This is my personal blog site where I write about a variety of topics that interest me, mostly gaming (online, video and boardgames) and anime. I try to post every Tuesday. What this is, is some placeholder text for Google+. This is more placeholder text. I'm not sure how much I need to put here. This sure is boring. I wish I knew why this worked. It shouldn't. It sure is CONFUSING!
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'Cause girls are such a drag
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"Comes The Inquisitor", Babylon 5
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
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PSVR - VR Playroom
The VR Playroom is a free “game” that is downloadable from Sony’s Playstation Network. It’s kinda-sorta a followup to the original Playroom “game” that was released when the PS4 first came out, only this time, it’s highlighting the new PSVR virtual reality headset. I put “Game” in scare quotes, because it’s not really a game. In fact it’s a collection of five mini-games and one VR “experience”. So let’s talk about the things that are included in this package.

Cat and Mouse is a asymmetric multiplayer title that can handle two to five players. The VR player is the Cat; up to four TV players are the mice. The interesting part about this game is that what the VR player sees and what the TV players see is almost completely different! This is an exciting thing that I hope more future games take advantage of as we move forward with VR game development. The game takes place in a futuristic kitchen, where the mice are trying to steal bits of cheese, and the cat is trying to catch the mice.

The VR player is a controller-less Cat. This player uses their head to look at the mice to aim, and then lunges forward to pounce. The Cat lives in a tiny alcove that is separated from the kitchen by three sheer curtains. When the cat is completely in their alcove, the view to the kitchen is almost completely obscured. By slowly moving their head forward, the cat draws back first one, then the second and finally the third curtain. With all three curtains pulled back, any mouse that is visible is immediately caught and dragged into the Cat’s alcove.

The catch is, of course, that if the curtains remain open for a certain amount of time, a Dog playfully jumps into the kitchen. If the Cat is visible when the Dog is in play, all of the caught mice are released.

The TV player(s) each control a single mouse with the dualshock controllers. From the mice’s point of view, it is a normal (albeit simple) video game. Each Mouse can move around in the kitchen to collect cheese bits, or they can press and hold a button to hide. They can hide indefinitely, but while hidden, the Mouse cannot move, which means they cannot collect any cheese. The Cat’s alcove is clearly visible and the mice can choose when to move (or hide) based on whether the curtains are open or closed.

The first time we played this game at my house, we had a full complement of four mice. To complete a single game took over half-hour. What ended up happening was that the gamer mice would hide almost constantly. If the cat was out of the alcove, the mice just hid. Only if the Cat was completely in the alcove would the mice move at all. And to move, they would only release their hide button for a split second, and then hide again. This allowed them to “pop” move with near immunity. The time that they were visible was so short it was nearly impossible for the Cat to catch them. (Except that he did… it just took for-freaking-ever to get it done.)

So, this is a really clever concept, and perhaps it would work with non-gamers. But with experienced gamers, this became more of a chore than entertainment. As one of the TV players said when we were about 20 minutes in, “I guess the game of Cat-and-Mouse really is a waiting game…”

Monster Escape is another asymmetric game where the VR player and the TV player see different things. This game is also very cute, and actually works for experienced gamers. In this one, the VR player takes on the role of a giant monster that rampages through a stylized cityscape, demolishing buildings and other structures by hitting them with his head (using the motion controlled VR headset). Meanwhile the TV players are tasked with saving as many civilians as possible by choosing which lane on the monster’s route to be in. Debris tossed from the impacted buildings falls on the road and the route chosen needs to avoid the falling detritus.

After a short intermission, the TV players then are given the chance to throw objects – crashed helocopters, bits of rubble, destroyed furniture, barrels of oil, and the like – back at the monster player, who has to duck, weave and dodge to avoid being hit. If the players manage to hit the monster some number of times, they win (by saving the remnants of the destroyed city). If not, the monster wins.

This combination works pretty well. It doesn’t have player elimination, and everyone is always engaged at all times. It does a great job of showing different things to different players.There is some amount of skill involved, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Whether you win or lose really isn’t all that important because it’s silly and fun from start to finish.

Wanted is a 2+ player game. In this one the VR player is an old-west cowboy sheriff in a western themed saloon. He can see two to twenty different non-players in the saloon, and one of them is the bad guy, but he has no idea who it is. His dualshock controller is a “gun” that can shoot one bullet. The TV players are shown a picture of the bad guy who is “wanted” and they have to communicate who it is to the sheriff. Thus the name of the game.

If the sheriff shoots the wrong target, the bad guy drops a bomb and ends the game. If the sheriff doesn’t shoot the bad guy within a really short time limit (around 5 to ten seconds), the bad guy jumps out and ends the game. It boils down to the TV players being able to describe the wanted guy as quickly and as clearly as possible. There is really only a handful of seconds to get the description out and have the sheriff act.

This one is fun and also makes really good use of the asymmetric views. The biggest problem here is that it really only works well with two or three players. Any more than that and the chaos of having multiple people simultaneously describing the bad guy becomes untenable. (This is kind of a first-world problem for me in particular. I know that most people only play with as a couple or trio, but in my house, we actually have to work to have only four players in a game. Even the most casual of game events end up with 6 players, so this one doesn’t really work well for me.

Ghost House has a lot of the same issues and advantages as Wanted. In this game, the VR player is a ghostbuster type character. They look around with the VR headset, and uses the dualshock controller as a flashlight and as a ghost-sucking device. The TV view shows what the VR player can see, with the addition of showing ghosts that invisible from inside the VR headset. The TV players do not get a controller; they simply shout out directions where the ghosts are visible.

This makes really good use of the asymmetric views. And even thoigh it is easier than the Wanted game, the theme didn’t really grab me. Plus it has the same problem as Wanted: it really only works well with two or three players. With 5 people shouting “There it is!” and giving different directions, it became really difficult to play.

Robot Rescue is the final game in this package, and is probably the most fun in the bunch. This is a Mario World style platformer. The VR player is given a 3rd person view of the platform world and uses the dualshock to move their little guy around. The controls are fluid, there are secret hidden passages and overall the game is super fun to play. In fact, the biggest problem here is that this game is so short! It’s only a single level that can be completed in less than 15 minutes. Even if the payer takes their time and looks for all the hidden secrets, it is still well under 30 minutes to complete the game. And with the game level being the same each time, there really isn’t much replay value here.

The game also allows for a single TV player, who drives a tiny little hovercar around in the world. The goal of the VR player is to locate and rescue 20 little robots that are hidden all around the map. The TV player is the standard Player 2 – they have limited effect on the game and are mostly along just for the ride. That’s not to say that there is nothing for them to do. The TV player can use a vacuum on their hovercar to suck up different items on the map and then spit them back out at flying enemies that the VR player cannot reach. There is at least one robot that cannot be reached without help from the hovercar’s assistance. In short, just like the classic Mario-style platformers, while the game is mostly a single player game, it does have some compelling reasons for 2-player action.

This last game is super fun! And even though it really doesn’t have a whole lot of replay value, I’ve played it from start to finish at least four times. It’s just that fun!! It’s really a shame that the team that developed this game has been dissolved and it’s unlikely that the game will be expanded at all. If ever there was a demo of a game that needs expansion into a full-fledged game, this is it.

Overall, the VR Playroom is a good quality demonstration for the PSVR. It offers some really great (albeit short) single-player games, as well as pushing the boundary for what can be done with asymmetric social multiplayer. For the cost (free!) it probably represents the base value game experience for the PSVR headset.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, November 8, 2016 3:19 PM PT [+]

PSVR - VR Worlds
The VR Worlds disc was bundled in with the PSVR for many people. Those that didn’t get the bundle might have ordered this package anyway since it has five different “experiences” on one disc: Ocean Descent, The London Heist, Scavenger’s Odyssey, VR Luge, and Danger Ball. That seems like a pretty good value. And it is! Most people have already seen two out of the five experiences, so let’s talk about them first…

Ocean Descent is one of the public demos that Sony has been using to show the PSVR for the last year or so. This is a non-interactive “experience” where you, the “player”, are put into a shark cage and lowered down to the bottom of a Tropical ocean scene. There is some voice-over that plays in the background that kind of lends a tiny bit of “realism” to the event, supposedly providing some kind of “story”. You’re on a salvage team, sent out by some mysterious guy named “Connor”. Your “boss” is a woman named “Kie” and she is the one talking you through the event. The cage is being winched down (and later back up) by a man who also has a few lines.

This is a great ‘first-timers’ experience, because the player doesn’t actually DO anything. It’s about as interactive as watching a movie. Albeit a 360-degree movie that you can look at from different angles. As the cage lowers into the ocean depths, various sea-life appears and disappears. You go from a colorful reef complete with swimming sea turtles and angelfish, to soaring manta rays, to glowing jellyfish, and finally to an encounter with a large toothy shark.

