. I brought up Team Rocket earlier, for a classic example, but these guys reminded me a lot of the flamboyant and oddly technological Scorpion Army from Secret of Mana, right down to their leader's vaguely dominatrix get-up.
Abyssal World Tours: Gaze Into Our Group Deals, And See What Gazes Back
Finally, I just want to take you on an around-the-world trip through Auldrant. Sometimes the locations have as much personality as the cast, and Tales usually never disappoints when it comes to at least a couple of interesting high-concept towns and cities. Usually, though, they usually rely on a few archetype templates and shift a few elements around to make them fit into the new world's style and history.
It's surprising how often they do this, in fact. Characters and locations both.
"Not a Pokemon"
Baticul is the capital of the Kimlasca-Lanvaldear kingdom, and is home to Luke, Natalia and Guy. The city is built upon a cylindrical man-made structure that sinks deep into the earth, and was originally a smaller town built around an enormous crater caused by a falling fonstone - the immense glowy crystals that float in the sky and are instrumental to how the world's technology works. Baticul's a vertical city, which is a great visual metaphor for a nation with the haves and have-nots (though the divide isn't quite as pronounced here as it is in, say, Vesperia's Zaphias) as well as just being an impressive sight in general.
Baticul contains the game's obligatory Coliseum: the home to optional bosses and some of the best weapons in the game, designed to test the limits of the player's fighting prowess. The cameo battle, in which a group of characters from earlier Tales games fights the present group, is both a trial by fire and a symbolic passing of the torch. Can the new heroes hold a candle to the old guard, or will they get burned? How many more flame puns can I make before I'm fired? From, uh, blogging?
Like many of Abyss's place names, Baticul is a word associated with the Jewish Kabbalah (or at least some of its apocrypha), though oddly it refers to the "vice" of atheism. Its title is "The Capital of Light", though with much of it being in a big hole in the ground I'm not sure it's an apt slogan. Probably a tourism industry thing.
"Try Our Chokmah Chicken"
Grand Chokmah is the capital of the Malkuth empire, a gleaming marble city surrounded by a man-made waterfall. The port is built like a fortress, and can completely shut down all of its borders in times of emergency, which is great for the city but not so great if you need to get in for whatever reason. It's because of this that it's one of the last locations the party gets to visit, but the Malkuth capital is rather instrumental to the plot for obvious reasons.
Grand Chokmah's like Baticul in that it's set up as an ideal place to live, and the gem of that particular empire's crown. Grand Chokmah, as with most of the Malkuth Empire's architecture, is far more reminiscent of Ancient Rome than Kimlasca's relatively modern steampunk trappings: both nations have an equal technological level of advancement, of course, or else it would be too much of a hard sell to convince players that their war has been in a stalemate for an untold number of years prior to the game. It just seems like Malkuth hides it better, or at least that would be the case if it didn't build enormous fortress-sized tanks and let them roam around the countryside.
Chokmah, or Chochma, is one of the ten Sephirot or "virtues" of Kabbalah and represents wisdom. It's definitely one of the chillest cities in the game. Its title is "The Floating Capital", referring to its unique artificial structure.
"The Peaceful Theocratic Nation of Daath Does Not Welcome Daath Invaders"
Daath is an immense cathedral that houses all the members of the Order of Lorelei, the game's central religion, with a smaller city built up around it that really only caters to the clergy and those passing by on pilgrimages. It's an austere place, though the cathedral itself is so immense that there's a running joke of having priests everywhere ready and willing to escort visitors back to the entrance should they become lost. Anise and Fon Master Ion reside here, as do a significant proportion of the God-Generals and Oracle Knights.
Because the Order of Lorelei isn't quite as materialistic as the Catholic Church, thus more befitting a fictional religion based somewhat on a form of Jewish mysticism more akin to Buddhism, it's rather dull and ascetic in nature. The cathedral's not exactly fun to visit due to all its plain corridors, and the rest of the town's just a single road of street vendors leading up to the cathedral.
Daath (or Da'at, or Daas) is the eleventh Sepirot, usually kept off the diagram for whatever reason. It represents the culmination of the other ten, and thus is the holiest. Daath is simply referred to as the Headquarters of the Order of Lorelei; it doesn't really need much more than that. Dull place, but understandably so given the circumstances.
"We're Just Farmers. Sorry."
Engeve is that evergreen RPG staple of the peaceful tiny village where most journeys seem to start. Though the story really begins in Baticul in Luke's manor, the game only kicks off once Tear accidentally teleports Luke and herself halfway across the world. Engeve is the source of most of Malkuth's food, and is an agrarian settlement of very little importance. It's only really here to sell the party some cheap basic armor and to set up a chance meeting between Tear, Luke (a Kimlascan noble deep in enemy territory) and the Malkuth military (which is when Jade shows up, naturally).
Engeve's a stone's throw away from Cheagle Forest, where the party acquires Mieu and is the first real dungeon of the game. Most of Engeve's problems are related to the wild creatures in the forest as well as the cheagles themselves. Other than that, it's just your basic starting town. Can't beat the classics, I suppose.
Engeve's name doesn't have any obvious relation to Kabbalah, at least none that wouldn't be a stretch or a severe localization mishap. Maybe it's simply too minor. It's referred to as The Grocer's Hamlet.
St. Binah's a bit more interesting. Just as Engeve is the source of the Malkuth Empire's supply of cooking ingredients, Binah is the home to most of the curative herbs and medicines. Because the game has an interesting (if underexplained) ecology feature where completing side-quests and solving problems in certain locations drops the prices of specific export goods, each of the early towns has a link to one sort of purchasable item. In St. Binah's case, this includes all the healing consumables. St. Binah's otherwise a lot like Engeve: peaceful and dull, at least to begin with.
