Some reviews (Yu-No, Yooka-Laylee, Control)

It’s time for “Han Tani Reviews!” Today I’m reviewing three games I played recently. Maybe I’ll post more later… maybe not…

Here’s my rating scale:

Kinda Weird – The highest praise. Something that left an impression, gave something to think about at length.

Pretty Interesting – Had a few memorable qualities that were mostly worth the time investment.

Nice – Had one or two things that were neat, but either overstayed its welcome or was generally conservative/noninnovative in its design

No Impression – A game that failed to leave much of an impression, either through design/story/etc that has been treaded by other games many times, its overall design not resonating much with me, or being plain bad. While in a bad mood I might rename this category “bad” or “forgettable” or “big nani”.

YU-NO: A Girl Who Chants Love at the Bound of this World (1996)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/YU-NO:_A_Girl_Who_Chants_Love_at_the_Bound_of_this_World

A 1990s erovisual novel, one of the biggest first successes of the ‘multiple route mystery’ subgenre of visual novel adventures. I saw the remaster was coming out, noticed that it unfortunately updated all the graphics and music, and got myself a copy of the original to play.

The character designs are suuuper 90s moe, but to my eye in 2019 they’re refreshing and nostalgic. Such is fashion.

The gimmick of the game is you can find 8 gems that act as save state slots. The game is split into distinct time ‘coordinates’, these coordinates represent a state of the entire game. So coordinate “10” might be evening on Day 1, but “20” could be evening on Day 1 where you decided to not talk to a teacher or something. It’s a neat way of representing how these games work under the hood, though I’ve yet to think of an elegant way of representing it in data (it’s easy to think of nightmare hacky ways.)

You can use a stone to set a save state, then you can return to that time coordinate at any time. Your character’s memory doesn’t carry over, but key items do, which are what you use to unlock certain branches or endings.

The goal is to find all 8 stones, which are hidden in certain time coordinates. You get a map that fills itself out as you explore time coordinates. The way the game is meant to play is, you progress the story. The UI will sparkle when you’re approaching a ‘fork’ in the story, at which point you can leave a gem and progress down one branch. But… the problem is… as you start with so few stones which makes it hard to explore freely, and if you use all your stones the map disappears and you have to find another stone to see the map again. Playing blind, you don’t know when the important branches are (some branches will rejoin). So it’s possible to screw yourself by running out of gems at the wrong point, requiring a 20-30 minute replay of content you’ve seen, just to return to a branch.

However, getting stuck without the map is a unique kind of lost – you do get the sense of being trapped within a 2 day nightmare cycle. The game has maybe 20 main screens you frequent, over two days of time. Not having that map must have been awful if you played on the game’s release, without a handy translated visual guide to save you!

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“E” represents an ending. There are sometimes gem markers on screen showing various time coordinates. The portal icons represent story events that throw you back to a past point.

Er, so that’s the general exploration mechanic. How it ends up feeling is tedious – you have to click around a lot on the screen to find the next progression flag. The remaster has streamlined this, showing all interactable objects, and probably adding other QoL things like a true skip function and text log.

As for the story itself, it’s split into a prologue, Main Game, and epilogue. The prologue is a standard fixed-choice-based text adventure. Some characters are introduced, and it’s all played according to VN stereotypes of the time, but very knowingly. A boy in school tells you to talk to him when the ‘real game starts’. Eventually things slip into the supernatural.

The core mystery of the game is fun, and each main route (associated with one of the women) will reveal a key aspect of the mystery. I didn’t really find the SF/time travel ideas particularly fascinating, but they were enjoyable, even though the epilogue’s explanation was remarkably complicated and finicky to understand.

So, the characters… I didn’t find any of them particularly interesting, but they weren’t flat, either. The main characters are primarily women, and each had their own personal challenges to deal with. The general moe stereotypical surfaces revealed a nice layer of depth that you would learn over the game’s two days, but I can’t say anything was particularly mindblowing or memorable. Well-done, I guess.

This is an erogame so you do have sex with most of the characters, but I think the sex scenes are mooostly earned, with exception of the epilogue. I do think that not much thought was given to the implications of woman teacher-male student sexual relations, though. This happens twice in Yu-No and it seems to be played off as sort of a ‘hot’ thing where in reality often times there’s coercion and assault.

Removed from the teacher context, I guess it’s okay. The way sex plays out follows these cases:

  • Overlapping moments of emotional turmoil leading to temporary mutual need
  • Hidden feelings surfacing after two people acknowledging mutual interests and building a relationship
  • A woman encountering her first emotionally intimate relationship
  • Sexual coercion in order to get a man to do something
  • Using someone as a surrogate for a passed away partner to recreate certain feelings

I will say some of these are very sketchy circumstances – a stepmom and stepson, for example. Some play into bad stereotypes about women, but sex is used in different ways each time, and nothing seems totally out of left field for the characters involved. The writing during the scenes is… OK but I don’t think it’s the main attraction here. And yet here I am having written 100 words about it… sorry….

The epilogue of the game is cool, but a nightmare in many ways. I don’t feel like writing about it, watch it if you want. It’s isekai, cool at times, drags on a bit, and has bad wish fulfillment sex and a handful of content-warning contexts for sex and stuff… incest, cannibalism… ugh.

