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Freedom, customization, and writing are all aspects of my ideal game. When the three are executed to a high degree it becomes pure gaming bliss. Escaping to a whole new world, whether that be Tamriel or Mass Effect's Milky Way Galaxy; is why I game. Of course I'm no stuck up snob. I enjoy the more "mindless" fun of Mario Party or a Super Smash Bros. These are just two reasons why gaming is the best entertainment medium. We can escape from our everyday lives into a fantasy world but at the same time be connected to others. A geek is what I am and I'm damn proud of it.

I really enjoy video game music, whether it be OST, fan-made, or something else entirely. Music is the unsung hero of any great game. The importance of a good soundtrack cannot be overstated. This is why I have a running article that picks one song to highlight every week. In fact I hardly listen to anything other than game soundtrack these days.

To get more into the finer details of myself as a writer, I try to be original. We all hate reading the same "Call of Duty Sucks!" articles ten times over. Unless I feel I can shed new light on the subject, I see no point in me writing about it. I also try to add a bit of humor in when I can. After all games are entertainment and entertainment and humor go hand in hand.

As for more personal stuff, well I currently attend college where I intend on getting a degree in writing arts. I'll be working towards a career in gaming journalism; after all what better career option is there for a gamer with a writing habit?
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Alternate dimensions, magical girls, and an unwieldy title? Yup, it’s an anime game. None of those are necessarily bad, except for when you have to repetitively type such a lengthy title. Otherwise, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is one fine brawler from a series with a history outside of the genre.

Fighters and brawlers share plenty of similarities, and 5pb had little issue with the transition. I grew up on games like Double Dragon II and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III for the NES, and while brawlers have lost popularity over the years, I’m always quick to jump on newcomers. Battle Grounds, unlike so many others, has a surprising amount of depth.

Some recent inclusions to the genre have RPG elements, but I’ve yet to play anything which takes the idea this far. Each of the characters have three base skills: attack, defense, and speed. How these level is entirely up to your playstyle. Where they differ is in their skill trees, with roughly fifteen abilities to be unlocked. On my initial playthrough I went with Yuzuha the ninja who has lots of flashy attacks and can temporarily vanish. Meanwhile, Itsuki is a powerhouse, exhibiting more deliberate maneuvers. Now, imagine experience-gathering has you participating in all the wonderful over-the-top action of anime in a 2D, pixel art form. The result is flashy, chaotic, colorful, and palpably satisfying.

The make-or-break factor for high octane combat is often visual feedback. Taking on numerous enemies with precision strikes isn’t enough. You have to look like a badass. Battle Grounds has a firm understanding of this with gorgeous animations, each possessing their own flair. As Yuzuha, I often catch myself charge-attacking, because the fiery hurt put on display is just so impressive. The same thing can be said about every action, whether it’s the shockwave given off by a perfectly timed counter or the simple fluidity of sprinting.

Everything about Battle Grounds is visually stunning. Pixel art may not have the same jaw-dropping effect of hyper-realism, but the sheer gumption of style warrants your attention. While both playable characters and foes are 2D, the highly detailed world has plenty of depth. Not only do backgrounds appear 3D, but there are two planes upon which to fight during any given battle. By tapping the proper command, your character jumps back and forth between the close and far lanes. It’s a clever way of avoiding the age-old brawler issue of struggling to be incredibly precise with limited depth perception. There’s never any doubt whether your attack will land, so long as you're in the appropriate lane.

Most environments are mundane on paper, and admittedly none are as impressively detailed as the initial zone, Akiba. Even so, every locale gels withmoe presentation and the increasingly zany enemy design. In suit with the retro visuals is a stellar, upbeat chiptune soundtrack which furthers pushes the energetic tone. 

Given 5pb’s history with fighters, it should come as no surprise that Battle Grounds' combat isn’t standard for the genre. By no means are the combos or base tactics as deep as Street Fighter or even Smash Bros., but one has to be ever-mindful of their tactical approach. The average cannon fodder may not pose a huge threat on lower difficulties, but one slip can easily cost you during a boss battle. One of the few issues: having to skip through cutscenes every time you lose a boss battle comes as a result of the welcomed challenge. It's a fairly minor complaint, seeing how quickly dialogue can be skipped, but it’s nonetheless annoying.