St. Binah also fulfills the requisite "town built around a giant tree" JRPG trope, which I believe might be a Shinto thing. I'm not saying it's not a factor in Western RPGs (Icewind Dale's Kuldahar immediately springs to mind), but there's so many towns like it in a wide range of JRPGs I could name off the top of my head. Vesperia's Halure, for instance, or the Nopon Village in Xenoblade.
Binah's another Sephirot, and one that represents understanding and empathy from what I can tell. The town's referred to as The Citadel, which might give the wrong impression. I mean, unless the tree is the citadel. Can trees be citadels?
"The Happiest Demilitarized Zone On Auldrant"
Kaitzur's not so much a town as the name of a region that includes one of the two official land borders between Kimlasca and Malkuth (most of their territories comprise of entire continents, and the only other shared border is the autocratic merchant city of Chesedonia, below). It's a fun place that's very much just two military camps right next to each other, but it's also where you can see the divide between the two architectural styles most clearly.
Kaitzur is one of those apocryphal vices of the Kabbalah I mentioned earlier, this time for ugliness. I'm not sure that's a particularly fair "sin", but perhaps they mean ugliness of the spirit too. Or the ugliness of war and hostilities, which I suppose would be more the case here. There's a long side-quest involved with two enemy military officers that fall in love that doesn't go anywhere fun, one of which is stationed in Kaitzur, so that might tie into that "war is pretty crappy, you guys" definition too. Kaitzur's title is simply "The Border Fortress". A lot of these titles are far more straightforward than I remember them being.
"It's Not Easy, Being Chese"
Chesedonia's a central hub for commerce and one of those locations you'll be revisiting a lot due to the amount of goods available there to purchase. It's also a separate nation, of sorts, perhaps a bit closer to Hong Kong given its autonomy and focus on trade. It's also your requisite desert trader town, back during a more innocent time when the worst thing we'd associate with the Arab world was occasionally getting ripped off on a counterfeit Persian carpet in a dusty bazaar.
Chesedonia's home to Din's Shop, among other locales. Din's Shop is a recondite trading simulation type affair that Final Fantasy XII would eventually borrow, to a slightly more intelligible degree. You simply drop off all your trade goods there, each contributing points to different types of product (consumable, sword, helmets, accessories, etc.) and upon hitting an invisible number would "unlock" a new tier of item you could purchase. You would then pay a small or large optional amount to improve the quality of the payout, and be given items dependent on how many trade goods you donated and the money you paid. It's super convoluted and absolutely requires a guide, but it's also where you can get some of the best items in the game, some of which are available way earlier than they ought to be. I'd say it represents one of Abyss's more interesting one-off contributions to the series, though it's possible some form of it existed in one of those obscure Japan-only entries like Rebirth. Hell, I've still got plenty of the ones that actually got localized left to play before I start jumping into the fan translations.
Chesed is a Sephirot that represents mercy, lawfulness and kindness, and Chesedonia is referred to as "The Center of Trade". Also noteworthy to a lesser extent is the Desert Oasis: a small settlement deep in the Zao desert adjacent to Chesedonia which also has a handful of amenities.
Keterburg's your classic Christmastime village, a cosy little Malkuthian vacation resort up in the mountainous and snowy continent of Sylvania. It's the town in which both Jade and the Emperor grew up, and Jade's sister Nephry is currently its governor. Keterburg's an odd place for a number of reasons: It contains the only casino in the game, a Tales staple often prone to exploitation; it contains a pair of odd wealthy twins with color-opposite interior decoration who never feature in the story or any side-quests whatsoever; it contains a four-floor luxury hotel with a hot spring and a famous restaurant, which only exist to give female characters swimsuits and waitressing mini-games; and if you bother to dig up the ludicrous 200,000 Gald investment fee, you can bankroll your very own "Labyrinth House": a mini-game that plays a lot like Tower of Druaga, but curiously isn't the one classic Namco game represented as an optional dungeon (see Nam Cobanda Isle, below).
I like Keterburg a lot. It's not a novel construct, as it's almost identical to Symphonia's Flanoir, but it's a town with a lot of mystery and amusing interludes. The rest of the continent of Sylvania is no joke, with one of the most confusing dungeons and the game's optional superboss, but Keterburg really feels like a calm resort town away from the terrors and politics of the world.
Keter, or Kether, is the first of the Sephirot and represents where humankind is closest to God. It's the northernmost Sephirot on the diagram of same, importantly, just as the arctic Keterburg is the town furthest north (and thus is presumably supported by the most northern Sephiroth gate). It's known as the Silver City, which a tourism slogan if ever I heard one. Precisely what I'd expect from a fantasy Aspen.
"You Want Airships? We Got Airships!"
Sheridan's one of two functionally identical towns belonging to Kimlasca which researches and develops technology based on fonstones and fonic artes. Sheridan's the more practical of the two, constructing various machines and vehicles that run on fonic power. It's here that the party acquires the Albiore II, the game's obligatory airship, and befriends the salt of the earth community of elderly mechanics and builders.
Sheridan's home to some of the stranger side-quests in the game, such as tracking down "music discs" that you can play in a house built around a giant stereo, and investing a million Gald (which is a lot no matter how you slice it, in case you thought late-game inflation would make that amount trivial) in order to build a bridge between Sheridan and Belkend which you never end up seeing. It's otherwise just a town full of Cids, to break it down for Final Fantasy fans.
Sheriah is one of those vices again, seemingly the naming convention for any territory of the Kimlascan empire (the name Kimlasca itself is one too). Sheriah refers to rejection, which is always a bummer around Valentine's (or almost every day if you're unemployed). Its title is "The City of Craftsmen". Hey, they're saving all that creativity for their actual work.
