Half Past Fate

Half Part Fate is a visual romance novel by an American developer that follows three couples on their journey to their first date. There’s a long list of possible achievements to unlock, but the story itself is entirely linear. Although the characters are adults, the tone is 100% PG, and everything is very sweet and wholesome.

The game is divided into twelve chapters, each of which takes about ten to fifteen minutes to complete depending on how quickly you read and how much you want to explore. You play each chapter as one of the romantic leads in a top-down environment, each of which functions as a small and self-contained stage reminiscent of the “town” sections of a 16-bit JRPG. Your job is to walk around and talk to people, and the gameplay elements are limited: Person A will give you Object B, but only if you trade it for Object C that you get from Person D. There are (mercifully) no puzzles or reflex-based minigames, making Half Past Fate a chill and relaxing experience.

The environments are a lot of fun. The game is set in a romanticized hybrid of Los Angeles and Austin, and there is no crime, poverty, or infrastructural decay. Everything is clean and neat and aesthetically pleasing, and no one is rude or creepy. You can therefore walk around urban environments like coffee shops, public parks, outdoor shopping arcades, and waterfront bars without worrying that someone is going to report you to the police for striking up conversations with strangers. Half Past Fate reminds me a lot of Earthbound in that it offers the player an opportunity to stroll around a contemporary city and read quirky flavor text while catching small glimpses of people’s lives.

The three love stories are just as cute and charming as the pixel art. One couple has been friends since college but never found the right time to confess their feelings, and now they find themselves realizing how much they mean to each other as their artistic careers have started to take off. One couple meets randomly at a tea-themed street fair and has a lovely afternoon together, but then the boy loses the girl’s phone number and has to track her down. The third couple is entangled in a high-stakes game of money and power and deception, and it admittedly takes a willing suspension of disbelief to fit them into the same world as the other characters, but I still liked their story a lot.

The three main couples are straight, but they’re surrounded by representatives of a rainbow of genders and sexualities. Many of the queer side characters are involved in romantic dramas that you can piece together if you take your time exploring, and queerness is so open and omnipresent that the straightness of the main characters doesn’t feel forced.

In addition, the diversity of the cast is taken entirely for granted, which I appreciate. The racial and ethnic identities of the characters are specific and affect more than their family names and physical appearance, but they’re never the sum total of any character’s personality or backstory. Speaking personally, it’s rare to see multiethnic friend groups represented in popular media in a way that doesn’t involve tokenism, but the characters’ networks of relationships felt very real and natural to me.

I picked up Half Past Fate on Nintendo’s online storefront, and I enjoyed playing it as a handheld portable game on the Switch Lite. I’m not sure if the full $10 list price will be worth the three hours of gameplay for everyone, but it definitely was for me (especially considering that paperback novels cost almost $20 these days). Although I would have preferred a bit more bite and tension in the storytelling, the art and graphics are wonderful, and I’m a big fan of this retro JRPG style of structuring a visual novel. I’ve already downloaded the second game in the series, Half Past Fate: Romantic Distancing, and I’m looking forward to sitting down with it the next time I want to spend a relaxing afternoon in a softer and brighter version of reality.

Mad Father

Mad Father is a retro survival horror game about a cute girl named Aya who lives in an isolated mansion with her father. As you might be able to guess from the title, her dad is not 100% sane.

The game was originally designed with RPG Maker and released on Steam in 2012, but it’s been remastered for Nintendo Switch with updated graphics and sound design, as well as a few postgame bonus segments. It takes about three hours to play, and I felt that it was a good value when I bought it on sale on Nintendo’s digital storefront for $5. The horror is ghoulishly cheesy, and the jump scares are a lot of fun.

The opening of the game is nonlinear, as Aya has the run of the entire aboveground portion of the mansion. It’s somewhat difficult to understand what to do at first, and I admit that I had to consult a walkthrough to figure out how to get started. Once you gain access to the family’s sprawling underground murder dungeon, however, the path forward becomes easier to discern. Also, once you figure out how the environmental puzzles are supposed to work, they become much more entertaining.

As you grow accustomed to Mad Father during the first hour of playing, the jump scares become less effective, and the game compensates by leaning hard into camp. I don’t mean to suggest that anime can’t be scary, but Mad Father’s combination of over-the-top character portraits and cute pixel art amps up the carnivalesque elements of the story. By the time the dad starts chasing you with a chainsaw, my main reaction to the various horrors on display was delighted amusement.

There is one genuinely creepy moment toward the beginning of the game involving the father’s (nonsexual) reaction to the distress of a naked preteen girl, and it’s creepy because the game knows this reaction is upsetting but still treats it as perfectly natural. The killer dolls and unquiet ghosts haunting the tunnels of the murder dungeon aren’t actually all that scary, but the “kind” behavior of the father during the sepia-tinted nostalgia flashbacks is super disturbing. Mad Father is officially rated Teen, but it’s definitely not for kids (or adults sensitive to depictions of child abuse).

The basement of this family’s house is truly epic, by the way. The other day I was reading that a lot of families who live in McMansions don’t actually have any furniture in most of the rooms, and that makes sense to me. If you’re not imprisoning people to use as subjects for occult medical experiments, then what are you supposed to do with all that space, exactly? If nothing else, I suppose Aya’s dad is to be commended for his commitment to his interior decorating theme. It’s a shame that this theme is “horrible grotesque murder,” but if he’s paying the property tax on all those rooms then he might as well put them to good use.