It’s a fun experience for people new to VR because the feeling of immersion is really present. Even though you know it isn’t real, and it isn’t interactive, you still feel like you could fall out of the cage, and you actually feel threatened by the shark. For people who have experienced VR before, it’s kind of ho-hum. I mean… it’s immersive and all that, but nothing really happens. If you’ve seen any of the press event videos of the PSVR, you’ve already seen this experience (minus the voice-over and “story”). Still, for a first-time introduction to VR, it has value. But that’s really about it.

The London Heist is another one of those demonstration-event games. In this case, they’ve taken the car-chase segment and the desk shooting segment that have both been seen multiple times and stitched them together with some semi-interactive expository segments and turned it into a 60 to 90 minute interactive “movie”. It’s interactive in that the player has to do stuff to progress the story, but it’s still a movie-like experience. The story plays out the same way no matter what the player does.

The story follows the events of a diamond heist gone wrong (or right, depending on the player’s final action). It is told non-linearly, starting with the player seemingly tied to a chair in a lock-up in London, being interrogated by a beefy looking man in a wifebeater shirt. The slow start give the player a few minutes to look around and get used to being in VR. After a few moments, the scene changes to a “business meeting” in a London Pub. Some of the items in the pub are interactive, some are not. There is some expository language that sets the scene for what is about to happen and the player has the opportunity to play with their “hands” picking up different things on the table in front of them. After a short segment that takes us back to the lock-up (and a bit more exposition), the player is whisked off to the first action sequence, the “robbery”. There is one simple puzzle to solve, and then, of course things go awry and violence does ensue. After some expert shooting (or not, depending on the player’s level of comfort with the motion controls), it’s back to the lockup, which serves as the “anchor” for the storytelling. After that there is the car-chase action sequence that climaxes with some really awesome time-dilation effects – “bullet time” has always been a neat FPS convention and it ends up working even better in VR! Finally, it’s back to the lockup for the culmination of the story. The story is fun and there are three different endings that the player can choose, based on their actions.

In addition to the story-mode, there are several shooting galleries. These can be done with or without a laser sight (called “aim assist”). These are score based games, and each one lasts about a minute. Each of the different galleries have a separate online leaderboard, allowing competitive players to compare their scores to others. These are fun, but not something that is going to be a good for long term play.

This “game” is another great intro to VR, and it has some replay value in the shooting galleries and choosing the different endings, but is not a super compelling experience in itself. It ends up feeling like a demo – albeit a really good one – and not a “real” game.

Scavenger’s Odyssey is the first title that most people have not seen before. It was very briefly shown once and then never again. There’s a good reason for that. This game is a cockpit-shooter, that takes about an hour or so to get through (assuming you can). The problem is that the vast majority of people can’t play it without getting horrible motion sickness. Some people have no problem with it. For myself, as soon as the “scavenger” started moving, this one threw me off-kilter. One of my friends had no issues with this at all and found it extremely fun to be jumping around in the game. Another friend played for 15 minutes and ended up being laid out with dizziness and nausea for about two hours after she took off the VR headset. I was able to complete the entire thing by playing it in short bursts, then saving my game and quitting. Each time I would advance the game a bit further. It took about a week, but I got through it.

The story is that you are some sort of oppressed slave-like person that manages to escape a spaceship crash in the middle of some sort of huge event. As the story progresses, you end up fighting space bugs and learn about your people’s origin in a pseudo-mystical religious experience. At the end of the game you have the option to start the destruction of the universe, to “start over” with your people as the “chosen ones”, instead of the slaves that they are.

The shooting uses the VR “look to aim” system (which I think is likely to become the new standard in VR), and movement is still on the controller. It feels odd at first, but since the in-game movement and view are completely decoupled it allows for a lot more gameplay freedom. The really sad part is that it isn’t really a bad game, it just pushes the wrong button for some people. And by “wrong” I mean the “vomit” button.

VR Luge was also shown a few times publicly, but not a lot. In this game, the (obviously male) player is on a street luge that begins hurtling down a hilly road, complete with car traffic. Steering is accomplished by tilting your head – it doesn’t use a controller at all. Luckily, impacting with a car or roadside hazard simple causes the screen to flash red and your virtual speed to decrease. Tucking in behind a car or truck going the same direction (ie. downhill) causes the speed to increase. Unfortunately, playing this game is literally a pain-in-the-neck. Using one’s head as a controller is a novel idea, but in practice, it ends up detracting from the fun, rather than making it better.

The game is fairly simple and easy to pick up and play. There are a few sections on the road where the player flies into the air and those sections can lead to some minor discomfort. Luckily, they are only a second or two long, so most people can get through them without issues. The bigger issue is that the graphics are muddy and aliased. As an “action” game, the poor graphics are a pretty large impediment to gameplay.

The biggest problem with this game is that it is so simple. The only real challenge in not hitting obstacles and getting to the bottom of the hill as fast as possible. In fact, the “campaign” mode is to do four events in a row with an ever decreasing timer. The campaign ends when the player runs out of time, regardless of how far they got into the event. Partial credit is NOT given. And in order to give the illusion of gameplay, the designers set the time limit extremely low. After nearly three weeks, and earning over half of the trophies available for this event, I have yet to complete the entire campaign! (It’s worth noting that the trophies for this game are the most rare ones out of all five experiences.)

Similar to the other experiences, this game is a good introductory experience for players new to VR, but not much else. Completionists will be frustrated by its poor graphics, high difficulty and wonky gameplay. Overall, this is the worst game on the disc.

Danger Ball, on the other hand, is probably the best game on the disc. This is the sleeper surprise. It’s more or less VR Pong, which seems silly and pointless, but ends up being compelling and a ton of fun to play!

In this game, the player is placed just outside of the end of a square hallway. On the near end of the hallway a paddle is controlled by the view of the player. Look up, and the paddle moves up. Look left, and the paddle moves left. On the far end of the hallway is a computer-controlled opponent’s paddle. The ball bounces between the two paddles, deflecting off the hallway walls. Hitting the ball past the opponent scores a point for the player and letting the ball past the player's paddle scores a point for the opponent. A match is won when either player scores five points. It’s honestly three-dimensional pong!

There are several game modes, the most obvious of which is the “tournament”. (Note: I said “obvious” not “easy”!) In this mode, the player is matched up against five random opponents, selected from the eight in the game. Each of these opponents has a “trick”, and they are all unique. For example, the Twins player has two paddles to hit the ball back; Tornado causes the ball to swerve and sway as it returns; Buzzsaw makes the ball “stick” to the sides of the hallway; Dupe sends back two balls instead of one; and so on. After beating five opponents, the player then has to best a unique opponent named Necro. His “trick” is to mimic the same five opponents that the player just beat. Each time the player scores a single point, Necro changes to a new form. Beating the tournament is extremely challenging!

There is also a “quickplay” mode where you choose a specific opponent and a difficulty level. This allows for practice against any one opponent to figure out how to best beat them. Unfortunately, because Necro depends on the prior five matches in a tournament, it’s impossible to play quickplay against him.

Finally, there is a score based mode called “score attack”. In this mode, the far end of the hallway becomes a solid wall that always returns the ball, peppered with a series of targets that decrease in size as the game progresses. The speed of the ball steadily increases over time, and the score attack ends after three balls get past the player. The goal is to hit specific targets to score points. This mode rewards players with lighting fast reflexes and precision ball control.

Because it is such a simple game to play, with three different modes, Danger Ball ends up being a lot of fun. When demoing the PSVR to new people, once they see Danger Ball, they may play something else, but they almost invariably end up wanting to try this one again.

OVERALL, the VR Worlds package has some really great introduction-to-VR titles. If you’ve never used a VR headset before, or plan on showing it to people who haven’t, this is a great place to start! However, for long-term play or compelling repeat gameplay, it really doesn’t offer much. Even the best game on the disc (Danger Ball) has a limited amount of gameplay value – mostly because it is such a simple game. If you were going to buy only one or two VR games, you could do a lot worse than buying this package. Just don’t expect it to be something that you’ll be playing for more than a few weeks.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, November 1, 2016 5:07 PM PT [+]

PSVR (hardware)
A few weeks ago, a friend brought a HTC Vive over to my house. I was able to spend a solid couple of days playing with the thing as well as watching a half-dozen friends play with it for a couple hours each. Overall, it was a pleasant experience and it provided a nice solid benchmark for comparing other VR headsets to. All told, I was inside the Vive headset for at least five or six hours and was able to play a handful of different titles.

On October 13, 2016, Sony released their entry into the Virtual Reality space, the PSVR headset. The stand-out features of the PSVR are its comfort, its “ease-of-use” in setup and its low cost. In this overview I’m going to talk about the headset itself (and its associated bits and goodies). I’ll post a bit more about the “free” software that comes with it, or available for download from PSN (for free) to every user in my next post (which, with luck, will be up in a few days).