"Joke Deemed Too Easy After First Draft Edit"
Belkend's the sister city of Sheridan and is more focused on research and development. They also have an enormous labyrinthine laboratory where most of the discoveries are being made, and was also the headquarters for Van and the God-Generals for part of the game. Importantly, this is where we learn a lot about the world's science as it pertains to fonons and the like, and where most of the pertinent information regarding replicas can be found. Belkend is often affectionately referred to Expositionville, by no-one but me.
I also like the look of Belkend. I posted a list a short while back about cities that feel like they're made entirely out of steel, and Belkend has a lot of iron walkways and metallic structures for little other apparent reason other than that they look cool. It's a bit of a chore coming to this place, since the guy you always want to speak to is at the back of the laboratory, which means passing through the whole town and then through several identical-looking rooms until you find the guy you want.
Belkend doesn't have any obvious correlation to one of the Kabbalah vices, at least not without some potentially specious guesswork. It's title is "The City of Fon Machines". Guy really likes coming here.
"Not Named After the Brunette from t.A.T.u. Not That Anyone Would Think That."
Yulia City's the classic example of a hidden city, where the most secluded and concealed town in the world is somehow also the most knowledgeable and savvy about the rest of the globe. Usually these towns are filled with elves or ninjas, or elf ninjas, but in this case it's a subset of the Order of Lorelei that keeps records of the Score and its interpretations, away from prying eyes. It's situated in the Qliphoth - the name for the immense toxic sea that became the world after the core destabilized, and the reason why the ancients of the Dawn Age elevated the landmasses away from the venomous atmosphere that rises off that endless ocean of pollutants. Yulia City was left behind as a sort of shielded monitoring station, keeping tabs on the underworld in case things ever sorted themselves out. Since then, it's been the most carefully preserved remnant of that ancient era and something of a mythological enigma to those living obliviously thousands of yards above.
Yulia City's where Tear was raised, and features a lot of translucent walkways and people dressed in flowy robes. It's that sort of place, generally speaking, like Final Fantasy VIII's Esthar. There's also very little to do here except pop by for a bit of exposition about the ancients now and again. It looks cool, at least.
Yulia City's name isn't based on Kabbalah but rather the in-game world's own mythology. Yulia was the legendary scholar and priestess who originally translated the Score, and regarded as the most powerful fonic arte user of all time. The city was named in her honor as a bastion of ancient technology and wisdom. Its title is "The Watcher's Home".
"The Mining Town, Where You Can't Tell Your Akzeriuth From a Hole in the Ground"
Akzeriuth is the ill-fated mining town that causes the central plot of Tales of the Abyss to kick off after becoming infested with miasma. The miasma is a side-effect of the planet being a bit colicky, and its evacuation and investigation becomes the first big political cooperation between the two empire-nations in a long while. Luke inadvertently blows it up after Van tells him to. I mean, shit, nobody's perfect.
Needless to say, you aren't in Akzeriuth for very long, and there's not a lot there you can see and do with it being a simple mining settlement. After the first act, it simply ceases to exist.
Akzeriuth possibly comes from the Kabbalah term for cruelty, the vice. Its fate is certainly a cruel twist. Its title is "The Mining Town" (and presumably "A Big Hole That Used to be a Mining Town" from then on).
Nam Cobanda Isle
"We're Not Subtle"
Nam Cobanda Isle is Abyss's Tales-specific recurring in-joke town, usually named for the publisher that brought the game into existence (that would be Namco Bandai). There's no stores or anything plot-relevant here, it's just a place where various people dressed like cats and cows (or are actual hybrid creatures of some sort; the game leaves this to the player's imagination) build weird homages to Namco properties. You can ride down an elevator that resembles Pac-Man, play a mini-game that greatly resembles the Namco side-scrolling arcade classic Dragon Buster, watch the game's anime cutscenes through a "memory device" or marvel at the clockwork depictions of Mappy and Xevious. It's a little (all right, a lot) fanservicey, but these hidden locations are always fun for the obsessive types.
In case you hadn't figured it out, Nam Cobanda is Namco Bandai with the space moved to the left a bit. There's no grand Kabbalah inference here, though I'd be a little terrified at the coincidence if there was. In Japan, the island has the even less subtle moniker of Namcot Island, referring to Namco's old name for its home console development division. It's simply referred to as the Hidden City, though "city"'s pushing it. It's more like a cave filled with Namco dioramas.
"Vacationing South of the Border"
Choral Castle is a summer vacation home of Duke Fabre that was summarily abandoned once the peace between Malkuth and Kimlasca broke down, as it's only a handful of miles away from the Kaitzur border. When the party wander into it, it's become a home to all sorts of monsters and ghosts and is one of the game's handful of puzzle dungeons. It's also implied to be the place where Luke was kidnapped from as a child. Still, though, you'd think they just leave a few servants behind to keep the place in good condition, rather than abandoning it to the elements just because Darfur was about to go down a little ways to the north.
Isle of Feres
"Closed For Repairs"
The Isle of Feres was destroyed before the game begins and was home to several characters during their childhoods. It's resurrected late in the game as a replica landmass and given the ability to float, which allows it to act as Van's mobile HQ for the latter half of the game. It also has Malkuth's trademark Greco-Roman architecture, so when you visit it in its dilapidated state it kind of feels like you're walking through the ruins of Pompeii. It's also a horribly confusing mess of burned out buildings and crumbling pillars and I hated it. I hate a lot of things.
