Tag: recommendations

Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass, and Open-Ended Stories

Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass is an RPG by Kasey Ozymy, the developer of A Very Long Rope to the Top of the Sky and The God of Crawling Eyes, two games we previously reviewed. It’s clear that the developer learned a lot about game design in the intervening time; Jimmy is actually fun to play, with challenging battles that never feel like brick walls or games of roulette, as well as a tight and intuitive set of tools and mechanics for you to play with. It also just doesn’t bother with elemental effects, which I thought was a nice bit of streamlining. There’s a ton of content and it’s honestly a steal at $15, so definitely pick it up if you’re in the mood for a jRPG.

(Don’t bother with the postgame, though. It just throws you against the exact same enemies and bosses from the main game with literally no difference except bigger numbers, then caps it off with a really tedious battle that’s a total crapshoot followed by you effectively winning halfway through but having to continue punching your way through mountains of HP anyway. Save yourself the time and just look it up on YouTube.)

Unfortunately, story-wise, the author decided to dive into a completely different genre, and his inexperience in that area is very stark. The premise of the game is that it all takes place in the imagination of Jimmy, a young boy — and because it’s a world of his dreams, it’s also a world of his nightmares. To the developer’s credit, this is not your typical “looks cutesy but is secretly SUPER EDGY!!!” affair: the story does genuinely oscillate between horror and truly lighthearted segments, and most of the horror elements are relegated to the edges, which I thought was very fitting — to confront Jimmy’s repressed fears, you have to go searching for them. It does a really good job of making it feel like the horror is intruding on Jimmy’s fantasy, and that he’s actively trying to push it back.

My issue is that none of it really goes anywhere. The horror elements are all flash and no substance — or if there is substance, it’s so vague and opaque I can’t find it. Individual areas are very well-designed, but they don’t seem to add up into any coherent whole. Supposedly, the horror levels are meant to give us a psychological profile of Jimmy via his worst fears, but I couldn’t find any consistent thread that paints any meaningful picture beyond the most banal, superficial, and obvious reading. I wouldn’t mind this so much if the horror levels were just window dressing, but they’re not. The main story is one of those infuriatingly obtuse plots where everything is ~up to your interpretation~, right down to the ending itself, which explains absolutely nothing, not even what the Pulsating Mass is. The horror dungeons feel like they’re supposed to be vital pieces of the puzzle, but trying to use them to read into the main plot feels like grasping at straws.

More details under the cut, with major spoilers, obviously, but I will say that I don’t think the spoilers will ruin the game for you — the plot’s strength is in the characters and areas, and like I said, there’s not even a big ending reveal to spoil in the first place.

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Alter A.I.L.A. Genesis

A grungy soft sci-fi post-apocalyptic RPG! That’s… really the best description I can give of this, as the particulars of the plot and setting aren’t anything particularly noteworthy. The story is a bit cliched and has a lot of weird animesque characters and twists, but I overall found it to be really enjoyable even if it wasn’t anything spectacular. The most notable thing about this game is that it bucks a lot of RPG Maker trends in terms of presentation and gameplay. Exploration is done in sidescrolling platformer-like maps, and cutscenes are shown through comic-like panels. I found both of these things to be really original and well-done — exploration was sleek and straightforward without being simplistic, and there are in fact many fun puzzles to be had. The cutscene style was also really well-executed and made scenes feel much more vivid and dynamic than I’m used to in RPG Maker games. The gameplay, too, is honestly one of the best and most elegant RPG battle systems I’ve ever seen. It has a lot of rough patches (an engine goof apparently led to enemy defense being completely useless, completely wrecking the balance of weak speedsters vs. big hitters) but also provides a lot of fresh new ideas and produced some really snappy, enjoyable battles.

It’s also a great example of how to make a self-contained story while also providing an enticing sequel hook. As so often happens the promised sequel went up in smoke, but unlike SOME GAMES I don’t mind, because the main conflict and mysteries are adequately resolved and I don’t feel like I need to know the answers to the remaining threads for emotional satisfaction.

In general, I recommend this to aspiring game devs in particular — while it’s not the greatest at everything, it forwards a lot of clever and original ideas I’d love to see gain wider use.

(This is also a remake of an earlier game, just titled “Alter A.I.L.A.”, that contains the same characters and similar plot elements but is ultimately very different. If you liked Genesis and have time to spare I’d say it’s worth checking out for its alternate take on several characters, though I would say it’s a less enjoyable experience overall.)

Chalion

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion series of medieval fantasy based on historical Spain is comprised of three books (The Curse of Chalion, The Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt) and some novellas (haven’t read these yet) all set in the same world. They all stand alone, which is notable as I’ve been reading a lot of first-book-in-a-series lately, and it was so nice to read something with an actual beginning, middle, and ending. It was also wonderful to read something with active, capable characters who could keep up with the implication of events in their own world and actually even beat me to figuring some things out. Bujold’s writing is a delight and her characters are real, flawed people who are easy to root for. The world also feels very real, too, likely bolstered by the fact that, unlike a lot of the YA fantasy we’ve done, it doesn’t carefully tiptoe around things like the existence of homosexuality and abortion or the consequences of rape and war.

