Hamatora Review: Some Thriller, A Whole Lot of Filler

As a visual medium, anime (and really any TV show or movie, animated or live-action) should be appealing to the eye. Our first impression is what we see. What I saw in Hamatora was really bright colors. Really bright colors. Unfortunately, when a show is all style and no substance, the pretty colors and cool-looking characters aren't enough to make the viewing experience a pleasurable one.

Hamatora is a 12-episode anime series adapted from an ongoing manga of the same name. In Yokohama 2014, some people have a special ability called a Minimum. This minimum differs from person to person, as some can become super strong, move super fast, or use a program to look into the future. Two of these people, named Nice and Murasaki, form a small detective agency called Hamatora, picking up odd jobs. There are many other characters -- there are actually too many characters to be shown in the 12 episodes -- who make appearances and solve cases.

The greatest thing about Hamatora is its character design. Every character has their own silhouette and style. No two characters look alike. Some of the designs are questionable (why does Nice have bandages on his face? Why does Koneko have catlike attributes [beyond "cat" being in her name]?), but when it comes down to it, they look both cool and kind of dorky. Bright colors are all the rage in Hamatora. Nice wears flashy, bright clothing. The minimum abilities are shown while the animation turns neon. Backgrounds are bright, and colors are saturated. Occasionally the show's colors turn darker, but by default, they're punching you in the face.

Unfortunately, the rest of the show falls flat. With only 12 episodes, you'd think directors and writers would want to put as much as the story from the source material as they can. Unfortunately, Hamatora suffers from filler. Characters go to the beach. They go to hotsprings. They spend extra time on very minor characters but not enough time on the main character. By episode 12 comes around, the climax has to be sped up, and it all ends on a cliffhanger. The villain is introduced rather early as a flamboyant man who is obsessed with Nice, and yet he remains just as predictable by the end. Motivations are rarely discussed or shown, and Nice's character arc is sidelined for other characters, minor characters like Birthday, Ratio, Three, and Honey, though to a lesser extent. Characters tell the viewer that Nice is the best Minimum Holder and scored amazingly well on tests from Facultas Academy, a school that all Minimum Holders must attend. But there's nothing about Nice that makes him stand out especially from the crowd because we know next to nothing about him over 12 episodes.

Despite the audience knowing nothing of Nice's background or motivations, the show desperately wants people to care about Nice. He's presented as an unconventional guy more concerned with helping people than large sums of cash. Despite being the supposed best Minimum Holder, he's done next to nothing with it upon graduating. He's the everyguy/good guy you're supposed to root for, but Nice doesn't want to be the hero Hamatora wants him to be. By the end, he refuses to help another Minimum Holder who just wants to look normal again. He acts on his own. He refuses to partake in the strength from friendship trope. But Nice doesn't find his stride because the show can't find its groove.

Hamatora is trying to be too many things at once. It's a mystery story wrapped up in magic, action, comedy, and drama. It tries to subvert tropes, but by doing so it creates mood whiplash both within a single episode and from episode to episode. For example, the episode following a character's death was the "mandatory beach episode" common in most anime. Each episode has a self-contained mystery that wraps up neatly and conveniently while the main plot is pushed forward in the last minute.

Even more unsettling is Hamatora's treatment of its female characters and a gay character. Hajime is a girl who loves to eat and has a good relationship with Nice (though how they know each other and why they're important to each other is up in the air because it's never shown or explained). She's a Minimum Holder as well, but her power isn't shown until the very end of episode 11 and is triggered by despair. She then proceeds to pass out and do nothing for the finale. Koneko is an easily forgotten character who finds jobs for Hamatora. Despite essentially being their employer, Koneko essentially does nothing but stay in the headquarters and clean cups with the store owner. Honey has more action and is more aggressive than Hajime and Koneko combined. Nice and the others value her ability to see into the future, and she's an essential part of the team in the end. Other female characters include a client, an angry mother, background characters, and a hacker who works with the villain for no discernible reason.

The show also includes an incredibly stereotypical gay character in the hot springs episode and openly laughs at him. I wanted to laugh at the people responsible for creating such an awful character, but I was too busy being openly disgusted. This character's power is being able to attract men with his sweat, playing on the All Gay Men Are Promiscuous trope. He makes all of the other characters uncomfortable, and his power is completely for laughs. He also does sit-ups for a straight 30 seconds, as if it were on a loop, so it was obvious this episode was never meant to be a serious one. Hamatora tries to convince the audience that it's a serious show, but it slips up constantly with things that don't even end up being funny; they're just lazy.

With plot holes, a forced storyline, and contrived character interaction, Hamatora is fun to look at, but it's not fun to actively watch. Despite being such a generic show, it's getting a second season this July, so I guess it at least made a decent amount of money in Japan. For a somewhat similar show that succeeds in drama, action, and distinct mini-arcs, check out Darker Than Black.

Gone Home: Sibling Love

In lieu of Gone Home's many, many awards and nominations, I feel it's a good time to present my view on Gone Home.

Gone Home is a love story, but not just between two girls who are romantically interested in each other. As one-sided as it's presented (through a silent first-person protagonist controlled by the player), sibling love also came into play strongly. As an older sister, I related to Katie, the player-controlled character. I also left the United States for some time as I explored Europe. At least I didn't come home to an abandoned house with notes from my sister left behind.

The house in Gone Home immediately felt eerie. I heard Katie leave a voicemail for her family announcing when she would be returning home. So why was the house empty? Some lights flickered, and a couple TVs were left on as if something terrible had happened. The tone of the game never let me feel at ease despite how much I loved exploring the empty house. This is Katie's first time in this large house as her family acquired it from her uncle; it was both of our first experiences trying to find clues in various rooms. A lot of it felt familiar, though -- notes from the parents to Katie's sister, Sam, calling out her behavior, reminders for calendar events, entries from diaries. In the time Katie was away, Sam has been attending high school, meeting new people, falling in love, and had to deal with her parents' disapproval. She keeps a diary the whole time, writing directly to Katie. The player isn't given much information to go on concerning their relationship before Katie left home, but judging by Sam's frankness through her writing to Katie, I can only imagine they trusted each other even if they weren't spilling out their feelings in person.

Seeing Sam grapple with her classmates' comments made me want to pummel them for picking on my sister. Seeing the first sparks of attraction and admiration for her crush brought a smile to my face. Hearing her talk about the person she kept falling harder for had me rooting for her all the way. And more than anything getting to be her confidant made me feel special. You have a kind of history with a sibling that you don't get with anyone else, and in some ways they know you better than anyone else. (They certainly know your faults better than anyone else -- and they won't let you forget it.)

My sister and I are three years apart. Three years feels colossal when you're young, but by the time you're both in college, three years seems so minimal. We've both had some similar experiences that most people around the world have -- struggling in school, finding our own talents, making friends, losing friends, developing crushes on people, confessing and getting shot down. Sometimes I don't know what she's been up to in her personal life until a year has passed and it just comes up in conversation. More often than not, we talk about personal things through texts or online conversations. There's something weird about doing it in person, face-to-face. And that's why I can see Sam easily writing a diary to Katie rather than telling Katie all about it in person. We never see the two interact face-to-face in the game, but Sam seems like the kind of person who's unlikely to tell her big sister about this girl she fell in love with -- at least not in person.