"Foreboding Floating End-Game Dungeons? In My JRPG? It's More Likely Than You Think"
Finally, we come to Eldrant, the final location of the game. To say too much about it might be telling, but like so many final dungeons in the Tales series (and Chrono Trigger, and Secret of Mana, if we're really being inclusive) it dramatically rises out of the sea and kind of floats around being ominous until you're done with all the side-questing and just decide to finish the damn game already. Eldrant is supposedly the name of the ancient promised land, sort of like an El Dorado for Auldrant (I can only assume that's where the name comes from), but is a similar case to Feres in that it's actually the destroyed island of Hod semi-resurrected through replica technology. It's a bit lackluster compared to other final destinations of Tales games, alas, though they certainly don't make it seem small and insignificant.
Anyway, that's probably more about Tales of the Abyss than needed to be written for a "What I Played Recently" blog. It's just... when you spend so many hours on a game, getting to know it thoroughly, it kind of feels like you have to go the extra mile when discussing it. I dig the Tales series a lot, but they don't half build these things to last you a while. I believe I've overindulged enough for right now, so I'll probably be back to covering Indie stuff and other smaller titles for a spell after this. Thanks for learning all about the wonderful world of this nine year old JRPG? I guess? See you soon.
(Reviews are a bit... squirrely right now, so I'm going to leave this here and turn it into a review later when the site lets me. Tappingo's okay! Turns out! Probably not much competition for something like Picross e4, but still an interesting take on the ol' numbers and pictures format.)
Tappingo joins an increasingly populated list of worthwhile 3DS eShop purchases.
I'm a big fan of Picross. The venerable numerical picture game has long since been a mainstay puzzle sub-genre for Nintendo consoles especially, making its debut (in the West, at least) with Mario's Picross for the original Game Boy. Since then, every subsequent Nintendo portable has been the home for some manner of mathematical paint-by-numbers, and the 3DS has an embarrassment of riches in this regard with the Picross e series, the Virtual Console version of Mario's Picross and the backwards compatible Nintendo DS games Picross DS and Picross 3D.
Tappingo isn't quite a Picross game, however. It's clearly inspired by that puzzle format, but takes a slightly different approach that adds an extra wrinkle in requiring some foresight to plan out the puzzle, yet at the same time is far more relaxed towards errors and player experimentation. Tappingo instead embeds the numbers within the puzzle, and automatically fills in lines of color depending on the direction you tap the number: ideally, you want the number of panels it fills in to match the original number on the panel. With longer numbers, it's easy to identify which of the four cardinal directions you'll want to send the line, but the myriad of "ones" and "twos" will give you more pause for thought. More often than not, you'll need to set a perpendicular "blocker" out to stop a line from going too far, and there's cases where a small network of interlacing "ones" need to be set out in a specific order for the rest of the puzzle to work. There's a good chance this all sounds like overly complicated gobbledygook, but it's the nature of puzzles like these that the player can instinctively pick up the rules after a few easy tutorial stages and be tapping away like a madman (or madwoman) to complete puzzles as quickly as they can. Tappingo's greatest strength is that it reaches this intuitive point relatively early, and the puzzle-solving flows as rapidly as you'd like: there's rarely cases where you'll be stumped for too long, and though you might have to undo the last few moves to rectify an erroneous line, it'll never be to an extent where you might wish to restart the whole stage from scratch.
The unfortunate side to this is that it makes the game far shorter than its immense 104 puzzle inventory might suggest. Even the more difficult puzzles can be blown through in less than ten minutes once you're in "the Tappingo zone", though given that the price point is so low it's an entirely acceptable value to time ratio. There's other issues too: the nature of the game is that when you undo a move, the various lines that were being kept in check are then free to keep expanding, which means they also need to be undone. As will any lines that are emancipated from those undone lines. A single mistake could see you undoing the last half a dozen or so moves, depending on the situation. I couldn't find a simpler, instantaneous "undo" button, so undoing moves usually required that I send the line back to its origin point each time, hence all these snafus. The puzzle variety is also somewhat lacking; though the game begins with some fan-service with a few old-fashioned Nintendo controllers, the later puzzles depend on some rote animal and mythological themes. Oddly, almost a dozen puzzles are the same forward-facing animal visage with the barest of alterations made to separate them all into different species. It's a little disappointing, and suggests that the last few pages of puzzles were rushed to meet a deadline. It's clear from a designer standpoint that a single Tappingo puzzle requires more planning than a Picross puzzle due to the lattices of lines that need to be carefully considered before the puzzle can work, so here's hoping a sequel is given the extra development time it's due.
Overall, Tappingo represents excellent value and presents a new twist on Picross for fans of the format. There's no dearth of Picross games either on the eShop service or in physical cart form if they are your wont, and I'd probably still recommend most of them before trying Tappingo if you're new to the genre, but this is a game that tries a new angle with an established formula and all but succeeds despite the few issues laid out in the previous paragraph. It's certainly not an expansive game, but for less than three bucks - a rarity given eShop's often overambitious asking prices - you can't really go wrong.
Much has been said of Mossmouth's Spelunky of late. Originally a PC game, Spelunky began as a procedurally generated side-scrolling platformer inspired by the intensely difficult Atari 8-bit game Spelunker. Initially free, designer Derek Yu would incrementally update the game, adding new surprises and tweaking various aspects until it all culminated in a HD release in 2009. An enhanced version was eventually ported to XBLA in 2012 with a new graphical art style that dropped the pixels and assumed the cartoonish demeanor we largely associate with the game today, with additional ports the following year to PC and PSN that added a Daily Challenge mode and additional secret characters to find.
"Mines Shafted" - Reached the Jungle. - 08/01/2013
To say the game is naught but a crushing, frustrating challenge would not entirely be incorrect, but such a facile appraisal does a disservice to the game's many nuances. There's never any guarantee that you won't die despite being careful or packed to the gills in power-ups, or that the randomization factor won't unjustly screw you over from time to time, but every spelunker death that transpires in Spelunky is player-derived. Even an exploding frog setting off an irate shopkeeper is something a cautious player can immediately take into their stride and work around as best they're able.
