Thursday, September 28, 2017

Pokemon Generation 7's Significance to the Series Theory

Today’s theory is different from my others. Usually, my theories are on aspects of storytelling, or potential other perspectives on characters, which are unlikely to ever be definitively proven right or wrong. But today’s theory is a little more grounded in tangibles. We’re going to see whether I’m right or wrong--probably the latter, I’m sorry to say--on the inevitable day that Pokemon Generation 8 is released. For the sake of Pokemon’s recent, utterly unexpected venture into quality storytelling, I hope today’s theory will, in at least some part, be vindicated. But I’m not betting on it. Time will tell, I suppose. On with the rant!

There’s just no 2 ways about it: against all expectations, Pokemon Generation 7 is a good RPG. No, that’s selling it short. It’s a great RPG. It’s got a story with depth that feels like it matters, with a well-written, complex, dynamic, and so gosh darn lovable main character, and a complex, well-written, skillfully executed villain who perfectly serves as the main character’s foil. Pokemon Generation 7 has a plot with a real purpose, that poses and explores actual questions and issues, and more than once invokes genuine emotion in the player.

And the interesting thing is, some of these more thoughtful parts of Pokemon Generation 7 may not just be significant in their own right, as moments in their own story, but also as a foundation to the themes and direction of future games in the Pokemon series. For, you see, within Pokemon Moon and Pokemon Sun are seeds that could lead to a complete shake-up of the imbalanced, illogical, and morally worrying way that the Pokemon world, and indeed even its narrative, views and treats its eponymous race of dogfighting servants.

The bulk of this potential is found within the game’s true main character, Lillie. Not surprising, of course, given that Lillie already does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to inserting purpose and depth into Pokemon Generation 7. Lillie has the potential to be a graceful, subtle first real step that Nintendo and Game Freak are taking toward recognizing Pokemon as being, and deserving to be, more than battling slavepets.

To see what I mean, we must first acknowledge a certain unstated narrative decision regarding Lillie: namely, that she is, symbolically, a Pokemon. In the literal sense, Lillie is, of course, as human as any other character in the game, but she nonetheless is clearly meant to be analogous to a Pokemon. Her initial design, of course, is the most obvious giveaway of this fact, as Lillie’s clothing and hairstyle when you first meet her intentionally make her visually similar to Nihilego, the Pokemon/Unknown Beast of greatest narrative importance to the game’s story (besides Nebbie, that is).* And this decision is not just a typical but unimportant artistic choice, the way Gym Leaders will often have color schemes and hairstyles evocative of the Pokemon Type that they specialize in. The game explicitly tells us that Lillie’s mother Lusamine has intentionally made Lillie’s appearance as close to Nihilego’s as possible, for reasons that are fascinating, thought-provoking, but also irrelevant to and just too darned time-consumingly complex for this rant.

Lillie also seems to unconsciously (and perhaps even consciously) parallel herself to Pokemon, as well. Even as she eventually casts aside her mother’s control over her and begins to dress as she wants to, Lillie keeps the comparison her mother drew between her and Pokemon alive--heck, she kind of makes the analogy stronger. Because even as she shows off her new look and determination, Lillie equates this evolution of her character with an advancement of a Pokemon, calling her new outlook and fashion her “Z-Powered Form.” This is, of course, in reference to the Z Moves that Generation 7 introduces to the Pokemon battle dynamic, single-use attacks of extreme power that’re all flashy and super special awesome and such.

Of course, what exactly a “Z-Powered Form” in fact is, I couldn’t say. It’s not actually a thing for Pokemon...seems like Lillie should have called her new look her Mega Evolution, but Mega Evolution is, like, so last Generation, so I guess they just had her go with the less technically accurate analogy for the benefit of tying in with this Generation’s Z-Move gimmick.**

Regardless, though, Lillie’s obviously referencing (if perhaps ineptly) a concept unique to Pokemon in the game to describe herself. So, yeah, even when she’s broken free of the clutches of her dominating mother’s after-influence, Lillie is still meant to represent a Pokemon, by her own words.

