Hoa

Hoa is a short and nonviolent 2D puzzle platformer set in a gorgeous green world of hand-painted art. If you’ve ever watched a Studio Ghibli movie and wanted to spend more time exploring the backgrounds, Hoa was made for you. The game’s gentle piano music is reminiscent of a Joe Hisaishi score, and Hoa gave me strong My Neighbor Totoro vibes in all the best ways.

You play as a tiny fairy who has returned to the forest after a mysterious trip across a body of water. Your motivation is unclear, but your character seems to want to make her way back to her home. Along the way, you navigate eight levels organized according to simple themed platforming puzzles. Your goal in each level is to wake the level “boss” by restoring light to their sigils, and the boss will give you a new navigation ability once you collect all the golden butterflies scattered throughout the level.

There is no combat or hostility in Hoa, and successful navigation of each level requires the cooperation of its denizens, which include snails, ladybugs, jellyfish, and tiny little robots. As your character walks, flowers bloom and leaves unfurl to help her on her way, and she double jumps in a swirl of sparkling pixie dust. All of this magic is understated and feels like a natural part of the world, and every new level is filled with pleasant surprises.

Unfortunately, there are parts of Hoa that are somewhat unintuitive, especially toward the beginning.

In the first area, your character is taught that she can break horizontal branches if she jumps on them with sufficient force. In the next area, she’s presented with a vertical branch blocking her way. On a higher level, a bug repeatedly rams into another vertical branch, eventually breaking it. It seems the message is clear: If you ram into the vertical branch on your own level enough times, it will eventually break.

This is not what the game is trying to teach you, however. What the game wants you to do is leave the room and walk all the way around the area so you can enter the room from the opposite side, where the branch that the bug knocked down now forms a bridge to another room. Hoa is trying to teach you that all of the rooms in an area are interconnected, and that sometimes you’ll need to approach a puzzle from a different direction. This makes sense, of course, but it’s counterintuitive. When I tried to search for a walkthrough, I found dozens of people asking the same question: How do you break the vertical branch?

In other words, it’s easy to understand what the level design seems to be suggesting, but it’s harder to understand whether that’s the solution the designers intended. I won’t lie – this can be frustrating.    

Once you get deeper into Hoa, you’ll begin to understand how the designers constructed these puzzles, but the game’s combined lack of precision and flexibility still creates unnecessary moments of tension. Although Hoa seems to be aimed at young children, I feel like it demands an unusually high level of patience and forgiveness, as well as an ability to read the abstract intentions of the designers instead of the concrete environment of the game. I would say that Hoa may indeed be a good game to play with a kid, but you probably want to play it all the way through by yourself first.

I should also mention that there’s a gameplay twist in the final level. It’s very good, but it’s also legitimately challenging in a way that the game hasn’t prepared you for. The basic gameplay loop is significantly disrupted, and there’s a certain tricky sequence about halfway through the level that I imagine might cause many players to quit the game without finishing it. Still, even if Hoa doesn’t perfectly execute what it’s trying to do here, it offers the player an interesting concept presented with a surprising degree of style and creativity.

I don’t want to suggest that these moments of frustration break the game. Once I was able to get past the idea that Hoa is supposed to be easy and intuitive, I was able to have a lot of fun with it. After you get a better sense of what the game wants you to do, you can make your way through the later areas with minimal hassles as you enjoy the art and music, both of which are well worth the experience.

My first playthrough of Hoa took about two and a half hours, which includes the time I spent searching for puzzle solutions online. My second playthrough was a smooth one hour, and it was a chill and peaceful experience. I’d say that Hoa is a solid “7/10 game” in the best sense of what that generally means, with the more unpolished elements serving to endow the game with a unique sense of character. All things considered, I’m happy that Hoa is a piece of hand-crafted art that exists in this world.  

Later Daters

Later Daters is a cute and clever queer dating sim set in a retirement community. It’s divided into seven chapters, each of which takes about ten minutes to read. I enjoyed this game so much that I played it three times. There’s a fair amount of repetition, but also enough potential for variation to keep each replay interesting.