"Jungle Jammed" - Reached the Ice Caves. - 08/01/2013
Furthermore, the game has bones aplenty to toss your way, like so many ambulatory skeletons. Each stage has a clear, if not immediately evident, path to the exit. Bombs and ropes are plentiful if you're sure to check crates and earn enough money to keep your stockpiles up. Every item has its use in the hands of a skilled and experienced player, even those as ridiculous as the camera or teleporter. Sacrifices are encouraged, whether it's a bomb in the right place or a human offering on the altar of Kali. Risks are rewarded just as commonly as playing too cautiously will still lead to an early demise.
"Seen a Lot" - Completed 50% of the Journal. - 08/01/2013
As the player sees more of what Spelunky has in store, their approach aligns ever closer to the correct course. As they enter new areas and learn what to avoid (which is to say, pretty much everything), they become stronger. They don't need persistent upgrades or power-ups that carry over from game to game; they become better at the game through practice and knowledge.
"Her Favorite" - Won the Kapala from Kali. - 08/01/2013
Of the many items in the game, few are as instrumental as the Kapala. Earned by collecting sixteen points worth of "favor" - an invisible stat that the player is never privy to but can easily calculate in their head with some experimentation - the player's tactics then shift completely: rather than take a largely pacifistic route to the exit, taking detours only for valuables, the player is then compelled to murder every living creature for their precious blood. As the hit point indicator ticks ever upwards, into the teens and beyond, the player's feeling of invincibility is the sort of encouragement that can either carry them all the way to the game's conclusion, or leave an overconfident corpse impaled on a patch of forsaken spikes somewhere.
"Ice Creamed" - Reached the Temple. - 08/01/2013
Reaching the Temple itself is no mean feat. Though the Ice Caves are considerably easier to navigate should a player be sporting a cape or jetpack, it's far too easy to fall into the endless abyss or be undone by an errant exploding UFO or a playful Yeti. The Temple, of course, contains some of the most malicious traps of the entire game, including the nefarious "Thwomp" traps that can grind an inattentive spelunker to paste nigh instantaneously.
"Made It" - Completed the game. - 08/01/2013
Though passing the ultimate battle with Olmec in one piece is something of a coup, the game won't let you rest on your laurels. I reached this point of the game after a single day, hence all these achievements being marked with the same date, but it's really only the tip of the giant golden sentient statue head. If you can see that enormous ancient Mexican countenance, you've only reached as far as the Simpsons' basement: there's still the caves of the Moleman lying deep beneath.
"Eternal Life" - Obtained the Ankh. - 13/01/2013
When resuming the game a few months ago, inspired by Patrick Klepek's forays in his daily series, I decided to venture on what is known as the Path to Hell. A convoluted series of treasures and hidden stages, the Path to Hell requires the player go out of their way to a great extent but at the same time prepares them in turn for the additional travails ahead. The player earns the Wadjet Eye by opening a locked chest in the Mines with a nearby key, which allows them to see valuables; they also then have an easier time locating the entrance to the Jungle's elusive Black Market, which allows them to stock up on all manner of valuable items either bought or stolen, which includes the Ankh. Up to this point, the player has done nothing but greatly increase their chances of succeeding in their fight against Olmec, should they ever feel that the Path to Hell is still beyond them. It's an inspired piece of game design to allow the gentle first half of an intense optional game completion route to be so beneficial, as players will happily adopt it into their playthroughs as standard and will be prepared should they ever feel confident enough to take the next crucial step.
"City of Gold" - Reached the City of Gold. - 23/01/2014
The Path to Hell only meaningfully diverges in the Caves, as it requires that the player deliberately off themselves in a specific stage to recover the otherwise useless Hedjet headpiece in order to continue on the Path. There's only two specific reasons to ever sacrifice the Ankh and whatever weapons you were carrying, and both those reasons involve the City of Gold. The City of Gold is a secret stage in the Temple, always accessible from 4-2, in which every block is packed with gold nuggets. High score pursuers, such as those going for the $500k achievement or the score-focused Daily Challenge, endeavor to reach the City of Gold with as many explosives as they can carry. The City of Gold is, ostensibly, the spelunker's chief reason for entering these doom-laden catacombs to begin with, so by reaching this gilt metropolis the player feels as if they have accomplished the game's narrative's core task. Importantly for those on the Path to Hell it is also where the Necronomicon can be found, which is required for the final step to enter Hell itself.
"Casanova" - Rescued 10 or more damsels in one game. - 29/01/2014
To digress here a moment from all the Hell talk, we'll discuss the game's damsels. The damsels have a hit point total of four, the same as the player character and most of the human enemies, and can be thrown around and used as bait for arrow traps. They can even be sacrificed on altars for the greatest favor boost possible, tied only with a co-op partner or hired hand. The game pokes some gentle fun at their disposability, but it's also making a statement about the necessity of the hoary game trope of a passive companion to rescue, whether unintentionally or not. The damsels are less a deliberately sexist inclusion (from either gender perspective) than part and parcel of the game's adherence to the adventure movie serials of the like Indiana Jones was based on, who in turn inspired the original Spelunker and many other archaeologically-inclined action video game franchises. As such, the frequent abuse they receive almost seems satirical. It's also worth noting that were one to provide the damsels with the dignity and support they deserve, that player is putting themselves at a distinct disadvantage due to the relative difficulty of escorting them safely to the exits, wasting bombs and ropes to extricate them from their remote spawn locations and all but eschewing entirely the invaluable rewards from Kali altars. New players go out of their way to save them; experienced players view them as tools to be used as they see fit. It's a little dispiriting in its dehumanization, but then it's every spelunker for themselves down there.
