“Vampire Killer” cover by Kaede

I know you’re all probably sick of my Castlevania fanlove, but I can’t get enough. I genuinely feel that the vampire-centric games have some of the best, most evocative, genre-perfect soundtracks in the business. Don’t get me wrong: I’m crazy about Uematsu Nobuo and the epic, symphonic scores often associated with RPGs. But Castlevania always manages to combine a hint of creepiness with a good dose of ’80s-inspired action.

Add to that the Goth, vaguely Visual Kei sensibilities of this trio, and you can’t go wrong.

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“Castlevania” Season 1

Dear readers, you may have heard, long, long ago, the tale of the fearless basement monster hunters. You may have heard the whispers of bullwhips and laser guns blasting in the Stygian gloom, or of hours spent clutching a tiny glowing box for the good of all humanity. Most importantly, you may have heard of a new generation of hunters, and how they helped your Furious Academic make the bad life decisions that led to his meteoric rise in the mythical land of Angry People Writing About Dumb Things.

Put another way, you have surely deduced by now that I am an irredeemable dork who has been obsessed with Castlevania for more than a quarter of a century.

Over the years there have been many iterations of Castlevania, beginning with the NES and moving all the way up through the previous generation of game consoles. To my knowledge there’s only been one film adaptation, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there are anime one-offs floating around. MercurySteam’s short-lived gritty Western reboot of the franchise tried to take it in a new direction, and all things considered did admirably well; but since the last of those games was released in 2014, the franchise has been essentially silent.

Three years and more without a peep. Which is why it was so crazy when Netflix announced its new animated Castlevania series. What’s even crazier is that they have returned to the series’ 8- and 16-bit roots, and they seem to have gotten the lore right. They even refer (constantly) to the setting as Wallachia, not Transylvania.

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They got Dracula right, too, down to the weird anime elf ears.

Castlevania’s first season tells the story of the original NES’ Castlevania III. (Which isn’t hard to do, given how the stories of the earliest games were all but nonexistent.) The hero is Trevor Belmont, who in this imagining is the last scion of the disgraced Belmont clan. This is Central Europe of the 15th century, dominated by religious zealotry and a crippling fear of supernatural powers and heresy. None of this ever made it into the earlier Castlevania games, but it makes a lot of sense to use this as the backdrop for a story in which the content of supposed “superstitions” turns out to be real. The season is only four episodes, and we don’t learn much of the Belmonts’ history or the nature of their powers as vampire hunters. There’s also a mad rush, in the first episode, to explain the reason for the season–i.e., Dracula–and his hatred for humans. This bit is, in my opinion, the least impressive of the first season. Happily, it’s also the least important. While Lisa, wife of Dracula, mother of Alucard, and tragic victim of churchish stupidity, is an interesting figure in Castlevania lore, she’s also far from central. We want whips and swords and demons, and the producers clearly know this, so they don’t keep us waiting too long.

Lisa is a precocious human who marches into Dracula’s castle–she doesn’t believe the stories about him–and demands that he teach her the secrets of science. Amused by her confidence, Dracula agrees, and they eventually marry. Obviously this golden era can’t last, though, and the Church intervenes, branding Lisa a witch and burning her at the stake. This is what prompts Dracula’s rage, and he unleashes an army of demons to plague Wallachia and eradicate the humans he views as ignorant vermin.

This is a handy way of explaining Dracula’s reappearance and the suddenness of his attacks, and it smoothly integrates the sparse stories of the original games into something broadly believable. The themes of ignorance and superstition are interesting here, again, in that the supernatural is real and dangerous. The Church emerges as the true villain, not for the content of its beliefs but its insistence on controlling the people. This conceit was never really explored in the original games, but I think it fits perfectly.

The character design is excellent, clearly modeled on Japanese animation, and the writing by Warren Ellis (!) is, with few exceptions, compelling–and often very funny. While there’s some goofy slapstick that I could have done without, Castlevania is extremely fun. Trevor is a drunken misanthrope who’s given up on the people his family have tried for centuries to help. (In this universe, the Church has branded the vampire-hunting Belmonts as black magic users and heretics, which makes a perverse kind of Dark Ages sense.) The first arc is largely about him coming back into his role as hero. Try not to cheer when he gives his “I am Trevor Belmont, of the House of Belmont, and dying has never frightened me” speech.