Each of the characters in Later Daters is distinctly attractive in their own way, but perhaps it’s important to say that not a single one of them looks a day past 65 years old. In fact, most of them seem to be in their mid-to-late 50s. I’m not sure if this is a failure of imagination or simply a concession to the player, but everyone is healthy and hearty. All of the characters have good hair and good skin and good teeth and good posture, and they all have the minds and progressive views and sex drives of college students.

Not that I’m complaining, of course! I just want to make it clear that, as in any dating sim, there’s a strong element of fantasy involved.

Your character, who looks maybe 50 years old, is supposed to be 80. (You can choose their gender, but I’m going to stick with “they.”) They’re an artist who lived in a big house out in the country, but their doctor recommended that they move to a retirement community after they developed vertigo and took a fall. The player can choose how positive they feel about this; regardless, everyone in the community is friendly and welcoming.

The retirement community itself is beautiful, with lovely apartments, grass-covered lawns, and a gorgeous greenhouse filled with marijuana plants. The community also has sufficient funding for various clubs and activities, and it’s managed by the residents with no outside interference. It feels like paradise, to be honest.  

The main goal of the game is to choose an NPC to romance, which you can do at your leisure and to whatever degree of steaminess you prefer. The first time I played the game, I was so enchanted by the characters that all I wanted to do was to make friends. I therefore played the game as aro-ace, which ended up being a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I made some questionable decisions regarding a few of the characters, overstepping the boundaries of some while not being attentive enough to others. I therefore played the game again to get to know them better, and along the way I ended up starting a relationship with my cute neighbor.

On my third playthrough, I was like, “Fuck it, we ball,” and I ended up seducing a rock star. The bed scenes were very silly, and there was more than enough humor to create a bridge above any potential cringe. I don’t think most people are going to feel compelled to crank it to Later Daters, but the quality of its dick jokes is extremely high.

Despite the number of excellent (but mercifully non-obtrusive) one-liners, the underlying purpose of the game is to help the player explore scenarios related to aging and death that aren’t often addressed in pop culture or entertainment media.

To give an example, a minor character suddenly dies of a heart attack in the second chapter. Although you can choose not to participate, your character is invited to a group therapy session that has moments of humor but legit made me cry the first time because it was so heartfelt and honest. No one preaches or lectures, but the session does manage to sneak in some real talk about issues such as the importance of creating a will when you get older.

Another example is the person who is (or seems to be?) the sole exception to my earlier statement that “every character is healthy.” A man named Haroun is suffering from Alzheimer’s. This understandably causes trouble for his wife Salema, who doesn’t want to move him to an intensive-care residence.

If you become friends with Salema, you’ll be introduced to her fourteen-year-old grandson Marcel, a sweet kid who tries to help with Haroun but can’t really manage his care on his own. Putting Salema and Haroun’s issues aside, it’s lovely to see how everyone reacts to Marcel with love and kindness. If you’re a queer person who’s ever felt anxiety regarding the judgment of older people, this portrayal of friendliness and acceptance is a godsend.  

Given that Later Daters is so warm-hearted, I didn’t have the courage to do a genocide run, but I’m curious about what that would look like. From the very first dialogue option, you can choose to be extremely negative about moving to a retirement community, and you can also actively choose not to spend time with anyone.

I’m the sort of person who needs a lot of alone time and has never taken well to communal living. If I were to play this game realistically, as myself, I think this would probably be tantamount to a genocide run. Still, I get the feeling that Later Daters might be a safe space to explore these fears and anxieties.

I think it’s especially for people like me that the fourth chapter of the game is a sci-fi themed “and it was all a dream” style mini-story that serves as an icebreaker, allowing you to explore your relationships with the characters without there being any long-term consequences. This chapter is a marvelously clever storytelling device, and it’s a lot of fun.