(As an aside: I would be so down with a "zero damsel death" achievement though. I can't imagine it'd be too difficult, unless the game decides that leaving them behind is tantamount to abandoning them to die.)
"Public Enemy" - Killed 12 or more shopkeepers in one game. - 17/02/2014
The shopkeepers remain an ubiquitous bane for any player, regardless of how lawful they intend to be. A great many things will draw a shopkeeper's ire, and attempting to fight one without a shotgun or bombs from a vantage point is practically suicide. Shopkeepers have an obscene ten points of health, which means they can survive most non-instant death traps including a Tiki statue or a shotgun blast (it would, in fact, actually take three of either to bring one down). A shopkeeper becomes irate if an item is carried out of their store, or attacked in any way. This is fine, as most creatures leave shopkeepers alone (except carnivorous mantraps, but shopkeepers will actually survive that ordeal intact and not hold you accountable) and thus the player would almost certainly be responsible for either of these trigger states being set off. However, the shopkeepers are also triggered when any part of their "store", which includes the surrounding walls, is damaged. This can be caused by a great many number of things, but most often by rolling boulder traps in the Mines, exploding frogs in the Jungle and UFOs in the Caves. They also don't like it when the damsels and hired hands in their care (read: indentured servitude) are harmed by anything or anyone, and wandering creatures are usually far less kind to them. Due to how a shopkeeper then becomes present at the exit to every level, lying in wait with a loaded shotgun, killing twelve shopkeepers becomes a challenge one does not necessarily need to go out of their way to complete than it is one they have to accomplish just to stay alive. Blasting through the seven shopkeepers present in the Black Market certainly helps meet that number sooner, though.
"The Entire Gang" - Rescued all 8 hidden characters. - 17/02/2014
One of the best developments during Patrick's series was discovering and then employing Fobwashed's amazing custom Patrick Klepek spelunker sprite. The game offers you several different characters with which to plumb the depths of Spelunky's environs, but the paltry four choices of the original Brown adventurer, Red turban warrior, Green go-getter heroine and Blue Colin Northway explorer aren't nearly enough variation. The XBLA version has an additional eight characters who need to be found before they can be used, and it's one of those processes like filling the journal that starts at full-speed and then peters off slowly until the very last few items, which require a considerable amount of work.
For instance, the Yellow hard-hat adventuress, the Purple pirate queen, the Light Blue polar pioneer and the Lime mariachi can all be found randomly while playing the game, one appearing in each respective area. A moonlighting Meat Boy can be found by those braving the secret Worm level, and the Black Van Helsing vampire hunter by venturing into the Jungle's Haunted Castle. The Jungle Warrior is given to those strong enough to defeat Olmec and the very final character Yang, he of the tutorial, is only unlocked upon defeating Yama himself. It's no mean feat to find all eight, and even more of a tall order to find the additional eight characters added to the PSN and PC versions (though Yang is still the hardest). All the same, no matter how many trials you went through to unlock a new character, you can't really beat one fashioned in your own image by an inspired and talented fanbase.
"Ironman" - Completed the game without using shortcuts. - 17/02/2014
Tunnel Man remains a decisive figure in the Spelunky community. His shortcuts aren't actually necessary, as jumping ahead to a later stage interrupts the development process of one's character (all the early money and easy power-ups from the Mines can really help further in the run) and entirely negates any chance of reaching Hell. In addition, he always asks for useful tools and, in his final appearance, asks for the Key from the Mines. Escorting this key from the early stages all the way to the end of the Caves - a process known as the Key Run - is one of the game's first major challenges for novice players. It's a huge help to have that Temple shortcut unlocked, because there's a lot about the Temple you want to be savvy about before wasting a fifteen minute run to get all the way there only to be vanquished by the first Thwomp or Anubis psychic blast or lava pit you happen to walk into. It's also quicker and easier, though certainly no picnic, to beat Olmec and complete the game from the Temple shortcut with next to no items if one's careful enough. Completing the Ironman run is a sure sign that you're ready for the game's more elusive and flagrantly unreasonable challenges.
"To Hell and Back" - Completed the game the hard way. - 17/02/2014
It's fair to say that the playthrough I had on the 17th of February, the one that unlocked all four of these achievements, was something of a major breakthrough for me. It was shortly after Patrick had already defeated Yama himself, but all the same it felt like the additional time I'd put into the game, relearning the patience required to play it and the advice (usually of the "don't do this" variety) I'd gleaned by example from daily Spelunkin' With Scoops streams, had finally paid off. Yama's an odd boss fight, because there's a few ways he can defeat you due to your inexperience. Most of these deaths involve his spike-, vampire- and lava-filled stage. However, a fully kitted-out hero with a jetpack, shotgun, bombs (you earn an extra 24 right off the bat by defeating Yama's two henchmen) and the amulet found in the first Hell level makes him almost trivial. The fact of the matter is, though, that reaching Yama is such a monumental achievement that it's easy to psyche yourself out the first time you clap eyes on Yama's hideous visage. You've gotten so far and have only a small distance left to go, like the last 300 yards of a marathon. I doubt anyone has reached Yama without feeling their heart trying to pump its way out of their chest. To die at that moment is one of the worst feelings in the world and, unfortunately, one of the easiest to make happen. Of course, the inverse is equally applicable. My only advice is to find a stable hiding place underneath a brick and toss a tactical nuke's worth of explosives towards his hands, and subsequently at his floating head, and try not to think too hard about how much of a bummer it would be to tumble off into a lava bath.
