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Having Drawn Bored

If I am ever going to accomplish anything of value in my indie game development endeavors, I will need to finish a game.  However, it seems that there is a flip-side to that.  Today, I have decided that, if my progress is ever this badly stymied (as it has been while I have been binging on anime) then I probably need to take things back to the drawing board.

What am I making: A sandbox game with lots of dynamic content and other emergent game mechanics.  A pretty ambitious undertaking for a novice game developer, true, but honestly that is all I am really interested in making.  There is no doubt in my mind that I am past the need to generate simple prototypes at this point, especially because the tools I am working in make simple prototypes as easy as falling off a log.  I want to make something that pushes the way we think about games in some way or another.

What am I making it in: Currently, I am using Game Maker Studio because I believe it has more flexibility for procedurally generated games than Construct or Clickteam Fusion.  (Ironically, I managed to trick myself into buying them all.)  I am tempted to move to LibGDX because programming in a far more robust programming language lends a great deal of power to my ideas... however, at this point I think realizing quick prototypes is more important than that.

I am going to need more details than that: While I could probably come up with 1,001 complete designs off the cuff, I am trying to find one that resounds strongly enough with me to want to see through.

My previous project was mostly looking to follow the footsteps of Ultima V because I felt this was a really robust RPG engine that was abandoned too quickly as the series continued.  Ultima VI abandoned the overmap and, while this was possibly more immersive, I feel this impacted a number of core systems in a negative manner.

Yet, as the progress continued, I felt that simply aping what Ultima V did well was foolishness, and the more I deviated the more I realized that I started off on the wrong foot by beginning with that foundation to begin with.  The robust narrative engine I would like to have cannot be realized on an interface designed to work on PET computers.

In other words, in my journey to be an indie game designer, I took a wrong turn and ended up at a dead end.  Then, rather than turn back immediately, I stared at the wall hoping if I grit my teeth at it long enough, it would go away.  Well, it didn't. So now I need to turn back and try something else.  The important thing is to keep moving.  To these ends, I need to curb my habits back towards dabbling with the tools.
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Never Underestimate A Paper Tiger

When an anime ranks in the top 150 out of the 6000+ entries in Anime News Network, I know I am in for something good, and Toradora! (2008) is one such case.  Though this might look like yet-another high school drama harem anime, it is actually anything but.  It is a tale of five friends whose young hearts are so convoluted that even they do not know what they really want.  In other words, it is one of the more realistic treatments of characterization to be found.
Clockwise, starting at the top center: Ryūji, Yasuko, Inko (the parrot)
Ami, Taiga, Minori, Yuri, and Yūsaku.

The anime centers on Ryūji Takasu, our main male protagonist, he is a pretty typical, decent guy but he has a difficult time fitting in because his spooky eyes make everyone think he is a gangster.  He is a real neat freak who annihilates unfinished housework with quasi-religious zeal.

Only slightly off the central focus is our female protagonist, Taiga Aisaka, who lives next door to Ryūji in an upscale condo that overshadows his home.  Although Taiga is 17, about the same age as the others mentioned here, she is unusually small for her age.  Despite this, she has a fierce personality, speaking plainly and even outright physically attacking people at the slightest provocation.  This has earned her a high school nickname, "The Palmtop Tiger."

Minori Kushieda is Taiga's best friend.  This space case is a real font of energy, her perpetually bubbly, cheerful personality drives her to perform well in extracurricular sports activities and particulate in numerous part-time jobs.  Ryūji is enchanted with her vitality and positive attitude, he wants to make her his girlfriend, but he could never work up the guts.

Yūsaku Kitamura is Ryūji's best friend.  Yūsaku is the always-upbeat class representative of their classroom and student council vice president, selflessly dedicating himself to enriching the class experience of his fellow schoolmates.  Always approachable, you would be hard pressed to find anything wrong with this fellow.  Taiga has a total head-over-heels crush on Yūsaku that leaves this normally fierce girl paralyzed and tongue-tied in his presence.

Entering late into the picture is Ami Kawashima, a high schooler whose choice genetics actually allow her to make a pretty good living as an internationally acclaimed supermodel.  With natural tact and guile, she can instantly charm just about everyone she meets.  Yūsaku is a childhood friend of hers and quickly makes Ryūji aware of the fact that Ami actually has a pretty spoiled personality under that flawless exterior of hers.

So it would seem these five friends are simply composed of an unjustly stigmatized everyboy, a pint-sized bully, a ditzy genki girl, a goody two shoes, and a conceited diva, right?  Wrong: nobody here is what they seem.  While many animes would be happy to shoehorn in a few tropes and stick to them like clockwork, what makes Toradora! so great is that this show is a tropebuster, everything that the characters wear on the surface is just a mask for some genuinely unique characterization beneath the surface.

I can not say too much about what happens in this anime without spoiling it.  Suffice it to say, it begins with Taiga and Ryūji learning they have unrequited crushes on each other's best friends and agreeing to help each other confess.  As the story continues, we come to learn more about every one of the characters, and most importantly that none of them really know what they really want.  There is a great deal of lying involved, both to others and to themselves, usually with the sweetest intentions, but these lies almost invariably come back to hurt someone.