The game's biggest issue is the lack of online multiplayer. Japanese developers don’t seem to have the strongest grasp on potential success in this regard. PC gaming isn’t known for couch co-op, but the obvious solution of online isn’t anywhere to be found. As much I’d like to get a three friends to tag along, the likelihood of my PC being the hub of such an interaction is minuscule.

As is with many anime games, Battle Grounds’ story is secondary. I can confirm there is some sort of good vs. evil fight involving multiple dimensions and magical girls. That’s it. To fully appreciate the narrative, it’s probably best to have pre-investment with the Phantom Breaker series. Not that there’s no amusement to be had, the moe style certainly makes the target audience quite niche. But if you think about it, adorable idealistic girls beating the shit out of a plethora of eccentric foes should be everyone’s jam. 

The only factor which will be keeping Phantom: Breaker: Battle Grounds of my top 10 list come year's end is the fact it’s a port of a 2013 XBLA release. Otherwise, it’s a fantastic brawler with impressive mechanical chops and a wonderfully realized 2D world of moe.

HuniePop is the dumbest game I've played in 2014. And I fully expect it to stay that way come December.

I don’t get the sense that HuniePot, the developer, intended me to laugh as much as I did during the eight hour investment. There is little inkling of sarcasm — or maybe satire — of the dating-sim premise with the usual array of scantily clad anime girls. And yet, the kickstarter page and related blog all seem to imply this game is at leastsemi-serious. There’s a whole lot wrong, but the utterly trashy time isn't so bad. HuniePop is like a joke food. You suspect it’ll taste awful — and it definitely does — but you have a "good" time nonetheless.  

As far as anime dating-sim premises go, it passes the originality test. How's that? Well, there's not a single high school in sight. You play the role of the shut-in who's terrible with girls. Neatly enough, you can choose between being male or female, but it does little other than minor dialogue alterations. Either way you’ll be visited by a fairy who vows to help you out. Not with magic, oddly. Oh,no. This fairy is much more inclined to give you sketchy advice on how to improve your luck with the ladies. It's one of those fairies. 

Worse yet is the HunieBee device with a Girl Tracker App. Now, other games like Persona 4 and Mass Effect let you know where and who your romance options are at anytime, but the framing of an app contextualized within the narrative tracking their exact locations is extra creepy. Many of the early scenes begin with two girls: one leaves. Girl Tracker, instantly gives you a brief rundown of who they are, and from then on out, you always know where they are.

I’ve no qualms with sex in games, and in fact, I’ll keep on advocating for the subject. With crass dialogue and flimsy characterization, HuniePop truly tests my limits. Upon meeting Aiko Yumi, your fairy helper talks about her Asian fetish by calling it "yellow fever." Now in the constant, messy, overwhelming debate of politically correct terminology, I’ve come to a conclusion. If you wouldn't refer to someone as yellow, redskin, or whatever in a face-to-face meeting with them, then it’s probably not wise to so casually employ the term.

Most of the dialogue is harmless, if laughable. And while not on a date, you can engage in conversation. One of three choices will net you more Affection points, which can be used to level up traits such as talent, sexuality, and passion. Each girl has has a favorite and a least favorite trait. Rudimentary for sure, but there's an addictive quality to it due to swift progress. There isn’t time to sit and think about how slow everything is moving as you’re constantly engaging the systems with tangible success.  

Intertwined with the conversations are hunger and intoxication meters. Tasteful is really not an apt adjective. Like traits, each girl has a favorite food, which you can give them to keep the conversation going. Alcohol is used to boost the speed at which you obtain affection.

Implying that plying women with drinks to advance the relationship more rapidly is definitely for the best. Again, there’s some grey area, but then you remember the protagonist isn’t drinking, so we’re left only one option: the asshole that gets girls drunk.

Breaking up these less-than-honorable moments are dates. And what better way to seduce than by displaying your incredible match-three skills? With a limited number of moves, you must hit the ever increasing score or else the date fails. Successful outings will advance the relationship by a level. Match-threes are nothing new, but the infusion of minor RPG mechanics does bring a slight spark of creativity. Like chess or solitaire, the mechanics have taken on a timeless nature. HuniePop doesn’t shake up a proven formula in any profound way, but that’s absolutely fine. So long as you have no disposition to match-threes, there’s plenty to be enjoyed.

Until you hit the sex mini-game, that is. 