"Seen It All" - Completed 100% of the Journal. - 20/02/2014
Completing the Journal - and Big Money, below - felt like sweeping up in a lot of ways. There were more achievements left, of course, but I could not for the life of me ever see myself completing them. Filling in the Journal does require that you meet (and kill, preferably) every creature in Hell, as well as collect the Amulet and Vlad's Cape and emancipate at least one of those spinning metal ball and chains from its mooring. It also requires that you visit the Worm, Haunted Castle and Mothership levels at some point for their unique enemies and treasures, as well as introduce yourself to Old Bitey in a flooded Jungle stage. At this point, though, after defeating King Yama, it's not so much the next challenge tier than it is simply retracing your steps for everything you missed. For a completionist like me, that's generally good enough for an achievement. I can probably say I enjoyed unlocking this one the most, if only because it indulged my OCD tendencies.
"Big Money" - Obtained 500000 gold. - 20/02/2014
Big Money's no problem if you're a proponent of the Daily Challenge grind. It's entirely possible that you've gone to the City of Gold with a few dozen explosives and made it happen just in the process of attempting to best your friends on the leaderboards that day. If not, it's a challenge like "Seen It All" that doesn't require any extra difficulty to accomplish. You can earn it before you're even able to reach Hell, if you were so inclined, and I don't believe you need to complete the game once you've hit the golden figure. Though heading out of the Mines with a scant $50k or so might seem discouraging while in pursuit of this achievement, considering you probably felt like you picked up every shiny bauble in the passing, it's worth noting that inflation is a hell of a thing as you head towards future stages. The City of Gold, the huge rewards for beating Olmec and/or Yama and the somewhat dubious process known as "Ghost Mining" means there's more than one feasible path to becoming a half-millionaire.
"Speedlunky" - Completed the game in under 8 minutes. No shortcuts. - 24/02/2014
Speedlunky's the second most difficult achievement in the game, though on an initial glance of the achievements seems like the hardest. Eight minutes, two minutes per world, sounds like no time at all. If one were to rush through any stage, even 1-1, it's easy to picture oneself taking way too many arrow hits or surprise spiders and struggling to escape the easiest area in one piece in a respectable time, let alone in any condition to take on the rest of the game at the same pace. But the biggest obstacle of them all as far as Speedlunky is concerned is the intimidation factor. It sounds impossible. It isn't.
I don't want to get all "Spelunky Sensei", but I figure if you've read my self-aggrandizing anecdotes thus far I owe you something in return. Speedlunky is doable. It requires a bit of patience and a lot of skill, of course, but we'll assume at this point that you've completed To Hell and Back and have reached the point in the game where Speedlunky is the next logical target. You know all the stages, you know all the tricks, you know all the dangers. What's important about the first part of Speedlunky is to take the Mines at a brisk, but not sprinting, pace. Find damsels, collect money that's close at hand, forget about the key and chest unless they're right in your path and just head to the exit in a timely fashion. Bombs and ropes are invaluable, so don't use them for anything. Crates are the only thing worth taking a detour for. The only power-ups you really need are the compass (this is the only truly essential piece of kit, so I'd recommend grabbing ~$4k from 1-1 and keep an eye out for stores), a cape or jetpack (to quickly move through the Caves), spring boots (they let you leap over Tiki statues, and just seem to increase your speed in general) and a mattock (or Matlock, depending on whether or not you're Dave Lang). I'd say a mattock is the one item worth carrying with you at all times, more so than a damsel or even a shotgun: you shouldn't be trying to take on enemies anyway, just darting over/under them. Don't be tempted to go for the Kapala either, unless those altars and damsels fall square in your path. I shouldn't need to say it, but don't piss off any shopkeepers either (though if they have a jetpack...).
The Jungle's a little harder to navigate without incident, and might take you a little longer, but maintain that cautious but zippy pace. You ought to pass through the Mines in 90-120 seconds and the Jungle in 120-150 seconds. At this point, you hopefully have a compass, a cape/jetpack and a moderate stockpile of bombs (let's say around a dozen). The Caves can be beaten in about 30 seconds, thanks to how open they are. The Temple's intimidating, but it's only three stages (Olmec is always on 4-4) and can be navigated as quickly as the Jungle. It might also be worth bombing/mattocking your way down a story or two if you have those items to spare and the exit's right beneath you. Ideally, you want anywhere between two and three minutes left on the clock for Olmec, which is where the mattock and bombs come in handy: as usual, quickly build a big trench at the opposite side of the stage from Olmec, and then coax him into it. That's all there is to it, though being lucky enough to find the necessary items and pulling all of this off are different matters entirely. Good luck.
"Low Scorer" - Completed the game without collecting any treasure. - 01/03/2014
Low Scorer is the actual most difficult task in Spelunky, at least out of all the ones that earn you achievements, and unlike Speedlunky there are no specific rules to follow to make it easier. It's distressingly easy to accidentally pick up some money, whether because it was hidden in tall grass/treetops/snow, or an explosion threw some your way or you mined a gem from a block you were digging into. If you hit a Dark Level, you might as well restart then and there, because the low visibility, valuable scarabs and free money from lit torches make those places even more of a nightmare than they usually are. Low Scorer is much more about having a fortunate run than learning what needs to be done and pulling it off adroitly, and I can say with some veracity that it's one of the most frustrating experiences you can put yourself through. But ultimately, once again, entirely possible. Just watch your step.
"Good Teamwork" - Completed the game with at least two players. - 02/03/2014
It's an odd thing that Spelunky's co-op mode is actually easier than the single player, because we've grown accustomed to games like New Super Mario Bros. Wii where it's all too easy (and fun) to sabotage other players, should the option to directly interact with one another be available. More so, playing a co-op game on your own with two controllers feels like it ought to be the most convoluted thing in the world, and a big reason why I saved it for last.