Despite all the drama, Toradora is actually a pretty upbeat romance that I could recommend to anyone.  Toradora earned an Excellent (10/11) on the Anime News Network scale from me.  It does not quite manage Masterpiece (11/11) due to lacking the kind of cinematic enchantment I associate with that score (something I have thus far only really given to certain Studio Ghibi films, Princess Tutu, and My Ordinary Life) but this is about as good as non-fantasized slice-of-life gets.  It is currently available for watching on Crunchyroll.

Although the anime settles things pretty well, it does leave a few loose ends about what happens to many of the characters.  Looking into it, the light novel in which Toradora was based spun off into a whole separate series literally called Toradora Spin-off!, but for the most part these stories are not related to the original story, rather they just take place in the same world.  The Toradora manga is still ongoing.

Bonus: The Adventures of Mini-Goddess (1998).

Though I am attempting to keep these blog entries to one thing at a time, I suppose it technically makes sense to bundle The Adventures of Mini-Goddess in a a segue considering that is literally what this series originally was: a seven and a quarter minute bump to be aired as segue between other shows.  (The intro and extro took up a full two minutes of that, so you could fit four episodes in one 24-minute time slot if you only used the intro and extro once.)  There were 48 episodes altogether.
Left to right: Belldandy, Skuld, Urd, and the rat is Gan-chan.
A little while ago, I was talking about Ah My Goddess (a.k.a. Oh! My Goddess) and The Adventures of Mini-Goddess is basically a lighthearted cartoony spinoff involving four characters going on many silly adventures while (with their goddess powers) shrunk down to palmtop proportions.
  • Belldandy - Although she was the main goddess character in the original series, she actually does not have a very big role in The Adventures of Mini-Goddess.  She usually claims to be off-screen to prepare a meal, but sometimes they manage to rope her into their adventures.  She is a bit ditzier here than she was in the original source material, but generates no negativity whatsoever.
  • Skuld - Belldandy's little sister, Skuld's love of constructing high tech gizmos really gets a workout in this series.  Very few of the zany premises in The Adventures of Mini-Goddess would have even have been possible were it not for Skuld's handiwork.
  • Urd - Belldandy's half-demon big sister, Urd's antics introduce quite a bit of spice and energy to the undertakings.  Her talents for coming up with magic potions and pills are sometimes a plot point too, but not nearly as frequently as Skuld's inventions are.
  • Gan-chan - A unique character to The Adventures of Mini-Goddess, Gan-chan is just one of the rats at the temple who happens to be good friends with the goddesses.  Being a rat, Gan-chan's main motivations in life involve eating and sleeping.  Skuld and Urd often force him to go along with their various adventures, though they do sometimes do him favors.  Gan-chan has a hopelessly unrequited crush on Belldandy, probably because she treats him much nicer than her sisters do.  Though generally liked by everyone, Gan-chan catches a lot of abuse, probably because he is essentially a freeloader.
It is implied that The Adventures of Mini-Goddess takes place while Keiichi (Belldandy's mortal hearthrob) is at the university and the goddesses are trying to amuse themselves while he is away.  Although, like other things in the series, this goes against the original canon a bit: Belldandy usually accompanies Keiichi wherever he goes as a part of his, "Be with me forever" wish, and that includes being a classmate at the university.

The main thing to say about this series is that the episodes were remarkably zany.  For example:
  • One the episodes has Gan-chan spontaneously growing into a man-sized Godzilla monster and engaging with various anti-monster countermeasures that Skuld coincidentally constructed.
  • Many of the episodes are two-parters.  An episode has Gan-chan becoming a pilot with the help of the goddesses and then stating he wants to be a space explorer.  This becomes the basis of the following episode. 
  • There is regular forth-wall breaking: one episode has Gan-chan's problem solved too quickly by Urd, so he is sent back in time to solve it in other ways in order to fill episode time.  
I rather enjoyed the creativity on display, they may only have had 5 minute episodes, but they sure packed a lot into it.

Overall, I ended up ranking it as "decent" (7/11) because, while the shows were fun and zany, they did not have a whole lot to do with the original story, and they left a lot of the depth to the characters on the cutting room floor in order to appeal to a younger audience.  I really do not need to worry about how it ended, it is likely that the idea of the series actually came from a humorous little side-comic that was sometimes included in the original manga.
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Straining Quality From Casual Consolitus

This weekend, I am attempting to vindicate my shelling out $85 for Elder Scrolls Online by finding where the quality gameplay is.  So far, my search has been nearly fruitless.