Anodyne

After starting and abandoning Anodyne a few times on various platforms, I downloaded it onto my Nintendo Switch. Being able to play this retro-styled adventure game on a handheld console turned out to be just what I needed in order to appreciate the experience, and I got completely sucked into its world. Because of its horror elements, I’m not sure Anodyne is for everyone, but I had a great time working my way through the game while eagerly anticipating what sort of strange and grotesque imagery I would encounter next.

The game has Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire style Game Boy Advance era graphics. The pixel art is by turns allusive and unique, and it’s occasionally genuinely gorgeous or horrifying.

The screen-by-screen dungeon and overworld layouts remind me a lot of the two Legend of Zelda Oracle games, and the gameplay is like what those games could have been if they had focused on their core strengths instead of distracting the player with extraneous marginalia. If you’re willing to explore a bit, you can learn to jump fairly in the game, and it’s a neat ability to incorporate into the Zelda-style gameplay.

Anodyne also gives off strong Yume Nikki vibes. You start off on a fairly generic quest, but it quickly becomes clear that you’re exploring a manifestation of the subconscious mind of the protagonist, who is not doing okay. There are clear references to addition, depression, and suicidal ideation, and each of the dungeons is themed after a specific fear. The first dungeon is about the fear of not being able to see, the second dungeon is about the fear of being born from the bloody entrails of your mother’s body, the third dungeon is about the fear of being generic and unnecessary, and so on.

Anodyne also reminds me of the original The Legend of Zelda in that there’s zero guidance – the game has no interest in telling you where to go or what to do. This is why I abandoned it the first few times I tried to play it, as I arrived at its open field area and became overwhelmed. Once I decided to stick with it and finally figured out the small environmental clues meant to lead the player forward, it was a lot of fun to be able to go anywhere and do anything while unearthing a few secrets along the way.

Anodyne’s structure is balanced between the overworld areas and the dungeons, and each of the dungeons is a perfect puzzle box. Despite the gameplay mechanics being deliberately limited and basic, some of the puzzles are very clever. The controls are a little loose, but it’s not really a combat-heavy game. There’s no real penalty for dying, and I died a good three dozen times out of sheer laziness but didn’t feel frustrated even once.

It took me about six hours to finish Anodyne, and I enjoyed every minute. It seems there’s a lot of postgame content that involves revisiting various locations, talking to important characters again, and using a new ability to access a bonus dungeon. This game is subtly but undeniably disturbing, and I’m looking forward to seeing just how weird it can get after the first “quest” has been completed. Or maybe the player-character finally works through his trauma and gets better? That would be good too. I guess.

To summarize: Anodyne is a 16-bit nightmare adventure for a mature audience, sort of like a re-imagining of Majora’s Mask in which characters are allowed to say fuck. Putting the edginess aside, it’s super fun to play, and the dungeons are ghoulishly creative.

Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion

Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is a 16-bit Zelda-style adventure game with cute graphics and meme-heavy writing that takes about two and a half hours to play from start to finish with 100% completion.

Along with a bright and colorful overworld, Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion features three formal inside dungeons and two less formal outside dungeons, as well as the usual variety of “go fetch me this thing” sidequests. The game is meant to be accessible to a diversity of players but still presents a range of entertaining challenges. The gameplay isn’t engineered for precision mechanics, which makes the boss fights somewhat more difficult than they perhaps need to be, but you can turn on “god mode” at any time from the menu. Around the middle of the game, Turnip Boy discovers a device that generates portals, and this tool enables are some fun puzzles involving getting bombs and blocks to where they need to be on the map in order to move forward.

Your main goal, as Turnip Boy, is to destroy every single piece of horrible paper you get your (non-existent) hands on. Tax documents? Rip them up. Leases? Rip them up. Receipts? Rip them up. A love letter that the girl you like wants you to deliver to someone who isn’t you, even though she knows you like her? Rip it up right in front of her face. Someone’s uwu anime drawing? Rip that mess up.

It’s very cathartic.

The exploration and puzzles are fun, but what I really enjoyed about Turnip Boy is the dialog, as well as the way your adorable yet feral protagonist’s silence is used for comedic effect. This game uses one of my favorite Earthbound-inspired tropes ever, which is to populate dungeons with people who talk to you, making them feel like towns that happen to be temporarily overrun with monsters. There are also diaries and other documents (that you can rip up!) scattered about in the dungeons that provide lowkey Fallout-style worldbuilding.

So I suppose you could say that Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is a comedy story game that’s set up as a 16-bit Zelda adventure quest. Thankfully, the 16-bit graphics and Zelda-style gameplay elements work really well. The music is super-catchy too.

Is Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion worth $15? To me, it definitely was. A team of fifteen people developed this game, and I’m happy to give each of them a dollar. If you’re in the “I want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and I’m not kidding” camp, Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is the game for you, especially if you’re in the mood to take an afternoon off and enjoy yourself by exploring a colorful fantasy garden while gleefully smashing capitalism.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

I’ve been saving Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch for a rainy day since it came out on the Nintendo Switch in September 2019, and my “rainy day” turned out to be my first winter back in Philadelphia, which has hit me with far more snow than I expected. Wrath of the White Witch is magical and delightful, and it’s the perfect game for cozy days indoors.

Wrath of the White Witch is a seventy-hour JRPG that’s intended for kids around the same age as the game’s protagonist, who is around ten years old. It was developed in collaboration with Studio Ghibli by Level-5, which makes the Professor Layton and Yo-kai Watch games.