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*weep*

This first part of the story introduces fan favorites Alucard, the dhampir, and Sypha Belnades, the sorcerer (and Trevor’s eventual love interest). The only key character not included so far is Grant Danasty, the wall-crawling thief from Castlevania III, but there’s time yet for him to show up. The eventual meeting between Trevor and Alucard is suitably epic and my favorite scene so far. Also–and let’s be serious here– freaking ALUCARD.

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ALUCAAAAAAARD

Some minor issues with pacing and crude humor notwithstanding, I obviously really enjoyed this, and I’m very happy to learn that Netflix has already renewed the series. It’s especially enjoyable to longtime series fans, but even Castlevania newcomers will find something to like here. (Do be warned, though, if violence isn’t your thing: it’s quite gory.)

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I’m sorry I’ve been away for so long again. Life, etc. I’m hopeful that I’ll be more active on here in the weeks ahead. Meanwhile, if you’re still here, drop me some love in the comments and let me know how’s things.

Dragon Quest Heroes 2

Oh god, why do I do these things to myself.

It’s no secret that the shitty, shitty Warriors games are a guilty pleasure of mine. If you’ve never played any of Tecmo-Koei’s crappy one-versus-army beat-em-ups, suffice to say that they’ve basically released the same game approximately 25 times over the past 17 years or so. You control a lone military hero–in their flagship series, Dynasty Warriors, you choose from among ancient China’s Three Kingdoms; in the spinoff Samurai Warriors, you get to pick from feudal Japan’s Warring States–and you go up against literal armies, mashing buttons to the tune of square, square, square, triangle over and over again until thine enemies art smited. (Smitten?) They even changed things up in the Warriors Orochi series, which combines both Dynasty and Samurai into a single, equally stupid and equally satisfying mashfest. (Zhou Tai and Ginchiyo Tachibana ftw.)

(Incidentally, Tecmo-Koei also owns my favorite game series.)

They’ve pasted skins from major franchises onto the Warriors skeleton before, as they did with The Legend of Zelda in Hyrule Warriors (which I didn’t play). In Dragon Quest Heroes 2, they’ve done the same with the second-fiddle RPG series to Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy franchise. (Ancient history now, but it still seems ironic to me that the two greats of the JRPG subgenre, Enix’s Dragon Quest and Square’s Final Fantasy, are now owned by a single company, Square-Enix. It’s like if Russia and the US became a single hybrid entity. On which topic, stay tuned!) I never played the first DQ Heroes, as I didn’t have the appropriate console until just recently. But I’m enjoying DQH2 very much. Which is to say, it’s a stupid, stupid, mindless, repetitive button-masher wherein one is privileged to decimate hordes of enemies in a generic cutesy-poo fantasy anime setting and I fucking love it holy shit.

The plot is stupid and who cares. You get to control a party of four as they run around a generic fantasy world full of Akira Toriyama-designed monsters, slay said monsters, and then do it again forever because slaying monsters is the only thing that matters. Characters have unique weapons and attack patterns, though they really do–in true Warriors fashion–come down to square, square, square, triangle. Again, and again, and again…

I still think it’s fucking adorable that these games have a block button. A BLOCK BUTTON. HAHAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Here’s my girl Maya, who despite the impractical metal bikini is unarguably like the best at taking out big crowds of stupid monsters:

Pay no attention to the fact that her head is approximately the same length as her torso. It’s Akira Toriyama, dawg.

So yeah, okay. It’s a Japanese game, and there’s a fair amount of fanservice going on, which in this context is more than a little ridiculous and even worrying. But I don’t care because square square square triangle DEATH.

(For whatever it’s worth, Maya also turns into a dragon. As if that makes it better.)

AKIRAAAAAAAAA TORIYAMAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

I’m not saying you should buy this game. It’s kind of crap. But I’m also not not saying it.

Til Morning’s Light

I wrote most of this post about a year ago, before I moved to Japan. Thought I’d postpone it until I’d beaten the game, but I forgot about it in the craziness. I still haven’t beaten it, but it’s about time I posted this, because the maddeningly grammatically-incorrect Til Morning’s Light (it should be till, dammit) is, despite my righteous grammar fury, an unexpected success. The mobile game is available on Amazon Fire, Android tablets and through the iTunes store. On Amazon it’s $3.99 as of this (updated) writing, and thankfully there’s enough good here to merit the price.

Developed by WayForward, Til Morning’s Light is a cartoony horror-lite romp in the style of family films like ParaNorman and Monster House. You play as teenager Erica Page, a timid, slightly nerdy girl who is pressured into visiting a haunted house by two of her “friends.” No sooner has Erica entered the house than her frenemies board up the front door behind her, stranding her in the house where–GET THIS–spooky stuff starts happening. A sinister voice makes it clear that Erica isn’t welcome here, but she also won’t be allowed to leave because villainy. Then a monster appears, and you have to beat it into gooey oblivion (cartoony, sparkly goo, of course).