Er… other than that, the game’s world is very convincing despite being a few scenes. It is full of horror, happiness, mystery… the music is sooo good, using these FM synths of the era for spooky effect! I had trouble sleeping one night. I don’t see that as a good quality but the music was used effectively.

The main writer and composer passed away this decade, which is sad.

I’d say this is worth checking out for historical value, if anything, if you can look past the problematic parts. I didn’t find the story too thought provoking but it was a fun ride for anime mystery/sci-fi/slice of life. I’m not a ‘time loop sommelier’ so the sci-fi stuff was fun, but maybe if you played Stein’s Gate or Clannad (two games which owe a lot to Yu-No), the concepts in Yu-No will be dated.

The remaster is probably the way to go if you don’t care about the worse “HD” music/art/character art, due to QoL, though the game really could use more save states and hints, less trial and error.

Rating: Pretty Interesting / Nice

Yooka-Laylee (2017?)

For a spiritual sequel, I didn’t see much learning from Banjo-Kazooie 1 or 2 in the first Tropics level. While I give Banjo games shit for various things, I have to commend many of Banjo 1’s stages (and some of Banjo 2, from what I remember) for being quite navigable and easy to parse. N64 had an advantage in the limit of what you could put on the screen, as that also required levels to be more carefully designed, I think.

I only played about 30 minutes but the first main level felt sprawling, visually uniform and confusing so I quit. The tutorial NPC is a dick joke and the voices seemed really annoying this time around or the text slower. The game controlled absolutely fine, but you couldn’t change the button prompts from Xbox to PS4? I programmed Anodyne 2 to automatically do that, and you could even switch at will. And Ano2’s UI doesn’t scream an irritating vocal utterance every time you moved the cursor. AND I added Switch buttons. Yooka-Laylee was funded on Kickstarter for about 40x Anodyne 2’s budget, too…

From the limited amount I played, I felt some similar problems to Hat in Time – overall too much object and visual noise, difficulty of orientation in 3D space. Collectathons aren’t just about tons of stuff to find… I think they’re about spaces with personality, and legibility of goals…

Rating: NO IMPRESSION

Control (2019)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Control_(video_game)

The first game by Remedy I’ve played, the narrative premise was fun – a spatial construction of bureaucracy, of how some people in the public view governmental agencies, or of how some workers there viewing themselves as superhuman, the ways in which a workplace can get shift how you feel over time and control your behavior .

My favorite idea was the ‘altered objects / objects of power’, the idea of a physical object becoming more than it is merely by people’s impressions. Celebrity-ification and parasocial relationships had been known to me for a while for how people can treat other people who have some semblance of power/notoriety, but I haven’t thought about it in the context of regular objects or myths, of how object can take new meaning when rumored about or spoken of in certain ways.

I really enjoyed the few moments where you could have a small branching chat with the other characters, and I totally would be fine with just having it appear as text with no acting. For some more obviously symbolic characters like the janitor, the vagueness was fine and worked well. I feel like there’s a trade-off though – the main characters (Emily, that security dude, etc), work really well BECAUSE they don’t say much, because they seem overly formal and non-freaked-out, because they randomly disappear. But at the same time I kind of wanted to talk to some people more? But I see that as an impossibility as in a way, all of the NPCs in Control act as a sort of “MetaNPC” for the bureau, for bureaucracy, for individual blindness to the absurdity of a system. And if we were to get emotionally attached to some characters, that might contradict the value of that MetaNPC feeling.

At its best, the gunplay was fun, at its worst, it was frustrating, too easy to die, not easy enough to grind to adjust difficulty, or too common. Minmaxing my equipment so I could reduce the number of “bonfire runs”  for a boss was menial. In certain areas like the Black Rock Excavation site or the Mold Area, I could feel a similar texture to the best Dark Souls or Metroid Prime areas.  I think the game really shined there. But all too often, especially from a ‘lore litter’ standpoint of picking up random scraps or 2-minute audio logs, it felt similar to the “Spaceship Janitor” type of game where I was going from sector to sector to fight so and so enemies before maybe maybe advancing the plot (like System Shock 2 or New Prey or Bioshock).

I feel as if Control is around the upper limit of AAA, a demonstration of how the need for marketability  and conservative mechanics in order to meet sales figures, as well as the general difficulty of steering the overall design at AAA scale, lead to obvious compromises where we get way too much traditional shooty-shoot. Control could have been far, far weirder. Stuff like the hotel, the alternate dimension, that ending door sequence, the big black void leading to the deeper areas of the game, etc… that could have all gone harder. I guess the DLC probably will do that, but who knows.

When you see a game being praised for its architecture, it’s hard not to think of a game like Manifold Garden which pursues those premises deeply in an interesting direction. For a game about ‘shifting spaces’ and the mazelike nature of its levels, Control doesn’t have many of them? With an AAA technology budget, rooms could loop nonsensically, have infinite looping architecture, and generally do a lot more. But Control’s atriums are very pretty.

Rating: (Pretty Interesting + Kinda Weird) / 2.0

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