As indicated by the game’s title, it takes place in two closely connected worlds, a high fantasy world of wizards and castles and talking animals and a world loosely based on our own. You play as Oliver, a boy who travels between a suburb of 1950s Detroit and the fantasy world with the intent of finding a way to save his mother, who has recently passed away from an illness. The idea is that Oliver’s mother’s “soulmate” in the fantasy world has gone missing; and, if he can find and rescue her, then this might have an effect on his mother’s fate in his own world.

The game’s combat system is much more complicated to describe than it is to actually play. You have three characters who can move freely across the battlefield while executing commands. You control one, and the others are controlled by AI. The AI is unfortunately not that smart, but almost none of the battles are actually that hard. The classic JRPG strategy of “just be five levels over where you probably need to be” works perfectly every time, and there’s also an Easy Mode that you can switch on and off whenever you like.

Each of your three characters can equip three familiars, which you can catch in the wild and train like pokémon. You’ll use your familiars to fight, but there isn’t any pressing need to balance your team or do research into the strengths or weaknesses of individual creatures. There’s also no pressure to catch new familiars, or even any way to check your progress if “catching them all” is your goal. The familiars are cute and fun to play with, and there’s no drawback to just using the ones you like. You can also feed them adorable status-boosting snacks if you want to.

The combat system is fairly deep, but it took me about five hours of gameplay to start moving beyond a basic sort of “attack by hitting the enemy with your stick” mentality. Wrath of the White Witch originally came out on the PlayStation 3 console in 2011; and, true to that era, it tries to explain everything to you with copious amounts of text. Oliver is accompanied by a companion named Drippy, who’s a little like Fi in Skyward Sword in that he will repeatedly interrupt gameplay to explain mechanics you could easily have figured out for yourself. Thankfully, he eventually backs off, which makes it much easier to experiment and thereby figure out the ins and outs of battle strategies.

There are a few other aspects of Wrath of the White Witch that show the game’s age. To give an example, it reminds me somewhat of Final Fantasy XII in that it forces the player to sit through more than two hours of exposition and pointless tutorial missions before the game actually begins in earnest. I won’t lie – this is horribly tedious, and you just kind of have to sit there and be patient.

Bits and pieces of the game’s story are a little tone-deaf as well, especially given its secondary setting in the United States at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

There is one African-American character in Wrath of the White Witch. His name is Rusty, and he beats his wife. Like, right in front of you. His back is turned to the camera when he does it, but what’s happening is obvious. This is one of the only real instances of the game portraying a negative emotion stronger than mild anger or gentle sadness, and it’s… I mean, this is a poor word choice, but it’s striking.

One of Oliver’s traveling companions in the fantasy world is Esther, a girl from a vaguely Orientalist desert city modeled on Silk Road culture. Her counterpart in Oliver’s world is his best friend’s neighbor, a girl named Myrtle. Oliver has seen Myrtle out of her window, but he’s never spoken to her because she’s ostensibly too sick to leave the house.

It turns out that the Myrtle was sick but has gotten better, and that she doesn’t leave her room because she’s scared of her father. Rusty, a car mechanic, has had to work overtime to pay for her hospital bills, and he’s been taking his frustration out on his wife, which terrifies Myrtle. Since Oliver is a wizard, he can use magic to heal Rusty’s heart, help Myrtle overcome her anxiety, and thus inspire Esther to embrace the courage she needs to go on her own journey.

This is very much a ten-year-old’s wish-fulfillment fantasy, and it makes sense in its own way, but…

Both Myrtle and Esther have straight blond hair, bright blue eyes, and peach-tinted pale skin. It’s weird to call anyone speaking Japanese “white,” but almost everyone in the game is a generic light-skinned anime person. This means that the abusive husband’s racial identity really stands out.

He gets better, of course. After Rusty’s heart is healed, he apologizes to his wife and hugs his daughter, and everything is okay. He helps you out with a sidequest later on in the game in a way that demonstrates his high competence as a mechanic. But still, for there to be only one Black person in Detroit… And for the one Black character in the game to be violent like that… And for both his wife and daughter to be coded as white… I just feel like there’s a lot of racial history at play here that isn’t given sufficient depth for its inclusion in the game to be worthwhile.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s more to American culture than hot dogs and hamburgers and saying hello to your neighbors from across their white-picket fences as you stroll down Main Street. If you’re setting a game in the United States, you should have more than one Black character, and you need to be aware of the historical violence and deep cultural wounds created by stereotypes about Black male violence against white women.

I suppose you could counter this with, “But Wrath of the White Witch is a Japanese game for children that flattens and parodies all of the people and cultures it incorporates into its fantasy world,” and that’s fair. At the same time, I’m happy that Japanese game developers have since figured out that it’s okay to have more than one Black or dark-skinned character in any given game, and that it won’t break anyone’s sense of immersion to have NPCs walking around with a variety of skintones.

(Just as an aside, I want to emphasize that I’m not cherry-picking an example here. There are a few other examples of problematic portrayals of racial and ethnic difference in Wrath of the White Witch, as well as many other examples that could be drawn from JRPGs in general. This is a serious and complicated topic, but addressing it isn’t really the point of this blog post. If you’re interested in pursuing this further, the essay collection The State of Play is a great place to get started.)

So there are elements of Wrath of the White Witch that betray the game’s age, both in terms of gameplay and in terms of its reflection of the then-current state of transnational conversations concerning representation. Still, most of the game is an absolute treasure.