There is one thing that this game seems to do very well, and that is the content.
  • The details of the world are great.  Great architecture and other world details are an Elder Scrolls signature touch, and Elder Scrolls Online represents it well.
  • The quests are very organic and only rarely resort to the standard fetch quest or "kill x number of things" cliché.
  • The appearance of equipment is good, and can be cosmetically crafted into many variants appropriate of each of the major races of Tamriel.  
  • Even the voice acting is spot on with the Elder Scrolls franchise, with voice actors of popular characters from the mythos (such as Sheogorath) returning to reprise their roles.  
  • The lore support is extensive.  Many quests, monsters, and locations tie in wonderfully to the previous games in the series.  Although Elder Scrolls lore is a little watered down from trying to cram too many races and too many cooks into the writing, The Elder Scrolls Online has so much optional reading that it includes a book collection mechanic.  I also enjoy exploring ruins belonging to both the Dwemer and Ayleid.
Elder Scrolls Online is definitely a AAA title, they hired some of the best talent to make this game and it shows, and this is an excellent game for fans of the series who just want to get their Elder Scrolls fix on.

If only I could say the same thing for the gameplay.   It is not awful, I can see that the game designers had some talent here, but the trouble is that they set their sights very low.  They wanted this game to be casual friendly, and to these ends I can look down the skill lists and see a number of things that rub me the wrong way:
  • The active abilities are boring.  The greater majority of them simply do damage, heal damage, buff stats, or debuff stats - usually a mix of those four things.  Seeing damage-dealing on so many different effects really underscores the redundancy of them.  So scarcity of distinct effects is a problem, but so also is the lack of uniqueness: I was excited to see the Sorcerer had a mesmerization spell, then I discovered the Nightblade gets one that lasts twice as long, and finally that anyone who is sufficiently advanced in sword and shield gets a shield bash that disorients foes for as long as the Sorcerer's spells does.  This design has made class choice in Elder Scrolls Online one of the most futile tasks I have ever encountered in my life. 
  • Damage type is pointless.  As is typical in most gratuitously casual RPGs, the mechanic of resistance to specific types of damage is greatly underutilized.  I have yet to encounter a single enemy in the game for whom it matters if I am attacking them using lightning, fire, or frost, they all seem to die about as quickly regardless.  If people would rage quit because they are too stupid to figure out why their weapons are not working against the wrong monsters, I would rather let them go.  Maybe some monsters in the game do have decent resistances, but I have not found any yet.
  • Player choice in battle is greatly mitigated.  You get five hotbar abilities, plus one "ultimate" hot bar ability, for a total of six.  At level 15, you can swap to a second weapon mid-combat, and it has its own hotbar, so that's twelve.  For most people, swapping weapon mid-combat is too awkward to do.  Six, or even twelve abilities is a far cry from the thirty abilities that is typical of core gamer MMORPG.  Elder Scrolls Online's approach feels heavily like consolitus to me.  To be fair, the action mechanic (which requires manual blocking, dodging, and utilization of weaponry) does take some of the burden off of the hotbar. 
  • Challenge is sacrificed for a protracted tutorial experience.   I hear some players say that they find it difficult to advance certain builds of characters at level 40.  I certainly am not having much difficulty at level 5.  If I want a challenge, I have to try to fight mobs at least 3-5 levels higher than me at all times, but this would necessitate missing out on big chunks of content.  Without a real challenge, the majority of the game ends up feeling like a long tutorial.  I hate it when games do this, but it is casualization epiphanized.
I really should not be surprised: with Zenimax's $200m budget blown on Elder Scrolls Online, they really had no choice but to try to appeal to everyone who could carry a wallet, which means they could not afford to spook newbies.  Speaking as an experienced core gamer, I am underwhelmed by how shallow this game is, and my greatest challenge is finding how I can possibly enjoy it.  I theorize it might be possible to disregard the simplistic gameplay if I focus completely on exhausting the content, which is great.

Altaholicism is a great enemy here, as playing over the same content again and again with other characters is sure to make that content tired in no time.  Yet, I find myself restarting my characters anyway because I am desperately grasping to find some actual depth to this gameplay mechanic.
The videos from Deltia's Gaming are among the better sources I have found about
the current state of Elder Scrolls Online and how to play the game well. 
I have, at least, built a better understanding of how to build your classes in this game.
  • Start by focusing health (for tanking), stamina (for weapon abilities and some class abilities, running, sneaking, blocking), or magicka (for class abilities and staff abilities).  Many abilities are more potent depending on if you stack stamina (for physical attacks) or magicka (for magical attacks), so many players stack one or the other accordingly, with health being saved for those who plan to play more defense.
  • If you are going health, heavy armor is best.  Stamina, medium armor.  Magicka, light armor.  This is because the related abilities to these armor skills essentially multiply the effectiveness of these stats.
  • Although all classes can do anything, you will find the appropriate classes have the most tools to get the job done.  Dragon Knights (warriors) have access to the most abilities to tank with, and plenty of melee-ranged fighting attacks too.  Nightblades (thieves) have the most abilities for sneakier attacks.  Sorcerors (wizards) have the most abilities to level great barrages of ranged magicka-based damage.  Templars (clerics) have the most abilities to heal.  Note how I am phrasing this: tools, not potency.  You can actually pull excellent numbers at any roles outside of what you have the most tools for in this game, partly due to the limitations of how many abilities you can slot anyway.
  • Although all characters can (and perhaps should) max out their weapon skills, weapon choice could not be more obvious.  Tanking?  Sword and shield.  Physical DPS at melee range?  Two-handed or dual wield.  Ranged physical damage?  Bow.  Ranged magic damage?  Destruction staff.  Healing?  Restoration staff.  It all comes down to what you expect to be doing.
  • An interesting thing about this game is you are welcome to buck the trends.  You can be sorcerer who wears platemail, dumps all their points into stamina, primarily uses the restoration staff, and barely uses any sorcerer skills.  Such a character would work, but it obviously cannot be quite as effective at any one thing as a specialist.
At the moment, I find it rather hard not to want to play a Nightblade because the recent addition of the justice system adds a whole side activity of robbing NPCs blind and selling their stuff to fences.   The funny thing is, all the classes can do this just fine and at roughly equal proficiency, but it just makes more sense to have a Nightblade do it than a burly Dragon Knight, pious Templar, or gimpy Sorcerer.

