I've been playing a lot of Valkyria Chronicles. This game is vastly under appreciated. Upon release, it mostly flopped, but it is one of the best games I've played on the PS3.
It's a "Tactical RPG", which is a genre that is not much appreciated here in the states, which I suppose explains part of it. I gather that the most famous in the genre is "Final Fantasy Tactics", which I have not played. The excellent "Jeane D'Arc" is also in the genre.
But the gameplay reminds me more of the old XCom games, or perhaps Silent Storm. You move your units around a map in a very tactical manner, which each unit being a single person. Things are mostly turn-based, allowing for thought, but with some realtime elements.
What this game has over those, though, is far less micro-management and better developed characters. Characters come in five classes, and you have little or no ability to control how they are equipped, but through the use of voice acting and animation, each is given enough uniqueness that you actually connect with who each one is. (Even if the minor ones are a bit cardboard.) It's not like some earlier games, where the minor characters are mostly random names and pictures.
The setting is very interesting. The fantasy setting (though not all fantastical elements) have been discarded for an alternate earth and a WWII-like conflict. In this case, the "Eastern Empire" is invading "Gallia", a small, peaceful country known for windmills and universal conscription, to get at its "Ragnite" stores as part of its overall conflict with the "Federation" for control of "Europa".
The look of the thing, I find stunning. They've utterly discarded the world of grays and browns for an anime style, but they've then gone and colored the entire thing as if a charcoal drawing.
Though one of the ironies is that while the ubiquitous Western WWII shooter glorifies in the bloody headshot while ignoring some of the harsh realities of the conflict, "Valkyria Chronicles", with its cartoonish look and prime time TV violence levels, despite having the excuse of "alternate world", puts racial prejudice, labor camps and other ugliness at the center of its plot. In fact one of the few faults I can find in this game is how it sometimes veers quickly from anime-cuteness to descriptions of harsh bigotry.
I am only half-way through, so I can say how the plot turns out, but it seems like they are interested in drawing something more complex than "good-guy/bad-guy". Here, it is the "darcsen (epithat "dark-hairs") who are ghettoized for some alledged wrongs committed two thousand years prior. Prejudiced attitudes appear on both sides of the conflict, including among some of the critical people in your own squad. One thing I find interesting is that these "darcsen" look distinctly Japanese when compared to everyone else.
Though beware: complex story means lots of cutscenes, though they do allow you to completely skip some.
The combat is very interesting because it is based on the ability if the people in your squad. People are divided into five classes, scouts, who are weak, but fast, shocktroopers who are powerful, but slow and short-ranged, lancers, who are required to take down tanks but otherwise fairly useless, snipes are are long-randed, powerful, but slow, and engineers which keep your tank repaired and units supplied.
But people aren't interchangeable by class. Each character has a number of "potentials" which are either benefits or deficits. One might have a "pollen allergy", and do poorly around plants. Another might "fancy men" and have higher attack around men. (And in "gays-in-the-military" propaganda, one of my favorites with this potential is a male lancer. I about busted a gut when he started singing "It's raining muscles!" in a cabaret voice when I moved him near a couple other men. Soldiers also like particular other soldiers and fight better near them, so a huge part of each battle is figuring out what the best mix for the particular situation is.
The missions themselves are extremely well designed. I've played ten of the primary missions and another optional one, and have yet to encounter any sort of repetition. Each map is unique, with its own tactical difficulties. The difficulty level itself is about perfect. Despite there being surprises on a number of them, you never feel like a map is completely impossible the first time around, yet without careful thought, you will almost certainly fail. I think I've only managed to beat a third of the missions the first time out (ignoring the first two learning ones) yet each time, my failure was due to my own failure to think things through. Those times I've beat the mission the first time, it was often by the skin of my teeth.
Anyway, that's probably enough...clearly I am enjoying it.
The Great Happiness Space
One of the few movies I've managed to get through is a documentary on Japanese "Host boys" called The Great Happiness Space. It's one of those fascinating bits of Japanese culture that really has no Western analogue, at least that I know of. These are young men who are essentially paid by women to party with them in a club made for the purpose. Think of it like a strip club where instead of displaying bodies they are giving attention. One of the most fascinating bits, which I suppose would be a spoiler if a documentary could be said to have spoilers is that their primary customers are female prostitutes.
Caryatids is Bruce Sterling's latest, and in many ways a return to form I haven't seen since Holy Fire. It follows a number of women, each a clone of a Balkan mad-woman, as they make their way through a post-apocalyptic world. Sterling pulls off a neat trick of characterization here as each of these women is distinctly different, and yet each has, at her core, essentially the same personality.
It's also one of the most realistic seeming post-apocalyptic worlds I've read. The world has suffered massive environmental disasters, and a huge population die-off, yet civilization hasn't collapsed. The world is dominated by three powers, two trans-national. The "Aquis" are hippy-tree hugger types, trying to fix the world through collective action at a local level. The "Dispensation" are green-business minded types, trying to use money and manipulation to clean up the disasters. Meanwhile, statist China is trying to bull through with technology and simple brute force.
It all makes for a very fascinating read.
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