The cel-shaded graphics are amazing and have not aged a day. The animation is spectacular. In particular, the way that the mantle of Oliver’s cape moves is a technological marvel. You really do feel as though you’re walking around in a Studio Ghibli movie, and it’s incredible. The world map is gorgeous, and the towns are intricately detailed and full of life. You can tell that Level-5 and Studio Ghibli put a lot of love and attention into designing the world, and it’s an enormous amount of fun to explore and take on sidequests.

The translation is brilliant, and the voice acting is lovely. The level of detail put into the sound design is pure Studio Ghibli. The score by Joe Hisaishi is everything you’d hope it would be.

I’m not saying that every game needs to have an active fandom, but I wonder why this game is relatively uncelebrated in my circles of social media. There were precious few JRPGs on the PlayStation 3, which was odd after the immense popularity of JRPGs on the PlayStation 2, so you’d think a high-quality game like Wrath of the White Witch would have stood out. Then again, I myself never managed to get into it back when it first came out despite having started it a few times. My guess is that Wrath of the White Witch’s innocent charm and nostalgic JRPG elements help it work well as a pokémon-style portable game on the small screen of the Nintendo Switch.

I know that a sequel, Revenant Kingdom, was released for PlayStation 4 in 2018, but I was too obsessed with Breath of the Wild at the time to pay much attention to it. Revenant Kingdom is partially set in contemporary New York, and I get the sense that it’s intended for an adult audience. I think it might be worth checking out once I finish up the last few postgame sidequests of Wrath of the White Witch just to see how the world of the story (and the worldview of its creators) has changed in the past ten years.

Hades

I’ve spent a lot of time playing Hades during the past two months, and I think it’s fair to say that I enjoy it. I’d like to write about brilliant its storytelling is, but first I have to explain the gameplay.

Hades is an isometric Rougelike action game, which means that the player watches from a bird’s eye view as the character runs around and kills things in randomly generated levels. Like most Rougelike games, the level of difficulty is fairly high, but the game’s optional “God Mode” allows the player-character to become incrementally more resistant to damage with each successive death. Because of the way God Mode eventually allows you to calibrate the game to your exact level of comfort, I would recommend (and have recommended) Hades to anyone who enjoys video games, even if they hate Rougelikes. Hades is a long game with a lot to discover; but, somewhat like Breath of the Wild, you have to commit to around three to four hours of learning how the game works before you get to the good stuff.

You play as Zagreus, the son of Hades, and your goal is to leave the underworld to find your mother, Persephone. You start the game in the House of Hades, where you can talk with various NPCs, buy upgrades, and choose the weapon and status-boosting “keepsake” you’ll use on your next run through the game. A complete run will take you through four levels, each of which are about ten stages long, and a final culminating boss fight. If you die, the River Styx carries you back to the House of Hades to try again from the beginning. You collect various resources during each run that you retain when you die, and you can use them to make your character stronger between runs.

It took me 24 attempts to make it to the end of a run and beat the final boss for the first time. After you finish your first complete run, it takes another 10 successful runs to be able to watch the end credits. The game is only really half-finished after you watch the end credits, however. In order to complete the story, you’re encouraged to work toward an epilogue. It took me a total of 87 runs through the game to trigger the epilogue.

When you first start playing Hades, a full run might take 40 to 50 minutes. Once you become more comfortable with the game’s weapons and start to learn enemy attack patterns, it takes about 20 to 25 minutes to do a full run. If you balance out the longer run times with all the times you die within the first 10 minutes, I’m going to say that an average run takes about half an hour.

What this means is that it will probably take most players about 20 hours to get to the end credits and perhaps around 45 hours to complete the game. In my case, at least, these were 45 hours well spent.

If playing the same four levels over and over and over sounds repetitive, it absolutely is. Hades is a game about trying and failing and gradually getting better. There’s a lot of failure, and a lot of trying new things to figure out what works. If you’ve ever played an action game, whether it’s Super Mario Bros or Super Meat Boy, you’re familiar with how this gameplay cycle operates. What sets Hades apart is just how fun and flashy its combat mechanics are. Hades has the same addictive gameplay everyone loved in Supergiant Games’s debut title Bastion, except now you’re given the opportunity to explore the full range of each level and weapon and ability instead of quickly moving on to the next thing.

Thankfully, the randomly generated Rougelike elements of Hades are programmed to be fair, and the player is never punished by simple bad luck. After playing through the game about two dozen times, you start to get a sense for how its stage creation algorithm works, and the level design and enemy placement no longer feels random at all. Nothing unexpected comes out of left field; and, once you get to a point where you stop dying, you probably won’t die anymore. I know that sounds tautological, but what I mean is that the difficulty curve is well-designed, even for someone such as myself who is embarrassingly bad at action games.

If the sheer enjoyability of the gameplay helps Hades shine, the cleverness of its storytelling raises the game to the level of brilliance.

Hades tells its story through a series of conversations that are spread out across multiple playthroughs. You won’t learn a character’s story by speaking with them once, or even a dozen (or two dozen) times. Because the character interactions are (somewhat) randomly triggered, you have to be patient.

You can earn the trust and affection of most of the game’s primary and secondary characters by giving them rare bottles of nectar and even more rare bottles of ambrosia, and most characters have a “heart meter” that shows the progress of your relationship. Even if you want to focus on developing a relationship with a certain character, however, you can’t guarantee that you’ll encounter them in any given playthrough. You also can’t guarantee that they’ll be willing to accept gifts from you – each character’s heart meter is “locked” at a certain point, and it can only be unlocked by meeting certain conditions, which usually involve having conversations with other characters. There’s been a lot of message board speculation about what the heart meter unlocking conditions are for each character, because they’re not straightforward. I want to emphasize that it’s not difficult to max out each character’s heart meter, necessarily; rather, it requires having the patience to allow each relationship to develop organically and understanding that each character has connections with other people, not just with the player-protagonist.

