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Yomawari: Night Alone!

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I love October.  The changing of the seasons always gives me a tinge of serenity.  But it’s not just the arrival of fall that makes October great, but also the fact that I love the atmosphere of Halloween time.  For my blog each year, I like to take the month of October to play and write about a few horror games I’ve been meaning to get around to.  This year has been kind of rough, and I haven’t had a lot of time to write here, but I’d like to get that back on track, and I’m also hoping these Halloween posts can kick off a reasonable amount of regularity again.  First up this year is Yomawari: Night Alone, a Vita game I’ve wanted to try out for a while now.  

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Late at night a young girl, who I believe is only ever called “little sister”, is walking her dog when she becomes separated from her animal companion.  Upon returning home, her big sister questions the girl about the dog’s whereabouts, but little sister is unable to tell her the truth.  Not understanding what has happened, big sister leaves the house to find the missing pet.  As time passes and she doesn’t return, little sister becomes worried and sets out into the dark, empty night to try to find out what happened to her.  (Where the parents are in all of this is never explained.)  Venturing out into the sleeping town, she finds it has become infested with dangerous ghosts and begins a long journey to rescue her sister.

Yomawari is played from an top-down isometric perspective as the little sister explores her haunted town.  Wandering the town are various ghost enemies that attack if they sense the presence of the player.  The girl is armed only with a flashlight and small pebbles.  The flashlight is used to illuminate the roaming enemies, while the rocks can sometimes be used to distract them.  The player is given no means of attack, which means that if a ghost gives chase, little sister has to either run away and lose them or find a nearby hiding spot, which are things like large bushes and street signs.  The enemies won’t attack if little sister is hidden in one of these spots, so if the player can reach one, it then just becomes a matter of waiting for the enemy to leave before proceeding.

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Behavior patterns among the basic enemies are fairly varied.  For example, one enemy type is sensitive to sound, while another type stands perfectly still and will only attack if little sister crosses their line of vision.  Aesthetically, the different ghost types aren’t particularly horrific in appearance.  While they’re not at all gory or grotesque, I did find a few of them to be oddly unsettling.  In addition to these smaller enemies, each chapter of the game tends to feature a more elaborate monster as its focus.  I guess you could consider these the bosses of the game.  The encounters with these boss ghosts tend to be a little bit more complex than just running and hiding, and require better reflexes and sometimes puzzle-solving.

What really creates tension in the game is the fact that most of the basic enemies are invisible unless the flashlight illuminates them, which results in an atmosphere of suspicion and unease in the player’s surroundings.  If an enemy is nearby, however, you can hear little sister’s heart beat increase, which is the telltale sign that the player needs to be careful.  Furthermore, the flashlight will only shine directly in front of the player, which means that when a ghost is pursuing little sister, there’s a greater sense of suspense, since the player can’t tell exactly where the enemy is behind them.  Unfortunately, horror games always tend to walk a fine line between tension and frustration, and at times the invisible enemies can result in a lot of irritation.  This is compounded by the fact that the game operates on a one-hit game-over principle, so if a ghost touches little sister, the player is immediately sent back to the last checkpoint.

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The one-hit deaths in the game are by far my greatest complaint.  It can be really frustrating to randomly die to an unseen enemy when you’re busy trying to figure out a puzzle or find an important item that you just can’t seem to locate.  In addition, little sister’s movement is quite slow (even when running) and a bit stiff, which sometimes made evading even the enemies that I was fully aware of a clumsy experience.  Particularly late in the game, there are several enemies that require a high degree of agile movement to avoid, and the game became rather tedious at points.  Getting past those sections felt more like luck to me than skill.

On the positive side, I found the story to possess rather interesting themes, and little sister definitely has a surprising character arc that I didn’t quite expect.  Little sister is scared by the supernatural dangers she faces, but her resolve to save her sister keeps her steadfast in the face of her fear.  The entire story is approached with a level of innocence that I found unusual for a horror game, probably because most horror games feature adult protagonists.