First, let’s get one thing out of the way right away. The PSVR is not the same quality as the Vive or Rift headsets. If you are interested in getting into the VR space, and want “The Best”, PSVR is not that. There was a lot of ballyhooing about how the RGB-subpixel display would be equal to (or even better than) the plain-jane 1080p displays in the Vive/Rift. Simply not true. There have been reports about how the field-of-view of the PSVR “feels” wider than the Rift/Vive. I’m not one to discount other’s “feelings”, but from a purely objective stance, the difference is so small as to be negligible. The overall resolution of the PSVR is limited to the same 1080p as the Vive and Rift, but the bigger limit is the video processing power of the PS4, and it just can’t push pixels fast enough for that.

But so what? The whole point of VR is not to display crystal-clear photorealistic graphics. Maybe that’s what they show in the TV advertisements, but that’s just not reality. Even the very best military-grade VR that literally costs hundreds of thousands of dollars is not capable of that. But what you DO get with a consumer level VR headset is the feeling of “being there” inside the game. Cutting edge graphics are not required for that. And the PSVR, running off a standard original-model PS4, has a display resolution that is quite capable of making the user feel like they have been transported into another place. Sometimes it is a TRON-like computer generated place, sometimes it is a soft-focus cartoony place, sometimes it is a sharp-focus marionette world, and sometimes it actually feels like a real-world place... just maybe not this world! Graphically speaking, the PSVR and PS4 display is more than adequate for presenting believable virtual reality.

The optics in the PSVR, on the other hand, seem to be a lot more finicky than the Vive. I wear glasses. In fact, because I’m an “older” gamer (I turned 50 this year), I wear bifocal glasses. Because of this, I can only use the top half of my glasses in a VR headset; the VR optics make it “appear” as if the display is 8 to 15 feet away from your eyes and only the top half of my glasses’ lenses are set for “distance” viewing. For me, with the Vive, I had to keep hitching the display up on my face. It naturally wanted to sit slightly too low for me to have clear vision inside the thing; I had to choose between being comfortable, or being able to see clearly. Because of the construction of the PSVR, I was able to move the headset to the perfect position and keep it there with minimal fussing.

The “halo” design of the PSVR is unique among all three of the commercial headsets. The Rift and the Vive both attach like a pair of goggles – there is a strap that goes around the user’s head and holds the display tight against the face. This leads to the infamous “VR-face” where, after some amount of use, the gasket leaves a red “ring” around the user’s eyes, as if they had been SCUBA diving for some time. Compared to that method, the PSVR seems both bizarre and amazing! The display more-or-less doesn’t touch the user’s face at all. Instead it kind of “floats” in front of them. It is supported by a single hard plastic handle that is attached to the “halo” – a headband that sits on top of the user’s head like a plastic baseball visor. In fact, wearing the PSVR feels very similar to wearing a baseball cap. There is a soft plastic gasket that does prevent light from outside the display from obscuring the view, but this is not a friction fit and is noticeably less cumbersome than the Vive/Rift.

Setting up the headset for use is amazingly simple. There are a total of five cables to connect. At first this sounds like a lot, but two of them are to the PS4 and the other three connect to the PSVR breakout box. That’s it. No drivers. No configuration files. You push a single button and the thing goes “beep” and it’s ready to use. Compare this to the Vive, which requires two “lighthouses” to be set up and configured; a wand to be walked around the play area to set up the boundaries, drivers to be installed and configured for the lighthouses, and then finally the headset is ready for use. With practice a Vive can be set up in ten minutes. Initial setup for the PSVR was less than that, and once it’s connected, getting it ready for use can be done in seconds. That’s not hyperbole – last night I played with the PSVR for a few minutes and the total setup I did was: Pick up the headset, push the power button on the headset, place headset on my head.

There is a caveat for that quick setup and configuration, of course. The reason that the Vive (and to a lesser extent, the Rift) take so long to set up and configure is that they use a high-tech system to locate and track the headset (and motion controls). The Vive uses “lighthouse” technology (which I won’t explain here, but it is really cool) and the Rift uses infrared detectors (which is also cool). Both of these technologies are inherently redundant and self-correcting. The PSVR, on the other hand, uses normal, garden-variety, optical tracking. From a single camera. That has an incredibly tight field-of-view. This results in two problems:
First, the field of view. When you are in the “best” position in front of the camera, you have about three feet to either side of you that is visible to the camera and about two feet above and below (the headset). The side to side range is adequate, but not great. If you stay seated and don’t move around too much, it will capture most people’s outstretched arms. You can move to the side and get a hand/controller out of the tracking area, but it isn’t common. More impactful is the vertical limit. Assuming you are seated (and even if you are standing) and you put your hands down as far as you can, your hands will be (for most people) more than two feet below your eyes. This happens quite a bit in actual gameplay. Even setting a controller on one’s lap will cause it to “vanish” from the virtual world as it leaves view.

The other major problem is that optical tracking is based on visible light. If the room is too dark, the camera can’t “see” and it loses tracking. If the room is too bright, it can’t make out the glowing LEDs on the headset and loses tracking. If there are lights (or reflective surfaces) behind the user, where the camera can see them, it gets confused and loses tracking. And a loss of tracking for the PSVR means that it “jitters”. That is, the apparent location of both the headset and the controllers appears to unpredictably move around slightly. For controllers, this is annoying, but not terrible. Most of the time you are moving them around already and if it moves an extra ½” to the left when you throw a Batarang, you still hit the target. Where it becomes a problem is when the headset jitters. This makes the view/camera adjust for the user’s (apparent, but not real) motion. In effect, the entire virtual world “jitters”, which is disconcerting and unnerving.

The solution to controller and headset jitter is more-or-less to just play with it until you find a solution that works. For my particular situation, where I had originally placed the camera, some bright lights were visible directly behind the user. Moving the camera to another location (above my TV) changed the point-of-view such that the lights were less obvious and cleared up a lot of the headset jitter. (There is still some controller jitter though.) Sitting or standing about 6 feet away from the camera seems to work best. If you are more than 10 feet away, from the camera, the light levels from the LEDs and controllers is “too dim” for good recognition and the whole thing becomes spasmodic.

The controllers used by the PSVR come in two flavors. Many games use the standard DualShock4 PS4 controllers. As many players of the PS4 already know, the battery life on these is pitiful. Luckily, since I am a PS4 user who often hosted other players locally, I already own four of these. As one would go dead, I toss it on the “cooker” and grab another and I’m back in business. Some of the more immersive games use the old PS3 Move controllers, which have been repurposed for the PSVR. These things are often modeled in the game as hands, allowing for more direct interaction with the virtual world. Even though my Move controllers are about 5 years old, they work extremely well and the batteries actually last longer than the DS4 controllers. As described above, they are not as “stable” as the Vive’s wands (due to the optical tracking), but they certainly work and they work well.

All told, the cost for a PSVR is around $400 to $800. On the lower end, assuming you already own a PS4, PS Camera, and two Move controllers, then the “core” system is all you need. At $400 out-the-door, you get the headset, a demo disc with 18 game demos and the free VR Playroom on PSN. That’s everything you need to experience virtual reality. On the other hand, if you own nothing, you’ll need to buy a PS4 (at about $275 these days), a PS Camera (about $50 on amazon), two move controllers (another $75), and the PSVR (for $400). Compared that to the cost of a Rift ($600) or the Vive ($800), both of which require a minimum $900 gaming PC computer with a top-of-the-line video card... the value proposition of the PSVR is unmatched.
For the casual non-core user who has experienced cellphone style VR (with Google “cardboard” or the Samsung GearVR), the PSVR is going to be a HUGE upgrade. Compared to that low-end VR, the PSVR is night-and-day better. It makes those cellphone based system look like toys. On the other hand, for a user that already has access to a Rift or Vive headset, the PSVR offers a solid 80% of that same quality, at about half the cost. The value of the PSVR is head-and-shoulders better than any other VR option available now.

It isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. It does have some very real limits that may prevent some users from enjoying it. Watching YouTube videos of games played on the thing really isn’t impressive; most of the VR games look like hot garbage on a flat screen. (They really aren’t when you’re inside the headset.) As long as you know what the limitations of the system are and are willing to stay inside the lines it creates, it is extremely compelling, usable, and (above all) an extremely BELIEVABLE experience. On at least two occasions, while hosting friends, they had to tap out because the experience was “too much” to handle (too scary, too creepy, or too upsetting, depending on the person and situation). Overall, the PSVR hardware is a GREAT system and it does a wonderful job of presenting an immersive, believable virtual world to the user. I’m super glad I bought mine!!