As far as the narrative goes, that’s about all we know at first, though of course as she explores the haunted mansion Erica learns more about its supernatural denizens and what she must do to escape. Interestingly enough, Amazon also released a free audiobook tie-in, which fleshes out the story and lends Erica’s character a little extra depth. It’s actually pretty fun, if you don’t mind YA fare, but be warned: the teenisms are overwhelming. “Breve” is not a word that should be uttered by mortal mouths. (That’s /breev/, short for abbreviation, not the super-thick espresso/heavy cream concoction that I feel sure at least one of you will now order the next time you make a coffee run.)

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WAIT I’M JUST HERE TO TELL YOU TO ALWAYS BE YOURSELF AND *SPLORSH*

The game involves a lot of exploration, frantically tapping on objects to discover clues and tools and solving puzzles to proceed. That’s a good two-thirds of it. The other third is combat, which involves tapping or sliding your finger on on-screen prompts that appear during fights with monsters. You get various weapons throughout the game, beginning with your trusty flashlight, and they do increasing amounts of damage to the baddies. The developers introduce several touch patterns–dragging your finger along arrows; tapping shrinking circles just as they line up with, er, other circles; frantically smashing a swarm of, uh, circles–to add a little variety to fights, but the combat does get pretty stale after a while.

While the game is clearly aimed at younger audiences and has a pleasantly cartoonish aesthetic that makes it hard to find it frightening, it deserves some credit for actually generating some creepy atmosphere in a few places. Some of the long, dimly-lit corridors, where there’s no background music and weird will-o’-the-wisp-like lights drifting through the shadows, are spooky in a very pleasing, goofy way. There’s also this:

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Inadequate, yes. Hm. Can I- can I just eat you? What’s this game rated again?

I’ve mentioned a couple of times how I love this cartoonish horror with lots of glowing greens and purples and things which are conceptually frightening (that’s a reanimated dessicated corpse with glowing eyes up there, after all) but in practice are just kind of fun. Til Morning’s Light captures this atmosphere admirably well, and where it fails in game design (the combat gets really old really quick) it more than succeeds in (lighthearted) storytelling and atmosphere.

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Edit: Originally I mistakenly suggested this title was available on Steam. Don’t know where I got that idea–seems it’s only on mobile platforms.

Like Warcraft III with More Theremin: “Hero Defense: Haunted Island”

I am not a pro gamer. I think I may have played DotA once or twice, but if I did I don’t remember it clearly enough to distinguish it from other tower defense games. I did play Warcraft III on PC wayyyy back in the early aughts, and I liked that game for the story and the RPG-like, level-uppable heroes rather than the strategy per se, and was not at all interested in multiplayer competition. (I always get schooled in online multiplayer games, regardless of the genre.) I also especially liked the cartoonish “horror”-y elements of that game (if you haven’t played it, you spend a lot of time fighting the undead, and later becoming the undead) and its MMO offspring, World of Warcraft.

Hero Defense: Haunted Island is a tower defense game that employs a similar cartoonishly horror aesthetic. You play as a group of five heroes, and instead of building and upgrading stationary towers, as is the norm in these games, you move your heroes around the map and upgrade their powers as you go. Like other TD’s, there are several lanes down which enemies move, and your job is to kill them all before they reach a certain point on the map. Enemies don’t attack, they just advance on the map’s endpoint. It’s all very straightforward, with a simple skill tree for each character, and weapons you can upgrade by inserting magical runes which are activated during battle. The character leveling system isn’t very deep, but it’s satisfying enough. Like most of these games I’ve played, you can replay maps on higher difficulty levels and complete challenges to earn more money and experience. Your homebase is the town, which features several buildings where you can train heroes and spend your resources on further upgrades.

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I’d live there.

The characters are kind of fun, generic horror tropes (I assume deliberately so). You have Jack the vampire hunter; Barrows the priest/gravedigger (because a barrow is a grave, get it?); Sam Hain (har har) the annoying fire witch; Jane Doe (again, har har) the reanimated corpse (kind of a Frankenstein shout-out); and Wylde Halfblood, the, er, half-werewolf? The names and background stories are all ridiculous and basically inconsequential, since the story is nearly nonexistent, and the tongue-in-cheekness of it all makes it amusing enough.

