Friday, March 27, 2015

Circus Reviews - Cinders

I've been playing around with Cinders for a few weeks now, and have been meaning to write a review. But just tonight I saw the live-action 2015 version of Cinderella in theaters, and that reminded me to sit and get it done. (As for my thoughts on Cinderella: No real fleshing of the story, but some welcome depth to most of the characters, very impressive visuals, and an overall charming experience. Also, Robb Stark has a much better time with this marriage than with his last one. Har har.) So here I am!

Disclaimer: I am going to assume you know the basic tale of Cinderella. Even our main character, Cinders, knows the tale: she references it early on in the game, and decides that it might be a dangerous story for young girls to read, lest they develop a martyr-like attitude towards life. This visual novel adaptation, however, goes way beyond that. There are 120 decision points in the game, and each one changes the personality of your Cinders or your relationships with the other characters. What this gives us is a much-needed expansion on the original fairy tale, with all kinds of variants to how things can play out. You can take a path that is roughly the same as the true story, or you can shake things up in a bunch of different ways. Will you mend your relationships with your stepfamily? Try to romance an old friend or a new one? Retake your childhood home? Leave town to start anew? And how are you going to get all of this done when the chores aren't finished?

Cinders, our protagonist, lives with Carmosa, her stepmother and the lady of the house, and her two stepsisters Gloria and Sophia. Prince Basile rules from the palace, and a Fairy Godmother of sorts lives in the woods near your home. There are new characters added as well, most prominently in the form of your two potential love interests besides the prince. There's Tobias, a shop merchant and your childhood friend, and Perrault, the captain of the guard and a close friend of the prince. There's also Madame Ghede, a local healer who is constantly accused of witchcraft by the townsfolk, and a potential alternative to the traditional fairy godmother. And a shady character hangs on the edge of the story, holding cards that will change everything should you manage to get them revealed.

The characters from the original tale get the lion's share of development, and it serves to give them some refreshing and much-needed fleshing out. I love what's done with the stepfamily in particular, and my favorite of these three is the stepmother. Carmosa is given reasons for her behavior, and it gives her sympathy that was nowhere near present in the original version. At her core, she's a woman trying to do the best for her daughters, trying to give her family a life that she didn't always have. Sure, she's an abrasive personality at her nicest and she's abusive to all three of the girls under her care, but she's also been seriously warped by her past experiences. It doesn't excuse it at all, but it does explain it. Gloria and Sophia are similarly developed, and it's shown what they've become as a result of their mother's ambitions. Gloria is so fully consumed with her goal of impressing her mother that she has almost no personality outside of it, while Sophia hides behind a shell of bitter cynicism and lashes out at everyone around her. Your relationships with all three are pretty bad, needless to say, but your decisions can help change them for the better...or they can shatter them beyond all repair; it's up to you.

The story branches out quite a bit due to all the decision points. There are four basic endings, but each ending has a set of variants depending on who you've befriended, who you've romanced, and what kind of character you've played. It certainly promotes replayability; going through one playthrough isn't so long when compared to other visual novels, but getting each variant for each ending is going to take more time. The problem is that going back to get the different variants takes a while, and your ultimate reward is one different line in your ending text. There is a skip mode that lets you speed through any lines you've already read, which is pretty standard for a visual novel. However, you get kicked out of skip mode whenever you're introduced to a new character, which of course happens a lot in the beginning of the game, or when the scene changes, which is a lot throughout the whole game. If you're just going back through to get to a different ending, you're going to have to reactivate the skip mode a lot. Also, the game pauses if you click outside the window, so you have to watch it do all the skipping as well. It's a nitpicky complaint, but still an annoying one.

Presentation-wise, outside of the above complaint, the game excels. The art has a wildly different aesthetic than most visual novels, but it's simply gorgeous. Backgrounds are beautifully detailed, and the character sprites are quite expressive. I don't really like the way that the sprites glow when someone is talking, but that's more of a personal issue and I can't call it a design flaw.