- Stupid @ Tuesday, October 25, 2016 9:29 PM PT [+]

Olli Olli Oxenfree!


I saw an advertisement for Oxenfree several months ago, and really thought it looked like a really cool concept. I wasn’t completely sure what kind of game it was at the time, but I knew I wanted to play it. When it finally released on the PS4, I bought it on launch day. It sat in my queue for a while, but I finally finished it. And, wow, this is a really good game. Not a “great” game – it does have some serious flaws - but it’s still very entertaining and I’m glad I played it.

The basic premise is that you play Alex, a blue-haired high-schooler, who, along with some of her classmates, are going to illegally camp out at a local tourist trap. That happens to be a deserted (and haunted) island, complete with a spooky old mansion, WWII backstory, ghosts of fallen soldiers and… oh, yeah, it’s a time-travel story too.

Yep.

The gameplay is kind of unique. In a nutshell, you “walk” around the map and have conversations with the other characters. There are the odd interactions with the environment, but the meat of the game is in the conversation engine. While conversations are going on, you will often be given two or three options of what to say. The really interesting part of that is that you can NOT select any of them and the conversation will continue. So, there is always the option of not responding.

All of the conversations happen in real time. The bad part of this is that if you are a slow reader, or have social anxiety, or are not a good conversationalist in Real Life, you will likely find yourself left out of many of the in-game conversations as well. The whole thing operates in real-time, so if you are not quick on the draw you’ll be left out. There is very rarely a moment where the other character’s chatter stops and waits for you to respond. It is more akin to being around several people talking in Real Life – if you say nothing, someone else will keep the conversation going, usually without a pause.

The net result of this is that, until I got accustomed to not waiting for a pause in the conversation and just saying something, it often felt like I was interrupting the other characters. And I kinda was. At first. Once I’d settled into the rhythm of the game, it started to feel much more natural. Some people might not get past that, and it would likely detract from their gameplay. The player who stays silent will miss out on a lot of opportunities to learn about the backstories of the different characters and how they might react in different situations. Also, the choices you make (or don’t make, depending on how assertive you are with the conversation engine) do, in fact, come back to haunt you as you play through the game. After about an hour of playing (and settling into the pace of the game), I was able to identify with Alex much better. I started to think, “What would I do/say in this situation?” And that really helped set the mood of the game for me.

In the opening scene, we meet Alex and her best friend Ren, who, along with Alex’s new step-brother, are on a ferry boat to Edwards Island. As the game progresses, we meet Carissa (the girlfriend of Alex’s recently deceased brother Micheal) and Nona (with whom Ren has a crush). That’s the sum total of all of the living characters. The story doesn’t really get going until Alex tunes her pocket radio to a radio station that doesn’t exist and more-or-less opens a hole between two universes. Yeah, it really starts getting crazy after that.

The puzzles in the game were not terribly difficult, and served more to advance the story. Sometimes, a puzzle will be easier (or harder) depending on a conversation choice you had made much, much earlier in the game. Sometimes a supporting character will pipe up about some factoid that you had mentioned (literally hours) previously and that will solve a puzzle or open up advancement in the game. I can’t stress how much effect the conversation engine has on gameplay here!

Having said that, there were a couple of times where things took me completely out of the game. There were a couple of puzzles where my poor vision didn’t notice the microscopic switch or button that I needed to press to advance, and the character “trapped” with me would “helpfully” spout off the same line or two of “hint” dialogue. Over and over and over. After about the sixth or seventh time hearing the same character say the same thing (which I already knew because I’m not a moron… plus I heard them say it the first three times!) I got a little annoyed.

Another issue that failed for me was a couple of the conversation options appeared in mirrored fashion. In other words, I had to select LEFT to choose the RIGHT option. These conversation options occurred when Alex was talking to a reflection in a mirror, so it made sense thematically, but those conversations had a VERY short timeout. The first time I encountered one of these I missed the chance to pick anything because the game moved on before I selected; subsequently I ended up picking the exact opposite of what I intended because the time pressure on me and the reverse controls. I don’t think I ever got one of those “right”.

Speaking of “right”, the options given during conversations are very rarely obvious choices. Often you’ll have three options that say essentially the same thing, with the only difference being how it is articulated. But, just like in Real Life, often HOW you say something is just as important as what you are saying. And, as mentioned previously, these choices can sometimes make a large difference later in the game.

The story is a pretty compelling one. You really don’t know what’s going on for a long time, and once you start to figure it out, the game throws in a curveball or two. Without spoiling anything, there are a few sequences that the game forces you to complete several times, with slight alterations each time you repeat that scene. And each time you repeat it, you learn more about the storyline. And this is where those tiny differences in conversation can make a huge difference. Repeating a scene with someone who you’ve set on edge or made a disparaging remark towards earlier in the game can really make things difficult.

I will say this, the story is probably one of the most frightening game stories I have ever played through. I’ve played a few “scary” games in the past – I’ve completed the P.T. demo, I played Soma straight through, I enjoyed the shooter F.E.A.R. when it came out, and I’ve even played part of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but I got bored about 1/3 of the way in – and Oxenfree was the first time I’ve actually started to dread advancing the story because it was so disturbing. There are no jump-scares here - or, at least, no notable ones. Personally, I don’t find jump-scares to be “scary” at all. Yes, they are startling and they can make me jump – which is kind of the point – but while playing a game that has a lot of jump-scares, I’ve never felt any worry of concern about the next jump. This game is scary in the same way that creepy clowns are scary. The kind of disturbing mental scary that you can’t quite put a finger on, and makes you a little hesitant to progress because you’re not feeling super confident about that you might learn or find.

Much like a Telltale game, the overarcing story is mostly immutable, and the actions that player takes (and the order in which you do things) really won’t change the Big Picture storyline. However, unlike a Telltale game, because you are an active participant in most of the in-game conversations, it feels as if you are having a much more direct and immediate effect on the story (even if you aren’t really). However, unlike Telltale’s games, there are seven completely different ways for this one to end, ranging from saving a character that was previously dead to completely obliterating a character from existence (remember: there is a time-travel element here!) Pretty much all of the other options are much less extreme that those, but (assuming you can develop even a slight emotional connection with the characters) have some pretty dramatic effects. For myself, I was able to accomplish the goal that I had set for myself early on in the game (and was awarded a PSN trophy for doing it).

Overall, there are a lot worse games you could play this year. I don’t expect this one to be winning any Game of the Year awards, but it’s a great buy and a lot of fun to play. It’s out on the PC via steam, PS4 and XBone.

- Stupid @ Wednesday, August 10, 2016 4:48 PM PT [+]

Pokemon GO
I started writing this post four weeks ago. In that time period, Pokemon GO has gone from a fun concept, to a social phenomenon, to possibly the most successful mobile game in history, and in the last 48-hours, has become the most-hated product on the internet.

Unless you’ve been comatose or trapped in an underground facility for the last three weeks, you’ve undoubtedly heard of Pokemon GO, the “new” game from Niantic Labs and The Pokemon Company. (I put “new” in quotes because the game borrows pretty heavily form Niantic Labs’ prior game Ingess.)

When the game came out four weeks ago, it was an instant, overnight smash success. The kind of success that no one expects. The kind of success that is literally the stuff that hedge fund managers dream about. Nintendo stock more than doubled in value overnight – which was actually kind of funny, since Nintendo doesn’t actually own any part of the game and isn’t involved in its production. In fact, Nintendo only owns about 1/3 of The Pokemon Company. And even better, since Niantic is the actual creator of the game, The Pokemon Company is only entitled to a flat-fee licensing agreement – they likely aren’t getting a percentage of the profits at all! So when all is said and done, the overall effect of this overnight success on Nintendo’s profitability will be pretty close to zero.

Within a week of release, the game was the most downloaded smartphone app of all time!! It passed Candy Crush in popularity; it passed Tinder (admittedly not a game, but still very popular); and it even surpassed Twitter. While we don’t have access to the exact numbers, it has been reported that Niantic Labs has seen about $2M per day in microtransaction profit from Pokemon GO!

The game is mostly free-to-play, just like Ingess. You get gear (pokeballs, healing sprays, revive gems, etc.) from Pokestops. You capture Pokemon in the wild. But there are certain specific “freemium” items that the game includes that are only given out in extremely limited quantities, mostly only to educate the player of their existence. Aside from the one or two freebies, those items are only available from the in-app cash-shop. And true to F2P form, the cash shop uses a special in-game currency that you need to buy with actual real money and the more you buy the less each Pokecoin costs. For example, you can buy 100 coins for $0.99 (about one cent per coin), but if you pony up $99 you get 14,500 coins (about .68 cents per coin).