There are some gripes. On the broadest level, Hero Defense just feels like a glorified mobile game. The only appreciable difference is that you pay full price up front ($12.74 on Steam as of this writing) rather than pissing it away on in-game microtransactions. Otherwise, though, it’s almost interchangeable with about a zillion similar games you can download for free from Google Play. Sure, you have the heroes instead of towers, but in practice that’s a negligible difference (and other TD games also have heroes).

In terms of gameplay itself, it’s pretty smooth. The only issue is that, as far as I can tell, you can’t change the zoom level on missions, which doesn’t really affect play but effectively means you’re always watching tiny figures running around below as if from a distant hilltop.

There’s one thing I can’t let it off the hook for: Hero Defense has some of the most teeth-grindingly awful voice acting in recent gaming. The main character, Jack, speaks like a monotone android version of Casey Kasem. Sam Hain’s voice makes me want to rip out my own eardrums, and Jane Doe can’t pronounce the word “amalgam” to save her life. It’s all unfortunately just bad, not the B-movie so-bad-it’s-good kind of bad. (On how to actually pull that off, see Arthur from Fire Emblem.)

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It’s like a robot impersonating another robot impersonating a human… impersonating a robot. (Happy Tuesday)

Those issues aside, Hero Defense: Haunted Island is pretty fun. If you want a deep game with strong RPG progression, customizable heroes, or a coherent story, look elsewhere; but if you want some silly, Universal movie monster-inspired horror fun, this is a good bet. And it has some theremin in the soundtrack. Points for effort.

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Oh My God, Where Did My Life Go: My Time with Fire Emblem: Fates

I haven’t done a proper game review in ages, but my latest obsession provides the perfect opportunity. At the outset, let me admit that, yes, I’m a relative newcomer to Fire Emblem. The first game in the series to see a US release came out in 2003, and although I had a GameBoy Advance, for whatever reason I missed FE’s American debut. It wasn’t until 2014, in fact, that I actually played any FE game myself. That game, Fire Emblem: Awakening, was pretty brilliant, and I played the hell out of it. I was thrilled when I heard about the latest installment, Fates, and went so far as to have my US 2DS shipped to me here in Japan so I could play the English version. (Yeah, 2DS, not 3DS. Extra dimensions=poor cost performance.)

If you’re new to the franchise yourself, here’s the nickel version: the Fire Emblem games are turn-based strategies which, like all such games, involve directing your troops around a map so they can kill enemy units. The map screen is two-dimensional; when a battle is initiated the game switches to a 3D action view.

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All of the games have a medieval, high-fantasy setting. In Fates, as with Awakening and presumably other entries in the franchise, you also have to manage relationships between your characters. Well, you don’t have to, but you should, because if your characters hook up they can make babies, a process which expands the narrative and provides more units for you to dump on the battlefield. (The children become adults instantaneously through some admittedly stupid storytelling mechanics involving time travel in Awakening and pocket dimensions with differential time flow in Fates. I told you it was stupid.)

In Fates you play as a confused amnesiac taken in by a royal family and thrust into a massive military conflict–precisely as in Awakening. The first five missions are largely of the tutorial variety, introducing you to the basics of the game and setting up the relationship between the warring kingdoms of Hoshido, a feudal Japanese-like nation, and Nohr, a dark and vaguely Europeanish country. The sixth mission forces you to choose a side (or no side), though you only have all three options if you’ve purchased the corresponding campaigns: Birthright, Conquest and Revelation are all technically separate games and aren’t playable until you pay for them. There’s something supernatural looming in the background of the war, and undead soldiers start popping up, and curses, and a demonic dragon–all kinds of goodness for you to carve your way through.

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Finally, what all gamers secretly yearn for: the wanton slaughter of French maids.

Awakening really appealed to the old-school RPG fanboy in me. I like grinding (fighting lots of small battles to earn experience, which makes your characters stronger) and then powering through otherwise difficult fights. Awakening allowed you to do that with unlimited random battles and a DLC map that let you farm experience quickly. In Fates, the ability to grind depends partly on which of the game’s forking narrative paths you choose. (Though Nintendo has again offered a DLC experience map for purchase, which I’ve use so much you guys.) I’ve beaten Birthright and I’m currently playing through Conquest, which is harder because it offers far fewer opportunities to gain experience. Leveling your troops is crucial if you want to survive, because unlike a lot of other games, FE famously features permanent character death. So even though somebody has an important role in the storyline, if they die in a fight, they die for good, and their role in the story ends. (In Fates and Awakening you can turn “permadeath” off if you choose, but I don’t because I feel obscurely that that would be cheating.)