Upon a successful fourth night out, you and your date head back to your apartment. Here, too, you are faced with matching, but there’s a significantly larger hurdle to be jumped. It’s not the half-naked girl, nor the moans that she makes when you make a successful match that are most off-putting. It’s not even the provocative depictions — H-scenes — of your lover which appear afterwards. What fails is the change of mechanics. You’re still matching three, but now you have to score a massive chain in rapid succession. When the puzzles are initially introduced for dating, you’re given a clear explanation of mechanics and strategies. During the sex mini-game, you’re pushed out the airplane with nothing but some sewing material and a few old blankets.

The first attempt isn’t pretty, but getting the hang of things comes with practice. Afterwards, it’s by far the most fulfilling experience. A challenging endeavor is always the most rewarding one after all. Maybe that’s intentional. However that would require HuniePop to be clever and it’s anything but.

On the topic of lacking cleverness, the dialogue could not be any more inhuman. People don’t talk the way the characters converse in HuniePop. Bad pick-up lines and non sequitur questioning run rampant. Roleplaying is just not valid, and picking a single girl is a far less optimal playstyle. You’re rewarded for telling each girl exactly what they want to hear. Intentional humor exists, but how much enjoyment you get depends entirely on whether you can laugh at the so-bad-it’s-good writing.

Asking a girl "what cup size are you rocking" two seconds after meeting her? That’s not exactly high-brow.

The remaining dialogue brings forth a lack of finish. One moment you’re asking inane questions, the next you’re being quizzed on the answer to the question you just proposed. There’s an absence of genuineness which repeated dialogue and little actual progression of the relationship exacerbate. I knew I succeeded, but only because of UI. Which is easily HuniePop’s biggest failing. Taking human emotion and turning it into a mechanic is a surefire means to craft a hollow creation. When a relationship has finally advanced as far as it can, it does so unceremoniously. A proper conclusion does not exist even if you max out every relationship. Developer HuniePot has since addressed the issue by saying they aim to release an update with end-game content around Valentine’s Day. Good on them for hearing fans out, but this is something which should have been in the original release.

At this point, it should come as no surprise that there’s a lack of artistic cohesion. Many backgrounds clash with the anime character designs. Worst is the night club, with its realistic human silhouettes scattered  across a fuzzy image — mostly thanks to the finicky resolution settings. Sterile environments and some under-detailed character designs clash with the well-done stills, splitting up scenes. Despite the lack of animation or dialogue, there is far more humanity being expressed.

HuniePop has and will continue to receive ire for its sexual content. Some of the mechanics and depictions deserve fair criticism. It’s essentially a douche-bag simulator which intentionally and unintentionally garners plenty of laughs. But for what success it has with the puzzles, there’s a clear sense of an unfinished piece.

I’m happy Steam has been building its visual novel catalogue, even if that means heavily censoring the adult content. HuniePop is by no means a top tier VN like 5pb, Nitroplus, or Key are known for. It’s also not a terribleaddition to the foundation of an emerging genre in the West.

Recently, I finished watching Oreimo, an anime about a brother who learns his little sister is not only an otaku, but a die-hard eroge player. To an outsider, Oreimo may appear even stranger than most anime ó a feat in and of itself ó but I not only found it very enjoyable, but insightful. However, the point of this piece is not to tell you all about the shows Iíve been watching, but to present some discourse regarding one of my most recent gaming endeavors.

But for the sake of the story, bear with me a little longer. Throughout the show, there is one type of video game repeatedly played by the siblings: visual novels. This got me thinking; why I have not given the genre a chance? Visual novels are story-based and posses branching paths dependent on player choice. Few things could be farther up my alley.

So I ventured into Katawa Shoujo. Now if youíre familiar with the title, you may have some very strong opinions, even if youíve never played it. Why? Because Katawa Shoujo is often classified as an eroge.

Eroge. Thereís that word again. What does it mean?

Well, some say it has no concrete definition ó much like most genres these days ó but one thing is certain: there is explicit content of a sexual nature in every eroge. Does Katawa Shoujo then qualify? Well, not in the sense you may be thinking. The sex scenes are hardly any more pornographic than what you see in critically-lauded shows such as Game of Thrones. Theyíre also not randomly thrown in for the sheer purpose of satisfying our basic urges, unlike what Game of Thrones seems to do from time to time.

I think the issue has to do with animation touching upon the subject. Now, society in general isnít overly fond of anime, especially here in the United States. Like all things once delegated geeky, anime has slowly become more accepted by the mainstream ó but not entirely. Many still are under the assumption that all things not live-action are childish or immature. Quite possibly, in their minds, mixing something supposedly intended for children with sex is inherently perverted. But hereís the thing: a large portion of anime-based entertainment†is not intended for children.