Hades thereby forces the player to take time between conversations, to develop an understanding of a wider network of social relationships, and to keep returning to each character with additional knowledge and perspective. This type of fragmented storytelling allows for a degree of complication and nuance that a more straightforward story might struggle with. It also encourages the player to develop empathy for characters and situations that are “problematic” – or, as they might be more accurately described, “interesting.”

If you’ve been considering whether you want to play Hades, I hope you’ll be convinced to give it a shot. The rest of this post is filled with spoilers, so you may want to stop reading here.

To summarize what follows: As amazing as the gameplay of Hades is, its storytelling is even better. It’s fun game about fighting with good writing about family, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Okay, spoilers below. . .

As Zagreus, the son of Hades, you begin the game with one objective – to escape the underworld. Your father doesn’t want you to leave, because he’s apparently an asshole, so he sends various monsters and shades of the dead to stop you. You, however, are a badass, and you do what you want. The gods of Olympus have somehow learned of your desire to join them on their mountain, and they send you various power-up “boons” to help you fight your way out of the underworld.

The story becomes more complicated as you play. You learn that, due to an esoteric decree of the Fates, Zagreus was born dead and can’t survive outside of the underworld. His mother Persephone was so traumatized by this that she left Hades, not understanding that Zagreus was still “alive” in his own way. Unfortunately for Persephone, she has nowhere to go, as she had secretly asked Zeus to set up an arranged marriage with Hades because she hated Olympus. Hades is worried that, if Zagreus meets Persephone, the Olympian gods will learn where she’s hiding and force her to return against her will. Your goal therefore becomes to help Persephone and Hades communicate with one another, and then to help Persephone communicate with her extended family.

After the end credits, Persephone returns to the underworld and is reunited with Hades, who has always loved her. During the epilogue, all of the Olympians are invited to a party in the underworld, and Persephone tells them (a version of) the truth. Most of the gods already knew what was going on, but they still appreciate the gesture. There are no hard feelings, and everyone behaves like an adult and has a wonderful time.

Despite the unabashedly happy ending, the point of the story is that everything is more complicated than it seems at first. Characters who seem strong and unyielding have weaknesses, characters who seem like antagonists have their own valid motivations, and characters who seem as if they only live to serve the interests of the player actually have interesting lives and stories of their own.

It’s one thing to read a few sentences stating that these complications exist, but it’s something else entirely to experience these complications for yourself through scattered conversations across 45 hours of gameplay. While running around and killing things, the player has time to process each conversation and reflect on it before the story progresses. Nothing is resolved quickly, so the player has to sit with each new complication while slowly developing a more well-rounded sense of perspective on each character. Some contradictions end up never being resolved – and, by the time you get to the end of the game, you realize that that’s okay.

In particular, the character Hades becomes much more interesting as you get uncover more of the story. Although he’s not supportive of Zagreus in a way that perhaps he should be, Hades is a constant presence in the midst of a shifting cast of characters who come and go as they please. He’s there for his son at the beginning of every run; and, as the final boss, he’s there at the end as well. He checks up on Zagreus at various waypoints and helps him out in small ways. Most players will eventually realize that Hades isn’t too terribly committed to playing the role of an antagonist, which begs the question of why he’s so opposed to Zagreus leaving the underworld in the first place.

This realization is not immediate, however. In the game’s only flashback scene, Hades is having a bad day and takes it out on Zagreus by being needlessly hypercritical. As an adult, I know exactly where Hades is coming from, but I also remember being a teenager and not understanding what was going on when teachers and managers were like this. Hades is tired and overworked and lonely and doing his best, but he doesn’t have the emotional energy to communicate effectively and transposes his frustration at his own behavior onto his son. I’m not trying to suggest that Hades’s behavior in this scene is healthy, of course, and you can understand why he and his son have such a tense relationship. Still, the way the game allows you to gradually develop a broader sense of perspective helps you understand that Hades isn’t just a “villain” or “abusive” or “a bad father.”

This sort of nuance in characterization is present in other types of relationships. Although Hades allows you to romance various characters, it’s not so much a dating sim as it is a “learning to communicate properly before you enter into an intimate relationship” sim.

One of the romanceable characters is Dusa, a disembodied Gorgon head with self-confidence issues. Zagreus can follow the standard gameplay path to romance her, but this romance ends up becoming a romantic friendship. Zagreus’ foster mother Nyx cautions Dusa against talking to him, but her reservations have less to do with class (ie, Dusa is a servant and Zagreus is a prince) than they have to do with Nyx’s concern that Dusa is only exacerbating her issues with self-confidence by engaging with someone whose position makes her nervous about her own role in the household. In other words, Nyx is attempting to encourage Dusa to grow as a person so that she can make a choice about the relationship that stems from her own feelings, not a sense of obligation. Dusa seems to start out as a joke character – she’s a cute anime maid, but also a disembodied monster head! – but her narrative arc is surprisingly touching.

The player watches all of these stories unfold while Zagreus is doing his own thing, fighting and collecting treasure and leveling up weapons and gathering resources to add cosmetic changes to the game’s central hub, most of which do nothing except look pretty and earn irate comments from the comically grumpy Hades. The brilliance of the game’s storytelling is that, while you’re living your life, you come to the realization that other people are living theirs, and they’ve got just as much going on as you do.