So here’s the thing: If we look at Lillie as representative of Pokemon, the story of Pokemon Generation 7 has some very interesting implications for the future of the series. The meat of this game’s story, after all, is that of Lillie stepping out of her mother’s domination, free to be her own person and seek her own destiny. In a touching display of compassion and genuine goodness, Lillie makes the choice to return to Lusamine and save her, not because she’s obligated to, but because she still loves her mother and won’t leave Lusamine to destroy herself. It’s a great coming-of-age story, particularly when it occurs alongside the journey of Alola’s first-Champion-to-be as the island region prepares to join the rest of the world in having a Pokemon League.***

But keeping the Lillie = Pokemon metaphor in mind, the story takes on a new tone. It starts to seem like it’s an allegory for a Pokemon, any given Pokemon, escaping from the dominating, self-concerned control of her trainer, a trainer that demands unconditional obedience from the Pokemon in every regard, and expects the poor creature to shape its behavior and physical existence to suit the trainer’s whims. Which, needless to say, is exactly what we do when we play these games, to varying degrees, and even in-universe seems to be the case for a substantial portion of the trainer population. And while I’d love to say I came up with this interpretation on my own and act all smart and thoughtful, the game basically just spells it out for you as Lillie confronts her mother at the Aether Foundation. She basically tells Lusamine off for taking advantage of Lillie’s love for her, declaring that children aren’t just toys to be played with and discarded...and in the same conversation, also denounces the way that Lusamine harmed Nebby (the Cosmog Pokemon that Lillie ran away with to save from her mother’s machinations). The parallel is drawn clearly between Lusamine’s abuse of Lillie and her abuse of her Pokemon.

This being the case, then, what does the rest of Lillie’s story tell us? Lillie goes on to find her confidence and discover herself, as well as encourage Nebby to grow in new ways without her (as the companion to Moon/Sun, rather than remaining in Lillie’s care), and her story concludes with a showdown against Lusamine, in which Lillie saves her mother from her own madness, and proves herself as an independent individual, both to herself and to Lusamine. As Lusamine murmurs in questioning wonder at how beautiful Lillie has now become, the girl has proven that her love for and devotion to her mother can exist--indeed, has never been greater--as a part of her as an independent person. Not only was Lusamine mistaken when, in her madness, she believed that the only way to guarantee the consistent love and devotion of her family was to control them completely, but the love and devotion that Lillie has now voluntarily shown for her mother is greater, more ‘beautiful’, than ever before. But beyond the surface level of a coming-of-age story that deals with our fear of losing those close to us as they mature into people of their own...this is a story with interesting implications. If Lillie is also meant to represent a Pokemon, and by extension Lusamine is clearly meant to represent that Pokemon’s trainer...then this is a story very different from that cowardly slop in Generation 5. This is a story which dares to criticize the foundation of the Pokemon world: that of a domineering trainer who, as shown through the options and nuances of gameplay, gets to casually acquire, use, and discard Pokemon in accordance to his/her whims alone. Through its protagonist Lillie, Pokemon Generation 7 says that the conventions we’re so used to in these games, which we in real life poke fun at and question the ethics of, actually are morally unsound.

Yes, we know that there are cases in the Pokemon world of trainers mistreating their Pokemon--the sad sack plot of Generation 5 hinged its whole message of “KEEP UP THE STATUS QUO AND DON’T THINK ABOUT THINGS TOO MUCH” around the idea that 1 guy mistook the supposed rarity of Pokemon abuse as the norm, as I mentioned in previously. Nonetheless, until now, the concept was used only as a rare contrast that highlighted how okay it was for the regular Pokemon-human dynamic to exist. Generation 7, on the other hand, actually stars the individual who questions the ethics of the world’s hierarchy. Stars, and glorifies her.

And that by itself is impressive. But what’s really interesting is that this game does more than just having Lillie question the norms of the Pokemon world, call attention to the fact that maybe thinking, feeling, reasoning creatures shouldn’t be kept as slave pets. Yes, Pokemon Generation 7 goes beyond simple critique of its own series: it also proposes an alternative. Criticism, after all, is an absolutely essential component to human society, but it’s the easier half of a whole--the other half is actually offering a solution for the problem being highlighted.**** In having Lillie return to save Lusamine from herself, in having Lillie show her devotion even when Lusamine has turned her back to her daughter, and in having Lusamine finally, at the end of the climactic showdown, realize just how amazing Lillie truly is as her own person, Pokemon Generation 7 poses the solution to the current inequitable and ethically uncomfortable status of Pokemon and their trainers. The solution is simply to have trainers give up their supposed authority and control of their Pokemon...release them, let them be their own free beings, and let their love and devotion to the humans keep them voluntarily by the trainers’ side. Lillie has proven that she can be Lusamine’s daughter and her equal at the same time, and by metaphorical extension, that a Pokemon can be its trainer’s companion and equal at the same time.