Overall, the themes here are more adult than what the original fairy tale provides. At its heart, the story is about growing up, learning the consequences of your actions, finding the multiple sides that everyone has to their character. Nothing is necessarily as it seems. Your stepfamily is probably the biggest example of this, but another big one is one of your possible fairy godmothers, the actual fairy. She is creepy, frustratingly vague, and makes constant references to a price for her help that she refuses to define. It's strongly implied, however, that she'll definitely be coming to collect on it. You get the impression that you've just sold your soul to go to a ball...Is that really worth it?

So in front of you is, at its heart, a fairy tale. But your choices shape it into something more: a relateable story about life, love, family, responsibility, and adulthood. If you're looking for an updated, more mature retelling of a classic story, you've found the right game.

Also, there are no talking mice. Which is great.

Cinders is available on Steam or directly from the developer.

Final verdict: A high quality adaptation of a fairy tale that expands on its source material in countless ways, boosted by beautiful art and wonderful characterization, Cinders is a great game, even if getting to 100% completion is frustrating as hell.

Cinders is developed by Moa Cube. The opinions expressed in this review are my own. I was not compensated in any way for this review.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Circus Rambles - On things I am doing currently

Purchased the beta for Black Closet! For those who haven't heard, it is about solving mysteries at an all-girls' school as the head of the student council, with the helps of your minions. The review will not be coming until the game has officially launched, but if you want to participate in the beta, you can purchase it for a discounted price on the Hanako Games forums.

First impressions are very good. The game is pretty damn hard; I feel like I really suck at it. And I probably do, considering I haven't beaten it due to game overs. But it's enjoyable and a lot of work clearly went into it. I couldn't code that shit, I'll tell you that much.

What else am I doing? Listening to bad pop music and pondering the happenstances of life. I should maybe be doing more productive things, like writing a review or finding a game to write a review on...Hrm.

For a ramble, I don't have much to say, it would seem. Oh well. Day off tomorrow; maybe I can get some work done.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Circus Rambles - On things I need to get around to doing

Putting the word "circus" in front of something means it's all mine, right?

I'm bored and I could always use writing practice, so here be a list of things I need to do. Doubles as a list of things you can eventually expect to go up here.

1. Play a bit more of Cinders so I can start writing my review of it.

2. Play Hatoful Boyfriend. Probably not going to do a review, as I don't have much to say that hasn't been said already.

3. Buy the beta for Black Closet, the newest from Hanako Games. Play a bunch in preparation to do a review on launch.

4. Play the games that have gone unplayed in my Steam library for too long. Games include The Cat Lady and Papers, Please.

5. Write more of The Prince and the Wolf. The going is slow lately as I strike a balance with work and personal time, but I plan to keep at it.

6. Figure out how to do The Tower. A big part of the concept is something I don't know how to code yet, so I need to learn.

Things will all get done. Just gotta do them.

Nighty night!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Circus Reviews - Long Live the Queen

Long Live the Queen is not a new game. It's been out since 2012, and while it's not a household title or anything, I'll gather that a fair number of you have heard of it. But what is new is content - specifically, the recent content patch that added new plotlines, new character faces, new choices, and other fun things. So in honor of the new content, I'm here to take a retro-esque look at Long Live the Queen: a sweet and cheerful-looking princess game in which you try really hard not to get stabbed, shot, blinded, poisoned, or forced into a marriage you don't want.

For those of you who actually haven't heard of the game, I'll give you a brief summary. You play as fourteen-year-old Elodie, Crown Princess of Nova. You are pulled from boarding school after your mother's sudden death, and have a mere forty weeks to prepare for the coronation that will take place on your fifteenth birthday. But forty weeks is a short time to learn everything you need to know to be a ruler, and nothing slows down for you in the meantime. You're responsible for judging criminals, adjusting taxes, commanding the military, and more. You're required to arrange a marriage for yourself, since the throne needs an heir and the crown needs a good political alliance. There are deadly plots going on all around you, and a lot of nobles who may treat you politely, but have their own agendas to fill. Trying to survive your weekly classes is one thing; trying to survive your own assassination is another entirely.

Gameplay is based on skill checks and decision making. You raise your skills via weekly classes, and how well you do is affected by your mood, which you can change through story events or weekend activities. During the story, skill checks are raised against your skills, and whether you pass or fail determines what happens next. Failing a skill check can mean insulting a noble you don't want to upset...or it could mean your untimely demise. You also have choices to make that guide the story, but often times all the choices aren't available to you unless you pass skill checks to unlock extra options. Save for some unlockable outfits that will boost all skills in a subgroup, your weekly classes are the only way to raise your skills, and there's no possible way to be up to par in every skill, which means you have to pick and choose your skills very carefully from day one.

