Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “japan”

Yakuza 0 for PS4

This has been a hell of a year for AAA games; there are a huge number of predictably brilliant blockbusters like Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn, with plenty more coming soon. This has been backed up with a steady stream of lower profile releases that have unexpectedly blown people away, such as Nier: Automata and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Yakuza 0 was one such game and slipped through the cracks until the summer, when a gap in the release calendar finally gave me some breathing room. Yakuza 0 is deeply bizarre game and kept me entertained largely through its sheer weirdness.

Yakuza 0 follows two protagonists in Japan in the late 1980s. The first is Kazuma Kiryu, an up and coming yakuza within the Dojima Family of the Tojo Clan. Kiryu becomes implicated in the death of a man he had beaten for debt collection, although it is clear that he is simply a patsy for the games of senior members of the Dojima Family. They seek the Empty Lot, an extremely valuable piece of real estate in the bustling red-light district Kamurocho, as securing it for the Tojo Clan will all but guarantee promotion to the high table. Meanwhile, Goro Majima is a disgraced former yakuza in the Sotenbori area of Osaka, now running a highly successful hostess club and hoping to re-enter the criminal world. When he is sent to assassinate a target in exchange for re-entry to the clan, he is pulled into a web of criminal intrigue and forced to examine his own morality and humanity.

Some games dabble in environmental storytelling or believe that game stories should be told through gameplay and mechanics rather than lengthy cutscenes; not Yakuza 0 though! It is not uncommon for cutscenes to run for as long as 15 minutes, with significant portions of the game involving simply walking to a location, watching a cutscene, then walking to the next location, watching another cutscene and so on. I must confess that this bothered me hugely in the first few hours; I haven’t played a game designed like this in years, but, for me, as the story went on it became less and less of an issue for one simple reason; the cutscenes are actually bloody good. The writing is deceptively excellent; it’s very hammy in the way that an awful lot of Japanese media can be, but it also has that emotional honesty of the best modern Japanese stories. Characters screaming their feelings is an anime cliché, but usually I’ll take it over stoic, calm Western protagonists. It’s hard to picture an Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty protagonist freaking out the way some of the characters do here. It’s over the top, sure, but endearing and at times genuinely moving. The characters are very strong; I liked the stoic and honourable Kiryu, but the ever so slightly unhinged and rougher round the edges Majima appealed to me more. Both have stories about trying to be a good man in an organisation designed to crush compassion out of you. They’re backed by an extensive and engaging supporting cast, such as the mysterious real estate mogul Tachibana and Nishki, Kiryu’s snappily dressed best friend (or bro as they ironically, and adorably, call each other). While it took a while to get its hooks in me, I can’t deny that it really did by the end. This being a prequel, and remakes of the orignal games on the horizon, I can’t wait to see where Kiryu and Majima go next.

So, after waxing lyrical about the story, what about the actual gameplay? First of all, the combat is a lot of fun. It involves switching between three different stances for each character, with some better for taking on large groups of weaker enemies and some better for pummelling bosses, but you can also tailor to your own preference through an extensive skill tree, slightly too extensive for my tastes but if you enjoy tinkering around with these things there’s a lot to…well, tinker around with. The combat is a lot of fun and becomes genuinely quite challenging during some of the boss fights. Between fights you’ll be wandering the streets of Kamurocho as Kiryu or Sotenbori a Kiryu. They’re small, but dense and packed with stuff. Not all of that stuff is good, but an awful lot of it is. As you wander, you’ll encounter a range of side stories, which is where the most bizarre parts of the game take place. Where the main story is still completely over the top, the tale of criminal power struggles is taken seriously in the writing, pulling off the Kojima trick of playing something silly straight and it genuinely working. The side missions allow the weirdness to cut loose, and involve a range of weird and wonderful characters, which usually end up pushing Kiryu or Majima out of their manly comfort zone into something weirder. The series is known for a large number of minigames, but a couple of notable exceptions I’ll get to later, this part of the game didn’t work for me, simply because the majority of them are bad and not fun. I didn’t mind the karaoke or dancing games, but stuff like bowling or baseball bored me to tears.