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Yomawari is one of those games that I kind of wish I liked more than I actually do.  That’s because it’s both tonally and mechanically trying to do something different as a horror game, and I always appreciate when games set out to try to be something original.  I found little sister’s quest to be really endearing.  Unfortunately, particularly in the second half of the game, it can become rather tedious for the reasons I’ve described above.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is a bad game, but I don’t feel like I can give it my highest recommendation either.  But it is certainly good enough that I’m looking forward the to upcoming sequel, Yomawari: Midnight Shadows.  I will definitely check it out if they can clean up some of the frustrations I had with this first iteration.

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Top 3 Tribute to the Nintendo DS

Oh look at that, I’m finally crossing the 50 post threshold!  I knew I was close, but I didn’t realize how close until I happened to glance at my stats page.  Seems like an occasion for which I should do something special.  So this post is going to be a tribute to my favorite games on the Nintendo DS, a handheld with which I had a lot of great times.

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The Nintendo DS is the machine that (perhaps to everyone’s surprise) kicked off a second golden age for Nintendo.  When the two-screen handheld was announced, I think the new device was met with near universal bafflement.  The GBA was still very young (especially when compared to the extensive lifespan of the GB/GBC family), and it was also fairly commercially successful.  No one knew what to make of a new Nintendo handheld launching in that context.  Nintendo also promised it wasn’t a replacement for the GBA (the infamous “third pillar”), which seemed to indicate that the company itself wasn’t particularly confident in the DS either.

It took some time for the DS to take-off in popularity to become the titan it’s remembered as.  The original Nintendo DS model wasn’t the most attractive hardware, and it didn’t have many compelling games either for the first year or so. But around the time of the DS Lite redesign and the release of Mario Kart, the platform really exploded.  Not just in sales and popularity, but developers also came to grips with the unique creative potential of the DS’s features to create a rush of great new games.  There was a period there where a hardcore gamer could probably be content only playing new DS releases.  There were so many acclaimed and unique games released in this boom period like Ace Attorney, Ouendan, Hotel Dusk, The World Ends with You, and Kirby: Canvas Curse.  And Nintendo became ascendant again in the eyes of a lot of gamers who had strayed to the Playstation juggernaut.

As for me, I was a huge enthusiast of the Nintendo DS platform.  The little machine accompanied me through some tough years, at a time when I really needed something that would allow me an escape.  And even with all the time I’ve put into the DS and it’s library now being legacy titles only, there’s still so many games that I want to check out.  Particularly a lot of late in life games like Picross 3D, Aliens: Infestation, Kirby Mass Attack, Dragon Quest VI, and Monster Tale.  But among the many games I have played, the following three I would rank as my most favored:

Mario Kart DS

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Some consider Mario Kart DS to be the first major hit for the platform.  Not only was it an excellent excuse to to jump in with the recently released DS Lite, but it was also the flagship game for the DS’s online gaming capabilities.  To be honest, I usually don’t enjoy the handheld Mario Kart games so much.  I was left deeply apathetic after playing both Super Circuit and MK7.  I think the reason why I’m indifferent to the portable skein of the series is that, to me, Mario Kart is best enjoyed playing against friends and family in the same room.  It’s one of the last great bastions of local multiplayer.  And Mario Kart is the only video game series I know that *everyone* enjoys playing, committed gamer or not.  I mean, you can play these handheld entries locally, but that requires everyone have a DS handy, which is a condition that is exceedingly rare to find.  (I will say I finally got into online Mario Kart in a big way with MK8.)

All that said, I surprisingly did really enjoy MKDS.  I think it was because the tracks were so imaginative.  For Mario fans, the themes they chose were really fun and great throwbacks, like the desert with the fire snakes, the SMB3 airship complete with Rocky Wrenches, and Luigi’s Mansion.  Compare this to Double Dash, the previous title in the series, which I thought had really boring ideas for tracks (what does a cruise ship have to do with Mario?).  Also, this was the title that introduced the retro circuits, meaning that the track count went from 16 to 32.  All that said, I think this game just may be the most influential of its series, introducing a number of features and ideas the would carry over for all Mario Kart releases that would come afterward.

Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story

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I’ve often mentioned on this blog that I’m a huge fan of Mario RPG in all its many forms, and Mario & Luigi is probably my favorite of the three series.  And within a group of series that are known for having a fair few titles with incredibly high quality, I think Bowser’s Inside Story is one of the best ones.  Maybe not as good as Thousand Year Door, but probably the best of the Mario & Luigi’s, at least.

