Text 22 Nov Welcome to Dept. Heaven

In all my years of playing and researching games, I don’t think there has ever been a series with as severe a “awesome-to-under-appreciated” ratio as the Dept. Heaven series. For those how have never heard of the series, the Dept. Heaven Episodes, as they are known, is the child of Sting developers and is almost impossible to describe without showing the games. Suffice to say it is a strange, branching, mash-up of games, with a hidden common thread, unconventional ideas, and possessive of that greatest aspect: fun. First I’ll break down these games, and then I’ll tell you what is the best thing about them. Hopefully, I’ll be able to win over some converts to this wonderful and esoteric series.

My two loves are videogames and history and there is no better series for these two passions that the Dept. Heaven. This is not because the games are especially historically rooted in content or basis (they can play fast and loose with mythology) but that finding the threads that connect the games share the alacrity, attention to detail, and – above all – thrill of discovery that historical research brings.

Box ArtSting began their series with Riviera: The Promised Land. While certainly unconventional and a bit strange, even for the time, Riviera is about as conventional as you can get with the DH  series. A mix of turn based RPG, visual novel, dating sim, and Norse mythology, Riviera has gone from under-appreciated Game Swan game to an under-appreciated GBA game to an under-appreciated PSP game. However, with its unique and pleasing aesthetics and challenging battle system, I am mystified about the under-appreciation. Combine this with a stellar story of betrayal, nature, and redemption and get ready for a wild ride. However, even though this is their first game in the series, don’t be fooled. Riviera is, chronologically, the most recent game of the “story”.

The best thing about Riviera is the sense of restraint and consideration that comes with the game. Every mechanic of the game seems to be based around the ideas of prioritization and risk-reward. In the gameplay, this manifests as looking around. When one looks around at their scenery, they can occasionally expand points to look at specific and important facets of the scenery. This could be a chest containing a magic ring, a sword lodged in a chasm, or a pile of rubble. These points can only be obtained by success in battle – in which you are ranked – meaning that to explore, you must master the battle system. This system is the risk-reward I mentioned earlier. If I expand one precious point to explore this one, say, hole, what will happen? Will there be treasure? Will there be nothing? Could there be a monster? Will I have a shiny new item or will I have squandered a point? The entire system and method of gameplay is so scaled-down and restrained that the game becomes a consideration of how to move within an interesting series of restraints.

BattleIn battle, this restraint is the item quantity and numerical quality limitation system. You are allowed to bring a sum total of four – yes, theone after three and before five – items into battle. That is weapons, magic orbs, items — everything. And then, after t
hat each item has a number of uses (think Fire Emblem). And then, each item has an experience gauge that builds as you use it. So you very well could end up with one weapon, with one use left, that you could unleash one might attack with. Is it was waste of a slot? Would you rather have it and not need it or need it and not have it? The consideration necessary to play the game well is what sets it apart from games with stacks of 99 potions and characters carrying thirty four different broadswords into battle.

Next on our list is the 2006 GBA game (rereleased on PSP) Yggdra Union: We’ll Never Fight Alone. In the same timeline as Riviera, the Kingdom of Fantasinia falls to the Bronquian Empire. The royal family is slaughtered, the army scattered, and the land occupied. One hope remains: Princess Yggdra Artwaltz, wielder of the magic sword Gran Centurio, who manages to escape death by falling in with the infamous thief Milanor the Silver Wolf. Thus begins a quest of epic proportions: insurgency, rebellion, betrayal, and hope above all - however, not the most original story

However, despite what you might think, this game is unconventional: it is an SRPG with cards. Yes, the tale of nations at war and coup d’états is played out with extremely simple sprits and cards. Cards are used for movement, attacking, and a variety of special skills that apply only to one class. As you tend to only get one character of that one class, you might have to hold on to some cards until you have them see a more nuanced use.

While it may be visually simplistic, the mechanics work very well. Creating chains or ‘unions’ of units (in patterns determined by gender) is the key to victory and creates a fresh tactical experience. 

With an notable soundtrack, entertaining and nuanced gameplay, and a host of characters, Yggdra Unionwould very well stand on its own as an excellent game. However, the most fascinating part (a part that is emphasized in the PSP version) is the tendrils that connect Riviera to Yggdra Union. Subtle mentions of the Seven Magi, a whiff of the same mythos, a brush with the previous game all server to create a faint, but noticeable thread.

The most recent entry in the series is Knights in the Nightmare. Originally released on DS and  then ported – and expanded – on PSP, Knights in the Nightmare, despite being the third game released, is the fourth game in the chronology of the Dept. Heaven series — as well as being my favorite. Knights in the Nightmare is a thoroughly  fascinating game that tells the tale of the events  leading up to and directly after a calamity occurs. The great sage’s castle of Aventheim has been attacked by otherwordly beasts and the king has died. Darkness is covering the land. You are the Wisp and you have the unique power of rising the ghosts of the knights who were eradicated by the darkness and sending them into battle in a mix of real time battles, SRPG, and bullet hell shooter.