The most extensive side missions involve running a business, with two separate ones for Kiryu and Majima. They have their own extensive storylines, with many fully voice acted cutscenes as in the main story. Kiryu’s involves real estate, buying up property and raking in profits. It’s quite basic, but I’m a sucker for these real estate games, like in Fable 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. There are some added complications, such as the ability to choose who runs your businesses and manages security, with more competent employees requiring higher wages. New employees are recruited though the side missions. You will sometimes need to defend your properties in the streets and, when you amass enough property in one of the five districts of Kamurocho, fight the previous real estate boss of that area, who are all as flamboyant and bizarre as you would expect. Majima’s business is focused on lifting a small, struggling hostess club into success. This is done partially by making links with local businesses, but most prominently through a fun minigames where you manage the club. You have the send different hostesses to different clients depending on their preferences. The individual hostesses all have stats and experience. A couple are fully fleshed out characters, with little side missions where you give them individual training. The whole thing is silly, fun and very satisfying. Similarly to Kiryu’s side mission, when your club takes enough custom from a rival Sotenbori club, their bizarre manager will challenge you to a fight. I loved this element of the game, but my one issue is that they are introduced way too late in the game. Missions like this are best when spread out between the main story missions, but to complete either storyline you’d need to spend a lot of time grinding that same minigame over and over again for Majima or waiting for payments to come in as Kiryu.

Yakuza 0 was also released on PS3 in Japan, and you can sort of tell. It doesn’t look quite as sharp as most current gen AAA games, but strong art and character design mean that this is never an issue. The dense and bustling locations, as well as the distinctive character designs and strong facial animation help the world of 1980s Japan come alive. The music is generally very good and the voice acting, which is only available in Japanese, is excellent; often hammy, but genuinely impactful when it needs to be.

Yakuza 0 did not make a good first impression, but as it went on I grew to like it more and more. If your tolerance for cutscenes is low, fair enough, but this game won’t be for you. I’m definitely going to pick up the remake of the first game, Yakuza Kiwami, when there’s another gap in the release schedule, although looking at the next few months that won’t be anytime soon.

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Nioh for PS4

I’ve been playing Nioh in fits and starts snce it came out and are finally done. Not quite finished; there’s some side stuff and a post credits final mission I got half way through and quit, but I’m definitely done with this game. I played for a long time and there are many elements that I sort of loved, but it’s also a bit bloated and lacking in some key areas.

Nioh takes place in the early 17th century and follows…er, wait, let me just google his name….William Adams, an Irish sailor and pirate. He has been protected by a strange spirit for most of his adult life. Queen Elizabeth is fighting the Spanish Armada and seeks a secret weapon; the mysterious force known as Amrita. William is imprisoned in the Tower of London when the hilariously evil Edward Kelley arrives and kidnaps William’s guardian spirit and uses her to locate the source of Amrita; Japan. William goes in pursuit of Kelley to rescue his spirit and put an end to his nefarious plans and finds himself plunged into the conflicts of a demon infested feudal Japan. Tokugawa Ieysu, along with his servant ninja Hattori Hanzo, seek to unify Japan and William teams up with them to put down the demons awoken by the arrival of Kelley and in the process become the first Western samurai.

Nioh’s characters are all based on figures from real history, but with the obvious twist of demons, spirits and magic. This is interesting in theory but the reality is that it is so divorced from reality that this separation becomes meaningless. The plot is, simply, incoherent. It’s a load of mad old bollocks which goes on way too long and doesn’t have a single engaging character to shake a stick at. I quite enjoyed the first few hours; it had a bit of goofy, Platinum-esque charm, but that fades away with a story I think we may be expected to take seriously but devolves into madness. There are far too many characters, all real world figures. If you are already familiar with Japanese history then perhaps there might be more of a thrill to this, but aside from the odd reference to Oda Nobunaga I was pretty much lost. The main character looks like Geralt and sounds like Edward Kenway but has neither of their personalities. There was potential here but the story is a pretty massive let down overall.

Thankfully, the actual core mechanics of Nioh are very solid. The key inspiration for Nioh is immediately obvious. I know ‘it’s like Dark Souls but…’ has become a games writing cliché, but Nioh is very clearly inspired by FromSoft’s outings. There are shrines rather than bonfires, elixirs rather than Estus Flasks and Amrita rather than Souls, but if you’ve played a Soulsborne game you’ll know the deal. Nioh mimics so many elements from the Souls games that it becomes impossible not to primarily consider it within that context.