As you walk around in the real world, various Pokemon will randomly appear and you “throw” pokeballs at them to catch them. It’s basically the old Paper Toss game. As you progress in the game, catching these “wild” Pokemon becomes more difficult (but they become more powerful as a reward). Obviously, you need pokeballs to do this. Luckily, you can get anywhere from three to six pokeballs every time you “spin” a pokestop. Unless you live in a rural area, pokestops are common enough that you should never run out. In my town, I can take a half-hour walk at lunch and gather between 75 and 150 pokeballs.

The other way to get new Pokemon is to “hatch” them from eggs. One of the many potential rewards from pokestops is eggs. Each player is given one “infinite” incubator. You put an egg in the incubator (or, as we refer to it here “on the cooker”) and then you walk. The game client tracks your mobility using the GPS. As long as you are walking less than 5MPH, the distance you move used to advance the incubator. Eggs come in three flavors, all based on distance needed to hatch them: 2km, 5km, or 10km. The “bigger” eggs take a longer distance hatch into more powerful pokemon.

And then there’s “hunting”… which is the cause of all of the recent whinging. Hunting for Pokemon involves a part of the game called the “tracker”. The tracker, in prior incarnations, would list the nine closest Pokemon to the player and displayed them in a ranked grid, where the closest Pokemon was in the upper right and the furthest one was in the lower left. One very early version of the tracker actually listed the distances to the Pokemon in 20 meter increments; a later version showed the distance based on a cold/medium/warm/hot scale, where Pokemon that were far away were shown with three footprints under their image, Pokemon that were a moderate distance away had two footsteps, nearby Pokemon would have one footstep and Pokemon that were in the immediate vicinity showed with no footsteps at all. By using this tool, players could move around in the world, and more-or-less triangulate towards (and hopefully capture) specific Pokemon or Pokemon types.

Sadly, about a week after release, the tracker stopped functioning. (The reason why is still hotly debated on the internet, but no one really know for sure why it was done, or if was accidental or intentional.) Everything on the tracker showed as being “three steps” away, giving this situation the nom-de-plume the Three Step Bug. As a result, some third-party applications became popular. Most notably was the web-accessible online tool called PokeVision. This basically was an overlay onto google maps that showed the exact locations of all Pokemon in any area of the world, including de-spawn timers. One could zoom to an area, click on the map and see exactly where everything was. This, unfortunately, was completely against the spirit of the game. “Hunting” became a matter of clicking on a amp, finding out what was there and then driving to the exact location and capturing it.

Over this last weekend, Niantic finally shut down these third-party tools. They also removed any distance marking from the tracker completely, making it appear as if all Pokemon were some indefinite distance away from the player. But despite all the gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, this really didn’t change the existing (broken) behavior of the tracker. Whether it is three-steps or no-steps, the same Pokemon are listed and they're listed in the same order. So, really, nothing has changed. Despite this, the internet has lost its collective mind and is decrying this change as if it were the coming of the apocolypse.

Which brings me to the first type of player of the game: the Collector. The Collector's main goal in the game is to "catch them all". There are 151 different Pokemon types in the game presently. A dozen or so of these are so common thta everyone will have them within the first hour of playing. Many others are uncommon, but not terribly rare. Those account for about another 75-ish. Beyond that, there are the rare Pokemon that pop up occasionally, maybe another 25 or so. The last 50 are only obtainable by hunting specifically for them, breeding them from eggs, or evolving them from lower Pokemon.

The Collector types were the most impacted by the recent brouhaha. Without any way to hunt the specific Pokemon they need to fill out their pokedex, this type of player really has no reason to play. For better or worse, these players really have no long-term effect on the overall health of the game. Once they filled their pokedex with all 151 entries - whether legitimately, or by "cheating" - they were destined to quit the game. For this type of player, the whole game revolves around "catching them all", but once you accomplish that, there's no more game to be had. You've "won" and can stop playing.

The thing is, the game actually has a lot more to it than just hunting Pokemon and collecting them all. In fact, there's a lot more. The mid-level game revolves around capturing and holding capturable points called 'Gyms'.

Gyms started out neutral. (I'd be very surprised if any neutral gyms still remain after 4 weeks of play, but let's start there for the sake of discussion.) Any player can put one of their Pokemon into a neutral gym. This 'claims' the Gym for their team. There are three teams: the red Team Valor, the blue Team Mystic, and the yellow Team Instinct. From there, the player would fight thier own (friendly) Gym. If they defeat the Gym, the Gym gains 'reputation'. Once it gains enough reputation, it 'levels up'. At each level, another Pokemon can be added to the Gym, but each player can only place one at each Gym. This means that in order to really power up a Gym requires multiple players on the same team. As of this writing, the maximum level for a Gym is Level 10, taking ten unique players on the same team to populate.

If a player discovers a Gym that is held by an opposing team, they can 'battle' it using six of their Pokemon. They need to defeat all of the defending Pokemon, in order, from weakest to strongest. If they defeat them all, the Gym loses reputation. If it loses too much, it will go down a level, kicking the weakest Pokemon off the Gym. When the reputation reaches zero, the Gym reverts to neutral and can be captured by any player. Each battle won might reduce the reputation by a few thousand points. Considering that a Level 6 Gym has over 30,000 reputation, it takes quite a few battles to 'flip' a Gym. It isn't a simple task.

Gym battles are the reason that the game asks players to collect Pokemon. Collecting Pokemon isn't the goal in of itself, it is a means to attack and defend Gyms. Sadly, most players don't know, or don't care to know, how Gyms work. They assume that they only need to battle a Gym once to defeat it, and when that doesn't happen, they give up in frustration. They don't understand that you need to "fight" friendly Gyms to level them up and never do so. And then they are frustrated when they can't add a new Pokemon to a friendly Gym because it is too low level. They don't understand that they get credit for holding a Gym even if they are the lowest ranked Pokemon on that Gym.

Gyms and the Gym systems appeal to the second type of player: The Fighter. These type of players are going to obsess about having a Pokemon on the largest number of Gyms possible. And since holding on to a Gym (or capturing enemy Gyms) means that they need a veritable army of powerful Pokemon, they're going to be out capturing as many as they can and powering them up to higher levels, discovering and recording the hidden 'individual values' for each of their Pokemon, and researching which Pokemon are strong against other specific defenders.

The third type of player are the Achievers. See, just like in any other MMO, everything a player does in Pokemon GO grants experience. Get enough experience and your character levels up. Capture a Pokemon, get 100 exp. Capture a Gym, get 500 exp. Beat a Gym in training mode or in a battle, maybe you'll get 1000 exp. Evolve a low level Pokemon into a later form, get 500 exp. The leveling curve is pretty gentle for the first 20 levels, and then it gets crazy. The amount of experience required to go from a brand new level 1 all the way to level 20 is less than the amount of experience required to go from level 20 to level 23. So, it's a tough road to walk. However, there are a lot of players who have made it their primary goal to make it to the level cap of Level 40.

The time sink of gaining so much experience is pretty daunting. Luckily for this type of player, the game has a cash shop item called as Lucky Egg. Using one of these will give the player a 30 minute buff that doubles their exp gains, turning those hundreds of exp into thousands. But it still requires over 23million exp to hit the cap, so this is a significant time investment.

While the Achievers will have a larger footprint on the game than the Collectors do - mostly because of the amount of time required to get to the level cap, and that actually playing the end-game grants additional exp - these players also won't have a long-lasting effect on the game. Oh, they'll have more effect then the Collectors (who will be playing their own game and not really interacting with anyone else). Achievers will still be playing the Gym game and making life miserable for the lower level players in their area (which is likely to be almost everyone). But, just like the Collectors, when they hit their goal of reaching the level cap, they're done with the game. They've "won" and there is no more reason to play.

Overall, Pokemon Go is a really fun game. The early-game Collecting loop is exceptionally compelling (tracking issues aside), the mid-game Achieving loop provides a lot of fun watching numbers get bigger, and the end-game, while still immature, provides a unique challenge for long-range planning. I've been playing for four weeks and I am still having as much fun now as I did when the game was released. Sadly, far too many ex-players might say that they "used to play the game but it sucks now", without even knowing or understanding why.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, August 2, 2016 9:08 PM PT [+]

The Order: 1886


I originally thought that this game was supposed to be a launch title for the PS4. Apparently it was delayed a bit, coming out over a year later. Upon release it quickly garnered a lot of extremely negative buzz. The game was too short; there wasn’t enough interactivity; there weren’t enough branching options… it was pretty hard to find anyone who actually liked the game, much less a positive review of it.

But in a way, all of that negative had a positive effect. Several retailers had banked on the game being a high-volume seller, and so when it tanked, they had a ton of overstock. As a result, the price plummeted and I was able to pick up a brand new physical copy of the game for $10. (The digital version of the game is often hitting the $6 mark on PSN.)