Hades is a super fun and stylish game about killing things, but it’s also an empathy game in a way that only a super fun and stylish game about killing things can be. The action-oriented gameplay is a buffer that allows the story to unfold at its own pace, which is slowly and erratically. You can’t make a walking simulator 45 hours long, but the Rougelike gameplay of Hades not only gives you those 45 hours but ensures that you enjoy every single one of them.

Root Letter

Root Letter is a mystery-themed visual novel that should take most people about six or seven hours to play. I’ve read a number of positive reviews of the game, so I went ahead and downloaded a copy onto my Nintendo Switch when it went on sale at the end of the year.

You play as Takayuki, a thirty-something white collar worker who’s left his job at a design firm and has a bit of free time before he’s scheduled to start a new job. When he goes home to visit his parents, he finds a set of letters from Aya Fumino, his pen pal from his senior year of high school. He’d exchanged nine letters with her, but he discovers a tenth at the bottom of the stack that he doesn’t remember reading. In this letter, Aya tells Takayuki that she can no longer continue their correspondence. She apologizes, saying that she has killed someone.

Takayuki decides to try to find her in Matsue, a city on the Sea of Japan about halfway between Osaka and Hiroshima. When he arrives at the address on the letters, however, he finds an empty lot. A passing neighbor tells him that the house burned down fifteen years ago, so he checks the records at the city library. He learns that, while a girl named Aya Fumino used to live in that house, she died twenty-five years ago, long before she could have written to him.

Why did the house burn down? Who was pretending to be Aya Fumino? And who did she kill?

With a week of free time and an intriguing mystery on his hands, Takayuki sets about tracking down the seven friends his pen pal mentioned in her letters. None of them want to talk to him, however, and everyone claims not to know anyone named Aya Fumino, even when presented with her photo. Your goal, as Takayuki, is to find and interrogate these seven adults in an attempt to figure out who “Aya Fumino” was and what happened during her senior year of high school.

There are five possible endings to Root Letter, but its gameplay is almost completely linear. You use a drop-down menu to move between various locations in Matsue as you follow various hints and clues, and the “Think” command on your menu will (almost) always tell you where the game wants you to go next. The interrogation scenes feature a few Ace Attorney style elements that involve presenting the right piece of evidence at the right moment, but this is also extremely linear. There’s no reward for exploration or creativity; but, thankfully, there’s no punishment for failure. Root Letter is much more of an interactive novel than a game, and it’s not interested in derailing your progress through the story.

The ending you see is determined by your choice of how Takayuki responded to the letter from Aya Fumino that’s presented at the beginning of each of the game’s chapters. You’re given two sets of choices per letter, and your options tend to fall into discrete categories at don’t make much sense unless you already know which ending you’re trying to unlock. Like the shitty casual gamer I am, I chose a “normal” (to me) range of mixed responses and got the worst ending, in which the whole mess about Aya Fumino was a government conspiracy to cover up an alien invasion.

My advice would be to avoid my rookie mistake by consulting a guide to the endings before you begin. Don’t worry about spoiling yourself, because Root Letter’s story is so convoluted that none of the endings will make sense if you haven’t played the game.

It’s my understanding that the “default” ending, meaning the ending you’ll see if you always choose the first response option, is a bittersweet story about missed connections, growing up, and letting the past go as you move on with your life. Another ending, the “Cursed Letter” ending, is about the power of teenage imagination to create both urban legends and personal identity; while another, the “Princess of Himegamori Forest” ending, is a horror-themed exploration of local Shintō folklore.

One of the main benefits of playing the Last Answer edition of the game (as opposed to the original 2016 release) is that it contains an optional “drama mode.” The drama version of the game uses photos of real actors and locations; and, based on what I’ve seen, the photography is quite polished and surprisingly faithful. Having played the game through once with anime illustrations, I’m looking forward to playing it again in drama mode at some point in the future.

While Root Letter pushes the player forward with the strong forward momentum of its mystery story, it also invites you to take time to appreciate the sights of Matsue. As Takayuki, you’ll get to stay at a traditional hot springs inn, stroll through the forested grounds of Matsushiro Castle, visit art museums, and eat at trendy cafés. Root Letter leans especially hard into its celebration of the local cuisine, and I’m excited about the prospect of being able to enjoy photographic depictions of Matsue’s food culture.

Unfortunately, some elements of the game haven’t aged well, probably because they were never attractive to begin with. To give an example, one character admits to a violent attempted rape, and the other characters just sort of shake their heads and move on. If this assault only comes up briefly and is never mentioned again, why include it in the story at all? Likewise, “Aya Fumino’s” fake suicide is teased fairly early in the game but isn’t given any dramatic weight. Rather, it’s played purely for shock value, with the implicit understanding that this sort of thing is just what moody high school girls do.

Some of the most uncomfortable parts of the game involve a character nicknamed “Fatty.” This character’s entire arc is about how he’s overweight, and about how overweight people are weak and gross and unlovable. In order to psychologically break this character during his investigation, Takayuki taunts him with chocolate-covered potato chips, which he can’t resist because, at the deepest core of his being, he is and will always be a big fat fatty. The whole thing is super gross, especially in combination with the casual gay panic thrown into this chapter. I feel that this is one of the many instances in which a more judicious localization could have made some slight changes, not to erase this type of bigotry and meanness, but to mitigate it somewhat.

The player’s enjoyment of Root Letter is largely based on its story, so it’s a shame that the translation is so lackluster. It’s perfectly serviceable, and it’s far from unreadable, but it has numerous quality control issues that would be tedious to list. My main complaint is that the translation received very little localization, which is frustrating in terms of both story and gameplay.