Even if you’re not especially into older-looking characters, Later Daters is about an hour of good art and excellent writing that can easily be played in one sitting and rewards multiple playthroughs. And again, the dick jokes are great, but you don’t have to date anyone if you’re just interested in the story. If you do happen to be up for romance, Later Daters gives you all the queer options you could hope for while allowing you to set your own pace at every step of the way.

There are several ways to download Later Daters, including paying for each chapter at a time, but I’m happy that I went ahead and got the full game, “Later Daters Part One and Two.”

The House in Fata Morgana

The House in Fata Morgana describes itself as “a gothic suspense tale set in a cursed mansion,” but I would describe this visual novel as 500k+ words of torture porn. It’s so bad. It is so so bad.

The premise of the game is that you wake up in an abandoned mansion with no memories. A creepy maid guides you through the house while telling you the tragic stories of the people who once lived there. It turns out that the maid was present in all eras of history, and that you were too – albeit not in the form you expect. Along the way there are a lot of silly and juvenile anime tropes, as well as a seriously awful mistreatment of transgender issues. And did I mention torture? There’s a lot of torture.

The remainder of this post includes discussion of torture, including sexual assault, so please take care.

One of the reasons I shy away from away from amateur writing communities is because they tend to have at least one person who will go through a manic phase and then won’t shut up about how they wrote 10k words in one night, and how these words are the most brilliant thing that’s ever been written, and how every single one of these words are perfect and should never be edited.

The House in Fata Morgana wrote 10k words in one night, and it shows. The ideas behind the individual character stories and the overarching plot aren’t bad, but the writing is godawful. There was clearly no editing, and the pacing is a miserable mess. Characters repeat themselves endlessly in a way that goes far beyond “demonstrating the theme of a cycle of abuse.” Each of the sub-stories drags on forever before ending in a bloodbath of screams that go “AaAAAAggHHH” and “NnnGGggGG uuuUrrhhh” and “hehehHEHEHehehe” for literally dozens of minutes of the player clicking through meaningless text.

(I don’t mean to suggest that the translation is bad, by the way. It’s actually very polished. Still, I feel horrible that the translator had to wade through this mess, and I hope they got to take a long vacation afterward.)

The art is pretty but extremely limited, and the character designs fail to convey any sort of personality or mood. The game offers almost no horror art, or even any interesting visual imagery. The giant gothic mansion has maybe ten rooms, and they’re all bog-standard stock photos run through different filters. The player is asked to make a few decisions, but they’re few and far between. These choices are binary, with the wrong decision being crystal clear and resulting in an obviously premature end to the game. In other words, there’s no real gameplay to speak of, nor any real payoff for making your way through the text.

About two-thirds of the way through the game, I got to the point where I was holding down the skip button to speed-read through the text as quickly as possible. I gave up at some point during the penultimate chapter. Towards the end, the story’s pace slows down instead of quickens, making the game feel even more tedious as it offers revelations that might have been surprising if the writing weren’t so mind-numbingly boring.

The House in Fata Morgana could have had the potential to be unique and interesting if its writing had been properly edited. At perhaps 250k words, the player would still have been able to spend a significant amount of time in this creepy mansion with these unfortunate characters, and the writer still would have been able to convey the sense of feeling trapped in a web of words. I’m willing to grant a creator sufficient room to explore the world of their story, but I think it’s safe to say that three entire novels’ worth of extra words will try anyone’s patience.  

There’s also the game’s severe mistreatment of transgender issues.

By this point I have enough exposure to Japanese otaku media to understand that the representation of queer identity and sexuality is complicated. For example, is a work of fiction seemingly intended for a straight male audience secretly LGBTQ+ friendly, or is it actually homophobic? And, if it is borderline homophobic, how much energy do you need to expend to reinterpret the plot and characters into something that can be read as queer-positive? Is it worth the trouble?

Even with the benefit of the doubt, however, the second-to-last chapter of The House in Fata Morgana hit me especially hard.