After having spent two hours in the game learning all about what Sam's been up to, I was clearly going to be apprehensive upon reaching the end of the game. Many of Sam's notes were happy, but there was this nagging sensation that lingered in the back of my mind when I first encountered the locked attic. Sam's bolded instructions were for no one to come into the attic as this was her space. The closer I got to finding the key to the attic, the more desperate Sam sounded in her notes to Katie. She was likely never going to see her girlfriend again, and she felt lonely elsewhere. She was still developing an identity, and for the time it was undeniably linked to this woman she was dating, a woman who had shown her new kinds of music and played video games with her. Red marks in the bathtub turned out to be red hair dye and a funny momentary misdirection in how the player would receive the game's tone, but what if it was a warning for what could be waiting in the attic? Along with the ghost story vibe still in the background of the story, I was worried about what would be waiting for me.

So as I ascended the attic stairs, I was prepared for the worst, and I was terrified.

After I did a quick look around in the small space, I was relieved to see nothing ghastly about. It was just a few developed photographs hanging to dry. Sam's diary lay at the end of the hall. The credits ran shortly afterward. In this time, I imagined Katie sitting down with the diary, reading everything that Sam wanted to tell her sister, and upon reaching the end and reading that Sam was running away to be with her girlfriend, Lonnie, I wasn't happy. "What the hell are you thinking?" I wanted to yell. "You can't just run off and survive on junk food and pawn off VCRs to get some spare cash and then just drive around until you two have nowhere safe to go!" I imagined Katie running out the door in the middle of the night to find Sam before something terrible happened.

Gone Home isn't a game for everybody. It takes no more than two hours to complete, and it's much more about exploration than influencing the direction of a story. More than anything else, it's about emotion. Any game that makes me feel something beyond what was presented in the game is a piece of art.

Review: Ace Attorney Dual Destinies

If you're ever walking into Ace Attorney expecting a realistic sim about being a lawyer, boy, you chose the wrong series. A great part of Ace Attorney is its ability not to take itself seriously. Unfortunately, the quality of Dual Destinies suffered as plots were dull and came together haphazardly.

The first thing I need to mention is the third case of the game, "Turnabout Academy." In this case was a character by the name of Robin Newman. Robin was training to be a prosecutor and was very loud and exuberant. Robin screamed when things got hairy or when flustered by a situation. Robin also presented as a male, an important fact for what I would most like to discuss.

As newbie attorney Athena Cykes, I cross-examined Robin to try to prove the client, Juniper Woods, was innocent. The prosecution's basis for Juniper's guilt was that a voice recording exhibited a woman screaming something that could be interpreted as a threat to the victim. Of the three people suspected of the crime, one was female (Juniper) while Robin and the other character Hugh were male. Through the cross-examination, Robin admits to wearing a dress Juniper made and eventually spit out that he wanted to wear feminine clothing. Athena then realizes Robin is actually physically female and outs Robin as a woman.

It turned out that Robin was actually being forced by her family to present as male since she was a child, leading Robin to be uncomfortable with her gender presentation as she had always believed she was a woman. While I love that the game tackled gender identity issues (somewhat) they're hardly explored in Robin beyond her being forced to come out as a woman (an act that made me extremely comfortable -- I would never want to out someone as that is never my business). Robin instantly shows her love for frilly things and frequently gawks over a sparkling shoe. From one moment, Robin shows her masculinity by shouting at people in a stereotypical testosterone-crazy fashion and the next she shows her femininity by obsessing over pretty shoes and clothes. This seemed simplistic, stereotypical, and played off for laughs. Robin's gender presentation felt like it was mostly played off for laughs. Even if this series is known for its comedic gags, poking fun at someone's gender identity issues in a way that makes the player laugh at the character struggling with those issues is the most definite wrong way to go about humor.

The middle of Dual Destinies fell a bit flat. For a game's theme to be about the dark age of the law, there needs to be more scenes of what that actually means. The first case was a good introduction to Dual Destinies, as the player is able to get its first sights of Athena as well as get reacquainted with Apollo, who seems more serious than he did in his own game (this is explained later). Opening with a case about a bomb explosion in a courtroom is a great way to show what "the dark age of law" entails.

Unfortunately, the second case feels very distinct. Taking place chronologically first in Dual Destinies the player sees how Apollo and Athena first worked together when they met. While this was an interesting way of storytelling, thematically it felt like it had very little to do with the "dark age of law," even though it had great minor characters and introduced several important characters.

The third case felt foreboding at first with a teacher who often preached that the ends justified the means in court, a phrase that came up at the end. Sadly, the issues with Robin distracted me so much from this case that I had a hard time enjoying it.

The fourth and fifth cases were strongly related, but it wasn't until the fifth case that the player finally learns more about Athena and her background. Had the game spent more time building up Athena as a character, the fifth case would have hit harder, but humor frequently distracted from Athena's character. The main problem with Dual Destinies is that it doesn't have the right balance between humor and serious themes. This can be done, and it can be done well, but when humor distracts from the plot rather than adding to it, the theme falls apart.

Other than that, Dual Destinies had several spelling and grammar errors in the English localization, making it seem like it was a very rushed job with no proofreading. (Hey, Capcom! I work as a proofreader for hire! Feel free to hire me!)

Review: Corpse Party: High Schoolers Need To Stop Messing With The Occult

Who thought "let's say a chant x amount of times to solidify our friendship!" wasn't going to backfire? These kids, that's who.

My PSP library is made up mostly of relatively unknown games, little projects companies like XSeed picked up. As a huge horror fan, this game had a lot to live up to in my expectations. And while Corpse Party had mastery over a few elements, it was also a frustrating experience and small problems drew me out of the game, killing the horrific atmosphere the game works so hard to build.

Imagine watching a horror movie. These movies need proper pacing to entrance the viewer into the world of the movie. This can be done with cinematography, music, ambient sound, good acting, and lots of suspense. There has to be enough tension to make you snap at a scare and then immediately exhale in relief.

Games can be a bit more varied in how they do horror because of the medium. some games use cinematic techniques from movies, others are minimalist and don't need cinematography. Most important is the suspense regardless of how it's implemented. Horror games have a one-up on movies in that because games are inherently interactive, suspension of disbelief is easier when playing a game. You're not going to get very far in a game if you refuse to move forward. However, games can be much more frustrating than movies. After all, a movie isn't going to just shut itself because you weren't good enough at watching it. (And if that's the case, you have a real life horror situation on your hands -- get out of your home or the movie theater pronto.)

After spending 30 minutes building up a scenes where I had to hold my breath and run just to interact with the wrong thing, do something in the wrong order, or get stuck in a corner without an item I was supposed to pick up earlier. Bam, game over. Suspension gone. Cue frustration as I go back to my last save point. The magic is gone. This happens over and over in Corpse Party. There may be multiple endings to the game, but it's a truly linear story. Actions have to come in a specific order, and the lack of hints left me stuck in areas longer than I needed to be, killing my suspense once again. Hints don't need to be obvious. Good game design leads players to the next area without letting them know they're being led ahead. (One good example of this is the part of Portal after avoiding "your party.") The bad endings of Corpse Party are somewhat interesting in that there's a short scene in which you see how your character dies, and that death is often unsettling, but it lacks the same level of creepiness that a game like 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors has. You are expected to screw up a certain number of times when playing 999 and get bad endings in which Junpei dies. A part of the story is that after going through all of these bad endings, Junpei is able to recall some of the information from earlier chapters to use in this one true ending. (999 Spoiler: It's also interesting how Akane broke out in a feverish sweat each time you head towards a wrong end as it means she will have died in the previous nonary game.)

