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.  

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.

Review of Japanese Role-Playing Games

This past summer I was given an opportunity to review an academic essay collection titled Japanese Role-Playing Games: Genre, Representation, and Liminality in the JRPG. The work the two editors did for this collection is incredible, and every single essay is fantastic. Here’s a short excerpt from the book review that I published in the journal Asian Studies Review:

Japanese Role-Playing Games: Genre, Representation, and Liminality in the JRPG is the first English-language collection of essays focusing entirely on a genre of Japanese games known for their complex stories and rich worldbuilding. The fourteen essays in this collection cover the construction of the JRPG genre, the formation of transcultural gaming communities, and the representation of issues such as nationality, gender, and disability.

Japan Studies scholars with varying degrees of familiarity with the specific titles used as case studies will find a wealth of information and resources in these essays, which briefly summarize the games while explaining why they are representative, important, and connected to broader currents in Japanese history and society. Meanwhile, Game Studies scholars will find approachable yet intellectually rigorous discussions of culture and national origin, which have thus far been relatively few and far between in the field outside of the work of a few specialists.

If you’d like to read the full review, you can find it (here). I understand that not everyone has institutional access to academic journals, so I’m also hosting the PDF on my own website (here). In addition, you can find Japanese Role-Playing Games on the publisher’s website (here), and you can follow the journal Asian Studies Review on Twitter (here).

Fruiting Bodies Review on WWAC

I recently had the honor of writing a review of Ashley Robin Franklin’s graphic novella Fruiting Bodies for the website Women Write About Comics. Here’s an excerpt:

Franklin joins Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Jeff Vandermeer in the pantheon of contemporary writers and artists who have celebrated the uncanny invisible world that stretches deep below our feet and proliferates in the warmth of our bodies. Classical botanical horror has its roots in concerns over cultural hybridization, but Fruiting Bodies resists the genre’s Victorian anxieties in favor of a probing exploration of the primal fears surrounding the collapse of bodily autonomy. In the end, Franklin suggests, human social distinctions of gender and sexuality are meaningless to a natural world that devours everyone equally.

You can read the full review (here), and you can find the book’s page on Silver Sprocket’s website (here). You can follow Ashley Robin Franklin on Instagram (here), and I also recommend checking out her other short comics on her Etsy store (here). As always, I want to acknowledge the good work of my patient and brilliant editor, whom you can follow on Twitter (here).

Himawari House Review on WWAC

I recently had the honor of writing a review of Harmony Becker’s graphic novel Himawari House for the website Women Write About Comics. Here’s an excerpt:

Himawari House is an interesting and meaningful follow-up to They Called Us Enemy, Becker’s collaboration with actor and activist George Takei about the illegal internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. While They Called Us Enemy is about how individual lives were subsumed under the cultural identity of “Japanese,” which was foreign to many people to whom it was forcibly applied, Himawari House is about finding and negotiating Japanese cultural heritage as a chosen aspect of individual identity.

You can read the full review (here). You can also check out the book’s page on the publisher’s website (here) and follow the artist on Instagram (here). I’d also like to acknowledge the fantastic work of my brilliant editor, whom you can follow on Twitter (here).

The Cruel King and the Great Hero

The Cruel King and the Great Hero was developed and published by Nippon Ichi Software, and it’s the spiritual successor to the studio’s 2018 title The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince. Just as The Liar Princess is a simplistic puzzle-platformer set apart by its distinctive manga art style, The Cruel King is a JRPG that’s so traditional it would probably be considered retro were it not so visually gorgeous and beautifully animated.  

When I say that The Cruel King is “traditional,” what I mean is that there are a lot of random encounters. The battles are turn-based and controlled solely through text menus. There’s a bit of strategy involved, but not much. Your character walks slowly, and there’s a not-insignificant amount of backtracking. If you suspect that you’ll find this frustrating, then The Cruel King probably isn’t for you.

If you’re looking for a more relaxed gameplay experience, however, The Cruel King is a delightful way to spend about 20 to 25 hours. Personally speaking, it took a few play sessions for me to readjust my expectations of how quickly the battles should progress, but I became hooked on the gameplay once I got used to the pace.