In reality, even with the "two controller one player" method this is one of the easier accomplishments on par with perhaps Big Money or just beating Olmec in general. The second player can be immediately sacrificed for an item (or Kapala) and left to hover as a ghost until 4-3, at which point the player can clear a way to the exit, rescue them from the coffin and carry them into the Olmec battle. The standard tactic of digging him a trench to drop Olmec into is made no more difficult by having a companion, as you can simply sit them on the opposite side of the trench to watch the fireworks. The only real pitfall that can trip you up during this process is leaving the second player outside the screen for too long, which kills them for whatever reason. Of course, if you have a second human being of a relative skill level helping you, then this achievement is practically trivial. At least compared to Speedlunky and Low Scorer anyway.
"Addicted" - Played Adventure mode 1000 times. - 02/03/2014
I'll admit it, I hit around 850 total playthroughs in pursuit of every other achievement. That meant grinding the last 150 through killing myself over and over for about twenty minutes. Not the most ignominious thing I've ever done in pursuit of an achievement, but not exactly one of my proudest moments with this game either. I guess I can be somewhat pleased that I was skilled enough that I didn't unlock it naturally in the process of getting everything else, except I don't need to be any more pleased with myself right now. Already at dangerous levels of self-satisfaction after nailing Low Scorer.
All Achievements - 02/03/2014
So that was Spelunky for me. I wrote a half-assed blog a little while back where I gathered many of the tweets I'd made while playing Spelunky on and off since the start of the year, as I felt (and still feel) that they encapsulated the Spelunky process: one part deliriously happy that some major goal had been met, ninety-nine parts indignant about a death I could've either easily avoided or had no chance whatsoever to elude.
If Spelunkin' With Scoops didn't convince you to pick up the bullwhip and fedora and leap into an endless cycle of death then I'm probably not going to either, but all the same I'd happily recommend Spelunky to anyone. It's incredibly trite to call anything the "Dark Souls of X" these days, but very few games are able to ensnare a player by treating them so horribly initially and then revealing that the scolding and abuse is simply part of the process towards betterment and the pursuit of heretofore-thought impossible goals. Like a training montage in a kung fu movie, you might see your teacher smash a boulder with his pinky and believe for all the world that such a task is beyond you. Some hours of rigorous training, jump cuts, and maybe a Joe Esposito/John Cafferty power ballad later and you'll wonder how you were ever so useless.
Olmec ain't shit. Yama? More like yo' mama. Go show Spelunky who's boss. I did, and I'm about as coordinated as a drowsy puppy running across a waxed floor.
All good things must come to an end. By extension, that also includes things like this playthrough of Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~ (I'll miss you most of all, tildes!), an educational visual novel from H-Game developers Overdrive that was ported to Steam by MangaGamer. I will say that this game's been quite informative; a beginner's crash course in Japanese tourist hotspots and hoary anime tropes.
We're not done yet though. Akira's threatened to take us to Japan's major port city Yokohama for our last day. Is this where I reveal the feelings I've been harboring for her? Or has that ship sailed? I'm bound to run out of sailing puns schooner or later?!
Mokarimakka! We're still in Kyoto for a second day of anime shenanigans, or shenanimegans, in Overdrive's highly informative if barely interactive visual novel Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~ (tildes wa sugoi). I promised you salacious content, or least heavily implied it, but the game's decided to grow up in recent updates. Instead, continue to enjoy this all-ages appropriate guided tour of Japan's old capitol with Makoto and Akira. (Not the Street Fighter or the psychic dead kid.)
Okaerinasai! On the last episode of our virtual Japanese vacation, as directed by Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~ (~raise your tildes~), we made plans to visit old Kyoto town to cap off what's been an eye-opening excursion to Japan, from its majestic shrines to its bustling metropolitan centers to its naked animes. I hear Kyoto's a very traditional sort of place though, so maybe we'll finally get some peace and quiet.
Yeah, I'm not fooling anyone at this point, am I? Let's get this over with.
Part 05: Kyoto is an Anagram of Tokyo. That's About All My Kyoto Knowledge.
Guys, I'm running out of two things: Tokyo districts that I've heard of, and patience. As we enter the fourth day of this unnecessarily hypersexualised informational visual novel of an ideal Japanese vacation - the exclamation- and tilde-swathed Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~, a product that was seemingly gifted to me entirely to get my dander up - I'm hoping we'll finally get a day where we can focus on the many interesting and exciting locations to visit in Japan, and perhaps a little less on walking in on half-nude anime teenagers.
Ohayou! We're now in Day 2 of our virtual Japanese vacation, courtesy of the edutainment visual novel Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~ (tildes till the end). Today we're heading to Shinjuku, perhaps best known for hosting Kabukicho - Tokyo's infamous red light district. However, this decision was less spurred by wanting to see even more inadvertent creepery (creepitude? creeposcity?) than the fact that I'm semi-familiar with this area due to the Yakuza games, which largely take place in a fictionalized but otherwise identical version of this district.
Who knows? Maybe the game will finally stop being so damn saucy for one day and just give me an innocuously wholesome day of sightseeing and history lessons.
Part 03: JAPANESE PIZZA! YAKUZA 3 CODES INSIDE EVERY BOX! PARTY TIME SONIC THE HEDGEHOG LET'S GO! GEORGE FOREMAN!
Well, I since I'm out here in Japan doing it up right, I might as well turn this into a daily series for the rest of this week. Of course, it's not actually me in Japan, but my lascivious bumpkin avatar Goku in Overdrive's Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~ (must include tildes, always) - a visual novel created exclusively for English fans to teach them about Japan's superiority, as if everyone buying this game wasn't already on the same page. Fun fact! Overdrive has created many visual novels over the years, and almost all of them (except this one) are pornographic in nature. That would explain Makoto.