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I’m playing on the Hard difficulty level, and on this level even in Birthright experience was somewhat difficult to come by, as most enemies give precious little of it. On Conquest I doubt I could raise my characters to the level cap if I only played the story missions, which means I likely wouldn’t be able to complete the game. This is because it’s also crucial to promote your characters once they’ve gained enough experience. Promoting involves moving from a character’s basic role (e.g., cavalier) to a more powered-up version (paladin or great knight, in this case). But even that isn’t enough to really give you an edge in later battles. To craft a really powerful character involves jumping around between classes to collect new skills, which are permanently learned at certain levels and which stay with the character even when they reclass. But reclassing is highly limited by the scarcity of “seals,” necessary items that allow you to change classes, and by the fact that you can only switch to a certain class if you have the right type of seal. Many of these seals, in turn, depend on the kinds of relationships you’ve built up among your troops. So with our cavalier example, he or she can normally only use a Master Seal to become either a paladin or a great knight, two similar classes with different stats and skills. If you want them to become, say, a ninja, you have only a couple of options: you can use a Partner Seal, which will allow them to change to the classes their spouse can use; or a Friendship Seal, which will allow them to change to the classes their closest friend can use. Or you could use a Heart Seal, which offers two class options based on the character’s personality, whatever that means (but ninja may or may not be among them). Once you make the switch you can gain some experience as one of these new classes, learn some of their skills, then switch back to the original class using a Heart Seal. Or you can leave them as a ninja, or whatever.

The class system is thus surprisingly complicated, and creating your ideal characters takes a massive amount of time. I’ve sunk an embarrassing number of hours (really, it’s embarrassing) into the DLC experience-farm map, but even that is excruciatingly slow. Between feeling like the DLC is a kind of cheating–paying for experience, almost, even though you have to work really hard to earn it–and the gruelingly slow pace, I keep getting frustrated and nearly quitting, which for me would mean playing through the main campaign in one go and not bothering to level. But I don’t quit, because Fire Emblem has its dumb, weird hooks in me. It’s an addiction, and I don’t fully understand how I got hooked, but I did.

I’m not a completionist, but I do want to try out different classes with my favorite characters, equip them with the best skills, and breeze through the story battles. But FE is stacked against that play style. DLC helps a bit, offering some especially powerful classes like the Witch and Dread Fighter. There’s also a feature called the Unit Logbook which helps by enabling you to learn skills from players you’ve beaten via online play, and by carrying over skills from a selection of your characters after you beat one of the campaigns; but even then you still have to pay gold to learn the “preserved” skills, and they only apply to the character who originally had them. The logbook is thus only slightly helpful, especially since not every character is present in every campaign (at least, they’re not all shared between Birthright and Conquest–I haven’t played Revelation yet). I didn’t realize at first how this worked, so when I beat Birthright I picked out my favorite characters to add to the logbook, not knowing that the point of so doing was to preserve their skills, nor that most of the ones I chose wouldn’t be available in Conquest. So I went back to my last save in Birthright, beat it again, and chose different characters to add to my logbook–making me feel, again, like I was cheating. This is how my crazy Irish conscience works.

(On a related note, according to a fascinating article on GameCrate, the logbook has apparently spawned some bizarre Internet-based, game-breaking cheating. The cultural implications of this “infection” are especially interesting.)

This convoluted class/level system is one reason why I’m hooked (frustrating though it can be). The “support” system is another, and an equally frustrating one. This is for all intents and purposes a simplistic, one-dimensional dating sim. Characters grow closer the more they fight at each other’s side, and eventually they can marry. (Fates is notable for being the first game in the series to allow same-sex marriages.) They have children (if they’re able) and those children are squirreled away in alternate dimensions for vague reasons having to do with safety, but inevitably their home realms are invaded by badguys and they have to come join their parents. It’s all nuts and very J-pop and I hate it but also I freaking love it.

It’s all so weird, you guys. On one level, I admit, it’s fun to see characters I like get together–hence the whole shipping phenomenon in fan fiction. This is essentially that, but built right into the game. On that level it’s no different from games like Mass Effect which likewise enable you to get your scifi groove on. But… come on, Nintendo. Some of what happens is just painfully, unabashedly- just- anime. With all the weird baggage that term might conjure. For instance, once your main character gets married, you can “bond” with your spouse, which leads to weird player interactions like having to “awaken” your sleeping partner by stroking the 3DS touchscreen with the stylus. In another, your partner explains that they’ve just taken a bath and are feeling hot, so you have to actually blow on the console’s microphone to cool them off (as if that makes any sense). The pandering in these scenes is blatant and eye-rollingly dumb. (To the game’s credit, I guess, they can happen with both male and female characters. So at least the weird sexual stuff is egalitarian.)