I give the game this high credit due mainly to the presence of two characters, Bowser and Lord Fawful.  Bowser becomes a playable protagonist in this game and is on a parallel quest to that of the mustachioed brothers, so a lot of time is spent focused on his character.  And this version of Bowser is a ton of fun.  You know, there’s been many different approaches to Bowser’s personality over the lengthy history of Mario, from the bestial King Koopa of SMB to the doting dad of Sunshine and to the megalomaniac of Galaxy, and his personality in this game is more in-line with the comedic tone of this particular series, where he’s depicted as an arrogant yet buffoonish alpha male jock.  Which makes the highly intelligent and cunningly vicious Fawful an excellent foil to the dopey Koopa boss.  If you don’t know Fawful, he was originally a henchman from the first M&L who managed to outshine the main villain in most gamers’ eyes.  In Bowser’s Inside Story, he gets his time in the spotlight as the primary antagonist, and his devious schemes don’t just subvert Bowser, but utterly humiliate him.  That is to say, Fawful is the ultimate Bowser troll.

Beyond Fawful and Bowser’s interactions, there’s a ton of great story moments in this game.  M&L has a sense of playfulness, whimsy, and humor that you just don’t find in the standard platforming games that are laser-focused on highly-polished run-and-jump gameplay.  And the battle system is a a lot of fun as is usual for M&L.  I’ve always enjoyed the reflex-based aspects that Mario RPG injects into its battle system.  It goes a long way to keeping me engaged and preventing combat from starting to feel like a grind.  And the ending is also one of my favorite game endings where we finally see Bowser get his just desserts.

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

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If I had bothered to rank this list, I can without a doubt say that Ghost Trick would come up as number one.  I honestly think that the DS’s excellent adventure games, like Hotel Dusk, Ace Attorney, Layton, and Ghost Trick, will be the most fondly remembered aspect of the platform, and Ghost Trick is easily on the top of this heap.  Ghost Trick was the next project for director Shu Takumi after he led the enormously well-received Ace Attorney series.  The game stars a recently-murdered amnesiac ghost who attempts to solve the mysterious circumstances of his demise.  While the setup is fairly simple and rather cliche, the story that follows is actually fairly complex and original, with many twists and turns that I honestly didn’t expect.  Furthermore, it is a story with a lot of heart, and I really felt for the characters and the struggles they went through.  Despite all the convoluted supernatural weirdness that envelopes the plot, the characters felt very real and human to me.

Despite its lineage, Ghost Trick actually strays fairly far from the template of the simple visual novels that chronicle Phoenix’s adventures.  Gameplay is greatly different.  As opposed to the dialogue-based gameplay of Phoenix Wright, the story in Ghost Trick plays out in cutscenes mostly independent of the player’s input.  The gameplay portion is centered instead on Sessile’s time-warping ghost power.  Many people die during the course of the story, and Sessile has the power to rewind time to just moments before their death.  This allows him to try to change the course of events that led to their untimely demise with the goal of preserving their lives.  Saving them is not just for the sake of charity, but often because these people are leads in the mystery of Sessile’s murder.  These time-bending rescues are accomplished by poltergeist-ing numerous objects to influence the characters and the sequence of actions that occur in the vicinity of the murder/accident victim.  Consequently, it is more of a puzzle game than Ace Attorney, and the ways in which the game ultimately expects the player to utilize this simple ghostly possession mechanic actually get very inventive.  There are many “a-ha” moments to be found here.

The art is another major difference between Ghost Trick and its predecessor.  Ace Attorney makes use of very simple graphics with still character portraits and backgrounds.  But Ghost Trick presents its world from a cross-sectional perspective (like a sidescroller), and the sprite work in this game is *amazing*, especially when it comes to animations.  Character movements are impressively fluid, complexly-detailed, and full of whimsical personality.  Just take a look at Inspector Cabanela below.  I may even be willing to go out on a limb and say Ghost Trick has the best sprite work of any game I’ve ever played.

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All-in-all, Ghost Trick is an amazing experience.  For a platform that had so many endearing and heartfelt games, I think this one ranks at the top and is a must-play for enthusiasts and newcomers to the platform alike.

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