Where 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors encourages you to try again for a different bad ending, the bad endings in Corpse Party are more like a punishment for you screwing up.

The story is properly creepy in many familiar ways for J-horror. Long strands of black hair block cabinets, superstitions come into play, and a foul mystery has infected a forgotten elementary school. I've found many more instances of horror stories taking place in Japanese media than western media. Schools are supposed to be safe places, and yet they feel so eerie when empty. Back when I was in elementary school, the popular "Bloody Mary" legend had taken one of my classrooms by storm. I was told one specific bathroom was haunted, and if you turned off the lights and chanted "Bloody Mary" a certain amount of times, a scary ghost would appear. I didn't use that bathroom for the rest of the year.

After messing up a friendship charm consisting of a chant and pieces of paper, the eight students and the teacher are transported to an elementary school that existed many decades ago. After a controversy, it was shut down, and a large part of the second half of Corpse Party is learning about the truth of that controversy. Just when you think you've solved it, it turns out there's much more you don't know.

The best elements of Corpse Party are its sound and visual design. It's a PSP port of a '96 game on the PC, and it shows, but that grittiness makes it even creepier. Ultra-realistic graphics by themselves are not what scare people in horror. A small taste of something, leaving the details up to your imagination, can be so much more gruesome.

The scariest part of Corpse Party isn't what you see -- it's what you hear. I used my best headphones for this, limiting outside noise distracting me and making it feel like there was someone actually walking around me, whispering in my ear. When walking through a classroom, a disembodied voice will easily move from the right speaker to the left. Sometimes it can just be giggles. The audio being in Japanese also makes it a bit eerie. The voice actors all do a fantastic job of sounding terrified, insane, or hopeless.

Minor gripe: Pantyshots. This game definitely has some fanservice moments, and they also kill the mood whether you like them or not. For someone who had no desire to see female character's underwear, I was removed from the atmosphere of the game to say something I would echo several more times, "Are you kidding me?"

Additional minor gripe: Yuuya Kizami. This character is one of the many students from other schools transported to the school from the past, but he has no significant impact on the story other than to be scary for a bit. As a character fundamentally different from all the other playable characters, it would have been interesting to learn more about Yuuya's motivations beyond one short (and ominous!) scene presented in a flashback.

Corpse Party is a game I enjoyed playing with a spoiler-free walkthrough that helped me stay away from bad endings. This helped me stay in the moment of the game, although I still had to break away from the game occasionally to make sure I didn't accidentally read something I wasn't supposed to in-game. As a game I bought on sale and played in the spirit of Halloween, I'm happy with my purchase. At its best, the game put me on edge several times. At its worst, I was distracted by all the things that could go wrong and make me go back to a previous save.

Review: Pokemon X and Y: The series' first foray into 3D

It may be Pokemon's first foray into 3D, but that aspect hardly matters when compared with all of the other things Game Freak added to Pokemon X and Y. Other than a hiccup with a game-breaking bug in Lumiose City (which has since been fixed; if you haven't downloaded the patch yet, it's on the Nintendo eShop), the game is solid.

The game tried a few new things. Some worked fantastically, others didn't. First, the story is still pretty weak and predictable. I still find Black and White to have the most complex plot with the most interesting characters. The issue of handling Pokemon as captive tools meant for the equivalent of dog-fighting or rather their handling as a trainer's friends could have been handled in a black-or-white way. We find N and the player on different sides, and yet N changes -- and hopefully the player's outlook was also impacted by N's words.

But that's enough about Black and White. In X and Y, Team Flare (possibly a pun on "flair") couldn't be more black and white. Even before the player learns much of Team Flare's leader Lysandre, he talks about beauty and his worries for the world. He lacks complete subtlety, and it's hard to see how Professor Sycamore never saw his friend's betrayal coming. When the final confrontation with Lysandre comes, he boils his argument down to his belief that there is so much ugliness in the world, and in a world where people treat Pokemon as tools, all Pokemon must be destroyed to save them. There is no room to empathize with Lysandre because he is a flat character capable of no growth.

We do get introduced to a giant, however, who has had his own ancient morality struggle with Pokemon. The player sees very little of this man, and yet he receives more character growth than Lysandre could ever hope to have.

Game Freak took a different turn with the rival character in X and Y. In the past, Pokemon games have one rival. More recent games have added two characters you occasionally battle. Sometimes they're both rivals, sometimes they're also friends, sometimes one is a great battler while the other finds other ways of enjoying a journey with Pokemon. In X and Y, you travel with four other characters. One is clearly your rival and the next best at Pokemon battling. The second is a friendly girl who you spend a decent amount of time with journeying through forests and routes or keeping each other company while watching the fireworks. The third loves to dance and isn't so good at Pokemon battling. The fourth also isn't good at battling and has decided his goal is to fill the Pokedex, and he will challenge you to see who has more entries in the Pokedex. You both travel on your own and with these four characters, meaning you get to choose to move at your own pace and also battle some recurring characters a few times. The rival, named Calem if you chose the female protagonist and Serena if you chose the male protagonist, and Shauna are with you the most of other characters, and these two become a bit more complex as you learn more about their goals for their respective Pokemon journeys. However, these characters are still fairly simple-minded. Even if Pokemon is traditionally a game marketed to children, there is no need for such simplistic characters in a story. Before people come in and say, "But you don't play Pokemon for the story!" I want to say that people choose their own reasons for playing a game. The beauty of Pokemon is that it feels like your own story. My favorite part of starting a Pokemon game is starting the journey, picking my starter, and catching my first few Pokemon in a new region with new Pokemon. I also get to choose which Pokemon to use in my party, which strategies to employ in battles, and what to name my Pokemon (if I choose to name them). At the same time, the plot of Pokemon games is linear. You are guided to which towns to go to next, which gyms to fight next, and to pursue whichever nefarious team is trying to hurt people/the world/Pokemon. With six generations of Pokemon games out, it's time for more stories that challenge the way you think about Pokemon.

However, I suggest everyone who has already beaten the Elite Four to head to Lumiose City for some sidequests with Looker, an international police officer whom we first saw in Platinum. You meet Emma, a young girl involved with a gang in Lumiose. She ends up joining the bureau with Looker but gets caught up in some nasty experiments. Emma isn't a flat gang-style character. She has reasons for being in a gang, motivation for leaving, and it's easy to see why she chooses to do some stupid things for money. Emma's life revolves around not having enough money, and she feels guilty when Looker takes her in and doesn't ask her for anything in return. I know Pokemon "isn't about the story," but I would have loved to have more time with Emma. I learned more about her in five short sidequests than I did about any other character in the game. And this isn't even in the main plot.