This chapter is about a transgender (and possibly intersex) character quietly coming out as gay and then being tortured by his family. It’s intense, and it lasts for more than an hour of gameplay time. I don’t use the word “problematic” lightly, but the way this torture and misgendering resonates with the rest of the story is deeply upsetting.

Maybe this is all resolved and everyone gets a happy ending, who knows. For me, I’m not sure any ending is worth having to sit through hours of a transgender character being imprisoned and starved and beaten and tortured and being told, in line after line after line of text, that he would be happy if only he weren’t gay.

I feel like this goes beyond “horror” and enters the realm of something else entirely. Either the writer has an intense fetish, or it’s sincere homophobia. I don’t think every piece of media needs to be ideologically pure or written for me specifically, but the way this element of the story casts a different light on the plot of the entire game (for complicated spoiler reasons) is extremely weird and fucked up.

I think most players will eventually run up against the question of “why don’t the characters just get up and leave the house,” and the same frustration applies to The House in Fata Morgana in a meta sense. Namely, you don’t need to be trapped by this poorly-written and poorly-edited and poorly-paced game. You can just quit playing! So that’s what I did.

If you’re wondering whether you should spend $40 to check out The House in Fata Morgana and just play until you get bored, it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s a strong psychosexual element to the story presented by each chapter, with sexual assault and torture being the dominant themes. This is par for the course for gothic horror, but the player’s enjoyment of this game is going to be strongly dependent on how many hundreds of thousands of words of explicit descriptions of non-erotic yet still sexualized torture they’re willing to tolerate. Also, the very first chapter is about incest.

I love horror, and I’m not judging anyone who uses fiction to explore the darker sides of human experience. Still, considering how highly rated The House in Fata Morgana is on Steam, I think it’s important to say that this game definitely isn’t for everyone.

Strange Tales and Modern Legends

This semester I taught a seminar called “Japanese Ghost Stories.” (You can find links to the syllabus and course materials here.) A major element of this class was our study of how folkloric traditions have influenced literature. My specialty is contemporary fiction, so we spent a good amount of time talking about what urban legends are and how they work.

I believe that urban legends have the following three characteristics:

First, these stories are specific to a time and place, and they’re generally tied to a specific person as well. This person is someone known to the storyteller, and they’re either a reliable source of information or a direct witness to the event or phenomenon in question.

Second, the story is understood to be “real” and therefore nonfiction. In fact, it often isn’t much of a story at all. Unlike creepypasta, which is shortform fiction, the characters in an urban legend don’t have interiority, and they’re often not attributed with motivation. Rather, the story is stated as a simple fact. At the core of these stories is a statement like “you’ll die if you eat [a certain type of candy] mixed with soda” or “a child was once murdered in [a certain department store] bathroom.” The purpose of additional details is to add authenticity.

Third, urban legends almost always have a cautionary element, and the unfortunate events of the story are related to social and cultural anxieties. These fears tend to be politically sensitive and thus can’t be discussed openly, so urban legends function as a sort of pressure release valve. In the United States, for example, a lot of urban legends reflect racial tensions, while there are a lot of urban legends about bullying and social ostracization in Japan.  

This isn’t really a defining characteristic, but I find it interesting that an urban legend need not necessarily be untrue. Rather, the act of making something into a “story” adds an element of speculation. This means that, even though the story is stated as fact, both the teller and listener understand that the veracity of this fact is debatable. In other words, the story could be true, but both parties acknowledge that there’s no way to prove it.

Having provided the students with these criteria and a number of examples to use as potential templates, I asked them to write their own urban legends. I was absolutely blown away by the work they submitted. I promised that I wouldn’t spread their stories outside of class, but I decided to make a class zine so that they could share their work with each other. The image at the top of this post is the cover I created for the zine, which ended up being a 76-page book.

I like to think that Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell would be proud.