The biggest difference is the combat; both Dark Souls and Bloodborne contain a relatively low number of weapon inputs available at any given time, with combat being more about timing and positioning than using particular moves or combos. In Nioh you can equip two melee weapons, which can be switched freely. Each weapon can be held in one of three stances, a quick and weak low, a slow and powerful high and the average middle. Each stance then has a strong attack and a weak attack. This means that you have potentially 12 different weapon inputs at any one time, and this is before you consider other abilities like ranged weapons, magic and Ninja skills. The sheer number of options for an individual combat encounter adds an enjoyable precision to the combat. It’s very visceral, satisfying and fun. One of the most interesting mechanics is the Ki Pulse; maintaining your stamina, known here as Ki, is as important here as it is in the Soulsborne games. A well timed button press after an attack allows you to regain some of your stamina, allowing you to keep up the offensive. Later, you can also upgrade your abilities to Ki Pulse when you dodge. The interesting thing is that you have to wait a fraction of a second after attacking before you dodge away to achieve the Ki Pulse, meaning that you are encouraged to dodge away in a much more last minute fashion than you may be comfortable with. I love risk/reward mechanics like this. It’s a combination of Bloodborne’s aggressive health regeneration system and Gears of War’s active reload and works brilliantly.

Of course, the combat can only be so good as your foes and they’re generally decent, if a bit limited. You will fight a range of human enemies, some of which are simple victims to slice and dice and some are much trickier and engaging. There are also a range of yokai demons to fight, but not perhaps as many as there should be. The combat is fun, but ultimately most combat encounters are ‘hit hit, dodge behind, hit hit, dodge behind’ and repeat. The core mechanics are so fun that it takes a long time to get old, but ultimately, it does. Some have knocked the boss fights for being less fair than in Souls games, but I’m not sure that’s true. They are punishing, probably worse than in Bloodborne, but seriously fun and clever. They do create massive difficulty spikes, where the Soulsborne games tend to be a bit more gentle in the ramping up of challenge, but I still had a lot of fun taking them out.

The major diversion from the Soulsborne formula is structural. Where the Souls games take place in densely interconnected worlds, not necessarily large but coherently and convincingly put together, Nioh has a more old-school level structure. The levels do contain some Souls style short cuts and doubling back on themselves, but to nowhere near the level of inventiveness and craft seen from FromSoft. This level structure wouldn’t be a problem if the levels were varied and engaging, but they begin to feel very samey towards the end. The first proper level, in a burning Japanese fishing village, is easily the most memorable, but there are only so many caves, temples and mountains you can wander before it gets very familiar. This repetitiveness is only highlighted by how damn long this game is. It’s too long in all honesty, with everything interesting it has to do being thoroughly explored within 20 hours, but Nioh is closer to 50. This includes the side quests, which are pretty much mandatory if you want to avoid grinding. Without a sense of meaningful exploration, Nioh becomes an action RPG much more focused on the action, but there’s a reason action games tend to be shorter than other genres.

Nioh has a good visual design for the characters and monsters, although as I said above the environments certainly begin to wear thin. In a welcome move, you can choose to play Nioh at a higher resolution but capped at 30FPS, or take a resolution hit and play at 60. I chose the latter and recommend you do too; this is a game about maximum precision and the frame rate boost makes all the difference. The music and sound design are solid, but never anywhere near as atmospheric as in the Souls games.

I liked Nioh quite a bit, but it’s not a particularly interesting game. It’s fun and satisfying, but lacks the sense of intrigue and mystery I had hoped for. I imagine that the constant comparison to Dakr Souls might annoy some people, but when a game wears it’s influences so blatantly on their sleeve it’s difficult not to. It’s a very solid and fun action RPG, but it’s no game changer.

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is in my top five all-time favourite books. I also really liked Ghostwritten, so I don’t know why I took so long to delve into David Mitchell’s other works. I suppose I liked the science fiction elements in those two novels and was worried that I wouldn’t enjoy his books so much without them; I still like the Iain M. Banks sci-fi more than the Iain Banks mainstream fiction. I was wrong to leave it so long; I loved The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and am now energised to make my way through Mitchell’s back catalogue.

This novel takes place as the 18th century turns into the 19th, primarily on the tiny man-made island of Dejima off the coast of Nagasaki. The Dutch have sole trading rights with the isolationist Empire of Japan and Jacob de Zoet is a young clerk who has travelled to Dejima to make some money before returning to his home in the Netherlands to marry his sweetheart Anna. In Dejima he meets Orito, a scarred yet alluring young midwife, who is being controversially trained in the art of medicine by the enigmatic Doctor Marinus. Taking place over decades, Jacob eventually discovers a dark secret at the heart of the local Japanese power yet in his position is powerless to do anything about it.