Customization was one of the most fun additions of X and Y. I knew as soon as the clothing customization feature was announced, I would end up spending much more of my money in the game on clothes than on items actually useful in the game. Various styles are available, meaning girls can dress up in cute, frilly clothing or wear a t-shirt and shorts, or wear a combination of styles. However, I wish gender fluidity had been considered in this customization feature. Rather than restricting female protagonists to women's clothing and male protagonists to menswear, players should be able to choose what they want to wear regardless of gender intended for the clothing. And I don't mean "unisex" as in girls can wear the boys' clothing, but boys can also wear skirts and dresses, clothing traditionally considered only for women.

We finally got the option to change skin tone at the beginning of the game, something Game Freak should have had in the games before, but I am grateful for the inclusion of not only PoC NPCs but also an option for the protagonist to be PoC. Thank you, Pokemon for this late but well-welcomed addition!

The other great feature is the online interaction with others. I have rarely connected to the internet in Pokemon in the past, usually only using it for the GTS occasionally, but for the first time I was trading and battling with strangers. The game even encourages you to interact with your friends and strangers playing Pokemon X or Y. You can use O-Powers to strengthen your Pokemon's stats or increase your capture rate, as well as many other things. However, they cost more to use on yourself than others. By using an O-Power repeatedly, its level will increase. Because they're cheaper to use on others, the game encourages you to help others out online. You can also trade with someone, battle with someone, connect to the GTS, or do a blind trade. All of this is easily accessible on the lower screen of the 3DS.

Two other additions can be found on the bottom screen. By pressing L or R, you can navigate away from the online capabilities of the Player Search System to Pokemon Amie and Super Training. Pokemon Amie lets you pet your Pokemon, feed your Pokemon, and play three mini-games with your Pokemon. You don't have to do this, and it's never forced on you, but some Pokemon need to have a high affection for you before evolving (this is partly how Eevee evolves into the new fairy-type Sylveon). The mini-games can take less than a minute, so they never take too much of your time. Super Training is not nearly as cute; instead its purpose is to give you some control over which stats you want your Pokemon to improve. By playing short mini-games in which you shoot soccer balls at targets while evading balls shot at you, you can choose which stat to increase. If you don't feel like spending too much time on it, your Pokemon can hit a punching back once a minute to increase stats.

Overall, Pokemon X and Y is just as addicting as any other game in the series, and with the inclusion of Red and Blue starter Pokemon and some subtle throwbacks to Red and Blue (including a sleeping Snorlax blocking your path and a building with arrow tiles that spin you around), X and Y are a great reentry into the series for anyone who hasn't felt like playing Pokemon since the golden days of old.

Animal Crossing: A Case in Escaping My Life

Ever since I had played a couple weeks of Animal Crossing: New Leaf, I had always wanted to write a review on it, but never had my thoughts together. This isn't a standard review at all. I'm not concerned with the graphics (they're pretty great, though), or the use of 3D, or the technical aspects of the game. Instead, I want to have a more personal take on this as Animal Crossing is a personal game.

A lot has happened in my life since the new Animal Crossing game came out on June 9. I returned from a trip to Japan that involved a lot of stress on the way home thanks to flight complications. I resumed work at my community center job and transitioned to working with much younger children than who I had worked with before. I had finished my last year of college and left with a bachelor's degree. A close relationship I had with a friend and roommate came to an end just before I moved out of my apartment. I said goodbye to college life and ventured into adulthood, moving to a new city into an apartment with my significant other and staked out potential jobs.

I don't think it's a coincidence I latched onto New Leaf stronger than I did as a child with the first Animal Crossing in 2001 when I was only 10 years old. I played it then because a friend introduced me to it. I thought the player character was cute -- and the animals cuter --  and played it religiously for a couple months, later picking it up every once in a while. The same happened for Wild World and City Folk. While I started out playing New Leaf often, once I had my first weekend fill of it, I realized I had responsibilities to return to and set an hour away each day for me to play, missing days when I had things to do.

New Leaf is both a relaxing game and an exciting, engaging game that gives you a lot of customization in your town. You get to decide what to build, where to put it, and even if it's frustrating when a villager moves into town and builds their house in the middle of that path you set up, I don't think I'm wrong in writing that most of us get absorbed into Animal Crossing (and other games like The Sims) because it's a chance to not only escape our own lives and live in another world but also as a way to have some control over some universe. Sure, if you don't water your flowers regularly, they will die. If you don't play for a while, weeds will overtake your town. But no one in the game is going to yell at you for forgetting to water the plants or never catching that fish you said you'd get for them. There are consequences for your actions (or lack thereof), but they're easy to deal with.

Meanwhile, ever since moving into an apartment I've had to replace a shower knob, and this morning when I was supposed to get a new refrigerator installed to replace the dying one currently plugged in, the installers thrust it upon me to handle the plumbing issues concerning the water line to the current fridge. Home responsibilities are not fun. It's during these times when I'm about to scream, I take a moment, breathe, and flip open my 3DS and start up Animal Crossing: New Leaf. I'll go bugcatching on the island to make some quick cash, talk to my neighbors, go shopping for furniture and clothes, find new QR codes to scan, and occasionally meet up old friends or my sister in our towns to run around and make faces at each other.

My sister is weird.

One evening in my previous apartment before moving out, I was crying. I felt how frightening it was for familiarity of college to be over. I could see myself growing distant from some of the people I had spent time with the last four years. The next night, I resumed playing Animal Crossing and received a letter in my mailbox from my neighbor Avery, a cranky eagle and fellow Pisces.

Though I was mildly creeped out by the timing of this letter, it touched my heart. Avery is just a character in a video game, but in that video game he is my friend, and I am his friend. Animal Crossing looks like a simplistic game, but it's a way for me to escape from my daily stresses and spend a little time each day chatting with a range of animal characters who value my company. Games are more than just mindless entertainment; they're safe spaces for you to interact with others.

REVIEW: Persona 4 Golden

Persona 4: Golden is a remake of 4-year-old Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, and it's a remake that's worth not just buying the new game but also buying the Playstation Vita.

The storytelling is just as good, if not better, than its original. It may have a cheesy message of bonds of friendship are true power, but it sticks to that message the whole way. With the addition of the Marie and Adachi social links, you learn more about the TV world, become close to the fumbling detective, and help the new mystery girl recover her memory. The same twists are present, but fans of the original still face a few new surprises, mainly having to do with Marie...

There are new animation cutscenes and new content, including trips to the beach (one as a large group, and you can choose to go there via scooter with other friends some days), a short cutscene of a hotsprings trip with Marie, and most importantly, a whole new dungeon, and a ski trip. The last two are related, making it my favorite addition to the game. You also get to play through January and February, whereas the original skipped straight to March. (Building snowmen with Nanako? You bet!)

There have been some rumors that you can only have one girlfriend in Persona 4: Golden. That's not entirely true. You can still become intimate with several girls at the same time. However, Valentine's Day forces you to spend your time with one girl. And the others will get sad and make you feel guilty. It's an awkward time all around.

After maxing out social links with your teammates, you can hang out with them again to have their Persona transform a second time, making it even stronger. Maxing out Rise's social link proves to be one of the most useful things about P4G, and she saved my butt several times. Rise can provide even better support through her social link, raising your stats, blocking enemy attacks, and reviving you.