The best part of the game are the eponymous knights. Each night is complete with an affinity, a race, a unique portrait, and – best of all – their own story. Each has family, aspirations, last words, special items — each one feels more than some ghostly warrior you’ve raised for battle. They feel like lost souls, people who have been torn away from their lives and everything they love. It is an incredibly powerful device in a game that is decidedly a slow burn in the story department. Slowly piecing together the causes of the calamity at the castle and discovering what happened to all the character is addictive and the game encourages you to play it through again and again. Each playthrough gives you the chance to get characters and items you missed and on the PSP version you have the ability to play as Yggdra herself.

The battle is utterly unique and fiendishly complicated. Before battle you place four weapons at each corner of the screen and place your knights in fixed positions. Knights cannot move – normally – and can only attack in certain directions as determined by their class (Warrior, Fencer, Hermit, Wizard, Priestess, Lance Knight [the only knight capable of attacking every direction], Archer) and can only use certain weapons. The weapons themselves have two attacks: normal and special – the former for accruing crystals to use for the latter. They then have two modes, Chaos and Law which determine damage, hit radius, and even how many crystals are produced. In the battle itself you do not control the warriors. You are the Wisp, a little glowing ball that must evade the bullet hell shots from enemies and bring the weapons to your soldiers, charge them up, aim them, and release the attack. And during all of this there is a timer. Time is used for charging and attacks, subtracted for taking hits from bullet hell shots, and convertible for mana and experience. Your knights can take damaged too, however, if they are physically attacked whilst charging up. But the battle does not end there. Once the time runs out you are transported to a slot machine-like screen with a tick-tack-toe board of color coordinated monsters. You must make a line of victories within a certain number of turns by defeating certain monsters. It is an enormously complicated system with a steep learning curve, a lengthy tutorial, and yet, a puzzling amount of good fun.

What is next for the Dept. Heaven series? According to Dengeki and an artist blog, Episode III (taking place between Yggdra Union and Knights in the Nightmare) is, of all things, a planned PC MMO, though there has been little word on it. According to the blog of artist JaJa, Episode IX, another entry into the series, will have “geographical and day and night mechanics and be a fully 3D game”. However, since then the company has revealed and released the IXth Episode (yes, you read that correctly) Gungnir: Inferno of the Demon Lance and the War of Heroes. Taking place in the Gargandia Empire, it tells the story of a young resistance fighter who discovers and wields the eponymous Gungnir. Developed by the team responsible for Yggdra Union it shares many SRPG elements and even the art style. Sadly, this most recent entry has yet to and doubtless will never make it to our heathen shores.

The Dept. Heaven series seems a natural fit for a world so tired of the clichés and hallmarks of the JRPG. Strange, innovative, incredible, and remarkably unique, the games are capable of taking disparate genres and melding them together wonderfully, while still maintaining a singular tone and ephemeral stories. I simply cannot recommend them enough to anyone who enjoys not only Japanese games, but unique and special games.

Text 14 Nov

I thought the other day about Catherine, a game that I am looking forward to, because of a mixture of my love of Atlus and my love of the strange. For those who aren’t familiar, Catherine is your basic dream-sex-murder-sheep-Japanese-crazy game, where your main man Vincent is the potential next victim of a serial killer who causes men to die from dreams, after sex. Now, as much as I love this game, America won’t. Not just for the requisite “Ew, Japan” factor, which I have elaborated on before, but also for the “oh no! SEX?!?” factor.

We Americans have sex in our films, ranging from off-screen loveshackery to on-screen graphic beast-with-two-backs-making. We have sex on our television. We have sex in our marketing. Hell, we have one of the largest, if not the largest, and most utilized pornography industries. We even have steamy romance novels where the phrase “love stick” and “her warm sanctuary” are used shamelessly. So, why no games?

I’m not talking about objectification, which games already have. Most games these days have female characters with either skimpy outfits ill-befitting an adventurer or a pair of breasts that border on the terrifying. That is not sex, that is making the female character into an object for hormones and lust.

No, I mean frank, honest sex and sexuality in games. Not the “will they/won’t they” unsaid coyness of JRPGS or the “Manliness! Fuck Yeah!” machismo of Western games – like Kratos sexing through swaths of priestesses, all exclaiming over the sexual prowess of the man (FYI, his whole body is covered in the ashes of his family. He is using his wife and child to sleep with priestesses). How often do you see two characters skip the painfully awkward and drawn out confession and just seem to really have a nice relationship? How often is it not “a kiss before you die”, but a part of the narrative that two characters love each other?