Regarding gameplay, the lack of a localization has rendered it somewhat difficult to talk to or interrogate people, as there are numerous instances in which none of the dialog choices make the slightest bit of sense. The game isn’t that complicated, so you can brute-force your way through the poorly translated bits by trial and error, but it goes without saying that you shouldn’t have to.

It’s tricky to discuss the situations in which localization would have been preferable to a direct translation without resorting to an infodump, but I can give one example that’s fairly self-explanatory. One of the friends Aya Fumino mentions in her letters is nicknamed “Bitch.” In Japanese, the loanword bicchi doesn’t necessarily mean “mean girl,” as it does in English. Rather, it’s the 2015 version of gyaru or kogal, and it refers to a teenage girl who dyes her hair and uses tanning lotion and dresses in trendy clothes and pays a lot of attention to the entertainment industry. The English equivalent of this term changes from decade to decade; but, given that Takayuki probably went to high school around 1998-2001 or thereabouts, “valley girl” or “Barbie girl” might work. The character nicknamed “Bitch” is actually quite friendly, so listening to the other characters talk about how much they used to admire their friend “Bitch” is bizarre.

Root Letter has some definite rough patches, but I want to emphasize that I enjoyed this game. I spent a week playing it, reading for about an hour every day, and I had a lot of fun with its ridiculous characters, charmingly convoluted plot, and unapologetic embrace of virtual tourism. I’m happy that I finally got a chance to play Root Letter, but I’m also happy that I was able to get the game on sale, because I’m not sure it’s worth more than $20.

The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince

The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince is a 2D puzzle platform game about two small children making their way through a creepy murder forest. Unlike similar games (such as Limbo, which jumps immediately to mind), The Liar Princess might best be described as an interactive storybook. The game’s emphasis is not so much on puzzles or platforming, but rather on using the conventions of gaming to help deepen the player’s connection with the characters as they travel through the story together.

This game was created by Nippon Ichi Software, which has developed a reputation for cute horror games with titles like Yomawari: Night Alone and A Rose in the Twilight. Still, I think The Liar Princess isn’t so much horror as it is dark fantasy, or fantasy with a few creepy elements and a touch of dark humor. There’s nothing explicitly violent or disturbing in the story or imagery, and the game itself is quite easy. I probably wouldn’t give this game to a young child, but playing it was a relaxing experience for me as an adult horror fan.

The plot and the gameplay go hand-in-hand, much like the eponymous princess and prince. The story has strong fairy tale elements, with a wolf asking a witch to turn her into a human so that she can save a prince. The prince’s misfortune is the wolf’s own doing, as she accidentally blinded him with her claws. The player’s goal is therefore to help the “princess” escort the prince to the forest witch to be cured before he discovers that she’s the wolf who blinded him. In her beast form, the wolf is powerful and impervious to attack, but she can only hold hands with the prince to guide him forward when she’s in her human form. The wolf can change forms at will, so the main challenge lies in positioning the prince in exactly the right way so that he can walk forward while remaining safe from harm.

The Liar Princess has five levels with four stages each, with a short prologue and a longer “final boss” level. (I’m using scare quotes because this final level is more of an obstacle course than an actual boss fight.) It’s relatively easy to figure out most of the puzzles through trial and error, and the death of either character usually only results in a small setback that generally involves the welcome reset of a specific puzzle. The game also gives the player the option to skip a stage after ten minutes if there’s a puzzle that’s just not clicking. Most of the actual fun of the gameplay involves searching each stage and taking calculated risks to find secret collectibles, which unlock pages of concept art and segments of the forest witch’s backstory. More than anything, The Liar Princess reminds me of the Metroidvania-lite feel of Super Princess Peach in that there’s no real sense of danger and failure is never punished.

The sort of people who complain about games being “too easy,” including no small number of professional reviewers, didn’t hesitate to make that complaint about The Liar Princess when it came out in English translation back in early 2019. The undemanding level of difficulty isn’t a deal-breaker for me personally, but I have to admit that the game isn’t without annoyances. There are a few number puzzles in the third level that are bizarrely tricky, for example, and sometimes it can be hard to tell whether you’re taking the incorrect approach to a puzzle or whether there’s been a glitch in the hitbox for a certain switch that isn’t triggering for some reason.

That being said, the main appeal of this game is visual, with its expressive characters and stylish backgrounds. (In fact, I might even go so far to say that The Liar Princess is perfect for people who love the visual design of Hollow Knight but don’t have the patience to deal with the gameplay.) The character designs are especially interesting and creative, from the weakest enemy in the first stage to the flower-eating “mole” creatures at the end of the game. Although the basic shape outlines are cute and simple, there’s always a fun twist somewhere – when the first mole creature opens its mouth, for instance, you are in for a treat. The game plays with its visual style to make all manner of (relatively gentle) jokes about how the prince doesn’t know that the characters he encounters are all people-eating monsters, and these jokes collectively raise questions about “blindness” and “monstrosity” that are subtle but engaging (and not in the least bit ableist).

My favorite part of the game is the wolf herself, who makes horrible decisions but is basically decent. Despite the fact that she is clearly lying in a way that hurts other people and herself, you can’t help but sympathize with her as her good intentions lead her increasingly astray. The development of the friendship between her and the prince is extremely cute, as is the way both characters smile when they’re holding hands. I’m also a fan of the unapologetically evil witch, and it’s worth seeking out the game’s collectibles in order to learn more about her story.