Atlus didn't fix what wasn't broken. The music is relatively unchanged (other than a new opening) and the fighting system is the same. Other changes were minor, but very helpful! You can fastforward through dialogue (sticking with the TV motif) and when you die in battle, you can choose to retry from the beginning of the floor, meaning you'll only lose about 20 minutes of your time rather than an hour or two...or three...

You can dress up your teammates in costumes, which you get for free and can buy in Okina City. And when you talk to them, they'll comment on their and your costumes.

I can find no bad additions to Persona 4: Golden. Persona 4 was already a solid game, and the remake made it even better. Hell, the game is nearly perfect. It's enjoyable, the storytelling is fantastic, the characters are distinct and dynamic, and the visuals are eyecatching. For newcomers who haven't experienced Persona 4 before, just when you think you've figured out the killer, you'll get it turned around on your head once again. As long as you keep pursuing the truth and avoid distractions, you'll make it through.

I don't normally put numbers to reviews because I think the writing should stand by itself, but I'd give P4G a 9.5/10. This is a must-buy for RPG fans who own a Vita. (And if you don't own a Vita now, P4G is worth it.)

To read my review of the original Persona 4, click here. In this review, I decided to focus on what was different about P4 and P4G. For more background information on the game, check the review of P4.

Thank you so much, Atlus.

REVIEW: Virtue's Last Reward

A game with enough plotlines and discussions on physics to make your brain explode and enough puzzles to stimulate your brain up to a large reveal at the end. This is what Virtue's Last Reward aspires to be. The sequel to 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors in the Zero Escape series, Virtue's Last Reward places 9 participants in situations where they need to work together (or refuse to do so) and solve puzzles to escape through the number 9 door. Overall, Virtue's Last Reward delivers a well-told story, albeit a confusing one, with improved game mechanics from its predecessor.

You play as Sigma, a college student who honestly looks more like a guy who would carry boxes around for a living. He wakes up in what looks like an elevator with a girl named Phi (who closely resembles Santa/Aoi from 999 -- but why?). These two serve as the main protagonists.

Other characters are both old and new. Clover comes back for her third Nonary Game. There's also Alice, a friend of Clover's from right after 999 who has something against shirts. Luna is the fourth woman of the group, a quiet girl who just wants everyone to be nice to each other.

Why can't we be friends?!

Quark is the child of the group with a funky hat. He unfortunately suffers from being a plot device. I can say no more without spoilers. He's also unconscious for large portions of the game. When he's with you, he's really cute and quite funny with the next character, Tenmyouji. This old man is a bit grumpy from many years of a hard and lonely life, but he softens up around some characters. K is the large hunk of metal in the picture. He loses his memory as soon as the Nonary Game begins. The final and ninth character is Dio, a strange man who wears circus ringleader clothes.

But the best character in the whole game is that rabbit, Zero III -- or as the others call him, Zero Jr. This little guy helps you along in the beginning, but in a mocking tone. Even when he insults you, you can't stop loving him. (A close second favorite is a robot with a cockney accent.)

First off, Aksys continues to be a fantastic localization company. Their translation of the writing is smooth, perhaps even smoother than in 999 (but it unfortunately lacks the food-exploded body comparisons this time). There are plenty of rabbit puns for Zero Jr., giving the rabbit a personality just like everybunny. Aksys also isn't afraid to crack a few jokes in-game to the player.

You wound me, Aksys!

There are strengths and weaknesses in the writing of Virtue's Last Reward. There is a constant element of mystery motivating you to keep playing. Answers are teased to questions you didn't know you had, things are revealed before they make sense, and everything leads up to one OHMYGOD moment. And whereas 999's great reveal was on a personal level, the reveal in Virtue's Last Reward is on a massive scale. Neither is inherently better, but everyone has their own preferences. (999 is tragically beautiful in ways that VLR is not.)

However, the game drags on. There are long sequences of doors opening or watching yourself as a dot move from one room on a level to another room on another, and the locations of these rooms were not part of something larger, so forcing the player to view them over and over does nothing but frustrate the player. This game took me about 37 hours to finish completely. Several minutes could have been shaven off had it not been for those door opening/closing sequences. Also, does Sigma have to wait to vote ally/betray until half a second before the deadline every time?

Otherwise, the game's writing is quite subtle. Some things become overt from multiple playthroughs for different endings, making one character the typecast bad guy with no real complexity, but when X happens in A and not in B, you'll ask yourself why. Like 999, this is a game to discuss for hours with your friends, working out why something happened or didn't happen.

The character sprites, despite being in 3D, were less detailed than 999's 2D sprites. In some cases, they were downright disgusting. Characters only had a few poses each. Either stick to 2D sprites or give the 3D sprites fluidity. Treating a 3D sprite like a 2D in terms of posing doesn't flatter many characters.

The character designs were also rather unappealing. What exactly were Clover and Alice doing when they were abducted to lead them being in a pink leopard print bikini and a giant necklace that only covers one's nipples? Lotus had a reason for being dressed the way she did in 999, and while Clover and Alice hint at what they were doing, we don't really know.

The game's mechanics drive VLR like the dual-screen Nintendo DS was essential to 999's plot. VLR presents the player with a flowchart. When Sigma makes a decision to go through one door instead of another, a different reality occurs. You play through all of these realities to get to one final ending, gathering information in each one just as Junpei does in 999. 

Thanks to this flowchart, you go through a different room in each timeline. And even though you start in the same first room and different endings have you going through the same first door, you don't need to repeat those puzzles like in 999. You can simply jump ahead to where you need to be: your next decision. And because there are so many little things happening in VLR, the flowchart makes it a little easier to manage what happens in each timeline. (But not too much easier.)

The Ally/Betray decisions are the best part of Virtue's Last Reward. What made this even better is that while my roommate and I played this game together, she was learning about the prisoner's dilemma for a class, which is precisely what the AB game is. If a group allies, then they all receive points. However, if one person betrays while another allies, the betrayer gains points while the person/pair who allied will lose points. And if everyone betrays, then no one gets points and everyone continues to hate each other. The point is to get 9 points and exit through the number 9 door. However, in such a stressful situation, ideals are lost. Would you choose to put your life in a stranger's hands?

But do you want to be THAT person who betrays everyone?

Virtue's Last Reward is available on both the PS Vita and the Nintendo 3DS. There should be a third game in the series as long as it gets the green light. In the meantime, I'll wrack my brain over this game and 999.

Note: There have been some reported bugs in the 3DS version where if you take too long in some rooms, the game will crash. I had no problems on my Vita version.

By the way, if you'd like to see how many notes you get to make while doing puzzles, check out the notes from my roommate and I. (It's not pictured, but there's a back side to each of those papers.)

REVIEW: The World Ends With You

The World Ends With You.

I hadn't thought about what that meant before playing this game.

Neku Sakuraba is a teenaged boy living in Shibuya. He's standoffish and hates people. He loves only one thing: his favorite street artist. Waking up in the middle of Shibuya, Neku has no idea how he got there. With his partner -- a girl named Shiki whom Neku wishes he could get away from -- he has to fight to survive, fulfilling a mission each day for a week. But when Neku should be finished, he's flung into the game again and again, trapped inside under the Reapers' control.