You Died Anthology Review on WWAC

My review of the Eisner Award winning comic anthology You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife has just been published on the website Women Write About Comics. Here’s an excerpt…

Despite the success of the death positivity movement, death remains a difficult subject for many people. You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife understands this tension and respects both the critical importance of the topic and the feelings of the reader. As befits the theme of positivity, the anthology’s tone is gentle and uplifting. With its range of unique and beautiful art styles and its entertaining yet contemplative stories, You Died celebrates a diversity of lives in its embrace of a fascinating array of afterlives.

You can read the full review (here). Although my review ended up being entirely positive, there were a few aspects of certain pieces in the anthology that didn’t initially land with me. As always, I extend my thanks to my brilliant editor, who helped me see these comics and this fantastic anthology in a different light.

Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights

Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights is a fantasy-themed 2D adventure-platformer with moderate elements of horror and a moderately high level of difficulty. Unlike many modern Metroidvania games, there is nothing retro about the graphics. The backgrounds are gorgeous works of HD digital art filled with stunning details, and the characters and enemies are all beautifully animated. Both the combat and exploration are a lot of fun, and it’s a joy to move through this ruined world.

You play as a young unnamed priestess (referred to by the user interface as Lily) who wakes in the catacombs beneath a cathedral filled with monsters. You’re greeted by an adult knight (initially called “the Umbral Knight” but later revealed to be named Ferin) who accompanies Lily outside, where the landscape is dark and dripping with the water of a poisonous rain. Everything touched by the rain becomes “blighted,” or monstrous and undead. Lily has the ability to purify monsters by removing the blight from their bodies, thereby allowing them to die. Although the game has no quest-givers to explain what’s going on, it’s easy enough to make the assumption that Lily’s job is to find the source of the blight and purify it.   

Lily is a small child who is physically fragile, and she cannot defend herself on her own. Your attacks are therefore performed by the Umbral Knight, who is gradually joined by other spirits. The Umbral Knight performs a basic sword attack, but Lily meets spirits who can perform heavy attacks, ranged attacks, area-of-effect attacks, and so on. You can equip two sets of three spirits at a time and map them onto whatever buttons you wish in order to create different combos and skill sets appropriate to different bosses and exploration challenges. This is much less complicated that it sounds, and the Umbral Knight is strong and versatile enough to carry you through the game.

You can upgrade these spirits using different types of limited resources that you find through exploration. Aside from Lily, everyone in the world of the game is either dead or undead, and there is no “economy” to speak of – only the relics and resources that Lily can scavenge from corpses. Spirits are acquired by defeating boss monsters, many of which are optional and must also be found by exploration. I really love this system of fighting a powered-up version of a regular monster in order to acquire its abilities, especially since the player should already be familiar with these abilities from having faced a number of such creatures in combat.

The optional minibosses are tricky but fun, but the mandatory zone bosses are legitimately challenging. This challenge is mitigated by the game’s leveling system, in which defeating enemies gives Lily experience points that allow her to gain levels. Health and attack upgrades must be acquired elsewhere, but each new level grants Lily ever-so-slightly better defense and a tiny boost to the power of the Umbral Knight. There is always a save point right before a zone boss fight, as well as an enemy-dense screen on the other side of the save point that provides a good opportunity to level up if needed. The only real way to defeat these bosses is to learn their attack patterns while optimizing your own set of attacks, but the zone leading to each boss does a good job of teaching you the skills you need to survive.

You can also find various relics in the world that grant enhanced abilities, such as giving you more healing charges, increasing the amount healed with each charge, increasing your defense, strengthening certain types of attacks, and so on. In addition, you’ll find items that allow you to equip more relics, as well as items that permanently increase your health bar. Some of these items are hidden behind illusory walls, but these “secrets” are never unmarked, and the game teaches you how to read the environment fairly early on. If you pay attention and don’t mind an occasional bit of backtracking – which you’ll need to do anyway to find a path forward through the interconnected zones – you should be able to strengthen Lily just enough to keep going without having to grind for levels.