You play as Yuu, a young human girl who has been adopted by The Cruel Dragon King as his daughter. Every night before bed, the Dragon King tells the girl about her “real” father, a great hero who defeated an evil demon king. The girl wants to become a hero like her father, so the Dragon King decides to make her dream come true by coming up with little quests for her to undertake. These quests are in service to the various monsters who live in the Dragon King’s territory, and the girl becomes involved in a series of adorable sidequests.

Most of these sidequests are optional. Because the game isn’t difficult, the sidequest rewards aren’t strictly necessary. Rather, the real reward is the friendship you find along the way. In less cliché terms, the reward for playing the game is being able to experience more of the game.

The environment is not quite 2D and not quite isometric, and it reminds me a lot of the style of the Paper Mario games. There are no puzzles and no platforming, but your character gradually gains abilities that allow her to bypass environmental obstacles and thereby gain access to more of the map. Like most of the sidequests, exploration isn’t strictly necessary. Still, if you want to poke around a bit, the map screen is annotated in a way that’s easy to understand and keep track of, and there will never be any need to consult an online walkthrough. The player has access to a quest log that visually signposts the objectives for each quest, and you can instantly return to the central village hub whenever you wish.

Your adventuring party only has two characters at a time, Yuu and another character specific to each chapter of the game. This can occasionally cause difficulties when a group of enemies is designed to take advantage of an earlier companion’s special abilities, but most players will never experience anything beyond mild inconvenience. Your characters’ skill points are limited but naturally renew after each turn of battle, and it’s fun to play around with different skills and strategies without having to worry about conserving resources.  

The chill and low-stress gameplay allows the player to appreciate the most notable feature of The Cruel King, which is its gorgeous artwork. Playing the game feels like walking through the pages of a storybook, albeit one that’s beautifully animated. All of the characters and environments are hand-drawn, and each screen is filled with unique details. The illustrated bestiary that you can gradually complete as you find and defeat enemies is a treasure.

I’ve gotten used to ambient background noise in contemporary video games, so it was a treat to realize that each area of The Cruel King has its own theme music. I thought this music was nothing special at first, but over time I found that I enjoyed the fantasy flavor it adds to each section of the game. None of the character lines are voiced, but the actress who narrates the storybook-style cutscenes in Japanese gives a lovely performance (although you can silence her voice and fast-forward through these scenes if you like).

The translation is of uneven quality, but this didn’t bother me. Most of the dialog is cute and quirky but still feels natural, and many of the characters have distinctive ways of speaking that are fun without being annoying. The translation for the third-person narrative cutscenes tends to be a bit shaky, both in terms of style and grammar. I don’t think the errors were intentional (especially since the original Japanese text is relatively polished), but I still appreciate them, as the amateurish writing style made the storybook sections feel more intimate. It reminded me of Super Nintendo JRPGs, whose imperfect translations were a significant part of their charm.

Without spoiling anything, I think it’s fair to say that The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince was a horror game that got especially dark toward the end. The Cruel King and the Great Hero doesn’t have any nasty tricks up its sleeves, but the story ends up being much more interesting and nuanced than you might expect. If nothing else, you get to be friends with all sorts of monsters, and who doesn’t want a kind and supportive Dragon King for a dad?

The Greatest Thing Review on WWAC

I recently had the immense pleasure of writing a review of Sarah Winifred Searle’s graphic novel The Greatest Thing for the website Women Write About Comics. Here’s an excerpt:

Searle paints a soft pastel portrait of what it was like to grow up in the 2000s before smartphones and social media. Relatively few people talked about what it means to be gay, but the queer kids nevertheless managed to find each other. The Greatest Thing has no epic kisses or dazzling rainbows or flashy pride parades, just a quiet and gentle acknowledgment that growing up means learning to be true to yourself.

If you’re interested, you can read the full review (here). You can also check out the book’s page on the publisher’s website (here) and follow the artist on Twitter (here). Much appreciation and respect to my excellent editor, whom you can follow on Twitter (here).