I have got to say, for all of the negative buzz this game got, it’s actually a pretty fun game! True, it’s not a hundred-plus hour slog through some writing team’s magnum opus… but not every game needs to be. I’ve certainly played shorter games that cost me far more. The Last of Us, a game generally recognized as Game of the Year for 2013 (and then again in 2014 for the Remastered version) barely climbs over the 20-hour length. Pretty much anything produced by Telltale is going to be in the 5-10 hour range, and no one is complaining about that! The length of this game is long enough to become invested in the characters, and that’s really all that matters.

There is another argument that this is actually just a long cinematic experience and not actually a game at all. And there is some truth to that. There are a lot of cutscenes in the game. But there aren’t any more cutscenes here than there are in any of the Uncharted games. It never felt like I was “mostly” watching the game and not playing it. There was really only one sequence where the cutscene was jarring. I had finished a medium difficulty fight, and was moving on past that area when a cutscene triggered and yanked me BACK into that same area. That was immersion breaking and detracted from the experience. Aside from that, the cutscenes did a decent job of presenting the story and developing other characters. Having said that, that same information probably could have been presented differently through gameplay, without resorting to pre-rendered cutscenes where the player had no control.

One place where the game really shines, though, is in the graphical presentation. This is one GORGEOUS game!! The engine that was developed for this thing is simply amazing. It’s a dialog heavy game and the lip flap of the character models actuyally looked like they were talking. In the early part of the game I would get as close as possible to the ambient non-players and just watch them talk. When I was running through this game, I had just finished playing Life is Strange and one of my biggest quibbles with that game was that the graphical presentation often did not live up to the amazing storytelling. I kept imagining how amazing that game would have been with this games’ graphical engine!! Not only was the character modeling and engine extremely well done, even simple stuff like the background textures and the modeling of the ambient background characters was amazing. Clothing that fluttered in the wind when you ran was not just pre-rendered flapping, it actually dynamically changed based on direction and velocity. The visuals here really feel like a high production value movie with period costumes and incredible set design.

Of course, while the levels looked and felt amazing, a common complaint of the game is that they were very linear and only allowed the character to progress in one way. That’s mostly true, but that’s also true in most other adventure type games as well. If you look at well-received games like the Uncharted series, or any one of the long running Tomb Raider series of games, or even the Bioshock games – all of those games had tight, directed, and constrained level design as well. So, while the level design was fairly linear, it wasn’t obtrusively so and no more linear than other games of this same type.

The one complaint that I didn’t hear prior to playing this game (and turned out to be my biggest problem with it) was with the difficulty scaling and game pacing. In a well-designed game, the difficulty starts out pretty low and gradually ramps up as you progress. Ostensibly, the player is getting “better” at the game as they play, so as the difficulty increases, the player is better equipped to deal with it. This makes the player feel like a bad-ass since they are taking on fights in the late-game that would have been impossible – or at least extremely difficult – for them to win in the early portions of the game. The problem is, that the difficulty ramp in this game is extremely uneven. There are some throwaway fights in the middle of the game that are brutally hard, and some of the (supposed) “boss” fights are pitifully easy.

The most telling example of this is the next-to-last fight in that game. In this fight, you are solo against about 30 enemies, some of which take multiple hits to down. Meanwhile, several of them have weapons that will strip off 2/3 of your health in a single hit. It is a do-able fight, but it requires that the player have perfect aim, be positioned in just the right place, and know exactly when they can reload between shots. Up to that point, the game was mostly a cover-based strategic shooter, but that penultimate fight was seemingly designed for a run-and-gun playstyle. And then, once past that, the actual game-ending boss-fight was pitifully easy, requiring only five well-timed button presses.

Personally, I would have preferred the boss-fighting sequences to be much much harder. They never felt “epic” to me. Especially since those fights were mostly presented in a quick-time cutscene style. It almost felt like the developers had put together a semi-interactive brawler game, then decided to change to a cover-based strategic shooter style game, but felt like they HAD to use the brawler portions somewhere. The “big” fights really felt out of place with the rest of the gameplay!

Maybe I’m looking at it differently than people who paid $50 for it, but overall, I enjoyed the game. It certainly had some rough spots and I wouldn’t say that it was ever in the running for Game of the Year, but it certainly is a lot better than many other games. Heck, despite its flaws, it’s better than probably half of the full-price stuff coming out this year, let alone in last year! If you’ve got 10 hours to burn and can afford what amounts to one ticket to a movie, you could do a lot worse than to try this one out. And who knows, maybe you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, June 28, 2016 7:05 PM PT [+]

Your Lie in April


This is the last anime review I’m going to do for a while. Black Desert Online really took a LOT of my time to get through and pretty much killed my momentum for both playing games and writing. It was an all-consuming time-sink for a few months, and I used anime to pull myself out of that funk. What this means is that starting next week, I’m going to be talking about games again. I’m sure you’re overjoyed.

I started watching Your Lie in April based on the recommendation of Tristan “Arkada” Gallant, who runs a user-supported YouTube anime review channel called Glass Reflections. He gave it a “blind suggestion” in the beginning of this year. Meaning that he hadn’t actually watched it yet, but was still giving it a tentative “you should watch this” review. (Note that he has since done a complete review, which I had not seen at the time of this writing.) Also, Netflix was pushing this one into my face as a recommendation too. Although that last time I listened to Netflix recommendations, I got Aldnoah.Zero… so I was a mostly going off Tristan’s non-review.

I am SO GLAD that I spent the time with this show!! I’ll tell you right up front that this show was both amazing to watch, and at the same time brutal to watch. It fall firmly into the “slice of life” anime category. There isn’t a Bad Guy that the heroes are struggling to overcome and there isn’t a challenge that the world is presenting to the protagonists. It’s simply one year in the life of one young man and his friends. But, oh my! What a year!

The show pretty much revolves around the main protagonist, a teenage classical piano prodigy. Some people might be turned off by the subject matter, but rest assured, while the show does feature classical music, it is more of a character in the show rather than the focus of the show. I, personally, find music to be pointless; I’ve never gotten a tune stuck in my head, and I don’t hum to myself during downtime. Music, to me, is just a series of sounds with zero emotional impact. So while the concepts of music runs rampant in this show, the music itself is never presented as something that is more than something that the characters are doing. Even when the show is holding a concert, the music is never center stage, it’s just a thing that is going on, in, around and with the characters.

What the show is about is Life. It’s about Love. It’s about Loss. It’s about Acceptance. These are all very deep and philosophical issues and they are presented with care and respect. The emotional impact of this show is pretty significant. Sometimes when I’m watching an anime that I really enjoy, I’ll binge watch it, only to stop when I look up and see that it’s very late and I have to get up for work in only a few hours. For this show, there were several points times during the season that I simply couldn’t watch another episode. Instead of hitting the “next episode” button, I would watch the entire closing credits and then sit quietly for a few minutes to digest what I’d just seen. In a word, this show is Heavy.

I just happened to watch the next-to-last episode while my Lovely Partner was in the same room. She’s not a big fan of anime, and was only half-paying attention to the show, but at one point when the show dropped another one of its (many) emotional bombs, she actually looked up and said “Oh…. Ouch.” This show will almost definitely hit you in the feels. No punches are pulled here.

It’s not all bad news though. Even though the show features a massive dose of heartbreak, it also heaps on a generous supply of hope and happiness, joy and beauty, and love and understanding. This show is a veritable mélange of emotions and it will resonate with nearly every viewer.

The story revolves around a young man who has lost his taste for life, and then rediscovers it suddenly and unexpectedly. Not once while watching the show was there a sudden unexpected plot twist. That’s not to say that events were predictable. Instead, the events that transpire are meaningful and impactful, but always logical and presented in a way that the viewer is never surprised or taken aback. The intent of the show is to make the viewer FEEL, not to dazzle or amaze them!

The characters in the show are complex, and well-developed. There are no cardboard cutouts here. Even the throwaway background characters are interesting. For example, one of the judges during a competition is literally on-screen for less than two minutes, and yet, in his three or four lines, we are shown a person that is not only thinking but that is willing to consider and accept that the world might not be as black-and-white as one might imagine. This kind of detail is written into almost every character in the show, particularly the main characters. And rather than doing the typical anime “flashback” character backstory filler episodes, we learn about their lives and experiences as they relate to the other characters, without minutes of exposition or even getting off the main subject of the show. Essentially, you learn about these characters organically as you watch the show. This makes them feel a lot more ”real” than most anime characters.