That’s what I’ve taken from this, at least: that Pokemon Generation 7 has stood up, and proclaimed, “Let equal beings share their love and friendship as equal beings.” To me, the moral and message of Lillie’s story, when viewed through the understanding that she represents Pokemon, holds a very real possibility that the series is ready to take itself in a new direction.

Now, Lillie is my biggest piece of evidence for my thoughts that the future of the Pokemon series might involve a revolutionary change in tone and interpersonal dynamics between trainer and Pokemon, but I do want to point out that there are a few minor details of Pokemon Generation 7 that corroborate this. First of all, there’s the Pokemon Pelago feature--a pleasant, physical location for your Pokemon to go to, instead of just being cooped up in a PC storage system. Could be, and probably is, meant as nothing more than a gameplay feature, but it does nonetheless carry with it an implication that perhaps Pokemon prefer being ‘free range,’ so to speak, than being compressed into a digital box.

There’s also the fact that Alola has a noticeably more equal attitude (though obviously nowhere near actual equality) towards Pokemon, a fact which is outright stated a couple times. Pokemon are implied to have jobs in the community as their own entities (rather than just being used by trainers to perform those jobs), such as independently providing transportation services to those taking the Alola Island Challenge.***** I mean, sure, these transportation Pokemon are still having to drop whatever they’re doing to assist the human being that calls on them, but they’re doing so on their own, without some preteen owner breathing down their necks a few feet away. As a result, it feels less like a slave pet kowtowing to their master, and more like a contracted entity voluntarily fulfilling a responsibility--that is, an employee just doing their job. A region (one which seems especially glorified; I can’t recall any previous installment in the series whose characters, NPCs, and overall tone had so much enthusiasm for its setting) in which Pokemon are viewed as slightly closer to peers than in any other’s an interesting detail to call attention to.

So what does this all add up to? What’s my point? Well, it’s simply this: I theorize (and really, really hope) that Pokemon Generation 7 is intended to be a turning point in the series. Not just in the sense that we’ve finally seen a main series Pokemon RPG with a real story and well-written characters (though I am DEFINITELY down for this being the first of many quality plots and casts!). Rather, I think that this well-written, subtle story of shaking free from unfair bondage and rising up to prove the value of being free to be oneself and pursue relationships out of choice rather than obligation could be a turning point for how the Pokemon series views and implements its titular species. Born from the quiet but bold words and example of Lillie, future titles could finally begin truly exploring the questions of what’s right and just for Pokemon, the questions that have been glossed over, ignored, and at times even actively and ineptly sabotaged by the series until now. The future might hold new stories which further challenge the dynamics of the Pokemon world, even new game features that could revolutionize how Pokemon are acquired--maybe we could soon see a game in which “catching” a Pokemon is less about beating them within an inch of their life and trapping them in a tiny prison, and more about actually convincing them that you deserve their companionship and support, keeping them together as a group out of mutual respect and affection rather than an iron grip of control, as Lillie has taught us is better. I theorize that from here on, with Generation 7 as a foundation to build off of, the Pokemon series will, much as its eponymous beings do, evolve into something greater! Something of depth, that develops itself in a dynamic way with each new installment, moving toward a more worthwhile, wholesome world in which humans and Pokemon are the equals who grow as friends and family for real. A whole new series has been born with Generation 7!

Or, y’know, more likely the next games will be the same careless, uninteresting, shallow cash-grabs as always, and Nintendo will backtrack the hell away from the possibilities that Pokemon Moon and Sun opened to them. I suppose we’ll know for sure in a couple years. Even if that winds up being the case, though, I’ll always have Generation 7 much as I have Xenosaga 1: as a shining moment of glimpsed potential for something great.