Also!!! Paladin of Souls has a character who’s fat but it’s not a character flaw!!! I’ve literally never seen this in a fantasy novel before, the only time his weight comes up as anything but a neutral physical descriptor is toward the end where it’s noted that after some times trapped under siege he’s thinner and it’s sad because it shows how much he’s been through.

Oddly, this series seems to get sold as romance, which is weird because it’s… not. Especially for medieval fantasy where who-marries-who court-style stuff is usually a big focus, it lacked romance. It’s really weird, kind of the opposite of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which was sold as straight fantasy but was actually romantic fantasy.

Also, as a final pre-jump aside, despite these being excellent fantasy, Bujold is actually known for her space opera series, to the point that it got her a lifetime achievement award at last year’s Hugos, and if you follow the sidebar, you may know space opera bores me to tears. I’d be curious to hear if any fans of the genre are familiar with her series.

Anyway.

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Shadowrun Returns, Shadowrun: Dragonfall and Shadowrun: Hong Kong

You know how long-running horror franchises would inevitably have an installment set IN SPACE in a desperate attempt to cling to life by introducing a superficial new element that doesn’t actually fit the genre? Well, Shadowrun is an old TRPG that can be accurately described as cyberpunk but WITH MAGIC. In 2012 magic came back, a large percentage of people turned into various fantasy races, many animals mutated into mythological beasts, people learned to summon and bind spirits of nature, dragons awoke from their millennia-long slumber and decided that running corporations is a good substitute for hoarding gold. Meanwhile, technology advanced in a classic cyberpunk fashion: prosthetics enhancing your abilities beyond human limits, cybernetic implants allowing full-immersion link to cyberspace inventively called the Matrix, etc.

These events resulted in a weakening and sometimes outright collapse of governments, with corporations essentially taking their place and running the world in an orgy of wild capitalism.

The game takes its name after shadowrunners, the presumed PCs, who are essentially freelance black books operatives hired by various corporations, organized crime syndicates and individual clients as deniable assets to do various shady jobs.

Honestly, my knowledge of the setting is rather limited, and I would appreciate someone chiming in on it. From what I’ve seen of it, it feels that sometimes Shadowrun strikes gold in its design (like how it has literal lizard people dragons – a classic metaphor for greed and malice – essentially running the world through corporate proxies) and other times it’s content to just throw “awesome” concepts together (Magic! Cyberware! Matrix! Samurai!) with little regard to creating a thematically-coherent whole.

But anyway, apparently there are three relatively new RPGs set in this setting, and I’ve decided to check them out. They are… pretty solid, actually.

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Night in the Woods

This game is really good and you should play it. I cried so many times. It’s a bit small for a $20 game, but definitely pick it up if there’s a sale.

I briefly mentioned Night in the Woods during my review of Always Sometimes Monsters, and I think it’s time to go a bit more in-depth on that. Night in the Woods is an amazing example of how to do realistic right. It doesn’t just have realism, it has verisimilitude. The whole story, from beginning to end, is amazingly, painfully real, not because of cynicism and darkness, but because of sentimentality and hope. I saw myself and the people I know in these characters and their relationships over and over again. This is a story about finding something to cling to in a world that’s falling apart, which I think is something a lot of people need right now — and the ending is eerily topical for something that started development in 2013.

Also, Demontower is super fun and the central mechanic is really clever.

Only thing you need to know that the game isn’t very clear about: whoever you hang out with on the first day, stick with them through the rest of the game.

Feel free to use this as a discussion post.

Sugar Sugar Rune

Anno Moyoco has quickly become one of my favorite mangaka. Sugar Sugar Rune is her shoujo series, and while not anywhere near as serious as works like Sakuran and In Clothes Called Fat, it has the kind of messages I’d expect from her having read her josei works. SSR is big on critiquing femininity but manages to do so without throwing women under the bus, which is really great. It’s also something of a reverse-harem setup, which is extremely rare. The plotting and worldbuilding flounder at the end, but if you like shoujo or have a girl who you think would be into manga, this is an excellent starting point.

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Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines

Let’s crack the posting champagne with a recommendation!

I really, really enjoyed this game. It’s not just an excellent wRPG but one of the best I’ve ever played, with a really unique setting and lots of choices that effect the outcome. Just some good fun. It also did weirdly well with women for a game that came out in 2004, though it definitely still had some issues, most notably with sex-based slurs and having a sexuality that was solidly aimed at straight men.

(That said — that the players was presumed male meant that if you played as the female PC, your character was 100% a lesbian — she had no interest in men whatsoever and hit on all of the women. I shipped my character and VV pretty hard, ngl.) (more…)

Yggdra Union

I was once again incredibly surprised by this series. This is an excellent game, and if you’re a tRPG fan I highly recommend it. It shines in the way it explores the moral complexity of war, the nature of just war, and the effect conflicts of the elite have on civilians. The game was also remarkably egalitarian, both in costume design and gender ratio. The art style was pretty odd, but it grew on me and I think it gave the game a unique atmosphere overall.

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