The artwork is stunning. At first I was put off by the pastel-heavy color palette, but the art style fits this show perfectly. It almost feels like older western cell-shaded animation, before they cheapened up production values. The characters are not the skinny sticklike beings that are often seen in these shows, and are presented more realistically. In particular, the female characters are neither busty nor bouncy, but are drawn very conservatively and realistically. In one of the later episodes a female character is running away from the camera, while wearing a skirt. Rather than showing a bit of thigh or resorting to the ubiquitous panty-shot, we see a running girl wearing a skirt. And since there are many scene that feature a character playing a piano, the level of detail is impressive. It seems as if all of the people in this show actually have five articulated fingers on each hand!

The titular “lie” is not revealed until the final episode, and when the curtain is drawn back, it is not a gut-punching betrayal, but rather a simple white lie that, in retrospect, plays so well within the overall narrative that one can’t help but feel like it’s something you’ve known all along, but just weren’t really thinking about at the time. That is, if you’re the type of person that will skip to the end to see what the big secret is, you shouldn’t bother. It’s not really that big of a deal, even if it is the glue that holds the entire show together. In fact, had the show been called something else, and the “lie” never revealed, it wouldn’t change the impact of the show one single iota. In fact, the subject of the “lie” is only on-screen for only a few minutes at a time, and is completely absent from the majority of episodes.

Overall, this show was extremely difficult for me to get through. Despite being a single run of only 22 episodes, I spent nearly a month getting through this. The emotional impact of several episodes was so great that I simply had to take a few days to process it. This show really tore me up, but I had to come back for more. The telegraphed message of the final show is presented so well that you are left both in awe of it, while at the same time filled with a complete and utter sense of loss. When the final credits roll, you know that it is over.

I strongly recommend this show. If you’ve ever watched shows like Clannad or (to a lesser extent) Angel Beats and found them even the least bit touching or emotional, then this anime will kill you. Happy viewing!!

- Stupid @ Tuesday, June 21, 2016 9:42 PM PT [+]

Aldnoah.Zero


So recently, I’ve been on an anime kick. I was looking for something new to watch and Netflix had recommended this show Aldnoah.Zero for me a few times. I sat down with my Lovely Partner to watch the first episode, and after the 22 minutes had run their course, I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t exactly looking for the next episode either.

But, see, here’s the thing. I’ve seen anime before. My rule-of-thumb is that any show gets a minimum of three episodes before I even start to think about calling it “good” or “bad”. Anime has a slow, slow burn and often times, something that you see in the first show won’t really play out until you are halfway (or sometimes more) through the entire first season. Usually the first few episodes are more-or-less world building and character introductions. (For a long-running show, there might be “filler” episodes where one or more characters get a complete detailed backstory reveal, but those are usually not until you’re seven to ten episodes in, and you’ve already established a connection with the character.)

So I gave it three episodes. And then I ended up watching the entire first and second season.

That might seem like an endorsement, but let me be up-front here. This is not a great anime. It’s decent enough for a rainy Sunday afternoon, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it. The characters are simplistic and one dimensional, the humor is quirky and misses the point more often than not, the fight scenes are predictable and when there is the occasional plot twist, you will more likely go “Yeah, I could see that” rather than “Whaa?!?” Pretty much the only thing that kept me going through the entire first season was the overarcing story.

Despite being fairly predictable and full of standard action tropes, the story was interesting. It kind of takes the standard “overpowered gundam-style mecha against a horde of dudes”, except in this case, the overpowered gundam-style mecha is in the hands of the Bad Guys and the horde of dudes that are getting destroyed are the Good Guys. The juxtaposition ends up highlighting the uselessness of war, and lends a feeling of pointlessness and depression to the entire situation.

But, true to the trope, everything always works out okay because even though the Bad Guys have gundams, the Good Guys have the main protagonist, a super-smart high-schooler who creatively figures out how to defeat each of the overpowered enemy mecha, one after another. Even when the Bad Guys finally get wise to this strategy and attack with three gundam at once, through the magical power of being the main character, a third party suddenly appears to provide just the right amount of assistance at just the right time and the Good Guys end up winning again.

The story is interesting, even it is mostly predictable. Up until the end of the first season, I kept watching mostly because I’m a completionist and I was mildly curious to see how it all resolved. So, when I got to the end of season one and (spoiler alert) Every. Single. Character. Dies.... Well, that kinda put the nail in the coffin, both literally and figuratively. And I’m not kidding about every character dying. Well, actually I am exaggerating a tiny bit. Only the five main characters die. It’s like a Mexican stand off and rather than everyone backing away looking nervous, they all pull the trigger and shoot each other in one giant mess.

After that disaster, I figured I was done with this show. It seemed like a clean break for both the viewer (me) and for the writers. It didn’t feel hastily done or unplanned. It honestly felt like this was the end-story that the writers had intended. I mean the entire show had been presented as a kind of “war is hell” diorama, and how better to really drive that point home than to have all of your main characters all murder each other?

But then I saw that Netflix had season two. And after thinking about it, and the aforementioned murder of pretty much everyone who had any real impact on the story, I got curious. So I watched the first show of season two. And, guess what?? Giant retcon!! Waitaminit, even though we shot one person in the head, another got shot in the eye, one was impaled and bled out, and one was riddled full of holes by a machine gun... miraculously everyone survived somehow and we’re back with our familiar characters! Plot twist, though: some of them turn out to be better/worse than they were in season one and their goals are now different (or the same)! Introduce a few new supporting characters and off we go again!!

Season two actually seemed a lot more watchable than season one. The story is still super-predictable and the characters are still as one-dimensional and narrowly defined as before, but since we were able to skip all of the initial world-building and introduction stuff, it got down to action right away. Rather than being a straight up rock-em-sock-em fight, the different characters started to get sneaky and dastardly. This allowed for a few more “twisty” plot twists - even if they are still telegraphed well in advance. It probably also helped that I started watching while drinking heavily. Despite that, even the better of the two seasons never really got above the “this still isn’t great” level. The fact that I define this as this show as what it -isn’t- instead of what it -is- speaks volumes.

In the end, the finale of season two almost made up for the 12+ hours I spent on the show. Almost. Just like the initial season, the end of season two offered complete closure to pretty much every main plot point and tied up the vast majority of the various sub-plots. In fact, it really felt like the writers were offing a nice easy “get off this train if you want” full stop. Unlike season one, the season two closer did not involve killing (or apparently killing, as it turned out) the entire cast. Instead, season two offers a hopeful, happy ending – just maybe not the one you were expecting.

Overall, the show falls firmly into the “not great” category. I could only recommend watching it if you have oodles of free time and need something to kill a dozen hours on. And be sure to pour a nice tall adult beverage beforehand. You’re going to need it. Otherwise, give this one a pass.

- Stupid @ Friday, June 17, 2016 2:56 PM PT [+]

Log Horizon

A few years back, I discovered the anime Sword Art Online. Before diving in, I read a few reviews on it, as I tend to do. Since my free time is so limited, I try to make sure that I’m not spending time on something that isn’t going to be enjoyable to me. I quickly discovered that people tended to either really really love SAO, or really really hate it. But, as a long-time MMO player I was intrigued by the whole concept of being “in” the game, for reals.

At first, I thought SAO was a really clever idea. But the more I watched it, the less I liked it. It was better than average up until the mid-season break at the end of episode 14 – after that, it introduced some “icky” stuff that I wasn’t completely comfortable with. Still, it was an anime so I watched it to the end. But I didn’t love it.

I bring up SAO in this because, for better or worse, it is the “gold standard” that most people use for the “trapped in a MMO” anime.

Enter Log Horizon.

This anime has the same basic premise as SAO, but it has some pretty significant differences. Differences that make for a completely different feel for the show, and ultimately correct most, if not all, of the “bad” stuff in SAO, and improve upon the premise. In fact, it would not be too far off to say that Log Horizon is so completely different that it completely breaks the “trapped in a game” formula.

Obviously, this is a show about a bunch of MMO gamers trapped in the game world. Unlike other shows that follow this formula, the first episode makes no attempt to explain the hows and whys of this process. There isn’t any software malfunction, or demonic summoning, or whatever other crazy ideas the writers can come up with to explain why a bunch of otherwise normal gamers are suddenly inside an MMO. No, in this case they actually come out and say “We don’t know what happened. One night we went to bed like normal and the next day we woke up here.” (Perhaps a later story arc will attempt to retcon this aspect of the show, but if they do, that would really be a shame and probably detract from the show. Hopefully, the writers are smart enough to know this.)

Once inside the game, the show takes a major departure from the typical “trapped in a game” premise. One that I, as a hardcore MMO player, felt was much closer to reality than other shows like SAO or the dot-hack franchises. I can’t speak for all gamers, but if I were trapped in a game, my first thought almost certainly is not going to be “How do I go home/log-out/escape?” Hell, I play these games because it’s FUN!! Getting “trapped” in a fun situation doesn’t sound like something I’d be really working very hard to escape. Even if you posit the “death game” rule of “if you die in the game, you die in real life”... so what? I’ve played MMOs before. In new games it is usually hours and hours (sometimes days) before I die for the very first time! Even then, it's usually because I got complacent about the challenges, or just plain outright tried something silly. If you told me that death was real, I’d just play a little bit more conservatively, or work on non-combat portions of the game. I mean, after all, not too many characters have died during crafting, or material gathering, or playing the auctionhouse/marketplace!