So what is Katawa Shoujo really, and how is it not intended for children? For starters, itís a story of love and friendship centered around the daily lives of the physically disabled. Itís a heartwarming reminder that underneath it all theyíre still human beings with aspirations, talents, emotions, and troubles beyond that of their disability. The characters are well-written and relatable. The purpose is to tell an endearing story, not to provide some "wank material." In a way, Katawa Shoujo is much like the stories we were told as children that served as moral compasses.

Then again, we are a society of questionable moral scales. If a piece of entertainment depicts highly disturbing violence, the ensuing ruckus is a different beast entirely than the ruckus surrounding entertainment containing sexual content. Why are gamers far more willing to accept Grand Theft Auto than†Katawa Shoujo? I think we can all agree theft, assault, drug trafficking, bank robbery, and murder are far worse than two consenting lovers expressing their feelings for each other. Yet Katawa Shoujo is shoved to the outskirts of our culture, while the likes of GTA is embraced with open arms and put upon a pedestal. A pedestal made of one billion dollars.

Donít confuse what I say though. By no means am I bashing GTA and claiming itís harmful to the human psyche, or whatever the media is yammering on about these days. All I am doing is questioning your position on the matter. Itís a healthy and socially productive thing to question oneís stance.

Do that.

Ask yourself: what makes GTA so much more socially acceptable to play than Katawa Shoujo? Hell, maybe you could even play Katawa Shoujo for yourself before casting judgment. And good news! Even if, after giving the game a go, you are bothered by the adult content, you can turn it off. When youíve done that, I kindly ask you to return to the matter. I suspect you will do so with different views, but either way, I want to hear them.

It frustrates the ever-living hell out of me when I see such a subject arise and people are so willing to bash a game before truly understanding it. There is already enough ignorance-fueled hatred floating about in our world. Rather than add to the problem, letís educate one another on matters we may not fully comprehend. It's just one more good bit in an effort to better not only ourselves, but our world.

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Kidnapped, placed in a strange locale with equally strange people, and forced to participate in a game of life and death. This might sound familiar, especially to any fan of Spike Chunsoftís Zero Escape series. In Danganronpaís case, the premise isnít the only thing shared with other franchises. In fact, many have called it a combination of Persona, Ace Attorney, and Zero Escape. Those people are 100% correct, but while having multiple influences can be seen as lazy, Danganronpa has a perverse take on each one.

As Makoto Naegi, you begin on the first day at a new school. Makoto is average in every conceivable way, and is therefore shocked to find out he had been accepted to Hopeís Peak Academy, a school for the best and brightest in all of Japan. But, of course, his luck runs out as soon he steps in the door. Alongside 14 others, Makoto gets straight-upabducted and finds himself playing a deadly game at the behest of a talking stuffed bear named Monokuma. The teens have two options: 1) live a communal life trapped inside the walls of the school until the end of their days, or 2) get away with murder and "graduate" back into the outside world.

While undeniably a visual novel at heart, thereís more to gameplay than simply making a few choices in a sea of dialogue. The day-to-day life section is where the expected visual novel aspects emerge, and during the free time period youíre allowed to wander at your leisure. Ideally, this is when you get to know your "classmates," because the better friends you are, the more skills youíll have unlocked for the class trials. Class trials take place after a murder. Naturally.

In terms of gameplay, this is where Danganronpa excels. Investigations are straightforward; they consist mostly of exploring, finding evidence, and conducting interviews. Once you're ready, court is in session and the class has to convict "The Blackened" or else theyíll be executed ó while the murderer walks free. Most trials proceed in an unpredictable fashion. Youíll have your suspicions, but just as soon as you think youíve got it pegged, the whole thing just gets twisted.

During the trial, youíll partake in several mini-games. Non-stop debates are times where youíll have several "truth bullets" ó pieces of evidence ó and youíll have to shoot the incorrect phrases. Difficulty makes a big impact here. The higher the challenge, the more potential truth bullets youíll have. The thing is, only one of them matches with a single specific phrase. What it comes down to is a detectiveís mind. Pay close attention and you shouldnít have too much trouble.