Ender Lilies is clearly inspired by Dark Souls and Hollow Knight. It’s not easy, but I would say it’s more “challenging” than “punishing.” The combat is a lot of fun, but the true emphasis is on exploration and paying close attention to the environment. Each screen of the game has its own unique design and artwork, meaning that you’ll be inspired to explore just to see what’s around the next corner. In addition, each relic and spirit and upgrade material you find is valuable, as is every zone boss spirit, all of which grant you an additional exploration ability. I found the gameplay loop of Ender Lilies to be extremely satisfying.

Given that everyone in the world of the game is dead, careful exploration also allows you to find bits and pieces of the story in the form of Fallout-style journals and missives that have been left lying around. Like the gameplay, the story is inspired by Dark Souls and Hollow Knight, and the overarching plot is similar – a morally ambiguous king has made a difficult choice involving arcane forces that were poorly understood by hubristic scientist-wizards. Ender Lilies adds a few interesting twists to this formula, especially towards the end, and the abject tragedy of what happened in this kingdom feels earned, narratively speaking.

What I love about the story is that every textual object you find has a distinct narrative voice. It goes without saying that the presentation of information is not linear, and it’s always a fun surprise to find something written by a blighted monster you encountered much earlier in the game. Some of these characters are much more important than others, but the gradual accumulation of their stories leads the player to the dawning realization that, despite the horror of the situation, the kingdom was filled with flawed but deeply human people who were doing the best they could.

It’s easy to dismiss Ender Lilies as “2D anime Dark Souls for casuals” at a glance, but I ended up being genuinely moved by the story and characters. The horror themes are expressed with creativity and style, and Ender Lilies is nothing if not atmospheric. In terms of gameplay, I think Ender Lilies may be a perfect Metroidvania, and the game features various ease-of-life concessions that help make it more accessible without diminishing the thrill or challenge of the gameplay.

And finally, I appreciate how the spirits Lily has purified hang out with you at save points. There’s nothing I love more than the image of a cute girl sitting amongst weathered ruins surrounded by grotesque monsters as rain falls in the background. That’s the good stuff right there.  

At the End of Everything: A Night in the Woods Fanzine

I’m excited to have a story in At the End of Everything, a fanzine celebrating Night in the Woods. My piece is a series of connected vignettes about the subtle uncanniness of daily (and nightly) life in Possum Springs, and the atmosphere is pure Rust Belt Gothic heavily based on my own experiences in rural West Pennsylvania. Preorders for the zine are open until November 30. In the meantime, please feel free to check out the free wallpapers available on the zine’s Carrd site. 

🍂 https://nitwzine.bigcartel.com/
🍂 https://nightinthewoodszine.carrd.co/

League of Enthusiastic Losers

League of Enthusiastic Losers is a chill and beautiful visual novel set in Moscow in the 1990s. You play as Vitya, a handyman, who is often accompanied by his friend and roommate Volodya, a copywriter who’s working on a novel. It’s not clear whether the two men are in a romantic relationship; but regardless, they’re close friends who love and support one another. Unfortunately, while all of their friends from high school are off being successful and moving up in the world during the boom economy, the two of them can barely pay rent.

As the player, your task is to follow Vitya and Volodya as they try to figure out how to pay their landlord a portion of the rent they owe. Both men are extremely sweet and gentle, and they keep getting sidetracked as they do things like adopting a stray dog and helping their landlord’s son fix his toy airplane. Their grand plan is to dig up a “buried treasure” in the local public park that ends up consisting of several small tokens of Soviet life. Thankfully there are no antagonists in this game, and everything turns out okay. The men’s landlord is just as much of a sweetheart as they are, and their friends are happy to help support them.

The player can control Vitya and Volodya’s movement through linear 2D spaces, make a few dialog choices, and enjoy a few simple flash games like “glue the wings on the toy airplane” and “use the metal detector in the park.” There’s no stress and no point of failure, just two soft but handsome men and their adorable dog navigating a beautiful city depicted in a colorful painterly art style.