* Does anyone find it interesting, incidentally, that in the Pokemon Refresh thing, touching Nihilego in the spot where her face would be (if we use Lillie as a blueprint) provokes a strong reaction? I wonder whether there’re any implications to that.

** Speaking of Mega Evolutions, is anyone else annoyed that none of Alola’s new Pokemon got any? The Z Moves are cool and all, but I’d rather see some cool powered-up forms if I have to choose.

Also, way to drop the ball and still not have a Mega Evolution of Rapidash as a totally bitchin’ fire alicorn, Nintendo. It’s like you guys don’t even read this blog.

*** Come to think of it...why hasn’t the series tried something like this before? I mean, the basic premise of Pokemon is pretty much always the same thing: a kid going on a journey that’s a socially-encouraged rite of passage. That’s basically already the foundation of a coming-of-age story anyway, so why not make an actual, honest-to-Arceus story about growing up and out of the confines of youth? It seems so damn obvious! Sheesh, Generation 7 really is the first of the series where they gave the slightest crap about what they were writing.

**** Not, for the record, that there is anything wrong about offering sincere critique even when you don’t personally have a better solution available. It’s not the diner’s responsibility to know how to make their meal palatable, but the chef’s. It is simply the diner’s privilege to expect as much, and to call attention to a situation which prevents them from having a satisfactory experience.


Monday, September 18, 2017

General RPGs' Collectathons' Bad Rewards

Who’s psyched for a short rant?

Okay, could we PLEASE get some sort of formal, written agreement across the board from RPG companies that if your game has a long and involved collectathon, the final reward for finding every single hidden little collectable object has to actually be, y’know, rewarding?

This is not fucking rocket science. If you have hidden 50 secret magical doodads throughout the game and given the player a sidequest to find them all, there should be an end reward that doesn’t make them feel like they wasted the extra hours of their time that it took to track them all down!

Most games can figure this out. Find every single Normin in Tales of Zestiria, including those rotten little bastards that are hidden in goddamn scenery? You get a final Normin with 1 of the best equipment blessing powers, AND you get him via an amusing scene that reveals a little bit of back lore for Edna, along with a couple of those delightful Tales of series skits. That’s a fairly decent reward. Go through the inordinate trouble of tracking down 4 separate sets of 8 eggs in Lufia 2? You get an ultimate boss fight with a grumpy and now overworked dragon, and then are rewarded with the best sword and accessory in the game (which honestly is not nearly worth the trouble, if you ask me, but it IS an actual reward). Find all 99 dalmatians in Kingdom Hearts 1, and your final reward is the best wind spell in the game, a grab bag of some of the best inventory stuff in the game, and a torn page (which unlocks a part of the Winnie the Pooh sidequest, which, I mean, is plot stuff, so I’m obligated to approve of it even though, as noted long ago, I can’t fucking stand that dopey, staggering heap of urine-colored lint). Oh, and a short little cutscene of all the dalmatians running around their now overcrowded home, which is either adorable and fulfilling to watch, or makes you shudder with rage and wonder if Cruella didn’t have the right idea, depending on how much trouble you had finding all the monochromatic little vermin. But, y’know, since most people are not quite as easily frustrated by small things as I am, nor quite so quick to jump to vengeful thoughts regarding puppies, Imma assume most people like the cutscene, and say that overall this collectathon has a good reward.

But, see, while most games can manage to come up with something actually fucking decent to reward a player’s detailed exploration to find all 80 fabled mystical hot dogs scattered about the land or whatever other crap the collectible mcguffin of the day happens to be, some apparently can’t be bothered. Illusion of Gaia, for example. 50 Red Gems there are, scattered throughout the course of Illusion of Gaia from start to finish. That’s a lot of hidden locations to find, and some are rather challengingly hidden. Not helping matters is the fact that a lot of these are permanently missable--there are a lot of locations in IoG which you cannot return to after certain points in the game. So you go to all this trouble, and what’s your reward? You get to run through a short and frankly pretty uninteresting bonus dungeon, learn that the Red Gem collector was secretly the first boss of Soulblazer all along, and then fight him. That’s fucking it. No actual reward for your effort, just a tiny extra dungeon that’s boring, a fight that’s just a remix of the first boss from a previous game, and, like, I dunno, 5 lines of dialogue? Is the reward just supposed to be the satisfaction of knowing the secret of the Red Gem guy, and the fate of Soulblazer’s first boss? Because I’m gonna be blunt: I didn’t give a damn about the former, and I hadn’t even realized I was supposed to give a damn about the latter.