At the same time, I have a lot of respect for wizards in fantasy settings, and it strokes my ego to fancy myself one of those sage types.  I would love to have my primary character be a wizard.  Only problem is, Elder Scrolls Online treats magic like a bludgeon; you hit enemies with magic until they fall over.  Some spells are literally just weapons that pop into your hand, hit the enemy once, and disappear!  Sorcerors don't feel like wisened magi, they feel like brutes; this game has some of the least-magical-feeling magic I have ever had the displeasure to roleplay the utilization of.
The forces of creation at your fingertips, and the best thing you can think to do with it is
obnoxiously discharge electricity between your palms?  What a waste.
So I basically have a choice between a Nightblade (with slightly better degree of utility abilities and actual bonuses when using the stealth mechanic) or a Sorcerer (with a more egocentric magical theme but a lousy treatment of it).  Neither the Dragon Knight nor the Templar play subtly enough for my personal preferences.  There is no right answer here, but I wonder if I might as well just give up on finding gameplay depth and play Sorcerer wielding a Destruction staff just to quickly melt away enemies and exhaust the content quicker.

Overall, The Elder Scrolls Online is almost everything I have come to hate about the casualization of mainstream gaming.  I say "almost" because they started with an excellent treatment of the lore and the world, even the questing is a cut above the usual, but then they made the RPG mechanic so bland that I can barely bring myself to partake, and that latter bit is how casual-centric designs do horrible things to perfectly good games.  Surely, not even casual players can endure something so lacking in long-term appeal? 

Spending my time trying to vindicate the $85 I invested in this game feels as ill-conceived as the developers' trying to pay back their $200m development costs by scaling the game to as low of denominator as they dared.  Ill-conceived or not, I will persevere for awhile longer yet, thanks largely to the sprinklings of quality lore here and there.
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The Ideal Price For A Key To Tamriel

Though I built a negative first impression of The Elder Scrolls Online back in beta, the game has been out for nearly a year now, and they finally stopped fooling themselves and dropped the subscription cost.  Now, after purchasing the box, you can now play this game as long as you like, optionally choosing to spend a little more for DLC or cosmetic benefits.  The console versions of "Tamriel Unlimited" are forthcoming.

Despite my apprehension, I took the plunge, bought a collector's edition, and gave it a solid 6 hours of play.
For two solid reasons,The Elder Scrolls Online is finally free to be the game it should have been from the start:
  1. This is a single player experience, it should not have a massively multiplayer cost.   I say this because grouping up with players has a very limited role and the combat mechanic is much more like Skyrim than it is a serious MMORPG.   Zenimax shot themselves in the foot there if they were planning on having this game generate MMORPG appeal.  However, if they were looking to create a multiplayer spinoff from Skyrim, that's exactly what they have here.
  2. This game has undergone nearly a year of post-release refinement.  At release, The Elder Scrolls Online was playable, but kludgy, and more importantly it was nothing special.  Those poor suckers who put down box price plus subscription were basically signing on to an extended early access period and nothing more.  Since then, Zenimax has added several new systems to the game, and that is exactly what it needed.
Besides, subscription fees are so passe.  Even games that are well-built to be MMORPGs really cannot feasibly keep charging players $15/mo to keep playing them.  There is just too much competition!  (That means you're next, WildStar.)

So, how is The Elder Scrolls Online now?  It plays a whole lot better.  Combat feels a lot more solid, less like hitting a hitbox and more like hitting the enemy.  Granted, for the most part you are still just swinging away, Skyrim style, and it's hard for me to believe that will be good enough in the long run.  Yet, as a content exhausting mechanism, it works.  Honestly, the jury is still out; it takes a lot longer than six hours to really assess an MMORPG!  It's a much better refined game than it was towards the end of beta, I'll give it that.

I hate theme park MMORPGs but, as far as theme park games go, The Elder Scrolls Online has the benefit in feeling more open-ended.  Sure, you are technically doing quests that involve going here, killing that, activating the blinky thing in the world, ect.  However, it is usually not in a quest hub, you find things to do by exploring.  Each zone is designed for the players to run around the map in a free-form manner.  To some extent, the progression system is balanced so player level is a lot more fuzzy in what you can engage, so the player never feels pigeonholed to knock all the boxes off their to do list before proceeding to the next.
The hype.