There are two things I love about the character Volodya in particular. First, he walks with a pronounced limp. It’s never explained, and no one ever comments on it, but people slow down their own pace when they walk with him. I don’t think Volodya has a “disability,” necessarily, but the game does a good job of depicting that sort of human difference.

Second, everyone around Volodya understands and accepts the fact that it takes time to write a novel, and that it probably won’t be picked up by a publisher right away. In fact, the first press he submits the manuscript to rejects it. When I compare this to the writer plot in the game Coffee Talk, in which Freya takes five days to write a novel that’s immediately accepted by a publisher with no agent necessary, I appreciate this game’s honesty about the fact that no one is immaculately conceived as a literary genius.

Everything about League of Enthusiastic Losers is honest, and the honest truth about life is that sometimes everything really is going to be okay. More than anything, League of Enthusiastic Losers is a game about being in your late twenties and gradually finding your place in the world. None of the characters is “good” or “bad,” but all of them are human, and it’s a joy to follow them through their everyday lives.

League of Enthusiastic Losers takes about half an hour to play, and you can pet the dog anytime you want.

Momodora: Reverie Under The Moonlight

Momodora: Reverie Under The Moonlight is a 2D fantasy Metroidvania with adorable 16-bit pixel graphics and an emphasis on cute magical girls. It has an Easy Mode that’s genuinely chill, and it took me about seven hours to get 100% completion. Momodora features a lot of nods to the Dark Souls games in general and Bloodborne in particular, but I think a more accurate comparison (at least on Easy Mode) is the mellow Nintendo DS adventure-platformer Super Princess Peach.

I came to Momodora not knowing what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s absolutely delightful. The game is relatively simple, but that’s okay, because it’s very good at what it does.

You play as Kaho, a cute girl wearing a white mage hood over a black miniskirt dress and thigh-high stockings. I get the feeling that her theme is supposed to be “sexy Shintō shrine maiden,” and she uses a giant red maple leaf as a sword. She also has a bow with unlimited arrows whose attack can be charged, an adorable dodge roll, and the ability to double-jump right out of the box. Her animations are lovely, and she’s a lot of fun.

Kaho is a silent protagonist, but what you pick up from other characters is that she’s come from abroad to talk to the Queen of Karst about a curse that has spread from the castle city into her small village. You begin the game on the border of a beautiful and vibrant 16-bit pixel forest before entering Karst, which is what the gothic Victorian city of Yharnam (from Bloodborne) would look like if it were rendered in Chrono Trigger style graphics. Whatever curse is threatening Kaho’s village has subsumed Karst in full force, and Kaho has to fight all manner of cute imps, cute witches, cute sorceresses, and cute devils, all of whom have colorful and interesting anime designs.  

Before you can go into Karst Castle proper, you need to find four seals that unlock its gate. This quest sends you into a maze of interconnected areas that include a flooded graveyard, an overgrown garden, a giant crematorium, and the rafters of a ruined cathedral. All of these areas are beautifully rendered and a joy to explore, and along the way Kaho meets a handful of cute NPCs and picks up a limited arsenal of items whose flavor text provides a hint of worldbuilding in classic Dark Souls fashion. Kaho gains a few more abilities – one in particular is a true blessing and a miracle on this earth, but I won’t spoil it – but Momodora sticks to its core gameplay and never gets too complicated.

In addition, you can find and collect 17 health upgrades, as well as 20 silver bugs to trade to a garden rabbit for prizes. About half of these collectables require minor exploration and backtracking, and the other half are hidden in ridiculous ways that I don’t think most players would be able to find without a walkthrough. Thankfully, if you’re playing on Easy Mode, it’s totally fine not to worry about the collectables you don’t find naturally.

You also pick up currency from defeated enemies that you can use to buy relics (which are essentially magic spells) from various merchants, but none of these items are necessary. Since Kaho doesn’t otherwise gain levels or become more powerful, I can imagine that some of the boss fights might be challenging and require a bit of an extra advantage, but this isn’t an issue in Easy Mode, in which Kaho begins the game with two powerful relics that will carry the player through the entire game.