One of the things that impressed me most about Heavy Rain, was the fact that Quantic Dream had sex portrayed well in their game. Not childishly, coyly, or even “look at this shit!” style. No, they had two people, in damaged states, take solace in each other. Maybe not the most developed scene, but more mature and more frank than any other game. So I expected something deeper in later games.

Did I get that? No. We got the man-dependant and un-empowered Samus Aran of Metroid; Other M. We get the booth baby ladies of games flaunting their massive mammary monstrosities. We get nothing real, nothing human.

Actually, one of the more recent games that impressed me in this regard was Final Fantasy XIII. In it, Snow and Serah share a kiss that read as more real to me than most video game romances. Now, I am not saying I want romance games or sex games, nor am I saying that this should be a major criteria, but I am saying that for this medium to become more mature and more in touch with the world, then we need to get rid of the stigma of sex and sexuality, and love, in games.

[Reprinted from my weekly column “Five-By-Five” on No More Game Blogs]

Text 14 Nov Screen 256 Is Back

Yes, after a huge hiatus, we have returned. 

What this means for whomever is reading?

A story a day.

Wit and wisdom of Marlowe Johnson and Asa Heath, with new writers on the way.

Exclusive content from upcoming conventions. 

More Minecraft conversation than you are comfortable with.

A podcast.

And certain things we’re fairly sure will be unique enough to keep you coming back.

Please, stay with us.

Text 8 Sep Advertising in Games

    Like many gamers, I am no a particularly athletic person. So then why every month does there appear a copy of Sports Illustrated in my mailbox? The short reason is that my grandmother pays for it, and the second is because with a subscription to Sports Illustrated comes a free copy of this years Madden game. This is how

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Text 7 Sep 1 note Tuesday, Week of 9/7

Between being thrust into various outdoor environments, a weekend holiday, and the resumption of classes, there hasn’t been much time ot breathe, let alone post. So no new major contributions should come this week. However, Duke Nukem is real, (I still don’t give a fuck) new games will be released starting this week through Christmas, and depending on who you ask, the new Metroid game sucks. (I haven’t played, and therefore will withhold judgment). But if you’re reading this, than you already knew all that. Anyway, hopefully more stuff soon

-Asa Heath

Text 30 Aug Music

As I was preparing to write about game music today, I was struck with a sense of fear. It is hard, you see, to write about music when my compatriot is a goddamn musician himself. This would be like a salaryman attempting to critique a painting next to an actual painter: the salaryman might have some insights, but at the end of the day, the other guy is the painter. Since we met, I have stifled every hum, whistle, and spontaneous singing that might have emerged from my lips, for fear that he would frown at me and decide to find a new friend. But I digress.

In the world of video games, little is as ubiquitous in a game as the music. However, in the techno-centric world of today it seems that graphics or mechanics force this aspect to take a back seat. But today, I thought I’d pointed out some of my favorite of the moment.

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Text 30 Aug Comedic Inspiration

Today the beloved comic Penny Arcade offered us this morsel of comedic genius. This set off a Facebook thread in which Marlowe and I continued to speculate on what a Biblical RPG would look like. Musings under the break. Enjoy!

By Asa Heath

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Text 30 Aug Monday: Week of 8/30

I’m not sure how frequently we will be posting this week, due to being thrown into various outdoor situations by educational institutions. Perhaps we will get a post up depending on Marlowe’s schedule. Today we have the comical musings of myself and forementioned cohort.

Text 26 Aug 1 note Simplistic or Designed

In the world of XBox and Playstation there is the constant move to achieve realism. 3D is pushed, higher processors are developed, and time is poured into crating incredible textures and models. However, in the worlds of Wii, DS, and some indie games, there is a move towards more stylized visualizations. This shift from ultra-realistic has caused them to be labeled as “for kids” or even as worse games. But to anyone who actually looks, theses games are not simply good, but also bare some truly excellent visual stylings. 

I am no proponent of 3D in games, in the same manner that I am an enemy of motion controls, in that there is a certain unnecessary threshold being crossed. So when I see games that bare a more unique style and make no attempt to make simulacra of real life, I am encouraged.

For evidence, I present a sampling of titles, most of which are more small-scale. Look at the distinct stylings of the PixelJunk games. The simple, bright colors

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Text 25 Aug The Antihero

Clark Kent. Straight as an arrow guy, works hard, doling out good will to his fellow man. As Superman he dishes out a beating and then sends the criminal a trip to the precinct. Never, in his pattern does death, cruelty, or needless violence figure into the equation. 

Present day. Our heroes are now “gritty” and “nuanced”, which translates to murderous and trigger happy. Our anithero’s lofty goal, if he even has one, is always accomplished by Machiavellian tactics of bone-crunching violence, justified by necessity, past trauma, or sheer adrenaline.

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