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This is blatantly sexist and… I mean, such degrading.. I mean… I.. I love you.

Perhaps worse, nearly any male character can marry nearly any female character, including the ones who are clearly underage, like the farm girl Mozu or the Hoshido princess Sakura. Japan has a much lower age of consent than most Western countries and this is reflected in the kinds of relationships that can form in the game, and these relationships weird me right the hell out. Relativism has its limits. As an American player I find it pretty creepy, for instance, that Nyx, a dark mage, is an adult trapped in a pre-teen’s (hypersexualized) body, and can still form relationships with other characters. Similarly, an adult male can happily marry Elise, the child princess of Nohr, and will immediately beget a child with her. Thankfully there’s nothing explicit (although it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that there would be, this being a work of Japanese popular culture). It’s all still creepy as hell, though. (Kotaku has an interesting piece about this issue which discusses the ongoing debate over localization–or censorship, as some gamers think of it.)

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I just- I can’t. I don’t. There isn’t. Nuhhhp.

These issues aside, Fates is a good game. An addictive game, even. Its narrative isn’t as strong as Awakening’s, its characters not as fully realized–there are just too many–and its play mechanics more grindingly, er… grindy, but it’s still a lot of fun.

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For the gamers, what do you all think of using a DLC experience-farm map to grind for EXP? Does that break the game? And what about the issue of localization? Is it censorship, or is it appropriate cultural awareness?

The Binding of Isaac

Here in Japan I have no game system (a brutal irony). I’ve only got my old PC and good ol’ Steam to sate my voracious apetite for not being productive. So I was pretty happy to hear that The Binding of Isaac had gotten another expansion. This one is appropriately subtitled Afterbirth. It’s an appropriate subtitle because the previous iteration was called Rebirth. And it’s appropriate because the game features lots of corrupt maternal imagery (a late-game area is even called “The Womb”) and visceral grossness like mummified children, disembodied anuses that produce aggressive insects, and blood-shooting vagina monsters. Gosh, remember Tetris?

Appropriate!

Appropriate!

If you aren’t familiar with the game, let me direct you to a neat interview with creator Edmund McMillen. That piece includes the best possible description of what it feels like to play Isaac, straight from the creator’s mouth: “a slot machine slash Zelda slash Troma movie.”

The game is a randomly-generated Zelda-esque dungeon-crawler (“roguelike,” to the sniffy gamer types) that is extremely different every time you play, boasting hundreds of items that drastically affect the gameplay.

It’s also, as the Troma reference might suggest, pretty gross. The monsters are undead babies, aborted fetuses, living poop–pretty much the most horrible things imaginable. Isaac fights by crying: he shoots tears, which I’m sure is a metaphor but I’m lazy. Power-ups are things like growth hormones (which make Isaac grow what look suspiciously like testicles on his face), a hanger through the head (the implication is it was a failed DIY abortion), and various dead baby “buddies” that follow you around and help you fight the badguys (at least one of which is a conjoined twin). But everything is rendered in cartoony pixel-art so as to be less horrendous than the previous sentences might suggest.

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Less horrendous!

What really interests me about the game–beyond the fact that it’s fun to play–is its weird biblical content. The story runs thusly: Isaac’s mom is a born-again type who one day hears the voice of God commanding her to sacrifice her son (the title of the game, of course, is a reference to the biblical story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac under similar circumstances). Isaac escapes his mother’s kitchen knife by fleeing to the basement, where he encounters the aforementioned reanimated dead babies and poop/vagina monsters and what have you. He also encounters demons, Satan, God, the Krampus, and all kinds of other supernatural craziness. There’s lots of interesting commentary on fundamentalist Christianity, child neglect, and, I guess, poop?

While I’m normally not at all a fan of gratuitous grossness, something about Isaac’s perfect storm of good design, bible-ish story elements, and cartoony graphics really appeals to me. I’m terrible at it–I die dozens of times for every successful completion, which I think is McMillen’s intent–but it’s always a lot of fun to play, even after several iterations over the years (the first version was released in 2011).

If you’re looking for a good indie game that will give you potentially hundreds of hours of gameplay, Isaac‘s the way to go.

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You can read Ed McMillen’s official Isaac blog here.