This makes the game very much a trial-and-error experience, one that almost requires a walkthrough if you want to get anywhere on subsequent playthroughs. Random events pop out of the woodwork, like bandits on your way to a birthday party or a very angry noble who wants your head. Skills that you never thought to train will leave you failing a skill check that kills you. The sheer amount of information about the secrets and plots of the nobles around you is overwhelming, and it will take you many runs through the game to learn everything. On one hand, this gives the game a great deal of replayability that doesn't feel like 100% completion grinding. On the other hand, I would almost say that this is a game that requires a walkthrough; without one, you're going to have a rather tough time, and I can see where that would be really frustrating to some players.

The gameplay mechanics themselves mostly work well, although the design of the bedroom menu that you spend a good deal of time on is a bit questionable. There are separate screens for your skills, your mood, and your classes for the week, and sometimes it gets a bit cumbersome to switch between the three, which you'll be doing a lot in order to determine the best classes to pick. There's also another screen for your outfits, and this may be nitpicky, but the indicator for a new outfit that was added with the latest patch just doesn't fit. It looks ridiculously out of place with the art around it, like a sticker that was just kind of slapped on. I recall reading that the indicator was put in to make it more obvious that you had a new outfit, but honestly, it feels like it could have been implemented better.

Character development varies slightly, since different characters will receive different amounts of screen time depending on the route you take, but the game as a whole handles its characters well, especially the leads. One might wonder why a crown princess less than a year away from the age of majority starts out with zero skills in everything, including things she would be expected to know simply for being nobility, but as far as age-appropriate behavior goes Elodie is pretty spot on. And the occasional absentmindedness of Joslyn, her father, might raise some eyebrows, but then you might recall that he just lost his wife (and it's implied that he never fully recovers from this) and is having to deal with his daughter growing up a lot earlier than he expected. Most of the nobles share a dastardly, "I am plotting your downfall" air about them, while the characters closer to Elodie's age, like her cousin and her classmates from boarding school, are more friendly and innocent about the world.

The story is complex; as mentioned previously, it will take several playthroughs to get to everything. Every noble seems to be hiding something, and every family has secrets. You may wind up gaining knowledge of a noble's secrets and then carrying them over to a playthrough where Elodie isn't in a position to do anything about it. And, of course, you have to be careful with what you do with your knowledge...Most people don't like being accused of something, and they may decide to retaliate.

Which brings us to deaths! There are a grand total of eleven deaths, each with its own cute little chibi art rendering. They don't necessarily match with the rest of the art style, but they do add well to the general tone of sweet, sugary despair. And that's not including the non-lethal ways to end your game, such as being dethroned or being forced to flee the country. And that's also not including all the depressing variants your endings can have, such as the outcome of your marriage, whether your father remarries, whether any wars have depleted your army, how the commoners feel about you...The list goes on. There are lots of ways to end your game, and as best I can tell, it's not possible to have a completely happy ending.

It is, however, possible to avoid drowning at sea. Maybe.

The best description I've heard for this game is "Princess Maker meets Game of Thrones". It presents a cheery front at first, but the facade falls away pretty quickly to reveal the starkness of the world your character is preparing to rule. You have a long way to go to be the queen, and an infinity of choices to make on the way. Will you be a kind-hearted ruler? A cruel dictator? Who will you align with, and who will you alienate? And most importantly...can you even live up to your own game's title?

Long Live the Queen is available on Steam or directly from the developer.

Final verdict: A few design flaws and an occasionally frustrating difficulty level don't deter from an absorbing story and intriguing characters; this is an extremely well done entry into the raising sim genre, with plenty of visual novel touches to make it even more interesting.

Long Live the Queen is written and developed by Hanako Games and Spiky Caterpillar, and illustrated by Izumi K. Rukawa, Miles V., Sveva, DesignFera, Jeff Haas, Melkor, Hetiru, and Obsidian Dawn. The opinions expressed in this review are my own. I was not compensated in any way for this review.