I couldn't relate to Neku a whole lot at first, but what intrigued me the most about him is his character growth. It's well-written, gradual, and -- most importantly -- believable. The key to this change is the sentence, "The World Ends With You." You can be the only person in your own universe, or you can let others in and learn more about the world around you. In the end, that's up to you.

TWEWY has its own art style that fits perfectly with the setting of the game and Neku's fascination with street art. The outer lines are thicker, colors are vibrant, and characters have a distinct shape. There are certainly many styles of street art, but TWEWY has the same colorful, urban feel that I've seen in street art.

Fighting requires a team effort, and the Nintendo DS screens take care of this well. You control Neku on the bottom screen, running back and forth and using his pins to attack enemies via the stylus. You can also control your partner on the top screen with the directional pad. However, it is difficult to control both at the same time. Looking back and forth at each screen every couple seconds gets tiring, so if you don't control your partner for a short time, he/she will play on auto. You can play the majority of the game with your partner on auto, but it's easier to access special combo attacks when you control your partner. There are also a few times in boss fights when you need to play as your partner while making Neku avoid attacks.

Along with the art, the music also has its own urban appeal. I suggest you use headphones when playing the game just so that you can hear the music better.

This game wouldn't be what it is without the fantastic art, music, characters, and storyline. You're stuck in the mystery just like Neku is, and the only way to figure out how Neku got to the Reaper's Game, you'll just have to keep fighting your way to the truth. I haven't played an RPG like this one in a long time, and I haven't seen one like it. In a genre that feels stale at times, it's games like TWEWY that reinvent the genre and show that it's more than its tropes.

The World Ends With You was recently announced that it will be ported to the iOS.

REVIEW: Bastion's beauty

My initial experience with Bastion was not a pretty one. After being gifted the game on Steam once it was available for Macs, I could not get the game to display. I gave it another few weeks and tried again. Still no luck. I began trying everyday until I sent Supergiant Games an email reporting my problem. They did their best to help, and I appreciated the response, but I still couldn't play this game everyone kept bugging me about.

Fortunately, with the Humble Indie Bundle, I was able to get Bastion and several other indie games at once to play without using Steam! And so my journey began.

It's been a while since I played a game on a computer, and Bastion gave me a bit of a challenge in the beginning, but it explained all of the controls, and you can change them to your liking in the options menu anyway. The default felt comfortable, so I didn't mess with them.

The first thing I noticed about Bastion was the beautiful art style. It's unique (and I truly mean unique -- I have yet to see something like it in another game). The illustrations are beautiful, the map is gorgeous, and even the stages are pretty.

Equally as beautiful is the music. This is a soundtrack you need to get with the game. I put on some headphones after getting the gramophone in the game so that I could spend some time just listening to the different music tracks. Several of them remind me of a western-style adventure. This is something I want blasting in my car on the highway.

The narration is amazing as well. Logan Cunningham voices Rucks, an older man with much wisdom and a great storyteller as well. Cunningham's voice is perfect for this kind of character. He portrays emotion well, his voice is a little raspy, and it's easy to hear. It's a voice I can imagine reading out stories on old radios. The music is what most gives Bastion character.

You play as The Kid with the aim of restoring the Bastion. It seems rather straightforward -- you travel to new places to collect cores and pick up new weapons. It's not a complicated story, but it's told well -- mostly thanks to Rucks's narration.

Fighting requires a lot of movement, which is a little frightening at first (you can fall off of stages), but once you figure out how to best fight enemies, it becomes fun. You receive many weapons both short- and long-range, so you can play around until you find the right fit for yourself and the stage you're going to. It's also easy to practice with the weapons without too much fear of dying at the proving grounds for each weapon.

Beyond the game, Supergiant Games is wonderful. They're easy to get in touch with -- and when you're having problems, sometimes they go straight to you! At one point when I was complaining on twitter about how I couldn't get Bastion to work, they replied to my tweet and asked me to email them about it. They were helpful and easy to talk to. Thanks again, Supergiant Games! Even if I wasn't able to get a fix for my copy on Steam, it was definitely worth buying through the Indie Bundle.

Review: Eternal Sonata: The blue-haired poet of the piano

Years ago, before I had seen a bunch of weird games, if you had told me there was an RPG in a dream world of Frederic Francois Chopin, I would have called bullshit. I'm not so surprised about it anymore. So after a couple years of seeing cosplays from the game and noticing that fellow RPG fans had played it, I figured it was about time to learn about Chopin and his unrealistically blue hair.

All joking aside, Eternal Sonata taught me as much as a video game can about music history. But more than that, it inspired me to find parallels between the game and Chopin's life. It's amazing how video games can inspire you to learn more about a subject.

As you can see from the game's cover, this is a Namco game, and the English localized game has a lot of voice actors commonly found in another Namco franchise, the Tales series. I highly recommend this game to all Tales fans, especially ones who are interested in music. The game cover is also for the PlayStation 3 version; the game came out for the Xbox 360 first one year before the PS3 version. Eternal Sonata on the PS3 has additional content, a more fleshed out story (and apparently a more fleshed out Allegretto, one of the main characters), and a costume for each Allegretto, Beat, and Polka that you can find in-game. The PS3 cover features an angry Frederic Chopin and the other characters ready for battle whereas the Xbox 360 version's cover should prepare you more for the cheesiness of Eternal Sonata.

But even with the amount of friendship and happy themes, it's not a happy game overall. After all, this game reflects Chopin's life. Each chapter has a period of exposition where one of Chopin's pieces will play in the background as the narration informs you of when this piece was written, what it means, and how it may have spoken to Chopin. Thanks to Eternal Sonata, I learned about Chopin's Polish background, his relationship with George Sand, and why he couldn't return to his home in Poland all the while getting a crash course on the same pieces my sister was studying in her music classes!

The world in Eternal Sonata largely takes place within Chopin's dream as this is happening on his death bed. When he meets a young girl named Polka who reminds him of his deceased sister Emilia, he confesses to her that this is all his dream. She doesn't seem bothered by it, and we're led to believe that it's rather strange that her life and everyone else living in that world would be a product of his imagination.

This theory of escapism for Frederic makes sense at first, but as he becomes more attached to the characters -- primarily Polka -- and involved in saving their world from the stereotypically evil Count Waltz, it becomes harder to tell what's real and what's a dream. The ending of the game, unfortunately, does not wrap this up well. Instead of a well-written build-up to Chopin's decision to stay in this world or pass away, we get a sudden final fight and a character's suicide, except just kidding there's some weird time thing going on, so that character doesn't end up dying to save the world because that's no longer necessary. However, the final song, Heaven's Mirror, is a beautiful song -- and it's an original composition. If only the conclusion of the game had been less out of nowhere.

Eternal Sonata looks like it has a stereotypical world. It's got the trope of a young girl needing to sacrifice herself, magic, and an evil ruler trying to take over the world. It's a clear cut good vs. evil kind of game. However, the addition of magic was written into the most interesting use of magic I've seen so far. Only characters who are near death are able to use magic, so being able to use those powers is terrifying. More and more people are near death from the side effects of mineral powder, the only medicine Count Waltz allows his people to use. This powder has severe health and environmental problems, whereas the floral powder Polka tries to sell does not.