In conclusion, Momodora is a chill and beautiful Metroidvania style action-exploration game that’s like Bloodborne for people who want to enjoy the gothic story and atmosphere without having to spend dozens of hours slamming their head against a wall to git gud. Also, since almost every character and enemy is a super cute magical girl or sexy adult witch-demon, I guess you could say that Momodora is like Bloodborne for lesbians.

I mean, Bloodborne itself is very much “Bloodborne for lesbians,” but you get what I’m saying.

Quiet Haunting

I moved to South Philly toward the end of the pandemic. My landlord raised the rent, and it was cheaper to buy a house. Granted, it’s not a big house, nor is it particularly nice. The floors are uneven, and the ceiling sags. The kitchen is like a set from an old movie, and the basement is infested with house centipedes. But it’s affordable, and it’s quiet, especially since no one lives next door.

Recently, however, I’ve started to hear things moving on the other side of the townhouse wall. The noises aren’t loud or frequent. It’s mostly soft shuffling and light tapping, usually right before dawn and just after dusk. To make matters even more curious, someone has been watering the plants in the house’s back yard. Two leafy fig trees have grown from small sprouts to extraordinary heights over the summer.

Earlier this evening, I noticed that the house’s back door was open. It was just a crack, as if someone had forgotten to close it. The opossums that live in the alleyway that will come inside and eat your trash if you let them, so I figured I’d be doing someone a favor if I closed the door. I climbed over the crumbling cinderblock wall and maneuvered through the foliage. When I put my hand on the knob, the door surprised me by swinging open.  

The was nothing inside, just uneven floors and sagging ceilings like my own, but I could hear a beeping sound emerging from the basement. I peeked down the stairs, where I saw an older man in a colorless cardigan sweater sitting on a metal folding chair. He was flipping through an issue of National Geographic that he’d taken from a sagging cardboard box filled with old magazines.

I froze in alarm, but he looked up and met my eyes before I could back away. “I’m sorry to bother you,” I apologized. “I live next door, and I heard the beeping. I was worried something was going to explode.”

“It’s fine.” He shrugged. “It’s just an oven timer. I figured I’d give it a few more minutes, but I might as well turn it off.”

I felt awkward, like I couldn’t just leave, so I asked him why he was sitting in the basement with an oven timer.

“They pay me to look after the place,” he answered. “You know, rattle a few chains, make some thumping noises in the night. Feed the spiders, maybe put a bloody handprint on the window, that sort of thing. It keeps the property values down.”

I realized that I could see the back of the chair through the man’s sweater. This didn’t bother me as much as perhaps you’d think it would. I’d seen stranger things in the neighborhood, and the man seemed nice enough. “I haven’t really heard anything from next door,” I admitted. “Do you want me to be more scared?”

“Don’t sweat it. They’re not paying me much, and I haven’t gotten a raise in years. My heart’s just not in it these days.” With a sigh, he closed the magazine and tossed it back into the box before disappearing in a thin whisp of smoke.

I left the basement, closing and locking the door behind me before returning to my own house. I guess the post-pandemic economy has been tough for everyone. All things considered, I don’t mind living next to a haunted house. Like I said, it’s affordable, and it’s quiet.

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This illustrated short story was originally published in the Philly Zine Fest 2022 Anthology. This year’s Philly Zine Fest was held at Temple University on Saturday, November 5. Despite a giant political rally happening right across the street that afternoon, it was a very chill and relaxed event with lots of good vibes and creative energy. It’s been my dream to table at the Philly Zine Fest for years, and it was just as amazing as I hoped it would be. Here’s to many more celebrations of independent artists and writers in years to come! If you’re interested, you can find the Philly Zine Fest website (here), and it’s definitely worth checking out their parent organization, The Soapbox Community Print Shop & Zine Library.

Also, I should mention that I really do live next door to an abandoned funeral home. True story! I posted a photoset on Instagram (here).