The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince isn’t a perfect game, and many people will probably think it’s too easy and too short. Playing it from start to finish took me about five hours, including the time I spent going back to earlier stages in order to pick up collectibles I missed and rewatch the cutscenes I unlocked. Despite a few frustrations with the gameplay mechanics, I loved The Liar Princess. I’m somewhat surprised that this game is considered to be a niche title, because it’s refreshingly accessible and a lot of fun. Although the most obvious comparison would seem to be something like Limbo, The Liar Princess actually feels much more like Journey – it’s a visually immersive and relatively chill game about loneliness and companionship that’s easy to dip into for fifteen minutes at a time when you want to relax and unwind.

A Short Hike

A Short Hike was released for Nintendo Switch about three weeks ago, and my only regret is that I waited so long to download it.

You play as an anthropomorphic bird named Claire who’s spending the weekend on holiday visiting her Aunt May in Hawk Peak Provincial Park, and your goal is to climb to the top of the mountain so that you can get reception on your phone. Since you’re a bird, you can jump down and glide whenever and wherever you feel the need. You can also fly for short periods of time, and you can collect Golden Feather upgrades to extend your flying time. There’s no combat, no danger, and no puzzles to solve. Although you’re free to go anywhere you like, the main climbing trail is clearly marked. If you get lost, you can just jump down and glide to an earlier point on the trail. It’s all very relaxing, and the soundtrack is adaptive, meaning that the music changes depending on the altitude and weather.

Because the game is so overtly referential, I don’t think it’s lazy to call it a cross between Animal Crossing and Night in the Woods. Some of the (completely optional) mechanics, such as fishing and digging up X marks on the ground, are pure Animal Crossing, as are the character designs. The dialogue never gets grim or dark, but it’s a little weirder and less performatively wholesome than Animal Crossing. The writing is unobtrusive but clever, and Claire has a lot in common with Mae from Night in the Woods.

Meanwhile, the exploration elements are very Legend of Zelda, and the game looks a lot like Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, from the cell shading to the head-to-body proportions to the 3D modeling of the landscape. There’s an option to increase the frame rate and make the graphics less pixelated, but the Nintendo DS style visual atmosphere is lovely even if you don’t harbor any particular nostalgia for that era of gaming.

If you go straight up and down the mountain, the game takes maybe half an hour to play, but you can easily spend another half hour going off on side trails and having conversations with the various people you meet during your climb. I imagine that you could spend even more time with the game if you wanted to find every Golden Feather and record every species of fish in your journal, but the game’s menu screen isn’t set up in a way that makes you feel compelled to do so.

I’ve read a few reviews that criticized A Short Hike for being too, well, short, but I don’t think that’s a problem. I am no stranger to the task of collecting all 900 forest sprite poos or evolving all 900+ species of battle monsters or getting all of my fantasy fighters to Level 99, but I also love being surprised and delighted by short, self-contained, and immensely satisfying small-studio games.

I’m not sure how I feel about Nintendo asking $20 for this game, which is a bit expensive for its category, but honestly that seems like a reasonable price to pay for the experience of a solid hour of uninterrupted joy.

Pokémon Sword and Shield

I started playing Pokémon Sword on December 4, and I beat the game last night. It took a little more than 42 hours, which is the result of me playing about half an hour a day for the past two and a half months.

I feel like I spent most of my time with Pokémon Sword goofing off in the Wild Area, dressing my character in ridiculous outfits, and figuring out to make truly bizarre unique league cards. I really enjoyed myself.

What I appreciate about this generation of Pokémon games is that, partially thanks to the open-world style Wild Area, the player can create a diverse and balanced team from the start, which means that you can set up your team within two or three hours and then not have to worry about level grinding or otherwise catching up under-leveled pokémon. All the creatures on my team were at level 70 at the end of the game, and they’d all been with me since the first gym battle. I caught 225 species of pokémon without really trying, but it was just for fun.

Compared to previous generations, Pokémon Sword and Shield don’t have much of an overarching story, but I love the location and the characters. I played about half of the game in handheld mode and the other half on my television. I’ve always wanted to play a Pokémon game in widescreen high definition, and this was everything I ever dreamed of. Each of the towns and cities is gorgeous, and the big stadium battles are phenomenal. The major characters have all sorts of interesting microexpressions and small animation flourishes that help you get a sense of their personalities, and their designs are attractive and eye-catching.

It will probably not surprise anyone that I have a crush on Chairman Rose, who tries very hard to be evil but comes off as goofy and adorable. Early on in the game, Rose shows up “incognito” to have lunch with your character at a fancy restaurant in one of the most fantastically Eurotrash outfits I have ever had the pleasure to behold. I was so inspired by his ridiculous combination of sportswear and beachwear that I spent the entire game hyper-focused on earning money so that I could buy clothes and achieve the same glorious antithesis of style.

By the time the player has their final showdown against Rose in the creepy ambient glow of shattered test tubes with a “One-Winged Angel” style choral piece as the BGM, my character was a complete and utter eyesore. I hope Rose was proud of me.

I had a lot of fun with Pokémon Sword. I recently saw – on Twitter, I think? – someone say that there are three main genres of video games: Men With Guns, It’s About Depression, and Nintendo. I totally get that, and I appreciate that Pokémon Sword and Shield are strong “Nintendo” games in the sense that they don’t take themselves too seriously and allow you to play them in whatever way you like. I’m not super-invested in the DLC, but I think it might be nice to return to the Galar region when new content is available this summer.