Despite taking place primarily in one very small location, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet feels like an epic. As I’ve been finding a lot with historical fantasy lately, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet tickled my fantasy bone. What Mitchell captures so wonderfully is just how mysterious and enigmatic a challenge Japan presented to the colonialist view of the East. English and Dutch attitudes to non-white people are made very clear in this novel through some truly nauseating treatment of African slaves and they speak with regular dripping content for Asian people as well. The English and Dutch were fairly used to conquering outside Europe with impunity, until they come to Japan and find a formidable nation that wants very little to do with them and could repel them without too much difficulty. Mitchell manages a fine balance between preserving a sense of mystery in Japan while avoiding the suspect Orientalist simplistic depiction of the East as a magical fantasy for Western consumption. There’s a strong element of magic realism in the whole thing, with Mitchell throwing a few very subtle hints our way that his universe isn’t necessarily one of purely rational science and that forces and energies exist outside our understanding. Mitchell is brilliant at confounding expectations about what a ‘mainstream’ novel should contain. I mean, one of Ghostwritten’s protagonists was an ancient incorporeal being. How cool is that? The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet isn’t as brazen as that, but it’s possibly cleverer, managing that fine trick of managing to make a story feel both intimate and epic. This is my favourite way to construct a story and Mitchell does it with aplomb.

Another element of Mitchell’s writing I love is his willingness to vary tone and master a variety of styles. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet had some seriously moving moments, some moments or pure tension and yes, some laugh out loud comedy. Again, he does this in a less obvious way than the fractured narratives of Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, but this marvellously successful attempt at being a literary jack-of-all-trades is probably my favourite thing about Mitchell’s writing. There’s a description of Nagasaki towards the end that slips into poetry, but it didn’t feel jarring or pretentious, it just felt right, perfectly pitched.

Jacob de Zoet is a protagonist that it’s hard not to root for and he’s surrounded by an interesting and likeable cast. My favourite was the plain spoken Chief van Cleef of the Dutch trading mission; I enjoyed his lack of pretention and straight talking, with the Japanese characters also being well developed. The sinister Abbot Enomoto is a great character and Orito is an excellent love interest.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet moved, amused and entertained me more than I was perhaps expecting. For some reason I’d had it in my head that Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten were flukes; I’m happy to be proven wrong. I think I have another author whose back catalogue I’m going to obsessively consume! Hooray!thousandautumns-horizontal

Attack of the Friday Monsters! A Tokyo Tale for Nintendo 3DS

Well, that was an oddly charming little experience. The 3DS eShop has become a bastion for little games like this. I don’t know if I’d even call it a game. Whatever you call it, Attack of the Friday Monsters is a rather lovely little product.

Attack of the Friday Monsters is set in a suburb of Tokyo in the 1970s, which differs from the real world through the tiny detail every Friday evening monsters attack and do battle. It’s also home to a TV station which makes shows about giant monster fights. Hmm. Young Sohta is a transfer student who has moved to the area that day, and the whole game takes place on a Friday in the run up to the monster fight, as he tries to solve the mystery of where the monsters come from.

It’s odd, the nostalgia of others is usually at best baffling, at worst irritating, when it isn’t a nostalgia you share. It’s very clear that this game is a vision of a more rural, peaceful Japan of the 1970s, and the simple imagination and joy of childhood at this time. Since I wasn’t a child in 1970s Tokyo, this obviously isn’t a nostalgia I share, but nonetheless the creator’s fondness for the time period is infectious. Fans of Studio Ghibli will recognise the aesthetic, and there’s something oddly peaceful and charming about this strange little plot.

There isn’t really much of a game to Attack of the Friday Monsters. Most of your time will be spent wandering around the quaint Tokyo suburbs talking to people. In fact, wandering around is the key game play mechanic. There’s a card battle game, with new cards gained by collecting ‘glims’. There’s not a huge amount of strategy involved, in fact little effort is made to disguise it from being rock/paper/scissors. When you beat your in-game friends, they become your ‘servant’ and you can cast a ‘spell’ to make them fall down. It’s oddly satisfying. The card game could perhaps have been expanded more, but by and large I didn’t really mind the lack of gameplay, because it’s more than made up for in its presentation.

Attack of the Friday Monsters has some absolutely gorgeous hand-drawn backgrounds. The world isn’t big, but every little area is wonderful to look at. Much like with Bravely Default, the character models don’t live up to the background, but they do the job. There’s an odd bit of voice acting, only in Japanese, from a narrator of sorts, whose enthusiasm errs on just the right side of energetic. The music is nice too, especially the adorable and very strange song at the beginning (also in Japanese, with subtitles) from a child wondering whether his parents love him. It’s all very odd stuff, but I nonetheless found myself with a wide grin on my face with startling regularity.

Look, if you’re someone who likes a lot of…well, game in their games, Attack of the Friday Monsters isn’t for you. Attack of the Friday Monsters is a slight experience, and I picked it up in a sale and paid a pittance for it, so I didn’t mind. If it’s on sale pick it up; you’ll not play anything else like it!download (9)

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