Infernax

Infernax is an 8-bit 2D Metroidvania style game with platforming elements and dark themes that feed into a morality system. The retro graphics, music, and gameplay remind me of Shovel Knight, save that Infernax is the opposite of Shovel Knight‘s brand of quirky and wholesome family fun. Infernax boasts buckets of blood and plenty of creatively disturbing imagery, but the uniquely upsetting aspect of this game is its sidequests, which force the player to make distinctly unpleasant choices.

You play as Alcedor, a duke who served as a knight in the Holy War and returns to his homeland only to find it overrun with the undead. Your job is to infiltrate the five demon strongholds and thereby break the magical seal on your own castle, which is occupied by the big boss demon. You navigate the 2D overworld with the various skills that you acquire in the five 2D dungeons, and along the way you accumulate experience points and money that you can use to upgrade your abilities and equipment.

Infernax bills itself as having a “tough-as-nails” level of difficulty. I found that it isn’t actually that hard until the final two levels, in which the platforming is a bit too precision-oriented for the game mechanics. If you prefer, you can get around this difficulty by using Game Genie style cheat codes (these ones right here) on a menu that’s available at every save point. Using this system to allow yourself infinite lives and access a double-jump ability can really help you out toward the end of the game, where failure at the platforming segments is unduly punished.

I think it’s important to be realistic and accurate about the difficulty level of a game like this, as not everyone is looking for a super hyper mega challenge. Maybe some people just want to stroll around a horror-themed digital theme park while fighting skeletons and zombies, and that’s cool. Infernax lets you turn the cheat codes on and off at any point you like and doesn’t penalize you for using them, and it offers a decent but not impossible challenge to anyone who wants to play the game straight.

The parts where you might need to use a walkthrough are when Infernax asks you to make a binary choice. This choice is usually between showing mercy to monsters or outright killing them. The key to these choices is presented to the player at the very beginning of the game, when you’re asked to make a decision regarding whether to spare someone who has been possessed by a demon. If you’re a decent person and choose to spare him, he kills several people and forces you to kill him anyway.

In order to get the “ultimate good” ending, the player has to continue to choose to kill monsters. This isn’t always easy. Later in the game, for example, a town under siege has trapped another possessed person in a cage. The townspeople claim that the possessed man has killed people, and that he needs to be put to death. Succumbing to the will of an angry mob with torches in order to enact violence on a seemingly defenseless person in a small cage isn’t great. If you let him go, however, he kills everyone. Should you allow the townspeople to set the possessed man on fire, it takes a long time for him to burn, and he screams and thrashes in pain the entire time.

This violence is somewhat mitigated by the 8-bit pixel graphics, which add a layer of campiness to the grimdark world. What Infernax celebrates isn’t just the visuals and gameplay of 8-bit games, but also their unironic and unapologetic violence. Infernax leans into this goriness by having its overworld enemies constantly attack and kill soldiers right in front of you. You can save some of these people, but most become zombie food. Sometimes you’re forced to kill other humans, which can be bloody business as well. If you like, you can aim for the “ultimate evil” ending and kill other humans by choice. This makes the game more difficult in terms of gameplay but also more interesting from a narrative perspective.

Infernax delights in violence for the sake of violence. It’s not actually that deep, but it’s quite fun. Even as they’ve created a dungeon whose theme is literally “piles of dead babies,” the developers are sensitive to the needs of a diversity of players and allow you to customize the level of difficulty to suit your preferences. In addition, there are multiple guides online that will help you unlock all the various silly bonuses the game has to offer, which include letting you run around with a machine gun and giving you free rein to zip through the overworld on a motorcycle.

If you’re bad at games like I am, Infernax might take about ten to fifteen hours to finish without cheat codes. If you’re good at games – or if you use cheat codes – it can be finished in under five hours, which makes the prospect of exploring multiple morality paths more intriguing. Overall, I spent about twenty hours in ultraviolent medieval zombie demon hell, and I regret nothing.