Or, worse yet, what about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? Where was the vaunted Nintendo polish when it came to those fucking Gold Skulltulas, huh!? This massive (for its time; still sizable today) land of twisty dungeons and obscure hiding places, and you’re asked to search it for 100, that’s one-flippin’-hundred, giant spiders* peppered all throughout Hyrule. And if you do stay the course, put in the time and effort, and actually uncover every last damn Gold Skulltula? Your prize is 200 rupees. Now, granted, you can keep coming back and getting 200 more rupees each time, so it's actually infinite money, so this seems, on paper, like it's a pretty good reward. But tell me: what the hell is there, by the point that you can reach every Gold Skulltula, to even buy any more? 200 rupees or 2 billion, it means nothing at the point of the game where there's nothing substantial left to purchase! I'd wager most players' wallets are completely full by the time they even get this reward, having had nothing important to buy for hours and hours already! At least Illusion of Gaia’s programmers went to the trouble to whip up a little bonus dungeon and a rehashed boss fight. They might have been mistaken about what an adequate reward for their collectathon would be, but they TRIED. Nintendo just doesn’t even bother pretending that it didn’t just put you through hours of busywork to artificially inflate the length of the game.

And don’t even get me started on Energy Breaker’s Shiny Pebble situation. At least Illusion of Gaia and Ocarina of Time actually did give you something for finishing their collectathons, terrible though the rewards may have been. Energy Breaker rewards you periodically for finding enough of the Shiny Pebbles scattered throughout the game, but if you actually manage to find all 50, which is no small feat, what happens? NOTHING. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this, but here should actually be a reward for the player completing the collection quest you asked of them!**

Look, bottom line, if any budding game developers ever happen across this: please, make sure that the game-long collectathon actually has a worthwhile reward for its conclusion. Don’t make the ‘reward’ an extra chore that answers a question no one was asking, don’t make it a condescending pat on the head and some money they don’t need, don’t just forego rewarding them altogether...the players have put effort into finding all that you’ve hidden, so reciprocate with some effort in thinking about and creating a reward they’ll feel satisfied with, yeah?

* Who was the genius at Nintendo that decided to make the collectibles for this quest a bunch of giant fucking spiders, anyway? Giant fucking spiders whose bodies are skulls? Other RPG collectathons have you searching for precious jewels, cute puppies or other mascots, ancient artifacts, special coins, collectible bottle caps...things that you want to find, or at least don’t mind doing so. What’s Nintendo have you scouring every inch of the world for? Abominations. It’s like they were determined that absolutely no part of this sidequest should be appealing.

** I admit that on this point, I’m going on other people’s reports, not personal experience. I didn’t find all 50 myself when I played through Energy Breaker. Nonetheless, multiple other players have reported getting nothing for going to the trouble of locating every single Shiny Pebble in the game, and no one has contradicted these statements, so I’m assuming they are correct.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Cosmic Star Heroine

You know the drill at this point: I play an Indie RPG, I make a rant about it...assuming it doesn’t suck, of course. Or even if it does suck, sometimes. Cosmic Star Heroine was the...I think third Kickstarter RPG I backed, so it was pretty rad to finally see it finished and play what I’d helped make a reality. Here’s what I think:

Cosmic Star Heroine is fun.

Honestly, that is what Cosmic Star Heroine ultimately boils down to. It’s a good time from the word go. If you want a recommendation but don’t want to have to wade through another long, meandering rant, that’s it right there: It’s fun, so go and play it.