I am actually thoroughly confused when it comes to trying to find the necessary depth to the combat mechanic to persevere for a long-term MMORPG experience.  The way you build your character is laid out in a very unusual manner:
  1. Choose one of three factions.  This mostly determines your starting point in the game and which side you will be fighting on in PvP.  This is the only simple step.
  2. Choose one of four classes.  This actually makes less difference than you might expect, choosing a class mostly just determines which three class skill sets you can invest your skill points in, and you have WAY more skill sets than that.  Further, each class has some ability to perform any role in the holy trinity of tank, healer, or DPS, although some are stronger than others at these roles.  Thus, class is mostly a thematic choice, but definitely will limit what you can and cannot do.  Confused yet?  I sure am.  How the Hell am I supposed to choose a class in these circumstances?  I basically have to treat class in the same way I would a favorite color, and that really rustles my gamer jimmies.
  3. Choose one of ten races.  This makes a bigger difference than you might expect, because each race has a choice of four unique passive abilities you can invest in that are actually pretty potent!  For example, a Breton with level 3 "gift of magnus" gets a 10% boost to their maximum magicka.  You could potentially get away with choosing a race for wholly cosmetic reasons... but why would you?
  4. While you are playing, choose one or two weapon types to specialize in: daggers, maces, swords, war axes, destruction magic staves, restoration magic staves, battleaxes, greatswords, and bows.  Using each weapon advances the related weapon skill.  That allows you to invest skill points in active and passive skills related to that weapon.  All weapons are equally viable for all classes, so you can be a greatsword-wielding mage if you want.
  5. While you are playing, choose an armor type to wear: light, medium, or heavy.   They primarily boost your effective magicka, stamina, or health respectively, but there are secondary benefits to consider as well.  The armor skills are another thing you can invest your skill points in.  All armors are equally viable for all classes, so you can be a platemail-wearing mage if you want.
  6. While you are playing, join guilds, as garnering reputation with them unlocks skill slots that, you guessed it, you can invest skill points in.  Class is not a factor, you can be a dragon knight who joins the Mage Guild and eventually learns to cast the powerful Meteor ultimate.
  7. While playing, perform crafting.  Yep, there is even more skills you can invest your skill points in here.  Yep, the same skill points you invest in any other category listed here.
  8. Become a vampire or werewolf (but not both) and you can unlock even more skill lines.  At this point, I think the trend is pretty clear.
  9. And then there's the champion system, which allows high level characters to become even more uber.  Some people would say, "Welcome to the real game." when it comes to systems like this.
So there is plenty of grinding to be done, but wow, this system is an altaholic's worst nightmare.

If I harbor persistent doubts about my class, race, or faction, there's 120 different combinations.  If I waste a lot of time using the "wrong" weapon or armor, I might be tempted to restart just to grind those earlier levels towards the "right" one instead.   Vampire, werewolf, or neither?  Which guilds should I join - is joining all of them an option?

(Hint: for an altaholic, there never is a "right" answer.)
The reality.

What have I got myself into?   I don't have time to grind in an MMORPG.  I am supposed to be shifting game development paradigms or something.  But, tell me what, I will try to at least spend 85 hours playing the game so I can say I got an hour of entertainment out of every dollar spent.   If nothing else, The Elder Scrolls Online has high production value, and I can say I am actually playing a AAA 2015 game on my PC... surprising how rarely I can say that these days, what with indies and old games stealing the thunder of the new blockbusters.
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Sometimes, The Cat Skins You

The formula for cat girls is simple enough: young girls are cute, cats are cute, so young girls who are also cats are cute times two, right?  ... Cat Planet Cuties (a.k.a Asobi ni Iku yo) does not stop there, it includes girls with guns, nudifying weaponry, and even failed romantic comedy that shows lots of skin.  Cat's out of the bag: Cat Planet Cuties is basically straight up wish fulfillment.

The overall plot is pretty simple.  The Catians are a race so advanced that they have not changed in over 70,000 years.  They discover Earth, a planet whose people have uncanny resemblances, right down to speaking the same language!  Desiring an escape from their cultural stagnation, they rename their own planet from Earth to Catia and dispatch a scout to assess the viability of first contact with this new Earth inhabited by humans.  High jinks ensue.