And this is one thing that Log Horizon nails perfectly. The characters aren’t trying to get out of the game and they aren’t obsessively working towards some escape goal. In fact, very early on, we are told that dying in this MMO has the same effect as dying in an actual MMO – you just respawn at the local safepoint. (There are some other more far-reaching issues with this game mechanic that are revealed later, but let’s ignore that for this discussion.)

In fact, the whole premise of the show never really sets up a “good guy vs bad guy” dynamic. That’s not to say that there aren’t some bad players in the game. It’s just that the main protagonist and his buddies aren’t working to defeat a single enemy, or to complete specific task, or even to develop a stated goal or ideal. The “enemy” is not really a thing or person, it’s more that they are trying to understand their new situation and how to deal with it. There are plenty of antagonists and personal challenges, but they are mostly faceless and more ephemeral. In a way, the concept of ignorance is the only real enemy here.

The main character in SAO was almost purely a wish-fulfillment role. The amazing (white, male) character that could do anything and accomplish anything, without any help; the guy who is so over-powered that he can single-handedly do what it takes an entire team of other people to do, and all without ever working hard to get there. He might be dark and broody and misunderstood, but when the rubber meets the road, he's going to win every time, because he's just that amazing. Meanwhile the ensemble cast of Log Horizon are shown to be individually powerful, but not overly so. Several of them die (and are revived as per the game rules), and many times the main hero has to run away from a fight. It is only when the different characters work together that they accomplish amazing things. The main character is kind of the “mastermind” of the whole thing and while it’s easy to envision one’s self in that role, it’s made clear at several points that he is working hard to maintain his abilities and role. He isn’t just slacking about most of the time, while somehow magically remaining super-powerful.

Because the show is more focused on learning about the player’s new situations and how they interact with the game world, the show avoids most of the common Anime tropes. The downside of this is that it is light on flashy action sequences. In fact, the fight scenes and flashy MMO-style spell effects are probably some of the most boring parts of the show. Where it really shines is in telling the story of these people and how they are adapting to their new reality. And every time they make a new discovery, it feels like you are discovering something alongside them. In that way, it feels more like playing a game that just watching a show about a game.

Overall, this show is one of my top anime. In fact, I’ve actually watched season one of this show from start to finish twice already and probably will circle back to watch it again at some point in the future. That’s highly unusual for me; I’ve only re-watched three anime in my entire life. The vast majority of shows, fun or not, simply aren’t worth the time investment to re-watch. I can usually tell if an anime is going to grab me when the theme song gets stuck in my head for days after I watch it. This one definitely makes the cut. I highly recommend it. It is available for streaming in all the usual places. (I only wish there was an English adaptation of the in-game menus!)

- Stupid @ Wednesday, June 15, 2016 3:35 PM PT [+]



I first saw this game in the Indie Zone at PAX Prime (now called PAX West), way back in 2013. I remember watching the scrolling trailer that was playing in the small booth, and being surrounded by other folks who were obviously disgusted with what they were seeing. The subject matter is deeply disturbing, showing scenes that are quite honestly terrifying. I remember standing next to a young man who commented on how uncomfortable watching the demo made him feel, to which I quipped, “Oh, it looks like just another Thursday to me!” Some free space appeared around me pretty quickly, as the PAX-goers suddenly felt a need to not be standing next to me. When I say this “game is terrifying” I mean that in a profound way; it doesn’t just rely on “jump-scares” to frighten the player (although there are a few). No, instead this game uses slow, deliberate pacing to draw the player in, to command their full and undivided attention, and then shows them something that is truly horrifying.

Wait.… Let’s back up a bit.

The game presentation is that of a hand-drawn Edward Gorey animation. In the very first (non-interactable) scene of the game, you witness a brutal stabbing murder. From context (and dialog), you learn that the murderer is you (the “protagonist” of the story) and the victim is your sister. “But,” you might protest, ”Why would I brutally stab my own sister? Even in a game, that makes no sense at all!” And you would be right to ask that. Luckily, within seconds, we learn that it was only a nightmare and you wake up from that horrible dream with a start and a gasp, quickly sitting up in bed.

And that’s where the game starts: in a gothic style bedroom, of what appears to be a Victorian-era mansion, complete with hand drawn paintings along the walls, striped wallpaper and wooden shutters on the windows.

As you start your journey through the game, the stylized artwork and visuals, coupled with the mood-inducing background music serve to draw you in. You may not be completely aware of your goals or motivations in the game (yet) and you are limited to a slow, plodding pace across each screen, giving you ample time to soak in the presentation and absorb every detail of the game. And then, through no fault of your own, you are suddenly and viciously attacked and you die….

Or do you?

With a gasp and a start, you quickly sit up in bed – a different bed, in a different room – and start again. But you’re not starting again. You’ve progressed somewhat, and both the graphical presentation of the background visuals and the music are subtly altered. It doesn’t take long for you to notice that you’re in a different place. The wallpaper is stained and dirty, the paintings on the walls are a bit askew, the furniture is worn.

As you start your journey through the game, the stylized artwork and visuals, coupled with the mood-inducing background music serve to draw you in. You may not be completely aware of your goals or motivations in the game (yet) and you are limited to a slow, plodding pace across each screen, giving you ample time to soak in the presentation and absorb every detail of the game. And then, through no fault of your own, you are suddenly and viciously attacked and you die….

Or do you?

With a gasp and a start, you quickly sit up in bed – a different bed, in a different room – and start again. But you’re not starting again. You’ve clearly in a different place now. This isn’t a bedroom, it’s a padded cell. You try the door and find that you’re in a mental asylum, complete with padded walls, uncomfortably primitive looking medical equipment, and lit by flickering gas lamps.

As you start your journey through the game, the stylized artwork and visuals, coupled with the mood-inducing background music serve to draw you in. You may not be completely aware of your goals or motivations in the game (yet) and you are limited to a slow, plodding pace across each screen, giving you ample time to soak in the presentation and absorb every detail of the game. And then, through no fault of your own, you are suddenly and viciously attacked and you die….

Or do you?

The atmosphere of the game is INCREDIBLY compelling and while the “looping” style nature of the storytelling may seem slow and annoying to some players, the deliberate pacing provide a stable backdrop for the occasional scenes of misery and torture that are presented. You were just trying to get to the kitchen for a glass of milk and then you’re… well, I’d prefer not to mention some of the misery that is inflicted upon the protagonist. More than once while playing I found myself aghast in dismay, and actually asking aloud, “ Why would he do that? Why would I do that?” The presentation of even the most awful and heinous events are presented in that same tasteful Edward Gorey stylized artwork and between the unsettling background music, the occasional background audio clips – which, in at least one case, used both the normal audio and the controller speaker in tandem to create a VERY unsettling effect – the game just DRIPS theme!

As you progress through the story, the background graphics will change to different locations and the music and background audio clips will adapt to the new setting. It is always presented in the same black-and-white (and bloody red!) hand drawn graphics, which lends a feeling of consistency throughout.

There are a few puzzle type situations in the game, but they are not terribly difficult to figure out. The puzzles fit very well with the theme. Having said that, there was one puzzle that took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out how to circumvent, so they aren’t completely simplistic.

When I finally reached the end, I was relieved. The game is supposed to be a living illustration of mental illness and it does that amazingly well. I felt drawn in to the game as I played it, and then when it delivered one of its (many) shocks, I was almost always disgusted and repulsed. And yet, the looping nature of the story instilled a feeling of inescapability from finishing – much as I would assume an actual mentally ill person would feel unable to escape from the horrors that life visits upon them.

There are supposedly many different endings. I finished the “standard” easiest one, saw that there was a branching tree for the others and went back in for more. After the second ending (which in my opinion was less satisfying) I called it quits. If I had nothing else to play, I probably would have finished this completely for the 100% trophy, but my “to play” list is far too long to spend more time on this.

Overall, it was an educational experience. I wouldn’t call it a “fun” game, but if you have any friends or relatives that suffer from depression, anxiety, or psychosis, I strongly recommend you play this game from start to finish. If you don’t , it is still worth playing through at least once, just to experience it. And if, while playing, you ever feel like the game is stupid and boring, or sick and twisted, or gross and disgusting… just remind yourself that there are people for whom it isn’t “just a video game” but have to deal with these types of visions and events on a day to day basis.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, May 17, 2016 9:27 PM PT [+]