The majority of the characters meet up as a result of the different problems of mineral powder as they are united by their wish to speak to Count Waltz and appeal to his better nature. They'll soon find out that he has no better nature. He's not an interesting antagonist with few complexities, but Liam O'Brien gives him a fantastically nasty character in a great show of his voice acting. The voice acting is excellent. As I mentioned before, most of these voices will not sound strange to any JRPG fans. And here's a huge shout out to Cam Clarke for his role of Prince Crescendo! It has been far too long since I've heard his voice in an RPG.

Eternal Sonata is both a turn-based fighting game, but it also demands your full attention. Characters' turns occur depending on their speed stat. In the beginning of the game, you have tactical time, giving you a few seconds to figure out what you're going to do with your turn. You then have a few seconds to run around the field, attack, or use items. By attacking, you build up echoes, and once you have at least 24, you can use a powered up special attack. During the enemy's turn, you can guard when attacked. Guarding is essential for your survival, but you can't just hold down O and expect to take little damage. For your guard to be effective, you must do it at a precise time. A second too soon or too late, and you won't reduce any damage. Like playing music, you must be precise and on time.

And because this is a game about Chopin and music -- complete with musical terms and styles used for characters and dungeons -- this game just wouldn't be what it was if it weren't for the fantastic score by Motoi Sakuraba. As much as I love his work for Tales and Golden Sun, I don't think there's any game that's expressed his creativity more beautifully than Eternal Sonata.

The game's graphics are beautiful as well. They're sometimes hard to see as the camera is often zoomed out, but on close shots like the one above, it's easy to see how much detail went into the graphics. I wish there was an adjustable camera because I would have loved to see more of the world.

Eternal Sonata sparked my interest in a historical figure, plays beautiful and original music, and has a battle system I had not experienced before. (I became well-acquainted with that O button.) For that, I have to love it. The story was good, but could have been much better near the end, but the music is what made it a beautiful game. I wouldn't expect less from a great game loosely about Frederic Chopin.

Skyward Sword: Taking Leaps in Storytelling

Is Skyward Sword old news now that it's 2012? I doubt that. With a game this impressive, I can surely say that people will be playing this game for a while. (If the Silent Realms don't scare them off.)

In the newest Zelda game, Link lives on a land above the clouds, put there a long time ago by the Goddess to protect her people from the evil land-dwelling monsters below. Link lives a happy life, as do the other people of Skyloft, training to be a knight at the academy. On the first day of the game, he has a race against his classmates. The winner gets to fly around with Zelda for a bit, receive her sailcloth, and advance to the next class at the academy.

Fortunately, the game explains flying on your Loftwing pretty early in the game with the help of Zelda.

...After she pushes you off a cliff.

It's how she shows her affection.

Now, even if you suck at flying (which I did during the race), you'll win, so just take it at your own pace and you'll be with Zelda in no time.

Oh, wait--just kidding.

The story seems like same old Zelda games by that point. Link has to go save Zelda because he's the Goddess's chosen hero. Link will go through dungeons getting new equipment and chasing after Zelda, as well as going through trials to prove his worth as a hero. But wait--there's so much more!

The characters in this game have never had more personality. Link and Zelda have a strong relationship, and they care about each other. However, they can both survive on their own. This game forces them apart to each grow. You see Link go from a boy who likes his childhood friend to a young man who not only runs into battle with determination but also acts out of desperation when the person most important to him is in danger. Zelda is no damsel in distress. She may have fallen to the dangerous surface, but she's got plenty of spunk. She takes care of herself while she enters dungeons long before Link has the chance to do the same. Even when saved by Impa later on, Zelda knows when she has to put her foot down. She'll sacrifice the time she has with Link so that she can save the world. Link and Zelda are a team of heroes. Without either, the world will perish by the hands of demons.

This game doesn't just beat you over the head with "They like each other!" This game will make you feel it by stabbing you in the gut. It's the first Zelda game to make me openly cry.

And it's not just our protagonists who have dimension. We have Zelda admirer and slick pompadour-wearing Groose! He starts off on the wrong foot (ain't nobody hurting my bird!), but he's honestly a sweet guy. And even this secondary character is essential.

If there isn't a spin-off game about Groose, I will be so upset.

But my all-time favorite character is Lord Fabulous Ghirahim. With a creepy tongue, flamboyant personality, and weird tendency to hit on Link, he steals the show. He's the primary antagonist in the game, and while he's pretty awful at pursuing a young blonde girl, he's pretty great at getting in your way. Even he's got a personality.

Just look at those supple arms.

It was the lack of personality in the majority of characters in Twilight Princess that didn't make me fall in love with the game. It had a good story and it was fun, but it's got nothing on the characters of Skyward Sword.

Only one character has no personality (but not without development!), and that's by design. Fi, the spirit within the Master Sword, aids Link on his journey and gives advice, hints, rumors, and analysis when prompted. Most of the time, her dialogue goes something like this, "Master, there is an 85% chance that there is a key to this door somewhere within this dungeon," which roughly translates to, "Go find that goddamn key."

There is a 100% chance that you are an idiot and will need my assistance.

The motion controls set this game apart from the rest of the series. In Twilight Princess, all you really had to do was flail the wiimote around. Battles in Skyward Sword take more patience as most of the time you need to swing the sword in a certain direction or even thrust the sword. You start off with more hearts than usual for a Zelda game, but those extra hearts are necessary at the beginning. You will get pushed around, beaten up, and killed by a stupid spider just swinging back into your face. When the motion controls are finicky (it was difficult to get the wiimote to realize I was thrusting and not slashing), it's frustrating. If you have problems, recalibrate your wiimote, which you can do on the main menu screen in game, and then practice slashing and stabbing in the air.

This especially takes patience.

But what I love the most of all is the music in Skyward Sword. Each song tells a story on its own and makes a scene more powerful without the aid of voice actors. The orchestra is incredibly talented. The music sometimes blends into the background just to suddenly erupt when the time is right, and other times it gives characterization to the colorful band of characters in places like the Skyloft Bazaar.

Skyward Sword provides an excellent backdrop to the whole series, giving origins to many important pieces in Zelda (such as the Master Sword and Zelda) and as to why there are so many different time periods and worlds that have Link and Zelda playing the roles of hero and goddess.

To those who criticize the graphics, saying that they're not nearly as beautiful and detailed as the graphics of Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword is not Twilight Princess. The latter was a darker game and required minute details. Skyward Sword is more akin to an impressionist painting with beautiful colors blending into each other.

Is Skyward Sword the best in the series? It's really up to you. For me, thanks to the beautiful storytelling, it is--without a doubt--my favorite.

Choose your path: Dragon Age Origins review

I'm a JRPG kind of gamer. I've been playing RPGs for a long time, but they're almost always made by Japanese companies. Dragon Age: Origins was my first experience playing a western RPG. Made by US company BioWare this western RPG looks like it's out of a typical fantasy setting. There are several towns each with people speaking with European-esque accents (all of which my dad loved to comment on). There are monsters, townspeople, crooks, beggars, benevolent rulers, and power-hungry tyrants. This in itself doesn't sound too different from any other kind of western fantasy setting, but the game uses that setting and then adds an interesting story and well-developed characters to keep you engaged.