Other than an excuse to see some fun sci-fi devices, the plot sucks. Let me count the ways:
  • Kio Kakazu - The male center of our harem, a 16-year-old who suffers no outstanding characterization other than being a moderately nice geek.  At one point he fabricates a spaceship via advanced technology by imagining it down to its intricate details, I guess that is reasonably alpha, but otherwise I have no idea why he would be worthy of one girl, let alone three.
  • Eris - The head scout from the Catian race, Eris is a sweet-natured, if naive, cat girl who wears a skin-tight power suit capable of magnifying her strength a thousandfold.  It is probably worn to avoid lower back problems.   She's also 16 "cycles" old, and apparently that means she is about to go into heat.  Kio instantly ends up her ideal mate after some ill-advised heroics of his.
  • Aoi Futaba - A delicate looking girl who is a shy otaku by day, deadly mutant commando by night.  Poor, poor Aoi, with her good looks, inborn ability to spontaneously teleport small objects, and elite skills used to deal death from her post with a highly technologically advanced crack commando unit.  If only she had the courage to tell Kio she loved him, she might actually have reason not to brood!
  • Manami Kinjou - Kio's brash childhood friend, busty and full of spunk, Manami is also a bit of a gun nut.  She was hoping to join the CIA, but (along with Aoi) ends up defecting to Kio's household, the impromptu Catian embassy on Earth.  Manami also always had a crush on Kio, so it would seem her gun fixation is to compensate for her own inability to fire on all cylinders.
There is the main love triangle right there: one hapless boy, an interstellar bombshell, and two elite combat-trained girls of East and West who were always too shy to tell Kio they like him.  I have no idea why anyone would be shy to tell Kio anything, he does not exactly bite, and he is so awkward and clueless that he can not understand why he should tell any of the girls in this anime that he likes them, or even if he likes them, yet they still pine for him.
From top left to bottom right: Janes, Matrey,
Kio (surrounded by assist-droids)
Aoi, Eris, and Manami
But then, this anime is so full of plot holes that you could use it as a sieve.  Lets continue finding plot holes as we delve into the secondary characters:
  • JACK - Manami's old boss, "JACK" is actually a bodacious mature woman who flaunts her figure like there's no tomorrow.  Following Manami's defection, she primarily operates as an unofficial leak to the Catians when she thinks they might be in trouble.  Her bosses apparently never bother to listen in to cell phone calls.
  • Maki Itokazu - Kio's beautiful high school teacher, she is also a member of a secret society dedicated to making sure humankind's first alien contact is awesome.  Because cat girls are silly, they move against Eris.  Because the idea that this would be a secret society is silly, her arc is resolved almost immediately.
  • Yuichi Miyagi - Kio's uncle is basically Magnum from Magnum P.I, except he seems to have some kind of connection with the movie industry instead of being a private detective.  Maybe Yuichi is supposed to be Tom Selleck without the chest hair.  He is the closest thing to a parental figure Kio gets, and is generally a swell guy in most of the episodes.  He tries to slip Eris a roofie on the first episode to hook her up with Kio.  What the Hell is the matter with you, Yuichi?
  • Antonia - A 12-year-old ridiculously wealthy heiress, she founds a cult that worships cat girls.  Eris's arrival is heralded as "the divine embodiment" ascending from above, and so Antonia kidnaps Eris and Kio.  After a daring rescue, it turns out what Antonia really needed was a friend.  Riight.
  • Sara and Maya - Antonia's voluptuous personal maids, they really like cats too.  Though they would do anything for their little Antonia, apparently they don't qualify as friends.  Of course, this being that kind of anime, they lead a legion of battle maids capable of facing a NATO regiment to a standstill.
  • Qoone, Melwin, Chayka, and Durel - Officers of the Catian mothership.  Catia's gender ratio is almost overwhelmingly female, and these officers are no exception.  There is a loose analog to the roles of the crew of the Enterprise here: captain, first officer, secondary officer, and science officer/doctor.  One has to wonder why these skilled professionals sent an airhead like Eris ahead to establish first contact.
  • Janes - Our primary antagonist, Janes is a Dogesian, basically a Catian except with dogs instead of cats.  The Dogesians are apparently underhanded jerks, probably space pirates, so are forbidden from entering into relations with other races by the galactic alliance.  Despite this, she blatantly meddles with the Catian's attempts to establish first contact with Earth anyway... because cats versus dogs, I guess?  (She has a personal assistant droid named Matrey who behaves a lot like Mutley, I think that is probably a homage.)
The other major set of characters in this anime are "assist-droids," teddy-bear-sized cat androids who communicate by holding placards.   They are primarily there to be cute, but a few are offered to the major characters as personal assistants and customized accordingly.  Honestly, they are probably the most endearing characters in the anime.  I want one!
Durel, Eris, Qoone, Malwin and Chakya are sitting across the negotiation table to determine
Earth/Catia relations while wearing wearing school girl swimsuits because
Eris's Earth research is pretty sure that will bring them a favorable result.
From time to time, paramilitary forces belonging to international superpowers get involved, they are almost invariably being manipulated by the Dogesians, but it is still hard to fathom why they would have anything against the Catians considering these cat girl extraterrestrials seem to do nothing but offer to uplift humanity into a new era of technological enlightenment.  An elephant in the room is why legitimate government forces have not fortified the area surrounding the Catian embassy in order to avoid an intergalactic incident.  It is strange that Aoi and Manami are considered defectors considering they are representing their former agencies far better than the agencies themselves.