For any among you who like hearing me blather on, for some reason, let’s look at the game with a little more detail. First of all, let’s start with an examination into what it’s promised, and what it delivers on. Cosmic Star Heroine proudly proclaimed itself to be an RPG created with 16-bit-era RPGs in mind, most notably Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star 4 (seriously, I don’t think there was a single promotional ad, article, video, or what have you for the game prior to release that didn’t name drop those 2 titles as its guiding influences). Well, in terms of drumming up interest among lifelong gamers for it, you sure can’t go wrong with dropping the names of the greatest SNES RPG* and the greatest Genesis RPG** every chance you can get. But, that does set a damn high bar for Cosmic Star Heroine to hit, too. Does it do so?

Well, not really, but also sort of yes.

Allow me to explain what I mean by this ambiguous standalone statement (I use those a lot, don’t I?). If you’re going to just compare the 3 titles together on total merit as RPGs, well, Cosmic Star Heroine doesn’t stand a fucking chance. It hasn’t got the emotional power nor the plot substance of Phantasy Star 4 alone, let alone Chrono Trigger. It lacks the narrative genius and creativity of Chrono Trigger, and much of CSH’s novelty in lore and world building is similar enough to Phantasy Star’s that it doesn’t seem especially unique when the comparison to PS has already been drawn. CSH’s cast in general doesn’t hold a candle to CT’s or PS4’s, and its villains are serviceable, but unimpressive when compared to Magus, Zio, Zeal, Dark Force, and Lavos. If you look at Cosmic Star Heroine’s frequent claims of a spiritual tie to Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star 4 as a promise to equal their quality, well, you’re gonna be disappointed.

From a different perspective, however, Cosmic Star Heroine does deliver on its claims. The setting and narrative methods of CSH emulate Phantasy Star very well, capturing the series’s core atmosphere and style in a way that’s enjoyable, nostalgic, authentic, and yet never uninterestingly derivative. It’s even got PS4-styled cutscene semi-animations (in fact, they’re better quality than PS4’s iconic ones, while seeming to be on the same technological level). Honestly, this game is far more true to Phantasy Star than the actual Phantasy Star series itself has been for many years. Heck, the protagonist’s first name is even Alyssa, which isn’t too far from the names of Phantasy Star 1 and 4’s main characters.*** There’s also a lot of the game’s style of play and dialogue/monologue interactions that feels...well, maybe not directly related to Chrono Trigger, but definitely like a cousin to it. There’s also various bits and pieces scattered throughout the game that are little nods at CT and PS, such as sentient talking multi-tailed cats showing up here and there (as a nod to Myau of PS1...and honestly, Random Cats was sort of a CT thing, too), and a festival in the middle of the first planet’s city that feels more than a little like CT’s iconic Millennial Fair. So while CSH doesn’t really compare to PS4 and CT, it does in some ways capture a lot of their feel, and I’d be surprised if, while playing it, there was anyone who didn’t have at least a single moment of nostalgia for those classics.

The thing with Cosmic Star Heroine is, though, that it’s very much its own entity, more than it’s an homage or spiritual successor, and I think that it should be judged as such first and foremost. And as its own entity, it’s...well, as I said, it’s fun. Sorry, but I don’t have a whole lot else I can really call it that makes sense. To say more of it wouldn’t be accurate, but to say less would also be wrong.

Now, you might think that just saying that Cosmic Star Heroine is “fun” doesn’t really mean much, and that it doesn’t highly recommend it. But I do want to clarify that, to me, this actually means that CSH is a rather rare RPG experience. Because, well, “fun” isn’t really something that the stories, characters, and atmospheres of RPGs actually reach for very often. That’s not to say anything against the genre, of course; if anything, it speaks well of it. RPGs, plot-based as they are meant to be, are almost always far more concerned with telling a story that conveys a message, or provokes thought and consideration, or analyzes an aspect of our consciousness, or evokes strong emotions. RPGs usually have a direction they want their story to go in, and simple, surface-level fun is rarely it. That’s not to say that one does not enjoy the games, that one does not have fun with this genre that comports itself somewhat more seriously than most...but that’s not the same thing as a game that’s just out strictly to be an enjoyable, light romp. Only a handful of RPGs successfully choose this latter course, titles like Super Mario RPG, Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch, Startropics, and Paper Mario 2. And hell, sometimes an RPG that seems like it’s meant to be a lighthearted bit of fun ends up ambushing you with meaning and strong emotion just when you think you’re safe, like Okage: Shadow King, Disgaea 1, Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, and Makai Kingdom.