You begin Dragon Age: Origins by customizing your character and picking your storyline. You can be a man or a woman; you can be a human, elf, or a dwarf; you can be a warrior, mage, or rogue; and depending on which options you chose, you can pick where your character's home is (such as in the city or in the forest). You can also customize your character's appearance.

I've only played one beginning so far (Circle of Magi), watched one beginning (City Elf), and heard about one other (Human Noble). From the half I know, each one is different and will give you background information on that place. For example, because I started as a mage, I learned about the Fade before a dwarf, a human, or an elf in the city or in the forest would know much about it. I learned about the tensions between people in the Tower, so when I later revisited the place, I knew why it was in chaos.

The origin stories aren't very long, and my only complaint is that there isn't much of an impact on the overall plot regarding which background you choose.

Regardless of which origin you choose, you will be enlisted by the Grey Wardens, a group of powerful warriors whose job is warding off the darkspawn and protecting their world from the Blight. It is here you will meet Duncan and Alistair, and you'll be with dorky, special snowflake Alistair for the rest of the game as he tries to deal with his feelings for Duncan.

Just look at Alistair yearning for Duncan. 

You can have up to three others in your party at a time, and you will recruit many others to choose from, including a war dog. The majority of the characters are pretty interesting. It's hard to learn about some of them because some are closed off and don't like to talk about themselves. (Sten kept hating me for asking him about his people.)

You can also choose your own dialogue options. With high cunning and willpower, you can shape others into doing what you want. You can also straight up choose to kill people. You can be an asshole or you can be a mild-mannered Grey Warden. Play the race or sex card, make people uncomfortable when you're a mage--it's all up to you. That freedom is what makes the game so enjoyable.

You'll fight dragons, go through some crazy dungeons (and in the Circle of Magi, a dungeon within a dungeon: DUNGEONCEPTION!), settle political disputes, travel to each unique city in Ferelden, and make your teammates fall in love with you if you so desire. 

The one glaring problem with Dragon Age is a glitch near the end of the game at Redwall Castle. If you're not standing in a certain place, an ogre will never come to fight you, and you can't get inside the castle until you've killed that ogre. And you can't continue the story if you can't get inside. 

The game is on the PS3 and Xbox and PC. It also came out in 2009, so if you're late to the game like I am, you should be able to find a used copy for around $20. The sequel came out in March and was listed as one of the biggest disappointments in gaming of 2011. I haven't quite decided whether I want to pick it up, but I may check it out if I can find it for a good price to at least see why so many people were upset with DA2.

Seek A Way Out: 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors

It's the morning after my escape from death onboard the Gigantic. I'm tired, confused, but--more than anything--I'm blown away.

9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors is a game with two parts visual novel, one part suspense, and one part horror. The game places you in the role of Junpei, a college student who finds himself onboard a ship in a locked room.

Oh, and he's going to drown thanks to the water flowing through the busted window if he doesn't get out soon.

Junpei is one of nine people onboard a ship that is set to sink into the ocean in nine hours. Their kidnapper, a person in a gas mask identified only as Zero, tells them that they must find a door with a "9" on it to escape. But things go awry quickly. A group of people in danger of death will not remain calm. Some will blatantly refuse to go along with the kidnapper says. Others will insist on doing as told in order to reach freedom. Some are old, some are young, some are brutish, some are demure. Among these clash of personalities is Junpei. You decide which doors he goes through, as well as the actions he makes and the things he says. The smallest of things given to you, as well as the strangest conversations, are all important in the end. You won't know which doors will lead you to safety and you won't know which characters are controlling everything. If you don't play by the rules, your body's not going to remain in one piece.

 Talk about a strange cast of characters.

Think of this game as the choose your adventure books from elementary school, but there's gore, tragedy, telepathy, and conspiracies. 999 has six possible endings, three of them leading to your brutal murder. One abruptly ends because you didn't gather the necessary information to continue and another ends in tragedy and confusion. That particular ending gives you a lot of necessary information for the final "true" ending, but don't write off the other endings--they also help fill in the blanks of the story, as well as give answers to "What if I hadn't had that conversation with her?" "What if I hadn't accepted that from him?" And because of those six endings, this game has obvious replay value. The story doesn't make sense if you don't listen to all of the conversations with different characters. Granted, hearing the same things over and over gets old quickly, so the developers allow you to speed through dialogue you've already encountered and it automatically stops as soon as you come across new dialogue. (Unfortunately, you will have to redo puzzles several times, so keep a pencil and paper with you. You'll be able to memorize some of the puzzles after one or two times.)

999 is all about solving puzzles in life or death situations, putting forth the idea that your true potential emerges when you are in a true emergency. Some of the puzzles are difficult and close to impossible for those of us who weren't blessed with logical reasoning and mathematical skills. For some things, you just need to explore the environment and keep clicking on the screen until you find something. But other puzzles require you to input a series of numbers from clues. This game is obsessed with digital roots and base-10, so you'd best listen when they explain concepts you never came across in algebra class. If you're like me, you won't be able to solve some of the puzzles, much less figure out how to flush the toilets through one of the doors. Do your best to solve them on your own, but don't feel too defeated if you have to look up answers. After all, we're not the ones with our lives on the line.
Don't even joke about that, Snake.
Though, this game does make you feel like you're on the ship with them, especially when playing at night with the lights off and the headphones in. The music sets the mood and changes with the atmosphere of the situation. At times it will suddenly crescendo and at other times it will disappear completely. You can see the change in characters and after a playthrough or two, you can predict what's going to happen next--or who's going to kill you next. Because you are directly interacting with the environment through Junpei's eyes, it's almost as if you were there in his place. There's a great deal of suspension of belief the game can put you through. Add some mystery in there, and it's already more convincing than most horror movies. You try going to sleep right after dying. The flash of red on the screen and the sudden sound of a knife piercing flesh won't leave your mind.

 (I did mention that this game is rated M, right?)

My only real complaint with this game is the idea of the group having 9 hours. While they're chaotic at first and just talk for a while, you can understand why they can't figure out what to do at first. But by the time they only have 1 hour left, characters go off on long-winded stories instead of worrying about their time limit. If I were Junpei, I would have punched them all in the face and then forced them to help me solve puzzles instead of telling me their life stories. These are all important things to the overall plot, but I would have liked to see a greater sense of urgency in the characters' attitudes.

Um...don't you think we should be a little more concerned with living long enough to hear Elvis's songs again?

 This game is largely text-based. It reads like a novel--vivid imagery accompanying the stills on the top screen of the DS, and you see Junpei's innermost thoughts and feelings. Some of it is hard to read, but you can't simply stop. So you continue reading about the chunks of flesh that were once a body just 81 seconds ago. If you don't like reading and thinking, don't get this game. And if you don't like excellent point and click games (such as the Ace Attorney games, Professor Layton, Trace Memory, or Time Hollow), don't bother. But if you love chilling, tragic stories that make sense by the time you finish, you won't want to put this game down.

Take my word for it. Seek a door with a 9.