The sexual content in Cat Planet Cuties deserves special mention, as it probably sets a record for being naughty while remaining innocent.  There is casual nipple exposure, but that is about it, with artful animation keeping genitals out of the viewers' sight.  I found the most pornographic thing was the mention that Catians usually deal with going through their mating season via the holodeck: that's something straight out of a Star Trek erotic fanfic!  Eris being in heat is neatly defused with sci-fi medicine before things get downright adults only.  In the final "bonus" episode, all the cute girls end up naively tricking themselves into playing some strip variant of a game, which certainly underscores the fanservice in play.  But throughout it all, nobody acts straight up perverted, everybody is pretty innocent in their intentions.

Volume 1 of the Asobi ni Iku yo novels.
(Translation: "Lets go play!")
I decided to rate Cat Planet Cuties as "Decent" (7/11) on the anime news network scale.  The art and character design are great, but the story is riddled with plot holes, most of the characters' personalities lack subtlety or sophistication, and most of the conflicts are contrived on the backs of more plot holes.   The romance is a dud largely because there is next to no premises to establish why the girls like Kio, and Kio never reciprocates.  I will grant it that the action sequences and cool sci-fi devices are a saving grace, but not enough for me to score it higher.  There were a few laughs, but they were usually at the ridiculousness of a given scene's scenario.  I am on the fence about the musical score: the intro and extro music is great, but during the episodes I was jarringly subjected to some of the less inspired tracks ever to come out of a drum machine.

Although the girls are not lacking in sex appeal, none of the characters are particularly endearing, and I do not find it likely I will miss any of them; I think I will miss Catian technology more than the Catians themselves.  Cat Planet Cuties is basically the equivalent of candy: pure sugar high, but it is sure to rot your teeth.  Thanks to blunting the sexual aspects, my stomach was spared; I actually do not feel too guilty about watching this even though it is somewhat juvenile at times.  However, consuming too much of this stuff is bound to be bad for you, even if it was a fun watch.  This might have been a great anime were it more focused on character development and less focused on cheap thrills, but perhaps that would have required another 12 episodes to pull that off. 

As Cat Planet Cuties was adapted from a series of light novels whose original title was Asobi ni Iku yo, and there is not all that much interest to localize them (either from fans or importers), there is no available English translation for me to see how the story ends.   However, the anime pretty much settles the love triangle by Eris asserting that Catians are not monogamous and Kio is technically under Catian law, and all three girls kiss him.  Wish fulfillment scenarios do not get much more overblown than that, but hey, looks like a happy ending to me (provided Kio has the endurance for it).  A naughty but innocent ending to a naughty but innocent anime.
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Invisible, Inc Puts On A Great Showing

As one of the most finicky of the core gamers, it is remarkable that a game can hold my attention for six hours straight.  Invisible, Inc succeeded, a squad-based stealth infiltration game that tasks players with guiding cybernetically-enhanced spies through procedurally generated facilities in a futuristic corporate utopia.
While the premise is fantastic, my weakness has always been for great game mechanics.   You can not do much better than a deep turn-based game that lets you perform every move, down to the finest detail.  There is next to no randomness so, unlike XCOM, if your operatives fail to make a shot then it is because you utilized them incorrectly.  It feels fantastic to be a gamer again; perhaps it is my declining reflexes, but real time games have always been frustrating for their denying me this level of control.

The outer shell of the game is a world map in which you purchase skill upgrades for your operatives and select a mission from the world map.  Each session of Invisible, Inc gives you 72 hours to build up your forces: infiltrate vaults for money, mainframes to get programs for your artificial intelligence, nano fabricators to craft equipment, and so on.  You start with two agents that you choose from a roster.  Losing (or finishing) the campaign rewards you with experience that unlocks more agents and such for future runs.

Once you arrive at a facility, it is time for the meat of the game, the squad-based stealth action gameplay.  Fighting is not the goal here, the goal is to retrieve resources and get out alive.  The facility is randomly generated, so it is a genuinely new challenge every time.  Each turn, each agent gets a number of action points based upon their "stealth" skill, and you can spend these in any order.  Movement points are mostly spent moving or looking around corners, most other actions do not take any movement points.  There is no time limit, but there is a turn limit: the longer you take, the more reinforced the facility becomes, so you need to plan for your agents to get in and out as quickly as possible.

Interestingly, there are no hit points in this game, so being hit with a lethal munition will immediately incapacitate your agents, but you can stabilize them with certain items or abilities.  When a guard finds your agent, they will shoot them, but the shot does not get fired immediately.  Instead, the agent will either be shot at the start of the next turn or if they attempt to move or perform most actions while the guard has them in their sights.  Thus, you can try to rescue that agent by incapacitating the guard with another agent or by using certain items (such a stun dart).   I have found that agents can also escape being shot if they are able to step into adjacent cover or break the line of sight between them and the enemy by shutting a door.

The lethality of the combat model extends to your enemies as well, but killing enemies is generally bad form.  They are usually carrying heartbeat monitors that will heighten the alert levels of the facility, and also it costs hush money.  For this reason, all of your agents carry "neutralizers," stun guns that will render guards unconscious for a certain number of turns.   Certain guards are "armored," which is countered with "armor piercing" equipment and augments, and there are also robotic adversaries which cannot be incapacitated but do not carry heartbeat monitors nor require paying hush money after the mission.
In addition to the squad-based combat, you can tap the space bar to enter a secondary level in which "Incognita," your corporate artificial intelligence, can hack devices (such as power sources and safes), generate distractions, and so on depending on what programs you have recovered.  Each of these actions cost power units which are mostly recovered by your agents by hacking terminals in the field.  In this futuristic world, infiltration is impossible without the services Incognita provides.