And don’t get me wrong: I am extremely happy with this situation. I have no complaints whatsoever that RPGs almost always carry themselves with the intent to be serious, meaningful, and poignant.**** The result is a genre where the storytelling quality of, say, Final Fantasy 4, which is just a solidly well-written venture all around, is the average, rather than a high note. And I’m also extremely pleased when an RPG that has an approach that seems lighthearted turns out to be deep, meaningful, and/or emotionally complex, too. In fact, looking at Undertale, Okage: Shadow King, Disgaea 1, Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, Makai Kingdom, and Mother 3, it seems to be a remarkably consistent way to craft an excellent and compelling story. It seems in many cases that a lighthearted hook, premise, and/or cast can actually make the heavier content to come all the more gripping, somehow. I can only think immediately of 1 example where it failed (Disgaea 2), where it just seemed to be trying too damn hard on all fronts of humor and emotion.

With that said, though? We all need a little pure, basic levity, now and then. We cannot survive on drama and tragedy forever; every now and then we must sprinkle some comedy and simple, straightforward action and excitement into our mental diet. I don’t really advocate things that turn your brain off altogether, mind you, since the implication with that phrase is that the thing you’re watching or playing or whatever doesn’t have to try at all. But if not outright turning it off, we at least all need to give our brain a chance now and then to sit back on a comfortable recliner and take a load off its cerebellum for a bit.

And when that time comes, that even your RPG hobby could use a slight break to loosen up a bit and just have fun? Cosmic Star Heroine’s the game for you. It has a consistent, enjoyable undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek humor throughout its course. It’s got a fun, exciting feel to it. It’s paced very well so that any time it might start to feel a bit repetitive, it throws a quick new event your way (like a brief break to pilot a giant mech suit in a classic anime/monster movie battle, or a mission to infiltrate a social event held by a mobster) to break things up and keep them fresh. It’s funny, without having to actually be a comedy RPG. It has a generally exciting and engaging stride with a lot of action and adventure. It’s got a cast which may not be especially deep or dynamic, but is weird and creative in that classic Genesis RPG way--between psychic gun monks, giant ant cyborgs, and an alien ghost detective, you’re never wanting for a colorful and weird character to adventure with. And, well, I mean, it’s a game about a science fiction secret agent superstar going rogue to save her star system from a mysterious alien mind control device! What can I really say about the game that its own premise doesn’t effectively communicate?

In the end, Cosmic Star Heroine is a fun RPG. It’s made to be an exciting, enjoyable adventure from the start, and its writers know how to keep it that way through to its end. Do I encourage you to give it a try? Sure! I’ll of course more strongly advocate for other, more compelling Indie RPGs first, ones like Celestian Tales 1 or Dust: An Elysian Tail, but as a simple, fun break from the typical, serious approach of the genre, Cosmic Star Heroine can’t be beat. I’d be surprised if you didn’t find it an appealing, pleasing venture.

* Sorry, Shin Megami Tensei 1 and 2, Final Fantasy 6, and Lufia 2.

** Sorry, uh...Pier Solar and the Great Architects, I guess? Wow, the only competition Phantasy Star 4 has for the title of greatest Genesis RPG is a game that came out over a decade after the system was dead. 16-bit-era Sega really just didn’t have a whole lot going for it RPG-wise, did it?

*** Yeah, okay, Chaz turned out to be the protagonist of Phantasy Star 4, not Alys. Well, much like Hot Ice Hilda to Outlaw Star, Alys feels like the cooler potential hero whose story was stolen from her by a narrative mistake. I really feel like the game up until Alys’s death feels much more like the story was designed with her as the lead in mind. Hell, even afterwards, Chaz’s role as leader somehow feels off more than a few times, like the result of a script that’s been altered from its original, intended vision.

Not that I dislike Chaz, you understand. He’s fine. PS4 just never felt to me like it was supposed to have been his story, that’s all.

**** This intent does not always work out, of course. Still, I’m glad that misguided efforts like Xenosaga aimed high and missed, rather than missing while not trying to do anything meaningful. Hell, even complete fucking garbage like Wild Arms 4 and Shadow Hearts 3 acted like they had something say with their stories, even if they were gravely mistaken.