Thereís also Hangmanís Dilemma ó yes, the elementary school game ó and scene reconstruction where you place comic panels in the right sequence to properly map out the crime. "Moment of Truth" is the only mixed bag. Occasionally appearing at points where the person in question is undeniably wrong about a piece of evidence, the only defense they provide is name-calling. Logically, failure should be a non-factor in the outcome, but if you do misstep, you lose the faith of your peers and are instantly convicted for contrived reasons. Other than the strange narrative justification, itís the best and most challenging of the bunch, as the combination of intense music and rhythmic gameplay get the heart pumping.

Upon conviction, "The Blackened" is subjected to a personalized, grandiose execution, courtesy of disturbingly beautiful cut-scenes. There's something lovably demented about how over-the-top the violence is, and all without being too gory. The dark and highly contrasted coloring of the nightmarish scenario designs play up the sense of dread. In these moments, hope and despair hang delicately in the balance; each murder feels so personal and soul-crushing. When the killer is convicted, vengeful justice is overwhelming. You should be happy, right? Well, not necessarily. Once the final details are revealed minutes before a brutal death, I often experienced a tidal wave of empathy. Given the circumstances, if you were in the position, you couldn't guarantee you wouldn't do the same thing. The longer the game goes on, the more betrayal and death surround the victimís of Monokuma, and this creates a vortex of inescapable despair. Understandably, risks are then taken.

The major themes ó despair and hope ó not only inhabit the narrative; they're also present in the visual design. Take a gander at Monkuma, for instance. The half-white, half-black teddy bear. Or perhaps the Hopeís Peak itself. At first glance, itís a school / mansion for the highly affluent. On closer examination, the windows are blocked off by steel plating, and the maze-like layout symbolizes something sinister. This intelligent design ensures the story isnít plopped down in an average or inappropriate setting. Everything around you only serves to further drive home the themes at play. In other words, you'd better get used to them. Danganronpa is a manipulative vixen, capable of extracting tears of joy and then rubbing the mangled remains of your closest friend in your face, just for shits and giggles. During the lulls, you somewhat unwillingly befriend the others, only to suffer the one possible outcome of trusting a stranger in this whacked-out school.

Despite what some would believe, tropes are not always a bad thing. Many great pieces of fiction actually embrace genre faults to heighten the value of what surrounds them. An anime art syle, a high-school setting, and typical Japanese archetypes do the trick. How they are manipulated ó or not manipulated ó is mostly in the hands of the cast. Darker moments are mixed with lightness; comedic relief isnít kept to a few sparse scenes. Despite the grave situation, many do their best to hold on to some semblance of sanity. The one issue with this is a sort of narrative balance. When one of the walking talking jokes is murdered, the humor shines through a little too much, creating a dissonance between the dialogue and morbidity.

In the reviews which have already hit, Danganronpa has rounded up at least a couple accusations of sexism and transphobia. However, itís important to be able to make a clear distinction between sexist characters and sexist overtones. Danganronpa has a bit of both. High school kids arenít exactly the compass of good morality, so the occasional remark can be chalked up to personality. And thatís a good thing. Itís only natural to have a cast of varied views. Most of it is fairly tame, like a bad "make me a sandwich" joke.

Though when the only obvious female cast member who isnít portrayed as physically inferior to the males is not only brutish but conventionally unattractive by a holistic societal approach, you have to wonder about the views of the creators.

When my 30 hours with Danganronpa were up, I only wanted more, and not just because of a Godzilla-sized cliffhanger. I yearned to go back to those first couple hours before the killing started and just soak in the characterizations. Give me a nonsensical spin-off set in an alternate and non-violent high school, entirely focused on relationship building. Please give me that. Even Monokuma, with his black humor contrasted against his teddy bear physique, was enjoyably deranged. I daresay heís the best villain in quite some time.

Borrowing from many ó but truly emulating few ó Daganronpa doesnít top Persona's relationships or Zero Escape's complex / morally ambiguous narrative. It does, however, mash concepts together with terrifically terrifying results. Properly incorporating music, art style, level design, story, and gameplay into one cohesive package in a way that few games truly realize. Danganronpa fires on all blood-soaked cylinders, and is an enthralling experience from top to bottom.

Iím the sort of guy who gets a kick out of yearly top 10 lists and GOTY discussions. That said, Iím confident Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc wonít be left off my end of the year list. I donít doubt itís a niche game, but if you like the idea of Persona, Zero Escape, and Ace Attorney being jammed into a schizophrenic visual novel / adventure game, be sure to drop some dead presidents as soon as humanly possible.

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