Overall, a fantastic game created by one of the finest indy developers on the planet.   Klei Entertainment are also the minds behind Don't Starve, Torchlight II, and Mark Of The Ninja.  While "early access" might be wasted on some studios, clearly these guys have a serious, vested interest in actually using that time to enrich the game.  Over time, Invisible, Inc has grown to have lots of cool cyberware, programs, other spy devices, and enemies. I expect it will be richly deserving of lots of replay when it is finished, and Klei treats it like they do Don't Starve, then they will continue to introduce even more after release.

In terms of rating Invisible, Inc's potential as a microcosm, I would say it qualifies as a hybrid.  Its scenario dependency and lack of a mutable world keep it on the upper end of "limited" scope offerings.  However, the "endless" mode, procedurally generated facilities, and possible ongoing expansions beget that of an "unlimited" scope game.  Do not go into this game expecting as much worldliness, but do expect this one to be a game you can pull out and replay time and time again.
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Because Honor Among Thieves Is Honor Under The Sea

I find the most definitive episode of the My Bride Is a Mermaid (2007) anime to be episode 11.  When Nagasumi Michishio (the everyboy protagonist that all the girls end up crushing on) drinks an energy drink, his mermaid bride Sun Seto is shocked and explains mermaid drinks are not meant for human consumption.  Nagasumi proceeds to grow fifty stories tall and rampages throughout the suburb nude and in a primordial rage.

Nagasumi is lured onto a space shuttle via a fake giant box claiming to be full of forbidden pleasure and sent to the moon, where he rages despondently.  Sun's Yakuza gang leader dad is overjoyed to see his daughter's suitor disposed of.  However, as Sun Seto pities Nagasumi, her mother provides her with a magical spear and explains that, if it is filled with her feelings, it will surely cure him.  After a long declaration about how it does not matter how far she has to throw the spear, even from the Earth to the moon, her feelings will get through to him... she trips and breaks the spear in half by accident.

Fortunately, the spear was on a two for one sale, so she tries again, throws the spear into the stratosphere, and it expertly pierces Nagasumi's gigantic forehead right between the eyes.  He deflates all the way back to Sun on Earth where he lies nude and embarrassed even in his horribly abused stupor.

"Please humor them with a smile," says the intro, "for young love is never easy."

When plot resolutions are as ludicrous as throwing a spear to the moon, it is rather hard to take things very seriously; this romantic comedy is clearly less romance and more comedy.  It primarily takes place at the junior high that Nagasumi and Sun attend.   (Sun's Yakuza family have infiltrated the school and pose as faculty).  There are quite a few fun characters introduced throughout, but I would hate to spoil them for you.  By and large, the emphasis is on the comedic situations, you had better be ready to laugh.

Many of the episodes are basically "abuse the Hell out of Nagasumi."  Even his parents do not treat him particularly well.  I do not know why, because he rarely ever does anything to deserve it, so my only explanation is that it must be karmatic backlash for getting engaged to a magical and incredibly honorable bride-to-be simply for being too stupid to avoid drowning.  (To say nothing for the other girls that throw themselves at him.)  Aside from that, I think Nagasumi's portrayal as an everyboy is probably one of the better I have seen because he has pretty identifiable goals and reacts to situations about how you would expect someone would (aside from having a supernatural resistance to constant abuse).

It is just as well this anime is more comedy than romance, because when the primary focus is on 14-year-olds, you really should not expect much beyond the occasional hand-holding and love confession.  (How do you say "jailbait" in mermaid?)  Nagasumi is in a stage of maturity where he is merely curious about girls, and both he and Sun are young enough to still be fairly beholden to their parents (which is a bit of a dicey situation considering Sun's family members are Yakuza mermaids).  To the anime's merit, it has a few touching romantic scenes, and does a better job of building the relationship between Sun and Nagasumi than UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie did (but the problem there was that the leading lady spent most of her time in the body and mind of an 8-year-old).

Overall, the anime was a really fun watch, a laugh a minute, and very clever throughout.  It gets a "very good" (9/11) from me on the Anime News Network scale, but its sense of significance is capped by its ludicrousness, so I can not rate it higher than that.   A well-done English dub is available both on Hulu and in a Funimation S.A.V.E. DVD set at a good price.

I looked into the manga on which it was based and it ended on volume 16 in 2011.  It progresses a lot of the storylines further than the anime did, but unfortunately I could not find an English translation past near the end of volume 15.  For the most part, the stories just added more and more crazy sea girls to zany-up the situation even further.  Skimming the raw of the last volume, I would say things end with everybody being friends and Nagasumi and Sun's love re-affirmed, but still open-ended enough that the manga could continue if they wanted to.  As far as I can tell, that mangaka has not published another manga since.


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